Interview With Victoria Dowd: Debut Novelist And Author Of The Smart Woman's Guide To Murder
What happens when you take an ex-criminal barrister with a penchant for Agatha Christie, Gothic fiction, ghost stories and fine prose and add to this intriguing recipe the aspiration and talent to become a published debut novelist? The answer is elementary dear reader…Victoria Dowd, the author of The Smart Woman’s Guide To Murder
Having recently reviewed Dowd’s darkly comic reboot of the classic murder mystery, I was fortunate enough to interview its author for a reader exclusive. Unlike her characters, who are often under suspicion of murder, Dowd proved to be both revealing and extremely honest. Though not interviewed under oath, her response to my questions certainly shed light on both her as newly published author and the literature she creates.
Dowd, a passionate bibliophile is nearly as charismatic as she is brimming with gusto. Originally from Sheffield, she went on to study law at Cambridge University. Perhaps apposite for an author of crime fiction, her career began as a criminal defence barrister in London, appearing at the Old Bailey for many years until becoming a full-time writer. She is an award-winning short story writer, winning the Gothic Fiction prize for short fiction in 2019 and was runner up in ‘The New Writer’s’ writer of the year award. Her work has been published in various literary journals, including Aesthetica: A Review of Contemporary Artists
, Between These Shores Literary and Arts Journal
, Dream Catcher
magazine; and Gold Dust
She also writes the Adapting Agatha
series on her website, discussing various adaptations of Agatha Christie. The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder
was published in 2020 by Joffe Books and is the first in a crime series with its sequel scheduled for release in February of 2021. A third book in the series is in progress, whilst her second completes its final editing process.
As with all authors, I was keen to understand what inspired her to take up an author’s pen and become an established bona fide writer. ‘I’ve always loved writing and have been writing short fiction for years. I started to think I could really do this when I began to have short stories published in various literary journals and magazines. The real turning point for me came when I won the Gothic Fiction prize last year. Very shortly after that I was signed to Joffe Books for a series of crime novels’.
Dowd has a distinctly ‘literary’ style which is both engaging and accessible, clearly inspired by fine writers of the both the past and present. She told me, ‘Agatha Christie has had a huge influence over my writing. I’m a fan of a lot of Golden Age Detective fiction and love the old classics by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham. I’ve also been hugely influenced though by Gothic fiction from the Brontës to Daphne du Maurier and recent books by people such as Katherine Clements (The Coffin Path
). I love modern murder mystery writers such as Anthony Horowitz and Stuart Turton. But I’m also a very big fan of ghost stories by authors such as M.R. James and E.F. Benson, right up to modern authors such as Susan Hill, David Mitchell and Jeanette Winterson’.
Returning to the theme of muses acting upon her creative energies, Agatha Christie looms large in her mind: ‘Murder on the Orient Express
has been a life-long favourite. Like so many of her books, it was utterly ground-breaking and to do that in any genre is exceptional. The denouement has to be one of the best in crime fiction. But it deals with so much more than solving a murder. There is revenge, the moral ambiguity of the act of vengeance, an inconceivably brilliant plot, an iconic detective, a cast of glamorous travellers trapped in one of the best settings for a murder that has ever been written. What more could you need?’
Crime fiction is notoriously challenging to write given the imperative to craft a finely calibrated plot and orchestrate protagonists with unseen dexterity. She describes her writing process as ‘quite structured’ and goes on to say, ‘I have my “murder boards” where I plan out each novel with maps, plans, photos and snippets of stories. There’s a lot of post-its and red string, so to some extent it does look a little like I’m planning a murder’. One suspects Dowd’s friends and family tread carefully given her obvious talent for imagined nefarious dark deeds !
Beyond Dowd’s facility for rich similes, scintillating metaphors and sumptuous descriptive prose, her literary style is not that which is normally to be found within the blood-stained pages of a murder mystery: ‘I want to write murder mysteries that are both darkly humorous and literary so I cross a lot of genres. I can’t really force that. It’s just the way I write and I’m not sure I could easily adopt a different style. I think I’d just like to keep on honing that style’. In my recent review of Dowd’s debut novel I made a point of discussing this sine qua non
of her writing, but Dowd told me, ‘I don’t consciously adopt a style’. I put it to her that her writing is almost poetic in its rich use of language:
‘There should be room for poetic writing even in the most unexpected of places. I do have a slightly different style to the kind of writing that’s usually associated with crime fiction. It’s often seen as very action driven and there’s no space for creating an atmosphere. I had one person say they’d seen Knives Out
so they didn’t need another description of a big, creepy mansion! All I could think was, who doesn’t want a description of a Gothic mansion?’.
‘It’s sometimes a little unexpected for the reader who might pick up my book expecting a quick, action-packed murder mystery. That said though, I do have to try and strike a balance. Left to my own devices, I would go on for pages about the gloriously Gothic Ambergris Towers but fortunately I have some wonderful editors at Joffe Books, especially Emma, to gently remind me that we’ve been standing around looking at the splendour or the sky for quite some time and we might need to push on. We’ve had some very interesting discussions about snow and how wet scarves move. I love it!’.
In addition to serving up atmospheres as darkly miasmic as they are fear-soaked, Dowd has a fine line in social comedy, witty dialogue and schadenfreude
-laced humour: ‘I did want some laugh out loud points but also I wanted people to laugh when they didn’t think they should. I find that fascinating, that we will laugh at the most inappropriate things or awkward moments. Sometimes for a whole host of reasons, embarrassment, mockery, even fear’.
