Shetland author Marsali Taylor talks about writing, saliling and living in the northern isles
A blog by MARSALI TAYLOR, the Shetland author of the Cass Lynch Mysteries.
What book would you save in a house fire?
This is a hard one, because I have so many books which are now out of print, like my complete works of John Dickson Carr / Carter Dickson, or ex-library hardbacks of Edith Pargeter (the other name of Brother Cadfael author Ellis Peters). We have a permanent bookshelf shortage, because neither my husband nor I can resist second-hand books, and we’re both ‘read it again’ people, so only about half of the charity shop books make it back there. However, if the house was burning, and I absolutely HAD to choose, I think it would be The Girls’ Own Paper, 1881, a bound volume of a year’s worth of Victorian fiction and household hints, which was given to me by my aunt, and which really is irreplaceable. It even has a problem page, including a gem answer which begins: ‘We think this query must be a joke in very bad taste. We cannot believe that any reader of ours would be so lost to propriety as to share an unbrella with a young man to whom she is not engaged …’
What book made you want to be a crime writer?
I read Agatha Christie avidly in my early teens, but it was my first John Dickson Carr (which I still have) which really showed me the possibilities of crime writing. It was She died a Lady, and I was dazzled by the cleverness of the solution, and the way it had been clued all along. I loved the humour of Sir Henry Merrivale, temporarily stuck in a wheelchair while having his portrait painted as a Roman Senator. I’d be satisfied if I ever achieved anything half as good.
Tell us about your journey to publication?
A long, long one … I started off with eighteenth-century romance, and wrote two of those, and then after numerous rejections decided to try crime. That got me my agent, Teresa Chris. I wrote three in a series, but didn’t manage to get a publisher; too cosy, Teresa thought, so I invented the edgier Cass. She’s now on her sixth novel. I’ve also self-published my history books: Womens’s Suffrage in Shetland, The Story of Busta House, Forgotten Heroines (diaries of a WWI ambulance driver) and a crime novella set in Viking times called Footsteps in the Dew.
What’s the worst way you’ve ever killed someone off (in writing…we hope)?
I don’t really do horrible murders, because here in Shetland the simple is so much easier, especially if you mess around in boats: why go for elaborate schemes when you just need to shove someone overboard? However, I did have someone tied up and drowned, they way they put witches to the test, in A Handful of Ash. Your accusers tied you up and threw you into the water, If you floated, the Devil was holding you up, so they pulled you out and burned you. If you sank, you were innocent – but still dead.
Any pet hates about the crime writing genre?
Oooh, several. I’m totally fed up of spotting that child who has problems and going, ‘Oh yeah, child abuse again.’ The girl who still insists on going upstairs in the lonely old house doesn’t get any sympathy from me. Oh, yes, and writing in the present tense. There’s always a confused moment where a past tense slips in. It gets me even more annoyed when radio historians do it; I once listened to a good ten minutes of a programme, trying to work out which middle eastern country they were talking about, only to discover it was King John and Magna Carta. Finally, I dislike the currently fashionable habit of rounding off the book, then adding a cliffhanger which should really be the first chapter of the next book. I hate feeling I’m being forced to buy the next book. I want a complete story. I feel authors who do this break the trust between author and reader – and I don’t buy the next book, because I don’t trust that to give me an ending either.
What are you working on at the moment?
Cass No. 6. This one’s set on the Norwegian tall ship Sorlandet, going from Kristiansand to Belfast with a murderer on board. I had a wonderful time researching it – taking my trick on the great wheel, climbing the mast to stow sails, sleeping in a hammock … but it’s being hard to write, because a tall ship is such an unlikely place for a murderer. For a start, you’re never unobserved, which dampens attempts to kill others. I was going to make the plot people-smuggling, which is becoming a problem with yachts (as in people approaching you for a passage), but, as one American crew-member objected, ‘Why would anyone who’d made it to Norway want to be smuggled to Britain?’ Good point.
Why do you think crime is so popular as a genre?
I think it’s because you have a strong storyline, which is combined with all sorts of other things: exotic backgrounds, social comment, history, romance. It’s also, generally, very moral: the good people catch the bad people, and order is restored. That makes it a safe read. Also, now that most crime novels are in a series, it’s like a soap opera – you get the strong storyline, but also the fun of a family saga, where you follow characters’ lives.
Favourite ever fictional crime character?
G K Chesterton’s Father Brown, for his refusal to allow religious mumbo-jumbo; Dorothy L Sayers’ Harriet Vane, as a wonderful portrait of a writer in the twenties and thirties – I much prefer her to Lord Peter.
If you weren’t a writer, what else would you be doing?
I used to be a teacher, until bowel cancer invalided me out, and I’m still not used to being a full-time writer. I break up the day by going for tramps up the hill, or working in the garden. I have an afternoon lie down with my cats, and read – they’re fussy about that, and come and sit in front of my computer screen at 3 o’ clock if I’m not showing signs of getting up. If our school careers officer had given the sensible advice, ‘Think of what you love doing most and find somebody who’ll pay you to do it’ I’d have been a publisher’s reader or an ocean-going yacht skipper.
Photograph: John Carolan
Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She recently retired from being a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, where she lives with her husband, a tribe of unruly cats and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history. She has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women’s suffrage in Shetland. She’s also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.
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