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, 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!

Friday, 10 June 2022

Forgotten Book - Death of a Stray Cat

Considering that her first novel won an Edgar and that she had a productive career yielding fourteen novels (plus a number of very good short stories) over a period of twenty-one years, it seems odd that Jean Potts disappeared from the radar of crime fans until quite recently. Stark House Press have done a good job in republishing several of her novels, and I have a number of her books in green Penguin editions which once belonged to Bob Barnard. I think she is a first-rate crime writer.

Death of a Stray Cat, published near the start of her career in 1955, is a good example of her work, if more akin to a conventional whodunit than other titles. Potts' sharp characterisation and way with words are great strengths, and the plot is pretty good too. Marcella Ewing is murdered in the first chapter and it soon becomes clear that she was a born victim. Her character flaws are presented unsentimentally, yet with an underlying compassion.

Marcella was a reasonably attractive young woman but her lovers tended to tire of her. It seems likely that one of them was responsible for her death. Might it have been Alex, married to Gen? Or her ex-husband, Jimmy? Or Walt? Or Brad? Or Dwight? Or...well, you get the idea. Motives and suspects abound. A likeable cop called Ed investigates, while Gen - shocked by the discovery of Alex's brief affair with Marcella - does some sleuthing of her own.

Potts shifts viewpoints rapidly in this novel and this helps her to maintain the momentum of the story, although it does mean that readers may be unsure where their sympathies lie. Francis Iles felt this book was better than her Edgar winner, Go, Lovely Rose, which he regarded as over-rated, but thought that there were some improbabilities in the plot. Maybe so, but because Potts cares about her characters, I found that I did, too. A really good book by a writer who deserves to be better-known.  

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2022

I first came across the name of Michele Slung more years ago than either she or I would probably care to remember, when her notable anthology Crime on Her Mind was published as a Penguin paperback in the UK. It was an admirable selection of classic crime stories featuring female detectives. There have been many such collections over the years - I've often thought of putting one together myself - but her book is the leader of the pack.

I mention Michele because she is working with the legendary Otto Penzler, for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2022, for which the guest editor will be Sara Paretsky. This is primarily an American publication, but stories from authors based elsewhere are, these days, eligible for possible inclusion. For example, my own 'The Locked Cabin' appeared in last year's collection, edited by Lee Child in conjunction with Otto - the cover image is above this post. Michele's role is to 'screen' the stories, which involves a huge amount of reading each year.

So the authors among you may wish to consider submitting your stories - provided they are original to 2022. No dusting down old material, then, however great it is! The other thing you have to bear in mind is that the stories have to be submitted as printed copies, not as email attachments or in some other non-print format. 

If you're tempted, send your story to:

Otto Penzler


58 Warren Street

New York 10007

United States of America

Monday, 6 June 2022

Reviews and the Blog Tour for The Life of Crime


For me, it's been an exciting few days, as I have had the double pleasure of enjoying reviews of The Life of Crime while anticipating the US publication tomorrow of The Girl They All Forgot (aka The Crooked Shore). Today I want to express my appreciation of the reviewers who have given The Life of Crime such a wonderful start. So wonderful, in fact, that on Friday evening, the book became an Amazon #1 bestseller in the literary reference category. Given that it's not exactly a cheap book, this was a delightful surprise.

There was a truly fantastic review in the 'i' newspaper from Moira Redmond. Not only that: Moira also took part in the blog tour and contributed a lovely piece that made me blush: not such a common occurrence. And the word cloud image above (which relates to chapter 35 of the book) comes from an incredible review by Kate Jackson. I should say that, because of production hold-ups, reviewers had very little time to devour the book, which given its length meant that reviewing became quite a challenge. But Kate rose to it in the most remarkable way. I don't think I've ever seen any review of a book about the genre which tackles the material at such length, not to mention in such depth and with such thought. It must have taken ages to put together and I'm quite blown away by it. The word clouds relating to each chapter topic really were the icing on the cake.

I loved Jim Noy's review at The Invisible Event, not least the closing words: 'Anyone who thinks they're going to follow this in another 50 years has my sympathies.' There were also great reviews from Puzzle DoctorKaggsy's Bookish Ramblings  Basil Ransome-Davies at Shiny New BooksDesperate Reader Northern Reader and Vicky Lord to go along with those by Christine Poulson and Andrew Taylor in The Spectator which I've mentioned previously.  And just in case there was anything about the background to the book that you were afraid to ask, I've written an article on CrimeReads which discusses some of its genesis...


Friday, 3 June 2022

Forgotten Book - Too Many Bottles

I share with Raymond Chandler and Ed Gorman, among others, an admiration for the work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a crime novelist who has long been under-rated. Domestic suspense was her forte and it's at the heart of Too Many Bottles, published in 1951, towards the end of her career. This is a swift read, a short book that ranks as a minor work compared to her best novels, but not without interest (yes, I know that's damning with faint praise, but I think it's a fair summary).

We see things from the point of view of a youngish man called Brophy. He writes pulp fiction and for the past year he's been living with his new wife Lulu and her sister Norma. Lulu is good-looking and possesses a superficial charm, but she's also nervy and needy and Brophy isn't in love with her. The Brophys hold a party which goes badly and after it's over, Lulu is found dead. At first it seems as if she may have consumed a poison by mistake, but it soon becomes clear she was murdered.

Holding piles on a number of complications, and in due course there is another death. However,  I formed an opinion about what was going on during the early chapters and I was disappointed to find that I was right. The mystery isn't as complex as it might have been, and Brophy's denseness becomes rather irritating.

Yet there are some nice touches, especially during a conversation about the merits, or otherwise, of creative writing classes and in Brophy's ruminations about his own crime writing. And I did enjoy the ironic passage where Brophy thinks: 'I couldn't write a psychological novel. I wouldn't know how to motivate my people. I'm too healthy. Or maybe too dumb.'