The Mulgray twins, born in Joppa, are the only identical twins in the world to have written a novel together in the English language. Their debut crime novel NO SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, featuring DJ Smith and her sleuth sniffer cat Gorgonzola, took only a year to be translated into German and Japanese and made into a BBC audio book. Just before the launch of the second novel in the series I spoke to Helen and Morna to find out whether living at Edinburghâ€™s seaside had inspired the gripping scenes of pursuit and evasion that got them published.
Joppa and Portobello share the unique feel of the seaside resort, with the long promenade topping the sandy beach looking out across the Forth to Fife. The twins lived the first 23 years of their lives in Joppa Park, a cobbled lane a stoneâ€™s throw from the beach. They were a surprise to their mother, who had expected only one, and certainly not a month early. When the two little bundles were lined up head to tail at the radiator in the nursing home they appeared very small. However, their earliest memories, they recalled, were of climbing on the Joppa Rocks, racing the waves and always coming home wet. â€˜One of us always fell in,â€™ they recalled. â€˜The sand gave us just enough room to dodge the waves at low tide. But we didnâ€™t always get the timing right.â€™ As they grew up, they walked miles along coast and hills exploring, storing up colours, smells and scenes later vividly reflected in their nailbiting narratives.
The twins have lived together all their lives. So close they canâ€™t be told apart â€“ particularly not in matching earrings and pullovers â€“ they effortlessly complete each othersâ€™ sentences. They attended Edinburgh University and Moray House together, both studying Latin and gaining degrees in English. â€˜In those days teaching was one of the few professions open to women,â€™ Helen commented. â€˜It was a respected calling, and one you kept for life. We were accepted to teach English in the Midlothian area.â€™ They taught at schools only a few miles apart at Lasswade High School in Bonnyrigg and Greenhall High at Gorebridge. â€˜It was a coincidence but the Midlothian Director of Education was a twin himself,â€™ Morna added. â€˜Perhaps it had an influence on his decision to hire us!â€™
Given to practical jokes like telling their classes they were going to trade places for the day â€“ and then not trading, but keeping their pupils nervously guessing whether they had their own Miss Mulgray or Miss Mulgrayâ€™s sister at the front of the classroom â€“ the twins enjoyed their teaching years. They spent school holidays writing stories together. But after thirty years in the classroom, (early!) retirement allowed them time to pen their first book. Their initial choice was romance but the Mulgray humour, always close to the surface, kept popping up. â€˜We submitted our manuscript several times but it was gently suggested we should try another genre,â€™ they confided. â€˜We had enjoyed reading crime novels with an element of humour by authors such as Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton and Michael Bond so we decided to turn to crime. Crime writing, that is!â€™
Their agent took NO SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES round some of the major world book fairs for four years with no luck. It was only when one of the twins won the Alanna Knight trophy in an Edinburgh Writersâ€™ Club competition that veteran Edinburgh author Alanna Knight read their crime manuscript. She championed it to her editor and publishers Allison & Busby emailed an acceptance. That the twins accidentally deleted the email unread is now part of their folklore. But publication brought fame. The news that the authors of the riveting crime tale were not only twins but impossible to distinguish from each other brought the Sunday Times, BBC Book CafÃ©, Womanâ€™s Hour and hosts of others to their Joppa home for interviews.
They split the writing equally. â€˜We research each scene by going to the real place â€“ Inchcolm, for example – with a dictating machine and recording everything we see and hear. At home we write everything together, discussing ideas and sentences. Thatâ€™s the advantage of being a twin. You have someone to tell you what works. And what doesnâ€™t.â€™
The decision to give DJ Smith, their fearless heroine, a feline companion Gorgonzola instead of a human one was a bold one. â€˜Weâ€™d enjoyed Michael Bondâ€™s detective with his dog called Pommes Frites. But we had read of a sniffer cat and we thought a cat would be fun – â€™ Helen nods and finishes Mornaâ€™s sentence â€˜- because a cat is a character in its own right!â€™
Readers of NO SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES will recognise many dramatic local settings such as Edinburghâ€™s Holyrood Park, Cramond Island, Tantallon, the Isle of May and the remote and craggy Fast Castle. The twins have reflected their shared life on the Lothians coast and made out of it a rollicking, funny and thoroughly enjoyable detective tale.
Their second book UNDER SUSPICION will be launched at Blackwells bookstore in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, on 8 May. The twins will also be talking about their books, in conversation with Alanna Knight, at the Book Festival in Charlotte Square this summer.