Sometimes a book is pure entertainment; it fills a few hours enjoyably, lets me escape from reality for a while, and that’s enough. If it lets me feel I’m spending time with some old friends, or meeting new ones, or visiting a new place, or revisiting a familiar one, that’s an extra. I read a lot of books like that.
Other times, though, there’s more. Those times, I come to the end of the book feeling I’ve learned something new, expanded my horizons, explored new territory. The author has clearly researched thoroughly, in order to recreate a setting or a scenario accurately; in those cases the details can usually be regarded as reliable and true to life, because there’s always a reader out there who has been there, done that, got the t-shirt, and is willing to go public when it doesn’t ring true on the page.
I’ve learned a lot reading crime fiction. I’ve learned about wine-making, the oil industry, archaeology, the customs of a Mennonite community and native American reservations and plenty more besides. My horizons have widened, my knowledge base has improved, and all with great stories attached. But sometimes that accuracy can be two-edged, and maybe even a little scary; there are occasions when I think, hmm, maybe I’d have been more comfortable without that knowledge. And if not me, then maybe another reader.
For instance I recently read a book set mainly on a cruise ship. Seagoing craft and I do not get along, and a cruise would definitely not be my idea of a great holiday, but many people think differently, and might find the background to this gripping story just a little offputting. Did you know (I didn’t, before I read the book) that if a serious crime is committed during a cruise, jurisdiction lies with the police in the country where the ship is registered? (Unless the victim is a citizen of the USA, many Dead Guy followers may be glad to learn; then it’s the FBI.) So no one on board has the power to investigate; they have to wait until detectives arrive from whatever country that is, however long it takes. It could be some tiny (or war-torn) African or south American country which doesn’t run to the kind of well-funded, well-equipped police force a crime victim might want. That’s the way merchant shipping works. And, well, give or take the odd episode of piracy on the high seas which makes headlines, when did you last hear of a major crime committed on a cruise ship? Major incidents, yes; but crime: say, a murder or kidnapping? No, me neither.
See what I mean about being more comfortable without that knowledge?
What else? Oh yes, the football. We didn’t make the final. But you know what? That’s OK. We were knocked out in the semis by the team that eventually won the whole tournament, and for a small country with a population not much bigger than Chicago, I think that counts as triumph. The squad arrived home to a heroes’ welcome: crowds, champagne and flag-waving in every town, a full day of TV devoted to their success. I don’t know what kind of reception the eventual winners got, but it couldn’t have been a better one. The Welsh word for what I’m feeling, what every Welsh person is feeling, is balch. It means proud. But so much more besides; in Welsh word meanings are never simple.
And finally – thanks again to my good friend Chris Nickson for picking up the pieces at short notice again last week. He’s far too modest to tell you himself, but he has a new book out next week: the fourth in his brilliant series featuring D I Tom Harper and his suffragist wife Annabelle, set in 1890s Leeds. There’s more: September will bring you Lottie Armstrong, also a Leeds police-person, but twenty-some years later than Harper, and whaddya know, a woman! (Shock! horror! said some in the 1920s. But Lottie confounds their dubious expectations.)
Find them. Read them. You won’t regret it.