Michelle Cox is the author of the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, a mystery/romance saga set in the 1930s Chicago often described as “Downton Abbey Meets Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” To date, the series has won over sixty international awards and has received positive reviews from Library Journal (starred), Booklist (starred), Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and various media outlets, such as Popsugar, Buzzfeed, Redbook, Elle, Brit&Co., Bustle, Culturalist, Working Mother, and many others. Cox also pens the wildly popular, “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a weekly blog chronically the lives of Chicago’s forgotten residents. She lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago with her husband and three children and is hard at work on her next novel.
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Discussed in this episode:
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier
Henrietta and Inspector Howard Series by Michelle Cox:
A Girl Like You
A Ring of Truth
A Promise Given
A Veil Removed
A Child Lost
A Spying Eye
The Interview Show on PBS (filmed at The Hideout Bar Chicago)
My Cousin Rachel film adaptation
Get Out tea scene
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
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Daphne DuMaurier’s “My Cousin Rachel” is the story of the orphaned Phillip Ashley, whose beloved guardian, his uncle Ambrose, dies in Italy under mysterious circumstances. Convinced his uncle was murdered, Phillip meets with the mysterious widow at his newly inherited estate, only to fall under her spell himself.
Hello and welcome the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite book. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to Michelle Cox, author of the popular Henrietta and Inspector Howard mystery series set in 1930s Chicago. Michelle had a great time figuring out why this enduring gothic novel remains a classic even now, 70 years after it was published, and how difficult it is to categorize into a neat genre. If you love books packed atmospheric weirdness and tantalizing ambiguity, you’re going to love hearing why “My Cousin Rachel” is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Michelle. Welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Michelle Cox: Hi. Thanks for having me, Julie.
JS: I can already tell we’re in for a good conversation here, but why don’t you start by telling us about your reading life. Michelle, how did you come to be a reader?
MC: That’s a good question. I feel like I’ve always been a reader. No one’s ever asked me this exactly, but I remember, I was very little, I wasn’t in kindergarten yet, and I walked into the kitchen and I said to my mom, I pointed to the stove and I said, That says Magic Chef. And she said, Who told you that? I said, I don’t know. I just read it. So I don’t remember actually learning how to read. I just remember that I could read and I think it was probably because my mom read to us so much. I started reading very, very young and all through my mom took us to the library a lot. I had a, a great relationship with my grade school librarian, Sister Madeline, who was this really, really old nun that had actually taught my grandfather. She taught my grandfather, my father, and then by the time I got there, she was relegated to the library. But she was so, she just really a sweet old lady. She had so much love for books and she could tell that I really loved books too. And so she gave me the privilege on the last day of school, I was allowed to go into the school library and, and take as many as I could carry…
JS: Oh my God.
MC: … home on the bus for the whole summer, and it was such a treat. It was such a privilege.
JS: I would’ve pulled a She Hulk move. Did you just gather, all of a sudden you’ve got biceps out to here? Did you just take everything you could get your hands on?
MC: I tried, I tried so hard. And she didn’t make me check them out. She didn’t write them down. She just trusted that I would bring them all back. And then I remember when I got through with those, we would go to the library for the summer. And I said to my mom in the library, just like walking through the stacks and trying to decide what to pick, And I said, Mom I just feel like I should read the classics? Or do you think I should just read like trash, or whatever I want for the summer? She’s like, Just read trash. And I’m like, Nope. I gotta read the classics. So I only read the classics. Really. I mean, I, there were some deviations, but it wasn’t until probably after my third kid was born and my mind was just shot. And I’m like, you know what? I can’t read any more Dickens at this point, or Shakespeare. I really need something light. And that was when I first started reading contemporary fiction, which is why I’m so far behind, because I spent so many years just reading classics. So, I got to college and I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I did two years of pre-med. I kind of always wanted to be a writer, but I was too afraid. And I thought that studying to be a doctor sounded easier than being a writer. Turns out it’s true. No, just kidding. I happened to be taken a Victorian lit class my junior year and I thought it just hit me like a lightning bolt. I’m like, What are you doing? This is where you’re meant to be. So I switched my major. I did a lit major in two years, and, it just really didn’t look back.
JS: All those years you were reading the classics and not reading contemporary literature. Were you enjoying it or was it more like checking things off a list?
MC: No, I loved it. I, I just, I really loved it. I came out with a lit degree and that really set me up for analysis and all that kind of stuff. I loved it. But like I said, I started to need something a little lighter. I of course turned to historical fiction because that was something that was still set in the past but was easier to read than reading Shakespeare or something like that.
