Categories for Ramblings

July 30, 2017

Top of the Lake : China Girl (No spoilers)  

When I saw that the BBC in their infinite wisdom had released all the episodes at once, I promised myself I would take it slowly. No more than one a day.

I make myself a lot of promises I know I’m not going to keep. Just as well I have low standards.

Friday, I was under orders to rest – slight post – operative temperature. And after last year’s experiences, a little fear. (Don’t worry. I won’t go into detail. Unless I get around to writing that medical thriller, in which case all bets are off.)

So I watched it all.  One episode after another. I let Ryan cook – which, as ever, meant beans on toast.

I loved the first series and had been looking forward to this immensely. It was, after all, Jane Campion’s film ‘In The Cut’ (generally quite unpopular) which inspired my novel ‘A Savage Art’

In a Guardian article last week, it was said that this was deeper and darker – and indeed it was. In places it was positively weird.

But it was every bit as brilliant as I had hoped, and I am feeling inspired again, indirectly, to follow my own weird tangent.

I’m not going to say anything about the characters or the story or anything, knowing many people are more sensible than me and are eking it out.

I wonder if I’ll believe Elisabeth Moss as Offred tonight? Isn’t she fabulous?

Ann


May 8, 2017

Into The Water, and why I loved it anyway.  

I’m trying to understand what it is I ‘ve loved about the follow up from Paula Hawkins to The Girl on the Train.  Without spoilers, as far as possible as I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So there’s nothing about individual characters and plot points here – only generalities about theme and structure and genre.

Val McDermid has some reservations which she discussed here in her Guardian review.

There are eleven narrators for one – some in first person, and some in third. It’s a bit confusing and I did have to flick back and forth trying to work out whose point of view I was in, and at what point in the timeline. The voices are not particularly individualised.

There’s a lot of shenanigans that feel perilously close to cheating in the way information is with-held from the reader to maintain suspense and surprise. This definitely includes a few circumlocutions which dragged this reader right out of the story for moment.  However, some of them are maybe psychologically within the realms of possibility, so I wouldn’t dismiss them all as outright cheating.

I’m not sure about the setting – I agree with McDermid that it seemed randomly rural town. I don’t know the area concerned though, so it didn’t really trouble me.

So yes, I think Val McDermid’s review is perfectly fair. Of course it would be – who knows the genre of crime fiction better?

And yet, in spite of all that, I still loved the novel. And I’m trying to analyse why.

Perhaps it’s not really a psychological thriller. Not in the sense of  “transcending the genre” – a phrase so condescending to crime fiction lovers that it makes my teeth itch like a squeaky chalk on a blackboard.

It seems to me that it’s a deep novel about memory, and truth and lies. About miscommunication. And about how all those things are complicated by different points of view.

Those narrators are essential to the structure because the novelists is telling us about tragedies which have deeply affected several families, and a whole community. It’s almost a realistic way of telling the story, as clearly because of all those secrets and lies and miscommunications, no one knows the whole story, although it is gradually pieced together.

There’s one point in the story where a major character finally tells the truth about something which happened to her and you think hurray – but still, it ends up being misunderstood and complicating things even more. And I think there’s some real psychological insight here – we see people projecting things that have happened to them onto other people. Making assumptions based on their own personal experiences and prejudices. There’s a lot about mysogyny and difficult women – from the point of view of a whole range of people – young and old, male and female. There’s a reason why the novel starts with a shocking and graphic disposal of a witch being drowned – although it’s left an open question whether the modern day psychic is really talking to the dead, or if it’s all a psychological phenomenon. But it does all add to the gothic feel of the novel.

The misunderstandings are not always deliberate. Sometimes it’s a question of motivated reasoning – to avoid being confronted by one’s own complicity. Sometimes it’s naivety, and simple lack of experience, or a lack of imagination and empathy.

There’s an exploration of the idea that a good person might have at times acted badly,  or a bad person done some things for good reasons. None of the characters is wholly sympathetic – no matter what horrors they have been through. There was just one character I found deeply unpleasant and saw no redeeming features in – but only one. Other readers may have a different experience.

If anything, the novel is spoiled by shoehorning it into the necessary structure for a psychological thriller, because at that point it startes to lose nuance, and the twist I’ve been expecting isn’t really a surprise in spite of those avoidances and circumlocutions. So for me it wasn’t a particularly satisfying payoff.  It’s a bit strange to enjoy all of a psychological thriller apart from the last couple of chapters – so that’s what prompted me to spend a bit more time thinking about it.

Who dunnit has never really interested me as much as why, so perhaps my response is not so surprising. And suspense odoesn’t have to be about who to be a compelling read.

I always go back to this Hitchcock quotation –

 “One of the most essential things in a film is visual clarity. I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example if you take suspense – suspense can only be achieved by telling the audience as much as you can, I don’t deal in mystery – I never make whodunnits, because they’re intellectual exercises. You’re just wondering – you’re not emoting. My old analogy of the bomb. As an example, we couold be blown up this minute and the audience would get five seconds of shock. But if we tell them five minutes ahead of time there is a bomb that’s going to go off, that would get five minutes of suspense. and we didn’t have suspense before, because the audience were in ignorance, you see.”

I wonder, now, if all those with-holdings and circumlocutions were necessary for this novel to work. It might perhaps have been a better novel without them. Maybe a second reading, now that I know what was being held back, would make that clear.

Still, even though I wasn’t surprised by the twisty ending, I was certainly emoting like crazy. There were characters I cared about – some more than others, which with eleven narrators is pretty much bound to be the case. And there were a couple who I think might have been more developed.

I think Into The Water might actually be a far more interesting novel than Girl on a Train because it isn’t a standard psychological thriller. It’s trying, and in some ways succeeding, to do something more.

Neil Gaiman said a novel is a long piece of prose which has something wrong with it.

What is often missed, I think, when we criticise any novel is how easy it is to pick out those things which are wrong.

And yet what we might like about a novel are those things which are right about it, even while we can see the flaws.

Not unlike the way we can clearly see the imperfections in that special person and yet still love them.

Yes, that’s it. I loved this novel – warts and all.

 

Ann

 

 

Sources:

Guardian : Val McDermid review

Hitchcock quotation on YouTube


December 2, 2016

On Anger and Revenge  

I was just reading this interesting article about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book “Anger and Forgiveness” about the dangers of anger – and inevitably given the current zeitgeist, most of the discussion centres on the role anger has played in the American election. Being a political junkie, this is of coruse endlessly fascinating. I am altogether unconvinced that a strategy of meeting anger with calm reason can actually change political discourse, given that we humans are generally very emotional animals, although some of us are especially talented in the use of reason to create convincing intellectual arguments that justify our beliefs and ideologies. We seem to be less capable of using our reason to understand our own or anyone else’s emotions, though.

Surely anger has been the fuel that has brought much needed political change – even if right now it’s fuelling a backlash against the liberal quest to eradicate inequality in all its guises?  Her whole argument that anger is not socially useful seems to me to boil to the “Calm down, dear” approach to injustice.

On a personal level though, I cannot quite get my head around the idea that Nussbaum claims to have never been angry. To my mind, that makes her analysis suspect. Either she is being honest, or she is unaware of her own anger – and either makes her less capable of understanding the impossibility of what she’s asking of us ‘lesser’ beings.

Of course, I am fascinated by the impulse to revenge – I’ve just published a thriller exploring the question of whether it can ever be justified.  There’s a reason why we have a long tradition of revenge stories ending in tragedy. And we know the quotation from Confucious, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  In the case of my heroine Kate, perhaps it might be wise to dig more… we shall see.  Culturally we are aware of the risks of anger. We are brought up to hide and disguise our anger – this is especially true of women, of course. And I sometimes thing squelching down on angry feelings, bottling them up, can make them more dangerous.

I suppose the difficulty is deciding where it is appropriate to draw the line. Someone who has never been angry probably isn’t best placed to decide that, any more than someone who is always angry.

In this context, I am reminded of the parable of the snake who refused to hiss.

Once upon a time, a holy man went from village to village visiting the people and giving assistance wherever he could.  One day he came to a town and entered the market place.  The people were all looking so unhappy.  “What is the matter, good people?” the old man asked.  “We are so frightened,” they said.  “We can barely do our work for fear of the snake.  It bites us all the time.  We don’t know when it will appear.  We are afraid to go to work in our fields, to let our children play in the streets, to even be here in the market place.”  The old man wandered on and soon came upon the snake.  “I hear you have been biting the people,” he said, “and I would like you to stop.  They are frightened of you and don’t get a moment’s rest.”  The snake realizing how much the holy man loved it agreed not to bite anyone again.

