Be very afraid, dear Fellow Authors!

heathersanimations.comIt seems that when I last blogged I omitted to tell you that apparently Inkitt(dot)com membership is by invitation only. You can get an invite, if you follow them on Twitter and give them a chance to check out the quality of your writing via links to your blogs/published work. So far so good.

Entering into their fun and free “Wanderlust” writing contest is fine by me, but there are more sinister things afoot. Authors, be afraid, very afraid, for the publishing world is changing again and as usual, not for the better. Inkitt promises us a brand new publishing concept that is supposed to revolutionise the way in which authors come before their audiences. No revolution is bloodless, and sadly, this one will kill off talent in favour of publishing platforms raking in the $ and £. Here’s why:

This morning I opened an email from Inkitt, a platform promising to get talented authors before publishers and literary agents, telling me that now they’re looking for authors to upload their novels by deadline 1st October 2015. The more votes, the greater my chances of getting a publishing contract, apparently. And the beauty is that all their lovely members will help me improve my novel! Yay.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

Why oh why would I want to allow other users, who at best equal my talent and writing prowess and at worst, resemble those hopeless entries we see on telly’s “Britain’s Got Talent” making a total idiot of themselves, mess around with my already written novel? I’m not being arrogant here – the majority of these platforms are populated by teenagers barely able to string three sentences together. And all three of those sentences are usually about their favourite TV show or pop star.

Are Inkitt’s users critical readers trained in proofreading and editing? Nope.

Would anyone in their right mind have suggested to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to change his compositions in favour of some layperson’s idea of what music should sound like? Would the world have been presented with sublime works like Don Giovanni or Die Zauberfloete? I don’t think so, do you?

Are Inkitt’s employees professional literary agents with clout in the publishing industry and the connections to make this children’s writer a critically acclaimed, bestselling household name for generations to come. Nope.

Inkitt’s angel investors have no publishing background by the looks of it either, nor do any of their employees. Their only claim to fame is that one of their senior personnel designed the original Twitter logo once upon a time. Does this instil me with confidence in them making good on their publishing contract promises. Nope.

Worse, we already know that the concept of too many cooks spoils the literary broth. We know so because Hollywood subjected us to two decades of prequels to the sequels, all made with the same accountant-inspired knitting pattern of plots that were so predictable, we knew the ending of the blockbuster before we’d even watched the adverts!

Hollywood executives would allow small, hand-picked audiences to determine the ending of films. As a result, we were presented with rubbishy fodder for the uncritical masses, until small indie films stole the show at award presentations and made comparatively large amounts of money with well-written, original scripts at their openings and via DVD sales. Suddenly Hollywood execs pricked up their ears and polished their designer glasses. Could originality really be making a comeback in the movie industry? Yeiks, better find a scriptwriter who can still think outside of the accountant-manufactured box!

heathersanimations.comPlatforms like Inkitt and SOOP (soopllc(dot)com), another so called author-driven website promising writers a leg up in the publishing jungle, seem to have completely missed the point.

At SOOP they want authors to merely pitch an idea and let the trolls on their site decide, which novel idea an author should go with…ever heard of ORIGINALITY, dear SOOP (Silly Oiks Offer Pooh)? Jane Austen, Wordsworth and Dickens are revolving in their graves as I’m writing this!

READING, READING, READING critically the very best literature has to offer will help new authors to improve their own writing, not the well-meant but by and large meaningless comments left on sites like Wattpad and their ilk. Let those who want to publish teenage-angst-ridden drivel and Justin Bieber sex fantasies do so at places like Wattpad. Allow those of us who have talent that should be nursed by other talented, professionally trained people strive for excellence and critical acclaim.

With the latter comes longevity in the business, even if “50 Shades of Grey” type authors do make the big bucks fast. Will anyone want to read that puberty-driven drivel in 20 years time? Nope.

Are really talented authors driven by money, money, money alone? Nope.

It’s the literary journey from A to B, from thought onto page, that ultimately makes us tick. Alright, a bit of loot along the way also helps, but it’s not what drives REAL writers to put finger to keyboard and ink onto the page. It’s the art of writing, and yes, it is an art form, dear SOOT and Inkitt, not purely a $$$$ venture, that keeps talented writers sane and busy scribbling.

Writing is our way of making the world work for us, in our image, to our design. Little G.O.D.s that we carry inside make us do it (or do I mean D.O.G.s?), not the promise of bestseller lists, literary wine & nibbles evenings or book signings.

Inkitt informs us that “previously self-published novels also qualify” to enter in their new novel writing competition. Uh, last time I checked, every self-publishing author who sells via platforms like Amazon’s Createspace, Bookrix or Neobooks for example enters into a legally binding contract.

Self-published authors publishing on respectable platforms like Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords etc are not permitted to allow their books to be published for FREE in one part of the world/Internet and sold for hard currency in another. It seems Inkitt’s people don’t even bother checking the basics of the self-publishing world either.

Even platforms where people publish for free may stipulate a certain amount of time has to elapse before authors are permitted to publish elsewhere. The prospect of discovering the next deliverer of drivel that sells has seemingly completely blinded Inkitt’s team.

What’s good writing? Damn, I’ve forgotten again!

Would I rather chew off my writing arm than publish a novel (for FREE) on Inkitt? Yep.

Ranting over. It’s safe to come out again, dear fellow authors.

Gripped by a strange Wanderlust

heathersanimations.comFor a while now I’ve been looking around for stress-free writing contests I might like to join and, by a lucky coincidence, I came across this one: when I was merely looking through my daily aboutme(dot)com views and compliments for my own page and Twitter follow requests. Having hooked up with Inkitt via Twitter and looked at this fairly new, Berlin-based website for writers, I liked what I saw and am now furiously writing a short story for their Fantasy contest, a competition closing at noon on 24th September.

I had two story ideas about the subject “Wanderlust” right away. this, by the way, is a German word, meaning being suddenly gripped by the desire to wander, to leave the familiar surroundings behind and explore new horizons. The story entries I’ve read so far on the site have been hit-and-miss with regard to the meaning of the title – I suspect the writers didn’t really know what Wanderlust means.

It’s an expression that probably stems from the century-old tradition of Germany’s apprentices making their way in the world and completing their apprenticeships to the level of “master craftsman” by seeking out new masters in their professions in other parts of the country – or other mini-kingdoms, since Germany hasn’t been a united country for all that long and used to comprise of many different kingdoms.

Artisan guilds were incredibly powerful and had widespread connections across many of these mini kingdoms and dukedoms. Crafts like being a carpenter, joiner, blacksmith, silversmith etc dressed up in their Guild’s unique outfits, complete with colourfully dressed hats, and take to the wide open roads in search of a new employer where they could complete their apprenticeships. You can still see them to this day, though not that often as one did, when I was a small child some 50 years ago. Wanderlust is what sent me to the UK all those years ago…and here I still am, although my itchy feet have taken me to all sorts of places in Britain over the decades.

If you can think of a suitable Fantasy genre story for the theme “Wanderlust”, why not enter in Inkitt’s friendly competition? There’s no entry fee and, alas, no cash prize, but readers on the site vote for your stuff and leave, hopefully constructive, comments. See you at Inkitt then, WP’s fabby fantasy authors!



Hehe, William Stadler is absolutely spot on with this – you’ll particularly notice this character stealing when reading authors who write series of books, such as murder mysteries, romances and crime novels. The inspector with the drink problem/pending divorce etc or the girl/boy with chip on her/his shoulder about their humble origins…and yes, only yesterday I answered those Goodreads author questions about “where does your inspiration come from”. Whatever you answer, dear WP friends, DON’T say “I pinched all my characters from other writers!”

Here’s William’s spot-on-advice:

Originally posted on William Stadler:


We talked about plot stealing in the last post. Now, I’m going to increase my thievery. We can even steal characters. Wow, that’s hard to hear. For some reason there’s the writers’ hubris that we must birth everything from our literary wombs.

That’s insane. How many times in an interview has the question been asked: “So where did you get your inspiration?” I’ve heard all types of artists respond by saying, “I modeled this after that.”

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Too much of a wizarding good Thing

Ged should have gone by Whale Express, touring the Archipelago would have been far quicker and so much more fun!

Ged should have gone by Whale Express, touring the Archipelago would have been far quicker and so much more fun!

Review of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

One of the celebrated classics of the fantasy genre, Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, is my final choice for inclusion in this “location” focussed series of book reviews. It’s Le Guin’s first novel of the Earthsea series (four books in total) and, I’m sorry to say, a perfect example of how one can have too much of a good thing.

This is a fantasy author who has so fallen in love with the fictional world she has created, she treats us to endless descriptions of island after island that make up Earthsea’s vast archipelago. I had to force myself to read to the end, caring neither about the protagonist Ged’s fate nor that of Earthsea. Clearly, there was only enough plot to fill a short story, not a novel. To disguise this fact, Le Guin enlarged her meagre story with endless descriptions of island locations.

At Sea without a Paddle or a Compass

Plot: Young Ged, a mage with unrivalled powers, makes a terrible mistake as a young boy, summoning a dark and evil shadow from the realm of the dead, which now haunts him and threatens the safety of Earthsea, unless he can find a way to send the thing back to where it came from. To keep him safe and give him a chance to rid himself off this shadow, his mentor sends him to Roke Island and a wizard school, where Ged promptly summons the beasty again, which then mauls him and escapes into the world of the living.

Damn, my magical boat just vanish. Not enough fairy dust?

Damn, my magical boat just vanish. Not enough fairy dust?

It’s really a modern morality play, with Ged finally discovering his own true self and that too much power invariably corrupts. Puffed up like a giant puffer fish, the story takes us from Ged’s home island of Gont right across to the West Reach and then back again to the East Reach and finally to The Open Sea, as Ged and a variety of handmade little boats flit around the Earthsea world. He meets a few dull characters and an evil sourceress and king, has his pet killed and finally meets up again with an old school chum, Vetch, before confronting the dark thing that haunts him.

As dry as an Icelandic Fish

If this book had been published in the mid-70s and not, as it was, in 1968, I doubt it would ever have become the bestselling fantasy classic that it is today. The only thing, in my opinion, that lifts it out of mediocricy, is that all protagonists are non-white, an utterly new and astonishing concept back in the days when apartheid blighted the planet and race relations in the USA were pretty bad.

Since Ged is not a very likeable hero, it is hard to feel any compassion for him or to identify with this proud, jealous and hot-headed wizard. The reader is forced to constantly leaf back to the map so thoughtfully provided by the publishers, since Ged flits from island to island during his quest and it’s easy to get muddled. All of them are rather boring places, excepting two, where Ged has his greatest adventures. The rest are windswept, barren rocks in the sea or places with a few fields and small towns where nothing ever happens. What was this author thinking???

Almost devoid of dialogue and certainly devoid of all humour, the novel bobs along like Ged’s little boat on the open sea, now and again throwing up an Earthsea legend like a flying fish, before sinking back into paddleboarding pace. Reading this book is like chewing on dried Icelandic cod without the hope of getting one’s hands on a life-saving pint of ale.

Spoilers ruin the briny Broth

Towards the end, when there’s finally a bit of tension and build-up of drama, Le Guin spoils the briny broth she serves up by informing us that Ged’s future holds various famous adventures. Great, he survives and so does Earthsea? Thanks a bunch for this spoiler, Le Guin, I might as well close the book at this point and read something a bit more entertaining now!

As empty as a sucked-out Lobster’s Claw

The dark shadow's watching you, Ged!

The dark shadow’s watching you, Ged!

Fantasy authors are often accused by non-genre writers, who believe they’re far more literary worthies, that they are obsessed with location. While it is true that location plays a far greater role in fantasy novels – the writer has to invent a whole world with its own rules, political and religious environment, animals, plant life etc – endless descriptions of locations will not please readers and certainly shouldn’t be used to substitute plot.

Le Guin’s story lacks content, it is as devoid of substance as a seagull-mugged oyster. And I fear, Le Guin falls squarely into the quarter of accused fantasy writers who have chosen fluff over meaty content. Every time when she should be moving her plot foward, she meanders off into Earthsea legends or songs or yet more descriptions of rocks in the sea.

It is the protagonists that readers engage with, the action and drama between them that make readers turn the page. No matter how lyrical a writer thinks their prose it, the reader will always choose action over location descriptions. In fact, I remember passing over the lengthier descriptions in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Philip Pullman’s books, leaving such trivial matters for a second reading.

Location should always serve to enhance the reader experience and catapult the plot forward, not stand in for the plot or help the author to puff up a short story into a full length novel. For that reason, I won’t bother reading Le Guin’s remaining Earthsea stories. Having experienced about 60 locations of the island’s archipelago during the course of the first novel, I prefer to read something a bit more earthy.

Is Ursula le Guin hiding her talent for comedy under a bushel?

Is Ursula le Guin hiding her talent for comedy under a bushel?

While I apreciate that this first volume was supposed to introduce the reader to the Earthsea legends and magical archipelago, endless flitting about from island to island without any kind of action happening, once Ged gets there, is really not my idea of a ripping good yarn. Location, location, location, in this instance, is just a step (sea mile) too far.

The World according to Bertie

AlexanderMcCallSmith by Tim DuncanAs promised, here’s the blog post about an author who uses “location” in a far more sophisticated way than any other writer I know.

I adore Alexander McCall Smith’s style of light-as-a-feather writing, but wished he’d stop using German in his novels. Firstly, because it’s rather pretentious and secondly, because the man hasn’t the first notion of the German language and always gets it wrong…and to compound his error always neglects to ask a German speaker to correct the foreign language errors in his novels.

But that’s really the only criticism I have of McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels, which are utter gems. Location plays an important part in this author’s novels, especially in his 44 Scotland Street escapades, where New Town in Edinburgh, Scotland, serves as the background to philosophical musings about life, love, friendship and freedom.

An Author goes Window-shopping

McCall Smith uses the City of Edinburg as a location for musings about the human condition, allowing readers a glimpse into the private lives of a set of people living in a particular neighbourhood. They don’t necessarily know each other personally, but their lives have a tendency to unexpectedly touch or, at times, even to collide in dramatic or comic fashion. Edinburgh serves to demonstrate the changes Scotland has undergone over the past few centuries, how its people have adapted to change and in turn have changed the world with their innovations.

Although the main focus of the story is on the residents of one particular tenement house in Scotland Street, the different districts of Edinburg all play an important role in describing the individual characters of the novel and the nature of what might be called “the Scottish condition”.

Whenever we learn more about a character or are introduced to a new character, we do so by following them to their favourite haunts in Edinburgh. Here the location is actually a character in the novel, as multi-faceted as any human being.

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, by Tilmandralle

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, by Tilmandralle

McCall is taking us on a stroll through this wind-swept Scottish city, reminding us of its heroic and foolish moments, holding up a lantern to shine on its grand architecture and its slums alike. Every so often he’s window-shopping for poignant moments, peering through the curtains to catch intimate exchanges between Edinburg’s citizens.

What at first glance appear to be mundane morsels of conversations between lovers, friends, neighbours, customers and coffee shop owners, children at school, or teachers out shopping, are eventually revealed as insightful comments on love and friendship, hope and aspirations, marriage and childhood; even the human psyche comes under scrutiny.

All Heroes great and small

Just like vet James Herriot examined the lives of all creatures great and small in the Yorkshire Dales, Alexander McCall Smith includes Edinburg’s pets in his examination of the human condition. Pet and pet owner are subjected to a minute examination, exploring their feelings to each other and the nature of their interaction with the rest of the world.

The way humans react to other people’s pets often give us a valuable clue to a person’s real personality. When at the end of the book one of the characters contemplates giving a dog a chance in order to secure the man she fancies, we know that she has finally tapped into the better part of her being, reached into herself and discovered her humanity.

Comic Genius

Edinburgh in the 17th Century

Edinburgh in the 17th Century

McCall Smith can be incredibly funny without resorting to obvious jokes. Here we see the residents of Scotland Street react to a shocking miscarriage of justice against one of their canine neighbours. From the way neighbours react to the pet’s misfortune, we catch a glimpse behind the mask and get to know these people’s true nature. We also see officialdom thwarted, always something that cheers us up, no matter what our nationality.

Naturally, plucky terrier Cyril is my favourite character in the book, apart from long-suffering Bertie himself. This time Cyril narrowly escapes the evil clutches of the law, when he is arrested for indiscriminately biting people in the neighbourhood of 44 Scotland Street. It’s all a terrible mistake, but Cyril is thrown into prison and put on death row anyway.

Cyril is innocent of this particular crime, but as some residents in Scotland Street recall, he did sink his teeth into the ankle of Bertie’s despicable mother Irene, a woman who smothers her 6-year-old son and her husband to such an extent, the two males of the Pollock household lead a miserable existence and cannot see themselves ever finding happiness.

The funny thing is that Irene is well-meaning, a mother and wife who only wants the best for her family. She believes herself to be tolerant and enlightened, but she is actually devoid of humanity, has no understanding, charity or mercy. Irene is the villain of the piece and all over the world, so McCall Smith tells his readers in the prologue to the follow-up of this novel (“The Importance of Being Seven”), readers are hoping that Bertie will finally turn seven and escape the clutches of his domineering mother, if only for an afternoon!

Scotland is a Dog-eat-Dog World

Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

A mother and wife from hell, Irene seems to have conducted a clandestine affair with Bertie’s child psychotherapist, who Bertie believes to be the father of baby Ulysses, Bertie’s 4-month-old brother. The scenes where Bertie asks the adults in his small world about the paternity of baby Ulysses are priceless and among the funniest in the book.

Bertie’s view of the world is explained in a short essay he and his classmates are asked to write by a new teacher. Full of humanity and kindness, Bertie tolerates his mother’s nasty nature, taking it as something that must be endured until he is old enough to move away as far as possible from Scotland Street. Miserable at home and at school, Bertie sees the world as one long ordeal, just like most of us do, if we’re honest.

At the end of the novel the reader cannot help but feel that Cyril the Dog would grin broadly – gold tooth and all – at some of the human peccadilloes that have happened in Scotland Street while he was in prison. He owes his life to Bertie and this reader suspects, Bertie was just returning the favour. Having witnessed his mother being bitten by Cyril must have been a great comfort to the little boy. There is a happy end – really more of a happy beginning – at the end of the novel that allows readers to look forward to McCall Smith’s next window-shopping trip in Edinburg.

Interestingly, McCall Smith ends the novel with a domestic setting in one of 44 Scotland Street’s spacious Georgian flats. We see some of the characters enjoy a harmonious meal together – which is as the world should be, according to Bertie.

Death of a Hollow Man

hollow man coverOutrageously funny at times, Caroline Graham’s highly accomplished murder mystery is far, far better than the TV adaptation (ITV) of it. Rich in suspects, the novel is set in fictional Causton, a small provincial town not far from London. This is a complex tale of jealousy and madness.

Here the confined settings are an amateur theatre, a famous stage play and two provincial towns. One is Causton near London, the other exists in playwright Peter Shaffer’s play and in reality: Salzburg in Austria. They all mirror each other and are used to great effect as background for a murder that, at first sniff, doesn’t appear to one at all, but merely an accident on stage.

These small empires are ruled by entirely different types of Big Fish. While Chief Inspector Barnaby rules the real world of provincial Causton, Harold the impresario rules Causton’s small theatre. On stage, we have Peter Shaffer’s villain Salieri and everybody’s favourite enfant terrible, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, battling for leadership of a very different, but equally restrictive world, the 18th century court of Emperor Joseph and Salzburg.

Glastonbury, Somerset

Glastonbury, Somerset

In a town with only a handful of shops, one bookshop and a couple of restaurants, it is hard to stand out, talented or not. We see young actors like Nicholas and Cully leave Causton for the world at large (Cambridge and London), just as Mozart eventually left Salzburg to seek his fortune abroad. The talented have a shot at eternal life. Hollow, meaning talentless or mediocre men and women, do not; all they can dream of is to become a Big Fish in a small pond. The jealousy this creates is the central theme.

Where the Worlds of Make-Believe and Reality collide

The plot revolves around a staging of playwright Peter Shaffer’s famous play, Amadeus, by Causton’s amateur dramatics society, of which Chief Inspector Barnaby’s wife Joyce is a long-standing member. Occasionally, Barnaby himself is drafted in to help with painting the scenery due to his skill with a paintbrush.

Having known all the suspects for more than a decade is initially advantageous in a murder investigation; however, Chief Inspector Barnaby soon realises that knowing suspects intimately can get in the way of objectivity and hamper an investigation considerably. Reality and make-belief soon collide, as history repeats itself and another “hollow” man finds death.

A Play within a Play

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

For those who don’t know Shaffer’s famous play “Amadeus”:

18th century composer Salieri, a life-long rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is so consumed with envy that he plots the young composer’s downfall and death. Salieri reigns in the fashionable society of Austria’s court, Schönbrunn, and in Salzburg, a provincial town at the Austrian/German border.

On the surface, the two composers are competing for the “Big Fish” position in Salzburg and at Emperor Joseph’s court, but what they are really competing for is a place in history.

By ruining Amadeus’ chances at Schönbrunn’s court, where the young man seeks a patron in Emperor Joseph, Salieri reduces his rival to abject poverty. The play also suggests that Salieri may have actually poisoned Mozart, explaining the composer’s mysterious illness and premature death at age 30.

Amadeus: the name means beloved by God. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s heavenly music gives the composer access to the realm of the Gods, and therefore eternity. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart drives the older man insane and ultimately, to suicide, as Salieri loses faith in God after a lifetime of devotion and a lifetime of mediocrity. Salieri’s music is only remembered today because of his involvement with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Historians still debate whether Salieri truly poisoned Mozart, or whether the older composer merely poisoned public opinion against Mozart.

View of Schoenbrunn Palace in Austria, by Canaletto

View of Schoenbrunn Palace in Austria, by Canaletto

Shaffer’s play is beautifully mirrored in the jealousies of the actors in Causton’s theatre, where everybody hopes to be either director, leading man or leading lady, never mind if they’ve got the talent for the job or not.

In the confined world of the amateur theatre (it only has 100 seats) Caroline Graham stages her whodunit like a play and mirrors Shaffer’s central theme and historical events in Salzburg in her own murder mystery.

Noises off

Noises off stage in this context mean Salieri-style intrigues and gossip, which drive Caroline Graham’s plot.

Inspector Barnaby’s own brilliance is contrasted by his Sergeant’s inability to detect his way out of a coffee cup (another “hollow” man, who incidentally is also married to a “hollow” woman).

Barnaby is married to a once promising singer, Joyce, who gave up her career to be a policeman’s wife and mother to talented actress daughter Cully. Now middle-aged, Joyce is reduced to be “noises off” and performs walk-on parts in the amateur dramatics society. Her lovely voice has been switched off by marriage and convention, not malice, but her fate seems to mirror that of the young composer Mozart. Inspector Barnaby, ultimately also just a Big Fish in a small pond, effectively ended Joyce’s career in the big wide world.

Director’s Cut

The murder only happens after we have been introduced to the entire cast: the director, the leading man, the bit players and even the theatre cat – and when the “director’s cut” finally happens in the midst of first night performance nerves and stage fright jitters, everybody assumes it was an accident that an actor cut his throat on stage.

Except for Barnaby. He can see through the make-believe of painted scenery, unfamiliar lighting and fake stage directions (on stage and off).

At the close of the novel Barnaby strolls through the streets of Causton. For the first time he sees his little realm’s shortcomings properly and is disgusted by what he sees. But there’s hope; much may be “hollow” in Barnaby’s little world, but look closely and you’ll discover a divine spark lights up dark corners and occasionally produces a prodigy beloved by the Gods, in this case his daughter Cully and young actor-to-be Nicholas).

Setting Boundaries

As in Sir Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”, the novel “Death of a Hollow Man” by Caroline Graham uses location to characterise not just the protagonists readers see “on stage”, but also those “off stage”. Throughout the novel the reader has the feeling there’s somebody waiting in the dark wings of the little theatre (and Causton) who pulls the strings. Ever so often, the reader is allowed to catch a glimpse, before change in lighting and direction hide this “off-stage” character from our glance again.

Exmore, United Kingdom

Exmore, United Kingdom

Some genres thrive on multiple locations, epic landscapes and hordes of characters. The fantasy and sci-fi genres spring to mind. Such novels deal with the “grand opera” of human existence, the philosophical questions that plague mankind.

Murder mysteries by contrast are intellectual puzzles which can only be solved by the reader, if the writer sets strict boundaries. They also typically look at just one aspect of the human condition: greed, sex, revenge, ambition or, in this case, professional jealousy. More “earthy” aspects, while fantasy and sci-fi look at the “lofty” (intellectual) side of humanity’s condition.

In this novel, the readers looks at the world under a microscope. This allows the writer to look at a very specific aspect of the human condition, that of mediocrity versus brilliance or talent. Since Agatha Christie decreed that a good whodunit shouldn’t really have more than a dozen characters driving the plot, murder mystery writers have mostly stuck to this formula. It is difficult to get to know a list of suspects, when the reader is presented with a veritable army of characters and an atlas full of locations.

In the urban sprawl of London, New York or Paris murders may be committed by murderers, who kill without reason, thus leaving no clue to identity and motive. Those types of murders are typically very difficult, if not impossible, to solve. It may take real life policemen and women years to discover the murderer.

Setting boundaries, such as a country mansion, a Midsomer hamlet, a 100-seater theatre or small provincial town, allows the writer to concentrate on that famous dozen and a very specific, perhaps even unusual aspect of the human condition.

Few of us will ever meet a Mozart, Picasso or Einstein – but many of us know a truly outstanding, talented person in our small circle of work colleagues and acquaintances, and so we can still relate to this novel and the underlying theme.

Genre Writing

Choosing the right location is as important as the characters one invents to carry the plot of a particular piece of genre writing. Using that chosen location to represent more than mere painted scenery is where a novel turns from merely memorable to unforgettable.

I have used a few examples of crime novels or whodunits here to demonstrate how location is more than just a painted background on which to stage a “play”. Murder mysteries dissect a small sample of society. I chose the genre because I wanted to start “small” and follow up with the big picture, namely Alexander McCall Smith’s series of 44 Scotland Street stories, which are set in Edinburgh, but use the whole country as a means to muse about philosophical issues, historic changes, love and friendship, in other words, issues that affect all of humanity.

Being Epic on an epic Scale: Review of Cornwell’s 1356

1356 coverBernard Cornwell presents us with another magnificent tale here. “1356”, is part of Cornwell’s Grail Quest series of novels, and set during the 100-year war between England and France.

The author has won many fans with memorable series of books such as “Sharpe”, which was adapted for TV and starred actor Sean Bean in the title role, the “Warrior Chronicles” and the “Starbuck Chronicles”. All of them owe much to Cornwell’s meticulous research into the real geographical locations where his fictional action takes place and the historic events that inspired his narration.

This is “boys own” stuff though and readers expecting modern Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Zena the Warrior Princess type heroines will be bitterly disappointed. Writing for a male readership clearly obsessed with rape fantasies, Cornwell’s women are strictly victims never heroines. It’s sad that Cornwell should pander to this type of male readership. His constant reference to women getting raped all over the place is not so much down to the harsh medieval world he’s writing about but shows he wants to keep such male readers happy. Still, Cornwell is a brilliant writer and this blog post is about the way in which Cornwell uses location to conjure up a believable world. I leave you to judge him on the gender issue.

EPIC on an epic Scale

Battle of Crecy

Battle of Crecy

Nobody could accuse Cornwell of not knowing how to do “epic”. The reader knows she’s in for an epic adventure the moment she opens the book. This novel is divided into four parts plus a prologue and there are a few helpful maps. The prologue begins with a location: Carcassonne in southern France. From there Cornwell transfers the action to Avignon, then Montpellier, then Poitiers, before finally reaching the climax with an astonishing battle fought between the forces of King Jean of France and England’s Prince of Wales in 1356.

Cornwell’s locations have been carefully chosen to represent the build-up to the final battle in this most epic of wars – 100 years blood-soaked years of it! And this was just one of many “skirmishes” between English archers and French knights.

We are treated initially to brutal fights between fairly small forces, sometimes just a few people fighting each other, sometimes groups of soldiers battling it out in small confined surroundings. Each encounter is fiercer and bloodier than the previous one, and with each encounter the locations get bigger, ultimately leading to the Big Bang between England and France in the autumn of 1356, when some 16,000 men and horses collided on a vast field and hillside.

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

The story travels from the outskirts of Carcassonne across the south of the country to the north of France and the town of Poitiers. Along the way Cornwell’s sweeping narration takes in hamlets and hovels, forests, marshland, fields, crumbling towers and fairly new monasteries, noisy taverns, whorehouses, formidable abbeys and imposing castles. In short, Cornwell presents readers with the whole medieval world known to an English soldier fighting in France.

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

The final battle is described in all its horrors and Cornwell doesn’t flinch away from stating it as it is. This is not the heroic battlefield of fantasy novels. The author travelled to the real location to get a feel for the landscape and setting, describing it in beautiful detail as it must have been in 1356.

And that battle is the real blood, piss, shit, chopped off limbs, guts and gore stuff that happened. Six thousand English soldiers meet ten thousand Frenchmen in a clash so loud it makes your ears ring, your eyes water and your teeth shatter with the din of it.

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

You can practically feel the trampled vines crunching under your feet and you’ll find yourself flinching from horses’ hooves as they kick and scream in their final moments. The clanging of spiked morningstars flattening metal helmets, crushing skulls in the process, is deafening. You’ll be checking every so often if brain matter spattered across your shirt while you were busy turning pages.

Men hack, cut, bash, batter, shoot, bite, kick, punch and trample. They don’t stop until their opponent is utterly crushed, literally, and the landscape is awash with blood, urine, excrement, rotting corpses and the tears of the survivors.

Cornwell’s “1356” battle feels totally real. For any budding writer out there planning to write a fantasy novel with a big battle scene this is essential reading.

Nothing like A Year in Provence

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

None of the buildings or landscapes provide any comfort or solace in this novel. This is not the France we know from holiday brochures or from reading the delightful A Year in Provence, where pretty thatch-roof cottages or magnificent castles light up the landscape and the gaps are filled by cosy restaurants serving delicious food.

These villages and towns are littered with hostile abodes where humans and animals find few creature comforts, even when some buildings are relatively richly furnished. No matter how strong or thick the fortified walls, somebody will find a way to destroy them and kill everything and everyone within. Even a location within a location, for that’s what buildings are, can serve to drive home a point, in this case: war doesn’t stop at one’s threshold just because you’ve locked the door. You can’t pull the duvet over your head to block out the hounds of war.

Cornwell’s landscapes change from hot and bothered to mud-spattered and half-drowned. His protagonists face hidden dangers in forests, in rivers and on hilltops where man and horse can die of thirst gradually or be cut down by an arrow in a blink of an eye. Even at Thomas of Hookton’s own stronghold, the Castillon d’Arbizon, there is a traitor who passes on information to Thomas’ enemies.

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Castles are draughty and dark, stink and more often than not act as prisons rather than refuge. The castles and fortresses remind us that swearing allegiance to the wrong overlord can become a prison of mind, body and soul, as both Roland and Robbie find out.

Church buildings are equally hostile, inhabited as they are by deranged monks, power-hungry cardinals, duplicitous abbots and sadistic priests. Cold and dark or filled with smoke from too many candles, these churches are either decorated with mysterious paintings that have lost their meaning over time or they are being painted by arrogant artists who create art for the glorification of their patrons, not for the glory of God.

These locations are not holy places but unholy representations of man. There is no salvation here, only damnation and horrible death.

The hilarious scene between Thomas of Hookton and the ancient Countess of Malbuisson in the Saint Dorcas convent is simply priceless and particularly amusing for an atheist like myself: it tells me everything there’s to know about the absurdity of religion and churchmen!

Legend versus Reality

heathersanimations.comThis medieval world is not the world of bards and chivalry, of Breughel-peasants frolicking in fields. This is the world of Hieronymus Bosch, hell on Earth, where chaos reigns supreme. No building, no city, village or town can provide safety. Young Roland, champion at so many French tournaments, soon learns that the battlefield is nothing like the chivalrous jousting places he’s used to. Cornwell beautifully compares locations of real battles and skirmishes between enemies with the glamour of courtly tournaments.

Cornwell takes us from certainty to uncertainty, from fact to fiction. Just as historians have been baffled ever since, why the French lost the battle in 1356, when they vastly outnumbered the English, nobody knows for certain, where this battle actually took place.

heathersanimations.comAfter a prologue and several exact locations in space and time, the narration enters the mists of legends. Legend has it, the battle took place some 8 miles distance from Poitiers, near the Abbey of Nouaillé, on the 19th September 1356, but nobody has been able to identify the actual Champ d’Alexandre, the flat hilltop that reputedly served as the battlefield.

Although Cornwell went to visit the alleged location of Champ d’Alexandre, he could only choose the spot that seemed most logical to him as the field for a great battle. The mystery surrounding the actual historical location just adds to the romance of the novel and our enjoyment of it.

Using Location to underline the Leitmotif

Right from the start Cornwell uses location to demonstrate the “them and us” situation. While the gentry and rich hide behind massive walls of Carcassonne’s enormous fortress, the burgers of the town are left defenceless. The township is pillaged and raped by the English.

The novel plunges the reader straight into the hell of warfare in the first few pages – there is no glory here, no glamour; it is vile, it is brutal, it is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sanctuary to be found for the ordinary man, woman or child anywhere, not even in church, where soldiers also rape, murder and plunder.

Rich and powerful people usually find a way to survive and this theme surfaces throughout the novel. While the King and cardinals hide behind enemy lines or enter the battle only with their body guards, the foot soldiers plunge into the melee and are hacked to pieces.

The rich, most notably kings, churchmen and princes, have a tendency to survive. They might occasionally get captured, but as long as their followers can raise the ransom, these captives will eventually go free.

