Fortune Favours the Dead – is your first novel. You are a successful playwright and journalist so what drew you to fictional crime writing at this point in your career?
Crime and mystery fiction have been a part of my life for as long as I could read. I started with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, progressed to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, and went from there. A couple years back I did a reread of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series—that perfect marrying of the classic English mystery with the American hardboiled voice. I began imagining what I would do if given that particular creative sandbox to play in. What resulted is Fortune Favours The Dead.
I read and review lot of crime fiction. But your detective duo Pentecost & Parker really jumped out from the pages as different and exciting. How did they come into being as characters?
I used Stout’s characters as a jumping off point—basically imagining what my version of that duo would be. Because I write almost exclusively female protagonists, I immediately knew my detectives would be women. And because much of my writing deals with outsiders—people who have to carve out their own niche in the world—I knew there would be things about both Lillian Pentecost and Will Parker that set them outside the mainstream. But I think it was discovering Will’s voice as a narrator that solidified them. She herself is a fan of crime fiction and consciously takes on role of the hardboiled detective. That self-awareness combined with her desperate need to live up to Ms. Pentecost’s faith is what ended up being the engine that drives the story.
The book is set in 1940s New York and is very evocative of post war America. What made you pick that period as a backdrop?
That post-war period is a big pivot point in American culture. Today we view it as a golden age—the solidifying of the white picket fence, suburban American Dream. But that dream came at the expense of a lot of people. Women were driven out of jobs; whole swathes of queer culture was stamped out; outsiders of all stripes were demonized. There was McCarthyism and blacklisting and the Lavender Scare. I wanted to place Will and Lillian on the cusp of that wave and, in future books, hope to show how they navigate it.
There is a certain ‘golden age of crime’ feel to the plot. It’s very classic Agatha Christie with the locked room and multiple suspects. Are you influenced by any crime writers from that era?
Certainly Agatha Christie, who I particularly love not just for her plotting but because her crimes always stemmed from the passions of her characters. And Rex Stout, as I mentioned. But also Dashiell Hammett (I adore Nick and Nora Charles) and Raymond Chandler, who perfected the hardboiled turn of phrase.
I liked the fun aspect and glamour of the novel and the rapport between older Lillian and lively young Willowjean. This is so different from your writing about the traumas of war. Is it just a joy to escape into fiction? And what have been your favourite all time fiction reads?
My work as a medical journalist has dealt a lot with the traumas of war, but always in the context of healing. And I think that’s a big part of Lillian and Will’s relationship. Lillian is struggling with multiple sclerosis and the fear of what that could mean for her future. And Will is working on overcoming the trauma of her past. Their rapport, as funny as it can be, comes from a place of love and support.
And I absolutely use fiction as an escape. Though my comfort reading usually contains at least one murder. I’ll find myself binging John Sandford and Michael Connelly, as well as re-reading Tana French’s work every few years. One of my all-time favourite novels only came out last year—Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. A queer necromantic space opera with a murder mystery at its heart.
You have some superbly named characters throughout the book- Willowjean of course being at the top of the list. Is it difficult to find names for characters to make them feel real?
Names are so very hard. You want them to sound unique but not fall into that esoteric Dickensian territory. There’s been a lot of browsing through old censuses and, when all else fails, finding names on the spines on my bookshelves.
Your wife Jessica is an established and successful YA author. Is there now a bit of friendly rivalry at home over book sales?
Oh no! Word count, maybe, but never book sales.
Looking through your social media I noted your love of the late Sean Connery and his role in Rudyard Kipling’s story/film ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. I work at Bateman’s – Kipling’s home in leafy Sussex (please visit when you can travel to the UK!). He’s a great storyteller but I’m surprised to note your interest in his work?
So…when you messaged back about Kipling, I was confused. The photo I posted is actually from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I am woefully unfamiliar with The Man Who Would Be King, both the movie and the novel. I’ll try to remedy that. Sorry for not catching that confusion earlier.
You live in Washington D.C. Crumbs what an Election you’ve just had! How does the quiet concept of reading a fictional novel play into this overloaded world of 24 hour news/social media?
Speaking for myself, I’ve done much more reading since the election went into overdrive. Part of that is escapism. For example, on Election Day I read most of John Connolly’s new novel, The Dirty South, rather than keep a constant eye on returns.
I think the great thing about reading is not just that it can take you into different worlds and let you see your own world through different eyes, but that you do it at your own pace. You’re not beholden to the constant refresh of social media. You engage the story at your own speed and on your own terms, and that kind of mindfulness and control is something we might crave today more than ever.
I do hope there will be more adventures for Pentecost & Parker, so is a second novel in the pipeline?
Very much so. I’m working on edits to the follow-up novel now. Hopefully there will be many more behind it.
Fortune Favours the Dead is available now:
Published by Wildfire, an Imprint of Headline (12 November 2020)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1-4722-7477-9
You can read Philipa’s review here