Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kelli Stanley at the Poisoned Pen

If you ever have the chance to meet and listen to Kelli Stanley, grab it.  She's warm and friendly, and, talk about knowledgeable!  Anyone who is a fan of history would enjoy hearing her.  Before her presentation at the Poisoned Pen, a few members of Desert Sleuths had the chance to join her and her partner, Tana, for lunch.  Someone recently asked me what writers talk about when they get together.  Well, Kelli is a good example of all of the wonderful mystery authors I've met.  She encouraged everyone there to talk about what they're working on right now.  So, mystery writers talk about books, conferences, publishing. The ones I know are totally supportive of each other.

And, that discussion of publishing kicked off the program at the Poisoned Pen when owner Barbara Peters asked Kelli about a paperback of her first mystery, Nox Dormienda.  Stanley's second book in that series, The Curse-Maker, is out with a new publisher, St. Martin's Minotaur, and she was hoping they would release her paperback at the same time.  They said they wanted to wait to see how this book did.  In the meantime, Stanley is reworking that one to make it more accessible as a relaunch.

The subject of publishers brought up the recent bankruptcy filing by Borders.  Barbara said she's been interviewed a number of times, but actually the closing of stores won't affect Poisoned Pen too much.  They might gain a few customers, but it's not threat to the store. But, she said no one actually discusses the fact that the chain store business design is over in publishing. The problems at Borders and Barnes & Noble will definitely affect publishers.  Borders' problems, and problems with a Canadian distributor have created terrible problems for some publishers.

Kelli said, speaking of Barnes & Noble, a number of people important to authors have been let go there.  The mystery buyer and the Vice President of marketing are both gone. Some publishing is going to be driven to digital. Peters said there's going to be even more to lose as monoliths of publishing distribution fail because publishers designed their companies around them. She also said, speaking of e-book distribution, the Poisoned Pen website is being redesigned, and they will have e-book capability soon.

Before Barbara discussed Stanley's latest book, The Curse-Maker, she asked Patrick Millikin, the store's expert in noir, to talk about Kelli's last book, City of Dragons. Patrick said he liked the voice of the book.  It's a challenge to write about the '40s with a female protagonist, but Stanley got the voice right.  She also covered the social issues of the time.

Kelli thanked Patrick, and said feels it's important to discuss the social issues in her books.  Some of those same issues are relevant today.  Perhaps they are still important because, as a culture, we don't pay enough attention to history.

Stanley said she tries to be fair to the past.  She doesn't romanticize it.  The '40s did have wonderful art and creativity.  People were more gregarious. Entertainment was out of the home. People went to hear big bands. That was all part of the past. But, so was bigotry, and racism, sexism. Harassment and rape were facts of life, and something women were just supposed to put up with. Social conditions were appalling in some parts of the country, such as Appalachia. There was a lack of schooling and education in many areas. Brutality was accepted.

Kelli Stanley's character, Miranda Corbi, isn't an anomaly. She's modeled after reporter Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was Hemingway's third wife, but she would have hated to have been known that way. She was actually a better reporter than Hemingway. Stanley said City of Dragons is an homage to an idealistic generation that felt they could make a difference.

We all grew up with a censored version of the '40s, based on the movies.  But, the movies themselves were censored.  We can recognize the commonalities and differences between our times.

Patrick told Kelli he admired the way she turns the tables on the noir role of women, such as Brigid O'Shaughnessy as the evil temptress. Kelli said beautiful women are stigmatized in crime fiction of the '40s. She wanted to create a noir where the femme fatale is a hero. Miranda is strong, assertive, sexualized, beautiful, and a gumshoe. Asked if there would be more of Miranda, Stanley said yes. The second book, City of Secrets, is scheduled for a September release, just before Bouchercon. The first book did well, and she's writing the third Miranda now.

Kelli Stanley is actually on tour for The Curse-Maker, the sequel to Nox Dormienda.  It's a mystery set in Roman Britain, in Bath. The Romans were into spa tourism. Peters said it may have been the only time they were either warm or clean.

Peters said Bath is the one place you can see traces of the Roman city, the Georgian city of Jane Austen's world, and the modern city all in the same place. In fact, of all places, the Sally Lunn Historic Eating House & Museum have remains of the Roman, Medieval, Georgian and modern times all in the same place, the oldest house in Bath.

There are few mysteries set in Bath. Peter Lovesey lived there at one time, and set his Peter Diamond series there. But, the pollution is really bad there, and they have terrible weather inversions, so he moved.

Kelli said Bath was supposedly a pig wallow. Stanley was a scholar, getting a Masters degree in classics. Information about Bath was peripheral, but the combination of ancient cult, religion, and magic there excited her. She liked the idea of curses as part of religion and cult.

