Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Secret agent archaeologists: an interview with Jessica Mann

Welcome to the latest issue of 9mm, the long-running author interview series here on Crime Watch. Earlier this year we hit the 150 interviews mark, and I took a moment to reflect on all the authors who have been interviewed thusfar (full list here), and where I could take 9mm in future.

I have some further terrific interviews 'in the can' already, which will be published soon. Among them will be AK Benedict, Marnie Riches, Doug Johnstone, Neil Broadfoot, and VM Giambanco, so lots to look forward to. If you have a favorite crime writer you'd love to see interviewed as part of the 9mm series, please do let me know, and I'll look to make it happen.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome a legend of the British crime writing scene, Jessica Mann, to Crime Watch. I was introduced to Jessica by another doyen of British crime writing and reviewing, Mike Ripley, at the Penguin Crime Drinks in Soho last year. Mann has had 26 books published since 1971, mainly crime and suspense fiction, but also non-fiction works looking at the role of women in post-war Britain, the overseas evacuation of British children during the Blitz, and the history of an iconic lighthouse in Cornwall (the county where Mann has lived since the 1970s).

Along with her novel writing and family life, Mann has also chaired and served on a variety of public committees, Employment Tribunals (she has law and archaeology degrees), and NHS committees, and is a broadcaster and journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, House & Garden. She has been a long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Literary Review.

Earlier this year Mann brought back her likable archaeological sleuth Tamara Hoyland, a former secret agent who appeared in six adventures between 1981 and 1991. In THE STROKE OF DEATH an aging Tamara investigates a suspected murder, a missing doctor, and the deaths of several residents in a care home. Mann has been praised by major US reviewers for being a stylish and superb crime writer addressing serious issues in entertaining novels that are full of wit. If, like me, Mann is a new-to-you author despite her pedigree, I suggest you add some of her tales to your TBR pile.

In the meantime, Jessica Mann becomes the 160th author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Lord  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane – though I realize that D.L.Sayers probably seems as old-fashioned to young readers as Wilkie Collins’  Sergeant Cuff  did to me. Much more difficult when it comes to contemporary writers; one I’m fascinated by is John Lawton’s Frederick Troy, in  a series of brilliant historical crime novels set before, during and after World War Two.

A contemporary hero/heroine? Among professional police officers,  I much prefer the unconventional ones. I love the late Reg Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe. Amateurs: well, J.K.Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) is best at this as she is at other kinds of writing.  I do like her  new private detective Cormoran Strike  (PS obviously my real favorites are my own  Dr Fidelis Berlin, psychologist and accidental detective, and Tamara Hoyland, archaeologist and secret agent!)

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I’ve read ever since I can remember, all the time (including at meals and while walking round the house) and very quickly; I have always had several books on the go at once and my worst nightmare is running out of things to read. So I can’t remember a time  when I hadn’t  read lots of books, and it’s impossible to answer your question accurately. But I do remember  the annual thrill of being given the latest Arthur Ransome on visits to my grandfather in Oxford. I certainly loved them.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
No real attempts at fiction between pouring out fake John Buchan/Rider Haggard style adventures in my early teens, and writing my first crime novel, A Charitable End, in my twenties when I was stuck at home with three small children. But  I had written thousands of words in the years between: school and university essays, of which, by now,  I wouldn’t understand a single  word.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I read. It’s not exactly what I like to do, it’s what I do do, like breathing. What I most like is a) arriving in a strange city (abroad) and beginning to look round it; b) being on holiday in Greece, and spending the day alternately reading and swimming with moments off for delicious meals.

What I really don’t like is being somewhere – anywhere – without  anything to read. E-readers are some protection – but the only time I travelled without a printed book, my Kindle died as the plane was taking off. I’d have died myself if it hadn’t been for a friend who mercifully had brought some extra books.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Home has been in the country in Cornwall for a very long time, but I also still think of London, where I grew up, as my hometown. The best thing to do there is to go round the town  aimlessly, walk, leap on a bus, stroll through a shop, in and out of a church, park or gallery - just wherever curiosity takes you and take whatever serendipity gives you.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Once upon a time it would have been Lesley Caron, for whom I was sometimes mistaken. I’m afraid that nowadays it would have to be Julie Walters in her popular role as  a very cranky old woman.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
I don’t reread my published books, and probably remember them inaccurately. So I’ll plump for A KIND OF HEALTHY GRAVE because it was long-listed for the Booker prize. Not having been told the publisher was entering it (shock-horror, a crime novel!) I thought it was a practical joke when someone rang to congratulate me.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Simple, unalloyed joy. All my conscious life, I had dreamed of holding a book with my name on the cover. It still makes me happy to see books with my name on them, though the pleasure diminishes as one always wants more and better, but that first moment was one of the best I can remember.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Can’t really answer this one. Apart from once selling more books than X, or having a longer queue for autographs than Y, I’m afraid there’s nothing to relate.

Thank you Jessica, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can read more about Jessica and her books and other writing at her website

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