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 . . .
Last Saturday I was at the launch of The Starlings and Other Stories at Waterstones in Wrexham. Nine of the twelve authors were there along with David Wilson, the photographer whose work inspired our stories. I did wonder if we would outnumber the audience (it’s been known to happen with smaller groups of writers than this!), but there was a good turn-out and the audience was responsive.
It is rare that publication of a collection of short stories is marked in this way, but truly there is something special about this book. I don’t know of any other that combines images and texts in quite this way. These aren’t illustrations: as I’ve explained in an earlier blog, the photographs came first. And what photographs! As Chris Simms writes in the introduction ‘these weren’t the cosy compositions of tourist shop tea-towels. By his own admission David’s photographs – beautiful as they are – often carry “a sense of eerie foreboding.” Brooding woods emerge from pale mist. Lonely farmsteads are threatened by stormy skies. An abandoned building leaves you wondering what happened to those who once lived there.’ Perfect starting points for a crime-writer and it was fascinating to see what everyone had made of it.
It was lovely to meet the team at Graffeg who are responsible for a beautifully produced book along with the other writers, and – especially – David Wilson. The photograph shows from left to right in the front row, myself, Margaret Murphy, Kate Ellis, Helena Edwards; in the second row Toby Forward, Ann Cleeves, David Wilson, Martin Edwards, Cath Staincliffe, Chris Simms.
Or, to give it its full title, The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, by Martin Edwards. I bought it at Crimefest and starting reading it right away. I finished it in four days even though it is 435 pages long and the days at the convention were packed. It is an enthralling read. There are several strands to the book, skilfully woven together to produce a compelling narrative. The Detection Club, founded around 1930, forms the spine, along with the novels its members wrote, their relationships with each other, and the real life crimes that inspired them. Some would say that the judicial hanging of Edith Thompson after her conviction for being an accessory to the murder of her husband was itself a crime and we are not spared the details, rightly, I think. Certainly it troubled some members of the club and inspired some memorable fiction, such as E. M. Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs and F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peep-Show.
Agatha Christie comes across as a very sympathetic figure and Dorothy L Sawyers more so than I’d expected. This account of her love for the illegitimate son she felt she could not acknowledge and the failure of her marriage makes sad reading. The members of the Detection Club had their share of human weaknesses. Though none – so far as we know – were actual murderers, unhappy marriages and divorce were common. Authors little read these days – Henry Wade, R. Austin Freeman, M. and G.D.H. Coles and many others – are brought vividly to life. Perhaps the most intriguing figure is Anthony Berkeley who wrote under various names including Francis Iles. Martin claims that ‘the psychological puzzle of the relationship between Berkeley and E. M. Delafield is the great untold story of the Golden Age’ and he makes good on his claim.
Above all it is the voice of the narrator, witty, judicious, humane in his judgements, that makes this book such a pleasure to read. I loved every word, and I confidently predict that in addition to the excellent reviews it has so far garnered (including Mark Lawson’s in the Guardian), that we will be seeing it short-listed for various awards. Bravo!