It is a feature of crime fiction as a genre that a lot of writers are expected to produce a book a year, often featuring the same detective. It’s not surprising that some of these series get a little tired and even the sainted Agatha wasn’t exempt from this. I’ve just read one of her later novels, At Bertram’s Hotel, and, sad to say, it is pretty thin stuff. It was published in 1965, a full forty-five years after her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. By then Christie herself was 75. Her last novels are really not up to much in comparison with her dazzling prime. That isn’t to say that crime-writers can’t write successfully in old age: look at P. D. James. However P. D. James doesn’t write a novel a year, and other writers who have maintained the quality of their work by letting the time stretch out between books include Martin Cruz Smith and Sue Grafton. I found myself musing on this as I read Ian Rankin’s new novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. He is one of those writers who does pretty much produce a book a year, but the standard shows no sign of slipping. Exit Music was supposed to be the last Rebus novel, but Rankin did not make the mistake of killing him off, so letting him return from retirement hasn’t been too problematic. It is rather surprising though that Rebus is in such good form, considering the quantities of fags, alcohol and junk he has consumed over the years. Does a vegetable or a piece of fruit never pass his lips? In this novel he finds himself teamed up with the teetotal Malcolm Fox, Rankin’s new series character, who has appeared in two novels of his own. He is am much a straight arrow as Rebus is a maverick. That’s fun, as is the development of Rubus’s friendship with Siobhan Clarke, once his protogee and now his senior. The novel’s intricately plotted, and there’s some terrific dialogue. Perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Rankin’s best – The Falls is my favourite – it’s still a very good read.
You know how it is sometimes with a new friend. You really get on, you see a lot of each other, and then, you’re not sure why, you can’t seem to get round to ringing her, she doesn’t ring you either, and you can’t put your finger on it, but the spark’s gone. Maybe after a while you’ll pick up where you left off – and maybe you won’t. That’s how it was with me and Kinsey Millhone. But last week I read Q IS FOR QUARRY and all the old friendly feelings came flooding back. What a pro Sue Grafton is and I mean that as high praise. She never short-changes her reader. Her novels are rich and satisfying, full of characters who step right off the page. I particularly enjoyed the two old-timer police officers who employ Kinsey to help them identify a murdered girl long dead. Now that I’m back I’ll read the other ones I’d missed.
Two things led me to pick up Q IS FOR QUARRY. I’ve got my mother’s copies of Sue Grafton’s novels now, so they are right there on the shelf, where I can see them if I turn my head. My mother really loved them, read them all, and and looked forward to the next one. The other is that Sue Grafton received the CWA Diamond Dagger last year in time for me to tell my mother that I’d be meeting her at the reception which in the end was a month or two after my mother died. I told Sue how much my mother had enjoyed her books. Of course she was pleased and said so. Another writer might have left it at that, but she drew me out about my own work, said sympathetically ‘writing is bloody hard’ and made me feel better when I was struggling a bit.
So yes, writing is hard, but good writers make it look easy, and that’s what Sue Grafton does.