Wednesday, 17 August 2022

R.I.P. June Thomson and Michael Pearce

I was so sorry to learn of the very recent deaths of June Thomson and Michael Pearce, two crime writers with whom I've enjoyed many pleasant conversations. They were likeable and engaging people who, in very different ways, made notable contributions to the genre. At the time I was putting together Howdunit on behalf of the Detection Club, of which they were both long-standing members, they were both rather frail and I wasn't sure that they would feel able to contribute. But both of them really did want to be part of the project, and I was truly delighted to have the opportunity to include their essays.

As I recall, I first met June at the launch of one of her books; my memory is a little hazy, but I believe it was Past Reckoning, which was published to coincide with the London Bouchercon of 1990. I was invited to attend the do in my capacity as a reviewer and writer about crime - at that point, my first novel was yet to see the light of day. Over the years, I had many opportunities to chat to June, often at CWA conferences after I'd become established as a novelist. Her first novel was published twenty years before mine, but she was always interested and encouraging. 

June was a former teacher who made a radical but effective change of course during her writing career. She established a considerable reputation with a long series of well-written novels featuring Chief Inspector Jack Finch (who was re-named Rudd in the US, to avoid confusion with another series detective called Finch). Her early books drew comparisons with P.D. James, whose style resembled hers in some ways, and she seemed destined to become an equally prominent figure in the genre. Despite her great success, that never quite happened, and only three more Finch books appeared after 1991, as she began to concentrate her energies more on stories of a very different kind - about Sherlock Holmes. There are countless Holmes pastiches, but June's stories were truly outstanding. 

Having admired her work for a long time (her first novel was published way back in 1971) I was thrilled when June wrote a couple of original short stories - 'Deus Ex Machina' and 'Coming Home' - for anthologies I was editing. To publish her work was both a pleasure and a privilege. She also wrote a terrific biography, Holmes and Watson. I treasure my inscribed copies of her books and I shall miss her.

I first got to know Michael Pearce and his wife Bridget about fourteen years ago, but I'd come across his Mamur Zapt books long before that. Michael was highly convivial and very good-natured. He would modestly describe himself as a writer, teacher and administrator in academia, but he was keenly interested in human rights and an individual of considerable distinction and achievement. There's quite a lot more that can be said about both Michael and June, but the first thing I want to do by way of personal tribute is to read some of their wonderful books again.      

Monday, 15 August 2022

Secret State - 2012 TV series review

I missed Secret State when it first aired on Channel 4 in 2012 and have only just caught up with this four-part conspiracy thriller. It's based (rather loosely, I'd imagine, given the topical references) on a novel written 30 years earlier. That was A Very British Coup, by Chris Mullin, which was also adapted for television in the 80s by Alan Plater, though I've never seen that version. Mullin was, at one time, a well-known MP, on the left of the Labour Party. Many years ago he gave an after dinner speech at a CWA conference, which I recall as very entertaining. 

This screenplay is by Robert Jones and it's pretty taut, although in the later stages the sub-text, very critical of Tony Blair's government's 'dodgy dossier' about Iraq, comes into the foreground and is perhaps a little heavy-handed. But it certainly gets off to a gripping start, and my interest was maintained throughout. This is in part due to a strong cast led by the excellent Gabriel Byrne, playing Tom Dawkins, who is propelled into the position of Prime Minister following the death of the PM in a mysterious plane crash.

The biggest villain in the story is a US petrochemical company, responsible for a devastating industrial accident on Teeside that cost many lives. Dawkins becomes suspicious about what has happened, egged on by an investigative journalist (Gina McKee). The elements of the story about senior politicians jockeying for power are really well done, and Rupert Graves is wonderfully slimy as Dawkins' prime opponent, while Charles Dance is terrific as the Chief Whip. There's also a good role for Douglas Hodge, as Dawkins' friend, who drinks too much for his own good, and another for Ruth Negga, as a concerned analyst at GCHQ.

If you enjoy a good conspiracy thriller, this one measures up well and doesn't outstay its welcome. I'm glad I finally caught up with it.