JS: You write both novels and a very popular weekly blog about Chicago, right. Can you tell us about that?
MC: Sure. I write the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, which is a mystery romance set in the thirties in Chicago, and it is based on a woman that I met in a nursing home. Henrietta, who is the protagonist, the heroine of the series, she’s actually based on a real person who had this amazing life in the thirties and forties in Chicago. And so a lot of what happens in book one of the series, which is called A Girl Like You, a lot of what happens in that book actually really happened to her. Of course, I had to invent the handsome, aloof inspector and the murder and all of that. But a lot of it really did happen. That’s also the basis of my weekly blog, which is dedicated to forgotten residents of Chicago. So, I just take a different story I heard in the nursing home and tell that story every week, and it has been hugely successful. The blog has its own following, separate from my readers of the series, because so many people just love those quick true stories of ordinary people in Chicago and what they went through, what they lived through. They’re just real gems of history.
JS: Why are you at the nursing home? Do you work there?
MC: Oh yes, I had a job there when I got out of college with a lit degree, which is pretty much useless unless you’re going to teach. and I got a job at a graphic arts firm. Lithography was the old school term, and hated it. And, then I started working as the admissions director at the Bohemian Home for the Aged and Orphans. So it was very old. Of course, there were no orphans there when I got there. But it was a very unique kind of nursing home. It had many, many, many Czech and Polish residents there. But I was spending so much time sitting with residents and listening to their stories, instead of being into my office chasing ambulances and calling up hospitals saying, Hey, do you have anybody for us? that the administratorcalled me into his office one day. I’m like, I’m gonna get fired. He’s like, Look, this isn’t working. You know what, we’re going to move you into social service. And I’m like, Oh my God, that’s my dream job. So I became a social service director, and then it was my job to sit and listen to people and try to help them and all that kind of stuff. So it was great.
JS: And hear all these stories, which then sparked your imagination.
MC: Well, first of all, I’d say to anybody out there, if you’re a writer and you’re searching for ideas, just go sit in a nursing home for about two weeks and you’ll have more stories than you could ever, ever, ever use. And one of the details from this woman had that I based Henrietta on was that, she was a 26 Girl. Apparently, that’s something that was unique to Chicago. It was a dice game that was played in taverns and there were girls, women, who would keep score, but really their real job was to push drinks. So this woman really was a 26 Girl. And so I made Henrietta a 26 Girl, and I was doing some research and I found a bar that had, once upon a time, had 26 Girls, was not too far from where the fictional Henrietta lived. The Hideout is the name of the bar, and they have a back room, where they produce a show that’s on PBS now called The Interview Show. So I’m like, I have to go to this bar even though I live like an hour north of the city. I have to be on the show; it was meant to be! So I spent three years going to this bar on and off and, and watching the show and introducing myself to the host and blah, blah, blah. And, I finally got on it. I’m like, I have to do this for Henrietta. I just have to do it. So yeah, it was a lot of stories.
JS: Now, do you remember how you found this book that we’re talking about today? My Cousin Rachel.
MC: Yeah, that’s a great, question. I like to bill my series – instead of sometimes calling it a mystery romance series, I think of it as a romantic suspense. Because the romance is very much tied to the mystery and they’re sort of both unfolding at once. But when I found out that most romantic suspense books have a cover with a guy with his shirt off, like, that’s definitely not my book. But I did a little research and I think Daphne DuMaurier is considered the inventor of the romantic suspense. And so, I’m like, well if this is what you think you’re writing, you should probably read the master of it and see how your work compares to her. So I finally broke down and read it, and I just loved it.
JS: Will you tell our listeners what My Cousin Rachel is about?
MC: It’s about this man who has a guardian who he’s very close to. He thinks of him as a father. [The guardian] goes off to Italy for his health and marries a woman, a very young woman, who claims to have some sort of connection to the family. So anyway, this is very strange to the young man, Philip, because his guardian has never been an interest in women before. And then [the guardian] suddenly writes to [Phillip] and says, Oh, by the way, I’m getting married. And then he starts to get other letters saying, she’s now my torture. She’s poisoning me. I’m dying. Please come help me. So [Phillip] dashes off and eventually she ends up coming over to England to meet him and he’s determined to hate her. But he quickly begins to fall in love with her. And so the whole story is, did she poison the guardian? Did she not? Is she guilty? Is she not? The whole novel is a huge question of who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, who really killed who. It’s fantastic. I loved it. And even at the end, you still really don’t know. You really don’t know.
