Interview with Karen Odden, author of A TRACE OF DECEIT

When I visited my intrepid agent Josh Getzler at HGLiterary last June, he offered me, as a parting gift, a selection of novels that he had represented. The blue cover of A DANGEROUS DUET (William Morrow, 2018), a Victorian mystery written by Karen Odden, immediately caught my eye. I so enjoyed reading it that when I recently saw Karen promoting her latest release, A TRACE OF DECEIT (William Morrow, 2019), I reached out to her on social media. Turns out we have a lot in common (besides our industrious and generous agent!). Like me, Karen has a doctorate in literature and writes novels set in the era of her academic specialty. Unlike me, she has been published three times over and has another book in the pipeline. She graciously agreed to answer some questions about her background, her novels, and her writing career. Sample her expertise and engaging voice in the interview below, and you’ll be eager to read her exceptional mysteries for yourself. I know I can’t wait to get my hands on A TRACE OF DECEIT!

1. Your three books all take place in London during the Victorian era (1870s). How did you become interested in this time period? Why does it fascinate you so? 

Years ago, I wrote my PhD dissertation at NYU on Victorian railway disasters. It probably seems odd to most of us, but people were obsessed with them—sort of the way we’re riveted by computer hacking or terrorism. Accounts of train wrecks appeared in novels, medical literature, newspaper accounts, parliamentary papers, legal trial reports, and so on. In order to understand their power in the public imagination, I studied Victorian literature and history, especially London during Queen Victoria’s era, 1837-1901.

But as I researched, the 1870s became my favorite decade because so much changed so rapidly in the social, economic, and political spheres. It was like someone set loose a rollercoaster car! Some of this is because literacy rates were rising, so people wrote, read, and talked about social issues more. But many of the debates of the 1850s and 1860s led to a swath of new laws in the 1870s. For example, traditionally under British law, a married woman was “covered” by her husband. This meant she could not vote, hold her own money, initiate a contract or divorce, or inherit property. In 1870, as a result of the Married Woman’s Property Act, for the first time, a woman could earn and keep her wages (shocking, I know!) and she could inherit property up to £200. It was one small but significant reversal of a huge social inequality. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 finally made education mandatory for all children ages 6-12. A series of safety and labor laws were passed to protect works in the mills and factories. Furthermore, new institutions such as the Slade School of Art (founded 1871) were opening to women. And the Franco-Prussian War (1871) tipped the balance of power in continental Europe from France to newly-united Germany—with results that we’d continue to see well into the twentieth century. Yet all this change occurred during a decade that was smack in the middle of the longest stable reign in British history. I find that so interesting.

2. What sparks a new book for you first—a character, a situation, or a setting? How do you work to construct a mystery plot? 

At the heart of each of my novels is a story I read or heard that clutched at me and refused to let go. As I researched railways, I found descriptions of people climbing out of burning carriages, horses trapped and screaming in stock cars, railway surgeons faced with hundreds of patients lying in the surrounding fields. So a railway disaster became the propelling event in A Lady in the Smoke. Similarly, when I was researching for A Dangerous Duet, I discovered the brilliant pianist Fanny Dickens (Charles’s older sister) was forced to leave the Royal Academy because she could no longer afford tuition. There were no opportunities for Fanny to make the money—and even if she earned it, she could have been forced to hand it over to her father to pay the family’s debts. It felt horribly unfair to me. A Trace of Deceit was shaped by painful stories of addiction, told to me by friends. And my next book is about the brutality of the African slave and ivory trades in the 1870s. In 2013, I read a book that included accounts of how Belgian agents would seize African women and children and put them in cages with no food or water, freeing them only when their husbands or fathers brought back the requisite 70 pounds of rubber. Now, seven years later, I’ll put this story to use.

