It’s a Book Thing.

Reading, we are told, has a host of benefits; it helps us improve our word-power, it boosts memory, makes us more compassionate and caring, makes us more interesting, and it provides a means of escape from stress, anxiety and loneliness. So we ought to read, don’t you think?

Writers, too, are told to read. The received wisdom from most writing tutors and mentors, is as Stephen King says, ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write’. We can learn so much about the ‘how-to’ of writing, simply by reading other peoples’ work. You can learn the grammatical rules, and how to break them. You can learn how to plot, how to create believable characters, you can learn how to create suspense or how to write dialogue. The nuts and bolts of creativity and writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, literary or genre, for adult or children, it’s all there to be absorbed, in the pages of other peoples’ books.

But as we all know, life gets in the way. Apparently binge-watching TV shows is at the moment, the biggest ‘threat’ to reading. I say that in quotes because there’s always some new threat, and nothing ever seems to keep people away from books for good – thankfully.

I’m as guilty as anyone for binge-watching TV shows. I’ve gone from being someone who seldom watches TV to one of those people who says, ‘It’s still early, let’s watch the next one…’ So yes, it’s eaten into my reading time. I can say without shame I have binge-watched the usual: The Making of a Murderer; How To Get Away With Murder; Imposters; The Staircase; Unforgotten; Homicide Hunter; Snapped: Women Who Kill; as well as all the usual British mystery dramas: Vera, Shetland, Hinterland, Midsomer Murders, The Loch, Endeavour, Morse, Lewis, Poirot, Marple, The Coroner (fluffy but likeable, and underrated), Death in Paradise…

I’ve made a concerted effort this year though, to read more than I did in 2018. And yes, it is good to pick up a book and dive in, escaping from the world around me into a fictional place that I have never seen with my eyes, but which I feel instinctively I know in my head.

As a child, I used to think all my favourite characters and heroes knew each other. That they all existed in a collective fictional world, just the other side of my perception. I imagined Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington meeting up for honey or marmalade. I thought that the Famous Five and the Secret Seven got together for the odd ‘case’, forming the Tremendous Twelve. These days we’d call that a mash-up, I think. Fifty years ago, it was just my daft idea. Maybe there’s some fan-fiction out there somewhere in which these things actually take place. (If you write this kind of stuff, message me!!!)

Well you probably know that I love murder mysteries, but in fact I’m really a romantic suspense secret adherent. (We meet up, cult style, by candlelight wearing sheets and murmur the password, ‘You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’ In a phone box – it’s a small group.) There’s a strong romantic streak in my work, and if I read a murder mystery ‘without shenanigans’, I’m bitterly disappointed!

What I’ve read so far this year:

By Patricia Wentworth:

Grey Mask: the first Miss Silver book, published in 1928, and the Miss Silver character undergoes quite a bit of refining in later books. But I do love this one! A recent reprint.

Danger Point: Another Miss Silver, but published later, in 1942 in the full power of Wentworth’s writing. This is one of her best, in my opinion, although others point to the weak heroine, and it’s true, she is a bit of a wimp, but I love this book. After a long time out of print, it has recently been reissued.

The Alington Inheritance: Miss Silver again, one of the later books, published in 1956, and irresistibly romantic, with a young heroine, lost treasure, and a truly evil murderer that you instinctively hate from the outset.

The Coldstone: older, non-series, not her best work, but ok, particularly good if you want to get a feel for idioms and customs etc of the 1920s.

By Peter Robinson:

Sleeping in the Ground: I’m ashamed to say I got bored with this about a third of the way in and couldn’t be bothered with it. Yet I’ve got most of Robinson’s books, having started collecting them in the later 1990s when we lived in Australia. I used to go into Brisbane city centre to a shop called Pulp Fiction, which sold only genre fiction and true crime. I loved that shop! And that’s where I first met Peter Robinson’s books, and those of Barry Maitland, Marele Day and John Baker.

By Elly Griffiths:

The House at Sea’s End: I bought this book because I loved the title. This is a great book for lovers of murder mystery overlaid with a historical context. The main character is a forensic archaeologist. And there are a few shenanigans between the main character and the second main character (spoiler alert!) Actually this is the third book of the series, so I really should get the first two next, and do my homework!

By Julia Chapman:

Date with Mystery: I love the continuing characters in this series, they are revealed with such affection and depth. I am a bit frustrated by how slowly the two main characters are getting together – if they don’t get together soon, I shall be really fed up! The mysteries are quite good, but the characters are better. This is book 3 of the series, book 4 is out in June. I shall definitely get that. I have done my homework here and read the first two!

And by way of a change: By Rupi Kaur;

The Sun and her Flowers: a book of amazingly touching and vivid poetry – you have to read this if you love language, or the intricacies and nuances of family life. Or life, generally. Absolutely beautiful. I bought it for the cover and the title, and loved it. The poetry is mainly short and very accessible, reflections on what it means to be a wife, a daughter, a mother. Beautiful, wise, and a bit intimate.

Next to read:

Cara Hunter: In the Dark.

M J Rose: The Book of Lost Fragrances.

