Posts Tagged crime fiction
*Disclaimer – there are a lot more than ten books. I don’t automatically have a problem with compliance, but to attempt to distill 57 years of reading into just ten books would be just silly. Far harder, in a way, than the Ten Albums thing I did a while back.
Anyway, despite all of that, reading other people’s selections on Facebook did get me thinking about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, made me the person I am. So I’ve devised a plan. I’ve picked some of the books I read as a child or in my early teens, during those years of eager discovery, every book a new world to explore. I’ve grouped them not into genres (I have no truck with categorisation by genre) but in terms of ten themes and ideas that these books encapsulated and which set me on quests that I’m still pursuing today. Secondly, I’ve picked ten(ish) of the books that I’ve read as an adult that have inspired me and that have informed my politics. Neither of these lists represents The Best, but all the books here have been truly significant.
A Childhood with my Head in a Book
How to Be a Girl
The books I read as a child gave me some interesting and contradictory models for how to be a girl. It’s something I was never very good at – my Christmases and birthdays always brought cookery books, dolls and sewing kits, none of which inspired anything other than indifference in me. I only ever completed one bit of knitting – my treasured Forest scarf. You can tell which end I started at, from the loose, uneven stitches. I tired rapidly of the pious and/or relentlessly cheerful heroines that an earlier generation of writers so often presented to me, but found among that generation nonetheless the likes of Anne Shirley and Jo March who gave me the notion that being a girl might involve reading a lot, using your imagination, defying convention, being contrary, not being Good (at least not all the time).
I read Jane Eyre – another awkward girl – at a young age. (This was one of a number of classics which were technically too old for me, but which, because they began with the protagonist as a child, were accessible even if their full depth and complexity were only revealed through later re-reading – see also Great Expectations, David Copperfield.) Jane Eyre led me to read the rest of the Brontes (though only recently in the case of Anne, I’m ashamed to say), and the Dickens I read as a child led me to read all of his work, and to explore the world of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly George Eliot, who I read as a teenager but whose Middlemarch vies with Bleak House for the title of Greatest Novel in the English Language (spoiler – BH wins. Just).
And I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom. Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her.
L M Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables; Louisa May Alcott – Little Women; Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre; Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle
Travellers in Time
I was always entranced by the notion of slipping from now to then, from present to past. And these three books all share something in common – that the slippage is related to a very specific and real place, a place in which the past is still very present. Dethick, in Derbyshire, is the real counterpart of Alison Uttley’s Thackers (A Traveller in Time); Philippa Pearce’s Victorian house (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is based on the Mill House in Great Shelford, near Cambridge, and Lucy Boston based Green Knowe (The Children of Green Knowe and its sequels) on her home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey, also near Cambridge. My very talented friend Clare Trowell now lives in Hemingford Grey, and this gorgeous linocut is her tribute to a book that is as magical for her as it is for me.
In each of these novels, the present-day protagonist encounters past inhabitants of that house, and there is both a sense of magic and a deep sadness that comes from the knowledge that those people are in today’s reality long gone. Although in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is an encounter between the boy and the elderly woman who was/is the young Victorian girl who had become his friend, which brings about one of the most poignant endings in children’s literature (yes, up there with the final pages of The Railway Children about which I cannot even speak without choking up). I found Dethick in my early teens and will never forget the sense of magic, just out of my reach, when I stood in the Tudor kitchen of the old house, where Penelope had stood, where she had encountered the Babingtons. And I still get that same feeling when I see the ruins of Wingfield Manor on the skyline.
I’ve read many books since then that play with time travel (the most powerful is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose ending made me sob like a baby), and it’s a staple of the sci-fi I watch on screens large and small, but the magic these books hold is different. It’s not about the intellectual tease of time paradoxes, or parallel dimensions. It’s about a place, and the people who inhabited that place, and whose joys and sorrows still inhabit it long after they’re gone.
Alison Uttley – A Traveller in Time; Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden; Lucy M Boston – The Children of Green Knowe
Thresholds to Other Worlds
And then there are the books in which the protagonists slip not just out of our time, but out of our world and into another, or into a version of our world where magic is real, if invisible. Harry Potter was obviously not a part of my childhood, so the first doorway into myth and magic that I encountered was a wardrobe door, and it led to a place of permanent winter, always winter but never Christmas. I know there are issues with the Narnia books – and when reading them aloud to my own children I did skip one or two sentences of egregious sexism or racism. But they are a part of me, read and re-read, fuelling my imagination and my curiosity, still shared reference points with family and friends.
