. . . when you discover a new writer – and find that they have written a whole series of books. This is what’s happened to me with Laurie R. King and her novels featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice while I was on holiday, and I’ve read the second, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and the third, A Letter of Mary, since I got home. The next, The Moor, is waiting on the shelf. There are twelve books in all and the temptation is just to gobble them down like a box of chocolates. I’m resisting that – and not only on grounds of expense (the local library has only one on the shelves). They are best saved up as treats for when the comfort of reading about old friends is required.
There is something so reassuring about a series and I am always on the lookout for a good one that I haven’t yet read. I’ve just ordered a copy of Gail Bowen’s first novel, after seeing her recommended by Moira over at ClothesinBooks. (For some reason I am not being allowed to paste a link, but she is easily found via Google.) I’m pretty sure that if Moira likes a writer, I will too. I hadn’t heard of Gail Bowen, perhaps because she is Canadian, but she sounds right up my street.
Other suggestions would be very welcome. Is there a writer you like who might have slipped under my radar?
For me the most moving moment in Middlemarch is not the climax of the novel, when Dorothea and Will are united. To tell the truth, I am not terribly interested in this romance, and find Will rather tiresome – all that shaking his ringlets and what about that flirting with Rosamund Vincy? I am far more touched by this: Harriet Bulstrode has learned from her brother what her female friends have been unable to tell her: her husband is disgraced. She goes home and shuts herself in her room. She is a woman proud of her position in town, fond of fripperies and finery, but also, George Eliot tells us, her ‘honest ostentatious nature made the sharing of a merited dishonour as bitter as it could be to any mortal.
‘But this imperfectly-taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through half a life, and who had unvaringly cherished her – now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him . . . She took off all her ornments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and two bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet cap . . .
Meanwhile her husband, guessing what she has discovered, waits in anguish for her reaction. ‘He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went towards him she thought he looked smaller – he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly. “Look up, Nicholas.”‘
Wonderful . . . Did I admire this as much when I was twenty as I do now? I can’t remember.
This is my last post about Middlemarch. I’ll write about something else next time.
Mr Casaubon’s Key to all Mythologies must be the most famous unpublished (indeed, unfinished) book in all of literature. In previous rereadings of Middlemarch, I’ve tended to skip over details of this work, but this time I was determined to read the novel from cover to cover. I was fascinated to discover that there is a kind of overlap between Casaubon’s subject and my own Ph.D on Arthurian legend in fine and applied art 1840-1920.
There was a theory current in the late eighteenth century that all pagan religion could be explained in terms of sun worship and that King Arthur symbolised the sun. There seemed to be an element of this in some paintings of Arthurian subjects and so it was that I found myself in the British Library (the old one) calling up dusty tomes from the early nineteenth century with titles like The Origins of Pagan Idolatry and Mythology and Rites of the British Druids. These were not gripping reads and there was something soporific about the old Reading Room. I recall afternoons of struggling to stay awake. There were times when completing my thesis seemed as remote as Casaubon finishing his book. But eventually I did and even had a offer of publication from Cambridge University Press. There was a hiccup when CUP ditched me: my editor left and the new one thought the subject did not have global appeal. Manchester University Press took it and produced a very attractive book (CUP’s used to be pretty drab), so it was all for the best. And there was a certain satisfaction when it was short-listed for an American award and was reviewed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. So much for lack of global appeal.
But during those afternoons in the British Library, that was all in the future. Reading Middlemarch brought back vivid memories of days when I feared I was destined for the same fate as Casaubon with piles of unsorted notes and a piece of work that took so long to finish that it was out of date long before it was ended.
I’m back from holiday now. My reading challenge was the book that my book group has chosen as an optional big read: Middlemarch. It was wonderful reading it when I was able to immerse myself in it in a way that’s difficult among the distractions of home (and the internt). I got through it in a week or so. It was hugely satisfying – and so interesting rereading it at this stage in my life.
I must have been around the same age as Dorothea when I first read it in my late teens and reading it now, when I am so much older, gave me new insights. It is of course a book about marriage. but this time round I found myself also thinking about the parents, or those standing in for them. What was Mr Brooke thinking of, allowing Dorothea to marry Casaubon, when he could have made her wait at least until she came of age?
And then there is Rosamund Vincy, whose blonde perfection, narcissim, and ignorance has troubled me in the past. I’ve wondered if George Eliot was a little hard on her. She is the polar opposite of the kind of woman that George Eliot was. This time round I thought about the way Rosamond had been educated – or rather not educated – and the way she had been brought up. Both she and Fred had been very indulged, spoilt even by their parents. At the beginning of the novel Fred is hanging around, hoping to be saved from having to work by a timely inheritance, and really is saved by the love of a good woman. Rosamund goes into marriage knowing nothing of her own responsibilites, expecting only to be petted and to have her own way in everything as she had with her parents. Eliot traces the impact of this with chilling precision.
There’s more I want to say, especially about Mr Casaubon, but that can wait for next time. What a pleasure it has been, encountering this book again,
I am not really one for the beach, but when one is on holiday en famille, it’s sometimes necessary and I prepare for an expedition. So: sun block, yes, beach towels, yes, beach umbrella, yes, book . . . ah, that’s not so easy.
