I’m in love with the idea of the closed or walled community.
Whether it is the hallowed halls of the much-loved country house of so many murder mysteries, or Brother Cadfael’s cloistered world, or a virtual closed community such as Miss Marple’s village with its familiar cottages, vicarage, post office, farms and manor houses, or Poirot’s Art Deco mansionette, with neighbours above and below, people you rarely glimpse and often only hear, or to take things a step further, your suspect or your victim could join a coach tour as in Judith Cranswick’s murder mysteries, or cruise on an ocean liner as in Dawn Brookes’ mysteries, or perhaps holiday on an island cut off from mainland, or a flee to a secret commune hidden away in the mountains, living a simple life a century behind the rest of the world. A mystery could be set in a submarine, or a plane, a train, in a hospital ward, on a space station, almost anywhere where there is a limit to how people get in and out of the place.
All these can be viewed as closed communities, separate from the wider world, with no one to turn to but themselves. As such they are excellent settings for a crime novel. This way you can limit and isolate a small group of suspects. ‘It must have been one of us.’
You’d think that with a small number of suspects, say a maximum of ten or twelve, you’d be stuck for ideas, but a number of that size, compared to, say, a group of four, actually gives quite a lot of alternatives, yet it’s not such a huge number as to be too big for readers to get to grips with. Is there anything worse as a reader than muddling the characters and forgetting who is married to who or who did or said that crucial thing which led to that big scene? So it’s got to be easy to keep track of the suspects.
All too often characters are not even remotely who or what they claim to be. In fact we as a reader more or less depend on that being the case. That’s the fun of it, after all. Secrets can be recently acquired or buried (sometimes literally) in the dim and distant past. A young couple who get on well, who seem devoted in every way. How do we really know that they are a couple? Maybe they are cousins? Or even brother and sister—oooh! What if one of them is already married to someone else?
But for me, without doubt, the best type of closed community to have is one where your story is set in the past.
If you situate a story back in the past, to before identity documents and proof-of-life searches, to a time before healthcare records, driving licenses, the internet, mobile phones, credit checks and credit cards, ATMs, CCTV and ANPR, it immediately becomes a hundred times more difficult to keep track of a person’s comings and goings. There’s a reason why there were so many bigamous marriages two hundred, or even just one hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have to travel very far to find a place where no one knew you at all. Even just the next county would be today’s equivalent of moving to the other side of the world.
You could be whoever you said you were. Who was to know any different?
In some ways it could be quite freeing: no more mistakes to hover over your shoulder like Banquo’s ghost. A goodbye to unhealthy relationships, or domineering friendship groups, toxic working environment or sad memories. Hello to bigamy, escaping justice and living the high life. If things happen to get too hot, simply up sticks and move on. A quick change in appearance, and you’re a whole different person, and no one any the wiser.
But this made it very difficult to bring someone to justice: only a parish register would contain the bare essentials of a person’s life: their date of birth/Christening, their marriage, or that of their parents. School or work records, but these wouldn’t usually have a photo or a detailed physical description. There might be the odd police record for those who had crossed paths with the authorities, but those minor obstacles aside, all you really had left was anecdotal evidence.
Of course, some people who commit crimes are not very good at keeping their head down and getting on with their new life, and making the most of the chance of a new start. Old habits resurface, and the crime is committed again, making detection a real possibility. By contrast, though, a person of reasonable intelligence, often incredibly devious or someone who was simply content to lay low and not draw attention to themselves, could reasonably expect to get away with most of the guilty secrets of their past.
But no doubt, they always looked over their shoulder, to make sure no one was watching them.
Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!
Happy New Year, everyone. Not that we’ve had the best start so far. In fact it almost looks like more of the same. Has there been another month crowbarred into 2020 after December but before January? That’s how it feels at the moment, just a continuation of the old year.
But we must try to look forward and not back. Time to be positive!
Janus is the Roman god who has two faces, enabling him to look forward and backward at the same time. It is often (possibly erroneously) supposed the month January is named after him, poised as it is at the beginning of the new year yet with the old year still very much alive in our memories.
Once Christmas is over and the new year begins to beckon, we are seemingly in both places at once. 2020 still dominates our thoughts and yet, 2021, looms on the horizon, bright, shiny and new, full of possibilities, an unwritten page.
So we look forward and back at the same time, for the moment torn in our thoughts and plans, divided in our dreams, not yet able to completely commit to the new, the undiscovered, and still holding onto all that has happened during the miserable twenty (or so it seems) months of 2020.
We long for a fresh start. If 2020 is the experienced adult, bent by experience, then 2021 is the innocent, hopeful child. The joyous optimism of leaving the past behind and reaching forward to something new and good is irresistible. And so we plan and and resolve to make changes in our lives. I am keeping my list of resolutions simple this year: I am going to write more, read more and enjoy life more.
It is over, isn’t it? Oh I know the plague has not gone away. But the vaccines are being rolled out, I know a number of people who’ve already had their first shot, and let’s hope the rest of us get ours within the next couple of months.
I’ve seen a number of ‘goodbye 2020’ posts already, so I don’t want to add a long reflection on the travesty that was the-year-that-shall-not-be-named. Instead, I thought I’d share some of my favourite memes from 2020. Oh, and a couple of pics of Malkie Moonpie, he’s had a tough year too.
This will be my last post before Christmas – so best wishes one and all, and here’s hoping you and yours enjoy health, wealth and happiness this season. It’s been a truly horrendous/peculiar/just plain weird year, and for many people it’s been hard to keep smiling and to carry on. Let’s hope for better things in 2021. So a big thank you to all the nice people out there – those who help others and who care. Thanks also to all the wonderful people who have supported me in my writing this year, and previous years. Let’s pray that 2021 is kind and plague-free.
When I was writing The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6 earlier this year, it very quickly became apparent that I had way too much material, and I had to cut some of my favourite scenes just to make the book a slightly more sensible length. I had to remove a couple of subplots too.
So here are a couple of bits from the ‘cutting room floor’, so to speak.
If you haven’t read the book, this might not make too much sense, but I’m hoping there’ll be enough that you can waste five minutes in a pleasurable way.