‘Technically, this is the story of a number of brutal murders. There shouldn’t really be any room for comedy. But that dark side of us that really wants to laugh is always there. It seems so out of place to laugh in a situation involving death, but I think a lot of us have experienced that incredible juxtaposition of emotions. We laugh and tell funny stories at funerals as a kind of veneration’.
In addition to unexpected comedy, Dowd also confronts her reader with a modulated musing upon death itself: ‘The theme of death is very much at the heart of the book, which sounds obvious because it’s a murder mystery. But often the body and the actual loss of a human being is over-looked in crime fiction. There’s a tendency to either go down the procedural route, or the pathology and gore route, or the ‘whodunnit’ route and ignore the impact of grief. So it’s not just about the death it’s about the hole it leaves behind, it’s about loss. Ursula is really at the centre of this. I wanted to look at how grief shapes people and makes them do the most extraordinary things or creates inertia and almost paralyses people. It has coloured every aspect of her life, including her relationship with her mother’.
She continues - ‘That mother/daughter dynamic is something else that’s a central theme and primarily what a sudden death can do to that. I was able to stand back and look at the impact of that over many years. They’ve twined around each other and all we see from the outside is sniping and frustration. But there’s so much more to explore there and I’m really enjoying taking that on further into book two. They may appear to loathe each other, but there’s a deep love, one stripped of any artifice. They don’t care what any outsiders think of them. It’s very raw and can at times be brutal, but it’s also very genuine’.
Becoming a published author has not been without its drawbacks: ‘I think the biggest challenge was getting over disappointment. Just before I sent the manuscript for the first book to Joffe Books, I’d had a lot of interest from a publisher who was very keen but unfortunately, they then couldn’t take on any more books. That was a real low point as I’d convinced myself I was there, and it was happening. I was really lucky though as it meant I sent it to Joffe Books and signed the deal with them’.
An unsurprising fact, but one often overlooked by both readers and reviewers alike is that authors are human and both failure and success affect them as they do anybody else. I wanted to understand how securing a publishing deal had affected her as both a person and a writer: ‘It has had an inconceivably enormous impact on every aspect of my life! For a start, I now believe in myself more. I still sit in my study and write, just as I did before. But other people, particularly friends and relatives, now see me differently. I’m a writer in their eyes. I always was to myself but this has given me validation.’
‘I can now say I am a writer without thinking I’m being a bit of a fraud or stretching things a bit. It’s taken me a good while to accept that I can say that. That’s on a personal level. Professionally, I’ve been on a very steep learning curve with both the process of a novel being published and marketing it. My publishers, Joffe Books have been utterly fantastic and have held my hand every step of the way as I’ve stumbled along’.
‘I’ve also had to delve head-first into the online community. I’ve met so many wonderful people who are going through very similar experiences to me. The Diary of a Debut Novelist group on Facebook has been extraordinarily supportive in this very strange, new and bewildering environment. The only aspect that hasn’t really changed at all is creatively. I still sit in my study writing. And that’s the best part of the job’.
So as Holmes himself might say, ‘the Games’ afoot’. For many a debut novelist, securing that first book deal is merely the start of the adventure. Future success undoubtedly requires talent, tenacity and a fecund imagination. Self-belief is an equally invaluable asset as is the verve to create something from nothing. I asked Dowd what lay ahead in terms of her own artistic plans:
‘I have a second novel in the series which is being published in February next year. It’s called The Smart Woman’s Guide to Survival
and follows the same group of women to an uninhabited Outer Hebridian Island where they are isolated and the murders begin. Essentially, the women who survive the first book decide they weren’t very good in a life-threatening situation and so they embark on a Bear Grylls’ style survival weekend to an Outer Hebridian Island, which for anybody familiar with the characters, is a surprising decision. Unfortunately, they end up on the wrong boat and are shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. There is only one manor house, a chapel and a burial ground. All the old furniture is still there and I spoke to the owners who were very excited. There’s no electricity, it’s freezing and inhospitable and, of course, there’s no communication to the outside world’.
Intrigued, I asked her to elaborate: ‘This is an isolated world that has believed in legends and folk tales of witches and kelpies for centuries. The stories have been passed down through generations and go back as far as the Druids. When the bodies have rolled ashore on the beach from the shipwreck, the women lay them to rest in the chapel. They’re frightened, cold and need to find shelter. The only possible place is the old house, with its strange symbols made of human hair and tattered dolls strung from door frames. Something is out on the hills, lights flicker at night and move. And then the murders begin. Not everyone will leave the island.’
Dowd’s passion for her craft is both impressive and even endearing: ‘In terms of literary aspirations, I would just like to keep the Smart Women
series gaining in popularity and readers. I also work on the Adapting Agatha
series, writing about adaptations of Agatha Christie novels and that’s proving to be quite exciting. And I’ve assembled a collection of my short stories which should be published quite soon. I absolutely loved writing this book! It has all the elements I love in a book, a beautiful, wild land with lots of dark humour. But I am from Yorkshire!
So, an author as passionate about reading as the most enthusiastic bibliophile. Thankfully, she is also an enthusiastic creator of novels and for that, I personally remain rather glad !