Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to learn that I went shopping on Monday intending to buy a cardigan and came back with two books (and no cardigan). Worse: one of them was full of suggestions for more books to buy and read. But I couldn’t resist buying a copy of Barry Forshaw’s splendid Brit Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film and TV of the British Isles, not least because one of my books is in it. It is organised by region and I was thrilled to find Invisible in the West Country section.
I’d have bought it anyway to join Barry’s Euro Noir and Nordic Noir on my shelves. They are all great books for browsing and for planning future reading. There are dozens of books mentioned in Brit Noir that could go straight on my TBR pile. I can’t think of anyone who knows more about contemporary crime fiction than Barry and he also has an excellent web-site at crimetime.co.uk.
I am beginning to think that another moratorium might be in order in the autumn so that I can get through some of the books I’ve bought since the last moratorium ended.
The other day I was browsing in a bookshop and picked up a crime novel that has been well reviewed. I opened it and it was written in the present tense. Back it went on the shelf. It was the same with the next one I looked at. Is it just me, or are more novels written in the present tense these days? I have a real prejudice against this. It isn’t that I absolutely won’t read one written in the present tense, but my heart sinks when I see it and it is a barrier to be overcome. It has put me off reading Wolf Hall – though eventually I may get round to it.
True, I have written in the present tense myself – but only in a couple of short stories. I quite like the present tense for a short story – though there too it can be overdone. For a novel the past tense comes more naturally to me. It seems more logical: the events of the story have happened in the past. They are not happening right now as they are being recounted and as one reads. This kind of immediacy is of course what is aimed at with the present tense and as with all fiction it is a matter of suspending one’s disbelief. I just find it harder with the present tense. I’d love to know what other readers – and writers – think.
Time for some more crime fiction clichés. Last Saturday’s episode of Beck began with a gangster and his family narrowly escaping being shot. Later, at home at night, he is an easy target standing next to a picture window in a well-lit room and is picked off by a sniper. Surely closing the curtains or blind was an obvious precaution to take?
Here’s one suggested by my friend Dorte on Facebook: she says that every time she and her husband see someone walking a dog, they know a body is about to be discovered. Yes!
Sarah Rayne is tired of the police officer who arrives at the crime scene and says, ‘OK, what have we got here?’ I’ll add that I wish I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard him or her say ‘Listen up!’ back at the station.
And what about this one? The plain clothes officers are in a car waiting for a suspect to show up. When he arrives, they get out and they start running after him BEFORE he has spotted them, thus alerting him to their presence.
Here is one that was fresh when it was first used, but now we can see it coming: exterior shots of the police closing in on a building alternate with interior shots of the villain about to dispatch a victim. We are meant to assume it’s the same building, but when the police burst in, the place is deserted: they were different buildings.
It’s not easy within the parameters of the genre to find original ways of doing things, I know that and I sympathize, but the best writers do find ways.
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 . . .
I’ve been reading with great pleasure Virginia Nicholson’s excellent, Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. In a chapter on the stereotype of the spinster I was interested to come across this as an example: ‘Agatha Christie’s knitting detective Miss Marple incarnated the spinster sleuth.’ Last week I was reading The Thirteen Problems, stories featuring Miss Marple, and it seemed to me that here Virginia Nicholson rather misses the point. Miss Marple only appears to be a stereotypical English spinster, unworldly and ineffectual, forever fussing with her knitting. In fact she is anything but.
In The Thirteen Problems she is pitted against a solicitor, a clergyman and Sir Henry Clithering, retired Scotland Yard commissioner and beats them all hands down and this in the 1920s and 1930s. Agatha Christie has plenty of fun here – there is a lot of quiet humour generally in her books – at the expense of everyone who makes the mistake of underrating Miss Marple. She may have spent a sheltered life in St Mary’s Mead, but she knows all about the seamy side of life: housemaids ‘in trouble’, wives murdered by husbands, lives ruined by ill-founded gossip. Miss Marple is in fact a pretty tough cookie and has no compunction about seeing murderers sent to the gallows. She is such a familiar figure that one is inclined to forget what an original creation she was.
…and it’s been so long that I have almost forgotten how to blog. No sooner was I recovering from the car crash – plaster off and walking on crutches – than I caught swine flu -and so did my daughter. There have been other problems too which I can’t write about, because they involve someone else. Suffice it to say that the last six weeks or so rank among the most difficult of my life. Housebound as I have been for much of the time and bedbound too for some of the time, books have been a vital comfort and escape. So thank you, Garrison Keillor, for LEAVING HOME which I read in the gaps between being wheeled around between the consultant, the X-Ray department, the plaster room, and the physiotherapy department at Chesterfield Hospital. Thank you E. B. White for the hundreds and hundreds of witty and humane letters that you wrote: perfect for sick-room reading. Thank you, Martin Edwards, for THE ARSENIC LABYRINTH, which made me forget everything for a while. Thank you, Jane Austen, for MANSFIELD PARK, which I re-read with immense pleasure. Thank you, Sara Paretsky, Ann Cleeves, and Tess Gerritsen for the fine crime fiction which beguiled many weary hours.
This blog is about books, but I want to say thank you to all my lovely friends who took me out and saved my sanity, drove me to hospital and my reading group, e-mailed me, sent me cards, even did my ironing. I’m a lucky woman.