To begin with, in my rough drafts I gave Gervase Parfitt yet another illegitimate child, a nineteen-year-old boy called Gerry, who would infiltrate the Manderson family and report back to Gervase. I also took the reader behind the scenes to spend a bit more time with the Mandersons’ staff – it’s not only the wealthy who create history, and I love to read in books about the lives of the below-stairs people, that’s where my ancestors came from. So here are the ‘out-takes’ or deleted scenes:
Sally Butler was queuing in the post office. There was quite a long queue ahead of her and she had only just joined it, but being young, she was already bored.
You never minded a queue in other shops, she thought, but in the boring old post office or the butchers, there was nothing to look at, it was as dull as dull. Still, what couldn’t be enjoyed had to be endured, as her mother always said.
Not that it really mattered. There was nothing much to do back at the Mandersons’ and she was getting paid for her time. At least she was inside in the warm, not waiting at a bus-stop or something. She was looking forward to her afternoon out. She’d got to do a few things first, of course, then have her lunch, then do all the dishes after lunch, but then she had four hours of freedom to do whatever she liked.
Not that she had any plans. Although now that fair-haired young fellow outside lounging against the door had caught her eye a couple of times and given her a grin and a wink, she began to think she might have plans after all.
He was smoking and reading a paper. Not that he looked old enough for either, she thought. He didn’t even look old enough to shave. He looked almost young enough to still be at school. Yet he had to be eighteen or so—her own age—as he was tall and his shoulders were quite broad. He looked strong, and he was all-right looking. More than all right, really. Though she expected that he knew that and expected that he already had far too good an opinion of himself like most of them did. She looked away, just to give him something to think about.
But she couldn’t help turning back, and caught his eye again. She grinned back, not meaning to, it just happened. He was really quite good-looking. His clothes looked half-decent, neither cheap nor expensive. He wore boots, admittedly, but from where she was, they looked to be sound, and were well-polished. His hat was clearly a bit too big for him, he’d had to push it back a few times when it slipped forward.
She pretended to consult her list, but really she was watching him. He was gentlemanly, she decided. He helped a lady down the pavement with a heavily laden pram: shopping hanging off the handle and on the rack underneath, and a large baby at one end inside of the pram with a toddler on reins perched on top at the end nearest the mother. The woman smiled and said something to him, and he tipped his hat to her.
Sally smiled. He seemed sweet. He had nice manners, and she liked him all the more for it. He seemed like the sort you could take home to your mum. She was eager to finish in the post office and get outside to see what might happen.
Her imagination dwelt pleasurably on the possibilities of a trip to the cinema, and she wondered if he was a good kisser. The last one had been as slobbery as her aunt’s Labrador. Into this daydream came the demanding voice of the postmaster.
‘I said, next!’
Sally suddenly remembered why she was standing in the post office queue.
‘All I’m saying,’ said Cook, ‘is that he’s asking a lot of questions, and you need to remember to be careful what you tell him. What if he’s a burglar or summat? ‘Casing the joint’, don’t they say? And in my experience, with young men, you just never knows.’
‘Oh but he’s ever so sweet!’ Sally protested. ‘And I’m sure he’s just being very nice, interested in what I do and all that. There’s nothing dodgy about him. I know I’ve only seen him three times, but I’m telling you, he’s a nice boy.’
‘Hmm,’ said Cook, which was always the last word on any subject.
But half an hour later, she said to Sally, ‘Perhaps you’d like to invite him back here to afternoon tea when you have your next afternoon out? He might like to see the inside of the place, meet us all, if he’s really that interested. I’m sure Mrs Manderson wouldn’t mind.’
‘That would be lovely,’ Sally said with a big grin. She added, ‘An’ it might even set your mind at rest once you’ve met him yourself.’
‘Here young lady, you’re that sharp, one day you’ll cut yourself,’ Cook laughed. Sally took the tea things through to the scullery and began to wash them up. Cook settled into her chair and pulled her account book towards her. She shook her head, a little worried. Not that Sally wasn’t a pretty girl. She was. Just like her older sister Janet. In fact the whole family were good-looking. But Cook was uneasy at just how quickly things were moving with this new young fellow. For Sally’s sake, she hoped the chap was every bit as good as he seemed, or before too long there’d be a broken heart in the house.If not worse.
Not that she had much experience of that sort of thing to draw on. She’d been married and widowed in the first year of the Great War, and no other man had ever come into her life after her Walter. So she wasn’t as used to the ways of youngsters when they took a liking to each other as she might have once been. But she couldn’t get over it, how quickly it had all happened, and how perfect it all sounded. Too perfect by half. Something about all this felt off. This was what she couldn’t seem to make Sally understand. Sally was like all girls—too trusting, too romantic, her head full of all the stuff that went on in the films. Real life wasn’t like that.
She sighed then opened her book at that week’s page. But her attention wasn’t on her accounts, and soon she was looking through the window to the area steps outside. It was getting dark. The glass in the door became the cinematic screen of her young life.
Her and Walter at Southend pier in February 1914. It had been so grey and cold on the seafront, but she hadn’t minded. He’d bought her some chips and then later, some whelks. They’d walked the length of the pier then back. They’d spent some time looking in those wonky mirrors that made you look all out of shape. How they’d laughed.
He was a star turn, that Walter, always making her laugh. Always chatting nineteen to the dozen, and wanting to hold her hand. She’d let him kiss her the second time he’d taken her out. She smiled to remember the embarrassed giggling and blushing that followed, and the warm happy glow that filled her.
Her father had caught her once, ‘saying goodnight’ to Walter in the front porch. Pa had hit the roof. But right then and there, Walter had said, bold as anything, ‘I love May, and I wouldn’t never take advantage of her. I think the world of her and I want to spend my whole life with her. So if you’d be so kind, would you please let me have her hand in marriage?’
Tears started in Cook’s eyes. She sighed and shook her head again. She concentrated on her book and adding up her figures, though the page kept blurring. How could it have been twenty years ago yet still feel like yesterday?
‘These scones are delicious, Mrs Harrison. The best I’ve ever tasted. And my grandmother’s were very good, I never thought I’d see a better scone than what she could make.’
