Sunday, 1 December 2019

Crime with a Welsh twist.


Everyone knows Scandi Noir. Scottish Crime Writing is a phenomenon that makes its voice heard loudly. Not so many people know about Welsh crime writing, though they have probably watched Welsh crime dramas like Hinterland and Keeping Faith. But there are a lot of Welsh crime writers (like me) and we have a Presence: we are members of Crime Cymru.

Check us out. Between us, we cover a wide range of crime writing – everything from police detectives to historical crime, international thrillers to psychological mysteries, cosy crime to urban noir.
If you fancy trying some as a taster, why not check out Cal Smyth’s intriguing serial, Like, Love, Kill, running on our website and finishing this Sunday.  Catch it from the start here. Or look out for Christmas short stories on our website during December.

I find Wales offers the perfect setting for my sort of crime fiction. There are writers who make full use of cities like Cardiff or Swansea for gritty urban drama, but I don't know those cities well enough to be able to use them for my books. My image of both is as contemporary bustling shopping and cultural centres, that I visit purely for pleasure, or as a memory of 1950s trolley buses from my very early youth. So if I want an urban setting for my mysteries, I use Luton, where I grew up – or rather a version of Luton predating 1983, when I left it to move to Wales. What I do know about is rural Wales, especially here in North Pembrokeshire, a gift to a crime writer.

For a start, there’s the complication of the languages, since Welsh is widely spoken (and used in schools) but English-speaking incomers regard it as suspicious and impenetrable. For a crime-writer, it opens up endless scope for misunderstandings. An equally lovely gift is the sense of isolation, of communities that will quite happily do their own thing and keep secrets that the rest of the county, let alone the rest of the world will never know about. Even with today’s communications and transport, isolation is a very evident factor: I have to cross high hills, sometimes blocked with snow, to get anywhere at all. Superfast broadband – ha! Don't make me laugh.

Villages here are not like English villages, with cute cottages clustered round an ancient church with spire and a peal of bells. They don’t play cricket on neatly kept village greens. Here, if they have a centre, it’s probably a single brooding street dominated by a dour chapel and a probably defunct post office. Half the houses may stand empty for most of the year, waiting for holiday residents. The parish church, small and probably towerless, will be tucked away on its own somewhere, built to serve a wide scattering of farms that run up onto windswept commons. The roads are narrow and twisting, the woods are thick, the valleys are deep, and mysterious reminders of history sneak up on you around every corner, from Neolithic burial chambers to decaying mansions. Everywhere there’s a sense of something lurking just under the surface. Could very well be a body.




Friday, 8 November 2019

Sealed with a Kiss - The End

I often have difficulty knowing how to start a book, even when I have the whole story clear in my mind. But it can be even more difficult knowing when to stop.

Don't spoil the impact of the natural ending by drifting on into slow sludge. Sorry, Shakespeare, but you should really have stopped when Hamlet dies. Good night, sweet prince,. and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Having Fortinbras blunder in to wrap things up was a big mistake.

The Handmaid's Tale is a brilliant example of a story that ends with questions unanswered. What happens next to Offred? But  Margaret Atwood couldn't resist adding an epilogue, exploring further. And then she had to write another book because readers kept asking what happened.

I was delighted, when I first read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, that Tolkien added a whole book's worth of appendices, explaining everything including the fates of all the characters. I couldn't get enough of it. But in the case of an entire fantasy world, history, religion and linguistics, that is probably allowable.

A series offers an easy solution to knowing where to stop. End with the main thread of one book neatly tied off and snipped, but leave the other threads running free, because they will be picked up in the next book. But then there's the problem of when to end the series. I've always felt Winston Graham made a mistake in carrying the Poldark series on beyond the seventh volume, because at the heart of the saga was the story of rivalry over Elizabeth Chynoweth, and the whole arc obviously concludes when she dies.

So when you reach the conclusion of the drama, how many lose ends should be tidied up in a conclusion? The prince wakes the princess with a kiss. Is it enough to explain that they get married and live happily ever after. Do I take it further and discuss what that happiness involves, how many children they’ll have and what medical conditions will finally carry them off in old age? Or do I stop with the prediction of their marriage and leave the readers to guess if it’s likely to be happy or not? Or do I leave it to the reader to assume that they probably get married, because the kiss is all that’s needed to end the plot.
I am inclined to think that less is more. End with the kiss.