JS: And I was thinking as I was reading this, that this trope of is something happening or is the main character going insane is my favorite in all of literature. It is possibly my favorite thing to read, and it is such a fine needle to thread. It’s something I’ve tried to write several times without success. It’s so hard. It’s really, really difficult because it’s so easy to tip into, Oh, he’s just nuts. And this one is so subtle. Right at the end, you’re pretty sure what’s going on, but a little bit unsure. It’s possible. That last line, I was like, Wait, what? What does that mean?
MC: Yeah, and I wonder if that would fly today. This type of novel, if it came out now, if readers would accept the sort of ambiguous ending, because that’s not, that’s not quite so popular these days.
JS: It seems to me that the last minute twist is really popular, but it, the last minute question, not so much.
MC: Exactly. Yeah. I really think that’s true. But for me, I loved it because you’re left thinking about it for days. You’re just wondering, and I think she was able to get away with this. I think she wrote this, it was published I think in the fifties, right?
JS: Yeah, I have 1952 in my notes.
MC: Right, But it is set, I think it’s the 1800s. I think that that gives her a little bit of license. I think that writing that trope that you were talking about, is something really going on or is the person insane? That’s a little bit harder, I think to write, as a contemporary novel. I think it might be a little easier to do with a historical lens,
JS: Why do you think that is?
MC: Because it’s more difficult to prove anything when you don’t have forensics and you don’t have an autopsy and all this kind of stuff. It’s ambiguous.
JS: Also, we have a totally different understanding of mental health.
MC: Yeah. Which is why, I mean, there’s a lot of mental health issues in my series as well, and it’s easier to get away with it because as you’re saying, there’s a huge misunderstanding of different mental conditions, and you as an author, you can kind of play on that and that gives you sort of a lot of license to come up with plot twist.
JS: And there’s also the gender relation aspect. Which I thought was great in a historical context because there’s we have these two bachelors living in this estate in England, and he says several times, Ambrose was his uncle, right? His guardian was never interested in women. And so I thought, Oh, I wonder what’s going on here. Are we Confirmed Bachelors? What’s going on? But then Ambrose Falls head over heels for Rachel.
JS: And then Philip, who I also thought was a quote unquote Confirmed Bachelor falls head over heels for this woman. And then I thought, I suppose in that day, you really could just be so isolated from female society. Because there were a couple of moments where you think, Come on, Philip! It’s pretty clear what’s happening here.
JS: I could also understand how he just would have no concept of how women worked at all. Like he loses his mind the first time she starts crying. He says, You have to get out of this room, because I’ve never seen a woman cry before.
MC: Right. Which is amazing. And I think there’s a line where he says that the only women that had ever been allowed in the house were the dogs, which I’m like, wait a minute.
JS: Well, and his lawyer’s daughter, who’s kind of, almost like a cousin, or a sister to him, but he doesn’t think of her as a woman at all.
MC: No. Right. Which is very weird to me. Yeah, it you wonder, could that really have happened? Could they have really been so isolated that they had no knowledge of the female sex? I guess. I mean, yeah.
JS: Well it certainly helped Rachel.
MC: Right. Twist, twist both of them around her finger.
JS: Have you read other Daphne DuMaurier books?
MC: No, I haven’t, but I bought a bunch of them after this because I loved her writing so much. I really felt like she is able to write if she were a classic classical writer. And I think that is kind of the goal, maybe, of all historical fiction writers, is to be able to sound like you actually wrote this book in the 1800s. And I think that she does an amazing job at that.
JS: Do you feel like it holds up in 2020?
MC: I do. I mean, I think it could easily be a very popular book except for the ambiguous ending. I’m not sure how that would fly these days, but I certainly liked it. And also, I mean, I’m not sure, you would probably know, being a Romance writer, all romances, as far as I know, have to have a happily ever after. I’m not sure this one does, and I don’t know if that applies to romantic suspense. Maybe you don’t have that sort of formula where you have to have a happy ending. I don’t know.
JS:, I read that she was known as a popular romance author, and she hated the term. And I can see why, because this to me is not a romance at all. In modern genre I would call it thriller. Or thriller suspense maybe? Or suspense with a romantic element?
MC: That sounds more like it. Yeah.
JS: Anything these days, any book that is classified in the romance genre, by definition, has a happily ever after. Right. Or, “HFN.’ Happy for now.
