South Hadley Author Weaves Her Science Background Into Murder Mystery

Jul 12, 2018

Our summer fiction series continues with a mystery called "Death and Turtles." It takes place during the Depression -- 1934 -- in England. 

I met author Enid Sichel at her home in South Hadley, Massachusetts, curious how she chose the setting for her "whodunnnit."

I'm a big fan of the mysteries written by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I'm also interested in the 1930s, because it was a time of economic depression, a time of rising Fascism and really dangerous political things. There was also a flowering of literature, science and engineering, and I've just been fascinated by that difference between the economic and political environment, and the flowering of culture.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Talk to me a little bit about that science. You have a background in science. How did you manage to weave that into "Death and Turtles"?

In the 1930s, there were a lot of advances. In quantum mechanics, for example, and nuclear physics and statistical mechanics, thermodynamics. I knew that, and I knew Oxford had a very fine physics department. So I tried to leave that in, just because of my own interest.

How you would introduce yourself to somebody who doesn't know what you did in science?

I'm a physicist, and I've had experience both in academic life -- universities, colleges -- though most of my career was in industry. I did industrial physics, which is a very different flavor than academic physics. 

I did a tour of duty for a year at the National Science Foundation, so that gave me a sense of government interest in science. And I've worked in almost every sector of the economy that employs physics people.

South Hadley, Massachusetts, author Enid Sichel stands at her homemade standing desk, where she wrote her latest Lord David Cholmondeley mystery.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR

So you were not daunted by setting your novel in such an iconic place like the Cotswolds in Oxford?

No. I mean, my novel is invented out of whole cloth. I didn't go and do research there or anything, so I've invented it. I've often wondered whether I'm going to be caught out with some obvious error -- and I'm sure I will be, eventually.

You've called the protagonist Lord David Cholmondeley an "unconventional detective." Could you explain how you see him as unconventional?

I modeled him after two personality types.

One was Dorothy Sayers's aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey. He was Dorothy Sayers's ideal man, to the point that it's a little sick-making, because she was just over the top with that.

The other was my fascination with the late actor Peter Sellers, who played Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther," and I just love the fact that he tripped over everything, and he was clueless, but he always prevailed. So I decided to try mixing those two character types and to see if I could pull it off.

Author Enid Sichel took the photo of the turtle on her book's cover art.
Credit Carrie Healy / NEPR

Around the historically correct, fictional story, there is death and there are turtles. How did you choose turtles to include in the storyline?

I first was mindful of Benjamin Franklin's quote that "the only sure things are death and taxes," so I was making a pun on that. Also the famous model of the universe that the earth is carried on the back of a turtle. Plus the fact that I like turtles.

In our pond here at Loomis Village, I've counted 11 turtles in one view -- so we have lots of turtles. I also discovered a turtle, probably on an egg-laying mission, on the sidewalk on Brainerd Street [in South Hadley]. I had my camera, and I lay down on the sidewalk, and put the camera right on the sidewalk, and that's where the cover photo came from. I took that photo.

It's a wonder people didn't stop and think I was drunk and had fallen onto the sidewalk. I find turtles amusing.

Catch up with all of NEPR's Summer Fiction Series.