Along with my good blogfriend Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk I am posting my list of ten novels with theatrical settings. Theatres are closed communities of people engaged in a very stressful profession and so make wonderful settings – for crime novels in particular. Actors are good at lying. Deceiving people is what they do for living. And theatres can be sinister places, especially when the performance is over. Here is my choice:
Simon Brett, Murder Unprompted (1982) I could have chosen almost any one of the Charles Paris mysteries. This is one I happened to have on the shelf. They are all acutely observed and very funny. What an old reprobate Charles is, with his fondness for Bell’s whisky and his roving eye, yet his heart is the right place and he never quite loses the reader’s sympathy. In Murder Unprompted it seems he might at last hit the big time when he is the second lead in a play that transfers to the West End. Then the star is shot on stage . . .
Helen McCloy, Cue for Murder(1942). At the end of Act I of a revival of Fedora, a rare hoary old melodrama, it transpires that the corpse on stage really is a corpse and only the one of the three actors on stage could have been the killer. It’s up to McCloy’s psychiatrist sleuth Basil Willing to unravel the mystery. The theatrical setting is brilliantly evoked.
Gwendoline Butler, A Dark Coffin (1995). I suspect that Butler, who died in 2013, is not much read now and if so that’s a pity. She combined crime and the macabre in a quite original way. The series featuring John Coffin began in the late 1950s. By the time she reached A Dark Coffin he is a very senior policeman happily married at last to Stella Pinero, an actress in whose theatre two people are found stabbed to death in a box at the end of the performance. Butler wrote shortish novels, not a word wasted and all the better for that: very suspenseful, very good.
Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil (2009). Charles Carter is a stage magician who is given his stage name “Carter the Great” by Houdini.The novel begins in 1923 with the most daring performance of Carter’s life. Two hours later US President Harding is dead and Carter flees the country, pursued by the Secret Service. This is one of those long densely written novels that you don’t want to end. Lots of fascinating stuff about the art of the stage magician. A great read.
Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (1992). The first in her Venetian series, which have given me a lot of pleasure over the years. The audience are waiting for the third act of La Traviata to begin, when the artistic director appears between the curtains to ask ‘Is there a doctor in the audience?’ But Maestra Wellauer, poisoned by cyanide in his coffee, is beyond medical help. When Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates he finds that the man had plenty of enemies. Combines one of my favourite cities with one of my favourite settings.
Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s (1982). Freddie’s is a stage school for children and Freddie herself is an institution and something of a monster: ‘she knew she was one of those few people in every walk of life, whom society has mysteriously decided to support at all costs.’ It’s set against a production of Shakespeare’s King John. Fitzgerald herself described her subject as ‘The courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it.’ It is both funny and profound.
Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003). I am a fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series. This was the first and it begins with an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes Unit. John May mourns the death of his old friend Arthur Bryant. It seems to have something to do with their very first case in 1940 during the Blitz. It began when a dancer is found dead – and minus her feet – in the Palace Theatre, which turns out to be a very sinister place indeed.
Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song (2009) is set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside and is another crime novel that moves between the past and present. I love all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the on-the-edge-of your-seat suspense.
Ngaio Marsh, Opening Night (1951). Marsh is the doyenne of the theatrical mystery. She was made a dame for her contribution to the theatre in New Zealand. This is an usual crime novel in that the murder and the arrival of Alleyn don’t take place until well over half-way through. It’s a decent mystery, but the main appeal is the superbly realised theatrical setting.
Margery Allingham, Dancers in Mourning (1937). Reading this, I realised all over again what an excellent writer she is, so good at the way people think and behave. Chloe Pye, a dancer almost over the hill, has died. Her sister-in-law says: ‘ “. . . she was a good girl, I’m sure – at least her family always thought so, and now that time to be charitable if ever, when the poor soul’s lying dead.” This perfunctory dismissal . . . had the ruthlessness of a pronouncement of Time itself, and the more sensitive of them shivered a little. Arch, inviting Chloe Pye was dead indeed. It was like the drawer closing on a last year’s hat.’ Quite brilliant. The setting is a production of a musical comedy and Campion falls in love with the wife of the chief suspect.
