A Mitford Murders
by Jessica Fellowes
& Interview by Elise Cooper
Young Dead by Jessica Fellowes brings to life the
mid-1920s amid a strong “who done it” mystery.
Fellowes, known for writing the companion books to the
Downtown Abbey TV series, has used those skills to write
a riveting historical book. This is the second novel that
delves into the lives of the aristocratic Mitford household
during the Golden Age.
a treasure hunt, a murder is discovered. Arrested is one
of the guests’ servants, Dulcie, since she was overheard
arguing with the victim. She had previously been associated
with a gang of criminals known as "The Forty Thieves."
Led by Alice Diamond, this group shoplifts, robs the wealthy,
and fences the stolen goods.
in the middle are Louisa Cannon, a servant in the Mitford
household and a chaperone of the young adult daughters,
Nancy and Pamela. She has become a good friend of Dulcie
and believes she is innocent, determined to get to the
truth of the matter. Intertwined is the relationship Louisa
has with a young police officer, Guy Sullivan, and his
partner, Mary Moon. They have been assigned to go undercover
and arrest Diamond and the gang. During her investigation,
Louisa finds a definite connection with the thieves. Seeking
out Guy’s help, together they connect the dots to
find the real killer and end Diamond's reign of crime.
will also enjoy learning about the 1920s era. The young
society aristocrats are determined to have fun by going
to dance clubs, becoming flapper girls, experimenting
with drugs, and showcasing the latest fashions.
The mix of historical fiction adds
authenticity to the novel. The murder investigation allows
people to understand the tensions between the upper aristocratic
class and their lower-class servants. This story makes
for a very interesting read.
Q & A with
Cooper: You seem to like writing about the 1920s?
Fellowes: I have been writing a lot of non-fiction
and the Downtown Abbey series of books. I love this era
and wanted to write a novel in it. I was approached by
my editor who suggested I write a vintage crime series.
My continuing characters Guy and Louisa were born.
I was surprised you had a female policewoman during that
time period; what is the historical significance?
I knew that I wanted a rival to Louisa in this book, and
where better to place her than at work with Guy? My research
quickly uncovered that there were indeed female police
officers at that time, having evolved from an informal
service that women provided during the First World War
when so many men were away fighting. In the year just
before my book begins, in 1924, the women police officers
of the London Metropolitan Police had been given powers
of arrest, which was contentious. As well as having a
love rival, I had the opportunity to explore what it was
like for those women who were daring enough to go where
few women had gone before. I was also lucky enough to
track down an out-of-print memoir by a policewoman, Lillian
Wyles, which was full of fantastic detail about her daily
routine, her uniform and the attitudes of her fellow policemen.
Women played a role both as cops and robbers. Is it surprising
that women were able to be dominant during that time period?
No, it is not altogether surprising. There is a tendency
today to think that only now are women rising up and demanding
to be treated as equal, which I sometimes find a little
frustrating. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of
years! Perhaps a woman only had power through her husband,
but it was power nonetheless. For the vast majority, marriage
was a woman’s only way out of the parental home,
the only means for her to gain some kind of power and
independence, and her success would be judged against
her husband’s. After the war, the way in which society
viewed women changed because many women could no longer
get married. But these were the women who went out to
work, to manage their lives for themselves, and they are
true pioneers. Things changed after the war, partly because
the Suffragette movement finally won its cause and partly
because women had run the country while the men were away
fighting. I think there was a conflict for them, though,
because culturally the expectation of marriage was still
very present, not to mention that it is a natural instinct
to want a romantic life. But through Louisa, I enjoy exploring
how she feels about Guy versus the work she enjoys doing
and the experiences it gives her. At that time, a woman
would be expected to resign her job on marriage, so it
really was a case of having to choose one or the other.
Is Alice Diamond a real person and was she ruthless?
I can’t remember exactly how I heard of her, but
I was reading generally about the period, as I have done
for some years now, and came across her story. It seemed
to me immediately obvious that I had to use her in this
book! Alice Diamond and the Forty Thieves were all the
girlfriends of the Forty Elephants, a notoriously violent
gang from South East London. Gang culture can be very
pervasive when young people are looking for motivation
and glamour to lift them out of their surroundings, as
we know today around the world, from South Side Chicago
to Peckham in London.
How would you describe her?
