A Spot of Folly (Profile Books, 2017) by Ruth Rendell – Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem.
I loved this posthumously published collection. Ruth Rendell (Baroness Rendell of Babergh since her life peerage in 1977) is one of my favourite writers. The stories are mostly psychological domestic crime but a couple have supernatural themes (the chilling Haunting of Shawley Rectory equals M.R.James) and there is even a dystopian story describing the bleak effects of a nuclear war. The ‘Quarter’ story of the title (Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror) has only three sentences, but every word is a sinister whisper in your brain.
Sophie Hannah provides an entertaining and interesting introduction, detailing how her appreciation of Ruth Rendell began.
As Sophie Hannah says in her intro: Ruth always knew how imperative it is to hook your reader with a strong opening line. Ruth is famous for her opening line of her 1977 novel, A Judgement in Stone: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ It takes a confident writer to begin a crime novel with all their cards exposed. A Judgment in Stone remains gripping throughout and is ultimately poignant and believable.
Considers these hooks from opening lines of stories in A Spot of Folly:
‘You won’t believe this, but last week I tried to murder my wife.’ – A Drop Too Much
‘I don’t believe in the supernatural, but just the same, I wouldn’t live in Shawley Rectory.’ – The Haunting of Shawley Rectory
‘I murdered Brenda Goring for what I suppose is the most unusual of motives. She came between me and my wife.’ – The Irony of Hate
Not a word is wasted in A Spot of Folly. For any writer wanting a master class in crafting suspense and crime short stories, this is a perfect book to study. The characters are chilling, or heartbreakingly vulnerable to their fates, but Rendell always creates believable flawed characters. Ruth began writing short stories in the 1950s and admitted a lot of her early attempts were pretty bad but she soon found her power lay in suspense writing.
The stories were published previously in various formats over a long period of time. I hadn’t read any of them before, so it was a treat to connect with Ruth’s work again. I only wish another manuscript of hers would turn up in some attic. Meanwhile I shall continue to hunt down out-of-print copies of her books to re-read and marvel over her skill.
This is a ‘must’ book for the library of any lover of this talented crime writer. As with a lot of Rendell’s work, the stories seem to bury themselves like a deadly creeper vine into your brain, making you reflect upon them for a long time afterwards.
Her skill in creating broken, dysfunctional people capable of the most cruel acts is unparalleled. You won’t find shock twists here, as the current publishing trend dictates, but rather more elegant haunting stories that bring some cohesion to the darkness within humanity.
I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but I either blocked Crooked House from my mind – or I’d never read it.
A Christie I haven’t read? Scandalous! It’s hard to believe I could’ve forgotten this chiller. Crooked House was the Agatha Christie Book of the Month for November. There are no spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t read it, I vow to Keep the Secret.
Crooked House (1949) was one of Agatha’s personal favourites and I can see why. I always enjoy her standalone novels, like Endless Night – see review HERE. Free of Poirot and Marple, her work enters interesting shadows. I love both detectives, but it must have been refreshing for Agatha to write without them. She claimed Crooked House was pure pleasure to create. She mused over it for years and felt it one of her best. It is also pure pleasure to read.
The novel is set just after WW2 in 1947. Narrator Charles Hayward returns to England to marry his fiancée Sophia, whom he met in Egypt where she was working for the Foreign Office .
Sophia’s grandfather Aristides Leonides presides over The Three Gables (the Crooked House) where several generations of the family live. But he’s murdered when his insulin medication for diabetes is swapped with his eserine eye medicine. It’s a perfect set up for lots of simmering tensions and family secrets. Everyone, from Sophia herself to 12-year-old Josephine is a suspect, and everyone appears to have a motive. Classic Christie!
Here’s an extract from when Charles asks ‘The Old Man’ (his father) what murderers are like:
‘But some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it. I don’t think, in my experience, that any murderer has really felt remorse… And that, perhaps, is the mark of Cain. Murderers are set apart, they are ‘different’ – murder is wrong – but not for them – for them it is necessary – the victim has ‘asked for it,’ it was ‘the only way.’
Charles’s father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, so Charles is allowed to unofficially investigate under the eye of Chief Inspector Taverner.
I really enjoyed the characters in this novel. Their flaws are shown but there is depth to every person Christie has created. An example is Laurence Brown, the tutor looked down upon by the family for being a conscientious objector. He was, as he admits to Charles, afraid to go to war, afraid to have to pull the trigger on what might appear to be a Nazi but is actually just a decent German village boy swept up in the conflict. Laurence believes war is wrong but is despised for his beliefs. Now he is under suspicion of murder along with the rest of the household. Laurence tries hard to do the decent thing and is always failing. He rushes into a burning building to save a woman but became unconscious with the fumes, earning the scorn of the fire-department when they have to rescue him as well.
Christie doesn’t have a lot of time to let us get to know characters, but is skilled at giving us a full person in a few strokes. It is obvious that Christie, like Miss Marple is a keen observer and can pass a shrewd eye over people without judgement.
Also enjoyable is the goblin-like, horrible child Josephine. She enjoys playing detective, listening at doors and lives in ghoulish expectation for the ‘second murder to occur’. As we do – knowing it is coming. For as Josephine points out: ‘Someone who knows something is bumped off before they can tell what they know.’ And – ‘Sometimes it’s something that they don’t know that they know.’
This book is one of my own special favourites. I saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out, saying to myself: “One day, when I’ve plenty of time, and want to really enjoy myself – I’ll begin it.
The tension really escalates at the end. I had a sense of dread of what was coming:
‘Because this is just what a nightmare is. Walking about among people you know, looking in their faces – and suddenly the faces change – and it’s not someone you know any longer – it’s a stranger – a cruel stranger.’ – Sophia, Crooked House.
The denouement (which I didn’t see coming but my husband did pick) was one that her publishers wanted her to change the ending. Thankfully, she refused and had enough clout that they conceded to her will.
Crooked House reminds me of some of Barbara Vine’s/Ruth Rendell’s work and is a wonderful forerunner for the twisty, psychological genre.
The title is taken from the nursery rhyme Crooked House, which is a trope that Agatha used in several of her novels. Yes, nearly everyone in the novel and that strange, rambling mansion is crooked in a psychological way. And it refers Aristides not permitting his family to grow independent and rise or fall on their own merits. By his over-control of their lives, the family members have grown crooked, under the crooked man, in his crooked, strangely proportioned mansion on the outskirts of London.
Have you read it? If so, please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. And if you know any fan of mysteries, or psychological thrillers, please share this post. I think Crooked House has become one of my new favourite Christie’s.
New Moon in Scorpio.
As a Scorpio, this moon feels powerful, transformative and filled with possibilities. It’s raining heavily in the mountains this weekend: watery, emotional Scorpio weather. Heavy mist brings its usual mysterious atmosphere.
Another Scorpio who shares my birth date of October 27 is Sylvia Plath.
Scorpio is ruled by Pluto, planet of death.
Rebirth, transformation, subconscious and the unknown.
Scorpio the Grey Lizard and Phoenix.
Scorpio – the Seeress.
Scorpio rises and rises and rises from its own transformation and death.
In 1997, I made a pilgrimage to Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, England, to pay my respects at the grave of Gabriel Rossetti, the English painter, poet and charismatic co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Gabriel was convalescing from an illness when he died in Birchington.
His family and his wife, Lizzie Siddal, are buried in Highgate Cemetery in London. It always seemed to me very sad that Gabriel wasn’t laid to rest near his family and Lizzie.
Was it due to his guilt over having dug up his dead wife’s coffin seven years after she died to retrieve a volume of poetry he buried with her? The exhumation and retrieval of the worm-eaten book of poems is one of many sensational stories swilling around the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their life models.
I also visited Lizzie Siddal’s grave at Highgate on a private tour. After years of being obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites, it was an emotional experience to see the final resting places of these fascinating personalities who continue to inspire the work of artists across time.
I was reminded of Gabriel and Lizzie reading Kate Forsyth’s current book, Beauty in Thorns, which I devoured in a few nights. Beauty in Thorns tells the story of the tangled lives and loves surrounding the famous painting, The Legend of Briar-Rose by Edward (Ned) Burne-Jones. Jones was obsessed with the Sleeping Beauty myth which Kate parallels with the lives of the PRB and their wives, muses, mistresses and daughters. His finished work was rapturously received in 1890 and earned the artist a staggering (for the time) 15,000 guineas. In 1893 he was knighted.
Beauty in Thorns is a very ambitious project but is perfectly suited to Kate with her love of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, poetry, mythology and fairy tales. The story is told via four different women (stunners, as they were known by the artists):
Jane Morris nee Burden, a child of the slums, adored by both Rossetti and William ‘Topsy’ Morris whom she married. Later, with the permission of the wonderfully understanding Topsy, she carried on an affair with Gabriel at Kelmscott Manor in the summer of 1871 while Topsy travelled to Iceland.
Lizzie Siddal who had art and poetry aspirations but whose art was never taken seriously, and who suffered an addiction to laudanum and what appears to be an eating disorder.
Georgiana Burne-Jones nee MacDonald (Georgie in the book), the daughter of a Methodist minister, who married Edward Burne-Jones.
Georgie’s daughter, Margot.
I was very taken with Georgie’s character as I knew little about her, being previously more interested in Lizzie and Fanny Cornforth. I was disappointed that Fanny was only touched upon in the story as I’ve always felt very drawn to her, but I read in a blog post of Kate’s that, with regret, she had to cut Fanny as she already had too many viewpoints and a very large manuscript.
