09 +00002016-09-15T20:58:02+00:0030 2012 § 6 Comments
I’ve finished reading John Le Carré: the biography, by Adam Sisman, a hugely enjoyable tour de force which has been justly praised by everyone who’s reviewed it. My only reservation is that it’s ‘official’, meaning that Le Carré co-operated with Sisman throughout – a huge advantage, but tempered by the fact that Sisman is therefore not always able to explore certain aspects of Le Carré’s life fully. For example, I’d like to know more about his relationships with women (the book goes into detail about his first wife only, now deceased); more about what other people – siblings, children, friends, publishers – thought or think about him; and, of course, more about his life as a spy. Sisman himself is not entirely convinced by Le Carré’s stated reasons for his reticence about the last of these.
However, Sisman makes it clear in his introduction that, although he and Le Carré enjoyed a mutually respectful professional relationship while the research for the biography was in progress, he didn’t allow himself to be tucked into Le Carré’s pocket. His version of what took place during certain key events in the author’s life (based on painstaking assembly of the facts) often differs markedly from Le Carré’s. This is fascinating, because usually these are also events that have been fictionalised to create important scenes in the novels. Sisman suggests that, over time, Le Carré has conflated his recollection of the actual event with the fictionalised account – which is even more likely in the many instances when he’s created different versions of the same event in several different novels.
This made me think about the constant overlap, and inevitable tension, between fact and fiction. We do always want to know ‘what really happened’: it’s a fundamental trait, part of the curiosity that makes humans the most adventurous and experimental of all primates. But can we ever achieve this knowledge? Does it even exist? It’s the continuing quest of the historian, his or her holy grail, and one that’s bound, however meticulous the research, to result ultimately in failure. The many versions of the Battle of the Somme that have been published this year offer a vivid example.
As a crime writer, I’ve often been intrigued by the different versions of the truth that are presented in courts of law. For example, based on exactly the same set of evidence, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of ‘culpable manslaughter’ by one judge and homicide by another. O.J. Simpson made a histrionic display of not being able to fit on to his hand a bloodstained leather glove left at the scene of his wife’s murder. It was pure courtroom theatre, but enough to introduce ‘reasonable doubt’ into the minds of the jury at his criminal trial, so they found him not guilty; however, he lost a civil court case in which he was accused of the same crime.
Even trickier than facts that rely on interpretation are ‘facts’ that may or may not be the result of distorted memory or belief. Recently, I’ve read several accounts of the Jeremy Bamber murders that took place thirty years ago. Bamber, who is one of a handful of convicted murderers serving a whole-life tariff and who has been told that for him life imprisonment literally means staying in prison until he dies, was accused and found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents and sister and her two twin sons in order to inherit the family wealth. Bamber has always protested his innocence; he’s set up a website that gives his version of events and has quite a large number of supporters who believe him. Having studied these accounts, written from all possible points of view, my own conclusion is that it’s the balance of probability that Bamber did commit the murders. What’s less clear is whether he himself knows this, or whether he either killed his relatives while experiencing a ‘fugue’ and has no recollection of their murders, or perhaps has been proclaiming his innocence for so long that he now believes it himself. This may sound far-fetched, but there is something very odd about his case.
Points of view are slippery things. As a child, I looked up to my paternal grandmother, a petite and elegant lady who kept house for my great-uncle, the youngest of her four brothers. Unlike my other grandmother, she was very up-to-date and well-informed, not just about current affairs, but about the fashions and music of the sixties that interested me. She went out to work, she dressed in smart clothes and she was always ready with good advice, but only when asked. I thought she was just about the perfect role model. However, I noticed that her brothers often spoke to her quite condescendingly. There seemed never to have been any question that she would take the entire responsibility of caring for, first of all, her elderly mother and then her youngest brother, who was physically disabled. At the time, I thought this was just another example of the male chauvinism that was rife in my family, but much later I discovered that she’d been ‘a bit of a goer’ in her youth. They’d given her ‘respectability’, but it seems the debt was not one that could ever be repaid. Their view of her was totally at variance with my own. Similarly, when my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I thought I understood chapter and verse exactly why, having been the reluctant occupier of a ringside seat, but over the many years that have since passed I’ve come to realise that I saw those events entirely from my mother’s point of view: I had and still have no idea what my father thought or suffered.
