Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Jill Downie

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Jill Downie

Jill Downie talks to Open Book about the grim research required to write an authentic crime novel, the benefits of belonging to the Crime Writers of Canada and the experience of writing her first novel in the genre, Daggers and Men's Smiles, just released with Dundurn Press.

Jill Downie will be signing copies of Daggers and Men's Smiles at the Avid Reader Bookstore in Cobourg on Thursday, June 9th. Visit our Events page for details.

Contest! Win one of three copies of Daggers and Men's Smiles from Dundurn Press and Open Book. To enter, send an email with the subject heading "Downie" to contests@openbooktoronto.com and tell us the name of the island on which Daggers and Men's Smiles takes place. Contest closes June 22nd.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new novel, Daggers and Men's Smiles.

Jill Downie:

Daggers and Men’s Smiles is a mystery set on the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between France and England. An international film company is on the island to film the movie version of a best-selling novel about events that occurred in Italy during the Second World War. The Channel Islands were the only part of British soil occupied by the Germans, and the company plans to make use of the many sites — gun emplacements, command bunkers, observation towers — that remain.

Their headquarters are on the manorial estate of the expatriate Vannoni family, and it is here that the first incident occurs, an act of vandalism using an ornately embellished dagger, which is left behind at the scene. Vandalism escalates into murder, always with daggers, and Detective Inspector Ed Moretti and his new partner, Detective Constable Liz Falla, must establish what is driving someone to murder. Does the motive lie in the past, the subject matter of the movie? And why daggers? The investigation will take Ed Moretti back to Italy on a quest that leads him to the unravelling of the mystery and a journey of self-discovery about his own roots.

OB:

Daggers and Men's Smiles is the first in a series that will follow detectives Ed Moretti and Liz Falla. What is it about these characters that makes you want to return to them in future novels?

JD:

I created Ed Moretti, putting together a back-story and a collection of characteristics I thought would be fun to centre a mystery series around, but Liz Falla just walked around a corner into my life, and into Ed Moretti’s life. I knew that Moretti would play jazz piano, but was delighted to discover that Liz played guitar and sang with a local group. Observing and writing about the growing professional and personal relationship between the two of them has been fascinating, and it's taken on a dynamic that appears to have a momentum of its own. I relish the thought of the three of us continuing our investigations together.

OB:

The novel takes place on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. What is it like in Guernsey, and why is it an ideal location for a murder mystery?

JD:

Enclosed societies make great settings for murder mysteries — Agatha Christie’s English villages, like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, for instance! — and Guernsey is perfect in so many ways. On an island that measures about 24 square miles there is a rich variety of everything a mystery writer could want: beautiful bucolic inland scenery, a dramatic coastline, a unique administration of laws and, above all, a wide diversity of human beings — from the old Guernsey families to the wealthy newcomers who work in the offshore financial business — with all the frailties and foibles the human flesh is heir to.

OB:

When I'm reading a novel, especially a mystery, I often wonder how much of the plot the writer had worked out ahead of time, and how much emerged during the writing process. Did you have a clear sense of the plot-line and "whodunnit" for Daggers and Men's Smiles when you began? Did anything surprise you?

JD:

When I started Daggers and Men’s Smiles I had a reasonably strong sense of where I was heading, but the biggest surprise was the sub-plot about Ed Moretti’s personal life that developed during the writing of the book. It does not directly affect the investigation and outcome of the mystery, but links in to it obliquely by echoing one of the themes of the central plot: family. I knew from the beginning whodunnit and why — the why is always the interesting aspect of a murder mystery for me — but the details of the surrounding characters, and even some facets of the motive, developed while I wrote the book.

OB:

You have previously published five historical novels and the biographies A Passionate Pen: The Life and Times of Faith Fenton, which was awarded the Drummer General's Award by A Different Drummer Books, and Storming The Castle: The World Of Dora And The Duchess, winner of the Hamilton and Region Arts Council Literary Award for non-fiction. How did the experience of writing Daggers and Men's Smiles compare to your previous experiences of writing in other genres?

