Wednesday, 25 November 2020

CADS 84

The arrival of a new issue of CADS is always a treat. Geoff Bradley, the editor of this splendid fanzine, cunningly spaces out the issues so that they arrive infrequently but always seem to fill a long-felt need. Incredibly, we are now up to issue 84. I have every copy and they form an invaluable resource, with lots of information about vintage detective fiction that simply isn't available elsewhere. If you love Golden Age fiction, this is an indispensable publication. And it also carries a range of other material, including articles and reviews relating to contemporary books.

In this issue, I was delighted to see an essay by Mike Wilson on the subject of Michael Gilbert's plays. Mike invited me to join his students at Loughborough University in February for a Golden Age workshop. I also gave a talk. It was an enjoyable visit, and I never imagined at the time that it would be my one and only event outside Cheshire this year. 

There are plenty of other interesting contributions. Philip Gooden, a thoughtful commentator as well as a crime novelist, writes about Lionel Davidson, while there are two typically snappy articles by Philip Scowcroft and a very interesting piece by Kate Jackson about an Australian mystery competition in the 1950s. Christine Poulson discusses Ethel Lina White and there's a reprint of an old essay by G.K. Chesterton about the Detection Club. Marvin Lachman's obituary column is full of interesting references and John Cooper writes interestingly about the short-lived writing career of Julie Burrows: the reasons why authors who have battled to achieve publication suddenly give up has always fascinated me, although we don't know why Burrows vanished from sight. There's a similar and much more recent mystery concerning Mary Moody, discussed by Lyn McConachie. 

There's much else besides, including two essays by me. One discusses Howdunit. The other, much longer, is the most detailed examination to date of the career of Mary Kelly. I've included a lot of information supplied by Mary's husband Denis, with whom I've enjoyed a fascinating correspondence in recent years. My essay is really a tribute to him as well as to Mary.    

 

Monday, 23 November 2020

A Patch of Fog - 2015 film review

A Patch of Fog is an interesting film made in Northern Ireland five years ago, directed by Michael Lennox. The script was written by John Cairns and Michael McCartney and concerns an author called Sandy Duffy, who made his name with his one and only novel, A Patch of Fog, 25 years ago. Fuffy (Conleth Hill) has failed to follow up his breakthrough, but lives well and is a lecturer who is also a familiar face on television. He works alongside his girlfriend, played by Lara Pulver.

From the start, however, we know that all is not well with Sandy. He's a compulsive shoplifter, and the psychological problems that lie behind his behaviour eventually become clear. Unfortunately for him, he's spotted, and filmed, by a security guard called Robert (Stephen Graham). Sandy begs Robert not to report his crime, and Robert eventually agrees. But he wants something in return. Not money, but friendship.

Bit by bit, Robert insinuates himself into Sandy's life. Graham captures his character's neediness and inadequacy as well as his creepiness. One's instinct is to sympathise with Sandy, but he is such an unlikeable character that it's tempting to think that the and Robert deserve each other. Each time Sandy thinks he's made good his escape from Robert's  clutches, he is swiftly disabused. The stakes become higher, the tension mounts.

For a low-budget film, this is pretty gripping. That's due mainly to the excellence of the lead actors, but the script has its moments (there is one especially clever twist when Sandy makes ingenious use of a compromising video tape) and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. I've often thought that the experience of writing a hugely successful first book and then being unable to follow it up with anything as good must be very depressing. This film offers a fresh, if downbeat take on that premise. Well worth watching.


Friday, 20 November 2020

Forgotten Book - Post Mortem

Post Mortem, first published in 1953, was the best-known novel published by Guy Cullingford (actually a woman called Constance Lindsay Taylor). It's a detective story narrated in the first person by an amateur sleuth. The unique feature of the story is that the narrator is investigating his own death. Yes, that's right, this is a case investigated by a ghost...

The deceased is Gilbert Worth, a moderately successful novelist who was a rather unpleasant fellow, which meant that several people had reason to wish him dead. The prime suspects are members of his family (wife, daughter and two sons) along with his mistress. The supporting cast includes his publisher, the family lawyer, and a number of servants including a bolshy gardener.

The tone of the story is fundamental, and it's relentlessly ironic. I was struck by the thought that one could easily imagine Richard Hull writing this story. It bears many of his hallmarks, including a focus on unattractive characters. Gilbert might have been a nasty piece of work, but he gets his come-uppance, not only as a victim, but also because he finds out what people really thought of him. The humour won't be to everyone's taste, but I was amused when I reread the story recently, having been slightly less impressed when I first came across the book many moons ago. 

I thought that the idea for the novel was clever, but one that was difficult to execute successfully. (And Hull is a good example of someone who came up with splendid ideas, but did not always manage to turn them into effective full-length novels). But to my mind, Cullingford does a really good job of maintaining interest from start to finish. It's an unusual piece of work by an author of considerable accomplishment.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The Assassination Bureau - 1969 film review

The Assassination Bureau is one of those madcap films that were rather characteristic of the Swinging Sixties, a star-studded comedy with a storyline that zoomed around all over the place. I've never watched it until now, but the recent death of Diana Rigg, whom I'd admired ever since her early days as Emma Peel in The Avengers, prompted me to give it a look.

The script has an unorthodox source. It is based on a story which Jack London started - basing it on an idea purchased from Sinclair Lewis - and Robert L. Fish completed decades later. I doubt that there's a great resemblance between the two, but these rather weird origins are reflected in the zaniness of the story. The eponymous Bureau is a bunch of highly effective paid killers, who only target people who, supposedly, deserve to be assassinated. Murky moral ground, to be sure, but the film just aims for light entertainment.

Diana Rigg plays Sonya Winter, a would-be journalist who has uncovered the Bureau's existence. She challenges the Bureau's killers to target their own head, Ivan Dragomiloff. Ivan is played by Oliver Reed with characteristic gusto. His second-in-command is Lord Bostwick, a role which gives Telly Savalas the chance to be as unKojak-like as possible. The supporting cast includes, like other films of this type, a galaxy of highly recognisable faces, often in very small parts. So we glimpse, among others, Beryl Reid, Warren Mitchell, Kenneth Griffith, Jeremy Lloyd, Frank Thornton, Arthur Hewlett, and Peter Bowles. 

It's no masterpiece, but as piece of pandemic escapism, it does the job. The story is better than that of, say, the original Casino Royale, even if the soundtrack (despite being by the estimable Ron Grainer) isn't a patch on that for the wackiest of Bond films. It goes without saying that Diana Rigg is terrific, and among other things The Assassination Bureau is a good reminder of her ability to entertain in undemanding roles as well as to excel in more serious parts.

 

 

  

Monday, 16 November 2020

More from the British Library

The British Library publications department is responsible for putting out a wide range of titles. Of course, my prime concern is with the Crime Classics, but I enjoy a good many of their other books. So today, as Christmas looms in the distance, I thought I'd mention some of these. 

There's no better place to start than with Yesterday's Tomorrows. The sub-title is The Story of Classic Science Fiction in 100 Books. So yes, it's a sci-fi equivalent to my own volume of musings about Classic Crime titles. The author is Mike Ashley, who is so prolific as to make me feel rather indolent. I've never met Mike but I've contributed to some of his anthologies and I find his commentaries and insights consistently interesting. One of the books Mike discusses in this enjoyable volume was of particular interest to me. It is The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks, published in 1920. It sounds quite fascinating and I'd like to read it, especially since my wife is a member of the Shanks family. Edward was, in his day, a well-regarded poet and critic and his other books include a good biography of Poe.


Mike Ashley has also edited a number of sci-fi anthologies for the British Library. I should say that I've only dipped in briefly to these so far, but the topics are interesting. Nature's Warnings, for instance, is a collection of stories of 'eco sci-fi'. One of the contributors is the American Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, better known as a high calibre writer of domestic suspense.

The British Library's anthologies of 'weird tales' are also of interest. Chill Tidings is a set of 'Dark Tales of the Christmas Season' edited by Tanya Kirk. Into the London Fog contains 'eerie tales from the weird city' and is edited by Elizabeth Dearnley. And there is a nicely produced hardback collection of The Gothic Tales of Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by X.A. Reyes. Dorothy L. Sayers was a Le Fanu fan - and so am I.



 

Friday, 13 November 2020

Forgotten Book - Heads You Lose

I have a vivid recollection of my first encounter with Christianna Brand's Heads You Lose. As a fourteen year old schoolboy, I raced to the local library one Saturday morning in September and borrowed it (in a reprint edition introduced by Michael Gilbert) before nipping back home and settling down to watch my favourite cricket team play their first cup final on television. Alas, my heroes were thrashed, and I was in a very grumpy mood for the rest of that weekend.

