Don’t use that language with me – revisited!

Warning: contains coarse offensive language!

‘She said whaaat???’

This is a cheap and nasty slight rewrite of a post from two years ago. Sorry. My brain just isn’t working today. Readers of a nervous, highly moral or religious disposition, please look away now.

These days we aren’t as shocked as we once were when someone drops the F-bomb. In fact pretty much everyone seems to say it now. Even I do – my mother would have been horrified, if she had still been with us.  I think we’ve just got used to what we usually refer to as bad language. so used to it, it’s practically become everyone’s favourite adjective or adverb.

I’m in danger of lapsing into one of those scenes so typical of the older generation: You know them. The sort of thing that starts with an old bat saying, ‘When I was young…’ But there’s no denying it was a different world. Do you remember how the newspaper used to headline such things as ‘The Filth and The Fury’? That was when the Daily Mirror blasted the Sex Pistols for their language in 1977? Or what about the infamous December 1976 Bill Grundy interview where the interviewer goaded Johnny Rotten into using the F-word on TV ‘for only the third time in the history of British Television!

‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!’ exclaimed Marcus in surprise. ‘Oi, Marcus, what you on about?’ Burt and Harry wanted to know.

You could hear pearls being clutched for miles around. There was public outrage. Or so we were told by the media. Middle-aged people all over the country shook their heads over the decline of social morals and called for national service to come back. Elderly gentlemen said that was not why they went to war.

I privately thought, so what? But I was a teenager back then, and I think most teens probably thought the same, even then, when away from our parents or teachers, we routinely used the worst possible of language.

Does anyone remember Mary Whitehouse and her campaign to clean up Britain? She wanted to rid the country of ‘filth’. She said references to sex were ‘dirty’, and bad language was disgusting. Not just any actual sex scenes, but even just talking about it. (She was perfectly lampooned in an episode of the detective TV series, Endeavour.)

‘Well hush my mouth.’

But bad words are practically as old as the Ark. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them sprang from that time. Can you imagine trying to herd a bunch of animals into a boat and getting poo on your foot or a slobbery tongue in your face and NOT swearing? We all know cats are notoriously slow to come inside, you stand there for ages with the door open, trying to coax them. I know I would have had a few choice words to say.  Probably, ‘Stop mucking about you idiots, and get on the f-ing boat, I’m getting f-ing wet here.’

Chaucer and Shakespeare used their own versions of our modern insults and foul words, and paved the way for colourful terms to enter everyday English. (which were removed from ‘school’ texts…much to our teenage frustration!) These bad words greatly enriched our approach to incidents, frustrations, injuries, and annoyances that require relief through a vigorous use of very expressive language. Because apparently, studies have shown that swearing relieves stress and enables us to cope in stressful situations. I know it helps me!

‘I say Barbara, your mother’s language is a bit rough, what?’

I should just add, in Britain we call it swearing. That is to say, using bad language. Not making an oath in a court. That’s a whole different kind of swearing. No, I’m talking here about what in America is often called cursing. But you could call it all kinds of things: blaspheming (possibly), using expletives, foul language, or as we say in Britain ‘Effing and Blinding’, (a euphemism for saying Fuck and Bloody).

The term for this is  using a ‘minced oath’ or ‘minced words’ – to take a profanity and adapt it to render it less offensive. We use this in everyday speech when we say of someone ‘They don’t mince their words’, which basically means, they are extremely forthright in what they say, usually offensively so. Some examples of minced oaths: Feck, Blooming/Flipping Heck, Oh Shoot, Darn it, etc.

While we’re discussing the differences between the US and the UK, let me just say this: Bloody was not traditionally a mild swear-word. I’ve seen blog posts and social media stuff where they ‘define’ certain English words and they always say ‘Bloody’ in England is the same as ‘Damn’ in America. That’s just not true.

‘He made me do it; I just couldn’t cope anymore with his Effing and Jeffing!’

It used to be the third worst word you could say when I was a kid, and its use would certainly bring a very stiff penalty in terms of punishment both at home and at school. It’s not mild. Or rather, it’s only mild in comparison with the F-bomb and C-word. It used to be fairly normal to have one’s mouth washed out with soap if using these words. It would make you vomit – obviously – and was definitely a very unpleasant experience designed to make you think twice about using bad language again. Usually the threat of it was enough to make you reconsider your choice of words. Damn was a much milder word, but still forbidden.

Tibbles had hoped his new owner would have a little more class. But no, the same old F-words morning, noon, and night.

Now in my contemporary trilogy, the Friendship Can Be Murder books, there’s a fair bit of this kind of bad language. We see it in society, it’s used all around us. And it’s used as much by the well-to-do, like my ‘heroine’, Cressida Barker-Powell, as by people from other walks of life. Although when she is about to become a mother, she makes a determined effort to guard her language, keeping the ‘eff’ part of the word but discarding the rest of the letters. I wanted my contemporary books had to reflect the world they are set in, for me at least, to make the characters seem more real, more natural and believable. I do not believe in censoring ‘bad’ language.

But when it came to writing my 1930s murder mysteries, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, that required a whole different approach. Because the Dottie Manderson books are far more polite, more traditional, almost (but by accident rather than design) qualifying for the ‘clean’ subgenre of the mystery or romance categories.

‘Pardon my French.’

Now I know—I guess we all know—that the kind of language we hear today all around us, was not all that different back then in the 1930s. But there were several provisos: it was not ‘ladylike’ to use bad language. There was a strong paternalistic, protective culture of ‘Ladies’ present’, which meant, ‘Guys, there are women about, mind your language’; and then there was a much stronger emphasis on politeness, being conventional, being acceptable and so on. If a person used bad language, it called into question their respectability and good breeding. Bad language in public in particular was far less common and just not socially acceptable. But it did exist. Even in the 60s and 70s, we used to be told that if a policeman heard us swearing, we would be arrested and locked up and given only bread and water for the rest of our lives.

So in my Dottie books, I stick with tried and trusted old favourites such as ‘blast’, ‘bother’, (my mother’s favourite was ‘Botheration!’), ‘Good Lord’: you couldn’t say Good God except in cases of sincere anxiety or shock as it was believed to be, ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’, or people would think you were drunk, immoral or even worse, poor.

But there was always ‘My Goodness’, ‘My Word’, and ‘What on Earth…’ to fall back on. I love some of the very mild exclamations of that era, such as ‘Well I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ – completely meaningless and bizarre words!

When I hear ‘goodness gracious’ or ‘goodness gracious me’ I always think of ladies who spill tea on their frock when pouring it from a Spode teapot. Obviously these ladies are sitting at a picnic table in a sunny patch of the garden, and are wearing a straw hat. They have on a print dress and pearls. It’s a meaningless phrase and completely pointless. But covers the embarrassment of clumsiness and gives relief to the urge to scream when the hot tea soaks through the frock onto their leg.