MC: Yes. Right. Which this also doesn’t.
JS: No. I don’t think if this were released now, I don’t think it would be considered anywhere near romance.
MC: Or Romantics suspense? No, I don’t. I don’t think so.
JS: See, this is what’s so great about this book. What is actually happening? Is he sane or is he not sane? You can read it either way. He’s being manipulated and taken for everything he’s got, or he is misreading everything and he’s losing his mind? I don’t know. Or she’s innocent and he really does love someone innocent and then he ruins it all. Any of those things could be true.
MC: Yeah, exactly right. But I do think you’re right. It’s not your traditional romance. It’s not about two people falling in love. It’s about the concept of romance or love, and whether as you’re saying, whether it’s really real or not. It’s fascinating. I know we mentioned the movie before we started, the recording. I did catch something at the very beginning of the movie that I didn’t remember from the book where he’s coming back from school and he’s like, I found that I didn’t like cities, didn’t like being around a lot of people, didn’t like clever conversation. And I thought, Hmm, is that setting us up for him not really being all that intelligent and being easily manipulated? But you would think having been away to school, being in a big city, he has had some exposure at least four years of the way the modern world works modern at that time. And yet he comes back and he’s almost still an innocent. So I thought that was an important detail.
JS: Yeah, and that’s kind of implied in the book as well. He says that he’s not one for conversations, and even when he starts to become infatuated with Rachel, she sits and does her sewing by the fire, and he just likes to watch her.
MC: Yes, Right.
JS: He doesn’t like when people come for dinner and she’s distracted by other company. Which is creepy.
MC: It is creepy.
JS: I just felt like I was being sort of smothered a little bit. It felt very physical to me. There were times where you just felt absolutely crushed by that house.
MC: Yeah. Not only did you have the whole thing that’s going on between Philip and Rachel, but I loved the fact that the reader is the whole time trying to figure out what happened to Ambrose. And there’s all of these great secret letters that he finds, where the uncle is saying she’s trying to kill me, and he’s trying to figure out is he insane? Even as the reader’s trying to figure out, not only if Ambrose insane, but is Philip insane?
MC: It’s just like a layer within a layer within a layer. So, you almost felt as excited as Philip did when he would find these old letters because you’re like, Oh, more of the mystery. What’s going to happen? Yeah, it was great.
JS: Bbout midway through the book, I noticed that he always used all three words. “My cousin Rachel,” every time he talked about her. “And then my cousin Rachel picked up her sewing,” “…and then my cousin Rachel ate her dinner.” And so I started underlining it. There’s one page where he says all three words, my cousin Rachel, five times on one page. And I thought it was such a masterful stroke because it was like, remember being a teenager and you had a crush on someone and you just wanted to say their name for any reason? You know what I mean? Like you just look for any reason to say that name. And then, and I saw the exact moment where it switched to him saying, Rachel. And I circled it. It was really interesting to watch the swap. at first he calls her Mrs. Ashley. And then he calls her my cousin Rachel, and he says it a lot, and then, after a significant moment, it switches to Rachel.
MC: Do you think that he was doing it so much as a way of convincing himself or reminding himself that this is my cousin? When really, it’s interesting too because he refers to her as his cousin, which she is, technically, but she’s also kind of like his stepmother.
JS: Ew. Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.
MC: But that connection is never made. And so it’s almost like, is it easier for him to refer to her as my cousin Rachel instead of my stepmother? Or is he reminding himself she’s my cousin, so I really shouldn’t go after her in a romantic way?
JS: No, because I don’t think they had that barrier in that day, and in that upper crust, English Gentry Society. Ambrose’s married her.
MC: That’s true.
JS: He was technically her cousin too. I hadn’t thought about the stepmother angle. That gives me the willies.
MC: Right. So it’s very, it’s a little bit incestuous
JS: Listener, You can’t see this, but we are both grinning madly. The second she said it’s incestuous, we both smiled really big there. It’s weird how great this complication is.
MC: I just thought it was brilliant but not overdone. It was just the right touch was perfect.
JS: Tell me about the movie, because as I was getting prepared to talk to you, it had never registered to me that there was a movie about this. Although Rachel Weiss is one of my favorite actors. There’s something so mysterious about her face and as soon as I saw that she was Rachel, I went perfect! Because she doesn’t give you everything in her face. There are certain actresses, if they were Rachel, you would know right away if they did it.But with her, I don’t know.
