As a child I was fortunate in having a kind grandmother who loved detective stories. Every Saturday morning we would scour the secondhand bookshops of Edinburgh, returning home laden with about sixteen books, a tin of pineapple juice, a big bag of monkey nuts, half a pound of pear drops – and retire to bed for the rest of the weekend.
The love affair began for me with Agatha Christie. The ‘whodunnit’ wasn’t the thing that most excited me. I was always spellbound by settings – colours, background, all the living details – and mysteries surrounding the authors themselves. For although they worked in a genre little favoured by my teachers, I agreed with Oscar Wilde’s apothegm about bad poets: they more than vindicated themselves by living fascinating lives.
Every year my grandmother was presented with an Agatha Christie for Christmas. I would wait patiently until she reached the end and off I would go with Mrs McGinty’s Dead, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe or Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. The settings of my best-loved authors have stuck in my mind: wonderful country houses in Agatha Christie; bell-ringing/churchy/book-collecting themes in Dorothy L. Sayers; Dvorak’s Cello Concerto filtering through The Doors of Sleep by Thurman Warriner; archaeology in The Cretan Counterfeit by Katherine Farrer; the wild, gorgeous Australian outback settings of the deliciously politically incorrect Arthur W. Upfield.
My grandmother’s favourite author was Berkely Gray. She had fallen in love with the hero of his thrillers, Norman Conquest. I used to search high and low for Conquests to complete her set and one always eluded us until we were presented with a handwritten copy by a fellow enthusiast who had copied it from a rarity in the National Library.
Our other great love, Agatha Christie presented her readers with a real-life mystery when she disappeared for nine days in 1926. But it was her non de plume activities which interested me, and in particular the books she wrote as Mary Westmacott. I wrote to her once, begging her to have these scarce old tomes reprinted, and she wrote back most graciously saying that Westmacotts were on their way. The Rose and the Yew Tree, Absent in the Spring, Giant’s Bread, The Burden, A Daughter’s a Daughter and Unfinished Portrait are poignant, fairytale-like and strange, full of psychology and wisdom. No wonder Russians often played cards for Christies as their prize.
I feel as if my whole life has been transformed by reading Agatha Christie. She taught me more than any school teacher – though to be fair, I did find marvellous teacher/friends in later life, one of whom regularly invited a friend and me to sit in his back garden, where we would read unexpurgated versions of Aristophanes, drink Coca-Cola and eat Kit-Kats. This particular teacher introduced me to the thrillers of Helen Maciness, author of Decision at Delphi and North from Rome. In turn, I introduced his wife to E.C.R. Lorac (or Carol Carnac), whose wonderful Fell settings captivated us.
As for churchy themes and clergymen, I adored Angus MacVicar’s Scottish thrillers, Meade Falkner’s Nubuly Coat, Chesterton’s Father Brown, and the clergyman in Marjorie Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke.
I also loved books by country-lovers; Victor Canning was an authority on such things as grasses, angling, birds and animals. Canning was also a secret service agent, and wrote under the pseudonym Alan Gould. My notebook bulged with thriller writers’ pseudonyms and I hoped, in vain, that Arthur Upfield had used one too. His detective, Napoleon Bonaparte, never ceased to intrigue me as a personality especially in the contrast between the man’s complex white side and the seemingly primitive Aborigine.
It was in the midst of a love affair with George Smiley, however, that I enjoyed a mysterious adventure of my own. I was working in a bookshop when I first met J. A fellow Le Carré enthusiast, he was also, he told me, a spy. One day he came into the shop with a newspaper folded at the book reviews. ‘That’s me,’ he confided, gesturing to the name of a bestselling thriller writer. ‘My pseudonym.’
Much awed, I arranged to meet him for a drink to celebrate his latest success. It was just before Christmas and I had bought myself a new hat in honour of the occasion. The time came. I waited in the pub to buy him his drink. Sad to say, J. never turned up and I never saw him again. That was fifteen years ago but I am not in the least put out. On the contrary, I shall never cease to be grateful to J. for leaving me with an unsolved mystery.
Copyright Althea March 2005.