Monday, 4 July 2022

Diamonds are Forever...



I'm back home after an eventful few days which were largely wonderful although a car accident on Saturday with a deranged motorcyclist travelling at the best part of 100 mph almost meant that I'd blogged for the very last time. Happily, I have lived to tell the tale and so did the motorbike maniac, though his fictional counterpart may meet a grisly fate one day! Anyway, I'm fortunate to have various positives to focus on, including Wednesday's CWA Daggers Dinner, which was a truly memorable occasion.




In 2020, due to the pandemic, I became the first person to have an online presentation of the Diamond Dagger, by Ann Cleeves, while I was up in my loft. That was a wonderful experience, but of course there's nothing quite like actually getting your hands on the award and luckily for me, the CWA decided that this year, as well as honouring the latest winner, C.J. Sansom, Martina Cole and I would receive the Diamond Dagger in person. Very sadly, neither Chris nor Martina were able to attend, but my lovely publishers Head of Zeus kindly invited me to share a table with them, along with my family and my agent James. The photo above shows me with my editor Laura Palmer.



  

It really was a great evening and I felt very blessed. It was also good to see so many old friends, some of them for the first time in three years. As for the Diamond Dagger, now that I've held it in my hands, I feel a slight reduction of the inevitable imposter syndrome that accompanied news of my receipt of the award. For those unfamiliar with the Diamond Dagger, it may explain why I feel so happy about it if I list, courtesy of good old Wikipedia, the previous illustrious recipients since 1986. I'm proud to be in their company:

Friday, 1 July 2022

Forgotten Book - The Honey Harlot (and The Vanishing - 2018 film)


Today, something slightly different. It's fair to describe The Honey Harlot as a forgotten book. Even though it was written by a well-known author, Christianna Brand, I've never come across any significant discussion of the story, but when Catherine Aird kindly passed me her copy, I was glad to give it a go. And having done so, I want to connect my comments with my thoughts on a recent film, The Vanishing.

The Honey Harlot was first published in 1978 and I don't think there was a paperback edition, though it did appear in large print and there was a kindle edition nine years ago. It appeared towards the end of her career and I imagine Brand must have been very disappointed by its evident lack of impact. Part of the reason for this is, perhaps, that it's not an easy novel to classify. Although murder is committed, it's above all a historical novel of a rather unusual kind. Really, it's a curiosity and worth reading on that basis.

Brand aims to provide a fictional solution to one of the great mysteries of all time - that of the Mary Celeste. She does so in the form of a first-person narrative; the story is told (many years after the event) by the widow of the captain of the ship. The driving force for the story is a prostitute, the 'honey harlot' of the title, who - as imagined by Brand - is smuggled on board, with disastrous consequences.

This is a well-written novel with some interesting characters and above all a fascinating basic situation. Yet somehow I didn't warm to the story. A key reason for this is that I didn't care too much for the narrator, despite the sympathy I had with her predicament. Come to that, I didn't warm to Briggs or even the glamorous stowaway, either. And this meant I felt a certain lack of engagement throughout; this wasn't fatal to my enjoyment, but it was a pity. 



The Vanishing, like the even more recent The Lighthouse, is a dark historical movie, focused on a tiny group of lighthouse keepers on a remote island. What it is has in common with The Honey Harlot is that it's a fictional attempt to explain a classic mystery about missing people, this time the disappearance in 1900 of the Flannan Isle lighthouse crew. As with The Honey Harlot, the aim is not to provide an explanation that is likely to be true, but simply one that is, taken on its own terms, believable and compelling. The film succeeds in that aim in a way that the book doesn't really manage, mainly due to the atmospheric camera work and the sturdy performances of Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan, and Connor Swindells which bring the characters to life and encourages an empathy that I didn't feel towards Mrs Briggs and the crew of the Mary Celeste in Brand's novel. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Crime Indexes and Phil Stephensen-Payne

When I'm writing short pieces about crime fiction, especially when racing against deadlines, my natural instinct is to concentrate on matters of substance rather than getting too distracted with endless back-up references. But there are some people who are keen on having those references available to them. After my first few anthologies appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series, several readers asked me to include more details about when the individual stories were first published. Finding this information is easier said than done, but one invaluable resource has been The Crime, Mystery and Gangster Fiction Index edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne while another has been the late Bill Contento's hardback index to short mystery stories. I was delighted recently when Phil got in touch about something and this prompted me to ask him about the background to the index. He describes himself as an 'inveterate list maker' and here is an edited version of his interesting reply:

'In 1970, browsing SF bookshop in London I stumbled across a fanzine which contained a bibliography of John Wyndham by one Mike Ashley which revealed the existence of a couple of Wyndham stories I had never heard of before. As a result, I started tracking down and buying as many "author bibliographies" I could find which led me in the early 1980s to Gordon Benson's "Galactic Central" series ( http://www.philsp.com/pubindex.html#gcp). Having bought everything that Gordon had published, it seemed only natural that I should start contributing to the series myself (starting, of course, with John Wyndham). I gradually computerised the whole setup (I was a computer programmer in "real life") and, as Gordon's health began to deterioriate, gradually took on responsibility for the whole enterprise.

At the same time (mid-1980s to mid-1990s) I had started doing a column listing new books published in the UK for the American news magazine Locus, and this brought me into direct contact with Bill Contento. As part of writing the bibliographies, I had also been collecting every magazine or anthology/collection index I could find and was amazed one day, when browsing a charity bookshop, to find a copy of a magazine called Argosy (the UK one) that contained a John Wyndham story I'd never heard of. This led me to realise that, while I had indexes to hundreds of magazines, there were many more out there that might contain undiscovered treasures by my favourite authors.

By now (2000), the Internet was beginning to be a "thing" so I decided to create a small (!) website that focussed on author bibliographies ( http://www.philsp.com/authors.html) and also had a simple list of which magazines had been indexed (and where).

By coincidence ("steam engine time") Doug Ellis and John Locke had just produced their first checklist of pulps and Dave Pringle and Mike Ashley had produced a checklist of significant "fiction magazines". With permission from all parties I merged these two lists and added all the SF magazines indexed in the various SF magazine indexes and produced the first pass of the magazine list part of the website ( http://www.philsp.com/magazines.html). Having expected to list a few hundred magazines at most, this had already grown to 4000 magazines (and has since grown to just under 11,000).

Riffing on Mike Cook's idea for a series of themed indexes, I persuaded George that, rather than just reprint the existing index (which was somewhat out of date and full of gaps) it would make more sense to tighten the focus to Crime, Mystery and Gangster Fiction, bring it up to date, and follow it with other volumes on Adventure Fiction, Western Fiction and so on - the structure that still exists today as the Fictionmags Index Family ( http://www.philsp.com/indexes.html).

Bill had also launched a separate initiative. In the early years of the Fictionmags discussion group, a lot of the members (not least me) had taken the opportunity to discuss "fiction magazines" they had come across, illustrating the discussion by indexing some of the issues of said magazine. Rather than see such useful information "lost", Bill decided to collect it all into an online index which he called the Fictionmags index. In the first decade this had snowballed into several thousand magazines issues (including some complete runs such as the UK Argosy) but was still rather "ad hoc".

While all this had been going on, Mike Ashley had been negotiating with the British Library to produce a series of indexes to the "British Popular Fiction Magazines" ( http://www.philsp.com/bfi1.html). A number of these magazines had already been indexed in the other indexes, or as separate exercises (such as the UK Argosy) but there were several significant magazines (such as The Strand Magazine) that I was dying to see indexed. Ultimately Mike agreed to publish via the Fictionmags Index. This also allowed people other than Mike to work on the project and there is a group of five of us actively filling in the gaps. Following Bill’s  death last year I have written a new suite of programs to generate the indexes (as it proved impossible to run Bill's programs outside of his computer). While still incomplete, this has allowed me to extend the programs to handle books as well as magazines and I am slowly extending the indexes to include some of the key indexes to anthologies and collections (most notably produced by Bill).'

My thanks go to Phil and also to his colleagues on these projects. Their tireless work is of real assistance to me, and I'm sure of great value to many other crime fans.

Monday, 27 June 2022

New Books - Well Worth a Look!


2022 has been an exciting and busy year for me. Quite apart from anything else, promoting The Life of Crime is absorbing quite a bit of time. One consequence of this is that I've not had time to read as many new books as usual, let alone to review them in any detail. Yet I've come across a wide range of interesting novels and story collections during the past few months. Time still doesn't permit me to examine many of them at length, but I thought that I'd mention a few titles today, in the hope that readers may be encouraged to investigate further.

