By Basil Sands
Born and raised in Swansea, South Wales, award-winning mystery writer Cathy Ace is now proudly Canadian, though she keeps her homeland in her heart. Her novels and short stories, often featuring Welsh sleuths rooting out murderers at home and abroad, have been produced for BBC Radio 4, honored with the Bony Blithe Award for Best Canadian Light Mystery, and shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Arthur Ellis Awards.
Though Ace is best known for her Cait Morgan traditional mysteries and her WISE Enquiries Agency cozies, her latest release is a sharp stylistic departure.
Ace took some time to chat with The Big Thrill about THE WRONG BOY, a gritty, atmospheric psychological thriller about a murder investigation that exposes the dark underside of a picturesque Welsh village.
Cathy, tell us about THE WRONG BOY.
Thanks for allowing me the chance to focus on my 13th novel—I’m hoping it’s a number that’ll turn out to be lucky for me. It’s easier to tell you that I didn’t want to write a police procedural. One of the lead characters is a Detective Inspector days from retirement. The DI is married to a psychotherapist, who is most definitely not retiring. At the heart of the story is a trio of women—three generations of the Jones family—who live and run a pub in a remote Welsh clifftop village. The book is about how the discovery of human remains close to the village impacts their lives in unexpected ways…with deadly results.
On your website you state that with THE WRONG BOY you’ve “gone to the dark side.” What do you mean by that?
Unlike my cozy mysteries, THE WRONG BOY allowed me to explore where the light doesn’t always pierce the darkness, and when it does, sometimes creates inkier shadows. It’s allowed me to delve further into the deep roots and twisted branches of criminal acts, without the neatly boxed and presented package at the end. I think that’s what’s interesting about psychological suspense…it allows for the real messiness of human nature to be examined.
There are a lot of Welsh words and phrases scattered throughout the book. Do you speak the language yourself?
I come from an English-speaking area of Wales, I learned Welsh until I was 13, and I spent one year at university sharing a house with eight Welsh-speaking rugby players. My Welsh came along in leaps and bounds that year, but I wasn’t ever able to use it in polite company. That being said, I do speak “Wenglish,” a bizarre mixture of Welsh and English words (and some that are neither). Whenever I get back to Swansea I soak it up in the streets, in Swansea Market, or on the bus. And my husband and I keep it going at home—he also grew up in Swansea!
The book is set in the coastal town of Rhosddraig. Is there such a place in the real world?
There is, but I’ve changed the name of the village to protect the innocent. The real village is called Rhossili and the area is known for “The Worm’s Head,” as opposed to “The Dragon’s Head” in the book. It’s not too much of a stretch, the Norse word for “dragon” being “worm.” It’s a stunning area, and most of the features I used in the book are all real, though I have changed the names and exact locations to serve the plot. I spent many weekends and holidays in Rhossili, in my younger years.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
My teachers often said, “This essay’s too long—I didn’t ask you to write a book!” So…quite early on, I’d say. I began to study English at university intending to become a writer. At Cambridge I got fed up ripping apart works of literature to discover the framework beneath. So, instead of spending years studying how others wrote about the human experience, I decided to try to better understand it myself; I swapped my studies to psychology. The change to psychology helped me get a job in advertising and PR, where I got to be a professional writer for all those years in any case, and is now incredibly useful—both as an inspiration, and a plot device.
What advice would you give to a new writer, a few chapters into their first draft?
One thing I’ve learned is that nothing works exactly the same way for any two writers. I’d also suggest to them they get up from their desk at least once an hour and stretch—which is me saying, “Do as I say, don’t do as I do.”
And now for the question that leads us to the deep inner soul of Cathy Ace.
You get up in the morning on a lovely summer day and go to the front door to take a morning walk. When you open the door, instead of your front yard there is a gaping hole that descends farther than you can see, and a narrow spiral staircase leads down into the darkness.
A very polite and very small man in miner’s clothes looks up at you and says, “Hullo, I am Berthold the Leprechaun, of the Brothers Four, and we are in desperate need of assistance. It seems we’ve dropped the key to the abyss and need one more person to hold my brother’s ankles so he can reach it.”
What do you do?
My first reaction would be to think, “You’re no leprechaun because they wear weird green outfits and not miner’s garb….and I know miner’s garb because my grandfather was a miner.” So, immediately suspicious of this person who is telling me tall tales whatever his physical size might be, I’ll make some polite noises about my back being bad (because I don’t get up from my desk very often to stretch—see above) and explain that I am ever so slightly claustrophobic, as well as being short and overweight—none of these factors making me a good candidate for the job at hand. I’ll explain about my years involved with the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, and will give my best advice on knots to be used when employing the copious amounts of rope I’ll give him from my garage, where it’s stored for managing trees I need to fell on my property. I’ll then get into my trusty SUV (parked a safe distance from said yawning chasm) and take my beloved chocolate Labrador with me, lock up the house, and leave them to it. I’m a Celt, and we don’t need Stephen King to tell us to never trust a fairy…be they a leprechaun, a bwca, or a brownie (they’re often called tommyknockers in the USA). I’ll give ’em enough rope to hang themselves, then I’m off!
Cathy Ace writes the Cait Morgan Mysteries and the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries. Welsh by birth and upbringing, she lives in Canada. Shortlisted for the Bony Blithe Award three times in four years, winning in 2015, she was also shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story in 2017. 2019 sees the launch of THE WRONG BOY – her first novel of domestic and psychological suspense.
To learn more about Cathy, please visit her website.