When people hear that I write crime fiction, they often ask me ‘who’s your favourite crime writer?’ Immediately my mind goes blank. ‘Ruth Rendell? P. D. James? Ian Rankin?’ they prompt, taking pity on me. Well, yes, great writers, who have beguiled many a weary hour for me, but . . . By this time, I have thought of someone, ‘Andrea Camilleri . . .’ I murmur. ‘Donna Leon? Colin Cotterill . . .’ and then it’s sometimes their turn to look blank.
Of course there are plenty of others whose work I enjoy, but I have to be in the mood. With these writers I am always in the mood. I buy their books as soon as they go into paperback – sometimes before – and I confidently toss their books into my suitcase when it’s time to go on holiday. Or else I save them for a time when I need a treat.
All three writers have things in common. Their novels are relatively quick reads, they are witty and playful, they have vividly realised settings, and they feature great characters. I love Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbana and his long-suffering girlfriend, Livia, Leon’s uxorious Inspector Brunetti, and Cotterill’s Dr Siri.
Colin Cotterill is relatively new on the scene and once again he was recommended to me by Richard Reynolds. The first was THE CORONER’S LUNCH – great title – and launched the career of Dr Siri, the elderly and reluctant coroner – actually the only coroner – in 1970s Laos. Cotterill’s novels are funny, full of fascinating local and historical details and, like Camilleri and Leon, he writes with heart. Cotterill won the CWA Dagger in the Library last year and it was well-deserved. He’s got a good web-site, too, colincotterill.com, well worth checking out.
I may have mentioned Rennie Airth before, but I think he deserves a post all to himself. I have recently read with great enjoyment the last in his John Madden trilogy, THE DEAD OF WINTER. He is one of those writers whose novels I buy as soon as they go into paperback. The first and, I still think, the best is RIVER OF DARKNESS. It did very well, was short-listed for a fistful of awards and won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. It is set in the 1920s. Detective Inspector John Madden arrives in a Surrey village to investigate the savage murder of an entire household. Only a traumatised five year child, who hide under a bed, has escaped. So begins the hunt for a serial killer of exceptional cunning and ruthlessness. Madden has his personal demons, too: he is shell-shocked from his time in the trenches, and has never recovered from the deaths from influenza of his wife and baby daughter. It’s an intensely exciting thriller, but there is also a humanity and a thoughtfulness about it that makes it a memorable as well as a compelling read. And it has one of the most heart-stopping endings I have ever read.
Madden leaves the force at the end of RIVER OF DARKNESS to become a farmer, but in THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE and THE DEAD OF WINTER Airth finds ways to bring him back into play. THE DEAD OF WINTER is set towards the end of World War II and Madden becomes involved when the young Polish woman who works on his farm is murdered in the London blackout. The evocation of war-time London is pitch perfect. Although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of RIVER OF DARKNESS, this is still an engrossing read and I’ll be sorry if this really the last in the series.
I do tend to re-read quite a lot. There are books I can go back to again and again, some of them classics, such as MANSFIELD PARK, others my own discoveries, such as Joyce Dennys’s HENRIETTA’S WAR: NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT 1939-1942 and HENRIETTA SEES IT THROUGH: NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT 1942-1945. These are collections of articles illustrated with witty pen and ink drawings that were published in the SKETCH. They are a fictionalised version of the writer’s own life as a GP’s wife in Budleigh Salterton during the war. They are both funny and touching, and I read them them every two or three years for pure pleasure.
A book which is acquiring a similar status for me is John Baxter’s A POUND OF PAPER: CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK ADDICT. I first read it about five years ago and I’m now reading it again. It tells the story of a life through books and book collecting and what a life it has been. He grew up in Australia, left school at fifteen and worked for ten years as a clerk for the New South Wales Government Railways, before realising that he was in danger of spending the rest of his life there. He left to pursue his passion for literature and film and there followed a rather rackety life of writing, teaching, broadcasting and book-collecting in Australia, Britain and the States. He got through a couple of marriages, too, before ending up in Paris with a French wife and daughter. There are several fascinating appendices, including one of responses from writers and collectors to the question of what single book they would rescue if their house were on fire. So what would mine be? Not my own books or my husband’s, they are easily replaced, though THE QUEST FOR THE GRAIL is quite expensive now. After considerable thought I’ve decided I would probably chose ANNE OF AVONLEA by L. M. Montgomery. It’s a battered and foxed reprint of 1940, worth nothing in collector’s terms, but it belonged to my mother and I loved it myself as a child. We had ANNE OF GREEN GABLES too, but I don’t know what happened to it.
What would your choice be? I love to know.
I read that Ian McEwan asks early readers of his drafts to mark clichés with the acronym FLL (short for ‘the flickering log fire’). I thought of that recently when I was reading a novel by an otherwise fine writer and was brought up short by a reference to ‘nerveless fingers.’ Once was bad enough, but I was even more surprised to come across those nerveless fingers again a few pages later.
Even Homer nods. Every writer has moments of inattention, moments when they are on autopilot. In the heat of composition they reach for something to express their meaning, and what pops into their head is – ‘nerveless fingers.’ I don’t hold it against this writer – we all do it and I am as guilty as anyone. The cliché is a symptom of lazy thinking, and hopefully is replaced by something better on the next trawl through. Sometimes though the writer simply remains blind to the cliché, doesn’t even recognise it as one. And that is what editors are for. I have been lucky with mine, who have saved me from some howlers – that’s not to say that none have still slipped through the net – but maybe it is true that generally speaking editors don’t edit as much as they used to do. A pity.