DEBORAH CROMBIE: It's May, and my treat for the month is a new Hannah Ives mystery, THE LAST REFUGE, from our Jungle Red friend, Marcia Talley! I'm always thrilled to see what Hannah is up to in a new book--it's like catching up with a great friend whom you've missed. Not to mention that Hannah always seems to find herself in places I'd like to go, and this time she's outdone herself. But I'll let Marcia tell you...
DEBS: In the last few books, Hannah's been involved in a murder in the Bahamas, been in an Amtrack train wreck, and investigated the death of a medium in Dartmouth, England. But in THE LAST REFUGE, Hannah is back home in Annapolis--but in very unusual circumstances.
MARCIA TALLEY: Jud Wilson, a young production assistant Hannah met in A Quiet Death, is now a producer at LynxEntertainment. One fine spring day, Jud shows up on Hannah’s doorstep with a problem. LynxE is days away from filming a historical reality show at nearby William Paca House and the “lady of the house” has abruptly left the cast. Would Hannah step into the role? Hannah is reluctant at first—three months living as if it were 1774 with no electricity, no running water, and the “necessaries” way out back sounds pretty daunting – but after a tour of the Georgian mansion and it’s fabulous garden, she finds herself weakening. Not to mention that the gorgeous costumes designed for the other woman fit her perfectly and – oh my gawd! – where did she get that amazing cleavage?!
DEBS: What gave you the idea for Patriot House, 1774? Is there a real house like that in Annapolis?
MARCIA: Yes, there is a real William Paca House, a classic 5-part Georgian mansion built around 1765 in the style of an English country villa by William Paca, a young lawyer who was one of four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. It’s been meticulously restored with period furnishings, including the Paca family silver. I’ve toured the house many times – usually when we have out-of-town visitors – and the house is a popular place for weddings. It’s just half a block away from where Hannah lives with her husband, Paul, on Prince George Street.
It’s not just an interest in the house, though. For years, I’ve been fascinated with every day life in colonial Annapolis. My husband is a musician and his doctoral dissertation from Johns Hopkins focused on Annapolis’s historic Tuesday Club, a group of prominent Annapolitans—doctors, lawyers, clergymen, tavern-keepers—who met weekly (on Tuesdays, natch!) to eat, drink, sing, tell jokes and generally carouse. One of their members, Sir Thomas Bacon, also composed the earliest secular music we know of in the American colonies. Barry found the manuscripts scattered among three archival collections, reunited and restored them for his book, “Secular Music in Colonial Annapolis” which ended up getting published by the University of Illinois Press as part of their Music in Colonial Life series. Sometime after that, a ball recreating one of the Tuesday Club anniversary celebrations was held at the Annapolis State House (where George Washington resigned his commission in 1783) and we were asked to participate. Barry played harpsichord, there was a violinist (as was the custom) and costumed couples danced minuets and jigs in the State House by candlelight to music that had last been performed in that very spot back in 1750. It was magic. I was hooked.
DEBS: What kind of research did you do for Hannah's stay in Patriot House? Did you wear the clothes, eat the food--or, oh, my gosh, go without shampoo?
MARCIA: Or deodorant! Or toilet paper! LOL. I did eat the food—Apple Tansy is delicious, but I drew the line at Pig’s Head pudding—and was continually amazed at how l-o-n-g it took to prepare certain colonial staples, like beaten biscuits where you combine flour, water and lard and actually beat it with a stick for an hour or two! I can tell you from experience that this culinary cardiovascular-aerobic exercise is made bearable only by imagining that the dough is the head of the bitch who married my father after my mother died. And I tried on the costumes, of course. In spite of being trussed up in stays like a Thanksgiving turkey, they were amazingly comfortable. I had to practice arranging my skirts, underskirts and hoops so I could actually sit down in a chair, though, and until I got the hang of it, I could sweep a coffee table clean with one pass like an over-enthusiastic collie.
