Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Abi Silver - The Power of Fairy Tales - guest blog


When I was Chair of the CWA, I enjoyed meeting members up and down the country, and among them was Abi Silver (pictured), whom I met at a very pleasant regional chapter lunch. She is a fellow lawyer as well as a crime writer, and I'm pleased to hear she has a new book out. Here's a guest blog post from her, on a topic of timeless interest: 

'Britney Spears was in the news recently, not promoting her music, but making an emotional speech to a US court, in an attempt to extricate herself from what she termed an ‘abusive’ and ‘controlling’ conservatorship arrangement. This sparked a flurry of interest in all things Britney, including (perhaps surprisingly) her professed admiration for Albert Einstein; she had been quoting the late Nobel-prize winning physicist’s views about the importance of fairy tales to stimulate critical thinking.

But fairy tales come in different shapes and sizes. The ones adapted by Disney tend to involve a struggle between obvious personifications of good and evil, where the hero is required to use quick wits, ingenuity and perseverance to succeed (most likely the kind of stories Einstein was referencing). Others are darker (think The Tinder Box and other Hans Christian Anderson tales) and it’s less easy to find any clear moral message. By way of example, I have just written ‘they want the fairy tale!’ into the first draft of my latest offering, to illustrate a menacing demand by some nameless sponsors to achieve everything their hearts desired.

And whilst many writers argue in favour of reading these pithy, mythical stories to their nation’s children, there is certainly a fair weight of opinion in the opposite direction, with others also expounding the view that The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins was not the first crime novel; that honour should instead be bestowed on a whole series of much older tales. Crime fiction is, after all, most often about retribution and the restoration of justice. The same could certainly be said of Cinderella (a tale of child cruelty), Hansel and Gretel (attempted murder of children) or Jack and the Beanstalk (an elaborate fraud which excused theft of the most precious items).

But what cannot be challenged is the ubiquitous nature of fairy tales with their universal themes, which has influenced countless contemporary stories, including, I’m not ashamed to admit, my own.'

 

**

Abi Silver is the author of the Burton & Lamb legal thriller series. Her latest story, The Midas Game, is published on 5 August 2021 and available here  The Midas Game by Abi Silver | Eye Books (eye-books.com) or here https://amzn.to/3hqUGDy

You can also find her at www.abisilver.co.uk  Abi Silver (@abisilver16) / Twitter and (2) Abi Silver, Author | Facebook

 

Monday, 2 August 2021

The Locked Cabin and Best Mystery Stories of the Year - edited by Lee Child

 


I was chuffed, to say the least, when my story 'The Locked Cabin' was chosen to be included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021. And it's good to learn that the book has been given a starred review in Kirkus. This is what they have to say:

'Editor Child, series editor Otto Penzler, and their colleague Michele Slung team up to offer 20 gems from 2021 in the first volume of a new series.

Many of this year’s best follow a familiar road: pitting a rugged male hero, often with military street cred, against the bad guys. Doug Allyn’s “30 and Out” features an Afghan War vet who hunts a colleague’s killer; Jim Allyn’s ex-Army police veteran worries about being teamed with an unreliable partner in “Things That Follow.” But a surprising number include less traditional crime busters. A young man entranced with the Irish language is the gentle hero of Andrew Welsh-Huggins’ “The Path I Took.” Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, a familiar female gumshoe, makes a welcome appearance in “Love & Other Crimes” along with the female proprietor of Wilde Investigations in Janice Law’s “The Client.” Moms get into the act in Alison Gaylin’s “The Gift” and Tom Mead’s “Heatwave.” So do new friends, in Martin Edwards’ “The Locked Cabin,” and frenemies, in Jacqueline Freimor’s “That Which Is True.” And in a startling tribute to the power of sisterhood, Joseph S. Walker shows how quickly female strangers can bond if the need is urgent in “Etta at the End of the World.” Women take starring roles on the wrong side of the law in John Floyd’s “Biloxi Bound” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “Parole Hearing, California Institution for Women, Chino, CA." Child’s selections seem especially appropriate for 2021, a year that promises change on so many fronts. The only exception is the unexplained bonus reprint, Ambrose Bierce’s “My Favorite Murder,” a bitter tale of a man who revels in the sadistic murder of his uncle. That one belongs to 2020.

Diverse and diverting.'

Friday, 30 July 2021

Forgotten Book - The Diehard


In the 1950s, Jean Potts was one of the leading female exponents of domestic suspense. She specialised in low-key stories and slow-burning tension, and this style isn't to every taste, but she was very good at what she did. My favourite of he books (at least, of those I've read so far) is The Little Lie, but The Diehard, published in 1956, is an interesting example of her work.

