Friday, July 24, 2020

Karen Odden On the Cutthroat World of Art and Murder

RHYS BOWEN:  It's always a pleasure to host my friend, fellow Arizonan and fellow historical mystery writer, Karen Odden. And when we can't travel, she can transport us to Park City or to Victorian England. So welcome, Karen.

KAREN ODDEN: Like my friend Rhys, my family and I try to spend some time out of the Arizona heat each summer. In Park City, Utah, the mountains are a lovely change, and over the years I’ve found that I write differently up here. I hike most days, and as best I can explain, the act of shifting my gaze constantly between the expansive mountain vistas and the tiny wildflowers opens up what feels like a play-space in my brain, with room for weird plot twists and eccentric characters
 It’s no place for my squint-eyed internal editor, however, so I set down words more rapidly on the page. Two years ago this summer, I drafted my third novel, A Trace of Deceit, which came out last December, and I still remember my artist heroine Annabel Rowe, her troubled brother Edwin, and their world in 1870s London coming alive for me on Spiro Trail.

The foundation of the novel was laid earlier, though, with my work at Christie’s auction house back in the scandal-filled 1990s. (For those who don’t recall, Sotheby’s and Christie’s were caught price-fixing, and the heads of Sotheby’s paid millions of dollars in fines and stepped down in disgrace, while Christie’s employee Christopher Davidge skated away in exchange for his testimony.) Having never taken an art history class, I didn’t know a Miro from a Modigliani when I arrived. But I knew marketing, so I’d been hired to buy ad space in publications such as the New York Times, Magazine Antiques, Art & Auction, and the Maine Antiques Digest, where we promoted our auctions for everything from Van Gogh paintings to Fabergé eggs and Paul Revere silver spoons
[Illustration of Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Van Gogh]. In order not to appear a complete idiot about art, I perused these publications and many others. (This, despite the fact that when I was a child, my father insisted I’d never find a job that paid me to sit around and read!)
Through reading, I learned to appreciate art objects, but what captivated me were the stories around them—the daring heists, the deceptive forgeries, the vicious family feuds, the anonymous sales by European nobility who sought to mend their fortunes discreetly, the desperate attempts to preserve art during WWII, the lawless pillaging of antiquities from Egypt, and so on. On my 29th birthday, in 1994, I was in “the room where it happens”—Christie’s main salon—when Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Hammer, the notebook with the famous Vitruvian man
, was auctioned off in a fierce, frantic bidding war for $28 million to an anonymous phone bidder, who turned out to be Bill Gates. It was the first time I felt down to my bones, and in the adrenaline running down my arms, the suspense, allure, and history that surround pieces of art.  

            For my third novel, I wanted to explore the cutthroat 1870s London art world, with an artist heroine, but did such a woman really exist? In graduate school, at NYU, studying the Victorian era and its literature, I learned just how difficult it was for nineteenth-century middle-class women to exert agency, to authorize their lives, to carve their own paths as professionals in any fields other than the genteel ones of teaching and governessing. No amount of “feistiness” could overcome the very real economic, social, educational, and political limitations women faced, including the system of coverture, which meant that married women could not keep their wages, own or inherit property, or initiate any legal proceeding, including divorce.
As I began to research, however, I came upon a few encouraging stories of women artists who made their living by their craft. One was Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), for whom the annual and prestigious Greenaway Medal for British book illustration is named. Another was Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919; born Mary Evelyn Pickering), whose stunning paintings I had seen in the Met in New York. As a child, Mary was immensely talented in both writing and painting—but her upper-class mother “wanted a daughter, not a painter,” and paid Mary’s art tutor to demean her efforts and discourage her. Like the story of Charles Dickens’s older sister Fanny, a brilliant pianist who had to leave the Royal Academy of Music because she couldn’t afford tuition (which hardship fueled my second novel, A Dangerous Duet), this anecdote spoke to me of all the painful consequences of the constraints on ambitious, talented women in the 1800s.
Fortunately, in 1871, the forward-thinking philanthropist Felix Slade funded a school of art at the University College London (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/about) in Gower Street. He made it a condition of his donation that men and women would enter on equal footing for serious art study, including women being permitted to take classes in anatomical drawing (with the heretofore forbidden nudes—gasp). Both Greenaway and Pickering eventually found their way to the Slade, and De Morgan won one of the prestigious scholarships, going on to paint brilliant, bold figures well into the twentieth century.

