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Catherine Marshall – deep dark mysteries
Today I am discussing her books with my guest, Catherine Marshall, my good friend and one of my favourite writers.
Catherine comes from the Midlands, and lived in London before moving to Lancashire (so far). After an early start writing romances for an imprint of Robert Hale, Catherine turned to darker topics and more complicated psychology. If you want a genre, definitely Noir! She has three novels, which may have a crime at their heart, but which concentrate on the conflicted personalities of those drawn into the maelstrom.
Masquerade is set in an Open University summer school, where students come together for a brief while, to study and to flirt with the possibility of fleetingly adopting a new personality. This they can do, because none of them know each other. Or do they? What exactly are they escaping from?
Excluded is set around Rapton, a challenging high school in Lancashire, where an idealistic headmaster is hoping to work miracles. Exclusion is a punishment he doesn’t want to use, but he is operating in an arena where far too many already feel excluded, in every way that matters. For some, it’s hard to tell where they can ever, possibly, fit in. When their stories collide, tragedy sweeps up everyone.
Still Water is set mostly in a small resort in Cornwall, with a terrifying diversion across Europe. Summer brings holiday-makers flocking to the town, to surf and to party, including Gil, a regular, ready to renew his long-time acquaintance with one local woman, but also to discover a new passion with another. The trouble is, both are nursing past griefs, and before the summer is over, something is going to break.
Here is my interview with Catherine. Your characters are all complex and very real. Some of them are very troubled, or disturbed, or downright unpleasant, but you write about all of them with a degree of sympathy. Do you ever ache to make things turn out better for them?
Yes, sometimes, especially if I kill them off! But I’m always thinking about what would make the better story. If the characters aren’t sympathetic, the reader won’t care about them or about what happens to them, and you need some level of emotional investment to continue reading. I need not to like them, necessarily, but to understand them, and with that comes sympathy. I try to factor in too what might realistically happen, but that comes second to telling a good story and ensuring there are twists and turns to the plot. Masquerade is about people whisked away from their normal lives for a brief moment and they are all, in some way, wearing masks. Does that appeal to you – being someone new for a short while? Well, that was where the idea for Masquerade began. When I was travelling to that summer school I was tempted to reinvent myself for a week – and by the end of the first day I’d realised how much energy that would require. Also, I’d find it hard to be so acutely focused on myself for any length of time – I’m always more interested in other people, who they are and what makes them tick. But the idea was born, and all four main characters have good reasons for dissembling to a greater or lesser degree. I’m fascinated by the concept of identity, and a Psychology summer school is a very good place to explore that concept.
Masquerade is set in… well, it must surely be Bath? A very atmospheric setting. Why did you choose it? Prosaically, because that’s where my own summer school took place. But Bath has a very specific atmosphere – a mystery and a magic due to its size and its history – which many cities don’t have, and which made it just right for the location of the story. It’s small enough for you to bump into people you know but big enough to get lost in if you’re a stranger, which was exactly what I needed for the plot. The story is partly set in Brighton too, and I think it has a comparable ambience. Excluded paints a pretty hair-raising picture of a troubled school in Lancashire. Did you base it on fact and your own experiences? Yes, completely. The characters are composites (I hasten to add) but the setting, and the way the school functions – or rather, doesn’t – was the very worrying truth of the school in which I worked at that time. There were many boys like Callum and Todd, struggling with similar issues. So I didn’t have to do any research, just lay a fiction story over a factual background. The book follows the fatally interlocking story of several characters who feel unjustly excluded. For me, the central one is Dean, the newly released prisoner with a miserable past. Is that how you see him, or would you choose another character? When I began writing Excluded, it was without a central character in mind, though Todd and Stephen and Finn were all contenders. It was only when I was about two thirds of the way through that I realised it was Dean’s story, and how could I possibly have thought otherwise? The reader learns more about Dean than the others, as his story covers a longer time period, and he represents the idea of exclusion so precisely. And of course, the more I wrote from his point of view, the more I grew to like and understand him, which I didn’t expect to do at the beginning. I am impressed by the way the story ends with questions not quite answered, leaving the reader to hope, without any guarantees. Were you tempted to spell out the fate of all the characters and tie up all the loose ends neatly? No. Excluded is the most realistic of my novels, and therefore has the most realistic ending, I think. We reach a natural conclusion to that particular stage in the characters’ stories, but to tie up loose ends and enforce a traditionally happy ending would detract from everything that had gone before. Still Water has one of the most chilling openings I have ever read, and the consequent flight scenes are terrifying and compelling. Do you have nightmares at night, or a very dark imagination? I rarely suffer from nightmares, so must have a very dark imagination! The idea for Still Water came from how strongly we can feel if we think we’ve been betrayed on a very ordinary level, in the most ordinary of situations, and I wanted to look at what betrayal – or perceived betrayal – might do to someone in more extreme circumstances. So yes, I guess that’s dark – but surely better drama.
The glorious setting for much of the story is Cornwall. How much is fictional? It is clearly an area you love. Yes indeed. St Ives was my inspiration for the setting of Still Water, but I didn’t name it because I wanted there to be locations for the purposes of the story which don’t actually exist. The square where Cecily’s café is based, for example, isn’t real, and nor is Patrick’s bar. But Alex’s gallery was a beach shop during my 1970s family holidays and then I discovered last year that it is now, in fact, a gallery.
Q. You are very good at writing sexy, competent but interestingly flawed men. Why choose crime-based human dramas rather than romances?
There’s my dark imagination in play! I suppose partly because I prefer mysteries and thrillers to romances, and partly because it gives them more to do and more meat as a character. I’m much more interested in the whole of someone’s psychological make-up, in what motivates and inspires and limits them, and in keeping them more grittily real than romantic leads tend to be.
I can vouch for the fact that Catherine’s books are great, if disturbing, reads and I highly recommend all of them.
Find them here.
And find out more about Catherine: