Publisher: Lion Hudson
Publication Date: 23 October 2020
My thanks to Fern at Lion Hudson for inviting me to take part in the blog tour for The Art Fiasco by Fiona Veitch Smith, Book 4 in the Poppy Denby Investigates series. Having previously reviewed The Jazz Files (Book 1) and The Cairo Brief (Book 4) it’s lovely to have Fiona back on the blog.
Today I’m delighted not only to share my review of The Art Fiasco, but also to host the following guest post from Fiona.
Writing Golden Age-style Mysteries in the 21st Century
By Fiona Veitch Smith
Any mystery, crime or detective story set in the 1920s or 30s will immediately draw comparisons (positively or negatively) with the greats of the Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Chesterton, Allingham, and their peers. However, it is quite different writing a book set in that period to writing a book during that period.
Readers need to remember that the Golden Age books were written as contemporary crime novels. Books written today, set in that period, are historical crime novels. Different techniques are required in the research and writing, and the history is very much as important as the mystery.
I did not set out to write Golden Age-style mysteries. I simply wrote a story that caught my imagination in a period that I love for its fashion, style, music, and history. Comparisons with the Golden Age writers only emerged in the reviews, with people comparing me to both Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I was surprised (and pleased!), although I had up until then never consciously emulated either writer. I have read Christie and Sayers and enjoyed them both (particularly the wonderful DLS) but I can’t say I ever immersed myself in their books. However, after this comparison kept coming up, I started reading them again. I see now that my writing, unconsciously, is a cross between the two. I have the plotting of Christie and the characterisation and style of Sayers. Or at least a pale shadow of them.
The Sayers comparison particularly pleased me as what I saw in the Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane books, apart from the delicious mystery, was astute social observation and an author with something to say about the world. I hope to do something similar with my Poppy Denby books, although it’s not just the world of the 1920s I’m trying to say something about, but the world of today too. When I look at the challenges women faced in the 1920s, I hope to point beyond that to the challenges women face today (something that Sayers did so well, particularly in her classic Gaudy Night). My books are unashamedly issue-based, although I try not to allow this to overpower the story. In the Wimsey and Vane books there is also a balance between darkness and light, seriousness and wit, that I too try to convey.
Christie is of course the queen of plotting and I know I don’t come near her fiendish cleverness in the mysteries I weave. But I do try. My favourite Christies are And Then There Were None (previously known as Ten Little Indians) and Murder on the Orient Express. Both are masterclasses in claustrophobia and the twist at the end of the tale. I also enjoy what Christie is subtly saying about corporate guilt and that all of us have the potential and motive within us to kill. I consciously drew on this in the fourth book of the series, The Cairo Brief, which is the only one of my books which is a deliberate homage to Agatha Christie.
I do feel, however, that Christie’s characterisation lacks depth (she no doubt felt it got in the way of the plot) and in that, Sayers definitely takes the crown. However, in the Tommy and Tuppence books (loved and hated with equal passion) I enjoy the playfulness of the characters and the vibrant charm of 1920s London, and I think some of that is reflected in my Poppy Denby books. I wonder if my readers see it too.
Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s (Lion Fiction). The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, while subsequent books have been shortlisted for the Foreword Review Mystery Novel of the Year and the People’s Book Prize. She is formerly a journalist, having worked on the arts and crime beats of a Cape Town newspaper, and lectured in journalism in the UK for over a decade. She is currently the Deputy Editor of the CWA’s Red Herrings Magazine. The latest book, The Art Fiasco, is out now. www.poppydenby.com
It’s 1924 and Poppy Denby is heading up to Northumberland to celebrate her father’s sixtieth birthday. She stops off in Newcastle en route to visit her Aunt Dot, who has temporarily relocated from London to renovate a house she’s inherited. One of Aunt Dot’s guests is the world-renowned artist, Agnes Robson, who is staging an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery. Reluctantly, Poppy is roped in to help when the artist’s press liaison man falls ill.
She soon discovers that the local press has dug up some dirt on Agnes relating to the tragic death of a young art teacher in Ashington Colliery, twenty-seven years earlier. As she tries to suppress the story, Poppy begins to suspect that the teacher might have been murdered and that the killer may still be on the loose…
Praise for The Art Fiasco
‘Cleverly plotted as always, with an exceptional eye for detail and a fabulous amateur sleuth, Veitch Smith
carries us back once more to the Golden Age for this delicious murder mystery.’
Jacky Collins, Dr Noir and founder of Newcastle Noir Crime Festival
‘Poppy Denby’s latest investigation combines an intriguing cold case mystery with a murder puzzle set in Newcastle in 1924. Complete with map and cast of characters, this is great fun for fans of mysteries set during detection’s Golden Age.’
Martin Edwards, CWA Diamond Dagger winner and author of The Golden Age of Murder
Journalist and amateur sleuth, Poppy Denby, returns for another intriguing mystery, however this time she is heading out of London and returning home to Northumberland for her father’s birthday. Having made a detour to Newcastle on the way in order to visit her Aunt Dot, Grace and best friend Delilah Marconi, Poppy finds herself slap-bang in the middle of a murder involving both the local art gallery and a cold case from the 1890’s.
As with previous Poppy Denby mysteries, the reader will be drawn in by the twists and reveals, and then left puzzling over the red herrings. Will you work out whodunnit before Poppy and Detective Inspector Sandy Hawkes?
The characters are fun and likeable. I particularly like that the characters are, each in their own way, a little bit of an outsider. Poppy is a working woman, a journalist at The Daily Globe (to her mother’s despair), Aunt Dot is wheelchair bound, Delilah is an actress and party girl, Grace has previously been jailed in connection with her part in the suffragette movement, editor Rollo Rolandson has dwarfism, artist Agnes has openly lived with someone to whom she was not married, and Gus is deaf. In current times none of these differences would really matter, yet in the 1920’s those differences could be enough to make each stand out and be talked about in whispers behind their backs.
Given the time in which the story is set, I love that it revolves around some strong and inspiring female characters – a great nod towards women’s rights. There is a wonderful sense of loyalty and camaraderie between Poppy and her friends and family. The historical/political backdrop to the story is fascinating and the author manages to provide some fascinating information whilst avoiding the pitfall of turning the story into a history lesson. If anything, the book left me wanting to know more about the socio-economic landscape in that era and, in my view, there’s something special about making history accessible and interesting to a reader. On a lighter note, there’s a hint of romance for the more starry-eyed of us and the book has a wonderful vein of humour running through it.
The tale does deal with the serious issue of child abuse, a topic that is much better publicised nowadays. It is sad to read how the victim(s) and their families not only suffer the pain of the abuse but also the shame of being ostracised by their community. I would like to think that things have changed significantly in current times, however, for all of our progression in this area (i.e. police action, access to counselling, public awareness etc.), I think that some things remain very much the same, particularly when we’re looking at the long term impact that such abuse can have on the victims and their loved ones.
Despite the heavy themes, the story remains remarkably buoyant and entertaining. I have really enjoyed the Poppy Denby mysteries and The Art Fiasco is another great addition to the series. If you’re looking for a historical ‘golden-age-style’ mystery, then I would recommend that you give this series a go. Each book is as good as the last. I’ve recommended them to a number of people now. They’re very interesting, entertaining and you will get a little bit of a history lesson whilst you read!
I should also point out that each book in the series can be read as a standalone, however the series is fantastic so I would highly recommend reading them all in order.
Why not catch up with the other posts on the blog tour? Details as listed below…