I’m so proud and grateful to be the first Tools Story on their blog. These have had a profound effect on my mental health, my productivity, and my creative output. I can’t recommend The Tools and Coming Alive books and podcast enough. Read my story here.
I first thought about crime novels set in Wales ten or eleven years ago. I was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a steady diet of “pre-loved” books. I’d take a consumed one back to George at Backstreet Books and do a part-trade for another. I stumbled across Arnaldur Indriðason this way, and loved his stories; soon George was recommending other Nordic Noir novels and I chomped through them. Being in Asia, I had no idea that this was ‘a thing’ now, a Huge Thing. There just seemed to be an awful lot of them, and I loved their atmosphere. And wondered, ‘Why not Wales?’ A country with at least as much atmosphere, and heaps of slate to hide bodies under.
This first of many “Welsh Wednesdays” is dedicated to the most successful Welsh crime writer you’ve (probably) never heard of. Born in Abergavenny in 1876, Ethel Lina White worked at the Ministry of Pensions then wrote “regular” novels before turning her hand to crime fiction aged 55. She took a chance by giving up her “proper job” to write full-time, and her faith was amply rewarded. (As someone with my first crime novel out at 53, housesitting and petsitting this year in order to try and make a serious go of writing, of course I love this). Ethel became hugely successful, and was once as well-known as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Her fame in the 1930s and 1940s was due in no small part to the filming of three of her books, and two in particular: Some Must Watch became the film The Spiral Staircase, and The Wheel Spins was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Ethel died in 1944 aged only 68.
Of course Ethel’s books are as dated now as others of that era, but they are in some ways refreshingly modern. There are strong undertows of psychological repression, and her stories tend to feature strong women in peril, the dangers occasioned more by their gendered position in the world than something internal; a proto-Nicci French, in a way.
It isn’t difficult to find Ethel’s books these days. I particularly enjoy Some Must Watch, which has seen at least four cinematic iterations, for having the nine protections afforded to the protagonist Helen stripped away one by one, until she must ensure her own survival. My favourite title, though, is Fear Stalks the Village (1932). Superbly Welshy-noiry.
Can Cymraeg Crime ever become a Huge Thing, like Nordic or Tartan Noir did? I want to help make it so if I can.
It’s really heating up out there, and so is this blog. From tomorrow onwards the daily (except for Free Fridays) schedule will be:
Things I Love Thursday
Show Off Saturday
Missing Persons Monday
Get in the pool.
Often, stories of artists’ lives paint them as artists from birth, said to have been never without a pencil to scribble with as soon as they could hold one, whether they grew up to be fine artists or writers. It is one of the most enviable qualities in a human, surely, that they knew what they wanted to do with their lives, what they wanted to ‘be’, from such a young age; that they had endless years to pursue and perfect their desires.
All of this is very off-putting to the rest of us.
You rarely hear about the people who ran through a host of decades without ever picking up a brush or touching a typewriter. Oh, there’s the occasional Mary Wesley type, who gets their first bestseller at 70-odd years old, a source of hope to late bloomers everywhere. But when you get to know a little about these marvels, you discover that they, too, began a neighborhood newspaper — complete with accomplished cartoons — at five; were the leading literary light in their primary school; won the County Art Fair at fourteen; or have been writing daily, or drawing, throughout their lives, but perhaps only “for themselves”.
It was this body of myths and legends, I believed, that stopped me - that I allowed to stop me - from becoming any kind of artist. I had mere skirmishes with the creative. I danced through my childhood, acted through my teens, stitched pillows and crafted papier mache bowls in my twenties, and drew exactly four intriguing pencil sketches in my thirties. Now and then I’d read about some lawyer like me who, as in my dreams, quit the law to become a writer.
She would get up at 530 every morning, drink green tea, go for a six mile run, tend her garden, eat an apple and a slice of homemade bread, then settle down to hammer out an entire chapter, with seeming ease, before lunch with her lover. I, lacking any such drive, discipline, focus, or infrastructure, would immediately quell the artist hammering at my ribs to get out, and go back to constructing boring legal articles for pointless legal journals.
When I was young, I believed that artists were born, not made. Later, I came to think that artists were made, not born. Either way, I held myself up to these other histories, these impossibly rigid and wholesome daily schedules and self-controls, and felt too inadequate even to begin. I read a mountain of books about how to write without ever writing a word outside the workplace. After a while, it became … what would you call a combination of masturbation and procrastination, psychologically-speaking? Is there a word for that? There should be a word for that. I’ll bet German has one.
But at fifty-ish, something miraculous occurred. All of a sudden, I knew that to be an artist is simply to be a child again, but with keener eyes. You don’t have to run daily to write. You just have to write. And keep writing. Because you want to, for the sheer joy of it. You don’t have to be insane, or French, or a former child savant, to be an artist. You just have to enjoy playing with paper and colour, and trust the click inside that tells you when to stop. Connect the dots you see in the world, fill the empty spaces. Then, if you want to, throw what you’ve done at the walls of the world outside and see if anything sticks; walls that once you built inside, out of fear.
Writing and reading create silvery threads that connect people through time and space. Someone, somewhere, will think, oh my god! Yes, that, I saw that too. Does it mean anything to make these little connections? It feels like it means something. Only connect, said Forster. ‘Live in fragments no longer.’
It dawned on me one morning that life itself is an art, each person’s lifetime a work of art, whether Van Gogh’s Starry Sky or a velvet Elvis painting. Each day lived can be a poster, a painting, a short story, a performance. And what works in life works in creation, what works in creation works in life. There are no rules per se, no permissions. Only some simple truths, the first of which is: get out of your own way, and stop thinking that other lives, other ways of being, somehow have a power stronger than the artist within each of us. Honour inspiration.
It’s been a wonderful day for the launch of Back in 5, knackered but happy. The first 50 purchasers will get the second book in the Serenity series of crime novels for free. Gone for Good is due out on 1 March 2020, and will look very much like this. Cover designs for both by Rachel Morris.
A shop without a shopkeeper.
A quarry with more lying broken in it than stones.
A detective, half-belonging to a place, trying to put its pieces back together.
Women of Wales, a land of mystery in more ways than one.
RaRa Avis Press is beyond delighted to announce the publication of Back in 5 by Ruby Mathias. This Wales-set crime novel will be for sale on Apple Books and perhaps other stores in the coming weeks (but not Amazon, because we hates them, precious). For now this website is your one wonderful source for this wonderful book. Thank you for supporting independent authors and publishers in this brave new world. Available in ebook only for the time being - perhaps we’ll launch a physical book and audiobook when this story becomes a show on the teevee! - but available in both .epub and .mobi for all your e-reader needs, nicely priced at £5.99. You can buy it for yourself or, by simply entering someone else’s email address when processing your shopping cart, you can give it to someone you love! (They will be emailed a code they can use to claim the download). We use Selz as our online store, and their checkout is SSL secure, using industry-standard encryption to keep your credit card safe and well.
Back in 5 is the first in a series of seven books, the series being called Serenity after the main character, DS Seren Parry. We hope to publish one book a year, every 1 March (St David’s Day, the national day of Wales). We are proud that this book is set in the excellent and beautiful nation of Wales, adding to the growing wave of Welshy noir. Now go and buy Ruby’s good book so that she can keep writing more instead of having to go and work in the Saudi desert or something, like before.
This book is very sweary so maybe it’s best that you don’t buy it if you object to strong language.