What do crime writers read?

On the very last day of this year’s Oxford Lit Fest I was lucky enough to join Robin Stevens and Katherine Woodfine at The Story Museum to talk to our hearts’ content about detective fiction – writing it, and reading it.

We all write historical crime mysteries for children – and for anyone else who likes to read them! Nancy Parker's Diary of Detection by Julia LeeKatherine’s books are set in the rags and riches world of the grandest Victorian department store, Robin’s boarding school murder mysteries are set in the 1930s, and my new series is set in 1920, featuring Nancy Parker, a housemaid-turned-amateur detective.

The classic reads and characters which enthused and inspired us all were remarkably similar…

Our top hero Wilkie Collins is credited with inventing the genre of detective fiction with Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868). His books have nail-biting mysteries and brilliant characterisation. In The Woman In White, the wonderful Marian Halcombe has the terrier-like qualities, essential for the amateur investigator, of loyally searching and refusing to let go. Marian is also a great antidote to the ‘ideal’ heroine of Victorian fiction who was as passive and dependent as she was pretty and blonde.

I have to confess that Clemency’s ghastly great-uncle in my first book, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth, owes  more than a little to Marian’s half-sister’s uncle, Frederick Fairlie. (Yes, complicated – they always are!) Also to the wonderful Ian Richardson who played him in the 1980s TV adaptation.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the prototype of the investigator with almost super-human deductive skills. ‘We’re looking for a man with hare lip whose housekeeper always uses Shiny-Bee Floor wax.’ Ok, I made that up, but it’s just the kind of thing we expect Sherlock to say, and the way he’s morphed into a 21st century detective shows what a hold he has on our imaginations.

Then there’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

I read all the Miss Marple short stories, especially the early ones for 1920s atmosphere, when I was writing Nancy Parker. But my favourite book of Christie’s, Death Comes As The End, is one which many people haven’t heard of. It may be the first example of a historical crime novel. It’s set in the court of the Pharaohs in 2000 BC and has as high a body count as her famous And Then There Were None. Christie’s husband was an archaeologist and her interest in the subject inspired this fascinating whodunnit.

Harriet Vane from Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey books is another great female detective – and a novelist to boot.

As for children’s books which inspired us, Nancy Drew, E. Nesbit’s Bastable children for their problem-solving (in The Treasure Seekers), and even Just William (identified as a loose cannon), never forgetting Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven, and The Famous Five (though really it was tomboy George and Timmy the dog who worked it all out).

Finally a massive vote from me for Golden Age writer of mystery fiction, Josephine Tey, whose books are still eminently readable today.

The Daughter of Time (1951) is an odd hybrid of contemporary and historical investigation: a police inspector, who prides himself on reading innocence or guilt in a suspect’s face, is laid up with a broken leg and bored. Sparked by a portrait of Richard III, he investigates from his hospital bed the story of the murder of the Princes in the Tower, using written sources. This book was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the UK Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. I wonder if it’s the predecessor of all those novels where a modern-day hero/ine uncovers a story through a cache of letters and documents from the past?

My own favourite books of Tey’s are Brat Farrar, a beguiling mystery of identity, The Franchise Affair (rather modern in its portrayal of press manipulation, and full of twists and turns) and Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a girls’ boarding school!

writers Julia Lee, Katherine Woodfine, Robin Stevens, at Oxford Literary Festival 2016,

Katherine Woodfine (left), me and Robin Stevens at The Story Museum, Oxford.

So if you want a classic detective fiction reading list, this is not a bad place to start.

Anti-romantic romantics

The Town In Bloom by Dodie Smith

The Town In Bloom – Dodie Smith (1965)

 

I never got round to reading I Capture The CastleDodie Smith’s much-loved coming-of-age novel – until I’d been of age for many years. It was on my bookshelf, I’d even opened it a few times, but somehow was never in the mood for a story that began with the famous first line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

When I did get round to reading it properly, like many others I fell in love – with the book, the setting, with its 17-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain.

