All About Cassie Swann
We are all manipulated by the media into thinking that in order to be gorgeous, intelligent, lovable and sexually attractive, you have to be a dress size 0. I’d like to say that if you didn’t know it already, the underlying message in the Cassandra Swann books is that this is nonsense. Cassie worries constantly about her weight. Cassie is clever, lovable and beautiful, but she can’t see it. Having lost her parents at an early age, and thus an orphan, she was already suffering from a sense of alienation, and being forced to grow up with her three tiny cousins – Rose, and twins Hyacinth and Primula – who are tiny in the sense that if you added all their hip and bust measurements together, they’d still add up to less than the span of Cassie’s 24″ waist. The twins were inspired by some family get-together I attended along with my three sisters-in-law, each one more slim and slender than I will ever be. Did I mind? Yes …!
Publishers Williams & Whiting have just completed the reissue of my Cassie Swann crime novels, introducing Cassandra Swann, a bridge professional, which is to say she makes a living from various aspects of bridge playing. For instance, she teaches bridge inside the local prison, she goes on cruises and runs courses aboard, she sometimes gets paid to act as a partner to ambitious men (it’s always men) hoping to win high stakes at the bridge tables.
The first book in the series, Take-Out Double, starts with a bang, when three people, gathered to play bridge under the guidance of Cassie, are found dead around the bridge table. Who? What? Why?
Each book in the Cassie series, not only tells a story, but also concentrates lightly on different social issues in England at the time they were written, such as education, the treatment of the elderly, racial attitudes and so on. But perhaps the underlying theme in the books is the class war, or the interplay between Cassie herself, and a man called Charlie Quartermain. Charlie Quartermain is based on a good friend of mine who, far from being insulted by the portrait I’ve drawn of him, was delighted. At one point he even went round calling himself Charlie. And he was every bit as kind, generous and decent as Quartermain himself is. Charlie is overweight, his shirts strain across his huge belly which he is constantly scratching, he has awful teeth, and drinks far too much. But like my friend, Charlie Q is the kindest man you could wish to find with a heart the size of a pyramid. Unlike my friend, he is also a talented stone mason, in demand all across Europe for his abilities to restore the fabric of ancient churches and cathedrals.
Poor Charlie is madly in love with Cassie, but the feeling is far from reciprocated. She thinks she wants one of those public school chinless wonders with a Harris Tweed jacket and a strangulated English accent, and at the core of the series is the question of whether Cassie will ever come to her senses realize that a real gentleman is a man possessed of a big heart, fundamental decency and kindness.
And the last few sentences of the book are guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat!
My writing group leader in France recently gave us the subject The Best Book. What the hell does this mean? The best book for what? Reading in bed? For a long plane journey? The best book for scanning at the breakfast table, propped up against the marmalade jar and the teapot? The best book for reading to a grandchild, or to a husband suffering not from man-flu but from man-mosquito-bites? The best book for propping up a table with a wonky leg? Or for standing on to reach an object on a high shelf? Or for determinedly courting a woman even if she’s a nun?*
And in any case, how can you possibly choose a Best Book? Tastes change. Moods change. People change. My last week’s best book choice may not be next week’s. When I was growing up in a large uncomfortable house in the shingled seaside town of Deal, my brother Barnaby and I would spend hours discussing which ten books we would take with us to a desert island. We could manage to reduce our wide-ranging choices to about eighteen, but only by assuming we could get all of Dickens into a single volume. Ditto Jane Austen. Ditto Rider Haggard. Thomas Hardy. “I have to have Nicholas Nickleby and Our Mutual Friend … and Great Expectations,” I would cry. “Plus David Copperfield,” he would riposte. “Plus Oliver Twist.”
“I want Mansfield Park as well as Pride and Prejudice,” I’d say. “Well, I gotta have Tess of the d’Urbevilles,,” he’d say. “The Once And Future King,” we would fling at each other across the dinner-table. “1984. Wuthering Heights. Jude the Obscure. The Shrimp and the Anemone …Oh, so many books,” we would sigh. “How do you decide?”
Our mother considered that fresh air was the most beneficial of health aids – or did she just want to get rid of us all for an hour or two? – so my brother and I were often locked out of the house, which was fine by us. We simply walked the mile and a half into town, breathing deeply of the fine sea air, and headed straight for our local library. It’s all been revamped now, with fancy curving stacks, spaces for Senior Citizens to sit and play cards, open-plan Reference and Children’s sections, plus computers, art displays, greetings cards and newspapers. Given the library cuts which seem endemic all over the rest of the UK, we consider ourselves deeply fortunate.
But back in the day, as the phrase-du-jour has it, the town library was housed in an adapted suburban villa, staffed by dour women in hand-knitted lacy jumpers which flaunted their underwear to the unwilling gaze of book-borrowers. As well as the normal collection of books, there was a big room for childrens’ books – though no toys or games or playthings in bright yellow, purple or pink plastic – and two reading rooms. Reading Room One was full of newspapers and smelly old men, some of whom rustled the pages as they pretended to read, some of whom slept, unshaven faces flat on the table in front of them, some of whom from time to time reached surreptitiously into the pockets of their tattered Army great-coats and brought out hip-flasks from which they took stealthy nips.
However, it was Reading Room Two that drew in my brother and me. We would clatter up the linoleumed stairs, turn the handle, push open the door – and there we were! Our own private Aladdin’s Cave. Our treasure trove. Our new found land. The room was about ten foot square, shelved all round and crammed with books. There was a gas-fire, always lit in winter, and a table in the middle where we could sit and read all day long, if we wanted to. No-one else ever came in to disturb us though I sometimes wonder now if the grim ladies at the check-out desk didn’t sometimes creep upstairs to see if we were behaving ourselves. Which we always were. Or appeared to be.
We did learn to bring a furtive sandwich with us, from which we’d occasionally take cautious bites, despite the sign informing us that no eating or drinking was allowed. We were always very very careful not to get finger-marks on anything, having been taught from our earliest years that Books Are Our Friends, and must be treated accordingly. So no turning down the top corner of a page. No placing the book face down with its pages splayed. No careless replacing of a volume so its covers were damaged, though that would have been difficult, given the hard-carapaced treatment that library books were given back then.
You may think we were insufferable swots who should have been drowned at birth, but we weren’t. Just two out of the five children of a poor Oxford academic with not very much money. Just two little bookworms.
I recently bought a book called The Novel Cure which purports to offer the reader an A-Z of Literary Remedies. For instance, if you have a horror of old age, read Old Filth, by Jane Gardam, or if you are over a hundred, read any one of ten novels, including not only the brilliant 100 year old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared, but also Winnie-the-Pooh. Why? Second childhood? Or just to cheer you up?
But if we could only choose one book, the best book, to take to this mythical island. One each. Which would it be? What horror, what torture to have to pick just one. Back then, I would unhesitatingly have plumped for Vanity Fair, a novel which seems to me to have everything you need in a book. Today? Would it be the same choice? Almost certainly, since I’ve not yet found that enormous concertina-stretch of all Dickens’ novels in one volume.
*NB In the case of doggedly pursuing a nun, apparently The Novel Cure’s remedy is to read: Michael Ondatje’s The English Patient
Deaths In Venice
I’m just back from five days in Venice. What a city! What an experience! However many times I visit the place, I never fail to be enraptured by the way the very stones are drenched in history, art and literature. No wonder so many books and plays are set there. From Shakespeare to Thomas Mann and Henry James to The Glassblower of Murano and Miss Garnet’s Angel, it is a city of artistic inspiration. And who can forget the haunting movies like Don’t Look Now, or Death In Venice, to name but two?
But under the opulent façade has always lurked debauchery and decay. This is probably true of most iconic cities, but surely more so in a place so defined and characterized by water. For a crime writer, the labyrinthine system of calles and alleys, the sotoportegos – alleyways which run beneath a building – the confusingly similar streets bordering confusingly similar canals, the dozens of little bridges which take you somewhere you hadn’t quite expected to go. And everywhere so evocatively beautiful …
Late November is a good time to go, when the frenetic tourist season has abated somewhat. One morning we took a vaporetto out to the island of Burano. It lay on the horizon like a string of coloured beads, which as we grew closer, sorted themselves out into individual houses all painted in the brightest of shades, from rose-pink to crimson to brilliant green and startling blues to every possible shade under the sun. We went across the Laguna for research purposes – my next book, Quick on the Draw – has some central scenes set there, but as soon as we disembarked, I could see that some major rewriting would be needed. The streets are wider, the canal banks closer to each other, the houses more spaced out. So how will Alex Quick be able to foul the kidnappers? Or oversee the payment of a ransom? Or be shoved into a damp basement when of course there are no basements?
On the other hand, there are some very useful more or less uninhabited islets between Burano and Venice … dodgy doings could occur there if not on Burano itself.
