Saturday 4th November was a wild, wet day. The rain came bouncing down on the A1 as I headed for Walkers Bookshop in Stamford to sign copies of Fair of Face. In places, the water stood inches deep on the road. The lorries tossed out spray which severely restricted visibility. A Reliant Robin three-wheeler (I hadn’t seen one for years!) went bombing along at 70 mph and almost aquaplaned.
It was a relief to reach Stamford, always a haven of civilisation and peace, and, even better, to arrive in time to indulge in a cappuccino and a huge, home-made cookie at The George Hotel, before going ‘on duty’ at Walkers.
I received a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff at Walkers, as I always do – and, as always, I appreciated it: I know how busy bookshop staff are, especially on Saturdays, and I’m very grateful when they spare time to look after me in addition to everything else they have to do.
The rain didn’t deter Walkers’ customers from venturing out from home. They continued to show up steadily throughout the three hours I was there, some very windswept, some clutching wet umbrellas, all dressed in sturdy waterproofs, boots and hats.
It certainly felt as if winter had suddenly taken Stamford by storm, but with it came a sense of excitement, a feeling that there was celebration in the air. I suppose this may have been because it was one of the first weekends when people really start to think about Christmas shopping, but well before they begin to feel jaded and harassed by the whole prospect of coping with the ‘festive season’.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Walkers – this was the fourth signing session I’ve been offered there – and yesterday was no exception. Many of the shop’s customers stopped to talk to me, and most of these bought one of my books – I was delighted to find that In the Family, Almost Love and Rooted in Dishonour were in demand, as well as Fair of Face. Most people wanted them for Christmas presents, but others supplied different reasons: one lady was intrigued by Fair of Face because she knows Spalding well, having grown up in Gosberton Clough (a place I have yet to feature in the novels, so she’s now given me the idea!); another wanted Almost Love for her husband to read on his frequent journeys to London;
another was bought by an author of Young Adult books who told me that she’d given a signing session in Walkers herself and was strongly in favour of supporting local authors. She said that her reading group might be interested in hearing me speak. If she reads this post, I’d like to thank her for a fascinating conversation and to say again that I’d be delighted to speak to the members of the reading group if indeed they’d like to hear me.
I’m never bored in bookshops: it’s a great privilege to be allowed to sit in one for several hours and just drink in the atmosphere. My time at Walkers was over only too quickly, but I took away some very pleasant memories that I know will stay with me.
I’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to Jenny Pugh, of Walkers Bookshop, Stamford, for making the signing session possible, and also to thank all of the staff there, particularly those who were working on the top floor, for their kindness and generous hospitality.
Celebrating in 2016 its 140 years of selling books in Cambridge, Heffers is one of the nation’s great classic bookshops, a national treasure. It’s always been a privilege to visit it. Even better, from my point of view, it’s home to Richard Reynolds, perhaps the country’s best-known crime bookselling connoisseur. I first met Richard five or six years ago, when he had just embarked on a crime classic reprint venture. No doubt owing to Richard’s influence, classic crime is now big business: there are several excellent imprints, including the British Library’s own.
Richard is interested in all types of crime fiction, modern as well as classic, and I’m very proud to say that not only does he stock the DI Yates novels but he also invited me for a signing session on Saturday as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival. There was a wonderful buzz in the shop, which was packed with people shopping all the time I was there.
I had a glorious three hours, talking to old friends and many new acquaintances. I can’t begin to tell them how much I appreciate that most bought Rooted in Dishonour. There were lots of sales of the other books in the DI Yates series, too.
I’d like to thank Richard and his colleagues for great hospitality and for extending a very generous invitation to me to return to the shop again as soon as I am ready. Perhaps they should be careful what they wish for: I might turn up again next week!
You might like to share in some of the highlights of my day there with the photographs below:
Stamford in Lincolnshire bestrides the River Welland (which also flows through the Spalding of the DI Yates books) and marks the ancient ford across the river where the Romans chose to route Ermine Street on its way north. Going there to sign copies of The Crossing, the fourth DI Yates book, seemed very appropriate!
It seems to be a continuing theme of The Crossing events that they are fated to happen in extreme weather. Harlow Carr was squally, Spalding was tempestuous and yesterday Stamford was bitterly cold! The cold hit me as soon as I got up yesterday morning. Venturing out with the dog before dawn, I noticed that a clutch of flowerpots outside the back door seemed to have sprouted a mysterious white substance. Closer inspection revealed it to be snow. Once clear of the parking area in front of my house (treacherous with black ice), I saw that all the rooftops and hedgerows in the village were twinkling with crisp snow.
