Snow White Red-Handed is the first in a series of new mystery novels that follows the adventures of Ophelia Flax, a young woman of Yankee origins and indomitable spirit.
Author Maia Chance manages to weave together a complex set of tropes into a unified narrative, one which includes an ensemble of characters worthy of an operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan.
The novel opens in 1867 with Ophelia and her adopted sister, Prue, stranded on an ocean liner on the Atlantic. Ophelia finagles employment with a New York family traveling to a remote castle in the Black Forest, where adventurers and academics have descended upon what could be the cottage where Snow White and Seven Dwarves once lived.
Soon after they arrive, Prue finds herself unjustly accused of murder. While Ophelia tries to clear her sister’s name, she unearths layer after layer of secrets surrounding the Snow White cottage and the denizens of the village and castle nearby. Like Laurie King’s Mary Russell, Ophelia doesn’t hesitate to buck the social mores of the time and dons a variety of disguises to investigate the mystery before her.
I caught up with Maia Chance recently to discuss her new book.
Snow White isn’t your first book. Tell me about how you got your start as a novelist.
A: I published two historical romances with Dorchester Publishing about ten years ago. That didn’t take me very far, and in retrospect it’s as clear as day why: I seldom read romances for fun. But I have always read mysteries, beginning with Nancy Drew and the John Bellairs books as a kid. So the next time I took a stab at publishing, I went with mysteries.
Ophelia certainly fits the bill as a “strong female character.” How would you describe her? Why did you choose to give her some of the characteristics that she has — such as being rather tall, thin, and not classically beautiful.
A: Ophelia Flax is a woman who has had a difficult life, financially speaking, and she comes from a fractured family. She has led a nomadic life, having supported herself as a textile factory-worker, a circus performer, and a variety hall actress when the book begins. She’s tough and smart, with a Yankee pride and a certain reluctance to discuss her own feelings. I decided that she should be tall and thin first, so she could easily disguise herself as a man and second, because in 1867 tall and thin was not considered feminine and beautiful the way it is nowadays.
I didn’t want her to be an obviously beautiful woman because I write a lot about the concept of beauty—its perception, its making, its downfalls—and also because love stories are boring when everyone is—to quote Zoolander—“really, really good-looking.” Professor Penrose does not think Ophelia is beautiful until he begins to fall in love with her, a move I modeled on Pride and Prejudice.
Are you a feminist?
A: Absolutely yes.
Ophelia and her friend are both Yankees trying to fit into European society. Their internal monologues feature a sharply different kind of vocabulary as a result. What was your thought process in choosing this method of characterization, and how did you research the colloquialisms used?
A: I love writing in Deep POV—where every word, including the narration, match any given scene’s POV character. This gave me the opportunity to create variety in tone and bring three different back-stories to the table, too. The colloquialisms were in large part pulled from my PhD reading list, since I was hatching this book while preparing for my PhD qualifying exams.
What inspired you to combine fairy tales with the mystery genre.
A: I love fairy tale retellings of all kinds, and as I said, I mysteries comprise the bulk of my escapist pleasure reading, so I smashed the two together and tried to make them stick.
I noticed that you have three characters in this novel whose size (fatness) is used to demonstrate their unlikability. Tell me how you arrived at the decision to use body size as shorthand for unsympathetic characterization. Do you think that fat people are naturally unlikable? Or that fatness is a consequence of greed and veniality?
A: No, I certainly don’t think that fat people are naturally unlikable, or that fatness is a consequence of greed and veniality. Snow White Red-Handed is populated by people in a variety of shapes and sizes, and there is no index of likability based on body composition. There are larger-sized people who are pleasant (Frau Holder, for one), as well as unpleasant characters, such as Franz, who are small in size.
That said, two characters who are described as not-thin were designed as such to work for the story. Mrs. Pearl Coop is not especially large, but she is described as thick-waisted, and there is a scene in which she is anxious to have her corset cinched as tight as possible to reduce her waist, while looking in the mirror. Here is the “magic mirror” of the fairy tale, the talking thing that provokes the woman to gaze at herself with dissatisfaction and self-loathing. Mrs. Coop is not a likable character, but she is also a victim—via corsets, crinolines, face paint, hair dye, and self-loathing—of what Gilbert and Gubar term patriarchal “mirror madness” in which a woman “kills herself into an art-object.”
The link between Professor Winkler and greed—well, that was completely by accident. Winkler was originally written as the clichéd thin, ascetic scholar (I think I had Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch in mind). But I revised Winkler to be heavy first to take out that cliché, and then as he developed I wrote him as someone who also eats with undisguised relish. I wanted him to be—borrowing Elaine Scarry’s term—emphatically embodied. Winkler’s emphatic embodiment operates in contradistinction to the anti-worldly metaphysic of fairy tales. In other words, his embodiment is meant to underscore his belief in cold, hard science rather than magic, in fact rather than fiction.
Is this the first published work that features Ophelia Flax? Tell me more about how she came to be.
A: Yes, Snow White Red-Handed is the first published work featuring Ophelia Flax. The character had an evolution, though. Before I wrote this book I wrote a draft of another mystery with an Ophelia prototype, set in England, and the story revolved around amanita muscaria (that is, fairy tale mushrooms). I’d set it in England because everyone in publishing says that European settings are a hard-sell in genre fiction. But while writing that draft, I realized that what I was really trying to do was treat fairy tales. So I started over, and put Ophelia in a quintessential fairy tale setting: the Black Forest.
This book explores issues of wealth and social class and the assumptions people make based on them. For instance, Ophelia has to elide over her history in the theater in order to secure work as a lady’s maid. And there is palpable tension between the college professors come to study evidence of Snow White’s cottage and the “backward peasants” who live in the Black Forest. Tell me more about this theme and how it figures in your storytelling.
A: The snobbery of the professors (or, in Penrose’s case, his ostensible snobbery) was influenced by more of my academic work. I wrote a paper about traces of superstition in 1850’s and 60’s American domestic advice manuals, and in the process I learned that the academics of that time period correlated traditional knowledge with both femaleness and intellectual debasement. Folklore and folk knowledge—such as medicines and midwifery—carried the taint of, basically, superstition throughout the nineteenth century. So, fairy tales—orally transmitted sub-literature, often transmitted by female story-tellers—encapsulate this weird class/gender tension. Of course, this is complicated in my novel since Ophelia is reluctant to believe that fairy tales have a historical reality, whereas the academic, Professor Penrose, secretly belives in magic.
What’s next for our heroines?
A: Their second adventure, Cinderella Six Feet Under, picks up only weeks after Snow White Red-Handed ends. Ophelia and Prue travel to Paris to find Prue’s mother and, naturally, murder and fairy tale intrigue ensue.