by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review of The Mitford Trial by Jessica Fellowes and an interesting interview with Jessica. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to purchase it from Amazon and an indie bookstore.
The Mitford Trial: A Mitford Murders series By Jessica Fellowes
Review by Sandra Murphy
Louisa Cannon has been a lady’s maid to the Mitford family since she first went into service at age nineteen. Now she’s taking classes to be a court reporter and is getting married. She won’t be on equal footing with the wealthy Mitfords, but she’ll no longer be at their beck and call.
At least that was the plan. Diana, married to Bryan but unhappy about it, has taken a lover—Oswald Mosley, a political troublemaker. Younger sister Unity is fascinated by Germany’s new leader—Hitler. She feels the German people are not smart enough to decide what’s best for them. In the midst of Diana’s divorce, it’s decided the two sisters will travel with their mother, partly by train and then on a ship. It will serve the purpose of getting Diana away from potential gossip, prevent her from being seen with another man during the divorce, and keep Unity properly chaperoned—by Louisa.
Louisa first turns down the job but reconsiders when she’s approached by an agent from MI5. He asks her to report back on anything out of the ordinary and on what the sisters are up to. Little did Louisa know, out of the ordinary would include extramarital affairs, murder, and espionage.
Louisa’s husband, Guy, is a police officer. He arranges to be on the ship for two days as a surprise but is in for a shock when his detective skills are needed to sort out the clues and garbled accounts of what happened onboard.
In the end, which is more important, individual lives or the survival of a country?
Based on the lives of the six Mitford sisters, the story gives an insight into the life of the wealthy from the point of view of a lady’s maid. The rules of society are strict and broken only in the direst of circumstances.
This is the fourth book in the series. Fellowes is the author of The Mitford Murders novels as well as the New York Times bestselling official companion books to the Downton Abbey TV series. The twists and turns will keep readers turning the pages to follow Louisa’s dangerous assignment and her ability to reconcile it with her own beliefs and those of her husband.
Interview with Jessica Fellowes:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Jessica: Professionally for twenty years, first as a journalist, then as the author of non-fiction books and now as a novelist.
KRL: When did your first novel come out, what was it called, and can you tell us a little about it?
Jessica: My first novel was The Mitford Murders, published in 2017, and it was the start of the series I’m still writing. There will be six books altogether and I’m currently writing the fifth. Each book is focused on a different Mitford sister, real-life women who lived in the between-the-wars era. In the first book, Nancy Mitford and her (fictional) nursery maid Louisa Cannon try to solve the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore. She was the goddaughter of her namesake and a nurse in the First World War, tragically killed in a train carriage in 1919. The murderer was never found.
Not every book in the series has real-life crimes but I try to root as much as possible in terms of character and plot in historical events. Honestly, most of it is so crazy you couldn’t make it up!
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Jessica: In fiction, yes. In non-fiction I’ve been a ghostwriter for business leaders and forensic psychologists, but I’m best known for the official companion books to Downton Abbey. The television series and film were created and written by my uncle, Julian Fellowes; in the books I explored the inspirations he took from history and our family.
KRL: How fun! What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series?
Jessica: I’ve had a fascination with the 1920s and 1930s for a long time, sparked initially when I read the works of F Scott-Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker. I then had five years steeped in the period when researching the Downton books. It made sense to keep writing in that setting, I’m at home there and I’m still fascinated by it.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Jessica: The story is always the most important element! I want readers to keep turning the page, but my favourite response from readers is when they tell me that my novels inspired them to find out more about the Mitford sisters, to borrow history books about the period and keep learning. Nostalgia can be dangerous, but I think reflection on the past can be instructive for our futures.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Jessica: I’m a fairly disciplined writer, which probably began with journalism and the tight deadlines I had to meet. Writing is my job, so I treat it like one. I show up at my desk every day for several hours. That’s not to say I don’t procrastinate but I’ve come to recognise that that’s part of the process.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Jessica: I generally plan the crime and the overall theme. I know who my characters are, and where they need to be by the end of the novel and the changes they’ll have endured. I don’t always know how they’ll get there – that’s the fun bit. About three-quarters of the way through, I read over everything I’ve done so far and try to detangle the plot knots and work out the ending more carefully.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Jessica: I pretty much do write at my ideal time – after the school run and gym, I’m at my desk until my son gets home. I feel as if I’m always just hitting my stride around 4pm, just as I have to stop, but I think that’s a trick my mind plays on me.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Jessica: No, I was lucky because I had a decent reputation in journalism as deputy editor of Country Life magazine, so that helped me get an agent. I had to pitch for my first couple of book jobs but once you’re published, you’re in.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Jessica: For The Mitford Murders series I was lucky enough to be approached with the concept by my publisher, Ed Wood at Little, Brown in the UK. We had come across each other very briefly in the past when he was editing a trade magazine and I’d written a piece for him about Downton Abbey. I thanked him for coming to me with the novels – it was extraordinary to be signed as an author before I’d written a word – and he said, ‘it was because when you wrote for me before you were quick, hit your deadline and were pleasant to deal with.’ Well, thank goodness it was that week!
