Amanda Breck’s complicated life gets more convoluted when she finds the body of Lena Morgan in Central Park, identical to Amanda’s dream. Detective Phineas Regan is one case away from retirement; the last thing he needs is a murder case tinged by the occult. The seeds of their attraction were planted months ago, when Phineas investigated an attack on Amanda’s friend Morag. Now, fate is determined to draw them close. But can they work together to stop a wily, vicious killer, or will the murderer destroy them both?
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I’m very excited about the release of the third Coventina Circle novel, RELICS & REQUIEM, which focuses on Amanda and Phineas. I answered a few questions about it:
Question: Tell us how Relics & Requiem was inspired, and how it evolved.
Devon Ellington: When I wrote Assumption of Right, which became Playing the Angles, I planned it to be a one-off. Initially, Phineas was supposed to come into the scene where Simon shoots Morag’s attacker, and that was that. Minor supporting character with strength, intelligence, dignity, and humor. Good at his job and gives a damn, as are the bulk of NYPD detectives, at least the ones I’ve encountered over the years.
Only, he kept showing up. And he and Simon became friends. As Amanda became more important in the story, supporting Morag, I got the distinct impression that Phineas and Amanda were destined for each other. But it would have been a tangent in Angles, which focused on Morag and Simon. So that was that.
Then, it was clear that Bonnie’s story was next (The Spirit Repository), so, with the initial publisher, I figured I’d weave it into that book. But the publisher and I parted ways, Assumption went out of print, and the books were set aside.
A couple of years ago, when my team (doesn’t that sound pretentious? I don’t mean it to) and I sat around figuring out how we wanted to re-envision the next few years of my career, I started playing with the idea again of re-releasing Assumption of Right (or, as I used to describe it, Attack of the Bad Title) as Playing the Angles and make a series of the entire Coventina Circle.
The series is paranormal romantic suspense — it’s not a spoiler that the central couple gets their HEA, or at least HFN. But I wanted to feature each member of the Coventina Circle central to a book. Then, I felt that Hartley Crain, a good guy who gets a raw deal throughout the series, should get his own near the end, and, since Jake Renton has become so important to the series, he may get his own book, too. And then I’ll wrap it up with either another theatre book, where Morag is prominent, but not the protagonist, or do a paranormal Agatha Christie mash-up with all of the couples in some remote location. Not sure yet, and we have to see how the other books sell before we can go that far.
At the same time, I entered discussions with my current publisher and agreed to be part of their soft launch, as they put their long-term pieces into play. Because some of their major partners are based in Canada, with the current trade/political situation, that’s gotten more complicated than we imagined, but we’re dealing.
They wanted to commit to the series.
Which meant that Amanda and Phineas got to have their own book.
I wrote thumbnails of the books in the series, and as I write each book, I’m making notes in the outline documents of future books, so that each book can stand alone for its central couple, but the entire series shows character growth amongst all the members of the circle.
Q: That’s how you came to the characters and to write their book. But how did you come up with the plot?
DE: Cabinets of curiosities and Victorian-style museums have always fascinated me. They turn up in all kinds of books. So I wanted to have an artifact be the paranormal catalyst for the book. A relic. The idea of it being the museum founded by a Victorian-era, Gilded Age mogul made me think of Victorian mourning practices. When I worked for an art book publisher a Very Long Time Ago, one of the books we did was on mourning jewelry. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a stunning exhibit on Victorian mourning a few years ago. That made me think of “requiem” and it sounded good together. The Victorians traveled and brought back al kinds of oddities, so it fit.
But what kind of relic? Egyptian relics have been done so often. I felt I had nothing new to add to that canon.
I was doing some research for something else, and meant to research “bone-handled dagger” but, Auto-Incorrect being what it is, it cut out the handle and sent me to bone daggers, which is where the information on the Papuan New Guinea daggers made out of human femur bones and the bones of large birds came up.
That fit perfectly. And we were off.
Q: Then you have the drug-testing subplot. Talk about that.