Location, Location, Location takes us to the Happy End

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

In a novel where location has such importance, naturally location acts as the final reward.

The two anti-heroes of the book, English archer Thomas of Hookton and the Black Prince, are eventually rewarded, not so much with riches of a material kind, but with the ability to go home to England after many years of fighting in France. Neither man hides behind others or seeks shelter behind fortified walls. They are found at the heart of battle every time and therefore deserve to go home unharmed and dripping with (albeit unexpected) glory.

Here an author has used a profusion of locations to give his story the epic scope the historic event requires. But the choice of locations also serves to explain the complex characters of the two anti-heroes, Thomas of Hookton and Edward, Prince of Wales. Both men are portrayed as fully rounded as the hillside where the battle took place; they are as immovable and firm in pursuing their own code of honour as the fortified walls of Carcassonne’s gigantic castle.

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

When we see them in their final battle, the main characters of the book are no longer protected physically by anything other than a hedge and a few trees. Mentally, physically and emotionally they can no longer hide, neither from their enemies nor from readers’ scutiny. Exposed to the battle and to the critical eye of the reader, the personalities of the two anti-heroes are laid bare, just as the characters of their opponents, King Jean of France and an assortment of enemies both Thomas and Prince Edward have made along the way.

Presented with a large dollop of humour and an even larger helping of historical fact with regard to weapons, battle tactics, armour and deployment of archers, “1356” is a fantastic read for battle-hardened fantasy readers who have so far shied away from historic novels but would like to get a taste of a clash between real medieval forces.

The Reek of Red Herrings

cover of red herringThere is a tendency to set murder mysteries and crime novels in urban jungles these days.
The Reek of Red Herrings by Catriona McPherson is a contemporary example of how authors can use the traditional “village” setting successfully to demonstrate their overall theme. A village location can be far more than just a pretty background for foul deeds and thrilling action.

Here the village represents not simply a closed community with its own set of beliefs and rules, a world in miniature, but mirrors the tightly packed herring barrels of the book title, where layer upon layer of creature must be exposed and investigated before our sleuths can get to the bottom of the mystery.

The dark, winding, narrow and inhospitable streets of Gamrie, a village snaking up a steep crag overlooking the sea, are as confusing as the villagers’ family names and hereditary connections, causing sleuths Dandy and Alec to constantly lose their way in this investigation – intellectually, ethically and physically.

Even the architecture of Gamrie’s houses is baffling to the extreme. Several families live in one multi-story house, but the division of the rooms and different levels makes no sense to outsiders. The village’s precarious location on the crag overhanging the sea poses a constant threat to human and animal lives, just as uncovering the truth does, because revealing it will cause a scandal that will wreck the fishing community’s livelihood.

A Barrel of fishy Goings-on

Clupea_harengus_Gervais.flippedSet in 1930, this wonderfully atmospheric and dark murder mystery begins when amateur detectives Alec Osborne and Dandy Gilver are called in by the boss of a Banffshire fishing fleet to investigate on the quiet the macabre appearance of body parts in his herring barrels.

Married forty-something Dandy Gilver is glad to get out of a boring Christmas get-together with some of the dullest elements of her family; her handsome and much younger friend Alec Osborne is alone in the world, so always ready to plunge into sleuthing at a moment’s notice. Before Dandy’s husband Hugh can utter any kind of seasonal protest, the two detectives are off to the northeast coast of Scotland for a new adventure.

Pickled Philly-oolies

Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson

Their latest client cannot risk going to the police but must find out how, whether due to accident or foul play, human remains got among the herrings. So the respectable Mr. Birchfield summons the two amateur sleuths to his Aberdeen harbour office and asks them to investigate undercover in the village of Gamrie, the origin of these particular fishy barrels.

Posing as brother and sister, the two detectives plus Dandy’s elderly Dalmatian Bunty promptly head to Gamrie, where they are forced to stay in a cheerless hotel called the Three Kings. It’s run by mad-as-a-hatter landlady Miss Euphemia Clatchie, the first in a long line of eccentric local characters. Euphemia is also the first character who serves beautifully as a suspect in this barrelful of red herrings. The two detectives go undercover as a couple of philologists, or philly-oolies, as the fishing community calls them.

By asking pertinent questions among local households what ancient customs fishing folk are still practicing, the two sleuths try to discover, if a murder took place or whether Mr Pickle, the chopped-up man in Mr. Birchfield’s herring barrels, was simply the victim of an accident at sea and got into the barrels by a series of unfortunate circumstances.

Although initially these old customs seem quaint and rather sweet, the more our sleuths delve into the traditions of Gamrie, the more they are appalled by the sinister implications of some of these customs. The brains of Gamrie’s inhabitants, one feels after reading a few chapters, are just as pickled as herring and as inverted as the words philologists and philly-oolies!

Leading us by the Nose from one foul Stench to another Horror

If the thought of body parts among the herrings makes you shiver, wait until you read the bit where Dandy follows husband Hugh’s advice and visits a Gamrie curio museum. Naturally, the contents of that place would have been a source of wonder and pleasure for emotionally stunted Hugh Gilver!

Clupea_pallasiiFor everyone else, however, private museums devoted to the art of the taxidermist, are quite simply horrific. This reviewer once went to such a place in Arundel, Sussex, in the late 1970s and still has nightmares of squirrels posing in 18th century silk breeches several decades later.

Just as Agatha Christie often uses a cosy village location and manor house as background for her murder mysteries, McPherson introduces the “them and us” theme into her novel. Here a mansion-cum-museum at the edge of the village mirrors the closed village world of Gamrie.

Just like Gamrie, the museum is also a place where not everything is as it seems. The Searle brothers, who run the museum, are at first glance kind old gentlemen, but at second glance they are something else entirely. See how McPherson uses the different sections of the museum to build up her horror effect and how she changes the direction of her novel. It’s a fabulous use of location by a writer.

With each new room of horrible exhibits we are given insight into the Searle Brothers’ mindset and catch a glimpse of their ultimate goal. Leaving behind the genre of the cozy at the doorstep of the museum, McPherson takes the reader by their clammy hand and leads them ever so gently into a Gothic horror story!

It’s another example of using mirror images in a novel to drive home one’s overall theme, in this instance: living in a narrow and confined environment is apt to unhinge the mind.

Herring_catch-Sep200The museum visit introduces us to a new mystery serving as the sub-plot; here we have smelly dead things not contained by a barrel but presented in glass cases. Both mysteries have the foul stench of fishy business about them and before Dandy and Alec can say “kippers”, they are investigating the possibility of serial killings.

Salted Conundrum

The Reek of Red Herrings is McPherson’s most ambitious novel to-date, starring hordes of colourful characters and presenting the reader with two murder plots simultaneously; as the title says, it reeks of red herrings and there are several barrels of them standing by in Gamrie.

Infused with McPherson’s very own brand of black humour, the story plods along like a put-putting old trawler in heavy sea, hampered by rough weather and the two sleuths’ inability to understand ancient Doric lingo.

This reviewer often found herself laughing out loud at Dandy’s attempts to impress Alec with her “translations” into English, which then turn out to be totally wrong, to the great amusement of Gamrie’s fishermen and women.

The sleuths’ inability to understand Doric is yet another metaphor: Dandy’s and Alec’s modern minds also fail to understand what drives stuck-in-time local minds. This has serious consequences for their investigation.

Fishy Folklore

McPherson must have spent ages researching all the different customs, wedding lore and superstitions among early 20th century fishing communities, because she delights us with a veritable flood of them.

The abundance of same name individuals in the village, which are as bewildering to Dandy and Alec as they are to the reader, serves rather well to demonstrate how inbred the place really is and therefore, how unhinged Gamrie is as a community.

Gamrie’s tradition of “handfasting” young couples seems nothing more than a hypocritical excuse for these “pious” villagers to sleep around before settling on the financially most advantageous partner. Greed and material advantage are the basis for marriage in Gamrie, not love or companionship. Cloaked in a mantel of folklore and brandishing before them their god-fearing Doric expressions, which are nothing more than a barrel of lies, these villagers are unwilling, not unable, to rise over senseless superstitions.

Having recovered her ethical stance during a year’s absence, Dandy states quite clearly to one villager at the end of the novel: ” we won’t return”. Our sleuths wash their hands of this fishy community and walk away for good.

A Mystery as changeable as the Weather

Dandy Gilver's not a fair weather girl

Dandy Gilver’s not a fair weather girl

We are treated to the whole range of Scottish climate in this village, ranging from drizzle, fog and sheets of rain to raging blizzards, thunder and lightning and even mudslides and tsunami-like waves. Naturally, the weather serves to make the village location more atmospheric and “gothic” for us, but as with the streets and buildings of Gamrie, the weather serves as a triple-layered metaphor and is not just there for decoration.

Firstly, harsh climate demonstrates how precarious the existence of such a small community is and how dependent small communities like Gamrie are on each other.

Secondly, the weather undermines our sleuths’ efforts to discover the truth about the chopped-up man in the barrels at every turn. Repelled physically by the rain and snow, the cold and the wind, our sleuths are also prevented intellectually from finding out the truth, because the locals’ attitude towards them is as changeable as the weather. One minute Gamrie’s residents are talkative and co-operative, the next moment residents button their lips and allow gale force wind to slam doors shut in our sleuths’ faces.

Simply getting about from A to B to interview suspects is a struggle. And when our sleuths do manage to leave their hotel, a gale drives them like helpless autumn leaves to places they don’t necessarily want to investigate. Just when Dandy and Alec think they’re hot on the trail of unravelling the mystery of Mr. Pickle, they lose their footing on an icy patch or a cold breeze blows them off course and they drift off into a new direction on an icy float of more misconceptions and deceit.

Finally, Gamrie’s temperamental climate prompts readers to suspect malevolent undercurrents are driving the lives of these fishermen and women, but when one is tossed and turned about in heavy seas, where does one turn for dry land – and a stable theory of who committed a crime? Banffshire’s changeable weather mirrors the ever-changing theories our sleuths, and the reader, develop about the case.

Doggedly carrying on

heathersanimations.comUnusually for a McPherson novel, the last chapter sees us back in Gamrie, a year after the dramatic events. Bunty has died of old age and a new puppy is wrecking the car seats, as Alec brings the car to a screeching standstill in Gamrie harbour. There is no feeling of a job well done with the closure of this murder investigation and the nature of the crimes mean there cannot possibly be a happy ending for Gamrie either. However, the community carries on doggedly, using superstition and folklore to block out reality.

Dandy and Alec carry on doggedly with another case, blocking out how the stay in Gamrie has highlighted that their relationship is stuck in neutral after eight years as fellow sleuths. They may have gone to the village weddings as the mirror image of best man and maid of honour, but they are far, far from being the happy couple.

We are spared Dandy’s pain over losing her beloved dog Bunty, but are left to wonder if horrible Hugh shot her behind the woodshed, as he keeps threatening at the start of the novel. The arrival of a new (male) puppy on the scene suggests that Dandy is moving on with life, but her ambivalence about the puppy mirrors her ambivalence about her marriage to Hugh.

The reader suspects this puppy may be one of Hugh’s ill-conceived ideas, an animal foisted on Dandy against her will. The naughty behaviour in the car suggests this is a dog in no way adequate to follow in Bunty’s well-behaved paw prints.

Bunty was, as Dandy tells us towards the end of the book, “quite the most comforting creature ever born”. One feels therefore, Dandy will forever be deprived of Bunty’s spotted kind of emotional support. It’s a sad ending all round, and not just for dog-lovers.

