Not a big thing, but a million little things

Jaime Dill, who I worked with on my submission to Byline Legacies, has recently launched Full Mood Magazine, and the first call was Modern Epistolary:

We give little textboxes permission to hook our hearts and freedom to dictate our physical reality. We differentiate between what’s online and what’s “real life,” but are they really so separable? I want to see where the worlds blend. Give me your awkward work emails, your scandalous DMs, your wildest “new number, who dis?” I want to see the conversations that shake up the day, the past, and everything that’s coming next. Unlock the password and let me snoop around in the secrets on screen.

Jaime Dill, EIC Full Mood Magazine

The timing wasn’t great, but when is it? So I bashed this out in the last few hours before the submission window closed. Jaime was kind enough to say she liked it, but as it didn’t quite fit with the Mood she was aiming for, she passed. Which is why I thought I’d share it with you today. It’s a bit of an experiment…


Hey Bets, soz – I know it’s been a while. Been so busy with the village’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations and Mum and Dad’s Golden Wedding, I really haven’t had a moment to call my own.  You ok?

Hey Roz! Beginning to think I’d said something wrong! Yeah, all good, ta.  How’d the wedding stuff go?  M&D alright? Did they enjoy themselves?

Yeah, they had a grate time.  The rest of us…not so much…

*great

Oh dear…do tell 🙂

Climbing a mountain with a gaggle of children I do not recommend. 

A mountain???

Dad proposed to Mum at the top of Helvellyn & they set their heart on renewing their vows on the exact same spot.  Madness! Neither as young as they think they are, but to be fair pretty spry and probably did the best out of all of us in the event.

They always seem so full of life, and they’re both out in the garden or on the allotment.  The rest of you…I can see how it might have been a challenge!

Ha ha I don’t think.  I might not run half-marathons but I’m fit enough thank you very much.  Mind you, Vi’s Keith seems to get bigger every time I see him – he had little beads of sweat all over his scalp just crossing the car park to the footpath.

*Snerk*

And then there were bacon sarnies for brekkie before we set off, brought to the car park by a local café that M&D like.  I might have felt a bit queasy halfway up, but Daisy looked properly green and Fizz actually puked.

Priceless!  I bet that went down well – did she have designer gear?

You know it!  Rubbed her feet raw with brand new boots that were expensively ill-fitting.

Self-inflicted – did she mange to avoid getting puke on her Armani walking outfit?

Let’s just say she’s not going to be able to exchange them.

Did you have a good day though?

Yeah – kids were a bit fractious about putting sunblock on, but they did well, and you should have seen M&D making their vows.  Can only hope that me and Bob are that in love when we get that far.

Too right!  We should get a coffee soon and you can give me the rest of the goss 🙂  Did you get some pics?  Would be good to see them 🙂

Sounds good – might leave the one of Daisy mid-spew tho 🙂


© 2022, David Jesson

#SecondThoughts: From Ruritania With Love

Recently I’ve been listening to some of the early Ellery Queen novels – but that, perhaps, is another blog post.  I’m currently on “The Egyptian Cross Mystery”, the fourth in the series, which has very little to do with Egypt, but a fair amount to do with Central Europe, specifically the Balkans.  To begin with, the references to Central Europe are rather tentative, and I did wonder whether we were going to be ‘treated’ to a fictional nation – but that is not the style of Ellery Queen.

Still, it got me thinking about Ruritania, and whether there is still a place for Ruritania in modern writing.  If Ruritanian Romances could be said to have had a Golden Age, in the same way as Detective fiction, s.f., and comics, then it probably started around 1894 with the publication of the definitive Ruritanian Romance, “The Prisoner of Zenda”, and petered out sometime in the mid-20th century.  The Second World War, together with the subsequent seismic changes in European politics, made small fictional states headed by an ancient royalty at risk from a rotten usurper largely superfluous.  Other issues were at the forefront of peoples’ minds.

