Catriona McPherson’s ‘Scottish Downton Abbey’ Dandy Gilver series serves up a hedonistic mix of history, black comedy and murder in elegant prose certain to appeal to fans of Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie and Nancy Mitford.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Catriona talks about why she loves the Golden Age of British mystery and how her new heroine Lexy Campbell views the California dream through Scottish eyes.
But before we talk to Catriona, just a reminder that the show notes for this Binge Reading episode can be found on the website, The Joys of Binge Reading.com
That’s where you’ll find a full transcript of our discussion, plus links to Cat’s books and website, as well as details about how to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss future episodes.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why it’s important to write what you love
- How being unhappy at work got her started
- Her passion for the mythical world of Golden Age mystery
- The etiquette of leaving – and how Scots and Yankees do it differently
- Seeing the California dream through Scottish eyes
- What she’d do differently second time around
Where to find Catriona McPherson:
Blogs: Seven Criminal Minds: http://7criminalminds.blogspot.com/
Femme Fatale Blogspot: http://femmesfatales.typepad.com/
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Catriona. . Hello there Catriona and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us
Cat: Thanks for having me Jenny
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning – was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction? And if there was a catalyst, what was it?
Catriona: There was a time when I was a young teenager, when I was thirteen or fourteen when I wanted to be a writer, that what I wanted to do for a job But it was frowned upon but I had a careers adviser who told me it was daft, that it wasn’t a good idea, So I shelved that idea and it was only when I was 35 and I had a job that I hated that I came back to it and by then there wasn’t anyone who could tell me I couldn’t do it…. so I had a long, long hiatus.
Jenny: You’re extremely versatile – you’ve successfully proven yourself in three different genres – historical mysteries, dark “stand alone” thrillers, and your latest book Scot Free which launches a new California laugh out loud funny mystery series. But let’s start with the Dandy Gilver, and your Scottish mysteries set in the 1920’s and 30’s in a big country house . . – the “Scottish Downton Abbey”
You’re up to Number 12 in this series now. They’ve gathered an armful of awards and a dedicated following – Tell us about writing # 1 “After the Armistice.” I presume this was your first completed MS?
Catriona: Well no actually it’s not, the first MS I finished was a modern literary novel – or anyway a novel – and after I got 40 rejections, I was feeling a bit glum, and I put it in a drawer, and my husband Neil suggested that I should write something I loved as a “palate cleanser” just for fun.
And what I loved was the Golden Age of Mystery – it’s not really a historical period, because it’s a cultural space – a bit of history and a lot of writing tradition… and he said write of them just for fun, because everyone who writes them is dead, so just for fun I wrote the first Dandy Gilver story, because I love Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes and Josephine Tey and all that lot . . and as you say I am up to Number 12 now, so my palate cleanser went very well indeed.
Jenny: It really feels as if you knew the time, although of course you aren’t old enough to know it personally – As the lady of the estate Dandy follows all the class rules – at least in the beginning – she’s raised by nannies and governesses, goes to a Paris finishing school and marries for status rather than love. She looks ready for a life of tea parties and good works…… How does she evolve over twelve books?
Catriona: I am not old enough to remember that period but when I first started in 2001 – the first book is set in 1922 – and there were elderly people living around me who could just about remember the period. They could certainly remember the ’30s.
And also I was living in Scotland then, and the buildings look just the same – big lumps of stone and they are all still there And I was very steeped in the literary period. I’m really grateful you said it felt like I was there, because I wanted it to feel like that, not like I was writing a historical novel separate from the period and looking back. So that’s the time.. . . as far as the class I am most definitely not of Dandy’s class, I am a working class kid, social housing, comprehensive school and all that. But Scotland is a very small country and I lived in the countryside… and in a small village with just a thousand people you just get along with who is there, everyone mixes and I lived on a country estate, I lived in a shepherd’s house, with a laird and a lady in the big house.. And it was much the same, We were on first name terms, because social life isn’t so stratified now, But I did live on an estate with a mini Downton Abbey life.
Dandy does start very conventional, she is very easily shocked and there is a lot of pearl clutching in the early books, but then she talks to a wider circle – she goes into shops, she talks to miners, she goes to a convent, and so her circle of people widens until she is pretty unshockable now, and then its fun because she shocks her husband now, because he has never moved, he’s stayed in his small daily round and he finds her quite disgraceful now, which is a lot of fun.
Jenny: There is a hint that they really do need the money and so he reluctantly almost encourages her . .