A Whiff of new Horizons

The only true sliver of hope at the end of dark and macabre adventure is the fact that Alec and Dandy’s relationship is blossoming into something resembling romance. Maybe Bunty had to die to make way in Dandy’s heart for somebody else? Who knows, the next book may well see Hugh Gilver’s long overdue demise! Perhaps he’ll be washed away by Gilverton’s infamous drains, drowning in a pool of mud as dull as the life he’s led his wife.

This reviewer got a little carried away when she read about cosy get-togethers in Dandy’s hotel room at the dismal Three Kings…Alec and Dandy sitting next to one another on her bed, two pairs of naked feet frolicking in hot water buckets…

Hold on to your cloche hats, ladies, don’t get carried away, for this is as steamy as it gets. You won’t be seeing Dandy rolling round in 50 shades of Scottish heather with toy boy Alec here!

But this was a clever way of using the Gamrie hotel room location as a metaphor for the sleuths’ deepening relationship. In earlier books we saw Dandy and Alec standing about uncomfortably whenever Alec had to visit Dandy’s bedroom to discuss their current case in private. The vastness of Dandy’s Gamrie hotel room and the lack of furniture – there is not even a chair in her bedroom – mean that the two sleuths have to come closer physically (and therefore emotionally) and sit together on Dandy’s bed or they can’t have a private conversation. Brilliant stuff.

Fortunately, there are enthusiastic foxtrottings at Gamrie weddings that permit Alec to put his arms around Dandy in public. In his chaste capacity as her pretend brother. A boisterous dance through Gamrie’s icy streets leads our sleuths all the way to a snug wedding bed, complete with curtains, a bottle of whiskey and a lump of cheese on the pillows to sustain an energetic couple throughout the “doings”. Unfortunately, Dandy and Alec are in the company of the entire village population and not free to partake of such endearing village customs. Bother!

Still, this positive use of village infrastructure gives romantically inclined readers hope there will be 50 shades of “goings-on” in future McPherson novels.

Murder most foul

To sum up: in this novel the use of the village location is as multi-layered as a barrel full of herrings and as complex as North Sea marine life. It’s not a picturesque pastoral village setting à la Jane Austen, but a hostile environment where mankind thrives at its peril. Narrow streets harbour narrow minds in Gamrie; this cut-off seaside community is awash with mental disorders, family feuds, greed and envy.

And if, like this reviewer, you disliked salted herrings before you read this book, you’ll detest the things even more, when you’re done with the novel. It’s not so much a question of The Reek of (Red) Herrings that made this reader feel queasy reading Catriona McPherson’s book, it’s the foul stench of human behaviour. The novel deserves more than five stars if Goodreads’ rating system would only allow it. It certainly merits one star for each herring barrel containing parts of Mr Pickle.

Murder (Mystery) is Easy

Agatha Christie as a child, promoting the 1977 book An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie, published by Dodd, Mead Publishing House

Agatha Christie as a child, promoting the 1977 book An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie, published by Dodd, Mead Publishing House

Few authors have managed to use the “village” as a background to murder mysteries as successfully as Agatha Christie has. It is a setting she returns to again and again, not just for her Miss Marple stories, but also for many of her Poirot books. As Murder is Easy is quite a short, neat little novel, I’ve chosen it to demonstrate how village life can serve brilliantly as a background to a story, be it romance, horror, sci-fi or a cosy whodunit. The “village” is more than just a “location” in this particular story, it represents the novel’s theme: appearances can be deceptive.

Is this a murder mystery or a romance novel? One isn’t quite sure, for the hero Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman returning to England after many years abroad in the Mayang Straits, is rather inept at sleuthing, but quite skilful at courting gorgeous Bridget, his fellow amateur sleuth.

Published in 1939, the novel does show its age in the way that Luke views his potential future wife at the start of the novel, but rather surprisingly for the era switches at the end to a far more enlightened way of looking at relationships, one that a reader in 2015 can appreciate and understand.

An aptly named Lady

Meeting a dithering old lady on the train to London, Luke is amazed to hear that his fellow passenger Miss Lavinia Pinkerton is on her way to Scotland Yard to report a series of murders. She lives in a small village where several unexpected deaths have led her to believe that a serial killer is on the loose. Lavinia reminds Luke of a much loved aunt, which is why he gives a certain amount of credence to the old lady’s story. His confidence in her is simply based on the fact that favourite aunts, no matter how eccentric, usually know best. And besides, anyone called “Pinkerton” must have a talent for sleuthing!

First edition, published in 1939

First edition, published in 1939

Sinister Village Idyll

Luke is soon haring off to the village where Miss Pinkerton lived. Intent on completing the old lady’s detective work, for the Pinkerton lady herself has been foully murdered before she ever had the chance to cross Scotland Yard’s threshold, Luke is soon faced with a barrel full of red herrings and a list of suspects as wide and long as a village green.

At first glance, the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe is picturesque and tranquil, a little haven among the sheep, wild flower meadows and blue bells. Upon further inspection, however, Luke discovers the village is awash with sinister characters, from the antique dealer with a penchant for satanic rites and pornography to the affable, but arrogant young doctor and the village drunk with a tendency to wife-beating. Even children can be quite nasty, horrid enough to get themselves murdered. Soon Luke’s imagination runs wild. Indeed, the girl Luke falls in love with may secretly be a witch; she resembles a lady with a broomstick Luke once saw in a picture!

Ashe Ridge is not a beauty spot for hikers and bird watchers – it looms threateningly above the village like a vulture waiting to strike at any moment; verdant meadows and fields are more likely to host Walpurgis Night celebrations for a coven of witches than be the setting for toddlers’ teddy bear picnics or village fetes with bunting, tea and crumpets.

Appearances can be deceptive, the author tells us with her setting. And therefore we should watch out for the most unlikely of murderers…

Well-placed Cousins

Luke’s friend in London arranges for him to stay at Lord Whitfield’s mansion in Miss Pinkerton’s village. Whitfield is a self-made man of humble origins, a newspaper magnate who was born in Wychwood-under-Ashe and now lords it over his fellow villagers at every opportunity. A prize bore and self-important puffed-up little man, Lord Whitfield’s behaviour is responsible for much of the humour in this story.

Since Whitfield’s secretary and betrothed is a cousin of Luke’s friend in London, Luke goes undercover, posing as an author researching a book and pretending to be one of Bridget’s cousins. This allows him to stay at Whitfield’s mansion, where Luke enjoy a certain amount of “protection” from nosy village gossips and preying eyes. Romance looms on the horizon as soon as Luke arrives and Agatha Christie has great fun with the English attitude of fair play here. How can Luke call himself a gentleman and remain under the same roof as the man whose betrothed he’s stealing?

Creating Mirror Images

The use of the mansion in a village setting is also a familiar Christie ploy. Here we have another closed and potentially lethal microcosm, even smaller than the village itself. What goes on in the mansion is a mirror image of the village world beyond the wrought-iron gates.

There is the middle-aged poor relation, who talks about nothing but gardening and takes no interest in anything around her, just like the widow of the murdered doctor or the village solicitor. There are the servants who don’t take their employer seriously and try to steal a march on him the moment his back is turned, just like a young murder victim from the village did. There is the secretary who has set her cap at bagging a rich man, just like the old doctor’s daughter, who is secretely engaged to the doctor’s successor.

The very building of Ash Ridge Manor is not what it seems, having started out as a beautiful Queen Anne mansion and now sporting Gothic turrets and other Victorian architectural horrors. Using the mansion on the outskirt of the village also serves to create a “them and us” atmosphere, always good for a few sinister goings-on in a whodunit!

In a typical Christie twist of events, it is Bridget, not Luke, who unmasks the murderer before a few more corpses can litter the blooming countryside. As Miss Pinkerton warned at the outset, the killer is the most unlikely of people, and the revelation is therefore quite shocking. Bridget is in many ways a younger version of Miss Pinkerton, an unlikely sleuth. She is beautiful and accomplished, but not an open or friendly person. Like Miss Pinkerton, Bridget is also blessed with a keen intellect and powers of observation, but this fact is lost on most people, because like Miss Pinkerton Bridget is able to mask her true nature very well. The two women are another example how the use of mirror images, be they locations or people, can create a far deeper meaning and more satisfying reading experience for the reader.

This is also a good opportunity for Christie to highlight another disadvantage of village life and constrast city life versus village life: the lonely spinster who everybody knows, everyone relies on to help out but nobody loves or values.

Nobody believed spinster and “busy-body” Miss Lavinia Pinkerton and that fact cost somebody their life. In London, so Luke’s friend from Scotland Yard confirms, Miss Pinkerton’s suspicions would have been taken seriously. In Wychwood-under-Ashe, however, the local policeman is too narrow-minded to believe Miss Pinkerton.

Many of us, like Lord Whitfield, dream of returning from city life to the rural “idyll” because we imagine we’ll matter more there than we do in the metropolis. This is yet another case of appearances being deceptive, as we see with Lord Whitfield, whose good intensions get up villagers’ noses to such an extent that everybody mocks him, sometimes openly as one chauffeur does to his face and sometimes behind his lordly back, like one young murder victim did.

Catching a Glimpse of the real Miss Christie

Murder is Easy is an enjoyable read, and quite revealing at the very end, when the author lets something of herself shine through. Bridget asks Luke, if he LIKES her, caring far less if he is in love with her.

“Liking is more important than loving. It lasts…I don’t want us just to love each other and marry and get tired of each other and then want to marry some one else.” (Bridget, page 254, line 16, 2/6 Edition published for The Crime Club by Collins)

One feels that Agatha Christie is speaking truly from the heart here, having one failed marriage under her belt and now being secure in a far, far better relationship with her archaeologist husband. Reading between the lines, one suspects the author was dazzled by dashing good looks and romance the first time round, but found her true soul mate after divorcing her two-timing cad of a husband.

Naturally, Luke and Bridget have the good sense to run off to London to start their married life, away from gossip, narrow-mindedness and preying villagers’ eyes.

Lavinia’s right: Murder is easy!

heathersanimations(dot)comOverall, it’s not one of Christie’s best murder mysteries, reminding one too much of plots used for her Poirot and Miss Marple novels, but the author does present us with a truly terrifying killer here and a view of village life that rings true – without the murders, obviously, but with all the resentment and neighbourly feuds that brew up so nicely in closed communities, I can recognised every village I’ve ever lived in. Villages are witches’ cauldrons, where disappointments and dislikes are likely to bubble and simmer quite harmlessly for quite sometime before erupting into something foul and deadly.

At the end the reader is left with the uncomfortable question, if perhaps this sort of thing goes on far more often than one thinks? After which thought my mind drifted off to Harold Shipman and Rose West. Ye-es, it seems that Murder is Easy. There simply aren’t enough Miss Pinkertons and savvy aunts out there to keep us safe!

And, of course, in 1939, when murder mystery fans where nosing through Agatha’s book, London’s children were being evacuated to safer grounds, since the greatest murderer of them all was getting his weapons ready to kill us all…

A Study in Scarlet

640px-A_Study_in_Scarlet_from_Beeton's_Christmas_Annual_1887Ever since Sir Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, said: “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it,” fictional amateur sleuths and professional real life detectives have striven to do just that.

A Study in Scarlet was the first Sherlock Holmes adventure – and by chance, the first I ever read. To this day, some 40 years later, it remains my favourite. There is such unspeakable evil pervading the closed world of Utah’s Mormons of the 19th century that reading about it makes me shudder and count my blessings that I grew up in a family of atheists in the safety of laid-back protestant Schleswig-Holstein.

