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.
‘Have you locked up, Nurse Cherry?’
‘Yes, Nurse Silver.’
‘Every door, every window?’
Yet even as she shot home the last bolt of the front door, at the back of Nurse Cherry’s mind was a vague misgiving.
She had forgotten – something.
She was young and pretty, but her expression was anxious. While she has most of the qualities to ensure professional success, she was always on guard against a serous handicap.
She had a bad memory.
If there was one thing Ethel Lina White knew about, it was suspense. It’s no wonder that this short story, ‘An Unlocked Window’ formed the basis for one of the most memorable and terrifying episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
She is an inspiration to late-flowering writers. She didn’t publish her first crime novel until she was fifty-five and yet the third, Some Must Watch, became a Hollywood movie, The Spiral Staircase, in 1946. Her fifth, The Wheel Spins, was filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes in 1938. In 1945 Midnight House was filmed as The Unseen with Raymond Chandler as one of the script writers.
She wrote fourteen novels between 1931 and her death in 1944. She was a best-seller in her day and was much translated. She wrote the kind of suspense that sets your heart racing. The atmosphere and the build-up of tension in the best of her novels is masterly. The books are rattling good reads and as the trap closes in, they’ve often kept me reading when I ought to have been doing other things. There can be no greater tribute to a writer of suspense.
She was born in Abergavenny in 1876. She was working in the Ministry of Pensions in London when she at last began to earn money from writing fiction in the 1920s. She wrote three mainstream novels in the 1920s before her first crime novel, Put Out the Light, a competent whodunit with Gothic overtones, came out in 1931. It was followed the following year by Fear Stalks the Village, in which she really began to hit her stride. Joan has recently taken up a job as a companion in what appears to be an idyllic village only to find that a series of poison-pen letters reveal an underbelly seething with fear, distrust and disaster. Rereading Fear Stalks the Village I was reminded of what an entertaining writer she is — and what a sardonic sense of humour she had, as here, for instance: ‘The squire turned to his wife. Although he usually bullied her, there were times when he followed her advice; for if he had no positive virtues, he had some rather good faults.’
It was followed in 1932 by Some Must Watch, perhaps her most best-known novel. Helen is the lady help for an elderly invalid in an isolated mansion with a killer at large. She is surrounded by people, the house seems secure, and yet slowly the net tightens. The housekeeper gets hold of a bottle of brandy and sinks into a drunken stupor, the handy-man departs on an urgent errand . . .
Next in 1935 came Wax, the plot of which centres around a neglected and sinister waxworks gallery in the small town of Riverpool where a young woman, Sonia, has come to take a job as a journalist. Here too hardly any one is what they seem and the novel reaches a stupendous climax during a night among the waxworks.
Why did Ethel Lina White slip out of sight? Perhaps in part because she didn’t have a series detective or detectives, like Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham or Ngaio Marsh. And perhaps it hasn’t helped that she didn’t write just one type of novel. Yes, she wrote what might be loosely described as ‘women in jeopardy’ novels, but that wasn’t all. The First Time He Died is a farce about a man who fakes his own death in order to collect the insurance. She Faded into Air is an impossible crime novel much in the vein of John Dickson Carr (and I don’t think it loses by that comparison). The Elephant Never Forgets is in part a spy story set in the Soviet Union.
As for the ‘women in jeopardy’ label, her female protagonists are not helpless little women, who rely on men to get them out of their predicament. They are women who must work for their living and rely on their own resources: a teacher in The Third Eye, a lady help in Some Must Watch, a journalist in Wax. In The Wheel Spins, Miss Froy is not the fussy old spinster of Hitchcock’s film, but intrepid and independent, taking jobs all over Europe as a governess in order to have adventures and learn new languages.
One of the burning issues of the day was the so-called surplus woman question. The 1921 census showed that there were one and three-quarter million more women than men due to the First World War. Deaths were disportionately high among officers, so many middle-class women had little hope of the marriage that their upbringing had lead them to expect. They became teachers, nurses, secretaries, civil servants and this social reality is reflected in Ethel Lina White’s novels. She herself knew what it was to work for a living in a tedious job. Add to that the effects of the Depression. What would become of a woman if she could get neither a husband or a job? Joan in Fear Stalks the Village is supporting other members of her family, and with no welfare state safety net the consequences of losing her job would be dire. There’s plenty to worry the women in Ethel Lina White’s novels even without deranged serial killers roaming the countryside. Ethel Lina White’s sympathy with her female protagonists and her surprisingly tolerant attitude to sexual mores make her an engaging as well as a gripping writer.
Some Must Watch has been reprinted by Arcturus and all Ethel Lina White’s novels are now available as e-books.
There are a lot of books in our house. I have no idea how many, but thousands, certainly. That is what happens when two academics marry and when they read a lot outside their subject. Our books are a kind of biography, marking different points in our lives when we bought them and when we read them. Peter tended not to use book marks, but instead would use whatever was to hand: a train ticket, maybe, a flyer for some event. So sometimes I am ambushed when I open a book and find evidence of when or where Peter read it.
