Category Archives: Crime

Killing the teacher

Benjamin Zephaniah’s Teacher’s Dead is a book well worth revisiting. More than a dozen years old, I’d say none of the problems have gone away. Black people have it as bad as ever, their rights eroded rather than having got a bit better. It was a YA novel I really wanted to read back then, and I was not disappointed, except for how life ends up for too many people.

With hindsight, I find my own review of the book quite lacking, although I seem to recall Benjamin was terribly polite about it. He didn’t do email, so actually spent time and money on sending me a proper card.

Now, I have looked for a better description of the story than mine, and I hope Bookbag won’t hate me for this. It’s so good, and the screen grab below is simply to motivate you to follow the link.

It’s more recent than mine, which just goes to show that this story will move the reader at any time.

A Poison Tree

Beware what goes on in charity shops.

I had no idea that used, donated shoes could lead to so much trouble, but I happen to know that Jon Mayhew is someone who knows about these things. Hence the major role played by an ‘innocent’ Wirral charity shop in A Poison Tree, the new adult crime novel by J E Mayhew as he calls himself here.

Jon – J E – is another children’s author who’s switched to killing for adults, on Kindle. (Once I’d read J D Kirk’s ebook, I just happened to buy J E’s as well. Only to check it out and see who’s best and all that.)

The opening scene is great, and the charity shop setting provides a fresh change from all the waterlogged corpses I have encountered recently. In fact, the old shoe boxes with shoes in them (‘What else?’ I hear you say), has a rather menacing quality to them.

DCI Blake is a good detective, not so keen on poetry, and even less keen on cats. His cat, at least, or his mother’s cat. We don’t know what happened to the mother, but Serafina the cat is vicious. Quite a few dead bodies in the Wirral, and plenty of secrets. Just about everyone Blake talks to seems fishy.

Blake has a good team, and they eventually work out who did it. And, you know, proceed with caution when you get to the charity shop. Don’t buy the red Converse boots, whatever you do!

How many?

I don’t get this. I know we are all different, but how many books do you need to sell to be a success?

Quite a few authors have shared their sales figures with me. I have no idea if I’m supposed to keep quiet about them, but let’s assume that I am. Let’s just say I have been surprised. Not by the smallish number a good many absolutely fantastically good authors have sold. It’s wrong and it’s unfair and I don’t know how they live or how they sit down and write the next book. But they do.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I’ve also been taken aback by how few copies – at least of the hardback – one or two authors with very solid reputations and marvellous novels, have sold.

How does selling 40 000 copies of your books sound to you? It’s not J K Rowling, but it’s quite respectable. Especially for someone who’s not a household name.

More than ten years ago I was persuaded to buy a crime novel when on holiday in Sweden. Written by Christina Larsson, who holidays just around the corner from the sales point, and let me tell you, that is no cheap place to have a holiday home. I’d never heard of her, but felt duty bound to support both the author and the ‘bookseller’.

I never got round to reading the book, though. I went looking for it recently, but deduced it’s either ‘on holiday’ without me, or it’s a charity case. I suspect the former.

Anyway, I looked, because I discovered Christina was about to receive some award in Finland, being very popular there (all these years later). The award caused articles to be written about her and her humble writerly beginnings. The first three novels – of which I bought the second – ‘only’ managed to sell 40 000 copies, so she gave up her writer career plans due to lack of success.

I’m afraid my jaw dropped. I know the publishing business in Sweden is more benevolent than the dog-eat-dog in the UK. But I don’t see how these sales figures could be considered a failure.

Eventually Christina did continue writing and has now done even better.

At the same time she has run a summer restaurant in the holiday resort, throwing lots of time and money at it.

And before that she moved the whole resort to somewhere in the vicinity of Madagascar if I don’t remember wrong. Son has the hoodie to prove it. Lots of merchandise got printed with the wrong latitude and longitude. These things happen. And Son enjoys his ‘mistaken’ hoodie.

What I only discovered last year, was that it was a friend of mine who’d discovered the Indian Ocean aspects of our summer paradise. 🙃

And I still believe 40 000 is more than fine.

Are we really ready for this?

To mention, or not to mention. That is the question.

I am of course talking about the virus. Something that has touched on the lives of everyone, in the whole world, can’t just be disappeared in fiction. Can it?

