The Author of The Wages of Desire in Conversation with Tyler Mendelsohn
Stephen Kelly is a novelist and former reporter whose works experiment with the conventions of the mystery novel, where dark plot twists and character revelations are never quite what they seem. He holds a MFA from The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and has taught writing and journalism at Hopkins, Towson University, and Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
On August 24th, Kelly will be reading at 7PM at The Ivy Bookshop on 6080 Falls Road. He will read from his most recent novel, The Wages of Desire, the second book in his Inspector Lamb Series, following 2015’s The Language of the Dead. Both of the novels are set in World War II England, but center around the buried secrets, and a series of murders, in a small Hampshire village.
In advance of his reading at The Ivy, I reached out to ask him a few questions about that novel, his other work, and his writing process.
What is it about mystery novels that interests you?
I like the old style mysteries – the so-called “puzzle” mysteries that Agatha Christie and other writers perfected during the first half of the twentieth century. Like most people, I like to see if I can solve the puzzle. I also like the settings of a lot of the old English mysteries because they transport me to a place that’s so different from the one in which I dwell. Also, I’m always interested to see if the writer solves the puzzle in a “legitimate” way – without using any “tricks” — because that’s something that I also aspire to do.
You were a reporter for nearly 30 years. Do you think you are tapping into some of the same skills in writing mystery novels? If so, how? (Or if not, why not?)
Absolutely. For one, being a working writer, reporter and editor for so many years helped me to hone my “chops,” as they say. I learned how to write with precision and clarity, which is a key to success in any kind of writing, including fiction. Being a journalist also taught me to write and think under deadline pressure and to ignore distractions.
This is the second novel in the Inspector Lamb series, but apart from the main protagonist and the setting, the two novels seem to explore different themes. Do you agree? And if so, what were your reasons for using the same character to tell a different story?
I wanted to begin a series because that’s one of the things that mystery writers “do” — they write series. That’s an important aspect of being a success in the “business” of writing mysteries. Therefore, Lamb, as the main character ties all the novels together and his personality and character help to set the “tone” of the novels. From there, you can go off in various directions when it comes to theme and even setting. I didn’t consciously try to explore different themes in the two novels; it just sort of happened that way, though I did consciously “experiment” with the second novel a bit when it came to narrative and having two parallel and separate – but related – mysteries unfolding at the same time.
Both of these novels are set in World War II era England. What interests you about this time and place?
World War II is, for me, the “event” that defined the twentieth century and the modern world generally. So I can’t think of a more interesting or dramatic setting than one in which the characters are affected by the war. I’m particularly interested in Britain as a setting in part because I admire the way in which the British “handled” the war, including on the home front. They showed great resolve and bravery and I wanted to tap into that in my novels, along with the darker and more complex aspects of being a people at war, of living and surviving during a time of war. The British also were in the unique position of being on the front lines without actually having the enemy breach their shores. The Brits had to take the war to Germany, and did so. But they also had to make sure they kept thing knit together at home.
Do you plan to continue with the Inspector Lamb series?
This Q&A is part of a series in which we interview authors who are coming to The Ivy Bookshop. Check out The Ivy’s event calendar for authors readings throughout the year.