I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest. Libi Astaire is the author of the award-winning Jewish Regency Mystery series; Terra Incognita, a novel about modern-day descendants of Spain’s secret Jews; and The Banished Heart, a novel about Shakespeare, secret Jews, and 1930s Berlin. She lives in Jerusalem, Israel.
As an avid fan of all things Austen and being hot-wired for Jewish historical fiction, I was thrilled to discover Libi’s collection of Jewish mystery novels. The Banished Heart most certainly does not take place in London’s Regency period; my heart was not all aflutter for a Mr. Darcy or a Captain Wentworth, but there is a certain Austenesque quality to Astaire’s story about Herr Hoffmann that set my heart pounding. Austen was known for her shrewd observances of communal mores. The biting social commentary within Astaire’s The Banished Heart cannot be denied. Without further ado, let’s get on with today’s author’s interview.
Host: Libi, I’m excited to hear about your new release. Please tell us all about it.
Guest: The Wreck of Two Brothers, the sixth novel in my Jewish Regency Mystery series, is about two young men who share the same name, Judah Herzveld, but different fates. One is a member of London’s Jewish community, the other is a visiting non-Jewish Dutch diplomat. When the diplomat is found murdered in London’s Great Synagogue, suspicion naturally falls upon his English namesake. But is there really some long-buried connection between the two men that has led to the fatal encounter? Or is the shared name just an unfortunate coincidence that threatens to destroy the life and happiness of an innocent man? As usual, my detective, Mr. Ezra Melamed, has only a few clues to help him unravel the tangle of lies and deceptions behind the mystery of who killed the young diplomat.
Host: Number Six? Kol Hakavod! I’ve enjoyed following Mr. Melamed throughout your previous novels. What draws you to this particular time period?
Guest: When people think of the Regency, which lasted from about 1790 until 1820, they usually think of the novels of Jane Austen. Even though Austen’s novels are wonderful, there was much more going on than young people getting married! For instance, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to make changes in everyday life, including the creation of an increasingly prosperous middle class, while the Napoleonic Wars were very much on people’s minds. So, the Regency was a time of change and social instability, in many ways, which creates lots of possibilities for mystery and intrigue.
I was also intrigued by the Ashkenazic community living in England at this time. While many people are aware there was a Sephardic community, most don’t know there was a sizeable Ashkenazic community too. So, I’ve really enjoyed researching this community and sharing this information with my readers.
Host: I appreciate authors who weave accurate history throughout the storyline. While doing your research, did anything affect or move you? Did anything come as a surprise?
Guest: I used to write about Jewish history for several publications, and I was often asked to write about the Holocaust, which is of course very sad and moving; but it’s hard to stay in that dark place for long stretches of time. I therefore looked upon my mystery series as a kind of escape. Yes, it’s Jewish history. But it’s fun! Of course, there was plenty of poverty—the vast majority of the Ashkenazic community in London was extremely poor. And there was anti-Semitism, as well as discriminatory legislation. All that is in my series. But I’ve also tried to capture the positive energy and optimism of an immigrant community on the move—hopefully upward, although some of my characters do stumble. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a mystery for my detective to solve.
Host: That is exactly what attracts me to your work and storylines. Your characters are nuanced and diverse. Do you have a favorite among them?
Guest: I started writing the series a decade ago, and there are about a dozen characters who have recurring roles in the stories—sometimes playing a major role and sometimes appearing in just a scene or two. It’s a little community, and I love spending time with all of them. Having said that, I do have a special place in my heart for my two narrators, who take turns narrating the stories—Miss Rebecca Lyon, a Regency miss who aspires to being an author, and General Well’ngone, a young Jewish pickpocket who aspires to eating a good meal by a warm fire.
Host: Have you visited any of the locations you have written about?
Guest: I’m a big believer in visiting locations you write about, and I’ve been to England several times, including a year I spent studying theatre in London. Unfortunately, many of the Jewish locations I write about no longer exist or they look very different today. For instance, the Great Synagogue was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II. Fortunately, there is an abundance of visual history from the period—maps, aquatint prints, etc.—and so I’ve been able to reconstruct some of my locations from these images.
Host: As I’m relatively new to the craft of writing novels, I am curious to know your process for putting “pen to paper.” Are you a panster or a plotter? Do you begin with an outline and know how the story ends from the get-go; or do you go with the flow, and allow your characters to lead the way?
Guest: I’m definitely a “pantser.” I do write a brief synopsis before I begin writing—and have a good laugh when I read it over after the book is finished. The kernel of the story is there, but the personality of the new characters is usually different from what I originally imagined. And then there are the characters who appear out of nowhere and end up playing an important role. I think if I knew “whodunnit” from the get-go, I’d never write the book. Part of the fun of writing the series is that I’m often surprised by what happens.
Host: Are you working on something now? What was your motivation for this new project?
Guest: I’m about to begin work on two holiday-themed novellas for a new collection of short mystery stories. I like the challenge of the novella—writing a satisfying story in less than 40,000 words—and I like the challenge of including information about the Jewish holidays without sounding too preachy. I hope to have the collection on sale around Purim.
Host: I wish you the best of luck with your projects and applaud your dedication and creativity. I’m excited to read the excerpt you’re sharing today! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thanks so much for inviting me, Mirta! Please see the links below:
You can get introduced to the Jewish Regency Mystery series for free with the first volume in the series, Tempest in the Tea Room
Excerpt from Chapter Four of The Wreck of Two Brothers:
“I AM NOT AGAINST PROGRESS,” said Mrs. Lyon, “but I do think some young women today are much too forward. I should hope none of my daughters would rush to view a dead person’s body.”