As we zoomed back across the Lagoon, disturbing huge gatherings of loons and cormorants, Venice glowed in front of us, the setting sun making it seem as though it was caught in a burning fiery furnace. Sadly, we could see the black silhouettes of towers and campaniles listing vaguely to one side, as the sea continues to encroach on the city.
I wonder, as I settle to my rewrites, whether I might need to go back pretty soon … for research purposes, of course.
Are there now too many crime fiction festivals? Various critics believe there are. Sometimes it seems as though every village, hamlet and isolated farmhouse is holding one – but is this a bad thing? Crime novels are the most-issued books from libraries, the most popular purchase from bookshops and on-line. Crime readers are a devoted band with a harmless addiction. Can this be bad?
As for crime writers, well, what can I say? A more gifted, friendly, witty and congenial bunch it would be hard to find. I had ample renewed proof of this – as if I needed it – at the recent gathering in Reykjavik, at Iceland Noir, a nearly-three day event crammed with panels, talks and outings. Not only were the usual suspects in attendance, there was a heart-warming number of up-and-comings, both Icelandic and English-speaking. I’ve talked recently (at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge) on the writers of the Golden Age, usually taken to mean the crime fiction authors producing between the two wars. But it seems to me that we have now entered a third Golden Age, given the quality and variety of crime fiction currently being delivered.
I say ‘third’, because some twenty or so years ago, there was a second renaissance in the crime fiction world, a flowering of talent in a surge headed by Mesdames Rendell and James, with a host of other talented writers crowding on their heels.
Iceland itself, although perhaps coming a little late to the Scandi crime fiction table, can now front up with any of the leading lights of Norway, Sweden or Denmark, especially as publishers and translators are wising up to the local potential. The countryside itself is an inspiration to any would-be crime writer: mountains, glaciers, geysers, lava-fields just waiting for corpses to be disposed of in their manifold cracks and gullies. And snow. So much snow. Not just the odd shower, but thick, heavy, enfolding, all-embracing, claustrophobic snow. If you’ve seen the brilliant Iceland-based series Trapped, you’ll know what I mean. Agatha Christie made do with country houses cut off by snow, but in Iceland, whole communities can be isolated by avalanche, pack-ice or snow-blocked tunnels.
Given the weather, no wonder that Iceland has one of the highest rates of book reading inhabitants in the world. Not only do they read books, they also buy them, not just for themselves but to give away as gifts. This has meant that even despite the crash of 2008, the publishing industry managed not only to hang on in there, but actually to flourish. Reading is a long-established tradition in Iceland: one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery in Reykjavik shows a family several hundred years ago, holed up in their cabin. The woman and older children are engaged in pursuits such as weaving, sewing, mending and so on, by the light of lamps, while the man of the family reads aloud to them from a real book. Given those pre-public lending library days, it always astonishes – and delights – me that a peasant family could have afforded such a book, or would have wanted to spend their surely meagre resources on purchasing it.
Iceland Noir is one of those not-to-be-missed crime fiction festivals. And returning to my question at the beginning of this blog, I would argue strongly that there can’t be too many of them. Especially since most of them are excellent. If the organizers can get the funding, the rest will follow, especially the readers who make up the bulk of the audiences. Which reminds me: another not-to-be-missed event is the third annual Deal Noir event, taking place on March 25th, 2017 and organized by publisher Mike Linane and myself. Small but perfectly formed, showcasing new talent and old, it promises to be as successful as the last two. Don’t miss it.
Motives For Murder
I was pretty thrilled to be at the Dorchester Hotel last Thursday evening for a Detection Club Dinner, at which Martin Edwards, the newly-elected President, presented a volume of short crime stories – Motives For Murder – to our distinguished member, Peter Lovesey, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
The Detection Club, founded in 1930, has a long and eccentric history. But that’s not surprising, given its founders and its members. On certain occasions, when new members are to be inducted, all lights are suddenly extinguished, sepulchral voices echo in the darkness, an illuminated skull known as Eric is carried in on a cushion, and a general shuffling and giggling from the massed member following on behind. In the olden days, Dorothy L Sayers, herself a former President, was exuberantly prone to brandishing a pistol and firing indiscriminately at the ceiling or the walls. As far as I am aware, no member was ever actually winged, but it was eventually deemed necessary by the management to curtail these activities.
Motives For Murder is another in a longish line of collaborative efforts from the members of the Club. Write a short story was the brief, preferably with references to Peter Lovesey’s life and works in some shape or form – oh, and please get it done PDQ, since the time between conception and publication was short indeed. I am truly delighted to have been invited to contribute to this project, and to find my own offering – A Village Affair – included.
