Rhys Bowen is the Agatha and Anthony Award-winning author of the Molly Murphy Mystery series set in New York at the turn of the last century. Nine books and growing that series has garnered rave reviews since its 2001 inception with Murphy’s Law, about which a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted, “Conveys a nice sense of place and period in this debut of a new historical series with its spunky, 19th century heroine.” Kirkus Reviews commented of the second in the series, Death of Riley, “Bowen’s highly detailed picture of New York at the turn of the century is a delight.” And CrimeSpree Magazine observed of the author and her pioneering female private eye, “There is a reason Rhys Bowen gets nominated for so many awards. She’s just damn good.”
The prolific Bowen–she also has ten books in a series featuring Welsh copper, Evan Evans–began a third mystery series in 2007 featuring Georgie, aka Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, cousin of King George V of England, who is penniless and trying to survive on her own as an ordinary person in London in 1932. The good lady finds herself an unwilling sleuth in three series novels to date. In a starred review, a Booklist contributor noted of this series, “Bowen, the Agatha winner responsible for the popular Molly Murphy series, has come up with another winner in her new heroine, Lady Georgina… [T]he best part here is Bowen’s evocation of 1930s England.”
First, I know you were born and raised in England and that you worked for the BBC before settling in California. But could you further describe your connection to historical New York for the Molly Murphy series and to interwar England for the Royal Spyness books?
Molly Murphy lives and works in 1903 New York City. I chose it because I wanted to set a mystery on Ellis Island. I don’t live there but I go there frequently and walk Molly’s streets in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. You can see my photos of Molly’s New York on my website (www.rhysbowen.com)
My other locale is England in the 1930s. I chose this time and place because I wanted to write fun stories about a member of the royal family who is flat broke. It had to be the 30s because I wanted the Great Depression. Of course I was raised in England, know London well, return frequently and stay in aristocratic households like the ones in my story.
Ellis Island in the first book (Murphy’s Law) has such an emotional pull for most people. I felt it when I was there. New York City has so many different faces, so many different stories: ethnic groups, sweat shops, drawing rooms of the Four hundred, Coney Island—I don’t think I’ll ever run out of stories.
And of course Lady Georgie’s England—it’s fun to get a glimpse into royal life, isn’t it?
Did you consciously set out to use New York and England as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
As I said, I started the Molly books because of Ellis Island. And subsequently New York City has become a driving force in the books.
The royal lifestyle was one of the reasons for writing Her Royal Spyness.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Setting is of primary importance to me. Many of my reviews praise the books for bringing time and place to life. I see New York through Molly’s eyes. I think it’s useful to have an outsider as she notices things that others take for granted. But sights, sounds, smells are all important to me. I have collected a large number of photos of New York at the time and make sure that my tailor shop on the corner has a real name. Accuracy in research is most important to me.
How do your protagonists interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters? And conversely, how do the settings affect your protagonists?
Molly Murphy comes from Ireland and as such is an outsider, struggling to survive in a strange and sometimes hostile environment. Lady Georgie has lived all her life in the world of aristocrats, but for the first time she’s seeing how ordinary people live and survive. Again she’s an outsider at times and an observer.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Two years ago I got a message from a man who said, “I want you to know that I live in Molly’s house.” Since then the inhabitants of that small backwater in New York have adopted me. I was invited to their block Christmas party. This is cool!
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Not in the Molly books—I research too meticulously. But I once put Claridges on the wrong street in London (unforgivable as I really know where it is!)
Of your novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?
Several examples of location come to mind: the sweat shops in For the Love of Mike; Coney Island in Oh Danny Boy; in both cases the location creates the suspense.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Easy to answer that one: Tony Hillerman. He was the first writer who really brought a locale to life for me. Because of him I became fascinated with the Southwest. (I now own a condo there.)
My next Georgie book, Royal Blood, comes out in September. In it Georgie is sent to attend a royal wedding in Transylvania (where there may or may not be vampires!).
I’m just finishing the next Molly book, set in New York’s Chinatown.
Thanks again, Rhys, for taking the time to talk with Scene of the Crime.
You can find more information on Rhys Bowen at her Web site.
Rhys also blogs at the Lady Killers