Not long after discovering Narnia, I found in the pages of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen the gates to Fundindelve on Alderley Edge and stories that were not only magical but genuinely spinechilling. Like the time-slip stories mentioned previously, Garner’s stories are absolutely rooted in the landscape he knew, and steeped in the multilayered mythologies of the British Isles – Celtic and Norse and Saxon. Many of the places referred to in The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath can be found not only on the frontispiece map provided (I do like a story that comes with a map) but on the OS map of the area.
One can go on a pilgrimage – as I did – and find these locations and feel that frisson of magic again.
Whereas Lewis’s protagonists are largely unencumbered by adults, as is so frequently the case in children’s literature, in Garner’s narratives the adults can be allies, however reluctantly roped into the struggle between good and evil that is being played out around them, or they can be obstacles or enemies. Those encounters with evil are all the more terrifying when they encroach upon the ordinary, everyday world – something that Stephen King knows very well. Garner’s approach is similar to that of Susan Cooper in her marvellous The Dark is Rising series, which is only not included here because I didn’t encounter those books until my late teens. I grew up with Garner’s books – in the literal sense that the transition from Weirdstone/Moon to Elidor and thus to The Owl Service and Red Shift was a gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood in terms of the themes and the sensibilities of the protagonists.
C S Lewis – Chronicles of Narnia; Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
Whilst Narnia could be accessed from our world, via a wardrobe or a painting or a summons, Middle Earth exists outside our world altogether. I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child and was utterly terrified by the Dark Riders, and Shelob. Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea was another other world that I came to late in my teens – it led me to her adult science fiction novels which are beautiful and profound and which make the reader think and question. Lord of the Rings doesn’t really do those things but it catches you up in the archetypal quest narrative with the archetypal quest hero, not a warrior or a king but someone (literally) small and naive, someone whose resolve is strong but yet falters and who needs other people (friends and enemies) to achieve his goal.
J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
Some of the books I read took me into the past, unmediated by a present-day interloper. Rosemary Sutcliff illuminated the Roman period and its aftermath, and Henry Treece the Vikings. Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s romantic take on the Wars of the Roses and, particularly, the mission to clear the name of Richard III (see also Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time) captivated me. Leon Garfield’s protagonists weren’t real historical figures but inhabited a richly drawn eighteenth-century world. And Joan Aiken introduced me to the notion of alternative history, with her splendidly Gothic Wolves of Willoughby Chase set in the reign of James III. I loved Edith Sitwell’s studies of Elizabeth 1 in Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive. I loved Margaret Irwin’s take on the same period in her Queen Elizabeth trilogy, as well as her accounts of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Minette (sister to Charles II). All of these writers fed my fascination with history and led me to contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel and Livi Michael.
Rosemary Sutcliff – The Lantern Bearers; Leon Garfield – Smith; Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Henry Treece – Viking’s Dawn; Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason; Edith Sitwell – Fanfare for Elizabeth; Margaret Irwin – Young Bess
Displaced and Endangered
Whilst it’s far from unusual that the protagonists of novels for children are parentless, either permanently (a heck of a lot of orphans) or temporarily, some of the novels I encountered as a child took that trope of children pluckily dealing with perils of various kinds, and gave it a much darker context, and a much more real peril.
The children in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword escape occupied Warsaw and after the war is over have to try to find their families amidst the chaos and mass displacement, as well as the emerging tensions between the former Allies. It’s tough and powerful, whilst also being a cracking adventure. The protagonist of Ann Holm’s I am David escapes (with the collusion of a guard) from a prison camp in an unnamed country and crosses Europe to try to find his mother. The novel does not flinch from the ways in which David has been affected by his life in the camp and how difficult he finds it to trust given his early experiences. An Rutgers van der Loeff told the story of a group of children who found themselves on the Oregon trail alone, after their parents died on the journey (based to some extent on the true story of the Sager orphans). It was often a harsh read, and again did not shy away from the emotional effect of having to assume adulthood at 14 and take responsibility for the safety of younger siblings in a world full of natural and man-made threats. Meindert de Jong’s The House of Sixty Fathers is set during the Sino-Japanese war, and again tells of a child separated from his parents in the chaos of war, but in this case finding care and love from a unit of American soldiers (the titular Sixty Fathers).
All of these books pull their punches to some extent. They don’t present their child readers with the full, unmitigated horror of war or of genocide. And they are right, in my view, to hold back. What they do is to open that door, just enough, so that readers can choose to find out more, and are prepared (to some extent) for what they may discover.
Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword; Ann Holm – I Am David; An Rutgers van der Loeff – Children on the Oregon Trail; Meindert de Jong – The House of Sixty Fathers
There’s another kind of magic, that doesn’t tap into myth and legend but imaginatively imbues ordinary life with something extraordinary. Here, the extraordinary is very small. So small that it can be hidden from prying eyes, it can live alongside us but without us knowing. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was both magical and mundane – the prosaic details of the Clock family’s life beneath the floorboards, appropriating household objects – cotton reels, hairpins, old kid gloves – and using them to create a miniature version of the life of the human beans above, was somehow so easy to engage with. What did happen to all those tiny things that mysteriously go missing – could this be the answer? The fascination with things miniature – dolls’ houses, miniature villages (both of which feature in the narrative) is widely shared and Norton taps into this. The small people in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are actual bona fide Lilliputians and our heroine, Maria, an orphan (natch) finds her own salvation linked to theirs, in the face of callous and exploitative adults.
Mary Norton – The Borrowers; T H White – Mistress Masham’s Repose
Myths & Legends
As well as novels in which myth and legend intruded into contemporary life, I read various versions of the originals. Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the best, bringing me retellings of Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian legends. He was one of my original sources for the stories of King Arthur, which entranced me and continue to inhabit my imagination to this day (they’ve inspired the names of both of my children). Reading both Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which sets the tales in a medieval world of chivalric valour, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of Arthur as Celtic warrior drew me into the complexity of the myth.
Roger Lancelyn Green – Tales of the Greek Heroes; Rosemary Sutcliff – Sword at Sunset
Fantasy and myth led me into proper sci-fi. The dividing lines between the two are often blurred and disputed but I guess at its simplest it relates to an interest in causes and process to ‘explain’ the phenomena that myth might simply present to us as a given. My first introduction was probably reading a volume of H G Wells’ science fiction, and it was The Invisible Man that had the most impact upon me (slightly surprising, perhaps, in view of my interest in timey-wimey narratives). From my parents’ bookshelves I scavenged John Wyndham’s novels, and his first three in particular (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Chrysalids). These prepared the ground for so many dystopias and disaster movies to come…
H G Wells – The Invisible Man; John Wyndham – The Chrysalids
Reading the Detectives
As my current reading is often dominated by crime fiction, I was interested to explore the origins of that interest in my childhood reading. I was lucky enough to encounter Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the volumes of the Strand Magazine that my mother had inherited. Also through my parents I discovered Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, which I re-read happily today, because whether or not one can remember who did it, one can relish the writing, the dialogue, the wit. And linking in with my historical interests, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time introduced the idea of a review of a very cold case, of challenging accepted views of history through radical reinterpretation of sources.
Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time; Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison
If anyone notices the preponderance of Puffin logos in the images above (which are where possible the covers of the very books over which I pored), that’s very apt. I relied upon regular dispatches of Puffin books to our various homes in West Africa to keep me supplied with enough quality reading matter.
Adult Life with my Head in a Book
I’ve divided this group of books into fiction and non-fiction. Again, I must repeat that these are not necessarily the Best, but they’re all books that had a huge, often visceral, impact on me, that changed me.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things/Reservoir 13
For my money, Jon McGregor is one of the finest contemporary novelists. If Nobody… was the first and still has the power to floor me emotionally, however many times I read it. Reservoir 13 is the most recent, and having read it the first time, I could only turn back to the beginning and read it again, to immerse myself in the turning of the seasons and the warmth and humanity of the writing and the characterisation.
I’ve written previously about how my prejudices were overcome once I actually read a Stephen King novel. No matter how schlocky the cover (these days the cover art tends to be rather subtler), the narrative was so compelling that I had to keep reading, hunger and tiredness were irrelevant, I had to keep turning those pages. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, but this was the one that got me started – having read it cover to cover, I re-read it almost immediately, being conscious that the compulsion to find out what happened next had made me rush through the pages. King is a consummate storyteller, and there’s a moral focus too. Whilst he doesn’t avoid the gross-out, he always retains that sense of the distinction between good and evil, the choices that confront ordinary, flawed human beings. And he can make those ordinary flawed human beings who confront evil believable, lovable, not just admirable.
L’Emploi du Temps/The Emigrants
Obviously I had to include these two, since the first, Michel Butor’s 1956 novel set in a fictionalised version of Manchester, has been the focus of my research during my part-time French degree, and now my PhD, which explores the connections, the dialogue, between Butor and W G Sebald. Many of my blogs, particularly the earlier ones, talk about Butor and/or Sebald in various contexts (music, maps, labyrinths, Manchester, Paris, the Holocaust…). Butor made me read Proust, Sebald made me read Kafka (I think of the two I’m more grateful to Butor, but both are essential to understand twentieth-century European literature).
