How many times have we heard how writing can be therapeutic? That creating fiction—or reading fiction—can get us through some of the worst times of our lives.
The chance to immerse ourselves into the lives of another and to be all wrapped up an engrossing plot that has nothing to do with our own lives, well, there’s a lot of appeal in that.
For Maggie Barbieri, writing was a form of therapy when she battled cancer a few years ago.
Barbieri is the author of the Murder 101 series, a charming, funny set of novels about English professor Alison Bergeron, who teaches at St. Thomas, a college in the Bronx, New York.
The novels include Murder 101 (2006); Extracurricular Activities (2007), Quick Study (2008), Final Exam (2009), Third Degree (2010) and Physical Education (2011). Extra Credit is due out December 2012.
In addition to a perceptive look at academic life, Barbieri’s father was a member of the NYPD, and his stories provide background for her novels.
From 2005 to 2008, smack in the middle of writing her series, Barbieri battled malignant melanoma, not once, but twice. Her outlook was considered dire as her cancer had progressed to Stage III with Stage IV being the deadliest.
With a team of cancer professionals at NYU, Barbieri went through a very rough time in therapy. Through it all, she was focused on her health, her devoted family and her novels, three of which she wrote while undergoing surgery, treatment, and radiation.
“Decides that writing really can save your life,” Barbieri says on her web site, which also includes information about skin cancer.
Writing the Murder 101 novels “helped me get completely out of my own head and escape into another world,” Barbieri said in a story in Good Housekeeping. The magazine published a heartfelt story about Barbieri’s recovery in the April 2011 issue.
Barbieri’s story is an inspiration for all of us, whether we have been through such an illness or known a loved one who has gone through such an experience.
Barbieri is continuing to write about Alison Bergeron, and making new fans with each novel. And even more important, her health seems to be on track.
How many times have we heard how writing can be therapeutic? That creating fiction—or reading fiction—can get us through some of the worst times of our lives.
For years, in between real trips, I enjoy arm-chair traveling with mystery authors.
If I want an extra dose of San Francisco, I turn to Marcia Muller or, if I want an historical view of San Francisco, I seek out Kelli Stanley.
Julie Smith took me to areas of New Orleans I had never seen and new author Joy Castro does the same thing.
For the Florida Keys, I go with James W. Hall. And for Los Angeles, the choices are myriad—Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Denise Hamilton. Jo Nesbo brings Norway to my door. And any number of authors writing for Soho Crime deliver evocative scenes of Europe, England and Ireland.
Fantasy travel thrives in the newly released The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery Agatha Christie edited by Matthew Prichard, her grandson (Harper).
Prichard has compiled Christie’s letters and photographs she took that chronicle her travels around the British Empire during 1922.
The trip took nearly a year with stops in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Hawaii. The trip was part of a trade mission that her husband, Archibald, had been invited to take to promote the British Empire exhibition.
Today we would call this a junket. The trip, according to The Grand Tour, had the following goals: "to produce new sources of wealth by exploiting the raw materials of the Empire; to foster inter-Imperial trade; to open new world markets for Dominican and British products; and to encourage interaction between different cultures and people of the Empire.…"
This was indeed a trip of a lifetime so Christie put her 2-year-old daughter in the care of her sister, packed her bags and went on the trip shortly after her second novel had been published.
Through the photos and letters, The Grand Tour shows a side of Christie most of us readers are just learning about. After all, according to An Autobiography, Christie was one of Britain's first stand-up surfers. She was an avid body boarder, taking up the sport during a 1922 holiday in South Africa. The Grand Tour touches on her surfing hobby and includes several photos, including several taken in Hawaii.
The Grand Tour also puts travel in its historical perspective. While Christie and the others travel in style for the day, nothing on this trip was easy. Certainly not by today’s standards.
2012 marks the 120th anniversary of Christie’s birth. Her work continues to be in style.
