Mari Hannah on PD James

It’s Friday night, early February. The house is quiet. I’m sitting by the fireside having a drink when I should be in my office cracking on with my latest thriller. Instead, my eyes scan bookshelves looking for something to read. I hone in on an old copy of a PD James novel: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Well-thumbed, printed in 1986 by Sphere for the princely sum of two pounds fifty, it sits next a shiny new copy of the same title sent to me by her current publisher, Faber & Faber.

I’m excited because I have a secret. Months ago, I was invited to take the baton from David Mark as Reader-in-Residence at Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. No one knows – just the programming committee – and I’m busting to share the news.

I think about PD James, much loved by all who had the pleasure of meeting her or hearing her speak. My old copy of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is proof, if it were needed, that I was aware of her long before her inimitable character Commander Adam Dalgliesh hit our TV screens. Sadly, she died before I could tell her how much she’d influenced my writing.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is a classic crime novel introducing Cordelia Gray, a liberated detective, the forerunner for all female sleuths that came after. PD James was in her fifties when she wrote it. Faultless prose, coupled with a lead character very much ahead of her time, proved to be a winning combination. It gave the rest of us something to chase.

If I may be so bold, PD James and I had a lot in common. We began our writing careers late. Before we put pen to paper, crime was part of our lives – real rather than fictional – we were both Home Office employees. She was a civil servant in the crime department at the Home Office. I was a probation officer. We both chose to write about female detectives proving their worth in difficult circumstances, striving to change attitudes and make their way in the world. I feel close to PD James, even though we were never formally introduced.

In 2010, I was in the audience at Hexham Book Festival when she was in conversation with Val McDermid. Aged 90, as switched on as writers half her age, PD James was billed as the doyenne of crime writing – and rightly so. It was a joy to watch these two amazing authors take to the stage. Fellow professionals yes, but also friends with a mutual admiration and respect for one another. They seemed almost oblivious to the audience as they chatted about their craft. It was a full house, of course, standing room only at the back.

PD James was such a generous writer, very kind to me when I approached her nervously in the signing queue afterwards – I hadn’t yet been published – words of wisdom and encouragement very much her trademark. A year or two later, I was present at an auction where she’d donated copies of The Private Patient to raise funds for Hexham Book Festival, together with the last three pages of the associated manuscript, complete with annotations. My bid was successful and I will always treasure it. Little did I know that I would one day promote one of her titles as part of the Big Read. I can’t wait.

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Reader-In-Residence David Mark on A Place of Execution

Festival Reader-in-Residence David Mark tells us how A Place of Execution  influenced his decision to write crime fiction.

It’s 10.18am. Saturday morning. My partner has just driven the kids to their drama school and the various teenage foundlings who loiter in my house are outside talking to the ponies. My coffee has gone cold on my desk and I’m resisting the urge to have a look at Twitter and see if anybody has posted any new pictures of baby elephants.

In a little while, I’ll rummage about in the kitchen and see if I can find a Wagon Wheel or a stray Cadbury’s Mini Roll. The prat from the Tax Office has just departed, satisfied that at some point, I will get around to transferring some money across, and I’m already looking forward to his return visit next week. I’m going to be at this desk for another few hours, writing the second half of the fifth McAvoy novel. I’m eager to know what happens next.David Mark

This is my life. I like it. Not all of it, you understand. That would be insufferable. But I’m a full time novelist with children and ponies and Wagon Wheels and a gullible taxman. I really don’t have very much to complain about. And a lot of my good fortune is thanks to one writer, and one particular novel.

The writer in question is Val McDermid. The novel is A Place of Execution. And it will be my privilege to talk about both during my tour of the North in my role as the festival’s Reader in Residence as part of this year’s Big Read.

I did the same thing last year with a series of discussions about Casino Royale. The discussions were good fun. I turned up in a variety of libraries and halls and talked about why I loved the suave, dapper and unashamedly caddish James Bond. Then I defended him to the hilt as the womenfolk of Yorkshire and the North East accused Ian Fleming of being a chauvinistic thug, and his novel of being 50 shades of dull. I met a lot of interesting people. I was disagreed with in a whole host of regional accents. In a pub in South Shields I saw a 60-year-old woman pretend she was a panther on a pool table. I was an inadvertent part of the team that broke the world record for how many times a fire alarm can go off in a Travelodge before somebody commits murder. It was a hell of a week.

This year will be better. This year I’ll be talking about Val, and a book that may well be her masterpiece.

I read A Place of Execution about 12 years ago while still working as a journalist. My office was quite near the Hull branch of Waterstone’s and the staff there were very good about ignoring the fact that I spent a good three hours a day in there, reading novels in stages and leaning against the shelves.

