Why Golden Age crime writers banned ‘The Chinaman’ and other notes.

I spent the past weekend at the annual St Hilda’s Mystery and Crime Conference, and as always, came away with a broad range of interesting notes and thought-provoking questions. This year, the papers explored the question of genre: asking just what is crime fiction? So here are just a few things that came up, necessarily in brief.

The conference opens on Friday evening with drinks, a dinner and a guest speaker. This year that was Ted Childs, the TV producer who brought ‘Morse’ to the small screen. It was fascinating to hear how that all came about, back in the day when ITV was still very much a collection of regional broadcasters. As well as an affectionate and nostalgic reminder of John Thaw’s talents, among others, his talk was also a reminder of just how ground-breaking the production was back then; two hour episodes on film rather than video, recruiting writers and directors from stage and movie backgrounds. Without Morse, it’s fair to say the TV landscape of today would look very different, and not just for detective dramas.

On Saturday morning, Elly Griffiths looked at the changes in domestic life, particularly domestic interiors from the Regency to the Victorian era when crime fiction first emerged. As her slides showed, the Victorians surrounded themselves with stuff in a way their forebears never had. In this age of uncertainty, as science challenged religious certainty, as new philosophies challenged political certainties, the home became a sanctuary, filled with all this stuff holding emotional resonance and value of its own. Thus invasion of this home, in an age that could feel so threatening, becomes all the more shocking and transgressive? The home itself could become claustrophobic and tyrannical, provoking extreme acts and emotions. There’s a lot to think about there.

Jane Finnis proposed various lines to be drawn between fairy tales and crime fiction and not just the restorative justice aspects, though that is certainly important. Consider how many fairy tales involve looking for clues and solving a puzzle. Once you start looking, you can find a lot of fairy tale themes that crime fiction has retold, reinterpreted and developed for the modern, mass-reading audience. Issues of trust, deception and self-reliance. Then there’s the formula of ‘a long time ago, in a land far far away’ which removes the threat, the abominable acts, the violent retribution, to a safe distance while still allowing the reader to see the value of using one’s wits and challenging evil. Consider how many people who read mystery fiction really do not like true crime writing and how many writers feel uneasy about drawing too closely on real atrocities and tragedies. ‘Far too close to home’ is a telling phrase.

This was of particular interest to me given I’m increasingly convinced that folklore and fairy tales are an undervalued precursor to epic fantasy fiction in its current form. Especially when you look back to the original tales as collected by Grimm, Perrault etc, rather than their subsequent sanitised forms. Where, incidentally, female characters can have a lot more agency than later versions allow them, as was remarked on at the weekend.

Conference Guest of Honour Lee Child went even further back. He proposed the thriller as the original fiction that everything else has stemmed from, thanks to its original evolutionary purpose. If you want to know more, you’ll be pleased to know that this was livestreamed at the time and you can watch the recording here.

And all that was just Saturday morning! After lunch, Martin Edwards looked at the resurgent interest in and fashionability of Golden Age crime fiction – principally those books published between the World Wars. He’s involved in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics now being republished, editing their anthologies and consulting on the series as a whole. A closer look at those writers, their themes and their villains does give the lie to the ‘snobbery with violence’, ‘Downton Malice’ interpretation based on partial knowledge of Christie, Sayers, Allingham et al. He drew on a good few parallels with concerns then and those of our own times, most notably distrust and disillusion with politicians and rapacious money men as villains and unsympathetic victims. Carol Westron explored the various ‘Rules’ for detective fiction that contemporary writers produced back then and once again, closer examination shows that the genre writing of that era was considerably more complex than a glance at these supposed guidelines might suggest. Most of the successful writers broke them wholesale.

Something both speakers touched on was the ‘No Chinamen!’ dictum of the time, which can and has been held up as a symptom of that era’s endemic racism polluting crime fiction. Except… looking at contemporary discussions of that point, a great many more interesting angles arise. ‘The Yellow Peril’ was the bogeyman of the age, to such an extent that at one point, no fewer than five West End plays in production were blatantly sinophobic, not to mention the on-going hostility and shock-horror stories about ‘orientals’ in the popular press. Genre commentary at the time warned crime writers off pandering to such ill-judged and unsubstantiated prejudice – and of the dangers of bad writing in doing so – by so lazily seizing on the villain of the moment. The parallels with contemporary islamophobia are striking. Of course, views on race and ethnicity nearly a century ago remain a world away from our own but this is a salutary reminder that the past is a good deal more nuanced than we might be tempted to think.