Truth exists: only lies are invented Georges Braque
I recently read in the on-line version of the Daily Mail of yet another woman cheated out of her life savings by a con-man. The victims of these confidence tricksters always seem to be strong, educated, independent people, who held down responsible jobs. So what is it that induces them to hand over thousands and thousands of pounds to a smooth-talking virtual stranger? However emotionally needy they are, however desperate for love, what makes them believe his lies? Call me a cold-hearted cynic, but at the first mention of short-term business difficulties, inheritances delayed by bureaucracy, temporary financial embarrassment or exciting commercial opportunities, I would be off like a shot. Or, rather he would. At the toe of my boot.
“I’m a liar,” John le Carré states boldly in his newly-published memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel – though I don’t for a single moment suggest that he is – well, a liar. He says that the true stories it contains are told from memory, then adds that the reader is entitled to ask what is truth and what is memory? He then goes on to assure us that he has not consciously misrepresented any of the events he describes, though he may have disguised them. And where his memory is shaky, he has told us.
Le Carré was trained into falsehood by virtue of his career, first at university where he worked undercover for British security, spying on lefty student groups, later acting as a spook for MI5, before, later still, becoming a novelist. I’m not quite sure how his insistence that he hasn’t falsified anything fits with the statement above … all writers of fiction are necessarily liars, earning their usually meagre crust by misrepresentations. Because at its crudest, writing fiction means telling lies.
As a crime writer, I’m particularly involved in untruths. So many plots hinge on characters lying through their teeth in an effort to divert attention from themselves, or in order to deliberately mislead the detective questioning them in the course of investigating the case. I think it all boils down to a single truth: ever since that primal sin in Eden, one way or another, we are all guilty – readers, writers, fictional characters. If not of murder, then of distortion in one form or another. Haven’t we all at some time in our lives made ourselves out to be richer (or poorer) than we really are, more (or less) successful, in better (or worse) health? I know I have.
Sometimes the consequences of a lie can be devastating. You need look no further than Harper Lee’s masterpiece: To Kill A Mockingbird, set in the Deep South, where the lie given out by the feckless white girl, Mayella Ewell, daughter of the town drunk, that she was raped by Tom Robinson, an innocent black man, causes uproar and division in the town of Maycomb, and leads directly to his completely undeserved death.
And again, in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a deliberate lie shatters several lives. Jealous of her older sister’s love affair with Robbie Turner, son of the housekeeper at the family’s country estate, Briony insists that she saw Robbie raping her cousin, as well as her sister Cecilia, and the innocent Robbie is sent to jail, his life ruined. As is Cecilia’s. At the end of her life, Briony tries to make amends for her lie – but can anyone make amends for causing such destruction?
Then there is the evil Iago, who sets out to destroy the happiness of Othello, whom he hates, with not just subtle or not-so-subtle hints but also with outrageous lies about Othello’s innocent, loving and faithful wife Desdemona.
But does a lone falsehood mark the perpetrator out as a liar? And does a ‘white lie’ constitute a real lie? A friend of mine recently donned a trouser suit – the trousers knee-length – topped with a kind of Judaic black brimmed hat which had belonged to her husband’s grandfather. “Do I look all right?” she asked, as we walked towards her car, and I didn’t have the guts to tell her she looked eccentric beyond words. I lied and was punished by excessive feelings of guilt.
More down-to-earth than Iago and his Machiavellian plans are several other iconic liars. Many of them we learn about in childhood. Pinocchio, for instance, the wooden puppet made by Geppetto the wood-carver, who from the very first moment he was completed, was rude, mischievous and unlikeable. Above all, he told lies, despite the fact that the more he lied, the longer his nose grew.
I remember my grandmother telling me the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The Boy was a shepherd who repeatedly yelled that his flock was being attacked by wolves. When the villagers came running to help, the lad just laughed at them. So of course, when a wolf did actually appear and the boy screamed for help, the villagers assumed that it was another false alarm and the boy couldn’t prevent the sheep being carried off by the wolf. “And what do you think is the moral of this story?” Granny asked, but we didn’t know, not really, since we’d never been in charge of a flock of sheep, and were never likely to be. “Liars are their own worst enemies,” snapped Granny. “Keep on lying, and even if you do eventually tell the truth, no one will believe you.”
As Hilaire Belloc’s Matilda found out. Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made you gasp and stretch your eyes. Out of sheer mischief, one day she called the fire brigade and said her aunt’s house was on fire, bringing firemen from all over London racing to dowse the non-existent flames and forcing the aunt to pay them to leave. Naturally, a few weeks later, there really was a fire, but when the frantic Matilda screamed for help, nobody believed her and she was burned to a crisp. “Serve her right!” was Granny’s compassionate verdict.
