Friday, 15 February 2019

Forgotten Book - The Client

I was first drawn to Martin Russell's books many years ago, when I started borrowing them from my local library. His crime novels were a Collins Crime Club staple, and I very much enjoyed the clever plots. I think it's fair to say that characterisation wasn't his main interest, but his ingenuity was impressive. He continued to publish into the 1990s, and is still alive, though I've never met him, which I rather regret.

One day recently, while going through some old crime fiction reviews written by Edmund Crispin, I came across a rave review for Russell's 1975 novel The Client, and I decided to give it a go. It's an unusual stand-alone novel of psychological suspense - although Russell did create a series character, the journalist Jim Larkin, he didn't last long - and my impression is that the author was here aiming to create a more in-depth psychological portrait of a damaged individual, while preserving the mystery element.

Two men and one woman are drawn to a house in Streatham by an advertisement placed by a solicitor. They all had connections to a young and apparently wealthy woman, Susan Bradshaw, who dreamed of becoming a model. But Susan is dead (or is she? nothing can be taken for granted in this story) and she has given the solicitor some very curious instructions, which must be followed to the letter.

It soon becomes clear that the three people who have been summoned all played a negative part in Susan's life. Something sinister is going on, but we can't be sure exactly what it is. As usual with Russell, the story is told fluently, and the pages keep on turning. I wasn't convinced that the ending lived up to the premise, and I didn't love the book quite as much as Crispin did - but even so, its originality was impressive. Well worth seeking out. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Unsane - 2018 film review

Unsane is an intriguing recent movie directed by Steven Soderbergh. It's a psychological thriller, but as you'd expect from Soderbergh, it's by no means conventional or obvious, even if the final section of the story is more routine than what precedes it. And quite apart from the well-made script, the film is of interest because it was filmed on an iPhone. Blimey, what next? I've read some reviews which quibble about the quality of the film because of the way it was filmed, but all I can say is that it didn't bother me. On the contrary, it rather reinforces my admiration for what Soderbergh has done.

The star of the film is the accomplished Claire Foy. Now she was born in Stockport, which I still think of as part of Cheshire, although it was long ago sucked into the amorphous mass that is "Greater Manchester". In the film, she is reasonably convincing as an American rejoicing in the name Sawyer Valentini. We soon realise that Sawyer is troubled, though we don't know why.

When she seeks help from an apparently sympathetic counsellor, her life begins a downward spiral. She signs a document without reading it and finds that she has voluntarily committed herself into the "care" of a mental hospital for 24 hours. Her attempt to get the police to rescue her fails, and she proceeds to make matters worse for herself by claiming that one of the attendants in the facility is actually a man who has been stalking her.

She's deluded, of course. Or is she? The story develops in a pleasing way, with several shifts that I found intriguing. The question of what will happen to Sawyer keeps us gripped, but along the way Soderbergh raises other issues, about health care and insurance in the US, and the extent to which people who don't fit into society are disbelieved when a more balanced view may be much more appropriate. Thought-provoking and definitely worth a watch.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Murder Room - P.D. James on TV

The Murder Room is novel that P.D. James published in 2003, and it was brought to the television screens a couple of years later. Unaccountably, I neither read the novel (though a copy is to be found in my tottering TBR pile) nor saw the television show; I suppose the reason is that I was very preoccupied with my day job as well as my own writing at the time.

I was kindly given a DVD set at Christmas which contained the TV version (as well as that of Death in Holy Orders) and I've just caught up with it. Both shows feature Martin Shaw as Adam Dalgleish, rather than Roy Marsden, who made the role his own. But I felt that Shaw gave an excellent performance. He is an actor who made his name in tough guy roles, but he's very expressive, and a single glance counts for a thousand words.

I was equally impressed with the show as a whole. The script, by Robert Jones, was sharp, with some excellent lines (I'm not sure how many of them come from the book, which I'm now very keen to read). And the acting generally was of  a high standard, with Samantha Bond, Janie Lee, Anita Carey, and Jack Shepherd exceptional.

