A warm welcome to my guest today Jane Risdon who will be sharing the inspiration behind her writing and the fascinating characters that she has met during her time with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and life in Hollywood. She also treats us to an excerpt from her latest book Undercover: Crime Shorts.
Before we find out which questions that Jane has selected to respond to, here is a little more about her background.
Jane Risdon has spent most of her life working in the International Music Business rubbing shoulders with the powerful and famous, especially in Hollywood.
Married to a musician and later working alongside him managing singers, musicians, songwriters, and record producers, she’s also facilitated the placement of music on successful television series and movie soundtracks.
With long-term friend, award-winning, best-selling author, Christina Jones – one-time fan-club secretary for Jane’s husband’s band – Jane has co-authored Only One Woman (Headline Accent) which is set in the UK music scene of 1968/69.
Recently Jane completed her first collection of short crime stories for publication – Undercover: Crime Shorts – published in both eBook and Paperback 2019 (Plaisted Publishing House Ltd).
Jane writes for online and print magazines and has contributed to 16 anthologies. She also has a blog and often hosts guest authors.
She is working on the sequel to Only One Woman as yet untitled, as well as a series of crime novels – Ms Birdsong Investigates – featuring former MI5 Intelligence Officer Lavinia Birdsong which she plans to complete in 2020. Her experience of working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in her pre-music days has given her plenty of material for her crime/thrillers.
Her books are available in Waterstones and all good book stores as well as via various digital platforms.
Welcome Jane and perhaps we could start with a look back at your life and what key elements such as childhood, education, inspiration, experience, motivated you to write?
I’ve existed on this mortal coil for a reasonably long span – so far – surviving many social changes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and a shoot-out during a bank robbery in Los Angeles – all great fodder for a budding writer.
From a very young age I’ve lived overseas for lengthy periods of time in a variety of countries including Singapore, Germany, Taiwan, and America, to name just a few, and my inspiration comes from the places, people, and experiences I’ve encountered throughout my life as well as a healthy imagination which used to keep me sane and occupied whilst growing up.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your central characters from, and in particular the book you are featuring today?
When quite young I began to create stories around these people and places and at first I didn’t write them down for fear that they would be found. As I got older I wrote stories in little red notebooks hiding the stories under the floorboards in my bedroom.
In my youth I was mostly in the company of adults and they used to fascinate me. The way they talked, moved, what they wore, and how they behaved in general. Living in a village one knew most people even if not personally, then by sight and reputation.
Adults often carried on conversations which I easily overheard because I was there at a time when children/teenagers were seen and not heard. They forgot I was there. I was the eldest of six children, all much younger than I, and therefore adult company was the only company I had, given my sibling’s age differences, and as I said, the grown-ups forgot I was there. A great source of material which I filed away for the future.
Villagers fell mostly into the age group of War Veterans – first and second – and their families, which had lived locally for generations and some Romany Gypsies who lived in their caravans and who had, for generations, also called the village home. Many unmarried ladies – spinsters – who cared for elderly parents lived there and often they were linked to the nearby Military Academy, their parents having been at the Academy as Officers and Instructors – many were titled and landed gentry. All were a huge source of interest, not only to me I’m sure.
There was, for instance, the ‘Galloping Major,’ who lived opposite my family home and set off at 5am daily for his morning trot on his white charger, white haired and moustached, and with a ram-rod straight back. He possessed a ‘good seat’ apparently. I babysat for his daughter and family many times and I swear their huge house was haunted. A writer’s imagination ran riot when I was there alone with the wind, the creaking rafters and the sound of their dog howling at a closed door for hours whilst I tried to pluck up the courage to check on the sleeping children up several flights of stairs on the third floor.
The Gypsies were entertaining; the older ladies especially were strange, dressed as if from another era and mysterious in their mannerisms. They found their way into the novel I co-wrote with Christina Jones, ‘Only One Woman,’ published by Accent Press Ltd.
