The small Norfolk town of Watton yesterday afternoon braced itself for bleak and squally weather, the rain coming in short eddies between gusts of wind that made the temperature seem even colder than it was. Inside, the library was a haven of warmth and hospitality, as Claire Sharland and her colleagues put the finishing touches to the Breckland Book Festival crime-writing event and offered welcoming cups of tea.
Elly Griffiths, Tom Benn and I all arrived early, as requested, and gathered in a small office to introduce ourselves and get to know each other a little better before we were ‘on’. I was fascinated to discover that Elly also writes novels about the Italian ex-pat community as Domenica de Rosa, her fabulous real name, and that Tom was encouraged to publish by his tutor at UEA, who helped him to place his first novel, The Doll Princess, with Jonathan Cape.
When we emerged from the small office at 3 p.m., the events space in the library had filled completely with people. I estimate that there were about forty in the audience – an impressive turn-out on such a dismal day.
Tom and Elly both read from their latest novels. Tom made the distinctive Mancunian dialect in which he writes come alive with his reading and, by doing so, also brought out the sophisticated humour which runs like a fine thread through the whole of Chamber Music. Elly also chose a humorous piece of dialogue from Dying Fall, and made the audience laugh with her vivacious rendering.
We were fortunate to have such a receptive and intelligent audience. Most had read the work of one of the authors; some had read both. Their comments and questions took in a discussion about the two writers’ very different but, in each case, key use of topography, character development, how each uses his or her writing to explore and develop relationships and the extent to which they feel defined by belonging to the crime writing genre (they don’t). We even managed to get on to some more general topics, such as e-books, authors’ royalties and the Net Book Agreement (the latter introduced, not by me, but by a member of the audience who had been a bookseller in the distinguished Waterstones bookshop at UEA).
Time flew in the company of Elly and Tom and their audience of like-minded lovers of literature. I had not read either Elly’s or Tom’s books before, but shall certainly keep them in my sights from now on. I hope also that we shall meet again in the future.
I can’t conclude without adding that the tea and home-made cakes with which we were rewarded at the start of the signing session were excellent. I’ve discovered that cake and conversation are two things that Norfolk does very well indeed!
Chamber Music, by Tom Benn, is not the sort of book I’d ever pick out for myself in a bookshop, given a free choice. Why? Because even though I am impressed by the skill of writing a dialect-heavy novel, I find such an approach to dialogue rather painful to read; also, when I’m not very familiar with the dialect, I can’t ‘hear it in my head’. I must admit, too, that the presentation of the seamier side of life for a whole novel is, for me, too much noir in one go! However, as I’ve explained in a recent blog-post, I’m meeting Tom at a Breckland Book Festival crime-writers’ session which I’m chairing. Claire Sharland, the organiser, kindly offered to pay for this book if I acquired it. I should add, hastily, that of course I’d have made sure that I’d read it before meeting Tom, in any case!
Technically speaking, it is a brilliant novel. I don’t quite know how to describe the technique that Tom has used – it is Irving Welsh crossed with William Faulkner, if that makes sense. I know that often writers resent being asked if their books are autobiographical or ‘drawn from life’; and, whilst I have no intention of asking Tom such a question, it seems likely to me that he must have lived and breathed the under-class, criminal-underworld Mancunian society that he depicts – otherwise he would never have been able to write such pitch-perfect dialect or captured the topography of the mean streets of Manchester with such conviction. On occasion, the use of dialect is so rich that the non-Mancunian reader is baffled, but such is Benn’s skill that eventually it is possible to decipher meaning from context. For a simple example, I picked up quite quickly that ‘scran’ is slang for a tasty snack.
This book has very little in common with Elly Griffiths’s Dying Fall, the other book featured in the Breckland session, which is no doubt why these two authors were billed together. However, both do share a pronounced sense of place and in both novels I feel that the crimes act as a vehicle for exploring the characters, rather than themselves being the focal points of the novels. Henry Bane is a complex character who takes a lot of fathoming – I suspect I should learn even more about him if I were to read the book twice; and Roisin is portrayed in an enigmatic and, given the situations in which she is placed, paradoxically delicate way.