 De Morgan’s story raised all sorts of questions for me. What does it mean to be discouraged from your ambitions by your mother, by a mentor, and by society? How does it narrow your horizon, shut down your heart, fade your sense of bright possibilities? And is there a flip side of this coin, for men?

n A Trace of Deceit, Annabel is a student at the Slade in 1875. Her older brother Edwin was ostensibly the “gifted” child of the family, but pressured by his ambitious father to develop his genius, Edwin grew sulky and resentful, eventually turning to a life of opium, crime, and lies. A convicted forger, Edwin has just been released from prison as the novel begins, and as he seeks to mend his ruptured relationship with Annabel, he swears to her that he has reformed and will pursue his craft within the law. When he is murdered, and a priceless French painting by François Boucher disappears (in chapter 1), Annabel is desperate to discover the truth about Edwin’s death. Had Edwin lied to her? Or had he genuinely changed his ways? As she and Inspector Hallam of the Yard follow the clues that lead to Edwin’s past, she realizes her memories of Edwin are not like a painting, fixed in form and tone; they all bear a trace of deceit.  


This summer, I am drafting another mystery, again set in 1870s London. Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame) has just returned from his first expedition to Africa, which he would later describe  My heroine Gwendolyn Manning has a friend Lewis Ainsley, a (fictional) journalist, who returns with Stanley and plans to write a book exposing the brutality of the ivory and slave trades. But there are influential men who would squelch that story, and when Lewis is murdered, Gwendolyn must find out why—especially after Lewis’s wife points the police toward her. The words are landing on the page, messily, but they’re landing, and this afternoon I’m off to hike and find some more.


Short bio:
Karen Odden earned her PhD in English at New York University, writing her dissertation on Victorian medical, legal and popular literature. She has taught at the UW-Milwaukee and served as an assistant editor for the academic journal Victorian Literature and Culture. Her first novel, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today bestseller; A Dangerous Duet won Best Historical Fiction at the New Mexico-Arizona book awards. She lives in Arizona with her family and her sixteen-year-old beagle-muse Rosy.


54 comments:

  1. Somehow, cutthroat seems a bit of a mild description for this, Karen . . . thanks for the enlightening post. History is nothing if not fascinating . . . .

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    1. Yes, some of the events that happened at Christie's, and some of the stories I read about art, made me realize just how naive I was, like a wide-eyed country mouse from my little suburb in upstate New York. I realize now (belatedly) that perhaps I was trying to capture that sense of a curtain being pulled back in A TRACE OF DECEIT--the sense of shock as the heroine discovers the dark, strange stories that surround priceless, beautiful objects ... and people's pasts.

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  2. What a mother - geez. And Mary Evelyn went on to paint, anyway! Thank you for these stories. Isn't historical research fun?

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    1. Yes, I LOVE research. I know you do too. That catalog that paired the corsets and the horse harnesses was brilliant!!

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    2. Leave it to Montgomery Ward...

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  3. Loved the insight into the past. Great stories.

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  4. Karen, I love the premise of A Trace of Deceit, which is going right onto my TBR list. Although there is still a glass ceiling, I can remember when a woman could only get credit in her husband's name. (My mother.) Imagine being told that you cannot get a bank credit card because you are female! (Me,1972.) But consider that we only got the vote here in in 1920. Slowly, slowly.

    Your hiking trails in Utah are gorgeous. What a great way to find inspiration.

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    1. Thanks, Judy! Yes, there are so many small, insidious ways that women have been marginalized and disempowered. The overt ones are easy to spot, but something like not being able to have a credit card in your name, without a man co-signing ... I can see people saying, "What's the problem with that? He'll do it, so you have one. What's the big deal?" But, still! I just finished reading SEX AND THE WORLD, an academic treatise that is a bit of a slog (dry, lots of details on research) but the premise is that empowering women, making men and women equal, creates a template for collaboration (as opposed to hierarchies and power struggles) that when extended beyond the home, into workplaces and nations, would lead to fewer wars, economic stability, and better health and well-being for the world. They have stats to back it up ... and I just wonder how long it's going to take to get us there. Thanks for commenting!

