Monday, 18 March 2019

A Golden Age week-end

I've just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable week-end at the Essex Book Festival. This is a very well-organised festival indeed. I've been lucky enough to attend for the past three years, and each time I've been impressed by the range and quality of the programme as a whole, as well as for the Golden Age week-end at Southend-on-Sea in which I've participated. Ros Green, Jo Nancarrow, and the team do a very good job.

Two years ago, in fact, my trip to Southend inspired me to use the resort as the setting for one of the chapters in Gallows Court. And this year, I had the very enjoyable experience of being interviewed by Seona Ford, Chair of the Festival, about the writing and publication of Gallows Court. When high winds caused the lights in the hotel venue to go out for a few moments near the end of the session, it really was suitably atmospheric! All in all, the session was great fun, and so was a panel about Queens of Crime, moderated by Seona, earlier in the afternoon. My fellow participants were Barry Pike and Geraldine Perriam, and it really was a terrific session as we debated the relative merits of Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Tey, and company.

Now Essex is a very long way from home, and I felt that as I was undertaking such an epic journey, it would make sense, weather permitting, to see something of a part of England that I'm not very familiar with. On the way down, therefore, I digressed to the old Roman city of Colchester, which I've never visited before. It was a fleeting stop, but I saw enough of the place to be rather taken with it. An excellent dinner in Southend with Seona and others rounded the day off nicely in good company.

On the way back to Cheshire yesterday, I decided that, as the sun was shining (well, intermittently; there was also hail and torrential rain), I'd take a look at the island of Mersea. I've come across the place in the fiction of Margery Allingham and Andrew Garve (The File on Lester), and  Seona told me it also features in a non-crime novel by Sabine Baring-Gould. As I am very keen on islands, I wanted to see what it was like in reality.

I liked Mersea, both the quiet east side, with its mud flats, and old gun emplacements, and the bustling west side, with all the fishermen's boats, oyster bars, and restaurants. You reach the island by a causeway known as the Strood and it's definitely worth a visit. Time didn't permit a visit to the little museum in West Mersea village, but Mersea is a place with a distinctive charm, and I'm glad I visited it. And on the way there and back, I passed through Tolleshunt d'Arcy, a village where Allingham made her home. How nice it was to see that she's remembered in a street name!

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Tom Burns - Guest Blog Post

One of the pleasant consequences of blogging is that one receives communications from around the world, and I do find these interesting. (Well, not the spam comments that sometimes inundate my inbox, but otherwise, this is true...) And I was intrigued recently to be contacted by Tom Burns, a writer with whose work I was unfamiliar, who turns out to be setting a Sherlock Holmes story in the Lake District. I'm wondering why I didn't think of that...anyway, Tom has written a guest post, and here it is:

"I met Martin while researching the Lake District for a Sherlock Holmes story I’m writing for submission to The MX Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. A search turned up Martin’s Lake District Mysteries, and since my total experience of England consists of train rides from Gatwick to Luton and back, I thought that reading Martin’s books might help me capture the atmosphere of an unfamiliar place. I friended him on Facebook and inquired about a guest post, and he kindly assented.

A detailed setting is essential in any genre, but I think it’s doubly important in mysteries. An entire subgenre, the cozy mystery, is partly characterized by its intriguing and detailed setting. The setting for the first two Natalie McMasters books is a major university in the capitol of an unnamed southern U.S. state. When I first conceived the series, I had to decide between an actual or fictional setting, and I chose the latter for several reasons. 

First, flexibility. For example, if I needed a teaching hospital on campus as a plot device, I could just have it there, without worrying about hauling my characters across town to a real-world location. Second, since the McMasters series is edgy and gritty, I didn’t want to attach sordid fictional doings and characters to existing institutions. Of course, the state capital and university do have their real-life counterparts (I’m not saying where), because this is essential for helping me include the kinds of minute details that will bring the setting alive for the reader.

Conversely, I chose an actual setting for the newest McMasters book. Trafficked! ( is set mostly in New York City, and tells of Nattie’s search for a very important person in her life. Of course, I had to include fictional details, but most fictional locations are based on actual places. In the end, writing in the real-life setting wasn’t much different than writing in the fictional one.

For my Holmes story, I wanted Holmes and Watson out of London, so I chose the Lake District because of its remoteness, natural beauty and ease of adaptability to a quasi-supernatural plot. Thank God for the Internet! I had spent several years in New York City, so was familiar with it, but I barely knew where Cumbria was on the map before I began my research. Now I want to hop on a plane and explore the Lakes, but I’ll have to sell a few books first!

Readers want to vicariously experience exciting and interesting events, but many also want to be transported to exotic or mundane places they’ve never seen, and maybe never will visit. It’s the writer’ s job to make those places come alive in a reader’s mind. The writer’s bonus is that he can experience those places too."

