Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Twinning Murders by Shelly Frome - review and interview

Now here's something out of the ordinary (for me, anyway!). I'm delighted to welcome an author today – someone entirely new to me – and to have the opportunity to ask him some questions. Shelly Frome is a professor emeritus of dramatic art at the University of Connecticut and his latest book is a mystery set, intriguingly, between New England and Dartmoor. How could I resist? My review of The Twinning Murders follows, but first of all, this short interview.

To start with, here’s one of those questions everyone asks – are you immensely disciplined, writing a set number of words every day, or are there times when you just can’t get started?

When I get to the point that I’ve done all the groundwork and the dynamic is percolating, I have to put in at least two hours a day. When this time slot is drawing to a close, I always leave the narrative in the air, sometimes at an unfinished sentence so that I can’t wait to get back to what’s unfolding. This way of working also seems to tap my subconscious in some mysterious way so that, more often than not, I discover before I go back to the rough draft or what-have-you, I haven’t taken into account some vital factor—e.g., as a professional tour guide, Emily would have to make certain each and every one of her charges were prepared in case of all possible contingencies while in the U.K. And that is why she has to check up on scatterbrained Silas in the dubious confines of his home.

I’m always fascinated by the urge that amateur sleuths seem to have to investigate – my instinct would be to stay out of trouble, I think! If you stumbled over a body yourself, can you imagine yourself setting off in best amateur detective fashion, sleeves rolled up, Boys’ Own magnifying glass clutched firmly in your hand, getting stuck in?

What fascinated me about this venture, in fact part of the reason I wrote the story, was the fact that Emily had no intention of becoming an amateur sleuth. She set out to right a great wrong and did all she could to get the powers that be to take over. Unlike the standard amateur sleuth, Emily was personally involved with what befell her mentor. After all, he was a father figure since the time her own father walked out on her when she was very young. In this way, the story becomes character driven and, hopefully, engages the reader who may very well empathize with Emily’s plight.  

Distinctive settings like Bath and Dartmoor mean that getting things right is tremendously important – readers do so love to catch an author out!  Some authors claim that desk research is enough to get the important detail right (I’m thinking here particularly of Costa winner Steph Penney, who’d never been to Canada when she wrote The Tenderness of Wolves, but was congratulated on the vividness of her depiction). Have you worn your feet out on the pavements of Bath, or does Google Street View offer all you need?

For me the setting and the springboard have to be real, part of my actual experience. I can take it from there. However, my muse, or whatever it is that compels me write, always balks and the characters refuse to go on if I try to fake anything or rely on Google Street for more than passing information like, How many blocks away is the bus station from the Randolph in Oxford?

I’m guessing that your unusual surname has a west-country pedigree? Does that have anything to do with your choice of setting for The Twinning Murders?

Actually not. I will admit that my wife and I are incurable Anglophiles and spend a great deal of time watching Masterpiece Theatre and countless other programs emanating from the BBC. The setting was prompted by the time I spent in Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

Finally, which is your favourite, please – Poirot or Miss Marple? And, of course, why?

I have to admit I loved Joan Hickson’s portrayal of Miss Marple because she humanized the character and imbued it with sensitivity, caring, thoughtfulness and warmth.  On the page, Miss Marple, like her author, is solely preoccupied with the puzzle at hand and restoring peace and harmony to the village. If I had to choose, I would opt for Miss Marple with Joan Hickson in my mind’s eye. Try as he may, David Suchet’s Poirot is still a fussbudget who is mainly at home away from nature, inclement weather and the countryside, snug in his upscale flat, following his beloved routines while, at the same time, solving murders and conundrums “most sinister.” 

