By Kurt Anthony Krug
New York Times best-selling author Colleen Gleason‘s latest novel, Murder at Mallowan Hall – written under the pseudonym Colleen Cambridge – is best described as “Agatha Christie meets Downton Abbey.”
Mallowan Hall (Kensington Books $26) is the first in a new series featuring Phyllida Bright, fictional housekeeper of Christie, the godmother of the mystery genre. Someone’s murdered at Mallowan Hall, home to Christie and husband Max Mallowan. It falls to Phyllida to solve it. The victim arrived under false pretenses during a weekend party. Soon thereafter, a housemaid is also murdered. Phyllida must determine which houseguest is the killer, all too aware that he or she may strike again very soon.
“I have to confess the idea was not mine. It was my editor’s idea. I had done the Lincoln White House Mystery series at Kensington. They loved them, but they didn’t do as well as they hoped and wanted to keep working with me.
My editor called my agent – ‘We have this great idea. We think Colleen would be the right person for it.’ The idea was: Agatha Christie’s housekeeper solving mysteries. I was so excited because I love Agatha Christie! I think she’s brilliant! I read her books when I was younger,” explained Gleason, a two-time University of Michigan alumna who lives outside Ann Arbor.
Gleason spoke about using a pseudonym, something she’s used before.
“It’s basically a marketing decision the publisher made,” said Gleason. “They wanted to start fresh and that’s not unusual. If you have a series that didn’t do well and they want to do a new series with you, a lot of times they’ll have you change your name just for that reason…”
A Better Amateur Detective
Gleason also spoke about creating Phyllida.
“I wanted her to have not just an employer/employee relationship with (Christie), but a friendship too, so I could develop their relationship differently in the books,” she explained. “With employer/employee relationships, there’s also some separation, so I created Phyllida as a woman who’s about the same age as Agatha is during the time when this book takes place, which is in the 1930s – I don’t give a particular year. I have the two meet during World War I when Agatha Christie was working at the hospital dispensary – that’s where she learned so much about poisons.”
Phyllida was an army nurse prior to becoming Christie’s housekeeper, according to Gleason, a trait that would make her a better amateur detective. This would make her less squeamish and quick on her feet. And as a housekeeper, she needs to be organized with a keen attention to detail.
“I had Phyllida work at the hospital as well, so they met then and became friends,” said Gleason. “Later on, after the war, there is a reason why Phyllida decided to take on the role of housekeeper at this very large, fictional estate. That reason, as Phyllida says in the book, is her own business and nobody else’s, so we may or may not ever find out why.”
Separating Fact from Fiction
While Christie appears in the novel, she’s not a main character. One of the challenges for Gleason when writing Mallowan Hall was keeping Christie in the background.
“I had to decide what time in Agatha’s life I wanted to set the book,” said Gleason. “I liked the 1930s; I wanted to stay away from World War II and the 1950s and 1960s. I researched her life at that time and her younger years. I had the pleasure of rereading (many Christie novels as research). There are a lot of Easter eggs in the book. If you’re a big Agatha Christie fan, you’ll notice a lot of little things in there.”
Gleason pointed out that Mallowan Hall is a fictional place.
“Agatha never had a home this large and expansive, but I wanted a fictional world where I could set the series and not restricted by something that was real,” she said. “I did a lot of research for such a large estate, specially being a housekeeper for such a large estate like a Downton Abbey estate.”
Gleason enjoyed writing this novel.
“Once I figured out who (Phyllida) was, I loved being in her head. I loved writing a woman who is confident, who knows her worth, who makes mistakes but moves on, and who is very comfortable with who she is – that’s Phyllida.
I absolutely loved writing that character,” she said. “I loved doing the tongue-in-cheekness when it came to the murder mystery. I mean, c’mon, think about it: There’s a dead body in the home of the most famous mystery writer in the world. If that isn’t on the nose, I don’t know what is. Having that element to element was so much fun. I had a blast writing the second book too. This is really a fun series for me.”