Friday, 26 November 2021

Forgotten Book - The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple

I first read Julian Symons' The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple not long after its original publication in 1985. I must admit that I found the title rather off-putting (in the US, it was retitled A Criminal Comedy) and the story didn't really strike a chord with me. I'd forgotten all about the characters and plot by the time I came to reread it the other day. And on the whole, my reaction second time around was much more favourable.

Symons felt it was one of his best books, noting in Jack Walsdorf's bibliography of his work that he found the writing of it unusually smooth, 'with none of my customary back-tracking and elimination of what seem otiose characters'. That said, although the writing is very snappy, with short scenes and multiple changes of viewpoint, there are a lot of minor characters, almost certainly more than necessary for the purpose of the plot. But they contribute to Symons' purpose, which was at least in part to offer a satirical portrayal of bourgeois English life; in that respect the novel now reads like a slice of social history. 

There are plenty of enjoyable vignettes in this story. Most of the events take place in the prosperous town of Headfield, but there are important developments in Venice and on the island of Elba. One character, Jason Durling, is interested in an obscure writer called D.M. Cruddle (here Symons was reworking his brother A.J. Symons' The Quest for Corvo) and also records some events in his diary. An extract from a newspaper article at the start of the book tells us that two mysterious deaths connected with Headfield take place in Venice, but for a long time it's really unclear where the story is heading. On first reading, this irritated me, but this time I felt more sympathetic to what Symons was trying to do. 

What strikes me very forcibly now is that, in a roundabout way, Symons was updating the classic Golden Age novel. Yes, the scourge of the Humdrums was playing the game! I don't think this has been sufficiently appreciated, either by me or by other critics. But consider the ingredients: a spate of mysterious poison pen letters; ingenious use of poison; disguise/impersonation'; literary references aplenty; an amateur detective solving a puzzle that defeats the official police; and even a thinly disguised version of the 'challenge to the reader' beloved of Ellery Queen and various other Golden Age greats, which is put forward in the newspaper article towards the end of the novel. 

To cap it all, there is a pleasingly ironic finale that I'm sure Francis Iles would have approved. I don't claim that this novel is a masterpiece - the build-up is too fragmentary for that - but it's an enjoyable and unexpected piece of work. I'm very glad I gave it a second try.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

A Jolly Bad Fellow aka They All Died Laughing - 1964 film review

C.E. Vulliamy wrote his crime fiction in two phases. First came the Anthony Rolls books in the Golden Age - two of them have appeared as British Library Crime Classics. And then, for a dozen years from 1952, he wrote a further set of novels. Francis Iles was, I think, his principal inspiration, but his writing had a distinct flavour of its own.

That 1952 novel was Don Among the Dead Men. Twelve years after it appeared it was made into a film with an equally punning title, A Jolly Bad Fellow. It's a black comedy directed by the accomplished Don Chaffey, and although it wasn't a box office success, it still remains very watchable today, because of the range of talents which contributed to its making, not least the principal scriptwriter, Robert Hamer, who is best remembered for the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets. The jaunty soundtrack was written by the great John Barry. And the cast is terrific.

The setting is an august university, Ockham. Professor Bowles-Ottery (Leo McKern) is a chemistry don with a taste for publicity that irritates his collegues. Conversely, their prudishness irritates him. He's married to an actress (Maxine Audley) and has an extremely glamorous lab assistant called Delia (Janet Munro). Whilst working in the lab alongside a junior assistant (Dinsdale Landen) he comes across a poison which causes lab mice to dance manically before expiring. Soon he is putting the poison to work as a means of disposing of people who make a nuisance of themselves, while embarking on a dangerous dalliance with Delia.

The lead actors perform with gusto and the supporting cast is distinguished. To name but a few, we see: Dennis Price, Miles Malleson, Leonard Rossiter (a very small part, alas), Alan Wheatley, John Sharp, Ralph Michael, Mervyn Johns, Duncan Macrae, and George Benson. I found the film to be really good escapist entertainment.

Long before his days as Rumpole, McKern gives a performance of great verve. Incidentally, I was sorry when I researched the cast to discover that Janet Munro died, after a period of alcoholism, at the age of 38. She was well-known for her exceptional good looks, but like her rival in this film Maxine Audley, she had a compelling screen presence and a great deal of acting ability.



Monday, 22 November 2021

My People And Other Crime Stories - Liza Cody

Liza Cody is one of a particular group of crime writers whom I admired long before I met any of them. This group (other members included Andrew Taylor, Frances Fyfield, Ann Cleeves, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin) wrote varied types of mystery fiction but they had something in common: they were young British authors who published debuts in the genre during the 1980s which struck me as appealing and exerted some influence on my own thinking and writing while I was working on the first Harry Devlin novel. There were older writers who influenced me as well, of course, but this was a group of people of my generation, more or less, who were setting a high standard. 

