Watchers of Time
by Charles Todd
Published by Bantam Books
336 pages, 2001
Buy it on Amazon
Many crime novelists are known best by their pseudonyms -- Bruce Alexander, Ellis Peters, Edward Marston, Ross Macdonald and Ellery Queen, to name just a few. And it isn't unknown for even prominent authors to collaborate with their relatives; Dick Francis, for instance, spent decades composing his horse-racing thrillers with the generally unacknowledged but essential assistance of his wife, Mary. Less common, however, are writing duos that conceal the fact of their collaboration, and even once found out, still insist upon hiding their true identities. Such a pair are the son and mother who have so far concocted five historical mysteries -- including last year's Watchers of Time -- under the nom de plume "Charles Todd."
Their joint authorship was revealed in the summer of 2000. Yet these two continue to maintain a strong level of anonymity, despite their willingness to appear on author panels and be featured in photographs, such as the one above. While they seem prepared to declare their individuality as "Charles" and "Caroline," it's their surname that remains in doubt. "Because of Charles' job and his father's job," Caroline explains, "we've been rather reticent about using the rest. Employers are not always understanding about distracting influences." And just what is Charles' day job? He will say only that "I troubleshoot and therefore travel a good deal of the time. I expect to stay with [the job] and I try to keep it separate from the novels." Even this pair's place of residence is kept under wraps, though they do admit to living somewhere along America's mid-Atlantic coast. An early biographical note stating that Charles Todd dwells in Greenville, Delaware, was evidently a ruse. "[It] refers to a P.O. box," says Charles, "where all our stuff was sent at that time. But we still use [that box] and people still write to it. Better to let them be comfortable with that."
It might surprise longtime readers of the Todds' work to learn that mother and son didn't think they'd ever have to worry about fielding either much fan mail or the questions of prying reporters. They wrote their exceptional debut novel, A Test of Wills (1996), doubting that it would ever be published. But it was, establishing both their pseudonym and the character of Ian Rutledge, the shell-shocked young Scotland Yard inspector who has returned home from World War I to solve crimes in a Britian still coping with the horror and carnage of the recent hostilities. Rutledge, too, is on the mend. His head is filled with the loquacious "ghost" of Hamish MacLeod, a Scottish soldier he'd had executed on the battlefield for refusing to fight. Drawing on his prewar expertise in crime solving, and with Hamish's voice now alternately mocking and encouraging his pursuit of clues, Rutledge has developed into an unusually intriguing detective, his meticulously plotted adventures being chronicled in A Test of Wills, Wings of Fire (1998), Search the Dark (1999), Legacy of the Dead (one of my favorite books of 2000) and Watchers of Time. A sixth Rutledge investigation, A Fearsome Doubt, is due out later in 2002.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview -- via e-mail -- with the mysterious but delightful Todds. We discussed the origins of the Rutledge series, the process of their collaboration, the English countryside crimes around which their novels are built, and the possibility of their someday writing standalone tales. Charles and Caroline answered most of my questions in a unanimous voice; those responses appear below without individual attribution. Only on occasion did they each reply separately, which I have also tried to make clear here.
J. Kingston Pierce: When did you first become interested in mystery fiction?
Caroline Todd: I suppose it began as children, for both of us. Sherlock Holmes, [Edgar Allan Poe's] "The Gold Bug," Treasure Island, all the classics -- they were read to us, and shaped our own reading later. It's that touch of excitement in a story that attracted us. Even Peter Rabbit, in the right tone of voice, becomes a mystery, and Mother Goose is rife with murder.
Charles Todd: I can't remember not having a library card. Or my parents not reading to me. Or not finding stacks of books on every imaginable subject all over the house. And I liked the puzzle of a mystery -- I liked figuring out why it worked.
What was your original concept of Ian Rutledge, and how did he evolve? Why build a series around a shell-shocked former military officer?
We were thinking about the kind of character we'd really like to read about ourselves. And the most intriguing concept was someone who had worked as a policeman, then gone off to war and returned to pick up the threads of his job. How does killing affect a man who hunts killers? What strengths or weaknesses came of out the trenches? How had war changed him psychologically? Has he learned skills beyond those he'd possessed in 1914? Is he more empathetic, or more callous? And how can we in 1995 relate to the hardships and trauma of 1919? What is there about this man that makes him universally human and at the same time a part of his own period? How do you make the past and the present overlap in modern terms? As we answered such questions, he took shape and he is still growing. Very few people came out of the Great War unscathed. We couldn't make Rutledge different from his contemporaries. If he hadn't shared their suffering, he couldn't live and work among them effectively.
Why did you make Rutledge English? You're not English yourselves, and it seems that he could just as well have been an American ex-soldier. Would the change of nationality have made an appreciable difference in your stories?
Why not English? It was their war, and [the United States] just went over to help them win it. Our role was shorter, our losses lighter and our ability to absorb the impact greater. We weren't as bankrupt, we weren't as involved individually, we weren't as oriented to the European scene. If Rutledge had lived and worked in, say, Baltimore, [A Test of Wills] would have been a vastly different book. Perhaps just as good, just as interesting, but the plotting would have been shaped in the American aftermath, as would have the characters. England had a greater variety of uniqueness in a smaller area, and the villages each had a distinct personality, more so perhaps than the suburbs of Omaha or Phoenix. You had the "locked door" possibilities of their xenophobia as well. There were more ethnic variations in the U.S., and that would affect the kinds of crimes. Add to that the fact that we both knew England so well, and we opted for a different creative challenge than an American story.
Rutledge is "haunted," in a sense, by the spirit of Hamish MacLeod. Tell me how this idea came about. Were you simply looking for another character off whom Rutledge could bounce his ideas during an investigation? Or was there another purpose to this haunting?
Hamish is particularly interesting to us, because we had nothing to do with him. We were trying to think about the ways people carry home the scars of war, either as physical wounds or emotional damage. Then we discovered that Rutledge already had Hamish in his life. As we considered this, it seemed like a challenge to carry out. And it offered some interesting possibilities, as well. Hamish is many things, but most particularly the guilt of surviving when seemingly better men died. Talk to veterans of any war, and you find that men who served together were extraordinarily close, and their dead comrades live on in their minds the rest of their lives. There are men who go back to Europe regularly to visit and talk with their dead buddies. Go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and stand there awhile. Rutledge isn't unusual. And while Hamish seems on occasion to stand in for [Holmes' Dr. John] Watson, it's important to remember that he's actually a glimpse into how men come to terms with the horrors of war.
Did your research into shell-shock cases bring up other men as haunted as Rutledge is? Have you consulted men who fought in World War I, just to get their perspective on things?
I'm interested in the comparisons and contrasts between Ian Rutledge and Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers' fictional sleuth. Both served in the First World War, but only Rutledge seems to have been deeply affected by it (though I have a vague recollection of Wimsey being described somewhere as "shell-shocked"). And both men were set to be married on the eve of the war, but left their fiancées behind, only to have those women marry somebody else after the conflict was done. In conceiving of Rutledge, were you at all inspired by the Wimsey stories?
Wimsey and Agatha Christie's Captain Hastings were products of the period their authors were writing about. The war affected everyone, and it would have been incomprehensible for Wimsey and Hastings, able-bodied men, not to have served their country. It was part of the résumé of a hero. In another era Dr. Watson had served in India, therefore he could be depended upon when action was necessary. But Sayers and Christie were looking forward, not backward, and their choice of plots often reflect this. When it suits them to remember the war, they do. As I recall, the one reference to Wimsey being shell-shocked was not intended to define him so much as to root him in his times, just as Bunter, his former batman, does. So he and Rutledge share few blood ties, even in the authors' minds. As for the romance, it was fairly common for fiancées to cry off after the war when they hardly recognized the hard-eyed veteran who came home to them. He was often a far cry from the brave lad in his new uniform, marching away with the banners flying and the crowds cheering. Rutledge is the reality of postwar England.
What sort of complicated research goes into the penning of these novels? Much has been written about the war and its aftermath, but what about period details? How carefully do you work out the slang of the time or the things that your characters eat or the ways they behave?