In terms of newer writers, I was very pleased to hear recently from Mary Grand, who sent me a copy of her latest book Good Neighbours. She was kind enough to write that listening to my talk at the Isle of Wight Festival three years back encouraged her to produce her first murder mystery, which earned a publishing deal. From my point of view, that kind of feedback is truly rewarding (and we hope for some similar results from the Crafting Crime online course!) and I do think that Mary's knowledge of the island makes the setting a valuable as well as attractive ingredient of her writing. I look forward to hearing of her further successes.

I was equally pleased to receive Death by Appointment by Mairi Chong. Mairi is a qualified doctor and her professional expertise informs this, the first in a series featuring Dr Cathy Moreland. So does her close understanding of the nature of that complex and challenging condition, bipolar disorder.

From the south coast of England, like Mary Grand, is an interesting short story writer based in Bexhill. John F. Bennett has followed up his previous self-published short story collections with another gathering of spooky tales laced with mystery, The Coastguard Cottages. When I say 'self-published', it shouldn't be thought that this terms carries an inherent stigma. I don't deny that there are plenty of poor self-published books, but it's worth remembering that (to take just one example) Marcel Proust self-published the first volume of In Search of Lost Time after publishers rejected it). 

A good example of what can happen to a gifted self-published author can be found in the experience of Tim Sullivan, whom I met recently at CrimeFest. Tim is a renowned writer and director for TV and film, but after creating the cop George Cross, who is on the spectrum, he began by self-publishing the series. He did so with such success that the books have now been snapped up by Head of Zeus. I have just finished The Patient and there's no doubt that George is a strong character of whom we are sure to hear much more.

And then there's a couple of books by Michael Z. Lewin, an American long domiciled in England, and a very well-established writer who earned praise from Ross Macdonald, no less. If you haven't read his Edgar-nominated Ask the Right Question, check it out: a terrific private eye novel. He's travelled on the reverse path to Tim, moving to self-publication with two books that are very different from his early fiction. One is a bulky novel set in the world of television, Men Like Us. Much shorter, and even more unusual, is Confessions of a Discontented Deity, a lively romp with a theological underpinning. 

At the CWA conference in Torquay, I was glad to chat with Allan Martin, and his Death in Tallinn, featuring a cop who is a former teacher, is not only a good story but also for me a reminder of my visits to Tallinn in the past, once on a brief cruise stop, once at the wonderful Tallinn Literature Festival, which gave me a great opportunity to appreciate a historic and fascinating city. 

So, a diverse mix here, and I haven't even mentioned the novels written by my fellow panellists at CrimeFest, such as James Delargy's Vanished, Rachael Blok's The Fall, Victoria Dowd's The Supper Club Murders, and David Hewson's The Garden of Angels. An important element of the ever-growing popularity of crime fiction is its extraordinary range, and the authors I've mentioned make good use of that range in very, very different ways.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Forgotten Book - Look to the Lady


At Bodies from the Library last weekend, Jake Kerridge talked engagingly about the merits of Margery Allingham as a mystery writer. I like Allingham - although I prefer Christie and Sayers - and I was prompted to read one of her novels that I haven't tried previously. Look to the Lady, known in the US as The Gyrth Chalice Mystery, was an early Albert Campion novel, published in 1931.

It's a novel which illustrates the fact that it's often unhelpful to lump crime writers and their work into categories. In its early days, the Detection Club made much of the distinction between detective stories and thrillers - I guess this was due largely to the views and influence of Sayers and Anthony Berkeley - and thriller writers weren't even allowed to become members. But the fact is that Christie wrote several thrillers in the 1920s, as well as in later years, and there's no doubt in my mind that if I was forced to categorise Look to the Lady, I'd describe it as a thriller, not a detective story.

But that isn't a criticism. This story is a romp, generally light-hearted, but with one or two darker moments, notably when Campion is about to be kicked to death by an aggressive horse; this is a crafty murder scheme devised by a pleasingly villainous baddie. Of course, our hero survives, but it's a memorable scene.

