Mary Russell


photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

In a blog interview I did around the release of  The Paris Affair, Heather Webb asked a question that got me to thinking about forensics in historical mysteries. So much of present day mysteries, in books, on television, in movies, involves analyzing forensic evidence. My Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch have no CSIs, medical examiners, or forensic anthropologists to assist them in gathering and analyzing data. On the other hand, even without 21st century technology sleuths can still forensic evidence. C.S. Harris has a doctor character whose analysis of corpses is often of key help to Sebastian St. Cyr. The Victorian Sherlock Holmes was, as my father liked to say, a classic empiricist, his solutions built from the data he gathers. Both John Watson and Mary Russell frequently record him bemoaning the lack of data.

Like other literary investigators  in the 19th century and earlier, Malcolm and Suzanne look at footprints, find stands of hair or threads of fabric caught on cobblestones of table legs or left behind on sheets. Of course they can’t do DNA or chemical analysis, but they can do is compare the color of the hair or fabric or look at where the mud left behind by a shoe might have come from. If they’re really lucky someone drops a distinctive earring. They can use lividity and rigor to roughly arrive at time of death They can sometimes determine from a wound whether the killer is left or right handed.

Of course as a writer there are times the lack of sophisticated forensic analysis presents challenges in how one’s detectives will solve the mystery. On the other hand, sometimes it can complicate matters in a good way. A killer in a crime of impulse, who probably would not be wearing gloves, would most likely to caught much more easily today than in the days before fingerprinting, let alone DNA analysis.

Writers, how do you deal with the lack of modern day technology in your books? Readers, what are some of your favorite examples of forensic analysis in an historical setting?

In the comments on last week’s Imperial Scandal teaser with Raoul, Jeanne had some interesting comments about how Raoul feels about Mélanie/Suzanne.

“I want to like Raoul even though he is ruthless. It’s his ruthlessness that gives Melanie her independence and her freedom to be “feral”, “fierce” and “reckless.” He never tries to protect her by restraining her actions. He uses her for those qualities seemingly without hesitation.

“But the common trope in a romance is that, if a good man loves a woman, then he wants to keep her from endangering herself. He may not act on those feelings, he may even recognize the inconsistency between loving her for her strength and wanting to protect her from harm but those protective instincts always seem to arise. So when we are seeing from the good man’s POV, we will eventually hear those thoughts.”

I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms before, but it’s true that Raoul and Mel/Suzette’s whole relationship is built on shared danger. In fact, there’s a scene in Secrets of a Lady where Charles asks why Raoul didn’t protect her, send her somewhere safe, and Mel says something along the lines of “I didn’t want to safe, I wanted to fight.” I think Mel is inclined to see Raoul as a bit more ruthless than he actually is. It’s Charles in Secrets who sees that Raoul is obviously still in love with her, while Mel’s never been sure Raoul loved her.

Jeanne went on to say, “I don’t want to hear Raoul having those thoughts and I was glad to he doesn’t in this scene. I want him to be so ruthless that it never even occurs to him that he should protect her as it doesn’t seem to here. And yet, I want to know that he loves her as we also hear in this scene.

“I don’t think most readers will like Raoul for this, most of them probably won’t even believe he really does love her. But I do. And, at the end of The Mask of Night when Charles asks Raoul to stay because his presence makes Melanie happier, I realized that Charles thinks so too.

“I can think of one other male “romance” character who understood that love doesn’t give a man the right to restrain a woman’s actions in order to protect her. It’s Lord Peter Wimsey in “Gaudy Night”. Somewhere in that book, he and Harriet discuss this and that male protectiveness leads women to deceive men in order to be free of it. I think Melanie and Charles get close to having a similar discussion in The Mask of Night.”

I think the Peter & Harriet parallel is very apt. Peter certainly has times when clearly wants to protect Harriet, yet in Gaudy Night he understands the importance of her being able to run her own risks. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes struggle with this as well in Laurie King’s books. They have an extraordinarily egalitarian relationship. Yet the scene that ends with them becoming betrothed begins with Holmes hitting Russell over the head and knocking her out so she can’t go with him after the villain. Granted Russell is still recover from being abducted and exposed to heroin at the time. But it becomes part of their marriage negotiations (“I’ll not marry a man I can’t trust at my back.”).