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    2. Fascinating, Karen. I often think (as I'm sure we all do) how differently our current crisis would have been handled by a woman. Take New Zealand, for example...

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  5. That Cover! is absolutely gorgeous. What a fascinating topic… And congratulations. Cannot wait to read this. Did you always want to write fiction? Or when did your writing change course?

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    1. Thank you, Hank! I love that cover, too; it glows :) Yes, I always wanted to write fiction. An avid reader, I was the kid that scribbled mysteries that looked suspiciously(!) like Nancy Drew stories when I was ten. After Christie's, I went to grad school at NYU in English, and that's when I started to learn about the deep structures in literature, the themes and devices, and to "go meta" when reading. I wrote criticism and essays for a while (Barnes & Noble classics editions of works by Dickens and Trollope) and edited for an academic journal while I was teaching at UW Milwaukee. But somewhere around when my son was a year old, and I was going bonkers reading Good Night Moon over and over, I decided it was time to try my hand at writing fiction instead of writing criticism about fiction. So I plundered my dissertation on Victorian railway disasters for book one (A Lady in the Smoke) and have stayed in 1870s England ever since. And btw, I love your books; I just read The Murder List. I like books that skewer the idea that "truth" emerges naturally. And I like your strong women protagonists :) Thanks for commenting.

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  6. The art world sounds so glamorous and exciting, Karen, especially when so much was ramping up in that time period of the scandals. Wretched excess and extravagant wealth would have been on display then, and outward shows of wealth like great art would allow the rich to show off in another way.

    I'm fascinated by the Slade school, and the artists involved. I think of Kate Greenaway as a children's book illustrator; it sounds as though she was much more prolific than I imagined. I'm glad to know Evelyn DeMorgan was able to go around her controlling mother!

    Like Judy, when I was getting divorced in early 1974, my lawyer told me to apply for a credit card in my own name, while I was still married. Otherwise I would not have been able to get credit at all. I keep having to remind myself of how far we really have come.

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    1. Oh gosh, glad you had that lawyer giving you sound advice! Yes, we have come a long way in some respects. I've been giving a lot of thought to gender relations lately (particularly after reading SEX AND THE WORLD, which I mention in my reply to Judy), and one of the themes I'm exploring more in my next book is how gender inequality sets a template for hierarchical thinking in other ways--specifically with respect to race in the 19thC. Some European men behaved decently in Africa, of course, but as I research I'm horrified by what white men were doing to African people (both men and women) during the late 1800s. My heroine Gwendolyn understands that rich, white men drive and dominate London's politics, the economy, and the social scene. I'm thinking about how some of the prevailing attitudes--the entitlement, the aggression, the casual assumption of power--shape colonial attitudes as well. Anyway, I'm about halfway through writing it, and we'll see how it shapes up! Thanks for commenting :)

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    2. Your research into this are sounds fascinating, Karen. I will look forward to seeing where it takes you.

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    3. You and me both ;) Thank you for your kind words. Take care, stay safe!

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    4. I wonder if it was that different in California vs Ohio in 1974. I was just starting high school and I applied and received two different credit cards in my own name and no parent co-signer. I had my own checking account since elementary school and was an authorized signet on my parent’s main credit card.
      Perhaps that made a difference. Or California had better state credit laws. I’ll have to look at the history.

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    5. Signer!
      My summer job was lifeguarding at the local pool.

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    6. Yes, state laws differed across the country.

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  7. I've always been fascinated by women artists and how they found a way to paint. I wonder how many painted for their husband's or father's signatures on the finished product. Look forward to reading your books.

