Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…from Joan Aiken of course!

Gollancz

A thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps – let alone a utopian publisher?  This charming letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written over 50 years ago shows the degree of warmth and encouragement she received from him in the early years of her career, and exemplifies the kind of devoted following she was to gather throughout her long writing life. (And no, she didn’t live in The White House, it was an old pub called The White Hart, but in later years she got letters addressed to White Hot house, the White Hut, and more…enough to give a writer ideas!)

Her first thriller – The Silence of Herondale – had earned glowing reviews for the writer and publisher, and only a couple of months beforehand  Gollancz had written to her saying:

Gollancz 2

Of course she already had another one up her sleeve; in fact her imagination was so fertile that from then on, she went on to produce as many as three books a year for adults and children in every possible genre.

Her next highly entertaining thriller makes gleeful use of her experience a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair: Joan Aiken produced a fantastic follow up – The Trouble with Product X – and I’m sincerely grateful to Mrs Lamb of London for her five star review and this terrific synopsis – spoilers not a problem, there’s so much more…

  “This thriller starts, as many Joan Aiken books do, with a heartbroken and misused young woman trying to move on with her life. This is Martha Gilroy, who works at a London advertising agency, writing snappy copy to sell soup and dishwashers.

When a new client brings them an evocative new perfume, she unwisely suggests as a shooting location a remote Cornish castle where she spent her honeymoon with her husband before he had a nervous breakdown and left her. When the crew go down there and start working on the campaign- using Cara, the beautiful young Italian wife of the client as a model- problems start. The client doesn’t seem to be able to get the formula of the perfume quite right, the monks who live nearby oppose the filming, tins of soup explode with deadly force, a poisonous spider is mailed as a mysterious gift, a wealthy Sheik keeps dragging people out to the disco in the evenings, a baby is kidnapped, Martha’s friend Tom seems altogether too interested in Cara, the weather is dodgy, and who is the mysterious cowled monk who looks so familiar to Martha?

Thrilling sequences include a creepy night-time chase around the perfume factory surrounded by the scent of violets, a gruelling escape to the monastery across the Cornish moors, and of course the patented Aiken Big Dramatic Finish where the heroine battles it out with the eeevil bad guy.

This is one of her best and most fun novels.”

Readers who grew up on Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles are just discovering these wonderfully exciting Gothics for grown ups – as here:

“It was only THIS WEEK that I realised she’d written books for adults as well. Naturally, I’m hooked once again. “Trouble with Product X” is beautifully written – Aiken could describe a person or landscape completely in just a few words – and crammed with twists in true murder mystery style. It may have been written in days of yore but it packs as much of a punch as anything produced today. Awesome.”

Product X cover

Also published in the USA with the tantalising title Beware of the Bouquet

and this fantastic cover

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No surprise then that Orion, the modern incarnation of that first publisher has now brought these novels out again as EBooks

Go to Orion’s S.F.Gateway site – to read more about Joan Aiken’s  early thrillers

Read more about Joan Aiken’s sixties gothics here

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

Jan Mark – Joan Aiken admirer pays tribute to a ‘solid gold original’.

Jan Mark tribute cover

Jan Mark, a fellow twentieth century children’s writer and keen reviewer of  contemporary children’s literature in the Times Educational Supplement, was also a staunch Joan Aiken fan.

On the cover of one of Jan Mark’s own books, about the joy of libraries, and their magical power to change the lives of otherwise isolated children, I spotted this magical tribute, for which I am sure she must have been responsible.

Do you recognise the book on the shelf in the library above? It’s a real book, by Joan Aiken, and also tells the story of a lonely child, who had one special book to keep him company on a dangerous adventure; I can’t believe it is there by chance.

Saddle the Sea HB

Jan Mark wrote about and for real children, and in her book reviews she took other authors severely to task for any slipshod practice, or any ‘writing down’ – she believed children deserved the best, and among these, Joan Aiken, she wrote, was

“a solid gold original to the very end.”