Friday, 12 August 2022

Forgotten Book - The Three Corpse Trick

Miles Burton, better known as John Rhode, wrote a long series of novels featuring Desmond Merrion. The Three Corpse Trick, first published in 1944, has been judged as one of the best if not the very best of them. Nick Fuller, a shrewd critic of Golden Age mysteries whose blog I heartily recommend, has described it as a masterpiece. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the story is that the Second World War is ignored. We are explicitly told that Merrion's duties in the intelligence section of the Admiralty have ceased and he is free to roam around the English countryside again, solving mysteries in the company of his chum Inspector Arnold. Presumably Rhode was by this time confident that the war would be won. Or perhaps he simply didn't want to think about it any more.

The first chapter is devoted to a Mrs Burge's wanderings around a village in Deanshire, collecting money for charity. This approach enables the author to introduce us to a host of characters who will later feature in the story and provide a wealth of background information. At this early stage I picked up on one reference which eventually proved to be crucial to the plot. These things can happen, but I think many authors would have introduced the characters more gradually and painted them in a little more detail. In the event, two people who are pivotal to the story are peripheral figures, to say the least, and this does seem to me to be a weakness. And including a map of the neighbourhood would have been a big help.

Poor Mrs Burge is promptly murdered and Inspector Arnold is determined that her husband  - who has vanished - is the guilty party. It takes quite a long time for the reasons for Burge's absence to become clear, and at around that stage of the novel we are also given some further information which proves to be highly relevant. At this point I realised the signifcance of the title and figured out what was going on.

Eventually, Merrion tumbles to the dastardly scheme. The crimes are neatly contrived, but I feel that a more talented writer could have made more of the raw material of the plot. It's definitely one of the better Rhode/Burton books that I've read, but it's also one which illustrates some of his shortcomings as a storyteller. Worth reading, but very guessable. 


Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Young Adam - 2003 film

Young Adam is not an especially well-known film and it doesn't seem to have done particularly well at the box office. Yet it boasts a brilliant cast, including Ewan McGregor as Joe, Tilda Swinton as Ella, who owns a coal barge and is married to grumpy Les (Peter Mullan), and Emily Mortimer. The story is based on a novel by the Scottish author Alexander Trocchi. I'd never heard of Trocchi, I have to confess, but to judge from his Wikipedia entry, he was an unorthodox character, a heroin addict who led a rather troubled life and died in his late 50s.

This is not really a 'crime film' in the orthodox sense, yet the story has a number of attributes that we associate with crime films, including a mysterious death and a murder trial, plus an examination of guilt and conscience. At the start of the film, Joe and Les haul out of the River Clyde the body of a young woman who is only wearing a petticoat. At first the authorities have difficulty in identifying the corpse. Meanwhile,, the barge moves on and Joe turns his attention to Ella, whose marriage is on the rocks. They begin an affair and although Les discovers what is going on, he doesn't do much about it before leaving the couple to their own devices.

Flashbacks give us clues as to what really happened to result in the woman's death in the water. She is Cathy (Emily Mortimer); Joe picked her up on beach and began a relationship with her. She went out to work while he tried and failed to write a novel, but the affair faltered. There is a lot of nudity in this film and several scenes which are controversial, but on the whole I'd say David Mackenzie's direction is subtle rather than exploitative. 

There are various implausibilities, especially as regards the murder trial. I guess neither Trocchi nor Mackenzie felt unduly constrained by the need for factual accuracy, but I think the lack of credibility in some of the details is a weakness. The ending also strikes me as interesting, but artistically unsatisfactory. So it certainly isn't a perfect film, and one thing is for sure: if you're looking for a feelgood movie, this isn't it. But it's quite haunting and the acting is excellent.   


Monday, 8 August 2022

Fear No More - 1961 film review

Fear No More is an obscure film noir dating from 1961. The script is based on a novel of the same name by Leslie Edgley (who was born in London but spent most of his life on the other side of the Atlantic). Some reviews compare the style of storytelling to Hitchcock, but in view of the multiple - and sometimes dazzling - plot twists, I think a closer comparison is with Francis Durbridge.

This is a film with some rough edges and some pretty rough acting, but the lead character, Sharon Carlin, is well played by Mala Powers, who invests the part with the right balance of innocent charm and paranoia. She is asked by her boss to take an important message by train, but immediately finds herself in a train compartment with a dead woman's body. 

