Tuesday, 20 September 2022
Susan Elia MacNeal

New York Times bestselling author Susan Elia MacNeal is is best known for her Maggie Hope mysteries set during WWII and featuring her remarkable female code-breaker/British operative. (2021's The Hollywood Spy, comes out in paperback this month.) But with Mother Daughter Traitor Spy, a historical thriller set in Los Angeles in the early 1940s and based on real-life events, MacNeal offers mystery readers her first standalone.

The main characters, Veronica and Violet Grace, are an ordinary German American mother and daughter who daringly go undercover to investigate the “California Reich,” a group of Nazis active in the United States. I was lucky enough to review it for Mystery Scene and was captivated by the strong female characters, historical setting, and still-timely themes.

Jean Gazis for Mystery Scene: What was your jumping off point? What drew you originally to the mystery genre, to focusing on the WWII era, and in turn, to this particular story?

Susan Elia MacNeal: True stories—and both involve the Muppets! Bear (really!) with me, my husband was starring as Bear in the Disney Channel’s show Bear in the Big Blue House and was asked to promote the show in the UK for two months. I tagged along and went to the Churchill War Rooms—the catalyst for writing Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and completely changing my life!

Then a few years ago the husband was performing as Sweetums for The Muppets Take the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and he picked up a copy of Steven J. Ross’ non-fiction Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America for me at the airport bookstore. I’d never heard about the Nazi movement in Southern California, and The Hollywood Spy was inspired by revelations from this book.

But even as I was writing, I was further intrigued by the true story of a mother and daughter, named Sylvia and Grace Comfort, who made incredible sacrifices to go undercover in American Nazi organizations in Southern California. (Veronica actually has a tiny scene in Hollywood Spy!) These are the two women who inspired my first standalone, Mother Daughter Traitor Spy.

Susan Elia MacNeal Mother, Daughter, Traitor, SpyThis story illuminates an aspect of the United States WWII history that deserves to be more widely known and is still sadly relevant today—patriotism for a diverse, democratic United States versus patriotism for a white, Christian, authoritarian America. How much did you know about the American Nazi movement before writing this book, and how did you approach your research for it?

I knew very little and the little I did know was about Nazis and American Nazis in New York City (and mostly from fiction, namely the film The House on 92nd Street). But I did see Marshall Curry’s Academy Award-nominated documentary short film, A Night at the Garden, edited from archival footage from 1939, when 20,000 Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism—an event largely forgotten from American history.

When I started my research, I went directly to the primary source material Ross used, the extensive Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Committee archives files held at California State University at Northridge. Because of COVID, I worked closely with one of the librarians (a true hero) who photographed, literally, multiple boxes of old letters, memos, notes, and ephemera so I could learn more about Sylvia and Grace Comfort’s experiences, often in their own words.

Veronica aspires to be a writer who makes a difference, idolizes journalist Martha Gellhorn, and keeps a book of observations that she might use in her own future writing. Are there particular writers whom you admire in the same way? What was it like to write about an aspiring writer from the point of view of a successful one?

I’d read Janet Somerville’s wonderful book on the letters of Martha Gellhorn, Yours, for Probably Always, and it definitely inspired me to write a journalist character. Hearing Gellhorn’s voice in her letters was certainly a jumping-off point for me. And I do admire her, just as much as my character Veronica does. Veronica’s a journalist and I’m a novelist, so it’s two very different kinds of writing, but I vividly remember being an aspiring writer and tried to impart Veronica’s journey with some of that passion.

Vi and Veronica certainly don’t set out to do anything heroic. Like many real-life heroes, they begin by simply doing what they feel is right. Do you think true heroes are always just ordinary people doing what they believe they must?

Heroes are real people who take a stand in difficult and dangerous times. I think heroes can be world leaders and royalty, for sure, but I’m personally more interested in so-called “ordinary people” who chose to act in heroic ways. (Although they don’t always see what they’re doing in that light.)

Why did you give Violet a suffragist background that Veronica was unaware of? Do you think participating in movements like women’s suffrage is one of the ways that people who aren’t considered historic figures actually do change history?

