Frances Brody is my guest on the blog today. Frances writes the Kate Shackleton Mystery Series set in Yorkshire, featuring First World War widow turned sleuth, Kate Shackleton. The fifth novel in the series, Murder on a Summer’s Day, came out in October (and I notice has five star reviews on Amazon) and will followed by Death of an Avid Reader in October. In the US, the third novel, Murder in the Afternoon, will be published on 11 February.
As a historian myself, I’m especially interested in what she has to say about writing and researching her novels. Over to Frances:
I didn’t set out to write historical crime but looking back can see how history and crime collided. An early story, written in my twenties and broadcast on BBC radio, centred on a Hong Kong policeman investigating a case of infanticide. (I’d never been to Hong Kong but my sister had).
As a student working in London during the summer vacation, I spent time in the British Museum Reading Room, in thrall to an account of the 1612 Pendle witch trials in Lancaster. The drama was palpable and deeply moving. I could hear the women’s voices across the years. The trial transcript gave me characters, story and location. Wider reading supplied background and a modern take on how and why events unfolded as they did. The Sun and the Devil became a play for BBC radio, a great medium for travelling back in time.
Family stories took me to the Great War, the twenties, thirties and saga writing. I don’t think in genres though; I think in stories and characters. When I turned to crime, it was because I had a picture in my mind of a man who could not return to his family. Who’ll solve this, I wondered. Step forward Kate Shackleton, First World War widow turned sleuth.
When I wrote history/drama scripts for BBC Schools programmes, I checked every fact against three sources. Writing a novel is different. I do my best to be faithful to my period, but I am a storyteller, not a historian. I write to entertain, engage and to play the game of make-believe. What matters most is story, character and, because the Kate Shackleton mysteries are crime novels, a touch of tricky plotting with twists and turns.
It helps that I enjoy visiting locations, reading literature and diaries of the period, dipping into contemporary newspapers, looking at old maps and geekily checking train times in my ABC Railway Guide.
Unfortunately, the universal truth about writing historical novels is this: you will be wrong about something you thought you knew, or took for granted.
Someone will spot the mistake. Reviewing the first Kate Shackleton novel, Dying in the Wool, the Country Life reviewer said, ‘My only cavil is that the heroic dog is a Weimaraner (like my own), which I don’t think were seen out of Germany until the end of the next war.’ She was right.
I had researched Kate’s background in nursing, the cameras she used, intricacies of the woollen and dyeing industries, the explosion at a nearby munitions factory, and then tripped over the dog.
Having a mistake pointed out is good for a writer. She won’t make the same mistake again. Next time it will be something new, different, and even more annoying.
Visit Frances at www.frances-brody.com www.francesmcneil.co.uk Http://Facebook.com/FrancesBrody
It is a feature of crime fiction as a genre that a lot of writers are expected to produce a book a year, often featuring the same detective. It’s not surprising that some of these series get a little tired and even the sainted Agatha wasn’t exempt from this. I’ve just read one of her later novels, At Bertram’s Hotel, and, sad to say, it is pretty thin stuff. It was published in 1965, a full forty-five years after her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. By then Christie herself was 75. Her last novels are really not up to much in comparison with her dazzling prime. That isn’t to say that crime-writers can’t write successfully in old age: look at P. D. James. However P. D. James doesn’t write a novel a year, and other writers who have maintained the quality of their work by letting the time stretch out between books include Martin Cruz Smith and Sue Grafton. I found myself musing on this as I read Ian Rankin’s new novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. He is one of those writers who does pretty much produce a book a year, but the standard shows no sign of slipping. Exit Music was supposed to be the last Rebus novel, but Rankin did not make the mistake of killing him off, so letting him return from retirement hasn’t been too problematic. It is rather surprising though that Rebus is in such good form, considering the quantities of fags, alcohol and junk he has consumed over the years. Does a vegetable or a piece of fruit never pass his lips? In this novel he finds himself teamed up with the teetotal Malcolm Fox, Rankin’s new series character, who has appeared in two novels of his own. He is am much a straight arrow as Rebus is a maverick. That’s fun, as is the development of Rubus’s friendship with Siobhan Clarke, once his protogee and now his senior. The novel’s intricately plotted, and there’s some terrific dialogue. Perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Rankin’s best – The Falls is my favourite – it’s still a very good read.
