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?
Some of my new books were really for my birthday, but one way and another I’ve got a good haul this year. Not many suuprises as most of the books were on my wish-list. They include a couple of books that have been highly praised this year: John Williams’s Stoner and James Salter’s Collected Stories, and I expect I’ll write about them in a future blog. I hardly ever buy hardbacks for myself, and it’s lovely to have these two very attractive volumes. I have almost finished Stoner, and, yes, it is very good. Of course there are always plenty of crime novels on my wish-list, and I’m looking forward to reading Snow White Must Die by German writer, Nele Neuhaus (her novels were originally self-published and this one has sold over three million) and Andrea Camilleri’s The Dance of the Seagull, so one writer new to me and one old favourite. I’ve also been given The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White, who lived in the City for sixteen years: I’ve have a little virtual holiday as I read it. And finally, a couple of surprise gifts. One of them is Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I’ve had a flick through and I’ve read the first few pages: I’m going to enjoy it. It’s always nice to get something you might not otherwise have read and that also applies to Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines, a collection of essays on our relationship to the natural world. I’ve read good reviews of her work.
I love getting books as presents, and often give them too. The gift of an ebook just wouldn’t be the same.
Readers of my earlier blogs might remember my admiration for Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series. I’ve read all those that have been translated into English and have enjoyed them all. And I’ve enjoyed the series of TV programmes based on them, too, showing on BBC 4 on Saturday evenings. Luca Zinagretti is excellent as Montalbana and I’ve loved the Sicilian setting, the sun, the sea, the architecture,the food. But as I’ve watched the second series over the past few weeks, doubts have crept in. Camilleri’s plots are not his strong point, but the books are fairly short and it doesn’t matter all that much. It’s not what I read them for in any case. But the TV dramatisations – last night’s was an hour and fifty minutes – are beginning to seem over-leisurely even to point of boredom. I’ve found my attention wandering. And worse than that is the depiction of women. There are no women at all employed in the police station, indeed, few women in any professional roles and the last two episodes have included ludicrously seductive women, about as three-dimensional as the vamp in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Maybe it’s the old 1970s femininist in me coming to the fore, but I’m finding this increasingly annoying, not to mention in bad taste. I don’t think this is altogether Camilleri’s fault as I’ve just compared last Saturday’s ‘August Heat’ with the book that it is based on and the emphasis is quite different. The novels are much better than TV versions. That’s often the case. They are such different forms. I don’t think any of the TV series of the Maigret novels have matched the original, though the Swedish Wallander series is pretty good.
I’ve been neglecting my blog a bit. It’s been very busy time for me as the CWA membership secretary. Subscriptions were due on 1st January and we have around 500 members so that’s an awful lot of renewal forms and cheques. (And by the way, if you’re a crime writer and you’re not a member, why not? You’re missing out on a lot of fun). To make matters more complicated, this year we have introduced online payment, so I am operating two systems, a paper one and an electronic one, which has made for a challenging first year in the job.
There has still been time for reading, of course. I’ve enjoyed the latest Camilleri, THE TRACK OF THE SAND. Reading this and also reflecting on FREEDOM, the Jonathan Franzen novel, it strikes me that reticence is a an important quality in a writer and that there is enormous skill in knowing how to give the reader exactly the right amount and no more. It’s a common fault in new writers that they try to tell you everything. But it’s a courtesy to the reader to assume that they don’t need to have everything spelt out. There’s a good example in FREEDOM when disaster overtakes one of the characters – I won’t say more for fear of spoiling it – and Franzen doesn’t describe how she felt or what thoughts went through her head; we imagine that for ourselves and the scene is all the stronger for it. Similarly when Inspector Montalbana has a ill-judged sexual encounter, we don’t need a blow-by-blow account, but Camilleri tells us enough for us to understand the Inspector’s discomfort later.
So: enough and no more. Sound easy, perhaps, but it is one of the hardest things to learn as a writer.
When people hear that I write crime fiction, they often ask me ‘who’s your favourite crime writer?’ Immediately my mind goes blank. ‘Ruth Rendell? P. D. James? Ian Rankin?’ they prompt, taking pity on me. Well, yes, great writers, who have beguiled many a weary hour for me, but . . . By this time, I have thought of someone, ‘Andrea Camilleri . . .’ I murmur. ‘Donna Leon? Colin Cotterill . . .’ and then it’s sometimes their turn to look blank.
Of course there are plenty of others whose work I enjoy, but I have to be in the mood. With these writers I am always in the mood. I buy their books as soon as they go into paperback – sometimes before – and I confidently toss their books into my suitcase when it’s time to go on holiday. Or else I save them for a time when I need a treat.
All three writers have things in common. Their novels are relatively quick reads, they are witty and playful, they have vividly realised settings, and they feature great characters. I love Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbana and his long-suffering girlfriend, Livia, Leon’s uxorious Inspector Brunetti, and Cotterill’s Dr Siri.
Colin Cotterill is relatively new on the scene and once again he was recommended to me by Richard Reynolds. The first was THE CORONER’S LUNCH – great title – and launched the career of Dr Siri, the elderly and reluctant coroner – actually the only coroner – in 1970s Laos. Cotterill’s novels are funny, full of fascinating local and historical details and, like Camilleri and Leon, he writes with heart. Cotterill won the CWA Dagger in the Library last year and it was well-deserved. He’s got a good web-site, too, colincotterill.com, well worth checking out.