Oh, there are so many liars around, both fictional and real! And so many lies are lies of omission, in real life as in fiction, as people seek to hide something from others: an indiscretion in the past, an adulterous affair, an illegitimate child, even a prison sentence or, worse still, a murder. But even these are usually relatively harmless. It’s the Lie Political which is the most damaging … you only have to remember the thousands of lives lost over the years because world leaders have lied.
ONCE UPON A CRIME ….
My husband and I came over to Copenhagen on the lst of September, to celebrate his birthday with his family. For a number of reasons, good and not-so-good, we are still here! Not-so-good because John has to undergo some medical tests, always a bit scary. Good, because in the past, we spent one of the happiest years of our joint lives here, in this wonderful city.
Yesterday we strolled past the colourful building right in the centre where we lived in a large flat overlooking the boat-lined canal called Nyhavn. It’s the place the tourists go to in order to soak up a bit of Danish atmosphere and beer.
The great children’s writer, Hans Christian Andersen, lived in several flats up and down Nyhavn, but he actually ended his days in the apartment directly below ours. One of the rooms is a shrine to him, with photographs of him at work, and memorabilia in the shape of books, papers and furniture. When we were there, I wrote every day at a window enjoying the same view as he did.
He was a kind of prototype for The Man Who Came To Dinner, for he would invite himself to stay overnight with his acquaintances and then somehow not leave, sometimes for weeks or even months. He once went to have dinner with Charles Dickens and, as Dickens later wrote: Hans Andersen stayed here for three weeks and to us it seemed like ages.
On the other hand, Edmund Gosse, the English poet, author and memoirist, described meeting him as follows: There appeared in the doorway a very tall elderly gentleman, dressed in a complete suit of brown, and in a curly wig of the same shade of snuff-colour. I was almost painfully struck, at the first moment, by the grotesque ugliness of his face and hands, and by his enormously long and swinging arms, but this impression passed away as soon as he began to speak. His eyes, although they were small, had great sweetness and vivacity of expression, while gentleness and ingenuousness breathed from everything he said. He had been prepared to expect a young English visitor, and he immediately took my hand in his two big ones, patting and pressing it. Though my hands have no delicacy to boast of, yet in those of Hans Andersen, they seemed like pebbles in a running brook …
The face of HA was that of a peasant, and a long lifetime of sensibility and culture had not removed from it the stamp of the soil. But it was astonishing how quickly this first impression subsided, while a sense of his great inward distinction took its place. He had but to speak, almost but to smile, and the man of genius stood revealed.
Is it too arrogant of me to picture what might have happened if he had still been alive while I was living above him? I can so easily imagine him popping up for cups of tea with me (“As fellow writers, my dear Mrs Moody, we must stick together, for only a colleague can truly understand the angst of a writer’s life …”) which would inevitably have developed into long long sessions about his piles or his sinuses or the fact that nobody loved him. For he was – let’s face it – a champion whinger.
Or perhaps he would have wanted to read to me – in Danish – as he frequently did to other ladies, frowning if I fidgetted, or failed to catch the more subtle nuances of his prose. I would have sympathized. One of the duties of the Spouse of a Writer is to be ready at the click of a Shift key not only to listen to the latest pages of work without falling asleep, but also to chuckle loudly at the jokes, nod appreciatively at the Good Bits and make intelligent comments.
Much more likely, believing as he did, that he was the world’s greatest author, H C Andersen would have considered me beneath his notice and been one of those neighbours who turn their head away when they bump into you, pretending they haven’t seen you despite the fact that you’re crammed together into a tiny lift, separated by no more than the width of a sheet of A4 paper.
And who could really have blamed him?
After all, I’m just a jobbing hack, while he is undoubtedly the world’s most gifted writer of iconic fairy tales. Stories like the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling, the Emperor’s New Clothes, the Nightingale, are part of everyone’s spiritual legacy because they probe into the deepest part of our psyches, they describe experiences that we are all familiar with, for love and the loss of love, pain and joy, suffering and death, are universal, shared by the whole of mankind.
I visualize his long nose quivering, faintly red at the tip and undoubtedly damp, tears trickling down his long cheeks, his curiously large and pliable mouth as he lists his latest symptoms, or brings out a pair of scissors and deftly cuts a sheet of paper into rows of dancing bears or soldiers, a minor art-form at which he was particularly adept.
