||[Jan. 17th, 2016|12:52 pm]
Peter Dickinson died on 16 December 2015, on his 88th birthday. His website lists all of his books1, nearly sixty of them. One of my favourite authors has died, and I am entitled to feel a sense of loss, but a sense of deprivation, that it isn't time yet, I want more? That's ridiculous, but I do.
He won the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger for best novel of the year, twice, in successive years, for his first two novels: the first, The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest is still one of my favourites. Detective James Pibble investigates a murder among the last of a New Guinea tribe resettled in a large Victorian house in West London, and maintaining or adapting their tribal customs there. It's crime novel as science fiction, with anthropology as the science. Then he won the Carnegie Medal for best children's book of the year twice in consecutive years - and he carried on writing inventive, thought-provoking, beautiful books for over 40 years. His last book, In the Palace of the Khans was nominated for the 2014 Carnegie Medal. He also - and there's a sting in the tail of this one - twice won the Phoenix Award, which is given by the Children’s Literature Association to a book that didn’t win any major awards when it was first published twenty years earlier (once for another of my favourites, The Seventh Raven).
I was already grown up, just about, when he started to be published; I read him exclusively as an adult. I don't know what effect this had, if any. But I'm pretty sure that the first of his books I read was The Dancing Bear, and the next The Blue Hawk (it may have been the other way about, but I don't think so). It wasn't love at first reading, but I liked them well enough to find and read the Changes trilogy, which I liked rather less. Looking now at that list of books in order of publication again, I realise that I built a whole (wrong) sequence in my mind, whereby Peter Dickinson had been learning his craft writing children's books, and only moved on to crime when he knew exactly what he was doing. Now I need to re-read everything in chronological order to see if it still feels that way. Well, that's a project for the future...
The previous paragraph was sparked by a reading of sovay's contemplation of three books by Peter Dickinson which are important to her. I have read two of the three, and I confess that I have only the haziest recollection of Merlin Dreams, while City of Gold lingers in my memory for the Michael Foreman illustrations. I'll come back to Time and the Clockmice, Etcetera, which I haven't read yet. Likewise, coffeeandink offers some recommendations which include, high up the list, Perfect Gallows, which would not be on my list at all. I don't think this is a bug, I think it's a feature: we compare favourites, we all have different favourites, we tend to bounce hard off each other's favourites. Peter Dickinson was an amazingly various author, and he wrote in strong flavours: dislikable characters, difficult answers to difficult questions. Read back through coffeeandink's tagged posts to see a reader talking about the things they dislike in a writer they clearly like very much.
I'm not even going to try to pick favourites, or to make recommendations. IF you want to try Peter Dickinson's books, and you don't know where to start, have a look at his website and pick whatever appeals. What I am going to do is talk about the three books I've read, not quite at random, since his death.
The Gift Boat (Inside Grandad in the US) floated up to the top of the to-be-read pile just at the right moment. It's a little book, for younger readers (by which I mean children, as opposed to those old enough to enjoy the books I think of as children's books but which are now classified as YA), about a boy and his grandfather in a small town on the Scottish coast. Grandad is a skilled modelmaker, and is working on a boat as a present for Gavin's birthday. So far, so normal. Then Grandad has a stroke, and the main part of the story is about his treatment, his progress, Gavin's attempts to reach him. "Rather an intense little story, but not as grim as it sounds," comments the author, which is about right. I loved the way Gavin's family - father who works away from home, practical mother with career, grandmother whose gossipy interest in her neighbours turns out to be useful - serves the plot by making a place for Gavin's relationship with his Grandad but is also a perfectly believable (but not entirely traditional) family. The book is beautifully written, and contains selkies as well as much useful information about what to do if someone has a stroke. What more could you want?
I wanted to talk about one of the crime books, but I'd probably still have been dithering: Sleep and his Brother, perhaps? Hindsight, with its characteristic motif of the mystery that must be solved through memory, plus a very quotable Latin lesson? Or King and Joker, using a British Royal Family just a step sideways from our own to talk about what it must be like to live in that sort of goldfish bowl (though I suspect Dickinson's royals are a nicer and less dysfunctional family than the real thing2). I would never have chosen The Last House Party without sovay's description of the clock in Time and the Clock Mice, Etc.:
The ninety-nine-year-old Branton Town Hall Clock is a marvel of timekeeping, famous for its tableaux in which seasonal figures process through the quarter-hours from Lady Spring attended by lambs through Lady Winter in her cloak of green leaves until "Time comes out again and hunts them all into the dark," which also describes the clock at Snailwood Castle.