Half of a Yellow Sun
This is a brilliant, powerful novel. For me it had a personal, visceral impact, in its account of the massacres carried out in the north of Nigeria, during the bloody prelude to that country’s brutal civil war. Because I was living at the time in Zaria, in the north, and whilst my parents shielded me (I was 9 years old) from the horrors, I nonetheless knew that there were horrors, and learned as a teenager and an adult more about what my parents had witnessed, about the context and the history, and about what came after, too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a splendid writer and a clear and strong voice, drily humorous and perceptive.
The Womens Room
Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room isn’t one that would make the list solely on its literary merits. It’s well enough written, but its presence here is because I read it just at the point when I was not so much becoming a feminist, but realising that I was one. I read everything I could get my hands on – Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone (best name ever!), Sheila Rowbotham, Simone de Beauvoir and more. But there are things that only fiction can do, and The Women’s Room illustrated and encapsulated so many of these arguments in the story of Mira and her friends. French herself said that it wasn’t a book about the women’s movement, rather a book about women’s lives today. And because there isn’t just one voice here, but many, we are free to disagree with the most extreme viewpoints without rejecting the whole thing. The novel was accessible in a way that most of the feminist writers listed above, frankly, aren’t. And whilst it attracted plenty of criticism, it changed hearts and minds, it made so many women feel that they weren’t alone in the way they felt about the way the world worked.
Fiction can do things that non-fiction, however well-written, however accessible, can’t. But very often fiction leads me to non-fiction – I want to know more about the place, the period, the events that the fiction describes. The next list is of books that illuminated what I read in the newspapers and in novels, and what I watched on TV and at the cinema. They may not be definitive works, they may have been overtaken by subsequent research, and for various reasons they aren’t books that I will read again and again, but they were my way into topics which have preoccupied me over very many years. If the overall impression is that, well, it’s all a bit grim, I can only acknowledge that as a true reflection of what I read. I don’t immerse myself in grimness for the sake of it but from a deep need to understand and the sense that as privileged as I am in so many ways I have no right to look away, to choose not to know. I still believe in humanity, despite everything.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
I read the newspaper reports coming out of Rwanda in 1994 but it took me a long time to seek out the full story of what had happened there. Perhaps that’s partly because I knew how powerfully it would connect emotionally with what had been happening around me in Northern Nigeria in 1966. Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book is not a definitive history of Rwanda, and arguably lacks some of the context that is necessary to understand why the genocide happened. But it’s clearly unreasonable to expect every book on a complex issue to cover everything, to be everything. Gourevitch’s focus is on the testimony of survivors, and thus on the accounts of specific atrocities. It’s vital and horrifying and heartbreaking.
The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945
My introduction to the Holocaust was, as for so many, reading Anne Frank’s diary. But her diary can only raise questions, not provide answers. She knew so little of what was happening to Jews in Amsterdam and across Europe, only what the adults with whom she shared the Annexe themselves knew and allowed her to hear. When we read her words we are encountering a real person, a child on the verge of adolescence, a bright child, who might have been ordinary or extraordinary, who knows, but whose circumstances were so extraordinary that we read her words weighed down by our own knowledge of what was happening around her, and what would happen to her. The simple questions – why did they have to hide? why did they have to die? – require answers not to be found within the pages of the diary. My next step was the TV series Holocaust – controversial and flawed but hugely valuable to a generation who suddenly saw how what happened to Anne Frank fitted within this huge picture, in which the members of one Jewish family between them encounter Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Terezin, Auschwitz…
Holocaust led me to Lucy Davidowicz’s 1975 account of the war against the Jews. This is not the definitive study – as if there could be such a thing – and has been harshly criticised by Raul Hilberg in particular, for its lack of depth and rigour. But it got me started, it gave me an overview and led me to read extensively amongst the vast literature on the subject, exploring not just what happened, but why and how and who, and the implications for the generations since (Middle East politics and international law in particular).
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–1985)
I remember during the mid-1980s the first newspaper articles about a ‘gay plague’, and the emerging moral panics, the information leaflets and the ‘tombstone’ advert on TV. Randy Shilts’ 1987 book was what made sense of that mess of misinformation, prejudice and ignorance. It’s a work of investigative journalism, particularly in relation to the response and actions of medical researchers, but it’s also, always, personal. As a gay man in San Francisco, Shilts was not writing about something that was happening to ‘others’ but something that was happening to his own community and, ultimately, to him (he was confirmed to be HIV positive in 1987, having declined to find out his status whilst writing the book in case it skewed his approach, and died in 1994, aged only 42). It’s an often shocking book, heartbreaking and as compelling a page-turner as any detective novel.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
James Michener’s massive, sweeping novel based on the story of a Colorado town, Centennial, was my introduction to many aspects of American history. Michener transposed many historic events, in particular the Sand Creek massacre to his fictional location so that through the lives of people in that one town (more or less) the great themes of US history could be touched upon.