Like any genre, there are certain expectations, and also variations whereby we can place an outlier within the grouping, even if it requires a little shoehorning.  Romance in this setting does not, of course, mean a Mills & Boon style story, but one of adventure, chivalry, and a certain idealisation of the world and how it should work.  In this respect the Ruritanian Romances are descended from the Mediæval romances of Arthur, Charlemagne, and other courtly, questing knights.  Examples of some outliers, that help give us the boundaries to the genre, include “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, the Tintin story set in Syldavia, and the classic Marx Brothers’ film “Duck Soup” set in Freedonia. 

This is not to say that Ruritania has been swallowed up completely.  It lives on, both for the benefit of jurists, who use it as an example, in a similar manner to ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, as well as for the fiction writer looking for a relatively neutral setting for a story.  Simon Brett sends Blotto and Twinks off to Mitteleuropia in “…and the Ex-King’s Daughter”, for example, although this is a story set in the early 20th century.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is an era spanning story, and whilst the majority is set in pre-war Zubrowka, the implication of the framing story is that the country still exists now.

So perhaps Ruritania is alive and well, even if the Ruritanian Romance is dead.  It’s possible that it might make a comeback (Ruritanian vampires, anyone?) but the specific characteristics of the Romance – plots to do away with legitimate heirs, for good or ill, thwarted or abetted by chivalrous adventurers – are probably past their sell by date.  Today we tend to look for more realistic heroes, those who succeed despite character flaws, or who are in some way redeemed.

But if the Romance were to be revived, what might we look for?  What might be different?  A royal lineage could be replaced by a politically dynastic family, and the long lost twin/look-a-like has probably gone full circle, navigating the far reaches of passe.  (Androids and other s.f. approaches have also been done before, but there is always a new twist based on emerging science and technology…).  Perhaps, given the current climate (if you’ll forgive the pun), something with an Environmental focus would make a good plot.

What do you think?  Should we get a visa for Ruritania?  Or should we just leave it in the history books?

© David Jesson, 2022

The Documents in the Case: a #SecondThoughts book review

I’ve recently fallen in love with going to the library again.  The TBR pile is teetering, and most of the books that I’ve bought recently have been to do with aspects of writing, or of engineering, as I try to bring both my text book on materials characterisation and the shared novel with Debs to a successful conclusion (and start thinking about the next projects…).  But I can just about justify getting books out of the library, although I may be in danger of developing an L-TBR pile… The problem*, of course, with going to the library is that one way or another, you end up browsing.  Either it is deliberate as you attempt to take stock of what is new, or you are deliberately looking for something specific – which is not there – and you end up tripping over something else that grabs your attention.

*I use the term in a loose sense: it is not a problem per se, but there are a range of difficulties that can arise.

A little while ago, I wrote a review of ‘The Appeal’.  If you read the post, you’ll recall that I spotted it in the library and picked it up because I’d heard a lot about it.  The conceit that provides the structure to the story is that it is formed from a selection of emails that have been made available to two pupils of a barrister.  He wants them to review the documents and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the right person was arrested for a crime.  In my review, I likened it to the earlier book ‘The Documents in the Case’ by Dorothy L Sayers.  I also mentioned that whilst I’d heard of it, and whilst I’ve read several of her Lord Peter Wimsey stories, I’d not read this one.  Back in the library, looking for something else, I spotted the Documents in Case, and the Appeal still relatively fresh in my mind I thought that I would give this a go.

Sayers is perhaps best known for her detective fiction, although she did a lot more than this, and in her detective fiction, she is best known for Lord Peter Wimsey.  Her record in this regard might owe something to her status as a founder member of the Detection Club, an organisation that probably deserves a post of its own.  (The English Heritage Blue Plaque outside a former residence probably doesn’t help either, labelling her as a ‘detective novelist’).  Together with some of the brightest stars of the Golden Age of detective fiction, Sayers set out to refine the genre, and having done so to experiment with it.  For example, a group of members wrote a joint detective story, each taking responsibility for a chapter, and then passing it along to the next person, who must build the story in such a way as to incorporate all clues (either proving or debunking them).  Each contributor also wrote their own solution to the crime, which remained sealed until the mystery was complete; these solutions were included in the book, for the general reader.

