Friday, 9 June 2023

Forgotten Book - On the Night of the Fire

If you're looking for 'cosy' escapism, you'd probably better give F.L. Green's On the Night of the Fire a miss. This book, published in 1939, reads almost as if it was written to demonstrate that crime fiction of the 30s was not all about nostalgic make-believe. It's a doom-laden tale and was the basis of a film released in 1940 and also known as The Fugitive, which has been claimed as the first British film noir. The movie starred Ralph Richardson.

Frederick Laurence Green (1902-53) was born in Portsmouth and died in Bristol, but after marrying an Irish woman spent much of his life in Belfast - and he was himself of Irish descent. He is perhaps best known as the author of Odd Man Out, filmed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason, but it was his second novel, On the Night of the Fire, that made his name. It's the only crime novel I can think of in which the protagonist is a barber.

The book is a sort of  'inverted mystery' in that we follow Wal Kobling's journey from petty thief to burglar to murderer, but there is no puzzle element in the story. And it must be said that the events of the book are as bleak as the drab back streets of the unnamed port town (scenes for the film were shot in Newcastle) in which it is set. This isn't a mystery that will cheer you up. But it's well-written and compelling and Francis Iles (a very good critic as well as a very good writer) was among those who approved.

Green's literary style, on the evidence of this book, is interesting. His material is sensational but he handles it in an almost relentlessly unsensational way. To an extent I was reminded of Patrick Hamilton, but that's mainly because of their shared fascination with the tawdry side of life. I'm not sure I'm 'selling' this book very well, but I must say that I found it distinctive and powerful and whilst it won't suit everyone, I'm very glad I read it. 


Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Hidden City - 1987 film review

Way back in 1977, I happened to watch a play on TV. It was called Stronger than the Sun and it was written by a young playwright called Stephen Poliakoff, someone who - I discovered - was only a few years older than me. I was impressed with the story and the quality of the writing and it's no surprise to me that Poliakoff proceeded to enjoy a successful career. When I got the chance to see the first film he wrote and directed, I was glad to seize it.

That film is Hidden City and it has a few elements in common with Stronger than the Sun, which was written ten years earlier. It boasts a good cast, led by Charles Dance, with Cassie Stuart, Bill Paterson, Alex Norton, and Richard E. Grant. However, it doesn't seem to have enjoyed much success in the cinema, and soon made its way to Channel Four. Intriguing as it undoubtedly is, the film does have a number of shortcomings which help to explain why it made little impact.

Dance plays a snooty statistician, James Richards, who complains about the incompetence of a film researcher (Stuart, an interesting actress who seems to have faded from the scene). Oddly, and in an almost Highsmithian way, she latches on to him, pestering him to take an interest in a mysterious piece of film footage that she has found. It seems to show people being abducted. When this unlikely pair of sleuths start to investigate, it becomes clear that the authorities are irritated, to say the least.

I can't really describe this as a crime film, despite the element of mystery, and it's also short of suspense. The real problem is that Poliakoff has come up with a number of good ingredients, but hasn't managed to weld them into a compelling whole. A real shame. There are a number of scenes which simply don't fit - they hold up the flow of events for no clear purpose. I'm glad to have watched it, but there is a good reason why it fell into obscurity. 

Monday, 5 June 2023

Where the Truth Lies - 2005 film review

I've mentioned more than once on this blog my enthusiasm for the work of Rupert Holmes. I feel quite an affinity for him simply because we were born in the very same hospital, but quite apart from that, I've long admired his talent and versatility. In February 2020, in those far-off pre-pandemic days, I delighted in his musical Curtains and I've subsequently enjoyed listening to the CD of the US version. He writes terrific popular music and is an accomplished playwright. What's more, he's a crime novelist, and I've now had a chance to watch the film version of his crime novel Where the Truth Lies.