The subtlety of Potts' writing is illustrated in a very good first sentence: 'All through his wife's funeral Lew Morgan wrestled with a nervous, unseemly urge to yawn.' This is a very smart way of setting up an intriguing situation while casting unforgiving light on character - in just fifteen words. Within the first paragraph we learn that the funeral is taking place in Turk Ridge, evidently a small American town, and that a yawn would be 'the final, outrageous signal of disrespect'.

Naughty Lew. He's superficially pleasant but fundamentally selfish and capable of acts of cruelty. He  has already lined up his next wife, with whom he's been carrying on for ages. Before long, it's evident that a whole range of people have good cause to wish him out of the way. What's more, elderly Aunt Chat has had a Sign that 'something terrible is going to happen'. This is a classic set-up for a whodunit. We expect Lew to be murdered, and the bulk of the story to be devoted to an investigation into the crime.

Except that isn't what happens. Instead, the tension continues to build. And when a death finally does occur, Lew is not the person who dies. Surely he isn't going to escape his fate? What's more, Lew realises he is at risk: 'nobody's going to try and kill me and get away with it.' For me, the tone was just too subdued to make me love this story as much as I wanted to; nevertheless, it's an admirable example of Potts' restraint and ability to depict character and present a picture of American life in her time.

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The Conversation - 1974 film review


In my first year as a student, I was very keen to learn - not just my subject, but about culture and history much more generally. I'd worked for six months in a factory and I seized the opportunities that suddenly opened up before me to try to broaden my mind and understanding of the world. I didn't do everything I aimed to do - not by a long chalk - but I did see a lot of films. Among them was Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. During the early scenes I was puzzled, but I quickly became hooked. I came away from the college where the film was being shown stunned but enthralled. I've just watched it for the third time and I remain a very big fan of this movie. It's subtle, clever, and engrossing.

The memorable opening scene is at Union Square, San Franscisco. A few years ago, I stayed at a hotel just by the square, and those memories came flooding back as I watched Gene Hackman, as Harry Caul, mounting a surveillance operation on a young couple who keep moving around in the crowd. Harry has been hired by 'the director' to find out what this pair are saying to each other. And Harry is the best in the business.

The key plot strand concerns Harry's attempt to understand the meaning of the conversation that he is listening to. This final plot twist here is brilliantly done - I'd call it Christie-esque in its combination of simplicity and excellence. But there's much more on offer here than mere plot (good though that is). Personal privacy is a central issue, one which is even more relevant today than it was in 1974. You only have to compare the recent British film Framed to see how tricky it is to deal with such a subject successfully, but Coppola's film really does make us think in a way that Framed does not.  

And then there's the portrayal of Harry himself. Hackman is at his very best, capturing the man's loneliness and insecurity in very few words (the title is, in one sense, ironic: there isn't really a lot of conversation in this film). A terrible incident in his past fuels his paranoia. And this is one of those stories where paranoia is absolutely justified. The supporting cast includes Harrison Ford in an early role, and Teri Garr as Harry's lover, while Allen Garfield has a small but memorable part as Harry's competitor - is excellent. It's one of those films that stands up to repeated viewings and close examination, because it's the work of a gifted writer-director at the very top of his game.



  

Monday, 26 July 2021

Dead Gorgeous - 2002 TV film review



Quite apart from his various series, Peter Lovesey has written several excellent stand-alone novels. One of my favourites, although it is not perhaps one of his best-known titles, is On the Edge, published in 1989. In 2002, it was televised as Dead Gorgeous, directed by Sarah Harding and with a screenplay by Andrew Payne. It's a story in the Strangers on a Train vein, but sufficiently distinctive to stand on its own two feet, and the TV version is, like the novel, very entertaining.

It's 1946 and two former WAAF 'plotters' are not enjoying married life. Rose (Fay Ripley) is treated like a domestic servant by her husband Barry, who keeps her short of money but spends a lot of his time out drinking and womanising. Antonia (Helen McCrory, who sadly died earlier this year) has, on the surface, done better for herself. She's married a wealthy domestic goods manufacturer called Hector (Ron Cook). But he bores her, and she's conducting an affair with a handsome young chap who has just been offered a new post in the US.

Rose and Antonia bump into each other and confide their matrimonial woes. Antonia, glamorous and mischievous as well as selfish, decides that they'd both be much better off without their respective husbands. From that moment, the pair are heading towards a potential exchange of murders. 

Ripley and McCrory are a very appealing duo and the chemistry between them  is such that, even if you guess what is likely to happen, there's a lot of pleasure to be had in watching events unfold. This is a nicely paced piece of light entertainment, and Payne's script and the acting do the novel justice. 

