Catriona McPherson, a Scottish transplant to California and a multi-award-winning crimewriter, interviews Cathy Ace, a Welsh transplant to Canada and Bony Blithe winner, about her new novel The Case of the Dotty Dowager. This first in a new series introduces the world to the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency.
CATRIONA: Carol, Mavis, Annie, and Christine are not at all what I was expecting when I heard about the WISE agency. Well done for avoiding cliches! Can you tell us who/what came first?
CATHY: The first thing to say is that the people came before the acronym. “Born” in a novella I wrote back in 2007, Annie Parker was the first character to emerge; she’s based on a very good friend of mine named Annie (not much of a stretch there) and my next door neighbour on Brixton Hill of almost twenty years, Eustelle (I pinched this name for the character’s mother) who was born of St. Lucian parents in London. Carol is loosely based on an old flatmate I had when I was at Cardiff University – a lovely, truly innocent girl who was raised on a farm in Carmarthenshire and only spoke Welsh until she was fifteen.
Mavis was inspired by a delightful “I’ll take no nonsense from you lot” Scot who cleaned the offices at the University of British Columbia where I used to teach – she was doing so after a nursing career so she could make enough money for long holidays in a Hawaiian condo. Christine? Well, Christine is everything the other three aren’t – she’s aristocratic, Mensa bright, beautiful, young and well-off. The real Carol, Mavis and Annie are, in fact, respectively Welsh, Scottish, and English – so, by making Christine Irish I had the perfect, WISE, group.
CATRIONA: Do you have a favourite? How much of you is in each of them?
CATHY: You know that’s like asking me which of my dogs is my favourite, right? So my answer has to be that I love them all – equally. Honestly, each of them has their foibles, quirks and shortcomings, but I also hope that readers can connect with each of them on many different levels. I’ve tried to make each woman “real” enough that they can be identified with, or at least understood.
Your follow up question is a toughie. Thanks! I’d like to say there’s not much of me in any of them; the other series of books I write is told in the first person of Cait Morgan, a Welsh Canadian psychologist who’s an overindulgent foodie…which is pretty much a description of me. Having written six books in that series, I wanted to break away from such a personal connection with one character and allow myself to mix with a wider group. Yes, I like each of the WISE women, and in a way they are all my friends. Because I created them all, I suppose there must be something in each of them that’s a little like me, but my greatest joy in writing these books is that they are much less like me than my Cait Morgan character. I truly believe that women are able to empathize with other women who are in circumstances unlike their own – and I can empathize with each of these women.
CATRIONA: I agree. I think the myth of women scratching each other’s eyes out has a whiff of male wishful-thinking about it. Maybe some men are freaked out by the thought that women get together and compare notes!
We leave the women of the WISE agency in a different place from where we found them at the beginning of The Dotty Dowager (no spoilers!). Did you plan this or did it come out of the story?
CATHY: With a business that’s not looking too healthy at the beginning of the book, and all four WISE women wondering what the future holds for them, I saw the situation as ripe for an intervention. Sometimes life’s like that – what appears to be the brink of failure turns out to be a new start and (you’re right, no spoilers here) it’s difficult for me to say more about their altered circumstances than that.
When you ask me if this all came out of the story you seem to think that I allow these women to live their own lives – I’m afraid I’m too much of a control freak to ever let that happen. My dogs rule my life, so I have to be in control of something, somewhere!
CATRIONA: OK, the antique dentures: what’s going on with that, Cathy?
CATHY: As a child, my grandmother’s dentures fascinated me. Welsh dentistry in the 1930s sounds terrifying, because that’s when she had all her teeth taken out and dentures fitted. She was in her thirties! My interest was further piqued when I was traveling in Egypt and saw dentures that were over two thousand years old…and Waterloo teeth? Now that’s a story in itself – told in this book, of course. Everything in the book about antique dentures, including those worn by Winston Churchill, is absolutely true – they say that fact is often more strange than fiction…I promise I made up none of this stuff!
CATRIONA: We get three of the four home nations of the WISE women in the Dotty Dowager; will you take them across the sea to Ireland in future books?
CATHY: So you want them to go “overseas” to Ireland? Very exotic! Seriously, Christine’s family estate on the western borderlands between Northern Ireland and Eire is somewhere I want to feature in a future book. I’ve seen it in my mind’s eye, so want to take readers to the lush greenery of horse country and the weather-battered, drafty Georgian home where she spent her early childhood…until she had to attend an English boarding school and knock the edges off her Irish brogue. The details of how that will happen? That will have to wait.
CATRIONA: Hooray! I love a scruffy posh house. Can’t wait.
You’ve written a great awkward possible relationship in this book. Did you make three of them single, just so you could have this kind of fun?
CATHY: I wanted to portray women at all stages of their lives, and relationships. Carol is happily married and delighted to be pregnant – not a lot of private enquiry agents ever seem to achieve this nirvana, so I thought it would be interesting to examine how she could combine a career and family life. Mavis is in her mid-sixties, widowed, with grown sons, grandchildren and an elderly, infirm mother – again, this isn’t the normal profile for a PI, and I wanted to consider how a woman who’d been an army nurse for many years would be able to retain her own identity post-retirement. Annie’s in her fifties, a bit sweaty now and again, and happily single, though she enjoys a good flirt within the laddish group she mixes with and is quite wicked – in a sweet way. Then there’s Christine, who is utterly bored with the sort of titled twit she’s used to meeting – though she’s eminently dateable, she’s very picky and prefers the unattached life of an independently well-off and titled young woman-about-London, until…well, maybe that’s enough for now.
CATRIONA: Hmm, much more thoughtful and packed with possibility than my rom-com assumption. I salute you.
Henry, Althea and – sadly – Clemmie (the Twysts) are very realistic modern toffs. How did you capture the ways of that tribe?
CATHY: I love the “tribal” reference, because that truly is what they are; they live within society, but outside it at the same time, adhering to their own rules, norms and, quite often, morals – which manage to be traditionally conservative and outrageously liberal all at once. I’ll tell you a secret – Henry is based on an ex-boyfriend. The real person has been disguised to protect the “innocent”, but my insights into the sort of lives that are lived at “Chellingworth Hall” are based upon bizarre, real experiences. If I tell you more I might find myself in the Tower!
CATRIONA: Can you let us in on any of what’s in store for the WISE women next?
CATHY: I’ll tell you as much as I can – without giving away anything that might spoil this first book in the series. The women of the WISE Enquiries Agency will find a way to save the business, at least in the short term, and they’ll also face a situation in book two, The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer (available October 2015), which gives them the chance to spend more time with the Twyst family at Chellingworth Hall, and get to know some of the people who live in the village of Anwen-by-Wye somewhat better.
CATRIONA: Fantastic news! I had assumed Henry was a “monster-of-the-week” (as Joss Whedon calls his one-episode guest stars). Roll on October!
Can’t wait until October? Click here to read the opening chapters of The Case of the Dotty Dowager and meet the women of the WISE enquiries agency.