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U R Dead

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 September 2017, 5.41am

On holiday this year, I read my first Peter James thriller.

I have a particular interest.

He’s a local boy, a Brighton author, who writes about a Brighton detective, Roy Grace; while I write about a monk/detective, Abbot Peter,
just twelve miles along the coast in Stormhaven. (Real-life Seaford.)

So there’s the smell of the sea in both murder mystery series; but perhaps there the similarities end, both in style and particularly, in sales.

On the cover of my copy of U R Dead, I’m told that James has sold 16 million copies worldwide; which explains his ‘other house’ in Notting Hill; and leaves me almost invisible in his commercial shadow.

And as I put the book down, I can see why he sells.

U R Dead is a page-turner. If you like ‘stop-talking-to-me-I-must-get-to-the-end-of-this’ page-turners, this is one of those.

I’ve given up on a couple of books recently, which I felt lost their way, over-estimating reader interest.

But I didn’t give up on U R Dead. Short chapters, scenes quickly created, you don’t get bored, there’s a pressing momentum.

And James is famously strong on police procedure, how things work in Old Bill land.  You quickly learn the difference between a CSI, a SIO, an ACC and a PCSO…oh, and a ‘misper’...missing person, keep up.

His extensive research in this area is not hidden; this is not Miss Marple.

Fortunately, my brother was in the Brighton police, and at the scarier end of some of their operations; so I had a bit of a ‘heads up’, as we coppers say.

And James is also strong on the forensics, on medical stuff, from the sciatic notch to the sub-pelvic concavity, which I’m sure I needn’t explain.

So here is a rattling good story that I wanted to finish.

I’m not sure there are any characters in it. (‘Back story’ should never be mistaken for ‘character’.)

Instead, we have a lot of people quickly and cleverly introduced, moving the story on…and, of course, this is a strength in some ways…it’s how investigations really are.

In real life, sleuthing it isn’t just Poirot and Hastings talking over coffee, with Miss Lemon chipping in ...it’s a complex professional network of skill-sets contributing to the cause; and you sense that here.

A more significant concern is the villain.

While James shows a worthy commitment to gritty procedural reality in relation to the investigation, some sense of reality is lost with the villain, who is almost supernaturally clever and quite unlike any serial killer I’ve read or heard about.

I had a slight sense of it all getting a bit silly at the end, when, until then, reality had been such a virtue.

If you make a virtue of credibility, it’s important to stay there.

Like landing a plane, endings are the most difficult bit of any book for the author. It’s difficult to land the thing, what you choose to resolve, where you call time on the narrative, how many surprises you keep up your sleeve etc.

But whatever you do – whether you’re Tolkien, Stephen King or Austen – you need to do it within the rules you have set yourself.

You can set yourself whatever rules you like; but once set, you need to be consistent.

James has chosen gritty police realism, so probably the villain needs to stay in that world.

I walk on thin ice in this review, of course. I’m aware of the accusations that might be made.

‘Rather unsuccessful crime writer finds fault with more successful crime writer.’

Tolstoy insecurely felt the need to rubbish Shakespeare as a writer, while Agatha Christie was very rude about Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

It’s our peer group we tend to struggle with.

But I hope there’s none of that here.

No one is happier than I when I stumble across good writing, wherever I find it. I can find God in a well-cut sentence, whether fruitful or sparse. I stop and I breathe in wonder, love and praise.

And like all commercial success, writing is necessarily a pyramid of ambitions.

For James to be up there at the top, and he certainly is, there must be others, like myself, who tuck in down below to support the edifice.

There’s nothing particularly fair about this.

As in all aspects of life, it’s a hierarchy of good luck, which is why JK Rowling and Hilary Mantel (who can write) rub
shoulders at the sales pinnacle with 50 Shades of Grey author EL James, who can’t.

For now, though, I warmly commend to you U R Dead, by Peter James and published by Macmillan.

I give it four stars out of five. Sharp story-telling with built-in momentum, stuffed with police and medical information. You do feel you’re inside a real investigation.

And for those interested in trying another coastal murder mystery, and a change of style, my latest Abbot Peter mystery, The Indecent Death of a Madamis out this week, published by Marylebone House.

 

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Agatha Christie's most elusive mystery

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 September 2017, 10.49am

In 1926, Agatha Christie was already a successful author.

Her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was selling well; she was a household name.

And then something strange happened: for eleven days in December of that year, she disappeared. And the mystery around these events remains to this day.

The known facts are these.

At shortly after 9.30 p.m. on Friday 3 December 1926, Agatha Christie got up from her armchair and climbed the stairs of her Berkshire home. She kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind, aged seven, goodnight and made her way back downstairs.

She then climbed into her Morris Cowley and drove off into the night.

She would not be seen again – or, at least, not recognised - for eleven days.

Her disappearance would spark one of the largest manhunts ever undertaken. Agatha Christie was a celebrity and so for the first time, aeroplanes were involved in the search, along with a thousand policemen, with the Home Secretary demanding success.

Even two of Britain’s leading crime writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, (which Christie was very rude about) were drawn into the investigation.

