Monday, 13 August 2018

Gallows Court

Receiving an advance copy of one's latest book is always exciting, and the arrival of a first copy of Gallows Court is a very special moment for me. Partly because I worked on it for such a long time, mostly for the connected reason that it's such a departure for me as a crime writer.

Head of Zeus have worked tirelessly on the jacket artwork. This is always an important part of the process, and I've been hugely impressed by the attention they've given to it. A wide range of designs were considered in the search for something that captured the flavour of a 1930s thriller, and I'm really pleased with the outcome of their efforts.

I've talked to Crime Time about the book; my thanks to them for commissioning the interview. And I'm thrilled by the reaction of a number of leading authors who read the book at proof stage. More about what they've had to say on another occasion.

It's all very exciting, and Head of Zeus have kindly arranged a launch in central London on 18 September which should be great fun. If any readers are interested in attending, let me know either by email or by commenting on this post and I'll see if an invitation can be sorted out.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

The Story of Classic Crime in paperback

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has just been published in paperback, another stage in the story of a book which has itself become a personal favourite of mine. Like The Golden Age of Murder, it's been a very lucky book for me. What started out as an idea to write a straightforward sort of companion to the British Library's Crime Classics series turned into something rather more ambitious.

It's in the nature of writing that, when you get to work, you find that you go in directions not necessarily contemplated when you first drew up a synopsis for a publisher, or first had your bright idea to create something new. With this book, I found myself telling a story of the evolution of the genre in the first half of the last century, a period of remarkable development. The books I chose (and in my enthusiasm, I did sneak over the 100 mark!) told part of that story, but so did the detailed intros to each of the chapters, which sought to set individual titles in context.

With all books, you never really know how the majority of people are going to react until it's too late. Will they "get" what you're trying to do? It's far from certain. This time, though, the reaction has been hugely gratifying. Only the other day, there was a wonderful review on the Random Jottings blog which truly delighted me. "Prepare to be beguiled" is a lovely phrase to link to a work of non-fiction...

The icing on the cake is that this year has seen the book nominated for five awards, three in the US (Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity) and two in the UK (Gold Dagger for non-fiction and HRF Keating). This sort of thing doesn't happen very often in an author's life, if at all, and it's another reason why it's been such a lucky book. I'm hoping, too, that the paperback edition will find a further readership. And perhaps that some of those who enjoy the book will be tempted to see what I've made of the Golden Age thriller in Gallows Court!

Friday, 10 August 2018

Forgotten Book - Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall is a novel which illustrates, among other things, the late Stanley Ellin's versatility as a crime writer. He was always, and will I think remain, best known as an author of short stories, most famously "The Specialty of the House", but he was also an accomplished novelist, equally at ease with the private eye story and with the novel of psychological suspense.

The first edition dust jacket of Mirror, Mirror, describes the book as "spellbinding, shocking - unlike anything else Stanley Ellin has ever written". The victim of the bullet lies on Peter Hibben's bathroom floor in his Greenwich Village apartment. What has happened? The scene seems like a nightmare, yet it is not. Peter's search for answers becomes a journey into his sexual past". The blurb concludes: "The disclosures will be disturbing to some, but you will not be able to put Mirror, Mirror down any more than you can guess the outcome".

The book was first published in 1972, and the date is significant. At the time, the publication of Portnoy's Complaint had ushered in a new era of frankness about sex; it's impossible to imagine this book being regarded as publishable even ten years earlier, even though the central plot twist was comparable to that in an earlier classic of psychological suspense (no, I'm not going to reveal which one!) I suspect that present day readers may feel that Ellin takes the then-new freedoms a bit too far at times, but it's certainly true that he manages to blend controversial material with a plot of classic ingenuity. The story is, in essence, a cunning refashioning of the "whowasdunin" type of mystery, and there is even a sort of cipher which provides a vital clue to the mystery.

