Thursday, May 28, 2020

Book Giveaway: A TRACE OF DECEIT by Karen Odden

In her recent interview, Karen Odden touched upon her latest heroine, Annabel Rowe, as well as research and backstory for her third novel, A TRACE OF DECEIT. Now she is offering a copy of this book to one lucky blog reader, drawn at random. Contest rules are outlined below. But first, a look at Karen's story:

by Karen Odden
William Morrow Paperbacks
416 pages

A young painter digs beneath the veneer of Victorian London's art world to learn the truth behind her brother's murder...

Edwin is dead. That's what Inspector Matthew Hallam of Scotland Yard tells Annabel Rowe when she discovers him searching her brother's flat for clues. While the news is shocking, Annabel can't say it's wholly unexpected, given Edwin's past as a dissolute risk-taker and art forger, although he swore he'd reformed. After years spent blaming his reckless behavior for their parents' deaths, Annabel is now faced with the question of who murdered him--because Edwin's death was both violent and deliberate. A valuable French painting he'd been restoring for an auction house is missing from his studio: find the painting, find the murderer. But the owner of the artwork claims it was destroyed in a warehouse fire years ago.

As a painter at the prestigious Slade School of Art and as Edwin's closet relative, Annabel make the case that she is crucial to Matthew's investigation. But in their search for the painting, Matthew and Annabel trace a path of deceit and viciousness that reaches far beyond the elegant rooms of the auction house, into an underworld of politics, corruption, and secrets someone will kill to keep.

For a chance to win Karen Odden's latest Victorian Mystery, A TRACE OF DECEIT (William Morrow, 2019), comment once on this post between now and 11 pm PST on Friday, June 5, 2020. A winner will be chosen by random number generator from among the entries. The winner's name will be posted on this blog by noon PST on Saturday, June 6, 2020. Check back then! Contest open to readers in the continental United States. Good luck!

A TRACE OF DECEIT can be purchased from HarperCollins, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and at local booksellers everywhere. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Interview with Karen Odden, author of A TRACE OF DECEIT

When I visited my intrepid agent Josh Getzler at HGLiterary last June, he offered me, as a parting gift, a selection of novels that he had represented. The blue cover of A DANGEROUS DUET (William Morrow, 2018), a Victorian mystery written by Karen Odden, immediately caught my eye. I so enjoyed reading it that when I recently saw Karen promoting her latest release, A TRACE OF DECEIT (William Morrow, 2019), I reached out to her on social media. Turns out we have a lot in common (besides our industrious and generous agent!). Like me, Karen has a doctorate in literature and writes novels set in the era of her academic specialty. Unlike me, she has been published three times over and has another book in the pipeline. She graciously agreed to answer some questions about her background, her novels, and her writing career. Sample her expertise and engaging voice in the interview below, and you'll be eager to read her exceptional mysteries for yourself. I know I can't wait to get my hands on A TRACE OF DECEIT!

1. Your three books all take place in London during the Victorian era (1870s). How did you become interested in this time period? Why does it fascinate you so? 

Years ago, I wrote my PhD dissertation at NYU on Victorian railway disasters. It probably seems odd to most of us, but people were obsessed with them—sort of the way we’re riveted by computer hacking or terrorism. Accounts of train wrecks appeared in novels, medical literature, newspaper accounts, parliamentary papers, legal trial reports, and so on. In order to understand their power in the public imagination, I studied Victorian literature and history, especially London during Queen Victoria’s era, 1837-1901.

But as I researched, the 1870s became my favorite decade because so much changed so rapidly in the social, economic, and political spheres. It was like someone set loose a rollercoaster car! Some of this is because literacy rates were rising, so people wrote, read, and talked about social issues more. But many of the debates of the 1850s and 1860s led to a swath of new laws in the 1870s. For example, traditionally under British law, a married woman was “covered” by her husband. This meant she could not vote, hold her own money, initiate a contract or divorce, or inherit property. In 1870, as a result of the Married Woman’s Property Act, for the first time, a woman could earn and keep her wages (shocking, I know!) and she could inherit property up to £200. It was one small but significant reversal of a huge social inequality. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 finally made education mandatory for all children ages 6-12. A series of safety and labor laws were passed to protect works in the mills and factories. Furthermore, new institutions such as the Slade School of Art (founded 1871) were opening to women. And the Franco-Prussian War (1871) tipped the balance of power in continental Europe from France to newly-united Germany—with results that we’d continue to see well into the twentieth century. Yet all this change occurred during a decade that was smack in the middle of the longest stable reign in British history. I find that so interesting.

