Any reader (or writer) of lesbian fiction is missing a gourmet feast if she does not read all seventeen novels in Claire McNab’s Inspector Carol Ashton series. Although the books are best digested in order, from Lessons in Murder to Lethal Care (written with Katherine V. Forrest), each book is a delicious main course in its own right.
Claire McNab, who succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in July 2022, is mourned by the entire lesbian community (please read Katherine V. Forrest’s eulogy). In my tribute, however, I celebrate the complex and masterfully realized character of Carol Ashton, the beautiful, formidable blonde, a top cop in Sydney Australia, whose unyielding courage and devotion to duty are too often at odds with her personal happiness.
While the lush Australian setting—fragrant eucalyptus trees, exotic birds, the vibrant city, nurturing Blue Mountains and ever-present ocean are like main characters, it is Carol who steals the scene. Her interactions with her colleagues, especially Mark Bourke and Anne Newsome, hint at the tug-of-war within her personality. With her fellow cops, she inches towards closeness, but always pulls back to protect the secret of her sexual identity. With her spunky Aunt Sarah, the Eco Crone and young son, David, Carol’s compulsion to appear strong, private and invincible prevents her from embracing the full comfort her family offers.
Above all, it is Carol’s relationships with the three major lovers in her life that epitomize the contradictions that deny her happiness. First and foremost is lovely, gentle Sybil Quade who appears in the very first chapter of the first book and endures through the final paragraph in the last. The long-suffering Sybil survives Carol’s swings from devoted possessiveness to misguided rejection. Their off-again, on-again love affair is hampered by Carol’s unwillingness to acknowledge them as a couple, and by Carol’s devotion to duty-first. Carol feels threatened as Sybil gradually and powerfully comes into her own as an independent woman. Their love falls apart in the face of Carol’s stubbornness and insecurities, making the reader want to shake some sense into her.
Next, glamorous TV personality Madeline Shipley invades Carol’s life and bed. Madeline, equally as driven and closeted as Carol, presents an interesting challenge to Carol, which also persists throughout the novels.
Finally, exotic African American FBI agent Leota Wolfe becomes Carol’s lover at a time when Carol is vulnerable and out of her element at Quantico in Virginia. Leota follows Carol home to Australia and tempts her to give up her country, her job, and move to the USA.
Through all these lovers, the reader aches for Carol. They want her to commit. She is like a stubborn nut, impossible to crack. We see hints of her guilt, her vulnerability, her capacity to fully love inside that shell. Yet it is not until the final book that we learn one deep secret blocking her psyche, or the lover with whom she will choose to spend her life. Not until the final chapter does Carol let down her guard…and cry. It was a wild ride, but those tears were well worth the journey.
Author’s note: This October I read all the Carol Ashton books in order. Most I had previously purchased from Bella. The others, seemingly rare, I found on the secondary market. I treasure the collection, as a reader and a writer.
Publisher’s note: All of Claire McNab‘s titles are available from Bella Books in eBook, paperback and some are also available in eBook formats. You can visit Claire’s page for more information.
Kate Merrill is an art gallery owner and real estate broker with a lifelong passion for writing. She lives with her family on a lake in North Carolina. When she is not writing, working with the art community, or selling real estate, she enjoys swimming, boating, and allowing her two strong-headed Golden Retrievers to take her for a walk. She is the author of three mysteries with Bella.