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C.L. Miller on her debut mystery novel and growing up in the antiques business


A new mystery is set in the world of pricey antiques, of great finds, old secrets and a very British murder, "The Antique Hunter's Guide To Murder," the debut novel from C.L. Miller. She grew up in the antiques business as the daughter of the late Judith Miller of the BBC "Antiques Roadshow." C.L. Miller joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

C L MILLER: Thank you so much for having me. It's a privilege.

SIMON: So have you been in the antique business all these years and taking notes for a murder mystery?

MILLER: In a way. I think I've always been writing. I've always been a writer of fiction, and I've always wanted to write a crime novel. And it wasn't until my family were playing Cluedo - I think you call it Clue - that I started to wonder, if it was Professor Plum in the library with a candlestick, what candlestick was it? Was it Art Deco or Art Nouveau? And the pieces began to slot into place, I think.

SIMON: Tell us about your central character, Freya Lockwood, because the the novel opens at a difficult time in her life, doesn't it?

MILLER: It does. Absolutely. And I'm interested in the crossroads we come to in our lives. She's 47. Her child has grown up and gone off to university. Her house is being sold, and there is a moment of kind of what next? Her mentor has been murdered, and she is pulled back into a world that she had long walked away from. And that really interests me, that people can have second chances and start again.

SIMON: Well, tell us about the man who was her mentor, who winds up leaving this world under mysterious circumstances, 'cause they had a falling out at one point, Arthur Crockleford.

MILLER: That's right, they did. Arthur came to me, I suppose, as a mixture of all the antiques experts and antiques dealers and shop owners that I had met throughout my childhood, and I wanted someone who not only had a wealth of, you know, knowledge about the antiques world, but also had a kind of hidden side and was in the kind of black market of the antiques world, too. And so he became embroiled in a world that we don't normally see on the BBC "Antiques Roadshow," which led to his murder.

SIMON: Mercy. I nevertheless cherish something that he told Freya in her recollections, shows her a Japanese porcelain plate that had been repaired with gold and tells her, most of us have been broken one way or another. We don't need to hide the scars, for they make us who we are. I think I'm going to tell that to everybody for a long time.

MILLER: Oh, I love that. And I think it's something I believe too. I think that as we go through life, things happen to us that, you know, maybe break us a little or hurt us. And these things sort of have to be embraced, and they become part of who you are. So I love that moment of when, you know, he was talking to Freya when she was a child at 12 years old, and she'd lost her parents, and he was saying to her, it's OK to be a bit broken because there is a world beyond.

SIMON: Also little I guess what I'll refer to as nuggets of wisdom from Arthur Crockleford at the beginning of each chapter. Can you tell us if these are true or not? To find the best deal at an antiques fair, always turn left because everyone else always turns right.

MILLER: It's so funny you picked that one. That is the one that my mother used to always say when people used to say, you know, if I'm out hunting, what should I do? And she always used to say, you turn left. So if you get there 6 a.m. in the morning, you get there when the gates open, and you turn left because everyone else is heading for coffee or they're turning right.

SIMON: What - there's a scene at the end. I think a lot of people will find it kind of invokes Agatha Christie because Freya gets to confront all of her suspects together at a retreat for collectors. So you have all the suspects in one room...


SIMON: ...Or one mansion. That must have been very satisfying.

MILLER: Oh, I love the denouement. I love that moment in Agatha Christie's novels, and a lot of the Golden Age crime novels do it, too, where everyone gets together and the truth is out. I kind of always wanted to set it in a big old crumbling mansion because we had one as a child that wasn't very well heated, and I kind of wanted that atmosphere. And I knew as soon as I was going to do a murder mystery in an old manor house, then I was going to do a denouement at the end where they all sat around and Freya was going to have her moment to shine.

SIMON: Are you speaking of Dedham Vale?

MILLER: Dedham Vale, yes. Dedham Vale is where I live. It's a Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in South Suffolk. And it's kind of a collection of medieval villages that John Constable lived here and painted. So he painted our church in the center of our village. And a lot of murder mysteries are set around the Cotswolds, which is a different area in the U.K. So when we moved here about five years ago, I was like, still waters run deep, as they say. And I was like, all the twitching curtains - something's got to be going on. It just seemed like a perfect place. It's so beautiful that there must be something dark underneath it. I guess that's the crime writer in me.

SIMON: I loved reading your acknowledgments. Big vote of thanks to your parents. Could I get you to talk about that?

MILLER: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if it wasn't for them, this book would never have been able to be written, really. It was their knowledge and passion for antiques that enabled me to so authentically set a novel in - you know, in this world.

SIMON: Your mother was a very significant figure in the antiques world, wasn't she?

MILLER: She was. She was very, very well-regarded. And, you know, she didn't come from an antiques background. She came from, you know, humble beginnings on the Scottish Borders. So I think she had this massive desire to get people interested like she had been and kind of to demystify and make antiques accessible. And so she would weave stories into the antiques that she holds. She used to collect a lot of blue and white china. So she had shipwrecked china on a shelf in our house. And she, you know, she used to bring them down, and I used to run my fingers over the barnacles. And that was just so kind of mesmerizing to me as kind of an 8- or 9-year-old. And so when I decided to put antiques in the book, that was my idea, too. Kind of make antiques accessible and interesting to someone who might not know that much about it but might want to learn a little bit.

SIMON: C.L. Miller - her novel, "The Antique Hunters Guide To Murder." Thank you so much for being with us.

MILLER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.