Charles/Malcolm is more definitely inclined to try to protect Mel/Suzette than Raoul is, which she rebels against. Not that he’s overprotective–-she runs a lot of risks at his side from even before they get married. But he slides into what she calls his “Brutus/Hotspur” moments where he tries to protect her or feels guilty because she’s been hurt or put in danger. As she says in Vienna Waltz, “Darling, I knew what you did when I married you. I knew I’d never be able to bear being your wife if it meant sitting on the sidelines or waiting like Penelope to see if you came back alive. If you wanted that sort of wife you shouldn’t have married me, however strong your chivalrous impulses.”

Not that there aren’t moments when Mel/Suzette wants to protect Charles/Malcolm as well. I also think it’s interesting that one of the results of Mel/Suzette marrying Charles/Malcolm is that it puts her in a much safer situation than she’d been in running about Spain. Which I don’t think she considered, but I suspect Raoul did…

Do you equate protectiveness with love? Do you think Raoul loved Mélanie/Suzanne? And does his not trying to protect her make you more or less likely to believe he loves her? What are other literary couples you can think of who struggle with this issue?

I’ve just posed a new Fraser Correspondence letter in which Aline tells Gisèle about her engagement to Geoffrey Blackwell.

The follow up discussion to my post last week on “Bad Boy” Heroes got me to thinking that in general I don’t like stories where bad boy heroes are reformed by heroines who (in Stephanie’s apt description) are “pure as the driven snow.” A fascinating post by Pam Rosenthal on her blog and and the follow-up discussion got me thinking more along the same lines. Pam was writing about children in romance representing innocence, but the discussion touched on the redemptive arc often found in romantic fiction. I like redemptive arcs, but I much prefer it if the character redeems him or herself, rather than being magically healed by innocence and true love.

So in general I prefer “bad boys” or “bad girls” paired with a lover with some worldly wisdom. But execution can make me love all sorts of stories. Georgette Heyer’s Venetia is one my favorite love stories, despite the fact that it follows a trope I don’t generally care for–jaded, cynical rake tries to seduce and then falls in love with beautiful, sheltered, romantically untouched girl. Of course it helps that Venetia is five-and-twenty and hardly an innocent in her understanding of people whatever her life experience. I think the reason the story works so well for me is that one has a deep sense that Venetia and Dameral are “soul mates” despite their vastly differing life experiences. They share a sense of the absurd, as Stephanie pointed out. They share a love of literature, a disregard for society’s conventions, and a certain innate kindness. There’s a wonderful intimacy between them that’s only partly physical, though interestingly the intellectual intimacy makes the passion between them that much more palpable and intense. Their minds work in a similar way. Reading about them, you can sense that “click” that occurs between two people whose minds are in sync (which, to me, is as romantic as the rush of physical attraction).

That sort of connection combined with sexual attraction is a powerful combination. I like to think that Charles and Mélanie have that sort of mental click in the way their minds work, which is what gives me hope for them despite their differing backgrounds and to some extent differing goals. At least that’s how it is in my head–how well I’ve portrayed it is a different question :-).

A few other fictional couples who to me fit this definition of “soul mates” – Russell & Holmes, Mulder & Scully, Ingold and Gil in the Darwath books and Antryg and Joanna in the Windrose Chronicles (both by Barbara Hambly), Susan and James in Brust & Bull’s Freedom & Necessity, Beatrice & Benedick, Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane.

How do you define “soul mates” in fiction? Do you like to read or write about characters with this sort of mental intimacy? Other favorite examples to suggest?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Raoul to Mélanie. Speaking of two other people with a mental connection which I don’t think will ever completely go away…

A lot of my writer friends have been away this week at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, this year in Washington D.C. I’ve been enjoying their updates on Twitter. Thanks to Twitter, I knew almost immediately last night that my friend and fellow History Hoyden, Pam Rosenthal, had won RWA’s Rita award for Best Historical Romance for her wonderful The Edge of Impropriety.

One of the things I love about Pam’s writing is that her characters have, in Regency terms, “a keen understanding”–they’re brainy people who enjoy talking about ideas (The Edge of Impropriety’s hero and heroine are a classical scholar nd a Silver Fork novelist respectively). Another blog by Jean on the All About Romance blog this week on “The Beautiful Minds of Heroes” got me thinking about this more.

