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Archive for the ‘Author Profiles’ Category

Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930- ) writes a range of different crime stories, but she began with Inspector Reg Wexford, and the Wexford stories remain her most popluar.

Rendell is reticent about her personal history. Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers. Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man. She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’. After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times. She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950. They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later. They have one son. She wrote six books before she approached a publisher. When she did, her books were instantly successful. From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories. In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and now continues to produce books in all three categories. In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government. Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her recent (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor

In 1996, in an interview in The Irish Times, Rendell commented that ‘I would think that the old-fashioned detective story which is so much a matter of clues and puzzles is certainly on the way out, if not already gone. Crime novels now are much more novels of character, and novels which look at the world we live in’. This is certainly true of her own work. However it is equally true that the character of Inspector Reg Wexford has developed a lot since she began the series. In the early books, Wexford’s role was basically to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret. Now, he is a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. It has been suggested that Wexford was modelled on her father, and she says in response ‘Wexford has a very dry sense of wit, he is liberal, literate, but he can get quite exasperated and hot-tempered and he quotes a lot from literature. All these things are true of myself and my father’. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like – I’ve done that more and more’.

Inspector Wexford, later Detective Chief Inspector, does not have a fully fleshed out biography as do some fictional detectives. He is middle aged, tall and broad and inclined to put on too much weight if he doesn’t watch what he eats, which he hates doing. Though he didn’t go to university, and is somewhat abashed by the new young breed of university-educated detectives, personified by his nephew, Superintendent Howard Fortune, he is self educated and very well read.  He is shrewd in his judgements of people. He is also compassionate, often in contrast to his assistant, Inspector Mike Burdon, who can be rather narrow and rigid. He is married to Dora and has two grown up daughters. His family life is stable, and his professional life not in danger from jealous colleagues or hated superiors, as is sometimes the case with other detectives. He can become obsessed with an investigation, to the frustration of both his wife and his boss. 

The Wexford books are:

From Doon with Death (1964)

A New Lease of Death (1967)

Wolf to the Slaughter (1967)

The Best Man to Die (1969)

A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970)

No More Dying Then (1971)

Murder Being Once Done (1972)

Some Lie and Some Die (1973)

Shake Hands Forever (1975)

A Sleeping Life (1978)

Sins of the Fathers (1980)

Put on the Cunning (1981)

Death Notes (1981)

Speaker of Mandarin (1983)

An Unkindness of Ravens (1985)

The Veiled One (1988)

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992)

Simisola (1995)

Road Rage (1997)

Harm Done (1999)

Babes in the Wood (2002)

End in Tears (2005)

Not in the Flesh (2007)

The Monster in the Box (2009)

In 1987, a TV series entitled Inspector Wexford and based on the books was begun. It starred George Baker as DCI Reg Wexford and Christopher Ravenscroft as DI Mike Burden. Now many people, Ruth Rendell amongst them, can’t think of Wexford without seeing Baker. He, in return, says in his memoirs how much he likes and admires Wexford, and enjoyed playing him. The series ended in 2000, and unfortunately there are no plans to film the more recent books.

When Rendell talks about looking at ‘the world we live in’, she means not only the physical setting of the story, but also its social and moral setting. Wexford operates in the imaginary town of Kingsmarkham, set somewhere south of London. The crimes he investigates are those of ordinary people, who faced with some challenge or choice, reveal a capacity for violence which is inherent in everyone under certain circumstances. In her work as Ruth Rendell Mark II and Barbara Vine, the psychological impulse to crime and violence is much more fully explored. But it is also present in the Wexford books.

Rendell describes most of her recent Wexford stories as more ‘political’ than the earlier ones. They deal with racism, environmental issues, and child abuse. Rendell has always held left of centre views, and has been active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was then new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show the world as it is has led her to tackle issues she thinks are important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond the ordinary police procedural.

 More information about Ruth Rendell can be found here.

 More information about the TV series can be found here.

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It was with regret that I learned in February 2010 that the great story teller Dick Francis had died, aged 89.  Francis wrote the kind of crime story that takes an ordinary person and throws  them in a situation involving criminal activity. All had something to do with horse racing, a reflection of the fact that Francis had once been a champion jockey. A few of the books featured Syd Halley, jockey turned private detective, but by far the majority had as their hero someone normally quite unconnected with crime and its detection. Most of the stories were clever, and gave fascinating insights into varied aspects of the world of horse racing.

But one of the main mysteries was just how much of the regular flow of a book every year Francis himself was responsible for. It was openly acknowledged that his wife did the research for the books, but did she do more that that? After she died in 2000, no further titles were forthcoming for six years.  Since then there has been one recycling the Syd  Halley character, Under Orders (2006)  and then three which included Francis’s son, Felix, as joint writer: Dead Heat (2007), Silks (2008) and Even Money (2009). A final joint book, Crossfire, will be published in 2010. Now that Dick Francis is dead, it seems that Felix Francis will continue to produce the Francis product alone.

This further exploitation of a well known brand is nothing new – the various James Bond stories that have appeared since the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 attest to this.

But isn’t this turning a book into nothing but a commodity? Can someone else really capture the vividness of detail that made the Francis books so distinctive?  I think that the later Dick Francis stories were already beginning to get a bit tired. I find the new ones by Felix to be quite formulaic and completely lacking in the verve of his father’s work (or possibly his mother’s, as well as his father’s work).

No doubt the crime story reading public will make their judgement, but for me, there’s something of the uniformity and blandness of the Big Mac about the new books. If you want my advice, read the earlier ones. Some of my favourites are Nerve, Odds Against, Forfeit, Enquiry, Reflex, Banker, The Danger and Straight.

A tribute to Dick Francis from the New York Times can be found here.  

The Dick Francis website is here.

What do you think of the new Dick Francis stories?

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The immense and I think on the whole well deserved popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy made me want to read some more Scandinavian crime stories. Larsson’s work deserves greater space than I can give it here, so this will just be a brief outline of some other crime writers from Sweden, Norway and Iceland.

Next in popularity outside Scandinavia to Larsson is the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell. His books have been given a boost by the creation of a BBC TV series starring Kenneth Branagh as Inspector Wallander. Filmed in Sweden with Swedish and English actors, the series has the same dour quality as the books. Inspector Wallander is a dogged policeman, but has otherwise a dysfunctional life – divorced, difficult relationship with his daughter, too much booze and junk food and not enough exercise. There is a somewhat neurotic quality to Wallander; he is always going on about how he is not getting anywhere with his investigation, but without much result. His cases always involve murder; a bit too often there is a serial killer. They are big on atmosphere rather than motive, though the resolution is usually satisfactory. I most recently read The Man Who Smiled (2005), but I can’t get excited about it. To me, the denouement was unsatisfactory; at the end villain reveals all to detective when he could easily just have killed him – a device I particularly dislike. Overall, however, the Wallander books are well worth reading.

Karin Fossum has a series featuring Norwegian policeman Inspector Konrad Sejer. I read Calling Out For You (2005) a title which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story. An Indian woman is brutally killed in a small town. Anyone could have done it. There are lots of points of view given, some of which are silly. Overall I didn’t like it much because I found the structure self-indulgent. It does hide who is the criminal – but then just about anyone could have been, for all the motive that was established. I got no real sense of it being set in Norway, rather than anywhere else. The writing is adequate but not compelling. I’d certainly read another of her books if I came across it, but I probably won’t seek one out.

Karin Alvtegen has won prizes for her crime stores in both Denmark and Sweden. I read Shadow, (2009), a psychological thriller rather than a detective story, set in Sweden. It is about the unravelling of a family secret – a crime whose existence is gradually revealed after the death of the family’s housekeeper. The family is already full of dysfunctional people who become more so as what really happened emerges. Because it is relating the past to the present, there is quite a lot of back story to be told. This is done through the recollection of characters – and, as is often the case, the past is remembered with unrealistic clarity – even when it has been suppressed by the person. The plot fairly predictable – though I didn’t see all of it coming. The story relies on the writer presenting a realistic and/or engaging picture of the characters in the drama but I found them a bit too simplistic. And as almost none of them is likeable, I didn’t much care what happened to them. Just as well, as it isn’t really made clear in the end. I found some of the motivation – for both action and inaction – quite unconvincing. And why should the person who caused it all get a vision of paradise when he dies? Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine writes similar stories – but to my mind she does it better.

I also read Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia (2009), a story set in Iceland, featuring Detective Erlunder. He has misgivings about a death that looks like suicide, and undertakes his own unofficial investigation. Along side this he obsesses about the fate of two young people who simply disappeared some years earlier. His own brother had also disappeared in a storm, and this seems to be the cause of his obsession. He is another gloomy character with a failed marriage and dysfunctional children. The reader is privy to more of what happened than the detective through flash backs giving the view of the dead woman, which I found a bit artificial. The idea for what actually happened is quite clever, but again, I found the way the story unfolded unconvincing; most of the denouement is told to him by characters who would have had every reason to stay silent. Also, he is told exactly what he needs to piece the story together, and only that, so it all seems a bit convenient. The link he finds between the suicide case and the missing persons case is also pretty tenuous. As for the setting, the landscape and the weather are important to the story, and I got some sense of the beauty and the bleakness of Iceland.

 All of these books are of course translated, and I wonder if it is this that sometimes makes the writing seem a bit thin, or lacking in resonance. I read that Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, objected to the most recent translation of his work, giving the following example. One of the main characters, Blomkvist, has been wrongly convicted of defamation and someone asks him how he feels. ‘This is the worst day of my life’ he replies. In the original Swedish, he said ‘Like a sack of shit’. Gabrielsson says that ‘the sound, the essence, the colour, the character of the dialogue’ have all been changed. And maybe some of the life has gone out of these other stories too.

