Way back, a friend, out of the blue, said ‘You should write a book about a figurehead carver’. At that point, I’d published 3 modern mysteries. But I like sailing boats, I live in Aberdeen, Scotland, which has a great shipbuilding tradition, and I love the Romantic period, so why not?
Research involved looking through the usual archive materials and reading newspapers about events in the Aberdeen of 1840. I also took up wood carving, so that I could get the feel of conjuring a distinct shape out of a big log. And I sailed across the North Sea as part of the crew of the beautiful square-rigger Christian Radich.
So there I was, starting yet another crime novel, but this time with no worries about DNA or any of the other CSI techniques. And I created a character, John Grant, who’s a figurehead carver. He’s also a handsome loner – you know the type – and he was going to be my Miss Marple and solve the mystery of the body found on the beach.
But all that was before I met Helen Anderson. She’s a young woman who resists the oppressions imposed on her sex in the 1840s and defies conventions. She’s bright, witty, self-assured and more complicated than I know. She’s also intrigued by the death of the man on the beach, a shipwright who was building her father’s new ship, which was to be named after her mother, Elizabeth.
I won’t go into details of the plot because I always find synopses very unsatisfactory. John continues with his sleuthing but it’s the intervention of Helen that gives him the final insight he needs to piece things together. Meanwhile, he’s carving a figurehead for the Elizabeth Anderson and, at the request of Helen’s mother, he’s making it a composite image of herself and Helen. So he’s coaxing her likeness from the oak in his workshop and the carving lies there continually reminding him (and me) of Helen. For her, the carving is an excuse to visit John and, incidentally, discuss their respective theories about the killing.
But what came to be far more important than the detective work was the growth in their relationship. She’s rich and, despite her intelligence, protected from any real awareness of the lives lived by the people who work around the quays of Aberdeen. But her curiosity and her determination to involve herself in her father’s world of trade and intrigue lead her to befriend the dead man’s wife and form relationships which would appal her parents (if she hadn’t already shown them her determination to be independent).
The novel ends on a kiss (after the mystery has been solved, of course), but now, here I am trying to get deeper into the sequel. It’s another crime novel because that’s what readers expect, but the main character is Helen, not John, and it’ll be as much a romance as a mystery – probably more. I’ve written a big chunk of it but the thing that’s holding me back is ‘What have they been doing in the twelve months since that first kiss?’ I still can’t answer that question or another which I’ve been asked by several readers – ‘Will John and Helen get together?’ I think they will but I really don’t know. In the end, it’s up to Helen. I just wish she’d hurry up and let me know.