One of the pleasures of Crimefest – surely one of the friendliest conventions on the circuit and almost certainly the best organised – is making new friends. This was the first time I had met the writers on the panel that I moderated. They are from left to right: Amanda Jennings, me, Stav Sherez, Linda Regan, and David Mark. If it looks as if we were having fun, it’s because we were. Thanks to Amanda for the photo.
Our topic was ‘Playing God with Your Characters.’ There was a lively debate between Stav and Linda, about whether their characters take on a life of their own. Stav felt that he was always firmly in control, Linda that her characters did have a life beyond the page. We wondered if justice always has to be done. Amanda felt that there should be justice of some kind, but it need not always be justice according to the law: the criminal in her latest novel had already been punished enough. We pondered the ethics of basing characters on real people. David has come across plenty of criminals and police officers in his time as a crime reporter for the Yorkshire Post, but none of them are to be found between the pages of his novels.
The discussion never flagged and there were interesting questions from the floor. Thank you, Amanda, Stav, Linda, and David, for being a great panel. See you next year!
At least for a while. Maybe I’ll take June off. Go cold turkey. Only thirty days in June, so it might not be too bad. Or maybe wait until August when I’ll be in France for some of the time, so (mostly) out of the reach of temptation. Or should I perhaps just STOP RIGHT NOW. But something must be done, because my study looks like a second-hand bookshop, there are books all over the house, and if I’m not careful I’m going to end up like those people who have so much stuff that they have to tunnel through it to get from room to room. And then there are all the unread books on my e-reader. It is so fatally easy to download with just one click – and often so cheap. I have reluctantly concluded that it is all getting out of hand.
What has brought this on is my trip to Crimefest at the week-end. I decided to limit myself to two new books – not least because I had to carry them home on the train. One was the eagerly awaited The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (soon to be reviewed here) and Jorn Lier Horst’s newly translated The Caveman, both signed by their authors. But it didn’t stop there. I came home with a whole bag of books, because I correctly guessed that Len Tyler’s Crooked Herring would win the Last Laugh Award for the best humorous crime novel. The prize was the shortlist of six. I already had Len’s book, so I gave that to a friend. But it still means that I came home with seven new books. No, make that eight, because I kept one that came free in the goody bag.
And in spite of all that, have I still bought another book today? Why, yes, I have. I met a writing chum, Quentin Bates, at Crimefest and that reminded me to download his new novella, Summerchill.
The rate at which I am acquiring books is far, far outstripping the rate at which I read them – and I am a byword among my friends for the number of books I get through. The gap is getting bigger and bigger. So maybe Quentin’s should be the last for a bit. Just a temporary measure, you understand. But I think I’d be the better for it – and so would my credit card statements.
There are some marvellous exhibitions in London at the moment: Impressionism at the National Gallery, John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery and the one I saw last Saturday: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern. Once I’d have been making notes for the course I used to teach on European painting from 1840 to 1920. I would have enjoyed refreshing and extending my knowledge, and acquiring teaching materials. I don’t have to do any of that now – and I do miss a little not sharing what I’ve learned with my students. On the other hand, an exhibition like this one is now sheer pleasure, and I can just drink it all in for its own sake.
Sonia Delaunay turned out to be a far more intriguing figure than I had realised. Born in Odessa in 1885, she was adopted by her wealthy uncle whose assistance was important in her early years as a painter. Colour was what fascinated her and she and her husband, Robert Delaunay, developed a theory of colour contrasts that they called simultanism, drawing on the way that colours seem to change when they are placed alongside each other. What I love about her work is that she ignored the traditional barrier between fine and applied art. Her creativity and energy overflowed into furnishing, interior decoration and, above all, textiles. When family funds dried up after the Russian revolution she opened her own shop and workshop in Paris, as well as designing for the Metz and Co., an Amsterdam department store. Her textile designs are still fresh and vibrant and haven’t dated at all. Robert died in 1941, but Sonia lived on until 1979, dying at the age of 94, producing work that showed no slackening of quality right into the 1970s. So if you want to feast your eyes on glorious colours and learn about a remarkable woman and artist, get along to Tate Modern. The exhibition is on until 8 August.
