It’s forty years since I bought the first of many books in an Oxfam shop. I know that because I have the book open beside me and the date is written inside: ‘July 1978’ along with the place: ‘Birmingham.’ It was a new book, The Oxfam Vegetable Cookbook by Rose Elliot, and it cost 75 pence. Did Oxfam sell second-hand books then? I was a young postgraduate, living alone for the first time in a bed-sit in Moseley, a leafy suburb close to the University, and learning to cook for myself. I certainly got my money’s worth from that book. It’s been worked hard and is corrugated from cooking stains and water marks. There is a recipe for carrot and lentil soup that I still use.
Over the years how many books have I bought from Oxfam bookshops? Hundreds, certainly, more likely thousands, and I’ve donated just as many. I love the idea of sending books back out into world for others to enjoy with the knowledge that they are doing good at the same time. The one in Cambridge, where I taught at Homerton College in the 1990s, was a particular favourite. Academics are great readers of crime fiction and I used to snap up US editions left by visiting scholars.
There is nothing like the frisson of entering a Oxfam shop, not knowing if you’ll find something out of print by a favourite writer or happen upon a wonderful writer who is new to you. My best buy ever was The Man Who Hated Banks and Other Mysteries by Michael Gilbert, discovered in the Sheffield Broomhill branch. It was difficult to get hold of at the time and though it set me back £12, it was worth every penny. Looking on-line I see that there are now copies available from the US for around the same price at the click of a mouse, but where is the fun in that?
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Matlock Oxfam shop and this was written to be displayed there. Perhaps I should add that I do buy new copies of books by my favourite writers, but this is a great way of sampling writers first.
Recently I was reading a novel by a well-known writer and came across the phrase ‘tyres hissing on the blacktop.’ That was fine, but then it was used again a few pages later. Similarly someone was described as ‘all squared away’ and soon after that someone else was also described as ‘all squared away.’ Am I a fussy nit-picker to think that an editor should have picked up these repetitions? They didn’t impinge on my enjoyment but they did just for a moment or two pull me out of the world of the novel.
It is very easy for these things to slip past an author. I hadn’t noticed in my first novel that people were forever clattering down the stairs or gazing out of windows until the copy-editor pointed it out to me. It is their job to stop these things getting into the novel. But I wonder, just as banks become too big to fail, do writers sometimes become too successful to be edited? This perhaps relates to something I wrote about a few weeks ago about length.
There are some writers who start off reasonably short and get longer and longer. J K. Rowling and P. D. James are examples. The line between richly textured and over-written is one that readers will decide for themselves and for some there can never be too much of a favourite writer. But I do sometimes read a novel and wish an editor had got there first with a red pen.
At the other extreme is the editor who is too anxious to leave their mark. Raymond Carver was so comprehensively edited by Gordon Lish that there has been debate about how far his short stories remained his own work. I don’t really care. I think they are wonderful and don’t much mind how they got to be wonderful.
But the absence of the editor is what I am most interested in here. Years ago I was gripped by The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve (which I recommend), but was suddenly pulled up short when the narrator’s aunt literally aged several years overnight. Perhaps after all it is a tribute to the editor’s art that this kind of thing so rarely slips through the net. But it’s still surprising what does. Over to you . . .
The life of a writer is pretty dull. That is almost a necessity. You can’t write a novel without spending a lot of time on your own and it is best if your daily life is not too exciting or distracting. It’s not only that you have to spend a lot of time alone in a room in front of a computer, there is also the time needed for mulling things over, for wandering around the house, and staring into space. Your family come to realise that though you are there in body, you are not necessarily there in mind.
But now and again, the time comes to rummage in the wardrobe for your glad rags, spray on some of that Chanel No 5 that your husband once gave you for Christmas, and head for the bright lights of Bristol. Yes, last week-end it was Crimefest, one of the highlights – if not the highlight – of the crime writer’s social calendar, and this time it was especially exciting because I had a story short-listed for the Margery Allingham Prize. The winner was announced at the Friday evening reception. To cut the suspense short (not something I usually like to do) I didn’t win. But any disappointment I felt was rapidly assuaged when the next announcement was the long list for the CWA Short Story Dagger – and my story, ‘Accounting for Murder’ was on it.