What I hadn’t realised until now is that Documents is itself an example of a shared piece of writing, the co-author being Robert Eustace (a pseudonym for Dr Eustace Barton, who also wrote medic-legal fiction).  The epistolatory novel was not invented by Sayers, but this is certainly a piece of experimental writing on her part, a departure from the formula she was developing with Lord Peter.  It is interesting to note that she herself was unhappy with the final form of the book.  Coming to it as a Lord Peter fan, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected.  It lacks a great deal of the humour to be found in Lord Peter’s adventures.  Then, too, I felt that some of the material presented was something of a cheat: the documents collected are various, but several represent quite lengthy statements from some of the involved parties, solicited by the son of the deceased, who is attempting to determine if his father has been murdered.

On that basis, I don’t think I can offer a general recommendation to hurry out and get a copy.  Still, if you happen to be interested in detective fiction and are looking for something a bit different, or if you happen to stumble across it in a library whilst browsing for something else, it’s probably worth a couple of hours of your time.

Have you read Documents in the Case?  Would you recommend it – or not?  What’s the most unusual detective fiction you’ve read?

©David Jesson, 2022

#SecondThoughts: Avoid alliteration. Always.

Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish, is the kind of eccentric novel that you have to really work at – but it is incredibly clever. The first chapter is written using only words that begin with ‘a’. With every chapter, the next letter of the alphabet is added until the full alphabet is available; from that point though, letters are dropped until the last chapter returns to the same restriction as the first.

I’m not sure I’d want to have a go at writing something like that, but I think that most writers, at some point or another, enjoy having a go at something experimental. At the very least, there’s always something that is considered to be some kind of rule that you feel that you want to rebel against.

The thing about a lot of writing ‘rules’ is that people tend to focus on the sound bite and fail to look at the more nuanced case behind it. Eliminate adverbs, for example, is supposed to help you produce a cleaner form of writing. Using an adverb means that you should have used a stronger verb, they say. For myself, I think it’s a piece of advice that can help you in the editing phase, but you shouldn’t just take all the adverbs round the back and shoot them. Adverbs, if used sparingly, can be powerful, in a subtle kind of way. For example, ‘run’ is not a stronger verb to replace ‘walk quickly’. If you walk quickly, you’re walking with purpose; if you hurry, there’s possibly a certain nervous urgency to your action.

‘Avoid alliteration, always’ is a piece of advice that I’ve seen floating around for years. If Abish had followed this advice then there would be one less odd book for us to ponder over. Some might say that would be a good thing…

However, is the advice genuine? Or is it a joke? Alliteration is taught in schools, so why should we avoid it?

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon, which explores the etymology of a range of words, with each explanation following on from the last, and the last entry linking back to the first. For someone interested in words, and how they are related, the book is fascinating. On the basis of my enjoyment of the book, I put in a request for some of Forsyth’s other work, and so have recently been able to make a start on ‘The Elements of Eloquence’. The first chapter, as you might have guessed, is on alliteration.

Alliteration is one of the tools of rhetoric – the black art and subtle science of persuading people to your point of view by talking to them. As with many of the ‘rules’ around writing, the answer is not to avoid it always, but rather to deploy it for effect in the right places. Alliteration is a way of generating a certain rhythm to a piece, to hammer home a point. But. But. And again, but. It is all to easy to over-egg the pudding. It might be thought that Alphabetical Africa is far too much of a good thing, but Abish deliberately goes too far, and in so doing makes a point. If he’d done any less, then it would have reduced the impact of what he was attempting. Instead, by going the whole hog, the alliteration is a statement.

However, alliteration allowed to run amok, an attempt at Art, is usually amazingly atrocious and should not be accepted. What had not occurred to me before though, assuming alliteration must always use the same letter in a given sentence, is that the rhetorical ruse can be used usefully with different letters.

