A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Today, I’m interviewing Robin Stevens about her debut, Murder Most Unladylike, published just a few days ago by Corgi. Murder Most Unladylike is a murder mystery set in a 1930s girls’ boarding school, and is funny, charming and exciting by turns. I absolutely loved it, and would recommend it to anyone. Looking forward to book two in the series already!
When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency at Deepdean School for Girls, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)
But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident – but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive.
Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. Determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again (and before the police can get there first, naturally), Hazel and Daisy must hunt for evidence, spy on their suspects and use all the cunning, scheming and intuition they can muster. But will they succeed? And can their friendship stand the test?
Hi Robin! Can you start by telling us a little about your book?
Hi Kendra! Murder Most Unladylike is a boarding school murder mystery set in the 1930s. My two detectives, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, discover that one of their teachers has been murdered – but then the body mysteriously disappears, and they can’t get anyone else to believe that a murder has taken place! It’s up to them to investigate their other teachers and solve the crime.
Murder Most Unladylike has been described as “Enid Blyton meets Agatha Christie”. Who are your favourite writers or inspirations?
Funnily enough, Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie are right up there! I grew up reading the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, as well as Malory Towers, and then graduated to Agatha Christie when I was about eleven. I remember wishing that the Famous Five’s mysteries were a bit more mysterious (it was always smugglers. Always), and then when I started reading Agatha Christie I couldn’t understand why there weren’t more characters who were children. So Murder Most Unladylike is sort of my ideal remix of their books. I’m also a huge fan of detective fiction in general – I love Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers – as well as children’s writers like Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones. And then there’s Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, the Worst Witch, Harry Potter . . . a lot of books went into creating Murder Most Unladylike!
I love the map of Deepdean School at the beginning of the book. Is Deepdean inspired by a real place, or invented?
I did actually go to boarding school, at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and readers familiar with its layout may notice certain similarities with Deepdean’s map. A lot of the experiences that I put into the book are from my own – I had a tuck box, I ate bunbreak, I spent long afternoons standing miserably on a rainy playing field – but I was drawing on the atmosphere rather than specific memories. None of the nastier events in the book happened (though a lot of extremely funny things that I didn’t manage to fit in did). The teachers in the book are not mine, and in fact, none of the characters are based on real people. And of course I never detected a murder. I’m still a bit sad about that, but it’s probably for the best.
Murder Most Unladylike is set in 1934. Did you have to do much research into the time period? What did that look like?
I found it fairly easy to get into the 1930s mindset because I’d read so many 1930s detective novels! However, I did do research just to make sure I wasn’t assuming things, or mixing up the 1930s with the 1950s. All Agatha Christie’s books blur into one fuzzy nostalgic time period to us, but she actually wrote her first book in 1920 and her last in 1973! I used The Long Weekend by Robert Graves, one of the silliest history books ever written (and the only one I’ve come across that mentions important things like the national obsession with the Loch Ness Monster or the yo-yoing craze), and also The 1930s Scrapbook by Robert Opie (it’s just a collection of advertising images, so you can actually see how people used to dress, how they wore their hair and what cars they drove).
One of my favourite aspects of the book is the layered, realistic friendship between Hazel and Daisy. Did you always have their characters and relationship in your mind, or did it take some development?
The friendships you have at boarding school are incredibly intense. During term-time your friends are your replacement family, and so you’re totally invested in them. I always knew that I couldn’t have one detective, I’d need two best friends, and from my own experiences I knew what that relationship would be like. I wanted the girls to be very different – one leader and one follower – and I wanted them to complement each other. But I think the thing that did surprise me is how equal they became. I’d originally imagined a schoolgirl version of the Holmes and Watson relationship, but my narrator Hazel absolutely became a detective in her own right. What I ended up with were 13-year-old Holmes and Poirot!
When they discover the murder, Hazel and Daisy have different reactions and ideas about how to solve it. How do you think you’d react if faced with a real murder mystery?
This is a question I think about a lot. I actually have a totally irrational (but pervasive) fear that one day I’m going to open up one of the great big recycling bins that serve our block of flats and find a body in there. The thought terrifies me. I’m secretly a huge wuss – I hate seeing people hurt. I also tend not to be very good at solving real-life crimes. I’m used to detective stories where every clue means something, and every detail is relevant – when I’m faced with the wide world and a huge range of suspects I have difficulty narrowing anything down because I can’t be sure I’m right!
You clearly love murder mysteries, and even hold an MA on crime fiction. Do you think you’ll ever write in a different genre?
It depends on your definition! I am interested in a lot of things, and I love to read a lot of different genres, so it’s definitely not out of the question. I’ve recently been working on something that feels quite different in tone to the Wells & Wong Mysteries – it’s not a formal detective novel, and it’s not historical fiction. But it is for the same age group, and it does feature murder. It seems like those are the constants in my writing! I’ve never yet written a book without a dead body – and whatever I try to do age-range-wise, I always seem to wind up writing middle-grade fiction.
Can you share anything about the next Wells and Wong book?
Murder Most Unladylike was my boarding school mystery, and the next book in the series, Arsenic for Tea, will be my country house murder mystery! Daisy invites Hazel to her mansion for the Easter holidays and her birthday – but her party goes horribly wrong when one of the guests is poisoned. It’s up to Hazel and Daisy, helped by some temporary members of the Detective Society (who you may recognise from Murder Most Unladylike) to solve the murder – but how will they react when the clues all point in a very worrying direction . . . ?
Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She has been making up stories all her life.
When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up. When it occurred to her that she was never going to be able to grow her own spectacular walrus moustache, she decided that Agatha Christie was the more achieveable option.
She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She then went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and now she works at a children’s publisher, which is pretty much the best day job she can imagine.
Robin now lives in Cambridge with her boyfriend and her pet bearded dragon, Watson.
Kendra Leighton is a YA author represented by Lutyens & Rubinstein Literary Agency. Glimpse, her debut novel, was inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman’. It will be published on June 19th by Much-in-Little, an imprint of Constable & Robinson.
Kendra has a BA in English Literature from Durham University and a PGCE from Cambridge. She taught English in China and Spain, before returning to the UK to teach in middle schools. She discovered her love for YA fiction while browsing in school libraries.
In 2008, Kendra left teaching to start a raw chocolate company in Cambridge. These days, when she’s not making chocolate, she can usually be found writing, reading, taste-testing chocolate (far more than necessary), or trying to steal other people’s cats.