It was priced at forty-nine pence so I took it back to the till and committed a sackable offence: I rang up my own purchase without supervision. I could barely see the misleading design of the cover for all the stickers pronouncing the success of the publication. I was reminded that eighty per cent of Americans believe they can write a best-selling novel. Since less than one in five Americans read books this optimistic assessment of writing skill had always puzzled me.
I have never consciously read a Best Seller before, although I suppose Kidnapped or the Hound of the Baskervilles must have been right up there in the days before they disfigured the covers with boasts. I opened my historical purchase which provides a thrilling insight into the life of ordinary people in the ninth century.
Chapter One started with a siege which seemed promising. It took the villain eleven pages to make, load and fire a trebuchet. The detail was superb – if I had been there I could have picked out the very axe he used. I’m only guessing he’s the villain from his description. Lank, greasy ringlets hanging over a filthy collar will not, in my opinion, impress the heroine!
There was a lot of dialogue, mostly derogatory and much of it shouted. The ordinary people on both sides spoke Cockney while the officers sounded like radio announcers from the Reith era. The peasants used lots of swear words and everyone understood what was being said. I once tried to read Chaucer in the original alongside a translation into modern English so I seriously doubt whether either Danes or Saxons would be mutually intelligible.
The first chapter lasted fifty-eight pages and I managed to hang in there. The big problem was that nothing much happened. It took so long to load mangonels and such like that the defenders could doze off most of the time. It must have been like watching the Rugby World Cup on ITV – peace to watch while the match was in progress but an avalanche of adverts as soon as the whistle blew for half-time.
I know nothing of ninth century armoury, but arrows look quite complex to me. I’m guessing that it would take say three minutes to make an arrow. A good armourer could turn out perhaps twenty an hour, say a couple of hundred a day with overtime. The defenders launched more than six weeks’ worth of arrows in the first day of the siege.
Chapter Two was set in the dining room of a ninth century Des. Res. with a complete change of characters. Wolves and bears were the favoured donors of clothing and wall decoration. I suspect that sheepskin is warmer and certainly a lot easier to catch, but I suppose you could say the same about an M&S suit compared to Armani. I was skipping a bit by then – what my sister calls ‘speed reading’ – so I can’t be absolutely sure that no mention of the siege was made through the forty-nine pages that took us from entrée to dessert.
After that I dipped in to the book here and there. Chapters were very varied in length with one of them less than a page long. As far as I remember it went like this:
As the sun climbed above the eastern horizon it threw a kaleidoscope of colours onto the column of water rising a thousand feet in the air. Slowly it collapsed onto the last hilltop as Atlantis slid beneath the waves.
The last chapter got back to the siege. It hadn’t made much progress in the intervening four hundred pages. Both sides were starving, but they were still shouting abuse. They were much more philosophical in the ninth century than we are, so they all seemed fairly happy chewing the fat about the morality of siege warfare. My attention was wandering badly, but I think the guy from chapter two finished his dinner and, pausing only to give a rousing speech and listen while his bard played the medieval top twenty, he marched off to chase the besiegers back to their boats.
By this time I had realised the error of my ways. Killing Cousins has a continuous narrative through the whole book. Not only that, it links to the theme and characters of Pilgrimage of Grace. In my ignorance, I believed that a sequel should follow the first book along some recognisable track. There is one place where my hero gets lank, greasy hair, but he’s chasing the villain when he slips crossing a burn.
The only possible conclusion is that Best Sellers are meant to be bought, but are not intended to be read. I suspect that Booker Prize publishers economise by only printing the first and last fifty pages, leaving the other three or four hundred blank.
Please don’t buy a copy of Killing Cousins – borrow one if you can, steal one if you must, but however it comes into your hands do yourself a favour and read it!