My guest today is a woman who wears many hats; mother, journalist, freelance writer, and, of course, crime fiction author. C.A. (Christina) Larmer currently has two mystery series on the go: The Ghostwriter series featuring journalist and amateur detective Roxy Parker, and the Agatha Christie Book Club series, which is loosely based on her own experience with book clubs.
Christina shares the true story of her adventures in a cave of cannibal skulls (I’m not kidding) as well as some deeper insights into Roxy’s character that a fan of the books pointed out.
You can also watch the interview on YouTube by clicking here.
Transcription of Interview with Christina Larmer
Alexandra: Hi, everyone. I’m Alexandra Amor, and this is It’s A Mystery podcast, and I’m here today with Christine Larmer. Hi, Christina.
Christina: Hello, how are you?
Alexandra: I’m well, how are you?
Christina: Very good thank you.
Alexandra: Sorry, I said Christine instead of Christina.
Christina: That’s okay, no problem.
Alexandra: I’ll give everybody a bit of an introduction to you as we begin. CA Larmer, otherwise known as Christina, is the author of nine books including six in the popular “Ghostwriter Mystery” series. A second crime series called the “Agatha Christie Book Club,” and a nonfiction book about Papua, New Guinea where she was born and bred. Papua, New Guinea is also the setting for her standalone novel and “Island Lost”. Christina spent three years living in New York and Los Angeles and now lives in Australia with her musician husband and two sons. She’s also a journalist, editor, and guest blogger with The Huffington Post.
It’s so great to have you here today, Christina. I’m so happy to have you so let’s begin. We were talking just before we started about this fabulous blog post you’ve got about a cave of skulls on Papua, New Guinea.
Talk about your origins as a mystery writer and about that great little story.
Christina: I was born and bred in Papua, New Guinea, in the capital of Papua, New Guinea called Mosi, which is sort of a city, a ramshackle city, but every holiday or once a year, we’d head off to this really remote island. It’s just beautiful and exquisite and the crystal clear waters that sort of thing. The island has an amazing history. It’s got a history of cannibalism and tribes, which all Papua, New Guinea does.
There is this wonderful cave in the middle of this island, and you have to trek to it. From a young age, my family would lead me to this cave and we always knew that in the cave sat a whole bunch of skulls. And they were believed to be the skulls of the deceased cannibals, the people. But they were the esteemed members of the tribe. Their body would literally be buried in the sand under the beach, the bodies, in a very strange ritual.
They were buried vertically and then their heads were left out. This is quite gruesome. Their heads were left out in the sand for the flesh to rot away and then when the skulls dropped off, they would then be carried in a beautiful very lovely ritual up to this cave. And the skulls would be placed in this cave. And I would look out at this extraordinary view. Back in those days, it would be quite clear; it was beautiful. That would be how they would spend eternity. I would go as a little sort of a nine-year-old, going up and looking at these skulls and imagining their heads dropping off.
It could either turn you off, I guess. With me, it really switched me on. I loved the mystery of it because, of course, there were lots of myths around it. This was just this one story we’d heard from a group of villagers. Other people had different stories.
I loved that mystique, and I think that really hooked me from an early age, and I just remembered thinking “I want to make up great stories like that.” I was a storyteller anyway, but I think that switched me on to mysteries specifically. And I don’t actually write a lot of really gruesome mysteries. I did use that little story in one of my “Ghostwriter Mysteries,” the second one, “A Plot to Die For” did use that ritual. But, generally, it’s not so much the gruesomeness. I just love a good mystery.
Alexandra: Tell us about a little bit about the “Ghostwriter Mysteries” then. The main character is Roxy Parker, and I saw one of your reviewers described her as a cross between her Hercules Poirot, Angelina Jolie, and Bridget Jones.
Christina: I know. I loved that. I often quote that. How fantastic. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I love that, and it’s funny because that’s the thing I was trying to do. I really wanted my main character when I sat down to start this series, and I didn’t know it was a series, I was just writing a mystery novel. And I wanted her to be fun. I wanted her to be interesting, and I wanted her to be modern. I really love Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet Series.” I love them, but I really wanted a more contemporary and younger, even though she’s sort of young in the book, she didn’t have a young feel to me. I wanted someone hipper, a bit cooler, a bit groovier.
But I also wanted a smart woman. I didn’t want a ditzy. And I love Hercules Poirot, obviously, Miss Marple and all those classic Agatha Christie characters. I wanted someone who was very inquisitive, who could solve crimes but also just switched on and was a lot of fun. That’s a wonderful review to me. That’s just, to me, means I ticked all those boxes.
Roxy Parker is a ghostwriter by choice. She’s a journalist. She writes for magazines and it’s sort of inane women’s magazines. It doesn’t fulfill her. Her love is ghostwriting other people’s stories.
