Monday, 19 March 2018

Blogging about Veronica's Room

Writing, as I've said often enough, is a tough game. But I've always believed that the pleasures and rewards far outweigh the downsides. And that's true of writing a blog. The rewards aren't financial, of course, because I don't take advertisements on this blog, and I don't intend to. The aim here is simply to share some of my enthusiasms. But the rewards are often unexpected, and are particularly gratifying when they take the form of unexpected contacts from readers.

I've had many happy experiences of such contacts, and the other day I received a comment from Tonya on a post dating back five and a half years, no less. It was a post about Ira Levin's play Veronica's Room  and it was a bittersweet moment when I realised that the first comment came from my friend and fellow blogger Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona, whose life was so sadly cut short by cancer.

Unlike Maxine, I'd never had the chance to watch a performance of the play, but Tonya kindly drew my attention to a Youtube video of a performance in which she took part, back in 1994. And I grabbed the first chance I had to watch it. Good old Youtube!

It's a very creepy play indeed (I see from the internet that a few years back, Harvey Weinstein was planning to film it...) and won't be to everyone's taste, for sure. It wasn't a big hit, unlike Levin's Deathtrap, which was more light-hearted, but I find the games that Levin plays with notions of identity truly fascinating. I like crime stories where people are not who they seem, and this is an extremely intriguing example. I'm so glad that Tonya got in touch.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Reckless Moment - 1949 film review

Eight years ago (blimey!) I reviewed on this blog The Deep End, a film starring Tilda Swinton and based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall. I was underwhelmed by that version of the story, I'm afraid, but when the chance came along to watch an earlier movie adaptation of the book, I decided to take a look. And I'm glad I did.

The Reckless Moment, released in 1949 is a domestic film noir of real merit. Joan Bennett, in her day quite a star, plays Lucia, a wife and mother who is preoccupied by family responsibilities at a time when her beloved husband is working abroad. She's a bossy mum, really, constantly chiding her son about his clothes, and taking it upon herself to tell an unpleasant unsuitable man who is seeing her 17 year old daughter that he must stop. She is even willing to offer him money to make himself scarce. It's not my idea of great parenting, and it doesn't work well. The chap, who is admittedly loathsome, turns up at the family home, where he and Lucia's daughter quarrel. She strikes him and then runs for it, and in a freak accident he winds up dead.

Lucia discovers his body, and in another desperately unwise move, decides to conceal the death. Needless to say, things soon start to unravel. The body is found, and the police start a murder hunt. Meanwhile, an unsavoury duo who have got hold of the girl's letters to the deceased set about blackmailing Lucia.

This is where the film becomes interesting, and it's all due to the relationship between James Mason, one of the bad guys, and Lucia. He finds himself falling in love with her, while she desperately tries to raise the money to buy him and his partner off. Although Mason's character behaves with improbable decency, he is such a charismatic actor that it's not too hard to suspend disbelief, while Lucia's valiant determination to keep her family safe makes up for her intermittent recklessness. A well-made film, and one I enjoyed rather more than The Deep End.

Forgotten Book - Invisible Weapons

Image result for invisible weapons john rhode

Invisible Weapons, first published in 1938, is one of John Rhode's innumerable mysteries; it's been hard to find for many years, but has now reappeared in a new paperback edition from Harper Collins. Rhode fans will, I'm sure, be absolutely delighted, as the chances of finding a first edition in decent nick at an affordable price are negligible. And it's a story which, in many ways, strikes me as typical of Rhode, both in terms of his strengths and his weaknesses.

Let's take the strengths first. The book is divided into two parts, and concerns two distinct crimes (although it's surely not a spoiler to reveal that there is a connection between them). The first victim is an elderly man, who is murdered in highly mysterious circumstances in the home of a doctor, while a police officer is present in the house. It's a locked room killing, and nobody can figure out how the crime was committed, even though there are strong reasons to suspect the doctor, who has been living beyond his means, and whose wife was the deceased's heir.

