Female Characters in My Mick Chandra Crime Series
by Rebecca Yount
I have a confession to make: before I began writing the first book in my Mick Chandra crime series in 1999, I had read only two mystery authors -- Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Complete Sherlock Holmes). The downside of my admission is that I am still relatively inarticulate about the genre. On the upside, no one can accuse me of being derivative. So by the time I completed the first draft of A Death in C Minor, the first book in the series, I had largely found my individual voice.
My initial efforts at composing crime fiction were dismal. Having spent years working in the field of education policy in Washington, D.C., my formerly-fluid prose had become stilted and jargon-ridden, with the exception of dialogue, at which I excelled, and character development, in which I revelled. Furthermore, I was determined that women would play major roles in my stories.
Initially the protagonist of A Death in C Minor was to be female: an American expatriate named Jessica Beaumont, a gifted concert pianist who flees to England to seek peace after a string of personal tragedies. Jess lands in the bucolic village of Kenwick, Essex, only to become embroiled in the unsolved homicide of a local. Impulsively she jumps into the case on her own, seeking the guidance of an elderly, sage Cambridge professor of forensic science. Thus, Jess is introduced in Chapter One of the story. Logically, the professor would be introduced in Chapter Two or Three, so you would think.
Instead, I open Chapter Two with a certain Detective Inspector Michael "Mick" Chandra, who is idly sitting in his New Scotland Yard office attempting to master a trick from The Blackstone Book of Magic and Illusion. The wise, old Cambridge professor had been replaced.
Mick does have a precedent. During one of our annual home exchanges in England, my husband and I had become acquainted with "Mick," a forensics specialist based at New Scotland Yard. He was young, attractive, cocky, and cordial. And he performed magic tricks. But I hadn't given much thought to that particular "Mick." Yet, somehow, he emerged from my memory bank to supplant the professor.
Like the sorcerer's apprentice, characters began cloning from Mick, among them his partner, Hong Kong-born Sergeant Elizabeth Chang, and his best friend and occasional undercover agent, Jamie Geller (another American expat).
The professor morphed into the Colonel, an elegant octogenarian who befriends Jess. Soon emerged Adam Marr, a wealthy local laird who is Mick's prime suspect and Jess' initial love interest. As one friend suggested, "Come on. This Marr fellow has to be Cary Grant as a bad guy. Right?" Be that as it may, I had my main cast of characters, and it included two prominent females: Jess and Elizabeth.
As I have attempted to remedy my deficiencies in crime fiction, I've learned that women characters constitute a mixed bag in the genre. A few are protagonists, some are major co-stars, some are token sex objects, some are ghosts of lost or deceased loves, while others are mere ciphers. I was not interested in "damsels in distress," nor women who harbor low opinions of men.
With Jess and Elizabeth, I strove to make them major components of the engine that drives the narrative. Though Jess, in her recent past, has suffered a host of tragedies, she is not tragic. In fact, she is determined to build a new life, and a better one at that. And Elizabeth is as highly competent as her supremely self-confident partner, Mick Chandra. What I especially enjoy about Jess and Elizabeth ("Lizzie") is that they respect and like one another immensely.
The common ground that Elizabeth and Mick share is that they are minorities surviving -- thriving even -- in an organization known for its institutional racism. When I began writing C Minor in 1999, minorities occupied only 6% of higher level positions at Scotland Yard. In 2013 that percentage has risen to 10%, hardly a quantum leap. That my two minority police officers have the highest closure rate in the CID only incites their detractors within the Yard.
On first meeting her in Kenwick, Mick falls like the proverbial ton of bricks for Jess. She, on the other hand, is not so certain. After all, Jess is already having a flaming affair with the "bad Cary Grant," aka Adam Marr. But it doesn't take long for Mick to change her mind.
They enter into their relationship as two wounded people -- he from an ugly divorce that has severely limited his visitation rights with his son, Will.
As her concert career in America flourished, Jess' personal life collapsed. Her husband ran off with his Swedish secretary, then her 10-year-old son, Boyd, was killed by a hit and run driver on the streets of Washington, D.C., where they lived. Surviving a suicide attempt, Jess fled America for England, where she successfully revived her career.
Both are a wary about "falling in love again." Yet Mick and Jess make the leap, damn the torpedoes.
Elizabeth and Jess have a positive impact on Mick. Lizzie makes him check his ego at the door, and Jess renews his faith in humanity. Because of these two indispensable women, Mick Chandra is authentically a better man. As it turns out, a better man makes a keen detective. Mick knows he owes a great debt to both women.
I am not entirely certain as to the origins of these women. Elizabeth is loosely based on an old friend who was born in Hong Kong, then immigrated to America in her early teens. Because I trained and performed as a concert pianist, some readers believe Jess is me. Not really. Though I am intimately acquainted with the classical concert world, I am not Jess nor she me. Jess is just...well...Jess.
I often reflect on the memorable female character in the Sherlock Holmes series, the redoubtable Irene Adler. Even the brilliant sleuth is no match for this clever, intoxicating she-devil.
"This is how I want you to remember me," Adler informs him. "The woman who beat you."
For once Sherlock Holmes is intrigued by a female. What a pity they never made that leap, damn the torpedoes.
A Death in C Minor and The Erlking, the first two books in Rebecca Yount's Mick Chandra crime series, are now available in e-book format from all major vendors, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. $0.99. Her website is www.rebeccayount.com.