The art of crime-writing: Murder Most Female at the Beaney

There was a series of horrendous murders in the Beaney last night. Not, thankfully, in real life, but in the minds and the words of crime writers Lisa Cutts and Julie Wassmer, in a wide-ranging and fascinating panel discussion entitled Murder Most Female. Women in crime fiction – both as characters and as authors – is a topic currently en vogue in the lead up to the Staunch Book Prize, launched back in January and for which the inaugural prize in November “will be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Created in response to what Cutts recognised last night as the progressive darkening in tone of the genre, the prize has caused some controversy in its desire to combat what it sees as ‘an overload of violence towards women in modern fiction.’

Pearls of wisdom: Julie Wassmer

Cutts and Wassmer write in contrasting styles; the former in the Police Procedurals genre, the latter in what has been called ‘Cosy Crime,’ a sub-genre which avoids graphic violent or sexual content; interestingly, last night both writers declared that they had not set out specifically to write in these styles, it was only after publication that they each found they had been labelled as such, in order to position their novels in the huge sea of fiction for the ease both of marketing departments and readers alike. Cutts, who also works as a full-time police detective, observed that “it is men who are more likely to meet a violent end,” and that the progressively darker tone of recent crime fiction will  appeal to some but not all readers. Wassmer replied by that perhaps this reflects readers exploring more gruesome aspects of society from the security of their own home: “they feel safe reading about horrendous crimes sat in bed with a cup of hot cocoa!”

Prize Cutts: Lisa Cutts

As for the labels under which each writer works, Wassmer revealed that she had to look up precisely what ‘Cosy Crime’ meant after seeing it applied to her books on Amazon, but in fact it challenges her to push her writing beyond the bounds such a label imposes. In contrast, Cutts is comfortable working within hers – for now, at least – as it is useful for marketing and helping readers, but not necessarily a priority for writers themselves.

Both women stressed the importance of research to their writing. Cutts attended an autopsy in order to inform part of one of her novels; she came away, she says, awed by the amount of work and commitment which goes in to them. “They’re not as clean and quick as they are on TV; they take hours!” she declared, whilst ruefully admitting to having worn the ‘wrong sort of shoes’ as she hadn’t anticipated standing for so long. For her Whitstable-based series featuring private detective-cum–restaurant-owner, Pearl Nolan, Wassmer spent last summer exploring locations including Reculver, Sheppey and Oare in order to widen the scope of her character’s travels. “Details are important,” Wassmer stated: “you don’t want a sackful of mail criticising a point in your book!” Although she balanced this by admitting that, for her, it is important to remember that, after all, it is the writer’s own world, one that they have created, and that on one level they can do what they like. Wassmer has had reviews where readers take issue with the geography of Whitstable as it appears in her books, with particular roads not leading to exactly the right road. Cutts says she often ends up shouting at television programmes; “No, no, no; you didn’t caution him!” before adding reflectively “it’s why I don’t really watch much crime drama on TV…”

Both writers also emphasised the hard graft required in writing, the need for self-discipline in order to see a work through to its conclusion. Cutts sits at the laptop each day, even when not enthused about the prospect. “Sometimes it feels like housework, and nobody wants to do housework!” Wassmer in turn referred to her experience writing for television’s Eastenders for twenty years, which has stood her in good stead in its relentless expectation that she would deliver to a regular deadline.

The work of both writers is unified by the idea of familiarity; “We both write what we know” Wassmer observed incisively, with her work projecting a strong love for the community of Whitstable, where she has lived for twenty years, and Cutts’ series starring Nina Foster informed by her work as a real-life detective, drawing on her experiences investigating murder and the protocols that are a part of the investigative process. Cutts made it clear, though, that her books do not simply draw on genuine cases, transplanting them into her work with the odd change of name and geographical details – “Not only would it be incredibly disrespectful,” she acknowledged, “it would also drag families through something horrendous that happened in their lives. And that’s what people perhaps don’t realise – the far-reaching effects on people and families that murder has.”

As the event drew to a close, what was clear was the passion, enthusiasm and the dedication both writers have for writing crime fiction, underpinned by the sheer hard graft of getting the words down on the page. There was a clear friendship between them – both live and work in the local area – which was extended to embrace a fascinated audience, and both were happy to chat afterwards about their work.

Crime writing aficionados can catch both women in action again at Murderous Medway, part of the Rochester Literary Festival, with panel discussions and writing workshops on the weekends of the 6th and 13th of October.