He passed his plate across for another. Cook added a slab of Victoria Sponge to the plate too, carefully using the tongs to budge the scone up a bit to make room for the cake. She beamed at him. Anyone who knew her would have noticed that her smile was not reflected in her eyes.
‘Well now, it’s a pleasure to feed up such a fine appetite as yours, Gerry, I’m sure. Another cup of tea?’
Before he could answer, she’d said to Sally, ‘Sally, just pop the kettle on again, there’s a good girl.’
There was a sound on the area steps outside, and the door opened, bringing with it a gust of sharp February wind and two or three leaves left over from the autumn.
‘Just in time, Margie,’ Sally called to her. ‘Tea? Or coffee?’ She knew Margie enjoyed coffee, mainly because the actors she admired on the silver screen also enjoyed a coffee at seemingly almost every opportunity.
‘Coffee, please.’ Margie was getting out of her coat and spilling raindrops everywhere. Cook scolded her for that, and Margie hurried to the back lobby to hang up her coat and hat, sending a laughing look at Gerry, Sally’s new friend.
Sally came out to fetch the milk from the scullery, and the two girls had a rapid, whispered conversation.
‘He’s a bit of all right!’ Margie began with another grin.
‘Oh he’s gorgeous, I know. Far too handsome for me.’
‘Rubbish. You’re a catch, you are!’
Margie noticed Sally’s flushed face and dancing eyes.
‘Lor,’ she said, ‘you’ve got it bad. You’ve only known him for a week.’
‘Don’t you believe in love at first sight? I do!’ Sally laughed and hurried back to the kitchen. Margie ran to use the you-know-what, as she always called it, then came back to sit at the long kitchen table, opposite Gerry.
She took her coffee and a thin piece of cake, murmuring something about her figure. Gerry was appraising her figure very frankly as she spoke to Cook. She noticed that Gerry was very polite and respectful when he spoke to cook, and gently teasing and flirty with Sally, but under the table his long leg was stretched out and pressed against Margie’s. She sent him a bold look under her eyelashes from behind her cup. He winked at her when the others weren’t looking.
Later, after he’d left, and Sally had gone upstairs to see to the fires, Margie said to Cook, ‘You were right, he’s not as nice as he pretends.’ She told Cook what had happened. Cook pursed her lips.
‘Hmm. Did you notice he doesn’t talk like us?’
‘What? ‘Course he does.’
‘No, Margie love, he talks like a posh boy I once knew as tried to pass himself off as a commoner. For a bet, like. I’m telling you, our Sally’s in for a bad time with him. I’d put my last shilling on that.’
‘Lor!’ said Margie. ‘Poor Sally.’ She took a knife from Cook, plunged it into the hot soapy water, and gave it a good scrub. ‘He’s too good to be true.’
‘Yes me duck, and that’s usually how you can tell.’
After Gerry left the Mandersons’, he walked as far as the end of the road, reminding himself to turn back every ten steps or so to wave to the besotted young woman still standing at the top of the area steps, waving and watching.
Stupid little cow, he thought. Once he was clear of the corner, he hailed a cab to take him the rest of the way.
Ten minutes later he ran up the steps of the members’ only gentlemen’s club, signed in as a guest and was conducted to the lounge, where a man set down his newspaper and looked at him.
My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.
The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.
And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.
In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.
And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.
Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.
But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.
In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.
My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.
In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.
Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.
However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.
To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.
Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.
After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.
Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.
I’d like to thank Judith Cranswick, murder mystery author, for sharing her writing world with us. Hi Judith, thank you so much for coming along and allowing yourself to be tortured in this way! I understand you’ve got some great news to share with mystery book lovers?
Yes Caron that’s right. I’ve got a new book coming out TODAY! Blood Follows Jane Austenis a Fiona Mason Mystery. This time Fiona stays in England and takes her party on a tour of sites associated with Jane and her novels. Fiona’s problems include an antagonistic guest lecturer, a difficult passenger intent on upsetting all and sundry plus the usual dead body. Fiona’s relationship with MI6 chief, Peter Montgomery-Jones has once again become strained. He is busy dealing with the repercussions following the assassination of a central African leader, but she needs his help to prevent the wrong person from being arrested. Although it is the 7th in the series, it can be read as a standalone.
Q1. In case anyone hasn’t figured this out by now, tell us what kind of books you write, Judith?
The quick answer is the kind I like reading. I love whodunits in the Agatha Christie style, lots of hidden clues, red herrings and a relatively small number of suspects.
I tend to call my two series travel mysteries, and they probably come under the cozy umbrella because you won’t find any excessive violence, bad language or sex in them. A touch of romance for Fiona but that’s it.
Having said that, my first published books were standalone psychological suspense novels. I enjoy writing them (I have a couple of ideas I’d love to tackle if only I had the time), but my readers are always telling me they can’t wait for the next Fiona or Harry and Aunt Jessica story.
Q2. What first drew you to writing mysteries rather than, for example, romance or fantasy/sci-fi?
The first novel I wrote was an historical novel, ‘The Tribune’ about a 4th century Romano-British soldier inspired by a trip to Chedworth Roman Villa. The second book was ‘Magic for a Magician’. I entered a fantasy short story competition, fell in love with my 7’2” magician and the story became chapter one. I couldn’t get a publisher interested in either of them.
In the early 2000s, I was reading a great many psychological suspense novels – writers like Nikki French, Barbara Vine, Minette Walters and Val McDermid. I loved the edginess of their novels. That gave rise to my ‘All in the Mind’ and ‘Watcher in the Shadows’ both of which won awards.
My then agent, suggested I try writing books with a series character which led to the first Fiona Mystery – ‘Blood on the Bulb Fields.’
Q3. What comes first for you, plot or characters?
Neither. I start with a scene such as a woman being mugged in an underpass (as in ‘All in the Mind’). How the main character reacts to the situation influences what happens next. I’m not a plotter and for me the fun of writing is discovering how the story line and the characters develop on the journey. Rather like Minette Walters, I never decide on my murderer until the final few chapters. I may have a vague idea who it will be midway through the book but then often change it right at the end.
