TORONTO (CNS) — British-American writer Janet Quin-Harkin, better known to her many readers as Rhys Bowen, recently returned to her California home from Las Vegas, where she collected yet another writing award in the crime/mystery genre.
It’s the latest accolade in this prolific novelist’s work that has given life to a number of fascinating characters, whose stories unfold on both sides of the Atlantic and over several eras of the late-19th and early 20th centuries.
Bowen’s books have won 11 major mystery awards to date, with no sign of slowing up. The author turns out up to two new titles a year, while still finding the time to travel, research new plot outlines, and participate in parish life at churches in California and Arizona.
“This is definitely a full-time job,” Bowen said in a recent interview with Catholic News Service. “I do a lot of research ahead of planning a new book, then write every day until a first draft is finished. I’m also on the road doing book signings and speeches, so I am very busy.”
Before ramping up her fiction writing career, Bowen worked in the drama department of the British Broadcasting Corp. in London and, later, for the Australian broadcasting system in Sydney. She eventually made her way to the San Francisco area, where she has resided since 1966.
“I have belonged to St. Isabella Parish in California for 40 years and now spend my winters in Arizona, where I belong to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale,” Bowen said. “We usually go to Mass when we travel all over the world. I sing in the choir at both, and am a eucharistic minister.”
For Catholic readers, perhaps the most interesting character created by Bowen is Molly Murphy, heroine of the same-titled series of books set primarily in New York at the turn of the 20th century. In the opening books of the series, Murphy is an independent, tough-mined single woman looking to start a new life in America after emigrating from the Irish old country.
Murphy is romantically linked with Daniel Sullivan, a captain with the New York police force who becomes an unofficial partner in her home-based crime solving business. Though clearly fictionalized, the Molly Murphy stories are like historical flashbacks of early 20th-century real-life events, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, the 1905 Ninth Avenue train derailment, and in a change of locale out west, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
But it is old New York that serves as the settling for most of Bowen’s Molly Murphy fiction.
“It started with a visit to Ellis Island, which made me feel such an emotional connection,” Bowen told CNS. “I made my heroine an Irish immigrant as I am a fellow Celt and my husband is half Irish, hence I have good insights into the character. Since book one, ‘Murphy’s Law’ (2001), I have explored many facets of immigrant life in New York. There are so many great stories to tell.”
In addition to the Molly Murphy series, Bowen has produced two separate bodies of fiction. The Evans series details the life and work of police constable Evan Evans in the Welsh countryside, and the Royal Spyness series, set in the 1930s, follows Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie (Georgie), a much-distant and near-penniless heir to the British throne.
The Royal Spyness books feature the character Darcy O’Mara who, like Daniel Sullivan in the Murphy series, is romantically linked to the heroine. O’Mara, however, is Roman Catholic, and his subtle wooing of Georgie is complicated by the British monarchy’s attitude toward Catholics ascending to the throne.
“Our heroine wants to marry him, but she is related to the royal family, in the line of succession and, as such, is forbidden to marry a Catholic (in 1930),” Bowen said. “He can’t see renouncing his faith. We’ll have to see where that leads in future books.”
As to the central question, is Bowen a “Catholic writer” or a writer who happens to be Catholic, Bowen has a ready response: “Oh, definitely I’m a writer who happens to be Catholic. However, I hope my Christian set of morals are present in my characters’ search for justice.”
Her Molly Murphy character, for example, frequently refers to herself as a bad example of a Catholic, someone who has turned her back on the faith teachings of the Irish priests and nuns who guided her as a young girl. Despite being somewhat estranged from the faith, however, Murphy never fails to call on it in times of crisis. The first book of the series describes a fearful first night on Ellis Island, the clearinghouse for so many immigrants to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century: “I very seldom prayed, but I prayed now. Holy Mother, let it be over soon. Get me out of here safely and I’ll say Hail Marys every day for the rest of my life.”
And as Murphy’s character matures and gains confidence in the ways of New York life, there is still a stubborn reliance on some Catholic essentials. The 2015 book, “Away in a Manger,” has Murphy praying the rosary after a health scare: “And I did find it (the rosary) comforting. Maybe I had stayed away from the church because of my unhappy experiences with priests and nuns, and my hostility had nothing to do with God. Maybe he had been there, unchanging, all the time.”
Critics are usually impressed with the historical detail and true-to-life atmosphere that Bowen weaves into her period pieces.
“I write historical novels, so the moral issues I tackle are those of the past,” she said. “I believe that my religious background drives the sort of things I am prepared to write about and those I will not tackle.”
Bowen has a place for the Catholic faith as a motivating factor for some of her characters, but that does not mean her heroines are all paragons of virtue. Some of her books show Catholic characters behaving in the worst possible way, such as her 2012 work “Hush Now, Don’t You Cry,” which reveals a priest as a murderer. But to Bowen, these plot devices and characterization have their place.
“What I wanted to show was at one time, children were sent into the priesthood and religious life who had no vocation for it and who found themselves trapped in a life for which they were not suited,” Bowen explained. “If you had 10 children, it was usual to expect several daughters to become nuns, at least one son to become a priest. And the harsh conditions of some orders caused weak natures to crack and warp.”
As a storyteller who draws on real events for much of her narrative art, she is not averse to injecting some hard realities.
“I am writing fiction,” Bowen said. “My aim is to show life as it really was — to take the reader to a time and place, not to preach.”