About writing

Bloomsday

Ulysses

Today is Bloomsday, June 16th, the date that James Joyce renders unforgettable in UlyssesUlysses was finally published in 1922, but the novel celebrates the day in 1904

Joyce aged 22

that Joyce first met his long-term (and eventually ‘legal’) common-law wife, Nora Barnacle, who was then working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Dublin. Since I first read the novel in the 1970s, I’ve always quietly celebrated Bloomsday when it has come round each year and still enjoy dipping into Joyce’s account of the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on this day. I’ve written about it before, too, but today I have a new dimension to add, something I’d forgotten about for decades.

One of my Covid-19 lockdown projects has been to ‘bottom’ my study and sort through all the books and papers living there. I’ve almost completed this task. Sometimes it has been stressful: I knew I’d have to be ruthless and select some items for recycling or other forms of disposal and I’ve done so, discarding items that logic dictates I will never truly want to use or look at again, despite the happy memories they inspire and the tug of my hoarding instinct..

Many things remain sacrosanct, however, including some discoveries that have surprised and delighted me.  Among these is a privately printed guide to the Martello tower that Buck Mulligan, the first character to appear in Ulysses, lives in in the novel.

The Martello Tower

 

A foolscap-sized pamphlet printed on hand-made paper, it is entitled James Joyce’s Tower, Sandycove, Co Dublin and was written by Joyce’s most famous biographer, Richard Ellman, and published in 1969.

James Joyce's Tower

I acquired it in the very hot summer of 1976, when it was sent to me by William ‘Monk’ Gibbon, an Irish poet and man of letters – in fact, long before then he was known as the Grand Old Man of Irish letters – whom I had contacted when I was carrying out research on George Moore, an Irish author who lurked on the periphery of the Gaelic Revival.  As a young man, Gibbon knew W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory and George Moore, as well as Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the real-life inspiration for Buck Mulligan. When I wrote to him, he was one of the last living links with these writers.  He had also kept in touch with ‘George’ Yeats, Yeats’s wife, until her death a few years previously. He told me fascinating anecdotes about all of them and sent me several gifts, including the book about the Martello tower and a hand-written poem of his own, inscribed on a sheet of the same type of hand-made paper as the book.  He had written out eighty copies of this, of which the one I have is numbered the fifteenth.

An Alphabet of Mortality

I’m posting a copy of the poem, but, in case some of the words are difficult to read, I’ve also transcribed it.

An Alphabet of Mortality

A’s for Arrival on the arena’s sand

B is our distant Birthright, long forgot.

C are the Cards, dealt deftly, to each man.

D is the Desperation of his lot.

E is for Eagerness, which conquers sloth.

F is our Folly, immense, which drags us down.

G are the hallowed, haloed, laurelled Great,

who scorned Happiness, that tinselled crown.

I the insatiable, insistent self.

J all its Jealousy and petty spite.

K is the coloured Kaleidoscope of our views

and L our longing for more stable sight.

M is the makeshift Madness of most lives.

N is Lear’s ‘Never’ to the fifth degree.

O’s the Occasion, haste or hesitate.

And P? Pride, Prejudice and Pedantry.

Q is the ultimate Query all must ask.

R the much-varied Responses from the dark.

S the great Silence, which puts speech to shame

and T the triumph when men leave this mark.

U is the infinite Universe, where there’s zoom,

when all the lies are dead, for Veritude.

W’s recovered Wholeness, which may yet

give X in the equation exactitude.

Y is for Yearning.

So, having overlooked

The many-lettered joys which, too, have been,

I, at the stake, do now recant and say

The Zephyr of my hopes was sweet and clean.

 

On the reverse side it is inscribed to me, with the message “to she …who knows that whatever the rest of it may say the last letter of my alphabet is the truest.”

It is dated December 15th 1976, the date of his 82nd birthday; he must have written the poem to celebrate it.  He lived until 1987.

As I re-read it, it struck me that this poem contains sentiments that are very relevant for our present times (also his use of the word ‘zoom’ made me smile – he had, of course, no idea that in 2020 it would achieve fame as a brand name for a virtual communication product).

Happy Bloomsday, everyone!