So I was delighted to find another Dodie Smith novel with a similarly young protagonist, The Town In Bloom. Not because I was looking for one, but because this reissue presented itself to me, on face-out display in my local library. That is the beauty of libraries – they give you gifts you didn’t even know you wanted. (The same with proper bookshops.)

Expecting the same sort of enchanting comfort read, I was, in a way, disappointed. It has a charmingly wayward heroine, nicknamed Mouse, and wonderful detail that makes her 1920s London come alive: the residential Club for ladies, the ‘brown dinners’, the penny-pinching, and the clothes! The bulk of the plot concerns Mouse’s adventures when she arrives in London, aged 18, hoping to make a career in the theatre. Despite being young, diminutive and provincial, Mouse is far from mousey. Brought up by a very forward-thinking aunt, she confounds many of our received ideas about just-post-World War I attitudes and morals. She meets three other young women inventing their own independent lives and the four become friends. So far, so good. But once Mouse falls in love things change.

As a (failed) actress and then successful playwright Dodie Smith was very familiar with this world. It’s a long way – in tone, at least – from the seedy theatre milieu Jean Rhys knew and wrote about, but it’s still not exactly a romp. All-too-adult compromise, subterfuge and manipulations abound.  There’s not much of the withheld – and then delivered – gratification for the reader that makes a romantic book, of whatever quality, satisfying to its reader. This is different, more realistic, anti-romantic in many ways. Independent young women don’t live fairy-tale lives after all.

I Capture The Castle may be shelved as a YA book these days, but I can’t see The Town In Bloom pleasing a similar readership. For one thing, the love interest. The men the four girls get involved with – all substantially older than them – are really not appealing, at least not to modern teens (I hope!) A philandering actor-manager, a career clergyman, a boring-but-decent chap – they’re thinly written and unsurprising. They’re pretty much all rotters, too. Another I’d pinned my hopes on only disappoints (as so often in real life, dear reader).

The second problem lies in the structure of the novel. Most of it revolves around Mouse’s first mad year in London, book-ended by two sections set in a later period, looking back. Three of the friends meet at five-year intervals (there’s a mystery with Zelle, the fourth). Looking back is fine – but how far? It turns out to be 45 years, which is huge stretch. Problematically, the women don’t seem to have changed much or feel like women in their late 60s – and in the 1960s, sixty wasn’t “the new forty”, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine my teenage self identifying with them and the paths their lives have taken.

But as a grown up reader I found this a fascinating if slightly unexpected period novel.

‘The Dark Is Rising’ by Susan Cooper

I loved Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) when I was a child. At the time it was a stand-alone story. The rest of the books in the sequence weren’t written, or even conceived, until long after this first one was published. So I came to its sequel, The Dark Is Rising (1973), only this year, as an adult reader. I’ve forgotten all but the bare bones of the first book, except that it rapidly drew me in and introduced me to the legend of Arthur and the Grail quest.

I identified with Over Sea, Under Stone partly because it was set on the south coast of Cornwall in a landscape very familiar to me from summer holidays: my mother’s family live in that part of the world. The Drew children visit their great uncle Merriman Lyon for a holiday and stumble on a local mystery. So far, so children’s adventure…But then it gets deeper, turning very satisfactorily into a battle between the ancient powers of Light and Darkness.

I featured The Dark Is Rising on my recent wintry reads post and can’t imagine tackling it on a hot summer holiday. The action this time takes place over and around the winter solstice. Cooper grew up in Buckinghamshire, England – vividly depicted in The Dark Is Rising – but conceived the book while cross-country skiing through woods in Massachusetts, where she has lived for many years; and I think those surroundings make their mark on the novel, too.

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper Vintage Classics 2013

 

I do like this cover on my recent Vintage Classics edition, even with the slightly worrying South Park vibe of that orange-coated figure in the snow! It’s suitably chilly and the rearing horse and rider plus the sinister rooks hint at all the right story elements.

