Bengaluru market

I have been globetrotting again, travelling first to Bangkok (which I’ve visited before) and then on to Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore, by Indians as well as Europeans – I think it’s a bit like the Welsh acknowledging ‘Wales’ as well as ‘Cymru’). As readers of this blog will know, I have been to Delhi several times, but this was my first visit to Southern India.

There were many highlights – Tipu Sultan’s palace, a trip to an extraordinary bookshop, Cubban Park, dinner in a traditional Karnatakan restaurant where the food is served on banana leaves (and usually eaten with the hands, though the proprietor took pity on us and offered cutlery)

– but for me the most outstanding experience of all was the morning I spent in Bengaluru’s traditional market.

The market is vast and, unlike the ones in Delhi, situated in a huge open area accessed only by unmetalled lanes and tracks. For this reason alone, it is an immense privilege to be there – it is probably one of the last big-city Indian markets not to be ‘sanitised’ with proper roads and walkways.

This in itself brings challenges as well as delights: the market heaves with a vast throng of the world’s most energetic humanity: boys pushing massive metal carts top-heavy with goods, vans and cars continually nosing their way through the masses, dozens of scooters and rickshaws everywhere and no traffic rules, either informal or official. And not a policeman or another European – except my companion – in sight. One woman, hurrying past, smiled at us and said, “It’s brave of you to come here!”

We took as much care as we could not to get crushed, bringing a whole new dimension to the expression ‘watch your back’! But as an adventure it was exhilarating: the range of colours and smells, the carefully-presented vegetables set out in baskets, the cries of the vendors, the fierce yet friendly haggling, even the single public toilet – one shaft each for males and females – entrance fee five rupees (or around five pence).

The highlight of highlights was the spice stall, to which we were directed by a teenage girl accompanying her mother who understood enough English to know what we were asking.

Spices are expensive in India, even for Indians (I have no doubt that Europeans, even if they haggle, always pay a premium) so this place was a cut above. As well as the open stall set out on the walkway, it also boasted a permanent shop in a sort of warehouse building – a long, dark room going back deep into the recesses of the structure. Customers were only allowed into the very front of this, to enable them to haggle with the two young men running the stall. At frequent intervals, they consulted the elderly lady – clearly the grande dame of the establishment – who sat opposite the scales at the entrance. If she said a proposed price was acceptable, it was accepted; if she didn’t like it, it was tough on the customer: her word was law. I bought a kilo of Karnatakan curry mix, which one of the young men put together by mixing handfuls of spices, dried leaves, chillis and aromatic tree barks from the baskets outside. I once bought a similar curry mix in Delhi, but it had already been made up – I didn’t have the joy of seeing it being concocted.

Second only to the magic of the spice stall was our visit to a no-frills kitchenware shop that clung to the edge of the market – ‘clung’ being the operative word, as the building had suffered from subsidence and there was a sizeable gap between the entrance and the edge of the track, which had to be leapt over. Inside, the stockholding was massive and must have catered for the restaurant trade as well as ordinary households.  The were piles of huge metal dishes, skillets, giant spoons, frying pans and wok-like implements, as well as a few items made from plastic. What we were looking for, however, were some of the exquisite beaten copper bowls that are used to serve curry sauces in Southern India. This shop had some beautiful ones, all locked away in high cupboards that abutted the ceiling. The assistants – again, two young men – had to climb up the shelves and hang on with one hand to bring them down to floor level (no kick-stools in evidence and certainly not even a nod to health and safety at work). The bowls I bought are particularly fine and lined with steel.

Like the spice sellers’ stall, this shop was presided over by an elder, this time a man in late middle age who sat behind the counter and adjudicated as the haggling went on. The copper items are sold by weight and – unusually for India – the set of prices for each weight and combination of weights was posted on the wall. It was therefore possible to see that we obtained a genuine discount for buying the whole set – and the older man courteously allowed us to negotiate a bit more off the regulated price. (Looking back, I rather approve this custom of deferring to one’s elders. I’d stand to gain quite a lot from it if it operated in the UK. As it is, I have instead to contend on a daily basis with the irreverent youth of my family.)

