The reality of life as a genealogist can be quite mundane. I spend most hours in front of a computer, with the odd day out to archives or networking events. In the world of genealogy fiction, however, our imaginary counterparts have eventful lives, regularly being held at gunpoint, taking helicopter flights, or being lured into tunnels by sociopathic clients. Fortunately, my clients are invariably pleasant individuals but the part of me that wanted to be a detective when I grew up wouldn’t mind sharing some of the fictional adventures occasionally.
I previously blogged about popular genealogical mystery writer, Steve Robinson, and his hero, Jefferson Tayte. Recently, I decided to try the work of Devon-based author, Wendy Percival, and discover the world of her researcher protagonist, Esme Quentin. Wendy has written three books so far, but I chose to begin with the third. The Malice of Angels is a novel based upon the experiences of women in the Second World War – a topic of personal interest to me. I very much enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more by Wendy. I most enjoyed the little-known aspects of the 1940s that Wendy brought into the plot. I also appreciated the intelligent focus on women’s history, as this is still, sadly, an area that is too often overlooked.
In order to find out more, I interviewed Wendy about the book and her inspirations.
This is your third Esme Quentin mystery. How long have you been a professional writer?
I suppose the point at which I became a “professional writer” when the first Esme Quentin mystery, Blood-Tied was published by Robert Hale in 2008. I’d been writing for a few years by then, learning my craft, so to speak. I wasn’t sure then whether there would be more Esme stories but it was clear from the reaction I got from readers that Esme was a popular protagonist so it seemed a good idea to write another. By the time I’d written the second, The Indelible Stain, the world of publishing had changed hugely. The rights of Blood-Tied had reverted to me by then, so I decided to re-publish it as an ebook and paperback, following it with The Indelible Stain the following year and then in October 2017 with The Malice of Angels. In between, I wrote Death of a Cuckoo for SilverWood Books, for their sBooks “short reads” imprint.
Before becoming a writer, I was a primary school teacher for 20 years. I moved to Devon in 1980 to take up my first teaching post in a small rural school, back in the days when primary education was much more holistic, integrated and inspirational. I left the profession when I could see the way things were heading!
Much of the plot of Malice touches on the work of female agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). I researched some of these agents for my Society of Genealogists’ guide, My Ancestor was a Woman at War. I never fail to be amazed by their bravery, ingenuity and varied skill sets. What drew you to feature SOE in this novel?
It really started with a local news report about an elderly lady who’d died in Torquay in 2010. To her neighbours, she was someone who, although polite and not unfriendly, kept herself to herself and they knew little about her. But it emerged after her death, that she’d been an SOE, and her name was Eileen Nearne. Something must have triggered a memory of the story a few years later, I really can’t remember what — it was probably WW2 anniversaries and personal recollections reported on the news — which prompted me to read Eileen’s biography, followed by Bernard O’Connor’s book Churchill’s Angels, which systematically logs the experiences, some of them terrifying, of all the women SOEs. What I read inspired several plot points in Malice! I then came across a fascinating book called A Life in Secrets by Sarah Helm about Vera Atkins, who’d made it her personal mission after the war to find out the fate of every SOE she’d waved off to occupied France. It’s a brilliant book. If you’ve not read it, I can thoroughly recommend it.
You live in north Devon, where most of this book is set. What appeals to you about this area, both as your home and as a setting for your fictional characters.
I moved to Devon from the Midlands 38 years ago to take up a teaching post and I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else! For many years I lived and worked close to the North Devon coast so I know it well. I love the wildness of the area I use as the settings for my later books (Blood-Tied was set in Shropshire, where my ancestral “journey” began). I now live right in the middle of Devon, in unspoilt countryside, overlooking a lovely river valley, in a very pretty village with a 13th century Grade One listed church and a cluster of traditional thatched cottages (one of which is ours!). Even the parish hall is thatched! (As you can probably tell, I’m a glutton for old buildings.) It’s a bit further to travel to the north Devon coast these days, but from an author’s perspective, I’ve found it useful to stand back from the place I write about. I think you see it through fresh eyes when you’re not living there all the time. We often take our camper van and stay at the campsite when we need a sea “fix”. The views are magic and the rugged coast is amazing.
What’s next for you and Esme?
I promised myself that once Malice was published, I’d give some time to my own family tree and sort out what has become a bit of a chaotic jumble of records and photographs over the years. I also have a few stories about my immediate family I want to write — about my dad who as a child spent 3 years in hospital and was told he’d never walk again but did, about my maternal grandmother who became a professional opera singer at the age of 16 and toured the country’s theatres, about my mum’s recollections of growing up in WW2, including having a bomb drop on to her bed and about the mystery (as yet not completely unravelled) of why my great-aunt walked out of the family home, aged 16 in 1904 and “was never heard of again” until, in her 90s, she was reunited with her only surviving sibling, my paternal grandmother. Not to mention the urge to record my own memories…
But on the back-burner of the fiction section of my writer’s brain, there is already something brewing for Esme to get her teeth into, so I’m sure it won’t be long before I’ll start plotting again!
The time-honoured ‘box of old documents in the attic’ stirred Wendy’s interest in genealogy – the inspiration behind her Esme Quentin mystery novels. When not plotting fiction, she’s either digging up her own family history secrets or enjoying the coast and countryside of Devon, which has been her home for the past 38 years.