Monday, September 17, 2007

Rankin -- and maybe another Rebus?

The last author to speak to our group was also the biggest name in mystery writing in the U.K.: Ian Rankin, a funny, engaging speaker (shown here with tour guide Ros Hutchison). We'd studied Rankin and his first book, Knots and Crosses, before meeting him -- a book very much inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which, while set in London, is really modeled on Edinburgh). In this first book, we have Rebus, a character who has involuntary flashbacks and doesn't allow himself to explore his consciousness, therefore "hiding" himself, as our study leader Carol Kent describes it. Both books have a deeply flawed character with a dark side, and both feature young girls as victims. In Knots and Crosses, the plot even converges at a gothic library.

If you read Knots and Crosses with Jekyll and Hyde in mind, you get that right away. But reviewers of that first book didn't, prompting Rankin to write a second book: Hide and Seek, the title hammering home the point. "We all have a mix of good and bad," Rankin told us at a lunch at the Scottish Book Trust in Edinburgh. "As P.D. James says, we're all capable of murder."

Some other tidbits from Rankin:

"There are two things I like about being an author: You are omniscient and omnipotent. You have the power of life and death over your characters. At the same time, as well as being godlike, you are are still playing pretend."

Rankin calls himself an "accidental crime writer," not having meant to write a crime novel when he first started, although he wrote in his notes for that first book that "the hero may be a cop." Now, he loves writing in this form: "I love the sense of pace, a strong pacing narrative. I love the games you can play with the reader, that questions are answered. You get a comfort from that which you don't get from real life."

Although readers like to think Rankin is like Rebus, "Rebus is not at all like me," Rankin says. "I'm a wishy-washy liberal. Every book is an internal argument between us [himself and Rebus]....He's horrible Mr. Hyde so I can be nice Dr. Jekyll."

What is said to be the final Rebus novel was published this week in the U.K.: Exit Music, which immediately climbed to No. 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Scottish detectives must retire by the age of 60, and Rebus has reached this age in the books. However, cold case detectives can be older, and Rankin left the possibility open of someday returning to either Rebus or Siobhan (Rebus' younger female partner). Saying he had several other projects in the work, Rankin added that "it may be a couple of years before I can go back to [Rebus] with a blank slate, and see if I can do anything with Rebus of Siobhan."

So who knows -- we may not have seen the last of Rebus.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Our last day in England before arriving in Scotland had us driving along the Northumbrian coast (photo left) and stopping to have lunch with Ann Cleeves, who makes her home in this area and has set some of her novels here. Cleeves has been writing for more than 20 years, and last year won the prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger for her book Raven Black, set in the remote Shetlands islands.

Cleeves was visiting the Shetlands three years ago with her husband when, she told our group, "I saw three ravens against the snow. I thought if there was blood in the snow, it would be like a fairy tale. That image stayed in my head: Those ravens, so black against the snow." What started out as a short story metamorphosed into her award-winning crime novel (the first in a four-part series). She also explained that she uses the traditional "cozy" form, layered with psychological insights. In Raven Black, Cleeves expertly masters the theme of being an outsider, giving the book a rich depthness.

Cleeves is among the current generation of U.K. writers who are using the traditional British mystery forms and adding so much more. For those of us who love British mysteries, it's a great time to be reading!


The novel Dracula by Bram Stoker is not only set in Transylvannia. In fact, a large part of it is set in Whitby, an English coastal town. In Dracula, all is obscured in mist and fog. In truth, Whitby is a quaint town. Here are a few photos, including the ruins of Whitby Abbey, where Dracula finds his first vicitm.

Dracula (the book, not the many movies) represents an example of a foreign invader who "doesn't only invade, but wants to take over all of England, especially its women," our study leader, Carol Kent, tells us. With its repetitive intensity of the vampire's attacks, "the reader finds it hard to believe Dracula can be conquered," Kent says.

The book may not be what you think. All my exposures to Dracula had been through movies, yet the original book is much different. Dracula is hardly seen in the novel, and the happenings are told through different narrators. In the book, we have much more of a monster than the romantic vampires of, say, Anne Rice's novels.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Bronte Sisters

The Brontes may not be immediately associated with mystery, but the gothic form, according to study leader Carol Kent, is "the most enduring influence on mystery." And Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, is, of course, a pure piece of gothic fiction. So today, we were off to Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage, where the Bronte sisters lived, beginning in 1820. There, we met with author Robert Barnard (above at the parsonage), a prolific mystery writer as well as president of the Bronte Trust. Barnard gave us a tour of the Bronte house, and later a tour of The Red House, owned by friends of Charlotte and immortalized in her novel Shirley. It was a double bonus: one of Britain's most-known authors and a Bronte expert! Barnard has a wicked sense of humor -- I recommend his Death by Sheer Torture and The Case of the Missing Bronte, but Barnard has more than 40 books -- so plenty to choose from.

It was also our second pub lunch on the tour -- and I must mention it because it was at the Old Silent -- the namesake of Martha Grimes' novel The Old Silent. And one mystery solved for me: Yorkshire pudding is not a pudding (in the American sense, at least), but it is still quite good!

The mystery of Yorkshire

Where better than the United Kingdom to immerse yourself in mysteries? As part of the Smithsonian's Mystery Lover's England and Scotland tour, I'm doing just that -- getting quite the literary education while visiting some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere. Our base for now if the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate (North Yorkshire), a turn-of-the-century grand spa hotel.

Study leader Carol Kent, a former Georgetown University professor, has presented us with first-rate classes on gothic literature (think horror, the supernatural, a brooding atmosphere and the macabre) and how some modern authors "defang" the gothic by turning it on its head (authors Robert Barnard, Reginald Hill).

We've had some wonderful guest speakers as well -- authors Staurt Pawson, Ann Cleeves and Martin Edwards formed a panel on why the North of England is so hospitable to mysteries. For Cleeves, one explanation is that the south has become populated by wealthy newcomers who don't spend their time peeking out windows to see what their neighbors are doing. But in the north, there's more seclusion -- and more noisy neighbors. The landscape helps as well -- the moors and dales of Yorkshire have been inspiring writers since the Bronte sisters.

Cleeves and Martin have novels coming out soon -- watch for them! And if you aren't a Pawson fan yet, his Insp. Charlie Priest is one of the best characters today in detective fiction.