The 25th Hour, by David Benioff, was passed on to me by my son. At the risk of sounding sexist, I didn’t fancy it all that much; from the blurb on the jacket, it struck me as a quintessential boy’s book. It seemed to typify one of those fast-paced American thrillers in which cops and robbers all speak with gravelly voices out of the corners of their mouths, Humphrey Bogart style, and wisecrack with each other while letting their guns do all the serious talking. However, since I think that everyone’s reading should once in a while include something from outside his or her literary comfort zone and that one of this book’s more obvious virtues is that it is very short, I decided to give it a go.
I was very pleasantly surprised. The novel is set in New York and tells the story of the (anti-) hero’s last twenty-four hours of freedom before he has to present himself at Otisville Jail to serve a long sentence for drug-trafficking. His name is Monty. David Benioff succeeds in pulling off the difficult coup of making the reader both sympathise with him and recognise the enormity of his crime. This is achieved in an under-stated way, using just a few sentences, by describing the death from drug abuse of one of Monty’s friends and how it has continued to devastate the addict’s family.
The quality of the writing is superb. New York itself almost becomes a character in the novel. It is described at every hour of the day as Monty visits various haunts within the city and bids farewell to his friends, often in gritty and unconventional ways. Whilst it would perhaps be stretching it to compare it with the Dublin depicted by James Joyce as Leopold Bloom conducts his own twenty-four-hour odyssey, David Benioff clearly knows New York well and portrays it with affectionate precision.
The names that he chooses for his characters are superb. Monty’s friends are called Jakob and Kostya; his Puerto Rican girlfriend has the unforgettable (and ironic) name Naturelle. Jakob, a teacher, has a crush on a seventeen-year-old pupil whose name, Mary d’Annunziato, suggests association with the Blessed Virgin; the girl herself turns out to be a latter-day Lolita from the Bronx.
Finally, there is Doyle, the pit-bull terrier, whom Monty rescued after he had been abandoned at the side of the motorway and nursed back to health. Monty himself loves Doyle because he believes that his care of the dog is the only truly selfless thing that he has ever done. Aside from the moral that the reader is intended to draw from this (which is not laid on too heavily), the fact that Monty’s imprisonment means that he and Doyle will have to be separated, probably forever, is a detail ingenious for the way in which it inspires pity for Monty’s fate. If only he hadn’t dunnit, he and Doyle would still be bouncing along the sidewalks, though Monty would be financially poorer and Naturelle might well have moved on to someone with a fatter wad of notes in his money-clip.
I’m not usually a big drum banger, but the announcement yesterday of a new version of Life in the United Kingdom, the handbook for would-be British citizens, has got under my skin. I’m familiar with the previous version of this publication, because my daughter-in-law bought it last year to prepare herself for her (successful) bid to become a British national. In the process, she learnt and understood much more about British law and customs (according to the handbook, that is) than any of the born-British members of the family and we were amused and slightly alarmed by the number of hoops through which we should have been unable to jump if we’d had to renew our own citizenship. The sports questions would have been a particular nightmare for me, who eschews ball games and much appreciates walking in deserted local woods and parks on Saturday afternoons when there is a ‘big match’ on. Love of the countryside would seem not to qualify me for being a fine, upstanding Briton.
However, as I’ve said, all that was quite funny. What is not funny is the selection of British authors that, according to Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, aspiring British citizens are supposed to familiarise themselves with. Prominent among these are Sir Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K. Rowling. I have no quibble with the inclusion of J.K. Rowling, but it doesn’t escape my notice that the two male authors have together been dead for a total of almost 100 years. Conan Doyle died in 1930, which was seventeen years before the British handed India back to the Indians; Kingsley Amis in 1995, the year in which this year’s first-time voters were born. I’m not sure what they have to teach newcomers to the UK about being British today. Conan Doyle is famous for Sherlock Holmes and a dogged belief in the existence of fairies; Kingsley Amis for an admittedly well-crafted series of novels which proclaim the benefits of casual sex, adultery and the flippant flouting of the institution of marriage.
