For many years I published Reader’s Digest’s condensed fiction and non-fiction collections for Australia and the Pacific. I loved choosing the latest popular novels and significant true-life stories. One of the books I’m most proud of is Madiba, which features two major works on Nelson Mandela. This year my first historical crime novel, Murder at Cirey, was condensed for RD’s Select Editions. Here is the author interview, conducted by SE manager Alison Fraser.
The descriptions of the Champagne region of France are rich and vivid. What led you to choose this location as the setting for Murder at Cirey?
I’ve done a lot of research in the past into Madame du Châtelet, who appears in the novel, and I’m fascinated by her life, with and without Voltaire, and the fact that she became one of the foremost physicists in France at a time when nobody expected women to be writing about physics at all. Let alone being mathematicians, or translators of Newton for Europe. I came up with the concept of doing a detective novel set in the Cirey district and I thought it might be amusing if she and Voltaire were consultant detectives. I visited Cirey and the area, in particular the town of Joinville, and it just seemed like a wonderful setting, because it’s in the Haute Marne, on higher ground than the Champagne district that we all think of when we think of sparkling champagne—further up the Marne Valley, in rolling hills. It’s very picturesque.
I imagine quite a bit of research was required to ensure the historical accuracy of the period. How did you confirm the historical details?
I had read a lot about Madame du Châtelet and Voltaire, so I knew about their times. I read 18th-century French literature and history for my other novels, and investigated who was in power and how society was run. Once I decided to write Murder at Cirey I had to do a lot more research into the Maréchaussée itself, the military police, so I went to the Fisher Library in Sydney University, and looked through a number of books in both French and English, trying to find details. It’s slightly specialised, but I’m persevering. In July  I’m going to go to the quite new museum of the gendarmerie in Melun in France, south-east of Paris.
Is there a historical figure upon which Victor Constant was based?
No, because the cavaliers were the privates in the military police, the lowest of the low. As far as I know I’m unlikely to find any personal documents such as letters from anyone like Victor. As you go up through the ranks, of course—brigadier, lieutenant, and Victor’s boss, the Prévôt Général—you’ll find documents in the archives. There are probably a lot in Châlons-en-Champagne, which was called Châlons-sur-Marne in Victor’s day and was the headquarters of the Maréchaussée in the Champagne. There you would find court records. There’s nothing like having somebody’s letters, or a complaint against them. Or a directive in somebody’s hand. I believe there’s also a wealth of documents stored at the Musée de la Gendarmerie.
Where did you find the historical information to create characters such as a gamekeeper or a beggar?
In French social histories, you read descriptions of what it was like to be a poor tenant farmer, or a ploughman, or a beggar. Louis Aubert, for instance, in the story, was a licensed beggar. In those days, if a rural family was starving, they sent a member off to find work elsewhere. First, this person would go to the curé, the local priest, and get a letter of recommendation to show to authorities on the road, such as the Maréchaussée. They could say, I’m on my way to a particular town, because I’m hoping to I’ll get work doing deliveries, or sell kindling on the streets for a commission. There was an understanding that if you set out to try and find work in the towns then you had a right to do so.
There were also the sturdy beggars, some of whom would pop a pistol in their pocket and hold up people on the roads. There were also fully armed bandits who used to raid farms. It must have been quite terrifying if you had a farm near a highway: you’d have to keep your eyes open because most of the time there was no one to protect you from armed robbery. That’s why the Maréchaussée was quite important, because if a brigade was patrolling the roads in your area, then you at least had the chance of someone else keeping watch and arresting miscreants.
The free-thinking historical figures of Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet provide a contrast to the rather stubborn, upright hero, Victor Constant. Was this deliberate?
