Notebooks for A Wreath of Lilies: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 2
I’ve mentioned a couple of times this year that I am writing a new book. Three new books, to be precise. (four really, but that’s a secret, shh!)
Most people, when I meet them for the first time, stare at my silver hair and ask if I still work, or am I retired? And I tentatively tell them I write novels – ‘Just cosy murder mysteries, a teeny bit like Agatha Christie,’ I say. Usually their response is, ‘I’ve often thought about writing a book.’
Sometimes people who are nosy, bored or just desperate to make conversation, ask me how I do the actual writing, do I have a system, use special software, and so forth. I’m not sure my very simple, low-tech approach could be called a ‘method’ or a ‘system’ as such. But my ‘system’ is very simple, straightforward, and I always do things more or less the same way. And anyone can do this, it’s not a natural gift, I don’t believe. You can learn how to write.
This is what I do in eight easy steps:
I love books, and stories and I read a lot, and have done so since I was very young. This makes me imagine stuff, and create ideas and more importantly, plot ideas, in my head. I spend a LOT of time staring into space or doing sudoku etc as I mull stuff over in my mind. That’s stage 1, if you like.
I make a few notes in a notebook. Mine are actual paper notebooks, but other people use virtual notebooks on their computer, laptops, kindles or phones, or on the back of cigarette packets, till receipts or loo roll. Later I transfer these to a Word doc on my computer (see below, point 4) by tedious typing or even more tedious dictating.
Then, at some point (between a week to twenty years later), I get a set of matching (this is very important) (not really, I’m kidding!) notebooks, and I
Just because I’ve got a lot of notebooks doesn’t mean it’s a fetish out of control… Everyone has fifty or sixty ‘spare’ notebooks, don’t they?
start writing my story. Longhand. It’s like, sooo old-fashioned it’s not true. Actually writing with a real life pen on actual paper: for me, this very physical or manual sensory experience is what helps my creativity. This is the first draft.
Once I reach the ‘messy’ stage–where I can no longer remember what I’ve written, who the characters are, or I’ve lost track of the timeline, I then type or dictate these into Word docs on my computer. I set up 54 documents per book: one for ‘the whole thing’ which is my second draft master document, then: one for characters, one for notes inc research and ideas, one for useful ‘of the era’ stuff, eg for my 1960s books, I have lists of top ten pop songs, most recent TV shows, movies, movie stars, that kind of background detail. Then finally, I have 50 Word docs numbered 1 to 50, and these are where I type up my handwritten first draft scenes.
Dirty Work notebooks: the new fourth book in the Friendship Can Be Murder ‘trilogy’.
I know this sounds like a tedious process, but as I am doing all that typing up, it is giving me a chance to a) reacquaint myself with my story and what I’ve written so far and who everyone is, and b) I can amend dodgy phrases or waffley bits as I go, resulting in a better, second, draft which usually contains lots of questions to myself listing things to check up on or to remember later, and c) I can see what’s missing, duplicated or just plain not working or not necessary.
I then copy each of these 50 docs into the master ‘whole thing’ document, and ta-da! I’ve got a full second draft, ready for revising and rewriting.
Then, ‘all’ that’s left to do is: first, go through and check for typos and inconsistencies. Second, to go through and answer all my own questions, double-check all my ‘don’t forgets’, and delete those all from the master copy. Third, reread, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it’s as smooth and gorgeous as I can possibly imagine it. Then, when I’m at the point I feel like throwing it out of the window and running away to join the Foreign Legion (I’m 62 and creaky, so they wouldn’t take me, anyway) I rewrite it again.
Then it’s time for editing. Eventually I will give a last proofread, kiss it goodbye, and upload it to You-Know-Where, amongst other platforms. See? Easy!
Putting it like this on the page or screen, it certainly sounds fiddly/dull but hopefully you can see that it’s not hard. The idea of writing a book, in and of itself, is not the hard bit. The bit people often struggle with, especially if they are one of the people who say ‘I’ve often thought about writing a book’, is the persistence: keeping on with it past the time when it is fun and exciting, past the self-doubt, the ‘why am I doing this?’, past the angry, resentful, and anxious, ‘Who do I think I am, thinking I am good enough to write a book?’, past the ‘but I’d rather watch TV or smooch with my OH’, and on into the calm, resigned waters of ‘Well, it’s too late for regrets, I’ve done it.’ And finally you emerge into the ‘OMG, I did it’ sense of achievement that comes way, way after all the difficult bit is over.
