NaNoWriMo and Call the Midwife

These two things aren’t related at all, but I thought I’d better mention them both before I go silent for a while.

This year I’m attempting NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time.  Madness!  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s an annual international movement that sees a whole bunch of people try to write their own novel (or at least 50,000 words of one) during the month of November.  Here’s a link if you’re curious.

As I’m usually rather a slow writer (sigh) this is a real challenge for me and I haven’t been able to stay on top of my blog entries.

However, I did want to suggest that you check out Call the Midwife.  The last episode of the first season aired on PBS on November 4th but all the episodes are available online until around December 4th.  The show is about the tragedies and triumphs of a group of midwives working in East London in the 1950s.  It’s really well done – acting, production values, the lot.  It might tide you over as you wait for January 6th and the season three premiere of Downton Abbey.

Fans will be happy to know that the BBC has commissioned a second series that will air in the UK in mid-2013.  There is also going to be a Christmas special this year — although it will likely take a while to make it over here.

Happy viewing and wish me luck.  I’m going back under!

New Sources for Reissued Classics and Translated French Crime Novels

I’ve been known to spend hours searching online for some hard to find edition of an out-of-print crime novel – wading through descriptors like fine, edgeworn, foxed, price clipped, etc. in search of that single bright, tight copy.  Not everyone has the time, patience, or desire for such obsessive activities.  Fortunately, there are an increasing number of places to track down these novels in eBook form.

Here are two such sources that I’ve recently come across:

1) The Murder Room – This site, launched by the Orion Publishing Group, is dedicated to making classic, hard to find, or out-of-print crime novels available in eBook form.  The site is fairly new but already has some 100 or so books available.  The Murder Room also has interesting articles, news, competitions, etc. that should appeal to crime fiction fans.

2)  Le French Book – This is a new eBook publisher that will focus on making French novels (especially crime novels) available in translation.  Many people, myself included, are familiar with only a few French crime authors, Fred Vargas chief among them.  Le French Book wants to change that.

I’m particularly interested in Treachery in Bordeaux, the first in The Winemaker Detective Series.   There are apparently already 20 books published in the series in France!  There’s also a tv adaptation that looks quite promising.  Let’s hope someone picks it up for subtitle presentation.

Does anyone know of any other sources for out-of-print or hard to find crime novels?

Reissued Classics – James Anderson’s Inspector Wilkins Series

Anyone who enjoys golden age mysteries or who appreciates stories told with Wodehousian flair (or both!) should give James Anderson’s three Inspector Wilkins mysteries a try.  The first novel in the series wasn’t published until 1975 but it’s a classic 1930’s style mystery chock-full of all the great golden age devices including the country manor house, locked rooms, secret heirs, imposters, elaborate resolutions and full cast drawing room reveals.  The titles of the novels themselves give a fair taste of what’s in store: The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, and The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks.  Fantastic!

Anderson pokes gentle fun at the genre without ever becoming snide or condescending – more cheeky homage than biting satire.

Various UK references categorize the novels as the Burford or Burford Family Mysteries – which in fact is more accurate as Inspector Wilkins is rarely the point of view character and is often not even present.  He is endearing however, and a great foil for the somewhat dim but well intentioned Earl of Burford, his headstrong daughter and all of the other colorful characters that turn up for these three disastrous house parties.

The Inspector does not like these upper class murders at all – they’re so complicated!  As he says to the Earl, who wants to sing his praises to the Chief Constable after he resolves the Mutilated Mink case,

“Oh, no, my lord, please don’t do that.  The more commendations of that sort I get, the more cases of this sort I’ll be assigned to.  And I really don’t like them.  I’d much sooner be handling nice simple burglaries and car thefts.”

If you’re in the mood for an enjoyable golden age escape crafted by a light, intelligent hand then give Inspector Wilkins and the Burfords a chance.

Check out the Allison & Busby site for plot descriptions for each book and to see their attractive art deco-esque paperback editions.

Memorable Supporting Characters – Erica Burgoyne in Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles

I am, of course, an admirer of many of the great British fictional detectives: Morse, Dalziel and Pascoe, Inspector Alan Banks, Miss Marple and Poirot, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, Miss Silver… But much has been said about these characters (I reserve the right to say more myself!) and I’d like to spend a bit of time on some of the secondary or even momentary characters that I really enjoy.

In Josephine Tey’s golden age mystery A Shilling for Candles the character of Erica Burgoyne appears on only about 40 of the novel’s 238-odd pages.  Despite her limited time on camera it’s Erica that always comes to mind when I think of this book.

It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy the story as a whole, I did, or that I don’t like Tey’s main character Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, I do, it’s just that sometimes a secondary character grabs you from the moment they arrive on the page and suddenly you find that you’re reading for that character — waiting impatiently for them to show up again despite the fact that there may be absolutely no plot consistent reason for their presence!

Erica is the seventeen year old daughter of the Chief Constable in the county where Inspector Grant is on a case.  She enters the story over 40 pages in:

“The door breezed open, after the sketchiest of knocks, and in the middle of the floor stood a small, skinny child of sixteen in shabby tweeds, her dark head hatless and very untidy.”

She gets me right away – of course I do have a soft spot for tomboys and characters who don’t seem to care what other people think about them.

She gets peripherally involved with the case because she thinks that the handsome prime suspect couldn’t possibly have committed the murder.  Not, refreshingly, because she’s been won over by his good looks, but because she thinks (quite dispassionately) that he’s too much of a wimp!

The three short chapters in the middle of the book where she conducts her own small investigation is my favourite part of the novel.

I’ll admit that Tey’s mysteries, including this one, are not ones that I can totally immerse myself in.  The world only fades away in sections (like the ones featuring Erica) and there are the inevitable class, race and gender ideas that snag for me – these books aren’t contemporary novels set in the 1930s – 1950s, they were actually written and published during that time.  Nevertheless, I think that all of her novels are very well worth a look for anyone who likes their mysteries of the British and/or less bloody (at least on camera!) variety.  Or really for anyone who likes good writing and great characterization.  Josephine Tey isn’t considered one of the great golden age crime novelists for nothing and Erica isn’t the only character who is so wonderfully and skillfully realized.

If you’d like to know more about Josephine Tey (real name Elizabeth MacKintosh and also a noted playwright), or if you already know her work and enjoy it, you might want to check out Nicola Upson who has created a mystery series where the main character is Josephine Tey.

I wish someone would make Erica the main character of a mystery series — if she’s that clever at seventeen she should make a very fine grown-up sleuth!

Closing note: I haven’t seen it, but apparently A Shilling for Candles was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937).  The movie is apparently quite different and focuses almost entirely on the prime suspect (the handsome young man) and Erica Burgoyne!  Perhaps the scriptwriters were as taken with her as I was.

Closing Note 2: Okay, I’ve just watch the film.  What can I say?  I like Hitchcock but in terms of a comparison to the novel… It is very different; far more romance and comedy than mystery.  I definitely prefer the Erica of the novel.

Has anyone else seen it?  How do you think it compares to the book?

The Snick – not the Snark

The Snick is a term coined, as far as I know, by wonderful YA author Laini Taylor to refer to that moment of certainty, that feeling you get when you hit on the just-right plot idea, image, line of dialogue, etc. that is true and right for your story.

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