The Character-Driven Mystery

About twenty years ago, I wrote a couple of “cozy village” mysteries, literally set in my own “village” of West Portal in San Francisco, with the emphasis on the intricacies of untraceable poisons and evanescent nanotechnology that required significant outlining, planning ahead and scrupulous, detailed planting of clues as well as red herrings—absolutely a requirement if you’re writing a mystery that is plot-driven and complicated. But then I fell in love—with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and his friend Violet Paget (1856-1935, aka the writer Vernon Lee). I wrote an historical novel about him and his magnificent and at the time, maligned, portrait of “Madame X”, and Violet was a significant character in the story (Portraits of an Artist, 2010).

Their individual, quirky, wonderful, interesting personalities, combined with their life-long friendship, made such an impression on me that after the novel was finished, their voices and charming ways would not leave my mind. I had read so many letters of theirs, and biographies, and spent hours gazing at Sargent’s paintings and reading Violet’s essays, that these two fascinating people had a hold on me that compelled me to continue writing about them—I wanted everyone to know them as I had come to know them.

So naturally, I turned them into amateur sleuths and started writing a mystery series! Unlike my West Portal cozies, I wanted these new mysteries to primarily portray the characters of these two real-life people whom I loved so much, in addition to being a good mystery, of course.

Having decided this was going to be a series (and in six years I have now written three), I decided to start when John and Violet were both twenty-one. That way, each book would advance a certain amount of time and I would be able to present the changes and development of the young artist and the young writer as they made their way into the upper echelons of their artistic and literary worlds. Thus, the mysteries that came their way to solve—typically a murder—would serve as the catalyst to delve into and reveal their true characters: how they would react and respond to murder and danger, why they would feel compelled to investigate it, and how their friendship and their unconventional upbringings and education would help or hinder their investigations.

Violet Paget was by far the more pronounced, outgoing, feisty personality of the two, and I chose her voice to tell the stories, in First Person POV. While this has its drawbacks, it makes for a significantly “present” character, as the reader is addressed directly, drawn into her thoughts and fears and doubts, and her sarcastic and irreverent approach to a woman’s life, career and chances of literary success in the late Victorian Age.

Here is how I introduced the series, in the Prologue in the first book, The Spoils of Avalon: Violet is writing in 1926, the year after her friend John died, an event which she feels gives her permission to now finally relate the interesting tales of murder and mayhem in which they were involved:

“Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only one who solves mysteries, you know. In our youth, I and my friend Scamps—more formally known as John Singer Sargent—engaged in a fair amount of sleuthing ourselves.”

She goes on to mention that most of the people involved have also passed on, and then continues:

“Modesty restrains me from naming the one who wields the Sherlockian mind, but let me just say, Scamps made an excellent Watson.”

I wanted to place Violet, with her keen, curious mind and waspish, often self-deprecatory and humorous commentary, at the center of the reader’s journey in this time and space, and as a foil and contrast to Sargent, whose personality was much more reserved, congenial and mellow. As Violet goes on to explain, “Nonetheless, as a detecting duo, we were extremely well-suited—he was observant with an artist’s eye for detail as well as the nuances of mood and tone, whereas I noticed things out of restless curiosity and, I must say, a suspicious nature attuned to finding fault.”

In the first mystery, it becomes rather obvious after a short time who the murderer is, but events occur so quickly, with rising urgency and threat, that the emphasis on Violet’s and John’s rapid detecting is much more interesting and important (if I do say so myself) than that the killer remain unknown until the very end. (The second and third mysteries are rather more complex, partly I think because I’m just getting better at writing mysteries!)

As I mentioned, I read so much of these two persons’ actual correspondence that I have been able to get a true sense of how they spoke, not only to each other, but about events of the day, their opinions, their friendships, successes and failures. John often refers to Vi as “old man”, a common jocularity of the youth of the era, both men and women. Nicknames like “Scamps” were also common among familiars. Sargent was known for his awkwardness in speaking, almost stammering at times, especially in more public situations, whereas Violet was voluble and incessantly talkative, as well as clever and opinionated. Henry James referred to her as a “formidable conversationalist.”

