TweetChris Asbrey has lived and worked all over the world in the Police Service, Civil Service, and private industry, working for the safety, legal rights, and security of the public. A life-changing injury meant a change of course into contract law and consumer protection for a department attached to the Home Office. She has produced magazine and newspaper articles based on consumer law and written guides for the Consumer Direct Website. She acted as a consultant to the BBC’s One Show and Watchdog, and been interviewed on BBC radio answering questions on consumer law to the public.
She lives with her husband and two daft cats in Northamptonshire, England—for now. She’s moving to the beautiful medieval city of York.
Time to chat with Chris!
What is your latest book?
The Innocents is the first in a trilogy of 19th century murder mysteries. My detective is a female Pinkerton and she has the skills the real women who performed that role really had; she is up to date with the modern detective methods of 1868, conversant with the sciences of the day, feisty, clever, and an expert at accents and disguises. She is nobody’s sidekick and goes in alone to collect intelligence– just like the real women did. In the first book she is sent in to help bring in the most cunning thief in the country, who also happens to be as forward-thinking and as interested in science as she is – except he uses it to commit better crime. When he saves her life, she owes him and resolves to bring in the murderer of a family friend. They find their respective skills dovetail perfectly, but if they’re found working together he could be jailed and she could be ruined forever. Neither of them bargained for their growing attraction either.
Is your recent book part of a series?
‘The Innocents’ is most definitely part of a larger body of work. It’s the first of a trilogy, but if people like them there’ plenty of scope to keep them going if there’s a demand. Each book is a self-contained mystery with the larger universe of the characters providing an over-arching connection between the books. The third book is written and at editing stage, but there are plenty of trials I can still put the characters through yet.
Do you write under a pen name? If so, can you tell us why?
I kinda do. I write under my married name and feature on social media under my maiden name for social interactions on line. I also write under initials. I don’t hide my gender, but it’s not immediately obvious when you look at the book cover.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
It definitely chooses me. I’ve loved mysteries all my life and read them voraciously all my life. I joined the adult section of the library at ten and read about three a week for years. I love the fact that there are there are rules to writing a mystery, and the writer has to keep to them if the reader is to be able to play along. The story has to keep moving, all the clues need to be available and the plot needs to be convincing. The rules were set out in ‘The Detective Club’ which featured members such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterson, and E. C. Bentley. Not all the rules hold true today; for instance, “No Chinaman must figure in the story.” That is simply a ridiculous premise today. Agatha Christie broke another rule. “The detective must not himself commit the crime” but they still provide a framework for the modern mystery writer. The method of murdering the victim must be a robust and feasible technique and not invented or spurious. The motive for murder in a whodunit should be personal, and not an act of war or part of a professional hit. That takes the killing into a different genre of writing. I think that pushing the boundaries in the mystery have to be done by taking the reader with you. It’s a really interactive medium and a mental game.
If you were to advertise your book on a bumper sticker, what would it say?
He was wanted. She wanted him more than anyone else.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
I love it when they do that. One minor character took over and grew into a major one. Another decided to kill herself and left me wondering how to write my way out of this one. When creativity starts to play it’s important to go with it. It makes for a far more interesting plot.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
I do start with a title, but it can change as the story proceeds. For some reason I need a hook to hang the story on. The ending can definitely change, and often has. I need to keep track of clues, red herrings, characters, and even aliases, but somehow it all comes together. In some plots it’s vital to know the ending. The third book in the trilogy is a howdunit. We know who kills and why, but my characters have to prove how he kills in a case which stretches their forensic skills to the limit.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I always re-read what I wrote the day before and edit as I go but when I finish, I re-read and edit as well as sending the book out to trusted friends and beta readers who not only edit, but would point out any plot holes and scenes which don’t work. That results in more edits until the manuscript is honed and exactly as I want it.
Have you ever imagined what your characters are doing after you’ve finished a book or series?
Oh, yes. I’m already thinking what will happen in the fourth as I promote the first.
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
Copious amounts. ‘The Innocents’ has taken years of research into the early Pinkertons, especially the female agents and the kind of work they did, including their methodologies. I research everything, even the stationary, or the correct codes for the telegraph stations mentioned in the books. The theatrical make up, used as disguises in the book, began to flourish right around the period the books are set in. Lighting had improved and people could see the flaws in the rudimentary makeup used previously on stages lit by candles.
Greasepaint was invented in the 1860s by Ludwig Leichner, building on the work of Karl Freidrich Baudius (1796–1860) in the 1850s. Lighting also improved costumes and acting techniques. It drove a desire for more natural representations in every area, simply because people could see the stage more clearly. Crepe hair went out and quality wigs came in. Colors were mixed to mimic skin tones and classes in their application were popular in the acting profession. Latex wasn’t invented until 1920, but prior to that rubber was molded or even applied to a light fabric backing. When it was the right shape it was expertly painted to look exactly like a nose, dewlap, bald cap, or any other body part. I even researched whether someone with as much hair as the average Victorian woman could wear a short wig. The answer came from a young woman who enjoys cosplay—and she explains online how to pleat her long, thick hair and coil it flat under the cap before putting the short wig on. It absolutely IS possible.
The forensics are fascinating to dig into too. You name it I researched, right down to what shades of clothes were available at that time. I don’t want all that to become a lesson to the reader though. It should be a backwash, a setting in which the plot unfolds. I’m first and foremost a storyteller and I want to carry the reader with the tale and not have them worrying about whether something was available at the time or whether it was possible.
I do enjoy finding things which seem like anachronisms but were actually invented much earlier than people think, but I have my characters discuss these things so it’s clear I’ve done my homework. I have a blog where I detail the strange, obscure, and the things too mundane to be taught in history classes. I was very flattered to be told by another writer that they’d used it as a resource.
CONNECT WITH CHRIS:
Blog (all things obscure and strange in the Victorian period)
Facebook (The Innocent Mystery Series Group)