Scotland, 1830. Lady Kiera Darby is no stranger to intrigue—in fact, it seems to follow wherever she goes. After her foray into murder investigation, Kiera must journey to Edinburgh with her family so that her pregnant sister can be close to proper medical care. But the city is full of many things Kiera isn’t quite ready to face: the society ladies keen on judging her, her fellow investigator—and romantic entanglement—Sebastian Gage, and ultimately, another deadly mystery.
Kiera’s old friend Michael Dalmay is about to be married, but the arrival of his older brother—and Kiera’s childhood art tutor—William, has thrown everything into chaos. For ten years Will has been missing, committed to an insane asylum by his own father. Kiera is sympathetic to her mentor’s plight, especially when rumors swirl about a local girl gone missing. Now Kiera must once again employ her knowledge of the macabre and join forces with Gage in order to prove the innocence of a beloved family friend—and save the marriage of another…
We are delighted to sit down with Anna Lee Huber, the author of THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE and now MORTAL ARTS, the second historical mystery in her Lady Darby series. Readers have really connected with Kiera, Lady Darby-why do you think that is? What about Kiera made her an endearing and intriguing character to write?
I had one reader describe Kiera as being “extraordinary in an ordinary way,” and I think that’s a great description. She’s intelligent and gifted, but she’s also a bit of an everywoman, who most of us can relate to in at least some small way. Kiera is awkward in social situations, but she’s fiercely loyal to those she cares about. She’s also a bit of an underdog in many respects, which makes her easy to root for.
I love writing Kiera because she constantly surprises me. Even though I know her back story, her heartaches and secret hopes, suddenly something new will emerge I hadn’t realized. I also love her wit and sense of humor.
Sebastian Gage is an inquiry agent who finds his way into murder investigations and Lady Darby’s heart. Did you have any specific inspirations for his character? If you were to cast a film for the series, who would you pick to play Gage and who would play Lady Darby?
I didn’t have any specific inspirations for Gage. I knew I wanted him to be a gentleman inquiry agent, and for him to essentially be Kiera’s social opposite—charming and popular, but other than that he started out as a bit of a mystery. I discover something new about him with every chapter I write. I like it that way.
I never write a character with a particular actor or actress in mind, but it is fun to think about who I would cast in their rolls. For Gage, I would choose English actor Rupert Penry-Jones—I loved him in his role as Captain Wentworth in the BBC version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. For Kiera, I would cast someone like Abbie Cornish. I adored her in Bright Star.
The Lady Darby books are very well-researched and filled with rich historical detail. Can you tell us a little bit about your research process for THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE and MORTAL ARTS and how they differed?
Before I started to write the Lady Darby series, I did a lot of era specific research, so that now I just have to do plot specific research for each book. Although, I do continue to do anatomy research, constantly trying to better understand what exactly surgeons knew in 1830 and what they didn’t. I do a lot of reading, and I’ve also visited Scotland to get a feel for the land.
Much of the research for THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE was far more general, because a large portion of the book is establishing Kiera’s character and back story. The plot grew out of my creation of her, and so I did a lot of spot fact checking to make sure I had the details correct. MORTAL ARTS, on the other hand was developed more specifically around the plot. I wanted to focus on Kiera’s abilities as a portrait artist, and the notion of outcasts, as Kiera often feels she is. Once I decided that one of my main characters would be a war veteran suffering from PTSD, and that he had spent time in a lunatic asylum, I focused on those two issues. Much of my research time was spent in trying to understand the mindset of people in that time and their opinions of people with mental disorders. Psychology did not yet exist, so the characters could not have thought in the same terms as we do today. It was a struggle to write about the issue without planting concepts and terms into my character’s heads that they could not have grasped and still make it understandable to modern readers.
MORTAL ARTS deals, in part, with what we now call PTSD syndrome and also the frightening treatments given by so-called “lunatic asylums” to their patients. What inspired you to write about these subjects? Were you shocked by what you found in your research?
The treatment of lunatic asylums was something I had been exposed to years before, possibly in one of my college psychology courses, but I was still shocked to uncover some of the brutal methods they used, and their reasoning for employing them. I think it fascinates me because it terrifies me. Not so long ago, as a woman, if your parents or husband or guardians decided you were mentally unstable, justified or not, you could be locked away in one of these institutions. If you were lucky, it was clean and run by a staff who truly cared about your wellbeing. If not, all manner of horrid things could be done to you without your being able to do anything about it. In general, men had greater recourse to keep themselves from being committed without reason, but it still happened.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a concept that interests me. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have never experienced real trauma, I do have a brain that easily fixates on frightening things and won’t let them go. This is why I cannot watch horror movies or read novels with extreme violence. It plays over and over in my head, interrupting my sleep and everyday life. PTSD sufferers experience this to a far greater degree. It is also such a recently diagnosed and accepted disorder. It pains me to know that men and women who suffered from it in the past, particularly soldiers who fought and died for their country, were branded cowards. They are what inspired me to write the character William Dalmay. And though his case is extreme, and his suffering exacerbated by his time spent in a lunatic asylum, I felt compelled to be as realistic as possible about what these men faced when there was no real treatment available to them.
Can you give fans and new readers alike a sneak peek into what you have in store for Kiera and Gage in the next Lady Darby Mystery, A GRAVE MATTER coming out in July of 2014?
Two months after the end of MORTAL ARTS, Kiera is staying with her brother at their childhood home in the Borders region attempting to heal from the events that transpired. She hopes to be cheered by the merriment of the Hogmanay Ball, but when a young man covered in blood interrupts the festivities, she is suddenly pulled into another deadly mystery. A caretaker at nearby Dryburgh Abbey has been murdered, and an old grave disturbed—the bones of its occupant stolen. And it’s not the first. Some fiend is digging up old bones and holding them for ransom. Now Kiera must join forces with Sebastian Gage yet again to catch the culprit, and untangle the complicated emotions that lie between them before one of them winds up six feet under.
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