I am working my way through the entire box set of Inspector Morse DVDs, all thirty-three episodes, rationing myself strictly to one an evening. And how well they still stand up: well-plotted, well-scripted, excellent direction and photography, the glorious setting of Oxford, and above all the superb double act of the brilliant John Thaw with Kevin Whately as his sidekick. The supporting cast is excellent, too. Every episode is stuffed with familiar names – there’s even John Gielgud in one. The whole thing is such a class act. There is also the fun of spotting Colin Dexter appearing, Hitchcock-like, in every episode.
It is hard to believe that the the first one aired in 1987. These were the days before mobile phones and the internet made the work of the police – and the crime-writer – more complicated, and yet on the whole they have not dated very much. The most startling aspect is the women’s clothes: shoulder pads so enormous that they almost have to turn sideways to go through doorways. Did I once dress like that? I fear I must have, but memory has drawn a merciful veil over what I actually did wear. I was reminded of another way in which life has improved by an episode in which Morse is at a college dinner. At the end of it the woman sitting next to him lits up a cigarette while she is still sitting at the table: unthinkable these days! It is the little things that make you realise that, yes, this was thirty-two years ago.
PS Have just heard the sad news that Barrington Pheloung, who wrote the atmospheric score, has died.
It’s a while since I had a guest on the blog and it’s lovely to be joined today by my friend, Sue Hepworth. Sue’s new book EVEN WHEN THEY KNOW YOU was published in May. It’s full of acutely observed detail, thoughtful, touching, funny and poignant. It’s been described by one reader on Amazon as “Celebrating friendship, nature, love and lust for the over 50s.”
I asked Sue to tell us :
What is the book about?
On the face of it, it’s about a woman grieving over the death of her best friend and trying to find solace through her other friends, a relationship with a man she meets, and through paying close attention to nature and the changing seasons. But there are other themes, one of which is an exploration of how much of our history we need to share with others with whom we have meaningful relationships.
How much of the book is based on your own experience?
The book is set on and around the Monsal Trail in the Derbyshire Peak District, and the Trail is just half a mile from my home. Just like Jane, the main character, I walk or cycle on the Trail several times a week, and I notice the changes in the trees and vegetation as the seasons turn. The other crossover with my own life is that my closest friend died four years ago, and I have mined my experience of that to use in the book.
What is your comfort reading?
If I’m very upset I turn to poetry, often to Lifesaving Poems, published by Bloodaxe. When I have the winter blues I read The Secret Garden, or The Enchanted April. When I’m ill I read 84 Charing Cross Road or Mary Wesley’s Part of the Furniture. But the book that lives on my bedtime table and provides comfort in every circumstance is Garrison Keillor’s Leaving Home. This is quite a list, isn’t it? I find the world a dark and desperate place right now.
What is the book you first remember reading on your own?
A picture book called Tell Me A Story.
And the first ‘chapter’ book I read was an Enid Blyton Secret Seven book.
What single thing would improve your writing life?
For my retired husband to be out of the house from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Describe the room where you write.
The room is filled with light. There is a window facing north over fields and a limestone edge beyond, and a south facing window, which looks over the front garden and then to pastures. The walls are painted pale turquoise and the wall above my desk is filled with paintings and prints of Wensleydale. Behind me are the bookshelves. There are photographs of my family everywhere. My husband makes stained glass, and a beautiful panel he made for me rests against the back window. My desk is usually littered with papers, and is only tidy when I have just finished writing a book.
Sue writes an entertaining blog at Suehepworth.com. Do check it out.
Last September I posted a photo of my desk all clean and tidy in preparation for beginning to write a novel. Well, I’ve done it and this is a photo of my desk last week just after I sent off the final draft to my editor. After I’d pressed send, I danced around the house. Note writer’s companion cat asleep on the shelf on the left and celebratory glass of wine in the centre. I thought of my husband and wished he were here. It’s the first novel that I have written without him at my back. Still, it was a sweet moment and I raised a glass for us both.
Not long to go now to the annual British Library event, Bodies from the Library, and I am busy putting together my talk, Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy. She is a fine writer who has been unjustly neglected. I intend to put that right. If she is known at all it is for Through a Glass, Darkly – a novel I find chilling even on rereading – but she was far from being a one-novel wonder. I’ll be looking at the reasons why she sank out of sight so completely and saying why I think she is well worth reviving.