JD:

There are three genres I have always loved reading since I was a child: historical novels, memoirs or biographies, and mysteries. Growing up, I read most of the Golden Age writers and continued reading the talented writers of this new Golden Age. When I came to write my first mystery, there were some striking similarities between writing a historical novel or a biography. Each in its own way is a mystery. Although the background of a historical novel requires research, the characters continue to develop as one writes within the historical framework, and untangling past lives uncovers secrets that, sometimes, even present family members did not know. Sometimes that journey of discovery is unexpected, and sometimes the truth is painful.

OB:

Did you conduct a lot of research for Daggers and Men's Smiles? What is your research process like?

JD:

I enjoy researching a project, but in the case of a mystery, I found myself exploring in very dark corners. I had to know what happens when people die violent deaths, and the procedures that follow a violent death. In the case of Daggers And Men’s Smiles, I needed to know something about police procedures on the island of Guernsey, their unique system of laws and their administration.

The internet is an invaluable tool, but there is nothing like talking to people directly. I take notes, notes, notes! Long-hand. Sometimes it is best to talk to people first, and then make the notes immediately afterwards. Factual evidence is best recorded on the spot, but when I have my head in a notepad, I am not watching and listening in the same way. And one of the greatest joys about the research for Daggers And Men’s Smiles was returning to Guernsey where I had spent many happy years.

OB:

What was the biggest challenge to writing a crime novel?

JD:

For me, there are two main challenges to writing a crime novel. The first and most obvious one is providing the clues to the reader, and yet keeping the identity of the murderer secret. The second is not leaving loose ends. By that I mean something you mention on page 13 that is left hanging, never returned to or resolved. Even a red herring must somewhere, somehow, be accounted for. These two aspects of writing a crime novel were not something I had to deal with when writing in other genres.

OB:

You've recently joined the Crime Writers of Canada. Tell us about this organization and how it's helped you as a writer.

JD:

Before I started writing mysteries I had heard and read about the Crime Writers of Canada, but it was a journalist friend with a special interest in the crime-writing field who recommended joining the organization. Writing any kind of book is done in isolation, and it was a unique experience to feel part of a group of writers in the same field. I am a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, but as far as I know there is no similar group for historical novels or biographies, so this was a pleasure.

The newsletters are a wealth of information about other writers and writing trends, particularly helpful to a newcomer to this genre. The membership is open to aficionados as well as crime-writers, and the extra publicity the organization gives to Daggers And Men’s Smiles is invaluable. It helps to establish me as a crime-writer with the reading audience I most need, giving me brand recognition. And they have wonderful sponsors — the National Post, Indigo, McArthur and Company.

OB:

Can you recommend a few of the best crime novels you've read lately?

JD:

I really believe we are in a new Golden Age of crime-writing! Canada is producing some marvellous writers in the genre, and the most recent I have read is Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg, set entirely in Toronto. I am also a fan of Maureen Jennings and Louise Penny, and am looking forward to reading The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton, which was recently released. I love mysteries with historical settings, like Maureen Jennings’ Detective Murdoch series, and I am a big fan of Lindsey Davis’s ancient-Roman private eye, Marcus Didius Falco and anything by C.J. Sansom, whose mysteries take place in Tudor England.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JD:

I have just completed the second book in the Moretti/ Falla series, and am starting research and planning on the third. Also, at the back of my mind, lies the possibility of my own historical mystery. I know what the setting and the time period will be, and I can see the protagonist already in my mind’s eye!


Jill Downie is the author of A Passionate Pen: The Life and Times of Faith Fenton, awarded the Drummer General’s Award by Richard Bachmann of A Different Drummer Books, and Storming the Castle: The World of Dora and the Duchess, which received the Hamilton and Region Arts Council Literary Award for non-fiction. Previously, she published five historical novels and has had plays performed at various festivals, including the Toronto Fringe. She lives in Ancaster, Ontario.

For more information about Daggers and Men's Smiles please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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