Talking to young people (and anyone under 50 is young to me now), I’m often struck by the rails on which their entertainment and cultural lives run. It seems to me that people are told what is good and what they should buy — and that they accept the instruction. I remember in 1985 being in a bookshop and picking up Every Day is Mother’s Day by an author I’d never heard of: Hilary Mantel. I was bowled over. Stunned. I grabbed Vacant Possession when it came out a year later, and I’ve since read everything Mantel has published. Nutty as a fruitcake* she may be, but she’s one of the very few authors for whom I would ever be prepared to buy a hardback if getting the paperback or e-book version meant waiting.
Julian Barnes is another. Once again, I found him in a bookshop when I was browsing and came on Flaubert’s Parrot and, once again, I’ve since read everything he’s written.
It doesn’t seem to me that writers are being discovered today in that same browsing way – but I’m probably wrong. (I have been wrong, you know. Oh yes. I remember the occasion distinctly).
When I think about it, it was probably within the same 12 month period that I discovered both of those writers. And I’ve had a similar pleasure recently, but in a period of only two weeks. Neither Gillian Hamer nor Brian O’Hare is a brand-new writer in the way that Mantel and Barnes were when I found them, but they are new to me. I’d never read anything by either of them, and in the last fortnight I’ve read The Doom Murders and Murder at the Roadside Café, the first two books in the Inspector Sheehan series by Brian O’Hare, and Crimson Shore, the first in the Gold Detectives series by Gillian Hamer. I’ll be posting reviews of both of these books shortly, here and on Amazon and Goodreads, but right now I just wanted to open the window and shout for the benefit of anyone listening:
If you like crime fiction, then here are two writers you really need to add to your preferred author list.
They are not like each other, and nor do they mimic the styles of other crime writers. They are, in other words, originals. What they both possess is a mastery of the English language and an ability to grab the reader’s attention and not let go.
My brother-in-law has a saying, “As far-fetched as a bucket of shite from China,” which has led – in our house at least – to the rather more polite expression, “Chinese buckets,” and none of these three books is entirely free from a touch of Chinese buckets, which reinforces the idea that here are two very good writers. When you read the Midsomer Murders** books by Caroline Graham (and, even more, when you watch the TV series) some of the plots are so far-fetched that all you can do is laugh. O’Hare and Hamer also present plot ideas that sometimes stretch the imagination – but the writing is so good that you accept them without question.
More on these two shortly.
*I’ll take back that remark about Hilary Mantel being differently sane, not least for fear of finding myself on the wrong end of a lawsuit, and simply say what I said about writer Ellie Stevenson – that the inside of her head must be a very interesting place to be.
**By the way, if you’ve watched the Midsomer Murders TV shows but not read the books, you might find it instructive to do so, because it tells you a lot about how books can be modified when adapted for TV. To take only one example, TV’s Sergeant Troy is an eligible bachelor who is something of a feminist and always respectful towards women. Right? Well, in the books, Sergeant Troy is a rather different character. For a start, he’s married. And, in one of the earlier books, while he’s making love to his wife – and you can scrub that; he isn’t making love to her, he’s having sex with her – he tells her, “There’s no need to wake up if you don’t want to.” Does that sound like the Sergeant Troy TV has you accustomed to? No, I thought not.
Historical fiction is not just about Regency heroines, Knights of the Round Table, and the tribulations of Henry VIII’s wives. Anything set 50 or more years ago qualifies as historical fiction; apart from including my childhood and first employment in the Bahamas and Libya, that also takes in World War II and its aftermath.
Rosalind Minett writes beautifully about that time and, right now, her biggest and best book is on special offer. Impact can stand alone, but is the third book in a trilogy about a fateful rivalry between sturdy, well-meaning Bill and his frail, artistic and manipulative cousin, Kenneth. Their adolescence is spent in a London experiencing post-war austerity and what readers get from this book is not just a personal battle between two young men (and I know whose side I’m on) but also an insight into a world I remember but that is rapidly being forgotten.
That’s what you get from good historical fiction: a believable sense of what used to be. Right now, the Kindle version is on sale for 99p (there’s also a paperback that will cost you rather more). It’s a good book and I recommend it strongly.
Those whose eBook preference is not for Kindle will find the book at:
What has place to do with the novelist?
There was a discussion at this year’s Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival about writers and a sense of place. I wasn’t able to listen to it, because I was engaged in something to do with historical fiction in another part of the festival and I’m sorry to have missed it because I understand the importance of place to the novelist.
What triggered this post today was that I read a review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly on Amazon USA by someone whose nom de plume is “Professor.” It isn’t a new review – he wrote it last year – and I’m commenting on it now because of the thinking I’ve been doing about place. What the professor says is:
“a significant element of the story is set in France. a country that I love and holiday in every year. Lynch clearly knows France well. His descriptions are accurate and appealing and I truly enjoyed the enviable canal trip from Auxerre experienced by three of the characters.”
I was pleased to read that, because I know that canal well; I’ve cycled along it and I’ve made the journey by boat in the same way as the characters do. I fell off my bike at one time on a particularly rough part of the route de halage (it was my fault – I was thinking about something else) and when someone asked how I was I remember being ridiculously proud that, despite the mess I was in, I remembered that the past tense of tomber takes être and not avoir.
Be that as it may – I know Accolay, where they pause for Carver to make his arrangements with Monsieur Arbot. In fact, here’s the very inn where that meeting takes place. I know the closed-in nature of the place, how it belongs to “La France profonde,” and the way it led me to say, “In the Nivernais, no-one watches you – but everyone sees what you do.” And after I’d thought about that it occurred to me that I also know the cafe where Carver sits as he watches Stacey, and where Stacey goes when it’s almost all over, and what it’s like on Eurostar, and…
The thing is that, when I write, I’m writing just as much about place as I am about people. When, in A Just and Upright Man, I wrote about “the wild whinscapes of County Durham,” I was writing from memory. (I don’t think whinscapes was even a word before I used it). I’ve had people who have read Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper say to me, “I was surprised that you managed to get it right when you wrote about sink estates in Newcastle.” Well, you shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not. And when, in that same book, Billy finds himself in Coeur d’Alene and says this:
It’s a strange place, Coeur d’Alene. Americans will tell you it didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, which rather rudely ignores the Indians. Now it’s a resort and you get lots of normal people, or people who can pass for normal in the northwest USA, and they have malls and restaurants and stuff to amuse themselves in. There’s sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter and golf most of the time when it isn’t actually snowing. Good old friendly USA.
But it started as a frontier trading post and went into mining and logging and gambling, and the people who did those things weren’t clubbable. Coeur d’Alene was where you got off the steamboat to try your luck at prospecting for silver, and where you got back on the boat to go home, or more likely to drift on somewhere else, when you realised this was not the place you were going to make your strike. There was no welfare state and no safety net and if you didn’t look after yourself in whatever way you could, you starved. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in that environment and beneath the tourist polish all that independence and egoism is still there.
I’m writing about what I saw. What I experienced. As I am when he describes an hotel bar in these terms:
Take Dan and Vern in Buffalo, Wyoming. We met in the Occidental Saloon. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane all stayed at the Occidental and when you stand in the bar you can see twenty-three bullet holes in the ceiling. It brings back every Western you ever watched.
I know it’s possible to do a great deal of research on the Internet, and the Internet will certainly tell you (with pictures, thanks – among others – to Google Earth) what a place looks like. But how it feels? There’s only one way if you want to write about that. You have to have been there.
For many writers, that means visiting a place to research the book they’re writing at the time. It doesn’t seem to work that way for me. Somehow, when I write about a place, it’s a place that I already know, and I put my characters into it. It’s like all those places have settled into a sort of mental sediment inside my head, to be drawn on when needed.
I said, for example, that I know that cafe from which Carver watches Stacey, but what I should have said is that I knew it, because the cafe was on the road out of Kingston on Thames and it must be nearly thirty years since I was last there. The cafe may well be gone by now.
All of these thoughts were originally triggered by “Professor’s” review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. The mind, though, does not stand still and my present work in progress is about growing older. I put these two pictures side-by-side:
The one on the left was taken behind the stand at Haynes Oval in Nassau either in 1964 or 1965. The one on the right was taken in 2010 on the pitch at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. On the left, I’m dressed to play cricket. On the right, I’m dressed to watch rugby (I’m leaning against the goal post because the match – Lions v Western Province – was over. Lions won). The fact that in 1964 I played and in 2010 I only watched is not the only change wrought by 46 years of living. Look at the hair. Look at the face. Look at the waist line.
What’s this got to do with place? Haynes Oval. I’ve never written about the time I spent in Nassau, but I remember the place so well. It’s time I brought it back to life. Now… What characters am I going to set down there?
As ever, Tara Sparling talks a lot of sense. The answer to the problem: take control of your own covers. Which you can only do by taking control of your own publishing. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly, I fell in love with Sharon. As I’ve said elsewhere, that would be a stupid thing to do, because Sharon woos the way a female mantis might — knowing that, when she’s done with him, the male may have to die. Scratting through pics of all sorts of women, I came on one that precisely embodied all the cunning, deceiving amorality I had put into this character — and that’s the pic that appears on the front of the book. God knows what a regular publisher’s marketing people would have done with the book — but I’m quite sure they wouldn’t have captured the true essence of Sharon.
I know it isn’t technically your fault. You didn’t ask to be there.
One day you’re just a working model standing on a beach, a clifftop, a bridge, or under a lamppost; the next, you’re blazing across bookshelves and bookshop windows, the cover girl of a bestseller.
I know you were just thinking to earn a few quid, getting your photograph taken whilst preserving your anonymity (because your job is to never face the camera, and girl, are you GOOD at that). You didn’t ask to be the Faceless Representative Of All Femininity. And yet, here you are.
Or rather there you are, your twenty-year-old legs firmly planted on the soil of whichever dreamy landscape was photoshopped around you. There you are, your twenty-year-old arms lithe and long, clutching that old-fashioned handbag, quaintly addressed letter, or hand of a small child. There you are, facing away from me, your slim and trim twenty-year-old body…
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