Friday, September 29, 2023

Q&A with Lyn Squire




Lyn Squire is the author of the new mystery novel Immortalised to Death. It's the first in his Dunston Burnett Trilogy. He worked at the World Bank for 25 years, and he lives in Virginia.


Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on Charles Dickens and his novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood?


A: Actually, it was a huge surprise that I wrote a novel at all. Throughout my 25-year career as a development specialist, I wrote over 30 articles and several books on poverty in the developing world, including the 1990 World Development Report, which introduced the metric – a dollar a day – that is still used to measure poverty worldwide. Nothing here to suggest I would ever write a novel.


And then I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I had always been an avid reader of whodunits, but it was the thrill of solving Charles Dickens’s unfinished story that convinced me to put aside my development pen and turn to fiction.


Charles John Huffam Dickens died on June 9, 1870, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the novel he was then writing, only half finished. He penned the words that closed the sixth installment (of a planned 12) on June 8; the next day he was dead.


The basics of the story as set out by Dickens are these: The sinister John Jasper, choirmaster at Cloisterham Cathedral, is plotting to do away with Edwin, fiancé of Rosa Bud, so that he has a clear field to pursue his own mad obsession with the delightful young lady. Edwin disappears during a storm after a dinner with Jasper. At this critical juncture, Dickens dies, leaving the reader hanging. Was Edwin murdered by Jasper? And, if so, how was Jasper brought to justice?


Everyone who reads the completed half of the Drood mystery inevitably tries to guess what happened in the story’s unwritten half and, with luck, solve the mystery.


Imagine my delight then when a clue that had not previously been explored by anyone popped up before my astonished eyes. That clue led me to a fresh solution to Dickens’s story and that in turn became the plot for my novel, Immortalised to Death.    


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: I first read several biographies of the author (including John Forster’s 900-page monster) and several biographies of secondary characters.


I also read all of his novels because I wanted to make sure that when my protagonist wrote his continuation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, he stayed true to the literary tendences of the great author himself.


And I visited Gadshill Place, Dickens’s home in Kent, to make sure that the book’s description of the house was as faithful to the original as possible. I actually stood in his study where the murder in my novel is supposedly perpetrated.


I also walked down the drive and crossed Gravesend Road for a glass of ale in the 17th-century Sir John Falstaff Inn, the scene of another incident in my book.


By the time I’d finished my one-day visit, I felt comfortable that what I wrote about the novelist’s home and its setting would be accepted without question by most readers, even those who have toured Gadshill Place themselves.


This may sound like a lot of work, but to my mind it was more of an opportunity to learn about a truly fascinating man who accomplished so much in his 58 years.


And there was a surprise. Dickens’s separation from his wife of 14 years and 10 births is well documented. But it took an incredible 60 years after his death, and then it was only by chance, before his illicit liaison with Ellen Ternan, a former stage actress, came to light.


A diary of his was found in New York that, although written in code, made clear his relationship with her from their first meeting in a Manchester theatre in 1849 – she was 18, Dickens 37 – to his death in 1870. It’s extraordinary that the affair was kept out of the public eye for such a long time in news-hungry London.      

Q: What did you see as the right balance between Dickens' life and work and your own take on the two?


A: As attested by my account of the research I undertook for my story, I definitely wanted to stay true to Dickens’s life and writings, and of course to the completed half of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens wrote over a dozen marvelously sprawling stories and introduced the world to some wonderful characters.


That said, and this is obviously a matter of personal taste, I find many of his novels rather long-winded and too wordy. I like best his shorter books like Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities (my number one choice) and Hard Times, and this, I believe, is because I like stories with a strong plot, whereas Dickens built stories around his characters.


Think of The Pickwick Papers, his first major literary success. The monthly installments of this story recount a series of humorous incidents and embarrassing adventures linked, not by a continuous storyline laid out in advance, but by the foibles and eccentricities of the Pickwick Club members.


