Barbara Cleverly brings Cmdr. Joe Sandilands home to London from India in The Bee's Kiss, her fifth mystery to feature the Scotland Yard detective.
You've written that your series hero was inspired by your husband's great-uncle. How did that come about?
Harold Sandilands spent many years in India during the Raj, as well as fighting in the Great War, and he was a prolific and fluent writer, who spoke many different languages. He was a tough man who left some letters and scraps of diaries, but I learned the most about his experiences from the stories he used to tell my husband, who was just old enough to remember them.
And how did that lead to your creating a solver of crimes?
His stories didn't have crime or mystery in them, but they served as background when I entered the British Crime Writers' Association competition and had very little time to write the first 3,000 words of a plot that the contest required. I wasn't up to doing a modern book as I wasn't familiar at all with modern police methods, so I thought I'd better deal with a period that was simpler in terms of investigative techniques, but not so far back, like the Middle Ages, where I wasn't confident that I'd understand how people thought. The 1920s enabled me to take advantage of Harold Sandilands's stories and experiences. The plot and characters came to me in about 20 minutes. I wish the others had come so easily!
What sort of writing had you done before?
I was a schoolteacher, teaching others how to write, but I'd never done any creative writing myself.
How important is it for you to try to fool your readers with the mystery's solution?
It's absolutely vital. When you're writing a mystery, it's the mental equivalent of fair isle knitting, which is very intricate. If you make a mistake on line one, it's all shot to bits and you have to start over. To me, it's just like that—the solution has to flow logically from chapter one. The clues are sown right at the start of the mystery for the careful reader to spot. I love fooling people and work very hard at it. I did get halfway through one book with a murderer clearly in mind when another character tapped me on the shoulder and said, hold on a minute. In that case, I did go back and rework the plot to make a better story.