Bookshelf

Awakening of Spies: Review

Awakening of Spies

This spy thriller is the impressive first novel of a series planned about Thomas Dylan, who is plunged into ‘security’ work when, shortly after his graduation, he agrees to attend an interview for an organisation that needs a linguist. It is the 1970s. The job, which Dylan accepts, means working for the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) as a civil servant. He is warned that there is no glamour attached to being part of the DIS, which is poorly regarded by both MI5 and MI6.

A boring future seems to beckon: he is convinced he has chosen – or, rather, fallen into – the wrong career, but he is very quickly sent to Zandvoort in the Netherlands on an undercover operation in which he is set up to fail. However, despite failing as resoundingly as expected, he quickly finds himself on his way to South America on a more important mission. It is to retrieve a device called ‘The Griffin’: ‘Garble-Recognition-Interrogation-Friend-or-Foe-Inboard Nautics – Master Control Unit’.  The Griffin is never explained more clearly than this, but a reader well-versed in tales of espionage might assume it to be something like a portable 1970s version of the Enigma machine.  All the usual suspects are after The Griffin, from the CIA to British Intelligence to various assorted Russians, Israelis and Arabs, not to mention the South Americans on whose turf the action takes place, some of whom are not South Americans at all, but escaped Nazi war criminals.

The plot is a relatively simple one – the novel tells the story of Dylan’s adventures as he tries to track down The Griffin.  Both pursuer and pursued, he is continually trying to figure out which of the people he encounters are really who they say they are and which ones can (or can’t) be trusted. Among them is the intriguing upper-class (anti-?) heroine Julia, whose uncle is (allegedly?) a bigwig in the security services. The narrative is written in the first person, which works well: during the course of the novel we see Dylan progress from a greenhorn apprentice spy to a much more mature operator whose rite of passage has included killing as a duty of his new profession.

What makes this novel stand out, apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, is that it is a spy thriller for grown-ups. The plot may be straightforward but the relationships between the various characters are intricate, their underlying rationale complex; yet despite the welter of detail and counter-detail, the author never makes the reader feel lost or, as so many spy writers do, leaves her or him feeling that the book is teetering perilously close to the edge of credibility. Landers has also accomplished the difficult trick of showing a profound understanding of the milieu which he describes without over-parading his knowledge.

There is some violence in Awakening of Spies, but it is not gratuitous or unduly sensational (I’m mentioning this because I know some of my readers don’t like too much bloodshed).  Both death and sex are described in a restrained way – there are no James Bond-type shenanigans. If you’d like to try a good spy thriller without the Boys’ Own escapades, I recommend this novel. And I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.

Awakening of Spies is published by Red Door Press. ISBN 978-1913062330

A welcome from Stamford

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Saturday was a clear, crisp, cold day after many days of rain and muggy warmth. It felt like a proper winter’s day, of the best possible kind!

Before it was quite light, I was heading for Stamford – one of my favourite places – for a signing session in Walkers Bookshop, at the heart of the town. First stop, however, was the George, Stamford’s splendid old coaching inn – for coffee and pastries in front of its roaring open fire!

I am very happy to be able to say that Walkers is an extremely successful bookshop. The period after Christmas is a notoriously slack time for bookselling – as for all types of retail activity – but on Saturday, Walkers was clearly thriving, with a constant flow of people, many of whom engaged me in conversation and not a few of whom bought Chasing Hares or one of the other Yates novels (In the Family and Sausage Hall seem to be the perennial favourites).

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I was particularly smitten by the little girl who told me she wanted to be an author and an illustrator! And also delighted – and very honoured – that Rex Sly, whose books about the fen country I have long been consulting when carrying out my research, came in to meet me.  We had a long conversation about writing. Himself a Lincolnshire farmer – he lives in the farmhouse in which he was born – Rex told me that at one stage his family’s problems with hare coursers had become so grave that they considered moving out and finding somewhere else to live.

Many thanks indeed to Jenny Pugh and all the staff at Walkers for arranging the session and making me as welcome as always – and for providing tea and other comforts!