 

Friday, 23 July 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder of a Man Afraid of Women

Anthony Abbot was a pen-name adopted by Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), who is best remembered as the author, under his own name, of The Greatest Story Ever Told; he told it some years after giving up on detective fiction. During the Thirties, though, he was one of the leading American writers of Golden Age mysteries. His books aren't easy to come by now, but on a recent visit to Hay I snaffled a copy of Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937). The US edition of this book, as with the five earlier books in the series, added the words 'About the' to the title, presumably to secure some sort of alphabetical primacy.

Abbot's detective was Thatcher Colt, head of the New York police. Colt is an interesting variant on the Philo Vance/Ellery Queen type of character. He's a police professional, with a keen understanding of the importance of technological advances in the fight against crime. But like Van Dine and Queen, he has the brilliance of the great detective, as well as an admiring narrator - his secretary, who goes by the name Anthony Abbot...

This novel was clearly inspired by a fascinating real life murder case in the US - the unsolved killing of the actor and director William Desmond Taylor. The true crime is an amazing story, and Oursler clearly used his imagination to think of a possible interpretation of the real life events, while adding plenty of invention to the mix. It's not a bad method at all.

It's not a bad book, either. I felt it began well and ended fairly well, but there was quite a bit of sagging in the middle of the story. I dreamed up my own solution, but it was way off beam, predictably so since it wouldn't have been acceptable given the moral climate in the 30s. There's an attempt to create a race against time, since Colt is trying to solve the case before his imminent wedding, but I didn't find this element of the story believable. There are some very interesting ingredients in the mix, but I wasn't entirely convinced by the overall handling of them, and in particular not by the all-important psychology of the main character, Peter Slade (who stands in Taylor's shoes in the story). There is too much contrivance. But of course that can be said of many Golden Age novels, can't it?

Monday, 19 July 2021

Publication Week - and the first reviews: The Crooked Shore (updated)


This week sees the publication of my eighth Lake District Mystery, The Crooked Shore. It's always an exciting moment to bring out a fresh book, but perhaps even more so in this case, since six years have elapsed since the appearance of The Dungeon House. In the interim, I've not been idle, but I must say I've been itching to get back to the adventures of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. The fact that so many readers have encouraged me to hurry up and produce their next case has been enormously heartening. Of course, one always wonders how reviewers will react (if they react at all!)...

With this story, as with other books in the series, I've tried to do something a little different, as well as introducing new developments in the lives of Hannah and Daniel. The Crooked Shore isn't an entirely orthodox whodunit or conventional cold case mystery, but it was a lot of fun to research (mainly on the south coast of Cumbria) and to write.

I'm delighted to be able to report that press reviewers have been especially quick off the mark, and in a very positive way. This is what the Morning Star has to say: 'A splendidly imaginative plot will have you guessing and gasping until the very end.' Wow!

There's also a nice piece in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, which calls the novel 'a classic whodunit' and ranks it alongside the latest books by those splendid and high profile writers Steve Cavanagh and Vaseem Khan. In this day and age, press reviews are hard to come by, so it's a great thrill to see the book getting off to such a positive start.  

And finally, here's an extract from a wonderful review by Mark Sanderson that has just appeared in The Times' crime club newsletter: 'As always a satisfying mystery is played out with lashings of local colour and history. Favourite line: "Through the trees peeped the dome of the eighteenth-century Round House, mocked by Wordsworth as a 'tea canister in a shop window'."'

Friday, 16 July 2021

Forgotten Book - The Killing of Francie Lake aka The Plain Man



Julian Symons was a severe judge of his own work, as well as (sometimes) that of fellow authors. He recognised that, as a novelist, he was himself inconsistent. Sometimes this was because of his determination to try something different. Occasionally it was because his novels didn't have a strong enough central idea. And sometimes he was too harsh on himself - for instance, he was rather dismissive of The Plot Against Roger Rider, a book I rate highly. But I'm afraid I share his disappointment with a novel he published in 1962 and dedicated to his friend the thriller writer George Sims, The Killing of Francie Lake.

The central character is Octavius Gaye, known as Ocky, and nicknamed 'The Plain Man'. Symons had written a biography of Horatio Bottomley, and in this novel, as well as in The Paper Chase, he fictionalised Bottomley. One problem is that, although I agree Bottomley was a fascinating rogue, I find Ocky a slightly unsatisfactory character. Another problem, which I don't think any other commentator has ever picked up on, is that in many respects this novel reworks various elements from Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock. And it's markedly inferior to that chilling American classic.

