There’s more to a good story than plot

This week’s exercise at the Telegraph SSC is to write the plot of a story you’re writing (or have written) in only three sentences. It’s harder than you might think, and the results can make what you thought was a good story sound flat and lifeless. Take for instance my story A Fate Not Shared: Naomi and her toy rabbit are taken to their new house by her parents. Naomi and Rabbit explore while the grown-ups talk, and they discover a forgotten old lady in a bedroom. Naomi expects her father to put things right but instead he leaves her with the old lady, taking her mother and Rabbit away with him. If you read the story you’ll see if it matches your expectations (it might or it might not, it depends what images my three sentences conjured up for you).

Two identical sounding plots can represent quite different stories. The language, subtext, subplots, and point of view can make a huge difference. One of them might be approached in a humorous way while the other plays it straight. If your writing is all about the feel of the language, the lyrical prose, then a bare bones plot outline might well sound like there’s not much to it.

Conversely, one single story can be summarised in a variety of three-sentence ways. What is being emphasised – the death of the heroine’s mother or the subsequent events that lead from that? Readers will sum up a story in different ways depending on what they took from it, which in part depends what they brought to it (what prism of life they viewed it through). An interesting exercise might be to have a group of people summarise the same story, and see what comes out.

In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose (yes I’m still talking about that book. It’s a good book, and there’s a lot of it) there’s a mention of working men asking what was the difference between the cheap adventure stories they’d enjoyed as lads (the penny dreadfuls) and the books like Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans or Treasure Island that they read later. One of the answers to that might be that there is no fundamental difference, just the snobbery of high vs low culture. Certainly someone without the background knowledge to pick up allusions, or the cast of mind that reads a story on several levels at once, will get the same thing out of both types of book: an exciting adventure story. If there is some fundamental difference (which, having never read any of the penny dreadfuls I couldn’t say) then it’s another reason to think that plot is not all there is to a good book.

The Cult of the Classics

Working men making their own exploration into culture in the 19th century were often stuck in the past as far as their reading material went. They looked to Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, Carlyle etc. All of which I as a teenager, beginning to explore literature for myself, read or attempted to read, or felt guilty for not reading. The kind of books that featured on Sir John Lubbock’s Victorian list of books you ‘should’ have read in order to be considered cultured. Although for working men in the 19th century, reading the whole lot wouldn’t guarantee that. But I digress…

More than 100 years later, for GCSE in the early 1990s, I studied Shakespeare and Wordsworth. We have stagnated, or worse, we are regressing because every year that goes by takes us a year further from the time when any of those works was fresh and new. And as the list is added to (very slowly) the chances of anyone getting through the lot at a reasonably young age grow slimmer.

It is important to know what foundations your culture was built on, but at what cost? If you have to struggle with the language, delve into sideroads of history to understand what was at the time a passing reference to a contemporary person or event, doesn’t that lose some of the pleasure? Which is not to say you shouldn’t do that if you want to – overcoming the challenge may lead to a depth of enjoyment hitherto unknown – but I don’t think it should be expected.

These books or authors were held up at their own times and those just after as the best example of, in Dickens for instance, social conscience in literature. Haven’t we got any other examples yet? If not, we must be doing something wrong.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I hadn’t heard much about this novel before I read it, but I kept seeing it in charity shops and the library and eventually I read the back because it had an intriguing title, and it sounded like the kind of thing I might enjoy. A historical fantasy novel in which Yorkshire is a key place, and one of the two characters named in the title is a Yorkshireman. Excellent.

English Magic is in a bad way. There are no practical magicians any more, and the Golden Age is long over. Mr Norrell strongly feels it’s time for a revival, but only if it’s done properly. Which is to say, by him. As a curmudgeonly old Yorkshire recluse, he doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a trip to London to interest the government in English Magic. Magicians are not quite respectable, so society feels. However, he must try, and when he gets himself a pupil in the form of handsome young Jonathan Strange, the fate of English Magic looks much rosier than it has in a long time. Nothing is ever that simple, of course, and by drawing attention to themselves Strange and Norrell evoke the envy and enmity of some powerful people.

