The crime novels of Joan Aiken (1924-2004) find a new audience
The Murder Room (Orion) are reissuing The Silence of Herondale in January, and have designed a new look across this and five more Joan Aiken titles.
Joan’s daughter, writer and actress, Lizza Aiken has written a piece for The Crime Hub about Joan’s influences and these crime classics which are being brought to a new readership…
In the current, turbulent times, there is an ever-increasing readership for these classic crime novels – is it the escapism, the quality of the writing, or simply because they are totally engaging page-turners? What is certainly true: Joan Aiken’s gothic crime novels should without doubt be a part of today’s crime-fiction landscape.
“It was dusk, winter dusk – snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…”
Does this 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 famous children’s classic.
This novel, also set in a snowy landscape, draws on her Gothic imagination and ability to conjure scenes of suspense and sinister villains, with thrilling chases across wild snowy moors; but this time the story is written for grown-ups, so will there be a happy ending?
In the pre-feminist 1960’s women’s struggle for independence had barely started, but in Joan Aiken’s novels, her courageous and free thinking heroines were based on earlier models from her 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 one of Joan Aiken’s favourites, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen had written a parody of the Gothic Novels she was reading in her day, such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s best-seller, The Mysteries of Udolpho, where hapless heroines found themselves in haunted castles threatened by unknown horrors.
Jane Austen’s juvenile skit, Love and Freindship, written in 1790 when she was fourteen, also 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 writing her 1960s Gothic Romance was just as tongue in cheek! Her poor heroine, having arrived by night at a remote farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, has to start up the generator to get the lights on (no shrinking violet she!) but the scene is written almost as a comedy, with a hysterical 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 at first sight 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 her children’s 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 – a guide commissioned by the Arvon Writers’ Foundation – she says:
“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 chief difference that the book need not end happily?
* * * * * * * * * *
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.”
Click here to buy the book.