The joy of telling lies for money

Jane Stevenson, witty and erudite scourge of her fellow academics, has left campus for the challenge of a capital whodunit.
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The Independent Culture

Jane Stevenson believes that there's an anti-fiction strain in English culture. "A work is only held to be authentic if it comes out of the writer's personal experience. If you write about yourself it's considered authentic, if you don't it's inauthentic," she says. "If you want truth - in the sense that it happened and here are the names and addresses of three eye-witnesses - why the hell are you reading a work of fiction? It's a profound distrust people have of the playfulness of telling lies for money."

Telling lies for money is something Stevenson's characters would understand. In the four novellas which make up Several Deceptions, they range from the self-deceiving to the downright dishonest. A middle-aged Italian professor reinvents his "lumpy spinster" secretary as a former lover. A charismatic professor of law wields an unhealthy influence over his students; a woman passes her life as a military man, while a gang of art historians in corduroys steals a Stubbs painting. The stories spin between Leiden, the Marche, London, Dresden, Simla, Edinburgh and Suffolk.

Ironic, high-spirited and ideasdriven, these novellas are real page-turners. Stevenson's smart, spare prose delighted the critics. Yet, despite this impressive debut, she seemed to slip by unnoticed. Now, with her first novel London Bridges out (Jonathan Cape, £15.99), her publishers have issued Several Deceptions in paperback (Vintage, £6.99).

Stevenson is an academic who spends much of her time "dredging up texts from libraries and working out how to read them". Even her characters live in a realm between theory and experience - discussing the amorality of random acts or the graduations of flame in the bricks of a garden wall, when they're not bitching or bantering.

Although Stevenson can "never remember not telling stories", she thinks she wouldn't have become a writer if she had remained at Cambridge. "There were people in the English faculty who took themselves terribly seriously... If literary criticism is a hugely important, morally serious enterprise then the object of criticism itself has to be pretty damn wonderful. Any attempt to be a writer seemed laughable. That does work as a kind of block. Are you going to be Dickens in a single bound or just go home and watch the telly?"

She was spending a summer in Holland when a friend rang with "some choice scandal about people we knew. I laughed like a drain." It inspired her to write something funny and led to Several Deceptions. She has ideas kicking around for years and then, "The first line occurs and I'm off. It's like a radio playing in another room and I tune in."

A common theme in the novellas is identity. The pitfalls of intellectual arrogance also loom large. "I'm interested in small communities," explains Stevenson. "People at universities have to work out ways of getting along with each other, even if their differences are acute. Some go slightly mad or certain subjects send them off like cuckoo clocks."

In "The Island of the Day Before Yesterday", Simone Strachey, Professor of Semiotics, has a first-class degree in bile and vanity. The first-person narrative vibrates with invective. Simone scorns "the literary fame which arises from mutual frontage among self-publicising non-entities". He reads Il Principe in Machiavelli's Italian ("underestimated in my view as a work of comic fiction") and becomes the victim of the schadenfreude he was hoping to enjoy at the expense of a "ghastly little bint from The Sunday Times".

When Stevenson joined Sheffield University, no new staff had been hired in the faculty for ten years. Individuals can get set in their ways. "Little quirks become mannerisms. There's an element of acting and of the personality cult... That's why I wrote "Law and Order".

Here, professor Balder van Aldegonde is a puppet-master with impressionable acolytes. Stevenson was interested in the case of the two men at Bologna University who shot a girl through the window of a library. "It's a story about the acte gratuit and where it fits into the law." Stevenson moved the story to Holland. "The Italian subtext was almost certainly sexual and Italy is very closety. The idea of the closety queer didn't make sense in Holland. But there are things which do push buttons in Holland. One is the war, and the other is class."

Class snobbery is apparent too in "Crossing the Water", narrated by the witchy, self-pitying Ollie ("I pinched the current World of Interiors... and laughed myself to sleep"). A group of old university friends are outraged by the nouveaux who have inherited a historic house. Pitched into a fever at the thought of the shagpile carpets and octagonal plates, they mount an aesthetic commando raid - with tragic consequences.

Deception is a good subject for fiction because it's so close to invention. "At university, you're completely surrounded by people tying on adult personas for size. Becoming an adult is a process of invention... I've a vague memory of Emma Thompson, as a student, running around with a shaved head and Doc Martens - what am I, tough girl or sex goddess?"

Stevenson's interest in plot means she starts with the mechanics and the characters grow from there. That doesn't always work, and following a stunning debut is never easy. London Bridges is a curiously old-fashioned affair. "I started reading adult books when I was young," she recalls. "Being brought up in Germany, there weren't enough children's books to keep me going. I loved Margery Allingham's detective novels."

Stevenson wanted to write something related to the inter-war thriller, with its quirky, period charm. She had attended a lecture on historical linguistics and the river Thames, and learned how one of the oldest financial institutions is London Bridge - funded by a charity founded by William the Conqueror.

With a river-related plot, Stevenson opted for a financial scam involving not just amateur sleuths but amateur criminals. The thriller revolves around a forgotten bequest and features Greek monks, camp classicists, an Indian lawyer, an Australian pharmacist and a streetwise aristocrat. Somehow their lives link up. "That's why it's called London Bridges. The book's also about trust and how you can live in a city full of people you don't know. At the centre... is a man who trusts wrongly and is murdered, but the rest of it is about trust which works."

With London Bridges, Stevenson has abandoned the barbed, teasing dialogue of her novellas. The most successful character in it is London. "It's intrinsic to detective stories that they are very place-orientated. You expect to be told a lot about the city in which the action takes place."

An admirer of Charles Dickens, Jane Stevenson suggests that Bleak House, with its multi-layers and eccentric cast was a structural model for her novel. But, as she says, it's hard to become Dickens in a single bound. "You learn to write by writing", she observes. "The book I've just finished is set in Holland in the 1630s, with a black African hero. The story demanded to be told. I'd never intended to write a historical novel. I have no plan in any of this. Novels just happen to me."