National Crime Reading Month

NCRM-2022-banner-300x160The Crime Writers Association, in partnership with The Reading Agency, is sponsoring National Crime Reading Month in June. There will be a fabulous launch at Waterstones, Piccadilly on 1st June (I’ll be posting photographs) and a whole tranche of events are already scheduled (see link). It is hoped that more will follow, in local libraries and book groups and the CWA has listed crime writers ready and willing to participate in said events on the crimereading.com web-site.

Here in south London one of the NCRM local Ambassadors, Anne Coates, is teaming up with fellow south Londoner, Alice Castle and myself to produce ‘Sister Sleuths’. Each of us has books set in London, oftenSister Sleuths2 south London – Clapham in my case, where Cassandra Fortune lives, Dulwich, home of Hannah Weybridge in Anne’s series and Dulwich, Herne Hill and Belsize Park, among others, for Beth Haldane in Alice’s. The tales range across the capital, taking in Westminster, Theatreland, Fleet Street and the yummy mummy nappy valleys of south London as well as rather less salubrious locations, like King’s Cross and Elephant and Castle.

As you can see all our protagonists are women, hence the name. Cassandra is a civil servant, Hannah an investigative journalist and Beth an office worker; two of them are single mums. All of them get drawn into investigations by circumstances (though Cassie is more than willing in Plague, in order to get her career back on track).

ClaphamBooksLogoFirst stop on the ‘Sister Sleuths’ tour is at Clapham Books on 8th June, doors open at 6.30pm for a 7 o’clock start, later in the month we’ll be at Chener Books, on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich and, it is planned, more south London venues (details will be available on the Events page of this site). The events will be free to attend and should be fun. Anne’s Hannah Weybridge series which started with a tale inspired by Anne’s real-life journalism in Dancers in the WindChenerBooks is already five books long and Alice’s Beth Haldane (and her on-off boyfriend DI Harry York) has appeared in even more, beginning with Death in Dulwich. I am lagging behind with only two, though that will be increased in the Autumn when Opera, the third Cassandra Fortune is published.

I’ll also be speaking about researching both Plague and Oracle at the Riverside Book Club in Sunbury on Thames on 16th June. It is a long-standing date in the diary, but, as serendipity would have it, now part of NCRM. There will almost certainly be an event near you, across the country. But the idea behind NCRM is to encourage readers to create events for themselves and, at time of writing, the site currently includes over sixty crime writers of different types and sub-genres ( a figure that will grow as June approaches ) who are prepared to participate in these events. The website includes tips and hints on organising and promoting events, together with NCRM literature and templates. So contact your local library or book group and suggest an event. Or come along to one of mine.

Nights on the town

From Brixton to Pimlico, I’ve been having some unusual writerly fun out and about recently.

BrixtonBookJamAllFirst at the famed Brixton Book Jam held at the Hootananny, Brixton. I’d never been to the Book Jam and was surprised when a friend and fellow writer remarked on how scary it was. The Hootananny is, I discovered, a live music venue, a big room with a full height stage, sound system and spotlights. Suddenly I understood what she meant. On a freezing Monday night in March it seemed very daunting. There was a mixed line-up of writers. I got there early and sat chatting to one of the most experienced performers, Paul Eccentric and his wife Donna Ray. They were live Festival veterans (seven Glastonburys) on the poetry circuit, Paul being half of the Antipoet. The other half, a bassist, came along to watch.

The really enjoyable part of appearing was the chatting with the other writers in the Green Room off to the right of the stage, a Hootananny Brixton GreenRoom fabulous side room wall-papered with posters of previous performers. It’s terrifically nostalgic and much time was spent spotting bands we recognised or knew from more youthful days. Zelda Rhiando, herself a published writer and the organiser of the Jam, was there to calm our nerves and point out the beers in the little fridge and the bottles of wine. I swore not to touch a drop before I went on.

I was not, I discovered, the only one with nerves, yet all of us were used to discussing books, our own and others’ in public. It was that high stage, the single mic and the coloured spotlights (which ran the whole spectrum) which looked so terrifying. The hall was filling up and Zelda said we were off. The first writer’s hands were shaking as he waited at the foot of the stairs to the stage. I was on fourth, to end the first set before the interval and I managed. I even got a laugh at my wry comment at the beginning about my cardigan. Phew, it was over. A big glass of wine later I was back in the Green Room to support the others. Ashley, West and Zelda were all  tremendous.

