from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK : Whydunnit

Maigret – in his latest television manifestation

July 13. In my entry of June 22 I speculated on the fate of reading books in the lockdown.  Now the bookshops have opened and the books sales monitor Nielsen has started to generate data on sales and reading habits.

I turn out to be at once atypical and absolutely on trend.

I wrote then that for all the extra time forced upon those in lockdown, I was not reading much more for pleasure.  I was still spending too much of my working day wrestling with print, and it was rather my garden that was gaining from my additional leisure.

Not so with the wider public.  The increase in hours spent with a book has been dramatic. Before the lockdown, UK adults averaged 3.4 hours a week reading.  By the beginning of May that had increased to 6.1. hours.   This must be the largest single growth in functional literacy ever recorded in so short a period.  It has since declined marginally, but in spite of the gradual relaxation in competing recreations, it is still running at 5.9 hours. 

The extra reading has been reflected in the business of the bookshops which reopened on 15 June.  Although the high street has in general reported significantly lower demand than the same time last year, Waterstones and its competitors have seen sales rise by a healthy 19% over the same period. 

There have been gains in various genres, including contributions to the Black Lives Matter debate.  But the largest growth has been in crime novels, up 120,000 for the last two weeks of June over the same period last year.

So with my own reading.  I have been buying the works of the American writers James Lee Burke (New Orleans) and Michael Connolly  (Hollywood) and re-encountering Simenon, some in collections I have had for years, some the excellent re-translated novels Penguin have just finished publishing.

It would be tempting but facile to suppose that this increased interest in murder reflects the tensions caused in families forced to endure each other’s company over several months, without escape to the office or the schoolroom or other company.  In fact, as a range of national and international agencies have reported, such tensions, where they exist, have been reflected not in literary habits but actual domestic violence, particularly involving men unable to escape their demons and women unable to escape the threat they pose.

The pleasure in crime fiction answers a different need.  The genre is wide, and the detail of homicide varies.  For the most part the focus is not on the act of murder, but on the solution to the mystery.  This is particularly the case with Simenon’s policeman.  In most of the novels the drama is not whodunnit but why. Take, for instance, Maigret and the Tall Woman, which I have just finished reading in a new translation.  Maigret is contacted by the wife of a hapless safe-breaker – the tall woman of the title whom Maigret had first encountered when she was earning a living on the streets of Paris.  Her husband has disappeared after finding a body in a house he was burgling.  It takes little time to locate the house, identify the victim, and determine that her husband, a prosperous dentist, either himself in or conjunction with his controlling mother, had murdered her.  Much of the rest of the book is taken up with an epic interrogation of the dentist as Maigret establishes not so much the fact of guilt as an explanation of the psychological tensions within the dentist’s household which had resulted in the fatal shooting.

So with our current crisis.  What we need above all is to narrativize a drama which has broken all the rules of expected behaviour.  Already the stories are being written about the fateful early weeks of the pandemic, incomplete and contested though the evidence is.  In the meantime we find some solace in a literary form where the crime is stated and, in the last chapter, an explanation is found.

Whether the culprits will go to jail is another question.  Maigret, famously, lost interest when the charge was brought.  He had done his job once he understood how the event had happened and how people had behaved in the way they did.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and Reality

July 10th

Writing fiction has been one of the things I have tried my hand at since I retired in 2013.  I spent much of the first year writing a cathartic historical novel, subsequently published as Despite the Darkness, based in part on our experience during the apartheid years of being harassed by the South African Police’s Special Branch who objected to what I was writing and what their spies were reporting back to them about my lectures and speeches.  I then wasted three years going through the motions of getting a literary agent to take the novel on and try to sell it; getting tired of waiting for him to do so; and finally deciding to self-publish after all.  During the last of the three years I wrote a sequel that is currently with the publishers.  People have asked me whether I will be writing another one, to which the answer is ‘probably not’ – not just because I am too busy doing other things, even in lockdown, but because these days fiction has grave difficulty in staying ahead of reality.  In plotting the kind of fiction I write one always has to be asking oneself ‘is that plausible?’  With historical fiction the question becomes ‘could that really ever have happened?’   In recent times too much has happened which, had one been writing a novel, one would have had to discard as simply being far too implausible.

The enjoyment of literature usually depends to some extent on what Coleridge referred to as ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.   How many people, to take a current example, would willingly suspend their disbelief when reading a political novel if the author were to cast Chris Grayling in the role of Chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee?  The response would be likely to involve a heavy sigh, a ‘Get Real!’ (that’s the bowdlerised version), and the novel being put aside in favour of something less wildly implausible.  

It would be doing a disservice to the military to draw any parallel with the old saw which holds that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.   Chris Grayling’s record as a cabinet minister could be deemed to have demonstrated the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dust, but it wasn’t gold dust.  Grayling is probably best known for awarding a £14 million contract to a start-up company, Seaborne Freight, to ship medical supplies to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  The fact that the company had no ships and no port contract, and a set of legal terms and conditions that had been cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company, was not seen as any kind of hindrance to the award of the contract.  Nor, apparently, is his copy-book seen to have been blotted by the mere £33million that had to be paid out to Eurotunnel for the breach of public procurement rules that was involved in the award of that contract.

Grayling was transport secretary in 2018 when the railway timetable debacle took place, and was criticized by the rail regulator for not scrutinising plans for the change-over carefully enough.  His ideological compulsion towards shrinkage of the State led him to the disastrous part-privatisation of probation services that has recently had to be rescinded.  But his ministerial record is not one of consistently benign incompetence.  Some of his policies have been malign to the point of vindictiveness.  One of the nastier and stupider ones was his introduction, as Minister of Justice, of a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and relatives, and his imposition of a limit on the number of books prisoners were allowed.  This was found to be unlawful by the high court in 2015.  I think I am right in saying  that every single one of Grayling’s major policy innovations has had to be reversed by his successors in the various departments unfortunate enough to have fallen into his clutches. The Guardian reported last year that decisions Grayling had made while heading those departments had had been estimated by Labour to have cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.  Who would believe such hopeless incompetence if anyone were to put all that into a novel?

All this begs the question, of course, as to why on earth Boris Johnson (read Dominic Cummings) would want to nominate a man with a record like that to chair the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee.  It isn’t as if, in the age of Novichok, Huawei and Russian interference in elections, intelligence and security aren’t important.  There seem to be two plausible reasons.  One would be that Johnson (read Cummings – always) wants a yes-man Brexiteer at the helm of a committee that has traditionally been independent and tried to avoid party political allegiances.  The other would be that as part of his strategy to disrupt the Westminster ‘establishment’ Cummings would like to discredit and undermine one of its key parliamentary committees.  You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up.  But, speaking for myself, and leaving ‘intelligence’ out of it for obvious reasons, I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.