Boarding school and cosy crime have proved a perfect mix for children’s author Robin Stevens, whose fifth book in the A Murder Most Unladylike series, which has proved extremely popular with both readers and critics, will be published by Penguin Random House Children’s in October.
Mistletoe and Murder opens only a month after the end of Jolly Foul Play, which saw Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells (a.k.a. The Detective Society) solve a bonfire night murder. This time the girls are in Cambridge at Christmas, visiting Daisy’s brother Bertie. They also friend George, has his own detective society, The Junior Pinkertons. The two agencies go head to head in an attempt to solve a series of pranks—however, when a corpse is found, the young detectives turn their talents to working out who committed murder.
The combination of Christmas and murder is “perfect” for cosy crime, according to US-born Stevens, who had always wanted to set a story in Cambridge, but based the college in which the murder takes place on the Oxford college (Pembroke) where she grew up.
Stevens has brought back several recurring characters—such as Daisy’s glamorous but mysterious Uncle Felix and Alexander’s friend George (first mentioned in book three)—into the main part of the action. George is British-Indian and Stevens, as she has in the other books in the series to date, took pains to highlight the racism of the 1930s. Hazel is from Hong Kong and she has to put up with ignorant racial comments on many occasions.
“It’s something that’s still massively problematic now,” she says. “I get to sneak it into my books because it’s about history, so people feel a bit safer saying that racism is bad, because they’re talking about what happened then. But I do feel like not much has changed.”
She also wants to challenge the attitude that immigration started in the 1950s and ‘60s. “You think British history is totally white but it’s just not true. There were already Indian women at university in England in the 1890s and by the 1930s there were thousands of British-Indian or Indian students at university.”
To get the portrayal of George right, Stevens worked with Inclusive Minds, an “incredible” organisation that promotes diversity and inclusivity in children’s literature and runs a consultation scheme. The company gave Stevens’ manuscript to a group of Indian women, who checked the story for authenticity, something the writer says was “invaluable” in putting the narrative together.
Across the board
The first book in the A Murder Most Unladylike series, fittingly titled Murder Most Unladylike, was published in June 2014, although the idea for a boarding-school murder mystery had been brewing in Stevens’ imagination since she was around 12 years old.
“I graduated from The Famous Five and The Secret Seven to Agatha Christie and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if there were actual kids in a murder mystery?” she explains. “Then I went to boarding school and I remember thinking what a great place it would be to set a murder.”
She also wanted to write about her school experience (she went to Cheltenham Ladies College) because most books don’t reflect the “good and the bad” realities of boarding-school life. “At school I made friends with people I’m still friends with now but [the boarding experience] was more problematic than I had been led to expect from reading books such as [Enid Blyton’s] Malory Towers. It can be rule-bound and insular, which is hard if you’re different in any way. I’m white, I’m blonde, the only thing that’s different about me in my accent and I still grew up feeling like I couldn’t quite sit at the table.”
Stevens started writing the book as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2010 and the first murder victim, murderer and method never changed from her first draft—but she did spend a couple of years “messing with it”before sending the manuscript to Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency. The book was soon snapped up by Natalie Doherty at what was then Random House Children’s.
Her average day now consists of writing 1,500–2,000 words, although before starting any new book she spends a few weeks working out the structure, including the intricately planned plots, which are mapped out on spreadsheets.
“I do a massive spreadsheet of the murder, with the time of the murder and where everyone was in five-minute chunks leading up to it,” she explains. “It helps me get into the heads of the different characters, understand their motives and make sure their alibis work. Everybody has to be in the right place at the right time and all the clues have to be seeded.”
Her books have so far proved hugely popular with readers, especially eight to 12-year-old girls, and Murder Most Unladylike won a Waterstones Book Prize last year. When asked why her stories took off, she suggests: “There’s something so compelling about murder because it’s the most horrible thing that could happen to somebody. Murder mysteries are about life and death and you want to think about that when you’re a kid.”
There will be “at least” another two books in the series and the sixth—set in Hazel’s birthplace, Hong Kong— will be out next autumn. She also has a commission to write a follow-up to Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, which was published in 2007. She hasn’t started writing the story yet, so won’t reveal too much of the plot. But Stevens has a storyline in mind that was inspired by a trip to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she watched its staff dismantling an exhibition and replacing it with a new slew of art.
For Stevens it will be “strange” and “exciting” to write about characters other than Hazel and Daisy, but she won’t be giving up on Wells and Wong any time soon. “I’ve signed up for seven books but I would love to keep going, either doing spin-offs or keeping up with the main series. I just have so many ideas.”
Editor: Natalie Doherty
Agent: Gemma Cooper, The Bent Agency
This article appeared in The Bookseller magazine on 22nd July 2016.