When the riddle is finally solved by Dr Lancelot Priestley, it turns out to be a variation of an old trick, but very pleasingly handled. There's also a complicated puzzle about the death of a rich and soon-to-be-married man in the second half of the book. Once again, Rhode deals with the mechanics of the crime in an assured way. He was a man with a practical turn of mind, and like Dorothy L. Sayers, he was rather more interested in howdunit than whodunit.

But, unlike Sayers, he had no ambitions as a literary stylist, and therefore the culprit's ingenious m.o. is the focus of interest. The culprit's character and motivation are of very subordinate importance, and here, as so often with Rhode, I found this a little frustrating. A murderer who indulges in such over-elaboration really deserves to have his crime investigated by a sleuth as formidable as Priestley!

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Essex Book Festival 2018

I spent last week-end taking part in Essex Book Festival. As the name suggests, the Festival involves events all around the county, but I was in Southend-on-Sea for a week-end focusing on crime fiction. It's a long way from Cheshire to Southend, but I accomplished the drive quite easily, only for my car to become immobilised in Southend. Cue a visit from the AA breakdown truck and then a frantic drive to a main dealer to get my key battery fixed - only to find the problem recurred when I returned to Southend. Apparently there are 'problems with electronics' in the vicinity of the hotel where I was staying. I can only assume that Russian hackers are to blame!

Anyway, after this drama, I was more than ready for a drink or three, and spent a convivial evening in the company of Festival organisers and fellow writers, among them Seona Ford, Camilla Shestopal, David Whittle, and Ruth Dudley Edwards. The following morning, David, Ruth, and I took part in a panel chaired by Seona which celebrated the life and work of Edmund Crispin. Later, I attended a talk by David - who wrote an excellent biography of Crispin - about the man behind the books (and the music he wrote under his real name, Bruce Montgomery).

This allowed plenty of time for a bracing walk to the end of Southend's amazing pier - the longest pleasure pier in the world, more than twice the length of two piers I know well, those at Southport and Llandudno. I rather like Southend, and it will feature as one of the settings in my next novel, of which more news (I hope) fairly soon.

On Sunday, I chaired a panel featuring three authors who contributed to Mystery Tour, the CWA anthology: Paul Gitsham, Jeanette Hewitt, and Christine Poulson. We talked about a wide range of subjects concerning the ups and downs of the crime writing life, and it was a good deal of fun, as I think the photo (taken by Cheryl Shorter) makes clear. The Festival is very well organised, and I warmly recommend it.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Beast in the Cellar - 1970 film review

In the green and pleasant English countryside, someone is killing soldiers from a local military base in an especially gruesome way. Is a wild animal responsible, or is something even more sinister going on? This is the premise of a 1970 film written and directed by James Kelley, The Beast in the Cellar. The title is something of a plot giveaway, and needlessly unsophisticated given that Kelley was aiming for something relatively ambitious.

After the first killing, we're introduced to two elderly sisters who live together in a secluded old house, not far away from the base. They have connections with the military through their father, a former war hero. One of the sisters, played by Flora Robson, is the dominant one of the pair, looking after Beryl Reid, an affectionate but not very bright character, rather under her sister's thumb.

Robson and Reid were both very good actors, and one of the features of this film is that the cast is a cut above the average. Tessa Wyatt, hugely popular in those days, not least with me, plays a young nurse, and T.P, McKenna is the detective trying to solve the case. The body count begins to rise. But who has a grudge against the young soldiers?

The plot twists are fairly predictable. Kelley was, I feel sure, trying to combine suspense with a character-driven drama, but he falls rather between two stools. The film is certainly watchable, as you'd expect with such a cast, and a lively score by Tony Macaulay is a bonus - there's even a song performed by, believe it or  not, Ediston Lighthouse. But it's a very talky piece of work, and more of a not very horrific horror film than a crime story. Rural Britain provides plenty of scope for dark drama, just as it does for traditional mysteries, but this film, although it has merits, is really a missed opportunity. .

Monday, 12 March 2018

Blood on the Tracks - out now!

Railways have, for some mysterious reason, long been associated with crime fiction. Is it something to do with the feeling of rage that commuters feel when their train is delayed, or doesn't turn up? Or is there perhaps some subtler explanation? Whatever the truth of it, I'm delighted to say that the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of vintage mysteries themed around the railways is now available.