 

This time the family is the Stantons, with their rather unlikely ten children, partly because Will has to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a rare and chosen person. On the eve of his 11th birthday strange things begin to happen and Will’s ordinary, busy family preparations for Christmas turn so much murkier. The walls between his familiar world and a much older one grow thin and permeable. Shapes shift, Will travels in time and place, and meets The Old Ones who show him things and grant him knowledge almost overpowering to such a young boy. He discovers he has a key role – whether he wants it or not – in the endless fight between the forces of good and evil, light and dark. Merriman Lyon is again a vital figure, striding through the landscape full of ancient wisdom. Other Old Ones are strange versions of Will’s own neighbours, their own powers fiercely tested by the fight. Elements of British myth, like Herne the Hunter, are skilfully woven into the story to give it a wild, weird texture.

I know this is a very admired story, but coming to it now I found two problems with it, one large, one small.

Will is the kind of protagonist writers are warned against creating – he is very passive. (Passive protagonists can be annoying to identify with; the reader may just want to give them a kick up the pants.) The role of the Old Ones is to educate Will and, if they can, protect him. He is given visions. He is shown things, told things; when he’s unsure what to do next he’s told to wait and he will know, instinctively, or creatures will come out of the dark and the snow to lead him. And they do. He’s handed about like a parcel. Sure, sometimes he has to battle his utmost, but I never felt in doubt that he wouldn’t overcome, or have the right vision, or be saved by outward influence – even in the climactic fight. He doesn’t ever have to solve a problem himself, by his own ingenuity. Call me a cynical old adult, but I just didn’t engage with him enough as an active character to really worry for him. Perhaps if I’d read this book as a child I would have been swept along with Will’s journey and not felt the loss of narrative tension.

The only time he has any real agency, where I felt a charge of tension, is early on. Will has been shown he has to power to make fire, and like a typical young boy decides to test it out on a walk home down an out-of-the-way alley. His totally understandable experiment draws the attention of wicked forces, confusingly disguised as a local farm girl. This isn’t just wafting and drifting and going with the mythic flow. It’s Will making a unilateral decision and finding it’s a mistake. But then Merriman appears to save him and tell him a bit more useful stuff! And vanish again.

The other problem is a lesser one but niggling. It’s the girls.

Will has five brothers (another died as a baby) and three sisters, a big jolly household where dad works as a jeweller and mum keeps things going at home in their country cottage. Ten kids is pretty unusual for the early 1970s, and a non-Catholic family, but hey ho. The eldest, Stephen, Will’s hero, is away in the navy and sadly never does show up, though a significant gift arrives from him. All the boys, from adult Stephen down to Will as youngest, are lovingly drawn. They are talented: Paul plays the flute beautifully, James and Will are good singers, Robin’s mechanically-minded and ‘an excellent footballer’, Max fixes things. They willingly help with fetching the logs and the Christmas tree and sweeping snow. There’s jolly banter and sibling goodwill. They are described in a way that makes you think they’d look a rather attractive bunch to outsiders, and they’re unfailingly cheerful, charming and communicative.

Now, anyone who’s raised – or been – an adolescent boy – would you say that particularly those last three words are the first you’d pull out of the descriptive bag? Teenage boys can be charming, cheerful, helpful, and communicative, of course. But that’s truly not the default setting.

On to the girls. My feeling is that Cooper chucked in three girls just so that there weren’t only the seven necessary boy siblings – oh, and to give someone for Will to rescue. I found it hard to distinguish Gwen, Barbara and Mary. I found it hard to recall their names. We first meet them just before a noisy family mealtime, and how are they described? First sight of Gwen: patiently setting the table. Mary is ‘plump’, and listening to blasting pop music on the radio. She pouts when told to turn it off. Barbara is ‘sixteen and superior’ and tells someone to shut up. We learn that Gwen cooks whole meals for the family. Mary sniffs, and tosses her long hair. (She does this a lot, once described as being smug about it!) Already my resentment is building up. I don’t know about Will time-travelling, I feel as if I have time-travelled into the 1950s or some era when young women’s typical range of behaviour was seen as pouty, peevish, sulky, bossy, and shallow. The eldest’s natural role seems to be kitchen doormat. I’m really disappointed to find such lazy stereotyping from a woman author, writing this in the early 1970s. I was a teenager by then and I find this depiction very old-fashioned. Why can’t they be as skilful and talented as their glowing brothers?

