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The Sirens of Suspense




Janet Todd was born in Wales and grew up in Britain, Bermuda and Sri Lanka. She has worked in Ghana, Puerto Rico, India, Scotland and England. In the US, at the University of Florida and Douglass College, Rutgers, she became active in the feminist movement and began the first journal devoted to women’s writing.  She has published books on memoir, biography, and on authors including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn, Byron and members of the Shelley circle. Janet Todd is a former President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where she inaugurated a festival of women writers and established the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She lives in Cambridge and Venice.


Find Janet on Twitter and Facebook.


item1 My Tribute to PD James item1

I began my first original novel, A Man of Genius, with these words:

“Annabelle looked at the corpse. Hands and head separate.

Blood had leaked from wrists and neck. Fluid covered part of

the distorted features…”

I think this works as a beginning. But I also wrote it as a tribute to a wonderful friend who died recently: P.D. James.

Her death came just before I had the courage to stop being an academic and turn properly to composing fiction. I could never emulate Phyllis’s success as a writer but I did tell her that, as soon as I retired, I would finish the novels I’d started long before. ‘Jolly good for you,’ she said. When I asked for advice in this new enterprise, she laughed, ‘Just get a body into the first pages.’

One of the most famous British crime writers of the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this, P.D. James was in dialogue with the great female detective writers of the early 20th century, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. In her own inimitable way she transformed their crime genre. Moving into realism and philosophical seriousness, her novels were far more than thrilling whodunits,  or else we couldn’t, with pleasure, read them --again and again.

I like to read crime fiction of the calibre of P.D.James’s books, but my own bent as a writer is not towards crime—which in the end is usually detected and punished. Rather it’s towards dark psychological mysteries that have no real solution. I like the confusion of Gothic. In the Gothic novel good doesn’t easily triumph and the bad isn’t always destroyed. Villain and hero coalesce, and blame and shame become muddled. Truth and fact are difficult to find.

Memory is treacherous -- events remembered from books can be as ‘real’ as incidents you think happened to you. Fictional ideas may mingle with what you believe you know and have discovered. For A Man of Genius I created a heroine, Ann, who is a Gothic writer. She finds that the fiction she reads and writes starts to intrude into her own life and seep into, even contaminate, her mind. My novel is about fatal attraction at a special moment in history when the culture itself turned to the idea of great men for salvation: artistic geniuses or just powerful leaders, like Byron or Napoleon. When such men, with less power and genius than Byron and Napoleon, couldn’t sustain belief in their own gifts, the self-laceration began. Inevitably it turned into laceration of others.

Beyond stressing the importance of having dead or tormented bodies early on in a novel, P.D.James also told me that her books often started with a place that moved her deeply. I especially love her Death of an Expert Witness (1977) set in East Anglia. In this novel she uses the country and coast of Suffolk which she knew so well, catching the ritual of northern seasons and the swampy indistinct landscape that makes everything acted on it appear a little unclear. As a scholar and enthusiastic reader of Jane Austen, I’m also attracted to P.D. James’s use of the great house Pemberley as almost a character in her murderous sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Death Comes to Pemberley (2011).

I too started A Man of Genius with place. Venice, the city built on a swamp. In the last years I’ve come to know and love it, especially the long strip of islands that makes up La Giudecca. My 19th-century city is not the Venice of the brightly coloured travel brochures and advertisements for new luxury hotels, but rather the one that’s obscure, secretive, decaying, humidly hot or bitingly cold beyond expectation, difficult to live in all year round—now as in 1819! This is the place to which my main characters, Ann and Robert, travel from England in the years following the Napoleonic wars and the devastation of so much of Europe. They arrive in a Venice that, after a millennium of proud history, has become just an annexed province of neighbouring Austria. It’s a city of crumbling palazzi, stinking canals, of plots, surveillance, secrets and stealth.

In short a city of mysteries that can’t easily be solved.


WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE READ WITH A STRONG SENSE OF PLACE? TELL US or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of A MAN OF GENIUS! (US entrants only, please.)




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