We have a library full of material we've collected, and we try for first-hand sources as much as possible. Old photographs are wonderful, and we walk the ground ourselves. That's essential. Much has changed, granted, but in Watchers, for instance, the smell of the marshes, whether or not you could actually hear the sea, and how the land falls are important if the reader is to feel that Osterley exists. (Which, after a fashion, it does.) Sometimes the biggest problem is making sure that the writing is in tempo with the time -- and yet doesn't send the modern reader into hysterics. Expressions like "I say, old bean" or "my good man" have come to have comic overtones. What we aim for is the general flow of the language, suitable both to their period and to ours, and that comes mostly from diaries and books of the era.
Have you made any monumental gaffes yet, in terms of portraying postwar England? Things that only came to light after a book was published?
No -- and yes. We are published first in an American edition, and the copyediting tries to see that American readers aren't confused by British terms. We've seen "serviette" changed to "napkin," which in England is a diaper. In 1919, convention refers to the King or to the Government. Americans prefer lowercase for both. English readers love to catch out the copy editors. On the other hand, copy editors are a gift, and on the whole it's a balance.
Let's discuss your collaboration for a bit. How did you two begin the process of writing together?
It started out as something we'd talked about for awhile, mostly joking about it, and then slowly getting intrigued with the idea of using an enthusiasm for history and literature and mysteries to create a character we ourselves would like to read about. We weren't thinking in terms of publishing, and it wasn't a startling new idea to work together, as we'd conspired on non-writing projects over the years. What was new was Rutledge, this complex man with such an interesting background. He seemed to arrive on the scene of his own volition, a shadowy figure with haunted eyes. After that, the first novel all but wrote itself.
Am I correct that Caroline was the one who suggested this collaboration?
Charles: Yes, and I didn't have the sense to say no; I thought she'd get over the idea. Then I got hooked, too.
Caroline: I know his weaknesses, that's all.
Has writing this series together been an easy arrangement?
Charles: It has been a really challenging experience for both of us. The family joke is that if she makes me mad, I threaten to crash her computer. And if I make her mad, she threatens to crash my parties. The truth is, to my father's surprise and admiration, we haven't killed each other yet and the novels seem to flow without any seams, because we think so much alike. Rutledge has been the beneficiary. He comes first for both of us.
Why write under the combined name of "Charles Todd"? Could you not have acknowledged your collaboration from the outset?
It wasn't a matter of deciding, it was the way things happened. The first manuscript was sent to an editor -- unsolicited, without an agent -- in the hope that she might actually read it before rejecting it, and comment on it. "I enjoyed this character, but ..." To our absolute astonishment, she loved A Test of Wills and offered us a one-book contract. The manuscript had been sent to her as "Charles Todd," because most collaborations we knew about used a single name. (Charles and Caroline come from the same root, so it seemed to be a perfect choice.) Neither we nor the editor felt any pressing need to change that for one book. And five books later, we're still happy with it. As Caroline has begun to do panels, she appears as Charles Todd, and we both sign the books as Charles. It just never has been a major issue.
How, exactly, do you go about collaborating? Does each of you have a separate strength or interest that you bring to this series?
We share a similar upbringing and background. We'd been to England any number of times. And so what we think and what we feel is often based on the same experience. If we'd been smarter, we'd have defined collaboration beforehand, but as it is, one of us will be answering a panel question while the other is sitting there in the audience with the same response popping into his or her head. The story dictates what should happen, you see. The body of material surrounding the war and surrounding Rutledge as a person is clear, and the characters in each novel evolve from the setting and the murder(s). Rutledge, in turn, responds to their situation in light of how he reacts to them personally. There's no sense of "Let's try this," because it isn't trial and error, it is all predicated on the characters and their dilemma. Even the language of the novels is part of the people and the time. Once the first page is written, the rest seems to flow. Getting the tone of those first few pages is the hardest part. As for strengths and interests, it isn't unheard of for one of us to go off on a personal tangent that soon has the other intrigued, and then out of this something fresh and new turns up in the story. That's one of the benefits of insatiable curiosity.
I am still not clear on whether you two write separately -- working on successive sections of each book, for instance -- or whether one of you does most of the writing. How does this work as a practical matter?