It’s a two-hour drive to Stamford and, although my husband and I were heading due south, it seemed to get colder as the sun rose higher in the sky. Stamford itself was in the grip of a vicious north wind which, the weather forecast informed us, was blowing straight down from the Arctic. It didn’t seem to deter the citizens of the town: wrapped up in thick coats, hats and scarves, all seemed to be going about their business cheerfully. The Christmas decorations had been put up, most of the shop windows now carried Christmas displays and the cold served only to make the atmosphere more festive.
My destination, Walker’s Bookshop in the town centre, was as warm and welcoming as always. Its Christmas stock had been laid out beautifully and customers came, sometimes in droves, sometimes in flurries, to admire it and to browse and buy. I’d been allocated a table near to the cash desk to sign copies of The Crossing and we did a brisk trade throughout my allotted time there.
I’d like to thank both the people of Stamford and the several visitors to the town whom I met not only for buying the book, but also for the fascinating conversations in which we engaged throughout the day. There was the lady whose father had owned some of the gravel pits that I write about in Almost Love. She told me that when she was a child they’d found many things in the pits, including a mammoth’s tooth (I mention the mammoth’s remains in the book), a pewter salver and several skeletons, some of which had been buried face down, perhaps because they belonged to murderers or suicides. The artefacts had all been given to a local museum, but the bones were removed by police who ‘just put them into bags and carted them away. It was the sixties and seventies. They didn’t bother to reinter them or find out how old they were.’ Shades of Sausage Hall! It is tantalising to think that some may have been the result of more recent murders: if so, the murderer(s) got off scot free! There was another lady from Cornwall who said her neighbour was Dawn French. She asked me about my writing routine. I said that although most of my writing is done in my office, I can also write on trains and in cafes. Dawn, apparently, must have absolute solitude and silence when she writes. Several men made purchases: they tended to be more interested in the series and how the novels relate to each other than more general information about the South Lincolnshire setting or how they came to be written. People of all ages stopped to talk to me. My youngest buyer was still at school. I was delighted that so many young people were interested, including a young woman who would have bought the whole set if we hadn’t run out of Sausage Hall and said, while buying the other three, that she’d order it. Some old friends also made the considerable journey from Nottingham to give their support.
The time flew by, as it always does for me when I’m in a bookshop. I had a truly wonderful day. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for arranging the signing session and Mandy and Karen for looking after me so brilliantly while I was in the shop. It’s a very distinguished bookshop indeed and well worth the short detour off the A1 if you happen to be passing that way.
On the way home, it didn’t seem so cold, but perhaps that was just because I was enveloped in the rosy glow of having been able to meet so many new enthusiasts.
This is the final post on my launch week activities for Sausage Hall. I’m covering the last two events: Tea at Sausage Hall, an imaginative tea-party given last Wednesday by Alison Cassels, Lynne Holroyd, Claire Pickering and their colleagues at the Wakefield Library at Wakefield One, which regular readers of this blog will know has provided me with granite-strength support ever since In the Family was published two years ago,
and an evening of conversation and readings at the Covent Garden branch of Waterstones, rounding off the celebrations with a London launch on Thursday.
Ever resourceful, Alison and her team provided sausage rolls, cake (Yes, there was cake!) and biscuits for the tea party. (Her e-mail to me when organising the event reads ‘Can you put chocolate cake in the title of your next book?’)
As always, she promoted the occasion superlatively well and attracted a lively and engaging audience, amongst whom were old friends (such as Marjorie and Pauline – both also fab visitors to my blog) from the library’s book club, as well as many interesting new faces.
There’s obviously a lively and diverse events programme at Wakefield One: under the table bearing the tea-cups was a box containing a plastic skeleton (I was rather disappointed that someone arrived to remove it, as a suitable visual aid never goes amiss), while high on one of the shelves was a stuffed green parrot in a glass case. (My husband dared me to say ‘Norwegian Green? Is it nailed to its perch?’, but, though tempted, I’m afraid I failed to rise to the occasion, having on my mind things other than late parrots gone to meet their maker.)
Wakefield One audiences are truly wonderful.
They are united in their love of books and reading, and not afraid to tell it how it is. I’m delighted that they like my novels, because they would certainly tell me if they didn’t – during the course of the afternoon, they told me exactly what they thought of the work of a writer who is much better known than I am! As well as being extremely perspicacious, they’re fun and they like to have fun.