Their specialist knowledge of detective work, it was hoped, would help find the missing mystery writer…but it didn’t. They were no match for their literary creations.

It wasn’t long before the police had located her car. It was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner near Guildford. But there was no sign of Agatha Christie herself; nor any evidence that she’d been involved in an accident.

Lurid stories began to appear in the press, with all the elements of a classic Christie whodunnit.

Close to the scene of the car accident was a natural spring known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were reputed to have died. Some journalists suggested the novelist had deliberately drowned herself.

Others, however, with jaundiced eyes, saw the incident as nothing more than a publicity stunt, a clever ruse to promote her new book.

‘These writers – they’ll do anything to be read.’

While others hinted at darker things, suggesting she’d been murdered by her husband, Archie Christie, a former First World War pilot and serial philanderer. He was known to have a mistress.

Not until 14 December, fully eleven days after she disappeared, was Agatha Christie finally found. She was discovered safe and well in a hotel in Harrogate, but in circumstances so strange that they raised more questions than they solved.

It was reckoned that Agatha Christie had left home to travel to London, when her car broke down. She had then got herself to a station and boarded a train to Harrogate.

On arriving at the spa town, she checked into the Swan Hydro – now the Old Swan Hotel – with almost no luggage. To protect her identity, she used the assumed name of Theresa Neele, her husband’s mistress.

Harrogate was the height of elegance in the 1920s and filled with fashionable young things; and Christie, aged 35, did nothing to arouse suspicions as she joined in with the balls, dances and Palm Court entertainment.

She was eventually recognized by one of the hotel’s banjo players, Bob Tappin, who alerted the police. They then tipped off her husband, Colonel Christie, who came to collect Agatha immediately.

Christie herself claimed to remember nothing of her journey there. And neither was she in any hurry to leave. Indeed, she kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress.

The famous crime writer never spoke about the missing eleven days of her life and over the years there has been much speculation about what really happened between 3 and 14 December 1926.

Her husband said she’d suffered a total memory loss as a result of the car crash; but this was probably nothing more than a version of events that suited him.

Closer to the truth is probably her biographer Andrew Norman, who believed the novelist may have been in a psychogenic trance. It’s a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression.

‘I believe she was suicidal,’ says Norman. ‘Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.

On her return from Yorkshire, Christie made a full recovery and was soon writing again.

But she was no longer prepared to tolerate her husband’s infidelity: she divorced him in 1928 and later married the distinguished archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan.

As she said: ‘The good thing about being married to an archaeologist is the older you get, the more interesting you become.’

But the mystery of the eleven days remains.

Christie never spoke of them; never spoke of the time when something inside her cracked, something inside her broke, and she felt the need to leave her child, get in a car, get on a train and go away to be someone else in Harrogate…

...choosing the name of her husband’s mistress.

My own new Abbot Peter mystery, ‘The Indecent Death of a Madam’ is now out, published by Marylebone House.

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Time is personal

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 September 2017, 6.05am

Has it ever struck you that time is a rather personal matter?

‘Time is the substance we are made of,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges, the 20th C writer and philosopher.

We are flesh and bones…and the experience of time.

‘Time is the river which sweeps me along,’ he continues, ‘but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.’

Time can do many things, we know this.

It isn’t a one-trick pony.

Time flies, it crawls, time flows, it rushes by, it drags… it sometimes stands still, not appearing to move at all.

‘I don’t know where the time has gone,’ we sometimes say.

Though perhaps we mean, ‘I don’t know where I have gone.’

For somehow, it is I: I am time…eternity compressed, eternity wide open, a good time, a difficult time, such a happy time, a tragic time, a time for despair, for peace, for tears… I am a time for everything.

My watch tells me the hours, yet I myself am the time.

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The scorpion and the frog

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 September 2017, 6.01am

You will probably know the story of the scorpion and the frog.

The scorpion needs a ride across the water, and he tells the frog that if he provides the ride, he won’t sting him.

The frog knows that if the scorpion does sting him, the scorpion will drown…so he gives him the ride.

Half way across the water, and against all reason, the scorpion does sting the frog.

As it’s dying, the frog cries out, ‘Why did you do it? Now you’ll die too!’

And the scorpion, now drowning, says simply: ‘It’s my nature, it’s what I do.’

Against all reason, we do what we do, again and again, small drownings on the way.

Though sometimes, I have known this, the habitual dissolves – a miracle! – and we have no need to sting either ourselves or the frog.

No need at all.

For beyond what we do and our remorseless nature, is the yielding to the clean air of mercy, breathed deep and well, deep and well… a truer state, more
fundamental to the universe, beyond our crooked corkscrew gaze.

We note our drowning with a weary smile.

And yield, just for a moment, to a bigger better air.

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Sacred suprise in Rubbish Street

Posted by Simon Parke, 27 August 2017, 10.49am

Have you ever seen your spirit

And seen that it is good?

