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.
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 had such interest yesterday in the post about digitalis that I hope you will indulge my taking the subject of poison a little further today; poison little and often, then!
I’ve said several times that I’m not a blood-and-guts writer. Most of the murders in my books take place off-stage. Sometimes, if it is a cold case crime, the method that the murderer has chosen cannot be established. When murders do happen on set, as it were, I don’t dwell on the details: I don’t describe the brutal physiological results of a stabbing or shooting. I choose not to do this from personal preference and have recently had my choice endorsed by the reading groups whose meetings I have had the privilege to attend. I’m certain that there are readers who enjoy graphic accounts of violence, but I haven’t met many and, in this respect at least, my novels don’t cater for them.
Murders have to come about by some means, even so, and there are many methods I have yet to explore. I guess that if I were to put my imagination to work on them full-time, the possibilities would be endless. The literary canon is studded with outlandish murders, from George Duke of Clarence’s drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine to Hannibal Lecter’s grotesque destruction of his guards and Jo Nesbø’s Leopard’s inventive use of a ‘Leopold’s apple’. Murders tend to fall into categories, nevertheless. And one of them is poison.
Of course there are some famous male poisoners, both in fact and fiction, but, used as an instrument for plotting and arranging death, poisoning is supposed to be a peculiarly feminine choice; think arsenic and old lace as the stereotype. I’m not quite sure why. It’s true that it doesn’t require the force that stabbing, strangling and bludgeoning dictate, nor is it as a rule as messy (though this isn’t inevitable: nux vomica is very aptly named). Yet, if remoteness from the deed is the most prized attribute when the murderer is considering the best MO, shooting wins outright. The victim and murderer don’t have to speak, touch or engage with each other in any way for a fatal shooting to take place. If s/he is careful, the shooter leaves no forensic evidence except the bullet itself; the gun that fired the bullet can be matched to it if discovered, but disposing of a gun is not difficult. This is obviously why shooting is favoured by contract killers, but it demands both a particular skill-set and the possession of a gun, which can be daunting, if you’re not a member of the underworld.
By contrast, poisons are all around us. The average household must contain several dozen potentially murderous poisons, from items that only become dangerous if taken in excess, such as analgesics and alcohol, to paraquat (Susan Barber’s weapon of choice for disposing of her husband, Michael, in 1981), bleach and the multitude of cleaning fluids which are only safe in a domestic setting because the average adult would not dream either of ingesting them or of putting them in the way of the naïve or unsuspecting. Then there is the garden, a veritable hotbed of powerful poisons, from the tall and handsome purple and white foxgloves I wrote about yesterday to the exquisite scarlet yew berries or arils, the seeds in which are highly poisonous, as are the yew’s leaves. One of the best television crime series that I’ve seen was Mother Love, which featured Diana Rigg as the spurned first wife who killed her husband’s second wife with home-made biscuits sandwiched together with mashed yew-berries.
Perhaps I’ve just hit on why there seems to be a particular affinity between poison and female killers. It requires premeditation: a master-plan that is ruthlessly adhered to even as the victim is suffering terrible agonies and could perhaps still be saved by a would-be killer overcome by compassion. The poisoner has to have nerves of steel and a strong motive to murder, as well as excellent organisational powers. Revenge is the most likely motive to have spawned the crime, a revenge born of a long and brooding grievance that the perpetrator has fed and nurtured until the murder seems to be not only an act of justice, but unavoidable. Poisoning is an act of pure malice. No mitigating circumstances can be offered: it is never spur-of-the-moment. It cannot be attributed to a sudden access of anger, outrage or grief, unlike the more ‘masculine’ crimes of shooting and stabbing. In order to get away with the deed, poisoners need to be reflective, good at research, possessed of a chillingly high order of intelligence. I’ve listed some common poisons in the paragraph that precedes this one. Identifying poison is not difficult, but choosing and applying the one that achieves the desired effect before the victim seeks medical help, one that also cannot be traced back to the poisoner, may be tricky. It demands sustained effort, application of knowledge, scrupulous attention to detail and a high IQ.
Consider this for a moment. It is an apt description of many a multi-tasking mother and wife who is running a home and at the same time successfully holding down a job. The only difference is that, typically, she has neither the time nor the inclination to murder. In short, it’s a good thing that most of us don’t carry the murder gene in our DNA. If we did, there would be a population implosion!