The other day I was gazing absentmindedly at a shelf of books, when I realised I was looking at a copy of Antarctic Adventure by Sir Vivian Fuchs. I was surprised because I was nearing the end of the second draft of my new novel set in Antarctica and I had no idea that I had a source so close to hand. Peter must have forgotten all about it. Inside it was a gift tag: To Peter Wishing You a Happy Christmas from Auntie Maisie and Uncle George.’ Both of them are long dead. The book was published in 1959 and I imagine it would have been given to Peter not long afterwards. I felt a pang at the thought of Peter opening it on that long ago Christmas Day – and all these years later I was opening it and thinking of him. It is strange the way our books survive us.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve been ambushed. I picked Empire and Local Worlds, by Mingming Wang off the shelf. It’s a work of Chinese anthropology. In it I found an invitation to a concert in memory of our friend, David Mellor, the designer and silversmith in London in 2009. Peter must have been reading it on the train in preparation for his own book, Architecture and Ritual.
No doubt there will be more reminders. The stories of our lives in books . . . in both senses of the word.
Who would have thought I’d be stricter than a Victorian mama?
One of the pleasures of getting older is rereading old favourites and finding that you see them from a different angle. I am currently listening to Timothy West reading (superbly) The Small House at Allington, which I first read in my twenties. I naturally identified more with the two young women, Lily and Bell Dale, than I did with their widowed mother, Mrs Dale. The family live in the eponymous Small House and Mr Dale, the girls’ uncle, lives in the Great House. When the novel opens their cousin, Bernard, and his friend, Adolphus Crosby, are staying with Mr Dale. Crosby is there for a few days only, but he gets on well with the family at the Small House and returns for a month of his two months leave from his Civil Service office (those were the days, when civil servants had two months off a year!). By the end of that month he is engaged to Lily.
What were you thinking, Mrs Dale! That is the question I find myself asking. Lily is only nineteen and she has known Crosby for rather less than five weeks. All they know of Crosby is that he is Bernard’s friend and has enough money to support a wife. I don’t think we are given his age but I guess it to be around thirty. We are privy to Crosby’s thoughts and are aware from the start that he is already beginning to have – if not regrets – then is at least not quite satisfied to learn that there will be no money coming with Lily. He has a comfortable life in London, but will have to make economies and will have give up the enjoyable life of a successful man about town.
Mrs Dale is too delicately minded to question Crosby, to offer her daughter any advice, or to insist (as she had a legal right to do) that they wait longer before getting engaged. I would certainly have something to say to a daughter of mine, who wanted to marry a man that she’d known for only a few weeks, especially if she was just nineteen. There is of course trouble ahead – serious trouble – and to my mind Mrs Dale has to take some, perhaps much, of the blame for this. I found myself thinking something similar when re-reading Middlemarch a few years ago. Why didn’t Mr Brooke at least insist that Dorothea came of age before she married Casaubon? But Mr Brooke is presented as being negligent, too lazy to make a fuss about anything, whereas it’s clear from the way Trollope describes Mrs Dale that he regards her as a good mother.
Often in Trollope’s novels stern parents or guardians do stand in the way of young love – and are invariably forced to relent in the end. So perhaps the truth is that parents can’t win whatever they do. No change there then . . . Nevertheless I do think that Mrs Dale should not have allowed such a rapid courtship. So there you: stricter than a Victorian mama and as I write this, I can picture my daughters rolling their eyes and agreeing. What’s your view on Mrs Dale?
I was going to write that it is a long time since a book review made me cry with laughter. But on reflection I don’t think a book review has ever made me cry with laughter. Not until I read a review of I Actually Wore This: Clothes We Can’t Believe We Bought by Tom Coleman with photographs by Jerome Jakubiec in the i newspaper a couple of weeks ago. The review was titled ‘Taste Takes a Holiday.’ Coleman wanted to put together a funny book about fashion and he has succeeded. He persuaded 80 brave souls to chose a garment that represented a disastrous lapse in judgement, explain how they came to buy it and then – genius! – to be photographed in it. I am laughing all over again at the photographs that illustrated the review. It is hard to pick a front-runner, but the yeti suit worn by Tim Convery to go clubbing is a lulu.
This set me thinking about my own crimes against fashion. There have been a fair few over the years, but the garments have all been discreetly disposed of in charity shops and I was careful not to be photographed in them. Except, yes, a rummage in a box of photographs turned up one of me wearing some very unflattering striped dungarees sometime in the 1980s. I looked like a giant toddler – or maybe a deckchair. And, oh dear, those enormous glasses.
I would love to hear about the memories that make you cringe. Kipper ties? Shoulder pads? Hot pants? Bring them on . . .