I’d read a couple of Val’s Tony Hills books and enjoyed them. They were cleverly plotted, psychologically believable, and Hills was a terrific character. I picked up A Place of Execution simply because it had her name on it, and nearly put it down again when I realised it was that most indulgent and sigh-provoking of things – a standalone novel by an established series writer.

Still, I had no real enthusiasm for going back to the office and decided to give it a go. An hour later, I did something unthinkable. I bought it. Yes! A reader, buying an actual book in an actual bookshop. Those were the days.

To say I was hooked is an understatement. This novel grabbed me like a wrestler.

A Place of Execution opens in Winter, 1963. In a tiny hamlet in Derbyshire, a schoolgirl has gone missing. For the young George Bennett, a newly promoted inspector, it is the beginning of an enquiry that will haunt him for decades: a murder with no body, in a closed community that distrusts outsiders.

Decades later he finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when the book is poised for publication, Bennett unaccountably tries to pull the plug. He has new information which he refuses to divulge. Catherine is forced to re-investigate the past.

It is a sprawling, twisting, atmospheric tale with all the best elements of Greek tragedy and contemporary crime. The early scenes are so well drawn that when a character shivers, the reader shivers too. Pain is described but not revelled in. Heroes are flawed and villains human.

It is one of the novels that persuaded me to use my journalistic experiences to start writing authentic, believable crime fiction and propelled me into the career I have today. It hinted at the true crimes of Brady and Hindley and suffused a fictional tale with elementsw of realism. It showed me just what a crime novel could be. You can imagine my delight a few years ago when Val picked me for the New Blood panel at Harrogate and called me ‘exceptional’ on the front of my debut novel. I still haven’t quite got over that.

A Place of Execution is, in essence, one of the best crime books around and I can’t wait to talk about it.

Come along to one of the events. There will be insights, laughs, passionate discussions and shared opinions. I will digress, lose my thread, follow odd flights of fancy and lose my voice by around Wednesday. There may even be biscuits. Don’t miss it.

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Discuss the Big Read 2014

This year’s Big Read is Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution.

A Greek tragedy in modern England, A Place of Execution is a taut psychological suspense thriller that uniquely explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multi-layered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know. A monstrous tale of deception, the technique of the telling is the greatest deception of all.

Join the Big Read and share your thoughts on A Place of Execution and Val McDermid.

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The name’s Mark. David Mark

2013 Festival Reader-in-Residence David Marks tells us how James Bond long been an influence in his life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“The name’s Mark. David Mark.”

“David Mark what?”

“No, listen. The surname is Mark. The first name is David.”

“So why did you say your surname first? I mean, that’s just weird. Anyway, I know your name. We’ve been friends since nursery. And that’s not a gun, it’s a stick …”

“Do you know how many different way I could kill you? Now, come at me again. And this time, take your callipers off …”

The above conversation is a pretty much verbatim transcript of a conversation I had on a fairly regular basis in the playground of Newlaithes Junior School in Carlisle in 1986. My friends just didn’t know their roles. Stuart Wood may have had a club-foot and an eye-patch but there was no good reason he couldn’t be one of SPECTRE’S top agents. He just had to stop crying and die properly. And as for my Miss Moneypenny. This was one eight-year-old who just didn’t appreciate the importance of innuendo.

There was nothing wrong with my schoolmates’ heroes, of course. Ian Rush, Michael Jackson and Peter Duncan had a lot going for them. But I was a dyed-in-the-wool James Bond man. In my mind I was a sophisticated, dangerous and emotionally-closed-down man of mystery. I could kill an enemy in 57 different ways using only a paperclip. I could get a woman to make purring noises just by using a couple of puns and kicking a bad guy in the knackers. I was James Bond. And it was a real pain when Mam called me in for dinner.

I should point out that in the mid-eighties I was also Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlow, Horatio Hornblower and Jane Marple, but Bond was the one that Dad felt most comfortable with me channelling.

I got into Bond through the films. Everybody does, don’t they? But I started reading the books when I was about nine. The films had been good. The books better. In the movies, Bond doesn’t have a lot going on behind the eyes. He’s a little on the one-dimensional side. The books are different. He’s a rounded character. He has faults. He has some questionable ethics. He has an attitude towards women that makes cavemen and Jim Davidson seem positively liberated. He’s even a little vulnerable at time. He’s not entirely easy to like. He doesn’t sound anything like Sean Connery. But my goodness, he’s somebody that all men would like to be for a day or so.

