The Ghost of Christmas Past by Rhys Bowen is not all fuzzy and happy. There is a sinister atmosphere of sorrow that is also a part of this story. As Christmas is approaching the characters must overcome their own set of heartaches that revolve around losing a child. But thankfully, the spirit of Christmas rings through and the ending is one that will put a smile on reader’s faces.
Because of a disaster in the previous book, Time Of Fog And Fire, the main character, Molly Murphy, sacrifices her body to save her husband. This book begins in December 1906 where Molly feels the despair of having recently miscarried because of her physical hardships. Now, instead of spending Christmas in their home her husband, Daniel, accepts an invitation to spend the Christmas holiday at a mansion on the Hudson with his mother. Not long after they arrive, Molly discovers that the hostess Winnie’s moodiness is based on the disappearance of her daughter ten years ago on Christmas Eve. Molly is able to sympathize with Winnie and is spurred on to investigate the mystery behind the daughter disappearing. As Molly and Daniel investigate this Cold Case they realize that the mansion occupants are not completely forthcoming.
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Elise Cooper: You have been writing a lot this year?
Rhys Bowen: I already had written two books this year. But my editor asked if I could write a Christmas book. I thought about it and came up with a Molly Murphy story about a little girl who walks out of her house and disappears into the snow.
EC: Molly seems to be in a dark place at the beginning of this book?
RB: Gloom threatened to swallow Molly up. She is carrying this self-incrimination and grief of losing a child after she miscarried. She is stretched to the brink and is battling depression. When she and her family went to the countryside to celebrate Christmas with her mother-in-law and her friends, Molly found a comrade in arms. The hostess, Winnie, had also lost a child, but under mysterious circumstances. This allowed Molly to have empathy for her and to delve into how the child disappeared. This is why I put in the quote, ‘Too lose a beloved daughter. It is an ache in the heart that never goes away.’
EC: The holiday season is not completely cheerful?
RB: Holidays are stressful for people who lose a loved one. I can sympathize with that because my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I flew over to be with her in Australia on Christmas Eve and actually missed Christmas Day because of the date line. A part of me will always associate Christmas with that call that says you need to come right now. I can understand what Winnie goes through every Christmas as she has this grief while others celebrate.
EC: But you also show the joys of Christmas?
RB: Yes. I do love an old fashioned Christmas. I also loved writing about it with the big tree, candles, extravagant food, and the family sitting around the fireplace talking and playing games together. Just think there were no TVs, no videogames, and no cell phones. I wanted to write about the suffering and the celebrating, especially since I experienced both.
EC: It is interesting how we try to put our 21st Century values into different eras. You explore it with Molly’s husband Daniel who takes charge of the family and at times makes decisions without consulting Molly. Please Explain.
RB: Since I am by nature a feminist I try to have all of my stories show what it was like during a particular time. I do get letters saying ‘I hate Daniel. He is such a chauvinist.’ But for this time period he is actually a good guy because he is very tolerant. He could have forbid her being friends with Sid and Gus who he dislikes. We must remember in the early 20th Century the husband was the master and the ruler of the household. The wife’s job was to make it a nice cozy place for him and the children.
EC: You also point out the culture of the time?
RB: Yes. I put in this quote, ‘He could move so much more quickly with his trousers tucked into his boots than I could with all those layers of petticoats and skirts.’ A woman was expected not to work after marriage. Women could not vote and in New York State a woman could not own property. If you would drop into New York City in 1906 you would recognize the buildings and see displays in Macy’s windows. You might feel quite at home; yet, half of the population there could not vote.
EC: Different time, different culture, different values?
RB: This is a challenge for an historical fiction writer. You want to show people as they were in the time, but not repugnant to the modern reader. In one of the earlier Molly books, I dealt with China Town. I had to put a disclaimer in the book saying ‘you will find the attitudes towards the Chinese to be very offensive, but I am showing the actual attitudes toward them at those times.’
EC: It must be nice to write about this time period where there was no technology?
RB: Yes, there are not challenges. In a sense there is an advantage, but also a disadvantage. The detective has to use powers of observation, deduction, and intuition because the forensic tools are not available.
EC: Please explain this quote, “The world is not kind to mothers of illegitimate children.”
RB: In one of my other Molly books, The Family Way, she pretends to be an unmarried woman. She goes to a home to find out what happened to the unwed mothers living in Ireland. The difference between married and unmarried is life and death. This is still going on today in Ireland. The women had to work in the laundry and were allowed to breast feed their babies for a few months. Then the babies were taken away and given up for adoption. These poor girls did not know where their babies went. It seems so unfair that the woman is punished and the man never is. He is able to take no responsibility and can live a normal life.
EC: What is the role of Christmas?
RB: I was able to create an ideal Christmas that we all long for. We all have this idea of the snow, a sleigh ride, the big roaring fire, playing games, and singing Carrols around the tree. We do not have the simplicity of Christmas anymore. I fantasized the Christmas I would really like with the warmth.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
RB: It is a stand alone called The Tuscan Child. I guess I am most intrigued by missing children. This book’s plot has a WWII British airman’s plane shot down over Italy. He is badly injured and is hidden by a local woman. It will take place in two time periods, during WWII and in the 1970s. After he died in the 1970s his daughter finds a love letter written to the woman in Italy saying, ‘don’t worry our beautiful boy is hidden.’ She goes to Tuscany to find out what happened.
Check out the first Molly Murphy Mystery (book 1) over at Goodreads!
I was born and raised in England but currently divide my time between California and Arizona where I go to escape from the harsh California winters
When I am not writing I love to travel, sing, hike, play my Celtic harp.
◊ Best Novel (2001): Murphy’s Law
Reviewer’s Choice Award
◊ Historical Mystery (2001): Murphy’s Law (less)
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