They know what they want and they want more of it: I’ve already promised to return to talk to them about DI Yates numbers 4 and 5. It was my first Wakefield audience that told me how much they enjoyed reading about Juliet Armstrong and that they’d like to see more of her. I hope that they’ll think I’ve done so in Sausage Hall, where Juliet’s story takes a new turn.
Several of the Wakefield readers had already bought Sausage Hall and came armed with it for me to sign. Others bought it during the tea-party; as at my other Wakefield events, the books were kindly supplied by Rickaro Books in Horbury. A man in the audience asked for an interesting, and very relevant, inscription (see caption): apparently, these are the nicknames of his brother and sister-in-law!
The event at Waterstones Covent Garden was masterminded by Jen Shenton, the bookshop’s lovely ‘can-do’ manager.
I hadn’t met her before, but as soon as I saw her I knew what a distinguished bookseller she is. It’s something you can’t fake: I honestly believe that the best booksellers are born, not made, though that’s not to say they don’t work hard all the time in order to stay ahead. I didn’t leave Jen’s shop until almost 9 p.m., and she was still there behind the till, helping customers, smiling and looking as fresh as a daisy, even though she must have been feeling exhausted.
This event also had a wonderful audience.
Many of my friends from the book industry came (which meant they bowled me a few googlies when it came to the questions). It was a light-hearted, laughter-filled evening, well lubricated with Waterstones wine and sustained by Adams & Harlow sausage rolls. I was delighted that Tabitha Pelly, who has worked with Salt on PR for Sausage Hall, was able to come. Like Jen Shenton, she seems never to tire or have a negative thought in her head.
I left the shop laden with some book purchases of my own and headed for King’s Cross station to catch the last train. It was the perfect end to an extraordinary week. My only sadness was that Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, my publishers at Salt, were unable to come. But I know that they’ve been keen followers of my progress as I’ve sprung Sausage Hall upon the world and I look forward to catching up with them next week. Today is Chris’s birthday: I’d like to take the opportunity to wish him many happy returns!
Grateful thanks, once again, to Adams and Harlow for their wonderful sponsorship of the launch of Sausage Hall.
In this extraordinary Sausage Hall launch week, which I am enjoying so much and for which I am very grateful, I’d like to pay tribute to two amazing bookshops.
The first is Bookmark, Spalding’s very distinguished bookshop (the CEO of the Booksellers Association, Tim Godfray, has even been known to serve behind the till there on occasion). Bookmark very generously offered to host the Sausage Hall publication day party, which took place in the evening of November 17th, after the day that I spent at Spalding High School. The event was masterminded by Christine Hanson, the owner of the shop (who is both practical and imaginative – she fixed both a toilet roll holder and a broken table joint within minutes of my arrival, while the shop itself, resplendent with its Christmas stock and decorations, achieved a standard that I’d have dearly liked to replicate in my bookselling days), and Sam Buckley, also a former pupil of Spalding High School, who organises author sessions at the shop. Equally generously, the launch party was sponsored by Adams and Harlow, the local pork butchers, who supplied sausage rolls for the occasion.
This event was attended by members of Bookmark’s lively reading group and some old friends of my own. I was astounded to see Finola, a day-job friend – she had driven for more than an hour from Cambridge in order to support me. I was also staunchly supported by Madelaine, one of my oldest friends, and her husband, Marc, who have both offered me hospitality every time I’ve returned to Spalding as Christina James and also bought many copies of my books as presents for everyone they know who might enjoy them.
Madelaine’s contribution to my writing is acknowledged in Sausage Hall. I was also delighted to see Sarah Oliver, whom I first met at the Priory Academy last spring and who came with her husband. The book club members, who lived up to their reputation for being engaged and vivacious, were shrewd and perceptive: as well as listening attentively to two readings from Sausage Hall, they launched into an animated discussion about all three DI Yates novels. Everyone present bought at least one of the books, some more than one. (Sam Buckley later this week let me know that one member of the audience, who had not read any of the novels and took away with her In the Family, returned within forty-eight hours, having read it, to acquire Almost Love and Sausage Hall as well!) And, of course, I couldn’t myself resist making a few purchases in this fairy-tale bookshop.
Having spent the night with my son and daughter-in-law at their house in Cambridgeshire, I arrived in good time on Tuesday November 18th for a signing session at Walkers Bookshop in Stamford. Although I first met Tim Walker, its owner, last year (he’s currently President of the Booksellers Association), I had not visited one of his bookshops before, The one in Stamford is in a listed building in the town centre; he also owns another in Oakham. I was particularly impressed by the huge range of stock in this shop, both the cards and gifts downstairs and the extensive range of books upstairs. Tim and the manager, Jenny Pugh, were respectively at the other shop and taking holiday, but everything had been set up for me and Mandy, the assistant manager on the book floor, couldn’t have made me more welcome.