Persistence is what you need. That is actually the tricky bit. Overcome your mind and you can do anything.
Point of View – or POV as it’s usually called – is an important consideration when writing a story. Sometimes the POV is a foregone conclusion: if you are writing your autobiography, then it’s all going to be from your point of view, written in the first person: ‘I was born in 1945, the war had just ended…’ And then, if it’s a book about someone else, then it’s going to be third person more often than not. ‘He/she/they were born in 1945, the war had just ended…’
Sometimes writers like to experiment with strictly limited points of view, and this can be a huge challenge. It is quite a task to write everything based around what ‘you’ did. ‘You were born in 1945, the war had just ended…’ If you’re not careful it can end up sounding rather like an episode of ‘This Is Your Life’ – even if you’re writing fiction. But it can be very controlling and a bit voyeuristic and sinister, so works well if used in small doses in psychological thrillers.
Very often writers will combine POVs to show the viewpoint of different characters. For example, there might be a scene which is written from the point of view of a stalker, watching someone, and the writer might employ the second person POV here, as I’ve just mentioned. There might be a scene which starts, from the stalker’s POV, ‘You were born in 1945, the war had just ended, but you never knew poverty or hardship because of your family’s wealth and your privileged lifestyle.’
I spy a plot twist coming…
Then, the writer might switch to a third person POV and show the life of a wealthy oil magnate and his family, who are calling in the police due to receiving threats or realising that they are being stalked. The advantage of using these two differing viewpoints is it saves the writer from being forced to use the dreaded, reviled ‘little did they know, but..’ ploy. We, as readers, are able to ‘see’ what is going on, and the pressure builds as we wait, helpless, to see what will happen as these two opposing POVs come closer and closer together. It’s a great way to increase tension, make the story feel claustrophobic and to give the reader those chills down the back of the neck that are the hallmark of a terrifyingly good thriller with everything to be played for.
Getting ready to check my new story for inconsistencies, blunders and plot tangles
Although most of my books require the use of the traditional third person POV, I like the first person POV. I once read that this is the tool of a new or inexperienced writers, but I disagree with that. I love the first person viewpoint because it immediately plunges the reader into a more intimate involvement with the story, it’s as if the action is all happening to ‘me’. It can be quite a tricky one to write as there are a few things to bear in mind with this POV. It can be hard to be consistent with tense and viewpoint. A writer can drift into a third person POV without realising they’ve done it until later when they reread, and then they are stuck with a lot of rewriting! And because the first person POV is very limited, the reader can only ‘know’ what the first person POV knows. It’s a useful way to drip-feed information to the reader, but there are difficulties in enabling the reader to know what’s going on if the narrator themselves is in the dark, so to speak.
This is also a great way to get the reader taking a wrong turn. It’s the writer’s job to draw the reader into the story in such a way that they forget that the narrator, with their crafty use of the first person POV, may not, in fact, be telling the truth. The unreliable narrator is a wonderful plot device especially in mysteries or thrillers – this will always lead to a huge twist at the end of the book as the reader suddenly sees clearly how they have been misled. Think of (spoiler alert)The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. These days it’s heralded as a stunning piece of misdirection, but at the time of its release, Christie was accused of not playing fair with the reader, and of cheating. I’m definitely in the first camp – I think it’s an incredibly cleverly constructed story. Even knowing how it’s done doesn’t diminish the pleasure I get from rereading what I feel is arguably Christie’s best work.
When a writer sits down to begin work on a new story, the POV is the first thing they need to decide. POV determines the course of a whole story.
Extras complaining to the author about not having a name – again.
Last week was all about the main characters – the detective, the villain, the side-kick and of course the victim(s).
This week, I’m interested in thinking about the minor characters – or extras – in my head I see these as a kind of walk-on part, much like those in any TV show or movie. They don’t always have lines. Sometimes they don’t even have names. They might be described as ‘an elderly dog-walker’ or ‘the woman behind the shop counter’. They crop up everywhere the story goes – in shops, houses, on village greens, in museums, and at dinner parties.
