An interview with author Charles Finch

By Herald de Paris Contributor's Bureau on November 10, 2012

By MaryAnne Kolton

NEW YORK (Herald de Paris) — A Death In The Small Hours, the latest delicious spellbinder from Charles Finch, is as skilfully and artfully penned as his previous works.  Charles Finch’s excellent prose comes close to poetry and his impeccable attention to detail shines ever more brightly in this intriguing new mystery.

While on holiday with his wife, Charles Lenox is inexorably drawn into investigating crimes of vandalism threatening the small village of Plumley. In association with his young, less disciplined protégé, John Dallington, Lenox weaves his way into a far more sinister tapestry of malfeasance than first suspected.

MAK:  As a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up?  Did you have a happy childhood? What were your favourite books and who first encouraged you to read?

CF:  I don’t think I had an unusually joyful childhood – among other things, my parents divorced when I was young, and I fell badly ill around my tenth birthday, missing out on essentially a year of life – but I certainly had from a very early age the good fortune of being a book-lover.  I got that from my mother and my maternal grandmother, Mary Truitt and Anne Truitt, both of whom were brilliant readers and introduced me to books that I still love to this day – The Wind in the Willows, the Narnia series.  Later on when I was a teenager it would have been PG Wodehouse, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, writers like that.  I had an immediate devotion to the voice and the serene comfort of British fiction, which is probably why I write a series of books set in Victorian London, despite being American.  I think only recently, in the past three or four years say, have I moved on in my heart to other areas of literature.

I know that many writers say that they always wanted to be writers, and I wonder if they’ve reverse-engineered that memory a bit.  I wanted to be a baseball or football player when I was really young, and after that I didn’t think about it too often.  But I had a gratifying aptitude and feel for writing, and took pleasure in the idea of being good it, which are the factors that I suspect motivate many writers more than sheer aspiration.  As Orwell observed, the first reason that writers write is always ego.

MAK:  You say you have recently “moved on in my heart to other areas of literature.” What areas might those be?

CF:  I’ll always love English writers and English settings, but I no longer parse them so obsessively and lovingly – I’ve lived in England, written books set there, and intellectually it’s been really interesting for me to move on to different kinds of books.  For instance in 2012 I’ve really been interested in Latin-American writers, people like Cesar Aira and Clarice Lispector.  And I didn’t spend the whole time wishing I was reading Persuasion instead.  With that said, I also re-read a lot of David Lodge and Patrick O’Brian this year.

MAK:  It appears that many American readers have always been Anglophiles at heart–cutting, their teeth on Peter Rabbit, The Secret Garden and The Hobbit just to name a few. Why do you think that is?

CF:  On one level I think it’s very simple: during the period from 1850-1940 or so, England was the undisputed cultural and political center of the world, and there was a large, very bright class of men and women who turned their attention before anyone else to children’s books.  And so they produced amazing work – Lewis, Tolkien, Potter, Carroll, Milne, Grahame, the list goes on and on.

I think the aspect of those books that appealed to me (and probably to a lot of other people) is their security.  There are big adventures in them, but there’s also a really strong sense of home.  So you know that Frodo will get back to the Shire, Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh will still be companions – or, to bring it into modern times, that Harry will get to go back to the Gryffindor common room with Ron and Hermione.  It’s a wonderful vision of how life should be.  It’s also something of a lie.  And the writers who had the worst childhoods (PG Wodehouse, Charles Dickens) preserved it to a certain extent in their adult writing, whether it was in Blandings or in the hearth of Tiny Tim’s family.

I didn’t have a bad childhood by any means, but it was full of its own uncertainties (like that of many writers) and I took refuge and comfort in that English vision of the world. And I should add: the same is true of my books, and of many mysteries.  There’s an element of wish fulfilment and fantasy in them, which even the danger of murder doesn’t really dissolve

MAK:  Will you talk a bit about plotting and research?

CF:  Research is important to any historical novelist, but I actually care more about the atmosphere and characters feeling right than getting every last scrap of geography correct.  So a lot of my research comes simply from immersing myself in the books of the time – I read Trollope, Gaskell, Doyle, writers like that.  At the moment I’m reading Dickens’ letters.  These books will often mention a name or place that I can then track down and use, but more importantly they help with dialogue.

There’s also a certain amount of humdrum research that must go into each book – a great deal about the royal navy in A Burial At Sea, for instance, or, for the seventh Lenox book, which will be out in 2013, a lot of reading about Buckingham Palace.

In terms of plotting – the more mysteries I write, the better feel I have for plotting.  I wince a little bit looking back at the early books in the series because they were a bit aimless in their plotting.  My outlines have gotten clearer and a lot more directed since then, and I think the mysteries have gotten tighter and trickier as a result.

MAK:  Charles Lennox, the main character in all of your books, is an easy man to like.   An independently wealthy gentleman who defies tradition by becoming the equivalent of a modern day private investigator, cares about the needy and disenfranchised and is, eventually, a Member of Parliament. With his wit, superb analytical mind and partnership with Dr. Thomas McConnell, his troubled but brilliant friend, comparisons of a sort to Sherlock and Dr. Watson are inevitable. Did you set out to model this duo after Holmes and Watson?

CF:  One of the things that you keep learning when you write Victorian mysteries is how remarkable and technically accomplished the Holmes series is.  I tried from the outset to create exactly the kind of dynamic you’re describing.  (I also wanted to mimic Dorothy Sayers a little bit, at least the Wimsey/Bunter parts.)  But I gradually realized that one of the great virtues of the Holmes stories is that Watson is a brilliant narrator, and his narration makes his character.  What’s so brilliant about that is that it leaves the detective less isolated – something that I worry about in my books, where even though he has friends, he doesn’t have a real ally for all moments.  (McConnell only comes in for the medical parts.)  That’s why I introduced Lenox’s apprentice, John Dallington, in the second book in the series.

MAK:  You mentioned a seventh book, how far ahead are you thinking when working on any given book?

CF:  Usually as one book is coming out I’m working on the next – there has to be a relatively long lead-time to edit, create proofs, etc.

MAK:  On a day when you are not writing or travelling what are you doing for fun?

CF:  I like to read a lot, obviously, and I like to go on walks with my dog.  I love going to museums, and since I live in New York there are always museums to visit.  I like watching sports, seeing friends.  Nothing that unusual!

CHARLES FINCH is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Fleet Street Murders, The September Society, A Stranger In Mayfair and A Burial At Sea. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in New York City.

MaryAnne Kolton’s author Interviews have appeared most recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City Center and January Magazine. MaryAnne’s public email is maryannekolton@gmail.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Comments
Linda Bock December 7, 2012

In this very enjoyable interview, there were several facets of the authors life revealed to the reader, I liked hearing about the literary roots, and the development of the author’s style. Thanks for this interview. LB

John Milnes Baker December 22, 2012

Finished Death in the Small Hours the other day. I get the feeling as I read that I’m watching a wonderful production of Masterpiece Theater. Who knows, maybe that will come to pass.
Keep them coming!
Good interview!
JMB

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