While this tendency to let the characters drive the story remained throughout his career, he did introduce more structure into his later novels and eventually adopted the practice of preparing notes outlining each story, the earliest surviving set being for Dombey and Son, published in 1848.


How did I square my desire to stay close to the Dickensian “truth” and yet end up with a tight story? I employed three writing devices in Immortalised to Death for this purpose.


First, I made sure that all references to Dickens’s life and work, and to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, were historically accurate.


Second, I kept to a tautly scripted plot even when I made a change in the ending late in the day (see below).


And third, I glued everything together with some Dickens-echoing humor brought in through both secondary characters (such as the twin-like Burt and Gert Mawgsby, the grasping pair who run Heaven’s Haven, a home for orphans and foundlings) and minor scenes (such as Dickens’s cook using her pie-making skills to attract the romantic attentions of Stingo Pete).


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: The story was carefully plotted from start to finish before I began writing. I did however make one change as the novel unfolded.


Immortalised to Death opens with the death of Charles Dickens, his latest tale only half told. Believing the novelist was poisoned to prevent him completing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, my protagonist scours the half-finished manuscript in search of pointers as to how the story might unfold and whom it might threaten.


Knowing the writer’s storytelling tendencies better than anyone, he eventually figures out the intended ending -- a chilling, prison-cell confession. Better yet, he recognizes the real-life counterpart behind the damning portrait of the villain.


But has he found the killer? A second murder opens the literary sleuth’s eyes to the real confession in the story’s final chapter -- the author’s disclosure (as envisaged by Dunston) of his own shameful secret. Armed with this new insight, Dunston follows a series of tenuous clues across London until he finally tracks down the guilty party. 


The above was the complete story as envisaged in my original plot. As the writing progressed, however, I saw the opportunity for one final twist. Dunston’s suspect is far from guiltless but is not the person who dosed Charles Dickens’s drinking water with strychnine. The real culprit is finally revealed to the reader in the penultimate chapter and to Dunston not until the very last one.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m completing two more stories in The Dunston Burnett Trilogy.


I wanted a protagonist for Immortalised to Death who was far from typical detective material. This thought led to the creation of Dunston Burnett, a diffident, middle-aged, retired bookkeeper. For a quick mental image of him, think of a latter-day Mr Pickwick.


He does, however, have two talents. He has what his policeman friend calls “pre-ductions,” insights that jump well beyond the known facts and may or may not prove prescient. And once he gets his teeth into something, he has the perseverance of King Bruce’s spider.


The question confronting Dunston (and the reader) then, is this: Are his limited detective skills – pre-ductions and tenacity – anywhere near enough to unravel the apparently perfect murders he encounters?


This tension between Dunston Burnett’s limitations as a detective and the apparently unsolvable mysteries confronting him is carried forward into two other stories comprising The Dunston Burnett Trilogy.


How does Dunston fare? Suffice it to say here that the picture is mixed. In Immortalised to Death (published by Level Best Books on Sept. 26 of this year) Dunston’s envisioned conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood takes him a long way towards solving a bigger mystery surrounding the death of Dickens himself, but perhaps not quite all the way as mentioned above.


Book number two, Fatally Inferior (forthcoming in September 2024) is set against the furor generated by the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. In this story, Dunston unearths the motive behind a woman’s disappearance but is that enough to lead him to the killer?


The third, The Séance of Murder (forthcoming in September 2025), has as its backdrop the spiritualist movement that swept through Victorian England in the late 19th century. Here the issue is more dire: can Dunston expose the murderer of the heir to the Crenshaw Baronetcy before he himself is done away with?


If any of these stories generate interest, I will look for a new character and start another series. If they turn out to be duds, I’ll take up golf.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes. If you want to know more about my books and about other authors’ mysteries, please visit my website at Here you will find updates on my books and reviews of my favorites among recently released mysteries by other authors.


And, if you want to read Immortalised to Death, it is available at I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment