Friday, 27 May 2022

Forgotten Book - Doctor Syn

Seeing your first novel for the first time, holding the reality of it in your hand, is a special moment. So spare a thought for Russell Thorndike, back in 1915, when he received his copy of his debut, Doctor Syn. On the front cover, spine, and title page, his surname was spelled Thorndyke, as if he were connected to Austin Freeman's great detective. It must have been an excruciating experience, though I understand that the book was popular enough to earn an early reprint, and the error was then corrected. (Thorndike, pictured, was wounded in the Gallipoli campaign, so I wonder if some time passed before he laid his hands on his novel - if so, it probably didn't help his recovery to full health, but the good news is that he did live until the ripe old age of 87).

The sub-title is A Tale of the Romney Marsh. It's a historical story, set in the late 18th century, and to do with smugglers. Not my usual sort of thing, to be honest. However, I was attracted by the chance of seeing a first edition which featured an inscription to Charles B. Gilbert - 'here's to the feet that have walked the plank'. It turns out that this is a quote from a smugglers' drinking song which features more than once in the story.

My interest in the book was quickened by visits to Dymchurch and Romney Marsh after taking part in a couple of Rye Festivals. The Marsh is a fascinating part of Kent, previously unknown to me, flat (as you'd expect) yet certainly not lacking in character or atmosphere. I felt sufficiently intrigued to consider using it as a setting, either for a short story or perhaps scenes in a Rachel Savernake novel. Right now, the latter is quite a likely option.

What of the story? Well, it's a readable yarn, and the spookiness of the Marsh is well conveyed and places an important part in the story. Even though it's not the sort of book I'd usually read, I can understand why it became a success - so much so that it gave rise to three films a whole raft of prequels. Thorndike, who like his more famous sister Sybil had started out as an actor, focused increasingly on authorship and he was also involved with Six Against the Scotland Yard, perhaps his closest brush with conventional mystery fiction.  

Thursday, 26 May 2022

Publication Day - The Life of Crime

When you've been working on an idea, and then a book, for as long as I've been working on The Life of Crime, it seems almost surreal when the moment of official publication finally comes along. But today is the day! And as from today there is a blog tour - my sincere thanks to the ten bloggers taking part. The first reaction on the tour comes from Christine Poulson and her comments are truly gratifying. 

Thanks to Gary Stratmann, I have some photos of the champagne do during CrimeFest when the book was celebrated in the company of Simon Brett, Felix Francis, Cath Staincliffe, Michael Ridpath, Robert Goddard and various other friends. I've also had cause to celebrate with a coveted starred review from Publishers' Weekly in the US: 'magisterial...unlike other major studies of the genre, gives plenty of space to non-Anglo authors and writers of color. The result is an encyclopedic and consequential volume, a must-read for readers who've wondered who-, how-, or whydunit.' 

And then this morning came news of a fantastic review in the Spectator by that fine novelist Andrew Taylor: 'magisterial but wickedly entertaining...a long book, but it's reliably readable and frequently amusing. It also inspires awe: Edwards combines wide reading with a good memory, meticulous control over his unruly material, critical acumen and sheer bloody persistence.' Wonderful!

The book contains extensive acknowledgements, but I'd like to take a moment right now to thank those experts who gave generously of their time when commenting on partial drafts of the manuscript during the past few years. Nigel Moss, wise and meticulous, spent a great deal of time checking and commenting, while others who made a particularly special contribution by giving me the benefit of their expertise included Doug Greene, Steve Powell, Victoria Stewart, David Bordwell, Art Scott, Joseph Goodrich, Rick Ollerman, John Pugmire, and Mauro Boncampagni. 

Of course I'm grateful to my agent James Wills and to David Brawn and his colleagues at Harper Collins who helped to make my vision a reality. John Garth the indexer, did a terrific job - this is a book that definitely needed a really good index, and John compiled three, which take up nearly eighty pages. A word of thanks also to the cover designer, Steve Leard, whose contribution to my books I discuss in this piece for Shots. In this essay for Crime Time I discuss some of the other people whose writing about the genre I admire.

So for me this is a happy and memorable occasion. And tonight, there might just be some more quaffing of champagne...