But even this is not what makes me want to bang my drum. What I find really indefensible is that these literary choices take no account of the wonderfully-rich range of cultures and social backgrounds that British authors have come from and drawn upon in the past fifty years. I’m thinking of Monica Ali and Brick Lane; Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day; Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children: all books by British writers from different ethnic origins. Surely novels like these are more relevant to the aspirations of today’s immigrants and offer more to admire in our ethnically-diverse British culture and literature than fairies and infidelity? Besides, in the view of this reader at least, they are much finer works of art.
I recently visited ‘Salty Towers’ (headquarters of Salt Publishing), which, as usual, was an inspiring and energising experience. It was made even more exciting than usual by the fact that Jen Emery, Director, has recently been accepted as the Labour candidate for the forthcoming council elections. As this is her ‘Next Big Thing’, I asked her if she would give me a short interview for this blog.
What made you decide to stand for election as a local councillor?
There has not been a Labour seat on the North Norfolk District Council for ever and there’s a lot that can be improved in Cromer. I’ve been involved in several local campaigns. As a relative newcomer to Norfolk, and a woman, I hope to be able to attract some people to the polling station who didn’t come last time.
What do you want to change in Cromer?
I want there to be decent recreational facilities in the town for everyone, especially children. What we have now for young people or teenagers is pathetic – almost non-existent. People retire to Cromer and when they are visited by grandchildren there is nothing for them to do if they can’t go to the beach. We also need to reduce the car parking charges, in order to attract more visitors and support the town’s retailers.
You’ve been celebrated as the first Labour woman candidate to stand. Do you think that there is a ‘glass ceiling’ in local councils generally?
I don’t know whether it’s a glass ceiling or whether women just don’t get involved. I think that the problem really lies with women feeling that they can’t (or don’t want to) get involved in the first place, which is a real pity. Women make up over 50% of the population and have a valuable perspective to offer, particularly on policies that impact on family and working life.
When do the elections take place?
On the 21st February.
You have been described by the local media as a businesswoman and publisher; you are also a mother. If you’re elected to the council, how will you juggle all of these activities?
Salt Publishing is bigger than I am and, since the Man Booker success of The Lighthouse, we’ve been able to involve more people. If I were elected, I’d split my time between the community and Salt.
What is your greatest achievement as a publisher?
Having a business and making it work for thirteen years is quite an achievement, especially as in that time we’ve consistently grown and have become better-known, whilst surviving the impact of the recession. Getting The Lighthouse shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize is an achievement that is hard to beat.
If you’re elected, do you think that your experiences as a publisher will help you with your work as a councillor?
Yes, because publishing is all about working with people; it is a very people-orientated business and means dealing with everyone in the book supply chain, particularly authors and customers. This, as well as my background in the NHS, will help me to represent the diverse communities of Cromer.
What are the personal strengths that you feel you can bring as a Cromer councillor?
I’m resilient; I have a sense of humour; I can see controversies from lots of different perspectives; I’m broad-minded, with a strong sense of fair play.
Do you think that you might ever be interested in a role in national politics, if the opportunity arose?
I would be interested in one if it directly benefited the public. As long as I could have a positive impact on people’s lives, I would not say no.
Within the context of what’s going on in the world today, both socially and economically, and especially what’s happening in the UK, what’s your top message for 2013 to the readers of this blog?
Make it your mission to be aware of what’s happening – there is a lot going on, politically speaking, right under people’s noses (for example, in the areas of health and benefits), that will have drastic long-term effects on people’s lives. Become super-aware politically and watch what the government is doing (for example, it’s setting one generation against another to detract from the fact that the richest have been given a tax cut). Make it your mission to find out what’s happening and do something about it: there is no room for apathy these days.
Many thanks to Jen for providing this insight into her exciting venture into local politics. I should like to wish her every success in the election, as it’s very clear indeed that she has in mind particular practical improvements for the benefit of everyone in Cromer.
Jonathan Pinnock managed to get a brief, but positive, mention in The Independent last week for Dot Dash. He was delighted at this, but also a bit sorry that Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens did not attract media reviews. Though Mrs Darcy is not a crime novel, it is a crime that newspaper reviewers passed over it. I here redress the balance, for a story in which George Wickham’s character is somewhat redeemed. I should also point out, on this happy 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, that no Jane Austen romance was harmed in the writing of Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens.
