Every week we feature a Q&A with one of our Crime Cymru authors so that they can tell us a little bit about themselves. This week Gwen Parrott talks about her character.
Tell us a little about Della’s background
Della Arthur is the headteacher of a small country primary school at the end of WW2 – a job she
feels nobody else wanted (particularly men returning from the forces) but that she was still lucky to get, not even having made the short list in many previous attempts. She lost both her mother and father before she was twenty, but has found a substitute family in Tydfil and Nest Owen, the parents of her late fiancée, Eifion, who died in a prisoner of war camp in the Far East. She was brought up near Swansea, and played her part during the war, teaching large classes of evacuee children and fire-watching. Her acceptance of the headteacher post in Nant-yr-Eithin, a very remote village in North Pembrokeshire, is a step in the dark for her, particularly as she arrives there early in 1947, during the worst winter ever.
The Fields of Wheat moment… What is the most rebellious thing your character has ever done?
They’re too numerous to count! Possibly, given the restrictive age in which she exists, and her Chapel upbringing, one of the most rebellious things Della does comes in Beyond the Pale, the second Della Arthur book. In the course of her enquiries, she goes to a rough pub down in Swansea docks. Being personally unfamiliar with the effects of alcohol, she allows herself to be plied with several glasses of port and lemon. The consequences are far-reaching.
One reviewer even refused to believe that a woman of her background and era would ever have gone into a pub at all! I was quite pleased to read that, as I had feared that modern day attitudes would have made her situation as a woman whose entire upbringing would have been opposed in principle to pubs and alcohol, incomprehensible to readers, and it reinforced my belief that I was right to make her do something so outrageous.
Which 3 items would your character bring to a desert island … and why?
Della would take a large machete, a tent and a fishing net. She is practical to a fault. She would smuggle matches onto the island inside her corselette, and probably a hundred and one other essential items, and you’d never know. Her rescuers would arrive to find she’d fashioned a three piece suite out of bamboo, as Ray Mears once did.
What secret does your character have?
The one thing that Della only ever admits to herself is that her engagement to Eifion, the son of her dearest friends, Tydfil and Nest, was a mistake. It’s something she can never even hint at, but she knows it would have been a disastrous marriage. Her situation, which is similar to that experienced by members of my own family, is a difficult one, as before WW2 women were obliged to give up teaching if they married. Therefore, many educated women married later than the norm or not at all. As she was already in her early thirties back then, she began to feel that time was not on her side, which led to her feeling that Eifion was the best option, or rather the only option. His death has been both a curse and a blessing. Whereas she knows that his gentle, rather lethargic personality would have grated on her in time, the alternative, namely Huw Richards the Baptist Minister of Nant yr Eithin, being his complete opposite, is a daily challenge.
What or who does your character hate most?
Della hates any kind of cruelty to children – it riles her beyond words. She teaches in the age of the cane and the strap, but she won’t have it at any price and she’s not afraid to say so.
What or who does your character love most?
What Della loves most is a puzzle, and the sense of having solved it, and having achieved justice for someone who has nobody else to seek it for them.
What does your character fear most?
A lonely old age – because she’s experienced a lot of loneliness in her life so far, and she would like it not to be permanent. She fears that she’s her own worst enemy in this respect, and that her tough, no-nonsense attitude is off-putting.
What do they consider to be their worst trait?
Her inability to get up on time. She’s forever rushing to catch up with herself.
What do they consider to be their best trait?
Determination and, consequently, the ability to do something even though she’s afraid. This same determination extends to her attitude towards corpses – and she’s well aware that her lack of fear and strong stomach is seen as something unnatural and unattractive. However, it hasn’t escaped her notice that this unfeminine trait is conveniently ignored when her assistance is required.
What is their dream?
Being respected for her work as a teacher and as a detective, and to have a significant other who doesn’t stand in the way of either. In the era in which she lives, that’s a lot to ask.
What is their worst nightmare?
As she’s faced death several times now, it would have to be powerlessness of another kind – perhaps if she was hounded unfairly out of her job.
What is their Achilles heel?
Food – particularly any kind of cake or pudding. Because of this, she is quite taken with the rations system, as it’s meant she’s lost weight since its introduction in 1940.
What traits does your character share with you?
According to my younger son, she is just like me, as we both like shopping, cooking and knitting. I notice that courage and unflinching determination don’t merit a mention in his assessment of our similarity.
Does your character have a death wish?
Definitely not. Despite the fact that those around her find it hard to understand her compulsion to get involved in potentially fatal situations, she actually moves heaven and earth to save herself and other people in danger. This is not to say that she doesn’t curse herself frequently for not foreseeing impending peril, but when the chips are down she’s inventive and can be utterly ruthless.
Is your character a secret romantic?
So-so. She is unsentimental about many things, but I suspect she feels she’s missed out on certain aspects of romantic love. Largely because of her bookish nature as a teenager, she didn’t get an early start in the courting game, which she recognises. There is also the problem of her status as a headteacher and, to be blunt, her sharp intelligence. Men who might be interested could well feel that she’s out of their league and unapproachable.
Does your character prefer animals to people?
No, she doesn’t – but there are an awful lot of people she’s not keen on either.
Is your character afraid of dying?
Yes, because she does her utmost to prevent its happening. However, you could argue that she puts herself knowingly in situations where it becomes necessary to fight for her life. In some respects, the adrenalin is important to her.
How important is justice to your character?
It’s a driving force for her – whether she recognises this consciously or not.
How important is doing right to your character?
She’s prepared to do strange things in order to do right by someone in the end. She’s quite crafty and not at all averse to a degree of subterfuge. On other occasions, her sense of behaving honourably is almost overdeveloped – in Dead White, when she stumbles across an empty farmhouse in a snowstorm, she puts money on the dresser to compensate for the food she eats.
Does your character sleep well?
Oh boy, doesn’t she just! When she does suffer periods of poor sleep, it really throws her off-balance.
What turns your character on?
Intelligence – the ability to think.
Is your character an honest person?
Very much so – financially and in other ways. But she’s not so upright that she won’t bamboozle someone in the pursuit of justice.
If your character reads crime, which author would he or she choose?
She hasn’t done so up to now – it’s just been the Woman’s Realm for the knitting patterns. I fancy, though, that she’d like the Golden Age writers – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and, of course, the great Dorothy L. Sayers.
Has your character got regrets?
Yes, she wishes she’d been a different kind of teenager, and that she’d been better looking and had more boyfriends. I suppose some of her detecting is to do with a feeling that her life has been uneventful and if she doesn’t make an effort to perk it up, it will have been wasted.
Do they believe in ghosts?
Not for one minute. Della’s experience of life is that the living are infinitely more dangerous than the dead.
If your detective has recurrent nightmares, what are they about?
After a traumatic event, she has had bad dreams, mostly about corpses sitting up and talking nonsense. Normally though, she is not a person haunted by nightmares.
In five words what describe (no more than 4):
What their friends think of them – What’s she up to now?
What their enemies think of them – That blasted woman again
Their physical appearance – Does her best, bless her!
To get some of Gwen’s books, visit her amazon page
From all the writers here at Crime Cymru, we hope that our readers are well during these crazy times.
Stay Safe out there!
10th April 2020