(especially when the original story goes on to have the prince raping the princess in her sleep, leaving her pregnant with twins whom his mother plans to eat.)

I write about crimes. If I wrote traditional crime fiction, finding the right place to end would be easy. The crime is a puzzle, clues are to be followed, the truth uncovered, the culprit revealed, and that's it. All sorted. But crimes have consequences that effect everyone they touch, and that is what I write about. How long do I continue delving into the consequences? It's difficult, especially when some of my stories carry the impact of crimes into later generations. At what generation do I stop? How many ends do I try to tie up?

I am always in a quandary about precisely where to draw the line. Partly, like all authors who have spent months, if not years, with a cast of characters, I don't want to abandon them unresolved. I want to be able to say that they lived happily ever after. But then I also want to imply that the drama and its consequences go on and on, never quite resolving.

My usual solution, probably like many other authors, is to add a chapter, slightly detached, as an epilogue that wraps up most things just sufficiently to answer the obvious questions while leaving others unanswered. 

THE END




Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Testaments


I do review books on Amazon, because I know how important reviews are in that arena, but I don’t usually publish them at large because I am not really a very good review writer. I prefer to write books and read other people’s reviews of them.

But here, for a change, are my views on Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, because it has left me with mixed feelings. Part of those feelings grow from the fact that it follows her book, The Handmaid’s Tale, but it also follows three series of the TV drama centred on the horrendous world of Gilead.


I didn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published. I came to it in the late 90s, when the news was full of horror stories from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and when the USA seemed to be a madhouse of Christian fundamentalists wanting creationism taught in schools and right-wing militias gearing up to take on the black helicopters of the UN that were just waiting their chance to destroy American liberty (when is it not?). The book seemed a chillingly believable representation of what already was as well as what might be. And it was an awesome read, something utterly different, a slow drip of non-events, possibilities, pervasive fear, the horrific made normal, a world suffocating in its claustrophobic hopelessness, and ending on an unanswered question – does Offred step into darkness or light? The fatuous analysis of her story in a symposium a couple of hundred years later makes an amusing sort of sense because Gilead was bound pass into history as a mysterious puzzle. It couldn’t last: repressive societies never can, and being so insular and warped, its records would very likely have been destroyed, leaving plenty of room for historians to speculate. The book won the Booker Prize and it fully deserved to do so. It set a standard and shook minds.

I thought twice about deciding whether to watch the TV adaptation because adaptations are so often travesties, but I took the risk and was quickly captivated by the first series, which expanded on the book but followed it to Offred’s equivocal exit in the black van. The internalisation of thoughts and  the slow creeping pace were allowed to come through, which I hadn’t expected. I had second thoughts too about watching the second series, since it was obviously going to go beyond Margaret Atwood’s story and I suspected that it would do as so many TV series do – identify a winning formula and flog it to death. Was it going to be nothing but an endless succession of escape attempts, like an updated version of The Fugitive? No it wasn’t. The second and third series continued to follow Offred/June, but they managed to dissect and examine other elements in the sort of society that Gildead represents, the woman (Serena) who has embraced the new order, only to find herself its victim, the man (Commander Lawrence) who knows he is a war criminal as he faces up to the horrors he has helped to create, the universal distrust, the cruelties, the little acts of resistance, the hypocrisy and intrigue and the dehumanising effects of it all, even on the heroes.

Then comes The Testaments. It’s a novel that sets out to answer many of the questions raised by The Handmaid’s Tale, and for me that’s a problem, because the lack of answers is one of the strengths of the original story. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which weighs on the reader, creeping through the veins, it races along like a normal adventure story. I enjoyed it. It’s a good read, quite exciting, and not overly demanding. There are few horrific surprises to compare with the original because we already know what Gilead is and how it treats women, and the claustrophobia is gone because in part we are looking in from the outside, as the action ranges beyond Gilead into depressingly normal Canada. There are interesting points, like how a ‘liberal’ state deals with an obscenely repressive neighbour, the rebels within it (terrorists) and the refugees from it (illegal immigrants), but nothing to equal the shock value of The Handmaid’s Tale.  A major problem with the plot, in my mind, is the unconvincing attempt to explain a lack of accurate records for Canada as well as Gilead for future centuries to get their teeth into.