Bookmark and Walkers are two fine examples of thriving independent bookshops, packed with atmosphere and individual charm and led by brilliantly creative people who understand how to serve their communities very well indeed. It was a privilege and a pleasure for me to have been able to enjoy what they had to offer and I’d very much like to thank Christine and Tim for hosting Sausage Hall events this week.
At first light yesterday, I travelled to Spalding High School, my own former school, to which I had returned only once previously since leaving the sixth form. I received a wonderful welcome from Adrian Isted, the newly-appointed Head of English, who began the day’s activities by showing me round the school.
First stop was the office of the headteacher, Mrs. Michele Anderson, who is also fairly new to the school. She was fascinated to hear a little more from me about Mrs. Jeanne Driver, the first married headteacher at the school, who was its leader throughout my school career. Born Jeanne Ouseley, she lived at 10, High Street, a large house of several storeys situated near the River Welland in Spalding. Part of this house was divided into flats and there were usually several other teachers living there, as well as two of my fellow sixth formers, Cheryl Ouseley and Elizabeth Davies, both of whom were her nieces. They called her ‘Auntie Jeanne’, a name that the rest of the sixth form also used affectionately, if unofficially. Mrs. Driver was one of several strong women who influenced me as a girl. She had a strong sense of duty and an even stronger work ethic. We found some of the things she said highly amusing (for example, ‘I stand up whenever I hear the national anthem, even if I’m in the bath.’). Sometimes she took the notion of duty to an extreme. I remember she told us that when her husband, who had been in ill health for some time, finally died, she finished marking a set of books before setting in train the preparations for his funeral. But her influence has lasted all my life.
The school has been added to, but otherwise is little changed. I suppose the thing that struck me most yesterday is how it seems to have shrunk. The corridors seemed longer, the stairways steeper, the ceilings higher when I first attended it as an eleven-year-old, then for only a part of the school week – pupils belonging to the first two school years still spent most of their time at the old school building in London Road, the first home of Spalding High School when it was established in 1920 on the site of its predecessor, the privately-owned ‘Welland Academy for Young Ladies’. (The present school building was completed in 1959, but the London Road property continued to be used by younger pupils for more than twenty years afterwards.) The assembly hall still boasts its luxurious but absurdly impractical parquet floor.
In my day it doubled up as a gym (there is now a separate sports hall) and we were obliged to do PE barefoot, which we all hated, so that the floor wouldn’t become scuffed by gym shoes. The same grand piano stands in the corner, to the left of the stage. In the corridor outside the headteacher’s office are several group photographs taken of all the teachers and pupils at intervals during the school’s history. After some searching, I was able to discover myself on one of these – and I could also name all the other girls in my form and most of the teachers.
After the tour, I was interviewed by Eleanor Toal and Holly Hetherington for High Quarterly, the school’s completely online magazine (which is streets ahead of the drab, dark-red-covered printed production of my youth). Eleanor, the e-zine’s editor, also writes articles for the Spalding Guardian, carrying on the long-standing relationship between the school and the local newspaper. Eleanor and Holly (who edits Gardening and Food in the mag) knew they were going to be asked to interview me only very shortly before we met, because the intended interviewer was ill, but I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me. I was much struck by the sensitivity and perspicacity of their questions and enjoyed answering them.
After lunch, I talked to sixth form English students about how to get published. Jean Hodge, who reports on cultural affairs for the Spalding Guardian, also attended and joined in. It was quite an exciting occasion, because it also took the first steps towards setting up a short-story competition that the Great British Bookshop has agreed to sponsor at the High School. Adrian and his colleagues and I will choose the best ten or twelve stories submitted to be published in a single volume at The Great British Bookshop’s expense. Winners will each receive a free copy of the book, which will then go on sale in TGBB’s extensive distribution network. I’ll be writing more about the competition in this blog very shortly.
I completed my day at the school with a writers’ workshop for Years 7, 8 and 9 students. The participants explored some of the key elements of crime fiction (they proved to be very well read) and collaborated to put some of those into practice. Their discussion illustrated their excellent grasp of linguistic and literary effects and the results were amazing! Nearly all of these students bought one of my books at the end of the session; some bought all three. Thank you!