Blood on the Tracks (a title I found irresistible, even though I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan) is quite a chunky volume, I'm glad to say, and I hope that its contents are sufficiently varied to appeal to the broad range of taste of Crime Classics enthusiasts. I called in at the British Library shop last week, the day copies went on sale there, and several were sold during my stay of a few minutes, which augurs quite well.

As in the past when compiling anthologies for this series, I've mixed well-known stories and authors with less renowned counterparts. But when researching the book, I found that a striking number of high-calibre authors had tried their hand at railway mysteries, and even though I'd included examples in previous anthologies, by the likes of John Oxenham and Edmund Crispin, there were still plenty to choose from.

So there are quite a number of famous names in the book, from Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers to the two Michaels, Innes and Gilbert. And among the more obscure titles is "The Railway Carriage" by F. Tennyson Jesse, a writer I find very interesting and whose life and work  I've been researching extensively this past year. Doug Greene's collection of her complete Solange Fontaine stories, incidentally, is most enjoyable. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Forgotten Book - Death Runs on Skis

Recently I had the opportunity to acquire a signed copy of Death Runs on Skis by Hetty Ritchie, a book and author I confess I'd never heard of. A quick check of Al Hubin's monumental bibliography indicated that this was her one and only novel, dating from 1935, but further information was almost impossible to find. This copy didn't have a dust jacket, but I seized the chance to acquire it, partly because the title intrigued me, and partly because I'm always fascinated by the "singleton" detective story - I can never help wondering why an author, having managed to publish one novel, never returned to the fray. It's a topic to which I devote a chapter in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

I began to read the book and was impressed by the first chapter, partly because of the lively narrative voice. The story is told by Gerda, a young woman of German heritage, who lives in Scotland, and who has been looked after by her Uncle Angus. But now Angus is dead, and a kindly lawyer breaks the news that his estate is worth very little. But Angus has left a mysterious letter to Gerda...

I have a weakness for inheritance stories, but it soon became clear that this book isn't exactly an inheritance story, and it's not a Golden Age whodunit. Rather, it's an adventure story about a hunt for lost treasure. Gerda enlists the help of two young men as she embarks on an audacious plan to retrieve the treasure, but she soon finds herself in danger, since someone else is also pursuing the same objective. Much of the story is set in the Swiss Alps, and the setting, and the ski-ing which plays an important part in the action is well described.

I discovered that Lucius Books of York are selling a copy with an excellent dust jacket, and with their assistance I was able to look at the jacket blurb, from which I learned that the mysterious author was herself a ski-ing expert. But why didn't Hetty write any more crime fiction? She certainly could write, that's for sure. The style is light and entertaining, even if the plot is pretty basic. If anyone can offer a solution to the puzzle, I'd be delighted.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Spaniard's Curse - 1958 film review

I sat down to watch The Spaniard's Curse without high hopes, to be honest. The title didn't inspire much confidence, but the Talking Pictures TV channel has dug up are some hidden gems, and I was taken by surprise when the opening credits revealed that Kenneth Hyde's screenplay was based on a story by Edith Pargeter. And that, of course, was the real name of an author I've long admired - Ellis Peters.

The original story is, in fact, a novella, "The Assize of the Dying"; I hadn't even realised that it had been turned into a film. It's a reminder that she was doing very good work long before the era of Brother Cadfael. And the story is certainly a good one, a cut above many of the other short black and white British movies of the 50s.

We begin with a jury worrying over its verdict in a murder trial. Stevenson, the accused (Basil Dignam, in relatively early and untypical role) is ultimately found guilty, and when asked if he has anything to say, he uses the formula of an ancient Spanish curse on the judge (Michael Hordern), prosecuting counsel, and jury foreman. Hence the melodramatic title, although I feel it is  much inferior to The Assize of the Dying, which strikes me as genuinely evocative.