I was fairly well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, having read not only about Martin Luther King but about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson. But my knowledge of the story of the Native Americans was patchy, to say the least. I knew enough to be sure that the portrayal in the westerns I’d watched as a kid was at best simplistic or romanticised and at worst racist, but Centennial made me want to know much, much more.
Dee Brown’s book is explicitly an Indian history (published in 1970, when presumably that terminology was still felt to be OK….) in which the Native American peoples are at the heart of the story of their own land. It’s a brutal story – they were lied to and stolen from, they were forced into dependency and then vilified for that dependency, and they were murdered in huge numbers. Brown’s history takes us up to 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee which gives a rather false impression) which is seen as marking the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ – though not the end of conflict or of killing.
I found out recently about a series of murders of Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 1920s, motivated by the discovery of big oil deposits beneath their land and involving legal trickery to secure the inheritance of the victims (whose deaths were initially seen as being from natural causes). David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, a true-crime account which takes the story of the genocide a generation onwards, a small-scale version of what happened to the indigenous peoples across the continent.
All the President’s Men
This could scarcely be more pertinent, as Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters responsible for this account of the Watergate break-in and the scandal that brought down President Nixon has just published Fear: Trump in the White House… At the time it was all happening I followed events avidly, finding it hard to credit that such a plan could have been dreamed up, executed (incompetently) and then covered up (incompetently) at such high levels of government. The intervening years have made it easier to believe such things… This book, which appeared as the story was still fresh and new, was a brilliant piece of journalism, with all of the tension of a detective story. There was a follow-up, The Final Days, describing the end of Nixon’s presidency, and many other books, including from some of those implicated (such as John Ehrlichman, whose account was the basis of the 1977 TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, in which an all-star cast portray President Richard Monckton and his aides, associates and accomplices).
So, that’s my ten books… Ten themes in the books I devoured as a child, ten books (five – oh, OK, seven if you’re going to be picky – fiction, five non-fiction) that I read as an adult that have in one way or another stayed with me. I was never going to be able to pick just ten, was I?
Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre. However, I did manage a few outings…
- Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight. I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed. The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals – see also Poppeia).
- Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme, and The Coronation of Poppeia. And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location.
- Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’), Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
- Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture. Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes. We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015. Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Life, goes from strength to strength.
- I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager. That was a great game. We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated. If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around. I hope he can. I really, really, hope he can.
Top TV of 2014
No attempt at ranking. How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy? So, what do all of these shows have in common? First, excellent writing, and great performances. Essential to have both. So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks. Second, great female characters. All of these programmes basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park. It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women. Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time. It’s about having women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems. Some of these women do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to. So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.
- Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
- Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it. They did, and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it. Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes. But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising. The rest of the cast was superb too.
- Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year. This valley was pretty damned grim. But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
- Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4. The three central women (count them! three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
- The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time. It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations. Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout. There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
- Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right. It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well. And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
- Community made me laugh more than anything else this year. Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
- Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere. I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
- Homeland redeemed itself. Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
- Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year. Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved. And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others…. Cracking plot too.
Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon. I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order. Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front. Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).
Women of the year:
Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty
Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science
Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.
In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, football, W G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who. I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!
Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion. This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance. A fascinating project, beautifully documented.
To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you. I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!
We go back a fair few years, Charlie and me. Pretty much instant, the connection, the attraction too. We had things in common – places (though I lived near Nottingham as a teenager, so my Nottingham wasn’t his – it was the Playhouse, Goose Fair, the City Ground, and the shops), music (listening to Miles as I write this), cats (ours was called Mingus. RIP), football (I was on the Trent End, still loyal to the Reds to this day, glory days long past, whilst he’s a County man).
Never very lucky in love, our Charlie. But attractive to women, no question. That crumpled, rumpled melancholy hard to resist – had we met in person, I’d have spectacularly failed to do so – but making it work in the long term, a lot tougher. He nearly found that, so very nearly, and it broke my heart when… but I won’t say, in case you don’t know, and if you don’t, you need to go back, as I’ve just done, to Lonely Hearts, and make his acquaintance for yourself, and follow him through the years, through to Darkness, Darkness.
I won’t say much about Darkness, Darkness, except that, as so many reviewers have already said, it’s a fitting coda to the series. It focuses on the miners’ strike – an event which still reverberates in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, so that Nottingham football supporters still get called scabs by Yorkshire football supporters, though in both cases their parents were toddlers, if that, at the time of the strike – but it encompasses so much more. It’s an elegy really, a blues for Charlie.
