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!
I'm a huge admirer of Stephen King. I love his work, but I'm also in awe of his prolific output. Many of his novels are over 700 pages in length and he's written so damn many of them - fifty-eight, to be exact! He's also penned over two hundred short stories and five non-fiction books. OK, so he embarked on his writing career decades ago, but even so the sheer volume of his output is impressive. In this week's blog post, I'll examine five other prolific authors.
1. Dame Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie was an English crime novelist, short story writer and playwright. She wrote sixty-nine novels and nineteen plays, published over a fifty-six year period, and she also authored romantic fiction under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Her murder mystery play, The Mousetrap, holds the record for being the world's longest-running theatre production; in 1971 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her enormous contribution to literature.
Besides being prolific, Dame Agatha is the most published novelist in history, and her estimated sales are in the region of three billion (!) books. I read all her detective stories during my teens, being swept away by the sleuthing skills of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, as well as Christie's fascinating plots. Her novels have been translated into over one hundred languages. 'And Then There Were None' is her best-selling title, having sold over 100 million copies to date, making it one of the most popular books of all time. Wow!
2. Dame Barbara Cartland
Another Dame of the British Empire! Barbara Cartland wrote 723 novels, which have been translated into thirty-six languages, and she holds the world record for the most novels published in a single year - twenty-three. Twenty-three?! Did she ever sleep? Admittedly her books tend to be short, but even so...
She wrote romantic fiction primarily but also plays and music. Her book sales reportedly top 750 million copies, although some sources have put the figure at over two billion. Two billion?! Even if the first figure is more accurate, that's a lot of book sales - I can only aspire to such numbers!
Barbara Cartland's books are tame by today's standard, featuring virginal heroines and little, if any, sexual imagery. Her later novels were historical romances, which made it easier to cast virgins as the protagonists. During her later years, she became a self-proclaimed expert on romance although her views were considered hopelessly outdated by many. I well remember her many television appearances in which she'd expound her views on various issues, including gentlemanly conduct and how to keep the romance in relationships. She was a very memorable character, usually appearing bedecked in jewels, wearing flouncy pink dresses and clutching a fluffy white dog. They don't make them like that anymore!
3. Nora Roberts
The only one of my chosen novelists still alive, Nora Roberts also writes romance novels and to date has published two hundred and nine. She concentrates on one book at a time, which makes her prolific output even more remarkable. She writes for eight hours a day, every day, without fail, even when on holiday. (I'm starting to doubt whether the authors I've chosen are human!)
In the nineties, her publishers decided they couldn't keep pace with her output and asked her to consider adopting a pseudonym so they could publish more of her work each year. She decided to use her new pen name to switch tack and begin writing romantic suspense fiction, under the name of J D Robb. As J D Robb, Roberts has also published a series of science fiction novels set in the mid-twenty-first century, featuring a New York City detective. Whilst these novels are police procedural ones as well as science fiction, J D Robb has maintained the romantic element by focusing on the relationship between Detective Eve Dallas and her husband. Since 1999, every one of Nora Roberts's books has been a New York Times bestseller, and she was the first novelist to be admitted to the Romance Writers of America's Hall of Fame. An amazing woman!
4. John Creasey
John Creasey was an English crime and science fiction writer with six hundred novels to his credit, using twenty-eight pseudonyms. Six hundred?! I need to up my game, and quickly...
Many of his characters, such as The Honourable Richard Rollison (The Toff) and Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard, continued through a series. Besides crime and science fiction, he also wrote Western novels and romances, using his various pen names.
In 1962, Creasey won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for 'Gideon's Fire', written under his pseudonym J. J. Marric. In 1969 he received the MWA's greatest honour, the Grand Master Award. In the UK, Creasey founded The Crime Writers Association (CWA), which awards the New Blood Dagger each year for a first book by an unpublished writer. Another recipient of a UK honour, he was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his services during World War Two.
