Month: May 2013

Cuculus canorus, a welcome criminal…

Cuculus canorus
This spring continues to be extraordinary. Yesterday evening, I was out walking the dog and had almost reached home again when I heard my first cuckoo of the year. In farming communities, it’s traditional to note down when this happens, so, to be precise, the time was 19.10 on May 30th 2013. I heard it again in the early hours of this morning, just as the dawn was breaking. (In the one day left of May, ‘he sings all day’!) Every year cuckoos come to call around the village, but this must be my latest first hearing in all the twenty years of my residence. I wonder if cuckoos are also behindhand because of the late spring and whether their June ‘changed tune’ (with an extra ‘cuk’) will be delayed until July?

Cuckoos are fascinating. The name itself, so precise in its onomatopoeic evocation of the call, is exotic. They are beautiful arboreal birds, shy of humans: I’ve seen them on only a few occasions, years apart. They’re pale grey in colour, with a gorgeous dark barred pale underbelly, and have a hawk-like flight and perching posture. What captured my imagination as a primary school child and still beguiles me is their anti-social behaviour. They are the vandals and parasites of the bird world, each one performing its own microcosmic act of ethnic cleansing. The females plant a single egg in the nest of a (usually) much smaller bird, such as a dunnock or a pipit; then, when the chick hatches, it dominates proceedings, diverting with a huge and gaping maw the host parents’ attention from their own offspring before turfing the latter, eggs and/or nestlings, out of the nest, thereby guaranteeing itself a monopoly on the food supply. What is strange is that the foster parents don’t seem to notice, instead running themselves ragged to feed a chick that soon grows to be much bigger than they are.

‘A cuckoo in the nest’ was an expression that I heard a lot when I was a child. It was used to describe someone – often male – whose self-indulgent behaviour and habits were spoiling things for the rest of the family or community: a heavy drinker or a work shirker, for example. It had various gradations of meaning: it was a bit like ‘fly in the ointment’, only more so; it also had overtones of the now over-used ‘the elephant in the room’ – although the latter saying implies that no-one is prepared to mention whatever it is that the elephant represents, which is not typical of forthright Lincolnshire folk. ‘Cuckoo’ is slang (particularly in America) for ‘crazy’, hence the title of the book and film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’; but in Lincolnshire dialect, someone saying ‘You’re a cuckoo’ (as opposed to ‘You’re cuckoo’), was paying you the compliment of calling you witty, or was amused by something that you’d just said. (A variant of this was ‘You’re a caution’.)

So, are cuckoos lovable or not? I think that they remain a puzzle: an enigmatic variant of Nature that has got by without obeying the rules. Like people who live by their wits, they expend a great deal of energy on not paying their way: energy that could equally well be expended on working within society instead of preying on it. Instead, once they’ve deposited their eggs – each female lays up to twelve – they swan off (so to speak!) to tropical Africa, where they spend nine months sunning themselves, the ornithological equivalent of the idle rich. I realise that I’m straying into dangerously anthropomorphic territory here, but it strikes me that the cuckoo is the Raffles of the bird world.

Cuckoos are fast declining in number and I am the more excited, therefore, when I hear their call; they are so traditionally part of an English spring that I hope we don’t lose them.

Every word stabs…

Motive is a fascinating part of murder, because it is bound up with the psychology of the killer. I find myself thinking of the motives that have driven people to dispose of others: resentment, hatred, envy, greed, retaliation, revenge, fear, anger… very human emotions that we all experience at one time or another, thankfully without fatalities. But what is it that pushes someone beyond the self-control that limits the majority? If we are to believe some crime fiction and the apparent evidence of real cases, there is sometimes the desire for fame, or notoriety, but this is perhaps very rare, if true at all.

Of course, investigators of murder cases think very closely indeed about motive, as that may well point to the perpetrator, or at least narrow down the possibilities: Who might have had a grudge? Who was close to the victim, by kin- or friendship? Who might have gained from the death?

These days, unfortunately, there are more frequently political motives for murder, when reason is overpowered by belief, and we might well gasp in astonishment that anyone could be fanatical enough to take a life in so public a way as last week in Woolwich. Most murderers seek anonymity.

