A DEBUT novel set in Edinburgh and London about the “hidden” people who uncover the identities, go through the possessions and attend the funerals of those who die alone with no known next-of-kin has sparked a bidding war between four major publishers.
The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis, published by Mantle, an imprint of publishers Pan Macmillan, on 10 March, is described as a “detective story without a detective”.
Paulson-Ellis says it draws on the unofficial “Edinburgh way” of life where many people have a host of connections on many levels in a city which can operate like a village.
The book centres around an old lady found dead in a small Edinburgh flat, a glass of whisky spilt on the carpet, leaving behind only a few possessions, including a faded emerald dress in her wardrobe.
In the tale, Margaret Penny, 47, a Scot whose professional working life and dysfunctional relationship with a married man in London have come to an abrupt end, accepts the job of discovering the elderly woman’s identity.
However, Penny’s enquiries eventually untangle a host of dark happenings spanning the years from 1929 to 2011, uncovering a tale of sexual abuse and revealing that the old lady has unexpected connections in the city.
Paulson-Ellis, 47, a former Edinburgh International Festival arts administrator, said she emailed her manuscript to a literary agent two weeks before Christmas in 2013.
“She replied before Christmas, saying ‘I loved it’. That’s the best Christmas present I’ve ever had. Then she sent it off to various publishers, and the next thing I knew we had four big publishing houses after my book. It was wonderful.”
The three other “big beast” contenders for book rights were Penguin, Hodder & Stoughton and Transworld.
Describing her inspiration for the novel, Edinburgh-based Paulson-Ellis said: “I saw a BBC programme about 15 years ago called Dying Alone about people who have to go into the house of someone who has died, going through their things trying to find their family. I was fascinated by that.
“For me, it’s the story of the person who has died and someone else piecing it together, trying to work out what they can about them. How have they ended up like that? No-one would ever imagine that happening to them.”
Paulson-Ellis admitted she used poetic licence to describe procedures in Edinburgh, when in reality the question of the dead person’s identity is dealt with by police.
However, she said a BBC Radio Scotland Ricky Ross programme about Church of Scotland minister, the Rev Alex McAspurren of North Leith Parish Church, conducting “indigent funerals” and asking for volunteers from his congregation to go along to them had been the basis for Penny attending the deceased old lady’s funeral.
Rev McAspurren said while people living alone was a growing factor across society, there was a certain reluctance in Edinburgh to intervene in other people’s lives.
“A lot of people are living on their own because more people are living longer and many have lost their partners.
“We are also moving away from geographical proximity where people talked to those living nearby to a virtual one, such as Facebook. But this is not just the same as human contact.
“Folk tend to check if a burglar alarm goes off. But not so many notice if someone hasn’t stuck their head out the door for a few days.
“There is a certain ‘privacy’ in Edinburgh rather than places such as the west of Scotland. Whilst that might be a bit of a sweeping generalisation, there is definitely a certain reticence about making contact with neighbours, including those on their own.”
An Age Scotland spokesman said: “It’s important we invest in solutions to ease the crisis of social isolation.
“Those solutions can really be as simple as knocking on someone’s door to check how they are and asking them over for a cup of tea.
“Across the country, Age Scotland has numerous ways to tackle social isolation, with over 1,000 member groups across Scotland and a 24-hour freephone helpline, Silver Line Scotland.”