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.
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.
Are you a serial monogamist or do you like to have several books on the go at the same time? For myself, I am rarely reading just one book. Sometimes I must admit that I spread myself too thin. Here’s a snapshot of what I am reading at the moment.
I am approaching the halfway mark of Niall Williams’ novel, History of the Rain (2014). I have a deadline for this one as we’ll be discussing it at my book group next week.
I am also a few chapters into Elizabeth Hawes’ Fashion is Spinach: How to Beat the Fashion Racket (1938), a fascinating and amusing account of the author’s adventures in the fashion business in the 1920s and 1930s. Moira at ClothesinBooks.com wrote about this on her wonderful blog: I often read books she has reviewed.
These are both London Library books. I didn’t want to take them with me when I was away for a couple of days earlier in the week, so I took a break from them and read Ellie Griffiths’ new novel, The Woman in Blue on my e-reader. Arriving home tired, I didn’t want to read anything the least little bit demanding: Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero was perfect.
There is also usually something on my e-reader that I keep for when I can’t sleep or wake up early. At present it is Ethel Lina White’s The Man Who Loved Lions.
Also by my bedside is a brand-new book, just out, Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren. I’m 100 pages in and have had a bit of a break, but I do intend to finish it.
So that’s the state of play at the moment and I’d love to know how others organise their reading.
Something that has surprised me a little bit recently: a couple of old friends who’ve told me that they have gone over entirely to ebooks. One is my dear friend, Pauline, whom I’ve known since we were eleven. Books and magazines were and are an important part of our friendship (Pauline is my most loyal reader). As a teenager she had a splendid collection of Superman comics and we used to read Agatha Christie and work out the solution on paper. Dear, dead days . . . She has still got her books from childhood. I don’t think she’ll mind my saying that technology is not her thing, but she has run out of room for books, so now she reads ebooks pretty much exclusively. The other person is my old university friend, Gary. He is technologically savvy, so it’s not such a surprise to learn that he reads everything on his iPad. His wife, though, reads only print books. And I have to say that is my preference, too.
I wonder how many others have thrown in their lot with one or the other. I’ve had an e-reader for three years now, and after a honeymoon period, I have settled on print as my default position. I do use the e-reader when travelling or on holiday and it is also useful if I can’t sleep or wake up early and don’t want to disturb my husband. It is real luxury not to have to get up and go somewhere else to read. So I wouldn’t be without it. But as a general rule, I would rather have a book in my hand. Any book in which you might want to move back and forwards, which I tend to do, is much better read in print. I also have a regrettable tendency to get a certain way into a book and then leave it, coming back to it days or even weeks later, and it’s much easier to skim a print book to remind yourself of what’s happened so far. A print book, even a humble paperback, can be an attractive object. A print book can remind you of the friend or lover who gave it to you – or the time in your life when you bought it or first read it. You can’t write a sentimental inscription or a declaration of undying love in an ebook. I like a book to take up space in the world (though I realise that it is also an argument in favour of e-books that they don’t take up space). I like to see a book on the shelf waiting for me to read it – or reread it. And if I’m not going to read it again, I like to give it to a friend or take it to a charity shop and set it free to find another reader.
So there it is. Print for me. How about you?
After I’d seen the splendid Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs at the British Museum, I went to the London Library and got out Agatha Christie’s Come Tell Me How You Live. She published it in 1945 under her married name of Agatha Christie Mallowan, and it is an account of the trips to the Syria that she undertook with her archeologist husband before the war. It is in the tradition of light-hearted travel writing that goes back to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She doesn’t at all mind telling funny stories at her own expense – but all the same, what a trooper she was, putting up with food-poisoning, primitive living conditions and at one point, a near riot among the workmen. Her love of Syria, the land and the people, come over very strongly. I was amused by her description of her husband’s ability to ignore everything except his work (I too am married to an academic – and I’ve been one myself).
It was strange reading about Aleppo and Raqqa, knowing what is happening there now. There is a terrible irony in the epilogue where she explains that she wrote her memoir as an escape from war-time London: ‘for it is good to remember . . . that at this very minute my little hill of marigolds is in bloom, and old men with white beards trudging behind their donkeys may not even know there is a war. “It does not touch us here . . . “
Reading Come Tell Me How You Live put me in the mood to read Christie’s Death Comes as the End (also 1945) set in Ancient Egypt. The copy I read was one of my mother’s collection of Christie novels and has the splendid Tom Adams cover. It was engrossing and I am guessing that the fascinating historical detail is accurate; it’s certainly convincing. But I was disappointed by the solution to the mystery which I guessed, because it involved a device she’d used in at least one other novel. I’d like to know how other Christie fans rate it.
