Q&A: Characters Matter

Deborah Crombie’s New York Times bestselling series featuring Scotland Yard’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James continues to delight. Her latest novel, A Bitter Feast, takes the detectives out of their comfort zone of London and into the picturesque Cotswolds, with its charming villages of golden cottages and a bucolic countryside. Like all great series, in addition to a well-crafted mystery, readers keep coming back for the characters.

Currents: The blended family you’ve created for Duncan and Gemma is reflective of modern society. When we first meet the detectives (A Share in Death), Gemma already has a young son. Please tell us how you expanded the family and how you developed each of the children’s unique characters.

Deborah: I began with wanting to write about a female police officer who was also a single mother, trying to juggle her responsibilities as a parent with her love of her job. So, Gemma’s situation and character grew out of that concept. But after that, the blending of the family came about pretty organically. As Duncan and Gemma’s relationship developed, I began to see more of Duncan’s back story and learned more about his relationship with his ex-wife. Duncan’s son Kit was as much of a surprise to me as he was to Duncan!

The addition of Charlotte, their foster daughter, grew out of the circumstances of that particular book, Necessary as Blood. It was certainly not something I planned. But it also grew from the way Gemma’s character had developed over the course of the series, the fierceness with which she cares for people and takes responsibility for them.

All the children are influenced by their fictional families and upbringing, but also, like real children, they just are who they are. It’s interesting that I love writing the boys so much, as I only had a daughter and now a granddaughter. I also love that the boys are so different! Although Kit is certainly more like me than Toby.

Currents: Throughout the series, readers have gotten to know Gemma as a detective, wife and mother. Although an incident involving Duncan is a major catalyst of the story, A Bitter Feast gives readers a closer insight into her. Was this intentional, or a natural by-product of the character’s nature?

Deborah: Gemma comes from a working-class family in north London, so although she’d confident in her job, she has struggled a bit with feeling comfortable in some social situations. In A Bitter Feast, the visit to Melody Talbot’s parents’ country home was a real challenge for her. But in this situation, her warmth and interest in others helped her acclimate, and it was fun to see her gain in assurance.

Currents: In addition to their team members Melody Talbot and Doug Cullen, you’ve created an extended family for the Kincaid-James clan. Who are they, and how do you use them to enrich the series?

Deborah: There are so many characters I love that have worked their way into the series! There are Hazel and Tim Cavendish, formerly Gemma’s landlords, whose daughter Holly is the same age as Toby; Erika Rosenthal, elderly neighbor and friend; Betty and Wesley Howard, the mother and son who often help out with the children; MacKenzie Williams, along with her husband Bill and son Oliver, also Notting Hill neighbors; Louise Phillips, who is Charlotte’s guardian; Andy Monahan, Melody’s guitarist boyfriend; Tam Moran, Andy’s manager, and his partner Michael… The list goes on! I’m sure I’ve left out someone important. Oh, Duncan’s parents, Hugh and Rosemary Kincaid, and Melody’s parents, Ivan and Addie Talbot, who play a big part in A Bitter Feast. All of these characters have worked their way into the series, some are central characters in particular books. This web of characters feels a little like a living organism. I want to keep up with them all, but you can’t squeeze that many people into one book, so I have to decide who gets a part in each story. And I haven’t even mentioned the dogs and the cats!

Currents: Using setting as a character often adds depth to stories. How did you employ the setting as a character in this novel?

Deborah: The small Cotswold village and the Talbots’ manor house gave the story an insular feel. It limited the cast of potential suspects, and it gave the novel an overall tone. I loved that autumnal feeling. And, of course I loved doing the research! I made two trips to Lower Slaughter, where the story takes place, and would go back in a blink.

Currents: With your character Viv Holland in A Bitter Feast, you take readers into the culinary world and created a team for her of distinct individuals. Tell us how you develop in-depth characters–who may or may not be significant in the story.

Deborah: I always do a lot of research, and for A Bitter Feast I immersed myself in the world of chefs and restaurant kitchens. It’s a fascinating life and professional chefs tend to be very driven, a trait that makes them perfect subjects for fiction. When I begin a book, I don’t always know what characters will be significant. Some of that just works its way into the writing. It may sound a little far-fetched, but characters really do come alive on the page.

Currents: Even in long-running series, readers like to learn more about the characters. Which character or characters have proven the most challenging to add further dimension to? Also, have any of your characters gown into larger roles than you originally planned?

Deborah: I think I have the opposite problem with characters! I always want to know too much of their backstories and have to reign in my impulse to tell too much.

Two of my favorite characters began with very minor one or two scene appearances, created as witnesses or as a means of imparting information. In A Finer End, Gemma interviews Dr. Erika Rosenthal, a historian, to gain some insight into goddess cults. But from that very first conversation, I wanted to know more about Erika. Eventually she got her own book, so to speak, Where Memories Lie. Andy Monahan first appears in that same book, as a witness to a murder. When I wrote that first scene from his viewpoint, he really did jump off the page. I knew he had to come back as a major character, which he does in The Sound of Broken Glass.

Currents: As soon as A Bitter Feast hit the bookstore, I sped through it. What do you have planned next for readers?

Deborah: For Kincaid/James #19, we are back in London, where Duncan and Gemma and their teams are investigating a stabbing in Bloomsbury. I’m enjoying being back in London in my imagination, and I hope readers will, too!