My humour wasn't improved by the fact that I felt Brand's novel didn't play fair with me as a reader. I'd greatly admired Green for Danger, but I felt that this village mystery was a let-down. I'm afraid that I'll forever associate it with a day when my juvenile dreams were dashed! However, I was encouraged to give it another go by a thought-provoking discussion of the story in Samantha Walton's Guilty but Insane, which deals with the treatment of psychological disturbance in Golden Age fiction.

On a second reading, my revised conclusion is that the book is a curate's egg. Brand skates over thin ice more cleverly than I appreciated in my youth. There's a pleasing false solution, but this was only her second novel, and it's well short of her best. It introduced her main character Inspector Cockrill, aka "Cockie", but I must admit I've never found him quite as engaging as do some fans. The book was published in 1942, and one of the characters, who is Jewish, is presented in sympathetic fashion - yet he still has to put up with a good deal of casual antisemitism before the story reaches its end.

On the plus side, there's a nice map and a neatly contrived "closed circle" of suspects. Samantha Walton's discussion has given me greater insight into Brand's handling of homicidal psychology, and is an uncommon example of an academic study which actually enhances the pleasure of reading Golden Age fiction. I still don't think Heads You Lose is really a fair play mystery, but I also think I judged it too harshly on first reading. As for that cricket match, well the scars run deep, but back then, I never dreamed that one day I'd become friendly with my team's opening batsman, Peter Gibbs, and that we'd go to a Society of Authors meeting together. Peter told me that they just froze on the big occasion. Oh well, even heroes are human...

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Angelica - film review

Angelica is a macabre film released in 2015. Or was it 2017? Apparently it disappeared from sight for two years, a mysterious experience which suggests a troubled genesis - which actually seems entirely appropriate for this particular movie! I've read some negative reviews, especially those which complain that the screenplay is very different from Arthur Phillips' source novel, but I found it extremely watchable. It's billed as a supernatural story, but it doesn't follow a conventional path and the events are susceptible, I think, to more than one interpretation. (Again, I've read some reviewers who strike me as being overly prescriptive about their take on what the story means - perhaps that's just a polite way of saying that I completely disagreed!)

The film's director is Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the legendary Roy, and the lead role is taken by another American, the impressive Jena Malone. But the story is mainly set in Victorian England, and there are key roles for several British actors, including James Norton, who plays such an inconsequential part that he must have been cast prior to becoming famous. When I say 'mainly', this is because the story is primarily told in flashback; there are scenes at the start and end from the twentieth century. I felt, however, that this 'framing' method was clumsy and unnecessary.

The crucial events begin when a young doctor (played by Ed Stoppard, another son of a famous father) falls for a shop assistant called Constance (Malone). Soon they are married, and their sexual relationship is passionate. But when Constance gives birth to their daughter, Angelica, things change for the worse. 

I don't want to say too much about the storyline, except to say that I found it unorthodox and compelling. There's a fascinating role for Janet McTeer - some critics feel her performance is over-the-top, but for me it fits the narrative. After a quiet build-up, the story reaches a horrifying climax, which I felt the 'frame' rather weakened. But this is a film which in my opinion is under-rated.




  

Monday, 9 November 2020

Celebrating the Crime Classics

It's bound to be a rather unusual Christmas this year, and I'll be among those missing a long-overdue reunion with loved ones, but it's important to remain positive. Over the coming weeks, I'll be making a few suggestions for Christmas reading and present giving - not just my own books (though I hope they will find their way into some Christmas stockings...) but also those written by a range of talented authors.

Today, though, I'd like to celebrate the British Library Crime Classics. I've really enjoyed my association with this imprint, and one particular joy has been that the books have found an enthusiastic readership not just in Britain but throughout the world. In the US, 'starred reviews' are one of the most sought-after yardsticks of a book's success, and I was amazed and gratified to be told by the US publishers Sourcebooks that the series has now garnered no fewer than thirty 'starred reviews'. The latest are for Carol Carnac's Crossed Skis and Margot Bennett's The Man Who Didn't Fly.

