Whenever you pick up a ‘Libby Sarjeant’ book by Lesley Cookman you know there’s going to be a murder. Not necessarily a recent one but a body will appear nonetheless and the inhabitants of Steeple Martin will be dragged into finding out ‘who dunnit’. Tantalising snippets of Kent’s history and geography are woven in along the way and I was lucky enough to catch her between edits to find out more…
Libby Sarjeant, the main character in your murder mystery series, lives in the fictional Kentish village of Steeple Martin. Your characters and settings feel so real, however, that some of your readers believe they know where the village actually is. Do any of the houses or restaurants take inspiration from real places?
The Pink Geranium in Steeple Martin owes a lot to a former Mexican vegetarian restaurant called Beanies owned by a friend of mine 20 years ago, but everything else is imagined. Harbour Street in Nethergate is imagined by many to be Harbour Street in Whitstable, but in fact its inspiration was Quay Street in Minehead, Somerset.
The 11th book in the series, Murder in the Monastary, was released earlier this year and sets Libby on the trail of a jewelled Anglo-Saxon reliquary, the missing finger of St Eldreda to be precise. You draw comparisons between your fictional Kentish Saint and that of Domneva of Minster –can you tell us a little more about her?
Ermenburga, latterly known as Domneva, was given land in Kent to build a house of prayer. This was instead of the “Wergild”, or blood money, due to her for the murder of her brothers at the court of King Egbert of Kent. Minster Abbey is the current building, while the church of St Mary the Virgin stands on the site of the original building.
The researching of an intricate family tree is also mentioned within this book – have you researched your own tree and, if so, did you discover anything unusual?
My eldest daughter started researching my late husband’s line, and found my own father’s birth certificate – which turned up a couple of surprises! Otherwise, no. I’d like someone to do it for me, though.
You have a habit of dropping fantastic titbits of history into your stories – do you have a favourite fact or tale that you’ve discovered?
I love them all! I get quite carried away by research and have to force myself to leave most of it out. It was, in fact, hearing about an exhibition about the Hop Pickers of Kent that sparked off the whole series. I particularly enjoyed researching the most recent, Murder In The Dark.
It has been an extremely busy year for you and Murder in the Dark has also just been released. I have to say this is my favourite so far and I loved discovering more about the Medway prison hulks. Were any resources particularly useful when you were researching this book?
As I’ve just mentioned, this was my favourite piece of research. Friends of mine who belong to the Whitstable Historical Society, helped, as did the booklets produced by the late Wallace Harvey. I found a piece of academic research which included a mention of the Guinea Boats, and Richard Platt’s terrific website www.smuggling.co.uk was able to expand on that. I also managed to drive round many of the old smugglers’ routes, although many of them are only navigable on foot, and some, of course, no longer exist at all.
The exploits of Kent’s smuggling gangs have also been interwoven into this story – when you start a new novel do you already have your historical hooks in place?
No! They pop up as I go along, which is why I’m very pleased that my publishers don’t demand a synopsis first!
You are now writing ‘Murder in a Different Place’ based on the Isle of Wight. Is the setting providing you with lots of new challenges?
It certainly is! The first difficulty was finding a reason for all the regular characters to go away together. I really can’t imagine Peter and Harry on a coach tour… I know the Island well, but I intend to pop over for a research trip just to make sure none of the Undercliff has slipped away recently, as it is wont to do.
And finally, for anyone else out there who is also waiting for their next ‘Libby’ fix – when will this one be released?
The print release date is next May, but I imagine Accent will release the ebook earlier, probably sometime in March.
Murder in the Dark is currently hovering at the very top of Amazon’s ‘Top Ten of British Detectives and Women Sleuths’ and the paperback version will be available from October 10th.
Many thanks for taking the time to talk to me Lesley, I really appreciate it and look forward to reading Murder in a Different Place very soon.