We get so caught up in trying to stay on top of the new novels that are published that we seldom get a chance to revisit the old masters.
The authors who came before–Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and others–laid the foundation on which contemporary authors continue to build.
Boy, that was kinda deep, wasn’t it?
One of my all-time favorite authors who I used to reread regularly is Josephine Tey.
And it’s wonderful that Tey is being introduced to a new generation of readers by British author Nicola Upson who made the author as the heroine of her series. The latest Two for Sorrow has Tey involved with a killer as she researches a novel based on a decades-old crime. Upson takes the classic detective and updates her for a contemporary audience.
Upson’s series is quite good as are the original Tey novels.
Josephine Tey is one of the pseudonyms of Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh.
I am by no means an expert on Tey – many of you readers know much more. She wrote dozens of plays under the name of Gordon Daviot, but only four were produced during her lifetime. Her best known was Richard of Bordeaux, which ran for 14 months in England and made a name for a young John Gielgud, who was its leading man and director.
So much has been made of Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, the last of her books published in her lifetime. In The Daughter of Time, her leading character Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is in the hospital. As a diversion, he has his friends help with research so he can figure out if King Richard III of England murdered his nephews, those infamous princes in the Tower of London, back in the 1480s.
OK, I know it was a different time–1951–when The Daughter of Time was published and maybe that debate about King Richard III had more bearing than it does now. At least to me. While I am fascinated by history and am a fan of historical mysteries, The Daughter of Time is not my favorite Tey novel.
For me it was Brat Farrar, published in 1949. As someone who grew up on a farm seven miles from my small hometown of 5,000, I couldn’t really relate to this family of aristocrats.
But what struck me when I read this book when I was about 12 years old was the family made their living breeding, selling and training horses and giving riding lessons. I had just gotten my first horse about that time and the idea of riding all day, of making your living from a horse farm sounded like heaven. That my father was a farmer and made his living off the land also has a resonated with me. That Brat Farrar was an outsider also hit a chord. (I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read it.)
Economically and culturally, Ashby family and mine were miles apart. But on another level, we could have lived next door.
S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep is one of those novels that caught me by surprise.
I almost didn’t review it because I had just reviewed three British novels and I strive for balance.
But Watson’s novel was immediately mesmerizing as he tackled the power of memories while writing about a woman with no memory. Christine Lucas not only has lost any recollections about her past, but her lack of memory has robbed her of any feelings.
Each day, Christine wakes up not knowing who she is or who the man is next to her. She believes she is 27 years old, but beyond that she has no immediate clue to her past. Each day she is stunned to see in the mirror the face of a 47-year-old and to learn that she has been married for 22 years to Ben. Each morning, before he leaves for work as a teacher, Ben explains to Christine that she lost her memory 20 years before in an accident.
Or did she?
To try to remember, Christine writes down everything that has happened to her, and these journals are her only connection with the past. Because each day, her memory is wiped clean. But those journals also include a chilling note: “Don’t trust Ben.”
In my review of Before I Go to Sleep that ran in the Sun Sentinel and other newspapers, I said: “Watson bends his intense psychological thriller in myriad ways, making the reader simultaneously empathize and doubt each character. Ben appears to be a devoted husband; [her doctor] appears to be a compassionate physician; Christine appears not to know of her past.
“Each snippet of Christine’s memory appears to be a victory as well as a setback. Recovering her memory may be more frightening than she imagines. At each turn, clues to Christine’s past and present spin in different directions, leading to a shocking finale,” I wrote in the review in the Sun Sentinel.
And here is the review that ran in Mystery Scene magazine.
Before the book hit the stands, Before I Go to Sleep already had been sold to become a film produced by Ridley Scott. It will star Nicole Kidman as Christine and Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) as her psychiatrist. Rowan Joffe will direct. The film version of Before I Go to Sleep is scheduled for release during 2013.
