Cave Canem

Having recently listed my favourite literary cats it only seemed fair to do the same for the other side – dogs.

The world generally divides between dog-lovers and cat-lovers – I remember having it explained for me once by a cat fan: 'Men like dogs because they agree with them, and women like cats because they don't.'

Needless to say my source of wisdom was a woman.

Still, she probably had a point and I do come down on the dog side of the equation but I am not sure this is a gender thing, it may be because most of the animals I liked in my early reading were dogs.

Chronologically number one would be Nana in 'Peter Pan' – who wouldn't prefer a dog to oversee their playtime?

Stepping up a little, William Brown's Jumble would be ideal boy's companion as trouble beckons as it always did for Richmal Crompton's divine invention.

Following my reading time-line I would now like to claim the entire wolf pack from the Jungle Books but I suspect I would get bitten for mentioning dogs in their lupine presence.

So, next into my literary show ring would be Jack London's Buck from 'Call of the Wild' – I would like White Fang too but see the above.

The Hound of the Baskervilles would have to get a mention – obviously a bull calf sized, phosphorescent, slavering beast would not be for patting but if haunting moorland howls are needed, he's the lad.

A dog with a venerable literary pedigree is Argos who despite his great age immediately remembers who Odysseus is when he finally decides to call in on Penelope.

A dog with an ugly presence and a really bad owner is next, Bulls-eye in 'Oliver Twist' whose loyalty undoes the villainous Sikes and who acts as the animal mirror of his violent character.

On a lighter note, ''To say nothing of the Dog' would be entirely wrong when considering the comic delights of 'Three Men in a Boat' , so welcome onboard Montmorency.

We had a P.G. Wodehouse cat last time so we must have a dog. Wodehouse was an ardent dog-lover and there are many in his stories.

One will have to stand for all and that one for me is The Dog McIntosh who features in the Jeeves and Wooster story 'Episode of the Dog McIntosh'.

My ninth canine literary star, a Schnauzer, appears in style in the bar of a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street.

'Asta jumped up and punched me in the belly with her front feet.'

Here are Nick and Nora Charles meeting after Christmas shopping in the opening chapter of Dashiell Hammett's 'The Thin Man' . She is the perfect dog for a tale of cocktails, bullets and more cocktails.

As ever, if you would like to suggest additions to our doghouse line-up please feel free to drop us a line with your nominations.


Catnip

Having taken our name from one of literature's most famous moggies I wanted to offer up nine literary cats for your consideration.

Our list must begin with our very own Cheshire Cat of course.

And you can take your pick from T.S. Eliot's 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' though mine would be Macavity.

J.K. Rowling does a fine cat, Crookshanks and Mrs Norris are just two.

For spookiest cat I nominate the spectral beast in M.R. James's ghost story 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral'. The line; 'there is no kitchen cat...' says it all.

For out and out adoration and brilliant observation of the species, Christopher Smart's poem 'My Cat Jeoffrey' is wonderful.

And though we never meet her, I always wondered what Graymalkin in Macbeth would have been like – certainly the First Witch was attached to her.

No cat list could be complete without P.G.Wodehouse's Webster from his Mr Mulliner series.

And my final cat is conjured up from the margins of a copy of St Paul's Epistles and was the work of an Irish monk in the ninth century.

It begins;

'I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.'

As always you suggestions are most welcome if you have your own pet literary cats.

Please share with us in the comments below.


Women Sleuths

The female detective has long literary antecedents but she has had to fight hard for a place at the top table of crime.

Each emerges from their time and social history dealing not only with the villainy they must confront but also with chauvinism, inequality even misogyny.

And so Jane Marple fools everyone because Christie's gentle English spinster has a cool-eyed, analytical logic to draw upon.

If men are too blinkered to spot this then more fool them.

More recently Lynda La Plante's Jane Tennison toughed it out with her male counterparts refusing to take a backward step in an environment created by and for men.

Then in 1996 there was Marge Gunderson, played by the wonderful Frances McDormand in the Cohen Brothers' film, 'Fargo'. 

She is another example of the extraordinary hiding within the ordinary. Heavily pregnant, disarmingly forthright and armed with the most astonishing Minnesotan accent, she cracks the case, hunts down the bad guys and shoots the murderer. All while wearing a Parka.

But perhaps the landscape is shifting, certainly the cultural contexts have become more varied.

Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe inhabits her Botswana with grace and dignity.

She is a force to be reckoned with because of the deep well-springs of humanity and kindness she possess.

And what will Scandi noir lovers do now The Bridge has ended? Saga Noren was such an original creation.

Tough, unflinching, flawed and yet somehow much more than anyone else around her.

The series had perhaps run its course, but Sofia Helin who played Saga brought to life a fascinating woman detective.

I will end by mentioning the latest female cop I have discovered, Sigrid Ødegård.

First seen in ' Norwegian by Night'  written by Derek B. Miller and published in 2013 she returned in 'American By Day' this year.

