Friday, 23 September 2016

Forgotten Book - Till Death Do Us Part

Another Forgotten Book today from one of my favourite maestros of the Golden Age. First published in 1944, Till Death Do Us Part is a very well-regarded novel by John Dickson Carr, and I'm not about to dissent from the reviewers' chorus of approval. The setting is an English country village (there is even a cricket match, as well as a village fete), nicely evoked by this most Anglophile of American writers, and the detecting is done by Carr's premier sleuth, Dr Gideon Fell.

Richard Markham is, at the start of the story, blissfully happy. He's just become engaged to be married to the delightful, if rather mysterious, Lesley Grant. But in a crime novel, every silver lining has a cloud, and unfortunately one of the star attractions at the village fete is a fortune teller. Dick learns that the fortune teller is Sir Harvey Gilman, a famous criminologist, and before long he is being told something rather terrible - Lesley Grant is not the woman she appears to be.

Dick Markham learns that Lesley has been associated with three poisonings; in each case the victim was the man in her life. There was never any evidence to establish her guilt of murder, but the coincidence is appalling. Dick is not, however, destined for an early grave. In fact, it is the fortune teller who meets an unnatural end - poisoned in exactly the same way as Lesley's three supposed victims.

The plot twists and turns very nicely. One of the characters, Major Price, was evidently based on Carr's chum, the author John Rhode (who was also the model for Colonel March in another set of Carr stories). I thought I had solved the puzzle, but Carr bamboozled me - very satisfying in a fair play whodunit in the classic mould. This is an ingenious and highly enjoyable story, with a very pleasing solution and a brisk narrative pace. It's one of Carr's best books, I think.


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Macavity and Mystery


I'm back from an exhilarating and unforgettable Bouchercon in New Orleans - wow, what a city, what a convention! So many highlights, so many wonderful experiences. Among them was receiving from Mystery Readers International the Macavity award for "Best Mystery-related Nonfiction" for The Golden Age of Murder. This is the 30th year of the Macavity awards, and previous winners in this particular category include such stars as Harry Keating and P.D. James. The very first winner, back in 1987, was 1001 Midnights by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller., a hefty volume which I've consulted countless times.


The above photo, taken just after the ceremony, shows me with Sharyn Rosenblum, Publicity Director of William Morrow, part of the Harper Collins group.I last had the pleasure of meeting Sharyn on another utterly memorable evening, back in April, when I received the Edgar award. In all, The Golden Age of Murder has now received four awards, three of them in the United States - an achievement that I'd have found impossible to believe had anyone predicted it during those long, long years when I was writing and revising the book, and wondering if anyone would ever want to read it, let alone publish it.


But let's begin at the beginning. I flew out from Manchester to Atlanta, and after boarding the plane to New Orleans, who else did I see taking their seats but two old mates, Ali Karim and Mike Stotter. We managed to get seats together, and on arrival at New Orleans airport discovered that, in this most extraordinary of cities, it was cheaper for the three of us to take a stretch limo to our hotel than to travel by airport shuttle or taxi. Well, it would've been rude not to seize such an opportunity, so we made our entrance in suitably surreal fashion.


I'd arrived in good time, so there was a chance to pack in some sightseeing before the convention began. I revisited the fabulous French Quarter, visited the cathedral (photo at the end of this post) and also, on the recommendation of several friends, toured the Audobon Aquarium, which is really impressive (sharks, piranhas, jellyfish et al - see below photos), before dining with Peter Rozovsky, of the Detectives Beyond Borders blog, my moderator for a panel first thing on Thursday morning. Then followed a fun party away from the convention centre, hosted by Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books. And, thank goodness, I managed not to oversleep and miss my panel.




Even at 9 am, there was a packed audience. Fellow panellists included Gary Phillips, and we were delighted to see the legendary Walter Mosley in the audience. Our subject was pulp fiction, but Peter was happy for me to talk about the magazine stories of that great British writer Michael Gilbert. About 1900 people were registered for the convention, and it was good to spend time with a number of old friends before the opening ceremonies, when the Macavity award was announced: here's a shot Ali took of me with fellow nominee from Norway, Jorn Lier Horst, and Mike.


The rest of the convention passed in a happy whirl, which included breakfast with super-fans Bill and Toby Gottfried, dinner with Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (just celebrating its 70th birthday) and guests including Hilary Davidson, Laura Benedict, and Charlaine Harris - see the photo below. Other highlights included coffee with Shelly Dickson Carr (grand-daughter of the locked room king John), lunch with Shawn Reilly Simmons, now a crime anthologist as well as a rising star novelist, the Anthony Awards, for which I was shortlisted in a nonfiction category won by Val McDermid, and dinner with Steve Steinbock of EQMM, author and actor Kathryn Leigh Scott, and John Pugmire of Locked Room International. John has involved me in an exciting new publication, of which more news in due course.



I moderated a second panel, on Golden Age mysteries, first thing on Saturday morning. Even in a large room, it was standing room only, a sure sign of the enthusiasm for GA fiction - especially given the competing attractions of the city and various other panels running at the same time. Cathy Ace, Ragnar Jonasson, Charlaine Harris, Claire Booth, and G.M. Malliet provided the audience with pithy and witty insights into the subject, and the only sad thing was that we couldn't go on for another hour. Thanks to Art Scott, whose The Art of Robert McGinnis I've just started reading, for this photo: from left to right - Ragnar, Charlaine, Gin, Claire, Cathy, and me.


There was more, much more, that one could say about such an exciting few days, but suffice to say that, if you're a crime fan who has not, so far, attended a major crime convention, then I think it's almost certain that you'd enjoy yourself hugely if you did so. And fellow convention-goers will, I'm sure, agree that the benefits of attending are cumulative - the more you do, the more you get out of them. It's now 26 years since I first attended a Bouchercon, at London in 1990, before I was even a published crime writer. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, but I'm profoundly glad to belong to such a generous and giving community.  .





Monday, 19 September 2016

The Maltese Falcon

It's been many years since I last watched John Huston's legendary private eye movie, The Maltese Falcon, so when I came across it again on TV recently, I thought it was worth giving it another go and see how it's standing up to scrutiny after all these years. The short answer is: very well.

Dashiell Hammett's novel, on which the film is based, first appeared in 1930. The film came out eleven years later, and was, in fact, by then the third movie version. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, and I suppose it's best remembered for the performance of Humphrey Bogart as shamus Sam Spade. But there are equally splendid performances from Sydney Greenstreet, as Kasper Guttmann, and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo - two of the most distinctive villains to have appeared on the big screen, it's safe to say.

The story begins, as so many private eye stories do, with an attractive woman (played by Mary Astor in this case) coming to the P.I.'s office and seeking his help. As usual, the woman in question - who calls herself Miss Wonderly - has something to hide. She wants a man called Thursby followed, for trumped-up reasons, but when Spade's partner Miles Archer goes out to do the job that night, he is shot. For good measure, Thursby is killed too.

The pace doesn't slacken as Spade finds himself caught up in a tangle that involves Archer's wife (with whom he's having an affair) and a small group of bad guys who are in search of the legendary Maltese Falcon. Miss Wonderly, whose real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, is evidently also mixed up in the business, somehow. Even if you're not a paid-up member of the Bogart Fan Club, there's enough here to keep you entertained on more than one viewing. Great stuff.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Deep in the Wood - 2015 film review

Deep in the Wood is a short but intriguing Italian film, which I watched in a sub-titled version. It was made last year, and originally titled Il Fondo al Bosco. It's set in a remote Alpine village, and stars Filippo Nigro and Camilla Filippi as a couple whose lives are torn apart following the disappearance of their four year old son Tommi, who gets away from his Dad, who is taking part in a festival where the locals disguise themselves as devils.

We see Tommi wandering into the woods, towards a lonely cabin, but then he goes missing. The father is suspected of doing away with him, but released by the police because of a lack of evidence. His troubled mother attempts suicide, but the couple stay together, very unhappily for five years. And then a boy is found. Could it be Tommi The police say that DNA testing proves that it is.

So far, so good. But the boy's mother doesn't believe her son has really returned, and her father is equally sceptical. Tommi's Dad is overjoyed that his son is back, though the boy remembers nothing about his old life, and nothing is known about what he might have been up to in the meantime. The family dog takes a dislike to the boy, and we start to wonder if there is something devilish afoot.

I was pleased that the twisty storyline resolved itself without resort to the supernatural, avoiding a flaw which I think marred another grim movie, The Reeds. The isolated location is evocatively portrayed, as in The Reeds, but the tale holds together much better. Overall, I thought this was a satisfying film, whose excellent premise was not ruined by an explanation that didn't hang together. The lead actors do a good job, and this is definitely worth a watch.

Monday, 12 September 2016

A day in North Wales


Back in May 2014, I wrote about The Great Orme Terror a truly eccentric Golden Age thriller, and on Friday I took another look at the Great Orme itself, the scene of such sinister goings-on in Garnett Radcliffe's novel. The occasion was a quick trip across the border to North Wales, to take advantage of the last bids of summery weather.



I've mentioned previously that I'm surprised by the paucity of detective novels set in Wales, and in particular North Wales. I can't call to mind a single story that is set on the appealing island of Anglesey, for instance, nor of any books set in Conwy - where on Friday I wandered for a while on the ancient walls, as well as around the narrow streets and along the river shore. It's a lovely town.


So too is Llandudno, a "model resort" with a terrific pier (it got rather windy on Friday!) where the seagulls regularly swoop down to nick people's ice creams. Llandudno's benefited from a lot of investment in recent years, and I was impressed to see plenty of "no vacancies" signs in hotels, even though the school term has started. Alice Liddell, of Alice in Wonderland, once stayed in the St Tudno's Hotel on the front (where my wife and I also stayed many years ago) and quite a bit is now made of the Alice connection.


Final stop of the day was Colwyn Bay. This was very much a nostalgia trip for me, as I spent numerous childhood holidays there. Sad to say, the Bay Bookshop on Sea View Road has gone after 40 years, a victim of internet competition; it was one of my favourite second hand bookshops. Even the hotel where my family used to stay has been bulldozed. But the visit did bring back many memories, and I'm tempted to set a short story there.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Forgotten Book - The Mystery of the Yellow Room

Is The Mystery of the Yellow Room a forgotten book? That's very debatable. It was once a bestseller, one of the most famous crime stories of the early years of the 20th century, and it remains much admired by many fans of the locked room mystery. But the author, Gaston Leroux, is now much better remembered as the author of The Phantom of the Opera - thanks to the Midas touch of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room was first published in 1907, and translated into English the following year. It made an instant impression, as did its very youthful hero, Joseph Rouletabille, a newspaper reporter with unquenchable self-belief and a penchant for sleuthing. The story is told by his friend Sanclair, who fulfils the Dr Watson role of bewildered admirer of the brilliant maverick detective.

A young woman called Mathilde Stangerson, daughter of a scientific genius, is overheard in a pavilion in the park attached to the Stangersons' chateau. It is clear that she is in terror as a result of being attacked, but she is inside the locked Yellow Room, and by the time rescuers break in, she is seriously injured, and there is no sign of how her assailant could have escaped.

Rouletabille can't resist getting involved, and pitting his wits against those of the capable cop who is assigned to the case - "the great Fred". The style is breathless and melodramatic, and there are plenty of twists and turns. It's a period piece, of course, but in its day, this story was highly influential. Agatha Christie talked about it in her autobiography and John Dickson Carr was another fan. Whether it counts as "fair play" detection is arguable, but I enjoyed rereading it after a gap of many years.

And I had a very pleasurable reason for re-reading it-too  it is to form part of a trio of locked room classics to be sumptuously reissued by the Folio Society. And I've written an introduction to the set of books. More about this in due course.

Forgotten Library, Forgotten Community?



For once, I'm not contributing today to Friday's Forgotten Books. Instead, I'd like to talk about a meeting I went to last night to discuss the fate of a village library - my village library, Lymm. A parochial subject? Not really. I feel the discussion raised issues relevant to all lovers of libraries everywhere. The issues and challenges vary from place to place, but a common factor is the vital contribution that libraries make to all communities, and to social cohesion within those communities - a contribution that is under serious threat.

The meeting was part of a consultation about the future of Warrington's libraries, conducted by LiveWire, a not for profit company which runs the borough's libraries, leisure centres and some related activities. The council is cutting funding, so money has to be saved from the budget for the borough's sixteen libraries. At the last minute the meeting was relocated from the library to Lymm Hotel because of the intense local interest. In the end, about 150 people crammed into the room to listen to managing director Emma Hutchinson and her team put forward their proposals.

In my other life as an employment lawyer, I've been involved in many restructuring exercises, acting for both employers and employees, and my impression based on that experience was that this was a genuine consultation exercise rather than a sham preceding an announcement of a fait accompli. Not everyone thought the same, especially since, having cited a failure to sublet vacant areas of the building that houses the library as key to their concerns, LiveWire couldn't give figures, when asked, as to the amount of the shortfall in rent. But I believe one has to trust in the good faith of people unless and until it becomes naive to do so..

The news was, however, appalling. The much-loved library is threatened not with a cut in opening hours but with total closure. We were told that libraries have to change (and of course all things need to change over time) but the option of Lego-style "lending lockers" for the supply of library books and a twice a year visit from a travelling themed library failed to win hearts and minds. When it was pointed out that disadvantaged people in the village would suffer, especially since public transport to the centre of Warrington is dire, the suggestion that the bus company might be persuaded to improve the bus service met with incredulity.

The proposals involve focusing resources on a few hubs elsewhere in the borough, but for the people of Lymm, especially young parents, the disabled, and the elderly, the proposal to close the library amounts in reality, whatever the intention, to an attack on a community and above all an attack on its most needful members. Shrewd questioning elicited the fact that Lymm library borrowings (along with those in the equally threatened neighbouring community of Stockton Heath) are the highest in the borough, and the £65k annual cost of running the library equates to the cost of employing (let's say) just one senior-ish local government executive.