However, my reason for choosing Conan Doyle’s celebrated classic is not because of Sherlock’s brilliant deductions, it is because of the utterly brilliant use of location. The highly atmospheric descriptions of very different locations have always stayed with me as the perfect example of how influential location is in a story for drawing in the reader and how important locations are for introducing a drastic change of pace successfully.

The Meeting of two unequal Minds

Limitless greed, not religious fervour, is at the bottom of this particular murder mystery, but it is not just greed for another’s wealth and land Conan Doyle describes here. It is the coveting of somebody’s daughter for the brutal amassing of sexual slaves. It is the glorification of rape within marriage by a despotic religious sect that makes this Sherlock Holmes story so memorable and chilling. In essence, this is a revenge story, played out over a period of more than 20 years.

Holmes and Watson have just started their memorable partnership, which only comes about because Holmes has found splendid apartments in Baker Street but can’t afford to rent them on his own and Dr. Watson, badly injured in Afghanistan, has returned from the wars a broken man in need of recuperation, occupation, companionship and cheap accommodation.

I spy with my little eye a murder most foul!

I spy with my little eye a murder most foul!

Amateur Sleuth and professional Chameleon

The first three chapters are devoted to describing the unusual character of Holmes, and as such they are among the most important chapters ever written in whodunit fiction. This is a wholly new type of investigator, a consulting detective who is called in when official sources are as baffled as the ordinary man in the street. It is also one of the most unusual protagonists ever created in fiction, an arrogant, even rude man, a character it is very difficult to like or even tolerate for long. Conan Doyle introduces the reader – and the world – to the “Science of Deduction”. He also introduces us to a modern anti-hero who will resurface again and again in modern fiction, on TV and in films: the deeply flawed investigator.

When we first meet Holmes, as seen through the eyes of Dr. Watson, he is as charming as can be, friendly and smiling, even a little shy and gauche. Only when Holmes is more sure of Watson’s friendship and continued support (financial and emotional), he begins to reveal his true nature to his new flatmate. Typical for Sherlock, he doesn’t just sit there in the snug apartments of 221B Baker Street and tells his new flatmate about himself by the fireside one evening.

No, Holmes must be theatrical about it. Enter the newspaper article a smug Sherlock presents Watson with at breakfast time. Rather than admitting to having written something for a newspaper about the science of deduction, Holmes draws attention to his work by circling the headline with a pencil. Naturally, Watson misses the clue of the “drop of water” in the article completely, clearly added by Sherlock for Watson’s benefit and enlightenment.

Attentive readers will know right away that the newspaper article was written by Holmes. Watson, having missed this clue, makes fun of the newspaper writer, ridiculing the writer’s theories. However, Watson is soon made to eat his words to his great irritation. In this small episode Conan Doyle sets up the relationship of these two men for all time and reveals pretty much everything there’s to know about their different personalities. Watson’s character is as plain and uninspired as the nose on this reviewer’s face – Sherlock Holmes, however, remains an enigma, a professional chameleon among the multitude of amateur sleuths modern fiction has presented us with to-date.

Sherlock_Holmes_Portrait_PagetConsulting Detective with an Attitude

Holmes scoffs at the comparison with Edgar Allen Poe’s fictional hero Dupin, setting himself up as a far superior detective, fictional or real, right at the start of the book. We only warm to such an arrogant protagonist because Watson does, and what a splendid fictional creation he is. Loyal, brave, inquisitive and ready to give credit where credit is due, even if he isn’t always able to follow Holmes’ quick-witted observations and deductions, Watson is the perfect audience for Sherlock, but also his anchor and protector with regard to society. Watson is us, the reader, rushing headlong after Sherlock’s long intellectual legs, trying ever so hard not to miss important clues along the way.

A man as unemotional and antisocial as Sherlock would have driven clients away in droves! Enter affable Watson, a doctor, a respectable man able and trained to relate to people. Always looking for a new intellectual challenge, Holmes tells us at the start of the story he’s far too lazy to investigate the common place murder in Lauriston Gardens, another empty, cheerless and inhospitable place incidentally, where the killers shows his powers of improvisation.

It is only Watson’s intervention and assertion that something must be done about such a horrible crime that finally prompts the consulting detective to leave the comfort of his Baker Street rooms and get involved. This investigation sets a precedent in the two men’s relationship. In Conan Doyle’s following stories we’ll see that it is typically Watson’s emotional response to a client’s conundrum that eventually moves Sherlock to investigate.

Locations as hostile as a Murderer

By the unexpected literary device of beginning with Dr. Watson as the narrator and then switching to a totally different style of narration, location and point of view in part two of the book, Conan Doyle draws the reader into two very different worlds with perfect ease, displaying great skills as an author and observer of mankind.

Sir Conan Doyle

Sir Conan Doyle

To show us the killer’s character, Conan Doyle employs two very different locations, both hostile in their own way, both difficult to survive in, unless you have the stamina to hold onto life with both hands, no matter what hardships you’ll face in pursuit of your objective or how long it will take to succeed. Although the audience doesn’t meet the killer until the latter part of the story, the reader feels the killer’s presence throughout the book; we know what type of person the killer must be simply from the hostile environments he has mastered.

The harsh desert landscape of the Wild West and the run-down districts of London are two sides of the same coin for the killer, an anti-hero who is not judged by mankind in the final chapter, but brought to justice by God. Whereas a person could die of thirst in the hot desert landscape of the Wild West of America, where no animal or plant can live, where only death is thriving, the streets in London are teeming with life, but are mud-filled, the very air is water-logged and the sun hardly ever warms the bones. The desert’s vultures are replaced by criminals here, birds of prey hunting the weak and gullible.

Having introduced the reader to the hot and arid American desert, where a person could walk for days without ever hearing a sound other than their own footsteps and the squawking of vultures commenting on the lonely traveller’s inevitable demise, Conan Doyle plunges us back into the maze of London, a bustling metropolis with four million inhabitants, a city as noisy as the desert is silent, in the third and final part of the book.

This is a city full of smog and cheap boarding houses, a settlement where streets are crawling with horse-drawn carriages, rude cabbies, street vendors and newspaper boys, elegant men with side whiskers and canes, ladies with wagon wheel hats and bustles, street urchins and beggars in rags.

In the desert, the reader is positively squinting into the brightness of the sun before the reader can see the approaching column of wagons more clearly. London, by contrast, is dark and dingy, tall houses block out the sun. The fresh air of the mountains and the verdant farms of Utah are nicely contrasted with the unpleasant odours of city life back in the old world. The literary audience is forced to hold their noses as the stench of horse manure in the streets and human excrement in gutters, rotting vegetables, rat droppings and coal fires assaults their collective nostrils.

Both locations serve exceptionally well to characterise the killer for us before we are ever introduced to the man himself. This is an anti-hero who can deal with every situation and hostile environment. It is an exceptional man, not an ordinary criminal, a man who will make use of whatever he finds in his surroundings to achieve what he has set out to do.

An impoverished killer has only one way open to him to track down his quarry in the bewildering cesspool of humanity that is London – and it is due to Sherlock’s brilliant deductive powers that the perpetrator’s disguise is revealed. And again Conan Doyle breaks with literary tradition here. Instead of haring after the killer, as Lestrade and Gregson would have done – and with them most writers of adventure stories – Sherlock lets the killer come to him. Directly to cosy Baker Street’s airy sitting-room. At this point, the reader suspects that it is the amazing character of the killer which moved Sherlock to investigate in the first place and not Watson’s pleading.

Changing Place to change Pace

Picurycadilly, London, turn of the cent

Picurycadilly, London, turn of the cent

221b Baker Street is a womb into which the two friends can retreat to take stock of their investigations, recover from their adventures and re-affirm their relationship. Their lives in Marylebone are only interrupted by their landlady’s culinary offerings or the occasional clients who make it past the vigilant servant and up the stairs. For two gentlemen of limited financial means, this is a veritable domestic haven “with a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows”.

We learn of their respective vices, which are that Dr. Watson keeps a bull pup and is extremely lazy, and Sherlock likes to do chemical experiments and play the violin. Both like to fill their sitting-room with smoke and newspapers and get up at irregular hours. For two bachelors, this is a blissful environment where they can remain “boys” and don’t have to grow up, be responsible husbands, bread-winners and fathers.

Whenever these two friends enter the large airy sitting-room in Baker Street, the reader breathes a sigh of relief – our heroes are safe from harm and about to present us with another clue in the present mystery or the beginnings of a new adventure. It’s also a brilliant literary device for changing pace entirely. Here Conan Doyle can take his time to reveal more about the characters of these two unlikely heroes.

When the identity of the killer is known to Sherlock, he has no need of chasing through the streets of London in a horse-drawn carriage; the comfortable surroundings of his home will do to deal with the rest of the adventure. Only one more location switch is needed, this time to a small, quiet but cheerless interrogation room at Scotland Yard, and justice has been done. The gaps in the plot have been filled in for the reader and Conan Doyle can put away his pen. Exhale everyone!

The literary Cradle of modern Crime Investigation

Interestingly, the reader learns an important fact about the first murder victim early on, a clue to the victim’s personality so subtle that we blink and almost miss it. The murdered man has in his possession the pocket edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron…and when the narration switches to Utah, we begin to see why such a book would have been in the possession of victim Mr Drebber.

In modern crime investigation professional detectives begin by looking at the victim and what type of person they were etc. Gregson and Lestrade only regard clues that may hint at the identity of the murderer as important. However, Sherlock Holmes looks at the whole picture and deduces from the personality of the victim and the nature of the crime what type of murderer he’s hunting. Sherlock Holmes looks at crimes committed throughout history and deduces a pattern, whereas Gregson and Lestrade only see unconnected dots in front of their noses.

Many, many years later, murder mystery writer Agatha Christie would employ much the same deductive and comparative methods with her splendid creations, village spinster Miss Marple and former Belgian policeman, Monsieur Poirot, two of modern fiction’s most influential and beloved sleuths.

By using two inept Scotland Yard detectives, Gregson and Lestrade, as an example of outdated police methods and attitudes, contrasting them with successful duo Holmes and Watson, Conan Doyle introduces his audience step by step to the kind of modern investigative methods, including forensics and profiling, that should be employed in crime detection, a totally novel concept at the time the story was published.

The story ends with a disillusioned Sherlock, who even at the outset of his career must be content with the status of amateur sleuth, while idiots like Lestrade and Gregson take the credit. We are back in Baker Street, the safe womb, at this point, which allows Conan Doyle to deepen our knowledge of his protagonist and to lay Sherlock’s deductive methods before the reader at a measured pace.

By offering to reveal the true facts to the public, Dr. Watson assures himself of Sherlock’s friendship and gratitude (and ours!), even if that infuriating man will never admit to it during the long years of their partnership. It is another brilliant device by Conan Doyle to explain to readers in a subtle way, why a brilliant man like Sherlock Holmes would continue to share his life with a man of Dr. Watson’s limited deductive abilities.

It is a must-read for anyone interested in reading whodunits, a classic without which we would not have this genre today and an example par excellence, how the use of location can serve a multitude of purposes within a story.

You can’t write well


I think we all know what should be done with lousy teachers like that! Yep, we smile diabolically while posting their invitation to our latest book launch and signing session!

