Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Connie Berry, Guest Author, English Country House Mysteries

Today, Connie Berry is my guest author. She's the author of one of my favorite debut mysteries of 2019, A Dream of Death, as well as the follow-up, A Legacy of Murder. She's written to us about a wonderful distraction in this time of unease, "The English Country House Mystery". I hope you enjoy this fun piece as much as I did. Thank you, Connie.

by Connie Berry
One of the best things about these troubling days of social separation is more time to read, and what could provide a better escape from reality than an old-fashioned English country house murder mystery? An isolated setting; a limited number of guests (each with his or her own demons); a colorful cast of suspicious characters below stairs; a gentleman detective (often with a bumbling sidekick); a complex plot, usually involving the placement of bedrooms; and a body—what more could we ask for? Well, how about locked doors, hidden rooms, secret passages, and the ghosts of the past?

Generations of escape-fiction fans have turned to mysteries set in the great country houses of England. The first modern detective novel, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868), was set in a country house in Yorkshire.
Called the finest detective story ever written by Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, The Moonstone introduced a number of elements that have become classics of the genre—the private detective, a plethora of red herrings and false suspects, a reconstruction of the crime, and a final twist. 
Agatha Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, was set in an English country house, and she went on to write at least ten more with similar settings.
Other classic mystery writers joined the party—Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, P. D. James, Georgette Heyer, Patricia Wentworth, Josephine Tey, Martha Grimes, and Elizabeth Peters, to name a few. Interest in the English country house setting was magnified by post-WW2 nostalgia. By 1955, one county house was demolished every five days in Britain, victims of death duties and the financial demands of a way of life no longer sustainable.
Here is a short list of my favorite country house mysteries—all readily available as e-books and audible recordings as well as traditional print versions:
The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christine
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
The Body In The Library by Agatha Christie
Clouds Of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers
Tied Up In Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Crime At Black Dudley by Margery Allingham
The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird
Curious Affair Of The Third Dog by Patricia Moyes
An English Murder by Cyril Hare
A Fatal Winter by G. M. Malliet
The Intrigue At Highbury by Carrie Bebris
Murder at Madingly Grange by Caroline Graham
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
The Twelve Clues Of Christmas by Rhys Bowen
Murder On A Mystery Tour by Marian Babson
But how about writing a mystery set in an English country house? April could be the new NaNoRiMo. After all, Shakespeare is reputed to have written both King Lear and Macbeth in 1602, during a self-imposed exile from the London plague. 
 Here are a few possible scenarios from history to spark your imagination:
1. The cash-strapped aristocrat who can't say no to a ridiculously extravagant guest
Setting: Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, country seat of Sir Henry Lee, 
  Master of the Armory during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Background: Every summer the queen would leave her London palaces and embark on a "progression" through the countryside with a mile-long train of carriages, carts, and courtiers—three hundred souls to house, feed, and entertain.
In 1602 when Sir Henry Lee learned of the queen's intention to grace him with her presence, he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, complaining the visit would bankrupt him. Would regicide save the day?
2. An attempt to impress that goes horribly wrong
Setting: Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, the county home of Robert Dudley, 1st East of Leicester and Elizabeth's reputed favorite. 

Background: In 1575 Dudley welcomed the queen with an extravagant pageant that included music, masques, dancing, elaborate banquets, a fireworks display, and a volley of cannonballs that went awry, setting fire to several houses in a nearby village. Imagine one of Kenilworth's footmen, intent on revenge.
3. The country house host who turns out to be halfway 'round the twist
Setting: Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland, inherited in the eighteenth century by Captain Frances Blake Delaval, who threw house parties famous for gambling, scandalous behavior, and practical jokes.