I almost feel bad for saying anything negative about this book; the plot is entertaining and at times tense, the characters are well-drawn and the era is vividly evoked, not least by the writing style. The length, however… Well, the length in itself isn’t a problem (about a thousand pages in the paperback edition I bought), I have books that are as long or longer by Tad Williams and Stephen King. It could be the apparent lack of activity for long periods, but then I enjoyed Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past which is a longer book in which less dramatic things happen at less frequent intervals. I think in my view the very thing that makes the novel so unique has brought about its downfall.

The book is set in the early years of the 19th century, in fact the Napoleonic Wars feature prominently during one part of the book. The author has therefore taken the (at first glance brilliant) decision to write in the style of a Georgian or early Victorian popular novel; the spellings sometimes look odd (chuse, shew rather than choose or show) and the long-winded style with asides into gentle social satire or an examination of manners reminded me a little of Anthony Trollope (which, as regular readers will know, I intend as high praise). However, when it comes down to it this is a fantasy novel, a novel in which the stakes are lives and kingdoms and ways of life, not who will marry whom and when. While it was amusing to read of magic in England in such a commonplace manner, and much as I enjoyed the reply to a question on whether a magician could kill someone by magic (‘I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could’), ultimately I found it was too laid-back a style for what was happening.

A magician achieves something not achieved for hundreds of years, he’s alone and it’s dangerous, but because of the style this feat is described almost as though he’s dressing for dinner, and there is never any insight into whether he was afraid or what the consequences might have been. His wife does make him promise not to try it again for a while, but there’s no sense of her being terrified of what might happen. The asides and the scene-setting (amusing dialogues at society parties or in Cabinet meetings, for instance) do help place the story in time, but tension that has built up dissipates during these sections and I’d almost forgotten what jeopardy a character was in the last time we saw him, by the time he turns up again some chapters later in different circumstances.

OneMonkey started reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but gave up after about 300 pages. He said he kept thinking something was about to happen, then it didn’t, and in the end he grew tired of the anticlimax. I persevered to the end of the novel because I wanted to know what happened to the characters (who I had been made to care about), and I was impressed by what had been attempted with the book (the setting and the style), but I confess I wasn’t racing through chapters in a dash to the end, in fact it took me longer to read than any novel has for many years. In short, I want to recommend this book for so many reasons, but I’m reluctant because 9 out of 10 of you will resent me for wasting weeks of your time.

Friends and connections

Friend D (otherwise known as David Lear of Firestone Books) has been interviewed over at Teresa Stenson’s blog, which you may be interested in not just because he’s a long-standing friend of mine (though really, that makes him instantly fascinating to you all, doesn’t it?) but because he’s looking for submissions of (genre) novels and – get this – short story collections. I won’t be submitting, to avoid accusations of nepotism (if he accepted it) or uncomfortable silences over dinner (if he didn’t), but if I wasn’t in this position I’d be looking into it because next to no-one accepts story collections as far as I can tell.


Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Thanks to friend T, I’ve read another Kate Atkinson book recently, and enjoyed it every bit as much as Behind the Scenes at the Museum; Human Croquet may even be better. Like Behind the Scenes at the Museum it’s a well-crafted story of Northern dysfunctional families, with a mystery at its heart and suffused with dark humour, but it has a fairytale feel to it (and in a sense, it is – you’re left at the end with a version of events but no telling whether it’s ‘true’ or not).

The novel is narrated by 16 year old Isobel Fairfax.  The Fairfaxes had money, once, just as Isobel and her older brother Charles had a mother. Legends have grown up around the loss of both. As with Behind the Scenes…, there are historical chapters filling in backstory and giving clues to later situations and behaviour, emphasising the patterns and repetitions in families and communities.

At the same time, it’s a story about a teenage girl in 1960 – concerned about boys, parties, and Biology O-level, while her friend Carmen is the same age but already engaged and working at a cheese counter in a department store. Wryly observed domestic disharmony and eternal hormonal truths blend well.

There is a revelation towards the end that might leave some readers feeling cheated or misled. However, if you’re prepared to shelve your desire for solid facts and stability in a story, Human Croquet is well worth a read.

