Britbear’s Book Reviews welcomes author Libi Astaire, author of The Moon Taker, with an interview in today’s author spotlight.
There’s trouble afoot in Regency London’s Jewish community, and no one to stop the crimes—until wealthy-widower-turned-sleuth Mr. Ezra Melamed teams up with an unlikely pair: General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane, the leaders of a gang of young Jewish pickpockets.
In this newest addition to the Jewish Regency Mystery Series, General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane set out to discover who murdered Mr. Hamburg, a colleague of theirs in the secondhand linen trade. But before they can unmask the killer, they must unravel the secret of a mysterious snuff box, a quest that takes them from their East End slum to an elegant country house where a group of distinguished astronomers are meeting – one of whom has a secret as dark as the night sky.
Hello, Libi. I’m curious, why do you write about the Jewish Regency period?
One of the things I love about the Regency period, in general, is that although it was brief there was so much going on—the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, fortunes being made and lost overnight on the Exchange or in the gambling halls. All of that makes a wonderfully colorful backdrop for a mystery series. But like many people, when I used to think of the Regency era I thought of the characters in Jane Austen’s novels. I had no idea that there was a thriving Ashkenazic Jewish community living in London at the time. As I learned more about them—their experiences while trying to “make it” in British society foreshadowed the experiences of Jewish immigrants to the UK and the United States a century later—I thought it would be fun to introduce readers to this little known community and look at the Regency era through their eyes.
What appeals to you about mystery and detective fiction as a genre?
I’ve always enjoyed reading mystery novels, especially the ones written by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Rex Stout. The “whodunit” aspect keeps me interested in the story, but I also appreciate the way the best of the mystery writers use the investigation of a crime as a way to open a window into their world and examine the undercurrents lurking beneath the polite surface of everyday life. So, I’ve tried to do that with my Jewish Regency Mystery Series, using the structure of a mystery story to look at the social and financial challenges facing an immigrant community that is still struggling to establish itself—and sometimes stumbles along the way to “the good life.”
Your characters in this series, “wealthy-widower-turned-sleuth Mr. Ezra Melamed [who] teams up with General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane – the leaders of a gang of young Jewish pickpockets – to solve crimes affecting Regency London’s Jewish community” sound really interesting. How did you come up with this idea?
Actually, the idea was forced upon me by the historical facts. During the Regency period there wasn’t yet an organized police force. Back then the English didn’t like the idea of the government intruding too much into their lives, and so they preferred dealing with crime privately. Therefore, if someone broke into your house and stole all the silver, for example, you might hire a Bow Street Runner or thief-taker with knowledge of the criminal underworld to find the culprit. Or you might try to find the thief yourself, since he was often willing to return your stolen property, for a price.
So in my mystery series, Mr. Ezra Melamed takes on the role of sleuth for the Jewish community rather reluctantly. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t associate with young pickpockets, but since General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane live on the streets of London they have access to information that he needs and can’t get on his own.
By the way, when I first began writing the series my pickpockets were minor characters. But they ended up stealing the show, so to speak, and since readers kept asking to see more of them I gave them their own mystery to solve in the newest book, The Moon Taker.
What is the significance behind the names of these characters?
Both the Earl of Gravel Lane and General Well’ngone are ironic names—a bit of Jewish chutzpah, if you will. During the Regency era the Jews, like the Catholics, didn’t have full civil rights. Jews couldn’t vote or go to university or become an officer in the military, for example, and they certainly couldn’t become a member of the peerage. Therefore, the teenaged leader of my gang of pickpockets, the Earl of Gravel Lane, is thumbing his nose at some of the prejudices of British society by dubbing himself an Earl during a time when a Jew couldn’t even be a baronet. As for Gravel Lane, it’s a real street in London’s East End, which was a poverty-stricken area during the Regency, and it was home to the most famous Jewish criminal of the era, Ikey Solomon.
General Well’ngone, the Earl’s “commander in the field,” is a take-off on the Duke of Wellington, who gained fame while fighting—and ultimately defeating—Napoleon. But while Wellington was a popular military hero, a poor orphan who turned to pickpocketing to stay alive was regarded as a pest. So, General Well’ngone’s chosen name is also ironic—he knows that respectable people wouldn’t mind if he was hanged or transported to Australia or in some other way removed from the streets of London.
You must do a lot of research before you begin writing. Just how much research do you carry out before writing your novels? What’s the most interesting thing you discovered as a result of your research?
I do quite a bit of research, and that’s actually my favorite part of the process. For the first book, I had great fun pouring over old maps of London and deciding where my characters were going to live. I also read over the records of the Old Bailey, which are now available online, to see what sorts of crimes were being committed. I did general research of the period as well, since I like to ground the stories in real events that were happening at the time. I’m always on the lookout for interesting but lesser known aspects of the era, such as advances in science and technology that can lend themselves to some sort of “white cravat” crime. And then, of course, there are all the wonderful fashions—studying the old fashion plates to get the details right is always great fun.
