Author photo of Julia Kelly
October 2023

Murder in Winston Churchill’s war rooms

Julia Kelly’s first historical mystery, A Traitor in Whitehall, takes readers into Winston Churchill’s secret underground headquarters during World War II.
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When Evelyne Redfern is selected for a position in Winston Churchill’s underground cabinet war rooms, typical new job nervousness is quickly replaced by horror when a colleague is murdered. Soon, the clever and charismatic Evelyne finds herself teaming up with handsome and cagey minister’s aide David Poole in an effort to solve the murder and root out treason amid the ranks—even as bombs fall overhead.

Congratulations on kicking off a new series! Will you introduce us to Evelyne Redfern?
The daughter of a famous English adventurer and a glamorous French socialite, Evelyne Redfern rose to international fame in the 1920s when her parents’ contentious divorce and custody battle placed her firmly in the pages of newspapers and earned her the nickname “The Parisian Orphan.” However, when Evelyne’s mother suddenly died, her father uprooted her from her life in Paris and dumped her in an English boarding school. 

Now in her early 20s and working in a royal ordnance factory as part of the war effort, she’s recruited by an old friend of her parents to work as a typist in Churchill’s cabinet war rooms. However, when Evelyne discovers the body of a fellow typist, she finds herself at the center of the desperate chase for a killer.

You’ve written contemporary romance, historical romance and historical fiction, nearly all set in England. And you’re an American expat living in London. Tell us more about your connection to the U.K.
Although I grew up in Los Angeles, I have the good fortune to be both American and British by birth thanks to my British mother and American father. Because of this, my family has always had a strong connection to the U.K. I chose to study British history at university, and it seemed only natural to write about British history when I began seriously pursuing a publishing career while working as a journalist in New York City. 

Eventually, I decided to move to London to be closer to my immediate family, who had all relocated to the U.K. As I explored my new city, I kept coming across World War II monuments. I became curious, and as I began to read as much as I could about the period, the book ideas began flowing.

“A lot of my compulsion to write about the past is wrapped up in trying to understand the present.”

In your acknowledgements, you share that you’ve always wanted to write a mystery and followed a “long and winding path” to get here. What sorts of twists and turns did you encounter?
I’ve been toying with writing a mystery set in the Churchill War Rooms, which are now a museum, ever since I went to visit with a friend. However, at the time I was already writing historical novels highlighting what British women did during the war and I was also working a day job, so I didn’t think I could add a mystery novel to the mix and still find the time to sleep! That all changed in June 2021 when I quit my day job to write full time. After taking a month off to recharge, I wrote up the pitch for A Traitor in Whitehall and the Parisian Orphan series and sent it to my agent that same week. The rest, as they say, is history.

You do an excellent job of immersing the reader in Evelyne’s daily life, from the line for the shower at her boarding house to the shiver-inducing feeling of working deep underground. What was your research process like?
I really lucked out with living in London and having access to the Churchill War Rooms. (Note to other authors: It is incredibly helpful when there is an entire museum dedicated to the subject of your book!) The Imperial War Museum has a fantastic catalog available online as well as great books. I leaned heavily on an exhibition catalog for the CWR that showed everything from the orange passes that workers would carry to the type of typewriter that was used in the typing pool. 

When it came to researching the rest of the book, I had the good fortune of having written four historical novels set during WWII, so I had a lot of prior knowledge that I could draw on for the details of everyday life during the Blitz.

Book jacket image for A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly

Evelyne and David conduct numerous interviews as they winnow down their list of suspects, and you’ve created a very in-the-moment feel for those encounters. How did you go about achieving that realism? 
I worked as a TV news producer for six years in New York City, and part of my job was to write the copy that my anchors would read. Writing words that are meant to be read out loud is a very different discipline than writing prose because you have to think about breath and tone and simplicity. (Case and point, that last sentence would be challenging to read off of a teleprompter!) That early training in TV writing still helps me to this day when tackling dialogue in my novels.