So many of the cops whose investigations we follow on screen or on the page seem to be constructed according to a formula. A bit of (preferably traumatic) back story, a few quirks (an addiction, past or current, an obsession), and a tendency to go off piste, to break the rules. That can work – Rachel Bailey comes storming off the screen and the page (in Cath Staincliffe’s excellent novels) and into real life, so that when she (inevitably) does something monumentally daft, we, along with her long-suffering colleagues and friends, want to yell at her, shake her into common sense. The best ones, the ones we re-read even when we remember exactly who dunnit, where, why and how, turn that formula into someone we can invest in, not just in their ability to put the bad guy behind bars, but in their humanity, their vulnerability, their emotional life. And Charlie is one of the best, no question. Of course he has a back story (a broken marriage, nothing out of the ordinary), and a few quirks (his tendency to wear his most recent meal on his shirt front or his tie, for example). But he’s a rounded (and that’s not a crack about his waistline), nuanced, complicated character,
And so many of the narratives of crime and punishment that we consume rely on convoluted plots – plots not just in the sense of the narrative arc, but machinations, devilishly clever serial killers, hidden identities, etc. All very enjoyable, but bearing, one imagines, little relation to the day to day of policing. We suspend our disbelief, accept for the duration that in the picture postcard villages of Midsomer a deranged serial killer lurks behind every cottage doorway, or that the academics of Oxford are busier plotting their next murder than preparing their next research bid. The volume and the type of crime here is a tad more realistic, Charlie’s cases are more likely to involve cock-ups than conspiracies, individuals with chaotic lives committing chaotic crimes, often with consequences they could never have imagined. It’s not that there aren’t any serial killers, or any conspiracies, but they are interwoven with the mundanity, the banality, of ‘normal’ urban crime.
The other trope that those of us who watch the detectives can get a bit weary of, or even sickened by, is the reliance on sexual violence as a plot device. Again, this does feature in Charlie’s caseload over the years, as you’d expect. But there’s nothing sexy, nothing titillating here. The reality of rape and the fear of rape, the murky areas of human sexuality, the casual violence of language used towards women, are all shown clear-sightedly and compassionately, through Charlie’s eyes. It’s not that he’s so very PC. But his attractiveness to women isn’t just about his crumpled melancholy, it’s about his instinctive respect, his empathy. Even when he’s getting it wrong (as he does, often), fundamentally he’s a good man, someone you could lean on, trust. Those murky areas, and how fiction deals with them, are not just sub-text either – in both Living Proof and Still Water we confront them head on.
There’s so much humanity in these stories. And there’s music of course, flowing through them. There’s Millington’s regular assaults on the Petula Clark songbook, the bands at the Polish Club where Charlie dances with Marian, or the Otis Redding track that was playing when he met Elaine… But it’s the jazz that’s vital. It’s integral, it’s the atmosphere, those blue notes echoing Charlie’s melancholy, bringing out the noir on Nottingham’s mean streets. It’s the soundtrack to what we see of his life, to the daily grappling with petty crime, dysfunctional families, and the viciousness and brutality of which human beings are capable, and with the politics of policing, the admin, the power play. He goes home, and he finds a record, a track, that echoes his mood and as the music is described we can almost believe we’re hearing it too, the descriptions so vivid, so perceptive.
And so it seemed fitting, as I re-read the books, focusing less on the plot and more on the atmosphere, the background, the soundtrack, to put together a little playlist. One song for each novel. I hope Charlie would approve.
‘He’ll be okay. He’s got a flat white and yet another version of ‘Blue Monk’ to keep him warm’ (Darkness, Darkness, p. 416).
I’ll not worry about him then, and lord knows I have done sometimes, wondering if the sadness and the loneliness in him would take him over. But he’ll be okay. Cheers Charlie.
