In Muriel Spark’s splendid novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, finds herself at a dinner-party sitting next to a retired Brigadier General. She gives him advice on how to get down to writing his memoirs. Get a cat. She explains: ‘Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp . . . and the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind the self-command it has lost.’
The advice bears fruit. Three years later the Brigadier sends her a copy of his war memoirs. ‘On the cover was a picture of the Brigadier at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it “To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.” The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’
Here is my own writer’s companion, sitting among the reference works.
. . . but I can’t resist posting a picture of the new additions to the family. They arrived three weeks ago. The little one is nearly four months old and she is called Holly. The big one is nearly seven months and he is Freddie. They’re not related, but became friends at the rescue centre so we decided to take them both. They are sweet little cats and it’s a bonus that they are so chic in their matching black and white.
Today my new novel is out. I am delighted with the great job that my publishers have done and it was a thrill to get my advance copy. What a terrific cover! I couldn’t be more pleased with it.
I turned to the acknowledgements and there at the end was this: ‘and last but not least, my husband, Peter Blundell Jones.’ Those were the last words in my book, written, of course, months ago, before we knew that Peter was ill. How fitting they are. That is all I really want to say for today. But if you’d like more, I’ve been interviewed over on Sue Hepworth’s blog, and you can read the post at www.suehepworth.com
Someone very close to me is very seriously ill. I’m taking a break from the blog.
Time for another list. My good friend, Moira (Clothesinbooks.com), and I are sharing eight of our favourite novels set in universities and colleges. Here are mine:
- Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes (1947). Not just one of my favourite novels set in a college, but one of my favourite novels, full stop. I will be astonished if Moira doesn’t also choose this one. Miss Pym, who has had unexpected success with a work of popular psychology, is persuaded to give some lectures at Leys Physical Training College, where her old friend, Henrietta, is now head. There is a nasty accident in the gym and a student dies – or is it an accident? Lucy Pym at last uncovers the truth in a truly startling denouement. The depiction of the college and its students is wonderfully convincing and entertaining.
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sawyers (1935). I’ll be pretty surprised if she doesn’t choose this one, too. This scarcely need an introduction. Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, the all-female Shrewsbury College, in Oxford for the annual ‘Gaudy’ celebrations. A series of malicious pranks includes poison-pen messages, obscene graffiti, the destruction of a set of proofs. Enter Lord Peter Wimsey . . .
- Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red by Harry Kemelman (1973). Rabbi Small has had enough of the bickering of his congregation in the Massachusetts town of Barnard’s Crossing, and jumps at the chance to teach a course on Jewish Studies at Windermere Christian College. Soon someone lies dead, brained by a plaster bust of Homer! I love this series. The Rabbi is an engaging character, humane, perceptive – and stubborn. The mysteries are interesting, too, and are solved by some special bit of insight on the part of Small – usually springing from his rabbinical learning.
- Emma Lethan, Come to Dust (1968). The Emma Lathen novels were written by two economists, Martha Hennisart and Mary J. Latis. They feature as their investigator John Putnam Thatcher, urbane Vice-President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, and how quaintly old-fashioned it seems that a banker could act as a moral touchstone. In Thatcher’s work he is involved in approving investments and the novels employed a wide range of business setting. In this one it’s the Ivy League Brunswick College and its alumni association. There’s a dead student and a missing bond worth $50,000.
5. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabron (1995). The joys of the comic campus novel: libidinous lecturers, hapless students, unwritten books. The variation here is that Grady Tripp is a lecturer in creative writing and his unfinished book is a novel with the title, Wonder Boys. Chabron’s novel, takes place over the single weekend of the yearly Wordfest conference and involves a collapsing marriage, a pregnant mistress, a stolen car, a dead dog, a tuba, a boa constrictor named Grossman, the ermine-lined jacket in which Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio, and more, much more. Very entertaining and in the end, rather touching,
6. Changing Places (1975) by David Lodge. Philip Swallow and Professor Morris Zapp participate in their universities’ Anglo-American exchange scheme, Philip heads for California and sundrenched Euphoric State university. Morris arrives in the rain-drenched university of Rummidge (a thinly disguised University of Birmingham – where I began an MA that very same year). Academic pretensions on both sides of the Atlantic are mercilessly skewered . . .
7. Eating People is Wrong (1959) by Malcolm Bradbury
‘Tell me, do you like this hairstyle? Be frank. I can have it done again somewhere else.’
‘Darling, I was going to ask what happened to it?’ said a man in a bow-tie. ‘You could have fought back. Or did they give you an anaesthetic?’
‘You should have seen what he did to my dog,’ said the lady.
A novel from the same decade as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and was also inspired by the University of Leicester, incidentally my own almer mater. It’s funny and sad and more generous in spirit than Lucky Jim.