Originally posted on A Good Blog is Hard to Find:

“You can’t write well. Pick a new hobby.” 11th Grade Pre-AP English Teacher

Nothing motivates me more than being told I can’t. I can’t write. I can’t write well. I can’t write on that. You definitely can’t write that.

Fucking watch me.


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Writer’s Easter Egg Hunt

free gif from heathersanimations(dot)comHappy Easter everyone!

If you’ve ever been on an Easter Egg Hunt, you’ll know that a substantial percentage of eggs never find their way into a child’s gob, because a child chasing for eggs will eventually grow tired of the game and ignore their parent’s carefully chosen hiding places in favour of easier targets  (grandparents usually) . Although some kids come prepared and bring a fully trained chocolate sniffing hound to the annual Egg Hunt, (guilty as charged).

A substantial number of book ideas swirling around my head will also never make it onto the page, because I’m too busy chasing after blog ideas, article ideas or press release ideas on behalf of my clients, who pay me to be as original as the Easter Bunny when it comes to delicious offerings. Like the famous Swiss chocoloate bunny I shake my head at the seasonal madness of it all, until the little bell around my neck tells me my head’s about to explode.

So instead of hunting for chocolaty goodness I could present to you on a weekly basis, I’ve been concentrating on red herrings in my Inspektor Beagle murder mystery (German language, hence the spelling) and juicy morsels for The House Detective , my novel for children aged 8 – 12 (English language).

I also discovered via the Bookrix(dot)com platform’s sales and download-per-book data that English readers apparently want to consume everything for free, while my German readers are quite happy to pay for the books they download. So instead of casting my free literary eggs before unpaying greedy-guts readers, I have been concentrating on blogging in German and gathering research material for future German blog entries to promote my forthcoming German language murder mystery.

My full-length Inspektor Beagle novel, this precious “Osterei” , German language readers will only be able to obtain by offering hard cash, not sweet talking or the promise of sending me an electronic Easter card next year or saying something nice in the review part of Bookrix. Maybe I’m turning into rather a material girl-Bunny but I don’t see why my hard work should always go unrewarded while English readers gobble up whatever they find for free in a hunt round self-publishing platform’s hiding places. Consumers hand over hard cash to get their hands on a chocolate egg at their local supermarket, right? So why not pay for the literary egg authors have crafted for them? Calory free, I ask you!

Now we know what most readers are hunting for at Easter: Freebies. The most desirable Easter egg a writer can hunt for, in my opinion, is TIME, that sweet old favourite of mine. Taking out time to write fiction is a real treat for me. Also calory free, which is a bonus. And stealing moments for reading. Ferociously. Reading series writers’ stuff, for here we can see how characters are constructed over time, in new circumstances, with new side kicks, using readers’ feedback to create the most perfect Easter Egg a fiction fan could possibly want. free gifs from heathersanimations(dot)comA book that transports readers, taking them on an adventure or a journey, inviting them to become part of a family saga, a fearless amateur detective duo or play their part in a thrilling heist, a steamy romance, a hair-raising thriller, a spine-tingling horror, ghost or vampire story. Or maybe some cute chick travelling the world with the help of an egg.

What are you hunting for this Easter?

If I were a Terrier…

…I would hurl my cute little body in front of every nasty jogger who huffs and puffs past my Mistress, those supporters of child-labour produced sports shoes, who spread their sweaty stinkiness to all and sundry.

A whole herd of joggers emerging from Buckingham Palace

A whole herd of joggers emerging from Buckingham Palace

If I were a terrier, I would bark my head off at every runner and shame them for the pavement-hogs that they are, never giving way, no matter how much space there is to left and right or how laden mothers are with toddlers and their buggies or how much elderly women with their shopping bags struggle to remain upright, when forced to jump out of the way of nasty joggers.

As my terrier self I’d nip the ankles of those grunting women, whose mighty bottoms I see wobbling past me at little over 4 miles per hour, their pinched faces expressing nothing but the ardent desire to get home to their couch, their box of chocolates and their favourite TV soap, if only Cosmo and Vanity Fair would declare fat-arsed women the next beauty icon!

Have I mentioned how much I loathe joggers? With my terrier tenacity in over-drive I’d chase after every long-limbed macho jogger, who has replaced his 60-a-day addiction with obsessive running, came rain or shine, and now splashes through puddles, covering innocent passers-by with an avalanche of mud as he races past them with haughty superiority.

Bute Park at dawn - even then not totally jogger-free!

Cardiff’s Bute Park at dawn – even then not totally jogger-free!

Grrr, if I were a Jack Russell called Bertie or Bob, I’d poo on the favourite trail of every jogger who’s ever sneaked up on my beloved human, those men and women who pass by so closely that their pervy elbows touch my beloved Mistress in their wake, treating her to a bout of heavy breathing in the process.

Woof, if I were a button-nosed fluffy Yorkie with an anarchic attitude I’d trip up charity runners who blithely take over an entire city park to show the rest of us how altruistic they are.

Why exactly do pensioners and mothers with toddlers who come to the park for a bit of fresh air have to jump out of the way when these park-pests arrive without warning and insist on running three-in-a-row? Parks are there for everybody and not just for those who obsessively support one cause to the detriment of everybody else around them.

Doggies unite and free this planet from these fiends, these joggers with their i-Pod deafness, their “talk to the cheek” attitude and their total disregard for other pavement users!

Oh, and if I were a Rottweiler with big teeth and jaws the size of T-Rex I’d rip the ankles off those WordPress geeks who are constantly messing around with the layout – it’s taken me nearly 8 minutes to get to my dashboard…who in their right mind makes it so difficult for bloggers to update their blog? Grrrrrr, biting, biting, tearing off those geeky trouser-seats NOW!

How to Import Your Linkedin Contacts to Google+


I’m reblogging this to my own site so I won’t lose track of Doris Heilmann’s excellent blog and advice! although I detest LinkedIn and try to avoid it at all costs…it’s as intrusive and creepy as FB, brrr.

Originally posted on Savvy Writers & e-Books online:


Import From Ireland (LinkedIn) to California (Google+):

In a recent blog post on we explained the possibility to connect all your Social Media accounts.  The task was to post or tweet more – in case you need this for a campaign to go viral.  Saving time on Social Media, allows you to interact more with your followers and readers.  But it also shows them where else they can connect with you.  You can import for example your LinkedIn Followers to Google+.  How this works?  Read more on our new blog site:

Our WordPress blog has moved to our web domain at:

As we cannot transfer thousands of subscribers, so we will re-blog for a while.   If you want to get these valuable tips in the future, please sign up when the pop-up window shows up after 10 seconds on the new site, to make…

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What Time Of The Year Should You Publish Your Novel?


Ah, yes…I am currently in the final stages of writing a German language novel and was wondering, when, WHEN, WHEEEEEENNNNN to publish the thing to catch book buyers when they’ve still got a few pence to spare before the Festive Season bankrupts us all. Thanks to Tara Sparling’s blog post I now feel a bit calmer…

Originally posted on Tara Sparling writes:

I’ve been getting quite a few hits lately from search terms such as “when do I self-publish my novel?” and “when does a book need to be published for the Christmas market?

I already pontificated on the issue of self-publishing for Christmas in this post, but that only dealt with one time of year. Now I’d like to talk in more general terms about seasonal trends in book sales. I have inhaled oodles of data on the subject. And so, in this post, and more to follow*, I’m going to take a look at questions like these:

  • Which month of the year sees the most sales?
  • Which month sees the least sales?
  • How many sales do you need to make it into the Top Ten Bestseller list? Are there times of the year when the target is lower and this might be easier?
  • Are there particular weeks in the year…

View original 767 more words

What Time Of The Year Should You Publish Your Novel?


Ah, yes…I am currently in the final stages of writing a German language novel and was wondering, when, WHEN, WHEEEEEENNNNN to publish the thing to catch book buyers when they’ve still got a few pence to spare before the Festive Season bankrupts us all. Thanks to Tara Sparling’s blog post I now feel a bit calmer…

Originally posted on Tara Sparling writes:

I’ve been getting quite a few hits lately from search terms such as “when do I self-publish my novel?” and “when does a book need to be published for the Christmas market?

I already pontificated on the issue of self-publishing for Christmas in this post, but that only dealt with one time of year. Now I’d like to talk in more general terms about seasonal trends in book sales. I have inhaled oodles of data on the subject. And so, in this post, and more to follow*, I’m going to take a look at questions like these:

  • Which month of the year sees the most sales?
  • Which month sees the least sales?
  • How many sales do you need to make it into the Top Ten Bestseller list? Are there times of the year when the target is lower and this might be easier?
  • Are there particular weeks in the year…

View original 767 more words

Hidden Gems of the City

on Tower Bridge

on Tower Bridge

Before I launch full-scale into major tourist attractions, I wanted to take you on a stroll down the River Thames towards the delightful village of Rotherhithe. We start off from Britain’s most recognisable attraction, Tower Bridge.

At either side of the River a fabulous promenade or river embankment allows people to admire the city from its best side, the Thames. When first entering Tower Bridge look out for staircases on either side, leading down to the river.

On Tower Bridge, looking towards The Tower and Tower Bridge Exhibition Building (to the right)

On Tower Bridge, looking towards The Tower and Tower Bridge Exhibition Building (to the right)

I walked down the steps that lead to the Tower, but before going there I turned left instead of righ, walking towards the restaurants and shops now occupying the former dockyards.

A new lease of life has been given to the erstwhile warehouses and docks that were once part of Port of London all along the Thames.

Now these lofts and condos exchange hands for well over a million pounds, but in earlier centuries they were nothing but industrial buildings and hovels for the desperately poor, those who worked in the docks and eeked out a living from scraps thrown away by others, by pick-pocketing and nefarious nocturnal activities.

Restaurants and cafes are clustered around Tower Bridge on this side of the Thames. I walked through an archway to investigate the possibility of a steaming cuppa on a windy day, when I came across these fantastic barges moored just outside Tower Bridge.

Thames "paddle steam" boat

Thames “paddle steam” boat

Copyright Maria ThermannThey are tourist cruise ships, obviously taking a Sunday afternoon rest here from ferrying chattering hordes of visitors.

Thames Houseboats St Saviours Dock

Thames Houseboats St Saviours Dock

Walking towards the even smarter housing development of St Saviour’s Dock one soon comes across a flotilla of house boats, some colourful and bohemian, others more like a floating suburban home that wouldn’t be out of place in Surbiton or Kingston.

Canada geese inspect house boat potential

Canada geese inspect house boot potential

Make no mistake, these are some of London’s most expensive dwellings, although the house boots moored at Chelsea are perhaps the better known floating homes, having in the past been sold to famous people like Damien Hirst (that awful man who thinks displaying dead calves is “art”).

Copyright Maria ThermannEven the small bridges and gangways that connect the various housing developments with the promenade sport an interesting architecture.

with every passing river cruiser these homes get buffeted by the waves, BOOM!

with every passing river cruiser these homes get buffeted by the waves, BOOM!

The Thames Path is well sign-posted and although it leaves the immediate proximity of the River at times to wind its way through charming mews housing developments, alongside parks and through former warehouse complexes now transformed into luxury apartments, the Thames Path never leaves the River for long and it’s not really possible to get lost.

