Utopian publisher seeks humane thrillers…?

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A thriller with humanity – a rare commodity nowadays perhaps, let alone a utopian publisher?  This charming letter from Victor Gollancz to Joan Aiken written 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.

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:

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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 in every possible genre.

This time, making gleeful use of her experience from a year or so earlier of working for an advertising agency in Mayfair, Joan Aiken had come up with a fantastic follow up – The Trouble with Product X – and I’m sincerely grateful to Mrs H V Aver of London for her five star review and this terrific synopsis – spoilers not a problem, there’s so much more!  ( Find it here )

  “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.”

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No surprise then that the modern incarnation of that same publisher is now happy to bring these novels out again as EBooks

Go to Orion’s Murder Room imprint – where you can now find Joan Aiken’s first six Romantic Gothics

Read more about the background to them here

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Joan Aiken for Grown Ups…!

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“It was dusk, winter dusk – snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”  Sound familiar? The opening lines of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase could almost describe a scene from Joan Aiken’s first adult novel, The Silence of Herondale published just two years after her most famous children’s classic.  The novel draws on her Gothic imagination and ability to conjure scenes of suspense  with thrilling chases across wild snowy  landscapes, but this time the story is for grown ups, so will there be a happy ending?

In the pre-feminist 1960’s women were still struggling for independence but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based more on models from her own reading of Jane Austen or the Brontes, or indeed on her own experience of being left a young widow with two children and an urgent need to earn a living for herself and her family.  In Northanger Abbey  Jane Austen wrote a parody of the Gothic Novels of her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s bestseller, The Mysteries of Udolpho where the innocent and virginal heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.  Jane Austen’s early skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 at age fourteen, poked fun at the Gothic school whose heroines, like Emily in Udolpho, faint at every emergency, both major and minor.  Sophia, one of the heroines of Love & Freindship, when dying, advises her friend Laura: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”  Over-indulgence in fainting  brought on pneumonia, which finished her off!

Aiken’s versions of the 1960’s Gothic Romance were just as tongue in cheek – having arrived at the remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, the heroine has first to start the generator and get the lights on ( no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is rendered almost as a comedy with a guard dog throttling himself at the end of his chain while our heroine wrestles with the machinery. Nevertheless all the trappings of romance are there – the heroine, Deborah has mysteriously lost all her possessions in a burglary, her family have all disappeared, the employer who takes her on as a governess to a young prodigy almost immediately establishes a mysterious hold over her with veiled threats and blackmail, and it is impossible to tell whether the hero is the villain, or vice versa…

A trademark of Aiken’s writing familiar to all who have been brought up on her books for children, is that she never writes down to her audience, her language is rich and often riotous, her settings exotic and extraordinary, and her plots absolutely bursting with action and excitement, so that the books appeal just as much to adults, who seem to re-read them with pleasure throughout their lives. So what is the difference in her writing for adults – not a great deal perhaps?  In The Way to Write for Children she writes:

“Children have tough moral fibre. They can surmount sadness and misfortune in fiction especially if it is on a grand heroic scale…it may help inoculate them against the real thing.  But let it not be total tragedy, your ending must show some hope for the future.”

So in her writing for adults, is the difference that the book need not end happily?   You will have to read on and see…

An early reviewer wrote:

” After a long life reading thrillers…I tend to turn impatiently to the end. Not so in the case of The Silence of Herondale – rather than wanting to rush ahead and discover the ending…I wanted to spin out to the last possible moment the pleasure of that discovery.”

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On December 14th  The Murder Room at Orion  publish six early thrillers

by Joan Aiken.

Read more about her Adult novels here.

A Heroine’s Life…or a dog’s?

Silence Excerpt

 “Blow it all,” thought Deborah… “he’ll just have to kill me if he’s going to.”

   In fact at this point it’s a slavering guard dog, not the villain of the piece that she’s worried about – there are still a choice of three or four contenders for top villain, so at this point it’s probably a good idea to make friends with the dog.  Trapped in an isolated farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors our heroine Deborah, a young lady of no uncommon resources, and certainly not faint hearted, is grappling here with a diesel engine to get the power and lights on in aforementioned isolated farmhouse, and has also been left in charge of assorted geese, chickens and a runaway infant prodigy who may be lost on the snowy moors, but chiefly on her mind is an escaped prisoner possibly lurking nearby, cheerfully referred to on local news broadcasts as The Slipper Killer.

These are only a selection of the many ingredients generously stirred together in Joan Aiken’s first thriller, originally published fifty years ago in Gollancz’s famous yellow jacket series, and with all their usual panache, covered in rave reviews like this one:

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Having had considerable success with her ‘Gothic’ children’s novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Joan Aiken turned her talents to writing for adults – previously she had only published adult short stories for various magazines – and turned to the Romantic Gothic model popular in the 50’s & 60’s with alacrity. This gave the opportunity for pre-feminist heroines to demonstrate the resourcefulness and intelligence of the unshrinking violet – the girl who could look after herself, and usually the hero as well, and Joan Aiken’s own life had equipped her with plenty of practical experience of this kind as well as her writing skills.  Widowed with two small children and left homeless and in debt after her husband’s early death, she needed a whole range of practical and literary skills to keep the family afloat. By 1964, when this novel, The Silence of Herondale was published she was finally beginning to make a living from her writing, so no wonder she put absolutely everything into it.

Out of print for too long, this wonderfully entertaining and hair raising read is coming back in December courtesy of Orion’s  The Murder Room   EBook Library as part of a series of Joan Aiken adult titles.  Look out for them all – and give yourself some cheerful winter thrills!

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s adult novels on the website

Click on book above to read this excerpt!

“The Butterfly Picnic” – A perfect holiday read?

Joan Aiken

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     Joan Aiken writing at her very best was the perfect companion.   She was well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, and the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the very process of writing.   What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her story at the full stretch of her imagination, and in the full enjoyment of her talents.

The ideal holiday read then, or even as a hopeful anticipation or substitute for one, would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic   ( in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.)   In one perfect package she gives you a trip to a Greek island – imagine for…

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