I’m particularly looking forward to asking Tom Benn to read a passage from Chamber Music when I meet him next Saturday, for I want to get the authenticity of his voice into my reading of the novel; I’m sure that a live reading will be captivating.
Last week, I mentioned that I’d agreed to chair the March 16th crime-writers’ event which forms part of the Breckland Book Festival and that I’d been invited to buy the latest novel of each of the two authors taking part in order to prepare for the session. Consequently, I’ve just completed Dying Fall, by Elly Griffiths. She isn’t an author with whom I’m familiar, but I see from the preface to the book that this is fifth in a series about Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who becomes involved in the crime mysteries that she is employed to solve.
For me, Ruth’s character and circumstances are the best things about this novel. She is not a conventional heroine: overweight, a single mum, already of early middle-age and, although not poor, not as materially successful as her contemporaries at university. Nelson, the policeman who features in the books, is also unconventional, not least because, although happily married, he is also the father of Ruth’s young illegitimate daughter, Kate.
This is really a book about the dynamics of personal relationships, those between Ruth, Kate and Nelson, of course, but also between the members of Nelson’s family, between Ruth and her friends and even between the mysterious and sinister members of the White Hand, a neo-Nazi group. This exploration of how people relate to each other is certainly more pervasive and compelling than the plot, indispensable though this is to making it a crime novel. There are some wonderful cameo roles as well, especially that of Cathbad, Ruth’s feckless Druid friend, who is also Kate’s godfather.
The author’s use of topography, something in which I am always interested, impresses me. There are some fine descriptions of North Norfolk – I imagine that these feature in all of the series – although most of the novel is set in Blackpool and the Pendle Hills, the descriptions of which places are equally evocative. The research that has gone into archaeology and the occult has been meticulous, but Griffiths never parades her knowledge.
I’m very much looking forward to meeting Elly Griffiths, and also Tom Benn, her co-star at the Breckland event, whose novel, Chamber Music, is equally impressive in a completely different way. It had been my intention to review both books together, but the clock caught up with me before I could finish Tom’s! I hope to write about Chamber Music very soon.
I am delighted to have been asked to chair the crime writers’ event (at Watton Library in Norfolk), which takes place as part of the Breckland Book Festival on Saturday 16th March. It’s a session that features Tom Benn and Elly Griffiths.
Yesterday Claire Sharland, one of the organisers of the event, got in touch to suggest that I should read their latest novels, Chamber Music (Tom) and Dying Fall (Elly), before the session and generously added that the festival would pay me for the purchases. I am delighted with this offer – I shall buy the books when I am in London next week. I’m sure that, very shortly, I shall also be reviewing them on this blog!
It’s always nice to be given some books, especially if you buy them all the time. I’ve long been amused by the Booksellers Association’s definition of a ‘heavy book buyer’ as someone who buys twelve or more books a year – most years, I barely get through January without hitting this figure. What really excites me, however, is that someone has prescribed my reading for me. I’m going into this totally blind – I haven’t been prompted by reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations or even by spotting the titles in a bookshop. Aside from examination texts, I can’t remember when I was last instructed in what to read in this way. It might have been during my third year at high school, when the class text was My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. My bookish, priggish thirteen-year-old self turned up her nose in disdain when sets of this were distributed. I didn’t think it was suitable ‘serious’ reading for someone who, while still at primary school, had read such classics as Jane Eyre, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Great Expectations, especially as – distasteful innovation – the school copies were in paperback!
It’s a pity that I didn’t adopt such a fastidious approach to every subject. Today I wouldn’t be able to recognise a quadratic equation if it bopped me on the nose; and I’ve never mastered the mysteries of algebra (though it now occurs to me that it could be a useful vehicle for plot construction: let x be the murderer, y the victim, z the wicked stepmother etc.).
I should add that my precious teenage prejudice against My Family was immediately dissipated by reading its delights; I’ve read it several times since and it was one of the books that I read to my young son at bedtime. I’m certain that I shall like Tom’s and Elly’s novels, too, and look forward to making their acquaintance, first through their work and secondly in person. If anyone reading this should happen to be in the vicinity of Watton Library at 3 p.m. on 16th March, I hope perhaps to meet you there, too.