Barking up the Right Tree – a new cosy mystery series from the author of Geraldine Steel
By Leigh Russell
Life is full of surprises. Partial to round numbers, I always hankered after writing twenty books in my Geraldine Steel series. To begin with, twenty books seemed like an impossibly ambitious target, but now we’ve reached that milestone, my publisher has intimated they are not ready to let Geraldine go just yet. Discussions are ongoing, and I’m now thinking in terms of twenty-five books, or even thirty… Who knows where Geraldine will lead me next?
Yet even though my detective series featuring Geraldine Steel looks set to continue for a while, some time ago it hit me that my long running series might be about to come to an end. Geraldine has had a reprieve but, as Sartre put it: “several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal.” Geraldine Steel has been part of my life for fifteen years, and when I eventually lose her as my constant companion, it will feel like a bereavement.
What worried me most, when I thought the series might be ending, was the idea that I would have to stop writing the books. Contemplating a life without writing about Geraldine Steel was like gazing into the void. Somehow, the empty creative space left behind her would have to be filled. Sooner or later, I would be compelled to find another character to write about.
F Scott Fitzgerald famously said ‘You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.’ In other words, writers don’t look for stories to narrate; the stories find us. It’s a process of discovery that cannot be forced by a simple desire to write. Above all else, novelists are story tellers, and the joys and frustrations of writing lie in the struggle to do justice to a story demanding to be told. Once an idea takes hold, the writer is at times no more than a medium allowing a story to spin out on the page. Of course we employ our craft to ensure the plot works, the characters are credible, and the prose fluent, along with all the other elements that make up a successful story. But the inspiration for a story cannot be summoned at will. It just doesn’t happen like that, at least not for me.
So there I was, waiting for an idea to come along, when inspiration struck from a very unexpected quarter. I couldn’t have predicted what would happen next in my writing career, because I’ve always been scared of dogs. I can’t recollect the incident, but I learned as an adult that an Alsatian snapped at me when I was very young. That was possibly the start of a phobia that lasted for over sixty years. So my daughter’s announcement that she was getting a rescue puppy made me extremely nervous. ‘Don’t worry,’ my daughter said, with the insouciance of the young. ‘You’re going to love her.’ As it turns out, she was right.
My daughter’s puppy not only helped me overcome my fear of dogs, she also gave me the inspiration for a cosy crime series, called Poppy’s Mystery Tales. The title of the first book, Barking up the Right Tree, gives you some indication of the tone of these books, which are more lighthearted than my Geraldine Steel novels. The protagonist of Poppy’s Mystery Tales owns an intelligent Jack Tzu, an adorable cross between a Jack Russell and a Shih Tzu. This fictional dog is based on a real rescue dog, who has shown me how lovable dogs can be.
Yes, life is full of surprises. Not all of them are positive, and many are unwelcome. But the surprises life throws at us can be wonderful, and they can help to make sense of our existence. Sometimes the surprises life throws at us can take us for walks in the open air, when we might otherwise have been hunched over a desk, mourning the loss of our childhood illusion that time is on our side.
Barking up the Right Tree is published in March 2023 by No Exit Press, winner of the CWA Best Crime and Mystery Dagger Award 2019.
You can find out more about Leigh Russell and her books here.