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.
I’ve written before about disposing of my mother’s books and how hard I’ve found it to part with them. Even now over three years after she died I have a couple of boxes of her books that I haven’t known whether to keep or not. However a few weeks ago I decided that I wasn’t going to reread Elizabeth Ferrars. I used to enjoy her books and no doubt some of the ones my mother had came from me. She had a long and successful career, dying in 1995 at the age of 88, writing until the end. Her books are good puzzles, very well written, and have their exciting moments, but when I tried one of them again I found the pace too slow. And I have got so many new books that I haven’t read. It was time to let them go.
There is an Oxfam bookshop near to where I have my Alexander technique lesson every three or four weeks, so I’ve been taking a bag of books with me and dropping them off. This week I spotted a couple of the Elizabeth Ferrars that I’d taken on previous occasions and one by Elizabeth Lemarchand, whom I’d also decided to dispose of. It was rather strange, seeing them there especially when I consider that they would have been bought by me and my mother in charity shops in the first place. But I was glad they were there and hope someone else will pounce on them and buy them and take them home.
It also set me thinking about fashions in books and what makes some books re-readable and others not. Last week-end I read with pleasure Jill Paton Welsh’s THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS, which as the title-page says is based on the characters of Dorothy L. Sayers. It is in effect a Dorothy L Sayers novel written by somone else and a very good job she makes of it, too, though I wasn’t entirely convinced by the more egalitarian relationship between Lord Peter and Bunter. Class divisions were still very much in place in the fifties, when this is set, and that didn’t quite ring true. Still, I enjoyed it and it has sent me back again to the original novels and I have started MURDER MUST ADVERTISE. I can’t remember who dun it, which it is nice. Sayers didn’t really write that many and I sometimes feel that writers today are under too much pressure to go on churning books out. I have just read two crime novels by writers I have enjoyed enormously in the past and neither of them were very good. The ending of one of them came out of the blue and amounted to a deus ex machina. I felt cheated and I could guess how this had happened. The writer was working to a deadline and just had to get the bloody thing done somehow. I suspect that once writers become popular publishers are just anxious to go milking the cash-cow and are less inclined to ask for rewrites that would slow down the rate of production.
Having said that Elizabeth Ferrars wrote about fifty and kept to a pretty high standard as I recall, but not everyone can do that.
A few years ago, my friend, Anca Vlasopolos, wrote a haunting short story about an immigrant family trying – unsuccessfully – to sell fish by the roadside in Detroit. It ended with one of them saying ‘Don’t they know a good thing when they see it?’ I have been have been brooding over that story and that question, prompted by a headline in THE INDEPENDENT newspaper a couple of weeks ago: ‘Writer who was rejected 100 times is finally rewarded.’ It goes on to say that Jason Wallace has been named winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award for his novel for young adults, OUT OF THE SHADOWS, set in 1980s Zimbabwe. He had been turned down by 100 agents and publishers before finding a home with the Andersen Press.
This isn’t the first time that a book not deemed good enough to be published by the people who are supposed to know has gone on to win an award, but it never ceases to surprise me. And it doesn’t happen just to new writers, either. Some years ago Jill Paton Walsh, already a successful writer, failed to find a publisher for her book, KNOWLEDGE OF ANGELS. She published it herself and it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands in despair. How does it happen that editors and agents can fail to know a good thing when they see it? Yes, literary taste is to some extent subjective, but not THAT subjective. Most readers can recognize a piece of really bad writing when they see it. Most readers will agree that ANNA KARENINA is a great novel, even if it is not one that they personally enjoy.
I guess that answer lies in the conservatism of the publishing industry, particularly in periods of recession. They don’t want to take a chance, they want something just like the last big thing, or at least something that is guaranteed solid sales. I wonder how many good writers fall through the cracks? It’s not enough to have talent.
But then perhaps it never has been. The other day in the course of doing research for my next novel I asked a biologist what makes a good scientist. ‘Genius may well be 10% inspiration and 90% genius,’ he said, ‘but it’s also 100% persistence.’ The same is true of the writing life.