Attending what seems to be a routine break-in at the home of artist, Zoe Grant, Detective Garda Cathy Connolly makes a grisly discovery: an old wedding dress with a baby’s bones sewn into its hem. And then the dress’s original owner, Zoe’s grandmother, is found dead in a Dublin suburb. Cathy and her team struggle to untangle a crime that goes back generations. Meanwhile, a killer has already left two dead in the States – and now he’s in Dublin. They must find him before he kills again. It’s a strong and intriguing opening to Sam Blake’s first novel, Little Bones, which I received as a review copy.
I liked the strongly drawn female characters – especially the kick-boxing Cathy Connolly – and I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that at the beginning of the novel she is horrified to discover she is pregnant after a one-night stand with an old friend. What should she do? She’s had a Roman Catholic upbringing, this is Ireland, and abortion is illegal. But what would single parenthood do to her cherished career?
There’s freshness to the setting and the characters and a warmth to the writing. The strong plot lines are skilfully woven together. I did find a coincidence late on in the novel a bit hard to swallow, but nevertheless this was a gripping and well-paced read from a promising new writer.
Bodies from the Library has become an annual event. I went for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was delighted to be invited to speak this year. Sarah Ward and I will be talking about ‘Forgotten Women Authors’. Sarah’s choice is Elizabeth Daly and mine is Ethel Lina White.
I’ve already mentioned Ethel Lina White on the blog: here and here and I have plenty more to say about her. I love the fact that she didn’t publish her first crime novel until she was fifty-five and yet her third novel, Some Must Watch, became a Hollywood movie and her fifth, The Wheel Spins, was filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes. She was a best-seller in her day and wrote the kind of suspense that sets your heart racing. Yet she is little-known now. If you want to know more, come along on the 17th June!
It’s a great pleasure to have Margot Kinberg as my guest on the blog today. Margot’s wonderful blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, is a must-read for me and many other fans of crime fiction. Her knowledge of crime fiction is encyclopaedic, she blogs every day – yes, every day! – and yet her standard never slips. I have picked up so many books for my TBR list from her and she has started some fascinating debates. She sets some killer quizzes, too!
She is also the author of the Joel Williams series of crime novels. The latest, Past Tense, combines two things I especially enjoy, a campus crime and a cold case when, during the excavations for a new building, the body of a student who disappeared forty years ago is discovered. It’s a splendid read.
Welcome to the blog, Margot.
Thanks so much for inviting me, Christine. It’s a privilege and an honour.
The honour is all mine, Margot. Let me begin by asking how you carve out time to write fiction? What’s your writing routine?
I’ve found that I write best in the morning, so I try to commit some time each morning to my fiction. I must admit, there are days when I can’t. I’m in higher education, and, as you know, academia doesn’t really keep a regular schedule. But I do make an effort. And my thinking is, even twenty minutes and a few sentences is progress. I try to guard my writing time jealously, too; when I’m writing, I don’t answer email or check social media. I write. I also jot down notes if I get an idea when I’m not at home. Later, I look back on those notes when I’m actually writing.
Things are a bit different when I’m not teaching. Then, I try to focus as much as I can on my writing, because my non-teaching schedule is a bit more flexible. So, that’s when I do those major revisions that require a lot of extended attention.
What comes first for you, plot, characters, or theme?
For me, it’s always character first. I write crime fiction, so my first stop is always the victim. I think about who that person is, and what that person is like. That leads me, then, to the people in the victim’s ‘inner circle’ – those who might have the most likely motives for murder. Then, I move to other people who know the victim.
From all of these interactions and relationships, I can get a sense of what might have happened to cause the murder. And that’s where the plot comes in. The ‘how’ and ‘when’ often come once I’ve worked out who’s killed, why, and by whom. The better I get to know the characters, the better the plot works, anyway.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read and why?
I’m very fortunate that there are a lot of highly talented writers out there whose works I enjoy. It’s hard to pin down just a few, as I think I learn something from just about every author I read. But here are one or two.