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Birnam Book Festival

I'm back home after spending a wonderful long weekend in Scotland, taking part in the Birnam Book Festival. Yes, that's Birnam of Macbeth fame, a tiny village which together with Dunkeld, on the other side of the River Tay, is home to about 1500 souls but has more to offer than some places ten times the size. Including the legendary Birnam Oak (pictured above), close to the river and Birnam Hill, looming over the village. There's a strong sense of community about the place and the venue for the festival events is an extremely impressive arts centre which adjoins a Beatrix Potter garden (Beatrix loved the neighbourhood, and it's easy to see why). The village even has its own very pleasant bookshop, The Birnam Reader which also serves coffee and cake and is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.

My event was a conversation about Lives of Crime, expertly chaired by bestselling novelist Fiona Valpy, who talked to myself and Scottish crime novelist (and true crime writer) Douglas Skelton. Douglas and I had never met before, but the session proved highly enjoyable and an hour and a half whizzed by. Other highlights were an opening reception at an art gallery and studio whose delightful proprietor, Mridula Basi, was previously one of Scotland's few women police officers of Asian heritage. She's also an extremely good artist.

We were lucky to be able to stay at Dunaird Cottage, in the grounds of the turreted home of Scott and Nicky Herbertson. If you fancy a trip to the gateway to the Highlands, this is an ideal base, and we were able to explore locally (the Hermitage and Ossian's House, a great walk) and a bit further afield - the Scone Palace (full of history) and Blairgowrie. I also loved having the chance to examine at close quarters Scott's wonderful collection of crime novels as well as the books for sale through his Hadwebutknown  book dealership.

I've often made the point that organisers of festivals work very hard to make their events a success and certainly the Birnam team deserve a great deal of congratulation. It's never an easy task, but as we emerge from lockdown life, it's even more challenging. Suffice to say that everyone rose to the challenge admirably. And from a personal point of view, I was thrilled to discover after my event was over that Manchester City had risen to the challenge of winning the Premier League for a fourth time in five years. That really put the icing on the cake!

Monday, 23 May 2022

10 Cloverfield Lane - 2016 film review

10 Cloverfield Lane is a movie that is loosely connected to Cloverfield, which I enjoyed watching not long after its original release. To describe it as a sequel would, however, be too much of a stretch. I gather that the storyline was originally conceived quite independently of Cloverfield, though there are connections in the version that reached the screen. I must say, however, that I felt it was the superior movie. In fact, it's one of the most striking scary films that I've seen in a long while.

Scary movies are, all too often, either not very scary at all, or exploitative and perhaps simply unpleasant. 10 Cloverfield Lane, on the other hand, is cleverly written, so that you never quite know what is going to happen next. I don't want to go into too much detail, since I don't want to spoil your viewing pleasure, but I think the screenplay marries two distinct types of story very effectively.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is involved in a sickening car crash and wakes up to find herself manacled and confined to a basement. It seems that she is the captive of an apparently rather gross older man called Howard (John Goodman) and before long she discovers that they are not alone. Also in the basement is a young man called Emmett (John Gallagher). So far, so predictable, you may think. But you'd be wrong. Very soon, it starts to look as though the basement may be the safest place to be...

The excellent performances of Winstead and Goodman in particular make the most of the material. I was gripped from start to finish. The ending of the film has provoked some debate, and apparently some viewers don't care for it. However, I think it's very well-judged. This is a genuinely thrilling movie which for once doesn't skimp on characterisation. Yes, I was impressed. 

Friday, 20 May 2022

Forgotten Book - Why Kill Johnny?

Back in the late 60s, or maybe the early 70s, I watched a TV murder game show, possibly called Who-dun-it?, which I enjoyed and which had a puzzle based on a story by Harry Carmichael. I've never been able to trace any information about this particular show and it doesn't feature in any bibliographies etc relating to Carmichael. So if anyone knows anything about it, I'd be glad to hear from them - at present there are times when I think I must have dreamt it! However, that show did kindle my interest in Carmichael, though I haven't read many of his books until recently, when Catherine Aird generously passed to me some of the Carmichaels in her collection.

One thing I also discovered quite recently was that Carmichael, whose real name was Leo Ognall, was the father of Harry Ognall. Now when I was a trainee solicitor in Leeds, Harry Ognall was a prominent criminal barrister. He subsequently became famous for his brilliant cross-examination of a defence expert witness in the Yorkshire Ripper case and when he became a judge he made an especially notable judgement in the Rachel Nickell/Colin Stagg case, which was controversial at the time - but subsequently vindicated. Incidentally, a little while before his recent death, Harry published a memoir called - guess what? - A Life of Crime!

Anyway, back to his father. Harry Carmichael is one of many authors whom I'd like to have mentioned in The Life of Crime, but there simply wasn't enough space. Under this name, and as Hartley Howard, he was a mainstay of Collins Crime Club from the early 50s to the late 70s and extremely prolific. In some ways he was a post-war descendent of the Golden Age writers, because he was adept at tricky plotting (and I'd also argue that Martin Russell, to a degree, took up the baton from Carmichael in the 70s). He also paid attention to characterisation, although perhaps not with consistent enough success to make a major impression on the critics. Barzun and Taylor were fans, though, and so is the Collins Crime Club expert John Curran, and they are all exacting judges.

Why Kill Johnny? (1954) is a good example of his craft. There is one element of the story - its starting point - that is so strongly reminiscent of Christie's After the Funeral, published the previous year - that I would guess Carmichael borrowed and adapted it for his own purposes. So I figured out one aspect of what was going on, although that didn't spoil my enjoyment, because the two mysteries are - overall -  quite different. The writing style owes something to the influence of the American hardboiled writers (as the cover of the US paperback edition above suggests) but it's not badly done. This is a pacy book, with a steadily rising body count and some pleasing plot developments. 


Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The Life of Crime - the first review

When you publish a book, you 'd be less than human if you didn't wonder how people were going to react to it. After all the time you've devoted to the writing, it's natural to be anxious about the critical response. This is bound to be true of a novel, a creative work coming from one's own imagination, but it's also true of a non-fiction book - especially some of those I've written (not so much those on legal subjects!), where I've used a novelistic approach, and presented information in the style of a story, as with The Golden Age of Murder, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books and now The Life of Crime.

It's important to realise that you can't please everyone - even when you've put years into the writing, as I've done with The Life of Crime. For me, Julian Symons' Bloody Murder is a masterpiece (even though I don't agree with many of his individual opinions) and yet he received endless criticism - and still does - some of it fair, some of it not, as well as innumerable deserved accolades. The Life of Crime is a very different book. But if a book is good enough and makes something of an impression, the fact that some people don't 'get' it or have some sort of axe to grind about it doesn't matter too much. The reality is that not every reviewer takes the trouble to consider what the author was trying to do and to judge the book on that basis, rather than in relation to what the reviewer thinks the book should have been about. 

Against that background, I was absolutely thrilled by the very first review of The Life of Crime. Not just because it was so generous, but also because the reviewer, Scott Herbertson, had taken time and care in reflecting on the aims of the book. I'm very glad, too, that he saw no obvious omissions, because the reality is that even when writing a book of this length, it's essential to be highly selective, because the subject matter is so vast and so diverse. To say that I'm encouraged by this initial reaction is a massive under-statement.

And to put a bit of icing on the cake, I've just had word of a lovely review from Kirkus: 'ambitious...a big sweeping impressive range of less well-known authors...a thorough sketch of the genre's origins, its evolutions, and its flexibility in response to cultural shifts...a broad and absorbing overview of one of the most popular and enduring genres of fiction'. So - a great start, and truly gratifying.

Monday, 16 May 2022

CrimeFest 2022 - a wonderful weekend

I've just returned from a brilliant weekend in Bristol at CrimeFest 2022. Along with Ann Cleeves, Andrew Child, and Robert Goddard, I was a guest of honour. A huge privilege. When I attended the inaugural CrimeFest fourteen years ago, I never imagined this level of recognition; as things have turned out, over the years, CrimeFest has been the scene of plenty of magic moments in my personal crime writing journey. Incidentally, one of the benefits to me of this blog is that some of the detail in the older posts reminds me of great times from the past - as with that 2008 festival. Huge thanks go to Adrian Muller and Donna Moore for all their hard work. They are supported by an excellent team of volunteers and others, including sponsors, and it was great to hear from Dame Mary Perkins that Specsavers intend to sponsor CrimeFest for at least the next three years. And I was presented on stage with a lovely Bristol Blue glass vase as a memento of the occasion. 