The old man continued on his journey and a few months later came back to the same village.  When he got to the market place he found the people were laughing and shouting.  Everyone was so happy.  “What has happened?” he asked.  The villagers told him that the snake had stopped biting them, that it came out each day from its hiding place but no longer attacked them.  The old man wandered about the village and soon came upon the snake lying in the gutter.  It was bleeding, and badly cut and bruised.  The old man could see that the snake was dying.  He gently picked it up and took it into the forest and laid it down out of the hot sun.  “What has happened to you?” he asked the snake.  The snake on its last few breaths said to the holy man, “ I did what you told me.  I stopped biting the people, but they started attacking me.  Wherever I went they would throw stones at me and kick me, and thrash me with sticks.”

The holy man held the snake with great love and tenderness and stroking the snake said to it ever so tenderly,  “I told you not to bite, but I never told you not to hiss.”

My favourite quotation on anger and revenge comes from Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Eyre is talking to Helen Burns (a girl who shares Nussbaum’s views on morality, as I recall) who has just been punished by the cruel teacher Miss Scatcherd

“… you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people whould have it all their own way; they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should – so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”

The best revenge, they say, is living well.  But living well must also include taking action to prevent further harm. Sometimes that might require no more than hissing. Sometimes it might require more drastic action. Or so my protagonist, Kate Savage, would argue…

Ann

Sources

Article on Nussbaum’s book in The Nation – here

The parable of the snake who forgot to hiss – here

Jane Eyre Chapter Six – here


October 20, 2016

What provides good experience for writing?  

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that suggests medicine – the writer, himself a doctor and a novelist, points out that there are very many examples – he picks out Chekhov, Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese, Khaled Hosseini.

His argument is pretty strong – doctors get to see people at times of crisis, doctors are empathic (mostly); junior doctors have to learn to take a history and present it to the consultant on ward rounds, and thus develop an ability with communication (listening as well as talking) and with story.

Having recently spent far too much time in hospital, I concede he makes an excellent case. I think I’ve certainly found lots of material from the other side of the fence – and not just if I follow through with my threat to turn it into a medical thriller. After the next operation and recovery, of course.

However I suspect he’s just cherry picking, or has fallen into the Texas Sharp Shooter logical fallacy. He’s a doctor and a novelist, and therefore he is attuned to the existence of the rest of the group who fall into his segment of that particular Venn diagram.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the same is true of all the lawyers who are also novelists. I recall when I was at Liverpool University and changed course from Law to English Language and Literature, my Law Professor made that point. Who did he mention? Henry Fielding, certainly. Erle Stanley Gardner, possibly. John Buchan. John Mortimer. I would add John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline.

A similar case could be made for the reasons – they see lots of people in time of crisis, they have to have an understanding of human nature, they have to be able to construct a narrative.

So where does that leave me – with experience in the software business?

Writing a business plan was by far the longest work of fiction I produced before I completed my first novel. And I certainly met a lot of people, of all kinds. Do you have to be empathic in business? You certainly have to understand something about human nature. I think I have a fair supply of ideas for villains and victims both from some of the people I met. I do love a revenge story after all. I am sad to say that the first example that sprang to mind here was Jeffrey Archer’s first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less.

Ah yes, there are quite a few politicians who have turned novelist too, aren’t there?

Of course, most writers do need another source of income. Here in the UK most writers are reported to be earning below minimum wage.  So it’s just as well that working at stuff that is not directly related to writing provides inspiration.

So this gives me an excuse for my favourite anecdote about strange experiences in the software business.

We were meeting with a guy, let’s call him Mike, who had approached us as he was interested in a partnership. He had, he said, lots of experience in tech sales, and would be interested in selling our software product in exchange for a share of the revenue he generated. He asked for a generous revenue share, and based on his experience and his projections of the sales he could make, it sounded as if he might just be worth it.  He was a little reluctant to provide references, though. We could understand that he might not want to let his current employers know he was thinking of striking out as a freelance, and he said his other experience was too far out of date.

There was a distinct whiff of rat at the this point.

