Brighton Belle. Enter Mirabelle Bevan
I bought ‘Brighton Belle’ as a holiday read. I then deliberately waited until Venice to luxuriate in the world Sara Sheridan had created for her flawed heroine Mirabelle Bevan. Now I feel I will never be able to go back there without a ‘Mirabelle Bevan’ book in my hand.
I have heard ‘Brighton Belle’ referred to as ‘cosy crime’. How do you feel about this categorisation.
You’re not the only person to say that. Sometimes it feels as if the ‘cosy crime’ novel is looked down on in the industry. And it’s very rare that any ‘cosy crime’ books win crime book awards. You’re much more likely to get an award for a forensic crime book or a police procedural or something like that.
I would disagree with the idea that ‘cosy crime’ is perhaps a bit easy and nothing happens and it’s a bit fey. Take Agatha Christie, for example. When you think about the period in which her crime novels were written, they are actually quite edgy for the time, because she deals with all sorts of taboo subjects like incest. She also had a lot of divorcees in her stories and having a divorce at that time was really quite unusual and shocking.
So I don’t know if I’d really go along with the general view of ‘cosy crime’. It was with that in mind I decided to coin the term ‘cosy crime noir’ for ‘Brighton Belle’. That this is ‘cosy crime’ for today’s sensibilities, because there is that slightly edgy element to it.
In terms of how things are described, I have a really vivid imagination and I find it difficult to read scenes of complete graphic violence. That’s not to say that graphic violence does not exist. It’s just that I find it quite harrowing and I much prefer if it isn’t completely outlined for me because my imagination can do that. I’ve read less than ‘cosy crime’ books and I’m wandering around expecting a psychopath behind me with a knife any minute. So I don’t enjoy reading those sorts of books. So this is where I wanted to pitch ‘Brighton Belle’ on that scale; where the book would satisfy my imagination and I hoped other people’s imagination as well.
Interestingly, some of the 1950s material that is shocking for us now, wasn’t shocking at the time. There was a high level of racism and sexism for example – that’s totally unacceptable now. So what used to be edgy (the divorces) has become mainstream and what used to be mainstream (the racism and sexism) has become shocking. Isn’t that interesting?
Quite apart from that, there are the murders of course! I think also with the way I have written it, people will take out of it what they want to. For example in chapter 6 there is both sex and a murder and it happens in front of you, which isn’t what usually happens in a cosy crime book. When the book first came out my sister-in-law read it and we were chatting at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and she said ‘Oh my God chapter 6, Sex and a murder.’ and her five year old wandered into the kitchen and said ‘sixty hamburgers?’ Readers are like that. They’ll read what they want to read.
You’ve set ‘Brighton Belle’ in the fifties in an era where there’s still rationing. Why chose this particular time and not immediately after the war, or in the sixties?
I am constantly drawn to history, particularly the 1820s and 1840s where I’ve already written two books. I’m writing the third one of those at the moment, which is late Georgian, early Victorian and based on the real life adventures of explorers. The reason I’m really fascinated with this period is because it was the beginning of the British Empire.
The 1950s, when ‘Brighton Belle’ is set, is the end of the British Empire, and I’m drawn to that too. There was a lag between the end of the war when people began to recover. I began writing the book after talking with my father who was around Brighton in the fifties and he was responsible for the opening scene of the book.
He had seen this very well dressed woman on the beach in Brighton dodging the deck chair attendants. He is 75 now and he had always wondered what the lady was up to. It intrigued me too.
I went home that day knowing I had about six to eight weeks before the book I’d just finished would be edited by the publisher. So though I’d write something that might be a short story – something fun and light.
I knew I wanted to explore that idea of why someone who clearly wasn’t short of money, because of the very grand clothes she was wearing, might want to avoid paying for her deckchair.
Then it came to me came to me that she was damaged. There were so many women and, in particular, men in the early fifties who were like that. The war may have been over and people wanted to forget it, but there was this whole population that was bereaved, had secrets and had been through this really rough time. I think there was a little lag after the war, so I decided on an eleven book series, which would allow me to cover the decade from 1951 to 1961, which fascinates me.
It was a time when the country recovered and a really interesting decade historically. It’s a decade when every year is markedly different from the one before and after. That doesn’t happen every decade. 1983 isn’t that much different from 1986. But 1953 is very different from 1956. So that was a very interesting period and I felt I couldn’t do justice to it in one book.