Last week, I was sitting with friends in the little town of Verteillac, in the Dordogne, enjoying a plateful of fish and chips. Fish and chips, you may be thinking scornfully. In France? Well, yes. They make the most delicious examples of that classic English dish that I’ve ever tasted. They call it poisson et pommes frites on the menu, but basically it’s battered cod and chips. And the mushy peas are to die for.
Anyway, there we were, discussing, as one so often does, what we could remember of our school days. I said that I spent eight years on Latin and Latin Set Books, and all I could remember was Mensa, Mensa, Mensam, a few tags and aphorisms, and, of course, the opening sentence of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. “Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est,” I said. All of Gaul is divided into three parts. A particularly suitable quote since we were sitting in part of what was once known as Gaul.
Now it’s not often that the distant past rises out of the depths of time and impinges on the present. Oh sure: there are castles galore and burial mounds and ancient artefacts in museums. Nor do I really believe in ghosts. But doppelgängers? Absolutely I do. Because there, last Friday, blow me if he didn’t pass right by us and sit down at the next table. Yes, Caesar himself! Straight off the back of any Roman coin you care to mention. He wasn’t wearing a toga or a laurel wreath but I recognized him at once. That classic, combed-forward, Roman Emperor hair-style. Those prominent cheek-bones. That penetrating eagle-gaze. The lean and hungry look of a professional soldier. And most telling of all: the nose! It was a stunning feature of his face, patrician and dignified, fully fitting the noblest Roman of them all. I couldn’t help staring. I felt I had a personal connection to him since on his second arrival in Britain, in 54BC, he landed in Deal, where I often live, his boats surging unopposed up the shallow shingle beach to take over Britain.
I’m not always keen on the idea of seeing my fictional creations realised on screen, although it’s been mooted several times. They never look as I imagine them. There was an exciting moment when Motown Movie Productions drew up a contract for one of my Penny Wanawake novels, which would star Harry Belafonte as Dr Benjamin Wanawake, with his daughter Shari Belafonte playing my protagonist, the beautiful black girl, his daughter Penny. I was okay with Shari, but rather iffy about Harry. Still, a film of my novel, wrapped up and ready to go, was always going to be better than a battered copy mouldering in a second hand book store, so I was pretty excited. We were all set to go, I’d picked out a dress to wear to the premiere, bought the shoes, and then … the Screenwriters and Artists Guild went on strike, the project was put on hold and by the time the dispute had been sorted, the original funding had been allocated elsewhere.
Back to doppelgängers … once I was walking down the King’s Road in Chelsea and there, on the other side of the road, was my protagonist, Penny Wanawake herself, sashaying along, all six-foot plus of her, the beads of her corn-row braids clicking together. What to do? I couldn’t really accost her and ask if she was Penny, adding that if so, I was her onlie begetter. But before I could decide on a course of action, she had turned into Peter Jones and by the time I’d fought my way through the traffic, she’d completely disappeared.
But if any film producer wants to remake Julius Caesar on screen and is looking for someone to play the name part, he could do a lot worse than show up in Verteillac on a Friday night, and look for Julius Caesar’s doppelgänger chowing down on poisson et pommes frites.
Black Is the Colour …
I’ve just reviewed a crime novel called Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi, (promotingcrime.blogspot.co.uk). The book is set in Giverny, the small village near Paris where Monet lived for many years, creating a glorious garden and – among other works – his water-lily series of paintings. A body is found. There are rum
ours of many more paintings stashed away in house in the village, including a painting where the colours are so muted they appear to be black. The story is seen from the viewpoint of three women of the village (an old one, a mid-life one and an eleven-year-old), and it’s a corker. Unusual, compelling, and steeped in Monet, I really couldn’t stop reading until I reached the end. And the extraordinary ‘reveal’.
Having reluctantly come to the end, I was reminded of other books featuring black flowers. I reckon most crime and/or history buffs will have read The Black Tulip, by Alexandre Dumas, a tale of tulipomania in Holland, of obsession, envy and hatred, of the flowering of romantic love in the unlikeliest of places, interwoven with real events of the day, including the brutal murders of two Dutch statesman in 1672 . I’ve read this many times and still enjoy it.
Another black flower gives its name to the famous, and still unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, in 1947. She was nicknamed The Black Dahlia by a Los Angeles newspaper, though I’ve never discovered why. Before she was killed, she’d been forced to eat faeces. Pieces of flesh had been shaved off her body and along with pubic hair had been pushed into her vagina and rectum. Her uterus was removed. She was given a ‘Glasgow Smile’, ie her mouth was slashed from both corners to her ears. Horrible, I think you’d agree. So why have dozens of people confessed over the years to being the killer? Weird.