I’ve been back home for more than a week now and was about to write that my memories of Bengaluru have already acquired a dream-like quality. However, it would not be strictly true: if I close my eyes I can see the market again in all its vivid bustle. It’s too bright – and too noisy – to qualify as a dream.

Books: new friends in 2022

Happy New Year! I hope 2022 was a good year for you and that 2023 will be even better.

On the global stage, 2022 was an extraordinary year and – I think most people would agree – not in a good way. For me personally, it was quite a special year. I hit a landmark birthday; like others, I was able to travel freely for the first time since the beginning of 2020; and, most important of all, I caught up with many old friends and made several new friends and acquaintances. In the latter, I include authors new to me, most of whom I did not meet and may never meet, but whose work I have now discovered and come to relish hugely.

It’s impossible to place them in any kind of hierarchy, so, in true bookseller tradition, I shall describe four of my discoveries here in alphabetical order of the author’s name.

The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore. I’ve written about this book before, so just to say that, dipping into it again, I am still blown away by the power of the narrative and Blakemore’s imaginative exploration of the English language.

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. This is a truly stellar tour-de-force which captures with ironical good humour the prejudices and misogyny of the 1950s and ’60s. Along the way it introduces the reader to the main principles of chemistry and – something that few critics seem to have picked up on – shows that an intelligent woman can be a good cook and a nurturer and take an interest in her appearance while still holding down a job. It’s also about relationships and how rigid social norms can destroy them; the fragility of life; the joys of keeping a dog; and the first stirrings of feminism. Above all, it is arrestingly written – there is barely a false or superfluous word – and achingly funny.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I hadn’t read anything by Elizabeth Strout until I came across this book, and I was astonished her work had passed me by. She is clearly well known and exceedingly accomplished. The novel tells the story of Lucy Barton, a successful writer who meets her first husband again after many years apart. Her second, happier marriage has recently ended in widowhood. When she meets William again, the reader understands after a few sentences that she was right to end the relationship. William leads a desiccated life which runs in grooves. He is afraid of change, even wanting to eat the same meal all the time because it is safe and no trouble. (There are aspects of this novel that remind me of Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years.) The encounters with William primarily allow Strout to create a wonderful series of comedy-of-manners scenes, but there is a more serious sub-text. Gradually, Lucy’s good-humoured tolerance of this painfully circumscribed man gives her a new grace and wisdom, allowing her to ponder some of the deeper meanings of life – though always with irony and an exquisite lightness of touch.

Miss Pym disposes, by Josephine Tey. This is the only ‘classic’ novel in today’s list, though I have read – and enjoyed – several others this year. I bought it in The Mysterious Bookshop in New York (an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures, especially for aficionados of crime fiction and thrillers). I knew, of course, that Tey wrote crime fiction, but previously I had read only her historical whodunnit, Daughter of Time. For me, Miss Pym disposes stands out for its exquisite portrayal of character and for capturing exactly the hothouse, hysterical atmosphere that prevailed in a single-sex boarding school in the 1940s (the book was originally published in 1948). The identity of the killer, when it is revealed, is less of a surprise. I shall certainly read more Teys – and, having enjoyed this book, I am now in quest of other novels from the Golden Age of crime – Agatha Christies, Marjorie Allinghams, Patricia Highsmiths, Dorothy L. Sayerses. I have read some books by each of these authors, but all were prolific and there are many more I haven’t read to enjoy in 2023! Recommendations welcome.

I have already wished you a Happy New Year. Now I’d like to wish you a happy reading year, too!

The Fen Murder Mysteries boxset

Today I am delighted to be able to announce that Bloodhound Books has published a digital boxset of the three Fen Murder Mysteries it has released throughout this year: The Sandringham Mystery, The Canal Murders and The Heritage Murders.

I’m also very fortunate that Jamie Harvie-Watt, of Supadu, has created a trailer for the books:

Bloodhound is suggesting that the boxset would make a nice Christmas present, or at least a stocking filler. If some of my readers agree, I could not be more proud!

It’s impossible, of course, for me to be able to sign ebooks; but I do have a boxset to give away. If you’re interested in winning it, please answer the following question by sending your reply and your email address to:

The question is:

What is the full name of the [anti]-hero who features in both The Sandringham Mystery and The Heritage Murders?