5. Isaac Asimov
The last of our prolific wordsmiths, Isaac Asimov, was a science fiction writer, although he also wrote scientific non-fiction, being a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He either wrote or edited over five hundred books as well as an estimated ninety thousand letters. Like the other authors I've mentioned, Asimov's works have been extensively translated into other languages.
Asimov received several awards for his writing, as well as fourteen honorary doctorate degrees. His short story 'Nightfall', written in 1941, was voted by The Science Fiction Writers of America as the best one ever written in its genre and he was made a Grand Master of the SFWA in 1987. His most interesting accolade may well be the fact that in 2009 a crater on Mars was named after him - I love that!
Unusual facts about Asimov? He claimed in the third volume of his autobiography to love small, enclosed spaces, citing his childhood desire to own a subway magazine stand, in which he'd ensconce himself and listen to the rumble of the trains as he read. Each to their own...
Phew! I feel exhausted...
I'm sure you're probably as dumbstruck as I am at the literary output of the authors I've mentioned! I feel tired just thinking about writing six hundred books - although, given my late start as a novelist, it's unlikely I'll achieve one hundred titles, let alone six times that number. Speaking of which, I'd better stop blogging and get back to writing - I'll catch up with you again in my next post. Until then...
The most popular question to ask novelists
Novelists get asked this question more than any other. It's as if people think there are certain, very specific, stimuli that give rise to ideas for novel plots, and others that don't. Not so! Inspiration can be found everywhere, if you know where to look. When I'm asked where I get my ideas, I say 'from the world around me.'
Writers tend to be great at observation, particularly people watching. Like many authors, I always have to hand a way of capturing ideas when they strike, whether it's via my phone or pen and paper. Right now, I have over fifty plot possibilities listed on my computer, and I'm betting that other authors may have double or triple that number.
Novelists are capable of weaving plot ideas from virtually any situation. Take a simple example. I'm in a cafe, staring out of the window, and I spot a woman crossing the road. She's hurrying, her expression clouded; a small girl is clutching her hand. Immediately, this sparks several plot possibilities. Where does she need to get to so fast, and why? Is she running from something or someone? If so, what or whom? Is the child her own, or has she snatched her? What's causing her to look so worried? One very ordinary scenario, but with so much potential!
Posing questions is a useful tactic
I'm not suggesting every idea is worthy of being turned into a full-length book. Many aren't. An idea needs to be capable of sustaining characters and plot, and some might be better suited to a short story or subplot. When the right idea strikes, though, it's an amazing moment, at least for me. I get a strong gut instinct, signalling 'this is IT!' Intense excitement follows; for hours afterwards, my brain won't stop buzzing with ways to develop the idea into a novel.
Television news and the press are useful for gathering ideas. Say, for example, I read about a hit-and-run accident. I immediately focus on the emotions involved, posing questions such as 'what if?' and 'how would that feel?' What mental turmoil must the driver be experiencing? Was he/she concerned about financial problems/their marriage/work issues, leading to careless driving? What will the consequences be? How is the victim's family coping? All rich sources of inspiration for the plot or subplot of a future novel!
Themes as a source of inspiration
Something else I find works well is to consider themes that appeal, ones evoking strong emotions. I turn a subject over in my brain, spinning out from a one-word premise, such as obsession, all the possibilities that arise. A mental mind map, if you like! For my sixth novel, 'Deception Wears Many Faces', I was drawn to the theme of betrayal. Duplicity elicits fierce emotions, from a desire for revenge to suicidal impulses. How did this idea originate? Television again. I watched a BBC documentary on the subject of con artists. As the sad stories unfolded, that familiar gut feeling hit me hard - YES! I knew I'd found the material for a future novel plot.
Other potential sources of inspiration? This doesn't work for me, but many writers report using daydreaming or dreams themselves to spark their creativity. One of my novelist friends told me the plot of her first book came to her as she slept. Others say meditation or creative visualisation helps.
Enter Plot Monkey!
