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Writing Historical Crime Fiction by M.J. Tjia

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MJ Tjia

M.J. Tjia

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As a crime fiction reader, I have always loved finding a new crime series to follow. This is probably why I always meant for my crime novels, featuring courtesan-sleuth Heloise Chancey, to be part of a series. Each book would be a stand-alone mystery, but Heloise’s and her trusty maid, Amah Li Leen’s, back-stories would be explored and slowly revealed in each successive novel. We don’t quite know yet how Heloise found her way into her life as a courtesan (don’t worry – I do), or from where some of her resentments stem. Amah Li Leen is from Makassar, but of Chinese descent, and although we’ve learnt the how and why of her voyage to England, we’re not yet sure what she’s done in the intervening years. Each novel in the series will reveal a little more information about Heloise and Amah Li Leen—Asian background, parentage, how Heloise came to be a sex-worker and so on. Their stories are part of the overall mystery.

The Heloise Chancey novels are set in the Victorian period (1860s) and I have tried to ensure they’re well-researched and accurate, yet, to be true to the maxims of neo-Victorian fiction, my books also address issues that are of interest to a contemporary audience. Through Heloise, I have tried to create a character who interrogates a more modern post-feminist sexualisation. I was also interested in fiction’s usual casting of the figure of courtesan as the romantic or tragic figure (a sure reflection of the era’s moral codes), and rarely as a woman of independent means, who could attain a level of freedom and wealth otherwise unavailable to many women of the time.

In She be Damned I have combined common crime fiction tropes, such as clues, red herrings, multiple suspects and a murderer, with feminist crime fiction features, such as the ‘non-terrorised survivor’ and a subjective protagonist. I wanted an investigator who wasn’t the cold observer of death, the detached detective. Instead, my sleuth, Heloise, has empathy with the victims; she knows the fragility of life for women in her circle. I found it of interest to read work by Judith Walkowitz (1992), who argues that the Ripper story was part of the formative moment in the production of popular narratives of sexual danger; that the Ripper story was a cautionary tale, to be used as a warning to women that the city was a dangerous place were they to leave home and hearth. She goes on to examine those women who were not silent or terrorised victims, and it was in this space I created my protagonist. I felt that a courtesan was the perfect female character to traverse the city scape; someone who could also transgress social spheres. She’s a working-class woman who has the money and agency to be a sleuth.

Also, as a writer of Asian heritage, I enjoy depicting dimensions that might be missing in historical works, such as the lives of the small Chinese population of Victorian London. Through Amah Li Leen’s character I explore racist elements, that perhaps persist to this day. I have also tried to challenge the prevalent trope of the ‘sinister Oriental’ found in so much crime fiction and film.

Each Heloise Chancey book is based upon events that might be seen to connect then and now. I realise my first novel appears to be Jack-the-Ripperish, but it wasn’t meant to be so. In fact, the method of murder—although seemingly Jack-the-Ripperish—represents the actions of a certain doctor of the period, whom I name in the book. The second novel is loosely based on the Road Hill House murder, and I also employed the ‘sinister Oriental’ trope. The next Heloise Chancey mystery involves a terrorist plot and assassination.

I think, in writing historical crime fiction, it’s useful to include those themes that reflect current preoccupations—that have relevance to the reader—so that the novel is not just a replica of the time or a piece of Victoriana. Also, writing about contemporary issues in a historical context can perhaps be a less confronting way of showcasing existing issues, such as racism or gender inequality. A useful way to tackle writing a historical crime novel is to triangulate these features—crime fiction tropes, a consciousness of your modern reader and an interesting, well-thought out protagonist (I always think of Agatha Christie’s character, Ariadne Oliver, who complains about her Finnish detective character—perhaps a humorous reflection on how Christie felt about her Belgian one). And, of course, it’s important to maintain pace and plot (that’s for another day), because, most importantly, my Heloise Chancey novels are supposed to be a fun romp and, hopefully, cracking whodunnits.

(c) M.J. Tjia

Author photograph (c) Red Boots Photographic

About A Necessary Murder:

Stoke Newington, 1863: Little Margaret Lovejoy is found brutally murdered in the outhouse at her family’s estate.

A few days later, a man is cut down in a similar manner on the doorstep of courtesan and professional detective Heloise Chancey’s prestigious address. At the same time, Heloise’s maid, Amah Li Leen, must confront events from her past that appear to have erupted into the present day.

Once again Heloise is caught up in a maelstrom of murder and deceit that threatens to reach into the very heart of her existence.

In this second instalment of the Heloise Chancey Mysteries, M.J Tjia brings us another enthralling historical crime where the twists and turns are as numerous and dark as the London streets which serve as their setting.

Order your copy online here.

Order your copy of She Be Damned here.

About the author

M J Tjia’s novels featuring Heloise Chancey include She be Damned and A Necessary Murder. Her work has been longlisted for Crime Writers Association (UK) awards, and she was awarded a Scarlet Stiletto Award (Aus) in the historical category.
M.J’s father is Chinese-Indonesian and her mother has English-Irish heritage. Being Eurasian herself means that she has always been interested in portraying racially hybridised characters.
Although M.J. grew up in Australia, she has always favoured British fiction, especially in the crime genre. Her inspirations include Agatha Christie, Allingham and Sayers, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, R.D. Wingfield and Reginald Hill.

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