I feel there is a real discrepancy in the way the boy and girl characters are treated. Even when they’re thinly drawn the boys are more positive. Big Max is ‘muscular’, practical, has an actual girlfriend in Southampton whom he writes to (basically he’s full of testosterone). Gwen, also interested in the opposite sex, rejects the carol singing trip to stay in and wash her hair, just in case she’ll see a certain boy the next day. We learn this from a catty remark of Mary’s. (It might be meant to be friendly teasing rather than catty, but since all that’s gone before is couched in terms of flouncy pouts and sniffs, I’m cued to think badly of her.) So poor Gwen, unlike manly Max, seems a bit vain and silly, and Mary’s always stirring it.

The girls don’t have much to do in the book, and little time to redeem (for me) those first slyly negative impressions. But Mary resurfaces to be put in jeopardy by the forces of darkness and Will’s tough task is to fight them for his sister’s life. Since he doesn’t seem to have a particularly significant relationship with her – he and Paul share much more page time and sympathies and some dramatic and lyrical scenes – I found this quite arbitrary. She’s a cipher Damsel in Distress. Is it because she’s female that Will feels even more the pressure to be heroic?? After her rescue she doesn’t recall a thing, is dismissively offhand about events, and is made to giggle twice in the space of a page. Great.

Which takes me back to Will’s passivity in the face of all the strange learning and ancient rites and battles. I just know he will triumph somehow. I didn’t worry about Will and I couldn’t bring myself to care about Mary, at all.

And yet in other children’s books, in the face of far less elemental pressures, I have worried in agony, holding my breath and clenching my hands, for characters who have to be brave and go that huge extra step to rescue a friend, or an animal, or even their enemy. I’ve fully engaged with their challenges and dilemmas. Why not with Will Stanton? Maybe Cooper’s mythic elements are too big for my tastes, and Will just washes along with it all like a branch in the thaw-flooded River Thames.

I have to say I did really enjoy the wonderful scene-setting, the dramatic weather and geography of the Thames Valley that Cooper obviously knows so well. Visually it works well. Some of my favourite scenes involved Will trekking through the brutish winter weather, harried by sinister birds or vague but looming threat; and, in contrast, those indoors in the firelight and candlelight with mysterious old Miss Greythorne at Huntercombe Manor. I like the layers of myth in the landscape and when we see how modern names and routes hark back to ancient ways and knowledge; because I love learning this sort of thing about little patches of English countryside and cityscape and it’s nice to see that detail in a children’s book.

But overall I was disappointed at not meeting Will Stanton as a convincing hero I could totally cheer for.

Looking after The Books

If you have ever wondered what goes into looking after a famous writer’s literary estate – apart from nice liquid literary lunches and denying access to anyone you think might write an unflattering biography (or is it just me who got that impression??) – read Lizza Aiken’s account of reading, and wrangling, every single thing her mother ever wrote:

Joan Aiken

The Books

Looking after a Literary Estate sounds like a dream job, especially if you are a reading addict…the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…  I had the unbelievable good fortune to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and was brought up in her world of stories, but did for many years escape to travel the other world, and trained and worked as a mime – probably to avoid endlessly being asked when I was going to write a book myself!  But eventually Joan’s world caught up with me again; as she said when she was getting older, ‘Someone is going to have to look after the books when I go, and it will have to be you!’

I now realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of ten years and more since her death to understand why. …

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Wintry reads from classic children’s books

We’ve finally had some wintry weather. Nights are still long, evenings quickly dark.  It’s time to keep warm with the slipper-boots/duvet/sleeping furry animal of your choice, and sink into a good book.

In winter I like to read wintry books. I might enjoy sunshine and luxuriant leafiness on screen – it serves the same uplifting function as going for a walk in bright winter sunshine – but I really don’t want escapist summery books at this time of year.