For fun a while ago, I tried out a piece of software (no longer available) called Plot Monkey. It's a random idea generator, based on who, what, how, when and where. Using those criteria, or whichever ones you select, it generates plot ideas. The results are hilarious.
Take this gem it produced: two small boys wipe out an outlaw gang using a hammer to win fame during the civil war in Australia. Well, that's expanded my education! I was unaware Australia ever had a civil war...
Or this: A herpetologist tries to destroy an Army base by being unfaithful to hide the truth during the civil war alongside a boat. Looks like our resident monkey has a thing for civil conflict...
Here's my favourite, seeing as my fourth, 'The Second Captive', examines Stockholm syndrome: a person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome plays a deadly game with a hack saw to prove a point in the future in the desert. Nope, no hack saws or deserts in 'The Second Captive'! Sorry, Plot Monkey, I'll carry on getting ideas as and when they arise - you stick to finding your next banana!
How would it feel to discover you'd been abducted as a child?
To illustrate the diverse sources of novel ideas, let's look at how I got the inspiration for four of my own books, starting with 'His Kidnapper's Shoes'. In 2010, I was chatting with fellow travellers in Vietnam, discussing what happens when children disappear. I ventured the opinion that most, sadly, are killed by opportunistic predators.
One woman disagreed. 'I suspect sometimes they're stolen to order,' she said. 'For childless couples, who, for whatever reason, can't adopt.'
That got me thinking. What would it be like to discover you'd been abducted as a child? How would someone react on finding out the woman who raised them is a kidnapper? I love examining strong emotions, and such a situation would spark off intense feelings: anger, betrayal, and the desire to unearth the truth.
When obsessive love leads to murder
Let's examine my second novel, 'Sister, Psychopath'. Several years ago, I attended a writing course, during which the conversation turned to a real-life murder case. Our teacher told us about a woman who became obsessed with a man, believing herself in love. So much so that she decided to kill his wife and child in the hope of marrying him. She carried out her plan, but her daughter suspected what she'd done, leading to her mother's arrest and conviction.
When I heard this, I knew I had the basis for a novel. Lots of questions jumped out at me. How would it feel to be the daughter in this situation? Or the woman herself, obsessed to the point of murder? What about the subject of her infatuation, a man now bereft of his family?
In the end, I centred on the daughter's story by creating the character of Megan Copeland, and changed the events to attempted murder, with no child involved. The novel ended up taking a different route, concentrating instead on the relationship between Megan and her sociopathic half-sister, Chloe. Psychopathy always provides plenty of material for novelists!
Discovering someone you love has a secret past
I don't remember the exact source of inspiration for my third novel, 'Guilty Innocence'. I suspect I heard about some terrible crime via the television news, because I do recall the idea came from the premise: how would it feel to discover someone you love has a secret past?
That sparked a host of other questions. What could be so awful you'd need to keep it hidden? How might the truth be revealed? Serious crime seemed the best reason for such a cover-up, which begged the question: what, exactly?
The answer was child murder; no other crime incites such passions in the public mind. The twist is that Mark Slater is innocent of the killing of two-year-old Abby Morgan. This doesn't mean he's without his demons to slay; his wrongful conviction has always eaten away at him. In addition, he has his nemesis, the twisted and violent Adam Campbell, to confront...
Victims who become emotionally attached to their abusers
Finally, let's look at my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive'. The book examines the fascinating psychological condition known as Stockholm syndrome, in which victims become emotionally attached to their abusers. Fertile ground for novelists!
The inspiration for this book came from hearing about a young woman who returned home after an absence of several years, in a distressed state, but wouldn't say what had happened to her. I was instantly intrigued. Why was she refusing to talk? Where had she been, and with whom?
Stockholm syndrome came to mind as the answer. A vulnerable individual, held captive in an abusive situation, who's too ashamed after her escape to reveal the truth. And so the character of Beth Sutton was born, along with the disturbed and dangerous Dominic Perdue, her captor…
let's hear from you!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post, and that it's given you some insight into the creative process for fiction writers. Are there any questions you'd like to ask on the topic? If you're a writer, do you get your ideas from specific sources, such as meditation or visualisation? Leave a comment and let me know!