The death in January 2012 of Reginald Hill, at the age of 75, has robbed crime fiction of a towering figure, one of the outstanding British mystery writers of the past half century.
Reg—as he was universally known—will be remembered most widely for his series of novels featuring “Mid-Yorkshire’s finest,” that splendid odd couple of cops, Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. They made their debut in Reg’s first published novel, A Clubbable Woman, which was published under the Collins Crime Club imprint back in 1970. Incidentally, throughout his long career, Reg remained with the same publisher and same literary agent. He was also married to Pat (her maiden name was Patricia Ruell, hence one of his pseudonyms, Patrick Ruell) for more than 50 years. Nobody could deny that Reg epitomized loyalty.
Reg’s mother was a detective fiction fan, but in his early days, most British crime writers were based in London and the Home Counties. He came from a perhaps unglamorous background—his father was a professional soccer player for Hartlepool United long before footballers became highly paid—but hard work and a sharp mind took him to St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, and he later pursued a career in academe. He tried his hand at poetry, and one or two of his poems reflected his interest in crime, before he tackled a novel and embarked on a path as a pioneer of realistic, high-quality crime fiction written, and usually set, in the North of England.
Fell of Dark was a thriller set in the Lake District which he wrote before A Clubbable Woman, although it was published after that book. From then on, Reg got into a rhythm, alternating between his main series and other books, and he believed strongly that varying his approach in this way helped keep his series fresh. Inevitably, the success of the Dalziel and Pascoe books led to pressure to produce them one after another, but he did his best to resist the conveyor belt approach—not because he was dissatisfied with the series, but because he was determined not to compromise his standards and slip into a formula.
He was astonishingly prolific, producing no fewer than 17 novels in his first decade as a published writer, while holding down a job as a lecturer in a college that provided him with background for the second Dalziel and Pascoe book, An Advancement of Learning. The switch of settings (their first appearance concerned a case involving a Yorkshire rugby club, their second the comparatively genteel academic world) reflected the contrast in the two men’s natures. Dalziel was rough and ready, coarse and fat—yet a brilliant detective who was also capable of great wisdom. Pascoe was the sensitive liberal, married with a small child, and sometimes shocked by his boss’ behavior and attitudes. Reg readily acknowledged that, up to a point, the characters reflected contrasting strands of his own personality. He was an erudite and cultured man, but he was also keen on rugby and the outdoor life, and enjoyed a belly laugh as much as a subtle shaft of wit.
I first met Reg and Pat at the inaugural meeting of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, at Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire in 1987. At that time, I was working on my first novel, and was eligible for membership only on the strength of nonfiction that I’d published. I didn’t know any crime writers, and approached that meeting with much trepidation. But I was lucky: the people there could not have been kinder to me. It was a small gathering—Reg dubbed us “the few”—but it included not only Reg and Pat, but another doyen of the genre who would, like Reg, go on to win the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, Robert Barnard, and his wife Louise, as well as Peter Walker, whose books sourced Heartbeat, one of the most commercially successful British television series of the past 20 years, and Peter and Margaret Lewis, distinguished biographers of Eric Ambler and Ngaio Marsh, respectively. All very memorable and exciting for a writer (and passionate crime fan) at the start of his career.
From then on, Reg offered me a great deal of encouragement. He named me in a magazine interview as the most promising new writer he’d come across, and he readily agreed to contribute a short story to the first anthology that I edited. This was Northern Blood, which members of the Northern Chapter put together in 1992. We shared a love of short stories, and Reg contributed to many of the anthologies that I edited in later years. “On the Psychiatrist’s Couch,” included in Whydunit?, won the CWA Short Story Dagger, an award he’d won once before. “Game of Dog,” another superb tale, was his contribution to the CWA’s Golden Jubilee anthology, and he allowed me to reprint the brilliant “The Rio de Janeiro Paper” in Crime in the City. Most recently, he wrote the utterly absorbing “Where Are All the Naughty People?” for Original Sins. Despite the many calls on his time, he never once failed to respond to a request for a story—not offering something competent yet ordinary pulled from the bottom drawer, but stories that were original and enormously enjoyable. He also found time to write a wonderful introduction to Where Do You Find Your Ideas?, my own gathering of short stories.
