Monday, 25 July 2016

Festival Time

It's a sign of just how good a time I had at the Harrogate Crime Festival this past week-end that on Friday I completely forgot to post the Forgotten Book piece that I'd written in advance of my trip. Ooops. It will now appear this coming Friday instead! But I really did have a good time at Harrogate, which was looking at its best in the sun. It's a lovely setting for a festival.

I very much enjoyed catching up at length with James, my agent, and discussing with him a wide variety of projects that are in the pipeline for the next twelve months. We also had the chance to reflect on all that has happened in my writing career over the past year - it's been the most exciting time of my writing life. I was also able to give him an update on my latest novel-in-progress. My fiction writing has inevitably taken a back seat lately, but I'm totally committed to it, and although the new novel won't be ready for publication in 2017, it is at least moving forward. Next year will, though, see the publication of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books and several anthologies that I've edited.

I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Robinson of the Sunday Times Crime Club for the first time, and of attending parties held by Harper Collins and Bonnier. For the annual quiz masterminded by Val McDermid and Mark Billingham, I was invited to join the Little, Brown team, which also included Stav Sherez, and we came second - not quite top of the pile, but still a good result and a very enjoyable evening.

There was also the chance to have dinner with the likes of Barry Forshaw and David Stuart Davies, as well as catching up with a whole host of old friends, such as Ali Karim Alison Joseph and Leigh Russell, all of whom are pictured above outside the Old Swan Hotel, Ricki Thomas, Felix Francis, and many more. The fact the hotel was the place to which Agatha Christie retreated during her notorious disappearance does give the festival an added piquancy. Harrogate's a different sort of event from those wonderful week-ends Crimefest and St Hilda's (I'm very much looking forward to the latter, in mid-August) but has a distinctive atmosphere.  And the fantastic weather was a bonus..

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Spooks: The Greater Good - film review

I've managed somehow never to be drawn into the long-running hit TV spy show Spooks. I say 'somehow', but in fact what happened is that I missed the first couple of series, and then felt disinclined to try to catch up. So when the film released last year based on the show, rather clumsily titled Spooks: the Greater Good turned up on the schedules, I decided to watch it to see what the fuss is about.

It's often the case that, when a popular TV show is adapted for the big screen, things go awry. This is especially disappointing for those who have long been fans of the series. I wondered if the fact I'd not seen the series would be a disadvantage or, alternatively, give me the chance to assess it without preconceptions. As things turned out, I'd say it wasn't really a disadvantage not to have seen the series on TV. Did I enjoy the film? Yes, certainly.

It begins in a blaze of action as terrorist Qasim is helped to escape from custody by armed terrorists in a shoot-out. Has a mole assisted Qasim? Peter Firth, playing top spy Sir Harry Pearce, thinks so. He's the fall-guy for the disaster, and he responds by faking his own suicide. What is he up to? Among those wanting to find out are the Director General of the Secret Service, played by Tim McInnerny, and his deputy, Geraldine, played with icy calm by Jennifer Ehle. Suffice to say that I thought McInnerny's performance was a hundred times better than it was in Houdini & Doyle.

Among those who become embroiled in Pearce's cunning plans is the brilliant Tuppence Middleton, once again demonstrating her versatility as an actor. The plot complications come thick and fast, and this is not a story that has quite the relentless grip of The Night Manager,because there is less space for characterisation. But it's an enjoyable action thriller. I'd be interested to know how fans of the TV show rate it.

Motives for Murder - a new Detection Club book

I'm delighted to announce that the Detection Club will publish in November a brand new collection of short stories, Motives for Murder. The idea is to celebrate the 80th birthday this year of one of the Club's most distinguished members, Peter Lovesey. The book will be published in Britain as a paperback original by Little, Brown, Peter's publishers, and in the US (with a limited hardback edition as well) by Crippen & Landru, a small press run by Peter's good friend Doug Greene.

Setting the wheels in motion for this book was my first act as President of the Detection Club. I wanted to honour Peter, who has given so much to the Club over many years (and has, incidentally, been a great source of information about its past) and I also wanted to showcase the short story writing talents of our wonderful members. The Club's membership is relatively small, and the deadline was exceptionally tight, but more than a third of those members offered to contribute to the book, which delighted me. The result is a very substantial anthology indeed;.

The book benefits from a foreword by the legendary Len Deighton. Len has published very little over the past twenty years, so I was thrilled when he agreed to get things rolling, and there is also a fascinating afterword by Peter himself, which includes many stories about his early days in the Detection Club back in the 70s.

