I’m often asked why I choose to set my mysteries in the past. The answer is that the period for the Molly Murphy Mysteries chose me. I wanted to write a first person female, one who wasn’t always wise, or didn’t always know when to shut up. One with a strong sense of justice. But I hadn’t decided where to set her stories when I visited Ellis Island. I was quite unprepared for the emotional overload I experienced, standing there, touching walls that had seen great joy and great sorrow. The narrow strip of water between the island and the Manhattan skyline was a powerful reminder that nobody could make that final crossing to America unless the government said so. I decided that it was the ultimate locked room mystery. So Molly Murphy became an Irish immigrant, forced to flee from her native land when she accidentally kills the landowners son who is trying to rape her, then is wrongly accused of a murder on Ellis Island in Murphy’s Law, first book in a series that is now fourteen books long. (That book won four awards including the Agatha Best Mystery)
Molly has finally established a solid life for herself in New York City, married a police captain and has a young son. She has officially given up sleuthing, but in the upcoming book, The Edge of Dreams, she has to use Freud’s new treatise on dream interpretation to help solve a baffling case and to help her husband nail a serial killer.
My other series, (The Royal Spyness books) is set among the aristocracy in England during the nineteen thirties—another time period that I find absolutely fascinating. Think Downton Abbey with bodies. Need I say more?
I become more and more enchanted with spending time in the first half of the Twentieth Century. I love setting scenes in fashionable drawing rooms, as well as in the teeming Lower East Side, rubbing shoulders with royalty in some books, mixing with famous Impressionist painters in this year’s paperback, City of Darkness and Light. It is like finding a window that opens onto another time and place and my aim when I write is to take my readers there, not just tell them about it.
The first half of the Twentieth Century saw waves of immigrants on the move, two world wars, the Russian revolution, political upheavals. It was a time of heightened emotions, great drama. In some ways it was so modern, in others so hopelessly primitive. There were sky-scrapers, automobiles, planes and yet women couldn’t vote in Molly’s time. They couldn’t own property in New York State. They could be beaten by their husbands. And most women wore those instruments of torture called corsets. No wonder they swooned and had to carry smelling salts. They simply couldn’t breathe. Luckily Molly is sensible and refuses to wear one!
In the Nineteen Thirties the world had experienced a great war and a great depression. But some things had not changed. While men stood in bread lines the likes of Bertie Wooster still drank champagne from slippers and sailed on yachts. A time of great contrasts, of fantastic clothes and elaborate meals, all of which are fun to write about.
There are several advantages to setting mysteries in the past. In the time I write about there were still plenty of great motives for murder. I love another but I am not free! I am the true heir to the fortune! And of course there were no modern forensics. My sleuths can’t rely on blood types, bullet spatters, DNA. They have to rely on observation, good old fashioned detective skills, and female intuition doesn’t hurt either!