It is two months today since I began my book-buying moratorium – and I am still going strong. It was most difficult at the beginning, when I was trying to break the habit. There was a danger that I just would buy more DVDs instead – they too are so cheap in charity shops – even though we have too many that we haven’t watched. So for the time being I am avoiding charity shops, except when I go to drop books off.
I can’t remember when I last bought so few books. I think it must have been before I was earning a salary. I wonder if over the years I have spent more on books than on clothes. It seems quite possible.
I’m not making the inroads into the TBR pile that I’d like. I find that I’m reading books from the library a lot. I’ve just finished Agatha Christie’s Come Tell Me How You Live about life in Syria with her archeologist husband, which I got out of the London Library, and that made me want to read Death Comes as the End, which she set in Ancient Egypt. That one I already own and I am halfway through.
The collection of poetry by my good friend Anca Vlasopolos (pictured above) arrived yesterday and is one of the few exceptions that I’ve allowed myself (the other was a book I bought at a launch). It is attractively produced with charming illustrations and abstinence makes this even more of a treat.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I have decided to abstain from buying books for three months. I began on the 24th September and I have been more or less faithful to my vow (I’ve bought a book at a book launch and a friend’s newly published poetry collection – I wanted to support her right away and not wait until the end of my moratorium). There have been other times when I have been very sorely tempted, but I haven’t succumbed.
Maybe this is why last night I dreamt I had bought two books! I’d done it before I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to and I wondered how I was going to explain this on my blog. Perhaps I could give the books away as presents? Then I realised I was dreaming and woke up feeling relieved. And which books were they? A small navy blue hardback World’s Classic collection of the Father Brown Stories of G. K. Chesterton and a second-hand paperback of Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy. Why these in particular? I have no idea. For one thing I already own both of them. Murder is Easy is pretty good, but not one of Christie’s absolute best. I love the Father Brown stories, but I don’t need another copy of that either. I was buying them on a trip to Thailand, a place I’ve never visited. The mysteries of the unconscious . . .
It’s clear though that abstinence is getting to me. Perhaps next time, I’ll sleepwalk to my computer and find in the morning that I have bought dozens of books on-line.
I have just read Agatha Christie’s autobiography. Two things surprised me. One was that she couldn’t remember anything about writing Peril at End House – one of her most ingenious and highly regarded novels. The other was that she was favourably inclined towards the death penalty. I wouldn’t have guessed that from her novels.
She doesn’t say a great deal about writing, but what she does say is worth reading, and I loved this: ‘There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks , or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book . . . . You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off . . . you say “It’s awful, Max, do you know I have quite forgotten how to write – I simply can’t do it. I shall never write another book.”” She did, of course: there are 84 in all!
The autobiography is a fascinating social document. Even between the wars, any middle-class household had one servant at the very least as well as a maid servant to look after the children. It is clear that Agatha scarcely expected to look after her own daughter at all – and why would she when she herself had been brought up by a nannie?
I enjoyed the autobiography very much. There was something endearing about the writer’s personality – modest, shy to the point of self-effacement. Even this global best-seller had her first novel turned down several times. It took two years for John Lane to make her an offer and even then he took advantage of her inexperience with a contract that tied her into a poor deal for five books. Some things never change . . .
One of the unexpected pleasures of becoming a crime writer has been the friendship of other crime writers. I first met Martin Edwards through the Crime Writers Association and we found we shared an interest in golden age crime fiction – though Martin knows far, far more than I do. We’ve had many absorbing conversations over the years. I’m especially pleased to welcome him to my blog today and to celebrate the publication of his new book, The Golden Age of Murder, which I know will be an enthralling read.
I asked him, What are the golden age crime novels that you first read and enjoyed?
The very first was The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie, swiftly followed by After the Funeral and then all the rest. I loved them, and in particular I loved being fooled by those ingenious final twists! Once I’d worked my way through all the Agathas I could find, I turned my attention to Dorothy L. Sayers. Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham. Anthony Berkeley and Henry Wade came later.