Millbank1Brixton Book Jam was not my only interesting night on the town. Only three days later I attended the first meeting of the London chapter of the Crime Writer’s Association since before the pandemic. Held in the fantastic Morpeth Arms on Millbank a great group of fellow scribes chatted books, publishers, contracts, remuneration and anything else we fancied. Then Anthony, intrepid manager of the pub, asked if we would like a ‘tour’. A tour of what? It transpired that the public house had used to stand adjacent to the notorious Millbank Prison and that, beneath the ground, elements leading to that place still existed. Down steep stairs and beyond the barrels and machinery we entered a long corridor with archways on one side. The corridor had once been open to the air, the dividing line between prison and pub.

At the end of the corridor was a dark arch leading to a tunnel. This was the route used to bring convictsMillbank2jpg out of the prison down to the prison hulks moored on the Thames. They would then be removed to the transportation ships bound for Australia. The pub was, Anthony informed us, one of the most haunted in London. But the writers’ imaginations were already hard at work and one of us was already speculating aloud about a crime plot using the tunnels. This is, I guess, the sort of thing that happens when a group of Crime Writers gets together. I’ll be looking forward to the next meeting.

Writers appearing in the photos on this blog are, from the top, left to right, Just Dennis, Paul Eccentric, Leo Moynihan, Paul Bassett Davies, me, Ashley Hickson Lovence, West Camel and Zelda Rhiando. Subterranean we are Victoria Dowd, Matthew Ross, Jonathan Rigby and Anne Coates. The hands belong to Vaseem Khan. Thanks to Katie Allen for the multiple pic.

The Language of Music

David_Butt_Philip_Masterclass_Flyer_FrontIn particular the language we use when we talk about singing.

On Thursday night in south London there was a singing Masterclass at St Paul’s Opera, given by David Butt Philip (Royal Opera House, ENO, New York Metropolitan, the Vienna Statsoper) to five young singers, the opera stars of tomorrow. Hector Bloggs (baritone), Alex Akhurst (tenor), Anna Marmion (soprano), Fiona Hymns (soprano) and Martins Smaukstelis (tenor) have all begun their performing careers, at St Paul’s Opera, among other places. They sang, respectively, Donizetti ( Come Paride Vezzoso from L’elisir d’amore ) Bizet (Je croix entendre encore from Les Pecheur de Perles), Mozart (the first Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflote) and Puccini (Mi chiamano Mimi from La Boheme – Fiona and Parigi e la citta from La Rondine – Martins ).

DBP apologised from the outset because he was suffering from laryngitis and would be singing less than was his usual practice, nonetheless he was able to demonstrate – in every register – how improvements could be made. They most certainly were, each singer adapting their original performance as DBP took them through each piece, sometimes line by line (and not letting them get away with anything). It was fascinating to watch and listen to.

He was equally interesting afterwards, talking about singing. During the Masterclass he had encouraged one singer to ‘almost forget the text’ and to ‘sing through the words’ – this singer had a history in choral music and had been taught to enunciate every word clearly, which wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do in opera. The next singer, of Bizet, he encouraged to ‘use the vowels’ to add resonance and drama – this was Bizet after all ‘it’s romantic music’. The next he encouraged to shorten the vowels and stress the consonants, using a more glottal sound to create slight breaks in emphasis, this was in the Mozart. On more than one occasion he added ‘Sing on the body.’

So how far does the language in which the singer was singing impacted upon the sung presentation – the glottal German, the liquid Italian and so on – and how far it was technique, regardless of language? DBP replied that it was a balance, of course the language impacted, but it was also about the degree of legato (singing in a smooth, even style, without any noticeable break between the notes) most suited to any particular piece or phrase within a piece. He defined ‘singing on the body’ as always having the sound produced supported by the diaphragm.