Ocky, like Earl Janoth in The Big Clock, is the charismatic kingpin of a media organisation that is running into difficulties. There are other similarities, though I want to avoid spoilers, so I'll say no more. Francie Lake is Ocky's hard-bitten but lonely former mistress. An odd feature of the book is that Francie is thinly characterised and that the mystery about her murder is subdued, while its investigation is half-hearted and entwined with a rather drab sub-plot involving blackmail. The American title of the book, although dull, is at least more accurate in emphasizing that Symons was more interested in Ocky than in Francie. 

There are quite a lot of characters in the story, but none of them are really memorable. The pivotal scene in which the truth is revealed on live television is very nicely conceived, and it's a pity that, because of the unsatisfactory build-up, it doesn't have quite the powerful impact that Symons no doubt hoped to achieve. The snag is that we don't really care enough about Ocky or the people who surround him and whom he seeks to manipulate. Even for a Symons fan like me, this book has to rank as a misfire. 

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Writing in Ice: Michael Ridpath guest blog


I first came across Michael Ridpath's name in the 90s, when he burst on the scene with a financial thriller that sold for big bucks and attracted a lot of publicity. More recently he's become associated with Icelandic mysteries and I was delighted when he wrote a very good short story in that vein for Motives for Murder. Even more delighted when his story was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger! 

I've always found Michael to be one of those people from whom one can learn a great deal. He's just written a book about his experience as a British novelist writing books set in Iceland and I must say that I think it is a very good read. Michael has kindly contributed a guest blog explaining the background:

'It takes a lot of guts to write about a country you know nothing about.  Or maybe just a certain amount of stupidity.

I started my writing career in the 1990s writing financial thrillers.  They say “write what you know” and I knew the financial world – I had worked for a bank in the City of London. But, as is the way of these things, after eight books my sales languished and I needed to come up with a new plan.  This time I wanted to write about something I didn’t know.  Some poor innocent country that was small enough for me to have a chance of learning all about it, yet remarkable enough to grab my readers’ attention and keep me interested for half a dozen books.  A place whose murder rate I could have fun doubling.

When put that way, the answer was obvious.  Iceland.

So I began researching the country.  This involved not just reading all about it, but also visiting the place many times and talking to dozens of Icelanders.   It was a challenge, but it was fun.  Over the last ten years and five crime novels featuring my Icelandic detective Magnus, I have amassed an Iceland research file running to over 400 pages, neatly broken down into sections that tell me what the waffles in the Mokka Kaffi smell like, the differences between interrogating a witness and a suspect under Icelandic law, and how to deal with unruly elves.

Perhaps the most encouraging titbit I stumbled across was the saying “Glöggt er gests augad” which roughly translates to “Clear is a guest’s eye.”  I believe there is some truth in this.  Iceland is a country where the ordinary is extraordinary: both the astounding landscape of lava fields and fjords and the vigorous, often eccentric citizenry.  An Icelandic author might not notice this.  I can.

I have just published Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland. Based on my blog www.writinginice.com, it’s a memoir of how I researched Iceland.  It’s the story of how I fell in love with the country, with some tips on how to research and write a detective series about foreign lands thrown in.  Plus there is advice on how to deal with an obstreperous elf or to pacify a hotel ghost, should you meet one.'   

Friday, 9 July 2021

Forgotten Book - Waltz into Darkness


I discovered Cornell Woolrich in the 1980s, when many of his books were published in paperback with insighful introductions from Francis M. Nevins. I became a real fan and when Mike Nevins published Woolrich's biography, I also devoured that. Two years ago, at Bouchercon in Dallas, I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Nevins at long last and took the chance to thank him for helping to enthuse me about Woolrich.

One novel which escaped me until very recently was Woolrich's historical mystery, Waltz into Darkness. I set about reading it as part of my research and preparation for work on 'The Woman Who Never Was', a short story that is intended as a tribute to Woolrich. 

First published in 1947 under the pen-name William Irish, the book is set in New Orleans in 1880. The protagonist is Louis Durand, who is a prosperous businessman in his thirties, but in many respects a typically doom-laden Woolrichian character. At the start of the story, he is eagerly anticipating the arrival of his bride-to-be Julia. He's never met her, but they have conducted their romance by correspondence. Ah, those days before dating apps!

When the lady arrives, she is extremely attractive and charming. The snag is that her appearance doesn't match her photo. She comes up with a plausible explanation, and Louis becomes besotted. So much so that he gladly gives her access to his bank account. But then she makes herself scarce, taking his money with her. And Louis realises that he's been well and truly conned.

The snag is that despite his unhappiness and fury, he remains infatuated. He hires a private detective to find her, and eventually tracks her down, but with disastrous results. Suffice to say that although Woolrich at his best is compelling, you definitely shouldn't read him in hope of a happy ending.