Caroline: Everybody thinks there must be a system to collaboration. Ah, two individuals, therefore a division of labor. We probably broke all the rules by going with a brainstorming kind of thing. And we've been winging it ever since. Neither of us has the kind of mind that works well with organization, and it would stifle creativity anyway. But everybody wants to define it, and we've gotten a little superstitious about that. Isn't there a fairy tale about killing the goose that lays golden eggs, so the king can learn how it did such a rare thing? The practical fact is, what sounds best for the script is what goes in the script, and we don't much care who writes what, as long as what is written fits and works.
Charles: Even my father, who has watched this process through six books, can't figure out why it is successful.
Caroline: I think it's lack of ego on either side.
Charles: Maybe so. Or total ignorance of what we ought to be doing.
Does the fact that you come from different sexual viewpoints help in your crafting of characters and their motivations? Do you think that the figures who people your novels benefit from having been shaped by a man and a woman, both?
Interesting question. Gender really doesn't come into it, as far as we can tell. It's more a function of how the people in a particular book are going to respond to the situation around them, and that's human nature, pure and simple. We draw on our own experiences, sometimes, of course we do, but it isn't intentional. What's really funny is that the characters balk if we get them wrong. You can't make them do what they don't want to do. Sometimes they change the ending. Sometimes they change their roles. It's as if they're living people and get cantankerous when jammed into the wrong corner. We thought May Trent in Watchers was going to loom large in Rutledge's romantic life. How did she really feel about Rutledge? Was a spark raised there? We still can't tell.
I understand that you put A Test of Wills aside a couple of times before finishing it. Didn't you think that first novel was good enough for publication?
It wasn't a question of thinking it wasn't good enough, we weren't expecting to be published anyway. It was a question of doubting the ability to write what was there on offer in Rutledge. Writing is a lonely craft, and it's natural to doubt. Had we created a complex personality that we didn't have the skill and experience to fully understand? Would we fail to show what he was capable of? I suppose it was lack of confidence in ourselves, not the story. The story was always there.
How long did it take you to write A Test of Wills? And how long does it now take you to write each successive novel in the Rutledge series?
Because Test was put aside for awhile, it took about three years. We are researching all the time, and that has made the later books a little easier to handle. But there are always details, always this need to check and double check. The writing is a very difficult part and very time-consuming. You can't just throw in something when you get stuck, it has to come out of the whole fabric of the novel. You can have an idea at 3 a.m. or in the shower or standing in a room full of boring people, and you have to husband it until you can get to paper. The emotional involvement is horrendous sometimes, and at others, things just fall so smoothly into place there's a sense of wonder. Superimposed on that is a contract deadline, so the short answer is that you try to finish a manuscript a year. Our editor is wonderfully understanding, but she also has deadlines. The hard part is letting go after spending a year with these folks.
Why is it that all of your books, so far, have been set in rural Britain? Rutledge, after all, is based in London, yet every one of his cases takes him far afield. Will we ever get to see him tackling an investigation in London, where he must finally deal with his professional colleagues? Or must he serve the classic function of an "outsider" detective, called in to uncover uncomfortable local truths?
You have to remember that Scotland Yard was a rudimentary national force. It was created to do what local police couldn't and be at their disposal when requested. Rutledge isn't expected to handle only London cases. Nor is he avoiding his professional colleagues. Indications are that except for Chief Superintendent Bowles, he gets along with them very well and is respected. But we find that the villages were still more or less prewar, compared to the increasingly modern and sophisticated metropolis, and therefore infinitely more interesting in their variety of reaction to change. One panelist refers to this choice as closed-door mysteries, which in a sense they are. Rutledge is the objective observer in danger of being dragged into the emotional whirlpool and yet shut out because he doesn't belong there. It's a force he must deal with, and it means he has to work harder. So do we. But we enjoy the results of that as we explore the people in each setting.
If I remember correctly, all of your books thus far have derived their emotional energy and the core of their mystery from family problems of one sort or another -- past mistakes, past secrets, present cover-ups. In fact, not all crimes can be so easily traced to familial difficulties, yet those in your books are. Is this consistency deliberate? And can it be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that you and your mother are writing these stories, that as a consequence you're especially conscious of family dynamics? Or is that crimes of this sort are simply more interesting to you than those committed for more individual reasons?
