Connie Berry’s third book in the successful Kate Hamilton mystery series, The Art of Betrayal, launched on June 8, 2021. Eileen Curley Hammond caught up with her recently, while Connie was busy at work on book four.
ECH: It’s been an unsettling time for everyone over the past year, and things are finally beginning to open. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Wisconsin; was that of benefit to your writing?
CB: Our cottage in Wisconsin has always been my favorite and most profitable place to write, mainly because there are fewer distractions and responsibilities. Maybe fewer ways to procrastinate? That was where my first book, A Dream of Death, was mainly written. And then there’s my desk — surrounded by windows looking out at the lake and the woods — a great way to focus and dream. One big benefit during the pandemic was the fact that where we are — Vilas County — the cases were always very low because the population is low. In the Northwoods, social distancing is a way of life!
ECH: In The Art of Betrayal, Kate Hamilton is an antiques dealer and has traveled to England to help run her friend Ivor Tweedy’s shop as he recovers from a hip operation and has the opportunity to attend the May Fair pageant. What attracted you to write about this particular fete?
CB: May Fairs are an ancient tradition in England, celebrating the arrival of spring since Roman times. When Oliver Cromwell ruled, dancing and festivities were prohibited. But in 1660 they were restored by King Charles II, including May poles and Morris dancing. Village May Fairs today include rides, games, contests, and of course lots to eat and drink.
Since one of the subplots in The Art of Betrayal involves a legendary “green maiden,” discovered under a hedge by a sheep farmer in the eleventh century, I thought it would be fun to have that pageant played out at the Long Barston May Fair. And what if a very modern body turned up in the middle of the eleventh century?
ECH: The book centers on a murder and the theft of a Chinese pottery jar. How do you choose the antiques in your books?
CB: Choosing the objects Kate will deal with is one of the pleasures of writing the series for me. I grew up in the high-end antiques trade, so very old and fine antiques and antiquities were part of my normal world as a child and teenager. In our house, objects would come and go — a life-size bust of Marie Antionette spent almost a year in our living room, for example. Later we had a two-foot-high carved ivory tankard from eighteenth-century Germany in a glass humidifier. I considered all this perfectly normal, of course. Later I found out my friends (and my future husband) thought we were a little odd.
Húnpíng jars are very interesting and extremely rare. We know they were connected with funerals, but archaeologists aren’t quite sure how. None found ever held human remains. Some are quite plain; others are incredibly detailed. Scholars believe they were personally commissioned as no two alike have ever been found. They were popular during the Han dynasty, which ruled China for four hundred years, from approximately 200 BC to 200 AD. After that, funeral customs changed and they went out of fashion.
ECH: Kate’s an American and the books take place (so far) in England and Scotland. Are there any plans to bring her home with Tom for a portion/all of a book?
CB: I had considered that — and if the series continues, Kate and Tom may visit Ohio sometime. But Kate loves the little corner of Suffolk I’ve created, and the people who inhabit the village of Long Barston have become very dear to her. These characters — Lady Barbara Finchley-fforde, Vivian Bunn, Ivor Tweedy, and others — are my main cast of characters, along with the pub owners and shop keepers on the High Street.
Since all four of my grandparents immigrated from Europe, Kate is returning the favor.
On a practical note, my publisher asked that the series be set in the UK. My books will attract readers who love that setting. The fourth book in the series, The Shadow of Memory, is set in Long Barston as well (to be released June 2022). The fifth, as yet unwritten, will take Kate to the lovely and mysterious county of Devon where Tom has business and where his Uncle Nigel occupies a country house known as Fouroaks.
ECH: Where can we find you as you promote your new book, and where can we buy it?
CB: You can find out more about me and my books at my website: www.connieberry.com. There you can sign up for my monthly newsletter, The Plot Thickens, where I share the latest news, my coming events, occasional short fiction, and sometimes recipes.
