It’s forty years since I bought the first of many books in an Oxfam shop. I know that because I have the book open beside me and the date is written inside: ‘July 1978’ along with the place: ‘Birmingham.’ It was a new book, The Oxfam Vegetable Cookbook by Rose Elliot, and it cost 75 pence. Did Oxfam sell second-hand books then? I was a young postgraduate, living alone for the first time in a bed-sit in Moseley, a leafy suburb close to the University, and learning to cook for myself. I certainly got my money’s worth from that book. It’s been worked hard and is corrugated from cooking stains and water marks. There is a recipe for carrot and lentil soup that I still use.
Over the years how many books have I bought from Oxfam bookshops? Hundreds, certainly, more likely thousands, and I’ve donated just as many. I love the idea of sending books back out into world for others to enjoy with the knowledge that they are doing good at the same time. The one in Cambridge, where I taught at Homerton College in the 1990s, was a particular favourite. Academics are great readers of crime fiction and I used to snap up US editions left by visiting scholars.
There is nothing like the frisson of entering a Oxfam shop, not knowing if you’ll find something out of print by a favourite writer or happen upon a wonderful writer who is new to you. My best buy ever was The Man Who Hated Banks and Other Mysteries by Michael Gilbert, discovered in the Sheffield Broomhill branch. It was difficult to get hold of at the time and though it set me back £12, it was worth every penny. Looking on-line I see that there are now copies available from the US for around the same price at the click of a mouse, but where is the fun in that?
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Matlock Oxfam shop and this was written to be displayed there. Perhaps I should add that I do buy new copies of books by my favourite writers, but this is a great way of sampling writers first.
Time for another list! My good blogfriend, Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/and I are sharing our choice of eight books set in churches or cathedrals. I don’t claim that mine are the best books, but they are all books I’ve loved and read more than once.
My first would have to be Trollope’s Barsetshire novels: all six, beginning with The Warden (1855) and ending with The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire (1867). By the time you get to the end, you know all the characters so well: the flawed but loveable archdeacon, the gentle and unworldly Reverend Harding, the wonderfully insufferable Mrs Proudie. I love Trollope for his sympathetic understanding of human nature.
Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (1958). One of her very best, I think. The church is the Anglo-Catholic church, St Luke’s, in north London. It does play an important role in the novel, though this is really a sparkling comedy of errors rather than any sort of depiction of church life. It begins with Wilmet, the rather naive protagonist, hearing a phone ringing in the middle of a service (long before mobile phones)and ends with the induction of a new vicar at another church. It’s funny and touching. I especially like the jumble sale.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, The Humbler Creation (1959). I don’t think she is read much these days, and that’s a shame, because she was a very good writer. This also features a London church in the 1950s, but the tone is altogether more sombre, perhaps even a little Chekhovian. Maurice is the vicar of St Lawrence’s and is married to the idle and narcissistic Libby. With them live Libby’s ailing mother and Libby’s widowed sister Kate (who runs the household) and her two sons. Maurice is resigned to the situation until Alice Imber moves into the neighbourhood . . .
Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders (1946). Churches make very good settings for crime novels. They are closed communities, there’s the contrast between godliness and human frailty, and ideas about sin and judgement are ready to hand. Murder and mayhem of course follow the redoubtable Gervase Fen’s arrival at the clergy house of Tolnbridge Cathedral.Great stuff. I must read it again and soon.
Dorothy L Sawyers, The Nine Tailors (1934). A classic. Fenchurch St Paul is a magnificent East Anglian wool church. The delightful Reverend Venables is its vicar, his wife Agnes the power behind the throne. Lord Peter Wimsey fetches up there when his car runs into a ditch on a snowy New Year’s Eve. The church is almost a character in its own right and plays a part in a mysterious death in ways I won’t describe just in any case there is anyone who hasn’t read it.
Michael Gilbert, Close Quarters (1947) and The Black Seraphim (1983). I’m sneaking two crime novels in here, but with some excuse as these are set in the same cathedral close. Close Quarters is very much in the Golden Age mode. It even contains a map and a crossword puzzle. The setting is Melchester Cathedral, which also figures in The Black Seraphim thirty-six years later. Dark deeds in the cloisters: both are hugely enjoyable reads.
J. Meade Faulkner, The Nebuly Coat (1903). A young architect goes to the remote town of Cullerne to supervise restoration work on Cullerne Minster. There is a mystery surrounding the claim to the title of Lord Blandamer, whose coat of arms in the Minster’s great transept window is the nebula coat of the title. The story comes to a most tremendous climax. I’ve read this twice, the second time while staying in the cathedral close at Salisbury: a perfect combination of book and place.