I was listening to the wonderful podcast She Votes! hosted by Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr when I was doing research. When figuring out Violet’s birth year, I realized she was the perfect generation to be a young suffragist. And once I figured out that backstory detail, everything clicked for me in terms of knowing Violet and what would give her the strength to go undercover.

One difference between this book and your Maggie Hope mysteries is that in this one, most of the characters are based on real people, but the significant historical figures who are mentioned, such as Charles Lindbergh and FDR, never actually appear in the story the way they do in the series. Why did you make that choice?

Ah, you noticed! Yes, because Veronica and Violet Grace are based on the real-life women Sylvia and Grace Comfort, I wanted to stick close to their actual story. They wouldn’t have had any access to President Roosevelt or Charles Lindbergh or anyone like that. And they are also unmarried women who were short on money—so they don’t go to the glamorous restaurants and dance clubs Maggie and her friends go to.

It felt like painting with a different color palette. I really wanted to show how these women would take the Red Car and grab a sandwich at the Automat and worry about their finances, because that’s how I picture the Comforts living. (There’s actually a nod to the cameos in Maggie’s world when Veronica and Vi go out to dinner in Santa Monica and see Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable’s stunt doubles from Gone With the Wind. Apparently, they really did get married after the film and moved to Santa Monica. But Veronica and Vi run into the doubles, not the real celebrities.)

The two women seem to take opposite paths in their own growth, Vi becoming bolder and more decisive, Veronica reining in her passionate impulses. Their relationship also changes as they begin to see each other in a new light, for example when Veronica realizes—to her surprise—that her mother is really good at playing her undercover role. Do you plan your character arcs in detail, or do they evolve as you write?

I definitely wanted Veronica and Violet to be foils for each other. When we meet Veronica, she’s all youthful energy, flash, and ambition, while her mother is more of a (sorry) shy Violet facing an empty nest and a mid-life crisis. Both women go on personal journeys. One of the things that was fun for me was writing Vi, who’s just turned 50—a heroine with hot flashes!

Murphy Ranch by Chris Gold
The Murphy Ranch is a ranch built in Rustic Canyon, Los Angeles in the 1930s by Winona and Norman Stephens who were sympathizers of the antisemitic, white supremacist Silver Legion of America. Designed as a base for Nazi activities in the United States. it was intended to be capable of being self-sustaining for long periods. The compound had a water storage tank, a fuel tank, a bomb shelter, and various outbuildings and bunkers. (Photo by Chris Gold)

Did you visit the Murphy Ranch before or after writing that part of the story? What was it like visiting the spot where such dramatic events took place, both in history and in your book?

Because of COVID and travel restrictions, I visited the Murphy Ranch after I wrote the scenes, more or less when the book was done. It’s an eerie place, despite the natural beauty surrounding it. After spending some time there, looking around and feeling the atmosphere, my hiking friend and I were relieved to leave and get away from it. I think it’s especially unnerving to visit in 2022, when white nationalism is again on the rise.

Why did you feel it was important to include such detailed historical notes and references at the end of the book?

I’m a bit of a history geek and I always want people to know where I found things, so if they’re like me, and want to know more, they know where to go. I also really like to give sources for things I mention, as so many of my plot points might seem far-fetched and over-the-top. But they’re rooted in actual facts! Truth really is stranger than fiction. With this book especially, I wanted to note all the sources and the process, because I don’t think most people are familiar with Nazis in Los Angeles before and during World War II, and I definitely wanted to show that it’s all based on real people and facts.

I’m sure many readers would enjoy spending more time with the book’s characters, who have such compelling personal journeys. Do you think you might write about them again, or would that stray too far from the actual history?

We really don’t know much about what the Comforts did after they worked as spies. There’s nothing (as far as I can tell, and I’ve done serious research!) on Grace Comfort, the inspiration for Violet. Sylvia, the inspiration for Veronica, eventually went to Washington and became a secretary for a politician.

