When it becomes personal

© C A Lovegrove

Too Good to be True
by Ann Cleeves.
Pan Books, 2016.

“Do you think Anna Blackwell committed suicide?”

Maggie answered straightaway. “Not in a thousand years. She adored her daughter. There was no way she would have killed herself and left Lucy without a mother.”

Chapter 7, ‘The School’

Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is urgently invited down to the Scottish Borders village of Stonebridge by his ex-wife Sarah, who wants to get to the bottom of the circumstances surrounding a young teacher’s death. Was the prescription drug overdose fatally administered by Anna herself, unable to cope with gossip about her supposed relationship with Sarah’s second husband, or by persons unknown? The local police think there are no suspicious circumstances but what could Jimmy discover with a bit of judicious sleuthing over a couple of days?

Taking care not to step on the toes of a colleague in the local police force, Jimmy begins a methodical but quiet investigation, witnessing the rumours, half-truths and intrigues common to small communities. A number of suspects suggest themselves to him, but it isn’t until an attempt is made on his life that he gets a real inkling of what really happened on the night Anna died.

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Intrepidity personified

Detail from front cover design

The Black Island by Hergé (Georges Remi).
L’île noire (1956) translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner (1966). 
Egmont 2009

Young reporter Tintin doesn’t find trouble, trouble finds him. Like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot he just happens to be on hand when dastardly deeds are being committed; yet despite setback after setback he remains intrepidity personified.

This is no more evident than when his efforts to help those in a stricken aircraft during a casual stroll in the Belgian countryside are viciously rebuffed, leading in time to an impromptu cross-channel trip to Sussex followed by a flight to Scotland.

And all the while we are left to wonder how a teenage newspaper reporter somehow always seems to be the subject of press reports but never the writer of them, and how the long arm of the law seems to always be grasping the wrong end of the stick.

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Little things are important

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Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)

… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14

Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.

But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.

And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.

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The banshee’s exile

Edvard Munch 1895 lithograph of The Scream
Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph of The Scream

Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.

Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.

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Hispaniola ahoy

Treasure Island map
Map of Treasure Island, as first published

R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)

There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.

Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?

Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.

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That’s the way to do it

Edinburgh sees the final weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2009 (Wikipedia image)
Edinburgh Fringe turn, 2009 (Wikipedia image)

Kate Atkinson One Good Turn
A Jolly Murder Mystery

Black Swan 2007 (2006)

Kate Atkinson’s novel reminds me of the customary list, the dramatis personae, that appeared in printed copies of plays from the Elizabethan period onward announcing the characters one would expect to strut their stuff on the stage.

SO-AND-SO, King of Such-and-Such
THINGUMAJIG, heir to the throne of Such-and-Such
A gravedigger
FLIBBERTIGIBBET, Queen of Somewhere Else
A nurse
Attendants, courtiers, peasants etc.

For practical purposes — read-throughs, programme notes, students — that’s all very helpful, but from a dramatic point of view it makes little sense: an audience would want the characters, like the play’s narrative, to unfold before their very eyes, and a bald roster of who appears doesn’t normally tell you an awful lot.

So, what if I were to present the principal players in One Good Turn in a similar manner — would that be any different? Continue reading “That’s the way to do it”