And here are some quotes - plenty of good gift choices here!:



"This outstanding mystery from Bennett (1912 - 1980) poses a genuinely original puzzle."  —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Man Who Didn't Fly

"This innovative mystery from Kelly (1927–2017) effectively uses time shifts to create suspense... a superior addition to the British Crime Classics series” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Spoilt Kill

“[An] intriguing entry in the British Library Crime Classics series...Carnac keeps the reader guessing to the end. Fans of clever literate murder mysteries will hope for more Carnac reissues.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Crossed Skis

“Edwards scores again with this outstanding reprint anthology of 15 short stories set in the world of sports and games...  The British Library Crime Classics series has produced another winner.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Settling Scores

“Excellent whodunit” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Castle Skull

“Everything you could wish for in a country-house mystery.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Death in Fancy Dress

“In this standout entry in the British Library Crime Classics series from Gilbert... The ingenious story line is enhanced by ample doses of wit.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Death in Fancy Dress

“Edwards combines the well-known (Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers) with the obscure (former actor Ernest Dudley) in this impressive anthology of 14 short stories featuring scientific and technical know-how. Fans of TV’s CSI will enjoy seeing the evolution of criminal forensics.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Measure of Malice

“A masterly job of blending whodunit, courtroom drama, and thriller...readers who like their detection balanced by action will be more than satisfied.”  —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Death Has Deep Roots

 "Edwards’s outstanding third winter-themed anthology showcases 11 uniformly clever and entertaining stories, mostly from lesser known authors, providing further evidence of the editor’s expertise...this entry in the British Crime Classics series will be a welcome holiday gift for fans of the golden age of detection.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

 “Ingenious reissue...Gilbert expertly combines fairly planted clues and self-referential humor. Well-drawn personalities and plausible twists are additional pluses. This high-quality whodunit deserves a wide readership.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Smallbone Deceased

 "A terrifically atmospheric puzzler...the ending is a stunner…like the best Golden Age crime fiction.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Murder by Matchlight

 “The latest reissue in the British Library’s Crime Classics series comes from a writer long acknowledged as a trailblazer in psychological suspense…Symons keeps readers on their toes with his unreliable narrator and numerous misdirections, but he amply rewards us with a story that makes us think. A very welcome reissue.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Colour of Murder

 “This reissue exemplifies the mission of the British Library Crime Classics series in making an outstanding and original mystery accessible to a modern audience.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Excellent Intentions

 “This story about guests gathered at a country house for the weekend, originally published in 1934, anticipates Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which appeared five years later…British crime novelist Martin Edwards provides his usual insightful introduction to this latest addition to the British Library Crime Classics series, letting readers know that Raymond Chandler was a huge fan of this novel. Bubbly social satire sets off a clockwork plot.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Weekend at Thrackley

 “Psychological depth enables Meredith to maintain engagement even after the killer’s identity is disclosed, and she effectively shifts points of view, incorporating that of the murderer in the crime’s aftermath and that of a character who may hold the key to achieving justice. Simple prose conveys personality in just a few words. Golden age fans will be enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Portrait of a Murderer

 “Edwards has done mystery readers a great service by providing the first-ever anthology of golden age short stories in translation, with 15 superior offerings from authors from France, Japan, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Holland, Mexico, Russia, and elsewhere; even Anton Chekhov makes a contribution —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Foreign Bodies

 “Originally published in 1939, this reissue in the British Library Crime Classics series from Farjeon (1883-1955) is a standout, with a particularly horrifying opening.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Seven Dead

 “…worthy of Agatha Christie at her fiendish plotting best, centers on an elaborately staged crime scene and a vast field of suspects, including village doctors who are envious of the victim (a “bone-setter,” or homeopath). Both of these tales are deeply satisfying reads…” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Dead Shall be Raised and The Murder of a Quack

 “As with the best of such compilations, readers of classic mysteries will relish discovering unfamiliar authors, along with old favorites such as Arthur Conan Doyle (“The New Catacomb”) and G.K. Chesterton (“The Secret Garden”).” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Continental Crimes

“The degree of suspense Crofts achieves by showing the growing obsession and planning is worthy of Hitchcock. Another first-rate reissue from the British Library Crime Classics series.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The 12.30 from Croydon

“Edwards’s second winter-themed anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series is a standout. As in the most successful of such volumes, the editor’s expertise results in a selection of unusual suspects, expanding readers’ knowledge.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Crimson Snow

