Monday 20 May 2024

Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death - 1984 TV movie review

The Masks of Death is a TV movie from 1984 with an impressive array of contributors. The director was Roy Ward Baker, veteran of innumerable films and TV shows; he was no Hitchcock, but he was certainly professional. The script was written by N.J. Crisp and Anthony Hinds, two men highly experienced in writing for the screen. Peter Cushing reprises the role of Sherlock Holmes, which he'd first portrayed 25 years earlier in The Hound of the Baskervilles; he'd also taken over from Douglas Wilmer to appear in 16 TV episodes about Sherlock in 1968.

Dr Watson was played by John Mills, and Irene Adler by the Oscar-winning American actress Anne Baxter. Ray Milland, another Oscar winner, plays the Home Secretary, while Gordon Jackson is Inspector MacDonald, Anton Diffring is (surprise, surprise) the Sinister Foreigner, and there are even small parts for Russell Hunter and Susan Penhaligon. 

Terrific ingredients, for sure. So I expected competence at the very least, and in that I wasn't disappointed. In 1913, three dead men are found in the East End, with expressions of terror on their faces. Holmes is set to investigate, but the Home Secretary begs him to pursue another inquiry, in the hope of averting war with Germany. Naturally, though, all is not as it seems, and the two matters turn out to be connected.

The story is okay, if hardly in the Conan Doyle class (at least, not Conan Doyle at his best!). The main problem is that nearly all the key people involved with this film were coming to the end of their careers. This was a last hurrah for Cushing and, very sadly, Anne Baxter, while Ray Milland did not last much longer. I think it's great that this group of senior figures made a Sherlock Holmes film, but I felt that there was a distinct lack of energy and excitement about the whole enterprise, meaning that it is a perfectly acceptable time-passer but really not much more than that. There were plans for a follow-up called The Abbot's Cry, but this didn't materialise, due to Cushing's failing health. To be honest, it's just as well. At his peak, he was an excellent Holmes, and it's better to remember him in his prime.

Friday 17 May 2024

Forgotten Book - The Unfinished Clue

My first experience with Georgette Heyer's detective novels was disappointing. Penhallow is, I think, widely regarded as a poor book. But Nigel Moss persuaded me to take another look at her, and recommended The Unfinished Clue (1934). He's a good judge - it's a light, entertaining mystery in the classic Golden Age vein.

The victim is not a blackmailer, but old General Billington-Smith is so utterly horrible that almost everyone who sets foot in his country house has cause to want him dead. And in due course he is found stabbed in his study. No great loss, frankly. Inspector Harding from Scotland Yard is called in by the Chief Constable, and proves to be a likeable character. He even falls in love with a member of the house party, who is sister-in-law of the deceased.

Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed this novel in the Sunday Times and pointed that it is full of cliches, but that it's written in such a lively way, with a nice line in comedy, that this doesn't matter. I agree. The 'unfinished clue' of the title is a 'dying message clue' scribbled by the General on a scrap of paper. I didn't find it difficult to figure out the meaning of the clue, although some aspects of the solution to the puzzle did elude me.

Heyer's strength was her dialogue rather than her plotting, and she excels at allowing her characters to forward the story through conversation (a contemporary writer who displays the same mastery of dialogue is Simon Brett). I liked this book, and thanks to Nigel's advocacy, I'll be happy to read more Heyer one of these days.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

An E.C.R. Lorac exhibition


Not so long ago, the name of E.C.R. Lorac was unknown to most present day crime fans. Lorac, whose real name was Carol Rivett, and who also wrote prolifically as Carol Carnac, slipped into literary obscurity not long after her death in 1958. That's the way it was for almost all authors. Once a book was out of print, that was it. You were history. But things have changed, and I'm delighted that Bolton-le-Sands Library in Lancashire, close to Aughton where Lorac lived in her later years, is currently holding an exhibition dedicated to the woman and her work.

I find this really rather exciting, even if I have to pinch myself to believe it's actually happening. I was introduced to Lorac by my parents, who were fascinated by the Lunesdale books - my grandmother lived in Morecambe, not far away, for many years and that was the first place I ever went to on holiday. I used to pick up second hand Loracs for my parents whenever I saw them. As a result they have finally come back to me, although since she was so prolific, there are quite a few I haven't read (and quite a few I've never seen - some titles are very scarce indeed).

My attempts to bring Lorac back into public view have been greatly aided by Lena Whiteley and her family, who still live in the area. Lena knew Lorac when she was young and really liked her. Thanks to their kindness and enthusiasm, I've explored the area with greater understanding. 