Peter May: I’ll Keep You Safe.

Chris Brookmyre: Black Widow.

 

What are you reading?

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My Mystery Author Heroes: Patricia Wentworth

At the end of last year, I made a little foray into the world of Golden Age mystery writers, looking briefly at the work of several well-known exponents of the genre, and in more depth at Agatha Christie, her life and her work.

This week I want to tell you a little bit about my favourite detective story writer, Patricia Wentworth, known mainly for her mysteries, but who also wrote romances.

Patricia Wentworth was her pen name. She was born as Dora Amy Elles in 1878 in India, and was educated at Blackheath School for Girls, now Blackheath High School, London.

She married quite young and had her first daughter. Her husband had two sons from a former relationship, one (or possibly both) of whom died in WWI. Her husband died in 1906, when she was still only in her late twenties. Wentworth moved to Camberley, Surrey, England, where she would live until her death in 1961. Wentworth met her second husband and married in 1920, and had another daughter. It was in Camberley Wentworth wrote most of her novels, with her second husband George writing down what she dictated.

Today she is mostly remembered for her 32 murder mysteries featuring private inquiry agent Miss Maud Silver, a former governess, keen observer of human nature and quoter of Tennyson and the Bible. But there are more than 40 other books which don’t feature detective Miss Silver, mostly mysteries, but there are some historical romances, and some poetry and stories for children.

For many years, I found it very difficult to obtain Wentworth’s books. But with the recent rise of small print runs and small presses, and the resurgence in interest in Golden Age and traditional mysteries, her work is enjoying a new popularity and reaching new audiences. Hodder have reissued the majority of the Miss Silver books over the last ten years, with Open Road Media and Dean Street Press publishing virtually all of the other books between them. Readers are often frustrated to find that the books have different titles in the UK and the USA, so please check carefully that you’re not buying the same book twice under different titles. There is an excellent bibliography on the Patricia Wentworth page in Wikipedia, along with publication dates.

Her work has often dismissed as being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘middle-class’, ‘tame’ and dated, but nevertheless I would say these books should not be so easily set aside.

To begin with, some of these books first appeared more than a hundred years ago, and are still popular. A Marriage Under The Terror won the Andrew Melrose prize in 1910, which earned her the handsome reward of two hundred and fifty guineas, quite a sum in those days. There was much speculation about her use of a pseudonym, claiming that it was impossible to keep her real identity a secret.

So we need to see them within their own era. I would agree with critics that some of the novels are not as strong, or as innovative, as others, that several plot devices reoccur (notably the indoor, uncovered well), and that from time to time, ‘the butler did it’. They are strongly romantic, which for me is a good thing, so they don’t fit comfortably into traditional generic categories, but again that is something that current trends are more flexible about. I know some readers find them too sweet, too and that there is not enough guts and gore—but hey, they’re cosies, get used to it.

The strengths of the books lies in the portrayal of the era, and in the way many of the characters are forced to find their way through unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. They are not all wealthy, they are not all high-born, artistic, celebrities or otherwise fortunate. The mysteries are pleasing, often very clever, and the reader can detect along with the protagonist. The writing is intelligent, clear, and lacking in long flowery descriptions, which I personally detest.

I recommend them for students of creative writing who want to improve their dialogue and character writing skills, their plotting skills or anyone who wants to write novels set in the recent past, or for readers who love a traditional mystery without body parts being lopped off, or strong language, or who prefers romance without sex scenes, or who likes something with a strong sense of morality and a satisfying mystery.

If you want to give them a go, below are a couple of my favourite titles:

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/caronallan/patricia-wentworth-books/

 

 

 

 

 

 

What was the ‘Golden Age’ of British mystery writing?

We sometimes hear or read this term, ‘so-and-so was a Golden Age author’ or ‘in the Golden Age style’. But what was the Golden Age? When was it, what did it mean, who were the exponents of the Golden Age, and is it still relevant today? Here is a (necessarily VERY brief) overview of the term and its legacy.

When was it? Well, according to some sources I’ve studied, (Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William DeAndrea, Google and Wikipedia, obviously 🙂 Twentieth Century Crime Fiction by Lee Horsley and The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble) there is a general consensus that The Golden Age of mystery/detective fiction began in 1920 and ended in 1939 at the outbreak of World War ll.

What was it, and why was it new or different? Although there had been notable forays into detective fiction in the nineteenth century eg Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins to name just a couple, a lot of fiction had been in the form of short stories, usually with an ‘improving’ moral or message, or as novella-length, often rather highbrow, works. Essays and poetry, philosophy and criticism had been popular for decades. But the growth of a literate public, the rise of libraries and more disposable income, led to a desire for lighter, more accessible works of a purely entertaining nature. Mysteries became socially acceptable too, and were enjoyed by the well-to-do and well-educated, as well as by working class men and women.

Mass market fiction or pulp fiction was no longer a thing to be scorned, but became more generously regarded. The detective element of the story transformed it into an intellectual exercise. I would perhaps suggest that, following the trauma of World War l, detective stories provided a means of sanitising violence and putting danger at arm’s length, and keeping it under control. The genre required that good would triumph and order be restored at the end of the story.