Jan Mark wrote about the last two Wolves Chronicles, the final Dido Twite adventures which were published after Joan Aiken’s death, saying that to keep faith with her readers Aiken was determined to bring the saga to a conclusion even ‘if it meant taking some wild leaps…and leaving some things unexplained.’

Writing about Aiken’s long writing history, and especially her lifetime’s collections of fantasy stories, where almost anything could happen, and often did, and the most terrifying wishes sometimes came true, Jan Mark concluded with a lovely tribute:

  “For half a century anyone who wanted a new Joan Aiken story had only to wish, and another one would be along shortly. I grew up with her books and watched successive generations adore them. Impossible to believe there will be no more.”

Jan Mark is herself much missed, but thanks to her many supporters is having a revival, and you can read about her life and prize winning books for children at https://janmark.net/

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More about Joan Aiken, The Wolves Chronicles and all her books as always at

http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/books.html

 

How to keep the Reader on the edge of his Seat? Joan Aiken writes suspense…

Silence

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:

Silence review

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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Gollancz cover

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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

1st three Silence,Sunday Product X

 

The Silence of Herondale will be re-issued in paperback in January 2020

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

More Mortimer! Joan Aiken’s hilarious hero is back – just in time for Christmas

 

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Perfect for Christmas, and for (N)evermore?

  Arabel and Mortimer are back in two bumper editions of Joan Aiken’s crazy tales with all the wonderful Quentin Blake illustrations.

First seen on Jackanory read by the wonderful Bernard Cribbins, these stories have not lost any of their humour over the years, but you may have to explain a few odd things to younger readers! Joan Aiken couldn’t resist giving the Joneses some of the 70’s craziest gadgets  for Mortimer to wreak havoc with in their house in Rumbury town London NW3-and-a-half…how about some of these for an alarming Christmas?

When dreadful spoilt cousin Annie comes to stay, Joan Aiken supplies her with radio-controlled tiddlywinks, a solar powered skateboard and a computer guitar that makes up its own music – she was ahead of her time, but not by very much! And of course these terrible toys soon lead to trouble:

computer toys

Mort & the toys

You can imagine what happens next!

Struggling with a lot of Christmas baking?  Mrs Jones – while preparing to entertain the Rumbury Ladies’ Kitchen Club to a coffee morning, and frantically busy trying to make an enormous number of prawn fancies and iced macaroons, has seen a mouse!!! And not just any mouse, but the Advance guard and A.A. Scout for an army of starving mice from Cantilever Green who are desperately looking for pastures new, and who has been lured into the Jones kitchen by the delightful smell of all those macaroons:

4 custard tart5 Mrs J

7 Mrs Catchpenny

So Arabel is sent to Mrs Catchpenny’s corner shop to borrow Archibald the cat, known locally as a former cracksman’s mog, and of course Mortimer goes along for the ride. The combination in Mrs Jones’s kitchen of Archibald, Scout F stroke B7, a fantastic amount of ill-fated ‘cordon-blue’ cookery (made with the help of all the Jones household’s trouble saving electrical equipment) and Mortimer, makes a great tale… oh yes, and also there is a certain Professor Glibchick desperate to record Mortimer making his famous one word pronouncement…except this time Mortimer says Nothing.

But when Mortimer confronts Archibald, who is by now happily well fed (he opened the larder door and found the prawns, then slept on the trays of warm macaroons in the airing cupboard and is now covered in crushed macaroon, clotted cream and feathers) he is entranced, and thinking he is a giant owl, starts pursuing him up the stairs:

The game M & Arch

Did we know Mortimer had a mother? Nevermore!

This is a mere ‘taster’ of the delights on offer in this wonderful long lost collection, which also includes Mortimer’s Cross and the fantastic Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass, where Mortimer meets an ancient ancestor in Ireland.  I have to confess these stories still make me laugh  out loud, but these days, something we absolutely need is a bit of craziness….

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Puffin editions also have added Extras –  Like Do You Remember…?

EXTRA - 70's Inventions

and Much more!

You can still catch some of the Bernard Cribbins Jackanory Episodes on You Tube

Jackanory Portrait

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Find  Both the Puffin collections here

M&amp;A Xmas mini holly