I flew into Québec on the 15th October, and by coincidence that is the same month that Willa Cather’s novel. Shadows on the Rock, opens. ‘One afternoon late in October 1697, Euclide Auclair, the philosopher apothecary of Quebec, stood on the top of Cap Diamant gazing down the broad, empty river far beneath him. Empty, because an hour ago the flash of retreating sails had disappeared behind the green island that splits the St. Lawrence below Quebec, and the last of the summer ships from France had started on her long journey home. . . Now for eight months the French colony on this rock in the North would be entirely cut off from Europe, from the rest of the world.’
It was the idea of this isolation that caught my imagination when I first read Shadows on the Rock (published in 1931). I wonder if Moira will love it as much as I do. It is a quiet novel, about love and loss and exile and longing. It has at its heart the loving relationship between the gentle Euclide and his twelve-year old daughter, Cécile, who runs the household since the wife and mother died two years earlier. We see in flashback how they came to be in Québec.
Historical fiction isn’t a favourite genre of mine, but the details here seem so immediate, so real. This is a society that cherishes conservative values of tradition and continuity and the right way of doing things. The dying mother explain to the daughter how, for instance, she brought enough fine linen from France to last the winter. The sheets must be changed fortnightly, but they will not be washed until the spring, when Jeanette the laundress will come to take over the house for several days. ‘Beg her to iron the sheets carefully. They . . . will last your lifetime if they are well treated.’ She also hands on the French ways of cooking – food is important in the novel and is described in fascinating detail. Cécile nurtures the pot of parsley that is part of her mother’s legacy to her.
The novel spans a year and there isn’t really a plot, though the time encompasses an important event in the lives of father and daughter: the death of their patron, the Count de Frontenac, governor of Québec. He was a real historical character, as is the austere old Bishop, and they are described so vividly that they leap off the page:
‘The Count had the bearing of a fencer when he takes up the foil; from his shoulder to his heels there was intention and direction. His carriage was his unconscious idea of himself, – it was an armour he put on when he took off his night-cap in the morning, and he wore it all day, at early Mass, at his desk, on the march, at the Council, at his dinner-table. Even his enemies relied on his strength.’
Modern day Québec doesn’t look retain much of what was there in 1700. The buildings were of wood and were often destroyed by fire and rebuilt. But still it is a wonderful city and the marvellous site overlooking the St. Lawrence is the same. I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed visiting the chapel and the museum of the Ursuline sisters who feature in the book and I took a boat trip on the river. Strolling around the streets in the evening after dinner, it seemed a magical place.
Having shared this much loved book with Moira, I am longing to know what she made of it. And now I do know! Here are her thoughts over at http://Clothesinbooks.com
This can be a difficult question to answer. But in the case of my short story, ‘Accounting for Murder,’ which appears in the new CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, I know exactly where I got the idea. About eight years my husband and I bought a small, derelict house in Northern France. Restoring it has meant over the years many trips to Monsieur Bricolage, the DIY store. Sorting out some papers a while ago, I found the receipt from one such trip, listing the items that Peter had bought. It occurred to me that it told a little part of the story of the restoration – and right there and then, I had the idea of writing a short story consisting entirely of receipts. And that is more or less what I have done with ‘Accounting for Murder.’ It took me a while to see how I could do it, but once I had, the story almost wrote itself.
I was thrilled when it was accepted for the latest CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, which comes out this month, published by Orenda in hardback and paperback with a classy cover. My copies have arrived and I am happily working my way through stories by Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis, Martin Edwards, Kate Rhodes and many other terrific writers, some of them old friends, others new to me.
Might it not be the perfect Christmas present for the crime fiction fans in your life?
I went to Québec because I love Willa Cather’s novel, Shadows on the Rock, which is set there. (There are worse reasons). When I decided to go to this year’s Bouchercon, which was held in Toronto, the opportunity to go onto Québec for a few days was too good an opportunity to miss.