After a quick lunch and a brief exploration of Stamford – it has an amazing ironmonger’s which always draws my husband like a magnet – it was on to the library, where Jane Barber, one of the librarians and an old school friend, had again used her fertile imagination to plan an event, this time a murder mystery event that she called ‘Tea and Murder’. She and her colleagues expended a great deal of energy and time on this and they – and I – were rewarded by its being a hugely successful event. They attracted a very large audience, some of whom I had already met last spring at the first DI Yates event in Stamford Library.

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I talked about how I had come to write Chasing Hares – not forgetting to mention the large part played by my friends Madelaine, Marc, Anthony and Marcus and by South Lincs police, all of whom had a significant hand in creating the plot – and read aloud the first chapter. We then had a lively discussion about how to plan a murder. I said that although the characters in my novels are all (except one) fictional, or at most composites of several people I have known, the plots are often inspired by real-life crime. For example, the plot of Fair of Face draws heavily on the White House Farm murders (a version of which is now being televised) and Chasing Hares is in part the product of a great deal of research about hare coursing. We talked about the perfect crime being one which was never discovered – which doesn’t work in fiction, for obvious reasons – but how some novelists have got round this by allowing the murderer not to be caught (Patricia Highsmith, in the Ripley novels) or by using the device of the unreliable narrator (probably started by Agatha Christie, when she wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). In my own Sausage Hall, Kevan de Vries appears to get away with murder – but watch this space! Kevan will return in my next book – to be called, simply, de Vries – and he may not be so lucky next time.

Then there were (delicious!) cakes and tea.

All this was a prelude to a murder mystery for which Jane had set the scene. She had even produced an actual body – the ‘body in the library’! The audience worked in groups, each group to decide who the victim was, who the murderer and what the motive. Each suggestion was more ingenious than the last: it was impossible to award a prize for the best one!

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The whole evening was very light-hearted, relaxing and entertaining and the audience at Stamford has become one of my great favourites. I’d like to thank everyone who came to the event for turning out on a Saturday (and also a cold evening), some travelling from quite a long way away. And very sincere thanks to Jane Barber and her colleagues for all their hard work and for pulling off another triumphant event – Jane’s inspirational activity and her sensitive management of it were indeed wonderful to see. 😊

About ‘Chasing Hares’…

Bookmark display of DI Yates

Bookmark’s lovely display of the DI Yates crime mystery thrillers

Yesterday it rained.  And rained.  And rained.

And it didn’t spoil a thing.

I was at three events in Spalding to celebrate the launch of Chasing Hares: a signing session at wonderful Bookmark, where all my novels have been launched, and where the hospitality from Sam and Sarah and their team was as warm as always;

Chatting to Michael in Bookmark

I enjoyed talking to Michael about his work with Tonic Health, a health and wellbeing charity based in Spalding

a very special event hosted by Anthony and Marcus on the island where most of the novel is set;

Host Anthony Grunwell, reading from 'Chasing Hares'

Host Anthony, reading a chapter of ‘Chasing Hares’ with verve

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Hosts Marcus and Alfie

and an evening talk and readings at Bookmark, attended by just as large an audience as usual despite their having had to turn out in grim weather.

Sam Buckley welcome

Ever the thoughtful welcome from Bookmark’s Sam Buckley

Thank you, everyone! I both appreciated and enjoyed it all very much indeed.

And Chasing Hares? Well, it is unique among the DI Yates novels in that its two (related) plots were both suggested to me by other people. In the summer of 2018, my husband and I called in on our friends Madelaine and Marc. It was a hot, sunny day and their friends Anthony and Marcus, who own several boats, offered us a trip along the river Welland from the island house where they live. Anthony showed us round the house and made us coffee before we went. As we sat in the garden outside, I said I had almost finished writing Gentleman Jack and the conversation turned to what I should tackle in my next novel.