What did really happen? It’s a constant but almost always unanswerable question. In my latest novel, Rooted in Dishonour, mistaken points of view cost dear. The most skilful novelists are those who can assemble a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and still keep the reader onside, still maintaining that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the essential ingredient of all successful fiction. A few, like Le Carré, have the rare capability of achieving this while shifting the reader’s perception of the characters over time: thus, if you read all of the Smiley novels in sequence, you begin by thinking that Karla is the devil incarnate and end by realising that he is ‘just’ a man, with all the depth as well as the imperfections that entails. And it begs the question, what really happened? If we didn’t have to ponder that, there’d be no reason for reading any novel and, therefore, no reason for writing it.
09 +00002016-07-29T12:42:11+00:0031 2012 § 9 Comments
I must apologise for my long silence to all the readers of this blog and to those very, very wonderful Twitter and FB friends (You know who you are!) who have continued to tweet out for me – I’ll be doing my best to make amends very soon now. Your kindness is phenomenal!
I do have excuses for not having posted much recently (a year like no other for me), but I realise I can’t justify my silence when so many of you manage to keep up your own posts and timelines and support me and others on top of doing your ‘day jobs’. However, by way of explanation, my own day job has taken me abroad several times this year (to the USA, twice, Seoul, Barcelona and Dubai), and whilst I realise how incredibly privileged I am to have visited all these places, I know that some of you will understand that long-haul travel is very disruptive to a writing routine, and the work resulting from those trips even more so. There have been some family challenges, too. As a result of all this, I was way behind with the latest DI Yates, the deadline for which was also brought forward slightly and I’ve been both-candle-ends burning for quite some time. Anyway, I’ve now finished the novel and should like to tell you a little bit about it, as well as, to start with, some landmarks of my writing year so far.
First and foremost, I’m delighted to be able to tell you that Salt has a wonderful new team to support its books. Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery and all Salt authors are now being supported by Adrian Weston (selling rights), Hannah Corbett (in charge of PR) and Medwyn Hughes and Julian Ball, of PG Distributors. I had the privilege of meeting everyone at a lunch in June. It is the most stellar team Salt has ever had and I’m sure will do a wonderful job.
For the third year running, I attended the Winchester Literary Festival at the end of June. This year, as well as giving as yet unpublished authors some one-to-one advice, I gave a talk on crime writing (Whodunnit: how it’s done), which attracted a much bigger audience than I’d anticipated and I think was probably a success.
A couple of weekends ago, I was invited back to Harlow Carr Gardens to participate in a series of signing sessions which Juliet Allard, the lovely bookshop manager, had organised to celebrate the summer. As on the last occasion, I really enjoyed the ambience there and the buzz of being in a really good bookshop – one that is supported not only by the local community, but by visitors who come from many miles away to see the gardens.
Juliet Allard has invited me back for another signing session after Rooted in Dishonour, the next DI Yates, is published in November. I’ve been offered a launch signing session/evening event for the novel at Bookmark, in Spalding, a bookshop with which I have a very special relationship and which has supported all the Yates novels magnificently ever since In the Family was published, and another signing session at Walkers Bookshop in Stamford. I’ll post and tweet the dates nearer the time. At present, I’m taking bookings for other events around the publication date, including library and bookshop events and talks to reading groups, so if you are interested I should be delighted to hear from you.
So, on to the novel. This is what it’s about (apologies for using the publisher’s blurb, but I did write it myself):
Eighteen-year-old Ayesha Verma disappears from her home in Spalding just a few days after her parents have introduced her to the cousin they’ve arranged for her to marry. There has been a nation-wide police campaign to raise awareness of ‘honour killings’. Conditioned by this, DI Tim Yates and Superintendent Thornton are convinced that Ayesha has been murdered for refusing the arranged marriage. Tim throws himself enthusiastically into preparations for a trip to India to interview the cousin. He first travels to London to visit his rather louche old friend, DI Derry Hacker, at the Met. Hacker introduces Tim to DC Nancy Chappell, an unconventional expert on honour killings.