A novel of violence and suffering...
'The White Room' by Martyn Waites is one of the best, as well as one of the grittiest, novels I've read in a long time. In it, Waites fuses a fictional account of life in Newcastle with the real-life case of child-killer Mary Bell. Be warned – this novel is not for the fainthearted. From its first chapter, set in a slaughterhouse, the narrative examines child abuse, prostitution, brutal anal sex, gang violence and murder, with a few psychopaths thrown in for good measure. Throughout the bulk of the novel, the characters endure a relentless cycle of damage, often perpetuated from generation to generation, as in the case of Monica and Mae Blacklock. Furthermore, Martyn Waites avoids the fairy tale scenario of only making his bad characters – and there are plenty of those - suffer. In 'The White Room', nobody is exempt from the torment that Waites inflicts on them; the characters who are essentially decent people – Sharon, Jack, Bert, Joanne – also endure more than their fair share of death and sorrow.
But also one of redemption
The ending, therefore, impacts like a bolt out of the slaughterhouse stun gun from the first chapter. Initially, it seems a little unreal – the soft-focus emphasis on what the future holds for Mae Blacklock, the character based on Mary Bell. After so much suffering and violence, one way to end the novel would have been to abandon all idea of hope, as George Orwell did in ‘1984’. However, Martyn Waites doesn't take this approach. Instead, he offers us a more optimistic alternative. Hence the title of the novel - 'The White Room'. An echo from Mae Blacklock’s childhood, a white room complete with an image of Jesus on the cross, simultaneously portraying hope and suffering. One that offers the reader more optimistic possibilities after the raw brutality of the rest of the novel. After all, if a character as fundamentally damaged as Mae Blacklock can aspire to a better future, so can we all. Martyn Waites himself says ‘It's a dark book but, I think, not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise, what's the point?’
The White Room may shock you. It may horrify you. Or its implicit message may inspire you. Whatever your reaction, I'd be interested to hear your views. Post a comment for me!
More about the author
Martyn is also the author of 'The Woman in Black: Angel of Death' as well as the Joe Donovan and Stephen Larkin series of novels. You can find out more at www.martynwaites.com.
Anyone who knows me will testify how passionate I am about foreign travel. I've been fortunate enough to have done lots of globe-trotting in my life, with more trips planned; it makes sense, therefore, that a keen reader like me should enjoy novels based around travel. In this week's post, I examine as part of my 'Five' series some well-known books classed as travel fiction or memoirs. Commencing take-off....
1. The Beach - Alex Garland
Written in 1996 by British author Alex Garland, 'The Beach' tells the story of Richard, who, when the novel opens, is staying in the notorious Khao San Road area of Bangkok (I've spent many a happy hour exploring Khao San's peculiarities - I love the place!)
Richard becomes fascinated by what he hears about a remote beach situated in the Gulf of Thailand, described as stunningly beautiful and inaccessible to tourists. Daffy Duck, the Scotsman who tells him about this tropical Garden of Eden, leaves him a map disclosing its location before committing suicide. Intrigued, Richard hooks up with a French couple, Etienne and Francois, and the trio set off to find the beach. Once there, they discover a secretive community living alongside Thai cannabis growers. Events, of course, soon take a sinister turn - I won't say more as I don't wish to give plot spoilers, but at times 'The Beach' has distinct overtones of William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. The body count grows amid the backdrop of the annual Tet Festival. Will Richard survive the experience?
2. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
Written in 1951 but not published until 1957, 'On The Road' is a novel by Jack Kerouac, based on his travels across America. The story epitomises the post-war Beat and counter-culture movements, being heavily based around spiritual quests and the rejection of materialism, and laced with copious amounts of jazz music, sex and psychedelic drugs. Kerouac emerges in the book as the narrator, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a road trip with his friend Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady, another major figure of the Beat movement.) Saddened by his recent divorce, Sal is eager to accompany the free-spirited Dean and discover what life on the road can offer him. They criss-cross the country from coast to coast, hitting San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Denver and Detroit. As someone who has long held an ambition to drive across the USA, this fascinates me!
