I’ve heard great things about Morecambe & Vice, the North West’s quirkiest crime-writing festival. Back this year for its third year running, it’s a real pleasure to be joining the blog tour organised by Sarah at BOTBSPublicity: a large number of bloggers are featuring posts spotlighting authors who will be part of the festival programme when the Midland Hotel in Morecambe opens its doors on Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th September. You can find out more about the festival on the website, and also via the festival’s Facebook page and Twitter stream.
Now, many of you will know that I’m only a very occasional crime reader – and I was a bit worried about who Sarah might partner me with. But she actually couldn’t have done much better – I’m delighted to be featuring Mandy Morton, introducing you to her No 2 Feline Detective Agency series: I’m also adding a short review of the latest, Beyond the Gravy, the seventh in the series, published in May 2019 by Farrago.
Shall we start with the introduction? Let’s welcome Mandy Morton to Being Anne…
Mandy, when Sarah invited me to be part of this blog tour for Morecambe & Vice, I was rather afraid she’d ask me to read something violent and gory – instead she gave me cosy crime and cats, and I couldn’t have been more delighted. Tell me where the inspiration came from for this wonderful series…
I think the idea planted itself in my head when I first encountered Kenneth Grahame’s book The Wind in the Willows as a child. He created a world without people but gave his characters the anxieties and joys of a real world. It was a world I wanted to inhabit and explore, and in my books I’ve had the chance to do that.
I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed Beyond the Gravy… can you help me give other readers an idea what they can expect from the series?
I think you can read the books on two levels. If you love cats and enjoy their peculiarities and you have a fairly dark sense of humour, this may be the series for you. On the other hand (or paw), the books cover quite serious issues that affect all our lives like homelessness, abuse, family secrets, ambition, euthanasia, religion and spiritualism, and the eroding of society in general. There is, of course, a fully fleshed out murder mystery at the heart of the books, and I was delighted when a journalist described the series as ‘Midsomer Murders meets The Wind in the Willows’. The series is anchored in a feline micro world full of shops, cafes, libraries, stately homes, allotments and a bakery to die for, run by two white haired cats from Lancashire called Betty and Beryl Butter. Food is huge in this series: pies, pastry and cakes bounce off the pages. My detectives, Hettie and Tilly, are long haired tabbies who live in a bed sitter at the back of the bakery and drive around in a motorbike and sidecar called Miss Scarlet.
There’s an obvious appeal for cat lovers – but what’s the reaction been like from hardcore crime fans?
Very good in general; the mystery factor is important to me, and once readers have got over the fact that the characters are all cats, the crimes are as complex and nasty as any other crime series. Fans have accepted them as part of that genre.
Were you ever tempted to include human characters too?
Not really; after working for nearly thirty years at the BBC, dealing with people, I was delighted to be able to create a world without them! Like people, all cats are different: shy, cunning, calculating, cruel, vicious, arrogant, spiteful and sometimes quite contrary. What more could a crime writer ask for?
I see the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is 20 books strong now – do you have similar plans for the No.2 Feline Detective Agency?
I love writing this series and as long as the ideas keep coming I’ll keep writing them. I’m writing book eight at the moment, called The Ice Maid’s Tail – a kitstopian novel, of course!
I did read that you’re very much inspired by Golden Age detective fiction. I’m sure you’ll have a library full of Agatha Crispys as Irene Peggledrip does, but would you have any other recommendations for me?
I love my partner Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey series, set in the thirties; if I didn’t know her, I’d still read them – great social history, believable characters and fantastic murders. I have loved all the novels from PD James; she became a good friend and it’s a real shame that there will be no more books by her; she took up Christie’s torch and ran with it, modernising the genre.
And Morecambe & Vice – why do you enjoy attending? Anything you’re particularly looking forward to this year?
It’s my first time at the festival. I’m looking forward to talking about my books to a new audience and exploring Morecambe a little if there’s time.
Thank you Mandy! So, the series – here’s where it all started…
Hettie Bagshot has bitten off more than any cat could chew. As soon as she launches her No. 2 Feline Detective Agency , she’s bucketed into a case: Furcross, home for slightly older cats, has a nasty spate of bodysnatching, and three of the residents have been stolen from their graves. Hettie and her sidekick, Tilly, set out to reveal the terrible truth. Is Nurse Mogadon involved in a deadly game? Has the haberdashery department of Malkin & Sprinkle become a mortuary? And what flavour will Betty Butter’s pie of the week be?
Getting the flavour? Here are the five books that followed – just click on the image to be taken to Mandy’s Amazon UK author page. The eighth in the series, The Ice Maid’s Tail, will follow in February 2020.
But today I’m sharing my review of the seventh in the series, Beyond the Gravy…
Psychic cat Irene Peggledrip is being visited by a band of malevolent spirits who all claim to be murderers. Not only is their message disturbing, but they cause chaos with indoor snowstorms, flying books and the untimely demise of a delicious Victoria sponge. Irene calls in Hettie and Tilly of the No. 2 Feline Detective Agency to help, but they’re not sure how far their skills reach into the spirit realm.
Meanwhile, Lavender Stamp, the town’s bad-tempered postmistress cat, has some good news to deliver to Tilly: she has won a competition to take afternoon tea with renowned mystery writer Agatha Crispy at her Devon home, Furaway House.
Will Hettie and Tilly finally lay the ghosts to rest? Can Molly Bloom’s new café survive the seance? And will the moving claw give up its secrets before the gravy congeals? Find out in this latest adventure of our favourite feline sleuths.
P.D. James said of the series “original and intriguing… a world without people which cat lovers will enter and enjoy” – and I really can’t argue with that. I’ve read very little cosy crime (ok – none at all!), and have no previous experience of cats as a book’s protagonists, but this book was an absolute delight from beginning to end. I’ve noticed that many of the enthusiastic reviews for books in this series mention the need for “suspension of disbelief”: but the author’s world-building is so thoroughly excellent that I didn’t find that a problem for an instant.
I always so enjoy a book set within a community made up of diverse characters, and this wonderful story most certainly delivered. The relationship between Hettie and Tilly was beautifully handled and immensely heartwarming: I loved Tilly’s naive enthusiasm, bursts of excitement, and her clumsiness (it’s the paws…), and Hettie’s care and protectiveness (and only occasional impatience…) was so well done. They are characters with real depth and history – but then so is every single character within this book. I loved the different shops, run by individuals with the most perfect names – I was particularly taken by the Butter sisters who run the bakery (and produce the most wonderful pies and cream cakes). But don’t expect every character to be lovable – these are cats with characteristics that are sometimes all too human, and I particularly liked (perhaps the wrong word…) Lavender Stamp, the aggressive and slightly unhinged post mistress.
The story itself is really excellent – the excitement around the opening of a new cafe, a mystery to solve from the world of the supernatural, a road trip with real drama along the way with stops at the biker cafe and a rather macabre hotel, a meeting with Agatha Crispy herself (complete with spectacles, two-piece brown suit and string of pearls), and a stay at her boathouse with a rather lovely Kenneth Grahame (or should I say Greyhair?) moment.
I loved all the literary references, the resolution to the investigation was so cleverly done (and well built up to) – and I’ll admit I was rather sorry to leave this wonderfully created world and its endearing characters. Totally original, very different – and I’m in awe of the author’s imagination. Very much recommended by me.
About the author
Mandy Morton began her professional life as a musician. Her songwriting formed the basis of six albums during the 1970s and early 1980s, when she toured extensively with her band. More recently, she has worked as a freelance arts journalist for national and local radio, specialising in making music and theatre documentary. She is the co-author of a non-fiction theatre book, In Good Company, and lives with her partner in Cambridge and Cornwall, where there is always a place for an ageing long-haired tabby cat. Follow Hettie on Facebook.