Friday, 23 September 2022

Forgotten Book - The Death of Laurence Vining


The Death of Laurence Vining, by Alan Thomas, first appeared in 1928. The story has been discussed quite extensively on the blogosphere. It's a 'locked room' mystery - in fact, the victim is found in a lift at Hyde Park Corner Underground Station, but the impossible crime element of the story is only part of its appeal. Thomas also plays a game with the reader - I won't spell out its precise nature, for fear of giving a spoiler. But some commentators have invoked Anthony Berkeley, and I suspect that Berkeley would indeed have found much to enjoy in this book (not least its treatment of 'justice'), even though it's not as well written as his fiction.

Vining is firmly in the tradition of the Great Detective, a brilliant amateur sleuth with an admiring 'Watson' in the shape of Dr Willing. At the start of the story, a man is sentenced to death on the strength of Vining's detective work, though oddly the description of the case is rather perfunctory. Soon it becomes clear that Vining is rather a nasty piece of work. Quite how nasty is one of the unsettling aspects of the story.

When he is found dead in baffling circumstances, Willing seems destined to solve the case. Instead, the detective work is done by a Scotland Yard man. One of the weaknesses of the story is that it features a Malaysian character whose presentation is unfortunate, to say the least. Another is that the central storyline is padded out. My interest flagged as a result.

This was Thomas's first novel, so I think we can forgive many of the rough edges of the story, which is rather unsatisfactorily structured. However, he does have some neat tricks up his sleeve. The motive was, for me (as usual) more interesting than the murderer's modus operandi. There are some good ideas here, even if their execution leaves something to be desired.

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Angel Face - 1953 film review


Angel Face is an interesting and slightly unorthodox film noir, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. It's one of those films which wasn't especially successful on first release, but time has seen a generally favourable re-evaluation. This is largely due, I think, to the fact that the characters aren't simple ciphers. Even the glamorous femme fatale has her good points.

Mitchum plays Frank Jessup, a racing driver who now drives an ambulance. He and his pal are called out to the mansion of the wealthy Tremayne family, where Mrs Catherine Tremayne has suffered (not fatally) from gas poisoning. Frank meets Catherine's step-daughter, Diane (Simmons), who immediately takes a shine to him.

Diane pursues Frank, prompting his break-up with his girlfriend Mary (Mona Wilton) and gets him a job as the family chauffeur. They begin an affair, but even Frank, who isn't the sharpest knife in the block, suspects that Diane isn't to be trusted. And then death comes to the Tremayne family...

There's a murder trial and a shock finale, but really the plot is nothing special. What makes this film stand out is the direction and the performances of the lead actors. Simmons is especially good, giving some depth to her portrayal of an impulsive young woman whose demons get the better of her. Mitchum's character is an average guy. We don't entirely sympathise with him, but he's not a bad guy. Unfortunately, his misjudgements lead to disastrous consequences.  

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

Another Festival


Writing events (including writing workshops) have become an interesting mix of  live, hybrid, and online gigs, with podcasts and other online events adding further variety. This year, it's been a real pleasure for me to take part in no fewer than four festivals in Scotland and over the weekend I attended my final 'live' festival of the year, at Bloody Scotland in Stirling.

Because of other commitments, it had to be something of a flying visit, and before I set off I had a number of causes for celebration. One was a wonderful review of Blackstone Fell by Barry Turner in the Daily Mail. Another was a message from a school librarian in the south of England, telling me that my very first novel, All the Lonely People, had been chosen as their ebook of the month. I gather the pupils enjoyed the plot twists, and I do find it truly heartening that a book written so long ago should continue to entertain a new generation of readers.



Stirling is a historic city, which I haven't visited for ages, and shortly after arrival I bumped into Elly Griffiths and Lesley Thomson, so we went off and had (not for the first time this year) a very enjoyable chat over a pizza and a glass of wine. On Saturday morning I had the chance to chat with a number of old friends, including Ann Cleeves, Marsali Taylor, Mick Herron, Jane Corry, and Ayo Onatade. It was also good to talk with Susan Heads, who runs the excellent Booktrail site which carried a great review, of Blackstone Fell, Sophie Ransom (who has done a great job promoting the book) and my fellow panel members, Jonathan Whitelaw and Sophia Bennett. Ayo and Susan are in the photos above, Jonathan and Sophia below.


