Discover Catherine Cookson

MaryJo Dawson, who writes the clean and cozy Sally Nimitz mysteries, brings to MiddleSisterReviews a series of reviews of authors from days gone by — writers who may not be as well known to today’s readers as they should be.  Today, she focuses on Catherine Cookson:

cooksonCatherine Cookson was born in 1906 into a humble household in rural England, where she knew hardship and poverty. By grinding hard work she saved enough money to buy a home and turn it into boarding house to make her own living. She married happily in her early 30s, but after a number of miscarriages, she was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that meant she could not have children.

In her disappointment and grief, she turned to writing.

And what a talent this woman had! Most of her stories take place in Britain in the mid to late 19th Century, focusing on survival and victories amid grueling poverty, ignorance, and class distinction. Her attention to detail and her ability to weave a good story brought her well-earned success, accolades, and often record sales. Move over Agatha Christie: at one point Cookson held the record for books sought after and checked out in the British library system. Her heyday was from the 1960s to the 1980s, but her books are in reprint and most are available in ebook formats.

whipRecently I’ve re-read one of her later works, The Whip. It is the story of Emma Molinero,  beginning when she is orphaned before she was eight years old, and continuing through the next 24 years of her life. The daughter of a local farmer and a Spanish carnival performer who was a master with knives and whips,  Emma is transported from a life of love and protection at the carnival to the harsh realities of rural life in Tyneside in the mid-19th Century.

The young, kindly, new local parson and a local painter are two of the people who make life bearable for the girl during long days of drudgery and negative – sometimes cruel – attention from those who have no patience or understanding for someone who doesn’t conform. With her intelligence, independent spirit, and unusual good looks, Emma always stands out.

The years will bring bitter disappointments and cruel losses, but sometimes hope and humor. Cookson is a master at showing human nature at its best and its worst. When Emma’s husband’s twin brother losses his mind completely due to jealousy and hate, he is determined to destroy Emma if it’s the last thing he ever does. He almost succeeds.

The Whip is currently $5.99 (USD) on Amazon in the Kindle Store. Many of the original 1983 printed hard copies are available for very reasonable prices (ranging from $2.01 USD and up). The prices for the secondhand print editions vary, by seller and condition. Click to read a sample:  The Whip.

Other Cookson novels available in the same price range include: The Dwelling Place, Our Kate, The Girl, The Mallen Girl, The Invitation, and The Blind Years.

From Amazon’s author page: Catherine Cookson was born in Tyne Dock, the illegitimate daughter of a poverty-stricken woman, Kate, whom she believed to be her older sister. She began work in service but eventually moved south to Hastings, where she met and married Tom Cookson, a local grammar-school master. Although she was originally acclaimed as a regional writer – her novel The Round Tower won the Winifred Holtby Award for the best regional novel of 1968 – her readership quickly spread throughout the world, and her many best-selling novels established her as one of the most popular of contemporary women novelists. After receiving an OBE in 1985, Catherine Cookson was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1993. She was appointed an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, in 1997. For many years she lived near Newcastle upon Tyne. She died shortly before her ninety-second birthday, in June 1998.

Sis thanks MaryJo for her contributions and for bringing another writer to her attention. She hopes that you, too, will enjoy these flashbacks and find some new-to-you writers to read and enjoy.

Sis congratulates MaryJo Dawson on the release of her sixth Sally Nimitz

Kindle edition $2.99 (USD)

Ending the Varney Curse, the sixth Sally Nimitz mystery, is being released today, but publication wasn’t the point when MaryJo Dawson wrote the first one.

“I wrote it for fun,” MaryJo says of The Death of Amelia Marsh.

All six books are available in ebook, from Amazon and other retailers, as well as a tradeback edition for readers who prefer printed books. The Death of Amelia Marsh is a Kindle freebie, and I reviewed it on Amazon when MaryJo was no more than an online acquaintance. She’s now a treasured friend who has allowed me to read final drafts of her last two mysteries, and I readily admit I am biased about her work.