8. And so, finally, not a crime novel, or a comic novel, John Williams’ Stoner (1965) is a celebration and an affirmation of the value of universities and of the life of the mind. On the face of it William Stoner’s life has not been a success: he is an academic who makes no great impact either through his teaching or his writing. His marriage is a failure, more, a kind of hell, and his much loved daughter eventually becomes an alcoholic. Yet his love of literature redeems him and in an interview quoted by John Mcgahern in the introduction to the splendid, Vintage edition Williams described Stoner as a hero, who had a very good life. ‘He had some feeling for what he was doing . . . he was a witness to values that are important, The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job. Teaching is to him a job – a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. ‘A beautifully written novel, pitch perfect in tone.
So, I’ll post a link to Moira’s splendid blog, when her post is up and I am longing to see what she has chosen. And here it is: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk. Not a single overlap!
Something that has surprised me a little bit recently: a couple of old friends who’ve told me that they have gone over entirely to ebooks. One is my dear friend, Pauline, whom I’ve known since we were eleven. Books and magazines were and are an important part of our friendship (Pauline is my most loyal reader). As a teenager she had a splendid collection of Superman comics and we used to read Agatha Christie and work out the solution on paper. Dear, dead days . . . She has still got her books from childhood. I don’t think she’ll mind my saying that technology is not her thing, but she has run out of room for books, so now she reads ebooks pretty much exclusively. The other person is my old university friend, Gary. He is technologically savvy, so it’s not such a surprise to learn that he reads everything on his iPad. His wife, though, reads only print books. And I have to say that is my preference, too.
I wonder how many others have thrown in their lot with one or the other. I’ve had an e-reader for three years now, and after a honeymoon period, I have settled on print as my default position. I do use the e-reader when travelling or on holiday and it is also useful if I can’t sleep or wake up early and don’t want to disturb my husband. It is real luxury not to have to get up and go somewhere else to read. So I wouldn’t be without it. But as a general rule, I would rather have a book in my hand. Any book in which you might want to move back and forwards, which I tend to do, is much better read in print. I also have a regrettable tendency to get a certain way into a book and then leave it, coming back to it days or even weeks later, and it’s much easier to skim a print book to remind yourself of what’s happened so far. A print book, even a humble paperback, can be an attractive object. A print book can remind you of the friend or lover who gave it to you – or the time in your life when you bought it or first read it. You can’t write a sentimental inscription or a declaration of undying love in an ebook. I like a book to take up space in the world (though I realise that it is also an argument in favour of e-books that they don’t take up space). I like to see a book on the shelf waiting for me to read it – or reread it. And if I’m not going to read it again, I like to give it to a friend or take it to a charity shop and set it free to find another reader.
So there it is. Print for me. How about you?
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.
After I blogged about Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil I downloaded his other ‘impossible crime’ novel, Come to Paddington Fair. I was planning to save it, but soon succumbed and what a corker it turned out to be. I would definitely have included it in my list of favourite books set in theatres if I’d known about it.
The death scene in the final act West End play goes very wrong in front of a matinee audience to which someone has invited a Scotland Yard inspector, Steve Castle, and his friend, Algy Lawrence, the amateur sleuth who featured in Whistle Up the Devil. A gun has been loaded with bullets instead of blanks and a very unpopular actress ends up dead. The theatrical setting is very well done, and I was completely bamboozled by the puzzle. At one point I did have the faintest of inklings about how it might have been done, but I couldn’t bring it into focus and was completely and satisfyingly foxed. When the solution was revealed, it was both ingenious and yet – in a way – obvious: perfect.
I was sad to discover that Derek Smith wrote so little. Come to Paddington Fair was apparently only published in a small print run in Japan and wasn’t published in the UK at all. Given its quality, this seems extraordinary and I am so sorry that Smith didn’t write more. I applaud Locked Room International for making these these lost classics of the genre available.
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.
I have to admit that this rarely happens to me. My first three novels, the ones featuring Cassandra James in Cambridge, were published only in hardback with shortish print runs (they are now all available as e-books, I hasten to add) and it’s mostly paperbacks in charity shops. The last one, Invisible, was available as a paperback, but only print on demand, so I was very interested to see a copy in a local charity shop. I wondered if it was one that I’d signed. It was. How did I feel about seeing it there? Well, I was glad to see that it had clearly been read, probably more than once or by more than one person, judging by its condition, and it was good to see it out in the world, looking for a new reader. And after all someone might buy it and read it and like it and seek out something else I’ve written.
That of course is the only way I’d make any money out of it. I often see half a dozen books by the same writer and I wonder how they feel. Even a tiny royalty on every book sold in a charity shop or a second hand book shop would make a big difference to a lot of writers, though I can’t ever see it happening. I suspect too that cheap books mean that people aren’t using libraries so much, where writers do at least get PLR. And then there is a danger with cheap (or even free) books, that they won’t be valued as much as they should be. I’d love to know how other writers feel.
And this reminds that my book-buying moratorium has – for now at any rate – changed my book-buying habits. It’s nearly a month since it ended, but I have been sparing in what I buy, am tending to buy new rather than second-hand, am getting more out of the library, and am still concentrating on my TBR pile.