Naturally I took Shadows on the Rock with me. I kept it for the plane from Toronto to Québec last Sunday afternoon. It is a rereading that I won’t forget in a hurry. I arrived at the airport already exhausted by the lingering effects of jet-lag and four days of full-on conference which included two hours of meet-the-author ‘speed dating’ (don’t ask!). I managed to lose – separately – both my boarding pass and my purse and though I was swiftly reunited with both, this rattled me.
Next, the flight which was supposed to leave at around 4.30 was delayed for two hours. At last we boarded. The revised arrival time was 7.45 and, engrossed in Shadows on the Rock, and enjoying it just as much as on earlier readings, I didn’t at first notice that 7.45 had come and gone. When I did, I saw that it was dark by now and we seemed to be flying through grey cotton wool. Then the pilot announced that we couldn’t land because of a storm over Québec airport. We hit a patch of turbulence and though I am not a nervous flyer, I began to feel uneasy as well as rather queasy. Then another announcement: the plane was being diverted to Montreal. There wasn’t enough fuel for us to circle Québec airport indefinitely.
More turbulence and by this time I was beginning to wish that I had opted for the nine-hour train journey. Three quarters of an hour later, to my great relief we landed at Montreal. It seemed very likely that we’d be spending the night there and I thought wistfully of my hotel room in Québec. But in the end the storm subsided in time for the refueled plane to set off later that evening and around midnight I checked into my hotel very late and very tired, but safe and sound.
Was it worth it? Definitely! But it was certainly an eventful trip, and that was even without what happened on the coach trip to Niagara Falls. To be continued . . .
It’s that time again in the publishing cycle: the time when I have to bend my mind to promoting my new novel. Cold Cold Heart comes out in the UK in November and in the USA in January 2018. It is always a thrill and a privilege to have a book published. But as for the promoting . . . That is another matter. I’m British! We don’t like to blow our own trumpet.
Or at least it used to be the case . . . This is what I read in the i newspaper a few weeks ago: ‘judges for this year’s Man Booker prize have condemned the breathless blurbs that overhype mediocre novels . . .’ and rejected ‘submissions accompanied by exaggerated claims by their publishers. “I learnt to ignore blurbs. They are outrageous in certain places,”said Tom Phillips . . . Fellow judge Colin Thubron [added) “In one case, a publisher submitted three or four novels and gave the same blurb to each of them, “the best novel since Tolstoy . . .”’
Perhaps publishers would do better to emulate the wonderful Ray Brooks, a London estate agent who was famous in the 1960s for brutally honest descriptions of the properties that he was selling. Here’s an example. ‘Do not be misled by the trim exterior of this modest period res with its dirty broken windows: all is not well with the inside. The décor of the nine rooms, some of which hangs inelegantly from the ceiling, is revolting. Not entirely devoid of plumbing, there is a pathetic kitchen and one cold tap. No bathroom, of course, but Chelsea has excellent public baths. Rain drips sadly through the ceiling onto the oilcloth. The pock-marked basement floor indicates a thriving community of woodworm, otherwise there is not much wrong with the property.’ In spite of this – or because of it – he made a fortune.
I am not going to emulate Roy Brooks. But nor am I going to claim that my novel is the best thing since sliced bread. I will only say that I have done my best to write a gripping story, to entertain my readers and – perhaps – to keep them up past their bed-time. It will be for them to judge if I have succeeded.
On Wednesday evening I saw a live performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House. But I didn’t have to catch a train to London and then a tube, later followed by an overnight stay. It was just a fifteen minute drive from my home in Derbyshire through spectacular countryside to the George Hotel in the Peak District town of Tideswell. Tideswell Cinema was streaming that night’s performance in a room above the pub and what a magical experience it was.