DE: Phineas’s niece being at a party where an actor died of an overdose wasn’t part of the original outline, but it raised the stakes for him, and I decided to kept it in. As I worked that thread of the book, originally it was going to be much more of a date rape drug, based on the old “Spanish fly” which was just going out of fashion as I grew up.
However, the more I worked on that plotline, the more I realized that, in the time frame and this particular book, I could not portray it responsibly. I didn’t want it to be exploitative. I needed months more research, especially into the psychological after effects of someone being drugged without their permission, some becoming predators and some remaining prey. It needs months, perhaps years of research and discussion with specialists in the field to explore different case scenarios, the traumatic after-effects, and how truly wily predators could use it as an excuse for their own ends by playing the victim. With everything going on right now, the SCOTUS hearings, etc., not doing the research and not portraying the different layers authentically would be irresponsible and wrong. It wouldn’t serve the book (Amanda, Phineas, the circle), and it certainly wouldn’t serve the conversations that need to happen about non-consensual situations. It became clear that has to be a different book, a few years down the road, a stand-alone thriller that handles the material responsibly, not as a subplot.
So the drug became a stamina-enhancer gone wrong, originally targeted for the military and athletes. It still lowered inhibitions and gave a feeling of being unconquerable and euphoria, before the deadly side effects kicked in. But it is not designed to be a sexual enhancement drug. Although one of the characters makes it clear that some people may have that side effect, and there’s money to be made.
It also allowed me to keep the element that Amanda points out — the first thing women learn when they start going out — never leave your drink unattended in a public place. Women have to be vigilant all the time, on guard against predators, and it’s only gotten worse since 2016.
My research into patent medicines also allowed me to tie the two plot lines together.
I’ve got a list of interesting and often disturbing books to add to the Recommended Reading page on the Coventina Circle website.
Q: Once again, you have interesting historical stories behind the actual story of the book: Grover and Sterling’s voyage to the Pacific, Edgar and Cristina experimenting with patent medicines. I wanted more!
DE: I’m glad about that, but more would have been a tangent in this book. It’s already longer than I expected, even after I cut! 😉 As I mentioned in interviews about other Coventina Circle books, if there’s enough interest, once I finish this series, I may go back and write historicals based on some of the stories that set the foundation for the books in the series: the stories that ended up as the ghost stories in the Candesco Theatre, the revolutionary war prison ship, Edgar and Cristina, or the voyage. Any of those will need several months’ full time or years part-time of research to do properly.
Q: You’ve got your crossover again, with Harry Delacourte, and the esoteric library, that appeared in the previous Coventina Circle book, The Spirit Repository, and in the Gwen Finnegan novella, Myth & Interpretation. Harry is an important supporting character in this book.
DE: Yes, he is. The Delacourtes are getting pretty bossy, all the way around. Harry’s in the book, as are a trio of his cousins, and his great-grandmother, the family matriarch.
Q: Does that mean they’ll get their own book?
DE: Not as part of the Coventina Circle series, although now Harry’s pretty embedded with the series, and I have a feeling Tobias is going to show up a few more times, too. Tobias entered the outline of Diana’s story already, and I have to make sure he remains peripheral. There are two more Delacourte cousins we have yet to meet, Rafe and Zelda, who are important to Jake’s timeline. I may need to promise the Delacourtes some of their own books, so they stop invading this series!
Q: Jared’s pretty hot, too.
DE: Don’t worry, he’ll stick around. He has an important role to play in the next few books.
Q: We got to know Kayla and Lerrien better, too, and had a little (but not enough at The Dragon’s Lair).
DE: They’ll continue to be a part of the series, although not central to it.
Q: The structure of each book leading into the next book, while standing alone is interesting. Bonnie and Amanda were introduced in Morag’s book. We heard about Lesley, and briefly met Sylvie and Diana in Morag’s book. Amanda had a bigger role in Bonnie’s book, which then led into her book, with more of Lesley and Sylvie, but especially Lesley, leading into her book. When did you plan that?
DE: It happened organically in Morag’s book and Bonnie’s book. I was more aware of it in Amanda’s book, and then intentionally crafted the last section to be a lead-in to Lesley’s. It will be more of a plan in the remaining books.
