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Justice at last for detective series; AUTHOR and cultural historian Rebecca Jenkins has realised a dream to be at the helm of her own Regency detective series. She tells SAM WONFOR the story so far.


WHEN Rebecca Jenkins was 12, she fell in love. With the Scarlet Pimpernel. "I simply adored the books, but I ran out rather quickly," she says, speaking from her home in Teesdale.

"I wanted to expand the storyline, so I started collecting books which told me details of that period. From then on, my library has just grown with books on everything from duelling to how you build carriages.

"I wanted to have a reason to be able to put all that together and have characters walk through it."

Fast forward through two decades of working and co-writing with her father, David Jenkins (Bishop of Durham, 1984-94), together with two books of her own, and we arrive at The Duke's Agent - the first instalment of a Regency detective series, fuelled by a lifelong passion for the historical period and all its trimmings.

Published in paperback at the end of last year, the book sets out the stall for the series and encompasses murder mystery and adventure in the grandly-dressed confines of a period drama.

"I suppose I'm greedy. I wanted to do all three," laughs Rebecca, who has lived in the region - and loved it - since coming here with her father in the 1980s.

"I've always been in love with that Regency generation. They're a crossover between the enlightenment and the old world of Georgian England in the 18th Century," she says. "They're living through the great change when you get the industrial revolution and the rise of the ideas of human rights and anti-slavery and all these things.

"So it's a very exciting period and it holds the origins of debates we're still living with... things like the position of women in society, human rights and drug abuse too, I suppose, when you think about (Thomas) de Quincey and his opium eating.

"And I love the clothes," she adds with a guilty laugh.

"And the carriages, and the swords, and the horses and all the rest of it. But as well as all that, it offers such rich possibilities for stories which the modern world can feel nostalgic about, as well as offering ideas which still reflect on the things we're struggling with today."

Sounds like it's just as well The Duke's Agent is the first in what Rebecca, who is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at York St John University, hopes will be a long series.

"I must admit that I love series," she says.

"I love getting into a book and then realising there are nine more where that came from. When I read this kind of fiction, I do it to relax and I love the comfort of a series.

"Besides which, I like people and I always want to know what happened next. So I always conceived this as a real series, and an awful lot of time was spent early on developing the arc and the plot-lines which went within it.

"It has always struck me that one of the technical problems of writing series is that you can so easily box yourself in... you suddenly realise that you've completely cut your nose off to spite your face and killed off a character too early who really had useful potential," she laughs.

"Part of the reason that it took so long to really get going with this - aside from fighting to find a publisher to actually take it - was looking at how to create a series which had an arc to it between books as well as each book being self-contained. It is a challenge."

As Rebecca explains, The Duke's Agent has had a bit of a bumpy journey to the shelves.

"It's been a long, long trek," she admits. "I tell myself it's a story of endurance. It's probably 10 years since I wrote it. It came out with another publisher, who sold his list to a company who only dealt with non-fiction.

"Even though I always believed in it, and had great response from my readers, I did think it was dead."

But eventually - and after keeping herself busy doing other things, such as a biography of the famous 19th Century actress Fanny Kemble and a book about the 1908 Olympics - publisher Quercus decided to take the series on. The second book, Death of a Radical, was quickly commissioned, and will be out in October - as will The Reluctant Detective, the first of a contemporary series that Rebecca is publishing under the name Martha Ockley. But back to the novel in hand.

Rebecca is happy to provide a summary of the plot, which all unfolds in the fictional town of Woolbridge in County Durham.

"My detective is called Frederick Raphael Jarrett. He's a returning soldier who has to try to find a place at home. But just like many of the heroes of romantic literature, he has a secret, of course," she says.

"Although he is associated with an aristocratic family that treats him as one of their own, he doesn't have any status outside that family because nobody quite knows what his origins are. Having been invalided out of the army, he is sent up to check out a bit of bother in the ducal estate in the North East. It's a far-flung, isolated community. "He thinks he's just been sent to sort things out briefly and then move on because he's not really committed to staying. But he gets caught up in murder, isolation and mayhem in a community which views him with suspicion."

Although entirely possible to read this book and enjoy it as a standalone tale, it's clear Rebecca has a lot more in mind for the residents of Woolbridge. "Oh, absolutely," she says. "All the books are set there and the network of characters live there. You get to know the various people in the town as it goes on and the action will spread out around the region too.

"It's also the story of Jarrett being pulled back into civilian life in ways which he's not entirely comfortable with. He thinks he's going to move on, but gets pulled back in."

The Duke's Agent is published by Quercus at pounds 6.99.


STEP BACK IN TIME Author Rebecca Jenkins
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 7, 2010
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