Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Woman of Straw - film review

To my astonishment, I find that almost six years have passed since I reviewed Catherine Arley's suspense novel  Woman of Straw on this blog in its early days. Arley is an interesting French writer, and having enjoyed the book, I've been trying for ages to track down the film version, to no avail. Recently I chanced upon a Spanish DVD version, available on Amazon, with the facility to switch off the Spanish language and hear the original actors' voices. So I grabbed it.

I'm glad I did, because it's a very watchable film, set partly in a very grand English mansion, and partly on a private yacht cruise of the Med. The fact that the stars are Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida makes it even more watchable. The film was first screened in 1964, when Connery was already anxious to avoid becoming typecast as James Bond, and he has a quite hypnotic screen presence here.

Ralph Richardson plays Connery's odious uncle. He is racist, sexist and incredibly rich. You are already guessing that he is a prospective victim, aren't you? Well, you are right. He hires a new nurse, the lovely Gina, and soon the nasty old man falls for her. But what about his nephew? His motives seem equivocal, and before long he is encouraging Gina to marry the old man. What's he playing at, and who can be trusted?

At one point, there appears to be a glaring legal error in the script, but this is subsequently explained as representing one of the numerous plot twists. The direction, by Basil Dearden, is extremely competent, even if the characters' motivations aren't explored in any depth. Some commentators suggest that Hitchcock would have shown more flair, given the melodramatic potential of the story. However, the evidence of Marnie, first screened in the same year, and also starring Connery, suggests otherwise. Personally, I enjoyed the film, and felt my long search for it was worth while. The book is superior, but both are entertaining, and a little bit different.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Mayday (BBC, 2013) - DVD review

Mayday, screened on BBC One last year, is a five-part whodunit with pagan/mystical elements, and a curse plays a part in the story. It's tempting to think that the show itself was cursed, because it suffered an extraordinary misfortune. The first part of the script, by Ben Court and Caroline Ip, was written in 2006, and the programme was finally filmed in the very damp May of 2012, before being screened the following year. And what happened? it coincided with ITV's Broadchurch, regarded by me and by other more notable judges as the best crime drama of the year, that's what happened. Poor old Mayday suffered badly by comparison.

A friend who is a good judge had told me that Mayday was inferior, and it is true, I think, that Broadchurch is a more successful drama. However, I decided recently to see what it was like, and acquired the DVD version. What I found was that Mayday is intensely watchable, and although it suffers from a slightly unsatisfactory finale, I think it bears comparison with Broadchurch in terms of quality.

The coincidental overlap between Mayday and Broadchurch is, however, remarkable. Both are strong dramas that offer a whodunit mystery, but also the portrayal of a relatively upmarket south of England community that is torn asunder when a child goes missing. In both stories, a man suspected of being a paedophile is vilified by a local lynch mob. In each case, he commits suicide. In both stories, there is a strong female character, a police officer, whose husband is a suspect. And the coincidences don't end there.

Mayday does, however, offer an interesting, and rather ambitious, added element. This was the concept of "old England" paganism, with dark deeds taking place in the rural woodland. Some reviewers didn't like this aspect of the story, but I felt it added depth, although perhaps it wasn't developed as fully as it might have been; this contributed to the slightly uncertain mood of the story. I also felt more could have been made of the fact that the victim, and the girlfriend of the son of one of the suspects, were twins.

Finally, the cast of Broadchurch was superb. The acting in Mayday is also good, but I did think that the (very talented) actors cast as the teenagers were too old for their supposed characters. Peter Firth agonised credibly as a voyeuristic businessman, and Aidan Gillen was suitably sleazy as a widower with an eye for young girls. Lesley Manville was, arguably, miscast as the businessman's unfeeling wife, but Sophie Okonedo was brilliant as the cop who has given up work to devote herself to her family. Her performance was, for me, as good as Olivia Colman's in Broadchurch. Yesterday, I wrote in this blog about being appreciated. I really do hope that those who worked so hard on Mayday will have their efforts appreciated by people who, like me, watch the show on DVD. They were so unlucky that they were simply in the wrong place on the television schedules at the wrong time.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


A group of my closest work colleagues took me out for dinner the other evening. It was a generous gesture, marking my decision to cut back considerably on my working week, in order to spend more time wriitng. They regaled me with witty anecdotes from our shared past, and I felt very glad, as well as touched, that they had enjoyed working together over the years,.

One question they asked was how I felt about being reviewed, and in particular about negative reviews. My feeling on this has always been that anyone who publishes a book has to be prepared for the inevitability that some people won't like it. It's also inevitable that, sooner or later, you will have the misfortune to come across a critic whose motives are questionable. No writer enjoys bad reviews, but as long as a review is written in good faith, and is fair-minded (so the reviewer should, I think, strive to blend criticisms with proper recogntion of postive aspects of the book), there's no point in being upset. Criticism that is constructive, whether from an agent, editor or reviewer, is valuable, and I've certainly tried to improve over the years by listening to people whose judgment I trust. Equally, theres no point in being distracted by the opinions of those with an axe to grind. If there is an advantage to not being a best-seller, perhaps it is that people with axes to grind tend to focus their attention on the big names!

All the same, it's always pleasing to read some unexpected enthusiastic comment about one's work. Through lack of time, I don't spend as long checking out the various excellent book blogs as I'd like to, but I've just come across a post by Puzzle Doctor which made my day. Is Yesterday's Papers in particular, and  the Harry Devlin series in general, under-appreciated? Of course, I'm tempted to think so, just as I like to think that their increased availability, thanks to the arrival of ebooks, will help in time to remedy that..And I must say these appreciative words about books I wrote, for the most part, in the early days of my career as a novelist, truly gratifying..

Friday, 17 October 2014

Forgotten Book - Nightmare (1975)

There are several books called Nightmare - I've covered Lynn Brock's intriguing book with this title previously - but today my subject is the novel of that name by Arthur La Bern. Until I found this Pan paperback in a dealer's catalogue, I only knew of La Bern as the author of Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, which became Hitchcock's serial killer film Frenzy, with a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer. So obscure did poor old La Bern become that even Shaffer spelled his name wrongly in his entertaining but somewhat unreliable memoirs. Yet he was not always obscure - far from it.

La Bern was born in London to French parents, and liked to describe himself as a Gallic cockney. He became a journalist,spending time as a crime reporter and also as a war correspondent in the Far  East. After the war ended, he wrote true crime books about the Acid Bath Murders and the Brides in the Bath Murders, and wrote TV screenplays for, among other shows, Fabian of the Yard and the Edgar Wallace Mysteries. His fiction seems to have focused on the sleazier aspects of London life. Among his novels, It Always Rains on Sunday became a successful example of British noir film making in the late Forties. Night Darkens the Street, inspired by the Hulten-Jones case, was filmed as Good Time Girl with Dennis Price and Herbert Lom among the cast. So he was quite a considerable figure in his day, and I'd be interested to learn more about him. Can any readers of this blog cast any further light on the man and his books?

Nightmare was a novel written late in his career, and I found it surprising and at times bizarre. The blurb on the paperback cover led me to expect a story in the manner of the late Patrick Quentin books. An alcoholic barrister whose wife has left him for a gangster takes an ovedose, but is rescued and put in a mental ward. "Then someone killed his wife's lover," the blurb continues, "and the nightmare went on and on..."

But this isn't really a story about murder. It's a short novel, but constructed in an odd way. Most of the book is set in a couple of mental hospitals, and it is soon apparent that La Bern has a very dark view of them indeed. In the second half of the book there are a number of relatively lurid sex scenes and there is at times a rather trashy feel to the story, while some of the topical detail now seems dated. But La Bern was a writer who, it seems to me, used melodramatic material to try to make serious points about the sinister side of society, though not with consistent success. Here he seems keen to deliver a message about the way m which people suffering from mental illness are treated. This resonated with me, because in the same year that this book was written, I made several visits to a friend in mental hospital; all I need say is that the experience made a profound and lasting impression on me. Those were the days when ECT treatment was quite common, and La Bern's novel reflects that reality.

La Bern also makes points about the sexual abuse of the vulnerable which may well have been regarded as the stuff of fiction in the 70s, but now, when we know much more about the behaviour of Jimmy Savile and others, seem shockingly realistic. Was La Bern driven to write Nightmare by some form of direct or indirect personal experience? It seems possible, but I simply don't know. The trouble is that some other aspects of the narrative remain implausible, and the unsatisfactory story structure diminishes the book's impact. Nightmare is a flawed novel, then, but very unusual and not, in the end, anything like the work of Patrick Quentin..

