More Cosy Crime

a death in the dalesIt just so happens that I’ve had two blog tours come along, one after the other. Today’s is for the latest (seventh) Kate Shackleton crime novel by Frances Brody, A Death in the Dales. Last year I reviewed Death of an Avid Reader, which I loved, and I very much enjoyed this one, too.

Kate Shackleton is, I suppose, somewhat like Maisie Dobbs, in that she is a post-World War One private investigator, one of the superfluous women whose husband died in the fighting and who needs to make her own way in the world. Kate was a VAD during the War, and so whilst she is undoubtedly a lady, she has a certain plausible toughness about her. She is ably assisted by her housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, and a former police officer, Jim Sykes, who goes to the places (like pubs, and servants’ quarters) that she cannot.

By this seventh outing, Kate has an admirer – Lucian Simonson, a doctor – and she has also discovered a family. Kate was adopted as a baby and has only recently found her natural relatives, who come from a lower social class than the one she was raised to inhabit. When her niece needs to convalesce after succumbing to a dangerous bout of diphtheria, Kate decides to take her out of Leeds and into the country. Lucian’s aunt has recently died and her house is standing empty; it’s the perfect opportunity for a holiday in the Yorkshire countryside, but it’s also clear from Lucian’s manner that it’s a trial run for Kate in a house that could easily be her own. Kate has come to value her independence, and she isn’t keen to be rushed. But at the same time, she is as aware as the next woman in 1926 that marriage offers a more conventional lifestyle than her rackety profession.

However, it seems Kate’s reputation has preceeded her. Lucian’s Aunt Flora has left a box of cuttings and notes for Kate concerning a murder that she witnessed from her bedroom window ten years ago. She saw the landlord of the local pub as he was knifed, but in a strange scuffle, the person who commited the murder was not the person tried and hanged for the crime. At the time, the word of one elderly lady was insufficient evidence against the fact that the drunk in the gutter was discovered with the weapon in his hand. Flora was convinced a third person had been involved, who had quickly run away, but with no idea who this person might be, and much hostility in the village against her defence of the accused, justice proceeded to her chagrin. Flora knew of her nephew’s involvement with a private detective and hoped to meet her one day – leaving her posthumous legacy for Kate when Lucian failed to introduce them in time.

Kate’s hardly been in the village five minutes before other inhabitants are seeking her help. Her own niece, Harriet, befriends a girl whose brother has gone missing, and the local gentry call Kate in on a delicate matter of missing love letters. You’ll not be surprised to know that all three mysteries are bound together in unguessable ways.

This is a reliably strong series with a plausible heroine and clever, deftly interwoven plots. There’s just enough history supporting the stories – in this novel the General Strike of 1926 is the main talking point, with Kate unable to access enough petrol for her car – to be realistic without overloading the reader. I found this highly readable, and satisfyingly written.


superfluous womenI realise this is Frances Brody’s blog tour but I hope she won’t mind if I mention another cosy crime novel I’ve been sent – Superfluous Women by Carola Dunn. While we’re doing the cosy thing here, we might as well put them all together, because if you like one, you’ll probably like the others. This is the 21st Daisy Dalrymple novel, and they are remarkably soothing comfort fare. I’ve read lots of them, and followed Daisy’s progress post-WW1 and the loss of her fiancé to her marriage (hopelessly shocking to her aristocratic mother) to a DCA from Scotland Yard. Daisy is a much more unofficial crime-solver than Kate Shackleton, and so this murder concerns the discovery of a body in the cellar of a house her friends have recently moved into. Three superfluous women, they have come together to share their living costs and pool their resources, and Daisy, visiting only while recuperating herself from bronchitis, just has the knack of being on the spot when crime takes place. I do feel that if you like Carola Dunn, you’ll like Frances Brody, and vice versa. It’s autumn, the nights are drawing in, the days are growing cold, and cosy crime is a wonderful antidote, I find, to the general blahs of the season.

Crime Fiction Giveaway

Just a quick post for this giveaway as the full review will appear in Shiny on 8th October when our autumn edition goes live. But the lovely people at Constable offered me a free copy for any of my readers, anywhere, and a comment will put you in the draw.

murder on seaEarlier this year I read the first in the Whitstable Pearl series by Julie Wassmer and enjoyed it. Wassmer used to write scripts for Eastenders, so she was always going to be a safe pair of hands. This second novel was, unsurprisingly, better than the first as is so often the case with crime fiction series, as the characters become more clearly defined and grow from book to book.

I started reading this one morning last week, and although I had all sorts of things I ought to have been doing, I finished it later that same day. It’s cosy crime set in the seaside community of Whitstable and our sleuth is restauranteur and private eye, Pearl Nolan. A spate of poison pen messages in Christmas cards causes much upset among Pearl’s friends and acquaintances, and is swiftly followed by a suspicious death at the church hall fundraiser. Pearl’s love interest, DCI Mike McGuire happens to be at the fundraiser thanks to Pearl and so he, too, finds himself excluded from the police investigation. Together, they set out to find the culprit.

This is just a really good, engaging story, lots of suspects and colourful characters, strong plotting, satisfying ending. Cosy crime isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s my comfort reading go-to. If it’s yours, put yourself in the draw, which I’ll close next Friday, 2nd October.

My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Shiny Summer!

Shiny New Books Edition 6 is now live, hurray!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245It’s a packed programme over there, as always, with loads of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprinted books, as well as the BookBuzz section which has all kinds of intriguing interviews and features.

Okay, where to send you first? Well, given I’ve been so absent from this blog, I’ll link to a few reviews of my favourite books this time.

Probably the most moving and engaging book I read for this edition was One Life by Kate Grenville, a biography of her mother and a deft social history of the 20th century in Australia.

But you should definitely check out Threads,  Julia Blackburn’s quest for the lost painter and embroiderer, John Craske, a fisherman whose experience of chronic illness turned him to art.

As for fiction, I probably enjoyed most Paradise City by Elizabeth Day, a four-handed narrative between disparate London-dwellers whose lives interact in surprising ways.

I’ll also mention Early Warning by Jane Smiley, second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. I loved it, but you really do need to read the first volume first.

As for my own section, BookBuzz, there’s so much there that I really loved. Check out Anne Goodwin’s fascinating account of creating her unusual main protagonist in her debut novel Sugar and Snails.

And oh, choices! How about Tony’s account of being on the shadow jury for this year’s IFFP?

Finally, the book we’ve chosen for book club in August is Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, so now you’ve got six weeks to read it if  you’d like to join in with our discussion on the 20th August. Do hope you will!