This book is to anachronism what well-rotted farmyard manure is to plants: in its fertile whimsical compost , you can expect to find flourishing together such conventionally-unrelated references as Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn and Sir Humphry Davy’s scientific experiments; Colin Firth’s damp Darcy shirt and Kurt Cobain’s Maggot; text (tux’d) messaging (oh-so-beautifully phrased) and carrier pigeons on the ‘superflyway’. If you are a Jane Austen purist, this book may not be for you, but don’t rush to damn it, for it is an ingenious blend of such varied stimuli as the tentacular spectacular Species film, the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, the Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Fast Show, together with a pungent flavour of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ghostbusters and Dr Who. Its wit sparkles, whether echoing (and/or making fun of) the language, characterisation and settings of Jane Austen’s novel, or making satirical references to the absurdities of our contemporary world and its preoccupations. The language of its characters, evoking the streetwalkers of Whitechapel, the rustics of rural England, the servants of big houses and their betters, is splendidly risqué and quite deliberately bad-pun-infested; it is full of sauce.
You can go spotting other references if you wish, for they are there a-plenty, such as a hint of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’s Lee Van Cleef, merrily moulded into an anachronistic ‘Lee Van Enfield’ rifle, or you can pick up on Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet’s minor reference to the likely failure of Jane and Bingley to conserve their wealth and to avoid being cheated by their servants, developed into a major outpouring of their resources to scamsters; and, talking of money, Bradford and Bingley and Northern Rock step up to the author’s line to salute us. The dialogue in the dirigible (don’t ask!) has echoes of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. A satirical swipe at the annual costumed Jane Austen Parade in Bath (and, thereby, at the Janeites of the world as a bunch of zombies) is a pleasing touch to those who value Jane Austen’s work as it is, not as her ‘fans’ would have it be. Jane Austen tourism comes under a blistering attack, too, and an in-joke (with lovely irony at the author’s own expense) slaughters all of us wordmongers: ‘Best to stay clear of them writer types in future – nutters the whole lot of them, apparently.’ Even the cheating tactics of car hire companies come under fire. Glastonbury Festival and its mud is sent wallowing in a cutting thrust at our society’s modern attitudes to drugs, sex and relationships, as well as at the establishment. The two pièces de résistance of the whole book for me, however, are Mrs. Darcy’s eventually wonderfully-assertive and liberated character and, if you’ll forgive a touch of irony from a genuine lover of Jane Austen’s novels, Colin, Lieutenant Pigeon: I didn’t need a satnav ghost to take me back to the seventies and Mouldy old dough (I can hear that gravelly enunciation clearly!).
Like Species, the way is left open for Mrs Darcy II and it will be funny and absurd, like this one: ‘Too, too silly’, but a complete romp. If you haven’t read Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, you should; it’s a frolic to enjoy on Pride and Prejudice’s birthday.
Oh, I didn’t mention Byron…
I’d like to thank Anne Zouroudi for nominating me as one of her choices when she completed the ‘Next Big Thing’ questions. I am a keen admirer of Anne’s novels and also greatly respect her as a writer with a genuine desire to help less established authors than herself. Most readers of this blog will already be familiar with the ‘Next Big Thing’, a blog-hop that spreads the news about what new book authors are working on, via a common set of ten questions. So here I go:
What’s the title of your next book?
It’s Almost Love, to be published in June 2013. There is more information about it here.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
It came partly from the extraordinary venue used for a conference that I attended – a house that had once been owned by Liberace – and partly from my discovery of an unlikely liaison between two people I know.
What genre does your book fall under?
