In her recent study Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James writes that “the historical detective story is one of the most difficult to write well, requiring sensitive identification with the past, the ability to bring it vividly to life and meticulous research, but in expert hands it shows no signs of losing its popularity.”
I’m often reading more than one book at a time, and I ran across that passage in the midst of spending some time with Death of a Mill Girl, the first of Clyde Linsley‘s three historical mysteries featuring Josiah Beede. While I’ll admit that I’m not a regular reader of historical mysteries — or historical novels generally — Linsley’s novel seemed to fulfill each of James’ requirements: immersing itself in New England of the 1830s, giving that past a palpable life on the page, paying careful attention to the details (thanks in part to Linsley’s own journalistic background), and as he explains in his afterword, striving to create a true portrait of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the region at the same time that he crafts a compelling fictional story. In short, Linsley’s strike me as an expert’s hands.
Death of a Mill Girl opens with an itinerant peddler’s discovery of the title character’s body — a “snatch of color” in the grass — and the murder quickly shakes up the local community of Warrensboro, New Hampshire, unaccustomed to such inexplicable violence. The corpse is found on the land of Josiah Beede, who has recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he’d served President Andrew Jackson — and who is being actively recruited back to the capital by Martin Van Buren, already gearing up for his own presidency. But Beede’s reputation doesn’t rest solely on his friendship with Old Hickory. One man comments early in the story about Beede’s “ability to resolve puzzling mysteries involving criminal acts,” and later, the Warrensboro constable explicitly asks for Beede’s assistance with the crime at hand. And so follows not just an investigation into the dead girl and her circumstances but also a larger exploration of both a region and a nation in the midst of great change (and just on the verge of greater turmoil ahead).
First released in 2002, Death of a Mill Girl has been recently republished through the Authors Guild Backinprint.com program, and I’m glad to use that occasion to interview Linsley here.
Art Taylor: What first drew you toward telling this story: a desire to write about the time? about the place? an interest in the textile industry? or in the roles of women in relation to mills? What was the spark?
Clyde Linsley: It was the time and place, actually, that started me on this path. When we lived in Connecticut, my wife and I began driving up to Old Sturbridge Village, one of those “living history” museums that seek to replicate the feel of a different time and place – in this case, rural New England of the 1830s and 1840s. I enjoyed the “feel” of a 19th-century New England village and wanted to try to capture that.
As it happened, OSV was trying to raise funds at the time to create a replica early industrial revolution manufacturing village – which never came about, unfortunately. But I thought it would make an ideal setting for a historical mystery.
Josiah Beede is a New Englander by birth but has spent time in the South — ultimately giving him wider perspectives but also making him an outsider in some ways in his new home. You were born in Arkansas but later worked and lived in New England. How did your own outsider perspective help you to write about the place and its people? And what did you learn by writing about the region that you hadn’t learned by living there?
In some ways I think it’s helpful to be an outsider; you see things that wouldn’t catch the attention of someone who was more familiar with the area. A lot of the things I picked up wouldn’t fit into a historical novel, such as the use of the word “tonic” as a synonym for soft drink and “frappe” as a term for “milk shake.” (In New England, a frappe contains ice cream; a milk shake doesn’t.) And “regular coffee” in New England means precisely the opposite of what the term means back home in Arkansas. At home, “regular” coffee is black.
But you can also see the similarities. For example, I discovered that racial attitudes in New England were quite similar to those I saw in the South. I touched on that a bit in Death of a Mill Girl, and it figured much more strongly in the two books that followed.
Something else I learned in the process of researching these books: the name “Linsley” is fairly common in New England but apparently quite rare in the South. Every Arkansas Linsley I know is a relative of mine; in New England I kept stumbling on other Linsleys – especially in Connecticut, where I was living. They’d see my byline in the newspaper and get in touch with me, so I began spending some time in the Connecticut State Library, looking up Linsleys in Connecticut history. There’s a bunch.
The novel gives us a window on the 1830s — offering glimpses at the political landscape, at gender relations, at racial tensions. As a writer of historical fiction, do you also keep another eye on how the story speaks to today’s issues (or to the issues of 2002, in this case)?
Yes. Especially race relations, but also the role that religion played in people’s personal and private lives. It wasn’t always a positive role.
Berkeley originally published Death of a Mill Girl, as well as two other Josiah Beede mysteries — Saving Louisa and Die Like A Hero — but unfortunately those editions are out of print now. Can you tell me a little about the Authors Guild Backinprint.com program and what that offers?
It’s an interesting program. Essentially, you can apply to the guild and, if approved, you can have an out-of-print book republished at no charge. The book has to meet certain qualifications: original publication has to have been through a legitimate royalty publishing house, for example, and you have to have regained the rights from your original publisher.
Then iUniverse reprints the book, generally, as a POD trade paperback, by scanning the original. They acquire the new ISBN and register the copyright, and the book is listed with Amazon and with Barnes & Noble online.
I’d had my doubts, originally, until I came across one of Donald E. Westlake’s books, which had received the Back in Print treatment. I figured: good enough for Westlake, good enough for me.
The book has the problems of most print-on-demand books – notably that they aren’t available through the usual distributors, and they aren’t generally returnable. I think I’ve solved that problem – or at least alleviated it – because I bought up sufficient quantities that allow me to offer it to retailers on the usual 60-40 fully returnable basis.
Retailers, are you listening?
In addition to re-presenting that earlier title, are you working on a new book?
Yes, I am: one contemporary and one sort of quasi-historical. And let me tell you, they’re both pains in the butt.