Tuesday 24 May 2016

Mystery and Mayhem Blog Tour: Helen Moss guest post

As massive fans of Mystery and Mayhem, the new Egmont short story anthology from lots of amazing writers, we're delighted to take part in the blog tour today! Helen Moss, author of one of our favourite stories in the book, stopped by to tell us about it.

The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot

The star of my story is a rather fine pineapple by the name of King George.

Desperate to marry off his elder daughter, Eliza, Lord Catchpole has invited an eligible bachelor to a sumptuous banquet. Lord Percy Ponsonby is not exactly love’s young dream (and he writes truly dreadful poetry), but his one redeeming feature – absolutely enormous wealth – makes him the perfect choice of son-in-law. 

It’s vital to make a good impression. Everyone’s on their best behaviour and dressed in their finery. The Catchpole silver and porcelain are out in force. The chef has whipped up the most fashionable French dishes and delicacies. And, for dessert, the pièce de résistance (fanfares please!) a pyramid of fruit topped with (hold onto your wigs, people!) an actual pineapple.

And this is not just any old pineapple, imported from Jamaica or Barbados, rather rotten and mushy after the long sea voyage. Oh no, this is a home-grown pineapple, raised on British soil  - or, more accurately, in British manure - right here at Catchpole Hall, in the new state-of-the-art pinery (a special greenhouse designed for growing pineapples).

And then something very unexpected happens! I’m not going to tell you what it is. That would rather spoil the surprise!

These days you’d probably be seriously underwhelmed if you were invited to a high society event and the highlight of the evening turned out to be a pineapple. I mean, pineapples are all very yummy and everything, but you can buy them for £1.00 at Tesco. You can get them sliced or chunked or crushed in tins for even less.

But The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot is set in 1761. This was long before the man from Del Monte said yes. In the eighteenth century, pineapples were new and exotic. They were bang on trend and very expensive. Showcasing a pineapple on your dinner table screamed I’m cool, sophisticated and I’m loaded with cash. Early in the eighteenth century, it could cost up to £80 (that’s £5,000 in today’s money) to grow a single pineapple. Not surprisingly then, you probably wouldn’t actually eat the pineapple on its first appearance; you’d wheel it out to show off for months.  

 ‘It [the pineapple] is commonly cut from the Plant with a long Stalk, so that it may be set upright in a Tube of Glass, to crown the Top of a Pyramid of Fruit; and whosoever once tastes of it, will undoubtedly allow, that it deserves a Place above all other Fruits...' Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening (1724)

Pineapples are a tropical fruit, of course – native to the Amazon rainforest - and fussy ones at that. The cold North European climate doesn’t suit them at all. Even if you could cajole them into growing, they take their time – up to three years for a fruit to ripen.

No wonder the very best pineapple gardeners were like rock stars! Wealthy men would vie to employ them and would plough enormous fortunes into building elaborate pineries with special furnaces and high-tech piping systems and ‘hot beds’ full of rotting manure and tanner’s bark to keep the pineapples warm. If you (or rather your gardener) managed to grow a particularly good one, you might even commission a famous artist to paint its portrait. 

Painting by Theodorus Netscher, made in 1720 of a pineapple grown in Sir Matthew Decker’s garden in Richmond, Surrey. Now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Photo from http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/picture-this-16-portrait-of-a-pineapple-fitzwilliam-museum

But if you wanted to impress your neighbours and couldn’t afford to grow a pineapple of your own, you could always hire one for the evening. Alternatively you could show your pineapple love by investing in a fine Staffordshire pineapple coffee pot or set of gateposts or silk wallpaper or, why not go totally over the top and build your own folly with a stone roof carved into the shape of a monster pineapple (as Lord Catchpole’s rival, Lord Fitchett, does in my story).

The pineapple folly, Dunmore Park, Scotland. Photo from (http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk). You can rent the folly as a holiday home.

When I was asked to contribute a story to Mystery and Mayhem, my first thought (after yipppppeeeeee!) was to write a new mystery for my Adventure Island characters. But while I was mulling that over, I was copied into an email discussion among some of the other authors about possibly writing a historical mystery.  I knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do too.
I love history. I wasn’t so keen when I was at school; it all seemed to be about wars and treaties and law reforms, with the occasional bridge or cathedral thrown in (I know it ‘s taught in much more interesting way now; this was a long time ago.) I’m much more interested in the everyday stuff; what did people eat and drink and wear and read and play? What medicines did they take? What jokes did they tell? What pets did they keep? And, being a mystery-writer, what kind of shady shenanigans did they get up to?

Georgian wigs: because who doesn’t want to wear a ship on their head?
Photo from http://mywabilife.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/18th-century-german-almanac.html
It took me only a fraction of a second to settle on the Georgian period (1714-1830) It’s one of my favourite periods of history. It was a time when horizons were expanding and knowledge was blooming. Although life was still very hard for the poor, for the rich it was all about larger than life characters and extremes in everything from fashion (you only have to look at those fabulous wigs!) to finance (gambling and speculation were rife) and food (anyone for peacock pie or a temple built out of marzipan and sugar paste?).

It was also a time of wonderful crazes and fads.  One such fad was the mania for growing pineapples. 

As soon as I’d decided on the eighteenth century, I knew I wanted to make pineapple-mania the backdrop for my mystery. It was a topic I already knew a little about (having come across it when I was meant to be researching something completely different; there’s a reason it takes me so long to get anything done!) 

