FFB: The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?
If she was asking for it,
Did she ask you twice?
Hole – Asking For It

2018-01-07 15.32.47It seems redundant to call this a lean novel from Spark — her novels are singularly lean. I always feel as if they have been sanded fine. I’ve been on a kick since the winter break before and after seeing The International Style of Muriel Spark exhibit with Miss Wendy at the National Library in Edinburgh, which I highly recommend you see. I loved it in the nosy way writers always want to peek at the process of others, but also damn, the woman had style — and chops. I feel like I need to cut my own prose to the bone like her or I’m just dithering too much. But you can’t miss anything: you have to absorb every clue. The thing is you don’t always realise what is a clue. You have to become hyper-vigilant and note everything which leads to a kind of madness rather like the heroine of this book.

coverThe Driver’s Seat is a great example of this. There is not one word in excess. This is a crazy book, off-putting to many I’m sure (I looked at some of the contemporary reviews) but both brilliant and searingly insightful. The blurb on the back (and what a marvelous cover, Penguin) from David Lodge calls it not only a ‘tour de force’ but ‘a crime story turned inside out’ which is a great description. Within the first few pages, you know that Lise is going to die. With mordant zeal, the narrator points out the clues that will be put together at the end of the investigation.

Many of them will puzzle the police forces. They’re both vivid and seemingly inexplicable. Like the clothing captured well in this cover: ‘the necessary dress’ as she calls it. the colours are so garish the porter of her building laughs at her.

She says, ‘Are you going to join a circus? Then again she throws back her head, looking down through half-closed lids at Lise’s clothes, and gives out the high, hacking cough-like ancestral laughter of the streets, holding her breasts in her hands to spare them the shake-up. Lise says with quiet dignity, ‘You are insolent.’

How marvelous is that? This whole world is at a slant, Lise’s particular slant, from her model of efficiency modular flat to the sudden and violent reaction to being informed that the dress she’s trying on is ‘stain resistant’ (‘I won’t be insulted!’). The alternation between helpless laughing and crying quickly leads to the deduction that the ‘months of illness’ that punctuate her sixteen years at the same job are definitely related to her mental health.

Now, here’s where it might get a little spoilery if you don’t want to know more about it than the fact that she’s doomed. She heads off on her holiday telling people she’s meeting a boy-friend though she doesn’t seem to know who and constantly lies about what she has done and plans to do. Even the narrator draws back at times, shying away from true omniscience at the most interesting junctures yet with chilling suggestions that have to be carefully sifted.

Lise is lifting the corners of her carefully packed things, as if in absent-minded accompaniment to some thought, who knows what?

The narrator seems uncertain what’s really going on, yet knows a great deal of facts –they’re just impossible to explain.  The novel reads like an assemblage of facts that took some time to put together, yet still don’t add up. Lise buys all the items used in her murder, deliberately and particularly. She even urges her befuddled killer to murder her: ‘She told me precisely what to do.’

Was she asking for it?
Was she asking nice?

I suspect that like many of us, Spark may have heard one too many times about a ‘girl who was asking for it’ and wondered what sort of woman would ask to be killed, really. A mad woman, an insanely driven woman who is both consumed by lust and gravely puritanical — and utterly deranged. Asking for it?

I have bookmarked the Liz Taylor film version, but I dunno…

I admire her hugely. Check out all the FFB over at Patti Abbott’s blog including Evan Lewis’ post on Bill Crider’s celebration of life.

Spark Satire

Out Now: Madonna of the Wasps 5 #WiHM

41r0rlouarlWhat better way to wrap up Women in Horror Month? The final chapter of The Blood Red Experiment is out now! Read the exciting conclusion of Madonna of the Wasps and all the gialli in this collection. The breakneck pace whips along to the unexpected end — how will all the threads be brought together? It’s a mystery!

Buy it here.

Out Now: Madonna of the Wasps 3

Blood Red Experiment 3Yes, one last story published in 2017. It’s the latest issue of The Blood Red Experiment that includes the third chapter of my neo-giallo ‘The Madonna of the Wasps‘.

In the first chapter ‘Love’ we met a killer wielding an ancient bone knife. In the second chapter ‘Frost’ the young artist Mira faced the most frightening night of her life.

In the third chapter we learn who the mysterious ‘Swan’ is: who can inspire such a blood-thirsty cult?