But why are they there?
Extras fulfill a number of criteria and needs for the author and the reader.
they can deflect attention away from the culprit or villain.
they can provide the reader with useful clues or snippets of information.
equally, they can provide us with (less useful, sometimes) red herrings and wrong-turns.
they enrich the story so it doesn’t consist of just your four main characters, unless that’s the whole point of the story.
they can give us a sneak-peek of something that might happen in a later book if this is a series.
they act as a kind of commentator or dramatic chorus to comment on the action or criticise or laud the ‘hero’.
But life as an Extra can be tough and is often unpredictable.
Police or other people in authority (completely unaware all too often that they themselves are Extras, can bully them or wrongfully arrest an Extra and accuse them of terrible things they haven’t done.
You need a huge range of skills as you may be called upon to perform almost any task from forensic assistant to chambermaid.
As an Extra, you might be completely overlooked by the reader who doesn’t even notice you, let alone what a magnificent job you do pretending to be an elderly dog-walker when you’re really a young woman in her twenties on her way to college and you don’t even like dogs.
Alice was at the party with two friends. Who were they? No one knows.
And they never remember your name, which is why you have to have a description attached: Miss Jones, the games mistress at school where victim used to teach. You might even find yourself very near the bottom of a long list of characters, a list designed to help readers remember all the people in the book they’ve met but don’t remember.
No one asks your opinion. ‘Tell us, Poirot,’ they cry, at the end of the book. ‘Who did this dastardly deed? and why?’ I mean, all the Extras probably know this information too, don’t they. But no one ever asks them. They just come in with the tea tray and leave without anyone noticing.
Likewise, no one ever asks an Extra if they’re okay and how they feel about being shut up in a big country house with loads of stairs, and a murderer roaming about bumping people off willy-nilly.
And as if all this is not enough, when the author gets bored, you might even end up as the next victim, just to ‘spice things up a bit’.
How is that fair? It’s not just a policeman’s life that’s terrible hard. Try being an Extra for one book, let alone a whole series. I’m only surprised they don’t have a union.
‘I hate being in crowd scenes,’ said the person in the red outfit. ‘So do I!’ said another person in yellow. ‘It’s so anonymous.’
I love murder mysteries. I doubt this comes as any kind of a surprise to most people reading this blog. Characters in a murder mystery fall into one of two categories: they are either part of the Big Four, or they are Extras. This week I want to quickly chat about the Big Four.
Who are the Big Four?
The Big Four are the main characters without whom we would have no murder mystery. They are: The Victim(s), The Villain(s), The Side-kick(s) and The Detective(s).
And yes, they often come as a pair or even more, not just as a lone individual. Detectives, for example, often come as a pair – one an amateur and one a professional. Villains too, can sometimes deliberately confuse the reader by sharing the limelight with another villain, and share the crimes too.
And who doesn’t love a high body-count? Why stop at one Dastardly Deed when you can have two, or three, or…
Let me introduce you…
Victims, as avid mystery lovers know, are always bumped off for a reason. And obviously it is The Detective(s)’s(s’)(??) job to discover why and bring the perpetrator to justice.
The richer, the more arrogant, cruel, cold, grasping, greedy and crafty our victim is/was, the better we like it, don’t we? We can then take a vicarious pleasure in their demise as we would never, ever do such a thing ourselves in real life. And the worse they are, the nastier and more creative their all-too-timely death should be. BUT.
They can’t be so bad that we don’t care if their killer evades detection.
In my view, ideally there should be two or three of these demises per mystery because, if I’m honest, I’m always a bit disappointed if there’s ‘only’ one.
The Victim is there for one reason only–to make us, the reader feel clever: to provide something for The Detective to detect, of course.
Whenever I hear the word ‘villain’ I always think of a man in a swirling black cape and top hat, twirling his moustaches menacingly (or smugly, either will do)and saying ‘Mwah haha’.
Sadly, the days of Dick Dastardly have gone, (drat, drat and double drat) and nowadays The Villain can look like anyone:
A little old lady.
A stalwart Major-type.
A handsome young man on his honeymoon. (I’m looking at you, Death on the Nile.)