A Resnick playlist
Lonely Hearts (1989) Billie Holiday – (I don’t stand a) Ghost of a Chance (with you) (Music for Torching, 1955)
Rough Treatment (1990) Red Rodney Quintet – Shaw ‘Nuff (Red Rodney Returns, 1959)
Cutting Edge (1991) Art Pepper – Straight Life (Straight Life, 1979)
Off Minor (1992) Thelonious Monk – Off Minor (Monk’s Music, 1957)
Wasted Years (1993) Thelonious Monk – Evidence (Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk, 1960)
Cold Light (1994) Duke Ellington Orchestra – Cottontail (The Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1943)
Living Proof (1995) Stan Tracey Duo – Some Other Blues (Live at the QEH, 1994)
Easy Meat (1996) Billie Holiday – Body and Soul (Body and Soul, 1957)
Still Water (1997) Miles Davis – Bag’s Groove (Bag’s Groove, 1957)
Last Rites (1998) Sandy Brown – In the Evening (In the Evening, 1970)
Cold in Hand (2008) Bessie Smith – Cold in Hand Blues (1925, The Bessie Smith Story, Vol. 3, 1951)
Darkness Darkness (2014) Thelonious Monk – Blue Monk (Thelonious Monk Trio, 1954)
What we don’t know is more interesting than what we know, both in the sciences and in the arts. The classic detective story is a puzzle which must, to satisfy its readers, provide a solution, tie up loose ends, arrange retribution, and restore the natural order of things (typified in many of the TV detective series I recall from the 1970s by the postscript where they all go home and have tea, and a bit of a laugh, no matter how traumatic the preceding events have been). The satisfaction of the tidy ending can simultaneously be a disappointment. The final ‘reveal’, the scene where someone (the brilliant detective’s slightly dozy sidekick, perhaps) says, ‘But what I still don’t understand is…’, allowing the brilliant detective to resolve that last apparent anomaly, leaves the reader or viewer little to ponder on once the book is closed or the credits have rolled.
To be fair, the best examples of the genre, whilst making use of its conventions and tropes, also stretch and subvert them. The detective novels that have remained in print for decades are those which have more to satisfy the reader than merely the solving of a riddle. We might re-read or re-watch a lesser work once, just to spot where the clues were if we’d been bright enough to pick them up, or even in the hope of finding a continuity error or plot hole, but we’re not likely to revisit them repeatedly. In my many re-readings of, for example, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in contrast, it’s not the plot, but the characters, the quality of the writing that give repeated pleasure.
If the classic mystery, the ‘roman enigme’, is a puzzle to be solved, and, like a completed crossword, of limited interest thereafter, the ‘roman noir’, is a more complex and nuanced narrative. Tellingly, it flourished in the ’40s and ’50s in France, often taking the Occupation as subject and setting (Atack, 2010), providing a medium in which the ambiguities of the era could be explored, but has also been used more recently by such writers as Didier Daeninckx, to stage ‘complex crimes that to be solved involve precisely a return to the past, to the hidden history of State and/or establishment criminality’ (Gorrara, 79) (see Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour Memoires, which uncovers two dark and hidden areas of France’s past, the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961, and the wartime deportation of Jews, events linked by one man, Maurice Papon).
The roman noir takes the reader well off the tourist map, into a city of shadows and secrets, into the realm of the uncanny. In this labyrinth, the detective wanders the streets, as shadowy and ambiguous a figure as those he tracks – indeed, as Butor said, the flaneur-detective and the criminal ‘are at bottom identical. The second places his steps in the footprints of the first who remains unaware of him, although the former is without knowing it the initiator, the guide of the second’ (Histoire extraordinaire, p. 33). Walter Benjamin drew on Baudelaire‘s fascination with Poe’s ur-detective story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, to link the flaneur and the detective when he wrote that ‘No matter what trail the flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime’. This is highly ambiguous – is the flaneur a detective, tracking down transgressions and transgressors, or a criminal, whose wanderings are themselves transgressive and/or may lead him into crime/to commit crime? (McDonough, 101).
Michel Butor’s Passing Time isn’t a detective novel, though one critic described it as of the fusion of this genre and the experimental novel. But his Bleston is the perfect setting for a ‘roman noir’, a place of shadows and labyrinthine streets, a place where fear and suspicion are in the air. Butor was ‘devouring’ detective novels at this time, and right at the heart of Passing Time, he places an exposition on the principles upon which they are constructed. Crime novelist George Burton (alias J K Hamilton) argues that every detective novel is based around two murders, the crime itself, and the (symbolic or actual) destruction of the criminal by the detective when they are exposed, killed by ‘the explosion of truth (143-4). The detective’s role is to ‘disturb and probe, to expose and alter things’, to tear off veils and masks, abolish errors, ignorance and lies, to cleanse ‘this small fraction of the world’ from its offence and the defilement that the murder brings with it. According to Burton, he is:
‘the true son of the murderer Oedipus, not only because he solves a riddle, but also because he kills the man to whom he owes his title, without whom he would not exist in that capacity (without crimes, without mysterious crimes, what would he be?) because this murder was foretold for him from the day of his birth or, if you prefer, because it is inherent in his nature, through it alone he fulfils himself and attains the highest power’ (145)
The detective novel superimposes two temporal sequences, that which begins with the discovery of the crime and concludes with the discovery of its perpetrator, and that which leads up to the crime, which is reconstructed by the detective (not necessarily emerging in a linear form, but usually presented to us as such at the climax of the novel). Similarly, Passing Time has a linear time frame beginning in May when Revel starts writing his journal, and ending in September with his departure from Bleston, but his journal narrative begins in October with his arrival, initially linear but gradually becoming ‘a desperate attempt to account for several months simultaneously, ending as the narrator leaves the town with the awareness that no year can ever be completely recovered, as the lack of time to describe the events of February 29 so symbolizes’ (Lloyd, 2005, pp 143-4).
