John Anthony Miller, writer of historical crime fiction, talks to me about his work and the inspiration that drives it.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards historical crime fiction?
I try to use a different style with each book that I write. One of my books, Sinner Saint or Serpent, is about a murder in New Orleans in 1926, and I told the story in first person, using a dialect. Another of my books, Honour the Dead, is about a murder in Lake Como, Italy in 1921. For that book, I used a very different style, since most of the suspects were British aristocrats.
I also write historical fiction, and I was first drawn to historical crime fiction after completing four novels set during WWII. Two of my WWII novels had crime themes. To Parts Unknown, involved three people trying to escape the Japanese in Singapore after the accidental murder of a Japanese general, and All the King’s Soldiers is about a London intelligence analyst sent to Lisbon, Portugal to find the killer of a British spy. From these efforts, it seemed a natural progression to historical crime, without the military backdrop. I also enjoy Agatha Christie and Anne Perry, two great historical mystery authors who have served as inspirations.
What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing crime fiction?
My first four books were historical fiction, set during WWII. For my fifth book, Honour the Dead, I wanted to do something different, and migrated to crime fiction. Three of my eight novels are historical mysteries; five are historical fiction. Now I tend to alternate between the two genres.
Talk me through your books. What do you think makes them so popular with readers?
I think my books are popular because they’re about ordinary people who are compelled to do extraordinary things due to existing circumstances. My historical fiction novels, which usually have military themes, are not about generals or admirals or politicians – but about ordinary people who overcome their own shortcomings to combat adversity. I follow the same themes in my historical crime efforts – murders solved by journalists rather than law enforcement, for example.
Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?
I don’t have any specific rituals, but do have a routine. I have an office for my writing, the desk is in the centre of the room and I have bookshelves on every wall. I write every day, rarely take a day off, and just enjoy what I do. I typically start a book with three or four different ideas in mind, gradually whittle them down while I conduct my initial research, and then devote my attention to that topic that interests me the most from my preliminary research.
If there is a driver to any of my novels, it would be the location, which I like to treat like a character, as richly described as the people in the book. I have been to many of the locations where my books take place: Paris, Lake Como, London, Germany, Switzerland – and I enjoy writing about them.
What style of writing do you enjoy reading yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?
I read more non-fiction than fiction – primarily to research books I’m working on or planning to write. But I do have several authors that I enjoy reading, and who have served as an inspiration. Other than Agatha Christie and Anne Perry, who I already mentioned, Ken Follett, James Michener, and Ernest Hemingway are also personal favourites.
If you could collaborate with any person, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I think I would choose Agatha Christie. I read an article about her techniques that was very interesting – how she used a confined space like a train or a boat or an island, and had plenty of false clues or red herrings, or confused the reader with multiple suspects, making it difficult to solve the crime. Many of her books were also set in exotic locations.
Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
My next release is called The Drop and its set in Havana, Cuba in 1958 during the Cuban Revolution. It’s about an American businessman who is kidnapped by a brilliant revolutionary named Ariana Rojas and held for ransom. The wrinkle in the story is that, after the businessman’s wife receives the ransom note, she decides she doesn’t want her husband back. The book release is in April of 2021.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?
I’ve just completed a romance/mystery set in Cape May, N.J. in 1976. A woman inherits a historic mansion, built by an old sea captain who was falsely accused of murder. Even though it’s a hundred years later, she’s determined to prove his innocence. I just sent this off to my agent the other day, so no idea when it will be published.
As for new books by other writers, I rely heavily on recommendations. I keep in contact with some of the book clubs that follow me, and I get great suggestion from them.
Anything you’d like to add?
Yes – thank you so much for having me. I greatly appreciate it.
Thanks to John for answering all of my questions! I love historical crime fiction so it’s great to hear your thoughts.