‘Lots of people are going to the foot of their stairs’ Daily Telegraph March 17th 1973

Only very occasionally do I permit a gentleman to say Bloody or Damn in a moment of anger. Even then, he’ll be expected to apologise afterwards. Obviously. Or he wouldn’t be a gentleman.

There was then virtually no use of the now almost universal OMG, or the long form Oh My God, which I have even heard from 5-year-olds, which seems wrong. These days we also have the popular phrase, ‘Shut the front door’, which is a minced version of the surprised, often disbelieving retort, ‘Shut the fuck up’! and basically means, ‘I can’t possibly believe this tall tale you are telling me.’

With the recent translations of the first four Dottie Manderson books into German, there had to be some discussion about the ‘levels’ or severity of naughty words. It was quite difficult to explain some of the euphemisms we use now, or back then, and hard to find an acceptable and era-appropriate equivalent. I also had to apologise for our use of ‘Pardon my French’ which is a term we Brits still use to apologise for using bad language. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to French-speaking people everywhere. I recently heard a new one on TV (The Goes Wrong Show!) where the show’s ‘director’ apologised for the show’s swearing ‘Or as my mother calls it, Scottish language.’ Again, so so sorry to all my friends from Scotland – but this one made me spit coffee all over myself.

‘Goodness gracious me!’ said Lady Maud as the hot liquid splashed onto her afternoon gown. ‘Now I’ve got to change my sodding frock.’ ‘You mean your sodden frock, Maud,’ said Sir Reginald severely.

 

***

Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl – a recent reread

I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been my ‘thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my favourites by a very long chalk, with Patricia a wee bit out in front.

Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands—literally–of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather tired and old-fashioned by today’s standards?

Obviously I don’t believe they are tired and old-fashioned. I mean, yes, the author styles are out of touch with our era, and the roles and attitudes of characters are sometimes really horrifying. But for me, it’s the irresistible lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Christie’s Miss Marple often comments, ‘you see every aspect of life in a small village.’ And what we need to remember is that these stories were written, some of them, almost hundred years ago, and were fresh, new and very exciting at that time—the plots weren’t overdone or overused – they were more or less brand new, and I’m sure at the time, many of the plots would have seemed innovative.

Patricia Wentworth’s works are a wee bit tamer and even more moralistic than Agatha Christie’s, but we need to remember that there is a little over twenty years between their dates of birth, so I would definitely place Wentworth squarely in the previous generation of mid-Victorian Britain. Like many of Christie’s settings, Wentworth’s stories often revolve around a country house, and a small village, and her sleuth, Miss Silver is in many respects quite similar to Miss Marple. I like a village or country house setting; for me it’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of, if rather posher than me!) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes horribly wrong.

I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s many more times than that, although I’m still working my way through her non-series books. I have five or six different copies of some of Wentworth’s books, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it. (Clue 1: It cost nearly as much as my wedding dress. Clue 2: I got married in 1981 and my wedding dress didn’t cost nearly as much as it would have done today, but even so my mother gasped…)

I recently decided to reread The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes for my own fun/blog writing at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink!

The Chinese Shawl was published in 1943, placing it in the latter third of Wentworth’s writing career. Her first novel, a romance, was published in 1910. She died at the beginning of 1961.

There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)

Point 1. Wentworth is a great one for setting the scene. Her murders seldom happen as quickly as, for example, Christie’s. We get a lot of background—sometimes I feel maybe there’s too much, but it does mean that by the time the reader reaches the murder scene, they know the main characters quite well, and are deeply immersed in the story. The murder quite often doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the book, and sometimes we don’t meet the sleuth, Miss Silver, until that point, and often even later, although in this one, she is already there, in situ as a house guest, from chapter ten.

I also feel quite often in Wentworth’s books, that you can see the murder coming. But it’s not in an annoying, ‘Der—I knew that was going to happen’ kind of way. It’s more like watching a car crash in slow motion: you can see the inevitable outcome and are powerless to stop it. You can only watch it happen in a kind of fascinated horror. (Not that they are gory or horrifying in that sense.)

Point 2. The ‘sleuth’ is Miss Maud Silver. Like Christie’s Miss Marple, Miss Silver is an elderly lady, a retired former governess who primly knits her way through interviews and afternoon teas and picks up all sorts of gossip, clues and insights as she does so. She is an acute observer of human life, and a highly moral, highly principled person. In fact sometimes she’s a bit annoying in her manner which can seem outmoded by today’s standards. But she is a treasure, too. Her main advantage is that she is often ignored, overlooked or just plain underestimated. Miss Silver often makes remarks that I find hilarious, such as this one from Lonesome Road (pub. 1939) ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’ Men as a breed are for Miss Silver largely a closed book. She remarks somewhere that the chief difference between men and women is that men require two eggs for breakfast instead of one. 

Point 3. In this book, the victim is not a very nice person, and so it’s hard to mourn her fate. But Wentworth never condones murder or violence, and even in the death of a nasty piece of work, there is a righteous indignation and a determination to get to the bottom of things. For Wentworth and her detectives, nothing ever justifies murder, and that’s a position I thoroughly applaud.

Point 4. Obviously, we have a sidekick. Usually a sidekick is a ‘Watson’ type character. In this case, it’s the official investigator – Randal March. He is not my favourite sidekick for Miss Silver—he is arrogant, pompous and (usually) far too self-satisfied. But then, maybe that’s more realistic for the era? All I can say is, thank goodness for Miss Silver, his former governess, as she usually takes him down a peg of two. In this book he has risen to the rank of Superintendent. When it comes to a supporting cast for Miss Silver, I prefer her other sidekick, Sergeant Frank Abbott, and if absolutely necessary, I can even put up with Abbott’s boss, Inspector Ernest Lamb, who is devoted to his three daughters. It’s a refreshing change to have a detective who is a family man with no massive issues.

Point 5. There is a wealth of period detail in this book, from fashion and etiquette to black-out regulations of WW2. I love this stuff, we get a really strong sense of the era and feel so deeply entrenched in the book. There is always a strong romantic, (quite an old-fashioned, polite romance,) thread running through the mystery. What I particularly like is the contrast between the dutiful ‘war work’ of bitter Miss Agnes Fane and that of Miss Silver:

Miss Fane surveyed it (Miss Silver’s knitting) with disfavour.

‘You should be knitting comforts for the troops.’

Miss Silver’s needles clicked.

‘Babies must have vests,’ she remarked in a mild but stubborn tone.

For me this sums up perfectly the difference between Miss Silver and Agnes Fane, the alpha female of the story. Agnes Fane is all about being seen to be right and perfect in every way, and above reproach. She craves status, yet her heart is in many ways cold though obsessive. Miss Silver, dowdy, slightly irritating, definitely overly moralistic and governessy, nevertheless does everything she does from a place of love, which is why, for me, she is the best sleuth. She is devoted to her former charges, their loved ones and their growing families.