His friends and fans were naturally delighted when news came that Dalziel and Pascoe would be seen on television. The books were to be brought to the small screen by Yorkshire Television, which seemed ideal. Anticipation turned to anxiety when it emerged that the comedians Hale and Pace had been cast in the lead roles. Many would say that, even as comedians, Hale and Pace were not really in the first division—possibly not in the second division, either. And as actors….
At a conference in Brighton when the first episode was being made, the Hills confided their doubts. But still one hoped that the adaptation of A Pinch of Snuff—a story with an unorthodox and elaborate plot—would be a success.
The Northern Chapter of the CWA has, ever since that very first meeting, been a convivial and cohesive group, and as well as regular lunches, members have often organized weekend get-togethers in pleasant parts of the region. Reg and Pat were responsible for setting up some of the best of them and I vividly remember a weekend at a Windermere hotel which coincided with the first showing (on a Saturday evening but scheduled at a suspiciously late hour) of the Hale and Pace interpretation of A Pinch of Snuff. Reg made it quite clear that we should all be drinking with him at the bar rather than sneaking up to our rooms and watching the show on the telly. But when we finally returned home and saw the recordings, our worst fears were realized.
Luckily, Reg managed to terminate his contract with Yorkshire Television, and entered into a new deal with the BBC, who engaged high-quality scriptwriters such as Alan Plater and Malcolm Bradbury and cast two fine actors, Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan, in the key roles. Reg invited me to the screening for the press at the Royal Society for the Arts in London, and I took the day off work to travel down: the occasion was great fun, and it was immediately obvious that the BBC had got the characters and story lines right. The rest is history: Dalziel and Pascoe became a fixture on British screens for years and also enjoyed popularity overseas. But this success, very welcome as it was, did not affect Reg. He regarded what happened on the TV as wholly separate from what happened in the books and he wanted to focus on continuing to write the best novels of which he was capable without distraction. Much as he admired the actors’ work, he once said he’d stopped watching the later series, which were no longer based on his own books.
Dalziel and Pascoe, the second attempt at a British TV
series based on HIll’s novels, was a solid hit. It first
aired in 1996 and ran for 12 series. Above: Dalziel
(Warren Clarke) and Pascoe (Colin Buchanan). © BBC
As a result of this commitment to continuing quality in his own work, and an absolute refusal to compromise on standards, his books became even better as the years passed. He experimented regularly, at one point sending Dalziel and Pascoe into space in One Small Step, as well as belatedly recording their very first encounter in “The Last National Serviceman.” Bones and Silence was a worthy winner of the CWA Gold Dagger but some of his other titles were equally impressive. The stunningly clever Dialogues of the Dead is one example, while its followup, Death’s Jest-Book, is another. Recalled to Life, On Beulah Height, and Pictures of Perfection are among my other favorites. One of his books—I cannot name it for fear of spoiling the pleasure of those who haven’t read it yet—tells you the name of the culprit in the first paragraph. But the clue is so ingeniously concealed that it would take an especially astute reader to spot it. Reg Hill believed in strong and intricate plotting, and at times his cleverness would have had Agatha Christie gasping in admiration.
His non-series books are sometimes underestimated, and this is a pity. The Only Game is a gripping thriller with a cunning plot twist, while The Stranger House was set in the Lake District, an area he and Pat loved and whose character and charm he evoked with his customary skill. After Reg retired from the world of education to concentrate on writing full-time, he and Pat had moved from Yorkshire to Ravenglass on the west coast of Cumbria, and Reg would regularly tramp across the fells.