A hymn to a Whitstable Christmas: Murder on Sea by Julie Wassmer

There’s a hidden protagonist at the heart of Murder on Sea, the second book in the developing Whitstable-based series of crime novels by Julie Wassmer, whose identity becomes apparent as the book unfolds; and I’m not giving away anything to do with the novel’s tricksy plot when I reveal that it’s actually the weather. Set against the backdrop of a December-shrouded seaside town, the weather plays a crucial and distinctive role in giving the book its seasonal qualities, creating a suitably wintry atmosphere against which the action unfolds. There’s a wonderfully magical touch right at the very end of the book, too, which reveals the story’s true romantic heart – well, it’s Christmas (in the book), isn’t it ?!

As usual, the novel is deeply rooted in its depiction of Whitstable itself, the book really a hymn to the town’s distinctive qualities; windswept beaches, boutique shops, a decorous high street, and wonderfully-titled alleyways. Forays into Canterbury are equally grounded in the real geography of the city, littered with streets and places which will be familiar to local readers (there’s quite a pleasurable feeling to be able to recognise places you know well in books, somehow…).

The best touch in the novel, which become apparent towards the end, concerns a greater level of meaning behind a series of bitter postcards which have been sent to various residents in Whitstable; suddenly, the antagonistic missives assume a greater significance, and the atmosphere ratchets up a notch; the reader finds themselves suddenly thrust into the world akin to David Fincher’s Se7en (for those who know the film), although without the same gruesome episodes. But this gathering-together of the mysterious postcards and elevating them to such heightened overtones is one of the many pleasures the book offers.

Admittedly, having just finished the novel, it’s not the right season in which to be reading it (especially given the current heatwave), but the book conveys both the atmosphere and the spirit of a suitably wintry Chrismastime, evocatively creating scenic touches of a town bedecked for the festive season, and using the weather as a valuable ally. There are some deft musical touches to enhance the flavour – carolling voices and the chime of church bells filling the town’s high street, Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy piping at the church fundraising evening, the Salvation Army band playing Once In Royal (‘the horns sounded suitably mournful as though in respect of another death in the town’ is a deft and cheeky touch). It doesn’t matter in what season of the year you read Murder on Sea; like an Advent calendar, its chapters open onto suitably Christmas vistas that will evoke the season no matter when you read it.

Fascinatin’ Rhythm: dancing with Joanne Harris’ ‘The Lollipop Shoes’

Some books call to you from a shelf; that silent yet persuasive voice that gets inside your head and tells you that you want, nay, need, to read them. Right now.

lollipop_shoesThis happens to me quite often – as a compulsive book-buyer, this voice doesn’t need to shout any more, it just nudges me in the right direction and knows that I’ll comply, rolling its eyes (mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean) at the inevitability of it all – but not quite so compulsively as with Joanne HarrisThe Lollipop Shoes. I’m late to the Joanne Harris party; the book came out in 2007, and follows Chocolat, written in 2001 (which I hadn’t read either), so I have some catching up to do. The siren-call of The Lollipop Shoes isn’t hard to fathom – a heady blend of the front cover’s design, the heft of the book in the hand, the feel of the pages – and I succumbed instantly.

What beguiled me about the book from fairly early on was the rise and fall of the rhythm of the prose, the cadences, the dance between duple and triple metre – as a musician, it’s hard not to notice this aspect of any sound that reaches the ear – but this was the first time it had been so striking. It wasn’t just telling a story; the words were more akin to a kind of invocation, entirely appropriate for a story concerning the power of spells, of magic.

‘Death grins out from the woodcut design; jealous, joyless, hollow-eyed, hungry – Death the insatiable; Death the implacable; Death the debt we owe to the gods.’

It’s not just the sound of the words operating here – assonance, alliteration – it’s the way they are struck, too; the triplet-metre feel that moves to a duple-metre feel at the same time as the alliterative passage ‘jealous, joyless.’ The metric change imparts, quite deliberately, a more leaden tread to the manner in which the passages steps, in contrast to the 6/8 metre that surrounds it.

‘So many lives just there for the taking; there for the tasting, for someone like me.’

Again, it’s that mixture of sound and rhythm, the subtle shift from ‘taking’ to ‘tasting’ and the rhythm of the sentence that has me hearing it sung in haunting tones by someone like folk-singer, Mary Hampton. Whole passages seem to pass by in a stately dance; it’s impossible not to be hypnotised. Joanne’s prose does this a lot – in fact, it was difficult to read the whole of chapter Four without hearing the prose’s inner music and rhythm pulling the ear.

