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.

Twelfth Night is a fairly old holiday, dating from at least the medieval era, though it’s one we’ve largely forgotten about here in the US today. It takes place on the twelfth day of Christmas—January 5thor 6th, depending on what day each culture or denomination considers the first day of Christmas—and is also observed as the holy day of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. As such, various traditions sprang up around this feast day, each meant to honor the inversion of normal societal roles, as evidenced by the three kings bowing to a child. The idea of a mock court sprung up around this concept, where revelers were assigned various roles, and all were reigned over by the Lord of Misrule and his Lady. These important parts were chosen by the insertion of a dried bean and a dried pea into the traditional Twelfth Night Cake. The man who received the slice of cake with the bean in it became essentially king for the evening, and the lady who found the pea his queen. Fellow revelers were required to follow his edicts, and much feasting, drinking, dancing, raucous parlor games, and general carousing commenced.

The castle in which the book is set is amazing, and you’ve depicted it so vividly. Is it inspired by a real place? If so, did you actually visit the source location? If not, how did you flesh out all of its individual features, from the “doom” to the gilded fretwork?

Sunlaws Castle is actually inspired by a few places hodge-podged together. Much of the landscape and outer look of the castle is based on Glen House and Traquair House near Traquair, Scotland. A large part of the interior is based on Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, England. I have not visited all of these locations in person, so I owe a great deal to several resources on the internet, as well as ordnance maps, and in particular the book The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, which gave me some lovely ideas. Other architectural details came from notes I’d collected during my previous research. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to those things. When I stumble across something I find interesting—whether it’s a description of a gown, or a room, or a funny quirk, or an intriguing anecdote—I squirrel it away on one of my various lists to use at a later date. During my last visit to Scotland, I toured several of the Border abbeys and did some tramping about the countryside, so much of those descriptions comes from memory.

This novel is set in 1832. Victoria’s ascension to the throne is still five years away, and the behavior of some of the upper-class characters is definitely not what people generally think of as “Victorian.”

That’s very true. But much of our idea of proper Victorian behavior is based on the standards the ever-developing British middle class gradually adopted as the 19th century progressed. There is ample evidence that the lowest classes, as well as the upper class, maintained a far more relaxed morality. Certainly genteel debutantes and young wives were to behave modestly and virtuously, but this was less a moral stricture than the practicality of ensuring that at least the first two male children—the heir and the spare, as they were called—were not cuckoo’s in a lord’s nest. The blue blood needed to remain as blue as possible.

In contrast, it was widely accepted that husbands would take mistresses, and that a wife could later take a lover, provided she’d produced the requisite heir and spare. The crucial aspect of it all was that they were to be discreet about it. The philanderer was not to flaunt it, and the spouse was not to make a vulgar scene or even show that he or she minded.

There were, of course, variances in behavior. Some of the members of the upper class were certainly more virtuous than others. While others were outright scoundrels. As throughout history, men were given far more leniency in conduct, as well as the standards they had to meet to still be considered honorable. In general, the upper class followed a set of rules unique unto itself, and one that was as often internally contradictory as straightforward.

You also write the Verity Kent mysteries, which take place at and after the end of World War I. What is it like to alternate books set in such different time periods? What do stories set in 1832, for example, allow you to do or explore that those set in 1919 don’t, and vice versa?

I love being able to alternate between the two series because I think it helps me keep them fresh. That way I never grow bored or annoyed with a set of characters. By the time I finish my current work-in-progress I start to feel excited about revisiting the characters from the other series.

I also love that I get to explore such divergent time periods. Only 90 years separate them, but there are so many changes in just that small span of time. The early 1830s very much straddle the divide between the larger Regency and Victorian eras. Travel is still confined to horse and carriage, though the railways are just beginning to be built. People still remember the Napoleonic Wars, but they’re not fresh in everyone’s minds. The industrial revolution is ramping up, and the government and laws are struggling to adapt to all of the changes in society. The London Metropolitan Police, as well as other police forces across the country, have just sprung into being, but they’re still in their infancy and have not truly come into their own.