The film was made by Atom Egoyan, a director of some distinction, who also wrote the screenplay. The story draws on Rupert's love of showbiz, and features a comedy partnership between Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Phillips (the invariably impressive Colin Firth). The duo were stars in the 1950s, but split up following the death of a young woman called Maureen immediately after a telethon they were hosting, even though they weren't implicated in her mysterious demise. The reasons for their break-up are unclear.

Fifteen years later, another young woman, Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohmann) is hired to ghost-write Lanny's memoirs. She was present at the fateful telethon and she wants to find out about the circumstances of Maureen's death. A complicated sequence of events ensue, with several time-shifts between the 50s and the 70s. The plot is tangled, which is just the way I like it, though I also think I'd benefit from watching the film a second time, to appreciate better the way the story is structured.

There are one or two graphic sex scenes, and apparently this affected the film's box office potential. As a result, it's not as well-known as it deserves to be. Brightly filmed as it is, it's really a sort of neo-noir movie, where the shadows of the past loom large. Definitely worth watching. As for the source novel, I look forward to reading it and comparing it with the film. 


Friday, 2 June 2023

Forgotten Book - Bored to Death

Bored to Death strikes me as a risky title to give to any book. What if a reader can't help yawning? In the case of the first (US) edition of Michael Delving's 1975 novel featuring the book and antique dealer Dave Cannon, the title has a punning significance, given that a body is found caught up on the tidal bore of the river Severn. Nevertheless, I think that Collins Crime Club were wise to give the story another title - A Wave of Fatalities

One reason I was attracted to buy my copy of this book was that it boasted an interesting inscription, 'to the Baillies who appear on page 10 and page 89'. It turns out that they owned a restaurant in which the author enjoyed dining. A nice example of good-natured advertising.

I enjoyed the first Dave Cannon book that I read, the breezy Die Like a Man. I'd hoped that this novel, unlike that one, would be a kind of bibliomystery, but in fact the story revolves around an ancient casket, and I find antiques a less interesting subject - purely a matter of personal taste, but it was a disappointment, increased by the fact that the story isn't as good as Die Like a Man.

In this book, Dave is accompanied by his wife Lucy and her family play a significant part in the story. Dave meets a strange and irritating chap called Piscobar, who also becomes a key suspect after it emerges that the man in the river was a murder victim. Was he killed for the sake of the casket?

I must be honest and say that I didn't care too much about the characters and thus although I wasn't exactly bored, I wasn't unduly interested in solving the puzzle. Delving - whose real name was Jay Williams - writes agreeably, and there is a very interesting discussion about what it is to feel like an outsider in an enclosed community. Williams spent quite a lot of his time in Britain and I sense that he wrote these passages from the heart. Otherwise, though, this is a lightweight piece of work.

Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Framed - 2021 film review

Framed is a new film, flawed and low-budget, but quite interesting as an example of an attempt to rewrite Rear Window as a story about moral dilemmas. Thomas Law plays Karl, who quits his job in order to pursue his dream of becoming a photographer. He becomes intrigued by an attractive female neighbour, and starts to take pictures of her from his London flat, as she appears at her own window in various states of undress.

Karl has a good friend in Virginia (Lottie Amor), who works for a law firm (although she doesn't display in-depth legal knowledge, to put it kindly). She finds out about Karl's photographic pastime and disapproves. Things become a little more complicated when Karl not only keeps snapping pictures but finds himself encouraged to do so by the neighbour. She sends him encouraging messages and starts to pose for him. Then Karl sees a man appearing in the neigbour's flat.

There's quite a bit of discussion about personal privacy in this film, although I think some reviews have been over-generous about the merits of that discussion: it's conducted on a pretty unsophisticated level and doesn't strike me as being as intelligent or as thought-provoking as some have claimed. The storyline of the film simply isn't strong or smart enough to enable writer-director Nick Rizzini to make many particularly meaningful or memorable points. 

