Mark Pryor’s latest Hugo Marston novel, The French Widow, has the head of our Paris embassy’s security involved in a public incident where he takes down a gunman firing into the public, the matter becomes more controversial when evidence points to the man being an American citizen. He also has to deal with a murder on an estate of a family that takes dysfunction to new heights. Mark was kind enough to talk about the book and his hero.
Scott Montgomery: You have Hugo involved in a shooting that pushes him into the public spotlight. As someone you have described as “a watcher’ how does this affect him?
Mark Pryor: He hates it. He’s fine being a hero if no one knows but, as you point out, he does NOT want to be in the spotlight. That makes this plot rather mean, I know, but it’s very intentional: because Hugo is a harder person to get to know, in each book I try to drop him into a new situation, one that makes him uncomfortable and gives us a closer look at a different aspect of his character (in previous books I had him find a recording of his dead wife’s voice, for example). It also allows me to put him in conflict with his best friend, Tom, who just LOVES attention and to that end sticks his oar into Hugo’s business, purporting to make things better for his friend but actually making them worse.
SM: Once again you have him up against two different killers. How does this structure help you as an author?
MP: In this book I wanted to give the Lambourd family a reason to dislike Hugo, and while I didn’t plan it necessarily, his involvement in a high-profile incident like a shooting gave the secretive family every reason to want nothing to do with him (quite apart from protecting each other from law enforcement and consequences). I also think it ups the pressure on Hugo because whichever storyline I’m telling, the other one is hanging like a sword over his head. His attention is always being dragged away from what he’s doing toward the other thing, and I think that tension and pressure helps keep the plot moving along.
SM: There are a handful of chapters in the point of view of one of the killers. How did that decision come about?
MP: I think the only other time I did this in a Hugo book was in The Crypt Thief. Honestly, it’s just plain fun. It’s also a personal challenge to me, in that first chapter which I tell from the killer’s perspective I want to include little nuggets of information, some relevant and some distractions, that the reader can latch onto and begin to figure out who the killer might be. Mostly, though, it’s just good fun writing from the point of a view of a psycho…!
SM: The main mystery is a play on the murder on a country estate. What made you want to play in that sandbox?
MP: Several reasons, really. First, it’s what I grew up reading — Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes books, where country estates were ten-a-penny. In this case, the chateau is based on a real place, both the building and its location. Even the history of the family is taken from a real Parisian family, and I plumped on them because I visited what is now a museum but what used to be their home. It’s the Musee Nissim de Camondo for anyone who wants to look it up. Lovely house with fascinating furniture and art, and nary a tourist in sight!
SM: You have some wonderful moments with Hugo’s girlfriend (though he’s not ready to admit that) Claudia. As a writer what do you enjoy about her as a character?
MP: I like how what we think of as the traditional courting roles are reversed. Here’s the reticent, laid-back Hugo chasing the girl instead of the pretty girl chasing the handsome hunk. I think he likes it that way, too, that’s part of her attraction for him and he doesn’t really mind. I also love that she’s not dependent on him in any way, except when she wants to be — she has more money than him, a bigger house, a great job… yet she’s like him in that these things are accoutrements to her life, not part of her personality. They are both very real, honest, and strong people and they have a genuine admiration and respect for each other. Sure, there’s a physical attraction but their friendship/relationship is so much more than that.
SM: Am I reading (no pun intended) more into this or is Hugo coming out of his shell more in the previous books?
MP: I think that’s a smart observation, and a couple of people have asked similar questions, but I have to admit to that not being intentional. Maybe it’s the natural arc of a series, where the main characters reveal more and more of themselves as the series goes on, such that a point comes where the reader puts down a book feeling like they suddenly know the person better. Again, I’m not clever enough to conjure that process intentionally, let’s be clear about that!
About the Author: Mark Pryor is the author of the Hugo Marston novels The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise, The Button Man, The Reluctant Matador, and The Paris Librarian, as well as the novels Hollow Man and the forthcoming Dominic. He has also published the true-crime book As She Lay Sleeping. A native of Hertfordshire, England, he is an assistant district attorney in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.