Saturday PM

Session 3

Ann Cleeves :  True North – The Mask and Northern Crime

We always play parts in presenting ourselves – Cleeves’ main concern at St Hilda’s not to appear simple/dim, at a Gateshead reading group not to appear pretentious/arsey [this kind of honest self-appraisal is arresting and always gives one to think hard : Cleeves observation is of a profound human truth, which has both universal and individual applicability]. Some are more concerned about fitting in than others – Cleeves told amusing stories of her mother’s dinner parts and the extent to which they were ‘productions’ – while some want to be centre of attention ; though that is just another way of playing a part. The only people who do not play this game are those on the autistic spectrum – and that Cleeves suggested might be part of reason for popularity of Larsson (to which we will return!).

Writers who see through masks particularly well at moment are Scandinavians. Mankell pulls mask back on both individuals and Swedish society. Cleeves said that she never found his books lived up to their opening passages.

The rest of her talk was a walk-through of various Scandinavian novelists. She particularly recommended…

  1. Karin Fossum – rural Norway – very serious. In some ways traditional mysteries set in traditional society – but shines light behind mask of this society. In The Water’s Edge takes as her subject people who find body – man involved secretly delighted to be at heart of drama.
  2. Hakan Nesser – lighter touch though still very psychologically probing – very fine plotter
  3. Arnaldur Indrioason – first book Jar City is best – real understanding of Icelandic culture
  4. K.O. Dahl – Oslo novelist
  5. Johan Theorin – new Swedish writer – very fresh.

After this Cleeves returned to Larsson. She said she doesn’t really get it. Sees why Larsson was a wholly admirable man, and she thought the first was pretty good ,but second over violent. Still hasn’t read third but will because of Lisbeth – needs to find out what happens to her. Cleeves suggested the appeal of Larsson was first his death, and second Lisbeth – who has something of child about her; a character, as suggested earlier, with no mask. Because of Larsson’s success there is a bit of a band-wagon for Nordic crime and Cleeves remarked that as bandwagons go it is a pretty good one, as the books are generally intelligent and thought-provoking.

David Hewson – The Masks of Venice

This was an unusual paper for St Hilda’s in that it was accompanied by a slide show: the slides consisted of various shots of Venice and Venetian masks. Hewson also talked of the Commedia dell’arte and some of its stock characters..

  • Harlequin (Arlecchino) – handsome,stupid, a seducer
  • Pulchinello (Punch) – mean, violent, schemer
  • Pedrolino (Pierrot) – the sad loser, who appears unmasked
  • Il Capitano – appears brave and manly but is actually venal and cowardly – think Flashman
  • Innamorati – the lovers, idealists, made to be duped which they were

Venice always stole and what it stole from the Commedia were masks. The wearing of them was legal for several months of the year. Mask-makers held in high regard. Wearing of masks encouraged venality and crime. Hewson said that Venice presented moral face [what is evidence of this? I have never heard this claim] but was in fact not. Organising of carnival in hands of small group of oligarchs. Venetian masks distinctly different. Most famous that of plague doctor – believed to protect against plague – didn’t of course and in way was mask of self-deceit. Hewson said he thought Venice in 18thC presenting own mask because power and wealth gone [I think I may have missed point and argument of this paper].


Someone suggested that Scandinavian novels may appeal because of small society and therefore certain links to GA – limited suspects and people know each other [I cannot see this – they may be relatively small but not everyone in Sweden knows each other! – could make the same argument for Scottish mysteries where it would rightly sound ridiculous].

