Hazel McHaffie

Ruth Rendell

A Scottish mystery

OK, duty done! I duly persisted to the end of Georgette Heyer’s mighty tome on Lord John of Bedford. So I’ve earned the pleasure of reading the book I was itching to get into: The Woman who Walked into the Sea, bought in the Outer Hebrides last month. And memories of those endless golden beaches, turquoise seas, alluring bays, came flooding back.

The author, Mark Douglas-Home, – yep, he is indeed the nephew of the former prime-minister, Alec Douglas-Home – is a journalist turned author, with an interesting career start: as a student he edited a University anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa and got himself deported! Now there’s tale to tell!! He now lives more quietly in Edinburgh and this is his second novel.

The story’s set on the North West coast of Scotland where, on 9 September 1983, a heavily pregnant Megan Bates walked across the sands of a remote beach into the cold Atlantic sea, and kept on walking. She was 33 years old and was wearing a loose white dress and a raffia hat with a broad red ribbon round it. Or so it was said. But the day before the sighting of Megan walking to her death, a baby girl was abandoned at the main door of Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, just before midnight, in a cardboard box, wrapped only in towels. There was no note, nothing to identify her apart from an envelope taped to the side of the box containing a brooch featuring violets, pinned to a small rectangular section cut from a green woollen cardigan. Could this have been Megan’s illegitimate child? Because of the brooch, the staff named the baby Violet.

26 years later, following a tip off from a social worker from Inverness, Violet Wells is searching for clues as to her biological mother’s life and intentions. Her journey takes her to the island where Megan lived and died. But the good people of Poltown give her a strange reception: there’s a local beach-combing farmer who says he loved Megan but who was accused by the police of killing her; a bitter elderly lady who was in service but has been soured by her treatment since the death of her employer; a stranger who attempts to abduct her. It seems the whole community is conspiring to keep its secrets buried and nothing is what it seems. Even Orasaigh Cottage, Megan’s rented home, is stripped of personality and bereft of any trace of her existence. And yet her possessions are preserved in a room in the ramshackle building belonging to a boy/man who believes her still alive.

Cal McGill is a private investigator and oceanographer brought in to locate things and people lost at sea, and currently not at all sure he does families any favours by doing so. He’s intrigued by this young woman who has suddenly left her flat in Glasgow and her four year old daughter, Anna, and come to this far corner, obsessed by her personal quest, reticent about sharing her own story. His knowledge of tides and flotsam makes him question the newspaper and police accounts of that time a quarter of a century ago. But his interest in this woman and her strange history soon leads to his personal safety being threatened as well as Violet’s.

Subtly, little by little, local characters let slip details and together Violet and Cal piece together a fragmented account – a tale of greed and jealousy, cover up and lies – until the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place and the ugly truth is revealed.

It’s been likened to a Ruth Rendell mystery. I wouldn’t personally rank it in that school of writing but I enjoyed the unravelling and of course, the exploration of the parent-child bond as well as the importance of knowing one’s roots; both slot neatly into my own current preoccupations.

A relaxing diversion before getting back into my own novel which is now on the downward slope to a conclusion. Very exciting to be counting down.

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Masterclass

OK, as you now know, my latest book, Inside of Me, includes three missing teenagers and a middle aged man who vanishes without trace, so when I picked up Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell and read the back cover, I thought, ahah! this is about several missing persons, I’ll see how she handles it. She died just a few weeks ago, so it seems fitting to linger a while on her writing.

Rendell was, of course, a queen of crime writing, massively decorated and feted; a household name indeed. And her policemen, Reg Wexford and Mike Burden, and the admirable Dora Wexford, are widely known and loved from the TV adaptations. George Baker IS the chief inspector! But that potential for distortion notwithstanding, several interesting facets jumped out at me as I read.

First, an author of Rendell’s standing can get away with a whole lot more than I ever could. For example, she introduces a huge cast of characters in quick succession – almost 40 within the first 30 pages! We lesser mortals are advised to go very cautiously allowing time for characters to embed themselves in the mind of the reader.Master crimewriter

Then there’s the difference between a stand alone book and a series featuring the same characters. Wexford has all the advantages of being an old friend, a rounded person, reliable and constant. We know instantly if his behaviours are consistent, his comments his own. He really would say, A body illicitly interred is a body unlawfully killed. In my stand alone books there’s much more work to be done to establish a three dimensional believable person in a shorter time frame.