Georgie was wonderfully portrayed. She had to endure a lot from her husband and his affair with the incredibly flamboyant Maria Zambaco, but she managed to keep her relationship strong with Ned. Georgie was interested in socialism and in trying to make the world a better place for women. Margot was her father’s muse for her fairy-tale painting of Sleeping Beauty.
For people who may already be familiar with the stories and scandals surrounding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Beauty in Thorns will still enthral with the skilful way Kate blends the strands of these very different women and their life experiences together. It is fascinating to see the Brotherhood through the eyes of the women in their sphere and how they influenced the artists. Kate really brings out a more empathetic dimension to the women. As unorthodox as the Brotherhood, they modelled for the artists at a time when to do so was considered equal to being a prostitute, but they were happy to defy convention.
If you come to the book with little or no knowledge of these talented, innovative young men and the women who inspired them, you will be enlightened as Kate really brings the world of the artists to life.
The research in Beauty in Thorns is incredibly detailed, although never at the expense of the story. Kate had a couple of research trips to the UK and she has read unpublished poetry of Gabriel Rossetti’s to Jane in the Specials Collections Reading Room at Bodleian Library at Oxford. This attention to primary research really shows through in Beauty in Thorns. I can’t imagine how beautifully moving it would have been to read Gabriel’s passionate poetry in his own hand.
I had no idea, about Mummy Brown paint, a mindboggling detail that really shocked me. And William Morris wallpaper sales being badly affected by the arsenic scandal. I loved Kate’s hypothesis that Jane’s ill-health in London may well have been due to arsenic-treated William Morris wallpapers. Jane Morris’s symptoms are the same as arsenic poisoning. From Kate’s fascinating blog on this topic HERE
Lizzie’s childhood was filled with cruelty with her mother’s taunts about how plain she was. It must have been overwhelming to have been accepted as a Stunner by Gabriel and his fellow artists, but it came at a price. Her descent into laudanum is poignantly captured in the book. When Kate first came to writing Beauty in Thorns, she believed that Lizzie had committed suicide but as she continued to work on the book, she changed her mind. Her blog post on this can be found HERE.
Kate also became convinced through her research and reading diaries and letters of the period that Lizzie did suffer from an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa was not recognised in the mid-19th Century and was thought to be consumption.
Previously, I’d never felt particularly drawn to Jane Morris, but Beauty in Thorns helped me view her in a different light. Like Lizzie, she had a harsh childhood. She was forced to be sexually active from the age of nine, and had to wring the necks of pigeons for the dinner pot. Jane had to work on her lower-class accent and rough ways to be accepted into Topsy’s world.
Eating an orange for the first time becomes an overwhelming sensory experience for Jane: ‘Jane ate it greedily, then another, trying to think what it tasted like. Sitting with the sun on your back on a hot summer’s day. Orange hawkweed growing out of a crack in a churchyard wall. The sound of singing in a hayfield as women raked the mown grass into piles. The glint of a new sovereign.’
I also had no idea that her later years with her children were as traumatic with her daughter’s tragic onslaught of epilepsy.
Kate’s skill with recreating the world she is writing about is paramount to this book. Deft touches really make you appreciate what it was like to be a woman at this particular time.
I loved Beauty in Thorns and I think it is one of my favourite of Kate’s books.
I’ve been reading and enjoying her work since The Witches of Eileanan was published with the first book Dragonclaw in 1997.
I feel very grateful to have seen both Gabriel’s and Lizzie’s graves. I carried flowers to Rossetti and I admit to weeping a few tears over his and Lizzie’s graves. May their vibrant, passion and energy continue to dazzle and inspire artists and writers around the world with their wild, idealistic visions of a more colourful, beautiful word.
May they both rest in peace.
If you have enjoyed this post, please comment below or share with kindred spirits.
In Australia we have just passed the Winter Solstice. On the weekend my family joined the many thousands cramming Katoomba’s main street to witness the annual Magic Winter Festival.
One of the joys of life above the clouds is being part of such a vibrant, creative, colourful community.
The silence and spectacular vistas in the Blue Mountains act as a magnet and muse for a diverse range of creative people.
Since moving up here, I’ve finished two books. Fingers crossed they will both find publishing homes.
Thank you to Yours Magazine for the feature of the five books on my bedside table. If you’re in Australia, this edition is available for the next fortnight.
For those curious about what I was currently reading months ago at the time of the interview here is the longer version of what appears in the magazine. Thank you Yours for having me talk about books.