Obviously, with my series books I do have my small core of main characters (who I hope continue to grow with each book) plus the country where the tour will take place, but from then on it’s just start writing. By halfway, I probably have some idea of where I want to end up, but it’s all very fluid.
Q4. Do you buy books as gifts at Christmas? Can you tell us about any surprises in the Christmas stockings this year? (we promise not to blab)
Choosing books for other people is difficult. I did when family members were small but then changed to book tokens. Only my son has a long wish list of books on Amazon and most of those are reference books.
Q5. What do you do when you’re not writing or reading?
I teach yoga and tai chi and in a usual year I would probably be doing several cruises as a guest lecturer. I began running writing workshops on board ship, then went to giving talks on writing, became a port lecturer and in recent years I’ve been asked to give history lectures. Ancient history is another of my passions.
My husband and I also take several holidays each year, mostly as research for my novels of course. (Well that’s my excuse.)
I spend my mornings either at the gym teaching or doing Pilates or Zumba, and two mornings line-dancing.
Q6. What’s next for your writing?
My next project is another Harry and Aunt Jessica novel set in Persia. Our last holiday, back in November 2019,was to Iran. It’s an amazing country, full of breath-taking architecture, Persian palaces and sumptuous mosques, and a fascinating history. Accompanying our trip was the same history lecturer who came on our Morocco holiday which is what gave me the idea for my first Aunt Jessica Mystery.
Q7. If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you do?
I became a published writer when I retired. I taught geography and eventually became a headteacher.
Q8. What’s the biggest challenge for you as a writer? What can be a struggle at times?
Even though I’m retired, finding time to actually write can be difficult. I don’t write quickly and on average it takes me a whole year to produce a book. Starting a book is never a problem but I’m not a plotter and I do tend to languish in the middle before I get to the final rush at the end. This last year, by far my biggest problem has been research. Long before I even work out the story line, I visit the area as a passenger on an organised tour, which forms the basic framework on which to develop the plot. This year, that just wasn’t possible.
Q9. Do you have a set routine when you’re writing? Do you set yourself a daily word count to achieve?
My best writing time is probably early in the day but, in normal times, I’m out every weekday and life does tend to take over. I may need to stop everything to research and prepare PowerPoint presentations for a lecture cruise. I spend on average six weeks at sea, but preparing the lectures takes at least as long. My overall plan is to write a book a year. The actual writing – first draft – stage takes five to eight months, then comes four major rewrites, then to my editor, major rewrite, beta readers, more rewrites then proof-reader. During the intensive writing stage, I probably have a daily word count of around 500 to 800, but nothing is set in stone.
Judith, it’s been so lovely to catch up with you and good luck with the new book.
Readers who want to know more about Judith and her books can follow this link to Judith’s blogwhere she posts a lot of insights into her books and especially, the journeys that inspire her highly popular books.
A few weeks ago I posted a blog about how deceptively innocent country houses and small villages appear, and I offered tips on how to avoid the obvious traps for victims of a murder mystery of the genre we laughingly call ‘cosy’ (or cozy, depending where you hail from).
Because If we think about it, there’s nothing cosy/cozy about murder in the real world. Hercule Poirot, arguably one of the most murder-dependent salary earners in the world, famously said ‘I do not approve of murder’. And yet we humans are fascinated by fictional death. Perhaps because it is so awful, so wicked in real life, we have to discuss it, read it, and plot and plan, as a way of dealing with the unthinkable. Anyway…
If I left you with the idea that a hapless character in a murder mystery might be safer in the city, let me quickly put you right there.
The city is vast and highly-populated. You might think there’s safety in numbers. But for all that, it’s not a safe haven for the timid person trying to avoid falling foul of a really determined villain. Here are a few of the pitfalls yo will find when trying to lose yourself in the city:
Firstly, even cities sleep. Kind of. You might be safe amongst the crowds during daylight hours (or are you?) but as soon as it gets dark, beware!
Have you noticed that most cities are situated on water? In fact I can’t think of a single British city (someone help me here, please) that isn’t either: on the coast, on a river, or a canal (which I know is kind of the same thing really).
Now we can see how this came about, historically. Access to fishing and shipping meant a high density of the population was established around watering holes where there was a) water to transport goods in and out of the country, or b) water for industrial purposes (ie power for mills etc), or c) fish (vom–sorry, not a fish eater) or d) that’s where the Vikings/Normans/Saxons/Whoever-they-weres all landed and thought, ‘You know what, this is quite nice’, and so that’s where they stayed. I suppose this isn’t a surprise, I mean, we’re an island, so we’re going to be surrounded by oceans (literally) of water. In fact, if you think about it, we’re all islands, aren’t we? Some are just very very very big. But these many coasts and riverbanks provided harbour, dwelling places and easy access back to the aunties and uncles across the water.
Have you ever noticed how often innocent people minding their own business get lured to deserted docks, riverbanks, canalsides, and the like? Okay I admit we usually discover they are not so innocent after all. No one goes ‘innocently’ to a deserted dock at midnight to pay blackmailers. But my point still stands – these are dangerous areas and offer life-threatening situations to people who really should have stayed at home.
To begin with, there’s the water – deep, cold and swiftly moving.
And then there’s the innumerable hiding places that can conceal your villain.
Andthen, there’s all the weird heavy duty iron and steel items left randomly about the place to furnish your attacker with a handy weapon.
If that’s not enough, these daytime-busy places are just totally deserted at night. There is NO ONE to hear your scream. NO ONE.
TOP TIP: Let’s avoid the docks etc, and try to find somewhere nice and safe to live that is in the middle of the land, miles from any water.
The next danger the urban environment contains is this:
Now these are essentially just the docks all over again but without the water. Miles of crumbling dark buildings, harbouring criminals, twisty-turny corridors, and hundreds of decaying staircases. Why don’t the local governments rip them down and – I don’t know – put up nice little houses with roses in the gardens? I know they get a massive income from renting the space out to Scandi-noir film-makers, or those TV shows where people try to hide from German Shepherds. But come on, let’s think about the safety of your murder victims here.
