Monday, April 28, 2014

Butcher's Crossing: An extraordinary novel

Will Andrews leaves his studies at Harvard and goes west in search of the wilderness. It is the 1870s and already on the Great Plains buffalo have been hunted almost to extinction . He falls in with Miller, an experienced buffalo hunter who has an obsession: ten or so years ago he discovered by accident a valley in Colorado full of buffalo. He tells Will: 'I had the feeling no man had been in that valley before. Maybe some Indians a long time ago, but no man.' This tells all we need to know about his attitude to the indigenous people.
If Will funds the expedition, Miller will make their fortune. The two of them set off with Miller's bible-bashing, whiskey-swilling friend, Charley, and Schneider who will skin the buffalo.
John Williams begins this extraordinary novel with a quotation from Emerson ending with the  lines 'Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.'  These men are judged alright and we guess early on Miller's hubris will be punished in some way. This is a harsh and unforgiving terrain. Early on they pass a couple with three small children who have become detached from a wagon train because of a lame mule. Miller advises then to take a detour from their drive west and recuperate at a fort. The man stubbornly decides to continue - and we understand that they will all die.
This is a tragedy in the classical sense: Miller's fatal flaw determines the way the plot unfolds. The story could be read as a critique of capitalism or the way human beings exploit and desecrate nature, but none of this is made explicit. The narrative is rooted in the most vividly realised detail: the reader follows step by step the process with which Miller makes bullets, or Will learns to skin a buffalo. It is difficult to read at times: we are spared nothing.
In some ways I think this is a more remarkable novel than Stoner. Other reviewers have compared it - with some justification - to Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness. The book that came to my mind was Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, nine years before Butcher's Crossing. In trying to take all, we risk losing all.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Pram in the Hall

'There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.' There is some truth in this famous statement by Cyril Connolly. I guess that Connolly was thinking more of male writers and the necessity to support a family and the need to write for money. Still it is worth noting that many of our greatest women writers - Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes - have been childless. 
There is no doubt that when you have children, hugely rewarding though it is, time, energy and the mental space that writers need are in very short supply. On the other hand, being a parent does supply you with some great material. Here's an example: years ago I delivered my daughter to a children's party. The child in question had just joined my daughter's school so I barely knew her parents and they barely knew me. There was a great scrum of parents and kids when I arrived. I can't remember now if I left my mobile phone number, but I do remember that as I drove away I realised that the parents of the party girl didn't even know where I lived. What would they do if some reason I didn't return to collect my daughter?
I jotted it down as an idea for a story and when, last year, the theme of 'Guilty Parties' was announced for a CWA anthology, I thought of it right away. The anthology is out now and 'What's the Time, Mr Wolf' is in it. It's lovely to find myself there along with old friends, like Martin Edwards, Kate Ellis, Peter Lovesey and many others that I have met at conferences, and yes, parties (guilty or otherwise) over the years. The hardback is a bit pricey, but no doubt it will be out as a paperback and an ebook in due course, and you could always order it from the library. It's a great way to sample the work of writers you might not have read before.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Book by its Cover

Some of the problem of deciding which books to pack for a trip away has been solved by having an e-reader. One can take any number. I’ve got the latest Bryant and May by Chrisopher Fowler, the new Fred Vargas, and the latest Sue Grafton all stacked up. I’ve also got The Mangle Street Murders by M.R.C.Kasasian and masses of classics: Middlemarch, lots of Trollope, Jane Austen, Lettres de mon Moulin, and another French novel, Rue des boutiques obscures by Patrick Modiana (our  book group choice which I’m trying to read in French).
But – of course there’s a but – this isn’t the complete answer.  My book addict like myself has to have back-up. What if the e-reader gets lost or stolen or just plain stops working. Disaster!  Besides it’s still very nice to have a crisp new paperback or four (or more) to take away. It’s part of the pleasure of getting ready for a holiday.
But having said this, one of my choices this year is The Strangler’s Honeymoon by Hakan Nesser and I only bought this because I like Nesser and sadly I wouldn’t have found it enticing if I hadn’t already read his novels. It’s a terrible title and the cover is no better. When Nesser was first published in the UK, I seem to remember that the covers were atmospheric landscapes which suited the mood of the novels. Now they have all been repackaged with close ups of sulky-faced women with lots of hair on the covers, whether it’s relevant to the story or not.  I don’t think these are the kind of images to appeal to the readers like me who enjoy intelligent crime fiction. It reminds me of when my friend Sue Hepworth's comedy of middle-aged love was packaged as chick lit. She was furious and I don’t blame her. Don’t publishers realize that some readers will feel cheated if the cover doesn’t match the contents of the book and that others will be put off buying a book they might actually enjoy? Interestingly both the US and the Germany editions have better covers.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Download a Story

There's a free podcast of the first story I ever had published on It's 'The Lammergeier Vulture' very ably read by Jonathan Danz. Do visit the web-site, run by Jack Calverley. There are lots of other stories there by well-known crime-writers.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Crime-writer Margaret Murphy: Truth, Lies, and Creative Collaboration

Every now and then I like to invite one of my crime-writing friends to be a guest on my blog. This time it's the turn of Margaret Murphy. I really wanted to know more about Margaret's colloboration with forensic scientist, Dave Barclay, and how that works. This is what I learned:

A.D. Garrett is the pen name for Margaret Murphy and Professor Dave Barclay’s writing collaboration. Margaret is a Dagger Award-winning novelist, RLF Writing Fellow, and past Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. As head of Physical Evidence at the UK National Crime and Operations Faculty for 10 years, Dave undertook physical evidence reviews in 233 murders.
Their debut novel, EVERYONE LIES, has had rave reviews and reached the top ten in Amazon Kindle last autumn. Margaret has penned 9 novels under her own name, so how did the writing collaboration happen?
‘During Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture in 2008, the city hosted the BA Science Festival,’ Margaret explains. ‘The Macaulay (now the Hutton) Institute wanted to organize a panel discussion, open to the general public, examining the science behind crime fiction. Did I know three writers brave (or foolhardy) enough to have their work scrutinized, explained, and potentially ridiculed by a panel of six (yes, six!) scientists? The first “Murder, Mystery & Microscopes” featured me, Val McDermid and Peter James. In the event, the scientists let us off lightly, the event was a double sell-out, and has since become a staple of public science lectures.
            ‘Fast forward to the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2010. My agent, Felicity Blunt, and I watched Ann Cleeves and Mark Billingham getting the MMM treatment; the forensics expert was Dave Barclay, whom I’d met in 2008,’ Margaret says. ‘I am a scientist by training, and Felicity said she’d love to get the two of us together on a project. We met over gin & tonic and Dave and I later agreed our respective contributions.’

So how did the partnership work? ‘Dave came up with three ten-point plots and we chose one that had the potential to build into a satisfying thriller. From there, we exchanged ideas, and talked about the characters, with Dave advising on scientific and procedural elements.  The writing is my job, so when we felt we had enough background, I got to work. We had the main protagonists: forensic scientist, Professor Nick Fennimore, and DCI Kate Simms. We had also worked out the central plot – an unexplained blip in the number of overdoses among north Manchester’s heroin addicts, which Simms suspects is something more sinister. Being science trained, I could do some forensic research myself; when a question arose that was beyond my experience, Dave would provide briefing notes or a PowerPoint presentation – or we would Skype.’

Are there any CSI-style cheats or inventions in the novel? ‘Fennimore is a forensic scientist, which means the science has to be right. That said, EVERYONE LIES is a work of fiction, so the characters had to have depth and complexity to engage the readers, and as a thriller, the story needed both tension and pace. The writing process is organic – characters will do unpredictable things against the better judgment of the writer – and I added in storylines and characters and scratched out others along the way. In these instances, Dave would deal with the scientific consequences of my untidy creative mind.’
Will the collaboration continue? ‘Happily, the second novel is completed and is due out in July,’ Margaret says. ‘Fennimore and Simms go Stateside, on the trail of a serial killer. That was fun to research. In May 2012, we spent three weeks in Tulsa and St Louis, talking to experts covering a range of aspects of the US Criminal Justice System. Highlights included being guided around the Homicide Department in Tulsa, and talking to detectives, Cold Case Investigators, and CSIs. They’d had 19 homicides between January and May – and said it had been unusually quiet. We also talked to District Attorneys, a forensic anthropologist, and a judge in Oklahoma. Our guide and facilitator, Mike Nance, was formerly a homicide detective, and is now a Team Adam consultant. Mike is also a co-founder of the International Association of Cold Case Investigators. Please check out their Facebook page and like it – these guys do important work. In St Louis, we met with just-retired head of the Major Case Squad, Bill Baker, and the Godfather of Homicide, Joe Burgoon, and listened to a fund of stories that impressed on me both the humour and compassion of the men and women who stand between ordinary people and those who would do us harm. It’s impossible in a short blog to do justice to everyone who helped and guided us, but I will be blogging the research trip, day by day, on the A.D. Garrett website from 30th April to 17th May, so I hope you’ll drop by.