A weird fact about 'On The Road' - the first draft was typed on a continuous 120-feet long scroll of tracing paper sheets, cut to size and taped together. The novel was transcribed from Kerouac's notebooks and typed without margins or paragraph breaks, taking him just three weeks (wow, that's fast!) to complete. I can only assume he couldn't afford proper paper on which to type! The scroll still exists and was bought by the owner of the Indianapolis Colts for $2.43 million in 2001.
3. Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
'Eat, Pray, Love' was written in 2006 by American author Elizabeth Gilbert and tells the story of her travels following her divorce and unsuccessful rebound relationship. The book is split into three sections, each corresponding with a different location in Gilbert's travels. First she spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life, which is the 'eat' section of the narrative. As a foodie and Italophile, I love this part! Next came three months in India, where Gilbert explores her spirituality ('pray'). Finally she travelled to Bali, where she fell in love with a Brazilian businessman ('love'), whom she subsequently married.
The book has attracted mixed reviews, with many being critical of Gilbert's alleged self-absorption. Others, like Oprah Winfrey, have loved the memoir (Oprah devoted two episodes of her show to it) and the 2010 film version has also proved very popular. Gilbert has also written another memoir ('Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage') as a sequel to 'Eat, Pray, Love', as well as short stories, essays and novels.
4. Around The World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne
Ah, the classic Jules Verne novel, beloved since its publication in 1873! The book tells the story of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout as they attempt to win a £20,000 bet as to whether the pair can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. The traveller in me thrills at the challenge - perhaps I should give it a go sometime!
Fogg and Passepartout travel by rail and steamer, journeying first to Egypt, then to India, Hong Kong, Japan and the USA before crossing the Atlantic back to London. Despite what you see on the book cover, they never set foot in a balloon - the idea is brought up in one of the chapters but dismissed as being too risky. The image of a balloon has become synonymous with the book, however, thanks to the 1956 film adaptation.
Many people have since circumnavigated the world in eighty days or less, including British actor and fellow travel-holic Michael Palin, who made the trip in seventy-nine days as part of a very entertaining 1989 TV travel documentary.
5. Backpack - Emily Barr
This novel brings back memories! I came across it in a hostel in the beach resort of Mui Ne in southern Vietnam, and read it in one go whilst stretched out on a lounger next to the sea. Happy days! Here's the back blurb:
It's New Year's Day and the year isn't kicking off well for Tansy: her mother's dead, she's a cocaine addict and her boyfriend has just left her. A trip around the world seems like the only option except that she's not interested in seeing the world, just escaping from it, and the last people she wants to hang out with are backpackers. Like a lot of travellers on the Lonely-Planet-led Asian Grand Tour, Tansy is intensely irritating at first. Always on the look out for the "real" Vietnam--the one in which she can walk around "like a model, fanning myself gently, strolling into ancient temples and learning about inner peace"--she is opinionated, narrow-minded and remarkably naive (for a supposed media luvvy). Once she has shrugged off her addiction to lines of coke, skinny lattes and Nicole Fahri jumpers, she becomes more appealing. So by the time she's fallen for Max, a fellow traveller, she'll have won you over and you'll be just as worried as she is about the serial killer who appears to be on her trail...
Let's hear from you!
Wow, this post has made me want to pack my rucksack! Have you read any of the books I've mentioned? Any other travel-based books that you love? Leave a comment and let me know!
'I have to like the main character in a novel in order to enjoy reading it,' a friend once told me. 'If I can't like them, then I need to empathise with them, at the very least.'