Loft-style living may be the trendiest aspirational lifestyle, but with few neighbours, eerie parking in the depths of the earth, capacious but very slow-moving lifts that even a sloth could enter when in motion, and huge echoey rooms, this is not self-preservation at its best.
Speaking of German Shepherds, don’t become a recluse and as Bridget Jones said, get murdered but lay undiscovered, and half-eaten by German Shepherds. (okay she didn’t quite say that). (anyway, in my experience, German Shepherds tend to hide behind their owners, or even their owners children at the slightest unusual sound or threatening situation. We had to carry one of ours home once from a long walk, it was too tired. Another one used to be terrified of those bins attached to lamp-posts and also those shopping bags on wheels old ladies like me have.)
It occurs to me now that most modern victims are likely to be eaten by their house-cat, house-rabbit, or even designer miniature house-pig. If you’ve been dead for weeks and half-eaten when you’re discovered, it doesn’t matter how cute the pet that ate you is, you’re still definitely not a pretty sight. Come on, people, don’t become recluses.
Oh yes. Er…
New housing developments can also be strangely appealing to would-be murderers, and undesirably quiet at night. What was that French murder series a few years ago about the dead bodies all sitting around the table in a newly-built house? Anyway, it was a remarkably dramatic setting, but if you’re the victim, no consolation! Keep away from new-builds – by definition there are few neighbours to turn to in times of crisis.
In fact there are only a small number of places you should go if you are required to meet a blackmailer (or any villain) late at night:
These are perfect for a rendezvous that could turn nasty.
TOP TIP: Obviously if we’ve learned anything from fictional victims of crime, it’s to make sure and always tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting, there’s no need to be coy about being blackmailed, it can happen to the best of us.
If you can’t do that, take a seat at the bar, and say to the landlord/barman or landlady/barmaid that you are meeting a dodgy blackmailer shortly, and would they mind just popping over every couple of minutes just to make sure you’re still alive. I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
Maybe just don’t go anywhere or do anything. Just sit in front of your TV or curl up with a book, and hope that your German Shepherd/miniature designer pig is one of the aggressive brave sort who will see off intruders, not the scared kind who try to sit on your lap and whine pitifully whilst surreptitiously checking your sofa for tasty snacks.
This week I’m cheating! In fact I’m not just cheating, I’m showing off, too, as last week I was honoured to be interviewed by Paula Readman in her Clubhouse. You can find Paula’s blog here, and learn more about Paula’s own books, The Funeral Birds, Days Pass Like A Shadow, and Stone Angels, as well as reading all the great conversations that take place with writers who are mysteriously smuggled into the Clubhouse. Here’s how it went:
Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who are not aware the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit it is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.
Today I’m welcoming Caron to the clubhouse tearoom. Welcome.
Thank you for the invite, Paula. Gosh, the clubhouse and tearoom is amazing and so many familiar faces too. Though getting here is very peculiar. I’m sorry about all the cloak and dagger stuff, but keep the location secret allow our members complete privacy. Also we have some noisy parties too. 😂 To start with let’s order our drinks and then we can start. My first question is When you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?
I’ve tried writing all sorts of stories of the years, romance, family saga, and so on, but there is always a point when I think, ‘The only way out of this is to kill someone.’ Or else I get so fed up with someone I devise a grisly death for them. I’m not a very nice person!
Also, which I probably should have led with, mystery and crime are my favourites books to read, which was due to my mother’s taste in books. I started reading her Agatha Christies and Patricia Wentworths around the age of 11 or 12, after growing up on Famous Five and Secret Seven books. Mum used to screen them to ensure there wasn’t anything ‘unsuitable’ in terms of sex and bad language. I wasn’t allowed to read her more ‘hard-boiled’ detective books.
What writing elements do you think is your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?
That’s a hard one. It’s quite difficult to step back and analyse your work impartially. But I think I’m quite good with the crime scene stuff. Or at least I try to be accurate. I don’t write a lot of descriptive scenes, these are the bits I find boring in other books and always skip. I want to allow the reader to imagine the scene, the characters, so I keep description to a minimum. I like to think I write good characters, though readers don’t always like what I put them through or make them do. I try to keep things believable and logical to a certain extent.
But I would like to cut the waffle a bit. My dialogue can be woolly if I’m not careful, with a lot of umms and ahhs. I’m also terrible at writing sex scenes (I always laugh inappropriately) but fortunately most of my books don’t require sex scenes, as they are ‘cozy/cosy’, and also (more or less) ‘clean’.
And I’m terrible for getting side-tracked then not wanting to cut out the side-track.
Tell us a little about latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?
I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment. I’m about to start a bit of light outline-type planning for book 7 of my 1930s mystery series, Dottie Manderson mysteries. Book 6 (The Spy Within) came out last week, so I’m still in recovery! But I already have an outline for book 7, which will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. I’m also in the latter stages of writing a new series, The Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and I’m keeping everything crossed that book 1 will come out sometime next year. That is called A Meeting With Murder.
How many unfinished projects do you have on your computer?
Once I actually begin writing, I don’t usually leave a project unfinished. Although I have drawerfuls of books from my early years of writing that aren’t finished, I used to often abandon a story at around the 35,000-45,000 words mark, but it took me many years to learn how to push through the tough stages of a book, and also, how to fix problems such as not knowing where the story was going or how to rekindle the love for an idea. Someday I’d love to dig them out, dust them off and get them finished, but I just never seem to have the time. Life is so hectic, isn’t it, and there are so many new ideas to try.
Do you write a synopsis first or write the first chapter, or let the characters lead you?
I mainly write long fiction. I have written quite a few short stories, but they’re not my main ‘thing’, and my poetry is awful. Apart haikus, I love a good haiku! I mull an idea over for a while, and maybe make a few notes, as I’m prone to forgetting things! I keep doc files of my ideas, things that randomly occur to me that I think could be a good plot point or an entire plot for a story in the future. Then I usually try to find a way to bring ideas together to create a plan. I am stimulated by images and music, so when I really want to nail an idea, I start with creating a cover for my book, and the title, which helps the plot to settle in my mind. I don’t write detailed or elaborate plot outlines, I keep them in my head. There is a danger that I’ll forget something, of course, but if I write down too much, I lose interest and feel like the story is now finished.