Just as there are (at least) two time frames, there are (at least) two texts, that which gives the true version of events, which the guilty party has erased, or tried to erase, and the alternative version of events which has been superimposed upon it. The detective’s goal is to uncover the true story from the traces left behind, to decipher and restore the palimpsest.
The detective novel itself, a green Penguin crime title, with a blank space where the author photograph normally appears, is the trigger for most of the events in the narrative. (I should say, the books themselves, since Revel buys two copies, and Ann a third.) Revel is attracted by the ambiguity of the title – Le Meurtre de Bleston could refer at the same time to a murder committed in Bleston, and to the murder of Bleston, thus allowing him ‘to enjoy a small private revenge against this town’ (54). But it becomes ‘an auxiliary so precious that I can almost say that a new phase of my adventure began at the instant when … I read for the first time those opening words which I now know by heart’ (55). The precision with which the author describes the city and its monuments suggests to him that the story might be based on real events, leading him to attempt his own detective work when the book’s author is injured in an ‘accident’. More than that, Revel feels that he’s being led along:
‘through a newspaper poster I had discovered J C Hamilton’s detective story, The Bleston Murder; through reading this I had discovered the Murderer’s Window, which in its turn had given rise to this conversation with its closing words of advice to visit the New Cathedral. It was as though a trail had been laid for me, at each stage of which I was allowed to see the end of the next stage, a trail which was to lead me hopelessly astray’ (80).
The book(s) wander(s) through Bleston just as their owner does. Linking all of Revel’s contacts in Bleston (his landlady, the two sisters with whom he consecutively falls in love, his colleague Jenkins, his compatriot Lucien) with the single exception of Horace Buck, the African worker who befriends him, and linking via the sisters to their friends and thus to the suspected real life counterpart of the book’s perpetrator, it is passed on, lost, replaced (in a second-hand version with an indecipherable signature), and reappears in a bewildering sequence.
The re-reading of detective novels is expounded upon here too. Revel justifies his re-reading of The Bleston Murder on the basis that it is ‘a precious guide for a newcomer among the perplexities and misunderstandings of that city’ , but for Jenkins, an aficionado of the genre, ‘they take on a kind of transparency. As you trace out the illusions of the beginning, you glimpse the truth that you remember more or less clearly’ (88).
Revel becomes a detective, to unravel his own past and reconstruct it. But his quest is doomed to failure, there is no final revelation. For the writers of noir, and the nouveau romanciers, the Borgesian imminent revelation often remains imminent, unrealised, or reveals a new mystery. If the narrator/hero finds a path through the labyrinth, ‘it is only to discover that the exit is really an entrance, that the labyrinth solved is no more than a labyrinth within a greater labyrinth’ (Porter, 256). And so nothing here is finally resolved. Revel’s feud with the city ends with an uneasy truce (‘We are quits’ (249)), the ‘accident’ that fuels his guilt and his suspicions appears ultimately to be just an accident, the only murderers he encounters are fictional or mythical. There is no return to the harmony of an established order. But the process of interpreting the palimpsest, reconstructing the past, following the trail and making the links does start something, not contained within the arbitrary parameters of the narrative:
‘Thus each day, evoking other days like harmonics, transforms the appearance of the past, and while certain periods come into the light others, formerly illuminated, tend to grow dim, and to lie silent and unknown until with the passage of time fresh echoes come to awaken them. Thus the sequence of former days is only restored to us through a whole host of other days, constantly changing, and every event calls up an echo from other, earlier events which caused it or explain it or correspond to it, every monument, every object, every image sending us back to other periods which we must reawaken in order to recover the lost secret of their power for good or evil’ (283)
Margaret Atack, ‘Representing the Occupation in the Novel of the 1950s: Ne jugez pas’, Cincinnati Romance Review, 29 (2010), 76-88
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1961)
– Histoire Extraordinaire: Essays on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, translated by R Howard (Jonathan Cape, 1969)
Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour Memoires (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)
Claire Gorrara, The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Louise Hardwick (ed), New Approaches to Crime in French Literature, Culture and Film (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009)
Rosemary Lloyd, Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life (Cornell UP, 2005)
Tom McDonough, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven; London: Yale UP, 1981)