Our panel, chaired by Rod Green, was on the topic of 'cosy crime' (or, as I'd rather call it, the 'traditional mystery') and it was a lot of fun. After a quick look round Stirling I had to dash back home, but I broke the long drive at Penrith, and enjoyed wandering around the ancient castle in the sunshine. This year's live festivals have been highly convivial and I've had a great time at places as different as Colonsay, Harrogate, Gladstone's Library, and Birnam. Thanks go to all the organisers who work so hard to make these events so enjoyable. And now a few days' break before, with any luck, I finish the next Rachel Savernake book, Sepulchre Street, and start to tackle a few short story commissions...  




Friday, 16 September 2022

Forgotten Book - The Big Ben Alibi

Golden Age detective fiction lends itself to parody and pastiche, but during the Golden Age itself, I'd say there weren't too many laugh-out-loud detective novels. I've come across a very pleasing exception to that general rule, namely The Big Ben Alibi, by Neil Gordon. The name was a pseudonym for the Scottish writer A.G. Macdonell (1895-1941), who appears to have published seven solo detective novels plus one which he co-wrote with Milward Kennedy, The Bleston Mystery.

Macdonell is remembered today, however, for a comic novel rather than a mystery. England, Their England is renowned in particular for a very enjoyable cricket scene, and a cricketer (who tells many boring stories about his career) is one of the members of the supporting cast in The Big Ben Alibi. The story concerns two young detective novelists whose latest novels are turned down by Henry Haddington, their literary agent. They hatch a cunning plan to enable them to recover their fortunes...

John Maclennan, one of the two writers, is a Scot, and I did wonder if he and his colleague George Cranford represented, to an extent at least, jokey versions of Macdonnell and Kennedy. I don't know the answer, but I certainly enjoyed the jokes about the cliches and conventions of Golden Age detective fiction, as well as the skits on popular newspapers. This reads like a book that was a lot of fun to write.

The plot is competently put together (which isn't always the case with comic detective novels) but what makes The Big Ben Alibi stand out is the sheer joie de vivre of the storyline, which involves a country house mystery, an unbreakable alibi and plenty of other tropes of the genre. I'm surprised this book has been so overlooked for so long. 


  

Forgotten Book - The Devil and the C.I.D.


E.C. R. Lorac published The Devil and the C.I.D. in 1938, the year after her election to membership of the Detection Club, and at a point in her career where her confidence was high. Her two previous books, Bats in the Belfry and These Names Make Clues, are among her best. The Devil and the C.I.D. is, I think, a great title and the opening of the story is truly memorable.

Our old chum Inspector Macdonald is driving through central London in a 'pea-soup' fog, atmospherically described. He leaves his car briefly to help a woman in distress and unwisely leaves his car unlocked. When he gets back, there is a corpse in the back of the car. What is more, the deceased is dressed up as Mephistopheles, and has been murdered. Poor old Macdonald is embarrassed into solving the crime.

This isn't an entirely orthodox detective mystery and I don't want to say too much about the sequence of events that unfolds. There's an interesting mix of characters and this is one of those Lorac books where we are given a clear insight into Macdonald's essential humanity. He is a pleasing creation, and by no means as anonymous or humdrum as a number of other Scotland Yard men from the Golden Age, even if he's neither an Alleyn nor an Appleby.

One of the reasons I find Lorac's books appealing is that she was equally good at conveying urban and rural settings. She doesn't over-indulge in description, but we get a picture of London in this book, as well as in several others she wrote in the mid to late 30s. A few years later, she was writing quite lyrically about Lunesdale in Lancashire, a very different part of the world, with equal authority.  


Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Crimson Peak - 2015 film review




Crimson Peak is a film I find far from easy to judge fairly. The director is the Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water I found odd but fascinating (I watched it on a long plane trip, not the ideal way to watch a thought-provoking movie, but it has definitely stayed in my memory). He has a gift for the visual, and is renowned for giving a gorgeous sheen to the grotesque. There's plenty of that in Crimson Peak.

