The Sinister City…

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.

BUT

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.

And then, 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:

Disused warehouses.

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.

Shopping malls, business premises such as offices and storerooms, laboratories, libraries, museums (I’m looking at you, Morse, Endeavour and Lewis), run-down theatres, and schools are all places you absolutely should go into without armed back-up, or at the very least, a warm blanket and packet of chocolate digestives if you get locked in. (Btw I once wrote a short story about how eerie and dangerous an office building could be once everyone else has gone home. you can read it here, if you’re very bored indeed.)

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:

  1. Pubs
  2. Cafes
  3. Restaurants

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.

Or…

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.

Happy reading!

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My interview as Clubhouse Chat Guest: Caron Allan

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.

Caron Allan

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

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Pamela St Abbs’ Shifting Sands: Inspector Campbell book 4 blog tour

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.

Shifting Sands: Inspector Campbell Mystery No 4

When messages of death are sent and two bodies are found on two different Norfolk beaches, Inspector Campbell and his team find themselves unravelling a complex case.

Available from Amazon in both eBook and Paperback formats.

Why read Shifting Sands: Inspector Campbell mystery 4?
  1. It’s a book for fans of intriguing murder mysteries
  2. The wonderful back-drop of the Norfolk scenery

Here’s a little taster to get you in the mood: an extract from Chapter Six of Pamela St Abbs’ Shifting Sands: Inspector Campbell mystery book 4:

Chapter 6

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:
and you can find Pamela on: Twitter:@pamelastabbs
and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PamelaStAbbs/?ref=py_c&_xts_
Thanks for reading!
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My Top 5 Agatha Christie choices

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?’

Mic drop.

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…

***

Sinister settings: the Country House

What could be nicer than a
weekend in the country? Read on…

I love a mystery set in a country house. I think the country house is a venue that offers glamour, comfort and a large range of accommodation whilst also affording a good number of murder possibilities.

Leaving aside the staff, who glide in, deposit tea-trays, then glide out again, there are notable dangers from the residents of the house and their guests, but I want to consider the rooms the country house offers – and the murderous opportunities a writer can seize with both hands.

Actually this feels very like a game of Cluedo/Clue. Feel free to fish your old game-board out of the attic to count the rooms off with me.

I can feel the hatred coming down on me
from those pics

There is of course the drawing room. Spacious, elegantly furnished, this room is designed for the receiving of victims guests, for polite conversation, and for characters to exchange dangerous remarks or hint at secret knowledge before dinner.

The dining room: renowned for its garishly-coloured walls—usually a deep red or bilious green for some reason—and the gloomy paintings of ancient relatives glaring down, the traditional country house dining room is guaranteed to be a place where strategies are played out and suspicion is likely to cause indigestion. There’s a reason that long dining table reminds us of one of those boards where they pushed models of planes about on a map in black and white films set in ‘Somewhere in England. 1940’.

Hot running water? Lol you’re kidding, right?

If you need to go to the loo, there will be an old-school WC tucked away somewhere off the back passage (pun fully intended). The potential for danger here is very much fifty-fifty: either you’ll get knocked on the head going in or coming out, or you’ll get pneumonia from the intense cold in there due to the stone-flagged floor and the lack of a decent supply of hot water.

When the hostess rises, to lead the ladies from the dining room back to the drawing room, (that’s how the room got its name, a short form of ‘withdrawing room’) the men will remain behind to share alcohol, smokes and dirty jokes, racing tips, or discuss topics unfit for the ears of ladies: sex, politics and business. If a chap decides to step outside onto the ubiquitous terrace to smoke a cigar in the fresh air, or to pace up and down in a rage, or in a state trying to come to a decision, this is the perfect spot for him to get whacked over the head with our old favourite, the blunt object.

Some of the men may grow tired of pacing the terrace or sitting at the dining table blowing smoke and laughing uproariously, and take themselves off for a game of billiards. Apparently all country houses still insist on a billiard room in spite of the fact that 90% of billiard players die from being stabbed by a billiard cue.

Meanwhile in the drawing room, the ladies are tucking into coffee—in spite of the fact that it’s ten o’clock at night—and gossip. Away from the constraining influence of the men, they can discuss things not suitable for the ears of gentlemen: sex, politics and business. Oh and anything that might be termed ‘ladies’ collywobbles’, ie something to do with body parts and times of the month. They will quickly discover who is carrying on with who, and whether their spouse knows. Here too, the theft of the £5 note from the offering plate in church will be unearthed. We will surmise who took Lady Anne’s ruby earrings. It is 3-1 that someone will drink coffee containing some lethal dose of a poison. There will be a few gentle coughs or gasps and the unfortunate lady will clutch her pearls, her face will turn puce, and she will breathe her last, to the dismay of all. The lady of the house—if still alive at this point—will ring for the butler and tell him to phone for a doctor. Or get the doctor from the drawing room, if he is a guest to dinner. Which he usually is.