Ahem. The point, as ever, is that you can have too much of a good thing. Don’t avoid alliteration, but do use it sparingly. Save it for special occasions. Like any tool, learn to use it safely, for the right purpose, and it can add sparkle to your scribbles.

© David Jesson, 2022

The Appeal: A #secondthoughts book review

The Archers – ‘an everyday tale of country folk’ – first hit the radio waves on the 1st of January, 1951 (displacing Dick Barton – don’t get me started…about the only thing the two shows have in common is iconic theme tunes). In part, the show was developed as a way of getting Government information on best practice in farming out to the nation, but it was also important that the programme be entertaining. In both ambitions the show has been successful, as evidenced by the fact that the Archers is still going 60 years later, having racked up more than 19,500 episodes. The Archers is set in farming country: although not everyone in the show is a farmer, many of the characters are, and many more are dependent on the farms that surround the fictional village of Ambridge.

Why do I mention this? Well, I’ve just been reading ‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett, and the community at the heart of the book is reminiscent of the Archers. Here though, the focus is an amateur dramatics group although, as with the Archers, there is a distinct social hierarchy. The founders of the Fairway Players are labelled as the alpha family and social importance is defined by closeness to this family. They are very much in control of the group, and whilst there are open rehearsals for every play (essentially selected by the founders), it is a foregone conclusion that the matriarch of the alpha family will be the leading lady.

The cover states that there is one murder and 15 suspects, and invites the reader to work out whodunit. So far so good. The conceit here is that a QC* has instructed two of his pupils** to review documentation in preparation for an appeal on behalf of his client. He’s convinced his client is innocent (naturally), but wants fresh eyes to see if they can see what he can, or whether he’s seeing things that he wants to… Hence, the book unfolds as a series of recovered emails and text messages from some, but not all, of the people at the heart of the events. It is punctuated by WhatsApp conversations between the two pupils, and later on the QC joins in too. (This is played for comic effect with the obviously otherwise very capable QC struggling with the tech, and frequently having to dictate to his secretary what he wants to message to his pupils).

*For those unfamiliar with the British legal system, a QC = Queen’s Council, a senior lawyer, with certain privileges in a Court of Law. That’s the short version, anyway.

**Lawyer speak for a person who is in the last stage of qualifying to become a barrister.

This, then, in many ways, is an update on the classic Dorothy L. Sayers book ‘The Documents in the case’ – although this is not one that I’ve read, so I can’t draw any further comparisons, at the moment.

The Appeal has had some good PR and I freely admit that I picked it up based on the advertising – and the strap-line; the whole ‘story told through emails’ thing passed me by though.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their mysteries. Is it perfect? No. It’s a brilliant subversion of the form, but there are some niggles. The emails provided are from a relatively small pool of the characters – by no means are the full 15 suspects represented. That’s not necessarily a problem but there are some notable absences, and my feeling is this is simply to hide some of the characters from our view. It’s been suggested that Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction have become outdated; this may to some extent be true, even whilst these rules underpin pretty much all of the Golden Age Detective books. Still, the fundamental ethos here is playing fair with the reader, and I’m not sure that is really the case here – I could make some good guesses about the events, as they unfolded, but I felt that there was some information missing, not just that I’d been diverted away from what I needed to know.

There are very few sympathetic characters in the book, and arguably even the victim is not entirely likeable, although we don’t really get a good feel for them. When it came to the culprits, I would have been happy enough for most of the cast to go to jail…

In summary, if you’re looking for a sweet little old lady solving a crime in a country house, you will be disappointed. But if you’d like to something that’s a bit different, then this is definitely the book for you. The detective(s) are not the focus here, but rather a community of, perhaps not quite everyday country folk, but you might recognise some of your neighbours…and the dark underbelly is very much brought out into the light…


© 2022, David Jesson

#FlashFiction – Mary Sue: The Story

Burnham finished the last paragraph, shook his head in disbelief and turned back to the beginning. Perhaps a third reading would make more sense, make the transcript of the interview more palatable.

