M.J. Tjia is a Brisbane-based writer. Her novella The Fish Girl, published under her real name M. J. Riwoe, was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize. Her work has been long listed for the Crime Writers Association (UK) Debut Dagger. She is the author of She Be Damned: A Heloise Chancey Mystery. This is the second novel in the series.
A Necessary Murder is the second instalment of the Heloise Chancey Mysteries. How has Heloise’s character developed since the first novel?
In the first novel, it’s established that Heloise has a certain amount of independence and wealth from her career as a courtesan. Due to the events in the first novel, Heloise has become more independent in spirit. She strains a little more against her personal situation and the patriarchal tethers of society.
As a piece of historical fiction, how much research went into A Necessary Murder?
I did a lot of the foundational research when writing the first novel in the series, She be Damned. I spent time in London and familiarised myself with the period by reading academic literature, fiction and non-fiction. Of course, the internet is also a rich source of information. I read many books about the lives of courtesans and the working-class women of Victorian London. Works by Henry Mayhew, Lee Jackson and Liza Picard were particularly helpful. I also researched the Asian population of London (which became a part of my PhD thesis). This research, regarding the Asian migrants in London, proved helpful for the second novel, A Necessary Murder. I learnt of the Strangers’ Home for foreign sailors and the boarding houses for unemployed maids from India and so forth.
What inspired the idea behind A Necessary Murder?
The murder that opens the book is actually based on the Road Hill House murder. Elements of the case can be found in numerous works of fiction. Kate Summerscale’s book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was of particular interest to me, as it investigates the murder but also outlines how the police force of the time worked.
Also, for this second novel, in which I wanted Amah Li Leen to feature more heavily, I read through news articles of the day to do with Asia. That’s how I came across news of the Sarawak massacres that ended up becoming the conspiracy at the centre of A Necessary Murder.
A Necessary Murder is an interesting fusion of historical and crime fiction, two very popular genres. Why do you think people enjoy reading historical and crime fiction?
I think readers enjoy crime fiction for a number of reasons. I think readers like the challenge of working out the puzzle that forms the narrative—can they beat the author by guessing who the culprit is before the end of the book? I also think readers like how crime fiction has a closed ending—the criminal is always unmasked, and order is returned to the (narrative’s) world. Also, perhaps in a society or world where so much is uncertain, readers know that they will find order in a crime novel.
I think that historical fiction will always be popular because people will continue to be curious about the past. Perhaps the reason for this is simply that people like to compare their present selves to how people lived in former times. There are facets of the past that readers will long for, but there are also aspects of the past that readers can be outraged by, learn from or even just laugh at. Historical fiction also allows for modern readers to consider issues that preoccupy us now, such as gender inequality and racism, but in the safe confines of the past.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished Sally Piper’s The Geography of Friendship, which is a great book about friendship, fear and how trauma changes us. I’m currently reading Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions. It’s a very moving, thoughtful book, but it’s funny too. I’m loving it.