Monday, February 03, 2014

@ The Poisoned Pen with Caroline Todd!

My last visit had been over a month ago, so I was very happy to be heading to The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale this past Wednesday to see Caroline Todd, half of the mother-son writing team known as Charles Todd. Denis and I had to watch our step once inside our favorite bookstore. The building has been receiving some improvements to celebrate its twenty-fifth year, and the crime scene bodies painted on the floor hadn't dried yet. (Why did I feel like I should be wearing those little plastic booties that the homicide detectives wear on television?)

After I'd made my purchase and taken a seat, I discovered that Kindles do come in handy for more than just reading. Another fan sat down close by, and we discovered we share an idiosyncracy: the second anyone asks us whom our favorite authors are, our minds go blank. Well, if you have some sort of eReading device, you can scroll through, stopping often to ask the other person, "What about ____?" and "Have you read ____?" It's fun to pass the time with someone who shares some of the same reading DNA.

Caroline and host Barbara Peters were running late, so David filled us in on some of the authors slated to visit, and I couldn't help getting a big grin on my face: Alex Grecian, Will Thomas, Daniel Silva, Dennis Lehane, Lee Child.... I can't wait!

"We have to hurry up and get to The Poisoned Pen!"

Left to right: Caroline Todd and Barbara Peters

When Caroline and Barbara appeared, we learned that they'd had lunch with author Rhys Bowen, and before coming to the bookstore, Caroline, having seen  Chihuly in the Garden during the day, insisted on seeing it at night. The two ladies were able to see a gorgeous Arizona sunset and some fabulous displays of art glass. Heading back to the parking lot, a man and a woman glanced at them as they walked past, and the man remarked to the woman, "We have to hurry up and get to The Poisoned Pen!"

One of the first things Caroline mentioned was the fact that her father had had a subscription to the wonderful Arizona Highways when she was a child, and after reading so many issues of the magazine, Arizona seemed very familiar to her the first time she visited. "A lot of British soldiers who were gassed during World War I came to Arizona for the air," she said.

Hunting Shadows

Caroline Todd
Caroline then began to tell us a bit about the sixteenth Ian Rutledge mystery, Hunting Shadows, which takes place  in the Fens of Cambridgeshire. She and her son had always wanted to set a book there, but Dorothy L. Sayers got there first with her book, The Nine Tailors, and it took them a while to gain some confidence.

The writing team known as Charles Todd love to visit villages in England to see which would be suitable for the settings of their books. She remembered passing a newer one situated by railroad tracks, but it was rejected because it didn't exist during Rutledge's time. "There's a different personality to each village, and they can be very insular," Caroline told us.

As Caroline began to speak of the flat land-- the lowest in England-- with its often scouring winds, I remembered that less than a year ago, I was walking the streets of Cambridge in winds that were coming straight from Russia and Scandinavia. Brought back memories, she did! 

In ancient times, the Fens were a wetlands that had been drained and farmed, but in Rutledge's day, the windmills had fallen into disuse in favor of more powerful and reliable steam engines. The land is perfectly flat with a clear line of sight in all directions. How can two people be killed and no one see? Ely Cathedral often appears to be floating above the mist, and the writers' challenge became one of figuring out how a sniper could use the cathedral for his kill. After climbing 274 steps, Caroline found herself at the very top of the cathedral with her son, trying to come up with the answer.

"Three people on a honeymoon."

At one time Caroline's son was the troubleshooter for a large corporation, and he experienced the same resentment and boredom as their main character, Inspector Ian Rutledge, does when he finds himself in a new village investigating a murder. "Just like Rutledge, he knows what it's like to be the person nobody wants," Caroline said.

Part of the resentment Rutledge faces stems from the insularity of the villages, and that dates back to the plague. Often one village would quarantine itself after making arrangements with a neighboring village to bring food and supplies to an agreed-upon location. Sometimes a bit of price gouging occurred, and distrust sprang up between towns-- a distrust that can still be talked about to this day. 

When asked which came first, the story or the setting, Caroline told us that it was always the setting. "We like to explore!" she said. She told us of a village in Essex that was supposed to be the site of an old RAF air base. It was the most unfriendly place she'd ever visited. The church in the village had been turned into an art gallery. The church with an active congregation was clear on the outskirts of town, and it had no cemetery. Even now she wonders what caused the unfriendliness and the situation with the churches. I wouldn't mind knowing myself.