2. What sparks a new book for you first—a character, a situation, or a setting? How do you work to construct a mystery plot? 

At the heart of each of my novels is a story I read or heard that clutched at me and refused to let go. As I researched railways, I found descriptions of people climbing out of burning carriages, horses trapped and screaming in stock cars, railway surgeons faced with hundreds of patients lying in the surrounding fields. So a railway disaster became the propelling event in A Lady in the Smoke. Similarly, when I was researching for A Dangerous Duet, I discovered the brilliant pianist Fanny Dickens (Charles’s older sister) was forced to leave the Royal Academy because she could no longer afford tuition. There were no opportunities for Fanny to make the money—and even if she earned it, she could have been forced to hand it over to her father to pay the family’s debts. It felt horribly unfair to me. A Trace of Deceit was shaped by painful stories of addiction, told to me by friends. And my next book is about the brutality of the African slave and ivory trades in the 1870s. In 2013, I read a book that included accounts of how Belgian agents would seize African women and children and put them in cages with no food or water, freeing them only when their husbands or fathers brought back the requisite 70 pounds of rubber. Now, seven years later, I’ll put this story to use.

3. Do you travel for your research? What has been your most thrilling discovery?

I had been to London a few times, even before I started writing books set there. My most thrilling discovery was Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel—not far from where the Ripper murders took place. It is (so far as I know) the only standing Victorian Music Hall in London, and it’s an amazing space. If you’ve seen Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey, Jr., you’ve seen Wilton’s. As Sherlock, Downey is chased all over the theater by a Cossack.

Photo credit:
Wilton’s was created in the mid-1800s by John Wilton, who joined together three houses in Graces Alley to make the music hall. As I walked through the doors, I could smell the hops, and I tripped over a nail in the wooden floorboards. I went downstairs and prowled around the basement with its uneven floors and plaster coming off the bricks. Then I came up and looked at the music hall itself—the U-shaped room, painted blue, with gilt and turned pillars. Instantly, I could see Nell in her piano alcove, and the setting for my story began to feel solid.

Photo credit: Karen Odden

Photo credit: Karen Odden
That trip, I also went to the Royal Academy of Music, where I found the 1820s class roster with Fanny Dickens’s name and a plaque with information about her. The music hall industry arose too late for Fanny, but by the 1850s there were dozens of halls in London willing to pay for talent—though men made twice what women did. And so was born the story of the pianist Nell Hallam, who needs to earn money for her tuition at the Academy and dresses as a man to take a position in a Soho music hall.

4. Inspector Matthew Hallam, the brother of the protagonist in your previous book A DANGEROUS DUET, reappears as a main character in A TRACE OF DECEIT. Are you building a series featuring Matthew? Does Nell, the protagonist of DUET, figure in TRACE?

Nell appears incidentally in A Trace of Deceit, but I don’t want to do a “series” in the usual way. I do have a few secondary overlapping characters—particularly Tom Flynn, my shrewd, straight-talking writer for the (fictional) London newspaper, the Falcon. He is based on my high school English teacher, who was the first person who told me I could write.

Frankly, I don’t trust myself to keep a protagonist interesting (or to stay interested in her!) to the same degree, after her first book, when the “big” issue from her past is resolved. Besides, I’m a research junkie. I’ve explored railways, music halls, the London art and auction world, and now the African ivory trade … and assuming there’s a fifth book, I want to move on to another aspect of Victorian London.

5. What do you love most about your new heroine, Annabel Rowe? How does she frustrate you? 

I love Annabel because she cares. She cares about her brother Edwin’s well-being. She cares about honoring his memory by finding out who he was before he died. She cares about telling the truth in her paintings—representing people as they really are, rather than some idealized version.

I wouldn’t say she frustrated me, necessarily … maybe she should have! But from the outset, I knew how she had to change. As a child, Annabel grew up the fourth person in a house with a very intense triangle: her father was fiercely ambitious for Edwin, who resented his father’s demands, and her mother ran interference. Annabel was always the observer because as a child, it was safer. Even as an adult, her habit of observing kept her out of the fray, and it worked (up to a point) for becoming a painter. But over the course of the novel, she has to learn how being solely an onlooker limits her. She needs to find a way to deepen her engagement with the world, or she will never become the painter she could be … and she won’t solve Edwin’s murder.

