Murder under the microscope in latest Poppy Denby mystery
A new mystery thriller set in 1920s Oxford celebrates the achievements of female scientists.
A radio documentary about Nobel Prize winning scientist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was the accidental inspiration for the latest Poppy Denby Investigates novel by popular Newcastle author Fiona Veitch Smith.
Set in 1925, The Crystal Crypt sees the intrepid reporter turned sleuth travelling to Oxford to investigate what first appears to be the accidental death of an up-and-coming female scientist who is found dead in a basement laboratory.
Explaining how she was inspired by the ground-breaking work of Dorothy Hodgkin, Fiona said: “I was wondering where Poppy was going to go next, and I had BBC Radio 4 on in the background and Melvyn Bragg was talking about Dorothy Hodgkin who is a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964.
“She had received numerous nominations but was overlooked for years until eventually, a few male scientists who were appalled that she had never been honoured, applied pressure for her recognition.
“The headline in the British newspapers the next day was ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel Prize’ – I was absolutely outraged when I heard this, so I had to stop what I was doing and listen to the rest of the story.”
During her lifetime Hodgkin was extremely influential in the development of 20th century medicine including confirming the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin and when Fiona discovered she had a basement laboratory in Oxford in the 1920s it was too much of a temptation to resist.
“I discovered that Dorothy had a laboratory in the basement of what is now the Science Museum in Oxford where she and her colleagues worked on experiments involving Xray crystallography.
“That suddenly got the creative juices going and the plot of a murdered female scientist in a basement laboratory in Oxford in 1925 for Poppy to investigate was born.”
Fiona began writing The Crystal Crypt back in December 2019 and was fortunate to be able to visit Oxford for research before the national lockdown began. As the pandemic progressed, she was also inspired by present-day Oxford scientist Professor Sarah Gilbert.
Fiona explained: “I was writing my book and suddenly my idea about these female Oxford scientists who had been overlooked and not championed or fully appreciated in their lifetime took on new meaning as we started hearing the name of Professor Sarah Gilbert who headed up the Oxford team that was that was doing research into what has now become known as the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine.
“When I began to follow what she was doing, it hit me how far female scientists have come from being overlooked back in Hodgkin’s day, to seeing this amazing woman and her team, including men, working toward a lifesaving vaccine.
“It seemed appropriate that I finished writing the introduction for the book with a slightly sore arm because I had just had the vaccine, it was a physical reminder of these amazing women of science that I wanted to celebrate with this book. Poppy would be so very proud.”