DEBORAH CROMBIE: This has been a great week on JRW for me. So many good books! And to top it off, my friend and colleague, Marcia Talley, has a new Hannah Ives mystery out this month.
I’ve just read it and liked it so much that I invited her to Jungle Red to talk about it. Marcia’s books usually keep Hannah sleuthing in and around Annapolis Maryland (where Marcia also lives), but Daughter of Ashes is set in a bucolic seaside community on the eastern shore of Maryland. The book opens with Hannah and her husband buying a vacation cottage, a real fixer-upper. During the course of renovations, they make a horrific discovery – I hope I’m not giving anything away here -- the mummified body of an infant hidden in the chimney. Here's Marcia to tell us more:
MARCIA TALLEY: Don’t worry about spoilers, Debs. My publisher gave that fact away on the jacket flap, and so did the reviewer for Publishers Weekly. But, yes, that’s the event that sets the whole plot in motion. The idea for this book had been simmering on the back burner of my brain for some time, actually. Do you remember ages ago, back in 1995, I believe, you and I attended a workshop at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, UK called Making Crime Pay? The workshop was taught by Kate Charles and Susan Moody. In one exercise, we were given two index cards, each with a snippet of a news story on it -- like those fillers you see at the bottom of a newspaper column – and we had to combine them into a single story. I drew one about a baby found in a chimney and another about a young motorcyclist getting run off the road. I had to figure out the connection between those two events.
DEBS: And you do so brilliantly here, Marcia. But has it really been twenty years??? How is that possible??
MT: Yes, and thank you. You wrote a mystery about a baby’s body being found in a wall, too, didn’t you, Debs? When we passed those index cards around, did you get the article about the baby, too?
DEBS: That was Water Like a Stone, the 10th (I had to count) Kincaid/James novel, set around narrowboats and the Shropshire Union Canal in Cheshire. I didn't get the article about the baby at that workshop. Years later, I saw a little sidebar in the Dallas Morning News about a couple who were renovating a house in west Texas and found the mummified body of an infant about a year old in the wall. Obviously great minds think alike... So how did you get from 1995 to 2015?
MT: Twenty years went by, and then a couple of other things happened that resurrected that baby in the chimney. To begin with, my husband and I bought a cottage in the Bahamas. We’d made an offer on another cottage but the deal fell through because of some barely legal real estate shenanigans. So – at least as far as I was concerned -- a real estate agent had to die. I was chewing on how best to accomplish that while attending a writers’ retreat in Charlotte, NC, sponsored by Sisters in Crime. One of the other attendees was author Sarah Shaber who told me about an ongoing scandal in Franklin County, NC, involving the discovery and destruction of historic records dating back to the 1840s. My heroine, Hannah Ives, is a former records manager so it seemed obvious to me that she’d want to get involved in helping prevent a tragedy like that. What was in those records, she’d wonder – just like the folks in Franklin County – that somebody with either money or influence or both didn’t want made public.
And then, there’s always my addiction to those makeover shows on HGTV like The Property Brothers. I had such fun writing scenes like one, when I needed to call Hannah back to the house:
“You’re needed at the cottage,” my husband said. “Rusty’s got the tile laid in the bathroom, but it seems we have a decision to make about the grout.”
“What’s to decide?” I asked. “Grout is grout.”
“You might think so, my dear, but I’m holding a color chart in my hands right now. There’s white, of course, but we’ve also got pure white, antique white, linen white …”
“Darling,” I interrupted, “White is white. Pick one.”
“Then there’s canvas, cinnamon, and silver,” Paul continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Mauve, rose, wheat, cocoa, cayenne, smoke, cadet blue and something called Navajo.”
“Navajo? What kind of a color is Navajo?”
“Kind of a warm beige. But you can see why I need you here.”
“Paul …” I began, thinking about the mountains of refuse we still had to dispose of in the courthouse basement.
“I’m leaning toward evergreen myself, maybe black,” he continued.
I had to laugh. “I’m sure. But you’re right, we’re going to have to live with the grout for a long time. Tell Rusty I’ll be home in about twenty minutes.”
DEBS: (I LOVE The Property Brothers. I can't let myself watch it or I won't do anything else as long as there's a new episode coming on.) So, Rusty is the guy on the motorcycle.
MT: Exactly. The contractor’s son who actually discovers the baby’s body. What was it about the discovery that put his life in danger? Not surprisingly, dark secrets from Maryland’s past ooze out.
DEBS: PW gave the book a great review, calling it a “tale of love, greed, racism, politics, and power.”
MT: They did, and the former librarian in me had to laugh when the reviewer added, “Fascinating information on how to search historical records is a bonus.”
DEBS: Well, I loved the book. I think it’s one of your best, and that's saying a lot. And I’ve beenmeaning to ask where did the title come from?
MT: It’s from a poem by Carl Sandburg about the aftermath of war.
… Oh daughter of ashes and mother of blood,
Child of the hair let down, and tears,
Child of the cross in the south
And the star in the north …
Out of the storm let us have one star.
DEBS: Oooh, that's lovely. Gives me goosebumps. And I see how beautifully that relates to the plot.
MT: Shhhh … no spoilers!
DEBS: My lips are sealed.
Readers will have to find out for themselves. Marcia will be dropping in today to chat AND WILL GIVE A BOOK TO A LUCKY COMMENTER so please stop by and say "hi." And I'm hoping she'll tell us if that cottage in the photo is actually in Maryland.
Because I might have to move to Maryland if it is...
REDS ALERT! Katie Baer is the winner of Charles Todd's A PATTERN OF LIES! Katie, email me at deborahcrombie.com with your email address and we'll get a book on the way to you!
And be sure to come back tomorrow when I'll be filling you in on the Laz-Y-Jet Spa!