I can’t remember who suggested I should write about this island: it was Madelaine, Marc or Anthony, or a combination of all three. Marc, who’s a fount of knowledge when it comes to local history, said he’d heard there had been a row of small cottages on the island – hovels, really – and that a retired soldier had lived in one of them. Local people called him Soldier Bob. Anthony had heard this story, too. The soldier was half-crazed – we speculated that he might have been a WWI veteran suffering from shell-shock – and trigger-happy. He was also a recluse. He didn’t take kindly to having people disturb him. A man approached his cottage one day and Soldier Bob shot him dead. (Anthony’s version of this was embellished by the detail that the victim was the postman and Soldier Bob shot him through the letterbox.) Bob was arrested and tried for murder but acquitted – and presumably taken into care – on the grounds of insanity.

Listening to the tale of Soldier Bob, I could see that setting the next novel on the island offered great possibilities. I didn’t want to tell the tale of Bob, however – though it is mentioned in Chasing Hares – because for some time I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel that drew inspiration from the Golden Age of crime fiction, but with a modern twist.

Backdrop to 'Chasing Hares'

A glimpse of the house which is the setting for much of ‘Chasing Hares – and the River Welland

A popular device used by Golden Age crime writers is the country house crime story. It has a lot to recommend it: a group of people gather in a country house, usually secluded and some distance from civilisation; a murder is committed; one of the people present must have been the murderer; all turn out to have motives for killing the victim; and the reader is titillated along the way by accounts of gracious living, exquisite dresses, sumptuous picnics, fine dinners, afternoon tea, torrid love affairs –  the lot.

I thought it would be interesting to create a modern-day version of such a gathering, spiced with a little bit of irony. I decided to update it further and, as a double irony, instead of depicting an upper-class social event, I made the reason for my gathering a crime mystery weekend. Instead of being presided over by a suave and cultured society hostess, the party in Chasing Hares is hosted by a perennially mean and crooked wheeler-dealer, Gordon Bemrose. Instead of representing high society, his guests hail from humbler – and in some cases, dodgier – walks of life, but, like their country house counterparts, they are all potential murderers. Finally, instead of being entertained by a chamber orchestra or string quartet, their entertainment is a play, a bowdlerised version of Arsenic and Old Lace, put on by the local amateur dramatic company but starring Gordon’s actor nephew, Anton Greenweal.

The second part of the plot was suggested to me by a policeman who has been following me on my blog for some time. He wrote to me to say that the biggest single problem rural police forces have to deal with, particularly in East Anglia and parts of Northern England, is hare coursing. I’ve since carried out quite a lot of research on this and it’s a truly horrific crime. It’s not just the hares that are hurt – they’re horribly mutilated by the dogs before they die – but also the dogs themselves: they’re often badly injured by running into each other or spraining or breaking their legs by trying to follow as the hare changes course rapidly in its attempt to escape. There’s nothing ironical or tongue-in-cheek about the hare-coursing passages – they’re deadly serious.

That’s all I’m going to say about Chasing Hares for now…

Christina James, speaking at the evening launch of 'Chasing Hares', at Bookmark

What Spalding means to me: the evening launch of ‘Chasing Hares’

A shared Salt publication day!

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My copy of Gentleman Jack has arrived at last! I am, as always, delighted with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s brilliant jacket design and distinguished typesetting. ‘Jack’ is officially published today, 15th October 2018. It’s my first novel about a serial killer. I’ve thought for a long time about the best way to tackle this type of criminal in my fiction. Indirectly, it draws on my own experiences of living in Leeds as a young woman when the Yorkshire Ripper conducted his reign of terror, but, like all my novels, it is much more concerned with portraying the psychology of the killer than the ‘blood and guts’ of the crimes themselves. It’s also about the organised theft of agricultural vehicles, a scourge which periodically afflicts farmers in Lincolnshire and other rural areas.

I know that many of my regular readers – across the world – have been looking forward to reading it.  I’d like to take the opportunity to thank you all for your support and your continuing enthusiasm for my books.  Ipso facto, one can’t really be an author without readers; words cannot express how much I value the time you spend on reading my books. I offer you my profoundest thanks. And I do hope you will enjoy Gentleman Jack!

Also published today is The Book of Alexander, the debut novel of Mark Carew, a fellow Salt author. I was privileged to read this book in draft form and I heartily recommend it. It’s not exactly a crime novel, although there are some relevant features: Alexander, the protagonist – stalker or not? No spoilers!