Choosing only five of your favourite authors. Can you list them in order 1 begin the top of your list and say how have they influenced your writing?
Agatha Christie – it’s hard to know who should come first, Agatha or Patricia. First of all I admire anyone who can make themselves sit down and write every day in a professional, diligent manner, and do it come rain or shine. Because it’s quite a hard thing to do. Secondly, I learned so much from how they did it. I analyse their books and make notes. I find it so interesting to read about the nuts and bolts of creating a mystery novel. They both brought together groups of people to be anything from killer to victim, to red herring, to information gatherer and detective. I also love the social commentary.
Patricia Wentworth – As well as the above, I like the romantic elements of Wentworth’s books, and the moralistic tone. I think you get a great sense of characters from her books. And also style of the era too.
Dorothea Brande – I read this author’s most famous book Becoming A Writer when on a visit to my mum, it was the one that answered the questions I had as a young writer and made me see how to grow and develop my skills. First published in the 1930s, I think it’s the most influential book on the topic of ‘how to be a writer’ I’ve ever come across. Her book was the one that convinced me I could actually do this, I could write books and publish them.
Mary Stewart – I love her romantic suspense books, and so many of her chapters start with a literary quote that is relevant to the story, sometimes hilariously so. There is (usually) a strong element of romance in her mysteries too, and that is what I’ve always loved and to try to bring into my writing. Also, the exotic locations – I’m not widely travelled and so envy the heroines who dash off to all these wonderful places.
It’s very hard to confine myself to just five main authors. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books, and they are a bit like a family to me. (though I have a real, wonderful and very tolerant family) But if you held a gun to my head and told me I could only pick one more author, I’d probably go with M C Beaton, simply because she is very prolific, has a range of different series, and her books always seem fresh, funny and very human. And quirky. And she creates the most ingenious and cunning characters. I have never been drawn to the aloof characters such as Sherlock Holmes, though I’ve read most of Conan Doyle’s works. I like things cosy, and very female-centric as that is my life experience, and my happy place. But I read loads of authors, modern, and older, mystery and romance and fantasy, and non-fiction, I love social history and art/cultural history. I also love to play around with learning languages, but I get them all muddled.
When reading your work through do you ever find that your daily mood swings are reflected in your writing?
Not really. If I’m very ill, or very depressed, I can’t write fiction, though I do keep a journal for therapy. I had cancer a few years ago, that was a difficult time and as I adjusted to the news, I found I could write my thoughts and feelings into my journal, which was cathartic, but it took me a while to get back to my fiction and WIP writing.
Were any of your characters inspired by real people?
Not directly, or consciously, but there are always little things you notice or absorb unnoticed, and these get put in. As a child I knew lots of older ladies, aunties and ‘courtesy aunties’, and the way they talked and behaved has given me an affection for those kinds of characters in my books.
What did you learn when writing your book? In writing it, how much research did you do?
For my 1930s series, I have researched things such as fashion, social history, manners. I had to learn all about cars and driving in the 1930s. My main character starts off as a mannequin for a fashion house but ends up owning and running the business, so I had to learn a bit about that. I had to learn about policing procedures and advances in detection to present my murders – and the solving of them – in a believable manner. Most recently I had to find out what films were released in the early part of 1935. For an earlier book I had to learn a great deal about medieval embroidery and Opus Anglicanum, and also about the religious intolerance of the 1600s and well, always really). so there is always quite a bit of research to do. The trick is remembering it doesn’t ALL need to go into your book!
Is there anything about you your readers might be surprised to find out?
Erm… Oh dear… That’s hard to say. I’m not a very exciting person! We lived in Australia for five years, due to my husband’s job, returning to Britain in 2002. I’m a cliché really, a cat loving introvert with tons of books. I once had a letter published in Gardeners’ World and got a £5 voucher for it! That’s kind of it.
Did you uncover things about yourself while writing your books, whether that be a long forgotten memory, a positive experience etc.
Not really, although understanding that what I enjoy writing stems by and large from my first 10 or 12 years of life was a bit of a revelation to me that came to me out of the blue more or less a year or two ago. I find it hard to write male characters. When I thought about it, I realised I don’t actually know very many males. Having grown up without a father, then having a step-father I didn’t (for various reasons) feel close to, and as an only child, I didn’t have a close bond with a man or any boys. Even now, my only main male references are my son and my husband (who are lovely!), but that’s an unusually small number of men really, I just hadn’t really been aware of that until recently. I have drawn on anxieties or dreams and memories to develop story ideas for several novels and short stories.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I thrive on routine, so my schedule tends to be the same, more or less, all the time, weekdays and weekends. Though I do tend to write virtually all time in one form or another. I write mainly in the evening and late at night. I am most definitely not a morning person. During the day hubby and I tend to potter around the house doing chores, or go to a caff for lunch or a coffee (corona-plague-dependent, obvs). I’m lucky that I no longer have to do a day job as such. When I was working full time, I used to write on the bus to work or home again, and in my lunch hour, and then grab an hour or two most evenings and some of the weekend.
Do you set yourself a daily word count?
No. I write by scenes. So I try to do one entire scene, or if they’re very short, two or three scenes a day. Sometimes, I just feel full of energy and ideas flowing and I have to write until it’s all there on the page, other days it’s more of a disciplined slog.
How many hours in a day do you write?
Two or three. Maybe more in terms of planning, mulling, researching, pondering and faffing about. Most of my writing is done by staring out of the window and thinking ‘what if…?’ And I have post-its everywhere.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I only write under a pseudonym. My real first name is dowdy and my husband’s surname is ridiculous, so I didn’t want to use those, and I couldn’t write under my maiden name as that is already the name of an author (with the same first name). Also, as a new writer when I started out, I needed to be free to write whatever I wanted and find my voice without anyone knowing it was me.
How do you select the names of your characters? Do you know everything about them before you start writing their story?
I know a few things – the vital stuff, how tall, how old, eye colour, hair colour. I learn the rest as I go along, with the reader. I have had a few problems with names. To begin with, in my first drafts, male characters were always called John. It’s a name I like, plain, down-to-earth, reliable. But it can be quite hard to find a name that ’fits’ sometimes, and I am terrible for forgetting what I’ve called previous characters, and often in the early stages find I’ve got two people with the same name. I once came up with the perfect name for a character: Ben Sherman. My daughter laughed and told me that was the name of a designer, so I had to bin that idea. But at least it made me realise why those names seemed to work so well together!
What was your hardest scene to write?
I struggle with the emotional scenes where my main characters lose someone or something important to them. But I am able to sit in the privacy of my office sobbing into a notebook or onto the screen, so that’s helpful. I always empathise, so I feel the pain they feel, and I want to show my characters as they go through hard times like we all do.
In terms of technically difficult, as I said before, I’m rubbish at sex scenes. There’s always ‘his hand was here, and his hand was there, then his other hand was…’ and I think, how many hands has this guy got? Or the euphemisms people use, that always makes me laugh. So I tend to leave my couples at the full-on snog stage and come back with the lasting longing farewell.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It can vary tremendously, and I don’t always get down to it when I should, but usually a full-length novel takes me around eight or nine months to draft, polish, rewrite etc, get edited, proofed, revised and generally ready for publication. Most of them tend to be around 80,000-110,000 words, which is fairly long for a cosy mystery, but as I said, I am something of a waffler. I always write my first draft longhand in notebooks, then transcribe onto the computer for revisions. A first draft will generally take around one to two months, although I have written 120,000 words in 23 days once. Still haven’t revised that one though! I think it’s mostly umms and ahhs.
Thank you so much, Caron for joining us today. When you’re ready to leave please let our driver Brutus know and he’ll run your destination.
If you would like to find out more about Caron’s writing and books please click on these links: Her blog Her Author’s Amazon Page Latest book: (The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6)
If you want to find out more about Clubhouse Member’s Books don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops
This week I’m doing something a little bit different. I’ve posted interviews before with authors, mainly Indie authors like myself who have chosen to go it alone and self-publish their books. This week I’m taking part in a mini book blog tour to promote Pamela St Abbs mystery Shifting Sands: Inspector Campbell mysteries book 4.
Firstly, a bit of background:
Pamela St Abbs grew up in Norfolk but has always loved Scotland and has now lived there for over ten years. She loves to write detective fiction with tense, interesting plots.
She also writes Anglo-Norman crime novels under the name of Mary Bale, the first of which is called Threads of Treason and was published by Pen and Sword Books. As Pammy Bale, she writes books for children.
Shifting Sands is the fourth book in the Inspector Campbell series and the wonderful North Norfolk coastline was the background for this tale of duplicity and tenacity.
The pictures on the covers of Pamela’s books are original paintings by Pamela herself.
DC Garden couldn’t get through to Inspector Campbell on the phone. She also tried Sergeants Jenner and Parnold without success. She wasn’t sure if she was wasting time by following up the information about the burnt huts, but she would at least be at the scene of the murder of William Cecil Broadgate if she was at Banksea Beach.
Jess Barratt was bent double cleaning out the Banksea Beach kiosk following the scene of crime officers’ checks. She was wearing a flowered print sundress and a red tabard. Her two-tone hair was scraped back into a tight pony-tail. She turned around on Garden’s cheerful hello. She had a bulldog-about-to-fight expression on her sharp featured face.
‘I know Sergeant Jenner has already spoken to you about what happened here on Friday,’ said Garden in her best friendly voice. ‘Your boss, Sarah Radley told me about the arson attacks on the beach huts here,’ she explained after introducing herself.
‘They’ve already been reported to the police,’ Jess Barratt replied in a harsh tone. ‘I could really do without this,’ she added as she continued to scrub a shelf. Garden noticed her accent was local but mildly so.
‘I wonder if you could confirm when the huts on this beach were burnt?’ asked Garden in a pleasant but firm manner.
‘The fire was last Tuesday,’ Jess Barratt explained softening her tone slightly. ‘It started in the one furthest away. It’s the one on the end. The fire seemed to have spread to the next one.’
‘That would be just three days before the murder,’ observed Garden making a note.
‘Why didn’t it take more of the huts out?’ asked Garden evenly.
‘There’s a gap between them and the next one in. Water runs through there. Surface water runs down from the caravan site; makes a little stream.’
‘Could you show me?’ asked Garden.
‘You can see them for yourself. They’re down to the left. There’s just the two.’
‘Can you think of any reason why they might have been burnt down?’ ‘You’re the police.’
‘Just one other thing. I understand that you know Harriet Epsy?’ ‘Yes, I do. Why do you want to know?’ Garden thought Jess Barratt
sounded defensive. The woman continued, ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t say. I used to work with her at the Gull Inn.’
‘Did she go to Strath-Kind school?’ asked Garden.
‘Yes, but it didn’t do her a lot of good.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She got a taste for the high life. Her family weren’t that well off.’
Garden noticed her local tendency to say “were” instead of “was”. ‘Why they wasted what little they had on that sort of education I’ll never know,’ continued Jess Barratt. She paused and started rubbing the counter with a cloth. ‘Harriet used to live in the flats behind the Gull Inn. I don’t know if she’s still there.’
Garden jotted that down and asked casually, ‘Do you know Bradley Yorkman?’
‘He hangs round the beach at Daneton Howe. I sometimes help Sarah down there when Kara’s off. Sometimes he comes up here too.’
‘Thank you,’ said Sally Garden folding her notebook ready to put it away.
‘I know where he lives,’ offered Jess Barratt. ‘He’s down at Cricklestaithe. That’s half way between Daneton and Banksea. I don’t know the exact house, but I expect you could find that out.’
‘It would be as easy to get to Banksea as to Daneton from Cricklestaithe if he has a means of transport,’ suggested Garden reopening her notebook.
‘He’s got a trail motorbike he rides round the lanes,’ said Jess Barratt.
‘Thanks.’ Garden stepped away from the kiosk and made a brief note of the information she’d just received.
