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!