And lest we forget, she’s a working girl, a gentlewoman come down in the world due the premature death of her parents and the very real need to earn her own living. Unlike, for example, Miss Marple, she is not an amateur detective who does it because she’s nosy or in the right place at the right time, she hires herself out at a decent rate as a ‘private enquiry agent’. This has given her the means to afford a nice flat in London and a maid to take care of her. Girl power! She don’t need no man!

Point 6. As in any good mystery, there are a number of suspects. The murdered woman leaves behind her a slew of cast aside lovers, a divorced husband, the wife of a cast aside lover and another chap’s girlfriend, not to mention other possibilities. It seems as though almost anyone could have carried out the dastardly deed. And then of course, comes the twist—maybe she was killed by mistake? That leaves the already wide door thrown even wider. Who killed her, and why?

Point 7. Actually, when I said sidekick, I should have said sidekicks, because front and centre in this story is our heroine, Laura Fane, and her new beau, a former lover of the murder victim, all-round war hero, Carey Desborough. Actually the romance between these two flourishes within the space of a day or two—it is love at first sight, and it’s essential for the lovebirds that they help Miss Silver get to the bottom of the crime so everyone can live happily ever after. Well, almost everyone. And a rather unbelievable attempt to set up first one of these as the baddie then the other fails to convince the reader, and so we know we can rest happily in the fact of their happiness.

Point 8. Really my only criticism of Wentworth’s books generally, and this one in particular is her frequent use of that hateful tool ‘the had I but known/little did they know’. I hate this ploy with a passion. And it crops up here several times. On top of that, we almost always have a phrase along the lines of ‘little did they know but the events of that evening were to be sifted and gone over with the utmost care, and everything they did and said would be held up to the light and examined.’ *sigh* Moving on…

Point 9. Wentworth loves a dramatic ending. And so do I. Although I knew ‘whodunnit’ because I’ve read this book loads of times, I still savoured the outcome. There is too, generally a nice ‘wrap-up’ scene where the good guys take tea with Miss Silver at the end and she expounds and moralises, a good egg teaching her pupils. This one is slightly different as the wrap-up is with Randal March, but it’s still good to get insight into their thoughts about the crime and its resolution. And of course, the two lovebirds go off together into the sunset, but it’s a slightly scaled back happiness—after all, there’s still a war on. A very satisfying ending.

As a review, I know this isn’t much cop. I’m hopeless at reviewing, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done. Enjoy!

Other of Wentworth’s best works include:

Lonesome Road

The Listening Eye

The Alington Inheritance

The Clock Strikes Twelve

And there are loads more, both series, and non-series.

***

More Life Writing: When I Was Four

Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.

My piece a couple of weeks ago about my auntie, Zonya, has inspired me to share more of my life writing. Life writing is a form of non-fiction we often call memoir or diary writing.  I did a module of life writing when I was studying, and although I’m a fiction writer at heart, I do love to reminisce, so here’s another life writing piece. It’s called When I Was Four. (Sorry, it’s a bit long!)

When I Was Four

More than anything, all those years ago, I remember the buttercups. I was—what?—four years old? And standing in the gently sloping field, I remember the delight I felt, the astonishment of being surrounded by all these tall flowers—almost shoulder high, and I looked about me in wonder at the bright golden flower heads, interwoven with ox-eye daisies and other, unknown meadow flowers. All were almost as tall as I was, and I felt I had strayed into a magic kingdom. I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling all my life.

There were bees, and butterflies. I don’t remember much else about that time really, except for two things: the river and the caravan.

All the mothers who worked on the farm brought their kids with them during the holidays. Some of us, the littler ones, were there all the time, too young to go to school. The group of children ranged in age from toddler to pre-teen, or possibly teenage. I remember the big boys seemed very big, but they may have been just 10 or 12. The school-age kids weren’t there all the time, just during the school holidays, and when they weren’t there, life was a bit boring, to be honest.

While our mothers worked in the fields, planting or earthing up or digging up potatoes, or cutting cabbages, or training beans or hops or picking them, or laying straw beneath the strawberry plants or—joyous task!—picking the strawberries, we kids roamed the countryside freely, day in, day out, while the long days of the school holidays lasted, and then the big kids went back to school and there was just me and a couple of babies.

We may have been bored much of the time, but I don’t remember it. We may have squabbled and fought, but again, I can’t remember it now. And very likely it rained, but I only recall days of sunshine and warm soft breezes, of laughter and happiness and freedom, the way you do many, many years later. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing one another, and hiding and climbing and running. I don’t remember any fights or bullying, I remember laughing a lot. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. (I fell in a lot actually, water and I always seem to want to come together.) I remember standing on the little bridge and staring down at the water, and that my Dalek, from Woolworths, fell in and it was borne away a short distance before disappearing from my sight. I was inconsolable. My mum was furious.

Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me—perhaps a link to my Cornish seafaring ancestors?—and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I ever went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine, and even in the cold of a January day, waiting for my clothes to dry so I wouldn’t get into trouble when I got home.

I don’t remember the clothes I first wore when we used to go ‘to the fields’, but after a short while, or maybe after payday, my mum bought me something new, exciting and truly wonderful—my first jeans. I remember the waist was elasticated and that the broad stretchy band was soft and fuzzy on the inside and I loved the feel of it. I doubt the new jeans stayed stiff and dark blue for long, what with scrambling up trees and over stiles and gates, crawling through dirt and up and rolling down hills, plus falling into rivers of course, but I never stopped loving my jeans. I still wear them almost every day.

Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of insisting on wearing them at Christmas, with long socks and a jumper and my knees turning blue with cold. I hated skirts and dresses and girly stuff. A few years later, to get my head around the misery of wearing skirts, I used to pretend I was Jamie from Dr Who – he was Scottish and wore a kilt. Thank you, Frazer Hines.

Footwear was again a choice of two simple pleasures: red T-bar sandals for the summer and black wellies for the winter. I loved both of these. I’m fairly sure I tried to wear my new wellies to bed once, though that may have been one of my cousins.

So, it was stripy t-shirt, shorts and sandals by day during the summer, my dark hair done up in one long fat plait down my back. And for the winter it was a hand-knitted jumper, jeans and wellies, with an anorak, if needed. What was not to love?

As I’ve said, the river used to draw us kids, and we enjoyed the countryside, chasing, climbing, hiding, but the best, most amazing thing about this part of the farm was what lay at the top of a sloping field. Something I had never seen before, something that seemed at once magical, yet homely.

A caravan.

An old gypsy caravan, it had been parked there, I suppose, as a refuge from the weather for workers or whomever. We kids found endless hours of amusement in it. The girls particularly, were keen to play house and furnish the bare walls and floor from their imaginations.