When Tim arrives at King’s Cross he thinks that he hears the voice of Peter Prance, a confidence trickster whom he last encountered when he was investigating the murder of Kathryn Sheppard several years before. He’s unable to follow the man because he’s suddenly taken ill.
Tim’s wife, Katrin, has just returned to work as a police researcher after the birth of their daughter Sophia. DC Juliet Armstrong, who is far from convinced that Tim is right about the reason for Ayesha’s disappearance, arranges for Katrin to meet Fi Vickers, a social worker who helps women to escape from forced marriages and violent male relatives. She hopes that Fi will introduce Katrin to some of the women in her care so that Katrin can build a picture of the likely circumstances of ‘honour killings’. Juliet herself is feeling aggrieved because she thinks her career is going nowhere. Tim and Superintendent Thornton have announced their intention to appoint a Detective Sergeant to the team, but Juliet is convinced that she won’t get the job.
DI Hacker arranges dinner in a restaurant for Tim with a ‘surprise’ guest, who turns out to be Patti Gardner, the SOCO who was his girlfriend before he met Katrin. Derry is called away to a reported gangland beating shortly after they’ve begun to eat. Tim remains à deux with Patti, escorting her back to her hotel at the end of the evening. There he’s taken ill again, and is so incapacitated that he spends the night in Patti’s room. The victim of the gangland beating has been spirited away by the men who attacked him, but from Tim’s description Hacker is convinced he is Peter Prance.
Katrin has received a visit earlier that evening from Margie Pocklington, a teenager working for her child-minder. Margie asks Katrin to employ her as a full-time nanny, and when she gets a cautious response flounces out of the house. Next morning, she fails to turn up for work. She has vanished.
Juliet Armstrong is convinced that Ayesha’s and Margie’s disappearances are linked. She has begun to investigate when Tim returns to Spalding earlier than expected, with Nancy Chappell in tow. He puts her in joint charge of the investigation while he is in India. Sparks fly.
I hope that you will find this intriguing. You’ll see that the ‘cast’ includes some old acquaintances, but, like all the Yates novels, it stands on its own: you don’t need to have read the others first.
Thank you again for all your support and interest. I have some amazing friends out there!
09 +00002016-05-09T18:10:56+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
Ann Arbor is in Michigan, not so very far from Detroit, and currently at about the same point of spring as the Pennines of Yorkshire, with daffodils just beginning to decline from their best, the arrival of swallows and the fresh green of young leaves in sheltered places; a good deal of grass cutting was going on when we were there. The city is home to the main campus of Michigan University and the whole place was filled with graduating students, accompanied for some of the time by, it seemed, more than one generation of family supporters; a good deal of photography was also going on.
When I travelled with Christina to Amsterdam, you may recall that I provided a range of photographs to capture the spirit of that lovely city; she asked me to wander around Ann Arbor and take some pictures to add to the ones she took when she was last there, for she would not, this time, have the leisure to do so herself. (As you can tell, she has also asked me to do a blog post, as she is still very busy!) I didn’t take pictures of the grass cutting, but allowed myself one graduation moment. The rest of the pictures have no particular significance, but US readers of this blog may forgive my including things which to a Brit are strikingly different from back home. The school buses, for example, are perhaps as iconic to us in the UK as London red Routemaster double-decker buses are to the rest of the world (there seemed to be an awful lot of school buses in Ann Arbor, but I then discovered that their depot was just around the corner from our hotel!). Most people appeared to take taxis or drive themselves around town and there were very few pedestrians outside the downtown area; the campus itself, of course, was full of walkers, bikers, monocyclists and skateboarders. Nobody in the hotel could tell me where to catch a bus, but I hopped on and off a few to give my legs a rest (I’m still recuperating after surgery earlier this year.). The houses were largely clapboard homes, the more modern of them part brick, and, apart from the student-rental homes (typically dilapidated and with piles of garbage on porch and in garden!) were immaculately tended, as were their gardens. Blossom time had arrived to set them off nicely!
One real surprise was that not much has been made of the beautiful River Huron, though I understand that there are places for kayaking now. I had to ask several people before I could find one who knew how to get down to the river; he seemed genuinely astonished that I wanted to go. Another place that I visited was Aunt Agatha’s Raven Award-winning (2014) crime bookshop, which Christina had heard about from one of the regular commenters on this blog, who I think lives not far out of town; she therefore asked me to go and browse, which I duly did, meeting Marty, the knowledgeable and long-serving bookseller there. He didn’t really want his picture taken, but, what the hell! I’m not surprised that the shop has such a reputation – its stock of used and new crime books is extensive. Sadly, I didn’t get to meet the owners, who were out of town. I enjoyed a Notting Hill moment there, by the way, as Marty, in the role of Hugh Grant, dealt with someone who wasn’t grasping too well (in spite of the window image below) that it was a crime and mystery store!
I enjoyed the wildlife, the most ubiquitous of which were American robins (not at all related to the English robin, but more thrush/blackbird in behaviour), the reddish-grey squirrels and Canada geese. In the shrubbery next to the flyover of Eisenhower Parkway, I was pleased to get a close personal view of the quite common northern cardinal, but he flew before I had chance to get the camera out.
I hope that you enjoy the pictures! The little boy in me loved the trucks!
09 +00002016-04-28T14:18:03+00:0030 2012 § 4 Comments
I’ve admired Sue Gee for a long time and was a fan of her work long before she became a Salt author. When I received my copy of Trio, her latest novel, I therefore knew I was in for a treat, though even I could not have predicted how magnificent a treat it would be!
Trio covers the lives of three generations, but asymmetrically. Its central characters are Steven Coulter and Margot, his second wife, whom he meets and falls in love with eighteen months after his first wife, Margaret, has died of tuberculosis. The Steven / Margaret / Margot story is set mainly in the latter half of the 1930s, when the Second World War is looming and the Spanish Civil War has already begun, but it isn’t one of the myriad novels whose subject is primarily how the war and its aftermath affected ordinary lives: there is a little of that, but mainly in the context of how engaging in warfare may be a choice, a buffer used by one of those ordinary lives against personal distress. The childhood and young adulthood of the middle generation, that of Steven and Margot’s children, is not described directly: the final part of the novel is devoted to Steven’s son’s first lonely Christmas after his wife’s death, and his feelings for his sister, children and grandchildren. This is set more or less in the present.
The real subjects of Trio are love, sex, grief and death: huge, primeval topics, and ones which most authors struggle to write about convincingly, let alone eloquently. ‘Bad’ sex scenes in fiction are, of course, notorious and even otherwise very accomplished authors are sometimes guilty of inadvertently creating scenes that are memorable only for their risibility. But Gee is more than equal to this task: the love scenes between both Steven and Margaret and Steven and Margot are tender and moving. Gee really comes into her own, however, when she is conveying grief: the sharpness of Steven’s terrible, raw young man’s grief when Margaret dies; the more muted, sad and resigned sorrow of Geoffrey Coulter, Steven’s son, when he is widowed as an old man.
Threading its way through each of the big themes of the novel, music is an ever-present force. On one level, the trio referred to in the title are Margot and the other two musicians with whom she regularly plays in concerts and recitals. Gee’s accounts of music and the effect that it has on its listeners are magnificent: Steven comes from a totally non-musical family, and his awakening upon listening to the trio to the power and pleasures of music are masterfully evoked. In Gee’s hands, music promotes love, awakens desire, assuages grief and dignifies death – even a shocking and violent death. Music sustains Geoffrey in his sadness, and he is proud that his granddaughter, Evie, also shows signs of musical talent.
I could write more about Trio, but I’m aware of the dangers of slipping into ‘spoiler’ territory. One last observation: I’m too young to remember the 1930s or the 1940s, but I’m sure that Gee’s portrayal of them is as authentic as I know her depiction of the present to be. And I love her evocation of the Northumberland landscape, which acts as both a beautiful and a terrible presence in this novel.
09 +00002016-03-28T16:02:00+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
Easter crept up on me this year, because I spent the greater part of the week leading up to it doing the day job in Barcelona. I was last there in November, when the weather was very similar to how it is now (How I envy the Spanish their short, mild winters!). Long-time readers may remember that I wrote of an earlier visit, in April 2013, when I was lucky enough to be there during the St George’s Day bookshop celebrations, the inspiration for our own World Book Day.
As it happened, there were more opportunities for down time in November and so last week’s distinct lack of them may be compensated by a selection of 2015 photographs of one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting cities. They aren’t in any particular order, but reflect visits to Antoni Gaudí’s inspirational work at Casa Batlló,
and Palau Güell
and to the Fundació Joan Miró.
There are some pictures, too, of places I wandered around and the people and animals I saw as I went. There were cats everywhere: scrawny cats crouching in alleyways, suspicious cats craning their necks from the tiled roofs, a family of sleek, well-fed black and white cats living in a courtyard at the university. Dogs were on and off leash, living happy doggy lives; being an English pointer owner, I was delighted to find a rescued black and white pointer playing on Carmel Hill (Park Güell) with her mum.
Anyway, as I’ve said, this is just a selection, which doesn’t really need much explanation, but I hope you didn’t expect too much in the way of classic views – you can find those in the guide books! Here’s a tourist picture to finish with: woman in Park Güell.
09 +00002016-03-26T20:28:02+00:0031 2012 § 2 Comments
I’ve just had the privilege of reading Dead of Winter, by Gerri Brightwell, the most recent addition to Salt Publishing’s crime list. Gerri Brightwell is an English academic who works in Canada. The novel is set in Alaska and I’m certain it draws on her experiences of Canadian winters for some of its local colour.
The story is told in the third person, but through the eyes of Fisher, the (anti-) hero of Dead of Winter, a divorced taxi driver and born loser who is estranged from his only child, a teenage girl called Bree (short for Breehan); he has a barely-speaking relationship with his former wife Jan, who, years before the story begins, has tired of her drab and grubby life with Fisher, smartened herself up, turned estate agent and met and married the obnoxious but successful Brian. Even the cab company (‘Bear Cabs’) that Fisher works for is second-rate and his life is filled with shifty characters who continually exploit him. Two of these, Fisher’s step-mother Ada and Grisby, his on-off friend, are rare jewels of characterisation. Both introduce black humour into the novel. Ada manages to cheat him and make him feel guilty for not running her errands at the same time. The depiction of Grisby is a compelling addition to the great tradition of literary scroungers: he could happily rub shoulders with Joxer Daly and hold his own. Fisher knows that Grisby takes advantage of him, but he also recognises that the man is pathetically inadequate, even more of a loser than he is himself, and therefore feels unable to abandon him. Grisby, for his part, turns to dross everything that he touches: to call him accident-prone would be a gross understatement. He is motivated by a low cunning that attempts to be devious but doesn’t fool Fisher. The only solid-gold creature in Fisher’s life is Pax the dog, and he is growing old and incontinent.
It is because of the actions of Breehan, Jan and Brian and Grisby and Ada that Fisher not only stumbles upon the aftermath of a murder, but is in danger of being wrongly accused as the killer. To protect his estranged family, he enlists Grisby’s aid to remove the corpse from the crime scene. From this point, event piles on event to immerse Fisher ever deeper in lies and apparent guilt, a vicious circle from which he cannot break free because of his love for Bree and Jan.
The tense and fast-moving action is played out over a period of a few days. The setting is a small Alaskan town in the grip of a vicious winter. The winter itself becomes one of the villains of the novel, alternately endangering and thwarting Fisher as he pursues his desperate mission. Fisher himself is by turns philosophical, funny, annoyed and depressed. His is a complex character: he charms the reader, despite his shabby frowsiness, lack of self-respect and fatalistic approach to how his life has turned out, because fundamentally he is honest, showing an integrity that no-one else in the novel can match.
The plot of Dead of Winter is ingenious: I thoroughly recommend this novel if what you’re looking for is a page-turner. What appeals to me even more is Gerri Brightwell’s clear prose and the deftly-observed characters that she creates. If you decide to read it, you won’t be disappointed.
09 +00002016-03-16T12:33:42+00:0031 2012 § 14 Comments
Last week I went to Seattle (on business, though it was very pleasurable) and my husband headed for Lancashire to help Priscilla and Rupert with this year’s crop of lambs, courtesy of Terence the Tup. My one regret was that I had to miss the lambs: Terence has performed particularly spectacularly this time: three of his six ladies have produced two sets of triplets and a set of quads (this, apparently, a one-in-ten-thousand eventuality). There are now thirteen lambs and still counting!
