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?
On a very wet day during the long August bank holiday weekend, I got up early to arrive at Bettys (sic.) cookery school in Harrogate by 8.30 a.m. I had booked myself in for a day’s tuition on patisserie. The course didn’t begin until 9 a.m., but the students were advised to arrive half an hour early for breakfast, which consisted of Bettys croissants and pains au chocolat. Delicious!
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Bettys, it’s an upmarket baker and confectioner operating six tea-shops in Yorkshire. It’s not named after a woman – Mr Betty was an immigrant, an Austrian patissier who came to the UK in 1919 and opened his first shop in Harrogate, then still a famous spa town.
The cookery school is a relatively recent innovation. It’s been running for a few years – my son attended one of the early sessions, on boning meat – and since then the courses have proliferated. Passionate about Patisserie, the course that I attended, was a present from my son and daughter-in-law. (No ulterior motive, they assured me… though I’m a touch dubious about that! I am a keen baker, which they appreciate, but I’d never before done any of the fancy stuff.)
All fifteen places on the course were filled; only one of the students was male – a man attending with his daughter, because, she explained, she’d been away all summer and hadn’t seen much of him. I was very impressed by this – and later came to realise that she, too, may have been influenced by a filial ulterior motive, as he proceeded to do all her washing up as well as his own. Together we made one of the groups of three – each of the five work benches had three sinks and three ovens. I enjoyed working with these two throughout the day; I also spent some time talking to a woman in her fifties who had inherited money from her parents, retired early and become a sort of Bettys junkie. She does all the courses and avidly waits for new ones to appear.
There were two Bettys staff taking the course, led by Lisa, who said she’d been working for Bettys for more than thirty years – she must have joined the company as soon as she left school – while one other – Philippa – was catering for the participants; it was she who made the breakfast pastries, the lunch of quiche, salad, rosti and lemon tart and the afternoon tea of scones, cream and jam, while we concentrated on our own cakes and pastries. It was the one time in my life I’ve experienced the opportunity to have my cake and eat it!
I found the day relaxing for many reasons. Foremost among these was that there was an unquestioning assumption that patisserie is all about taste and look. There were no apologies for the number of calories involved or concerns about whether the fats were saturated or the sugars ‘organic’; no consideration, even, of the expense of the ingredients!
Despite this, it was by no means the cake version of a Bacchanalia. Each step of each recipe (we completed three) was completed with military precision and each was accompanied by some precious nuggets from Lisa’s store of cake wisdom. Thus I learnt that: metal mixing bowls give the best results; you should never remove the ‘twiddly’ bits when preparing eggs for cake-making, because they are your friends – they help to stabilise the mixture; and that getting the temperature right is key – since all ovens, even new ones, vary from one day to the next, an oven thermometer is an essential investment. There was something I didn’t need telling, because I found it out for myself years ago: baking well is an art as well as a science. Like good writing, it is 95% hard graft, 5% inspiration.
We all completed our three recipes and everyone’s efforts were successful. However, as well as getting the temperature right, I’m also aware that weighing ingredients correctly is imperative to getting good results. This was something we didn’t have to do – probably because there wasn’t time – so we were supplied with little packages of all the ingredients we needed, no doubt weighed accurately down to the last milligram. Repeating the recipes, therefore, may still be a bit of a challenge!
The need to get the temperature right reminds me that, two years ago, I finally abandoned my ailing and capricious electric Aga, which had never worked properly since it was bought new seventeen years before (a Friday afternoon job, obviously). It would actually be more correct to say that it abandoned me – it finally gave up the ghost just before Christmas (!), having cost as much again in repairs as was spent on it originally. We replaced it with a Falcon range, which, mercifully, fitted (to a millimetre) the gap vacated by the Aga… exactly, perhaps because Falcon was acquired by Aga! Then I discovered that the Falcon, unlike the Aga, has no dedicated cookery books and I vowed to write one myself – perhaps with a criminal theme! This ambition was rekindled by the Bettys experience – so if anyone reading this has some Falcon recipe tips, I’d be glad to receive them.