I loved the storyline, which focused on a museum with the eponymous murder room devoted to classic real life cases of the Golden Age - Wallace, A. A. Rouse, and so on. This is a subject I'm exploring at present in my work-in-progress, and I was fascinated to see what was made of it in the context of a twenty-first century whodunit. First-class viewing for mystery fans.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Forgotten Book - The Paton Street Case

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John Bingham's fourth novel, The Paton Street Case, received rave reviews when it appeared in 1955. Julian Symons hailed it as a "brilliant tour de force" - high praise from a stern critic - while Time and Tide described it as "a superb detective story in the classical tradition". I enjoyed the book, but one thing to say right away is that to describe it as a detective story in the classical tradition strikes me as weirdly inappropriate. This is a police story in which the likeable detective makes various dreadful mistakes, more than once with fatal consequences. Although there is a pleasing twist, it's essentially a downbeat and disturbing story of post-war urban life, far removed from the world of the country house or the pretty village, to mention two milieux commonly associated with classic crime.

A fire at 127 Paton Street leads to the discovery of a dead body. Have the owners of the premises, a German-Jewish couple, something to hide? It soon emerges that Otto Steiner had reason to wish his unpleasant lodger ill, and although Inspector Morgan is sympathetic to Steiner in many ways, his treatment of Steiner proves disastrous.

At first, I thought this was going to be a relentlessly dismal story, and I didn't care over-much for the occasional bits of authorial intervention in the story as it unfolded. But I must say that as matters developed, and the plot complexities began to emerge, I found myself gripped by Bingham's blend of neat plotting and thoughtful characterisation.

I wouldn't go as far as Symons in praising this novel, but I did conclude that overall it was a very good example of the British crime story of the 1950s. It also casts considerable light on the lives and behaviours of fairly ordinary people caught up in extraordinary and distressing events. And it's also an intriguing social document. All in all, then, a book that is at times poignant and is certainly worth reading.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Gosford Park - DVD review

Robert Altman's acclaimed and award-winning 2001 film Gosford Park is a whodunit that isn't really a whodunit. The first time I watched it, rather naively I focused on the whodunit aspect of the story and the plot, and found the film enjoyable but not quite the masterpiece it was supposed to be. Now I've taken another look at the DVD version, which includes some useful bonus features, and I'm even more impressed than I was originally.

Really, Altman took the idea of a Golden Age whodunit in a country house setting and used it as a context for a story about the class divide in the age of masters and servants. More or less everything is seen from the perspective of "below stairs", and the amateur detective work, such as it is, is undertaken by a servant. There's a lot of humour in Julian Fellowes' script, and there are many nice observations. I've never watched Downton Abbey, but there's no doubt he's a talented writer.

There is a large ensemble cast, and one of the doubts I had about the film originally is that this means that many of the characters are undeveloped. A large cast also makes it difficult to care about many of the suspects, and the plot of the story isn't its strong point, though there is a pleasing and inventive use of tropes such as the body in the library, the double killing, and impersonation.  Stephen Fry's police inspector is amusing but buffoonish, perhaps excessively so.

As for that cast - wow! Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith (in brilliantly waspish form as the Countess of Trentham), Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Tom Hollander, Geraldine Somerville, Jeremy Northam (as Ivor Novello!), Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, Laurence Fox, Alan Bates, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, Eileen Atkins, Richard E. Grant...There's a lot of pleasure to be had from simply watching such stars in action. I can recommend this DVD; it's definitely a film worth watching more than once.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Alibis in the Archive 2019

I'm delighted to announce that this year's Alibis in the Archive will take place at Gladstone's Library from 21-23 June. Booking details are here. If you'd like to attend, you can choose between a residential place (either in the Library itself or a nearby guest house or hotel) or a non-residential place, making your own arrangements as regards accommodation or travelling in each day if you live in the area. There's plenty of accommodation in the vicinity and some excellent guest houses and hotels.

So what's it all about, Alibis? Well, it's a weekend devoted to crime writing and its heritage, given that Gladstone's Library, one of the most stunning libraries in Britain or indeed anywhere else, is home to the British Crime Writing Archives. These bring together in one place the archives of the Crime Writers' Association and the Detection Club.