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    1. Thanks, Margaret! Yes, Mary Elizabeth Pickering (later De Morgan) purposefully dropped the "Mary" from her name because "Evelyn" (her middle name) could be gender neutral (e.g. Evelyn Waugh). And you think about the women writers who wrote under male pseudonyms--the Bronte sisters, who were the Bell brothers; women such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon who used their initials (M.E. Braddon); George Eliot, of course. I appreciate why they did it ... but to some extent they just perpetuated the myth that only men could write these brilliant fictions. I'm curious, though, about how many women painted under male names; I'm not sure about that. Good question! Thanks for commenting. :)

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  8. Coincidentally last night I watched a documentary on Amazon prime about Mary Cassatt - in a series (Great Artists) narrated by Tim Marlowe. She was so unusual for her time, and of course wasn't able to go to the best academies because most of them didn't take women. Women artists were expected to make their living painting society portraits. She was demeaned by critics for her choice of subject matter (mothers, children...) Wondering, Karen, did you put other (fictionaized) contemporary painters into your story?

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    1. Oooh, I have Amazon Prime and will look for this documentary! I love Cassatt's work--and what you said reminds me of a line from the recent Little Women movie (it's a line that isn't in the book, which I must have read dozens of times). Did you see it? In one scene, Jo says something deprecating about her work: "Oh, it's just a book about us, women and daughters, everyday lives, nothing important," and Amy retorts, "Well, maybe if people write about it, it will become important." My guess is Cassatt understood that, and her concerns with women and children certainly ran counter to the patriarchal norms. As for other painters, yes, I did include some by mentions, as well as a fictional painter whom I invented for a scene in which Annabel "reads" a painting for Inspector Hallam. She explains to him the symbolic significance of the white teacup being handed from maid to mistress at the center of the canvas, the father's portrait beside the fireplace, the frayed rug, the absence of the real father in the scene. My friend Hallie, who is a professional artist, helped me get inside Annabel's head, so I could write about things like bristles and paints and also understand her artistic sensibility, as much as I could. Thanks for commenting, and for mentioning the documentary!

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  9. Karen, I have read A Trace of Deceit--and I confess to a bit of disappointment here--it doesn't seem like a sequel is in progress. I felt the characters of Annabel and Inspector Hallam were ripe for future adventures--loved the book! But, I'll be eagerly awaiting the WIP.

    And I also confess to some disappointment when Obama was the Democratic nominee--when oh when oh when are we going to have a woman for president???? Because I so agree with the research you've been reading, Karen--that there is the potential for a difference in leadership--and I want to be around to witness it. Honestly, though, had someone nominated a post with a face painted on it last time, I would've gladly voted for the post!

    Keep writing, Karen, love the time period and love your heroines!

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    1. Thank you!! That's lovely to hear :) I have to admit, I have toyed with the idea of sequels and a series. People still ask if I'm going to write more about Lady Elizabeth and my railway surgeon Paul Wilcox (from A Lady in the Smoke, my first book). I'm still shying away from it. Though many writers keep a protagonist interesting from book to book, I'm not sure I could do it ... and I think I might get bored! Part of the joy for me is researching a completely new aspect of Victorian life each time: railway disasters, music halls and thieving rings, art and auctions, and now Africa and the slave/ivory trade. My concession has been to have interlocking characters. So Inspector Hallam is in my second book A DANGEROUS DUET (with his sister Nell as my protagonist) and then reappears in TRACE. My intrepid newspaperman Tom Flynn appears in all my books. (He's based on my high school English teacher, who was the first person who told me I could write.) I stick to the 1870s because it is my favorite decade--there were so many new laws and changes that affected women and children! The 1870 Married Woman's Property Act was like a wedge in the iceberg because for the first time married women could actually KEEP the wages they earned and inherit up to L200 without handing it over to their husbands. (I know, shocking.) A huge switch! I think that's why I stay in the 1870s ... it feels like a decade of hope. And yes, I hope hope hope someday we will have a woman president. The US is so backward in this respect! Thanks for reading my books, and for commenting!

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  10. Your writing and characters have always struck a note with me. I'm so looking forward to more!

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    1. Thank you, Jan, that's lovely to hear! :)

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  11. Thank you for this wonderful post. I'm also fascinated by art history and women artists, and your books are calling my name.

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    1. Thanks, Saralyn! I hope you enjoy. I'm always happy to send out signed bookmarks or bookplates, if people would like, for their own copies or gifts. You can reach me through my website, www.karenodden.com, through the Keep In Touch tab. Best wishes!