In the late nineteenth century, a young American girl, Edith Cushing (the surname may be a nod to that fine horror actor Peter Cushing) sees the ghost of her dead mother, who warns her to beware of 'Crimson Peak'. Fast forward to 1901, and Edith is a grown woman, played by Mia Wassikowska. She encounters an English baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is visiting the States in the company of his sister Lucille (Jessican Chastain). Sharpe fails to persuade Edith's wealthy father to fund his plans to restore the fortunes of the clay mines on his family estate, but he and Edith hit it off. Her father disapproves, but is savagely murdered. In a repellent and frankly ridiculous scene, Edith is bullied into identifying her father's disfigured corpse. 

Edith duly marries Sharpe, much to the dismay of her admirer Alan (Charlie Hunnam) and the couple, along with Lucille, head for the Sharpe estate, Allerdale Hall in Cumberland. Cumberland is, as one reviewer, said, portrayed rather like a desolate prairie. The old house is a sinister, decaying version of  a Disney castle, and red clay oozes symbolically from the ground - yeah, you see that all the time in the Lake District. Realistic it ain't, and for me this tended to diminish the impact of much of the horrors that follow.

Because del Toro is a gifted film-maker, Crimson Peak is worth watching. Unfortunately, as co-writer of the screenplay, he has to take some of the blame for the feebleness of much of the dialogue. There's too much silliness for the story to be taken seriously, and even though I definitely believe one should make generous allowances for excess and over the top melodrama in a Gothic storyline, in this case the overwhelming weight of the absurdities did diminish my enjoyment.    

Monday, 12 September 2022

Dreamland


From the time I discovered Agatha Christie and detective fiction at the age of eight, I dreamed of becoming a detective writer myself, but I had no idea what it would be like. I knew nothing of the writing life and I had no contact with writers of any kind that I can recall until, as a student, I attended talks given by a range of well-known authors such as Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Brian Aldiss, and Angus Wilson, whose worlds seemed totally remote from mine and to be honest, not entirely appealing. Later, when I met crime writers, I began to understand a little of the downs, as well as the ups, of the writing life.

One thing I learned then was that those 'ups' don't come along every day - far from it. So it makes sense to celebrate them when they do crop up. And the last couple of weeks really have felt like 'living the dream', with in-person and virtual events and radio interviews, and above all in terms of reviewer reaction to both The Life of Crime and Blackstone Fell.


Within the last fortnight, I've had a review in the New York Times and two, on successive Saturdays, in The Times - for Blackstone Fell and The Life of Crime respectively. Incredible - a once in a lifetime experience! Mark Sanderson was very generous about my novel (and he's been kind about the earlier books two, so although I've never met him, if I ever do cross his path, I definitely need to buy him a drink!) 

Just this Saturday, Christina Hardyment's review of the 'audiobook of the week' described The Life of Crime as 'pacey and immersive' and as an 'inclusive cornucopia' and also contains a wonderful sentence: 'Martin Edwards is the closest thing there has been to a philosopher of crime writing.' Wow! So Christina too has made me very happy. 

And then there's someone else, I've never met, the American film historian David Bordwell, who has just published a wonderful essay about the book on 'Observations on Film Art' which concludes: 'The Life of Crime is, then, a book in four dimensions: reference volume, historical survey, armory of literary techniques, and biographical accounts of major artists. To succeed with any one of these is remarkable; to succeed with all of them is something of a miracle. It will remain an indispensable guide to its subject.


Finally, the blog tour for Blackstone Fell has just concluded. I'm enormously grateful to everyone who has taken the time and trouble to feature the book. I'm very pleased that there's a strong consensus, for instance, that you can read Blackstone Fell without having first read the earlier Rachel Savernake books. I'm also delighted that so many people have enjoyed the writing and characterisation - as well as the intricacy of the puzzles and the Cluefinder! In light of the comments, although I hadn't planned to include a Cluefinder in my next book about Rachel, I may be tempted to reconsider and see if it's do-able. And I'm going to compile a precis of the reviews before long, simply to reassure myself that I haven't actually dreamed it all...

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Exciting Times


When I wrote on 29 August that an exciting week lay ahead, I wasn't exaggerating. I have had the great good fortune to see The New York Times give The Life of Crime a fine review and then, just a few days later, to read a wonderful review of Blackstone Fell in The Times. These are the sort of things a writer dreams of. And then, among other things, there has been a fantastic in-depth appraisal of The Life of Crime by the film historian David Bordwell for which I'm truly grateful.