They’ve also found their way into a series of short stories I have written – as yet unpublished: ‘God’s Waiting Room,’ ‘Granny takes a Trip,’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ They are what I call ‘Observational Humour.’
A few families like my own, who were born and grew up locally and had also managed to travel and live abroad were rare, and when we visited my Grandmother in-between overseas stints, would be viewed as objects of curiosity and fascination like us. There is still a similar mix of people, even though many ‘strangers’ have moved to nearby newly built housing estates.
Living overseas amongst ‘foreigners’ from a very early age was (and still is) a never-ending source of interest and amazement and I’ve included some of the characters, locations, and experiences in many a story I’ve written, not only ‘Only One Woman,’ but also in my crime stories.
For some reason certain characters stand out in my memories of those earlier times. The Amah who looked after me as a child in Singapore, the families I encountered travelling around as an Army child moving often, encountering new schools, teachers, and making friends with non-English speakers, thus trying to communicate as best we could with gestures and pulling faces. Later when I returned to these countries, that much older, I learned their languages and worked in their offices desperately trying to understand technical terms in both English and their language. Many situations I found myself experiencing have found their way into my writing.
At the height of the Cold War I found myself living in the coolest city on the planet, London, working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office just when the IRA were also at their deadliest and the Russians were taking great delight in spying on us – often quite openly – and didn’t take too lightly the fact that we caught them out and expelled 50 plus of their ‘diplomats,’ from London, and of course they chucked out our Embassy staff from Moscow.
The Ambassador to Montevideo was kidnapped and that was an exciting time for us working all day and night trying to handle the situation, but hardly fun for him or his family I am sure. This all at a time when I was reading Spy novels voraciously, finding myself in the midst of intrigue and the machinations of Government and diplomacy in reality.
I recall taking a phone call in the summer of 1970 when a voice asked me, ‘what time of year does the cherry blossom bloom in Israel?’ Before I could answer a voice came on-line and told me to hang up – the call was being scrambled. Well, the event and the man on the other line (phone box by the way) was filed away for use in a story another time. That same morning we’d all been dragged outside on to the pavement following an IRA bomb-threat – an almost daily occurrence.
Once, soon after I started work at the FCO, when my Positive Vetting was completed, I was asked to a meeting with a ‘Commander,’ at one of the FCO buildings in Whitehall and asked about East German friends I had – the Berlin Wall was still in existence of course. After a long conversation – well, interrogation actually – I discovered that the Commander who interviewed me was from Special Branch and had been instrumental in arresting the Spies, Peter and Helen Kroger, in the early 1960s. How could I not use him in a future story!
Around the same time I married a musician and my life became very unusual by most standards and boy-oh-boy that has provided so much material for my characters and story-lines, and again, ‘Only One Woman,’ and several short stories reflect this. We travelled the world, met some fabulously eccentric and infamous characters, found ourselves in the weirdest and the most ‘far-out’ situations in many countries, which left us pinching ourselves in disbelief. So, yes, this all found its way into my writing.
Imagine working and living in Hollywood and meeting household names and the movers and shakers in the music and movie business whose lives have been written about and read like a Mafia tome; I couldn’t ignore them – they have been the inspiration for many of my characters. In fact, books have been written about some of these characters and I have used their ‘unusual and distinctive’ personalities in many stories I’ve written.
Where did the inspiration for Undercover: Crime Shorts come from?
As I write my crime stories, often with musical as well as espionage as their basis, some of these experiences creep in. My as yet unpublished series of novels, ‘Ms Birdsong Investigates,’ are based on a former MI5 Intelligence Officer who finds herself ‘retired’ suddenly and all at sea about her future, as the saying goes. The commander from my FCO days has crept into the novel.
I have a host of short crime stories included in anthologies and often they are inspired by my music business career and experiences, and also when working at the FCO and in other Government departments. Seek out Shiver, Wishing on a Star, In A Word: Murder and others for examples.
