by Mary Jackson (Sept. 2007)
I love crime. Crime fiction, that is. The old writers, such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, hold up well, but I enjoy contemporary crime fiction too: Val McDermid, whose characters walk the streets of my neighbourhood and places I visit to the extent that I think the writer is stalking me, and Ruth Rendell, R. D. Wingfield and P. D. James, who are all looking a little old fashioned now.
Crossing the Atlantic, my favourite is Sue Grafton, with her alphabet novels: “A is for Alibi”, “B is for Burglar”, “C is for Corpse”. The last one I read was “S is for Silence”. When the books started coming out I would speculate on future titles. I thought she would have a problem with “Q”, but “Q is for Quarry” was an excellent title with a double meaning, and one of her best. I have heard it suggested that when she gets to “U”, a good title would be “U is for Untoward Conduct”. I think she can do better than that, but “X” will probably defeat her and stand for Xavier, x-ray or xylophone.
Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is an appealing character. Tomboyish, cynical with a dry sense of humour, she sounds fun, and it would be good to meet her for a beer. However, if she were real you would probably not get to know her, for she is an immensely private person. Orphaned, divorced and with no siblings, she has no real friends other than a couple of neighbours – implausibly handsome elderly men who offer her a shoulder to cry on and an endless supply of delicious home-cooked meals.
Kinsey cannot cook for herself; indeed she is a stranger to the feminine arts, including those of personal adornment. She owns one all-purpose dress, never wears make-up and greets the word “accessories” with a hollow laugh and a blank stare. When asked by a client to trap a suspect using “feminine wiles”, she replied bluntly: “Like I got some?” She keeps fit, but the implication is that this is for practical reasons – chasing or fleeing dangerous suspects – rather than for reasons of vanity. She is not vain at all, and you believe her when she says: “If asked to rate my looks on a scale of one to ten, I wouldn’t.”
Kinsey’s love of junk food and ability to laugh at herself make a welcome change from the priggish feminism of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. (Any NER readers familiar with Cornwell’s writing are invited to ask themselves whether there is a more irritating character in the whole of detective fiction than Kay’s beautiful, supposedly brilliant but troubled niece, Lucy.)
A common weakness of detective stories is to make the detective too clever by half. Sherlock Holmes is a case in point. Although he never actually says “Elementary, my dear Watson,” he comes very close at times. You long for Watson to put him right, or even to tell him not to be such a pompous know-all. Holmes – “eccentric detective, stooge assistant” – partly inspired Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who seems always to know more than he lets on. In the latter case, the “stooge” is everyone around him. For example, Poirot describes how he cunningly plays up the foreigner to put people off their guard:
“It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. […] Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much. […] And so, you see, I put people off their guard.”
Only people as fictitious as you, Hercule. In films Poirot is even sillier – we are asked to believe he speaks fluent English, but – name of a dog! – doesn’t know the word for “yes”. I like Agatha Christie, but find I must suspend disbelief a little too often.
Coming back to the present, Cornwell’s Lucy is “brilliant” – we must take this on trust – and makes brilliant deductions out of the blue or using some fiendishly complicated computer programme that only she can understand. In contrast, Kinsey’s detecting is utterly believable. She is shrewd, methodical and has an eye for detail, but there is no mystery about her success, and no extraordinary cleverness. Luck plays its part, and persistence, and although Kinsey has hunches, these are no more impressive, individually, than those your average reader might have. Very often she knows that an answer is staring her in the face, but she cannot yet see it, so she steps back and does something else for a while, seeing the answer only later, while approaching the problem from a different angle. I recognise this process, as, I think, will most readers.
Grafton’s project is limited by the size of the alphabet, and she is nearing the end. This is perhaps just as well. So that Kinsey can stay thirty-five, the books are still set in the eighties. This was fine when it was the eighties, but it is a little odd to read what is supposed to be a contemporary novel with no mobile phones or emails. Janet Evanovich has no such constraints. Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books use numbers instead of letters: “One for the Money”, “Two for the Dough”, “Three to Get Deadly”, “Four to Score” and so on. She is now on “Lean, Mean Thirteen”, and could potentially go on ad infinitum. I suspect that she will stop when she gets to twenty, or perhaps skip some of the more cumbersome and unmemorable numbers like thirty-nine or fifty-three. I stopped at “High Five”, feeling that the books had run their course and were becoming repetitive and implausible, with swearing and sex standing in for a good plot.
More recently, this afternoon in fact, I have been reading Nicci French. “Nicci French” is the pseudonym for the writing partnership of married couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. One of their books, “Killing Me Softly” was made into a rather mediocre film. The books are often, but not always, very good. The one I read today, about a mother’s frantic search for her missing daughter was impossible to put down. So great was the dramatic tension that I feared that if I did put the book down, time would run out. Since time, in Nicci French thrillers, frequently threatens to run out, but has not yet done so, arousing this fear in the reader is quite a feat on the writers’ part. Yes, writers’ – the apostrophe goes after the -s because there are two writers.
I find strange the idea of two people, married or not, writing a book as if they were one person. Here is/are “Nicci French”, talking about her/his/their work:
We never know who’s going to write which specific part of the book, and indeed we promised ourselves that we must both take absolute responsibility for every word that’s written in a Nicci French novel. When we begin the book we first of all, obviously, talk about the plot, the characters, and the voice of the narrator; we work out some details, though we often veer away from the plot we decided. We then begin and it doesn’t matter which one of us begins. One of us writes the first chapter, then hands it to the other one in order to edit it and maybe cut it – and that’s when we have our arguments ! – and the second person writes the next bit and hands it back to the first and so on. We stir in each other’s copy and make it as seamless as we can. In fact I think nobody has ever said they can tell which of us has written which book.
I am not so sure. The books are variable. “Catch Me When I Fall” was a let down; it rambled all over the place and nothing really happened, nor were any of the characters believable. One of their books, “Land of the Living” had a first chapter so gripping that the adrenaline surged through me as I read it, but the rest of the book was a flop. I am convinced that one half of the couple is far better than the other, but neither of them will admit it. I don’t know if it is “Nicci” or “French” who is the better writer. If I were a betting woman, I would say “Nicci”. So many crime writers are women, and, at their best, the novels show an understanding of what is misleadingly called feminine “intuition” – the ability to pick up on apparently insignificant events and clues, an ability more common in women than in men, because women need it more than men do. My feminine intuition tells me Nicci is propping up Sean, but Sean doesn’t know it, and perhaps thinks it’s the other way round. And Nicci lets him think this.
They would both deny it. And I may be wrong.
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