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Friday 13 August 2021

Forgotten Authors Corner: Charlotte Macleod 1922-2005

  by Nicola Slade

Charlotte Matilda MacLeod was born in New Brunswick in Canada in 1922. A year later her parents emigrated to the United States. She became a naturalised US citizen in 1951. During the late 1940s and early 1950s she worked as a copy writer for Stop and Shop Supermarkets in Boston. She eventually moved on to join the staff of N. H. Miller & Company, an advertising firm, where she rose to the level of vice president, and retired in 1982. While continuing to work at the advertising company during the day, Charlotte MacLeod began writing mystery fiction, eventually publishing over 30 in all. Many of her books are set in New England, including one series focused on college professor Peter Shandy, and another on the upmarket Boston couple Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn. Other mysteries, set in Canada, were published under the pen name Alisa Craig. She specifically tailored her books to be ‘cozies’ i.e. avoiding too much violence, gore, or sex. All feature a humorous and literate-yet-light style, likable protagonists, and eccentric casts of secondary characters. Described as a ‘true lady’ and often seen with hat and white gloves, Charlotte MacLeod began writing at 6 a.m, continued through the morning, then used the afternoon for rewrites. She only started new books on Sundays and during writing would stay dressed in a bathrobe to avoid temptation of leaving the house for an errand. Her work sold over one million copies in the United States as well as Canada and Japan. Charlotte MacLeod was cofounder and past president of the American Crime Writers League. She received a Nero Award for The Corpse in Oozak's Pond (1987), which was also nominated for an Edgar Award. Toward the end of her years she suffered from Alzheimers and died on January 14, 2005, in a nursing home in Maine.
The above is culled from Wikipedia but it doesn’t give a real flavour of the woman and her work.

She was the first author I read who showed me that murder could be funny. She doesn’t trivialise the crime or the effect it has on the sufferers and mourners, but she was an inspiration to me and to many other aspiring writers. Her characters often have bizarre names – Belial Buggins, for one – and the settings and plots are probably best described as ‘zany’, but the reader is drawn in by the eccentricity and promptly hooked by the warmth of the writing, the rounded but eccentric characters and the mad but brilliant plots.

Peter Shandy, her first sleuth, is a professor at an unusual agricultural college in rural Massachusetts where he develops and lectures on flowers and vegetables. He becomes the college’s unofficial detective in residence and can be found solving murder mysteries that involve missing prize pigs, a surprising run on historic weather vanes, astonishingly rampant lupins, and other innocuous-sounding pursuits. His wife, meanwhile, is at one time rescued by a whale after she’s been thrown overboard a fishing boat!

The Boston mysteries feature Sarah Kelling, downtrodden daughter and wife, member of a haughty Boston family, and her efforts to keep afloat after her first husband is brutally murdered. As her second husband is an art historian this series is more about the theft of paintings and other masterpieces but is just as absorbing and amusing as the Peter Shandy mysteries.

However, my personal favourites are the books she wrote as Alisa Craig. Set in Canada these consist of a couple of stand-alones and two series. One is about a Mountie who is forever dashing off in the far-frozen wastes after criminals, and assisted by his practical, adorable wife, Janet. The other – by far my favourite – is a series of five novels about The Grub and Stakers Gardening and Roving Club set in the fictitious town of Lobelia Falls somewhere in Ontario.

Besides gardening and roving, members of the club (and the rest of the townsfolk) are all expert at archery and potter about with bows slung over their shoulders and quivers at the ready for target practice, which leads to the initial crime in the first of the series. Characters have eccentric names – the protagonist is Dittany Henbit Monk – and the plots are insane. In one book there are Siamese twin visitors who may or not be criminals and a plot that revolves around a Worcester Sauce manufacturer. 

The only way I’ve found that even partly describes this particular series is that it reminds me of a contemporary version of some of the Anne of Green Gables books, especially those where you get quilting bees and details of life in the country villages. Except that in the Grub & Stakers mysteries it’s Anne of Green Gables on something illegal! Charlotte MacLeod’s books are the most enormous fun and well worth seeking out. There was a lot of speculation that she was the inspiration for the famous Jessica Fletcher of ‘Murder She Wrote’ fame, but she tartly pointed out that if she went about sleuthing she’d never get a word written.

Nicola Slade  (1943-2020) was brought up in Poole, Dorset. She wrote children’s stories when her three children were growing up. Winning a story competition in Family Circle galvanised her into writing seriously. Scuba Dancin, a romantic comedy was her first published novel. A series of Victorian mysteries followed: Murder Most Welcome was published by Robert Hale Ltd, 2008, featuring Charlotte Richmond, a young widow in the 1850s. Charlotte also features in the second of the series: Death is the Cure, (Robert Hale Ltd, 2009). The third of Charlotte's adventures, The Dead Queen's Garden, was published in December 2013. Murder Fortissimo came out January 2011. This is a contemporary 'cosy' crime novel, featuring former headmistress, Harriet Quigley, and her sidekick and cousin, Rev Sam Hathaway. A Crowded Coffin', is the second adventure for Harriet and Sam.  

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