He made terrific use of his knowledge of Cumbria in the last book he published before he died. The Woodcutter is one of his finest books, and what is so remarkable given that Reg was then well into his seventies, and had published about four dozen novels, is its energy and power. The story of the rise, fall, and rise again of the formidable Wolf Hadda has echoes of The Count of Monte Cristo, but with a difference. As ever, this zestful thriller is packed with the witty lines that were the author’s hallmark.
Reg was appointed Chair of the CWA Diamond Dagger Nominations Sub-Committee a few years after he won that most prestigious award. He asked me to join him and I soon discovered that it was a committee of just two. Reg didn’t really believe in committees and endless debates that never reach a conclusion, and as I didn’t either, all went very smoothly. We found the task one on which we could reach an amiable consensus each year, as a prelude to a long conversation about writing and life in general. I treasure the memory of those discussions. It was always fun, as well as an education, to talk to Reg.
I mentioned his generosity and a couple of instances spring to mind from the last two occasions we spent much time together over the past couple of years. We had lunch during the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival with a major publisher who was interested in revamping the CWA anthology and wanted Reg to be named as editor. He said he wouldn’t do it unless he and I could do it jointly and that I received the same credit as him—despite the fact that, of course, my name was much less of a draw than his. And then, the last time we had dinner together as members of the Detection Club he mentioned that he’d been approached by a TV production company who wanted him to help them with a series set in the Lakes. He told them he wasn’t interested but recommended that they talk to me about adapting my books for television. And so they did. Even though those discussions haven’t come to anything as yet, I will always appreciate that act of kindness. Typical of Reg Hill: a fine person, as well as a fine writer.
A REGINALD HILL READING LIST
Dalziel & Pascoe Novels
A Clubbable Woman (1970)*
An Advancement of Learning (1971)
Ruling Passion (1973)
An April Shroud (1975)
A Pinch of Snuff (1978)
A Killing Kindness (1980)
Exit Lines (1984)
Child’s Play (1987)
Under World (1988)
Bones and Silence (1990)
One Small Step (1990), novella
Recalled to Life (1992)
Pictures of Perfection (1994)
The Wood Beyond (1995)
Asking for the Moon (1996), ss
On Beulah Height (1998)
Arms and the Women (1999)
Dialogues of the Dead (2002)
Death’s Jest-Book (2003)
Good Morning Midnight (2004)
The Death of Dalziel (2007), US: Death Comes for the Fat Man
A Cure for All Diseases (2008), US: The Price of Butcher’s Meat
Midnight Fugue (2009)
Final series novel (2013)
Joe Sixsmith Novels
Blood Sympathy (1993)
Born Guilty (1995)
Killing the Lawyers (1997)
Singing the Sadness (1999)
The Roar of the Butterflies (2008)
Other Crime Novels
Fell of Dark (1971)
A Fairly Dangerous Thing (1972)
A Very Good Hater (1974)
Another Death in Venice (1976)
The Spy’s Wife (1980)
Who Guards a Prince? (1982)
Traitor’s Blood (1983)
Guardians of the Prince (1983)
No Man’s Land (1985)
The Collaborators (1987)
The Stranger House (2005)
The Woodcutter (2010)
Writing as Patrick Ruell
The Castle of the Demon (1971), aka The Turning of the Tide
Red Christmas (1972)
Death Takes the Low Road (1974), aka The Low Road
Beyond the Bone (1975), aka Urn Burial
The Long Kill (1986)
Death of A Dormouse (1987)
Dream of Darkness (1989)
The Only Game (1991)
Writing as Dick Morland
Heart Clock (1973), aka Matlock’s System
Albion! Albion! (1974), aka Singleton’s Law
Writing as Charles Underhill
Captain Fantom (1978)
The Forging of Fantom (1978)
Pascoe’s Ghost: And Other Brief Chronicles of Crime (1979)
There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union (1987)
Brother’s Keeper (1992)
*Dates are UK publication
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #124.