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!
Yesterday was publication day for Rooted in Dishonour. As usual, I headed for Bookmark, Spalding’s lovely independent bookshop, which has kindly hosted the launch event for all of the DI Yates novels, beginning with In the Family in 2012. As always, I received a very warm welcome. For the past three years, Sam Buckley, the events manager, has arranged a dual event for me: a signing session in the afternoon and a talk and reading in the evening.
It was a cold, squally morning. I arrived at the shop about midday. It has recently changed hands and there was a major renovation going on in the café area; unfortunately, this meant that the café was closed, but I understand that it will be open again next week, ready for Christmas. I was privileged to meet Darren (twin brother of Jason, the new owner), who is in charge of the refurbishment work – he says Jason earns the money and he spends it!
Although the temporary lack of coffee was ruefully lamented by Bookmark’s clientele, the shop’s footfall (partly because it was market day) was excellent and there was a lot of interest in Rooted in Dishonour. One lady, Helen, bought three copies for herself and friends and said that she’d read all the DI Yates books: ‘Each one is better than the last’ – sheer music to an author’s ears!
Alex, who attends Spalding Grammar School and works in Bookmark on Saturdays, popped in at lunchtime and became one of my customers.
The evening event took place in the bookshop itself for the first time, as the café was out of bounds. As a speaker, I preferred the atmosphere there (though not the absence of cake!). Spalding audiences are always excellent, but this was my best ever!
I met some old friends and made many new ones. The discussion following my talk was a lively one and I was asked lots of searching questions about my writing. Several of the audience generously bought the new novel and some of the previous ones as well.
I’d like to thank Sam and the rest of the staff at Bookmark for working so hard to make the event a success, and all my wonderful Spalding readers for giving me a day to remember.
The Holy Thief is the third of the three books that I bought at Bookmark when I was in Spalding. I left this one until last because my son, who specialised in twentieth century Eastern European history at university, put me off it slightly by saying that novelists who write about Stalinist Russia never quite get the historical backdrop right. However, having begun this novel towards the end of last week, I found that I couldn’t put it down and finished it within a couple of days.
William Ryan has obviously researched the Stalinist period very well. He offers a select bibliography at the end of the novel, among which are the works of Orlando Figes, whose social history The Whisperers also made a great impression on me when I read it. He doesn’t obtrude his knowledge of the period (a skill that I always think is the hallmark of a distinguished writer), but in my view – and of course neither Ryan nor I really knows! – he has captured perfectly the seediness, uncertainty and underlying paranoia that permeated the whole of life when Stalin was the Russian leader. Very skilfully, over the course of the novel, he also manages to convey the futility of many of the brutal and savage actions carried out in the name of the state by the Stalinist regime. Lives are snatched or broken, but to what effect? It is as if the waters close over the people and events that have been targeted and the whole monstrous machine just creaks on as it did before, a savage animal against which the only defence is to remain in the shadows.
Captain Alexei Korolev, the hero of this novel, is an interesting take on the protagonist of the Russian crime thriller. He owes something to Le Carré’s George Smiley, but of course he belongs to an earlier part of the twentieth century and he is much more establishment than Smiley: he is a policeman, not a spy. Smiley already knows that ideologies are tawdry, slippery things and destroy the soul and that being a devotee of the truth – if the truth can be defined – is dangerous; Korolev, who has been a successful CID officer, has to discover this inch by inch, the hard way, by becoming the victim himself. In the process, he comes face to face with the terrifying yet essentially faceless members of the organised criminals who control Moscow’s criminal underworld.
If I have any criticism to make of this novel, it is that in places it is almost not dark enough. Ryan certainly doesn’t go in for gratuitous violence or sensationalism, which I applaud, but sometimes his writing seems to convey a sense of optimism that is not warranted by the period and events of which he writes. In Figes’ The Whisperers, there are no good people left: all those he describes know that they cannot rely on friends, family members, even sons or daughters, not to betray them; whereas in The Holy Thief morality, generosity and even taking the risk of offering casual kindness to strangers still prevail amongst people principled enough and brave enough not to allow their standards to drop. But that is where fiction diverges from reality: a novel is not a meaningless collection of events: it has to carry some message to the reader. Stalin’s Terror, on the other hand, had no proper meaning, no message: it simply channelled the crazed paranoia of one very powerful man into the brutal gratification of his sadistic henchmen.
