Joan Aiken: The Suspense Novels

It’s fifty years since the publication of The Silence of Herondale, Joan Aiken’s first modern novel for adults, and to mark the occasion The Murder Room is delighted to publish six of her suspense novels. For The Fortune Hunters, this is the first time it has been published in the UK. The Murder Room caught up with Joan Aiken’s daughter, Lizza.

Joan Aiken was awarded an MBE for her services to children’s literature, but she also wrote for adults, both period romances and modern suspense novels. Adults and children everywhere have been touched by the magic of her books. What was it like to be her daughter, to grow up with her?

Joan AikenIt was such a piece of luck! She encouraged me to read from an early age and read aloud to me too, sharing all her own favourite books. If we were on a long train journey, or a rainy walk, she could always while away the time by telling me stories . . . I’d come back from school to hear the next instalment of the book she had been writing during the day, and be able to make suggestions!

Years later, when I went on to work in theatre and film, we had a wonderful time writing Arabel and Mortimer stories together for a Jackanory series on the BBC.

What drew Joan to write about the gothic, the supernatural? Was there a particular influence in her life that led her to write around these themes?

Joan grew up in a house full of books, and from the age of five read everything she could get her hands on, showing a preference for spooky stories from masters like M. R. James and Edgar Allan Poe.

She wrote some hair-raising short stories herself in the same vein, but her adult novels are in the style of Gothic Romances, following the model of one of her other favourites, Jane Austen and her famous Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey, in which the heroine, after a diet of sensational novels, is led to expect terrors around every corner!

The Aiken novels published by Orion for The Murder Room are stylish and often gripping, but not gory – she preferred suggestion and suspense, and is a master at keeping readers on the edge of their seats . . .

Joan was educated at home, by her mother, until the age of twelve. What influence do you think this may have had on her writing?

Joan’s mother, Jessie MacDonald, first wife of American poet Conrad Aiken, was a double graduate, gaining her MA from Radcliffe, sister college of Harvard, in 1912. She heard lectures from suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and saw performances by inspirational actress Sarah Bernhardt. She was a feminist model long before her time, and well equipped to teach Joan, too. The family were all great readers, and Jessie was one of Joan’s most devoted critics all her life, reading and commenting on all her books as they came out.

Did Joan herself have a favourite book? Who were the authors she loved most?

It would be hard to name a favourite book: she read everything, but there were many authors she read again and again – Jane Austen was one, and Dickens was an important influence; she loved thrillers and ghost stories, and she always advocated knowing a good stock of poems by heart to nourish and cheer during sleepless nights, or while waiting for the bus!

She was one of the best-read people of her generation, and was often asked to write reviews and introductions, or give talks about both classic literature and modern writers. Joan’s heroines are usually pretty well read too, which gives them a lot of useful role models for inspiration.

Did Joan read crime novels? I’m imagining her dipping into crime classics, such as Agatha Christie, or Margery Allingham . . .

Absolutely! She read all her contemporaries, such as Edmund Crispin and Josephine Tey, with enormous pleasure; Mary Stewart thrillers and Dorothy Gillman’s Mrs Pollifax series were also favourites. But the author she read over and over was Dick Francis – I’m sure she never watched a horse race in her life, but she loved his style.

For the reader new to Joan Aiken, which of the suspense novels would you recommend as a first read?

One of my favourites is Trouble with Product X – it is an absolute romp of a read – funny and terrifying, and a hilarious parody of Joan’s time spent working in a Mayfair advertising agency in the 1960s. Think Madmen set in England with Mary Quant being chased over the Cornish moors by Patrick McGoohan from The Prisoner – carrying, as one reviewer put it, ‘one of the nicest babies in literature’.

 

The Silence of Herondale, The Fortune Hunters, Trouble with Product X, Hate Begins at Home, The Ribs of Death and Died On a Rainy Sunday are now available in The Murder Room, with an Introduction by Lizza Aiken. Visit www.joanaiken.com for more about the author.