This January sees the reissue of Joan Aiken’s first adult thriller, published two years after her best known children’s novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which garnered some impressive reviews at the time:
The Silence of Herondale published in 1964, set the style for another dozen or so adult novels which were to follow, alternating with her now much better known children’s books. Initially published by Gollancz in their famous Yellow Jacket editions, the books were covered in remarkable reviews, like this one which soon earned her a devoted following, including many fellow crime writers. Now, more than fifty years after its first appearance, this, and the next five suspense thrillers she wrote are being re-issued by the Gollancz parent company Orion, and will hopefully have you reaching for the loofah…!
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Joan Aiken was sometimes accused of throwing absolutely everything into the page- turning plots of her novels. Her fertile mind used them as a backbone for all the ideas that were currently absorbing her in her daily world – music, philosophy, landscapes, travel, people, politics, art, and of course, the work of other writers. This is not surprising when you look at some of her literary influences, such as John Masefield who could also enjoy endless digressions into anything that took his fancy – whether it was church politics, ancient history, or juicy details about murder mysteries in the local paper – while his hero was on the way to buy muffins for tea. Another of her literary heroes, Charles Dickens, could be just as easily distracted from his main plotline since he had the occupational hazard of writing his plots serially, which gave him plenty of opportunity to totally change his ideas as better ones came along.
Among the writers that Joan Aiken admired, self-discipline was not the main order of the day, so much as an ability to enrich a tale by adding whatever embroidery would serve to bend the ear of the listener. She was often compared to Mary Stewart, who was writing her own thrillers at the time, and who used a similar Romantic or Gothic suspense format while also making full use of a wide literary background and extensive education; this and the use of exotic settings added enormously to the appeal of her books.
Aiken’s constantly active imagination, her quirky inventiveness, and imaginative recall of her own travels and journeys enabled her to blend all the available ingredients into a continual inventive tapestry of ‘What if…?’ without in any way detracting from the headlong progress of her story. Despite her magpie eye, Joan Aiken always maintained a firm grip on the plot, and was enormously skilled at keeping the reader on the edge of his seat…
Conversely, if she arrived rather too rapidly at her conclusion and found she had too many characters to deal with, she developed a rather cavalier habit of polishing them off in whatever speedy manner came to hand – automatic hedge clippers, kitchen beater attachments, exploding soup cans or spa-room steam cabinets. Having created some horribly seedy or demented villains, she would then show no mercy in dispatching them swiftly at the end; she could be gleefully ghoulish, but never gory – it was the lead-up to the climax she enjoyed, and suspense became her speciality….
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And Joan Aiken’s heroines? They were always a version of Joan herself of course, and would be heartlessly thrown in at the deep end. In the true Gothic manner of hapless heroines, they would become embroiled in a series of events not of their own making, but 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 from their adventures 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 thoughts and 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 having treatments 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 also 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….
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Six of Joan Aiken’s thrillers are now being reissued by Orion
See a full list of Joan Aiken’s suspense novels here
See more of Joan’s thrillers now available as E Books at Orion’s The Murder Room