This is undoubtedly a potent read and one that I enjoyed very much!
I bought The Flight and The Disappeared, by M.R. Hall, from Bookmark in Spalding and took them with me on holiday to read. I had not heard of the author before, but Christine Hanson, the proprietor of Bookmark, had mounted a display of them in the shop and had also read The Flight, which she said was excellent. I was certainly prepared to accept her judgment.
To confess the exact truth, I started The Flight, which is the later novel, first, and didn’t much like it. It deals with an air crash, and the first fifty pages or so reminded me very much of those disaster movies that were so popular in the 1980s, which had a very thin storyline and depended on the histrionics of the disaster itself to maintain interest. This was compounded by an amazing amount of technical detail that, although I dislike segregating books into ‘men’s reads’ and ‘women’s reads’, struck me as having more of a male than a female appeal.
I therefore put The Flight aside and embarked upon The Disappeared. Upon picking it up, I thought immediately that it would be much more to my taste. The story is about the disappearance of two Muslim teenagers and how Jenny Cooper, the Severn Vale District Coroner, mounts an investigation into the cause of their deaths (as they have officially been declared dead, but no bodies found) seven years afterwards, at the request of the mother of one of them. The novel deals with several topical and sensitive issues, including Muslim extremism and the activities, sometimes of dubious legality, of the security services. All this is riveting, and beautifully written. What engaged me most of all, however, was the detailed and delicate portrayal of states of mind that can perhaps be described as hyper-sensitive, but by no means indicate madness or irrationality, and how those suffering from them can be persecuted by unscrupulous people trying to serve their own unethical purposes by discounting them or even bringing them into disrepute by suggesting that they are unreliable. Fine parallels are drawn between Jenny’s own mental state and that of Amira Jamal, the mother of one of the missing youths. Both need professional help for their mental conditions, yet each is perceptive and intelligent, with an intuitive understanding of the forces that are really at work, despite being disbelieved and ‘rubbished’ by others and, to differing extents, cowed by this. Yet, in both instances, the reader is left in some lingering doubt about their powers of judgment. A particularly good example of this occurs when Jenny’s sulky teenage son (with whom a more mentally robust mother would have had a straightforward conversation, setting out a few home truths) enlists the help of her smug ex-husband to move out of her house. While the son is packing, the husband explains that one of the reasons that the son is going is that Jenny is not fit to look after him, citing the fact that there is never any food in the house. From what has gone before, the reader knows that this statement, if exaggerated, has on several occasions been true (there are further occasions when the son has selfishly demolished all the food). It is left to the reader to reflect that a son in his last year at college should not be as helpless as this one appears to be, but it is a manifestation of the author’s considerable talent that Hall demonstrates that there are faults on both sides. It is from such balanced depiction of human relationships, and how they fray and chafe against each other, that the book gains distinction. The taut relationship between Jenny Cooper and her ex-policewoman clerk, Alison Trent, is also particularly well-drawn.
So, having enjoyed The Disappeared immensely and devoured it impatiently to the last page, I decided to give The Flight another try. To any other reader who, like me, finds the first eighth or so of this book daunting, I’d like to say that it’s well worth persevering with. It’s true that there is a lot of technical detail throughout (and I can only applaud the author’s obvious mastery of it; I’m sure that a huge amount of research must have gone into the crafting of this novel), but the reason for it becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. M.R. Hall has constructed an intricate but worryingly believable plot which, even more than in The Disappeared, entrances as it unfolds. Jenny’s personal story is also developed well in this later work: she is released from some of her demons, but manages to create others in their place; and her dealings with Alison are even more fraught than in its predecessor.