And then of course there’s my own book, Penny Black, which deals with the race to find a truly black orchid. I’d spent a couple of years in France, working at the prestigious family-run orchid growers of Vacherot & Lecoufle in Boissy-St-Leger. I felt I knew a thing or two about orchids. At the time of writing my book, a truly black orchid had not yet been found. Images I’ve looked at are pretty close – but the black is really a very dark purple. Will they ever achieve their goal?
A Tale Of More Than Two Megabytes
I have never had my arm removed or my hand chopped off, but I know exactly the sense of loss I would experience. Pretty much as I’ve felt for the past couple of weeks in rural France. Sounds exaggerated? Sounds overly dramatic? Sounds as though I have neither sympathy nor empathy for those poor people who genuinely have lost an arm or a hand?
Of course I have. But it’s only when your internet access is cut off for days, even weeks at a time, that you fully realize the extent to which we writers are dependent on it. If I want to check the name of a film or the words of a song, I only have to press a key or two and the information is in front of me. If I want to verify the first name of Catalan architect Gaudí (it’s Antoni) or the years of the American Civil War, I can do so without moving from my chair.
Not to have that facility is peculiarly disorientating. I don’t spend hours on Facebook ‘chatting’ to people. Nor do I play silly games with virtual coloured sweets. I use the internet for most of the necessities of a writers’ life: fact-checking, information, maintaining friendships, for learning new stuff and rediscovering old. And here in France, I use it for reading the newspaper. Not to have these resources available at my fingertips is, not to put too fine a point on it, like losing a limb.
There is many a fictional character who has, in fact, done that. Captain Hook, for instance. Hand bitten off by a crocodile. Titus Andronicus, yet one more bloody episode in a play so crowded with them that the nerves become desensitized. Moby Dick, leg eaten by a whale. Frodo, from Lord of the Rings, finger bitten off by Gollum. Darth Vader, arm removed by the Sith Lord.
But they weren’t attempting to write books in rural France. I have to admit that – to his astonishment – I kissed the guy who fixed my internet contact. For roughly the same price, I now have unlimited access, instead of the two measly megabytes a month that I was allowed before. I feel like Dr Manette, in A Tale of Two Cities … Restored To Life.
Not having access should have freed up a lot of time for reading and writing. It freed up the time, all right, but it was harder to get back to the discipline of producing work or reading for review. I’m there now – I think – and have a deadline. Nothing better at stiffening the sinews and summoning up the creative juices as a deadline.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
I recently lunched with three writer friends, all achieving women in their fields. The talk was thought-provoking, amusing and non-stop. At one point it turned to the actual place of work. We all know about George Bernard Shaw and his revolving shed, or JK Rowling and her coffee bar. One of us, an academic and the recent biographer of Georgette Heyer, has a study lined with books, an expensive coffee-maker and no interruptions. Another, a writer of Regency romances, lives in a house so small that in order to write, she has to retreat to the bath, where she sits on a bean-bag with a board across the edges. She said she had a friend who used to lock herself into her car and work in the back seat.
The third writer, another romantic novelist, told us that until recently, when her youngest child finally started going to school, she used to write in her childrens’ playpen. Originally she’d popped them in there and had sat at a table to write, but the mayhem and disturbance caused by the imprisoned offspring was so volcanic that in the end she reversed places, let the kids do their worst in the living room and moved her table, chair and computer into the pen. “Worked a treat,” she said, many successful novels later. “We had to repair the furniture, of course. And buy a new TV. And replace the dinner service. But all in all, it was worth it.”
All three of them turned to me. “And you, Susan: where do you write?”
Well, I told them, for several years, I wrote on a hospital table. This fitted neatly over my double bed and could easily be pushed back or pulled forward. Perfect. I didn’t have to get up. There was plenty of room for my computer, my reference books, my notes, plus thermoses of hot tea and rolls of biscuits. Not to mention side pockets for newspapers and magazines. I loved the feeling of being trapped there, of not being allowed to get out of bed until I’d done my daily quota of 2,000 words (that was then. It’s a lot less than that now!).
And then, I said, a long-held dream came true: I bought a house in France. My Number One son wanted to know if I was pre-Alzheimic but his brother pointed out that there was nothing pre- about my condition, I’d always been like that.
“But at your age … ” persisted Number One.
“We don’t talk about that,” I said. “On pain of being disinherited.”
