Interview with K.H. Saxton, Author of The Fairfleet Affair
Thanks for joining us at Smack Dab! Give us a quick idea of what The Fairfleet Affair is about:
Thank you for having me! The A&A Detective Agency: The Fairfleet Affair is about twelve-year-old detectives Alex Foster and Asha Singh, who have their own established agency but no worthy cases… yet. Their primary benefactor is the eccentric millionaire Dr. Alistair Fairfleet, chairman of the Fairfleet Institute and its world-famous museums. When Dr. Fairfleet disappears under mysterious circumstances, he leaves behind a complicated trail of clues and puzzles for Asha and Alex to follow. But The Fairfleet Affair is more than a missing person case; as the detectives crack codes and make their way through the different museums, they uncover art clues, archaeological mysteries, and Fairfleet family skeletons—secrets from the past that test their partnership and force them to confront the complicated legacies of the people and places they admire most.
I love a good mystery. This one’s so complex, with so many twists and turns–you’ve got to be a lifelong mystery lover yourself. Did you just gobble up mysteries as a young reader? Or come to them later on in life?
I have a working theory that all narratives are mysteries at their core. No matter the genre, something has to hook us at the start of a story, and we are driven to keep reading as the author feeds us hints and new information to answer our questions and help us to form a full picture of the characters and their conflicts. That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for classic detective stories and cozy mysteries! I remember checking out every Nancy Drew book at my local library when I was in elementary school, and I moved on to prolific authors like Agatha Christie not long after. I also took a fantastic detective fiction course in college. Writing in this genre certainly feels familiar, satisfying, and nostalgic for me.
I love the fact that this starts off with a solar eclipse. Why did you choose that event to kick the novel into gear?
As I’ve mentioned, there are many different kinds of mysteries at play in this book. Some mysteries are solved by detectives, others are explored in art or curated in museums. It felt appropriate to start the story with a solar eclipse to set the right sort of enigmatic tone and, at the same time, to invite readers to think about some scientific, astronomical mysteries and the wonders of our natural world.
Mystery readers (and writers!) are all puzzle enthusiasts, I think. This one really has that puzzle feel, with so many moving pieces. Can you tell us a bit about the drafting process? How did it all come together? I generally think you have to know everything you can about a crime before writing how it gets solved. How did you approach a mystery?
I am a huge fan of puzzles—everything from crosswords to jigsaws—and I can attest that creating codes and riddles is just as much of a puzzling challenge as solving them! I generally need to have the solution to a puzzle first, and I can build backward from there. Similarly, when crafting a mystery, I always know the answers to the most important questions (who are the culprits? what are their motives?) from the start so that I can place appropriate clues and red herrings. I’ve heard of mystery writers who use the writing process to figure out “whodunit” alongside their detectives, but I would worry about writing myself into a corner. Through writing and revising, however, I often discover unexpected moments or scenes, and I learn a lot about my characters and their relationships that I didn’t know when starting out.
There’s a diverse cast here, which addresses some issues of history keeping and culture. Can you speak to that a bit?
I believe that literature for young people should reflect the diversity of our world. Writing characters with backgrounds and experiences that differ from our own, however, always carries with it the serious responsibility to research thoroughly, listen with humility, and proceed with care and respect. I felt this duty to my characters and their perspectives quite keenly in the sections of The Fairfleet Affair that focus on museum artifacts. The book asks readers to consider questions about museum curation: Whose cultural heritage is represented by the artwork and artifacts in museums? How do museums acquire these objects? Where do we draw the line between appreciating humanity’s rich history and appropriation or outright theft? The characters in The Fairfleet Affair all approach these questions differently because of their unique identities. Asha and Alex do not share exactly the same viewpoint; neither do their adult mentors. I hope that readers will bring their own cultures, family histories, and life experiences to the table when they read or talk about the book.
I love the fact that the detective agency is Fairfleet’s own pet project. It gives credence to the agency, but it also immediately makes the reader think that Fairfleet is imparting a message on the young detectives, as soon as that letter arrives. Immediately, the puzzle solving begins! I always feel like mystery reading is such good training for life–life problems are puzzles, really. Do you often feel like you’re training young readers to be life problem solvers?
Children are naturally adept at problem solving; it’s how we humans learn, develop, and move through the world. As we grow older, the incentive structures that we encounter—in school or in the workplace, for instance—can sometimes discourage risk-taking and creative thinking. Alex and Asha crave independence; they want to be taken seriously. Dr. Fairfleet’s letter invites them to exercise their problem-solving skills, and his disappearance removes their detective training wheels. They have to take risks and think creatively because no one else is going to solve the case for them. Reading a mystery in your favorite book nook might not have the same high stakes as solving one in real life, but I think a good mystery novel can present young readers with similar opportunities to test out theories, embrace difficulty, and ponder big questions on their own terms. And, of course, nothing builds confidence quite like figuring out a piece of the puzzle before the big denouement!
I love a good detective book–I have fond Nancy Drew / Encyclopedia Brown memories (though that dates me). How does the Fairfleet Agency fit in with the history of young detectives? How is it similar or different?
It’s safe to say that The Fairfleet Affair would not exist without classic middle-grade mysteries like The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. I drew inspiration from these personal favorites throughout my writing process. Of course, the genre is alive and thriving today, and readers hoping to get their fill of puzzles and cryptic clues have so many great authors to choose from: Margaret Peterson Haddix, Varian Johnson, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, and Kate Milford, to name just a few. I like to think that The Fairfleet Affair benefits from the nostalgia of a beloved tradition while still feeling up-to-date and accessible for young readers. Asha and Alex want to be great detectives like the characters they read about; they also grapple with some complex current issues and work to build an equal friendship and partnership in a contemporary context.
You tackle some Shakespeare, etc., which helps introduce readers to some historical and cultural tidbits. Did you also want to light a fire in them, regarding history or research? (Research can be exciting, not dusty.)
Research can be exciting even when it is a bit dusty! But it is definitely the case that readers today have lightning-fast and dust-free research tools at their disposal. When I was young, I learned so much about history, literature, and art from allusions in the books that I loved; it always felt like the best kind of challenge to encounter unknown, intellectually invigorating details. If this book inspires some readers to Google the Nabataeans or watch scenes from King Lear online, I’d feel both delighted and accomplished as an author!
What’s next for the detective agency?
In the second book of the series, the A&A Detective Agency investigates a historical mystery related to the Northbrook witch trials along with a series of present-day break-ins at the local cemetery. The story is set in October, so the atmosphere is all about autumn and Halloween—one of my favorite times of the year! Alex and Asha are also back in school; their friendship and the agency itself will experience some growing pains with the introduction of a new cast of supporting characters. I can’t wait to share this next book with readers!
Where can we find you?
You can follow me on Instagram at khsaxton, and look for The A&A Detective Agency: The Fairfleet Affair at your favorite bookstore or online vendor!