A while back, I read Peter Høeg's novel 'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow,' and it got me thinking about whether a protagonist should be likeable. You see, Smilla Jaspersen, the main character in Høeg's novel, isn't. Not to me, anyway. She describes herself as a bitter shrew; her personality's as cold as the Greenland ice on which she was raised. She professes to love her neighbour's son, six-year-old Isaiah, but she's not above hitting him. Her feelings for the man she refers to as 'the mechanic' rarely rise about the carnal, despite her alleged tenderness for him. And yet Smilla is a mesmerising character. She's possessed of an acerbic tongue, she's mistress of the quick riposte, and she'll fight dirty with screwdrivers or whatever implement comes to hand. I neither liked nor empathised with her, but she made a fascinating character to lead me through the book.
Let's look at other fictional nasties...
Unpleasant characters abound in novels, of course, but they're often cast as the antagonist, with a thorough comeuppance served up at the end. Let's look at some novels where the lead character, as opposed to the antagonist, is very definitely someone with a nasty streak. Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley springs to mind. Charming, amoral and ruthless, surely he's far most interesting to the reader than the dull Dickie Greenleaf? Or what about Scarlett O'Hara? She's vain, she's selfish and yet isn't she compelling, especially when compared with the vapid Melanie Wilkes?
Moving to historical fiction, Mary Saunders from Emma Donoghue's novel 'Slammerkin' is shallow, self-serving and impulsive. She trades her virginity for a ribbon and uses the infatuated Daffy Cadwallader without compunction for her own ends. Tom, Scarlett, Mary; we may not like them but we can't ignore them, and all three fascinate and compel in equal measures.
The lure of the antagonist
Some books have the reader rooting for the villain simply because their counterparts aren't likable either. As a teenager, reading Thomas Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' for school, I loathed Angel Clare with a passion. He's supposed to be a moral man, with Christian values, but his behaviour stinks. Sure, he's a product of Victorian England, but could he be any more hypocritical? Rejecting Tess for not being a virgin immediately after informing her he's not one either? Alec D'Urberville may be the villain of the book but at least he doesn't pretend to be the good guy. In that, if nothing else, he's far more honest than Angel Clare ever is. I know which one I prefer.
Why is it the bad guys are often more interesting? Take Mrs Danvers in Daphne Du Maurier's 'Rebecca', as well as Rebecca herself. Don't these two women possess more fire, more spirit, than the second Mrs De Winter? What about 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'? Doesn't Hyde draw us in far deeper into Robert Louis Stevenson's novel than Jekyll ever does?
What's behind all this?
I believe many of us harbour a dark side. Most of us lead law-abiding lives and are decent enough people, but I suspect we like to examine life's grittier side occasionally. From a safe perspective, of course. Why else would crime and horror novels be so popular? We're like children, scared yet thrilled by tales of witches and warlocks; there's something compelling about the seamier side of life. For me, that explains why often it's the bad guys in novels who grab the limelight.
What about my friend, though, who prefers her characters to be the good guys? For me, fascination can replace empathy, but for her it's clearly different. I suspect the reason here is because many people choose to identify with the lead characters in a book, to walk in their shoes, experience life through their eyes. So it makes sense that we'd want to like them, because for the duration of the book, we become them.
What do you think?
What's your take on this? Do you root for the good guys or do you prefer your fictional characters more flawed? Leave a comment and let me know!
Following his excellent review of 'The Two Faces of January', I'm delighted to welcome back Michael Nutt as a guest blogger. Today's post will be a review by him of Elmore Leonard's 1987 novel 'Bandits'. The floor's all yours, Michael...
Snappy dialogue and interesting characters...
Written during a period when Elmore Leonard was turning out some of his very best crime fiction, 'Bandits' (1987) is written with the author's customary ease and economy, full of his snappy dialogue, a cast of interesting characters, and a plot that picks up pace along the way.
The story begins with a corpse, in a place where death is everyday business. We are in a mortuary in New Orleans and two men are working on a road traffic victim. The scene is set with some rapid fire dialogue between the two men as they work on the body. Or rather while one man works on it, while the other watches evasively. The evasive one is Jack Delaney, just turned forty, a one-time fashion model who ended up doing time in Angola penitentiary for burglary, and now working for his brother-in-law Leo Mullen who got him an early release through the rehabilitation programme by offering him a job as assistant in his funeral director's business.