Every now and then I grind to a halt. It doesn’t happen often. Maybe I’ve got a cold or maybe I am under the weather for some other reason. Or maybe I just look at the tottering pile that is my intray, I looked at my inbox stuffed with emails, I look at the overflowing laundry basket and I think ‘the hell with it.’ I try to have a suitable book in store for this contingency – or more than one book. So it was that I retired to bed earlier this week with Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding. Beeding was recommended to me by Martin Edwards, the go-to man for classic Golden Age crime fiction, and I’d been saving this book for when I needed a treat. The cat joined me and draped himself over my legs: he doesn’t understand reading, but he does understand snoozing and is always happy to have a companion.
Francis Beeding was really two writers so is a member of a select group of crime-writers that includes Emma Lathen and Ellery Queen. My copy of Death Walks in Eastrepps is published by Arcturus in their Crime Classics series and is an attractive edition. It was first published in 1931, but is surprisingly contemporary in its concerns – a serial killer, the power of the press to influence the course of a murder investigation, a crooked financier – I did guess the plot twist, but no matter. It was an interesting and unusual motive for murder. The blurb claims that ‘this thrilling page-turner was once pronounced one of the ten greatest detective stories of all time.’ That is pitching it a bit high, but it’s very readable and hadn’t dated. And it was a particular pleasure to read it from cover to cover in one sitting, something I don’t do often enough.
For my money this is easily the best thing on TV at the moment. We are just over half way through the ten episodes and it is gripping viewing.. It is intricately plotted and full of surprises. It never lets up. It’s got everything: drama, suspense, humour, pathos. It’s beautifully filmed, has a scintillating script, and great performances from Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia. The characters are what make it. It was a brilliant idea, making the lead female character, Saga, suffer from Aspergers. It might not have come off, but it does, and the ramifications of that are cleverly woven into the plot. Saga is a good detective, rigorous to the point of obsession,and coolly rational, but she has no idea how to handle people, a serious failing which is leading a problem with one of her team that threatens the investigation. Teaming her with Martin, who is far more swayed by emotion and liable to go off the rails in a different way, works perfectly.
Also airing has been Hinterland, first seen on BBC Wales in Welsh, and currently partly in English and partly in Welsh with subtitles. The BBC have been inviting comparisons with Nordic Noir. I am not sure that it does it any favours to set the bar so high. I have only watched the first episode so far, but my initial impression was that it couldn’t hold a candle to The Bridge or The Killing. The idea wasn’t very original: abuse in a children’s home leads to an act of revenge (this isn’t really giving anything away) and nor were the characters. The lead detective is a maverick loner with a mystery in his past, but I couldn’t summon up that much interest in what it was. And I was never agog to find out what would happen next as I am with The Bridge. Maybe I’ll give it another go. But I’ll definitely have a date with The Bridge this Saturday night: no doubt about that.
I’ve decided this year to try to make more of my London Library subscription. I’ve been a member since 1984 – I think – around thirty years at any rate and since 1990 I haven’t actually been living in London, though I was pretty close when I was in Cambridge. Sadly Sheffield does not have a subscription library and though I have sometimes toyed with joining the splendid Portico Library in Manchester (it has interesting events too), I know I wouldn’t go enough. I manage to get to London once a month, but one of the really marvellous things about the London Library is that they will post books out to you and very prompt and efficient the service is, too. And as I am a country member I am allowed to have fifteen books out rather ten. You can keep the books out for as long you like if no-one requests them and in my case, while I was doing my Ph.D that was literally years. All the same there have been times when I haven’t used it very much and that is a waste, given how much the subscription has gone up in recent years.