While I was at Bettys, my husband spent the very damp morning at RHS Harlow Carr gardens, where there is a Bettys café, reading the digital proofs of Gentleman Jack, drinking Bettys coffee and, like me (though he didn’t know it), indulging rather more heavily in their breakfast pastries. So much for his plaintive declaration, when we met up again, of indifferent supermarket sandwiches for lunch… and he timed his arrival for the cookery course tea and cream scones!
After returning home, I unpacked my bunch of goodies to show him and went off to get changed. On coming back downstairs, I couldn’t find one of the small fruit tartlets, which I was sure had been there. Hmmm.
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.
Readers of this blog will know that DI Yates and I have been fortunate enough to have been supported with many events in Spalding, owing to the extraordinary generosity of a growing list of people, especially Sam Buckley and her team at Bookmark, Michele Anderson and her colleagues at Spalding High School and Sharman Morris and the other librarians at the public library. As regular readers also know, I’ve now been privileged to lead several writers’ workshops in other places. This Spalding event was my second workshop there and, like the first, was hosted in the library by Sharman, and thanks to her and her colleague, Amanda, and the wonderful audience they gathered, it was a resounding success.
We took as our main topic ‘How to create a really evil character’ and we began by considering the attributes that such a character requires the author to deliver to make him or her come alive. We talked at length about how to achieve credibility and what sort of writing maintains the tension demanded by an evil character (and the kinds of writing that fail to maintain that tension). We considered Hannibal Lecter’s first meeting with Clarice Starling, how it is described by Thomas Harris in The Silence of the Lambs and what that tells us about Clarice, as well as Hannibal himself.
The audience then broke into small groups to work on creating some evil characters of their own.
All of the groups were totally engaged and they came up with some startlingly fresh ideas. I particularly enjoyed the debate that took place between the four members of one group as they discussed whether or not to allow the serial killer’s dog to travel with him in his cab. The dog would be a useful tool to deflect suspicion, but – amid much hilarity – could not be trusted not to eat his sandwiches, so he wouldn’t be able to leave those in the cab as well! I hasten to add that this was actually only a small part of the conversation, most of which was a serious consideration of how alibis work and what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour – and how the Victorian music-hall villain is a stereotype that never occurs in real life. Real-life killers don’t provide good role models for authors, either, as they are frequently banal – ‘black boxes’ who don’t tick. We agreed that to be a successful evil character in fiction you must always have an inner life which the reader is allowed to penetrate, and often also demonstrate a certain glamour.
As the groups read out what they’d written and described the progress they’d made with creating their characters, some of the audience also began to share fascinating real-life anecdotes. One was about a dog which actually did eat its owner’s sandwiches every time it was taken in a vehicle; two others focused on making unfair judgements about people because of mistaken preconceived ideas. One of these told how his grandfather liked to dress up and go to a pub on a Saturday night. One Saturday, slightly well-oiled, he tripped and hurt his face on the pavement. Several people passed him by without stopping, assuming, despite his good clothes, that he was a habitual drunk. It was only when a party of punks saw him that anyone helped him to his feet: having done so, they walked him two miles home and made him a cup of tea. This story prompted someone else to recount how, when she moved to a new area, she thought the local pub looked rough and shunned it until she, too, tripped outside and was helped inside and cared for by some of the regulars whom she’d previously disdained.
I gave two short readings from my own books, the first from the passage where Grace Brackenbury asks to see the bodies of her foster mother and baby daughter in Fair of Face and the episode in which Peter Prance begins to challenge Hedley Atkins on the train journey to Liverpool in In the Family. Many of the audience stayed to talk to me informally after the organised part of the event was over. We spoke some more about reading and writing and what they mean to us. It was very clear that all participants in the session had enjoyed themselves. For my own part, I had a fantastic time: it was a great privilege to be able to spend a Saturday morning with such a lively group. They’ve asked me to lead another workshop after Gentleman Jack is published and I shall be delighted to do so – if Sharman doesn’t mind weaving her magic again!