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A.S. Byatt

Antonia Susan Byatt (1936- ) was born in Sheffield, England, eldest of three children in a scholarly, middle class family. Her father, John Drabble, a barrister and later a county court judge, wrote novels in his spare time. Her younger sister Margaret Drabble is also a successful writer. They both went to the Mount School, York, a Quaker boarding-school, and both went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to study English literature. Antonia graduated in 1957, and did two years of postgraduate study at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, and at Oxford. In 1959, she married Ian Byatt, and they had two children, one of whom died in a road accident aged eleven. They divorced in 1969, and she married Peter Duffy; they had two more children.  During these years, she worked as a part-time lecturer at the University of London and the Central School of Art and Design, teaching English and Liberal Studies. In 1972 she became a tenured lecturer in English and American Literature, later senior lecturer at University College, London and remained there until 1983, when she left to write full-time.

Throughout the early years of motherhood and part-time teaching, Byatt had also been writing.  In 1964 her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, was published.  It is a story about a young woman who struggles to discover and develop her own personality in the shadow of her father, a renowned British novelist. Writing about writing and writers is one of the ongoing themes of her work. Her second book, The Game (1967) established a second common theme – the relationship between sisters. In this case one is an Oxford academic, and the other a best-selling novelist, and their relationship leads to violence and death.  By 1967, her sister Margaret had published three books, A Summer Bird Cage (1964), The Garrick Year (1964) The Millstone (1965), a fourth, Jerusalem the Golden appearing in 1967. The sisters’ relationship was never close; ‘There was too much competition,’ Byatt says of their childhood. ‘We didn’t get on’. Drabble explains the continuing rift as beginning when Byatt’s son was killed – and the ‘unassuageable guilt’ she, Margaret, experienced knowing that her own children were safe. Byatt has also said she was angered at Drabble’s treatment of a character who was clearly based on their mother in one of her books.  (Some sources say that the two are half sisters, but others make no mention of this.  Biographical details appear to show them as having the same parents, and neither of them has commented publicly on the matter.) 

There was a gap of some years until her next novel, though she published a number of academic studies in literature in these years. Juggling work and family led her, like many others, to feel ‘when you’re a woman, that you start with one hand tied behind your back’.

In 1978, The Virgin in the Garden was published, and again takes up the theme of family – and sisters’ – relationships. This time another young girl, Frederica Potter, is seeking to find her own identity. This is the first of four novels about Frederica and her family, spread over the next twenty-five years. Frederica’s relationship with her sister is much more accepting, but in the second of the series, Still Life (1985) the sister dies in a domestic accident. The effects of this on Frederica’s life are explored, among other things, in Babel Tower (1996), and, The Whistling Woman (2002) follows Frederica into her thirties. These are dense and complex books, in which Byatt’s interest in ideas, particularly ideas about the role of art and literature in people’s lives, are fully explored. The early books were well received by critics, but didn’t make her widely known.

The book that established her fame was Possession: A Romance (1990). This is a book about two romances, a twentieth century one, and a nineteenth century one. Roland is a young research associate working on the life and writing of a nineteenth century poet, Randolph Ash.  He finds a fragment of a letter from Ash which suggests the beginnings of a previously unknown relationship between him and a female poet, who Ronald soon discovers to be Cristobel La Motte.  He meets Maud Bailey, a feminist academic who is working on La Motte, and together they set out to discover what happened. Interspersed with the modern account of discovery and the development of the relationship between Roland and Maude, we find out some of what actually took place between Ash and La Motte.

The book is often called a ‘pastiche’; it contains a mixture of ordinary modern narrative, mostly from Roland’s point of view, nineteenth century style narrative, letters, journal entries, a fairy story, poetry and chunks of feminist literary criticism and theory.  Most readers feel the other different and add to the pleasure of the book.  

 Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990.

Byatt’s most recent novel is The Children’s Book, which explores the lives of the family and friends of Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s stories. Set in the years leading up to the First World War, the ‘golden age’ of Edwardian England has a decidedly leaden touch to it. Hugely detailed, it perhaps lacks the lightness of Possession, but is a must read for fans of Byatt’s other novels.

Byatt does not shy away from the fact that she loves ideas; ‘intellectual passions are as vibrant and consuming as emotional ones’, she says. One critic said of Possession that is ‘teeming with more ideas that a year’s worth of ordinary novels’. The characters think hard about some serious issues. ‘Perhaps the most important thing to say about my books’ says Byatt, ‘is that they try to be about the life of the mind as well as of society and the relations between people … I see writing and thinking as a passionate activity, like any other’. Some of her later books seem to have taken her fascination with ideas to an extreme, so that they dominate the story. Byatt is very aware – even if her writing sometimes suggests otherwise – that ‘Art does not exist for politics, or for instruction – it exists primarily for pleasure’. 

Byatt’s novels are:

The Shadow of the Sun (1964)

The Game (1967)

The Virgin in the Garden (1978)

Still Life (1985)

Possession: A Romance (1990)

Angels and Insects (1992)

The Matisse Stories (1993)

Babel Tower (1996)

The Biographer’s Tale (2000)

The Whistling Woman (2002)

The Children’s Book (2009)

Visit Byatt’s website here.

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