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Monday, 21 August 2017

Fire Dance by Caroline Graham

Caroline Graham is based in Suffolk (where I live!) and is best-known as the creator of ITV's Midsomer Murders -- although has a justifiably lukewarm view of the series. Anyone who's glanced at her novels will know that they haven't been served well on television (that flawless first episode, The Killings at Badger's Drift, is an exception). Even John Nettles, DCI Barnaby himself, has written frankly that 'the Barnaby novels [are] better than their television counterparts', and 'much more interesting'. You can read his introduction to A Place of Safety in the Amazon preview. Today, I'm reviewing Graham's first-published novel, which is not a crime story at all.

When I was 13 I read all Caroline Graham’s detective novels with a greedy keenness. I loved them – the rather awkward writing style, the wry observation of character, and the black, bleak humour that I knew I was too young to fully understand. It was like a prolonged conversation with the very sharp relative we all wish we had.

The only of her adult novels that I didn’t read at the time was Fire Dance (1982). The first reason for this was that it was out of print. The second reason was that whenever the book was discussed it was as a ‘romantic novel’ and a very bad one at that – something that failed to help the author break through. But the other day, after following up a rumour, which proved to be false, that she had written a new crime thriller, I ended up buying this book on impulse. And I’m glad I did.

I think one reason that Graham herself has disavowed this book is because she doesn’t own the copyright: so there’s nothing in it for her. And it is very much a first novel – for one thing, it’s a lot shorter than the sprawling Barnaby narratives, and for another all the Graham hallmarks are there but not quite developed. In every Graham novel, this included, characters show their hedonism by taking scented baths, or they show their naivety by working for the BBC – I’m not sure what these facts tell us but it’s interesting to note that they remain constant throughout the author’s career!

The influences of Ruth Rendell and Iris Murdoch are much more overt here than they are in the later books, and Graham switches POV mid-paragraph, sometimes apparently unsure of who is speaking or thinking: this is toned down in later titles, but has always been the one weak point of her prose style. Nonetheless, Fire Dance is a good book, and a gripping read. I read it in a day.

This is not a romantic novel. No major couple survives the narrative (although the foreword warns us there will be a marriage, it becomes clear that it will be a rather dark, abusive one). It’s a psychological thriller about the twisting power of obsession. Kate, a rich and privileged woman, is obsessed with David, an older, widowed psychologist. David is obsessed with Anne, our unkempt, dead-behind-the-eyes protagonist. Anne is obsessed with a waxwork of Lord Byron – and we suspect, then know, that this has something to do with her father.

Perhaps this isn’t the most inviting or detailed plot summary – but to really experience the pleasure of Fire Dance is to read it. As a novel, it’s not going to set the Thames alight, but it isn't a bad read.

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