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The Times and Sunday Times
Tuesday August 3 2021 | Issue 93
Crime Club
By Mark Sanderson
 
The fad for ever-longer acknowledgments shows no sign of abating. What used to be a couple of sentences has become, in some cases, two or more pages. Some authors now choose to list their encyclopaedic thanks as if they were the credits at the end of a movie. In my experience the better the writer, the briefer the acknowledgments. Lest anyone think I’m ungrateful to the many minions who ensure Crime Club appears each Tuesday, I would like to take this opportunity to profusely thank Andrew, Robbie, Lucy, James, Laurie, Siobhan and Jake (editorial); the tech guys — although I’ve not a clue what they do; the platoons of publicists who plague me daily; the unpaid authors who generously agree to promote their own work; Leanne (hair and make-up); Waitrose — especially the wine department; Gorgeous George of the Royal Mail who always has a smile when he empties his sack; the manly men from DPD, FedEx, UPS and Hermes; and, finally, the obstetrician who delivered me in 1962 (with forceps).
Mark Sanderson
Crime Club editor
 
 
Star pick
A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris
Orion, £20
A fourth visit to St Oswald’s, where there’s a new head teacher — and human remains in the grounds. You can read my review at the link below.

Below, in a piece specially written for Crime Club, Joanne Harris goes back to school.
Find out more >
Joanne Harris on what being a teacher taught her
 
My grandfather was a teacher. My parents were both teachers. My parents’ friends were all teachers, and they talked about teaching all the time. Thus I learnt from an early age that schools are filled with drama; with insiders and outsiders, with scandals and friendships and rivalries. Schools are factories of stories. Some are funny, some tragic, but the constant challenge and the flow of people year after year mean that whatever else happens, the stories never run out. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn from the start to teaching as a profession. That, and perhaps the fact that teaching was the only career I knew.

In any case, I loved it. I started out at a school in Dewsbury (the very same that later featured in the TV show Educating Yorkshire), then went on to Leeds Grammar School, an independent school for boys. It was a strange environment at first; a 500-year-old institution, still tied to a patriarchal past. The youngest of only a handful of women teachers on the staff, I was constantly mistaken for one of the secretaries. The day I wore a trouser suit in the same colours as the school uniform I was shouted at in the corridor by a staff member who mistook me for one of the boys. It was like teaching in Mervyn Peake’s Castle Gormenghast.

My form room was in the Bell Tower, with gargoyles outside my window. Staff wore academic gowns when they were on duty. The head of religious education took objection to me, and used to say to the boys as I passed: "There goes Mrs Harris, on her broom." I couldn’t have been more out of place.

And yet, I stayed for 12 years. That close-knit, quirky community seemed like a perfect training ground for the writer in me. Invigorating, challenging, riddled with the unexpected. It was inevitable that at some point I should try to tap into the rich vein of possibility that such an environment offered.

I began by stealth, with Chocolat (1999): the story of a woman moving into an intensely patriarchal community, challenging the status quo and making fun of the local priest. I set the book in France to make sure none of my colleagues suspected that I might have taken inspiration from them. Even so, it was surprising how easy it was to transplant those gruff old schoolmasters to a village in the Gers. It took me ten more years to dare to write about teaching more openly. But Gentlemen and Players (2005) was set in a school very like the Leeds Grammar School I first joined, and its theme, like that of A Narrow Door, was once again that of the outsider challenging the status quo. It’s a theme that runs through all my books: fighting back against prejudice, intolerance and the patriarchy. Teaching taught me many things; not least, the value of fighting back. That was a lesson I learnt early. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Image credit: Jennifer Robertson/Kyte Photography
 
Page 99
 
Ford Madox Ford, novelist, literary critic and friend of Joseph Conrad, said: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” Arbitrary, perhaps, but surprisingly accurate.

This week, a sad scene from Billy Summers (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), the life story of a contract killer by Stephen King, that is published today. You can read John Dugdale’s
review here.

When we came back to the hearing room a day later they said I would have to go into foster care at a place called Speck House because she was an unfit mother. She said you are bullshit artists and I will fight this all the way to the supreme court. The man who told the story about the frog and the scorpion said have you been drinking. My mother said kiss my ass you fat bastard. He didn’t come back on her for that but said you have 24 hours to put Benjy’s things together, Mrs Compson, and to say goodbye. It will mean more to him if you’re sober when you do it. Then him and the other 2 walked out.

We took the bus home. My mother said we’re going to run away, Benjy. We will go to another town and change our names. We will start over. But we were still there the next day, and that was my last day in Hillview Trailer Park, the last day I lived with my mother. A county cop came to take me to the Speck House. I wished the cop had been the one who hug me, but it was another one. Deputy Malkin wasn’t so bad though.

