Wednesday, July 29, 2020

An Interview with Cynthia Kuhn by E. B. Davis

Once the coffee pot had run dry, Bibi sighed. “I can’t help but feel like
 we’re missing something that’s right in front of us.”

“That’s how I feel most of the time, actually.”
Cynthia Kuhn, The Study of Secrets, Kindle Loc. 1573

There could be nowhere more fitting for English professor Lila Maclean to spend her sabbatical than in a proper Victorian mansion. The whimsical Callahan House seems to have materialized from the pages of the mystery novels she is researching, with its enchanting towers, cozy nooks, and charming library. Unfortunately, it also features a body in the study.

Residents of Larkston have long believed that the Callahan family is cursed—the murder on the estate sets the town buzzing. Wild rumors are fueled by a gossipy blogger who delights in speculation, and further crimes only intensify the whispers and suspicions. A newly discovered manuscript, however, appears to expose startling facts beneath the fictions. When Lila steps in to sort the truth from the lies, it may cost her everything, as someone wants to make dead certain that their secrets stay hidden.

The Study of Secrets is the fifth book in the Lila Maclean Academic mystery series by Cynthia Kuhn. There are many themes in this book. Ugly ambition is one. Heroes who we learn are all too human is another. Then I thought about of all the learned academic characters in this story, even those in exalted positions with doctorates and other credentials, having to mature and go through all the stages from childhood, teen years, and onward—no wiser than anyone else—making mistakes like everyone else. Mistakes that are kept secret—especially when they are murderous.

This book fulfilled my desire for a good mystery, but it also provided a wonderful backstory that fans of this series craved. If you haven’t read the series, here’s a link to my interview with Cynthia Kuhn on her first book in this series, The Semester of Our Discontent.

Please welcome Cynthia Kuhn back to WWK.                                       E. B. Davis

Okay, Cynthia—we, the readers, want the recipe for the butterscotch hot toddy. Give it up here and now!

Here’s a very good recipe (and now I’m thirsty). Cheers!

Are there now a lot of dissertations written using contemporary/genre authors as subjects? Is this new? Is this more acceptable now than it was?

I have seen numerous dissertations with contemporary authors as subjects, so it’s happening, and I am FOR it. Full disclosure: I wrote my mine on Margaret Atwood’s fiction. ;)

Lila wrote her dissertation on three books published during the 1970s that are now out of print by little known author Isabella Dare. Soon up for tenure, Lila discovered that Isabella is really Bibi Callahan, a professor ready to retire from Callahan College, which is located nearby Lila’s own Stonedale University. She’s writing a book on Isadora/Bibi’s writing. How important is it for Lila to get the book published before the decision of her tenure is made?

It would definitely strengthen her tenure application, and Lila believes it is, in fact, necessary for a positive outcome.

Lila is also finishing her first mystery book, which she hopes to get published. Could the genre fiction go against her in a decision of tenure? Will she use her own name?

Since her position has publications requirements, I don’t think she would use a pseudonym. Depending on the perspective of the committee members, yes, it could go against her, and readers may remember that the first scene of the whole series involved a rather heated confrontation between Lila and her department chair on the topic of mysteries!

Bibi knits, but her knitting isn’t very good, or is it?

Ha! Bibi’s knitting won’t be winning any awards, but Lila thinks it’s absolutely charming.  

The book revolves around “The Larks,” Bibi and three of her life-long friends, who all married their high school sweethearts. One of Bibi’s friends is murdered in her study. I was surprised that they all stayed friends. Isn’t there usually infighting? Jealousy? Or growing apart?

That’s an interesting point. While the Larks have indeed weathered many things, they’ve managed to stay close despite any such conflicts.

Bibi’s only and younger sister, Ilse, disappeared during their teen years. Lila finds a fourth manuscript of Bibi’s, which was written prior to the published books in her mystery series. Except that the new manuscript was never published. At first Lila is excited, but not only does the manuscript disappear, Bibi says the manuscript was never meant for publication. It was her way of processing her sister’s disappearance. Will Lila still use the manuscript in her book about Isabella?