There are thrillerish touches in the film, and an obviously phoney policeman makes an appearance at one point. Judged as a mystery, Framed doesn't succeed, but I don't think it should be judged as a mystery. Karl's naivete and foolishness are irritating, but the two lead actors are an appealing couple, and the real strength of the film lies in the depiction of the way their stuttering relationship develops, despite their disagreements about Karl's voyeuristic behaviour. And because of that focus on character, despite having numerous reservations, I did quite enjoy Framed.     

Monday, 29 May 2023

Where the Crawdads Sing - 2022 film review

Where the Crawdads Sing is a film based on Delia Owens' book of the same name - a first novel published by an author in her late 60s which became an international bestseller. I haven't read the book, and I've read some reviews which suggest that the film is inferior - but in that case the novel must be exceptional, because I thought the film was very good. 

The setting is an American marshland. Not a locale that I'm familiar with, but I did once go on a boat trip around the marshes of Grand Cayman which reminded me a little of the film's setting, despite being on a smaller scale. It's an evocative background, and makes for very attractive cinematography. 

At the start of the story, a young man's body is discovered by two cops. He has fallen from a fire tower and soon murder is suspected. The victim has been seen around with a local girl known as 'the marsh girl'. When the cops approach her she flees, only to be caught. What is more, she is then put on trial - on evidence that seemed to me rather flimsy, to say the least.

Most of the film takes the form of an extended flashback, with scenes from the trial intercut. We learn the story of Catherine 'Kya' Clark, who was abandoned by both her parents and her brother and grew up on her own in the marshes. A relationship with a young man peters out and she gets involved with the murder victim, a much less appealing character.

It's really quite a straightforward story, but so well directed by Olivia Newman that the film's length didn't bother me. The locale is terrific and so too is the performance of Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya. Astonishingly,  Daisy is English. A glittering future beckons for her.

Friday, 26 May 2023

Forgotten Book - A Crime of One's Own

Edward Grierson's A Crime of One's Own has been sitting quietly in my TBR pile (mountain range would be nearer the mark) for quite a few years. I greatly admire his first crime novel, Reputation for a Song, and his award-winning second mystery, The Second Man, was also very good, but this one, published in 1967, is much less well-known. I'm not sure it even made it into paperback in this country.

Grierson was a barrister and a magistrate who wrote a varied mix of books. I get the impression of someone who, admirably, wrote to please himself rather than publishers, but despite his considerable talent this may have led to his work being neglected since his death in the mid-70s. This novel was his fourth foray into the mystery genre and he never returned to it.

Possibly he was disappointed by the book's lack of commercial success, but it's a story that I found very enjoyable. And it is a bibliomystery. The hero is Donald Maitland, the young and rather naive owner of a provincial bookshop and lending library. He begins to suspect that customers are using his books as a means of passing secret messages. Is there a link to a local high-security establishment? He soon has spies on the brain.

There are plenty of witty references to the world of authorship and publishing. I loved the satiric account of a publisher's letter breaking bad news to the hapless author Bernie Stredder, a splendid comic character with a darker side. The plot is rather wacky, but there's a good trial scene and plenty of swift but engaging characterisation. John Cooper, no mean judge, rates this book highly. And now I've finally read it, so do I. 

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Disappearance at Clifton Hill - 2019 film review

I have vivid memories of my one and only trip to Niagara Falls. It was on a coach trip from the Toronto Bouchercon a few years back and although the weather was a bit iffy, the company was splendid and the Falls were magnificent. Since then I've enjoyed watching the old film Niagara and now I've also taken a look at a recent movie set around the Falls - Disappearance at Clifton Hill

The story begins with a family outing in rural Canada. A young girl is shocked to see a boy with a patch over one eye, who is clearly terrified. Then she witnesses his abduction. She tells the story, but nobody believes her. We then fast forward to the present. The girl is Abby, played by none other than Tuppence Middleton. Her sister is Laure (Hannah Gross). Their parents have died and a rather slimy lawyer has brokered a deal under which they sell their failing motel to a family called Lake, who own most of the little town.

