Friday, March 25, 2022

Interview with Andrea Penrose

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I discovered Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford & Sloane series of Regency mysteries by accident, through an Amazon recommendation. I read them all and had the chance to interview her for the New Books Network when the latest, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, came out with Kensington Books last fall.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered that she had written a second series—also set during the Regency and featuring an earl, Lord Saybrook, and his initial adversary, later wife, Lady Arianna Hadley. The combination of Russians and chocolate persuaded me to give Lady Arianna a try, and soon I had polished off that series too. And now, to celebrate the release of Lady Arianna no. 7, A Swirl of Shadows, the author herself is here to answer my questions. I’m delighted to welcome her.

What was your inspiration for this series?

The Regency era in and of itself was a core inspiration. I love the time period because it was a fabulously interesting time and place—a world aswirl in silks, seduction, and the intrigue of the Napoleonic Wars. Radical new ideas were clashing with the conventional thinking of the past. People were questioning the fundamentals of society, and as a result they were fomenting changes in every aspect of life. Politics, art, music, science, social rules—the world was turning upside down, especially as women were really beginning to challenge the boundaries of their traditional roles in society.

I really like writing about people who are both strong and vulnerable. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and how we learn to balance those conflicting elements is, to me, an integral part of the human experience. An author can, of course, play with those tensions in any era, but for me the Regency presents a particularly interesting time in which to do so with an unconventional heroine.

Lady Arianna Hadley is a fascinating character. She develops over the course of the series, but tell us what you’d like readers to know about her going in.

Arianna has a gritty backstory, and in the first book she has come to England to seek revenge. Strong, clever and resourceful, she’s had to look out for herself for most of her life, and so trust doesn’t come easily for her. But she has a strong moral compass and a passion for justice, having had personal experience with injustices. That makes her an excellent sleuth.

Her initial interactions with the Earl of Saybrook are, shall we say, more confrontational than collegial. What can you tell us about him, and why don’t they get along at first?

Like Arianna, Saybrook is a complicated person. A titled aristocrat, a former military intelligence officer, and a brilliant botanist, he’s an outsider in the beau monde because his mother was a foreigner. When readers first meet him, he’s recovering from a serious war wound in London and is asked by the government to investigate the poisoning of the Prince Regent at a fancy supper party—where, disguised as a male chef, Arianna did the cooking. During their first encounter, their verbal fencing takes a sharper edge, but circumstances force them to become reluctant allies to find the real culprit, which leads them to uncover an even more sinister plot … and develop a a grudging friendship.


I have to admit that what first drew me to these books was the combination of Russians and chocolate, more specifically cacao. We’ll get to the Russians in a minute, but what made you want to include the chocolate?

In a sense, it happened by accident! For a very different project, I had stumbled across the fascinating fact there there was edible chocolate in the Georgian/Regency era. (The common perception is it was invented in 1847.) Sulpice Debauve, the personal physician to Marie Antoinette, concocted disks of flavored chocolate and spiked them with her medicines because otherwise she refused to take them. To make a long story short, he went on to open a chocolate shop in Paris in 1800. (You can read a long history of chocolate on my website under the “Diversions” tab.)

My agent loved the chocolate info and suggested we send out a proposal for a “chocolate mystery” set in the Regency. I pondered the idea, saw some really interesting possibilities, and came up with Arianna—who wasn’t at all the heroine that my agent expected! She had envisioned a cozy mystery series revolving around the proprietor of a chocolate shop who gets involved in solving mysteries in her town. I had different ideas. I wanted to write an edgier type of series that dealt with both the glittering ballrooms of London and the dark side of the beau monde, where the misuse of power and privilege was rampant.

As I said, my agent was surprised—but she really liked the sample chapters I did, and we sold it to Penguin Putnam. The line ended up being reorganized, and they didn’t offer to continue the series. But I loved writing it so much that I decided to continue the stories as a self-published series.

The overall background to these novels is the political negotiations—and machinations—surrounding the end of the Napoleonic Wars. By the time we get to A Swirl of Shadows, Arianna and Saybrook are being encouraged to travel to St. Petersburg. Why? And what do they find when they get there?

Tsar Alexander was a really interesting and important figure in the Regency era. Handsome and charming, he was also mercurial and enigmatic. He was a key leader in defeating Napoleon, but his own personal weaknesses made him vulnerable to intrigue and schemers. Actual history records that he did fall under the spell of a woman mystic and that her influence threatened his reign. In A Swirl of Shadows, the British government asks Arianna and Saybrook—who know Alexander from a previous mystery in Vienna—to journey to St. Petersburg to stop an American adventuress from orchestrating a clever plot that will topple the tsar from his throne and threaten Europe’s new-found peace.