So here are some recommended reads from classic children’s books. Snow definitely included:

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, Vintage paperbackWill Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and turns eleven on Midwinter Day. He always hopes for snow on his birthday. He gets his wish, along with a whole lot of strange and sometimes terrifying experiences, as this is time of the year when The Dark is very strong and the Old Ones who protect the world have to work hard to resist its evil forces. The setting in the rural Thames Valley that Cooper knows so well is stunning – snow, floods, Very Bad Stuff, all taking place over Christmas and New Year.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston (1951)

More snow, more floods, more magic, and dollops of heart-warming love, when amazingly-only-seven-years-old Tolly goes to stay with his grandmother for the Christmas holidays in her ancient haunted house. Magical illustrations, too, by the author’s son.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis (1950)

Snow is the default weather for Narnia as far as I’m concerned. Because how do we enter Narnia for the first time, in one of the most striking fictional openings ever? Pushing through a wardrobe stuffed, not with any old clothes but fur coats, and then into the wintry wood (snow-laden fir trees in Pauline Baynes’ iconic illustration) to find a faun in a red woollen muffler.The lamp post in Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes

‘What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping.’

Since in Narnia it’s always winter but never Christmas until the Pevensie children get involved, this makes a perfect winter read.

 

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

The opening pages establish what a disagreeable, spoilt and emotionally-neglected child Mary Lennox is, full of colonial snobbery and certainties. She arrives at gloomy Misselthwaite Manor in a rainstorm. It’s the season for fires in the bedroom and porridge for breakfast but there doesn’t seem much room for hope. The moor stretches bare and dreary beyond the window. Mary ventures into the garden only to find it wintry and bleak. But gradually ‘the Magic’ unfreezes everyone. Spring follows winter. A thoroughly warming tale.The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

For a very quick wintry read, there’s always Pooh Builds A House, the first chapter in The House At Pooh Corner by A A Milne (1928). In which Eeyore is very polite – or is that passive-aggressive? – about mislaying one house and Pooh and Piglet try to do a good deed by building another. Eeyore sinking under the increasing weight of his coating of snow is a sight to behold. I think he should be beatified as the patron saint of sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

 

From inspiration to publication

An invitation from Lewes Children’s Book Group –

Jlewes childrens book groupoin us at our AGM on 28th January to find out more about writing for children and getting published.

 

 

Author Miriam Moss will be in discussion with a group of children’s writers talking about their journey from Inspiration to Publication. Dawn Casey and Leigh Hodgkinson write picture books and Leigh is also an illustrator. Julia Lee writes adventure stories aimed at 8-12 year olds and Jon Walter had his first teenage novel published last year.

The talk is on Wednesday 28th January, 7.30 for 8 p.m. start in the Lecture Room, upstairs in Lewes Town Hall, Lewes, East Sussex. There will be a chance to ask questions, chat to the authors and buy a book to get signed. Everyone is welcome – entrance is free.

Rhymes with Oomph and Zoom

I Saw Esau edited by Iona & Peter Opie, illustrated by Maurice SendakMy latest book find is a gem – I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Bookedited by Iona & Peter Opie and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, first published in 1947.

‘They were clearly not rhymes that a grandmother would sing to the grandchild on her knee,’ Iona Opie says in her introduction. ‘They have more oomph and zoom; they pack a punch.’ Well, a grandmother with a taste from the macabre, the grim or the rude might well do, and have a good giggle besides. But there would have to be a lot of explanation, too.*

There are 170 rhymes grouped into themes: Insults, retaliation, teasing and repartee, more insults, lamentation and reproachfulness are just some of them, which gives you a taste. It is ‘a declaration of a child’s brave defiance in the face of daunting odds’. illustration by Maurice Sendak toIona & Peter Opie's I Saw Esau, Walker Books

The book was born in the days of post-war paper rationing. The wonderful illustrations only came with the 1992 edition from Walker Books, and for an illustration-fiend the helping is more than generous. There’s at least one picture on every page and sometimes one for every short verse on the page.