I don't know precise figures, but I believe that the Lorac books are the most popular in the entire British Library Crime Classics series these days. We even managed to publish the hitherto unpublished Two-Way Murder, which was a great joy.  And as a result a large number of people around the world are getting acquainted with a writer whom my parents really enjoyed writing. Very satisfying. And there are more Loracs to come...

Tuesday 14 May 2024

CrimeFest 2024


I've always enjoyed CrimeFest, one of the friendliest and least cliquey of literary festivals, and this year's event in Bristol, splendidly organised as ever by Adrian Muller and Donna Moore, was certainly no exception. The weather was kind and despite the disruption of rail strikes, which caused some adjustment to my plans, I had much less arduous journey there and back than last year.

As a result, I arrived in good time for my first panel, 'Authors Remembered', which is a regular festival event. Christine Poulson wasn't able to take part because of illness, but happily she recovered and was able to come to Bristol the next day. As usual, the only problem with this panel was that there simply wasn't enough time to say everything about our fave writers that we'd have liked to fit in!

On Thursday evening, Antony Johnston and I teamed up to play 'Murdle', an interactive event based on G.T. Karber's bestselling book and hosted by Karber himself. He's an engaging chap and I enjoyed talking to him. The event proved, I have to say, to be rather more straightforward than the puzzles in the book. On Friday I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Christina Koning and dinner with Ayo Onatade and it was good to have the chance of a really good conversation with two very delightful companions. 

Saturday morning brought two more panels. I moderated a discussion about 'races against time' with Stan Trollip, Brian Price, Simon McCleave, and Michelle Kidd. And then Donna Moore chaired a discussion with me, Kate Griffin (author of the brilliant Fyneshade), Abir Mukherjee, and Christina Koning. I managed to watch some football in the afternoon and do a bit of wandering around town before the gala dinner. I didn't manage to win the eDunnit award, which went to Laura Lippman, but it was a great evening and I was glad to get together with David Brawn, editor of The Golden Age of Murder and The Life of Crime to discuss possible future projects. Then it was down to the bar for the last time... All in all, great fun.

Friday 10 May 2024

Forgotten Book - Crime Wave at Little Cornford

Herbert Adams (1874-1958) published more than fifty mysteries between 1924 and the year of his death; a couple of books appeared under the name Jonathan Gray and for more than a decade his stories were a staple of the prestigious Collins Crime Club list. He wasn't a Premier League author, but it seems fair to say that he was a reliable second-tier storyteller, with a specialism in golfing mysteries that has helped to make his books collectible to this day.

Crime Wave at Little Cornford, published in 1948, is a novel I enjoyed. My copy is inscribed by him: 'The First Copy, as always to my Wife with all my love.' Rather charming, I think. By that time he was in his mid-seventies, but although this story is essentially a Golden Age village mystery, there are some contemporary trimmings which are quite intriguing. The back cover of the jacket, done in the style of a Golden Age map, illustrates various crime titles published by Macdonald - a nice idea.

The 'crime wave' comprises three incidents of escalating gravity - the defacement of a war memorial; an armed robbbery at a party; and a murder during a village fete. Roger Bennion, Adams' principal series sleuth, is holidaying in the area and naturally solves all three puzzles. The plot is sound, even if one culprit is inadequately presented, and the romantic elements of the story (Adams was evidently quite keen on romantic sub-plots) are well-handled and by no means tedious.

Adams seems to have felt it desirable to include observations, mainly through his characters, on the state of the world after the war. So we get some discussion of socialism (one character gloomily predicts no end to the Labour government, a mere three years before the party lost power) and also a strange and to my mind unsatisfactory discussion of the Jewish-Arab situation at the time. There is also a likeable vicar who insists that the end of the world is nigh; an attempt to comment, I imagine, on the impact of nuclear warfare. These ingredients didn't work particularly well, as far as I was concerned, but they reflect an attempt to update the traditional mystery and they also cast some light on the way some people were thinking at the time. Overall, though, and despite some flaws, the story is entertaining enough for me to be happy to recommend it.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

The Life of Crime in paperback!

This week sees the publication of the paperback edition of The Life of Crime, which is significantly expanded (to the tune of about 7000 words) from the original. The extra space has allowed me to cover upwards of 200 additional authors and works. HarperCollins have done another great job in terms of production and I'm very happy with the result.

It's impossible to write the perfect book and I'll certainly never write a perfect book, but I can say that I do find it exciting to have produced this one, since it's not easy to start with a very ambitious objective and produce a finished work that comes at least fairly close to what I hoped to achieve when this chunky volume was just a gleam in my eye.

