Patricia Highsmith investigates the religious right

Set in the early 1980s during the Reagan era when Christian Fundamentalism was on the rise, Patricia Highsmith’s People Who Knock on the Door chronicles the events which move a middle class American family out of their comfort zone into the world of uncertainty.

Highsmith, best known for her crime stories based around the character of Tom Ripley and, more recently, for her lesbian novel Carol demonstrates her superb plotting and storytelling skills in this novel. Naturally, there are crimes in the novel but not the kind of Highsmith-type crime we are used to. These are moral crimes set against the backdrop of the belief system.

The issues at the heart of this novel are the effects that any kind of religious (or, for that matter, political) fundamentalism has on family and friends and changes the attitudes and behaviour of the believer. When Richard Alderman becomes a born-again Christian he becomes enmeshed in the world of the fundamentalists with their counselling sessions, preaching, outreach groups, knocking on doors, gossip-mongering and pamphleteering.  In his zeal he cannot appreciate that his elder son, wife and mother-in-law do not share his beliefs and have a right to their own viewpoint.

He manages to convince his gullible youngest son that he has been “saved” from near-death and indoctrinates him. Highsmith shows the way in which a vulnerable teenager can easily fall prey to such a rigorous influence when there is no credible opposition. Richard uses his new-found religious faith to alienate his eldest son and to punish him for being a nice kid who is not taken in by the mavericks.

The novel covers television evangelism, prolife vs abortion debate, class, religious freedom, politics and the American obsessions with guns. All this is done is a very readable story which jogs along until the explosion towards the end.

The novel did not get particularly good reviews when it was first published despite being, in my opinion, one of her best novels. Her US editor did not recommend it to his publishers, Harper & Row so it was picked up by Penzler Books. Marilyn Stasio, in the New York Times of November 24, 1985 did not regard it as one of her better books. There are some aspects of the novel which jar, and which have been picked up by reviewers on Good Reads, namely that the young Arthur and his friends seem to drink a surprising number of adult drinks rather than beer (e.g. Old Fashioned cocktails) and hang around old people a lot (e.g. Norma).

Having read many of Highsmith’s books over thirty years, I am now persuaded to return to her as a storyteller.

Marie Kondo and Writing

I have begun my ruthless war on the stuff and clutter in both my tiny studio flat and my writing life.I am hoping that with a decluttered living space and a decluttered mind I will regain the joy of writing.

The theory behind the extreme decluttering is that you should only keep things you actually use and things which bring you joy. When I do handwriting these days I tend to use fountain pens and have five of them each with a different colour ink cartridge. I have a small collection of biros which fit nicely in my hand and with which I can write neatly. These I have kept. All the biros which have sneaked in from work are being returned there. I do not use them and they cluttered up my repurposed enamel teapot. Likewise all the small pairs of scissors which somehow got back here and ended up in my dry goods measuring cup. They are being returned to work too.

I have put all the ink cartridges in a small glass pot where they are tidy, secure and make a nice decoration on the corner of the desk.

All the rest of the tut which found its way onto my desk during the month has either been put in it’s proper place or binned. The result is a nice clear and clutter free desk where I am surrounded only by the items I need to write. Already I am feeling good here and inspired to write.


Using questions to …

Using questions to incorporate your research into the storyline

This is a technique beloved of crime writers everywhere. The “rookie” asks the “expert” a question which allows the writer to explain background information, character analysis, the howdunnit and the expert analysis. It is a technique which you can use to incorporate the technical information into your story.

One way to do this, is to create a scene where one person is an “expert” and has to explain something to a newbie. It could be a sailor explaining how to tie knots to a trainee or a coroner explaining how to carry out a procedure on a dead body.

This technique is also a good way of getting your research into your story , as long as it is not overused. In my novel Weaver of Words, I wanted to explain to the reader how the process of creating and distributing underground works happened in 1970s Czechoslovakia. I created the character of a printer whose job it was to distribute the retyped manuscripts. The group leader explained to a new convert how the process happened and her role in it. In this way, I incorporated the material I had gathered from a printing museum. The new recruit asked enough questions to keep that section of the story moving and set up the next part of the story.

Used sparingly, this is, I think, a good technique to use.



Dead Cold in the Canadian Winter


Dead Cold is the second Armand Gamache novel by Louise Penny. It is, in fact, the first one I have read but it will not be the last (book 3 in the series is on its way to me).

On a boring afternoon, I decided to watch a catch-up programme on my tablet and came across a Three Pines mystery. Three Pines  is the village in which Louise Penny has set her novels. The programme details read as though it was a gentle murder mystery in the style of Murder she Wrote or the bookstore mysteries which sometimes grace the afternoon TV schedules. It had the elements I was looking for in a bit of escapism – a small village, lovely Canadian scenery, a bit of intrigue and some quirky characters. I settled down to watch.

It was a proper cosy mystery and  nice change from the heavy reading and viewing I have been doing lately. I was intrigued by the character of the Chief Inspector who seemed like a village bobby with access to some high tech computers. The poet, Ruth  Zardo, was also an interesting character – a brilliant poet and also a little bit off kilter. An artistic husband and wife who did a fair amount of bickering. And it was set in Canada so it was rather pretty. I hastened to find out more about the author.

Louise Penny, it seems, has had a career in broadcasting and has hit on a top formula. All the elements of a good cozy murder mystery are to be found within the covers of her books. Her fictional detective has more than a bit of the Brit about him, making him a little bit of an outsider and also a little bit less predictable. Despite the murders, I feel that Three Pines is a good place to live. I wanted to know more, so I order the next book in the series –  Dead Cold.

It is an excellent read. I think, I clocked up five hours on the sofa in total. So, what is good about it? Excellent location and cast of characters, for sure. In addition, the mystery is revealed little by little. There are clues thrown in but their significance is not clear until the end. Each chapter advances the story and deepens our understanding of the characters. At the end of the chapter the reader is left to wonder what it all means. Therefore, the need is to keep reading. This built up of tension, drawing of the characters and the odd clue, maker the reader do some work. Also, there is a character who was in the first book and was neither nice or competent. She turns up in book two but with some of her background explained. She is not likable but now understandable. Gamache, of course, is at odds with his superiors, so there is some personal tension and conflict.

Louise Penny held my interest to the very end. For that I award her *****. The novel is a model of “how to write a cozy murder mystery” and therefore a useful guide to the genre for trainee novelists. My copy was 408 pages long printed in size 12 pica. Not too long or too short. Louise Penny is, in my view, a worthy winner of all the crime writing awards she has won.

I have ordered book three of the series for a little weekend reading.

Her new book is out in August 2016.