Mandy Morton interview: Purrfecting the mystery of The Ice Maid's Tail
After losing her beloved long-haired tabby cat, radio producer and former folk musician Mandy Morton wanted to keep her memory alive.
So she penned a story about the adventures of Hettie Bagshot and her No2 Feline Detective Agency – a tongue-in-cheek homage to Alexander McCall Smith’s cosy crime series – and self published it to raise money for a cats’ charity.
But when the book raised more than £2,000, it came to the attention of a London publisher which asked Cambridge author Mandy to write a series.
Mandy said: “The idea came in 2013 when I left the BBC after 26 years of broadcasting and producing, and the first winter I was twiddling my thumbs and I thought what am I going to do about this?
“Recently, my partner Nicola and I had lost our long-haired tabby cat. We were sort of robbed of those years when cats sit on cushions and dribble in front of the fire. So, that winter I sat down and decided I would write a story mainly for my own amusement about this particular cat.”
She set the books in the 1970s in a town entirely populated by cats who live on a street based on Mill Road.
“The great thing about Mill Road is it’s a high street which, certainly back in the '70s, had everything you needed. You didn’t need to go into town because it had everything – cafés, a dry cleaners, Barney’s super store which sold the latest fashions, it had a massive hardware store where you could get everything from a plug to a kitchen sink.
“When I created this parallel world, I created a high street where all the cats had shops and they ran those shops in the same way as I remember them back in the v70s. There’s an awful lot of biography turns up in this book and is related to events that happened in my own life.”
After writing the first book, Mandy realised she would now need to create a whole fictional world for her characters and, with a habit of adopting very elderly cats, she soon found there were several more characters to add to the stories after they sadly passed on.
“Hettie, who inspired the books, was a long-haired tabby cat. We rescued her when she was four years old,” said Mandy. “She was feisty and clever. She could work out what I was doing at least 20 minutes before I did it. If she wanted your chair, she would do everything she possibly could to divert your attention to get it. She was very wily and magnificently beautiful – her markings were just stunning. So it was an obvious thing that she should be made the lead character along with her sidekick, Tilly.
“Subsequently we have also sadly added more of our cats to the books as the series has gone on. So in a funny sort of way we haven’t lost them, they have come back and I have very much used their own personalities and fed those into the characters. When we lost our last cat, Molly, she went in the book and she has opened a café.
“Anyone who has ever been owned by a cat also knows that cats have the most incredibly different characters. You never get a cat that is the same. Cats can be incredibly cruel and selfish or self effacing, lazy or full of beans and they can follow all the traits a human being would have. But cats have this extra thing about them that allows them to be very calculating if they want to. That’s actually the perfect thing if you want a detective.”
Although the books are funny and written in a tongue-in-cheek style, the mysteries are still puzzling.
Mandy said: “I discovered a way of being able to tackle some really quite serious subjects, but by making all my characters cats there was a playful element to it as well. I created a very cute, lovely, fluffy world for people that adore cats but underlying this were a lot of serious subject matters which I suppose after years at the BBC I wanted to get off my chest.”
The latest book in the series, The Ice Maid’s Tail, finds Hettie and Tilly investigating the disappearance of kittens during a snowstorm.
Mandy said: “I wanted to write a traditional fairy tale. Like most children I was read Grimm’s fairy tales and looking back they were very dark. I wanted with The Ice Maid’s Tail to write a very dark fairy tale. And right in the centre of the book is that story. I was already able to use things I had created in past books. In the town where the cats live they have their stately home, Witherfork Hall, which I had explored in an earlier book called the Michaelmas Murders. And this time around I decided to use Witherfork Hall and go back in its history to find out some of the strange things that had happened in this past.
"Bearing that in mind, Hetty and Tilly are brought in to investigate the disappearance of some kittens. It all happens in a massive week of blizzards when the whole town is brought to a standstill and the kitten goes missing and right at the heart of the book is a very dark fairy tale that comes back to haunt them.”
Now a presenter of arts magazine The Eclectic Light Show on Cambridge 105 Radio with her partner, the crime writer Nicola Upson, Mandy is still involved in radio.
She said: “I feel totally blessed. I have been given the opportunity to pursue the wonderful things I have done. Starting with a folk rock band and touring all over the place then recording six albums before moving into the BBC and having a wonderful life there in presenting and production and now having this new outlook on life.”
Many Morton will launch The Ice Maid’s Tail at Waterstones, Cambridge on Thursday, February 20. Tickets £5 from Waterstones.com.