Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sarah Rayne

Sarah Rayne is the author of a number of acclaimed psychological thrillers and haunted house books. Her new novel is Chord of Evil.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Rayne's reply:
I read masses of fiction of almost every kind, but these four books are my all-time favourites, and I’m currently halfway through Broome Stages for at least the tenth time – with Gaudy Night in line to be re-read next.

Broome Stages by Clemence Dane

Written in 1930. Clemence Dane was a highly thought-of novelist and playwright of her era. (Best known plays are Will Shakespeare, Granite, and Bill of Divorcement).

I discovered this book about thirty years ago and lost an entire four-day bank holiday reading it. Saying you read a book in four days is a huge compliment to pay an author, but there’s a curious downside to it.  On the one hand it’s terrific that the book was so compelling you couldn’t put it down – on the other hand, the author probably spent a minimum of a year writing and researching it.

Broome Stages is a very long book indeed – 700 pages – and in a very general way is a family saga.  But it’s like no family saga I’ve ever read, before or since. It spans the years between 1715 and 1930, and it covers seven generations of a theatrical family.  The story begins with travelling players in tavern courtyards, and traces the family’s rise – through the marvellous fruity old Victorian actor managers who re-wrote Shakespeare to suit themselves, and into the early years of the 20th century, with the dawn of the early movies. It’s about the changing world of the theatre, but it’s also about the Broomes themselves – their loves and hates, and feuds and plots.  It’s about their fortunes in the theatre world – the buying of theatres, the building of a theatrical dynasty.

The writing is exquisite – polished and lovely, and the characters and their backgrounds are so vivid that the present-day dissolves as you read.

One of the reviews of the time had this to say:
Broome Stages is more than a novel.  It is a social-history and a social-comedy, an epic.  The genealogy is so intricately and ingeniously mapped and explained, they make that other famous family in fiction, Mr Galsworthy’s Forsytes, seem like a pack of Victorian upstarts.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

This marvellous, multi-layered story set in an Oxford College, sees Harriet Vane returning to her alma mater to help her former tutors with a poison pen mystery.  The mystery itself is engrossing, but woven into the plot is the gradually developing emotion between Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey, and Harriet’s own struggles to come to terms with her turbulent past.

Every time I read this, I’m pulled straight into that world, and made part of it by DLS’s excellent writing.

The Destiny Man by Peter van Greenaway

This is another book that  I bring back to my reading stack regularly.

It’s a terrific and, to my mind, a very unusual, story of how a has-been actor, living on his past glories, finds a yellowing Shakespearean folio on the tube, and how he manages to bring the play to production at Stratford (where else?).

The play’s subject is the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower, during James I’s reign – James himself was rumoured to have been slightly involved in that plot, so it’s very credible that if Will, living at the start of James’s reign by then, had written such a play, he would have kept it quiet.

Mr van Greenaway sprinkles his text beautifully with Bardic phrases – when the antiquarian bookseller Elias Pouncefoot is found murdered, he describes the reactions in these words:
The news broke about five, perfectly timed for radio, TV and late evening paper coverage.  A new, unpublished, unknown play, never before performed until soon – there was matter enough to generate interest.  But this new circumstance (ie the murder of Pouncefoot), almost melted wires and made the ionosphere crackle audibly as news of it girdled the Earth…   Here was a combination of events devoutly to be wished.
Sadly, this is no longer in print, but it can be obtained through most of the secondhand book sellers, and is well worth searching out.

The Hopkins Manuscript (also published, in edited and abridged version as The Cataclysm) by R C Sherriff

Sherriff is probably best known for his classic play about the Great War, Journey’s End, and his screenplays for famous films such as Goodbye Mr Chips, Home at Seven, and The Dam Busters. However, he also wrote a few novels, and The Hopkins Manuscript is something I’ve read many times.

The opening line is a terrific hook:
When the Royal Society of Abyssinia discovered The Hopkins Manuscript two years ago in the ruins of Notting Hill, it was hoped that some valuable light would at last be thrown upon the final tragic days of London.
It’s the story, written in first-person narrative, of a rather self-important, but ultimately surprisingly courageous and heroic retired schoolteacher, who finds himself caught up in cataclysmic events.  The moon has veered off course, and is set to crash into Earth.  The book is the story of how Edgar Hopkins, and the people immediately around him, deal with this - in practical as well as emotional terms.
Visit Sarah Rayne's website.

--Marshal Zeringue