“Not only is this a first-rate puzzler, but Crofts’ outrage over the financial firm’s betrayal of the public trust should resonate with today’s readers.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Mystery in the Channel

“The combination of bracing Cornish cliffs and seascapes with cozy interiors and a cerebral mystery makes this one of the most deservedly resurrected titles in the British Library Crime Classics series. With an introduction by modern British crime writer Martin Edwards.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Cornish Coast Murder

“The settings of train, blizzard, and the eerily welcoming home are all engrossing. Dorothy L. Sayers characterized Farjeon as ‘unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.’ This reissue proves it.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Mystery in White 

“This 1931 novel, now republished as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, is a cunningly concocted locked-room mystery, a staple of Golden Age detective fiction.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Murder of a Lady 

“First-rate mystery and an engrossing view into a vanished world.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Death of an Airman

"Brilliant in construction and theme.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Antidote to Venom

"Worthy of Hitchcock… A wonderful rediscovery" —Booklist, Starred Review for The Sussex Downs Murder


  

Friday, 6 November 2020

Forgotten Book - So I Killed Her

I came across Leonard O. Mosley's 1936 novel So I Killed Her by chance, while browsing a dealer's catalogue. I'd never heard of it, but the blurb sounded interesting, so I investigated further and gained the impression that this was a book very much in the Francis Iles tradition. But there has been little or no discussion of it, so far as I could find, by crime fiction fans.

I'm not quite sure why this is. The book has been reprinted a time or two - I obtained a cheap paperback copy from the late 50s. Mosley was a young man - a very young man - when he wrote the story - and although he wrote one or two other crime novels, he became much better known as a biographer. I don't know if he was related to Oswald Mosley - his own second name was Oswald - but if so, there appears to be no obvious connection between them. When I read the book, I felt that, for all its limitations, it has a certain dark power, and definitely does not deserve the critical neglect that has been its fate.

Mosley must have been about 22 when he wrote the novel. He came from my neck of the woods, the north west, but travelled extensively and spent time in the US prior to writing this book. So one of the unusual features of the story is that, unlike the novels by Iles, Richard Hull, Bruce Hamilton and others who wrote in the ironic vein, it is predominantly set in the US. And the American hardboiled influence lurks, far in the background. There's more candour about sex in this book than you find in the overwhelming majority of Golden Age stories.

This is a first person narrative, and we know from the start that we are in the company of a murderer - apparently one who has committed the perfect crime, murdering his wife and framing someone else -who is about to be executed. The killer happens to be a detective novelist, although perhaps Mosley doesn't make quite as much of this idea as he could. The prose has verve, but the characters are mostly very unpleasant, and the wit that flavoured the books of Iles and the best of Hull is generally absent. All the same, it's a highly readable book, and I'm amazed that it has been ignored by the commentators.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Coyote Lake - 2019 film review

Coyote Lake is a film directed and (with Thomas James Bond) written by Sara Seligman. It begins in fairly conventional thrillerish fashion and then veers off in a rather more interesting direction. I've seen mixed reviews of it, but I thought it was pretty good, a rather more thoughtful piece of work than many a modern thriller.

The set-up is that a mother and daughter (played by Adriana Barraza and Camila Mendes) run a small guest house on the border between the USA and Mexico. They have got into a habit of drugging unpleasant guests (typically 'coyotes', that is, human traffickers) and then robbing and murdering them. The bodies of their victims are wrapped in plastic, taken out by boat on to the eponymous lake, and dumped into the water. The women share their lives with a mute handyman (Neil Sandilands) whom the mother occasionally takes to her bed. The mother is highly controlling and ruthless - we get the strong impression that for her, killing has become a way of life rather than a passport to a better and more prosperous existence - while her daughter is dutiful but not so bereft of human sympathy.

Two criminals, one of them wounded, show up. The younger, fitter man (Andres Veles) threatens to shoot the women unless they offer help and accommodation. But the film starts to move in a particularly interesting way as the young man finds himself attracted to the daughter. Needless to say, this relationship seems destined not to end well, and the final image is haunting, as is the photography throughout.

There is an eerie, under-stated quality to this film which ensures that it is a cut above quite a lot of the competition in the crowded field of psychological suspense. Not everything is fully explained, but for once I didn't find this irritating, but in keeping with the otherworldly mood.