Minotaur Books and the Mystery Writers of America introduced the winner of their annual “First Crime Novel Competition” at the 76th annual Edgar Awards Banquet on April 28 in New York City. Jess Armstrong, who lives and writes in New Orleans, won for her novel The Curse of Penryth Hall, which will be published in 2023.
“Jess impressed us right away with the lyrical descriptions and passionate characters in her novel, The Curse of Penryth Hall,” says Vice President and Associate Publisher at Minotaur Books Kelley Ragland. “Her Gothic mystery is set in 1920s Cornwall and features an unforgettable heroine in Ruby Vaughn, who must overcome the power of the village’s long-held legends in order to catch a killer. ”
Armstrong has a master’s degree in American History but prefers writing about imaginary people to the real thing. She lives in New Orleans with her historian husband, two sons, yellow cat, speckled dog and the world’s two most pampered school-fair goldfish. When she’s not working on her next project, she’s probably thinking about cheese, baking, tweeting or some combination of the above. We interviewed Armstrong by email about winning the competition, how she’s inspired by the Southern Gothic imagery of New Orleans and what she’s reading this summer.
Erin Z. Bass: How does it feel to be the winner of a “First Crime Novel Competition” from the Mystery Writers of America?
Jess Armstrong: It is such an incredible honor to have won this contest. Honestly, it’s still a little surreal. When I initially entered the contest, I knew there would be a ton of submissions and I never really imagined that my book would be the one that was chosen. So when I got the call in late March and a New York number popped up on my caller ID, I really thought it was going to end up being spam or something, but answered anyway. I was so surprised when it was Madeline Houpt (my now editor) on the other end of the line, who told me I’d won. I was completely surprised.
Since then, with each step in the process, the reality has set in and I am getting more and more excited to share my heroine Ruby Vaughn and her adventures at Penryth Hall with the world.
EZB: The title of your winning novel is The Curse of Penryth Hall. What is Penryth Hall, and why did you choose Cornwall for the setting?
JA: Penryth Hall is this forbidding and decaying manor house located in a fictional town north of Bodmin Moor towards Cornish coast. Why Cornwall? It’s funny in a way, because I think Cornwall chose me for this one instead of the other way around.
I knew right away that I wanted to incorporate folklore into the underlying mystery. I also knew that I wanted to set the story in the first few years after the first World War. To me, the time period is so interesting with the rapid changes and the tension between tradition and modernity. So as I started digging into primary sources trying to figure out exactly how to tell the story, Cornwall with its deep folk tradition and ruggedly gorgeous landscape jumped out as the natural setting.
EZB: You live in New Orleans, a city that embodies Southern Gothic. Where do you find inspiration there?
JA: It’s going to sound silly, but everywhere. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the street, by the same house that I’ve walked by thousands of times, and something will strike me and I’ll start down the “what if …” road. It might be the way the light comes through a live oak canopy and casts a shadow across the asphalt, or it might be watching the sunset from a neighbor’s porch. There’s an almost ever-present weight to living in the city, for good and bad that imbues every aspect of life and I really think that bleeds over to my writing whether I mean to or not.
In a lot of ways, for me, New Orleans is a sensory experience. It’s the scent, the feel, the taste. There’s nowhere I’ve been that feels quite the same. And there’s really no denying that it’s beautiful here, but beneath that beauty is this undercurrent of history and tragedy. It’s a duality that simmers just beneath the surface which in itself is kind of a Gothic imagery isn’t it? The hidden truths, the pain, the past. I think it’s hard to live here and not be reminded that everything has a complex past. And sometimes that past isn’t very pretty.
EZB: Your Twitter profile says you’re a “stress-baker.” What are some of your favorite things to bake, and do you think up story or plot ideas while baking?
JA: Oh gosh, everything? That’s not quite true, I don’t like making fiddly stuff— I just don’t have the patience for it. I do a lot of cakes and cookies, but I absolutely love making bread (also eating bread). Pre-pandemic I had a wild yeast starter and was making sourdoughs all the time—of course when the pandemic hit I managed to kill it. I feel like I’m the only person I know who actually stopped making bread during lockdown. I’m back at it, though. Working with dough is really relaxing for me. It’s also great for working out sticky plot points or venting frustrations. Plus kneading is a serious upper body workout. Especially bagel dough, which is very stiff. If I spend 10 to 15 minutes of tossing around 4-5 lbs of dough, it’ll get me through any plot problems!
EZB: Your novel will be published in 2023, so what are you working on next?
JA: Next up is another historical murder mystery. This one is also set in the interwar period and focuses on a lady social pages writer who secretly also runs a gossip column that targets and exposes powerful and corrupt men. Of course, her work puts her in the center of a murder investigation. So, I guess you could say it’d be along the lines of Lady Whistledown meets Agatha Christie with extra murder.
EZB: How do you plan to survive the summer heat in New Orleans, and what books will you be reading?
JA: I’m weird in that I actually enjoy the New Orleans summer. Everything is a little slower then, probably because it’s too hot to move. I spend a lot of time on my porch with a cold drink and my laptop. That being said, I’m fortunate enough to be able to get out of town and to the UK for a couple weeks this year. But I’ll be back in time for the joys of hurricane season.
As for books, I’ve been anxiously waiting on my copy of Lindsey Fitzharris’ The Facemaker. I pre-ordered it and am hoping it arrives before I leave. On the fiction side I’m always reading something—usually genre fiction—so I have an ever-growing and changing list depending on what I’m in the mood for. Though I’m particularly excited about B.R. Myers’s A Dreadful Splendor, but I have to wait until August to get my hands on that one.
The First Crime Novel Competition, which had its first winner in 2008, provides a previously unpublished writer an opportunity to launch his or her career with the Minotaur Books imprint. The winner receives a one-book, $10,000 contract. Minotaur is currently accepting submissions for next year’s award.
Jess Armstrong photo by Christy Lorio.