The caravan had been completely stripped of all the colourful and ingenious fittings that normally make a caravan a home. And I don’t remember if it was brightly painted outside or not.

I can remember how much I loved the echoey noise my feet made as I clomped up and down the bare boards, and how we used to put dusty soil into the abandoned grate and as we stirred it up with sticks, we’d pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers of our stories. And I enjoyed sitting on the top step looking out across the fields.

I wasn’t brave or adventurous like some of the other, bigger kids, and they could never persuade me to jump from the top step as they did, it was scary-high. But I managed to jump from the bottom step and the middle step.

There was a handsome young man called Roy. He wasn’t one of the kids. At sixteen, to me, he was one of the grown-ups and he worked on the farm, driving the tractor. He always waved to me, and would often stop and talk to me. I—of course—followed him around with the worshipful devotion of a small puppy. He used to stop the big kids picking on me, so there must have been squabbles and rivalries after all, and I still remember his kindness to a little kid with gratitude.

But looking back to that time, the overwhelmingly pervasive memory of those days for me is that of standing shoulder-deep amongst a crowd of buttercups and feeling as though I were part of something magical and beautiful. I’m still trying to recapture that moment when I was four.

***

 

Holiday reading

This week, I’m being spoiled rotten by another kind author’s contribution of a blog post. So I shall immediately, and with gratitude, hand over the reins to Gordon Lawrie:

Gordon Lawrie was a secondary teacher in his native Edinburgh for 36 years until he could no longer resist the challenge of writing a novel. His first awful attempt remains buried undiscovered in a safe place, but a couple of romantic comedies followed before his first crime novel, The Midnight Visitor, appeared in March 2022. In addition, he is the Founding Director of Dean Park Press, which provides services for self-publishing authors, and the editor of the online publication Friday Flash Fiction.

 He has his own website, www.lawrie.info  where you can find lots more embarrassing information about him, as well as a great deal of free stuff to read. He also has a Twitter account: @thesaucers where he sometimes says more than he should about the government of the day, golf, birdwatching and his beloved Hearts football club.

 I’m pretty addicted to crime fiction. I think it might my need for escapism, but I also enjoy being challenged in a non-confrontational sort of way. I’m addicted to Wordle, too.

I’ve written a handful of novels now, some of which have been better than others. What seemed to work best for me was romantic comedy, but there’s little money in romcoms unless Danny Boyle or someone equally famous decides to turn your novel into a smash hit starring Hugh Grant. No, crime fiction is the way to go if you’re trying to make a living from your writing. Crime – whether it’s a detective thriller or a courtroom drama – not only holds out the prospect of a modest income; there’s half a chance someone will try to use the characters to turn your stories into a TV series. That’s why I started to write my DI John Knox/Sister Mary Maxwell-Hume mysteries. Shameless, I admit it.

But be under no illusion, crime writing is hard. There are so many strands to keep track of: the plot, of course; the characters; the pace; maintaining the general suspense; and of course the reader has to feel satisfied by the eventual solution. Ideally, the reader should end up feeling like the detective’s sidekick, wondering how they managed to be so stupid as to miss the giveaway clues that were the key to solving the mystery. Keep your Booker or Nobel Prizes. Writing a crime novel is the true Everest of literature.

Crime writing, though, is far from homogeneous. Readers of Caron’s blog will be familiar with her cosy country-house whodunnits (that’s an official term, not an insult, by the way). Or perhaps you prefer Raymond Chandler-style hard-boiled thrillers, usually told in the first person to allow the writer to make acerbic observations on the social circles in which he – it’s almost invariably a ‘he’ – moves. There’s a whole genre of historical crime fiction, whether it’s Brother Cadfael in a monastery, or the exceptional Bernie Gunther series mostly set during and in the aftermath of Nazi Germany. There are any number of “noir” crime thrillers: Nordic noir, tartan noir, Icelandic noir and so on. Recently, Richard Osman and others have written successful crime novels with comedy overtones. My fellow Edinburgh author Olga Wojtas is currently having lots of success with a bonkers time-travel comedy crime series. Her librarian protagonist is sent back in time to solve assorted mysteries (the latest being to exonerate MacBeth and discover who really killed King Duncan). Janice Hallett’s The Appeal is written entirely in emails and texts. There’s plenty of choice.

But although I’ll read virtually anything, my all-time favourite crime genre is what I’d term “holiday crime”. Set in some lovely location that I’m either familiar with, or would like to go to, I’m transported there as I turn the pages. I particularly like the ones set in Italy – Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily; Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen set in various cities; but above all Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice.

Venice is a city I think I know fairly well, and each of Leon’s novels takes me there on another holiday. An American, she was a Professor of English Literature at Venice University, and she clearly casts herself as Paola, Guido’s wife. What we end up with is a series of novels where the plot is almost secondary, sometimes even thin, but the reader doesn’t mind because there are so many other things to enjoy – the interplay between familiar characters; the politics and society of Venice; Guido and Paola’s own literary preferences; Venetian cuisine; but above all the city itself. There’s even a book of walks called Brunetti’s Venice where you can trace the steps of the great man for yourself. (I’ve done a couple. How sad is that?)

Living in a tourist hot-spot like Edinburgh, you’d think I’d find it easy to weave the city into my books. But there are so many outstanding crime writers who also live here – Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin and Alexander McColl-Smith to name just three – that I feel rather in awe of their skills. And because writers still have to concentrate on plot, characters, pacing and all the other aspects of a novel, they also have to be careful that describing ‘scene’ isn’t perceived by the reader to be mere padding. That’s especially dangerous if your reader is from your own home city; they probably don’t need to be given a guided tour.

You might not even have heard of Donna Leon, because the only TV series that’s ever been made of Commissario Brunetti’s mysteries was in German. More surprising still, Leon has expressly forbidden her novels ever to be translated into Italian – she’s completely unknown in Venice itself. That might be the secret. The reader needs to feel they’re off on holiday, and it’s not much fun trying to escape in your own town. I think we all learned that during the pandemic.

Thank you so much, Gordon, for this fascinating tour of Italian crime!

Also by Gordon Lawrie:

Self-Publishing: The Total Beginner’s Guide

The Midnight Visitor

The Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-Hume

Four Old Geezers And A Valkyrie

100 Not Out

and more! All available from Amazon and good book shops.

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Writing Genre Fiction – part two

Famously NOT adhering to generic conventions…

Three weeks ago, I wrote in part one of Writing Genre Fiction that all genres, including my favourite genre of cosy mysteries, have conventions. And what is a convention? The Oxford English Dictionary defines convention as: ‘a) general agreement, esp agreement on social behaviour etc by implicit consent of the majority; or b) a custom or customary practice, esp an artificial or formal one.’

