Not long to go now to the annual British Library event, Bodies from the Library, and I am busy putting together my talk, Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy. She is a fine writer who has been unjustly neglected. I intend to put that right. If she is known at all it is for Through a Glass, Darkly – a novel I find chilling even on rereading – but she was far from being a one-novel wonder. I’ll be looking at the reasons why she sank out of sight so completely and saying why I think she is well worth reviving.
I’ve also been rereading with great enjoyment the novels and short stories of Cyril Hare in preparation for the session in which Martin Edwards and I will discussing him: Cyril Hare: Master of the English Murder. He is another writer who is not as well known as he deserves to be.
There will also be sessions on John Dickson Carr, E. C. R. Lorac, and much much more, including the chance to mingle with fans of golden age crime fiction. For details of what I am sure will be a splendid day, go to https://bodiesfromthelibrary.com
Do you enjoy crime fiction? If so, do you subscribe to the Crime Readers’ Association? If not, I’m sure you’d find it worth your while – and it is free.
The CRA is the readers’ arm of the Crime Writers’ Association (of which, by the way, I am once again Membership Secretary). Subscribers receive a bi-monthly edition of an entertaining online magazine, Case Files, along with all kinds of interesting features and articles from CWA members. In addition, subscribers receive a monthly newsletter containing updates of special events, crime reading (and writing) opportunities, book launches, author insider news, competitions and giveaways.
I am plugging this in a not entirely disinterested way as I am delighted to be Author of the Month on the CRA website and I have written a short piece in the December newletter about my new novel and its Antarctic setting. If you would like to take a look at the CRA and perhaps subscribe, go to: https://thecra.co.uk/about-the-cra/
The members of the CWA are a convivial lot, often to be found propping up a bar somewhere, and none more so than the committee members, who had their Christmas lunch early in December. There was only one Santa hat, so of course it had to be worn by our highly esteemed chair, Martin Edwards. My neighbour’s Rudolph burger (actually beef, I believe) came – most appropriately – with a dagger already plunged into its heart.
This can be a difficult question to answer. But in the case of my short story, ‘Accounting for Murder,’ which appears in the new CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, I know exactly where I got the idea. About eight years my husband and I bought a small, derelict house in Northern France. Restoring it has meant over the years many trips to Monsieur Bricolage, the DIY store. Sorting out some papers a while ago, I found the receipt from one such trip, listing the items that Peter had bought. It occurred to me that it told a little part of the story of the restoration – and right there and then, I had the idea of writing a short story consisting entirely of receipts. And that is more or less what I have done with ‘Accounting for Murder.’ It took me a while to see how I could do it, but once I had, the story almost wrote itself.
I was thrilled when it was accepted for the latest CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, which comes out this month, published by Orenda in hardback and paperback with a classy cover. My copies have arrived and I am happily working my way through stories by Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis, Martin Edwards, Kate Rhodes and many other terrific writers, some of them old friends, others new to me.
Might it not be the perfect Christmas present for the crime fiction fans in your life?
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.