The first brilliant hero Jean mentions falling in love with is Sherlock Holmes. I confess I discovered Sherlock Holmes first through dramatizations (notably the fabulous Jeremy Brett series). I didn’t actually read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories until I discovered Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. Because much as I love brainy characters on their own, I particularly love intellectual and romantic partnerships between two exceptionally brilliant people. There’s the fun of watching two fine minds click, especially over solving a problem. I love the scenes of Russell and Holmes talking through a case. The same is true of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and I’m particularly fond of a scene in Have His Carcase where they break a code together. Mulder and Scully’s debates about science and paranormal phenomenon were one of the delights of The X-Files.

There’s also the inevitable clash of two people who love to think. As Miss de Vine says to Harriet in Gaudy Night, “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.” That’s certainly true of Peter and Harriet and also of Holmes and Russell and Mulder and Scully. In all three cases, a determination to battle a problem through intellectually and a refusal to open up emotionally can leave the other partner feeling shut out. Peter in Busman’s Honeymoon, Holmes in The Language of Bees, Scully battling her cancer, Mulder coping with family revelations.

I love writing about brainy characters. The intellectual debates, the fun with words, the angst of clashing minds. In theory, at least, Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul are all brilliant. Of course, that means the author has to keep up with them, which is sometimes a challenge :-).

Do you like reading about brainy characters? Do you like them paired with a partner of equal brilliance? Any interesting examples to suggest? Writers, do you like writing about brainy characters? What are the challenges?

Mélanie’s mind is more on matters frivolous than intellectual in this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, as she writes to Isobel Lydgate about the masked ball at the Hofburg that opened the Congress of Vienna.

As a postscript, going back to last week’s post, I’m listening to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music as I write this. Speaking of characters who talk about books and ideas, I love Frederick’s catalogue of books as he tries to figure out how to get Anne into bed, particularly “Stendal would ruin the plan of attack as there isn’t much blue in the red and the black.”

I blogged recently on both Jaunty Quills and History Hoydens about Damaged Characters. By which, as I said, I wasn’t talking about the damage an author can inflict with one too many rounds of revising (though that would make an interesting blog topic in and of itself). I was thinking of characters who are damaged by their past experiences, whether it’s a painful childhood, battlefield trauma, the morally ambiguous life of a spy, or a love affair gone tragically wrong. Which comes down to the focus of this blog–history. Whether it’s real historical events, such as the brutal aftermath of the Siege of Badajoz, or fictional history, such as a lover’s betrayal or parental neglect, the scars of the past create damaged characters. To explore and heal that damage, a writer has to delve into the character’s history.

As a reader and writer, I’ve always been fascinated by history, both real historical events and the history of fictional characters (I love sequels and prequels, seeing characters at different points in their lives, part of what I so enjoyed about the new Star Trek movie). So perhaps it isn’t surprising that a lot of my favorite characters are defined by their pasts. Francis Crawford of Lymond begins his adventures in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles already an outlaw and an attainted traitor, estranged from his family and guilty over his sister’s death. Damerel, the hero of one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, Venetia, is a social outcast thanks to the scandals in his past. He’s convinced he’ll make Venetia miserable by dragging her into social ruin if he marries her. Venetia has to go to great (and very entertaining) lengths to convince him otherwise.

Lymond’s past scars, while they involve fictional plot twists, are rooted in the real historical event of the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss. Damerel’s damage on the other hand is more personal–a love affair with a married woman, subsequent estrangement from his family, his father’s death in the midst of it. Both Lymond and Damerel are wonderful examples of the classic tortured hero. Both have a complex backstory, which I think is one of the keys to doing tortured characters well (there’s nothing more annoying than a character who’s tortured over a deep dark secret that seems commonplace when revealed). But while traditionally it’s the hero who’s suffered the most emotional damage, I’ve always liked heroines with emotional baggage. Barbara Childe, the edgy, self-destructive heroine from Heyer’s An Infamous Army, is a wonderful example of the type. So is Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane. I know some readers find Harriet too prickly to be sympathetic, but she’s one of my favorite heroines, struggling to come to terms with the past (her lover’s murder, her own trial on charges of killing him) yet refusing to let herself be defined or defeated by it. Of course Peter Wimsey has scars of his own, rooted in historical events–shell shock from World War I. In one of my favorite scenes from Busman’s Honeymoon, it’s Harriet (who begins the series “sick of myself, body and soul”) who comforts Peter. That scene shows the hard-won balance they’ve achieved in their relationship. (That scene also inspired the last scene between Charles and Mel in Beneath a Silent Moon).

