When the going gets tough, the tough . . . buy books?
I couldn’t be better placed for weeks of social isolation from the point of view of reading. I have enough books here to last for years and years if you count books that I’d be happy to reread. And yet I am still buying them. I have just ordered another online (since you ask, a second-hand copy of The Funeral of Figaro by Ellis Peters recently reviewed by my friend, Moira, over at Clothes in Books). The libaries are closed and I need books to do research for my new novel (no excuse for not getting on with this now that my social calendar is completely empty), so I have been ordering them from the Guardian bookshop. Yes, people are stocking up on tins of baked beans and loo paper and I am panic-buying books.
The question I asked earlier was, shall it be Camus’s The Plague or Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves. That is, shall it be serious reading or reading to escape (not that the two are mutually exclusive). A bit of both, I hope. I would like to say that I shall be using this enforced leisure to read À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, but just as people read Agatha Christie while fire-watching in the Blitz, I am more likely turning to be turning for solace to Golden Age crime fiction or heart-stopping thrillers. And then there are those great comforters, Jane Austen and Trollope. I am currently listening to the divine Juliet Stevenson reading Mansfield Park: sheer bliss.
But there is another category of book that is apparently selling well: books like Camus’s The Plague and Stephen King’s The Stand, books that reflect the spirit of the times all too closely. I can’t class myself with those writers, but rather spookily, it turns out that I have written such a novel myself. In An Air That Kills Lyle is sponsoring research into the mechanisms that allow strains of animal flu to jump the species barrier and infect humans. Katie, my scientist heroine, imagines the impact of a such a disease in this age of mass communication: the virus spreading out ‘with the slow inevitability of ink released into water. She saw people, boarding planes, taking their deadly cargo to all corners of the globe.’ I did understand when I researched the novel last year that it was only a matter of time before something like this happened, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen more or less straight away…
When I was invited to submit a short story for an anthology of crime stories based on songs by Joni Mitchell, I was intrigued by the idea. I chose: ‘The Gallery’ on Clouds (1969). This was a song that I used to listen to endlessly as a teenager. I wanted to catch some of the flavour of what it was like to be young at the time when this album came out, so I decided to set the story partly in the past – when a young girl goes missing – and partly forty years later, when her friend discovers the truth of what happened.
The song fascinates the two girls just as it fascinated me (and still does). The girls discuss it. ‘Was it a kind of Bluebeard story about a man who collected and destroyed women? The refrain “Lady, please love me now I am dead . . .” was deliciously creepy . . . One thing seemed clear. The woman in the song was trapped. She had become just another picture on the wall like all the other women in the man’s life . . .’
There is no friendship quite like the friendship of teenage girls and I drew on my memories of that and of the clothes we worn and the things we did, lolling around with face packs, trying to read our fortunes with Tarot cards, reading and rereading copies of Jackie magazine. The chocolate brown mini-dress with a gold zip and a mandarin collar and the burgundy corduroy trouser suit in the story are what I was wearing as a sixteen year old and I can see them in my mind’s eye as I write this.
Like the girls in the story, I grew up in the north-east and the holiday in North Wales where Yvonne goes missing is like the one I went on with the Methodist youth club. Of course the actual events of the story are all made up, but this was the fertile ground from which they sprang.
I am still very much in touch with my dear friend Pauline from those days and she is a great fan of my writing. I hope she’ll enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, edited by Josh Pachter, is published on 7th April by Untreed Reads in ebook, paperback and hardback. Great cover and great title!
Something I could never have imagined when I started writing fiction was that I would one day find myself on a panel at the Festival of the International Society of Neglected Tropical Diseases. But so it was yesterday at the Wellcome Institute when I joined Mojie Crigler, the co-author of Under the Big Tree: Neglected Stories from the Movement to End Neglected Tropical Diseases and Professor Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine, author of Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism (larger than life in every sense – he joined us by Skype from Houston, Texas). The session, on writing about disease, was very able chaired by Marianne Comparet, one of the organisers of the festival. I’d been invited because my latest book, An Air That Kills, has a story-line involving research into malaria (and murder by mosquito!). The question of how scientists can make medical issues accessible to the genuine public is a timely one and we had a stimulating discussion.