6. What authors inspired you to become a mystery writer? How does their work influence yours? 

As a child, my family spent every Sunday out at my grandparents’ house where my parents played bridge and I was left to scavenge in my grandmother’s library. There I found all kinds of books—bodice rippers, mysteries, suspense! I was probably around eleven when I found Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Daphne DuMaurier, and I’d say they were my first “adult” mysteries. (I had already torn through Nancy Drew, etc.) I loved the way these three women authors created vivid settings, fashioned young women characters who weren’t superheroes but seemed to have something in common with me, and had plots that wove together past tragedies and present events. I also loved how a single murder and a personal desire for truth could spin suspense for an entire book. A plot didn’t need to have fast cars and exploding buildings and bloodbaths to be a page-turner. The suspense for me came through the small scenes, the interactions among characters. Over the years, I realize I’m drawn to books that have some of these qualities—Tana French’s books and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves are books I reread every year or two. As far as being influenced, I like to think my books place the reader in Victorian London, where they will hear “Oranges and Lemons” from the church bells and smell the tallow from the chandler’s shop. And my protagonists, young women amateur sleuths, all have to learn something from their past in order to move forward in their present, and to solve the mystery in front of them.

7. You have now published three mystery novels. What have you learned over the course of these three books? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? 

Oh gosh. I could write a book just on what I’ve learned! But I’ll pick two things that stand out. First, it’s great to start with a clear plot idea (a railway crash, say). But I’ve come to realize the importance of spending hours and hours on backstories for my characters—even the minor ones. Then, after I write the first draft, I go back to my backstories and revise them, which in turn deepens my manuscript. I have separate pages for each character, and I write their histories from their point-of-view, although that information doesn’t all make it into the novel. The codicil to “backstories are vital” is that although backstories need to be in my head, they don’t need to be in my book.

Second, after writing, I trim. By my third or fourth draft, the manuscript is about 120,000 words—and then, when I feel my manuscript is “done” as far as plot and character, and all the details fit, and I love it exactly the way it is, I slash 20,000 words out. It inevitably makes a leaner, cleaner manuscript—and reducing redundancy, or even omitting a few lines here and there leaves room for the reader to fill in. Readers feel more engaged when they have to do some of the work … and I’ve learned to trust my readers. They’re smart.

8. What has been the most exciting moment of your writing career so far? Have you ever been ready to throw in the towel? What made you persevere? 

Eight years ago, before I found my agent, I nearly gave up. I’d been working on the manuscript for A Lady in the Smoke, and some YA manuscripts, for years. I just couldn’t find an agent to take more than a passing interest, and though I’d taken classes and read books on writing, I didn’t know what was wrong with them. I remember talking to my friend Jody Hallam (for whom Matthew Hallam is named) about how incredibly discouraged I was, and how I could write for another ten years and still get nowhere. The uncertainty was terrible. She urged me to find a free-lance editor before I gave up. Another friend, also a writer, recommended someone who helped me get the manuscript in shape for submission—and I sent it out to ten agents I found on Publisher’s Marketplace. I heard back from eight, and two eventually offered representation.

Like Annabel (and all my heroines) I had something to learn: I need feedback at various stages. My advice is to find a strong critique group, or a mentor who will work one-on-one, if that suits you. Join organizations such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, who have resources to help you. And of course, keep writing.

The thing is, even if I had never found an agent or a publisher, I’d write anyway. I have dozens of notebooks and piles of manuscript pages and drafts of articles and essays that will probably never see the light of day. A friend asked me once, “Don’t you ever want to take a day off from writing?” I replied that it’s sort of like brushing my teeth; I could skip a day, but it doesn’t feel good. Honestly, I love writing more than I hate failing at it. And my reading and writing has brought me to a community with so many lovely, smart, talented readers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers, and writers that even if I never publish another book, I’ve won.


Karen Odden served as an Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and taught classes in English language and literature at New York University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She has contributed essays and chapters to books and journals, including Studies in the Novel, Journal of Victorian Culture, and Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation; for ten years, she served as an Assistant Editor for the academic journal, Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP); and she has written introductions for Barnes and Noble's Classics Series editions of books by Dickens and Trollope. Prior to receiving her Ph.D. in English, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and McGraw-Hill, as a Media Buyer for Christie's Auction House in New York, and as a bartender at the airport in Rochester, where she learned how to stop being shy. She is a member of SCBWI and Mystery Writers of America. Her first book, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today Bestseller and won the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona award for eBook Fiction. Her second book, from William Morrow/Harper Collins, is A Dangerous Duet, which won the New Mexico-Arizona book award for Historical Fiction in 2019; and her third Victorian mystery, A Trace of Deceit, was published in December 2019. 

Karen currently resides in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband, her two children, and her ridiculously cute beagle, Rosy.

Learn more about Karen and her books by visiting her website.