It’s common to hear people say, “I’d kill for a… beer, a smoke, a cup of tea, a Mars Bar”, but the statement’s intentional hyperbole confirms its lack of seriousness. However, I have heard one person say, quite matter-of-factly and without any obvious intent to shock, that he could kill, full stop. Needless to say, I found his comment quite unnerving and, after considering the kind of person he seemed to be, not beyond the bounds of possibility. I have also turned the focus upon myself and asked myself if I could kill and, if yes, under what circumstances and with what motive? Crime of passion? Maternal defence of child? Revenge for abuse? Being for some reason or another at wits’ end? And if I were to commit murder, would I do it in a calculated way so as to minimise the risk of detection? Here I am, essentially a very pacific person, heading the way madness lies; however, as a crime writer, I do spend time on self-analysis, the better to understand the minds of my fictional characters.

Regular readers of this blog will see a link here with my recent rhubarb post, which of course was tongue-in-cheek stuff, and might now be determining never to cross my path. Fear not, whatever murderous intentions I have will be sated with words.

Don’t you love it when a book has personal resonance!

Stone Cradle

Stone Cradle is the second novel that I’ve read by Louise Doughty.  The first, Whatever You Love, was an entirely different kind of book: a contemporary novel about child bereavement.  Stone Cradle is a historical novel set in the Fens at the turn of the twentieth century, about a Traveller family.  I bought it both because I’m interested in the Lincolnshire of that period and because it resonates with me personally, for reasons that I shall explain later, but first I’d like to say that any writer who can produce two such completely different, yet equally compelling, novels ticks several boxes for me straight away.

Stone Cradle is in part about the bleakness of being a working-class woman living in a predominantly farming community of the period.  The story is told in the first person, alternately by a female Traveller, Clementina, and her daughter-in-law, Rose, a farmer’s adopted daughter who renounces the harsh life on the farm for the spurious glamour of running away to marry Clementina’s son, Elijah.  It is one of the poignant ironies of the book that, although they share a great deal in common (including the fact that Elijah is illegitimate and Rose herself the illegitimate daughter of a mother who, like Clementina, worked hard to keep her), she and Clementina detest each other from the moment that they first meet.  This is partly because they are rivals for Elijah’s affections, even though he is more often absent than present from their lives and both know that he is a ne’er-do-well, but even more because the norms and values of each are incomprehensible to the other.  The dual first-person narrative captures this cleverly and is the more accomplished for going over the same events twice, through the eyes of each, without being repetitive.  As someone who is experimenting with this technique at the moment, I know how difficult it is to pull off!

Rose persuades Elijah to live in a house in Cambridge (where Clementina presents herself as an uninvited guest and never moves out) for several years after their marriage, but Elijah’s fecklessness and their consequent poverty force them eventually to re-join the Travelling community.  Rose never fits in.  She dies twenty years before Clementina.  At the beginning of the novel, Elijah, himself now an old man, is shown burying his aged mother.  To save a few shillings, he has Rose’s grave opened and Clementina’s coffin laid on hers.  Had they known, both women would have been appalled; the act epitomises both Elijah’s insensitivity and the privation that has followed them throughout their lives.

Two further qualities make this novel exceptional: the brilliant way in which Louise Doughty captures what it was like to be a member of the nineteenth-century Travelling community and her depiction of the period itself.  The book has obviously been extensively researched, yet nowhere does the author parade her knowledge.  One of the reasons for my being more often than not equivocal about historical novels is that, unless the author is very skilled indeed, the reader is presented with an outside-looking-in narrative: in other words, the author’s fictional take on what s/he has gained from the history books.  Worse, this is sometimes accompanied by what I call the costume drama factor, i.e., a stereotypically ‘olde worlde’ way of making the characters think and speak, probably based on watching too many films.  It takes a very talented writer not to fall into these traps, but Louise Doughty is such a writer.

Now I come to the personal resonance bit.  In her acknowledgments, the author pays tribute to the Romany museum in Spalding (of which I was hitherto unaware) and the Boswell family.  She actually gives the most noble of the Romany families in the book the name ‘Boswell’.  It is another of the novel’s distinctions that the Traveller characters are not over-sentimentalised.  There are rough and feckless Travellers, as well as ‘good’ ones, just as there are good and bad ‘gorjers’ (non-Travellers) living in and around Cambridge.  The Boswell family was well-known in the Spalding of my youth.  Their patriarch, whose first name I don’t know, because he was always referred to as ‘Bozzie’, had ceased to travel and built up a profitable scrap-metal business just outside the town.  By the time I was born, he was reputed to be a millionaire and lived in a very nice house.  I went with my father to see him on several occasions.  In those days, I think that at least some of his family were still Travellers, and some may be still.  Louise Doughty seems to indicate, however, that there is still a permanent Boswell presence in Spalding and evidently the Boswells were the inspiration behind the museum.  I am determined to visit it next time I go to Spalding.

Something that I look forward to…


It’s just occurred to me that it’s been a long time since the last Crimewatch programme, so I’ve looked it up on the BBC website and discovered that the next episode will be on Thursday.  Something to look forward to later in the week!  For visitors from overseas, this appeal programme features real unsolved crimes and asks for help from the public to pinpoint the perpetrators.

I’ve been a Crimewatch fan almost since it began.  In the early days, I was attending quite a demanding evening class and would rush home afterwards to see it.  I always missed the first twenty minutes or so, which made the remainder of the programme all the more enjoyable.  I don’t like the glitzier image of recent years as much as the more straightforward regime presided over by Nick Ross, but I still hate to miss it.  This week’s episode is on the rise of mobile phone thefts, apparently, which doesn’t sound riveting… but we shall see!

I haven’t often been bored by Crimewatch, but I do favour some of the regular sections over others.  I like the rogues’ gallery, because it’s fun to speculate and put the face to the crime – though I realise that such games are purely subjective, for one thing, and, for another, fail to take into account the fact that police mugshots, like passport photographs, are bound to look sinister, because the subject is forbidden to smile.  I’m always absorbed by the reconstructions, which tend to feature murder or rape.  Sometimes I wish I could call out to the victims, tell them not to take that shortcut or forget to lock their door.  Clips that I like least tend to feature CCTV footage of mindless violence – although I know that it is right to highlight this – or what can perhaps be best described as a dark sister of the Antiques Roadshow: the parade of artefacts discovered by police to be in the possession of criminals who can’t or won’t say how they came by them.  I know at first hand that theft is a foul crime: my house has been burgled twice and I’ve also (as you may have read here) had my purse stolen.  But somehow this collection of inanimate objects doesn’t engage the attention in the same way.  Clips that show those bereft of treasured items and asking for their return are a different matter; I can empathise with the victims completely.

Best of all, though, are the retrospectives.  Sometimes a whole programme is devoted to these.  If this programme is additional to the season’s schedule, that’s a bonus.  What’s so fascinating about the retrospectives is the way in which they provide step-by-step documentation of how the villains in a previously featured case have been caught.  (Understandably, crimes which Crimewatch itself has helped to solve are most frequently chosen.)  I’m not a police procedural writer, as my readers know, although this is a very palatable way of finding out how the police operate, but it’s the insight into the criminal mind offered by the retrospectives that really grabs me.  Sometimes the perpetrator has shown such Machiavellian cunning that I’m full of admiration for the police in outwitting him or her; sometimes s/he seems to have behaved in such a stupid or reckless way that it’s surprising that they weren’t apprehended immediately.

If you have access to British TV (I know that this doesn’t apply to everyone who will read this) and you haven’t seen Crimewatch before, I invite you to join me on Thursday evening, 30th May, BBC1 at 9 p.m.  If you are already a fan, I look forward to keeping you company!  Perhaps we can compare notes afterwards.

Ms James, in the dining room, with the rhubarb crumble…

Rhubarb crumble
I’ve spent a great deal of the bank holiday weekend cooking: two types of muffin, cheesecake, bread, meringues, fish pie, quiche and barbecue sauces, since you ask. And today, Sunday-style lunch for my guests before they depart, with rhubarb crumble.

I live just outside what is known as the ‘rhubarb triangle’, a smallish area near Wakefield in West Yorkshire famous for early ‘forced’ rhubarb. In Lincolnshire, too, rhubarb has always thrived. It seems to like cold, wet regions with severe winters. When I was growing up, every garden had a crown or two of rhubarb. The forced rhubarb industry uses heated, dark, forcing sheds to encourage the rhubarb plants to mature early and pickers have traditionally harvested the stalks by candlelight to preserve their sweetness; but generations of amateurs have employed the simpler method of planting it in a sheltered spot and placing an old tin bucket or a more picturesque terracotta bell over one of the crowns.

Rhubarb was a family staple; even though my mother detested it, she would cook it for everyone else. Her first job, in 1945, was quality control technician at the local canning factory, where rhubarb was processed in bulk. (It was war-time, and jobs were plentiful: I believe her main qualification for this was that her school leaving certificate said that she’d studied biology!) Years later she confessed that she’d never had known if there was something wrong with the rhubarb, because it all tasted poisonous to her. I think that it’s one of those foods, like Marmite and peanut butter, that you either adore or loathe.