EVERYONE LIES, published by Constable Crime, is now out in paperback and in e-format. The sequel, BELIEVE NO ONE, will be published on 3rd July.

For information on the books (including foreign publications), events, writing and forensic science, visit the A.D. Garrett website at or follow @adgarrett1 on Twitter.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Her Brilliant Career

The full title is Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties and it's by Rachel Cooke. It's had some very good reviews and I must admit that it is a terrific read and that I gobbled it up. But - you knew there was going to be a 'but', didn't you? - I do have some reservations and some of these are, I suspect, to do with editorial decisions. I was a few pages in when I turned to the index, wanting to check something, only to find that there wasn't one. I don't like it when a densely textured work of non-fiction like this doesn't have an index. And I don't like it when there are no proper footnotes, either. There are a lot of quotations. Sometimes they are attributed, sometimes not. I think this matters. I really want to know who said or wrote what and when. I can imagine the discussion leading to this decision: 'oh, we won't have footnotes . . . too stuffy . . . holds up the narrative . . . ' But it is important especially when, as here, the private lives of real people are presented in a somewhat unfavourable light.
For these women were for the most part undeniably brilliant - a film director, a journalist, a cookery writer, an architect, a barrister and others - but some of them really weren't very nice. Admittedly this was a tough time to be a working mother and these women were bucking the trend. Some careers simply weren't open to married women: a friend of my mother's who worked in a bank had to stop work when she married. For those who could stay on it was very difficult to combine the two roles, much more so than today (though it's a problem that never goes away entirely). Sadly the children in this book tended not to come out of things very well. The story of Nancy Spain is particularly disquieting. A lesbian when lesbianism wasn't illegal only because it was totally unacknowledged, she had a baby that she passed off as belonging to her female lover. She was killed, along with the lover, in a plane crash, leaving no provision, financial or otherwise, for this little boy. Something was cobbled together and he was taken in by the headteacher at the school where he was boarding. He didn't even know who his real mother was until he was nineteen. Later on he deduced that his father was Youngman Carter who was married to the crime-writer, Margery Allingham. I say 'deduced' because the evidence seems to be less than compelling, even though it is presented as fact. No wonder he was dogged by mental illness all his life.
Rachel Cooke doesn't reach any particular conclusion and I didn't feel that the whole was more than the sum of the parts - but how very entertaining those parts are.

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Friday, April 04, 2014

Three Singles to Adventure

These days there are plenty of books aimed at the thirteen to fourteen year old female market, but when I was that age, books weren't categorised in the same way. There was no Judy Blume or - these days - Louise Rennison and I'm not really sorry. I didn't want to read books that reflected my own teenage occupations. I wanted to be transported to other worlds. Three of my favourite writers were Gerald Durrell, P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie.
I adored Gerald Durrell's books, requested them as presents, and saved up my pocket money for them. I have those orange Penguins beside me now as I write: Three Singles to Adventure, A Zoo in My Luggage, The Whispering Land, Encounters with Animals, Menagarie Manor and of course that classic, My Family and Other Animals. The inscription on the fly leaf tells me that I was fourteen when I bought this for one and sixpence in Derby market with my friend, Pauline. So it was second-hand to start with and has been read so often that the cover and the first pages have become detached.
That one wasn't illustrated, but the others were and the illustrations by Ralph Thompson were no small part of their charm. As for the text, the mixture of humour and description of the natural world were pitched at the perfect level. I've just been flicking through them. They're beautifully written and still eminently readable. I read them for pure pleasure, but I learned a lot, too. They enlarged my world and were the perfect escape from the perplexities of early teenage life.