Lila will focus on Isabella’s published books—and the extent to which she does or does not discuss the unpublished manuscript will be determined by what Bibi is willing to grant in terms of formal permissions.

Why hasn’t Bibi ever told anyone about her fiction writing?

Initially, she thought it was important to separate her novels from her scholarly work as a professor and, as the years went by, it seemed more and more unnecessary to reveal their existence to anyone.

Why do the people in the area consider the Callahan family cursed?

Sadly, the Callahan family has experienced multiple tragedies. The gossip about their repeated misfortunes eventually transformed into speculation about a curse.

Is the Internet and Social Media a way to find truth or does it dish lies?

Both—there are trustworthy and untrustworthy sources of information out there!

Caretakers for Callahan House, The Flemms, are a husband and wife team. Why aren’t they friendly?

The Flemms are private people who have complex feelings about the Callahans and the estate. Bibi doesn’t believe that Alice has ever liked her, though. Then again, Alice is incredibly hard to read, which is one reason she was so fun to write.
Chancellor Wellington puts Lila in an awkward position when he makes a bid on Callahan House by wanting her to influence Bibi. He also makes it known her tenure might be jeopardized by her not doing as he asks. What is Lila’s reaction? What does she do?

After processing deep dismay about the potential consequences, Lila tries to find a way to do what she wants without getting fired. She’s determined like that.

How did Bibi know Lila’s mother?

Bibi met Violet at a conference years ago; they’ve kept in touch via social media.

How does Bibi know HVAC repair?

After retiring, she took courses in a wide variety of areas. She’s always learning something new: I see her as a sort of renaissance woman.

Why does Lila’s mother decide to relocate to Stonedale?

Violet misses Lila and Calista and wants to be close to them. I suspect she also has ideas about turning Stonedale into a robust haven for artists. Since the opera house (from The Spirit in Question) is already drawing in the theater crowd, she might be on to something.

Lila’s old detective boyfriend, Lex, contacts her wanting to get back together. How does Lila react?

Let’s just say that Lila has to sort through some conflicting feelings…

What is next for Lila?

I hope she’ll be drawn into another mystery!

It’s such an honor to visit Writers Who Kill—thank you for having me. 


  1. congratulations on your new release!

    I remember Amanda Cross's Kate Fansler books, written by Columbia professor Carolyn Heilbrun. Orginally, her pen name was to protect her academic reputation, but I'm not sure how long it was a secret.

  2. This is an awesome book in an awesome series! Thanks for joining us here today, Cynthia! And congratulations on the new release!

  3. Congratulations on your latest release!

    I had no idea that fiction counted as a tenure track publication. That is fascinating, and what a great way to work off the stress of a doctorate!

  4. I love reading this series! As much of an academic as her main character is, she also has intuition, that six sense about crime! A nice mix that makes Lila more down to earth.

  5. An intriguing set of circumstances. Lila has a lot on her plate, and dealing with all those aspects of her life makes for a character with depth and perception.

  6. Congratulations on your new release in this terrific series. I love a good academic mystery!

  7. Thank you so much for the interview, EB and everyone at Writers Who Kill! So happy to be visiting today.

    Margaret, thank you--and I ADORE the Kate Fansler series. DEATH IN A TENURED POSITION was the first academic mystery I ever read as such and it was inspiring. And yes, she did try to keep it a secret and was successful for awhile...

    Thank you so much, Annette! And thank you again for your kind and beautiful blurb on SECRETS!!

    Kait, it definitely depends on certain factors. For her colleague/cousin Calista, a creative publication absolutely counts, as she teaches creative writing. But in Lila's case, she is a literature professor, so she will be focusing her tenure application on her scholarly book.

    Thank you, EB! I'm thrilled that you are enjoying the series--and I love that observation about her crime intuitions!

    KM, I so appreciate that perspective.

    Shari, thank you!!

  8. Great interview! Now I want to make that butterscotch hot toddy too!
    Loved this latest book, Cynthia. :)

  9. I love your book covers...fabulous. Great interview, hope to meet you again at some point in future.

  10. Thank you so much, Ann! I would LOVE one too right about now.

    Judy, thank you--it would be wonderful to catch up at the next con!