But the one real disappointment for me in The Testaments was the character of Aunt Lydia. She is perfectly compatible with the character in the first book, cruel and power-hungry, but between the two lies the TV version, Aunt Lydia as portrayed by Ann Dowd. Now, normally, I would never dream of confusing novels with their TV adaptations, because adaptations invariably go off at tangents, add and subtract and alter and often drift disgracefully from the intentions of the author. But with The Testaments, Atwood has included details that appear only in the TV version, most obviously Baby Nichole, so for once I feel entitled to mingle the two.

Aunt Lydia, in a society that represses all women, is the ultimate traitor, a women who enforces that repression. She inflicts unspeakable cruelties without qualms. She is part of the system, just like the Commanders who govern Gilead. The Commanders, all men, are scheming hypocrites who impose puritanical standards on everyone else while entertaining themselves at Jezebel brothels. They inflict barbaric punishments for any perceived misdemeanours by others, while luxuriating in their own power and yet they are constantly plotting and scheming to keep that power, because at any moment a rival will bring them down. They enforce belief in others, but believe nothing themselves. The world is full of just such people and they are drearily predictable in every society that bears any resemblance to Gilead. In The Testaments, it is made clear that Aunty Lydia is exactly like the commanders, a hypocrite who believes nothing that she preaches but who enforces the sick rules of the regime on others as part of her own grasp on power, or at least survival.

The TV Aunt Lydia is quite different. I’ve seen it suggested that the TV version tries to make her more sympathetic. Really? I think the opposite. For me, Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia is the most terrifying character in the story because she’s not a hypocrite but a true believer. She genuinely believes that she’s doing God’s work by having women forced to submit to monthly rape, eyes gouged out, genitalia mutilated, erring handmaids stoned to death, men torn to pieces as punishment. Conniving hypocrites are easy villains, but there is nothing quite as terrifying as a sincerely righteous zealot. Fanatics are the real monsters in this world.

I miss that version of her in The Testaments. I miss the chilling uniqueness of the first book. The Testaments is a good book, well worth reading, but did it really deserve to be joint winner of the Booker Prize.? I don’t think so.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

The Unwritten Writing on the wall.


Back in the 60s and early 70s, when we still wrote with quill pens and wove our own clothes, in that era before the national curriculum left no room for anything except qualifications for the labour market, I studied the British Constitution at O and A level.  Does anyone study it any more at school? Do any pupils other than Oxbridge students of PPE have any idea what our constitution is?
     It’s there. It isn’t written, but it definitely exists, embedded in statutes, traditions and legal pronouncements. Because it isn’t written, it tends to evolve – so at least we aren’t stuck with a fossilised 18th century amendment entitling us to carry murder weapons. Is it evolving at the moment, in front of our very eyes? There’s nothing wrong with it doing so, if that is what we want, but shouldn’t we understand what it is before we started shredding little bits whenever we feel in the mood?

1215. Magna Carta: an awful lot of it is about who gets the income from weirs on the Thames and such matters, but the underlying idea that came out of it was the Rule of Law, meaning that everyone, from the lowliest dung-splattered peasant to the King in Westminster, was subject to the law of the land. There is no separate law entitling servants of the state to get away with what would be crimes for others. No specially oppressive laws applying only to those at the bottom of the pile. Everyone is under the law and everyone is entitled to its protection. No one can be held or punished without due process. No one can simply be “disappeared.” In theory. Theoretical or not, do we want the rule of law or do we want to replace it with something else? A system perhaps where someone in a position of power can act outside the law or change it to suit himself? We need to debate the matter before we chuck it away.