FFB: Bill Crider’s Sherlock

Thanks to Patti and Todd for cajoling me into doing this special round of FFB. Many of you know that Bill Crider is doing poorly, so it’s great to have a chance to celebrate him and his vast catalogue of work while he can still appreciate our accolades. It’s always a joy to celebrate someone who seems universally regarded with genuine fondness. I’ve only met him briefly myself (not being much of a networking type) but he was just as kind and self-effacing in person as he has always appeared to be online over the years.

35433206 I chose the unconventional Crider: his Eight Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Crossroad Press. If you’re a fan of the detective you will be pleased by how well Crider gets into the head of our famed narrator Dr Watson. Clearly he has had a lot of fun immersing himself in the style of Doyle’s doctor.

Then there’s the celebrity ‘guest stars’ that include everyone from Bram Stoker and his own Van Helsing as sidekick, Oscar Wilde, and even a descendant of Ebeneezer Scrooge making this a good holiday gift giving choice for ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Ghosts’.

The suggestion of the supernatural is ever present but purists shouldn’t worry too much. This is Holmes after all and he will get to the bottom of what seems to be unnatural. Crider manages to capture the fun and the cleverness of Holmes without being too slavish to the originals, giving them a chance to breathe.

The bonus story by Patricia Lee Macomber and David Niall Wilson is more Lovecraftian and clashes quite distinctly with the other stories: less homage and more pastiche.

Thanks Bill for your camaraderie on line, your fine books and your VBKs. Happy to salute you on the long trail.

See all the entries over at Patti’s blog.

Out Now: Madonna of the Wasps 2

TBRE2The second issue of The Blood Red Experiment is out and it’s a doozy. Includes the second chapter of my giallo novella The Madonna of the Wasps. Great stories by some other geezers, too! You know their names and quality is always the game.

The Blood Red Experiment Issue 2 is out now for purchase on Kindle. If you like Giallo Horror, then this magazine will be for you. We have the talents of Richard Godwin, Kate LaityKevin BergTom LeinsJim ShafferMark Cooper and Jack Bates in each issue. Issue One is available to read if you haven’t read it already. The episodes run sequentially so read issue 1 first, you won’t be disappointed!

Chaucer & the Art of the Grift

Over at Empty Mirror magazine I’m featured with my essay on Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and David Maurer’s The Big Con, which (among other things) inspired The Sting. Check it out and take a look around: they feature a lot of smart, offbeat and interesting pieces that include fiction, non-fiction and art.

Interdisciplinarity #FTW!


Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 09.30.37

I shared my Inspirations Song List today as I’d updated it (Songs that Inspired Stories), then joked that I should make a list of stories that started from collisions. Not literally — although I do have one or two of those — but collisions of ideas.

Example: later this month Empty Mirror will publish my essay ‘Chaucer and the Art of the Grift’ which came from a collision in my head between The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and David Maurer’s The Big Con. It makes perfect sense to me but maybe this is why I have a hard time getting people to follow my thoughts. Possibly they seem random and incoherent!

But they seem reasonable to me. Here’s a random selection of things what I have written and the collisions from which they sprang:

The Mangrove Legacy: Peter Cook & Jane Austen

White RabbitBlue Sunshine & Seance on a Wet Afternoon & certain London pubs

How to Be Dull: academia & Jerome K. Jerome

Airships & Alchemy:  <— exactly that

Owl Stretching: The Descent of Inanna & Spike Milligan

‘Elf Prefix’: The Maltese Falcon & The Fairy Melusine

‘Headless in Bury’: The Big Sleep & vikings

‘Wordgeryne’: Lovecraft and medieval charms

‘Losing My Religion’: REM, Tony Hancock & social media debates

“Domus inferna Sancti Guthlaci: A Rediscovery of the Twelfth-Century Narrative of The Saint and the Money Pit”: my Pseudo-Society talk that sprang from rearranging the Harley Roll illustrations of the life of the saint so they became a sort of DIY disaster

…and of course there’s a whole random Fall song + whatever random obsession has fired in my brain this week which covers most of my crime writing that isn’t currently inspired by Robyn Hitchcock.

It’s not just me, right?

[Image from the Cosmagraphia Scoti MS. Canon. Misc. 378 via Bodleian Library]