So this led to a brief discussion about how we  describe singing. A teacher of the violin can suggest a student holds the bow differently, or places their hand higher up the neck of the violin. A teacher of guitar might ask her student to play higher up the frets. But a singing teacher can’t tell their student to ‘raise their larynx’, the human body isn’t quite the same sort of instrument. The beginner can be told about posture and learn how to control their breathing when singing, but, at this level that has already been mastered. So instead we use metaphor. More diminuendo on a long held high note, then returningDavid_Butt_Philip _Fundraising_Gala_Image_Eventbrite to the crescendo, was described as the ‘luxury version’. ‘Don’t be polite, don’t apologise for the note’ signified not to sing it lightly, not giving it due sound, but to sing it loudly, the quality of loudness being needed in a theatre. Also, ‘complete the note’, indicated holding it for as long as necessary. Easily understood, though less easy to define.

It was such an interesting and enjoyable evening. David Butt Philip will be returning to St Paul’s in a Gala concert on 24th March raising funds for the Opera, to enable them to fund young artist’s bursaries and reach out to local schools. At £30 a ticket, to see four remarkable singers, it’s a snip.

For myself, I move onto a different type of performance next Monday, at the first Live Brixton Book Jam since COVID.bookjam-banner-7-mar-22 It’s at the Hootananny, 95 Effra Road, Brixton, SW2 1DF and doors open at 7.30 pm on 7th March, where I’ll be appearing alongside William Ryan, Ashley Hickson-Lovence, Leo Moynihan, West Camel, Paul Bassett Davies and Paul Eccentric. It’s free to attend and there’s booze and books on sale. If you’re in south London why not come along?

Crime Fiction Series

TimeandLeisureCrimeSeriesarticleI recently wrote a piece for Time and Leisure Magazine recommending the first books in a number of crime fiction series, each series running to between three and thirteen books at time of going to press. A good series is a fine thing in deep mid-winter, especially when one isn’t going out so much and I know crime fiction readers, in particular, are always on the look-out for ones they haven’t tried yet.

The other prompt for the article was my completion of Opera, the third in my own series and thoughts of what would come next. Will there be a book four, or five? There certainly could be, there’s quite a cliff-hanger at the end and I am, only now, beginning to see what might happen next (in fact, it begins to seem inevitable). Would Claret Press want another Cassie Fortune? Even if they do, will that be what I write next, or do I want a break from her? Do I want to write something else?

Maintaining quality within a series isn’t easy, keeping a freshness is even harder. In ‘detective’ crimeThe Cassandra Fortune Mysteries fiction the puzzles must differ and the twists must be new, or at least fresh. The contexts and locations can change (at least I can send Cassie anywhere, she isn’t tied to a place or one type of job) but there’s a risk that, in trying to introduce new thrills, dangers and surprises a story can become too contrived, or unbelievable. There is also a delicate balance to be struck, readers want some more of the same, as well as something different.

Many lovers of Plague didn’t like Oracle as much, they found a classic ‘country house’ murder mystery rather than a diabolical big city mastermind causing the deaths of many.  Others preferred the second book. The two books were very different.  Opera returns to London and is, I hope, a mix of the two styles. Our protagonist, too, is back to her more sympathetic best, but somewhat wiser.

Characters familiar to the reader of earlier books in a series still have to be drawn clearly and the best of them grow and change, think of Rebus, or Morse. Otherwise they become boring to write about too. Famously, Conan Doyle grew tired of Sherlock Holmes so killed him off before being forced to resurrect him ( but then, Sherlock Holmes didn’t change, he was fixed in his character ). Other authors have complex reactions to their characters, Dorothy L Sayers even fell in love with her protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Cormoran and RobinSome of the most addictive crime series are linked by an ongoing and developing relationship, often of a romantic nature. So, when, if ever, will Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott get together? The same goes for Dr Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson (I haven’t read all the books in this series yet). Readers are attracted by the crime puzzle and stay with the series to follow the relationships. Having killed off my potential romantic lead in my first book (and there are readers who still haven’t forgiven me for doing that) and made the central relationship of the next two books as being between two people who can only destroy each other, precludes that from happening to Cassandra.

I’m not tired of Cassie Fortune yet, she has a lot of lessons to learn and at the end of Opera she is beginning to learn them. But there are other considerations.

If you’re interested in the article recommending crime fiction series, you can access it here.

