As I said last week I have to be careful about what I read at the moment, so that I don’t muddy the waters for the novel I’m writing. This collection of early detective stories from the decade or two before the first world war fits the bill nicely. It was edited by Hugh Greene (Graham Greene’s brother as I recall) in the 1970s. They are enjoyable for the period detail especially. Sheer escapism. There is a real spine-chiller, ‘The Horse of the Invisible’ by William Hope Hodgson, which combines ghost story and crime story to powerful effect. ‘A Game Played in the Dark,’ by Ernest Bramah, featuring the blind detective, Max Carrodos, was good, too.
A friend who reads my blog asked me how I could find time to read so much. I have to. I’m a word addict, simple as that. The hardest reading times in my life have been when I had an eye-operation in my twenties and couldn’t read for a while (this was before taped books) and when my daughter was small, in every other way a wonderful time. However she would play on her own only when she was in the bath and that was the time when, sitting next to her on the lid of the loo, I could have half an hour with the paper or a book. On one occasion I was desperate, absolutely craving to finish a book – I’d like to say I was hungry for a work of classic literature, but it was Lawrence Block’s OUT ON THE CUTTING EDGE. On that day the poor kid had two baths. So maybe that should be my ultimate accolade: a Two-Bath book.
I’ve got a bit more time now – though not that much more and then there are days like today . . . British Summer Time began on Sunday and the clocks went forward an hour. It’s always a bit disturbing and I couldn’t sleep last night and felt really groggy when I got up (6.30 old time) and it was a struggle to get my daughter up too. I also had to remember to fill the bath and jugs etc with water as the water main is cut off today from 9- 6 today for repairs. Then I had to get the cat in the car to go to the vet. It’s impossible to get him in the cat carrier while he’s still in the house, because he struggles so much. I can only get him in the car by running out of the house with him in my arms and throwing him in and slamming the door shut before he’s worked out what’s happening. Then I had to get my daughter in the car without letting the cat out. I dropped my daughter at school (late) and took the cat to vet. When I got back home I realised that my daughter’s snack for break-time was on the front seat of the car so I drove back to the school with it. I drove home for the second time and had just got in the house when I realised that I had lost my watch (silver – engagement present from my husband). I drove back into the village and looked for it but no luck. Then when I got home for the third time, the door bell rang and it was the local Jehovah’s Witnesses enquiring about whether I had read the leaflet they had left the last time . . .
Some days it’s all I can do to keep with the losers.
Last week I didn’t know whether to curse Larry McMurtry or send him a fan letter. I was supposed to writing my own novel, but I couldn’t stop reading his. In the end I had to scupper it by looking ahead to see what happened, so that I could stop reading it for long enough to do some work. Whoever would have thought I could have been so gripped by a book about cowboys? I know this won a Pullitzer Prize and was a very successful TV series, but I’d managed to avoid it so far. It’s over 900 pages long, yet I just wanted it to go on and on. It took me a little while to get into this story of two middle-aged Texas rangers and their crew driving a cattle herd from South Texas to Montana, but when I did . . . It soon became apparent when there was a death – a terrible one – as they crossed the first river, that they wouldn’t all make it and after that I was on tenterhooks. It was funny, touching, and I fell in love with Gus Macrae. Oddly enough the writer I was reminded of was Trollope or even Charlotte M Yonge’s family sagas! The Hat Creek outfit is a kind of family and this is a nineteenth century novel in its scope and length and narrative energy. The authorial voice, though never obtrusive, is humane and wise. I can see I am going to have to read STREETS OF LAREDO, but not just yet. One of the ironies of becoming a writer is that I don’t read as much fiction as I did, at least not when I am actually into a novel. I think that it’s because some of my hunger for narrative is being satisfied by my own work. But there also the danger of being infected by someone else’s style and, even worse, I find, being sucked into someone else’s fictional world and not being able to get back into your own. That’s especially the case when the fictional world is as fully and as vividly realised as the one in LONESOME DOVE.
I decided to blog about everything I read this year, so I am listing NATIVE SPEAKER by Chang-Rae Lee, even though I didn’t really enjoy it. I might not have finished it if it hadn’t been chosen by my reading group. Lee was born in Korea, but his parents emigrated to the US when he was three. He writes wonderfully about the experience of being a second generation emigrant, which in effect is what he is, and the sense of belonging to neither community. And yet it didn’t grip me, partly I think because so much of the first half was narrated in flashbacks and the real story doesn’t get going until half way through. Or maybe it’s that the flashbacks were the real story.
The novel I am really gripped by at the moment is Larry MacMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE, which I am devouring – first thing in the morning, last thing at night, in the bath and over lunch. It’s over 900 pages long. I’ve just over half way through and already know that I’m not going to want it to finish. More next week.
One of the nicest things about becoming a writer has been getting to know other writers. Crime writers are unusually convivial and can often be found propping up the bar together and commiserating about publishers (unlike the romantic novelists, who I’ve heard are at each other’s throats). I usually find that when I like someone, I like their books too, and vice versa. It’s been great getting to know Michelle Spring. I read her first book, EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, when it came out in the early 1990s. It was set in Cambridge, where I was living at the time. My first copy was pinched from the outside pocket of the bag I’d checked into a left luggage office – the irony of it ! – and I just had to know how it ended, so I had to buy another copy. Four more fine novels followed. Michelle’s new novel, THE NIGHT LAWYER, is a break from her series of Laura Principal P. I. stories. It’s a suspense novel set on the Isle of Dogs. Eleanor Porter tries to leave her troubled past behind her and make a new start as the night lawyer in a newspaper office. She’s responsible for clearing articles for libel. It’s a great idea. Offices can be creepy places at night and soon some very sinister things start happening – one in particular had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. But I won’t spoil it for you . . .