I can’t conclude this post without saying that a remarkable library now exists at Spalding High School. The library is housed in the same room that I knew, but what a difference in the stock! The emphasis is on supplying students with books to read for pleasure. It’s a place of relaxation and also a place where students can go to work in groups. There’s none of the shushing and grim looks that any talking in the library produced when I was a schoolgirl and all the dusty old Latin grammars and ancient editions of Gray’s Anatomy have been disappeared. Hats off in particular to Kirsty Lees, the School Librarian and Learning Resources Manager, and to her team. The school knows how lucky it is to have them and to be able to enjoy the warm and inviting place (complete with crime scene rug featuring a splayed body) that they have turned it into.
It’s almost impossible for me to thank all the people who made this day so special. I’m deeply grateful to Michele Anderson for making it possible; to Adrian Isted and Kirsty, for making it happen; to Eleanor and Holly, for giving me such a delightful interview; to Jean Hodge, for all her support for Sausage Hall both at this event and elsewhere and, especially, to all the students whom I met yesterday, who were such a joy to work with and who were so keen to develop their own writing. Thank you all!
Yesterday Jim, my editor, and I enjoyed the immense privilege of running a writers’ workshop at Wakefield One, the City of Wakefield’s wonderful new complex that incorporates the library and other arts and community facilities. Like the event in which I took part at Wakefield One last year, it was part of Wakefield’s LitFest, and impeccably organised by Alison Cassels, who, in my experience, is second to none at enthusing and gathering in intelligent and appreciative audiences for such occasions.
Eventually, there were twenty-two lively and responsive participants of all ages, from twenty upwards. One recent graduate came with his grandfather.
We began by giving the workshop delegates a sheet containing the opening paragraphs of six novels and asked them to take on the editor’s task of choosing (and providing justification for their selection!) just one that they would personally want to publish. The results were Illuminating: although one of the extracts (actually from a novel by Ruth Rendell) emerged as the clear winner, all six had at least one champion. Everyone was thus able to appreciate the dilemma of choice that an editor faces when sent many different manuscripts. Then, in pairs and against the clock, the group accepted the challenge of producing an opening paragraph that might persuade an editor not to reject it. The results were exceptional: all were coherent, interesting and, most impressively, cliché-free; the activity itself generated wonderful engagement, as you can see in the photographs here.
I then went on to explore some of the practicalities of getting published and what new (and, indeed, established) authors need to do in order to engage and keep their readers. This audience was thoughtful as well as appreciative and turned it into a dynamic, interactive session. Finally, I read the opening chapter of Sausage Hall, the third in the DI Yates series, which will be published on 17th November; it was well-received (I’d been holding my breath, as I’m sure all authors do when they give their new ‘baby’ its first airings). The workshop members were generous: many bought copies of In the Family and Almost Love in the signing session at the end; some were kind enough to buy both.
The informal debate continued after the workshop was officially over. Several participants said that they’d been delighted to receive Salt Publishing’s online alerts. If any of the readers of this blog would also like to obtain these, just let me know and I’ll pass on the information.
Very many thanks indeed to Alison Cassels and the rest of the staff at Wakefield One (not forgetting those who work in the Create coffee shop, which produces a mean cappuccino!) and heartfelt gratitude to all those who joined the workshop – I hope that you will become occasional or even regular visitors to this blog.
This summer, events and commitments have seemed to conspire to restrict the time I had become used to spending on blog posts and engaging with others on the social media, by which I really mean Twitter, because, try as I might to be active with it, I can’t feel very comfortable with the lumbering mode of global communication that Facebook always proves to be to me. Even Twitter has found me out as a tweeting dilettante, never spending long at all up there amongst the flocks in the branches, but flitting in and out in sharp bursts like a swallow. So, first, may I apologise to loyal friends who must think me at best unreliable and, at worst, not a friend to them at all. Some of you (you know who you are) have put up with my scant regard for relationship consistency with huge patience and unstinting support in my absences, for which, please do accept huge thanks for keeping this bird in flight.
In the context of all this, I should like to make as public a declaration of thanks as this blog permits to a wonderful pair of Jennies, who, separately and at different times, could almost be assumed to have been acting in collusion to make me feel good about myself and about my novels. They have joined a wonderful group of reviewers of the first two DI Yates books who have taken much trouble both to read them and then to provide splendidly constructive and insightful commentary upon them. The DI Yates page on this site quotes them verbatim, which is my best way of saying ‘thank you’. However, Jenny Lloyd, who has reviewed both books, and Jenny Burnley, who has just reviewed Almost Love, have yet to find their comments transferred here (I’ve been remiss about this and I’ll be rectifying it shortly!) and I’m thus giving them a post to themselves by way of appreciation.
Both Jennies have been absolutely consistent in their celebration of other writers’ and bloggers’ work, mine included, and I’d like them to know just how much I value such selfless enthusiasm for writing about and spreading what they read, which helps so many people on the networks. I’d also like to say how much I enjoy their work, too. Thankfully, their qualities are shared by many of my virtual friends and acquaintances; they do epitomise the best of good social media practice, which means that they are always a pleasure to talk to.
I imagine that readers of this post will readily understand how I feel upon reading such reviews as these two, not just because they are so positive, but because their insights are so very thoughtful. Here they are:
Jenny Lloyd, on In the Family:
While laid up with an injury, the days can seem interminably long. What I needed was a book that would take my mind off the pain in my knee and the stultifying boredom that comes from sitting in one place for too long. I’d just finished reading The Luminaries (an 800 plus page book I would never have got round to tackling if I hadn’t been laid up). Then my daughter found the lost charger for my Kindle while looking for something else (as always happens). Browsing through some of the titles, I came across In the Family by Christina James, a book I’d bought some time ago, immediately following my reading of the author’s other book, Almost Love.
There is always a risk, after reading a really good book by an author, that one’s expectations will be disappointed by the next one. So it was with fingers crossed that I began In the Family, hoping I would enjoy it as much as Almost Love. I needn’t have worried, though. If anything, I enjoyed this one more.
In the Family has all the ingredients which one expects from a crime-thriller but it is the author’s skill which takes these ingredients and turns them into a crime-story bristling with mystery and suspense, written with intelligence and deep psychological insights. And the characters! Some of this family’s characters you would not want to meet, let alone be related to, but the author portrays them so well I now feel I have met them all and they linger in my memory still. Essentially, I felt the central theme of this story explored how damaged people can result in damaged families with devastating consequences for any children involved.
The gist of the story; a skeleton is found buried alongside a road and Inspector Tim Yates is called in to investigate. The remains are that of a young woman, Kathryn Sheppard, who disappeared thirty years before. As Tim and his team unravel what happened to Kathryn, the Atkins family’s past comes back to haunt them.
I devoured this book in two days; not because I had little else to do but because I honestly couldn’t stop reading it. My measure of a good read is: how much I don’t want to stop reading to go and do something else; how much I relish picking it up again; and how much I don’t want it to end. In the Family scored top marks on all counts.
I feel I must thank Mrs James for the thoroughly enjoyable two days I spent captivated by her story. The Luminaries may have won the Booker Prize last year, but for me In the Family was the better read. Mrs James has a third novel coming soon; I will be first in the queue to buy!
Jenny Burnley, on Almost Love:
This excellent crime thriller weaves a complex story around the main characters of Detective Inspector Tim Yates and Alex Tarrant, following the inexplicable disappearance of Dame Claudia, a celebrated archaeologist with a mysterious past. In a weak, alcohol-fuelled moment, Alex, married to the boring, but dependable Tom, allows herself to be seduced by the dastardly Edmund, a dangerous, unlikeable character. This adulterous liaison is central to the story, which moves along at a cracking pace. The reader is drawn along deeper into the story, demanding to know the all-important answer to ‘whodunit’ and how. This quest required reading late into the night to unravel the mystery and see what happened next. Suspects abound in Almost Love and there is plenty of action, tension and suspense, with many clever twists and turns. The characters are exceptionally well-drawn, with close attention paid to human foibles and weaknesses. As the story unfolds, a dramatic late twist leaves the reader breathlessly awaiting the next D.I. Yates novel.
Thank you, Jenny and Jenny. You have jointly ‘made my summer’ and I know that your good offices as discriminating reviewers benefit many authors and make them feel very good about what they do. Thank you, too, to all those other wonderful reviewers and readers who have supported my books so far.
I was struck by the appearance in Monday’s The Times of the Jan Van Eyck ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, a painting I have always found fascinating for its depiction of a wealthy merchant and his wife. The detail to be explored in this marvellous creation of character and setting has not only human but also symbolic value, suggestive of the real existence, aspirations and lifestyle of this couple in their Bruges home. It cries out: ‘Here we are! We are rich and wonderful people! Look at us!’ The most intriguing aspect for me is the reflection in the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple, depicting two figures, one of whom is commonly assumed to be Van Eyck himself. Velázquez later did much the same thing in ‘Las Meninas’, showing himself as painter of the scene. It’s a clever way of putting your personal stamp on your work. As well as that, Van Eyck painted boldly on the wall (in the style, popular at the time, of a maxim or moral text): ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ or ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434’. I’ve always found it pleasantly ironic that the painter should have muscled in on the proud self-declaration of the Arnolfini couple, in a kind of portrait-bombing that elbows aside the intended subject.
My mind jumped quickly to the concept of self, as presented by ‘Kilroy was here’ and graffiti tags: ‘Notice me – I’m everywhere – I can get into the most unlikely and bizarre places… because I’m wonderful!’ That too seems pretty ironic to me, as I feel that shouting out about myself or my achievements is de trop and immodest; creating a ‘Christina James’ brand and promoting my writing here on the social media, I confess, does make me feel uncomfortable, even though I accept the need for it in the current bookselling market and therefore join in. However, I know how I feel about those who simply churn out plugs for their books without any engagement with others – it’s so much spam. Van Eyck’s skill sold itself and I suppose all writers and artists and craftspeople hope that the quality of their handiwork will do the same and that people will notice; in the meantime, they give it what they consider a helpful push. Shakespeare definitely, with his choice of the word ‘powerful’ in Sonnet 55, knew the value of his own words in outlasting even the hardest stone (‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.’) and was clearly right to say so: his sonnet certainly seems to be standing the test of time. So… we turn the words and polish them, with ‘perhaps’ floating in our heads… and promote them.
Which in turn leads me to the ‘selfie’, a bizarre bi-product of the technological society in which we live. We have a ‘smart’ phone (there’s a misnomer) which we can turn upon ourselves with no skill or effort whatsoever and take our own picture. Why? Narcissus fell in love with his reflected image, because Nemesis, having noticed his overweening pride in himself, led him to the pool in which he saw himself and he couldn’t drag himself away from the image in its surface; he therefore died, his hubris preventing him from seeing reality. Messrs Obama and Cameron, perhaps flattered by the photographic attentions of the personable Danish PM, fell into much the same trap, losing their sense of reality in the process. Not only did they use no art in the creation of the resulting silly picture, but also failed to use even the most basic commonsense, and Mrs Obama and the rest of the world clearly eyed them with the sharp vision of objectivity. Oh dear. The ‘selfie’ doesn’t work very well as a self-promotional tool.
I didn’t set out to be moralistic, but this is beginning to feel that way. We care about what we create and care about how others view it; there is ‘self’ in that! I have been privileged to receive positive reviews about Almost Love from writers whose own work I value and enjoy and I’m therefore sharply aware of how important it is to celebrate what I find successful and admirable in what others do; there is joy to be had in reviewing books that stand scrutiny. I’m also very much aware of how selflessly many of the people with whom I interact on the social networks behave; they deserve to feel proud of themselves for making someone else’s day. I’m glad, too, that the social media allow all of us to find our way to what we like; we’d miss out on some gems if their creators were utterly selfless!
On the platform
Yesterday was a real red-letter day for me. I had been invited to give one of two after-lunch talks at Soroptimist International King’s Lynn annual fund-raising lunch, which was held at the Best Western Le Strange Arms Hotel at Old Hunstanton. I was invited to speak by Sue Renwick, this year’s King’s Lynn Soroptimist President, and her colleague, June Muir. I discovered that my name had been suggested by two of my old school friends, Lyn Lord and Mandy North. Both have been enthusiastic promoters of my books and Mandy has attended both of the signing sessions held at Bookmark in Spalding. I was chosen because my books are set in Spalding – not too far away from King’s Lynn (in fact, my brother was born in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital there) – and the group particularly likes to listen to authors whose books have a local flavour.
This literary lunch was the fourth one held by the King’s Lynn Soroptimists. The speaker at last year’s event was Stella Rimington (who has a house in Norfolk), so I felt honoured indeed! The audience consisted of ninety-nine lunchers, mostly Soroptimists, with a sprinkling of husbands. The Worshipful the Mayor of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Councillor Mrs Elizabeth Watson, was there, and I much enjoyed talking to her. I was privileged to be seated next to Sue Renwick’s husband and had a fascinating conversation with him about migrant workers in Norfolk (a topic in which I’m currently immersed as I write my third DI Yates novel). The local press was in attendance: I shall post links to their photographs when I have them.
I had heard of the Soroptimists before, but I didn’t know much about them until I received the invitation, when I made it my business to find out a little more. The first group was set up in the USA, quickly followed by others in the UK. The organisation is now worldwide. Its website explains its mission: We are committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong, peaceful communities worldwide. The fund-raising events support particular causes. The money raised from yesterday’s lunch will contribute to respite holidays for Norfolk’s young carers: heartbreakingly, there are children as young as seven looking after infirm or disabled parents.