The Art of Betrayal is sold everywhere — the big booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course. But I always encourage readers to buy books from their local bookstore. In Columbus, we are blessed with The Book Loft in German Village; Gramercy Books in Bexley; Prologue in the Short North; and Cover To Cover in Upper Arlington.
ECH: Would you be willing to share an excerpt with us?
CB: I’d love to. Since you asked about the May Fair, here’s part of scene that take place on Long Barston’s village green. Kate and Tom are watching the pageant:
Some families had brought lawn chairs. Others spread blankets on the green, where sweaty, exhausted children could sleep off their sugar highs. Tom and I reclaimed our park bench and settled in. As the twilight deepened, a hand-bell choir from St. Æthelric’s entertained us with tunes from Camelot.
The Green Maiden pageant began at nine sharp. Several portable light stands illuminated the stage.
Tom put his arm around my shoulder. I leaned back against his chest.
“Look,” I said as the first actors took the stage. “There’s Vivian and Lady Barbara.”
They were dressed in rough, earth-colored woolen tunics. With her round face and stout figure, Vivian looked the part. Lady Barbara, even with a tattered shawl tied around her thin shoulders, couldn’t have looked less like a peasant if she’d been wearing a tiara. Vivian gave me a surreptitious wave as they milled with the other peasants in front of a painted canvas backdrop depicting a line of timbered houses and a stone bridge. A banner read Year of Our Lord 1044. Three musicians in medieval clothing were playing Greensleeves.
In the first act, a young man wearing knee britches and a leather jerkin dashed onto the stage, waving his arms and looking generally gobsmacked. As the peasants gathered around to see what all the fuss was about, a second man in similar clothes appeared, leading a girl wearing a faux-leather shift by the arm. Her skin was the color of moss. Seeing the green maiden, the peasants fell to their knees and crossed themselves.
I leaned over. “Where’s the dialogue?”
“It’s pantomime,” Tom whispered.
A bit of flirting between the green maiden and a peasant youth ended in a wedding when the singularly miscast clergyman—Stephen Peacock from the Finchley Arms—made the sign of the cross over them.
In the next scene, a thatched canopy was carried onstage—a cottage, I supposed. The green maiden, dressed now in a long tunic and wimple, sat with her husband at a rough wooden table. His hand grasped an oversized tankard, but he appeared to have passed out. The green maiden, producing a vial from within her tunic, cackled at the audience and poured a measure of red liquid into the tankard. Waking up, her husband swilled his ale and belched. The crowd roared with laughter. The husband stood, clutched his stomach, and staggered off stage. Immediately, a mob of angry villagers carrying clubs and ropes surrounded the cottage. Inside, the green maiden cowered. Oh, dear. Four men unfurled a length of blue cloth and waved it gradually above their heads. Rising water? When the sheet dropped, the green maiden lay dead. Four men carried her offstage.
“Is that it?” I asked. “Is it over?”
“Not quite,” Tom said. “First we get a nice speech by the lord of the manor, then the curtain call.”
The medieval lord—Mr. Cox, the local butcher—swaggered on stage in green velvet doublet and breeches, far from historically accurate, but oh, well. He gave a nice speech about accepting those who are different from ourselves. Finally, the entire cast filed out.
The crowd applauded wildly. The cast members were taking their final bows when a disturbance arose, stage left. Someone appeared out of the shadows.
The audience screamed and sprang to their feet, partially blocking our view.
A woman staggered toward the players, clutching her belly. Parents grabbed their children and their blankets and ran for their cars.
“What it is, Tom? I can’t see.”
He took my arm, and we pushed our way toward the stage. People were shouting.
She’s been hurt. Somebody call for help.
Look at the blood.
Several cast members tried to help the injured woman, but she pushed them away. She appeared to be focused on the actress playing the green maiden. Reaching out with both hands, she took hold of the actress’s tunic, nearly pulling the young woman to the ground.
The crowd parted. The front of the woman’s white blouse was soaked with blood.
Eileen, thank you for asking about The Art of Betrayal. I loved talking with you!