If you’ve been hurt and you’ve grieved and you’ve been through the mill, it takes a long time to get over it. So the overarching theme of the decade of the series is going to be Mirabelle’s recovery from the war, from the abrupt end of a love affair that could not be recognised by the outside world and that ended because of her lover’s sudden and unexpected death.
If I’m lucky, when I’ve finished the series, I might get to do a couple of prequels, one during the war and one just after.
So this answers why in ‘Brighton Belle’ the whole thing revolves around dodging the deck chair attendants?
Yes, and Mirabelle’s also depressed due to her grief, not that she would call it that because she’s a lady and has a stiff upper lip. But essentially, like lots of the UK’s population in that period she’s depressed and when you’re depressed you retreat and you go into a smaller world. This is why Brighton worked well for the story, because it’s a smaller world than London.
The original lady was in Brighton. I could have set it anywhere, but I thought if you have come from London, then Brighton would be a safe haven for you if you were recovering. Although that’s not to say Brighton doesn’t have its rough side, it does, but it’s a small town – an easy hidey hole.
I did get the idea when I read the book that it was laid out for a series, because the two main characters, the two women, are written in such a way you start to feel attached to them. This made me curious enough to see what happens to them next. How do you achieve that as a writer? How do you create your characters so that the readers really want to know what happens to them next?
In my head, the distinction between character and plot, whether a novel or any story, is a character moving through a landscape. The character is plot, the moving through element is narrative drive. The landscape is the narrative voice of what you’re writing. The characters came from what they had to do in the plot. The telling part of any character is what they do in a sticky situation and I don’t identify them separately from that. If you put Mirabelle into some of the situations she gets into, there is only one way Mirabelle can behave. Another character may behave differently but this is Mirabelle’s story.
A really good example of a character that created this sense of attachment was minor character in the ‘Secret of the Sands’, called Farida. The novel is set in 1833 in the desert. I am amazed at the number of people who come back and ask questions about her because she is a sparky character, who’s got a lot of views. People love her!
Very often the characters people respond to best have little parts of reality they can relate to. Some of my characters are directly based on the archive research I have done. Although the original idea for Mirabelle came from my father’s story, I did quite a bit of archive research looking at video footage of women in the 1950s. I found that some people were in many ways scarred for life, by their experiences in the war. There’s amazing footage of code operators from a bunker, who in their seventies and eighties were saying they couldn’t hear dot dot dash without tensing up. It was a Pavlovian response for them and that just strikes true to me. When you’ve been through something like that you get used to it being bad news and you’re so used to being on edge and worried all the time, even twenty, thirty, forty years later.
What about Vesta? She’s an interesting character to write into Brighton at that time. Was that quite deliberate?
Yes I wanted a black character, specifically because when I started looking into the 1950s I found it was so sexist and racist. If I wanted to bring that out, then I had to have a character from a very specific racial group. Vesta had to be black because, to me, she would be easily identifiable. If she was Jewish, people would not necessarily know that, but if you’re black, you’re in people’s faces all the time. Some of the footage of white people in the fifties talking about black people was utterly shocking. These were the middle classes. These two things interested me as being really edgy in terms of the sexism and racism of the time.
Whereas Mirabelle is tall, thin and sad, Vesta is physically and emotionally her opposite. That seemed to be an interesting character dynamic for the book. They have plenty in common because they are facing discrimination in different ways, but also a nice contrast.
Vesta carries on being in the series doesn’t she?
Oh you can imagine the trouble Vesta’s going to get into in black jazz clubs, in Soho, in 1952!. ‘London Calling’ will be out next year…
Mirabelle has been an intelligence operative in the war, although not a field agent. Was this a deliberate decision, because this will affect the dynamics of the story because of how she copes with any scrapes she gets herself into?
I did this because I wanted to heal her and bring her back to life, and make her realise her skills were worth something. If she had been an operative she might have had more self-confidence, even if she was grieving. However, someone who’s worked in an office, behind the scenes as a backroom girl, might not have a very high self-confidence in the first place. Secretarial and administrative jobs weren’t valued (some still aren’t). But we don’t know exactly what Mirabelle did and didn’t do yet. There will be information coming out gradually over the series. Just because she wasn’t an operative doesn’t mean she didn’t do anything.
