Colleen Cambridge, the mystery pen name of Colleen Gleason, brings readers a new series this spring, beginning with Mastering the Art of French Murder. In it we meet Tabitha Knight, an American in postwar Paris who just happens to find herself neighbor to a talented Le Cordon Bleu student named... Julia Child. The two expats hit it off, bonding over their love of the City of Lights and all things delicious. But when a woman is found murdered in Julia's apartment building—stabbed with Julia's chef knife—Tabitha's journey of discovery becomes one to uncover a murderer and clear her new friend's name from the top of Inspector Merveille's suspect list.
Cambridge, a self-proclaimed foodie, is a woman of many interests. She's also the author of the historical Phyllida Bright series set in Agatha Christie's former home at Mallowan Hall; the author of several supernatural-tinged series, including Wicks Hollow, Stoker & Holmes, and New Vegas Chronicles (written as Colleen Gleason); and the thriller series Lincoln's White House Mysteries and Marina Alexander Adventures (written as C.M. Gleason). You can even find an earlier murder mystery set in Paris, Murder on the Champs-Élysées (2016), from her written as Alex Mandon.
Reading her latest culinary mystery is surely to leave you feeling hungry, so be sure to keep Cambridge's recipe for French Crepes Suzette as part of Mystery Scene's Recipes & Reading at the ready once you close those covers.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I love this time period, just post war. I would call it liminal, because it’s not wartime, but it’s not quite back to normal, either. What attracted you to this time and place?
Colleen Cambridge: Well, it was the time that Julia Child was in Paris, just learning to cook...so, the time chose me rather than me choosing the time. I already knew I was going to be doing a book with Julia Child in it when she was in Paris. It is a really interesting and beautiful time…Paris reawakening.
Have you always been a Julia Child fan?
I’m a foodie and a cook, and while I’ve always loved Julia Child because of those reasons, I didn’t know all that much about her when I started researching this book. But what I found out about her simply blew me away. She truly is a national treasure.
Did you test out the cooking from Mastering the Art of French Murder, say, mayonnaise or cakes or roasted chicken? (I actually took notes when you wrote about the chicken. One way or another Julia still has plenty to teach all of us.)
I certainly did some of the cooking—I’ve made her omelettes and roasted a chicken. I haven’t attempted the Queen of Sheba Cake yet, but I definitely want to. I’ve made some of her fish dishes as well (I don’t eat meat), but most of what I’ve learned from her are general nuggets about what to buy and when, and how to prepare certain foods like mushrooms and scrambled eggs.
Were you “forced” to go to Paris for research? You really seem to have captured the feel of the city.
Sadly, no! I began working on this book when COVID was still a concern, and so I haven’t managed a trip there since I started this series. However, I’ve been to Paris twice before, so at least I had a taste of the city. I cannot wait to go back, and am looking at a possible trip this fall.
I loved Tabitha’s Grand-père and Oncle Rafe—so sweet and what a great family for her. How did you come up with her grandfather and uncle?
Honestly, I don’t know. They just dropped into my head. I knew I wanted Tabitha to be half-French because I didn’t want the language barrier, and because it gave her a reason to befriend Julia. And I needed a reason for her to be able to go to Paris and live there for an extended period of time. And then all at once, Grand-père and Oncle Rafe just simply were there. It was a serendipity.
I always respect the way you tell your stories, adhering to some of the classic rules of Golden Age detective novels: fair clues, red herrings, wrap up by the detective at the end, etc. Are those books an influence on your work?
Most definitely. I’ve been influenced by the Golden Age writers. They’re classics and a tradition for a reason. I think we see the denouement scenes all the time on the big and small screens, as well as in books, because they work—they clear up all the questions in a concise way. As Adrian Monk would say, “Here’s what happened…”
As for red herrings and clues, I definitely do my best to pepper them throughout the story, just as Dame Agatha did!
One of my favorite scenes in the book was when Tabitha describes the relighting of Paris and Eiffel Tower lights coming back on after a long, dark wartime. How did you research this bit of the book? It’s a small scene but so memorable.
I have several books that were written by Americans living in Paris right around that time—Julia Child’s My Life in France for one—and so I spent a lot of time reading and rereading those books to get a feel for the city. I honestly can’t remember which book I read it in, but I’ve got a memoir by Stanley Krakow and another one by Janet Flanner, and still other nonfiction books simply about that time. Lots of little details in those books just stuck in my head.
Get Cambridge's French Crepes Suzette Recipes and Reading here.
Can you talk about creating Tabitha's character a bit? She’s in a liminal space herself, figuring out her life going forward. Do you have a long character arc in mind for her?
I do have a basic idea where Tabitha is going with her life and her character arc. She’s certainly not ready to follow the “normal” woman’s path in 1950…. And the fun thing is, neither was Julia Child. One of the reasons Julia began taking cooking lessons was because she didn’t want to "just" be the wife of a diplomat (not that she didn’t enjoy elements of that). She and Tabitha are friends partly because they have this in common—and they talk about it a little more in A Murder Most French, the follow-up coming May 2024.
Tabitha is a wonderful (in my mind anyway) mixture of tomboy, engineer, and fashion-conscious young lady. And I love the fact that she carries both a Swiss Army knife and a tube of lipstick. The fact that she grew up (as I did) devouring mystery novels makes her the perfect person to get involved in these investigations—even if Inspecteur Merveille doesn’t agree.
What’s your favorite thing about sitting down to write every day? Least favorite?
I’m a voracious reader, always have been, and writing for me is like reading the very best book ever because I don’t plot things out ahead of time, so I’m almost reading the book as I’m writing it. And since I’m writing it, it’s got all of the things I enjoy in a book (no matter which book I’m writing). So I’m basically channeling the book as if I were a reader. That’s simplifying things, but you get the idea.
What I don’t like is when I’m stuck. And it happens, even though I’ve written over 40 full-length novels. When I’m stuck, it feels like a slog, and the scenes moooove everrrrr soooo slooooooooowly. But eventually I come out of it and off I go.
I also love learning about so many different and interesting things that go with my research—which is a reason I adore writing historical mysteries. The research is always such a pleasure, and often filled with interesting and delightful nuggets.
And what’s next for you, another American in Paris book?
Yes! But first, the third Phyllida Bright Mystery, Murder by Invitation Only, will be released at the end of August. Phyllida Bright is Agatha Christie’s housekeeper who keeps encountering dead bodies in 1930s Devon, and Murder by Invitation Only is a little bit of an homage to Christie’s A Murder Is Announced.
The second in Tabitha's series, An American in Paris Mystery, A Murder Most French, will be out a year from now—May 2024.
Colleen Gleason (aka Colleen Cambridge, C.M. Gleason, and Alex Mandon) is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling and award-winning author working in multiple genres from romance to steampunk, supernatural to traditional mystery. Whatever the genre, her stories feature strong heroines experiencing fast-paced adventures, danger, mystery, and of course, romance. But at the core of each story is the belief that every woman deserves a partner who accepts her for her strengths as well as her weaknesses—and vice versa. Cambridge lives in the Midwest United States with her family and two dogs, and is always working on her next book.
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.