Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Interview With Author Rhys Bowen by E. B. Davis

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal.
I’ve read all of Rhys Bowen’s adult series. What I didn’t know—she started writing children’s books before writing adult mystery and is current writing a middle-school-age series with her daughter, Clare Broyles, called the Red Dragon Academy series. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s anything Rhys can’t write.

Her Welsh Constable Evan Evans series was my first reading adventure with Rhys. I loved the romance and humor I found. Her Molly Murphy series was one of the first historical mysteries I’d read. Set in NYC during the early 1900s, the series deals with some real political situations that occurred and of their effect on plucky MC, Molly Murphy. The charming Royal Spyness series, set during the 1930s, contains humor and pathos. Rhys wove real newsworthy people of the time into the books and portrays her characters’ duress during the depression.

In Farleigh Field is a stand-alone, which maybe her first. I’m drawn to WWI and WWII historical mysteries perhaps because of hearing about those times from my grandparents and parents. This novel is written in multiple third person voices, another favorite of mine.

Please welcome Rhys Bowen to WWK.                                                                        E. B. Davis
Is In Farleigh Field your first stand-alone release? Is the premise of a series confining?

RHYS: Thanks for having me here, Elaine. Yes, In Farleigh Field is my first stand alone mystery/thriller. It was a subject I’d been dying to write about for some time but realized my Royal Spyness series might never make it to WWII, also how can one be light and funny about a war? Not easy. So I loved the freedom of new characters, new setting and multiple points of view.

A series is wonderful in many ways. Each book is like revisiting old friends. You build a guaranteed readership who are delighted to renew their friendship with your characters. But yes, it can be confining too. Certain things could not happen to someone in 1900s New York, or 1930s England.

When I first started writing, prologues were verboten, but you prefaced your story with a prologue. Are prologues an “in or out of fashion” writing technique?

RHYS: I’ve never considered any rules. A mystery novel is supposed to have a body by page 50. Mine often don’t. And prologues? I write them when I think they are needed. In this book it was necessary to see what has happened to Ben two years before the story starts.

Capability Brown is mentioned as the designer of Farleigh Place gardens. His name is so unique; I had to find out about him. In Farleigh Field takes place over 150 years after his death. Would his work still show?

RHYS: Capability Brown was a garden architect and designer. He laid out formal gardens in great houses all over Britain. And many of those gardens are unchanged: his arrangement of flower beds, water features, arbors etc can still be visited all over England.

Farleigh Place is the ancestral home of the Earl of Westerham. During the war, the family must sequester in one wing of their home because troops are quartered in the rest of Farleigh Place manor house. Was this normal? Were the peerage expected to accommodate them?

RHYS: In WWII great houses like Farleigh Place were all taken over by the government. Some were used to house schools that had to be evacuated from the center of cities, some were used to take government offices out of London, and some were used as headquarters for local army regiments. You’ll remember the same thing happened to Brideshead! The family had no control over this. The state requisitioned during a war. If they needed iron and you had railings, they took the railings. One learned to live with it. In this case they still had one wing. In other cases they had to squeeze into a gatehouse.

Children from London are moved to the countryside to protect them from the bombing. One of these children, a bedraggled boy named Alfie, and Phoebe, the youngest of the Earl’s daughters, find the dead body of the parachutist. They’re excited and curious, but they don’t seem frightened or horrified. Alfie seems more alarmed by the trophy heads hanging in the manor house. Why weren’t they scared?

RHYS:  Alfie has just come from the East End of London. He has become used to seeing dead bodies in the bombing and children take these things for granted more easily than adults. Phoebe, we know later when she cries with her governess, really was upset by the dead body, but was not going to show it in front of a socially inferior boy like Alfie.

Ben, one of your main characters, doesn’t have the best self-image, constantly comparing himself to Jeremy, of higher birth and more swagger. Most men would want to pick a fight just to have a chance to punch Jeremy, but Ben is always deferential. Why?

RHYS: The two have grown up together. Ben has an element of hero worship about Jeremy, but they are also best friends. Ben has grown up with little money where Jeremy is rich and successful. Ben admires him, wants to be with him and it is not in his nature to want to punch.

Livvy, the eldest of the Earl’s children, seems unaware her husband is stationed in a location where he could do the least harm. Did this really happen? Where was he stationed and why was he held in suspicion?

RHYS: The Duke of Windsor, former King Edward VIII, was pro-German and thus dangerous. There were real plots to put him on the throne in the place of his brother, so he was removed from Europe and made Governor of the Bahamas, suitably far away and able to be guarded by American ships. Livvy’s husband is sent as part of his guard. He is a friend of the Duke of Windsor and who knows, he may also have been considered a liability!

