“Kind and clever and sensibly dressed.” I love that description. I am immediately interested in a fictional character that is described thus. Makes me want to put the tea on and snuggle up in front of the fire with a good book. A cosy book. Not a twee, overly sentimental, poorly written, “cosy” book. But a well written, well plotted, evocatively descriptive without being long-winded book. Perhaps cosy is not the word I want here. Maybe restrained is a better word to describe a book where the characters are gentle, and clever, and sensibly dressed… and yet still interesting.
I’ve written numerous times on the blog about my need for gentle reading, and my love for charming books. Books which are entertaining and absorbing, but which eschew the violence, and the multiple (often nonsensical) plot twists that burden so many recent novels, many by writers whose work I otherwise admire. Or admired, past tense. Books which have a restrained style rather than a hyperbolic one.
Funnily enough lots and lots of murder mysteries can be considered “cosy” comfort reading of the kind I love. Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books. Okay, I don’t think that Andy Dalziel can be considered exactly ‘charming’ as such… but Hill’s books certainly are. Erudite, extremely well written, and wonderful.
Sometimes the gentle sort of book I want emanates from the golden age of detective fiction. Books written by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Ngaio Marsh. In the last couple of years I’ve often turned to the Miss Silver Mysteries by Patricia Wentworth. Patricia Wentworth is a very good writer. Despite the melodramatic covers on early editions of her novels, her books are NOT melodramatic. They are somewhat dated, but I actually like that. Plus they present a well-plotted, methodically told story, with well-developed characters, and evocative settings.
The day after we returned from Croatia, exhausted from our travels, from the unpacking and the putting away, while the washing machine churned and groaned with the fifth load of laundry, I downloaded a Miss Silver book. And with a fresh pot of tea, I ensconced myself on the sun room sofa with a sigh. I read Patricia Wentworth’s book Through the Wall almost in one sitting. In between getting up to empty the washing machine, to call my mum, to empty the dryer, to eat lunch, and then fall into bed for a nap… I read.
I was charmed by the characters in this Wentworth book.
As usual I was charmed by Miss Silver herself. And by Wentworth’s description of Miss Silver. By her hair “arranged in a deep, curled fringe very competently controlled by a net.” By her “small slight person arrayed in a dress of olive-green wool made high to the chin…after the manner of her Edwardian youth.” I chuckled when in one scene, after calling the police, she retreats upstairs to her room, despite the chaos ensuing around her, to retrieve her shoes. She cannot meet Inspector Crisp, when he arrives, in her “stockinged feet.” That would be undignified.
I was charmed too, as readers are meant to be, by the main character Marion Brand who is kind and clever and sensibly dressed. She is not beautiful, wears no makeup, and dresses in shabby but respectable clothes. But apparently her “fine bones,” pale face, and “pleasant and cultivated voice” tell astute observers things about her that belie her clothes. She doesn’t make a “fuss about trifles.” She is responsible, and has to bear the responsibility for others, which she does without flinching. She is good at enduring. Which makes her even more deserving of the lucky break she learns about at the beginning of the book, the inheritance from a rich uncle whom she has never met. An inheritance which will set into motion all kinds of nasty reactions from nasty and not so deserving relatives of the dead man.
Sounds a bit cliché, doesn’t it? And I guess it is. A cliché description of the kind and deserving heroine. A cliché plot for a novel of the period. But, you know, I didn’t even notice that when I was reading. I was so immersed in the book that, as I am wont to do, I just climbed into the narrative and walked around with Marion, with Miss Silver and her knitting, and with the other characters both good and evil.
Of course Wentworth’s novels are not just slightly dated stories about charming characters written in a restrained style. I think the most satisfying thing about Wentworth’s books is that they always dispense justice. Miss Silver would have it no other way. Ha.
The last couple of days I’ve been reading and enjoying Elly Griffiths’ latest Ruth Galloway book The Stone Circle. I love the characters in Griffiths’ series set in the brooding landscape of north Norfolk. Like the bleak setting of her novels, Griffiths writes with a kind of restrained minimalism. Lots of dialogue, few speech tags, and small details make her easy style deceptively evocative.
Griffiths’ main character is Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist and university lecturer. Like Marion Brand in Wentworth’s novel, Ruth Galloway is kind and clever. But not sensibly dressed. Ruth struggles in this area, in fact, she usually struggles to find a clean shirt in the morning. Except when she’s at a dig, then Ruth is always prepared, ready to haul her old anorak and her wellingtons out of the boot of her car.
Ruth lives in a remote cottage on the edge of the Saltmarsh with her seven year old daughter. Kate is the product of a passionate encounter with senior police detective Harry Nelson, and Ruth and Nelson’s complex personal relationship comprises much of the background story in the novels. Their professional relationship, with Ruth helping Harry solve crimes, is the main plot of most of the books.
