The Books That Made Me

The first book I ever truly loved was The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. It was the story that opened my eyes to the obsessive magic of reading, and it’s the only book that I’ve ever begun again as soon as I finished it. It stood out from most of my childhood reading, which consisted of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven stories and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew – books that were probably destined to make me a crime writer. I must have been about seven when I first discovered it, and I was encouraged to read that Brown had written the book when she was just a few years older, at the age of fourteen; those intervening years stretched out like a challenge, and I remember being bitterly disappointed on my fifteenth birthday when no novel of my own had presented itself.

The Swish of the Curtain tells the story of seven stage-struck friends who transform a disused chapel into The Blue Door Theatre after one of them accidentally throws a stone through the window. Published in 1941, part of its charm is the nostalgia of its pre-war setting. It’s a book with wonderful characters – the drama queen, the handsome artistic older boy, the anarchic younger sister – all of whom are very real, but mostly it’s about the excitement of theatre. For someone so young, Brown had an amazing knowledge of the practicalities of putting on a play, and she would go on to train at RADA and produce children’s television for the BBC – but she never lost sight of the sheer joy of the stage, and she gave people like me the chance to have that adventure vicariously. Theatre is a thread that runs through all my books, from the glamour of the West End in the 1930s to the early days of radio drama at the BBC and the unique beauty of Cornwall’s Minack Theatre, quite literally carved out of the rock by a woman called Rowena Cade – and I can see now that much of that stems from Brown’s small but perfectly formed book.

The book I’ve returned to most often is probably Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I tried it for the first time when I was seven, not because I was a precocious child with pushy parents, but because that was when the single came out and I loved Kate Bush. Needless to say, I didn’t understand a word of it and I didn’t get very: far, but I’ve read it many times since and I’m always amazed by the way it grows and changes with you; some books are special at a particular time and place in your life, but Wuthering Heights is a shape-shifter of a novel, as brilliant and brave to me now as it ever was. And its influence has been huge: a book about the destructive nature of love, which is at the heart of crime fiction; a book which is impossible to separate from its author, a coming together of biography and fiction which my own books depend on; a book which has left its mark on the fabric of the parsonage it was written in, revealing the importance of a sense of place to any author; and last but not least, a ghost story, a genre that I love – perhaps the finest ghost story ever written.

People who know my books won’t be surprised to find The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey on this list. It’s no exaggeration to say that this 1948 detective story is a book that changed my life; if it weren’t for Tey, I might not be writing fiction. The series of novels which feature her as a character began as a biography, which was abandoned when the research hit a brick wall and my partner uttered the immortal words – “oh for God’s sake, make it up”; now, I’m forever grateful to Tey for rolling up the carpet of her personal life sufficiently to force me down another path.

The Franchise Affair was the first of her novels that I read, and it’s still my favourite. On the one hand, it’s is a warm, nostalgic snapshot of 1940s England – an England that Tey loved, even though she was born and lived all her life in Scotland. Pick the novel up and instantly you feel the sun on your face. But it’s also a dark, subversive book, way ahead of its time; the story of two women who are accused of kidnapping and abusing a teenage girl wasn’t common fodder in Golden Age novels, and the book has a very 21st century preoccupation with scandal and the media, mob violence and persecution.

Tey’s influence runs far deeper for me than simply providing an engaging lead character for my books. She was one of the first crime writers to be interested in the stain of crime, in how it spreads to the victim, the victim’s family, the family of the guilty, and these issues are at the heart of all my books. More than any of her contemporaries, Tey has made it possible for people like me to write books which can treat crime as an entertainment without ever forgetting its painful reality, and that’s perhaps her greatest legacy.

All writers need something to aspire to, and the crime novel I wish I’d written is Death in Holy Orders by PD James. Phyllis was a huge influence on me, before and after I met her, as a writer and then as a friend. Death in Holy Orders is her masterpiece, made all the more special for being set on a stretch of the Suffolk coast that I know and love. Those familiar skies, the light and the sea are crucial to the story, and as well as being a consummately plotted detective novel, it’s also a thoughtful, beautifully constructed insight into less extreme acts of kindness, love and hate – a piercing assessment of human nature, which Phyllis was so good at.

  • Nicola Upson