St Saviour's Dock, Thames Embankment, London

St Saviour’s Dock, Thames Embankment, London

Copyright Maria ThermannEn route one comes across wonderful sculptures and statues such as this head at St Saviours Dock. At every turn there is something interesting to see. Plaques tell walkers where they are, what local communities are doing or who is being honoured with a plaque or statue and why. The whole thing has a real community feel about it and seems a great place to live. I can still feel the impact each wave made when hitting the moorings of the house boats, BOOM, the hiss of the spray of brown Thames water escaping over the sides of the embankment’s walls, sending careless walkers squealing and running for cover. I remember the scent of petrol from the passing cruise ships and the noise from the tour guides’s announcements over loudspeakers when recalling the history of the Thames. One day soon, all this will find its way into my writing…at another river setting, an imagined location but remembering one sweltering hot Sunday afternoon at the Thames. Perhaps the background for a murder mystery, a romantic interlude before the killer strikes!

Rotherhithe Church, Mayflower plaque

Rotherhithe Church, Mayflower plaque

Eventually one reaches a park, where the Thames Path suddenly seems to end in the church yard of Rotherhithe Village; it’s a delightful place and the appropriate spot for honouring the intrepid Rotherhithe citizens who sailed one fine day off into the unknown blue yonder on a wee ship called The Mayflower. Can’t remember what happened to her but yon American citizens might recall that part of the story….

Rotherhithe village

Rotherhithe village

Encircling the church and small churchyard are various 17th, 18th and 19th century houses – this one with the statues above the entrance caught my eye because it was adjacent to a cafe and small park. By now the weather was deteriorating and working itself up to a full-scale storm with thunder, lightning and torrential rain thrown in for good measure.

London's temperamental weather strikes again

London’s temperamental weather strikes again

Naturally, the village has all sorts of connections with the Thames’ staggering historical importance and various famous people stem from this part of London. A miniscule museum honours one of the world’s finest engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Voted as one of Britain’s 100 most important people ever, this extraordinary Victorian is responsible for the world’s first tunnel under a navigable river (the Thames Tunnel), the Great Western Railway, the first propeller-driven steamship that went across the Atlantic (1843), the Clifton Suspension Bridge and countless other famous structures, bridges and ships. Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit the Brunel Museum that day, but hope to do so in the next few weeks.

Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe Village

Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe Village

A typical English pub honours all those dockhands, tally-men and mariners who worked and drank (beer and gin mostly) at Rotherhithe Dock over the centuries. By an amazing co-incidence the pub is called The Mayflower – I wonder who thought of that one…

Pilgrims at Rotherhithe Village

Pilgrims at Rotherhithe Village

A look into the future

A look into the future

The Pilgrim's Pocket - plaque at the foot of the bronze sculpture

The Pilgrim’s Pocket – plaque at the foot of the bronze sculpture

Finally, before leaving the village of Rotherhithe one comes across this lovely threesome, a boy, his pilgrim father and their dog. Step onto the pedestal and take a peep into the pilgrim’s book, for the Mayflower pilgrims’ future is revealed in its pages, hence the pilgrim father’s bulging eyes!

Staying Cool in the City

Copyright Maria ThermannNow that the skies are grey and the rays of the sun are no longer tickling our red and blistering noses, it seems inconceivable that only a few weeks ago it was too hot to work in the office.

Taking a refreshing stroll along the Thames Embankment on a very hot day, I spotted how London’s citizens tried various ingenious ways to stay cool in the city.

Thus I’m sneakily introducing my first, and most favourite point of interest in the capital – sorry HRM Elizabeth II, but the River Thames beats the “lady of the stamp” any day as London’s best tourist attraction!

Even on the hottest day of the year there was a gentle breeze blowing that cooled the wrinkled writer’s brow – walk along the lovely Thames Embankment and sooner or later you’ll come across a fountain where you can cool off your steaming toes.


Blackfriars Bridge in the Background

Blackfriars Bridge in the Background

Tide's out, kids!

Tide’s out, kids!

When the tide’s out, people walk along the patches of “beach” that appear along the river bed.

Just cruisin’

For those with more money than sense there are the official river cruises, some via stately old river barges, cruisers or former steamboats, others via power boats that zoom past with an almighty roar and spew up brown waves in their wake. The much cheaper version is to take an ordinary river bus.

St Katherine's Dock by Tower Bridge

St Katherine’s Dock by Tower Bridge

Cruises start from various points along the river, my favourite spot is at St Katherine’s Dock, where this couple sat patiently in a little pavilion – like a bus stop for the Thames – and awaited the arrival of their cruiser, while enjoying the magnificent aspect of Tower Bridge.




Making a Splash

My favourite image of this summer are unquestionably the parents and children who stayed cool by diving into the fountains at the National Theatre, which overlooks the Thames Embankment by the London Eye, roughly opposite Westminster and Big Ben.

Fountain at National Theatre, Southbank

Fountain at National Theatre, Southbank

Kids keeping their cool in the city

Kids keeping their cool in the city

Pedestrians startled by Mayor Boris Johnson's latest efforts to clean up the city's mean streets

Pedestrians startled by Mayor Boris Johnson’s latest efforts to clean up the city’s mean streets

At certain intervals during the day the kind people of the South Bank-National Theatre complex press a button and within moments people are engulfed by refreshing spouts of water – only they don’t know where the jets of water will come from next, for the fountain’s sprays shoot out at random in different spots.

With a lot of squeals and laughter, the youngest of London’s citizens find relief from the searing heat, a perfect image of summer as it should be, don’t you think?








HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge

HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge

Family Fun by Hayes Gallery, Thames Embankment

Family Fun by Hayes Gallery, Thames Embankment

At the other end of the river, that bit where HMS Belfast, a cruiser from WWII, is moored, whole families gathered around fountains, had a picnic and enjoyed the spectacular London skyline from just outside Hayes Gallery.

Erasing horrid Memories

This summer I’ve seen a different side to London, one I liked very much. Many years ago, when I worked in the city for more than a decade as an office slave, London was a complete construction site, where it was virtually impossible to get anywhere near the River. My memories are of noisy construction crews whistling and jeering at anything looking even vaguely female, of cranes polluting the skyline, of mud and dust everywhere.

southbank street artist blowing soap bubbles

southbank street artist blowing soap bubbles

Over the intervening two decades the embankments on both sides have been transformed and turned into London’s best attraction – and I’m clearly not alone in this point of view, judging by the hordes of people who use the River Walks every day from dawn till dusk and beyond.

My next post will be about my splendid walk from Tower Bridge to Rotherhithe, which turned out to be a delightful village, not a boring suburb with uniform new apartment blocks, as I had suspected.

This is where my post took you today

This is where my post took you today

After more than three decades in the UK, this summer has been the first time that I’ve actually begun to understand why people rate London so highly – up to now, I’ve detested it. These past few weeks, hot and steamy as they have been, have done much to clear my mind of horrid work-related memories and regain my “cool” about the Big City.

The true aim of my snap-happy wanderings through London is, of course, to gather background material for a future murder mystery series. So alongside the pictures I’ve been taking notes on the smells, sounds, temperatures and light conditions I’ve encountered along the way. I can still hear the children’s giggles, when a flurry of soap bubbles headed our way…

Summer in the City

Which City? Have a guess!

Horseguard Buckingham Palace

Horseguard Buckingham Palace

Yep, my camera and I were let loose by an irresponsible friend and snap-happy I took hundreds of pictures of landmarks, architectural highlights, attractions and the city’s star attraction, the big old River.

Vintage Bus outside Scotland Yard

Vintage Bus outside Scotland Yard

London Eye to the left, Big Ben straight ahead

London Eye to the left, Big Ben straight ahead

Big Ben telling me it's time for elevenses!

Big Ben telling me it’s time for elevenses!

Old River Thames, my favourite attraction!

Old River Thames, my favourite attraction!

London Skyline seen from Tower Bridge. The Tower to the right, the Gherkin to the left

London Skyline seen from Tower Bridge. The Tower to the right, the Gherkin to the left

There is a reason for this sudden outbreak of tourist fever – I’m preparing two murder mystery series, one is set in London in the 1920s, the other at the Kent coast in the 1940s.

Fountains at Trafalgar Square

Fountains at Trafalgar Square

Millennium Bridge before Harry Potter got there!

Millennium Bridge before Harry Potter got there!

Both make good use of locations, so it helps me when I’m writing from some hovel based at a different part of the UK or on the Continent (being an location independent online writer does have its advantages!), I don’t have to imagine what a place looks, smells, sounds or feels like at a particular time of year, I can look back at my photographs.

Borough Market in Southwark

Borough Market in Southwark

It was also huge fun snapping away, for this summer there’s been very little rain and although some of the pics look as if taken against a grey sky.

Tower Bridge, Southwark

Tower Bridge, Southwark

It was actually boiling hot at the time, the sort of hazy sunshine one only gets in The Big Smoke.

Imagine me standing there with an opened umbrella to shade my noggins and camera from sun and 30 degrees C temperatures, and you get the “feel” of the situation…

Horseguards emerging from Buckingham Palace

Horseguards emerging from Buckingham Palace

Her Magesty's secret agents having a chin wag?

Her Magesty’s secret agents having a chin wag?

London's full of mad artwork and statues

London’s full of mad artwork and statues

Dolphin statue & Spring at Tower Bridge

Dolphin statue & Spring at Tower Bridge

So to start off my series of city impressions, interesting landmarks and famous attractions, here are a few snapshots. I will do a post on each of the attractions/locations with more pics and proper descriptions over the next few weeks.

Golden Hinde, Sir Francis Drake's old ride in Southwark

Golden Hinde, Sir Francis Drake’s old ride in Southwark

Entrance to Buckingham Palace from Trafalgar Square

Entrance to Buckingham Palace from Trafalgar Square

Shakespeare's Book Bench outside Globe Theatre, Thames Embankment

Shakespeare’s Book Bench outside Globe Theatre, Thames Embankment

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Southwark, Thames Embankment

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Southwark, Thames Embankment

The Clink Prison, Southwark

The Clink Prison, Southwark

The London Eye, Thames Embankment

The London Eye, Thames Embankment

Join me on my Summer in the City tour, but please bear in mind, I’m just an amateur photographer with a rubbish Olympus camera, so please don’t expect too much!

Gates at Buckingham Palace

Gates at Buckingham Palace





Queen Victoria Monument & Fountain o/s Buckingham Palace

Queen Victoria Monument & Fountain o/s Buckingham Palace

What Puts Readers Off Self-Published Books?


Am so glad I found Tara Sparling’s blog! All I can say that she repeats here exactly my own thoughts on the whole “read my stuff/buy my book” ethos of a large section of self-published authors. My reaction to Twitter/Bookrix/Goodreads bombardment of “check out my stuff” type messages is also “shan’t”! Thank you Tara for this blog post:)

Originally posted on Tara Sparling writes:

ANOTHER graph! Heaven.... I'm in Heaven.... ANOTHER graph! Heaven…. I’m in Heaven….

Oh, we’ve come a long way from What Makes People Buy Self-Published Books last week, ladies and gentlesirs!

Brace yourselves now, as we enter the dark side of book marketing: the things which make you REFUSE to buy self-published books.

And we’ve all experienced this to some degree. Self-publishing often gets a very bad rap. If people avoided some of the behaviour which follows, the industry can only benefit.

Cobbled together from the feedback from you, the nice people who comment, I now have a list of what’s most likely to make sure you will never buy a book from a certain author, let alone read one.

These fall loosely into 3 categories:

1. Pushy Marketing Tactics
2. Bad Book Design
3. The Writing Itself

These categories also come in the order which they would turn readers off a book. Even if a book didn’t…

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