|Tieananmen Square in the 80s|
|Tieananmen Square in the 80s|
MURDER, THEY WROTE –– THREE NOVELISTS WRITING ABOUT MURDER
When Graeme Macrea Burnet was interviewed on radio news, he was asked how he felt about being shortlisted for the 2016 Man-Booker with his crime novel.
“It’s not a crime novel,” he replied. “It’s a literary novel about crime.”
I have to confess, as a crime novelist, that did put my back up, a little bit. I don’t believe it’s for writers to announce they’ve created a literary novel…that’s for posterity to decide. In my view, ‘literature’ is something that lasts and grows as it ages…books like Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell's Animal Farm or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bibles which I blogged about here. But it got me thinking. His Bloody Project (Contraband 2015) cannot yet, in my view, be literature. So is it crime fiction?
The great P D James said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel. All human life is found in the killing of one human by another. So writing about murder surely is always crime fiction! I’m going to look at three recent books that I loved reading to find out if that’s true.
Belinda Bauer doesn’t seem to have any qualms about calling herself a writer of crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her work on my blog, and here she is again, with her 6th novel, The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press 2016). I loved her first book, Badlands, but I did feel the end was a bit weak, a bit unbelievable. This time, no worries about that! I loved the way Bauer took a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a pair of handcuffs, which the main protagonist, TV crime reporter Eve Singer, has become obsessed with as she’s tracked and taunted by a serial killer she’s featuring on her news items. I expected them to be used in some way to secure her life when it was eventually under intense threat, as I knew it would be! But when those handcuffs were put to use on pg 319 of the book, I stood from my seat and crowed in joy. What a twist! What a perfect ploy! A great, twisting surprise is essential in a crime novel. But Bauer also delivers elegant description, strong metaphor and deep investigation of the human condition. She examines what being a killer is – how close each of use could get to murder. A crime novel? Decidedly, but great, contemporary fiction, too.
Helen Dunmore is known for her lyrical poetry and her award-winning fiction, including the best-selling The Siege, which is set during the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad So I wasn’t surprised to find that in her most recent book she turned her hand to a cold war thriller, set in England in the early 1960’s. In Exposure Penguin, 2016) Although she uses three points of view…the hardened old double agent, the fresh, young candidate pushing a pen in the office of MI6, and his wife, mother of two young children, a typical stay-at-home mum, but a woman with a sharp mind. The shock of the killing towards the end of the book demonstrated for me that one of our most outstanding writers (Good Housekeeping review) can
‘do’ murder and do it well, focusing on the victims, both of the spying industry, and of the machinations of corrupt individuals. Is this literary fiction? Or a spy thriller? I can’t honestly see why it can’t be both.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project didn’t win the Booker in the end. But Burnet’s book is the one that I enjoyed the most from the shortlist. I enjoyed it so much, that I now have a little more sympathy with his comment about literary fiction.
His novel is centred around a vicious triple murder – a man, his teenaged daughter and his baby son – by an angry young boy who lived in the same crofting community in 19th Century northwest Scotland. Burnet uses several point-of-views to create the novel, starting with the gripping account by Roderick Macrea as he languishes in jail, waiting for his trial to begin. This account is the gruelling and bitter story of his short life as a crofter. Although he shows promise at school, he leaves early to start working with his widowed father, who is perhaps a bit lacking in the smarts department, unlike his son. Life is backbreaking, crushing. And the powers who own the land turn a cold, heartless face away from the punishing routine that puts meagre food in the crofter’s mouths. Very soon, as the story is related, it becomes clear why Roddy kills. He is drawn to do so, from the moment he has to batter an injured sheep to a humane death. The second half of the book are accounts from the defence lawyer and the early 19th psychologist he has called in, and from newspaper articles about the trial.
I could not put this book down. Firstly, I needed to know why and how the murders happened. Lastly, I needed to know if his kindly lawyer managed to secure Roddy clemency from the gallows.
Is His Bloody Project a piece of crime fiction, Mr Burnet? I would say so. A piece beautifully written, and a deeply investigated book which looks into the nature of murder. It's also a book that may stay loved over generations and thence become ‘literature’, but at the moment, it’s crime fiction.
A romping good read, but also, like Bauer’s and Dunmore’s latest fictions, it’s about murder. They’ve all written about the deadliest of crimes, and I cannot see what is wrong with admitting that they’ve ended up with great stories that are crime fiction.
The £30,000 Bailey Women’s Prize for fiction often has a far more readable list of nominations than either the Costa or the Man-Booker – celebrating, as it does, "excellence, originality and accessibility".
Here are the books on the longlist…not too long, either for the avid reader to gobble up…
In KTW order of merit:
(drum roll please:)
Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces, Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Andrea Levy’s Small Island.
I loved How to Be Both by Ali Smith. It’s almost two stories, intertwined, with more than 500 years separating the characters - one a Renaissance painter, secretly female, the other a modern teenager living in the UK and desperately in need of some love. Smith suggests you can read them in either order, but I would strongly suggest you start with 'camera' not 'eye' as you're far less likely to give up! "As always, Smith is being playful and inventive 's work. How to be both, almost eludes description, which I’m sure was the very effect Smith was aiming at. It’s well worth the slight struggle although not my favourite; The Accidental will remain that.