That's only the start of her misfortunes, which multiply with dizzying speed. A villain coshes her and then a cop accuses her of murder. She escapes from the cop and is almost run over by a car driven by Paul Colbert (Jacques Bergerac, a rather wooden and unconvincing performer, I'm afraid), who then offers her a lift. The plot continues to thicken impressively.

In essence, this is one of those situations where we root for a protagonist who is faced with an ingenious and implacable enemy and who finds herself unable to convince anyone that she is telling the truth. It's a good story, despite the inevitable implausibilities. The ending is clumsy and one feels that with more care this could have become a minor classic. Debatable, I accept, but for all the film's flaws, I enjoyed it.

Friday, 5 August 2022

Forgotten Book - With No Crying

Abortion, kidnapping, squatters, under-age sex. The ingredients of a cutting-edge novel of today? Well, perhaps, but they also form the core elements of a novel published way back in 1980. With No Crying is another of Celia Fremlin's remarkable novels of suspense and, as usual, almost all the main characters are women. Strong women, weak women, jealous and malicious women (she was especially good at chronicling vindictiveness between so-called female friends). It is perhaps hard for a male reader to judge some of these characterisations fairly, but for me Fremlin was one of the finest suspense novelists of her era.

In this story, Miranda Field is a dreamy fifteen year old who, along with her pal Susan, fantasises about boys she doesn't know. When a 'chance encounter' with the object of her affections is contrived, the result is a brief sexual encounter which results in her becoming pregnant. Her parents are left-wing progressives, but although, on the surface, they seem supportive, in fact their attitude is selfish. Fremlin was herself a left-wing progressive by instinct, and her portrayal of the Fields is all the more convincing because one suspects that she knew many people like them in real life.

Miranda agrees, very reluctantly, to have an abortion, but she is embittered by her parents' treatment of her. Before long, she runs off and ends up in a squat with a number of idealistic young people. But she pretends that she is still pregnant, and this deception has alarming consequences.

This is a short book, but it is unpredictable and it packs a punch. There's a good twist, which as the blurb says, is carefully foreshadowed. The story is a good one but really it's the presentation of the characters that makes it stikc in the mind .Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Teller of the Unexpected and Deadlier

Many years ago - sometime during the late Seventies - I went to a party at Roald Dahl's house in Buckinghamshire. Was I invited as a promising young writer, whom the great man was keen to encourage and mentor? I'm afraid not. I was basically just a hanger-on - my newish girlfriend (the future Mrs Edwards) was a schoolfriend of Tessa Dahl and when she was invited, I had the chance to accompany her. It was a memorable occasion, but I can't pretend that Roald and I had a long and intense conversation debating how to twisty tales of the unexpected. I suppose I ought to make up a better story...

I was, however, by that time a firm fan of his work, having come across 'William and Mary' in my early teens, and then 'The Way Up to Heaven'. Two terrific short stories, and in terms of adult fiction, I'd say that he was much better suited to the short form than to the novel. His children's fiction came later. He's been the subject of several biographies and the latest is Teller of the Unexpected by Matthew Dennison.

This is an unofficial biography, with the limitations that implies, and there's no discussion - for instance - of Dahl's friendship with Ian Fleming, which led to 'Lamb for the Slaughter'. But it's a brisk read and the story of an extraordinary life is recounted in workmanlike fashion. I never knew, for instance, that one of his most influential teachers at school was a former Derbyshire cricketer. Dahl's personal shortcomings have been well-documented, but he's always struck me as a slightly tragic figure. He certainly experienced more than his fair share of family tragedy.

Dennison's book is published by Head of Zeus, my own publishers, who have also been responsible for some impressively weighty anthologies. One of these - very attractively produced, by the way - is Deadlier, a collection of 100 short crime stories by women writers, edited by Sophie Hannah. It's a very wide-ranging book (from Allingham to Attwood, and that's only the As!) and I can warmly recommend it.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films - by Barry Forshaw

Very few authors of books about the crime genre feature as extensively in the Bibliography of The Life of Crime as Barry Forshaw. Barry is an impressively prolific writer and he has now come up with another snappy book, published by No Exit Press about the Belgian maestro of crime. No, not Poirot, but Georges Simenon. The title is Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films, and it represents a crisp and user-friendly introduction to the subject.