So I’ve got a pile of books now,and I have been reading with pleasure, The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels by Matthew Sweet. The Ritz, the Savoy, The Dorchester, Claridge’s. What glamour the names of those hotels conjure up: women in silk dresses, men in evening dress or uniform, famous dance bands such as Ambrose and his orchestra. And, Sweet shows, how unsavoury the reality often was. Sweet points that if they ‘were the homes of Cabinet ministers and military leaders, plutocrats and aristocrats’ London’s war-time hotels were also awash with spies, crypto-fascists, adulterers, con artists and swindlers, and young men and women on the make. The stories are all here: of aristocratic jewel thieves, Nazi double agents, deposed monarchs and governments-in-exile. No wonder hotels have been such a useful resource for writers: all kinds of people who are not necessarily what they seem can meet and mingle in them. Agatha Christie often used them as ways of bringing people together or even as settings: Evil Under the Sun, At Bertram’s Hotel, A Carribean Mystery. And it’s not just crime novels. Elizabeth Taylor’s fine novel, Mrs Palfrey at the Cleremont, makes good use of the poignant setting of a residential hotel where the elderly residents eke out their days and try to hang on to their dignity.
At one time I used to listen regularly to The Archers. That was long ago when I was living alone in a flat in Birmingham, working on my PhD. I knew I had to get out more when I found myself listening to episodes for the third time in the Omnibus edition. Then there were long periods when I didn’t listen at all. Then when I was settled into a domestic routine of often cooking in the early evening, I picked it up again. For several years I used to listen regularly when I was doing my weekly commute from Cambridge to Sheffield. As I was driving up the A14 I heard the dramatic episode when John overturned his tractor and died. These days I don’t usually go out of my way to listen, but I catch it often enough when I am driving or cooking to have some idea of the plot-lines. So it was that on Sunday I was chopping up cabbage and listening with half an ear when I was all at once aware of something strange. It was a scene between that rather tedious couple, Pat and Tony Archer, but who was this that Pat was talking to? She was acting as if this man were her husband, and he was responding in kind, but it definitely wasn’t Tony. Then their daughter turned up and started talking to him as if he were her father – but I knew he wasn’t. I was reminded of that fine 1950s film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Somehow Tony Archer had been spirited away and a stranger substituted and no-one except me had noticed. Only of course they had. I went on line and discovered what I expected to find: the actor who had been playing the part had retired and had been replaced. This hardly ever happens in The Archers, and it made me realise, that though I don’t count myself a fan, it has become in a small way part of the background of my life and just for a few moments I was a tiny bit disturbed by this break in continuity.
We saw this scam movie at the cinema last week. There weren’t any huge surprises. I felt it was a bit long and would have been improved by tighter editing. For me any film that runs over two hours has to earn its keep. In the end this did, because the acting was superb. It has a brilliant opening: we watch as Christian Bale, who plays the conman, slowly and painstakingly contructs a comb-over with the help of a hairpiece, glue and hair-spray, highly appropriate as the whole film is all about cheating and illusion. Do they give Oscars for hair stylists? They ought to.In truth the hair styles were the stars of this movie. Did we really look like that in the seventies? The whole ambiance – the wallpaper, the clothes (those lapels!), the disco (strobe lighting and Donna Summer) – was so lovingly created that for me it carried the film.
I have nearly finished writing my review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald for the Journal of William Morris Studies and I have mixed feelings.
Hermione Lee writes that ‘perhaps self-deceivingly, I have felt while writing this book that [Penelope] might not have disapproved of me as her biographer – if there must be a Life – because she had liked my book about Virginia Woolf, and had been kind to me when we met’(p. 433). I am pretty sure that Penelope wouldn’t have like the idea of anyone writing a biography of her, and yet, of course, she was a biographer herself. Like Penelope’s own biographies Hermione Lee’s book is an absorbing read: thoroughly researched, judicious, sympathetic, yet pulling no punches.