That was about as much excitement I can take in one evening. I had a lovely time, meeting old friends and new, but I am quite happy to back at home now in my study, just me and the cat. And happy too to return to my usual occupation of getting people into terrible trouble and telling lies for fun and profit (as Lawrence Block has it).
The photo is of me with friends, Kate Ellis and Jason Monaghan, and was taken by Dea Parkin.
PS. The winner of the Margery Allingham Prize was Russell Day with ‘The Value of Vermin Control.’
On holiday in France a couple of weeks ago we were strolling around the lovely little town of Le Crotoy on the Bay of the Somme, when we came across this: a redundant phone box that had become a book exchange. There was nothing that tempted me, but it was nice to see a copy of an Ellis Peters’s novel there, especially as I was planning to be in Shrewsbury the following week and that is the town most associated with her and her books.
There is a particular pleasure in finding books in unexpected places. Last summer I spent a happy quarter of an hour browsing among the books offered for sale just inside the English Church on Lake Como. That time I came away with a copy of an Ed McBain novel and a Pan edition from 1966 of Victor Canning’s The Scorpio Letters. (Victor Canning has been having a bit of a moment over on Moira’s splendid blog, ClothesinBooks.com.) I discovered Elizabeth Taylor when I picked up a copy of A View of the Harbour in Austin’s second-hand furniture emporium on Peckham (long since closed): I had gone to buy a wardrobe, which I did, but I also came with a new author. My copy of Michael Gilbert’s Fear to Tread came from the second-hand book shop at Killerton, a wonderful National Trust garden in Devon, that we used often to visit when my mother-in-law was alive and our daughter was small. It is freighted with precious memories. So is my copy of Christie’s Murder on the Links, picked up at another NT house, Standen, on a rare trip out with just my husband, the year before he died.
What unexpected find sticks in your memory?
The Good Wife is not a good title. I feel confident in saying that as it put me off watching the series when it was first on TV. Later, sampling it on Netflix, I loved it and I am now on series 5. It’s not easy to put my finger on why the title put me off, but it sounded dull, not my cup of tea, a ‘woman’s drama.’
Titles are important – and it can be very hard to come up with a good one. There are simple descriptive ones: The Sopranos, Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy. They get the job done, but are not exciting in themselves. There are titles that tie a series together, as with the late, great Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. There are evocative titles: The Wind in the Willows, Snow Falling on Cedars, Tender is the Night. And there are also terrible titles: Ruth Rendell wrote an excellent novel with the title, The Face of Trespass. What does that even mean – as my children say – and what were the publishers thinking? Readers might not be aware that though the writer is consulted about the title, they do not have the final say (and it’s the same with the cover).
Publishers sometimes give novels different titles in different countries, which can be confusing. This happened with my first novel, which was published as Dead Letters in the UK. My American publishers didn’t care for the title and asked for some suggestions. Among other titles I put forward Murder is Academic (not altogether seriously, if I am honest) and was taken aback when that was the one they chose. Recently we picked a novel by Karin Fossum for our book group. When I got home, I couldn’t find The Indian Bride on-line. That’s because it is the US title. In the UK it’s Calling Out For You, which I think is better for a crime novel (it has a different cover, too).
Titles are on my mind at the moment because I’ve been trying to think of a working title for my next novel. I can’t go on calling it Novel Number 7. It’s like calling a baby Child Number 7. I read somewhere that The Pigeon Tunnel was a working title that John Le Carré regularly used, until he finally used it for real. With me working titles tend to stick, so I’m keen to find something resonant. And besides once a novel has a title it starts to develop an identity.
What puts you off in a title and what attracts you? Over to you for examples of titles that you love – or hate.
This was the view from our landing window last week after the arrival of the Beast from the East. The snow has all gone now, thank goodness. Although it was so beautiful – what fabulous icicles – it was also very inconvenient. I didn’t get my car out for a week and like many other people I had to cancel a lot of plans. I know, I know, if I lived in Canada or Russia or Finland, I’d think nothing of it. But I don’t live in any of those places and several winters can go by without this kind of snowfall and bitter cold.
