Oyez oyez

I marked my 5th blogiversary and promptly disappeared from the blogosphere. Ongoing family stuff, you know how it is… So this is a have-to-write-one-now-or-may-never-make-it-back post. It’s a miscellany of announcements. Are four items enough for a miscellany? A mini-miscellany, perhaps.

First, my enterprising German translator Michaela Pschierer-Barnfather persuaded me to record an extract from The Infinity Pool – me in English, she in German from Der Infinity-Pool. This is for the YouTube channel TranslatorsAloud –  also on Twitter @LoudTranslators. It’s a great site showcasing literary translators and my debut novel is privileged to provide their first item of translation out of English! Literary translators (indeed all translators) are an overlooked and undervalued breed. In the days of foreign travel I often used to marvel at the number of bookshops and the size of their translated stock, the evident enthusiasm of overseas readers for the words of other cultures and languages. Meanwhile we in Brexit Britain point our stubborn, leaky boat vaguely towards Australian harbours that probably don’t want us. I invite you to be the judges of my recording as I can’t bear to watch more than a few sentences of myself. Michaela’s came out really well and I do wish this hard working, professional translator and everyone else on this fascinating site good sales and many enjoyable projects to follow. Here we are in all our glory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDq9QFu2NrQ&t=4s

Michaela

Second, I promised fellow author and blogger Gail Aldwin I would publicise her blog on mine. Gail has many gifts – writing, teaching, warm encouragement of fellow human beings – but also one problem. For some reason Facebook will not let her post items from her blog, which is just rotten for an author. Anyway, back in March Gail approached me for a review of her book This Much Huxley Knows. I snapped that I don’t take review requests. She apologised for asking and offered to review The Magic Carpet instead and to interview me on her blog. I took her up on both offers, and the review was great. How generous is that? I said – in some shame – I would reblog my guest post from her blog. Then WordPress wouldn’t let me. The social media gods really do have it in for this blameless person. So she suggested I copy and paste it. But I think it’s better read in its original home on Gail’s blog because then you can also explore her books and the writer services she offers. Thank you again, Gail, for the opportunity, and I wish you good luck with your books and better luck with social media.

Item three. Many indies dream of getting a “proper” publisher, but fate can still intervene against mainstream publishers and authors. You may have read a rave review I wrote of Kevin Sullivan’s first-in-a-new historic Glasgow crime series, The Figure in the Photograph, published by small but historic firm Allison and Busby. Sullivan writes a jolly good detective yarn with engaging characters, interesting themes and evocative settings. This series opener should have been launched at Glasgow Waterstones in Spring 2020. Does anything about that ring a plague warning bell? Waterstones had put up their Covid shutters and didn’t reopen for months. The stylish hardback edition was destined for a library market but libraries closed too. When the paperback and follow-up hardback, The Art of the Assassin appeared in early Spring 2021 the bookshops and libraries were still shut and launches and festivals were online promise only. Some new books have found a voice via social media but I’m sure these are not the only new books which have gone under the general radar. Anyway – three cheers for another grand yarn of Edwardian wrong doing in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Juan Cameron the Scottish/Spanish detective-photographer hurtles round gracious riverside houses, stations, theatres and slums as he mixes with Viennese professors, Cuban exiles and women who on the whole are brighter than he is. Do track this slightly bumbling sleuth down. We all need good reads this rotten May as hailstones replace lockdown to keep us still indoors.

Sacré bleu! The last laugh lies with my fourth item. Comedian Ian Moore ‘as also created a new detecteev, wiz apologeez to ze French. Death and Croissants will be published on 1st July and already comes recommended by Alan Carr, Josh Widdecombe, Sarah Millican, Adam Kay… If you can’t get to France this summer this may be the next best thing. It’s even been compared to Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club, although I’m too jealous to read him so I can’t comment. I wish Ian every success, and if you can’t wait there’s a free prequel available here, with a quiz thrown in. Amusez-vous bien!

It’s nice to be back, but for now au revoir.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Haunted by the Woman in White

I’ve just finished watching this cracker of a BBC adaptation – it’s not too late for catch up if you want to binge watch from the safety of the sofa.