A nurse. (Sad Cypress)
Even a child. (Crooked House)
The Villain is often charming, often invokes our sympathy due to baggage and issues, and can even make us think, ‘Aww well, she/he’s had a tough childhood, maybe we should kindly overlook those four grisly murders and let her/him have a new chance at life.’
We must be on our guard at all times throughout the book until the moment this villain is unmasked.
The Sidekick has a demanding role. They are there as a kind of placeholder/proxy for the reader.
They must be clingy to the point of irritating, sticking by The Detective’s side when they really should go away and leave him/her alone to think things through. But no, they stick around at all times, asking stupid, inane and tedious questions, so that we don’t have to. We sit at home in our comfiest armchair and loudly exclaim, ‘Rookie mistake, I already knew that…’ but really we’re thinking, ‘Ooh I wasn’t sure, but now that you mention it…’
The side-kick – desperately needed to help us survive the journey
So they are there to help The Detective and the reader to find the evidence and the clues and to arrive at the truth of the mystery.
In fact they don’t create a dialogue, but they are the dialogue – through The Side-kick, the reader can talk to The Detective and The Detective can talk to us.
The Detective can be anyone.
Rather like The Villain, The Detective can be a law-and-order professional, or someone from an associated profession (forensics, psychology…), or an amateur with a gift, a nurse, a priest (The Complete Father Brown stories) a stalwart major-type, a nurse, a handsome young man on his honeymoon or even a child (The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie).
The Detective has one job and one job only: to find out whodunit and bring them to justice.
It’s essential that her or his main characteristics include:
Passionate desire for justice, even at risk to self, it goes without saying, I hope.
Incredibly close attention to detail: ‘Sacre bleu, this dust is 3.14159 milimetres in ze thickness, therefore the killer was the maid and the crime was committed on Tuesday afternoon.’* The whole case may depend on just this kind of minuteness.
‘Mesdames et messieurs, allow me to reveal at last, the identity of the criminal’.
Very keen observation skills: ‘Zut alors, the footprints in the mud are of a depth of 3.14159 milimetres, therefore we must find a person of 6 feet 1 inch who weighs 189lbs.’
From the two above attributes, we can also see that they must be good at mathematics too.
Lastly, the Detective must have a huge ego: We readers love to have all the suspects in a room at the end of the story, and to be taken step by step through the crime to learn the identity of The Villain, and to have the satisfaction of them being led away in handcuffs. Therefore it is essential that our Detective loves to show off just a little and to deliver a lecture on how clever he/she is and how many different things we missed.
So next time you are reading a mystery, keep a handy notebook and pen by your side, so you can check for all these points!
*must supply own white hat
*sorry btw, for me all fictional detectives are Hercule Poirot, even when they’re not
Let’s play a game of ‘what shall we do this weekend’.
I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would to travel back in time to the actual 1930s* instead of just daydreaming/writing or pretending/obsessing about it…
This is what I’ve come up with:
Things I’d be excited to do/try:
A posh weekend at a country house with lots of people who are glamorous and speak nicely.
Ditto the big frocks and hair-dos.
And gloves and hats.
And the four/five/six course dinners.
Going to the house of someone posh for ‘drinks’.
Dancing to the radio in a kind of impromptu disco at home with dinner guests.
The excitement of talkies – films with speaking actors!
Meet Gary Cooper when he was young and gorgeous…
And knowing there is a study or library, and perhaps even secret passages.
And bell-pulls to summon people from the depths of the house. I’d be like a child, ringing the bell then have to run away as there would be no legitimate reason to ring for them…
Maybe a maze? Or a rose garden? Or both? What about a croquet lawn? I am certain I’d be an amazing talent when it came to croquet. I can always bowl a great croque.
It might be nice to – very occasionally – have all the men stand up out of politeness when I come into the room. Or stop using bad words because I am in the vicinity and am a ‘lady’ (until they get to know me better, of course).
Travelling by steam train in the actual era they were used, not just on a preserved line in my usual jeans/t-shirt combo.
Things I’d miss terribly:
Being able to say all those bad words that are so good for stress relief when things go wrong. In the 1930s, I’d probably be vilified for my potty-mouth. Though to be fair, most of my rage is triggered by modern technology so it wouldn’t be an issue in the 1930s, when a telegram was still pretty exciting, and indoor plumbing was all too often a thing reserved for the gentry.
Sorry if I’ve destroyed your illusions about the way a writer speaks/acts/looks, btw.
My freezer, and my microwave.
Going to a cafe ALL the time to sit and watch the world go by whilst pretending to write.
The Internet (sorry to all you nay-sayers).
Nipping to a supermarket – even on a SUNDAY to get the bits and pieces I completely forgot I urgently needed.
Books by all my favourite post-1930s authors such as Ann Cleeves, Helena Dixon, Julie Wassmer, Helen Forbes, Emma Baird…
TV: Midsomer Murders/Death in Paradise/Vera/Madame Blanc/Strike/Van der Valk/Darby and Joan/Three Pines/The Chelsea Detective/Dalgliesh/Whitstable Pearl… (can you spot a trend here?)
All my modern vaccinations – I don’t want to catch diptheria/small pox/scarlet fever etc
Being able to slob about in jeggings and a baggy jumper – because I reckon there could be times when looking posh 1930s-style might just be too much effort…
Being allowed an opinion about anything other than babies, flower arranging or hair-dos.
So what do you think? What would you be desperate to see/try/person to meet? Or what would you miss the most? Or what about another era? What would be your perfect era to visit if that were possible?
*obviously I’m dragging my poor family along with me – I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere exciting without them.
I recently signed up to shepherd.com – it’s a platform that aims to bring together readers and authors. One of the great ways they do this is to feature posts by authors on a topic that readers might find interesting. This also gives authors a chance to showcase their own work to readers who may not have come across them before.
In my case, I love classic mysteries, so I wanted to give a brief introduction to five books that are absolutely up there in the Must Read section but whose work may be new to readers, or readers may have only read some of that authors more popular titles, as in the case of Agatha Christie, for example.
Without further ado, let me get you started on my rundown of my top picks:
Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie
Why this book?
Death Comes as the End is an unusual Christie murder mystery. The story is set in the ancient past, so no familiar mustache-twirling detective or knitting old lady here! It’s set in the time of the Pharoahs, and the era is beautifully brought to life by the author, who was knowledgeable about the ancient world. It’s deeply absorbing, and so perfectly described, you feel you are there.
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.
The Listening Eye by Patricia Wentworth
Why this book?
The strengths of Wentworth’s books lie in the portrayal of the era, and in the characters who are forced to find their way through unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. They are not all wealthy, they are not all high-born, and we watch them as they try to adapt to wartime conditions and deprivations.
Wentworth’s mysteries are fascinating, clever, with the protagonist Miss Silver, a spinster who is a professional ‘private enquiry agent’. The Listening Eye, I feel, contains some of the most acute observations of human nature, and this makes the characters just seem so relatable. Wentworth books are ‘clean’ mysteries with a strong thread of romance, little gore, no bad language, or sexy shenanigans.
Catt Out Of The Bag by Clifford Witting
Why this book?
This is a great one to curl up on a cold night with. A group of carolers go out to sing at Christmas. One disappears. That’s it. The stage is set in such a simple way, it’s masterful. Bring on the ‘sleuth’, John Rutherford, who manages to be the Watson to the official police investigators, along with his wife Molly. The story is witty, intriguing, and beautifully put together.
Witting really deserves to be better known as his writing is definitely on a par with the Golden Age detective writer greats. Now being republished by Galileo Publishing.
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
Why this book?
This is a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it’s my favourite. Along with his faithful manservant, Bunter, Wimsey is stranded by a car accident and quickly finds himself in the midst of a dastardly deed. I have to admit, I often find the ‘What Ho’ type of upper-class gentleman of that era irritating, but this book is not quite so bad as others. What I like most about this one is the technical side of the crime, so often missing in books of that era, which makes for an absorbing read.
Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh
Why this book?
I always like to get in at the beginning of an ongoing romance/relationship and this is the one where Alleyn meets Troy, the artist and his future wife. Actually, no I take that back, it’s a spoiler, don’t pay any attention. What if she’s the killer? Then where would the rest of these books be?