However, when they arrive, they find things aren’t at all what they seem, and with the Imperial Court a viper’s nest of intrigue and betrayals, Arianna and Saybrook must cobble together a band of unexpected allies in order to beat the devil at his own game.

The person doing the encouraging, not to say arm-twisting, is Lord Grentham, who has been present from the beginning of the series. Give us a capsule description of him, please.

Grentham has been a really interesting character to develop. As Britain’s top spymaster, he’s ruthlessly cold and pragmatic, and I intended him to be a foil for Arianna and Saybrook’s more finely honed sense of fair play and justice. But it turns out he had other ideas about that and is a far more nuanced character. It’s funny how that can happen to an author! 

I can’t let you go without asking about Arianna’s friend Sophia. Who is she, and why does she decide to accompany them to St. Petersburg?

Sophia also has hidden facets. She and Arianna are very different personalities, shaped by the fact that they both had have painful experiences in the past. At first, they are wary of each other, but as often happens in real life, seemingly mismatched people can develop a very interesting friendship.

With Sophia, I have enjoyed playing with taking a person’s core vulnerability and turning it into a strength. Sophia demands to accompany Arianna and Saybrook to St. Petersburg because she feels that her particular expertise will be invaluable to them. There are also very personal reasons involved, but I shall leave them for readers to discover!

This novel just came out. What are you working on now, and can we look forward to another Lady Arianna adventure?

I’m currently working on a new Wrexford & Sloane mystery, which is also set in the Regency era. There’s also another possible project percolating, but for now it’s just in the “thinking” stage. We’ll see where it goes. As for Arianna, I am in the first stages of sketching out a new plot for her and Saybrook. So stay tuned!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Andrea Penrose is the bestselling author of Regency-era historical fiction, including the acclaimed Wrexford & Sloane mystery series. Find out more about her at

Images: Thomas Lawrence, Alexander I (1814–1818), and Efim Tukharinov, The Rotunda (of the Winter Palace, 1834) both public domain; photograph of cacao pods © Tamorlan, own work, CC BY 3.0—all via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Mad Kings and Murderers

Reading historical mysteries has many benefits beyond the pure fun of solving an intellectual puzzle: who, among many possible suspects with means and motive, actually killed the victim? And yes, it sounds odd to use the term “intellectual” in reference to something as emotionally fraught and socially disruptive as murder, but that’s the point of reading a novel rather than living an experience in real time. Real-life killings evoke a whole range of responses—rage, grief, terror. A victim in a book is just a body; at best, we learn enough about the character to feel sorrow for that person’s passing, to appreciate the mourning of those left behind. The detective, amateur or professional, focuses on the suspects, and therefore so do we.

In a historical setting, though, we also—if the author has paid due attention to the differences between present and past—get a sense of changing times and attitudes. Is a death attributed to sorcery or demonic possession? Does the killer,  in the views of those involved, express innate evil or human frailty? Was the murder “justified” because the victim violated society’s laws? Or is the killer the one whose defiance of the rules demands the imposition of extreme penalties?

Tania Bayard explores these questions and more in her Christine de Pizan novels, the subject of my latest New Books Network interview. Set in fourteenth-century France, often at the royal court in Paris, the murders take place in and reflect the concerns of a medieval world taking its first steps toward the Renaissance. The king—Charles VI, known as “the Mad” ever since his attack on his own men in the midst of battle—suffers from a series of psychotic episodes that most of the populace attributes to witchcraft and sorcery. Constant in-fighting between the queen, the regent, and various relatives who would like to replace the regent fuels the general sense of fear and uncertainty.

Even without that immediate context, the lingering results of past decisions by the king, ongoing hostilities with neighboring lands, changing views of women (stridently opposed by many in the Church and the universities), endemic poverty and disease, and the increasing power of merchants in a society still ruled by warrior aristocrats play into views of justice and mercy and sin that govern people’s reactions to sudden, unexplained death.

And in a strange way, we can see our own pandemic-tinged world, with its ongoing war between superstition and science, dimly reflected in Bayard’s vividly realized medieval kingdom and refracted through the persona of her fictionalized heroine—the poet, scribe, philosopher, and defender of women’s right to be considered fully human and capable Christine de Pizan (1364–c. 1430).

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. The interview is also featured on LitHub.