Here is a quick recap of the main conventions of books in the cosy mystery genre:

  • No excessive gore or violence, no realistic trauma, bad language is mild, no sex scenes.
  • Usually feature a small cast of characters in an idealised setting, often a country house or a village.
  • There must be clues and red herrings.
  • The emphasis is on the puzzle of the crime and readers solving that alongside the sleuth.
  • The sleuth is usually an amateur, not a police professional, and is often female. Though of course, not always.
  • The ending is (generally) cut-and-dried and is often resolved with a gathering of all the main suspects and other players of the story so that the sleuth can reveal the truth behind the crime(s). There may be ongoing storylines that are not resolved, but the crime itself should be resolved at the end of the book.

(I’d be the first to say, my own books don’t always adhere to these guidelines. Sorry.)

Very often authors will strive to write something ‘new’ and may feel that it has all been done before, or that the conventions are ‘old hat’. But for readers who enjoy reading mysteries, doing something different just for the sake of it is not always a good way to win their approval – they love the conventions and expect the author to stick by them at least to a greater extent.

Readers have certain expectations

No reader will be happy if you kill off someone’s pet. And it goes without saying that if you bump off your main character’s love interest or a close relation or friend, you will be vilified forever. Likewise if you allow your character to – well – act out of character, readers will notice and be unhappy. Reader expectations are high once you have set out to create a series, and you absolutely have to do what you can to respect the reader’s investment of emotion as well as time and money into your work.

But in actual fact, the range of options available to the author is limited, because as we know, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:9! See, I can do research!) and also, ‘Is there a case where one can say, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us.’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:10)

And if it had already all been done in Biblical times…

But just because you are constrained by generic convention does not mean you can’t be creative or original. This is where the twists and turns of the plot become the essential ingredient to muddy the waters and cover your tracks . Sorry about the mixed metaphors.

Writing unique or ‘different’ genre fiction can seem difficult – you only have 26 letters to play with, and everyone uses them, right? And if all these conventions and tropes have been used before, if there’s nothing new under the sun, how can we find our unique voice? How can we say something new or fresh? Again this is where plot twists and devices and your own unique way of using those 26 letters comes into play.

He’s about to sing, the Lament of the Trope

Like writing, music is another creative art that has genres and stylistic conventions. And whilst I am not a musician, I am passionate about music. And guess what? Composers of music can be every bit in need of all their ingenuity as writers when it comes to creating something fresh and ‘original’. Just to give you an extremely simple illustration: all these songs are in the key of C Major.

Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers

Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin

Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley

Bad Romance by Lady Gaga

But they are not the same, are they? I was actually a teeny bit surprised to realise they are all in the same key. And of course, there are other keys than just C Major – and all the keys are made up of notes, which when combined in conventional ways, create chords. Chords are grouped together one after the other (called progression, ie moving forward) to create a tune. (Or for the writer, these would compare to scenes or chapters). Here’s another set of examples:

These four songs all heavily feature the same chord progressions. It is the I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F known as the Optimistic chord progression for its uplifting sound. (I think these chords are for guitar – sorry, now I am really revealing my technical ignorance.)

No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley

Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx

Run by Snow Patrol

Let It Be by The Beatles

But again, they are so different, aren’t they? I could go on: these are G Major works:

Another One Bites The Dust by Queen

Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day

Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison

You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC

Or other chord progressions. If the previous ones are termed the ‘optimistic’ progression, these are the ‘pessimistic’ chord progressions: these are the same chords, just reshuffled to give a different effect. The I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F becomes vi-VI-I-V or Am-F-C-G, and these can create a sense of sadness that ranges from the merely plaintive to downright Throwing Myself Off A Cliff:

The Sun Always Shines On TV by A-Ha (a bit plaintive here and there)

Hurt by Johnny Cash (definitely a cliff moment… but sad songs can be beautiful, and uplifting too – giving catharsis.)

Angels by Robbie Williams

or one of my favourites, Wake Me Up by Avicii

Can you see how different these are though they are using, at least in part, the same conventions?

Coming back to writing, with a small cast of characters, it can be really hard to conceal the guilty party from the avid reader who will often have read hundreds of mystery books and have an excellent working knowledge of the generic style. Enter the trope – a recognisable kind of set plot idea that is often in use in certain genres. In romance, you have tropes such as ‘fake romance’, where the main couple pretend to be in love, often to appease persistent match-making relatives and end up falling in love for real; or you can have ‘enemies to lovers’ (think Elizabeth and Mr Darcy) where the couple begin by hating the very sight of one another but end up by loving the person once they get to know one another better.

In cosy mystery writing, a common trope might be the country house mystery – a closed community, a small number of suspects, a specific set of relationships, and the stage is set for murder in a kind of extremely popular notion but very idealised version of a pre-WWII English country house. The country house could be something other than a country house. For example your story could be set, not in a house but on a train, in a submarine, on a space station, on an island, in a bomb shelter. almost anywhere, in fact, so long as the setting is enclosed in some way. Or you might use any one of the countless other tropes,  the locked room trope, or you might use the disappearing corpse trope, or the gaslighting/I think I’m going insane trope…

Just because you are bound by conventions, doesn’t mean you can’t find your own voice, and your own style, and using the generic conventions means you can increase the readers pleasure as they can anticipate and understand what you are doing. If anything, sticking to the rules of your genre can give you greater freedom with a good, solid framework to build upon.

‘The Author, in the music room, with the typewriter…’

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Writing Genre Fiction – part one

Please don’t let your detective cat smoke. Or Vape. It’s not good for them and ruins their fur.

I enjoy writing in a number of different styles and genres, but I’m a cosy mystery gal through and through. Even when I try writing a different genre, at some point my murderous instincts take over and drown out any other attempt to jump generic ship.  Maybe I’ve written myself into a plot-corner and I’m not sure what to do; or I’m bored with the sweet romance I’m writing; or things are going all too easily for one character or another in my family saga; or my hologram’s new spacecraft is too fast, too shiny, everything is just soooooo perfect out there in the nebula, and there’s nothing for it: someone has to die.

I think it was Raymond Chandler who said (my paraphrase) ‘If in doubt, bring in someone with a gun’.

But there are so many sub-categories within all the main genres these days, and the Crime/Thriller genre is no exception.

For cosy mystery novels, some of the many subgenres include: international mystery, private investigators, women detectives, medical, legal, police procedural, technothrillers, and hard-boiled. The hard-boiled mystery, for example, is what is often referred to as Noir, or gum-shoe crime. They have evolved from the classics of the 40s and 50s and tend to be more graphic, violent, and unconventional. The detective is usually an anti-hero, with all kinds of issues, anything goes, and the grittier and grislier the book is, the better. The dialogue is bitty and abbreviated. There is a lot of swearing, shouting and people get ‘whacked’ or ‘rubbed out’. Often the end of the hard-boiled mystery is less cut-and-dried, leaving loose ends and a sense of a hollow victory, or a kind of ‘I’ll get you next time! On the upside, the men often wear nice hats. Like a Fedora or maybe a Trilby.