I’d been thinking about this quite a lot, when a crime writer on social media asked her fellow writers what they thought, and what they were going to do. As for her, she was definitely going to mention it in her future writing, because, how could she not?

But someone else had asked her publisher and they had advised against it. Now, I don’t know if she will take that advice, but unless you set all your modern life fiction in the past, you can’t not have the whole virus situation as part of your story, even if it’s already – hopefully – in the past. It will need to be harked back to.

And if you write crime fiction, what an excellent way of adding a little something.  You could kill, hide, do anything, almost, during a lockdown.

As for children’s fiction, no need to kill off the parents in some outlandish way. Here you have a number of possibilities to make a young protagonist free from bothersome adults.

What you do if you’re halfway through a story now… Well, maybe rewrite it to end before February 2020. Or give up and write something different. Many authors seem to find writing hard right now. I’m not surprised. We don’t know the outcome yet. On the other hand, I marvel when reading books or watching films from, say, 1943. ‘How could they?’ I ask myself, ‘when they didn’t know what we know.’

Publishers are funny. So the one who advised against, can’t be the same who commissioned a Covid novel. I’m guessing it’s going to be a fast turnaround and the book will be out before we know it. I wonder if it’s done in the belief, maybe actual knowledge, that people will flock to such a story, like they supposedly click on news articles online.

I wasn’t ready for a Brexit novel before. I’m certainly not ready for a Covid one now. But as for mentioning it; yes, you must.

Sixty-four

“When he gets older losing his hair
Not so many years from now
Will I still be sending him a Valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine

When he’s sixty-four
I’ll be older too”

Yes, well, you get the gist.

One of us has reached that far away pinnacle of old age, and it wasn’t me. (I remember back in the 1970s counting forward to the year 2000, marvelling at the very old age I would have got to then. Now I think about it, it wasn’t so bad…)

And no, I don’t generally send him Valentines. I don’t think he’d want one. This year Daughter and I shared a birthday card, even. But it was mathematical, and that’s what counts. (See what I did there?)

Son and I had the same idea for a present, but luckily not identical. Let’s just say Bookwitch Towers will henceforth be equipped with both Private Eye and The New Statesman. And coffee, and socks adorned with mostly mathematical stuff, but the odd taco and pineapple did shoulder their way in too.

Thank goodness for authors who send out newsletters. Stephen Booth reminded me just in time that he had the perfect gift. His new-ish, standalone crime novel Drowned Lives in hardback, with any dedication I wanted, posted directly to where it was wanted.

So that was that.

(So far we have resisted singing that song out loud. Might not be able to keep it up, though.)

A Litter of Bones

When I saw Barry Hutchison seemingly flogging someone else’s books, some chap called J D Kirk, I was concerned. Shouldn’t he talk more about his own? Turns out he was. He is J D Kirk. Too. He quite sensibly got himself a new name for when he writes adult crime fiction. Five books in the last year. Yes, five. The man’s unstoppable.

I caved in last week, and ordered the first of the five, A Litter of Bones. I played it safe and got the ebook, to make sure I wasn’t wasting my money on a paperback, in case I didn’t like it. (Wouldn’t have been a waste.)

We have DCI Jack Logan, somewhere in the Glasgow area. We meet him as he’s talking to some loony he put in jail for kidnapping and murdering little boys. Creepy type. The murderer, I mean.

Then Logan discovers there are more crimes just the same, happening now, when he knows for a fact his criminal is inside. Jack is dispatched off to Fort William to lend a hand with his expertise on these crimes.

It’s good. I wasn’t sure I was up to reading about child murders, but J D handles it as well as you can, when some depraved person does to small boys what this person does.

Jack puts together a team in Fort William. Well, he’s mostly handed a group of detectives, but they work well together, and he adds a constable who looks promising.

This being an admirably ‘not too long’ novel, progress is swift, and it’s all the better for it. Jack learns a bit about Fort William, and he learns that little boys are a lot better with smartphones than he is, and both Jack and his new constable sidekick drive really badly when the need arises.

I could see that things would go wrong when X said he’d do that thing, but it didn’t actually matter. Being forewarned just meant you knew something dreadful would happen, but the tension when waiting for the bad shoe to drop was quite something.

Even being quite sure from early on that YZ was most likely involved, was another thing that didn’t matter.

I might have to buy the next instalment.

Genre?

By turning as French as I can – no mean feat for a non-French speaker – I have retrieved the ability to say ‘genre.’ Which is good, because one sometimes has to say it. Out loud, and so others can hear what you’re on about. It was while I interviewed Anthony McGowan about five years ago I discovered that for the life of me I couldn’t say the blasted word.

To get round this handicap, I’ve had to avoid using it, or to spell it.

When I was young, and tremendously foreign, I learned this word. Both what it meant, and how to ‘say it in Swedish.’ It involved saying it really wrong, in a kind of pidgin Swench. I don’t know whether Swedes now know better, or still say it like that.

As to its meaning, well, it stands for sub-categories of fiction, like crime, or romance, or sci-fi. All very nice categories. And useful if you want to specify what something is about. Because that’s what I took it to mean, a useful labelling tool. Not that it might indicate anything less worthy.

But that’s what it’s come to. At least in Britain. Maybe it was always thus. Maybe the term was invented, or adopted into the English language, in order to refer to rubbish fiction, on a completely different level than Literary Fiction.

A couple of months ago the word and its meaning came at me from two totally different directions at the same time. One was a question on a Swedish book newsletter site, where someone was asking ‘What does genre mean?’ Except they did it in Swedish. And I think the question was prompted by the discovery of the more British use of the word.

The other was on social media, where someone reported a programme they’d listened to, which went roughly like this:

(I asked permission to use it.) It’s not an exact quote or anything; more an idea of how people actually think, and are not ashamed to admit to in public. But basically, anything not very good is genre.

It’s very snobbish.

I read practically only genre fiction. By which I mean several genres, like children’s, or crime. It’s really good stuff. Sometimes I read Literary Fiction. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it isn’t and that’s when I remind myself why I prefer children’s books and crime. Although, some really Literary authors have been known to lower themselves to genre-writing. Quite often something seems to go wrong when they do.

Dead Land

Sara Paretsky’s latest crime novel, Dead Land, is another triumph for V I Warshawski. This time V I gets drawn into a dangerous crime through her goddaughter Bernie. And there is a third dog. Not for keeps, but Bear does help solve the crime.

As always – and I hate how this sounds normal – it’s greed that is at the bottom of what happens. This time, greed in Chicago, but there is also a tie to Chile, with some of the action harking back to the coup against Allende. To my mind there’s not been enough written about this and it’s high time more people learn about what the US was up to back then.

Not only is V I’s current love interest brand new (from the last book), but we have a new police detective for V I to pit her investigation against. I do hope we’ll see more of Sergeant Pizzello.

Kansas isn’t always as flat as it’s made out to be, and it offers plenty of action, even for a Chicago PI. And one of these days V I will have to learn – and remember – that she’s not as young as she was, and take things more easy. But I doubt she will.

I, on the other hand, will always feel safe in her company. And Sara’s.

In the post

Isn’t this wonderful? Two special books arriving on the same day, and so much looked forward to. I like my postman!

I also ‘quite like’ Meg Rosoff and Sara Paretsky. Meg’s new book is YA, and out this summer. Sara’s is the latest V I Warshawski, out in late April. Here’s to The Great Godden, and Dead Land!

Now, which to read first?

Medicinal Wein

As I keep saying, reading is good stuff. It’s medicine to the soul, and for that matter, to the body as well. We should all do it more.

But it’s easy to ‘forget.’ You stop, even briefly, and then you don’t get started again.

After Philip Pullman in October, and the flamingo book, Daughter tailed off a bit. The other week I dug out all my best books, of the ones she hadn’t yet read. Well, some of them. Most came from the privileged shelf next to my bed, where only the best books live.

And I thought that rather than hand her one book and try and push it, a selection of seven or eight might do the trick. Not sure how she chose, but I did notice she spent some time looking at them and thinking. In the end she went for Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief, the prequel to Code Name Verity.

It went the way good books often do. Faster and faster, so it didn’t last long. I was asked questions, which I tried to avoid answering. Like ‘is X a good character or a bad one?’ I mean, I can’t tell her that!

The next one was the other Elizabeth Wein book I’d had in mind, Black Dove, White Raven. That, too, speeded up as she went along.

In case Daughter needed even more Wein books, I excavated the two Barrington Stoke stories as well; the Russian one and the Polish one. After them I have only other authors to offer, as we wait with baited breath for the new novel – The Enigma Game –  coming soon (I hope) to a bookshop near you. And me.