Deborah Crombie’s 19th Gemma James & Duncan Comrie novel, A Killing of Innocents, finds Duncan catching a knife crime case and Gemma running a knife crimes unit in London. The series, rich in setting, character, and plot, continues to develop and the books are compelling, intelligent reads. I found this installment especially crisp, well written, and hard to put down.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I have so enjoyed the development of Gemma and Duncan’s characters and their relationship throughout the series. Can you talk about creating them and the arc you have in mind for each of them?
Deborah Crombie: I wish I could say I had a master plan, but then that would be a bit boring, wouldn’t it? I’m also a little reluctant to say that I started with Duncan, but that’s how it happened. I adored British police detective novels, and I was desperately homesick for the UK, having moved back to the United State after having lived in Edinburgh and in Chester. I’d had an idea for a novel set in a timeshare that I’d seen on a visit to Yorkshire, but I needed a detective, a Met officer senior enough to consult on cases outside of London.
So Duncan was born. He was divorced and hailed from a market town in Cheshire near where I’d lived, and where his parents own a bookshop. But he needed a partner. I wanted her to be a woman, but very different in both upbringing and personality. Enter Gemma, a single mother of a toddler, from a working-class area in north London, juggling a demanding job with her parenting responsibilities.
By the end of the second book there were hints that their relationship was going to be more than professional, but I certainly hadn’t planned it. This was complicated for so many reasons, and I was never sure from book to book how—or indeed if—they would work things out. Duncan’s son from his previous marriage, Kit, came into their lives, and then Charlotte, their little foster daughter.
A Killing of Innocents finds them living in Notting Hill, a blended family with three children. Oh, and two dogs and three cats! They seem to accumulate children and pets. I’m usually thinking a book or two ahead about the developments in their personal lives, but I don’t have any end goals in mind. It’s much more fun to see where life takes them.
I enjoy just as much the work teams they’ve both assembled. Do you have some favorites out of this group, or characters you especially enjoy writing about?
When Gemma and Duncan became an official couple, they had to separate professionally and work with new partners. This brought Melody Talbot and Doug Cullen into the series, Melody as Gemma’s sergeant and Doug as Duncan’s. I love writing about these two and their sometimes difficult friendship. Another favorite is Rashid Kaleem, the very dishy Home Office pathologist who comes into the series in Necessary as Blood, and Detective Inspector Jasmine Sidana, Duncan’s second in command on his Holborn team. The cast of the series has grown like topsy and the most frustrating thing is not being able to work all the characters I like into every book.
When you start a new book, are there themes in mind that you want to tackle? Or is it always all about the story first and the themes comes from that? In this latest novel you definitely touch on revenge and reckoning.
I don’t usually start with a theme—I think theme should grow out of story. I do often start with topics or ideas I want to explore. I’m often writing about family and relationships and how characters navigate them. I might say that A Killing of Innocents is about the collateral damage caused by a certain type of damaged personality, but it’s about a lot of other things, too.
Can you talk about the knife crimes unit? I was fascinated to do a tiny bit of research and discover this is actually a problem in Britain. What kind of research did you do?
Knife crime is a huge problem in the UK, especially among young people. The Metropolitan Police reorganizes so often that it’s hard to keep up with the latest structures and terminology, but as of 2020 the Violence Suppression Unit included knife crime in its remit. Gemma and Melody are assigned to a data and intelligence gathering group.
As for research, I read regularly about policing in the UK and especially in London. It’s amazing what’s available on the internet these days. The Guardian newspaper is especially useful for deep level investigative reporting. It was the Guardian that uncovered the scandalous doings of some of the Met’s undercover officers and provided much useful background for earlier series novels To Dwell in Darkness and Garden of Lamentations.
And what about research in general? How do you take on a whole different culture and make it believable down to the slang the characters use?
I’ve lived in both England and Scotland and now spend as much time in London every year as I can manage. I read and listen to British books, watch British films and telly, read British newspapers. But, mostly, my brain just switches over into that voice when I’m writing. I love the details of ordinary daily life there.
Do you feel like you learn something with every book? And if so, what did you learn from this one? What lessons do you think you’ve brought with you from the first book in the series?
Writing this series has been like a continuing masterclass! I’ve learned so much about so many fascinating things and places. The history of the tea trade, London docklands, Cambridge poets, the Bloomsbury Group, London auction houses, racial tensions in Notting Hill from the '50s to the present, rowing, Scotch, British waterways and narrowboats, professional kitchens—that’s just picking a few favorites off the top of my head!
In A Killing of Innocents I wanted to explore London’s Bloomsbury and Soho, they are such fascinating and historical areas. I’m a really nerdy researcher and can never get in all the detail I’d like. Also, I had great fun learning about pottery for this book, and even trying my hand at it. Which wasn’t nearly as scaring as rowing!
I always knew I wanted to write a series, but I had no idea at the beginning what a delight it would be to watch the characters develop. I suppose I’ve learned that to some extent they do have a life of their own.
I read once that Picasso used to be allowed into the Louvre after hours and the artist that drove him crazy was Delacroix. He would put one of his own paintings next to one by Delacroix, and it fired him up. Who have your influences been, detective fiction wise? Are there any classics (if you are a re-reader) that you reread and think, Damn, I wish I could do that.
I loved P.D. James, but I don’t find myself inclined to reread the Dalgliesh books. I do reread Dorothy Sayers with such delight. Her language sparkles, her characters jump off the page—what a talent she was. Interestingly, the books I read and wish I’d written are not usually crime fiction. I love fantasy, historical fiction, and big sprawling novels. I’m a huge fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series—I’d love to have written something that imaginative.
What makes you happy when you sit down to write every day?
I love putting myself into the setting, and into my characters’ lives. It really is an amazing thing to have this alternate life going on in your head. I suppose it is the purest form of escapism.
What’s the hardest part about sitting down to write every day?
Actually sitting down and getting started! It’s so easy to be distracted by the world and all the things you feel you should do. But then once I really get into a scene and it’s flowing, I never want to quit. We have lots of late dinners around here…
Finally, please tell me there’s another Gemma & Duncan book on the way. What are you working on?
Yes, yes, absolutely! I’m working on Kincaid/James #20 (I don’t have a title yet) and I spent most of October in London. After a three year absence due to the pandemic, it was absolute bliss. There is never enough time to do all the research I want to do, but I made a good start.
Deborah Crombie's novels are published in North America, Japan, Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Romania, Greece, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and numerous other countries. Although she travels to England several times a year, Crombie lives in McKinney, Texas, a historic town north of Dallas, sharing a circa 1905 Texas Craftsman bungalow with her husband, Rick Wilson, two German shepherds (Dax and Jasmine), and two cats. She is an aficionado of tea and cocktails, enjoys cooking and admiring her garden, reading, bird-watching, and playing with her dogs.
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.