Charlot King interview: A Christmas tale of murder at the meadows
It’s Christmas Eve and Professor Elizabeth Green has driven to Grantchester for a walk in the snow with her husband. But when they arrive at the river they see a snowman and what happens next casts shadows across the Meadows for the rest of the day.
If you’re a fan of a cosy mystery, this seasonal prequel to the Cambridge Murder Mystery series by Charlot King could be the perfect Christmas present. It is a novella that tells how Elizabeth, a professor of poisons, helps to solve her first case and sets her on the road to becoming a consultant to the police.
It is the fifth in the series from the Cambridge author, whose other books include Poison, Cursed, Blood Moon and A Christmas Mystery.
Charlot says: “I think Grantchester is a magical place because it feels untouched. The Meadows have got a lot of wildlife. It’s a sense of a place of contemplation but you also get a feeling, certainly around Christmas, of a kind of local buzz.
“I wanted to set something in Grantchester because I have a kind of love affair with Cambridge. It has always treated me kindly and it has a very big place in my heart and so the Cambridge Murder Mysteries series is set in the heart of the city they feature, but I haven’t really touched Grantchester, even through I know it quite well. I go to the Tea Rooms in the summer and for Christmas walks, we take the dog there a lot, so I do feel that I know it.”
Although she has another full-length book in the series coming out next year, Charlot says she wanted to give readers a little slice of something fun for Christmas.
“This latest novel Christmas Eve in Grantchester is a short story. It is in fact a prequel and I wanted to write something happy. I say happy, but it is a murder mystery so take that in context. My murder mysteries are not full of gore – they are all about the puzzle, they are all about the character. And I just wanted to write something in time for Christmas that people could read if they haven’t already read the series, or if you are already enjoying the series.”
The novels feature Elizabeth, a professor of poisons at the University of Cambridge, who’s in her 50s and works in the department of plant sciences. Charlot says: “The department is completely fictitious and she is based on nobody and through various happenings she ended up being a consultant for the Cambridgeshire police force, so the series is based on her helping the police to solve crimes.”
She adds: “They are not anything like police procedurals. So, for example, Professor Green doesn’t own a mobile phone so everything she does is without technology. If you enjoy nostalgia, it may lend itself to reading a who-dunnit and to read a murder mysery with that feel around it. I wanted to do that deliberately but I also wanted to have a female protagonist who was quite strong. I think she is quite commonly misunderstood and I wanted to focus it around what it is like to be a 50-something woman in today’s age. In that sense it is contemporary.
“She is much overlooked. I wanted to find someone who wasn’t going to shout about everything so she is a very quiet woman, considered but very intelligent. That was a deliberate choice. I wanted to write a story about women that wasn’t about romance and that was a strong woman but also I wanted a story about a woman who wasn’t a feisty woman and in all essence just a man in a woman’s body. I’m not stereotyping here, I wanted a woman with subtleties. Hopefully her personality isn’t shouting at you from the get go. Hopefully as you read the book you reveal more layers about her and get to understand her.
“Without wanting to get political, I do think that is often the case for women, as they grow into their more mature years, that they are either overlooked or misunderstood.
“Also I wanted her to make a valuable contribution – there’s a lot of contribution to be made by women.”
Some of the research carried out into poisons could look a bit suspicious on her internet search history, Charlot admits.
“When I decided to make her a professor of poisons I researched the best book to buy on poisonous plants,” says Charlot. “So the search engine on my computer was really full of how to kill people, how to poison people, who has written the best information about how to poison people. I did buy a book which I still have as my bible which is the Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants. What’s interesting about poisoning – as opposed to say, stabbing – is there has to be some semblance of planning. So when you are writing a whodunit perhaps they become more interesting murders.”
Charlot came to novel writing by a long and interesting route. Her parents were actors and directors.
“I saw my dad play Richard III and I watched him a number of times in rehearsals. They have both gone now, unfortunately. I remember seeing my mother as a Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, but then she also used to read to me as a child. I remember her reading me the Wind in the Willows and Just William. I think our family was always drama and story-related, rather than theatre or television or books.”
Although she loved writing from an early age, Charlot took a degree in politics and a PhD which explored GMOs, bio safety and environmental issues. She lectured at Oxford University for several years before moving into news at the BBC, then reading scripts for the film industry and becoming a script editor, including editing episodes of EastEnders. Finally she decided to try writing full time.
“I was already writing things before this series came along but this was the first series I wanted to share,” she says. “I do have a kind of end point [for the series]. I know where the story is going to end. I haven’t set a definite number of books that will take me to that end, but there is a resolution to it.”
Christmas Eve in Grantchester is out now.