Tuesday 16 April 2024

Sepulchre Street and the eDunnit award shortlist

I'm truly delighted by the announcement today of the shortlist for the eDunnit award at CrimeFest this year, which as you can see from the above graphic includes Sepulchre Street, the fourth book in the Rachel Savernake series. It's thrilling to achieve a degree of recognition for one's novels, and to be in a list alongside such other fine writers, including a number of international bestsellers, is truly an honour.

The award is for the best crime fiction first published in both hard copy and electronic format in the UK in 2023. I made the shortlist once before, with Gallows Court a few years ago, although I had to miss the awards ceremony because I'd committed to giving lectures on the Queen Mary 2 (yep, it's a tough life). Otherwise, I'd have moved heaven and earth to attend, because - win or lose - I think it's rather wonderful to be present at an event when your book, something you worked so hard for so long to create, receives a degree of acclaim. And in fact I booked to take part in CrimeFest and attend the awards dinner many months ago, not imagining for a moment that I'd get on to this shortlist.

I know some writers take a different view about attending awards ceremonies, usually in circumstances where they are pessimistic about the outcome and don't want to experience the disappointment of not winning. I understand that attitude, but I've never shared it, although there have been plenty of occasions when mine hasn't been the name in the winner's envelope. I've been present on more than one occasion when the winner of an award missed out on the pleasure of enjoying their success in person and that always strikes me as a pity. It's a cliche, but it's very true all the same, that it is an honour to make a shortlist (or a longlist, if there is one) and I'm all in favour of relishing the moment and not worrying too much about the ultimate outcome. The reality is, you never know if you'll ever have another chance to celebrate featuring on a list like this. 

Writing can be a very tough game - that's one of the themes of The Life of Crime - and these moments are precious and deserve to be cherished. Doing this can, I feel, be very beneficial on other occasions, when things aren't going well with the writing for whatever reason - believe me, it happens to everyone! It's great to be able to reflect on the good moments and feel encouraged and motivated to keep going as a result. And that's my approach.

So warm congratulations to the other five finalists and I must say that this great news is incredibly well-timed, coinciding as it does with my having sent off to my editor the copy-edited text of the next Rachel Savernake novel - Hemlock Bay.    

Monday 15 April 2024

Ripley - Netflix TV review

Do we really need another screen version of The Talented Mr Ripley? I have mixed views. Part of me thinks that it would be good for less well-known books to be given an airing on TV. Part of me recognises the commercial realities. Just as TV companies (and screenwriters) go for the easy option of recycling endless Agatha Christie stories because of the strength of the brand, so Patricia Highsmith is notable enough to draw viewers who might not give a less renowned author the time of day. And Tom Ripley is undoubtedly one of the great characters of twentieth century crime fiction. Anyway, for better or worse, Netflix have produced Ripley, an eight-part version of Highsmith's story, and I decided to take a look.

I was startled to realise that the entire show is shot in black and white. I wondered about that, I must admit. I was, however, reassured by the fact that the screenplay was written by Stephen Zaillian, a very accomplished writer who won an Oscar for Schindler's List; he has the ability to entertain while making serious points that keep you on your toes, and that isn't as easy as he makes it look. 

Andrew Scott, cast as Ripley, was an extremely interesting choice of lead actor. Scott is older than I imagine Ripley to be, and I feared that might affect his portrayal of the sociopathic charmer. I also worried that stretching the story out into eight episodes would mean that it became boring in places. This is the recurrent failing of modern television - there's too much padding, for purely commercial reasons, and it affects the quality of shows that might otherwise have worked really well.

So my reservations were numerous, but there was enough about the show to attract my attention, and I must say I was soon hooked. Even the slow pacing worked - to my surprise! There's something mesmeric and haunting about this adaptation of Highsmith's story. I liked the film version and the BBC radio version, but this take on the tale is, in my opinion, possibly even better. One or two of the changes to the story don't work too well, but most of them do. Scott is very good indeed and the visual quality of the whole series is stunning. Zaillian deserves a lot of credit, I think, and I'm very glad I set my doubts aside. Ripley is excellent television.