I’m a fan of Paddy Richardson, whose characters are so beautifully done, and whose writing style I really admire. If it’s by Paddy Richardson, I’m sure I’ll love it. She really does deserve more attention than she gets. I admire Michael Connelly, too, on a few levels, not the least of which is his consistency. He’s been writing for twenty-five years, and has remained consistently strong as an author. There are plenty of other contemporary authors, too whose work I really respect – far more than there is space here. Going back to the classics, there’s no doubt that Agatha Christie is my hero. True, some of her books are stronger than others. But overall, the body of her work is so well done, and what clever plots! I could go on, but I won’t. Let’s just say I learn something new from her every time I re-read one of her stories.
A favourite bookshop?
Sadly, I don’t live anywhere near one of the ones I like best. It’s Baldwin’s Book Barn, located in rural southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s a converted barn – five floors filled with all kinds of books. A person could get lost for days, just browsing. I miss it very much actually.
I’ve another top shop, though, in San Diego, which is about 35-40k from where I live: The Mysterious Galaxy. Its specialties are crime fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and horror. It’s an indie shop, so it’s got its own distinctive style. I also love the fact that the owners welcome authors – even those who aren’t ‘household names.
What are you writing at the moment?
Thanks for asking. Right now, I’m revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. It’s going well, but not nearly as quickly as I’d like. As you know, revisions can take time, and one small revision in one part of a story has a ‘cascade effect’ in others. I’m optimistic, though (most of the time!).
I’m also working on a standalone – quite different to the Joel Williams novels. In that way, it’s a bit like your choice to write Deep Water, which is different to your Cassandra James series. In the novel I’m working on, a fifteen-year-old homeless girl, Staci McKinney, witnesses the aftermath of a murder. The criminals catch sight of her, too. In part, the novel follows Staci as she tries to stay clear of the murderers and survive. As the novel goes on, she’s befriended by Leo Slater, a thief and fence who has his own past history. Staci decides to work with Leo, who in turn, gives her a safe place to live and some protection against the criminals who are looking for her. The novel follows the murder investigation as well as what happens in Staci’s own life. It’s a bit of a departure for me, as it’s a slightly darker novel than what I usually write. But I’m very much enjoying the process, and it’s ‘stretching’ me as a writer.
And finally: how do you do it, Margot? How do you manage to post every day and keep up such a high standard?
First, thank you. It means a lot to me that you enjoy what you find on the blog. I’m really glad you do. For me, crime fiction is utterly fascinating on so many levels. There’s always something new to discover, always some new perspective from which to look at the genre. And there are so many fine crime novels out there that there are always other talented authors to try. What’s not to love? Besides, keeping a blog is good writing discipline for me. And, I enjoy sharing my passion for the genre, so for me, it’s not an onerous task. It’s more along the lines of excitedly talking about a much-loved film or book with a group of friends.
And that’s the other thing that keeps me blogging: the wonderful group of readers and writers, such as yourself, who share an interest in crime fiction. I learn so much from everyone! The comments I get on my blog are so informative, and I treasure the online friendships I’ve made.
Thanks again for hosting me!
It has been a pleasure, Margot. Good luck with your writing and I look forward to visiting you many more times at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.
Writing a novel is of necessity a solitary occupation. It is important to get out of the house sometimes. So it was that last Friday I headed off to Edinburgh to the Crime Writers Association conference. I was born and grew up on the north-east coast and am always happy to find myself heading north – and what a fabulous city Edinburgh is. And what a literary one: Waverley is the only railway station in the world named after a novel and the Scott monument is the largest monument to an author in the world. It’s the city too of Robert Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle – and also of the notorious grave-robbers and murderers, Burke and Hare, and of Deacon Brodie, respectable cabinet-maker and town councillor by day, libertine and leader of a gang of burglars by night. He was hanged on a gibbet he had designed himself and may have been the inspiration for Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.
And talking of crime, what a great bunch my fellow crime-writers are. Perhaps it is because we save our dark side for our writing, but in real life there is no friendly or more convivial group of people. And as always it was lovely to catch up with old friends and make some new ones, like Leigh Russell with whom I shared a table at an event in Blackwell’s. There were fascinating talks by distinguished pathologists, a former head of CID, and a retired Deputy Chief Constable; there was a cracking after dinner speaker, the Rt Hon Leeona, Lady Dorrian, Lord Justice Clerk.