Thank you very much, Shelly! I rather hoped you'd choose Miss Marple as played by Joan Hickson, as she's my favourite. And now, my thoughts, and a little extract to whet the appetite:  

Ordinarily, Emily would have enjoyed the train ride from Paddington. Rolling west, seated comfortably next to a wide picture window, a smiling young mother holding her sleeping two-year-old across the way, a gaggle of passengers behind her chatting amiably, the deep green landscape dipping and rising, each expanse marked off by neat coloring-book hedgerowsall of it ideal for a tour guide headed for the center of Bath on a nice early Wednesday afternoon. Then a short cab ride to pick up her rented Vauxhall station wagon, then lazily wending her way to Darlington House to meet up with her clients. Ordinarily, Emily would have also been looking forward to a little marketing to pick out her trip-snacks of fruit, nuts and assorted biscuits followed by a leisurely exploration of the ancient city. Next, a pleasant early supper at a favorite spot near the Roman Baths, going over plans for the upcoming Twinning and fete: talking to Harriet about the flower judging, Silas about his lecture on the Lydfield and Lydfield-in-the-Moor heritage, Pru about her storytelling stint and foraging for authentic tales of the mist-sodden moorland. Ordinarily, Emily could have settled back into her role as a seasoned rambler.
I’m always curious to read authors new to me, and I also find it diverting to read accounts of visiting Britain from writers from elsewhere – not always entirely flattering, it has to be said. So the opportunity to read Shelly Frome’s The Twinning Murders, with its settings in New England and Dartmoor, was too good to miss. Emily Ryder, who organises tours to ‘Hidden Britain’ for Americans, has reason to regret taking on the eccentric Curtises. Not only has she just lost a dear friend in a suspicious accident, her hometown of Lydfield is the centre of some very dodgy real estate dealing – not the best time to find yourself the other side of the Atlantic with one of your clients intent on running out of the tour! Worse still, she seems to have been followed to Devon by a thoroughly unpleasant man who is working for the developers back home.

One of the things I liked about Shelly’s writing was that he doesn’t find it necessary to shock his readers: when you settle down to a cosy mystery that is often exactly what you want, and you don’t need to find that your quaint English village is awash with blood à la Midsomer Murders. And once Emily and her charges get to Dartmoor, the story really takes off, as the focus tightens, her charges disappear like stray cats and her anxiety that another mishap is simply waiting to happen is proved correct.

There are some nice touches: he’s really caught the randomness of village fetes, all sorts of loosely connected activities happening in a completely anarchistic fashion, but everyone enjoying themselves. The difficult clients, too – Harriet is so wayward it’s quite unsettling, Silas seems barely compos mentis (I would never have agreed to take him abroad!) and Pru is convincingly fey, preoccupied by hunting for witches and pixies and apt to wander off in search of anything that takes her fancy. I thought I detected a real affection for Dartmoor, even if there are no illusions about the awfulness of its weather. The English idiom isn’t quite there, but I’ve seen people who’ve lived here for years not quite get it, and it’s with the introduction of the English characters you start to get that sense of how others see us. To most of Shelly’s readers, I imagine, the US setting will seem familiar and safe, whereas to me it’s exotic, and Devon, and the moor, is the place I know – the disjunct is something I find interesting, so that something seemingly straightforward has a slight off-balance feel. This is reflected in Emily’s situation: you really feel that she is struggling to make sense of what is going on around her, impatient with half-answers and evasions.

I also learnt something about New England architecture – the description of the Curtis house was so  detailed that I had to know more, which led to a fascinating diversion into the intricacies and regionalisms of Federation style.

Check out the other stops on Shelly's virtual book tour which continues until 3 April.


  1. I love spotting the little incongruities in speech between British and American writers, as long as they are small incongruities and not a pattern of massive mistakes. I'm reading some of the American-settings parts of Neil Gaiman's Sandman now and enjoying the wee slips. :p

    Great interview!

  2. What a good interview!

  3. Oops, moderating comments on my phone I clumsily deleted rather than published a comment from fleurfisher - humblest apologies! And nowI can't undo it...

    Jenny, I wouldn't notice Gaiman's slips, of course, so I'm intrigued.

    Callmemadam, it was fun to do!