I now know an awful lot more about Penelope than I did before. In some ways I now know more about her than I do about about my closest friends, and I’m not sure that I like it. Lee admits that ‘there are many things she did not want anyone to know about her, and which no-one will ever know (p.434). Her war-time letters to her husband, Desmond, which might have thrown more light on her marriage were lost when their barge sank in the Thames along with many other family documents, including letters from her mother, who had died when Penelope was eighteen. But it was also Penelope’s nature to be reticent and to guard her privacy particularly in relation to the catastrophies which befell her family in the 1960s. And then too there was her relationship with her daughter-in-law. Deeply attached to her son Valpy, she was horrified when he got engaged at eighteen to a Spanish girl and married her as soon as he left Oxford. Lee doesn’t gloss over her unwelcoming and unkind behaviour and she wouldn’t have been doing her job properly if she had. Still, I found myself wincing from time to time and feeling like a voyeur. There is one episode of doubtful authenticity, which I think I would perhaps not have included – so I am not going to recount it here.
Does the biography increase my pleasure in reading Penelope’s novels? No. Does it threw light on the creative process and the evolution of a novelist? Yes. So returning to that earlier proviso – if there had to be a Life – and perhaps for a writer of her stature there did have to be one – I think Hermione Lee did a very good job. Yet, fascinating as I found this book, I closed it feeling very thankful that no-one is likely to write a biography of me.
On Christmas Day we watched ‘The Tractate Middoth,’ an M. R. James ghost story adapted and directed by Mark Gatiss. It was enjoyable, but I don’t think M. R. James is all that easy to adapt. So much of the pleasure of reading him is in the tone of the writing. More interesting for me was the documentary on M. R. James that followed, which was excellent and told me a lot I didn’t know. Anyway, between them the two programmes sent me back to the stories and I settled down to read one of my favourites, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,’ and realised all over again what a master James is. The story is a lesson in suspense. Denniston is a middle-aged don, rather fussy, sceptical, not all inclined to believe in the supernatural. He is exploring a church in the foothill of the Pyrenees and is at a loss to account for the behaviour of the sacristan who is conducting him round the church – the fellow is unaccountably jumpy – not that Denniston tries very hard, engrossed as he is in photographing the architecture of the church. The afternoon wears on: ‘the short day was drawing in, and the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises – the muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day – seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.’ This still gives me a little frisson. We see things from Denniston’s point of view and yet we see more than he does, and are well aware that something very unpleasant is coming. As the story unfolds Denniston continues to view sinister events in a rational light, but eventually even he starts to feel uneasy until back in his room in the inn, ‘his attention was caught by an object lying in the red cloth just by his left elbow. Two or three ideas of what it might be flitted through his brain with their own incalculable quickness. A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black, A large spider? I trust to goodness not – no. Good God! a hand like the hand in the picture!’ You’ll have to read the story to find out what happens next. I think it is one of the most perfect of the stories, but I also very much like ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ ‘Casting the Runes,’ and ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance.’ It’s one of the signs of a good writer that they are endlessly rereadable and M.R. James has that in spades.
This is a good time to take stock of the previous year and plan for the next one. For me the reading highlight of 2013 had to be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It towered above everything else. What a book, and what a man.
The crime novel that’s stuck in my mind is one that I read at the beginning of the year: Asa Larrson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past: brilliantly atmospheric, many-layered, haunting. Just superb.Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, another outstanding writer and a favourite of mine, deserves an honourable mention. But what about non-fiction? I didn’t read very much last year, but I am very impressed by Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I have just finished reading and will blog about in due course.
It’s been a year when I’ve done a fair bit of rereading and perhaps my resolution could be to read a bit more adventurously. Being in a book group helps as I read books suggested by other people and am often glad I did. Having said that, every year we choose an optional big read, something that we’d struggle to read for one of our monthly meetings, and this year it is Middlemarch, which I have read umpteen times but am very happy to read again. And I’ll be rereading the Maigret novels as they are reissued by Penguin, one a month, in the order they were written (great idea: some of them are difficult to get hold of).
But I’ll be trying some new writers, too – Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – is our current reading group choice, and maybe I’ll follow Mrs Peabody’s example and join her on a reading challenge. So lots to look forward to, but I am well aware that I could be writing more, so that’s my main resolution: to produce more for others to read. So watch this space . . .
A very happy New Year to my readers.