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.
The point where comfort eating and comfort reading meet. A week or two ago I threw a big party for a special family birthday and did lunch for over thirty people. There was much list-making and anxious scanning of cookery books beforehand. This set me thinking about cookery books as a branch of literature. My cookery books can be divided into those that have a purely practical function (all of Delia plus The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book), those that can be read for pleasure (more on that in a minute), and those which I never consult at all. Elizabeth David exemplifies the genre of cookbook as literature, and hers are on the shelf, but I’m also fond of two books I bought in my student day: Georgina Horley’s GOOD FOOD ON A BUDGET and Jocasta Innes’s THE PAUPER’S COOKBOOK. There is something tremendously reassuring about the view of domestic life that one glimpses here: thrifty, even a little frugal at times, but life-enhancing and celebratory, too. Possibly my favourite cookbook simply for reading is Peg Bracken’s THE I HATE TO COOK BOOK, first published in 1961 and designed as she says for ‘those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.’ Some of the recipes have dated (though one day I intend to try Stayabed Stew, designed for ‘when you’re en negligee, en bed, with a murder story and a box of chocolate, or possibly a good case of the flu’), but the humour hasn’t.
My mother loved classic crime fiction, especially by American writers: John MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, and less well known, the novels of Elizabeth Linington. Linington wrote a truly stupendous number of books, under a variety of names: Anne Blaisdell, Dell Shannon, Lesley Egan. They are all set in Los Angeles, mostly in the sixties and seventies, and in some respects do show their age. The sexism and racism of those days are reflected in her books. Still at her best, she is skillful, highly inventive, and very readable: the detectives work on several cases simultaneously and into these she weaves the private lives of the policemen, whom we follow from novel to novel as they fall in love, get married, have children, become middle-aged . . .
I think the Dell Shannon books, which feature the Kipling-reading, cat-loving Lieutenant Luis Mendoza, are the best. My mother’s copies were battered paperbacks published by Bantam and or Keyhole Crime, or ex-library books picked up in book marts or in charity bookshops. A few years ago, as a Christmas present, I used wonderful Abe.books to track down the ones she hadn’t got.
On the first trip I paid to my mother’s flat to start sorting things out last spring, I packed up her Dell Shannon novels and brought them home. As I sit here typing I can turn my head and see them on my book shelf. It’s a comfort.