Size isn’t everything

Over at the Telegraph Short Story Club, Louise Doughty has been talking about short novels and novellas. Various works have been mentioned and measured, but what makes something a novella rather than a short novel? And what is a novelette (I long for it to involve eggs and a frying pan. And paper napkins)? It can’t all be down to length – I have read short stories by Stephen King longer than some people’s novels. I have seen novellas as short as a (long) short story. Someone suggested it’s down to marketing – if a publisher’s happy to promote it on its own, it’s a novel. Which leads to two questions.

The first is: What happens with self-published e-books? It can be as short as you like, and as long as the story feels satisfying and the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve been overcharged, does it matter how it’s classified? Will there be more ‘short novels’ where once they may have been padded to reach some acceptable wordcount, or cast aside as too short to bother with? And might we find the time to read more, from a wider pool of authors, that way?

The second is: Is there something about a story, its structure or content that makes it a novella rather than a novel? If you read two books of 125 pages, could you confidently say one was a novel that was a touch on the short side, and the other was a full-blown novella? I ventured (knowing next to nothing about it) that subplots or the lack thereof may come into it. I wondered if the novella may be intermediate in complexity and cast-list, between the short story and the novel (again, what about that novelette?).

I wonder further if any of this matters, to the writer? Unless you’re an author with an agent, who has to think in terms of pitching your new work to an audience, do you (should you?) think about the length of a story before you sit down to begin? Do you sit at your desk thinking ‘I fancy a novella this time’ or do you conjure a world, a character, a scene and find within that the kernel of the story that will let you know how long it needs to be? Perhaps that’s only an insight into my chaotic creativity.

Thoughts on the topic would be most welcome. Or if anyone has a recipe for a nourishing novelette.

A writing career kindled

My name is JY Saville, and I’m a self-published novelist…

Yes, it had to happen eventually, I’ve released Wasted Years (the one that used to be known around here as the serial novel, when friend T was reading it in instalments) for the Kindle. It wasn’t as easy a decision as it might have been – why charge for that (£1.99) when the graphic novel’s free to download, for instance? There is no simple answer but I came to an agreement with myself, and there it is. I’m pretty sure you can sample the start of it for free so do go have a look, give me feedback, and if you feel you may enjoy it you could always buy a copy. You don’t even need a Kindle, so I’m told – there are apparently .mobi readers for PC, Linux, smartphones etc.

The novel is set mainly in West Yorkshire (well of course it is) and is about lasting friendships, trying to work out what you want out of life, and realising there’s more than one measure of success out there. Alternatively it’s about 16 years in the life of 2 accountants as they stumble through love, loss and Christmas parties. You can read more about it here.

I’ll leave you with a tantalising picture of the cover I made using the ever-useful GNU Image Manipulation Program:

Cover of Wasted Years

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

The Manual of Detection is fantasy noir, one of my favourite genre-blending combinations. First published in 2009, it won Jedediah Berry a couple of awards, and seems to be his only novel to date.

Charles Unwin is a clerk at the city’s gargantuan detective agency, efficient and ordered. He works on the fourteenth floor, is not permitted to speak to the detectives from the 29th floor, the watchers from the thirty-sixth, or visit the archives where his meticulous files find a permanent home. The only logical descriptor for such intricate, compartmentalised and rigid bureaucracy is Kafkaesque, but at least at the start it doesn’t feel sinister. Unwin is comforted by his known and predictable place in the vast machine, and proud of his achievements therein; this is Kafka wearing warm socks, drinking cocoa, and cuddling a purring cat.

Unwin has been assigned for many years to the agency’s star detective, Travis Sivart, and when Sivart goes missing his clerk finds himself thrown into the world of detection head first. After all, who knows Sivart better than the man who’s spent twenty years typing up his case reports and excising irrelevant details? Armed with The Manual of Detection, which he doesn’t have time to read properly, Unwin stumbles his way through the beginnings of a case, using Sivart’s years of written descriptions to find his way through unknown parts of the city, and recognise criminals. All the while he worries about his increasingly damp socks, the possibilities of rust on his bicycle chain, and how to sort out the administrative error that’s landed him on the 29th floor. Eventually Unwin gets drawn into a confusing web of connections and lies, dreams and reality, and acquits himself better than anyone imagined.

Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending (the post-climax wrapping up of loose ends, rather) I enjoyed the book and would recommend it widely. This is noir with literary pretensions, and all the richer for it. Sad and dreamy, and almost fussy in its detailed descriptions, the atmosphere of the rainy streets brought to mind the wonderful film Dark City.

Now appearing in print

A very quick post to share the disproportionate excitement of a brief mention today in the Daily Telegraph. It’s in Louise Doughty’s column, in the Review section, but you can also read her article online at the Short Story Club. It was part of a discussion in the club about the perils and inevitabilities of autobiographical snippets creeping in (or worse, appearing to creep in when actually they’re nothing of the sort) which I wrote about at length in January, so you might wish to go read that too.

Time off for good (writing) behaviour

I’m halfway through a 10-day break from work, and as usual not getting half of what I wanted to do done. I’ve been wittering away and writing bits and pieces at the Telegraph Short Story Club. I’ve been entering writing competitions and submitting to magazines (and, gratifyingly, I’ve had a ‘you made it through to the next round of consideration’ email already, which has given me a much-needed boost). I’ve been reading a very good book (fantasy noir) which I’ll probably tell you about when I’ve reached the final page. I’ve also been reading books on writing.

Yet again, I’ve borrowed Writing Crime Fiction by Janet Laurence from my local library to try and get to grips with some technicalities for the second detective novel, which stalled in May at about 42,000 words. However, I’ve also just finished reading (also from the local library) Writers’ and Artists’ Guide to How to Write, by Harry Bingham, which is a great chunk of a book intended for novelists and writers of narrative non-fiction. While very little of it specifically deals with crime writing, most of its advice is widely applicable and it goes into various aspects of the craft in depth, some of which I haven’t seen tackled elsewhere. It’s all very readable and between How to Write, and Writing Crime Fiction, I feel like I’m equipped to tackle the stalled novel and get it back on track. We shall see.

In between all of that (and buying a new shed) I’ve dipped into a couple of short story collections, from which I’d like to recommend a few (all from the 1980s, I think, unless I’ve noted otherwise). They’re all what you’d call ‘literary’ and I hadn’t read anything by any of the authors before so I can’t say how representative they are, but if you enjoy reading a well-written (non-genre) short story they’re worth checking out, and if you’re trying to write one, they’re invaluable.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, is about a small group of US soldiers in Vietnam. Its central event is the death of one of this group, but it circles around it, and shows us characters and circumstances largely via lists of what each man carries with him. The lists cover tangible items, but also the intangible: bandages, and shameful memories; rations, and fear.

Bullet in the Brain, by Tobias Wolff is essentially about someone getting shot dead, but it explores the man’s surprising final memories and the contrast between his youthful potential and the man he became.

A Father’s Story, by Andre Dubus contains pages of slow, atmospheric description. What will a principled man do or forsake because of his love for his daughter, even if (especially if?) he wasn’t around as she was growing up?

A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner (1930) has a most unexpected denouement. It’s written in such a way as to draw the reader in as part of an intimate circle and it seems like it’s going to be a straightforward, almost cosy, provincial vignette – the death of a reclusive spinster in a small town and what that reveals of her life. It takes a strange turn, though.

The Last National Service Man by Reginald Hill

Tankie Trotter is the last National Service man. He never liked the idea of being conscripted, and he showed it in none too subtle ways. But time spent in the glasshouse doesn’t count towards his two years’ service, so here he is, several years later, with a grudge against anyone who can be blamed for having a hand in this wasting of long years of his life. Chief among them is one Andrew Dalziel, brash Chief Inspector in the Midyorkshire Police, who kept handing Tankie back to the army when he went AWOL.

If Dalziel had to be taken hostage, it’s a fair bet he wouldn’t have chosen to be accompanied by newly arrived, wet behind the ears university graduate DC Peter Pascoe, who isn’t even a Yorkshireman. These things rarely come down to choice though, and their loss is our gain as we watch the first hours of a lasting partnership that seems like it can’t possibly get off the ground.

I’m not sure this 1994 novella is still available (I picked it up second-hand) but anyone who has enjoyed Dalziel and Pascoe would be well-advised to seek out a copy. It’s not a conventional mystery or detective story but it does involve crime and psychology and is by turns (or at the same time, in places) tense and amusing. Beyond that, it’s a wonderful character study of colleagues who might not be as mismatched as either of them thinks at first.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

If you haven’t encountered Lew Archer yet, think Philip Marlowe with a less terse and more poetic turn of phrase. Ross Macdonald’s private eye also works in California and the 1956 novel The Barbarous Coast sees him taking on a case in Malibu that starts out as a simple request for a bodyguard. It’s quickly replaced by the search for a naive Canadian sports reporter’s errant young wife, believed to have returned to her Californian roots. Even that doesn’t remain Archer’s focus for long, and he follows a trail to the filthy underbelly of Hollywood, where the glamour cracks apart to reveal blackmail and murder. Dreams turn rotten with age, and cops turn rotten with money, and all the while Lew Archer does his best to remain unsullied and serve up justice when even the good guys are asking what’s the point.

One thing I particularly liked about The Barbarous Coast was the almost total absence of police, except as shadowy figures in the past, or offstage characters who Archer hands evidence to. Until this felt so refreshing, I hadn’t noticed how often private detectives run up against obstructive policemen, or work around the activities of the police department, trying to stay one step ahead. Because the police aren’t interested in the justice Archer is looking for, he has free rein and over a couple of very long days his determination allows him to gather the evidence he needs.

The novel does use a sneaky ploy that, depending how much of a murder mystery purist you are, you may find irritating. However, because I spotted it before Archer did, I didn’t feel tricked and I was prepared to forgive his slow realisation on the grounds that he was tired and overworked. With its sad portrayal of love gone sour, and the exploitation of vulnerable people, this is not a light-hearted read but I found it gripping and satisfying, and I’d recommend it to readers of the flawed American dream (F Scott Fitzgerald perhaps?) as well as lovers of classic noir.

Catch up, round up, warm up

So, I missed a Wednesday posting again. It’s been hot, I’ve been lounging around eating ice cream – trying to type at the same time would be asking for trouble.

In no particular order, a quick round-up of things I’ve heard about, read or seen recently…

After the event, I read this Guardian article and found out about the first UK flash fiction day, which took place last Wednesday. That would have been a good excuse to write some flash (I’m concentrating on detective novels at the moment), and no doubt plenty of people used it as such, but I haven’t had a chance to search around for the products of the day yet.

There’s a new crime-writing flash competition, 1000 words maximum, which might be a suitable challenge for those of us who like that sort of thing. I’ve written a crime short story before, but it was about 3 times that long and it still felt pretty brief.

Speaking of challenges, OneMonkey is a devotee of the xkcd comic strip and drew my attention to a particular cartoon about twitter posts and creativity from constraints. He suggested that, as well as haiku, I could try writing exercises based on alphabetical order of words as in the cartoon, or even based on length of words. It’s a thought, and one worth sharing – it’s unlikely to produce anything you’d want to release into the world, but as a means of getting the brain firing on a slow morning it has its merits.

Also in The Guardian, I heard about Neil Gaiman giving a speech at a university, so I wandered on over to Mr Gaiman’s journal and found a link to the transcript as well as the video. It’s a pep-talk for students who’ve just finished arts degrees of one form or another, but it contains sound advice for aspiring (or succeeding) writers, like never do it just for the money (which I agree with, but is probably easier to stick to when you’re already making a living). Oh, and he won an award for his episode of Doctor Who, which is only right and proper (you may recall I was quite thrilled with it when I watched it a year ago).

That concludes that, now I’m going to go off and pretend I’m a crime writer so I can redraft my unfortunately-not-shortlisted-for the-debut-dagger detective novel in the right mindset.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson

Overall this is a light and easy read, but among the humour and the deftly-sketched Yorkshire characters there is tragedy lurking.

The narrative technique, beginning as it does with Ruby Lennox describing her stint as a foetus, starting with the moment of conception, lures you into thinking of the narrator as all-seeing and all-knowing, but just because Ruby-as-foetus has extraordinary insight into her mother’s thoughts and dreams that doesn’t mean she’s a wholly reliable narrator. This fallible nature is played on to good effect later on in the novel – just when you think there are no surprises (since Ruby-as-narrator will say things like Of course, he was about to be killed by a falling piano but they didn’t know that at the time. That’s a made-up example, by the way) you’re hit with a big one, though even that is not as it initially seems.

Superficially, Behind the Scenes at the Museum traces Ruby’s troubled family life amid sisters, cousins, aunts and bickering parents through the 1950s and 60s, with a sort of coda to sum things up. However, alternating with this narrative are the chapters of family history which explain quirks, traits or family traditions in the main narrative (they are introduced as footnotes to the main story). In this way, as well as meeting a wider cast of characters and seeing some of the adults in Ruby’s life as they were in their younger days, we also see the patterns repeating through the generations. The sibling rivalry and favouritism, the dreams followed or stifled, marriages of convenience, world wars and early deaths. The historical chapters, incidentally, feel very natural – no ‘obvious’ research to jar you out of the fictional landscape.

The Yorkshire setting (mainly York, a little in the Dales and elsewhere) played a part in my enjoyment of the novel – recognising some of the characters from my childhood, as well as being able to picture clearly much of the surroundings. However, the characters are well-drawn, the dialogue believable and the light touch carries you along quite quickly through the story so I would recommend it widely.

That wasn’t me talking: the perils of autobiographical writing

If you read creative writing books, there are usually several exhortations to plunder your own life and soul for inspiration. I agree that most characters, including the narrative voice, will have some element of the author in them – it’s inevitable. I also know that I plunder small details from real life all the time – phrases or mannerisms from my family, everyday incidents at work that can be generalised, as well as observations from being abroad in the city. However, the suggestions to start with something real from your past (Recall an argument you’ve had and write about it from your opponent’s point of view. Take one of your own memories and write it in 3rd-person) fill me with horror.

The problem with an exercise like that is, you might write something good. If the glimmer of a decent story emerges from it, you’ll want to use it, and how much can you change (to make it unrecognisable to your nearest and dearest – or worse, colleagues and bare acquaintances) without spoiling it? This is particularly a danger with short stories, where one incident can make up nearly the whole thing, and if it’s recognisably true, some people will of course assume the whole story is. There will then follow one of the following responses:

You didn’t tell me you’d been to the V&A when you went for that job interview.
(I didn’t; I made that bit up. I do remember seeing a poster for it at the time)

So that’s what happened to my gold pen! Return it by tomorrow morning and I won’t call the police.
(Nope, didn’t even know it was missing. Seems I’m not the only one to have noticed you leave it lying around when your office door’s unlocked)

You should be ashamed of yourself.
(Maybe, but only because I have a mind that works that way; I have never actually done that, nor would I wish to)

I can’t believe you could be so awful about Uncle Ken. I’ll never speak to you again.
(No, you see, a character with a similar job to mine said that about another character with a similar history to Uncle Ken. I don’t agree with her – but you’ve already slammed the phone down)

Note that the above examples are themselves fictional: though I have encountered responses along some of these lines, I have never had a job interview in London or an Uncle Ken, nor do I know anyone with a gold pen. But you get the idea.

Most writers probably have at least one pivotal moment, the kind where every time you think of it you shudder, and/or breathe a sigh of relief. If they were already in the writing mindset at the time it happened, even then (or shortly afterwards) they were probably mulling over the ‘what if’ scenarios, and it would almost certainly provide a rich store of material for heartfelt stories – the emotions would be real because they’d still be vivid years later (given the type of event we’re talking about). But if the events had that kind of resonance, would it be a sensitive issue for friends or family? Would they read the resulting tale and, recognising its source, assume that the character’s point of view was that of the author? Dangerous territory, and so far, I’m too much of a coward to wade in.

Postscript: since writing this and putting it aside to use in a few weekends’ time, I’ve read Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman. In the introduction he mentions that one of the stories in that collection (I forget which one, and the book is upstairs) is close enough to the truth that he’s had to explain to a few relatives that it didn’t quite happen that way. Which sort of proves my point, and reinforces my stand.

The criminal career takes off

Or, I have a detective story available in the brand new e-zine from New Zealand, Comets and Criminals. I urge you to check out the issue, it has some good stories in, an interesting mix of thrilling genres from authors whose other work has already appeared in some quite impressive places. My contribution is The Dovedale Affair, in which a murder in a small Yorkshire town causes panic in the mother of a disturbed young man – what does he know about it, and how?

