Anne Miller is all about the books. This month, she talks murder mystery for children with author Robin Stevens.
Robin Stevens, author of the award-winning children’s series Murder Most Unladylike, took home the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Younger Readers earlier this year. A master of multi-tasking, she works full-time in children’s publishing and writes her novels on her commute. We found a rare quiet moment, appropriately surrounded by books in the British Library cafe, to talk about the horrors of first drafts, telepathic stories and getting away with (writing about) murder.
Stevens’ books are set in the 1930s and revolve around best friend schoolgirl detectives Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells who set up their own Detective Society at Deepdean School For Girls. Their caseload escalates quickly from missing ties to murder when their science mistress Miss Bell is killed.
As the Society’s Secretary, Hazel is tasked with writing up their adventures, playing Watson to Society President Daisy’s Holmes. Hazel herself doesn’t particularly mind: “This is probably fair. After all, I am much too short to be the heroine of this story, and who ever heard of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes?” but there is joy to be had in watching her grow in skill and confidence as the series progresses.
The series, described as ‘Agatha Christie for 10–12 year olds’, combines Stevens’ love of Golden Age crime novels – she holds an MA in crime fiction, writing her thesis about the real-life Victorian crimes which inspired 1930s novels – with her own experiences at boarding school.
Her schooldays included boarding houses, Latin and Games but were “a bit more problematic than the Enid Blytons that I read.” Her school’s ‘bunbreaks’ appear in the novels, providing Daisy and Hazel with regular cakes to fuel their exploits.
The odds of Stevens becoming a bookworm were always heavily stacked. Her father was the Master of Pembroke College at Oxford University so she grew up “like Lyra from His Dark Materials… [but with] no Dæmons” and lived across the road from the house where Alice Liddell – the real Alice in Wonderland – lived.
She wanted to write from a very young age – she would see her father covering pages in his ‘scribbly’ handwriting before handing it in to be typed. The young Stevens assumed writing worked telepathically: “I had a story, so I scribbled it and gave it to my mum and she was like ‘what’s this? You’ve drawn a beautiful picture,’ and I was like ‘no, it’s a story.’ Um, and then I realised I had to learn how to write and that was a bit depressing.”
Murder Most Unladylike began life as a National Novel Writing Month project – an annual event where writers commit to hitting 50,000 words in one month. Stevens took part in November 2011, having had the idea the previous month and found that the process “teaches you to write fast and to not be picky about how you write.”
This is crucially important for first drafts: “a lot of people get stuck because they want to write something perfect first time and you have to learn that you’re going to write something horrible first.” The trick with NaNoWriMo is that “it isn’t a finished book, it’s the beginning,” and Stevens went through several redrafts before publication in 2014.
“The one [question] I get asked most is, ‘Have you ever plotted to kill someone?’ ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ ‘Have you ever thought about it?’ Also, ‘Do you like cake?’ ‘What kind of cake do you like?’”
Throughout the series Wells and Wong take on different classic murder mystery settings. Following the first mystery they tackle a country house murder in Arsenic For Tea and then solve a case aboard the Orient Express in First Class Murder. Their fourth adventure, Jolly Foul Play, will be published in spring 2016, and sees the girls return to Deepdean where a killer strikes on Bonfire Night.
Stevens manages to write about such a grisly subject for younger readers by focusing on the puzzle element rather than the gore. It also helps that the books are set in the past: “Part of why I can get away with writing about dead bodies for eight-year-olds is that it’s safe, because it’s not now. Hazel and Daisy are in the 1930s and we’re not.”
However, when she does author events it’s a topic her readers are keen to bring up during Q&As: “The one [question] I get asked most is, ‘Have you ever plotted to kill someone?’ ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ ‘Have you ever thought about it?’ Also, ‘Do you like cake?’ ‘What kind of cake do you like?’”
First Class Murder is Stevens’ homage to Murder on the Orient Express and even sees Daisy reading a copy of the Christie classic – savvy readers can build up their own reading lists throughout the series if they keep their eyes peeled for Stevens’ favourite novels making cameos. As part of her research, Stevens boarded the British Pullman, sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, for their 1930s dining experience. Hazel trips and spills her soup after Stevens realised how much the train bounced around and she was able to ramp up the claustrophobia after experiencing just how tight the corridors were.
“All my mysteries are about closed settings and about people being crammed together, and emotions boiling up because there’s nowhere to go.” She also found out there wouldn’t have been a freezer on board so “I had to take away their ice creams!” There were, however, still cakes. No matter how fraught things might get, there is always time for bunbreak.
Robin Stevens’ latest book, First Class Murder, is published by Corgi and is out now, priced £6.993943 Views
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne