DEBORAH CROMBIE: Don Bain and Renee Paley-Bain, authors of the novelizations of Murder, She Wrote, as Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher, hardly need any introduction from me. But I must say that, "Where do you get your ideas?" is as a writer perhaps my favorite question from readers, and I am fascinated, as always, but the daisy-chain of ideas that go into what becomes a book. I only wish I could say I'd written 42 of them!!!! (Or is that 120??)
Here are the Bains to tell us!
Where do you get your ideas?
This must be a question that every writer gets (right, Reds?) whether on their first book or forty-first. Our forty-second book in the “Murder, She Wrote” series is just out, Death of a Blue Blood, and while looking back over the twenty-five years of publication we don’t always remember what prompted a particular plot, we do know exactly what inspired this one: “Downton Abbey.”
You might find it ironic that a book series based on the characters from a television series includes a book inspired by another television series. But we like irony.
For those of you not familiar with “Downton,” it’s a PBS series about an English aristocratic family caught up in changing times and mores of the post-Edwardian era. It’s one of the superb British costume dramas that show up periodically on public television and inspire a devoted following—including us. Its predecessor in the same vein was “Upstairs Downstairs,” which we also loved and whose 68 episodes chronicled the same social milieu in the 1930s. The fifth season of “Downton Abbey” is currently airing in the still-United Kingdom (Thank you, Scotland!) and will show up on U.S. TV in January 2015.
What is it about the lives of England’s advantaged class that so captivates us? After all, we sloughed off the rule of Mad King George 238 years ago—and violently, too. Yet we’re still fascinated by the nobility we rejected, the extravagant behavior of the lords and ladies that repelled us when we were expected to finance it.
Renée’s theory is that these shows are simply grown-up fairy tales with castles and balls, and elegantly dressed men and women waited on by an army of servants—a dream life found in the pages of “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” et al, that a good many of us were raised up on in nightly stories—at least the females among us, Don adds. Of course each fairy tale had a stumbling block to happiness in the form of an evil stepmother, poison apple, or witch’s curse, just so we wouldn’t think a life of privilege came easily.
In Death of a Blue Blood, Jessica Fletcher is invited to a New Year’s Eve ball at Castorbrook Castle in the Cotswolds (talk about alliteration!). And her “plus one” is the handsome Scotland Yard inspector, George Sutherland, who has been wooing her since the very first book in the series, Gin & Daggers. Readers are divided over who Jessica’s love interest, if any, should be, with many rooting for Dr. Seth Hazlitt, her usual companion on the television show. But George has a pretty good fan base by now, having appeared in at least half a dozen of the books.
“Downton” is filmed at the ancestral home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, and an enjoyable part of our research was multiple viewings of “Secrets of Highclere Castle,” a DVD visit to the earl’s country home, situated on a 5,000-acre estate. (The current countess also writes a blog on life at Highclere.) Our fictional Castorbook Castle is owned by the Earl and Countess of Norrance, and his lordship has a mother, Lady Honora, with an equally dyspeptic outlook as the “Downton” character, Lady
Violet, played on television by the delightful Maggie Smith.
While there are some similarities given our admitted admiration for “Downton Abbey,” there are many more differences to accommodate both our imaginations and the requirements of our modern story. In the first chapter, Jessica discovers the body of a woman lying on a path in a secret garden, and nearly succumbs herself when she gets locked out in the cold. Here’s a peek at her first introduction to her host and his family:
“Who was she?” I asked George in a low voice.
He nodded. “Her name was Flavia Beckwith. She’d been with the family many years. Drink your tea.”
“Didn’t anyone miss her?” I whispered.
“With all the hustle and bustle of the staff getting ready for the ball, no one thought to look for her.”