Subject: Interview with Miss Mary Susan Broom, ATS

Interviewer: Thank you for coming today Miss Broom –

Broom (interrupts): Please call me Mary Sue, everyone does.

I: Indeed. Well Miss Broom, as I say, thank you for coming today. Could you tell me a little about yourself?

B: Oh, there’s not much to tell really. My mother joined the Women’s Volunteer Service as soon as it started and between helping out with air raid precautions, running the local evacuation effort and so on, she didn’t really have enough time to knit things for soldiers, so she got me started on that. But after knitting a hundred pairs of socks in two days, I felt there must be more that I could do, so as soon as I’d had my eighteenth birthday, I volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

I: I see. And it looks like you passed the ATS training course with flying colours – (copy of training record attached).

B (interrupts): Oh yes! Such fun, and I really enjoyed helping the other girls when they found things a bit of a struggle.

I: Now, tell me a little bit about this reprimand on your record.

B: It was so silly. I still can’t believe that I was reprimanded for that. I was waiting to pick [REDACTED] up from [REDACTED]. I’d just finished the Times crossword – jolly nearly a personal best too, I think it took me three minutes that day – when I spotted this cove looking terribly suspicious and thought that he must be up to no good.

Burnham decided he couldn’t face dealing with the ‘tailing’ of the spiv again, especially the lengths Miss Broom had gone to to disguise her ATS uniform, so he skipped to the end.

B: And so they docked me a days wages and gave me an official reprimand, even though I’d caught this spiv and handed him over to the police. I thought that was jolly unfair.

I: Hmmm. Well now, could you tell me about this letter you sent to [REDACTED]? (copy of letter attached).

B: Well, I would have thought it rather obvious. There was a puzzle in the Times – jolly hard, too, took me nearly ten minutes to solve it – and it said if you could solve it to send your proof to an address and there would be a small prize. So I thought I would send in my proof.

I: Yes? And then what?

B: It turned out my prize was an invitation to sit some sort of exam! Cheek! Well, I swapped my day off and went and sat the exam, just for something to do really. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, because it was quite easy really, easier than the puzzle in the Times, although maybe I’d just got into the right frame of mind by then. Anyway, the whole thing took me about half an hour. On my way out, I pointed out that there was a mistake in one of the questions. The examiner was a bit rude about it actually. Anyway, I didn’t hear anything more about it, except that someone in my section was saying that her boyfriend had also answered one of these ads and was now working on something hush-hush somewhere. So I thought I’d write to [REDACTED] and see if there was any possibilities for me there. I do enjoy my ATS work, but this sounded like such a lark.

Burnham took a sip of his tea, and realised that it had gone stone-cold. He’d wasted enough time on this. He flipped to the last page of the interview.

Conclusion: Subject considered unsuitable for SOE work. Promote within ATS and move to non-critical sector. Surveil. Possible Security Risk.

Burnham picked up a rubber stamp, inked it, and brought it down firmly on the paper underneath the conclusion:

RECOMMENDATION APPROVED stared back at him in big red letters. He gave the stamp a moment to dry, closed the file and repeated the process with another stamp. When he was finished, REJECTED crossed over the legend ‘Special Operations Executive Recruitment Interview’. He sighed, rubbed his eyes and picked up the next folder.

© David Jesson, 2021

Author’s note – in answer to a comment made when we posted the prompt, the character is definitely not a reflection of an idealised form of the author! Also, regular readers of the blog may recognise the name Burnham. Yes, it’s the same chap, although until I’ve had a chat with Debs, this is very much non-canon…

#FF Prompt: Mary-Sue

I think I’ve mentioned ‘Mary-Sue’ in passing on this blog before, but I can’t now find the post. C’est la vie. Suffice it to say that a Mary-Sue (a male version is sometimes referred to as a Gary-Sue) is someone who is impossibly perfect (except for one, obvious, knowing flaw), typically has something tragic in their past (which is what drives them on), and somehow manages to stay on good terms with everyone on their side. The most blatant examples of this character are to be found in fanfic: the classic, and possibly definitive version is the raw ensign who is somehow able to out-Kirk Jim, out-Scott Scotty, out-Vulcan Spock, and out-Doc McCoy. This prodigy will probably die saving the Federation, and Spock will cry at her funeral.