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Mackintosh Man and Desmond Bagley

I've just watched The Mackintosh Man, a film dating back just over forty years, and based on Desmond Bagley's best-selling novel The Freedom Trap. The film was directed by John Huston, and boasted a dazzling cast, led by Paul Newman, and including James Mason, in one of his silky villain roles, and Dominique Sanda, as the glamorous young woman required by statute to keep the hero of thriller films company. Other notable actors to make an appearance are Ian Bannen, as the agent Slade, and Harry Andrews.

It's getting on for five years since I blogged about Desmond Bagley, a writer whom my late father really enjoyed. Like Alistair MacLean, another superstar thriller writer of the Sixties and Seventies, Bagley was a gifted entertainer, but the books of both men are not discussed very often these days, considering what dominant figures they used to be. At their best, though, they were both highly accomplished. I used to prefer MacLean when I was in my teens, because his books bore a closer resemblance to detective stories, but the quality of his work dipped in later years. That wasn't true of Bagley - he died while still at his peak.

The film follows the story of Newman's character, who agrees to take part in a scheme to track down The Scarperers, a gang specialising in springing major criminals from jail. Some sources suggest that Bagley drew inspiration for his plot from the jailbreak of the Soviet agent George Blake, but this is emphatiically a work of fiction. Newman attacks a postman and steals some diamonds, and is duly caught (the excellent Peter Vaughan plays one of the cops). Sentenced, rather improbably I thought, to twenty years inside for a first offence, he is contacted by the bad guys, and the story zips along from there.

Huston was a gifted director, and even though this is a long way short of being his best film, it's not at all bad. Some of the action takes place in Ireland, which Huston loved, and some in Malta, and a competent story is told with pace and efficiency. I never really warmed either to Newman's character or his lover, and this was part of the reason why I thought this was a decent film, but not a truly memorable piece of work. But it was good to be reminded of Bagley's brisk story-telling style.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Guests from Germany

I'm fascinated by the global reach of crime fiction, and in recent years I've found it a real joy to get to know a host of fellow writers and enthusiasts from different parts of the world. It's a little over a year since I took part in the AEIP international crime writers' conference held in Oxford, and I've just received a very pleasing reminder of that terrific event. It takes the form of my copy of a nicely produced German language anthology, Mit Schirm, Charme and Pistole, to which I was invited to contribute after the conference, along with three British writers whom I much admire. My story, "Consuming Passion", was set in Oxford itself, and translated by the editors, Hughes Schlueter and Eva Lirot. They are pictured above, and I invited them to contribute a guest blog about the book. Here it is:

"With Umbrella, Charme and Coke
Sounds odd? Well, it really does. Those of you familiar with classic British shows on telly and their foreign titles might recognize mid sixties “The Avengers” starring Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee. “Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone”, so the German title, where “Melone” (yep, the fruit) refers to Steed’s bowler hat.

By the slight variant and allusion “Mit Schirm, Chame und Pistole” runs a new anthology of 26 crime short stories, we, Eva Lirot & Hughes Schlueter, had the definite and indefinite pleasure to edit. To capture and to render original soundtrack and flavour, we asked beneath our German colleagues four born and bred brits to contribute: Janet Laurence, Susan Moody, Peter Lovesey and the operator of your favourite blog, Martin Edwards.

In order not to miss anything our fellow countrymen might expect from Albion shores and cockney corners we set up a matrix of topics/settings and writers in which we co-ordinated feathers and ink in order not to have a plethora of witty little old ladies poisoning handsome but not-so-witty marriage impostors and a shortcoming of Cotswolds beauty. Finally we came out with gorgeous and very unhealthy arrangements that we hope will entertain the audience at its best: among others we feature stylish and weird dinners in Oxford, Scottish ghosts, the prime minister’s dog, a guideline to distinguished contract assassination, a fashion shoot, a witty little old lady NOT poisoning her environment, a Victorian Christmas affair, a butler from Ivor Spencer, a Loch Ness mystery and a killer exercising murder with wax figures at London’s Madame Tussauds.

Introduced at Frankfurt bookfair just some hours ago, we have received a very warm welcome and can’t wait to present book and texts in readings. You see, we Germans love British attitude and appreciate your “stiff upper lip” even in case of utmost danger. Like the society lady we met over tea, telling us that she and her husband actually “help police with enquiries” and we instantly took for granted that their cottage has been washed inside out and poor hubby remands in custody.

