In The Spotlight: Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue

SpotlightHello, All

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The Golden Age may be over, but many people still love traditional kinds of mysteries. When a traditional whodunit is given a contemporary context and feel, the result can draw readers who enjoy classic mysteries, but don’t necessarily care for traditional ‘-isms’ or language and lifestyle customs that aren’t familiar. To show how this classic story with a modern approach is done, let’s take a look at Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue, the first of her Cait Morgan series.

Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is a criminologist and academician who teaches at the University of Vancouver, and occasionally does consulting work with the Vancouver Police. Welsh by birth, she’s been living in Canada for ten years. When a colleague breaks some bones in a bicycle accident, she is tapped to take his place at a symposium in Nice, where she will present his paper.

One afternoon, Morgan has a chance encounter with Alistair Townsend, a former employer. Townsend remembers her and spontaneously invites her to his wife Tamsin’s birthday party, scheduled for that evening. Morgan is more than reluctant to go, since her experience working with Townsend was, to say the least, unpleasant. But she’s finally persuaded.

During the birthday party, Townsend suddenly collapses and dies. The rest of the guests also become sickened, some more than others. Everyone’s rushed to a local hospital and it’s assumed that this is all due to tainted escargot. But it’s not long before tests show that Townsend was poisoned with digitalis.

Captain Moreau and his assistant Lieutenant Bertrand take on the investigation. They begin with the people who were at the party and in the best position to poison the food. There’s Tamsin, of course, who could have any number of motives for killing her husband. And there’s Benigno Brunetti, head of the nearby Museum of Roman Antiquities. The victim had a one-of-a-kind antique necklace he had intended for a birthday gift to Tamsin; Brunetti wanted to have it on display at the museum. Spy novelist Chuck Damcott lives directly upstairs from the Townsends, and could have more than one motive. There’s also Gerard Fontainbleu, who takes care of the building’s gardens, and who bitterly opposed Townsend’s wish to have a pool on the property. Finally there are retired attorney Madelaine Schiafino and of course, Morgan herself.

Morgan is the only ‘outsider,’ and the only one with no regular opportunity to kill the victim. What’s more, she hated Townsend and doesn’t pretend otherwise. So Moreau and Bertrand concentrate their share of attention on her. Morgan wants to clear her name, but more than that, she wants the matter settled so that she can return to Vancouver. So she starts to ask questions.

Then, there’s another death. And the necklace that Townsend had intended to give his wife disappears. Now Morgan is faced with a few connected mysteries. And the closer she gets to finding out the truth, the more danger there is for her.

This is a classic-style mystery. In that tradition, each of the suspects is keeping something back. And each suspect had both the opportunity and the motive to commit murder. In that sense, the reader is invited to match wits with Ace. Also in the classic tradition, the focus is on putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

But this is a contemporary story. The setting is modern, and the characters make use of technology such as mobile ‘phones, email and so on. The characters also are modern in their outlook.

For example, there’s Morgan herself. She’s middle-aged, single, professionally successful, and independent. She enjoys her food, a good glass of wine and the occasional cigarette. She can hold her own in just about any conversation, too. And she doesn’t fit the image of the ‘beautiful female sleuth.’ In fact, she’ll be the first to admit she could lose some weight. Although she is vulnerable, as any of us is, she’s no ‘helpless damsel in distress.’ Readers who are tired of drunken, demon-haunted detectives will also be pleased to know that she’s functional as well. She has her past, as we all do, but she doesn’t wallow in it. Morgan has the rare kind of detailed memory that many people call a ‘photographic memory.’ She can picture all sorts of remembered details about people and events, and that turns out to be important to the case. At the same time, she tells very few people about this, as she has no wish to be a ‘curiosity object.’ And her memory doesn’t instantly give her the answers.

Morgan also has a sense of wit; and since the story is told in first person, from her perspective, that wit runs throughout the novel:

 

‘In Wales almost every part of a conversation is wound up with ‘is it?’ or ‘isn’t it?’ or ‘shall we?’ or ‘didn’t I?’ or the ever popular ‘eh?’ The ‘eh?’ thing at least allowed me to fit right in when I moved to Canada.’

 

And here’s her view about choosing to wear a striped top:

 

‘Horizontal stripes, in case you’re wondering – because whatever they say about them making you look wider, I still wear them; I firmly believe that people will look at me and think that it’s the stripes that are making me look twenty pounds heavier than I am. Ha! Take that, fashion editors!’

 

That said, though, this isn’t a rollicking, laugh-a-minute caper. There are some very sad moments, especially as we learn about some of the characters’ pasts.

The mystery itself is the main focus of the novel. But there is also a sub-plot involving Morgan’s friend Bud Anderson, a detective with the Vancouver Integrated Homicide Bureau. Morgan relies on him for advice and insight, and becomes very concerned when he seems to be facing terrible trouble of his own. The two may be thousands of miles apart for most of this novel, but they do try to help one another.

The Corpse With the Silver Tongue is an example of a traditional-style mystery in a modern context and with modern characters. It features an independent, intelligent sleuth who has a unique (if a bit eccentric) outlook on life. But what’s your view? Have you read The Corpse With the Silver Tongue? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 20 April/Tuesday 21 April – The Hanging Shed – Gordon Ferris

Monday 27 April/Tuesday 28 April – Black Water Rising – Attica Locke

Monday 4 May/Tuesday 5 May – Readers’ Choice* – Jo Nesbø

*Please help me choose which Nesbø novel should be in the spotlight (apologies if your top Nesbø read isn’t on this list!) . Since I can’t make up my mind, I’ll rely on you excellent people to do my work for me. You can vote on this poll if you wish until Monday 20 April. Let your voice be heard!

