Reviews

‘Footfall is as engaging as it gets. Cassandra James is . . . a terrific character, beautifully honed from seemingly staid academic to feisty heroine . . . a truly breathtaking read.’

- TANGLED WEB

The book I wish I had written (and the one I did write)

It’s always a thrill when publication day arrives. All the hard work and waiting is over and here at last is the book! Plans for a launch are in progress, but meanwhile, I’m a guest today on Sue Hepworth’s splendid blog, Fragments from a Writer’s Life, and you can go to http://SueHepworth.com to hear about what I’m reading at the moment,  the book I wish I had written, the book I am most embarrassed at not having read and more.

Sue and I are having a lunch together today and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a glass will be raised . . .

Listen to me read ‘Roller-coaster Ride’

When Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, asked if I would read one of my stories to be recorded as a pod cast for their web-site, I was very happy to oblige. ‘Roller-coaster Ride’ was the story we agreed on, and it’s one that’s close to my heart. It was inspired by a visit to the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. My mother had long wanted to go and I took her to Denmark for her 80th birthday and we visited it not once, but twice. Once darkness had settled over the famous pleasure garden and the air was filled with the screams of teenagers on the roller-coaster, it had an unexpectedly sinister aspect and in the way of crime writers I jotted down an idea for a short story.

Though I did eventually write the story, my mother didn’t get to read it. She died two years after our visit. Still, we had Copenhagen and she did see the Tivoli Gardens. Writing the story was a way of  revisiting them and reliving our time there. My mother makes a cameo appearance. You can listen to me reading the story here: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2017-11-01T10_18_39-07_00

Crossing-blogging with Moira: Shadows on the Rock

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

 

Where do you get your ideas?

Mystery Tour CWA AntholgyThis 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?

 

. . . you’re in for a bumpy ride

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 . . .

 

 

Best thing since sliced bread?

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.

 

A evening to remember

36791773300_f9392a01f4_mOn 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.

Bingeing on short stories

51kyFbj8Y2L._AC_US218_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.

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Judging a book by its cover

UnknownI 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?

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

34136879I 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.