Main discussion was about Larsson. I pointed out that first book (Dragon Tattoo) is in part a locked-room (‘locked-island’) mystery – AC said she liked this kind of playfulness [I later reminded AC of her own earlier locked-island mystery in the George and Molly series whose title I had unfortunately forgotten]. Natasha Cooper said she didn’t think Lisbeth was that original but was prefigured by Carol O’Connell’s Mallory [I have never read these so have no idea as to the accuracy of the claim]. Quite a few people suggested that the massive marketing campaign (including giving away a lot of copies) had something to do with it, though some of this sounded a little like sour grapes. A sort of straw poll was taken as to who was a Larsson fan and as far as I could see about 20-30% of people raised their hands – but of course some people may have never read him. I certainly include myself in that number, although I am far from uncritical [type Larsson in the search box to find reviews]. I am sure Larsson’s death, the marketing campaign and above all Lisbeth – whether or not she is original – have all played their part, but I am also sure there is much more to it than that. The central point is that the trilogy has gone wildly beyond the normal confines of the mystery genre and for this to happen with a translated Swedish novel means that Larsson has hit some key nerves of our time. I would suggest that the fact that all big institutions – whether of private capital or the state – are shown as rotten has something to do with this. We do not believe in our capacity to fight back and thus Lisbeth becomes a kind of superheroine who can redeem these wrongs (actually this is why I would be a but dubious about progenitors having read a summary of O’Connell’s work, fascinating as it sounds). Lisbeth, we should recall, is by the end of the first book not only triumphant but a billionaire. She is in some ways a kind of folk character – the first great female Robin Hood?

This is a fascinating discussion which would make for a great session all of its own with one each of Larsson’s fans and detractors arguing the case: the lack of the former – or at least anyone prepared to take the role on – meant this discussion was a little limited and unbalanced.

Session 4

Penelope Evans – All I Want Is For You To Trust Me

This, Evans, said would be a paper about guile.

She started by making a distinction between

  1. ‘Once upon a time’ novels – 3rd person
  2. ‘Listen up, every word I am going to tell you is true.’ novels – 1st person

She observed that in (1) there is just the author and reader: in (2) there is the author, the reader, the narrator (‘I) and whoever is being addressed – the fourth character. Who is that? The story must be being told to someone.

The tradition of the unreliable narrator is not new : Chaucer’s pilgrims, Scheherazade, Browning’s narrators. But the first real mystery example is in Collins’ Moonstone – all characters give own accounts of events and in end criminal turns out to be unreliable narrator Mr Franklin. Now crucially his deception is unintended, but Collins had indicate possibilities of unreliable narrator.

Today lots of people telling story who are the story. Lots of types – all unreliable in different ways. One thing they share is demand that what they are saying is true. There is a spectrum of guile/trustworthiness. Mr Franklin is at one end  of spectrum – at end of book he has not changed and is same character (although riddle has been solved). Move to Ackroyd. Christie and Sheppard both intend to deceive – but at end our perceptions are changed – Sheppard revealed as not kindly doctor but ruthless murderer. After Ackroyd everything was possible – though Christie criticised in some quarters at time for overstepping the line – too unreliable a narrator.

However in fact much more you can do with concept. Children describing adult world they do not understand. Jane Gardam a writer who specialises in unreliable narrators – one book consists of a character’s letters to herself which draw her back to sanity. Move further along the scale and reach the utterly untrustworthy. A classic here is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) [see note 1] – all about sex and astonishingly frank for period. But what shocks are lies narrator – John Dowell – tells. Book is story of Dowell and his seemingly fragile wife Florence’s friendship with an English couple – the Ashburnhams. Dowell is very honest to point of simplicity if you take him at word, but you should not take him at word. What we learn is that Florence has been sleeping with Lord Ashburnham for years and is in fact tough and cynical. Dowell addresses reader but is in fact addressing himself – this is self-justification. The book is not a mystery but it is a model for psychological mystery writers. Dowell does nothing but things happen. Dowell unwilling or unable to recognise truth – things happen in his blind spots: but he does recognise he has blind spots.

The final point on the spectrum is reached with Dr Faraday in Sarah Waters The Little Stranger. Where Sheppard is simple Faraday is endlessly complex. Indeed he is actually divided into two parts. He causes the deaths but does not know it himself. We, the reader, know everything, but he, the narrator, knows nothing – it is the ultimate self-deception and the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Evans ended by asking why use 1st person at all? 3rd person much freer but in the first person you are forced to write with someone else’s voice and this can be deeper exploration.

Sophie Hannah – No-one would ever do that: the possible improbable in crime fiction

Hannah began by saying she believes that when some people say ‘I find X implausible/improbable’ they are in fact putting on a mask about what they don’t want to believe in.