Plenty of room on top for an agile ninja

If any lady is fed up with gossiping and drinking strong coffee right before bedtime, she can always get away on her own by using one of only two time-honoured plot devices: she can suddenly develop a headache, or remember she has an urgent letter to write. These are the only excuses—apart from death—to get away to your room before half past ten. But beware. Making your escape may be good for your nerves, but you are twice as likely to die from being pushed down the stairs as if you’d waited until everyone else was going to bed before you left the confines of the drawing room. Safety in numbers, people!

And even if you do reach the sanctuary of your bedroom, there are always intruders to beware of. They may try the ‘frontal attack’ method: simply turning your door handle fifty times very slowly before entering and smothering you with your own pillow. Or, if they are martial arts experts, they will be in position long before you enter the room, hidden on the top of the four poster bed, to slither down once you are asleep and—you’ve guessed it—smother you with your own pillow. Or, you might be wakened by the sound of an odd creaking or sinister scraping. On investigating with the help of your trusty torch, you will catch a perpetrator gaining access to your room by means of a secret passage, a sliding wooden panel, or a trap door accessed by moving a book on the third shelf. Obviously, they will then immediately overpower you and smother you with your own pillow.

‘I say, Marjorie, do you think anyone will hear me if I scream from the gazebo?’

The conservatory. What a delightful setting. Here you can sit, warm and dry, and enjoy some tranquility, surrounded by beautiful plants, graceful statues, and perhaps the gentle sound of water trickling from a water feature. Here, too, you will be smashed over the head with a sturdy plant pot, garrotted with gardener’s twine, hacked to death with secateurs, or misted with some rare kind of poison, and in this tranquil–and remote–setting, die because no one else is within hearing to rescue you. Soz.

Country houses are famous for possessing at least one of the following: a gazebo/summerhouse, a tower, an attic, a dungeon, a castellated roof, a veranda, romantic (but haunted, obv) ruins of a priory or abbey, and of course a lake. This might be for boating, or for fishing, but in either case is to be avoided if you do not wish to go to a watery grave.

‘Come and look at the lovely dungeons,’
said no one ever.

NEVER, ever go to visit any of these unless everyone in the house goes with you. The reason being: they can’t all be killers (unless you’re on an old steam train stuck in the snow…) As has already been stated, there’s safety in numbers.

NEVER go to view any of these objects of interest with one or more of the following: a vicar, a young starlet about to make her Hollywood debut, an old family retainer, an elderly peer of the realm, a governess, a chauffeur, a wild young racing driver, a retired colonel, a breeder of rare horses and/or sheep, a botanist, a Viennese tenor, a fencing instructor, a vicar (yes I know I’ve already said that, they need to be mentioned twice, they are super dodgy), a kindly elderly widow lady ‘who has lived in the village all her life, and plays the church organ on Sundays’ – of course she does, the evil old bat, a cousin of the family no one has seen for twenty years (hint: not who they claim to be!), a local doctor rumoured to have a guilty secret, an orchid collector (they are a ruthless bunch and will do anything for a Fairrie’s Paphiopedilum) or a music/drawing/dancing instructor. Why? Do you need to ask? All of the above are either the most likely to be killed, or the most likely to be a killer. Whichever they are, you are advised to keep well away!

In fact, just don’t go. Curl up safely at home with a nice book instead.

***

Why do I write?

It always surprises me when people say to me, ‘Why do you write?’

For me there’s only one true answer–which I can’t give because it sounds rude–‘Why don’t you?’

Because… I just don’t get it. Oh I know these days many people don’t read actual hold-in-the-hand books anymore, and that meetings, conferences, education, leisure, everything has become virtual. Attendees are more likely to add digital notes or better yet, simply record the bits they need so they can listen to them again and again. I accept that tablets and phones see more of the written word than a paper notebook. To me that qualifies as writing, I’m not one of those people who think it’s only writing if you scribe onto vellum with a goose-feather quill.

But when people say ‘Oh I could never write,’ I don’t understand. Do they mean, ‘My English language grammar is a bit shonky and so my writing would not be erudite enough’? Because if so, that’s what editing is for.