The festival was a fantastic event and I met interesting people. It was held at the Wellcome Collection, is one of my favourite places in London. It has some great free exhibitions – there was one on forensics a few years ago – plus a nice cafe and an excellent shop. It was lovely to see my book and those of my fellow panelists on display there.
A coda: there are some brilliant researchers working on malaria, but it is still causes the death of half a million people a year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. A child dies of malaria every thirty seconds. I didn’t know that until I wrote this book. But now that I do know, I support a charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, http://againstmalaria.comwhich provides bed nets impregnated with insecticide to people at risk.
I recently watched The Stranger on Netflix (based on Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name). It was certainly gripping. I watched one of the eight episodes a night and I really wanted to know what had happened to the woman who went missing at the beginning. There was a lot of excellent acting and exciting cliff-hangers and yet and yet . . . in the end I felt disappointed. There were several plot strands – too many perhaps – and the attempt to tie them all together wasn’t altogether successful. But the real problem was that two of the main characters behaved so implausibly at the end. Nothing in their earlier behaviour had prepared the viewer for their unethical actions (have to say, too, that even the most rudimentary police investigation would have revealed some pretty large discrepancies). In other words, plot trumped character and as a result the ending for me was weak.
It got me thinking about the importance of character. Yes, plot is important in crime fiction, but ideally plot should spring out of character and when it doesn’t, I find myself losing interest or wanting to throw the book across the room, shouting, ‘they just wouldn’t have done that!’ It is one of the hardest things to get right, and I have spent many hours trying to work how I can get my characters to do what I want them to do without provoking that kind of response in my readers. When we think of the books that we love, isn’t it so often the characters that stay with us, however startling or original the plot?
Last summer at the St Hilda’s crime fiction convention I guessed who the murderer was (Val McDermid!) in the after dinner play. I wasn’t the only one to get it right, but mine was the name picked out of the hat, and the prize was a year’s subscription for a crime novel sent by Blackwells every month and selected by them. Shiny new books! For free! Well, you can imagine what a treat that is and with what eager anticipation I rip open the parcel every month.
As a result I am reading more contemporary crime than usual and one of the books I’ve received is Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party. I liked the set-up – a group of thirty-something friends celebrate New Year in the Scottish Highlands, are cut off by snow, and then a body is found. One of them must have done it: but who? I was gripped by the narrative and raced through it. And yet . . . what a very unpleasant group of people! What did they see in each other? I put the book down feeling glad that I don’t have friends like this.
When I moved on to the next book from Blackwells, I began to feel conscious of a trend. The protagonist of this one is a professional woman who drinks too much, has reckless adulterous sex, and treats her husband and child appallingly. I couldn’t get interested in this woman or care about her. I disliked her too much – and disapproved of her (call me old-fashioned . . ) and I felt the conclusion of the book let her off too lightly.
Nasty people as protogonists are not a new thing in crime fiction. Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, for instance, is a sociopath, but he is superficially charming at least. This new trend seems to be something rather different. Did it begin perhaps with Gone Girl (which I thought was a tour-de-force) and The Girl on the Train (which I haven’t read)? Do I have a point or am I becoming a censorious old bat?
I was in Waterstone’s Piccadilly on Tuesday and Barry Forshaw’s Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide caught my eye. I’d been meaning to buy a copy since it came out towards the end of last year. It’s the kind of book I love: short reviews of hundreds of books, accounts of different trends in crime fiction, and biographies of the most important figures in the genre. There are also entries on related films and books. And then there’s the game of looking to see if your favourite writers have been included (what? no Rex Stout? no Fredric Brown?). There’s the pleasure of being reminded of books you’ve enjoyed and of discovering new authors to add to the already tottering reading pile.
