In Quiet Neighbors, the new standalone novel from Scottish academic-turned-Northern-Californian-mystery-author Catriona McPherson, Jude Hamner is on the run from some bad life choices. She runs to a bookshop. Who among us wouldn’t?
McPherson is the author of the highly decorated Dandy Gilver historical mystery series, the Edgar Award-nominated and Anthony Award-winning The Day She Died, the Anthony Award-winning As She Left It, and A Child Garden, which is a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award (against the interviewer; we’re still friends). The New York Times says McPherson writes “mystery stories that are both cozy and creepy, which accounts for the quirky charm” of her newest novel, a story about sifting through the chaos of life and finding safety, friendship, and even love.
Where did Quiet Neighbors begin for you? With a character? With a situation? Tell us a little about how you construct a story.
I was in a used bookstore—not in Wigtown—and I found a treasure. It was a Margery Allingham I didn’t own. I made a sound, apparently, and the bookseller—nothing like Lowell!—popped his head out of a side room to see what was happening. We had a few minutes’ chat about paper books and the thrill of the chase and then, as P. G. Wodehouse says, passed out of one another’s lives.
Quiet Neighbors is set almost entirely inside a used bookstore. Was that a deliberate choice, to place booklover’s catnip at the heart of the book?
Ummmm, I don’t think so. It was pure wish-fulfillment for me: a character gets the task of organizing a shambolic bookshop. Wouldn’t that be great? But in The Day She Died, the protagonist works in a free-clothing project, raking through manky binbags all day. And in As She Left It, I’ve got someone whose job is to do the shopping for the online customers of a supermarket. All three jobs were daydreams, but I think more people share this last one.
For a tidily paced novel, Quiet Neighbors has a lot of mysteries to solve. What challenges did that present to you as you wrote and revised?
Oh man. You’ve hit it there. I spent the last third of the first draft muttering “This is madness. This’ll never work. I can’t do this.” I wouldn’t make much of a motivational speaker. In the second draft, I employed the old Post-It-note strategy to make sure the different plot elements were spaced out well enough so that the book as a whole thrummed like a chord instead of sounding like someone dropped some buckets.
Which of the characters in the book did you identify with the most?
Well, not Jude, strangely. She’s a Londoner for one thing. And she has a psychological quirk that I don’t really understand. It was a challenge to make sure she reacted realistically in various settings. But on the other hand, since she’s the voice character, I spent the most time with her and looked at it all through her eyes. So by the end I was inside her. It was much easier to write Maureen “from the Cancer” or Jackie at the Post Office, though.
There’s a particular series of books mentioned in Quiet Neighbors that Jude loves. Can you talk about those books—I was surprised to learn they were real!—and maybe some other books that you would get excited to find in a used shop?
The O. Douglases, you mean? Yes, I’m a huge fan. They are . . . lightly plotted, let’s say; very tame by today’s norms. But yes indeed. She was John Buchan’s sister and published a fair few domestic novels set mostly in the Scottish Borders. The Nelson editions are beautiful objects. I’m a sucker for a kitsch mid-century dust jacket.
How is writing one of your contemporary suspense novels different—or in fact the same—as writing one of your Dandy Gilver historical novels?
The contemporaries are easier in that I don’t need to be on anachronism-watch all the time, but I have to populate them from scratch and hack a fresh path into virgin forest. The Dandy Gilvers are like a reunion when I start up again. Once I remind myself what year it is now and how old the two boys will be, I can pretty much let it unfold. Ha! Don’t listen to that. Right now, I’m writing the first draft of book twelve and I’m muttering “This’ll never work. I can’t do this.”
Many of your books have been award nominees and winners—including that Mary Higgins Clark Award I’m arm-wrestling you for April 28. Can you talk a little about being recognized within the mystery community in such a way?
Yes, let’s make the most of being pals for now in case one of us wins. Of course, if Hallie Ephron, Susie Calkins or Frances Brody wins, you and me can be embittered pals forever. The award recognition is humbling, isn’t it? And the Edgars probably most of all. I’ve been an Edgar judge—in the MHC category, funnily enough—and I know how seriously it’s taken and how scrupulous and attentive the judges are. It’s pretty amazing to have people who know so much about how a book is put together tell you you did it well.
What are your favorite bookshops? Which one would you run to?
The real shop where the imaginary Lowland Glen Books sits in the book is not too shabby. And I know Shaun and Jessica would take me in if I turned up at the door. But perhaps my absolute favourite is . . . oof, top three? Avid Reader, Davis, CA. The window displays they put on for my launch events are incredible. At 2, Goldsboro Books in London, where Dave Headley sold the signed Robert Galbraiths to his regular customers for cover price—he’s a mensch. And in the top spot: Atkinson Pryce in Biggar. Just the best little bookshop ever.
What’s next for you?
It’s Friday! So tonight it’s a visit from my favourite gangster: Couch Pizzatelli. But that’s not what you meant, right? Next, I finish this first draft of Dandy No.12, then go to Scotland and launch Dandy No. 11 (The Nuns) and the UK Child Garden, which Little, Brown are bringing out in mass-market paperback in time for Halloween. It’s really noticeable that when you say to non-writing friends “mass-paperback for the supermarkets” they wince and ask how you feel about it but when you say it to crimewriting friends they all go “cool!”
FICTION – MYSTERY, SUSPENSE
Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson
April 8, 2016
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.