Violet Paget, c. 1930

An important element of the lives and personalities of John and Violet was that they were both same-sex oriented; in writing about them I knew that this was a subject that had to be treated with subtlety, for a couple of reasons. First, the self-knowledge of their sexuality would have taken some time, both because of their unusual family lives, insular and peripatetic; and second, because of the mores, strictures and laws of the Victorian Age. Both of them, in later years, were well-acquainted with Oscar Wilde and other notorious gay men of the age—and they saw what happened to him because of his indiscreet behavior. Sargent’s career would have been in ruins if his same-sex inclinations were made public, although as long as men were discreet, nobody cared. Violet, given the separate lives that men and women lived in the Victorian Age, would have had more ‘cover’ for an intimate relationship with a woman friend. The “Boston Marriage”, so-called in the United States, and the necessity of “spinsters” having to live together to make a viable economic household, were too common for anyone to draw anything sexual (or “Sapphic”) from the occurrence. Neither Violet nor John were in any way religious, but social mores would have inhibited behavior that flaunted such activity.

John Sargent, 1924

Nonetheless, it has become clear in the scholarship of the last four decades that Sargent was definitely gay and engaged in physical intimacy with other men, from his own letters (not many of which are extant, as he destroyed much of his correspondence, like Henry James) as well as others’ letters and notes about him. The recent exhibition of drawings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum of Sargent’s African-American model Thomas McKellar are revelatory of Sargent’s sexual identity. It is less clear whether Violet engaged physically with any of the women with whom she formed relationships in later life, but she certainly preferred the company of women to that of men as intimate companions.

This sense of developing self-awareness is built into my characterizations of John and Violet in the mystery series, and I find it is important to interweave their growing consciousnesses into the stories themselves, which becomes more significant in the latest of the mysteries, The Unicorn in the Mirror, when they are both around twenty-six years of age.

In contrast to my earliest murder mysteries, which were carefully outlined and plotted in advance, my approach to writing about Violet and John’s exploits is more fully organic—once I’ve done the necessary research, I just start writing—their personalities take over pretty quickly, and before I know it, they’re telling me what to write and leading me into all sorts of interesting adventures. I start thinking and feeling like them, especially Violet, and as I work through the investigation along with them, I find out almost at the same time they do, who-done-it and why! Their particular ways of thinking and acting, in their own historical contexts—in short, who they are as persons of their era—have become critical and instrumental elements to solving the murders and crimes they investigate—truly character-driven historical fiction.

The Power of Time & Luck

There are at least two things that I experience when I write, especially when I write historical fiction: Serendipity and Synchronicity.

The Three Princes of Serendip

Serendipity does not come from Latin or Greek, but rather was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of an Indian fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not seeking.” It has come to mean “good luck in finding valuable things unintentionally” but I want to emphasize the word “sagacity” in addition to just accident. We’ll get back to this word in a few moments.  

Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. This term was created by Carl Jung in the 1950s to describe the occurrence and connection between two or more events that cannot be explained as a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity, connected by meaning. A very simple example would be thinking of an old friend one morning, and then later coming across a photograph of that friend stuck in a book you take down at random from the bookshelf, and then getting a phone call from the friend that same day. No one of these events is either a cause or an effect, but they are connected by meaning, Jung would say.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times. In the mystery series I am writing that feature John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget, I have structured the stories so that there are two distinct time periods in each book. In the first book, The Spoils of Avalon, the reader can time travel between 1877 London and 1539 Glastonbury, every other chapter, and there’s even a third time reference, in the quotations at the beginning of each chapter from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, long held to be medieval, but historically, if Arthur lived at all, it was around the year 300 of the Common Era.

In Jung’s terminology, the “meaning” or the synchronicity, that connects these three eras, in my story, concerns the testing of human loyalty, of faith or the lack of it, the mystery of the sacred as it interacts with the secular, and the effects that has on human character and fate. On the one hand, it’s just a story about a murder and who committed it and why, and how the past is connected to the present through this event—but on the other hand, if you let all the character’s experiences and thoughts and actions roll in and wash over you, I believe you can get a real sense of what it was like to live in both those times, and how understanding the one can help you understand the other, as well as your own present time.

In this second book, The Love for Three Oranges, John and Violet find themselves summoned to Venice in the winter of 1879 to help an artist friend of Singer Sargent’s, whose palazzo is beset with death and ghosts and all sorts of troubling events. The second time period harks back some 140 years to 1739, where we are introduced to a famous Venetian playwright of that time, Carlo Gozzi.

And this is where my other special word—serendipity—played a huge part in the writing of this second mystery. Here’s the definition again: Serendipity is “Making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one is not seeking.”

Before I even started writing these mystery stories, but after my first book about John Singer Sargent, in which Violet Paget has a very significant presence, Stu and I stayed in Venice for three days or so about seven years ago, with a small group of folks on a tour. We were lodged at a small, former palazzo on the western arm of the Grand Canal, just past the Rialto Bridge, called the Hotel San Cassiano, but also Ca’ Favretto. It had been the home of an Italian artist, Giacomo Favretto, from 1870 to 1887. He was of the Impressionist school, and several of his paintings were hung about the hotel. It was a charming place, and I took a lot of pictures of it.

