Category Archives: Crime

The Roman Quests – The Archers of Isca

It is reassuring that I am not yet too old for Caroline Lawrence’s books. Occasionally I wonder if I will be, seeing as I’ve been reading her Roman mysteries for well over a dozen years. But I am still a child at heart.

Caroline Lawrence, The Roman Quests - The Archers of Isca

The second of four books set in Britain in AD 95, we follow the eldest boy, Fronto, as he sets off to be a soldier. It’s what he always wanted, albeit perhaps not quite like this. In Rome he could have been an officer, while now he must begin at the bottom. But for a boy who likes rules and knowing what’s happening and what he should do about it, army life is perfect.

Meanwhile, his two younger siblings continue as they were, living with the local people. At least, until Fronto’s little sister Ursula is kidnapped.

As with all Caroline’s books, this story educates as it entertains. I have learned more about life in Roman Britain through these books than I ever did from more historical texts. What’s more, I suspect I might remember facts for longer as well.

There are Druids and Romans, we learn about Roman baths and Boudica’s famous battle, and we find out how people lived; what they ate and how they worked and prayed.

And we are getting closer to knowing what happened to Miriam’s twin boys.

Sophie Hannah on her second Poirot

Despite Edinburgh’s trams trying really very hard to keep me from Sophie Hannah’s event at Blackwell’s on Thursday evening, they failed. I steamed in just as Ann Landmann was pressuring everyone to move closer, saying there – probably – wasn’t going to be any audience participation to worry about. I was just pleased to be so late but still find someone had kept Bookwitch’s corner on the leather sofa for me. That’s all I cared about.

Ann at Blackwell's

Ann was busy stroking Sophie’s new Poirot novel, Closed Casket, suggesting what a good Christmas present this lovely, shiny book would make, hint, hint. (And it would, were I the kind of person who gives people presents.) The rest of you, pay attention! Buy Closed Casket for everyone.

I have heard the background to how Sophie was given the lovely task of becoming the new Agatha Christie before. I was interested to see how much she’d be able to vary it. It was about half and half; some the same, some new.

She put most of the blame on her crazy agent, who doesn’t do reassurance terribly well, and thinks it’s OK to tell her she is ‘brilliant, etc’ when she needs to be comforted. (As an aside I reckon Adèle Geras [Sophie’s mother] was quite correct in feeling her daughter should have been made head girl at school. Sophie is a very head girl-y kind of person.)

Basically Sophie got the job (Agatha Christie, not head girl) through good timing, and also by having plenty of experience of Dragon’s Den. Whatever that is. And you ‘can’t say no to Agatha Christie’s grandson.’

Sophie Hannah

The idea for Closed Casket, which incidentally is another four-word idea [like Murder on the Orient Express], describing how the novel ends, came when she had an argument with her sister. As Sophie now ‘blames’ her Christie fixation on her father Norm’s cricket book collection, I feel we have much to thank the Geras family for.

She doesn’t know if her book is any good, but she does know that her idea is. It’s the best and simplest idea ever, and she is very fond of this book. It has an Enid Blyton style character in it, and if the first chapter is anything to go by, I can see this will be a fun book to read.

Sophie doesn’t write chronologically, and in this case she was so tired that she began with the easiest chapter. Chapter 23. The house where the murder takes place was found by extensive time spent on Rightmove until she happened upon a house in Ireland that fitted the bill. So no, nothing to do with Irish politics in 1929.

Sophie Hannah

As she doesn’t know how many Poirot books there might be, Sophie is eking out the years between 1928 and 1932, not letting much time pass between her first two mysteries, just in case. Hitherto every generation has discovered the world of Agatha Christie, but not the current one. That’s partly the reason the Christie family needed something new to offer potential readers, and the idea appears to have been successful, with fresh interest in Poirot.

No, writing Poirot is not difficult. It has ‘instantly become the thing she most wants to do.’ Even if she does have to share the profits with the Christie family. Sophie does not want to write any Miss Marple stories, if only to prevent herself from believing she actually is Agatha. She’s already half expecting them to turn over Agatha’s house Greenway to her…

Sophie Hannah

2016 Book Week Scotland launch

Remember the smell?

I must clarify that that is not a severed head you can see on top of the contraption of unidentifiable stuff [not whisky, either, as I thought]. Launching Book Week Scotland is not that gruesome. It’s much more at the civilised end, which is how I came to eat gluten free grey cake and drink iced coffee from a jam jar.

(The severed head, or not, was part of a smelling toy, where you would go round and sniff the various smells bottled in the contraption.)

FREE TO USE - BOOK WEEK SCOTLAND PROGRAMME LAUNCH

Earlier yesterday morning Scottish Book Trust had driven ten authors somewhere out towards the back of Arthur’s Seat in a double decker bus, and photographers were invited to traipse round for fun photographs. It all seemed too complicated of a morning for me, which is why I am using the official pictures. You can tell they had fun.

