Please give a warm welcome to, and take a few moments to get to know, Ellen Byerrum, author of the Crime of Fashion mysteries!
Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
It would be wonderful to say I read all the classics, beginning with all the cherished children’s books. I would like to sound literary and erudite. However, my family never really believed in children’s books. There was very little evidence of them. Most likely, they couldn’t afford them and thought children’s literature was unimportant. I envied the stacks of colorful books my friends owned. But we had a large bookcase stocked with books that my grandfather had purchased decades before and they had their own charms.
If I wanted to read something, my father would shout, “Read Tom Sawyer!” Well, Tom was okay, but the books I loved were from my grandfather’s vintage stash. They may not have been “the classics” but they were fun: tales of fast-talking, snappy-writing reporters, who plied their trade during the no-holds-barred Twenties and Thirties. They had style and they were hilarious. They could break your heart. My favorite tales of journalism include Gaily, Gaily by Ben Hecht, and Timberline by Gene Fowler. I loved Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, who wrote The Front Page. For the big screen, the play was renamed His Girl Friday and star reporter Hildy Johnson was transformed from a man to a woman, with Rosalind Russell in the lead. I loved books and plays and movies where the women took action. I will never forget Russell running after and tackling a source. In high heels!
I also liked Nancy Drew, when I could borrow my friends’ copies. And from Grandpa’s collection, I enjoyed Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, with woodcut illustrations. So there were a few classics in the mix.
Tell us about your main character.
Lacey Smithsonian is a reporter (surprise!) who covers fashion and solves crimes with fashion clues. She has an eye for nuance and style and even though she’s on the fashion beat, she longs to be taken seriously. Lacey is loyal to her friends, dedicated to her job, and she has a great vintage wardrobe. The wardrobe is courtesy of her great-aunt Mimi, from whom she has inherited a trunk full of patterns, fabrics, pictures, magazines, and the occasional mystery.
Originally from Colorado, Lacey never felt at home in the West, so she’d moved to Washington, D.C., to be on the East Coast. She often finds herself in trouble because she needs to know the end of the story, no matter what dangers that may hold. She finds that Crimes of Fashion are serious and often deadly, and very real. Lacey has studied for and received her Virginia private investigator’s registration, which may come in handy in future books. I called on my background as a reporter in Washington to aid in writing her story. (However, I covered the government, not fashion.)
Tell us a bit about your new book.
My latest and the eleventh book in my screwball noir Crime of Fashion Mysteries is The Masque of the Red Dress, which combines Washington, D.C., fashion, theatre, and spies.
Seeking inspiration for her Crimes of Fashion column, Lacey Smithsonian attends the D.C. theatre world’s annual garage sale, but things at the prop-and-costume bazaar don’t go quite according to script — all because of one tantalizing, ruffled, ruby-red frock from a Russian émigré theatre. It was famously worn in a production of The Masque of the Red Death by the actress who played Death – and who died on closing night.
Under the crimson costume’s spell, Lacey’s fellow reporter LaToya Crawford practically comes to blows with another woman over buying the dress. But LaToya suffers a bad case of buyer’s remorse and shoves it into Lacey’s hands for safekeeping. Can Lacey (with her so-called ExtraFashionary Perception) divine whether the dress is safe to wear?
Assaults, burglary and murder follow it wherever it goes. This is one garnet-hued garment with secrets and someone wants it enough to kill for it. Lacey’s conspiracy-crazed friend Brooke Barton is convinced that because the theatre is Russian, spies must be afoot. The theatre is a world of illusion, and spycraft and stagecraft have much in common. Shadows and deceptions lead Lacey and the red dress into a macabre dance with an assassin – and a masquerade with death.
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Before I wrote mystery novels I was a playwright, and I found myself missing the theatre world. This book allowed me to revisit the theatre and the sorts of people I met there, including the comically anguished playwright, the demanding director, the diva actress, the underappreciated stage hands. At the same time, it seemed like the theatre would be the perfect place for a spy to hide in plain sight, particularly at the present time in Washington. These are dangerous days. After all, the Spy Museum points out that one in every six people in D.C. is a spy.
As I contemplate the next Crime of Fashion mystery, I’m not sure I’m through with some of the new characters. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a couple of them showed up again.
What’s next for you?
One of the frustrations of thinking about the future is having so many things you want to do, and too many projects to write. However, after finishing my last Lacey Smithsonian book, I feel the pull of the theatre: I am working on a new play. The cross-pollination of writing in different disciplines strengthens your skills. At least that’s what I tell myself.
I am also beginning work on a novel that is a sort of “prequel” to the Crime of Fashion Mysteries. This novel features Lacey’s great aunt Mimi Smith, when she was a young woman working in D.C. during World War II. This is a mystery set on the homefront. Mimi works at the Office of Price Administration (OPA), which governs rationing and investigates fraud and black market goods. Mimi befriends a woman named Kitty who works at various jobs, including a war-time brothel in Alexandria, Virginia. Kitty knows the job is dangerous but doesn’t have much time to think about it before she turns up dead. Mimi becomes involved and seeks to find out what happened because, against the backdrop of World War, no one seems to care about one unfortunate woman or why she was murdered.
The prequel is tentatively titled The Brief Luminous Flight of the Firefly.
Ellen Byerrum is a novelist, a playwright, a former Washington, D.C. journalist, and a graduate of private investigation school in Virginia. Her screwball noir Crime of Fashion Mysteries feature Lacey Smithsonian, a reluctant fashion reporter in Washington, D.C., “The City That Fashion Forgot.” Lacey solves crimes with fashion clues while stylishly decked out in vintage togs. Two of the COF novels, Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover, were filmed for the Lifetime Movie Network.
The Woman in the Dollhouse is Byerrum’s first suspense thriller. She has also penned a middle-grade mystery, The Children Didn’t See Anything, the first of a planned series starring a set of precocious 12-year-old twins.
Under her playwriting pen name, Eliot Byerrum, she has published two plays with Samuel French, A Christmas Cactus and Gumshoe Rendezvous, which have received numerous productions.
You can find Ellen Byerrum on her website at www.ellenbyerrum.com.
She is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/EllenByerrum
And on Twitter at https://twitter.com/EllenByerrum