Billy Paul has died and hearing him singing ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ on the radio sent me straight back to 1972, when the song was everywhere. The exams were over and there were long hot summer days when I seemed to have all the time in the world to hang out with my friends, to read, and to daydream. I can see my young self with long hair and dressed in the not very flattering style of the day, a midi skirt, perhaps, or flared trousers.
In truth, ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ is not a great song, but it was a great performance by Billy Paul. And listening to it now there is an added piquancy. I kept my maiden name when I married, so not everyone knows that these days, as well as being Christine Poulson, I am also, yes, Mrs Jones.
Last weekend North Lees Hall, near Hathersage in Derbyshire, was open to the public. The hall, a late Elizabethan tower house, is thought to be the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë visited it several times when she was staying with her friend Ellen Nussey. It resembles the fictional Thornfield in having a battlemented façade, a view from the roof and a similar setting in the landscape. When Charlotte visited it there was an Apostle’s Cabinet which she describes in Jane Eyre. There was actually an Eyre family who lived at North Lees at the time and a legend of a mad woman who died her in a fire. So the connection is pretty secure and of course I had to visit it.
North Lees is a grand house in miniature. It’s very much smaller than Thornfield Hall could have been. You certainly couldn’t conceal a mad woman here. But the atmosphere and the setting were just right.
A local amateur dramatics group, the Hathersage Players, will be performing an adaptation of Jane Eyre this summer and the cast were there in character. So that is how I met Mr Rochester on the roof of North Lees Hall (glimpsed through the open door).
Downstairs I ran into Jane Eyre and I’m looking forward to seeing them both in the outdoor performance to be staged at North Lees Hall in July.
These splendid photos were taken by my husband.
More blog fun with Moira over at ClothesinBooks.com. We’ve decided to blog about the same book, one selected by Moira this time. Actually she gave me a shortlist of four from which I chose Tony and Susan (1993) by Austin Wright. The premise sounded intriguing: ‘Many years after their divorce, Susan Morrow receives a strange gift from her ex-husband, a manuscript that tells the story of a terrible crime: an ambush on the highway, a secluded cabin in the woods; a thrilling chiller of death and corruption. How could such a harrowing story be told by the man she once loved? And why, after so long, has he sent her such a disturbing and personal message.’
And at first it was intriguing. The novel that Edward, Susan’s ex-husband, has written is called Nocturnal Animals and it gets off to a gripping start. Tony is a mild-mannered maths lecturer and is driving overnight with his wife and teenage daughter from Ohio to their holiday house in Maine. They are ambushed by three men and Tony fails to prevent them from kidnapping his wife and daughter, with terrible consequences. These early chapters are compelling and Tony’s thought processes, the way in which he circles round and round what might be happening to his family, are brilliantly described. They find a parallel in Susan’s own thought processes as we realise through her part of the narration that she too has been defending herself from something she doesn’t want to know. On the surface all seems well: her husband is a successful heart surgeon and she is devoted to their three children. But as Susan reads the novel over three nights, she muses on her first marriage to Edward and her present one to Arnold and comes to some unsettling conclusions.
The structure of the novel alternates between chapters of the novel and Susan’s reflections both on the novel and her own life, so we are constantly being brought up against the fact that Edward’s novel is just that: a novel. But of course Susan’s part is fiction too. This is a very postmodern kind of novel. I spotted a number of literary references, echoes of Robert Frost and Flannery O’Connor – even Jane Austen – and I bet there were more. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Austin Wright taught English at the University of Cincinnati – it is an academic kind of crime novel.
So was it worth reading? Yes, it was a clever idea, there were some stunning passages of writing and it gripped me at the beginning. Did I like it? Not really. I began to lose interest in the novel within the novel as it got increasingly melodramatic and skipped ahead to find out what was going to happen – and that’s never a good sign. I didn’t much like either Susan or Edward – or Tony come to that. There was a coldness at the heart of it. I’m not sorry I read it, but I won’t want to read it again.
Over to you, Moira: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk. I’m longing to know what you made of it.
Later: and now I do know and it is fascinating to find that Moira and I are so similar in our reactions to this novel.