We've assembled a great line-up of speakers and subject to one or two possible tweaks, the programme is already more or less complete. The speakers include Peter Robinson, author of the brilliant DCI Banks series, which has given rise to a highly successful TV series. Peter will talk about the series and his TV experiences, and will also be in conversation with me about other crime writing subjects. There will be a talk by another of our leading crime novelists, the fantastic Frances Fyfield. She'll be discussing P.D. James, and since she was a very good friend of Phyllis James, I am sure there will be some fascinating insights into the person as well as the books.
Other speakers include Aline Templeton, Janet Laurence, David Whittle, Alison Joseph, and subject to confirmation Ragnar Jonasson, a translator of Agatha Christie as well as a highly successful novelist of the new generation. And me. So it's a varied line-up, and I know that each of my colleagues on the programme is a highly accomplished and interesting speaker on the subject of crime writing.

So there you have it. A week-end not to be missed if you're a crime fan, and in particular of classic crime. Among other things, there will be a pub quiz (but not in a pub!). There will be a chance to see some rare Golden Age books which I've gathered together over the years. And there will also be a chance to look at selected items from the British Crime Writing Archives. Those archives are fast-growing, so much so that we're on the look-out for suitable additional places to house some of the material that is coming in. All suggestions welcome...

Friday, 1 February 2019

Forgotten Book - Dreadful Summit

Stanley Ellin was one of those admirable writers who was always trying something different. He wasn't especially prolific, publishing fourteen novels in just shy of forty years, although he did write a good many short stories of high calibre. Today, he is best remembered for those short stories - "The Question" is one of my all-time favourites - but his novels definitely should not be overlooked. Those I've read are of a very high standard.

This is true even of his debut, Dreadful Summit (the title comes from Hamlet), which was published in 1948, the same year as his famous short story, "The Specialty of the House". It's a remarkable book, and was filmed in 1951 by Joseph Losey as The Big Night; I've not seen the movie, but reviews of it seem to be mixed. As far as I can tell, the novel has been out of print for years, though it was a green Penguin paperback in the 60s.

In some ways, the novel anticipates The Catcher in the Rye. It's a first person narrative, and all the action is crammed into 24 hours, as the narrator, George LaMain, turns sixteen. It's also the day his life changes forever. George's mother died when he was very young and he's been brought up by his father Andy, who runs a bar and grill in New York City. When a well-known columnist called Al Judge assaults Andy in front of George's eyes, the boy vows revenge.

At first, one's instinct is to sympathise with George. But it soon becomes apparent that he'd not really the nice young kid he might seem to be. He records disturbing incidents and behaviour in a way that makes the reader realise that he's deeply troubled. What will become of him? The tension mounts, and this is a good example of a book that benefits greatly from brevity. I'm always intrigued by narratives which disclose a gap between the narrator's perception of the world and objective reality - my own Dancing for the Hangman explored that very theme, though is otherwise utterly different from Ellin's book - and this is a striking, and dark novel. Recommended.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

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Ruth Rendell was, in crime writing terms, a genius. For decades, her remarkable books set a new standard in excellence. I discovered her work in my early twenties, and promptly devoured every story of hers that I could lay my hands on. In the books she published from the late 1990s onwards, however, I sensed a touch of repetition and perhaps even fatigue creeping in, as regards character types, settings, and plot developments. Given how prolific she was, that was hardly surprising, and her books continued to be highly readable. Unfortunately, I found myself struggling to finish The Saint Zita Society, and I felt it better to take a break from her books. More recently, though, I've wanted to give her later books a go, and see how I felt about them.

Dark Corners was her final novel, published posthumously in 2015 following her death earlier that year. The last words of the books are truly poignant. They are: "'now it's all over'". And so it was. In the story, this phrase refers to an act of redemption which concludes a typically involved narrative with several plot strands.

The lead character is Carl, who unwisely gives some pills to a female friend and accepts money for them. The friend dies, and Carl is distraught. He feels guilty, although actually he has committed no crime. When he is blackmailed by someone who is aware of what happened, he submits meekly until eventually he can tolerate things no longer.

