Friday, 24 May 2019

Forgotten Book - Night's Black Agent

John Bingham's seventh novel, Night's Black Agent, was published in 1961. In Michael Jago's excellent biography of Bingham, it doesn't get a particularly warm write-up, as Jago focuses on aspects of the story that test the suspension of disbelief. There are indeed some coincidences and unlikely incidents. Julian Symons, however, greatly admired the novel, and I think that it's my favourite of all the Binghams I've read.

We're told right from the start who wishes to kill whom and (at least in part) why. The would-be killer is a journalist (as Bingham once was) and the proposed victim, a man known as Green, is not only a blackmailer who ruins lives, but also a sociopathic sex killer. In other words, it's a book in the tradition of Francis Iles' Malice Aforethought. But the story follows an unusual path, effectively with two major digressions to explain the background before a climax in Norway. It's a relatively short book, and I found it compelling.

I was lucky enough to acquire a copy that Bingham had inscribed to Joe Gaute, a publisher and expert on true crime. The dust jacket bears a laudatory quote from none other than Francis Iles, in respect of one of Bingham's earlier novels, and I'm sure Iles must have been impressed with this one too, since Bingham tackles a favourite Iles theme - how can we do justice, when the legal system proves inadequate to meet the task?

The title of the book is taken from Macbeth, but it's also a punning reference to Bingham's secret service work - he was a member of Maxwell Knight's team of spies, known as Knight's Black Agents. But this isn't a spy novel. It's a study of crime and character, and even if the Bad Guy is thinly characterised, the portrayal of his victims is done with considerable skill. I really enjoyed this book, and I recommend it warmly, coincidences and all.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The CWA Daggers


I've touched down briefly at home, just before setting off for an event in Cockermouth in Cumbria later today. This has been as hectic a three-week period as any I can remember in my career as a crime writer, since during that time I've visited New York City, conducted a lecturing course on Queen Mary 2, accompanied a party of American crime fans around Oxford (including a trip to Balliol, seen in the photo above from the cupola at the top of the Sheldonian Theatre), and finally taken part in a festival in the north east of England with my friends in Murder Squad.

Before long, I'll be telling you a bit more about this fantastic sequence of events, as I draw breath prior to a further round of events in June. But whilst I was on the Queen Mary, I received some lovely news that made an unforgettable trip even more memorable.

I'm thrilled to say that Gallows Court has been longlisted for the CWA Sapere Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel of the year. The novel is in very good company, alongside titles by such fine writers as Abir Mukherjee, Jim Kelly, and C.J. Sansom. The fact that this novel, in which I invested so much hope and energy, writing it without any contract or publisher, as an attempt to do something "completely different" as a writer, has now been nominated for two separate awards is a source of great joy. It was a gamble, to say the very least, and I'm very happy that it's paid off.

But there is more. I'm equally delighted that "Strangers in a Pub", a short story featuring a new pair of characters, which I contributed to Ten Year Stretch, the CrimeFest anthology that I edited with Adrian Muller, has also been longlisted for a CWA Dagger, the Short Short Dagger. It's the fourth time I've been nominated for that particular Dagger, and the second time in three years that I've been longlisted for two Daggers in the same year. I really have to pinch myself to believe that this has happened. I feel very fortunate.

Because of my commitments on the Queen Mary, I wasn't able to attend CrimeFest (where the Dagger announcements were made) this year, the first time I've ever missed it. But when I heard the news on board the ship, I was quite overcome. It made a very special trip even more special.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Forgotten Book - The Name of Annabel Lee

Julian Symons' books are an eclectic mix, and this is as true of his novels as of his non-fiction. The Name of Annabel Lee, first published in 1983, is one of his later works, and I've enjoyed it on each of the three occasions that I've read it over the past thirty years. As the title suggests, there's a Poe connection, and indeed Symons wrote a biography of Poe. The story also draws upon a year that Symons spent teaching in the US, where the early scenes are set.

Dudley Potter is a pleasant British academic who has relocated to the US for reasons which are at first not clear. He's an introverted character, but when he meets a beautiful young woman who introduces herself as Annabel Lee, he is instantly hooked. They enjoy a passionate affair, but then she leaves suddenly, and he determines to find out what has happened to her.