Even modern police claim that the nearest and dearest becomes the first suspect. And often that's the solution, too. England sees far fewer murders than we do. In 1919 it was more likely to be your neighbor or family who murdered you. For one thing, guns were not readily available, and what we think of as socially related ills hadn't become commonplace. The psychological mix today is vastly different, as well. On the other hand, a murderer who might live in your house or across the road from you is far more terrifying to an individual unused to seeing drive-by shootings or botched liquor store hold-ups or post office massacres on TV. We never set out particularly to follow family demons, but often what drives a normal human being to the horror of murdering someone is a relationship gone wrong. The question we ask ourselves is, who is the victim? Why did this person have to die? And in a village a victim isn't isolated in a university apartment or an anonymous high-rise -- he's connected by blood and by work and by church affiliation and by sheer proximity to most of his neighbors. And they are going to be the likely suspects, these connections of the victim. As well, the psychological entanglements of a case define who is drawn in. In Wings of Fire, it was a family destroyed by jealousy. In A Test of Wills, family dynamics played less of a role than how love can hurt and destroy. Search the Dark was a refusal to face the truth, and Legacy of the Dead is about the willingness of people to judge others. Watchers of Time was a study of pride.
The family drama in Wings of Fire was especially powerful. And Rutledge, in that story, was more an interloper than ever, stirring up the past in ways that might have been unnecessary, since it appeared that the murderer was already dead. Give me the background on writing that second book in your series.
Modern autopsies and forensics would have uncovered murder long before Rutledge appeared on the scene. But in the early years of the 20th century, as a Scotland Yard professional said to us once, murder often went undetected, and suicide was covered up. That idea intrigued us. And Rutledge, the interloper, unimpressed by the family's sanctity, is instead deeply affected by the war poems that are central to the story. He questions early on how such a gift could come from such a destructive personality. Is it obscene that a literary reputation remains unsullied -- or is that as it should be? How far removed are the writings from a writer's life? He could have walked away, leaving the case unopened. On the other hand, he's got to face the dilemma of the poems and their right to immortality. In some respects it becomes a personal crusade. The literary legacy is his motivating challenge. And out of that comes something else that touches him in unexpected ways.
Another interesting thing about Wings is that you had to write the poetry attributed to the fictional O.A. Manning. Is poetry something that either of you had attempted previously? And can you see yourselves pursuing poetry further?
We realized about halfway through the novel that if so much depended on O.A. Manning's body of work, the reader deserved to see at least a part of that work. We were well into Wings before we had even heard anything about Test, and probably damnably ignorant to tackle such a plot in the first place. Fortunately, Caroline's father had been fond of reading poetry aloud to her, and she passed on the tradition to her children, and so the poems were written with the devout hope that nobody would wonder how this character had achieved any literary recognition at all. As for pursuing a career in poetry, we'll wait until someone asks us to consider it. But O.A. Manning has an unexpected tendency to pop up in later books, in the form of lines that suit a moment of reflection or insight. In a way, our own Hamish.
Rarely have I encountered a book's ending more riveting than the close of Legacy of the Dead. In fact, I was hoping that you might revisit those events somewhere in your subsequent novel, Watchers of Time, and maybe offer up some details about what happened after the last page of Legacy. All of this leads me to ask, how much thought and attention do you give to the closings of your books, relative to everything else in them? Do you know from early on in your stories how you intend to leave readers on the edge of their seats at the end, or are your cliffhanger endings more spontaneous?
There's no way of knowing where the plot is going. The ending in all of the novels works out of the story and the characters. Legacy wasn't intended to be a cliffhanger. Rutledge had resolved some issues, like the child's future, before the story ended. When we considered adding a chapter about the dramatic events at the very end, we realized that it wasn't something that could be dealt with quite so briefly. Instead, it was an important part of Rutledge's ability to deal with death and dying. We picked up that thread in the first half of Watchers, as he copes with what happened in Scotland. All the answers are there, they just aren't spelled out in large letters. They are as he himself would perceive them. And that also makes it easier for the first-time reader to go back to Legacy without prejudice.
