Natalie Haynes is a writer, broadcaster, reviewer and classicist. She was once a stand-up comic, but retired when she realised she preferred tragedy to comedy. Always keen to be paid for what she would be reading anyway, she judged the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in 2010, The Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2012, and the Man Booker Prize in 2013. The Amber Fury is her first novel.
I can’t come even close to having 10 favourite books, let alone 1 (how do people do that? I must just like more things than other people, I think…). So I will go with my favourite crime novel – and even that is incredibly hard to choose. How do I pick between Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, between Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler…? But I am being ruthless and thinking hard about which books I have loved most for longest, and which ones I have read and re-read. I think the only choice, in the end, is Barbara Vine, and I think The House of Stairs is probably the clincher, though I love them all. I read The House of Stairs when it came out in paperback – I think I must have been about 14. I was mesmerised by it. I have always loved books which feature quirky landladies filling their homes with misfits (I love Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books, for just this quality). And Cosette was the first of these I ever remember reading about. I love the way Vine/Rendell drip-feeds information and suspense: she has an unrivalled capacity to make hairs stand up and jaws clench as we read her. My favourite scene is hard to discuss without giving away the plot, which I really don’t want to do. So I will instead opt for a favourite setting, if that’s ok, which is Cosette’s house. It is a character in its own right, and the story wouldn’t work without its sinister, compelling, claustrophobic presence. It’s a huge, tall house, yet the stairs creak and reveal who is where, and when. So it acts almost as a prison, as well as a sanctuary and a threat. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. My favourite character is Elizabeth, who narrates the story, and manages to reveal so much while concealing key facts until crucial moments. It never feels forced. And Elizabeth’s passion for Henry James gives her a depth that many mystery-story narrators lack. She’s genuinely enthralling company.
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