WWhite1I first encountered Wilkie Collins when my family sat glued to a BBC adaptation of The Moonstone (another came in 2016). TV companies, desperate to repeat the success of The Forsyte Saga, had found a contender. They rolled him out again with The Woman in White  in 1982. I read my parents’ old Everyman edition, which I’m rereading now. At university, Collins figured in lectures on Dickens, Balzac and Henry James, but The Moonstone is now more usually regarded as the first full length crime novel. The Woman in White has no detective as such and even the BBC’s enquiring “scrivener” Emmanuel Nash doesn’t appear in the book, but it too involves solving crimes and elucidating mysteries.

Collins works well on TV, with its tried and tested pot boiler ingredients, as effective now as in the days of steam trains and port for gentlemen in the library. Candle lit interiors of red velvet and brocade film well, and The Woman in White has not one but two isolated stately homes – Limmeridge – bright, airy, a short walk from the sea, and Blackwater, closed in around a courtyard, with neglected ancient wings and a stagnant murky lake, “just the place for a murder” as Sir Percival Glyde asserts. The word “dastardly” was made for Glyde, although it must be said that his birth is the source of all his wrongdoing and 21st century readers may glimpse sympathy from Collins for a flaw that, nowadays, isn’t one.

Collins’ characters are rounded, with varying motives, vacillations, points when their  choices blur. As Walter Hartright, the artist turned amateur detective, says: “the best men are not consistent in good- why should the worst men be consistent in evil?” Walter is young, open hearted, romantic, generous – but also indecisive, naive and impulsive. The otherwise admirable Marion makes a crucial mistake in banishing him before Laura’s marriage. Foul Mrs Catherick, to a less moralising era, seems unpleasant rather than cruel, shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancy.  Housekeepers and valets are not just goodies or baddies, but confused, conflicted, put upon characters whose economic dependence gives them little space for manoeuvre, compassionately observed by Collins. Most servants are trustworthy, whereas aristocrats Count and Countess Fosco and Philip and Frederick Fairlie behave unforgivably and social values help them get away with it. Fosco was more elegant on screen than in the book, where his white mice, his “low, oily smile”, his age and obesity make him less appealing. The BBC emphasized the sexual frisson between him and active, intelligent Marion Halcombe which the acting was good enough to make convincing, but it’s less reciprocated by Marion in the book. Fosco’s admiration for Marion, and his expressed sympathy for his own wife, forced to “love, honour and obey” him while watching his infatuation, redeem him slightly.

 

Mothers in The Woman in White are either dead or betray their daughters – Hartright’s mother, though, is steadfast and sensible. He’s the poor but honest artist, in love with fey piano playing Laura Fairlie, whose doppelganger is a madwoman escaped from yet another isolated building, a “private asylum” (and is she really mad?). To complete the gothic picture there are inheritances, sinister marriages, debt, alcoholism, a powder that sends tea drinkers to sleep, a tumbledown boathouse, lodgings in a London slum, anonymous letters, a locked church in a near abandoned village, a graveyard, jewelled keepsakes…At Limmeridge dresses swish, and Hartright observes women’s bodies moving in freedom: “…her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.” But at Blackwater corsets are laced ever tighter, and I lost count of the rooms Laura, Anne, Marion, Fanny and possibly others were locked away in. In the end locks and keys turn against at least one gaoler though, because this is a novel of justice and reparation.

Collins, states my edition’s 1963 introduction, “was a radical feminist”. Possibly not quite one we’d recognise, since his female characters miss no opportunity to denigrate their own sex. Marion, is energetic, intelligent, graceful and ugly, and in her first speech of introduction she blames her own  stupid behaviour/attitudes/beliefs on being a woman at least six times, adding “no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.” However, the broader premise on which the book is based unambiguously protests against the lack of opportunities and legal status of women and wives in Collins’ day. All Laura’s assets will be signed over when she marries Sir Percival, the family solicitors objections waved aside, although it puts her husband in a position to benefit more from her death than her life. Her father chose the husband for her, and the BBC version gave Mrs Catherick lines similar to “To men like that, character and reputation mean more than anyone’s feelings or well being” although I couldn’t find them in the book. Collins highlights how women were subjected to coercion, violence and emotional abuse, how men fathered children and walked away, how easy it was to portray women as mad or unreliable, and how the a gentleman’s word carried more weight than someone of lower social standing. The legal position regarding the property of married women may have changed (although as late as the 1970s Carmen Callil remembers the header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.”) but, sadly, the other types of abuse are as familiar as they were when The Woman in White was published in 1859.

WWhite4
Marion (Jessie Buckley) and Laura (Olivia Vinall) in the BBC’s The Woman in White

Skimming the book again, I’ve the impression of a faithful adaptation, with some aspects emphasised as they couldn’t be in Collins’ time. His discussion of dreams, memory loss, post traumatic stress prefigured Freud by forty years and give the BBC cast some wonderful acting opportunities. The emphasis on dependency is there, and also the hints of lesbianism and erotica. Says Marian: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that is all my consolation – better mine than his.” Marian and Laura, who are half sisters through their mother, frequently share a bed. They touch, stroke and caress; their language about each other is romantic. The BBC even has Marion wearing wide legged trousers. In Anne Catherick’s case, there’s confusion between her mental health and learning difficulties, as in the book. There’s clear economic delineation. We know who is wealthy, who only appears so, who can aspire to be self sufficient, who is respectable and who is precariously surviving, down to the last sextons too debilitated to tend the graves in their charge. And here are public institutions: impoverished half derelict churches whose small congregations graffitti their doors, free village schools for urchins as opposed to foreign boarding schools for aristocrats. (Not a huge amount changed there, then either.)

 

Many characters and devices in The Woman in White were based on a real case, the Douhault conspiracy in France. Anyone interested in Victorians solving real life crime, and the influence this had on fiction, should read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. Another contemporary writer with a debt to Collins is Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart series – if you’re looking for a strong female lead with full Victorian trimmings, you can’t do better. Meanwhile, if this was your teenage children’s introduction to The Woman in White, do reassure them there’ll probably be another one along in a couple of decades. She’s one literary ghost who will never fade away.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

The Dark Mirror Murder, part 1

Dark mirror fianl

Setting: An imposing Georgian house in the West Country, white stucco fronted and full of curios and family history. The property welcomes many visitors, who come to see both the house and the shrubs – some poisonous – and herb gardens, tennis court, lawns, peach house and fountains. The site slopes down to a river that flows to the sea only a mile away. Half way down there’s an old gun emplacement site with crenellations. A picturesque village nestles in a cleft on the opposite bank of the river. It’s a pleasant sunny day in August, just right for reading in a deckchair – what could possibly go wrong?

Here are the main characters present on or around the site that day. 

Bob Robbit the ferryman. Lean, wrinkled, fit, knowing. With a relishing wink he describesFerry the  village produce: “Red plums, and very good they are too.” Likes a pint of Redemption in the Cherub. Motive? He knows all the smuggling secrets of this stretch of the river.

His son (“Young” Robbit). Rather middle aged to be an apprentice on the ferry run. What ties him to this dead end job? What dark secret keeps him in the area and why won’t his father let him use his phone? Motive: he wants to be the ferry owner himself.

Mrs Swingle, the housekeeper. She’s a fount of knowledge mixed with surmise, gossip and repetition. She’s devoted to the house and its history. She’s a kind and generous old retainer who loves to make jam from the produce of the gardens, which she often gives to people who appreciate her unselfish work to preserve the house. Motive: she thinks disrespectful visitors who try to edge away before she’s finished her anecdotes should be taught a lesson.

Clarice Bell, the piano tuner (or is she?) Strangely unable to play the Steinway in the drawing room. The discordant noises she makes distract anyone entering the room, and eventually drive them away. At Acs pianoMotive: she envies the fame and financial success of the person who once lived in this house and will stop at nothing to get it, including an attempted takeover of her persona.