Yes it was, because Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet were figures of the Enlightenment, and they were questioning the tenets of civil society and laboring to expand human knowledge. But I think the big gap between Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet and Victor is birth. He was born lower-middle class with aspirations to the law; he could perhaps have become a notary like his father if the family hadn’t been ruined. Voltaire’s father was also a notary, but Voltaire always considered himself a prince of belles lettres, and he always associated with the aristocracy, because certain members of the aristocracy could afford to be free thinking, as long as they didn’t run afoul of the law. Whereas if you were someone much further down the scale, you had to be extremely careful, especially in the provinces, which were much more conservative than Paris. Through that contrast, I suppose, I wanted to show how France was being run. I wanted to show the operation of justice through the classes—and, at the top end, how justice could be perverted by those in power.
Class tensions are a theme in Murder at Cirey, especially as Constant occasionally refuses to honour these distinctions. How rigid were class distinctions in France during this period of history?
They were totally rigid in most of France. Aristocracy was based on royal favour and land ownership. Land was handed down by the laws of inheritance, the head of the family ruled its members, and the cleverest aristocrats ruled the country—all that was enshrined in law and custom. Amongst the upper classes, money changed hands through marriage. The women had no rights at all, so they were sold off, but men might be sold off as well to make advantageous marriages. Thus the people who had rank would marry with people who had money, to improve their lifestyle, while people who had money would often marry in order to improve their rank.
However, there was a dialogue among the classes in France. You’ve only got to read the journals of Casanova for instance, who spent a lot of time in France, spoke French fluently, considered himself a French gentleman. The conversations he records between people of different classes are vital and interesting. Some of the salons, for instance, were run by middle-class women. Their rank was never going to change, but their social liberty was quite varied. These were intellectual salons, to which they would invite people of interest, and it didn’t matter, really, where they came from. They didn’t necessarily have perfect manners, either. There was one woman, Madame Geoffrin, who castigated a count for the way he used his knife at her table.
So between the middle classes and the aristocracy, because of finance, there was a fair bit of to-and-fro. And then between the middle classes and the lower classes, there was commerce in the towns. There were conflicts, too, between town and country. The mayors of the towns were elected, and there was often a fight between a candidate who’d be, say, a wool merchant in town, and somebody else who was a wealthy farmer, who believed the country should have its voice. Country mayors often crossed swords with the rural aristocracy.
If you’re interested in those dialogues, it’s fascinating to read The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro by Beaumarchais, written later in the century. They give an insight into the exchange of ideas between people at different levels of society.
Both the plot and characters are strong in your novel. Do you begin with the plot or the characters?
What I really begin with is a very specific situation. I wanted to do a murder mystery at Cirey, and I thought, what if Voltaire discovered a body in the woods around the château, on the very day that Madame du Châtelet came to live with him? That was a very fraught day for Voltaire. She’d taken a long time to join him and really made him wait, and so it would have been horrific to have a murder on his hands, just as he was preparing this wonderful idyll for her. In addition, I decided somebody was trying to frame him for the crime.
That situation gave me my consultant detectives, but of course it was a police procedural, therefore I had to have a policeman as the main investigator. I did my research on the mounted police, the Maréchaussée, and found out what their uniforms looked like, and what their duties were, and why my investigator might be at the nearby town of Joinville at the time, and why he might be called onto the case. So that gave me my hero. I also worked out who my villain was, and then I just had to let the situation plus characters develop into a plot. Victor had to be the mover and shaker. He had to take his own steps towards discovery.
Before I start writing I always know the arc of the story right to the end, but many elements of the plot only come to me along the way. For instance, I did not know where Victor was going to confront the murderer until I was about three quarters of the way through the book. It had not occurred to me that the crisis would happen at the Château des Sarrasins, a fictional place that I’d created earlier in the novel, but it turned out to be just the right spot. That was where the victim had spent the last night of his life, and it was a very Gothic sort of place, with crumbling buildings around it—quite different from the Château de Cirey, which is a Renaissance château and a cradle of the Enlightenment.
Our world is so different from the period depicted in Cirey. What is the relevance of historical fiction to modern readers?
