I love mysteries. And I think there is an element of mystery in all good stories. After all, it’s the unanswered questions along the way that draw us in and keep us turning the pages. I love that feeling where you can’t put the story down because you just have to know what's going on.
Trying to figure things out, to solve the puzzle - and maybe even outsmart the author - is what brings me back to mystery stories time and again.
And it’s not just the urge to find out who did it, it’s why they did it that really makes a great mystery.
So as a lover of mysteries, I was thrilled to hear that Egmont are releasing a new anthology called ‘Mystery & Mayhem’ - a middle grade collection of twelve brand-new short stories from some truly amazing authors.
Get this for a line up - ‘The Crime Club’ are: Frances Hardinge, Robin Stevens, Helen Moss, Sally Nicholls, Kate Pankhurst, Elen Caldecott, Susie Day, Julia Golding, Caroline Lawrence, Clementine Beauvais, Harriet Whitehorn and Katherine Woodfine. Told you it was impressive!
I asked Robin and Helen for a few thoughts about the book, their part in it and if they could tell us a little about the stories they've written.
So, how did the anthology come about and how did you get involved?
I love mystery stories (of course), and I’m so impressed with the wealth of talented authors writing MG mystery fiction in Britain at the moment. It seemed an obvious idea to bring a group of them together to create an anthology, and so the idea was born! We were delighted that so many authors agreed to take part, and that Katherine Woodfine was able to head up the group by contributing an introduction as well as her story.
When I received the e-mail from Robin asking whether I’d be interested in contributing to a new middle grade crime fiction anthology I obviously had to give it a great deal of thought – for about half a nanosecond. Then I jumped out of my chair, both hands waving in the air, shouting ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be part of – especially when I found out how amazing the rest of the “Crime Club” line-up was going to be.
Can you tell us a little about the stories you've contributed?
Just like Murder Most Unladylike, my story is about a disappearing body – but I wanted to do something quite different to Daisy & Hazel. So this story is contemporary, and features a boy called Jamie, whose father runs a hotel. One evening a mysterious guest appears – but by the next morning, she has vanished . . .
My initial thought was to write a contemporary mystery similar to Adventure Island. But then Robin mentioned the possibility of a historical setting and I instantly knew that’s what I wanted to do. I hadn’t written any historical fiction before (the Secrets of the Tombs series is steeped in ancient history, but the action is all set in the present) and a short story seemed like the perfect way to dip a toe in the water. I loved it so much I’m totally hooked and I can’t wait to do more. I really think the world needs a whole new series; The Georgian Mysteries.
My story is set in 1751 against the backdrop of the super-fashionable mania for growing pineapples. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that when something goes horribly wrong, suspicion immediately falls on Sam the gardener’s boy, who has the delicate job of pampering the pineapple plants. It’s up to the young heroes of the story to follow the clues and root out the real culprit . . .
I love the Georgian period, plants and garden history, so I had a delightful time researching the history of pineapples. I scoured the internet and read everything I could find on the subject. There’s more than you might think - including my favourite; The Pineapple, by Fran Beauman. I also read up on Georgian social history and visited stately homes and museums. Pineapples were a status symbol in the eighteenth century, and they crop up all over the place - paintings, silverware, pottery, buildings, wallpaper - anywhere that high society types could flaunt their wealth and style. If you weren’t quite swanky enough to grown your own (it was an extremely expensive hobby) you could always rent a pineapple to grace your table and show off to your neighbours.
I worked on the story in the summer holidays on our narrowboat in Nottingham. My husband was very busy writing a research proposal, so between us we had a mini writing retreat. Apart from walking the dogs and moving the boat for a few hours each day (and stopping at lovely riverside pubs to eat, of course!) we just wrote – it meant we didn’t even mind when it rained all day. More writing time!
What, for you, are the ingredients of a great mystery story? Is there anything you think is the kiss of death for a mystery?
I always write my stories about an enclosed place, with a finite number of suspects – unlike the real world, which is very messy and confusing, I love the comfort and security of knowing that everything can and will be solved. I think the real kiss of death for a mystery story is over-complication – be too confusing and the reader will be lost.
