Plumpton-based author Ali Carter on her second novel
PUBLISHED: 12:38 15 August 2019
Ali Carter's second novel sees her arty amateur detective Susie Mahl in the middle of good old fashioned murder mystery at a grand house in Norfolk. Simone Hellyer speaks to the Plumpton-based author
Ali Carter's second novel in her Susie Mahl series of stories, The Colours of Murder, sees her pet portraitist-cum-amateur detective slap bang in the middle of a murder mystery at a Norfolk country pile.
Fresh from her successful first foray into the world of amateur sleuthing, The Colours of Murder sees Susie on a commission to draw racehorses in Norfolk when she is invited to a weekend party at nearby Fontaburn Hall, the home of the Honourable Archibald Cooke Wellingham. Much in the same way that TV's Jessica Fletcher or Agatha Christie's Miss Marple are plagued by murders every time they go for a weekend away - the inevitable soon happens at Fontaburn Hall.
Susie eagerly seizes on the opportunity to play detective for a second time and uses her inquisitive nature and artist's eye for detail to solve the sudden death of Hailey Dunne, a flirtatious American socialite.
Artist to amateur detective might not seem like the most obvious career trajectory, but the job does give Susie unusual access to a mixed bag of characters, as Ali explains: "As a painter you are very observant, so when you're in situations you can really take in the atmosphere and people's characteristics. Plus, as an artist on commission you have access to people's houses and they trust and open up to you."
Like her protagonist, Ali too makes her living as a pet portraitist. But that is where the comparisons stop, as she is keen to point out in her author's note at the beginning of the book. Ali's own life story is interesting enough to be a story itself, and indeed has been one. Her first book An Accidental Jubilee, under the name Alice Warrender, was a non-fiction account of her solo walk from Canterbury to Rome. She undertook the gargantuan expedition after recovering from a cycling accident in 2011 that required major brain surgery.
"After the accident I was so ill and was told that I would never have a full time job or be in a position of responsibility. The only thing that I could really do was walk and I thought that I really need to go and have a good think about life," Ali says. "I didn't want to be around lots of people and I'd heard about this walk that not many people do - at the time I did it there wasn't even a guide book on it. To begin with, I thought I'll just walk and see how far I'd get. Three months later I was in Rome. And on that walk I decided that I would go to art school."
Ali now works as a fine artist, specialising in oil paintings from life with an emphasis on colour and doing pet portraits on commission. Completing An Accidental Jubilee, however, gave her a taste for writing and a chance meeting at her husband's work Christmas party set her on the path to creating the Susie Mahl series of mysteries.
"I got talking to one of his colleagues about how I paint and draw and she commissioned me to draw her dogs. She was a crime editor at Point Blank publishers and while we were chatting said that people love pets and crime, so why not combine both? We both had a bit of a laugh about it and then I though, why not?
"So I wrote 30,000 words about an artist going on a commission and a murder happening and sent them to her. And I was incredibly lucky to be signed up for three books," Ali says.
The first book in the series, A Brush with Death, was published last year and Ali has already finished the third book. She hopes to continue the story going forward and has plans to develop the on/off relationship between Susie and Toby, a mortuary clerk who provides a bit of romantic relief from all the murder. That's not to say that Ali's writing is grisly, for me it had the gentle pace of an episode of Midsomer Murders and the intrigue of an Agatha Christie novel - who unsurprisingly became quite an inspiration during the writing process, as Ali says: "She writes what is seen as cosy crime and her stories are entertaining, which means that you're not going to be scared but want to solve the puzzle. So I do constantly refer back to her."
The novel also delves into the lives of the British aristocracy, in a similar way that Christie does. To help with this Ali did lots of research online and met with Thomas Woodcock, an officer of arms and expert on family crests. She also went to Brighton Racecourse to find out about horse racing and spent a day at Gary Moore Racing in Lower Beeding to learn about racehorse training.
Back home in Plumpton is where Ali brings Susie's adventures to life, taking lots of breaks in between to continue her passion of walking - this time a little closer to home in the South Downs.
The Colours of Murder is published by Point Blank and retails at £8
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