Still, we continued discussions, and my business (and life) partner inserted his usual rat trap into the conversation. I won’t say what that is, exactly – he might need it again….

At the end of the meeting Mike suggested he would provide us with a draft agreement the following week, and we parted amicably.

When it arrived, I read the agreement very, very carefully. It started out so positively, with lots of wildly optimistic projections of the sales potential he could see for our software product. (Fiction, again!)

And right at the end, just one tiny sentence that made me gasp and then set me off laughing at the guy’s sheer nerve.

If he didn’t make the projected minimum sales target he’d set for himself (one that was far more reasonable that initial wild projections, granted), then at the end of the first year he would be entitled to purchase our Intellectual Property for the miserly sum of £1.00.

Yes, that’s right.

Of course we confronted him, and he came over all hurt and defensive. Of course he would work hard, he said. He was motivated to make a success of the venture. And there was no intention at all for him to spend a year doing nothing at all and then take our IP…. He just had to do something to protect himself – he wasn’t prepared to put in the amount of time required for nothing.

I’m still not sure if he would make a better victim or villain. It was so inept an attempt that I can’t imagine he would actually succeed in defrauding anyone. But he certainly had every intention of doing so!

So, medicine, law, business – what is the best source of experience for writers? I don’t think there is any best. As Nora Ephron famaously said, “It’s all material.”

Ann

Glad to be out of the software business…


October 18, 2016

Andrew Marr on Sleuths  

It’s not often we get to see an hour of TV discussing genre fiction, so this is well worth watching – even if mostly to argue with the narrative and conclusion.

(For now at least, available on the iPlayer)

But really, did so much of it have to be devoted to the Golden Age and those well worn rules of detective fiction? Not to mention the locked room mystery… Even Agatha Christie didn’t set much store by the rules, after all – famously not playing fair with the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

There were some real gems in there however – mostly the segments where Marr talked to crime writers.

It was delightful to see Agatha Christie’s research folder – how I’d love to have a proper rummage around in that little lot! My own version is less tactile these days, mostly being clippings and scribblings saved to Evernote. But it did illustrate one of his stronger points in the first half of the programme – that the best detective fiction is rooted in reality – that the crime had to be convincing.

The brilliant Sophie Hannah, who has now written her own Poirot novel, shared an intriguing theory about Agatha Christie’s two dimensional characters. She suggested that they weren’t actually carboard cutouts at all – that what is mistaken for two dimensionality are the social masks which cover each character’s deep and dark hidden secrets, which lie at the heart of crime fiction. It’s an interesting idea – but is altogether too mechanical a device for my liking – although it fits very well with Marr’s thesis that the detective story is a machine…

Marr’s focus is very much on the whodunnit throughout – which is the least interesting branch of crime fiction for me – precisely because too often it is a puzzle, it is a machine, a formula.  In the crime fiction I enjoy the most, that puzzle is often there as an element of the story and I enjoy being outwitted by the novelist – but it usually isn’t in the foreground.

Marr reached the usual conclusion after his survey of the Golden Age – that detective fiction is comforting because it shows the established order being thrown into chaos and then the detective arrives and restores order.

We were briefly led down the mean streets of Chandler and Hammet – the main purpose of which seemed to be to explain the transition from the Golden Age to modern crime fiction where order is not so easily restored.

Sadly, he missed out one of my favourites – Dorothy Sayers – which would have illustrated the transition very well and shown that it didn’t just arise because of American fiction. The Peter Wimsey stories start off with all the trappings of the Golden age rules of detection, but they grow in complexity, especially after the introduction of Harriet Vane in Strong Poison.  Lord Peter – for all his aristocratic foppishness – does grapple with some of the difficulties inherent in detetcive fiction. He is tormented at times by the impact of the crimes he investigates on the victims, but also, at that time, the effect on the criminal. If he uncovers a murderer, he knows he will send him to the hangman. There’s plenty of psychological depth in Sayer’s novels.

And then there’s the quirkier Glady Mitchell, whose character Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley is a consulting psychologist to the Home Office. She must also be considered as one of the forerunners of modern crime fiction, exploring the murkier depths of the psyche.

But Marr skips to Ruth Rendell, who he rightly points out uses detective fiction to hold up a mirror to society.

But doesn’t all fiction do that?