Years ago, when I was in search of an agent, one wrote back to me ‘You need to forget your formidable academic background‘. I was reminded of this each time I encountered erudite references in Not in the Flesh. But of course, Rendell uses them judiciously. A brain-box character can drop in a comment about the word ‘lady‘ coming from the Anglo-Saxon ‘lafdig’ meaning ‘she who makes bread’, leaving an ardent feminist policewoman to register strong objections to the use of this title – and it’s perfectly plausible and appropriate to include. It’s not what you know, it’s how you use that knowledge that matters. And clearly I didn’t get this right when I sent out my early work.

It gave me a lovely warm feeling to find an unusual shared moment in Rendell’s work and my own writing. She uses a quote (often attributed to King Louis XVII) which I used a few weeks ago in my story for the grandchildren from the mouth of a Duke who was always quoting other people to make his own points: Punctuality is the politeness of kings. Strange coincidence. Only in Rendell’s case she deliberately misquotes it: Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen. I simply Googled ‘quotes about punctuality’ and up it came. I wonder if she did too.

Happily, as a result of my little masterclass with Baroness Rendell of Barberg, I don’t feel the need to change or add anything to Inside of Me. But that will all change I’m sure when my expert critics come back to me with their comments.

While I await their feedback I’m running down this interesting checklist: Writers' checklist

Hmmm!

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Literary pearls

This week’s dramatic announcement that Harper Lee’s second novel is about to be published more than 50 years after her runaway success,To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird, has given me renewed hope. It really really doesn’t matter that my own timetable has been derailed by illness. I should simply relax and enjoy this ‘sabbatical’ (four months so far and counting).

One notable bonus is that it has given me space to read a more than usually wide range of books – when the physical body is reduced to sleeping/resting for a considerable portion of the day, it helps psychologically to let the mind soar free. And I’ve been struck by the sheer magnificence of other writers’ writing. I mean, who wouldn’t stand in awe of Harper Lee’s delicious child’s-eye view of the eccentric and prejudiced Deep South of the 60s? And listen to her description of the heat in the tired old town of Maycomb:

‘… bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.’

Or the narrator’s formidable aunt:

‘To all parties present and participating in the life of the country, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn. She would never let a chance escape her to point out the shortcomings of other tribal groups to the greater glory of her own …’

So this week I thought I’d share some other pearls discovered in my mental travels. In no particular order …

A pithy but graphic summary of an illness:

‘Thinness remains the god of glamour, the god of control, popularity and success. Thinness trips along on her finest stilettos with her bone hips exposed through layers of fabric, waving her stick arms and calling like the Pied Piper for new children to follow. Sadly they do. But this is a false god. This is a god that draws to the grave. Thinness laughs as her new charges refuse their food, spit out, vomit in secret and spin in front of mirrors to look at backs where a bony spine chatters, still exclaiming that they are so fat.’  (Ruth Joseph in Remembering Judith)

Books on my Shelves-2A vivid metaphor:

‘Mamie’s old people’s home is something else. I wonder how much it costs a month, a luxury home like this? Mamie’s room is big and light, with lovely furniture and lovely curtains, a little adjoining living room and a bathroom with a marble bathtub, as if Mamie could care less that her tub is marble when her fingers are concrete … Besides, marble is ugly.’   (Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

A useful perspective for a writer:

‘To relax my mind I remember the following:

First, I am not the centre of the universe. What a load that takes off!

Two, I do not need to write the piece that ends all pieces. It does not exist.

Three, life is meant to be enjoyed.’

(Dahlia Fraser in ‘How I Keep Going’ for Mslexia Winter 2014/15)

Books on my Shelves 3A wonderfully evocative report of a real life event:

‘It is now five and a quarter years since Sir John Chilcot began his inquiry into the Iraq war. Yesterday I spent what felt like five and a quarter years listening to him talk about it. On and on his answers – for want of a better word – drifted. You could practically hear the seasons changing outside …

Into the committee room he shuffled, wearing the patient, slow-blinking frown of an elderly tortoise …

I don’t wish to suggest that Sir John is inarticulate. He is, if anything, too articulate. Ask him a question that demands a simple yes or no and you will receive, in their stead, a grand unfurling of impeccably constructed verbiage. He speaks funnily enough, in the language of an official report: clauses as long as sentences, sentences as long as paragraphs, paragraphs as long as pages, now and then slipping seamlessly into a footnote and then seamlessly out again.’    (Michael Duncan writing in ‘Seven minutes to say hello’ for the Telegraph, 5 February 2015 )

A  wise but humorous observation:

‘Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen.’  (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

An unusual description:

‘… one of those houses – or its living room was – which are furnished with most of the necessaries of life, things to sit on and sit at, things to look at and listen to, to supply warmth or keep out cold, insulate the walls and cover the floors, but with nothing to refresh the spirit or gladden the heart, compel the eye or turn the soul’s eye towards the light. The predominant colour was beige. There was a calendar (Industry in Twenty-First Century UK) but no pictures on the walls, no books, not even a magazine, a small pale blue cactus in a beige pot but no flowers or other plants, no cushions on the bleak wooden-armed chairs and settee, a beige carpet but no rugs. The only clock was the digital kind with large, very bright green, quivering figures.’    (Ruth Rendell in Not in the Flesh)

Books on my Shelves-1What a fabulous thing the human mind is that it can conjure such eloquence out of a mere 26 letters. And how fortunate am I to have a roomful of books stacked floor to ceiling to keep me engrossed no matter how long I have to spend indisposed. Who knows, maybe by the time my heart is functioning normally again my bookshelves will be empty! Although I must confess I struggle to send books I’ve loved and admired to the charity shop.

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The Brimstone Wedding

I am seriously allergic to numbers. Yep, seriously. Tax returns … sessions with the bank manager … they freak me out. So having just dealt with both within the space of two weeks (horrors!), I felt I’d earned a wee treat.

Work in progressAn ideal moment, then, to turn to a book that’s been in my tbr pile for ages: Barbara Vine‘s The Brimstone Wedding. A wonderful change from the teen fiction on anorexia I’ve been doggedly ploughing through; writing of a different calibre altogether. And nothing whatever to do with ethics or medicine or heart-searching. Pure escapism. Add to that a deadline for a piece of knitting and I’m a really happy bunny: I can knit and read together all day without flagging –  shame about mealtimes and the need for sleep.

Most people know this author better as Ruth Rendell (now Baroness Rendell of Babergh) crime writer extraordinaire, creator of Chief Inspector Wexford. As Barbara Vine, she has developed the psychological thriller, exploring the minds of the perpetrators of crimes; the whydoneit perhaps more than the whodoneit. And she has excelled in both spheres, winning numerous prestigious literary awards.

The Brimstone Wedding tells the story of two women: Stella, an elegant and intelligent resident in Middleton Hall Care Home, and Jenny/Genevieve, a young care assistant who detects a mystery in Stella’s past which intrigues her. They develop a special bond and Stella starts to share some of her story … and her life … and her possessions.

The two women’s voices narrate the tale (occasionally they’re a little too similar, I thought, making it tricky to know who was speaking until they dropped names or events in to locate themselves). Though they’re from different generations, constrained by different moral climates, their personal life experiences overlap in several ways: both were in unsatisfactory marriages, both had secret lovers, both contemplated leaving their husbands, both had traumatic experiences, both used a secret hideaway for their trysts (the same one as it happens). Their shared bonds draw them ever closer. That their lives are also linked in a uniquely special way, only emerges at the end of the book, and if the clues existed, I confess, I missed them.

The pace of the book is slow and gentle, well suited to the sedate life of an elderly woman dying of cancer in an old folks’ home. And the tiny text is tightly packed onto 312 pages so it’s a fairly substantial read. The characters are beautifully drawn, all flawed and very believable. We see the inadequate husbands through the eyes of their spouses, and share their frustrations and despair. The other, more dashing other-people’s-husbands who beckon them into illicit affairs, take us in too, with their soft words, their romantic gestures, their promises. I didn’t see their feet of clay either initially.

Both woman also carry psychological baggage. Genevieve has inherited a strong belief in superstitions passed on through several generations which constrain her behaviour (a characteristic that adds real depth to her portrayal). Stella is haunted by terrible secrets from her past and struggles to share them before her death, committing the worst to audiotapes only to be heard when she’s no longer around to witness the reactions. We know from the outset about the dark shadows, but we don’t know the how or the why; it’s this tension that drives the narrative.

Vine is an undisputed master storyteller and I was engrossed. It wasn’t simply a matter of the book being so much better than my recent reading – well, it’s in a different league; unfair to compare them. No, it was that this tale also touched familiar chords. I spend a fair amount of time in real life with elderly people; I volunteer in a residential home; I watch with admiration the affection staff develop for those they care for. And this story rang true. As did the author’s perceptive comments about relationships, marriage, careers, loyalty, ambition. She really understands people. Finished: book and JacketI didn’t need the suspense of an ultimate frightening revelation to keep my eyes glued and my needles clacking until both jacket and book were finished.

‘Tender’, ‘horrifying’, exquisite’, ‘powerful’, ‘chilling’, ‘moving’ … they’ve all been applied to The Brimstone Wedding. They’re all true. A treat indeed. And all thoughts of numbers are now successfully driven from my head; I am once again sanguine about life. Maybe this year I will complete my tax return in April, avoid all that build up of apprehension. Maybe.

 

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