Lisa Tuttle on The Somnamublist And The Psychic Thief

We talk to the brilliant Lisa Tuttle about her supernatural detective novel

We’re huge fans of author Lisa Tuttle and her latest novel, The Somnambulist And The Psychic Thief, is a fantastic blend of Victorian-era detective fiction and the (possibly) supernatural.

It’s the story of Miss Lane, who has just left her previous role as an assistant to a paranormal investigator (who turned out to be a fraud), and joins Mr Jesperson in his fledgling private investigation business in London. Miss Lane might think that she’s left the world of mediums and psychics behind her, but their first case will offer the most convincing evidence of the supernatural that she’s ever seen…

We took the chance to talk to Tuttle about her novel, keeping the reader guessing and her favourite detectives.

What was the starting point for The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist And The Psychic Thief? Was it the mystery, the setting, the characters?

The starting point was actually a short story, “The Curious Affair of the Deodand,” which I wrote about six years ago. My short stories – and novels – have always been stand-alones, but even while I was writing it, this one felt different, and I knew I wanted to write more about the adventures of the detective pair of Jesperson and Lane. At first I intended to write a series of short stories, but the second one turned into a novella, and then a book editor who read it got in touch to say she really liked the characters, and did I have a novel about them? Well, that was enough to make me start thinking about it, and this book was the result. (Although that editor did not end up buying it after all.)

There’s a great Holmes and Watson dynamic between Miss Lane and Mr Jesperson, although there are obviously some key differences! Were you consciously trying to put a spin on that kind of partnership, or do we just inevitably think of Holmes and Watson when we think of sleuths in Victorian London?

It is hard not to think about Holmes and Watson when writing a detective story set in their period in London, and I was certainly inspired by those stories – but from the start I wanted Miss Lane to be something much more than the chronicler of a great detective….Jesperson may aspire to be another Sherlock Holmes, but Miss Lane is nothing like Dr Watson.

It’s a brilliant time and place to set a supernaturally tinged novel in, with the proliferation of mediums, psychics and debunkers. Was research an important element of this novel?

Definitely! I’ve been interested in the 1890s – especially in England and France — for a long time and have also read a lot about psychic research and spiritualism in the 19th century, so it was not a matter of suddenly deciding to research a topic. I already had a strong feeling for that world, and simply read more about the people and events of that time – including in old newspapers. I love the internet for that – more and more newspapers are being digitized all the time, and it’s possible now to read things that formerly would have been available only by visiting lots of different archives all over the world

The question of whether or not the supernatural is real or not is a crucial part of the story. Had you always concieved it as having those (possibly) paranormal elements?

I’m glad you ask, because when I was first thinking of writing a series of stories, my plan was that one would start with a crime that appeared to be perfectly ordinary but would ultimately be revealed to be caused by supernatural means, and the next would be something that seemed completely impossible and had to be supernatural which by the end would be given a completely material (although very bizarre) explanation – I wanted to keep switching back and forth so the reader was never sure which way it was going to go.

Traditionally, detective fiction has generally been on the side of rationality, and invoking spirits or psychic phenomena for the solution is considered cheating, unless you announce right from the start that this is a fantasy, with a “psychic detective” or set in an alternate reality. I happen to like both fantasy AND crime fiction, but, like Miss Lane, I prefer reasoned arguments to wishful thinking, and I do try to play fair with the reader, recognizing there’s a risk of falling into lazy plotting if you have the option of falling back on magic or the supernatural at any moment.

Tuttle, Lisa

Did you find that setting a novel in this period had any limitations, or is it fun to deny your characters luxuries like mobile phones?

In some ways, I feel there are more limitations for the author nowadays – in terms of creating suspense, delaying discoveries, allowing the characters to be cut off from each other for a bit, etc – when everyone has a phone and a camera and all the research capabilities of the internet at their fingerips. And the amateur detective these days doesn’t have a chance against the experts with their forensic labs and surveillance techniques – they’d probably get arrested for interfering with police enquiries, or be overwhelmed by Twitterstorms and targeted by the criminally insane. All of which may result in fascinating new stories, of course, but I find that moving back in time and allowing my characters do without all the luxuries of modern life is the real luxury for me.

What do you think the key to a good mystery is?

What, just ONE key? No, can’t do it. There are lots of things that determine whether a mystery – or any other type of story – works or falls flat. For me, the way something is written, interesting characters and a strong sense of atmosphere are at least as important as a clever plot.

Are there plans for more stories with Miss Lane and Mr Jesperson?

I’ve just recently delivered the second novel, The Curious Affair of the Shrieking Pits.

Do you remember what your first encounter with genre fiction was?

My father had a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and there’s a photograph of me, aged about two, surrounded by a pile of those magazines. Of course, my ability to read was still some years away…. As a reader, the first genre I dipped in to was ghost and horror fiction, since my father owned several big, fat anthologies with such irresistible titles as “Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural”, “Great Ghost Stories of the World” and the collection works of Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and others. Short stories are an easier entry than an entire book without pictures for a young reader. I certainly didn’t understand everything I read – for a long time after reading a certain story by M.R. James I thought a “Mezzotint” was a sort of baby-stealing ghoul.

Which authors are you particularly excited by at the moment?

Elizabeth Hand – I have been reading her for years, and she keeps getting better. Can’t wait to get my hands on her latest, Hard Light. I was impressed by the first novel by Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney. I am also a big fan of the great Spanish writer, Javier Marias. Getting away from fiction, I could happily read everything ever written by Rebecca Solnit or Geoff Dyer, and have just finished reading The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which is an amazing book.

Who is your favourite fictional detective, supernatural or otherwise?

Right now, I’d say Claire DeWitt, who features in two novels by Sara Gran, and I am gnashing my teeth with impatience waiting for a third. I used to have a crush on Nigel Strangeways, the hero of a series of detective novels by Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of the poet C. Day-Lewis), and I’m also a big fan of Inspector Montalbano – both in the books by Andrea Camilleri, and as portrayed by Luca Zingaretti in the TV series.

The Somnambulist And The Psychic Thief is available now from Jo Fletcher Books and you can buy it at Lisa Tuttle will be at Nine Worlds this weekend, find more information here.