Book Club: Unveiling murder mysteries with author Kemper Donovan

In conversation with The Busy Body author.
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The Busy Body is the first book in Kemper Donovan’s Ghostwriter series. The Weekly spoke to the murder mystery buff about his first foray into the world of detective novels, the joys of Agatha Christie and how to plan the perfect murder.

AWW: The setting of The Busy Body, Maine, is depicted in such a detailed way. Why did you choose Maine for this murder mystery and how did you bring it to life? Have you spent a lot of time there, or did take a specific research trip to help you bring it to life on the page?

Kemper: There are two reasons I chose Maine. First, one of my direct inspirations for the Dorothy Gibson character was the Maine politician Margaret Chase Smith, who served her state for many decades as both a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator. Second, I spent a number of summers up in Maine when I was a child, and have such fond (and vivid!) memories of the beautiful woods and lakes up there. It felt like the perfect place to set a murder mystery.

What would be your dream research trip, and why would that location make a good back-drop to a murder mystery?

Well, I’ve set my second book in the Ghostwriter Series on a cruise ship… And while I’m not a big fan of being trapped on a boat for days on end (neither is the Ghostwriter), I wouldn’t say no to a research cruise for a day or two

Author Kemper Donovon The Busy Body
Buy The Busy Body now.

The Busy Body follows two sleuths, an unnamed ghostwriter, and a recently-defeated presidential candidate Dorothy Gibson. Why did you decide to create two detective characters?

I wanted to create a “detective/sidekick duo” that felt very much in the mould of classic detective fiction duos (Holmes/Watson, Poirot/Hastings, etc.), but then to put my own contemporary spin on the pairing.

At one point in The Busy Body there is a fascinating theory about how the victim was killed that harkens back to a historic case. How important is the cause of death in a murder mystery, and how much time do you devote to learning about novel forms of foul play?

I definitely engaged in a bit of “true crime fandom” by referencing the Brides in the Bath case, which was famously “solved” by the celebrity pathologist Bernard Spilsbury… Many classic crime writers such as Agatha Christie referenced true crime in their fictional stories, and I wanted to do something similar here. I think the cause of death in a murder mystery is essential! It’s a major piece of the puzzle, and while I don’t go out of my way to create outlandish modes of dying, or to focus on death itself too much, I think it’s important to use the cause of death as one of many tools for initially obfuscating, and subsequently solving, the crime.

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Did you plot out the perfect murder from start to end before you began to write The Busy Body, or did it slowly come together as you created your suspects, and their motives

I began with the central murder, and allowed the story to grow outward from there, filling it in with characters, incident, etc. I definitely hadn’t figured out every aspect of the story when I started writing, but I had a full outline of who did what and why, as it relates to this central murder.

When we’re following around Dorothy in her pantsuits, it’s difficult not to think of Hillary Clinton. What was behind the decision to drop a female presidential candidate who lost to an unnameable foe into a homicide investigation?

I was very much struck by the period of time directly following the 2016 US Presidential Election, when everyone was wondering what Hillary Clinton was doing with herself after her defeat… This was a frozen moment in time between the election and the inauguration a few weeks later, when photos of Hillary taking long walks in the woods behind her house kept popping up on social media. The moment struck me as a perfect backdrop for a murder mystery, since it was so specific, and so interesting—both on a macro level (what the country was going through) and a micro level (what Hillary Clinton herself was going through).

I should add that Dorothy Gibson owes a great deal to Hillary Clinton, but is an amalgamation of a number of different politicians…

The story references P.D. James and of course the mistress of murder herself, Agatha Christie, what other writers inspired you when writing The Busy Body?

Any writer who I have enjoyed inspired me when I was writing. That goes for mystery writers such as Tana French, whose work I adore, and classic writers from long ago like Charlotte Brontë, whose Jane Eyre will always be one of my very favourite books—a book I hold extremely close to my heart.

We don’t learn much about our ghostwriter. She doesn’t even have a name. But there are hints about her personal history, and why she doesn’t speak to her family. Will we learn more about her past as the series progresses?

Absolutely! There is a bit of a serialised mystery built into the Ghostwriter Series as to who the Ghostwriter is, what makes her tick… Not that this sets her apart from the rest of us, necessarily. I think at times we all feel like a bit of a mystery to others—and perhaps even to ourselves!

What is next for the ghostwriter?

She will be setting sail in the North Atlantic on a literary cruise partly inspired by such literary events/promotions as the Gone Girl Cruise down the Danube, and those Elin Hildebrand destination weekends… Three hundred readers are paying for a series of lectures given by writers who are experts in various genres, and the Ghostwriter will be handling Mystery… Needless to say, this cruise does not go according to plan.

The Busy Body is on sale now. Read our review here and enjoy an exclusive extract from the book in the March issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

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