Thursday, March 15, 2018

Interview with Tessa Arlen, Author of Death of an Unsung Hero + Giveaway (US/Can)

I'd like to welcome Tessa Arlen to the blog today to celebrate the exciting release of Death of an Unsung Hero, the newest installment of the Lady Montfort Mysteries from Minotaur Books, a MacMillan imprint!

Welcome to Books à la Mode, Tessa! Let's get this interview started.

Will you please share a brief introduction with us?

Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, was brought-up and educated in the beautiful Chiltern Hills of England, when she was not visiting her parents oversees in Asia, India and Europe. Her books are set in the pastoral beauty of her native England among its flint-stone villages, softly rolling hills, and airy beech woods.

Greatest influences on Tessa's writing are hands down Kenneth Grahame and Richard Adams for their wonderful descriptions of the beauties of the English countryside, and E.F. Benson and Nancy Mitford whose characters are so quintessentially eccentric and wickedly funny.

Her pleasures in life are simple: cooking and enjoying good food with family and friends, long walks with short-legged dogs and planning her next garden project. She lives in Santa Fe.


It's amazing to get to feature you today! Readers, here's a bit about the book, which just hit shelves this week:

In 1916, the world is at war and the energetic Lady Montfort has persuaded her husband to offer his family’s dower house to the War Office as an auxiliary hospital for officers recovering from shell-shock with their redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson contributing to the war effort as the hospital’s quartermaster.

Despite the hospital’s success, the farming community of Haversham, led by the Montfort’s neighbor Sir Winchell Meacham, does not approve of a country-house hospital for men they consider to be cowards. When Captain Sir Evelyn Bray, one of the patients, is found lying face down in the vegetable garden with his head bashed in, both Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson have every reason to fear that the War Office will close their hospital. Once again the two women unite their diverse talents to discover who would have reason to murder a war hero suffering from amnesia.

Brimming with intrigue, Tessa Arlen's Death of an Unsung Hero brings more secrets and more charming descriptions of the English countryside to the wonderful Lady Montfort series.

What inspired you to begin writing mysteries? Was the Lady Montfort Mysteries a series you always wanted to write?

Ever since I read Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes when I was fourteen I wanted to write mysteries. I particularly enjoyed the Golden Age mystery writers: Dorothy L. Sayers Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham often referred to as the Queens of Crime who wrote detective fiction between the wars. And it wasn’t until I started to write mystery that I discovered that they considered their whodunits as a game for both author and reader: the elements of the mystery must be clearly presented but in such a way as to arouse curiosity, to entice the reader to try and guess the outcome and if they were as clever as the author, to guess it before the denouement.

I also wanted to write about the great country houses of England with their enormous and gorgeous gardens in the 1910s, where life for the privileged few was idyllic thanks to their servants, their money and the rigidity of the class system. The "have-nots" of course had a much grimmer time of it. My two amateur sleuths in the Lady Montfort series are from opposite ends of the class system and struggle with issues in context with their time and place in history. Clementine Elizabeth Talbot the Countess of Montfort is from of one of the oldest families in England and her housekeeper, Edith Jackson, was raised in a parish orphanage. Together these two remarkable women step lightly across the great class divide of Edwardian Britain to unite their considerable talents in clandestine inquiries that take them into all walks of life in the new 20th century when even the status quo was on the cusp of great change.


You have wonderful leading ladies in Lady Montfort and her no-nonsense housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson. Are there any supporting characters that came easily to you in the writing process?

I am particularly fond of my villains: I think Teddy Mallory in Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman is a perfect example of an Edwardian rotten apple and I had great fun writing him. I write a short biography for my murderers: their physical appearance, idiosyncrasies, their likes and dislikes. I really enjoy enhancing the more positive aspects of their characters to camouflage their evil side, and then revealing little glimpses of their particular flaws.

But writing Clementine’s children came really easily to me, because I have three of my own –now grown-up, who gave me tons of fodder. In Death of an Unsung Hero, my favorite supporting character is Lady Montfort’s daughter Althea, who has skillfully avoided marriage to a "man of substance and background with a bank account to match" and has managed to engineer all sorts of opportunities for world travel. In the first three books she is a distant figure always off on another jaunt, but now that Britain is at war she is marooned on the family estate and is trying her best to run the local chapter of the Women’s Land Army or the Land Girls as they were called. The WLA was an organization tasked with providing farmers with labor—terribly important to an island cut off by the German U-boat blockade from importing food from America and Canada. Althea has to deal with farmers who don’t like the idea of city girls, or girls at all, working on their land. At the same time she is causing her mother all sorts of headaches as she is particularly independent in spirit and often irritated by the petty convention that young women of that time had to put up with. Althea was great fun to write she is bright, generous and sunny tempered but determined always to have a say in her world, to be effective and to contribute in a meaningful way. Althea could in fact be any one of my three daughters! There are some great scenes between her and her mother on the business of chaperones, and some lively moments with her and her brother when they decide to help their mother and Mrs. Jackson with some sleuthing. I found myself sympathizing with poor Clementine as she tried to deal with her independent daughter and her son, Harry, temporarily invalided out of the war, both of whom would rather be anywhere than on their father’s country estate.

