An interview with author Richard Behrens about Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective
How did you first come up with the concept of Lizzie Borden being a girl detective?
I happened to order a few old Nancy Drew books over EBay. My intention was to read them for fun since my sister had all of them when I was growing up and I had read several when I was in grade school. Reading as an adult, I now find them so breezy and a lot of fun, but I was surprised how much sinister stuff was in them. The older 1930s Nancy Drew smoked and actually carried a gun. This opened up the possibilities of an alternative vision of a girl detective, one drawing on the Nancy Drew model but with larger dimensions. So I decided to sketch out a spoof of the genre, just for fun.
I made up a girl detective living in the 1930s. Her father is a big attorney in town and she has a kooky house maid and sidekick pal from school, etc. But when I wrote a few pages and read it back, it seemed too much like the original, like I couldn’t spoof it because it already had that comic edge to it. The only thing I could do to make it funnier was to place it in another century.
I toyed around with a few time periods. For a while I wanted to do London during the time of Queen Elizabeth, so the girl detective could be the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Southampton and have access to people like Shakespeare and solve the death of Christopher Marlowe. But I admit I got lazy and felt it would involve too much research.
I had already been reading about Lizzie Borden and visiting the Bed & Breakfast and all that Fall River stuff was fresh in my mind. So I sketched out a girl detective in New England during the 1890s. She can solve the Borden murders, I joked.
Then it hit me like a thunderbolt. Why not make her Lizzie Borden? After writing a few pages I had myself in stiches and I knew I had hit upon something with great entertainment value. The Borden Family turned out to be a better source of satire and drama than an Elizabethan theater company.
Did you have any hope at that point of getting it published?
I felt it had great commercial potential. The title alone made everyone crack up. But it was still a few years before books like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and all those Jane Austen monster mash-ups so I wasn’t quite sure. Besides I had to write the stories first and see how they turned out. Fortunately, I had an offer from The Hatchet magazine, the journal of Lizzie Borden studies, to pursue this and had help from a few people who knew a lot about the historical Bordens. Talking to them and visiting Fall River gave me a lot of inspiration. With the great encouragement of Stefani Koorey, I began publishing the stories in The Hatchet and its sister magazine The Literary Hatchet and felt content with that for a few years. The concept was still taking shape.
What did you have to do to prepare for writing about Lizzie Borden?
I chatted up everyone I knew who had connections with Fall River or the historic house. I visited the Fall River Historical Society, studied as much Fall River history as I could, and read thousands of pages of primary source material including the murder hearings, the trial transcripts and the few books that could be historically trusted. Two of the best references are Lizzie Borden: Past and Present by Len Rebello and Parallel Lives by Michael Martins and Dennis Binette of the Fall River Historical Society. So many books out there are junk, especially the true crime paperbacks. The best book for an introductory experience is actually a graphic novel called The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary. It’s accurate, extremely well drawn and scripted.
The challenge was that I wasn’t writing about the murders, but about a time period nearly twenty years earlier. I had to really get to know the 1870s as Lizzie and her family would have known it.
You eventually progressed from short stories to novels?
Yes, the first five short stories, two of them novellas really, were published by PearTree Press in 2010 and it brought to the end the first stage of my effort. The second stage, now that I had established the characters, the setting, and had hit upon an appropriate tone, was to enlarge the fictional universe. The Minuscule Monk was a sixth short story that had grown in scope to a full-length novel. I had been reading a lot about the Kansas-Missouri border wars and it seemed as if an extended flashback to another time and place was appropriate. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote two Sherlock Holmes stories that had extended flashbacks to the old West and Pennsylvania mining towns. For half of those novels, Holmes doesn’t’ even show up. I liked the idea of having all that back story.
Why did you start Nine Muses Books?
The scope of the project had grown to the point where I needed to dedicate myself entirely to the Girl Detective. The e-book market has grown exponentially in the past few years and the traditional relationship between writers, readers and publishers has completely changed. Putting out all this material in such a short time period is an experiment, one that I hope will reach new readers and keep them amused. It also encourages me to work harder on new material.
After The Minuscule Monk, what can we expect?
There’s more short stories coming. The next novel is called The Wilmarth Immovables and it has a lot to do with Shakespeare, patent medicine, and the origins of vaudeville.
The last question I have is the obvious one. Did Lizzie do it?
Well, that’s a question for the sixth novel! I do plan to cover that.
OK, fair enough. What about the real Lizzie Borden?
I have no idea. The more I studied the crime, the less obvious it seemed. Everyone has to make up their own minds.