Looking back, I think that, whatever other mistakes I've made in my writing career, I chose my unwitting mentors well. It's been a great joy to me to meet many of the authors I admired back in the 1980s and still to be able to count quite a lot of them as friends. Of the people I've mentioned, Liza was the first to be published and to make a big impact. Although her first series focused on Anna Lee, a female private eye, and Harry Devlin was - and is! - a  male lawyer, I tried to learn from her style of writing. She never wastes words, but she is strong on insight and dares to be a bit different, qualities I relish. 

When I wrote my very first Harry Devlin short story and submitted it for an anthology Liza was co-editing, she turned it down, but with comments that I found thought-provoking and which meant that I not only published it elsewhere, but also felt moved to write several more short stories about Harry. Many years later, I was thrilled when she wrote a story connected with Anna Lee at my request for a CWA anthology.

That story, 'Day or Night', appears in Liza's new book, My People and other Crime Stories, published by Gatekeeper Press. So does another story that she wrote for a book I edited, the excellent 'Ghost Station'. The collection begins with a foreword - nicely titled a 'foreword of warning' - which is as worth reading and as insightful as all her work. She discusses the 'toxic environment' in which authors are working at present and the dangers of online bullying and the thought police. Her concern is that 'the fight against bigotry seems itself to have engendered bigotry.'   

Liza's range and originality is on display in this collection, with intriguing stories ranging 'A Hand' to 'I Am Not Fluffy'. In an afterword, 'Notes from an Untidy Desk', she makes kind mention of me as well as other editors, but I've said enough to explain why regardless of that, as a long-term fan, I'm always keen to read her work. Her individualism is a great strength and anyone who likes interesting crime writing that, every now and then, gives you pause for thought as well as a chance to listen to fresh and sometimes challenging voices, will find as much to savour in this book as in her novels.


Sunday, 21 November 2021

More about Josephine Tey

For a few years now, I've had an enjoyable correspondence with Jennifer Morag Henderson, whom I met after the publication of her excellent biography of that gifted writer Josephine Tey. I'm pleased to say that Sandstone Press have now produced an updated paperback edition of Jennifer's book, which I can warmly recommend.

Jennifer and I started discussing Josephine Tey's connection with the Detection Club, and the eventual outcome was a jointly-written article which has now been published on the excellent CrimeReads site. We've been pleased with feedback on the piece so far. Suffice to say that over the years I've collaborated with a wide range of authors on different subjects and every now and then it makes a very pleasant change from writing solo.  

Friday, 19 November 2021

Forgotten Book - Her Heart in Her Throat aka Midnight House aka The Unseen

In 1942, two years before her death at the age of 68, Ethel Lina White published a novel which began life under the title Midnight House. The American edition (which I have in paperback) was renamed Her Heart in Her Throat, and after the novel was filmed in 1945, it also appeared under the title of the film, The Unseen. One special point to note about the movie is that the screenplay was co-written by Raymond Chandler, a crime writer utterly unlike White. For the film, the setting was also switched from the British town of Rivermead to the US. 

The story has a number of classic ingredients. Our heroine is a governess in the Jane Eyre tradition. Elizabeth Featherstonehaugh is nineteen years old and has a fertile imagination. She's intrigued by her employer, Captain Pewter, but slightly bewildered by her charges, especially the young boy Barnaby. There's a creepy house next door which hasn't been opened up for years. And there's a killer on the loose...

At first I thought I was going to be swept along by this story. The opening is atmospheric and the set-up intriguing. There are one or two 'had-I-but-known' touches during the book, but these aren't intrusive. But there are some elements in the story, including vague and ambiguous references to a 'black man in the cellar', which have not worn well. As regards the murders, we're presented with a small circle of suspects, but there was something about the style of characterisation, and Elizabeth's interactions with the other characters that didn't really work for me.

As a result, I found myself losing interest in the second half of the book, despite White's best efforts to make sure that the tension kept mounting. There's a good story lurking in here, and I can see why the premise appealed to film-makers, but overall I don't think the execution lived up the potential of the plot.

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Kabaty Press and Sven Elvestad

I came across Kabaty Press via the Golden Age Detection Facebook group. which includes a lot of interesting material from a very wide range of contributors around the world. This led to correspondence with Isobelle Fabian, who told me that she started Kabaty Press (the name comes from a suburb of Warsaw) 'because after living in Poland for a number of years, I came to realize what a vast mountain of literature there is that never makes it into English.' 