There is a great temptation, when writing about the past, to sanitize its circumstances and attitudes to make the characters more palatable to present-day readers. Tania Bayard, who has written four mystery novels set in fourteenth-century France, does not make that mistake. Her Paris is filthy and smelly, with muddy streets and refuse lying in heaps, horrible diseases, stray dogs, and dead rats in the gutters. Her characters, too, wallow in prejudices and superstitions of all sorts. And those streets are filled with beggars, prostitutes, thieves, cheats, and would-be sorcerers and witches, ready to prey on upstanding citizens.

Yet fourteenth-century France, in these novels as in real life, also contains farsighted thinkers, gifted artists of all sorts, and would-be scientists. One of the shining lights is Christine de Pizan, a scribe at the court of Charles VI “the Mad” who will soon establish a name for herself as a poet and early feminist. Contrary to the stereotypes of medieval women as passive and obedient, Christine works hard to support her family and resolutely challenges the prejudices of the men around her, especially her frequent bĂȘte noire and sometime supporter, Henri Le Picart. 

In Murder in the Cloister, the sudden death of a young nun causes the prioress to summon Christine, who has already solved three crimes affecting the royal family, to find out what happened. On the surface, Christine has been hired to copy an important manuscript, but her investigations turn up not only secrets and lies but ongoing sources of tension among the nuns. And even as she races to untangle the mystery before more deaths occur, she must counteract Henri’s efforts to protect—or is it undermine?—her and what she fears is his undesirable influence on her young son.

Bayard has taken some flak for her decision to adopt a historical person as her fictional detective, but as she notes during this interview, any character she could have invented would have been less complex and less credible than Christine, who defied both her own society’s expectations and our own limited view of medieval women. So relax, don’t worry too much about the details of the crimes being fictional, and enjoy parachuting into a fully imagined past that you can hope never to experience in real life.

Images: Charles VI attacking his own men and of Le Bal des Ardents (The Ball of Burning Men), from a 14th-century book of hours, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Mysteries Past and Present

Donnell Ann Bell was nice enough to post this comparison of mysteries set in the present versus the past on her blog last week. But once you’re done reading it here, do check out her other posts—and her books, if you like contemporary suspense novels—as well.

Imagine the following scenario: two sisters decide to leave the big city to spend the summer at their second home. They travel with several children and assorted family members. Along the way, someone attempts to ambush them, then flees before they can ascertain whether the objective was robbery or murder. The sisters don’t recognize the attackers and therefore can’t be sure why they’ve been targeted, although they do have an enemy and suspect him of giving the orders.


So far, we could be looking at an incident from any novel with elements of mystery or suspense. But what happens next depends greatly on when and where the attack takes place. In the modern world, the sisters would call the police from a cellphone, probably even while the assault was underway—unleashing the full panoply of sirens, all points bulletins, computer searches, DNA tests, and police raids. The search might not lead to an arrest in real life, but in a novel readers would experience a dramatic, high-tension chase as the investigation proceeds to its logical conclusion.

As it happens, though, these sisters live in sixteenth-century Russia. They have no police to call and no phones with which to summon them. There are bailiffs who make arrests, but who bears responsibility for supervising a particular stretch of road remains unclear. The local authorities have never heard of fingerprinting, never mind genetic testing or computerized records. And the robbers, having escaped, can vanish into the vast, uncharted countryside and return to fight another day.

Therein lies the drama, from the perspective of a historical novelist.  The technological advances that drive a modern detective or suspense novel certainly have their advantages, especially in real life, but from a fictional standpoint at times they make cases almost too easy to solve. Against such detailed information, imagine the possibilities offered by the past, where characters can plausibly flee into the woods and set themselves up as bandit chieftains, disappear for months on end without communicating by e-mail or texting or even through letters, misrepresent themselves as scions of noble or royal houses without being detected, or break into a home or an office without leaving a trace that anyone investigating the crime can detect.

It would be hard to pull off any of these plot points now, yet I’ve used some version of them all in my Legends of the Five Directions and Songs of Steppe & Forest novels. The incident described in my opening paragraph comes from my latest novel, Song of the Sinner, and involves the heroine of that book, Solomonida, and her younger sister Darya, who have left Moscow in the hope of escaping the attention of their bullying cousin Igor, intent on grabbing their property and in general making them pay for daring to thwart his plans for marrying them off, whatever they think of his choices. Like the trip to the country, Igor’s motivation is timeless: he wants to benefit himself, no matter the cost to others.