And that, perhaps, is what the book is all about; not just telling the reader about the power of magic, but actually working its own enchantment, too. With this novel, it’s not only about where the story takes you – it’s about the how, the way in which it does so, too. The excitement about contemporary music is very similar; not just ending up in a new landscape, but being taken there in an unexpected fashion, with new encounters along the way. Joanne’s book has this same appeal; sometimes dancing with the Puckish feel of a Tippett string quartet, elsewhen stepping with the poise of a stately gavotte.

 

Its bewitchment was such that I went out in a daze and binge-bought five more, helpless in the grip of a need to read further. I can never enter a bookshop without weeping in sheer frustration ‘But there’s so much to READ!’ No matter how much I read, more books are coming out all the time, and I’ll never be able to keep up. But that’s part of the attraction, the unattainable goal that you know you can never reach but one towards which you’re always being driven. My daughter needs a book for a Year 8 project this term: needless to say, I pressed this into her hand crying ‘This one! THIS ONE! You’ll love it; there’s love, magic, chocolate, and an inner music…’ I hope she does.

I’m late to the Joanne Harris party, it’s true; but I’m excited to be here…

Manet’s Execution: still shocking

The four pieces of canvas which comprise the reconstructed Execution of Maximilian by Manet currently hang on the wall in the Special Exhibitions room of Canterbury’s The Beaney. I’d seen the painting before, many years ago, in the National Gallery, but on visiting it recently in the walled city, I was struck anew by its power.

manet_execution
Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian; c.1867-8

Large enough to make the viewer an implicit spectator at the scene, what shocks the most even after all this time is the matter-of-fact approach of the figure on the right, the soldier preparing his rifle for the finishing coup-de-grace. The collision of the act of violence – somehow made all the more vibrant because the pieces on which the emperor was painted have been lost, and only his hand remains to clasp that of one of his comrades, also facing execution – and the practicality of the soldier readying his rifle serves to heighten the tension in the painting.

the-execution-of-the-emperor-maximilian-of-mexico-1868An earlier lithograph of the same scene renders the commonplace even more apparent, as Manet depicts a ragged bunch of street-urchins looking over the wall behind the scene, like everyday gawkers or the tricoteuse, those women who would sit and knit beside the guillotines.

By dressing the Mexican army in French uniform, Manet caused the painting to be too controversial to be displayed during his lifetime. Even now, over one hundred and forty years later, the painting still has an explosive quality.

The painting is on display at the Beaney until Sunday 16 March.

—-

Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University. Follow Dan on Twitter.

My summer with Caitlin Moran

I spent my summer with Caitlin Moran. Two heady weeks in a cottage in Sussex, in which she talked – she talked a lot – and I simply listened. I didn’t have to say anything, just had to sit there and listen as she poured out her heart. We bonded over a shared incredulity at Downton Abbey, a passion for libraries, and a mistrust of David Cameron. I found myself careening between emotional extremes, of asthma-inducing laughter and heart-stopping sorrow.

20130817-164602.jpg
Wolverhampton wanderer

As we sat there, Caitlin and I, time seemed to pass us by. My two young children were busy exploring new and exciting ways to injure themselves on the garden play-equipment; the cats were expiring through the suspension of their customary feeding ritual; phones were left unanswered; my wife took to her bed with a digital version of Scrabble in a desperate call for attention. None of it mattered; Caitlin and I had only each other, her needing to talk, my needing simply to listen.

Because that’s what reading the collection of articles that makes up her recent book, Moranthology, is like; it’s like chatting to a newly-discovered best friend. And not just that; a friend who’s funny, honest, brazen, unafraid of candid revelations, open about their moments of life-lunacy, and who writes from the hip.

Given its heart-on-sleeve admission of love for Sherlock, I have no qualms as an asthma-sufferer in declaring the book a Three-Inhaler Problem. The dispensary at the local Asda couldn’t issue me with new ones fast enough; I had my own parking-space, and was on first-name terms with the guy who sits in the entrance, watching the CCTV footage of people entering and leaving the store. It’s no understatement to describe the book as something of a roller-coaster; one minute, you’re giggling with sheer delight at the fearlessly inventive wit – the ‘And My Nanny Agress With Me Too’ put-down of George Osborne is going to become my default reaction to posh idiots – the next minute, you’re gasping as she devastatingly breaks your heart. Whether lamenting the cross-country closure of libraries, regaling you with the multitudinous ways in which she has Let Herself Down In Front of Celebrities, or campaigning for the rights of society’s down-trodden, her vigorous, no-holds-barred, attitude-busting prose is merciless in its scrutiny. Even, commendably, when that object of scrutiny is the writer herself. It’s like a very English incarnation of Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism, with its wry attack on television soap-opera plotlines or the Welsh-o-centric nature of the latest incarnation of the Dr Who franchise, or its staunch championing of the Welfare State. And it’s the type of book that throws your assumptions back at you and makes you consider them anew; you come out a better person for reading it.

