Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Winning Partnership: Deborah, Gemma and Duncan

by Sandra Parshall

Leave a comment and you'll be entered in a drawing for an autographed copy of No Mark Upon Her.

When Deborah Crombie was growing up in Texas, she fell in love with the Britain she read about in novels and saw in imported TV shows on PBS. She wasn’t disappointed when she visited the UK for the first time following college graduation. After living in Scotland and England for several years with her first husband, she returned to Texas, but in a real sense she has never left Britain. She began writing about English police detectives Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid and published her first mystery, A Share in Death, in 1993. Since then she has made frequent research trips to Britain a part of her writing life.

Deborah’s series has been nominated for, or has won, every major mystery award. The fourteenth James/Kincaid novel, No Mark Upon Her, has just been published in the U.S. This time out, the pair are dealing with new upheavals in their ever-changing household while Kincaid investigates the death of a young female police officer who had been training for a spot on Britain’s Olympic rowing team. When Kincaid calls on Gemma for help in the case, they discover the answer to the crime lies closer to home and is more deadly than they could have imagined.

Deborah recently chatted with me about the characters who have shared her life for almost twenty years.


Q. Some of your books give more space and emphasis to Duncan, and others, like Necessary as Blood, focus on Gemma. Which of them gets the starring role in No Mark Upon Her?

A. I think No Mark Upon Her is definitely more Duncan's book.

Q. Do you alternate the primary focus deliberately, or does it naturally work out that way because of the kind of story you want to tell?

A. It's a combination of the two. The last two books, Where Memories Lie and Necessary as Blood, have given more emphasis to Gemma, both because of the arc of the continuing series story, and because of the plots and subjects of those particular books. But I never intend to permanently emphasize one of my leading characters over the other, and I really enjoyed writing more from Duncan's viewpoint in No Mark.

Q. Your books are as much about Duncan and Gemma’s personal lives as their work. Readers are watching their sons, Kit and Toby, grow up. In Necessary as Blood you introduce another child, a three-year-old orphan named Charlotte who captures the hearts of the whole Kincaid-James family. How does Charlotte figure in the new book, and how will she change the lives of the family members? Is Toby ever jealous because he’s no longer the baby of the family?

A. There are certainly both logistic and emotional issues here. Gemma, Duncan, Kit, and Toby have struggled to find stability as a family, and now, with Charlotte, they've introduced a traumatized child into the mix. Gemma has taken parental leave to help Charlotte adjust to her new home, and it's now Duncan's turn. His case in No Mark Upon Her threatens their carefully made arrangements, and possibly both their jobs. It's hard for the boys, too. Toby is ALWAYS going to want to be the center of attention! Kit, I think, has more empathy with Charlotte, both because of his age and his own history of loss, and because he's more sensitive by nature.

Q. You’ve been writing about Duncan and Gemma for a long time. How have they changed since the first book? Have they ever surprised you with their choices or the direction they’ve taken?

A. Duncan and Gemma have surprised me from day one! I didn't know until I was into the third book that they would have a relationship. I didn't know that Duncan had a son. I certainly had no idea in the beginning of the series that Charlotte would one day come into their lives. I've found, as I've grown into the rhythm of the series, that I'm usually thinking a book or two ahead about the story arcs of the continuing characters, but they don't always do what I want!

Q. What makes these characters so special to you that you can write about them year after year without growing bored (and without boring your readers)?

A. One thing I was very certain of when I wrote the first novel was that I wanted characters who grew and changed and developed, and that's certainly been the case for Duncan and Gemma. (And it was high time they got married, in my opinion. That's what people do, and I think it only makes their lives more complicated and interesting!!!) So there is always a sense of being on a journey with them.

And there are other things that keep me (and I hope readers) from getting bored with the characters. The series doesn't run in real time. Since the first book was published in 1993, only about five years have passed in series time. This requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but it's a decision that I think must be made in series unless it's historical or fantasy/sci fi. Some writers, like Sue Grafton, have chosen to keep their series fixed in time. I took the P.D. James approach. The first Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. In the most recent, The Private Patient, Dalgliesh is finally contemplating getting married. If the series had run in real time, he'd be doddering off to the nursing home, and what a loss that would be to us readers!

I think that readers understand this device and are willing to go along with the writer if it's done well.

Another thing that keeps ME from getting bored is that I write from multiple viewpoints, and sometimes multiple timelines, so there are always new characters for me to explore. And the stories are very compressed--more like slices of life than a day-to-day narrative. We pop into Duncan and Gemma's lives for a few weeks every few months (their time...).

Q. Your books have beautiful, “literary” titles. How do you go about choosing a book’s name? Do you search for something appropriate each time, or do you have a cache of possible titles you can draw from?

A. Oh, titles are such a struggle! And I can't really get going on a book until I at least have a working title, because the title sets the mood and the tone, and sometimes even the theme of the book. And yes, I always try to find something that relates directly to a particular book. Some titles I've made up from scratch, some are direct quotes, some are slightly... adjusted... quotes. No Mark Upon Her, for instance, is taken from The Tempest, but the actual line is, "No mark upon HIM..." The titles always have multiple meanings or interpretations for me, and I hope they will for readers, too. And I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

Q. Have you considered writing a standalone, as many series writers do? Would you like to write something set in the U.S., or does England have your writer’s heart forever?