So, for a bit of fun, 500-1000 words about a Mary-Sue kind of character. Bonus points for:

-Fanfic – anything you like, but perhaps lets give Star Trek a miss. Double points for something non-obvious. This can include a parody of your own work, should you happen to have written something suitable.


Word count: up to 1,000
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday, 14th November 2021

If you can’t make this deadline, don’t forget you can use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

#ReadersResources: Read across the UK part II

A little while ago, Debs wrote a cracking post on Reading across the UK. We still need to agree a date for this, but I thought I might follow up with some further suggestions. Being naturally contrary, I’ve decided to present mine by genre…

Science Fiction

As might be expected, I’ve chosen to kick off with science fiction. Whether or not you enjoyed the film version with Tom Cruise (2005) or a repeat of Orson Welles’ (1938) panic inducing radio adaptation, you might not know, or may have forgotten that H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds is set in the Home Counties around London. The description of the terrain – and the subsequent destruction of most of it – is beautifully evocative. I’m tempted to start running tours of some of the locations mentioned.

Similarly, the Day of the Triffids is worth your time. John Wyndham’s depiction of a world brought low by hubris and dubious experiments takes in a swathe of ground between London and the South Coast, not to mention the bastion of the Isle of Wight.

J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World sees London semi-submerged in a future where climate change has reeked havoc. Any day that is to hot for my liking makes me think of this book.

Detective Fiction

In the comments to Debs’ original post I mentioned Ian Sansom’s County Guides series. He’s going to have to pick up the pace if he’s going to manage to get round the whole of the UK, but so far the five published books give an interesting perspective on 1930s England, particularly bits that are not often looked at. The conceit here is that a prolific author is off collecting research material with his daughter and assistant for a series of books cataloguing the best bits of Britain, especially the things that are likely to fade in the face of technology and social change. Of course, they court disaster wherever they go. The assistant is, of course, plagued by demons: in this instance they arise from his time in Spain as part of the International Brigade.

The British Library has recently (over the last decade perhaps?) been republishing classic detective fiction, much of which has a locale element to it. So for example there is The Hogsback Mystery by Freeman Wills Croft and starring Inspector French. There are several others with this detective, and whilst he occasionally makes a foray abroad he is a Scotland Yard man at a time when local constabularies would call upon the Yard if they felt a case was a bit too much for them for whatever reason. So whilst a lot of French’s cases are set in and around London, he also travels extensively around the UK.

I’m also going to put in a shout for The Thirty-Nine Steps, even if it is not properly Detective Fiction. Whichever film version you’ve seen, the book is sufficiently different and exciting that it is worth your trouble to look it out and give it a read. Some lovely descriptions of Scotland in there, as well as the South Coast.

Non-fiction

I thought it might also be helpful to put in some non-fiction suggestions too. In this regard one cannot really go wrong with Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I’m less enamored of the follow up, The Road to Little Dribbling: to my mind, the Bryson who wrote the second book has become a grumpy old man and has lost some of the shine and verve of the younger Bryson – but that is just my opinion. There are still some splendid observations.

Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes is, on the face of it, a bit niche. A description of walks around stomping grounds associated with particular writers. It is so much more though. Twelve mini-biographies which focus on a particular period of time or a particular piece of work by some of the greatest British authors of the last two hundred years or so, and how the landscape had an impact on their work. Beautiful.

Finally, this one really is niche, and is all about London, but is so joyous that you need to read it. Tim Moore’s Do Not Pass Go is, primarily, about Monopoly. Or is it? Sure that’s the framing narrative, in particular his carrying a board and some dice around so that he can work out where he’s going next, but this is, in a way, more of a socio-geographic history of London, and the changes that have occurred leading up to the London version of Monopoly, and those that have occurred since. Moore takes us around London, set by set, and explains the hidden meanings behind some of the collections – for example, Orange is the colour of justice… He even goes in search of Free Parking.