3. Do you travel for your research? What has been your most thrilling discovery?

I had been to London a few times, even before I started writing books set there. My most thrilling discovery was Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel—not far from where the Ripper murders took place. It is (so far as I know) the only standing Victorian Music Hall in London, and it’s an amazing space. If you’ve seen Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey, Jr., you’ve seen Wilton’s. As Sherlock, Downey is chased all over the theater by a Cossack.

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Photo credit:

Wilton’s was created in the mid-1800s by John Wilton, who joined together three houses in Graces Alley to make the music hall. As I walked through the doors, I could smell the hops, and I tripped over a nail in the wooden floorboards. I went downstairs and prowled around the basement with its uneven floors and plaster coming off the bricks. Then I came up and looked at the music hall itself—the U-shaped room, painted blue, with gilt and turned pillars. Instantly, I could see Nell in her piano alcove, and the setting for my story began to feel solid.

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Photo credit: Karen Odden

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Photo credit: Karen Odden

That trip, I also went to the Royal Academy of Music, where I found the 1820s class roster with Fanny Dickens’s name and a plaque with information about her. The music hall industry arose too late for Fanny, but by the 1850s there were dozens of halls in London willing to pay for talent—though men made twice what women did. And so was born the story of the pianist Nell Hallam, who needs to earn money for her tuition at the Academy and dresses as a man to take a position in a Soho music hall.

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4. Inspector Matthew Hallam, the brother of the protagonist in your previous book A DANGEROUS DUET, reappears as a main character in A TRACE OF DECEIT. Are you building a series featuring Matthew? Does Nell, the protagonist of DUET, figure in TRACE?

Nell appears incidentally in A Trace of Deceit, but I don’t want to do a “series” in the usual way. I do have a few secondary overlapping characters—particularly Tom Flynn, my shrewd, straight-talking writer for the (fictional) London newspaper, the Falcon. He is based on my high school English teacher, who was the first person who told me I could write.

Frankly, I don’t trust myself to keep a protagonist interesting (or to stay interested in her!) to the same degree, after her first book, when the “big” issue from her past is resolved. Besides, I’m a research junkie. I’ve explored railways, music halls, the London art and auction world, and now the African ivory trade … and assuming there’s a fifth book, I want to move on to another aspect of Victorian London.

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5. What do you love most about your new heroine, Annabel Rowe? How does she frustrate you? 

I love Annabel because she cares. She cares about her brother Edwin’s well-being. She cares about honoring his memory by finding out who he was before he died. She cares about telling the truth in her paintings—representing people as they really are, rather than some idealized version.

I wouldn’t say she frustrated me, necessarily … maybe she should have! But from the outset, I knew how she had to change. As a child, Annabel grew up the fourth person in a house with a very intense triangle: her father was fiercely ambitious for Edwin, who resented his father’s demands, and her mother ran interference. Annabel was always the observer because as a child, it was safer. Even as an adult, her habit of observing kept her out of the fray, and it worked (up to a point) for becoming a painter. But over the course of the novel, she has to learn how being solely an onlooker limits her. She needs to find a way to deepen her engagement with the world, or she will never become the painter she could be … and she won’t solve Edwin’s murder.

6. What authors inspired you to become a mystery writer? How does their work influence yours? 

As a child, my family spent every Sunday out at my grandparents’ house where my parents played bridge and I was left to scavenge in my grandmother’s library. There I found all kinds of books—bodice rippers, mysteries, suspense! I was probably around eleven when I found Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Daphne DuMaurier, and I’d say they were my first “adult” mysteries. (I had already torn through Nancy Drew, etc.) I loved the way these three women authors created vivid settings, fashioned young women characters who weren’t superheroes but seemed to have something in common with me, and had plots that wove together past tragedies and present events. I also loved how a single murder and a personal desire for truth could spin suspense for an entire book. A plot didn’t need to have fast cars and exploding buildings and bloodbaths to be a page-turner. The suspense for me came through the small scenes, the interactions among characters. Over the years, I realize I’m drawn to books that have some of these qualities—Tana French’s books and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves are books I reread every year or two. As far as being influenced, I like to think my books place the reader in Victorian London, where they will hear “Oranges and Lemons” from the church bells and smell the tallow from the chandler’s shop. And my protagonists, young women amateur sleuths, all have to learn something from their past in order to move forward in their present, and to solve the mystery in front of them.

