I’m a huge fan of classic cosy mysteries: Christie, Sayers, Conan Doyle and the like are all grist to my reading mill. But my absolute favourite, and the book which inspired me to start writing in the first place, is Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes. It’s witty, erudite, just a bit odd and absolutely unsolvable (without actually cheating the reader). You may well identify the culprit, but I defy anyone to work out exactly what happened to poor Umpleby, the victim, or how the red herrings appeared.
I get the book out for an annual read, not simply because I enjoy it so much, but because it forms a continual inspiration. It was when I read Death at… for the umpteenth time (particularly one scene, which I’ll come to in a minute) that I decided I wanted to write mysteries set in old Oxbridge colleges. I resolved that it was best to set them in my old alma mater, Cambridge, rather than creating a fictional university, even if the colleges I feature aren’t ones you’ll find off Kings Parade or up Castle Hill. I also chose to write these stories in the Edwardian era, because the cadence of the language is that of EM Forster, Jerome K Jerome, Conan Doyle, and other authors I’ve been reading since I was small. It also smacks of a time before WWI swept the last vestiges of innocence away.
It was an obvious decision, for me, that my books should contain romance, and Innes’ book inspired that element, too. There’s a scene where the detective, Appleby, is observing one of the suspects, a college don who also writes murder mysteries. He goes into great detail about how beautiful (his word, not mine) and generally multi-talented Gott is, which struck me as bordering (no doubt unintentionally) on the romantic. Truth is, I wanted to have a gay couple as my historical sleuthing partnership because while I love Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey, Inspector Alleyn and his beloved Agatha Troy, and similar couples, I’ve always wanted to read about two men keeping undercover (steady!) and investigating crimes in that “classic” era. I couldn’t find any for me to read, so I’ve had to write my own.