Thursday, 23 August 2012

NIna Bawden R.I.P.

I was sorry to learn of the death of Nina Bawden, at the age of 87. She was a gifted writer, and although I never got the chance to meet her, everything I've read about her suggests a charismatic and admirable person, who had perhaps more than her fair share of tragedies to face in life. What is not so well known about her is that she began her career as a crime writer.

Her first book, Who Calls the Tune, was published by Collins Crime Club, and coincidentally I managed to purchase a copy recently, though I haven't read it as yet. I have, however, read her second novel, The Odd Flamingo, a couple of times. Some of you may recall that I chose it as a Forgotten Book worth remembering in this blog a couple of years ago. It was first published in 1954, and twenty-six years later that excellent critic and crime novelist Julian Symons chose it for inclusion in an excellent series of a dozen books to celebrate the Crime Club's Golden Jubilee.

In a typically pithy and insightful introduction, Symons says that her crime novels were "plotted with outstanding cleverness, but they are much more than five-finger exercises if considered as novels - that is, in terms of characterisation and emotional impact."The mystery concerns the apparently nefarious activities of a seemingly respectable head teacher, and the eponymous Odd Flamingo turns out to be a drinking club that is vividly evoked.

Back in the early 80s, I was initially drawn to the book not only because I trusted Symons' judgment but also, as a newly qualified solicitor, by the fact that the narrator is a lawyer. In fact, Will Hunt's legal life is not in fact the focus of the story, but that didn't matter at all. It is a very readable book and, when I returned to it a few years ago, both I and someone to whom I recommended it enjoyed it all over again.

After The Odd Flamingo, Bawden abandoned crime fiction - a shame,because she might have written some remarkable books within the genre. But she went on to write fine books of other kinds, and I agree with Symons that her criminal apprenticeship stood her in good stead. There is, as he says, often some sort of quest or mystery at the heart of her better known stories. Her death is a loss, but I'm sure her reputation will endure.


Sarah said...

I was talking about Nina Bawden in my local 2nd hand bookshop this morning. The woman who owns the shop is an expert in children's literature but we agreed that Bawden's novels for adults were very good. I hadn't realised she had written crime novels. I will try and find a copy. The second hand book fair I visited today in Buxton had very poor pickings in relation to crime fiction.

Martin Edwards said...

Strangely enough, I almost went to the Buxton book fair myself. Nice setting. Sometimes the crime selection is good, but of course it all depends....