Isobelle added: 'I don't believe that book buyers avoid translated literature...Rather it's a matter of how it's promoted and sold...together with a tendency to translate only 'serious' literature rather than what the majority of people in other countries are actually reading...Also, the economics can be tricky, as the translation needs to paid for upfront, and like any book only the rare one breaks through to become a bestseller. Finally,  publishing today is very focused on promoting the author, so if the author happens to be dead,  or even unavailable for book tours in another country,  it's seen as a major negative'. Some very fair points here, and I think that outfits like Kabaty deserve every encouragement.

I've now read their recent offering, The Man Who Plundered the City, by Sven Elvestad, translated by Frederick H. Martens and introduced by Mitzi M. Brunsdale. It's a conspicuously well-produced paperback. Elvestad is better known to me under the name Stein Riverton, who has been described as 'the Edgar Allan Poe of Scandinavian', though I'd say that a closer comparison is with another Edgar, Mr Wallace. 

Elvestad's first novel appeared in 1907 and he wrote nearly a hundred more prior to his death in 1934. As you'd expect with someone so remarkably prolific, The Man... is a light, breezy thriller, definitely not to be taken too seriously, and a historical curiosity rather than a literary masterpiece. I'm glad to have had the chance to read it and I look forward to more European 'classic crime' from Kabaty.


Monday, 15 November 2021

John Malcolm R.I.P.

I'm sorry to report the death of another stalwart of British crime writing from the 1980s and 90s, John Malcolm. That was the pen-name of John Malcolm Andrews, who served as Chair of the Crime Writers' Association in 1994-5. I got to know John in the early days of my writing career and we had numerous enjoyable conversations. He was a quiet, pleasant man who was clearly both a capable businessman and a great expert on antiques.

That love of antiques played a central part in his novels. He introduced Tim Simpson in A Back Room in Somers Town (1984) and the Tim Simpson books were a staple of the Collins Crime Club, a first class list with a very good editor, Elizabeth Walter. John inscribed a number of copies of his books for me, and I found them sound, capable pieces of work, good to read even if (like me) one knows next to nothing about antiques.

John also published two non-series novels which I haven't read, as well as several non-fiction books about antiques and many articles. Born in 1936, he was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, where he studied engineering. His business career meant that he travelled extensively and he worked as a management consultant as well as a machinery broker.

I haven't seen John in person for a long time but the two last stories that he published both appeared in anthologies that I edited; the most recent, 'The Marquis Wellington Jug', appeared in Motives for Murder. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2004, but we corresponded many times and I was delighted when he agreed to contribute an essay to Howdunit. In fact, he was one of the first Detection Club members to do so, and took a keen interest in the book's fortunes. I imagine that it was the last piece he wrote concerned with the crime genre. Ultimately he succumbed to cancer on 30 October this year. My condolences to his widow Geraldine and his son Sam. I shall remember him with affection as a good companion who was always willing to give some time to a young fellow crime writer.  

Friday, 12 November 2021

Forgotten Book - Proceed with Caution aka Body Unidentified

Fashions change in crime writing, as in everything else. I doubt very much whether anyone today would give their crime novel the drab title Proceed with Caution. Yet that's just what John Rhode did, back in 1937. (His American publishers called it Body Unidentified, which is at least an improvement.) And it's even less likely that a modern crime novel's opening words would be: 'Things happen like that,' said Superintendent Hanslet, 'There are times at the Yard when things are as dull as ditchwater.'

After this soporific start, things can only get better. Thankfully, they do. In the prologue, Dr Priestley is told about two distinct cases being investigated by his Scotland Yard chums Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn respectively. Both detectives are convinced that their cases are open and shut affairs, but of course three things are entirely predictable. First, the mysteries are much more complex than they seem at first. Second, they will turn out to be connected. And third, our armchair amateur detective will be quicker on the uptake than the professional cops.  

Hanslet's case involves some valuable diamonds that have gone missing, along with a Hatton Garden jeweller. Waghorn's case is a murder mystery of a Gothic nature, although it wasn't Rhode's style to make the most of the bizarre trappings of a case involving a deserted motor hearse and a body rendered unrecognisable after being dunked in a tar boiler used for road repairs. The tar boiler murder concept would, I feel, definitely suit a Rachel Savernake story, but Rhode is more concerned with timetables, alibis, and disguises than the vivid evocation of atmosphere.