Parliament. Since 1265 we have had, on and off, an elected House of Commons as part of a Parliament to keep the King in check. Not that it meant much back then, but in Tudor times it began to be the really significant mover and shaker in the land, and a century later the country was plunged into civil war, deciding whether King or Parliament was dominant. By the end of the 17th century, after one king was radically reduced in height and another was deposed, the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament was established. The power of parliament could not be curtailed by anyone or any body except itself. It did voluntarily curtail that power when Britain joined the EEC, with the understanding that it could, equally, revoke that membership.
     So if we now leave the EU, are we firmly re-establishing the sovereignty of Parliament or do we think something or someone else should be sovereign even over Parliament? Like the will of the people expressed in a single referendum? If we do think that’s an option, let’s debate it. Should sovereignty from now on be invested in the people by holding an endless stream of referendums (referenda?) to decide how we should be governed? It’s not impossible. Switzerland has them all the time. But if we think we might want that, let’s talk about it.
    It has been suggested that in the referendum, the people instructed Parliament to take Britain out of the EU. We have never previously been in a situation where Parliament has been subject to instructions. Do we want to change things? Traditionally, MPs have not been delegates, sent to Westminster as mere mouthpieces for their constituents. Instead, we have candidates in elections who put forward their manifestos, and we choose which one we prefer, on the assumption that the elected candidate will thereafter follow that manifesto, using his or her own judgement – and will have to answer for it at the next election. Do we want to keep that, or do we want our MPs to refer back to us for instructions on how to vote each week? It’s a valid option but one we need to decide.

Democracy. Is a referendum more democratic that electing MPs? What is democracy anyway? It has been defined as one man one vote, but let’s come into the 21st century and say one adult one vote. We’ve had a Parliament for nearly 800 years but we’ve only had democracy since… well, all men over 21 got the vote in 1918. All women got it in 1928. Votes were only restricted to one per person in 1948 (before that, business owners and graduates had 2). Adults between 18 and 21 only got the vote in 1969 and the last lingering shadow of equating voting with property only really vanished when homeless people were given the statutory right to register to vote in 2000, so you could say that we have been a democracy for less than 20 years. Some have said that we have only been granted the right to vote because it’s meaningless and gives us a mere illusion of power. Other people have fought to the death to achieve it. Do we want it or not? If more and more people are deciding not to bother to vote, what are we going to do about it?

The separation of powers.  There are, theoretically three powers which govern our country: the legislature, which makes laws, the judiciary which enforces those laws and the executive which administers the country under those laws. i.e. Parliament (or to be formal, The Crown in Parliament), which makes laws, the courts which apply them and the government which makes things happen… or not. It is held as gospel that the three powers should be separate, balancing and restraining each other, which is obvious nonsense in Britain’s case as they are all intertwined. Until it was replaced by the Supreme Court, the top court in Britain was the House of Lords. Senior judges sat as law lords. At the top of the pile was the Lord Chancellor who was a member of the government. In our Common Law system, laws are made not only in statutes but in court judgements by the judiciary and in statutory instruments made by the executive. The executive, or government, is not independent of the legislature since it is formed by whichever party commands a majority in the Commons. And vice versa: except in remarkable situations where the Commons seize control, legislation is largely dictated by the executive.
    Everything in our system is intertwined, but our influence on any of it is very limited. In our “democracy,” we choose the members of one half of Parliament (the Commons), but we have no say in the House of Lords, no say in the choice of judges and no say in the choice of government. Johnson has not been elected as Prime Minister by the country, but then neither has any Prime Minister ever. All we get to vote for is our local constituency MP. In the USA, they vote for their legislature (Congress) and they vote separately for their executive (the President). Since our Prime Ministers are becoming more and more presidential, should we be voting for our MPs and have a separate election to choose our Prime Minister? It seems that many people are happy with a Prime Minister who has lacks any support in the House of Commons, so do we want to change our whole voting system?

