GETTING RID OF CRIME BOOKS

A juicy eyeball from Agatha

I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it but I think a visit to your GP might be  in order.

It started to rain and a most rare and unusual thought entered my mind. Weed your books. I tried to ignore it, obviously. Usually this voice only occurs once every ten years after a Health and Safety incident. OK – let’s call that a big trip and I’m not talking safaris. Sometimes it can be brought on by the fact I can’t find a book I know I have because everything has gone TOO FAR. I stood up and went and looked at one of my bookcases. It was filled with crime.

It was a crime.

First my eye chanced to light on an author I am never going to give away: Kinky Friedman. Any man who titles a book Armadillos and Old Lace will remain on my bookshelves for ever. Then I seized all of Patricia Cornwell and all of Henning Mankell and marched them to the door. Why? Well, Patricia Cornwell irritated me with a book about a hairy man. I can’t remember which one now, and she got a bit grandiose or maybe that was Scarpetta and I vowed I’d never read another. Or maybe I just had ‘great room’ envy.

Don't touch that drink!

Don’t touch that drink!

Why Henning Mankell? I suppose because I  just know I’m never going to re-read them and those books are fat. I liked the Swedish TV series and the Kenneth Branagh one but re-reading is just not going to happen.

I decided to keep all of Ian Rankin and all of the following: George Pelecanos, Robert Parker, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Dominique Manotti, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Jake Arnott, C.J.Sansom, Donna Leon, PD James, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Val McDermid’s Kate Brannigan and Lindsay Gordon series.

What - not another eyeball!

What’s with the eyeballs!

I know Val’s other series is the big seller but I never got beyond a torture scene at the beginning of The Mermaids Singing which I have already disposed of. Wimp, you might say, Yes, I would reply. Torture scenes are not really my thing. Having said that I once wrote one in one of my own books, Bloodless Shadow, but I did it with my eyes closed and my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la, so I’m not sure it counts.

There are a few there I’d forgotten about – Pernille Rygg for example. A Norwegian writer who wrote The Butterfly Effect and The Golden Section. I enjoyed those.

There are some that have such cool titles I’ve never dared read them: Ken Bruen’s Rilke on Black for example. I just feel I’m going to have to start drinking whiskey and turn into Nick Cave before I crack the spine of that one. Or at least get a hair cut like Tilda Swinton.

Murder isn't easy if it involves a spider that big

I’m sorry but murder can’t be  that easy if it involves a spider the size of a canary.

The author I’ve got most of is Ed McBain (21) but Christie (18)  Robert Parker (17) and Allingham (17) are close on his heels. The Fontana 3/6 versions of Christie are my favourites because of their camp schlocky covers, that’s why they are liberally scattered through this post. I love the covers in the same way I love the pictures in Ladybird books and Janet and John books. The images must have hit my visual cortex at about the same time and therefore fill me with drooling nostalgia. It’s probably why I became a crime writer.

So now you know if you want to stay on my shelves

  • don’t irritate me
  • don’t solve your crimes with hairy men
  • don’t have torture scenes
  • do have a camp/kitsch cover, preferably from the 60s
  • do have a good title
  • do be published by Fontana for 3/6
  • Oh, and make me laugh

And then you’ll be mine for ever. Sorry, that last bit sounds a bit sinister.

At Bertram's Hotel

Honey, I know you said it had 5* reviews on TripAdvisor  but have you seen the doorman?

Finally, I’ll end on my all-time favourite Agatha cover. Can you get camper than a violet cream, held elegantly against a non-sweating palm, a bullet (yes, that’s a bullet not a cigarette) and that nail varnish … a cover to die for!

“Death and mystery among the muffins (could be Caffè Nero) and the best Indian tea … set in a hotel patronised by dowagers and bishops … Miss Marple knits and listens (that’s me crouched over a cappuccino with the crochet).”

The book is dedicated to:

“Harry Smith because I appreciate the scientific way he reads my books.”

I wonder if Agatha would appreciate the scientific methods I use to weed my books?

How do you weed yours? Or don’t you?

THE PERILS OF LITERARY PARTIES

I laughed the other day when reading in the paper a letter that Philip Larkin had written in response to being asked if he’d mind being put forward for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. The answer was that he did mind a very great deal! This was his reply to Rachel Trickett the then-principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

“My idea of hell on earth (physical pain excepted and I’m not sure it is excepted in this case) is a literary party, and I have an uneasy feeling that the post carries with it a lot of sherry-drill with important people.”

LETTER TO RACHEL TRICKETT 8TH OCTOBER 1968

Ah, the hell on earth which is the literary party!

My own hell on earth occurred in May 2005 at the Cartier Diamond Dagger award ceremony of the Crime Writers’ Association. Ian Rankin won it that year. My agent had done what she tends to do which is introduce one of her least verbal authors to me and my partner in the knowledge that we are friendly and chatty etc … etc …. and then disappear in search of important people. Then the inarticulate author abandoned us in search of important people and then my partner abandoned me uttering  the fatal words, ‘Shouldn’t you be networking.’

I was now frozen to the spot looking wildly around me at sealed pods of people who I assumed had bonded  in the same sand pits as children.

Sealed pods … sealed pods …

I was Sigourney Weaver on LV426 (that’s a planet by the way) looking at sealed pods … oh no, actually they were  alien eggs …

Anyway, I’m sure you get the general idea. And we all know what happened to John Hurt. I stood there, frozen to the spot, with sweat dripping off my fingers and pooling in my shoes. But then much to my relief I espied a man a little over to my right standing by himself. I felt reassured because he seemed in a state of complete contentment and concentration and, as far as I could work out, he seemed to be writing. He was doing something with a pen anyway. In the middle of a screaming, yelling party, he did not seem that worried about networking or important people or anything much. I was impressed and drew strength from his confident and splendid isolation.

I can’t really remember much else about the party although my partner did return at some point and say, ‘Haven’t you moved yet?’

A few days later a cartoon appeared in The Times which was then reproduced in Red Herrings the magazine for the CWA. Here it is.

Martin Rowson's cartoon of the Crime Writer's Association party

Martin Rowson’s cartoon of the Crime Writers’ Association party 2005

It then became instantly clear to me that the man who had been standing there in splendid isolation was Martin Rowson, the cartoonist. He had been drawing me along with about forty other people. There I was (I had short hair and wire-rimmed glasses then) looking impressively haggard and tormented. In fact he has captured perfectly how I feel about parties at which I am supposed to be networking.

Did I mind? Hardly. I doubt there’ll be another occasion when I end up in a cartoon containing Ian Rankin, Harold Pinter and James Naughtie.

However, the moral of this particular tale is this. If you want to avoid being depicted in the grip of a social anxiety disorder in a national newspaper, when your partner tells you to network, network.

Do you like parties?

Are you good at networking? Do tell!

Cartoon code – from left to right: orange – James Naughtie, yellow – me, pink – Harold Pinter, blue – Ian Rankin.

A MOST WANTED MAN

I went to see the film A Most Wanted Man this week; I’d put it off because I couldn’t bear the sadness of seeing the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the draw of two greats, le Carré (who wrote the book the film is based on) and Seymour Hoffman, was always going to get me there eventually. Needless to say it’s a fantastic film and Seymour Hoffman is wonderful in it. I love le Carré and I’ve always had writer-envy for the magnificently tough way he ends his novels. They are so bleak; bracing doesn’t even begin to describe them.

Here’s a clip of le Carré talking about A Most Wanted Man.

In 2005 the Crime Writers Association marked its Golden Jubilee by presenting The Dagger of Daggers to him for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Spy). I voted for him.  Apparently he won by a country mile.  In the same year, I was in the audience when he appeared on stage to wild applause after a screening of The Constant Gardener at the London Film Festival. He seemed rather touchingly embarrassed by his reception which was pretty close, in levels of enthusiasm, to George Clooney’s when he appeared after the very well-received Good Night and Good Luck.

I first read Spy in my early teens, around the time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. Oh, those happy teenage years! Spy is the only one I have re-read regularly. I’ve tried The Catcher in the Rye but never managed to get to the end again. I think I’d need to be on Prozac to go anywhere near Cancer Ward. But Spy is such a brilliant, bitter, bleak book.

William Boyd wrote an excellent article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the ending was even grimmer than I’d thought. Could that really be possible? Spoiler Alert if you haven’t read the book. Boyd writes that when Smiley calls to Leamas (astride the wall) from the western part of Berlin, ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ It’s not because he wants to check that she is alright, it’s because he wants to make sure that she’s dead because she knows too much. Smiley wants Leamas back but not her. Liz is actually  lying dead at the bottom of the wall. Leamas then drops back down on the eastern side of the wall to his own certain death. They turned it into a suitably gritty film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

I love this quotation from le Carré about spying and writing:

Graham Greene once referred to the chip of ice that has to be in the writer’s heart. And that is the strain: that you must abstain from relationships and yet at the same time engage in them.There you have I think the real metaphysical relationship between the writer and the spy. JOHN LE CARRÉ 

If ever there was a quote to launch a hundred PhDs surely that’s it. There’s a scene in A Most Wanted Man which reminded me of it.  A young man who’s spying for Günter Bachmann, the character played by Seymour Hoffman, says that he’s frightened, that he can’t do it anymore. Bachmann says, ‘Look, into my eyes,’ and then pulls the young man into his arms. He places his hand against the side of his face. It’s pure seduction; the only thing missing is the kiss.

And this is the other  thing about le Carré; he is a seductive writer. His characters are not simply chess pieces to be moved about. He has compassion for them. He draws you in and makes you care about them and then delivers those brilliantly bleak endings. My top three favourite le Carré books are The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy.  If having to make a ‘desert island’ choice I’d probably take  A Perfect Spy, a brilliant book on fathers and sons, on love and betrayal.

After the film, on the way home on the bus, we had one of those conversations about what makes Seymour Hoffman such a good actor. I know that analysing acting can lead one straight to hell via Pseud’s Corner but so what, it’s fun to do. We came to the conclusion it had to do with his lack of vanity, his vulnerability and of course his intelligence. What a great actor. It’s a mesmerizing film. Go see it.

Do you have a favourite le Carré book? Which one would you take to a desert island and why?

Here’s the link to the William Boyd article:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd