Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 4
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, part IV. The hebdomadal challenge is to find a neglected work or curiosity by an established author in one of London’s secondhand bookshops, for about £5. Some readers have misinterpreted the purpose as pleasure, but it is medicinal. We require a weekly antidote to the toxins released into the bookselling system by certain mainstream publishers. The virus mutates: A Shite History of Nearly Everything, Shite’s Original Miscellany, Eats, Shites and Leaves, Do Ants Have Arseholes?
The Archive Bookstore at 83 Bell Street, a short hop from Marylebone Station, is a tonic in itself. Here are the bountiful outdoor barrows full of LPs, books and sheet music. Here is the aproned counterhand, polite and helpful, undaunted by the Sisyphean task of shifting cartons of books to permit access to shelves, only to obscure other shelves. There goes the proprietor down to the basement, from where he conjures Chopin variations on the piano with wooden keys.
If eager to improve your language skills, visit the Archive. Packed into excavated recesses on the way to the basement are books in foreign languages. Dig through one layer to uncover the New Testament in Danish; dig deeper for David Irving’s study of Hitler in German; archaeological tenacity and a torch reveal Jane Austen’s Sentido y sensibilidad. We were briefly tempted by Volume I of The Brothers Karamazov yoked together as a pair with Volume II of War and Peace.
Instead, we lighted on a genuine curiosity: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith. Few, even among Highsmith’s admirers, are aware of this enlightening book. It was published in 1983 by Poplar Press of South London. The advice is practical and down to earth. She prefers an opening sentence “in which something moves and gives action”, and sure enough almost all her novels begin with movement:
"The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm." (Strangers on a Train)
"Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way." (The Talented Mr Ripley)
"It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed to walk the streets." (This Sweet Sickness)
She wishes to suggest “a bottling up of force that will one day explode”. The action is needed because “the reader does not want to be all at once plunged into a sea of complex facts”. Her advice extends to writing in general: for example, that the last sentence of a chapter, a section, even a paragraph, can often be cut to the benefit of what has gone before.
The Archive charged us £3.50 for Highsmith’s wisdom. We bought a stack of other books as well. The man in the apron kindly knocked a few pounds off the total.