Barry is the doyen of crime fiction reviewing and appears to have read absolutely everything by absolutely everyone. All the same, when I turned to the back and riffled through the index, it was with no expectation of finding my own name there. After all, I’m hardly a big hitter. So the thrill was all the greater when I saw that Deep Water, the first of my Katie Flanagan novels, is one of the books that Barry reviews.
It makes it even more of a pleasure to recommend this splendid book, which offers hours of happy browsing and is surely essential reading for the crime fiction aficionado. Great cover, too.
. . . We seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere . . .’
My blog friend, Moira at the excellent Clothes in Books, also now my friend in real life, has sent me a copy of a splendid book, Bestseller by Claud Cockburn, subtitled ‘The Books Everyone Read 1900-1939,’ which discusses novels like Beau Geste and The Sheik, once all the rage and now rarely read. One book which wasn’t included, but easily could have been, was The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, published 1905. I vividly remember reading it as a child in the sixties. It was my mother’s copy, which dated from the 1930s, I guess.
I was curious to see what I would make of it all now. I have just read it and enjoyed it all over again – though in a rather different way. It is certainly a rattling good yarn and yet it is really as much about the Scarlet Pimpernel’s French wife, Marguerite, as about the man himself. The plot hinges on the rift between them and her gradual realisation that Sir Percy Blakeney, the foppish husband that she regards with affectionate contempt, is in fact the elusive and dashing hero who is saving aristocrats from the guillotine.
There was one scene that had stuck in my memory from my reading all those years ago. Meeting in the garden at night, the couple seem about to come to a better understanding, but pride comes between them and they part without reconciling. Marguerite turns back to the house and so fails to see Sir Percy ‘overwhelmed by his own passion and his own despair . . . He was but a man, madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.’ Blimey! Of course to my twelve or thirteen year old self, this seemed the very pinnacle of romance.
In spite of all this guff about tiny hands, Marguerite is a doughty heroine, full of energy and spirit. When she realises that she has inadvertently put her husband in terrible danger, she dashes off to France to warn him and she plays an active role in the denouement.
And perhaps, after all, The Scarlet Pimpernel is not in the same category as Beau Geste or The Sheik, because, though the book may not be much read, the Scarlet Pimpernel has gone on in many reincarnations in film, TV, and even in the 1990s a successful musical. He is one of those characters, like Frankenstein and Dracula, who have become far more famous than their creator.
I didn’t get round to posting my talk on Helen McCloy, which I gave at Bodies from the Library last year. So here it is now. The title is ‘Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy.’
My attention was first drawn to Helen McCloy when her novel, Mr Splitfoot, was listed by H. R. F. Keating as among the 100 best crime novels ever published. It was some years later that I first read one of her novels. And when I did, I was surprised that she wasn’t better known.
It’s not as if she was one of those writers who produces only a few novels and disappears from view. She had a very long career. She was born in New York City in 1904 – her mother was a writer and her father was managing editor of the New York Evening Sun – and she died in 1994. She wrote around thirty novels, thirteen featuring her series character, Dr Basil Willing, the rest stand-alone thrillers and suspense novels, as well as a number of short stories. Her first novel, Dance of Death, came out in 1938, her last, Burn This, in 1980.
In addition she had a high profile in the world of American crime-writing. In 1950 she was the first female president of the Mystery Writers of America and she got an Edgar in 1954 for her crime fiction reviews. With her husband Davis Dresser, creator of PI Mike Shayne under the pseudonym Brett Halliday, she founded a publishing company and a literary agency. It’s during those years that her outcome as a novelist decreased. And when she did begin to publish more during the 1970s, it was with a string of stand-alone suspense novels, which I find less interesting than her earlier work.