However, Seattle was wonderful. Geographically, it’s unique: an isthmus almost surrounded by sea, lake and tidal rivers. This, the proximity of mountains and the Pacific Ocean serve to make the climate fretful: although it’s mild, each day, I found, brings a series of sunshine and showers, the latter often lasting only a few minutes, but fierce until they peter out. The product: beautiful skyscapes, cloud dotted with mini rainbows to create a sort of celestial rocky road.
Sunday was my only free day. Following the advice of almost everyone, from business acquaintances to the man who sat next to me on the plane to various taxi drivers, I chose to spend most of it at Pike Market.
Built in 1907, this was originally called the ‘hygienic’ market, because horses (and therefore their droppings) were banned. Architecturally, it hasn’t changed much since then. It is a warren of twisting corridors, some ending unexpectedly with huge plate glass windows that provide viewing areas across the water.
The fresh fish stands grab the visitor’s attention first: they’re dramatic, piled high with lobsters, deep sea creatures such as octopi, and the sockeye salmon for which the region is famous.
Further into the market, there are many stalls selling what look like perfect fruit and vegetables and others with more exotic foods such as buffalo. There are vendors of local wines, honey and flowers and also quite a few ‘ordinary’ shops – I discovered a couple of booksellers – and, finally, the craft stalls. The artisanal goods were of exceptional quality, as the pictures illustrate (I bought some presents at these, so won’t describe them in detail).
All the shopkeepers and stall holders were friendly, giving me and other prospective customers the history of how they came to be there, what their goods were made of, how they made them, and, if they were comestibles, providing samples.
I spent most of the day in the market, but I did manage to see a little of the rest of Seattle, too, particularly the student area where my hotel was situated. I was very impressed with the university bookshop, which was sprawling and well-stocked with titles that catered for the local residents as well as students. It also had some very helpful and knowledgeable assistants. Indeed, all of the three bookshops I visited – the two in the market, one bijou, the other quirky, and the university one, which was on a different scale – were independents. Tom Hanks may have put Meg Ryan out of business with his juggernaut bookselling chain, but clearly some independent bookshops still flourish in Seattle!
On a darker note, I was saddened to see the evidence of drug addiction on Seattle’s streets. There was a young man in a filthy sleeping bag lying in one doorway of the large American Apparel shop near the university; another addict, obviously still high, accosted me and my colleagues to ask for a dollar when we left a restaurant on Monday evening. I read in the local paper that there are twice as many people being treated for heroin addiction as alcoholism in Seattle. No different from what can be seen in Britain’s big cities, particularly London, I suppose; what was different was that local people seemed to tolerate it much more. The American Apparel shop assistants, for example, did not try to move on the man in the sleeping bag.
Although Seattle is a wealthy city, deriving much of its prosperity from trade with Asia, I also saw evidence of poverty. The post office in the student quarter is a drab and cavernous building, and was staffed only by two exhausted-looking clerks, one male, one female, when I visited to buy stamps. Despite being overworked, they were both gentle and patient with their clients, none of whom appeared to be students and all of very modest means. The man spent a long time helping an old lady to send a parcel; the woman was explaining how to fill in a form to a middle-aged man who had learning difficulties. It struck me that they were serving the community in much the same way that public librarians do in the UK. They were kind – and I saw (and experienced) a great deal of kindness in Seattle.
I’ve given some impressions of Seattle: I’ve no idea what Seattle thought of me. In the market, I think I was probably a bit of a curiosity: several stall holders asked me where I came from. I told a man selling shopping bags, who was so deeply engrossed in a science fiction novel that I had to ask him three times to serve me, that I was a crime writer; he said that was cool, and asked me to sign his SF book, which I duly did, although of course having no right to do so! At the airport when I arrived, the immigration official, who was rather too chatty for me after a fifteen-hour journey, said “Gee, you sound really well-educated!” “Not really,” I answered. “It’s the accent. I’m just British.”
I left Seattle after a visit of only four days, determined to return and spend more time there. Then it was home to more work, bitterly cold winds and some equally exotic tales of sheep!