The cosy mystery genre is a world apart from the hard-boiled mystery. The cosy is a type of traditional murder mystery with it roots in the Golden Age of mystery writing as penned by Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth and many, many more. (If you fancy reading a bit more about that, please take a look at this article, or this one, both from guest author Elizabeth Roy recently.)

The plot of a cosy often revolves around social situations, perhaps a house party or dinner, as cosies commonly feature the wealthier classes at play, with undercurrents of malice lurking discreetly behind curtains or across the bridge-table. The relationships represented tend to be of a conventional, traditional type, and the novels are usually set in the present or the recent past. The hard-boiled or noir can be more experimental, and is well-suited to futuristic, non-traditional and even non-earth settings.

Cosy means exactly that, these books are pure entertainment, with nothing too terrifying, nothing too realistic or traumatising. It’s more of an intellectual puzzle than a brawl. In the cosy, the story is all about unravelling the central mystery, to find out whodunit by solving clues and working alongside the story’s detective to find out the truth behind a crime, nearly always a murder*. Cosies will feature good believable characters without a great deal of introspection and issues. Usually there are only one or two main characters, and a host of minor characters, individualised to a greater or lesser extent. There will be a twisty, ingenious plot, and a keep-‘em-guessing array of clues and red herrings. Readers are expected to read between the lines in every conversations and to observe character behaviour minutely and with suspicion.

The cosy does not feature gory murder scenes or long descriptions of stomach-clenching forensic information. The cosy does not include explicit sex or stronger bad language. There may be some saucy shenanigans but nothing too graphic happens ‘on-stage’, any ‘filth’ is conducted behind carefully closed doors, even if someone is listening at the keyhole or watching from the tree outside the window. Life lessons are not usually part of the cosy mystery, nor should you expect comments on social issues or deeply moving emotional scenes. Life is pretty good in the cosy mystery–for everyone except the perpetrator and the victim of course. Here again, in the cosy, the victim is not likely to suffer agonies or torture; death is usually contrived in a quick and often ingenious manner.

You must always be on the alert for clues and red herrings

Usually, though not always, the main protagonist is the sleuth who is going to solve the mystery for us, or should I say, with us. They will likely–though not always–be an amateur detective, often someone involved on the periphery of the murder and they will feel compelled to find out the ‘truth’, either from standpoint of moral outrage, or more likely, out of sheer nosiness. Of late, it has become the trend to write themed cosies centred around a hobby or service. For example, a lot of stories are set in book shops, craft groups or cookery schools, and hotels, or they might involve pet-sitters, mediums, hairdressers, gardeners, wedding planners, or interior decorators. Sometimes the detective has a dog or cat who ‘helps’ them solve the mystery. Sometimes the detective IS a dog or cat. This allows the author to introduce a range of situations and characters, which is a great way to produce a detective and a series that will turn readers into avid fans and keep them coming back time and again.

The cosy is all about solving a puzzle, and reestablishing the status quo. The book should leave readers feeling ‘Ahh,’ at the end, not ‘OMG OMG!’ The reader should definitely be able to pat themselves on the back for an armchair- detective job well done. The cosy is intended purely for escapist fun, which is another reason why the author needs to write plenty of them–readers will close one book and immediately reach for the next.

*please note: other crimes are available! But a lot less entertaining.

Cosy mysteries should be more feel-good and with a sense of all is well at the end.

***

 

First, create your setting

An Art Deco style house, rather like a ship, I think

When writing any fictional work, the author has to create a setting. Even if all the action takes place in one room, the author needs to make the room appear real and convincing. And usually, a setting is much larger than one single room, whether it is a grand country house, a quaint village, a ship in the middle of the ocean or a space station located in a distant nebula. The physical space ascribed to a story is essential for the characters to exist: without a setting, the story just wouldn’t come alive in the imagination of the reader.

But as authors, we have a dilemma: is it better to use a fictional setting, or to set a story in a ‘real’ place?

Some authors love to set their works in a real place. In times past, when the average person didn’t travel afield very far, books set in foreign lands were exotic and almost as exciting as taking a trip yourself. The author could conjure the sights and smells, slipping in cultural references such as language, mannerisms, behaviours, and traditions, then adding layer upon layer of experience for the reader by including descriptions of places and geographical features they might never see. You could find yourself in a desert, or on a mountain-top, at the bottom of the sea with Jules Verne or travelling by mule to an isolated archeological dig in an Agatha Christie novel.

Not all country gardens include a summer house or gazebo

For the author, there are advantages to using a real location for a book. To begin with, it makes the surroundings easier to describe, if you only have to look out of your door, or bring up images on the Internet. It’s easier to keep track of your characters, especially in a crime story where you have to create alibis and where there is a need to account for a character’s movements or whereabouts at any given time. And because the author is describing a real place, it’s easier for them to keep their details accurate, and therefore they seem all the more convincing, giving the reader a sense of being in a ‘real’ place.

But there are disadvantages to this too.

To begin with, the real geography or setting might not work with your story, and if you include things that don’t exist, your readers will not be happy. And trust me, they will notice! Equally, real towns or country houses are vulnerable to change—once again change might mean that your story no longer works, or is less convincing, or just doesn’t interest the reader as much.

Another problem is the rise of Literary Tourism, or as I call it, the ‘Morse’ effect—this is where readers love a setting so much they want to go there and see it for themselves, and sometimes do this is large numbers, like tourists visiting the city of Oxford to follow in the steps of Colin Dexter’s creation, Inspector Morse. As we all know, a little tourism is a good thing—it boosts local economy and provides jobs, not to mention selling books or TV shows and making everyone happy. But a lot of tourism can breed resentment in a locality if it causes inconvenience, or even environmental damage. Visitors may throng about a particular spot that features in a book and this can be unacceptable for a number of reasons. And what if the author is highly critical or disparaging about a particular real place? I don’t see that book, or its enthusiasts being welcomed with open arms.

Be careful when featuring real inhabitants in fiction

For me, the setting is a useful, nice-to-have but not essential part of my books. The main emphasis is on character and events. So do forgive me if my settings a sometimes a bit ‘samey’. In this way, I sometimes build my fictional country house as an amalgamation of all the other, real-life country houses I’ve visited, not faithful at all to one specific building.

I personally prefer this ‘Midsomer Murders’ approach—have a fictional area within a real part of the country. This is the glorious middle ground, where you loosely build your story on what is actually there, but do the typical author thing of ‘changing the names to protect, etc, etc’. This way you can create the sense of a real place with all the quirks and characteristics of that place, but which is as flexible as the author needs it to be. You can incorporate any number of variations to fit your future works as well as the one you have on the go at the moment. And best of all—no one will ever be able to say, ‘In chapter four, you have the car park at the end of the road by the pier, but in fact it’s actually at the opposite end of the town.’