Friday 12 April 2024

Forgotten Book - Death at Hallows End

The starting point for Leo Bruce's 1965 Death at Hallows End is the mysterious disappearance of a solicitor. Duncan Humby seems to have vanished into thin air while visiting a remote village called Hallows End. There he intended to see a client called Grossiter, who wanted to change his will. In the time-honoured fashion of characters in detective novels who are about to disinherit people, Grossiter has also died, albeit apparently of natural causes.

The police have got nowhere as regards finding the missing lawyer so his partner, Thripp, asks Carolus Deene to help. When Carolus goes to Hallows End, he encounters - as usual in these novels - an entertaining range of individuals, including a pub landlord with a taste for trendy dialogue, and a chap called Stonegate who is determined to get as much publicity as he can for being the last man to see the missing solicitor. But is his evidence reliable?

Carolus believes that the best place to start making enquiries is the local pub, a nice idea, I think. There are a few interesting plot twists and in the end, Carolus explains everything as a sort of after-dinner entertainment for his headmaster, a policeman, and a few others who are connected in some way with the case. There's a slight element of anti-climax to this, but arguably it's a better way of ending a book than a contrived scene in which the hero's life is unnecessarily endangered by a decision to confront the villain without back-up.

I did feel, however, that there were some signs that Rupert Croft-Cooke (who wrote as Leo Bruce) was getting either a bit lazy or a bit bored with the Carolus Deene stories by the time he wrote this one - the fourteenth in the series. There are occasionally inelegant passages - and this from an author who could at his best be very stylish - for which one can possibly blame the proof reader or copy editor. There are also one or two devices that I recognised as reworked versions of ingredients from his earlier books. Perhaps he was in a rush to meet a deadline. Yet despite some shortcomings, this is a readable entertaining story which merits revival.   

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Basil Rathbone - and the Hollywood Baskervilles - guest post by Elizabeth Crowens

Today, a guest post from Elizabeth Crowens, whose new book (above) has just been published by an excellent American firm, Level Best Books.

'Growing up as a child in the Midwestern United States, we didn’t have cable channels with over one hundred channels or a variety of streaming services. All we had were the three major network stations on an analogue television set, and when my hometown had access to PBS programming, we set up an antenna to get a fourth channel. We got very few British shows except for old Hammer horror films during Saturday afternoon television after the cartoons were over or midnight showings. In short, a very limited viewing selection compared to now, and as a kid with a limited allowance, going to a matinee at a local theater entailed a car ride and didn’t happen all that often, especially without a parent chaperone.

Back then, my only exposure to Sherlock Holmes was the Basil Rathbone films, co-starring Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t even aware of Jeremy Brett’s masterful interpretation of Holmes in the Granada Television series until years later. When I studied filmmaking and film history and lived in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, did I realize that the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes won the Guinness Book of World Records for having more actors portray him in all media, including film, theater, television, and animation. The only other fictional character who surpassed Holmes was Dracula, but he is classified more as a supernatural creature rather than a fictional human.

When it came to developing the concept for Hounds of the Hollywood Baskervilles, my first book in the Babs Norman Golden Age of Hollywood Mystery series, I needed to give my rookie private detective partners their first big celebrity client. Since I had previously written three novels in an alternate history series exploring the Spirtualist and paranormal interests of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I was familiar with the Sherlockian canon and many of Conan Doyle’s other works, including ghost stories, so it made sense that if I started my new series in 1940, I should carry over the Holmes theme and have Basil Rathbone hire my detectives.

Next, of course, I had to watch as many of Basil’s films as I could. Being as prolific as he was, he had quite a filmography, including a significant number of projects where he played the villain rather than the hero, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, and Captain Blood. I discovered Basil had significant experience on the New York stage, preferring Shakespeare, before getting his lucky break in Hollywood.

