From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Happy Monday Dear Readers!
Summer is blazing here in my neck of the woods. It is time for raspberry lemonade, enjoying hydrangea blooms, and sitting in the shade with new books!
I am pleased to have a special guest with us today. Author Katherine Cowley has a new historical mystery novel arriving in September that immediately caught my eye, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception. Cowley did an amazing job continuing the story of awkward middle sister Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice in the first novel in the series, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, and the second, The True Confessions of a London Spy. Be sure to check out our 5 star reviews by following the links.
I was curious to know more about her new novel and Katherine generously agreed to be interviewed. The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception is a continuation of Mary’s life as a British spy, and in addition to the mystery and espionage, she finds romance. Here is our tete-a-tete revealing some fascinating details. Enjoy!
Welcome, Katherine. Congratulations on the forthcoming publication of The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception.
Lucy Briers as Mary Bennet in the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice
Mary Bennet’s personality in Pride and Prejudice is priggish and judgmental. Those are not very appealing characteristics for the heroine of a novel. Can you share your thoughts on Austen’s canon Mary Bennet, and why you wanted to continue her story?
Mary is definitely not the sort of character who is normally the protagonist! As you said, in Pride and Prejudice she is often judgmental and priggish. I like to think of her pronouncements as “Maryisms.” She lacks awareness of what’s appropriate for different contexts, and she finds herself uncomfortable in some social situations. Because of all these attributes, she’s generally ignored and dismissed by her family members and others in the community.
Yet would Mary really remain fixed, with exactly these characteristics, forever? I think it would be terrible if all of us were destined to be exactly who we were during our teenage years. I wanted to give her a story of her own, and the opportunity to grow. I love stories like Wicked that take an unexpected character and tell the story from their point of view.
I realized that some of Mary’s struggles—like being overlooked and dismissed—would actually be an advantage to her as a spy. And while she never truly outgrows some of her struggles with social situations and understanding the expectations of others, she learns to manage them in a way that allows her to use things that she’s good at to solve problems.
The Waltz, by Thomas Rowlandson (1806)
What is The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception about, and what was your favorite scene to write?
Napoleon Bonaparte has escaped from the Isle of Elba, and Europe is on the brink of war. Mary Bennet and other British spies are sent to Brussels, where the Allied forces are gathering. One of the Duke of Wellington’s most trusted officers is murdered, and Mary and Mr. Withrow are given the task to unravel the case. The book is also about Mary’s complicated relationship with her sister, Lydia Wickham. And finally, this story is Mary’s chance to find her own romance.
My favorite scene to write was when Mary learns to dance the Viennese Waltz. I found a book written in 1816 by dance master Thomas Wilson titled A Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing, the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing. It’s extremely detailed and reveals amazing insights into perspectives of the day. (Like how to turn your waltz from appropriate to inappropriate! It’s all in how many fingers you put on you place on your partner’s back.) In 1816, waltzing relied much more heavily on ballet techniques, and of all the Bennet sisters, I thought Mary would be the most likely to find it difficult. In fact, she struggles so much that the romantic interest offers to switch and be her partner. Suddenly, learning the waltz is no longer terrible.
Adrian Lucis as George Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries
Why does the mystery genre fit so well into Jane Austen and her world?
This has been said by others before, but in many ways, Jane Austen’s stories are actually mystery novels. Her heroines are trying to understand the true characters of those around them. There’s a constant quest for discovery—what really happened between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham? why did Mr. Bingley leave and not contact Jane? where is Lydia? Like in mystery novels, the stakes of Austen’s novels are high: characters risk their livelihoods, their futures, their chance at happiness. I’ve found that the misdirections, the misunderstandings, and the attempts by characters to conceal their true motives translate perfectly into the mystery genre.
Painting of The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, by Robert Alexander Hillingford, in Brussels on 15 June 1815, the night before the Battle of Quatre Bras.
Your research of Regency times really shines. What is the most compelling historical fact that you discovered while researching this era in history?
