On Saturday, I spent the day at Chiswick Book Festival and managed to get to three panels. First up was ‘Queen of Crime – Christie or Highsmith?’ with Sophie Hannah, Jill Dawson and Colette McBeth. Sophie Hannah’s new Poirot novel, Closed Casket, has just been published. She didn’t feel daunted by the prospect of writing Poirot as it’s not her job to rival Christie but be more of a stellar sidekick to the genius. Jill Dawson’s new book The Crime Writer is part fact and fiction about Patricia Highsmith. In the book, Highsmith is the protagonist so Dawson had to try and get into her head. She did this by re-reading her books in order and obsessively. She also met people who knew Highsmith and visited the cottage in Suffolk where she lived for a time and where Dawson has set the book.
As Hannah pointed out, it’s hard to choose between the two as they had very different styles and approaches. Christie was more of a mystery/puzzle writer; Highsmith was psychological suspense. Christie wanted the reader to connect with the detective; Highsmith, the criminal. Christie was Golden Age; Highsmith hated the Golden Age and didn’t even like being called a crime writer – she wanted to be taken more seriously. Apart from her brief disappearance (the only thing Highsmith thought was interesting about her) Agatha Christie was generally a happy woman; Highsmith was deeply unhappy and had murderous thoughts from the age of 8. Two different writers with two completely different styles – is it possible to crown just one Queen of Crime? No poll was taken on the day so it all comes down to your own personal choice. For me, I prefer Christie but it’s now Highsmith’s books that I want to read.
Next up was Debut Novelists. Joanna Cannon (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep), Janet Ellis (The Butcher’s Hook) and Barney Norris (Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain) chatted to Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love).
Joanna Cannon is a doctor and wrote a lot of her book sitting in NHS car parks. Set in the long hot summer of 1976 (yes, I do remember it!), Mrs Creasy has disappeared from her home. Grace and Tilly, both aged 10, set out to find her. I wanted to buy this book but it had sold out. So when I do get my hands on a copy, I’ll probably be the only person to have a signed post-it note on the front page.
Janet Ellis is, of course, a well known TV presenter and actress, most famous for Blue Peter. But all along she wanted to write but was afraid to do so, thinking it wouldn’t be good enough. It took a long time to be brave enough to take that step and she started by going on a writing course. It was there that her confidence grew and The Butcher’s Hook was the result. Set in Georgian times, Anne Jaccob has fallen in love. The problem is, it’s not the man her parents have chosen. I know you should never judge a book by it’s cover but this one is exquisite.
Barney Norris is a playwright. His book, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, is set in his hometown of Salisbury where, indeed, five rivers do meet. Five protagonists tell the story – a florist, a grammar school boy, a farmer, a military wife and a worker for English Heritage. Their lives weave in and out of each other but they only all meet together once when a car accident occurs.
The last panel I went to was my absolute favourite due to the sheer amount of hilarity it caused. Ladybird books were a big part of my childhood so when the new series ‘How it Works’ came out last year, I just had to buy some. Looking and smelling like the genuine article (because they are the genuine article, having been printed in the Ladybird factory), these books have been incredibly successful. Written by Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, comedy writers for television, they told us how they had originally come up with the idea. Comedy TV productions basically take the summer off so each year they have a spare few months to write a book. In the past, these have been more sort of toilet books but one year, the book they were due to write was cancelled. So they thought about the kind of book that they would like to write and who they wanted to publish them. As huge fans of the original Ladybird books, they wondered what would have happened if Ladybird hadn’t stopped. What if Ladybird were producing books for adults, explaining the adult world? They approached Penguin who own Ladybird and who had published them before. It took all of five hours for Penguin to agree. Some of the proposed ideas were The Hipster, The One Night Stand (with a toothbrush on the front cover) and The People Downstairs.
One of the hardest problems is finding the right pictures for the books but a worker from Ladybird, several years ago, scanned in all the images from the original books and gave them labels. At the time she didn’t know why she did it but Morris and Hazeley are extremely glad that she did. When the books came out, they were very well received and one woman wrote to them saying that she was the bride in one of the pictures used. It also turned out that her father used to run Ladybird Books.
Thankfully, in time for Christmas, there are more books due out, including The Grandparent, The Cat, The Dog, The Sickie and my favourite – The Zombie Apocalypse. I’m hoping that The Grandparent will make reference to watching boring TV programmes, talking all the way through your favourite TV programme and falling asleep during a conversation. So far, I’m the one who’s been buying the Ladybird books as presents and I’m quite annoyed that my husband and children have not bought me The Wife or The Mum. I’m fully expecting them to remedy this for Christmas!
If you want to buy the Ladybird books then here’s a link for The Wife (subtle hint to my husband who probably won’t even read this!)