Like most advice, that to write about what you know is well-meaning but wrong. It’s usually easier and more productive not to be fettered by too much reality, to let the imagination roam where it will. The notable exception, as Ali Carter’s third outing for her amateur sleuth Susie Mahl neatly shows, is the detective story.
Unless you have much to do with crime yourself – and readers of the Catholic Herald are a broad church – this seems at first blush paradoxical. You would think that the little grey cells would have to be in overdrive to devise fiendish mysteries and their perpetrators. Yet in fact, the most satisfying stories, and certainly the most plausible, draw on more-or-less everyday settings and characters, and close observation of those. In British ones, class, and the shame that accompanies it, is usually the prime engine.
Inevitably it is family secrets and the past that prove the key to the unsettled atmosphere she [protagonist Susie] soon detects in the house.
So it is with A Trick of the Light, in which Susie Mahl, painter of pets (the author is herself an artist), eagerly accepts the chance to run a week-long art course at a secluded Scottish stately home, Auchen Laggan Tosh. Here we are in the somewhat Wodehousian Highlands, doubtless not far from Loch Ayethenoo, but the Cluedo cast assembled by Carter is nonetheless depicted by her with deftly drawn strokes.
Hosts the Earl and Countess of Muchton, struggling to keep the rain from pouring through the ancestral roof, will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the imposing but impractical houses of their ilk. With her trained eye and practice at drawing out sitters, Susie quickly has the measure of Fergus Muchton, judging him to have spent time in the Army: “quite a wise career move, learning the skill of organising people and forming a solid group of frontline friends, all within an institution that represses independent thinking.”
For though Carter would appear to know such places well – the jungly whiff of the appeal is that of the log fire and the Labrador in the basket – the modern, middle class Stag at Bay drying cupboard, the acres of cheap coconut matting beyond the green baize door, the wing kept locked as too costly to heat – a sharp, if not cutting, wit scores her appreciation of them. And Susie herself, struggling to process her break-up from mortuary clerk Toby, still carries within her the watchfulness of the child that detected character in the untucked clothes of her peers.
For Susie is the survivor of twins – “My vulnerabilities are mine to get over” – and inevitably it is family secrets and the past that prove the key to the unsettled atmosphere she soon detects in the house. There are modern troubles for Fergus and his pregnant, more practical, wife Zoe to deal with such as the controversial wind farm application that they hope will bring in much needed revenue, as well as what appears to be someone rewilding their land.
The model here, of course, is Agatha Christie, in which no-one in the house party is who they seem, threatening society’s order, although with its near-televisual dialogue perhaps this is closer to the pleasures of Midsomer Murders.
Looming trouble stems mostly, however, from the Earl’s younger twin, Ewen, who lives down the back drive, within sight of the inheritance taken from him by fate at birth. What might such unfulfilled expectations prompt a man to do, just when his brother is hoping to redeem the family fortune by loaning some well-hidden Landseers to a high-profile exhibition? And what really happened all those years ago to a diamond necklace that went missing after a wedding, about which one of the painters on Susie’s course knows more than she is saying?
The model here, of course, is Agatha Christie, in which no-one in the house party is who they seem, threatening society’s order, although with its near-televisual dialogue perhaps this is closer to the pleasures of Midsomer Murders. Like crime, it’s harder to pull off than it looks.
Carter’s resort at times to comedy – there are no deaths, and we are treated to a ceilidh as well as a burlesque evening – may mean that A Trick of the Light will be regarded as what is known as “cosy” crime, fundamentally nostalgic and unthreatening. Yet the telling detail, the shabby nobility of the Muchtons, the precise knowledge that a kelt is the name given to a spawned fish headed for the sea, prevents it from drifting into bloodless caricature.
Of course, its appeal is that of the log fire and the Labrador in the basket – the modern, middle-class Stag at Bay – but while the social commentary here is hardly gritty by the terms of much crime writing now, there are hints that Carter could carry off something more weighty should she choose to cast her fly higher and further.
Anyone who has the courage to stage a denouement at Basingstoke Station should not be underestimated.
James Owen is an author and journalist who writes regularly for The Times and the Daily Telegraph.