The Book of Alexander follows the time-honoured and exciting literary tradition which explores different versions of the self.  Who is Alexander? Who is his mysterious grandfather, ‘Mr Travis’? Who is Melanie, Alexander’s down-to-earth girlfriend, and is she really competing with rivals for Alexander’s affection? Above all, who is the dullish private detective who tells the story – and is he really so dull?

The second half of the novel is episodic. Alexander embarks upon a journey, not to distant lands – although I suspect he may do that in a future novel – but through the city of Cambridge and around the River Cam and its environs. This journey is by turns sinister, comical and exasperating.

The Book of Alexander contains a rich cast of characters, including: Mick and Yin, who run the garage where the private detective roosts when spying; a bevy of girlfriends (real or imagined?); and Alexander’s eccentric but lovable parents, who perhaps hold the key to Alexander’s whimsical character. Or then again, perhaps they don’t!

Have I hooked you yet?

Treading the Litten Path with James Clarke

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Alison Cassels introduces James Clarke

On Saturday, I had the great privilege of accompanying another Salt author, James Clarke, to Pontefract Library for an event to celebrate the publication of his important novel, The Litten Path, which tells the story of one mining family during the miners’ strike of 1984 – 5.  The book has received some excellent reviews in the national press.

James talked eloquently about how he came to write the book.  He said that he felt his generation was dispossessed, not by ‘baby-boomers’, but by the politics that prevailed in the late 1970s and 1980s (especially Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” adage) and the legacy of that period, from which he believes he and his contemporaries are still suffering today.

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James, warming to his theme

I’ve met Pontefract audiences before and I was delighted to see some familiar faces on this occasion.  After James had talked about how and why he wrote The Litten Path, and read a chapter from it (he chose Chapter 5, which describes the first conflict between the miners and the police), the members of his audience were invited to give their views.  What followed was an amazing discussion – one of the best I have ever participated in at any event.

James was fascinated by the fact that many of those attending not only remembered the miners’ strike but had been directly affected by it.  One woman described how her mother and grandmother took food to miners’ families who had none; another said her grandmother had lived in Orgreave Lane: the ‘mighty Orgreave’ colliery of James’s novel, where the most vicious pitched battles took place, was just down the road.

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People reminisced about how the strike had destroyed families, obliging some people to move away.  Others are still living in towns and villages which used to be prosperous, but are now depressed and poverty-stricken, never having recovered from the strike or been able to reinvent themselves.  Whole communities were dismantled.  ‘Scabs’ – miners who went back to work while their colleagues were still on strike – were still being shunned and pilloried by those who fought it out to the bitter end many years later.  A former teacher said she had taught at a local school between 1995 and 2010 and even at the end of that period it was not uncommon for strike-breakers to have bricks thrown through their windows.

The conversation moved on to the privations and hazards of mining itself – the illnesses, accidents and early deaths suffered by many miners.  Several of the audience said that, although memories of the strike were still raw, they believed that, eventually, some kind of catharsis would be achieved and these communities would rise anew – “even if it takes 200 years”.

Alison and Lynne, the librarians from Wakefield and Pontefract who organised the event, did their usual great job – and surpassed themselves with the cakes and other goodies they provided.  James and I would like to thank them very much indeed.  And huge thanks to all the members of the audience for their wonderful contributions.  If you are reading this, we want you to know how much we appreciated you.

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Passionate reading from James Clarke

Writing at Lincoln Central Library

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On Saturday 14th April 2018, I spent the afternoon at a Lincoln City Library event organised for me by the indefatigable Tina Muncaster and her colleagues (indefatigable, because we first tried to run this event on 3rd March, but were thwarted by the astonishingly heavy snow that had gridlocked Lincoln a couple of days before, when I was very kindly interviewed by Lincoln City Radio).  As Tina said, when she re-invited me, perhaps the daffodils would be blooming if we rearranged for April!  This turned out to be correct: the daffodils in Lincolnshire are magnificent this year.

Arriving in Lincoln early, I decided to explore the city.  I’ve been to Lincoln several times before, both as a child and later, but in the past I’ve always headed for the Cathedral and the steep streets that lead to it.  This time, I visited the waterfront and was amazed both by its beauty and its long history. (I particularly wanted to see the Fossdyke Navigation, which features in Gentleman Jack, my next novel.) I’ve already published a separate post about my explorations.