In Hunting Shadows, it's August 1920, and Rutledge is still dealing with that insistent voice in his head. The voice of Hamish is really a coping mechanism Rutledge uses to deal with his guilt at surviving a horrific war when so many other men with more promise than he did not. Sometimes he's Rutledge's conscience, but regardless of his function, if Rutledge manages to exorcise him, Hamish will die a second time. Many fans have noted that Hamish is more vocal if the story has something to do with the war, and readers in Japan call him "Rutledge's Watson."

"Rutledge doesn't have much of a personal life, are you going to give him a break there?" Barbara Peters asked.

"It's a bit like inviting the perfect future daughter-in-law to dinner and having your son take one look at her and head for the hills," Caroline said with a smile. "Besides, you can't have three people go on a honeymoon. Rutledge has to deal with some of his own demons-- like Hamish-- before he can fall in love-- but we keep trying!"

Barbara brought up the trend of writers being asked to continue classic series-- the series created by Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Robert Ludlum are all being continued by current writers. Neither Barbara Peters nor Caroline Todd care for this, and Peters (a former lawyer) looked at Todd and said, "Your literary executor needs to know your wishes."

Bess Crawford

Ten books into the Ian Rutledge series, the Todds wanted to talk about women and their experiences in World War I. Thus Bess Crawford was born.

The next book featuring this World War I nurse is due to be released on July 27. In it, Bess has to escort a wounded soldier to be presented to the King for a medal presentation. The next morning, the soldier has disappeared, and Bess is blamed for losing a war hero. Bess's mother believes she's at her flat and telephones Mrs. Hennessy, and when she finds out that Mrs. Hennessy thought Bess was in Somerset with her parents, Simon is sent to track Bess down. Sounds like a good'un, doesn't it?

In future books, Caroline wants to take Bess to Ireland during the Troubles and also to India, which may or may not relate to something she doesn't know about Simon's past.  As she said, "They tell us where they want to go; we don't tell them!"

Recently the Todds went to the setting of their very first Ian Rutledge book, A Test of Wills. The first time they'd visited, the area was lush countryside covered in trees. Now it's a forest of condominiums. They were so disappointed that they left immediately.

Caroline was asked about the creation of the Rutledge series. It all stemmed from a body discovered on a Revolutionary War battlefield on the border between North and South Carolina-- King's Mountain. The body should not have been there, and Caroline was fascinated. Who was the person? Was he a spy?

Available Now!
After giving it some thought, she then asked her son, "Wouldn't it be fun to write a murder mystery centered on a battlefield?" Indifferent to the idea at first, he soon warmed to the task.

They decided that the time frame should be World War I because no one else was writing about it. They chose England because so much of the old England still exists and because of the immense impact that that war had on the country. Should their book be centered in one village, or in many villages? They chose many, so their detective would work out of Scotland Yard. They also wanted a detective who would detect, and since the World War I era was before forensics, they knew they'd chosen correctly. Another bonus was that there was no strange conversational style at the time, so they would not have to worry about a misplaced thee, thou, or gadzooks.

"The aftermath of World War I is still with us," Caroline said. "It lives on in Africa where so many countries are still dealing with their colonial pasts. It was a major cause of the Russian Revolution when the Germans decided to get Russia out of the fight by putting Lenin on an eastbound train." She went on to say that their books are very popular in Germany because they have always given a balanced portrait of the German soldiers.

The last gem Caroline Todd left us with was a guest post they did for a wonderful blog called Jungle Red Writers. (Who are Jungle Red Writers? Only Julia Spencer-Fleming, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Lucy Burdette, Hallie Ephron, Rhys Bowen, Deborah Crombie, and Susan Elia MacNeal. If you haven't visited, please do so!) Anyway, Caroline's good friend Deborah Crombie had read Hunting Shadows and asked her to talk about it on Jungle Red Writers, but as their conversation progressed, they also talked about the new season of Downton Abbey. With a bit of magic a post about a book turned into Inspector Rutledge being sent to Downton to investigate Matthew Crawley's death! After all there was that six-month gap between Matthew's death and the beginning of season four....

If it sounds like Denis and I had fun that night at The Poisoned Pen, we most certainly did!


  1. Cathy - I think a person can get a complete education in crime fiction just from visiting PP. Thanks for sharing all that you learn there.

    1. You're welcome, Margot. I found it fascinating how those two made the decisions that led to Inspector Rutledge!

  2. Nicely timed. I just finished reading Hunting Shadows. Sigh. Wish they'd have author events like this around here...

    1. I wish there were such a thing as a transporter because I'd love to beam quite a few of you folks here for these events! (Don't mind me; I just took a quiz that told me I'm Commander Riker....)


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