Harry Keating included this novel in his list of the 100 best crime books; it also won a major prize in France. Keating pointed out, correctly, that as well as all the shocking stuff, there's plenty of humour. This was, in its day, a ground-breaking crime novel, and although I have some reservations about it, it is nevertheless a good example of the taut, readable prose of an author who was in the front rank of post-war American mystery writers, and deserves to be remembered. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Great News for Locked Room Fans

On this blog and elsewhere, I've mentioned many times that one of my absolute favourite books about the crime genre is the late Bob Adey's marvellous and unique Locked Room Murders. Bob was a great guy, to whom I dedicated Miraculous Mysteries, and from whose widow Sue I've been able to acquire a number of gems for my own collection. I'm the proud possessor of copies of the first and second editions which Bob inscribed for me years ago, but for a long time it's been a source of frustration and regret that other fans have been unable to track down copies at affordable prices. 

Now that's going to be put right. I'm delighted to hear from John Pugmire that the book is to reappear, under his Locked Room International imprint. And even better news, an update is in the works. Here is the information John has passed on to me:

"Locked Room Murders is a bibliography containing a description of the problem and, separately, the solution to locked room and impossible crime novels and short stories.

It has been a classic in the locked room pantheon for over 40 years, beginning with a 1972 article by Bob Adey in The Armchair Detective. The first edition of Locked Room Murders, published by Ferret Fantasy in 1979, covered 1280 titles. The 1991 second edition, published by Crossover Press, covered 2019 titles.

Due to limited print runs, both editions have become prohibitively expensive. Locked Room International (LRI) is now making a revised version of the Second Edition available at an affordable price. Edited by Brian Skupin, LRI consultant and co-publisher of Mystery Scene magazine, this revised version contains the same 2019 titles, but with corrections and additional references which have appeared since 1991.

Plans are in place to publish a Supplemental Edition in 2019, to include novels and short stories (including translations from sources outside the Anglosphere) published since 1991, films, TV series, graphic novels, and other media. It will not contain any of the titles in the Second Edition, Revised."

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Dorothy L. Sayers Society Annual Conference

I had a fleeting trip to Lancaster this week-end, to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society's Annual Conference. I've been a member of the Society for quite some time, and six years ago, gave their Annual Lecture at Witham in Essex, on the subject of DLS' true crime writing. More recently I worked with them on the publication of Sayers' collected crime reviews, for which I wrote a long commentary: Taking Detective Stories Seriously is a book I'm rather proud to be associated with. This time, I'd been invited to be guest of honour at the conference banquet on Saturday evening.

When the invitation first arrived, my plan was to make the most of the trip by attending the whole conference. Writing commitments made that impossible, alas; a real shame because it was clear from what I heard while I was there that delegates had been treated to several fascinating talks. The venue, incidentally, was Lancaster University, and I was intrigued by the campus, the geography of which seems to a stranger to be rather Kafkaesque. Bemused, I stopped at a map at one point, to be joined by a taxi driver, who said, "I've been coming here thirty years, mate,and I still get lost."

Anyway, I eventually found my way around, and met up with the Society members. The banquet was really enjoyable, and I was especially interested to meet someone who once corresponded with Paul McGuire, a relatively obscure but highly capable Australian detective novelist of the Golden Age, whom Sayers - among others - reviewed warmly. And once I'd given my speech at the conclusion of the banquet, I was able to relax over a drink or two. All very agreeable.

The Society does a great job in engaging with Sayers fans all around the world, and is well worth joining if you're a fan. My thanks to Seona Ford, Chair of the Society, for making my trip such an enjoyable one.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Forgotten Book - The Greek Coffin Mystery