I look forward to receiving your replies. The winner will be announced on this blog on 24th December 2022.

Good luck! And may I take the opportunity to wish you a very Happy Christmas!

Stopping for breath, part way through a fun-packed tour!

My blog tour is more than half way through now. I’d like to thank all the bloggers and everyone who has read their posts and sent comments. Both the reviews and the comments have been delightful – I am hugely appreciative and grateful. Thank you!

I’m now looking forward to the last three posts. The tour finishes on 30th November – a fitting date, as winter starts ‘officially’ the next day. I’m sure the generous and perspicacious posts will encourage more readers to snuggle down with DI Yates in the cold, dark evenings!

Special thanks to Anne Cater, who pulled the whole thing together. I have loved working with her – she is down-to-earth, determined and efficient and she has a fine sense of humour. If you are looking for someone to organise a blog tour, I wholeheartedly recommend her.

What’s in a Jane?

John le Carré is an author whom I’ve long admired, but for his work, not his principles, and I have therefore been fascinated to read recent reviews of his letters (ably edited by his son) and the much less respectable addition to the le Carré literary canon, a torrid account by one of his mistresses of their clandestine relationship. His second wife’s name was Jane – a name whose long single syllable suggests calm, serenity, wisdom and a quietly mischievous take on life. Le Carré’s Jane, apparently, knew of his infidelities and chose to ignore them. It may be that she had learnt from the different – and less successful – approach taken by her predecessor, because Jane was herself le Carré’s mistress for a short time before they married. Or maybe she knew all along that the mistresses were unimportant: on her death, just a few months before his, a slip of paper was found in her handbag on which he had written that she was ever the “only woman”.

I’ve known only a few Janes – and none of them very well – but all have projected an aura of the kind of unflappable common sense that I describe. It may be because he recognised this that another writer who was also a serial adulterer, H.G. Wells, insisted on calling his (second) wife (who had also started out as his mistress) Jane, even though her name was Amy. Today most women would find it an unpardonable liberty to have their given name changed in this way, but perhaps for Wells – and therefore ‘Jane’ – the name itself was a kind of talisman, an assurance that he would not leave her, whatever else he might choose to get up to.

Alan Clark, the diarist and politician, also married a Jane. She was sixteen and he thirty-one and in his disreputable diaries – if there are ‘degrees’ of adultery it seems to me he was ‘worse’ than either Wells or le Carré – he told himself that he wanted to marry her because he would be able to control her. She would let him do as he liked. Sinister, if he really meant it. And in a sense he did, but – as Jane herself makes clear in an interview with The Daily Mail after Ion Trewin’s biography of her husband was published – ultimately he needed her much more than she needed him.

Thomas Carlyle was a vain, dour literary egotist whose wife’s name was also Jane. Jane Welsh Carlyle cushioned the great man from all the irritations of everyday life – always, for example, arranging for their London home to be spring-cleaned when he was away – and put her own aspirations second to his, even though she was an educated and witty woman who, judging from the extensive correspondence that she left, could have been a distinguished author in her own right if Thomas hadn’t so encroached on her time. She was his amanuensis, his encourager, his most perspicacious critic. Towards the end of her life, he betrayed her – not sexually, but intellectually – when he became infatuated with Harriet, Lady Ashburton, and shared with Harriet drafts of his work before he showed them to Jane. His remorse after Jane’s death was both bitter and absolute – and well-deserved.

Sticking with the Victorian period and straying into the realms of fiction, there is Jane Eyre, the archetypal sensible heroine who copes with all the Gothic adversity thrown at her – horrid stepmother, sadistic teachers, the madwoman in the attic, terminally unsexy cousin – and, yes, Mr Rochester, another self-centred attention-seeking man, not this time a serial adulterer but a would-be bigamist, who further tries her constancy by getting disfigured in a fire while attempting to save the madwoman. If the novel really does end with happily ever after, one imagines this is largely owing to Jane’s sense of humour.