But as for Veronica and Violet, you never know. Just as Veronica made a cameo in The Hollywood Spy, I’m hoping maybe she and Maggie Hope can meet again in a future novel—perhaps as Veronica covers the D-Day invasion alongside her heroine Martha Gellhorn?

Susan Elia MacNeal The Hollywood SpyWhat are you working on now? What can readers of Mother Daughter Traitor Spy and the Maggie Hope series look forward to next (besides the paperback debut of The Hollywood Spy)?

Now I’m back to Maggie Hope and her friends—Maggie’s newest adventure will find her in Madrid alongside Coco Chanel, who’s working as a Nazi agent. This is also rooted in fact (see Hal Vaughn’s Sleeping With the Enemy), so expect a thrilling ride and then plenty of end notes to let you know what’s real!


Susan Elia MacNeal on Her First Standalone "Mother Daughter Traitor Spy"
Jean Gazis
Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Vanessa Riley "There were 10,000 to 20,000 Blacks living in London during the time of Jane Austen. [A person] would have been more likely to see a person of color on the streets, serving in homes, or running businesses, than [they would be] to bump into one of the 28 dukes of the period."

Vanessa Riley’s Murder in Westminster is the first in a new series set in Regency London. The central character, Lady Abigail Worthing, is a smart, headstrong, woman married to a high-level naval officer and like many heroines before her seems uninterested in following all of society's rules. Unlike many before her, though, she's also a mixed-race Black woman. Fans of the genre will find much to enjoy in Riley's well-constructed mystery and its sparkling main character. Murder in Westminster is not only a standout, but a really fun read.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I loved that you made the main character Black. Just that one twist in perspective brings so much richness to the story and such a different way of seeing the world. Seems obvious and simple, but sometimes those things are the hardest. Can you talk about creating Abigail?

Vanessa Riley: Creating Abigail was so much fun. Having a Black character run toward the danger instead of away is liberating and very different from what I would do in real life. I'd be out of there. But Abigail takes her fears of being misunderstood or even scapegoated with her, heading to the danger in ways I think the audience will enjoy. They will go along with her on the adventure.

You've written historical fiction and romance before, but this is also a true mystery. Are you a fan of historical mystery fiction?

I am a big mystery fan, and I adore Sherry Thomas and Deanna Raybourn. They bring fun and danger and history to every page. Yet I also love Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mysteries. The way we get to do life with Mosley's characters while a mystery is being solved offers readers a version of the world that's unexpected. This is what I want to do with Lady Worthing—deliver the unexpected while learning about London through her brown eyes.

How much research did you have to do? And what was the most surprising thing you discovered?

I do an incredible amount of research for every book. With this series, I did a deep dive into abolition politics. I found it fascinating that when Haiti became free in 1806, all the abolition movements around the world stopped. The legends of progressive fights like [William] Wilberforce were stumped. They didn't know how to get things going again. Dropping Abigail into the middle of this perfect storm is a history lover's delight.

I thought it was interesting that Abigail has second sight. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Both Scots and Jamaicans are known to have second sight, the ability to know things about the future. It's a complication that may or may not become important as we learn more about her.

How common would Abigail's type of marriage to an officer be in this time period? I saw some Facebook chatter recently that Jane Austen would never have encountered a Black person, but that’s obviously not true. What is the history of Black people in England and London at the time?

There were 10,000 to 20,000 Blacks living in London during the time of Jane Austen. [You] would have been more likely to see a person of color on the streets, serving in homes, or running businesses, than [you would be] to bump into one of the 28 dukes of the period. Yes, fiction loves for readers to believe there were 10,000 hot dukes running rampant in London. Alas, there were only 28, and just two were hot.

Fiction is fiction for a reason. We want to be entertained. We want costume accuracy, but we should also allow room for everyone to be entertained and included in the fantasy. Mix-race couplings were common in the West Indies. Mix-race and Black children were sent to schools in England, Ireland, and Scotland for education.

A wealthy planter's daughter, the mulatto Miss Lambe, the wealthiest woman in Jane Austen's Sanditon, was sought after for marriage. Since Austen's father had friends who owned plantations in the Caribbean, I'm sure she saw 'Miss Lambe' in church and social outings. Austen often wrote about real people. Yes, there was a Mr. Darcy. I'm fairly certain Miss Lambe was someone she met.

