Posted by: billpurdue | January 20, 2010

83 Fossils and detective work

Fossils might not seem like the ideal subject on which to base a novel, but that’s what Tracy Chevalier has done with her latest book Remarkable Creatures [HarperCollins £15.99 9780007178377, ] about the lives of two women, Mary Anning, who searches for fossils to sell for a living and Elizabeth Philpot, a fossil collector. It is the beginning of the nineteenth century and Elizabeth and her two sisters are forced to leave their family home in London as their brother is about to marry and sell the house. They decide on Lyme Regis, now part of what is known as the Jurassic Coast, as a place where they could afford to live comfortably.

After finding an ammonite fossil on the beach at Lyme, Elizabeth soon becomes a keen fossil hunter. She strikes up a friendship with Mary and together they hunt for fossils along the beach. One day they discover a skull and then a whole skeleton which is much coveted by the local lord of the manor and eventually ends up in London. The skeleton, the first of several, arouses much interest amongst scientists and fossil collectors. The skeleton eventually ends up on display in London. But this is to condense the story too much. The whole theme of the book is not just about fossils, but about the struggle of women for recognition in a very male dominated world, particularly in the field of science. What the present day creationists believe about the origins of the world was at that time generally accepted. They also could not conceive of an animal becoming extinct. This is all pre Darwin of course. The skeleton is at first believed to have been a crocodile and any suggestion that it might have been an animal that had become extinct was regarded as heresy.

I didn’t realise until I got near the end of the book that the story was based on fact and that there really was a Mary Anning and an Elizabeth Philpot. The skeletons of prehistoric animals that Mary found are now on display at the Natural History Museum in London and the Museé National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. The story is told by Elizabeth and Mary in alternate chapters so that the reader gets both points of view, but each chapter skilfully moves the story on with little overlap. I found the book a real page turner and I’ll be including it in my list of “best reads” for 2010. The paperback is due in April.

Now for a couple of detective novels and I’m reading another of Stephen Booth’s excellent Cooper and Fry series, The Dead Place [Harper £7.99 978-0007172085]  set in the Derbyshire Dales. What I love about this series is the realism. Many Derbyshire towns and villages are featured in the stories, albeit with a little tinkering with the geography. The characters are so realistic too – Stephen Booth told me in an interview (which is still available in one of my postings at the end of 2008) that many police officers enjoy his novels as they remind them of what it’s like in real life. But the realism is not ordinary or boring: the author knows how to keep the reader in suspense. I’m half way through this novel and it’s hard to put down. Read it! Stephen Booth will be the topic in my next Chad feature to appear in the Mansfield Chad the second week in February and his next book in the Cooper and Fry series – Lost River – is due in April.

For a quite different sort of detective novel, try those of Henning Mankell – if I say Wallander, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you are a Wallander fan, you may be disappointed to learn that the detective in Mankell’s new novel, The Man from Beijing [ due  from Harvill Secker in February £17.99, 9781846552571] has a new detective, Judge Birgitta Roslin. I’ve been lucky enough to win an uncorrected proof of the book prior to publication (courtesy of a Waterstone’s competition) and I’ll be reading it in the next week or two. I’ll tell you what I think of it in a few weeks’ time.

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