Finally, what of the nation’s Jane, Jane Austen, that enigmatic Hampshire woman who taught her own and every subsequent generation how words in the English language should be crafted? She died at the age of thirty-seven, unmarried; but she was pretty and vivacious – the antithesis to the usual idea of ‘spinster’ – and in her youth had been attracted to men, and one man in particular, a certain Tom Lefroy. One account I have read of him says that he emigrated to America; another that he died young, and unexpectedly. Whichever is true – and the two details are not mutually exclusive – it’s impossible not to feel now that Jane was better off without him. Would she have penned her six peerless novels if she had been mistress of Tom Lefroy’s establishment, possibly mother to an increasing brood of children?

There’s something special about the name Jane. Despite Shakespeare’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, could these Janes have managed their challenging lives with such aplomb if they had been called Maud, Lesley or Avril?

The Heritage Murders and an invitation…

The Heritage Murders, the third DI Yates novel to be published by Bloodhound Books this year, came out yesterday.  The others, The Sandringham Mystery and The Canal Murders, were published in April and July respectively.

The novels have attracted a great deal of interest and I am hugely grateful to all my readers and to Bloodhound for producing and promoting them so magnificently. Nearer to Christmas, they will also be on sale as a boxed set. For the moment, it seems appropriate to me that The Heritage Murders should appear right at the start of the autumn. Soon the nights will be drawing in and books will become an even larger part of readers’ lives than at other times of the year.

As readers of this blog will know, I rarely use it to promote my own books. I shrink naturally from boosting myself and I am much more comfortable in writing about the work of other authors or interesting encounters I have had with other people or unusual places I have visited. However, now I have a new publisher, it is important for me to find a wider audience and to attract some new social media friends (those I have already made have been hugely supportive of both my books and my blog) in the UK and America and other English-speaking countries. I visited New York in July and have made a start!

If you are a blogger based in the US or UK and would like to review one of my books or perhaps to invite me to write a guest article for your blog – or, if you are an author, review one of your books – I should be delighted to hear from you. Similarly, I am very happy to write articles for booksellers and librarians, magazines and newspapers. If I can be of help to you by entertaining your existing readers or by extending your reach, just let me know!

Finale to my National Crime Reading Month daily blog series

Northern marsh orchid, Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Today is the last day of June and therefore today’s is the last of my daily blog posts to celebrate Crime Reading Month. I’d like to pay tribute to the CWA for coming up with the idea of CRM and to the countless people who have supported it. I’d particularly like to thank everyone who has contributed to these thirty posts by providing so many magnificent insights and vignettes and for giving up their time so generously to help me. It’s impossible to pinpoint highlights – I feel as if I’ve been on a high all month! – although a few moments stand out for me personally. I was struck by Hannah Deuce’s comment that all writers are different, so she supports each one in different ways; by Natalie Sammons’ observation that if you write to please yourself, you won’t be disappointed ‘whatever the outcome’; and perhaps most of all by Frances Pinter’s description of Brexit in one punch-packing word: ‘frivolous’. Frances’ post was all about the importance of peace and how we should dread the danger of war that is looming once again; sadly, as we reach the end of this month, the conflict in Ukraine is no nearer to resolution than it was on 1st June.

CRM has given me some humbling opportunities to read or re-read some fine works of fiction: Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, and The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore impress with their originality and fine use of language, but I have enjoyed all the novels that I have written about this month and am in awe of all their authors. In this, I include Annie, the only poet featured, whose stark poems about domestic violence bring home the enormity of it more vividly than any number of newspaper and court reports. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have always supported me as a writer and continue to do so: Annika, Valerie, Noel, Dea and now, Hannah, please take a bow. I salute those who have dedicated their lives to supporting the bookselling and publishing industries: Richard, Nick, Lynette, Linda and, again, Frances and Noel. I’d love to be a member of Deirdre’s reading group – she and her book club friends seem to have such fun! And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy, Tara and Hannah for publishing The Canal Murders to the usual high Bloodhound standards; and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for (temporarily) having forgotten my own publication date!