Soon both Stevenson and the jury foreman die, and attention focuses on the judge and his domestic circle, comprising his dashing journalist son (Tony Wright, who played Jack Havoc in the film version of The Tiger in the Smoke), his ward (Susan Beaumont, an attractive young woman whose screen career was bafflingly brief) and her new boyfriend (Canadian actor Lee Patterson). Hordern gives an excellent performance in quite a challenging role.

The set-up of the story is full of promise, and there's a very pleasing red herring which fooled me completely for a while. After that, it faltered a little, and personally I felt that had something to do with Patterson's lack of charisma. The ending also felt a bit rushed. On the whole, though, I found this an entertaining film, a little different from the run-of-the-mill, and it's worth a look if you get the chance.


The Hatton Garden Job and Freehold (aka Two Pigeons) - movie reviews

Two short, recent films today. Both have their moments, but not enough to live up to the potential of their storylines. And despite short running times, they both felt a bit too long, which rather said it all. The Hatton Garden Job disappointed me more, because the true story on which it's based is so remarkable - an extraordinarily lucrative heist carried out by a small gang of veteran criminals. Despite the arrests and convictions that followed, questions about the crime remain.

This film makes up answers to some of those questions, inventing a character played by Matthew Goode who is hired to do job by a glamorous female Hungarian gangster, played rather improbably by Joely Richardson. We never really learn enough about either character to become fully engaged with them, and I was amused by one negative review which compared Richardson's performance to that of a frazzled magician's assistant. Well, it isn't her finest hour, but I remain a fan of hers.

The snag with a heist movie is that it is easy to fall into the trap of following a formula: the gang is assembled, the heist is carried out, and then things go wrong. This film doesn't do anything original with those elements, even though the gang members, including the excellent David Calder, are a likeable bunch - much more likeable than their real life counterparts, no doubt.

A couple of days after watching this, I came across Ambush in Leopard Street, a 1962 B-movie about a diamond heist in London. Apart from Bruce Seton (aka Fabian of the Yard) the cast was as forgettable as the script, but really there wasn't any less to it than there was to The Hatton Garden Job, even though the new film looks much flashier.

Freehold, also known as Two Pigeons (I wonder why they changed the title... or perhaps I don't!), is a revenge thriller, a black comedy, including scenes which will appeal to connoisseurs of the repellent. Having met a few young London estate agents some years back, the idea of one of their number getting an overdue come-uppance is, I'm sorry to say, rather appealing, but again I didn't think the script fulfilled its theoretical promise. I did, however, think that the ending was pretty good, and rather better than the lead-up to it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Blanche Fury - 1948 film review

Blanche Fury, a 1948 historical melodrama starring Stewart Granger and Valerie Hobson, was based on a book of the same name by Joseph Shearing published nine years earlier. The Shearing pseudonym was used by Marjorie Bowen, a highly prolific and undoubtedly accomplished writer, and the Shearing stories were typically based on real life historical cases. For instance, Airing in a Closed Carriage is based on the Maybrick case.

Blanche Fury was inspired by a real life case rather less well-known than the Maybrick case, although quite notorious in its day. This was the double murder at Stanfield Hall in Norwich in 1848, when a father and son were shot dead by a tenant farmer. The details of the case are significantly changed in the film, not least in the transposition of the setting to Staffordshire, but perhaps the most significant change is the focus on the title character, played by Hobson.

Blanche is a strong woman, well-born but poor, who yearns for position and affluence. She is doing drudge work as a companion when she's contacted by Simon Fury, who wants her to come to Clare Hall, and look after his grand-daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia's father is played by Michael Gough, and he takes a shine to Blanche. But so, unfortunately, does the much more charismatic Philip Thorn (Granger) who believes he is the rightful owner of Clare, and has been denied his inheritance by the unfairness of the laws on illegitimacy.

There's a doom-laden feeling to the story, which proceeds at a sombre pace. By modern standards, the presentation of a gang of villainous gypsies seems like a classic example of unpleasant stereotyping, but leaving that issue aside, the story is quite a good one. It is, as I say, more of a melodrama than a murder mystery, but it's quite watchable The script was co-written by Audrey Erskine Lindop, who would later write I Start Counting, a novel which also became a successful film..