When I made a deep dive into his biographical and autobiographical material, I soon discovered that Basil was also a serious animal lover. At any given time, he owned five dogs, several cats, and canaries. One of his dogs, a Cocker Spaniel named Leo, left an indelible imprint. Basil’s best friend, Jack Wiltern, was walking Leo along with two other Westies. While crossing a busy street in Los Angeles, a speeding car hit Jack and the dogs. Leo broke his leg. The Westies made it to the curb unharmed, but Jack later died of his injuries. Mentioning this true and tragic story in my novel, I also had Leo disappear. Basil became distraught every time he thought of his missing dog, because it also reminded him of his dear friend’s deadly incident. Thus my premise was born...'


Monday 8 April 2024

Bullets over Broadway - 1994 film review

At his best, Woody Allen is a witty and clever writer and the 1994 film Bullets over Broadway, which he scripted (and later turned into a jukebox musical) benefits from one of his strongest screenplays, co-written with Douglas McGrath. Woody Allen also directs, but he doesn't feature in the cast. The film was nominated for no fewer than seven Academy Awards, with one win, for Dianne Wiest's witty performance as the fading, alcoholic star Helen Sinclair.

The story is set in Prohibition-era New York and concerns God of Our Fathers, a play written by the earnest young idealist David Shayne (John Cusack). Desperate to see his lights (and Woody Allen's skewering of the hopes and dreams of authors is as effective as it is entertaining, no doubt because of his empathy for them), he allows himself to be persuaded to agree to the casting of a brash and talentless chorus girl Olive (Jennifer Tilly, also nominated for an Oscar, and also very good indeed) in a key role, in return for her gangster boyfriend putting up the money so that the play can have a run on Broadway.

The cast of the play includes the gluttonous British actor Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent, enjoying himself hugely) and dog-loving Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman). Jack Warden and Rob Reiner are in the supporting cast and make the most of heir roles. Warner develops a dangerous interest in Olive, while David finds himself drawn to Helen, and the two affairs give rise to some very funny moments.

There's a lot of pleasure to be had in following the twists and turns of a very well-crafted storyline. There are plenty of jokes about the nature of the writing life and what it takes to make a play work on Broadway. This is a film which deserved its success; it's very good light entertainment indeed.   

Friday 5 April 2024

Forgotten Book - Murder in Full Flight

I wouldn't mind betting that quite a few of my knowledgeable blog readers have never heard of Marcus Magill, let alone read any of the books. Not so long ago, that was also true of me, but I was given the chance to acquire an inscribed (to a 'Mrs Sprott') copy of Murder in Full Flight, and I couldn't resist. But who was Marcus Magill? The answer is that this pen-name concealed the identity of a curious writing duo, Joanna Elder Giles and Brian Hill.

The best information about this pair is to be found in this article by Thomas Hawlery for the British Library. As is stated, Joanna was in 1930 one of only 40 women in Britain who owned their own private plane and the love of flying is abundantly evident in this novel. I also found a good account in a blog previously unknown to me, Speedy Mystery. Thanks to Clint Stacey, I have a letter from Magill, clearly Brian Hill rather than Joanna, and he reviewed under that name for a while. The fact that he associated himself so closely with the Magill name leads me to guess that he did most of the writing, while Joanna did the plotting, and amongst other things wrote or supplied the information for the various scenes which take place in the air.

The story is an odd one and is mildly amusing in tone. We're introduced to Simon Nicholson, who has come up with a very important invention and - foolish chap - failed to patent it. When we learn that his plans are much sought after, and only one copy exists, two things are fairly predictable. One, that Simon will be murdered. Two, that the plans will go missing.

