Edgar nominated mystery author Victoria Thompson has written twenty (!) books in her Gaslight Mystery series set at the end of the 19th century in New York City.
This is an author who knows her history! I was slightly intimidated to talk to Vicky, because I’m very new to the historical mystery genre. But she was a joy to chat with. You’ll hear us discuss, among other thing, the parallels between the historical period we both write in and the present era we’re all living in and experiencing today.
If you’re wanting to sink your teeth into a series that will provide you weeks of reading pleasure, you’ve come to the right podcast today. ;-) And even better news, Vicky has a new mystery series that recently launched with City of Lies.
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Victoria’s books on Amazon
- The Sleuths in Time Facebook page for fans and writers of historical mysteries
- A list of all 20 of the Gaslight Mysteries in order
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Victoria Thompson
Alexandra: Hello mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amore. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast and I’m here today with Victoria Thompson. Hi, Victoria.
Victoria: Good morning. How are you?
Alexandra: I’m doing well. How are you doing?
Victoria: Great, thank you.
Alexandra: Good. Good. Well let me give our listeners a little bit of an introduction to you.
Victoria Thompson is the best selling author of the Edgar and Agatha Award nominated Gaslight mystery series set in turn of the century New York City, featuring midwife Sarah Brandt and police Detective Frank Malloy. The 20th book in that series, “Murder in the Bowery” was published in May, 2017.
Victoria also has a new historical series launching in November, 2017 which is set in 1917. The Counterfeit Lady series features a female con artist and an honest attorney. The first book is “City of Lies.”
In her spare time, Victoria is an instructor at Seton Hill University’s masters degree program in writing popular fiction.
And as I was just saying before we started to record, Victoria, I’m so excited to talk to you today because we both write historical mystery novels set in the late 19th century and with strong, sort of independent female heroines. So I just feel like you and I are kindred spirits right off the bat.
Victoria: That’s got to be the most interesting period in history to write about so I’m not surprised that you’re interested in it.
Alexandra: Yes. Tell me why it interests you.
Victoria: Well, what I found when I started researching that era, and it was very surprising to me is, is that the issues that people were concerned about then are the same issues we’re concerned about now. And really the only thing that has changed in 100 years is the technology.
People are still dealing with all kinds of social issues, the same exact things they were concerned about finding Mr. Right and how do you find Mr. Right in this crazy world. How do you deal with immigrants? How do you deal with women’s rights? All those kinds of things were very hot button issues then and nothing has changed in 100 years.
Alexandra: Tell us a little about Sarah Brandt. She’s a former socialite and now she’s working as a midwife.
Victoria: She was born to a Knickerbocker family. The Knickerbockers were the original Dutch settlers of New York so they’re the oldest families in New York City, the social elite as it were. And because of a family tragedy she rebelled against her rich parents, married a doctor and in those days doctors were not wealthy and upper class. They were considered kind of middle class, and so she married way beneath her. And they didn’t have any money, and she trained as a nurse and a midwife.
And so when her husband is murdered she’s able to continue. She doesn’t have to go home to her parents, she could support herself as a midwife.
So that’s where she is when the series starts. Her husband’s been dead about three years and she’s been making a living as a midwife. She’s estranged from her rich parents and she comes across a young girl that she knew in her previous life who has been murdered, and the police detective is investigating the crime is Frank Malloy. And of course they hate each other at sight.
It’s a good hook. That’s what happens. And by the end of the first book they have developed a grudging respect for each other, and as the series goes on they fall in love but because of their social… the vast difference in their social levels, they can’t marry. In fact he’s an Irish Catholic and she’s a daughter of a Knickerbocker family. She didn’t care, but he will not do that to her because of him, she marries an Irish Catholic she’ll never be accepted into society again, and he doesn’t want to burden her with that, so…
Victoria: So I kept that going for about 15 books.
Alexandra: Yes, okay, yeah.