As readers of this whole series of posts will know, I have been privileged to speak at four libraries during the course of the month. I have, of course, known for many years how much librarians bring to their communities, but when I met Helen, Kathryn, Tarina and Kay and their teams, their generosity, talent and tireless efforts to help people were brought home to me all over again. I’d like to thank them once more for their wonderful hospitality – and the equally wonderful audiences to whom they introduced me, each of which taught me far more than I felt I had to offer them. I now know about ran-tanning, the use of opium for Fenland agues and many more facts about life in Lincolnshire, both past and present, than when I started out. The library visits also gave me the opportunity to research some unsolved Lincolnshire murders, including that of Alas! Poor Bailey, my favourite. My encounter with the vicar of Long Sutton church will stay with me.

When I introduced this blog series, I promised to tell my readers at the end of it why I write about the Spalding of my childhood even though my novels are set in the present. I renew that promise now, but I hope you will allow me a short delay. It is because – as I mentioned earlier this week – I am currently on holiday in Orkney – in fact, sadly, my time here is drawing to an end; and while I am still able to imbibe the magic of this place I should like to introduce you to one of the island’s serial murderers – the great skua. Called “the pirate of the seas” or, in Orkney, “the bonxie”, this formidable bird – which appears not to be afraid of humans – hunts other birds on the wing. Today my husband and I watched spellbound as a pair of great skuas systematically chased a curlew through the soft blue skies and engaged above and around us in aerial combat with greater black-backed gulls. I came to Orkney for inspiration as a writer and I have found more here than I could ever have dreamed about.

As I prepare to return home and submit myself to the discipline of the keyboard once more, I should like to conclude by thanking everyone who has read even one of these posts. I do hope you have enjoyed them. There are more to come – I was surprised and grateful to have more offers from would-be contributors than there are days in the month of June. And of course I shall not forget my promise.

I leave you with a cheerful picture of one of Orkney’s denizens.

‘Tammie Norrie’ on Marwick Head, Orkney

The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore

Sometimes you can go a longish stretch without reading a book that really amazes you – a book that fills you with awe, one that you can truly say you ‘love’. Then such a book comes along and the gratitude and pleasure that you feel is redoubled by the wait. Such a book for me is The Manningtree Witches, A. K. Blakemore’s debut novel and one of my spoils from this year’s London Book Fair. I read it early in May after many weeks’ fare of enjoyable, well-made and admirable books, none of which, nevertheless, quite reached the heights that this novel achieves.

The Manningtree Witches is classified as historical fiction, but it is as surely a work of crime fiction. It tells of the witch-hunts pursued by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, in the seventeenth century. It is a novel at once lovely and appalling, the world which it depicts a place of ingenuousness and sin, white magic and black magic, faith and cynicism. Blakemore weaves her tale in words that are elaborately rich and beautiful; the speech the characters employ is a brilliant reconstruction of the language of people who lived only a generation or two after Shakespeare, a serious and melodious tongue which sometimes conceals, sometime reveals the decadence at the heart of their society. It was no surprise to me to learn that Amy Blakemore is also a distinguished poet. 

Rebecca West, the protagonist of the story and also its narrator, is a survivor. Clear-eyed and intelligent, she is capable of weighing shrewdly the characters and personalities of those around her – though she is not without her weaknesses, among which is her girlish infatuation for Master John Edes, the church clerk. Eventually Edes takes advantage of this, but he is too cowardly to acknowledge their intimacy. Rebecca is ahead of her time in understanding whence springs the muddled superstition that governs everyday life:

“I am not superstitious – I am useful. I have taught myself to watch and listen. I have seen enough suffering in my life to know that the diseased mind is prone to invent all manner of phantoms that might hover over a person. Better to blame a sprite or a puck for the souring of the milk or the tangles in the horse’s mane than to concede one’s own slovenly habits may have contributed to the situation.”

Rebecca’s intelligence shines out, making her superior to the other women in the novel, all of whom are seen through her eyes. Generally, the female characters, for all their coarseness and jealousies, are morally superior to the males, but also more vulnerable. The following short passage conveys the condescension and cruelty of Hopkins and John Stearne (“the second richest man in Manningtree”):

“At that moment Misters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne emerge from the dock office across the way, lovely furs frothing at their collars in the spry wind and begin to pick their way along the road. They pass the women with a reluctant tipping of their hats, like crows’ sharp heads to a wound.”