I've realised belatedly that the best way to read Rhode is to rattle through his stories quickly. This is so even though I like to try to figure out the answers to Golden Age whodunit mysteries and also to try to understand how the author crafted his puzzle. Quite early on, I realised who was the villain of the piece, and rather than get bogged down in the minutiae of travel times which occupy a sizeable portion of text, I took pleasure in the way Rhode set about pulling the wool over the eyes of his readers. We never get to understand the mindset of the murderer - the motive is taken for granted - and this lack of interest in criminal psychology is one of Rhode's weaknesses, while the book is wrapped up with almost unseemly haste once the good doctor has explained things.. But there are plenty of nice little touches, and overall I'd rate this book as among the best Rhodes that I've come across.  

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

The Jigsaw Murders - Jeremy Craddock

Over the years, I've written quite a bit about true crime and I once published a book (known by various titles, including Catching Killers) which focused on crime investigation and forensics as well as some famous cases. I've often thought about writing a book devoted to a single case, but I've never got round to it. I did, however, once draw up a pitch for a non-fiction study about the Crippen case (which also featured in my novel Dancing for the Hangman) and made some notes for a slightly less well-known case which has also fascinated me for ages, the Buck Ruxton case. One of the attractions of the latter case (my book was going to be called The Cyclops Eye, but I didn't get much further than the title!) was that nobody else had studied it in depth in modern times.

Well, now the gap has been filled, not by me but by Jeremy Craddock in The Jigsaw Murders, published by The History Press (an excellent indie publisher by the way; they once published a Murder Squad anthology and were good to work with). Jeremy is a journalist who comes from the Lake District and now lives in Cheshire, so I have a considerable fellow feeling for him. Regardless of that, I'm very pleased that he's produced such a well-rounded study of a major murder investigation.

Ruxton was a doctor working in Lancaster, a fascinating and historic town which rather strangely used to have a pub named after him. He was a strange man who murdered both his wife and his children's nanny before dismembering their bodies. The remains were ultimately found in the Scottish border country. An extraordinary forensic investigation was required; there's a very good book co-written by the pathologist John Glaister which details the medico-legal background. Jeremy Craddock goes into detail about Ruxton's background and some of this information was quite new to me. 

The sub-title of the book is 'The True Story of the Ruxton Killings and the Birth of Modern Forensics' and the murders were shocking and extraordinary. The investigation was undoubtedly an important landmark, whether or not you identify it as the 'birth' of modern forensics. I'd say that this extensively researched study is a candidate for the various non-fiction awards.


Monday, 8 November 2021

And Now For Something Completely Different

It's not every day that I get to share the billing with a member of Monty Python's Flying Circus. In fact, it's never happened before last Saturday and I don't expect it ever will again. But I was truly delighted to take part in the Slightly Foxed Readers' Day at the Art Workers' Guild in Bloomsbury. In the first part of the afternoon, I was interviewed by Ayo Onatade on the subject of Golden Age detective fiction. And in the second part I had the pleasure of listening to Michael Palin, giving a great talk about the contrasts between writing fiction and non-fiction.

Slightly Foxed is an admirable literary quarterly journal that I find to be an unusual and consistently engaging read. I enjoyed taking part in one of their equally enjoyable podcasts earlier this year, which led to an invitation to write a piece for the journal, which will appear before long, and also to take part in the Readers' Day. This is an annual event, although this year the team had to contend with all the complications arising from the pandemic - no easy task. But they did a great job in making sure everything ran smoothly, and the venue, a sumptuous hall in a lovely Georgian building, was ideal for the occasion.

I always prefer, if the opportunity arises, to be interviewed rather than to give a lecture. I therefore suggested that Ayo Onatade would be the perfect interviewer, and despite a pressing commitment which involved an early plane flight from northern Ireland on the day of the event, Ayo kindly agreed. As she said, it's rather strange that we've been friends for the best part of 25 years, but we've never actually done an interview together. It seemed to go very smoothly and I hope we'll be able to do more conversations of this kind in the future.

I was conscious that this particular audience is keen on literature generally and I don't know how many of those attending are crime fans specifically, so we took a general approach to the subject rather than concentrating on minutiae, but the questions were very interesting and the reaction extremely positive. 

As for Michael Palin, I've been a fan of his since his early TV appearances on Do Not Adjust Your Set. When Monty Python began, I watched it right from the start. My parents were rather bemused by the humour, but I loved it and so did my school friends. We'd discuss each show at inordinate length the following day and we knew a lot of the sketches off by heart. Later, I loved Ripping Yarns, co-written by Michael and Terry Jones. 'Golden Gordon', which reminds me of my Dad's football obsessions, is one of my all-time favourite TV shows. So to have the chance to meet Michael (Sir Michael, I should say) was a real joy. And for anyone who wonders whether he is as pleasant to chat to in person as his television persona suggests, the answer is an unequivocal yes.