You might think Marsh’s characters seem no different than Sayers’, Christie’s, etc well-to-do detectives and their privileged suspects, but there is a difference here. There is tension between Alleyn, his traditional outlook, his job, and Troy’s more liberal leanings. But like any great couple, together they make a great, if not very romantic, combination.
So that’s it. I just want to add, there was a space-constraint here, so that’s why I had to be a bit more succinct than is usual for me.!
If you enjoyed this, why not head over to shepherd.com and see what else is on offer. You might find a new author to read, or you might find an old author you’d forgotten about!
I was an only child and I spent a great deal of time on my own. We did not have a lot of money but we always had a collection of books, and of course library cards.
Books intrigued me. There were grown-up books with lurid enigmatic dust jackets, pictures of strangers lurking in darkened doorways, or a single outflung hand, or an image of lip-sticked women with broken pearl necklaces. These I was not allowed to read as they were ‘too grown-up’ but I liked to look at the covers.
Then there were the books that had either been my mother’s or one of her brother’s or sister’s: Enid Blyton’s ‘The Island of Adventure’, Malcolm Saville’sLone Pine Five series. I read the ones we had again and again, struggling at first with the more advanced language of the Saville books, but not wanting to put them down – something in those stories gripped me. And when I became old enough to have pocket money, aged 9 or 10, I began to spend all my money, from birthdays and Christmas too, on any books I could get my hands on. By the time I was 11, I had hundreds.
Now more than 50 years old!
I can remember making paper models of Famous Five and Lone Pine Five stories, cutting out little people–and of course the dog–and things like tents and bicycles. I also wrote to Malcolm Saville and was thrilled to receive a letter back, signed by him and enclosing a Lone Pine Five badge—he was already in his late 70s or early 80s at that time.
I can remember writing my own stories on the back of scrap paper, and stapling them together inside a ‘cover’ made from a cereal packet which I decorated with crayons. I made dozens of little notebooks for myself.
An aunt gave me a massive book on Christmas–the complete works of Lewis Carroll. I loved that. Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, of course, but even the essays, the letters, acrostics and puzzles, and, new to me then, the magical Sylvie and Bruno stories. I read ‘Twas Brillig…’ in German—or tried to—before I even started to learn the language, and it too was magical.
I can’t remember the day when I suddenly thought ‘I could do this, I could be a writer’. I can only remember that those early books gave me something that I longed to participate in. By the time I was 10 or 11, it was a fully fledged ambition. I wrote stories and made covers for them from cereal packet carboard. My teacher took them seriously and critiqued them.
Poems that inspired me, and filled me with encouragement, a sense of story, and with awe: Jabberwocky. Daffodils by Wordsworth. I read it as a child and felt I could really see them—the simple imagery was something I could understand and relate to. The haunting opening line of Walter de la Mare’sThe Traveller—‘Is anybody there…?’
The first Enid Blyton ‘detective’ story I read.
It wasn’t until I was older, in my mid-teens, that I began to see writing as something I wanted to do in a professional capacity—but I was told I didn’t have the right background, or the right education, the right skills, that kind of thing. Did it stop me? No, of course not. If you’re passionate about a thing, no one and nothing can stop you. I told myself I could write ‘just for myself’, not to try to be published. So I saw myself as a hobbyist.
Formal studies at school and through university courses made me learn to see books as works, and view them from the outside, so to speak, not just immerse myself into them as an experience. I learned to understand techniques and things like plots and motifs and point of view. I discussed meaning and learned phrases like ‘unwitting testimony’. I honed my own writing skills and learned important grammar stuff. A lot of the books I ‘had’ to read didn’t appeal to me beyond the course. But I learned so much about books and writing.
Wow, I was staggered by the whole concept of stream-of-consciousness writing. And this was one of those works that really made you think. I was in bits by the end.
The Colour Purple
It was the direct yet otherness of the language that showed me how to reveal pain, to gain the reader’s sympathy and it made me want Celie to find her children and be happy. It felt all-engrossing. When she finally started addressing her letters to her children and not to God, it felt like an arrival. An emotional one.
Pride and Prejudice
It was what wasn’t said that I found touching. And also the gentle humour. I had never realised until I read P & P that ‘classics’ could be enjoyable.
The Wind In The Willows
The richness of the language, definitely wasted on children, was what inspired me. That and the busy minutiae of the animals’ everyday lives, so clearly people by any other name.
