Monthly Archives: September 2012

Crime Fiction

Crime fiction is the natural home of secrets and lies. The stories revolve around deception and concealment, mystery and intrigue. Well-written crime writing will always attract readers keen to discover ‘whodunnit’ – and also ‘whydunnit’. From the ‘motive, means and opportunity’ triumvirate,  the motivation of the killer – his psychology and behavior – is usually the most intriguing part of the crime.

The Golden Age of detective fiction, with writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, was known for its convoluted plots and carefully-placed clues and ‘red herrings’. But even in the jigsaw-puzzle process of piecing together classic detective fiction, the emphasis is on a believable motive.  One of my favourite Agatha Christie’s is The ABC Murders,  where the criminal is concealing his true purpose, the murder of a close relative, behind the facade of a deranged serial killer working his way through the alphabet. Christie’s novels are full of greedy cousins, jealous husbands, mistaken decisions and misplaced passions – the very human motivations for all kinds of crimes.

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Banned Books Week

Celebrate our freedom to read by reading a banned book this week! The National Year of Reading is also the 30th year of Banned Books Week, a time to acknowledge one of the great freedoms of democracy: the right to read.

There are plenty of choices for banned books : try this list here. All of these books are available in the Barr Smith Library, and all of them are well worth reading. Choose from a wonderful story like Gone with the wind ( I can’t imagine why that was banned, perhaps because Scarlett O’Hara was so unladylike?) – or try the work of D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Alternatively, pick a title from the Australian Censors’ Library: there are many great books to choose from here.

I’m going to re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most beautifully-written and powerful statements ever made against racism. Our world would be a poorer place without the integrity and conviction of women like Harper Lee.  Let me know which banned book you decide to read.

Happy Reading over the long weekend! 🙂

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Penguin Specials (eBook of the Month)

This series of inexpensive eBooks is designed for short, quick reading: what Penguin describes as the duration of  ‘a long commute or a short journey.’ They are certainly a good use of new technology. With print books, size mattered. With eBooks, the format is flexible – Penguin can publish a single short story, or an essay,  rather than being obliged to print a whole collection or several chapters in a book.

There are short stories by a variety of Australian authors: Barbara Baynton, Peter Goldsworthy, Helen Garner, and young emerging writers from Monash University. For non-fiction readers, there’s a mixture of politics, humour and biography.

What a brilliant way to get readers to try something a bit different: just a taste of something short, easily and quickly available at the tap of a finger. Let me know if you try one!

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End of the Night Girl

Next month I will have the pleasure of introducing Amy Matthews, the award-winning Australian author of End of the Night Girl (Wakefield Press, 2011.) Amy works  at the University of Adelaide; she is a Research Fellow of the discipline of English and Creative Writing. As the Research Librarian for this group, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss Amy’s novel with her, and to sit in on some of her lectures, when she discussed post-modernism, creative non-fiction and the work of Michael Cunningham ( particularly The Hours, both text and film.)

Amy’s debut novel won the Adelaide Festival Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript in 2010; it was also nominated for the Australian / Vogel prize. The book was short-listed this year for the Dobbie Award, a prize that celebrates Australian women’s writing. It is currently short-listed for the Colin Roderick Award.

The novel is a powerful narrative about the long shadows cast by the Holocaust. It begins in late 20th-century Adelaide, where Molly, a young waitress, is struggling to make sense of her life (marked by dead-end jobs, unsatisfactory love affairs and a strained relationship with her family.) Molly’s secret life as a writer is a vitally important part of the story: she is consumed with the need to write about the Holocaust, taking the life of a Polish woman, Gienia, as her starting-point. Gradually, the character of Gienia comes to dominate Molly’s life – in a kind of sinister haunting that makes for deeply unsettling reading.

End of the Night Girl is a brilliant novel: highly recommended.

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The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Kate Summerscale deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction when her real-life story of ‘murder and intrigue in Victorian England’ was published in 2008. The book received excellent reviews and has since been made into a short film for television; I recommend it unreservedly to any of my friends who enjoy reading crime fiction. Summerscale writes with style and elegance, and her recreation of a particular time and place in nineteenth-century Britain is fascinating to read.

On June 30th 1860, the wealthy Kent family of Road Hill house awoke to discover that their youngest son, Saville, was missing. His mutilated body was found in the grounds, igniting one of Victorian England’s greatest scandals: the killer had to be someone inside the house.

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The Secret History / Donna Tartt

5 reasons to read this fabulous novel

The Story

Definitely a candidate for this month’s ‘secrets and lies’ theme, Donna Tartt’s first novel is an extraordinary psychological mystery. It’s a classic ‘whydunnit’, beginning with the events of the murder – we know the site of the crime, the name of the victim, his relationship to his killers. We even hear the voice of one of them in the Prologue. You can listen to the author reading this opening sequence here.

The Narrator

Richard Papen, a young Classics student at an elite college in Vermont, is the narrator of The Secret History. In spite of the terrible mistakes and ugly deeds that he commits in the name of friendship, he is a sympathetic and not unlikeable character. His voice is critical to Tartt’s story; she performs a delicate balancing act between eliciting and withholding sympathy and understanding for her characters.

The Setting

Winter in Vermont: dark pine trees, heavy snow, an isolated college campus. The group of students who form the main cast of characters is a wealthy one, with access to privileged settings like the old country mansion where much of the story unfolds. In contrast to this is the dense forest and the wild, snow-covered ravines – the presence of dangerously unpredictable nature that influences the plot and themes of the novel.

The Language

Donna Tartt is a talented writer, and her flowing style is a pleasure to read; The Secret History has deservedly been republished in Penguin Modern Classics. In particular, she has a gift for capturing emotion and motivation with a few well-chosen words. Here is Richard, confronting the terrible truth about the effects of the crime that was meant to liberate him:

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had a number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

The Themes

The meanings behind the enthralling plot and clever writing of The Secret History are powerful ones. The brazen over-confidence and extreme selfishness of privileged youth; the ambiguous power of classical knowledge in the wrong hands; the thin line between civilization and total savagery. The vulnerability of the follower to life’s natural leaders is an important issue: Richard would not have committed murder without the influence of his charismatic friends, they would not have been able to act without his collusion.

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Barbara Vine

For me, one author stands out as the 20th-century heir of Wilkie Collins’ virtuosity with secrets and lies. That author is Barbara Vine, the well-known but under-rated English crime novelist whose real name is Ruth Rendell.

Under her pseudonym, Rendell writes gripping novels of mystery and suspense. Like Collins, she deals with the dark secrets hidden behind the respectable facade of English middle-class life. Both novelists specialise in penetrating the surface of domestic harmony, uncovering marital distress, parental envy and sibling rivalry. Wilkie Collins shows us Victorian families with murderous husbands and adulterous wives; Vine describes the lives of sisters who kill and cousins who blackmail one another. Continue reading

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