Ssshhh, we're reading: Emma Stonex's THE LAMPLIGHTERS

Most of my reading year-to-date has been quite distant from the 19th century, though it's included some splendid books. An early favorite was Emma Stonex's The Lamplighters, an extraordinarily rich and atmospheric debut novel that is at once a locked-room mystery, a ghost story, a historical novel and a family and relationship drama. The story was loosely inspired by the never-explained disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900 Scotland. Stonex's novel shifts the location to Britain's southern coast and the timeframe to the second half of the 20th century: in her narrative, the vanishing takes place in the 1970s and the "case" is explored again in the 1990s.  I'll save my full review for next month, since the book doesn't appear in either the UK or the US until March 4, but I urge you to put it on your reading list now!

It's always fascinating to see the differences in cover treatments on the different sides of the proverbial pond. The image around which this text wraps is the cover of the American edition, from Viking. It's very attractive, and also true to both Stonex's description of the lighthouse and to the sense of unspoken isolation that pervades the story. Yet it feels quite a bit more conventional than the novel itself, which mixes genres and plays with the ineffable quite fearlessly. And it also feels rather close in mood and color scheme to the cover of M.L. Steadman's The Light Between Oceans

The cover art for the British (Picador) edition, depicted below, is more interesting. I can easily imagine it being less appealing to readers, yet I very much like its boldness and the indirect suggestion of both mystery and the 1970s in the marbled-paper effect. (Admittedly, you may not get that same 70s vibe if you weren't as saturated in rock-concert light shows and tie-dyed everything as I was during that decade.) In any case, an intriguing contrast in mood and strategy. 


I fell in love with Jennifer's sharp comic prose on the first line of her first book, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc. I was fortunate enough to be assigned her second Anna Blanc mystery, The Body in the Camphor Trunk, to review for Publishers Weekly, and then again to review her third, The Body in Griffith Park, for the magazine. To find out more, visit Jennifer's website; it has lots of fun content, and if you sign up for her email list, you can download additional goodies including some of the public-domain books—a coroner’s manual, a cookbook, mystery novels, books by humorists—that inform the novels and their storylines. Her extraordinary Pinterest is loaded thousands and thousands of period photographs related to series' era, locations, fashions and more. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well. And of course, we encourage you to buy her books, which can be ordered on Amazon, Audible, and through your local bookstore.

Your “day job” is in the field of research science. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer as well? How do you juggle the demands of these two very different professional worlds?

I am stupidly busy, and my house is a wreck. If you work, write, and have kids, something has got to give. If I don’t make my bed, no real harm is done. So I prioritize family and writing.

For years, I was on the research faculty at UCLA doing health policy studies. It wasn’t until my 40s that I even thought about writing fiction. In fact, I remember telling my husband, “I can write non-fiction, but I could never make up a story.” But once I started writing fiction, I couldn’t stop. Of course, I was terrible at first. I had to put in my hours reading books on creative writing and practicing.

More recently, I’ve switched to criminal justice research. (My office is inside the secure area of a jail.) Inmates are almost all trauma victims. They are often mentally ill and homeless. Most have traumatic brain injuries. Substance abuse is rampant. They are poor, disproportionately of color, and of low educational attainment. Now they are vulnerable to COVID-19 as more inmates test positive.
Seeing them and working with their data informs my novels, since my protagonist, Anna Blanc, works in a jail.


I'm pleased to introduce Katharine Schellman, whose debut historical mystery novel appeared yesterday from Crooked Lane Books, to Society Nineteen readers today. The Body in the Garden finds recent widow Lily Adler moving to London and trying to reinvent her life; when the murdered corpse of a young man turns up in a friend's garden during a society ball, she finds a surprising new purpose. In addition to an absorbing mystery, Katharine delivers a rich, nuanced look at life in 1815 London. Find out more about the author on her websitesign up on the site to read a free Lily Adler short mystery, see her featured on BookPage, follow her on Facebook, and of course, buy the book on Amazon, through your local independent bookstore, or the other venue of your choice. Many thanks to Katharine for speaking with So19!