The Earl of Westerham seems more engaged as a father to his daughters than his wife, Esme. Is the Earl unusual for his time, or is he just a natural-born father?

RHYS: You have to remember that upper class parents saw their offspring once a day, dressed in their best clothes at teatime. They had no parenting skills. The child was raised by Nanny and then by a governess or tutor. Lady Esme seems particularly clueless and disinterested in what is going on around her. Yes, she’s a terrible mother, but one can’t blame her. Her husband is involved, to a certain extent, in disciplining his children and making sure they grow up to do the right thing, but he has no idea about their feelings, dreams, hopes.

What clothing does Pamela’s younger sister, Dido, wear to show her rebellion?

RHYS: Dido is doing everything possible to rebel, isn’t she? Stuck in the house, her good brain not being used, and denied her season like her sisters, it’s little wonder she is seething with frustration. So she wears trousers (still avant-garde at the time) halter necks with cleavage, bright colors…anything to attract a man!

When Pamela works at Bletchley Park, being addressed by her title, Lady, is a perceived put down. Were the uppers looked upon with contempt as a result of the depression? Or, by the time of the war, were there enough jobs without those supplied by the uppers that they could show their contempt without it threatening their livelihood?

RHYS: It wasn’t a put-down as much as clearly stating that she is different from her co-workers. A source of embarrassment. No, the upper class were not looked down upon, except by Communists. They were very much revered. Pamela wants to be “just one of the blokes”.

Between them, Pamela and Ben discover what could be a fatal blow to England if not thwarted. They discover the culprit and learn of the betrayal. What happened to those convicted of treason during the war? Were they jailed until their deaths? Shot? Were there real cases you discovered in your research?

RHYS: A traitor would have been executed. Real cases? Yes, in several books on MI5 I read what happened when double agents were captured. Some were imprisoned, but others were executed. A member of the armed forces would have been shot by firing squad. A civilian would have been hanged. Sometimes a lighter sentence might have been given if it could be proven that a person was coerced.

What were your family’s experiences during the war? Did you rely on their collective memories in writing this book?

RHYS: I don’t have personal memories of the war, apart from searchlights and the sirens. I was too young when it ended. But I do remember the bleak and grim time after the war when everything was still rationed, not enough coal for fires, little meat, and bomb sites everywhere. My father and all my uncles were abroad fighting until 1945. But I have relied on what family members shared about the wartime experience—the blackout, the bombing raids, the black market… all those elements.

As well I did a lot of reading: diaries of ordinary people, books on Bletchley Park and MI5, Churchill’s books. And I visited Bletchley Park, the Imperial War Museum, Churchill’s War Rooms. (And I know a lot about homes like Farleigh. My husband comes from a family that lived like that.)

Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing, released In Farleigh Field. How did you obtain the deal—like usual, through your agent—or was there a different process?

RHYS: Yes, the deal was done through my agent in the usual way. The whole process with Lake Union was a delight. They were so professional and so easy to work with. I look forward to my next book with them next year.

What will be your next book released? Would you give our readers the book jacket paragraph?

RHYS: The next Royal Spyness book comes out in August and is called On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service.
The next Molly book comes out in November and is called The Ghost of Christmas Past
And the next stand alone comes out next March and is called The Tuscan Child.

What authors do you read in your spare time?

RHYS: What is this word spare time? I wrote three books last year. I was on the road speaking and promoting. I keep trying to slow down, but nobody lets me!  Actually I do hike with friends when I can. I sing in my local church choir, I love interacting with grandchildren, and John and I do travel whenever we can.

Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to interview at WWK

Rhys: Thank you!


  1. Rhys, thank you so much for joining us at Writers Who Kill. I've enjoyed your books immensely, including "In Farleigh Field." I also have enjoyed hearing you speak at Malice and was disappointed that you weren't there this year. Hopefully, we'll see you there next year.

  2. I enjoyed Farleigh Field in conjunction with "Home Fires" and after watching "Bletchley Circle" and "Foyle's War" on PBS, plus the Maisie Dobbs books. Memorable characters (particularly Phoebe and Alfie)and setting, and all the "you are there" kinds of details. A very satisfying book!

  3. Rhys, I am definitely a fan of yours.

  4. Rhys, I love all of your series. I have a whole long bookcase shelf filled with them, and I can't wait to read In Farleigh Field now. Like Grace, I was disappointed that you weren't at Malice Domestic this year.

  5. A fascinating interview! Thank you. I have read many of these books, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Keep up th good work!

  6. Cannot wait to add this book to my TBR. The time period fascinates me, as do the people who lived then. I couldn't help thinking of the Mitford sisters when I read of Lord Westerham's five daughters.