A Frenchman, Odette, and a Book-within-a-Book

LISE McCLENDON is the author of fourteen novels of suspense, mystery, crime, and wise-crackery. She writes the Bennett Sisters Mystery series, as well as series set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and WW2-era Kansas City. As Rory Tate she’s written two thrillers, Plan X and Jump Cut. She co-wrote the dark comic thriller, Beat Slay Love, with four other mystery writers calling themselves Thalia Filbert. Her short story is included in the new anthology edited by Gary Phillips, The Obama Inheritance. Lise served on the national boards of Mystery Writers of America and the North American chapter of International Crime Writers. She lives in Montana and at lisemcclendon.com

My latest mystery about five lawyer sisters, The Frenchman, is the fifth in the series. It tells the story of Merle Bennett, the middle sister, who goes to France to write her own novel and renovate her stone cottage. Sure that La Belle France will cure all her ills, she sets out to prove her theory correct. Pascal, her Frenchman, scoffs at this. He says, “You think France is a gastronomic Disneyland full of sunflowers!”  As a policeman he knows France is pretty to look at but not as delightful under the surface.

While Merle writes and renovates, Pascal encounters an old enemy in the vineyards, a man he put in prison years before. When Pascal disappears Merle isn’t sure if their relationship is over, or something terrible has happened.

A soupçon of danger, a brush with ‘madame guillotine,’ and the quirky characters of the countryside, all collide in France where, obviously,wine, sunflowers, and Frenchmen cure all ills. Or do they?

Chapters of Merle’s book, Odette and the Great Fear are included inside The Frenchman. It’s a book-within-a-book.

Of course there is a book inside those covers, or behind that e-book screen. But these are separate stories, two books. But how does that work? Does— the author hopes— one story reflect, develop, and deepen the other? What’s the point otherwise?

That was the challenge I set for myself when I wrote The Frenchman, the newest in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series. In the story, the main character, Merle Bennett, goes to France for an extended stay to let the beauty of France soothe her soul (as we do) and write her gothic romance she alluded to at the end of the previous book in the series, The Things We Said Today. In that story she is briefly in France during the time of her sister’s wedding in Scotland. While watching the cherry blossoms fall and getting dreamy, she has an idea: write a gothic romance like she and her sisters loved to read when they were younger. A character came to her, based on the neighbor’s goat farm. Her character would be a goat herder during the French Revolution. It would be a way to incorporate some history, always a bonus for me (and Merle, naturally.)

As research I searched for other books-within-books. I found a mystery that includes one, The Magpie Murders by British author Anthony Horowitz. This classical-style mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie features chapters from another puzzle mystery written by a curmudgeon of an author with a Hercule Poirot-type detective. As Janet Maslin said in the New York Times: “Magpie Murders is a double puzzle for puzzle fans, who don’t often get the classicism they want from contemporary thrillers.”

Although there are parallels between the two stories in Magpie Murders — and I admit puzzle mysteries aren’t my usual cup of Earl Grey — in my opinion the plots of the two mysteries didn’t really reflect on each other. One is a foil for the other but they are separate stories, separate mysteries, so as Maslin says, double the fun for puzzle fans.

After reading this book I realized that, for me, for the inside story to work it had to be close to the main story in some way, either in ideas or plot or something. Without this connection your mind just bounces from story to story, unable to connect the dots. So I worked hard when writing the nine chapters of Odette and the Great Fear that are included in The Frenchman, to make the stories hang together.

Then there is the issue of history in a story. The French Revolution was a rolling nightmare that didn’t begin or end with the beheading of the king and queen. It lasted for ten years, until a short guy named Bonaparte ended it all. Unlike the American Revolution of the same period, there was no happy ending, only more war and deprivation and monarchs. But the French Revolution did change France– and the world– in remarkable and lasting ways, and I hoped to show some of that in Odette.

Because with a scant few chapters and a real story to portray within them, there wasn’t a lot of space left for exposition about the Committee for Public Safety, or the Commune, or the storming of the Bastille. So the explicit history of the period is implied. (If you’re interested in the French Revolution I recommend Peter McPhee’s Liberty or Death.)

With The Frenchman done, and the included chapters of Odette as seamless and reflective of the main story as I could make them, I then turned back to Odette to flesh out her story.

Odette and the Great Fear now has nearly 20 chapters and more back-story into the characters and what happens to them. It was such a fascinating, chaotic time. I wondered what a young merchant’s daughter, radicalized by the Parisian women who marched to Versailles to demand decent wheat prices so their families wouldn’t starve, might do after all that. Their protest reflected a panic in France that elites and royalty were trying to starve them out, hence ‘The Great Fear.’ Like all good gossip it spread like wildfire and contributed to violence and a general terror in the populace.

Many people were displaced in France, not to mention beheaded. Odette wanders south by foot, to the Dordogne, and finds a farmer in need of a goat herder. It’s not her favorite job — goats don’t follow directions. She can’t stay forever. She’s a city girl at heart but she’s grateful to the farmer and his wife for taking her in, giving her food and a place to sleep, things she took for granted before the Revolution. When she finds a wounded man near the farm, her life changes. Who is this handsome soldier? Why is he so secretive about his past? Because this is a gothic romance there is a creepy, half-burned chateau, a scary, scarred noble, and a bunch of rabble-rousing villagers. I like to think Merle would have been proud.

I’d love to hear what you think about my success, or lack thereof, of my book-inside-a-book experiment. Both The Frenchman and it’s spin-off, Odette and the Great Fear, are available wherever books are sold.

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