Monday, 11 March 2019

Elizabeth Gaskell and Elizabeth Gaskell's House in Manchester

Image result for gaskell house manchester

The Victorian novelist, biographer (of Charlotte Bronte) and short story writer Elizabeth Gaskell has fascinated me for many years. The original connection arose through her association with Knutsford in Cheshire, which was the setting for her marvellous novel Cranford; and I was born in Cranford Lodge in the town. In the 1990s, I organised a northern crime writers' week-end in the town. The likes of Reginald Hill, Caroline (Midsomer Murders) Graham and Robert Barnard came along, and a talk by a Gaskell expert was one of the highlights. And later, I wrote a story in which Elizabeth does a bit of detective work.

Now I've been commissioned to write a short story for an interesting-sounding anthology, of which more another day, and I've taken the opportunity to write about a different aspect of Elizabeth's life. This story is set in 1839, when she was living in Manchester - her husband was a Unitarian minister in the city.

As part of my research, yesterday I paid a visit to Elizabeth Gaskell's House in Plymouth Grove, Manchester, where she and her family lived from 1850 onwards. The house has been lovingly and rather splendidly restored in recent years. At one point it was at risk from the developers, but it offers an important insight into our literary heritage, and I'm so glad that it's been preserved.

Walking round the rooms, I did my best to try to soak myself in the experience of the Gaskells' lives. This task was made easier because Elizabeth was such a down-to-earth, engaging woman. I can imagine that she was very popular, and her circle included not only Dickens, Bronte, and Ruskin but also Halle, founder of the orchestra. Even though she was not living in the house at the time of my story, I was able to pick up some valuable information about her lifestyle which I hope will give my short story a touch of authenticity. We'll see...

Friday, 8 March 2019

Forgotten Book - The Chief Inspector's Statement

Maurice Procter put his experience as a policeman in Yorkshire to excellent use in a series of crime novels. His best-known book is Hell is a City, which introduced the tough but decent cop Harry Martineau, portrayed by Stanley Baker when the novel was filmed. The Chief Inspector's Statement, which predated that book, came out in 1951, and introduced another strong character, DCI Hunter of Scotland Yard. It's not a well-remembered title these days, but it's a good example of Procter's craftsmanship.

The setting is the fictitious Yorkshire village of Pennycross, and the alternative title of the story is  The Pennycross Murders. Hunter is summoned back there when a child is murdered, the second such crime in the space of a few months. His investigation of the first killing drew a blank, although he found himself attracted to the victim's older sister, Barbary. On his return, he manages to combine his investigative work with a developing friendship with Barbary.

This is a village mystery, but we are a long, long way from St Mary Mead or "Mayhem Parva" here. The mood is realistic, and rather dark, as one would expect in a story about child murders. Procter's descriptions of place are as sound as his accounts of police procedure, and although there are really only two credible suspects, he still manages to maintain interest in whodunit.

I was impressed by this book, and I can see why Procter earned a considerable reputation in the 1950s. Even those great traditionalists, the American critics Barzun and Taylor, were great fans of his work. What is rather less easy for me to understand is why Procter seems to have fallen off the critical radar since his heyday. Julian Symons never mentioned him in Bloody Murder, and his work is rarely discussed. A shame, because he was a very capable writer.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Victor Canning and Birdcage

I've mentioned my enthusiasm for thrillers often enough in these blog posts, but the only time I've covered Victor Canning was nearly ten years ago, when I blogged about The Minerva Club, a Crippen & Landru collection of short stories edited by John Higgins. Some time later, I began an email correspondence with John, who is a great advocate for Canning and runs an excellent and informative set of web pages about Canning.

I first became aware of Canning as a teenager, thanks to my father, through whom I also came across writers such as Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley. Canning wasn't quite in their league, but he was a very successful novelist, and my dad liked the books about Rex Carver, a private detective. They didn't, however, make a strong impression on me. Conversely, I much enjoyed Hitchcock's Family Plot, based on Canning's The Rainbird Pattern, which won the CWA Silver Dagger (an award which no longer exists) and was nominated for an Edgar.

Inspired by John's advocacy, I've decided to take a closer look at Canning. His career as a published novelist lasted about half a century, which is quite something, and it's clear that he was quite a versatile writer. The Golden Salamander, for instance, was made into a successful film, and he wrote an Arthurian trilogy as well as books for children.

He also wrote a series of spy novels, and John has kindly supplied me with a copy of Birdcage, published in 1978, and an entry in Canning's series of "Birdcage" books. It has a striking opening, as a young nun attempts to commit suicide by drowning. She survives, and is befriended by a man called Richard Farley, who discovers that she mistakenly thought she was pregnant, and becomes increasingly attracted to her. But her family connections are complicated, and Farley finds that his life is at risk as we are introduced to a formidable villain.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but what struck me forcibly was the quality of the writing. Canning was no mere blood and thunder merchant. As a young man, he became friendly with a fellow serviceman, Eric Ambler, and there were aspects of this book that reminded me of Ambler. He wasn't quite as good a writer as Ambler, but not many thriller writers of the 20th century were. I'm definitely interested in reading more Canning, and I really must track down The Rainbird Pattern... 