I’ve always found it rather an enigmatic – fruit or vegetable? I’m not sure which it is. To me, there’s always been something rather mysterious and exotic about it. There’s even poetry in the names of many of the varieties: German Wine, Riverside Giant, Valentine, Sunrise.

One thing’s certain: you eat the stalks and not the leaves, which contain such poisons as oxalic acid. You’d have to eat a lot of very unpalatable leaves to die, however, though boiling the leaves with soda apparently increases their toxicity.

My imagination is caught: the means by which a murderer might do away with someone by serving up a tasty crumble, laced with pulped rhubarb leaves and soda. Ms. James, in the dining room, with neither rope nor lead piping in sight. 😉

A walk into the past… and a request for anecdote!

Waterton Park Hotel
Yesterday my husband and I drove to the Newmillerdam Country Park near Wakefield and, from there, walked to Waterton Park Hotel via old railways and canal towpaths. We were accompanied by our son and daughter-in-law, who were married at the hotel almost two years ago. It’s a favourite place for weddings, because the building, a Palladian mansion house, is situated on an island in a lake, which makes it extremely photogenic. The house was built by Charles Waterton, the famous early nineteenth century naturalist, who was Yorkshire’s answer to Audubon. Ahead of Walter Potter, he was also a celebrated taxidermist, although, as far as I know, he didn’t indulge in creating the sentimental yet ghoulish animal tableaux that made Potter famous. Waterton was a serious naturalist at a time when naturalism was only just emerging from the status of appropriate hobby for benighted clergymen who had taken up their livings in rural areas to becoming recognised as a ‘proper’ science. I’ve just looked Waterton up and now discover that, unusually for Yorkshire gentry of the period, his family was Catholic. Waterton himself claimed an impressive ancestry that stretches credibility – among other famous luminaries from the distant past, he claimed descent from Ailric, King’s Thane to Edward the Confessor, Vladimir the Great and Sir Thomas More. (Interestingly, George Moore, whom I wrote about last week, also annexed Sir Thomas. Perhaps he represented a kind of badge of honour to nineteenth century Catholic gentlemen, much as some modern Americans may believe they can have no better pedigree than their family’s having arrived on the Mayflower, or Australians than being able to boast descent from convicts.)

Back to the present. There was a wedding taking place at Waterton Park Hotel yesterday. The bride and groom had taken their vows and were strolling with their guests on the lawns prior to adjourning for their wedding breakfast. I was much impressed by the hotel staff, who were as attentive to them as they were to my son and daughter-in-law two years ago. As I’ve written before, I’m fascinated by those whose jobs consist of providing a service to others, whether they are booksellers, restaurateurs or hoteliers. The best of them make every customer and every guest feel special, day in and day out. It is quite a feat.

As the hotel is not so very far from home, I’ve never had reason to stay there, although I’ve eaten there on many occasions. Passing through the foyer to the bar on my way to buy drinks, I noticed that the hotel offers a murder mystery weekend later in the year. I’ve wondered several times about trying out one of these events, but in the end I’ve always been deterred by the risk that I might be bored. In such a setting as Waterton Park, though, I might be tempted to try it. I wonder if any readers of this blog have indulged in one of these contrived adventures? If so, I should love to hear some anecdotes from your experiences, to help in my decision to give Waterton mystery a try.

I admit it: I do like Harry…

The Leopard
What is it that grabs in a Jo Nesbo? Harry Hole has been very carefully conceived. Part of the strong tradition of flawed heroes, Harry has a Dirty Harry quality which was bound to impress me as soon as I read my first Nesbo. What is it that makes him both insufferable and dead sexy at the same time? He has the capacity to love, to remember, to feel, to empathise, to anticipate, but sacrifices his relationships on the altar of his determination to track down and defeat serial killers; he is scarcely attractive, but lithe and angular, case-hardened, rough – an alcoholic, a loner and an oddball; yet he has integrity, understanding, commitment. He is every thinking girl’s dream bit of rough. And he’s a wizard with the ’cuffs! Nesbo knows that a character who stands up for the morality of honest policing and opposes deceit and hypocrisy in the force has the captivating appeal of Robin Hood, a renegade against the corruption of power. He comes to us with a carefully-wrought family background which makes him essentially human, for he cannot escape his sense of kinship duty; he has inner anger and a wealth of inconsolable regrets; his past haunts him. He is doomed and slowly abusing his body to death.
I could wax lyrical about Nesbo’s plots, but, as regular readers here know, I’m not so struck on the meticulous detail of killer method. Nevertheless, it is Harry I come back to, mesmerised by the depth and range of authorial characterisation that makes him credible and, for fiction, a brilliant creation.
You pronounce Hole ‘Hoola’, by the way; a Norwegian friend told me. But ‘hole’ seems somehow appropriate; he always seems to be in one!
I can’t help myself: when I read Nesbo, I’m a Rakel or a Kaja; nothing like immersion in a good novel… and willing suspension of disbelief!

