I chose high, wedge-heeled boots in plum-coloured suede and black trousers that skimmed the top of them. They were made of some kind of very sturdy elasticated fabric I had never come across before. I pulled it in every direction, wondering what it must be like to sew seams into, then I put the trousers over my arm and went looking for tops too. Standing in the changing room, I looked at myself in the leopard-print chiffon blouse and the black fake-leather jacket; in the sturdy trousers, balanced on the not-quite-sturdy-enough wedge heels. I clipped on the earrings I had chosen and then set to unwinding my hair. It was longer than I thought. I don’t look in mirrors much and the small one in the bathroom that I use to make sure my parting is straight only shows me from my scalp to my chin. I had no idea that my hair would cover me to the elbows.
commentary: Catriona McPherson has featured a lot on the blog, but mostly via the wonderful Dandy Gilver, her 1920s series sleuth. But her contemporary books are really excellent too (The Day She Died is here). This one I found nearly unputdownable – it’s beautifully structured so you need to know what is going to happen next. Many of the tropes are familiar, but she does something really different and clever with them. The heroine, Gloria, lives near an old house which is now a carehome (where her son lives) and was once a school. She meets up with a childhood friend who was part of a group of children who had a very bad experience at the school – a night’s camping trip that went wrong. It seems that those now-grown-up children are being picked off one by one. She tries to trace them all. Meanwhile she visits her profoundly-disabled son, and reads to him from the Robert Louis Stevenson book A Child’s Garden of Verse. She has another friend in the carehome, and a lot to worry about. She is a wonderful heroine - not perfect, has her issues, unusual looks. A nice woman to spend some time with.
McPherson always has wonderful observations about life along the way: I liked her sharp comments on a passing character who is talking about suicide:
“There’s copers and there’s quitters. If he had thought on his poor mother before he did it, she’d be a happier woman today. But then, she brought him up and made him what he was.” Even to me, a stranger, this sounded like the most cold-hearted, smug-faced drivel anyone could think up if they were paid to try.She’s brilliant on clothes, and I like her portrayal of Gloria, who dresses like ‘a Texas polygamist’, but still knows what she is doing. The passage above is her changing her look, because she needs not to be recognized. But she has plenty to say about others, a woman wearing:
The sort of trousers you’d have to go looking for these days, when it’s harder to dress badly than it is to go to Primark and dress like everyone.Probably my favourite thing in the whole book comes when Gloria describes a game she plays with her assistant – her job as a registrar involves seeing new parents:
Lynne and [I played] The Hand Of Woman, where we tried to tell whether a toddler had been dressed by its dad when the mum was still on her back from the birth. “She laid that outfit by,” Lynne had said one day, full of scorn, when a young man brought in a child, chittering and blue-lipped in a matching sundress and sandals during a sudden cold snap. “That’s the hand of woman.”One of those truthful, real things that most women would recognize – but have never seen written down. And it has its relevance…
McPherson is such a good writer: she creates a wonderful atmosphere in the book, using a variety of features, and is funny and entertaining and scarey all at the same time.
She makes excellent use of the Stevenson A Child’s Garden of Verse. The poetry book is a strange read with its simplicity and clarity that still leave your mind full of questions. There’s a reason why it has entertained endless generations of children. The picture above is of my own ancient, very battered copy.
….And this is just a sample of the hundreds of editions it has run to over the years, with wildly varying covers and illustrations.
RLS has also featured on the blog with his marvellous book Kidnapped.
Click on the labels below for more from Catriona and Dandy
Thanks to EW for reminding me to read this.
Oh, now that's really interesting, Moira, including the Stevenson in with the story. Somehow that makes it all the more interesting. And the premise is intriguing, too. This sounds terrific, and I can see why you liked it so well. And that scene in the changing room....just really works.ReplyDelete
I really enjoyed this, it kept me breathless!Delete
Moira, I'm tickled pink to have Gloria featured in CiB! I never thought one of my contemporary novels would get here. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Glad you liked it! But of course, Gloria had such interesting clothes comments...Delete
This looks fabulous...going to look for a copy now!ReplyDelete
Go for it! Honestly, great book, guaranteed good read.Delete
Ooh, this does sound good. You have tempted me, Moira! Again!ReplyDelete
Yes, sorry, but I think you will love it. Intelligent, well-written and very tense... just what we need.Delete
Damn. One more book for the stack!ReplyDelete
I can't apologize - it really is good!Delete
The book sounds terribly interesting, and it goes without saying that it goes on 'The List' (sigh...) The little observations and asides are splendid. The stuff about dressing badly is very good. I know that in my local town there used to be people who looked as though they dressed in the dark, and clearly had no idea what they looked like to other people. Nowadays you can buy everything off the rack for very little money, and as a result everyone looks very similar. Only the well-off have the time and money to dress really badly.ReplyDelete
The bit about dressing toddlers is another winner, and made me wonder about what men can do better than women. Certainly I've noticed in my own life that whilst my wife is very good at practical things, I am better at breaking down a problem into its composite parts and finding a solution. That ability to see something as a collection of smaller pieces seems to be a more masculine talent (although I could be completely wrong!)
Fascinating theory. Once, playing some kind of board game, I reckoned that the men in our group were a lot better tat spelling things backwards than the women. Can't think what to make of that!Delete
McPherson's bit about the men dressing the child had me looking out a picture of my daughter as dressed by her father to come into hospital to bring home me & our second child. She had the most mismatched outfit of all time, it makes me smile to think of it still.
Yay! Another Catriona McPherson fan - I'm trying to persuade everyone to read them; she's great at "average Scottish people", or probably " average people" really! I must look at your feature on The Day She Died, which I reviewed ages ago. She's a huge talent and I hope everyone else realises it soon! (I love Dandy too!)ReplyDelete
Such a good writer! If they weren't crime and seen as 'genre' I think she'd be accepted for the great literary stylist she actually is.Delete
I will have to try this one. I am way behind in reading McPherson's books.ReplyDelete
I'm sure you'd like this one Tracy, I keep thinking about it since I read it.Delete
You've already seen my comment on Kate's blog about this book, but had to stop by and mention that I think this is one of the best contemporary detective novels I've read in recent years. A genuine detective novel, too. Very hard to find them these days. Hard to believe it didn't win an award, because it's rather brilliantly executed. Superbly done on so many levels from the weird neo-Gothic mood that pervades the story, the atmospheric use of Scottish legends, and especially the conceit of a registrar of births and deaths turning amateur detective. That main motif is just so obvious I wonder why no one else has thought to use the job as a springboard for a crime plot. And her plot! While it borders on the preposterous it's so well done that I believed everything including the nearly absurd motive. I gasped when I realized the identity of the villain about two chapters prior to the reveal. She has some very clever methods of planting clues. Traditional mystery fans would enjoy her books a lot. I wonder if she would ever dare to write a mystery from the male point of view. She might just be able to pull it off.ReplyDelete
Also, just about finished with my first Dandy Gilver book -- THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS - and it reminds me of Gladys Mitchell at her wackiest and the macabre side of Jonathan Stagge (aka "Patrick Quentin" aka Webb & Wheeler). I love it! Another amazingly intricate plot and all the business with Scottish teenames is alternately fascinating and dizzying.
Yes, I agree with everything you say, your analysis is spot on - I am never very good at seeing what exactly it is I like in a book. But Catriona Mc is, as you say, SO good at clues, just like a GA writer. And yes, her plots are so outrageous, but so carefully planned you just have to enjoy.Delete