Victoria: To give that away and I won’t spoil it in case you haven’t read the series, but figured out a way for them to overcome all those obstacles I’d put in their way, and if they finally eventually get married.
Alexandra: Oh thanks. That was great.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit about Frank Malloy.
One of the things I read in either one of the descriptions of your books or on your website was that at that time in New York City police detectives only investigated crimes when people could afford to pay for the investigation to go on.
Victoria: Yes, it was. They didn’t make a lot of money and there really was not much incentive for them to work really hard so if there was a reward for solving the case then they would make an extra effort to find out who actually did it.
I was in doing the research, I read about this that what would often happen if there was a robbery, for example, a warehouse was robbed of the goods that were being stored in it. The thieves would not sell the goods. They would just hold onto them and wait for the reward to be offered. And the police would then find the goods, return them, collect that reward, and split it with the crooks.
Alexandra: Oh my goodness.
Victoria: Yeah. I actually have Frank at one point thinking, you know, if business operated so efficient, as efficiently as this, this would be a much better country.
Alexandra: Right. Yes.
Victoria: That’s pretty much the way things happened. It was very corrupt. The police were very corrupt in those days.
That was actually one of our problems. I had written a proposal, and Berkeley had bought it. And I went to write the first book, and I was researching the police department. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what have I done. My hero is like this completely corrupt police. How do I make him sympathetic?”
So I gave him a son who was handicapped, and his wife died in childbirth. And he’s raising his son, and he believes that his son is mentally handicapped and will never be able to earn a living so he must earn enough money himself to leave the boy provided for after he’s gone. The way that an Irish Catholic man in those days could earn a decent living was as a police man. That was pretty much the only career path open to him. And so he’s bribing his way up the ladder. You had to pay bribes to get promoted in the police department.
Alexandra: Oh my goodness.
Victoria: He was saving up to become a captain, and when you become a captain you not only get the bribes you collect but you get a percentage of all the people under you’s bribes.
Alexandra: When you had submitted that proposal, was Sarah part of the original plan for the books?
Victoria: Oh, yes. She was. In fact Berkeley had asked my agent if they knew of anyone who would like to write a series set in turn of the century New York City where the heroine was a midwife, and that was their idea, that part of it was their idea.
I fleshed her out and created her family and created Frank to go along with her because I thought a midwife would probably not in the normal course of things be coming across a lot of murdered people. To make it logical that Frank would because he’s a policeman so that just seemed logical to me that you need a constant supply of dead bodies if you’re writing a mystery series
Alexandra: That’s right.
Victoria: You have to think about that ahead of time.
Alexandra: What is life like for Sarah in New York City? At the end of the 19th century, she’s living on her own I’m assuming or does she have roommates?
Victoria: She lives in a house alone. She makes a pretty good living. She doesn’t have any servants or anything like that. She just lives in a small house in Greenwich Village, on Bank Street. And when she and Frank get married, they buy another house in the neighborhood which is much larger.
But they have to stay in the neighborhood because Sarah has this very interesting next door neighbor, Mrs. Ellsworth, who plays a continuing role in the series. And I knew if I had to move away from Mrs. Elsworth, my fans would rebel. And she will be around to stick her nose into their business all the time, so they’re still in the same neighborhood.
Alexandra: Okay. And before she gets married, I’m just curious, is she safe?
She moves around the city on her own, she’s okay to do that?
Victoria: Well, what will usually happen when she’s called out at night, for example, to deliver a baby, they’ll send a man to get her so she’ll have an escort to keep her safe. During the day it was fairly safe in most neighborhoods, but she would have had someone come and get her because she didn’t have a telephone in those days., so she would have had someone come to fetch her and bring her back.
Alexandra: What sort of things have you learned that really interested you about that period of time?
Victoria: Oh my gosh everything is surprising.
I think what I said in the beginning is how similar things were. The second book in the series is about dating, and that is the period of time when dating was like invented. So that time people, young men and women didn’t go out by themselves together anywhere, and you would meet someone at church or a social gathering. And if they were interested in you they’d call at your house and they’d sit in the parlor with you and your parents.