Girding up for 2022

2022Gird up your loins‘ is one of those recognisable phrases, but one can’t quite remember where from. In my mind it’s close to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place‘, although I know that’s Lady Macbeth exhorting her husband to be bold and resolute. Both mean to prepare for the task ahead. In fact it’s from the Bible, where it’s used on a number of occasions, mostly in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we find ‘Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to end for the grace that is to be brought unto you.‘ from 1, Peter, 1:13. So, it’s about getting ready, bracing oneself for the future.

Which is what so many of us are doing at the beginning of a new year and I’m no exception. It’ll be a busyThe Controlling Idea year ahead. Despite the COVID prompted cancellation of several events outside of London which I was to attend, I’ll still be busy on zoom, starting with a discussion on 17th January for Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Libraries. ‘The Controlling Idea’ is a series of discussions sponsored by my publishers, Claret Press, about books which have been made into films and the first is about Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is where I come in, as an expert guest, talking about Whitehall and the structure surrounding the security services, it’s where Opera is set, after all.

Opera_CoverIn addition, I’ll soon be finalising Opera for the last time, for publication in September, going through the final proofs, the front and back matter and so on. There is a publicity schedule to be agreed with Claret Press too, including an online book tour and dispatching review copies, plus all the events around a book launch, including talks for libraries, book clubs and societies and, COVID permitting, an actual book tour of real bookshops. It’s exciting. Especially as Claret has a new distributor. We are already talking about flyers being handed out at Westminster and Vauxhall Cross Underground stations – an idea originally for the publication of Plague which got completely derailed by the initial outbreak of COVID. Of course, at the same time, I’ll be continuing to publicise Oracle and Plague.

Then there’s Clapham Book Festival 2022 to think about too – the first planningclapham book festivallogo2 committee meeting is later this month when we hope to be able to discuss the potential programme for the event. A date for your diary is 15th October, our flagship Festival day, though we’ll be planning events around it, probably including another literary walk in Clapham and some events online with our media partners Time & Leisure magazine before and after the Festival Day.

And of course, there’s the next novel, but that, as they say, is another story.

By the way, the derivation of the ‘Gird up your loins‘ phrase relates to managing the long, desert garments worn in the Middle East. Wearers would have to hoick these up and wrap them around their thighs, tucking the ends into their belts or girdles so as to leave their legs unencumbered, if they were about to do something strenuous, wet or difficult. It makes sense when you think about it.

The RBKC Libraries event is Free to attend and you can register HERE.

2021 Books

It’s Christmas Eve, when people write about the books they’ve read, before stepping away from social media and the internet to return to more traditional pursuits, like acrimonious family gatherings and eating and drinking too much. I’ve never really been one for the first of those though I’ll participate with enthusiasm in the others, but, for what it’s worth, here are some book recommendations from me. I confess to a bias towards crime and mysteries and to not reading as much as I should and would like to. Warning – not all of these were published in 2021.

HagSeedFirst, Hag-Seed by Margaret Attwood, one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings of Shakespeare plays and published back in 2016. I’d been keeping it in Spain to read there but, given that I’ve always been writing when in Spain I’d never got around to reading it.  I have now and I’m very glad I did. Set in a Canadian Correctional Facility this is both utterly different to The Tempest and absolutely true to it. It manages to be a recreation as well as a commentary on the play via the means of a ‘play within a play’ something very Shakespearean in itself. It is criminally easy to read ( within a 24 hour period for me) and is also funny! An absolute must read.

Second, a discovery, of the Laidlaw books by William McIlvanney (Laidlaw, TheLaidlaw Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties). Written in the 1970s and 80s and recognised as the precursor to that wave of amazing Scottish crime-writing talent which followed – think Ian Rankin, Val Macdermid, Denise Mina and many others – these show a many-sided Glasgow, from aspiring suburbs to crumbling tenements through the eyes of Jack Laidlaw, philosopher cop and almost as hard as nails.  McIlvanney is a true heir of Raymond Chandler, the prose jumps out at you and slaps you round the face, before sliding slowly away, drawing you ever further in after it.