I don't underestimate the difficulties in the current climate. But - trusting as I do in that element of good faith - I'm hoping that the passion shown by villagers at the meeting will lead to a total  rethink, so that the premises are fully utilised and that the part played in village life by the library is broadened and enhanced, not wiped out. LiveWire's slogan is "Live well with LiveWire", but to close the library would not only destroy that reputation, but more importantly destroy a community institution of great worth and - I'm sure this is true of libraries generally - even greater long-term potential.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Another One Goes Tonight by Peter Lovesey

Product DetailsAnother One Goes Tonight, published by Little,Brown, is the latest entry in Peter Lovesey's long-running series featuring Bath cop Peter Diamond. And the first thing to say about it is that it's a hugely enjoyable read with a discursive but ingenious plot, in which a whole bunch of inter-related strands are brought together quite splendidly at the end.  .

The story begins with a brief extract from a mysterious journal which begins "Another one goes tonight." Clearly, we are reading the words of a serial killer, but although this device is familiar enough, it's put to very good use here, as Lovesey shows a Christie-like mastery of the art of misdirection. After this opening, we move swiftly into a strange encounter involving an apparent traffic offence, followed by a police car crash with tragic consequences.

That crash brings Peter Diamond into the story, and when he finds an elderly man on the point of death at the scene, to whom he gives the kiss of life, he is plunged into perhaps the most baffling enquiry of his career - a case whose disparate elements include a group of railway enthusiasts, an imaginary cat, a debt owed to a gangster, and an ever-lengthening list of apparent murders.

This novel is an example of Peter Lovesey at his best, and I recommend it highly. This week, incredibly, he will be celebrating his 80th birthday while on a trip to the US. His friends and colleagues in the Detection Club will also be marking this milestone with the publication in November of Motives for Murder, a gathering of brand new stories with an intro by Len Deighton and an afterword by Peter himself, in which he tells the story of his early days in the Club. The collection will be published in the UK by Little, Brown, and in the US by Crippen & Landru. I like to think that, as with his latest novel, this is a book not to be missed.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Moai Island Puzzle


Product Details


The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa is a Japanese mystery in the classic Golden Age vein which has recently been translated by Ho-Ling Wong into English and published by John Pugmire's excellent imprint Locked Room International. This edition benefits from an extremely interesting foreword by a leading exponent of the classic Japanese mystery, Soji Shimada.

The story is told by Alice Arisugawa, who is a university student and detective fiction enthusiast. He (yep, Alice is male) is a member of a small Mystery Club - and Ellery Queen and The Nine Tailors are referenced on the second page of the prologue, making it clear that the reader who is a Golden Age fan is in for a treat - a homage to the twisty murder mystery of days gone by.

The set-up is itself classical. Alice and his friend Maria make up a small party who travel to a tiny island off the coast of Japan in search of hidden treasure. The island is fictitious, but as the book's title makes clear, it is populated by a large number of moai, whose construction was influenced by the moai of Easter Island. And soon the moai themselves become clues to the puzzle.

Death has occurred on the island in the recent past, and soon crime returns. We are presented with a dizzying confection of cipher, locked room puzzle, and dying message clues as Alice and Maria try to work out what is going on. It's a well-constructed story with a satisfying pay-off, and there's even a mini-lecture on Dying Message Clues (in the tradition of Dr Fell's Locked Room Lecture). Great fun.

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Friday, 2 September 2016

Forgotten Book - Murder with Relish

Murder with Relish was the first novel written by C.Lindsay Taylor, and the only one to appear under that name. Constance Lindsay Taylor subsequently adopted the pen-name Guy Cullingford, and earned considerable admiration for a small number of books written with some distinction, the most famous of which by far is Post Mortem, a novel which counts Peter Lovesey (and me) among its numerous admirers.

Murder with Relish appeared in 1948, when its author was already in her mid-forties; she'd started out with journalism and poetry, but marriage and raising a family seems to have kept her fully occupied for some years before she tried her hand at a novel. Alternatively, the fact that the story is set in the mid-Thirties may suggest that she started work on it long before the publication date.

The story concerns a cook, Mrs Bonnet (who has never actually been married; those were the days when it was thought to be courteous to confer honorary marital status on a senior member of domestic staff) who has served the Everard family for many years. Her world is turned upside down when her employer, a widow, dies after a family meal .Mrs Bonnet suspects murder (though nobody else does) and turns detective with a view to achieving justice for her late employer.

This is a witty and unusual story, which affords considerable insight into the class divide in British society at the time. Even though it's a first novel, you can tell that the author is a novelist of genuine talent. I really enjoyed this story, and can recommend it. As for Taylor/Cullingford, she eventually earned election to the Detection Club, and Peter Lovesey recalls appreciating her company at Club dinners. She was born in 1903, and died as recently as 2000. An interesting writer, who deserves to be better known.