Often people get mistaken when they see “Ghostwriter Mystery” and they think it’s to do with ghosts. And I know there’s a whole genre to do with that, but that’s not what goes around the story. They write other people…the rich and famous who haven’t got the time or the ability to write their own autobiographies, she ghostwrites them.
And, of course, it’s a great setup for an amateur series because, of course, once you start peeling the people’s lives back and writing their stories, that’s when the secrets come out. And that’s how, certainly in the book, an elderly lady, an heiress was going to reveal a very big secret that was then gonna blow the lid off her whole family. Of course, it made perfect sense for her to suddenly show up murdered and for my ghostwriter to sort of say, “Well, I never quite got the secret but I know there’s something there.” So she starts investigating and that’s how the series goes. She uncovers secrets, and it really gets people…puts them on the wrong foot, and there’s lots and lots of suspects usually in each of my books.
Alexandra: Fantastic, I noticed there’s one book where she’s with…a rock and roll fellow who ends up murdered.
Christina: I’m married to a musician and it’s quite hilarious, I would say. It’s great he didn’t take it personally. But yes, I killed a musician in that one. That was good fun. And in fact, he helped with the research on that.
Roxy gets asked to go to the Byron Bay in Hinterland, it’s actually where I live. My stories are all set in Sydney, Australia, which is the largest city in Australia where I spent a lot of years. But I now moved. After Papua Guinea, I moved to Sydney and then now I live in the Hinterland behind Byron Bay. It’s a beautiful part of the world. Lots of rainforest, but we are right on the coast. I’ve never set a book here, and I really wanted Roxy to come and have a visit.
I decided that she had to come and do a story on an aging rock star. You’re thinking a bit of a Mick Jagger type, a bit younger. And she comes to do the interviews and to write this book. But before she even gets the chance to interview him, he has a bit of a jammer up on the stage. We got a whole bunch of people in the audience, of course, and he is electrocuted.
I wanted him to be electrocuted by his guitar. My husband assured me that wouldn’t happen because now the guitars are very safe and everything is grounded. And I kept saying to him “That’s really boring. Stop saying that.” So we electrocuted him through his amplifier, which has been meddled with. And it was a lot of fun to write it because I’m in music land. My husband has a studio on our property. There’s always a rock and roll bands coming through. I could ask them lots of questions. I said to them “What kind of guitar would he play, his kind of character?” So that was a lot of fun.
That’s my very latest one and she literally has to look around and go, “Well, there’s all this people who, really, it’s in their interest for this musician to be dead,” including the wife because he’s been very unfaithful, the girlfriends that he’s dropped including his shifty publicist, developers next door. It’s really fun. What I like and the reason why I love Agatha Christie is I like to present a puzzle and an ensemble cast of characters who could be the culprit. I like to present those characters.
This is very the Christie thing. You have eight people in a room, someone drops dead, what were the other seven doing at the time? What was their motive? And that’s what each of my books is. I present the clues, present the suspects, and I give readers a chance to absolutely worked it out themselves. But I absolutely hope that they do not so that they have a really interesting, fun read and then they get to the end and go, “Oh, so obvious. Why I didn’t think it?” That’s how I think when I write them.
Alexandra: I noticed you had a blog posted recently too. You had a question from a reader in Canada, actually, which is where I am.
The question was about Roxy’s character and asked if you thought she was a ghostwriter so that she could stay on the fringes of people’s lives a little bit. Tell us a bit about that.
Christina: Yeah, that was very interesting. That was when I was in the early stages of the series, and I’d done a couple. I can’t remember whether I’d done two, but I’d done only a few. And it really got me thinking because you start a book…I just started to writing because I love this genre, and I wanted to see if I could do it.
I had actually tried to write a romance, and I ended up killing off the main guy, the hero. I just couldn’t help myself. That’s when I thought, “Okay, I’ll forget romance. I don’t really read it.” I decide that I do mystery. I just started writing this character, and I loved her. I developed this character and it was only later that someone said to me, a Canadian reader, said, “She’s a bit of a ghost isn’t she? She hides behind other people and she writes other people’s lives.”
And I started to think, “That’s exactly how I’ve created her.” I’ve got her living in a very tiny flat in a city, Sydney. No room for anybody else just her. She doesn’t really like writing fluff. She doesn’t want to be in the limelight. She likes writing stuff about the people, not herself. She loves to delve into other people’s lives. All of her friends are all single. They all base themselves on hardly every inch of their lives, and it’s looking outwards.
And I realized I’d actually created a bit of a ghost. She goes through life living this existence. And of course, anyone who knows my books will know there’s this very annoying, meddlesome mother, Lorraine, who keeps hassling her daughter to get married and have a family. And at first, I just thought this woman was really annoying, this mother. She annoyed me, and I thought she was patronizing.
