William S. Shepard
I was an American career diplomat, and always greatly enjoyed the mystery novel genre. From Edgar Allen Poe through the great Victorian writers, and then to the mannered interwar writers, Christie and Sayers, each had something new to add. So, for that matter, did Georges Simenon, with his Gallic twist of criminal motivation – not for him crime detection as a strictly cerebral exercise! And then, of course, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler added greatly to the development of the detective story, although I never did find out who murdered the chauffeur in “The Big Sleep!”
It seemed to me that the amateur sleuth categories had broadened, greatly expanding what was possible. We have now seen sleuths from every imaginable profession, not to exclude the clergy, Indians (both the Wild West and the subcontinent), and retrospective Roman and medieval sleuths, predating the actual invention of the detective story by centuries! The only constant was that the sleuth’s actual profession had to be interesting. Why not, therefore, have a sleuth who was a diplomat? And then, set the crimes in a diplomatic setting, the Embassy world with its receptions, glitter, and betrayals?
The thought occurred to me several times, and probably I was goaded to action one dull evening in the American Department of State, when I was Duty Officer for the Secretary of State. The Secretary was at a meeting outside the building, and so the hours passed, as I scanned various documents, deciding which would be worth his attention. Suddenly it came to me – a diplomat sees all sorts of material, from diplomatic and intelligence reports, to political documents and police reports. He would surely have an advantage over those who did not have access to such material.
Upon retiring from the State Department, I decided to try my hand at the new genre, which I have called the diplomatic mystery. The first novel in the series, “Vintage Murder,” now on Kindle, takes place in Bordeaux and Paris. Since I had served at the Consulate General in Bordeaux, I knew the territory and its politics – including the terrorist Basque ETA group – quite thoroughly.
How could this form the basis for a novel? And if it could, just why would a national police force cooperate with a foreigner, and a diplomat at that?
The first problem turned out to be no problem at all. My sleuth, a thirtyish career officer named Robbie Cutler, is assigned to Bordeaux, and is a wine fancier. The first murder occurs in Washington, at a Bordeaux Vintage Dinner, and Robbie is present. Returning to Bordeaux, he is interviewed by a French newspaperwoman Sylvie Marceau about the murder. Soon their mutual attraction and interest in solving the initial murder and those that follow lead them to join forces.
The second problem was a bit harder. I finally solved it by having the French wine estate owner who was being blackmailed contact Cutler, in the belief that it is an American who is the blackmailer. A search of the official visa records yields important information towards solving the case, and the problem of police cooperation vanished.
I became quite taken with Robbie and Sylvie and their love story. In the second novel in the series, “Murder On The Danube,” Robbie has been reassigned to the American Embassy in Budapest. To his sister Evalyn’s disapproval he flirts with the wife of a married colleague, but soon comes to his senses and is in contact with Sylvie. They meet in Prague, where she is covering the visit of President Sarkozy for her television chain, and at a famous spa, become engaged to be married. She turns out to have a better understanding of people than does her cerebral husband, and from now on, the sleuthing will be a joint avocation.
I wanted Robbie Cutler to have access to high-level information that a midcareer diplomat would simply not be able to access. Enter Great Uncle Seth Cutler, formerly an intelligence officer, and then a nationally respected school headmaster. Uncle Seth has many contacts still, and shares what he finds out with Robbie on occasion. (Somewhat to my surprise, several people who have read the series so far have told me that their favorite character is Uncle Seth!) His past becomes stage front in the third novel, “Murder In Dordogne,” when the Cutlers, now on their honeymoon, have the past thrust on them – the remains of a young woman, an SOE agent who parachuted into the Dordogne in 1943, are found. Around her neck is the silver necklace that her fiancé, young Seth Cutler, had given to her just prior to the mission from which she did not return.
Other characters round out the plots and the series. The British Consul General in Bordeaux is a colleague in the first and third novels, even lending Cutler some wine one weekend when the stores are closed (which the real British Consul General did for me many years ago). And after this thorough diplomatic grounding, at postings in Singapore (alluded to but not yet spelled out), Bordeaux and Budapest, Robbie becomes Special Assistant to the Secretary of State. In “The Saladin Affair,” Robbie helps plan the new Secretary’s initial trip to Dublin, London, Paris, Vienna, Moscow and Riga. Too bad about that murder of the American Ambassador to Dublin at her official Phoenix Park residence! But at least, Al Qaeda’s plans to assassinate the entire diplomatic party on British soil are foiled, rather at the last minute.
And so here are several of my present Kindle books. “Vintage Murder,” first in the diplomatic mystery series, is at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004X7F00Q. (“Murder On The Danube” should be available in mid-October on Kindle, with the other two novels to follow.)
My survey of the detective story, “The Great Detectives, from Vidocq to Sam Spade,” is at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00564HLHU. My thoughts on where the name “Sherlock” came from stem from a course I took at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge.
While in Bordeaux, I developed a lifelong interest in wines and wine writing. I have now published a 2011 Kindle edition of my 2003 book, “Shepard’s Guide to Mastering French Wines,” which is at http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005CRQ69A. Take a look at the free sample chapters. I hope it will lead you to explore the world of French wines and develop your own preferences – all for less than the cost of a single glass of wine!
Here’s William’s website and facebook page: www.diplomaticmysteries.com
Thank you William for a great and very interesting post. It’s not every day I host a diplomat! I like the sound of the Cutlers. I must get straight on to amazon and do some ordering.