Photos: View of the small village of Porlock in Somerset, England. (Eduardo Fonseca Arraes/Getty Images); R. W. Martin and Brothers, Tall bird, British, Southall, London, R. W. Martin and Brothers, 1896. (Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
How a New British Mystery Pays Homage to Late ‘Antiques Roadshow’ Expert Judith Miller
The renowned appraiser helped her daughter, C. L. Miller, choose the treasures central to ‘The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder’ / BY Nathalie Atkinson / February 7th, 2024
The legacy of beloved Antiques Roadshow presenter Judith Miller lives on in The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder, a mystery novel inspired by the late Scottish appraiser and author who died last spring at 71. The writer, C. L. Miller, is the nom de plume of Judith’s daughter, Cara Miller. She knows the fascinating subculture of antique valuations well, since her mother co-founded the encyclopedic industry bible, Miller’s Antique Handbook and Price Guide, with her father, Martin Miller – an eccentric collector, hotelier and bon vivant – in 1979, and Cara’s first job was editorial assistant for the valuation guides.
To flesh out the cosy mystery, which is largely set at an isolated Suffolk estate during an antiques weekend attended by secretive guests, Cara drew on her mother’s expertise. The pair worked closely together, deciding which antiques to include in the book. “I would just kind of phone her up and go, you know, how can you tell an oriental vase is well made compared to the replica ones?” Cara says. They selected antiques for all six books in the planned series, “which I’m so grateful for now.”
The Plot Thickens
The mystery’s premise will be familiar to anyone who loved Ian McShane’s roguish antique-dealer sleuth on A&E’s Lovejoy. “I watched it since I was like, two,” the author laughs in a phone interview from her home in a medieval cottage in Suffolk. Cara’s debut mystery flips the Lovejoy script by making the antique hunter a 40-something woman making a fresh start. Heroine Freya Lockwood is equal parts Agatha Raisin, the amateur Cotswolds sleuth, and swashbuckling Indiana Jones.
The adventure begins when Freya receives a posthumous letter from her mentor, Arthur, who died in suspicious circumstances. That pulls her back into the career she had abandoned 20 years earlier as an antiques hunter working for insurance companies and private owners to recover stolen treasures. When she’s summoned home to Suffolk from London by Aunt Carole, a retired septuagenarian jet-setter, the talented amateurs become involved in a murder investigation.
While Cara’s mother was a consultant on the book and the general inspiration for the novel, Freya’s partner in crime, the charming and glamorous elderly Aunt Carole, is based on British actress, pin-up and erstwhile Bond girl, Carole Ashby. Ashby was Cara’s father’s best friend and a constant in her life, and a natural choice for an older character full of life and energy. “I didn’t want a Miss Marple knitting,” she says.
The author, who was raised on Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven books, is devotee of English murder mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, and is, at the moment, on a historical crime fiction jag, reading Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a British author of historical crime fiction. Cara always wanted to write crime, and had the characters of Freya and Aunt Carole in mind, but not the setting. About two years ago, over some games of Cluedo (the board game we call Clue), the whole “in the library with the candlestick” sparked an idea. “But what is it? What type of candlestick is it? Is it Art Deco? Victorian?” she recalls thinking. “And that’s when I kind of said the sentence that has now gone everywhere, which is, ‘What antique would you kill for?’”
Many capers focus on big splashy jewels, but Miller’s novel showcases more interesting antiques, such as the Martin Brothers bird that features prominently in the storyline. The avant-garde 19th-century ceramics produced by three English brothers are rare and highly collectible, but, aesthetically, they are definitely an acquired taste.
“Some people suddenly just realize that the antiques in the book are real when they Google Martin Brothers,” Cara says. “Almost all of the bigger antiques in the book are real. It was quite organic. [We would discuss them] over phone calls, or she [Judith] would WhatsApp me pictures of antiques that she thought were interesting and had stories behind them, and I kind of weaved them in.”
I spoke to Judith many times on her frequent trips to Canada, when she would talk about her compulsion for collecting antique chairs, or what she called “the chair problem.” I tell Cara the mental image I will forever associate with her mother is a house where chairs line the perimeter of every room, and she laughs. “There were loads of chairs,” she recalls, “but we couldn’t sit in them, either because the bottom had fallen out or … because they were too valuable.” These days, Cara collects Georg Jensen jewelry, as her mother did, as well as mid-century furniture. She also counts a fox pin by French artist Léa Stein – the fox is the designer’s signature motif – among her most treasured possessions, and it also appears in the novel. “It was the first piece of costume jewelry I ever owned. My mother bought it for me. I was, like, 23,” she admits, “and wasn’t entirely keen, because I don’t think 23-year-olds wore brooches. I wear it now and love it.” Another important memento is a tea caddy given to her by her father, who died in 2013. The two gifts “are not that valuable, but they’re hugely valuable to me.”
On the Antiques Roadshow, Judith always imparted the personal stories attached to antiques, and that is a theme running through Cara’s book. “We discussed that quite a lot,” she says, “what we value and why we value it.” One trait that differentiated Judith from other appraisers, and made her such a popular TV presenter, is that she made all the intellectual and historical knowledge accessible, and encouraged enthusiastic amateurs to train their eye. And now her daughter is doing the same thing, through fiction.
The antiques business can sometimes be old-fashioned, and it hasn’t always been an easy one for women. (In 1996, Judith wrote a novel called Blythe Spirit, about a female auctioneer trying to set up shop in the male-dominated industry.) “Which is why I wanted two female, intergenerational, strong women, although Freya’s still finding her feet,” says Cara. “I wanted that in a book to show it can be women leading the way.”
In The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder, Freya is long-divorced and a new empty nester, now that her adult daughter, Jade, has moved to the United States. Readers meet her at an interesting moment, when Freya is coming into her own and open to possibilities that don’t necessarily involve romance. “I’m really interested in the crossroads that women come to in life,” Cara says. “Who am I? Who do I want my next reincarnation to be?”
When she first sent the manuscript to agents, “there were quite a lot of comments” saying her main character needed a love interest. While there is a sprinkling of that, she didn’t want the first book to emphasize it. “I wanted it to be Freya finding herself and reconnecting to her love of hunting antiques.”
Just as Freya’s legacy from her mentor is the antiques world, Cara – who is now in her 40s, like her main character – is combining her heritage in antiques with publishing. “I love the fact that I’ve brought all these elements of my life and my childhood into it,” she adds, “because it makes it really kind of special for me.”