If you were lucky you could go sit on the front porch in the swing by yourselves to be right inside the door, so, I mean, you were never really alone. Young women were strictly watched. So the concept of a girl going out on her own without a man was really revolutionary and dangerous, too, because the places they would meet, they would go to dance houses. And this was also the time in history when women started working outside the home for wages which didn’t happen before that.
So these girls were working in factories, and they were earning their own money but they were not earning enough money to really support themselves because they weren’t paid very much because the owners said, “These girls don’t have families to support. They don’t need much money.” Ideally they would live at home and work and pay rent room and board to their parents to help out the family.
But a lot of times if they were alone in the world it was really hard to support yourself. And of course being young girls they wanted to go out and have fun. So they’d go to Coney Island, for example.
But in order to pay for the trolley ride out to Coney Island, which was like a nickel, and admittance into the park which was a dime, they would have to skip lunch all week or walk miles and miles to work instead of taking the trolley because they would have to say…they were that poor that they couldn’t afford it.
So young men being wanting the company of young ladies would treat them. They would pay their admittance to the park. They would buy them sodas and food. And that was unheard of prior to that period of time. So that was like so interesting to me that the way society evolved and, you know, we don’t think anything of that. I mean now dating is almost passe.
We’ll see about the teenagers. But it’s funny to watch, to see the evolution of dating, how it started. And so that was an interesting book to write to explain how that all came about, but it was also dangerous because some of these men forced themselves on the girls. They had no recourse and they couldn’t tell anybody because then their reputation would be ruined
Really a dangerous time. So you think of young women today going to bars, meeting people there. It’s the same kind of thing, the same kind of danger.
Alexandra: Wow. And, yes, so interesting.
Where do you do a lot of your research? Are you in the libraries, on the Internet?
Victoria: You know, in the olden days I spent a lot of days in the library. I would check out mountains of books. A lot of times they wouldn’t let you take out the reference books so you had to read them there.
Victoria: But in the olden days I had to do that. I remember one day I was like writing a book and I came to the end and I needed to know a specific kind of horse that I know nothing about horses. So I jumped up, got in the car, drove to the library. I checked out a children’s book of horses and had like one page for each kind of horse so I just read through until I found the attributes I wanted. But I don’t have to do that anymore.
I published my first book in 1985, so there was no internet back then. So, but with the development of the internet…through the years I’ve bought a lot of reference books, and I do have tons and tons of books. So sometimes if I need a reference I just turn my chair around reach over and grab the book off the shelf. But even easier is I google it.
There’s so much on the Internet now. And if the Internet doesn’t have the answer to my problem, I have a group of writer friends. I just send them a Facebook message and say, “What do you know? Or do you know anything about this or that?” And someone always does.
Alexandra: Is that a group specifically for historical writers or just a general?
Victoria: Well I have several, actually several groups. At Seton Hill where I teach part time. I teach writing there, and there’s a whole group of alums, and my fellow teachers, and we have a Facebook private Facebook. People are always posting questions, you know, how long does it take a body to decompose? I mean, you know, that kind of question.
Alexandra: Yes. Yes.
Victoria: There’s a day I asked a question about amputating fingers, and I said I don’t know the answer to this but I’m dying to find out who does.
The answer was hysterical. So there’s that group, and they’re good for all kinds of information. Then I belong to the Sleuth’s In Time where a group of just historical mystery writers and we have a Facebook group and that we use to promote our work, and then privately we exchange information a lot.
Alexandra: Nice. Yeah there’s just so much information now available at our fingertips. And it must be such a time saver for you because you don’t have to dash out to the library anymore.
Victoria: I don’t have to get in my car to drive over to the library, yes.
Alexandra: As we mentioned in the introduction that I gave to you, your 20th book in this series just came out.
Tell me what it’s been like to be with Sarah and Frank for all that time.
They must feel like your two best friends by this point?
