Jacaranda’s Commercial Director, Cynthia Hamilton, caught up with author Paula Lennon, author of Murder in Montego Bay, to get the lowdown on writing, reading and what to expect from her debut crime caper in Jamaica! Read the full interview with Paula Lennon below:
Murder in Montego Bay really delivers as a deft and entertaining police procedural. What one thing do you feel makes it stand out from the crowd?
If I can pick only one thing, it would be the language. Everybody speaks in either English or Patois or a mixture of both, which is very much what you would hear from day to day in Jamaica. The Patois is light enough for non-Jamaicans to easily follow and is meant to enrich the dialogue.
The uneasy relationship between Jamaican Detective Raythan Preddy and Scottish Detective Sean Harris adds considerable tension and moments of humour throughout the book. What was the inspiration for this odd couple pairing?
I do love watching buddy cop films and wanted to create a pairing of my own. Detective Preddy needed to have a considerable thorn in his side, but another Jamaican would not quite do the trick. A newly-arrived foreigner on the other hand was bound to make him suspicious and wary. The question then became where this nemesis should come from. I eventually settled on Scotland, because I like their varying dialects as much as ours. One thing I was keen to avoid though, was letting a foreigner get the better of the locals which tends to happen too often in fictional portrayals.
Speaking of humour, was the mixture of crime and comedy important for you? (It certainly works!)
Even a fictional murder is a sad thing, but the idea of having miserable detectives did not appeal to me and I didn’t think it would appeal to the readers either. There are more than enough hard-smoking hard-drinking detectives falling down in dark alleyways out there. I wanted my book to be something that you could read on the aeroplane or on the beach and chuckle without getting all nervous and depressed about crime.
People unfamiliar with Jamaica may be largely unaware of its cultural diversity, or its lingering racial and class biases. Was it important to you to depict these realities?
I can’t pretend that the book offers a history lesson, but I did think it important to mention that everything is not as it seems. The mantra “Out of Many, One People” is often repeated, yet for most Jamaicans there is definitely a sense of “dem” and “us.”
Patois is almost like another character in the book and seasons the tale like a nice piece of escovitch snapper! The first words uttered are the laugh-out-loud ‘A whe de rass’. Was that deliberate?
Well, yes! Start as you mean to go on, I say. It is a sentence frequently muttered to reflect incredulity, much in the same way that the English say “What the hell.” And it basically means the same thing. Most Jamaican phrases that are said in Patois can easily be translated into English, but they can lose effect in translation. For example, “What do you keep calling my name for?” does not have quite the same ring as, “A whe you a call-up call-up me name so fah?”
I felt the female characters in the book showed differing kinds of strength. From the no-nonsense Spence and Rabino at the station, to Preddy’s self-sufficient girlfriend, Valerie. Were strong female characters a deliberate consideration when you planned the book?
Yes, definitely. The female detectives certainly needed to hold their own as law enforcement is pretty much a male dominated field. Spence is very sharp both in her work and her remarks. Rabino is a character who opts for diplomacy more often than not, but, like most people, will change if the situation calls for it. With Valerie I thought it important that Preddy had a partner in the same line of work. He needed someone to bounce things off and who was more likely to understand the unrelenting pressures of policing.
Many crime writers admit to having more fun with their shadier characters. Was this true for you?
It was great fun to invent the suspects and devise the red herrings, but what I enjoyed most was making Preddy suffer – which is strange since I’m his biggest fan! He is not the sort of person to stay down though, no matter how many times he gets hit. It was great to be able to show his strength and tenacity.
Though the Pelican Walk team are close-knit and efficient you don’t shy away from the systemic struggles of poor resourcing and toadying at the top. Any idea what the Jamaican police force might make of this depiction?
Lack of resourcing is widely known, I’m afraid, so police officers will not learn anything new. There is a lack of people on the ground combined with working conditions that need improvement. Theirs is not an easy vocation. Our Minister of National Security recently urged qualified Jamaicans to join the JCF, so we would expect to gradually see improvements all round. As far as the people at the top are concerned, I would guess that the fawning and kow-towing happens in every country not just Jamaica.
Food plays a significant role in the book, especially as the murder victim is heir to the fabulously named Chinchillerz iced desserts empire. Flavours such as tamarind guava or sorrel with ginger sound yummy. Are these made up or did you indulge in some ‘hands-on’ research?
Jamaica is blessed with an abundance of delicious fruits and vegetables. Some culinary pairings depicted in the book are figments of my imagination. I don’t even like the tangy taste of tamarind. Where fruits are concerned mangoes and pineapples are big favourites with me. Sorrel and ginger is traditional here in Jamaica as a drink, though I’ve never seen it as an ice-cream or yoghurt flavour. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist though as food entrepreneurs are experimenting all the time.
I assume you’re an avid crime reader yourself? Which authors keep you hooked?
I do love to read crime and mysteries: Agatha Christie, PD James, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Cornwell and Colin Dexter. I also love cozies like Alexander McCall Smith’s lady detective series. My tastes in literature are quite wide though. For me good stories are good stories whatever the genre. My bookshelves contain Anthony Winkler, Velma Pollard, Pamela Mordecai, Carolyn Cooper, Olive Senior, Erna Brodber, Kei Miller, Marlon James, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chigozie Obioma, Chinua Achebe, Edwidge Danticat and Elizabeth Nunez, as well as Yann Martel, Mark Haddon, Irvine Welsh and George Orwell.
Is there anything you feel you learned or would tackle differently following the editorial process? (Basically, was Laure gentle with you??)
Hah! Next question. I certainly learned a lot. I thought that an author wrote a manuscript, sent it to a publisher, they said “yes” and a book was printed. When the manuscript came back decorated with plenty of red and blue plus two separate pages of notes I blinked a good few times! Who told these good folk my work was for the adult colouring book trend? I wondered. We probably did three rounds of thorough editing, but the finished product was undoubtedly worth it. Laure learned a lot of Patois too and clearly rose to the challenge.
Are there any characters you’d look forward to developing further?
Preddy will soon learn that Sean Harris is in no rush to return to Glasgow! To quote the Jamaica Tourist Board “Jamaica: Once you go, you know.” The two men will just have to learn how to work together, however painful that might be. The learning curve will be steep, and I hope considerably entertaining for the readers.
So, what might be next for Preddy, Harris and the rest of the Pelican Walk team? A Killing in Kingston? A
Poisoning in Port Antonio? A Beating in Buff Bay? Do tell!
Well, although there are fourteen parishes in Jamaica, the city of Montego Bay is in the parish of St James. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your perspective – St James provides the team with more than enough murders to investigate. Their investigations are always likely to take them into other parishes from time to time, but Preddy certainly has no plans to uproot. Or should I say Commissioner Davis has no plans to uproot Preddy, yet.
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