Undertaking an undertaker: Deborah Challinor

Deborah Challinor, a prolific author from across the ditch, spoke to Robyn Walton about her new historical novel, Black Silk & Sympathy (HarperCollins, 2024), set in Sydney in the 1860s – with a very unusual sleuth.


Deborah, you’re the author of more than 20 books, most of them historical novels, and in 2018 in your home country you received a New Zealand Order of Merit award for services to literature and historical research. For those of us new to your work and perhaps intrigued to investigate your backlist, can you give us a sense of how much crime has featured in your storylines prior to this new novel?  

Well, I’m no Agatha Christie but some of my characters are a bit shady. In my Smuggler’s Wife series, Kitty and Rian Farrell sail the seven seas from the 1830s to the 1860s in their ship the Katipo frequently ignoring the law, Rian especially. The four girls in my Convict Girls series, however, actually start out as felons when they’re transported to Sydney in the late 1820s, and are bound together throughout the four books by murder and blackmail. Also, in my Restless Years quartet, in The Jacaranda House, exotic dancer Polly gets involved in selling drugs in Kings Cross during the 1960s and antagonises the local crime lord, resulting in the abduction of her young daughter.

In Black Silk & Sympathy we meet a young woman, Tatty, who’s training to be an undertaker in Sydney in the 1860s. What led you to this scenario?

I’ve had an interest in cemeteries and mourning and funeral traditions forever, but Tatty’s world really started taking shape when my husband and I lived in Newcastle from 2010 to 2014 while I was writing the Convict Girls series. We visited a good handful of historic Sydney cemeteries and, of course, went to Rookwood cemetery several times. I nearly fainted from excitement when I heard about the funeral train that ran between the city and Rookwood. So, when I couldn’t find any evidence of female undertakers in Sydney in the 1860s I thought, well, wouldn’t it be interesting to write a series about a young woman working in a profession that appears to have traditionally been controlled by men?

Tatty observes underhand dealings in the competitive funeral trade and she thinks she would treat clients and suppliers and corpses better if she controlled a funeral business. What kinds of things were going on?

Tatty mostly witnesses how her boss, Titus Crowe, behaves. He operates a funeral club into which members frequently pay far too much money for the funeral they will eventually receive; he coerces the bereaved into forking out for more expensive funerals than they can afford; and he refers customers to tradespeople associated with the funeral industry – photographers, bakers, shroud makers, jewellers, etc – then demands hefty commissions from those tradespeople. If they won’t pay, he blackmails them. Another undertaker reduces a corpse to bare bones in advance of delivering it to England to a collector of anatomical specimens.       

Tatty agrees to marry her employer, Titus Crowe, despite her suspicions concerning his involvement in several deaths. Can you tell us a little more without giving away the plot?

Tatty believes that, as Titus’s wife, she’ll be able to influence him to behave more charitably and sympathetically towards their customers, particularly those with little money. Also, he threatens to fire her if she won’t accept his marriage proposal, and she likes being an undertaker. Finally, there is the prize of the business itself, which, frankly, she would one day like to own. Titus is considerably older than she is and no one lives forever.

Tatty #2 is scheduled for release in 2025. What issues are demanding Tatty’s attention in the early 1870s?

Firstly, there is the matter of Sydney women dying from botched illegal abortions and, as an undertaker, Tatty sees her share of victims. One is an acquaintance, and her death sets off a deadly chain of events. And then there are the baby farmers – women who care for the children of others for payment, and sometimes neglect those children and even murder them. Fed up with burying the bodies of dead babies abandoned around the city, Tatty sets out to track down and stop whoever is killing them.

More info here.