I’ve been reading with great pleasure Virginia Nicholson’s excellent, Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. In a chapter on the stereotype of the spinster I was interested to come across this as an example: ‘Agatha Christie’s knitting detective Miss Marple incarnated the spinster sleuth.’ Last week I was reading The Thirteen Problems, stories featuring Miss Marple, and it seemed to me that here Virginia Nicholson rather misses the point. Miss Marple only appears to be a stereotypical English spinster, unworldly and ineffectual, forever fussing with her knitting. In fact she is anything but.
In The Thirteen Problems she is pitted against a solicitor, a clergyman and Sir Henry Clithering, retired Scotland Yard commissioner and beats them all hands down and this in the 1920s and 1930s. Agatha Christie has plenty of fun here – there is a lot of quiet humour generally in her books – at the expense of everyone who makes the mistake of underrating Miss Marple. She may have spent a sheltered life in St Mary’s Mead, but she knows all about the seamy side of life: housemaids ‘in trouble’, wives murdered by husbands, lives ruined by ill-founded gossip. Miss Marple is in fact a pretty tough cookie and has no compunction about seeing murderers sent to the gallows. She is such a familiar figure that one is inclined to forget what an original creation she was.
Horror, sci-fi, crime: they are all remote from our experience of everyday life and yet a good writer or director can make them absolutely convincing and have us sitting on the edge of our seat. I thought about this on Saturday when I was watching the last episode of the French crime series, Spiral (in French, Engrenages – meaning the meshing of gears, better, I think). I was gripped by it, but I wasn’t entirely happy. It is a challenge to have the solving of a crime spread over twelve episodes and the solution wasn’t really satisfactory to my mind (won’t disclose it for those who haven’t seen it yet). Even more of a problem was that the police kept making elementary mistakes. A group of poorly educated young women on a sink estate rang rings round them. I do understand that the police couldn’t clear everything up in the first episode, but it did get to the point where every time they trailed a suspect, you knew they would lose them. In the last episode Gilou was distracted by a phone call from a woman with whom he was having an affair. Unprofessional or what?
The police had to prepare a bag to be handed over to kidnappers, who through a fairly elementary ruse managed to make off with it. Had the police planted a tracking device in the bag? Of course not. They all deserve to have been demoted long ago.
The thing is kept afloat by the wonderful acting and the legal strand is fascinating. So yes, I expect I will watch the next series, but I hope they’ll up their game – the police and the script-writers.
Today I am blogging about books set in schools and Moira at Clothesinbook.com is doing the same. Our tastes are similar but don’t quite overlap, so I’m always fascinated to see what she has chosen.
There are very few fictional schools that one would like to have attended or to have sent one’s own children to, but Llanabba Castle in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928) takes the biscuit. As Mr Levy of Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents, explains to Paul Pennyfeather, ‘We class schools into four grades: Leading School, First-Rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly . . . School is pretty bad.’ And so it proves. Very dark and very funny.
As a child I didn’t go in for school stories, but this was an exception: Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873), her follow-up to What Katy Did. I adored this story of Katy and Clover and their year at a boarding school in Connecticut and I still enjoy it even now.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) Lucy Snow goes to teach at a girls school in Belgium and falls in love with Monsieur Paul. It is years and years since I read this, but I vividly remember the atmosphere of erotic longing and repressed emotion.
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). Ah, Miss Brodie and her crème de la crème: the influence of a teacher – for good or ill – can be lifelong. An examination of good and evil through the prism of school life – but funny, too.
Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof (1935). Closed communities such as schools, especially boarding schools, make excellent settings for crime novels. This one, set in a boys prep school, was the first crime novel by poet, C. Day Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, and is a Golden Age mystery with a difference: the detective, Nigel Strangeways, was based on W. H. Auden.
Robert Player, The Ingenious Mr Stone. Another crime novel, partly narrated by the bursar at a dreadful boarding school for girls. Ingenious, yes, and funny.
How to be Topp and Down with Skool by Geoffrey Willans with illustrations by Ronald Searle: ‘Hurra for the botany walk! Now boys get into croc. Tinies at the front, seniors at the rear. Off for the woods and keep your eyes skinned. Ha-ha- what do we see at once but a little robin! There is no need to burst into tears fotherington-tomas swete though he be. Nor to buzz a brick at it Molesworth 2. Pause at the zebra, look left look right. Strate into the vicar’s bicycle. That’s all right we were none of us hurt and i canot believe the vicar really said that grabber . . . A dead bird, Peason? I don’t think that would find its place in the nature museum it is so very dead.’ I was a grown-up when I discovered Molesworth, ‘the curse of St Custard’s.’ The kind of book that is wasted on children. A perfect marriage of text and illustrations. Sublime.
Finally, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, set in an elite girls boarding school. Not among her best – Poirot takes far too long to appear – but good fun all the same.
So that’s it. I’ll add a link to ClothesinBooks once Moira’s post is up.