Do add your suggestions of potential reading material for future editions of Read Across the UK.

©David Jesson, 2021

Josephine Tey & Nicola Upson: a #SecondThoughts book review

A little while ago I kicked off a series of book reviews, where my intention is try and avoid star ratings and instead look at the good, the bad, and the ugly features of the book (or series) under scrutiny. Here then another in that series, and another look at detective fiction.

With the title of this post, there is a strong temptation to write ‘vs’ instead of ‘&’, but I’m trying to get away from that sort of book review. If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that, of late, I’m probably getting through more books by listening to them than by ‘reading’ them. Audible and my local library’s current app of choice for borrowing audiobooks have been lifesavers for the times when I have chores that leave my mind free and otherwise boringly unoccupied. In that manner, I’ve been able to blast through several different series of books, as well as the odd standalone. So today’s post is more about looking at two bodies of work, one of which has been read traditionally – with actual books, not on the kindle – and one that I’ve listened to.

Elizabeth MacKintosh came to writing in her late twenties or so – that is certainly when her first publications came about – after a (short) career as a physical training instructor came to an end when she returned home to care for an invalid and dying mother. Later she cared for her father. Upson intimates that the writing was a means of escape, but more on that later. MacKintosh wrote poetry and plays under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot: her most successful play was the historical Richard of Bordeaux, which, incidentally, is often cited as a major lynch-pin in the career of Sir John Gielgud. Her mysteries, of which there are eight, mainly feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard: of these there are five, and a further one where he has a bit part. This body of work features a range of realistic people, although generally sketched rather than laid bare in n overly detailed manner, and have clever crimes with clever twists – Grant is known for his ‘flair’ and usually has a sense that all is not right with the neat, pat solution, even if he stumbles on the truth by good fortune rather than solid police work. That said, he wouldn’t have the good luck if he didn’t do the solid police work in the first place. The nice thing about the Grant stories is that whilst there is some character development and a growing shared history, you can pretty much pick up the books in any order that you like and treat them as a standalone – no spoilers here. In particular, it is worth flagging the Daughter of Time, in which Grant, in hospital with a broken leg, is bouncing off the walls, if only mentally. his friends come to his aid he brings his intellect and detective skills to bear on one of the coldest of cold cases: the death of the Princes in the Tower. Daughter of Time was declared to be the Greatest Mystery of All Time (a mystery GOAT – therein lies a story prompt…) by the Crime Writers Association. It is not showy, there are no explosions, and there are no descendants of rival factions duking it out to protect ‘the truth’. But it is subtle, clever, and a good use of your time. Of the rest, probably the most well known today is the Franchise Affair, but in their day, most have received plaudits and awards around the world. If the new impressions that I found in the library are anything to go by, Tey seems to be having a resurgence. which is all to the good, in my opinion. It is worth mentioning ‘A shilling for candles’ (1936) and ‘To Love and be wise’ (1950) if only because they have a bearing on what comes next.

Nicola Upson is on her ninth Josephine Tey mystery, which is to say that she has created a fictionalised version of MacKintosh, called Josephine Tey, and placed her in a world with fictionalised versions of real people (such as Gielgud), fictionalised versions of fictitious people, and wholesale creations. What do I mean by fictionalised versions of real people? Well, for example there is Inspector Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard, who is categorically the inspiration for Grant, in Upson’s books at least. MacKintosh’s real fiance was called in WWI, and Upson presents Penrose as a brother-in-arms of a fiance who is also dead in her books. In ‘A Shilling for Candles’, Grant’s friend Marta Hallard is introduced, and there is a character called Lydia. Upson too has characters called Marta and Lydia, with Lydia taking the role of Anne of Bohemia, which in our world was played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. (I couldn’t tell you how closely Lydia resembles her). In Upson’s Tey-verse, Lydia is closer in some respects to the original Marta – they are at least both actresses, whereas the Tey-verse Marta is a writer and artist.