That’s it. It is always such a treat getting together with Moira in this way – and I have had a lovely time rereading some old favourites. Do over to Moira’s blog at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk and see what she has chosen.
It was a pleasure to find myself moderating a Crimefest panel featuring some of my favourite writers. From the left it is Christopher Fowler, me, Jill Paton Walsh, Helen Smith, and Martin Walker. The subject was ‘The Contemporary Cosy: Is there Life Left in the Golden Age?’ and I asked everyone if they considered themselves to be a ‘cosy’ writer and if there is even something a little perjorative about the label? I’m not altogether happy myself to be classified in that way. It makes me feel like a maiden aunt. I hope there is a bit more edge than that to my writing.
Martin Walker’s novels feature Bruno the chief of police in a small town in the Perigord region of France and there is something hugely reassuring about the country setting, and the wonderful descriptions of food. But he’s not afraid to tackle contemporary issues. His new novel, Children of War, for instance, opens with an undercover Muslim cop is found dead.
Helen Smith’s witty novels, peopled by eccentrics, are, she told us, written purely to entertain – and they do. She avoids avoid sex, drugs and swearing altogether and in that respect is happy to be considered cosy.
Jill Paton Walsh is perhaps the closest of us all to the Golden Age as she was actually invited to finish a novel by Dorothy L. Sawyers, Thrones and Dominions, by Sawyer’s son. Her most recent novel, The Late Scholar, takes Harriet Vane and Peter Whimsey up to the 1950s. She wants to provide readers with an escape from mundane reality, but the restoration of moral order is important, too.
Christopher Fowler’s marvellous Bryant and May series have an element of the macabre, but part of the charm of his novels lies in the way they draw on the traditions of the Golden Age. His suggestion that ‘traditional mystery’ might be a better term than cosy is a good one.
This, for me, is one of the great pleasures in life: a long train journey and a good book is a prospect to relish. It wasn’t a very long journey from Sheffield to Bristol and it involved a tedious change at Birmingham, one of the most inconvenient and dreary stations I know. But I did have a good book – Asa Larsson’s The Black Path – and it was a beautiful spring day, the may blossom was out, and I looked up at one point to see a deer in a field gazing at the train.
I was on my way to Crimefest and had only brought one book with me on the principle of bringing coals to Newcastle. Not only does Foyle’s have a conference bookshop here, but we were given a bag of books when we registered, by Kathy Reichs, Simenon, and others. There is absolutely no chance of running out of things to read. I didn’t bother to bring my e-reader this time. I am going to have rather a heavy case on the way home.
I was on panel yesterday talking about forgotten authors and mine were Emma Lathen and Harry Kemelman. Great fun. If you are interested in finding out who the others are, you can go to Crimefest.com which has the whole programme up online. Today I moderated a session on ‘The Contemporary Cosy: Is there still Life in the Golden Age.’ I always feel a bit nervous beforehand, but the panel, Christopher Fowler, Martin Walker, Helen Smith, and Jill Paton Walsh were all great – and so was the audience. My bit is over now, and I can relax and enjoy meeting old friends and making new ones.
I do have some exciting publishing news, but it deserves a blog all of its own so I’m going to carry that over to another day. Suffice it say that I’ll be raising a glass tonight.