Time for another list! We had such fun last time that Moira at Clothesinbooks.com and I have got together again, this time to share our ten favourite books set on the Home Front. Mine are all set in WWII. Here goes . . .
First up is Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War (1983 – but written during the war). This is also on my list of books that make me laugh. I love it – and the second one, Henrietta Sees It Through, is just as good. Dennys was a GP’s wife in Budleigh Salterton, and these are purportedly letters written to her cousin. They are fiction, but I am sure they drew heavily on her own experience. They are charming, witty, and illustrated with her own delightful drawings – and along the way you get a very good idea of what the home front was like on the Devon coast.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices (1980). Set in the BBC where Fitzgerald worked herself during the war. Funny, touching, perfectly observed: vintage Fitzgerald. I must reread it – again.
Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means (1963). Very short, a novella really, and not a word wasted. It’s 1945 and the girls of slender means live in a London hostel, the May of Teck, with an unexploded bomb in the garden. What happens offers them a glimpse into the heart of darkness that will influence the course of their future lives. I’d love you to review this, Moira. Clothes are very important here.
Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day is her best known work set in WWII, but I would go for The Collected Stories (1980). My copy is falling apart. The section, ‘The War Years’ contains some wonderful stories, including ‘Pink May,’ ‘The Demon Lover,’ and ‘The Happy Autumn Fields.’ No-one is better at describing the sheer strangeness and dislocation of war-time London.
Anthony Powell, The Soldier’s Art (1966), the eighth volume in A Dance to the Music of Time. Nick Jenkins joins up, but is too old to see active service, so it is all set in the UK. I have included it really for the part set in the Blitz, one of the saddest and most memorable sections in the whole series.
Lissa Evans, Their Finest Hour and a Half (2010), set in a documentary film unit just after Dunkirk. I’ve already blogged about this lovely novel. http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/category/their-finest-hour-and-a-half/.
And now some crime. Laura Wilson’s An Empty Death (2009) is set in London in the Blitz and features DI Ted Stratton. The period detail is spot on. A good, gripping, meaty read. Her earlier novel, Stratton’s War, is also excellent.
Margery Allingham, Coroner’s Pidgin (1945). Albert Campion, after a secret mission abroad, stops off in his London flat and immediately gets embroiled in a murder investigation. His efforts to get home to his wife, Amanda, are constantly thwarted and when he does, well, the novel has one of my favourite endings.
Rennie Airth’s The Dead of Winter (2009), the third and last of his novels featuring (by now former police inspector) John Madden. A Polish land girl is murdered during the blackout and Madden gets involved because she was working on his farm. I don’t think Airth is as well known as he ought to be. He is a terrific writer.
And finally, a true classic: Christiana Brand’s Green for Danger (1945). In August 1944, during the V-1 Doodlebug offensive on London, a patient dies on the operating table after being injured by a flying bomb. A nurse is suspicious, but before she can say why, she dies too. Enter Inspector Cockrill. Pure Golden Age pleasure.
That’s it. I can’t wait to see what Moira’s chosen. I’ll add a link when her post is up.
Here it is: Clothesinbooks.com/Thursday List- Books About the WW2 Homefront. Fascinating . . .
One of the unexpected pleasures of becoming a crime writer has been the friendship of other crime writers. I first met Martin Edwards through the Crime Writers Association and we found we shared an interest in golden age crime fiction – though Martin knows far, far more than I do. We’ve had many absorbing conversations over the years. I’m especially pleased to welcome him to my blog today and to celebrate the publication of his new book, The Golden Age of Murder, which I know will be an enthralling read.
I asked him, What are the golden age crime novels that you first read and enjoyed?
The very first was The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie, swiftly followed by After the Funeral and then all the rest. I loved them, and in particular I loved being fooled by those ingenious final twists! Once I’d worked my way through all the Agathas I could find, I turned my attention to Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham. Anthony Berkeley and Henry Wade came later.
Is there any one writer that has been unfairly neglected and that you would
like to see back in print?