The Union. Not the European Union, the other one. Ours. We quaintly talk about four nations, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but except in matters of sport this is fairly meaningless. In 1800, we became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and that was such a success that we are still mopping up the blood, leaving us with the rump of a divided Ireland.  These days we are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are not the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Ulster, nor are we simply England, though many non-Brits, presidents among them, think we are and many non-English Brits feel it's less of a union and more of a subduction zone.
     In the seventeenth century the Stuart monarchs had two separate kingdoms, Scotland and England. They were only united as one kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. Scotland cannot leave Great Britain. If Scotland splits from England, there will be no Great Britain, just Scotland and England with a side order of Celtic Fringe that doesn’t really count – as usual. Many Scots want the Union dissolved. Now many nationalist English do too. While we were all in the EU, it was fairly pointless.  Even divisions in Ireland ceased to matter so much, because the UK and Ireland were both in the EU so why kill each other over sovereignty? The Good Friday agreement became possible. But now that we are about to float off into the Atlantic and cut our mooring ropes to Europe, what do we want to be? If the Scots want another referendum on independence, do the English want one too? We are already divided down the centre by Brexit. Are we about to become the next Balkans? It might be nice to discuss it before it just happens.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Why Book Fairs?

Judith Barrow, me and a banner
Very soon, in little more than a month, I shall be attending Narberth Book Fair (28th and 29th September) which I have helped to organise, with fellow author Judith Barrow, for the last... lost count of how many years, but it has grown successfully from its early days in Tenby to become a two day book fest featuring over fifty indie authors and publishers from Wales and further afield, and one of them is me. Which is why I am updating a blog post from a previous era and explaining why I'll be there.

To stand at a stall, offering my wares, might seem a very medieval way of going about things in the days of internet ordering and e-books. Besides, what are bookshops for, if not to provide any book that anyone is looking for? Literary festivals like Hay, with big names addressing crowds of fans are all very well, but why bother with book fairs?

Narberth Book Fair 2018
The reason is that for most of us authors, such events are the only occasions when we get to meet our readers in the flesh, to discuss our work and hear their opinion. We write for ourselves, mostly, and perhaps to please a publisher or agent, but ultimately, since we choose to be published, rather than storing our work in notebooks under our bed, we write for “the reader” out there, who will devour our polished words. It becomes a somewhat surreal situation if our readers never materialise in the flesh. We need the contact to keep it real.

A fair also allows us to meet our fellow authors, in an atmosphere where everything is all about books, and sometimes it’s very healthy to escape the private isolation of writing and remind ourselves that we are not alone. There are other people as obsessed with writing as us.

Me. At the fair, last year.
For indie authors, who self-publish, and who want to rely on more than Kindle sales on Amazon, fairs can be almost the only way to put their printed books out there, for people to see. Many bookshops simply don’t stock independent authors. An ISBN number is not enough to get you on the “List.” And for us conventionally published authors, there is no guarantee that bookshops, even their local bookshops, will pay them any attention whatsoever. If you are lucky, you might find a copy of your book, buried in a dark corner, out of sequence, while the front displays concentrate on the highly promoted big names. If you are in the hands of one of the mega-publishing houses, which sees you as a potential block-buster in WH Smiths or on airport concourses, then they might send you off on tour round the country or the world, to meet your readers. They might flaunt your book cover on billboards for you. 99% of authors don’t get that treatment, so we have to put ourselves out there.

And that’s what book fairs are for. So do come. We're a rare breed and well worth gawping at.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Entitlement

How do you choose a title for a book? Do you go for the rhythm of the words? The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Do you go for the shiver factor? Heart of Darkness? Do you go for something, anything, containing the words The Girl because publishers seem to like it.  I am tempted to try The Girl in the Title.

Or do you ransack the well-known, like the Bible or Shakespeare, to find something that will ring a bell with readers? Some of Shakespeare’s quotes almost seem designed to be used as titles, and are, several times over, they are so relevant. Which is ironic since some of his own titles are so irrelevant that I can never remember which play goes with which title.

The working title of most of my books tends to be The Book or Mary/Jane/Lizzie… (whatever the protagonist is called). It is often not until they are virtually finished that, fingers crossed, the proper title leaps out at me. Sometimes it arrives in a pristine state, blindingly obvious. Sometimes it needs working on. Sometimes it refuses to surface at all.