Detective fiction of this time became all about the puzzle. Readers were very sophisticated and demanding, requiring more and more complex riddles to entertain them. This cerebral pastime acquired a kind of moral kudos, described by Phillip Guedalla, a well-known British writer and barrister of the time, as ‘the natural recreation of the noble mind’. Others said that it had become ‘feminised’, doing away with the macho, aggressive ‘male’ approach of might and power, with both readers and writers exhibiting the traditionally female qualities of intuition, insight, and I might add, craftiness. Perhaps that is why so many of the most successful authors of the era were women.

So in these works, the emphasis was on cerebral/intellectual puzzle rather than physical action and strength. Gore and violence was contained, and mainly ‘off-stage’; there was a defined resolution; and the reader expected to read a story peppered with clues and red herrings that she or he could solve alongside the detective. The emphasis was on the pursuit of Justice and Truth, and doing what was Right. There was a moral high-ground to be held. As Dorothy L Sayers detective, Lord Peter Wimsey says, ‘…in detective stories, virtue is always triumphant, they’re the purest form of literature we have.’ (quoted, 20th century crime, p52)

Who were these Golden Age authors? Many of them came, flourished briefly and went again, but some of the biggest sellers in crime fiction today are authors from that era. Here are just a few:

Agatha Christie – often considered the foremost leader of the genre, she both established and contravened the definition of the classic mystery. She was often accused of ‘not playing fair’ with the reader, never more so than in the (grudgingly admiring) outcry following the release of her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. She famously began writing detective fiction as a bet with her sister. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was her first published novel in 1920, and featured Hercule Poirot who became arguably the most recognisable sleuth in detective fiction, on paper, and on the TV and film screen.

Ngaio Marsh – New Zealand born, she famously wrote her first murder mystery out of boredom. In 1934 the release of A Man Lay Dead led to 30+ other novels, all featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The books were turned into a popular TV series. Marsh was also renowned for her work in the theatre. She was a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America, and new books continued to be published until the 1980s.

Nicholas Blake – pen name of Cecil Day Lewis; wrote poetry, criticism and essays, as well as twenty detective mysteries towards the end of the Golden Age era, 16 of which feature Nigel Strangeways, a consulting detective who helps both police and government as required. First of these A Question of Proof 1935.

Anthony Berkley – a writer and the founder of the Detection Club in 1928 whose aim was to preserve and promote the classic detective story. Wrote as A B Cox, Anthony Berkley and Francis Iles. As Francis Iles he wrote some of his best known works, Malice Aforethought in 1931, and in 1932 Before The Fact which was filmed as Suspicion with Alfred Hitchcock as the director.

Freeman Willis Crofts – born and raised in Ireland, author of The Cask 1920 which was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies. He was one of the first authors to focus on police procedure and not merely the enthusiastic amateur detective. This was the same year as AC’s Mysterious Affair Styles and is taken as the landmark year to commence the era. He wrote other books, collaborating with the authors of the detection club and also a book of short stories.

Other well-known authors of the era included: G K Chesterton, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and many more. In the United States, there were also authors writing in the genre, although here the ‘hard-boiled’ mystery quickly became popular. Here are just a few of those authors:

S S Van Dine – he is mainly remembered for his detective Philo Vance, but there were other works. Van Dine was embarrassed by his authorship of popular fiction as he had higher aspirations, and he used his pen name to conceal his identity for a number of years. The first mystery novel to feature Philo Vance was The Benson Murder Case in 1926, followed by more works within a year or two, making him one of the USA’s top selling authors at that time, and his works were turned into films.

John Dickson Carr famously termed detective fiction as “the grandest game in the world”.

In 1935 his novel The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) was published and it is still considered his finest work. He was a master of the locked room puzzle. he often used English settings and even characters, for example his best known detectives were Brits named Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but there are others, and books set in other nations. He also wrote stand-alone novels:  such as The Burning Court which appeared in 1937, in all he produced over sixty mystery and historic novels, in addition to short stories and plays under the name John Dickson Carr and as Carter Dickson.

Ellery Queen – Was actually two men, writing under the pseudonyms of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Their first book was The Roman Hat Mystery published in 1929; subsequent books shared the title style, being all ‘The something something mystery’, which in many ways is still the standard form of title today. There were over thirty books in all, plus other series eg Drury Lane series etc, and other pen names. And notably, the hugely successful TV series, and the magazine.

What is the legacy of the Golden Age of detective fiction? Currently Crime, Thrillers and Mystery makes up one of the largest categories in fiction, apart from possibly romance. You can see endless variations on the detective theme from crime noir to cosy, with subgenres in legal, hard-boiled, gay and lesbian, spy, medical, political, police procedural, and even paranormal mystery. If the parameters have changed in regard to content and character types, if attitudes have changed, and settings have become exotic, or even practically a character in itself, we are still as in love with the puzzles presented by murder mysteries as those readers of the 1920s and 30s. We love to curl up in an armchair and lose ourselves in a mystery where the Reader is in fact the main detective.

 

 

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