In my last blog I wrote about discarding crime novels. Here is one that survived the cull. In fact Arnaldur Indridason is one of my favourite writers and I had been saving his latest. I won’t be recycling it via the charity shop either.
Reykjavik Nights (2015) takes us back to the very beginning of Erlendur’s career when, not yet a detective, he is a young policeman on night duty. We’re much closer in time to the defining tragedy of his life: the disappearance of his younger brother when the boys became separated from their father in a snow storm. It’s no surprise that he becomes fascinated by cases involving missing people. A woman on her way home from a night club vanishes. Around the same time a tramp known to Elendur is found drowned in a pond on waste land. Both cases have gone cold and Erlendur follows them up in his spare time, suspecting they are connected. It’s an engrossing read, beautifully paced, richly textured, with something of the haunting melancholy of those long Icelandic nights. A real treat.
Now that I am not buying books, I’m taking a good look at the books I’ve got and deciding which ones I really do want to read and which ones I’m going to get rid of. There are two categories that deserve special scrutiny: books from goody bags at conferences and books from charity shops.
It does go against the grain to discard books from goody bags. New books! Free! But what’s the point in keeping them if you don’t want to read them? Last year at Crimefest I was ruthless. I’d come by train and wasn’t going to carry books home unless I really wanted them. But there have been other times when I have just slung in a bag of books in the boot of the car. And all the books from charity shops that I’ve bought thinking I’d sample a new author. . . . decision time!
I have been sitting down with a pile of books and reading the first few chapters to decide what should go and what should stay. These are some of the things that send a book to the discard pile:
- It’s badly written. Even best-sellers can be written in clunky prose studded with clichés.
- There’s someone being horribly tortured or mutilated.
- The police officer/medical examiner/lawyer behaves foolishly or unprofessionally from the off. I especially hate it when it’s a woman.
I won’t name names. Let’s just say that the local charity shop is doing well out of me and my shelves are looking neater.
Every day the young James Grady, apprentice journalist and college senior on a fellowship in Washington, walked past a white stucco townhouse, the headquarters of the American Historical Association. He never saw anyone go in or out. One day the thought struck him, ‘what if that building were a CIA front and one day someone went out for lunch and came back to find all his colleagues slaughtered.’ It was the genesis of his thriller Six Days of the Condor (1974), which became the film, Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford. It was the beginning of a distinguished career for Grady as a script-writer, novelist and investigative journalist. It was a thrill to hear this story and others at the launch of James’s new novel, Last Days of the Condor, which picks up Condor’s story at the end of his career, sidelined to a harmless desk job, fighting paranoia, and knocking back prescription drugs by the handful for his cholesterol and his prostate. Condor is an unusual hero, and a highly entertaining one. He’s only got smarter with age and he’s not too old to fall in love.
I began by asking James what made him decide to bring the Condor back.
The rise of the new security state, the technological revolution, 9/11, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall gave us a new world that needed a classic set of eyes through which to reveal a fun, exciting story — so who better than Condor?
What’s your writing routine?
Up about 6:30, coffee and the newspapers, T’ai chi and the swimming, but at the keyboard by 10:30. Work steady until a bit before dinner.
A favourite bookshop?
Daunts in London is great, and in the U.S., I love D.C.’s Politics an Prose. Both are about readers and books.
What single thing would make your writing life easier?
If I could nap, my productivity would soar.
What are you working on at present?
Right now I am working on a film script about a young woman in modern Texas.
Thank you, James.
Last Days of the Condor is published by No Exit Press, who have also reissued Six Days of the Condor. You can find out more here: http://bit.ly/1ODMygt.
I did buy a book this week, but let me explain. I’ve decided that there has to be one exception to my non-book-buying rule and it’s this: I really can’t go to a book launch and not buy a book. It just wouldn’t feel right. And to turn down an invitation to a book launch because I’m not buying books would be going too far. And my dear writer friend Sue Hepworth (see her blog at Suehepworth.com), who has been keeping an eye on me, says it’s Ok. She’s given me permission.
The occasion this week was the launch of James Brady’s Last Days of the Condor, a follow-up to his novel, Six Days of the Condor (filmed as the splendid Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford). I’ll be blogging next week about James and the new book.
Meanwhile, more thoughts on not buying books. The saving of time and mental energy – not to mention money – is considerable. It has saved me from making decisions. I don’t have to loiter in bookshops, my finger doesn’t hover over the one-click button. I make a note of something I want to read and then I pass on. In theory. I did linger over Daniel Levitin’s The Organised Mind in Hatchard’s on St Pancras Station. I really wanted that book. But it is all about deferred gratification and I walked out without it. I will read it, but not yet.
Charity shops are the worst from every point of view. I might see something that is out of print and that I have wanted for ages. And they are so cheap. Best not to look, even though I am going in to donate bags of books. Yes, as well as not buying books, I am actually getting rid of some. Many are ones I bought from charity shops on a whim. Now I am reading the first few chapters and if it doesn’t grab me, it goes in the bag for the charity shop.
It’s three weeks now.
I always enjoy writing a story to a brief and ‘The Mystery of the Missing Child’ was no exception. I’d been thinking for a while that I’d like to try my hand at a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. So when Maxim Jakubowski put out a call for stories featuring Holmes’s arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, ‘the Napoleon of crime,’ I jumped at the opportunity. It was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had writing and I was thrilled when Maxim decided to include my story in The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty.
The book is out this week: thirty-seven stories by writers including Martin Edwards, Kate Ellis, L. C. Tyler and many others. I’m looking forward to reading them. At £9.99 it is great value and would make the perfect present for lovers of Sherlock Holmes – and isn’t that pretty much everyone?
I’ll come on to how I did that in a minute. It’s two weeks now since I decided to have a three month moratorium on book-buying. It hasn’t been easy and yesterday I would have probably succumbed if it hadn’t been for the thought of having to own up to the lapse on this blog. I was in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly and I was tempted by Silent Night: Christmas Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards. I’ve got his other two Golden Age anthologies, Resorting to Murder and Capital Crimes and would have dearly loved to have this one too. As it is, I will put it on my Christmas list. And this means I will just have to wait. And that, I realise, is something I am not used to doing, at least not as far as books are concerned.
This has been a huge change in book-buying over the last few years. Last week I finished reading Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning on my e-reader and my immediate response was to download the next one that she’d written, The Fashion in Shrouds. Just as well I didn’t, as quite apart from my pledge, I discovered the book tucked away behind something else on my shelves. Yes, it’s embarrassing: I don’t even know what I’ve got. So I also intend to sort out my books before I buy any more.
So how did I buy a book by accident? Well, every now and then I book a ticket for a matinee at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and go over to Scarborough for the day on the train. I sponsored a seat there in memory of my mother, so it is something of a sentimental journey. I saw a revival of the Alan Ayckbourn play, Confusions, directed by the man himself. Naturally, I bought a programme. I was delighted to find that as well as the usual details of the cast and so on, it contained the entire text of the play – what a brilliant idea – and at only £3.50 was a wonderful bargain. I was able to enjoy the best bits of the play all over again on the way home. It was several days later that it occurred to me that this might count as buying a book. Oh well . . .
‘A couple I’ll call Penny and Jeter come out to my bungalow in Rockaway and proceed to devour the cheries I’ve put out in a bowl on the table. Jeter says, “Don’t put a bowl of cherries in front of Penny and I.” I am not about to snatch the cherries away unless Jeter learns to say ’in front of Penny and me’ . . . but I do register unease at his locution, and I might think twice about buying cherries next time.’
I never expected a book about punctuation to make me laugh out loud, but that’s what Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen did.
Norris was a copy editor at the New Yorker for thirty years and her book is a mixture of memoir and grammar manual. I enjoyed her quest to find out who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick, her visit to the Pencil Sharpener Museum, and found myself taking sides in the serial comma debate.
A whole chapter is devoted to that endangered species, the apostrophe. Norris is an incisive and witty writer. She ends a long discussion of why there isn’t an apostophe in Kelleys Island, by remarking ‘it isn’t as if there weren’t legions of stray apostrophes camping out on the island. In front of a store . . . is a reader board with the letters arranged to say “UNC’L DIK’S.” There are so many things wrong with “UNC’L DIK’S.” that I don’t know where to begin, but at least the apostophe at the end is right.’ She guesses that Uncle Dick bought a set ‘with only one of each letter, so he decided to distribute the C and K equally between the elements of his name. He may have dropped the E in the lake, but he made up for it with an extra apostrophe.’
Norris comments: ‘When I finally made it to the copydesk, it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on”. I found myself doing this while I was reading her book. And did I spot any typos? Only one. I’d love to know if she did her own proof-reading.
It’s an attractive little book, beautifully produced, as is only fitting. I shall have to have my own copy, once I’m allowed to buy books again. (I got this one out of the London Library).
Along with my good blogfriend Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk I am posting my list of ten novels with theatrical settings. Theatres are closed communities of people engaged in a very stressful profession and so make wonderful settings – for crime novels in particular. Actors are good at lying. Deceiving people is what they do for living. And theatres can be sinister places, especially when the performance is over. Here is my choice:
Simon Brett, Murder Unprompted (1982) I could have chosen almost any one of the Charles Paris mysteries. This is one I happened to have on the shelf. They are all acutely observed and very funny. What an old reprobate Charles is, with his fondness for Bell’s whisky and his roving eye, yet his heart is the right place and he never quite loses the reader’s sympathy. In Murder Unprompted it seems he might at last hit the big time when he is the second lead in a play that transfers to the West End. Then the star is shot on stage . . .
Helen McCloy, Cue for Murder(1942). At the end of Act I of a revival of Fedora, a rare hoary old melodrama, it transpires that the corpse on stage really is a corpse and only the one of the three actors on stage could have been the killer. It’s up to McCloy’s psychiatrist sleuth Basil Willing to unravel the mystery. The theatrical setting is brilliantly evoked.
Gwendoline Butler, A Dark Coffin (1995). I suspect that Butler, who died in 2013, is not much read now and if so that’s a pity. She combined crime and the macabre in a quite original way. The series featuring John Coffin began in the late 1950s. By the time she reached A Dark Coffin he is a very senior policeman happily married at last to Stella Pinero, an actress in whose theatre two people are found stabbed to death in a box at the end of the performance. Butler wrote shortish novels, not a word wasted and all the better for that: very suspenseful, very good.
Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil (2009). Charles Carter is a stage magician who is given his stage name “Carter the Great” by Houdini.The novel begins in 1923 with the most daring performance of Carter’s life. Two hours later US President Harding is dead and Carter flees the country, pursued by the Secret Service. This is one of those long densely written novels that you don’t want to end. Lots of fascinating stuff about the art of the stage magician. A great read.
Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (1992). The first in her Venetian series, which have given me a lot of pleasure over the years. The audience are waiting for the third act of La Traviata to begin, when the artistic director appears between the curtains to ask ‘Is there a doctor in the audience?’ But Maestra Wellauer, poisoned by cyanide in his coffee, is beyond medical help. When Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates he finds that the man had plenty of enemies. Combines one of my favourite cities with one of my favourite settings.
Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s (1982). Freddie’s is a stage school for children and Freddie herself is an institution and something of a monster: ‘she knew she was one of those few people in every walk of life, whom society has mysteriously decided to support at all costs.’ It’s set against a production of Shakespeare’s King John. Fitzgerald herself described her subject as ‘The courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it.’ It is both funny and profound.
Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003). I am a fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series. This was the first and it begins with an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes Unit. John May mourns the death of his old friend Arthur Bryant. It seems to have something to do with their very first case in 1940 during the Blitz. It began when a dancer is found dead – and minus her feet – in the Palace Theatre, which turns out to be a very sinister place indeed.
Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song (2009) is set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside and is another crime novel that moves between the past and present. I love all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the on-the-edge-of your-seat suspense.
Ngaio Marsh, Opening Night (1951). Marsh is the doyenne of the theatrical mystery. She was made a dame for her contribution to the theatre in New Zealand. This is an usual crime novel in that the murder and the arrival of Alleyn don’t take place until well over half-way through. It’s a decent mystery, but the main appeal is the superbly realised theatrical setting.
Margery Allingham, Dancers in Mourning (1937). Reading this, I realised all over again what an excellent writer she is, so good at the way people think and behave. Chloe Pye, a dancer almost over the hill, has died. Her sister-in-law says: ‘ “. . . she was a good girl, I’m sure – at least her family always thought so, and now that time to be charitable if ever, when the poor soul’s lying dead.” This perfunctory dismissal . . . had the ruthlessness of a pronouncement of Time itself, and the more sensitive of them shivered a little. Arch, inviting Chloe Pye was dead indeed. It was like the drawer closing on a last year’s hat.’ Quite brilliant. The setting is a production of a musical comedy and Campion falls in love with the wife of the chief suspect.
That’s it. It is always such a treat getting together with Moira in this way – and I have had a lovely time rereading some old favourites. Do over to Moira’s blog at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk and see what she has chosen.