Giveaway now closed.
Today’s post has got it all: my review of The Crooked House; a guest post from Christobel Kent about her literary influences; the opening of the novel, and a chance to win a signed copy of the book.
Alone in the bed Alison sat bolt upright. She had trained herself not to gasp when that happened, long before she woke next to anyone, long before there was anyone to ask her what had scared her. But she couldn’t stop the jerk upwards, as if she had to break through the surface, as if water was closing over her.
Thirteen years previously Alison was Esme. She lived in a house referred to as Crooked House because it tilted on unsteady foundations. She lived there with her family – mum and dad, older brother, Joe, and twin sisters, Letty and Mads. That was until they were brutally murdered as she hid in a cupboard. Her father, alive by a thread, was found guilty after evidence proved he was the last to die. Esme had arrived home early from her friend Gina’s unbeknown to the rest of the household, it was assumed that this was why she survived.
She’s gone on to reinvent herself and is now living in London, working at a publishing house and in a relationship with a history academic called Paul. No one knows her background, she has a short, fabricated tale if anyone asks.
When the novel begins, Paul receives a wedding invitation to the nuptials of an old friend of his, Morgan Carter. Alison’s met her briefly and didn’t get on with her. She’s not invited to the wedding. Paul sorts that though and then there’s a bigger issue to contend with: the wedding’s taking place in Saltleigh, the town where Esme grew up. To make matters worse, Paul’s decided it would be nice for them to make a holiday of it and he’s booked them five nights in a local hotel.
As soon as they arrive, Alison knows she’s going to have to confront her past – both the events of that night and the locals who have plenty of secrets to tell about her family. The local police officer who worked on Esme’s case puts it well:
‘Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with this place, something in the soil, salt or something that stops things growing straight, it’s land where it should all be sea, I don’t know…’ She broke off, feeling his eyes on her, his alarm. She took a breath. ‘You saw those kids we brought in, they’d been chucking breeze blocks off the bridge, just for the hell of it. You might see them running about on a football field, or ten years on chatting some girl up in a bar – they’d give you a cheeky smile, charm you. You can’t see it from the outside but they’re poisoned.
There’s three things I want from any crime novel, whether it be a detective novel or a psychological thriller: I want to be gripped by it, I want to be misled – I want to be wrong about who I think’s responsible again and again, and I want it to do something slightly different to your average crime novel. I’m very demanding but Kent does all three brilliantly in The Crooked House. The plot’s impeccably woven with reveal after reveal and the events of that evening are buried under a whole load of cover-ups. What I found most interesting though is she uses the murders and events that led up to them to look at women and, more specifically, whether a woman who has children could be capable of killing someone else’s child. Gripping and compelling, I highly recommend it.
I’m delighted to welcome Christobel Kent to the blog to talk about her literary influences:
When you think about literary influences the only way to avoid sounding crazily hubristic is to divide them, straight away, into two categories. In the first, let’s say unattainable, category would be the writers who first make you see what writing can do, in the hands of a genius (which you are not). These would be, in my case, the likes of Tolstoy (for humane intelligence, for characterisation, for his feel for the earth and landscape), James Joyce (for poetry, for daring, for sheer swashbuckling bravado and courage), John Updike (for exquisite style, for conveying what it is to be human and alive, at the most intimate molecular level), and Raymond Chandler, naturally, for wit and insouciance, for creating as perfect a private eye as ever lived (and thereby awarding himself a get out of jail free card, plot wise) and as marvellously, vividly evocative a noir landscape as the earth holds. These are the writers who first make you want to be a writer yourself, and in the same breath inform you that it is never going to happen.
It takes a while to get around this problem: the problem of whether there is any point in writing your novel if however long you stick at it you’re never going to be Tolstoy. You have to get older and wiser and less ambitious, and you have to read lots of novelists who are not Tolstoy but who can tell a story, whose unashamed ambition is to have readers on the edge of their seats and who invest their work with everything they’ve got.
Namely category two (and Raymond Chandler sits squarely in the overlap of my Venn diagram): writers who can show you how it’s done. In my case these are the entertainers who’ve chosen what is considered by some to be a lower form of art, the genre writers, the genres in my case being jointly the psychological thriller and the detective novel (I’ve written both) the study and enjoyment of which has taught me anything I know about technique, pacing, plot, style, tone and characterisation. The first crime writers I loved were Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith, perhaps as un-alike as two novelists could be but who between them teach that the genre that has room both for a bleak nihilist and a romantic Dante scholar is a capacious and elastic one, that brilliant crime novels just like all the other kind run on good characterisation, and that crime writing is a suitable job for a woman. Barbara Vine, who crossed over from the strict puzzle-solving school of crime writing as Ruth Rendell to something more expansive and atmospheric was another influence, and Henning Mankell, whose leisurely and idiosyncratic unfolding of plot combined with a remarkable feel for the quiet grey flatlands of southern Sweden and the limpid light of the far northern summers, and the gentle, insistent melancholy of his hero all inform us that Chandler is not dead.
It can take a while (I was forty before I began to write) but if you read widely and attentively in both these categories, if you allow your edges to be rubbed off and you keep your eyes and ears open eventually the way will open ahead of you, and it will become clear that there are after all ways of following in the footsteps of the great writers without imitating them or believing that you can rival them.
Thirteen Years Ago
When it starts again she is face down on her bed with her hands over her ears and she feels it more than hears it. A vibration through the mattress, through the flowered duvet, through the damp pillow she’s buried her face in. It comes up from below, through the house’s lower three storeys. BOOM. She feels it in her throat.
Wait, listen: one, two, three. BOOM.
Is this how it begins?
Leaning on the shelf over the desk, wooden letters spelling her name jitter against the wall. They were a present on her seventh birthday, jigsawn by Dad, E.S.M.E. The family’d just moved in, unloading their stuff outside this house they called the crooked house, she and Joe, as the sun went down over the dark marsh inland. Creek House to Crooked House, after the tilt to its roofline, its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk. Mum was gigantic with the twins, a Zeppelin staggering inside with bags in each hand. We need more space now, is how they told her and Joe they were moving. It was seven years ago, seven plus seven. Now she’s fourteen, nearly. Fourteen next week.
Ah, go on, Gina had said. Just down it. Then, changing tack, You can give it me back, then.
Esme’s been back an hour. She isn’t even sure Joe saw her pass the sitting-room door, jammed back on the sofa and frowning under his headphones: since he hit sixteen he’s stopped looking anyone in the eye. The girls, a two-headed caterpillar in an old sleeping bag on the floor, wriggled back from in front of the TV, twisting to see her. Letty’s lolling head, the pirate gap between Mads’s front teeth as she grins up at her, knowing. She mouths something. Boyfriend. Esme turns her face away and stomps past.
Mum opening the kitchen door a crack, leaning back from the counter to see who it is. Frowning like she can’t place her, she gets like that a lot these days. What are you doing back? Esme doesn’t answer: she is taking the stairs three at a time, raging.
Outside the dark presses on the window, the squat power station stands on the horizon, the church out on the spit that looks no bigger than a shed from here, the village lights distant. Make all the noise you like out here, Dad’s always saying, no one can hear.
Hands over your ears and never tell.
On the bed she lies very still, willing it to go, to leave the house. Whatever it is.
Her hands were already over her ears, before it started. Why? The boom expands in her head and she can’t even remember now. All she knows is, she was standing at the window, now she’s on the bed.
She grapples with detail. She heard a car. There were voices below in the yard and, after, noises downstairs. Something scraping across the floor, a low voice muttering and she didn’t want to deal with it, with his questions; she flung herself down on the bed and the tears began to leak into the pillow. She would have put on her music but she didn’t want him to know she was back.
Now. A sound, a human sound, just barely: a wounded shout, a gasp, trying to climb to a scream that just stops, vanishes. And in the silence after it she hears breathing, heavy and ragged; up through three storeys and a closed door, it is as if the house is breathing. And Esme is off the bed, scrabbling for a place to hide.
On the marsh behind the house there are the remains of an old hut with a little rotted jetty. The tide is beginning to come up, gurgling in its channels, trickling across the mud that stretches inland, flooding the clumps of samphire and marsh grass and the buried timbers. Behind her the house stands crooked in the wind freshening off the estuary.
The lights of the police cars come slowly, bumping down the long track, an ambulance, the cab lit. It is three in the morning but the inky dark is already leaching to grey behind the church on the spit. One of the coldest June nights on record, and it takes them a while to find her. She doesn’t make a sound.
If that’s made you desperate to read the book, all you have to do to be in with a chance of winning a signed copy is leave a comment below before 5pm (UK) Monday 27th April. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.
Thanks to Christobel Kent for the guest post and to Little, Brown for the review and giveaway copies.
As usual, I’ve assigned everyone a number in order of entry:
1 – Anne Bradley
2 – Cate
3 – Snoakes
4 – Col
5 – Cathy746Books
6 – Helen Clayton
7 – Tina Holmes
8 – Elle
9 – Poppy Peacockpens
10 – uneabeillelecture
11 – crimeworm
12 – Teresa Majury
And the winner is:
Congratulations Cate. Check your email. Thanks to everyone else for entering and to Little, Brown for the prize.