I’d like to blame it all on Martin Edwards. Those anthologies in the British Library Classic Crime series that Martin edits are just too tempting: those delectable covers! And yes, I have been snapping them up as they come out and enjoying them hugely. However the truth is that the current short story binge was triggered by finding a copy of Diagnosis Impossible: The Problems of Dr Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch in a second-hand bookshop in Leicester. I do like an impossible crime and the short story is a good vehicle for this kind of puzzle. I enjoyed the stories so much that I downloaded two more collections featuring Dr Sam Hawthorne and then moved on to All But Impossible! An Anthology of Locked Room and Impossible stories edited by Edward D Hoch.
At the moment the rest of my reading life is taken up by reading Dante’s Inferno and that may be why I am so much relishing short stories. Every year my book group selects a ‘Big Read,’ a book that is too long or difficult to tackle in a month, but is manageable spread over the summer. In this way we’ve demolished Anna Karenina, Life and Fate, and Middlemarch amongst others. This year it was Dante’s turn and, my goodness, it is a demanding read, though a fascinating one. In the edition I am reading the commentary and the notes are longer than the text. So my bedtime reading at the moment consists of a canto of the Inferno, followed by a short crime story or two, rather like following a meaty main course with a sorbet. And then I fall asleep to Timothy West reading Barchester Towers. Bliss.
I was delighted when a review copy of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards came through the letter box. Of course I immediately rifled through it to see what his choice had been and if he had included any of my old favourites – or left them out! And yes, Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger is there – Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke isn’t. To be fair virtually all of my favourite books are mentioned, even if they don’t figure as one of the 100. The introductions to each section refer to hundreds more – including an honourable mention of The Tiger in the Smoke. And then there was also the question of how many of the 100 I had read: quite a few, but equally there were plenty I’d never heard of.
However, as the author points out in the introduction, this isn’t a list of favourite or ‘best’ novels but ‘reflects a wish to represent the genre’s development in an accessible, informative, and engaging way.’ In all these aims he certainly succeeds and what a rich field he reveals it to be. Crime fiction has sometimes been regarded as a conservative genre, but the works assembled here show that this was by no means always the case, with plenty of left-wing writers and books that challenged the status quo. And this was also true of form as well as content. It seems that between the wars pretty much everything that could be done in crime fiction was done. It could be experimental in the extreme. To give just one example, Richard Hull wrote a novel, Last First (1947) which was dedicated to those who read the end of a detective novel first: it opens with the final chapter. The Story of Classic Crime is full of such gems. I love knowing that the first Perry Mason novel, The Tale of the Velvet Claws (1933) was published in a jigsaw edition, as was J. S. Fletcher’s Murder of the Only Witness (1933): the books were accompanied by jigsaw puzzle that provided a clue to the mystery, a concept surely ripe for revival.
I found many old friends here, but also fascinating writers and books new to me. It was a great pleasure reading it and I know I’ll be hunting out some of the books described here for years to come. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books deserves a home on the shelf of every aficionado of golden age crime.
Kind friends and readers have asked me when Deep Water would be available in the States and I am happy to say that US publication was on 27 January. I was lucky enough to have an American publisher for my first two novels, but not since, so I’m delighted to published in the US again.
A writer’s life is full of ups and down – it can be like a literary game of snakes and ladders. My good friend, Martin Edwards invited me to write about this for his splendid blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, You can read my post here: http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/the-ups-and-downs-of-crime-writers-life.html
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 didn’t win, but it was – and still is – a thrill to have my story ‘Faceless Killer’ long-listed and then short-listed for the Margery Allingham Short Story Competition. It’s not quite the first time I’ve been short-listed for something – but it was the first time I’d been there when the winner was announced, this time at a reception at Crimefest in Bristol, and it did add a frisson of excitement to the week-end. In the end the winning story was ‘The Box-Shaped Mystery’ by Peter Guttridge. I’m looking forward to reading it when it goes on line. Meanwhile here are introductions to the short-listed stories: http://thecwa.co.uk/debuts/short-story-competition/.
Crimefest was a blast, as always, masses of friendly readers and writers, interesting panels, impeccably organised in a good hotel in a great city. I staggered home with a load of books, DVDs, and audio books, some of them the result of winning the Crimefest pub quiz, which I achieved by the simple ploy of making sure I was on the same team as Martin Edwards. I also won a book in a raffle at a terrific session on German crime fiction run by Kat Hall (aka Mrs Peabody). And then yesterday Captain Hastings (aka Hugh Fraser) politely opened a door for me – who would have thought it? So it was all good and I’ve already booked for next year.
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.
