Soem time ago (December 2008 and February 2009) I wrote about trying to decide which of my mother’s books to keep after she had died. It wasn’t until this summer that I finally took the last ones to the charity shop. I have kept a fair number, integrating them into my own collection, but accepted at last that I wasn’t going to read – or re-read Sara Woods, Anthony Gilbert, and a few others, much as I had enjoyed them in the past. And then earlier this year my lovely mother-in-law died and so there was another house to clear. My husband went down to Devon to take some last things a week or two ago and I wasn’t able to go with him, so asked him to bring home some things to remind me of her. We shared a love of crime fiction,but that wasn’t really what I wanted (apart from a little World’s Classic edition of Sherlock Holmes short stories). No, what I wanted was DELIA SMITH’S COMPLETE COOKERY COURSE. Nothing special about it, just a paperback copy of dating back to 1992, with slightly old-fashioned recipes that use more butter and cream that we would now. But it reminds me of her and the times I used it myself when I was cooking for her and the family. Avis herself used to make a mean shepherd’s pie and I’ve also got the dish she used to cook in it. These things have a poignant homeliness about them that make them as precious as any heirloom. A book of her’s that I used to covet was Peg Bracken’s I HATE TO HOUSEKEEP and she passed that on to me a few years ago. I’ve written elsewhere about Peg Bracken’s I HATE TO COOK BOOK and this is hugely enjoyable too, with chapter titles like ‘Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There’ and ‘The Hostest with the Leastest.’ As well as being a pioneering woman GP Avis did cook and run a household – very successfully – but she was firmly of the view that those activities should be kept in their place and I agree with her.
. . . THE QUARRY by Friedrich Durrenmatt before I wrote my own short story, ‘Vanishing Act'(published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine last year). I got THE QUARRY out of the London Library after Mark Lawson talked about Durrenmatt recently in one of series of programmes about European crime fiction on Radio 4. And as I read the opening pages it began to seem rather familiar. In my short story a murder takes place in a hospice and the mystery is solved by someone who is himself dying. Durrenmatt’s novel, published in 1962, opens with his terminally ill protagonist, Inspector Barlach, in hospital. The doctor who is treating him thinks he identifies from an old photo a German concentration camp doctor who committed atrocities during the second world war and later committed suicide. Barlach’s friend suspects that actually the man survived and is running a clinic in Zurich. Determined to bring the man to justice Barlach arranges to have himself transferred to the clinic and so begins a game of cat and mouse. I’m not seriously comparing myself with this extraordinary writer and these are very different stories. And yet the similarities (both involve an old photograph) might have been enough to take the shine off my own idea if I’d known about THE QUARRY. Of course many ideas and motifs recur in crime fiction – in fiction generally – and it doesn’t much matter as long as the writer has a new and arresting take on their subject. Still I might have been deterred from writing a story that I’m proud of it if I’d read THE QUARRY first, so I’m glad I didn’t. Ending as it does with a deus ex machina, THE QUARRY is not perhaps a total successful as a crime novel, but that isn’t really the point. In its exploration nihilism, guilt, and retribution, it’s in a class of its own. PS. ‘Vanishing Act’ will be reprinted in the MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME early next year.