I also wondered about all the time Abigail spends alone since her husband is off at sea, and how that will affect their dynamic. Will he be making any appearances in future books?

Abigail married young but did so, seizing an opportunity to advance herself and save her family. She didn't realize it would cost her so much, but she has a dedicated staff, an adoring cousin, and childhood friends to keep her from being lonely. James Monroe, Lord Worthing, will make appearances as the series progresses. We will have to keep reading to see if he is a good guy, a villain, or something in between.

I love your prose style. It’s really lovely. What literary influences or specific books have affected your writing?

Austen's wit is something I strive for in writing. Maya Angelou has rhythm in her lyrics. I adore this. Octavia Butler brings drama and the unexpected. Danielle Steele is the queen of family sagas. I want the Lady Worthing series to give all of this to the readers.

Do you have a story arc in mind for Abigail as the series progresses?

Yes. The first book is the series promise. As we journey with Abigail, we'll watch her find herself and learn how to best use her privilege and her gifts. We'll get answers about her husband, family, and friends. She will have to deal with harsh truths and big failings. How do you control a gift like second sight when it drove your mother crazy? How do you deal with loving the wrong man? How do you keep going when the politics of the day are against you because you're a woman and Black?

Finally, what’s next, another mystery? Or a straight historical novel? I hope this is a long series!

I'm revising the next historical fiction. It's about the life of a forgotten queen. Also, I'm drafting the next murder mystery, Murder in Drury Lane. I want the Lady Worthing Mysteries to be a long series, like 30 books.

Fascinated by the Regency and early Victorian eras, Vanessa Riley made time for renaissance fairs, and period novels and films while obtaining her PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Specialty RWA Chapters: The Beaumonde, and the Georgia Chapters, as well as the Historical Novel Society. Vanessa also juggles her military hubby, mothering a teen, and speaking at women's events.

Vanessa Riley on Writing a Black Woman in Regency England
Robin Agnew
Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Bouchercon 2022

This year's Anthony Award winners for best in crime and mystery fiction were announced Saturday, September 10, at Bouchercon 2022: Land of 10,000 Thrills, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was another year of wonderful mysteries. Congratulations to all the winners (highlighted in bold).

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby (WINNER)  
Runner by Tracy Clark
The Collective by Alison Gaylin
Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara
These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala (WINNER)
Her Name is Knight by Yasmin Angoe
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Walking Through Needles by Heather Levy
All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris

Bloodline by Jess Lourey (WINNER)
The Ninja Betrayed by Tori Eldridge
Warn Me When It’s Time by Cheryl A. Head
Bury Me In Shadows by Greg Herren
The Mother Next Door by Tara Laskowski
This Time for Sure: Bouchercon Anthology 2021, edited by Hank Phillippi Ryan (WINNER)
Under the Thumb by S.A. Cosby
Midnight Hour: A Chilling Anthology of Crime Fiction from 20 Authors of Color by Abby L. VanDiver
Trouble No More: Crime Fiction Inspired by Southern Rock and Blues by Mark Westmoreland
When a Stranger Comes to Town by Michael Koryta

“Not My Cross to Bear” by S.A. Cosby (WINNER)
“The Search for Eric Garcia” by E.A. Aymar
“The Vermeer Conspiracy” by V.M. Burns
“Lucky Thirteen” by Tracy Clark
“Doc’s At Midnight” by Richie Navarez
“The Locked Room Library” by Gigi Pandian
“Burnt Ends” by Gabriel Valijan

How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America edited by Lee Child & Laurie R. King (WINNER)
The Combat Zone: Murder, Race, and Boston’s Struggle for Justice by Jan Brogan
Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell
Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York by Elon Green
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

I Play One on TV by Alan Orloff (WINNER)
Cold Blooded Myrtle by Elizabeth Bunce
Bury Me In Shadows by Greg Herren
The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur
Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer

2022 Bouchercon Anthony Award Winners
Mystery Scene