His quest takes him back to England, where he stays with an old friend and his wife. The pal is a lawyer who, by a striking coincidence (or is it?) acted for Annabel Lee, who is due to inherit a large sum of money. Dudley's search takes him to the Yorkshire coast, although I found these scenes less convincing than the rest of the book; I'm not convinced Symons really "got" Yorkshire. There's also a plot issue that seemed to me not to be in keeping with the fair play tradition.

However, it's a good story. Not up there with the best of Symons, but a highly readable example of his second-tier work. The experienced detective fiction fan will, I think, figure out what is going on, but I enjoyed studying Symons' technique for pulling the wool over the reader's eyes. And Dudley's obsessive search for the girl of his dreams is in itself intriguing.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The Third Alibi - 1961 film review

I didn't have especially high hopes of The Third Alibi, a 1961 crime film directed by Montgomery Tully, but I found myself enjoying a tautly directed and neatly written "inverted mystery" that surprised me more than once with the turns taken by the plot. The storyline contains several familiar ingredients, but here they are blended with a good deal of skill to produce a film that is distinctly superior to most British B-movies of its time.

The story was actually based on a play called "Moment of Blindness" by the husband and wife duo Pip and Jane Baker. Whether the play was actually performed before being filmed, I don't know, but as yet I haven't found a trace of it. The Bakers, incidentally, became much better known for their TV work, most notably on Doctor Who.

Laurence Payne, an actor best known for his TV appearances as Sexton Blake, and a man who became a reasonably successful crime novelist, plays a selfish and weak-willed composer called Norman Martell. He is married to Helen (Patricia Dainton) but having an affair with her half-sister Peggy (Jane Griffiths). Life gets more complicated when Peggy announces that she is pregnant. Helen refuses him a divorce and also keeps secret the fact that she is suffering from a serious heart condition. The plot potters around for a while, and the young Cleo Laine sings a ditty supposedly composed by Martell. (There's an uncredited appearance by Dudley Moore,  no less, as a pianist!) It is not a memorable song; suffice to say that Norman is no Burt Bacharach. Nor, when he begins to plan an ingenious murder, does he prove to be one of the more successful killers.

From the moment that his murder plot begins to unravel, the story gathers real momentum, and John Arnatt gives a nice performance as an affable but shrewd superintendent, while Arthur Hewlett makes his presence felt at the end of the film. In researching the film, I found a negative review by David Parkinson on the Radio Times site which struck me as excessively harsh. Much more thoughtful and perceptive is the review on the Classic Movie Ramblings blog, which describes the film as "a lot more special than one would expect". CMR recommends this film, and so do I.


Monday, 13 May 2019

The Anderson Tapes - 1971 film review

Over the years, I've somehow managed to miss The Anderson Tapes, a 1971 film directed by the gifted Sidney Lumet, and based on a novel by Lawrence Sanders. It's a heist movie starring Sean Connery at the peak of his powers, and I've long been familiar with the excellent theme tune by Quincy Jones. Finally, I managed to catch up with it, thanks to the admirable Talking Pictures TV.

It's apparent that Lumet was trying to do something more than direct a straightforward film about a robbery. This is a story, in part, about covert surveillance, and it pre-dates The Conversation, which is my favourite movie about surveillance, a genuine masterpiece. At the start of the film, Connery is released from prison. He is an angry man, who immediately reunites with his girlfriend, Dyan Cannon, who is being maintained by another lover in a posh apartment block. Connery decides to rob her fellow residents.

The trouble is that this is a two-hour film with barely ninety minutes of material. Lumet's approach may have been cutting-edge in its day, but it seems to me to have dated, and this film is much less effective, in my opinion, than some of his other work. I am a Connery fan, but I never warmed to his character, and the heist seemed to me to be hopelessly protracted, and so obviously doomed to failure that tension faded.

Even Quincy Jones' soundtrack seems, to a modern ear, to be intrusive and occasionally a bit irksome, despite the quality of that theme. The ending is meant to be ironic, but I'm afraid that by that stage, I didn't really care too much. You'll have gathered that I was disappointed by this one. Maybe it's a case of having had expectations that were too high. But in my opinion, it's nothing like as good as The Conversation.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Forgotten Book - The Accident of Robert Luman

The Accident of Robert Luman was published in 1988. The author, David Fletcher (a pen-name for Dulan Barber) died in the same year. He was only 48. Fletcher's tragically early death probably explains why his work has been neglected in recent years. Another reason for that neglect is that he didn't create a major series character (although this novel introduces a cop called DS Jolley, who appeared in Fletcher's last two novels). He was a well-regarded novelist in his day, but I'm pretty sure that he'd have developed further had he lived, and he might well have become a doyen of the genre.