I met a woman not so long ago at a library event, up here in Scotland, who told me she had worked at Bletchley Park. Her friend, who is now ninety-nine years old, and worked in the office there, used smuggle airmen out of France at the weekends. She had only learned about this recently. This made me realise there are ninety year olds out there who’ve done these things and never really talked about it. So there was this whole attitude of ‘Loose lips sink ships’ and is so ingrained it is still there in people today.
So yes it was a deliberate decision to build Mirabelle up from a diminished position. There’s also the fact that if she was in a dangerous situation and she had been trained to kill she would do just that.
What about the Detective Superintendent McGregor, is his presence likely to develop into something interesting for Mirabelle?
Well I can’t reveal too much at the moment. He’s in the second book, ‘London Calling’ which I started at the beginning of the year and finished in April. It’s set more in London than Brighton this time. This is because Mirabelle’s word is expanding.
It’s set in the world of black jazz clubs in 1952, the following year to ‘Brighton Belle’ and McGregor is in that book as well. It’s not such a large role, but he’s definitely there. He’s besotted by Mirabelle. Whether she’s in a position at the moment to be interested in him, I’m not quite sure. As there are going to be quite a few books in the series I have a long time to work that one out.
I suppose this is the point of a crime novel. Keeping things close to you chest?
Yes, but historical crime novels are interesting because there is a crossover element. A lot of people want to know how long it took to get from York to Newcastle in 1750 or whether you wore underwear or what childbirth was like. What did you eat, what was it like, how did you feel?
You spill a lot of beans in historical fiction. People who read historical fiction often like to know the world already, or there are people who know a little, but want to learn about new things, as they go along. They like to feel they’re learning interesting facts. Crime fiction is about spilling no beans at all. You spill the least beans you possibly can. So because I had already written historical fiction before, I was really good at the spilling beans section, but the new skill that I had to learn when I was writing ‘Brighton Belle’, was difficult. I had to avoid the equivalent of shouting ‘this character’s a murderer! Look who did it!’. So I had to learn to hold back, which was a really interesting lesson in how to write round a subject to avoid giving too much away.
You’re obviously used to working with history, but how easy is it to write a story where there are still a lot of people around who remember that time and all the little details. Do you feel under pressure in case somebody spots and error or you’re constantly checking yourself?
Interesting you should mention this. There was the box of tissues incident at an event recently. A lady came up to me and said, ‘You know there weren’t any tissues in 1951’, and then walked off. In the book at one point Vesta is crying and she uses a tissue. Well there were tissues in 1951 – Kleenex had been going for over a decade. They weren’t widespread but they were around.
I’ve also had a man come up to me about one of my 1820 novels. He claimed that a white European wouldn’t be able to go into China in disguise and get away with it. But the book was based on someone who’d actually done just that. The book’s called the ‘Secret Mandarin’ and it’s based on the Victorian plant hunter Robert Fortune. He was amazing and a really interesting character, sometimes an almost unpleasant character; if you read his books. He was the bestselling writer in his own day. He was very racist and sexist, quite the misogynist in fact, as well as a snob. But his achievements are quite extraordinary. He was also very brave. This strange mixture is what makes him so interesting to me – I like the mixed nature of it.
Despite all this, the man and the lady who questioned my use of tissues were both adamant that I was wrong. It’s an interesting form of dissonance.
This is very common for historical fiction. You get a lot of people who think they’re experts. Sometimes you do make a mistake. The human brain works on what it can identify as being wrong or out of place, so readers often focus on that. An example is if you look at someone from 200yards away and say that person’s Italian’ because the guy’s not wearing socks. Or the ability to tell which person in the hen party is the bride (without a veil, I mean). People are amazing – they can do that. This is the way our brain processes information and processes lies, so you can look at something that seems to be ok and find one small thing wrong with it and you refuse to believe it. It means you’ve got to make an effort to get the details right, because even though someone picks it up and knows it’s a novel, they know someone’s made it up and they know it not real, if you make a small mistake they will cease to imaginatively engage with the story.
Take me for example. I am blessed and cursed with the fact that my father’s an antique dealer and I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Georgian and Victorian silverware. I’ve had several experiences reading adaptations of Jane Austen novels or watching films, when I’m halfway through and realise the tableware is Victorian. I then tell myself ‘I just don’t believe this anymore.’
So I can understand how someone can get totally turned off the story, because it’s happened to me. I really try and do my very best, but you can’t legislate for people who incorrectly remember things or have historical information that’s inaccurate. And you do sometime make a mistake. No one’s perfect!