I had trouble with Shadows because the title seemed so generic. How many other books are there called Shadows? Don’t try counting. Long after it became Shadows in my head I was groping for alternative titles. I came up with many, playing on the word “guilt,” which is a major theme in the book, but they all seemed just wrong, too strained and in the end I reconciled myself to the inescapable fact that “Shadows” could be the only sensible title for it. And that was just as well, even if it does leaving it floundering in an ocean of other Shadows titles, because its companion piece, set in the past, could obviously be called Long Shadows (as cast by old sins). Neat, if predictable.

Sometimes, an idea plants itself but remains slightly hazy while I decide which version to settle on? Should it be Motherlove or Mother Love? I decided that the second sounded too much like a John le CarrĂ© Russian agent, so Motherlove it is. Should it be Unravelled or Unravelling? Problem solved when I decided to add “The” at the front. The Unravelling.

A Time For Silence began as a straightforward quote from Ecclesiastes KJV (and Pete Seeger): “A time to keep silence.” It is totally apposite for the story which is all about silence being kept, but it didn’t seem to roll right, so “to keep” became “for”.

What then to call its prequel? It grew out of a short story called A Time to Cast Away which is from the same passage of Ecclesiastes (see what I’m doing there?) and for a while I thought the full novel would have to be called that too. But while it fitted the short story, it was no longer so appropriate for a far more wide-ranging book, so I let it go and waited for the book to speak. It spoke very loudly, but also very unhelpfully, because two words or phrases leap out as obvious titles. They are repeated again and again as the focus of obsession. Covenant and Twenty-four Acres, One Rood and Eight Perches. Covenant has the benefit of having several connotations, religious, historical and legal, as well as being short and snappy. Twenty-four Acres etc. has the allure of being far more quirky and totally unique. I challenge anyone to find another book called Twenty-four Acres, One Rood and Eight Perches. On the other hand, it would take up most of the cover and possibly leave some readers drifting off before they got beyond the title page. In the end, I left the choice to my publisher, Honno, and “Covenant” it will be. At least there will be room for my name too.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Space, the final fictional frontier

moon landing
We are celebrating a memorable event: the Moon Landing. I remember it well. It was thrilling, it held us spell-bound and it seemed to herald an exciting new age, even if it was just a yah boo interval in the Cold War.  I have heard it repeatedly described as Man’s greatest achievement. Is it? A man steps on a bit of dusty barren rock that isn’t the Earth and that outranks everything else we have done on this planet?

Earth riseI think our exploits in space did achieve something truly awesome. It gave us an off-Earth view of our own planet and taught us that of all the lumps of rock and swirling gas that make up our solar system the only one of unbelievable beauty and worth is the one we are already on.

Our planet has water, an atmosphere, everything required to sustain life, and it has us. Not just our bodies but our minds, with our ability to imagine, to create fiction. Only from our own planet can we conjure up beauty out there. We glory in, even worship, the sun when it’s a life-giving source of light and warmth that slips with reassuring certainty across our blue sky. In reality, it’s a lump of hot plasma, engaged in nuclear fusion. We gaze adoringly at the eerie loveliness of the white moon in our dark night. In reality, it’s dead rock, nothing else. What is more beautiful than the evening star, a low bright pageboy to the sinking sun… It’s Venus, and in reality it’s a boiling image of Hell under clouds of sulphuric acid.

Venus

 Mars, the red planet in our imaginations is the home of aliens, Martians, who can both fascinate and terrify us – except that in reality if there ever was any chance of life on it, it has long gone, with its atmosphere.

Mars

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are balls of gas. Their moons are rocks. They might be volcanic. They might even harbour water.

Vesuvius
Scientists get excited about this and so should we all. It is exciting. But not as exciting as the volcanoes on earth, reminding us, whenever they erupt, of our own limitations as masters of the universe. Not as exciting at the vast oceans of water that cover Earth, with depths that we have yet to explore and life forms that we have yet to discover.

That is not a bad thing, at least for novelists. The unknown opens up an endless source of speculation and possibilities, which definite answers will only spoil. From Earth, our imagination opens up Space in a way technology never will. We can do the impossible. NASA may be able to lift a bit of metal out of Earth’s gravity and dump it on the Moon, but in our imaginations we can travel faster than light and visit distant galaxies. And we do it on the most perfect planet there is – unless we manage to mess it up.

The Pacific