Catriona: Yes in the earlier books she keeps it quiet from him, he doesn’t know, he just assumes she is having a dalliance with the young man who is the other part of Gilver and Osborne, Alec Osborne. And that was fine at that time and in that class, as long as they were discreet. She’d had her two sons, and she could do what she wanted.. and so when he found out she was working as a detective he was quite shocked.
And now he “tholes” it – I don’t know if that’s a word that’s used in New Zealand but her “tholes” it – he puts up with it. and the money comes in very handy because they are land rich and cash poor and his aim is to hand on the estate with exactly the same amount of acreage as when he inherited it., And Dandy just buckets about the countryside with Alec.
Jenny: Yes in Book 11 she is almost wanting to find him a wife . . .
Cat: Yes I think she is almost “waiting for the boot to drop” She wants to know for sure If he would just get married then she would know what the set up is. If he falls desperately in love then she will lose her best friend. I think British people understand what the set up is, Its readers in the US why don’t they just get divorced, why doesn’t she leave that stuffed shirt? But Ohhh she would never do that, it would be such a unclassy thing to do – to say publicly I am not happy and this is not working. She would never do that.
Jenny: You gave up a “promising academic career” – was that the same job you also say made you miserable – to write full time. Why did you choose mysteries?
Catriona: It was the same job – the promise was beginning to curdle, and I was so unhappy that I was really bad at it. But there were other more practical, less high falutin’ reasons for choosing this period. For starters in the 20, forensics hadn’t spoiled all the fun. There are things that I don’t want to have to find out about. I don’t really want to know about a lot of the modern ‘crime cracking methodology’ and the mobile phone has ruined peril for people. People are just not in danger so much any more!! A few years ago I was judging one of the Edgars, and I though to myself ‘Oh I just can’t read another book where someone drops their phone in a puddle or loses it, or forgets to charge it in Chapter One so they can be in danger by the end of Chapter Two. So there are wonderful things about the 20s for writing crime then . And also you have to suspend disbelief about the whole amateur detective solving murder . . . I don’t think there has ever truly been an amateur detective who went around solving crime but it happens all the time between the covers of these
Golden Age mysteries.
Jenny: Dandy is now being made into a TV series . . Do you have a date for when we are likely to see it on screen?
Catriona: It’s not in development any more, so that’s great, it somewhere in the stage of being commissioned – these things take forever. I am now looking at it in terms of “if it ever happens it will be wonderful” Every now and then we seem to come close to someone buying the series and then they say “Oh but if we stick to Agatha Christie everyone knows what that is . . ” and I agree . . I adore Miss Marple. Fingers crossed but breath held…
Jenny: Does it annoy you to have it referred to as a “Scottish Downton’s Abbey?”
Catriona: Good gracious no! I started writing it before Downton’s Abbey, but when I moved to America in 2010 my agent was trying to find a publisher for The Proper Treatment of Blood Stains just when America was going crazy about Downton Abbey – and that book was about Dandy going undercover as a ladies maid so it was perfect timing . . And also people were hungry for more of it.. The same tone and escapism with a little bit of history.
Jenny: And then in the latter stages of Dandy you embarked on a series of stand alone “dark thrillers” – five I think to date… what attracted you to make this career move – and did you see it that way? Or did the muse ‘just lead you?’
Catriona: It looks that way, it looks like I established Dandy Gilver and then did this other thing. But I mentioned I’d written the literary novel first thing, and a couple of years later I re-wrote maybe three years ago – it as a crime novel. And I’d also done a couple of other novels that weren’t crime novels. So I’m up to 13 with Dandy and I’ve written eight of these othere – but one of them I wrote twice. nine others – So they’ve always been meshed – a Dandy and then something else, But it was also because I got an idea for a story that just wouldn’t work in the 20s, it was a modern story, so I decided to write a modern novel And Oh such relief. I’m not on anachronism watch all the time, I’m not always wondering . Would they say this, has this been invented. would the car have a rear vision mirror would that house have electricity . . so it does feel like relaxation to write these modern stories.
Jenny: And now Lexy Campbell – your heroine in the new series – Lexy is a Scottish marriage guidance counsellor who marries a groovy California dentist and discovers she bitten off more than she can chew so to speak.
You’ve been living in California since 2010 I believe. And I was interested in your earlier comment about Americans not quite “getting” the matrimonial set up in Dandy – Is Lexy your way of writing something for your American audience, and for saying “Yay, I’m acclimatized, naturalized . . . and ready to translate Scots for the Yanks?
