So many books, so little time!
Once I used to reread favourite novels, happy to revisit those I'd enjoyed before. Sometimes I'm nostalgic for the times when I'd curl up with a treasured book to savour its magic again. Even though the story was no longer a mystery, I'd always catch nuances I'd missed before, making each reread a new take on the familiar. A long time has passed since I read the same title more than once, though. It's a trend that's set to continue.
Why? Well, thanks to changes in the publishing industry, we're spoiled for choice when it comes to fiction. Thousands of new novels are uploaded to Amazon every day. In addition, the new wave of self-publishing is creating new genres by merging existing ones. Which makes for fascinating choices! Fancy a science fiction romance? No problem. Want to add Vikings to the mix? Your wish is granted. There are novels about dragons in space, unicorns in ancient history, you name it. In addition, self-publishing has revitalised more than genres. Short stories and novellas are making a comeback, providing even more reading options. With such a cornucopia of material available, not to mention classic novels I've yet to read, I don't have time to pick up the same book twice. Not that I'm complaining, you understand!
I don't want old favourites to disappoint
Besides the plethora of new titles available, there's another reason I don't revisit past fictional adventures. A strong possibility exists that, after a gap of several decades, they'll disappoint. Take Iris Murdoch's 'The Sea, The Sea'. I first read this novel in my twenties, and I loved it. The character of Charles Arrowby, his selfishness, the way he blinds himself to the obvious, mesmerised me. The novel charts his reunion with his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch, whom he has not seen since his youth. Thanks to his reclusive life, he develops an obsession with her, despite the fact she now sports an old-lady moustache and doesn't return his interest. I've always been fascinated by human behaviour and foibles, and Charles's egotistic pursuit of the unfortunate Hartley, which involves her kidnap, makes wonderful reading.
Years ago, a friend and I discussed the novel, with her being as taken with 'The Sea, The Sea' as I was. Recently, however, Doran told me she'd reread the book. Had it reprised its magic for her? The answer is no. 'I've no idea why I liked it so much in the first place,' she said. Which makes me wary about rereading my old favourite. Disillusion can be a bitter pill. Isn't it better for 'The Sea, The Sea' to retain its place in my affections, rather than me risk tarnishing its memory?
Tastes and priorities change...
Perhaps this reflects the changes we all experience in life. Tastes and priorities alter. In my fifties, I'm very different to the woman I was in my twenties. Who wouldn't be? There's a good chance that Iris Murdoch's iconic book may not enchant me second time around. Take Thomas Hardy's wonderful novels, for example. As a teenager, I read every single title, relishing Hardy's biting examination of social injustices. I loathed the hypocritical Angel Clare in 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'; Michael Henchard's character in 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' appalled me. A man who scorned his bride-to-be for not being a virgin? A rogue who sells his wife at a country fair? Shame on both of them!
I also loved Hardy's lyrical descriptions of the Dorset countryside, for which his books are justly famous. An example: 'Here in the valley, the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere below is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes of that hue, whilst the horizon beyond is of deepest ultramarine.' (From 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles').
Nowadays I feel little desire to read any of his books again. For one thing, I'm less concerned with social commentary than I was. And whilst not denying the beauty of Hardy's prose, I'm now impatient with long-winded descriptive paragraphs. I prefer brisk action rather than eulogies about hedgerows. So I'll leave off revisiting Hardy, or any of the novelists who enchanted me as a younger woman. Time's a wastin', as they say. Instead, I'll choose something new to read.
What about you?
Do you like revisiting fictional favourites? Are there books that are timeless for you, providing enjoyment every time you read them? Or do you prefer to discover fresh treasures? Leave a comment and let me know!
A while back, I posted a review of 'The White Room' by bestselling thriller writer Martyn Waites. I'm delighted to welcome the man himself to my blog today. Here's our discussion:
Tell us about your novel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death.
Well, it’s something I’m particularly proud of. At first I thought I was just going to be writing a film tie-in which I thought would be fun because I hadn’t done anything like that before. Also I’m a huge Hammer Film fan and to have my name and Hammer on the spine of a book was enough for me, really. Plus it was a complete departure from anything I had written before. The opposite of my usual stuff, really.
But … then I was told this wasn’t just to coincide with the new film but was going to be the official sequel to the novel itself. And then I found myself in the papers answering questions. And then I realised I’d taken on quite a daunting task. But I wrote it and really enjoyed it. It’s different to the first one and different to the film as well. I saw it as my chance to use every gothic trope that I could think of, making homages to all the great writers and filmmakers who had so excited me. So Poe is in there, a bit of M R James, hopefully a bit of Terence Fisher . . . Great fun to write.
Has your early career as an actor helped you with your novel writing? Do you see yourself returning to acting in the future?
I don’t know. It’s probably a never say never thing. I have no plans to return to acting but I would listen to offers. However, I’ve been out of it for so long I doubt I’ll get any offers. Also, I used to love theatre; that was my real passion, more than TV or anything else. But the thought of committing myself to a long run now doesn’t really appeal. As to whether it’s helped in my writing: yes, I think so. I find creating characters for the page the same as creating them onstage. I use the same intuitive processes as I would as an actor. Find the voice, the look, the walk, etc. And also, I find dialogue very easy to write. I think that’s down to my actor background.
Will you venture into any other genres? If so, which ones?
I already have. I’ve ventured into music journalism. Great Lost Albums came out in 2014. It was a collaboration between myself, Mark Billingham, Stav Sherez and David Quantick. We spent years trying to track down albums that we had only heard whispers about, legendary albums that may never have even existed . . . No we didn’t. It was a comedy book. Mark and I were trying to entertain each other on a train one day when we were out on tour together. What would Morrissey’s great lost panto album sound like? What if Pete Townsend did a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind bingo caller called Bingo Wizard? What if Coldplay became IKEA’s resident house band? Those kinds of things. Just to entertain ourselves really. By the time we’d got back to London we thought we had a book there. So we roped in Stav, who is of course a brilliant crime novelist but also used to be a music journalist, and Dave Quantick who also used to be a music journalist but who’s now better known for writing for the BAFTA winning Harry Hill’s TV Burp, The Thick of It and the Emmy-winning Veep. Then it was just a question of coming up with fifty albums that made us all laugh. The book came out last autumn and despite being the funniest book ever written, kind of disappeared. So it was back to the day job.
You also write as Tania Carver. How different is that from being Martyn Waites?
Well, there’s the name for a start. It’s interesting. Tania (if I can refer to myself/herself in the third person) is different from Martyn. The books are slightly different. They’re all crime novels but with the Tanias there are changes of emphasis, there are scenes that I wouldn’t put in a Tania that I’d keep for a Martyn. And vice versa. I don’t actually know what the differences are but I can feel them when I’m writing. I guess it’s like how it must have been for Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. The same, but different. Flexing different muscles, playing different chords. That kind of thing. Or at least that’s how I think of it.
The other thing is writing under a female pseudonym. When the first Tania came out, The Surrogate, it was a massive bestseller, both here and internationally. I can remember standing in W H Smith where it was book of the week and watching people come in, pick it up and take it to the till. And of course I couldn’t say anything. Well, not without being forcibly ejected from the shop. I’ve got used to it now though. Tania is kind of my main writing at the moment. But doing things like Woman in Black and Great Lost Albums help to keep me and the series fresh.
Tell us how American crime fiction of the Nineties influenced your early work.
Wow, you’ve done your homework. Or you’ve heard me blathering on about this at great length, usually when I’ve had a drink. It was the late eighties and I was casting around for my ‘thing’. I was already acting and had what other people thought of as a promising career (which I think meant I was working and not unemployed). I loved reading and had tried everything but nothing seemed to stick, nothing spoke to me, moved me. Until I read Chandler. Then Hammett, then Ross MacDonald. Then James M Cain . . . and on and on. Actually this was in the mid-eighties when I was still at college. When I left I was still reading the old school stuff. I hated British crime writing at the time. Parochial, dull, boring. No connection with me or my life. Then I looked back at some of the neglected British writers like Ted Lewis, Gerald Kersh and, my favourite, Patrick Hamilton and wished we had people like that still writing.
So I had a look at some of the American writing that was starting to appear then. And it was a pretty fertile time for it. Like punk and new wave happened over here in the late seventies and revitalised the culture, in the late eighties the same thing happened with American crime fiction. I read Andrew Vachss and it was like someone hadn’t just opened the windows onto a world, they had blown the side of the house off. James Ellroy next, then James Lee Burke, James Crumley, Walter Mosely, Sara Paretsky . . . wow. On and on. And that was when I realised I had found my thing. They wrote about urban landscapes I could recognise, about lives and struggles I could relate to. It was real life reportage, spat back as literature. And I couldn’t get enough of it. And then I thought (because I was already telling myself I was going to write a novel), why don’t I do what they’re doing? Transpose it for the UK but bring that energy, that sense of engagement the politics, the anger with it? Yeah, why not? I realised that quite a few other British writers were having the same idea at the same time. It just took some of us longer to actually get into print. But they were my literary touchstones, the ones who inspired me.
You’ve held writing residences in prisons. Do you know if any of your students have published their work? How rewarding did you find encouraging offenders to write?
I don’t know if I’ve actually led anyone to be a writer. There were some who were definitely good enough but I don’t know if they have or not. I worked as a writer in residence in a young offenders institution for two and a half years. Then for another year in an adult prison. To be honest, I could write a book on it. It was the most unique experience. It was the most polarised environment I’ve ever worked in. One day you’d be feeling like you could touch the stars, the next like you wished you were shelf-stacking at Budgens. Successes were stratospheric, failures equally so in the wrong direction. It was an honour to try and use my skills to effect a positive change in someone’s life.
Tell us a little about the writing process for you. How long does an average novel take? How difficult (or not) are you to live with when creating a novel? Are you a planner or someone who writes by the seat of their pants?
So many questions in that one question . . . Okay, here goes. I can answer the second bit first. How difficult am I to live with when I’m writing? Very. I sometimes put off starting a book because I know that it’s going to change me. It’s like you can never switch off and your mind is always on the work. At my best I’m kind of semi-detached while I’m working. At worst I’m the kind of writer that people go and stay with their relatives rather than be with.
Do I plan or make it up? Kind of both, really. I know that sounds diametrically opposed, but it’s not. I usually start with an idea or an image. That then suggests questions to me. And it takes the course of the book for me to answer them. I usually say that the first hundred pages or so are like an audition. It’s me finding out who the characters are, why they’re there, what they sound like . . . all of that. And the ones with the most interesting voices are the ones I want to stick with. Then I can see a structure developing so I start to plan ahead a little. Maybe fifty or a hundred pages or so. Then after that, take stock and plan the next section. And so on.
As for how long it takes, I don’t know. I try and allow myself a year to write a novel but always hope it takes less than that and I can fit something else in as well. But it varies. The longest it took me to write a book was five years. The shortest, three months. There are no hard and fast rules. And I also feel when I sit down to start the next book that I’ve learned absolutely nothing for my previous books. A blank screen is always a blank screen. And it’s up to me to be as creative as possible in how I fill it.
Finally, tell us something weird and wonderful about yourself that your readers might not know.
To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything weird - and certainly nothing wonderful - about me. I kind of wear my passions on my sleeve so most people know my politics, my interests, all of that. I can’t really think of anything. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, right back to 1963. I love my pulp fiction, my horror movies, my film noir, my comics . . . possibly the only thing that not many people know about me is that I like modelling. Not on the catwalk, obviously, but making models. I’ve got a scale replica of Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride of Frankenstein from the film of the same name to work on next. I’m looking forward to that. Once I’ve finished my Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde model, that is. I enjoy it. The solitude, the concentration. You can listen to music while you work, which I can’t while I’m writing. And it uses another part of my brain to the writing part, lets me flex some other mental muscles. Love it. I used to win competitions for it when I was little. And that’s something not many people know.
Thank you, Martyn! It's been a pleasure to talk with you.
My second novel, 'Sister, Psychopath', was inspired by a real-life crime. At a writing workshop, our facilitator told us about a murder carried out by a mentally disturbed woman. She fixated on a male colleague, a married man who had a young child. They were never lovers but her obsession with him steadily grew, so much so that she decided to murder his wife and child, believing she could then marry him. She went ahead and killed his family, but her daughter became suspicious and contacted the police. The woman was arrested and convicted, receiving a life sentence.
When I heard this, my curiosity was piqued. How would it feel, I wondered, to be that woman's daughter? To make such a terrible discovery about her mother? The point our facilitator was making was that true crime is often a great source of inspiration for fiction writers. In this instance, it certainly was for me. Out of this premise came the character of Megan Copeland in 'Sister, Psychopath'. I ended up taking the novel down a different path, away from Tilly Copeland's fixation on her boss, exploring instead the relationship between Megan and her sociopathic sister Chloe. However, I'll always be grateful to our workshop leader for sowing the seeds for my second novel.
My experience isn't unusual, of course. Many novels have been influenced by true-life crimes. In this week's blog post I'll continue my 'Five' series by giving some examples.
1. Psycho - Robert Bloch, 1959
Written in 1959 by Robert Bloch, Psycho was inspired by the real-life crime of Ed Gein, arrested in 1957 for the murders of two women in Wisconsin. When police searched his home, they found furniture and clothing made of skin and female body parts. Gein had raided graveyards to make a skin suit that he planned to wear while pretending to be his dead mother. Bloch's novel created the iconic character of motel owner Norman Bates, who murders his mother and takes on her personality. Even if they've not read the book, most people are familiar with the story from the famous Alfred Hitchcock film. Remember the shower scene?!
Here's the synopsis of the novel from Amazon: 'She was a fugitive, lost in a storm. That was when she saw the sign: motel - vacancy. The sign was unlit, the motel dark. She switched off the engine, and sat thinking, alone and frightened. She had nobody. The stolen money wouldn't help her, and Sam couldn't either, because she had taken the wrong turning; she was on a strange road. There was nothing she could do now - she had made her grave and she'd have to lie in it. She froze. Where had that come from? Grave. It was bed, not grave. She shivered in the cold car, surrounded by shadows. Then, without a sound, a dark shape emerged from the blackness and the car door opened. Psycho is not a tale for queasy stomachs or faint hearts. It is filled with horrifying suspense and the climax, instead of being a relief, will hit the reader with bone-shattering force.'
2. The Silence of the Lambs - Thomas Harris, 1988
The exploits of Ed Gein also served as the inspiration for Thomas Harris's 1998 novel The Silence of The Lambs. In the book, Gein morphs into a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, a man who kidnaps overweight women, starves them for a few days and then kills and skins them. Like Psycho, most people know the story even if they've not read the book. Who hasn't seen the film clip of Hannibal Lecter expressing his preference for Chianti to accompany a dish of human liver?!
Here's the Amazon synopsis of the novel: 'An FBI trainee. A psychopath locked up for unspeakable crimes. And a serial killer getting ever closer to his latest victim ... FBI rookie Clarice Starling turns to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, monster cannibal held in a hospital for the criminally insane, for insight into the deadly madman she must find. As Dr. Lecter invites her into the darkest chambers of his mind, he forces her to confront her own childhood demons as the price of understanding, an unspeakable tuition he exacts to teach her how the monster thinks. And time is running out . . .'
3. The Black Dahlia - James Ellroy, 1987
James Ellroy based The Black Dahlia on one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved crimes. In 1947, waitress Elizabeth Short’s body was found mutilated and dumped in a car park in Los Angeles. The murder horrified the public; newspapers weighed in by sensationalising the case, nicknaming the victim 'Black Dahlia' because she always wore black clothing. Ellroy's novel explores how the lives of the two detectives who investigate the case, Dwight Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, are destroyed by it. For Blanchard, the case revives memories of his sister Laurie, who vanished and was never found, fuelling his fears about what might have happened to her. Bleichert, however, develops an obsession with Black Dahlia, fancying himself in love and making connections between her troubled life and his own.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon: 'A neo-noir crime novel from the legendary crime novelist James Ellroy. Los Angeles, 15th January 1947: a beautiful young woman walked into the night and met her horrific destiny. Five days later, her tortured body was found drained of blood and cut in half. The newspapers called her 'The Black Dahlia'. Two cops are caught up in the investigation and embark on a hellish journey that takes them to the core of the dead girl's twisted life...'
4. We Need to Talk about Kevin - Lionel Shriver, 2003
Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin was inspired by the 1999 shootings in Colombine, USA. The Colorado town is where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve fellow students and a teacher at their high school. Shriver references the killings in her novel by making the Kevin of the title commit mass murder in a similar way. The book is structured in the form of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her estranged husband Franklin Plaskett, in which she charts her cold relationship with their son Kevin. Her maternal indifference and occasional violence towards the boy may, she fears, have contributed to his sociopathic tendencies. In the book, Shriver examines the age-old question of nature versus nurture to determine why Kevin acts the way he does. Lacking normal emotions and the capacity for love, he is contemptuous and manipulative, reserving special hatred for his mother. He's certainly a hard character to like, let alone love.
Here's the synopsis from Amazon: 'Eva never really wanted to be a mother; certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker and a teacher who tried to befriend him. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her absent husband, Franklyn. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.'
5. Room - Emma Donoghue, 2010
Emma Donoghue wrote her acclaimed novel, Room, in 2010 after the Josef Fritzl case became news world-wide. In 2008, Elisabeth Fritzl, 42, told police she had been held captive by her father for twenty-four years in makeshift accommodation below the family home in Austria. Fritzl had raped her throughout that time and as a result she had given birth to seven children by him. Among them was five-year-old Felix, the inspiration for Donoghue’s Jack, held captive along with his mother in Room.
To me, Room is an incredible book. Emma Donoghue took a brave step in narrating its events from the perspective of a five-year-old boy and her gamble largely pays off. In places, it doesn't quite work - Jack sometimes acts with a maturity beyond such a young child's capabilities, but I still consider Room an excellent read. Had I written it, I'd have told the story from Ma's point of view, as I suspect many authors would have done. I admire Donoghue, therefore, for not taking the obvious route when writing the book. Her way is powerful because of course, Jack doesn't understand his situation, enhancing the suspense for the reader as the truth about Room is revealed. His childish perception also acts as a tool to inject humour into the narrative. It's gripping stuff! Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
'Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Jack lives with his Ma in Room. Room has a single locked door and a skylight, and it measures ten feet by ten feet. Jack loves watching TV but he knows that nothing he sees on the screen is truly real - only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there is a world outside. Devastating yet uplifting, Room by Emma Donoghue is a luminous portrait of a boundless maternal love. It has sold more than two million copies, was a number one bestseller and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Few books have reached modern classic status so swiftly.'
Bonus - a sixth book! This one's a true crime story...