Like in Last night of the proms, we save the best for last: Patrick Macnee himself has sent his personal greetings to all readers and such a nice photograph of himself to print in the book! We couldn’t get a better foreword."

It's an enterprising project, and there is even a video trailer for the book on Youtube, although so far my attempts to link to it via this post have failed. Worth seeking out, though. When, as a boy, I watched The Avengers avidly during the Sixties, I never imagined that one day I'd contribute to a book inspired by the show. But I'm really glad it's happened - thanks to Hughes, Eva and Ralf of the publishers KBV. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Nigel Balchin and Better Dead

I can't quite believe it, but it seems to be more than five years since I last mentioned Nigel Balchin on this blog. At one time of day, Balchin was a big name, a high calibre writer who wasn't afraid to write commercial and popular fiction, and who seemed to reap the rewards. Yet nowadays he seems to be forgotten by most people. I guess the last time his name was in the spotlight was almost ten years ago, when Separate Lies was released - a film written and directed by Julian Fellowes, and based on Balchin's book The Way Through the Wood.

I've been interested in Balchin since my teens, and for a very specific reason. It so happened that by chance, when my parents were out, I watched a Saturday evening drama on television that was a detective story. I found it engrossing, and I was especially struck by the memorable final twist. The show was called Better Dead, and it was really a sort of Golden Age mystery, updated to the Sixties. Ron Moody, a wonderful actor, played the amateur sleuth. Because I was the sort of teenager who notices these things, I spotted on the credits that the play was written by Nigel Balchin (I know, teenagers shouldn't care about credits, but I always wanted to know about writers, not actors or celebrities...)

Having enjoyed Better Dead very much, I set out to find what else Balchin had written. A good friend of mine told me about a novel by Balchin that he happened to have read - the excellent Seen Dimly Before Dawn - and I soon discovered Balchin's masterpiece, The Small Back Room, a thriller about a bomb disposal expert, as well as other books like Darkness Falls From the Air. None of these, however, were whodunits, and after a while, I drifted away from Balchin, though I've always admired his writing.

In recent times, I've come into contact with Derek Collett, who  has set up an excellent website about Balchin, and has also written a biography of the author, which I very much hope will be published before too long - I'm dying to read it. I've quizzed Derek about Better Dead - he hasn't seen it, though he's shared with me what he knows about it - and I have started wondering if I'm the only person, after all these years, who has any memory of it. I now think that Balchin was toying with the idea of writing a Golden Age TV series featuring Moody's character - but it didn't happen, because he died, and in fact Better Dead seems to have been the last thing he wrote. What I'd really love to do is to track down the script - but it seems the family don't have a copy, and Anglia TV, which produced the original show, is no more. If any reader of this blog can point me in the right direction to find the screenplay, or more information about it, I'd be most grateful.


Friday, 10 October 2014

Forgotten Book - Knife in the Dark

Knife in the Dark, published in 1941 and set in the preceding autumn, is one of the more interesting books by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole that I've read. It's certainly a Forgotten Book, but doesn't deserve obscurity half as much as some of the Coles' more tedious efforts. There are several reasons why I found it noteworthy, although complexity of the detective puzzle is not one of them - this is a case solved almost by accident.

First, the setting is appealing. The Coles knew Oxford and Cambridge well, and decided to create a university along Oxbridge lines at Stamford in Lincolnshire. Some of the discussion of academic life in the early part of the book is enjoyable, and I suspect there may be one or two in-jokes that I missed. Second, this is the only novel that features Mrs Warrender, an elderly lady whose son is a private detective.She features in some of the Coles' shorter work, and she is an engaging character, albeit less memorable than Miss Marple.

A third appealing feature of the book is the background, which plays an important part in the book. The war was raging when the story was written, and the atmosphere of rural England at the time when blackouts were compulsory is nicely evoked. Fourthly, the victim, a married woman called Kitty Lake, is a memorable character,although so badly behaved that motives for murdering her abound. She is so much more vivid than most of the Coles' characters that I rather wondered if the portrayal was based on someone the couple knew in real life. Finally, the motive for the murder is connected, very suitably, to the background.