The novel concerns a family legend concerning a priceless artefact, the Gyrth Chalice. The legend reminded me slightly of a pleasing ingredient in Derek Smith's later book Whistle Up the Devil, but the stories are really very different. There are two maps (not counting the one of the lovely first edition dustjacket, pictured above) and plenty of incident, much of it entertaining. Not a masterpiece, but well-written and enjoyable light fare.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Howdunit - the paperback edition



2022 has been a very busy year for me in terms of publications. The appearance of The Life of Crime was always going to be a major event in my writing life, and I'm also looking forward eagerly to the publication of Blackstone Fell, my third 'Golden Age gothic' mystery, in September. Not to mention a total of three anthologies and the paperback edition of The Crooked Shore (as well as the publication of that novel's American incarnation, The Girl They All Forgot); let alone individual titles in the Crime Classics series.

But this week I'm celebrating something else - the paperback edition of Howdunit, the book I edited on behalf of the Detection Club, which the publishers HarperCollins describe as 'a masterclass in the art and graft of crime writing'. The idea was to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Club in 2020, and although the pandemic got in the way, the book earned no fewer than five award nominations, and won the H.R.F. Keating Prize, much to my delight.

Howdunit is a book I'm proud of for several reasons. It was wonderful to receive so much generous contribution from major writers. Not one of the 90 people (or estates, in the case of deceased contributors) received a penny in payment for their contributions; nor did I. Instead, all proceeds went to the Detection Club, in line with the Club's traditions.

I also think that the book provides a great deal of invaluable information and advice for anyone who wants to write crime fiction, or simply to understand it better. Working on the book also inspired me to create the online crime writing course Crafting Crime, in conjunction with the editorial consultancy Fiction Feedback. So I'm delighted to see the book in chunky paperback form and I hope this will make the wit and wisdom of the admirable contributors available to even more fans of the genre and aspiring mystery writers.



Monday, 20 June 2022

A British Library Weekend


In my online writing course Crafting Crime, I make the point that confidence counts for a good deal in writing. But confidence is fragile (there are plenty of lived examples in The Life of Crime, some of them rather poignant) and writers often find their morale needs boosting. Well, having just returned from London after an exhilarating weekend, I can say that I'm in very good heart, for a host of reasons. One of these, I must say, is that it was fantastic to see so many copies of my books (not to mention my Golden Age map, This Deadly Isle) for sale in the British Library shop. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen so many of my own books in a shop, anywhere....


At first, though, it seemed that things might go seriously awry. An event was planned for Friday, which would involve me, the Rev. Richard Coles and Laura Wilson in conversation at the British Library. Many tickets were sold, and I was really looking forward to it. But then disaster struck. As a result of a couple of electrical fires, it became impossible for the show to go on as planned. It was to be livestreamed, but during the course of a convivial lunch with John and Jonny of the Library's publications team, I learned that this was not going to be possible. So it became a recorded event, and part of it would involve me giving an impromptu presentation. It was all very unexpected, but I drew fresh energy from a convivial afternoon get-together with Moira Redmond, Jim Noy, Chrissie Poulson and others, and as things turned out, all went well. Richard, whom I'd never had a chance to talk to previously, but whose new detective novel I read over the weekend, was not only charming but generous in his comments about my writing, and Laura did a great job. I gather that everyone who paid for tickets will be refunded and the event will be made available on an open access basis. 


The following day, Bodies from the Library was due to take place after a three-year absence (though as with Alibis from the Archive, there was an online-only version last year). The volunteer team and the British Library staff worked tirelessly to make sure that it could go ahead, even though it was no longer possible for the Knowledge Centre to be used. The whole event was held in a rapidly reconfigured Terrace Restaurant. And it went really well. Jake Kerridge, Moira, Chrissie, Tony Medawar, Caroline Crampton, John Curran, and David Brawn were all very good and I enjoyed my session, talking to Chrissie about The Life of Crime


It was also wonderful to see so many old friends and to meet some nice people for the first time, including fellow Head of Zeus author Tom Mead. Online events are invaluable and, I'm sure, here to stay, but you can't beat the personal contact that comes with a live event. Twenty-five or so of us got together on Saturday evening for drinks and a meal, a nice way to round off a day that almost didn't happen, but - thanks to the hard work and dedication of those who turned potential disaster into a triumph - proved to be a great success. 

  

Friday, 17 June 2022

Forgotten Book - The Dead of the Night


'The surprise at the end is a knock-out,' said The Daily Telegraph of Harry Carmichael's The Dead of the Night. The Fontana paperback edition of this book, originally published in 1956, contains further accolades from prominent newspapers. Carmichael's reputation has faded since his death in 1979, but he was a capable writer and there are some nice touches in this novel.