Women who Run with the Wolves by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes. – I was delighted Emma Watson chose this book as her Feminist bookclub read, for Our Shared Shelf, ( March/ April 2017 ) as for years I’ve returned to it. Dr Estes, a Jungian analyst and cantadora storyteller’s Women who Run with the Woves, is rich in myth, fairytale and folk stories, which Dr Estes uses to illustrate her ideas about the female unconscious. With each re-reading, I’ve come to appreciate its rich characters and symbols such as La Loba – The Wolf Woman, Skeleton Woman and Vasalisa the Wise. It’s an excellent book to read just before sleep, as your dreams are always richer and you awake feeling inspired. Dr Estes says stories are soul vitamins and medicine, and so Women who Run with the Wolves is a heady tonic for the soul.
In the Woods – Tana French. I recently re-read In the Woods, Irish writer Tana French’s debut book set in the invented Dublin Murder Squad, which spawned a series of bestselling books.
In the 1980s in a Dublin suburb, three children enter the woods. Only one of the children ever returns – his shoes filled with blood, in a catatonic state, unable to remember what happened to his friends. Twenty years later, Katy Devlin’s body is found raped and murdered on an archaeological dig site – on the sacrifice stone. The investigating detective is Rob Ryan – the 1980’s child who was originally found in the woods, disguising his true identity as he takes on the case with his partner, Cassie Maddox. In the Woods, is beautifully written and crafted. Even though I already knew the denouement, it still kept me turning pages until past 2am. It is fantastically creepy, but also tender, filled with sadness and a yearning for childhood, lost friends, and a way of life long left behind with modern development. As with all of Tana French’s books, the ancient shadows of the Irish landscape, tinge the present in chilling ways that will haunt you.
The Virgin Suicides – by Jeffrey Eugenides, this novel is disturbing for its bleak subject matter, where five sisters kill themselves, narrated through the eyes of the neighbourhood boys in their American town. I loved the writing in this novel, but some of the characters left me cold. This is one of those books where I’m going to have to re-read it in a few years to see if I have a different interpretation. I loved the Sofia Coppola movie version, but the novel is even more confronting and although it’s dreamlike, there is a detachment to the text. But despite its coldness the prose is beautiful and the story bizarre enough to linger.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – I prefer Dark Places to her more commercially successful, Gone Girl. Flynn’s second book, is gripping, disturbing and poignant. The story of the Day Family massacre is narrated in multiple viewpoints, who were axed to death in 1985. Only two family members survive, seven-year old Libby and her older brother, Ben, who both relate their accounts of the days leading to the murders. Ben, was a moody, deeply dysfunctional teenager, and it is Libby’s testimony that puts him in gaol. Libby, in the present day thread, is contacted by the macabre Kill Club, who are obsessed with high profile crimes, trying to role-play and solve them. As Libby begins to revisit her memories of the deaths of her family, she begins to doubt her own testimony.
This is not just a book about a grisly murder, it is a book about poverty and how it bankrupts you on all levels. You won’t be able to put it down, or sleep with the light off.
The Naughtiest Girl – Enid Blyton – I’ve been enjoying reading these with my tween daughter in bed together. I was never a huge fan of the Naughtiest Girl series growing up, as I loved the Famous Five mysteries and the Mallory and St Clare boarding school stories more, but with age, I’ve come to appreciate, spoilt, wilful Elizabeth Allen and her efforts to get herself expelled from Whyteleafe School when her fed-up parents decide to board her out. Whyteleafe, permits the pupils to govern each other and the children are expected to help out around the school and display responsibility. Miss Belle and Miss Best (The Beauty and the Beast) headmistresses are very progressive for a 1940s school. The Naughtiest Girl is loads of fun and Elizabeth allows for plenty of laugh out loud moments with her rebel, naughty ways as she tries hard not to fall in love with Whyteleafe.
Wherever you are in the world – Solstice Blessings. I have more photos of the Winter Magic Parade on my Facebook and Instagram if you are interested. Above the clouds, I am longing for snow.
I posted this poem The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer to my Facebook Author page for Solstice. It’s one that seems to resonate and touch a lot of people so I hope it inspires you in this Solstice/New Moon time.
‘It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of future pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it. I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see Beauty, even when it is not pretty every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence. I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes.”
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself, and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.’ – The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
On Friday evening I made the five-hour return train trip to Angel Place for the Sydney Writers’ Festival to see Scotland’s best-selling crime novelist Ian Rankin discuss his work and life with Australian writer Michael Robotham.
Never leave securing tickets for the hot sessions! By the time I booked, only two seats remained – both in such elevated positions I expected Michael and Ian to do a pre-flight safety demonstration before we taxied over their heads.
Despite the vertigo, the hour was engrossing and inspiring. Ian was candid, witty, and clever and Michael was a terrific interviewer – his journalistic experience was in evidence as he led the conversation but still managed to keep himself back.
I’ve paraphrased below some of Ian’s talk (I was so engrossed in the conversation I missed a lot). This is my own version, so please keep that in mind. You really had to be there to hear Ian’s Scottish accent to appreciate it more. I’ve also added a few details from a 2009 Times interview.
I.R spoke about the years when he didn’t think his career as a writer was ever going to happen. He’d published quite a few books but they were languishing in the midlist. One of his lowest points was when he went into his local bookshop after he had about five books published, to discover none of his books were on the shelf. The books of a rival crime writer in the same city featured prominently and when Ian commented, the owner said, ‘But he sells extremely well.’ M.R then related his own story of when he asked his publishers why his books weren’t in a shop and was told they were trying to create a ‘vacuum’. Ian then laughed, quipping that’s exactly what we want! A vacuum.
Five publishers turned down Knots & Crosses. I always love stories of publishers getting it wrong…
Ian was in London at this stage. He had a job and was writing on the side, with his wife Miranda Harvey the main breadwinner. His first royalties were so mediocre that Miranda (who sounds an incredible powerhouse and support) suggested moving out of expensive London. They hoped Miranda could support Ian’s writing by teaching English in the French countryside while they grew vegetables and lived a self-sufficient life on a farm in Dordogne. Well, that was the plan, but unfortunately in the French village they moved to, the locals weren’t interested in learning English.
M.H is the daughter of two university lecturers, and according to the Times 2009 interview, had just started a course in Ancient Greek with Open Uni because she wanted to read Homer in the original. Ian describes his wife as the brains of the family. Ancient Greek would have been her fourth degree. She has also studied psychology. Miranda said she never thought Ian would become as famous as he is. But she always believed writing was a perfectly reasonable career and never saw it as a hobby or as a waste of time, even if it didn’t prove to be a big earner.
The couple had two sons, Jade and Kit, during this time. Very tragically, Kit was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare genetic condition with severe disabilities – he was partially sighted and unable to speak or walk (in the Times interview, when Kit was fourteen, he was learning to walk). Due to all the stress Ian was having panic attacks and would go on all-night drives, screaming and shouting. He was also trying to write two books a year.
He wrote Black and Blue in 1997, the eighth of his Inspector Rebus books. Eight, a lucky number and the symbol of infinity, proved to be a breakthrough. It was his Big, Angry book. His Why Me, Why Us?
How many people would have given up on the third, fourth, (gulp) seventh book?
He knew he’d become successful when Miranda phoned him with his six-month royalty statement, saying it was a six-figure statement. The couple thought a mistake had been made but it turned out that his backlist had begun selling from readers newly hooked into Rebus’s world via Black and Blue.
Ian said that he had to write, that it was therapy for him and that crime writers are all lovely people in real life because of the cathartic effect of their writing. You have to watch out for the Romance writers – they’ll stab you in the front! (I have to agree with him on this one. The crime writers I’ve met have, without exception, been the loveliest, most supportive people.)
With the money that has since flowed to him, he can now provide Kit with the best equipment.
Michael asked about the documentary, Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts, a three-part series about the nature of evil. Michael informed Ian that it is on Youtube. During the series Ian analysed cultural definitions of evil. He travelled to death row in Texas and spoke to inmates, examined Nature versus Nurture, and was also exorcised at the Vatican by an Exorcist who had performed 15000 exorcisms. More chillingly, the crew arranged for him to speak to the mother of Ian Brady, the Moors Murderer, but Brady insisted that Ian only speak directly with him.
Ian declined, and when Michael asked why (I’d love to know whether Michael would have done it) Ian replied that once Brady was in your head, you’d never get him out. He described Brady as a seriously sick, clever, sadistic man. Brady wrote a book called The Gates of Janus which Ian said was a horrible book. Its subject matter is basically that serial killers should be revered. It’s banned in the UK, but available in the US.
There were some killers Ian said he would be comfortable interviewing, such as the one-time killer Anne Perry (Juliet Hulme), who murdered the mother of her childhood friend, Pauline Parker, in New Zealand in the 1950s. The killing of Honorah Rieper has always really affected me terribly. I’ve always felt so much pity for the mother brutally killed by her daughter and Perry – girls she trusted. Just contemplating how much violence it would take to bash someone’s head in with a brick…
We had now reached the part of the evening when the audience asks questions. My plan was to sneak away and catch my country train back up the mountains. But Michael Robotham is a wily fox and onto this trick, and he requested that people actually ask questions and not make statements (I hate how there’s always someone who has to ramble on with some statement on these occasions; we need a hook to be rid of them so we can return to those whom we paid to see). But hurrah! The people brave enough to take the mic managed to keep me in my seat (at the risk of missing my train) by asking about Ian’s writing routine and other interesting questions.
Ian said that when he’s writing, he goes to his house in Scotland where there’s no television etc and works solidly all day in peace and isolation. At night he goes to the local pub and has a simple meal like fish and chips. He writes the first draft as quickly as he can. He doesn’t know the ending of his books when he begins, just a little of the plot and the main characters. He uses his first draft to find out what’s going on.
His advice for writing short stories is keep it crisp and have a great opening line.
He advised writers to try to have some fun. Writing should be fun. It should be like creating imaginary characters when you were young.
The session was recorded, and The Sydney Writers’ Festival should be adding it to their website, so if you enjoyed reading this far, you’ll be able to listen to the entire conversation. There was a wealth of inspiration for all creatives. Thank you to Ian Rankin (if he ever stumbles across this) for being so open and genuine and thank you to Michael Robotham for being such a terrific interviewer. And yes, despite having to forfeit the endless signing queue line and battle the crowds who were thronging down to Circular Quay for the Vivid light display, I did catch my country train.
If you know of anyone who might be inspired and enjoy this post, please share.
Thank you for visiting,
All black and white images used of Scotland via this book: Rebus’s Scotland A Personal Journey. photo credits. Ross Gillespie and Tricia Malley
Secrets, Lies and Deceptions in Elizabethan England.
Secrets, Lies and Deceptions
‘And if dreams were locks, we’d all possess keys.’
I loved Karen’s The Brewer’s Tale (Harlequin Australia, 2014) so I was looking forward to reading The Locksmith’s Daughter (2016, Harlequin) and it didn’t disappoint.
The Locksmith’s Daughter is set in the Elizabethan era, when locks were handmade, not picked up from your local Coles. Mallory Bright, only daughter of Gideon Bright, a locksmith in London, becomes a master locksmith under her father’s tutorage.
After she runs off with a total cad, Mallory has become a disgraced woman and feels rejected by her emotionally distant mother. Francis Walsingham, protector of Queen Elizabeth 1 (one of the true figures from history that Karen intertwines her fictional novel around) enlists Mallory to engage in spying for him. After Mallory is witness to a public execution of Jesuit priests, she finds herself questioning the work she has been engaged to do. She realises she is entangled into a violent and sinister world, where people she previously trusted, like Sir Francis, may prove to become fatal enemies.
Karen evokes setting so well. You’re transported into Elizabethan London, a world of suspicion and fear ruled by political and religious biases.
This from a scene where The Locksmith’s daughter has just left the fabulously named Seething Lane (a true London lane that Karen visited on her research trip), on an early spying assignment with one of the servants, Casey:
The smell from the butcher’s stalls lining Cheapside was pungent. Blood, offal and all manner of refuse flowed from the tables where freshly slaughtered carcasses were hung on huge hooks to drain or flung upon blocks to be dismembered. The dull thuds of blades hewing through bone and gristle were percussive, interrupted by the loud conversation of the men, their calls to attract custom, the clink of coins and the banter of buyers. In the dark alleyways and ginnels, the plaintive bleats of animals could be heard, as if they knew what was in store. I maintained a stoic expression and forged ahead, as if it were my practice to pound these streets each day, seek out fare for my household and barter with a ruddy-faced and grime-covered butcher.
I was glad when we reached the conduit and turned into Walbrook Street. Casey steered me into the smaller lanes, away from the press of bodices, carts and horsemen, taking us past St Pancreas. Vendors stood beside stalls or outside shops crying out their wares; women lifted ripe fruit from laden baskets, tempting passerbys with cries of ‘oranges and lemons’, ‘apples for sale’; strings of onions dangled, plump radishes, grey oysters, drooping coneys and pigeons by the brace. Still others sold ribbons, lace, cloth, iron nails and candles.’
Character descriptions of people, both fictional and historical are also deftly done. Consider here this portrayal of the Queen:
Her Majesty was nothing but a grotesque parody of womanhood. Wrinkled like a beldame, she was stick thin, her flesh capturing the power and creams in which she was liberally doused. Her whitened cheeks were sunken, her dark eyes were cold and lifeless stones that scoured the people at her feet but didn’t see them. The brows arched above her deep-set eyes were almost non-existent. God forgive me, but the men who set such store by my Queen’s grace and beauty were either bewitched or engaged in gross falsehoods.
Only her hands, one clasping an elegant fan, the other raising the pomander to her nose, suggested something of these lyrical descriptions. They were long-fingered, creamy, be-ringed and elegant.
Warning! – there are some very graphic stomach-turning scenes. One was when Mallory drags her friend Caleb to witness the execution of the priest Campion and his conspirators who are executed publicly with evisceration. This scene is really shocking as Brooks doesn’t hold back on any of the gruesome details. Karen, really makes you feel as if you’re witnessing the execution.
