Anne here, and today it's a privilege and a pleasure to have the wonderful Australian historical crime writer, Sulari Gentill, visit us for the second time.
Anne: welcome back to the Word Wenches, Sulari. When you were last here, you were about to embark on a tour of the USA with three other Australian crime writers. (See photo on the right.) That seemed to go really well, but then you were plunged into the horrors of the recent Australian bushfires, with your home, family and animals at risk, you and your younger son and the dogs evacuated, while your husband and eighteen year old son, both members of the RFS (Rural Fire Service — a Volunteer Firefighters Organization) stayed back to fight the fires. They were on the fire front in trucks that were melting, facing flames that were sixty metres (200 ft) high — in what seemed an endless, impossible battle. (Listen to Sulari describing in her own eloquent words what it was like to live through.)
It must have been an appalling time for you. We Wenches were following your situation on Facebook and elsewhere and, like the rest of the world, felt helpless and horrified. (Read the NYT article about it.)
You've emerged with your family intact, your house smoke-damaged but (just) intact and the rest of the farm burned. And yet, you've gone on to help others with the post-fire clear up, start on the rebuilding and replanting of your own farm, and still somehow managed to keep writing.
Sulari: Thank you Anne. It was a crazy time. The aftermath is still terrifying in its way, though we have time now to do more than fight or run. Australia is finally facing the realisation that things need to change and, I suppose, we who were there feel a responsibility to make sure that’s not forgotten as we rebuild and replant. I wanted you all to know that through it all we have been held up but the thoughts of people everywhere, we have felt your horror, your kindness, your support. In the midst of a nightmare, we never felt alone. So thank you.
Anne: I wish we could have done more. And now the latest Rowly Sinclair book is out, and you're up for all the promo. I won't ask you how you do it — clearly you have some secret druidical magic potion (Asterisk the Gaul, anyone?) — but I am in awe and admiration. As are all the wenches. Testament of Character is getting some wonderful reviews. Tell us about the book.
When Rowland Sinclair receives word of his old friend’s death, he sets out immediately for Boston, Massachusetts, to honour Cartwright’s last wishes, and to solve his murder. He is met with the outrage and anguish of a family spurned in favour of a missing heir, who promise to fight Rowland in the press as well as the courts.
Artists and gangsters, movie stars and tycoons all gather to the fray as elite society closes in to protect its own, and long buried secrets rise to the surface. Rowland Sinclair confronts a world in which insanity is relative, greed is understood, and reputation is power, in which love is dictated and the only people he can trust are an artist, a poet and the passionate sculptress.
A Testament of Character is the tenth Rowland Sinclair Mystery. At the heart of the novel is a love story, or perhaps a number of love stories, and of course a murder. The action takes place in the US—in Boston, New York, North Carolina and Manchester By The Sea—where the last will and testament of an old friend places Rowland and his companions in the crossfire between family, lovers, mobsters, moguls and Boston society.
Anne: To date you've set different books of The Rowland Sinclair Mysteries in Nazi Germany, London, New York, Shanghai and Boston, as well as Australia, and this one is mostly set in the 1930's USA.
What was the inspiration for this particular story and setting?
Sulari: The inspiration for this particular book was a little known event in history. I came across it through a friend—an American writer and Harvard man—who told me about the Secret Courts and trials which took place in Harvard in 1920, and were thereafter quite effectively hushed up. I found myself wondering what had happened to the players, where they’d ended up, how their lives had been changed.
I do write chronologically and I had reached 1935 in the series so I always knew I couldn’t deal with the events directly. But the fact that A Testament of the Character is set in 1935, did give me the opportunity to speculate about the aftermath of those trials, to write a story about two young men who had been accused and summarily convicted, whose sentence had been one of exile and disgrace. I already had a character, Daniel Cartwright, who’d appeared in the second book in the series (A Decline of Prophets) to whom I could give this backstory. Sometimes writing a series is about embroidering and old thread to make the fabric of a new story.
Anne: Wow, that's so interesting. I can't wait to read it. (On the right is a photo of Sulari and two of her fellow crime writers hard on the research trail in the USA.) In your research, did you come across any other historical nuggets of particular interest?
Sulari: So many nuggets! I am what we call in Australia, “a pantser”. I write by the seat of my pants—with nothing resembling a plot of any sort. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next paragraph let alone at the end of the novel. Accordingly, I research as I go, rather than before I begin writing. In this way I ensure the history serves the story and not the other way round, and I avoid the temptation to write my research which can also be more targeted because I know what I’m looking for.
Regardless, even the most focused research does find herself happily led astray by history on a regular basis.
A simple investigation of night spots in New York, led me to the Savoy—one of few places which did not impose a colour bar—to the Lindy Hop, a young Ella Fitzgerald and Harvest Moon Balls. In trying to get a sense of Central Park, I came across a beauty contest for goats. In a hotel in Ashville, North Carolina, I ran into F. Scott Fitzgerald quietly drinking himself to death as he mourned the passing of the flappers. Of course I did all this in the company of Rowland Sinclair and his companions.