*But there are Notes at the back. Hurray! I love Notes. Especially when the Notes have pictures, too.

I Saw Eau, The Schoolchild;s Pocket Book, I & P Opie & Sendak

Summer Reading 3: Islands of adventure…and growing up.

seaweed and limpets, Cornish beach

Recently I’ve been thinking, and blogging, about what kind of reading fits with summer days and I’ve finally got round to some children’s books. There’s still time! The weather may not be so summery right now but there are still weeks to go until…but let’s not think about that.

I’ve never been to the Scilly Isles but have long wanted to visit. Even more so now, after reading Breathing Underwater by Julia Green (2009), based on a fictionalised version of this archipelago off the tip of Cornwall. 14-year-old Freya returns for the first time in a year to the tiny island where her grandparents live and where her big brother drowned the summer before. It’s sad, but story and setting are beautifully evoked, as are the things that have changed and those which stay the same. I hate that lazy phrase ‘coming to terms with’, but I guess this is what the book is all about, and yet much more. Freya is growing up and stretching her wings. It also sums up wonderfully the way a holiday place can be somewhere you think of as your very own, more you than where you live most of your life – even when that’s painful, too.

Cornish cove

Cornish cove

 

Somewhere I have spent a lot of summertime in is mainland Cornwall, since my grandparents lived there and my mum grew up there. Also beautifully evoked, Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series (2006 onwards) mixes very convincing rocky coves, sandy beaches, caves, sun and sea-fog of the real Cornwall with a more mythical underwater strand which begins with a carved mermaid in Zennor church. Ingo is also about loss and longing; a little, too, about the economic difficulties of living in a remote, rural and seasonal county – but I expect grown-up readers will pick up more on this.  I’ve only read the first volume but have the second – The Tide Knot – lined up and can’t wait. Dunmore writes amazing novels for adults and is a poet, too – it shows.

In both these books children and young teens are testing their independence, and I love reading about their freedom to take risks and weigh up consequences.

For less nuanced reading, here are a couple of other ideas.

islands of adventure

More islands, swimming, sailing, picnics, camping out and building fires feature in my next suggestion. A much more traditional one: Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1929). I confess I haven’t reread this since childhood and there may be some very uncomfortable attitudes lurking in it for modern-day readers. I know one of the characters has an embarrassing name that has not really stood the test of time. But there are ‘pirates’, intrepid and skilful girls, and plenty of adventures. It was in this book that I first came across a reference to pemmican – some kind of convenience-meal canned meat that, as a squeamish eater, I felt very nervous about – and because of my very literal young mind I just made the connection: pelican in a can. Obviously!

I’ve written elsewhere that I never read much Enid Blyton as a child, but I did enjoy a couple of the titles in the

The Island of Adventure by Enid BlytonAdventure’ seriesThe Island of Adventure being the only one I remember anything about! But Blyton is never short of picnics, boats, beaches and islands, and the kind of adventures that can only be had when responsible adults are right out of the picture and only the wicked, but easily outwitted by a handful of kids and a dog (or, in this instance, a parrot) type, are left.

 

Happy holidays (if only inside the pages of a book)!

Reading Heaven?

This is such a wonderful letter, so atmospheric and full of love for that kind fall-into-a-book reading that I remember from childhood and long school holidays (and days when I was lying ill in bed or on the settee, but not too ill to read). And it brought back memories of miniature moss gardens, too! And of drawing pictures to go with the pictures in my head that reading conjured up – or at least trying to draw something that could come close what I pictured. And cats keeping you company while you read! (How many ‘ands’ can I include here??)

I think Joan Aiken had a very sympathetic style in writing to fans and readers of her books, if I’m to judge from this letter. It’s warm and personal, a great piece of writing in itself, and doesn’t talk down to the reader.

Joan Aiken

Reading Holiday

This was Joan’s idea of a Perfect Holiday… what about you?

Dear Person

*********

Read the full letter from Joan at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

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