The Pigeon Pie Mystery - Q&A
Tuesday 31 July 2012
Following the success of your second, THE TOWER, THE ZOO, AND THE TORTOISE, what made you decide to write a mystery?
I wanted to write a novel about the grace-and-favour residents of Hampton Court Palace. I thought these lucky few who had been given permission to live there by the sovereign would be an intriguing community. But there are now only two left, which didn’t offer much by way of a cast, so I decided to set the book in the late Victorian period. At that time, there were around 60 grace-and-favour residents living at the palace, along with their servants, and numerous members of palace staff, such as the Keeper of the Great Vine and the gas lamplighter. The location, cast and period said “mystery” to me.
Your characters always have such fun, creative names – The Bagshots, William Sheepshanks, Pooki and Mink. Is there any one source of inspiration for these great names?
My characters’ names come from a variety of sources, such as period newspapers, where, amongst others, I found the name ‘Sheepshanks’. I happened to come across the word ‘pollywog’, which means tadpole, in the dictionary, and thought it would suit my one-legged dancing master. ‘Sparrowgrass’, which is another name for asparagus, was lodged in my brain for some reason. I made up the name ‘Pooki’ for my Indian maid so as not to affiliate her to a specific religion. Some of the names in the novel belong to people I know. I met a Cornelius von Pilgrim in Cairo (and dropped the ‘von’ and added a middle initial so as not to hear from his lawyers). Mink is the name of my agent’s charming Korean assistant. I asked her permission to use it and she was thrilled. For my own amusement I also included three of my friends’ names - Angela Montfort Bebb, Pike and Gibbs. I absolutely expect to hear from their lawyers.
Are any of your characters based on real people?
Mink, my feisty Indian princess and amateur sleuth, is based on Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of the Maharaja Duleep Singh. He was exiled to Britain following the British annexation of the Punjab. She and her sisters, Princesses Bamba and Catherine, were granted grace-and-favour accommodation by Queen Victoria in 1896. They lived in Faraday House on Hampton Court Green, just outside the palace. Princess Sophia became heavily involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. A photo exists of her selling the publication The Suffragette outside the monument in 1913. In the same year, she refused to obtain a licence for her five dogs, a male servant and for a carriage with armorial badges, questioning how she could be fit for taxation if she wasn’t deemed fit to vote.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Who was the most difficult?
I really enjoyed writing the dialogue for Lady Montfort Bebb who, unlike the abovementioned and entirely adorable Angela, is a crushing snob, despite being the lowest in social ranking amongst her closest friends. If ever The Pigeon Pie Mystery were made into a film, Maggie Smith would be the perfect choice to play her. My biggest challenge was Mink, who comes in an exceedingly long line of literary detectives. I hope she is distinctive enough to make her mark.
Is the picture painted of Hampton Court Palace in THE PIGEON PIE MYSTERY accurate?
I went to great pains to get it as accurate as possible. I referred to a guide that was published as near to 1898 that I could find, which was very useful as some of the paintings were in different parts of the palace then. While I’m absolutely the type to make up a large pile of manure, I did actually find a mention of one located just inside the palace gates in The Times, which was indeed brought up in parliament at the time. Some of the grounds were quite different then too, in particular the Privy Garden, which was so overgrown you couldn’t see the Thames from the palace. It has since been restored to William III’s neat parterre of 1702.
Is there any truth to the rumors that Hampton Court Palace is haunted?
The numerous alleged sightings of Catherine Howard, the wife of Henry VIII who was executed for treason, and other famous residents such as Sybil Penn, wet nurse to Edward VI, have put the palace on the UK’s ‘Most Haunted’ list. Whether these ghosts actually exist or not is a matter of opinion. I, like Mink, remain a non-believer until proven wrong. For four nights during my research, I stayed in a grace-and-favour apartment in Fish Court that a warder earnestly assured me was haunted. But despite my gleefully cocked ear, I never heard a thing.
Have you ever walked the hedge maze yourself? Is it as confusing as they say?
I have indeed entered the palace’s famous maze, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever been a passenger in my car that I was unable to find my way out again. If I hadn’t followed two foreign tourists half my age I would still be in there today. Apparently there is a method to getting out, which I seem to remember involves taking all the left turns at some stage or other…Or is it the right?
We don’t have anything quite like ‘Pigeon Pie’ in the United States. What is your take on this delicacy?
The English no longer eat pigeon pie, which is a bit of a shame as having written a novel about one I’m desperate for a bite. I first came across them as a popular dish for picnics in a Victorian etiquette book. I’m quite partial to pigeon, if you’ll excuse the alliteration, and ate quite a few in Egypt, where the stuffed birds are an unofficial national dish.
Did you study any classic mysteries before penning PIGEON PIE? If so, which ones? Despite the fact that she is not your traditional detective, is your protagonist, the beautiful Mink, reminiscent of any famous sleuths? What qualities should a good literary sleuth possess?
I read a number of Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries, as well as some by Agatha Christie. Curiosity, doggedness and brains are vital to get a case solved, but a good literary sleuth needs an extra something to make them interesting. Mink uses an arsenal of charm, cunning, seduction and empathy to get the information she needs.
What is next for you? Now that Mink has closed the case, will she be solving any more Hampton Court Palace mysteries?
I do believe that at this very moment a woman who noticed Mink’s advertisement offering her services as a private detective has just stepped into a carriage bound for Hampton Court Palace…