I understand that you've finished work on your sixth Rutledge outing, A Fearsome Doubt. Can you tell me something about the book's plot?
Doubt is set in Kent, in November 1919. You may have noticed that each novel is a month apart. Otherwise we'd be well into the 1920s now, and the reader would have missed the ways and means of Rutledge's survival, something they seem to care about. Besides each mystery we're following the healing process of a wounded man, and it gives him more reality than skipping to 1924 or whatever, where this could all be moot. Who knows? At any rate, Doubt will bring into perspective what Rutledge did before the war, before Hamish, before the burden of guilt he carries now. Two things happen to him: a new piece of evidence in a prewar case, and a new set of murders that pitch him straight back into the last days of the war. It's a question of doubt. How far do you trust your senses? How far can you trust your judgment? If what you believed in 1913 is wrong, how sure can you be that the wreckage of your mind sees the present any more clearly? How do you validate your belief in yourself when everything is falling apart around you? And there's a character in this book who was fascinating to draw. She's well into her 80s and her life has been remarkable. What role will she have in Rutledge's salvation? We aren't sure yet!
In A Test of Wills, you wrote that Rutledge had already learned, in France, how to die, but that he had to learn again how to live. Do you see him reaching that point in your books, or would it steal part of the allure away from the character to let him exist at peace once more?
Watchers of Time shows Rutledge dealing with that question once more as a result of Scotland's havoc. It takes time to learn to live again. And he will have to find his own peace. Slowly but surely, there are signs of healing in some directions. And in others there is a backward drift. Hamish changes with each novel, because this is an interaction that lives in Rutledge's mind and shifts with his emotional stability. And Rutledge is always skirting the abyss, because life is never straightforward. We sort of follow Rutledge around and document his life like some Siamese Boswell, and we are endlessly surprised by his resilience and his vulnerability.
I am curious about Hamish's future. It seems to me that as Rutledge becomes more and more stable in his postwar life, Hamish's voice might logically become quieter. To the point where Rutledge becomes distressed by the absence, rather than the presence, of a voice inside his head. You say that Hamish "changes with each novel." Do you see him becoming a subtler influence over the course of your series?
The odd thing is that Hamish establishes his presence in different ways in each book. He was more active in Legacy, and less active in A Fearsome Doubt. It is how the crime solving affects Rutledge emotionally that brings Hamish into the picture, because stress revives shell shock, or PTSS. Ask any Vietnam vet how soon you get over post-traumatic stress. It isn't something that is laid out in tidy rules! Ten years? Twenty years? A lifetime? And Rutledge has no professional help, remember! He has to work out the situation for himself. But if one day Hamish isn't there, will it worry Rutledge just as sorely -- worry him that he's forgotten, or come to terms with what he'd done? We've talked about that. Hard to say. Hamish will know. He has an absolutely perfect sense of where and how he's going to torment Rutledge. We won't know until the writing actually begins.
Do you see yourselves concentrating on this series for the long run, or can you imagine branching out to write other mystery works or other sorts of fiction?
Rutledge will decide how long he goes on. Along with the readers who care to hear more about him. We have the current novel, Doubt, nearly done. And the germ of the book after that. There's also the restless ghost of another type of book raising its head when we least expect it: a standalone non-Rutledge novel set before and during the war that will allow us to try our hand at something unusual. Will it be written? Check back next year this time, and we may have an answer.
Do you two find much time to read other mysteries? Do you have favorite writers among your contemporaries, or specific books in this genre that you've found memorable?
Caroline: Since I'm not afraid to name names, let me mention some really memorable novels that Charles and I would put high on any list: Jack Higgins' A Prayer for the Dying (flair); Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal (superb plotting); Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male (superbly matched villain and hero); some of Adam Hall's early Quiller books (intensity); Agatha Christie's unique plots, that showed us we can be different if we dare; and some of the early Alistair MacLeans -- Where Eagles Dare, Guns of Navarone. You'll notice that we like suspense and action. More importantly, each of these contributed something to our ability to write. So did Dorothy Dunnett, who mixed history and mystery with a master's touch. Cyrano de Bergerac, for beauty of language -- and that's a mystery in a way, too.
