Maureen Johnson chats the challenges of writing a manor house murder for Nine Liars

Maureen Johnson is back with another book in the Truly Devious series


Maureen Johnson is back with another book in the Truly Devious series. For those who have never read this series, fear not because you can definitely read Nine Liars on its own. Following Stevie Bell and her friends’ journey abroad in England, Nine Liars brings readers back to a double-murder cold case set in 1995, when nine friends from Cambridge University went to a country house and only seven made it out alive of their drunken hide and seek game… We had the honour of chatting with Maureen Johnson on this exciting new installment.

You are used to jumping between time periods in your book. What is your trick to making the timeline feel distinct?

In the Stevie Bell mysteries, the past timelines are case files—these are all cold cases she’s solving. I have to think of them clearly and clinically. I present the documents, the snapshots of the scene, the angles in certain rooms and views. As I work on this, the characters come into greater view. In the case of Nine Liars, I built the Nine—the group of nine Cambridge University students, all theater people. I thought about the layout of Merryweather, the manor where the crime takes place. I spent a lot of time—about a week—drawing floor plans and garden layouts for the maps, because there are maps in all the Stevie mysteries, and they always contain clues. So I really work from the crime out. But I always choose a time and a place that I want to work with, that has the right feel.

1995 felt a long time ago but actually not – these Cambridge students are just slightly older in Stevie’s timeline. How does it feel setting part of the story in 1995?

It was a good excuse to blast some Britpop. I was also in England in 1995. It was a hot summer. I lived and worked there with my friend Kate, who is now my agent. We had many adventures that we keep between ourselves. But I wanted everyone to feel that hot summer, the burst of bubbles from the champagne, the closeness of the Nine, all the mess and the fun that leads up to the murder.

What’s a fun thing you learned about Cambridge when you were doing the research?

I picked Cambridge for two reasons. The first is Footlights, the legendary Cambridge comedy group. The list is huge: Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Richard Ayoade, John Cleese, Olivia Colman, Alex Horne, David Mitchell, Richard Osmand, Sandi Tosvig, Eric Idle, John Oliver…the list goes on and on. (Weirdly, King Charles was in Footlights. So I guess they had to let him in because he was a prince, or maybe it was a joke. I have no idea.) Basically, all panel shows have something to do with Footlights. Cambridge was the right place to set this story about a group of comedy performers who went to university together. The Nine didn’t make it into Footlights, so they made their own group. The second reason is that my husband went to Cambridge, so I could get precise information about how things work there. Mostly he talks about how the River Cam is full of shopping trolleys and Weil’s Disease.

And you have always dreamed of writing an English mansion mystery. Any surprising challenges when writing Nine Liars, or have you been born prepared to write it?

The manor house murder is a classic puzzle from the golden age of mystery for a reason—you have a set cast of suspects and a contained staging area for the puzzle to play out. Country houses are small enough in the grand scope of things to give the problem limits, but big enough and weird enough to have lots of hidey-holes and passages and things like that. There’s also an air of unreality to them. It feels like a backdrop, not a place people would really live. That’s part of the appeal of this kind of mystery novel; it’s not meant to feel like a real crime, like people are being hurt. It’s a revolving cast of professors and butlers and strange relatives who want to know about the will. In Nine Liars, I wanted to play with that a little—it’s a group of actors, it’s a game, it’s a murder in the woodshed. The challenge was coming to grips with what one of these houses is really like. I thought I knew, but then I ended up in a stack of architectural research and books on gardens. Gardens are complicated. Gardens: more than just plants.

We are very excited to see Stevie and her gang in London. You recently hid some copies of Nine Liars around London. Any fond memories?

That was such a fun day. I came over to the UK to launch Nine Liars and then have my first UK Christmas with our UK family. We often go over right before or right after Christmas—this was my first actual Christmas day, with the crackers and the hats and the speech and the flaming dessert. It was truly one of the best times I’ve ever had. The day we hid the copies there was some very London in December weather—you really know how to do damp here. I signed at Forbidden Planet, then we wound around through the shoppers, leaving books and posting clues online. I was hugely tired and happy at the end of the day. My hotel had a great bathtub. English bathtubs are better than American ones. You know how to take a bath here. The sides are higher—that’s the key. You get depth. Since I was cold and wet, the bath was the obvious place to go. And you could slide back a partition in the room at the hotel so the tub was right in the middle. I had proper tea, and a proper bath while watching TV. Then I ordered Wagamama takeaway from the tub. I will relive this glorious moment for a long time. I felt like Bertie Wooster, if Bertie Wooster could order Wagamama from the tub, which he would if could. Best day ever. 10/10.

Nine Liars has many new characters. You’re going to hate us for this – your dream cast for the nine Cambridge students?

You know, I never cast in my mind. Ever. Except for Nine Liars. I used nine actual performers as rough mental models for some aspects of the characters. They have nine counterpoints in real life. Most of them are comedians you see regularly on TV here in the UK. I will not reveal who they are. This is my secret. But if you guess right, I will nod.

NINE LIARS is published by HARPER360, and is available now in hardback. (978-0063032651, £14.99)
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