What a pity it is only once a year. Roll on Shrewsbury next April!
Mark Easterbrook goes to see his writer friend, Mrs Oliver, to ask her to open a church fête. Mrs Oliver “in a state apparently bordering on insanity, was prowling around the room, muttering to herself . . .
‘But why,’ demanded Mrs Oliver of the universe, ‘why doesn’t the idiot say at once that he saw the cockatoo? Why shouldn’t he? He couldn’t have helped seeing it! But if he does mention it, it ruins everything. There must be a way . . . there must be . . .’
She groaned, ran her fingers through her short grey hair and clutched it with a frenzied hand. Then, looking at me with suddenly focused eyes, she said, ‘Hallo, Mark. I’m going mad,’ and resumed her complaint.'”
Feeling in need of comfort reading the other evening, I chose an Agatha Christie that I hadn’t read for a while. It’s definitely one of my favourites among her later novels: a feisty heroine, a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, superlative plotting – and it’s funny too. One of the things I so much like about Christie is her ability to laugh at herself. That’s always engaging. For Mrs Ariadne Oliver (brilliant name!) is a thinly disguised version of Agatha Christie (with a tiresome Finn instead of a Belgian as her fictional detective). And what amused me so much is that Mrs Oliver’s struggle to make her plot work is all too familiar to us lesser mortals toiling in the field of crime fiction.
By the end of Mark’s visit he has quite by accident happened to make a remark that offers Mrs Oliver a solution to her problem. And VERY SMALL SPOILER ALERT, she in her turn has shed light on the plot of the novel. It’s beautifully done. Chapeau, Dame Agatha! There is no-one quite like you.
On Wednesday the train I caught from Sheffield to Oxford went through Solihull and I felt a deep sense of relief even after all these years that I didn’t have to get off the train and go to work there. It was a long time ago – so long that people were still allowed to smoke in offices – when, struggling to finish my MA thesis, I decided to take a civil service exam and get a proper job. Coming out of the exam I was aware that I had probably got full marks for the literacy paper and had barely scrapped a pass – if that – on the maths paper. So I still can’t quite understand how I ended up as an Executive Office (Higher Grade) in the Inland Revenue at the Solihull office. I am inclined to think it was a simple administrative error. I was fine on the training course, but when it came to doing the job . . . I had my own allocation of tax cases – you learned on the job under a supervisor. The nadir came when I was out at lunch one day and my supervisor took a call from an unfortunate man whose tax code I had altered. Instead of spreading the extra tax deduction over several months, I’d taken the whole lot out of his pay packet in one fell swoop – and it was a couple of weeks before Christmas, too. It wasn’t long after that that I handed in my notice. Altogether I was there just over four months, but really I had known pretty much from the start that it wasn’t for me.
What miserable months they were (though my boss and my colleagues couldn’t have been nicer). I was living with my boyfriend in Sutton Coldfield and every morning he would drive me into central Birmingham and drop me off at a station where I caught the train to work. It took every ounce of will power that I possessed to get off that train at Solihull, and not be carried on to Leamington Spa.
There was a bookshop near the station and that was where I bought the copies of Trollope’s Palliser novels that carried me through. I worked my way through the whole lot. One of the other novels that I remember from those days was Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. I was hungry for narrative and for richly textured worlds that I could escape into. I read in every possible spare moment.
I went back and finished my MA, then did a Ph.D and embarked on my career of museum work and university teaching and writing. I don’t often think of those days when I was a square peg in a round hole – but on the rare occasions that I go to Oxford and the sign saying ‘Solihull’ flashes past, what a wonderful feeling that it is. I say a silent thank you to Trollope for saving my sanity.
A week or two ago my dear friend Deb sent me this message and link:
First verse of Walt Whitman’s poem, as recited by a very old soul: http://whitmanalabama.com/verses/1. Do check it out: it’s wonderful.
Deb didn’t say what the poem was and it turned out to ‘Song of Myself.’ But the poem by Whitman that had sprung immediately to my mind was ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
It was many, many years since I’d read this – perhaps not since I was an undergraduate – and I was glad to be reminded of it. There is a lilac bush down our lane that I rejoice to see every year. These poignant lines now speak to my condition.
