Fashion-journalist-slash-author Plum Sykes has quite the resume, with 20 years at Vogue and now three novels under her belt. That’s why when a friend of DFW Style Daily asked us if we’d be down for a coffee date, we replied, “hell yes!” Read on for our exclusive interview with the The New York Times bestselling author about her new “Clueless”-meets-Agatha Christie murder-mystery and highlights from the fabulous life of the “It Girl.”
Sykes started her career in the U.K. at British Vogue but set sail for the States when she was discovered by iconic editor Anna Wintour in Paris. The budding fashion journalist was only 26 when she reconnected with Wintour while she was in Paris interviewing revered British designer Alexander McQueen and never looked back.
Limited by word count in her society column at the fashion conglomerate, Sykes took inspiration from her column regulars, the “Park Ave. Princesses,” to launch a career as a novelist. Her debut New York Times bestseller “Bergdorf Blondes” released in 2004 with “The Debutante Divorcée” out just two years later. A departure from “Blondes,” Sykes’ newest creation “Party Girls Die in Pearls: An Oxford Girl Mystery” takes a sharp left turn, and we couldn’t be more excited.
A murder mystery combining intrigue with Sykes’ own fashion flair, the novel follows main character Ursula Flowerbottom, an aspiring writer in her first year at Oxford in 1985. She begins as an outsider from a small village in the country, a stark contrast to her classmates, the majority of whom come from the upper crust of British society. After the murder of socialite India Brattenbury, Ursula embarks upon a quest to solve the mystery, using her journalistic savvy to write her first article for Cherwell, the Oxford student paper. She takes careful notes throughout her quest, giving the reader a clearer picture of the mystery as it unfolds (a clever move from Sykes).
We don’t want to give it all away, but we’ve created a list of a few things we love about “Party Girls Die In Pearls,” to give our readers a taste of what’s to come.
The characters truly drive this story. Ursula’s relative naivete and curiosity help us see the story through her eyes, but the supporting characters are compelling and often provide comic relief in rather dark situations (more on that later). Ursula’s first friend at Oxford, American foreign exchange student Nancy Feingold, provides a lens for an American audience and another perspective from which we can understand the story. If Ursula is Sherlock Holmes, Nancy is her loud, fashion-forward, New York Watson (the story actually references this aspect of her as well as hit 1980s female-driven detective show “Cagney & Lacey”).
Every chapter either introduces or develops characters further, from the flamboyant gossip columnist Horatio Bentley; self-absorbed pretty boy and India’s boyfriend Wenty; Ursula’s tentative love interest Eg; over-the-top Austrian aristocrat Otto and the shady professor Dr. Dave to the neurotic librarian Olive Brookethorpe; it-girl India Brattenbury and her best frenemy Isobel Floyd. These are just a few of the characters, a true testament to the character-driven nature of Sykes’ terrific tale.
Fashion might as well be one of the main characters in the story. The fashion of the mid-’80s was definitely not subtle, and Sykes takes extra care to describe the fashion choices of each character depending on their personality and their situation. She expertly incorporates both American and British trends of the time through the inclusion of Nancy Feingold, as well as the differences among the classes in English society. As the characters and the plot morph over the course of the book, so does the fashion — Sykes’ experience and acumen in this industry definitely shine.
In addition to the fashion, Sykes tips her hat to pop culture and Oxford-specific cultural references. Many of the characters reference TV shows such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty” as well as popular novels circulating around the college’s scene such as “Brideshead Revisited.” But if you don’t understand these references, never fear! Sykes provides helpful footnotes to explain these as well as some clinical terms later on so her readers can understand them fully without interrupting the flow of the story.
The Writing Style
Sykes is a journalist by trade, and her journalistic process is evident in the way Ursula does her investigating. The way the story builds up to the twist as well as the detail in which she describes autopsy procedures and clinical terms point to how well-researched and well-constructed the book is.
Sykes has a distinctly British, dry sense of humor which she draws on often. Considering how dark the story can get (you know, since it’s about a young adult getting murdered in cold blood and all), her use of comic relief keeps the story moving and the reader entertained. I even laughed out loud at several points, something that doesn’t usually happen when I read.
Sykes really did her research! She incorporates not only elements of the detective work in her book, but also gives a glimpse into the job of the forensic pathologist investigating the murder. Sykes’ police commissioner friend introduced the novelist to the right people to ensure accuracy. It wasn’t enough to just have the victim wearing a designer party dress; she conjured up a myriad of ways the “mean girl” should meet her fabulous fate.
Contributions by Evgenia Sinopidou. Image 1 courtesy of Hollywood Reporter. Image 2 courtesy of VOGUE. Image 3 courtey of ACRMS. Image 4 courtesy of Haute Living.