Anne: They all sound wonderful. One of the pleasures of the series is not only the developing characters of Rowly and his friends, but also the slow-build relationship between Rowly and Edna, the beautiful, free-spirited sculptress. Any news on that front for the romantics among us? <g>
Sulari: Their relationship does deepen in this book… and there is a wedding. But saying any more would spoil the story. Personally, I do want Edna and Rowly to find happiness together, but I lost control of both of them several books ago (if I ever had any in the first place). Believe me, I have told them both, in no uncertain terms, to confess their love for the other, but they don’t always to listen to me.
Anne: Oh I know what that's like. I'm a pantser too, though perhaps with a little more idea of where the story might go, but control over my characters? That's quite another thing.
I assume you will continue with the delightful historical bon-bons, where real characters from history are slipped in for readers to recognize if they can.
Sulari: Absolutely. I unashamedly use Rowly to meet the people of his era who interest me, in the context of their time and their peers. A Testament of Character introduces several recognizable names, and reacquaints us with a couple who have graced earlier books.
Anne: Would you care to share a little of Testament of Character with us?
Sulari: It would be my pleasure. I’ve chosen this extract from a scene at a party thrown by Marion Davies and Randolph Hearst, because I’ve always loved to watch Rowland dance with Edna.
The penthouse was crowded with starlets and moguls and media. The band had picked up tempo and the dancing was in earnest.
Rowland found Clyde by the buffet holding a square-faced dog with a short nose and large upright ears, who was far too big to be comfortably held. Rowland rubbed the hound’s ears, wordlessly, raising a single brow in enquiry.
“Some woman asked me to hold her dog while she danced,” Clyde replied.
“And you agreed?”
“It was either that or dance. This is the lesser of evils.”
“Does it have a name?” The dog licked Rowland’s hand. He didn’t pull away—he’d always liked dogs.
“She calls the poor bloody creature ‘Smoochy’.”
Rowland winced. “Which one is she?” he asked, surveying the dancers.
Clyde pointed out a young woman in a black and white ensemble that resembled the markings of her dog. Rowland noticed Edna on the dance floor near her in the arms of an older man. “Who’s the chap dancing with Ed?”
“Some bloke called Kennedy—Joe, I think. He owns movie studios apparently. Marion introduced him to Ed.” Clyde’s brow furrowed. “He seems pretty taken with her.”
“He wouldn’t be the first man.”
“He’s under the illusion she’s an actress. Said something about having just the film for her.”
If he was not standing in the penthouse of Marion Davies and Randolph Hearst, Rowland might have disregarded the claim as a ludicrous attempt to seduce the sculptress, but in this circle it was possible that Kennedy was, in fact, the proprietor of a studio. Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t trying to impress Edna.
“If you don’t need my assistance with Smoochy here, I might cut in.”
“Go,” Clyde said without hesitation. For some reason he couldn’t put his finger on, he didn’t like Kennedy.
“Rowly!” Edna took her hand from Kennedy’s shoulder to reach for Rowland. “There you are! I was wondering what Mr. Hearst had done with you… This is Mr. Joseph Kennedy.”
“Mr. Kennedy. How d’you do? Rowland Sinclair.”
Kennedy met his eye. “Mr. Sinclair. You’re not going to ask me if you can cut in, are you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“And what if I say no?”
Edna laughed. “You can’t say no. It’s not done.”
Kennedy smiled, rather too broadly. “You can’t blame a man for wanting to keep you to himself."
Edna moved directly and determinedly into Rowland’s arms. Rowland almost felt sorry for Kennedy who wasn’t to know how much his attempt at flattery would irk Edna Higgins. She would not be kept anywhere by any man.
The band was playing a swing and Rowland and Edna stepped into the rhythm.
Sulari: My next release in the US will be After She Wrote Him, which was originally published as Crossing the Lines. I love the new title and cover and am really excited about the thought of it reaching new readers. At the moment I’m working on, or trying to work on, a standalone novel, a metafictional thriller called Letters From Leo. After that there are a number of projects jostling for attention, the priority of which will be determined by publishers I guess.
(Anne adds, If you want After She Wrote Him, I haven't yet been able to find US links, but amazon UK, and the book depository have it, and of course it is available in Australia.)
Anne: Thanks so much for taking the time to visit the Word Wenches, Sulari. With all you have on at the moment, we are so pleased you could make it.
Sulari: It’s been such a pleasure Anne. Thank you for having me.
Anne: The Word Wenches also want to wish Sulari and her family all the very best in rebuilding their lives and their farm after these dreadful fires.
Anne: Sulari will be giving away a copy of one of her books — if you haven't read her yet, you might want to start with the first in the series, but that will be up to the winner, who will be drawn from the commenters.
Which brings me to a question for readers: are you a reader of historical mysteries? What do you enjoy (or not) about them? Do you have any favorites?