Undercover: Crime Shorts – my most recent publication via Plaisted Publishing – is a prime example of stories being inspired by characters and events I’ve experienced or have heard about. It is a collection of 7 short stories, one of which is an extract from one of my next novels, Ms Birdsong Investigates and is called Undercover.
‘Sweet Sable’ is inspired by my husband’s great aunt, Elizabeth Risdon, who was a famous silent movie, Broadway stage actress, and later a movie star in Hollywood who had over 100 movies to her credit, most made with huge stars such as Cary Grant and John Wayne. She is in the famous ‘Huckleberry Finn.’
She also appeared in many movies with The Mexican Spitfire, Lupe Velez, and when researching her for my family history project I came across Lupe. She was a famous beauty and staged her own death to look like murder – that got my little grey cells in a tizzy, and I wrote a short story, ‘Cue Murder,’ for an anthology called ‘Cons, Dames and G-Men,’ set in 1939 during The Golden Age of Hollywood. This same research proved invaluable when writing ‘Sweet Sable.’
Other stories in Undercover: Crime Shorts have been inspired by other incidents either in Hollywood or in my life or the lives of others. I take inspiration from News headlines, a name I hear, an event I learn about and so much more. They are on the pages of every story I write – unsung heroes – unknown to them. Inspiration really does come from life, the universe, and everything. I meld several characters into one character usually, so as to keep the innocent anonymous.
Another story from Undercover: Crime Shorts inspired by a real-life situation is, ‘Murder by Christmas.’ I read a newspaper article some years back about a family contesting a Will and how those who’d been beneficiaries could not get their inheritance unless they undertook certain deeds dictated by the deceased. It got me thinking about Wills and what people might do to inherit. Would they murder if asked?
The characters and events in the story are purely from my imagination but I have met several cross-dressers – the Postman in the story, Peter Archer – and ladies who work at Charity shops and who, on the surface, appear to be of the highest character and yet often they hide secrets which would destroy that persona had these become common knowledge – to what lengths would someone go to protect their reputation – that is something which inspired another character, Agatha Marshall.
How did you conduct your research for Undercover:Crime Shorts?
Some years ago I undertook several on-line university courses to increase and update my knowledge of Forensic Science in relation to the detection of crime, identification of skeletal remains, and much more. I also studied Criminal Justice and the basics of Archaeology so that my crime writing would be more accurate and realistic.
I used this knowledge in Undercover: Crime Shorts especially when trying to decide upon methods of murder and how detectable certain substances were and how long a poison, for example, might take to work. It came in handy when deciding how a murderer would endeavour to cover their tracks having committed their crime. This was especially helpful to me when writing ‘Murder by Christmas,’ in which several methods of murder were used.
It is my knowledge of crime scene forensics which guided me when writing ‘The Honey Trap,’ in which a diplomat is a serial killer and has to cover his tracks having murdered a Russian girl sent to compromise him in a hotel room.
Please tell us about your next project and when we can expect to see the book?
I have several novels awaiting publication as I write and over 100 short stories itching to see the light of day.
One novel is a sequel to ‘Only One Woman,’ and I have not approached my publisher with it yet. It takes the story beyond 1968/69 into the 1970s.
Another is the series of novels I’ve written about a former MI5 Intelligence Officer, Lavinia Birdsong, who has a sudden fall from grace and is booted out of MI5 whilst her now former lover and MI6 partner, gets to carry on working their case. The first novel is, ‘Ms Birdsong Investigates Murder in Ampney Parva: Operation Matryoshka.’ I hope to see her published early next year.
About the book
Under one cover for the first time a collection of Crime Shorts from Jane Risdon featuring previously unpublished stories which will have you on the edge of your seat. There is an extract from Jane’s forthcoming novel (series) Ms Birdsong Investigates Murder at Ampney Parva: Operation Matryoshka – with the title of Undercover – for those who’ve been awaiting this series about a former MI5 Intelligence Office, Lavinia Birdsong. There’s something for everyone who enjoys a good yarn and more twists and turns than Spaghetti Junction.
