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BOOK FESTIVAL REVIEW 6: Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend – final event, Desert Island Books asks all panellists to choose just three favourite books to take to a desert island


By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: Desert Island Books – six panellists choose three essential books to pack

The Stables, Cromarty

Sunday, noon

After this panel featuring six of the crime weekend’s guests, it was hard not to start over-planning. Earmarking a special small suitcase to keep with you at all times containing the three books each panellist decided they – and probably you – couldn’t face a desert island without.

That was 18 books – quite a big case then. Then, you started wondering, could you really not take all the extra security measures you could to keep the books safe for your long stay alone on the island? Should you dunk your mind-saving books in some eco-friendly fluid that would keep tropical insects from munching them to dust? Or waterproof them? Imagine floating safely to your island with your books, only to find them pulped to mush en route? Had the panellists covered all bases – would just one book of poetry be enough? And, OK, maybe an unexpected bonkbuster might be welcome …

Luckily, the choices made in turn by the six writers took your mind off such practicalities – laughs and the odd out-there choice definitely kept things interesting …

The Desert Island Books - or was that Crooks - panel. From left - Mary Paulson-Ellis, Nicola White, Matt Johnson, Elly Griffiths, Alex Walters and Ian Rankin. Picture: Georgia Macleod.
The Desert Island Books - or was that Crooks - panel. From left - Mary Paulson-Ellis, Nicola White, Matt Johnson, Elly Griffiths, Alex Walters and Ian Rankin. Picture: Georgia Macleod.

Possibly based on just one part of a certain popular Radio 4 long-running series invented by the famous Roy Plomley, the final session at the Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend proved a winner as Mary Paulson-Ellis, Nicola White, Matt Johnson, Alex [aka Mike] Walters, Elly Griffiths and Ian Rankin shared in turn their choices of just three books any desert island life couldn’t work for each of them without.

They all made very persuasive pitches for a pretty wide range of genres – and it was probably lucky for the audience that no-one decided we had to choose any winners. But the lovely Jonathan Whitelaw was there to lead the session in case things started to get ugly.

It might have been carnage – after all, these guys are very inventive murderers in their own field!

But it was useful to hear why they had made their killer choices …

I bet I wasn’t the only one vowing to top up their book collection with a few of these highly-recommended titles, just in case a desert island might loom up in your future to give you a good marooning.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens – got that in your desert island suitcase?
Bleak House by Charles Dickens – got that in your desert island suitcase?

MARY PAULSON-ELLIS had gone for Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – 1,000-odd pages, a romance, family story and detective mystery with “one of Britain’s first detectives” in Inspector Bucket. And it has the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion in it too, Mary reminded us, so you can find out more about that too. It was a good choice – as we later discovered, it had been one of Ian Rankin’s too! Mary moved on to the super-short Summer Book by Finnish writer and Moomintrolls’ creator Tove Jansson. It’s the story of a grandmother and a young girl living on a tiny island that has everything from a swamp they can turn into Venice to a flotilla of boats, and is a kind of self-help guide, Mary explained – “You even learn to light a fire!”

“You can do that with copies of Bleak House!” teased Elly Griffiths! Mary’s third choice was chancing her arm, but a good attempt to create the ideal detective fiction by creating her own The Golden Age Of Crime: The Complete Collection. With something like Highland detective writer Josephine Tey you could have all the books in there, read them all, then read them all again, Mary persuaded the rest of us...

“It would be full of puzzles and they could help you might work out from them how to get off the island!” Mary suggested. Or put pages of it as messages in a bottle to get help.

Mary Paulson-Ellis and Nicola White. Picture: Georgia Macleod
Mary Paulson-Ellis and Nicola White. Picture: Georgia Macleod

NICOLA WHITE had “one of the finest prose writers” Sarah Waters and her The Little Stranger, as a part mystery and ghost story combined. The writer only produces a book once every nine years or so – “so there would be a lot of anticipation!”, Nicola reasoned, before moving on to add James Joyce’s classic 20th century novel Ulysses, mirroring the classic Homer text, but telling the story instead of Irish poet Stephen Dedalus and the book’s Bloomsday, now celebrated in Dublin annually on June 16. Though it can be seen as a difficult read, Nicola felt it was “… readable given enough time … on a desert island. It is also 1,000 pages, like Bleak House, she pointed out.

“There are more characters in Bleak House,” Mary argued!

Nicola’s third choice was poetry collection Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

“I don’t want to be on any island without poetry,” Nicola argued, pointing out you could read the poems, sing them or learn them.

Matt Johnson. Picture: Georgia Macleod
Matt Johnson. Picture: Georgia Macleod

MATT JOHNSON whose event at the book weekend had outlined his shift from coping with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) to crime writing, chose The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh, following a shift of US city police who headed to the park at the end of every day to mull over what had happened during their day – calling it “choir practice”. Matt’s second book was Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist which tells the story of a shepherd who dreams of going to the pyramids where he will find treasure.

