Sara Sheridan on Brighton Belle…

8 July 2012

Today, I have more delights for you in the form of a post by the amazing Sara Sheridan, whose first mystery novel Brighton Belle came out last week. As I mentioned last week, I’d really LOVE to write a whodunnit of my own so was really pleased when Sara offered to write a post about her new book and the inspiration behind it…

I didn’t set out to write a murder mystery when I sat down to write Brighton Belle. It was about two years ago and I’d had a boozy lunch with my father. Dad is a constant source of inspirational stories – he’s 75 and damn him, he’s still got tales up his sleeve! He was brought up in London and Brighton in the 1950s – one of the periods to which I am constantly attracted as an historian. After lunch Dad mentioned that he’d been visiting his grandmother in Brighton in the early 1950s one summer (he must have been about 13) and he saw a well-dressed lady on the beach. At first she caught his eye because she was wearing vertiginous high heels on the pebbles and then he realised that she was dodging the deck chair attendant so she didn’t have to pay for her seat. He said he never understood why she did that – she didn’t look poor. The image has always stuck with him of this elegant lady hiding from the guy with the money belt and sneaking back to the promenade. It intrigued me too.

At the time I’d just finished writing Secret of the Sands (which I know you liked, Madame!). I was waiting for editorial notes to come back from the publisher and I knew it would be a few weeks. When I got home I thought I’d write a short story to figure out what that lady on the beach was up to.

I’m drawn to the 1950s for lots of reasons – everything from the fashion to the increasing sense of freedom and modernity that builds throughout the decade. The 1950s mark the end of the British Empire, really, which is fascinating. Also, it was a time of tremendous secrets. Not only of the Cold War variety but it took a long time for people to recover from WWII. In the early years there was still rationing and in Europe the aftermath of the Nazi occupation continued as the Cold War developed. People had personal secrets as well – soldiers were ashamed of what they’d done or proud of it. Lots of seemingly ordinary citizens had performed extraordinary feats but were bound by the Official Secrets Act and couldn’t tell anyone about what they’d done. People found it difficult to get back to civilian life – some people missed the high-stakes wartime thrills of the Blitz. Everyone was grieving because everyone had lost somebody. And of course there were personal secrets – marriages that had broken down at a time when divorce was considered shameful and children born who were the product of love affairs (even today the police estimate that 1 in 6 children in Britain don’t have the father they think they do… imagine in the 1950s the aftermath of all those knee-trembling Blitz affairs and no modern contraception!).

So – I started to write about the lady on the beach. Who had she lost? What had she done in the War that made her think she wasn’t going to pay to sit down? It wasn’t long before I realised I had a novel on my hands and that it was a murder mystery. I love Whodunnits! The character who emerged is called Mirabelle Bevan and she’s a kind of edgy Miss Marple. The book is categorized as cosy crime which I think has a bad name nowadays. I’ve written this cosy crime with an edge. When Agatha Christie was writing, her characters were shocking to a contemporary audience –homosexuality was still illegal, divorce rare and incest completely unspoken. Agatha covered all these subjects but today they’re commonplace in novels. So I souped things up for Mirabelle and explored her secrets and her recovery from wartime trauma. The publisher called the result cosy crime noir.

In the writing I’ve developed a new admiration for my mother. The 1950s was the time the modern woman emerged. We went to work, we left home and we had at least some semblence of equal rights. As Mirabelle developed I researched that. I was shocked watching 1950s footage of men talking to women.

‘Did Dad used to speak to you like that?’ I asked my mother. They met at the tail-end of the 1950s at a tennis party.

Mum smiled. ‘Took a while to train him out of it. Yes. He did.’

Dad looked enigmatic. He’s not a thoroughly modern bloke even now but he’d never speak to me the way these men were talking, quite unselfconsciously to the women around them. It’s become an interesting historical oddity for me, those video snippets. They mark just how far we’ve come in two generations.

‘Training,’ my mother repeated, but for me, I like to think of it as history in action. Changes being made.

Sara Sheridan is an historical novelist. She mentors fledgling writers for the Scottish Book Trust, sits on the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland and on the Board of the UK-wide writers’ collective ‘26’. She is a member of the Historical Writers Association and the Crime Writers Association. Sara is a twitter evangelist (@sarasheridan) and also posts regularly on facebook.

Her new novel, Brighton Belle is set in the 1950s and is the first book in the Mirabelle Bevan Mystery Series. It’s available now for £7.99. She will be talking about it at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer as well as running a literary bootcamp as part of the festival’s How To Write programme.

Thanks so much Sara!