One of the recent reviews for the book on Goodreads
I love the stories in this book. Each one is a maze-like roadmap of intrigues, laden with twists, turns, and a surprise or two, that grabbed my attention right off the bat and didn’t let go. More than one had me glued to my seat in suspense. I could not divert my focus from the book until I finished reading it. The last piece, “Undercover,” is an extract from the author’s next novel which I cannot wait to read. As an author, Jane Risdon is a natural. She pens her stories in such a manner that you can see her characters up close in their surroundings, and you can follow the action as it takes place. Her writing style is most unusual in that she can write from the standpoint of an American, from that of one who is British, or from that of anyone of any nationality she chooses. I strongly recommend the book, “Undercover: Crime Shorts,” and I have the highest praise for its author, Jane Risdon.
Now time to enjoy an excerpt from the book.
MURDER BY CHRISTMAS – Chapter One
The reading of Tiffany Blunt’s Will was a subdued affair. Those who’d hoped to inherit didn’t, and those who had been invited to attend without knowing why were suddenly beneficiaries. It was all a bit odd really.
‘I know it’s usual to invite only those named in the Will,’ said Mr Lewis, Tiffany’s solicitor, ‘but this is an unusual situation. Ms Blunt’s Will hasn’t been what you’d call standard. I alone know what bequests she has made to charities and other organisations. As for other beneficiaries, I have been instructed to hand each of you a letter which contains her wishes. She asks that the contents of each of your letters is never revealed to each other or anyone else.’
Mr Lewis handed out three letters only. ‘Even I don’t know what is in them.’
The three not in receipt of a letter looked confused.
‘Ah, Ms Blunt wanted you to be aware that she has excluded you from benefitting from her death because she felt that you had obtained enough from her during her lifetime.’ His tone was stern as he looked at the two women and one man, over the top of his spectacles.
‘She wanted you to be in no doubt that should you attempt to take steps to contest her wishes, any gifts she gave you in the past will be forfeit and passed to various charities as per her instructions to me.’
He polished his glasses and added, ‘Ms Blunt died without having ever married and her estate is quite considerable. Her late fiancé, Malcolm Grant, died in a car accident on his stag night, just after his thirtieth birthday, having recently come into his late father’s fortune.’
He looked around the room. ‘The young man had only just made his Will it seems, naming Ms Blunt as sole beneficiary and this not six months after her uncle had died leaving her all his fortune too.’ Those present exchanged looks wondering just how much she’d left.
The solicitor continued, ‘I’m sure you know Ms Blunt was a frugal woman in many ways, not one to party or spend extravagantly.’ He enjoyed seeing the look of greed on their faces.
‘Therefore there is considerable wealth at stake.’
Actually, Tiffany Blunt outlived her fiancé by some twenty years, thus her bank account and shares in various successful corporations, both home and overseas, was more than considerable; Tiffany had been worth millions.
‘I haven’t had anything from her I didn’t earn,’ Tiffany’s former housekeeper, Betty Green, muttered, ‘but after almost twenty years faithful service, you’d think she’d have left me something; are you sure there’s nothing?’ she asked, staring at the letters the beneficiaries held excitedly. ‘She used to say I would be able to have what I deserved in retirement, so I’m sure she’d have left me something.’
‘She was explicit, Mrs Green. I cannot help you any further, good-day.’
Mr Lewis opened his office door for her and she reluctantly left, her face full of fury. She was glad she’d managed to take so many valuable things from her employer during her employment, not that they compensated for what she’d been led to expect. Well, Betty knew things about her former employer which she’d hinted she’d reveal if she was ever sacked, perhaps someone else would pay to keep them secret, she thought.