The first part of the story is the best, while the airborne scenes are good but, I felt, over-done. And the book definitely goes on far too long, so that I lost interest long before the end in what turned to be as much a light-hearted thriller as a detective story. A pity. But the authors do sound to be very intriguing and I'd like to know more about them (and also to read their few short stories). One oddity is that this book is supposed to have been published in 1933, but the inscription in mine has a date from 1932. It's certainly a pretty rare book. I can't find an image of the UK dustjacket anywhere - I found the American jacket image on the internet. The pair seem to have co-written eight novels, but I think they were running out of steam by the time this one appeared.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

News about The Life of Crime and The Golden Age of Murder

I'm delighted to bring exciting news. Well, exciting to me, anyway! I'm happy to announce not one but two new editions of my most successful non-fiction books, both published by HarperCollins. First, I'm glad to say that the paperback edition of The Life of Crime, due to appear in May, has been expanded very significantly (not that it was a slim volume to begin with). The paperback is about 7000 words longer than the hardback, with the result that more than 200 additional authors and works have been included. 

A book as wide-ranging as The Life of Crime ,which covers the whole history of crime fiction across the globe, can never cover every single author of note, of course, but I've always been keen that it should be as representative as possible. So I'm hugely grateful to my editor David Brawn for agreeing to the update as well as for his splendid work on updating the indexes (a big task, believe me). 

You may wonder why I've undertaken this extra work. The hardback received a fantastic reception, in terms of reviews, sales, and awards, and I'm deeply appreciative. Of course, it's tempting to say, 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?' but the fact is that I want all of my books to be the best they can possibly be - it is never possible to achieve perfection, but there's no harm in striving for it. 

This is what David says about the book in the press release: '‘For an author as prolific as Martin Edwards, it can be hard to identify their magnum opus. The Life of Crime, however, is an extraordinary feat of both scholarship and readability, the culmination of a lifetime devotion to studying the genre, and was deservedly selected in the books of the year by publications as widespread as the New York Times and the Spectator. The Times rightly described Martin as “the closest thing there has been to a philosopher of crime writing”, and I’ve no doubt that this is indeed a genuine magnum opus – and now will be even more magnum in paperback!’

And there is more news. HarperCollins have commissioned me to write a new edition of The Golden Age of Murder to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the book's publication next year. This is another book that means a great deal to me, and I'm looking forward to developing it further - again, mainly by way of including more material about the Detection Club and the Golden Age of detective fiction between the wars. So if there's anything relevant to the existing book that you think could usefully be developed in the new edition, feel free to let me know, so that I can take feedback into account before starting work...

Monday 1 April 2024

In Search of John Ferguson - and Ferguson's Gang

Writing this blog continues to give me great pleasure. That would be so even if hardly anyone ever looked at it, but in fact I've gained immeasurably by hearing from many people who read the blog or my other writings, some of whom I've enjoyed meeting, some of whom I may never meet, but all of whom have something interesting to say. Their messages, as well as their comments on the blog, are always fascinating.

Someone who got in touch with me recently is Hilary Tolputt. She is interested in John Ferguson, whose books - such as Death of Mr Dodsley and Death Comes to Perigord - I find appealing. She told me she ' became interested in John Alexander Ferguson when I was researching schools in Folkestone including Eversley, the private girls’ school where Ferguson was Chaplain from 1915 to 1938. The school was at Lymington between1935-38 and Ferguson oved there with the school. The search widened and I found more about Ferguson’s life in Callander, Glasgow, Guernsey, Drumtochty, Culross and Lymington.'

Hilary pointed out an interesting apparent connection between Ferguson and 'the women who were involved in raising and presenting money to the National Trust in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Known as Ferguson’s Gang, they indulged in somewhat strange rituals and had bizarre ways of presenting the cash which gave considerable publicity to the National Trust projects which they supported.' Did Ferguson give his name to the gang? One possible clue is that the leader of the gang was Peggy Pollard (nee Margaret Gladstone), who attended Eversley School.