I noticed that I'm quoted in the endorsements of one of Barry's previous books, saying that Barry's constructive approach comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. I'm glad I said that, because it sums up a key merit of his writing - the positive tone. In addition, he is concise, and that too is a bonus because verbose lit.crit., however well-informed, can become tedious.

From start to finish, Barry's experience as a journalist informs his approach as well as his straightforward and readable writing style. To take just one example, the section 'Adapting Maigret' is essentially an extended quotation from an interview with Alison Joseph, who is at home with radio writing as she is with penning detective novels. Barry has also built upon a bibliography developed by the late David Carter almost twenty years ago.

One of Barry's strengths is his knowledge of films and he itemises many films based on Simenon novels that I'm unfamiliar with. Of the British TV series, it's clear that he prefers the portrayals of Maigret by Rupert Davies and Michael Gambon to Rowan Atkinson's recent interpretation. I don't know if there's ever been a Simenon encyclopaedia, but if not, this little book is an excellent, scaled-down alternative.

Friday, 29 July 2022

Forgotten Book - Impact of Evidence

Impact of Evidence is a novel by Carol Carnac (better known as E.C.R. Lorac) which was published in 1954, towards the end of her life. Beyond doubt, it can safely be described as a forgotten book. I've never read a review of the novel and at the time of writing, only one copy is for sale anywhere in the world - for the less than modest cost of £650 for an American first edition (pictured). One wonders what price a UK first in a jacket would command. As far as I know, there was never a paperback edition.

Does the novel deserve such obscurity? My answer is an emphatic 'no'. This is a novel typical of the Lorac stories that she wrote from the 1940s onwards, after moving to live in Lunesdale. But it's not set in Lunesdale. The action takes place on the English-Welsh border (towards the southern end of that border; towns such as Hereford are mentioned in passing). Yet in many ways, the setting is strongly reminiscent of Lunesdale. I suspect the main reason that it wasn't set there was that the author was trying to differentiate her two series (which did have a great deal in common).

Lorac was a keen driver, as readers of Two-Way Murder will appreciate. This Carnac title again reflects her interest in motor cars and centres around an accident in the snow that involves two vehicles, one of them driven by elderly, infirm Dr Robinson, who dies in the crash. But when people look inside his car, a second body is discovered. The deceased is not a local, and he died before the accident. What on earth has been going on?

This is a pretty good premise for a traditional detective story and Inspector Julian Rivers of Scotland Yard turns up to conduct the investigation. We learn that he spent some of his early days on a farm in Norfolk and it's clear that, like Inspector Macdonald in the Lorac books, his burgeoning interest in the countryside and the challenges of farming life reflects his creator's enthusiasms. As so often with these books, the evocation of rural Britain is the strongest point, but I'd add that the plot is very soundly constructed. If you're a fan of traditional mysteries, this is a most enjoyable read.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Deep Water - 2022 film review

I read Deep Water during my first 'Patricia Highsmith phase', many moons ago. The novel was published in 1957, when she was arguably at the height of her powers as a novelist. The plot struck me as nothing special, but the presentation of character and situation impressed me. It isn't her best book, but it's a very good one. So naturally I was keen to see what Adrian Lyne's recent film version would be like.

He decided, reasonably enough, to update the story. So Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) is now a man who has made a fortune out of developing guidance chips for use in combat drones. Although still young, he has settled to affluent retirement together with his sexy wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) and young daughter. But Vic is moody and Melinda flirtatious and it soon becomes clear that all is not well between them.

Vic is jealous of her flings with other men and he warns off one lover by claiming to have murdered a man that Melinda had an affair with. Is he telling the truth? Probably not, but it's not entirely clear, and there's little doubt that Vic is a man on the edge. Violence isn't far away and Melinda's provocative behaviour causes his behaviour to become increasingly irrational. An older man, a rather annoying writer called Don, become suspicious of Vic and the conditions are created for a deadly confrontation.

The main problem with the film is its lack of pace, the result of a script which seems less than assured and is over-long. Affleck and de Armas do their best with the material, but more could have been done by the writers to make the psychosexual undercurrents in their relationship more compelling. It's not a terrible movie, but it could and should have been so much better.