by Anita Davison
As a reader, I have always loved the cosy mystery genre, the Agatha Christie style gatherings of genteel characters among whom one, or maybe more, turn out to be the villain(s). I like the easy to read formula which works without taking the reader into too many dark corners. Psychological thrillers are compelling but there will always be a place for the lighter crime story where the threads are neatly tied; the villain is revealed, justice prevails and everyone gets what they deserve. Maybe because it’s so different to real life, which is often inconclusive and messy.
When I decided to write a cosy mystery, I wanted to set it in the Edwardian age, mainly because this was a time of great change and also because there are vast amounts of documented and photographic evidence available to help give the novel an authentic atmosphere. I chose the location to be one of the steamships, which became all the rage during the late nineteenth century. The SS Minneapolis, built in Belfast, and was commissioned in the 1890s by the American Atlantic Transport Line. Along with their sister ships, she was a luxurious, seagoing palace designed to ferry first class passengers only between New York and London before the First World War.
The SS Minneapolis left New York on her maiden voyage in April 1900, which is not strictly Edwardian as Queen Victoria died in 1901 – but close enough as her influence had been usurped by the Prince of Wales by then. At 600 feet long and with a passenger complement of under a hundred, I imagined my characters wouldn’t get lost in a vast, floating city.
The murder plot was inspired while researching the skyline passengers would see as they sailed up the Hudson into the Atlantic. I came across a report in the New York Times dated December 1899, whose bold headline announced ‘BRIDEGROOM ***** DEAD’. With journalistic straightforwardness, the report said a businessman had died unexpectedly within a week of his secret wedding. The details were brief and factual, with no speculation as to what had led up to the death, or the effect on his bereft bride.
This lack of back story prompted me to invent a scenario as to the possible circumstances of this tragedy, if there was one. My cosy mystery plotline, complete with villain, red herrings and solution was all there in that one, short news clipping. I have not produced it here as I’d like to avoid leaving little for the reader to work out for themselves – which is surely half the fun of this genre.
I was still unsure as to who my sleuth would be. A Poirot type character or a Miss Marple? Or neither? Then, while searching through Victorian photographs in a local antique shop, I came across a gentle-faced girl with light eyes, her hair upswept into a soft bun, and her slender neck encased in a delicate lace collar. Instantly, I knew this girl would be my investigator and gave her the name Flora Maguire. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy the photograph as it was part of a much larger collection, but she’s lodged comfortably inside my head and resides there quite happily.
Flora is an English governess; intelligent, educated, and a striking woman, though her station in life means that her intellect is often overlooked. She’s observant, but not too forward as she is used to keeping to the background.
When a man dies on board ship, Flora isn’t satisfied with the opinions of the crew and ship’s doctor, so she embarks on a personal mission to solve the mystery before the ship reaches England.
I felt Flora needed a confidant on this voyage, a young man to talk out her theories with, but who would also make her rethink her conclusions. He needed to be attractive, kind and somewhat enigmatic, after all, any one of the passengers could be a killer. Whether their friendship would progress is unclear as he is from a different class, something which would have been a real barrier in the year 1900.
Amongst the usual complement of shipboard characters is one who appears almost as interested in the death on board as Flora, but whether or not he is a villain is not evident.
Flora’s story was fun to write, but more challenging than I imagined when it came to feeding clues and red herrings into the plot without giving too much away. If the outcome is too predictable, the reader will become bored and if too convoluted, they will become frustrated and give up.
I have heard of strange coincidences cropping up during the course of research. Thus far this has not happened to me – except in this case. During the WW1 Centenary celebrations of last summer, I discovered that all the ‘Minne’ class steamships of the Atlantic Transport Line were used as troopships. At the same time, I was also researching my paternal grandfather’s and great uncle’s service records, discovering they both served in the same regiment. The battalion in which my great uncle served was transported to the Western Front in October 1914 on the SS Minneapolis, and took part in the Battle of Ypres. My grandfather survived the war, but my eighteen-year-old great uncle was killed in France in June 1915.
This was something I was unaware of until then, more than a year after I went looking for a steamship on which to base my murder mystery. Research, mystical connection or simply coincidence?
Murder on the Minneapolis by Anita Davison will be published by Robert Hale on 30 June