This novel is interesting on several levels. First, it's a "whowasdunin". An introductory section reveals that a murder of extraordinary savagery has been committed - but we don't know the identity of the victim. This aspect of the story is intriguing, though it's not Fletcher's main focus - and I think it's fair to say that the victim isn't characterised in great depth, a weakness of the story.

Second, it's a novel of psychological suspense, a gripping tale which reads in some respects like an updating for the 80s of the work that John Bingham and Julian Symons were doing twenty or thirty years earlier. Fletcher builds the tension as he shows a young man being trapped in a web of suspicion. In fact, in some respects, this book is a development from his previous novel, On Suspicion - but it's a superior work.

And one of the reasons why it's superior is that Fletcher presents a very interesting picture of a brain-damaged character, Robert Luman himself. I'm not sure that I can think of an earlier, more convincing portrayal of a character with a severe mental disability - if you can, please let me know! In recent years, several authors have tackled a comparable challenge with great success: one thinks of books like Elizabeth is Missing and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Fletcher's novel is not quite as impressive as either of those two books, but I thought it a highly readable piece of work. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye - 1950 film review

I confess that I've never been much of a James Cagney fan, but I'm having to revise my views now that I've watched Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, in which he stars as the ruthless gangster Ralph Cotter. The film dates from 1950 and was based on a novel of the same name by Horace McCoy, who is best known as the author of the superb They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The film opens with a trial scene in which a hammy prosecution lawyer rants about the evil of the accused men (and one woman) who are in the dock. But Cotter, we learn, is there "in spirit" only. We then flash back to a time when Cotter was in prison. He is sprung from jail, but shoots his accomplice, only to be rescued by the accomplice's sister, Holiday Carleton. She's played by Barbara Payton, a glamorous blonde in the finest film noir tradition whose real life story (including four husbands, drink and drug addiction, prostitution, and death at the age of 39) was utterly tragic. This performance shows that she really could act, and what happened to her afterwards is so very sad.

Cotter seduces Holiday, and soon outsmarts a pair of crooked cops with the aid of a dodgy lawyer. Complications ensue when he meets another woman, Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter) whose father is as rich as he is ruthless. Cotter, needless to say, finds temptation impossible to resist. Carter's performance is also a good one, and it's interesting to contrast her fate with Payton's; she quit the movie business after marrying for the second time, in 1953. The world lost a good actor, but she seems to have had a happy life; unlike Payton's, it wasn't a life in the merciless public spotlight.

The screenplay is by Harry Brown, and it includes some very snappy dialogue. The action zings along, although I'm not sure why he bothered with the courtroom framing scenes; I'm not convinced they were necessary or helpful. The film was criticised in some quarters for glamorising crime, but I don't think it does. Cagney is, I must say, very convincing; it's a great performance from him. And the film as a whole is well worth watching.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

Domino Island is the new Desmond Bagley novel, with official publication this week. But wait! I hear you exclaim. Didn't Desmond die way back in 1983? Well, yes, he did. But this book has never been published before. It was found in his archived papers not long ago, and Harper Collins have hastened to bring it into the public domain.

I have to say that I love the idea of discovering unpublished novels by authors of repute. I've read one or two, and I've found them absolutely fascinating. So generally speaking, I'm all in favour of their being published. But of course, just as sometimes there is a good reason why forgotten books have been forgotten, so there is sometimes a very good reason why an unpublished book has never seen the light of day. The quality may well be inferior, though sometimes there are major compensations in the way that the story casts light on the author's work or life.

In this case, Bagley fans shouldn't be worried. Domino Island is an interesting and lively story, well worth reading. A note in the book explains the background to its non-appearance - Bagley became involved with writing another novel, and this one seems to have fallen by the wayside. A bit mysterious, but there you are. The story dates from 1972, but has been "curated" by a Bagley fan and writer, Michael Davies, who has smoothed out the various rough edges you might find in a first draft. He deserves congratulation, as he seems to have done a very good job.