Extremely competent in her professional life, Ruth is insecure and often hapless in her personal one. Nagged by her Fitbit, always rushing not to be late to pick up Kate from the childminder, feeling as if she is losing the plot of her own life, she is, in this book, beginning to yearn for something different. Professionally and personally. Frank, her very recent American lover, may be the answer. But then again, he may not be. When, after staying the night, Frank wakes, and “rubbing his eyes, says, ‘Hi, baby.” Ruth’s recoil is hilarious.
That scene made me think of the slightly smarmy guy I briefly dated back in the eighties. When he arrived to pick me up for our second date, he said, “What you want to do tonight, Baby?” I almost choked, and tried my hardest to NOT look across the room at my roommate, who I knew was looking at me with raised eyebrows, thinking, “Baby.. really?” Poor guy. That was the end of him. Baby, indeed. Ha. I feel your pain, Ruth.
That whole morning-after scene with Frank is a wonderful example of Elly Griffiths’ charm as a writer. And of poor Ruth trying to take control of her personal life to no avail. In a panic, Ruth admonishes Frank to stay in her room until she and Kate have safely left for school. She can’t face having to explain his presence.
By the time that Kate is up and dressed, the hastily ironed kit in the Hello Kitty bag, untidy French plait completed and breakfast made, Ruth feels calmer. If they can get out of the house without Kate seeing Frank then all will be well.
They make it to the car without incident. Frank’s car is parked in front of the weekenders’ cottage so Ruth hopes that Kate won’t notice it. Ruth scrapes her windscreen with her gym membership card. It’s the most use it ever gets. Then she climbs in and starts the engine, the hot air dispersing the last flakes of ice.
‘Let’s go disco,’ says Ruth, revealing her age.
‘There’s a man at your bedroom window,’ says Kate informatively.
Oh, that scene made me laugh out loud. Poor Ruth.
I really like Elly Griffiths’ novels, especially this series. I love the segues into folklore and local history and archaeology. Griffiths’ secondary characters, Cathbad the druid, Judy and Clough, and the other cops, and their ongoing back stories are every bit as interesting as the main characters.
I thought that Griffiths’ last couple of books were slightly underwhelming. I was growing weary of Ruth and Nelson’s unresolved relationship, and found the plots a bit thin. But The Stone Circle is vintage Elly Griffiths. I will say that if you’ve not read any of the Ruth Galloway series, you should read Griffiths’ first book in the series, The Crossing Places, before you read The Stone Circle. That’s because The Stone Circle revisits events and characters in that earlier book. In fact I’d read the next two or three before I’d tackle this latest one. That way you get caught up on the back stories of all the interesting secondary characters too.
You know, I’ve always been fascinated by how a novelist describes a character for the first time. How a book can, with a few words, depict characters so well we can see them, believe in them. Whether they are kind and clever and sensibly dressed. Or pale, in sagging tweeds. Or a stained tee shirt, and pants that they’ve just realized are too tight. I’m intrigued by the evocative details writers choose. How they parlay the surface description of neatly pressed designer jeans, or tousled hair and a rumpled overcoat into character traits. And what these same kinds of details in real life might say about us, as real people.
I mean…. have you ever wondered how you’d be described if you found yourself a character in a detective novel?
Sometimes I imagine that a senior detective and his sergeant knock on my door one morning. I’ve been banging away on the computer for hours. I start when I hear the knock, and stumble to the back door which is only a couple of feet away, blinking in the sunlight. My short hair is slightly disheveled, maybe stuck up a bit in the back. I’m wearing no make-up. Only sweatpants and a turtleneck, slightly stretched out at the hem. I pull on a fleece from the back of my desk chair and smooth my hair with my hand as they step into the kitchen. I offer them tea. Of course.
But who do they see, I wonder? How would they describe me? A reasonably intelligent, older woman with a good sense of humour, who scrubs up well when she can be bothered? Or something completely different… and much less forgiving? Hmmm.
Probably best not to dwell too much on that question, though. Don’t you think?
P.S. If you haven’t read any of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver series, I can recommend most of them. Including Through the Wall, which I’ve just finished, Miss Silver Comes to Stay and The Chinese Shawl.
And having mentioned these two much-loved writers in my post, I think I should say that my favourite Reginald Hill, Dalziel and Pascoe, novel is The Wood Beyond. And my favourite Ruth Rendell, Inspector Wexford novel is No Man’s Nightingale, the last in the series.
While I was writing this post I started leafing through P.D. James’ non-fiction book Talking About Detective Fiction. It’s a charming and informative book written by a wonderful writer about the genre she knows best. I found several new (to me) writers based on her recommendations after reading this little book. If you love mysteries and detective fiction, this is a must read, in my opinion.
P.P.S. Amazon Affiliate links will trigger a small commission for me if you buy something after clicking on my link.
Now… it’s time to finish off my Elly Griffiths’ novel. I’ve only fifty or so pages to go. And I am a bit worried what will become of Ruth and Nelson.