Penny Wanawake was the first black female protagonist in crime fiction. Was it easy to get her accepted by readers in the 1980s?
The Penny series was received enthusiastically by the great discerning British reading public! There was never any discrimination of any kind, especially because the reviews were so ecstatic – this was back in the happy days when all the major newspapers and magazines, both intellectual and popular, took crime fiction seriously. So most weeks a paper like the Sunday Times or the Observer would devote part of their Book Pages to reviewing crime novels.
It was much harder to get Penny accepted anywhere else, though eventually the books were published in the States. There were even film options, though they were never taken up. Most of the rest of the world remained indifferent,more's the pity. The point about Penny Wanawake was that she was the first female protagonist who was feisty, witty, humorous and confident, as well as being beautiful. Nor did she need a police contact to help with the solutions to the murders. Much of the wit depends on clever punning and literary references, and many of her comments and reactions were considered hilarious by the readers, but remained untranslatable.
If you were ‘creating' Penny for the first time today, would you change her at all?
If I changed her, she wouldn't be Penny, would she? But neither would I create her today. We live in a far more complex world than the one into which Penny strode thirty years ago, though she remains as amusing and clever as she always did. Which is why I'm so pleased that go-ahead publishers Williams & Whiting have seen fit to reissue the entire series, giving a new set of readers the chance to get to know her.
Have you had to make any/many changes to your original book to fit in with contemporary society?
I did tone right down her somewhat liberated attitude to sexual encounters (I originally intended her to be a sort of female answer to James Bond and his type!) after the first two or three books, because the scourge of AIDS appeared on the scene. Otherwise, I believe she stands as tall now as she did then and we felt that no changes were required
Do you think crime fiction, and female protagonists in particular, have changed over the years?
Definitely. There were very few female protagonists when I started writing, Miss Jane Marple of St Mary Mead was the principal character – and almost the only one the average reader had ever heard of, which is why the Sunday Times originally instituted a competition to find a new and original protatgonist for the genre. Now, there are outstanding female protagonists all over the place – Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Washawski, are prime examples.
As for crime fiction itself, years ago Dorothy Sayers stated that the genre would die out because there was no place for it to go, every option had been explored. How wrong she was! The genre has become increasingly gritty over the years, while at the same time new and ingenious methods of human disposal abound in all kinds of sub-genres, such as psychological, historical, 'cosy', police procedural and so on.
How does it feel to have your book republished over 30 years on?
Absolutely brilliant! I'm so delighted that Mike Linane, the dynamic CEO of W&W, decided to start his company by taking her on and treating her so well, with new and eye-catching covers, and new introductions by me. It's like welcoming home a long-lost and beloved relative.
What can you tell new readers about your Penny Wanawake books?
I'm often asked about the genesis of Penelope Wanawake. It began when I found myself living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the Sixties. This was at the beginning of the civil rights movement, when at last people were waking up to the unjustices of a system which allowed the rights of the black population to be ignored. (As, I'm afraid, they are still being).
Those were the years of civil disobedience as exemplified by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus so a white person could have it. She wasn't the first to decline to do so, but she became an important symbol of the movement. Then came the atrocious killing of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi. In Oak Ridge, black people couldn't buy a house in a 'white' area. They couldn't swim in the same public pools ort sattend the same schools. My husband and I joined the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and held several meetings in our house. The Klan came into town, their faceless hoods a terrifying sight calculated to strike fear into the heart. We were watched.
Came the day we were sitting – with the blinds down – in our sitting room when we noticed a weird light shining from outside. We peeked out and discovered that a cross was burning on our front lawn. This was seriously scary stuff. Even more so was the incident when I pulled up at traffic lights, heavily pregnant and with my toddler in the back. Suddenly, a jeep screeched to a halt alongside me and when I looked over at it, there were four grinning rednecks staring at me, each one of them with a rifle across his knees, pointing at me.
When I got back to England, creating the character of Penny seemed almost an obligation.
About Susan Moody
Susan Moody's Penny Wanawake series – reissued by dynamic new publisher Williams & Whiting – propelled her into the ranks of crime-writing some thirty plus years ago, where she's happily remained ever since. In that time, she's produced more than thirty-five books, mostly crime, including a second series character called Cassandra Swann (soon to be re-published by W&W), plus many stand-alones and short stories. She's served as Chair of the Crime Writers Association, President of the International Association of Crime Writers, Visiting Fellow at the University of Tasmania, Visiting Fellow at the University of Copenhagen, Writing Tutor at HMP Bedford. She recently founded the hugely successful one-day crime fiction event, Deal Noir, in Deal, Kent, and will be hosting our third one on 25 March 2017.
About Williams and Whiting
Williams & Whiting is a new publishing company formed by Mike Linane who is also co-organiser of the Deal Noir and Bodies From The Library crime fiction festivals. Williams & Whiting plan to not only re-issue many traditional crime novels from the last forty years but also to sign debut authors of both fiction and non-fiction. Mike says “I’m open to all ideas. For us, the important thing is that the book must simply be a thumping good read. Besides the Penny Wanawake Mysteries by Susan Moody, Williams & Whiting plan to publish another twenty titles this year.”
By Susan Moody
Published by Williams & Whiting (16 February 2016)
Published by Williams & Whiting (16 February 2016)
Meet PENNY WANAWAKE, philanthropist, free-thinker, part-time sleuth. Very tall, very classy, very black, a beautiful tigress in tigress's clothing. And her lover and friend, BARNABY, cool, witty, high-class thief, dedicated low-life. Stand by as Penny meets KIMBELL, black American detective, and blows his mind. Thrill as between them they track down the brutal killer of Penny's wacky friend MARFA, and exact poetic justice among banks of orchids ...
You can buy Penny Black here.