Or should they have their own section in book shops? Waterstones in Sheffield has recently reordered their shelves to slot the crime in with the other fiction – and I don’t like it. Hatchards on St Pancras station have done it too. I can appreciate the argument in favour: it is all literature and perhaps if crime fiction has its own section this implies that crime is something different (and perhaps lesser?). But when I am in the mood for crime – and I so often am – I want to browse crime fiction and nothing else. I don’t want to have to scan all the other fiction too.
To make it worse, short story collections aren’t grouped together. I was looking for the new British Library Golden Age collection, Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crime, and couldn’t work out where it might be, until I thought of looking under E for Martin Edwards, the editor.
Please, Waterstones, go back to your old ways and put all the crime fiction together with collections of short stories at the beginning like you used to do. I’ll be more likely to find what I want and buy it.
A glass of wine on a Saturday evening and Young Montalbano or a slice of Scandi-noir on the box? Absolutely! Chocolate? Of course, as long as it is dark and expensive. A meal out (or cooked by someone else) is always welcome. Flowers? I love flowers and often buy them for myself.
And yet when all is said and done, there isn’t much to beat buying a brand-new paperback that you’ve been longing for – and that was what I did in the Sheffield branch of Waterstone’s last Saturday. Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries, edited by my friend, Martin Edwards, is the latest in the spectacularly successful series of British Library Crime Classics.
I have loved the Golden Age short story ever since I bought a copy of Tales of Detection, chosen by Dorothy L Sawyers (1936), many years ago in a second-hand bookshop in Oxford. In Murder at the Manor, Martin has managed to come up with some crackers, many of which I haven’t read before. Who wouldn’t want to read a story with the title, ‘The Horror at Stavely Grange’ (by Sapper) – or ‘The Unlocked Window’ by Ethel Lina White, which opens like this:
‘Have you locked up, Nurse Cherry?’
‘Yes, Nurse Silver.’
‘Every door, every window?’
Yet even as she shot home the last bolt of the front door, at the back of Nurse Cherry’s mind was a vague misgiving.
She had forgotten – something.’
Blimey! They certainly knew how to cut to the chase in those days. I’m rationing myself so that I don’t gulp the stories down all at once. I’m glad I won’t be on my own this evening when I plan to read this one.
My book-buying moratorium has only five days to go. It’s my birthday this week and that has made the wait easier. My daughter gave me Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards, which I had been longing for. And what a splendid collection it is, well worth the wait. Of course there are a few old favourites: Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbunkle,’ Chesterton’s ‘The Flying Stars’, but there are also stories that have never been reprinted since they first appeared. I haven’t read them all yet, but so far there is not a single dud. Edgar Wallace’s ‘Stuffing,’ for example, is plotted with a deftness worthy of O. Henry.
I wasn’t surprised to receive Silent Nights – in fact, I’d have been surprised not to get it. But the book that my husband gave me, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Katherine Harkup, is an unexpected treat. Harkup is herself a chemist and, even just flicking through the book, I can see that she knows what she is talking about. Dame Agatha was of course keen on poison as a means of committing murder and also knew her onions (or daffodil bulbs) since she qualified as a dispenser during WWI. The book examines fourteen of the poisons that Christie used in her novels and some of the real-life cases that might have inspired her. It looks fascinating.
I’ll come on to how I did that in a minute. It’s two weeks now since I decided to have a three month moratorium on book-buying. It hasn’t been easy and yesterday I would have probably succumbed if it hadn’t been for the thought of having to own up to the lapse on this blog. I was in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly and I was tempted by Silent Night: Christmas Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards. I’ve got his other two Golden Age anthologies, Resorting to Murder and Capital Crimes and would have dearly loved to have this one too. As it is, I will put it on my Christmas list. And this means I will just have to wait. And that, I realise, is something I am not used to doing, at least not as far as books are concerned.
This has been a huge change in book-buying over the last few years. Last week I finished reading Allingham’s Dancers in Mourning on my e-reader and my immediate response was to download the next one that she’d written, The Fashion in Shrouds. Just as well I didn’t, as quite apart from my pledge, I discovered the book tucked away behind something else on my shelves. Yes, it’s embarrassing: I don’t even know what I’ve got. So I also intend to sort out my books before I buy any more.
So how did I buy a book by accident? Well, every now and then I book a ticket for a matinee at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and go over to Scarborough for the day on the train. I sponsored a seat there in memory of my mother, so it is something of a sentimental journey. I saw a revival of the Alan Ayckbourn play, Confusions, directed by the man himself. Naturally, I bought a programme. I was delighted to find that as well as the usual details of the cast and so on, it contained the entire text of the play – what a brilliant idea – and at only £3.50 was a wonderful bargain. I was able to enjoy the best bits of the play all over again on the way home. It was several days later that it occurred to me that this might count as buying a book. Oh well . . .