Forthcoming Crime Classics

The British Library has just issued its catalogue of publications for the second half of this year, and there are many good things in store. And of course that includes the forthcoming Crime Classics. Among notable features of the list is another novel written by E.C.R. Lorac, whose work has proved extremely popular with fans. This is Fell Murder, set in Lunesdale, where she made her home. It is a lovely part of the world, and this is a book with an exceptionally strong sense of place, and a sense of the intimacy of the rural community.

I'm especially thrilled that the series will, for the first time, include a novel by John Dickson Carr. This is It Walks By Night, which was his very first novel, set in Paris and featuring his first major series detective, Henri Bencolin. I've been hoping for some years that it would be possible to include Carr in the series, but it has proved tricky, because the rights position is extremely complicated. But the Library team has done great work in finally overcoming the obstacles and achieving success. Although Carr was American, his work seems to make a very natural fit with the series; he was an Anglophile who lived in England for many years and was Secretary of the Detection Club and a gifted practitioner of the "fair play" whodunit. This book also includes a Bencolin short story.

Anne Meredith's Portrait of a Murderer was a very successful book the Christmas before last, and Lucy Malleson who wrote under the Meredith name returns to the series with a book written under her best-known pen-name, Anthony Gilbert. This is Death in Fancy Dress, a country house mystery very much in the classic tradition. The book will also include a couple of Gilbert short stories.

Talking of short stories, there will be another anthology, The Measure of Malice, which is a collection of tales of scientific detection that I've put together. I'm delighted that the British Library anthologies have done so well in terms of sales and reviews, and I can also commend their "weird tales" collections, some more of which will be forthcoming (I like the sound of a collection of "killer tales of the botanical Gothic"!)

Other crime titles include another novel by George Bellairs, who is back by popular demand, Mary Kelly's The Christmas Egg, and a second Pocket Detective puzzle book by Kate Jackson. Something for everyone, in other words! And I can assure you that plans for 2020 are already making good progress. At least one more Carr title is on the way... 

Monday, 4 March 2019

Remembering Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly won a CWA Gold Dagger, and she also attracted a good deal of critical praise. Her writing was stylish and unorthdox, and she wrote books featuring a police detective, others featuring a private investigator, and several stand-alone novels of psychological suspense. A good mix of work, to say the least. She also served as Secretary of the Detection Club, and was friendly with writers as diverse as Anthony Berkeley, Michael Innes, Harry Keating, Joan Aiken, and Patricia Highsmith. Yet I don't think it's unfair to say that she is now forgotten. How can this have happened?

Whilst there's no simple answer, one factor is that she ceased publishing crime fiction when she was in her forties, although she lived on for more than forty years after her last book appeared (and towards the end, she started work on a new novel). But that isn't the only reason. Mary Kelly was one of those admirable authors who wrote what she wanted to write, and when she wanted to write it. She was, I suspect, someone who made her publishers despair. But she really could write well.

I've been fortunate enough to talk to Mary's husband, Denis, over recent months, and I hope that I can weave some of the material with which he's kindly supplied me into a magazine article about Mary. Her approach to her craft was so unusual, and her gifts so distinctive, that she definitely deserves to be remembered. For the time being, let me focus on one particular title of hers that was published in paperback as a green Penguin.

Due to a Death, which first appeared in 1962, was her follow up to The Spoilt Kill, her Gold-Dagger winner of the previous year. It shares a key character with the earlier novel. Yet it's an exceptionally bleak book, and a dark tale is told rather elliptically. Most writers would have been tempted to try to cash in on a smash hit by writing a commercial novel, but this story hardly fits the bill. Penguin published it in paperback, but I'm guessing it was hardly a runaway bestseller. It is, however, very well written.

It's a first person narrative, and the story is told by a young woman called Agnes. She's married to a fairly decent cove called Tom, but she isn't content, and she finds herself drawn to a newcomer in the village. We know from the start of the book that someone has died, but the precise nature of the mystery doesn't become clear for a long time. The atmosphere is evocative but melancholy: the setting is a decaying village called Gunfleet. The secret at the heart of the story is even grimmer. Not a light-hearted read, that is for sure. But it's equally true that Mary Kelly was one of the most interesting British writers to emerge in the post-war era prior to the arrival of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. She wasn't in their league, but who was?   