‘I never asked for a penny and she was always generous to me, but she’d hinted more than once that I could expect….’ David Sherman, her gardener of five years trailed off when the solicitor shook his head.
‘Like I told Mrs Green, Ms Blunt’s instructions are clear and non-negotiable. Sorry,’ and he pointed to the door.
David Sherman’s face was a picture of curiosity as he stared at the remaining people. He shrugged and left the room wondering what they would think if they knew about Tiffany and him.
‘I know, I’m not entitled,’ sighed Maddie Jones, Tiffany’s secretary for ten years. ‘But she promised me every time I asked for a raise. She said I’d get my reward when she died. Are you really sure she hasn’t left me anything?’
Mr Lewis sighed loudly and opened the door for her. Maddie’s expression was pinched as she swept past the other three. ‘I could tell some tales,’ she said angrily, ‘and still might.’
Mr Lewis listened to her six-inch heels tapping along the parquet-floored corridor outside his offices, thinking she was a bad sort if ever there was one. He turned to the beneficiaries.
The three were wondering if there was anything else, anxious to get somewhere private to open their letters. The older man spoke first. ‘I didn’t really know Ms Blunt that well Mr Lewis. I’m surprised she’d leave me anything, after all, I was just her postman.’
‘I’m sure she thought highly of you Mr Archer. I do hope you enjoy your bequest.’ Mr Lewis showed the bewildered postman to the door. ‘Remember, you must keep your bequest to yourself and never reveal it.’
Percy Archer nodded enthusiastically wondering how much she’d left him. He was a bachelor without any living relations and to those who were acquainted with him, via his rounds, he appeared to live a lonely life. Apart from a pint at the local pub on Saturday nights which he drank alone and in silence, he never mixed or appeared to have any friends. That might be changing now he’d come into a small fortune. Percy always dreamed of owning a car and going on holidays but he’d never been able to afford it. He whistled as he left the building, his step lighter.
Agatha Marshal fiddled with her envelope nervously. ‘I’m so grateful to her Mr Lewis. I’ve never had much money but now I hope I’ll be able to visit my sister in Canada.’
Tiffany often gave to the local Old Age Charity on whose behalf Ms Marshal collected money and other donated items; the only times they’d ever met. ‘Oh, and of course I shall donate some to the charity I work for,’ she added hastily.
‘Ms Marshal, I am sure Ms Blunt was well aware just what her bequest will mean to you, indeed, to all of you.’ He smiled thinly and pointed to the door. ‘Goodbye Ms Marshal.’
The solicitor turned to the last person holding an envelope. ‘Any questions Mr Seymour?’
Tim Seymour hesitated as if about to say something, but then changed his mind. ‘No, I’m fine, thanks.’ And the man who’d ‘done something’ for Tiffany twenty years ago left, wondering what had caused her to include him in her Will; they hadn’t been in touch since the last time they’d met all those years ago, as agreed.
Mr Lewis read his own letter again. Tiffany had already made sure he was paid well for his services to her, which he’d carried out to the letter. However, he had one more service to discharge upon his deceased client’s behalf. On Christmas Eve one of the beneficiaries – he had no idea who – would contact him, and he was to hand over a letter to them. His last act upon his client’s behalf.
A few weeks more and Ms Blunt and her bequests would be his responsibility no longer. He could retire at last. He’d buy a yacht and sail away into retirement with his windfall.
Intriguing.. and an excellent reason to head over and buy the book to find out more: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07RFRVL4P
And Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07RFRVL4P
Also by Jane Risdon
Read the reviews and buy the books: https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B00I3GJ2Y8
And Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Jane-Risdon/e/B00I3GJ2Y8/
Read more reviews and follow Jane on Goodreads:https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5831801.Jane_Risdon
Connect to Jane
Accent Press: http://www.accentpress.co.uk/jane-risdon
My thanks to Jane for taking time out of her busy schedule to entertain us with her adventures and I know that she would love to answer any questions you might have.. thanks Sally.