Episode 65: Andrea Penrose

A thick mist had crept in from the river. It skirled around the man’s legs as he picked his way through the foul-smelling mud, drifting up to cloud the twisting turns of the narrow alleyways. He paused for a moment to watch the vapor ghosting through the gloom.

A shiver of gooseflesh snaked down his spine.

Shifting, he peered into the darkness, trying to spot the wrought-iron arches of Half Moon Gate. But only a shroud of black-on-black shadows lay ahead.

— Andrea Penrose, Murder at Half Moon Gate

Author Andrea Penrose writes everything Regency: romances (as Andrea Pickens), steamy romances (as Cara Elliott), and not one but two fabulous Regency mystery series, which you can check out on her website right here.

Her first mystery series, the Lady Arianna mysteries, is lighter, with a dash of chocolate, while her Wrexford and Sloane mysteries — Murder on Black Swan Lane, and the latest, Murder at Half Moon Gate — are a darker take on the Regency era. Both are brimming with mystery, friendship, and fabulous Regency details. Who knew Napoleon liked chocolate? Well, we all do now.

Andrea is herself a fan of Georgette Heyer — and really, who isn’t? We talk about the fabulously evocative language of the Regency, and lo and behold, Ms. Heyer herself, on her website, offers up a dictionary of Regency slang. So if you find yourself becoming befogged, the remedy is within ames-ace.  😉

Here are all of Andrea’s mysteries in order:

Wrexford & Sloane Mystery Series

1 – Murder on Black Swan Lane

2 – Murder at Half Moon Gate

Lady Arianna Regency Mysteries

1 – Sweet Revenge

2 – The Cocoa Conspiracy

3 – Recipe for Treason

4 – Smoke and Lies

Novella: The Stolen Letters

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura


Transcript of Interview with Andrea Penrose

Laura Brennan: Andrea Penrose is a woman of mystery — my favorite kind! Her bestselling mysteries are set in Regency England: The Lady Arianna Series, which melds danger, deception, and a dash of chocolate; and her newest series, The Wrexford and Sloane mysteries, in which an artist and a scientist find answers — and unexpected chemistry — when they solve cases together.

Andrea, thank you for joining me.

Andrea Penrose: Well, thank you very much for having me.

LB: So you have been writing professionally for a long time now and under many pen names.

AP: I have, and don’t get me started on why. But it tends to be publishing, if you write for one house, you can’t write under that same name for another house.

LB: And it also allows people to not pick up a book that is, for example, a mystery when what they’re looking for is your steamy Regency romances.

AP: That’s absolutely correct, too. Andrea Penrose is my mystery nom de plume.

LB: So, Regency has been the thread running through a lot of your work, right? Because you went from Regency romances to slightly steamier Regency romances, to Regency mystery. So why Regency?

AP: Well, you know, I love the era. I just find it a fabulously interesting time and place. It’s a world that’s aswirl in the silk and seduction of the Napoleonic wars, but it’s also a time when radically new ideas are clashing with the conventional thinking of the past. People were questioning the fundamentals of society, and as a result everything was changing. Politics, art, music, science, social rules. The world was turning upside down. You had — the romantic movement was really individual expression. You had Beethoven writing these amazingly emotional symphonies, and Byron pending wildly romantic poetry. And you had Mary Wollstonecraft writing the first feminist manifestos. Then the Industrial Revolution, technology is disrupting everyday life. So in many ways, it’s the birth of the modern world. And for me, its challenges and its characters and its conflicts have real relevance to what we experience today. I mean, our world is just constantly changing, and changes terrifying to many people. And how you deal with that, it’s just a really interesting era and challenges to create for characters.

LB: Well, it’s so funny that you should say change is terrifying, because of course Charlotte is thinking about how change — Charlotte Sloane is one of your heroes of the Wrexford & Sloane series — and specifically, in your most recent book, Murder at Half Moon Gate, she’s on the verge of yet another change in her life. And she has that insight herself, the idea that changes terrifying to people.