But while there is lots of information about the Regency, there isn’t that much firsthand information about the everyday lives of the Jewish community. I was therefore thrilled when I came across a rather ancient book by the British historian Lucien Wolf where he interviewed an elderly Jewish man who had been a child during the Regency era. Fortunately, this man confirmed that the wealthier Jews lived on Devonshire Square and Bury Street—which is where some of my characters live. But what was most amazing was the account he gave of how a Jewish holiday called Purim was celebrated. It’s the only firsthand account I’ve found (so far) that describes how a Jewish holiday was observed. Since Purim is a pretty lively holiday, I was happy to see that the Regency-era Jews went all out and had a great time.
What’s the story behind the subtitle for your blog, “From Kansas to Jerusalem, with a few stops in between“?
I grew up in Kansas—and, yes, Dorothy and Toto were my neighbors—but for a big period of my life I lived vicariously in England. I loved English history and literature, and I was in heaven when PBS started to broadcast a weekly show called “Masterpiece Theatre.” (Anyone remember the original Upstairs, Downstairs?) I finally got a chance to live in England when I did my junior year of university in London, and I’ve been there many times to visit and do research, which has helped enormously with the writing of my mystery series. But I’m very grateful that my life’s path brought me to Israel, where I presently live.
Your Amazon author page mentions an interest you have in the “crypto-Jews of Spain”. Please tell us a bit about this.
My day job is working as a journalist, and about seven years ago a Jewish magazine asked if I’d like to try writing a serialized novel. I had already written a few articles about Spain’s crypto-Jews—these were the Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Middle Ages and were then targeted by the Spanish Inquisition—and I knew that I wanted to learn more about their story. One of the amazing things I learned is that there are still communities of these crypto-Jews living in Spain and Portugal, even though the Inquisition ended in the early 1800s. My curiosity about why they are still living these secret lives—outwardly Christian, but they consider themselves to be Jews—became the starting point for my serialized novel Terra Incognita, which has since been published as an ebook and paperback. I continue to write and lecture about the history of the crypto-Jews and I’d really like to write another novel about them, but my mystery series keeps me pretty busy.
The Amazon page also says you “didn’t realize [you] were fascinated by Jewish history until long after [you] had graduated from college. What did you study in college? What made you realize you were so passionate about it?
Officially, I studied theatre, English literature and European history in college. Unofficially, I was crazy about Shakespeare and so many of the courses I took had something to do with either the plays or Shakespeare’s life and times. My big dream was to become a Shakespearian actor, but while I was studying acting in London—and seeing the plays put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company—I realized that I didn’t have it in me to be a great actor. After college, I moved to New York and I eventually did some directing. But as time went on I became disenchanted with the whole New York theatre scene and decided it was time to move on. But to what?
It was during this time that I stumbled upon a class in Jewish meditation and that opened so many doors for me. I was introduced to the Chassidic movement within Judaism, and in addition to being intrigued by the spiritual practices, which are very inner-directed, I became intrigued by the history of the movement. There has been so much tragedy in Jewish history—expulsions, blood libels, the Holocaust, etc.—but the Chassidic masters concentrated on finding the joy in life, and I found that very inspiring and appealing.
Since then I’ve been lucky to write for several Jewish magazines that allow me to indulge my interest in the daily life of Jews who lived in different places and times. Some of the topics are serious, such as the Jewish experience during the Spanish Inquisition. But my editors also give me lighter assignments, such as the history of kugel, a traditional Jewish dish eaten on the Sabbath.
Your box set of Chasidic tales sounds intriguing. What was your motivation in writing them?
The Jewish year is filled with many wonderful holidays, but most of us are so busy with work and family and getting the car repaired and the mortgage paid on time that we don’t have time to step back and prepare spiritually. Thus, we may miss out on the deeper aspects of the holidays—which are times for enjoyment but also opportunities for introspection and self-improvement. Chassidic tales, which are often the Jewish version of “wisdom tales,” are a simple but powerful way to explore these deeper dimensions.
When ebooks first came out I decided to retell Chassidic tales about the Jewish holidays—Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Chanukah and other holidays—so that people could grab a story on their ereader or mobile phone and spiritually prepare while on the go. This past Chanukah I compiled all the short ebooks into one boxed set, and now readers can download just one file and get stories for the entire year.
What’s the one question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview and how would you answer it?
Question: How does it feel to be a best-selling author?
Answer: I’ll let you know when it happens. J
Thank you so much for participating in this interview, Libi.
Here’s where readers can learn more about Libi Astaire and her work:
Libi Astaire is an award-winning author who often writes about Jewish history. In addition to her Jewish Regency Mystery Series featuring Ezra Melamed, General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane, she is the author of Terra Incognita, a novel about modern-day descendants of Spain’s crypto-Jews, The Banished Heart, a novel about Shakespeare’s writing of The Merchant of Venice, and several volumes of Chassidic tales. She lives in Jerusalem, Israel.