J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980). It’s 1920 and a shell-shocked young man arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to uncover and restore a wall painting in the local church. A marvellous novella that I have already reviewed here: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/category/a-month-in-the-country/
So that’s it. I can’t wait to see what Moira has chosen – and here it is: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/. Do please add your own suggestions to our comments sections.
There are times when I just don’t have the energy to tackle something new, and a return to old favourites is exactly what I need. Michael Gilbert is fitting the bill at the moment. To read his novels is to take a masterclass in crime fiction. He wrote a lot: over 400 short stories and around three dozen novels, as well as radio and TV plays. He wrote almost every type of crime novel: police procedurals, classic whodunits, thrillers. To all of them he brought a superb sense of pace, tight plotting and a dry sense of humour. What’s more he had a day job as a lawyer and wrote as he commuted into London. He was a founder member of the CWA. Rather wonderfully, he was Raymond Chandler’s UK lawyer. Rather less wonderfully he went to the same school as my husband, some considerable time before.
If he specialised in anything it might have been the one-honest-man-brings-down-corrupt-organisation plot. In The Crack in the Teacup, a small-town solicitor comes up against local government corruption. In The Long Journey Home it is an engineer who crosses swords with a corrupt international company in league with the Mafia. Of this sub genre I particularly like The Final Throw: corrupt financial empire brought down by – well, I’d better not disclose by whom in case you haven’t read it. Of the classic whodunits, The Black Seraphim, set in a cathedral close (a setting I plan to use myself one day) and the splendid Smallbone Deceased (set in a lawyers’ office in which a body is found in a deed box) are particular favourites.
Gilbert had a long career and died in 2006 aged 93. I bet he was great company and I am sorry I never met him.
I’m off to Crimefest – see crimefest.com – on Thursday where I am moderating a panel on the Contemporary Cosy. This has set me thinking about my all-time favourite crime novels and I’ve drawn up a desert island selection of eight classic crime novels or collections of stories that I’d be very happy to read again. In the spirit of Desert Island Discs, that venerable radio programme, I have assumed that the complete works of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are already on the island. So here goes.
1. Frederic Brown, The Night of the Jabberwock. I have mentioned this fantastic novel (in very sense of the word) before. Superbly plotted, funny, and touching.
2. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman. I also very much like The Fire Engine that Disappeared, but this is perhaps the better novel.
3. Dorothy L Sawyers, The Nine Taylors. Need more be said?
4. G. K. Chesterton, The Complete Father Brown. Similarly.
5. George Simenon, Maigret’s Christmas. Again hard to choose one among so many, so I’d go for this splendid collection of short stories.
6. Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes. Many times re-read and never fails to enthrall. I love the character of Miss Pym and the atmosphere of the teacher training college is so vividly evoked.
7. Rennie Airth, River of Darkness. This is a relatively recent novel (2004) which might not be a classic yet, but deserves to become one. Set in the 1920s the trauma of World War I casts its shadow over both killer and detective. Gripping, scary, and full of humanity.
8. Michael Gilbert. Always good value, so not easy to pick out one. Among the later works, I like The Final Throw, but in the end I’ll plump for Smallbone Deceased, one of the earliest and a true classic.
It’s been fun choosing. What would you choose (you needn’t pick eight)?
This morning a book arrived in the post, another Michael Gilbert, Body of a Girl, which I ordered through Abebooks. Once I have read this, I think I’ll have read all of his. It was sent from Green Earth books, Auburn, Washington State, not very far from Seattle. Including postage, this cost me only £4.96, less than the price of a new paperback, and it’s a nice copy too. It took two weeks to get to me. I didn’t know anything about Auburn, so I looked up it up on Wikipedia and was delighted to discover that it had originally been called Slaughter, after a Lt William Slaughter, who had died in skirmish there in the 1850s and the main hotel had been called ‘The Slaughter House.’ A great place to set a crime novel! I wonder if anyone has? Later on it was renamed and the name was taken from the first line of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village. Present Day Auburn sound like a a pleasant place, with some original Craftsman’s houses, and I liked the sound of River’s Bend, described as ‘a small residential neighborhood nestled along the Green River.’ I imagine it raining rather a lot. I don’t suppose that I’ll ever visit Auburn, but I have enjoyed this brief exploration online.
On another subject entirely, readers sometimes ask me when my next novel will be coming out. It has been a while coming, but I’m very pleased to able to say that today I signed a contract with Accent Press, a lively independent publisher based in Wales. They’ll be bringing out my new novel next year.
