Now what could be nicer than snuggling up with a mug of tea and a cosy mystery? Preferably it should be a book that centres on your favourite beverage – yes, you guessed it! We’re talking about tea – poisoned tea. That is the concept in a crime novel I’ve just read, Death by Darjeeling by Laura Childs.
Although Childs herself lives in Minnesota with her professor husband and two Chinese shar-pei dogs, she has set her series of ‘Tea Shop Mysteries’ in the coastal town of Charleston, South Carolina, a historical port city settled by the British in 1670 and named for King Charles II (who incidentally called coffee a ‘hell brew’). The American civil war started there in 1790. Charleston’s other main claims to fame are the 1920s ballroom jazz dance style named ‘charleston’ after the city and the fact that it is the setting for the popular opera (and movie) Porgy and Bess. A tourist city with a population of some 120,000, it is a place where one wouldn’t expect violent crime. But it seems that murdering or being murdered is a favourite pastime among tea drinkers there!
At least in popular fiction. Our protagonist is Theodosia Browning; she grew up on a plantation in South Carolina and worked in advertising, before she chucked up that career in her mid-30s to start her own tea shop in a quaint building in the historic district of Charleston. Due to its hoary history, Charleston is suitably atmospheric with plenty of old churches, spooky graveyards, colonial homes and quirky antiques shops lining picturesque streets. The surrounding area is also home to the oldest and largest tea plantation in the USA.
Theodosia’s popular Indigo Tea Shop, near the famous St Philip’s Church in Church Street, is described as featuring more than one hundred varieties of tea from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, Africa and even South Carolina in glass jars, a maple cabinet with a collection of antique tea pots, plus, of course, merchandise like designer pots and cups, Theodosia’s own line of whimsical ‘Tea Shirt’ branded t-shirts, and tasty teatime treats like freshly baked scones and croissants – in short, a tea lover’s heaven.
She runs her shop with the help of master tea blender and heritage enthusiast Drayton (who always wears a bow tie), the gossipy baker extraordinaire Haley, and young beautiful shop assistant Bethany. Plus a cute therapy dog named Earl Grey (with whom Theodosia visits old people’s homes to cheer them up). But disaster lurks around the corner. At what is meant to be a festive do in a heritage home, which they’re catering at, one particular guest happens to gulp down a poisonous brew of Darjeeling tea laced with something terribly toxic.
The police investigate and it doesn’t help that the murdered man, Hughes Barron, was a dubious real estate developer who planned to take over a heritage building in the historic district and give it a makeover. Not the most popular man in town, in fact many locals appear to have reason to wish him dead, yet the police zero in on Bethany who happened to be the one who served Barron at the tea party. Theodosia has no option but to try clear her friend and employee by cracking the case herself – because what’s even worse is that her tea shop’s reputation has taken a bad hit and her regulars are keeping away.
Apart from the sleuthing and trouble brewing alongside each cup of tea, what makes the book fun is the discussions on tea, the merits of this variety as compared to that, how to steep some particularly obscure tea or to make your own blends (some of which Childs imagines up herself, such as the ‘Holiday Blend’ of black tea flavoured with dried cranberries, oranges and Indian spices), and so on. Each book ends with a recipe from the Indigo Tea Shop and in the one I read it was for how to prepare ‘Theodosia’s Tea-Marbled Eggs’ which is a nice, summery hors d’oeuvre! Incidentally, if you go to Laura Childs’ own website you will find a section with plenty of useful links to all things tea related – including instructions for how to fold a tea napkin in 27 different ways.
Following the success of Death by Darjeeling (published in 2001), New York Times bestselling author Laura Childs has published a series of tea-themed detective novels with titles such as The English Breakfast Murder, Chamomile Mourning, Steeped in Evil and Ming Tea Murder. Just released is her 17th tea mystery, Devonshire Scream. Curious to know more, I decided to ask Laura Childs a few questions.
Hi there Laura, India calling! Here we drink a lot of tea all the time, so cheers! How did the idea for your Tea Shop Mystery series come about?
‘My very first editor had an idea that was basically “a snoopy lady who has something to do with tea.” I ran with that concept, created my main character Theodosia, dropped her smack dab in the Indigo Tea Shop in Charleston, then wrote two snappy chapters and a forty page outline for the first book, Death by Darjeeling. Oh, and just to make sure my editor loved it, I added a tea shop dog named Earl Grey.’
Did she like it?
‘She did love it. I’ve since written seventeen books in the Tea Shop Mystery series.’
