Friday, December 16, 2016

Catriona McPherson and THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS

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 Waynes World put it too: Arent we lucky we were there to get all that information? It seemed extraneous at the time.

(Waynes 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 cant go out anymore because thats 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, Id say. I dont 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 Im writing about Dandy Gilver. As we get into the mid-1930s, Dandys husband is increasingly disturbed by the news from Europe, while Im 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! Ive been trying to prove theres 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 ventriloquists dummy cannot contain a hollow thats 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 havent used this plot device yet, but how I long to!

If there is a butchers shop in a psychological thriller, and if an innocent young woman far from home is given free accommodation in the flat above the butchers 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, youve 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 thats 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!

Thats 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

DEBS: I'm off to order my copy of THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS! Readers, tell us your take on Gothick Schlock! (I just wanted an excuse to type that again...)


  1. Catriona, I love the “just this side of ludicrous" . . . it makes for amazing stories. I am so looking forward to reading “The Reek of Red Herrings.”
    As for the unbreakable reader/writer covenants, may I say the ventriloquist’s dummy is right up there with anything having to do with dolls --- which are, in my humble opinion, creepy, creepy, creepy . . . .

  2. Oh, Debs, count me in as a fan girl, too, who wants to be a witty Scottish lass who writes spectacular novels. I swear I could listen to you, Catriona, talk all day long in that beautiful Scottish tongue of yours. I've already proved that I can read your books all night long. I may not shiver every time I hear the phrase "the patter of tiny feet," but I am deeply suspicious of butcher shops now. I have a board on Pinterest entitled "Creepy Cool," and, Catriona, your stand-alones definitely fit that category. I'm still trying to catch up on the Dandy Gilver series, but I'll get there.

    Speaking of the Dandy Gilver series and The Reek of Red Herrings, I accidentally pre-ordered two copies, because two copies arrived at my house. Now, I'm thinking that maybe since it's Christmas and all, I'll do a giveaway on my reading blog this weekend. I might be bold enough to ask you to say a few words for the blog. I'll message you, Catriona, but I would only need a paragraph or so about something Christmasy, like a favorite book or books you received for Christmas.

    One of the things I enjoy so much about your Dandy books are the fantastic titles. You and Alan Bradley are probably my two favorite with quirky titles. So happy you were on Jungle Reds today.

  3. Oh but Debs and Kathy, you are perfect exactly as you are! And there can really only be one Catriona...

    Love this post--thank you Catriona for a great morning laugh. this series sounds like so much fun--it's on my list! And what an amazing book you'd write if you included ALL those revolvers...

    I'll try to think of one and come back later...

  4. Catriona, the Searle Brothers’ Museum of Curiosities sounds awesome! The ventriloquist and evildoings in butcher shops are also creepy cool. I have enjoyed reading your stand-alones, but I think I should dive into the "just this side of ludicrous" Dandy Gilver series, too.

  5. I was privileged to get the ARC of THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS last summer, and ladies, are you ever in for a treat. Catriona's extraordinary sense of humor shines through, and, be patient. I promise you will pick up the dialect quickly. The picture of life in this village astounded me, tee names and all.

    This is my favorite Dandy Gilver book so far, although I can't wait to see what she does with the nuns.

    Thank you for being here today and making my face smile. xox

    PS People, the weather outside is frightful, got about a foot of drifting snow in the night. It's a long underwear curl up with a book in front of the fire sort of day.

  6. Oh Macbeth! Macbeth every time! Something for everyone. Including sleepwalking, always a delightful trope. And the Scottish Play is, of course, infamous for attracting bad luck, superstitions and accidents. (Accidents?)

    And up there with ventriloquist dummies....Scary Clowns.

  7. Where's Vincent Price when you need him? Add me to the FANS OF CATRIONA MCPHERSON!

  8. I don't know about slo I don't know about slot Gothic, which is a wonderful phrase by the wa, which is a wonderful phrase by the way, but I do know that The Dandy gilver series is exactly the kind of book I a The Dandy gilver series is exactly the kind of book I am seeking out in these difficult day difficult days. When life is hard and the temperature is below zer difficult days. When life is hard and the temperature is below 0, there truly is nothing like a plot "just this side of ludicrous" to give one comfort..

  9. I love when an author subverts my expectations. I read so much crime fiction that I can spot most plot devices as they arrive, and usually that doesn't both me. But when it's something that seems fairly obvious, I love when how I thought that would play out goes in a totally different direction.

    Catriona will agree with me about I Let You Go by Clare Macintosh. The whole first section of that novel is a bit of a bluff and when that twist comes, most readers will not expect it because we have been conditioned to think a certain way. If you haven't read it, you really must.

  10. "Just this side of ludicrous." Sign me up!