Further papers looked at the development of various sub-genres within crime and mystery fiction, from past to present. Andrew Taylor looked at historical fiction, while Shona MacLean considered the challenges of writing such books from the professional historian’s viewpoint. Kate Charles reviewed the origins and growth of clerical detectives as a niche while Chris Ewan looked at humorous crime fiction. Sarah Weinman reviewed the originators of domestic suspense – because these books were being written decades before the current slew of ‘Girl in/on/who’ best-seller titles as the ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’ collections make very clear. Lastly but by no means least, Marcia Talley looked at murder least foul – the ‘cosy’.

I can’t attempt to summarise these papers as they were all wide-ranging and came with copious examples of writers laying the ground work for such varied writing as far back as the 20s and 30s. Many of them were women asking questions of women, which has now somehow been airbrushed out of popular memory. Looking at the ways in which each sub-genre is still reflecting and testing the core tenets of crime fiction, its central themes and archetypes was and will continue to be fascinating for me.

The frequently under-estimated skills required were mentioned more than once. The challenge of making historical characters both of their time and accessible to modern readers is significant. Using humour not to make light of the awful reality of murder but for example, to hold up the corrupt to ridicule alongside grim events, is no easy trick. Similarly there’s considerable craft in achieving the necessary suspension of disbelief to make an amateur sleuth work in this day and age without tipping over into the ridiculous. And given the protagonists and primary market for cosy mysteries are mostly women, it’s hard not to conclude there’s quite some misogyny in the disdain those books so often attract.

Regular readers here will be seeing the echoes and correspondences with ongoing debates within SF&Fantasy that I did. I found many of the same concerns we have about our own genre with regard to retail and publishing trends. This is primarily a conference about the fiction but you won’t be surprised to learn I had a few shop-talk conversations with other authors. Publisher mergers and restructuring have caused similar carnage of late, especially among the mid-list. Editorial decisions seem to be driven by marketing and retail assumptions based on highly debatable reasoning about what will or will not sell, with scant consultation of actual readers. Frustrating levels of risk-averseness were mentioned, all infuriatingly familiar.

But I shall try not to dwell on that. Instead, I shall start working my way through the list of authors and titles now added to my To Be Read List. Thanks to the magic of ebooks I can do a bit of that this week and next as I am currently in Holland, thanks to the demands of my Husband’s work colliding with our holiday plans and seeing us both head out here a week earlier than our planned trip to the Ardennes. So bear in mind I’m only going to be online intermittently – I’ll be very interested in your observations in comments here but won’t be replying or answering questions in a particularly timely fashion.

Do raise a hand in comments or somewhere online if you’re interested in details of next year’s conference. Then I can pass on the information as soon as I get it.

Guest Post – Gaie Sebold on Villainous Pleasures

With a week away now in sight at the end of the month, I’m stockpiling holiday reading. One book I’m very much looking forward to is Gaie Sebold’s ‘Shanghai Sparrow’. I really enjoyed her Babylon Steel books – an entertaining and intelligently different take on epic fantasy. So it’s going to be fascinating to see what she does with the themes and ideas of Steampunk and I’ve invited her to share some thoughts on the book here. Over to Gaie.

Shanghai-Sparrow-smallVillainous Pleasures

When I started writing Shanghai Sparrow, the first book in the Gears of Empire series, I knew I wanted to write about the grimy, smelly, exploitative underside of the Victorian period. This may have been at least partly in response to a certain writer’s remark about Steampunk being ‘fascism for nice people,’ which, as a longstanding Leftie, I regarded as…well, more of a challenge than anything.

So my heroine, while originally from the most respectable of backgrounds, ends up surviving on the streets of London under the kind of circumstances that inspired Thomas Barnardo to set up his children’s homes. Evvie, however, did not meet Thomas Barnardo. She met Ma Pether, a woman who runs a group of female pickpockets, fraudsters and breakers-and-enterers.

I wasn’t expecting Ma. She created herself on the page, striding in, pipe asmoke, fidgeting dangerously with explosive mechanisms and creating bizarre aphorisms. She turned out to be a lot of fun to write. Almost too much fun – it was difficult to stop her taking over every chapter in which she appeared.

The same could be said to apply to the villainous Bartholomew Simms – though unlike Ma, he can’t really be said to have any redeeming features. At all. A thoroughly nasty, dangerous, sly, violent and brutal man – but with a certain style and turn of phrase that makes me look forward to writing him.