I've been heartened by the fact that the Guardian included the book in its 'Paperbacks of the Month' feature, and P.D. Smith said it was 'wonderfully readable...pacey and entertaining, filled with amusing anecdotes. Even the footnotes are worth reading for their illuminating impressive achievement and essential reading for serious fans of crime fiction.'

I've also come across some more nice reviews. Ink and Cinema said it was: 'captivating and educational journey through the rich tapestry of crime fiction. Edwards' meticulous research, engaging prose, and insightful analysis make this book an essential read for both devoted fans of the genre and those looking to explore the world of mysteries. By tracing the evolution of crime fiction and its creators, Edwards offers readers a glimpse into the world of mystery literature and its enduring impact on culture and storytelling.'

And SFF World covered the book generously, even though I touch on sci-fi crime very briefly in the 700 pages or so: 'Edwards, through his reading and research, pulls together and compacts an amazing amount of information concentrating on novel length works, with occasional reference to short stories, making this an authoritative reference, perhaps the authoritative reference, for the foreseeable future for anyone beginning to research writers or works within the genre, or just looking to fill in a reading list. Being a fiction writer rather than an academic or professional critic, Edwards has a sense of pace and readability that makes this immersive and entertaining as well as informing.'

I'm glad that readers and reviewers have found the book well-written and readable as well as packed with information. That was a key aim, because this is a book I hoped would be read, not just treated as a sort of encyclopaedia that is seldom taken down from the shelf. And of course I hope this paperback edition, which I think is quite reasonably priced given its size, will give more crime fans plenty to chew over and enjoy. 

Monday 6 May 2024

A research trip

At the moment, I'm working on a stand-alone crime novel, something quite different from my other books, but with a strong puzzle element. The setting is fictional, but it's firmly based in a lonely part of the north of England. The idea for using this location came to me last year, when I was driving to Berwick-upon-Tweed (itself the setting for a short story, 'The Widow', that will be published shortly). I travelled across Alston Moor in Cumbria on a lovely day, but the twisty road climbing towards Hartside Summit was wreathed in mist. Quite spooky, and it made a big impression on me.

The nature of the story means that the plot is labyrinthine. But I believe that even a story with a strong focus on puzzle benefits from having strong characters and a believable setting. So I felt it was important to spend more time in the area and get a better sense of what it's like to live there. The place is seen from the perspective of outsiders rather than locals, which an approach I take quite often (so the Lake District is seen largely from Daniel Kind's perspective in my cold case series).

I benefited from the kindness of Ann Cleeves, who was happy for me to stay in her cottage in Northumberland, an hour or more away, but again interesting for its isolation and sense of peace and quiet. Although my story is set in winter, I felt it was easier to research the area in better weather, and I was extremely fortunate with my choice of days.

So I discovered a variety of places in both Cumbria and Northumberland that were full of interest and which, in one way or another, may feed into my writing - perhaps in ways that haven't yet occurred to me, such is the nature of the process of creating a story. I was fascinated by Alston, Nenthead, Kielder Water, Otterburn, Bellingham, and Corbridge, none of which I'd ever explored before. I also had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Tomlin, an actor (and former Mastermind winner!) who founded the Border Readers, a wonderful group of performers who have, amongst many other things, read my stories 'Bad Friday' and 'The Case of the Musical Butler' to audiences in the region. We've been in touch for a while but finally met in person for coffee at Hexham Abbey. Very enjoyable. A great trip in itself, and also very useful.


Friday 3 May 2024

Forgotten Book - The Madman Theory

The Madman Theory is an Ellery Queen novel. Except that it doesn't feature Ellery Queen the character and it wasn't written by Ellery Queen, the pseudonymous writing duo. Published in 1966, the book was ghost-written by Jack Vance, a highly-regarded science fiction writer who wrote two other 'Ellery Queen' novels. 

The book opens with a cop, the likeable Omar Collins, heading into the wilds to look at a crime scene. A wealthy businessman, Earl Genneman, has apparently been shot dead by a sniper while on a trip with four close associates. The location is remote - the middle of nowhere, really - and one of the puzzles is why it was chosen for the killing. Another mystery is why Genneman was killed - he had relatively few enemies. We then have a flashback scene which shows Genneman and the others starting out on their trip, which was so dramatically interrupted. After that we have, in effect, a police procedural as Collins meticulously pursues the killer.

