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After 35 years as a teacher-librarian, Laraine Stephens decided that it was time to throw off her pink twinset, tartan skirt, string of pearls, sensible shoes, and 400 denier tights to find out what life was like on the other side of the bookshelves.

By Laraine Stephens

The inspiration for writing is often drawn from one’s own passions and experiences. When I started writing THE DEATH MASK MURDERS, I was working as a volunteer guide at the Old Melbourne Gaol. I’ve always been fascinated by history, architecture and, I have to admit, crime and punishment. Being a teacher can do that to you!

Stepping off the streets of Melbourne into the 1852 cellblock is like stepping back into the past: three storeys of bluestone walls, gray slate floors, barred windows, and the scaffold with its original hanging beam from 1865. Within the cells are the death masks, crafted in plaster, capturing the physical appearance of the departed, frozen in time. They are eerie, grim, yet fascinating, representing those who met their deaths swinging at the end of a rope.

Is it any wonder that my experience of the Old Melbourne Gaol influenced me to write THE DEATH MASK MURDERS?

In the Old Melbourne Gaol, the creation of the death masks was inextricably bound up with the theory of Phrenology, which was popularized in the 1800s. It was the belief that character traits and mental faculties could be deduced from the shape, or contours, of a person’s skull. Simply put, it postulated that the brain was divided up into individual organs that controlled different parts of one’s personality. For example, if there were a prominent lump in the skull in the area of “Benevolence,” then that person would be expected to be kind and gentle.

Conversely, if a person exhibited criminal behavior, the part of the brain called “Benevolence” would have shrunk, whilst “Destructiveness” would have enlarged, pushing out the skull. Thus, death masks were made of executed criminals to prove that Phrenology could predict criminal behavior.

The seed of an idea for my debut novel was sown. What if the psychopath in THE DEATH MASK MURDERS had developed a fixation with death masks and created them as “trophies” of his victims? And the theory of phrenology suggested to me yet another theme for my novel: could a person be born evil?

I had the outline for the plot, but needed to embed it in a time and place. My approach, I believe, is unconventional, in that I research particular years for interesting and special events, manmade and natural disasters, economic and political upheavals and the nature of society at the time. In the case of THE DEATH MASK MURDERS, I decided on the year 1918, in the dying days of the Great War.

I found a wealth of material associated with the Great War that I could draw on for the setting, characterization and action of my novel. In Australia, a country which had a population of 5 million in 1918, 400,000 men enlisted, of whom 60,000 died and 160,000 were wounded. The trauma of shell shock (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder), and the dreadful effects of a loss of a generation of men on those who were left behind, were represented by my protagonists, Max Rushforth, a psychologically damaged ex-soldier, and Emma Hart, a young woman grieving for her fiancé, who had died in battle.

And now for one of those peculiar quirks of fate.

In 2004, my husband and I were travelling around France. On a whim, we decided to visit The Somme, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War. We found a hotel in Albert, in Northern France, and stayed there for a few nights, using it as a base to visit the memorials, cemeteries and remains of the trenches, where many Australians fought and died. It was only when we returned home that I looked carefully at a locket and a badge that I had been given on the death of my grandmother. The badge belonged to my grandfather, Jim Basham, who served with the Australian Imperial Force in France. In what was an amazing coincidence, the badge depicted the belfry of Albert’s basilica, which was destroyed in 1918. Furthermore, the locket, which he had sent to my grandmother, contained tiny postcards of Albert, on the back of which were inscribed the words: “To Elsie, with love Jim B, 14/3/17.”

My grandfather had been stationed in Albert, some ninety years earlier. A connection, across the years, had occurred. Truth is stranger than fiction!

Hopefully, the passion that I have for History has been communicated in my writing, depicting a particular time and place, and social mores, authentically and accurately. However, inspiration is not enough.

Writing historical crime fiction requires extensive research. In my case, I depended heavily on digitized Australian newspapers from the war years, to flesh out the background detail of my novel. Information, on current events, war news, automobiles, cinema, popular dances and music, furniture and decoration, architecture, public transport, product brands, prices and clothing, was readily available from these sources. Digitized newspapers also assisted in discovering whether certain words and expressions were used in that time period.

A word of caution. When writing historical fiction, and not just historical crime fiction, the background and setting should never overwhelm the plot or the characterization. Readers buy novels with the expectation that they will enjoy a cracking, good story, rather than drowning in a reservoir of information.

Postscript: Okay! I didn’t wear twinsets, pearls, thick tights, or sensible shoes, but I did do the occasional ‘SSShhh!’


Laraine Stephens lives in Beaumaris, a bayside suburb of Melbourne, Australia. With an Arts degree from the University of Melbourne, a Diploma of Education and a Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, she worked in secondary schools as a Head of Library. On retirement, Laraine decided to turn her hand to the craft of crime writing.