Blood on the Altar (faber & faber), by Tobias Jones, is undoubtedly the most unusual true crime account I have ever read, and one of the most disturbing. Jones was an investigative journalist living in Italy when he heard of the case of Elisa Claps, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared after attending church one Sunday morning in her home town of Potenza, deep in the south of the country. Jones befriended the Claps family; from the outset, they suspected that Danilo Restivo, a strange young man prone to exhibiting an unhealthy interest in certain local women and also, apparently, a stalker of Elisa, had murdered her. Among Restivo’s unsettling habits was a fetishistic obsession with female hair. However, his family was more eminent than the Claps family and his father undoubtedly able to influence such local officials as the public prosecutor and others in authority, like the priest in charge of the church where Elisa disappeared. As a result, although all the evidence pointed towards his guilt, he was not brought to justice. The evidence itself became obscured by a tissue of lies, evasions and half-truths in which many people, including some of Elisa’s own friends, appeared to be complicit.
Elisa’s brother, Gildo, spent almost twenty years trying to get at the truth of what happened, helped at intervals by Jones. Eventually, Jones became depressed by the corruption that seemed to be endemic in the region and returned to England to start a new life. He had been pursuing his new interests for some years when the case of Heather Barnett made the headlines. She was a seamstress living in Bournemouth and she had been brutally murdered and disfigured. In her hands were clumps of hair, not all of it belonging to her. It transpired that Danilo Restivo, who pretended to comfort her children after they discovered her body, was the neighbour who lived opposite her house. From his window, he could see into her bedroom window.
Eventually the police charged Restivo with Barnett’s murder. While the case was progressing, the remains of Elisa Claps were discovered high in the rafters of the church in Potenza where she had disappeared and Restivo was at last charged with this murder, too. Jones speculates that, since there was a gap of nine years between the two murders, it is likely that Restivo killed other women in the interim. In particular, the murder of a young Korean girl in Bournemouth about eighteen months before Heather Barnett’s death shows many similarities to the later crime. (Another man was found guilty of this murder, but the police have reopened this case recently, following the publication of Jones’ book.)
Like a well-plotted crime novel, Blood on the Altar tells two stories. The ‘main plot’ recounts the murders and offers a psychological profile of Restivo; the ‘sub-plot’ explores the remote region of Italy where the first crime takes place and tries to explain the collective psyche of its inhabitants. In the process, Jones gives the reader some evocative descriptions of the Italian countryside and of local customs. All of this is of relevance both to an understanding of Restivo’s character and to how he managed to evade the law, which in turn allowed him to commit the second murder (and probably others). However, the approach that Jones has taken has one drawback: it relegates Heather Barnett to a kind of bit-part in the book. Jones does not engage with her tragedy and that of her family as he engages with the tragedy of Elisa and the Claps family. This has the effect of making the story a bit lop-sided; however, that is a minor quibble about what is a fascinating, unsettling and beautifully-written book.
The small Norfolk town of Watton yesterday afternoon braced itself for bleak and squally weather, the rain coming in short eddies between gusts of wind that made the temperature seem even colder than it was. Inside, the library was a haven of warmth and hospitality, as Claire Sharland and her colleagues put the finishing touches to the Breckland Book Festival crime-writing event and offered welcoming cups of tea.
Elly Griffiths, Tom Benn and I all arrived early, as requested, and gathered in a small office to introduce ourselves and get to know each other a little better before we were ‘on’. I was fascinated to discover that Elly also writes novels about the Italian ex-pat community as Domenica de Rosa, her fabulous real name, and that Tom was encouraged to publish by his tutor at UEA, who helped him to place his first novel, The Doll Princess, with Jonathan Cape.
When we emerged from the small office at 3 p.m., the events space in the library had filled completely with people. I estimate that there were about forty in the audience – an impressive turn-out on such a dismal day.
Tom and Elly both read from their latest novels. Tom made the distinctive Mancunian dialect in which he writes come alive with his reading and, by doing so, also brought out the sophisticated humour which runs like a fine thread through the whole of Chamber Music. Elly also chose a humorous piece of dialogue from Dying Fall, and made the audience laugh with her vivacious rendering.
We were fortunate to have such a receptive and intelligent audience. Most had read the work of one of the authors; some had read both. Their comments and questions took in a discussion about the two writers’ very different but, in each case, key use of topography, character development, how each uses his or her writing to explore and develop relationships and the extent to which they feel defined by belonging to the crime writing genre (they don’t). We even managed to get on to some more general topics, such as e-books, authors’ royalties and the Net Book Agreement (the latter introduced, not by me, but by a member of the audience who had been a bookseller in the distinguished Waterstones bookshop at UEA).
Time flew in the company of Elly and Tom and their audience of like-minded lovers of literature. I had not read either Elly’s or Tom’s books before, but shall certainly keep them in my sights from now on. I hope also that we shall meet again in the future.
I can’t conclude without adding that the tea and home-made cakes with which we were rewarded at the start of the signing session were excellent. I’ve discovered that cake and conversation are two things that Norfolk does very well indeed!
As readers of this blog have often kindly expressed an interest in my books, I thought you might like to know that an event has generously been organised for me by Sam, the wonderful Events Manager at Waterstones Gower Street, on Thursday 21st March 2013. It will start at 6.30 p.m. and last for perhaps an hour. I shall be reading a short excerpt from In the Family and perhaps also one from Almost Love (which will be published in June), and offering a few tips, from a personal perspective, on how to get published. After this, there will be a short Q & A – and a glass of wine! The event is a sort of forerunner of a larger Salt crime event that will be hosted by Gower Street on 23rd May 2013.
I know that readers of the blog are scattered far and wide and that some of you don’t live in Europe. Wherever you are, I am very grateful to you for your interest and have been delighted to ‘meet’ you on these pages. For those of you who happen to be in London next Thursday or can travel there easily (and would like to, of course!), I should be delighted to have the opportunity to meet you in person.
I am a Peter Robinson addict – I think that I have read all of his books and I’ve certainly read all of the Banks novels. I’ve just completed Watching the Dark, which was one of the books that I bought during my trip to Gower Street last week.
This is Banks back on track, after what I felt was a slight dip in performance with Bad Boy. The novel is set partly in Yorkshire, partly in Tallinn, and involves a cold case murder that is reopened after an Estonian investigative journalist is found dead in a remote ruined Yorkshire farmhouse that has been used as accommodation for immigrant workers. The novel explores the vicious exploitation of guest workers by employment agencies and loan sharks, as well as highlighting the dangers to young girls of getting drunk when alone in foreign cities. The descriptions of Tallinn are evocative and convincing; in his Afterword, Robinson says that he visited the city in order to research the novel and pays tribute to several of its inhabitants who helped him.
Banks has had a chequered romantic career. Robinson has now chronicled the good years, the ultimate disintegration of his marriage to Sandra and his affairs with several other women, especially the on-off relationship with his colleague Annie Cabbot. He is possibly indicating that the Annie relationship has completely run its course by introducing a new, glamorous policewoman, Inspector Joanna Passero, in this novel. The relationship between her and Banks gets off to a rocky start and there is no sexual element to it – yet. However, the signs are there: by the end of the novel, she has confessed to him that she is worried that her (Italian) husband is being unfaithful to her. My guess is that the scene is now set for some torrid episodes with Banks in the next of the series!
I enjoyed Watching the Dark hugely. However, I have to admit that reading the Banks novels has become for me the equivalent of eating a box of chocolates – something to be devoured almost without thinking, for the sheer comforting pleasure of knowing exactly what will be delivered. Perhaps because they are so predictable, I don’t think that the latest two Banks books have come anywhere near another recent Robinson title in which Banks doesn’t feature: Before the Poison. I read this almost a year ago, and thought that it was masterly.
I am quite often asked to explain why almost all bookshops display the same ‘Top 20’ blockbuster books so prominently in their windows and on front-of-store tables. Somewhat less politely, I’ve heard this referred to as the ‘W.H. Smith syndrome’. There are, of course, some magnificent exceptions, both in the independent sector and some of the chain bookshops, and I hasten to pay tribute to them. However, it is true that range bookselling is becoming rarer and more difficult to maintain in terrestrial bookshops, while, paradoxically, the so-called ‘long tail’ of publications from independent publishers and self-published authors becomes ever easier to access via the Internet. Both as a former bookseller who still believes in the power of being able to browse among shelves of print books and as an author who is published by a superb but still small independent publisher, this is a subject that concerns me greatly.
Incredible though it may seem to me, there is a generation of book buyers who have never paid prices for books that were subject to the Net Book Agreement [NBA]. In fact, anyone who was sixteen or over when the NBA agreement was abolished, in 1997, will be well into their thirties now. The NBA acted as the linchpin of book retailing for ninety-seven years. It was set up in the year 1900 by a group of publishers who were afraid that booksellers were discounting their publications so heavily that their businesses would become unviable and that so many bookshops would therefore be forced to close down that across the nation there would no longer be an adequate shop window to promote their titles. (This was, of course, decades before internet bookselling and also long before some publishers began to sell direct. The only alternatives to high street booksellers at the time were book clubs (which had a reputation for unscrupulousness) and, until the foundation of the public library service, paying to borrow books by subscribing to circulating libraries such as Mudie’s and Boots.) The NBA declared that no bookseller could sell a book at a price lower than that decreed by the publisher and printed on the cover. After the public library service was given its charter in 1932, an exception was made in favour of allowing booksellers to apply discounts of up to 10% to orders that they received from public libraries.