Catriona: Yes – that’s quite perspicacious actually – it didn’t start that way, it started with one of my publishers saying we want something else – “Light bright and sparkling” to quote the late great Jane Austen – we want your Scottish voice, and set in the UK, but something new, what would you like to write?
And I went away and thought I would like to write something that just funny and floated this idea about a marriage guidance counsellor who is like a fish out of water in America, she is living in a motel called the Last Ditch motel, she moves in there quite quickly at the start of the first book, and she solves crimes.. and they went for it – and then I realised this is my chance to show my California friends what they look like through Scottish eyes.
Things that struck me as bizarre and incomprehensible when I first moved here, things I didn’t know anything about, like the rules for leaving a party. So when we had out first party here, somewhere around ten o’clock someone got up and said “I’ve got to get going” – well in fact I don’t know as I realized right at the start what was happening – but suddenly everyone left in a pack and I was almost in tears.
Neil and I looked at one another and said “What’s happened, what went wrong, did you say something . . ‘ because we didn’t realize that that’s the way American people leave parties… when one person breaks the party up, everyone leaves. And then I thought, well what do we do? This was knowledge I had but it wasn’t at the front of my brain – and I realized in Scotland, if someone leaves, and then not less than ten minutes but not more than twenty minutes later the next person gets to leave, And then not less than ten minutes, and not more than twenty the next person leaves . . so you know if you are wanting to leave and someone gets in ahead of you you are stuck . . . which is completely bonkers but that is how we do it….
So at the beginning we ended up staying at parties when everyone else had left because we didn’t realise we were supposed to leave . . !
Jenny: Isn’t that hilarious because I realize in New Zealand we do exactly the same thing you do in Scotland and I hadn’t thought of it as something we’d inherited . . .
Cat: I am used to it now and also if people bring something to a party if it doesn’t get eaten they take it away again . . that seems like a swiz… I would think “Oh good if that doesn’t get eaten I’ll have it for lunch tomorrow” and then they pack it up and take it home with them again . . .! Is that what you’d do too?
Jenny: No, we’d expect to leave it behind, not take it home with us again . . .
Jenny: Your tag line for Lexy is “the lighter side of the dark underbelly of the California dream…..” intimating you plan to weave social commentary into the satire and mystery… “ Is that part of your aim?
Catriona: I wanted it to be about the real California. When people back home think of California they think of palm trees, but there are so many Californias. I ask them “did you ever see that film Erin Brokovich?” because that is also California. I wanted to write about the real California where I live, My immigrant experience is so cushy. I’ve been welcomed in, so I wanted to write the whole thing but the lighter side. Everything is played for laughs which I was a bit worried about – you put comedy in with murder and with people who’s lives are very tough. but I put it out with diverse readers and people said “no it’s warm and you are laughing at absurdities, not at people” so I haven’t had any complaints about laughing at America.
Moving to a more general focus, away from specific books to your wider career
Jenny: You’ve got a Ph.D in linguistics so I should be addressing you as Dr Catrina – or Dr Cat perhaps? Tell me, Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Catriona: Well certainly not the nine years of study in linguistics! Ironically not thinking of it in terms of career, not trying to hit the market or be too canny, about what I am doing, but simply writing what I love and thinking “if this doesn’t work out I’ll try something else . . but writing from your gut – I think it shows. Even though I write lots of different things – None of the things I write are pot boilers, and I don’t like it when people talk about “churning out.” The worse thing I ever heard anyone say was you’ve “extruded another unit of product.” I thought wow you’re a nice lady…
Jenny: Was that another writer? Was that one of your readers?
Catriona: It was a fan – but it was at a large event, and not a fan of mine. that’s quite a choice of words, like a sausage machine . . . Also you’d need a time machine, because I’d have to say, start at the right time. . I started in 2001 and I do think it is harder now… There are more writers, and less money since 2008 and the “big recession” and also many more competitors for people’s attention – streaming for Netflix etc… etc distracts from reading.
Jenny: I see on your website you have some great iterations on the world of “Gilverton” – Dandy’s world, introducing the estate and the people who work on it – all fictional I presume . . . . But If you were going to take your readers on a “Tripadvisor magical mystery tour of Dandy Gilver’s world”, where would you suggest they go . . . to take them close to her roots?