Surely reading in the bath is one of life’s great pleasures? In fact I’d argue that this is one of the best places to read a book. Wallowing in warm water, perhaps scented Neal’s Yard bath oil – though I certainly don’t insist on that – maybe with a glass of wine or, better, an icy gin and tonic, at one’s elbow – what could be more sybaritic? Though actually it is only plenty of hot water and a book that are essential as a way of combining two of my favourite things. Looking back at my first term at university I see myself in a bath on the top floor of Latimer House, a fine Edwardian building in the grounds of College Hall in Leicester, reading Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy for what in retrospect seems hours on end. Did my fellow students get to the point of slipping notes under the door? I rather think they did. I was doing a degree in English Literature, which also encompassed Greek tragedy, American literature and so on, so I suppose I could argue that it was work in a way. But really I was reading widely and voraciously just for pleasure and eighteen is a great age for that. I still read in the bath, though it is rarely for hours these days, and it is one of the foremost reasons why my ebook reader will never completely supersede the printed book. I have been tempted once or twice, but I so far have managed to refrain from reading my Kindle in the bath. That way disaster lies. No, the answer is to have at least two books on the go – I sometimes have more – and make sure one is always appropriate for bath-time reading. So currently I am reading as a paperback, Tail of the Blue Bird by Ghanaian writer, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, in preparation for next week’s meeting of my book group. On my Kindle I am reading Seventy-Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler, the third in the Bryant and May series.
For quite a large proportion of my life there have been only two ways to get hold of a book that one wanted to read, either through a library or through a book-shop, which essentially meant W. H. Smith if you lived in the sticks or maybe a second-hand book shop. No remainder book shops, no charity shops, no internet. My recent experience of reading the work of one particular author, new to me, has been a thought-provoking contrast. The first novel by Christopher Fowler that I read was THE WATER ROOM, which I bought a couple of years ago in a charity shop in Bristol, encouraged by my friend and fellow writer, Kate Ellis, who said she liked his books. I did enjoy it, but didn’t seek out any more. Then a month or two ago I spotted another of his, THE VICTORIA VANISHES, in my local Oxfam shop, remembered it had a nice review in the Guardian, and bought it. This one I enjoyed a lot: it reminded me of Edmund Crispin’s novels with its echo of THE MOVING TOY-SHOP and its range of eccentric characters but it also had an atmosphere all its own. I was contemplating buying another, when quite by chance I popped into a remainder book shop in Bakewell and found two more for only £2 each: BRYANT AND MAY ON THE RAILS and BRYANT AND MAY ON THE LOOSE. Both are excellent and I was hooked. By now I had four books in the series and I was feeling a bit guilty that the writer isn’t benefiting more from this so I bought the next one, BRYANT AND MAY AND THE PROPERTY OF BLOOD, as an ebook from Amazon for around a fiver. However I was still feeling a bit guilty because I had resolved to cut down on purchases from tax-dodging Amazon, so for the next book I went into Waterstone’s in Sheffield. I was disappointed to find they had only the books I’d already read. However the following week I found WHITE CORRIDOR in Foyles on St Pancras station and bought that. So it’s only on the sixth book I actually bought a hard copy from a proper, old-fashioned bookshop. Incidentally, I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect the writer will get a better royalty from the ebook than from the paper copy. Several other thoughts occur to me. Amazon has a big advantage because it can stock so much more than a bricks and mortar bookshop and if you buy an ebooks you can have it in seconds. I don’t have a bookshop within walking distance so that is a factor. Same is true of the local library, though I could have gone when I was in Bakewell. I intend to buy the other books in the series in some form that will put money in the writer’s pocket, because I really like them and think it’s only right. But part of the reason that I feel that way is because I am a writer, too. If I wasn’t, that might not even occur to me. On the other hand, anyone might buy a book in a charity shop, reasoning that they haven’t lost much if they don’t like it, and then go on to buy the author’s other books (or even decide to make a TV series of them – as happened with one of Anne Cleeve’s books). So it’s a complicated picture, though it strikes me that as more and more people buy ebooks – sales have already overtaken hard copies – there will be fewer and fewer paperbacks for charity shops or second-hand book shops. It will take a while to make an impact, but I think it must in the end. For now though it’s the case that books have never been available so widely or cheaply. For the reader it is great. I am not so sure about the writer.