Each of the twenty stories (well, nineteen stories and one sonnet!) was written specially for the book, and each is prefaced by a few words from the author about Peter's contribution to the genre. There are some wonderful things in this book, written by leading crime writers such as Ann Cleeves, Andrew Taylor, Len Tyler, Michael Ridpath, Liza Cody and...well, the list goes on. I'm thrlled that we've put together such a special book in  a very short space of time and hope that crime fans everywhere will find something in it to delight and entertain

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Travelling Around the Blogosphere

In the past few days, I've been lucky enough to feature, along with my writing on several of the best crime blogs around. Here's a round-up, starting with my visit to Fiction Fan's blog to talk about ten of the best Golden Age detectives. A fun post to write!

I've often said that Dancing for the Hangman, published eight years ago and written a while before that, is a personal favourite of mine, even though it's a history-mystery, very different from all my other novels. I've usually added that, in terms of sales, it is my least successful book; perhaps this is because it was published here and in the US by two small presses. The reviews were terrific, and I was delighted to see that Puzzle Doctor, responsible for a very interesting blog with a leaning towards classic crime, has given the novel a boost with a terrific review today. I'm really pleased about this, because I still believe in Dancing for the Hangman, and I hope to give it fresh life one of these days, not least with an ebook version.

One of my latest short stories, "Consuming Passion", has appeared in the July issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a memorable issue which contains loads of good things, including reflections on the magazine's history of publishing first stories by writers who have gone on to make a name for themselves. I was delighted to read about Keenan Powell's enthusiasm for my story in her Mysteristas blog. Like the review on In Search of the Classic Mystery, this sort of thing is very good for morale (especially as I'm battling with a rather tricky story right  now...)

And finally, Puzzle Doctor hosted an interview with me in connection with the Cluff books published by the British Library. I'm grateful to him, to Fiction Fan, and to Keenan for giving me this attention.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Secret Agent - BBC 1 TV review

The Secret Agent, starring Toby Jones and based on Joseph  Conrad's novel, got off to a fine start on BBC 1 tonight. The book is my favourite work by Conrad (I first encountered him through his short stories, which were a set book for O-Level, but thankfully that didn't put me off). And the TV adaptation is very resonant in these uncertain times, coming to the screen so soon after the horrific events in Nice and all the other terrorist atrocities that have shaken the world in recent months.

It's easy to forget that, even at the time the story was written, it was a historical piece, set in the late 1880s, twenty years before publication. Perhaps this helped Conrad to achieve a sort of perspective on the mixed motives and complex behaviours of those involved with anarchist outrages at the time. Episode one reminded us that the warped thinking that leads people to kill others in pursuit of some vague, or even nonsensical political goal, is nothing new. Conrad tells us something about human nature, and so does Tony Marchant's screenplay.

Jones plays Verloc, who runs a (surprisingly unsuccessful, I'd have thought) sex shop catering for dodgy MPs and vicars in the heart of Soho. He's aided and abetted by his wife Winnie, played by Vicky McClure; she's prepared to turn a blind eye to his behaviour, and the revolutionary claptrap he and his friends spout because, on balance, Verloc is a good husband who takes care of her.

But Verloc is in a mess. He works an agent for the Russian government, who take a hard view of revolutionaries, and also dabbles in work as an informer for Scotland Yard. Fear and financial pressure are leading him into very dangerous territory with a gang of anarchists who are as unstable as the bombs they make. It's gripping, but also chilling. Not exactly good escapism, given the wretched things happening right now in real life, but good television.,

Friday, 15 July 2016

Forgotten Book - The Colour of Murder

Julian Symons' The Colour of Murder won the CWA's "Crossed Red Herring" award in 1957; in other words, what is now known as the CWA Gold  Dagger for the best crime novel of the year. Quite an accolade, and you might think that, especially given Symons' stature in the crime world, the book would hardly qualify as "forgotten". But it's seldom been discussed, and I must admit that although I read it in my youth, even I'd allowed the story to slip from my memory.

When I picked up a copy on my birthday last week, I wondered how well it would stand up to scrutiny, almost six decades after publication. Rather casually, I started reading, and I soon found myself hooked. I have an awful lot of good books on my TBR pile, but The Colour of Murder demanded to be read, even though in one or two respects it resembles certain of Symons' other books (a real favourite of mine, The Man Whose Dreams Came True, springs to mind, though I should add that there are also many differences between the novels).