AP: Exactly. And I think, again, I love that I can be true to the time, to the Regency era, and yet also I think have a relevance to modern readers. It’s another reason why I love mystery is, you have a crime and as you try and solve it, you have to confront your own preconceptions, your own biases, your own fear of what you’re going to discover. You have to make decisions about trust with the people you are dealing with, your friends; you have to confront your own notions of truth and justice. I just find that adds such an interesting psychological layer and texture to any story, and I think that’s why I’ve gravitated — I love romance, I love writing about relationships and how you build friendships and how you build love, but I think putting that in the context of a mystery plot, to me is just really, really interesting. I find that’s what really appeals to me as I’ve developed as a writer.

LB: Well, that’s terrific because that actually gives me a great segue to go from your Regency romances to your mysteries. Because your first mystery series is the Lady Arianna mysteries.

AP: Yes.

LB: And in them, you take one of the great tropes of Regency romance, a woman masquerades as a man, and then you turn it on its head when “he” is accused of poisoning the Prince Regent.

AP: It’s kind of fun to see how I would create that chemistry. It’s actually, she’s accused, he’s coming in to investigate. The government has sent him to solve the crime. And he starts out thinking she is a chef, she’s masquerading as a chef, and promptly unmasks her. And somebody shoots through the window trying to kill her, and he decides something is going wrong here. And they grudgingly decide to work together to solve the crime.

And again, she’s sort of a rebel and an outcast. I tend to write off-beat heroines, I think probably because I didn’t really much like girly things when I was a child. I always wanted to do with the boys got to do. So I think that carries over into my writing. I kind of push the envelope on conventional thinking. But, again, it’s true to the Regency times because women did feel those constrictions and, as we know, people are clever at figuring out how to get around rules and be true to themselves. And you get to be clever on how you figure out ways to be yourself in any era.

LB: The absolute kicker for me to the series is the chocolate. Your hero is an expert in chocolate. Which is, if you’ll pardon the pun, absolutely delicious.

AP: [Laughter]

LB: How did that piece fall into place for you?

AP: Well, I was talking with my agent about doing a cozy mystery. And she said, you know, maybe something to do with cooking. And I started doing some research on chocolate and found, most people think edible chocolate didn’t exist in the Regency, that it didn’t come until later in the 1800s. And lo and behold, I discovered that it really did exist. And I thought, how fun is this? It just seemed a fun, light element to weave into the story, to give him a special interest. That’s another thing, I think when you give a character a passion, it makes them more memorable for a reader. And it also gives you a way to make them an individual.

She also, because she’s grown up in the West Indies, in the Caribbean, I make her be an expert in cooking with chocolate. I’ve been able to create some fun things throughout the series as she creates chocolate confections for a variety of different characters. I have a new book coming out next month where she is actually making chocolates for Napoleon. Who, in history, truly had a sweet tooth. He loved — there was a very famous chef that actually created some chocolate desserts in honor of some of his great military victories.

So research can lead you into some absolute fascinating facts. I really have fun doing the research.

LB: What is the name of the next book in the series?

AP: It’s called Smoke and Lies. It is up for preorder now, but it will be out on May 15.

LB: So your most recent series, the Wrexford & Sloane series, is also delicious but in a darker way. You actually open the latest book, Murder at Half Moon Gate, with a quote from Byron: “Blood only serves to wash Ambition’s hands.” And I love that because it is gorgeous and dark at the same time and it so captures the feeling. This is a different side of Regency mystery.

AP: It delves into the darker side. It’s not all ballrooms and drawing room tea parties. But, again, that’s true to the era. I really had fun exploring that.