Charles: She always forgets Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed and Ellis Peters' The Knocker on Death's Door, which shows how to do a mystery that wasn't the vicar's tea party. [We like] Cadfael, too. I like Nero Wolfe more than she does. And there must be others we haven't even thought of.
Now flip that question around: What sorts of crime fiction do you not like?
That's an easy one! Neither of us like novels that begin with gruesome serial murderers gloating over their work. Hannibal Lector was a fascinating character, we grant you, but only because Anthony Hopkins is such a fine actor. We don't like novels where you've read X hundred pages, and discover that the author hasn't figured out how to end it well. (There was one book recently that we both really couldn't wait to finish. And the ending was so flat we were both angry with it.) [We don't like] pretentious novels, where self-glorification is more important than plot or characters that are halfway interesting. And novels where the author's idea of a good time is sex and more sex and violence thrown in for action. There's neither plot nor character to carry you several hundred pages.
How do you feel about other historical crime fiction? Knowing how difficult it is to put these sorts of tales together, do you see other writers taking the same care in getting their details -- or even their general atmospheres -- just right?
That's a difficult question. What we find a drawback: when the character responds to a situation in terms of the 20th century, not the 9th or whatever. Or the language is out of joint. Or the characters are just modern people in fancy dress. What we enjoy: authors who truly use the period to develop character and plot lines. Then we get involved and can't put the book down.
I'm curious: Why did you switch publishers between Search the Dark and Legacy of the Dead, dumping St. Martin's Press in favor of Bantam Books? After all, St. Martin's gave you your first breaks in this business. Were you looking for something that it couldn't deliver? Or was it just a matter of money?
That's why authors have agents, to make business decisions that are difficult. We weren't eager to leave St. Martin's or [editor] Ruth Cavin, and wouldn't have solely for money. On the other hand, Kate Miciak and Bantam had done the paperback of A Test of Wills and could see a broader readership for the series. That fit in with what our agent believes -- what she's had a feeling about from the start -- that Rutledge would eventually break out of the mystery field, as P.D. James and Elizabeth George have done, and that the time had come to think about it. We just write, and as far as money goes, we use most of it for travel and research and conventions, anyway.
You both portray yourselves as veteran travelers, Caroline in particular. So let me ask: If you were to compose a mystery in some other locale than Britain, what place would you choose? And why? And would what you write be a historical novel (from which period?), or a modern one?
Charles: Caroline is lucky to have more time than I do to indulge in trips, and she and my father wind up in odd places. Fertile imaginations can set a book anywhere, though, and it might be interesting to start a novel in Britain and see where else it might wander. We have one idea already for that. Caroline likes Morocco and East Africa. I would like to do the Civil War here. It will all depend on time for research, time to write and whether we agree on what's a challenge. Modern or historical would depend on the setting.
Can you imagine writing contemporary novels at some point?
Why? People always ask that as if the real writing done today is in contemporary settings. We could do the writing, but it's been hard to find a plot option that excites us. How many drug lords and street gangs and terrorists and gambling debts and rotten childhoods can you make fresh? The characters offer less breadth. England today, for instance, isn't as varied as it was 100 years ago -- it's lost a lot of its character, its local color. The stories would be more confining, not more challenging. Distance offers a richer perspective.
Finally, what do you think are the specific strengths and weaknesses of your work? What would you like to be able to do better than you can already?
Charles: Strengths? Characters and setting. Weaknesses? It's awfully had to judge our own work. We're never satisfied. What would we like to do better? Spend even more time in England than we do now. There's always more you can put in, more you can find, more you can do to shape the setting and the people.
Caroline: It's like wanting the best for your children. Each book has to grow up and leave home in a year's time, and you want them to be empowered, find love, do well, go on to better things. A book a year is an enormous expenditure of self. And then they are out there for people to find fault with, and you can't protect them, they have to stand on their own two feet. And by the time reviews are coming out, we're on to the next one. | March 2002
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.