And then there’s Evvie herself – who occasionally aims for respectability but just isn’t terribly good at it. She’s too good at being bad, too good at fraud, deception, and thievery.

But she is the heroine. She has moral boundaries and dilemmas, she has struggles with her conscience. Just not always, perhaps, the same ones that most of us might have when faced with whether or not to nick something or rip someone off.

Yet she’s most fun to write, in some ways, when she’s just enjoying being good at what she does best – being a trickster and a thief.

And therein lies the question. Why are villains such fun to write? What is the appeal of going outside the moral boundaries within which I live quite happily most of the time in the real world?

I’m talking about my own personal moral boundaries, of course, which while they are going to overlap with many people’s are not always going to be identical. But I don’t steal, or commit fraud, or act violently to others. I don’t, as a general rule, want to. I fear the consequences, yes, but also, I don’t want to be a con-artist, a fraudster, a murderer. In real terms these are people who damage lives or end them, and I don’t want to do that.

And yet, on the page … it’s so damn much fun writing people who don’t have those boundaries. People who say those things, and do those things, and (sometimes) get away with it. But the point isn’t necessarily whether they get away with it in the long run – the fun part is that they get to say it and do it right now, right there, before our very eyes!

Some of it, certainly, is a form of wish fulfilment. I’d sometimes like to treat the law like the ass it occasionally, indisputably is. I’d often like to be able to turn the tables on our Lords and Masters, who rip off whole societies, whole countries, by outdoing them at their own game of fraud, deception and theft, but with a fraction of the resources and ten times the wits.

I might not want to murder, but I would like to be that bold, that scary, that tough. Especially when the vicious and violent of the world are making me feel threatened, I’d like, for once, to be the one who has conversations fall silent and glasses slip from trembling fingers when I enter the room, to be able to quell would-be opponents with a glance, to have my reputation go before me as someone not to be messed with.

I’d like the power that comes with going outside the legal and moral boundaries. But since I’m not going to do that, I have to find another way. And until the world becomes a place where (all questions of hard work and persistence aside), being nice and obedient and lawful is the best way for a woman to get respect, I guess I’ll keep on living vicariously through my villains, and enjoying every moment of it.

Gaie Sebold was born some time ago, and is gradually acquiring a fine antique patina. She has written several novels, a number of short stories, and has been known to perform poetry. Her debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, came out in 2013. Shanghai Sparrow, a steampunk fantasy, came out in 2014 and the sequel, Sparrow Falling, in 2016. Her jobs have ranged from till-extension to bottle-washer and theatre-tour-manager to charity administrator. She lives with writer David Gullen and a paranoid cat in leafy suburbia, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and cooks a pretty good borscht.

Her website is www.gaiesebold.com and you can find her on twitter @GaieSebold.

Introducing the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom – coming this autumn from Wizard’s Tower Press

Writing an extended sequence of novels like the Tales of Einarinn and my subsequent series set in that world doesn’t stop a writer like me from having other ideas. In many cases, that idea will be a one-shot wonder just right for a short story. Sometimes though, that short story turns out to be the first step on a longer journey.

Back in 2008 I was invited to contribute to an anthology entitled ‘Imaginary Friends’. I began thinking about the ways in which such a friend could be both real and imaginary – to one person at least. If everyone knew what was happening, there wouldn’t be much of a story. But if only one person could see this mysterious friend, what then? Comedy? We’ve all seen that episode in every telly SF/fantasy series and in films from ‘Harvey’ onwards. What if this is something darker and more mysterious? Monsters from the Id? That’s one classic Science Fiction answer – but what if there are no such easy explanations?

window on different worlds A

What if there’s uncanny magic at work, something imperfectly understood? Because magic doesn’t always have to be codified and organised by learned, collegiate wizards like those in Hadrumal. What if such magical creatures come from a parallel realm of superstition and myth? Let’s imagine a world with different layers of existence like those glimpsed in a picture that’s been hanging on my wall ever since my sister gave the family our pick of the pieces she did for her Art A Level?

But no matter how dangerous it might be, some people will always make use of magic, or at least, they will make the attempt. Meantime, surely some of those with such perilous power will feel a responsibility to protect those who remain unawares? Who will watch over the vulnerable? Who will watch the watchmen? What could I do with such universal SF and fantasy questions in this particular setting?