And as I’ve gone through, I’ve realized she’s actually trying to tell Roxy, in a very nagging way, she’s trying to tell Roxy, “Have a life. Why are you doing all this? Why are you writing other people’s stories? Why are you getting involved in their murders and their own mysteries? Why aren’t you having your own life? Why aren’t you living your own mystery?” And she really wants Roxy to open herself up to the world. And Roxy is actually enjoying being the ghost behind the scenes. I hadn’t realized that I sort of created that character. It took a Canadian to point it out.
Alexandra: Do you think Roxy will change? Do you think she will see that about herself eventually?
Christina: Yeah, and I think she has a little bit with each book. She gathers herself up. It’s funny, I’m not a romance reader, but romance has found its way in to my books. And I haven’t really meant for it to. But people talk about the book writing itself, and I’m a plotter and I’ve got a really good idea that does start to write itself.
And suddenly Max, who’s a very good friend, a photographer man in the first book, tries to get into her, tries to get behind the ghostly façade. He’s in love with Roxy, and she fights him off and fights him off and eventually they do go out. I won’t give too much away for those who haven’t read every book, but she keeps running from that because I think, he puts her at the center. And she doesn’t want to be at the center. She wants to be behind the scenes, and he really wants her at the center. That’s probably why she fights that off.
In the latest book, the one that’s set in Byron Bay, “A Night Before Dying,” she meets a completely new character. And I know somebody’s gonna be cranky with me because a lot of people like the Roxy/Max combination. There’s a new man on the scene, and I’m thinking the very latest book, the sixth one, is when she starts to realize that she hasn’t been living to her full potential. And it may be time for her to step up and stop being a coward. She says that a few times.
She’s sick of worrying about what other people are thinking. She literally steps out of herself and towards him. And it’s the first time she’s really made an effort with a man. And that was actually a lot of fun. I’m hoping that book seven we might develop that a bit more. She might even stay in Byron Bay and live on the farm with him and his beautiful dog. I’m thinking that might be where we go. I’ll see how it develops. I like that she’s starting to open herself up.
Alexandra: And then let’s switch gears a little bit too and talk about “The Agatha Christie Book Club” because you’ve just been working on the second one of those.
Give us a bit of an overview. That is literally about a book club that likes to read Agatha Christie books and Alicia is the main character.
Christina: Alicia is the main character. That came about from a real situation. I was in a book club, actually a beautiful group of people, but it was a literary book club and…
Alexandra: And someone got murdered? :-)
Christina: No, although I wanted to murder one or two people occasionally that waffled on and on. No, I was in this book club and we were reading beautiful Peter Kerry classics, all the top shelf stuff. I remember I was in the middle of a murder mystery that was on my bed and thinking, “I just wanted to go home and finish that one. I’m not really that interested in the book we’re discussing.” So that’s how the setting of “The Agatha Christie Book Club” actually idea came about.
It was Alicia, my main character, is a very sort of…hers is a much snootier book club than mine. And she’s bored senseless, and she realizes, “This is ridiculous. I actually just love crime, and I actually just love Agatha Christie.” She goes home and discusses it with her sister, Lynette. They’re very good buddies. I’ve got a couple of sisters so I love that sister relationship thing. And they decide to start, she decides to start the Agatha Christie book club. And they advertise and you get another ensemble group of people together.
I try to make each character to have, even though it’s a very modern story set in Sydney. It’s not Agatha Christie world. I wanted the characters to have a bit of Agatha in them. I have a librarian called Missy, who’s kind of a ditzy character but actually really switched on and more switched on people realize. She’s a very Miss Marple to me because people underestimate Miss Marple, and they think she’s just a dithering old lady. “And why is she asking me silly questions?” And in fact, she’s more switched on that you realize.
I did a bunch of characters to sort of reflect her, Poirot, that sort of thing. They’re in a book club and one of the club members vanishes, just vanishes. And they think, “Where is she?” And her husband doesn’t seem very interested in where she is. The daughter couldn’t care less. And they start to say, “We’re The Agatha Christie Book Club. Maybe we should think what would Agatha Christie do? What would Poirot do?” So they start to investigate and, of course, it leads to we discover dead bodies. It becomes a lot of fun. That was a lot of fun.
I was so immersed after that back in Roxy Parker ghostwriter land, and I didn’t write a second. And I’ve had a lot of readers ask me for a second. I’ve literally just finished the first draft on “The Agatha Christie Book Club” book two. That’s in the drafting stage. I’m editing it, still in the second draft, and I’ll be editing it. I’m hoping to have it out in a month or two. We’ll see how that goes.
Alexandra: Maybe close to when this is broadcast because I think it will come out in perhaps April.