He began to mutter about the beams in the house, on which anyone over four feet high was liable to split their heads open or have their eye gouged out on the walnut dowels which protruded from every point where two beams intersected – an ancient method of stabilizing the roofs and to me an attractive feature rather than a physical danger.
That wasn’t the point. The main attraction of my Dream was the dépendence in the garden, a converted pigsty of old stone and red pantiles, completely separate from the main house, with electricity, a tiled floor, three tiny windows letting in light and spiders, and a glazed door which opened onto the green of the garden. A sign now swings above this door, which says Chez Suzanne, carved in Gothic lettering. An ancient waist-high beam at one end acts as a bookshelf, though there are also subsidiary bookcases. I can plug in my laptop, my printer, a lamp. I can make tea and chomp down Rich Tea biscuits (I know this is France, but they don’t do biscuits like the Brits do and there are times when a madeleine or a green or pink macaroon simply won’t do).
This is my retreat, my private domain, where I can sit and read, or think or, when the mood strikes, actually work. No phone, no radio, no TV. I’m free to get on with doing what I like doing best, which is to write. It’s what I’ve wanted all my professional life.
Funny thing is, the more released from disturbance and interruption I am, the less inclined I am to put finger to key. How perverse is this? I’ve sought for years to get away from demanding children, querulous spouses, butchers, bakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. And now that I have achieved this Nirvana, I find it ten times more difficult to write. I have the perfect conditions for producing deathless prose, scintillating dialogue, plots the envy of the entire crime-and-suspense fraternity, yet the words have to be gouged out of me like someone excavating Pompeii with a teaspoon.
Reluctantly I’m coming to the conclusion that I ought to buy a bean-bag and sit in the bath, or work from the back of the car. Or better still, buy a hospital table.
THE RETURN OF PENNY WANAWAKE
I am thrilled to have my Penelope Wanawake crime series restored to life by the ambitious new publisher Williams & Whiting. The Penny books were my very first entrants into the world of crime writing, more than thirty years ago, and sent me off into a career in detective fiction which over the years has introduced me to any number of like-minded people, made me dozens of new friends, given me responsibility, seen me taking part in conventions and conferences in a dozen different countries.
It all came about when the Sunday Times set up a competition to find a fresh fictional female detective, since at the time, most people could only come up with Miss Jane Marple. The paper was looking for someone completely different. I can do that, I thought. Unfortunately, I thought for too long.
Would I have won? Of course I would! But like so many things in my life, I let it slide and in the end, didn’t send anything in. The competition came and went. I have no idea who the winner was.
But the notion stayed with me . I tentatively wrote one chapter featuring a tall black feisty heroine called Penny. I gave her a Raffles-type gentleman-thief sidekick and lover, called Barnaby Midas. By making Barnaby a white South African, I was blowing a deliberate raspberry at the apartheid laws of that country. Although I’d never been to South Africa, I was at home here: I’d spent nearly ten years living in Tennessee where many of the same rules applied: black and white were kept strictly apart: segregated swimming pools, segregated housing, restaurants, legal rights. It was in the tumultuous Sixties, a time of marches and protests, of brave individuals standing up for their rights against the entrenched prejudice of the day. Crosses were on peoples’ lawns – including mine. The Klan came into town. Three civil rights workers were shot dead. Four little girls were killed when the Klan bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
I wanted a black heroine who refused to be intimidated by anyone or anything. So that first chapter was followed by a second, then a third. At the time, the only crime writer I knew was the award-winning James McClure, creator of the matchless Kramer and Zondi series, which said more about South Africa during the apartheid years than all the polemics and political agitation did. I told him about it, he asked to see it, read it and remarked: “You know it’s good, don’t you?”
And kindly, he organized for me to send it to George Hardinge at Macmillan. The rest is history. Or at least, my history.
Penny was the first black heroine in the literature. On the outside, Penny bears no resemblance to her creator. On the inside … well, that’s for the reader to judge. She was intended to be the feminist answer to James Bond, Travis McGee and the other freewheeling heroes of the literature, at liberty to go down whichever mean streets she chose, cracking wise all over the place, free to sleep with whomsoever she wished. Until AIDS struck, and it no longer seemed appropriate. As my publisher at the time said, we needed to eliminate any possible ‘sleaze factor’.
Despite that, the Penny books received accolades that made me gasp with pleasure.
Williams & Whiting have done me proud. The new and improved Penny books have been given striking new covers, guaranteed to make the potential reader reach out and pick them up, and I’ve written an introduction for each book. I hope they’ll beguile my former readers into rereading them, and entice new readers into trying them.