Sara Sheridan tells Susan Mansfield about her new ‘cosy noir’ sleuth and why, for a historical novelist, the 1950s is a gift that keeps on giving
PAUSING with her coffee cup halfway to her lips, Sara Sheridan explains the kind of challenge which faces the historical novelist. In her new novel, set in 1951, her heroine takes tea at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, and a person at a nearby table sips an espresso.
“Would they have had an espresso machine at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1951? The Grand Hotel had no idea. So you have to figure it out: would it have been possible? Would it have been likely? And that’s just a throwaway line, that’s just part of the atmosphere of what you’re writing.
“I once did an event with Ian Rankin where he said he didn’t really need to do much background research because his books are set in the present, and I just thought: ‘You lucky, lucky beast!’ because as a historical novelist, I live constantly on the edge of wondering whether tissues had been invented. Were there nylons? What kind of underwear did people have? How did you get on a bus and pay for it?”
Sheridan, 43, has also written contemporary novels, and historical novels set in the 19th century. But Brighton Belle, published this month by Polygon, begins a new crime series set in the 1950s. Thinking herself into the world of Mirabelle Bevan, clerk turned private investigator, means imagining a Britain a bit like our own, but also very different.
In 1951, the country is still struggling to get back on its feet after the Second World War. Rationing is still in force, meaning that anyone having afternoon tea, like the one we’re currently enjoying at an Edinburgh hotel, would be paying for it with their ration coupons. “Butter, ham, eggs, cream and sugar were still rationed,” she says, eyeing the plates of sandwiches, scones and cakes in front of us. “Perhaps if you were able to slip the waiter a small sum, it might have been rather different.
“People were consuming on average less calories after the war than during the war. Things were still very tough. If you look at the film footage of London streets, even in areas which weren’t slums there are kids in the streets who are dirty and have no shoes on. It was rough. There was a real edge.”
At the same time, Mirabelle Bevan’s world was one in which women were expected to be effortlessly glamorous. No self-respecting woman left home without her high heel and lipstick. Sheridan spent time in the fashion archive of the Victoria & Albert Museum to discover the colours and styles that the ever- stylish Mirabelle would have worn: grey was the new black in 1951, red was in, as was sapphire blue. “I’ve always been big into vintage style, so it was fun to explore what she was wearing, how her hair would have been, her make-up. I love the way she can run in high heels – she’s tremendous at running in high heels – but you would have had to because you couldn’t wear flats really.”
Mirabelle walked into Sheridan’s life through a story from her father, who grew up in London and Brighton in the 1940s and 1950s. “Some of his stories are great. He told me about being in Brighton and seeing this woman down on the beach, very well dressed, trying to dodge the deck chair attendant and sit on a seat. He said he could never figure out why she was trying to dodge paying, because she obviously had a bit of money. I could just see her, and I thought, yes, I’m going to write about her, about what happened to her.”
That turned into the opening scene of the novel, as Mirabelle sits in a (free) deck chair having her lunch because (in her words) “we did not win the war to have to pay to sit down”. The rest of the book flowed from that moment, and promises to be a series, with one book for every year between 1951 and 1961. Sheridan calls it “cosy crime noir – because a lot of the things that happen are just on the edge of ‘cosy’”.
Mirabelle Bevan, it turns out, was a backroom girl for the Secret Service during the war. With the outbreak of peace, she, like many women, was expected to return to the domestic realm. But Mirabelle had lost the love of her life in the war – a married agent with whom she’d been having an affair. She seeks out a quiet life in Brighton running the office of a debt collector, Big Ben McGuigan. But when a client – a young pregnant woman – goes missing, she turns sleuth, ably assisted by Vesta Churchill, the clerk from the next-door office. Soon the bodies are multiplying, and the two women find themselves in real danger.
But in their quest for help, they face unbridled sexism. The police are either corrupt, incompetent, or so intent on hurrying the “ladies” away from the scene of the crime that they pay no attention to what they’re saying. “It’s a whole different landscape,” says Sheridan. “Because one of the first things in my mind was how different it was for women, I wanted to write a lot of strong women characters. There aren’t that many books from the 1950s that have strong female characters.”
It is also an era of toe-curling racism and Vesta, who is black, copes philosophically with comments which would be shocking today. Sheridan plans to explore this more fully in the second book in the series, London Calling, out next year, when the women become involved in the jazz scene in London.
The 1950s was a period of rapid change, and one which remains relatively unexploited in current fiction despite the fashion for “retro crime”. Sheridan says she has always been drawn to the decade. “I’m drawn to the buildings, I’m drawn to the jewellery, any time I go to a museum I home in on things from that period. It was such an amazing decade, each year was very distinct, very different.” The 1950s takes Britain from the end of rationing and the beginning of the NHS to the rise of youth culture, the Notting Hill race riots and the Cold War, and – on a lighter note – kitten heels, Coco Channel and the trapeze dress.
“There are so many ways to do research – even watching old Ealing comedies, watching people getting on and off buses in London, looking at household interiors. My dad is an absolute font of 1950s knowledge, I can phone him up at two o’clock in the morning and say, ‘Dad, I’ve just paid £5 for something, what’s the change?’ because I can’t remember how to do change in old money. I had tea with my old history teacher from school, she was at school in the 1950s and was due to be head girl, and they stopped her because she’d been found wearing trousers – and that was something that a lady wouldn’t do.”
Sheridan’s first novel, Truth or Dare?, was published in 1998. She had returned to Edinburgh, her home city, divorced with a young daughter, and quit her job as an administrator to write full-time. She landed a major publishing deal with Random House, and found herself courted by film and TV companies, prompting comparisons to JK Rowling, though no films were ever made.
Instead, she switched from contemporary commercial to historical fiction. “What I realised was that although I was writing these stories which were contemporary, they all had big historical back stories. Truth or Dare? was about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Ma Polinski’s Pockets has a big World War II back story, and The Pleasure Express is set against the handover of Hong Kong. Eventually, I thought, sod it, I should just write a historical novel.
“History, for me, is a treasure chest full of nuggets of information. Quite often you see something in architecture, or elsewhere, that doesn’t quite make sense, and you think ‘why?’, and start digging and diving. We are so much a product of where we’ve come from, and where we are going also depends on the choices we make now. That’s why history is very important for me.”
Her first foray into historical fiction was The Secret Mandarin, set in London and China in the 1840s, the other period which she says really draws her in. That was followed by Secret of the Sands, about an Abyssinian slave girl in 1830s Muscat, and she is working on a third from the same period, about the chocolate industry in Brazil.
A versatile writer who is also an active member of groups such as the Society of Authors and writers’ collective “26”, she is never less than busy. “I can’t write for ten hours a day, you’ve got to have other things you’re involved in.”
She admits her books now sit on the cusp between “literary” and “commercial” fiction. “It’s not a conscious decision, it’s just what I do. The literary side comes from the fact that I’m a big swot, I love archives, I love libraries. But then I want to tell stories to as many people as possible. I’m enthused by story-telling, it sets my imagination alight, so I’d love to do that for someone else.” She smiles: “If you’re lucky you get to have them both.”
• Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan is published by Polygon, priced £15.99; an e-book is also available.