7. You have now published three mystery novels. What have you learned over the course of these three books? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? 

Oh gosh. I could write a book just on what I’ve learned! But I’ll pick two things that stand out. First, it’s great to start with a clear plot idea (a railway crash, say). But I’ve come to realize the importance of spending hours and hours on backstories for my characters—even the minor ones. Then, after I write the first draft, I go back to my backstories and revise them, which in turn deepens my manuscript. I have separate pages for each character, and I write their histories from their point-of-view, although that information doesn’t all make it into the novel. The codicil to “backstories are vital” is that although backstories need to be in my head, they don’t need to be in my book.

Second, after writing, I trim. By my third or fourth draft, the manuscript is about 120,000 words—and then, when I feel my manuscript is “done” as far as plot and character, and all the details fit, and I love it exactly the way it is, I slash 20,000 words out. It inevitably makes a leaner, cleaner manuscript—and reducing redundancy, or even omitting a few lines here and there leaves room for the reader to fill in. Readers feel more engaged when they have to do some of the work … and I’ve learned to trust my readers. They’re smart.

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8. What has been the most exciting moment of your writing career so far? Have you ever been ready to throw in the towel? What made you persevere? 

Eight years ago, before I found my agent, I nearly gave up. I’d been working on the manuscript for A Lady in the Smoke, and some YA manuscripts, for years. I just couldn’t find an agent to take more than a passing interest, and though I’d taken classes and read books on writing, I didn’t know what was wrong with them. I remember talking to my friend Jody Hallam (for whom Matthew Hallam is named) about how incredibly discouraged I was, and how I could write for another ten years and still get nowhere. The uncertainty was terrible. She urged me to find a free-lance editor before I gave up. Another friend, also a writer, recommended someone who helped me get the manuscript in shape for submission—and I sent it out to ten agents I found on Publisher’s Marketplace. I heard back from eight, and two eventually offered representation.

Like Annabel (and all my heroines) I had something to learn: I need feedback at various stages. My advice is to find a strong critique group, or a mentor who will work one-on-one, if that suits you. Join organizations such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, who have resources to help you. And of course, keep writing.

The thing is, even if I had never found an agent or a publisher, I’d write anyway. I have dozens of notebooks and piles of manuscript pages and drafts of articles and essays that will probably never see the light of day. A friend asked me once, “Don’t you ever want to take a day off from writing?” I replied that it’s sort of like brushing my teeth; I could skip a day, but it doesn’t feel good. Honestly, I love writing more than I hate failing at it. And my reading and writing has brought me to a community with so many lovely, smart, talented readers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers, and writers that even if I never publish another book, I’ve won.


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Karen Odden served as an Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and taught classes in English language and literature at New York University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She has contributed essays and chapters to books and journals, including Studies in the Novel, Journal of Victorian Culture, and Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation; for ten years, she served as an Assistant Editor for the academic journal, Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP); and she has written introductions for Barnes and Noble’s Classics Series editions of books by Dickens and Trollope. Prior to receiving her Ph.D. in English, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and McGraw-Hill, as a Media Buyer for Christie’s Auction House in New York, and as a bartender at the airport in Rochester, where she learned how to stop being shy. She is a member of SCBWI and Mystery Writers of America. Her first book, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today Bestseller and won the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona award for eBook Fiction. Her second book, from William Morrow/Harper Collins, is A Dangerous Duet, which won the New Mexico-Arizona book award for Historical Fiction in 2019; and her third Victorian mystery, A Trace of Deceit, was published in December 2019. 

Karen currently resides in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband, her two children, and her ridiculously cute beagle, Rosy.

Learn more about Karen and her books by visiting her website.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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