Also called Resale Price Maintenance, the NBA was effectively a restrictive trades practice. When it was first set up, it was among a number of such restrictive practices allowed by British law; when it was re-examined in 1962, it was one of only two remaining (the other involved the supply of certain products to the pharmaceutical industry). In 1962, it was declared still to be in the public interest. One of the main reasons for this ruling was that it enabled bookshops to stock a wide range of titles; in other words, it stopped outlets like supermarkets and other non-specialist retailers from buying up large quantities of top-selling titles at a discount and passing on this discount to the customer, thereby depriving proper range booksellers of their bread-and-butter income. Ironically enough, the argument for its validity began to disintegrate when Terry Maher, proprietor of the Dillons book chain, illegally began to apply discounts to some titles in 1991. The NBA was re-examined in 1996, when it was declared to be against the public interest and therefore outlawed.
The effects of this were not immediate, because both booksellers and publishers were cautious about dismantling wholesale an implement that had supported their industry effectively for almost a century. However, eventually booksellers began to demand higher discounts so that they could attract customers by offering loss leaders. Only the big publishing houses were able to offer significant discounts and then only for the most popular titles (it is one of the paradoxes of modern bookselling that the titles that are most heavily discounted are the ones that people are most likely to buy anyway). It has since become more and more difficult for small independent publishers to sell their titles into bookshops and, if they do succeed, they rarely manage to get these titles prominently displayed; the net effect of this is that the titles then sell less well than titles that are prominently displayed, which means that the bookseller’s next order to the independent publisher is likely to be even smaller than its predecessor. It’s a vicious circle, exacerbated by the relatively recent practice adopted by some chain booksellers of selling prime in-store display space to publishers. Naturally, only the largest publishers can afford to pay the price. Ergo the ‘W.H. Smith syndrome’ [a slightly unfair soubriquet, by the way, because a) Smith’s does not pretend to be a range bookseller and b) individual Smith’s stores will sometimes go to considerable lengths to promote local authors].
So, should we have allowed the UK’s Net Book Agreement to be first vilified and then murdered? Both France and Germany still operate some form of Resale Price Maintenance on both print books and e-books; both still have flourishing terrestrial bookshop chains and independents that offer range titles. It is also an interesting fact that e-books have been much slower to take off in these countries. Is it in part because RPM makes them more expensive than in the UK? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
I was particularly fascinated when Apple came up with the agency model as a fair way of selling e-books. The agency model does not fix the price at which the book can be sold, but it does establish the minimum margin that must be made by the publisher. Effectively, like the NBA, it is therefore a form of price-fixing and has been declared illegal.
When you look at the legal reasons for abolishing Resale Price Maintenance of any kind, they seem to be entirely proper. But the argument about what best serves the need of the customer is much less clear-cut. Fine, if the customer wants to read only blockbusters, but for those of us who would like more variety in our reading diet, a mechanism that enables bookshops to stock less popular titles has been proved to be beneficial. Would the reintroduction of the Net Book Agreement therefore be ‘a good thing’? A difficult question, but one to which I am inclined to answer ‘yes’. I am quite certain, though, that, given the present economic climate, it will be a long time, if ever, before we are given the chance to find out.
Chamber Music, by Tom Benn, is not the sort of book I’d ever pick out for myself in a bookshop, given a free choice. Why? Because even though I am impressed by the skill of writing a dialect-heavy novel, I find such an approach to dialogue rather painful to read; also, when I’m not very familiar with the dialect, I can’t ‘hear it in my head’. I must admit, too, that the presentation of the seamier side of life for a whole novel is, for me, too much noir in one go! However, as I’ve explained in a recent blog-post, I’m meeting Tom at a Breckland Book Festival crime-writers’ session which I’m chairing. Claire Sharland, the organiser, kindly offered to pay for this book if I acquired it. I should add, hastily, that of course I’d have made sure that I’d read it before meeting Tom, in any case!
Technically speaking, it is a brilliant novel. I don’t quite know how to describe the technique that Tom has used – it is Irving Welsh crossed with William Faulkner, if that makes sense. I know that often writers resent being asked if their books are autobiographical or ‘drawn from life’; and, whilst I have no intention of asking Tom such a question, it seems likely to me that he must have lived and breathed the under-class, criminal-underworld Mancunian society that he depicts – otherwise he would never have been able to write such pitch-perfect dialect or captured the topography of the mean streets of Manchester with such conviction. On occasion, the use of dialect is so rich that the non-Mancunian reader is baffled, but such is Benn’s skill that eventually it is possible to decipher meaning from context. For a simple example, I picked up quite quickly that ‘scran’ is slang for a tasty snack.
This book has very little in common with Elly Griffiths’s Dying Fall, the other book featured in the Breckland session, which is no doubt why these two authors were billed together. However, both do share a pronounced sense of place and in both novels I feel that the crimes act as a vehicle for exploring the characters, rather than themselves being the focal points of the novels. Henry Bane is a complex character who takes a lot of fathoming – I suspect I should learn even more about him if I were to read the book twice; and Roisin is portrayed in an enigmatic and, given the situations in which she is placed, paradoxically delicate way.
I’m particularly looking forward to asking Tom Benn to read a passage from Chamber Music when I meet him next Saturday, for I want to get the authenticity of his voice into my reading of the novel; I’m sure that a live reading will be captivating.