So Death by Darjeeling was your first novel. How come Darjeeling seemed like the right cup of tea for a fictional killer?
‘The title just sounded nice – a bit of alliteration. Then I went on to write Gunpowder Green, Shades of Earl Grey, Jasmine Moon Murder, Oolong Dead, Scones and Bones . . . well, you get the idea.’
Was there any real life inspiration: a murder case or something you had heard of?
‘No, the poison just seemed like a nice touch for my very first Tea Shop Mystery. I’ve since strangled people in The Teaberry Strangler and drowned them in Agony of the Leaves and come up with all sorts of nasty ways to kill people and kick off my stories with a bang.’
Charleston, SC, seems to have inspired you a lot, too.
‘Charleston is one of those grand old cities that’s filled with history and mystery – it’s highly atmospheric. You have the enormous mansions along the battery, fog rolling in off the Atlantic, spooky little alleys that twist and turn through the historic district, haunted cemeteries, nearby marshes and swamps, and some very old money families with nasty skeletons in the attic.’
That’s just wonderful! Are there any films or TV shows coming up based upon your Tea Shop Mysteries? I imagine the combination of Charleston’s historic district and tea pots might be visually fabulous!
‘The Tea Shop Mysteries have been optioned by an L.A.-based production company that wants to turn them into a TV series. But who knows? These things take forever to come to fruition!’
I saw in an interview you gave that Theodosia and the Indigo Tea Shop are purely fictional. But how much of yourself have you put into the main character and her way of thinking, about tea, for example?
‘There’s a bit of me in Theodosia in that I’ve been an entrepreneur as well. I was CEO of an ad agency for twenty years and I’m a very take-charge person. As far as tea goes, I’m curious and love to experiment, just like Theodosia does in my books. I’m never going to turn down a cup of tea – I’ll always taste it and try to learn something.’
Do you yourself dream of running a tea shop perhaps? Or maybe a chai stall?
‘Oh no. I’m a professional writer and plan to continue doing that for many more years. Besides, you have to be careful what you wish for – you know?’
Hmm . . . There is something about books and tea that go well together. And to think of a murder mystery that contains lots of tea . . . superb idea! What sort of response do you get? Do people ask you for your best tea blends and all kind of technical stuff?
‘I mostly get questions about the characters. To many of my readers, tea shop owner Theodosia, tea sommelier Drayton and the superb baker Haley are very real people. They want to know more about them and what they’re going to be up to next. And readers always worry that I’m going to kill off Earl Grey, the dog, which I would never do. I also get lots of questions about recipes. If a particular crab salad sandwich or cat head biscuit is mentioned in chapter three of Sweet Tea Revenge, they want to know exactly how to make it!’
Could your genre be called tea cosy?
‘The Tea Shop Mysteries are definitely cosy mysteries. They’re action-packed, but the murders are not grisly or overly sensational. The books are basically a kinder, gentler mystery.’
Moving on to another subject, how would you describe the best cup of tea you ever had in your life?
‘One of my best tea memories is from Kyoto, Japan. After visiting Kiyomizu Temple – built in the 1600s upon a lovely mountain – my husband and I wandered down a narrow, winding street filled with all sort of tea shops – some 400 years old. We went into one shop and ended up sipping hot green tea and eating wafer-thin cookies and slices of baked yam. It was fantastic!’
Wow. So what do you think: Is tea sexy – or stodgy?
‘Tea is very sexy. Mick Jagger drinks tea, so do Helen Mirren, Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, and David Beckham. And then you’ve got your upper crust tea drinkers from India, Pakistan, China, and even the UK. Remember how fascinated viewers were with Downton Abbey?’
Have you ever been to India? Assam, Darjeeling, Nilgiris?
‘I’ve not yet visited India. It’s on my travel “to do” list. I’d love to visit a few tea plantations, especially the ones in Darjeeling. That area in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains really appeals to me!’
If you do come, would you consider writing a tea murder mystery set in some Indian plantation?
‘I think an Indian plantation would lend itself to a fantastic murder mystery! It’s old world and exotic, with lots of appeal. You could bring in lots of other elements, too – international traders, jewels, tigers, all sort of exciting things. But the plot and characters would probably be more exotic than what I’m doing now. So Zac, maybe you should work a tea plantation into one of your fine detective novels!’
Thanks Laura, I’ll make a mental note of that and meanwhile hopefully many of our readers will find that your books are just their cup of tea!