The story is set on a fictitious Caribbean island, and the key question for Bill Kemp, a consultant contracted to a big insurance company, is how wealthy David Salton came to die. Is there something suspicious about it? Bagley set about constructing a whodunit in the classic tradition. but as he admitted to his publisher, his instinct for action and adventure kept breaking in. He called it Because Salton Died: I think Domino Island is a much better title. The hybrid of mystery and thriller works pretty well, in my opinion. I found the revelation of the culprit a genuine surprise (though I'm not sure there were many clues) although the final section, devoted to thrills rather than a mystery, seems to me to be over-long.

Overall, I enjoyed this story as a fast-paced entertainment. I inherited my enthusiasm for Bagley's writing from my father, who was a big fan, and although I never met Bagley, I did meet his widow Joan, a very likeable woman. I am sure that both my Dad and Joan would be delighted to see this book surface at long last, and I hope it will please not only Bagley's existing fans, but perhaps also younger readers who may not be familiar with his work.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Forgotten Book - Shock!

Shock!, a novel by Virgil Markham, was first published by Collins Crime Club in 1930. The title is exuberantly melodramatic; in the US, the book was called The Black Door. But the splendid sub-title is as prolix as the title is concise, and reads: "The Mystery of the Fate of Sir Anthony Veryan's Heirs in Kestrel's Eyrie Castle near the Coast of Wales".  A sub-sub title adds: "Now set down from information supplied by the principal surviving actors, and witnesses". Wow!

One delightful feature of my copy is that it contains a massive pull-out folded family tree of the descendants of Horace Veryan. Some addenda to the tree, although printed, appear to be handwritten, bringing the toll of fatalities in the family up to date. And there is more! A map of the local area, featuring St David's and Ramsey Island, is included. And there are plans of the ground and first floors of Kestrel's Eyrie.

The viewpoint character is Tom Stapleton, an American (as was Markham) who is a member of the seemingly cursed Veryan family, and who is in Wales, hoping to see Sir Anthony Veryan, recently incapacitated following a murderous attack. He finds himself embroiled in a complicated mystery in the finest Golden Age tradition. Markham has a nice plot twist up his sleeve, although I anticipated what he was planning to reveal, despite finding myself bogged down by the minutiae of the story.

This is an enjoyable vintage mystery, not as good as Markham's first book (also set in Wales), Death in the Dusk, but quite entertaining as long as one reads it quickly, and doesn't pause to quibble about details. My copy once belonged to Dorothy L. Sayers, who obligingly signed it. It came from the late Bob Adey's collection, and although it's by no means a masterpiece, it has fired my interest in Ramsey Island. I've visited St David's, long ago, but not Ramsey. It's an omission I really must repair.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Mr Denning Drives North - 1951 film review

It's a long time since I read Alec Coppel's novel Mr Denning Drives North, but I remembered it as a decent suspense story, and this prompted me to watch the film version, made in 1951, a couple of years after the book appeared. Coppel was a capable writer, with a particular gift for dialogue and building tension. He was one of the writers of Vertigo, one of the finest of all crime films - some would say the finest.

The protagonist is played by John Mills, who as ever is a thoroughly decent Englishman. He's well off, happily married, and has an attractive daughter. But at the start of the film, he's plagued by nightmares, and it appears that he has a guilty conscience. It's soon clear that he's implicated in a murder case, and before long he confesses the truth to his wife, played by Phyllis Calvert.

His daughter had fallen for a loathsome chap, played by Herbert Lom, and Denning wanted to buy off the blackguard. He persuades him to write a letter breaking off the relationship, on payment of £500, but when he feels that his daughter's honour is insulted, he hits the chap, who falls on the hearth and dies. Manslaughter rather than murder, I'd have thought, but our hero makes the first of several extremely foolish decisions when he decides to cover up the crime.

He doesn't actually drive all that far north to dispose of the corpse; the southern reaches of the Home Counties, by the look of things. But the plot thickens when the body disappears. Denning continues to behave so foolishly that I found it rather difficult to root for him, but I did admire the way in which Coppel piled on the complications. It's a crafty story, and the film benefits from a good cast, with Wilfred Hyde White especially entertaining as a mortuary attendant. Bernard Lee plays a good natured cop, and Sam Wanamaker is a young American patents lawyer who falls for Denning's daughter and unwittingly does his utmost to bring Denning's crime to the attention of the authorities. It's pretty good entertainment.