Today we sit down for a chat with historical mystery author Frances McNamara. Frances is the author of the new Nutshell Murders Series, featuring Frances Glessner Lee, known as the Mother of Forensic Science. Those of you who are longtime readers of this blog might remember a post about Frances Glessner Lee from 2018. Learn more about Frances McNamara and her books at her website.
Frances Glessner Lee working on one of her nutshell studies
When did you realize you wanted to write novels?
I was always writing. I worked with an amateur theater group in Columbus Ohio when I lived there, providing scripts for mystery nights to raise money for the local library. Later I wrote some technology-based contemporary mysteries, but boy did that information go out of date quickly. Finally, while working at the University of Chicago Library, I was inspired by the place and the city of Chicago to write an historical mystery set in 1890’s with a girl who was excited to be a graduate student when UofC opened.
How long did it take you to realize your dream of publication?
I had a writing group and went to SleuthFest, NE Crime Bake and a similar Chicago conference. I was active in my local Sisters in Crime Chicagoland. I had an agent from SleuthFest for a contemporary novel that never got published. We agreed to part. I entered the St. Martin’s first novel competition at Malice Domestic. Did not win but got a great email from Ruth Cavin saying I was a finalist, but it wasn’t a mystery. I made more edits and eventually self-published Death at the Fair, but when a friend started Allium Press, a small publishing company, I published 8 books in that series.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author?
I’m hybrid. I published with Allium until the editor retired. The rights reverted to me so I self-published, reissuing the 8 books and adding a ninth as Rudiyat Press. Then I got a three-book contract from Level Best Books to start the Nutshell Murder Mystery series starring Frances Glessner Lee.
Where do you write?
In the apartment I share with my sister in Boston, or at our house in Sandwich on Cape Cod or at the Boston Athenaeum, a private library on Beacon Hill where I am very productive. They also provide interlibrary loan and e-resource access for my research for the books.
Is silence golden, or do you need music to write by? What kind?
How much of your plots and characters are drawn from real life? From your life in particular?
I love finding out about people and events in the past that are hugely interesting but often forgotten. Especially women who bucked the system and actually made my life better because of what they did. I loved writing about places in Chicago that I visited when there, like Hull House or the town of Pullman. You get a real flavor for a place and want to imagine what it was like to be there at another time. I grew up in Boston and live there now. In the Molasses Murder, the Florence Hotel where the Italian anarchists meet, is a building where my nephew owns a condo with a roof deck. The Nichols House is on Beacon Hill, and I volunteer as a guide there. The Charles Street Jail is now the Liberty Hotel, near us, where we go for drinks or brunch. I always look for crimes in newspapers of the time.
Describe your process for naming your character?
I’m terrible at this. I rename characters when my writing group or an editor points out that there are too many names that start with “M” or something. For the book I’m working on, the second Nutshell Murder my writing group was so critical that I made a list of names and got their input before renaming them all.
Real settings or fictional towns?
I use real settings for the most part as that is part of the interest in my stories. I occasionally create a street or building. I always try to address what is real and what is fictional in my afterword. In Molasses Murder there really was a tenement swept away in the flood, but there was NOT a dead body in a bathtub in the real building.
What’s the quirkiest quirk one of your characters has?
In Molasses Murder, Frances Glessner Lee works with Dr. George Magrath, a real historical character who was a classmate of her brother. Magrath drove a specially modified Model T tricked out with lights, bells and sirens that was called “Suffolk Sue.” It was well known in town as the medical examiner would race to death scenes in it.
What’s your quirkiest quirk?
Do we know our own quirks? My sister who rooms with me keeps giving me tee shirts and sweatshirts with coffee cups and books on them. Probably being unreachable before coffee, like many people.
If you could have written any book (one that someone else has already written,) which one would it be? Why?
Maybe The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King because I like the voice of the main character. I also love the Steven Saylor mysteries set in Rome because I like the voice of Gordianus.
Everyone at some point wishes for a do-over. What’s yours?
Probably book 1 of the Emily Cabot series, Death at the Fair. Everyone wants to start with the first book, and I always feel the books get better as I go along. But I still love the book anyhow!
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Uncivil political discourse
You’re stranded on a deserted island. What are your three must-haves? Beethoven string quartets, Jane Austen, coffee
What was the worst job you’ve ever held?
A government library that shall remain unnamed. No air conditioning, not much cleaning by janitorial staff, political interference, unhappy staff. I left. All my other jobs in libraries were lots of fun.
Who’s your all-time favorite literary character (any genre)? Why?
Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She’s spunky.
Ocean or mountains?
City girl/guy or country girl/guy?
City. I’ve loved living in downtown Chicago and now downtown Boston. Cities are constantly changing but they are alive. Love walking in a great city.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Book 2 of the Nutshell Murder Mystery series will be out in about a year. It is set in East Boston, and since my grandparents on both sides lived there, without knowing each other, I’m using some details from them. It will be based on the Two-Story Porch Nutshell study. There will be a third Nutshell mystery the next year. I also plan two more Emily Cabot mysteries, one set during the Wall Street crash and the last set during the Chicago World’s fair in 1934.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books?
I used to sail a lot in small one design boats but I’m getting a bit too old for it, so I’ve signed up a nephew at Courageous Sailing in Boston and plan to crew for him.
Molasses Murder in a Nutshell
A Nutshell Murder Mystery, Book 1
The purpose of a forensic investigation is said to be "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”
In January 1919 a tank bursts in Boston’s North End, flooding the neighborhood with molasses. When a woman is found murdered in the wreckage, Frances Glessner Lee asks her old friend, medical examiner Dr. George Magrath to help exonerate a young serviceman. Frustrated by her lack of education and skills, she wants the clear the young man’s name and find the killer. Will creation of a miniature crime scene lead to the truth? It’s the best she can do.
This is the first in a series of fictional stories roughly based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Over twenty miniature crime scenes were used from the 1940’s to the present to train police detectives. Set in the 1920’s these stories imagine Frances Glessner Lee working with Dr. George Magrath to learn about “legal medicine” as forensic science was known at the time. Working with Magrath provided the foundation for the miniatures for which Frances Glessner Lee has become known as the Mother of Forensic Science.