I’m delighted to have discovered M.R. Hall, especially through one of my favourite bookshops, and look forward with impatience to the next Jenny Cooper story. In the meantime, I believe that there are a couple of others in the series that I have yet to read. Do I have any reservations at all? Only one comparatively minor one. It concerns the character of Jenny herself. Hall has been much praised for getting inside the head of a woman with such sympathy and understanding. I’d say that 95% of the time this praise is well-deserved, but sometimes Jenny is just a bit too snivelly and self-pitying for my taste, though she soon snaps out of it. Hall should perhaps consider that resourceful women who live alone never (in my experience) behave like this. They know that the knight in shining armour won’t come rushing to their aid and adopt a pragmatic approach accordingly – as Jenny always does, after her odd lapses. But, as I’ve said, this is a minor personal niggle, and possibly it’s unfair even to mention it.
Yesterday was one of those perfect days that become legendary in memory. I had travelled to Spalding, having been invited to give a signing session at Bookmark, a very distinguished bookshop which I also visited and wrote about just before Christmas last year.
There was a carnival atmosphere in the town. Christine Hanson, Bookmark’s owner, was feeling particularly happy, because hers and other businesses in Spalding had banded together to offer fun activities to passers-by in one of the yards in the Hole-in-the-Wall passageway. Christine said that it marked a significant step forward in the town’s initiative not only to save the high street but also to ensure that it thrives. She flitted back and forth between the shop and the Hole-in-the-Wall all afternoon and, despite being so busy, still provided my husband and me with her customary wonderful hospitality.
My signing session began with a remarkable and totally unexpected coincidence. Two ladies who had been paying for books at the till came over to speak to me. Noticing their accents, I asked if they were American. One of them said that she’d been born in Spalding, but had lived in America for twenty-five years. She now teaches environmental science at the University of California. Judging her to be about my age, I asked if I knew her. She said that her name was Carol Shennan. I knew the name immediately; she had lived about five doors away from me in Chestnut Avenue when we were both growing up. She said that her mother, who is eighty-nine, still lives in Spalding, and that she was just there for the week to visit her. It was an unbelievable stroke of luck that we should meet in Bookmark. Carol bought In the Family, and I look forward very much to receiving a future contribution to this blog from her when she’s read it.
Several babies came into the shop. I was introduced to Oliver, who arrived with his grandmother and aunt, who each kindly bought both books, and Harry, who came with his grandparents. His grandfather (I’m sorry that I can’t remember his name: his wife’s name is Carole) is a keen local historian and said that he doubted that my novels would cover villages as remote as Sutterton, which is where he was born and still lives. By another strange quirk of coincidence, I was able to tell him that my third novel, which I’ve just started writing, is set in Sutterton. I hope that Harry’s grandparents also will contribute to the blog when they’ve read the copy of In the Family that they bought.
My very dear old friend Mandy came in and bought an armful of books to give other friends as presents, just as she did at Christmas. At the end of the afternoon, she returned to guide us to her house, where we spent an idyllic evening eating supper and drinking wine in her garden with her husband Marc and her friends Anthony and Marcus. We ate new potatoes, broad beans and strawberries from her allotment and talked about books, teaching and cooking (Marcus is a chef). Afterwards, we drove home through the twilight. The fields of South Lincolnshire were looking at their best: the corn was just turning, and in one place acres of linseed coloured the landscape blue-mauve. The skies were as big and beautiful as always.
An idyllic day, as I said. I’d especially like to thank Sam at Bookmark for arranging the signing session, and Christine, Sally and Shelby for looking after me so well and for providing a great welcome: I heartily recommend the café at Bookmark, if you’re ever in the area. Many thanks also to the many people who stopped to speak to me – the conversations were fascinating – and for buying the books. And thank you, Mandy and Marc, for being amazing hosts and for introducing us to Anthony and Marcus, who provided me with their suggestion for DI Yates 4!