Mrs. Lyon cast a stern glance in the direction of her daughter Rebecca, who had been gazing intently at the sketch of the Dutchman’s face. It was not because Rebecca thought she knew him, but because, being something of an artist herself — as the collection of painted dishes in the breakfront in her family’s drawing room testified — she wondered how the Bow Street Runner had achieved so much with so few strokes.
Mr. Melamed had returned to his home on Bury Street, bringing with him a copy of the sketch the Bow Street Runner had made earlier. This sketch he was now showing to those still gathered in his drawing room: Mr. and Mrs. Lyon and their daughter Rebecca, Mr. and Mrs. Baer, and Daniel and Mordechai Deerfield. Esther Deerfield was upstairs in the nursery, where her son and the younger Lyon children were having a light supper.
While the servants had cleared away most of the remains from the party, the drawing room, which was usually kept in immaculate order, was still in a state of casual disarray. Those who had remained were also making themselves more at ease than a visit in that drawing room usually permitted. For while their degree of intimacy with Mr. Melamed differed, the tragedy had created a connection between them more quickly than a purely social engagement could have done. Thus, a stranger looking upon the scene could have been forgiven for thinking he was observing an extended family at rest on a long Sunday afternoon at home instead of a gathering discussing a murder.
“If you had been blessed with more sons, Mrs. Lyon, you might be more charitable,” said Daniel Deerfield, politely coming to the defense of his absent sibling. “If Eva seems unusually bold for her sex, I am afraid it is because Mordechai and I treated her more like another brother than a sister.”
Mordechai Deerfield, who had already consumed several small fish sandwiches and had now drifted back to the buffet table to see what else there was to eat, commented, “Yes, the fault, if any, is entirely ours. But in one respect I do agree, ma’am, her behavior today was odd. Eva never struck me as the fainting kind.”
“I doubt she has had a wide experience with viewing human corpses,” said Daniel.
“And I hope she does not intend to remedy her lack of experience,” said Mrs. Baer, who had assumed the duties of hostess and was busy with pouring out more tea. “I cannot think why she insisted on going to the synagogue before going home.”
“She said she had misplaced some notes she had written during the previous committee meeting, which she needed to help her prepare for the meeting tomorrow,” said Mr. Melamed, who was looking fatigued from the long day. “She thought someone might have found them and placed them in the cupboard in the upstairs room.”
“Were they there?” asked Mr. Baer.
Mr. Asher Baer and his wife were the owners of a kosher coffee house on Sweeting’s Alley. Like his wife, he possessed an abundant supply of plain common sense. That, along with his ability to think through a knotty problem with clarity, had made him a welcome confident when Mr. Melamed was confronted with some puzzling crime affecting the Jewish community.
“No, they were not,” replied Mr. Melamed. “Thankfully, the Runner accepted her explanation and allowed the Deerfields to go home.”
“I am sure that is all very well,” Mrs. Baer commented. Then, turning to Daniel and Mordechai Deerfield, she said, “But you, gentlemen, are her brothers, and you might drop a word in Miss Deerfield’s ear that now she is engaged she should be more worried about finding ways to please her fiancé than finding committee meeting notes.”
“Herzveld surely knows what he is in for,” said Daniel Deerfield. “He practically grew up in our home. By the way, sir,” he said to Mr. Melamed, “you did not mention the murdered man’s name. Is the information being kept secret, or have they not yet identified the body?”
Mr. Melamed had been expecting the question. In fact, he was mildly surprised no one had asked it earlier, while they were passing around the sketch of the Dutchman’s face. It could be explained, he supposed, because the murdered man was not a member of their community, and so no one in the room expected to know him. Therefore, the man’s name was just one detail among many — and not one of the more interesting ones. As for why he had not mentioned it, on that point Mr. Melamed was clearer. First, he wanted to know if anyone had seen the young Dutchman — where, at what time, and with whom — and for that the sketch was enough. Mention of the name would only lead to useless speculations, after a suitable period of stunned silence.
But because his son-in-law had voiced the question, Mr. Melamed replied, “It is no secret. He carried a card-case. And he was identified by an acquaintance, a Mr. Hendriks, who is a member of the delegation from Holland. His name was Judah Herzveld, and he was also part of the Dutch delegation.”
As he expected, his announcement was greeted with astonishment — looks which ranged from slightly puzzled to outright, open-eyed amazement.
“There are probably dozens of Judah Herzvelds in Holland,” said Mr. Lyon, the first to recover and break the uncomfortable silence.
“Still, it is a strange coincidence,” said Daniel Deerfield.
“It is positively ghoulish,” said his younger brother. “Almost like a ghost rising from his grave to—”
Miss Lyon gave a little gasp. For an admirer of the Gothic novel, which she was, this surprising turn of events was thrilling — almost like one of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s stories come to life! She could almost hear the iron chains, which had surely been wrapped around the poor ghost’s legs, clanging in the hallway when —
“Stuff and nonsense,” said Mrs. Baer. “If it had been a ghost, it would not have allowed itself to be killed.”
“I stand corrected, ma’am,” said Mordechai Deerfield, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “What would a ghost have done?”