There are many occasions in life – maybe you are in bed with flu, or the dog has died, or the sheer effort of keeping up with everyday life has defeated you – when a good murder is just what’s needed. Of the fictional variety, of course, perhaps the kind of thriller or crime novel that is so gripping that it picks you up by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t put you down until you have read the last page and closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction. But sometimes even that kind of novel is just too much effort, and that’s where the classic cosy comes in. The sheer comfort factor of this kind of novel lies in the fact that nothing too shocking will happen, and that you will be transported not only to another place, but to a simpler time, with no internet, no twitter, no 24 hour new feeds, no Brexit, no Donald Trump. It’s like sinking into a warm bath.
It’s no wonder then the British Library Crime Classics, featuring just this kind of novel have been such a runaway success. Informative introductions by Martin Edwards and attractive retro covers based on travel posters add to their appeal. I have a row of them on my shelves. So I was especially pleased to be ask if I would review The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North, published in September.
The Methods of Sergeant Cluff is not quite typical of the British Library Crime Classics, as it wasn’t published until 1961 and is rather darker than the Golden Age novels that are their usual fare. My interest was piqued by a reference in the introduction to Cluff as an English Maigret and this wasn’t far off the mark. Cluff, like Maigret, has an instinctive understanding of human nature, and solves crimes less by logical deduction than by his absorption in the lives of those involved. Like many a fictional detective Cluff is the despair of his more conventional superior, who feels – with some justification – that Cluff’s method is actually to have no method at all. The novel opens when he is called to the body of a young woman, a chemist’s assistant, in the fictional mill town of Gunnarshaw. As with the Maigret novels there’s a strong sense of place. This is a world where the cobbled streets gleam in the rain and sodden sheep huddle in the fields. I was also reminded of those gritty Northern novels of the fifties and sixties, like Room at the Top, in which the characters are determined to make good and don’t care how they do it. I enjoyed the distinctive flavour of The Methods of Sergeant Cluff and the evocation of a time and place a world away from the swinging sixties: it was well worth bringing back into print.
I’m currently reading a very enjoyable series, Ellie Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books. I read the first, The Crossing Places, a few years ago and it didn’t really take, but after the series was recommended by my friend Moira over at http://Clothesinbooks,com, I tried again with A Room Full of Bones and this time it did. I am now reading The Janus Stone and I’ve downloaded another one for when that’s finished. It’s a pleasure to come across a new series and know that there is a lot more good reading ahead.
At the same time I am working on the second in a series myself, and it’s got me thinking about what makes a successful series. The attraction for the reader is that cosy sense of catching up with people who have become friends. You know roughly what to expect. It’ll be the same but different. And that’s a very comforting feeling at the end of a long day when you’re settling down to read in bed. It can be very enjoyable for the writer too. You know your characters inside out and have got fond of them. Over a long series characters have time to develop. Indeed they must develop, because one of the dangers of a series is that it can get repetitious and run out of steam. The detective’s troubled love-life can get tedious and you risk the reader thinking ‘why doesn’t the guy just get a grip?’ Sometimes the writer gets fed-up before the readers, as Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot.
Is there a case for limiting the number in a series as Swedish crime novelists, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did – and Henning Mankell after them? In both cases the writers decided that there were only ever going to be ten. Nicholas Freeling may have gone too far in bumping off his detective Van Der Valk half-way through a novel, shocking and dismaying many readers (Trollope did something similar in The Last Chronicle of Barset). Another approach is to keep things fresh by starting another series to run parallel with the first, as Ellie Griffiths has done with The Zig-Zag Girl. Or simply to switch to a second series, as Martin Edwards has done so successfully with his Lake District mysteries.
I’m not going to name those writers who stayed too long at the party (it must be a temptation) and we’ll probably have different views about who they are. But I will list just a very few of my favourite series. They include Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels (10), Magdalene Nabb’s Marshall Guarnaccia books set in Florence (14), Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels (8). And then there’s Maigret. Simenon breaks all the rules. There are dozens of Maigret novels, but I can never feel there are too many.