Of course it’s not quite the same as being there in person – you do lose the sense of occasion and you’re experiencing the music at second hand. But on the other hand you have a better view than anyone in the audience and the close-ups of Roderick Williams’s wonderful comic performance as Paganino were alone worth the entry price – not to mention those of the magnificent Julia Jones conducting. And it was enthralling to see a live performance with all its energy and immediacy.
As the performers took their curtain calls, tweets came up on the screen from home and abroad – New York, Australia and Spain: digital applause. It was especially fitting for an opera that is about the triumph of light over dark and about our shared humanity. I was moved, knowing that thousands of other people all over the world had just watched and enjoyed what I had watched.
La Bohème is coming up soon and I can’t wait.
The photo shows French soprano, Sabine Devieilne, in superb form as the Queen of the Night.
I’d like to blame it all on Martin Edwards. Those anthologies in the British Library Classic Crime series that Martin edits are just too tempting: those delectable covers! And yes, I have been snapping them up as they come out and enjoying them hugely. However the truth is that the current short story binge was triggered by finding a copy of Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch in a second-hand bookshop in Leicester. I do like an impossible crime and the short story is a good vehicle for this kind of puzzle. I enjoyed the stories so much that I downloaded two more collections featuring Dr Sam Hawthorne and then moved on to All But Impossible! An Anthology of Locked Room and Impossible stories edited by Edward D Hoch.
At the moment the rest of my reading life is taken up by reading Dante’s Inferno and that may be why I am so much relishing short stories. Every year my book group selects a ‘Big Read,’ a book that is too long or difficult to tackle in a month, but is manageable spread over the summer. In this way we’ve demolished Anna Karenina, Life and Fate, and Middlemarch amongst others. This year it was Dante’s turn and, my goodness, it is a demanding read, though a fascinating one. In the edition I am reading the commentary and the notes are longer than the text. So my bedtime reading at the moment consists of a canto of the Inferno, followed by a short crime story or two, rather like following a meaty main course with a sorbet. And then I fall asleep to Timothy West reading Barchester Towers. Bliss.
I was thrilled when my friend Moira over at ClothesinBooks.com gave me a copy of this splendid book which brings together Tom Adams’s original cover designs for Agatha Christie’s novels. They are works of art in their own right. If I am looking to buy a second-hand paperback of an Agatha Christie, I always prefer one with an Adams cover. My copy of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side has the one that is featured here on the dust jacket and I think it is one of the very best of his designs. It inspired me to reread the novel (a late Miss Marple with a dazzingly original motive for murder!).
Moira’s gift set me thinking how important book covers are – and how few really good and memorable ones there are these days. The current Christie covers are pretty insipid, though perhaps by now she is so famous that it doesn’t really matter.
Authors do not have the final say, readers may be surprised to know. Though publishers do generally want their authors to be happy, untimately it is the marketing team who will judge what is most likely to sell the book. And it is not a neutral thing: a bad cover can actually deter a reader. I dislike covers which feature seductive women who have nothing to do with the plot and it has put me off buying one particular series.
I have been lucky with Lion Fiction, my current publishers, and with St Martin’s Press, a little less so with Hale. Perhaps it is because of my background as an art historian, but it really matters to me what a book looks like, and I have been known to buy the US edition of Andrea Camilleri’s novels rather than the UK ones because I prefer the covers.
I’d be interested to know how important it is to other readers. Do you judge a book by its cover? Any that you think are stunningly successful?
I was delighted when a review copy of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards came through the letter box. Of course I immediately rifled through it to see what his choice had been and if he had included any of my old favourites – or left them out! And yes, Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger is there – Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke isn’t. To be fair virtually all of my favourite books are mentioned, even if they don’t figure as one of the 100. The introductions to each section refer to hundreds more – including an honourable mention of The Tiger in the Smoke. And then there was also the question of how many of the 100 I had read: quite a few, but equally there were plenty I’d never heard of.
