Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome Carol K. Carr, author of the fabulous new series from Berkley Prime Crime, the India Black Espionage mysteries. When Carol contacted me and told me that she had a new mystery series set during the Victorian era featuring a madam as the main character coming out, she didn't have to ask twice if I wanted to read it.
Here is a little taste from the back cover:
When Sir Archibald Latham of the War Office dies from a heart attack while visiting her brothel, Madam India Black is unexpectedly thrust into a deadly game between Russian and British agents who are seeking the military secrets Latham carried. Blackmailed into recovering the missing documents by the British spy known as French, India finds herself dodging Russian agents—and the attraction she starts to feel for her handsome conspirator.
I was intrigued from the very first page. India is a fascinating, mysterious, sarcastic, clever, and stubborn character. The book takes the reader on a joyride from the seemier side of London to the halls of power at Whitehall. If you love history and you love mysteries, run out and purchase a copy of this book.
Welcome to Scandalous Women Carol. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started writing?
I grew up and attended college in Missouri, and then moved to Washington, D.C., where I obtained a law degree from George Washington University in 1982. I practiced law and served as a corporate executive for several years, and then retired back to the Ozarks with my husband and our two German Shepherds. I’d always had an interest in writing, but couldn’t seem to find the time for it (climbing the corporate ladder is sooo time-consuming). After I stopped working, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. The first was terrible, the second found an agent but no publisher, and the third was India Black.
India Black is an interesting choice for the protagonist in a mystery series being the madam of a brothel and a former whore. What was your inspiration for India? Was there a real-life madam who inspired the character?
There were some notable madams during the Victorian Era. Mrs. Jeffries, who lived in Westminster, was renowned for her aristocratic clientele, including certain royal “personages.” I also wanted India to have an upper class clientele, though she hasn’t reached the top rung yet. But the real inspiration for her is a character named Harry Flashman, who featured in a series of novels by George Macdonald Fraser. Flashman is despicable, but hilarious. I wanted to write a sort of female counterpart to him, with a heroine who was street smart, adventurous, acerbic, and inclined to flout Victorian conventions, but just a bit nicer than Flashman. A madam in a brothel fit the bill perfectly.
I’m a huge lover of the Victorian era; I swear I must have lived during that period in a former life. On the surface there is sheen of respectability, the rise of industrialization and technological advancement, but there’s a darker underbelly to the period. Can you tell us about the research? Was there anything you learned about the period that you didn’t know before?
I share your fascination. The Victorian age is by far my favorite period of British history. I’ve been a history buff since grade school, and consequently I’ve read a lot of material about this period. I have a lot of useless, but interesting, facts crammed into my brain (taking up valuable space, by the way), and so I was familiar with the major events and people of the era. There were specific questions I researched, however, to ensure the book has the level of detail and authenticity I enjoy in historical fiction. I had to spend some time studying British revolvers, Cossack guards, and Russian aristocratic names. The most surprising thing I encountered was Gladstone’s habit of prowling the streets trying to “convert” prostitutes. Then he went home and wrote up an account of his temptations in his diary.
I was intrigued by the backdrop of the novel, the fact that it involved espionage. French is an intriguing and mysterious character, much like India herself. Was there an organized system of spies the way there is now with MI-5, MI-6 etc?
By no means am I an expert on this topic, but generally militaries would have had an intelligence organization devoted to discovering the capabilities of potential foes. Domestic security and counterintelligence in England were fairly informal at this time, with both Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police of London (and other police departments, as well) keeping tabs on rabble-rousers and foreign agents in their areas. I did not think it stretching the point too much to have the prime minister have his own agents, like French, keeping an eye on intelligence efforts generally.
The novel involves several real life characters including Disraeli and his great rivalry with Gladstone. I find Disraeli to be one of the most fascinating men in English history. Was it easy or hard incorporating real life historical personages in the book?
I love Disraeli, too. And including these two men was not difficult at all. Both were larger than life characters, with some quirky character traits that translate really well to fiction – Disraeli’s verbosity and ego, for example, and Gladstone’s pious instincts.
India Black deals with a time in English history that most Americans know little about, the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and England's role in the conflict. What intrigued you about it?
One of my other interests is British colonial history, and you don’t read many books about that before you stumble on to “The Great Game,” played by Britain and Russia during the Victorian era. Britain was paranoid that Russia would invade India through Afghanistan, or seal off British access to the Suez Canal. The Russians believed the British were intent on expanding their empire into Central Asia, at Russian expense. So when the Russians began to mutter about the Ottoman massacres of Orthodox Christians, the British assumed the real objective was a warm water port on Ottoman Territory from which the Russians could attack the Suez Canal and cut off British access to their richest colony, India. It was a real chess match between the two countries, and the agents on both sides were fascinatingly accomplished men. It was in some ways a bit like the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
India is a quite the businesswoman! I imagine that was not an easy transition, running your business as a woman even a brothel! Can you tell us a little bit about brothels in the 19th century? They seem almost to be run like gentlemen’s clubs.
I think brothels were very different based upon the clientele they served. There were horrifying houses in the East End, and very nice establishments catering to the aristocracy and political and military leaders. One famous house for the upper class specialized in sadism and masochism. My impression is that prostitution in the Victorian era was very much like it is today – everything from streetwalkers (back then they wanted money for gin, now it’s drugs) to expensive escort services whose customers include the well to do and the well known. We tend to views these things from a moralistic point of view, but the idea of seeing a brothel as a business is fascinating to me. A madam (then and now) faces many of the same problems any Human Resource manager has to deal with on a daily basis.
Since you write mysteries, I have to ask, do you write an extensive outline before you write the book, or do you have a vague idea of the plot before you begin?
I work from an outline. Since I already know what the scene should include and what I’m trying to accomplish within it, I can focus on dialogue and characterization. I’d be completely stressed if I tried to write a novel without knowing how it ends, which means I’d make too many trips to the refrigerator, searching for inspiration.
When you are not working on the India Black mysteries, who or what genre do you like to read in your spare time?
I love vintage mysteries by Josephine Tey, Georgette Heyer, Christianna Brand, Edmund Crispin, and Dorothy Sayers. I’ll read anything by Kate Atkinson, Phil Rickman, Laurie R. King, Sarah Caudwell, and Julia Spencer-Fleming. And I love history and biography. I just finished Michael Korda’s new bio of T. E. Lawrence and thought it was superb.
What are you working on next?
I’ve completed the second book in the India Black series, which I anticipate will be published in 2012. I’ve nearly completed the outline for the third, and will be hard at work on a first draft very soon.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for allowing me to introduce myself to your readers. There is more about India and me on our website at http://www.carolkcarr.com/