Book Report: Gothic thriller steeped in arsenic and old lace
Kim Taylor Blakemore, author of young adult novels "Bowery Girl" and "Cissy Funk," has a new book called "The Companion" ($14.95, Lake Union), her first novel for adults.
The book, which lands in the historical fiction mystery genre, is set in 1855 in a New Hampshire town of Blakemore's imagination.
A Portland resident for 13 years, Blakemore previously worked in the Los Angeles theater scene, and as a mobility instructor for the blind. After moving to Portland, Blakemore left PDX Writers to start Novelitics, her one-on-one novel coaching business.
"It can't get done if you don't send in the pages," she said, matter-of-factly. Take it from her: she produced "The Companion" follow-up book, titled "After Alice Fell," in a mere eight months. "I never thought I could do it," she admitted.
Blakemore recently appeared at the Manzanita Writers series to host a workshop at the Hoffman Center for the Arts. The topic, "Dangerous Women," culminated in an evening reading of "The Companion" sponsored by Manzanita's Cloud and Leaf Bookstore.
Next, she's off to the Left Coast Crime event in San Diego for a panel on 19th-century crime. After that, she'll attend "Books & Bingo," a literary event in Carlsbad, California, where hundreds of readers swarm the local library to play bingo and meet authors.
Set in the 19th century, "The Companion" is about a disgraced young woman named Lucy Blunt. The book reveals itself around a series of flashbacks as Lucy sits in a dank cell, waiting to hang for a double murder.
Readers see Lucy at different points in her life, but mostly during the time when she worked as a hired hand at a country house. Toiling "downstairs" among other servant/workers, Lucy skinned rabbits and washed pots and pans in trade for meals and lodging.
When Lucy meets Eugenie, the lady of the house, who is blind, the story becomes one of secret meetings and alliances. The ensuing Gothic mood is a mix of suffocation and confinement, in which characters turn skeleton keys, grow poisonous plants and stab backs.
"I love this particular time period," Blakemore said. "The years between 1845 through 1890 to the Gilded Age. It's just a really fascinating period, covering abolition, suffrage, spiritualism and transcendentalism."
Deeply curious about historical subjects, Blakemore describes herself as a traveler always keen to visit historical societies, libraries and old homes — "not Monticello but the old houses that advertise a $2 tour on a crooked sign. I'm just deeply curious about how people lived day to day," she said.
Blackmore's two follow-up books to "The Companion" will be linked by a character from the novel, but she's not writing a series, exactly.
"It's kind of planned as a surprise for the reader to find out who didn't die," Blackmore laughed. "All of the books will be set in the same fictional town."
While "The Companion" touches on forbidden love between two women, Blakemore didn't want that still-distracting theme to overtake her novel, which is really about the power plays between her women characters. Readers will eagerly anticipate the death of one especially venal character, hoping the knife digs in deep.
"The love story came to me organically," Blakemore said. "And it came first to me from Eugenie being a blind person. Any time I saw a blind character in a book or movie, it was only as a plot point or they were depicted as a 'seer.' I wanted Eugenie to just be a blind person.
"While she's treated as helpless by her husband and her current caretaker, Lucy sees someone completely different. Both Lucy and Eugenie are connected by people not seeing them for who they really are."
It wasn't uncommon for women to form close domestic relationships in 1855 and to be life companions and live together.
"It was what was called 'Boston Marriages,' said Blakemore, citing Henry James' novel "The Bostonians." Blakemore added that it's actually the master/servant relationship between Lucy and Eugenie that is really the more forbidden relationship in the book.
She loves research. "I'm really into primary resources. It took months to learn about the lives of female felons," she said. "But, I met an amazing librarian at the New Hampshire State Library who had all the records, all the doctor's reports, all the prison records. She even called me and said, 'The characters can't go by train because it wasn't her. It has to be a carriage.'"
In some scenes Eugenie sips on a liquid called laudanum. Asked about it, Blackmore called it the Victorian woman's drug of choice, one taken by the spoon:
"It's a mix of opium and alcohol, it would often be scented with oil of lavender, or rose. It would be prescribed by a doctor for nervousness, and it became a very serious addictive problem for British and American women at the time. They'd carry it in their skirts. Back then people could get poison of any kind at the store. Arsenic was everywhere. In the fabric of women's dresses and in their makeup."
It's probably no big surprise that Blakemore's favorite writer is Daphne Du Maurier, author of "Rebecca." She added: "But I'm also really into Ruth Ware at the moment and Laura Purcell. Both British writers."
When Blakemore isn't digging into the past and collecting notes for her next book she practices sabre fencing. It's a good thing for a mystery writer to know how to handle a blade.
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