I apologise for being cryptic: I’m endeavouring to unfold a line of argument without giving rise to spoilers. Suffice it to say that I believe that Upson has done a great deal of research about the period in general as well as the life and work of Elizabeth Mackintosh. I find myself struggling with this: the books are engaging, and I want to find out where the characters are going with their lives, and there are some clever plots with good twists, but…but…but…and again, but. I have a strong sense that we are somehow prying on someone (MacKintosh) who was an intensely private individual.

Compared with the Grant books, events in Upson’s Tey-verse happen at breakneck speed, so whereas Tey’s Inspector Grant first appears in 1929 (The Man in the Queue), and last has an outing in 1952 (the posthumously published The Singing Sands), the fictional Tey is much like any other modern sleuth and deals with a body or three every few months across the 1930s. A Shilling for Candles, the second Grant novel, actually forms something of a backdrop to Upson’s fourth, Fear in the Sunlight, where the fictional Tey is in negotiations with Alfred Hitchcock who might be interested in adapting ‘Candles’. (In real life, the book came ‘Young and Innocent’ and as with so many such adaptations bears only a passing resemblance to the book).

The tricky bit for me, having recently caught up with myself, as it were, is that in ‘A shilling for candles’ Marta and Lydia are both integral to the plot – MacKintosh’s Marta and Lydia, that is (who may well be based on Marde Vanne and Gwen Ffrancgon-Davies respectively). Upson’s Marta and Lydia are integral to Fear in the sunlight, but I think if I were Upson’s Marta and Lydia, I would be having words with Upson’s Tey – perhaps they are both thicker skinned than I give them credit for. And then of course, it’s all make-believe anyway…

So. If you like detective stories, you should definitely look out for these two authors. Tey’s work is of its time and so there is something of a health warning with respect to social mores and attitudes of the time. For example, in the Man in Queue, Grant has formed a mental picture of the murderer that he names the Dago primarily from some assumptions about the nature of the murder. Were the story to be adapted today, this is the area that would probably require the greatest attention. Still, Tey is writing of the time and the writing has a freshness and immediacy that still comes through today – there are a number of Golden Age detectives who can make the whole problem a little too intellectual at times and miss the great morass of humanity that are at the heart of it all. On the other hand, Upson’s work has a certain Midsomer aspect in terms of the number of people that the fictional Tey comes into contact with who end up dead. Whilst the evocation of the 1930s is excellent, you can’t help but see the 21st century building materials that have been used to create it.

What do you think of the trend of making real life people into fictional detectives? Where do you draw the line when casting back through the years for reading material?

©David Jesson, 2021

Comic Timing

The Bandleader blamed the Comic, for adding extra material.  The Comic blamed the Bandleader for coming in too early, drowning out the punchline.

Less than an hour after the end of the show, the Comic stood in a darkened doorway.  He’d arrived early, and removed the light-bulb.

As the musician fumbled with his keys, a voice tickled his ear:

“Laugh this off.”

Puzzled he turned, only to see a figure turning the corner at the end of the street.  His back began to itch as if it were on fire.

He turned and, in extreme discomfort, ran to the shower.

© David Jesson, 2018

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A little bit of Flash Fiction, which I submitted to one of Janet Reid’s competitions a few years ago now, but which has kept on getting bumped from FCBF for one reason or another.

There are a number of rules, but the key ones are:

1. Write a story using 100 words or fewer.

2. Use these words in the story:

extra
hour
early
light
dark

To compete for the Steve Forti Deft Use of Prompt Words prize (or if you are Steve Forti) you must also use: Fortran

3. You must use the whole word, but that whole word can be part of a larger word. The letters for the prompt must appear in consecutive order. They cannot be backwards.

Thus: early/pearly is ok, but light/sleight is not. Hours is fine, but grouch is not

(You might have to look twice, but I did manage to get Fortran in there :0) ).