All my Crime Club instincts told me that the pineapple craze was ripe (excuse the pun!) for a mystery story: 

1) There was big money involved; wherever there’s money, bad behaviour always follows!

2) There were all kinds of top-secret techniques and special tricks of the trade to growing pineapples; wherever there’s a secret, there’s always a story.

3) The pineapple house or pinery was the perfect location for unsuspecting characters to meet very sticky ends. A huge blazing furnace? Pits full of stinking tanner’s bark and rotting manure? It’s just waiting for dastardly deeds!

Staffordshire pineapple coffee pot: Black Country History: http://blackcountryhistory.org/collections/getrecord/WAGMU_E107/

As I set about becoming an expert on eighteenth-century pineapple growing (driving my family and friends to distraction by sharing my lovely new facts at all times of day and night) I considered a range of delicious plot possibilities; rival gardeners stealing each others’ top-secret pineapple-growing manuals; an unscrupulous under-gardener running a racket on the side by hiring out the master’s pineapples; a jilted lover luring his ex to her death in the pinery on the pretext of showing her his pineapples (oops, that sounds rather ruder than I meant it to!)

But, I rejected them all in favour of . . . well, I won’t tell you, as it will spoil the story! Let’s just say it involves love and mistaken identity and a giant centipede.

As I was thinking about the crime for my story, I was also assembling my cast of characters. I knew I wanted to have a little ‘gang’ of young mystery-solvers, and they presented themselves to me very quickly. There’s Catherine, the younger sister of Eliza (the poor girl who’s being married off to Percy Ponsonby), Sam, the gardener’s lad, whose job it is to live in the pinery and tend to the pineapples round the clock, and Quality, the young Jamaican footman (who arrived at Catchpole Hall in a crate of pineapple cuttings as a baby). 

Quality was inspired by paintings I’d seen of the time, in which a young black servant boy would be in attendance, often dressed up in ‘exotic’ costume (like Quality in my story – and probably, like, Quality, feeling like a prize turkey.)

Portrait of Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart, with a child, a black servant, a spaniel and a cockatoo, c. 1753, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

It is Quality who recounts the surprising turn of events when the prize pineapple is served at the Catchpole banquet. I had the best time writing this story. I hope you will enjoy Quality’s tale and have fun solving the mystery alongside Quality, Catherine and Sam.

And, now you too can be amazed by my top ten pineapple facts! Who needs Buzzfeed?

1. The first pineapple to be seen in Europe was brought back from the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus in 1496 and presented to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. It was the only one that hadn’t rotted on the journey. Luckily Prince Ferdinand liked it.

2. In the eighteenth century, pineapples were often grown in a pinery-vinery (also known as a vinery-pinery). Grape vines were planted outside the glasshouse, and then trained to grow in through a hole to create a canopy for the pineapples growing below. (Pinery-vinery is officially my favourite word of all time! I like to drop it into conversation whenever I can.)

3. In the famous eighteenth-century play, The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop muddles up pineapple and pinnacle in the line, “he is the very pineapple of politeness.” (Mrs Malaprop, by the way, is also the inspiration for Mrs Loveday in Adventure Island.)

Wendy Craig playing Mrs Malaprop in the RSC’s 2000 production, directed by Lyndsay Posner. Photograph: John Haynes/RSC
4. In 1800, an unfortunate lady called Rose Aylmer ate too much pineapple and died of a stomach complaint. She was buried (rather cruelly) in a pineapple-shaped tomb in Bombay (apparently you can still visit it; it's on my bucket list!)

5. Pineapple diets were very popular among glamorous Hollywood starlets in the 1920s and 1930s; one such was the Lamb Chop and Pineapple Diet. No prizes for guessing which two foods you had to eat three times a day! (Fresh pineapple does actually contain an enzyme called bromelain, which helps with breakdown and absorption of proteins in the stomach.)

6. In 1947 the future Queen Elizabeth received 500 cases of canned pineapple as a wedding present from the government of Australia. I wonder whether she used them to make lots and lots of these?

7. Canned pineapple (mainly from Hawaii) became very popular in the twentieth century. In the 1950s advertising campaigns included some rather delicious serving suggestions. How about Canned Pineapple and Baked Beans: ‘Elegant enough to serve to company,’ ran the strapline,  ‘Easy enough to fix just for the family.” Yum.

8. The most common pollinator of the pineapple (in the wild) is the hummingbird.

9. A pineapple is not, strictly speaking, a fruit. It is made up of 100-200 fruitlets. The individual fruit segments of a pineapple interlock in two helices, 8 in one direction, 13 in the other, each of which is a Fibonacci number (but you knew that, of course.)

10. The biggest pineapple ever recorded was grown in Australia in 2011. It weighed a humungous 8.28kg, (18.25lbs). That rather puts my mystery pineapple in the shade; King George only weighed 7lb, 2 oz.

Fruit towers topped by pineapples are still traditional Christmas decorations in Williamsburg, Viginia, USA: thebluebirdcollection-com
If, like me, you are now slightly obsessed with pineapples, do look out for the excellent source of all pineapple-knowledge; The Pineapple, King of Fruits, by Fran Beauman. Or, if you’d like more Georgian pineapple-themed mystery, there is a great (adult) crime novel called The Serpent in the Garden, by Jane Gleeson (and yes, there’s a body in the pinery-vinery . . .)

You can also arm yourself with heaps more fascinating facts – about pineapples and the eighteenth century world of my story - to entertain your family and wow your friends, by checking out my Pineapple Plot pinterest board.

Now, anyone for pineapple and baked beans?

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