Perhaps hammered or twisted by life

This circle of reaction we live and breathe

He said, she said

Caught in the knife-storm of others

The sharp assault of damage

Warring atoms of existence, un-reconciled

Your body oppressed, taking it in, holding it in, holding up, holding out in Rubbish Street

When you’d hoped for Loving Lane -

And then seen the flame

Have you done this?

Such sacred surprise

Your spirit pure, just what and who you are

Just who you are!

A simple glory, dancing strength in Rubbish Street

Where the flame appears, and says hello,

Where you appear

Quite undisturbed by the shouting.

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Spirit

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 August 2017, 5.53am

My poem of the week is ‘Spirit’ - a song lyric by Mike Scott of ‘The Waterboys’ fame.

Breathe it in.

And if it seems a good idea, find the song…

Spirit

Man gets tired
Spirit don’t
Man surrenders
Spirit won’t
Man crawls
Spirit flies
Spirit lives when man dies
Man seems
Spirit is
Man dreams
The spirit lives
Man is tethered
Spirit is free
What spirit is man can be

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The authentic angel

Posted by Simon Parke, 22 August 2017, 10.40am

We had been talking for a while, when Leslie told me of a new acquaintance in her life.

‘I have an angel,’ she said.

‘Oh yes?’

‘She’s called Grace.’

‘OK.’

‘But she doesn’t stand for any crap; she really doesn’t.’

‘Well, that makes sense.’

‘People think angels are all floaty and sweet, and a bit new agey… but Grace isn’t.’

‘In my experience, the arrival of an angel usually brings terror rather than comfort… at least, at first. I mean, there’s the sense that they are on your side…but they’re
not brown-nosers, telling you what you want to hear.’

‘That’s what Grace is like.’

So again, I’m pondering angels.

Leslie’s angel Grace at least sounds authentic.

If some being were to appear from another dimension – a being unacquainted with my soft thinking, tiny world and small dreams; a being nurtured on undimmed
light, raw and searing - I would expect only terrifying salvation and disturbing resolution.

A bit like when Jonah is swallowed by a whale and delivered to where he needs to be.

Terrifying…but good.

A brown nose angel, obsequious to my whims, sounds suspiciously like an extension of my ego.

The authentic angel is entirely on my side; but won’t take any side from me.

Now that’s what I call salvation.

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Do nothing entirely

Posted by Simon Parke, 21 August 2017, 6.09am

We will do nothing entirely.

To do something entirely - to be caught up in a project, trapped inside its claims on us - this is the path of insanity and stress, when we lose kindness, perspective and even the ability to do the job well.

We can be focused in our work, we can be purposeful…yet also open to the light and breeze of our other experiences in life.

Let the accountant with her spreadsheet remember also that she loves to ski, enjoys hip-hop and grows raspberries.

Here are skills and experiences she can use at her desk; they offer alternative energies, different shafts of light.

As she sits at her desk, she is not one thing, like a potato peeler or bottle-opener; she is not single-purpose.

None of us are.

We’ve learned so many skills along the way, and seen so much light, that we will do nothing entirely, as if this is all there is.

This is the path of self-important stress and narrow obsession; it is the role of the slave.

Instead, we’ll bring our entirety to whatever we do, whatever task we perform, whether we play the violin in an opera house, parent a child or work in a supermarket.

It’s all the same, really.

We will allow everything we do to be invaded and enlightened by something else.

So as I write this, various past experiences pass through me, like breeze through the trees, positive and negative, because these words are not some closed-off zone.

But part of a bigger flow.

We have within us a storehouse of such light, love and learning on which to draw.

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Endings and beginnings

Posted by Simon Parke, 17 August 2017, 5.31pm

Beginnings and endings do not really exist.

They merge into one, without clear lines of demarcation.

Sometimes we shall say ‘This is an end.’

And sometimes we shall say ‘This is a beginning.’

But there is just the forming and reforming of life; an endless collapse and creation, like the waves.

Today is both ending and beginning, collapse and creation.

Tomorrow, we will not be able to return to today…any more than we can return to a wave.

This shifting watery change, ceasing to be one thing, becoming another.

Occuring in the darkness of the night.

Change occurs but always out of sight.

Always an unfolding, but the rise and the fall are one; and the more we greet, the more we live.

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Predictions are for fools

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 August 2017, 11.37am

From here on, we’ll not over-determine our lives with anxious prediction about what will be good and what will be bad.

Predictions are for fools.

‘Easier said than done, though,’ I say to myself, aware of the fool within.

Yes, but still better said than not said, for there is substantial truth here, and an unhelpful pattern worth dissolving.

The future cannot be known because it doesn’t exist; it has no form around which predictions can gather.

And the anxious over-determination of life merely cripples happiness.

It steals this moment, the only one I have.

Prediction is a burglar who we ask to stay.

And all for what?

Predictive text is often laughingly wrong, and our dire over-thought predictions are more so.

The evening with friends may prove a nightmare.

And our visit to the hospital very happy.

Nothing is set.

So when I next find myself predicting outcomes, I will greet the fool with a smile born of familiarity.

But I will question their threadbare credentials; and believe them a little less.

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