As an American, how were you able to “transform” yourself into a Brit and write these novels from a British point of view?
I divested myself of my American sensibilities, thinking like the Brits and, as much as possible, adopting their world view. Although we Americans believe we are alike, Brits and Yanks are actually poles apart. For one thing, our histories are vastly different. We Americans were never conquered by the Romans, never were exposed to the ancient Celtic tribal culture, never experienced the development of Anglo Saxon law (which is still very relevant in England), never ruled an empire, and never were bombed to near-annihilation by the Germans. Brits are the strong, silent types who stoically accept situations for what they are. We Americans are largely incapable of adopting this attitude. We complain, believe we can change the course of events, and still adhere to the philosophy of our founding fathers. So when I’m in England, I do as the English do, short of eating Marmite. That’s simply asking too much. And no, I do NOT affect a plumy accent!
How did Scotland Yard get its name?
The original Scotland “Yard” was in the vicinity of Whitehall Palace (near today’s Houses of Parliament). It was the in-town palace for visiting Scottish monarchs; thus it was known as “the yard of the Scots,” foreshortened to Scotland Yard. In 1829, when the then-prime minister Sir Robert Peel was looking for a place to house England’s first official police force, he chose a corner of the original medieval yard. In the 1960s, the old Victorian building was razed, and new one was built in Westminister, near the famed cathedral. Its only distinguishing feature is the square rotation sign that reads “New Scotland Yard.” However, police officers whom I’ve interviewed love the clean, light, airy, spacious interior of the building.
How easy was it to get Scotland Yard to help you with your research?
Before the London terrorist attacks of 7/7/2005, access to Yard personnel was extremely easy. All I had to do was waltz into the lobby, tell the receptionist what I needed, and she would call up and have one or two officers come down to speak with me. Now you require a security clearance. However, I never hesitate to speak with police officers who are patrolling outside the building and I’ve found them amazingly accommodating. You must be determined, but polite if you want to ask them a question — good manners go a long way with the English. My last conversation was with an officer who was cradling a large automatic weapon. Though the situation was a bit disconcerting, he was friendly and extremely helpful.
Is Mick based on a real person?
Some years ago, as David and I were settling into a home exchange in a town on the English channel, we realized that we couldn’t operate the heating system. Anticipating this potential problem, our British exchangers had left a note instructing us to ask their next door neighbor, “Mick,” for help.
I went next door and summoned Mick, who came right over and immediately solved the problem. Before leaving, our attractive young neighbor produced a coin from behind my ear.
“I perform tricks,” he explained.
“I bet you do,” I answered.
This exchange would eventually find its way into A Death in C Minor as part of the scene when Mick and Jess first meet.
As we got to know Mick, we discovered he worked for Scotland Yard as a forensics specialist and burnout had caused him to take a leave of absence from his job. His wife, a WPC (Woman Police Constable), spent nights in London while on duty, so Mick filled his lonely hours by acquiring a dog, a Border Collie. That gave us something in common, as I had a beloved Border Collie in my teens. It wasn’t long before we were nattering over the backyard fence, trading biographies, dog stories, and recipes. I vaguely recall Mick telling me that his grandmother was Asian Indian, but I cannot swear to it.
So is Mick “Mick?” Perhaps a piece of our charming neighbor is infused in Mick Chandra. How much, I cannot say. This much I do know: I would not have been inspired to create my detective had I not met Mick the magician, Mick the forensic detective, and Mick the Border Collie aficionado. Not to mention Mick, the master of rhubarb crumble.
Like Jess, you trained to be a concert pianist. How close is Jess to Rebecca?
Friends often assume that Jess is me. Not so. Of course, my knowledge of the piano, classical music, and the rigors of performing are part and parcel of A Death in C Minor, but Jess is truly an entity unto herself. Perhaps she is who I would like to be — drop dead beautiful, strong yet vulnerable, witty, hugely talented, and consistently forbearing of the man she loves dearly. Perhaps I am capable of being some of those things, but not altogether and at the same time. Jess is just…well, Jess.
I like her to the extent that I would love to sit down and have a martini with her.
You suffered a heart attack in 2009. Did you consider leaving writing behind?
The heart attack meant all bets were off — writing, researching new stories, and begging indifferent, snarky publishers to consider my work. In January 2010, I had major open heart surgery and though my chief surgeon had every confidence in my recovery, his assistant surgeon was not nearly as sanguine. He told me matter-of-factly, “I’m the most surprised person in the world that you have survived this surgery. And now look at you: you’re thriving.”
God wasn’t finished with me yet.
It took me nearly two years to return to writing. I missed it desperately. My hero, Detective Inspector Mick Chandra, had become a welcome house guest, as had my other characters. David and I continue to live with them, even though they eat our food, drink our booze, and leave their dirty socks, pantyhose, and underwear scattered about.
Story telling is endemic in all of us, from the ancient Celtic bards who sang epic tales to their harps, to our nearly-three-year-old granddaughter, who creates fantastic tales about the Washington monument.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never, never give up.” And if I had given up? Perish the thought. Mick would never forgive me.