I’ve been exploring these and other ideas in various stories and one novella set within the River Kingdom ever since. The more I’ve written about it, the underlying concept and this new fantasy realm without the fixed and comforting borders of coasts and seas has steadily expanded. Now I’m seeing possibilities for further and longer stories set in this world, exploring the relationships and conflicts between its tangible and intangible aspects. So the time is right to offer this collection – with the addition of one entirely new story. Those who’ve come across one or two of these tales thus far can now enjoy them all. Those who’ve only read my Einarinn books can enter a whole new fantasy world.

As always, I am indebted to the talented people I’m working with, providing key skills that I lack. Ben Baldwin, who you’ll recall did the fabulous Aldabreshin Compass artwork you can admire to the left of this post, has produced another stunning cover. Sophie E Tallis is working on a truly awesome map. Cheryl Morgan of Wizard’s Tower Press has been getting to grips with all the intricacies of making the book available in paperback as well as electronic formats.

Updated 7/11/2016 The book’s now out in ebook and paperback 🙂
You can find details of this world, its people, places and magic here, along with Sophie’s fabulous map and a link to purchase info via Wizard’s Tower Press.

Interesting things from the last little while – and explaining the recent link posts

I’m doing a lot of background reading, world-building and story-plotting at the moment, as well as the admin and other stuff associated with getting the next ebook out. Then there’s all the domestic administrivia which is mostly down to me at present since Husband’s currently working 12-14 hour days, six days a week, on a demanding new project for a prestigious new client. So me finding time for reflective and interesting blog posts isn’t really happening.

Fortunately there are all sorts of interesting things crossing my radar online.

On the history front – “Vatican library digitises 1,600-year-old edition of Virgil”

The 1,600-year-old document is one of more than 80,000 manuscripts, running to 41m pages, in the library, which was founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V.

A major project to digitise all 80,000 documents will ensure that scholars have less need to consult the originals, and also make the texts available to the general public.

“Our library is an important storehouse of the global culture of humankind,” said Cesare Pasini, prefect of the library. “We are delighted the process of digital archiving will make these wonderful ancient manuscripts more widely available to the world and thereby strengthen the deep spirit of humankind’s shared universal heritage.”

On the equality in SFF front – “Eisner Nominee Renae De Liz Shares Short Guide for Artists on How to De-Objectify Female Characters”

Renae De Liz, the Eisner-nominated artist and writer behind such series as The Legend of Wonder Woman, The Last Unicorn and Lady Powerpunch, shared her thoughts on how to draw women without objectifying and oversexualizing them. In her impromptu guide, she tries to dispel many assumptions people have when they set out to draw women because of deep-set trends in comics.

And I found this prompted me to consider the assumptions people make about writing women because of deep-set trends in SF&F

On the technology front – “Slow-motion replays can distort criminal responsibility”

“Researchers found that slowing down footage of violent acts caused viewers to see greater intent to harm than when viewed at normal speed.
Viewing a killing only in slow motion made a jury three times more likely to convict of first degree murder.”

As a lifelong crime and mystery fan, in books and TV/film, I found this very interesting. I’m also thinking about the ways in which perceived technological progress can turn out to be not so helpful after all. When I get round to a longer blogpost, that’s something I want to discuss.

On the SF conventions front – no, I’m not going to discuss the debacle of this year’s World Fantasy Convention programme. For those of you coming late to this story, this particular convention has a long-established lousy record for offering interesting or up-to-date panels and this year’s offering might just as well come with an introductory, explanatory note saying “Yes, we hear you explain how everybody gains from diverse and inclusive programming. WE JUST DON’T CARE”

So how about trying one of the many conventions that offer a packed programme of fascinating discussions between people with plenty of relevant things to say?

Fantasycon by the Sea 23rd- 25th September in Scarborough – guests of honour Mike Carey, Elizabeth Bear, Frances Hardinge, Scott Lynch, Adam Nevill and James Smythe>

Bristolcon – 29th October – guests of honour Fangorn, Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.

Creative writing in Witney – our second guest speaker is Mary Hoffman

A further update for the Writers in Witney course. Our second guest speaker will be Mary Hoffman, sharing the breadth and depth of her experience in writing for children, teenagers and adults, as well as her perspectives on the changes she’s seen in publishing.

You can find an introduction to Mary and her work here.

You can find the full course programme here.

As before, please spread the word with aspiring writers you may know within striking distance of Witney.