Lessons in Murder (Carol Ashton #1)
Claire McNab
This is the first of Claire McNab’s novels set in Australia and featuring Detective Inspector Carol Ashton - according to her wikipedia entry she began her career writing comedy plays and textbooks before becoming a full time writer in the 80s, I assume with this novel which was first published in 1988. Prior to this she’d been a high school teacher in Sydney, so one assumes working on the ‘write what you know’ principle this novel is set in a Sydney High School. I rather hope that ‘write what you know’ didn’t encompass having somebody murdered on the premises though.

In keeping with this web sites hard and fast rule of no spoilers, I’m not going to go into the plot in any depth. However you’re not going to lose much reading enjoyment from me telling you that the novel starts with Industrial Arts (what we in the UK called ‘D&T’ and I think in the US is called ‘shop’) teacher Bill Paget being found murdered by having a hole drilled in his head with a Black and Decker. What the author then creates is essentially a country house murder mystery in which a small number of people are bought together by some circumstance, in this case teaching in the same school, and one of whom has to be the killer. In keeping with all such plots from Agatha Christie through to Perry Mason, they’re all different and a wee bit eccentric, and any one of them could have done it. I worked it out but it wasn’t obvious, at least to me, from the start. I’m also not going, I think, to spoil things for you if I let you know that of the pool of suspects one of them is clearly going to be the romantic interest and while she looks like a plausible suspect she didn’t do it - there are novels where the detective is sleeping with the killer but this isn’t one of them. This is one of the things which for me did jar a bit; Ashton is supposed to be this hot shot super detective, the star of the dept, but she lets herself be compromised a bit to easily with one of the suspects, surely she’d have rained in her feelings until the case was closed. I could see any defence barrister having a field day with this.

I bow to the author’s knowledge of the Australian school system in the 80s for the background created for this novel, I’ve only got UK schools to go on and I think even in the 80s the atmosphere would have been less relaxed than this here, but Claire McNab taught in this sort of place, and would have expected her readers to have gone to school in such a place, and so it’s going to be realistic and right. I think what I’m saying is for non-aussies it might all seem a bit different. In this debut appearence Ashton hasn’t come out, if I recall that happens in a later book, and her male sidekick also is clearly attracted to the romantic interest. This comes across as a bit clumsy sometimes but then again he’s probably just a typical unreconstructed 80s ocker male! There is also a side plot involving a notable local politician which I’m not sure the book actually needs. I didn’t think it really added to the story and I couldn’t see what point it served

I’ve read several of the later Ashton novels, I’m currently re-reading then in order, and I think this one isn’t as polished as some of the later ones, but of course Claire McNab had to get to know her character and how she works. I found a great interview with her in which she says "I've been friends with Carol since she leapt into existence in the late 80s” which I think is a great way of describing the link between an author and her creation in a long running series.

But, I’d definitely say you’ll want to read this, and you’ll enjoy it - you’ve got fifteen more Carol Ashton novels to go after this one and you’re going to fill a whole chunk of bookshelf with them.

My copy was published in 1993 by the now sadly defunct Naiad Press who published so much great lesbian fiction