news about Jessica Mann
Bob Cornwell’s interview appeared in CADS 43, May 2003.
This magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective fiction is available from its publisher, Geoff Bradley, 9 Vicarage Hill, South Benfleet, Essex, SS7 1PA
"An intelligent writer writing intelligently about intelligent people” remarked veteran reviewer F.E. Pardoe about Jessica Mann. That nothing has changed is at once apparent as you read her most recent book The Voice from the Grave (Constable 2002). Reviving psychiatrist Dr. Fidelis Berlin from the Gold Dagger short-listed A Private Enquiry (Constable 1996), Mann delivers a superbly structured entertainment that encompasses not only an ingenious mysteryand a well-delineated cast, but also, as Fidelis faces the onset of a debilitating illness, a moving meditation on the problems of advancing age.
Jessica Mann was born in London. She studied archaeology and Anglo-Saxon at Newnham College, Cambridge and law at Leicester. Over the thirty-odd years that have passed since her first book A Charitable End (Collins Crime, 1971) Mann has produced nineteen crime novels. Two feature Thea Crawford, a Professor of Archaeology, and six, including the splendid Funeral Sites (Macmillan 1981) feature Tamara Hoyland, “an intelligence agent of awesome all-round competence”, once Thea’s pupil.
Her study of women crime writers Deadlier Than the Male (David & Charles 1981) is a standard work in the field. Also a broadcaster and journalist (check out, for instance her Literary Review piece in August 2001 on Hammett’s collected letters), she is married, with four grown-up children, and lives in Cornwall.
Recently she has been working on a non-fiction book about the overseas evacuation of children during WW2, to be published by Headline in association with The Imperial War Museum. Don’t be surprised if her next crime novel in some way reflects those researches...
Bob Cornwell:Which was the first book (of any type) to make a strong impression on you - and why?
JM: I was the proverbial child with her nose in a book, always aspiring to adventures with ponies, princesses, and Arthur Ransome's bold quartet. But the book that changed my life was Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W.Ceram which inspired me to study archaeology.
BC: At what point did you discover that you had some facility with the written word?
JM: Aged 12, when a children's glossy called Collins Magazine printed the first piece I sent in.
BC:What attracted you to crime writing?
JM:Because it was what I liked reading.
Was A Charitable End your first completed work? Any rejections along the way?
BC: Yes, apart from embarrassing teenage screeds. A Charitable End was rejected by Collins when I submitted it in myself. Then I found an agent, she sent the same book back to Collins and they took it. I'd always longed to have a book published, so getting that first letter of acceptance was one of the best moments of my life.
BC: What were you trying to achieve with your first few novels?
JM: In other parts of life I'm efficient, organised and analytical, but I write by instinct, without preplanning, and if I understood it, couldn't do it. As someone else said, how do I know what I think till I see what I say? But if one can pin something down, I think I wanted to write about real life as I knew it and show how easily its veneer, the thin ice of civilisation, might crack.
BC: Major influences on your writing?
JM: My late mother, who was a lawyer as well as the most voracious and quickest novel reader I ever knew.
BC: Which comes first for you – plot, place or characters – and why?
JM:People first, always, then places, which are very important to me, and last of all, often with its details inserted afterwards, plot.
BC: What do you consider to be your strongest points as a writer?
JM: My writing is what a critic called ‘tightly wrought.’ I love manipulating language and cutting out superfluous words. But the downside is that it makes my books too short. Long ones sell better!
BC: In what skill (as a writer) would you most like to improve?
JM: Getting down to work. Making myself stick to it. Not giving in to displacement activities.
BC: Any (printable) views on literary critics, particularly in the crime field?
JM: Apart from observing that books by male writers are disproportionately likely to be noticed, I'd better not, being a lit crit myself.
BC: What is your definition of writing Heaven? And writing Hell?
JM: Heaven – having finished a book. Hell – being stuck with the next one.
BC: How do you relax?
JM: Reading. Listening to music. Looking at (or buying) pictures. Walking in towns.
BC: Which newspaper(s) do you read regularly?
JM: Depending whether Charles (my husband) or I wins the daily battle, the Guardian or The Times or Telegraph on paper and the others on line, also the broadsheet Sundays and the local Cornish papers.
BC: What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
JM: A stack of novels I'm reviewing for the Sunday Telegraph, Dorothy L.Sayers' voluminous correspondence which I'm reviewing for the Literary Review. Amos Elon, The Pity Of It All. Science fiction by Ken McCleod. Rereading J.L.Carr's The Harpole Report. Tom Cross's new study of Cornish painters.
BC: Which new(ish) writer have you most enjoyed reading recently?
JM: Jane Stevenson (a trilogy set in the seventeenth century.)
BC:‘Desert Island’ films, plays and/or music?
JM:Films: Amadeus. Pride & Prejudice (the latest version), Lord of the Rings x 2. If videos count, the complete set of The West Wing. Music: Bach cantatas & oratorios - all or any. Opera: The Marriage of Figaro.
BC: A favourite book shop?
JM: Kenny's Bookshop in Galway, several floors of new and old books, decorated with signed photos of authors who have visited, including me and Charles. (Flattery will get them everywhere.)
BC: Are you in favour of the death penalty for murder?
BC: Which living person do you most admire?
JM: Pass; because whenever I say I admire anyone a curse (cf of Gnome or Hello magazine) strikes and their feet of clay are instantly exposed.
BC: Who or what makes you laugh?
JM: Wit but not comedy, so conversation's best. On TV, satire: Bremner Bird and Fortune, Yes Minister etc. On the page, Cold Comfort Farm, Gwen Raverat's A Cambridge Childhood, Posy Simmonds' cartoons.
BC: What depresses you most about contemporary Britain?
JM: My home in Cornwall is actually less accessible now than it was 25 years ago. So the dire state of roads and railways is really depressing. .
BC: What excites you most about contemporary Britain?
JM: Exciting new buildings and public spaces, eg. Somerset House and The Eden Project.
BC: What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
JM: A private helicopter.
BC: Which non-crime book would you most like to have written?
JM: Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy – interesting, informative, original and perceptive. One of the twentieth century's great books, of which I'd have been incapable of writing a single paragraph.
BC: Which crime novel would you most like to have written? And why?
JM: Any one of the 'greats.' Gaudy Night. Tiger in the Smoke. Smallbone Deceased. Hamlet, Revenge!, The Franchise Affair.
BC: Which, of your own work to date, is the book which you consider came off best?
JM: As Dick Francis replied to the same question, it's like asking me to chose a favorite out of my 4 children. But if I had to suggest which of my novels to try first, I'd probably say Telling Only Lies or A Private Inquiry.