This story, like most of Carmichael's, features the insurance investigator John Piper and his journalist friend Quinn. Carmichael himself was a journalist before he concentrated on writing fiction - it seems that he was successful enough to be able to write full-time from a relatively early point in his career - and it's clear he enjoyed writing Quinn's scenes.

The story begins, however, with Piper. He is approached by a youngish woman called Jean Lincoln. Her father, Robert Lincoln, has been disabled by a stroke and Jean is suspicious of her step-mother, who is much younger than Robert and very glamorous. From this relatively straightforward opening, we are drawn into an elaborate mystery, involving a GPO robbery. a dodgy medic, the death of a nurse, and sundry other complications.

As usual with Carmichael, the plot is ingenious, although for me the problem with the big reveal was that I found it slightly hard to swallow. The shift of focus between Piper and Quinn is also something that didn't quite work for me, although it was a good way of maintaining the story's pace. Interestingly to me, some of the action takes place in the Kent village of Sturry. That just happens to be where the contemporary crime writer Catherine Aird lives, and it was Catherine who kindly passed her copy of this book on to me. 

Thursday, 16 June 2022

The Inaugural Jennifer Palmer Lecture - Portico Library, Manchester

I felt truly honoured when, earlier this year, I was invited to give the inaugural Jennifer Palmer Lecture at the wonderful Portico Library, right in the heart of Manchester. Jennifer was a very well-read crime enthusiast who moderated a panel of which I was a member on my very first visit to the Portico. She died - far too young - last year, and her estate has funded a series of lectures on her favourite subject.

The Portico is, like Gladstone's Library and the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, a wonderfully atmospheric independent library. These are places to be cherished and supported - as Jennifer cherished her association with the Portico.and gave it enthusiastic support to the end of her life. 


My subject was (surprise, surprise) The Life of Crime, and the host was my fellow author Matthew Booth. The event was a sell-out and it was great to see some familiar faces in the audience, most of all Stuart Palmer. The main concern for me was that Stuart should be happy with the evening and thankfully all went well. Kudos to Debbie and Thom and their colleagues at the Portico for all the arrangements. I also did an interview for local radio at the end, so it was a varied evening in a stunning setting and one I really enjoyed.


And here is a photo of that first event at the Portico (after I'd spent a day working in my firm's then nearby Manchester office) which I've just retrieved. Next to me on the right is Kate Ellis. Jennifer is talking to her, and beyond her are Dolores Gordon Smith and Cath Staincliffe.



Monday, 13 June 2022

Alibis in the Archive 2022


This past weekend was an absolute joy. Alibis in the Archive took place at Gladstone's Library, for the first time in three years. We did a virtual Alibis last year, but it was great to get back to the Library and mingle in that wonderful, tranquil, bookish atmosphere - whilst also welcoming online attendees. As Louisa Yates of Gladstone's pointed out, this was the biggest event the Library has staged since the pandemic took hold and she and her colleagues did a terrific job. Plenty of books were sold and there was a great display of material from the British Crime Writing Archives


We assembled in Hawarden during Friday afternoon and after dinner I ran a 'pub quiz' on site - well contested and good fun. Saturday began with a terrific talk from Lynne Truss about Dr Bodkin Adams, who was acquitted of murder in the 50s, and she was followed by Philip Gooden, whose subject was spy fiction in the 60s - not Fleming, Le Carre, or Deighton, but their less well remembered peers. Fascinating.


I talked about the British Library Crime Classics, while Jean Briggs discussed Charles Dickens and detective fiction. A talk by Margaret Murphy about forensics and crime fiction brought a great day to a conclusion in time for dinner and an evening of good conversation (and a few drinks).


Sunday began with Cilla Masters talking about medicine and murder during the Golden Age, while Nicola Upson covered both Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham (and showed us a wonderful home movie featuring Margery Allingham's cricket parties!). Finally we had Dea Parkin, discussing the editing process and how to get a crime novel published. I'd aimed to put together an eclectic programme and I was delighted by the reaction of those present. It was grand to meet newcomers to Alibis as well as to meet up with old friends. And I'm glad to say that Alibis will be back next year: 9-11 June 2023 - make a diary note and do come and join us!