Carl is in some ways typical of Rendell's young male protagonists, but I found his behaviour less than convincing. Part of her genius (and the same is true of Patricia Highsmith at her best) lay in making extraordinary courses of conduct seem almost inevitable. For me, though, Carl didn't really work as  a lead character. Similarly, there is a truly Rendellesque sub-plot, but it's rather half-hearted and unsatisfactory. On the plus side, the story is very readable. I raced through it, and thought it much more gripping than The Saint Zita Society (I'll have to battle to the end of that one eventually and see if I've judged it too harshly). Dark Corners certainly is infinitely superior to Agatha Christie's sad finale, Postern of Fate. It's not, however, in the same league as her twentieth century stand-alones. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

The Spiritualist - 1948 film review

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The Spiritualist is a film from 1948 which is also known as The Amazing Mr X, a title which might have put me off had I been aware of it. At one time, apparently, it was also known as The Mystic. Anyway, I'm glad I wasn't put off, because it's quite a good movie, certainly worth a watch. And the focus is on a topic that became fashionable with crime writers during the Golden Age - spiritualism, and the dangers posed by fake mediums.

We are introduced to Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) whose beloved husband Paul died two years ago in a tragic accident when his car burst into flames. She hasn't got over her grief, although her young and ingenuous sister Janet (Cathy O'Donnell) is keen for her to put the past behind her, and become engaged to her boyfriend. When I learned that the boyfriend was a lawyer by the name of Martin, I became convinced that Janet was absolutely right to root for him. There is a regrettable suggestion that Martin (Richard Carlson) is actually rather a dull dog, but somehow I felt that could not be right!

Anyway, Christine encounters a charismatic medium called Alexis (played, rather well, by Turhan Bey, an interesting actor with whom I was previously unfamiliar). She falls under his spell, and Janet becomes suspicious of his motives, with good reason. But when Janet goes to confront Alexis, she too is bamboozled by him. And poor old Martin's hopes of happiness with Christine begin to dwindle...

There is a pleasing plot twist which I should have seen coming, but didn't, and the movie proceeds in an entertaining way to its conclusion.  There's a good review of the film on the ever-reliable Tipping My Fedora blog, and I concur with Sergio's enthusiasm. It's a short movie which doesn't outstay its welcome. I'm glad it's shown up on the splendid Talking Pictures TV channel. And as for what happens to good old Martin - well, you'll have to watch it to find out!

Friday, 25 January 2019

Forgotten Book - The Middle Temple Murder

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This year marks the centenary of the book that made J.S. Fletcher's name. So it is fitting that The Middle Temple Murder should now make an appearance in the Detective Club series of reprints. And the first thing to say is that it's certainly worth reading if you're not familiar with it. This edition also benefits from an introduction by Nigel Moss, who makes the point that the plot is "well-constructed, complex and entertaining". As he says, Fletcher doesn't leave loose ends, and the storyline is rather pacier than many others of the period immediately before the arrival on the scene of Agatha Christie.

Frank Spargo, a young newspaperman, happens to discover the body of a murdered man in the entrance to Middle Temple Lane, a part of legal London that lawyers like Nigel (and me) are very familiar with. Spargo is a likeable character, and he lurked in the recesses of my mind when I first thought up Jacob Flint, the journalist in Gallows Court. As Nigel points out, the book has "a surprisingly modern feel, brisk and light." A bonus is the inclusion of a short story, "The Contents of the Coffin", which Fletcher drew on for a strand of the plot of the novel. The short story features Archer Dawe, an inquiry agent who doesn't appear in the novel.

Fletcher continued to write through the Golden Age, although in style and focus his detective fiction really belonged to an earlier period. He was extraordinarily prolific, and that counted against him. Like so many other mass producers of crime fiction, he struggled to maintain quality control. But at his best, he wrote very agreeable stories. By common consent, this is the best of them, although I suspect there may be a few little-known gems lurking in his backlist.

Harper Collins have announced that, following this title's publication, they are pausing the Detective Club hardback reprint series. I hope that it returns one day, but already the project has made a very welcome contribution to the revival of interest in Golden Age fiction. It's a highly eclectic series, including books by everyone from Gaboriau to Agatha Christie and many wonderful obscure titles as well. I have been very happy to contribute intros to five books in the series, and it's been especially gratifying to see two novels by Donald Henderson back in print after many years of being absent from the shelves. The editor who has overseen the series from day one is David Brawn, and fans of classic crime owe him a real debt of gratitude.