Interview with Clara McKenna
It’s not easy to review a mystery series starting with book 5. There’s so much that can’t be said without spoiling the series arc for others. Nevertheless, in preparation for my latest author interview with Clara McKenna, I’m going to give it a try.
Stella Kendrick, the daughter of a rich Kentucky horse breeder, isn’t expecting to find a husband when she first travels to England in Murder at Morrington Hall, but her father surprises her. It’s the early twentieth century, and Dad has taken advantage of a highborn but cash-strapped British earl to arrange an aristocratic marriage for his only child. Despite Stella’s annoyance, she and her intended, Viscount Lyndhurst (known as Lyndy), find themselves drawn to each other through a series of murder investigations mixed with courtship and family conflicts. By the time Murder on Mistletoe Lane opens in December 1905, Stella and Lyndy are celebrating their first Christmas together. Clara McKenna agreed to chat with me, so read on to find out more about Stella, Lyndy, and their latest adventure.
This is the fifth of your Stella and Lyndy Mysteries, set in Britain around 1905. What got you started on this series?
The opportunity arose when I was having a conversation with my agent, brainstorming ideas for a new series. I expressed my desire to set my next series in England. (Not only would I get to live there in my head day after day but for authenticity purposes, I’d just have to visit.). But after much discussion, we weren’t any closer to an idea. At that point, I began describing my lifelong love affair with all things British: how I dressed up as a Victorian aristocrat for Halloween (bustle skirt and all); how I’d read every British classic I could get my hands on; my passion for the Beatles (despite being born five months after they broke up); and how, at ten, I opened a bank account for the express purpose of saving enough money to travel to England. I explained that at seventeen, I’d saved enough and spent two weeks traveling on a BritRail pass. But what struck me the most, I told him, was how different the country and culture were from my childhood expectations, both good and bad. How as an American, I’d felt so much like a fish out of water, despite the long history shared between us. That’s when my agent said to me, “Sounds like we found your next series.”
Introduce us to your heroine, Stella Kendrick. She’s an American. How does she wind up in England?
Stella’s father, Elijah Kendrick, is an ambitious, self-made man who accumulated his wealth from the breeding, selling, and racing of Thoroughbreds in Kentucky. Despite his millions, he has no hopes of obtaining the social status he desires unless he goes the route proven successful by other businessmen like real-life historical figures William Vanderbilt and Leonard Jerome and marries his headstrong daughter off to an unsuspecting British aristocrat. He finds that aristocrat in the impoverished but highly respectable Earl of Atherly’s son, Viscount Lyndhurst. Being unscrupulous, Elijah Kendrick doesn’t inform his daughter, who he knows would object to the match. So, when Stella arrives with her father in England for a wedding, she is completely unsuspecting that she is the intended bride.
Despite her family’s wealth, Stella’s home life has been difficult in some ways. Tell us a bit about her background, as revealed early on.
When Stella was young, her mother went on a trip out West and never returned. Her father, who’d been growing increasingly distant, declared Stella’s mother dead, refusing to let Stella attend the funeral; closed off parts of their home that her mother loved best; and left his daughter to the care of a string of maids, governesses, and for a short while, a sympathetic maternal aunt. When her father inexplicably barred Aunt Ivy from visiting, Stella, used only as a pawn in her father’s bid to gain power and influence, spent much of her lonely childhood among the horses her father was famous for and the kindly stable hands that cared for them.
And what should we know about Lord Lyndhurst, known as Lyndy—his background and personality, especially as it complements or contrasts with Stella’s?
Unlike Stella, Viscount “Lyndy” Lyndhurst was raised with a highly developed sense of entitlement, secure in knowing his place in the world. Heir to his father, the Earl of Atherly’s title, and compelled by duty to marry for money, Lyndy has his future well-mapped out. It has made him a bit haughty, self-absorbed, and on rare occasions hot-tempered. Yet like Stella, he yearns for the attention and love his aloof mother and preoccupied father don’t give him. Lyndy’s compassion has been limited to animals and the granny-like governess who cared for him as a little boy. Bored and frustrated with his lot in life, Lyndy throws his passion into horse racing. Then along comes Stella: kind, curious, feisty, forgiving, and as independent as a wild filly. Everything his mother is not. Bonding with her through their mutual love of horses, seeing in her a kindred spirit weighed down by an overbearing parent, Lyndy finds purpose beyond his idle pursuits, suddenly caring about someone besides himself and willing to do anything to prove himself worthy of Stella’s love.
Despite Stella’s doubts about her father’s wisdom in arranging this match, she and Lyndy do find a connection. His family, especially his mother, is a different story. How do they react to their proposed daughter-in-law?
Lord Atherly wants to pass on his title and get the cash flow needed to continue funding his fossil-hunting expeditions. Lady Atherly’s goal is to save Morrington Hall from her husband’s reckless spending and see her gardens restored to their former splendor. As an extremely wealthy heiress, Stella is a means to those ends. Period. Neither expected much. Lord Atherly, however, is happily surprised to find Stella genuinely interested in his endeavors, though he finds her brash behavior a bit odd. Lady Atherly, on the other hand, discovers that Stella is far more unruly than she could’ve imagined. With her bold questions, her habit of becoming familiar with servants and merchants, and her insistence on frequenting the stables to tend the horses herself, Stella embodies all that Lady Atherly would say is wrong with Americans. “They simply don’t know their place.”
Set up the latest novel for us, please. It opens with a young woman named Grace Oakhill. What brings her to Morrington Hall?
It’s a few days before Christmas, and Grace Oakhill, widowed by a recent outbreak of typhoid fever, is desperate. Her only source of income is the embroidered linens she can sell. To capitalize on the holiday season and get her and her two young boys through the winter, she must reach the market towns throughout the New Forest. But for that, Grace needs a horse. Hers has gone lame. Grace has heard rumors that Lady Lyndhurst (Stella) of Morrington Hall has started a charity, the Triple R Farm for Horses and Ponies, that aids ill and overworked horses while lending healthy animals to those in need. Grace prays that Lady Lyndhurst is as charitable a soul as she’s rumored to be. It’s Christmas, after all, and no one is in more need than she.
Grace, however, is not the murder victim. Who is, and how is the death discovered?
There are two victims. Mrs. Nelson, the long-time housekeeper at Morrington Hall, is discovered on snow-covered Mistletoe Lane in the early hours of Christmas Eve by Mr. Green, the new veterinarian out on a house call. The second victim (no spoilers here!) is found by Stella en route during the New Forest’s Boxing Day Point-to-Point race.
Are you already working on the next Stella and Lyndy novel? And if so, could you give us a hint of where they will go next?
I am. Murder at Glenloch Hill, the sixth book in the series, takes Stella and Lyndy to a country estate to attend the Open Championship golf tournament at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, just miles away. The book releases in 2024.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Clara McKenna writes the Stella & Lyndy Mysteries, featuring an unlikely couple who mix love, murder, and horse racing in Edwardian England. She also penned a five-part mystery series set in nineteenth-century America; founded Sleuths in Time, a cooperative group of historical mystery writers who encourage and promote each other’s work; and is a member of Sisters in Crime. Murder on Mistletoe Lane is her latest novel. Find out more about her and her books at https://www.claramckenna.com.