It is clear from the start that Jack has not put his criminal past completely behind him. First there is the body that has appeared that day on the mortuary slab, and which Jack recognises as an acquaintance from his wild years. Then there is the revelation that he has been socialising with red-headed Helene, another character from his criminal past.
A scathing comment on US foreign policy
Soon Jack is on his way to the leper colony in Carville in the company of a nun, Sister Lucy, only the body they are going to collect in the hearse is not a dead one. And Sister Lucy, in her Calvin Klein jeans and heels, appears very well-attired for a woman of the cloth.
This is a slow-burner by Leonard's standards and the story takes a while to ignite. The plot has a conventional, linear structure - very different to the author's usual cross-cutting chapters that leap between characters and locations before bringing all the strands together. Written in the late 1980s, Leonard draws on the wars of Central America of the late 20th century - the conflicts in Nicaragua, Honduras - as a background to the contemporary story, introducing themes of responsibility and morality that have been lacking in Jack's life. There is more than a touch of bitterness in the way Leonard remarks on the USA's involvement in those dirty little wars in Central America. He does not spare his American readers the uncomfortable truths of US foreign policy and how it supported the most vicious and inhuman parties in those struggles. Leonard is angry, very angry, as he writes of the atrocities the US financed in Nicaragua in the name of anti-Communism.
An unlikely wild bunch
The bad guys are often the most interesting characters in Leonard's crime novels and he keeps us waiting to meet the villain of this story. Bertie - Colonel Dagoberto Godoy Diaz - is an officer who served the deposed Nicaraguan dictator Somoza and he has a personal interest in the girl that Jack and Lucy have taken out of Carville. He is on their case, while visiting the States to raise funds for his army of contras still fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Lucy's father, a wealthy oil tycoon, could be just the man to help him. It is almost a third of the way into the story before we meet Colonel Diaz and we are left in no doubt about what Jack and Lucy are up against. The Colonel has the CIA and some smooth operators working on his side and Jack is going to need help from some people from his criminal past, so he calls on a couple of bandits: ex-cop Roy Hicks, whom Jack knew in Angola, and old lag Tom Cullen, recently released from a 27 year stretch into the care of a nursing home. This unlikely wild bunch have a chance of redemption, of using their criminal skills for the force of good against evil. But with their criminal backgrounds, will they stay as the good guys or succumb to the temptation of more than two million dollars?
Take a trip in Jack's hearse
I love this novel's New Orleans setting, the familiar street names and locales. I love the anecdotes that Leonard drops in to fill out the main characters' back-stories, each one a short story in itself. I love the way that Leonard will follow a plot thread and character for a while before leaving it and moving off in an entirely different direction. I love how this leaves the story open to so many possibilities, not just with the bandits' quest to steal the Colonel's funds but also in their relationships with each other. The story builds to its climax, with some twists and turns along the way, raising our anticipation like watching a car bomb primed to go off. It ends as it begins, with a live body being transported in a hearse. But we have come a long way in between, and so too have his characters. 'Bandits' is not up there with Leonard's best novels, but it is a thoroughly good read. Take a trip in Jack's hearse: it is a journey worth taking.
More about Elmore Leonard
Thank you, Michael, for another great book review!
A few facts about the novelist Elmore Leonard. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved to Detroit in 1934, where he spent much of his life. His earliest novels, published in the 1950s, were Westerns. He went on to pen several crime and thriller novels, the best known of which include 'Get Shorty' and 'Rum Punch'. Many of these, including 'Bandits', have been made into films and adapted for television.
During his lifetime, Leonard was awarded various prestigious literary prizes, including the Grand Master Edgar Award in 1992 from the Mystery Writers of America, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award for outstanding achievement in American literature in 2008. Elmore Leonard died in 2013, aged 87.
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