Victoria: Yes. I write the Sarah, the Gaslight books from January to June every year. So you know, by the end of the year I’m starting to get an antsy to get to see them again. It’s like visiting your loved ones. I know them so well. I feel very comfortable with them, and it’s, you know, it’s fun because I don’t know what they’ve been doing when I wasn’t around.
They can tell me that when I see them again. Start writing the next book and find out what were they doing and what happened. And it’s just really a huge comfort level, but it’s interesting. I sort of got, not lazy exactly, but comfortable, so comfortable writing about them that when I started the new series it was really hard. I didn’t know these people at all.
Victoria: It took us a while to get to know them and to feel that same level of comfort with them.
Alexandra: Was that one reason you did it to kind of stretch yourself in that way or…?
Victoria: I just wanted to write something else. I retired from my day job. That was when I had a full time job, and so that limited my writing time, and so I can only do one book a year. But then I retired and I had more time and I had really been toying with this idea for, gosh, it’s been than five years probably. And I had the first book all plotted out and halfway written, and so when I retired I thought I’m going to do this. And so I finished the book, and my publisher was very happy to publish it fortunately.
Alexandra: What did you discover about yourself as a writer starting a new series? Anything?
Victoria: Yes. There’s a little humor in the Gaslight books but not nearly as much I don’t think as there is in this book. The heroine is sort of reversed in the Gaslight books. Frank is kind of the bad boy because he’s the corrupt policeman and she’s the good girl from the rich family, blah blah blah.
In the new series it’s reversed. He is one of the old families and he’s from one of the old families and very respectable. He’s an attorney and he doesn’t even like to lie, he’s just so odd. He’s just honest. And she is a con artist. Obviously, opposites attract in this case. But it’s been a lot of fun to see them play off each other. And so Frank and Sarah were like this far apart. These folks are this far apart.
I’ve had a lot of fun with their witty repartee between the two of them, which kind of surprised me. I give them credit, not me. They’re saying what they say. I’m just writing down what they say, but yeah, that was, I think, kind of surprising to me.
Alexandra: And you’re going to continue with that series?
Victoria: Yes. In fact I just this morning signed a contract for the second book in the series, and I’m about halfway through writing that one, so it’s going to actually happen.
Alexandra: Are you going to alternate between the Gaslight series and the new series?
Victoria: Yes. The the Gaslights will continue to be come out in May and the counterfeit lady books will come out in November. So, yes, I will be writing two books a year now.
Alexandra: Oh wow.
Victoria: Bu they’ll be…I’ll be writing two books a year. So it’s not like you have to wait two years in between the Gaslights, you’ll still be getting one of those.
Alexandra: Yes. Oh, that’s good. And I guess if you’re retired now, you can spend more time writing.
Victoria: Right right. Although I’m wondering how did I have to work.
Victoria: It’s like I have eight hours extra every day but I don’t… Everyone who is retired says that. It’s one of those laws of nature that the work expands to fill the time available.
Alexandra: Oh absolutely. Just like junk in our basements, right?
Victoria: Exactly, Yeah.
Alexandra: Several of your reviewers, I noticed, mentioned that Frank and Sarah really evolved through the series, and of course they, I mean, it’s been 20 books so of course they would. And you mentioned already a couple of ways that’s happened.
One is they’re sort of increasing closeness as they move along.
Would you say that they’ve evolved in other ways? Like is Frank slightly less corrupt?
Victoria: Frank never really enjoyed being corrupt, but he didn’t have any choice. They knew that if he was going to take care of his son he had to be a policeman, and that was what was involved in being a policeman.
But as he got to know Sarah his rough edges sort of got worn away. And he thinks about things differently than he did before he met her. He’s more sympathetic I think to other people. He’s kinder so he’s evolved and he’s had her, she’s no longer as naive as she used to be. She’s seen as the muse, the wife and then they have these very interesting conversations about that kind of thing.
Alexandra: And with 20 books how much time has passed?
