I have just read Agatha Christie’s autobiography. Two things surprised me. One was that she couldn’t remember anything about writing Peril at End House – one of her most ingenious and highly regarded novels. The other was that she was favourably inclined towards the death penalty. I wouldn’t have guessed that from her novels.
She doesn’t say a great deal about writing, but what she does say is worth reading, and I loved this: ‘There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks , or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book . . . . You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off . . . you say “It’s awful, Max, do you know I have quite forgotten how to write – I simply can’t do it. I shall never write another book.”” She did, of course: there are 84 in all!
The autobiography is a fascinating social document. Even between the wars, any middle-class household had one servant at the very least as well as a maid servant to look after the children. It is clear that Agatha scarcely expected to look after her own daughter at all – and why would she when she herself had been brought up by a nannie?
I enjoyed the autobiography very much. There was something endearing about the writer’s personality – modest, shy to the point of self-effacement. Even this global best-seller had her first novel turned down several times. It took two years for John Lane to make her an offer and even then he took advantage of her inexperience with a contract that tied her into a poor deal for five books. Some things never change . . .
Today my last post as featured author of the month is up on the Crime Readers’ Association website. It’s been fun. This week I’m writing about the great Fenland flood of 1947 and how it inspired my novel, Footfall. There’s lots more to see on the website. Do go over and take a look: http://www.thecra.co.uk/coming-on-to-rain-christine-poulson/
‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges. Me, too. When I used to work in Cambridge University Library I used to have a fantasy about hiding until everyone had gone home and the library was closed and spending the night there. It seemed to me that all the place lacked was a bed. If I’d only had that, I could have stayed there for weeks, never needing to leave. So when I was researching an article about independent libraries and came across Gladstone’s Library (formerly St. Deinol’s) and discovered that you could actually stay there, I decided I had to visit. It has taken me a while, and I’ve only been for lunch, but yesterday I finally made it.
I drove over to leave some Crime Writers’ Association papers for our archive, which is being housed and catalogued by the library, and to have a very enjoyable lunch with the Director of Collections, Louisa Yates, and Martin Edwards, the CWA’s archivist. The library didn’t disappoint: it is a wonderful Victorian Gothic extravaganza. The collection is mainly related to Theology and Victorian Studies but anyone can go and stay. It makes a great writers’ retreat and it has a very active programme of events, including a book festival, Gladfest, in September. There’s a lovely garden and the bedrooms look great. Now that I’ve managed to get there, I am sure I’ll go again – and next time I’ll take my toothbrush.
Find out more here: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/
Another post that I have written for the Crime Readers’ Association web-site as featured author of the month: http://www.thecra.co.uk/lady-into-fox-by-christine-poulson. It’s about what it’s like making the shift from being an academic to writing crime fiction – and what a great source of material universities and colleges are.
I love Italy. The art, the architecture, the landscape, the food, the sun, the sea, and if you have young children, it’s a wonderful place to go on holiday. It is not just the pasta and the ice cream – though those help – it’s that Italians love children and they are never seen as a nuisance. ‘Bella . . .’ an old lady once crooned, as she passed our small daughter in the street. And yet, John Hooper’s marvellous book, The Italians, confirmed me in my suspicions that though I love visiting Italy, I wouldn’t like to live and work there.
The Italians is affectionate – but doesn’t pull any punches. As far as career advancement goes in Italy, it really is very often who you know, not what you know. One survey revealed that 39 percent of those interviewed had got their job through contacts of some kind. Graft and corruption of various kinds are rife, never more so than under the governments of Silvio Berlusconi, whose strangehold on the media has been pernicious. Hooper is a journalist, was a correspondent for The Economist and knows what he is talking about. He is enlightening so many things, including the importance that Italians place on appearances (bella figura), on the Catholic Church and the family, on the idealisation of motherhood and the attachment of Italian men to their mothers. (There is not only a word meaning ‘mother’s boy’, but Italian may be unique in having a word for the phenomenon: mammismo). The book is all solidly underpinned by research and enlivened by anecdotes from Hooper’s own extensive experience. I very much enjoyed it and finished it feeling that I understood much more about Italy and the Italians.
Every Friday in June I am blogging on the Crime Readers’ Association web-site. Today I’m writing about whether I base my characters on real people. To find out, go to http://www.thecra.co.uk/christine-poulson-the-pig-and-the-sausage/
Time for another list! My good blogfriend, Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/and I are sharing our choice of eight books set in churches or cathedrals. I don’t claim that mine are the best books, but they are all books I’ve loved and read more than once.
My first would have to be Trollope’s Barsetshire novels: all six, beginning with The Warden (1855) and ending with The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire (1867). By the time you get to the end, you know all the characters so well: the flawed but loveable archdeacon, the gentle and unworldly Reverend Harding, the wonderfully insufferable Mrs Proudie. I love Trollope for his sympathetic understanding of human nature.
Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (1958). One of her very best, I think. The church is the Anglo-Catholic church, St Luke’s, in north London. It does play an important role in the novel, though this is really a sparkling comedy of errors rather than any sort of depiction of church life. It begins with Wilmet, the rather naive protagonist, hearing a phone ringing in the middle of a service (long before mobile phones)and ends with the induction of a new vicar at another church. It’s funny and touching. I especially like the jumble sale.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, The Humbler Creation (1959). I don’t think she is read much these days, and that’s a shame, because she was a very good writer. This also features a London church in the 1950s, but the tone is altogether more sombre, perhaps even a little Chekhovian. Maurice is the vicar of St Lawrence’s and is married to the idle and narcissistic Libby. With them live Libby’s ailing mother and Libby’s widowed sister Kate (who runs the household) and her two sons. Maurice is resigned to the situation until Alice Imber moves into the neighbourhood . . .
Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders (1946). Churches make very good settings for crime novels. They are closed communities, there’s the contrast between godliness and human frailty, and ideas about sin and judgement are ready to hand. Murder and mayhem of course follow the redoubtable Gervase Fen’s arrival at the clergy house of Tolnbridge Cathedral.Great stuff. I must read it again and soon.
Dorothy L Sawyers, The Nine Tailors (1934). A classic. Fenchurch St Paul is a magnificent East Anglian wool church. The delightful Reverend Venables is its vicar, his wife Agnes the power behind the throne. Lord Peter Wimsey fetches up there when his car runs into a ditch on a snowy New Year’s Eve. The church is almost a character in its own right and plays a part in a mysterious death in ways I won’t describe just in any case there is anyone who hasn’t read it.
Michael Gilbert, Close Quarters (1947) and The Black Seraphim (1983). I’m sneaking two crime novels in here, but with some excuse as these are set in the same cathedral close. Close Quarters is very much in the Golden Age mode. It even contains a map and a crossword puzzle. The setting is Melchester Cathedral, which also figures in The Black Seraphim thirty-six years later. Dark deeds in the cloisters: both are hugely enjoyable reads.
J. Meade Faulkner, The Nebuly Coat (1903). A young architect goes to the remote town of Cullerne to supervise restoration work on Cullerne Minster. There is a mystery surrounding the claim to the title of Lord Blandamer, whose coat of arms in the Minster’s great transept window is the nebula coat of the title. The story comes to a most tremendous climax. I’ve read this twice, the second time while staying in the cathedral close at Salisbury: a perfect combination of book and place.
J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980). It’s 1920 and a shell-shocked young man arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to uncover and restore a wall painting in the local church. A marvellous novella that I have already reviewed here: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/category/a-month-in-the-country/
So that’s it. I can’t wait to see what Moira has chosen – and here it is: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/. Do please add your own suggestions to our comments sections.
The CRA website was set up by the Crime Writers Association. It’s free to subscribe and is full of information about crime writers, new novels, and there are often giveaways, too. I’m delighted that I’ve been asked to be the featured author for June. This involves writing four blog posts and the first one – on the subject of where authors get their ideas – is on the web-site today. Do go over and take a look: http://www.thecra.co.uk/a-good-occupation/.
Or, to give it its full title, The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, by Martin Edwards. I bought it at Crimefest and starting reading it right away. I finished it in four days even though it is 435 pages long and the days at the convention were packed. It is an enthralling read. There are several strands to the book, skilfully woven together to produce a compelling narrative. The Detection Club, founded around 1930, forms the spine, along with the novels its members wrote, their relationships with each other, and the real life crimes that inspired them. Some would say that the judicial hanging of Edith Thompson after her conviction for being an accessory to the murder of her husband was itself a crime and we are not spared the details, rightly, I think. Certainly it troubled some members of the club and inspired some memorable fiction, such as E. M. Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs and F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peep-Show.
Agatha Christie comes across as a very sympathetic figure and Dorothy L Sawyers more so than I’d expected. This account of her love for the illegitimate son she felt she could not acknowledge and the failure of her marriage makes sad reading. The members of the Detection Club had their share of human weaknesses. Though none – so far as we know – were actual murderers, unhappy marriages and divorce were common. Authors little read these days – Henry Wade, R. Austin Freeman, M. and G.D.H. Coles and many others – are brought vividly to life. Perhaps the most intriguing figure is Anthony Berkeley who wrote under various names including Francis Iles. Martin claims that ‘the psychological puzzle of the relationship between Berkeley and E. M. Delafield is the great untold story of the Golden Age’ and he makes good on his claim.
Above all it is the voice of the narrator, witty, judicious, humane in his judgements, that makes this book such a pleasure to read. I loved every word, and I confidently predict that in addition to the excellent reviews it has so far garnered (including Mark Lawson’s in the Guardian), that we will be seeing it short-listed for various awards. Bravo!