Third, The Manningtree Witches (2021) a book I recommended in a recent ‘Books for Christmas’ article for Time & Leisure magazine). This is the debut novel of poet A.K. Blakemore, already winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize. The language is exquisite and earthy and follows the fate of the the manningtree witcheswomen at the centre of the first village witch trials during the English Civil War in 1645. Focusing on Rebecca West, daughter of the fearsome and belligerent Beldam West and the arrival of young Matthew Hopkins, the man who will become the Witchfinder General, we are treated to a rich portrayal of the fault lines exposed in a rural village during a period of famine and war.

Fourth, historical crime – though I’m not sure Stuart Turton is that bothered about historical accuracy when it intrudes upon the story. More power to his elbow, The Devil and the Dark Water (2020) delivers a shipload of entertainment. Set in the seventeenth century, on a Dutch East Indiaman, it’s a study in how fear can be used to exact revenge and is completely gripping (the denouement is as twisty and as  convoluted as anything in Agatha Christie ).

Finally, a  small collection of excellent police procedurals, each with an engaging set of complex characters andSaltLane a fiendish mystery to solve and, because it’s important to me, a strong sense of place. William’s Shaw’s Salt Lane (2018) the first of his Alex Cupidi series is set on Romney Marsh and the area around it. Aside from being a cracking crime novel it tackles difficult issues, like immigration, refugees and rural poverty. These crimes are grounded in modern reality with immediacy and authenticity, I will certainly read more.

Finally to Scotland and Barry Hutchison (writing as J D Kirk) gets away from the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor and takes us to the Scottish Highlands with DCI Jack Logan. I read the first three (A Litter of Bones, Thicker Than Water and The Killing Code) in quick succession and was thoroughly entertained, the characters are well drawn and appealing and humour runs through-out.

Any or all of these would be good to curl up with while other family members indulge in a post-prandial snooze.  Merry Christmas to all!

Wrapping

Opera_CoverPromos and packaging have been centre stage for me this week as I’ve wrestled with writing a tag-line (helped by Claret Press) for Opera, received the cover (with thanks to brilliant in-house designer, Petya Tsankova) and helped design a new social media banner and video. Never, it seems, has the wrapping of a book and its accompanying promotional images been more important than now.  I’ve only just finished writing the book (and still await more edits) yet already we move on to what it’s wrapped in.

Given the arrival of social media an author has to feature their latest book on their Facebook and Twitter banners, plus have some items to post on Instagram (and I haven’t even scratched the surface of TikTok, Snapchat and all those newer media). GIFs are the latest ‘must have’ Claret tells me and I’ve been exploring exactly what those are (technologically) and how they are created.

Here’s my banner, set out in the same format as those for Plague and Oracle, with the book cover andHeaderFooterV10 two other images set against an atmospheric background and with the tag-line in bold. This was the tenth version! Others were rejected as ‘too feminine’ and ‘insufficiently threatening’ (see the images below). I had to choose between the Downing Street sign and Big Ben too, because both weren’t needed, so I went for night and the Christmas tree, with the addition of a smoking gun! Readers of Plague and Oracle will know that each book takes places over a fixed period of time and they follow one after another, with about a month in between. OperaHeaderFooterV5 does the same, so its events happen during the fortnight before the Christmas holiday.  It was only when we were playing around with the designs that the tag-line ‘Truth Never Dies’ finally emerged, though it seems particularly appropriate at the moment. GIFs will be my next challenge, but a couple of mini-MP4 videos have already been produced, building on the ‘smoking gun’ imagery (these are being kept under wraps, but see below for my Instagram post). All part of the package pre-release of the book and for distribution to the book bloggers who will review it and post reviews on social media. Animated pictures, whether on Instagram or other SM have beenHeaderFooter shown to have greater impact and attract more attention than non-animated content – including the attention of the algorithms which determine which posts get shown first when a hashtag is used. Good news therefore for publicists.

OperaInstagramClaret and I will sit down in the New Year and agree a full publicity strategy, including pre-release publicity, whether or not to use NetGalley again (probably not), whether or not to have an online book tour (probably) and, COVID permitting, a schedule of actual bookshop signings. Publication date has been agreed as 5th September and both ebook and paperback versions will be available for pre-order in Spring. The author events with libraries, online and in person, are already being arranged. And, with Claret Press about to sign with a new distributor, this time my book will be launched into bookshops across the UK. All good news.  So here is the design for my Instagram feed. Maybe next week I’ll be back to editing.