Maybe I’m carping, but Marr then marshalls Mike Phillips and his creation, black journalist Sam Dean, and Val McDermid’s creation of Savile clone (apart from being handsome) Jacko Vance, and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to show how detective fiction has changed, and is no longer about a comforting restoral of the community to order.

I’m not altogether convinced that previous generations were quite so easily comforted, personally.

One of the most compelling parts is the interview with Val McDermid and how she talks about being inspired to write about the Savile story, and how she  disguised him as the attractive TV presenter Jacko Vance.

“I have spent most of my adult life in a state of rage,” she said, about her motivation to write.

That is something that Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus could understand. Marr suggests he is the ultimate flawed detective, who is all to aware that his job is never done, crime will never go away, and order can never be restored.

Even at this stage, Marr goes back to the “rule” theory of detective fiction – emphasising that the flawed detective is one of the many elements of the story machine.

He wraps up with a montage of scenes from what has been called the nordic noir TV series – The Killing, The Bridge and of course, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – these selections intended to prove that the “rules” are universal.

The only problem is, I don’t think they are universal – like most rules they are honoured in the breach as much as the observance. I would hardly describe Rendell’s Inspector Wexford as flawed, for instance. As already stated, Agatha Christie didn’t always play fair with the reader.  And those examples come from the programme’s cherry picked examples.

I did enjoy watching, but I felt the whole programme was unbalanced. The focus on the Golden Age deprived us of opportunities to think about more recent detective fiction.

It would have been interesting to discuss Ruth Rendell’s dark psychological crime novels and the Barbara Vine books as well as the Inspector Wexford series.

I would have liked to see Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels mentioned – and we could have had a glimpse of the late, great Warren Clarke in action as the brilliantly flawed Dalziel. What I love about the books, though, is how Hill developed as a novelist – from the earlier novels such as A Clubbable Woman, which are excellent stories, but without much depth, to the later ones such as The Wood Beyond, which deals with the issue of soldiers in the first world war who were executed for desertion. If I didn’t hate the phrase, I would say some of the later novels transcend the genre.

As as aside, one of my favourite Hill novels also features Dalziel and Pascoe, and rather delightfully subverts the run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and pokes fun at the trope of the idyllic village which turns out to have a depraved underbelly. It also has some amusing echoes of Jane Austen, indicated from the very first sentence – “It is a truth fairly universally acknowledged that all men are born equal, but the family Guillemard, pointing to the contra-evidence of their own absence from the Baronetage, have long been settled in Yorkshire without allowing such pholosophical quibbles to distress or vex them.” The twist at the end of the novel surely breaks all the rules of detective fiction.

It was great to be reminded of Mike Phillips novels (and the TV series) which used crime fiction to explore racial tension in Britain – but why no mention of the fantastic explosion of feminist crime fiction in the 1980s? It was after all, where Val McDermid started out, with her novels about journalist/sleuth Lindsay Gordon, published by The Women’s Press. PD James published the Cordelia Gray series, and Antonia Fraser created Jemima Shore – while in the US Sara Paretsky created a series of novels deeply concerned with issues of social justice featuring the private detective VI Warshawski.

Instead of a segment on the locked room mystery – why not a discussion of the brilliant Sophie Hannah’s own crime fiction. She was mentioned as someone who had written a Poirot novel, and interviewed about Christie. But her own crime novels are fascinating and structurally innovative – combining as they do two sub-genres of crime fiction. In each novel, one narrative strand is written from the first person point of  view of a character at the heart of the crime – and the other narrative strand is a more conventional third person detective story, following the police characters who are investigating the crime.

Finally, I would have included Tana French’s series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad, where each novel follows an investigation by a different detective. Again, these are not detective novels which follow the “rules” blindly – they are as much concerned with the psychological effect of the crimes on the characters, including the investigating detectives, and where all the loose ends aren’t tidied up at the end of the novel.

Clearly I’ve singled out some of my favourite novelists here – but I contend they are my favourites for very good reasons – not least because they break the rules.

Still, I did very much enjoy the programme, even if mostly by arguing with the thesis and quibbling about the focus on particular eras and writers. I daresay the ones I’ve picked out will not completely satisfy any other individual reader of crime fiction, either. Please add your own favourites in the comments here, or on my Facebook page.

Ann

PS How could I have forgotten David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet – and the TV adaptations? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why 😉