30 Comments

Filed under Cathy Ace, The Corpse With the Silver Tongue

30 responses to “In The Spotlight: Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue

  1. Kathy D.

    This does like a good one and it’s going on my Mount TBR list (sigh). I’ll have to clone myself or live 100 years and do nothing but read to make a dent in this list. And then this blog and a few others keep writing about good books that I should read.
    I’m interested in the next three Mondays’ books, as I like all the authors.

    • Glad to hear I’ve chosen some authors whose work you like, Kathy. And I know all about Mt. TBR. I really wish there were eighty hours in a day – seriously – to read…

  2. I enjoy Cathy’s series about Cait Morgan – she is such a refreshing kind of detective, very human, very recognisable, a fellow foodie and not at all heroic. My favourite is probably the second one – the Corpse with the Golden Nose, because it is set in in a Canadian vineyard, a part of the world I know very little about.

    • It is a good series, isn’t it, Marina Sofia? And I think you’ve nailed it in saying that Cait Morgan is a great character. She’s human and knows her limits. But at the same time, she’s smart and capable too. And Ace does her settings quite well I think.

  3. Another new to me author who sounds brilliant – I like the idea of traditional style read in a modern setting – thanks Margot

    • She’s very talented I think, Cleo. I think she’s done a great job of giving a modern ‘look’ to the classic mystery novel structure. And the physical settings are done nicely too.

  4. This series sounds like one I should try, since I like to read mysteries set in Canada. I do have plans to read The Case of the Dotty Dowager, the start of a new series by this author (but set in Wales?).

    • Right you are, Tracy. That new series is indeed set in Wales. I hope if you try the Cait Morgan series, that you’ll like it. A great deal of the first novel is set in Nice, but there’s plenty of Canada in the series, too!

  5. I do really enjoy contemporary mysteries in the GAD style when they are done well (thinking of Peter Lovesey here especially) – sounds really good, thanks Margot.

    • Oh, I like Lovesey’s work too, Sergio! And I really do think this is a solid example of the classic crime story in ‘modern dress.’ I hope that if you get to it, you’ll like it.

  6. Kathy D.

    The fact that it’s a classic style in a modern setting appeals to me, too. And set in Canada, and it sounds like not much violence. I need relaxing mysteries, not ones where I’m up all night stressed out about the characters in danger and gruesome deaths.
    Also, I’m intrigued that the author has a series set in Wales. Harry Bingham’s series about Fiona Griffiths is set in Cardiff and Mari Strachan’s books are set in Wales, too. The Hinterland TV series is also set in Wales, beautiful country.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the ‘violence quotient,’ Kathy. There really isn’t a lot of violence here, and none of it is brutal, ugly stuff. There are parts of the story that are very, very sad. And I can say without spoiling the story that Cait Morgan does get into some difficult situations. But there’s nothing that’s gruesome.
       
      I want to try Ace’s series set in Wales, too. It’s a beautiful setting for a series.

  7. Kathy D.

    Try to see the TV Hinterland series, which is set in breath-taking scenery.

  8. Hmm… I’m torn! This one sounds good, but I’ve already been tempted by ‘The Case of the Dotty Dowager’ – such a great title! Mind you, so’s ‘The Corpse with the Silver Tongue’. Hmm… I’ve never been good at decisions, but I think I’ll try the Dowager first and see how it goes…

    • FictionFan – Can’t blame you one bit. That’s a great title. FYI, The Wales series is a bit more cosy than this one is (‘though not ‘frothy and sweet.’ So if you find one to your liking and the other less so, that may be part of the reason.

      • I’m definitely finding myself more drawn to the cosier end of crime at the moment – the gritty stuff has become way too graphic for my tastes in a lot of cases. I do like the Severn House range (they’re the publishers of the Welsh series over here – don’t know if they do the US side too) They seem to find books that are somewhere in the middle – not too sweet, not too grim.

        • It’s quite true, FictionFan; there’s been quite a lot of truly gritty crime fiction out there in the last years. It’s also nice to have some crime fiction that’s not, as you say, so far on that end of the spectrum. And yes, Severn House has some fine titles out, I think. You have a well-taken point, too, about that balance between ‘frothy’ and ‘too gritty.’ Those mysteries can be terrific.

  9. Great spotlight Margot – looking forward to the Nesbo spotlight.

  10. Col

    Not an author I’m familiar with Margot, so thanks for the spotlight.

  11. This sounds like just the right mix and I’d love to find a new mystery writer based in Canada!

  12. A new one to me and this author sounds right up my street – I’m definitely going to look her up and then choose which of these books to start with.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll like her work, Moira. I honestly think you would. The nice thing is, she does have the two series; and they’re different enough to each other that if one doesn’t suit you, the other may.

  13. Kathy D.

    Finding the in-between cozy and gruesome is tough sometimes. There are books as we know that fit into this slot. I always think of Sara Paretsky’s books and Donna Leon’s series as being the right fit, but there are many more.

    • That’s true, Kathy. That balance can be tough to achieve. I think you have a point that Leon achieves it. So does Kerry Greenwood. But it’s tricky. And of course, everyone view of what that balance should be is a little different; that complicates things too.

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