“I hadn’t been a reader but in the aftermath of PTSD I had the opportunity to start reading,” he told the audience. “And if I’m to survive this island, I’ll need a positive mental attitude!” His third book, Not For The Faint-Hearted by former Met police commissioner Sir John Stevens would probably also help with that. Matt had known Sir John in his former day job, said he was “a hell of a nice guy” and that he still kept in touch.

ELLY GRIFFITHS chose The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins as her first choice – the crowd going “Ahhh!” as if they understood when she named it. “You see!” Elly laughed, taking it the reaction meant lots of people there had read it. “And he did write the first detective novel with Sergeant Cuff!” – [in the Moonstone which came after]. Elly outlined the story. the woman who ran past the writer's character on Hampstead Heath and with whom he got involved in real life. Elly also named the villain, Count Fosco, as amazing – so bad he even writes in the heroine Marian’s diary, the words “Greetings from a sincere admirer”. Less freaky was Elly’s second choice, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, chosen because the writer wanted a book to make her laugh and this one has a mystery at the heart of it, she told us, – whatever the “something nasty in the woodshed” was that Aunt Ada had seen. Elly felt it made the book seem as if “the book wants to be a crime novel”. And her third choice was The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer, full-on Regency romance with “two dashing heroes, two brilliant heroines, smugglers, a priest-hole and a villain”.

Jonathan Whitelaw and Elly Griffiths. Picture: Georgia Macleod
Jonathan Whitelaw and Elly Griffiths. Picture: Georgia Macleod

MIKE WALTERS – who writes crime series as Alex Walters – returned to the fiction of his teens to inspire his island choices. Red Shank by Alan Garner ran three parallel time periods, Roman Britain, during the English Civil War and the present in the story of main characters Tom and Jan – a book Mike described as “very sparse, poetic and one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read”. Gear-shift to head for America with book 2, sci-fi classic The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R Delany – a successful black, gay, prodigy who won sci-fi’s Hugo and Nebula Awards. In his chosen title, Mike picks out the story of aliens who have taken over from humans, but hark back to old tales and myths to tell the Orpheus and Eurydice legend. But it’s back to the world of Northern England where Mike grew up and where the books of Reginald Hill are set such as The World Beyond featuring his detectives Dalziel and Pascoe, for the third choice. “I think he is still greatly underrated,” Mike said. “And in this book he uses his grandfather’s journals from the First World War – it’s a really great crime novel!"

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Ian Rankin's first choice (centre).
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Ian Rankin's first choice (centre).

IAN RANKIN may be one of the UK’s bestselling crime writers, but it was back to his university days for his first choice of book to take to the island with him – and it won’t be taking up much room in his luggage. Having studied English literature at Edinburgh University, Ian went on to do a PhD on Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, and it’s her famous story The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie that he picked first. He described it as an almost “anti-Bleak House” and revealed the whole thing took up just one issue of literary magazine The New Yorker in 1961 when it first came out. At just 120 pages, Ian described it as “a Tardis” as there is so much in it – a complex story told as a simple story. It focuses on an influential girls’ school teacher, the girls she teaches and the revenge one of them deals out to her. “I spent three years reading nothing else,” said Ian of Muriel Spark’s 25 novels, as well as plays, poems and short stories. “It’s a book where you end and go straight back to the beginning,” the writer said. “With Bleak House or The Woman In White you will only read it once, this one you will be reading for the rest of your life.” As Bleak House had already been picked by Mary, Ian opted for a wildcard approach – naming Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. He had once had to reach for Jilly’s work before, he told his audience, when becoming snowed in when he lived in France in 1990 and all reading matter had been exhausted! “It was total escapism, bounders, cads, women, lashings of sex and bad puns – and you just want to be there!”, But Ian saluted the meticulous research into stars buying out a TV station, the idea at the centre of the story.

“I found it gripping and funny,” he said, as he revealed when he had publicly said nice things about the book in the past, he had been sent lovely soap and, the second time, champagne, by Jilly Cooper. He said the writer in her 80s was writing another big book, this time set in the world of football. “Though she has already used the title Score for her one set in an orchestra,” Ian mused.

“Tackle?” suggested a helpful Elly Griffiths.

Though Ian admitted he didn’t believe a word of Rivals, he said: “This island we are going to could be a freezing Scottish island, so if you want escapism, this could be just the thing!”

And for his third choice, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ian made it sound like a desert island might be the ultimate blessing.

“The only reason I chose this is that I have never read it!” he grinned. “You open it and go ‘Christ! No!’ I’ll reread The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie again!’. You could make paper boats out of it, or burn it. But I think I’d need to be on a desert island to read it!”

There was just time for one long very generous raffle prize-giving – and the heartfelt thanks of Ian Rankin on behalf of the festival and the author guests to Cromarty Arts Trust arts development officer Georgia Macleod who has masterminded most of the weekends in the past but is now sadly leaving. MC

All six Cromarty Crime & Thrillers Weekend reviews on www.whatson-north and in the books section there!

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