There is also implied hypocrisy here, though Hopkins gradually emerges as a complex character, perhaps – but only perhaps – as deluded and vulnerable as his victims.

The Manningtree Witches is the best historical novel I have read since The Miniaturist (and that was published more than six years ago!). It won the Desmond Elliott prize in 2021. I am certain that Amy Blakemore, who is only at the start of her career as a novelist, will go on to win many more prizes and accolades. She is already one of the best novelists of her generation.

Natalie Sammons, debut crime fiction novelist

Natalie is one of my fellow Bloodhound authors. We ‘met’ on a podcast in April, when The Consequence of Choice, her debut novel, and The Sandringham Mystery were both published.

Q: What is the title of your novel? Briefly, what is it about?

A: The title of my novel is The Consequence of Choice. The book tells the story of the introduction of a ‘one-child’ law as a means to minimising the world’s ever-growing population. Fast forward ten years. Elspeth, the main character finds herself pregnant, which is illegal, and soon the police are on the case. The story follows four characters. Each has his or her own agenda: they either strive to help Elspeth or to catch and convict her.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel in the crime genre?

A: I don’t feel that it was a conscious decision to write a crime-based novel. It suited the plot, allowing for suspense, twists and turns and drama to be woven into the story.

Q: How long have you wanted to write? And what inspired you to start writing this book?

A: I have always had a passion for books, but until I wrote The Consequence of Choice I was content to be the reader rather than the writer. It was only after I had my son that I first put pen to paper. I wanted to write a story for him. My ambition snowballed as my love for writing took hold. It is my first attempt at writing something other than children’s fiction.

Q: I know you are a nurse by profession and that you live in Sussex. Have you drawn on your knowledge of nursing, medicine etc. in the novel? Or on the local topography?

A: Like me, Elspeth is a nurse. A piece of advice I read early on in my writing journey was to ‘write what you know’.  I felt that following this advice ensured that my novel had authenticity and allowed me to write with confidence. I drew on my nursing knowledge at times, although I was mindful that I didn’t want the text to feel too clinical. The locations depicted in the book are familiar to me. I wanted to be able to picture the places I was writing about.

Q: What do you find most challenging about writing fiction? And what do you find most rewarding?

A: Being able to weave a story which has the reader enthralled is the most rewarding part of writing fiction: knowing that the reader is as invested in the story as I have been. The main challenge always lies in creating a story which captures someone’s attention. I often worry that the plot isn’t moving quickly enough or is moving too quickly. Sometimes I feel I overthink how my writing will be received by my readers.

Q: How did it feel to see your book in print, when the first copies arrived?

A: It was amazing to hold that first copy in my hands. It felt like such an achievement to have created a piece of work which other people also believed in.

Q: Are you working on another novel now?  If so (without giving too much away) can you say what it is about?

A: Yes, I am, although it may be put on the backburner soon as I am due to have my second child this summer. The plot of this book is quite different from The Consequence of Choice. It focuses on two characters who are each struggling with demons: one is challenged by a mental health issue; the other by a medical condition. For one of them, all is not as it seems. In facing up to what she has most been afraid of, her medical condition, she discovers that her path is inextricably linked with that of the other character’s.

Q: What do you like to read yourself?  Are there other crime fiction writers you admire? Aside from crime writers, who are your favourite authors?

A: I will read novels in most genres. I am all about the characters, I want to be invested in their story. Regarding crime writers, I do enjoy Peter James’ books; perhaps this is because his books are set in and around Brighton, the city I grew up in.

Q: What would be your advice to struggling new authors just starting out?

A: I can only pass on that same advice: ‘Write what you know’. This will make your story real and enable you truly to picture what you’re writing about. Oh, and don’t give up. You should write because you enjoy it, because there is a story you’re burning to tell, then you will be rewarded, no matter what the outcome.

Noel Murphy: bookseller, publisher, reader extraordinaire

It would hardly be right to celebrate Crime Reading Month without including a post about a publisher! Noel Murphy is the Commercial Director of Granta, one of the UK’s most distinguished – and long-lived – independent publishing houses.