Friday, 1 March 2019

Forgotten Book - Purloining Tiny

John Franklin Bardin was an American author whose brief career would have been deeply obscure had it not been for the advocacy of Julian Symons. Symons praised Bardin's first three novels in Bloody Murder, and in the mid-Seventies facilitated their being reprinted as a Penguin omnibus volume, which I devoured as soon as I could lay my hands on it. I shared Symons' enthusiasm for Bardin's work. The three books are very interesting examples of psychological suspense writing in the aftermath of the Second World War - pre-dating Patricia Highsmith, among many others.

The attention that the omnibus gained seems to have galvanised Bardin to resume his writing career in earnest, and he published another crime novel in 1978, with the characteristically odd title of Purloining Tiny. However, it wasn't a success, and copies are hard to find. It's only in relatively recent times that I've had the chance to read it.

The book has attracted one or two enthusiastic admirers over the years, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis said that it was "bizarre, wicked and wonderful". It also bears, on the back cover, a rather carefully worded blurb from Stanley Ellin, who described it as "certainly one of the strangest mystery tales I have ever read." As he says, the story focuses on "the perverse and shadowy wish-fulfillments of its astonishing characters". These are, it has to be said, not exactly words of undiluted praise.

I think Ellin got it right. It's a very odd book, about a glamorous young woman, a famous contortionist no less, who is kidnapped and held captive in an apartment by her long-lost father. At the time, I suspect it was seen as a cutting-edge example of a crime novel involving kinky sex. As with the earlier Bardin books, but to an even greater extent, incestuous desires play an important part in the story. For me, it simply didn't work. Really, it reads like an over-the-top pastiche of those early, intriguing novels. A major disappointment, I'm sorry to say.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Tigerlily's Orchids by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell published Tigerlily's Orchids in 2010. It's a stand-alone novel, and it's clear that she was trying to do something a bit different with it. I always find it admirable when an established author breaks away from their accepted patterns, or attempts to do so. In this case, the attempt is only partly successful, but it's still an intriguing and readable book.

What's different is that that this book is an ensemble piece. The main focus isn't on a single protagonist, or even on a single crime. Instead, we're presented with Lichfield House, in a dreary London suburb, a place which has been divided into flats. Rendell examines the lives of the occupants, and their numerous misadventures, and also gives a compelling picture of the transience of London life. By the time the story comes to an end, much has changed in Lichfield House. Some lives have ended, some have been changed forever. And as the final lines indicate, one of Rendell's concerns here is the gap between imagination and reality.

This is a good idea for a story, but it carries risks. In particular, there is a danger of a lack of focus, and I'm not sure that Rendell avoids falling into the trap. At first, the key storyline concerns Stuart, one of her superficially attractive young male protagonists, but really a stupid and unlikeable character. His affair with a solicitor's wife causes ructions when the solicitor finds out the truth. The solicitor and his wife are well matched; both are deeply unpleasant.  Murder is eventually done, but the crime (and its solution) is dealt with very casually by Rendell, almost as if having set up a teasing mystery, she could no longer be bothered with it.

Attention shifts from one character to another in a way that is, at times, irritating. And several of the characters are all-too-recognisable Rendell types. But there are compensations, including a sub-plot about a loathsome caretaker that raises interesting questions about society, and the behaviour of paedophiles. I found the story interesting and readable, but it's certainly not vintage Rendell. It felt rushed, and in need of a vigorous editor. This impression of a lack of editing was, unfortunately, a recurrent failing in Rendell's later books. I sense that she was writing too much, too quickly. But that said, even a minor Rendell novel still offers enough interest to deserve attention.

Monday, 25 February 2019

The Bat - 1959 film review

Long before Ethel Lina White, and her tales of women in jeopardy, even longer before Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and company and their stories of girls in difficulty, there was Mary Roberts Rinehart. Mary it was who established the "woman in peril" story in the twentieth century, taking ingredients from Mrs Braddon and other Victorian writers, and fashioning them afresh in creating stories of suspense with female protagonists.

The most famous Rinehart story was The Circular Staircase, and the play that she and Avery Hopwood developed from it, The Bat, has been filmed several times. The version that I've come across recently on Retro Movies dates from 1959, and stars Vincent Price, although really Price is just one figure in an ensemble cast.

The Bat was marketed in those more innocent times as a horror movie, but essentially it's a classic mystery, with a least likely person suspect. There are two crimes at the heart of the story. First, there's the mysterious serial killer "the Bat". Second, there's a chap who steals a million dollars from his bank in a robbery that struck me as profoundly misconceived. The hapless thief dies early in the story, shot by Vincent Price.

This is a creepy mansion story, and the key question is: where is the secret room in the mansion, and the loot hidden within it? We are treated to a variety of plot developments, including the cutting of phone lines, before the truth is revealed. Yes, it's hokum, but it's done with a zest which means that the film is quite watchable, despite flitting from one cliche to another.