Ca’ Favretto in Venice — Hotel San Cassiano

When I got around to starting The Love for Three Oranges, I knew I was going to set the story in Venice, and I thought of that hotel, and Giacomo Favretto. So, I looked him up and lo and behold, it turns out he and John Sargent were good friends, and that Sargent stayed at the palazzo in Venice occasionally. What a happy discovery! I decided—with great sagacity—that it would be perfect to set the story in that location. Sagacity, for me, is the wisdom that comes from experience combined with the happy faculty of knowing a good thing when you see it.

So then I turned to the issue of the previous time period which would constitute the other half of the story—and you can imagine how hard it was to fasten on one particular century or era in the long, long history of Venice, with all her prominent artists, musicians, and writers! However, upon re-reading a biography of Violet Paget – aka Vernon Lee – I was reminded that in the year 1879 she was finishing up the manuscript for a book that would be published the next year—it was called “Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy”—and a significant amount of the book was concerned with one Carlo Gozzi, a playwright in the mid to late 1700’s in Venice. One thing led to another, and I found a complete copy online of Gozzi’s Memoirs. I read about his youthful days in Venice, living in one of the palazzos his family owned in Venice, his descriptions of its size and structure, its location on the Grand Canal, and its proximity to the Church of San Cassiano, which was his family’s parish, where many of his ancestors were buried. I looked at maps, I studied the streets and sotoportegos and campos of Venice, and I came to the conclusion that Gozzi’s former family home was none other than the Hotel San Cassiano—Giacomo Favretto’s home as well!

Count Carlo Gozzi

So there we had been, on the very spot where Carlo Gozzi had walked and slept and ate and dreamed—and where Sargent had visited his friend Giacomo as he lived and prospered and enjoyed life. And Gozzi the very person that Violet Paget was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about, all right there. Three, or four, or five events in three time periods—all tied together by meaning, by the significance of their existence in relation to each other.   Serendipity and Synchronicity indeed!

Writing Historical Mysteries

I joined my love for writing historical fiction with my love for mystery stories when I wrote the first book in the John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mysteries: The Spoils of Avalon. It came about because of two things: First, I missed my characters of Sargent and Paget from my novel Portraits of an Artist so much that I kept hearing their voices talking to me and insisting I write them back onto the page! Second, as I had already written about these two people “seriously” in the novel, I wanted to set them up in a more amusing and entertaining way, to bring out their playful and witty natures — so I brought them to life again as amateur sleuths. This is a growing genre that has many celebrities on offer: Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and the team of Henry, William and Alice James, to name but a few.

Mysteries as a genre tend to be plot-driven — i.e., the actual murder and the solving of it are the primary concern. Because I have real, historical people as the main characters, my focus is more character-driven – -i.e., the story tends to reveal how the characters react and respond to events and other people, to show their feelings, thoughts, personal dilemmas and idiosyncrasies, all while they are involved in solving a mystery. Still, I try to concoct a plausible and interesting mystery that readers will find intriguing and fun.

Which brings me to my particular historical genre: my Sargent/Paget mysteries are definitely in the “cozy village” camp — as opposed to “noir”, “police procedural”, and “thriller/suspense” mysteries. The main components of Cozy Village Mysteries (think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple as the sterling example) include: the murders are not gruesome or graphic; very little to no mention of sex (though a lot of hints!!); amateur sleuths who often get in the way of the police, or have a skeptical ally on the force; and humourous and witty dialogue and situations.

In short, lots of fun and light-hearted reading, but in my mysteries, I also try to reflect on larger issues, both historical and contemporary (as in, “there is nothing new under the sun”). In the Spoils of Avalon, I was fascinated by the difference between two time periods: the late 19th century Victorian culture, which had been shocked and derailed by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the immense changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the changing nature of colonialism that would ultimately bring down the empire; and the mid-16th century, still medieval world of monasteries and small English villages, steeped in religion and ritual, about to be destroyed forever by the apostate machinations of Henry VIII and his henchman, Thomas Cromwell. (Guess I’m kind of showing my Catholic side there, lol.)

Enough for now! Keep on reading!

Two paintings defined his life–one, a private grief; the other, a public scandal.

