HANK: So I'm in the big striped armchair, reading.
My husband says: "What?"
I say: "What, what?"
And he says--"You're laughing."
I say, "Oh, yeah, this book is wonderful." I go back to reading.
A few minutes later:
"What?" Jonathan says.
I put my finger on the page, impatient, marking the place. "What what?"
"You laughed again."
Well, yeah. I had to leave the room, and go read elsewhere, else Jonathan would never have allowed me to finish.
I know it's not hip anymore to describe a book by saying: "It's X meets Y." But if I said: It's Upstairs, Downstairs meets. ..Nora Charles? Catriona McPherson's new Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains is a little bit Agatha, a little bit--well, maybe a little bit Catriona herself, as I learned when I (as a complete fan girl) met her at Bouchercon.
SO happy to introduce her to you! I either had to make her photo HUGE or small like this. Catriona (which is pronounced like the hurricane of New Orleans notoriety) is so very demure and to the manner born, I'm sure she'd prefer small.)
by Catriona McPherson
I have a new but dear friend, Eileen Rendahl, (see below) who introduced herself to me just over a year ago as a writer of romantic suspense, currently moving into urban fantasy. Boy, was I impressed. (This is prosaic licence; actually she introduced herself by saying “Hi, I’m Eileen. I’m going to get some kettle corn”). But the fact remains that this is a woman who knows her genres, sub-genres and the niches therein. Looks it too, eh? Quietly assured.
Me? I know nothing. A year ago I didn’t even know what steam-punk was. (To anyone else as ignorant as I was: steam-punk is the other category of popular culture that’s not zombies)
Okay, maybe it’s not true to say I know nothing. I know my books were crime novels in UK and are mysteries here, but after that it gets shaky.
I thought I knew a bit more. Much as I don’t exactly love the label “cozy” I reckoned, when I moved to California a year ago, that it was the best way to describe my series to my hoped-for new audience.
A reader at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco put me straight. Apparently . . . it’s not a cozy if you nail a kitten down. Not even if you just let your heroine detective discover a nailed down kitten, prise it free with a hat-pin and take it home where they all live happ-
Oh wait, no they don’t. No animals were harmed in the writing of this fictional calamity. Not a one. In fact, some fiction was probably harmed in honour of animals, when I couldn’t move to check an etymology in the Shorter Oxford or boot up Google-earth to see exactly what some street in Dunkeld looks like, because I didn’t want to disturb the real cat who was sleeping on my knee.
Now, I could say I write traditional mysteries. In fact, I do say it. Traditional mysteries are described on the Malice Domestic website as novels containing no explicit sex or excessive gore and violence. Kind of negative, but hey.
My series doesn’t have either explicit sex or graphic violence, as it happens, but here’s why. I set out ten years ago to write stories in homage to the British golden age, following humbly in the footsteps of: Dorothy L Sayers, without the casual anti-Semitism; Margery Allingham, with less oblique dialogue, because I couldn’t be sure that my books would be read and re-read until they made sense (or is it just me that needs a few goes at some Allinghams before I get them?); and Agatha Christie, without the eighty published works and the West-end play (being realistic). It’s because the crime novels published in London in the 1920s and 30s have no sex and little violence that mine don’t. And no effing and jeffing either.
So when a fan of my 1920s series read a stand-alone set in modern times, she was disgusted. Hurt and offended and moved to write and tell me. The language was unbearable. And not just the profanity, but also the sloppy syntax. My classically educated 1920s narrator writes beautiful English: properly formed sentences with subordinate clauses and subjunctive mood and scads of whoms and whences. She’d no more split an infinitive than she’d eat a pie in the street. My dear! My 1980s heroine . . . less so.
And as to what genre my modern novels fall under? I thought they were stories, maybe yarns, possibly capers. Told you I know nothing: those aren’t genres. But because I was a woman, they were packaged and marketed as women’s fiction. Ironically, the first one was about time-travel and I felt as if I’d time-travelled my way back to the 1950s, clever lady-doctors, male nurses, and fiction that was women’s fiction because a woman wrote it. Below, Exhibit A.
Flash forward five years and see me bellowing at my car radio during NPR’s All Things Considered last week when Jeffrey Eugenides (love ‘im) was interviewed by Neal Conan (love ‘im too but keep reading) about his new book The Marriage Plot. Conan quoted someone as having said that gender equality had been bad for literature because marriage could no longer be at the centre of a novel in the same way it was for Jane Austen and George Eliot. But fear not, Conan went on, because Eugenides had managed to pull off the amazing feat of writing a novel about love in which we don’t know, for all of its length, who the heroine will marry.
Seriously. A man has written a romance and thus proved that it’s possible to do so. It reminds me of that old office-meeting joke: “Good idea, Miss Jones. Now, would one of you men like to have it, so we can minute it and move on?”
I’m pretty sure you’re not a cozy writer if you scream obscenities at NPR and blow a stop sign and then scream obscenities at the CHP because he calls you ma’am and makes you feel old and so he arrests you and you spend the night banged up in the tank and so you get your residency revoked by Homeland Security and you have to go back to Scotland and so you don’t need to wonder whether they’re cozies anyway.
I saw the stop sign just in time. The rest was fiction. Just don’t ask me what genre, okay?
HANK: I adore Margery Allingham..and confess to a huge crush on Albert Campion. (Leslie Howard, right?) Did you read golden age mysteries? What do you remember--crushes, anyone? (Roderick Alleyn? Peter Wimsey?)
Catriona McPherson is a recovering academic and the author of six novels set in Scotland in the 1920s, featuring the gently-born but nevertheless pretty kick-ass private detective, Dandy Gilver. St Martin's Press have just launched the series in the US with The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. A year ago, Catriona left a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in southern Scotland, and now lives on a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in northern California. Cantaloupe instead of rutabaga - otherwise business as usual.