    And yes, MacBeth every time. Something for everyone.

    Like Kristopher, I don't mind plot devices, but I love it when they go off in a different direction.

  11. Thanks for having me, Reds. And thank you, Deb, for those very kind words. I had a blast writing this book (I can say that now time has passed and I've forgotten the despair) so it's lovely to have other people enjoy it now.

    And as for clowns and dolls . . . Brrrr.

  12. Catriona, your books are on my TBR list, but I'm already a fan because of the toastmaster skills you exhibited at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix. You were hilarious at the banquet, and you are always so gracious when I see you interacting with fans. I'm sure you've answered this many times, but how did you come up with the name "Dandy Gilver?" I love it!

    Kristopher, I'm totally with you on "I Let You Go." That is one of the few books that truly surprised me in recent years.

    Susan D., is there any other kind of clown than the scary variety? ;)

  13. Catriona, I love the cover of RED HERRINGS. I almost bought it for Kindle (I'm crazy about my new Paperwhite) but decided I had to have the real thing just for the cover. And to loan to reader friends... (What better way to tell your friends you love them than to get them hooked on a new series???)

  14. I'm with Julia, 'just this side of ludicrous' is just what I need in these trying times! Can't wait to check out Dandy Gilver.

  15. I love Dandy's world with her hot partner Alex, who is like another little brother to pick on, and her crusty husband Hugh, who is another ideal target. Love the stories!
    Do not, I repeat, do not put any dummies in future stories. They are too creepy. No clowns either. The burryman was creepy enough. I'm looking forward to the nuns and to MacBeth.

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  17. Ha, Pat. Alex is more than a "little brother", I think!

  18. Catriona - You are simply a marvel. I am always delighted when a new book by you comes out. I love Dandy and I enjoy your standalones even more. And I am forever grateful that you were so lovely when I screwed the pooch and missed my panel in Raleigh.

  19. Catriona, you already know I'm a fan. Wherever you go, I will follow, including into the schlockiest heart of darkness.

    And thanks to you, I'm ever so glad we butcher our own venison.

  20. "Just this side of ludicrous" sounds fine to me - something I likely would enjoy.

    A book with evil clowns is probably not something I would have bought or borrowed in the first place. There would have to have been some outstanding reviews by critics I trust.

    When a clerk at the bookshop suggested a Dandy Gilver book to me I bought it and then discovered it was the 4th or 5th in the series. So before reading it I went to the library and borrowed the earlier books to read first.

    For me that situation is the best sort of treat. I also found the website with the room layouts and all of the character links which I loved. I think all of the information is still in the "Visit Gilverton" page - just in a different format. I always look forward to a new Dandy Gilver book, I love getting involved in a good series.

    I've enjoyed the stand alone novels, too. To pick a couple of favorites, "As She Left It" and "Quiet Neighbors." Both have an atmosphere - sense of place, I suppose - that drew me in and seemed real even in their eccentricities. The appeal of the town in "Quiet Neighbors" felt almost on a genetic level. And the supporting characters in both are so right to inhabit those places and play their parts in the stories.

    Besides being the first stand alone, "As She Left It" has Opal. She appealed to me in the way young protagonists in books like Gladys Mitchell's "The Rising of the Moon" or Michael Innes's "The Journeying Boy" did years ago. I love this book.

    I can't figure out how to say much of anything about "I Let You Go" without saying too much. I didn't mind the twists and turns or finding out - well, I can't say that, can I? But I think that an author that takes a reader through a maze (or some number of mazes) owes the reader an ending rather than a "What?!?" One more paragraph, or a few less words.

  21. Ingrid - so often I have no sensible answer to questions. I'm delighted you asked one that *does* have an answer. Dandy's full name is Dandelion. Her parents were Arts and Crafts devotees and so they named her after one of the British countrysides' most neglected wildflowers. Gilver is an authorial joke. A "gil" is a Scottish servant - you still see it in Highland estates where the gamekeeper is called a ghillie. And "ver" is Latin for "true" . . . so her nae (kind of) means servant of truth.

    Sharon - I am blushing. I'm also galloping to the end of a standalone right now (in Starbucks today). I hope you like Donna Weber as much as you liked Opal Jones.

  22. A new stand alone! Be still my heart.

  23. Welcome to JRW!

    We met at Malice last year. We talked about Rumpole of the Old Bailey mysteries. Funny story about Wayne's World. My favorite sketch is where they drive and they are at a stoplight. They see a man driving a Bentley. he looks like the guy from the Grey Poupon dijon ? mustard commercial. They ask him "Where's the Grey Poupon?" then the light changes to green. They drive off laughing.

    I discovered your books at the local bookstore and decided to get the first one in the series at the library.