While I’m actually writing the things, I’m far too focused on the story—making the plot work and teasing the characters into life—to think much about the larger picture. Then during the editing (Riviera Gold is currently in copyedit, no doubt receiving lots of small tweaks and queries) it’s again a matter of zeroing in on that story and making everything about it… more.
Only after it’s finished—sometimes long after—do I step back and notice links and themes, and how the books fit together in ways that (ahem) readers think I’ve done deliberately.
Such as setting.
Take three of the books set in exotic climes. The Game started because I wanted to tell a story about India, where my husband had been born and raised. I’ve spent some time there, and I tried to make the book reflect the flavor of country: strong colors, vivid events, a historical pull between the Indian people and the British raj that, in the 1920s, was beginning to come to the fore. The climate and the food are hot; the streets and the inhabitants are noisy and busy and bright; the place is a sensory overload.
Then there’s Dreaming Spies. Several books intervened before it came along, but the story begins just as Russell and Holmes are leaving India, bound for Japan. Dreaming Spies—the half that is set in Japan—was shaped around a hugely different society from India’s. Intricate subtlety is the hallmark here, and although its social order is also on the brink of vast changes triggered by a relationship with the West, in Japan the moves are tight and deliberate, as the streets are quiet, the colors subdued, and the flavors of foods elusive on the tongue. Russell found India overwhelming, but she finds Japan baffling, and suspects that deeper meaning lies just outside her perception. The plot here is filled with layers, felt more than seen. And when the case later follows Russell to home ground in Oxford, it still takes her a long time to see what is actually going on beneath the surface.
Island of the Mad is also set in two places—England and Venice—but it takes its flavor-notes from Venice. Warm, friendly, welcoming to anyone with a full wallet, familiar to half the world…and at the same time, full of secret neighborhoods and invisible power-plays. Like a cheerful public figure secretly going mad… And that dichotomy permeates the book, where splashy rich Americans unknowingly rub shoulders with brutal Blackshirts, and the craziness of the Twenties touches the desperate madness of trapped women.
Riviera Gold takes place not too far from Island of the Mad—Russell takes a leisurely three week sail around the boot of Italy to the south of France. 1925 finds the Riviera just beginning its shift from winter resort to year-around home for the artistic set, and the thirty miles of coastline that Russell explores here runs the gamut from sun-baked beach picnics with children in the waves, to a dark confrontation with crime and world control.
So: upon reflection, I see a pattern. Settings, for me, determine the flavor of the book—in all of them, but especially in those like The Game, Dreaming Spies, Island of the Mad—and soon, Riviera Gold. Exotic places, with problems that are all too universal. I’ll be posting various things about the four books over the next couple of weeks, and I just wanted you to know what is on my mind as I wait for the copyedit to hit my desk, and I reflect on the place of Riviera Gold among the Russell memoirs.