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When a foul deed triggers the memory of another foul deed – or hello to Helen Hollick and her latest book!

The first time I met Helen Hollick was fourteen years ago. She was sitting at a table promoting her historical books at a conference, and I was the bright-eyed newbie, there to tote my as yet unpublished book, A Rip in the Veil. At the time, this my first ever opus for publication was on its  sixty-eight rewrite. We would be up to seventy-six before it finally went live. So, I was nervous and unsure, while Helen emanated calm. She listened, encouraged, and in general made the whole getting a book out there less frightening. I know she has done the same for many, many other authors–been a rock in a stormy sea, so to say.

Since then, I read my way through most of Helen’s books, and I know I am not alone in being utterly in love with that piratical scoundrel of hers, Jesamiah Acorne. If you haven’t read these fabulous swashbuckling stories set in the early 18th century, you have a literary treat awaiting you – start with Seawitch and work your way through the series!

But today is not about Jesamiah: it is about Jan Christopher, who lives in Chingford in the 1970s. Yeah, I know: a major leap from historical fiction set in the way-back-then to . . . historical fiction in the not-so-way-back then. Even more of a leap when one considers that Jan is the protagonist of a cosy mystery series that just happens to be set in the 1970s. Helen has just released the fifth Jan Christopher book, A Memory of Murder, and of course I have read it – review further down. But first, I had some questions for Helen:

You started your writing career writing historical fiction—and I will never recuperate from Harold’s death in your book Harold the King—veered over to swashbuckling historicals with a touch of fantasy, and have just published your fifth cosy mystery. What inspired you to try this genre?

Two things: wondering how I could use my 13 years of working as a library assistant as a base for a book of some sort, and being confined during the Covid lockdown. I wanted to do something different during those long Covid weeks, so immersed myself in reading cosy mysteries because they are usually light-hearted quick reads. And that caused the spark: ‘Hang on… I could do this… couldn’t I?’ So I spent a few days thinking up a plot, meeting the characters who jumped out from wherever undiscovered characters lurk, and got writing. A Mirror Murder, the first in the series, is the result.

What are the major differences in writing a cosy mystery versus historical fiction?

You’d think that the two genres would be completely different, wouldn’t you? Wrong! (As I discovered!) So first the few differences: length probably. Cosy mysteries are often quick, easy reads – novellas or short novels. They are usually light-hearted with easy to get-on-with characters. (The goodies are goodies, the baddies are baddies.) The plot, the ‘mystery’ (not necessarily always a murder) should grip the reader, it should be intriguing with lots of red-herrings, twists, turns and an unexpected reveal of ‘whodunnit’ at the end.

The similarities? Both require research! The facts must be right in both genres. I confess, I thought writing the first Jan Cristopher, set in the 1970s, would be a doddle. After all, that’s when I was, 16+  years old with MY history as a base. I was OK for the library scenes as I have a quite extensive list of anecdotes to use, (from weird requests on various subjects, to finding a rasher of bacon as a bookmark!) But then came the need to discover what police procedures were/weren’t used back then. No mobile phones, for instance, and the use of the blue police telephone box as in Dr Who’s TARDIS. And checking all the little things – what floor cleaners were around in the ‘70s, how much did a chocolate bar cost, what colour uniform did London  bus conductors wear? (Thank goodness for Google!) So in short – just as much background work is needed for whatever you decide to write! My only discomfort: it’s a tad unsettling to know that my own past is classified as ‘historical’!(Anna says: Tell me about it! I tell my kids to treat me gently as I am a potential relic by now :))

Harriet Backer, Thorvald Boeck’s library

Jan is a librarian with dreams of becoming a writer—she is even working on a sci-fi novel. How much of Helen is there in Jan, and have you ever considered writing sci-fi?

Jan is just an ordinary library assistant – to be classified as a Librarian you need to have obtained qualifications in librarianship. Will Jan, like me, decide that this sort of study isn’t for her? (No spoilers, I’m not divulging.) Her ambition is, after all, to become a writer of novels, yes, just like me.

There’s a lot of me in Jan, especially the day-to-day in the library or the countryside detail with the horses in Epping Forest or in the episodes set in Devon. Jan is far more confident than I was at her age, though.

The police bits (and the murders!) are totally fictional, but as for Jan’s favourite subject of science fiction… well, I wrote pony stories when I was 13, graduated to fantasy at 15 – discovered the love of writing historical fiction when I was about 25, when I realised that there was more to ‘King Arthur’ than the tales of knights in armour, (which I have no love for).

In between? I wrote science fiction. My main character was Roger (Jan’s is Radger Knight) who was a space smuggler. Somewhere in the ether of unfinished novels, Rodger is trapped within a living Matrix.

My fault, I left him there when I started writing my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy and as far as I’m aware, the poor guy is still there…

******

Thank you for that, Helen. I am rather sorry for poor Roger, trapped in that living matrix, but when I sort of suggested to Helen that she had an obligation to get him out she shrugged, telling me he’d been there so long by now he’d either survived–or not.

Now my review of A Memory of Murder:

This is Helen Hollick’s fifth book about Jan Christopher, young librarian turned somewhat involuntary sleuth, her fiancé Laurie Walker—an aspiring young policeman—and Jan’s close family, more specifically Aunt Madge and Uncle Toby Christopher, who is a DCI.

Set in Chingford in the 1970s, A Memory of Murder offers yet another little insight into life “back then”—and yes, by now the seventies are a historical era, however hard to comprehend for someone who lived through the decade in question. Ms Hollick peppers her narrative with details that firmly tie the story into place, be it musical references, references to pastimes, TV shows or foods. A Crunchie bar plays a (central ) role, and for those unacquainted with this English delicacy I am happy to report they are still around.

Jan Christopher is young, around twenty or so. She is fortunate in that she has grown up in a good and loving home with her aunt and uncle, but Jan’s life has not always been rosy—in fact, in this book the tragedy that befell Jan as a small child is elegantly woven through the growing tension of the present-day narrative. A young schoolgirl disappears, the library in which Jan works is presently full of renovators, renovators who make no secret of their hatred for the police.

Told primarily in Jan’s distinctive voice, A Memory of Murder is an engaging read. Jan’s reflections, little side comments about the various people she encounters during her day, add an intimacy to her tone that has me feeling as if she is sharing her story over  tea and cakes. The insertion of a couple of chapters in Laurie’s POV add depth to the narrative, and Laurie himself is a wonderful character.

Things come to a head. Shots are fired, death snaps at Jan’s feet, nudging memories of a similar situation many, many years ago. The cosy mystery suddenly acquires a darker edge, and it is my opinion that this what Ms Hollick brings to this genre: a dollop of gritty, unapologetic realism, which deffo enhances all that British cosiness!

Warmly recommended!

Buy your copy here!

 

 

 

 

1 thought on “When a foul deed triggers the memory of another foul deed – or hello to Helen Hollick and her latest book!”

  1. apologies for my late arrival – Life has a habit of being very annoying at times! Anyway 14 years eh? Seems like a nlifetime… in a NICE way! 🙂
    Thanks Anna (and Jesamiah will be back soon!)

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