Nupur Tustin is visiting Ascroft, eh? to tell us about Murder Backstage, her latest novel in the Joseph Haydn Mystery series.
Welcome, Nurpur. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel. Is it part of a series? If so, please tell us about the series too.
Murder Backstage is the fourth mystery in the Joseph Haydn Mystery series. The series is set in the great composer Joseph Haydn’s Austria and moves from Eisenstadt, where he spent most of his life, to Vienna.
Haydn’s fictional career in detection begins as a young man in Vienna in the short story “The Baker’s Boy.” A baker is murdered and his assistant is suspected of murder. But something convinces Haydn that the boy, something of a simpleton, isn’t guilty of murder. How to prove it is the question. (The Haydn Mystery short stories are in an anthology called Murder in Vienna that I give every reader who signs up on my website.)
But my first Haydn Mystery was the first novel in the series, A Minor Deception. When a violinist goes missing, what seems like a minor mishap soon turns out to be a major catastrophe. The title is a play on words. Dark pieces are often written in the minor mode, while happy pieces are written in the major mode.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of authenticating the work of an artist or composer. It’s a lot more complex than anyone realizes. Artists and composers can have bad days, which means those compositions might not be on par with what we’re used to seeing or hearing. In the early stages of their development, their work might not be quite as sophisticated and polished as in the later stages.
The paper, the ink, the trail of documents, receipts, and letters are often more important than stylistic concerns in establishing authenticity. (There was an incident when one of the most reputed Haydn scholars, HC Robbins Landon, was taken in by a set of works that turned out to be not by Haydn at all. He graciously acknowledged his error, remarking that even if not by Haydn the works were still beautiful.)
Aria to Death explores this idea, but with Haydn having to authenticate the lost operas of Monteverdi that have unexpectedly appeared in Vienna. There were two Gonzaga women who’d married into the Habsburg family, and through the older of the two Monteverdi had sought a position with the Habsburgs. That didn’t pan out, but much of his music did make its way to Vienna. And later when Mantua was attacked by the Habsburgs, the Empress, a Gonzaga, did try to save the family’s collection of music and the musicians.
A Ph.D. dissertation I read on Monteverdi’s music gave me the idea that eventually helps Haydn to authenticate the works as genuine Monteverdi compositions.
Prussian Counterpoint takes place in Prussia, which Haydn to the best of my knowledge never visited. But Prussia’s role—along with Russia’s—in taking over Poland, interfering in internal politics and ultimately carving the place up is a fascinating bit of history.
And to put Haydn in the center of it as well as explore eighteenth-century espionage and the role of women in such activities was especially delightful for me.
Murder Backstage, the newest book, is quite different from the other books. The focus is on the mundane—on opera and its production in Vienna’s Burgtheater. The nobility don’t play very much of a role in the story, and the murder doesn’t have the political ramifications we see in the other novels.
But I absolutely loved working on a novel that was on the cozier spectrum of historical cozies. And I loved exploring the technical aspects of production. I even read the book Haydn’s employer blithely tosses to him, Motta’s treatise on the theater and theatrical productions.
Where did the idea for the mystery that is central to the story come from?
The idea for Murder Backstage comes from a real-life incident in the life of the Mozarts. When I first started researching the Haydn novels, I had to come up with innovative ways to explore life in the eighteenth century. One of these was to look at Leopold Mozart’s letters.
The elder Mozart was a consummate letter-writer, an extraordinarily observant man who commented on everything from the politics of the day and the condition of the roads to the hiring of maids and educating children. His letters are a treasure trove of life in the German lands.
Although my story is set in 1770, the incident actually took place in 1768. Leopold had been travelling with his family, on a mission to get the world to recognize young Mozart’s talent. He knew he was to nurture this enormous talent entrusted to his care—and he was right to take his job seriously. What he didn’t realize was that the job didn’t include promoting Mozart and launching him to fame. That part, God would take care of. And God didn’t need Leopold’s help in this regard.
But Leopold, like most of us, believed so deeply in the promise, longed so much for its fulfilment that he felt like the Biblical Sarah that God needed quite a bit of help in fulfilling His promises. So in Vienna, Leopold got hold of the idea to have his young son compose an opera. This, if nothing else, would make all Vienna sit up and take notice.
It was a remark thrown casually by the Emperor Joseph that gave Leopold the idea, and he was so determined to bring the plan to fruition, he made quite the nuisance of himself. The opera—La finta semplice—isn’t very good. I expect more teamwork might have resulted in a fairly decent production, but Leopold wasn’t exactly a team player.