She had only one series character – psychiatrist Basil Willing, who featured in her first novel and in twelve more, most of them written between 1938 and 1956, though two more were to appear at long intervals, Mr Splitfoot in 1968 and Burn This in 1980. Willing also appeared in a number of short stories, notably ‘The Singing Diamonds,’ which appears in The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Basil Willing. The early Basil Willing novels fall in the Golden Age category and employ some Golden Age tropes: notably the box of poisoned chocolates in Who’s Calling? and an impossible crime in the style of John Dickson Carr in Mr Splitfoot.
So why are her novels worth reading?
Her Basil Willing novels have gripping and original plots. McCloy specialised in the intriguing set-up. In her first novel, Dance of Death, published in 1938, the body of young woman is discovered in a deep snow drift in the depths of a New York winter. The body is not just warm but hot, and it turns out that she has died of heat stroke. In The Deadly Truth a woman visits her lover in a lab where he is developing a truth drug. After she’s gone he realises that she has stolen some – with interesting consequences at a cocktail and dinner party later that day. In Cue for Murder, someone playing the part of a corpse turns out really to be dead and must have been murdered by one of three actors in full view of the audience. In the novel that is often regarded as her masterpiece, Through a Glass Darkly, a young woman, Faustina, goes to Willing for help: she has been sacked from her teaching job at a girls’ boarding school because of something uncanny: several witnesses have seen her in two places at the same time. She apparently has a doppelgänger. In Alias Basil Willing, Willing is in a tobacconist’s in Manhattan when another customer follows him into the shop, buys cigarettes, and leaves in a hurry. The man hails a taxi to take him to 51st street with the instruction: ‘Come back and call for me; I am Dr Basil Willing.’ Intrigued, Willing gets into the next taxi and follows him.
It is one thing to have a gripping opening, and it is another thing to follow through and construct an interesting plot and a satisfying resolution. But McCloy did generally succeed in that.
To return to her first novel, Dance of Death, (Martin Edwards describes it as a ‘dazzling debut’ and I agree) McCloy introduces Dr Basil Willing as a psychiatrist attached to the district attorney’s office in New York, concerned mainly with testing the sanity of accused men and the reliability of witnesses. He is an American, but his mother was Russian. He is described as having a ‘thin intelligent face, disturbingly alert eyes and a slightly ironical manner’ – and after studying at Johns Hopkins, he has spent a further eight years in Paris, London and Vienna. He is essentially a Freudian and his claim is that ‘every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints and he can’t wear gloves to hide them’ and that ‘even a small everyday lie is a clue to the personality and preoccupations of the liar.’ One element of the novel might have been ripped from today’s headlines: a fashionable young woman makes money from appearing in adverts for a drug to aid slimming. These days she would be on Instagram and have her own Youtube channel.
Stemming from McCloy’s interest in psychoanalysis was her fascination with duality, with the conscious and the unconscious mind, with the two sides of a person’s nature, with the doppelgänger and the double. I have already mentioned Through a Glass, Darkly. There it appears that a young woman’s doppelgänger commits murder while the young woman herself is miles away and at that very moment is speaking on the phone to her friend and fellow teacher Gisela (Basil’s girlfriend and in later novels his wife and the mother of his daughter). Similarly in Dance of Death Basil recognises the dead woman from a newspaper article, yet it seems that at the very time her body was lying in the snow drift, she was dancing the night away at her own coming out ball.
In one of the Willing novels the murderer is actually suffering from a split personality and doesn’t even know himself that he is the villain. In She Walks Alone, one of McCloy’s standalone thrillers, the narrator comments ‘Now I saw that I had never known [X] If it hadn’t been for Rupert Lord’s money the inner [X] might never have cracked through the apparent [X], a surface enamel fired by social pressure. . . . that apparent [X] was not a deliberate deception, he was another phase of [X’s] nature, just as real as the inner [X]. That was how the apparent [X] had been able to fool me and everyone else. He was part of the truth.’ That is a recurring theme in McCloy’s novels and a chilling one.
McCloy was an intelligent and elegant writer, both witty and ironic. In Through a Glass, Darkly the headmistress of a girl’s school puts forward a case for the existence of psychic phenomenon, including perhaps the doppelgänger.
‘So you believe in it?’ asked Basil.
She replies, ‘I am a modern woman, Dr Willing. That means I believe in nothing.’
So why isn’t McCloy better known? Partly perhaps because there was a gap in her career. She only published three novels in the 1960s, and when she stepped up her output in the 1970s, it was with a series of suspense novels and thrillers, which generally did not have the originality of her earlier books.
Then too, in her early work she was a writer who liked to experiment – in one of the Willing novels, for instance, it is apparently not until very late that he appears. Similarly, The One That Got Away is told by a first person narrator, also a psychiatrist, who observes Willing at work. I admire her boldness, but it led some unevenness in her work.
Neverthess at her best she is a splendid writer. But don’t take my word for it. Her novels and short stories have been reprinted by The Murder Room and are available as ebooks. Try her for yourself.
Rather fittingly, I watched the last episode of Inspector Morse on New Year’s Eve. The first had aired in 1987 and this final one in 2000. I’d worked my way through all thirty-three in four or five months. By the end, the power-dressing of the 1980s was long gone and mobile phones were no longer the size of bricks.
There is a special interest in watching such a long-running series in condensed form. The extent of Morse’s dysfunctional love life is much more apparent than it was the first time round, when I was watching it spread out over such a long period. He is so susceptible, forever falling in love with a woman who turns out to be the murderer or is otherwise compromised. And how discreet it all is. We never follow him into the bedroom – and the series is all the better for that. The last episode ends of course with Morse’s death and it is all the more poignant when viewed with the knowledge that John Thaw was dead himself only two years later.
I did love that series and I think that is why I didn’t get into Lewis when it began in 2006. It seemed all wrong that the series should go on without Morse and John Thaw. But a couple of days ago I watched the pilot episode and was won over. I loved the touches that paid tribute to Morse and John Thaw: the red Jag that Lewis almost steps in front of; the Endeavour music scholarship endowed anonymously; the crossword clue on Morse’s notes relating to an earlier case. It was beautifully done. So: a worthy successor after all. I’ve got the box set and there are thirty-three episodes, so I won’t be running out of comfort viewing any time soon.
For me one of the stand-out exhibitions of last year was Troy: Myth and Reality, which I saw at the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. There are some stunning objects – the vases in particular – and it was wonderful to revisit the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I had a grammar school education which meant doing five years of Latin, but looking back I feel it would have been more useful and interesting to have studied Classics more broadly and to have read texts in translation. Through my degree in English Literature and History of Art I did become familiar with the Greek myths and legends, but it wasn’t many years later on holiday in Greece that I decided to read the Iliad from beginning to end and just experience it as the fantastic story that it is. A couple of years later on holiday in Crete I did the same thing with the Odyssey.
There is something very special about reading a story in the place where it originated. In my journal I transcribed this passage from the Odyssey: ‘Alcinous ordered Helias and Laodomas to dance by themselves since no one could compete with them. Polybus, a skilled craftsman, had made them a beautiful purple ball, which they took in their hands, and one of them, bending right back, would throw it towards the shadowy clouds, and the other, leaping up from the ground, would catch it skilfully, before his feet touched earth again.’ I noted that the next day on the beach I saw two bronzed young men in tiny swimming trunks doing the exact same thing as Homer had described it somewhere around three thousands years ago. My copy of the Penguin Classics edition with its creased spine and water-stained pages is a momento of a great holiday.
The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 8 March. It retells the stories through objects and paintings, examines the historical basis for the existence of Troy, and draws parallels with the present day realities of brutal warfare and its victims. I thought it was wonderful.