The crime or misdeed must have been committed for a reason, and not just because the baddie is randomly bad. When the reader finds out who did it and why, they should think, oh yes, that makes sense. Getting the clues right is important. Too obvious and it’s no fun at all. Too obscure and everybody gives up caring. It’s a tricky balance, especially when writing for a fairly wide age range of say, 7 to 12 year olds. I try to mix things up a bit with some easier clues and some harder ones, so that every reader has some moments of feeling ever-so-slightly-smug, because they spotted a clue before the detectives and some moments of kicking themselves because they missed something they should have spotted.
Another ingredient that I think is really important is the friendship between the detectives. There has to be a gang working as a team (even if only a gang of two) with the different characters contributing in their own special ways. The reader should feel like part of the gang too. It helps if it’s fairly obvious that the adults in the situation are not up to the job of solving the crime. They’ll just mess up and get it all wrong, whether through incompetence, vagueness or malice. So it’s up to the kids to save the day and make sure justice is done.
I’m not sure whether there is any single thing that is the kiss of death. There are lots of different ways to write a mystery and I’m sure all the rules can be broken if done well. I’m always a bit disappointed if I’m reading a mystery and suddenly magic or secret powers get in on the act (I love magic in other kinds of books, but if it’s a mystery I want the puzzle to be solved by the detectives’ wits alone.)
What were your favourite mystery stories as a child?
I remember starting out on The Famous Five, moving up to Sherlock Holmes aged 8 and then discovering Christie when I was about 11. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd blew my mind. But I also remember reading Harry Potter at about the same time, and seeing them as mysteries that just happened to take place in a magical world. I’d definitely class JK Rowling as an influence on my crime writing!
I’m so predictable, I’m afraid! I loved Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series (Valley of Adventure, Island of Adventure etc). From about twelve I started reading Agatha Christie and was hooked on those too. My Grandma had all of them and I used to devour them (her other favourite was Georgette Heyer, famous for Georgian romances. I loved those too. Maybe that’s where my love of the Georgian period came from).
What draws you to writing mysteries?
I’m endlessly curious about people and why they do the things they do. I’m also a fixer – I want to make life better, and a problem with no solution drives me crazy. So writing a mystery story is a way for me to be able to play around with inventing characters, making them do dreadful things and then bringing in my detectives to fix the situation. Unlike real life, I can always make sure that everything is all right in the end (for everyone but the victim…)
I like the fact that there are certain rules and conventions that give you a framework to work around. The task of writing a book is slightly less daunting when you have that starting point. I am a very law-abiding person, but I’m fascinated by what happens when people cross the line and do something wrong. It’s something about the way that the consequences ripple out, often affecting many people for years and years. I’m always staggered at how much work people invest in committing a crime when the risks are so high.
I enjoyed reading adult crime fiction as well as MG mysteries. I’m not keen on the really gory type (ever more gruesome ways that a serial killer can bump off their victims.) I like the puzzle to be woven into the life and culture of a particular place. Whenever I travel, I read crime novels set in that location. When I write a book I seek out crime noveIs relevant to that setting. When I was writing The Phoenix Code I read mysteries and thrillers set in Egypt, both ancient and modern. When I was writing The Dragon Path, I read Chinese crime novels (translated into English, I should mention!) A good mystery can often tell you more about a society than any other kind of story.
Writing mysteries also allows me to channel my inner geek. There is something utterly satisfying about finding an obscure snippet of information that can be squirrelled away and used in a story; an unusual poison in an everyday object, a way of hiding a message in a map, a weed that only grows on newly dug soil, a clever way to charge a battery, the cost of renting a pineapple in 1750 . . . nothing is ever wasted!
Thanks for joining us on Middle Grade Strikes Back Robin and Helen – The stories sound great – I’m hooked already and can’t wait to curl up with the anthology!
You can order Mystery and Mayhem from 5 May.
Interview by Andy Shepherd