Blog babes, click "Read more" to find out the research that went into writing Death of an Unsung Hero, and what time period Tessa looks forward to writing about next. We're also hosting a giveaway for a finished copy of the book, so you don't want to miss that either!

In your book, the officers are suffering from shell-shock (PTSD) among other things, when they arrive at the auxiliary hospital. How much research did you have to do regarding how PTSD was treated in the early 20th century?

I loved doing research for this aspect of the Great War, and my interest in shell shock goes back to a perfectly wonderful book written by Robert Graves in which he recounts about his WW1 experiences and those of his friends in Goodbye to All That. A complete non-conformist Graves blew the lid off the belief that it was “sweet and right to die for one’s country.” He was also a close friend of Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet, who was sent to Craiglockhart hospital for throwing his Military Cross into the Thames and writing a letter to the London Times about the waste of young men lives. It was such an inflammatory piece that he only avoided court martial by agreeing to undergo treatment for shell shock. From there I read about the work done at Craiglockhart hospital for shell shock, or Dottyville as Sassoon called it, by two very talented doctors who were pioneers of PTSD therapies used today: John Rivers and Arthur Brock. They believed that talk therapy and ergo therapy, the therapy of doing simple and useful everyday tasks, were instrumental in helping their patients recover from the mental stress of trench war fare. Craiglockhart encouraged its officer patients to write poetry and in my fictitious Haversham Hall hospital the patients were encouraged to paint. Any occupation that ‘outed” the locked down, stiff upper lip suffering of men on the front line for months on end was encouraged. Drs. Brock and Rivers were remarkable men for their time. Most military doctors treated shell-shocked men and officers with all sorts of barbaric methods: electric shock treatment, ice cold baths and other cruel treatments were the norm as of course was social ridicule. In 1916, after the Battle of the Sommes, the numbers of men suffering from what we call PTSD increased in such overwhelming numbers that it was finally recognized that their mental suffering was genuine and that they were not malingers, homosexuals or cowards.

Since you are currently conquering Edwardian England in the Lady Montfort Mysteries, is there another time period that you would be interested in writing about? 

I enjoy writing about times in British history that are full of conflict. I am particularly fascinated by the British Home Front in WW2 and in particular the arrival of the American armed forces in England in 1942 (after Pearl Harbor) when the United States joined the allies to fight Nazi Germany. There were over a million American men stationed in England for the last years of the war. The ‘Yank Invasion’ brought a breath of supercharged air into a nation burdened by the loss of their young men after three years of war, the horrors of the London blitz and the austerity of food rationing and fuel shortages. Since I am an Englishwoman married to an American this offers me a great opportunity to write about the peculiar little misunderstandings inevitable between “two cultures separated by a common language.” But what is even more interesting to a mystery writer is that during these years a depleted police force struggled to cope with a soaring increase in crime mostly due to the very strict black out in force throughout the country, often making life on the Home Front almost as uncertain as it is on the frontline.


Where can you be found on the web?


It was a pleasure to be able to get to know you better today, Tessa! Thank you again for dropping by, and best of luck with future endeavors!

Giveaway!

Books à la Mode is giving away one print copy of Death of an Unsung Hero—woohoo! To enter, all you have to do is tell me in the comments below:
Who is your unsung hero? Whether it's someone you know personally, or a historical figure, tell us!
Please make your comment MEANINGFUL. Comments solely consisting of stock responses or irrelevant fluff like "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry. Tessa and I really want to hear your thoughts! :)

Don't forget the entry eligibility terms and conditions!
Sponsored wholly by the publisher—a huge thank you to the lovely folks over at St. Martin's Press!
Giveaway ends March 29th at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US and Canada residents only. Sorry, everyone else! Please check my sidebar on the right for a list of currently running giveaways that are open worldwide—there are plenty to choose from!
Void where prohibited.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
Although I do randomly select winners, I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!