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  12. ADORED this post! When I’m not reading Rhys Bowen, I’m reading Karen Odden. Waiting for the next ones, ladies!

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    1. I'm smiling hugely at this! Such a compliment to be in the same sentence as Rhys :) I'm writing, I'm writing! Thanks for your kind words. Take care, be well!

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  14. Hi Karen! I don't know how I've missed your books! I'm fascinated by Victorian England, and particularly be Victorian female artists, writers, and scientists. I've said for years that I wanted to write a novel about a Victorian woman naturalist, but have never gotten to it. Maybe you will inspire me! In the meantime, A Trace of Deceit is going immediately on my TBR list! So lovely to have you here!

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    1. Have you been to the Jurassic Coast museum, etc? I sort of knew about early woman scientist Mary Anning, and read some fiction set there, but didn't know how much there is to see. We have a "maybe" trip that will include it - someday.

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    2. Thank you, Deborah! I'd love to see a book about a Victorian naturalist. I know there were limitations to what women could do, but (as with Greenaway and De Morgan) there was some wiggle room to be had. I said in another comment that part of the reason I like the 1870s is that it feels like a relatively hopeful decade; new laws were making it possible for married women to keep their wages and even inherit money without having to hand it over to their husbands. Education laws were changing too--the Education Act (same year) made schooling mandatory for kids 6-12--both girls and boys. So there were small wedges being placed in the monolith of patriarchy. And I loved A Bitter Feast, by the way. I think you came to Poisoned Pen for a launch event, didn't you? If I remember I was out of town, which was disappointing. When Covid is finally resolved, I hope to see you back there! Take care, be well.

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    3. Karen, I hope to be back there! I can't imagine a book launch with the Poisoned Pen!

      And Triss, looking that up now!

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    4. Deborah, the Pen has hosted both my book launches. Barbara and her crew are the absolute BEST. Perhaps I'm misremembering ... but I WILL tell you that I first found A BITTER FEAST at the Pen, where it was prominently displayed, face forward in a wooden stand-alone with some other great books. :)

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  15. Trace of Deceit sounds absolutely fascinating! I just added it to my list for next book ordering. Good luck with it!

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    1. Thank you, Triss! I hope you enjoy it. I'm always up for sending out signed bookmarks and bookplates, if people would like them. You can contact me at www.karenodden.com, through the Keep In Touch tab. Thanks for reading, and be well!

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  17. Karen, welcome to Jungle Reds.

    Sorry to be late to the conversation this morning. I finally got some sleep and I woke up late.

    I LOVE historical fiction. I am adding your book to my long, long, long, long list of TBR! I remember a mention of the Slade school in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear.

    So Interesting to learn about the background behind Slade school. And I look forward to learning more about Christie's Auction House too. That is for your next novel, right?

    When I think of the Victorian era, I think of Charles Dickens novels. And of Queen Victoria.

    We had the American Civil War so it was quite different over the pond in the UK.

    Diana

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    1. Thank you for adding my book to your TBR! Actually, my work at Christie's and my research into women artists all funneled into A TRACE OF DECEIT. My next book (a big sloppy 45,000-word first-draft mess at the moment, and growing like mold) is about the 1870s African slave and ivory trade, which were intertwined. The murder victim is a journalist writing an expose' that a group of powerful men (ivory manufacturers, certain Members of Parliament, etc.) do NOT want published, as you can imagine. As I reached somewhere around 30,000 words, though, I realized that I was also writing about how the white, rich, entitled, patriarchal attitudes in London transferred to Africa. That is, the typical Victorian man's attitudes toward women in Victorian homes (and society) had striking similarities with the attitudes European men held toward Africans. It's insidious and interesting to me. We'll see where it goes! As you point out, in the 1870s the wounds from the US Civil War were still raw, and one of the other journalists in the book, Nicholas Tait, is half American (on his mother's side) and witnessed the slave auctions as a child. He adds another, different voice from my London characters. The Victorian Era was, sadly, also rife with strife--the Crimean War was brutal; and the Prussian War (1870s) forever shifted the balance of power in Europe. Victoria's reign was so long (1837-1901), she saw the world change profoundly, and then change again. Maybe someday I'll move out of 1870s London (all my books are set there) but I still feel like I've just scraped the surface of the decade! :) By the way, do you have a favorite Dickens? I think mine might be Bleak House, with Inspector Bucket! Thanks for commenting. I hope you enjoy my book. Take care, be well.