It is a crime novel. Elaine Aldred has kindly described me as a ‘literary’ crime writer. I don’t really like categorising books, but, as a Salt writer, I do try to pay as much attention to the characters and the language that I use as to the plot.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
It depends on which characters! Rupert Penry-Jones fits the bill almost exactly for DI Yates; Franka Potente would be excellent as Katrin; Ralph Fiennes would play Guy Maichment, one of the villains, to perfection.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The disappearance of an elderly eminent female archaeologist and the simultaneous, but apparently unrelated, start of an illicit love affair between two colleagues together set off a chain of events that results in several murders; as the aspirations of a macabre right wing political group are also re-ignited, catastrophe threatens.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Like In the Family, it will be published by Salt Publishing. I don’t have an agent. I’m proud to be a Salt author.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I’m still tidying it up in places. I started writing it when on holiday in France in August 2011.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
That’s a very difficult question! I honestly haven’t read anything that resembles it much, partly because, as with In the Family, the South Lincolnshire setting is very important. I suppose it could be described as Michael Dibdin meets Henning Mankell in South Lincs, though that sounds terribly pretentious and more than a little absurd!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
It was always my intention to write several DI Yates stories. The first seeds of Almost Love were sown by a telephone conversation; it was a piece of gossip, really.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I’ve taken a lot of trouble with the archaeological background, which is inspired in part by the existence of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, a fascinating three-centuries-old organisation. Readers who’ve already met Tim Yates may be intrigued by some additional complications in his personal life.
I’d now like to pass the Next Big Thing baton to Laura Joyce, a fellow Salt author who has greatly impressed me with her debut novel, The Museum of Atheism.
Yesterday, making my first real foray from home since the snow came, I travelled by train to London.
I boarded at Wakefield Kirkgate, once a proud Victorian station of almost Downton Abbey proportions, now a sad and sinister derelict shell. It is quite a frightening place, especially after dark, and has been the scene of various robberies and at least one violent rape. However, it is also the station at which the magnificent Grand Central trains halt on their way to London King’s Cross. It is therefore well worth press-ganging my husband into temporary service as bodyguard. He waits on the platform with me so that, later, I can enjoy the luxury of the first class carriage, with coffee, biscuits, newspapers and wifi included, for the modest price of £60.
Perhaps because these trains are so luxurious, I began to think of Murder on the Orient Express, in which Agatha Christie skilfully shows that any of the passengers could have been capable of murder, before inviting the reader to identify who dunnit. I had to invent both a victim and also a motive for each suspect when I began to scrutinise my fellow passengers to guess what their favoured modus operandi for murder might be. Like Agatha Christie, I assumed that every one of them would be capable of the deed.
The man sitting diagonally opposite me was a businessman from Halifax. I know this, because, in a loud voice, he was telling the man sitting directly opposite (evidently a very new buddy) about his various boardroom coups and how he spent the money that he made: Mr. Conspicuous Consumption with a county veneer; he’d kill, to prove that he could do it, and want to ensure that both murder and weapon were as ostentatious as possible; and he’d wriggle out of punishment afterwards. An antique Purdey shotgun and a faked hunting accident would be his choice.
The new buddy, when he could get a word in, proved to be a genial and mellifluous Irishman: short cropped hair, John Lennon spec.s, shabby grey suit; one of the original sleeve buttons had evidently been lost and incongruously replaced with a bright pink one, slightly larger than the others. Conspicuous Consumption should be wary of him if they leave the train together. Mellifluous Irishman’d be capable of taking CC to a deserted spot, withdrawing a long, slender stiletto from one of the baggy inner pockets of that suit and thrusting it into CC’s heart, all the time keeping up the cheerful chatter about dead cert horses and racing greyhounds. Money would be his motive. Afterwards, MI would slip away through the wet and silent streets and fling his stiletto into the canal. The police would never track him down.
What about the Chinese Yummy Mummy, glamorously dressed to keep out the cold in champagne-coloured Rab jacket, fur-lined hood and aubergine leggings, her small feet shod in tiny suede boots? She was accompanied by a little girl of five or six, a mini-version of herself. Her immaculately made-up face had a wary, shut-in look. Once married to a rich man, perhaps; now a single mum determined to preserve their former lifestyle for herself and the child. If the rich man didn’t play ball, he would cop it before the divorce came through, while she was still legally the main beneficiary of his will. She’d have to be careful, though; she wouldn’t want to upset the child and, for her, there would be a double imperative to avoid prison. Poison would be CYM’s agent of choice, administered through some item of food delivered to defaulting rich husband when she was many miles from the scene. The police would suspect her, but they’d never find the proof.