Reading

OperaTheEndLast Friday the revised manuscript of Opera was sent to Claret Press, so please allow me a merry little dance (or a maniacal jig, more like) of pleasure and relief. I’d worked hard on it while in Spain, completing a whole rewrite, including a restructuring – I thought it was too flabby – and this won’t be the end of the story, there will be more edits still to do. I may have missed infelicities caused by the structural changes as well as potential for improvement (there is always potential for improvement, groan). The final proof reading edit is still a long way off yet, but the manuscript has gone. Yippee!

I have also been given a date for publication, the beginning of September next year. I’d hoped that itOpera_Cover_HiRes might be out in Spring, but the delay is unavoidable, to give Claret’s new distributors time to get it into book shops. I’m already discussing back cover blurb and tag-lines (we have arrived at the former but not the latter) and the cover design is almost done. The New Year will see us formulating a promotion and marketing strategy for events in the run up to and following launch.

Maybe next year, with the third Cassandra Fortune book, I’ll finally get to have a real life, physical book launch? Also, Omicron COVID strain permitting, I might get to do physical book tours (I’ve already got some events lined up). It’s strange to think that with this, my third traditionally published novel, I might get to experience what is normal for a new book.

dfw-ja-r-cover-midOn that note, a quick look back at Plague (published September 2020) and Oracle (published May 2021), was prompted by my receiving my Public Lending Rights statement recently. Despite libraries being closed for much of the year ended June 2021, Plague has been borrowed many times (Oracle wouldn’t have made it into libraries by then) but I was surprised to see that Reconquista, my earlier novel set in 13th century Al Andalus was second most frequently borrowed. That book and its sequel, The Silver Rings, are also selling again. When I began working with Claret Press I was told that there’s nothing that sells one’s first book like the publication of one’s fourth (or fifth, or sixth) and these sales, though small, seem to bear that out, even though they aren’t crime fiction.

But the real up-side of getting the manuscript off is that I am, for a short time at least, at leisure to read.

I have a pile of books waiting for me which is already toppling, it is reaching such heights, (see right) but I’ve been adding more to it recently and some are still on their way. All to be read before the next edit. Participation in a recent UK Crime Book Club Quiz on Scottish crime fiction showed me just how much of that I haven’t read, smething I’ll try to remedy with some of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books and Quintin Jardine’s Skinner series, plus some JD Kirk.  Then there are the historical crime books, like Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water and one or two non-crime books which I missed first time round which made the best seller lists like Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. My favourite, recently consumed, is The Manningtree Witches by A.K.Blakemore. You can read what I thought of that, together with some other book recommendations for the Christmas break in Time & Leisure magazine.

I am looking forward to reading them all!

Black Friday and other stories

OracleCassiequoteVBGreyAll the published writers I know (except one) accept the need to promote their books, whether they are contractually obliged to do so, as a traditionally published author, or understand that they must get themselves and their book out there as a self-published author. Only those established enough to command a hefty advertising and promotion budget within their publishing house can sit back and even they can’t relax. Sir Michael Morpurgo, who is as established as they get, was on the road promoting his latest book at the Clapham Book Festival in October.

There are a plethora of ‘Black Friday’ deals being unleashed upon the general public this week and it’s no99pposter exception, with Christmas around the corner, in the book world. The ebook of Plague has been reduced to 99p online across stores (and on the Claret Press website) and I am publicising that at the same time as organising ‘giveaway’ competitions for free copies of Oracle within online book groups, like The Motherload.  It happens also to be six months since Oracle came out, so there is a bona fide reason to do the giveaway, aside from Black Friday.

TheMotherloadBookGroupFor a small publisher like Claret this is a neat way to get free advertising. For example in this ‘giveaway’ via Facebook of three books ( at cost and with postage of approximately £3 per book ) Oracle’s cover and blurb, as well as some quoted reviews, has reached 174,000 people in the last twenty four hours. Mostly these are via Twitter but the Club itself has 12,000 members.  At time of writing over eighty people have ‘entered’.