Like my own, your professional life has been a varied one. Could you talk a little about your background and how you came to write a historical mystery?

I’m a former actor, a trained dancer, and a one-time political consultant. But I always wanted to be a writer: I think the first time I told my parents I was going to write books one day I was six years old!

I didn't necessarily expect to write a historical mystery, though. All my "novels in a drawer" (and there are several on my hard drive that will never see the light of day again) are in other genres. Before I started writing the book that eventually became The Body in the Garden, it wasn't a genre I had ever pictured myself writing in, even though it was one I loved reading. I generally start with characters, rather than plot. So for a while, I had these people in my head, and I wasn't sure what would bring them together in this setting. When I finally realized it was a dead body, everything just clicked: " Oh, that's what they're doing here!"


Society Nineteen interviewed author Anna Lee Huber upon the publication of A Study in Death in 2015, and we're delighted to welcome her back to the journal in 2020.  Today, Anna talks with us about the eighth Lady Darby mystery, A Stroke of Malice, which appears today from Berkley and can be ordered from as well as through your local independent bookstore. You can read our earlier interview here, find out more about Anna and her work on her website and follow her on Facebook among other social media sites. All that said, many thanks to Anna, and let's get this conversation started!

Let’s solace the isolation of social distancing by starting with a giant fictional party! In 2014’s A Grave Matter, you depicted a traditional Scottish Hogmanay celebration. This time around, Kiera and Sebastian are invited to an English Twelfth Night party. Tell readers a little about that tradition—a very weird and elaborate one, I might add!—and why you chose it as the occasion for this book.

Haha! I’ve wanted to set a book during a Twelfth Night Party for years. I read up on the tradition some time ago, and instantly knew that it would not only be fun to write, but also the perfect setting to kick off a mystery. In truth, I hadn’t initially decided to have Gage and Kiera make a stop off on their way from London in Book 7 (An Artless Demise) and Edinburgh, in what will be Book 9 (A Wicked Conceit). But the Duchess of Bowmont was just one of those characters that would not be relegated to playing a minor part, and we’d already met her youngest son Lord Henry (in Book 4, A Study in Death), who I’d known I wanted to revisit again. An idea took hold, and then I realized having the infamous duchess host a Twelfth Night Party would be perfect. So I got my chance.


We're delighted to have friend of So19 Chris Nickson back in the journal to discuss his latest novel, The Molten City, which appears on March 31 in the UK and July 7 in the US. Chris was one of our earliest interviews when the journal began in 2015, and he's covered a lot of literary territory since then! You can read our earlier interview with Nickson here; find out more about the author, his books and his musings here; and follow him on Twitter and Facebook as well.

This spring, you're celebrating your tenth year of writing about the city of Leeds, your home town, along with the publication of your 22nd novel set there. What do you think makes it such an enduring subject and inspiration for you?

I can’t quite define why Leeds keeps giving me stories. That’s certainly what it feels like. The bits of history, like the Suffragette Riot in The Molten City, for instance. They offer a springboard into something and make me want to help those times come alive for readers. It’s been the same with all my series set here, whether it was Richard Nottingham in the 1730s or Dan Markham in the 1950s, to make Leeds into a living character. I suppose the simplest way is to say that I feel the place in my bones, it’s in my DNA. My own family’s stories are here. I lived elsewhere for many, many years, but being back, I know it’s where I belong. Quite possibly I’d never have felt that in the same way if I’d never left; I don’t know. And there are so many stories from this place still to tell. I’m just the chronicler.