A. This takes us back to the multiple viewpoints, I think. Because I introduce new viewpoint characters in every book, and often new settings, every book is to a certain extent a standalone. I always hope they can be read and enjoyed by readers not familiar with the series. I haven't yet found a story that I couldn't tell in the context of the series, but it's always possible that someday I will. I very much doubt, however, that I'll ever write a book that isn't centered in Britain. Britain does "have my writer's heart forever." And what a lovely way of putting it!

Visit Deborah’s website at:

Leave a comment to enter the drawing for an autographed copy of No Mark Upon Her.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, Deborah. :) I loved NO MARK UPON HER. I was struck by your using men's knowledge of the contents of their wives' pocketbooks as a clue, so I asked my husband of thirty years if he knew what I keep in mine, and he didn't do so well. He could name all the basics and "lots of drugs" (headache meds and antihistamines, mostly), but he missed the fact that I never go anywhere without bookmarks for all my mysteries and many pix of my granddaughters. Did you make that detail up out of whole cloth, or did your husband pass the test?

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

What a terrific piece - Thanks to Debs AND the "Daughters."

And oh but of course I'd like to win a signed copy - you kidding me?!

Hugs all around!


Vicki Lane said...

I just finished NO MARK UPON HER late (very late)last night. What a good book! I always love falling back into Duncan and Gemma's world -- as well, of course, as going back to the UK. So now I'm kinda fascinated by sculling and have been spending far to much time this morning noodling around the internet to learn more.

Congratulations, Deb, on another terrific novel -- I'll be talking about it on my blog on Monday!

Beth Kanell said...

Crombie's books deserve a LOT more attention among serious mystery readers; she braids serious detection and the lasting effects of violent crime, with a thoughtful and always surprising exploration of partnership within policing. I appreciate each book, and look forward to the next. Great to have this interview on the "Daughters."

Katreader said...

I love when mysteries are so character driven. I think those are the types that can continue for years! I too have a little of my heart in Great Britain-thanks mainly to classic BBC comedies I watched growing up. I have two friends that live there as well (although we've never met in person). One lives in Sheffield, the other in Weymouth. Perhaps, one day, I'll visit!

Sue Hannon said...

I am an avid mystery reader, and enjoy many writers' work, but Deborah Crombie's characters and stories are truly special. I love Gemma and Duncan's story arc, and love so many of the supporting characters. I can't wait to read No Mark Upon Her to see where the next chapter takes us.

Bobbie said...

Deborah, thank you for this great post-have loved your books for a long time, very much looking forward to the new one! Thanks for the offer of an autograph from you in this story about such a wonderful cast of characters. And a huge OH YES, to Beth Kanell's post-braids serious detection and the lasting effects of violent crime, and a great look at the partnership of two good police doing life, and love, and good work.

Thanks Deborah for your books, they have brought me many great reads. And thanks, Poe's daughters for this guest!


Phyllis said...

Titles are very important and I totally agree with the title of this piece! I also applaud Crombie's choice to write from both characters' points of view and not to advance the series in "real" time. I have read all of Crombie's novels and would love to own a signed copy.

Danelle said...

I first discovered Deborah Crombie's books when I picked up the audio book "Leave the Grave Green". I immediately had to start the series from the beginning and have enjoyed every book, especially the development of Duncan and Gemma's relationship. I am looking forward to reading the new one. Thanks for a great interview.

lil Gluckstern said...

I really like that you are taking your protagonists through real life, even if it is compressed. 'O, to be in England'-isn't that a quote from somewhere. So I travel through your books, yes, I would love it.

Deb said...

Thanks, Sandy, for having me, and everyone for your very kind comments! I've just boarded my Phoenix/Dallas flight, so will check in later today.

Kathleen Asay said...

Nice interview, Sandy. I love these books for the depth of the stories and the lovely writing. A question I would like answered is how she manages to write such well-thought -out and well-expressed books so quickly. Of course, I'm happy that she does. Maybe I'm jealous. Thanks to you both.

Deb said...

Kathleen, you are my friend forever for saying "quickly!" Everyone else asks me why it takes me so long. From now on I'm going to quote you and say because, "... they are well thought out and well expressed." :-)

Sandra Parshall said...

Deborah, I will wait as long as it takes for your books -- and I'm glad you aren't being held to some insane schedule that wouldn't allow you to do your best work.

Rosie123 said...

Great interview

Debs, I was thrilled to read that Britan has "your writers heart forever" since Brit mysteries have been part of my life since I was 7 and started reading Agatha Christie

Love your books, the settings, characters.

To me, having the working and personal life of characters intertwined makes your books more interesting.

I think that a person's personal life can reflect strongly in how they handle their professional life and you manage to nail that in your books

Prentiss Garner said...

I love all of the Gemma and Duncan books!

Anonymous said...

Ah, The Tempest! A play that's been interpreted many ways (maybe too many?).

I must admit that, not being a fan of audio books (my attention wanders, no matter how good the story is), I've never been sure how to pronounce Gemma's name. I tend towards jem-ma (she is a gem, after all!), but now's my chance to find out.


Sandra Parshall said...

The winner of the free book is SUE HANNON. Please send your mailing address to me at so we can get the book out to you soon.

Marni said...

Already have my copy, just arrived. But great interview and sounds like another great Crombie waiting to be read!

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