A couple of weeks ago, I spent an enjoyable evening at the British Library. Mark Lawson was interviewing Ann Cleeves and me on the topic of "the return of the Golden Age of crime fiction". Ann is a contemporary writer working in the vein of the traditional mystery, and very successfully too. She talked about her take on Golden Age writers - though she's not such a fan of Agatha Christie as I am, for instance - and about how, on occasion, there are GA elements in her work. An example is The Glass Room, a very good book featuring Vera Stanhope.
The event came, for her, at the end of a hectic tour promoting her new book, part of the Jimmy Perez series this time, Cold Earth, which is published by Pan Macmillan. This is her 30th novel, and Maura, her publicist, arranged as a surprise a video with contributions from a wide range of writers, including Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and her colleagues in Murder Squad, congratulating her on the milestone. A nice touch. When recording my snippet, I took the opportunity to take a look again at her very first novel, which was certainly in the GA tradition, and it was pleasant to reflect on the progress she's made since those early days.
In Cold Earth, excellent thematic use is made both at the start and the end of the story of earth as a powerful elemental force. The book opens vividly with a landslide on Shetland which coincides with the funeral of a character encountered previously in the series, and which causes considerable havoc. When rescue operations get under way, a body is discovered. But, surprise, surprise, the deceased did not die of natural causes. The corpse belongs to a woman, and there is some mystery about her true identity.
A key feature of the book is the development of the relationship between Perez and his boss Willow Reeve. In this story, we get a fuller picture than before of Willow s personality, and it is an appealing one. There is some debate - especially among people who like Golden Age fiction - about whether modern writers spend too much time on exploring the personal lives of our detectives. Some people prefer us simply to get on with the story.
I agree that one can over-do the tormented personal lives of one's detectives, but, like Ann, I find that the development of the detectives' lives is an integral part of a crime series. There is no reason in principle why this should prevent us from getting on with the story. Admittedly Poirot and Miss Marple never changed during their long careers, but look at the emphasis Dorothy L. Sayers laid on the evolving relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter: she set the pattern that we follow today, I reckon. The key to success is to balance character, plot, and setting. This is easier said than done, but in Cold Earth, Ann does just that with her customary skill.;