For me, what was the most compelling was learning how many women were actually at the Battle of Waterloo. Not only were there women back in Brussels, waiting for news, but there were women at the edge of the battlefield, using opera glasses to watch their husbands. There were women on horses and on foot, going into battle with the men (some in disguise, some not). And after the battle, hundreds of women could be seen on the battlefield. Some were trying to find a loved one; some were robbing the dead of valuables; others were caring for their bodies.
Members of the cast of the TV miniseries of Vanity Fair (2018)
What other literary or historical inspirations fueled your imagination while writing The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception?
The novel Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was my initial inspiration for putting Mary in Brussels before the Battle of Waterloo. I love how Thackeray portrayed Becky and Amelia’s stories, and I wanted to write my own depiction of the famous ball held by the Duchess of Richmond. In terms of historical inspiration, I drew heavily on the book Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo, as well as on biographies of the Duke of Wellington.
I was also inspired heavily by The Scarlet Pimpernel. I love the constant donning of new disguises and identities, and in writing The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, I wanted to give Mary the chance to try to pull off challenging new identities.
The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet series
The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception is the third book in the series. Is it necessary to read the first two mysteries to understand the backstory of Mary and her new life?
My favorite mystery series allow you to enter at any point, and because of that, I wrote The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception so it can stand alone. If you just want Mary Bennet as a spy with a romance, start with the third book.
However, if you want a full series experience, I recommend starting with the first book. Mary does grow and change across each book—the first novel is about how she becomes a spy, and the second novel is her first case in London. In these first two books, she learns about herself and what she wants, she starts creating meaningful relationships, and she develops skills as a spy that will help her on her journey.
What’s up next for your in your writing career?
I would love to write more in the Mary Bennet spy series or write a spin-off novel about her sister Kitty. However, I’ve been working on this series non-stop since 2017, and I really felt that it would help my storytelling to stay fresh if I worked on something new. My current secret project is a mystery novel set in Paris in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Katherine Cowley’s debut novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, was nominated the 2022 Mary Higgins Clark Award.
Other books in her Mary Bennet spy series include The True Confessions of a London Spy (March 2022) and The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception (September 2022).
Her blog Jane Austen Writing Lessons was selected by The Write Life as one of the 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2021. Katherine teaches writing classes at Western Michigan University.
Katherine lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband and three daughters.
What is a spy willing to do when both her heart and her country are at risk?
Life changes once again for British spy Miss Mary Bennet when Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from the Isle of Elba. Mary quickly departs England for Brussels, the city where the Allied forces prepare for war against the French. But shortly after her arrival, one of the Duke of Wellington’s best officers is murdered, an event which threatens to break the delicate alliance between the Allies.
Investigating the murder forces Mary into precarious levels of espionage, role-playing, and deception with her new partner, Mr. Withrow-the nephew and heir of her prominent sponsor, and the spy with whom she’s often at odds. Together, they court danger and discovery as they play dual roles gathering intelligence for the British. But soon Mary realizes that her growing feelings towards Mr. Withrow put her heart in as much danger as her life. And then there’s another murder.
Mary will need to unmask the murderer before more people are killed, but can she do so and remain hidden in the background?
- The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception: The Secret Life of Mary Bennet (Book 3), by Katherine Cowley
- Tule Publishing Group, LLC (September 6, 2022)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (368) pages
- ISBN: 978-1957748566
- Genre: Austenesque, Historical Mystery
Cover image courtesy of Tule Publishing Group, © 2022; text Laurel Ann Nattress & Katherine Cowley © 2022, austenprose.com.
Hello Dear Readers,
What did you think of the two previous novels in The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet mysteries by Katherine Cowley?
Haven’t read them yet! If you enjoy mysteries or fiction with well-researched historical details, witty dialogue, engaging plots, and endearing characters, Austenprose highly recommends them.
Drop us a line below and share your thoughts on this interview and what you are currently reading. We would love to hear from you!
Laurel Ann Nattress, editor