When the three winners’ names have been drawn out of the hat I will send each of them a signed copy,OraclePostcardimage complete with Oracle postcard and  message congratulating them, hoping that they enjoy reading the book and asking, if they do enjoy it, if they would pass the word on, by way of a review or a post in the Facebook Book Group and/or on Goodreads. If they do so this will generate more publicity. Oracle is, of course, readable as a standalone novel, but it may also encourage some folk to buy Plague, especially given its reduced price.

To that end I am appearing as a writer guest tomorrow night in the UK Crime Book Club’s Pub Quiz (Only not in a Pub). I don’t know what sort of audience there’ll be – the Club has over twenty thousand members – though I know there’s a Noir at the Bar tomorrow night so there’s quite a lot of competition.  It’s the ‘Thank Andrew’ edition, because November includes both Thanksgiving and St Andrew’s Day, with the focus on U.S. and Scottish crime fiction. I have been madly mugging up on both and realising just how much good crime fiction there is out there that I know nothing about. Wish me luck with the Quiz, I hope I don’t make a complete fool of myself ( preparing for a Select Committee hearing was never as nerve-wracking ).

Once I get the latest version of the manuscript of Opera off to Claret ( which is imminent ) I will be taking advantage of some Black Friday deals myself. 

The Great Picture Book of Everything

In 2017 The British Museum staged an excellent exhibition of Hokusai paintings and drawings ( I wrote about it here ). Earlier thisHokusai Book week I returned there for a second exhibition of Hokusai work, this time focusing on his drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything.

These small drawings, one hundred and three of them, have only survived because the Book, which would have been produced by wood block printing, was never published. The technique, which is illustrated within the exhibition, involves a original drawing being placed over a block of wood which is then prepared by removing all the wood which does not correspond to the lines of the drawing. The block is covered with ink and paper pressed onto it, thus transferring the drawing onto the paper, a process which can be repeated many times. Woodcarvers were apprenticed for ten years before they were qualified and it looks to me like an art in itself.

Hokusai The-Great-WaveAs an example of the production process there is a section on the print known as The Great Wave, for which Hokusai is probably most famous. There are many thousands of versions of this picture, called Under the Wave off Kanagawa ( first published 1831 ). Woodblock prints were inexpensive in nineteenth century Japan, costing approximately the same as two dishes of noodles and the blocks would be used to produce thousands of images. They frequently wore down, creating different versions of the same image and when new blocks were created, these too could differ from the original.

The Book drawings are remarkable for their intricacy and fine detail, as well as the energy of them and distinct characterisation ofHokusai India_China_Korea their subjects. They are also remarkable for their subject matter. Between 1639 and 1859 Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns who forbade the Japanese people from travelling abroad. Yet in producing the drawings, between 1820 and 1860, Hokusai depicted peoples from foreign lands as well as characters from Indian and Chinese mythology ( see right, figures of India, China and Korea ).

Some of them are absolutely stunning. There was a wonderful picture of an elephant,  ( which begs the question, how did he know what an elephant looked like? ) some exquisite renderings of Japanese and Indian myths (including dragons and the demon known as the Nine-Tailed Fox ) and more prosaic but perfect scenes of everyday life. One I particularly enjoyed was that of four men, type-setting, publishing and printing (left, below ).

Hokusai PublishingThat said, I realised early in my visit that I would have to buy the catalogue, because it simply isn’t possible to stand for long enough in front of these small pictures to really enjoy all their detail and subtlety – too many other people are trying to do the same. Besides, it’s a book and I can’t resist book buying. The exhibition is in Room 90, one of the rooms used for small exhibitions of prints and drawings at the rear of the Museum ( beyond Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt and up the stairs ). Entry is only £9 for adults and, even with timed tickets, it was getting crowded when I visited.

More than one of the drawings left me marvelling at their modernity. The drawing of Virudhaka Destroyed by Lightening couldHokusaiVirudhaka_killed_lightening have come from the pages of a modern comic/graphic novel or a Roy Lichtenstein work ( Kerpow! ). All they would need would be primary colours. Others depict interior scenes or verandas in a way which reminded me of Degas, with an asymmetrical picture construction. I look forward to many happy hours with my catalogue, really appreciating these drawings in full detail, but, as an enticing taster, this exhibition was wonderful. It runs until 30th January 2022 and the book costs £20.