Twins Morna and Helen Mulgray share a passion for crime fiction and have written three novels together. But can Susan Mansfield tell them apart?
FROM the moment I meet Morna and Helen Mulgray, I know I'm in trouble. Identical haircuts, identical eyes, the same white cargo pants, black crocs, red shirts worn over black T-shirts. How am I going to tell them apart?
But Edinburgh's most unusual crime-writing partnership have thought of this. They roll up their (identical) sleeves and show me their watches. Helen's is pink, Morna's blue. All I need to do is remember that. "Unless we swap them of course," says one twin mischievously. I've no idea which. Oh dear.
When I come to switch on my tape recorder, I realise their voices are identical too. "It doesn't matter, we don't care, just attribute it to anybody," says Helen. And certainly when they talk, their sentences do interlace to form a single voice. After sharing one another's lives for 68 years, perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised that they consider their opinions to be interchangeable.
Yet although they operate as a unit – their publisher was surprised when they insisted on "the Mulgray Twins", not their first names, on their book covers – they do take on different roles in the conversation. Morna, who is older by ten minutes, is the keener talker of the two, sitting forward in her seat and addressing the tape recorder, while Helen adds asides, makes corrections and delivers punchlines.
The Mulgrays' first novel, No Suspicious Circumstances, was published by Allison & Busby last May. It introduced their protagonist, Deborah (known as DJ) Smith, an undercover investigator for HM Revenue & Customs, and her sidekick, a trained sniffer cat called Gorgonzola.
The duo have now starred in a second novel, Under Suspicion, out in hardback earlier this year, and a third, called Suspects All, has been completed. The first book has been translated into German and, strangely, Japanese. "It's the cat," says Helen, sagely.
It's a crime series in the way that Alexander McCall Smith's No1 Ladies Detective Agency is a crime series: the unpleasantness of the crime itself is cushioned in layers of gentle humour, larger-than-life characters and good-humoured mishaps.
Which is sort of what ensues when the twins try to make me a cup of tea. Morna (who admits she is no cook) heads for the kitchen, resulting in a crash. Helen sighs and heads to the rescue. There follows a sotto voce conversation: "It was left where it would get knocked over." "No, it wasn't, I knew exactly where it was." "Where's the sugar? Is this sugar or salt?"
Helen appears a few minutes later with a tray, proclaiming "speciality team work". Morna comes in grinning: "The thing is to do something so badly that you never get asked to do it again!"
The twins have been together all their lives, ever since they were born and placed next to a radiator in an Edinburgh maternity hospital ("No incubators then!"). They were together through school and university and both trained as English teachers, working at separate schools in Midlothian. "But within sight!" puts in Helen. They used to tease their respective classes by pretending to swap schools for the day, though they claim they never actually did it.
They shared the same house in Joppa until recently when they moved to their present modern flat, which is cheerfully decorated with Tim Stead furniture and Morna's sculptures. "We bought this flat from a former pupil of mine," says Morna. "Clearly he didn't bear me any ill-will for giving him the belt!"
DJ Smith's first adventure sees her investigating a drug smuggling operation being masterminded from a snooty country house hotel on the East Lothian coast. Various things befall her, as she contends with the stern landlady, a couple of evil American golfers and an overweight food critic, including ending up fully clothed in the fish pond in the Palm House at the Botanic Gardens.
The books take their place in the honourable tradition of light-hearted crime. The twins admit that Pamplemousse, the detective invented by Paddington creator Michael Bond, and his canine sidekick, Pommes Frites, was something of an inspiration.
"We're not into gore and violence," says Morna. "People die, yes, but…" "Tastefully," puts in Helen, adding: "We don't like crime novels that dwell on gore. That's been done to death, so to speak. It's not gritty realism, it's not meant to be."
"Neither is James Bond when you come to think of it," says Morna. "Some people want escapism but they don't want their noses rubbed in blood and gore. Others seem to like to frighten themselves to death. We don't even like creepy music. When something like that comes on television, we're saying to each other 'Are you looking?' 'No, are you?' And then you look through your fingers at the wrong moment."
The twins began writing seriously when they retired from teaching (at the same time, of course) although they had already written a romance in their holidays. "A romance with humour," says Helen. "But I think it had too much humour, we didn't take the romance seriously enough," adds Morna. "Somebody did suggest that we could write but it wasn't our genre," says Helen. "We took their advice and moved into crime."
So how does it work, the process of writing collaboratively?
H: There's no great mystery at all. We sit side by side on the sofa...
M: You've got to have a sofa.
H: Like Wordsworth's couch.
M: Sometimes we're in vacant and in pensive mood.
H: Sometimes one notices the other person has fallen asleep.
M: Otherwise, whoever thinks of a line, a sentence, will type that.
H: And there's a pause while the other person digests that, suggests a change of word.
M: An author on their own would probably internalise this process. But we have our editor with us. It's got to sound right to both before it's agreed.
H: Occasional black eyes have nearly been administered over certain wordage.
M: Just occasionally we both think we're right.
H: It could be over a comma. We discuss plot of course, but there isn't usually an argument about plot because it's usually self-evident whether it's a good idea or not. We do write slowly. Two heads have got to have quality control.
They enjoy the research involved in the books. Location is very important to them: they visited the places which feature in No Suspicious Circumstances – Tantallon Castle, Cramond Island and so on – with a camera and a dictaphone, to take notes. The second book is set in Tenerife, where they frequently holiday, and the third in Madeira, another favoured vacation destination.
However, in the fourth book, they are keen to bring DJ Smith and Gorgonzola back to Scotland. "I think the cameras from the Seabird Centre in North Berwick might feature," muses Morna. "Death among the puffins!"
On their bookshelves next to the Writers and Artists Yearbook is a copy of Forensics for Dummies, and for the second novel, Under Suspicion, they had to research money laundering. "We took great delight in going into Blackwells and saying: 'Do you have a book on money laundering?'" says Helen. "In a loud voice," adds Morna. "And they didn't blanche at all. They had two."
They don't have a cat – they are allergic – so the character of Gorgonzola, a red Persian, is also informed by books. "We had to get vets' advice for the third book," says Morna, raising her eyebrows ominously. "Poisoning."
It took several years, and a few false starts, before they secured an agent and a publisher after a recommendation from the author Alanna Knight. Notwithstanding the fact that Helen deleted unread the original e-mail from Allison & Busby offering them a book deal.
"We were on holiday in Tenerife, and when we got back we had about 300 spam mails, and Helen deleted them all," explains Morna. "Including," adds Helen, "the one titled 'Offer from Suzy'."
About an hour into the conversation, it transpires that they also write separately when working on shorter pieces for the competitions run by their local writers' club, though their style is so similar that they were once accused of cheating. When moving house, they found an article about gardening which one of them had written years before, but neither could remember which.
Still, I detect a whiff of individual ownership. "Of course it's much shorter, it's like a school essay," says Morna. "But when it's something you're really interested in, you don't really want anybody helping you."
H: (vehemently) No!
M: It's MINE!
But it's not like that with the novels?
N: No, no, no because…
H: that's not 'mine', it's…
• The Mulgray Twins will appear at the Book Festival with Alanna Knight on Saturday at 6:45pm