Salt Publishing crime writer event

Gower Street poster

May I use today’s post to flag up a Salt Publishing event at Gower Street Waterstones, an evening with Salt’s crime authors, Laura Ellen Joyce, Matthew Pritchard and myself, at which we’ll be sharing both our books and experiences.  For those new to this blog, here are some earlier posts which may interest you in relation to the authors and the venue:

The Museum of Atheism

Meeting Matthew Pritchard at BAFTA 195

The ‘next big thing’ for me

Gower Street Waterstones

I do hope that you will join us on this occasion, if you are able to do so; all three of us are very much looking forward to meeting you in this very lovely bookshop.


Stephen King and I in perfect accord, did he but know it!

From The Times May 22nd 2013

From The Times May 22nd 2013

I’m not really a Stephen King fan – horror isn’t my bag – although I admire his dedication as a writer. He himself has said that his writing gave him the will to live when he was seriously injured in a car accident in 1999. I have read a couple of his books – Carrie and one other whose title escapes me – and I can appreciate his work enough to see why it is compelling. He’s a true professional.

However, he managed to annoy me very seriously in the year 2000 (He was quite unaware of this, of course!) when he published Riding the Bullet, a short story, as an e-book and sold it from his own website. He sold more than 5,000 copies in twenty-four hours, which allowed him to claim that the role of the publisher was becoming defunct as digital publishing took hold. He took into account neither the fact that he had been supported patiently by his publisher through his early years as a writer nor that he had sold so many copies of Riding the Bullet because he was Stephen King; it was not a feat that any author could replicate.

I was therefore delighted to read in today’s Times that he has not only decided not to release the digital rights for his latest book, Joyland, but is also encouraging his fans to buy their print copies from bookshops (as opposed to online booksellers). “Support your local bookshop” seems to be his new mantra. On that point, Stephen King and I are in perfect accord. I’m sure that he’ll be relieved that I approve!

Raising the bar…

Yesterday evening, I went with my husband to our favourite local Italian restaurant. It’s quite an amazing place to find in a small city like Wakefield: housed in a large building with two floors, it has been handsomely fitted out. The tables have marble tops; there are tasteful pictures and mirrors on the walls. The waiters are impeccably polite and wear a crisp informal uniform of white shirts and black trousers. The menu has always been varied, the prices reasonable. This restaurant has succeeded in combining professionalism with a personal touch.

For the past three years or so, its appeal has been enhanced by the services of an inspired and dedicated Portuguese manager. He told us that he brought his family to Wakefield because there was no work in Portugal; that he had tried Putney, but found the cost of living in London too high; that he was proud to be running what has many times been described as the best restaurant in the city; and that, aside from returning to Portugal once a year for a family reunion, he is not interested in holidays. Under his aegis were instituted a daily ‘specials’ board, cheaper prices for pasta dishes and pizzas on weekdays and free hors d’oeuvres for diners while consulting the menu. For regular customers like us, he always added something extra: free tomato bread with the main course, or a complimentary limoncello with the coffee.

Yesterday he wasn’t there. He could have been taking a day off – it was Monday, after all, and the restaurant wasn’t busy. I don’t think so, however. We had more than an inkling that he had moved on, attracted perhaps by the higher salaries on offer in a bigger city, or snapped up by one of the big Yorkshire hotels. We didn’t ask the waiter, who was as attentive and polite as ever, but subtle changes suggested that the Portuguese manager was no longer influencing operations. There was no ‘specials’ board; there were fewer choices on the menu (the vegetable-based pizzas had disappeared and several types of pasta were no longer on offer); there were no weekday reductions. Although the waiter recognised us and gave us a friendly greeting, we received no complimentary extras.

The food was as good and as well presented as ever, the service faultless. If it had been our first time dining at this restaurant, we’d have left well-pleased, extolling its virtues. As it was, we felt slightly short-changed… and more than a little sad that we’ll probably never meet the Portuguese manager again; conversations with him meant much more than the extras. It made me think that, although it’s true that excellence creates its own rewards, each time you set the bar higher you are creating more demanding expectations from your loyal customers. For every writer (and every blogger!), that is a challenging thought.

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