Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Q&A with Maureen Johnson

Maureen Johnson, photo by Heather Weston
Maureen Johnson is the author of the new young adult mystery novel Truly Devious, the first in a series. Her other books include 13 Little Blue Envelopes and the Suite Scarlett series. She lives in New York.

Q: In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, you described Truly Devious as "a proper country house mystery, American style." What are some of the key elements of a country house mystery that you employed here?

A: I’m a mystery fan, and when I set out to write this book I wanted to write a proper mystery—one with a detective, one with clues placed along the trail, one where everyone can play along. And the country house mystery is one of the most fun, in my opinion. Truly Devious is all about the game of the mystery.

The country house mystery is about a single, distinctive place—kind of out of the way, so the cast of characters (and therefore the list of suspects) is clear. We know the layout. We know who might be involved. And because the characters usually stay at the location even after the first murder there is always the potential for more. The country house keeps it contained and gives the reader a chance to get to know all the variables!

Q: Did you need to do any particular research on the parts of the book set in the 1930s, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I read a lot about classic crime, and I picked the 1930s for a few reasons. It’s the heyday of the golden age of crime fiction, so a lot of the books I love were written in this period.

But it also was a peak era for certain kinds of crimes. There were several high-profile kidnappings in the 1930s, the most famous of which was the Lindbergh kidnapping. It’s amazing to see how crime scenes were handled—the Lindbergh crime scene had people walking all over it and a complete stranger, a civilian, did the negotiations with the reported kidnapper.

It was completely bananas how the thing was handled. They literally sent some guy who said he was willing to do it. And yet, that case turned on a piece of wood. A single piece of wood.

Arthur Koehler, from the Forest Products Laboratory, took the ladder found at the crime scene and methodically traced it back to where it was produced, and from there to where it was shipped, and finally to a cut beam in the attic of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted and executed for the crime.

This was an incredible piece of work—nobody had seen anything quite like it. That case is an amazing mix of bizarre encounters and brilliant scientific work.

So the 1930s is just a good crime period.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Stevie Bell?

A: Stevie Bell is a true-crime aficionado who wants to be a detective. She’s come to Ellingham Academy, which is one of America’s most prestigious and unusual schools, with the hopes of solving the 1936 kidnapping of the founder’s wife and daughter.

This is an extremely famous case, considered the crime of the century, so the idea that a high school student is going to solve it 80 years later seems absurd to many.

Stevie is into crime. She has to be—she’s the detective. She loves every true crime show. She’s read about all the famous cases. She’s on the biggest cold case forums. She’s got a curated mystery collection. She wants to find a dead body and solve the case.

This is, if I am being honest, me. I was such a mystery obsessive as a kid—I was always a heartbeat away from setting up a private investigation agency on my front porch and asking my neighbors if they had any crimes they wanted solved. I was that kid.

So that’s Stevie—I drew from my own love of these things. I drew from my own experience with anxiety, and possibly my own combative nature. I’m not saying she’s me, but because I love mysteries so much, I drew from the well of my own feelings on the matter.

Also, when you’re a teenager, there’s so much pressure to figure out what you want to be and where you fit in. And what you do best may not necessarily fit in with the group you’re in.

Also, you can feel ridiculous saying your dreams out loud. I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, which generally got the response, “Well, that’s great, Agatha Christie, but what are you really going to do?”

Having the courage to say what you want to become…it’s tough. That’s what Stevie and the others are up against. She has to own being a detective, and that’s hard.

Sidenote: I am still ready to solve cases, if anyone needs a detective.

Q: Did you plot out the entire series before you started this first book, or were there changes along the way?

A: I had to have a structure for all three because a mystery is all about how it ends. Who did it? Why? From there, I worked backwards, putting down the clues, making sure everyone was in the right place at the right time. I created a framework for all three books then I outlined each one.

That isn’t to say I didn’t make changes along the way! I draft, and then I throw out the draft. That’s my way. I’m a draft-trasher. But the fundamentals had to be there, and I always had to go back and check to make sure all the timelines and clues were correct. Mysteries are about planning. So much planning.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Book two, and after that, right into book three! All of Ellingham’s secrets will be laid bare!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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