Whilst it's not a novel but a true crime story, I wanted to include Death in Disguise: The Amazing True Story of the Chelsea Murders, by Gary Powell. I thought it would be interesting to add at least one real-life crime book to this blog post. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:
Victorian Chelsea was a thriving commercial and residential development, known for its grand houses and pleasant garden squares. Violent crime was unheard of in this leafy suburb. The double murder of an elderly man of God and his faithful housekeeper in two ferocious, bloody attacks in May of 1870 therefore shook the residents of Chelsea to the core. This volume examines this extraordinary case, one which could have leapt straight from the pen of Agatha Christie herself: the solving of the case relied on the discovery of a packing box dripping with blood, and the capture of a mysterious French nephew. This volume, compiled by a former detective, looks at the facts: no direct evidence to place the suspect at either of the crime scenes; no weapon recovered; no motive substantiated. It lets you, the reader, decide: would you, on the evidence presented, have sent the same man to the gallows?
Sounds fascinating! If you're interested, here's the link to Gary's book on Amazon or you can click the image. Isn't that a fantastic cover, by the way?
Let's hear from you!
What novels based on real-life crimes have you enjoyed? Leave me a comment and let me know!
A gripping thriller that's also heart-breaking
Wow! Yesterday I finished Alex North's best-selling novel 'The Whisper Man', and loved it. Two of the scenes towards the end of the book brought tears to my eyes. Not many books manage to do that, but it's wonderful when they do.
I had my doubts when I first picked up 'The Whisper Man', however. We're introduced early in the novel to DI Pete Willis, a man with a troubled childhood, a divorce in his rear mirror and a drinking problem. Cliché number one. Then there's the plot. A boy has gone missing, in circumstances that mirror the crimes of Frank Carter, now in prison. Is a copycat killer at work? Cliché number two. Except that 'The Whisper Man' is so beautifully written, and Alex North provides such a fresh spin on an old tale, that I couldn't help but get drawn in. I'm glad I did. The book was rated the best crime novel of the decade by Steve Cavanagh, and he's someone who knows how to craft an excellent read! Here's a taster of the plot:
If you leave a door half-open, soon you'll hear the whispers spoken . . .
Still devastated after the loss of his wife, Tom Kennedy and his young son Jake move to the sleepy village of Featherbank, looking for a much-needed fresh start.
But Featherbank has a dark past. Fifteen years ago, a twisted serial killer abducted and murdered five young boys.
Until he was finally caught, the killer was known as 'The Whisper Man'.
Of course, an old crime need not trouble Tom and Jake as they try to settle in to their new home.
Except that now another boy has gone missing. And then Jake begins acting strangely.
He says he hears a whispering at his window . . .
A novel of loss, love and the relationship between father and son
Creepy stuff, huh? Yet underneath all the horror the book deals with themes of grief, loss and love. Alex North masterfully portrays a father, still mourning for his dead wife, who struggles to understand his young son. They love each other, yet don't communicate well; Tom feels he's failing as a parent, while Jake believes he disappoints his dad. Both are wrong, yet it takes tragedy to convince them otherwise.
I've already said that DI Pete Willis appears at first to be a cliché. Yet Alex North hasn't made him that way out of laziness; reasons exist why the plot needs this character to suffer a troubled childhood and why he descended into alcoholism in the past. It all forms part of a coherent whole, as does the fact there's a copycat killer.
Along the way Alex North delivers great plot twists - one, about halfway through, stunned yet delighted me! In the same way, he avoids taking the easy option towards the end; when he could have delivered a nice, comfy happy-ever-after, he choose something different, in the first of the two chapters that made me cry. Here the writing could, in the hands of a lesser author, have descended into cheesiness, but it didn't. Instead, it was beautiful. So, too, was a later scene, in which we discover Alex has misled us as to the identity of one of the minor characters. I won't say more, as I don't want to give plot spoilers, but the wrap-up is excellent, including the fate of the copycat killer, who gets what he deserves as well as what he craves.
If you enjoy great crime fiction, do yourself a favour and read this book. At times spine-chillingly tense and at others heart-breaking, this is one of the best crime novels I've read this year.
What about you? Have you read 'The Whisper Man'?
If so, what did you think? Liked it, loathed it? Leave a comment and let me know!