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Thursday, 2 February 2017

Priscilla Masters

Carol Westron talks to Priscilla Masters

Priscilla Masters is a prolific writer of detective stories, with two long-running series to her credit, featuring Detective Inspector Joanna Piercy and Coroner Martha Gunn as well as many stand-alone novels.
She has recently embarked on a new series featuring Claire Roget, a forensic psychiatrist.
Priscilla worked as a nurse from the age of sixteen until her retirement two years ago and many of her novels are set in a hospital/medical environment.

'It is always a joy to discover a crime writer with a sure touch and the capacity to shock,’ Peter Lovesey.

Carol: You’ve got two long-standing series already well underway and hopefully just started another. When you wrote
Winding up the Serpent, the first DI Joanna Piercy novel, in 1995, did you think of it in terms of the first in a series? And are there things you would have altered if you had realised Jo Piercy was going to be with you for so long?
Priscilla: When I began I thought I could write five Joannas so I planned for a series but when I reached No 5 (Scaring Crows) even I wanted to know what would happen to her in the future. How would her life pan out? I realized as the series grew that I had planted little seeds in Joanna, Matthew and Korpanski’s characters that were going to continue to intrigue me. How sad – being hooked on your own series but I suspect I am not alone in this.

Carol: For nine years after Winding up the Serpent you wrote Jo Piercy novels and several stand-alone novels. When you wrote the first Martha Gunn book, River Deep, were you aware that she was going to join your team of strong, tenacious women who were going to insist you made them part of a series?
Priscilla: Actually it was a combination of the move to Shropshire and starting work in the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital plus a suggestion from both my agent and my publisher that I should consider starting a second
series using my medical background rather than a police procedural. It took me a while to get to know Martha. I found her more complicated – perhaps an older version of myself. Being a widow gave her a bit of baggage I was unfamiliar with as was the experience of being a single parent mum - to twins! Her job – dealing with the aftermath of death was more familiar but I wondered, as she was in the serious role of coroner, from never knowing the person whose death was featuring in her court and how could I stop her from being a sad person. I solved that by giving her mad red hair and encouraging her to step outside the coroner’s role – get a bit nosey. And I didn’t want to tip her straight into a love affair but keep her single which I thought would underline her independent role. 

Carol: I was fortunate enough to review Dangerous Minds last year and absolutely loved it. The central protagonist is Claire Roget, a forensic psychiatrist, and the way you ratcheted up the suspense, notch by notch was masterly. I get the feeling that you are fascinated by abnormal psychology, as I am. Am I correct about that?
Priscilla: In my role as a nurse I have worked in psychiatric units and had dealings with patients labelled as schizophrenic, personality disorders, psychopaths, criminals and so on. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable when their body language doesn’t match with the expected or the norm. We lose our point of reference. Once or twice I have been actually frightened by this unpredictability. More by personality disorders than by other psychiatric diagnoses. Years ago I had an interesting encounter with a schizophrenic patient and delved into her past history: the insightful psychiatrist’s letters over the years, past significant events, hospital admissions - usually under a section of the Mental Health Act and comments made by other health professionals. What I discovered surprised and intrigued me. I used this history as a basis for another medical/psychological stand-alone, Disturbing Ground, set in the Welsh Valleys. And Claire Roget fitted neatly into my fascination with unusual and abnormal minds combined with crime writing. The two fit together like a handmade glove.

Carol: Dangerous Minds is billed as the first book in a new series. When is the next one due?
Priscilla: Called The Deceiver I have actually completed it but it needs some polishing and personal circumstances have unfortunately intervened. But hopefully (Fingers Crossed) Spring 2017.

Carol: The roles of police detective, coroner and forensic psychiatrist are all different branches of the justice system. How much research do you have to do for the different books and how did you go about it?
Priscilla: Working as a nurse for almost fifty years has been a wonderful experience giving me insight into people’s minds at a time of crisis. Also people confide in nurses. I choose my friends very very carefully, almost vetting them as I go along, my antennae rising if I hear the word detective, psychiatrist or anyone else connected with the criminal justice system. One of my patients was a very friendly coroner’s assistant, another friend had been an undercover detective. I listen to psychiatrists and people’s stories then distort and tweak them until I have the plot for a novel. At parties I mix and ask questions. Drop into the pond the fact that I write crime novels which frequently bears fruit. And then there’s always the internet to check facts.

Carol:. I can still remember the shiver that ran through me when I read the first few pages of Frozen Charlotte. You are one of the finest exponents of ‘writing the darkness’ that I know. How naturally does it come to you to write the deepest nightmares? Do you find it painful or cathartic? (or both?)
Priscilla: I think all writers have the experience of visiting a library and people come up to you and say they have an idea for a story. And it’s frequently just not that interesting. But then I start to think What if . . . ? So I tweak it a bit. Frozen Charlotte was inspired by an event that actually happened at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital except for one tiny detail. The baby had died, a cot death, no more than half an hour before the mother brought it in to A&E. I tweaked it. But crime writers’ minds have to dive into the swamp. My mind seems to hear a story and then want to make it deeper and darker. I don’t find it painful or cathartic – it makes me appreciate that nothing as dreadful has ever happened to me – so far - though I did have a distant aunt who was murdered in Birmingham.

Carol: The Martha Gunn series is set in Shrewsbury, the home of an earlier, iconic fictional detective. Do you ever think you might feel the ghostly presence of Brother Cadfael helping Martha and Alex with their investigations?
Priscilla: Much as I love historical novels I’ve tended to shy away from the supernatural, relying instead on science and hard evidence so, in short, no.

Carol: Before you wrote crime stories you published a children’s book, based in the magical National Trust property Biddulph Grange. After Mr Bateman’s Garden why did you turn away from children’s fiction and immerse yourself in crime?
Priscilla: I never really wanted to be a children’s author. It was simply the fantastic gardens of Biddulph Grange that tempted me in. At heart I am, and always was, a crime writer and reader.

Carol: Have you ever thought of writing another children’s book?
Priscilla: I did start a follow up to Mr Bateman’s Garden called The Willow Pattern Garden. My mum read a few chapters and hated it and by then I was stuck into crime anyway so I dropped it.

Carol: What sort of books did you read when you were a child? Did they help to shape your adult writing and interests?
Priscilla: I read Enid Blyton then Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. In other words I was a crime fiction addict! Hiding all over the house with my books.

Carol: Tell us a bit about yourself and your hobbies.
Priscilla: As some of my readers know I have been a nurse from the age of 16 until two years ago when I finally hung up my bedpan and syringe and retired. The medical background has been an influence all my life as my dad and grandfather were both doctors as are my husband, brother and son. (I had no chance). I’m fond of the countrywide and love cycling. Also whale watching and red wine – preferably together on an ocean with the sun beating down and with a safe and sober helmsman! And then right in front of the prow a humpback breeches. That, to me, would be Heaven. And now for a fact that few people know. In my younger days I was a harpist and still own the beautiful harp I played in Eisteddfodau as a youngster – though these days it is not ever tuned up to concert pitch as, being a Regency instrument, it would probably explode! I spoke Welsh before English but, having lived in England since I was 16, I  have forgotten most of it though in Disturbing Ground I realized I was using Welsh sentence construction and the text was peppered with Welsh words. And until recently, when my husband finally closed the doors of Phil Masters Antiques, I was his Saturday girl!

DI Joanna Piercy Series
Winding Up the Serpent (1995)
Catch the Fallen Sparrow (1996) A Wreath For My Sister (1997)
And None Shall Sleep (1997)
Scaring Crows (1999)
Embroidering Shrouds (2001)
Endangering Innocents (2003)
Wings Over the Watcher (2005)
Grave Stones (2009
The Velvet Scream (2011) 
The Final Curtain (2013)
                                          Guilty Waters (2014)

Martha Gunn Series
River Deep (2004)
Slip Knot (2007)
Frozen Charlotte (2011)
Smoke Alarm (2012)The Devil's Chair (2014)Recalled to Death (2015)

Standalone Novels
Mr Bateman's Garden(1988
Night Visit (1988)
A Fatal Cut (2000)
Disturbing Ground (2002)
A Plea of Insanity (2005)
The Watchful Eye (2008)
Buried in Clay (2008)
Dying For Perfection (2015

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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