Miller won awards, accolades and I am sure many fans with that first spell-binding book and the second did not disappoint. 

It is just a handful I know, where is Clarice Starling, Vera Stanhope, Harriet Vane and the rest you might well ask?

Maybe next time, but meanwhile as always, do please nominate your own favourite women who sleuth in the comments...


Spine Tinglers

Book titles matter and getting them right is a key task for any author.

They are also fascinating because they provide a social history of printed literature from its beginnings to the present.

There are fashions in books titles which you can trace in the same way as you can trends in clothes.

At the moment every 'on it' book is wearing a girl on its dust-sheet.

It may have started with Stieg Larsson and his 'Millennium' trilogy, The Girl With etc but has now mutated to 'Gone Girl,' 'Girl on a Train,' 'Girl in the Window' and others.

Perhaps the internet has much to answer for here. Readers who loved 'Gone Girl' may well then look kindly on another title that promises more of the same.

Searching on-line brings up another title and suddenly a sub-genre is born or at least lots of books with similar sounding titles.

Before the world wide web arrived the brilliant humorist, Alan Coren, saw this and explained that his title du jour should ideally reference the three best-selling subject matters of the moment.

At the time these were cats, golf and Nazis. His book was called 'Golfing for Cats' and featured a golf club swinging cat wearing a swastika armband on its front cover.

At the moment the animals to get into your titles appear to be wolves and tigers – Kipling pitching to his publisher today would probably be told; 'Sorry Rudyard but 'The Jungle Books, really?

“What about 'Wolf Boy in the land of the Tiger King”?

Early authors in English often found their works became known purely by a name.

'Tom Jones, the history of a foundling' became just 'Tom Jones'.

'Pamela, or virtue rewarded' 'Pamela'.

Easier to fit on the spine and easier to remember.

So, 'Joseph Andrews, ' 'Tristram Shandy,' ' Moll Flanders,' ' Humphrey Clinker.'

But who remembers the sub headings?

In later examples, especially in novels about women, even the patronymic vanishes.

'Emma,' ' Evelina,' ' Shirley,' 'Villette' are examples. Still I suppose if 'Emma' had been called 'Emma Knightley' it might have been a bit of a spoiler.

Shakespeare, the Bible and the people who used to be known as The Poets have provided inspiration throughout the ages when authors have been scratching around for a catchy title.

Agatha Christie visited Macbeth for 'By the Pricking of My Thumbs”,

PG Wodehouse, as he often did, dipped into the Old Testament for 'Joy in the Morning”, and more recently that fine thriller and spy writer Jon Lawton gave us the biblical 'A Lily of the Field”.

Milton's 'Lycidas' provided Thomas Wolfe with 'Look Homeward Angel' and Wordsworth gave Flora Thompson 'Still Glides the Stream'.

'A Confederacy of Dunces' was lifted though not as written, from Swift by John Kennedy Toole and Christie again with 'The Mirror Cracked' had been remembering Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott'.

Matching your title to the work is some challenge, sometimes a suitably atmospheric place name will answer, 'Wuthering Heights” , 'Gormanghast' or even 'Bleak House”.

Some would not work today. Would anyone really suggest the title 'Little Women' now or
'Black Beauty' ? and Joseph Conrad would have had some thinking to do as well.

Of course, genre matters as well and slightly longer, narrative titles seem to suit certain works rather than others. 'Elizabeth Oliphant is Completely Fine' does not sound like a spy story and it isn't.

And you would not expect Cormac McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian' to be a modern book of self-discovery and humorous whimsy.

Getting it right then really matters.

Some of my favourites from recent years have been Hilary Mantel's chilling 'Bring Up the Bodies' and 'Wolf Hall' of course had a wolf so all good there then.

'The Essex Serpent' struck me as perfect for its subject matter and Amor Towles simple but cleverly judged 'A Gentleman in Moscow' spoke elegantly of other times and places.

As usual we would love to hear from you if you have favourite titles or an opinion you would like to share.


Narrative Voices

Finding a fictional voice must be like learning to sing.

If you discover the melody people listen but hit a few bum notes and the audience is wincing.

The narrative voice in a novel can achieve many things and the finest writers use this to great effect.

The narrator provides the prism through which we see the plot and other characters by speaking to us.

Of course they might not see things correctly, they may try to hide things or persuade you of something that is false but that is part of the artifice the novelist employs.

Great narrative voices seem to carry on speaking long after the book is finished.

Some of my favourites include the wonderful Mattie Ross who takes centre stage in Charles Portis's True Grit.

Acerbic, unflinching and courageous.

Another great character to keep company with is of course, Harper Lee's Scout in To Kill A Mocking Bird

They follow in the footsteps of other young story-tellers, notably Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and what a voice he has.

When walking the mean streets it helps to have a guide who can tough it out and Philip Marlowe fits that bill.

Apart from just being someone you want to spend time with, Chandler gives him some of the most brilliant observations to voice. On first seeing Moose Malloy in Farewell My Lovely he says,

"He was a big man but not more than six feet fives inches tall and not wider than a beer truck".