John Wilkins is an unhappily married man who suffers occasional blackouts. The first part of the book amounts to a statement that he gives to a psychiatrist, so it is fairly clear that he has been charged with murder. But of whom? His awful wife May is an obvious candidate, not least because Wilkins fancies a librarian called Sheila. The suspense builds relentlessly as Wilkins chronicles his own downfall.

The second part of the story details what happens after murder is committed. There's a lengthy trial scene - Symons was very good at those - and a nice twist at the end. There's really a great deal to enjoy in this story, especially Symons' sceptical view of the nature of justice. He was in many ways the heir to Anthony Berkeley in the way he exposed the fallibility of our legal system, and managed to make readers interested in the plight of people who are very far from perfect, such as Wilkins. An added bonus is the crisp portrayal of Fifties Britain, with its snobberies and its taboos vividly displayed. A first rate novel, which I enjoyed more on this second reading than I did the first time around, which was in the days when I was more interested in ingenious whodunits than novels of character and society. As I say, this book does have a neat plot, but it offers a good deal more than that...

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Fear Island - film review

Fear Island is a 2009 thriller film which mixes some familiar plot elements with a structure slightly suggestive of The Usual Suspects. It really isn't in the same league as the more famous film, and some of the reviews I've read on the internet are very negative. But for me, it's a perfectly watchable movie, short and pacy enough to maintain interest.

We start off with a young woman, Jenna (played by Haylie Duff) emerging as the only survivor from a group of six people who had gone on a party break on a seemingly idyllic island. A grumpy detective treats her as the prime suspect, but a female doctor appointed to the case by the D.A. takes a more sympathetic view, as Jenna recounts what has happened in instalments, as her memory comes back to her.

In other words, this is a flashback story, and as many writing guides make clear, flashbacks are tricky devices to handle. On the whole, I thought the screenplay managed the switches between past and present pretty well. I came up with a theory about the case after only five minutes, but happily it proved wide of the mark, and although one of the main plot twists was predictable, another one - although by no means original - was neatly handled.

The cast isn't exactly star-studded, and I didn't think they managed to engage the viewer's emotions as well as would have been desirable. Films such as In Fear and Eden Lake do this much better, in my opinion. It always helps if one can identify closely with the plight of characters who are being terrorised, and I didn't feel that level of empathy here. But the plot passed muster, and it's not by any means a bad example of this type of film. Overall, I'm glad I watched it.

Celebrating Sergeant Cluff

Yesterday saw a very enjoyable launch event at the Grove Bookshop in Ilkley of the latest British Library Crime Classic. The book we were celebrating was Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, by Gil North, the first novel in North's Yorkshire-based series. September will see the publication of a second book in the series, The Methods of Sergeant Cluff.

I'd got in the mood for the event by touring round scenic spots in Yorkshire, including Skipton, which North fictionalised as Gunnarshaw, Cluff's base. Landscape plays an important part in the books, and I enjoyed visiting Malham Cove, climbing a long way up to the fantastic viewpoint on the Limestone Pavemetnt, and taking a look at lovely Malham Tarn.

The Gil North books represent something of a departure for the British Library, because they were published in the Sixties, rather than during the Golden Age of Murder between the wars (at least that's how I define the Golden  Age,but really it's a concept that means different things to different people). But the Library takes the view that books that are more than 50 years old are certainly eligible to be considered as examples of Classic Crime, and that seems spot on to me..

I have a very, very distant memory of my father watching the Cluff TV series when I was a small boy. Yes, Cluff was a telly cop! He was played by Leslie Sands, well cast as the dour but compassionate Dalesman. The TV series was written by North, and enjoyed considerable popularity, but of course even TV fame is relatively transient. It's good to see these books - clearly influenced by Simenon in terms of style and approach - back in print.