Cult was legal in Bath, but curses were frowned on. They were a way for the common people to control the uncontrollable. People would buy curses that were supposed to cause physical pain. Or, if you had a bet on a chariot race, you might buy a curse to be put on the favorite horse or chariot drive.

Kelli then gave us a scenario.  Let's say Barbara was at the spa without her servant. There were rituals there, the hot plunge, a cold plunge, bad poetry, food. It was like the malls, and people spent the whole day there. When Barbara came out, her favorite slippers were gone. So, she wanted to put a curse on the person who took the slippers. It's as if you filed a police report after a theft, and it would you feel better.

Bath was a little spa town, a tourist town. There wasn't much recourse for theft. Buying a curse was the equivalent of filing a police report. So the victim (Barbara) would go to the market, and find a curse-maker who would put a curse on the person who took the slippers.

Curse-makers were people who lived on the fringes, like carnies. They preyed on the desperate. There was an element of seediness about curse-makers.

Curses went into the channel to the deity, Sulis, the goddess of the spring where everyone went to get well. Curses were thrown into the sacred spring, along with an offering to Sulis. Then, people waited for the curse to come true. And, based on Kelli's research, this could be just as effective as reporting a theft to the police. The curse-maker would post a notification of the curse, and the person who took "Barbara's slippers" might think twice, and return them.  At which point, Barbara Peters said, see, publishing was the key element in a curse.

Bath was one of two places where curses were legal. They bound people to do certain things. Curses weren't legal in the rest of the Empire. Kelli said she was inspired to write about the curses when she was in England, and made a presentation at the University of London. She made a side trip to Bath, where she was allowed to touch curses and go behind the scenes at the Bath Museum.  Two items that were found in the sacred spring have puzzled people. One was a valuable bag of gemstones, including cut stones. The other was a tin mask. Stanley uses both of them in The Curse-Maker.

Kelli proceeded to show us a curse. They were usually made of lead, the metal of choice to reach the gods. Romans were polytheists, and they called on a number of gods to curse people, including Jesus. The better class of curse-makers would have extremely thin sheets of lead. Then they would use a stylus to write on it. Stanley didn't think they would allow her to bring lead on the airplane, so she used aluminum foil. She had an actual crucifixion nail to use as a stylus. Then the curse would be folded, and sealed with a binding curse. It would be bound by force to bind the deity to do the bidding of the curse-maker. That would fix the magic in place, and compel the deity. So, Kelli stabbed the nail through the curse.

The curse had to get to the hand of the god.  In places where there was not a sacred spring, people would go to a Roman graveyard, find a fresh grave, dig it up and put the curse in the hand of the body so it would get to the gods. There were grave curses against people who dug up corpses. In fact, Shakespeare had one on his stone, "Cursed be he that moves my bones."

Stanley's sleuth is a physician, Arcturus. Ruth Downie also has a series that features a Roman Britain doctor. Kelli said she uses a physician because that seemed the most logical person to get involved.  She needs a solid, logical reason for investigating.  At the time she had the idea, and wrote her first book, no one had done a Roman Britain doctor. Arcturus had been to war, so has seen sickness, death, and murder. He brings expertise to the investigation. Nox Dormienda was already written and accepted for publication when Ruth Downie's book came out. And, Kelli said she worried because her book was coming out from a small press, Five Star, while Downie, who was British, had J.K. Rowling's publisher. Then Nox Dormienda went on to win the Bruce Alexander Award for historical mystery.

Kelli said she was emphasizing style more than character because writers have to be able to say what sets your book apart. Nox Dormienda means A Long Night for Sleeping. It's in the noirish style, and a tribute to The Big Sleep.

Jane Finnis is another author who writes about Roman Britain. Her character is a woman, an innkeeper, and a refugee who fled Pompeii. Peters said since there was no police force in Rome, that period really doesn't have police procedurals.

Kelli Stanley said The Curse-Maker is lighter and funnier than City of Dragons. It's an homage to noir, not serious noir.

Stanley ended the program by reading from The Curse-Maker, setting the scene in the spa town of Bath. Arcturus is there because his wife seems to be in a state of deep depression, but he distrusts spa towns. They promised something they can't deliver, and those involved in spas prey on people.

As I said in the beginning, readers who have an interest in history might appreciate Kelli Stanley's books.  I know I'm looking forward to reading The Curse-Maker.  And, she even stamped the book with a blessing, "May good fortune bless and protect you always," and a stamp based on a picture she took in Bath of the image of the goddess Sulis.

Kelli Stanley's website is

The Curse-Maker by Kelli Stanley. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2011. ISBN 9780312654191 (hardcover), 320p.

