Q: Something about Victorian England seems to lend itself to mystery stories, and not just because the genre’s most famous sleuth belonged to that place and time. Was there anything specific that attracted you to London and Oxford of the 1860s?
A: Well, I think the Victorian Era is deeply relatable to our age, and that’s at least partly because of the novelists who were writing then. If you read Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Gaskell, and Eliot, they’re not interested in disguised princes flouncing around Regency ballrooms, they’re writing about bankers, housewives, politicians, journalists. It was a commercial era, like ours. But at the same time it was much more dangerous time on the streets of any city, and London especially had a sinister and depraved side to it. As Dr. Watson said, it was the “great cesspool into which all the idlers and loungers of the Empire are drained.” It was only a short walk between Parliament and the gin mills by the river. It’s that combination of the staid and the menacing that I find personally very alluring, and which makes for such great fiction.
Q: You must have done a great deal of research about the era to write your Charles Lenox mysteries. What kind of historical foraging did you do? What interesting things did you discover?
A: A lot of the research I did unconsciously – I’ve been reading and re-reading everything Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers wrote since I was about 12, and Trollope and Dickens from about 16, so I have a strong sense of London as it was in other times. But the research has been fascinating. The Judith Flanders book Life Inside the Victorian Home helped me a lot. I wrote The September Society as I was studying at Oxford, and when I ordered books to my carrel every third one would be about bear baiting or club life along the Pall Mall or the Crystal Palace in 1851, rather than what I was studying – Edmund Spenser and the circle of poets around him!
Q: One of Lenox’s most appealing traits is this powerful allegiance (for want of a better word) he feels for history and tradition—especially in his feelings for Oxford University —and yet a bohemian, reckless quality as well, evidenced in his choice of career. Is there something specifically English and upper-class about such traits, or could a modern Charles Lenox survive and thrive in New York City or elsewhere?
A: I think Lenox is such a creature of his era, and I’m really proud of that. The Victorian Era was incredibly staid and formal, and yet at the same time it was tremendously, crucially progressive, almost behind the backs of all the country curates and rich brewers who abhorred change. Power hubs were eroding everywhere. Beginning in the 1830’s more and more people could vote, women had more freedom, and the lower classes began to exert political and mercantile pressure on the ruling classes that had long held whip-hand over them. But even as Parliament passed the Reform Acts and repealing the Corn Laws, it would have been absolutely shocking to see a man walking without a hat in Hyde Park. So I think – or I hope – Lenox embodies that strange dichotomy. He would never have deviated for a second from his family’s traditions, or his country’s and class’s, but his heart and mind are nonetheless curious and liberal, in the old sense of that word. And in part that’s why he’s a detective, I guess; it’s his own way of equalizing things. As he says to his protégé in The September Society, being a detective’s not just about solving the posh murders, but all murders.
Q: What has the response been to the character, among reviewers and fans of mysteries?
A: It’s so funny, because the responses have showed me how much more of myself went into my characters than I thought had. For instance several people have said they loved the books, but there was too much coffee and food in them. But I love to write with a tray of coffee and toast – that companionship can help you confront the blank page.
People develop strong affections for the characters, which I should have expected because there are characters, like Dorothea Brooke or Anne Elliot or Sam Weller, whom I think of as just as real as anyone I know. But it’s really moving to me, and humbling, to receive the e-mails I get that treat Lenox as if he were a real person. Or Dr. McConnell, who has been a particular favorite among readers. One woman asked me last week how Lenox’s parents had died, and I realized that once you write a book and send it out into the world, it becomes the readers’ more than yours. Which is a wonderful feeling. I hadn’t thought about Lenox’s parents too much, but that e-mail forced me to.