Saturday, June 8, 2024

Writing the blind detective series - Guest post by Christina Koning

Christina Koning was born in Borneo and lived in Venezuela and Jamaica before growing up in England. She now lives in Cambridge. She's been a journalist and reviewer for The Guardian and The Times, and a university lecturer at Oxford and Cambridge. She's written five literary fiction novels that have been very well received and were shortlisted for, and won, prestigious prizes. Her interest in historical fiction led her to her mystery series featuring Frederick Rowlands, a smart detective who was blinded in the first world war. Her latest novel, Murder at Bletchley Park, explores the work of the Enigma code breakers and was shortlisted for the eDunnit prize at this year's Crimefest. In today's post, she tells us more about the creation and development of her intriguing series.

The impressive range of international settings for the articles featured on ‘Murder is Everywhere’ got me thinking about my own interest in setting and landscape. Finding the right location for a novel has always been important to me — as a glance at my backlist will confirm. From the late 1977 Edinburgh setting of my first novel, A Mild Suicide, I moved to Venezuela in 1953, with my Encore Award winning Undiscovered Country, set among the expatriate community in the Maracaibo oilfields. My third novel, Fabulous Time, moved between 1960s Sussex and China in the 1910s; The Dark Tower was set in South Africa, during the Anglo-Zulu wars of the 1870s, and Variable Stars, about the 18th century astronomer, Caroline Herschel, was set in Hanover, Bath and London, from the 1780s onwards.


From this, it will be apparent that I not only like to mix it up a bit when it comes to setting, but also as regards the time in which a book is set. I
’ve always enjoyed exploring the past — which seems to me a way of coming to understand the present — and so, when I started writing the first book in what is now the Blind Detective series, It seemed a logical progression from my earlier, historical novels. I had no idea that it would turn into a murder mystery — let alone a series. I’d simply decided to write a novel based around the life of my maternal grandfather, a veteran of the First World War, as a way of marking the centenary of the war’s outbreak.

It was only as I got deeper into the story, whose central character, Frederick Rowlands, a blinded war survivor, works as a switchboard operator for a firm of City solicitors, that I recognised its potential as a whodunnit — and my hero’s role as a (somewhat reluctant) detective.

 From then on, the mingling of historical research with the tight plotting necessary to keep the action moving along, has continued to engage me. The Blind Detective novels are set at two-year intervals, beginning in 1927, and cover the interwar years and the Second World War (I have reached 1943 at the time of writing). As with my earlier books, the locations vary — from London in the late twenties, to Berlin in the early thirties, Barcelona during the Civil War, and Dublin on the eve of the Second World War.


Christina researching Murder at Hendon Aerodrome from a Tiger Moth

Throughout, events taking place on the world stage are mirrored by those in which my detective finds himself caught up. Thus, while the first book, The Blind Detective, dealt with the aftermath of the Great War, the second, Murder in Regent’s Park, ends just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The worldwide financial crisis this precipitated forms the background to Murder at Hendon Aerodrome, the third novel in the series, which is set in 1931 — although the book’s main focus, as the title suggests, is the flying craze of the early 1930s. With Murder in Berlin, set in that city in 1933, as Hitler comes to power, the personal and the political become even more intertwined, as Rowlands goes to Berlin to track down a missing child and is caught up in the tumultuous events of the times.


Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Running parallel to the historical events described in the Blind Detective books, are those concerning Rowlands’s family and friends — including his wife, Edith, and their three daughters. These appear at different stages in their lives, each playing a part in the action, to varying degrees. This was both a way both of indicating the passage of time, but also of showing how individual lives are part of history.

 Even though researching the social and political background is enthralling, I try to keep in mind that these are principally detective stories, focusing on murder and other nefarious crimes. Again, the historical background isn’t just set-dressing, but has a bearing on the plot — with, for instance, the prevailing violence of Nazi-era Berlin echoed in the murderous events Rowlands finds himself investigating in that story. 

Street scene, Barcelona

Similarly, Murder in Barcelona links two seemingly unconnected plot strands — the murder of an actress, during a film shoot in Cornwall, and the turbulent events of civil war-torn Barcelona — revealing themes of betrayal common to both. Murder in Dublin, set in neutral Ireland as war breaks out in Europe, sets a tale of internecine warfare within an aristocratic family against the wider conflict.


The Temple Bar, Dublin

Even when the story focuses on events nearer to home, as in Murder in Cambridge, in which Rowlands become involved in the suspicious death of a female student at a Cambridge college, it becomes clear that the mystery must be seen in a wider context — with the struggle for women’s education very much to the fore. In my most recently published book, Murder at Bletchley Park, this theme is developed further, with Rowlands’ eldest daughter, Margaret, a Cambridge mathematician, seconded to ‘Station 43’ (as Bletchley Park was known), to work as a cryptographer, and finding herself suspected of betraying secret intelligence to the enemy.   



Bletchley Park, still as it was in the forties fighting the war

Writing the Blind Detective series has given me a wonderful opportunity to explore this particular period of the past, and to consider themes such as the rise of fascism in Europe, women’s rights, and the way that individual lives are affected by war, while constructing what I hope are intriguing mysteries. That the events which took place around a century ago still resonate throughout the present day makes them, to my mind, entirely relevant. And — serious themes aside — it has given me the chance to immerse myself in the glamour and elegance of the 1930s, as well as the more austere, but no less fascinating, wartime years. If nothing else, the books pay homage to that Golden Age of crime writing which exactly corresponds to the period in which my books are set, and without which they would never have been written.


  1. A fascinating aspect of the series is how the blind detective uses different senses to get clues. No doubt a lot of research was involved in that.

  2. That was indeed a fascinating part of researching these books. I was lucky to have access to the library at St Dunstan's (the institute for the war blinded) which had many first-hand accounts of how newly blinded war veterans coped with finding their way through the world.