Karen writes about the effect of the execution on Mallory:
I’d seen death before, many times. Mamma’s wee babes, precious little scraps of bloody flesh that never breathed. When Goody Kat next door died, I helped prepare her body. Oft-times, the poor passed where they slept, propped against a house or church only to be found once their skin was cold, their eyes opaque, the following morning. The streets were littered with dead animals: cats, dogs, butcher’s refuse, rats, their corpses pecked by hungry birds. Then there were the plague carts rumbling through the lanes, the white-blue limbs of the dead jutting from beneath the cloths thrown over their indignity. Aye, death haunted the sky and our lives the way the mist did the winter morns.
Equally disturbing are the scenes where Mallory is tortured in the Tower of London by sexual sadist, Richard Topcliffe. Having visited the Tower of London, it’s too easy to imagine the cruelty that people endured within its stone walls. Topcliffe was, horrifyingly, a real person and claimed a friendship with Queen Elizabeth, even boasting the Monarch allowed him to touch her breasts. The mention of his name evoked terror, but he was protected and even given his own torture chamber in his house to ply his trade. He was described as a ‘cruel creature, who thirsted for the blood of Catholics’. Chillingly enough, Karen says in her detailed Author notes, that the descriptions of Mallory’s encounter with the sadist can’t match the real reports on some of the depravities he inflicted upon women.
All of the characters are complex, with shades of shadow and light. The anti-hero, Nathaniel is a pirate figure and a very endearing rogue. Mallory isn’t some unblemished maiden but is a fully fleshed out woman with a murky past.
Karen writes a detailed Author’s Note at the end describing how she combined fictional and factual characters. Her inspirations and very thorough research make for fascinating reading. I loved discovering more about the locks themselves in the story and the often deadly poisons and traps within the locks used in the Elizabethan era. The spying trips that Mallory embarks on, are also suspense-filled.
A really engrossing historical read containing meticulous attention to research but is also a page-turning story to lose yourself in.
The website of Karen Brooks HERE
Thank you for your support of my online journal this year and also to those who signed up to my newsletter. Hopefully in 2017, I’ll actually send out a ‘proper’ newsletter. I also aim to return to my Rhino interview series, and review more books online that I read, but I’m the mother of an eleven-year-old girl with limited time and I’ll always prefer to put my energy into creating my tales.
It has been a beast of a year for so many, including my family, but I’ve continued writing throughout all the chaos. I finished The Secret Echoes, my mystery novel set in Tasmania.
This book is set between three time periods of 1800s, 1920s and 1950s and shows the impact on a Tasmanian riverside village in 1949, when the town’s most beautiful girl is murdered. I also am halfway through a psychological thriller which is an idea I’ve nursed for several years. This book has been coming out very quickly and I’m trying to let that process happen. Here’s a tarot reading I did one morning in a query to my current work. I loved its potent accuracy – the Magician and the Hermit.
My daughter is starting high school next year and we have a couple of holidays planned. We will return to our much loved Heron Island and we’re also heading to London for a family short break, which I’m excited about.
If 1916 was also a painful and tumultuous year for you, take heart from the J.K Rowling’s Twitter feed who posted a series of twelve tweets in response to followers who were experiencing really tough times: “At this time of year, we’re bombarded with images of perfect lives, which bear as little relation to reality as tinsel does to gold. If you’re lucky enough to be with the people you love, warm and safe with enough to eat, I’m sure you feel as blessed as I do. But if your life is currently full of difficulties; if you aren’t where you want to be, either literally or figuratively, remember that extraordinary transformations are possible. Everything changes. Nothing is forever. Thinking back to my worst Christmas, I found it hard to believe that my unhappiness would pass. I was truly afraid of the future. You never know what the future holds. Astonishing reversals of fortune happen every minute. So if you’re sad, or lonely, or bereaved, or ill, separated from your loved ones or in any other way suffering this Christmas, I send you love and wish luck and better times. Millions of us have been where you are now.”
I’ve included several photos from the night I did a reading at the atmospheric pop-up venue in Sydney, Stoneleigh 50.
I loved this night and the chance to read from my gothic novel in a setting that looked like Miss Havisham’s attic.
Thank you to everyone who attended and listened so avidly to the readings. Also, to Better Read than Dead bookshop for the invitation and for all they do for Australian authors. It was great to connect with the audience and also fellow authors Sulari Gentill, Anna Westbrook and Alexandra Joel. I am seated next to the wonderful Stephanie Beck, Events and Marketing Manager from Better Read than Dead Bookshop.
It was an enchanted night of mystery, intrigue, plants, wine and storytelling.
There are only a few things I miss about life in Sydney – Better Read than Dead bookshop, my women’s circle at Dickson Street, and the smell of the sea in the air.
One thing that has been positive about 2016 was I’ve never regretted moving to the country. We love our life above the clouds with the silence, birdlife, mists over the valleys, dramatic storms and sparkling mountain air.