Several seats behind me, an elderly woman wearing a long red coat (which she had not removed, though the carriage was well-heated) lay alternately dozing and looking round her with shrewd blue eyes. She had a mannish face and thick grey hair cut in a cropped, no-nonsense hairstyle; it was relieved from being a short-back-and-sides only by the crimped quiff swept back from her forehead. Mrs. Well-Upholstered Lady. She was a past mistress at her art. She’d had a long and eventful life: plotting her murders carefully; moving all obstacles as she continued on her relentless journey. She would have brooked no opposition along the way, whether it had come from troublesome lovers in her youth, her timid but irritating husband in middle age, or, more recently, the ancient aunt of whom she had been quite fond, but who’d already lived far too long when she’d begun to dissipate Mrs. W-UL’s inheritance on nursing home fees. A different MO every time for her: one of the lovers had been dispatched after she’d tampered with the brakes on his car; the husband had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas fire – she’d happened to be away at the time; she’d visited the aunt in the nursing-home every day, tenderly administering food and medicine, increasing the dose just a little bit on each occasion. Hers were all ‘perfect’ crimes: never suspected; never investigated.
According to my imaginings so far, every one of my train murderers would have got off scot free. Although in my novels not all the perpetrators pay the penalty, some are always caught. Otherwise, that all’s-right-with-the-world denouement of which I’ve previously written could not be achieved; so, I’ll have to re-visit. Which of the train murderers might be apprehended, and by whom? I’d put my money on CC and CYM: he, because he wouldn’t be able to resist boasting of his plans; she, because she’s a nervous novice who’s never committed a crime before (she is overheard on her mobile, spilling her heart out to a friend). MI and Mrs. W-UL? Too fly by far.
And who would catch CC and CYM? The guy serving the free coffees, of course: a detective in disguise all along. They made a fatal mistake: they should have travelled standard class.
My journey to London with Grand Central passed very quickly…
Just before Christmas, I attended a conference in London. I had a rich, bubbling cold, my train was delayed by an hour, there was driving rain when I emerged from King’s Cross station and I had to spend £17 on a taxi because I was already too late to take the Tube. I entered the conference room cold, germ-ridden and coffee-less (they’d cleared it away); quite ready, in fact, to hate the world.
My mood did not improve when my first break-out session, on ‘The Power of Writing and the Internet’, turned out to be led by a guy from Microsoft. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘Now I’m going to get the full-on, big-corporation sales pitch and then this bloke’s going to tell me how to write!’ However, contrary to my jaundiced expectations, he was, in fact, a very sensitive and funny man who didn’t attempt to sell anything at all. (When will I learn not to pigeon-hole people from big business?) He began the session by saying that, although he wasn’t a writer, he was an avid reader and that he knew that some day he would be a writer, too; he’d been inspired by his English teacher at school. He looked around the group (about twelve of us). “Everyone has been inspired at some time by a teacher, haven’t they?” he asked.
I immediately forgot my miserable mood and brightened inside at the memory of my own English teacher, who happened to be married to my Latin teacher: they were my favourites. Although I attended a grammar school, it was a very provincial one and the standard of teaching was variable, to put it kindly; but Mrs. Hill was a fiercely-burning star. She taught me in the early years, before taking time off to have her children, and returned before I entered the sixth form. By the end of my lower-sixth year, she’d encouraged me to read the whole of Jane Austen and all the tragedies of Shakespeare, in addition to my set texts. She marked my work fairly, but with deadly accuracy and detail, deducting marks even for miscreant commas; it was fruitless to protest that this was ‘literature’, not ‘language’. She would nudge us into taking parts in plays that we least wished to try and I won’t forget her own hilariously-naughty rendering of the porter in Macbeth.
I know that many of her pupils, both the ones before me and those younger than I, loved her as much as I did. I’ve written to her every year since I left school, although I’ve seen her again only once, in the year in which I was married. She now lives in Eastbourne, where I am myself speaking at a conference in April, and I’m hoping to arrange to meet her there. If the Microsoft man is a fellow delegate, I intend to introduce him to her! She was my inspiration, without a doubt, putting a flaming creative lamp firmly in my hand.