However, as the author points out in the introduction, this isn’t a list of favourite or ‘best’ novels but ‘reflects a wish to represent the genre’s development in an accessible, informative, and engaging way.’ In all these aims he certainly succeeds and what a rich field he reveals it to be. Crime fiction has sometimes been regarded as a conservative genre, but the works assembled here show that this was by no means always the case, with plenty of left-wing writers and books that challenged the status quo. And this was also true of form as well as content. It seems that between the wars pretty much everything that could be done in crime fiction was done. It could be experimental in the extreme. To give just one example, Richard Hull wrote a novel, Last First (1947) which was dedicated to those who read the end of a detective novel first: it opens with the final chapter. The Story of Classic Crime is full of such gems. I love knowing that the first Perry Mason novel, The Tale of the Velvet Claws (1933) was published in a jigsaw edition, as was J. S. Fletcher’s Murder of the Only Witness (1933): the books were accompanied by jigsaw puzzle that provided a clue to the mystery, a concept surely ripe for revival.
I found many old friends here, but also fascinating writers and books new to me. It was a great pleasure reading it and I know I’ll be hunting out some of the books described here for years to come. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books deserves a home on the shelf of every aficionado of golden age crime.
A few months ago my good friend Margot Kinberg wrote a post on her splendid blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, about novels that end where they began. I suggested that Margot write a short story that began and ended with the same sentence and her reply was along the lines of ‘I will if you will.’ It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I thought it would be great fun and so it’s proved . We agreed to post them today and link our blogs. She hadn’t read my story and I hadn’t read hers. I could hardly wait. Here is her story – it’s a cracker – at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. It’s called ‘Wine Country.’ This is mine and the title is ‘Cold for May.’
It was cold for May, very cold.
But it wasn’t as cold as that woman’s heart.
With most of the people I’ve cleaned for, I’ve soon been on first-name terms, but not with her. Oh, I was Jenny to her, but she insisted on being Mrs Forster to the end. She was the kind of employer every cleaner hates, always looking to find fault, always setting little traps to see if I was doing my job properly. And then there was the trouble over her gold bracelet that went missing. From the way she questioned me, it was obvious that she thought I’d pinched it. I found the bracelet a week or two later down the side of a chair, but she didn’t bother to apologize. So why didn’t I hand in my notice, you ask. Well, if it hadn’t been for the old gentleman, I would have. And when I say gentleman, I mean gentleman. Those too were so different you’d hardly credit that they were father and daughter.
When I first started cleaning there, Mr Pullman was still living alone. He had his bed in a big room downstairs looking out onto the garden. It had a nice Georgian fireplace and bookcases and red velvet curtains. With a fire in the winter, it was cosy and in the summer, there was a lovely view of the garden. But then he became bed-ridden, and his divorced daughter moved in to look after him. And to give her her due, he was well looked after in a way, but there was precious little love in it. She had all sorts of petty little rules, like not having a fire after the end of March – and he wasn’t allowed to smoke indoors. Not that he was much of a smoker, but he did like the odd cigar. And other thing, before she came, he’d have visitors, other nice old ladies and gents. She let them know they weren’t welcome and that stopped. He was lonely, poor old gent, and that’s why I stayed.
Tuesday and Friday mornings were my times and Mrs Forster used to go out to do her shopping or go to the hairdressers. I’d take my tea-break in his room and we’d have a chat. She didn’t know about that and she wouldn’t have liked it if she had known. We used to talk about my kids and about his other daughter, Cordelia, living in Toronto with her husband. She’d just had her first baby. She was a lot younger than Mrs Forster – they were half-sisters, I believe. Just as soon as she and the baby could travel, they’d be coming over to see him.
It was a miserable day in early May, raining stair-rods, when I arrived at the house and Mrs Forster asked me to witness the signing of her father’s new will. I expected to see a solicitor, but no, it was just him and her and the next-door neighbour as the other witness. Well, he signed it alright and Mrs. Forster covered the will with a blank piece of paper, just leaving the bit at the bottom for me and the neighbour to sign. Downright rude, I call that. I wouldn’t have looked anyway. She sealed it in an envelope and gave it back to her father. He wrote his name on it and she hustled us out of the room.