Background: Guests at Delaval Hall might be undressing in their assigned bedroom when mechanical hoists would raise the bedroom walls, exposing them to their hosts. In one room, a four-poster bed could be lowered into a tank of water. In another, guests would wake to find the room upside down, with chairs and tables stuck to the ceiling. Is humiliation a motive for murder—or a red herring?
4. A spy for the WW2 Axis powers, intent on bumping off Winston Churchill
Setting: Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, the same country house where Queen
Elizabeth I was an unwelcome guest more than three hundred years earlier.
Background: Churchill's family home, Chartwell, was set on a hill south of 
London, an easy target for German aircraft; and his country retreat, Chequers, had 
an entrance road clearly visible by moonlight. Ditchley Park, surrounded by foliage and lacking a visible entrance road, was an ideal alternative when the moon was high. What would happen if a German spy insinuated himself into the household? Who would notice and save the world as we know it?
As you might have guessed, history is my favorite backdrop for murder, and there's never a shortage of background material. Myths, legends, history's mysteries, and real-life scandals—all can be found in the iconic English country house.
I write the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the modern-day UK and featuring American antiques dealer Kate Hamilton and Detective Inspector Tom Mallory of the Suffolk Constabulary.
 Book One, A Dream of Death, is set in a country house hotel in the Scottish Hebrides, famous for its connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Book Two, A Legacy of Murder, features Finchley Hall, a crumbling stately home in Suffolk, famous for the unearthing in 1810 of an Anglo-Saxon treasure trove known as The Finchley Hoard.
Book Three, to be published in the spring of 2021, centers around Hapthorn Lodge, home to a reclusive widow who decides to sell her husband's collection of art and antiques. I'm not sure where Book Four will take Kate and Tom, but one day I know they'll visit his Uncle Nigel, owner of Fouroaks, a country house in the wilds of Devon.
Do you have a favorite country house mystery? Please share it! 
What is your preferred setting—the past or the present? The countryside or the city? The United States or a foreign country?


Rosemary said...

Oh what a great post, I love country house mysteries. I have read some of the ones on your list - I think Dorothy Sayers will always be a favourite. I also very much enjoyed the film 'Gosford Park'.

I prefer the present or recent (as in post WW2) past as a setting. And being from the UK as I am, I'm afraid I sort of assumed that all country house mysteries took place there - clearly I was wrong! I don't know if there are many set in Scotland (where I live) so I'll be especially keen to read yours. Catriona McPherson's excellent Dandy Gilver books are mostly set up here I seem to remember.

There are many country houses up here on Deeside/Aberdeenshire - Crathes, Craigievar, Drum, Castle Fraser, Fyvie, Brodie. And last year we visited Skye, whose Armadale Castle has the most beautiful gardens.

If anyone is interested in the closure of so many big houses, I do recommend the diaries of James Lees-Milne. He kept copious journals throughout his long life - for some time he worked for the National Trust, and it was his job to drive around the country, meeting the owners of these huge piles who now wanted to gift them to the charity because they could not afford the upkeep. It is amusing to see how many of these old minor aristocrats were APPALLED at the idea of their properties being open to the public, even for a few days a year - they basically wanted the NT to pay all the bills while they continued to live there in solitary splendour (& also avoid death duties). Lees-Milne is a wonderful diarist, very pithy and astute - in between these country excursions he leads a very 'society' life in London, so there's plenty of gossip!

I think the days of the National Trust taking on decaying properties are long gone - they do a good job with the upkeep of the ones they have, but I think new acquisitions are now mainly areas of land valued for their unique landscape, wildlife, etc.

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post Connie.

Lesa said...

And, thank you for such a thought-provoking response, Rosemary. Your writing alone is worth reading on my daily blog. Thank you for taking the time to share some of the history, literature and stories of Scotland.

Connie Berry said...

Hi Rosemary! Thank you for such an interesting and informative comment. Last fall we visited Brodie Castle--loved it. Fyvie and Fraser are other favorites. In my research for A Dream of Death, I read accounts of Dr. Johnson's visit to Armadale and used it as a setting. I plan to look up the Lees-Milne diaries. And I agree--the National Trust does a wonderful job of keeping these precious places open. We are members of the Royal Oak Society--Americans who love and support the work of the National Trust. So nice to "meet" you!

Jeff Meyerson said...

Excellent post and good list of mysteries (the ones I've read). We've been to Kenilworth - my wife stood up too fast and smacked the top of her head in one of the "windows" there - and Warwick Castle (they had an exhibit on dungeons when we were there, as well as the free-running peacocks), Bleinheim Palace (where Winston Churchill was born), Edinburgh Castle, Linlithgow Palace (where you can see where Darnley was murdered), as well as less grand stately homes. They are definitely a great setting for a "country house murder" and, like Lesa, I lust after those amazing libraries.

Connie Berry said...

Thanks for the comment, Jeff. My husband has smacked his head more times than he's willing to admit in historic British properties. But it's worth it, right, to stand in the places where history unfolded. Hope we get to return sometime in the not-too-distant future. We should be in Suffolk right now--had to cancel, of course.