This photograph is of my dentist, Charlie. He’s been my dentist for about five years; before that, it was a colleague of his, called Dave. If I had a picture of Dave to post as well, you’d see that he was quite unlike Charlie. In fact, Dave struck me as being an almost archetypal specimen of the genus dentist: he was slight, wiry, nervy, cerebral and doing his bit to save the earth (a vegetarian, his main mode of transport was by bicycle and he once sang in a choir with my husband).
Charlie, on the other hand, although I consider him to be exceptionally skilled and an ornament to his profession, is no-one’s idea of a dentist. If I’d been shown a photo of him before I met him and asked to guess what he did for a living, I might have said that he was probably a bookmaker; or an estate agent; or a very burly jockey; or a rather emaciated sumo wrestler. If he’d been an actor, he would have made an ideal Magwitch in a dramatised version of Great Expectations.
Charlie obviously enjoys life. His main mode of transport is a motorbike in the summer, a substantial car (forgive me, I’m no good at brands) in winter. For a dentist, he dresses unconventionally, in leather jackets, jeans and trainers.
As my readers know, I like to write occasional pieces about interesting people and I’ve always found Charlie interesting. He’s fascinating to talk to, and I enjoy listening to his take on life while he pokes and pummels at my teeth. When I visited him yesterday, therefore (in tandem with my husband – we try to make our visits to the dentist two for the price of one), I asked if I might take his photograph, and explained about the blog. I gave him one of my Christina James postcards so that he could look up its url.
To my surprise and delight, I struck gold! Charlie is an avid reader of crime novels and was only too happy to have his photo taken. Better than that, he offered me an idea for a plot for my next novel. Not only was it excellent, but it was also based on his own scientific expertise: he trained as a biochemist before becoming a dentist. I promised him that I would use the plot and he said that he had several more up his sleeve when I’d exploited that one. I shan’t forget. Future visits to this dentist will be looked forward to with great anticipation, rather than with dread!
By this time, my husband had taken my place in the chair, but, since Charlie and I were still deep in conversation, I didn’t return to the waiting-room. We started talking about trust in professionals and how people always expect professional men and women to have unimpeachable moral standards, which is why the exposure of serial murderers such as Harold Shipman and Beverley Allitt shocks us to the core. (The Hannibal Lecter novels are actually based on this norm.)
With his eye twinkling and with his customary geniality, Charlie announced that he’d once thought of how to commit the perfect murder. It would be based on his scientific knowledge and next to impossible to detect. (I won’t give away any more, as the plot that he offered me makes use of the same information.) By this time, I was completely rapt. My husband, however, was still lying prone in the surgery chair and showing some signs of nerves.
“Do you think we should change our dentist?” he asked, once we were back out in the street.
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.