I have an art background and Regency, the satirical cartoons of the era were the equivalent of our Trevor Noah, Saturday Night Live. The satirical cartoonists were incredibly popular with the public. They would go every day to look at the print shops and see what scandals, what poking fun at the high and mighty, the royalty… Cartoonists kept society honest, really, they wouldn’t let the politicians get away with shenanigans. I made Charlotte a satirical artist so she is looking at all the things that are going wrong or a challenge. She gives the public knowledge about this. She has a network of street people who are watching, maids who work in the aristocratic households, and she hears the whispers in the secrets. It’s interesting to play with that other side of the Regency.

LB: The covers for the Wrexford & Sloane series are just so beautiful. Was that all Kensington, did you have a hand in deciding that? Who made those decisions?

AP: Kensington art department is fabulous. We actually started, my editor and I started with a slightly different idea but when they showed me the sketches for the first cover, I just thought it was unbelievably wonderful. I will tell you a funny story though. The first cover had in the background, it had Big Ben, which actually wasn’t built until 1858, which is way past the Regency. So I kind of raise my hand and said, guys could we put in St. Paul’s Cathedral instead? Because people who know the Regency will wag their fingers, I’ll get a lot of letters on this. And they were wonderful, they said, oh, absolutely. They quickly went back and changed Big Ben to St. Paul’s, and it looks just wonderful.

LB: Oh my gosh, that’s so true though! Because historical fans —

AP: Regency readers are very, they know a lot about the era, and trust me people would’ve noticed that right away.

LB: No, they’re very astute and a very passionate at same time.

AP: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

LB: Who came first for you as a character, Charlotte or Wrexford?

AP: They both sort of popped into my head. Having a foil in your two protagonists. Wrexford is a bored, rich aristocrat but an incredibly brilliant man of science. He looks at everything logically. Charlotte is an artist. She trusts her intuition. They both see things really well. They’re both very observant. But they see them in different ways. So I thought pairing reason and intuition was such a, again, sort of made an interesting pair. And as they, in the first book, it was Wrexford who was accused of murder and Charlotte is drawing the satirical cartoons about this very big scandal in London. And he just can’t imagine how she’s learning all the details of what the murder looked like, and he thinks maybe she can help prove that he’s innocent. He tracks her down and sort of says, I’ll unmask you as a woman. Because she draws under a pen name because a woman would never be allowed to criticize the high and mighty in the Regency era. So she grudgingly helps him solve the first crime and to their surprise they develop a grudging friendship. They both really respect each other’s skills.

So I think when I envisioned the series, I really had them both in mind.

LB: You mention on your website that it’s a very Regency idea, that science and art are intrinsically connected.

AP: Yes. One of the things in my research that I really found fascinating was that the scientists and the artists thought of themselves as kindred souls in the Regency. They both thought they were very creative. They were looking at the world around them and trying to understand what made it work. The scientists are looking at the heavens and geology and the sea, and the artists are looking at sort of the same things. They want to draw how the world really looks. They want to understand how light works, you know, when you’re an artist. And so they would often gather together to have dinner and talk about how they saw things. They really thought of themselves as very creative people, and it’s only in later times that scientists are, oh no, which is very rational and the artists are just stuck in their own imagination. I think one of the reasons it was such an exciting time in both art and science, you had a lot of fascinating developments, was that they cross pollinated each other. They really inspired each other by sharing their ideas and their discoveries.

LB: So you introduce us to Wrexford and Charlotte in Murder on Black Swan Lane. Your second book is Murder at Half Moon Gate. If someone has not picked up the second book yet, what would they need to know to follow our conversation?

AP: You know, I’ve tried to write, every book I write, I try to write as a standalone. I think you can absolutely read the second book without reading the first. You will miss some of the development of the character. I think the protagonists grow and the relationships change. Charlotte has two young street urchins who she’s sheltered in her house and they are gradually becoming a real part of her household. And Wrexford has good friend who’s outwardly this feckless fribble, but he really has a heart of gold. And so their friendships all begin to intertwine and develop, and I think you can understand them from book two. But you begin to see them start in book one, and then develop into book two. But the stories, and I give back story and the second book, so you can certainly follow.

