Tuesday, 09 April 2024

Fiona Davis, photo by Deborah Feingold

My family moved around a lot when I was young, but the one constant was that once a week my mother would bundle me and my brother into the car and head to the main library branch of whatever town we were living in. My brother would race to the section on trains, and I’d wander over to Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie. We’d grab as many books as allowed and then wait for my mother to check them out.

I loved the snap of the Mylar covering as the book was opened, followed by the satisfying “chunk” of the mechanical stamp coming down hard on the due date card. Library books protected me, wrapping me in the safe bubble of other stories when I was nervous about attending a new school or making new friends. There were other worlds out there, each novel reminded me. Worlds where I might fit in.

At the time, I couldn’t imagine anything better than being a librarian. To have all of those books to peruse at my pleasure, what an embarrassment of reading riches. Later, while researching a novel, I stumbled upon the existence of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, which holds literary archives, manuscripts, and printed books of over 400 authors like Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The treasures in the Berg Collection offer a window into the creative process. The scratched-out words in a draft of a Walt Whitman poem, for example, or Virginia Woolf’s entries in her diary, remind us that these authors who we revere were human, and that the act of writing is a difficult one, and shouldn’t come easy.

The value of such collections can’t be understated.

After a thief was caught stealing $1.8 million in rare books and manuscripts from Columbia University’s Butler Library in the 1990s, Jean Ashton, the library’s director of rare books and manuscripts, went before the judge and requested a harsher sentence. She explained that the items were worth more than their stated value because they were important pieces of history and culture, and that their loss would have a dramatic impact on scholarly research. The judge was duly impressed, and remanded a longer sentence. Later, a law was passed protecting cultural heritage resources, so that from that point forward, thefts from a museum or library were taken more seriously.

To read a draft of a Walt Whitman poem is an honor and a privilege, one that Ms. Ashton protected. As a child, I looked up to librarians as literary heroes, and that remains true to this day.

Fiona Davis began her career in New York City as an actress, but after getting a master's degree at Columbia Journalism School, she fell in love with writing, eventually settling down as an author of historical fiction. Fiona's books, which included The Lions of Fifth Avenue, Chelsea Girls, and The Masterpiece among others, have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She's a graduate of the College of William & Mary and is based in New York City.

This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews August 2020 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers.


Fiona Davis on Librarians, Our Literary Heroes
Fiona Davis
Tuesday, 02 April 2024

I discovered Sara Paretsky's books thanks to my mystery-loving father in law. It was 1982, I was fresh out of college, and they just blew the cobwebs off the genre. Paretsky's strong, feminist, no-nonsense V.I. was an instant role model. When my husband and I opened our bookstore Aunt Agatha's a decade later, Paretsky's books were a guiding light—I wanted a store full of books as wonderful as hers.

Twenty-three books on, V.I. and her creator are still breaking ground in Pay Dirt. This time, V.I. is a fish out of water on "holiday" in Kansas, where she stumbles upon a mystery when a college student named Sabrina goes missing. As V.I. investigates, she soon discovers a story about greed, crime, and racism rooted in centuries-old conflict.

It was a real delight that Ms. Paretsky was kind enough to answer some questions about Pay Dirt as well as about her long and accomplished career, which notably also includes the founding of Sisters in Crime in support of women crime writers and many awards, including a CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, an Anthony Award, and an MWA Grand Master title for lifetime achievement in her craft.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Your first book Indemnity Only and Sue Grafton’s "B" is for Burglar came out the same year. When I first read them, I had just graduated from college and both V.I. and Kinsey seemed like feminist blueprints I wanted to emulate. Were you and Grafton aware of each other back then?

Sara Paretsky: Sue and I were writing before the internet and our early books had very small book runs. It wasn’t until our third books—Killing Orders for me and "C" Is for Corpse for Sue—that we learned about each other’s work. After that, we were so linked in the public mind that Sue joked that we’d been twins in a previous life.

I feel like you laid out lots of things in Indemnity Only that you are still writing about today, but especially V.I. herself and her relentlessly intelligent and fearless personality. What have you learned about her though 22 books? Does she still surprise you? I also wonder about any blending of personalities. I know you are a writer, not a working private eye, but what qualities do you and V.I. share? In my mind’s eye she looks like you.

