Edith here, always so happy to host Catriona McPherson on the Wickeds.
She’s a brilliant writer, a champion of others, generous with praise, and funny as all get out. Speaking of that, her third Last Ditch Mystery comes out in two weeks and you won’t want to miss it.
When the bronze statue of local legend Mama Cuento is stolen on Valentine’s Day and a big bronze toe is found along with a ransom note – “Listen to our demands or you will never see her again. There are nine more where this came from” – Lexy Campbell is on it. It’s a great distraction from her non-existence love life. So non-existent that when her ex-husband Bran turns up in tears saying his new wife is gone and he needs Lexy, she’s briefly tempted. Crossed-wires! He means Brandee has vanished and he needs Lexy to find her. Right now, all he’s got is one of her false nails and a ransom note hinting about nine more.
Are the two cases linked or is a copycat on the loose? Who would want to kidnap a bronze statue or, come to that, Brandee? Can Lexy put aside her bitter grudges long enough to find out?
Take it away, Catriona!
If I had a chisel . . .
I’m not very creative. Words, I can do. But music, paint, all fabrics . . . every non-verbal art form defeats me. If I had to choose one to be adept at – and this would require a fairy godmother, believe me – I’d love to be able to sculpt. And I wouldn’t mess about with found objects either. I’d be in the market for a big block of granite, marble, or bronze, to make a proper, honest-to-God statue.
Instead, I had to settle for writing about them. SCOT ON THE ROCKS is full of statues. I wrote it long before the recent re-evaluation of who it is we choose to honour with enormous pieces of public art, but my interests and inclinations shone through. As follows.
I invented one statue – Mama Cuento – named for the fictional town where the Last Ditch mysteries take place, and beloved of her citizens. She’s made of bronze, eight foot tall, sturdy and barefoot. This matters because when she’s stolen, early on in this book, one of her toes is sent back to the town with a ransom note.
I love Mama Cuento. (When I pass by her spot in the real-life town of Davis, it’s always a bit of a shock that she’s not there.) And she’s not out of place with the real statues I put in the story.
This is Dignity, in South Dakota. She is considerably bigger than Mama Cuento (unstealable, I’d have thought) and jaw-droppingly beautiful. You can’t miss her if you’re driving through the state (as I was in 2018) and I wouldn’t think many people manage not to stop.
Dignity is a mythical representative of the Lakota/Dakota people, but Sacagawea was a real Lemhi Shoshone woman, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and as a result she is memorialised all over the west. Here she is in Salmon, Idaho.
Another real woman, honoured in bronze, is Phyllis Wheatley. She was abducted in Senegal and sold into slavery in the US. She was also the first published African-American poet. Her statue is in Boston, alongside those of abolitionist and suffragist, Lucy Stone, and first lady and all-round bad-ass, Abigail Adams.
I absolutely adore Boston’s public art, by the way. Some of it is very close to the heart (hah!) of any crime-fiction writer.
See? It’s not only women (real and ideal) whose statues I admire. It’s just that I seem to notice them.
Edith: I have one of those pictures!
Catriona: After all, any first-time visitor to the USA (at least if you arrive in New York) is welcomed here by Herself. Besides, I’ve never been to Rio to see Christ the Redeemer, or to Easter Island to see those guys. I’ve never even seen Mount Rushmore, actually. We were there. The plan was to look at Crazy Horse Mountain, have lunch, then take in the presidents in the afternoon. But it started to rain so hard you couldn’t see the end of your own nose, so we ate in the Rushmore café and carried straight on to Deadwood (to lay flowers on Calamity Jane’s grave).
It was quite a day. There was a clash between the real Calam – protector of vulnerable sex workers in a dangerous world – with the Doris Day Calam – sanitizing genocide. And it came after we witnessed Native families spending masses of time in the visitor centre at Crazy Horse, reading, reading aloud to toddlers, sometimes praying, occasionally crying. It was impossible, at the end of that outing, still to think statues are “just” art, or “just” a record, or “just” anything. Who is honoured and how and who by and why and where are crucial questions. Would I find Dignity beautiful if it was my people who had been killed and were now being memorialised? Would I be enraged? Is it too easy to look at her, find her awe-inspiring, and move on? I have no answers for these questions. But I still think it’s important to ask them.
Recently, in the north of Britain, two pieces of sculpture have been conceived, fought over, installed and – apparently – universally embraced. At least, I can’t find anyone with a bad word to say. It’s been enlightening to watch it happen in real time – to see how deeply public art affects people. It’s notable, though, that both pieces are right at the very far end of the “dead general on his battle horse to idealized being” continuum.
The Angel of The North is over sixty feet tall and he spreads his enormous wings out over the people of the north east of England. He was completed just before the millennium and, once everyone accepted that drivers on the A1 motorway weren’t going to crash trying to take pictures, he was admitted into the hearts of northerners for keeps.
I think the Angel must have been in the minds of the sculptors who conceived of the Falkirk Kelpies (my favourite statues ever and anywhere, partly because they’re fifteen miles from my birthplace). Since 2103, these gargantuan, mythical water-horses have guarded the eastern end of the Forth Clyde canal, in a clever set of references, to Scottish folklore, to the horse power of the early industrial revolution, and to the importance of the canal system in Scotland’s prosperity. Also they’re gorgeous. And big. Look!
One last example. Just a wee one. Wojtek the Soldier Bear, is a life-size statue in Princes St Gardens in Edinburgh. He was a real bear, adopted as a cub by a unit of Polish soldiers and brought with them to Edinburgh during WWII. After VE Day, when many of them declined – understandably – to go home, Wojtek lived out his life in Edinburgh Zoo.
I think the statue is supposed to honour the soldiers, and their courage, but it’s typical Scots “don’t make a fuss and don’t ever EVER talk about your feelings” to filter that through a love of animals. I don’t get the impression that Polish people living in Scotland find this problematic, overall. In fact, my Polish sister-in-law told me that Wojtek was important to the new Polish immigrants who came after Poland joined the EU, because he connected them to that first wave of Polish arrivals, and reminded the Scots about why there were Polish people around in the late forties onward too. He’s got extra poignancy now as Britain, led by England, cuts itself off from Europe to go it alone. And he’s a good example of how complex public art is, especially when it’s trying to address history, and – I’d say – how rewarding it is to ponder.
Edith: I love this tour of statues – and their meanings! I have been to the Cristo Redentor statue in Rio. It’s very impressive and watches over the entire city.
Readers: What’s your favorite statue?
Catriona McPherson, multiple award-winner, multiple Mary Higgins Clark award loser, was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating in 2010. She writes the Dandy Gilver series, set in the old country in the 1930s, as well as a strand of darker (not difficult) psychological thrillers including the latest, STRANGERS AT THE GATE.
After eight years in the US, she kicked off the humorous Last Ditch series, which takes a wry look at her new home. The ebook of number three, SCOT ON THE ROCKS, is coming out early what with one thing and another. It will be available on 3 Aug.
Catriona lives on 20 scruffy acres in NorCal, with a black cat and a scientist.