Anyway, mom didn’t make trouble because she was sober. She said to the cop I put off packing his things because I didn’t want to think this would really happen. Give me 15 minutes. The cop said that was quite all right and waited while she pack me a duffle full of clothes. He waited outside. Then she made me 2 PB&J sandwiches and put them in a lunch sack and told me to be a good boy. Then she started to cry and I did too. It was her fault I had to go away, everything was her fault, she was the one who gave the scorpion a ride and she was the one who kept getting drunk and blaming it on Cassie being dead, but I cried because I loved her.
Picks of the week
The Turnout by Megan Abbott
Virago, £14.99
Derek the builder, called in after a devastating fire, creates fifty shades of dismay at a ballet school run by two sisters. Can they save their annual production of The Nutcracker? Megan Abbott, who has clearly done her homework, reveals that ballet requires tons of gumption as well as grace. The fraught atmosphere of the dance studio, seething with barely submerged passions, is brilliantly conveyed, although some may find the pirouetting plot too-too much. Favourite line: “Some people liked to make everything dirty.”
Find out more >
Of Fangs and Talons by Nicolas Mathieu, trans. Sam Taylor
Sceptre, £16.99
Before Nicolas Mathieu won the Prix Goncourt in 2018 for And Their Children After Them he wrote this remarkable novel about two small-town scallies who resort to crime when the local factory closes down. Martel, a former trade union rep, and Bruce, a pill-popping bodybuilder, cock up a kidnapping in Strasbourg thus finding themselves at the mercy of ruthless professionals. Mathieu, a wonderful writer, echoes the grittiness and compassion of Émile Zola in Germinal (1885). Favourite line: “The cow was motionless now, moaning softly, its hide covered with cuts, one sad round eye staring at the two men.”
Find out more >
The Killing Tide by Lin Anderson
Macmillan, £16.99
Forensic whizz Rhona MacLeod, who made her debut in Driftnet (2003), is still going strong in her 16th case, which involves three dead men on board a wrecked cargo ship in the Orkney Islands. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, Detective Sergeant Michael McNab investigates the death of a young woman who may have set herself on fire. Could the two cases be linked? As always Lin Anderson provides a big fat colourful mystery. Favourite words: skreevar and katrizper. Orcadian terms for very strong winds.
Find out more >
Downtime
 
An occasional series in which authors reveal what they like to do when not writing. This week Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose The Plot (Faber, £8.99) is published on Thursday, goes bargain-hunting. You can read John Dugdale’s review of The Plot here.

I imagine most women would be annoyed to discover that their husband has secretly photographed them hauling an enormous painting down the street in a foreign city and sent the picture to their children back in America with the caption: Mom, at it again. Actually, I was delighted. The flea market is truly my happy place, and has been since I made the discovery, many years ago, that an old thing is almost always better than a new thing.

Everything in our home is old. I have pedalled a bike through the Lake District with an old quilt slung over the handlebars. I have strapped crumbling mantelpieces to the roof of my car, and hauled iron doorstops through airports in my purse, to avoid luggage surcharges. Before I go anywhere, I figure out where the markets are, and I have been known to arrange my itinerary so I can be in certain parking lots at dawn. What? There’s nothing strange in that.

So why was I happy about the photo my husband took? It’s because flea marketing is a solitary activity. We flea marketers like to take our own time, follow our whims, examine what’s interesting to us and walk swiftly past what isn’t. Our friends may offer to come with us, but we secretly hope they’ll cancel because, frankly, we don’t want to be slowed down by somebody else’s dawdling. That’s why I don’t have a single photograph of myself doing the thing I’ve loved doing for decades, and I had certainly never seen that determined expression on my face, the one my husband so clearly caught. It’s the expression of a woman who has just found something fantastic in Reykjavik’s Kolaportid flea market, and while she may have no firm plan as to how she’ll get it out of Iceland and back to America, she’s sure it will all be worked out eventually.

Indeed, it was. My hotel gave me cardboard and twine, and a few days later Icelandair checked the painting in as baggage. It’s in our bedroom in New York now, at the foot of our bed. It’s the first thing I see when I get up in the morning. And it’s beautiful.
Paperback of the week
Devil’s Fjord by David Hewson
Canongate, £8.99
Hewson, creator of Roman copper Nic Costa, heads for colder climes in this new series set in the Faroe Islands. Two brothers go missing during the annual whale hunt known as “The Grind”. Newcomer Tristan Haraldsen, the district sheriff, becomes convinced the mystery is connected to the suspicious death of the boys’ uncle the previous year. This atmospheric novel develops with the grim inevitability of a Scandinavian saga and is not for the faint-hearted.
Find out more >
Competition
 
Six copies of Devil’s Fjord — plus, for one lucky soul, a bottle of Reyka Icelandic vodka — are up for grabs. Simply send the answer to the question below, with “Devil’s Fjord” in the subject line, to campaigns@canongate.co.uk before 11.59pm on Monday, August 9. The winners will be chosen at random.

What, in the game of Scrabble, is the total face value of the tiles needed to spell FJORD?
Last word
 
Congratulations to Dennis Lehane, the author of such great novels as Gone, Baby, Gone (1998) and Shutter Island (2003), who turns 56 tomorrow.

“Life isn’t happily ever after... It’s work. The person you love is rarely worthy of how big your love is. Because no one is worthy of that and maybe no one deserves that burden of it, either. You’ll be let down. You’ll be disappointed and have your trust broken and have a lot of real sucky days. You lose more than you win. You hate the person you love as much as you love him. But you roll up your sleeves and work — at everything — because that’s what growing older is.”

(Mystic River, 2001)

Image credit: Toni Albir/Shutterstock
 
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