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I hadn't heard of Catriona McPherson until I received a copy of her latest novel ''The Winter Ground'' from The Bookbag. I liked the look of the cover though and the premise sounded good - a mixture of a fascinating period (the 1920s) and the excitement of the circus. Having briefly had my own circus act in the 1980s (and being the daughter of a juggler), I wondered how the circus would be depicted.
''The Winter Ground'' is the fourth novel in the series of Dandy Gilver Mysteries. I don't think you need to read the previous ones though; this works well enough as a stand-alone story.
Dandy (short for Dandelion!) Gilver is our heroine - a wife to Hugh and a mother to Donald and Edward (Teddy). She is in her late thirties and a keen amateur detective. I liked her almost straight away, as I could relate to her (same age, also married with kids) and she is a dog lover too, which helped! Bunty her Dalmatian is an integral part of who Dandy is and Catriona McPherson writes very knowingly about dogs, which adds to the realism (although I did persist in picturing Bunty as a Yorkshire terrier!).
In 1925, a circus sets up its base at Benachally Castle, in the grounds of a house owned by Albert and Ina Wilson. Ina is friends with Dandy and eager to show off her new attraction, so Dandy pays them a visit - but suspicious things are happening at the circus and soon someone is killed. But why? And was it an accident or something much more sinister? Dandy investigates...
She is ably assisted by her friend Alec, who is another wonderful character and they work well together, both as people in the fictional world and as characters in a novel. In fact, McPherson's strengths are in great characters who you feel you know very quickly and form opinions about (though she's just as adept at changing your opinions, if need be!).
The circus itself is full of a wonderful array of adults and children, each one beautifully described and brought to life for the reader. She shows a great understanding of circus life, its history and the way the acts all work together as a unit.
We learn about the clowns, aerial acts, horse riders, ringmaster, acrobats and so on, each one bringing their own flair and colour to the show. We get to see them perform and meet their public face. Then she peals back the layers and we find out their insecurities, conflicts and bad points.
It is quite a gentle read. Don't expect any swearing or brutality here. This is much more of a subtle detective or mystery novel, much closer to the style of Simon Brett or Lilian Jackson Braun than someone like Val McDermid or Martina Cole.
The period setting is beautifully painted and I loved the language McPherson uses to describe it all. Dandy Gilver is a wonderful heroine and her warmth, charm, humour and ingenuity shine through McPherson's words.
I was pleased to discover this was the fourth Dandy Gilver book, as I now know I have the pleasure of reading about her earlier escapades too. Dandy is the kind of character I love discovering - the sort you want to return to again and again, just like a long catch up with an old friend.
I checked out Catriona's website after reading the book and emailed her. She wrote a lovely reply back too, which only increased my opinion of her.
(A version of this review first appeared in my name at the Bookbag website.)