Sarah Waters, in The Paying Guests, combines many thematic ingredients class, gender, economic dependence, morality, suspense, and of course lesbian romance. This story is perhaps less well plotted than her others; she so well known for her amazing twists that I felt quite let down when I finally realized there wasn’t really going to be one. Even so, powerfully written.
Anne Tyler is a perennial favourite of mine, right since I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/03/14/books/funny-wis-and-true.html. So far my favourite is probably Patchwork Planet, so I can’t wait to get started on A Spool of Blue Thread, her twentieth novel to see if it can top my personal poll.
Also on the list is Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing . This is what my agent calls a ‘high concept novel’. In other words it defies the traditions and orthodoxes of crime fiction but is, none-the-less, a complete page turner, which, like everyone else, I couldn’t put down.
This year's judges include the prize's first winner Helen Dumore, Channel 4 News's Cathy Newman, columnist and broadcaster Grace Dent and Laura Bates, who founded The Everyday Sexism Project. Chair, Shami Chakrabarti, said this year was "particularly strong" for women's fiction. The judges must now whittle these 20 books down to a shortlist of six, before choosing an overall winner to be announced on 3rd June 2015. http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/2015/baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-announce-2015-longlist-3 I wish them a clear head as they deliberate between these fine pieces of fiction.
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”http://www.picador.com/authors/jessie-burton
When I read an aphorism like that, I know I've found a strong heroine who isn't going to disappoint by going all fluffy in the presence of testosterone-ridden muscles and sharp, male jawlines.
The Miniaturist is set in Amsterdam, at the end of the 17th Century. I was rather expecting Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracey Chevalier, HarperCollins,1999) all over again, which, for me, was a beautifully written romance, but a romance, none the less. The endorsements to this debut novel, which are plastered all over the cover, should have told me otherwise. “Full of surprises” says SJ Watson. “Fabulously gripping” says the Observer.
I was hoping for exquisite detail…miniaturist detail, in fact, and that I got, but I also found I was reading an absolute page-turner. I turned the pages of this book all the way from Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, to Barnsley, in Yorkshire, on some very slow, long-and-winding, cross-country trains. I hardly noticed the dark, satanic mills, the still snow-capped Pennines or the little towns that moved past my carriage window, because I was in Holland, where silk rustled and sumptuous feasts were consumed as deals were done for the slave sugar of the West Indies…and Nella, eighteen, innocent but savvy, hopes that married life will be the tulip bed she dreamed of as a child. Romance of any kind fails to blossom, and she soon discovers that Jonhannes, the wealthy merchant she’s married, has secrets which will lead them into escalating danger. In fact, the only the thing that her husband gives her in their marriage is a cabinet house; a doll-house sized, but vastly expensive, replica of their home in Amsterdam. An elusive miniaturist creates tiny items to fill the house, each of which eerily predict the shocks Nella begins to experience.
Despite the fact that The Miniaturist soon became an international best seller, I've taken my time about reading it because my first encounter was last summer’s Guardian review – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/29/the-miniaturist-jessie-burton-review
Rachel Cook was not particularly nice to Jessie Burton's first book, and I have to admit, she put me off. But the word-in-the-library was of a wicked page-turner, so in the end I threw reviews to the wind and read it. The Miniaturist has flaws, that's undeniable. I understand exactly why Cooke says, “somehow it fails to convince. Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. We are expected to take so much on trust…Emotionally, they move from A to Z in the blink of an eye, and nothing in between.”
photo of Jessie Burton by Katherine Rose
In writers’ terms, this single problem is the result of a little bundle of plotting issues, which beset us all, and which take time and effort to overcome; implausibility. Like Rachel Cooke, there were times I felt like echoing Victor Meldrew, from One Foot in the Grave, crying; I don’t believe it!
I’m not going to tell you which bits of this book I couldn’t believe. It’s a cracking read, with a vivid period setting, distinctive, even striking characters and a story so seductive and outrageous, it drags you in by the collar of your coat. But, having read the book yourself, you might, as a writer, want to ask yourself what you can learn from its problems. Are there sections of your own stories that are implausible? And if so, what can you do to alter that, so that your eventual readers don’t turn into grouchy Victor Meldrews who long to throw your novel across train carriages?
Naturally you want the reader to feel fully committed to what’s happening on the page. But some confusion arises between being convincing and suspending disbelief, which is what happens when readers are so caught up with the fiction, that they are prepared to go along with what the narrator is telling them, even when it patently could not happen ‘in real life’. New writers mistakenly believe that they can be as implausible as they please, and readers will suspend disbelief when reading their work. Completing a fictional tale isn’t a magic key to the good will of the reader. They will suspend disbelief for you, but you have to work hard to gain their trust beforehand. I recommend five strategies for this problem;