DEBORAH CROMBIE: Can I just have a little fan girl moment here??? If I could pick attributes out of a grab bag, I would be Scottish and funny and clever, and be a terrific writer of Scottish period mysteries AND spine-chilling standalone suspense novels... But, sigh, that not being the case, I'm thrilled to bring you Catriona McPherson, who is--and does--all of those things!
CATRIONA MCPHERSON: It was Chekov who said “If you draw attention to a revolver on the mantelpiece in Chapter 1, it must go off in Chapter 2 or 3”. But I like the way Wayne’s World put it too: “Aren’t we lucky we were there to get all that information? It seemed extraneous at the time.”
(Wayne’s world has lessons for life as well as art, if you ask me. Several oh-so-sophisticated post-divorce parties that drain the ex-couple and exhaust their friends could be avoided if people would just listen to Wayne telling Stacey that they can’t go out anymore because that’s what breaking up means.)
But where does a writer draw the line between fulfilling the expectations raised by the revolver and getting stuck in hackneyed plotlines?
Depends a bit on the genre and a lot on the tone, I’d say. I don’t know what happens in serious crime novels, rich with social commentary, exploring important themes about the pressing questions of our age, but round my way The Gothick rules and the schlockier the better.
I do take seriously the long shadow of the Great War when I’m writing about Dandy Gilver. As we get into the mid-1930s, Dandy’s husband is increasingly disturbed by the news from Europe, while I’m increasingly on edge about the fact that she has two fighting-age sons. But, still, the review I treasure most was one that said “the plot is just this side of ludicrous”. What a challenge! I’ve been trying to prove there’s room to squeak in another plot “this side of ludicrous” ever since.
That colours my view of what I owe readers. Here, then, are my suggestions for unbreakable reader/writer covenants.
A ventriloquist’s dummy cannot contain a hollow that’s a hiding place for secret papers, or be made of solid gold so it can serve as a way of smuggling wealth across borders. No, it must (appear to) come to life, walking and talking and – most especially – swiveling its head and blinking. Readers should shiver every time they hear the phrase “the patter of tiny feet” for the rest of their lives. I haven’t used this plot device yet, but how I long to!
If there is a butcher’s shop in a psychological thriller, and if an innocent young woman – far from home – is given free accommodation in the flat above the butcher’s shop, and if she finds out that several young women before her have disappeared from this apparently sleepy little town . . . the butchers must (appear to) be purveyors of some extra-special speciality-meats.
When a mystery novel takes place around a production of Macbeth . . . Actually, the check-list of schlock-gothic goings on here are unparalleled. Maybe The Rocky Horror Picture Show comes close, but nothing surpasses it. Witches! Blood! Madness! Ghosts! The overarching rule is that whatever happens onstage must (appear to) be mirrored off-stage too. My only worry when I decided I wanted a theatrical setting for a Dandy Gilver novel was that Macbeth had been used too many times already. I asked my publisher for a ruling. “Tee-hee!” came the reply. “Oh, you’ve got to!” I love my editor. DANDY GILVER AND SPOT OF TOIL AND TROUBLE will be out next summer in the UK.
Taxidermists, in a mystery novel, must (appear to) harbour hopes of stuffing the entire animal kingdom. All the primates. You know what I mean. And that’s a wee bit too gruesome for me to base a whole book on. So the taxidermists in THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS are just a sub-plot/sideshow. I needed a big house for a village girl to have gone into service at. And I wanted a pair of eccentrics to be the householders. But what might their eccentric hobby be? Something in vogue in late-Victorian times. Something equally repellant and compulsive. Something they might display to unwary visitors who knocked on the cobweb-strewn door of their looming mansion and gulped as it creaked open . . . .
There are only a few scenes in the Searle Brothers’ Museum of Curiosities, but how I loved writing them!
That’s my list of Chekovian revolvers, then. Anything else is fair game to stick to, subvert, twist or throw out the window. What would you add to it or bump?
Catriona McPherson is the author of eleven novels in the Dandy Gilver series, featuring Dandy, her sidekick Alec Osborne, and Bunty the Dalmatian, set in Scotland in the 1920s and 30s. They have won Agatha, Macavity and Lefty awards and been shortlisted for a UK Dagger. The series is currently in development for television, at STV in Scotland. THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS is out this week in the US. She also writes contemporary standalones, including THE CHILD GARDEN and QUIET NEIGHBORS, which have won two Anthonys and been shortlisted for an Edgar and a Mary Higgins Clark award. Find out more at www.catrionamcpherson.com.