Not that she'd been unpublished until then. As the Literary Executor for Barbara Pym, she'd been responsible for editing, and seeing through the publishing process, Barbara Pym's A Very Private Life: An Autobiography in Dairies and Letters; and, later, Pym's unpublished books. Her biography of Barbara Pym A Lot to Ask had a considerable success when it came out in 1990, just after her first attempt at fiction.
This attempt – and I'm not sure why I should say attempt, for it resulted in a very successful book – was called Gone Away, and it was the first of a series of twenty (so far) books about the very likeable fiftyish widow, Sheila Malory. Sheila lives in a small fictional village called Taviscombe in Dorset. Interestingly enough, Barbara Pym invented this name for her book No Fond Return of Love – but Hazel Holt's Taviscombe, which grows in detail book after book, is certainly not the same place. This isn't the only resemblance between the two writers. Many of Pym's turns of phrase appear in Holt's books. But this just makes them more enjoyable, to me.
In this first book Sheila is recently widowed . Her husband, Peter, was a lawyer, and her mother had died very shortly before him, leaving Sheila alone, except for her son Michael, who's just started at Oxford; and, of course, her many friends.
Sheila, as a detective must be, is unceasingly curious about people. In book after book, it's her interest in things that are happening to her friends or even acquaintances that starts her off investigating and bringing crimes and their perpetrators to light.
I first came across this writer when I myself was already grown up and married, so she's not exactly a life-long favourite. (Unlike Georgette Heyer, for instance, whom I distinctly remember reading under the desk at primary school when our headmistress came in to talk to us about the eleven plus – so I must have been ten. Or Agatha Christie, whose Partners in Crime I discovered in the attic room of our house – not thrown out, just stored for lack of space – when I was about seven or eight.) But she certainly is a favourite, one whom I reread and enjoy afresh with great regularity. Like so many of my favourite writers, I owe my knowledge of her to my sister, who lent me Gone Away, saying, 'You might enjoy this. I thought it was quite readable.'
I did indeed enjoy it, and went on over the years to read the next eighteen. (I believe I've been bought the 20th, from my wish list, for my birthday, but it hasn't arrived yet. A treat in store!)
As with most series books, my pleasure is not in one particular book, but in the setting, the atmosphere and the characters – especially Sheila Malory. But if I had to pick one favourite book from the lot, I suppose I'd pick The Cruellest Month.
This is only the second book in the series. It's mainly set in Oxford, which for me is a big plus point. The Dorothy Sayers detective stories get considerable mention, especially Lord Peter Wimsey. Like me, Sheila was madly in love with Wimsey as a teenager – so how could I not love her and this book? The title has its own attraction. It's, as I expect you know, a quote from TS Eliot's The Wasteland –
'April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.'
Sheila, going up to Oxford to do some research (she writes articles for literary magazines), finds herself remembering her own time there, and in the course of her usual inquisitive investigating of an unexplained death, stirs up memories of the past, including some of her own which she regrets bitterly having disturbed. A highly enjoyable book. But only one among so many.
One of the things I like about Hazel Holt is her titles. Like The Cruellest Month, they tend to be quotes, although not always from poems. One, for instance, is called The Only Good Lawyer... When she'd had ten books published both in the UK and the USA ( where she's been extremely popular) Hazel Holt's UK publisher stopped publishing her books. I don't know the ins and outs of this – perhaps she wasn't 'dark' enough for them? Or perhaps she was unhappy with her contract? However, the USA publisher cheerfully continued with the next few books, presumably because they have a wide market for what they weirdly call 'cozy' crime. (Note the American spelling!) Before long, another UK publisher took her up. But annoyingly the USA publishers insisted on changing the titles to include the name Mrs Malory in each.
Now, I have 2 objections to this. Firstly, it's obviously an attempt to put Sheila Malory alongside Agatha Christie's Miss Marple with her formal title. Fair enough, in a way. But Sheila is only called Mrs Malory by strangers and acquaintances. She's more usually known as Sheila by the people she interacts with.
Secondly, this leads to some strange titles. I'll only give one example. The third book, The Shortest Journey, was published in the USA as Mrs Malory's Shortest Journey. But 'the shortest journey' is the one from life to death, as spoken of by the Ancient Greek poet Homer. The shortest journey referred to in this title is not Sheila Malory's death – on the contrary, she is investigating what may prove to be the death of someone else. How annoying is that?
Nevertheless, I'm grateful to these American publishers for making it possible for me to read the full list of Hazel Holt's books, so I'd better stop complaining. And I notice that the Kindle versions use the original titles – good!
I called this post Hazel Holt's sympathetic villains, and it's a fact that the vast majority of her villains ( not by any means all) are people we can sympathise with. Often they end up by killing themselves or being clearly in need of medical help. I'd love to be able to do some analysis of this, but the trouble with writing about detective stories is that you have to be so careful not to spoil the plot. And one thing I should empathise about Hazel Holt is that her plots are always very good, with the essential twist in the tale which is so satisfying.
So rather than give too much away, I'll invite you to look into this for yourselves, and see if you agree with me.
Instead, I'll finish off with a few comments on another favourite Hazel Holt book of mine, which is Fatal Legacy. In this book, Sheila is made Literary Executive to her friend Beth, a famous novelist who dies early in the book. The parallel with Hazel Holt's own experience as Literary Executive to her friend Barbara Pym is obvious. The background knowledge naturally makes this book especially successful and readable, but I think I can safely say that the plot, and Sheila's reluctant discoveries about her dead friend's life, are purely invention and in no way related to Barbara Pym. I'll leave you to find out more for yourself by reading the book.
And may I suggest that you might like to read my own books? Here they are, in case you don't know.
The Seanachie: Tales of Old Seamus
Lady Molly And The Snapper
And finally, my new release, Angel in Belfast: the 2nd Angel Murphy Thriller about the feisty young Belfast girl!
Why not try them?
Goodbye and God Bless! See you soon!