Carlene O’Connor has written nine full-length cozies and two novellas in her Irish Village Mystery series. Her most recent book Murder at an Irish Bakery was published in February 2023.
In 2022, she debuted No Strangers Here, the first in a new series last year in the County Kerry mystery series, that’s a little darker in tone than her cozy series.
All of her books show a deep love of Ireland. We are so thrilled to be able to chat with Carlene O’Connor about her work!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How was the transition from contemporary fiction to mysteries?
I found [the contemporary fiction] challenging at times to write plot-wise because the books were always kind of a woman searching for herself. They weren't typical love stories. After I wrote about 10 of them and eight novellas, I was whining a little bit to my editor—we have a close relationship—that I wasn't making enough money as a writer to live on.
One day, I received a phone call from my editor, and he said, “Listen, a lot of our mystery series written in the UK are selling really well. What would you think about writing a mystery series for me in London?” I was like, “I've only been to London once. I really do not feel like I would be qualified to set it anywhere in England.”
I had already been to Ireland at this point, my [now] ex-boyfriend was Irish. I had fallen in love with his hometown. I was still friends with him and all my Irish friends in New York City. So I said, “I could set it in Ireland.”
When he said, “Oh, I love that idea,” I was just terrified, to be honest. I was like, “Okay, what have I gotten myself into?” but it was life-changing.
Murder in an Irish Village
Murder in an Irish Bookshop
What is so compelling about cozies in Ireland?
Personally, I fell in love with Ireland and I have Irish background and my family as well. But I think that first of all, you have to love what you're writing about. I absolutely fell in love with a town my ex-boyfriend was from. It's a medieval walled town. They had a ruined castle, a collegiate church, and an abbey. I said, “You have a town castle, I grew up with a White Castle; this is just not fair.” I had Irish friends that I could kind of borrow for characters.
But I think also with a murder mystery, you just can't get better than the setting. There’s the contrast between this charming village and the murders. Plus Ireland can also be really moody with the weather.
Murder in an Irish Churchyard
What made you decide to do an Irish Bake Off with your newest book in the Irish Village series?
During the pandemic, when I ran out of television series to watch, I started watching the Great British Bake Off. And I'm not a baker, I like to eat the stuff. So it surprised me how into the show I was. The competition was fun. Then I thought Ireland had to have one and they did.
[My editor liked my bakery idea for the next Irish village book.] As soon as we said bakery, I knew I wanted to do one of those Bake Off competitions because I couldn't imagine a better setup to have your suspects come from all over Ireland there; you gotta bring people in from out of town because you just can't kill off all the locals.
I felt like the contestants in real life weren’t all just a certain type of person; they were from all walks of life and experiences. In a competition, emotions are already high, you're under pressure. As that pressure builds, you can get kind of desperate. And that's exactly how our murder mystery works, right? You take these characters, and you give them a ticking clock because you're trying to find the killer.
Murder in an Irish Bakery
No Strangers Here
What was your inspiration for your new book in the new series No Strangers Here?
It's not a cozy at all, although it's not gratuitous. Somebody who doesn't want too much violence or too much of anything grisly, I think would do totally fine with a book. Now, if you're just [an exclusive cozy reader], you might find it a little bit too dark. Personally, I had been wanting to write darker because I read a lot of psychological thrillers. I hadn't been a cozy mystery reader when I started writing cozy mysteries. I obviously have a greater understanding and respect for them.
I had been taking tarot card classes during the pandemic and a teacher also gave me a reading. I had volunteered that I was going to be writing a new cozy series in Ireland. But he kept saying, “Oh, my God, they're so different.” I think, “well, they're not going to be that different. They’ll obviously have different characters, but they're both cozy mysteries.” But he just kept on and on about how different they were.
The very next day, my editor called me and said, “Hey, listen, we were having a sales meeting about your new series. Larissa, [O’Connor’s publicist] pointed out that the Irish Village installments that received Starred Reviews were a little bit darker. So at the meeting, she said, "I think Mary could write darker and do it really well.”
My editor goes, “What do you think if we go totally different with this book?” He almost used the exact words of a psychic. My jaw hit the floor. Then I got really excited about it because I had always wanted to branch out a little bit more as a writer. I'll be continuing the Irish Village series, which I love. I'm not ready for those to end anytime soon. But also then I get to flex my muscles a little bit as a writer and have a little bit more freedom since there are certain rules you have to follow as a cozy writer.
Thanks to Carlene O’Connor for taking the time to talk with us about her newest books!