Nine people attended the event, with Tina and her colleagues joining in as their work permitted. The members of the audience – or, I should perhaps say, my fellow writers – were wonderful.  There was an almost equal balance of women and men, from a wide age range. I was particularly happy that Elise Harrington, of Lincoln City Radio, was able to join us.

Like the event in February in Spalding, this was not just about reading from the DI Yates novels and talking about them. Tina had said that she thought her library patrons would also be interested in discussing how a really bad character is created and so we planned a modified version of the Spalding activity. We therefore focused on Hannibal Lecter for the first part of the discussion and considered some published extracts depicting evil characters before I read a short passage about Peter Prance, taken from In the Family.

After a break, during which the Library served up tea and delicious biscuits and almost everyone bought a copy of one of the DI Yates titles (I’d like to say here how grateful I am for this), we got down to the business of creating some brand new nasties! The group worked in twos and threes. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone was fascinated by the task and completely absorbed by it, as I hope the photographs demonstrate. The villains created were imaginative and ingenious – they included a woman who was a housekeeper and ‘saw’ everything, a transgender sailor and a male villain with a ‘small man’ complex.

After everyone had shared their villains with the others, the event concluded with another short reading, this one from Fair of Face. By this time, it was 4 pm – and the event had been scheduled to run from 1.30 pm – 2.30 pm!

If you were one of my fellow crime writers on Saturday, I’d like to thank you very much indeed for sharing your creative ideas and for so obviously enjoying yourself. And double thanks to Tina Muncaster and her colleagues: they’ve kindly said they’ll invite me to Lincoln again and I shall jump at the opportunity. Thank you also for my beautiful bunch of tulips, the first I have enjoyed this year.

Finally, I’d like to thank Sharman Morriss at Spalding Library, both for hosting me there and also for setting in train a series of Christina James events in libraries around Lincolnshire. I’m next at Gainsborough Library and then, shortly afterwards, at Woodhall Spa, a stone’s throw from the River Witham I wrote about in my previous post.

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Bookmark, marking a moment for Fair of Face

Window on the world of Bookmark

Last Monday dawned squally.  As I drove to Spalding for the first signing session of Fair of Face, the leaves were being snatched from the trees, victims of whatever the latest Atlantic storm was called (I’ve lost track!).  As I approached Spalding, the rain arrived. (Lovers of pathetic fallacy, take note!)  However, once inside Bookmark, I was safe, as I knew I would be, enveloped by its usual high standard of hospitality, warmth and the provision of many interesting people to talk to.

Last year, when Rooted in Dishonour was launched – the staff at Bookmark have, magnificently, given me events for all my novels – the café was closed for refurbishment.  This year, I was delighted to find it open, with an enticing range of treats to choose from.  My husband, never behind the door when it comes to food, indulged in a farmer’s breakfast and, a few hours later, a massive slice of coffee and walnut cake. I confined myself to a cheese and tomato toastie (not as modest as it sounds: Spalding helpings are generous!).

I was there until 3 p.m., signing copies of Fair of Face.  Several old friends, readers I have met since In the Family was published in 2012, came in to see me.  I met new readers, too, some of whom wanted to buy all the DI Yates titles, starting with the first – though I made it clear to them, as I do to all new readers, that each novel is a standalone. As I’ve said before, I think it’s cheating to expect readers to have to read all the previous titles in order to make sense of the latest one.

On Tuesday, a radio programme followed the Bookmark signing session: Carla Green interviewed me on Radio Lincolnshire at lunchtime, asking some particularly searching questions about Fair of Face, and generously promoted the events at Spalding and Stamford (see below).

I was back in Bookmark on Thursday evening to give a talk and two readings to members of Bookmark’s reading group and some of its other customers, too.  An author’s dream audience, they were extremely lively and engaged and, if any of them is reading this post: Thank you very much indeed for a magnificent evening – you were brilliant in your response!  And huge thanks to Sam Buckley, Sarah Halgarth and all the rest of the staff at Bookmark for welcoming me again and working so hard to make great successes of both occasions there.

