A conversation with Tracy Barrett
Did you read Sherlock Holmes mysteries when you were growing up? Which one was your favorite?
I read Sherlock Holmes mysteries when I was growing up and I still read them! My two favorites are the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles and the story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” I love secret codes, which is why “The Dancing Men” intrigues me so much. I wove references to some of the original stories into The Hundred-Year-Old Secret, and I hope readers and lovers of Sherlock Holmes will find them and enjoy them.
It’s been more than a hundred years since the first Sherlock Holmes stories were written. Why do you think people still love them so much?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was one of the earliest writers of detective fiction in the English language, and his stories contain a lot of the elements that we’ve come to expect in mysteries—both books and movies. We have a detective who gets obsessed with his cases— it’s never just a job to him—and a sidekick who isn’t quite as smart as the detective. This means that the detective has to explain things to him, which is a big help to the reader! We almost always get the same clues that the detective does, even if we aren’t as good as he is at putting them together for a solution. There’s usually a “red herring”—a clue that looks promising but turns out to lead nowhere. And then there’s a final wrap-up where the detective reveals all. Conan Doyle was the first to think of many of these elements, and he used them in such brilliant ways that they’re still part of many modern mysteries. But the most important reason the stories are still so popular is Sherlock Holmes himself. He’s such a contradictory character. He seems like he’s pure intellect but he’ll turn into a man of action in an instant. He seems cold but then he’ll show a human side that makes us root for him to find the solution even more. He’s extremely rational but he loves music. He has an orderly mind but a messy apartment! Holmes is such an intriguing character that some people insist that he and Dr. Watson actually lived and solved cases!
Are Xena and Xander Holmes, with their keen detective senses and talent for picking up clues, based on any real-life kids you know?
All the young characters I write about have something of my own two (now grown) kids in them. They sometimes bicker but mostly get along and support each other; the older sister feels protective of the younger brother; and they have very different strengths and weaknesses but in most ways are pretty similar to each other. Neither my son nor my daughter has ever expressed any desire to solve mysteries, however!
Did you use any particular artist as an inspiration for Nigel Batheson, the fictional artist in The Hundred-Year-Old Secret?
James McNeill Whistler, who lived a little earlier than the fictional Nigel Batheson, was my major inspiration. He’s best known for his portrait of his mother but he made a lot of portraits and drawings. His “Peacock Room,” now in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., made me think of having the Batheson display in the Victoria and Albert Museum housed in a similar setting.
Do you have a background in art history? Or did you have to read a lot about it to be able to set a realistic stage for a disappearing-painting mystery?
I did do a lot of research, but I’ve also studied art history both in college and as a hobby after that.
Tell us about your writing process. Where do you write? When?
I write when I can! I also have a regular job (I teach Italian at a university), which means that sometimes I can’t write for days at a time, depending on what’s going on at work. I split my “two lives” pretty strictly; I never do anything relating to my teaching job at home, and I never write my books at work. Well, almost never!
You’ve written books in a wide range of genres, from historical fiction to ghost stories to time travel. Do you have a favorite genre?
I most like writing about the past, which means that time travel, historical fiction, and mysteries from the past that have to be solved in the present are very satisfying.
What about as a reader? Do you like to read books in the same genres in which you write? What are you reading now?
I read all sorts of books, including a lot of mysteries. I just started The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, who wrote detective novels even earlier than Conan Doyle. I’m also reading The Entertainer and the Dybbuk, by Newbery medalist Sid Fleischman, and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, by Thomas Cahill. I usually read at least three books at once, and they’re often quite different from each other.