Noel is a graduate of University College London, where he read Philosophy. When he graduated, he had no career plan – just a burning desire to visit South America, inspired by his having read One Hundred Years of Solitude,by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His mother told him there was a vacancy at the Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon and he applied for the job, with the intention to save some money to fulfil his travelling dreams. He got the job but has still not visited South America.

After Stratford, he spent two years respectively running the ground floors of the Waterstones at Cardiff and Hampstead. Then he moved to Dublin, where he opened a new branch, and after that he worked at Waterstones Head Office for two years as Promotions Manager. He says the latter job connected him to publishing and enabled him to “jump the fence” to Bloomsbury, where he helped to develop its website in the early years of online bookselling. After that, he was the Marketing Director at Faber for six years.

For family reasons, he then moved to New Zealand and worked for a not-for-profit organisation, where he says he didn’t earn much but learnt a great deal. On his return to the UK, he made his only foray into academic publishing when he joined Yale as Sales and Marketing Director. After Yale, he worked as a freelance for a short while before joining Granta.

Noel is extremely proud of Granta’s fine frontlist and equally acclaimed backlist, to which he says “different editors have added lots of great books. As Commercial Director, I don’t have to worry about the books – I know they’re all going to be good. They’re also the kinds of books that booksellers like, which means that buyers will always give them a hearing. They’re therefore stocked by most of the big bookshops.”

He has spent his career working with and talking to booksellers, publishers and authors. To those wishing to embark on a career in bookselling, he says the good news is that it’s still not particularly difficult to get your first foot on the rung. What prospective booksellers need to know is that bookshops vary tremendously, so the choices they make depend on which part of the industry they want to work in and the type of readers they want to serve. Independent bookshops are very different from chains: new booksellers are “thrown into it” and have to pitch into doing most tasks from the word go, though they learn a lot in the process. The qualities of a good bookseller are, above all, to like people and to be happy to give customers recommendations (which implies keeping up with what’s being published and themselves reading a great deal). Booksellers aren’t well paid, but they do get to see new books and are given as many proof copies and reading copies as they can handle.

Noel’s advice to would-be publishers is to start out by working in a bookshop. It’s a really useful way of understanding the market. Working in publishing is very hard if you don’t understand what readers want. Publishers also need to be proficient in using Excel and other technical applications and to know how to produce accurate and detailed metadata and then deploy it – otherwise, the books they publish won’t achieve their potential. It’s also important to understand what books look like on the Internet. “Today people have grown up with Amazon and it has changed their perception of the book.” Most important of all is to gain an understanding of customers. To do this, some form of experience – e.g., taking a Saturday job in a bookshop – is vital.

His message to writers is that being a published author is a difficult thing to be and requires resilience – but don’t give up. Spend time in bookshops and talk to booksellers. When he was working in Hampstead, there were lots of local authors who came into the shop. Louise Doughty stands out in his memory as having been “really, really nice”. She liked books and would sign them while she was in the shop, and always talked to the staff. From this perspective, his “best author of all time” was Maeve Binchy (he says she is a “better writer than her packaging suggests”). She was always nice to everyone and never took anything for granted. He still has some postcards she sent him. “The staff in the shop would do anything for her.” Elly Griffiths is an author who has similarly won over booksellers more recently.

Noel describes his own reading tastes as ‘catholic’. He has recently been reading Timothy Snyder’s books about Ukraine – four in a row – which are “a bit bleak, though brilliant”. He’s also reading Station Eleven, a science fiction novel published in 2014, which he says is uncannily prescient. He enjoys reading crime fiction and likes Michael Connelly. He is also addicted to the L.A. Confidential series , by Curtis Hanson. A seminal book which made a huge impression on him was Blake Morrison’s And when did you last see your Father?, partly because “Many other good books would not have been written if Morrison had not explored the subject first.” He has “not read as many classics as I should”, but he likes Thomas Hardy and enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights when he was young because “it appealed to my teenage angst”.

Of a career in books, he says the biggest pitfall is that “you can’t stop recommending them to other people”. It seems to me to be a very venial shortcoming.

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