Suz on Publishers Weekly: Tracey Enerson Wood's THE ENGINEER'S WIFE

As a former New Yorker, it was a particular pleasure for me to review Tracey Enerson Wood's The Engineer's Wife for Publishers Weekly. The novel spans the life of Emily Warren Roebling from 1864 to 1884, the period in which she played a crucial if sometimes behind-the-scenes role in the extraordinary undertaking that was the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. With his father John, Washington "Wash" Roebling designed and planned to construct the bridge, which represented an immense engineering challenge for reasons including the width, turbulence and heavy traffic of the river it spanned. But John died fairly early in the construction process and Washington was sidelined for years with so-called "caisson sickness," now informally called "the bends," from his visits into the watertight caissons used to sink the bridge's foundations. Emily becomes his eyes and ears at the construction site, then gradually takes on more challenging tasks including site management, design troubleshooting, and public relations. Emily's intelligence, drive, and ability to assimilate new information all serve her well in the work, which nonetheless remains a disappointment: women suffrage is the cause dearest her heart, and she had hoped to use her skills in the service of that instead. Wash also poses a challenge, as he is not just physically crippled but also emotionally unavailable over the years of the arduous and dangerous work. In some sense Emily herself becomes a bridge: between Wash and the construction site, the construction site and the public, and her own past and future. 

Reading The Engineer's Wife, I regretted not having walked the bridge during my time in New York. Its Manhattan end wasn't far from the Wall Street firms among which I began my career; the problem was, like so many New Yorkers, I worked such long hours I didn't savor any of the city as fully as I might have wanted to. I plan to make up for this once our new era of social isolation ends and I can travel to the city again. In the meantime, The Engineer's Wife let me travel in space as well as time, experiencing the project when it seemed more like an alarming risk than a city icon. 

Read my review of the novel here.

So19 reads: Ashley E. Sweeney's ANSWER CREEK

Ashley E. Sweeney, the author of the excellent novel Eliza Waite, returns with a gripping story of loss, survival, and female strength. Answer Creek sets its fictional protagonist, Ada Weeks, among historical figures including Tamsen and George Donner, whose name now lends itself to macabre legend. Ada is traveling with a sizable group of emigrants bent on California when her adoptive parents are swept away in an ill-considered river crossing. She’s taken in by the Breen family, whose redoubtable matriarch, Margaret, has seven children including an infant who is nursing during the journey West. There are moments of delight, beauty and even transcendence: Ada glimpses one of the West’s most spectacular sights with newspaperman Edwin Bryant, for example, and falls in love with fellow emigrant Patrick Dolan. But the way becomes increasingly punishing as the party moves westward even before the Breens, like the Donners, decide to try the shortcut known today as the "Hastings Cutoff." Though Ada makes it through the months they spend, snowbound and starving, as a result, she arrives in California with another thorny problem before her: having survived, how does one go on and build a life when everyone and everything familiar is gone?

Reading Answer Creek, I could feel the pioneer experience in a way I never had before. (I would have been exponentially more attentive in American history classes had Sweeney taught them.) Sweeney does such a masterful job of evoking the journey, from the shifting challenges of the landscape the emigrants move through to the emotional complications of being dependent for survival on people who were strangers months or even just weeks before. The epic sweep, the vast scale, of the trek is vividly felt, but so are the smallest of details, from the inevitable bickering among fellow travelers to the difficulties of dealing with menstruation while walking thousands of miles. And though Sweeney does justice to the horror of those snowbound months, they are just one segment of the novel’s physical and emotional journey, one aspect of its broader perspective.

Answer Creek’s historical figures are thoughtfully and accurately represented—no small feat given their number. Ada and J.R.R. Riddle, another fictional character who is a member of one of the rescue parties—are wonderfully imagined. They’re both wounded beings, individuals who have suffered great and transformative loss. Yet neither has lost the capacity to change, to hope, or explore the possibilities of the future. If I were traveling through unknown terrain to an equally unknown destination, I would be grateful for the resourcefulness as well as the companionship of such remarkable souls.

Find out more about Ashley E. Sweeney and the book here.