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    2. You are welcome! Christmas Carol is my favorite since I grew up reading the book every Christmas. My parents took me to the Dickens Faire every year when I was a kid. And I remember my Mom taking her High School English class to the Faire on a Saturday and I went with them. It boggles my mind that we had slaves in the USA, starting with indentured servants who at least had a chance IF they survived the years then importing people from the African coast against their will to become slaves! I would have thought that slavery belonged in the mists of time back to the Roman Empire, not in recent times! I think there is STILL slavery in some parts of the world today :-(

      Take care and stay well!

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  18. Karen, I'm so glad you're here today, because one, your Victorian mysteries sound completely fascinating (I'm a big fan of historical fiction) and two, I love the Pre-Raphaelites but had never heard of Evelyn De Morgan. Your introduction sent me down the internet rabbit hole learning about her and her work!

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    1. Julia, I love historical fiction too.

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    2. Oh, good! I too love the Pre-Raphaelites, and I think De Morgan's work is just stunning. I'm glad I helped you discover her! :) Who are your other favorites?

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  19. Your books sound right up my alley, Karen! I love historical fiction and love reading how women could circumvent the obstacles thrown up in their paths. Infuriating customs and laws! So, I gather these are standalones, but with some recurring characters. Any cameo appearances by earlier major characters?

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    1. Yes, exactly--standalones with recurring characters! Inspector Matthew Hallam first appeared in A DANGEROUS DUET (my second book), where he's my protagonist Nell's brother. Readers really liked him (and I had a writer crush on him) so I brought him back for TRACE. Also, my intrepid, straight-talking journalist Tom Flynn of the Falcon has appeared in all three of my books. A bit of personal trivia: when I was in high school, my senior English teacher Bill Polito was the first person who ever told me I could write. So I modeled Tom after him, with his mannerisms and his appearance, down to a missing joint on his index finger! (After Book 1, a friend gave me a pillow: CAREFUL, OR I'LL PUT YOU IN MY NOVEL. It's true!) People ask me about writing a series, but I sort of like dropping into the world of 1870s London and picking out a different protagonist each time. I hope you enjoy TRACE. If you'd like a signed bookmark or bookplate (for yourself or a gift for someone), please reach me at www.karenodden.com, the Stay In Touch tab. Thanks for commenting, and be well!

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  20. Congratulations, Karen! This is thrilling! I love this time period so much and the art world as the backdrop makes it (forgive me) picture perfect.

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    1. Thanks, Jenn! :) I'm excited for my trip to Paris with your newest, seeing as I can't go for real! At some point when Covid is resolved, we should go to Chez Vous for crepes. Do you know it? It's on Scottsdale Rd, lovely little spot run by a Frenchwoman. Hope you are doing well. Stay safe!

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  21. Karen,

    Congratulations on new book! I wish you success. I, too, have always been a voracious reader and I'm an art lover. I always wished I could paint, but I can't even draw. I suppose that's why I paint with my words instead. The subjects you discuss in your piece fascinate me as well. I'm always intrigued by art and history. Art and murder are two subjects that make a great pairing for a mystery novel.

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    1. I'm smiling because I'm like you ... I can't draw for beans. In fact I used to take my daughter to those paint-your-own-pottery places and I'd look at that blank plate and NOTHING would come to mind. I'd resort to polka dots, hard to mess up. For this book I leaned on two women artist friends, so I could get inside Annabel's head and develop something like an artist's sensibility for her.
      So I just clicked on the link to your books--I haven't read them but thank you for sharing, and I'll put them on my TBR. I notice your recent has a jewel thief ... that's my sort of story. One of the most profound pleasures in being a writer is finding other writers and reading new and different books, as they fall into my path. Thanks for introducing yourself! Take care, be well.

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  22. Love Karen’s books and can’t wait for the next one.

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    1. Thanks, Susan! :) I hope you're doing well. Take care!

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