Or do they mean, ‘I’d run out of ideas.’? To that I’d say, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Social media is full of people searching for inspiration.

Or do they mean ‘Writing is only for an elite group, and is only endorsed by publication from a traditional publishing house’? To that I’d say, ‘Nonsense, anyone can write if they want to, and publishing is no longer that straightforward. Or that restrictive.’

Or do they mean, ‘It sounds so complicated, juggling all those ideas’? Yes, it is, but you learn how to do that. (Kind of, I mean sometimes you just learn to juggle better and sometimes you learn that it’s okay to drop the odd whatever-it-is you’re juggling.)

At the other end of the spectrum, are those who say ‘Oh you’re a writer? I’ve been thinking of trying that,’ or ‘I’ve always thought I could write a book some day when I’ve got nothing else to do.’ To them I say, ‘Go on then, I’m watching you. Do it, I dare you. In fact, I double-dare you.’

So why do I write? I need to tell myself stories, it’s that simple. I could write a whole thesis on all the wider implications of that, spiritually, physically, emotionally and whatever else. But what it comes done to is that we ALL love stories, even people who tell me, ‘Oh no, I never read books.’ They watch TV probably. Or binge on streamed series. Or maybe paint–that’s telling a story in a visual way. Or perhaps you might write or play or listen to music. That’s a story in aural form. Or you might daub paint on the walls of your cave, draw in the sand with a stick, or whittle a piece of wood into a specific form. It’s all storytelling.

None of us don’t have stories in our lives, it’s there in all of us, a need to create, to experience, to understand and explore. It’s part of our humanity.

***

Alliteration and her sisters 

Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran. (rock not included)

Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.

We all know that one, don’t we? Though I usually get rugged and ragged back to front. I have to remind myself that whilst a rascal can be rugged or ragged, a rock can pretty much only be rugged.

As we learned in junior school, alliteration is putting together words with the same initial letter. In the case of the above phrase, R, the pirate’s favourite letter.  This repetition is the foundation of our childhood tongue-twisters. English is not the only language to have these:

French ones:

Les chaussettes de l’archiduchesse, sont-elles sèches? Archi-sèches. (translation: The archduchesses socks: are they dry? Very dry.)

Ces cerises sont si sûres qu’on ne sait pas si c’en sont. (translation: These cherries are so sour, we’re not sure if they are (cherries).)

German ones: 

Schnecken erschrecken, wenn sie an Schnecken schlecken, weil zum Schrecken vieler Schnecken Schnecken nicht schmecken. (translation: Snails are shocked when they lick snails because to the surprise of many snails, snails don’t taste good).

Der Grabengräber gräbt die Gräben. Der Grubengräber gräbt die Gruben. Graben Grabengräber Gruben? Graben Grubengräber Gräben? Nein! Grabengräber graben Gräben. Grubengräber graben Gruben.  (translation:  The gravedigger digs graves. The ditchdigger digs ditches. Do ditchdiggers dig graves? Do gravediggers dig ditches? No!
Gravediggers dig graves. Ditchdiggers dig ditches.)

So now you know! Feel free to use these at virtual-parties, to amaze and impress your friends.

Amuse your cat with a large repertoire of tongue-twisters in various languages…

Alliteration can be a useful literary device when writing, and like most literary devices, it is used to make the reader feel, view or interpret your writing in a particular way by creating a mood or appearance. But use it sparingly. The problem with any literary device, is that all too easily it can draw attention away from what you’re writing and turn the focus to how you’re writing. This will distract your reader from your story in the same way you can sometimes fail to see the puppet-show because you’re focusing on the strings.  Having spent all that time gently leading the reader to suspend disbelief, you don’t want to ruin things by breaking the spell now.

Here are a few more literary devices:

Sibilance is the repeated use of an S sound, or a hissing sound. You put together words with lots of S, SH and soft C sounds: Sid’s silly scented snake slithered smoothly across the shiny façade. Unlike with Alliteration, the repeated sounds don’t have to be confined to the beginning of the word.

Assonance is the repeated use of vowel sounds: cut jug, heed beat,   or the same or similar consonants with different vowels: jiggle juggle, dilly-dally.

Consonance is the repetition of matching consonant sounds: ruthless cutthroats, repeated reports. It can quickly descend into Alliteration if only the initial letter(s) are repeated!

”A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’ said Alice.’