We believe what we see and hear often. Not a matter of plausibility at all. In reality police interviews are incredibly boring and unemotional – if you put that in book people will say that it is implausible.

Wildly improbable things happen and are therefore plausible. Would not everyone in audience be able to name at least one wildly improbable thing that had happened to them? (Hannah gave at least two amusing personal examples). But if this is so why not put them in books?

And in any case why should plausibility be a criterion at all? If Christie had used this criterion she would never have written Orient (among many other books!). Plausibility is a terrible restraint in mystery fiction and should not be used.


This, for me, was the most interesting and thought-provoking session of the weekend (despite several other high-quality papers). This came as all the more of a surprise because I really didn’t like the only one of Hannah’s books that I have read – which is in fact absurd as there is no particular connection between liking a writer’s work and finding them an interesting and entertaining speaker. I was introduced to two concepts which I will certainly make use of in my reviewing/criticism…

  1. The issue of who is being addressed in 1st person narratives.
  2. The issue of plausibility and its aptness/validity as a criterion.

In terms of the first the issue is a lot wider than mysteries. But restricting ourselves to the latter field I am not wholly convinced that every 1st person narrative is written with any great thought behind it. Sometimes indeed it seems just another way of saying ‘I am going to tell you a story’, where you is the reader and there is therefore no ‘fourth person’ involved. But I will have to take each first-person book as it comes and consider the matter. As a concept and a question to be asked I find it very useful.

The issue of plausibility is more complicated. I certainly think it will be very useful to always reflect whenever I use the term implausible as to why I am using it and what I want to say. But ruling it out altogether as a criterion is a different matter. There are at least a couple of reasons for this. In the first place there is a question of a book’s and character’s internal consistency. Now some books need no internal consistency because they are not trying to present any particular world-view or tone. Most however are. There are countless examples of this. One clear one is historical mysteries which attempt to give a picture of a period. If something strikes one as historically inaccurate then one might say it was implausible. Maybe one should just say historically inaccurate or anachronistic. But on occasion it is more of an instinct that some particular fact, dialogue, description, characterisation feels wrong. I think in these circumstances it is reasonable to say that something feels implausible. I know this was not the kind of plausibility Hannah was talking about but the argument still applies. Secondly one can use the term not in terms of any specific incident or development but as a general statement about, for instance, a book’s realism (clearly this only applies to realist books! Nothing would be more ludicrous than to use plausibility in connection with the works of, say, Malcolm Pryce). If a book sets out to give us say a general sociological picture of some particular city or town or social group, then I think it is fair to comment if one finds this general picture implausible. Once again one might argue that here a better word would be inaccurate, but also once again on occasion it is not so much some specific fact that one is querying but a more general feeling that the picture is implausible. Here there is no linking between plausibility and possibility.

Having entered these caveats the aspect of the paper which I wish Hannah had developed was that which she really only mentioned in her opening when she raised the possibility of a link between our calling something implausible and our not wanting to believe it. I think this does have some psychological weight, and therefore one need to watch one’s motives when labelling something implausible. A classic example for me is Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia which, yes I admit it, I have always disliked for implausibility. But is this because I dislike the idea that if I went away for 20 years then came back it would be possible for Chris not to recognise me? I would imagine that most people probably don’t want to think this about their life-partner as it is somewhat disturbing. I am not saying this is the whole story because the fact is I do find the plot-line implausible! But I think some part of the reason why I find it not only implausible but slightly objectionable lies in my own fears and beliefs. So while I think I will on occasion still use plausibility as a criterion, I will try to look hard at just what I am claiming and why I am claiming it.

Taken together these papers have really made me think and will inform my future practice – and one can’t really ask for more than that.


1) According to a review in The Times of 1st May 2010 Blake Morrison makes substantial use of The Good Soldier in his latest novel The Last Weekend. The reviewer, John O’Connell, writes…..

Unreliable narrators have been with us since The Arabian Nights. But ask literary critics to give a favourite example and a surprising number will pick John Dowell from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) which requisitioned the technique as a cornerstone of modernist experimentation.