The biggest challenge with a long series written in the first person is to keep her as a distinct personality from my own. In the early books, she was more insouciant, but in more recent books responsibility lies heavy on her shoulders. As for her appearance, it’s fun that you think that she looks like me. My vision of her is that she’s darker because of her mother’s Italian heritage. Chatto & Windus used an Anglo-Italian model for the cover of Burn Marks, which gets her coloring right in my mind. However, this is a model and she is much too thin.

I just finished Pay Dirt and loved seeing V.I out of her element in Kansas. Can you talk about that decision?

It was hard to write about V.I. in Kansas in Pay Dirt. I’d sent her to my hometown in two other books, but there she was just gathering information about Chicago-based crimes. In Pay Dirt, the actual crimes take place in Kansas, and she’s trying to conduct an investigation without any local support. The storyline involves property disputes that date to the Civil War. I thought that it would be easier to sort those out in a small community than in Chicago where tracking 160 years of titles and neighborhood changes and political corruption would have given me a book longer than War and Peace.

All mystery novels are about a problem that must be solved. In Pay Dirt, V.I. has that mystery, but also an added challenge: She’s in a strange town with no connections or people willing to help her uncover leads. Was that a fun challenge for you as a writer?

Yes, as I mention in the previous answer, it was a challenge. I skirted it to some degree with the characters of the two men who run a scrap metal business. They are willing to help out, especially as the crime involves their own livelihood.

You address a social issues in your novels. In this case, the historic reach of racism as it existed then and still exists today. It’s heartbreaking to read about how the world has changed—but not enough. Can you talk about the research for this part of your book?

Pay Dirt was actually inspired by Brent M. S. Campney’s This Is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861–1927. I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and we were very proud of our abolitionist history. Campney’s book was a reality check. He describes violence perpetrated on African Americans in the decades immediately after the Civil War. It took me eight full drafts of the novel before I had the right storyline, but the story itself was one that I felt impelled to tell.

In your "Afterword" you mention that you cut out some of the historical letters you had originally wanted to include. Was that a hard decision?

That was a very difficult decision. Those Civil War-era characters are very alive in my mind. I have kept all these letters, of course, and hope to use them in another project. The characters in Pay Dirt appear in Bleeding Kansas, which isn’t in the V.I. series. They also play a role in “Trial by Fire” in Love and Other Crimes.

All really good books have a blend of character, setting, and plot. To have one or two without the third makes for a flat read, but you always integrate all three. Where do you start? Do you find an issue you want to include? Do you start with a problem for V.I.?

Thank you for that good opinion. I agree with you, and I struggle to bring all these elements into what I write. Every book starts in a different place. With Pay Dirt, I started with the idea of an historic crime and built the plot and the people around that. In my previous novel, Dead Land, which is also partly set in Kansas, I started with a homeless musician whose singing haunted me.

My book club recently had a long, long discussion about the red wine glasses V.I. has of her mother’s. We felt that established her as a character. How did those glasses pop into your mind?

I can’t remember how those wine glasses came to me. They are a strange legacy to carry while you’re fleeing for your life, as Gabriella had to do. And then, as I read more WWII memoirs, I learned that most refugees had suitcases made of cardboard, and so I spent a lot of time imaging how Gabriella packed them and why they were so important to her. I have my own mental picture of them; I have never found a red wine glass that matched my image and I have searched many places.

The fact that we discussed those wine glasses for so long, means that V.I. is almost a real person to us, with her own background and experiences. That’s an amazing achievement in any kind of writing. I also think a long series allows a writer to create a character that seems very real. (I guess we have Arthur Conan Doyle to thank for that.) What are your thoughts on V.I.’s longevity, as well as the series'?

I can only write about things I care about personally. I’ve occasionally written short stories as head games, but it takes me about 18 months to write a novel. If I don’t care about the problem and the people, there’s nothing to keep me going for the length of the journey. Perhaps my own passion keeps the series fresh.

What book have you read in your life that you feel shaped you as a writer?