This is a good time to take stock of the previous year and plan for the next one. For me the reading highlight of 2013 had to be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It towered above everything else. What a book, and what a man.
The crime novel that’s stuck in my mind is one that I read at the beginning of the year: Asa Larrson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past: brilliantly atmospheric, many-layered, haunting. Just superb.Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, another outstanding writer and a favourite of mine, deserves an honourable mention. But what about non-fiction? I didn’t read very much last year, but I am very impressed by Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I have just finished reading and will blog about in due course.
It’s been a year when I’ve done a fair bit of rereading and perhaps my resolution could be to read a bit more adventurously. Being in a book group helps as I read books suggested by other people and am often glad I did. Having said that, every year we choose an optional big read, something that we’d struggle to read for one of our monthly meetings, and this year it is Middlemarch, which I have read umpteen times but am very happy to read again. And I’ll be rereading the Maigret novels as they are reissued by Penguin, one a month, in the order they were written (great idea: some of them are difficult to get hold of).
But I’ll be trying some new writers, too – Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – is our current reading group choice, and maybe I’ll follow Mrs Peabody’s example and join her on a reading challenge. So lots to look forward to, but I am well aware that I could be writing more, so that’s my main resolution: to produce more for others to read. So watch this space . . .
A very happy New Year to my readers.
I’m returning to a lot of old favourites at the moment – I might explore the reasons for that in another blog – and as I planned another raid on the shelves of the London Library for Maigret novels I reflected not for the first time on the discrepancy between the man and the books. It is telling that I do think of Maigret novels rather than Simenon novels. Simenon was fantastically prolific: according to the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Murder he wrote 84 Maigrets, over 500 pulp novels under pseudonyms, and around 350 darker psychological thrillers, usually featuring people on the verge of moral and emotional collapse. I much prefer the Maigret novels. Simenon himself certainly had a dark side. He behaved badly to the women in his life, particularly his daughter, and was a compulsive womaniser, claiming to have had sex with hundreds of women. He may or may not have been a collaborator during the war, but he certainly did not cover himself in glory. In short he was not much like his most famous character, Maigret, who is devoted to Madame Maigret, lives a solid bourgeois existence, and provides the moral touchstone of the novels. Maigret is empathetic to a high degree, with a deep understanding of the hopes and fears of the people he moves, the petty criminals, the prostitutes, the working classes and the struggling lower middle classes trying to cling to gentility. So, have I stopped reading Maigret novels because I disapprove of Simenon? Of course not. And I haven’t stopped reading Dickens because he treated his wife appallingly, either. So where would I’d draw the line and is there even a line to be drawn? I think there is, that I can conceive of a writer whose character and behaviour was so repugnant that I wouldn’t want to read his or her novels.
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 reading Simenon’s Maigret novels. In some cases it’s re-reading, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t read them for the plots, which are slender and not very memorable. No, I read them for the character of Maigret and the opportunity to spend a little time on the streets of Paris. Julian Symons describes Maigret as ‘one of the most completely realised characters in all modern fiction.’ I agree. Maigret isn’t a maverick detective, he’s not an alcoholic loner. He’s real, he’s solid and he’s bourgeois. He is happily married to Madame Maigret, another of the most appealing characters in fiction. Not that we are told a lot about this marriage, but the way Madame Maigret appears on the fringes, playing a greater or lesser part, is one of the pleasures of the novels.
I’ve been wondering why the novels are so good: they are short and spare, almost minimalist, but every detail counts. Simenon is particularly good at describing the weather and has a marvellous sense of place. Occasionally Maigret leaves Paris to pursue a case in some other part of France, or even once in England, where he is disconcerted by the Mr Pyke, his punctilious English counterpart, but for my money the best novels are set in the capital. It is like slipping into a warm bath to open the pages and find myself following Maigret as he tracks some criminal through the streets of Paris, stopping now and then for a glass of beer or white wine and his favourite andouillette. I once ordered this in Rouen in homage and it turned out to be an earthy and pungent tripe sausage. Salut!