Minette Walters has been writing crime fiction for more than a decade and a half. Her novels have been published in 35 languages and she has a readership in the millions. Her first novel, The Ice House, won the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Award for best first novel, and she also won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for the best crime novel published in America, for The Sculptress. Her most recent book is The Devil's Feather. Minette lives in Dorset with her husband Alec. They have two grown-up sons. Here she shares her enthusiasm for Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Minette Walters on King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, and Dracula by Bram Stoker
Being asked to name a book I admire is like being asked to name a person I admire. Who do I choose? Gandhi? Emmeline Pankhurst? Freddie Mercury? Groucho Marx? I admire them all but, if I'm brutally honest, I'd rather spend a riotous evening with Freddie or Groucho than a sober one with Gandhi or Emmeline.
On that basis, I've decided to nominate two examples of popular culture that were huge best sellers of the 19th century and started trends that less imaginative and innovative authors have followed ever since. Each novel is proof (should anyone need it) that a ripping good yarn can also be a classic.
Sadly, most people only seem to know Henry Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (first published in 1885) through the Stewart Granger movie (1950). It's not a bad adaptation - indeed it's been regularly raided by other directors (e.g. Stanley Baker for Zulu and Steven Spielberg for Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom) – but the novel is a tour de force. It was written in just six weeks and was published with an advertising slogan on huge billboards in London, saying: 'KING SOLOMON'S MINES - THE MOST AMAZING BOOK EVER WRITTEN'. Fortunately for the publishers, the novel lived up to its hype and became a phenomenal success.
The story is set in southern Africa and tells of Sir Henry Curtis's search for his lost brother, George, who vanished during a vain attempt to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. Sir Henry is accompanied on his journey from Durban by his friend, Captain John Good, Allan Quatermain, an experienced hunter, and Umbopa, a Zulu servant. The trek is arduous. They come close to dying of thirst in the desert, and of cold and starvation in the mountains; when they reach their destination - a lush valley 'wherein rivers flashed like silver snakes, and Alp-like peaks crowned with twisted snow wreaths rose in grandeur' - they have to fight evil King Twala and his hideous henchwoman, Gagool, the witch doctor 'who never dies'.
Umbopa declares himself the rightful king, Sir Henry kills Twala in single combat on Umbopa's behalf, and Gagool is crushed by a falling rock door as she imprisons Quatermain, Curtis and Good in King Solomon's mines. The adventurers remain buried alive for days with the body of Foulata - the love of John Good's life - until, close to death themselves, they find an exit. Their fortunes are made by the diamonds that Quatermain carries out in his pockets, although Sir Henry forgoes his share in gratitude for finding his brother George alive as they return to Durban via a different route.
This is a story of heroes, derring-do and fortune hunting, but it is also a fascinating insight into the respect that 19th century colonisers had for the native populations of Africa. Umbopa is as much a hero as the three white men - they all admire him - and brave Foulata is shown as a worthy wife for John Good. Victorian prudery meant Haggard could never have brought her back to England, but his portrayal of her is entirely sympathetic until he kills her off to satisfy the home audience.
I'm a huge fan of H. Rider Haggard. He had the courage to go against the contemporary trend and write King Solomon's Mines as a first person narrative - which was almost unheard of in 1885 - and he created such memorable characters and situations that his legacy of adventure, thrill and suspense continues today. The story is available free on countless internet sites, and anyone who reads it should be able to name a hundred books or movies that have shamelessly plagiarised Haggard's ideas and settings.
The same is true of Bram Stoker's Dracula (first published in 1897). In the iconic figure of Count Dracula, Stoker created the inspiration for an entire industry. Yet it's hard to understand now how he could have found the imagination to portray so rounded a character in a single novel. Other iconic figures - like Sherlock Holmes or Hannibal Lecter - took more than one story to develop, but Stoker's delineation of Dracula's nature, and the methods needed to kill him, were so powerfully conceived and written that they've been the basis of vampire legend ever since.
The story is told in multiple voices through diaries, letters, newspaper clippings and transcriptions from a dictation machine, and it moves at a galloping pace. An English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, travels to Transylvania to help Count Dracula close some property deals in England. But Jonathan's experiences in Dracula's castle, and his subsequent escape, are so terrifying that he loses his mind and is unable to communicate with home for several weeks.
During his absence, his fiancée, Mina Murray, visits Whitby with her friend, Lucy Westenra. A ship is blown ashore during a terrible storm and locals are horrified to discover no one on board, although a huge dog (Dracula) is seen to jump from the deck as the hull grounds on the beach. Shortly afterwards, Lucy begins to pale and sicken and Mina notices two tiny wounds on her neck.
The threads of the story are brought together when Lucy dies of her mysterious illness and Jonathan regains his sanity and tells what he knows of Dracula. Three of Lucy's suitors - Arthur Holmwood, Dr John Seward, and Quincey Morris - pledge to avenge her death at Dracula's hands and ask for help in the task from Dr Seward's mentor, Professor Abraham Van Helsing of Amsterdam.
Under Van Helsing's guidance, the courageous band first drive a stake through Lucy's heart to return her 'vampire' soul to heaven then pursue Dracula back to Transylvania to rid the world of his evil. Their determination increases when Mina, now married to Jonathan, becomes Dracula's next victim, and they recognise that the only way to save her is to kill the creature that's feeding on her. To do this, they use garlic, consecrated wafers, mirrors, crosses, Dracula's fear of water, wooden stakes and decapitation... and so the legend of the undead was born.
But Dracula is a great deal more than a page-turning suspense or horror story. Stoker introduced some avant garde ideas into his writing, challenging his readers with the idea that modern thinking could eradicate ignorant superstition. The book explores the new science of psychology three years before Freud's most influential book The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900. It introduces new technologies like typewriters and dictation machines and symbolically discusses rape in Lucy's and Mina's unwilling participation in Dracula's brutal 'taking' of them. There's also a clear signal, thirty years before women's rights were enshrined in law, that Mina is the intellectual equal of every man in the story.
As evidence of how much I admire this book, I cannot think of another author who gave birth to a genre through a single character in a single book. Love or loathe vampirism, it lives and thrives in the 21st century.
Postscript. Had I the time, I would have written about The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903), Maddon's Rock by Hammond Innes (1948) and The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971). Brilliant writers - brilliant stories.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]