KRL: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Jessica: When I was promoting the Downton Abbey books, I spent about five years going on speaking tours around America and that was a fantastic experience. I felt that I got to see the ‘real’ America, not just the tourist destinations. I met some wonderful communities and the fervour and enthusiasm with which they greeted me, and the story of Downton was always huge fun. Audiences would turn up in costume, there were big parties – I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of it.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Jessica: To keep being paid and getting published! I’m getting to that point in my writing now where I can see that I’m developing and getting better, and there are more risks that I want to take. To get that confidence and try to hold onto it is the biggest challenge.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Jessica: I love reading about and listening to other writers. There’s no magic bullet to writing a novel – you have to sit down and write – but I can’t get enough of hearing about other people’s processes, their writing spaces, their disciplines and tips. But to read: Anne Tyler, Charlotte Brontë, Evelyn Waugh, Bernadine Evaristo, Sally Rooney, Anne Patchett… there’s a long list!
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Jessica: When I’m looking for a particular historical event or person, I’ll trawl the internet, like anyone else. I’m especially grateful to archived newspapers, genealogical sites and resources shared by museums. Otherwise, I read as much as possible – memoirs, biographies, diaries. I prefer firsthand to second hand but there are some excellent historians out there.
KRL: What do you read?
Jessica: I’ve always been a big reader and I’ve never stuck to any particular genre, and I’ve tried as many different kinds of books as possible. I don’t read science fiction or fantasy much, but I’ll given anything a go. I never feel as if I have enough time to read but it’s amazing how much time you find when you’ve got a great book on the go – then I’ll snatch a few minutes even while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil. I probably finish 30 books a year and read about half of another 30. Life’s too short to read a bad book.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Jessica: It depends on the mood, doesn’t it? Schitt’s Creek was remarkable television, I watched all six series twice and I pretty much credit it with getting my family through lockdown nights. I May Destroy You was also extraordinary for completely different reasons. I love crime, of course, and constantly analyse what works, what doesn’t, how clues are sprinkled throughout: Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch is a masterclass for this.
Movies: His Girl Friday, Philadelphia Story, When Harry Met Sally, Grease, Mary Poppins – all great comfort films.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Jessica: No one has confidence in their writing, even the most established authors, so don’t wait for that, just get going. If you’ve got a story to tell, it’s a story worth hearing. Get it down, keep moving forward and wait until you’ve got to ‘THE END’ before you edit and judge. The best advice comes from Stephen King: write with the door closed. That is, don’t let anyone into the book, don’t let them read any of it, until you’ve finished the first draft.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Jessica: Think we’ve covered quite a lot but I love hearing from readers so if there are any other questions, please do get in touch with me via any of the social media sites below.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Jessica: I’ve been deaf all my life and my superpower is being able to lipread accents. I discovered this watching Instagram videos with the sound off, ha ha!
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win a copy of The Mitford Trial, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “mitford,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 27, 2021. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like. BE AWARE THAT IT WILL TAKE MUCH LONGER THAN USUAL FOR WINNERS TO GET THEIR BOOKS DUE TO THE CURRENT CRISIS.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up this week.
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