Catriona: Absolutely – Dandy’s own house is fictional but all the other castles and great houses towns and street I mention in different books are real – what a great idea… I should do that . . . Briefly the property where Dandy is under cover as a ladies maid in The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains (Book 5) – it’s still there, it’s called The Georgian House and it is owned by the National Trust and it is open to the public – the rooms are all there and you can go to the attics and kitchens, and the village of Book 2, the Burry Man’s Day is set in the village where I was born and where my father was born as well that’s South Queensferry where Mum and Dad still live, in the house where I was born. It’s all still there,
The Queens Ferry is named for Queen Margaret, the wife of King Malcolm – and much of the historic heart of the village is original. You can go there on the second Friday in August and see the Burry Man, a man covered in burdock seeds lumbering around looking like a monster all day in that village . I used to love him when I was a child and I still try and go and see him if I am over there in the summer.
However, the castle in The Burry Man Day actually is in Galway and I dragged it 100 miles north to be near South Queensferry. I was at a library event and a woman came in looking very hot and dishevelled because she had been looking at it all day. She’d been struggling around all day trying to find the castle.
The section where I admit “Facts and Fiction” is at the back of the book and she was only half way through so she didn’t realize I’d moved the castle a hundred miles, She’d been trampling through muddy fields and dealing with brambles and what not looking for the castle, so she was quite cross!
Jenny: People do like to do that – it gives them an excuse for an itinerary
Catriona: No I think its a great idea Jenny. Can’t you hear the scraping as I write it down “Have the locations on my website” I can avoid all sorts of real work doing that. Thank you!
Turning to Cat as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . . . .So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read”?
We know of some of your likes because you’ve mentioned the Gold Age of Mystery – but do you have a current series or author – or more than one – you’d like to recommend to listeners?
Catriona: Yes! The problem with binge reading – I am pretty up to date with the Golden Age really although I do occasionally re-read them. But my latest discovery is Elly Griffiths and The House at Seas End – the Ruth Galloway novels. When I discovered it I thought ‘this is fantastic! How did I not know these books existed?’ I had heard of her, I have never met her, I just consumed them, I read the first one, and then I bought all of the rest and I sat on the couch and just gulped them down,. I am going to have to read them again because I read them too fast. I just adored them. They are set in a wonderful part of the world – in Norfolk and she – the main heroine – is an archaeologist, wonderful characters, very atmospheric – really chilly weather – I love them.
I have another one – Dorothy Whipple – she wrote eight novels between the wars, and they were forgotten – I don’t know why they were forgotten they are fantastic – but Persephone Press have just re-issued them. Domestic dramas – the eight one has just been published . . . They are quiet but they are deafening at the same time.
Circling back to the end
(I see this as a bit of a narrative)
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Catriona: I would change something. There were two books I wrote which were not crime novels, and I would give them a nudge and put them into the crime genre. One was at a time travel Growing Up Again and Straight Up, about a liar. They were published as women’s fiction, and that was about a death knell. I would still write the stories, but I just give them a shunt them into crime because I love this genre. I love the community, and the fact that you can practically get away with anything. Mystery readers, crime fiction readers are hungry for the novels but also very happy for experiment.
Jenny: You have been involved in Sisters in Crime?
Catriona: Yes I was the president in 2015, I loved the organisation, and now I think it needs to widen because women writers are not the only ones who need a hand up, I am glad I did it, but it was hard work, I am not the person to be in charge of anything. It was great fun, I am proud of it, but it nearly killed me!
Jenny: What is next for Catriona as writer? New projects under development?
Catriona: Yes well as we mentioned Dandy Book #13 is coming out soon, and I am writing Dandy Book #14 There is a new stand alone Go To My Grave is out in New Zealand and that other place – what’s it called – oh yes Australia – it’s out right now for you and it’s coming out here later in the summer. And then I’m going to go back to Lexy and as long as I don’t combust I will go like that – One two three.
Jenny: And is Lexy 2 done yet?
Catriona: Yes Lexy 2 is done and I got a note back from my editor that says “She’d perfect!” the Line editor of course will find things wrong but as far as the tone and structure – it’s the nicest thing anyone’s said in a long time . .
Jenny: We are coming to the end of our time – so where can readers find you on line?
Catriona: Oh good luck avoiding me. You can find me at
Blogs: Seven Criminal Minds: http://7criminalminds.blogspot.com/
Femme Fatale Blogspot: http://femmesfatales.typepad.com/
Jenny: Catriona Thank you so much for your time. I’m sure your work is just going to power on.
Catriona: Oh thank you, I’ve really enjoyed talking. It’s lovely to look back and think yes. its not all typing and weeping. Some of it is fun!!
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