She walked the way she’d been directed and noticed the scene of crime officers were still at work in William Cecil Broadgate and Georgia Lomond’s rented beach hut. A little further on she found the burnt-out beach huts. She had to speak to someone who could make a decision. She tried Campbell again. This time she got through. Once she explained to him what she’d been told he agreed that the burnt-out huts ought to be brought in to the scene of crime investigations.
She thought she could see something lying among the dust and charcoaled timbers. She went to fetch it but somehow it was no longer there. She would have to leave it and let someone from Scene of Crime know.
Catch up with Pamela St Abbs on these other stops on her book tour:
Since my latest book was published last week, I have had a lot more time to concentrate on reading and relaxing. I mainly read mysteries and crime novels or true crime, but I do like the occasional foray into other genres. I love history, not the kings-and-wars type of history, but the stuff about how ordinary people lived their lives. I also love books about art and culture, I enjoy the occasional romance (I’m still talking about books here!) and I love poetry, I read classical books, and also fantasy-ish books by people such as Jodi Taylor, Tom Holt and Jasper fforde. But the mystery/crime genre remains my one true love. I’ve already blogged about which books I would grab if the house was on fire…
Thinking about that, I decided to quickly put together a list of my top five Agatha Christie books. So here they are. Have you read all these? Let me know what you thought. Are there other books in your top five?
Death On The Nile
There are a number of things I love about Death On The Nile. I suppose the ‘surprise’ ending has to be number one, doesn’t it/ I remember the first time I read it, I was as they say, blown away. I had to think about it for a while, and full of admiration for Christie’s ingenuity, had to say, ‘Wow.’ I don’t want to spoil it by saying more or going into detail if you haven’t read this one, so please buy this and read it immediately if you haven’t read it before. There is romance, passion, mystery and history, and above all else, Hercule Poirot with his magnificent moustaches, his sage predictions, and his mal de mer.
The second thing I love about this is the glamour of the setting – the exotic destination, the old-fashioned elegance of the characters and the scenes they live and move in. Dressing for dinner – I’d love to do that. Dancing to a little group of musicians, yes! Leaning on the rail and gazing at the river, maybe whilst sipping a cocktail, definitely my idea of a nice way to spend the evening. Then in the daytime, the exciting trips ashore, the ancient monuments we would visit, the history, the majesty of it all. My more prosaic everyday self would tell you that reality is probably a million miles from the romance of a book published in 1937, but my inner writer-romantic would just retort that it doesn’t matter, or snap back, as Dottie’s mother would say, ‘Nonsense.’
Death Comes As The End
I’m always a bit surprised that not many people have heard of this one. As you can see, it’s one of my favourites. I read it first when I was a teenager, and what struck me first of all was how Christie made the past come alive. I had never seen history in that ‘relatable’ way before, and it kindled a love for history in me that has stayed with me ever since. I didn’t know, then, that Christie was mad about history or that she was married to an archaeologist.
This book is set in a fictionalised version of the ancient past, no familiar moustache twirling detective or knitting old lady here! It’s set in the time of the Pharoahs (ish), and the era is beautifully brought to life by the author, described fully without being a mere information dump, and it really is absorbing.
It’s a romance, and a traditional murder mystery. There is a sense of menacing unease, and along with Renisenb, the young female protagonist, you have to ask, ‘Is it you? Or you? Or you?’ Give it a try and like me, you’ll be biting your nails, with everything crossed that things will turn out all right for Renisenb and that she will get her happy ever after.
Lord Edgware Dies
As you can see from the pic above, when I last read this I made tons of notes – I felt I really learned a lot from rereading the book and seeing just how Christie achieved the creation of her mystery. I even devoted a whole post to this one book!
This book was first published in 1933. Eighty-seven years ago!!!!! Somehow I always think of Christie as a relatively modern crime writer, but of course, she wasn’t, she was very much of her time, two generations before mine. In fact, my character Dottie could definitely be a Christie fan!
Coming back to Lord Edgware…
This book has a host of characters. Too many, I’d say, and I should know, I crowbar in dozens to every book. Although I love this book, I do get muddled with the characters, especially in the beginning. It’s also a long book, and quite complex as a so-called ‘cosy/cozy’ mystery goes.
The plot hinges as always on some clever sleight of hand–my favourite kind of plot! I loved the way the murder was achieved, though obviously I can’t say anything as I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you haven’t read this one yet. So therefore, you must read it!
After The Funeral
The main thing I like about this is the opening scene or two, where the ‘unthinkable’ happens as loosely-attached relatives and associates gather for a funeral, and one of the guests commits a social gaffe by saying, (after a funeral as per the title) ‘Still, it’s all been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it?’ When everyone blusters and demands to know what she means, Cora says, ‘But he was murdered, wasn’t he?’
Isn’t that a brilliant way to get things going in a story? I love the apparent simplicity of this. I say apparent because we all know so much planning and effort goes into a story – it’s never as simple as it appears. I suspect that the simpler it looks, the harder it is for the author.
The story is a good one, not great, but it is a solid good story, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. But for me, everything else was secondary to that one astonishing scene. It’s worth it just for that.
The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd
Oh dear, the infamous Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This book caused something of a furore for Agatha Christie when it was first published in 1926, and may have been one of the factors related to her famous disappearance in that year. Almost a hundred years ago. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What was the problem with Roger Ackroyd? Well the critics said she didn’t play by the (unofficial) rules of murder mystery writing. But again, I can’t tell you precisely why because it will ruin everything if you haven’t read the book. Read it, then come back and then we can have a natter about it. Tell me what you thought.
Suffice to say, it’s the original twist at the end. And I honestly didn’t see surprise coming when I read it the first time, though admittedly I was a teenager and had no understanding of ‘the rules’ of writing. But it seemed perfectly acceptable and logical to me, and I was captivated, as I always am, when I read this book.
It conjures up the traditional ‘English village’ setting so beloved of writers and readers of murder mysteries, with a range of recognisable stock characters, the spinster, the mysterious, possibly/probably immoral, attractive single woman, the local doctor, the people who live in the ‘big house’, and all the hangers-on.
Go on, get a copy and get reading! It’s not like we can go out at the moment…