Is there any one writer that has been unfairly neglected and that you would
like to see back in print?
It’s rather sobering just how many writers who were once very popular have
been neglected over the past half century. I’ve very much enjoyed my role as
Series Consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics series, which has
resurrected some very interesting writers, including the splendidly named
Christopher St John Sprigg, who was also a poet and a committed Marxist
prior to his tragically early death at age 29 while fighting in the Spanish
Civil War. Of the writers who remain to be rediscovered, several names
spring to mind, but I’m going to highlight Richard Hull, one of the few
crime writers who was also a chartered accountant. He is best known for his
first book, The Murder of My Aunt, but I’ve got a very soft spot for
Name half a dozen golden age crime novels that you wish you had written
There are many more than six, but naturally I have to start with Agatha. And
Then There Were None and The ABC Murders are brilliant, in very different
ways. Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case is another classic I’d
love to have written. Under the name Francis Iles, the same chap wrote the
marvellously ironic Malice Aforethought. Henry Wade’s Lonely Magdalen is a
terrific police novel, not in the least ‘cosy.’ And even darker is Hugh
Walpole’s splendidly macabre posthumous chiller, The Killer and the Slain.
I must get hold of The Killer and the Slain. You and I have been reading golden age crime for years. Why do you think everyone else has suddenly caught on?
Like so many interesting puzzles, this one has, I think, a rather elaborate
answer. As I was growing up, Golden Age fiction seemed very unfashionable
(something that could be said of many of my enthusiasms, I must admit!) and
even when I started publishing my Harry Devlin novels, which have a very
modern urban backdrop but also have plots overtly influenced by the Golden
Age, reviewers who liked them didn’t tend to pick up on the Golden Age
connections. Even though The Devil in Disguise, for instance, is very much a
homage to Agatha. Fortunately, a few people, such as Barry Pike, Stephen
Leadbeater, Geoff Bradley and various contributors to Geoff’s superb
magazine CADS kept interest in the Golden Age alive. The Golden Age of Murder makes copious references, in end notes, to material from CADS for that reason. I’d also like to mention Doug Greene, whose Crippen & Landru press has been publishing, very attractively, a series of “Lost Classics” for years.
Things began to change within the past decade, largely thanks to the
internet, which makes so much information accessible to all, and in
particular to the blogosphere. I started blogging in 2007, and soon found
myself in contact with like-minded enthusiasts. I’d highlight Xavier
Lechard, whose blog At the Villa Rose, has always impressed me, but there
are plenty of others who have come on the scene year by year. New technology
also made a big difference as ebooks became popular, and printing minority
interest books on demand became viable. This has helped to make more of the
older books available at affordable prices, and a whole range of publishers,
small and large, have contributed to this process. Harper Collins has had
great success with its Detection Club reprints, and Bello’s list is
increasingly varied. Then the British Library’s Crime Classics really took
off – and this was a new twist in the tale, because suddenly mass market
paperbacks, not just ebooks, were selling in vast quantities. Over a quarter
of a million trade sales so far – a truly staggering figure.
Thank you, Martin. I should mention that Martin also writes a terrific blog about crime-fiction at the splendidly titled http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk.
I had plenty of books on my e-reader (and a little World’s Classics edition of Persuasion, just in case), but what I actually read during my first week in China was a book that I found at the splendid Red Wall Garden Hotel in Beijing. I like the custom that’s grown up of people leaving their holiday reading behind. You can come across some good things that way. Years ago I discovered a copy of Michael Connolly’s The Concrete Blonde in a hotel in Greece and he became one of my favourite crime-writers.
It is always fascinating to see what other people have been reading. A day or two into our holiday we were having lunch in a hotel in one of the hutongs, the old residential quarters of Beijing, and I spotted a veritable library of discarded paperbacks. The books were divided into escapist crime fiction and solid classics, pretty representative of my own holiday reading. Agatha Christie’s N or M ? rubbed shoulders with Kakfa’s The Trial, A is for Alibi with Portrait of a Lady and The Great Gatsby. I was pleased to see a copy of The False Inspector Dew by my friend, Peter Lovesey.
The book I found in the Red Wall Garden Hotel was Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, highly appropriate reading, and I’ll be saying more about it in another post.
And as for the actual holiday, less than a fortnight ago I was actually standing on the spot on the Great Wall from which my husband took this photograph.