Evelyne’s own mother’s death wasn’t properly investigated, influencing her choices and actions. Is the theme of history repeating itself something you are drawn to while writing historical fiction?
A lot of my compulsion to write about the past is wrapped up in trying to understand the present. Most of my research at university was about the evolving role of British women in society, as well as changing class structures. Those two themes thread through a lot of my books because they’re still topics that feel very relevant today.

Evelyne understands the power of gossip in the workplace. Can you share a bit about why you made gossip an important element of the investigation?
When I started writing about an amateur female detective in 1940, I knew that one of the things she would inevitably have to contend with was men constantly underestimating her. Although the male detectives working on the case dismiss her, her eventual sidekick David Poole quickly understands that Evelyne has access to knowledge and information—like office gossip—that he never would. Being a woman is one of Evelyne’s great superpowers.

Female friendships are central to your story, from Evelyne’s long-term bond with aspiring actress Moira to her tentative new rapport with her coworkers and housemates. Why does that sort of affection and loyalty interest you as a writer?
My friendships with other women are such an important part of my life; it would be strange for me not to give my characters those kinds of relationships too. Female characters deserve rich, complex interior lives and relationships that reflect that. I hope that, just as we’re starting to see more layered female characters in television and movies, there will be even more of a push towards literary heroines with rich lives as well.

“Being a woman is one of Evelyne’s great superpowers.”

Evelyne is never without a book, and her favorite authors include Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. Are you also a reader and devoted fan of these writers? Did they or their work inspire you as you created A Traitor in Whitehall?  
I have been reading mysteries for as long as I can remember, influenced in great part by my mother. She’s such an avid reader of crime fiction that we call the part of my parents’ house where all of those books sit “Murder Hall.” When I told her my idea for A Traitor in Whitehall, she recommended I read The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, which is a wonderful overview of the authors of the age and their works. I quickly realized that I had only scratched the surface of the genre, and I’ve been devouring golden age mysteries ever since to try to catch up.

Police detectives greet Evelyne’s penchant for mystery novels with patronizing dismissiveness. Do you think whodunits are underappreciated? Have you ever found yourself defending your fondness for them?
I think it’s sometimes easy for people to dismiss genre fiction because they think it’s all formulaic. However, I’ve always loved Nora Roberts’ quotation comparing writing category romance to performing “ ‘Swan Lake’ in a phone booth.” I will always defend genre fiction as deceptively sophisticated because, as a writer, you know that your reader will have certain expectations for your book. If you write a mystery novel, the detective needs to have figured out the central puzzle by the end of the book. However, there’s real challenge in writing a fresh, exciting story that manages to surprise the reader along the way.

Who’s your favorite side character (and why is it the slyly fabulous Aunt Amelia)?
Aunt Amelia is absolutely my favorite side character because I think she has the bold straightforwardness I would want if I was a little braver. She also is a woman with a past that’s only hinted at in A Traitor in Whitehall. While I have an idea of what that past is, I’d love to delve deeper into her background because I feel like she has some great stories to tell.

Read our review of ‘A Traitor in Whitehall’ by Julia Kelly.

While writing A Traitor in Whitehall, did any part of the story or characters surprise you?
When I sat down to write A Traitor in Whitehall, I don’t think I had any idea what I was in for. From the very first chapter, Evelyne sprung to life almost fully formed on the page. It felt a bit like she was a runaway train and I was just along for the ride. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that this is my first book written in first-person POV, and I really wanted to make Evelyne’s voice shine through. She’s a determined, curious, intelligent woman who is also a loyal friend. I hope readers will fall in love with her the way that I have!

What’s up next for you—any tidbits you want to share with readers?
I am currently working on the second book in the Parisian Orphan series, which has been such fun to write. The second season of the The History Quill Podcast, which I co-host with the historical novelist Theo Brun, is also underway. The podcast, which is all about writing historical novels, features interviews with well-known and debut authors. It’s been such a pleasure to speak with people who are so generous sharing their experiences with the craft and business of publishing.

Photo of Julia Kelly by Scott Bottles.

Get the Book

A Traitor in Whitehall

A Traitor in Whitehall

By Julia Kelly
ISBN 9781250865489

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