All you need to do is remember where all the features of your fictional town are. I suggest drawing a map. Otherwise, the same reader will be able to say, ‘In chapter four, the car park is at the end of the road by the pier, but in chapter seven, you’ve put it at the other end of the town.’ And by the time you get to this stage, it probably would have been easier to use a real place, after all.

I definitely need to set a book in Norway–no doubt I’ll have to travel there for research purposes. Sigh. Life’s tough.

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A Clue of Detectives

One of Christie’s most controversial works!

I don’t know what the collective noun is for a bunch/murder/flock of detectives, but ‘clue’ has a nice and appropriate ring to it, I thought. Last week, a friend of mine, author Elizabeth Roy told us a bit about the Detection Club – a famous where successful authors collaborated together and compared notes. How I would have loved to be there at one of their meetings! Here is another snippet from Elizabeth about the Club.

The Detection Club was first founded in 1930 but it’s still going strong today. Many famous names are among the ranks of both members and club presidents, including: G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons, H R F Keating, Simon Brett, Len Deighton, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Peter Lovesey, Peter James, Martin Edwards, and Michael Ridpath. You might wonder why Arthur Conan Doyle was not included, but in fact he was invited to become the club’s first chairman, but had to decline due to his poor health, and sadly he died later in 1930, leaving G K Chesterton to preside over the creation of the club as its first president.

One of the most important functions of the club was to educate, compare notes and generally discuss crime writing as an academic pursuit, and to attempt to create guidelines, or ‘fair play’ rules for the best quality of crime writing. the famous oath only really scratched the surface of these guidelines:

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Member Ronald Knox is now, mainly, I would suggest, known for his Commandments, also referred to as the Knox Decalogue which went as follows:

A A Milne

The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

The detective himself must not commit the crime.

The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.”

Of course the great thing about rules is that they are made to be broken, and I’m glad to say that many of the members and even–gasp!–the presidents–have broken at least one of these rules in their writing, whilst many others have been removed or altered.

Rule 1, for example, is akin to the common writing instruction that if a gun or some similar attention-catching object is mentioned at the beginning of a story or novel, it should be used by the end of the novel or story.

Rule 5 has more to do with the fact that in the 1930s, inscrutable, mysterious Chinamen were seen as figures involved in Chinese tongs and the drug trade. Because of those associations and stereotypical beliefs about Chinese culture, readers could be counted on to believe that a Chinese person would know mysterious, nearly undetectable ways to murder people through the use of martial arts, drugs, or even the occult. In any case, it was sadly all too common in both books and movies in the early twentieth century to automatically apportion blame to anyone seen as an outsider or to a person of different ethnicity. I’d like to think those days are well and truly behind us now.

Ngaio Marsh

As far as rule 9 goes, Watson was a competent medical doctor, hardly unintelligent. His brain may not work the way Sherlock Holmes brain does, but whose brain does work the way Holmes’s brain does? So, the Watson doesn’t have to be unintelligent. That character just needs to be someone who needs the detective character to explain his or her reasoning. We need them to perhaps just explain to us the detectives reasoning in a straightforward, logical manner.

All in all, lovers of all subgenres of crime fiction owe members of the detection club a huge debt of gratitude. Without them and their huge array of works, our lives would be infinitely poorer.

Further reading:

The Detection Club. Wikipedia.org.

Knox’s commandments

The Detection Club and ‘fair play’

At agathachristie.com

Dorothy L Sayers news article

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Discovering the Detection Club

This week I’m handing the reins over to author Elizabeth Roy for the first of a short series of posts about the famous Detection Club: Thanks Elizabeth, over to you…

You may know of the Detection Club which was founded in 1930. If you don’t, you will know many of its members, both past and present. The earliest members represent some of the best-known detective fiction writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Initiation into The Detection Club:

Evidence within the initiation ceremony and surrounding the administration of the Club’s membership oath allows us to deduce that fostering a golden age of murder mystery writing was among the members’ goals.

The famous oath was: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them, and not placing reliance on, nor making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Most prospective members had written at least two successful pieces of detective fiction, with only A. A. Milne as an exception. Milne had published The Red House Mystery in 1922, but his next mystery didn’t appear until 1933. However, he was a prolific writer in other genres, most famously of course, his work for children. Prospective members also had to be sponsored by at least two members. The vote to accept or deny the new member was held in secret.

Agatha Christie

During the initiation ceremony, each new member was asked to name a thing he or she held in particular sanctity. Increased sales were substituted if the prospective member could not think of any sacred thing. Then, if the new member ever broke the oath just taken, he or she was “cursed” with the threats of lawsuits for libel, misprints, being cheated in contracts with publishers, and constantly dwindling sales.

Detection Club Meetings

At the dinner party meetings, the founding members enjoyed the company of other mystery writers and assisted each other with technical questions that they encountered as they wrote. While current members meet less frequently, in the early days, members regularly travelled to London to meet at the Café Royal and other locations.

At the meetings, the members sometimes agreed to collaborate on a novel or an anthology of novellas in round-robin style with each collaborator contributing one or more chapters.

Freeman Wills Crofts

For the collaboration on The Floating Admiral, the members agreed to rules that reduced the possibility of collaborators creating unlikely or impossible complications to the plot without showing that the contributor had a plan for reaching a reasonable plot resolution. Each collaborator had to include a sealed resolution to the plot he or she envisioned based on his or her contribution plus the chapters previously provided by others. These resolutions were published with the novel.

The founding members:

The founding members included: Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ronald Knox, (who created Knox’s Commandments, also known as The Knox Decalogue, the ten fair-play rules that all members were to use as guidelines when writing their mysteries, and that are still used as guidelines today for the writing of murder mysteries of the traditional type. The famous initiation oath was based on these statutes.) G K Chesterton, who served as the first president of The Detection Club, Freeman Wills Crofts, Arthur Morrison, Hugh Walpole, John Rhode, Jessie Rickard, Baroness Emma Orczy, R Austin Freeman, G D H Cole, Margaret Cole, E C Bentley, Henry Wade, Constance Lindsay Taylor, H C Bailey and Anthony Berkeley.

These men and women represented some of the finest and most meticulous authors of mystery fiction–and non-fiction, and most of them are still widely read and greatly admired today.

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Peril in Persia by Judith Cranswick: the new Aunt Jessica adventure lands tomorrow!

This week I am delighted to talk to Judith Cranswick about her brand new book, Peril in Persia, which comes out on Monday 31st January. This will be the third book in the cosy mystery series Aunt Jessica adventures. For those of you who are new to Judith’s series, Aunt Judith is a historian and noted lecturer on art and cultural history who is in great demand on tourist trips to add that extra special something to the tour. She brings along her favourite nephew, Harry, and the pair of them always seem to get into scrapes and fall amongst ne’er-do-wells.