Seriously, I’d been a fan of those historical reality shows on PBS where they take a dozen or so modern-day people and see how they cope with everyday life in another time and place. Shows like Colonial House, Manor House, Frontier House and even Texas Ranch House ("110 degrees! 200 cows! 47,000 acres and 15 people!!!") Who could resist that? I watched them all. I also paid several visits to Colonial Williamsburg, and I talked to living history specialists and recreationists like Dr Joe Gagliardi who practices medicine both in the past as Dr A. Dobbs and in the present as head of a Maryland detox center. I borrowed books from my friend, Lucia St. Clair Robson, who writes historical novels—Lucia even keeps a file of amusing colonial ways to die!—and the folks at the William Paca House continue to be amazingly supportive. I got the deluxe tour of the house, including the secret passages! – and they let me wander around and take photographs which are normally strictly forbidden.
DEBS: I think the garden would have hooked me!
It's such an interesting set-up--Hannah isolated in the past, separated from present-day life in Annapolis by a stone wall …
MARCIA: Yes, but remember there’s a camera team on site twelve hours each day and stationary cameras are running pretty much 24/7!
DEBS: [laughs] There is that! One of the things I enjoyed about your book is that each chapter is headed by a quote from one of the “diary cams” that are set up around the house where cast members can record what they’re really thinking. I can just imagine some of the things I'd have said...
MARCIA: I loved doing that. One day the housemaid fumes, “I just got my period and they expect me to deal with it by stuffing rags down my panties. It’s totally gross. If you can’t bring me some Tampax, I’m out of here!.”
DEBS: Or when the cook threatens to kill the next cameraman who waltzes through her 18th-century kitchen with an Egg McMuffin!
MARCIA: Exactly. But Hannah does get out from time to time--with a camera escort, of course—like when she goes to the dressmaker or to the market, or to church on Sunday.
DEBS: So, once you got all these characters together in the house …
MARCIA: It’s like the classic English snowbound in the country house murder, isn’t it, but with a twist!
Patriot House, 1774 is set in the turbulent days leading up to the American Revolution. As I mentioned earlier, Hannah steps at the last minute into the role of sister-in-law to John “Jack” Donovan, as mistress of the historic home. (In the picture, Hannah’s bedroom is on the second floor, the two windows on the right!)
While cameras roll, Hannah mothers the Donovan children -- rambunctious young Gabriel and lovesick teenage Melody – and interacts with a cast that also includes Karen Gibbs, an African-American cook and her young son; Michael Rainey, tutor; and Amy Cornell, ladies maid, the young widow of a Navy SEAL. A housemaid, valet, gardener, groom and visiting dancing master round out the cast. They get their instructions from a mysterious entity called “Founding Father” – think Big Brother meets Manor House—via a daily post rider, so every day is a surprise.
During a visit to the dressmaker where Hannah is being fitted for the gown she will wear to the gala State House ball that is the finale of the show, an anachronistic (and strictly forbidden) iPhone chimes from its hiding place in the folds of Amy's underskirt, bearing a text message from Amy’s dead husband, Drew. Amy dismisses the message as a cruel hoax. In fact, she’s already moving on with her life: Hannah surprises Amy and Alex Mueller, the dancing master, locked in a compromising embrace on the back staircase. After that … well, as they say, the plot thickens.
DEBS: Indeed it does, and much more quickly than the beaten biscuits! Did you come away from this book with a greater appreciation of all things modern?
MARCIA: Absolutely. In modern-day America, we take so much for granted. Twist a tap and the water comes on—cold or hot! Take a call on your cell phone pretty much anywhere. For plot purposes, I had to jam the cell phone signal at Patriot House.
DEBS: If anyone offered you a chance to do an historic reenactment, like Patriot House, would you take it? (I don't think you'd catch me signing up for Texas Ranch House:-))
MARCIA: I like to think I’d be as adventurous as Hannah, but three months living without running water would be daunting – and I know this because we spend time each year living on an island in the Bahamas where power outages occur almost daily. After several hours without power – which means no running water, no lights, no (gasp!) Internet – I get pretty cranky. We finally bought a gasoline-powered generator. You have to shout over the roar, but at least you can flush the toilets. I guess I’m a spoiled brat.
DEBS: I love the title. Where did the it come from?
MARCIA: It's a quote from Samuel Johnson, circa 1775. "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
DEBS: Clever man, that Sam.
REDS and readers, this last wonderful photo is of Marcia and her husband, Barry, in costume for the recreation of the ball at the Maryland State House. Isn't it fabulous?
And are any of you as adventurous as Hannah (and Marcia?) Marcia will be dropping in today so do say "hi."