Neil Stephens, who sits pretending to read Dostoevsky on his Kindle, but really he’s counting the people in and out of the boathouse on behalf of the Inland Revenue who think the house owners are dodging tax on their income from visitors. His location also means he’s guardian of the dank bath house below, whose slimy steps lead into the dim murk of high tide. (In Georgian times people thought it was a healthy way to take the waters.) Motive: he’s fed up with being interrupted in his reading in what would be an idyllic peaceful spot had the house not been opened to the public. If it gets a reputation for violence and mysterious disappearances maybe people will stop coming. He also needs to account for why one fewer person leaves the boathouse than entered it today.

Marcus Righter, a literary agent. His clients provide him with only a modest income and he’s seeking a bestselling crime novel that would pay for his retirement to the Cornish riviera. He’s trying to write it himself but needs to act out some scenarios before it will come to life for him. Well mannered, quiet, a dark horse. Is currently growing the first beard of his life and seems pleased by how quickly it is disguising his face. Seems to be acquainted with the piano tuner but now you see him, now you don’t.

Motive: he needs money fast! 

Gary Leadthighs, lead singer of rock band “The Red Plums”, a Mick Jagger lookalike gone to seed, who practises and performs at the highest amplification possible to combat his worsening tinnitus. He lives this side of the river in the old gate lodge, but spends most of his time in the village opposite. Motive: fed up with having to turn his music down for old fogies wishing to enjoy the quiet of the river.

The ghost – an airman artist billeted in the house during WWII, who painted frescoes around the friezes of the drawing room showing scenes from the war and ending with a pin-up that Mrs Swingle thinks resembles Jane Russell for the troops to ogle. Motive: fed up with having his work described by the housekeeper as a contemporary Pirelli calendar. Worried the owners may paint over his work.

The furniture restorer – or is he? caning chair seatHe quotes 80p a hole for recaning chairs, but has no business card. This seems cheap – is he the right man for the job of restoring priceless antiques or is he just casing the joint? Motive: he ships stolen antiques abroad and thinks he may have been rumbled. 

Eva Dorada, a reclusive, beautiful but conflicted young girl – possibly an heiress? She has a phobia of having her photo taken and will not even keep a functional mirror in the house due to her fear of her own appearance. Motive: someone did take her photo and she needs to stop any possibility of it being published.

The visitors who have arrived by car without booking a space to park, and can’t get in. Motive: anger at wasted journey – they came all the way from Minnesota to see the home of their idol.

The story so far: Clarice Bell and Marcus Righter, who may or may not be romantically entwined, arrive on the first ferry as the house opens for the day, before the usual crowds have finished their huge hotel breakfasts. She avoids the entry fee by claiming she’s here to work on the Steinway. They stake out the joint, inside and out, and try the deckchairs. She reads the visitors’ book, he inspects the Mesopotamian artefacts, Mrs Swingle tells them about each room and dusts the piano for Clarice. They wander down past the gun emplacement, where they photograph two Japanese tourists at their request and note the the stand for a cannon, to the boat house, where they chat with Neil Stephens. Events unfold and…

…following the discovery of the body/bodies, the items below all show traces of DNA from the victim(s) and the perpetrator(s): the main entrance boot scraper; a ceramic lobster; an embroidered firescreen, and a collection of cigarette cases.

 

Detectives have elucidated that an important family heirloom has been removed from the victim’s possession but with the site sealed off, it must still be on the premises. Possible hiding places for incriminating evidence include the grandfather clock, an occasional table with hanging pocket, the lavatory, and a whatnot guarded by  Buddha.

However there are getaway possibilities. The ferry is still sailing despite the detective ordering it to stop. The steam train that runs to the coast is heard to whistle at its regular times. There are a very few cars on the estate, though they often get stuck in a bottleneck on the narrow track leading to the car park. And a fit hiker could march off across the steep forest terrain.

Steam train

 

And there we stop! Your comments will inform the conclusion of this story, to be posted next week. Can YOU guess the identity of the victim(s), the murderer(s), and/or the detective(s). What is the nature of the heirloom that has disappeared, and who can identify the real setting? Can you (and I) wait till next Friday to find out….

©Jessica Norrie 2016