I’ve always had a passion for Golden Age Detective fiction. Even when I was a very young girl, I used to try writing short stories, imagining myself as a crime writer. I even came up with a few pen names that I supposed a great crime writer would use! It’s been my dream ever since then to write a Golden Age style crime novel.
Like most writers though, I had to have a ‘real’ job. I grew up in 1980s Sheffield and went to the local comprehensive. That’s not to say writers don’t come from that kind of background, often they do, but in a roundabout way. So, after law at Cambridge, I did go on to pursue my love of crime but as a criminal defence barrister.
I continued to write short stories. In fact, many of my jury speeches verged on fiction! I began to have short stories published and that was a huge step on the way to writing a novel. I was short listed for a few competitions but winning the Gothic Fiction prize really was a turning point.
I’d already started work on my novel. There was never any question that it was going to be a classic whodunnit but I wanted to update it. The one thing those novels are often criticised for is that the characters are slightly two dimensional. From the very beginning I imagined the book as being character driven, with a group of very strong women at the heart of the book and that immediately gave it a more modern voice. They are essentially family and close friends. I wanted them to be real, with all the complications and contradictions that entails. They’re not just there to be likeable. At the heart of it, there is love but they’re fierce and vulnerable women. They are often uncompromising, rude and, hopefully, quite funny. I added the complication of them being in a book club as I think many readers can relate to this, particularly the rolling arguments about which book to read, whose house it should be in etc. It was another way of adding a modern element.
The other major factor I knew I wanted to put in the novel was death, which sounds obvious given that it’s a murder mystery. But often, particularly in this genre, the body at the centre of the action is almost entirely overlooked. I wanted to really focus on grief. Ursula Smart, my narrator, can be a somewhat fragile character and is very scarred by her father’s death. This brings its own set of problems as we see everything through her unreliable eyes. She often doubts her own recollection. She even carries her father’s old Bible around which is hollowed out to accommodate a hipflask. Her deep-seated loss has marred every other relationship in her life – particularly with her mother. The dynamic between these two is at the centre of the book and drives it. Around them I built the other characters.
I then took these very modern women, with all their issues and relationships, and put them in the classic whodunnit setting of a crumbling old mansion. They’re snowed in and the murders begin. This part I loved writing! I added some of the really familiar tropes of Golden Age books, such as the creepy old butler and housekeeper who are not all they seem. There’s even a fortune teller who arrives as the snow is starting. Agatha Christie and many writers like her use seances and various Victorian style spiritualism. I loved giving a nod towards the great novels of the genre. Timings; old furniture moving; family crests; secret doors; red herrings; and pianos playing by themselves are all in there.
I kept adding the layers to the story piece by piece. I work from my Murder Board which is a classic pin-board filled with pictures, maps and lots of red string. I think anyone looking through my study window might think I am actually planning a murder! But the plot has to be really tight in these kind of books. Every piece has to fit. I didn’t send it out to anybody until I was absolutely sure I was happy with it. I was very lucky that quite a few asked for the full manuscript. I’d done a lot of research on who were the best publishers to send it to. I knew a dark comedy murder mystery that holds up the magnifying glass to a mother and daughter relationship wouldn’t be for everyone and I needed to think hard about where to send it.
I was utterly overjoyed when Jasper Joffe wanted to take me on. Joffe Books were the publisher I had been hoping and praying would be interested. They have a magnificent selection of crime writers and were so enthusiastic about my characters and the story. They also saw it as a series which is how I had always imagined it. Jasper, the editors, especially Emma, and the cover artist brought it to life and it’s been an absolute joy to see it finally take shape.
It’s been a real rollercoaster debuting in this year. It came out in May but I think that’s meant I’ve done a lot of things I wouldn’t have normally. I’ve found communities of writers online, such as the CWA and their fantastic zoom meetings. I’ve joined an authors’ association where I do a weekly live reading. I’ve read every week for over twenty weeks and there are now a lot of regular viewers. I’m also in a fantastic group of debut authors (@TheD20Authors) who all had their first book come out in this extraordinary year. There’s been all kinds of wonderful events with them such as our advent giveaway and Diary of a Debut novelist interviews about our experiences of publication in 2020. The writing community is stronger than ever and incredibly supportive, perhaps more so this year than any other.
(c) Victoria Dowd
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About The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder:
A faded country house in the middle of nowhere.
The guests are snowed in.
The murders begin.
Withering and waspish, Ursula Smart (not her real name) gate-crashes her mother’s book club at an isolated country house for a long weekend retreat. Much to Mother’s chagrin. Joining them are Mother’s best friend, Mirabelle, Aunts Charlotte and Less, and Bridget with her dog Mr Bojangles. It doesn’t matter that they’ve read Gone Girl three times this year already, this retreat is their chance to escape bustling suburbia. But someone has other ideas.
A body is found in the grounds.
Is a lone killer hunting them? Or has one of their own group embarked on a killing spree?
What they need is to stop sniping at each other long enough to solve the mystery before the killer strikes again.
What they need is a guide to survive.
A GOLDEN AGE COUNTRY HOUSE MURDER MYSTERY BROUGHT BANG UP TO DATE
Funny and shocking in equal turn, Victoria Dowd’s brilliant whodunnit is perfect for fans of Agatha Christie, Anthony Horowitz, Liane Moriarty, Faith Martin, Frances Lloyd and Stuart Turton.
Order your copy online here.