That’s a hard question. I’ve read many books that affect how I think about my own life and the larger world, but I’m not sure they’ve influenced me as a writer. For me, writing fiction uses a different part of the mind than I use in responding to other people’s visions. Some of the books that have moved me deeply include: The Last of the Just (André Schwarz-Bart), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), and Gilead (Marilynne Robinson). As a child, my favorite writers were Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. I can still quote the opening to Little Women. I also loved Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I read this when I was seven and it was my introduction to independent women living their own lives and making their own decisions.

What’s next for V.I.?

V.I. is taking a break. Pay Dirt is so hard on her that I’m sending her to Sardinia for R&R while I write about a different person. What comes next for her could include time in Warsaw to explore her father’s family. It’s possible that she gets involved in a bison rustling scheme.

And finally, do you have a favorite of your books? I’m a big Deadlock fan myself.

Many people, including my beloved friend and mentor, the late Dorothy Salisbury Davis, like Deadlock best. My personal favorite is probably Hard Ball. The crime is set in the summer that I first came to Chicago as a volunteer in the civil rights movement and the characters, ranging from V.I.’s family to Chicago street gang members, came to life for me in a way that I sometimes struggle to achieve.

Robin Agnew is a longtime Mystery Scene contributor and was the owner of Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 26 years. No longer a brick and mortar store, Aunt Agatha has an extensive used book collection is available at abebooks.com and the site auntagathas.com is home to more of Robin's writing.

Sara Paretsky on V.I. Warshawski's Journey in "Pay Dirt"
Robin Agnew
Friday, 29 March 2024

An Inconvenient Wife
by Karen E. Olson
Pegasus Crime, April 2024, $27

Connecticut’s Karen E. Olson has long been one of the most versatile voices in crime fiction. An editor and former newspaper journalist, Olson made her debut with the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award-winning Sacred Cows (2005)—the first in her traditional mystery series featuring New Haven-based reporter Annie Seymour. Then, Olson wrote the Vegas-set Tattoo Shop cozies (yes, you read that correctly) and the the Black Hat thrillers about a hacker on the run. This spring, she makes a triumphant return with An Inconvenient Wife—a modern retelling of Henry VIII and his ill-fated brides.

Meet Kate Parker. She’s billionaire businessman Hank Tudor’s sixth, and newest, wife. As his former assistant, she’s used to running interference for him—but all that changes with their exchange of vows. The honeymoon is short-lived, when a body is discovered sans head in the marshland that surrounds Tudor's Greenwich summer home. And while that would be a most unfortunate occurrence under any circumstances, it’s also a highly suspicious one, as the decapitated remains of a Jane Doe were also found on his Martha’s Vineyard property years ago. It can’t possibly be coincidence, can it? (Spoiler alert: No.) Sussing out the truth may just be the death of Kate.

Temporarily ensconced at a bed-and-breakfast across from the crime scene—operated by Hank’s fourth wife, Anna Klein, who also cares for his two children from previous marriages—Kate does the unthinkable: She begins to question her husband. After all, two of his previous wives have gone missing and are presumed dead, while a third, Catherine, lives in seclusion. Can it be that his ruthlessness extends beyond the boardroom and into the bedroom? Having come into possession of a diary kept by one of Hank's missing wives, Kate begins to see a different, domineering side to her seemingly solicitous husband. And the final entry is both eerie and potentially prophetic: HE’S GOING TO KILL ME.

Told through the alternating viewpoints of wives' Kate, Anna, and Catherine—along with extracts from the aforementioned diary—Olson offers twists aplenty while illuminating the complex inner lives of the women who outwardly gave up their identities to become Mrs. Tudor. Hank’s pattern is clear: He loved them, until he didn’t. But does that make him a monster? Things are rarely so straightforward—at least in fiction. As the current and former Mrs. Tudors, Kate and Anna, form a tenuous alliance in search of truth, Hank becomes both increasingly distant and demanding. Will Kate break free from his clutches—or will history repeat itself once again?

Karen E. Olson—a self-professed Tudor-era obsessive—achieves something wholly original with An Inconvenient Wife, which is both a crime novel and an astute study in marital relations and power struggles. While it takes its inspiration from Henry VIII and his wives, a king (and killer) who lived more than five hundred years ago, the story is thoroughly modern. Because the motives for murder seldom go out of style—even as the machinations change (or don’t). At the risk of sounding impertinent: You may just lose your head over this book.

Review: "An Inconvenient Wife" by Karen E. Olson
John B. Valeri