Welcome to Secret Library – a new weekly feature on Cafethinking in which authors present three books they love but that don’t get enough attention.
I’m thrilled that my first guest is the legendary Quentin Bates, whose Thin Ice we featured on this blog last year. Quentin’s biography matches his nickname Gráskeggur (Greybeard), featuring nearly four decades forging Anglo-Icelandic relations and involving journalism and seagoing. His creation, Gunnhildur Gísladóttir, is the star of a series of police procedurals that are well worth a look.
Here he introduces his picks:
Ashenden by William Somerset Maugham
Was this the first proper spy novel, or does Kipling have that particular honour with Kim? Somerset Maugham is best known for his novels that spanned the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, and he had a huge output of material during a long working life. Ashenden is a probably thinly disguised account of Maugham’s activities during the First World War, essentially as a spymaster in neutral Switzerland doing his best to keep tabs on activity across the border in Germany and to hold his own against his opposite numbers working for the other side.
There’s the nagging suspicion all through the book that the author has not so much spiced up a set of real experiences as toned them down for public consumption. Characters such as General Carmona, aka the Hairless Mexican, could hardly have been real, surely? Or could he? Rumour has it that several of the Ashenden stories were suppressed before publication, on Churchill’s orders, as those accounts of wartime skulduggery were considered a little too close to the truth for comfort.
The Unrest Cure by Saki
He’s the master of the razor-sharp short story, the quick sketch in a few lines that draws a perfect picture and a tale that goes with it. Saki’s short stories are magnificent. They are undoubtedly dated, set in the Edwardian era that ended with the First World War – which also took Saki, killed while serving as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front – but the skewering of snobbery and comfortable complacency are timeless.
Despite the genteel upper-middle-class, country house settings of many of Saki’s stories, these are not comfortable tales. There is plenty of discomfort in there. Some are downright brutal, others thoroughly macabre.
Saki’s short stories with their deft and often malicious wit have stood the test of the past century far better than his full-length novels, which have dated. The short stories are just that, very short, most of them no more than a couple of pages written with a wonderful economy.
Every word is relevant, there’s not a wasted line or phrase anywhere.
The Unrest Cure, which contains the memorable line ‘The Bishop is out for blood, not tea’ is just one of these tales, and there are many more, from the story of the great God Sredni Vashtar to the delight of the Schartz-Metterklume method.
Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti
I had been a fairly casual consumer of crime fiction before I started writing it, which was when I felt it was time to read more widely and came – by chance – across Dominique Manotti’s books, starting with Lorraine Connection and rapidly devouring the couple of others available in English. These were a lesson in how sharp, intelligent and muscular crime fiction with a political slant can be at its best, and how it can pay off the break a few rules and step over boundaries. Some of her books, written twenty or so years ago, had to be way ahead of their time in foreshadowing social issues that dominate society today, with gay and Muslim central characters, a sympathy for the outsider and plots that swerve off the beaten track when you’re sure you know what’s coming next. Dominique’s books showed me that the bad guys aren’t always bad, and the good guys definitely don’t have to always been good, and that crime fiction can carry a clear message behind the theme of investigating a crime.
Lorraine Connection won the CWA’s International Dagger in 2008 (beating Stieg Larsson and a couple of other notables) but it’s still not a book you hear mentioned often. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone enthusiastically championing Dominique’s books, which I find inexplicable. Maybe they’re too sharp, too political – or maybe I just have weird taste.
Thanks to Quentin for kicking off the series. And a reminder that Thin Ice is itself not as widely known as it should be. You can get it here.
And (in the voice of Nicholas Parsons) come back next Thursday to find out who’s in…the secret library!