Sara Sheridan is a bestselling Edinburgh writer.
Her new series set in the 1950s, the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries launched last year and Brighton Belle went to No 1 in the Amazon Kindle chart, knocking 50 Shades of Grey off the top slot. This month, the second in the series, London Calling, is just out in paperback.
Sara also writes children’s stories and a set of books about late Georgian/early Victorian explorers. She will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.
London Calling reintroduces readers to Mirabelle Bevan and Vesta Churchill, partners not only in their Brighton-based debt collection business, but also in solving crime.
Whilst the first book in the series was set in a Brighton still haunted by events of the war, London Calling takes a trip north to the capital. Here, the sounds of jazz waft through shady Soho streets at night, providing an evocative soundtrack to a case which Mirabelle and Vesta are determined to prove is not as open & shut as the police believe it to be.
Sheridan’s skill is in conjuring up the atmosphere of the period. Her 1950s London is filled with an accomplished stream of sensory and descriptive writing, perfectly recreating the feel of a city still licking its wartime wounds, but also looking optimistically to the future.
As is normally the case in crime fiction, enjoyment is to be found in unravelling the plot’s mystery — however, equally intriguing is the character of Mirabelle herself. Determined, dogged and tinged with melancholy, Bevan’s backstory is only hinted at, with clues to her past sprinkled tantalisingly through both of the books so far. It is testament to Sheridan’s powers of characterisation that readers will not only be eager to discover the whodunnits as the series continues, but also to learn more about her fatalistic female lead.
Although the books steer clear of graphic descriptions of violence and bloodshed, Sheridan doesn’t shy away from the social issues of the time. Her characters inhabit a world where racial and class divides are very much in evidence, which removes any rose-tinting of the past whilst also adding extra layers of realism and revelance to the novels.
London Calling succeeds both as a satisfying standalone work of crime fiction and as an installment of a series which will transport readers back to a fascinating period of British history, leaving them eager to read more of the enjoyable and intriguing adventures of Mirabelle Bevan.
We caught up with Sara to ask her a little more about Mirabelle Bevan, her love of Edinburgh and her immediate writing-related plans.
What gave you the inspiration for the Mirabelle Bevan series?
That would be my Dad. I had just finished a different book and I had some time off – I had lunch with Dad and he told me about a women he’d seen in Brighton, on the beach, in the early 1950s when he was a kid. She was dodging the deck chair attendant so she didn’t have to pay for a seat. Dad said he always wondered what she was up to. I began to wonder too and I went off and started to look into the 1950s.
It was an amazing decade and I was electrified by it. It seemed imbued by mystery – there were so many secrets about what people had done during the war, for example, or relationships they had had while their loved ones were fighting. People hardly spoke about their feelings.
It was fascinating – like walking into a house I knew that had been completely redecorated. It was Britain, but not quite as I know it. I decided I was going to write a whole series of books – 11 in total – to cover the decade during which the country recovered from the trauma of the war.
Although London Calling & Brighton Belle are still set in the past, they are works of crime fiction. What for you are the main differences between the historical and crime genres, and do you prefer working on one over the other?
I’m a history swot really – I love the research. The Mirabelle books are mystery more than crime. But hell, there ARE murders.
It’s really interesting for me as a writer straddling two genres. In history the art is to spill as many beans as possible to recreate the era, but in crime you hold everything to your chest and it’s all a secret. That’s a balancing act for a writer.
I also wanted to write something cosy – it’s a genre that’s misunderstood. People read Agatha Christie now and think it’s tame but in her day she was cutting edge. She had characters who were divorced and who were gay, for example. That’s not shocking now, but I wanted to recreate the genre with material that wasn’t gory but did give modern readers a jolt. The 50s has proved really rich for that – all the sexism and racism that today would just keel you over. It’s great material to put a modern reader on edge.
We would consider you very much as part of Edinburgh’s rich literary catalogue – what are your thoughts on the city and its heritage; and how do you feel it influences your writing?
Oh thank you – that’s so nice. I recently got some stick because my writing wasn’t ‘Scottish’ enough. I have only set one of my books in Scotland you see. But that, in a way is a big Scottish tradition. We go where the action is and I love a good story so if it’s in China (like The Secret Mandarin) that’s where I’m going to set it.
I feel very close to Edinburgh – it’s very much my home – and I’m proud of the city’s historic and present-day connection to the world of publishing and writing. It makes me very aware of the language I use – every word. And our language is very rich – there are rhythms of Scots and Gaelic in there, like an undercurrent.
What are your favourite places to relax and unwind in the city? Any favourite places to write, or do you do all your writing at home?
Mostly I write at home though there is an Italian café up the road on Queensferry Street (near where I live) and I go there sometimes to edit. The staff are all Italian and they shout at each other behind the counter. I feel very at home for some reason!
I love walking the city – at night especially. It is extraordinarily beautiful. We don’t always realise how lucky we are.
You’ll be appearing (several times!) at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Anyone you’re particularly looking forward to seeing or catching up with there?
Ooh yes. I love a book festival and of course we host the world’s biggest. Writers need other writers and I sit on the committee of the Society of Authors and also on the Board of the writers’ collective ’26’ and lots of members I haven’t seen in ages will be here for the festival. It’s very stimulating – chatting about where we all are.
Writing isn’t like being an accountant or a solicitor – it’s a very individual career so talking to other people who are at the same stage as you, or a bit ahead is where you get your best ideas for how to deal with the business side of the job.
You’re very active on social media, without constantly selling or promoting your own work. How important do you think it is today for an author to have an active online presence?
I love social media. Lots of writers seem to feel it’s beneath them somehow or that they’re too busy or too important. It makes me laugh. Honestly – that’s where my readers are so that’s where I want to be.
It’s one of the most exciting aspects of the digital revolution – the closer contact available through social media between writers and real readers (not only critics!)
What writing and other activities do you have planned next?
I’m just finishing next year’s Mirabelle Bevan Mystery which is called England Expects. I need to edit that. And I’m also working on another book for the other set (the explorers one) so the writing side is chock a block.
The summer is busy with book festivals and I’ve also been involved with Norwich Writers’ Centre who are hosting a 26 project about famous Norwich writers. The website for that has just gone live and I wrote a poem about a personal heroine of mine – Elizabeth Fry.
I’m also patron of a local charity, here in Edinburgh, called It’s Good 2 Give – one of the best things I do! I’m full of admiration for their work with children who are sick and their families, supporting them through what’s the worst time of their lives.
Oh and I’ve started blogging for the Huffington Post where I get to be fabulously opinionated – watch out for my inside track on Escaping the Edinburgh Festival. Coming soon…