Now it is: with surprising results! http://bit.ly/16X4I99
Dolores Gordon-Smith is my guest today. Dolores is great company and am always glad to run into her. We first met when she was on a panel that I chaired at Crimefest. That was also when I first encountered her series featuring Jack Haldean, set in the 1920s and drawing on the Golden Age tradition of the fair play mystery. They are rattling good reads.
I asked her, What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
I tend to think of an intriguing incident first off, and puzzle out how it came to be. What led up to it, what happened afterwards – that sort of thing. That gives me an idea of who the characters are who have made the incident happen. For instance, as As If By Magic I knew I wanted a man to witness a murder in a deserted kitchen, where the body disappears minutes later after the police have been called in. I had to think why he was there – it wasn’t his kitchen so he’d broken in but he wasn’t a burglar. I also wanted him to be sympathetic but disbelieved, so I came up with George, who despite wearing full evening dress, is completely destitute and suffering from malaria. What happens to the body is, of course, the plot!
What’s your writing routine?
I write in the mornings – I think most people do – as that’s when I’m freshest. That’s the hard graft of actually making the book up! Editing, which is knocking the first draft into shape and the subsequent edits, I can do in the afternoon and evening, but life will keep getting in the way…
Your Jack Haldean novels are set in the 1920s. What drew you to that period?
I think the 1920’s are the perfect period for the sort of Whodunnit I like to read and write. The technology (telephones and cars) make it recognizably the modern world in a way that the Victorian era, say, isn’t, but forensic science hadn’t advanced far enough to get in the way of good story. The First World War had shaken up society in a way it had never been shaken before, so there’s that sense of society on an edge, in a time of change. In addition, I’m a massive fan of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and the whole “Golden Age” of detective fiction. I was delighted to be asked to participate in a Golden Age day at the British Library on 20th June this year. If anyone would like to come – it’ll be a great day – you can find out more at http://thebodiesfromthelibrary.wordpress.com/
A favourite bookshop?
I live in Manchester which must be one of the most “unbooky” places in Britain. Seriously. There’s two big Waterstones in the centre of town, but that’s it.
What single thing would make your writing life easier?
Can you ask? A plot generating machine. I think science has been strangely lax in its lack of attention to this vital piece of technology!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished my tenth Jack book, The Chessman. That should be out in August. It concerns a body found in an otherwise idyllic parish church and is an idea I’ve been playing around with for ages.
To find out more about Dolores and her most novel, After the Exhibition, go to http://www.doloresgordon-smith.co.uk/. Her books are published by Severn House and are available in print, ebook and audio.
I’ve been busy with some short stories lately. It’s especially interesting, I think, when one is writing to a brief. The first time I did that was some years ago when Ra Page at Comma Press asked me if I’d like to try my hand at a horror story involving modern technology for an anthology he was editing. Horror? modern technology? Not really my style, but when I mentioned it to my husband, his response was bracing: ‘You’re a writer, aren’t you? So, write something.’ I did. I wrote a story, ‘Safe as Houses’ about a house in which everything is controlled by state of the art technology and what happens when something gets into the system.
It was fun, so I was happy to say yes when my crime-writing friend, Kate Ellis, invited me to submit a story for a collection with a rather unusual starting point. Every story is to be based on a photograph of Pembrokeshire by David Wilson in a collection published by Welsh publisher Graffeg, who’ll also be publishing the short stories. Wilson specialises in wonderfully atmospheric black and white photographs and it was hard to know which one to choose. A farmhouse about to be engulfed by mist rolling down from the hills? A deserted and rusting petrol station? A burial chamber outlined against a stormy sky? In the end I settled for a view of the windswept beach at Freshwater West with a path leading through the dunes. I finished the story this week and sent it off. That’s something I love about writing short stories: the satisfaction of having completed something. A novel by contrast is such a long haul.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the others make of their photo and I’ll write about that when the anthology comes out.
A week or two ago I wanted to track down a short story. I thought it was probably by a writer called Margaret Irwin. I remembered what it was about, but I wasn’t sure of the title. Quarter of an hour later I was reading it on my ebook reader. I’d found the writer on Wikipedia, identified the story and the collection it was in, and bought it.
My daughter’s generation take all this absolutely for granted, but to me it still seems little short of miraculous. I think back to the early 1980s when I was writing my Ph.d thesis on Arthurian legend in fine and applied art 1840-1920. I wrote to every museum and art gallery in the UK. Now I expect their collections are all on-line and I could have done all that research in a day or two. As for actually writing it, I had a Smith Corona electric typewriter – just like the one in the picture. It was absolutely state of the art and I cherished it. You didn’t have to mess about with Typex. You could put in a correction tape. Magic! I typed many drafts of my thesis on it. The final draft was typed by a professional typist. It was a year or two after that that I bought my first computer – an Amstrad.
To track down that Margaret Irwin short story, I would have had to leave the house and go to a library, and a large one at that, preferably a copyright library such as the British Library. To own a copy, I would probably have had to trawl the second-hand book shops (and would no doubt have found other books that I didn’t know I wanted until I saw them). Now nothing need go out of print any more and previously out-of-print books are having a new life as ebooks. But, still, I think I’ll always enjoy a rummage in a second-hand book shop.