Judith also has another notable series, the Fiona Mason mysteries which are similar to the Aunt Jessica books in that Fiona Mason is a tour guide who accompanies groups on their trips with Super sun Holidays. Fiona has solved her own large share of mysterious murders and dastardly deeds. There are also a number of stand-alone novels, short story collections and even creative writing prompts to help authors to harness inspiration and put pen to paper.

About Peril in Persia: Aunt Jessica mysteries book 3

A forty-year-old conspiracy leads to murder and more lives are threatened.
When a fellow passenger is killed on the first day of their tour of Iran, Harry believes it was no accident. But who would want him dead and why? The murdered man was clearly no tourist so why was he on the tour? What is the link with the hotel manager? The questions keep coming. Harry becomes suspicious of several of his fellow passengers who he is convinced are not what they claim to be. He will need Aunt Jessica’s steadying hand to stop him rushing into danger to solve the mystery.
Revel in the magnificent setting as you take a tour of ancient Persia, exploring the glories of Darius the Great’s magnificent palace at Persepolis, the mud-brick desert cities from the 13th century, the palaces and gardens, to the peak of architectural splendour in Shah Abbas 17th century capital of Isfahan. But be prepared for treachery and deceit as the past demands revenge.
A whodunit with plenty of unexpected twists with a touch of humour. It will keep you guessing until the end.
What readers are saying: –

‘The thing I love about Judith Cranswick’s books is that you are transported to another world. The writing is so vivid, you can see the magnificent sights – the rich colours of the mosques, the sparkle of the palaces – hear the throng of the busy marketplaces and smell the perfumes of the lush Persian gardens.

‘Well researched. I never realised that Iran had such a rich history and the stories associated with the last Shah’s family were fascinating.’

‘Another unputdownable gem in a great series.

Click here to buy Peril in Persia: Aunt Jessica mysteries book 3

Like her protagonists, Judith also gives talks on a wide range of topics when she is on-board ship, helping holidaymakers to get more out of their trip.

Judith was kind enough to answer a few questions for me this week when I nabbed her in a dark corner, stole her passport and wouldn’t let her leave. (Not really.)

Caron: Many of your books are set on a holiday tour, are they all based on trips you’ve made personally?

Judith: All my travel mysteries are based on holidays I’ve taken. That is always my starting point. The trip comes first. The itinerary in the book is the same one I followed. Many of the things that happen on our journey end up in the novel. For example, I slipped down the last couple of stairs and twisted my ankle on the way to the Rhine Valley. I was able to use that idea in ‘Blood in the Wine’ to further the plot. Similarly, when we were in the Galapagos, we saw a sea lion with a tuna fish in its jaws batting it from side to side. I remember thinking, ‘What if that were a human arm?’ It was one of the things that inspired ‘A Death too Far’. Places can also give rise to ideas. The Hilton Hotel in Berlin has an impressive atrium which inspired the idea of hoisting someone over the balcony on the third floor for ‘Blood Hits the Wall’.

Caron: Have you ever had any odd encounters on your tours that you’ve thought would be perfect for a book, or perhaps even too unbelievable even for a novel?

Judith: After our tiger watching holiday in India, I came back with a complete plot. Our party included a successful Australian businesswoman who was partially deaf. She had paid for her young assistant to come with her. They were both drinking gin at breakfast which didn’t go down too well with everyone else. To make matters worse, the two fell out bigtime, so much so that one night the assistant went out of the compound where we were staying in the middle of the tiger reserve. A tiger had killed a man from one of the villages in the reserve only the week before and the guards were prohibited from going out once the gates were shut. In the end, one of the passengers went out on foot to bring her back. Our guide then had no choice but to go after him in a jeep to help find her. All three managed to get back safely, but the friction that followed would have made an excellent plot. Bar an actual murder, I had all the material – characters, subplots and fantastic wildlife and scenery – for ‘Tiger, Tiger’ another psychological suspense. Sadly, I’ve never had time to write it.

Caron: When is your next Fiona Mason book coming out? Any hints as to location? 

Judith: The next Fiona Mason Mystery will be set in Paris. I’d like to think that it will be ready by the end of the year, but I have a lecture cruise coming up at the end of March so I shall be busy putting together my presentations for the Canary Islands until after Easter. We also have a holiday planned for October when we’ll be doing a Nile Cruise. I’m hoping that will give me enough ideas for the next Aunt Jessica and Harry Mystery.

Caron: Are your characters based on people you meet on your travels? What about your sleuths? Are you the real Aunt Jessica or Fiona Mason?

Judith: My characters are always my own creations. Like many writers they take on a life of their own even doing things that surprise me. I’ve had a couple who point-blank refused to be the murderer and Peter Montgomery-Jones, who I only ever intended to be a minor character in the first Fiona novel ‘Blood on the Bulb Fields’, insisted not only on a bigger role but on coming back in all the later books in the series. It makes the novels considerably harder to plot. Not only do I have to find an additional terrorist/political mission for him to be involved in, but also tie it together with Fiona’s investigation at the end of the novel.

Although the idea of Aunt Jessica came from the Islamic specialist who came with us on our trips to Morocco and Persia, Jessica is nothing like Diana though they both work in the British Museum.

My characters may be totally from my imagination, but my locations are not. I need to picture them exactly. Hotels, flats or kitchens might not be in the places I say they are, but they are real. I had to make a special trip into Swindon to find a café in the right part of town, even sit in the same seat at a table in the window as my protagonist, before I could write the scene.

Many thanks to Judith for those wonderful insights.

You can find Judith on the following social media – do follow her for updates and other exciting stuff!

Website: www.judithnew.cranswick.org.uk

Facebook – author page: Judith Cranswick – crime writer

Twitter: @CranswickJudith

Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/author/show/ 7211080.Judith_Cranswick

My review:

Join Jessica and her nephew Harry on a new journey to discover art and cultural history in their latest adventure, Peril in Persia.

Jessica has been invited to host a series of lectures on an exclusive tour of Iran, presenting the holidaymakers with insight into the wonderful landscape of what is a trip of a lifetime for most. For some it’s the last trip they will make.

It doesn’t take long for Jessica and Harry’s seasoned eyes to work out that some members of the group have got something to hide, and still others are clearly not as unfamiliar with the area as they claimed. For a group of strangers, some of them certainly seem to know a lot about one another, too! As the group travels from site of interest to site of interest, soon the masks begin to slip and old animosities surface, with devastating consequences.

Fans of traditional cosy mysteries are in for a treat with book 3 in this series, as the clues begin to mount up and Jessica and Harry begin to figure out what’s really going on.

As always in Judith Cranswick’s books, the setting is a huge part of the enjoyment of the mystery, lending its own unique features as a backdrop to murder and intrigue. Like the Fiona Mason mysteries, the Aunt Jessica and Harry mysteries are perfect for both he armchair tourist and the armchair sleuth. Highly enjoyable!

***