When I first started thinking about this novel, in 1999, I focused on Sargent’s enigmatic “Portraits d’Enfants”, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1883. The four daughters of Edward and Isa Boit are presented, for a portrait, in a most unusual way:  the eldest daughter (Florence, 14) has barely a profile of her face to show us who she is. She and her sister Jane (age 12) almost sink into the dark brown shadows of the room beyond the hall where they are posed in the family’s Paris residence on Rue Hauptmann. It’s possible the two older girls are holding hands, but not clear. What is clear is that they are all separated in space, and maybe affection, as the two younger girls (Mary-Louisa, 8 and Julia, 4) stand or sit far from each other and their two older sisters. Their pinafores are almost uniforms, stiff and virtually undifferentiated. There are no smiles, just blank or thoughtful stares into the middle distance. An art critic at the time dubbed it “four corners and a void” after a well-known children’s game (sort of a tag-you’re-it within four “corners”), which seemed to me to express the psychological darkness that looms in the atmosphere.

The painting intrigued me, and I “knew” there was a story there, so in 2008 I began writing what I thought was going to be a novel telling this story. But when I was about half way into it, things changed, as they so often do in writing. After reading three biographies and numerous letters of the artist, I have found that my novel has come to be a searching portrait of the artist himself, John Sargent, much in the same way (I say this with all humility) as is Colm Toibin’s haunting novel of Henry James (“The Master”). My novel covers the years 1882-1884, extraordinarily creative years for Sargent, during which he painted perhaps his two most significant paintings, one of them being the “Daughters.”
The other portrait is the famous “Madame X”, which I recently viewed at the New York Met. A magnificent painting, it looms large in the legend of Sargent’s career, and was the flashpoint of a heady scandal that rocked the world of art and high society in Paris in 1884. “Madame X” was an American woman, Amelie Gautreau, born in New Orleans and transplanted to Paris at an early age by her ambitious mother. At the time of the portrait, she was about 24 years old, just two years younger than Sargent, married to a ‘dwarfish’ wealthy Frenchman, and had a little girl. There was evidently a frisson of sorts between Amelie and Sargent—she was notoriously “sexual” in her presentation of herself in society. But Sargent was also drawn to emotional entanglements with young men—it was an interesting time—and it makes for some very intriguing story-telling.

After reading three biographies of Sargent, poring through numerous art books and critical essays, as well as letters and notes, this novel has turned into a very exciting journey of emotional, artistic and psychological exploration into a man’s life, work and soul. After writing the whole novel with a third-person omnisicient narrator, I decided to revise it and make it a multiple-first-person format, with several of Sargent’s closest friends and most famous sitters be the “Portraits” who tell their own stories about their connection with him–and through their voices we gain multiple and often intimate understandings of the artist himself.

N.B. “Madame X” is on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; the “Portraits d’Enfants” is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Two very fine books about these paintings are “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X” by Deborah Davis, and “Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting” by Erica Hirshler. 

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent
Madame X, by John Singer Sargent 

Why I wrote “J”

Over the winter of 2006-2007, I read Harold Bloom’s “The Book of J” – an enthralling literary critique of Genesis and Exodus, accompanied by a stunning, elemental new translation from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg. The translated passages were the only ones that scholars contend can be attributed to the “J” author of the Old Testament, hence, The Book of J.  In Bloom’s critique, he surmises that “J” may very well have been a woman, a member of the royal court of David, and one whose irreverant and humorous attitude toward Yahweh, the patriarchs and religion itself would have naturally led to subsequent priestly censorship.

Scholars agree that the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”) was written and composed over many hundreds of years by different people.  The oldest or earliest sections of the text were probably composed at Jerusalem in the tenth century B.C.E. (“before the common era”) during the reigns of David and Solomon.  Later versions often completely suppressed earlier stories for political, social or religious reasons; sometimes duplicate versions were just tagged on, and of course, many new stories, histories, poetry and polemics were added as time went on.

“J” stands for the original author, the “Yahwist” named for Yahweh – or Jahweh, in the German spelling, as it was German theological scholars who started this author naming process in the 19th century. They named this first author after the name of God most frequently used in those texts. The later strands of Bible stories in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are all revisions or censorings of J, and their authors are known as “E” (Elohist for “Elohim,” the plural name of God used for Yahweh in that version); “P” for the Priestly Author or School that wrote Leviticus; “D” for the author(s) of Deuteronomy; and “R” for the Redactor (or revisionist/editor) who performed the  “final” revision after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian Exile.

After reading Professor Bloom’s book, I was compelled to write my own story of J, and how she came to be The Woman Who Wrote the Bible.  Here’s a taste of the novel.