A while ago I blogged about how much I enjoyed John Mullan’s book about Jane Austen. I followed that up by reading HOW NOVELS WORK by the same author. This too is hugely enjoyable and I found a lot of food for thought both as a reader and a writer. I knew I was in for a treat when I read this on the first page: ‘When the novelist William Thackeray first dined with Charlotte Brontë, he discomposed her by quoting from memory, as he smoked an after-dinner cigar, some cigar-smoke-inspired lines from JANE EYRE – lines that lead us to the heroine’s meeting with Mr Rochester in the garden of Thornfield, and to his first declaration of love for her. “Sweet-briar and southernwood, jasmine, pink and rose have long been yielding their evening sacrifice of incense: this new scent is neither of shrub nor flower – I know it well – it is Mr Rochester’s cigar.” Thackeray had been gripped by Brontë’s novel, first reading it right through in a single day, and then returning to savour it.’ Discomposed she may have been, but what a compliment, too, particulary coming as it did from a writer older and much better established. I love this story, which Mullen uses to illustrate the power of particular passages of literature to stay in the mind. The book’s divided into sections: beginning, narrating, people, genre, and so on, right through to – naturally – endings. That makes it sound a bit dry, but actually it’s full of fascinating insights and there are categories that you don’t normally find in a work of criticism. I especially enjoyed a section on ‘Meals’ in Mullen remarks that ‘Dickens perfected the art of the meal as a fictional set-piece’ and gives as an example of ‘the chill privilege of mean luxury’ the meal at the christening party in DOMBEY AND SON: ‘a cold collation, set forth in a cold pomp of glass and silver, and looking more like a dead dinner lying in state, than a social refreshment.’That made me laugh out loud. Mullen’s book has made me want to go back to favourite writers like Dickens and enjoy them all over again, and he’s alerted me too to some that I haven’t yet read. His reference, for instance, to Conrad’s ‘wonderful novella YOUTH about not being young any more’ has whetted my appetite and that’s now on my reading list.
If you find yourself near the British Library with some time to spare, they have a small exhibition called MURDER IN THE LIBRARY, which is well worth a look. It’s free, too. It’s arranged alphabetically, beginning – of course! – with A for Agatha. Other categories include R for railways, N for Nordic Crime, G for Golden Age, T for True Crime, Q for Queens of Crime, and L for Locked Rooms. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is mostly the art of the dust jacket that is on display, but it reminded me of some old friends and gave me some ideas for future reading. Siobhan Dowd’s young adult novel, THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, sounds intriguing: someone disappears from one of the pods on the London Eye. It is a variant of the locked room mystery and I am rather tempted to have a go at one of those myself, not as a full length John Dickson Carr mystery, but just as a short story. After the exhibition I had a look round the book shop and was pleased to see that they had a selection of crime fiction, including THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME 10, which has just come out. At £7.99 for 42 stories, it is very good value. I have to declare an interest as it contains one of my stories, ‘Vanishing Act.’ I am in distinguished company: Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Neil Gaiman, Martin Edwards, Simon Brett, among others, are represented. My own feeling is that really good short stories are rarer than good novels. They won’t all be to everyone’s taste, but there are some crackers in here.