I won’t be taking my e-reader as it’s too likely to get sand in it. Books do tend to get bashed about a bit on the beach, so I won’t be taking anything I mind about. I’ll keep my pristine new paperbacks for reading elsewhere. It’ll be one of the books from the Oxfam shop, then, but which one? It should be entertaining – that goes without saying – but not too demanding. I will be interrupted by requests that I assist with castle-building, or go paddling, or buy ice-creams, or, who knows, I might even be tempted to have a dip myself, so it needs to be something I won’t mind putting aside for a while.
On this particular day, the book that went into the bag was Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first in her series featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I had dismissed it as something that wasn’t for me. Sherlock Holmes falling in love and getting married? No! But then I saw it in Oxfam, and thought, well, maybe . . . After all, I do like a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche.
And, of course, I loved it. The tone is exactly right, the plot threw up a breath-taking surprise, and towards the end, I minded very much putting it down. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels. And I won’t be waiting for them to turn up in the Oxfam shop.
and now there is, because I have just invented one (with the help of my husband, whose German is much better than mine). It’s Leerbuchregalangst, the fear of being without anything to read (rendered literally: fear of the empty book shelf). One of the most difficult times in my life was in my twenties when I had an eye operation that prevented me from reading for a while. But I suffered from Leerbuchregalangst long before that. Perhaps it goes back to my childhood when the time between visits to the library seemed so long and I’d read the books at home again and again. But whatever its roots, it has led me to stagger through train stations and airports with suitcases lined with paperbacks (sometimes discarding them en route when read). There have been anxious calculations about how many books I am likely to get through, with one or two added for good luck. I have written before about what a blessing the little World’s Classics editions are, so small and compact.
Of course the coming of the e-reader has changed things, but not as much as might be expected. I wouldn’t take an e-reader on the beach, for instance. And there is a problem with technology: it is always possible that it might break down, or get stolen, or lost. Books don’t break down. Even dropping one in the bath won’t make it illegible. I once dropped one down a Swiss hillside and managed to retrieve it from a snowdrift. It was rather swollen, but I still read it. So I’ll continue to take books on holiday as back-up. Or perhaps it’s the e-reader that’s back-up.
Something that I didn’t expect when I started writing crime fiction was that other crime writers would be such good fun and so convivial. I’ve made some excellent friends and Martin Edwards is one of them. He knows a huge amount about Golden Age crime fiction – an interest we share – as well as being a terrific writer and it’s a pleasure to interview him for my blog. I began by asking to tell us something about his new novel, The Frozen Shroud.
This is a contemporary whodunit set in a remote part of the Lake District, a small community on the east side of Ullswater called Ravenbank. A hundred years ago, a horrific murder was committed there on Hallowe’en, and five years ago, a woman was killed, again on Hallowe’en, in a crime that had strange similarities to the earlier tragedy. Everyone thought the murdererwas dead – but now, again on Hallowe’en, a third woman becomes a murder victim. DCI Hannah Scarlett, of the Cold Case Review Team, is personally enmeshed in the latest tragedy, and the killing of someone close to her means she has more than one reason to solve the puzzle of the Frozen Shroud…
How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
I’ve been a partner in a law firm for thirty years, so time has always been
short, and I got into the habit of writing in the evening, sometimes into
the small hours (plus week-ends and holidays). A few weeks ago, I finally
took the step of becoming a part-time consultant, and I’m hoping that having
more time will give me more opportunities to write at more civilised times
of day. But whether the habit of writing in the evening will be easy to
break – or even whether it would be a good idea to break it – only time will
What comes first for you: theme, plot, characters, setting?
It can vary, especially with short stories. With my Lake District Mysteries,
though, I usually begin with an interesting motive for murder – an element
in someone’s psychological make-up which drives them to commit the ultimate
crime. So character is central – I know, from an early stage, who has killed
whom and why. The Lakes setting is a given in this series, of course, but I
do move the action around from one part of the area to another – Ambleside,
Coniston, Keswick and now (in the book I’m currently writing) Ravenglass.
There are themes in both the individual books and the series as a whole, but
these tend to be implicit.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
I’ve a long list of writing heroes, but an edited version would include
Joseph Heller, P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth
Gaskell. In the crime field, I’m a huge fan of Golden Age detective fiction,
most notably Christie, Sayers and Anthony Berkeley. Modern crime writers I
love include Ruth Rendell, the late Reginald Hill, Peter Lovesey and…well,
A favourite bookshop?
Several in the UK, of course, but if I have to pick one, it might just be
The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, a marvellous specialist crime
bookstore run by Barbara Peters and Rob Rosenwald, who also run the
excellent Poisoned Pen Press – which just happens to publish some of my
books in the US!
What are you writing now?
I’m working on two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. The novel is the
seventh Lake District Mystery (set in and around Ravenglass, as I mentioned
– a fascinating part of the world.) The other book is a history of Golden
Age detective fiction written between the wars; this one is a labour of love
that I’ve been working on for years.
You can find out more about Martin at his website, MartinEdwardsbooks.com, where you can also find his splendid blog: ‘DoYouWriteUnderYourOwnName.’