Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Tessa Arlen

Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fiction: In Royal Service to the Queen.

Arlen lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.

Her new novel is Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers, the second title of the A Woman of World War II series.

My Q&A with the author:

Your title refers to two Attagirls, female civilians who pilot planes from factories to military airfields all over Britain, who die in suspicious circumstances. Are these incidents wholly a product of your imagination, or did something like that actually happen during the war?

Complete fiction on my part! But I read that one ATA volunteer in ten suffered fatal accidents delivering planes during WWII. Seasonal fog, ice storms, and the hazard of barrage balloons were very real dangers, especially as ATA pilots flew without radios to prevent them from blocking RAF communications. They also flew no higher than 1,000 feet above ground level so they could recognize the landmarks: railways lines, bridges, and rivers, shown on their maps. Not all new planes were reliable either. The Ministry of Transport was churning out aircraft like kitchen appliances, sometimes with very few test pilot hours on a new mark before production, which made flying in wartime doubly dangerous. So, I thought “How easy would it be to commit a murder by plane?”

Readers can click here to learn why you gave Poppy her name. What is her boyfriend Griff's name meant to convey about his character?

Poppy’s American fighter pilot boyfriend is Griff O’Neal—Griff is from an Irish family that immigrated to southern California during the Potato Famine and became successful orange farmers. Griff is a shortened form of his first name: Griffith, but he prefers the informality of Griff. He is easy and outgoing in his manner, a live-for-the now type of fighter pilot who probably did not count on there being a tomorrow. He indulges life’s pleasures as completely as he is able to: pretty women, perfectly delicious food, and driving a high performance car at speed are all part of who Griff appears to be. But underneath the dash is a man who is very much aware of what is going on around him. He is often sensitive and considerate and despises pretension. If he prefers rare roast beef to Woolton pie it is because he is discerning in his tastes rather than an entitled monied American. 

Please tell us about Bess, Poppy's corgi sidekick, and what dimensions she adds to Poppy's character.

Bess is Poppy’s rescue dog from the early days of the Phony War (September 1939 to April 1940) when the Brits rushed to do what they believed to be the right thing and euthanized their dogs, because of the very real threat of wartime food shortages.

Bess is very much a female mammal: she is naturally deadlier than the male of the species, and in her own quiet way Poppy has a very strong sense of survival too. Both Bess and Poppy are independent, although Poppy is not quite as stubborn as Bess.

However loyal Bess is to Poppy she adores Griff and provides us with an insight into the reserved Poppy’s true sentiments for her American pilot friend. Poppy often expresses regret that she holds back and covers her emotions, unlike her dog’s honest display of affection and approval for Griff.

Bess is really my dog, or rather she represents the many female dogs I have loved and have been privileged to share my life with over the years. She is direct, logical, and true—how I wish people were more like dogs!

Discussing Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, the first title of the A Woman of World War II series, you called Poppy “a thinking introvert” and said you hoped “she grows out of some of her reserve.” How’s that going?

Poppy is a boarding school girl, completely unused to the company of boys of her age and is often careful around groups of women because a bunch of girls can be very intimidating to some of us.

Losing our childhood reserve or shyness is often all about gaining confidence as we go forward in our adult lives. And the over-protected Poppy Redfern of the Midnight Murders is doing quite well in the adventure of the Fatal Flyers. She is not quite as comfortable in the world of nightclubs and high ranking Admiralty officials as her sophisticated alter ego Ilona, but thanks to Poppy’s move from rural Little Buffenden to London and her prestigious war time job with the Crown Film Unit, she is up to dealing with some of Griff’s more urbane pursuits, and on one or two occasions, recently, she has even told the worldly Ilona to pipe down.

Going over your top five historical novels, I think I can detect connections of four of them to the Poppy Redfern stories. There's the flying and village life in Kate Atkinson's books about the Todd family, and the clever and heroic character of Jack Aubrey in Patrick O'Brian’s novels. The one book where I cannot see a connection is I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Of course, not every book you like has to touch on the books you write; but am I missing how that one influenced yours? Is there an historical novel (or two) that has influenced your storytelling more than these five?

I admire Robert Graves’s writing and if there is no trace of him in anything I have accomplished it must be because I write women’s commercial fiction and let’s not go into what publishing and literary agents require of authors in the mystery genre!

I have racked my memory as to what book or author influenced the Poppy Redfern mysteries, and I can’t think of one! The greatest influence on Poppy’s Homefront WWII adventures is my father. He was fifteen when Britain went to war with Germany in 1939 and none of its real atrocities seemed to have touched his youth at all. The war was like one huge Biggles adventure out of the Boy’s Own comic book to my father.

His family lived in Greenwich before they went to stay with a great aunt in Blackheath to escape the Blitz. His favorite story was when he and his cousin Dave climbed onto the roof of their Greenwich house, during a daytime air raid, to watch a Messerschmitt and a Spitfire in a dog fight. They took some jam sandwiches with them, which gives you an idea how clueless they must have been about the very real dangers involved, and my father said that they could see the pilots quite clearly in their cockpits. When I asked him if he was in danger he said “Of course not!” He was always very dismissive about the horror of the Blitz, probably because fifteen is an invincible age, but perhaps this was the way Londoner’s kept morale up and managed to endure through those terrifying times.

Through my father’s eyes the Spitfire became a character in its own right in the Poppy Redfern adventures.
The Page 69 Test: Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders.

Q&A with Tessa Arlen (April 2020).

The Page 69 Test: Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers.

--Marshal Zeringue