It was thrilling to go into the bookroom and see, for the very first time, a pile of copies of The Life of Crime. And it was even more thrilling to sign copies and see, on the final morning, that every copy on the bookstall had been sold. HarperCollins kindly gave me the chance to invite some old friends to a drinks do (not an actual launch, since the book is technically not published until 26 May) and how pleased I was to spend time with the likes of Simon Brett, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Felix Francis, Cath Staincliffe, Chris Ewan, Robert Goddard, Michael Ridpath, and Linda and Gary Stratmann (special thanks to Gary for acting as event photographer!) among others. Afterwards, HarperCollins hosted a small group of their authors at a private dinner; it was a particular pleasure to sit next to Jane Shemilt, whom I hadn't met before. The previous night I'd had dinner with a group of friends - Kate Ellis, Christine Poulson, and Cath Staincliffe (who was about to learn that she's been shortlisted for the Dagger in the Library) - and I also had a pleasant lunch with Ann Cleeves - as well as coffees with various other friends and fellow authors.

A major highlight came when Donna interviewed Robert and I as Diamond Dagger winners from 2019 and 2020. This was great fun, not least because I've been a fan of Robert's writing for many years. I moderated a panel, 'Suspect Everyone', with Rachael Blok, James Delargy, Victoria Dowd and David Hewson and also took part in a Golden Age panel moderated by Simon Brett, together with Janet Laurence, David Brawn, and TV's Barry Ryan (who made some insightful points about Golden Age stories on television). 

There's never enough time to chat to all one's pals at these events, because the time whizzes by so fast. For instance, I only got a chance to catch up with Yrsa Sigursdottir on my way out of the hotel to catch the train home, but I did enjoy seeing Dolores Gordon-Smith, whom I first met way back at that 2008 CrimeFest as well as Joyanna Lovelock (pictured above), who interviewed me a while back for her podcast. It was a weekend that will stay in my memory for a long time. And as an added bonus, I went to a second hand bookshop in the market and found a rare signed Golden Age mystery for a very modest price. Lucky? You bet. 

Friday, 13 May 2022

Forgotten Book - Family Skeletons

Patrick Quentin, in various incarnations, is an American crime author I've enjoyed reading for many years. The name (and the names Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge) conceals a complex set of collaborations, but in the 1950s the brand adorned a final run of books by Hugh Wheeler, writing solo. The last of the books, Family Skeletons, has eluded me until now, but when I had the chance to acquire Dorothy B. Hughes' review copy, I snapped it up.

Hughes was, like me, a Patrick Quentin fan, but I think she probably enjoyed the book rather more than I did. I sense that, by the time this title appeared in 1965, Wheeler was tiring of the game. He'd become established in the world of musical theatre, where great success still awaited him. This story has, as Hughes said, the touch of a professional - especially in the way that suspicion shifts around a pool of possible suspects. But there is something perfunctory about the whole exercise, as if Wheeler's heart wasn't really in it.

The problem is that Lewis Denham, the protagonist, is a rather irritating figure. He's a member of a rich (and even more irritating) family and when he marries in secret, he pretends, for no reason that I could find credible or remotely sensible, that he is not married. Then, when he and his new wife come across a body and realise that she might be a prime suspect, they make matters much worse for themselves by stupidly taking away the corpse and pretending that nothing has happened. 

Overall, I felt that this was a story where the characters behaved in the way that they did mainly in order to build the suspense. Yes, contrivance is permissible in a crime story, but it needs to have a touch of believability and we usually need to empathise with at least one of the characters. Wheeler was a talented writer, and he could characterise rather more effectively than he does here. He was also adept at plotting, but I'm sorry to say that, some time before the end, I lost interest in the whodunit twists. This isn't a bad book, but there are certainly a good many better Quentin books than this one. Why was it the last? Probably because Wheeler was smart enough to realise that he'd lost his touch.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

A Week to Remember


It's not often in my life that I've had a week like this one. Three memorable events already, with a trip to CrimeFest yet to come. Yesterday saw the publication of The Edinburgh Mystery and other tales of Scottish Crime, my latest anthology for the British Library's Crime Classics series. I've included a lengthier intro than usual, discussing Scottish mystery fiction over the years. The stories in the book are an eclectic mix and as ever I hope that there will be something to please all sorts of tastes.