MC: There’s a quiet intensity to her.
JS: Perfectly said. Quiet intensity. So what did you think of the movie adaptation?
MC:, I thought the beginning, the whole backstory with Ambrose, was a little rushed. But I knew, obviously, they have to get through the whole book in an hour and a half, so fine. I thought the atmosphere, the cinematography, was great. I think they really set the stage. And I also think it was really interesting how the house itself transformed, as the movie went along, from being this big dump to being this nice place. The performances were great. But I just hated the way it ended. It was really rushed and it didn’t exactly follow the book. I mean, they tried, but it wasn’t as ambiguous, I didn’t think. So you didn’t see it?
JS: I haven’t seen it. I’m actually going watch it tonight, because I really didn’t even know it existed. And, I wanted to talk to you first, because I didn’t want that clouding my judgment of the book when I was talking to you. But I’m really looking forward to it.
MC: Yeah. Well, I hope I’m not spoiling it for you, but, I just feel like it was sort of more of a Hollywood ending where they wanted to end on a positive note. So I won’t say anymore.
MC: Yes. Right. You know, right away, don’t drink it.
JS: Well, I loved this. I had so much fun reading it and I couldn’t believe that it was so compelling. You know how frequently you read classics that were considered scandalous or giant mysteries at the time, and then you read ’em and you kind of go, Meh. I couldn’t believe how well it held up. It’s just such a great read.
MC: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I think it really stands the test of time. It’s not heavy. It’s a great read. It’s easy read, which is not always the case.
JS: So Michelle, tell me what you’re reading right now.
MC: I’m actually just finishing this book, which I know your listeners can’t see. It’s Kate Atkinson, Life After Life, and it is a fantastic, fantastic book. I don’t want it to end. It’s about this woman who, she’s born in 1910 and she keeps dying and coming back. So it’s like she keeps repeating her life over and over until she gets it right. So the first chapter starts in 1910 when she’s born, and the first chapter is only a few paragraphs long because she dies in birth. So that’s life number one.
JS: Oh my gosh.
MC: So then you turn the page and it’s 1910 again, and it’s the same scenario, only one little detail, like the doctor didn’t get stuck in the snow on the way to the house, so she made it. And then she ends up dying at in the sea when she’s three and then it starts all over again. But one little thing has changed, which prevents her from drowning. But the way Kate Atkinson just writes this book. I mean, I am just in awe of her writing because every reiteration I, I mean … if she just wrote the same thing, it would be so boring. But she changes it so much and she puts in so many different details in every iteration that it’s just so well done. So that by the time she goes through the war and all this kind of stuff, you just feel like you know this family so well. You know so many aspects of their life because she shows so many different things each time. It’s really amazing. It’s, it’s just so well done.
JS: Oh, that sounds great.
MC: Yeah. Definitely pick it up.
JS: I’ve read her book Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which is my older daughter’s all time favorite book. And she kept pressing it on me and I kept going, Ah, that doesn’t sound like something for me. And I finally read it and it was one of those books that I couldn’t believe it took me that long to read. It’s weird, it starts with this woman narrating her life literally from the moment she’s conceived. Which sounds weird, right? But I think she’s one of those writers where you can hear that premise and go, Kate Atkinson can do this. I’m gonna trust her with this one.
MC: For sure.
JS: As you were describing that book you’re reading I was thinking if it had been anyone else but Kate Atkinson, I might say, Oh, that’s gonna be boring. But because I knew you were talking about her, I was thinking, Oh, I bet That’s so good.
MC: It’s very good.
JS: Okay. I’m gonna pick it up.
MC: Do it! And I’ll pick up this one.
JS: Okay, good. We’ll have a Kate Atkinson party. Good?
MC: That’s a great idea.
JS: Yeah. Okay. Will you tell my listeners where they can find you online?
MC: Oh sure. you can just go to my website and you will find the blog and all of the weekly stories, and you will find all my social media buttons where you can click and connect with me across the channels. And please sign up for my newsletter because I do huge giveaways every couple months. I’m talking like iPad, a set of books, a set of luggage, jewelry, scarves. I put together this gigantic prize package and one lucky subscriber wins.
JS: Oh my gosh. You’re really giving away the good stuff,
JS: Super. Okay, thank you. Well, this has been so much fun talking to you. I feel like I found a new reading pal, and I hope you will come back anytime you have a book you wanna tell me about. This has been a blast talking to you.
MC: Yeah. Thank you. I’d love to come back.