In contrast, 1919 follows the war to end all wars, when the advancements of technology have been pitted against the outdated tactics and mindsets of commanders with disastrous results. There are motorcars, telephones, gramophones, and elevators (or lifts, as the British call them). The police have developed a well-respected criminal investigation department and forensic tools such as fingerprints and toxicology tests. In Britain, women are now allowed to practice in many professions, those 30yo and older have been given the right to vote, and the first female serves in Parliament.

I love the challenge of writing mysteries set before the time of effective policing and forensics, as well as mysteries set during the dawn of the modern era. I love exploring the roles of women and the challenges they faced in such different periods. I love discovering the truths that transcend time.

Could you tell us a bit about your writing process and practice—where and when you write, how you schedule yourself and your books, and how you balance writing with book marketing and promotion efforts? 

I write in my home office. On a typical day I wake at 6:15 and get my kindergartener ready and out the door onto the school bus by 7:10. Then I exercise and/or get straight to work. My husband takes care of our 3-year-old in the mornings until my Mom arrives, who we’re very lucky to have as a babysitter. She stays until naptime. So, on a good day, I’m lucky to get to work until 2:30 when our 6-year-old returns home and our younger child wakes.

I like to write when I’m freshest, and I try to manage social media, email, marketing, and promotion during shorter periods of work time, when I know I would get little writing done anyway. I also keep several to-do lists by priority, that way if I find myself with only 15 minutes, I can glance down the lists to see what I might be able to knock off the list or at least get a start on in the time I have. This way, no time is wasted. I also love scheduling tools for social media, so I can set it and forget it. 

What’s it like adapting your practice to kids and husband at home during the Covid-19 “siege”?

It’s been a bit tricky adapting to the pandemic. We are essentially in lockdown except for one or two trips out for essentials each week, with no visitors. School is now being run by remote learning, so I help my six-year-old with that for a large chunk of the morning while my husband keeps an eye on the three-year-old. Then we try to split the remainder of the day between us to get work done, and then both pause for dinner until bedtime. We’re both having to work in the evenings a lot of days as well. As you can guess, there are a lot of interruptions throughout the day, and much jumping on the sofas, as the weather has not been cooperating for outdoor play. (Fingers crossed that changes.) It’s also simply been difficult to concentrate, so everything takes longer to accomplish. I’m trying to just roll with it and not sweat it. My focus will return eventually. We have to adapt to our “new normal” first.

What’s next for you and for Kiera? Can we expect the arrival of a baby, for example, in the series’ next installment?

Book 9 in the series, A Wicked Deceit, takes Kiera and Gage back to Edinburgh, where they’re having to contend with the publication of a book and play about their reluctant ally, Bonnie Brock Kincaid—the roguish head of Edinburgh’s largest criminal gang. A book/play that alleges some unsavory things about Kiera and Gage as well. They’re on the hunt for the anonymous author, as well as the person who betrayed Bonnie Brock’s secrets, before Bonnie Brock can get to them first. And yes, in the midst of all this, the baby is finally due. A Wicked Deceit will release in Spring 2021.

However, there is also a Lady Darby novella included in The Deadly Hours anthology I wrote with fellow authors Susanna Kearsley, CS Harris, and Christine Trent, which will be releasing September 1st, 2020. My entry in the anthology takes place in Edinburgh in May 1831, after the events of the e-novella, A Pressing Engagement, and Kiera and Gage’s wedding, and before Book 5, As Death Draws Near. And Bonnie Brock and some of the secrets of his past play a prominent role.

Winter landscape at Traquair House, one of the inspirations for
the novel's exteriors. Courtesy of @traquairhouse on Instagram.

Floor plans of Belvoir Castle, one of the inspirations for the interior settings in A Stroke of Malice.
Public domain images.