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Frankie Bailey Channels Dame Agatha

Right about the time that Frankie Bailey’s novel Death’s Favorite Child inched its way to the top of Mount To Be Read (aka that ever-growing pile of books that I’m trying to get to), a publicist offered me a guest post by Frankie in honor of the book’s re-release. Naturally, I jumped on the opportunity. Then I met Frankie at Bouchercon this past September and found that she is possibly one of the nicest human beings on the planet. Somewhere in these interactions, I actually read the book and really loved it. So, here’s Frankie Bailey on how she channeled Dame Agatha Christie to write Death’s Favorite Child.

Like many mystery writers, my introduction to the genre began with Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie has had more impact than I could have imagined on both my academic research and my mystery writing. A Christie novel inspired the title of my nonfiction book, Out of the Woodpile, not only because of the original title of her 1939 novel (now titled And Then There Were None), but because of a phrase used by two characters in the book. I used the story of the three titles of this Christie mystery to illustrate the take-for-granted racism in “Golden Age” crime fiction. And yet, the plot – ten people in an isolated setting being killed off one by one – was a tour de force.

When I began writing my first mystery novel, I was inspired by Christie because I was writing about an amateur sleuth. But my protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, is a criminal justice professor, a crime historian. She is also African American and a response to the stereotypes of Golden Age novels. Lizzie Stuart owes her existence to another crime writer, Richard Martin Stern. Although he was a white male, Stern wrote a series about Johnny Ortiz, a police lieutenant in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. In the first book in the series, Stern introduced Dr. Cassandra “Cassie” Enright, an anthropologist who became Ortiz’s love interest. Cassie Enright was the first black (in her case, biracial) professional female character I had ever encountered in a mystery novel. Teenager me wrote Stern a letter thanking him for Cassie. Years later, I interviewed him by mail when I was working on my nonfiction book about black characters. Stern was my inspiration when I peopled the first book and as the series evolved.

I had intended to set my first Lizzie Stuart novel in “Gallagher, Virginia,” a fictional city inspired by my hometown.  That book became the second in the series when I took Lizzie and the police detective in the book with me on a vacation to Cornwall, England. After years of writing and revising, I wanted to see if I could finish a book. Since I was going to be in England, an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery involving a murder among the guests staying at a private hotel (a bed and breakfast) seemed perfect.  During the week a friend, her six-year-old son, and I spent in a seaside town, I was busy scribbling. I had done much of my research about Cornwall before I arrived. One day I stopped a police officer to ask about the location of the police station. To my surprise, the officer had an American accent. He had retired to Cornwall with his Scottish wife. During high season, he was one of the special officers. And suddenly I had the reason John Quinn, the visiting American police detective in my book, was in Cornwall. He had come to see his former partner.

And I channeled Dame Agatha Christie as I was looking for a murder weapon. I needed a method of death that might have been employed by one of the guests at the private hotel or a couple of other suspects. I wanted something that didn’t require the killer to be present. As I was browsing through the shops on my first evening in Cornwall, the answer came to me.  Food in the form of what I decided to call “yummy balls” — delicious but lethal for someone with a severe peanut allergy. When my book, Death’s Favorite Child, was published, another friend concocted the recipe based on what the about-to-become-victim tells Lizzie: (

Death’s Favorite Child was followed by a revised and updated version of the book I had been working on for year (A Dead Man’s Honor). The series was published by a small, independent press. The five books are now being reissued by a new publisher in both ebook and print. Because “series time” has moved slowly, the books are now set in the recent past (2004). Lizzie has aged only two years. But much has happened since she left her hometown, Drucilla, Kentucky, on a vacation in Cornwall, and later moved to Gallagher, Virginia.

In the sixth book in the series, Lizzie will visit Richard Martin Stern country – Santa Fe, New Mexico. My tip of the hat to a writer who inspired me to think about not only the plot but the topics that crime fiction can explore.

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