Q: The affection and connection between the women is so lovely, the way they support each other, even while recognizing each others’ flaws, and are aware when they fall short of their own expectations.
DE: They’re all growing together. Each book focuses on a particular pair of protagonists, but all members of the circle grow in each book. It has to happen in a circle, or the circle can’t continue. But people grow at different rates, or grow away from each other. That happens, too. People say how hard it is to make friends in New York, and how isolating it is. My own experience is that connections forged in New York are much stronger and more resilient through growth and change than a lot of relationships made elsewhere.
Q: The age differences in the circle are interesting, too.
DE: Yes, there’s a range from Sylvie, the youngest at twenty-eight, and hitting her first Saturn return, to Diana, the high priestess and oldest, at fifty-six, in her second Saturn return. Her book, in particular, will deal with age issues and race issues. Coventina follows a Western European magical tradition, and its members are white. While their circle of friends is fairly diverse, and always growing more so, there are certain things they don’t have to deal with because they are white women, and that contrast will be explored more as the series continues, especially since there’s more diversity in Diana’s teaching circle, Myst. Their religion choices make them “other” in the eyes of many, but their skin color still offers them some protection that some of their friends and colleagues lack. It’s something they have to deal with, and become more aware of, and decide how to utilize in aid of those who face more danger, as the series progresses.
Q: The first three books came out quickly, each within six months of the one before. But now there’s a year before Lesley’s book, Grave Reach. I don’t want to wait that long!
DE: That’s always gratifying! But the schedule was killing me. Juggling Coventina and The Nautical Namaste Mysteries (as Ava Dunne) and The Gwen Finnegan Mysteries is difficult. Even with outlines. Add to that, the Jain Lazarus series just moved publishers. In addition to Hex Breaker and Old-Fashioned Detective Work re-releasing next spring, the third book in that series, Crave the Hunt is back on the schedule. Plus, the first six books of a contemporary, almost soap opera series on the conflicts between love and creativity are supposed to release next year, although we’re still working on solid dates. AND I’m writing a play about gun violence. AND trying to get a few other projects back on the schedule. I couldn’t properly do two Coventina Circle books a year right now. Not without my head exploding and my typing fingers falling off! 😉 It’s a good kind of busy, and I’m grateful, but I also have to be realistic. I’m getting older — Diana and I are contemporaries. I can’t pull a series of all nighters any more than Phineas can at this point! But I love doing the work. I’m a writer who loves writing, not just “having written.” So I keep at it.
Susanna answered the door, smiling. Her black pencil skirt and plum cashmere sweater made Amanda feel awkward and underdressed in her black jeans and oversized black sweater. “Thanks so much for coming,” Susanna said.
“You’re welcome.” Amanda stepped into the hallway, papered with dark green flocking on a lighter green. A carved wooden staircase led to the next floor. “Wow.”
“This place is pretty cool,” said Susanna. “I’ll give you the tour after you see the artifact. It’s down here, in what used to be the parlor.”
She led the way to a graceful, high-ceilinged room that looked more like a set for a Masterpiece Theatre Mystery than a New York City apartment.
“The cabinet is here,” she said, pointing to a glass-fronted cabinet with a series of drawers underneath. “Oh, hello, Dean,” she added, as a young man wearing wire-rimmed glasses joined them. “This is my intern, Dean. Dean, this is Amanda Breck.”
“Hi,” he mumbled.
“Hey,” said Amanda. She looked at the cabinet, full of oddities including skills, strange carved knives, a handful of ishbatis, some scarabs, a metal bowl with Celtic symbols on it, a drinking vessel made out of horn with runes on it, and plenty of things she couldn’t identify. The whole cabinet felt exhausted and resentful.
I’d be pretty pissed too, if I was torn from home and put on display, she thought.
She felt a brush against her neck, like a cool touch. She didn’t need to turn; she knew, from the reflection in the glass, that no one corporeal was behind her.
“This is it.” Susanna opened the top drawer and pulled out a white cloth. She unwrapped an ecru-colored object that had been whittled down to a point on one end.
I hope I’m wrong. Amanda frowned. “What is it?”
“A dagger,” said Dean. “Made out of a human femur bone.”