One of our Best Books of April is Maestra, a smart, morally tangled thriller that I read on vacation–and then talked about the whole way home.
The novel is reminiscent of The Talented Mr. Ripley, except that here Tom Ripley is the unreliable narrator Judith Rashleigh, a woman with a penchant for art, fashion and–let’s just call it what it is–X-rated sex. When Rashleigh tries to succeed in the art world using intelligence and hard work she basically gets kicked in the teeth for her efforts. And so she finds another way to enter the high society to which she knows she truly belongs. Murder, deception, exotic destinations, and art scams–Maestra challenges what you think you know about the characters and action right up until the very end.
Most authors do research for their books, and as it turns out author L.S. Hilton’s research took her to far more interesting places than Google’s search bar….
Researching my new thriller, Maestra, proved quite an adventure. Coming from a background of historical biography, I’m a great believer in detail—readers are really smart, and very quick to pick up on information which is flimsy or poorly imagined—so it was important for me to feel I had done my best to make the background of Judith Rashleigh’s world convincing. However, gathering the right “color” for the book took me a lot further than the sedate and rather dusty realms of my usual haunt, the London Library. Here are a few of the locations and experiences I employed in bringing the book to life:
DODGY DEALS IN GENEVA:
Some information you just can’t find online. I needed to know not only about the flow of dubious dollars—how they can be moved through Swiss banks to offshore accounts (I chose Panama for Judith, which proved an apposite location!)— but also the mechanics of the process: how much capital does a Swiss bank require, how is a fund established, and how can it be accessed—or hacked? So I found the real deal, one of the world’s most successful hedge funders, who was prepared to meet me during a pit stop in Geneva and speak to me, strictly off the record, about the darker side of finance.
MURDER AS A PHYSICAL ART:
Judith is intelligent and resourceful, but she is hardly a trained assassin. For her crimes to be plausible, I needed to work out efficient and practical methods of getting away with murder. The British medical journal The Lancet was a useful theoretical source, but I also wanted to feel the physical aspects of what would be required. Cue an energetic half hour on a boat after a lunch party in the South of France, where my host gamely volunteered to be a “victim” as I dragged him round the deck in a carpet. I tried out a couple more of Judith’s methods on myself—and yes, you can really do that with a mobile phone, though I’d recommend a Zoolander-style mini Nokia rather than your new iPhone 6.
A LADY’S GUIDE TO GUNS:
Obviously, in Europe, getting one’s hands on a real gun is a complicated process. I enlisted the help of a former member of the British Army to advise me on the best type of weapon for a rank amateur. I confess I chickened out here. When I met him near an army base in Wiltshire, he had obtained permission for me to look at a selection of guns which turned up in the back room of the village pub in an ominously greasy canvas bag. We discussed silencers, bullets, firing distances, and the ideal handbag-sized choice, but I couldn’t bring myself to actually touch one. Judith is clearly made of sterner stuff.
THE FRENCH DO IT BETTER:
Maestra is a sexy book. Judith’s after-hours hobby takes her into a very particular world, and the encounters she has there are instrumental to the plot. So yes, I went to have a look, to a sex party in Paris, taking a male friend as cover. And no, it wasn’t sleazy or disgusting. It was calm, and rather elegant, and had it not been for the discreet activities going on in the back rooms, one might well have been in any smart bar in the city.
— L.S. Hilton
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