Tsundoku means ‘leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up with other unread books.’ I don’t know how I have done without this word. I discovered it in Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from around the World by Ella Frances Sanders. I got this book for Christmas and there are other gems in it. Iktsuarpok (illustrated in the cover of the book) is an Inuit word meaning ‘the act of repeatedly going outside to check if some (anyone) is coming.’ Goya is an Urdu word meaning ‘a transporting suspension of disbelief – an “as-if” that feels like reality – such as in good storytelling.’
That is what I shall be aiming for in 2016. For my readers I wish all that you wish for yourself and many happy hours of reading.
My book-buying moratorium has only five days to go. It’s my birthday this week and that has made the wait easier. My daughter gave me Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards, which I had been longing for. And what a splendid collection it is, well worth the wait. Of course there are a few old favourites: Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbunkle,’ Chesterton’s ‘The Flying Stars’, but there are also stories that have never been reprinted since they first appeared. I haven’t read them all yet, but so far there is not a single dud. Edgar Wallace’s ‘Stuffing,’ for example, is plotted with a deftness worthy of O. Henry.
I wasn’t surprised to receive Silent Nights – in fact, I’d have been surprised not to get it. But the book that my husband gave me, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Katherine Harkup, is an unexpected treat. Harkup is herself a chemist and, even just flicking through the book, I can see that she knows what she is talking about. Dame Agatha was of course keen on poison as a means of committing murder and also knew her onions (or daffodil bulbs) since she qualified as a dispenser during WWI. The book examines fourteen of the poisons that Christie used in her novels and some of the real-life cases that might have inspired her. It looks fascinating.
Visiting Cambridge on Friday to do some research for a story, I realise that I should have made an further exemption from my book-buying moratorium: because I can’t be in Cambridge without going to Heffers Bookshop – and I can’t go to Heffers without buying a book. It is one of my favourite book shops, because it has the best crime fiction department anywhere, in my view, and a great fiction buyer in Richard Reynolds. Above all, it has a special place in my heart, because it is the only book shop that, thanks to Richard, has always stocked my novels – actually has them on the shelf – ever since my first one came out in 2002.
So I always ask Richard what he’s enjoyed lately and I always buy a book. Well, several usually, to be honest, but this time I resisted 3 for 2 offers and bought just one, carefully chosen book. It was Lesley Thomson’s The Detective’s Secret and I picked it because I met someone at a party, who recommended her novels. So you see: nothing is more effective than word-of-mouth.
I now have less than two weeks to go on the moratorium, and I’ll report more fully at the end. But I already know it has made me more discriminating and that thinking about whether I really do want a particular book makes me see them as the precious objects that they are.
PS. Out with my husband at a Christmas fair, we came across a second-hand book stall and he asked me if there was anything I fancied. ‘I’m still on my moratorium,’ I said rather sadly. ‘Yes, but I’m not,’ he replied.
After I’d seen the splendid Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs at the British Museum, I went to the London Library and got out Agatha Christie’s Come Tell Me How You Live. She published it in 1945 under her married name of Agatha Christie Mallowan, and it is an account of the trips to the Syria that she undertook with her archeologist husband before the war. It is in the tradition of light-hearted travel writing that goes back to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She doesn’t at all mind telling funny stories at her own expense – but all the same, what a trooper she was, putting up with food-poisoning, primitive living conditions and at one point, a near riot among the workmen. Her love of Syria, the land and the people, come over very strongly. I was amused by her description of her husband’s ability to ignore everything except his work (I too am married to an academic – and I’ve been one myself).
It was strange reading about Aleppo and Raqqa, knowing what is happening there now. There is a terrible irony in the epilogue where she explains that she wrote her memoir as an escape from war-time London: ‘for it is good to remember . . . that at this very minute my little hill of marigolds is in bloom, and old men with white beards trudging behind their donkeys may not even know there is a war. “It does not touch us here . . . “
Reading Come Tell Me How You Live put me in the mood to read Christie’s Death Comes as the End (also 1945) set in Ancient Egypt. The copy I read was one of my mother’s collection of Christie novels and has the splendid Tom Adams cover. It was engrossing and I am guessing that the fascinating historical detail is accurate; it’s certainly convincing. But I was disappointed by the solution to the mystery which I guessed, because it involved a device she’d used in at least one other novel. I’d like to know how other Christie fans rate it.
I’ve been enjoying the excellent 3rd series of The Bridge, though I do miss Martin, who is now banged up in prison. However, original though the series is, it is not quite a cliché-free zone. Here’s one I spotted: someone lets themselves into their car and you know, just know, that a sinister figure is going to rise up behind them and strangle them. Plausible perhaps at night, but in broad daylight would someone really not notice that there was a person crouching in the back seat of their car?
2. This is from my great friend Sue (suehepworth.com). In the US Law and Order the police show up to interview a witness at their place of work. Do they give the police their full attention? No: directors don’t like talking heads, so the witness goes on loading their van, polishing glasses or whatever. If they are at home, they will be folding the laundry.
3. Someone – probably a woman – is running through woods. There is wobbly, hand-held camera-work and a soundtrack of crashing through undergrowth and gasping for breath. Cut! The next scene will be the police being called out to a body.
4. Someone’s alone in the house and the door bell rings. They answer the door. Their face lights up: ‘oh, it’s you!’ Cut! The next time we see them they are dead.