Overall, therefore, I rank this as one of the most enjoyable Coles that I've read, despite various faults. The key weakness is the plot, which is pretty flimsy. There are various suspects, but the Coles didn't seem too interested in most of them, and the final revelation is by no means a surprise. But if you are interested in a picture of life in England just a year after the outbreak of war, this is certainly worth a read.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Grantchester - ITV review

It took me twenty-four hours to get the chance to watch ITV's new period (1950s) detective show Grantchester, based on the books by James Runcie, son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. This was because I've been away on a trip to Oxford and the Cotswolds - and when I watched the show it reminded me, just as the trip did, of the loveliness of many parts of England. I visited Hidcote, a National Trust gem that is home to one of the country's finest gardens (amazing to see such a profusion of colour among the flowers, not just the autumn leaves, at this time of the year), and the market town of Chipping Campden, complete with a wonderful second hand bookshop, as well as the Congregation Hall in Oxford, a slice of history dating back to the fourteenth century and now converted to a vibrant cafe crammed with students.

Grantchester is set around Cambridge, not Oxford, but it blends many of the ingredients to be found in Endeavour and other popular detective shows - Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie's Marple and Father Brown spring to mind. It's genteel, rather than gritty, and though I'm not keen on the term 'cosy' as applied to crime fiction, it's hard to deny that this was a cosy show with a rural vicar as amateur sleuth, the sort of programme that you expect to find on a Sunday evening. Most of the reviews I've seen have been very positive, and I wonder if that reflects the same sort of interest in traditional detective fiction (perhaps coupled with a nostalgic yearning for the past) that has caused the British Library Crime Classics to become so successful.

It's hard to create a truly baffling TV whodunit that is over and done with in rather less than an hour, once commercial breaks are accounted for, but the story - about the supposed suicide of a rascally solicitor - was competently done. However, I suspect that Grantchester is less likely to succeed because of its story-lines than through the casting of James Norton as the vicar, Sidney Chambers. When last seen on TV, Norton was the convincingly psychopathic Tommy in Happy Valley; this role could scarcely be more different, and Norton's ability to excel in both roles demonstrates what a fine actor he is. The cast also includes Robson Green as Sidney's police inspector pal Geordie. They make an odd couple among sleuths, but I suspect that Grantchester will enjoy a lot of success.

Much as I love traditional detective fiction, I'm also keen on crime stories with a harder edge. Similarly, much as I like the chocolate-box prettiness of the Cotswolds, I also find less well-heeled places like Liverpool entrancing. For me, Happy Valley was a long way ahead of Grantchester as a TV drama because of its much greater originality. But that doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy Grantchester.  On the contrary, much of the enduring appeal of crime fiction is due to the fact that the genre is exceptionally diverse, and both shows are well-crafted, presenting a picture of different facets of English life at different times and in different parts of the country. It's perfectly possible to enjoy both noir and nostalgia..


Monday, 6 October 2014

Here and There

The highlight of my week-end was a trip to Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire to attend a lunch of the Northern Chapter of the CWA organised by Roger Forsdyke. Roger is also organising the next CWA annual conference in Lincoln at the end of March, and given his track record, I'm sure it will be an enjoyable and memorable event. The programme will included expert talks on issues relevant to crime writing,special trips in the vicinity,and lots of good food, drink and company. Any CWA members who happen to read this blog are strongly encouraged to book for the conference- you won't regret it.

It's always good to meet old friends at these events - those attending included not just Peter and Rhoda Walker, and Ann and Tim Cleeves but also Stuart and Doreen Pawson. Stuart is a wonderful writer, and although he hasn't enjoyed the best of health in recent times, it was great to see them both again. Stuart's Charlie Priest books are witty entertainments, and I still treasure the memory of Stuart's reading of a very funny scene at a Murder Squad event in Knutsford years ago - quite unforgettable.

I was also pleased that we were joined by some new members, because any organisation needs both to have a reasonable amount of continuity and tradition and also regular injections of fresh blood and fresh thinking. Happily, the CWA's membership is growing significantly, and a number of overseas chapters are being formed. Again, I hope that crime writers reading this who are not at present members will consider joining, even if they are based outside the UK. I can certainly say that my own membership of the CWA has given me great pleasure as well as many friendships, and that's true of many other members as well.

On another note, I was glad to hear from Dave Quayle the other day. Dave, who is even more of a fan of that great band The Kinks than I am, drew my attention to a nicely illustrated blog post he's just written about a trip to the Lake District. A nice read, and I definitely appreciated the mentions of my books. Unexpected things like that really can make a writer's day.