Patricia Wentworth & Agatha Christie
My cosy mystery heroines. The ‘safety’ of their stories and her worlds, the cosiness, the black and white certainty of each story is so restful and enjoyable. The intellectual wanting to know ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’. The satisfaction of revealing the culprit and vindicating the innocent. Christie sometimes added an extra layer of meaning, but overall I feel that her books remain cosy.
These were the books and the authors that got me started on the slippery slope! What are your book memories?
I first shared this blog post in 2016. To date, it’s still my best-performing blog post. Not sure if that is because it’s one of my shortest – I am quite a waffler these days.
But I love that line. It’s line 431 from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first time I read the poem, when I got to this line I burst into tears, because it seemed such a beautiful summation, of the poem, of my life, everything. Words do that to me–I’m a very emotional person, I’m glad to say.
I believe that our lives are made up of fragments. We are, in essence, a walking, talking collection of every experience we’ve ever had. This includes what we’ve read. Words.
So often I am out and about–yes, I escape now and again–and I hear something, see something, smell something which provokes a memory of something I’ve read. Most often it is snatches of conversation I overhear, being nosey and a crime writer, which as we all know gives me special dispensation to eavesdrop on others. (‘I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest.’) Words seem to lead to more words.
I hear someone say, ‘The wonderful thing…’ and mentally I’ve added ‘…about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things.’ (I didn’t promise it was anything erudite!) Or someone may say ‘Wherever I go…’ and I think to myself ‘there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me.’ (By the way, Winnie the Pooh is not just for kids. Just read the chapter called The Piper At the Gates of Dawn…)
It’s not just A A Milne, though. So often snatches of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, songs, poems, plays, hymns, prayers, all sorts of words come into my head. I can’t look at spring flowers without thinking ‘A host of golden daffodils’ or ‘April is the cruellest month’. (The Waste Land again!) A tall person becomes ‘thou painted Maypole’. A mouse is a ‘wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. (Burns of course, who else?)
If something annoying happens, I hear Miss Marple whisper, ‘Oh dear, how extremely vexing,’ or I hear someone say something stupid, and Mr Bennett’s frustrated, outraged, ‘Until you come back…I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together’ comes to mind. I share his pain. In extremis, ‘I shall be in my library; I’m not to be disturbed.’ (Not unless there’s cake or Midsomer Murders.) Or I might hear Miss Silver’s indulgent, ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’
Or if sorrows come in, it’s Matthew Arnold’s painful comment filled with longing, ‘Ah love, let us be true to one another,’ because he believed that one another was all we have. (Dover Beach).
There’s always another wonderful sketch of words from someone who lived many years before my time. Or a contemporary. Or the next generation. We all use and need words.
And because of this, none of us can ever come to a text, for the first time, or the tenth, ‘cold’ or ‘new’. There is really no neutral approach in the human soul. We bring with us the sum of all our experiences and emotions, our world-view and our beliefs, and those inform what we read, and mercifully sometimes, what we read can inform all those things too.
When I was studying literature ‘back in the day’, I remember The Waste Land was one of our set texts. Critics deplored it, dismissing it as a pastiche, a patchwork quilt of other peoples’ work, revealing only a good memory for quotations. Students shuddered and declared it was one of the worst experiences of their life. But for some of us, there was a sense of ‘wow, I never knew poetry could be like this!’
When I read his words, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 431), I said to my tutor, I think he is saying that literature, that words, will save us in times of crisis, bolster us when we are at a low ebb. I was told I was wrong, but in spite of that, I still choose to believe this could be one meaning of these, for me, immortal words. These fragments of remembered stories, poems, previous experiences, feelings, of words, I have stored up, internalised, to use as a defence, shored against my ruin, my unhappiness, times of want, misery, sorrow and confusion. Ruin.
For me it is a reminder that many things in life are transient, passing, temporary, but I will always carry within me the sum of what I have read. Just read Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and tell me I’m wrong. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got a cheeky grin at the end. It’s perfect, and all human life is there.
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:
The Listening Eye
The Alington Inheritance
The Clock Strikes Twelve
And there are loads more, both series, and non-series.
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:
“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 provesto 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 passthrough 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.
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.