I took a sip from the delicate china cup and replaced it in the saucer. I was wrapped in a heavy blanket in a wing chair in a corner of the drawing room near the tall Christmas tree, the branches of which held swags of gold ribbon, gold glass balls, and electric candles. George sat on an ottoman by by my side. There were ten of us gathered for afternoon tea. George and I were the only ones who weren’t members of the family, but a few other guests were expected to arrive at any moment. Our hosts, Lord and Lady Norrance, had fussed over me in my disheveled state, but were understandably far more upset to learn of Mrs. Beckwith’s demise.
“What in blazes was she doing in the garden?” Lord Norrance asked, glaring at his wife.
Marielle, the countess of Norrance, raised a hand to tuck a loose strand of hair into her chignon. “I asked her find a sprig of holly that I could use for my hair for the ball.” She checked her image in the mirror over the fireplace. “I didn’t ask her to go into the garden.”
“Any sensible person knows it’s far too cold to walk outside at this time of year,” said a gravelly voice belonging to the Dowager Countess of Norrance, the earl’s widowed mother. Honora Grant was a slight woman in her seventies, but her delicate appearance belied her tough nature. Earlier, when she had leaned on Nigel’s arm as he escorted her into the room, she had pointed to a seat with her cane. “Put me over there where I can see everyone. Marielle, you know that’s my chair by the fire. Find another place, if you please.”
Lady Norrance obligingly vacated her seat so her mother-in-law could take it. Nigel placed a pillow he’d carried in on the chair, and Honora settled herself down. She cast a critical eye on the other occupants of the room. “I hope you’re not planning to cancel the ball because of this unfortunate incident.”
“Oh! We hadn’t thought...” the earl’s wife trailed off.
“You really should, you know,” said a young woman dressed in jodhpurs and boots. “We’ve had a death in the family.” She released the scarf around her neck and shook out her dark blonde hair.
“Nonsense!” the earl said. “This event has been on the social calendar for many months.”
“Jemma, must you irritate your father?”
“We could hardly cancel now,” the earl said. “People are already arriving.” He waved an arm in George and my direction.
“And very welcome you are,” said Rupert Grant, the earl’s younger son, nodding at us, causing a curl from his carefully gelled hair to flop onto his forehead. He was a boyish looking fellow in his mid-twenties. “Besides, Flavia would not have wanted to discomfort the family in any way.” He leaned forward to pluck a pastry from a silver tray. “Isn’t that right, Mother?”
“You’re correct, of course, dear. Please take a plate and napkin. Mrs. Beckwith was dedicated to Castorbrook Castle and our family.”
“Wasn’t she a governess once?” the dowager asked.
“Yes, Grandmother,” Rupert said, “but she needed another job when the three of us rudely decided to grow up.” He cocked his head at his sister, Jemma, the horsewoman, and their older brother, Kip, who sat across the room and idly paged through a magazine. “And Mother gave the old girl another position.”
“Ridiculous! She wasn’t even trained.” Honora thumped her cane on the floor. “Can’t imagine she could have been a proper lady’s maid without training. But then your mother probably doesn’t know the difference.”
Marielle flushed and looked to her husband for defense, but he was lost in thought as he stared into the fire.
Jessica begins to investigate the background of the dead woman and George, who’s convinced her death was an accident, reluctantly joins in.
We had fun tramping around our fictional castle, peeking into the elegant halls on public display and the scruffier ones behind the scenes, and most of all, creating the colorful array of characters led by Lord and Lady Norrance. We hope you enjoy our latest effort.
So, Jungle Red Writers and readers: Do you have a favorite fairy tale? Is there a castle in it?
Murder, She Wrote: Death of a Blue Blood, published by the Obsidian imprint of Penguin Group, is bylined by the fictional Jessica Fletcher and the actual Donald Bain. Don’s wife Renée Paley-Bain collaborates with him on the series. 2014 marks the 25th year of “Murder, She Wrote” in print. Don, who has written more than 120 books, is also the author of the “Margaret Truman Capital Crime Series” (Tor/Forge), and, this year, had his first stand-alone thriller published under his own name, Lights Out! (Severn House).