So forgive the cheap sensationalism of my title; under its same conditions, I’ve just spent several similar weeks with Tony Hawks (A Piano in the Pyrenees), Peter F Hamilton (Pandora’s Star), and am furthering my literary bigamy in being heavily involved with Humphrey Carpenter (Benjamin Britten). As Martin Amis said of Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full (that’s just the sort of ghastly, navel-contemplating literary referencing that, after our weeks of companionship, I feel confident in declaring she would hate); this book will be a good friend to you. In fact, it won’t: Moranthology will be your best friend. Read it. Soon.

Dan Harding is the Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. He writes about music on the blog Music Matters. Follow Dan on Twitter.

Dealing with a dilemma: focus and concision in art

I have a dilemma. I find that Downton Abbey gets on my nerves, yet I love The Paradise. The operas of Wagner drive me mad, yet Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande is one of my favourite pieces. Mahler drives me mad, but Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians remains the sole piece I would pluck from a blazing conflagration of classical music.

Image credit: BBC

As I assess my lists of likes and can’t-stands, trying to work out why I both love and loathe examples of period drama, opera and music, I have come to realise that, for me, it’s a question of scale, of concision in utterance and narrative focus.

The overblown hyperbole that is opera, where it can take anywhere between two and five tiresome hours for consumptive maidens to expire, giants and demons to fight over treasure or someone’s soul, and for jealous lovers to work their revenge, means that generally, the genre has few recordings in my listening library. But Pelléas, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges are present in more than one recorded incarnation and appear on my Recently Played lists quite often. How can this be, when normally opera sends me screaming into the comfort of John Adams or Nico Muhly ? Similarly, how can the yawn-inducing tedium of Downton Abbey be equated with my sheer and utter delight in the story of the evolution of England’s first department store that is The Paradise ? How can I rationalise both standpoints ?

As I said before, it’s a question of scope, of scale. Titanic myth-making in Wagner calls for similarly titanic music, and grand time-scale, the sort where the opera is so long that you have to have dinner in between acts simply to fortify yourself for what is still to come. But Pelléas concentrates instead on the dynamic between three characters wrapped in a love-triangle – Goloud, Pelléas and the object of their affections, Melisande – and is set often in small-scale situations: a room, a secluded garden, a cave, settings which are a geographical manifestation of the claustrophobic romantic tangle in which the three characters are entwined. Likewise, Ravel’s one-act opera is concerned with a single character, the mischievous child, whose wayward misbehaviour sparks off the magical episodes which follow, and which is similarly set in a room in the first half and a garden in the second.

And while Mahler’s view of the symphony was that it should ’embrace the world,’ (his first symphonic outing is called ‘The Titan,’ which should give you some idea of its lofty ambitions), this also requires musical gestures built on a grand scale, sustained by a musical architecture that needs to be epic in size. The music of someone like Reich, for instance, and to a certain extent the early works of John Adams and recent pieces by Nico Muhly, is much more about concise musical gestures, small-scale motivic thinking that may yield a piece lasting near to an hour (in the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians), but sustains its large-scale forms through the gradual unfolding of initially small ideas, into which can be condensed a range of harmonic and rhythmic expression.

Image credit: BBC

The epic narrative sweep in Downton takes on such themes as social hierarchy and the re-defining of class divisions in the wake of the First World War, the troubles in Ireland, and the minutiae of upstairs/downstairs relationships in the Grantham household with plodding tedium and lashings of cliche, painted in great swathes of block colour that don’t require the viewer to have to think too much for themselves about what’s going on, or what’s coming next. In contrast, The Paradise concentrates on a particular stretch of street, on one store in particular, and the characters within both; the focus is on a smaller scale, and as such it doesn’t need to make glib, sweeping gestures to allow large themes to be depicted in a small amount of on-screen time.

