From the Booking Desk:
If you are a long-time follower of BOLO Books, you might remember an experimental project I tried a few years back. I wanted to combine a review with an interview. I called it an Inter(Re)view and Chris Holm was my first “victim.” While it was pretty successful at the time, I just haven’t felt that another book lent itself to this format… until today.
So with that, I give you the Inter(Re)view of The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace:
The Case of the Dotty Dowager is the new novel from award-winning mystery author Cathy Ace. It is the start of a new series for Ace and fans of the traditional mystery genre are already raving. Despite a title which calls to mind Masterpiece Theater, The Case of the Dotty Dowager is actually set in the Welsh countryside, not far from Anwen-by-Wye during contemporary times.
BOLO Books: On the surface, it seems like it would be a perfect vehicle for a historical series and yet you completely bypass that. Why the modern setting for The Case of the Dotty Dowager?
Cathy Ace: I’m an avid fan of classic, country house mysteries, and have been known to watch the odd episode of Downton Abbey (or thirty!) but I decided to veer away from a period piece for the WISE women books, because I specifically didn’t want to write “Downton with dead bodies” – I wanted to take a look at the bucolic village of Anwen-by-Wye, and the Welsh stately house Chellingworth Hall, in the world with which I am familiar. I enjoy historical series, but am hoping that the contemporary setting, and the fact that modern-life-technology will somehow always play a part in helping these private investigators solve their mysteries, will bring a fresh new twist to a tried and trusted setting. Don’t get me wrong, I also want to make sure the series is rich with local color, history, and tradition, but I enjoy blending the modern with the old, and this will give me a chance to do it in a familiar setting which I know my readers will be able to envision with ease.
Unlike most mystery novels, rather than featuring only one protagonist, Ace has populated The Case of the Dotty Dowager with four main characters. Each of these ladies is a member of the WISE Enquiries Agency, an independently run private investigation firm. The WISE in the agency’s name is an acronym created from the first letter of each ladies’ country of origin: Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English. Each of the women bring with them to the agency a different set of skills and by working together, they feel they can solve any case.
BOLO Books: The WISE Enquiries Agency has four very different employees representing diversity in many forms, including ethnicity, age, and race. Did you intend this diversity from the start or did that grow from the needs of the story?
Cathy Ace: You’re right, the four women who work at the agency differ greatly from each other. This was the plan from the outset. I’m currently working on my eighth Cait Morgan Mystery – she’s a Welsh Canadian professor of criminology in her late-forties, who acts as a typical sleuth in her globe-trotting mysteries – and I enjoy writing from one person’s personal point of view, but, for this new series, I returned to a group I’d created about eight years ago (in two novellas) which offers me a broader canvas in terms of leading characters.
The older I get the more I realize that wisdom comes in many forms, and we certainly change our perspective on life, and the questions it raises, depending on our age and experience. By working with a group of women one of whom is single, in her twenties and the daughter of an Irish viscount, one a happily married, pregnant Welsh-woman in her thirties, one a happily single Cockney born of St. Lucian parents suffering through her very sweaty mid-fifties, and one a retired Scottish army nurse, widowed but with grown sons and grandchildren, I am able to draw upon all their differing types of perspectives, concerns and wisdom. Life teaches us lessons – these women have chosen to apply those lessons to their profession of investigating.
Readers are going to immediately bond with these four women. At various times throughout the novel, each of these characters becomes the focal point so it is important that they be easily distinguishable from each other and Cathy Ace has certainly managed that.
BOLO Books: What types of challenges did you face by having four main characters instead of just one or two?
Cathy Ace: Oh gosh, lots! My Cait Morgan Mysteries are written in the first person, and we very much “see” the action though her eyes. But I knew that wouldn’t work for this series, which closes one door – but opens four windows. First of all, it gave me the chance to have different characters doing different things in different locations all at the same time; when carrying out a real-case investigation this is what happens, with each team member allocated tasks suiting their abilities. It also allowed me to shift the story-telling point of view from one of our leading protagonists to another, and to also shift gear in another way: given their differing backgrounds, their choice of vocabulary matches their heritage and upbringing, and I’ve tried to reflect that as the point of view moves. There are subtle changes in “accent” too, and readers have told me they “see” the scenes through the eyes of the four women all the better for these differences.
The Case of the Dotty Dowager is a relatively short novel, coming in at 213 pages, so getting to know these characters quickly is very important to the reader’s enjoyment. I would bet that if a group of readers were gathered to discuss this novel, each of them would have a different favorite character. However, by the time readers get to the end of the adventure, they will long to know more about each of the ladies.
BOLO Books: While I know it will be like picking a favorite child, I still have to ask. Which of the WISE ladies is your favorite and why?