In the end, it was never performed at the Burgtheater and the impresario accused Leopold of “prostituting” his child. It was a horrendous accusation, and reading it, I was surprised Leopold had refrained from striking the man, if not murdering him!
So, in my version, the impresario, Affligio, is murdered and Leopold is suspected of killing him; after all, everyone had heard the dispute between the two men.
Is there a theme or subject that underlies the story? If so, what prompted you to write about it?
When I’m writing a story, I don’t consciously think of a theme. My concern is to tell the story rather than to preach or moralize. That’s not to say some underlying themes don’t emerge. In mysteries as in real life, we’re constantly struggling to ascertain the truth, to distinguish between appearance and reality. People who murder don’t necessarily look like murderers. On the hand, behind every murder and every murderer is a story—a chain of events, if you will—that leads to the awful deed.
I like to think that even as you hate my killers, you can understand the motivation behind their choices. You can see how they went the wrong way, and how easily we ourselves could take a wrong turn. This is why we pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Temptations—or trials and tribulations—don’t always bring about the best in us, and there’s a very real temptation to sin.
Sin is crouching at the door, as the Bible reminds us, when we harbour anger, envy, jealousy, guilt, fear, and other negative emotions. You have only to watch some true crime programs to realize how true this is. We are all vulnerable and we all need to be very careful and to rely on God.
How do you create your characters? Do you have favourite ones? If so, why are you partial to them?
Because this is a historical mystery series, many of my characters are based on real people. I’ve had to research their lives and understand their characters in order to bring them to life. It’s a challenging process, but also very satisfying.
Then there are the fictional characters—the palace maids, Rosalie and Greta, some of Haydn’s musicians, police guards and police inspectors. I have far more leeway with them. They develop organically from the story and its needs.
I enjoy writing Maria Anna, Haydn’s wife. They had a contentious relationship in real life, but I’ve added a little twist to that. Underneath all that bickering, they’re quite fond of each other. I’ve enjoyed working with Rosalie and Greta as well.
I’d never intended to have an upstairs-downstairs dynamic in the series. That just came about. Rosalie was deeply involved in the events of A Minor Deception, and needed her own point-of-view. After that, it just became necessary to include them in every novel, and I always find the mystery solving goes much better with those two women around.
How do you bring to life the place you are writing about?
There’s a lot of reading, poring over maps, and researching the changes that have taken place in the locales the novels are set in since the eighteenth century. Research on Mozart is extensive enough that the details I need are more often found in the literature on Mozart than on Haydn. Leopold Mozart’s letters have come in very handy as has research done on the Esterhàzy palaces and estates. The Esterhàzys were Haydn’s employers. Johann Pezzl’s account of Vienna in that time period has been very useful, too. When all else fails, I use my imagination.
What research do you do to provide background information to help you write the novel?
Depending on the novel, I may have to understand the politics of the time. For Prussian Counterpoint, I read several biographies of Frederick the Great to bring him to life and read a biography of Catherine the Great as well. I’ve read and continue to read biographies of Haydn, including the two earliest ones by Dies and Griesinger, as well as accounts of Maria Theresa—a woman I greatly admire.
For Murder Backstage, I read about opera production, the technical side of things, the changes in Viennese opera from Metastasio to Gluck. I even read a picture book on simple machines to understand the mechanics of it all!
Naturally, I read about Mozart’s operas. And, of course, I watched quite a few operas on DVD! Now that was enjoyable.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers about the book?
If you’d like to meet the Mozarts and if you love the idea of going backstage to get a glimpse of an eighteenth-century production of opera, I think you’ll really enjoy Murder Backstage. Reading the Mozarts’ letters helped me to understand their characters and I’m rather proud of the way I’ve brought them to life in the novel.
I also marvel anew at the way in which practical concerns—seamless scene changes, for instance—can shape the story and therefore the music. Although as a writer I understand this only too well, I find myself, even so, both astounded and fascinated by it. I think most readers will as well.
You get a unique glimpse into storytelling and the way the medium—be it film, television, or opera—can shape the storyline.
Thanks for answering my questions, Nurpur, and good luck with Murder Backstage, the latest book in the Joseph Haydn Mystery series.
The novel is available at the following online retailers: NTustin Shop
About Nurpur Tustin: A former journalist, Nupur Tustin misuses a Ph.D. in Communication and an M.A. in English to orchestrate mayhem in Joseph Haydn’s Austria and to paint intrigue in her Celine Skye Psychic Mysteries about a psychic who takes on the outrageous and still unsolved Gardner Museum theft! In addition to being a storyteller and avid mystery fan, Nupur is a wife and homeschooling Mom who’s recently become a Christian.