POISONOUS PEARLS: It’s been more than a decade since Plum Sykes published a novel, and now she’s is back in action with a book about her beloved Oxford University, set in the mid-Eighties. There’s a wide-eyed young heroine called Ursula Flowerbutton, a wise-cracking American exchange student with a nose job and big hair, lots of posh kids — and a dead girl found draped over a chaise longue, still in her party dress.
“Party Girls Die in Pearls,” (Harper) is the first in a series of Oxford Girl Mysteries, a comedic whodunit that plays to the author’s passions for Agatha Christie, P.D. James — and Eighties Oxford, with its ancient claw foot bathtubs (no showers), early evening sherry receptions with fellow students and tutors (dress code: academic gowns), cloisters and carved stone columns on the college campus.
It’s pure escapism with a veil of aristo mystique in the vein of “Downton Abbey,” “The Crown,” and the 1981 TV version of “Brideshead Revisited,” with Jeremy Irons. Given those shows’ popularity, it’s no surprise Sykes sold the book to the U.S. before she did in Britain.
The tour begins May 9, with a party hosted by her pal Zac Posen, creative director of Brooks Brothers, complete with scones and jam. The tour will take her to 10 U.S. cities, with events hosted by Burberry, Chanel and friends including Vanessa Getty, Allison Sarofim and Alexis Traina.
The idea for the book came from Sykes’ mini-memoir about Oxford for Kindle Singles. She turned it into a murder mystery for a variety of reasons: She’d already done the rom-com thing, and wanted to keep writing social comedies — but with another kind of ending. “And I think there is a huge appetite for college murder — look at the success of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History,’” says Sykes over a crab salad and fries at Claridge’s.
Sykes, whose father and grandfather both went to Oxford, says it’s fun to look at how people behave when they’re 18, “getting into trouble and doing silly things. I don’t really want to write about people who are 47, and I don’t really want to read about them, actually.”
Although Sykes may have witnessed Oxford in the Eighties — ballgowns and all — she still had to brush up on the history. The book takes place in the mid-Eighties, a few years before she was a “fresher,” or first-year student. She says she wanted to set it nearer the time when Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, were first married and Diana was raising her young family and charming the world.
“Diana was such an icon — her clothes — everything was such a statement, such a representation of that time, like Ivana Trump in America. I also looked at a lot of those ‘It’ girls in the Eighties, like Cornelia Guest, with her great thick, blonde hair and lots of shiny earrings. She was, and is still, great looking.”
Sykes also dug out “The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook,” “The Preppy Handbook,” and traveled back to Oxford to pore over old issues of Cherwell, Oxford’s student newspaper and its famously snide gossip column, known as John Evelyn. She also spoke to detectives and pathologists who were working on murder cases in the mid-Eighties when DNA testing was unsophisticated, and when there were no mobile phones to trace.
She recalls interviewing a pathologist “who was just so funny about death. He talked about one case he’d done and said, ‘Oh that’s a marvelous murder, that one.’” At the time, she adds, local police would listen to the radio and swing by a murder scene, “to have a look — as if they were looking at a new baby. Just pop by to have a look.”
Sykes also sought advice from a great-aunt who’d been the longtime editor of the best-selling English crime writer P.D. James.
“She said to me, ‘There are two rules for writing a mystery. Never have more than two bodies because the reader will get confused. Second, never have more than one secret staircase,'” for exactly the same reason, recalls Sykes.
She also relied on her passion for Agatha Christie (the book’s heroine Ursula has read all seventy-five Christies); for P.G. Wodehouse’s comical Blandings Castle series; and by P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley,” a crime fiction tribute to “Pride and Prejudice.”
Sykes didn’t have to look far for Ursula, whom Sykes modeled on herself. The character shows up at Oxford dressed “a little shabby” in a Black Watch kilt, Fair Isle sweater and red wool beret knitted by her grandmother. “You look really cute,” says Ursula’s new American friend Nancy Feingold when they first meet. “Kinda like…Beatrix Potter.”
While Sykes did indeed have a kilt, she admits, “We didn’t have lots of clothes. That wasn’t the culture. Maybe some girls who lived in London had lots of clothes. I’d think they were incredibly lucky,” says Sykes, a longtime contributor to Vogue.
Although Nancy isn’t based on any one person, Sykes admits that at least one of her wisecracks comes from Lauren Santo Domingo, a friend, fellow Vogue contributor, and the cofounder of Moda Operandi. At the start of the book, Nancy refers to her junior year abroad as her “party year” abroad. “That’s so Lauren,” says Sykes. “She did her year abroad in Paris. She is really witty.”
Sykes was certainly ready for a few laughs when she sat down to write the book: Since publishing “The Debutante Divorcee” in 2005, she underwent IVF and was treated for endometriosis and vertigo. When her youngest daughter was old enough to go to school, she took up her novelist’s pen once again.
Her first book, “Bergdorf Blondes,” was a New York Times bestseller in hardcover and in paperback, although it wasn’t well-received in her native Britain.
With “Party Girls,” she said she tried to write “something really, really fun to read, but that’s intelligent and witty. There’s a lot in this book that is romanticized, and it is quite nice to get a break from reality. It’s like ‘La La Land.’ All these things bring a little bit of joy to the world.”
She said the best part was being able to relive her years at Oxford. “It was a great time in my life. I really love studying and doing that kind of work. Writing a book is like reliving it. I realized that you’re the same as when you are 18, you just have more wrinkles.”