This tells you two things about Peter Dickinson. One is that themes and motifs repeat throughout his work, and it isn't a problem unless you find it one. The other is that when he creates a country house setting for a crime, this isn't the cosy cliché of the Golden Age: his country houses have panache. Yet they are rooted in familiarity with the real thing. His essay on Murder in the Manor should be required reading for anyone interested in the cosier end of the crime genre.
The Last House Party is not, in fact, about murder in the manor. There is a death, which seems to be accidental although this does not mean that no-one is responsible. But the crime which provides the central mystery is child abuse. It is not treated lightly: a terrible thing has happened, and the central question asked by the narrative is, what are its consequences? I don't have the expertise to comment on its answers (other than that they are, of course, fictional answers supplied for this fictional case only). I don't think I can say any of the other things I might want to say on the subject without huge spoilers, so I'll say only that it's a very uncomfortable book, and we need a few of those. As if to sweeten the medecine, it contains a very beautiful garden.
For something completely different, how about Hepzibah? Even the cover copy concedes that "It has to be said that none [of Peter Dickinson's other books for children] were ever quite like Hepzibah" As far as I know, none of his other picture books includes a song (a floppy vinyl single) with lyrics by Pete Townsend. Each page of text not only faces a full-page illustration by Sue Porter, full of inventive detail, but is also set within a border into which the illustration overflows. Occasional asides in the text imply that the author has just noticed a detail in the picture which he feels obliged to explain: presumably this isn't the case, but it always makes me laugh. I say "presumably" because all I know about how the book was created is the explanation that "[the] story began as a means of coaxing small children through their meals." I would love to know more. How, for example, did it come to be published by Pete Townsend3?
The first page ends: "The main thing is that Hepzibah likes trouble. If there is trouble going on, she enjoys it. If there isn't, she makes it." Anyone who knew my mother will understand why I love this book so much.
I was going to stop there, but a comment from papersky's comment "I wish he'd write more SF," sent me off to his short story Who Killed the Cat?. Don't get your hopes up, it's just a bit of fun, and one of the reasons it makes me so happy is the context: who else, considering the brief 'a story that concerns a jury of some kind' for an anthology of that most traditionalist body of crime writers, the Detection Club, turn in a piece of indisputable SF? What's more, it's an SF story which takes a familiar SF theme: a multi-species crew of space adventurers are investigating a new planet, and one of their members has been killed - by what? or by whom? There's a genuine detection-type puzzle in there, but there's also an opportunity to dissect a familiar motif, with the bonus entertainment of creating eight different alien species with different skills and different ways of communicating.
Do I wish he'd write, had written, more SF? Until I met papersky's 'Small Change' series, I hadn't even realised that stories in a world in which history went just a little differently, like King and Joker and Skeleton-in-Waiting, counted as SF. Now I'm wondering how many of Peter Dickinson's adult books belong as much to the SF genre as to crime? More than most author's, he illustrates that the usefulness of genre distinctions - not just crime versus SF, but also adult versus children's literature - goes only so far. In whatever he wrote, he had a unique and distinctive voice, and the only consolation for its silence is that we can still read and reread all he wrote.
1May i recommend Peter Dickinson's website? It is excellent, and full of good things. And, having recommended it, may I be excused linking each time I mention something that can be found there? In particular, there is a page about each of his books, accompanied by a plot summary and brief comment from the author - the place to start if you want to know more about an individual title.
2Many of Peter Dickinson's characters are - how can I put this? - posh: upper class, wealthy, privileged. Mostly I just take this as one of the advantages of fiction, that you get to spend time with people you otherwise woulsn't get to meet, nor want to. Have a look at the author's biography and make allowances. I mention it not because it is a problem as because mostly it isn't. That said, I have problems with A Summer in the Twenties.
3Publisher Eel Pie Publishing appears to be Pete Townsend's publishing arm. I have no idea how that happened.