The Edinburgh-based author Sara Sheridan has produced a raft of critically acclaimed novels spanning contemporary and historical fiction, along with books for children and teens. So, it was only a matter of time before she turned her hand to crime. Brighton Belle, the first instalment of her Mirabelle Bevan series, is a cracking read. Evocative, pacy and centred on characters you find yourself instantly rooting for, it promises great things to come. Sara was kind enough to join us for a chat…
Tell us a bit about Brighton Belle…
It’s my first crime book – kind of a bit like Miss Marple with an edge. It’s set in 1951 in … erm… Brighton, and is the story of an ex-Secret Service backroom girl, Mirabelle Bevan, who thinks her life is over after the War. She gets a dead-end job in a debt collection agency but it isn’t long before she realises that all her Secret Service skills are absolutely vital and she sets out on the trail of an austerity Britain mystery that comes her way.
What drew you to the 1950s setting?
Well, the story of the book originated in a boozy lunch with my father. He was brought up in London and in Brighton in the 1940s and 1950s and it was his stories of that time that inspired the book originally. Then I started researching. It’s an amazing decade – seminal I’d say – when there were distinct changes each year. That doesn’t happen with any other decade. 1982 is essentially much the same as 1985 but 1952 is completely different from 1955. And because it’s so close to the present day it feels familiar – like a parallel world. That’s fascinating.
How did you go about researching the period?
I’m a big swot – I write another set of books which are set in the 1820s to 1840s and for that I spend a lot of time in the library and the archive. I started there for the 1950s too but in addition to old letters, diaries and books there were videos and photographs. I was riveted. Also, of course, there are living links – so many people who were alive in the 1950s have generously shared their experiences. I’m still researching – Brighton Belle is the first in an 11-book series so I’ve a way to go.
Mirabelle has an enviable wardrobe. Are you a vintage clothing fan by any chance?
Gosh yes! I particularly love old handbags and gloves and I’m always scouring vintage shops for pieces that can span the fashion ages. My top find is a 1950s low cut top that is just killer with jeans – not a very 1950s combo, but hey. Last year I also found an amazing 1950s ballgown in pink taffeta and black lace which I adore. I’m 1950s shaped, which is lucky.
You’ve described it as a work of ‘cosy noir’, were you conscious of wanting to address social or political issues often ignored by traditional cosies?
Very much so. Interestingly, in original cosy fiction – Agatha Christie for example – the stories weren’t as tame when they were written as they are for a modern reader. Christie uses divorcees for example – quite shocking at the time – and covers issues which were completely taboo such as rape and incest which now are part of our modern lexicon albeit, obviously, still crimes. For a modern reader what’s shocking about the 1950s is the amount of want. We genuinely were hungry, Britain was very poor. Life was tough. And then there is the racism and sexism of the day. That’s just breathtaking when you see the footage of the way people used to speak. We’ve come a long way in 60 years.
Was it important to you to have a strong female lead?
The 1950s was a time of secrets and of mystery. Everyone had stories they weren’t telling – whether it was because they had signed the Official Secrets Act or simply because they lived a Loose Lips Sink Ships philosophy. Everyone had been effected by the War, everyone was bereaved of somebody. And the women had more secrets, in a way, than anyone. There’s almost always less female material in the archives so I like to focus on female characters especially – a little bit of herstory instead of just his.
And Lisabetta is such a devil-woman, pure noir, she must have been fun to write…
I’m scared of Lisabetta. She’s really cold! I had fun dressing her though – she has lots of money and can afford to shop in Paris. No clothing coupons for the devil-lady! The most fun character to write was Vesta, Mirabelle’s side-kick. She’s always got some blackmarket rations up her sleeve and she’s also the only character who gets to swear.
What can readers expect next from you?
The second book in the Mirabelle Bevan series will be out next spring. It’s called London Calling and is set in 1952 in illicit jazz clubs in Soho. And I’m just finishing a straight historical novel set in the chocolate industry in the 1820s. That one’s called The Melting Point and it won’t be out until 2014. Hurrah!