Pamela Butchart

After that I failed to take a single usable photo of all the speakers who had interesting things to say about reading and books and Book Week Scotland. But Pamela Butchart’s dress is so fantastic that here she is anyway, only slightly blurred. Her challenge to us – I think – was to read a picture book a day. And, it’s actually something that is fully doable, and I will consider it.

Book Week Scotland 2016 launch

Graeme Macrae Burnet does not recommend giving people a copy of the biography of Dostoyevsky (1000p+) which he was given last year. Instead he read us three – extremely short – novels. He wants us to go up to perfect strangers and read them something we like. As if!

And Caro Ramsay is thoroughly into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I can’t disapprove of in the slightest. Let’s not panic.

The cakes

Marc Lambert of Scottish Book Trust spoke and so did Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop. It’s good when Governments support books and reading, and as in previous years (I think they said this is the fifth) there is a lot of programme waiting for Book Week Scotland to break out, which it will do on November 21st. For a week, obviously.

Really famous people like Jodi Picoult, Alexander McCall Smith  and Alan Cumming will be taking part, as will countless others, some not yet household names. But you never know…

Key to Book Week Scotland beer

My party bag contained a book beer, and a chocolate key, so not even the Resident IT Consultant will have to go without.

FREE TO USE - BOOK WEEK SCOTLAND PROGRAMME LAUNCH

Marnie goes tartan

I had put clean clothes on, but I was no match for Marnie Riches, who made her first ever entry onto Scottish soil (well it was more like Glaswegian tarmac, but still) yesterday wearing tartan jeans and a shaggy black jacket thing, along with – I swear – freshly cerised hair. So she looked stunning, but seemed to be willing to be seen in my company anyway.

Marnie was on her way to an event in the metropolis of Motherwell, and had time for a Witch before it. I had swotted up on Glasgow’s tearooms/coffeeshops and felt that the overflow Willow Tearooms in Buchanan Street might just be it.

Willow Tea Rooms

My be-tartanned companion sat on one of those highbacked Charles Rennie Macintosh chairs, while I sat on the sofa, resting my chin on the table. Easy to tell who was the more elegant one. (If you’re wondering; it wasn’t me.) But the Willow blend tea was good and Marnie’s carrot cupcake was a sort of healthy vegetable choice. I’d been afraid she’d want the prosecco tea, in which case I’d have had to stop her, seeing as it was pre-event.

We talked books, killing people, and builders. That’s talking about builders, not killing them. Marnie is writing crime novels as if there’s no tomorrow, and I am hoping for lots more hair-raising murders from her.

And with jeans like that, she’d be perfect for Bloody Scotland.

And then it was the end

I began Saturday with an alarm clock related issue. No, not what you’re thinking. One that immobilised me to such an extent that I had to miss my first Bloody Scotland events, only limping in towards the end of the day to collect my press pass.

The press pass

And to hear Erwin James talk to Martina Cole; an event I’d looked forward to considerably.

As I was waiting to get in, I spied one of my favourite publicists, Kerry, and very nearly jumped up (well, not jump, but you know what I mean) to say hello. She was with the equally lovely Peter Robinson. But I decided I needed the armchair I’d found to sit in, and it would undoubtedly be ‘taken from’ me if I got up. So I didn’t.

Instead I was chatted up by the very pleasant woman sitting across from me, so the time wasn’t wasted in any sense. We discussed dyslexia, and she’d been to the event in Edinburgh last month that I never made it to. She had many nice things to say about Barrington Stokes’ Mairi Kidd.

She told me she reads a fair number of YA books and is tired of having to justify this to people. I know the feeling. She asked if I know Nicola Morgan, and I had to admit I do. She likes her. I suggested reading Sally Gardner. And then she asked what I read for pleasure, so I had to point out this is pleasure.

And that my fairy blogmother Meg Rosoff is also my favourite author. She didn’t even ask ‘who?’ but knew, and turned out to be a big fan of How I Live Now, having given countless copies of the book to people to read. I know the feeling.

At that point it was time to go in for Erwin James, so I said goodbye.

Within minutes it was more goodbye than that, as I was bluntly informed that the press pass that would give access to anything, was no good for sold out events such as this. (I had wondered, but on asking, was reassured that it would get me anywhere.) Probably didn’t help that they changed the venue around, meaning this was in the smaller room, making sold out happen much sooner.

So, well, I limped home again.

At least the weather was nice.

And today I have the day off, as no way am I limping anywhere else on the off-chance that Sunday’s events have seats left.

Bloody Scotland 2016 – The beginning

Val McDermid and Provost Mike Robbins

We don’t kill using tropical fish, or even curare, in Scotland. Murder wants to be less outlandish. More the way William McIlvanney killed. More Scottish. That’s why Bloody Scotland renamed their crime award after the late, much admired and loved, crime writer.

His brother Hugh was at the opening celebrations at the Golden Lion last night, along with our host Provost Mike Robbins and most of the authors who are in Stirling for another bloody weekend.

Robert Burns had been there too, but not all that recently, I understand.

Chris Brookmyre with Hugh McIlvanney and Magnus Linklater

There were various speeches before Chris Brookmyre was announced winner of this year’s prize. This nice man – who is always shorter than I expect him to be – was photographed, and then came and lay his prize at my feet as he was interviewed on camera right in front of me.

Chris Brookmyre

The longlisted authors were corralled into a line in front of the stage, and it almost worked. There’s always one not quite in the right place. The shortlisted ones were clutching their prizes, the complete works of William McIlvanney.

James Oswald, Lin Anderson, E S Thomson, Chris Brookmyre, Doug Johnstone, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride

McIlvanney Longlisted authors

I avoided the haggis canapés, looking to see where the promised veggie ones might be, but gave up. (I had a sandwich in my bag.) Picked up my free ticket to go and see Stuart MacBride and Caro Ramsay at the Albert Halls, and discovered that it is indeed only five minutes there, even for me. I thought they’d lied.

The free books

There was a free book on every seat, donated by Bloody Scotland sponsors BookDonors. I was about to scout around for the most interesting one, when I realised ‘my’ seat came with a Paul Temple, and you can’t improve on that. Had to sit next to a Jeffrey Archer however.

Stuart and Caro arrived on stage promising a shambles, which I have to say they managed to deliver. Caro brought a book, in case she got bored. I did too. She brandished a traffic sign to be used in case of spoilers, mentioned something about someone not drinking. And there were rats.

I only took one, very poor, picture, because I discovered my stupid mobile has a flash. And that’s not good.

They argued about their first meeting, which might have been about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Or not. If it was in Harrogate, then it wasn’t Caro. There was some running back and forth, dog style, possibly for a reason. Worst reviews brought out some interesting ones, and they discussed whether they post reviews of their own books on Amazon.

From Googling herself, Caro knows she speaks Swedish, which caused some problems when required to actually speak it. Stuart offered a Swedish Chef impersonation. He’s a man who never plans, and he certainly won’t tell anyone the best place in Aberdeen to hide a body.

In Glasgow they kill with sarcasm, not guns. And I didn’t quite catch the issues with horse meat and butchers. There was a soaking cat, somewhere, unless it was stroaking a cat.

Might have been.

Yeah, so that was the first bloody evening.

Francis Durbridge, Send for Paul Temple Again!

A letter B miscellany

We were away for a bit recently, the Resident IT Consultant and I. We had new windows to mastermind. (And as with most window-related things it wasn’t entirely as much fun as one could have hoped for.) We travelled on the ‘proceeds’ of last year’s flight to Copenhagen that took us to Oslo, so mustn’t complain. Over breakfast at the airport with Daughter, the Resident IT Consultant – for reasons known only to him – laughed and said ‘it could be worse, we could be going to Norwich.’

I sighed, because whenever he says things like that, something untoward happens. (Nothing wrong with Norwich.) So when we touched down at Billund after an hour, I was not surprised. And witch that I am I had harboured thoughts on the likelihood of doctors on board planes only a week before, and I had actually been sitting staring at the doctor on board for some time before he was called on and rose to deliver care to the ill passenger a few rows ahead, before saying it’d be a good idea to descend to Billund. It’s nice to know that emergencies can be sorted out.

We collected the hired car (which, typically, was enormous, unlike when there are more of us to cram inside), and I practised vertigo-desensitising by only closing my eyes a little on The Bridge. Stopped for buns and cups of disgusting tea at an old favourite watering hole. Should have gone to Burger King.

The window company has a name beginning with the letter B, but to avoid legal action, I won’t add the other letters. The fitters were lovely. The result less so. On the plus side only one window sill (bräda, in Swedish) broke, and ‘luckily’ it was the marble that broke, while the cheap brackets held…

Summer was in full swing and we made it to the beach, pre-windows. So did everyone else, which actually made the place quite crowded. We had books to read, and we made good time with those. A friend let me read her as yet unpublished children’s novel. Watch this space.

People wanted to discuss Brexit and how silly Britain had been. Sorry. I went looking at beds (with a view to getting a new one) and you can’t believe what hard work it is getting in and out of so many beds in one afternoon. I successfully bought some more ink for my Ballograf biros.

We returned home to Bookwitch Towers just in time for the Resident IT Consultant to be whisked away by Son for his birthday trip. Whereas I don’t seem to have been whisked anywhere at all, but I do have a Bloody Scotland to see to this weekend.