Cathy Ace: Once again, you’ve hit the nail on the head – pick one? Oh heck, that’s impossible! It’s impossible, in the first of a series, to tell readers everything about these women, because then the book would read like a soap-opera, not a mystery case. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I write mysteries, not soaps, so it’s important that just enough is given away about each of them to engage the reader, but I have to save up a lot of their backgrounds for future books. This means I know a good deal more about them than I am able to convey in this first book – which makes your question even more of a challenge. You see, like all of us, they have many facets to their characters; weaknesses can be better understood when one knows why they might have arisen, strengths can be rooted in a backstory that’s tragic – or happy. I’m planning to delve into these women’s lives as the series progresses, and, because I’m happy spending time with them all, my “favorite” is whichever is giving their point of view in that chapter. Thus, I’m going to decline your request to pick one of the four as graciously as possible. (If you threatened me with shiny lights I’d say Annie Parker, because she’s modelled after two very close friends of mine and, when I’ve been writing about her, I feel I’ve been on an escapade with them, and I don’t see them nearly often enough in real life.)
The crime at the center of The Case of the Dotty Dowager is an interesting one. Althea, Dowager Duchess of Chillingworth, is awoken by a noise in her dining room. After investigating, she is shocked to discover a body lying on the floor. By the time her son, Henry Twyst, arrives from the main residence, the body has mysteriously disappeared. Fearing that his mother may be losing her marbles, Henry enlists the aid of the WISE Enquires Agency to discreetly investigate the matter.
BOLO Books: The family dynamics within the Twyst family affect how the storyline develops. Tell us a bit about this unique titled family.
Cathy Ace: Anyone who’s watched Downton Abbey, or read the Lord Peter Wimsey or Jeeves and Wooster books, knows that having a title can mean many different things in Britain – but one thing is for certain, a title means The Family Name must be upheld, and continued. When a duke (or any other titled person) dies, it is usual for the eldest son to inherit (in some – though very few – cases the eldest child, be they male or female, will inherit, indeed, the British Royal family has just made this change so that, had Prince William’s firstborn been a girl, she could have inherited the crown). Upon the death of her husband, the widow automatically acquires the title “Dowager”, signifying she is one generation older than the man now holding the title. Thus, there are dowager duchesses, dowager marchionesses etc. In this book we meet Lady Althea Twyst, Dowager Duchess of Chellingworth, the widow of the seventeenth duke. Now almost eighty, she lives in a house built on the estate hundreds of years earlier to accommodate each dowager duchess as the generations pass. (“The Dower House” is something found on many British estates of the landed gentry.) Althea is a spirited woman who’s ridden horses and bred Jack Russell dogs for the decades she’s been the duchess; indeed, many in the area think of her as the human equivalent of a Jack Russell because of her terrier-like qualities. She was the second wife of the seventeenth duke and gave birth to a son, Henry (the spare, not the heir), and a daughter, Clementine – who now largely resides at the family’s London home. A pragmatic realist, with a love of all things Monty Python, she frequently embarrasses her son (something she sees as a sport). I adore Althea, and I am having great fun with the scenes featuring her and Mavis MacDonald who, as a woman whose final post was as matron of a barracks-home for ageing soldiers, has done her fair share of geriatric nursing. But Althea isn’t ready to be cosseted – she still wants to grab life by the hand and lead it on a merry dance…or is that just a sign that her mind is failing?
In addition to the WISE ladies and the Twyst family, there are many other unique and quirky characters who feature throughout the novel. In the course of the investigation, Annie is required to infiltrate the local village and get to know the townsfolk. Meanwhile, Clementine Twyst brings a strange gentleman named Alex Bright with her to the Chellingworth Estate. Each of these characters become suspects while also adding local color to the storyline.
BOLO Books: These women have a collection of men who circle around them in various ways throughout the novel. Tell us a bit about a couple of them: Henry Twyst and Alex Bright.
Cathy Ace: In this book the male characters tend to be subsidiary, though I hope they have depth and dimension beyond their gender, and the two you mention are central enough that they are allowed to “speak for themselves”. Henry Devereaux Twyst is the eighteenth duke of Chellingworth, and he’s the one who calls in the WISE women to “explain away” his mother’s claim she’s seen a dead body in the dining room of her Dower House, when all she has to show for it is a bloodied bobble hat. He’s not a man born and raised to be the duke – his father’s second son, he was supposed to be able to swan about the world indulging his love of water-color painting, but his older brother’s death put paid to that. He’s not the happiest of men; short of cash and weighed down by his responsibilities, he’s facing up to the fact that, now in his fifties, he’s yet to deliver what the Estate needs most – an heir. Alex Bright is his counterpoint: born to a single mother by an unknown father, he largely raised himself in the tough estates of South London’s Brixton, and has a very shady past. By the time we meet him he’s reinvented himself as a suave, enigmatic, and wealthy, property developer with a list of contacts spanning all possible strata of society… might he be the male equivalent of a femme fatale?
The character of Alex Bright also allows Cathy Ace to introduce another interesting element to the novel. It seems that Mr. Bright is fascinated by antique dentures and when he discovers that the Twyst family is in possession of some coveted specimens, he insists that Clemmie take him home for a visit.
BOLO Books: Antique dentures factor into the plot of the novel. How did you come to include such an odd topic in the book and what kind of research did you have to do?
Cathy Ace: I’ll tell you a secret – I used to be fascinated by my grandmother’s dentures when, as a small child staying at her house for a sleep-over, I’d watch her drop them into a glass beside her bed at night, then pop them back into her mouth in the morning. I thought they were great fun! When plotting this book I wanted a collectible that would be truly engaging, while being a little off-putting, and antique dentures fit the bill perfectly. I carried out a lot of research (NOTICE: no denture-wearers were hurt in the researching of this book!) and was delighted to discover that Winston Churchill wore specially-designed dentures, as well as the fact that there’s a real museum of odontology in London; the Hunterian Museum is well worth a visit by those not of a squirmish nature. The history of dentures is quite something – a real insight into social history, as well as allowing for the application of ultra-modern technology. We all have teeth, and I dare say most of us hope we won’t ever have a mouth full of false ones…but you might find yourself brushing and flossing more vigorously after reading this book.
Fortunately for the WISE Enquires Agency, they are able to successfully help the Twyst Family without causing a social scandal, but only after a few misadventures. Since their business venture is in sore need of a financial influx, a successful case with notoriety is sure to help.
BOLO Books: Readers are left with a fairly significant cliff-hanger at the end of the novel. What’s next for the ladies of the WISE Agency?
Cathy Ace: First of all I think it’s only fair to say that the puzzling case in this book is wrapped up by the end – the cliff-hanger refers to the possible future business-plan for the WISE women. As such (no spoilers here!), I can at least tell you that the Twyst family will play an even more significant role in the next book. The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer will be published in the UK in October 2015, then in the USA and Canada in February 2016, and it will give the WISE women another chance to use their skills, their contacts, and modern technology, to solve the worrying case of a man who’s supposed to be playing a pivotal role at a Very Important Wedding, but has disappeared without so much as a by-your-leave. Not something one should do when a duke is involved.
Readers looking to get into a new series on the ground floor would do well to pick up The Case of the Dotty Dowager. Severn House is a publisher dedicated to their authors, so I fully expect to be reading about enquires by the WISE women for a long time to come.
BOLO Books: The Case of the Dotty Dowager is your first book with Severn House Publishers. What has this new working relationship been like?
Cathy Ace: It’s been fascinating. I’ve worked with the wonderful, very small, TouchWood Editions based in Victoria, BC on all the Cait Morgan Mysteries and have grown accustomed to their working practices. I wondered if being with a much larger publishing house would be a very different experience, and I’m delighted to say it’s been just as good, though they have a slightly different approach to most aspects. In this electronic age I don’t see my UK publishers any more, or less, than my Canadian ones – one’s about a three-hour trip away, one’s about a twenty-hour trip away – so I see them both once a year. Face to face meetings are excellent, but the real work is all done via email and telephone, so location doesn’t make a big difference. The biggest difference of all? Punctuation! TouchWood uses entirely US punctuation, so “” for speech, but in the UK it’s ‘’. My fingers get a bit confused, but then I get into the swing of using the right type of quote marks. Both houses use US spelling – which surprised me since one is Canadian and one British, but that speaks of the strength of the US market, I suppose. I still frequently type British spelling, though I’m getting better since I have a lot of practice.
Gordon Bennett! The Case of the Dotty Dowager was a quick, fun read which is perfect for lazing away a summer afternoon. Cathy Ace has written a traditional mystery that even Dame Agatha would approve of.
BOLO Books: The characters in the book are known to shout out some unusual exclamations, such as Gordon Bennett. Where does the phrase originate?
Cathy Ace: Gordon Bennett!!? Now thereby hangs a tale….there doesn’t seem to be any one accepted reason for this name being used to represent Oh my God! or God and damn it! or somesuch oath – it just does!
There are a few theories – a father and son by the name of James Gordon Bennett (the son being something of a reprobate), an Australian general who made some poor decisions during WWII….or just a way of covering up an oath and making it family friendly. Certainly it was popularized on British TV by many characters (also, the person upon who Annie is based uses it as God/Gawd; she often says “Oh my good Gordon Bennett.” A bit like Shut the Front Door, or Friggin’ heck….but they would be too close for comfort for a cozy. It’s VERY British – especially London.
Are you still here reading this? I hope so, but I also want you to go off and order The Case of the Dotty Dowager. You won’t be sorry. But first, let’s end this with the standard BOLO Books final question.
BOLO Books: If forced to choose only one format for all your future reading, which would you choose: Hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, or e-book? And why?
Cathy Ace: For my reading at home I like hardback books; if I’m on a long trip I prefer e-books; if on a short trip I prefer paperbacks – either size format (though sometimes I struggle with the size of type in mass-market paperbacks). If I had to choose only one format for all my future reading I would choose hardbacks (and a butler to carry my extra suitcase on long trips!). Why? Because there’s a little voice in my head that tells me they are “real books”! (I suppose that might be because I grew up reading hardbacks – Nancy Drew, of course, and those yellow-jacketed Gollancz Ellery Queen ones – from my local library in Brynhyfryd, Swansea.)