It can be particularly interesting when both the hero and heroine have emotional scars. One of the reasons I found The X-Files so compelling for me is that both Mulder and Scully are damaged characters (and of course acquire considerably more emotional baggage as the show goes on :-)). As I’ve blogged about recently, I just read Laurie King’s latest (quite wonderful) Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes book, The Language of Bees. In this series King (who talks about Sayers as an influence and has some wonderful Sayers parallels in books) took Holmes, who has suffered plenty of damage (some shown, some hinted at) in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and paired him with the much younger but equally scarred Russell. One of the delights of the series is watching these two people, who both guard themselves carefully, reveal bits of their scarred pasts to each other and to the reader.

There’s something particularly heartening about two damaged people being able to form a bond. I love the moment in The X-Files episode Requiem (end of the 7th season) where Mulder says to Scully “I don’t want to risk…losing you.” From the way he delivers it and Scully’s reaction, you can tell exactly how much those words mean. The declaration scene in A Monstrous Regiment of Women is one of the most wonderful I have ever read, right among there among my favorites with the Harriet and Peter scene at the end of Gaudy Night). And of course, the bond doesn’t heal all the damage, which makes for interesting developments over a series. The previous book in the series, Locked Rooms, dealt with Russell coming to terms with the events surrounding her family’s death. In The Language of Bees, Holmes comes face to face with the “lovely, lost son” King referred to in a previous book and with a painful past that goes back to Irene Adler. King creates a Holmes who moves believably into the 20th century, yet he is still coming to terms with his past.

It’s perhaps no wonder that as a writer I can be quite merciless in creating histories for my characters that leave them weighed down with emotional baggage. When I first began sketching out notes on Charles & Mélanie, I knew that the secrets of Mélanie’s past would create plenty of angst for both of them. But it never occurred to me to stop there. Before I even had the plot of Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game worked out, I had given Charles a tragic love past affair with Kitty Ashford, an emotionally neglectful childhood, a strained relationship with his brother Edgar, and questions about his legitimacy. While Mélanie had suffered the horrors of the Peninsular War (specifically the carnage inflicted by the British Army during Sir John Moore’s retreat) and lost both her parents and her younger sister Rosie. Quite a bit of that is mentioned or at least alluded to in the first scene between them in Secrets/Daughter. I wanted to show the damage these two people had suffered and the stable marriage they’d managed to build in spite it. To me, that made it all the worse when the very foundations of that marriage are threatened. All of that past damage also provides rich fodder for subsequent books in the series. Charles’s relationship with his family, particularly his father, was the starting place for Beneath a Silent Moon. And there’s lots more to deal with in Mélanie’s past. A llot happened in those years before she met Charles, not to mention the early years of their marriage…

Do you like stories about damaged characters? Do you prefer it to be the hero or the heroine or both to have the emotional scars? Any favorite examples to suggest? Writers, when you create characters do you think about how their past history has defined them? Do you try to work real historical events into their past history?

Speaking of real historical events, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition continues Charles’s & Mel’s updates from the Congress of Vienna with a letter Mélanie writes to David’s sister, Isobel Lydgate.

My friend Penny Williamson and I spent Friday afternoon at a matinée of the new Star Trek movie. We both loved it. It manages to simultaneously be fresh and innovative and yet true to the original. The actors do a fabulous job of capturing the characters we know so well, in mannerism and vocal patterns (and the way the writers wrote their dialogue). You can really believe these characters will grow into the characters from the original tv series. And yet the new actors never seem to be mimicking, they make the characters their own. Since I love to move back and forth in time in my own writing and examine my characters at different points in their history, I particularly enjoyed the prequel aspect.