Paris Noir anthology

I’d seen a couple of the other anthologies in this series from Akashic Books in the library before but Paris was the first one that prompted me into borrowing it, as I’ve actually been there. I figured that part of the idea behind a one-city setting was that you could immerse yourself, and it helps if you can picture the streets, hear the sounds. All the stories were translated from French, which adds an authenticity (and sometimes a confusion, though no more than I occasionally get from, for instance, American writing).

I nearly gave up on this book, I will admit – the first 2 or 3 stories I dipped into were, to my mind, more monosyllabic brutality than richly atmospheric crime fiction. However, I persevered and the next couple were OK, and then I hit upon The Revenge of the Waiters by Jean-Bernard Pouy. It takes a theme I often play around with (but have never yet finished a story on), that of the familiar stranger and particularly the way we notice their absences and wonder what’s become of them. With a welcome injection of dark humour, Pouy sets a band of bored waiters on an investigation into such an absence, with escalating consequences.

La Vie en Rose by Dominique Mainard makes good use of a technique that’s sometimes seen as old-fashioned, that of having our main character sit down and listen to a long and almost unbroken exposition of the back-story from the other main character. As an interesting twist, the listener is a proto-crime-writer pretending to be a private detective in order to gather material, but he soon finds he’s out of his depth.

I’m not sure if I’d read other volumes in the series, but if I do dip in, I’ll let you know how they measure up.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

The most enjoyable Chevalier I’ve read for a while, Remarkable Creatures takes a few fictional liberties with two real fossil-hunting women who lived in Lyme Regis in the early 19th century; the title could refer equally well to Mary and Elizabeth, or to the fossils they found and studied.

When London solicitor John Philpot marries, he arranges for his three remaining unmarried sisters to move to a cottage in Lyme Regis, a small town on the south coast where they will still be able to live a respectable middle class life in reduced circumstances. Louise and Elizabeth have their botany and fossil-collecting, respectively, to make spinsterhood more palatable but their younger sister Margaret still has hopes, fuelled by her Jane Austen novels. Mary Anning, a local girl who finds and sells fossils to supplement her father’s income, meets Margaret through Elizabeth, and is influenced by her romantic notions.

Though there are gentle flavours of romance, intrigue and adventure, the novel is largely about fossils and strong female friendship (the phrase ‘vicious gossip and the heartbreak of forbidden love’ on the back cover refers to restrictions of class rather than gender). Tracy Chevalier has once or twice in the past fallen into the trap of dumping incongruous passages ito the narrative rather than wasting her research, but in general it is woven seamlessly into this book. Her only stumbling blocks in this regard seem to arise from the format of alternating chapters being first-person accounts from Mary and Elizabeth’s points of view, which left working-class Mary having to say a couple of things which, in my opinion (and really, what do I know about 19th century Dorset girls?) didn’t sit quite right. With Elizabeth’s chapters, however, the tone seemed to fit brilliantly, very Trollope (and regular readers will know just how much of a compliment I mean that to be).

An infuriating book to read if, like me, your blood boils at the thought of scientific women in the past being sidelined, ignored or having their discoveries stolen by male colleagues. Nevertheless, an interesting insight into the time, and a well-written tale.

The Cardinal’s Blades by Pierre Pevel

A fantasy novel translated from French, which doesn’t happen that often; it’s set in Paris in 1633, the Cardinal in question naturally being Richelieu and the Blades his finest and most elite soldier-spies, who had been disbanded 5 years earlier for political reasons. A good portion of the book is the ‘we’re putting the band back together’ section, where the Blades are located and plucked from their dayjobs, which is light and enjoyable.

Although it’s a fantasy novel, for almost the entire book except the climax it’s easy to forget that and assume you’re reading a historical swashbuckling adventure. As you might expect from the setting, it’s full of spies and double-agents, intrigue and political scheming, sword-fights and heroic rescues. And, thankfully, humour. The fantasy element arises from who some of the spies and double-agents are working for, and what additional power that might give them, though I don’t think that aspect was fully explored.

I enjoyed it, but I also enjoyed all the Scarlet Pimpernel novels, the Three Musketeers and the Man in the Iron Mask. If you don’t think they’d be your sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend this book, but if you like high boots, doublets, rapiers and repartee, and you don’t mind the occasional dragon, I’d say you were in for a cracking read.