Later that morning when me and Mr. Pullman were having our tea together, I could see that something was bothering him. He said, half to himself, ‘Perhaps it’s only fair that as she’s living here and looking after me, she should have the house.’
So then I knew. She’d persuaded him to change his will and leave the house to her. Worth a bloody fortune it would be, property prices being what they are in Hampstead. We’re talking millions! There was plenty for the two daughters, but that wasn’t enough for her, she had to cut Cordelia out. He was miserable about it, I could tell, hadn’t wanted to do it. But he was at her mercy. Undue influence they call it, don’t they? I bet she threatened to go off and leave him, have him put in a home.
After a while he beckoned me to come closer, though there was only us in the house. He said, ‘Jenny, go over to my desk. I want you to get something for me. You see that drawer second down on the right?’
I did – and I saw something else: an envelope sticking out of a pigeon-hole. So that was where she’d put the will.
‘Pull the drawer right out,’ he went on. ‘There’s another little drawer behind it. You have to hook your finger under it. Nobody knows about that.’ Meaning that she didn’t know.
There was a roll of twenty pound notes in there. I took them over to Mr. Pullman and when I gave them to him, he pressed them back into my hand. ‘There’s £500 there. I want you to have it. I was going to leave you something in my will, but well . . . better in any case that you have it now.’ I told him it was too much, but he said, ‘You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t take it,’ and I could see he meant it, the dear old man, and it was his to do what he liked with.
We sat quietly together, watching the rain streaking the windows and the branches of the horse chestnuts thrashing about. There was a chill in the air.
‘It’s a miserable day,’ I said. ‘Would it cheer you up to have a fire?’
And he said that it would. And while he was at it, he was going to have a cigar and the hell with it.
The following week Cordelia arrived with her baby. Talk about chalk and cheese. She was a lovely young woman, a breath of spring, not a bit like her half-sister. The weather changed too, and I’m glad Mr Pullman had that time with her, though I could see how tired he was getting.
I wasn’t surprised when Mrs Forster rang me this morning to say that her father had passed away in the early hours. His poor old ticker had given out, that’s all. The excitement of seeing Cordelia and her baby had been too much for him. I told Mrs Forster that I’d only been coming for his sake and that I wouldn’t be coming again.
But I do wish I could see her face when she opens that envelope and finds a blank piece of paper instead of her father’s new will. And I can’t help but laugh when I think of what he used as a spill to light that cigar. She might suspect my part in it, when she thinks back to that chilly morning when she tore me off a strip for lighting a fire in his bedroom. But she won’t be able to prove anything.
It was like I told her at the time.
It was cold for May, very cold.
Kit is an eclipse-chaser, and when Laura falls in love with him, they go to a festival in Cornwall so that they can witness one together. But things don’t go according to plan and Laura witnesses – well, what does she witness? She is sure it is rape and she and Kit call the police. The case goes to court and she is called as a witness. That’s when things start to unravel and she sets in train a series of events that ends with Laura and Kit fleeing for their lives and adopting new identities.
They continue to follow eclipses round the globe, but now they are always looking over their shoulders, fearing that the past will catch up with them.
He Said/She Said is cleverly structured and – yes – it is a page-turner. We can’t be sure that anything is what it seems and Kelly is skilful in evoking Laura’s crippling anxiety and paranoia. Readers who like unreliable narrators will love this. I have one or two small reservations about the ending and there was an unnecessary and rather confusing prologue – but really this is a gripping read. I read it virtually in one go during a long dull journey from Madeira to Manchester. It kept me entertained and I didn’t see the end coming. You can’t ask for much more from a psychological thriller.
My copy of He Said/She Said was free from NetGallery.