Ellery Queen's name lives on today mainly through the wonderful mystery magazine which bears his name, and I suspect that there are plenty of modern readers who are unfamiliar with the Ellery Queen novels. Yet the books written by Ellery Queen (a pen-name for two cousins) and starring a young and brilliant amateur detective whose father was, conveniently, a cop, made a huge impact during the Golden Age, and for decades afterwards. It's interesting, however, that when I give talks about Golden Age fiction, I'm sometimes asked if there were any American counterparts to Christie, Sayers, and company. Mention of Ellery Queen's name is often greeted by blank faces.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, first published in 1932, was the fourth Queen novel, and is widely regarded by connoisseurs of Golden Age fiction as a classic example of the cerebral whodunit. There is a cast of characters - 33 of them, plus six staff detectives, are named. There is a foreword, explaining that this case occurred very early in Ellery's sleuthing career. There's a map of the location of the main action. There are two floor plans. There is a jaunty "challenge to the reader". There are no fewer than four elaborate solutions to the mystery put forward at various times. And there is a contents list which reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles form an acrostic, giving the title of the book and name of the author. What more could any Golden Age fan want?

A elderly, blind Greek art dealer and collector dies of heart failure at his residence in New York. But was he blind? Did he die of natural causes? These questions spring instantly to mind, but aren't really central to the mystery. A missing will - another classic Golden Age ingredient - certainly is, and so is the discovery of the body of someone who is undoubtedly a murder victim.

The plot twists and turns, and it almost goes without saying that it's very cleverly constructed. That long list of characters is a clue to one of the story's flaws - there are so many people in it that it's not entirely easy to keep them all straight in one's mind, and it's certainly impossible to care about the fate of most of them. And I do find the early Ellery a bit wearisome - he became more human and, to my mind, more appealing in later books. But if it's an ingenious plot you're after, this novel certainly delivers.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Francis Durbridge: the Complete Guide

One of the pleasures for me of June's Bodies from the Library event was the chance to meet Melvyn Barnes. I first came across his work when I read his Best Detective Fiction, and then its subsequent incarnation, Murder in Print. We've corresponded for some years, but this was our first meeting in person. He was at the British Library to speak about Francis Durbridge, an author on whom he is our leading authority, and about whom he's written a book.

This is Francis Durbridge: the Complete Guide. In fact, it's an updated and significantly expanded version of his Francis Durbridge: a Centenary Appreciation. That book was self-published; this one appears under the imprint of a worthy independent press, Williams and Whiting. I enjoyed the earlier book, but the new version does offer much more, and is definitely worth buying even if you invested in  its predecessor.

A brief biographical chapter is followed by a lengthy survey of Durbridge's career. Then come sections on his novels, his work for radio (there was a lot of it), his work for television (which is how I first came across his name in my youth), his stage plays, films of his stories, and (yes!) the Paul Temple comic strip.

One of the valuable features of the book is that it disentangles the numerous overlapping strands of Durbridge's output. He was prolific, sure, but he also re-used the same plots on many occasions. This can be confusing and indeed irritating, so it's helpful to be able to find out, for instance, that Design for Murder is actually a novelisation of the radio serial Paul Temple and the Gregory Affair, while Paul Temple and the Alex Affair is actually a revision of the earlier Send for Paul Temple Again. This is a book I shall refer to time and again, and it's a must for any serious Durbridge fan; a bonus is an intro by Nicholas Durbridge. I should declare that I'm mentioned in the acknowledgements, but that's immaterial - I'd recommend this book anyway.

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz - review

The Word of Murder, Anthony Horowitz's latest bestseller, is to my mind even more fascinating than Magpie Murders, his take on the Golden Age detective story. In this book, set just a few years ago, he introduces a new character in the tradition of the Great Detective, a former cop called Daniel Hawthorne. And Hawthorne has his very own Watson figure to admire and record for posterity the brilliance of his deductions - and this happens to be none other than Horowitz himself.

It's a bold step, to introduce oneself as a major character in a novel of one's own, and I can't imagine that I'd ever attempt it. At first, I thought that I wasn't going to like the device. But to my surprise and pleasure, Horowitz proved once again that he is such a smooth and appealing storyteller that he can get away with murder (and no, that's not a plot spoiler!)

The opening premise is terrific. A woman called Diana Cowper goes into a funeral parlour, and arranges her own funeral. Six hours later, she is dead, strangled in her own home The police call in Hawthorne as a consultant, and he in turn persuades Horowitz to write up the story. The results I found fascinating - not least Horowitz's musings on the narrowness of public debate in modern society.

