INTERVIEW | Nita Prose: taking readers on a journey that ends in hope

Nita Prose’s latest novel is a mystery, a dark fairy tale, a cautionary story and a parable all rolled into one fantastic Dickensian tale, writes Jennifer Platt

31 March 2024 - 00:00
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Author Nita Prose has followed up the huge success of her bestseller, 'The Maid', with 'The Mystery Guest'.
Author Nita Prose has followed up the huge success of her bestseller, 'The Maid', with 'The Mystery Guest'.
Image: Dahlia Katz

The Mystery Guest: A Maid Novel

Nita Prose

**** (4 stars), HarperCollins

Molly Gray has become an indelible literary character due to Nita Prose’s The Maid in 2022. In the best-seller, we meet Molly, a cleaner at The Regency Hotel, who solves a locked room murder mystery of a guest at the hotel in her own special way. Molly is every woman and no woman. Invisible because of her job as a hotel maid, but she has skills: she’s a sensitive young woman, focused, diligent and precise — and she processes and sees the world differently.

She’s hyper-attentive to certain details but does miss out on the usual societal norms and cues and, therefore, is treated quite terribly by some people. But these special skills allow Molly to find out who the killer is. The book comes across as a cosy whodunnit but it has extra depth and layers where big issues come into play, such as spousal abuse and classism, which are carefully written in a gentle way by Prose.

The follow-up novel, The Mystery Guest, is as good, if not better. We asked Prose about the complexities and anxieties of writing a sequel to a book that was so beloved. She tells us via Zoom: “I was terrified. The hard part with a character like Molly is that people really enjoyed her. I got so much fan mail from readers who loved her and wanted more. When you are presented with the notion of a sequel, you as a writer have to be able to give more rather than less. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint. I sat with that for a long time and I tried to write something, and I vowed that if I didn’t think it was good and it was just a second kick of the can with nothing new and that didn’t live up to Molly, no-one would ever see it. It took me some time to figure out, but eventually I got there.” 

Molly’s origin story is one of happenstance and past experience. Prose explains: “In 2019, I was at the London Book Fair as my previous job was a books editor. I stumbled across a maid who was cleaning my room. It was a weird encounter because she didn’t expect me to enter my room at that weird hour of the day and, like the fool that I am, I’d left a pair of disgusting sweaty turned inside-out track pants in a big heaping mess on my bed. She was holding them in her hands attempting to fold them.

“We didn’t speak. I looked at her and she looked at me. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how being a room maid was such an invisible yet highly intimate job.’ It was one of those little moments that stuck with me because days later I was on my plane ride home and I started to hear a voice that was not me. It was clean. It was crisp. Polished and precise. It was Molly. I grabbed the napkin from under my drink as I didn’t have any paper and I started to write. It became the prologue for The Maid

“The second part of the inspiration was completely subconscious, working away in the background. Many years ago, before I was an editor, I worked with special needs teenagers. It was a formative time in my life, and I loved working with them. I would take them on field trips (and I mean that loosely as we didn’t go to fancy museums and the likes). We’d go to the doughnut shop across the street. Sometimes it wasn’t for the students that we did that for, it was for the rest of society.

“I became acutely aware by working with these kids what they faced every day. The grudges, the looks, the moving across the sidewalk to avoid them, all kinds of small, little offences just because they were marginally different. I had a kid who carried newspapers around with him all the time because having the past with him in his hands made him feel safe. I had another kid who had ticks, who rocked himself a lot. Some people were kind, but some others were horrible. In the face of that kind of prejudice, I watched these kids handle such reactions with dignity and grace. In retrospect, with The Maid, I think I took those kids’ best characteristics and gave them to Molly.”

In the second book, Molly grows more confident of her space and place in the world. She is now promoted to head maid and she’s happily living with the lovely Juan Manuel, the kitchen worker who had fallen into the vices of a predatory colleague in the first novel. Juan is not much featured in this novel, as he is visiting his family in Mexico.

Prose explains Molly’s growth. “In the first book, Molly doesn’t have the vocabulary or the means of understanding it yet to deal with finding her place and not being just invisible. In the second book, she does. She knows herself. She has confidence. It gets challenged but she finds it again.”

The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose.
The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose.
Image: Supplied

The novel starts off with a prologue that Molly’s gran has told her — of a maid, a rat and a spoon. Prose says that it was this true story that led to the thrust of the sequel.

“For a long time I gave some thought to writing another Molly book but I didn’t think there was any more runway. Then another sorta magical moment happened. I was on tour for The Maid. I was in England and I had a day off. So I went to this museum off Brighton in a tiny town called Lewes. I stumbled across a strange display in the castle museum. It was a mummified body of a rat and one single silver spoon.

“The strangest thing to see in this beautiful castle. When I read the inscription it turned out that it was a memorial to a maid who lived and worked in the castle in the 17th century. She had been accused of stealing silverware and was fired. Many years later when they were renovating the castle, they opened up a few walls and found a rat’s nest, and inside that was the mummified rat and spoon.

“This true story suddenly opened up the narrative possibilities. This was a dark fairy tale, a cautionary story and a parable rolled all up in one. I could hear [Molly’s] gran speaking to me: ‘Be careful what you assume. Nothing is as it seems to be. The past cannot stay buried forever.’ Those truisms were ringing in my mind.

“With that as a backdrop, the tapestry for this second book opened itself to me and I saw I could create a new world where we could go back in time and where Molly, in her new vantage point of growth and new security compared to the first book, was now able to start to investigate who her gran was and the great sacrifices her gran made in order for her to become as grounded, steady, and productive as she is today.”

Though gran has been dead in the past two books, she is one of a central character and is the most important person in Molly’s life. Molly hears gran’s words of wisdom in her head all the time: “Do a good deed for someone in need” and the goody, “There’s no point boxing with buffoons”.

In The Mystery Guest, JD Grimthorpe, a novelist with over 20 books to his name, is to make a big announcement at The Regency Hotel. A notable event, as the mystery novelist is usually reclusive and fiercely private. But before he can tell the audience the big news, he falls down dead on the stage. Murdered. This is not good news for Molly as she knows him.

When Molly was 10 years old, gran was the maid at his mansion. The book then veers into two timelines. We see Molly trying to figure out who murdered Mr Grimthorpe and how, and we see her remembering her time at the mansion, grappling with issues she just cannot grasp.

Prose says: “Like in life, the more we know ourselves and the better understanding of who we are, we have more energy for understanding others. We have compassion. That’s what is going on with Molly in the second book, she is learning compassion for all of the sacrifices that her gran made for her. Her understanding of what happened to her in JD Grimthorpe’s mansion all those years ago adds a whole new context. She revisits those memories in her mind. I think that’s an incredible duality that we all face when we grow up — we can look at our childhood specifically and we can see it with two sets of eyes. Our grown eyes and our immature gaze from the past. It is a remarkable capability.

“I consider this a fairy tale for adults. Even more than a mystery. For me, it’s essential that the reader goes on a journey that always ends in hope. I might take you to some dark places, some challenging places but by the end of the book I would like the reader to feel the great possibility of change, personal change and hope for the future.”

Will there be more from Molly?

“It is something I am thinking about. In fact, I just finished a novella, which will be published later this year. It’s a holiday story with Molly and, in this case, she is solving a different mystery with Juan Manuel. He is acting strange, and tired, and his comings and goings cannot be explained. After that, I will have one more large book that will close the series. It’s difficult, but the more I think about Molly in my excavation of her past and my thoughts of her future, the more I know about her and the more I realise there’s more to tell about her.”

'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens.
'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens.
Image: Supplied


Great Expectations (and all of Charles Dickens, really): Dickens makes us care about a main character and devote ourselves entirely to the bildungsroman.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving: Owen Meany remains one of my favourite characters of all times, and as a book about faith, I find it ingenious, open-minded, and hopeful.

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel: Hyperreal, elemental, philosophical and yet we care so much for that boy on the boat (and even for the tiger).

Room, Emma Donoghue: The book defies genre and narrative expectations to examine the long-lasting impacts of trauma.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson: There is no more graceful stylist than this author.

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