My sadness at seeing that Blackwell’s in Broomhill was about to close didn’t stop me from going in and buying a few books at half price. One of them was The Fear Index by Robert Harris, and what a gripping read this turned out to be. Alex Hoffmann has become fabulously wealthy through his invention of an algorithm which plays the market by picking up on indications of fear and panic. The story begins when his apparently impregnable house is broken into in the middle of the night. He has a history of mental illness and as the sinister events pile up it is not clear whether he is in the throes of a breakdown or if someone – or something – is out to get him. It won’t be giving too much away to say that he has created a monster and it’s getting out of control. This is a modern Gothic novel and Harris admits as much by quoting from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the beginning of the first chapter. The narrative rips along and the description of the meltdown of the financial market is all too plausible. Harris has done his research and I did feel – at least for a while – that I understood something of how the market and hedge funds in particular work. It’s a story of hubris, of human beings overreaching themselves, and though it’s as old as Prometheus, Harris’s is a fresh and chilling take on it.
Well, a branch of Blackwell’s, rather than the company itself. Last week I went into Broomhill in Sheffield as I do every six weeks or so to have my hair cut and signs were up in the windows of Blackwell’s announcing that everything was half-price because the shop was about to close. I don’t know why: just not making enough profit, I guess, or maybe the rent had gone up. We used to live in Broomhill and I have bought many a book there over the years (there used to be a particularly good section on travel and a lot of the guidebooks on my shelves came from there). And I had my one and only proper book launch there in 2006 when FOOTFALL came out. So I am sorry to see it go. I am sorry to see any bookshop go. Now if you want to buy a book in Broomhill you will have to go to one of the many charity shops. Oxfam has a particularly large selection and stocks almost as much crime fiction as Blackwell’s did. But you won’t be able to order books there, or have the staff recommend books or choose books that they’ve enjoyed themselves to put on display. Of course you can get pretty much everything on-line, but you won’t get the little extras that make book shops special places. And yes, I do buy books on Amazon, but I make a point of buying from book shops as well. Otherwise they won’t be there when I want them. Further to last week’s blog: my friend Jonathan pointed out that Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL is written in the present tense – and also the follow-up, BRING UP THE BODIES. I can see why that works. If you want to bring the past vividly to life, to write in present tense help the reader to understand that it hasn’t always been history. For the people living then it was life right now, immediate and unpredictable, and anything could have happened. Perhaps that was why I instinctively chose the present tense when I wrote a historical short story.
Yesterday I was browsing in Smith’s on Sheffield station and my eye was caught by a promising book title: Autumn Killing by Mons Kallentoft. I hadn’t read anything by the author before, but when I’d scanned the blurb, I felt inclined to buy it. I love Nordic crime and this was set in Sweden, one of my favourite countries. I’d even driven through the provincial town that the novel’s set in. I opened it to get a flavour of the writing – and my heart sank. It was written in the present tense. Back it went on the shelf. There is something about the present tense that immediately puts me off, though funnily enough I don’t mind it so much in short stories and have even written a couple of short stories in the present tense myself. I’ve been wondering why I find it such a turn off in a novel and I think it is because it seems so artificial. It is meant to convey a sense of the action unfolding before our eyes, but actually it seems to draw attention to the fact that this stuff is all made up. Probably one gets used to it, if one persevers, but there is a barrier to be overcome and I don’t have time for that when I am making a snap decision in a book shop. I find the past tense more convincing and authoritative: something happened and now I am being told about it. I’d be interested to know what other people think. How many really great novels have been written in the present tense? There are bound to be some, but off hand I can’t think of one.
I’m returning to a lot of old favourites at the moment – I might explore the reasons for that in another blog – and as I planned another raid on the shelves of the London Library for Maigret novels I reflected not for the first time on the discrepancy between the man and the books. It is telling that I do think of Maigret novels rather than Simenon novels. Simenon was fantastically prolific: according to the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Murder he wrote 84 Maigrets, over 500 pulp novels under pseudonyms, and around 350 darker psychological thrillers, usually featuring people on the verge of moral and emotional collapse. I much prefer the Maigret novels. Simenon himself certainly had a dark side. He behaved badly to the women in his life, particularly his daughter, and was a compulsive womaniser, claiming to have had sex with hundreds of women. He may or may not have been a collaborator during the war, but he certainly did not cover himself in glory. In short he was not much like his most famous character, Maigret, who is devoted to Madame Maigret, lives a solid bourgeois existence, and provides the moral touchstone of the novels. Maigret is empathetic to a high degree, with a deep understanding of the hopes and fears of the people he moves, the petty criminals, the prostitutes, the working classes and the struggling lower middle classes trying to cling to gentility. So, have I stopped reading Maigret novels because I disapprove of Simenon? Of course not. And I haven’t stopped reading Dickens because he treated his wife appallingly, either. So where would I’d draw the line and is there even a line to be drawn? I think there is, that I can conceive of a writer whose character and behaviour was so repugnant that I wouldn’t want to read his or her novels.