Gil North was a pen-name for Geoffrey Horne, an interesting character about whom I learned a good deal from talking to his son Josh before writing my intros to the two books. I was sorry Josh was unable to attend the launch, but it was good to spend time with Rob Davies of the British Library, Peter Crangle, who represents the estate, and an enthusiastic audience including Catherine, alias that splendid blogger Juxtabook. We missed Lisa Shakespeare of Midas PR, who has been very busy n generating interest in Cluff, but I hope our paths cross before long. Perhaps at the Ilkley Literary Festival in October, to which I've been invited, and where I'll be talking about Cluff and Classic Crime (and a bit about my own books) in October. Really looking forward to it.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Writing Life - and Taking a Break From It

When I was working full-time as a partner in a law firm, holidays were limited, and even when I was away, it was very difficult to escape the burdens of business. Life is different now I'm a part-time writer, and I'm very glad about that, but the question of when and how to take a break from writing is (in a different way) at least as important. Many years ago I read an essay by Len Deighton, which I've never forgotten, in which he said he wrote every day - even on  Christmas Day. (The essay was to be found in an entertaining and informative book put together by Harry Keating called Who-dun-it?) I certainly don't manage to emulate Len, but I do feel that taking a break from writing can really help - somehow - to get one's story ideas into shape.

Considerations like these were in my mind last week, when I celebrated my birthday. You could say that I've reached the age when one should not dwell too much on birthdays, but I believe the opposite: it's time to make the most of them! So in recent years, even when I was office-based, I have taken the day off and gone an interesting trip. The result has been plenty of memorable birthday adventures.

So it was this year, when - having warmed up for the celebrations with a trip to London to see a fabulous concert at the Royal Festival Hall with the ageless Burt Bacharach and Joss Stone - I headed off to North Wales. One of Cheshire's many advantages is that it's an excellent base for exploring lots of fantastic destinations within an hour or so's drive, and one of them is Llangollen, a gorgeous town.

Llangollen boasts a very large second hand bookshop there, and I started my trip by making a few acquisitions, books by Helen McCloy, Edgar Lustgarten, and Julian Symons. Then, as the sun made an appearance, it was on to the steam railway for a trip along the Dee Valley. This journey reminded me of my last steam railway trip, in the Ardeche region of France (below) during a stop off on a short cruise on the river Rhone that I undertook recently.

Next stop was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pontcysllte Aqueduct, which is the highest navigable aqueduct in the world, It's a pleasantly dizzying experience to walk along the narrow path beside the canal, far above the valley.

Again it put me in mind of the trip to France, and a visit to another amazing aqueduct, Pont du Gard, (below) which was built by the Romans rather than by Thomas Telford. Two wonderful places, both strongly recommended.

My birthday afternoon finished up with tea at Chirk Castle, followed by dinner overlooking another canal, this time in Lymm, and then a chance to get stuck in to Symons' The Colour of Murder, a highly enjoyable book that I hope to discuss on this blog on Friday. And whilst I didn't get any writing done, the pleasure of doing something different certainly seems to me to be helpful in terms of writing. A chance to relax gives your subconscious a chance to untangle one or two of those knotty plot problems that you've been struggling with. And so it proved last week.  .

Friday, 8 July 2016

Forgotten Book - The Necessary Corpse

R.C. Woodthorpe is a writer I find intriguing. He burst on to the scene in the Thirties with successful books such as The Public School Murder, and his work demonstrates an ability to characterise well, and to amuse. He had a great interest in politics and social issues, and his novels reflect this. Unfortunately, The Necessary Corpse, first published in 1939, illustrates his shortcomings as a writer, as well as his strengths.

The story begins in lively fashion. Quinton, a rich entrepreneur who has built up a highly successful retail empire, receives a letter threatening his life. He has arranged to meet Nicholas Slade for lunch, and Slade saves his life when someone tries to shoot him. (We are reminded that William Whiteley founder of the famous department store, was himself murdered.) Quinton and Slade take refuge with a group of "Progressive Thinker", and discover that Quinton's right-hand woman is actually a freelance journalist with left wing and anti-capitalist views. The complications increase as it becomes clear that a trio of American gangsters are out to murder Quinton, and they won't be satisfied until he is dead. He could fake his death, yes, but how to provide "the necessary corpse"?

This is not a detective story but a light thriller, and - as usual with Woodthorpe - the emphasis is more on comedy with a political edge than on plot. Whenever I read a Golden Age story in which American gangsters make an appearance, I cringe, since they offer a kind of reverse kite mark, an indication that the book won't have even a pretence of realism. This was Woodthorpe's first published novel for four years, and I wonder if the gap arose because he struggled to find a good idea for a plot.

Slade, a sleuthing novelist who made an interesting debut in Silence of a Purple Shirt, seems rather subdued here, and it is not really a surprise that he never appeared in another novel. Woodthorpe is more interested in the relationship between Quinton and his feisty sidekick. There are some good lines, not least about journalism, but overall the novel is a disappointment. Woodthorpe's wit and intelligence don't compensate for the weakness of the story.