Please join us in welcoming Charles Todd to Book Club Girl! Charles Todd is the New York Times bestselling author of two mystery series set around World War I (a.k.a. the era of “Downton Abbey”). Here, Todd writes about how a trip to Madeira, Portugal, and a little historical research, inspired some of the details and setting for Proof of Guilt, the most recent novel in their series of books featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge.
One of the most exciting things about writing is how a book comes together. Take PROOF OF GUILT, for instance. It began on a warm day in Funchal, Madeira, that sunny, volcanic Portuguese island out in the Atlantic. We’d gone to the local museum—air-conditioned!—and there on the floor was a medallion about a German sub’s attack on the island in 1916, the middle of the Great War. Here was the germ of a great idea. But how do we get Rutledge to Madeira? That evening we did a tour of a firm where Madeira, a fortified wine, was produced. Madeira wine was imported to London and was very popular with the English, in fact was a lucrative business. There was our connection! And it’s a cousin of Port (another Portuguese fortified wine) which is what the Crawley men at Downton Abbey drink around the dinner table after the ladies have withdrawn to the drawing room. They smoke and talk politics and other subjects considered more masculine that general dinner conversation.
It’s sherry that the Dowager prefers in place of new-fangled cocktails. It was considered a proper drink for ladies. That comes from Spain. Women in that era were not heavy drinkers—wine with meals in the upper class households like Downton Abby and whisky only if they had had a serious shock or were recovering from a faint. What’s interesting is that each course at dinner had a different wine, which poor Mr. Mosley discovers to his embarrassment. And each of the wines must have a different glass. The butler had not only the silver to polish but the pudding glasses to bring up. What’s the difference in a pudding wine and the wine for the main course? It was usually sweeter.
All this is part of Rutledge’s time. The third season of “Downton Abbey” opens in 1920, with the marriage of Lady Mary Crawley and the handsome Matthew. The French family, importers of Portuguese and Spanish wines, would have supplied tables like the Crawleys. And Proof of Guilt, out at the end of January, is set in 1920. Odd to think of murder occurring in London while Lady Edith is being left at the altar. But then Bates is in prison for murder. It happened in houses like the Crawleys, and like the house of the French family. It’s fun to watch “Downton” and see it as a backdrop for Inspector Ian Rutledge’s latest inquiry. But did he drink Madeira? Or Port? Oh, yes, he was a man of his times. Since Madeira is aged, he’ll be drinking it after dinner parties for a very long time to come.