My fellow-speaker was Elly Griffiths, whom I had already met earlier this year at a very successful literary festival event held at Watton Library. Elly spoke first. I know her to be a witty and eloquent speaker (and therefore a tough act to follow!). She told the audience how she came to create her academic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, and read an excerpt from the next Ruth Galloway novel. She said that the inspiration for these books had come from her husband, who exchanged a high-profile, lucrative career as a city ‘suit’ to become an archaeologist. The Galloway novels are set in Norfolk because Elly’s aunt lives there and Elly spent holidays there as a child; she also pointed out that Norfolk is full of bones!
My brief asked me how I came to develop the characters in the DI Yates novels. I’ve reproduced some of what I said here in the hope that it may interest readers of this blog, as several of you have asked me similar questions.
When I was thinking about where to set the novels, I revisited the Spalding of my childhood (and incidentally some of my most memorable holidays as a girl were spent in Hunstanton). DI Yates’ Spalding is therefore a ‘perfect’ place in the sense that it exists only in my memory and imagination. Among the many riches that Spalding and the Fens offer to me as a writer is their wonderful place-names – Pode Hole, Quadring Eaudyke, Gosberton Risegate, Pinchbeck: I know that many readers are intrigued by the promise of romance and mystery implicit in the names of these villages.
None of the characters is entirely based on people I know or have known, though they have been influenced by traits I saw in certain individuals or by real events and customs. For example, my great uncle kept a general shop in in Spalding, in Westlode Street. It was the family business for many years: he’d inherited it from his father. My grandmother – my father’s mother – acted as his housekeeper. More or less accurately, this is the shop in which Doris Atkins is murdered in In the Family. Her daughter-in-law, Dorothy Atkins, also known as Tirzah, is convicted of the crime. But Doris Atkins is not a portrayal of my grandmother, nor is Dorothy a portrayal of my mother. Uncle Colin, the hunchback who keeps the shop, is a little more closely based on my own great-uncle, but only in the physical sense: my great-uncle did indeed suffer from curvature of the spine. He did make forays on a grocer’s bicycle to collect cigarettes and bananas to sell in the shop. He did wear a long shopman’s coat and a trilby. But Colin’s character is not his character. (Just as well, considering what Colin gets up to in the novel!)
Moving on to Almost Love, I talked about Alex Tarrant and her role in the novel. Alex is the secretary of the Archaeological Society, a prestigious institution very loosely modelled on Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. Some of my readers have told me that they feel that the Archaeological Society is almost like another character in this novel. The story begins with the unexplained disappearance of a famous archaeologist. Several murders take place during the course of the novel and, although she isn’t involved in them directly, Alex is inadvertently the person who provides the links between the various perpetrators; this is in part because she embarks upon an ill-considered affair. I was interested in exploring the disintegration of character of Edmund Baker, the County Heritage Officer and the instigator of this illicit alliance, as he undoubtedly suffers the guilt of betraying his wife.
I also spoke about my grandmothers and the extraordinary houses they lived in. I’ve already mentioned the shop at Westlode Street where my father’s mother lived. My mother’s mother was employed in domestic service from the age of fourteen to seventy-four, at first (a bit like Hardy’s Tess!) as a poultry maid. Her second employer sent her to Bart’s Hospital to train as a nursery nurse and from this she worked her way up to become housekeeper to Samuel Frear, last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. She was widowed young, so my mother grew up at The Yews, the Frear family home at Surfleet. Just after I was born, my grandmother, now aged sixty, moved to Sutterton, to become companion to a very old lady who lived at a substantial house called The Laurels. She had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century.
Like Westlode Street, The Laurels was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. The book I’m working on now is set in this house. When I began writing it, I had also just discovered that a very famous person was living in the area at the same time, which helped me to construct the plot. It’s about a murder that happens in the present, but is strongly influenced by what happened in the house in the past.
I think that both our talks were well-received: many of the Soroptimists came and spoke to us with great warmth and enthusiasm afterwards, and they were extremely generous in their purchases of our books. We were each presented with a pen in a beautifully crafted wooden box that Sue Renwick had made herself – an unexpected and delightful kindness.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank most sincerely all of those present for a wonderful day. I shall certainly take a very close interest in all that they do from now on and hope perhaps to be able to help them, both as a writer and a professional woman, in the future. I hope too that they will come to visit here and perhaps comment, too.