I’ve also been rereading with great enjoyment the novels and short stories of Cyril Hare in preparation for the session in which Martin Edwards and I will discussing him: Cyril Hare: Master of the English Murder. He is another writer who is not as well known as he deserves to be.
There will also be sessions on John Dickson Carr, E. C. R. Lorac, and much much more, including the chance to mingle with fans of golden age crime fiction. For details of what I am sure will be a splendid day, go to https://bodiesfromthelibrary.com
It’s an exciting moment when your editor sends you the cover design for your new novel. It makes the whole enterprise seem so much more real. And I am delighted by what the designer has come up: truly and fittingly sinister, I feel. An Air That Kills is the third in the series and this cover continues the colour scheme and general design of the other two. I am lucky to have such striking covers.
Can a cover persuade someone to buy a book? Not sure, but at the very least it can grab the book-buyer’s attention. And conversely a cover can put a reader off: that has certainly happened to me.
Does this mean I have actually finished writing the novel? Well, no, I still pondering the last few chapters as well as revising the earlier ones. But there’s nothing like seeing the cover (and being given a publication date: 22 November) to light a fire under a writer …
Long ago when I was doing an English degree I chose an option on American Literature that involved reading a novel every week for a seminar. One week it was Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It is a long novel – around 600 pages of densely written prose – and though I tried very hard, I didn’t quite make it to the end and came in fifty pages short. In those days, I felt obliged to finish every book that I started and those fifty pages weighed on me. I don’t feel that obligation now and that’s been the case for quite a while. If I’m not enjoying a book or it fails to grip me, I have no compunction about abandoning it. I regard it as the writer’s job to keep me reading. There is one exception: I do try to finish the books that we choose for my book group, though even there occasionally I end up skipping.
And I have to admit that sometimes persevering with a book that I am not initially enjoying does pay off. One of the great things about doing an English degree was that I read some marvellous things that I might not otherwise have read – among them, Paradise Lost, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, yes, Moby-Dick. But these days, I read for pleasure, particularly when it comes to crime fiction, and if there isn’t something – narrative pace, or character, or the quality of the writing – to keep me reading, I am ruthless and the book goes in the bag for the charity shop.
PS. I’ve just got my copy of Moby-Dick off the shelf and to my surprise there are underlinings right up until the last ten pages. Maybe I went back and finished it.
PPS. I really didn’t finish James Joyce’s Ulysses – and I am pretty sure that I never will.
I could not resist this book cover. Stephen Spielberg, eat your heart out.
I have a rare congenital eye disease and I have been going to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London for – well, let’s just say over forty years – sometimes travelling a long way to get there. It is an excellent hospital with a world-class reputation and over the years I have spent an awful lot of time there both as an outpatient and an inpatient.
I had an appointment yesterday. I always take plenty to read. It is hard to do any work or to write up my journal with people sitting on either side of me in waiting room, so I always have at least one book with me and it is important to have the right book or books and a newspaper too. Sometimes it can be a long wait. On Friday I arrived at 8.40 and I wasn’t signed off by the clinic until 12. 00. The book that kept me company was Rex Stout’s The Black Mountain. It was a comfort to have old friends like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin at my side.
Having said that, this is far from being Stout’s best book. It is one of the few occasions when Wolfe leaves the brownstone, in this case to go to his native country of Montenegro to track down the killer of an old friend. As soon as he and Archie leave the New York, the novel starts to go downhill.
There are some fictional detectives who are so closely associated with a particular location that it doesn’t feel right when they are transplanted to somewhere unfamilar. I am one of those who feel that Sherlock Holmes was not quite the same after he left London with its fogs and gaslight to retire to the Sussex Downs. I also prefer the Maigret novels set in Paris to ones that feature Maigret further afield. Similarly in the case of Rex Stout, I’m not reading just for the mystery, perhaps not primarily for the mystery, but to hang out in the brownstone on West 35thStreet. And it is not just Wolfe and Archie. It is the whole case of characters. In the kitchen Fritz is always cooking up a storm, Theodore is tending the orchids on the top floor, and any minute Inspector Cramer is likely to show up in a very bad mood.
It is comfort reading of the highest order and perfect for a hospital waiting room.
