The Silence of Herondale was Joan Aiken’s first thriller, published in 1964, and set the style, if not the form, for another dozen or so adult novels which were to follow, alternating with her now better known children’s books. Initially published by Gollancz in their famous Yellow Jacket editions, the books were covered in remarkable reviews, like the one above which soon earned her a devoted following. Now, fifty years after it’s first appearance, this and the next five suspense thrillers are due to come out again, and will hopefully have you reaching for the loofah…
Joan Aiken was sometimes accused of throwing absolutely everything into her novels. Her ever fertile mind used her plots as a backbone for all the ideas that were currently absorbing her, or were a part of her daily world – music, philosophy, landscapes, travel, people, politics, art, and of course, books. This is not surprising when you look at some of her literary influences, such as John Masefield who enjoyed endless digressions into anything that took his fancy – from church politics to murder mysteries in the newspaper – while his hero was on the way to buy muffins for tea; or Dickens, who had the occupational hazard of writing his plots serially, giving him plenty of opportunity to change his ideas as better ones came along. Among the writers that Joan Aiken admired, self-discipline was not the order of the day, so much as the ability to enrich a tale by adding whatever embroidery would serve to bend the ear of the listener. She was often compared with Mary Stewart, who was writing at the same time, and used a similar Romantic or Gothic suspense format while also making full use of her wide literary background and extensive education. Aiken’s constantly active imagination, her quirky inventiveness, blended all the available ingredients into a continual tapestry of ‘What if…?’ without in any way detracting from the headlong progress of her story.
Joan Aiken always maintained a firm grip on the plot, and was enormously skilled at keeping the reader on the edge of his seat. If she arrived rather rapidly at her conclusion and found she had too many characters to deal with, she had a cavalier habit of polishing them off in whatever speedy manner came to hand – with automatic hedge clippers, kitchen beater attachments, exploding soup cans or spa room steam cabinets. Having created some horribly seedy or demented villains, she would show no mercy in dispatching them at the end; she was gleefully ghoulish, but not gory.
And her heroines? They were always a version of Joan herself of course, and could be heartlessly thrown in at the deep end. In true Gothic style these hapless heroines would become embroiled in a series of events not of their own making, and were usually possessed of many stalwart characteristics – not least a literary education – if not always endowed with obvious physical charms. Often they were, as she was herself, small, slightly gap toothed, and red haired, but they were generally extremely enterprising, physically intrepid and fearless to the end, and would emerge breathless but undaunted. They were not necessarily rewarded with romance, and on the odd occasion did come to a sad end themselves, but shocked remonstrations from readers discouraged her from allowing this to happen too often.
What comes across most clearly is her impulse to share experiences from her own life; as for example, with the agonising but often hysterical day to day business of living with a slightly dotty old lady, or the frequently curious requirements of a job working in an advertising agency, or even the alarming and humiliating possibilities of being treated in a health spa – all was grist to her mill and became sympathetic background or even foreground, for the novel currently in her imagination. For those who knew her there was always the dubious pleasure of discovering (albeit disguised!) episodes from their own lives in her books; but when these were re-told with her usual warmth and humour, her intelligence and added insight, one could almost be grateful to have shared a good story with her, and even more so not to have had one’s own experience end in the hair-raising way that she had gone on to imagine it….
See a full list of Joan Aiken’s suspense novels here
Joan’s adult novels are due to be published by Orion’s The Murder Room