I’m in my mid-thirties now. I’m roughly the age Bond was when Ian Fleming first brought him to the masses. I don’t think we have much in common in terms of our physical abilities. I’m not really the sort of chap who could parachute through a window, kill a dozen henchmen and switch off a nuclear bomb. My glasses would fall off. Neutralising the bomb? The last impressive technical thing I did in was spell out “Boobs” on a calculator. But I’m a bloody marvel when it comes to puns and witty rejoinders. I’m not at all averse to a vodka martini. I always check the exits when I enter a room and I know, in my heart of hearts, that if I press it often enough, my Biro will fire a dart into the necks of my attackers.

Bond has been a part of my life for three decades. I’ve read all the books so many times that I’ve kind of spoiled the films for myself. I know so much Bond trivia that my local pub has stopped putting questions about him into the quiz. I’m not saying I’m obsessive, but when I smoked, I called my lighter Felix …

When I was asked to be Reader in Residence for this year’s festival and take the lead on some get-togethers about Casino Royale, I was given the opportunity to demonstrate just how cool, centred and unflappable my devotion to Bond had made me. Which is why I did a small Irish jig and became inarticulate for 20 minutes.

Come along to one of the Big Read events. I may not leave you shaken or stirred. But there will be puns. And behave, or I’ll unleash the paperclip.

David Mark will be leading the 2013 Big Read events. Don’t miss this chance to test his knowledge of Bond trivia and learn more about 007.

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Discuss the Big Read 2013

‘Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles’

In Casino Royale, the first of Fleming’s 007 adventures, a game of cards is James Bond’s only chance to bring down the desperate SMERSH agent Le Chiffre. But Bond soon discovers that there is far more at stake than money.

From Guns and Girls to Cocktails and Cards we all think we know James Bond, but whether you are a diehard fan or have never even seen one of the films, join us to read and discuss Casino Royale, the novel that introduced one of crime fictions most influential and enduring characters.

Join the Big read and share your thoughts on Casino Royale, James Bond and Ian Fleming here.

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Discuss The Big Read 2012

They moved everyone that long hot summer fifteen years ago. They needed a new reservoir and an old community seemed a cheap price to pay. They even dug up the dead and moved them too. But four inhabitants of the valley they couldn’t move, for nobody knew where they were. Three little girls had gone missing, and the prime suspect in their disappearance, Benny Lightfoot This was Andy Dalziel’s worst case and now fifteen years on he looks set to relive it. It’s another long hot summer. A child goes missing in the next valley, and old fears arise as someone sprays the deadly message on the wall of Danby: BENNY’S BACK! Music and myth mingle as the Mid-Yorkshire team delve into their pasts and into their own reserves of experience and endurance in search of answers which threaten to bring more pain than they resolve.

‘Hill is an instinctive and complete novelist who is blessed with a spontaneous storytelling gift’ – Frances Fyfield, Mail on Sunday

In On Beulah Height, Hill uses riveting psychological detail to create a chilling tale about the powerful need to be loved, its blind desires and hopes, its illusions and truths…and its deadly consequences. The Yorkshire detective team of Dalziel and Pascoe are on the case, with Hill presenting a flawless blend of mystery, ghost story and psychological thriller.

Intrigued? Join in the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival’s Big Read and discover this compelling detective tale for yourself!

Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.

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Discuss The Big Read 2011

The Big Read 2011 presents to you the unsettling world of Mr Ripley. The Talented Mr Ripley, by American crime writer Patricia Highsmith, was first published in 1955.

And so the tale begins…

Tom Ripley wants out. He is struggling to stay one step ahead of his creditors and the law, when an unexpected acquaintance offers him a free trip to Europe and a chance to start over. Ripley wants money, success and the good life…and he’s willing to kill for it. When his new-found happiness is threatened, his response is as swift as it is shocking.

Here’s what others have said about the book…

‘Ripley, amoral, hedonistic and charming, is a genuinely original creation’
Daily Telegraph

‘As haunting and harrowing a study of a schizophrenic murderer as paper will bear. A glittering addition to the meagre ranks of people who make books that you really can’t put down’ – Sunday Times

‘Precisely plotted, stylishly written and kept alert by an icy wit. Streets ahead of the conventional thriller: a cool little classic of its kind’ – Evening Standard

Follow the trail of Mr Ripley

Murderous Mr Ripley is first introduced in The Talented Mr Ripley. The powerfully attractive character returns in the gripping novels Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water. The final novel Ripley Under Water was published in 1991. These five novels are known collectively as the Ripliad.

After more than 55 years, The Talented Mr Ripley is still being read across the world. But what do YOU think of the book? Does it deserve its iconic status? What is it about the book that makes it so eerie yet at the same time fascinating? Do we see Ripley suffer from any remorse, or does he slip down the bloody trail with a worrying sense of ease? Are those around Ripley’s crimes affected by them, or is the world Ripley inhabits strangely immune from guilt? How does the novel question individual power and choice?

Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

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CrimeSquad’s Chris Simmons on Patricia Highsmith

Chris Simmons

I have always had a love/hate/love relationship with Patricia Highsmith. I have all her novels and have read her since the early nineties. Sometimes I think her work is so sublime that it is almost breathtaking. Then I read another and at the end throw it across the room in frustration. But then I read it again later and it is then I can see the reason why Highsmith took this particular path and it is only then I realise that to cause such rage and frustration in me was exactly what Highsmith was aiming for. Trust me, Highsmith is a writer you never let your guard down when immersed in her books.

Patricia Highsmith was born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas in January 1921 to the artist Jay B. Plangman and Mary Coates. Her parents were divorced shortly before she was born. She was adopted by her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith who her mother had married in 1924. When she was twelve Pat as she was known was taken back to Texas from New York to live with her grandmother for a year. She called this ‘the saddest year of my life’ as she felt abandoned by her mother. Her relationship with her mother always caused Pat consternation as chronicled in her brilliant biography, ‘Beautiful Shadow’ by Andrew Wilson that her mother once said to Highsmith that ‘she was surprised Pat like the smell of turpentine as she had drunk it  when she had been pregnant with Highsmith to get rid of her’. Highsmith’s love/hate relationship with her mother was to plague her all her life.

Patricia Highsmith

When Highsmith graduated from Barnard College, she wrote for comic book publishers until she started writing freelance. Highsmith’s first novel, ‘Strangers on a Train’ was published in 1950, but it wasn’t until Hitchcock’s amazing film of the novel was playing in cinemas across the globe that Highsmith’s status as a novelist was cemented. The scene with the carousel is astounding and breathtaking, especially from a film made in the Golden Age of cinema. If you believe you are a true crime fan and haven’t seen this movie… then you can’t be a true crime fan! So go watch it now!!

Highsmith’s second novel, ‘Carol’ was not crime based, but a lesbian love story that was based on a woman Patricia had met in New York. Some of her books were to have an underlying ‘homosexual’ theme especially in ‘Carol’, ‘Small g: A Summer Idyll’ and ‘The Tremor of Forgery’ amongst others. Even in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ her main protagonist, Tom Ripley’s sexuality is ambiguous as he does whatever it takes to get exactly where he wants.

The beginning of the first Ripley novel introduces our hero/villain to Mr. Greenleaf, Dickie’s father. By over playing a very slight acquaintance Ripley takes a chance of escaping his creditors by being send by Greenleaf to keep an eye on Dickie and bring him home to the family nest. And so starts Ripley’s insidious path to gaining wealth at the expense of others. When first published Highsmith’s character caused a great deal of argument: was he a hero or a villain? People in the fifties preferred their protagonists to be clean cut – not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. With Highsmith she has always been perfect at blurring the edges between good and evil/sanity and madness. This she does to perfection with her greatest creation: Tom Ripley.

Ripley was to return in four more novels giving us what is today known as the ‘Ripliad’: five novels involving Tom Ripley and his schemes to make money. And murder really was detestable to him – and only necessary under extreme circumstances. None of Highsmith’s novels are huge tomes – she was one of those brilliant novelists who could say volumes in a mere sentence, such was her skill. She was a mistress of the short story and again could convey menace in a few pages. Her collection ‘Eleven’ is proof of that.

I think it is commendable and exciting that Martyn Waites and the Harrogate Crime Festival have chosen this Patricia Highsmith novel as the ‘Big Read 2011’. I was worried this author would fade in to obscurity, but with this renewed interest in Highsmith I can only hope that more people will continue to read this amazing author’s work and find out what Tom does after the end of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ plus read her other work. But I warn you – be prepared to wade through the waters of madness that could only come from the pen of the wonderfully warped imagination of Patricia Highsmith!

Chris Simmons is the online editor of CrimeSquad

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Discuss The Big Read 2010

Murder On The Orient Express has exotic locations, an international cast of characters, a bloody murder and Christie’s most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, putting his ‘little grey cells’ to the test.

It was published in 1934 and has become one of the Queen of Crime’s best known works thanks to the romance of its luxurious setting and the originality of its solution.

The novel was adapted for film by Sidney Lumet in 1974, starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar for her performance as Greta Ohlsson).

ITV are due to air their adaptation with David Suchet in 2010, one of the last Poirot stories the actor has yet to commit to film.

After more than 75 years, the novel is still being read across the world. But what do YOU think of the book? Does it deserve it’s iconic status? Are you still seduced by the atmosphere of 1930s deco decadence? Or has Christie’s work dated too much to have any relevance to modern readers? Does the plot still intrigue or is it too convoluted to be convincing? Are you in awe of Hercule’s powers of deduction or do you find the egg-shaped sleuth endlessly tiresome?

It’s over to you! Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

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