These are used to create a certain mood, or an attitude, or making the reader see a character or setting in a particular way. These can also imbue your writing with a poetic or lyrical quality. You might want your readers mesmerised by a particular scene if you are going to follow it with something spectacular: the calm before the storm effect.  Think of movies where there is a soft love scene before the hero goes into battle.

In fact most poetry contains one or more of these devices. Think of Wordworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, with all the repeated Ls, the Hs, the Ds, the long vowels of wandered, lonely and cloud.  Or  Buckingham Palace by A A Milne, with its repeated lines and rhyming words. 

Or in this, one of my favourite short poems, there is a clever mixture of all these devices – see if you can spot them!

Song by Christina Rosetti 

When I am dead, my dearest

Sing no sad songs for me;

Plant thou no roses at my head,

Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me

With showers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember,

And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,

I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

Sing on, as if in pain:

And dreaming through the twilight

That doth not rise nor set,

Haply I may remember,

And haply may forget.

These literary devices can have a unifying effect, making all parts fit together with a repetition of shared letters and sounds, or by ensuring the reader remembers certain sounds or words. But like all good things, in prose it needs to be used in moderation.  Don’t make your writing just a collection of tongue-twisters!

***

The reading writer or the writing reader

We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.

As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.

But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.

We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’

It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!

Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.

This is not the first time I’ve pondered on the weird and truly wonderful impact of words on my life. At the moment I’m wrestling with the final edit of my novel The Spy Within, (coming soon to an internet store near you), but I’m making time to read. In the last few weeks I’ve read my dear friend Emma Baird’s romance, Highland Chances, and another good friend’s Paul Nelson’s Cats of The Pyramids, yet another writer friend’s book Undercover Geisha, by Judith Cranswick. I’m now reading Mary Stewart’s The Wind Off The Small Isles, as well as P G Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress, and dipping in and out of non-fiction books: The Great British Bobby by Clive Emsley, and The 1960s fashion sourcebook by John Peacock. 

Each of these books will leave a lasting imprint on my life. I’ve blogged before about how what we read–especially when it’s something we love–leaves its mark on our soul, a fragment of its written beauty that will see us through the hard times. And this year has been one of hard times, hasn’t it? I think in the coming months we will all need as many beautiful phrases, sweet or witty situations, dastardly intrigues and happy-ever-afters as we can get our hands on.

Happy reading!

***

 

To catch a killer…

This post kind of continues from my recent post about how the killer in a traditional murder mystery such as the ones I write–or try to–is always ‘one of us’. It’s important that the killer IS one of us. I have to say, if I read a mystery and the perpetrator is revealed as someone barely mentioned, or the author uses that old chestnut, the guilty butler, or any other member of staff, I am SO bitterly disappointed–with both the story, and in fact the author. Because it just feels like a letdown, like the author ‘phoned it in’, as they say, ie couldn’t be bothered to do a proper job. Even some of my favourite authors indulged in this heinous practise!

In his essay, The Decline of the English Mystery, George Orwell wrote, ‘The perfect murderer is a humdrum little man (or woman, I say!) of the professional classes.’

I think most people could agree that when they read a murder mystery, the most satisfying part of the book is trying to beat the sleuth to the finish line. Or at least, to be able to nod sagely at the end and say, ‘I knew it!’ as the killer is revealed.

We’ve come a long way from this scenario: ‘God must search out the solution to this crime because only He knows the secrets of the heart.’ (Revelations of a Lady Detective, William Stephens Hayward 1864) Now, as the reader ‘we’ want to take God’s place and work it out for ourselves. Is it because we want to impose a rigid order on our lives, have complete control over something? Who knows. We could write a philosophical paper on why we enjoy crime books when we (most of us, anyway) are vehemently opposed to violence.

I have to say, I do get a thrill when the murderer turns out to be someone I had completely ruled out or overlooked. I like to be surprised but I also, more than anything, like to be convinced. So if the evidence is flimsy or entirely circumstantial, I don’t buy into it at all. I need to know the why of it far more than how or all the other questions. After all, in a traditional type of murder mystery the guilty party must have a compelling and urgent necessity to take such a drastic act. Otherwise, they could simply move to another town and live under a new name. Or something normal like that…

So here are a few must-haves for the killer of a traditional murder mystery:

  1. They have to appear innocuous or be excluded from being ‘the one who did it’.
  2. If possible they should be genial, amiable and pleasant to most people, and get on with everyone (apart from the victim 😉 )
  3. They will be very aware of every move the victim makes, and take a lot of trouble to keep themselves informed.
  4. They need to be pretty intelligent to outsmart–for a while at least–the sleuth who will be coming after them.
  5. In spite of being pleasant, genial etc they also should reveal–gradually–an arrogant side with a large dollop of superiority complex: they believe they are able to outwit everyone, and are better than anyone, and that their motive completely justifies or exonerates their action.
  6. Lastly, they will crave attention and status; this means they love to get involved in the investigation into the death of the victim. They want to keep themselves informed in order to plan their next move, and to make sure they are safe.

