This month I interviewed Harriet Steel, the author of The Inspector de Silva Mysteries. The series takes place in Sri Lanka, when it was still called Ceylon, during the late-colonial era. I recently read the first book: “Trouble in Nuala,” which is a wonderful, slower paced, classic-feel mystery novel. The main character, Inspector de Silva, is Sinhalese; his wife, a former governess, is English. The characters and the setting, including the Ceylon culture and the British domination, occupy the center of the story; the mystery itself moves along almost quietly. All combined, this provided a very rewarding read. I knew little about Sri Lanka, but Harriet made the island come alive.
Welcome Harriet. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m married with two grown-up daughters and three grandchildren. My husband and I live in Surrey in the UK. It’s near London but very rural in parts, and we both enjoy walking in the countryside near home. Apart from walking, I like to spend time with family and friends, go to the theatre, visit art galleries, and of course, write.
Originally, I qualified as a lawyer and worked in that field before my writing became more than a hobby. I started with short stories, many of which were published in magazines and anthologies, but I didn’t really plan to be more ambitious. That changed when I was a finalist in a national short story competition run by BBC television.
Part of the prize was a day spent with bestselling UK author, Joanne Harris. It was an inspiring experience. At one point, she was asked what advice she’d give to aspiring writers, and her answer was succinct: drop the word “aspiring” and just write. I decided to take her advice and embark on a novel. I wasn’t sure what to write about though, only that I wanted it to be something historical as I’m a great fan of historical novels as well as mysteries. Then I came across the remarkable story of the notorious, but today little known, Victorian adventuress and dancer, Lola Montez, and knew I’d found the perfect subject. I wrote three more historical novels before turning to crime with The Inspector de Silva Mysteries.
Trouble in Nuala takes place in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1930s; why Sri Lanka and why the specific time period?
It’s the perfect combination of a country I love and the Golden Age of detective fiction.
How did you prepare yourself to feel confident writing about the 1930s AND about a country you don’t live in (in the 1930s!)?
A high-risk choice I admit! But having written several historical novels beforehand, I was used to carrying out research and immersing myself in times past. I think it’s something that gets easier as you gain experience. I read whatever I could lay my hands on, whether it was fiction or non-fiction. I also watched films and looked at images from those times. Google is a wonderful resource!
Can you tell us a little about the main character, Inspector de Silva?
Shanti de Silva is pragmatic but principled with a dry sense of humor. A happily married man, he likes books and gardens as I do. There are so many murder mysteries around that feature detectives with messy private lives. I wanted Shanti to be a normal kind of man who must deal with abnormal situations as part of his job.
What/who is your favorite book/author?
What a difficult question! I read widely and in a variety of moods, so I find it very hard to choose only one book or author. I think we’re incredibly lucky to have such an enormous choice of reading these days. I recently visited an ancient house that’s in the early stages of restoration. A nineteenth-century owner was an avid book collector and in the process of cataloguing the contents of his library, someone found a book of poems that had belonged to King Charles I. From the inscription on the flyleaf, they realised it must have been in his possession while he was waiting in the Tower of London to be executed. The rest of the inscription read Dum respiro spero – While I breathe, I hope. The book was obviously well used. I found it an incredibly moving reminder of how rare and precious books were in the days when only the privileged few had the chance to own them. Indeed, most people couldn’t even read.
However, to make some attempt at answering your question more specifically, in the historical genre, some of my favorite authors are Elizabeth Chadwick and Hilary Mantel. Blending history and mystery, I like S J Paris and C J Sansom. With other mysteries, I’m not fond of anything with a lot of graphic violence; I prefer writers of the Golden Age like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, also contemporary authors such as Elly Griffiths or Will Dean. I love it when a writer conjures up a strong sense of place as they do. I also read a fair few cozy mysteries to keep up with what’s happening in the genre I write in. In the classics, it has to be Jane Austen. I have an enduring weakness for Mr Darcy!
Yes, me too… although in my mind he will always look like Colin Firth.
What’s your writing routine?
I don’t have a rigid one, but I try to write each day, even if I only achieve a few hundred words. You can’t edit what’s not on the page. Ideally, I prefer to write in the morning when I’m at my most alert!
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m working on the seventh book in The Inspector de Silva Mysteries: working title Rough Time in Nuala. The story centers around the machinations of the members of the Royal Nuala Golf Club. It’s a world de Silva has had very little previous contact with. I like to take him out of his comfort zone from time to time.
I look forward to reading it. Thank you, Harriet!