That said, I do recommend Sally – it’s such a relief to encounter a sensible, instead of a silly, sleuth in a more or less cozy mystery.  More, because MaryJo’s mysteries do feature amateurs who solve mysteries (not all of which are murders!) without vulgar language or gruesome grit. Less, because the characters are more developed and the insights much deeper than those in most of the current crop of cozies.

Still, it’s best to let someone who can be impartial review Ending the Varney Curse. Instead, let me introduce you to MaryJo, if you don’t already know her, or, if you do, perhaps tell you more than you already know.

MaryJo, like Sally, had a satisfying career in nursing, most of it in obstetrics. I suspected as much while reading her first mystery, because the descriptions and details resonated with authenticity.  I didn’t know, though, that, like me, she was initially inclined toward literature and history. She backed into nursing.

“The profession chose me,” MaryJo recalled.  “My parents were stunned when, after a year of college, I chose to apply to nursing school. My main reason? It was less expensive. We had little money, and my dad was going to borrow so I could so on with my education.”

Nursing school, especially back then, allowed students to work while pursuing their education.

“There were times during those three years that I wavered in my choice. But God was looking out for me, because throughout my life, with its many ups and downs and different locations, I was always able to get a good job,” MaryJo recalled.MaryJo

A native of Wisconsin, MaryJo has lived and worked in many places from Maine to Mississippi. She now lives with her husband, Bill, in a small town at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southeastern Colorado.

MaryJo also draws from her own background in creating what I call fiction for Christians (or Jews, or just those who want a clean read). Her stories aren’t really Christian fiction – you won’t find heavily moral messages or preachiness and the references to prayer are subtly matter of fact.

“Throughout the series, the lifestyle (Sally) believes in and lives pops up consistently. It is essential to who she is, who her best friends are, and how the various mysteries are handled,” said MaryJo, who was not only brought up as a Christian but who has, as I have seen firsthand, become a woman of a deep and abiding faith.

Readers who are hostile to religion might not find as much to like as those who are more welcoming, but faith isn’t exactly a theme in these mysteries. Instead, it is a part of who Sally (and recurring characters Anne and George) are, and MaryJo shows us this, rather than tells us so.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that one of the writers who inspires her is Dorothy L. Sayers, best known today for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries but whose serious writing includes many works of Christian non-fiction. Other influences and inspirations are Josephine Tey (whose Brat Farrar is a personal favorite), Rex Stout, and the husband-and-wife team of Brock and Bodie Thoene.

You won’t find MaryJo on Facebook. She doesn’t blog, or maintain a website. She does participate in Amazon’s Meet Our Authors Discussion Forum, which is where I first encountered her, but she limits her time online, striking a balance between activities there and offline.

“There are only so many hours in a day. I can’t spend them all on the computer, nor do I want to, so picking and choosing became a necessity,” MaryJo explained.

When she’s not writing, you might find MaryJo in her garden or on a walking path. She calls herself a “pretty boring person” and says she’s very comfortable with that. She loves family and friends, home and hobbies, and she knows something about exquisite chocolates . . . as I know firsthand!

Recent reads include:

Dead Wake by Eric Larson, which was selected by her book club

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Calvary Road by Roy Hession, who also wrote We Would See Jesus (which MaryJo recently read and recommended to me)

Read a sample of MaryJo’s books, or buy from Amazon by clicking on these links:

The Death of Amelia Marsh — available as a free Kindle ebook; tradeback, $10.10 (USD).

The Disappearance of Douglas White — ebook, $2.99 (USD); tradeback, $11.49 (USD).

The Strange Situation at Emlee ebook, $2.99 (USD); tradeback, $11.49 (USD).

CharlieThe Truth About Charlie — ebook, $2.99 (USD); tradeback, $9.99 (USD).

Did Lucy Bedford Have to Die — ebook, $2.99 (USD); tradeback, $11.99 (USD).

Subscribers:  Leave a comment for a chance to win a Kindle edition of MaryJo’s latest (or substitute an earlier book if you prefer). Refer a friend who subscribes to for an additional chance. The winner will be chosen by a random method, which may involve the caprice of a cat or another four-legged friend, from comments posted by midnight CDT.