Desert Sleuths with Kelli Stanley - Left to Right - Chantelle Aimee Osman, Kelli Stanley, Deb Ledford, R.K. Olson & Lesa Holstine


Sharon said...

What an interesting interview, a wonderful introduction to this new-to-me author. You've made me want to read some of her work!

Lesa said...

I felt the same way, Sharon. I bought her latest, The Curse-Maker, and the San Francisco noir. She's a fascinating person who really knows the history of the times she's writing about.

Janet Rudolph said...

Great post. Kelli is a doll!

Lesa said...

Thanks, Janet. Kelli is wonderful! And, Jen Forbus told me that ahead of time. She was right.

Clea Simon said...

Thanks for the interview - I'm a fan and it was fun to hear her voice outside the books.

Lesa said...

My pleasure, Clea. I had a great time yesterday, and I like to share!

Inside A Book said...

What a fascinating event...a touch of non-fiction coupled with a mystery. What a great combination.

Where does Ms. Stanley come by all of her knowledge? What background does she have beyond researching the time period for writing? What connections she must have to have gone into the special behind the scenes places in Bath when she visited.

Lesa, you were a great reporter. I wish I had been there but you filled me in with great panache!


Lesa said...

Inside A Book,

Kelli has a Master's degree in the classics, which certainly gives her the background. She was lecturing in London when she went to Bath. I can't say what her connections were there, other than she is a scholar, and must have had some.

Donis Casey said...

I was so sorry to miss Kelli, but I had some car issues. She did a wonderful guest blog for us at Type M 4 Murder a few weeks ago. Such imagination!

jenny milchman said...

What a fascinating look into something I knew nothing about! I will pass on the link (and recommend Kelli's book) to the many fans of historical fiction I know. Oh, how I wish I could've been there for that conversation at Poisoned Pen. My dream is to go one day. I'm glad Barbara added some authoritative knowledge to the hope I was harboring--that the chain goliaths may fall, but many indies will rise in their wake. Thanks, Lesa, for all.

Robin Burcell said...

Thanks for the great review of the event! Wish I'd been there, but reading your post was the next best thing!

Kelli Stanley said...

Lesa, thank you so much for coming out to the Pen yesterday, and for your amazing note-taking and reporting, too!! :)

Getting to hang out with you and the Desert Sleuths was really, really special, and I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again at LCC! :)

And thanks, everybody, for the very sweet and supportive comments! As the stamp in Lisa's copy of The Curse-Maker says: bona auctet custodiatque semper te fortuna! :)

kathy d. said...

Lesa, thanks so much for this terrific write-up of Kelli Stanley's appearance at The Poisoned Pen.

I just learned a great deal from your summary about Bath, religion, curses, and so much more.

I have not read her Bath novel, but I relished "City of Dragons." Not only is Miranda Corbie a terrific, gutsy, smart and courageous woman character, but the book as so much social commentary--which I love.

I learned a lot about pre WWII San Franscisco and the Japanese and Chinese communities; bigotry and sexism, and the treatment of women.

Unfortunately, in some respects, some of this remains, as we all know about sexual trafficking here and abroad, and racist and sexist occurrences today.

I loved the book, though, and talked it up to reader friends constantly.

I cannot wait for Book II, and will probably end up purchasing it, as the library takes too long to get new books.

Thanks again--and the pictures are wonderful.

Lesa said...

Darn, Donis. I wish you had been able to be there. I am looking forward to your appearance at Velma Teague next Saturday, though. Selfishly, I'm glad you had the car issues this week instead of next.

Lesa said...


Like you, I'm hoping indies do much better in these turbulent times. So, I hope the Poisoned Pen is flourishing whenever you get the chance to get there. Thanks for passing on the link, and the information about Kelli's books.

Lesa said...


I wish you had been there, too. Looking forward to seeing you as well at Left Coast Crime.

Lesa said...


I was honored to be asked to join you and the Desert Sleuths for lunch on Saturday. Thank you. Like you, I'm looking forward to LCC, and getting to see everyone.

Lesa said...


I wish you had been there. You're right. Kelli said that too, that the culture doesn't seem to learn anything from history. You would have really enjoyed her presentation.

kathy d. said...

Thanks, Lesa. I do think Kelli Stanley is a terrific woman, writer, thinker and historian.

I wish I could meet her one day, hear her speak in The Big Apple, and/or on television.

Anyway, I await her second SF thriller and I think I will even try her other series--a departure for me, but I am drawn to it thanks to your write-up.

Lesa said...


I'm sure Kelli joins in that wish - that you'd get to meet her, hear her speak in NY and on TV. I'm sure she'd be pleased to do that.