The first book I remember buying in a book shop, or, more likely, having bought for me, is THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton. My memory is hazy – but I see the dark wood shelves (and paneling, too?) of the old W.H.Smith’s on Redcar High Street – which probably means I was staying at my grand-parents. It’s the feeling I remember most – of wanting and the thrill of possession. I don’t know how old I was. Seven? Eight?
We didn’t have a lot of books in our house, because we didn’t have much money, but when we lived in Ampleforth, my mother used to take us the bus into Helmsley once a week and we would get books out of the library. I loved the Norse legends and was frustrated because I was a good reader and had usually finished my book long before the next visit came round. However I couldn’t have been so very short of books, because there were enough for me to pretended to be a librarian and catalogue them: I see that ALICE IN WONDERLAND is number 10. That had been one of my mother’s books from her own childhood: so was ANNE OF GREEN GABLES which I adored. In my copy of WHAT KATY DID AT SCHOOL by Susan Coolidge I’ve written a date: I was six when I was given that. I read it many, many times and much preferred it to ALICE IN WONDERLAND – I think that is a book for adults. As a child I found it disturbing. Maybe my grip on reality wasn’t strong enough for me to enjoy the joke.
Later, aged around ten or eleven, I saved up my pocket-money to buy the Pullein-Thompson pony stories to fuel my own fantasies of one day owning a horse. Then a year or two later it was Gerald Durrell’s series of books about collecting animals: THREE TICKETS TO ADVENTURE, MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS and so. I’ve still got those. Looking back it seems to me now that a very wide of range of reading appealed to me and it wasn’t just a solitary activity. My friend Linda and I loved Biggles – how extraordinary that seems now – and my friend Pauline had a terrific collection of Superman comics. We used to pore over those together as well as over our copies of JACKIE.
Will today’s children have the same relationship with the printed word? My own children haven’t – there are so many other calls on their time, TV, the internet, DVS . . . I feel something has been lost. But then I would, wouldn’t I?
I love to browse in bookshops. One favourite is Scarthin books in Cromford, nr Matlock, which sells both new and second-hand. I used to go there so often with my small daughter that she got it muddled up with the library and used to call it ‘the library shop.’ Another is Heffer’s book shop in Cambridge to which I paid one of my regular visits yesterday. Now that Murder One, the London crime fiction bookshop, has closed, Heffer’s probably has the best selection of crime fiction in the country, thanks to the wonderful fiction buyer, Richard Reynolds. He can usually be found at his desk in the crime fiction section and I always ask him to recommend something. I’ve come across some terrific books that way – Rennie Airth’s THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE, Colin Cotterill’s series featuring the Laos coroner, Dr Siri – and yesterday came away with Louise Penny’s STILL LIFE. That personal recommendation can’t be bettered. And in a bookshop there’s always the chance you’ll come across something that you didn’t know you wanted until it sparks your imagination- and that can be gold dust for a writer.
But I do like buying books on the internet too – and especially through Abebooks. The names of the shops and places are so evocative. Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Poisoned Pen in Phoenix, Arizona . . . I’d love to do a road trip touring mystery bookshops in the US and maybe I will one day. In the meantime it is magical to me that I can order a book from a shop in Pasadena in the evening and find an e-mail the next morning that tells me it has been sent out. And the things that are sometimes sent out with the books . . . but that is a story for another day . . .
You know how it is sometimes with a new friend. You really get on, you see a lot of each other, and then, you’re not sure why, you can’t seem to get round to ringing her, she doesn’t ring you either, and you can’t put your finger on it, but the spark’s gone. Maybe after a while you’ll pick up where you left off – and maybe you won’t. That’s how it was with me and Kinsey Millhone. But last week I read Q IS FOR QUARRY and all the old friendly feelings came flooding back. What a pro Sue Grafton is and I mean that as high praise. She never short-changes her reader. Her novels are rich and satisfying, full of characters who step right off the page. I particularly enjoyed the two old-timer police officers who employ Kinsey to help them identify a murdered girl long dead. Now that I’m back I’ll read the other ones I’d missed.
Two things led me to pick up Q IS FOR QUARRY. I’ve got my mother’s copies of Sue Grafton’s novels now, so they are right there on the shelf, where I can see them if I turn my head. My mother really loved them, read them all, and and looked forward to the next one. The other is that Sue Grafton received the CWA Diamond Dagger last year in time for me to tell my mother that I’d be meeting her at the reception which in the end was a month or two after my mother died. I told Sue how much my mother had enjoyed her books. Of course she was pleased and said so. Another writer might have left it at that, but she drew me out about my own work, said sympathetically ‘writing is bloody hard’ and made me feel better when I was struggling a bit.
So yes, writing is hard, but good writers make it look easy, and that’s what Sue Grafton does.
I’ve at last finished THE HABIT OF BEING, a selection of her letters. It took me weeks. There are 600 pages, I only have a certain amount of time and energy for this kind of reading, and it took me a while to get into them. In particular it was hard for me as a Quaker to enter into her devout Catholicism and the racism of some of her attitudes, though common for that time and place, was still hard to swallow. But I am glad I keep going. As I got close to the end, I kept looking anxiously to see how many pages there were left, knowing that she was soon to die young and sorry that there wasn’t going to be any more. It reminded me of when I read the MEMORIALS OF EDWARD BURNE-JONES years ago in the library of the Barber Institute in Birmingham and found myself in tears when I got to the end. It is a curious thing, reading about someone’s life as it unfurls and all the time knowing what they cannot know: when it will end.
What I particularly enjoyed -in addition to the salty humour – were her thoughts on writing.
‘When you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself . . . you have to present it and leave it alone.’
‘You can suggest something obvious is going to happen but you cannot have it happen in a story. You can’t clobber any reader while he is looking. You divert his attention, then you clobber him, and he never knows what hit him.’
‘It appears I have finished my novel . . . someone said you don’t finish one you just say to hell with it.’
She also once wrote something along these lines: ‘a writer can do anything that they can get away with, but no-one has ever got away with much.’ I like that.
I think she would have been wryly amused to find her short story, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ in THE CRIME LOVER’S CASEBOOK, which is where I first read it after picking it up in a remainder bookshop.