The lilacs are not out yet, so here are some tulips and hyacinths set against the blossom on my neighbour’s plum tree. Aren’t they glorious?
Freddie got off to a bad start in life. He was the only survivor of a litter born outdoors. A kind woman took him in, but her cat and dog wouldn’t accept him, and he ended up at a rescue centre, which is where we found him. Perhaps that is why he is so companionable now that he has settled in with us. He usually spends the day in my study and is very interested in what I am doing.
I’ve been thinking of Beatrix Potter and The Tailor of Gloucester, one of my favourites of her stories, in which the tailor is ill and in despair because he cannot finish an embroidered waistcoat for the mayor’s wedding on Christmas Day. The mice, to whom he has been kind, finish it in the night and he comes down to find it all done except for one buttonhole. There is a tiny note saying ‘No more twist.’
If only Freddie could do something similar and untangle my plot problems while I am asleep or write that tricky and demanding last scene for me. Which leads me to another thought: if a cat could write a crime novel, what kind of crime novel would it be? I know there is a whole sub-genre of mysteries featuring cats (which I haven’t read), but that is not quite the same thing.
Elizabeth Taylor is a writer I admire greatly. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) is one of her late novels and it is about an elderly lady (and lady is the right word) who arrives at the Claremont, a residential hotel in Kensington, hoping to make a life for herself there after the death of her husband. Taylor went and stayed in such a hotel in order to get the details right and how wonderfully she depicts the routine and the little pleasures its residents cling to, their petty slights and alliances, their hopes and fears. Are there such hotels, populated by lonely old people, these days? I somehow doubt it.
Mrs Palfrey is a redoubtable woman who, after a strenuous life in the colonies with her husband, is neglected by an unsympathetic daughter in Scotland and a grandson in London who fails to visit. When chance brings the handsome young Ludo into her life, she finds herself pretending that he is her grandson to increase her prestige in the hotel. A well-off old lady and an attractive young man: in the hands of a lesser writer, we can guess how this would go. What does happen is far more interesting than that.
Soon after my own husband died last year, I remembered a passage in this novel and went to look for it. Mrs Palfrey is out for a walk on a bleak winter’s afternoon. ‘Arthur and I, she suddenly thought, would come back from our walk as it was getting dark, and he would carefully put little bits of coal on the fire, building up what he called “a good toast fire.” She could picture his hand with the tongs – a strong, authoritative hand with hair growing on it. If I had known at the time how happy I was, she decided now, it would only have spoiled it. I took it for granted. That was much better. I don’t regret that.’
In another passage Mrs Palfrey in bed ‘lay and listened to the murmur of a married couple in the next room. It was unrhythmical and intermittent, an exchange grown casual and homely over the years. She knew – looking back – how precious it could be, though not valued at the time . . . The two were setting in for the night, peaceably and at their accustomed pace; and Mrs Palfrey, hearing them, felt lulled and comforted.’
I hope I have whetted your appetite for this excellent writer, if you don’t already know her work.
I haven’t been sleeping well these last six months or so – and I won’t need to tell readers of my blog why that is. I don’t usually have a problem getting to sleep, but I often find myself awake at four or five am. That is when audiobooks are such a godsend. I prefer books that I already know – doesn’t much matter then if I drop off and miss a bit – and I prefer them unabridged. And of course it is of paramount importance that the voice is right for that particular novel.
I’ve been enjoying the work of four wonderful actors. It goes without saying that David Suchet is perfect for Murder on the Orient Express, but Hugh Fraser is pretty damn good as a reader of other Christie novels, such as The Hollow and Nemesis. Ian Carmichael couldn’t be better in the dramatisations of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Wimsey books, reprising the role he played so well on TV. But the absolute queen of the audiobook is for me Prunella Scales, first with Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, and then with Wives and Daughters. This last in particular has just been sheer bliss and toward the end I was listening to it even when I didn’t have insomnia. Her characterisation is so perfect, her understanding of the nuances of the novel so complete – and what a marvellous novel it is, full of insight into human weakness, but full of compassion too. I could listen to her forever.
If there are other listeners to audiobooks out there, I would really welcome suggestions for other good readers – particularly of the classics or of golden age crime fiction. Please let me know your favourites.