Events have come thick and fast, including a podcast with Lucinda Hawksley, the biographer and descendant of Charles Dickens, and an interview with Ann Cleeves in Carlisle. Over lunch, Ann and I had the pleasure of reading the reviews of our new books in The Times and reflecting that it wasn't always like this for either of us...


After Carlisle, I spent a lovely evening in Birnam with book dealer Scott Herbertson and his family. Next morning, it was off to Nairn, for a couple of events as part of the Nairn Book and Arts Festival. I also had a sandwich lunch watching the cricket on the sea front at Nairn in the sunshine - a lovely way to spend the time. In the evening, a very convivial dinner with Jennifer Henderson, biographer of Josephine Tey (our joint event together is pictured above) and her equally delightful mum Christine.


The trip to Nairn involved a much longer drive than I've had since my car accident two months ago. It's an 800 mile round trip, so I spent Sunday relaxing and sightseeing around places like Forres (site of the Nelson Tower, the photo at the top of this post, which put me in mind of Blackstone Tower!), Brodie Castle, Elgin, Hopeman, Lossiemouth and Findhorn. A chance to recharge the batteries and also to think about forthcoming writing projects - I have quite a few things lined up for when I have finished work on Sepulchre Street, Rachel Savernake's fourth case. 





Monday, 5 September 2022

Farewell My Lovely - 1975 film review


The 1975 version of Farewell My Lovely, based on Raymond Chandler's novel, is widely acclaimed. The first time I saw it, many years ago, I was underwhelmed, but I decided to give it another try and I'm glad I did. Second time around, I was more impressed by Robert Mitchum's interpretation of Philip Marlowe. Originally I felt he was too old for the part and not quite suited to it anyway. On reflection, I think he does a better job than I realised.

Perhaps I was simply in the right mood for the film this time. Mood and atmosphere are extremely important to the film (which is set in 1941) and the director Dick Richards did a good job on that score. Speaking of scores, David Shire's music is also well-suited to the film. The screenplay by David Zelag Goodman (whose other credits include The Eyes of Laura Mars) avoids falling into the trap of pastiche. 

Quite apart from Mitchum, the cast is very strong. Moose Malloy, the huge bank robber who is crazy about a missing woman called Velma, and hires Marlowe to find her, can't have been easy to cast, but Jack O'Halloran, a former boxer whose first film role this was, does a great job. The famously sultry Charlotte Rampling is good as Helen Grayle, while Sylvia Miles makes the most of a smaller part, the alcoholic Jessie Florian: her performance earned her an Oscar nomination and deservedly so. Fascinatingly, Judge Grayle is played by the legendary hardboiled writer Jim Thompson. There's even a part for the young Sylvester Stallone.

This film isn't in the same league as Polanski's Chinatown, which was released a year earlier, but even though it lacks originality, I now think it's very effective entertainment. As with books, some films definitely improve on a second look.






Friday, 2 September 2022

Forgotten Book - A Question of Time


A Question of Time, published in 1958, seems to have been the first of Harry Carmichael's stand-alone novels. He was best-known, like so many other Collins Crime Club authors, for his series - one written under his own name and featuring Piper and Quinn and another written as Hartley Howard featuring Glenn Bowman. Here he stretches beyond his comfort zone.

The result is a smoothly accomplished mystery. The viewpoint character is Martin Kennedy; however, the story is told in the third person rather than by Martin himself. I suspect this is because Martin is, in a number of ways, not an easy character for readers to sympathise with. He's having an affair with one woman and is being pursued by another, while his wife is out of town. He's also rather dense at times. No real surprise, then, when he winds up as a prime suspect in a murder case.

The victim is his lover, Felicity, whose body he discovers when visiting her home in the company of her husband, amiable Richard Campbell. The plot complications flow thick and fast. As the title suggests, much depends upon timings. It's a sort of update of Freeman Wills Crofts in that respect. There's even a diligent policeman.

Thjs is a quick read, quite well-written and not lacking in pace. Unfortunately, I figured out whodunit early on, even though the precise technicalities underpinning the culprit's scheme eluded me. The fact is, I'm always much more interested in motive than means when reading mystery stores and that's why I was able to anticipate the 'surprise solution'. So, for me, this one is only a partial success.