My husband took this photo from Govett’s Leap and I posted it on the Solstice. Wishing you on this Capricorn New Moon, all peace, joy and positive vibes for 2017. I think Liz Taylor, as always, provided the inspiration I really needed this year.
Love, Light and Capricorn Moonshine,
The Days were a clan that mighta lived long
But Ben Day’s head got screwed on wrong
That boy craved dark Satan’s power
So he killed his family in one nasty hour
Little Michelle he strangled in the night
Then chopped up Debby: a bloody sight
Mother Patty he saved for last
Blew off her head with a shotgun blast
Baby Libby somehow survived
But to live through that ain’t much a life
– schoolyard rhyme, circa 1985 from Dark Places
I’m not easily scared by books, but Dark Places had me so terrified by the time I reached the final twist I couldn’t sleep and had to leave lights on.
My heart pounded so hard as I neared the end I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It didn’t help that I read the book late at night, with everyone asleep, on Boxing Day Night.
By the end of the story, I felt my brain needed to take a bath to rid itself of some of the more disturbing images planted by Gillian Flynn. In a lesser writer, Dark Places would have been a grisly story like some 80s slasher film, but Flynn elevates the material she is working with to a book that is gripping, disturbing and heartbreakingly poignant.
The story is narrated in multiple viewpoints alternating between Libby Day in the present day , the survivor of the grisly murder of her mother and two sisters in 1985. Michelle Day, the eldest girl, is strangled. Nine-year-old Debby is killed with an axe and Patty Day, the matriarch is stabbed, hacked and shot as she tries to protect her children. Patty and Ben, Libby’s older brother, relate their points of view in the back story from the time leading up to the Day Family Massacre.
The family’s farm in Kinnakee, Kansas, has been going under along with several others. Patty Day, suffering from depression can barely function or care for her children. Ben, 15, a moody, devil-worshipping, heavy-metal listening misfit, is involved with the wealthy, bad-arse kids at his school. Ben is accused of the murders and seven-year-old Libby’s testimony puts him in gaol.
In the present day thread, twenty-five years later, Libby, in need of money, is contacted by The Kill Club, a group of obsessives who specialise in killings and crimes they wish to solve and role-play. When she first meets with the creepy secret society, Libby rejects the idea that Ben could be innocent. But as she investigates further, she begins to doubt her own statements from the time. She meets several key players from the 80s, who were all involved directly or indirectly with the Day massacres. She travels from strip clubs to abandoned tourist towns in her quest to discover if her brother Ben was really innocent.
This is a book about poverty and how it bankrupts you on all levels. My heart was breaking for Patty, the mother, as she struggled to keep her farm afloat and bring up four children as a single mother. And also her neglected children who have to suffer a myriad of humiliations daily from other children. It also deals with themes of drug use, Satanism, heavy-metal music, farming and under-age sex. The violence is depicted so graphically that I couldn’t read some of the animal torture scenes. It was hard enough to read about a child being axed to pieces while her mother fought to try to save her children with her own fatal injuries.
The tone of the book draws you in. Flynn is a great storyteller and her language is powerful. Her characters are repulsive and dysfunctional but also realistic. There are few likeable characters with most of the children playing dark roles in the tragedy that follows. The only part that fell down for me slightly was when Libby in the present day visits Diondra. I’m still undecided if the book really needed that scene. I found my credibility stretched here as this scene dipped into horror genre territory, but I still awarded Dark Places five stars.
Dark Places will haunt you. It’s not a book that you’ll put away and forget, even if you wish you could. I loved it more than Gillian Flynn’s first book Sharp Objects (which I also really enjoyed) and I also preferred it to the more commercially successful Gone Girl. Try to read it in sunshine on a crowded beach so you don’t suffer the same experience I put myself through. But I do think I have to re-enter the Darkspace of Dark Places to examine how devious, dark and twisty Flynn managed to pull it all off.
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood.” Libby Day
Hello, if you enjoy mystery, intrigue, wine, plants and storytelling, I am appearing next Tuesday
evening, 22nd November, (along with fellow writers Anna Westbrook, Alexandra Joel and Sulari Gentill) at the incredibly atmospheric Stoneleigh 50 (Chippendale, near Central Station, Sydney).
evening, 22nd November, (along with fellow writers Anna Westbrook, Alexandra Joel and Sulari Gentill) at the incredibly atmospheric Stoneleigh 50 (Chippendale, near Central Station, Sydney).
Presented by Better Read Than Dead bookshop, this special event combines wine-tasting with authors reading from their own works – I’ll be doing an excerpt from Currawong Manor.
Really looking forward to being part of such a special evening. Places are limited – so if this sounds like something you would enjoy, please come along. Tickets can be booked here: