I recently read ‘VANTAGE STIKER, a little known Golden Age crime novel from 1931 by a writer called Helen Simpson. Martin Edwards mentioned it to me, and told me it was very difficult to get hold of, but as often happens, the London Library came up trumps. I enjoyed it. She is a lively and engaging writer. The novel is very much of its time and reminded me a little of Nicholas Blake’s early novels. Dermot is a witty sardonic young man working in a government office. He suffered an head injury in the First World War that makes him liable to uncontrollable rages. He is the ideal person, then, to be framed for the murder of the Prime Minister (no less!)and that is just what happens. At one point a friend points out that if the true murderer isn’t unmasked, Dermot could hang in a matter of weeks. As Dr Johnson is supposed to have said, ‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ It concentrates the mind of his friends, too, and is the engine of the plot in a number of other novels, notably Agatha Christie’s MRS GINTY’S DEAD. Of course it is still a plot device that’s available for writers setting novels in US states that still have the death penalty: Andrew Kavlan’s TRUE CRIME springs to mind, and there are many others. There isn’t quite the same sense of urgency when it simply a matter of imprisonment which can be reversed. Perhaps even as I write this there is someone researching a PhD thesis on the impact of the abolition of the death penalty on the British crime novel. I wonder if in their modest way these novels helped to bolster opposition to the death penalty in suggesting ways in which an innocent person could be hanged for a crime they hadn’t committed.
You can’t read a Kindle in the bath. At least, I suppose there is nothing to stop you, but it really wouldn’t be wise.
That was one of my first reactions to reading on my Kindle Paperwhite which my husband gave me for my birthday in December. Given that I am thinking of making two of my Cassandra novels available as ebooks, it seemed time to try out the technology for myself. It has made me more conscious of the way that I read, which is not always in a strictly chronological order. Yes, that is the general thrust, I do (mostly) start at the beginning and go through to the end, but I tend to roam about, sometimes going back to remind myself about a character or something that has happened earlier in the novel, sometimes skipping forward a bit and then doubling back. It is not impossible to do this with a Kindle, but it is quite a bit harder. Reading something that has a fairly straightforward narrative arc, like many crime novels, is fine, but I wouldn’t want to read War and Peace on a Kindle. The big read that my book group choses every year as an optional extra is currently Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate which is a hefty 855 pages. I have bought that as a proper book, because I will need to read it over a substantial period of time and will want to have it all at my fingertips all the time. Another thing: I hadn’t fully appreciated how much I love books as physical objects, even when they are battered old paperbacks – sometimes especially when they are battered old paperbacks holding the memories of where I first read them or bought them. So is the Kindle the total washout that I thought it might be at first? No, I am using it, but mostly in bed and mostly for crime novels. It is going to be very useful for travelling,though what happens if it gets broken or stolen or lost? I just know it will be belt and braces for me and I shall be tucking in the odd paperback and World’s Classic just in case. Speed of access is of course another advantage.The other day I wanted to read something by Washington Irving as reseach for something I’m writing. My first thought was the London Library, but then I saw that it was free to download – and I didn’t have to wait for it to be posted out to me or pay for the postage. So, my Kindle is here to stay, but it won’t be completely replacing the printed word for me, as it has for some of my friends. And it won’t be replacing the London Library either.
I hadn’t actually read anything by Frances Hodgson Burnett until I read this, though not long ago I saw an excellent film of The Secret Garden. It was Elaine’s corruscating review of the recent TV adaptation of The Making of a Marchioness on her wonderful Random Jottings blog and her enthusiasm for the original novel that prompted me to try it. And what a rollicking read it turned out to be! I read it at break-neck speed. It is essentially the Cinderella story (written in 1901) and reminded me a little of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which I’ve blogged about elsewhere). Emily Fox-Seton is a genteel but penniless woman who makes a precarious living acting as a factotum for wealthy aristocratic women. No-one is more surprised than she when the fabulously wealthy Marquis of Walterhurst – a dour but decent man in his fifties – proposes to her. So far, so fairy-tale. But that’s not the end of it. It is a little as if Cinderella married the prince and then the ugly sisters plotted to murder her. There are some very dark elements to this story. The blurb of the excellent Persephone edition in which I read it reminded me that Linda in The Pursuit of Love puts The Making of a Marchioness in the Red Bookshop instead of Karl Marx. This was not such an incongrous substitution as might at first appear. Emily is shown moving in what is in many ways a corrupt society with a dark underbelly. Guileless even to the point of stupidity, she has somehow managed to remain innocent. She genuinely loves the Marquis, but even if she hadn’t, surely she could not have refused him, when she barely makes ends meet and fears ending up in the workhouse. Young women must marry, even if it means selling themselves to much older men. A village girl nearly dies after taking something to bring on an abortion and it is not uncommon, it is made clear, for even respectable women to need to conceal a pregancy. In spite of its fairy-tale elements here is a realism about this novel that lifts it above the ruck of sugary romances.It reminded me also a little of Trollope’s The American Senator in its exposure of the brutal workings of the marriage market. I am not quite sure that Hodgson Burnett fully intended this, but it’s a novel I won’t forget in a hurry.