LB: I do not want to leave the Wrexford & Sloane series without talking specifically about language. You capture the way people of different classes spoke back then. I think it’s a fascinating that your character, Charlotte Sloane, the artist speaks across classes. So I have two questions about that: first is, how in the world did you pick up all that vocabulary? Oh my gosh, it’s so rich and so spot on. How did you find all that?

AP: You know, I’ve been reading Regencies probably long enough myself, I’m an avid reader. I really fell in love with Georgette Heyer, and I also have studied. There are wonderful, online you can find these whole dictionaries of Regency slang. And they are wonderfully evocative. I mean, I sometimes find myself throwing out a term in modern speech and people look at me and say, that’s really cool. To call someone a bumble head, or phrases like, a pistol is a barking iron. A barking iron. That’s just funny. It’s so evocative of what it really is. So I really enjoy Regency language. I try not to overdo it because that can get tiresome to a modern reader. I try to use it so that you can always figure out what it would mean. But it is fun to sprinkle it in.

LB: Well, and then Charlotte. It seems to me that Charlotte’s ability to talk to anyone — and this is most obvious, I think, with Raven and Hawk, the two boys that she has taken in. She can connect with them in words that they understand and sort of signal that she gets them. And at the same time, she can also talk to people like Wrexford. She can talk to, you know, all the people that she interacts with. She’s able to cut across classes by cutting across language.

AP: Well, that’s because she has a number of layers of secrets to her, which readers will eventually begin to peel back. She has experienced life in many different circles. So she has learned how to adapt and how to fit in to all of those circles. I think, again, here is a woman, she’s a young widow and she’s resilient, she’s resourceful, she’s clever. And she figures it out. She figures out how not only to survive, but to thrive through her own wits and her own, taking charge of her own life. Again, in the Regency that’s going against the grain. Most women are very constrained by rules. She has no choice. If she wants to survive, she has to figure out how to bend those rules and do what she needs to do.

LB: So there are more adventures awaiting Wrexford and Sloane.

AP: There are! There are. I have just signed to do two more books.

LB: Congratulations!

AP: Thank you. And I’m hard at work on the third, which is tentatively titled murder at Kensington Palace.

LB: Oh, lovely!

AP: I won’t kill off Prince Harry or Meghan Markle, But it is fun that they will be living in Kensington Palace.

LB: It really is. It’s like candy to be able to put together all the things I love that Regency and all the things I love about murder. [Laughter.]

AP: What is really fun is that so much of London, the Regency, like Kensington Palace and St. James’ Palace, I used the Royal Institution which was the main society of science. And they’re all still there. You can go tour the buildings. So it’s just unbelievably wonderful to actually go and see exactly what the rooms look like. Then there are also these wonderful, esoteric museums. The V&A, Victoria and Albert Museum, has all sorts of furniture and clothing and decorative items from the Regency. So I love to go and immerse myself and really see what all of that looks like. I think it really helps me write a scene in a townhouse or in somewhere like the palace much more accurately. When you can actually not just read about it in a book, but actually see it. It really is a wonderful thing to be able to bring to a scene that you’re writing.

LB: So if people want to learn more about you and be able to find your books, where can they find you online?

AP: I am at www.AndreaPenrose.com

LB: Fantastic. Of course I’ll link to it in the show notes, but just in case. What’s next for you?

AP: Well, as I said I’m working on a new book for Wrexford and Sloane, and I am also continuing the Lady Arianna series, too. So that’s keeping me pretty busy.

LB: So no more Regency romances in your immediate future?

AP: Probably not, not in the immediate future. I’m really enjoying the mystery aspect, so I will keep doing that. But it’s Regency and there are romances, it’s just a little quieter.

LB: Andrea, thank you so much for joining me today.

AP: Thank you. It was a pleasure being here.