On Monday, Herb Lester Associates produced This Deadly Isle, my Golden Age mystery map. They've done a lovely job of production. I love the cover image and the map itself is a delight. There's information about a variety of GA mysteries, enough to keep dedicated fans who like to see the locations in which stories are set travelling for a long time to come. This really was a fun project.

And today, for the very first time, I've held in my hand a copy of The Life of Crime. Actually, it almost needs two hands - it's a big book! Nothing, obviously, compares to holding your own child in your arms for the very first time, but for any author the experience of seeing - at last! - the physical form of the book on which you have been labouring for so long is quite a moment. That's especially true of this book, if only because of the sheer length of time I've been thinking about this project, let alone working directly on it.

To celebrate the imminent arrival of this book (UK publication date is 26 May, and it will hit the shelves in the US at the start of August), I've written various articles for different platforms. One that has just been published is this piece on CrimeTime about some of my favourite writers of books about crime fiction.

How will The Life of Crime be received in the wider world? I really don't know, to be honest. But one thing I can say for sure is this. I'm really happy that I wrote the book, crazily ambitious though the whole project was. And I'm truly thrilled that it's finally seeing the light of day.

Monday, 9 May 2022

The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing

In the lead-up to publication of The Life of Crime, I was asked last week about my favourite books relating to the crime genre. This prompted me to think back to the appearance of The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert, which was finally published in 1999, but was a very long time in the making. 

Let's rewind to the late 1980s. At that time, I was reviewing and writing about crime fiction for a number of publications and also working on the novel that became All the Lonely People. I'd been taken on by an agent, Mandy Little, and I told her of my interest in writing a book about the genre. At that point in my embryonic career, I certainly wasn't foolhardy enough to believe I was equipped to write such a book on my own (a vital catalyst came years later, in a conversation with Andrew Taylor) but I thought I could marshall a book of essays. So I pitched to her the idea of an Oxford Companion about the genre. As luck would have it, Mandy was friendly with Michael Cox of the OUP, and he visited me in Cheshire to discuss the project. Michael was a delightful chap and we had a pleasant afternoon, walking around Lymm Dam in the sun. He later became a very successful novelist prior to a tragically early death. He was enthusiastic about the project, and things were looking good. I was excited.

Then came the news that, unbeknownst to him, OUP in the US had commissioned a very similar book to be edited by Rosemary Herbert. So 'my' Companion bit the dust. This was a shame, especially as it came during a period when a couple of my other pitches met a comparable fate - I was beaten to it by better-known writers - but that's life. It's quite common - a point I make in The Life of Crime - for several authors to have similar ideas at much the same time. I was very pleased when Rosemary asked me to write essays for her Companion. Time went by and requests to contribute further pieces came my way. In the end, I think I contributed more essays than almost anyone else. Later, I met up with Rosemary, and found her delightful company. She even commissioned a new Harry Devlin story for her anthology Murder on Deck

The main problem with the Companion was simply that it took so long to produce. Robert Barnard and Catherine Aird were in the team supporting Rosemary, and I suspect that all of them were probably frustrated by the delays, which saw several editors at OUP in New York come and go. I began to wonder if the book would ever appear and sadly quite a few contributors, including Julian Symons, who wrote several essays for the Companion, died before it saw the light of day.

However, it was most definitely worth waiting for and I think it's still got a lot to offer the student of crime fiction. There are some wonderful pieces by a range of very well-informed writers - the essay on 'Singletons' by Barry Pike is one example, but I could mention many more. The book earned an Edgar nomination and to me, the only surprise is that it isn't better known today. Rosemary and her team did a great job, in what I suspect were challenging circumstances, and she also produced, in 2003, a slimmed-down version, Whodunit? A Who's Who in Crime Writing in which she generously included an essay about a young novelist called Martin Edwards. So although I never got to edit an Oxford Companion, this particular story led to what, for me, was a happy ending.