This coming week the wonderful Chris Hamilton-Emery, founder of Salt Publishing and the equally wonderful Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, have organised a blog tour for Fair of Face. Here’s the tour and I hope to ‘meet’ some of you there.  I’d like to thank all the bloggers who have so generously contributed their time and their oxygen to this.

There are several other events in the pipeline:

  • 4th November.  Signing session. Walkers Bookshop, Stamford.
  • 18th November.  Readings and workshop {‘Fair of Face but dark at heart’), Wakefield One.
  • Date tbc, February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Lincoln City Library.
  • 17th February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Spalding Library.
  • Dates tbc: Readings and workshop, University of Winchester

Review in Lincolnshire Life

There will be other events and reviews, too, which I’ll announce here when I have more details.  If anyone reading this is organising an event to which I could contribute, I should be very happy to hear from you.

Last but certainly not least, if you have bought Fair of Face, I should like to offer you my sincerest thanks: authors are not authors without readers and I want you to know that I feel greatly honoured knowing you have spent several hours of your precious time reading my book. I do hope that you enjoy it.

Murder comes to Pontefract again, baa gum.

The Pontefract Fleece Force

The Pontefract Fleece Force

Saturday November 5th was a cold, squally day, a fitting atmosphere for Bonfire Night. I was probably feeling the cold more than most, having just returned from some time away on business, first in Quito and then in Charleston, South Carolina (more about both on these pages very soon). The temperature in each of these places was around twenty-five degrees.

I was in Pontefract, a historic Yorkshire town, scene of gruesome murders during the Wars of the Roses and, almost two centuries later, in the English Civil War. Pontefract library is a light and airy building with lots of glass and invitingly-arranged bookshelves that fan out from the centre as well as lining the walls. I’d been very kindly invited by Alison Cassels, the Officer for Reading at Wakefield Library Services, with whom I have several times participated in crime fiction events in West Yorkshire; she had asked me to speak about Rooted in Dishonour, which will be published on 15th November, read one of the chapters and then host a more general literary event, which included asking the audience to name their favourite novels and take part in a short ‘whodunnit’ play written by Ann Cleeves.

It was a long time since I’d last visited Pontefract Library and I enjoyed going back. A small flock of helmeted sheep occupied the ‘Fleece Station’ and busied itself with a murder scene just outside. The corpse had been already removed, having first been outlined by Eweno Hugh, the soco. I noted the chalked heels and deduced that the victim had been female. I heard that DI Tup, who had been protecting some productive grass from persecution by local thieves, would soon be on the case. I felt quite at home. Furthermore, as the Ann Cleeves playlet was set in Shetland, refreshments included shortbread and Tunnock’s teacakes, a treat that I’ve rarely seen since I worked in Scotland some twenty years ago.

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The audience consisted of about twenty-five people, a few of whom I’d already met at events in Wakefield in previous years.  They were truly one of the liveliest, most receptive audiences I’ve ever encountered.  They gave Rooted in Dishonour a wonderful debut and asked so many questions that the event lasted two hours, instead of the hour that had been scheduled. If anyone who came on Saturday is reading this, I’d like to thank you very much indeed.

Huge thanks also to Alison, Lynne, Liz and Lynne and their colleagues, who made me feel as welcome and special as they always do.

Rooted in Dishonour’s launch event will take place at Bookmark in Spalding on Tuesday 15th November, the publication date; I’ll be signing books in the afternoon and talking about the novel and giving readings in the evening.  More details may be found at http://bookmarkspalding.co.uk/.  On Saturday 19th November, I’m signing copies of the novel from 11 am – 2 pm at Walker’s Bookshop in Stamford (http://www.walkersbookshops.co.uk/) and on Saturday 26th November, starting at 12.30 pm,  I have a signing session at Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge (http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/stores/heffers), as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival.

With Alison Cassels

With Alison Cassels

I’m also hoping to be able to spend rather more time blogging and catching up with many good friends on the social networks; they have been very, very kind to me on Twitter and Facebook whilst I have been caught up in work. Many sincere thanks to them all.

What really happened?

sisman
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.

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