In my previous blog I wondered if ebooks would herald a resurgence in the publication of short stories and novellas. What I hadn’t fully realised was the extent to which it is already far easier to get hold of collections of short stories that in the past have been very hard to find or prohibitively expensive. A case in point is Michael Gilbert’s Game Without Rules, a collection of stories featuring two ruthless MI5 agents, Mr Calder and Mr Behrens. The last time I looked online this was expensive: if you want a print copy it is £24.45 plus postage. However I have just bought it as an ebook from House of Stratus for £6.17. Another collection of Gilbert’s short stories, Stay of Execution, is a swingeing £212.68 plus postage from the US and that also is available as an ebook from House of Stratus for £6.17. I prefer a hard copy if I think I’ll want to read something more than once, but not at those prices. So when I found that a second-hand paperback copy of Gilbert’s Petrella at Q, is available for £2.75 plus postage, that’s what I went for. Gilbert’s Anything for a Quiet Life was available fron House of Stratus also for £6.17 as an ebook or in this case £8.03 as a new paperback. I went for the paperback. By now I was on something of a roll. There was an article in the most recent edition of CADS (Crime and Detective Stories) about Roy Vickers, writer of the Department of Dead Ends stories, some of which I’ve got in a dear old battered green Penguin. I wondered if more were available. Yes, in an ebook entitled Murder Will Out, available from Bellos at £3.17. That’s now on my ereader. I do buy recent novels too from real bookshops. Last week-end I bought Michael Connolly’s The Black Box and Keith B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night from Waterstone’s. How typical my buying habits are, I don’t know. But I do know that my youthful self who thrilled to the chase, tracking down copies of long out-of-print books in dusty second-hand bookshops, would be amaazed that they can be downloaded in seconds at the click of a mouse. Yes, a lot has been gained, but maybe something has been lost, too.
I’d almost finished browsing in the charity shop last Saturday, when my eye was caught by a title on display on the top shelf, THE MAN WHO HATED BANKS AND OTHER MYSTERIES. I reached up for it and was delighted to see that it was a collection of stories by a favourite writer, Michael Gilbert. The price was £7.99, a bit steep for a charity shop paperback, so I guessed that it was a pretty rare book – and when I looked it up on Abebooks, I found I was right. But I didn’t buy it as a collector’s item, I bought it for the pleasure of reading a whole bunch of Michael Gilbert’s short stories that I hadn’t read before. And it was a very timely acquisition as the illness of a close friend has meant that I’ve been making a number of long train journeys recently, and this was exactly the sort of reading that I needed. I didn’t want something demanding or something that I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure that I would enjoy. I wanted encounters with old friends and that is exactly what I got. Gilbert’s first novel came out in 1947 and this collection, published by the estimable Crippen and Landru, was published in 1997 in honour of his fifty years as a writer. These are all stories featuring policemen or lawyers who appeared in his novels, Petrella, Hazlerigg, Bohun, and Mercer, written throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Gilbert caught the tail-end of the golden age of the short story and what is remarkable is the enviable number of different publications that these stories appeared in: JOHN BULL, ARGOSY, THE EVENING STANDARD, REVEILLE, and others. All gone now, except THE EVENING STANDARD – and how long is it since that published short stories? – and that wonderful survivor, ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. But now that short stories are available online I am wondering if the possibilities of the e-reader could herald a resurgence in short fiction and novellas, which print publishers have been loath to take on in the past.I hope so.
A few blogs ago I mentioned that I’d written a short story about a surgeon who had murdered his mistress. Well it’s been accepted by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I love this magazine (of course!). They have just published another short story of mine, ‘A Tour of the Tower’ in their March/April issue. I only wish there was somewhere similar to place short stories in the UK. it’s a form that I very much enjoy. A short story provides a welcome change of pace from a novel and its rewards are more immediate. It can be a thrill to find oneself rubbing shoulders with writers who are far more distinguished than oneself. My very first short story was published in a CWA anthology along with writers whose work I’d long admired: Michael Gilbert, Reginald Hill, John Harvey. I could hardly believe it.
If I had to pick a favourite crime short story it would have to be ‘A Jury of her Peers’ by Susan Glaspell, first written in 1917, though stories by G.K, Chesterton and Conan Doyle would run it close. Although it is set in a vividly realised time and place, It hasn’t dated and I can give it no higher accolade than to say I wish I could write something as good one day. I often reread it as a masterclass in psychological insight and narrative control.