Finding Out What Makes Fiona Veitch Smith Tick: An Interview

Fiona Veitch Smith is a lover of Golden Age mysteries and historical fiction. Her Poppy Denby Investigates books are set in the roaring 20s and immerse readers in the fashion, culture, politics and social challenges of the time, while weaving intricate mysteries packed with whodunits and red herrings. Fiona, like Poppy, was formerly a journalist. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Please briefly describe The Crystal Crypt.

The Crystal Crypt is the sixth book in the Poppy Denby Investigates series, seeing the 1920’s most stylish reporter sleuth investigating the mysterious death of a woman scientist in a basement laboratory in Oxford, 1925.

“Another cracking piece of historical crime fiction by Fiona Veitch Smith. The author’s enthusiasm for the 1920s really shines through and her in-depth knowledge of the period ensures that the settings and dialogue ring true.” – Erin Britton,

What motivated you to write it?

I was listening to a radio documentary about Nobel prize winning chemist, Dorothy Hodgkin, about how she had been overlooked for the prize for decades. When she finally got the award in 1963 British newspaper headlines announced: Oxford housewife wins Nobel prize. As the Poppy Denby books are all about the challenges faced by women trying to forge careers in the 1920s, I decided that Poppy’s next case should be the murder of a brilliant woman scientist as it would give me an opportunity to explore the issues facing women in science.

I started writing just before the 2020 pandemic hit. It wasn’t long before the name of Professor Sarah Gilbert came to public prominence as the creator of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, and also Dr Ozlem Toreci, one of the creators of the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine. I noted how far women in science had come and I wanted to highlight the struggles their predecessors had faced.

Tell us about the setting. What motivated this choice? What do you think is important when choosing a setting?

Dorothy Hodgkin worked in the tomb-like basement of the History of Science Museum, the Old Ashmolean, on Broad Street, Oxford, in the 1920s and 30s. I visited and found it the perfect setting for a murder mystery to take place. Oxford itself often features in murder and crime books (most famously Inspector Morse) and is the setting of one of my favourite novels by Golden Age detective fiction writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night.

The 1920s saw the start of the awarding of Oxford degrees to women and Somerville College, one of the then four women’s colleges in Oxford, was one of the first to do so. So I decided that the victim, Dr June Leighton, would also be a Somerville student. This gave me an opportunity to broaden my theme to women in academia in general and not just scientists. I also have a female police constable, one of the first on the Oxford Constabulary, as a character.

Settings are very important to me. Each Poppy book starts with a period map of the town or city in which the investigation takes place and I mark on the map the main places that feature in the story. Readers often say how much they value the map to help them visualise the setting and how they can almost “walk” with Poppy in the 1920s as she investigates the crime. The setting of a book is almost like another character. You are inviting your reader to enter into another world and to spend a considerable amount of time there. Helping your reader “see” where they are in their imagination enriches their reading experience.

How has your background influenced your writing? To what extent does your own life influence your writing?

I worked as a newspaper journalist in Cape Town in the 1990s and as a magazine journalist in the UK in the early 2000s. In Cape Town I covered both crime and arts stories. My experiences there helped me create the character of Poppy Denby, the arts and entertainment editor of The Daily Globe, who solves crimes on the side. (Not that I really solved crimes on the side!). I have drawn on my experience of being a young, female reporter, in a world dominated mainly by men who didn’t really take the “pretty young lass” very seriously.

Can you take us through the process of writing a book? What do you do first?

It takes me 12 months to write a novel. As I am approaching the end of my previous book, I start mulling over ideas for the next, so by the time I finish one book I’m ready to start another. I spend the first three months doing historical research into the period and the specific content of the book (in The Crystal Crypt, early 20th century science and crystallography as well as the experience of women in Oxford in that period). During that time I try to visit the place I am writing about (which was tricky during the pandemic, but I managed). Then I write for nine months. I tend to write three days a week for most of that time, as I do other work editing other people’s books and working for the Crime Writers’ Association, but as the finish line approaches I up my writing time.

What was the most challenging part of writing your latest book?

Writing during a pandemic. The usual places I would go for research–museums, libraries etc–were shut. It was difficult to travel too. Also, my husband and teenage daughter were locked down at home and we don’t have a very big house. I found it very difficult writing with people in the house when I’m used to solitude and silence.

How did you come up with the title?

I was in the basement of the Science Museum in Oxford, thinking about Dorothy Hodgkin, my character June Leighton, and their work with x-ray crystallography. So the word crystal was on my mind. It then came to me that the stone basement was very tomb-like; then that led me to thinking ‘crypt’ which of course alliterates with crystal. There is a short story by Philip K Dick called The Crystal Crypt, so I considered for a while not using it, but the title really seemed to fit. As the Philip K Dick story was a different genre and published in the 1950s, I felt there wouldn’t be too much confusion. My agent and publisher agreed, so we went with The Crystal Crypt.

What other books and authors have inspired you?

As my main writing output is Golden Age style historical crime fiction, it’s inevitable that I will be influenced by two of the greats of the inter-war detective genre: Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. I love the intricacy of plot of Christie, and the characterisation and social commentary of Sayers. Other writers that have influenced me are Alexander McCall Smith (the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency) with his witty yet poignant characterization. I also enjoy the humour of Lindsay Davis’ Didius Falco series. 

Which of your books are you most proud of?

Book 1 in the Poppy Denby Investigates series, The Jazz Files, which was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger in 2016. That was my breakthrough novel which started getting my writing noticed. But in terms of the book I am most happy with, the book that I got to the end of the first draft and thought: this is the closest I think I’ve ever got to writing the book I wanted to write, it is book 3 in the series, The Death Beat, which sees Poppy and her team heading to New York.

That book deals with some serious issues of the plight of refugees and sex-trafficking, while also embracing the excitement of New York during Prohibition. For me it is the perfect balance of light and shade, seriousness and fun. Unfortunately, it came out when my publisher, Lion Hudson, was going through some difficulties, having to lay-off 2/3 of their staff. As a result, it didn’t get the launch or distribution it should have had, hence not getting as much notice as the other books in the series. But it’s still my favourite. Particularly the audiobook version of it (published by WF Howes), with the narration of the fabulous Helen Keeley, which brings it alive!

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