Christina: It will be close to coming out then. What it is there’s an actual stage ship called the Orient that used to come…that used to sail between London and Australia. Started back in the late 1800s, it was built as a ship for the war, before that it was a beautiful ship of about 300 passengers called the Orient based from Australia. And I heard about this. I thought what a great thing to have the Agatha Christie book. So I’ve brought the ship back to life.
It’s a replica steamship, and they get to jump aboard just thinking they’re having fun as a book club. And of course, lo and behold, a dead body shows up, somebody goes flying overboard. Of course, they’re suddenly stuck in a mystery. And so again, what would Miss Maple do? How would she work out who done it? That has been a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that.
Alexandra: Fantastic. It must have been so much fun to write a book about Australia, the location is Sydney, like you talked about the Hinterland, the Byron Bay, which is in the north part of New South Whales, correct?
Christina: Yes, that’s right.
Alexandra: And so is “The Agatha Christie Book Club” based in Sydney as well?
Christina: It is based in Sydney. It’s based in an area, which is a lovely, right on the wharf. It used to have a lot of navy ships coming, and still does have a few, but it’s a very grungy part and right next to it is extremely wealthy. Russell Crowe, I think, has his boat and a beautiful beach warehouse down there. Then there’s all these drifters and homeless.
It’s this really eclectic, wonderful place to set the series. The sisters live there and the book club just goes from house to house depending on who’s hosting the book club. We all see a lot different houses and different suburbs around the city. So I get to show off the city that I love.
I grew up in Papua, New Guinea, but I went to boarding school in Sydney. That’s why I based it up there. And that’s the same as the ghostwriter. I actually take her on quite a few journeys. She goes to the countryside in one book so I can show a rural, Outback town. Another book I take off to Germany and Italy and that just came about because I had a family holiday there and I thought, “This is a great place to plan for murder, the Italian Riviera.” I took her there. I took her to an island that was very like the island that I talked about earlier where the skull cave was. I like to take her on a few journeys because I like to keep it interesting. I like the journey myself so that’s partly why I take her out of Sydney, but that’s the advice.
Alexandra: One last question, perhaps, before we go.
You’re alternating a little bit between the two series now. Do you plan to do that for the near future? Do you have any other series ideas in mind?
Christina: I’ve got so many series ideas. I keep stepping off and starting to write new things and then I have to sort of pull myself back because I do get a lot of feedback from readers and that’s wonderful to hear. And I had one just the other day saying, “Where is Roxy? I need another Roxy adventure,” which is beautiful. That’s why I think now that the Agatha Christie second one is done and once that’s up, I think I’m going to have another Roxy.
But I also have a new series that I wanted to write. I’m a very big fun of Ann Cleeves who’s written the Vera Stanhope series. I love that character. I love how real she is, and I love that she’s not this young, stunning, gorgeous, fabulous thing. And I had actually started one myself before I even read that about a woman who is a bit of a frumpy, PNC mum, which is the equivalent for Canada of a school mom. But she’s also a copper. She sort of more middle aged. She’s got an elderly mom, and she’s dealing with these annoying children. One of them is a teenager. And I had this series that was much more real and earthy, I guess. And I wanted to go with that one as well so that I’ve got a few. So when I feel like having fun and being in fun with Roxy, I can do that. When I want to do the sister bonding thing, I can do “The Agatha Christie Book Club.” But I really wanted to develop that series. I’ve written about a third of that first book. So lots of stuff in the pipeline.
Alexandra: Oh fantastic, that’s great. Keeping the readers happy.
Christina: That’s the intention.
Alexandra: Why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find your books?
Christina: All my books are available at Amazon and at Apple so if you just put in CA Larmer, you will find them. I do have a blog, CA Larmer Spits, which sounds like a funny name to call a blog, but that’s long before I became an author, at BlogSpot. So got to BlogSpot. You’ll find CA Larmer’s Pits. I’m also on Twitter, CA Larmer. I’m on Facebook if you look at my Facebook site, I’m happy for any reader to know the site so friend me. and we can chat. I love doing that. You’ll find my books available at Amazon.
Alexandra: We also should point out that the first Roxy Parker book “Killer Twist” is free on Amazon.
Christina: It is, absolutely. It was actually only free on one of the other sites, but they price matched it at Amazon, which is fantastic. That means you can just dive in straightaway. You can just have a taste and if you like it, then there’s all the others. And they’re all priced at different prices depending on your budget. I do do sales and discounts all the time so just keep a lookout for that.
Alexandra: Thank you so much, Christina. I’ve appreciated having you here today.
Christina: Thank you very much. I’ve loved chatting.
Alexandra: Oh good, take care. Bye bye.
Christina: Bye bye.