In mysteries, many killers merely carry out the act to cover their butts: the victim knows something, or has the power to do something that threatens the killer’s safety in some way, whether it is their actual liberty at risk, their financial position, their social status, or the safety or fidelity of a loved one. It must be an utterly compelling reason for them.

If they are truly psychopathic, they will feed off the admiration of others and continually find ways–subtle and not-so-subtle–to make sure everyone knows how clever they are. Sometimes this will lead them to offer to help the detective, or sometimes this will lead to another death, as they either have to cover up the first crime, or feel a need to display their ingenuity.

In the case of serial killers, another death can be the result of their urge to experience that sense of fulfilment and power they got from the act of killing itself. They crave that thrill as an addict craves their addictive substance. The pressure is then on for the sleuth to find the killer to prevent yet another death. And often, the author will ensure that tension ratchets up a notch or three by having the next potential victim someone the sleuth really cares about.

Wow, that turned dark and non-cozy very quickly, didn’t it?

In fact the powerful killer is no such thing: as the story reaches its denouement, they are revealed not as powerful but weak, because they do not have the ability to be satisfied with being ordinary.

But that’s why we love these books–it’s so easy to sit back in our comfy chair and close the book, thinking, “Well, I would never do such a terrible thing.”

Isn’t it?

***

 

 

One of us?

In the old Golden Age of detective fiction, there is always some Countess clutching her pearls, casting disapproving looks at the corpse leaking blood onto her Aubusson carpet, and declaring that surely the perpetrator is some stranger, some tramp or wandering vagabond. ‘It can’t possibly be one of us.’

For me, the thrill of these books is the certain knowledge that, yes, it is most definitely one of ‘us’. One of these characters, so genteel, so polite, offering around the drinks decanter, or standing when a lady comes into the room, or smiling pleasantly and asking after the vicar’s marrows, it’s one of them. Most of them have known each other for years and see each other almost every day out walking the dog or playing tennis, or at drinks parties or dinner parties, at bridge evenings and coffee mornings.

We always want to assume that those around us are just like us, and thereby comes the assumption that no one ‘like us’ could possibly do something so sordid as kill another person. This implies loss of control, unacceptable levels of emotion, and of course, a denial of the never-say-die attitude that instils us with hope for a better tomorrow. Or if not better, at least no worse.

So when Major Blaine is found underneath the billiard table with his head bashed in or a hat pin piercing his eye to skewer his brain (sorry about that graphic image, the situation got really bad, really fast, didn’t it?) no one I know could possibly have been the one to commit such an act. Therefore – it could only have been done by someone ‘not from here’.

But when we look at those around us, how well do we really know them? The Countess, so used to having her own way in everything, and with a reputation to maintain. Or the major’s wife. She’s known for her knitting circles and good works, but is she ever at home? How often did the major actually get his wife’s attention? What about the vicar’s wife, busily visiting the elderly and infirm, taking care of the vulnerable, dispensing wisdom, and charity. Does she really deep down love her neighbours? The Vicar, does he really need to spend so much time shut away in his office? What’s he really doing in there? What about Miss Simpson, the village busybody, who knows everyone and everyone’s history. They say she has a heart of gold, but is she really over that old romance? After all, she’s never married, does she still carry a torch for that certain someone? What about the village doctor—I bet he knows a secret or two. Then there is the visiting artist along with his famous ‘temperament’. The aunt from another village, always poking her nose in and gossiping with the neighbours. The daughter just returned from university full of frustration with our old stagnant way of life and plans for the future, and of course, the elderly father who once threatened the organist with his walking stick for driving too fast through the village.

Surely no one I know would commit such a vicious crime?

But now I think of it, how well do I really know them? As I watch them gathered around the corpse, the various emotions—triumph, relief, satisfaction, fear, horror, dismay, anger, sorrow—fleetingly appearing on each face in turn, I feel as though I am in a room filled with strangers.

Any one of them could be the killer… that’s the beauty of it.

***