This is a fair play mystery, with a clever red herring which I dutifully swallowed. Yes, Horowitz outsmarted me. And I'm glad. I always found with Agatha Christie that my favourites among her books were those when I was led up the garden path, as I was here. There are twists a-plenty, and although one element of the plot didn't strike me as totally convincing, I was more than willing to suspend disbelief throughout. Great fun.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Forgotten Book - Elizabeth X

Vera Caspary (1899-1987) is remembered today chiefly as the author of Laura, but that book launched her as a crime writer, and she continued to work in the genre for more than 35 years. Her very last novel was Elizabeth X, published in 1978, and it's relatively obscure. But it's well worth a look, especially for anyone who enjoyed Laura.

I don't say that because the stories are similar: they aren't. Laura is a murder mystery; Elizabeth X offers a puzzle of character and identity. An attractive young woman in her early twenties, apparently suffering from amnesia, is found wandering in the road by a married couple called Kate and Allan Royce. The Royces take her home and look after her, but attempts to discover her true identity prove surprisingly unsuccessful.

Where Elizabeth X does resemble Laura is in its structure. Again, Caspary employs the Wilkie Collins method of telling a story from several different first-person viewpoints, starting with that of Chauncey Greenleaf, a man much older than Elizabeth, who nevertheless founds himself strongly drawn to her. But is he destined for misery when the truth about her past emerges?

A plot development later in the story also betrays the Collins influence, though I won't say too much about it for fearing of spoiling the surprise. Collins was, at his best, a master of plotting, and I don't think even Caspary's admirers would make a similar claim for her. She is, though, very good at depicting character, and writing incisive, readable prose. I wanted to find out the truth about Elizabeth, even though I feared I might be slightly disappointed at the end of the book (as, to be honest, I was). But Caspary was an independently minded woman who always does an excellent job of portraying the pressures faced by equally strong-minded women, and Elizabeth X , the final example of her gifts, is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The CWA Dagger in the Library

I've written many times on this blog, and elsewhere, about my lifelong love of libraries. I vividly remember being, at the age of ten, allowed to become the smallest member of the adult section of Northwich Library, in order to feed my addiction to Agatha Christie, and then to many other crime writers. And in recent years, in recent weeks even, I've enjoyed doing a range of library events up and down the country, as well as hosting Alibis in the Archives at Gladstone's Library.

So you can imagine that I'm as pleased as Punch to find my name on the shortlist for the CWA Dagger in the Library, along with such luminaries as Nicci French, Peter May, Simon Kernick, Rebecca Tope, and Keith Miles (aka Edward Marston). This is an award where the nominees are selected by librarians throughout Britain, and I'm duly honoured.

There are some truly wonderful libraries in this country. It's been a privilege for me, over the past few years, to become quite closely associated with the British Library, and that relationship, in particular with Rob Davies and his team in the publications department, has brought me enormous pleasure. The same goes for Louisa Yates and her colleagues at Gladstone's, a very different place, an independent library run as a charity, and rich in history, atmosphere and charm.

And then there are the public libraries which mean so much to the communities of which they form part. I've enjoyed working, for instance, with local and area librarians, and also a Friends Group in Stockton Heath which aims to support the professional staff in a variety of ways.

Hard to believe, but it's almost two years since I wrote about the threat posed to Lymm Library, a short walk away from my home. Like other local people, I was deeply worried about its future, but I'm thrilled to be able to report that it's just been announced that the library is not only to be saved, the empty space in the building is to be utilised for the benefit of the community: the detail is here.

So there is a great deal of room for optimism about libraries, despite the undoubted financial pressures they face, if all of us who believe in libraries pull together. I look forward very much to trying to play a part, in the coming months and years, to trying to play a small part in helping their almost limitless potential to be realised for the benefit of communities not just in my neck of the woods, but further afield as well.