As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, Penny and I both love to talk about favorite series. When we first became friends, we spent endless lunches analyzing and speculating over Dorothy Dunnett’s books (this was in the years when the House of Niccolò series was still being written and published). More recently, we could be found picking apart Alias over lattes in our favorite café. Waiting for the movie to start Friday, we were discussing the season finale of Lost. Penny and I’ve been discussing Lost a lot lately. In fact, we talked about it for the entire five hour plus drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ashland, Oregon, on our recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Lost fascinates and baffles both of us. Usually we can come up with a theory about where we think a story arc is headed (wrong perhaps to varying degrees but at least a theory that works with the information at hand). With Lost, every time we think we have something figured out, the next episode pulls the rug out from under us.

I blogged a while back about the delights of speculating over a series. Part of it of course is trying to unravel the plot. When I was a teenager, my mom and I had numerous discussions about Star Wars in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I still remember the moment when, thinking about Arthurian mythology, I said “oh, I know, Luke and Leia are brother and sister.” Of course, I was thrilled to be proved right when we saw Return of the Jedi (the day it opened). But mostly, I was relieved to see the characters I cared about get the happy ending I so wanted them to have. Thinking about Star Trek and Lost, I realized how much of the allure of an ongoing series is the characters. Characters you care about and root for. Characters who seem to have a rich inner life off the screen/page. Characters you want to learn more about. Characters whose fates seem very real and a matter of great concern (I confess to having tears in my eyes at one point in the new Star Trek movie, and the recent Lost season finale definitely left me choked up).

I returned to the world of another favorite series recently when I read Laurie King’s The Language of Bees. It was a delight to step back into Russell & Holmes’s world. When I finished the book, I didn’t want to leave that world (partly because of the questions left to be answered in the next installment, but mostly because I wanted to spend more time with these characters). I’ve been rereading earlier books in the series since, unable to move on to something new.

What makes you bond with the characters in a particular series? Have you seen the new Star Trek movie? Do you watch Lost? If so, do you have the faintest idea of where the show is headed? :-).

Returning to my own series, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Cecily Summers’s reply to Mélanie’s letter from last week about their children and the Edinburgh premiere of Simon’s play.

As you may know, I began my writing career collaborating with my mother, Joan Grant. We wrote eight books and four novellas together, seven Regencies romances (and four novellas) as Anthea Malcolm, and one historical romance, Dark Angel, as Anna Grant (which is the first of of a quartet that continues with the three historical romances I

As I mention in the long version of my bio, my mother, a social psychologist (as was my father), loved books and read out loud to me a great deal. She introduced me to Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel world, Sabatini, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. I in turn introduced her to Dorothy Dunnett (we used to discuss the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolò endlessly) and Elizabeth George. I think my mom would have loved Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. I think the fact that we loved the same books and shared the same literary influences made it easier for us to plot and write together.

In honor of Mother’s Day (a holiday my mom deplored as too commercial :-)), I thought I’d post a video clip where I talk my mom’s influence on me as writer. I still feel her influence when I write. In fact, Charles and Mélanie were inspired by two secondary characters from an unpublished book my mom and I wrote together.

Has anyone read the Anthea Malcolm/Anna Grant books? Do you see an evolution from them to the books I write now? What similarities and differences do you note? Are there other writers you read who are writing partnerships? Writers, have you ever written with a partner? What are the rewards and challenges you’ve found?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie to Cecily Summer, Simon Tanner’s actress friend who appears in Beneath a Silent Moon. Cecily Summers is the only character so far to have appeared in both the Anthea Malcolm books and the Charles & Mélanie books. Cecily appears in my mom’s and my Anthea Malcolm Regency, An Improper Proposal. Readers of both sets of books may have noticed that Simon’s theatre, the Tavistock, is also Rachel Ford’s theatre in An Improper Proposal. It hasn’t been dealt with in the books thus far, but Simon is partners with Rachel and Guy Melchett and Rachel’s uncle by marriage.

In her letter to Cecily, Mélanie writes about the challenges of juggling motherhood and her other work and responsibilities. What do you think of Mélanie as a mother? Where do you think motherhood fits in her complicated life as a priority? How well do you think she manages to juggle the many, complicated (and often contradictory) aspects of her life?

12 May update: I’m guest blogging today on Jaunty Quills about Damaged Characters. Do stop by and comment.

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