But the means he uses to attain his goals are not those of the modern world, and the counter-measures adopted by Solomonida and Darya are different, too. The attempted ambush fails because they travel with an armed escort, a normal precaution taken by aristocrats at the time, and the escort remains with them to guard their estate against these or any other criminally minded sorts. Igor doesn’t have to worry about surveillance cameras and drones, and his rank protects him even when he’s fingered in a later assault on the hero. But his own inability to read trips him up time after time, as does his tendency to discount potential opposition from women and members of the lower classes, a category that in his mind includes even the highest-ranking civil servants—men (and yes, in those days they were all men) who in our own time would head corporations, excel in the law courts, or resolve international crises.

So if you are writing a story where the only means of stopping your villain is to use the latest bells and whistles, a contemporary saga is the way to go. But if you really want to push your protagonists to the limits, consider taking a time machine into the past. You may be surprised by the vistas that suddenly open up before you.


Images from Pixabay, no attribution required.

Friday, March 4, 2022

The Power of Family

In these troubled times, with Russia launching a military attack against neighboring Ukraine in a misguided attempt to restore—literally or figuratively—the Slavic portion of the old Soviet empire, it seems like a strange coincidence that my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview explores the disintegration of that Soviet empire’s predecessor and the early days of Bolshevik power. But this is, in fact, part of the complex history of Russia’s relationship with its neighboring states and, more broadly, with Europe. So the subject of this novel, conceived at least two years ago, is more pertinent to the present than it may appear at first glance.

The history of the Russian Revolution, including the assassination of Emperor Nicholas II and his wife and children, has been so thoroughly researched that spoilers are not really possible. But what Bryn Turnbull does in The Last Grand Duchess is to focus in on the Romanovs as a family—their strengths and weaknesses, their conflicts and desires, and above all their deep and lasting devotion to one another even as events spin out of their control. Although elements of the story are fictional, as one would expect, Turnbull hews pretty close to the facts, and in doing so she both raises questions—suppose the daughters had married foreign princes before the revolution?—and offers explanations of otherwise troubling points in their history (why the emperor and empress did not send their children out of the country when that was still possible, for example).

Above all, she individualizes the five younger members of the family, who have at times been caricatured as the sick princeling Alexei and an undifferentiated OTMA, comprising the four daughters. She also manages to produce a balanced and convincing portrayal of Rasputin. So although you probably know how the story ends, read the novel anyway. And as we work our way through another episode of imperial overreach, you may even find it eerily prescient.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Interest in the events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 has only increased since the centenary of the Romanovs’ assassination in 1918. Bryn Turnbull tackles this familiar story from the perspective of Emperor Nicholas’s eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna (1895–1918).

The novel opens with a prediction, made on the day of Olga’s birth, that the infant grand duchess would “not live to see thirty.” From there it moves to 1907, when the young heir to the throne, Tsarevich Alexei, is on the brink of death due to uncontrolled bleeding, the result of his hereditary hemophilia. Enter Grigori Rasputin, who enacts a miracle cure, saving the boy’s life and earning himself the undying gratitude of the desperate empress.

With this central conflict established—including the secrecy maintained around the nature of Alexei’s illness for as long as he remained heir to the throne—we shift forward in time to Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917. The two stories of the revolution and the years that preceded it intertwine, with accounts of Olga at parties or nursing during World War I interspersed between chapters detailing the increasing confinement of the family after the revolution, from the Alexander Palace in Petrograd to a house in Siberia, then their transfer to the mansion in Ekaterinburg where the assassination took place.

Olga makes a compelling narrator, old enough to see what’s going on and have opinions about it but young enough to enjoy life, whether that means flirting at her coming-out party, chatting with a handsome wounded army officer, or riding a sled down Snow Mountain, a structure built by her and her siblings at the interim house in Tobol’sk. She is intensely family-focused, devoted to Russia, and charmingly naive due to her sheltered upbringing. Indeed, if one thing comes through in this richly described and thoughtful novel, it is the love of Nicholas II, his wife, and his children for one another—even if their insistence on staying together dooms them all.

Many factors, of course, lay behind the Russian Revolution, and The Last Grand Duchess hints at poverty, disillusionment, the massive casualties of the Great War, and Bolshevik determination as well as Nicholas’s limitations as a ruler, Alexandra’s shortcomings, Rasputin’s ambition, and the “ministerial leapfrog” to which those failings gave rise. But the strength of fiction lies in its ability to draw us into the minds and hearts of a small group of people, and in this case, that group is Olga and her immediate family. It’s a journey well worth taking.