Another tough guy narrator is the late Phillip Kerr's Bernie Gunther cast very much in the Marlowe mould with the same smart alec mouth that gets slapped for its trouble and still snarls something back.

Lighter voices also resonate though. Who can resist the charms of Rose Tremain's Merivel as he trips his way through her Restoration novels.

And then there is the incomparable PG Wodehouse. So many voices, such brilliant stylist poise.

Impossible to pick a favourite, though Bertie Wooster with his mix of half-remembered poetry, snatches from the Bible and oddments of Shakespeare alongside sheer comic lunacy must be in the running.

"I hadn't the heart to touch my breakfast. I told Jeeves to drink it himself."

Perfect.

Do you have favourite narrative voices? We would love to hear who they are.


The Long Goodbye

I worked in newspapers for many years and spent much of that time dealing with news  stories.

This is by way of making the point that I did not spend my career doing one of the many other jobs on a paper.

I didn't write the gardening column, or act as an agony uncle or write the astrology column.

Mostly news, not exclusively but mostly.

For that reason I was freed from the obligation of writing endings. News stories do not have endings they just splutter to a stop when the facts run out.

As a reporter you are not expected to draw some deep philosophical conclusion from a news story.

Somebody else might do that, a leader writer or a feature writer following up on the story  but no one cares what a reporter thinks about the story they just want the reporter to tell them what happened and maybe why.

Really a news story starts at the end anyway.

Five people died today when a bomb exploded in a crowded open-air market.

That is the final consequence of someone's action with its dreadful result evident and the start of the story.

Everything in the story builds back to that moment.

So, when I read fiction I pay particular attention to endings because I like to see how I is done.

Novelists can do all kinds of marvellous things to execute that final bowing out.

Here are few famous favourites.

"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."
George Eliot reflecting on her Middlemarch heroine, Dorothea

"But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before."
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.

So we beat back, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done, it is a far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Charles Dickens, The Tale of Two Cities.

“And the ashes blew towards us with the salt in the wind from the sea.”
Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca.

"Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters."
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.

“The knife came down missing him by inches, and he took off.”
Joseph Heller, Catch 22.

“I pray that you grow up to be a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.

 I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.

And so I will also bow out, as I started, with Raymond Chandler.

“I never saw any of them again - except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say good-bye to them.”
The Long Goodbye.

These are just a few I like but please do share your own favourites with us, we would be delighted to see them


Beginnings

Let me introduce myself.

I spent a good deal of my professional life writing newspaper stories and the rest showing other people how to do it.

The first thing I would talk about was the intro.

This is the most important sentence in any story because if you get it wrong the likelihood is the reader bids you farewell at that point and goes off to find something else, probably the crossword.

But a great intro can sell a story and make it hard for the audience to abandon you.

The same is true for novels.

How many times have you picked up a book and if the first few paragraphs did not grab you put it back on the shelf?

We probably all have our favourite opening lines and many are frequently quoted.

Short works best in newspapers and sometimes in books.

"Call me Ishmael."

Melville's biblical command opening Moby Dick for example.

And though somewhat longer, it would be hard to take a single word out of Jane Austen's most famous first line:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

And for setting that first scene Raymond Chandler is tough to beat.

"The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers."

And how beautifully judged is the the haunting beginning of Du Maurier's Rebecca.

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

And for a fisherman Norman Maclean hooks you with a beautifully presented line.

"In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."

A great opening line is a firm promise of more to come.

I have rarely found the opposite to be true.

People will say: ”Stick with it, it gets better,” but in my experience it hardly ever does.

A writer who cannot fix the start of a story is likely to continue breaking things.

If you have a favourite first line please share it with us, we would be delighted to hear from you.


Welcome to Cheshire Cat Books

Welcome to Cheshire Cat Books a new digital publishing house with its roots in the North of England but with no boundaries to its hopes.

We have set up the company with the aim of finding writers who want to be read and perhaps have struggled, so far, to break through or who are unsure of what to do to get published.

Fiction is what we are looking for but we are open-minded about what types of fiction.

If we think a book has a chance of finding an audience we will be interested.

We will be regularly keeping our followers up to date with everything we have been doing and most recently we were at the amazing Newcastle Noir.

This brilliant event centred on the wonderful Lit & Phil building in Newcastle, showcased a fantastic array of talented writers.

Big names like Mari Hannah, Stuart MacBride, LJ Ross and Ann Cleeves appearing alongside new names from all over the world.

The audience was enthusiastic and obviously knowledgeable about the genre.

There were lots of questions for the crime writing panels who were expertly chaired by among others the indefatigable Programme Director, Dr Jacky Collins.

One message that emerged repeatedly especially from the ‘New Bloods’, was that getting published was tough but with persistence it could be achieved.

Again and again new authors said:”Not so long ago I was sitting in this same audience listening to published writers now I am on the other side of the desk. It can happen.”

We will be bringing more from the Noir in future posts.