It’s rather sobering just how many writers who were once very popular have
been neglected over the past half century. I’ve very much enjoyed my role as
Series Consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics series, which has
resurrected some very interesting writers, including the splendidly named
Christopher St John Sprigg, who was also a poet and a committed Marxist
prior to his tragically early death at age 29 while fighting in the Spanish
Civil War. Of the writers who remain to be rediscovered, several names
spring to mind, but I’m going to highlight Richard Hull, one of the few
crime writers who was also a chartered accountant. He is best known for his
first book, The Murder of My Aunt, but I’ve got a very soft spot for
Name half a dozen golden age crime novels that you wish you had written
There are many more than six, but naturally I have to start with Agatha. And
Then There Were None and The ABC Murders are brilliant, in very different
ways. Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case is another classic I’d
love to have written. Under the name Francis Iles, the same chap wrote the
marvellously ironic Malice Aforethought. Henry Wade’s Lonely Magdalen is a
terrific police novel, not in the least ‘cosy.’ And even darker is Hugh
Walpole’s splendidly macabre posthumous chiller, The Killer and the Slain.
I must get hold of The Killer and the Slain. You and I have been reading golden age crime for years. Why do you think everyone else has suddenly caught on?
Like so many interesting puzzles, this one has, I think, a rather elaborate
answer. As I was growing up, Golden Age fiction seemed very unfashionable
(something that could be said of many of my enthusiasms, I must admit!) and
even when I started publishing my Harry Devlin novels, which have a very
modern urban backdrop but also have plots overtly influenced by the Golden
Age, reviewers who liked them didn’t tend to pick up on the Golden Age
connections. Even though The Devil in Disguise, for instance, is very much a
homage to Agatha. Fortunately, a few people, such as Barry Pike, Stephen
Leadbeater, Geoff Bradley and various contributors to Geoff’s superb
magazine CADS kept interest in the Golden Age alive. The Golden Age of Murder makes copious references, in end notes, to material from CADS for that reason. I’d also like to mention Doug Greene, whose Crippen & Landru press has been publishing, very attractively, a series of “Lost Classics” for years.
Things began to change within the past decade, largely thanks to the
internet, which makes so much information accessible to all, and in
particular to the blogosphere. I started blogging in 2007, and soon found
myself in contact with like-minded enthusiasts. I’d highlight Xavier
Lechard, whose blog At the Villa Rose, has always impressed me, but there
are plenty of others who have come on the scene year by year. New technology
also made a big difference as ebooks became popular, and printing minority
interest books on demand became viable. This has helped to make more of the
older books available at affordable prices, and a whole range of publishers,
small and large, have contributed to this process. Harper Collins has had
great success with its Detection Club reprints, and Bello’s list is
increasingly varied. Then the British Library’s Crime Classics really took
off – and this was a new twist in the tale, because suddenly mass market
paperbacks, not just ebooks, were selling in vast quantities. Over a quarter
of a million trade sales so far – a truly staggering figure.
Thank you, Martin. I should mention that Martin also writes a terrific blog about crime-fiction at the splendidly titled http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk.
‘One evening in 1969, [Ted Heath] the Leader of the Opposition invited five of Britain’s leading trade unionists, among them Vic Feather and Jack Jones, to dinner at his Albany flat . . . to his guests’ delight Heath was persuaded to show off his new piano, and even played a couple of short pieces. “Then Vic Feather called out, ‘Play “The Red Flag” for Jack,’ Jones recalled, ‘and the leader of the Tory party played Labour’s national anthem. It put the seal on a jolly evening.”‘
I love this story from Dominic Sandbrook’s State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974. It shows Ted Heath in a very unexpected and rather sympathetic light. I came of age in the 1970s and it is fascinating to read a social and political history of a period that one has lived through when young. 1970-1974 spanned the Heath government, one of almost unmitigated disaster: terrorist atrocities, the miner’s strike, power cuts, the three-day week. One of the more memorable episodes was the Poulson scandal: absolutely no relation, but the newspaper headlines caused mirth among my friends.
A huge amount of ground is covered in this immensely readable book: Mary Whitehouse, football hooliganism, Britain’s entry to the Common Market, glam rock, the first edition of Cosmopolitan, the publication of The Joy of Sex, decimalisation . . . At times nostalgia threatened to overwhelm me. It ends on Heath’s unexpected defeat in the election of 1974, which made very interesting reading in the run-up to the next week’s election. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.