Abby has gained a reputation, not least with her sister, for being a compulsive liar, so when she starts to reinvestigate the mysterious abduction, she gets little sympathy from anyone. A local conspiracy theorist called David Bell (David Cronenberg, perhaps better known as a director), seems more helpful. He is deeply suspicious of the Lakes and soon Abby discovers a connection between the boy she saw and a pair of stage magicians called the Magnificent Moulins.

The plot thickens nicely from then on. This is a well-made film and it boasts a final twist that came as a genuine surprise to me. Often these days, movie twists of that kind are rather meretricious but on the whole I think this one works well. This isn't as renowned a film as, say, Shutter Island, but I enjoyed it at least as much.

Monday, 22 May 2023

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery - 2022 film review

I enjoyed Knives Out, a nice escapist whodunit. In commenting on my blog post about the film, the eminent critic Michael Dirda made some accurate criticisms of the plot, but like me he didn't let them spoil his pleasure too much. The success of the film meant that a sequel was inevitable and this takes the form of Glass Onion, in which Daniel Craig reprises his role as Benoit Blanc, the greatest detective in the world.

I feel that Glass Onion differs from Knives Out in two key respects. First, the set-up is even better. I was definitely gripped. Second, the film loses its way badly - in my opinion - in the latter stages. The mystery was easy to solve and the resolution excessively drawn out. 

Miles Bron, a tech billionaire, invites five associates to a murder game party on his private Greek island. Their challenge is to solve his murder. Blanc also turns up, but Bron denies having invited him. Another guest is Cassandra, whom Bron removed from the business and subsequently defeated in litigation. It's clear from the outset that he cheated her and it also emerges that the other guests have motives to commit murder. However, when someone dies, surprise, surprise (or perhaps not!) - the victim isn't Miles. And then someone else is shot...

So far, so good. Edward Norton, as Bron, is convincingly odious. But we then get a very extended flashback which gives a very different perspective on the events as they have been presented to us so far. To a degree, this is quite clever, but it also tests credulity to the limits and beyond. Given that, at this point, most mystery fans will have figured out what is really going on (the central trick can be found in a couple of Agatha Christie novels), I began to lose interest. A pity, but perhaps writer and director Rian Johnson simply got carried away. 

Friday, 19 May 2023

Forgotten Book - The Mendip Mystery

Lynn Brock (the main pen-name of the Irish novelist and playwright Allister McAllister) was a major figure in Golden Age detection and his character Colonel Wyckham Gore was, for a time, one of the leading fictional detectives in a crowded field. Brock's mysteries were convoluted and often ingenious, but although the quality of his writing was a cut above the average, his work soon faded from sight.

His strengths and his weaknesses are on display in The Mendip Mystery, published in 1929 and known as Murder at the Inn in the United States. Gore is asked by a chap called Stanton to look into the whereabouts of a woman who has been missing for many years. I found it rather astonishing that Gore didn't press for an explanation as to why his client wanted to track her down and this omission does rather haunt the story.

Anyway, off he goes to the south west, only to pick up another job. He stays at a very seedy inn, the sardonically named Bower of Bliss, and encounters two beautiful young women. Before long, all manner of dark deeds are taking place. At times it isn't easy to keep track of what's going on, and in due course some very lengthy explanations - a Brock trademark - are required, in order for us to understand fully all that has occurred.

There are some unorthodox ingredients, including a rare example of the murder of a child (rather horribly suffocated under a load of gravel - Brock was quite a tough writer) as well as some that are more commonplace and some (notably an account of escapees from an asylum) that definitely haven't stood the test of time. In particular, the ending is highly unusual. 

It's not really a spoiler to say that the main culprit gets away with it, because Brock wrote a follow-up novel called Q.E.D., aka Murder on the Bridge, in which he revealed all. This was a daring experiment, followed up in rather lamentable fashion, a few years later by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole in another pair of novels, 'the Pendexter Saga'. Brock's endeavour is more successful, and I admire his ambition. He is one of those authors whose books are flawed but more interesting than many a smoothly accomplished formulaic whodunit.