My Inspiration: Fiona Veitch Smith – The Crystal Crypt | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Crystal Crypt is the sixth book in the Poppy Denby Investigates series written by Newcastle author Fiona Veitch Smith. Nobel Prize winning scientist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin inspired this latest work, which is set in 1925 and sees the intrepid reporter turned sleuth travelling to Oxford to investigate the murder of an up-and-coming female scientist who is found dead in a basement laboratory. 

It is available in print and eBook from 19th November, and audio book from 4th November. Here, Fiona tells us more about the inspiration behind previous works in the series and her latest book…

As an author, one of the most common questions you are asked is: where do you get your ideas? That’s a hard question to answer, as my creative antennae are constantly tuned for inspiration, and ideas come from lots of different places and in different ways. However, looking back there are often spark moments I can say, yes, that’s when I first started thinking about it.

With the first book in the Poppy Denby Investigates series, The Jazz Files, it was while I was in Morpeth, laying flowers on the grave of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died throwing a scarf onto the King’s horse, at the Epsom Derby in 1913. I remember musing: what if I write about a suffragette detective investigating the murder of some of Emily’s associates? I like to think, perhaps, that the ghost of Emily was whispering in my ear.

The second book, The Kill Fee, came from reading a book about the survivors of the Romanov family fleeing the Russian Revolution and coming to London and Paris. The book mentioned that the family were carrying ‘rolled-up Rembrandts and Faberge eggs in their luggage’ and I wondered what might happen if my reporter sleuth, Poppy, met some of the Romanovs in London and if a Faberge egg were stolen.

The third book, The Death Beat, set in New York, had a more contemporary spark. I was watching the news about the first wave of refugees fleeing the Syrian war in boats and was reminded that this was not the first or last time in history something like this had happened. I looked back at the refugees fleeing Eastern Europe after WW1, many of them heading to America, and saw so many parallels with today.

The fourth book was inspired by news about artefacts at the British Museum being claimed by their original owners. The fifth, by a visit to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, as well as a murder in my own family history.

A radio documentary about Nobel Prize winning scientist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was the inspiration for the latest book, The Crystal Crypt.

Set in 1925, The Crystal Crypt sees my intrepid reporter sleuth travelling to Oxford to investigate what first appears to be the accidental death of an up-and-coming female scientist who is found dead in a basement laboratory. 

When I was finishing writing the fifth book, The Art Fiasco, set in Newcastle, I was wondering where Poppy was going to go next. I had BBC Radio 4 on in the background and Melvyn Bragg was talking about Dorothy Hodgkin, the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. 

She had been overlooked for years for the Nobel Prize, until eventually, a few male scientists who were appalled that she had never been honoured, applied pressure for her recognition.  The headline in the British newspapers the next day was ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel Prize’ – I was absolutely outraged when I heard this, so I had to stop what I was doing and listen to the rest of the story.

During her lifetime Hodgkin was extremely influential in the development of 20th century medicine including confirming the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin and when I discovered she had a basement laboratory in Oxford in the 1920s it was too much of a temptation to resist. The laboratory was in the basement of what is now the Science Museum on Broad Street where she and her colleagues worked on experiments involving X Ray crystallography.

That suddenly got the creative juices going and the plot of a murdered female scientist in a basement laboratory in Oxford in 1925 was born.

I began writing The Crystal Crypt back in December 2019 and was fortunate to be able to visit Oxford for research before the national lockdown began in March 2020, and then again, with the lockdown partially lifted, in August. When I was there I became aware that my story was set in the same city where one of the Covid vaccines was being developed by a team led by Professor Sarah Gilbert.

Suddenly my idea about these female Oxford scientists who had been overlooked and not championed or fully appreciated in their lifetime took on new meaning as we started hearing the name of Professor Gilbert and her team more frequently on the news, while she and her colleagues were being lauded (Professor Gilbert now has her own Barbie doll!) and sadly derided. But they were definitely not being ignored. It hit me how far female scientists have come from being overlooked back in Hodgkin’s day, to seeing this amazing woman and her team, including men, working toward a lifesaving vaccine. 

It seemed appropriate that I finished writing the foreword for the book in March 2021 with a slightly sore arm, because I had just had the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine. It was a physical reminder of these amazing women of science that I wanted to celebrate with this book. Poppy would be so very proud.

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