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Archive - Monday, 8 May 2006
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'Outsider who found a niche'
Veronica Stallwood returned to England from Belgium in 1971 "with two children and two suitcases". She was 32 and had left a life of affluence with "a solid but conventional man who didn't believe a wife should need to work". After nine years of marriage, much of it spent abroad, she had to fend for herself. Before marrying, she had worked as a secretary in a London advertising agency. Her skills were rusty. Her confidence shaky at the best of times was low.
Within six weeks of her return, however, Veronica had landed a full-time job at a firm of American bibliographical publishers who were opening a European headquarters in Oxford. Her fluency in French (she also speaks "kitchen Greek and kitchen Arabic") made her a natural for the job. From then on, her life became inextricably linked with books.
Later, she worked at the Bodleian Library, cataloguing books when the library computerised,. She said: "It was a job for which you need good organisation and a nit-picking mind." She and also worked as a cataloguer for several Oxford college libraries.
She began to learn her way around Oxford, the city so atmospherically conveyed in the 12 soon to be 13 crime novels that feature her fictional sleuth Kate Ivory, historical romance novelist, bibliographical cataloguer and amateur detective. "I got to know Oxford as an outsider," Veronica said. "I've always been an outsider, and I think that that shows in my work."
Indeed it does. Born in South London, she went to boarding school early, spending holidays with various people, including her mother's stepmother, "who wasn't desperately suitable". Veronica's father was in the Middle East, working for the Foreign Office. After the Second World War, her mother joined him. "I didn't really know my parents," Veronica says. "As far as I was concerned, parents disappeared, doing whatever it was parents did. Constantly, people asked: Who's looking after you? Who's in charge of you?' I felt that I was nobody."
When she turned 10, she joined her parents in Athens and went to the Anglo-American School there. Her slightly older brother, Michael, who had been brought up by other people, separately from Veronica, also came to Athens. "Those two years were the only time that the four of us were under the same roof," Veronica remembers. From the ages of 12 to 15, she lived with her parents in Beirut and attended a French convent school. Michael went to boarding school in England.
I got to know Oxford as an outsider. Iíve always been an outsider, and I think that that shows in my work.
Her psychological thriller The Rainbow Sign is set in Beirut, although 10 years later than Veronica's time there. The smells, sounds and heat of Beirut seep through the pages. Like Deathspell, the first novel published under Veronica's own name, The Rainbow Sign is about outwardly respectable people with deeply unpleasant things to hide.
Her first two novels, contemporary romances published by Robert Hale in 1988 and 1989, appeared under a pseudonym. That pseudonym was Kate Ivory a delightful and idiosyncratic detail highlighting the interplay of fiction and fact in the author's life.
Deathspell and The Rainbow Sign each has at its core a precocious young girl with hazy but obsessive knowledge of an unexplained death, the details of which are not talked about within the family but silently dominate the present and poison the future. Only slowly does the reader become aware of what happened in each instance, and why. Beech in The Rainbow Sign and Tess in Deathspell are disturbed and disturbing creations. Tess's mother, Hanna, is intriguing in a different and ultimately triumphant way.
A woman who has spent her life desperate to please, Hanna slowly gains a powerful sense of self, even if the novel ends with her undecided about how to develop it. But she has freed herself from the soul-sapping criticism of a father and a husband who both decreed how she should be and demanded unattainable standards. It takes an ambiguous death to achieve this it is, after all, a Veronica Stallwood novel but Hanna begins to heal and to become her own person.
This has been the case with Veronica herself. In June 2005, she moved to Charlbury, which she loves and which is beginning to love her. She is sociable (but only part-time she's a prodigious worker) and entertaining (there were actors and music hall artists on her mother's side), and appears to be the type of good-looking, intelligent woman of a certain age that you see around these parts. But inside the sanctuary of her immaculately kept flat, she gets away with murder.
The latest Kate Ivory book, Oxford Letters, is published by Headline at ¬£6.99. The next, Oxford Menace, will appear later this year.