Alice Diamond was unusual in that she was a leader from
a very young age, just 16, but her story is a complicated
one. She was born into a criminal very poor environment,
where it was the norm for people to get what they needed
in aggressive, illegal ways. That said, she was not frequently
violent, and her chosen method of getting what she wanted
was shoplifting. What Alice wanted most of all was to
‘put on the posh,' wear good clothes and go out
dancing, just like most young women. She did what she
felt she had to, given the situation she was in. Not all
of us can claim that we would do much different. It is
this that I like to explore: I don't think people are
straightforwardly good or bad, and we have to look closely
at the context of their actions.
How would you describe Nancy versus Pamela: (the good
girl versus the bad girl)?
In terms of the two sisters, Nancy, a twenty-one-year-old,
was a complicated person, I think, possibly born into
the wrong time. In a more modern era, she would have lived
a life that perhaps did not place such emphasis on a need
to get married and have children. Despite her many accomplishments,
there’s a sense of sadness that she did not create
her own happy family. Her ambition made her spiky and
her defensiveness, or jealousy, could lead her to tease
her sisters in ways that were at times just plain mean.
But then again, she also had a wonderful, true sense of
humour and must have been huge fun. Of all of them, Nancy’s
the one I’d have liked to go out and have a few
was quite different from all the other sisters. While
they were all headstrong and wilful, unabashed about causing
storms and headlines, Pamela was quiet and steady. She
was more interested in horses, gardening, and cooking
than any political mantra, which is not to say she didn’t
hold her own strong views. But I think she was the ballast
of the family, the rock that kept them moored.
Can you explain this book quote about Diamond: "One
woman who was rather taller than the rest and elegantly
dressed...She carried herself with confidence"?
Looks and dress can define, in someone else's mind, personality.
I much prefer to describe the clothes a character is wearing,
then the details of their faces, for two reasons. Firstly,
I think a reader naturally superimposes their own idea
of a character's face, and it's best to interfere as little
as possible with that. Secondly, I can say what I need
to say about a character's personality through their clothes.
Over and above all that, of course, I'm writing about
a very glamorous and good-looking period! It's delicious
to write about the details of their outfits.
Elise: Did you ever do scavenger hunts and what
gave you the idea to put it in this book?
I have never done a scavenger hunt because they didn’t
exist after the 1920s, though I wouldn’t mind trying
one out! I discovered them when I was researching another
project some years ago, and it was when I was putting
together the plot for Bright Young Dead that I thought
this would be the perfect place to use them. I liked the
idea of a murder happening in the middle of a scavenger
hunt, and how that could frame several suspects at once.
The Bright Young Things were notorious in their time,
with their antics and parties frequently reported on in
the papers. There was plenty of authentic detail for me
to draw on, too, which is a real bonus in a novel like
Why put in the scene with Noel Coward?
He made a cameo appearance because he was so much a figure
of that time, and I thought it would be fun to have a
celebrity sighting, as it were! My mother – who
was an actress loved his songs, and often sang them to
me when I was a girl. Most memorably, ‘Don't Put
Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington', and ‘Mad
Dogs and Englishmen.' They brilliantly capture the period,
and his wit and bonhomie was much admired at the time.
Using a well-known figure like this in a novel is a sort
of cheat in a way because it lends a note of ‘truth'
to the proceedings, a kind of authenticity that might
be hard to achieve otherwise. But it's fun, too!
In the book, there was a contrast of classes. Please explain.
The reality of life for the upper classes before the Second
World War, was that they largely shared their houses with
servants, the working class. In portraying the Mitford
sisters, there would be servants in the house, and I wanted
very much to include them in the story. As a servant in
the nursery, my fictional heroine, Louisa Cannon, would
be both up and downstairs, as it were, spending time both
in the servants' quarters and closely with the family.
This meant we could have an insight into the workings
of the whole house and all its inhabitants.
Can you give a shout out about your next book?
I’m currently researching the third novel in the
series, which will be called Cruel Bodies, and have Diana
Mitford as its focus. It will be out in the Fall of 2019.
Also, what is it like to write the companion books to
the Downtown Abbey?
Huge fun! I had access to the set, the actors and an early
read of the scripts. For all of us connected to the Downton
Abbey, the enormous success of the show meant that it
was a life-changing experience. I would not be doing this
today if it hadn’t been for the opportunities that
that work gave me. It also meant I had six years of researching
that between-the-wars period, which I hugely enjoyed,
as well as touring the US giving talks on it. I feel very
Elise and MyShelf.com want to thank Jessica Fellowes for
the review and interview.
Books of the Month
in Mystery, Thriller