At first the crime seems so outlandish that it must be the work of a madman (hence the title of the book). Collins tracks down the cars which may have brought the killer to the area, and before long his inquiry focuses on a man called Steve Ricks. When Ricks too is brutally murdered, it seems clear that the two crimes are linked.

I enjoyed the taut style of writing and the mystery kept me entertained. It's a short book and a quick read. However, there are two weaknesses. There isn't any adequate foreshadowing of the motive for the crime, which irritated me a lot. And the means by which the crime was actually committed was a bit far-fetched. So not a masterpiece, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. 

Tuesday 30 April 2024

The Wild Atlantic Way

I'm back in England after a short holiday on the west coast of Ireland, somewhere I've not visited since a great trip more than thirty years ago. I've spent the winter writing busily and felt in need of a break in order to freshen up my imagination, so a short package tour featuring 'the Wild Atlantic Way' was something of an impulse buy. I expected to get drenched most of the time, but in fact, we dropped lucky and the weather was unexpectedly fantastic, a real bonus.

Our base was a very good hotel in Claremorris which did an excellent Irish breakfast, in which I duly indulged, and the trips each day were varied and fascinating. I discovered wonderful places I'd never even heard of before, including the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, Cong, and Kylemore Abbey (top photo), as well as watching a leading sheepdog trainer in action - not something I expected to be as interesting as it proved to be. There was a boat trip along Ireland's only fiord, Killary, and a day in the pleasant city of Galway. We also had a short visit to the shrine at Knock, the scale of which took me aback.

I've never set a story in Ireland, although I've had quite a few Irish characters in my books. Although no fresh story ideas came to me during the trip, it was inspirational in another way, in that - freed from the keyboard - I was able to let my mind roam around the novel I started working on recently, and this was really beneficial. I came back with batteries duly recharged.

On returning, I was sorry to learn of the death of a fellow solicitor and crime writer, C.J. Sansom. I never met him, but he was clearly an interesting individual as well as a good writer who had mixed fortunes over the years. An inheritance enabled him to take up full-time writing and his sales meant he could afford to make a huge donation to the anti-Scottish independence campaign, but he wrote poignantly about his experience of depression over the years. I was tempted to feature him more extensively in The Life of Crime, but I didn't want to intrude on his privacy.

He was due to be presented with the Diamond Dagger on the same evening as me (my actual award two years earlier had to be online because of the pandemic) but sadly his illness - he'd suffered from cancer from over a decade - prevented this, and instead he joined us online. He was clearly a private man, so he might not have welcomed much fuss anyway, but I did feel sorry that he wasn't able to take part in that great moment, really the highlight of his career, directly. But the tributes were warm and tonight, by a strange coincidence, sees the start of the television version of his Shardlake books.  

Monday 29 April 2024

Lloyd and Hill - 2001 ITV review

Jill McGown must have been hugely, and deservedly, excited, when ITV filmed her novel A Shred of Evidence as a pilot for a new series called Lloyd and Hill, starring Philip Glenister (prior to his triumphant portrayal of Gene Hunt in Life on Mars) and Michelle Collins, who was already a soap opera star, thanks to Eastenders. The cast also included Hywel Bennett, a terrific actor, in a cameo role as a grumpy pathologist which had quite a bit of potential. 

Richard Maher, the screenwriter, had plenty of experience, with credits including Taggart and Pie in the Sky. He chose not to start with the first novel in the series, A Perfect Match, but rather to refashion a book that appeared twelve years later, thus refashioning things. The story has Judy Hill reuniting with Lloyd after years apart. A flame still burns between them; he has got divorced in the meantime, while she has got married. 

The story involves the murder of a 15 year old schoolgirl. One of her teachers is the prime suspect and his behaviour seems incriminating. But of course, there is more to it than that. The plot is, as usual with McGown, neatly contrived, making maximum use of a limited pool of suspects. The rekindled spark between Lloyd and Hill creates a sort of cliffhanger ending. But regrettably, there were no more shows.

Apparently, this was because the audience figure were so-so and critical reception poor. I suspect there was some prejudice against Michelle Collins because of her soap opera background, but actually she gives a perfectly capable performance. Twenty three years on, some of the attitudes (especially regarding sexual relations with minors) seem inappropriate, but the chemistry between Glenister and Collins would have made the series worth persisting with. The geographical setting of the story is left vague, and this may have been a mistake (compare and contrast the TV treatment of similar police series by Ann Cleeves, in which setting is crucial). Disappointing for the author, but at least she did get her work on the telly! And the books definitely remain worth reading.