Hilary asked me if I knew anything about Ferguson's papers that might cast light on this. I'm afraid I am not aware of any John Ferguson archive (his full name was John Alexander Ferguson, by the way). However, I know that a great many people who read this blog are very well-informed about all manner of things. So if any of you can offer any clues, Hilary and I would be delighted to hear from you!

Friday 29 March 2024

Forgotten Book - Tea on Sunday

This has been quite a month for the blog. March isn't over yet, and there have already been over 120,000 pageviews, by some distance the highest monthly figure since 'Do You Write Under Your Own Name?' began, way back in 2007. I'm very grateful for this level of interest, and it seems clear that Friday's Forgotten Book is a popular feature. Rest assured, I have plenty more obscure titles lined up for discussion!

Today's pick is Tea on Sunday. A low-key title for an equally low-key crime novel published in 1973, the only venture into classic detective fiction by Lettice Cooper, a mainstream novelist and critic; my copy is inscribed by her to another critic, Margery Fisher. This book was published by Gollancz, and the dust jacket suggests that it's a locked room mystery - but it isn't. What it is is a well-made, character-driven story that I found very readable.

I'd never heard of Cooper, I must admit, but it turns out that she was a well-regarded writer who lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1994 at the age of 96. She was born in Eccles, grew up in Leeds, studied at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and then went back to Yorkshire to work in her father's engineering firm. Suffice to say that I think she mined a lot of personal experiences for her portrayal of the murder victim in this story, Alberta Mansbridge. We meet Alberta in a prologue, just before a tea party to which she's invited eight people. One of them arrives early - and strangles her.

The investigation is conducted by a very likeable detective, Inspector Corby, and the suspects are well-rounded, especially Alberta's nephew, Anthony. There is a touch of P.D. James about the writing, and my interest was maintained throughout. Corby's investigations take him to Yorkshire, and again one has a sense of Cooper drawing on places she knew well for the background.

The murder plot is not exceptional - I figured out the culprit's identity at a relatively early stage. My guess is that Cooper felt inhibited by a desire to present credible characters, so that although there are eight suspects, some of them are pretty obviously not realistic candidates for the role of murderer. The book doesn't seem to have made much impact, with no paperback edition, and Cooper went back to writing mainstream fiction. But this solitary detective story is significantly better and more enjoyable than many a genre debut and in my opinion deserves better than the total obscurity into which it has fallen.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Burnt Offerings - 1976 film review

This is a blog about crime writing and crime fiction in its various forms, but of course the boundaries between crime and other genres, such as the ghost story and the horror story, both of which I'm keen on, are blurred. As a teenager I used to read the short horror story anthologies published by Faber, Fontana, and Pan, and I still think that (with various exceptions) the short form is the best medium for horror fiction - but of course there are many good horror films too.

A fairly good example is the 1976 film Burnt Offerings. I watched it a day after watching the very recent Brandon Cronenberg film Infinity Pool, which I felt began well but deteriorated badly. Burnt Offerings is subtler and, I think, much more effective, even if though it has some flaws. Interestingly, the screenplay was co-written by William F. Nolan, who also wrote a great deal of crime fiction and was once nominated for an Edgar award. He was a very capable storyteller, and this is evident in the film.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Burnt Offerings is that Oliver Reed is cast as a normal family man. Not a drunk, for once, nor a sexually depraved monster. He and his wife (Karen Black) and their son are offered the chance to rent an atmospheric but dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere for a pittance by the creepy owners who - even more creepily - say that the old lady who lives at the top of the house will continue to live there. The warning klaxon really should be sounding at this point, but of course our protagonists find this an offer that is too good to refuse. Big mistake.

There are a lot of haunted house movies, but this is above average fare and in recent years, critics have seen it as offering sly comment on modern day materialism. I'm not sure how far I go along with that, but given a choice between Burnt Offerings and Infinity Pool, I know which film I'd rather watch. Incidentally, Bette Davis features in the cast, but really, the old house is the star.