Anna Clarke

Prolific author of 'cosies' and 'biblio-mysteries'
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The Independent Online

Anna Emilia Clarke, mystery novelist and educational administrator: born Cape Town 28 April 1919; married 1947 David Hackel (marriage dissolved 1957); died Brighton, East Sussex 7 November 2004.

Anna Clarke wrote detective fiction of the kind a great swathe of American mystery fans refer to as "cosy" - although in such novels there is rarely any let-up in the stabbings, poisonings, impalings, defenestratings, garrottings, smotherings, drownings, beheadings or mowings-down.

Where "cosies" differ dramatically from the rest of crime fiction is in the manner of their telling and their settings: rural or small cathedral town as to the latter; an absolute embargo on the f-word as to the former. In classic "cosy" territory the puzzle is all, and the sleuths, of both sexes, tend either to the genteel and spinsterish (variations of Miss Marple from Agatha Christie, and Miss Maud Silver from Patricia Wentworth), or to be fussbudget busybodies with loud, horsy laughs and pushy manners.

Although Clarke was British, early on in her writing career she found favour not only with American readers but hard-nosed publishers as well, to the extent that over half her output was issued first in the United States (in Doubleday's celebrated "Crime Club") and only then in the UK, often as much as two years later. Her last six novels never found a British publisher at all, the final two issued as paperback originals by Berkley Books, with classic "cosy" titles: The Case of the Ludicrous Letters (1994) and The Case of the Anxious Aunt (1996).

She was a keen champion of the "biblio-mystery" (a sub-genre within a sub-genre), favouring literary themes, plots and settings, and characters who could stop a conversation, or freeze a rival, with a well-honed quote. Latterly her main series character was an English literary professor, Paula Glenning, who invariably found herself embroiled in dirty work in the English department of some ivy-clad campus, or pursuing bundles of old manuscripts while rivals murderously tried to stop her.

In The Mystery Lady (1986), Glenning is contracted to write the biography of the popular bestseller Rosie O'Grady (shades of Wodehouse's Rosie M. Banks); but before long she discovers evidence that O'Grady may not in fact exist; that the name may cloak someone else entirely - someone who may have strong, indeed homicidal, reasons for not being unmasked.

Although her writing career started late in life (her first novel published within a year of her 50th birthday), Clarke more than made up for lost time. At one stage, such was her rate of composition that her British publisher frantically issued three novels in just 12 months. And yet, for all that, Clarke's own view of her detective-fiction talents and output was ambivalent, even mildly resentful. "I only took to writing mystery and suspense stories because nobody wanted to publish the straight novels . . . I was writing," she said.

Anna Clarke was born in Cape Town in 1919, while her father, Fred Clarke, a noted educationist (later knighted), was attached to South African College there. She was educated peripatetically in South Africa, Canada (her father having become Professor of Education at McGill University, Montreal, in 1929) and Oxford.

She was attracted to economics ("I should have been a mathematician," she wrote much later, "and am . . . more interested in maths than in fiction"), gaining an external BSc at London University in 1945. Even so she began seriously turning towards the literary life when she became Victor Gollancz's private secretary (1947-50), later moving to the rival publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode, then, the early Fifties, a bustling, go-ahead house with a healthy quota of bestsellers (Frances Parkinson Keyes, Geoffrey Cotterell, etc) to its name.

In 1947 Clarke married David Hackel, a German-Jewish refugee, although they divorced in 1957. Influenced by her father's profession, she became the administrative secretary to the British Association for American Studies, a post she held for seven years before ill-health forced her to quit, something she bitterly resented in later life.

Debilitated by an overpowering claustrophobia and anxiety complex (her car became not just a vehicle of passage, but a means of escape into the open countryside from the confines of her homes in London and, later, Brighton; the majority of her mystery-novel first drafts were scribbled into notebooks while sitting in Brighton's parks), she gave herself over to a period of "long and deep" Freudian analysis from which she emerged in her late forties with no prospects other than writing.

Even so, she certainly made the very best of a not so bad job by producing, in the end, nearly 30 novels that were in the main well crafted, skilfully plotted and highly entertaining. And she also, with Poison Parsley in 1979, produced (although I doubt it was done purposely) one of the most perfect "cosy" mystery book-titles of the past half-century.

Jack Adrian

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