Victoria: It’s been about three years now.
I used to get letters in the beginning and people say, “It’s been five years, why aren’t they married?” And I’m like, “Five years for you has been like six months for them.” And they are like, “What?” So yeah. time has passed pretty slowly.
I had one time I started a new book and then the next book started the next day from the old books. There’s usually a few months in between the books because it wouldn’t seem realistic that she found a dead body every month.
Victoria: They are solving a murder every month, and that’s been fun, too, to try to figure out how, before they got married, how they would work together.
Sometimes she discovers the body and sends for him. And then other times it’s his case and some cockamamie thing would happen where he needs her help. Because I mean, in the first book he’s investigating and it’s the daughter, the victim is the daughter of a very wealthy family and they have some nasty secrets they don’t want to come out. And they tell the police not to investigate. So Frank is off the case. So he hands it to her.
Victoria: She has to investigate. And then, you know, in other cases it’s a wealthy family that’s involved in it, and they don’t want to talk to an Irish Catholic policeman. So he has to send Sarah in to ask questions and give servants or who or whatever so. So it’s been fun trying to figure out how to kind of work have them work a case together. She is an amateur.
Victoria: Yeah. She is certainly not part of the police.
Alexandra: No. Yeah. That is part of the fun. So one final question then before we go.
I always think that the era that we’re writing about is so interesting because there are so many new technological things that are coming about. The telephone is starting to come, there are cars and just everything. Everything is changing. And in a way that really parallels the time that we’re living in now.
I just wondered if you had anything you wanted to say about exploring that sort of part of what life was like back in those days?
Victoria: Well I’ve often thought if I could just give them cell phones it would be so easy. ;-)
One book I had to get everybody together in the same place at the end of the book, and I’m like, if they just had a cell phone, I would be calling them. So that’s been kind of challenging, but it is fun.
Sarah and Frank now have a telephone and so they can make and receive phone calls, but they can’t talk about anything important because they know the operator is listening in and who knows. Well things in the right, you know, people who were concerned about the same issues and also technology that changed their lives tremendously in the same way that like the Internet has changed our lives tremendously.
Alexandra: I think the telephone changed a lot.
Victoria: Yeah. Tremendously. So and Frank is also talking about getting a car. He is afraid, he is actually afraid to drive it, so.
He doesn’t want to have to admit that, so he’s kind of hesitant. Sarah is really anxious though, she wants to drive one.
I wasn’t even sure there were automobiles in New York City at that time, but I found a video clip of in from 1899 where like automobile after automobile after automobile after automobiles was driving down the street. I don’t know if it was a parade or what, but I thought, “Okay, they were there.”
Victoria: Now I know a little more about it, you know.
Alexandra: I think I found it really interesting when you said that when when somebody needed Sarah they come to her door. So in other words everybody knows where she lives.
Victoria: Right. She has a sign out front.
Alexandra: She has a sign up front, okay. Yeah, yeah.
Her home is almost like her office?
Victoria: It is actually. Her living room is set up like a waiting, you know, set up like a doctor’s office kind of thing. And she does, you know, people who come to her while they’re pregnant, you know, she’ll give them checkups and follow their progress. But most of the time it’s just a total stranger knocks on their door in the middle of the night and says can you come. So she does
Alexandra: Wow. So she does. Call the midwife.
Alexandra: Well this has been amazing, Victoria. Thank you so much for talking to me today. So why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books.
Victoria: Well you can go to my website VictoriaThompson.com. It’s pretty easy to find. I’m also on Facebook, Victoria Thompson Author. And I’m on Twitter Gaslight vt.
Victoria: Those are my locations.
Victoria: Just go to my website and you can find the Twitter and Facebook one on my website, too. That I have got all the information about, everything, the books listed in order, anything you could possibly want to know.
Alexandra: Perfect. Great. Well thank you so much again. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Victoria: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Alexandra: My pleasure. Take care. Bye-bye.
Victoria: Thanks. Bye-bye