I think there are two relevancies, and one follows on from the other. First, this genre of fiction can increase our knowledge of history. A lot of readers have said to me that they didn’t enjoy history at school, they didn’t study it at university, but they have an interest in it, and they like to learn their history through reading fiction. There’s something very easy about that process, I suppose, because if someone writes well, it’s like a door opening, so that you can step through that door and be in that world. You pick up things as you go, more or less by osmosis, and then maybe when you finish, and you shut the door, you think, ‘Gosh, that was interesting, I didn’t know that happened then!’
Hence I try to be accurate, because I don’t want to give people false information. I build the bones of the story on known facts and often use characters drawn from real life, along with fictional people. Of course I’m writing primarily in order to tell the story, but I do the research in order to provide a setting that is consistent. You want to be able to see it, and smell it and taste it. So at the same time, hopefully, you are adding to people’s pleasure, and also adding to their knowledge.
The second relevance is to today. In each of my historical novels there are things that are still happening now in society. A story like that can be useful because it makes us look around us again. For instance, what kind of pressure from the top might be skewing justice in a particular situation? Now in this country, civil law and civil rights are less threatened than in many other countries. But there’s no doubt that civil rights can be eroded, and Murder at Cirey clearly shows they can be eroded from the top.
We can take lessons from history, and a second one that you can draw from Murder at Cirey is the tragic fact of war. In the story, France is fighting a war in the Rhineland. How many more wars have there been over that area of Europe? How many more will there be? And for what reasons do they occur—territory, botched diplomacy, national greed, national rivalries? It’s depressing to see the same things happening again and again on the same soil, and often you hear the cry, ‘Why can’t we learn from history?’ I still think there’s a chance that we can. Consider the war in Afghanistan, a horrible historical event that Australians are only now learning to assess—all those soldiers with PTSD and the ones who died. I think the more that we know about that war, the more facts that come out, the better informed we’ll be. Historical novels can help us ask relevant questions about today.
When did you begin your writing career?
I didn’t begin properly until the 1990s, but I wanted it as a career from about the age of eight, I suppose. Every now and again I’d have a go at writing literary novels, but I used to get bored with them. I wrote my first historical novel purely for fun, when I was in France in the 1970s, but life intervened, and I only sent it to one agent and put it in a drawer, and well, the drawer’s not there any more and I don’t have it. It was only in the 90s that I suddenly realised that I definitely wanted to write historical novels. I’ve just finished a trilogy, and the final novel was reviewed by a reader who wrote to say that she’d enjoyed all three books and would it be greedy to ask for another trilogy? I think I’m kind of stuck in that path for a while.
Do you have a specific writing routine?
No. I’ve never been happy about the idea of recording what I do per day, or regulating what I do, because I’m always afraid that I’m going to decide that I’m not writing enough, or that I’m writing too much! I’m very driven and my time is free, so I can sit down and work from dawn till dusk if I want to. I also do a lot of writing in my head when I’m walking. At the moment I live in the most beautiful place, and I have two beaches that I can walk on. As soon as I get home I put the words on the page.
When you are writing the story in your head, is it the same as what comes out on the page?
For some reason, normally it’s dialogue that I write in my head, and I edit that as I go. It’s always more interesting when characters are arguing. If one of them strays off the subject I’ll bring them back to it and discard what they just said, and usually when I get home I can remember how the argument went. They express themselves perhaps slightly better when I’m sitting down than when I’m walking, but that’s part of the way I write!
Is Victor Constant going to feature in another murder mystery?
Yes, I’m writing a mystery called Death in Champagne, set in the same area. There’s a visit by the Duke de Richelieu, so we will have a portrait of a high military character in this one. He was a famous marshal of France. He appears in my first novel, La Creole, which was also published in Select Editions, so readers of that will recognise him. In this novel he’s coming back from the war in the Rhineland in 1736, and visits Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet. We get his view on military discipline in the Champagne, which at one point he’s not very impressed by, because he reckons they should be sorting out this murder rather more effectively. I hope he has some interesting dialogues with Victor Constant.