One of the greatest pleasure of my life as a crime-writer has been my membership of the Crimer Writers’ Association. I have made some wonderful friends whose support over the years has meant a great deal and I have visited some lovely places for the CWA annual conference, which is always held outside London. Last week-end it was Norwich, a beautiful medieval city. I’ve written about the conference for the CWA newletter. Here’s an extract:
‘According to Charles Dickens, Norwich was a good place to see a hanging. Executions were big business in the nineteenth century with crowds of 20,000 or 30,000 converging on the city to enjoy the spectacle of notorious criminals being hanged. But when fifty or so crime writers, spouses, and friends converged on the city on 8th April for the CWA conference, they had more civilised pursuits in mind.
Nevertheless a macabre strand did run through the week-end. We stayed in Tombland at the Maids Head Hotel close to the Cathedral. The Maids Head was a lovely welcoming place, with claims to be the oldest hotel in Britain. There was a choice of activities on the Friday evening with options including a walking tour of Norwich and ‘A Walk on the Dark Side.’ I chose the walking tour and if the other walk was darker than ours, it must have been grim indeed. Our very capable city guide told us stories of cannibalism among plague victims, bodies being buried in iron coffins to foil grave-robbers, and horrible murders, one of which in 1851 resulted in body parts being scattered through Norwich. Various ghosts are reputed to roam the city, including one of a landlord who obligingly does the washing-up in the pub where he was murdered.
Sadly, the next day it was pouring with rain, so a tour of the castle was a more attractive prospect than a tour in an open top bus (though six intrepid souls opted for that). Our guide at the castle took us through the history of crime and punishment in Norwich. We learned that in medieval times the prison was used only to hold people awaiting trial, but about one in four succumbed to prison-fever or some other disease before they made it that far. By the nineteenth century the prison included everything for the administration of justice including a condemned cell. It’s now a gent’s loo and our guide admitted that he doesn’t feel altogether easy there when the museum is closed for the night. On a lighter note the Castle Museum contains the world’s largest collection of teapots, including some wonderful eighteenth century cream ware and I slipped away to look at some of it. Later I wandered around an almost empty cathedral and heard the choir practising.
Saturday evening saw the Gala dinner with wine – and lots of it – generously supplied by our accountants. This may be why I am a little hazy about the details of ex-coroner William Armstrong’s excellent after-dinner speech. However I do recall that it contained some splendid jokes, including one about the membership of the CWA being broken down by age and sex.
All too soon it was Sunday morning and the conference was drawing to a close. As always, old friendships had been renewed and new friends had been made.
Next year it’ll be Edinburgh.’
I’m currently reading a very enjoyable series, Ellie Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books. I read the first, The Crossing Places, a few years ago and it didn’t really take, but after the series was recommended by my friend Moira over at http://Clothesinbooks,com, I tried again with A Room Full of Bones and this time it did. I am now reading The Janus Stone and I’ve downloaded another one for when that’s finished. It’s a pleasure to come across a new series and know that there is a lot more good reading ahead.
At the same time I am working on the second in a series myself, and it’s got me thinking about what makes a successful series. The attraction for the reader is that cosy sense of catching up with people who have become friends. You know roughly what to expect. It’ll be the same but different. And that’s a very comforting feeling at the end of a long day when you’re settling down to read in bed. It can be very enjoyable for the writer too. You know your characters inside out and have got fond of them. Over a long series characters have time to develop. Indeed they must develop, because one of the dangers of a series is that it can get repetitious and run out of steam. The detective’s troubled love-life can get tedious and you risk the reader thinking ‘why doesn’t the guy just get a grip?’ Sometimes the writer gets fed-up before the readers, as Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot.
Is there a case for limiting the number in a series as Swedish crime novelists, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did – and Henning Mankell after them? In both cases the writers decided that there were only ever going to be ten. Nicholas Freeling may have gone too far in bumping off his detective Van Der Valk half-way through a novel, shocking and dismaying many readers (Trollope did something similar in The Last Chronicle of Barset). Another approach is to keep things fresh by starting another series to run parallel with the first, as Ellie Griffiths has done with The Zig-Zag Girl. Or simply to switch to a second series, as Martin Edwards has done so successfully with his Lake District mysteries.
I’m not going to name those writers who stayed too long at the party (it must be a temptation) and we’ll probably have different views about who they are. But I will list just a very few of my favourite series. They include Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels (10), Magdalene Nabb’s Marshall Guarnaccia books set in Florence (14), Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels (8). And then there’s Maigret. Simenon breaks all the rules. There are dozens of Maigret novels, but I can never feel there are too many.