In his second volume of autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles,’ Stephen Fry recognises his own penchant for verbosity, for taking one hundred words to write what could be said in ten. But the book reads like an effortless conversation with Fry, and pages turn almost of themselves before you realise that many hours have gone by and you’ve read more than you intended, your wife and children have moved out and the dog is starving. Whilst the object of Fry’s book may be the re-telling of thirty year’s worth of life, the focus is again small-scale; himself, and what makes him tick.

So I have no compunction about dismissing endless hours of operatic bilge whilst secretly loving some examples of it, of casually being scathing about the tedium of Downton Abbey whilst revelling in the puff-pastry delight of The Paradise, and no sense of self-contradiction in writing off epic symphonic yawnathons whilst delighting in works of Minimalism that may last just as long as a piece by Mahler or Beethoven. It’s simply a question of focus.

Whatever floats your boat

As people all over the world gather to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a remarkable boat will set sail on its maiden voyage. The boat will be made from the lives and memories of people across the South East.

Click to view PDF

We want your wood: but not just any old wood, we want something that’s a part of you, something with a story to tell. Come and tell us that story – your donated wood will be used along with donations from thousands of others to build this unique 30ft sailing boat, a living archive of our lives.

Donations will be accepted in the foyer of the Gulbenkian Theatre between 1- 7pm this Wednesday.

www.theboatproject.com

The Boat Project is part of Artists Taking the Lead, a series of 12 public art commissions across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The Boat Project is the winning commission for the South East region and is funded by Arts Council England.

Brought to Booker: can science fiction ever make the prize list ?

An article in last week’s Guardian laments the lack of speculative fiction – that’s science fiction and fantasy in common parlance – novels making the Booker prize list.

Science fiction and fantasy, traditionally viewed with grave suspicion by the supposedly more ‘serious’ of the mainstream fiction genres, have together been a flourishing literary canon for years; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings regularly polls in high places as ‘Most Read,’ whilst writers like China Mieville, Alistair Reynolds and Peter F Hamilton have been patiently carving out successful careers with epic science fiction and fantasy novels for many years.

Perhaps part of the difficulty lies in the boundary-defying nature of some of the novels associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Alistair Reynolds and China Mieville include a luxurious element of the gothic in their novels; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell offered an alternative history take on fantasy, where magic is commonplace and is used in the Napoleonic Wars. Similary, Mary Gentle’s sprawling Ash: A Secret History follows the same character across centuries. Perhaps it’s simply the scope of the novels that causes them to be dismissed: Peter F Hamilton’s epic space-opera sagas, Michael Moorcock’s long-running Elric or Hawkmoon tales stride across whole volumes.

But with writers such as Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Michael Moorcock all a part of the canon, it’s hard to ignore the impact of science fiction and fantasy literature.

Perhaps this year will change all that.

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

Pot luck: music education funding ring-fenced

As reported over on The Guardian’s classical music blog, the culture minister Ed Vaizey reveals that there will continue to be a pot of money allocated to music education next year.

The previous government had set up a Music Standards Fund, dedicated to music provision, which is due to end next year. Vaizey declares that a ring-fenced amount of funding will replace it.

Music provision in primary education is a matter of hit and miss, dependent on local variables: it depends on whether the school values the arts generally and music in particular, whether it has a dedicated music specialist teaching a focused music curriculum; sometimes, it’s just a matter of whether a member of staff happens a) to have an interest or a facility in a particular musical discipline and b) to be sufficiently motivated to run such classess off their own bat.

This creates widespread inequality in provision at primary level across schools, quite apart from the LEA-allocation model that existed under the Conservatives in the mid-80’s. Hopefully, music education and county music provision will continue to be funded under the Coalition, although with arts funding cuts announced earlier this week, whether there will be musical opportunities for the current generation of primary school children when they come to the employment market as adults remains to be seen…

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

Letters, pray: more Larkin correspondence published

Philip LarkinFor over forty years, Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones, the woman who shared his life. As Anthony Thwaite, Larkin’s literary executor and friend, revealed in The Telegraph this weekend, letters and postcards the two exchanged have now been published for the first time.

Fantastic news for those who enjoyed Larkin’s Selected Letters published by Faber in 1993, and who read the replies to Larkin by his friend and fellow literary giant, Kingsley Amis when HarperCollins published a vast tome of Amis’ vibrant correspondence in 2001, The Letters of Kingsley Amis.

Notoriously reclusive, shunning travel and avoiding the limelight, not much of Larkin, other than the few slim volumes of poetry he published, reaches the public eye; at his request, Monica Jones destroyed Larkin’s journals when he died.

Some of the letters are published in The Telegraph here.