Now and then someone asks me who my favourite crime-writer is, as they did last night at my book-group. My mind always goes a blank and I mutter something about still loving Agatha Christie. Last night I did in the end manage to come up with Andrea Camilleri, Michael Connolly (recent worthy winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger) and Ian Rankin. But I did feel a bit of a fool. After all I write crime fiction and – goodness knows – I also read plenty of it, so I ought not to be at a loss.
Perhaps the truth is that there are just too many to choose from and I don’t have just one favourite. And at the moment too my head is full of my own novel, which I am right in the middle of writing (and which also accounts for my neglect of my blog).
All the same, why didn’t I think of the excellent Ellie Griffiths, for example, whose Ruth Galloway series I enjoy so much? Or my favourite Scandi authors, Norwegian Jorn Lier Horst and Icelandic Arnaldur Indridason (though possibly uncertainty about pronunciation plays a part there)? There is also Simenon whose Maigret novels I return to again and again.
And then there are all the Golden Age writers, such as Helen McCloy whose books I am reading or re-reading in preparation for talking about her at the annual Bodies from the Library in June. I’ve also been loving the collection of short stories edited by Martin Edwards in the British Library Crime Classics series. And by the way, that series is now accompanied by a very attractive little book that I have been meaning to mention, The Pocket Detective, compiled by Kate Jackson, and containing a hundred puzzles, including word searches, spot the difference, anagrams, and crosswords (that staple of the Golden Age). I was delighted to be sent a review copy and the puzzles are perfect for mulling over during a coffee break: an excellent little present for the crime-lover (or writer) in your life – or maybe yourself. Kate by the way is the author of a terrific blog about crime fiction:http://crossexaminingcrime.com.
Happy New Year to my readers. I intend to do better with my blog this year and there may even be a new development in the offing. Watch this space.
Some people have music on in the background when they are writing. I don’t tend to do that, but there is sometimes a particular piece of music or song that I associate with something I am writing. With Cold, Cold Heart, the Hank Williams classic actually gave me the title as well as playing a small part in the novel and I often listened to it before I began the day’s writing. It seemed to tune me into the novel.
In the one I’m writing now there is a nod to Elvis singing ‘The Girl of My Best Friend.’ As I listened, I was suddenly young again and it was a sunny summer’s day in August 1977. I was in my boyfriend’s car and we were driving out of Sutton Coldfield and it came on the car radio: Elvis had died. I can see that stretch of road. There are very few famous people of whom I can say that I have a vivid sense memory of where I was when I heard of their death – John Lennon, Princess Diana are others – and I suppose that what they have in common is that their deaths were shocking and premature. I wasn’t even a particular fan of Elvis – I was too young for that – but I felt the pathos of his early death. I feel it even more now that I am so much older.
I’ve enjoyed reacquainting myself with those extraordinary looks and that amazing voice. Browsing on Youtube I came the version of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ where Elvis starts messing around with the lyrics and laughs so much that he can’t finish the song, while Cissy Houston the backing singer just goes on and on warbling away. It made me laugh out loud. Here it is if you want to brighten a dark November day: https://youtu.be/WoqVFEE1UBY
‘I’ve read so many crime novels that I’m rarely surprised by plot twists or startling solutions. So I was pretty sure that I knew where things were heading when I recently read Fredric Brown’s The Far Cry – but he totally pulled the wool over my eyes. What an ending! So, fellow fans of GA fiction, which are the novels that have left YOU open-mouthed? No spoilers, please . . .’
I posted this on the Facebook page of the Golden Age Detection group and got some very interesting responses – and a list of books to be added to the TBR pile.
The subject of shocking plot twists seemed worth exploring further here. I am not talking simply about failing to guess whodunit. I mean the kind of twist that takes your breath away, and yet in retrospect makes perfect sense. Recently with a couple of novels famed for their plot twist, I guessed correctly in the first chapter and that’s always a disappointment. So it’s not often that a writer pulls the rug from under my feet and I love it when they do.
Sarah Waters’s extraordinary novel, Fingersmith, did that to me. Hats off to her. Lawrence Block did it too with Out on the Cutting Edge. In GA fiction the end of John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court left me open-mouthed.
Other suggestions from my Facebook friends included Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, Thomas H Cook’s The Instruments of Night and Red Leaves, Elizabeth Daly’s The Book of the Dead and Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat.
Further contributions are very welcome. Over to you!
PS The Golden Age Detection group is friendly and lively. If you are not already a member, do come and join us.