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Elsa Hart’s ‘The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne’ Plots A Murder In 18th-Century London

St. Louis-based author Elsa Hart set her first three mystery novels in 18th-century China. Her newest one is half a world away — in a vividly rendered 18th-century London, England.

“The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne” is a classic “cozy mystery,” with all the elements familiar to lovers of Agatha Christie. The violence takes place off-stage. The story unfolds in a closed community with a limited number of suspects. And an amateur detective, often female, stays one step ahead of the reader in identifying — and confronting — the killer.

In Hart’s tale, the community is a coterie of voracious collectors, who in 1703 London were consumed with the task of filling their homes with treasures gathered from the world over. Our heroine is an amateur botanist, Lady Cecily Kay, who is a stranger to their circle, yet finds herself compelled to undo a terrible injustice.

On St. Louis on the Air, Hart said that for her, the plot always comes first. She carefully outlines each novel before she begins writing. Her goal is to craft a mystery that the reader can attempt to solve along with the detective — meaning that when Cecily Kay stays a step ahead of the reader, it’s not such a big step that the reader feels lost.

“It’s a challenge, and I hope I do it well,” she said. “But I really enjoy trying to do it. Agatha Christie has always been a huge influence on me, and the idea that at the core of the story there really is this logic puzzle, and then you overlay human motivations and personalities on top of it … it really is this very structured puzzle of a story, and I’m drawn to that.”

And, Hart noted, sometimes her characters have a mind of their own, forcing her to deviate from her outline.

“I always think I’m not going to have to, because I have this outline that I think has worked everything out,” she explained. “But of course when you try to turn it into believable characters doing believable things, I run into moments where a character I’ve created, it doesn’t make sense for them to act the way I need them to act for the plot. I sometimes do have to go back to the outline, rethink the different strands. Whole characters often get squeezed out or deleted over the course of the writing process.”

Hart is now at work outlining a sequel to “The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne,” and while it’s set in northern England, she didn’t rule out setting a future book in St. Louis — perhaps 18th century St. Louis.

“I would love to at some point,” she said. “Eighteenth century, or early 17th century, one of the ‘ins’ there would be the early Jesuits, who were traveling around in the area, like Pierre Marquett. And I had done some research about the Jesuits in China for my first three books, so that would be one sort of research inroad for me. When my mind’s not in China — or, right now, on the moors of England — I absolutely might turn to that.”

Related Event

What: Left Bank Books presents Elsa Hart

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, August 20, 2020

Where: Online, via Left Bank Books’ Facebook page

Have a question for author Elsa Hart? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the AirFacebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.