One or two friends pointed out that things could have been worst and that at least I wasn’t stranded in Antarctica like the main character in Cold, Cold Heart. Which leads me on to a bit of PR and a couple of bargains. The e-book of Cold, Cold Heart has been reduced for a limited period to £4.19. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cold-Heart-Snowbound-stone-cold-killer/…/1782642161.
And Deep Water, the first in series, is a snip at £1.19 ($1.49 in the US), also for a limited period. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deep-Water-Christine-Poulson/dp/1782642145
I love my book group. It is one of a number attached to Sheffield University and as well as a core of longstanding members, we also have a shifting membership of visiting academics and postgrads. Just to mention a few nationalities, we have or have had in the group women from France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, the USA, Ghana, Mexico, Columbia, Japan, and South Korea. We always ask visitors to suggest novels from their own country and have had some fascinating reads as a result (and also some delicious food when they have hosted the group).
A friend who doesn’t belong to a book group says that she wouldn’t like not having a choice about what she reads. I see that. For me, though, that is the part of the point. If it wasn’t for the book group I’d probably be subsisting on a diet exclusively of crime fiction with the odd rereading of Trollope or Jane Austen thrown in. Nothing wrong with that, exactly, but I feel it is a good thing to read more widely and encounter books I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. Ones that have stayed my memory are Patrick Modiano’s Rue des Boutiques obscures, Orphan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, and Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, an extraordinary Japanese ghost story. And another example is our current read, A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, which I absolutely adore, though I doubt I would have picked it up in a bookshop.
So: a good book, good company, and a glass of wine. A highlight of the month and an essential part of my reading life.
What about you? Do you belong to a book group? Any particularly memorable reads?
One of the books on my Christmas list was Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Book-Seller – and what a great read it turned out to be. The frustrations of the book-seller’s life are many and they include customers who browse and then buy the book from Amazon online. At one point he shoots a broken Kindle, mounts it in the style of a deer’s head, and hangs it on a wall in the bookshop with the inscription ‘Amazon Kindle Shot by Shaun Bythell, 24 August 2014, near Newton Stewart.’
I am not tempted to shoot my own Kindle, but this has got me thinking about little I use it. There was a honeymoon period when I first got it five years ago, when I used it a lot. I do still take it on holiday with me, and sometimes to read on the train to London, but at home weeks can go by without my opening it. At one time I used to read it in bed when I couldn’t sleep, but now I listened to an audiobook instead. I’ve realised that the light from the screen keeps me awake, and so I don’t read it last thing either. And it seems unwise to read it in the bath . . .
In all sorts of ways I am happier with a print version of a book, especially if is a book that I want to re-read. I like to be able to flip back and forward. I like the book as an object, the cover, the look of the type on the page. If it’s not a book I’ll want to read again, I still like a print version that I can take to a charity shop so that someone can buy it and perhaps be introduced to a new writer and go on to buy their other books.
It seems I am not alone. There was a lot of publicity last year about a drop in e-book sales and a resurgence of the printed book. So, how about you? E-book or (as I think of it) real book?
I had a lovely time on Tuesday at the launch of my new book, Cold, Cold Heart, at Waterstones in Sheffield. Books, wine, good company: what more could one want? A little bit of entertainment, perhaps? I decided to provide some in the form of a quiz about Antarctica, the setting for the novel. There were ten multiple choice questions and the prize was a copy of the latest CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, which I’ve mentioned before on the blog.
Here is a sample question: which of these will you not find in Antarctica?
A) Emperor penguin, B) Polar bear C) Leopard seal. D) Minke Whale.
That was perhaps the easiest. The winners got seven out of ten so the bar might have been set a bit high, but it was a lot of fun.
There was a good turn-out, especially for a miserable January evening, and there was a mix of good friends and perfect strangers.
I want to thank Russell, the events manager at Waterstones, for organising the event and enabling me to celebrate the publication of Cold, Cold Heart in style.