Monday, 29 September 2014

Cilla - ITV episode 3 review

Cilla, the final episode of which aired this evening, has been ITV's most successful drama since Broadchurch. It's not a crime show, but I've really enjoyed it, not least because it's offered a wonderful recreation of the Merseybeat era, which formed the backdrop for my personal favourite of the Harry Devlin novels, Yesterday's Papers. A framed cover of the book still hangs, I'm told, in the Cavern Club, and the original Cavern was where Cilla Black made her name in the Sixties.

The success of the show, scripted by Jeff Pope, owes a huge amount to Sheridan Smith's performance as Cilla. She's such a warm, entrancing actor, and her singing is fantastic. At the end of episode two, her performance of Cilla's first number one hit, Anyone Who Had a Heart, was stunningly good. So good, n fact, that it seems to have propelled Cilla's original version (itself a cover of Dionne Warwick's version, written and produced by Bacharach and David) back into the Top 40 after so many years.

The story is a simple one - a Liverpool girl with a powerful voice overcomes obstacles to find fame and fortune - but edge was added in this episode by the focus on her manager, Brian Epstein, whose life spirals out of control as he struggles to combine looking after Cilla and the Beatles with a sequence of personal disasters. Tom Stoppard's son Ed was very good as Epstein.

I loved the recreation of Cilla's famous recording of Alfie, with Burt Bacharach demanding take after take in his quest for the perfection he took for granted with Dionne .As the Youtube version of the original session at Abbey Road shows, it was quite an occasion. Cilla was certainly lucky to have the chance to record two of the finest pop ballads ever written, but she made the most of her good fortune.

At the end of episode three, I was left marvelling at the range and ability of Sheridan Smith. I'm often asked which actor I'd like to play Hannah Scarlett, in the (perhaps unlikely) event that the Lake District Mysteries ever make it to the small screen. After watching Cilla, I'd certainly say that Sheridan Smith would have a place on my list of ideal candidates. To quote from another great song, I can dream, can't I?.  

Susan Hill - Who cares if a book is by a male or female author?

Saturday saw the publication in The Times of an exceptionally interesting article by Susan Hill on the subject of whether an author's gender is relevant. I'm linking to the article, but as it's behind a paywall, perhaps I should summarise some of her argument. She contends that gender is essentially irrelevant to the appreciation of literature, and points out that, although she has often written in the first person from a male perspective, doubts are sometimes expressed about men writing as women, and vice versa. As she puts it, "A novel is the work of the imagination. Where is the gender there?"

This is a topic that I've often mused over. When I started writing, I wrote exclusively from a male point of view, but as my confidence grew, I started to branch out. I've written various short stories from female (and in one case, gay male) perspectives, as well as many scenes in the Lake District Mysteries. In the novel I'm writing at the moment, many key scenes are presented from the perspective of a rather enigmatic woman, and I'm finding these very satisfying to write, although they aren't easy (to say why would be too much of a spoiler...) As Hill suggests, part of the pleasure of writing about this woman is the challenge to my imagination - to try to think myself into her life, which is so very different from mine. Equally, I loved writing Dancing for the Hangman, when I had to think myself into the mindset of Dr Crippen.

In essence, I agree with Susan Hill. That said, she and I may not be in a majority. Plenty of people evidently take a different view - and I did find some of the comments on her article rather depressing (often true with online comments on press articles, admittedly.) One male commenter said he didn't believe, in general, that a woman writer could empathise with him. He felt that women's outlook, experiences, and sympathies were generally not the same as his. I suppose my response would be - that may be so, but why does it preclude a woman from trying to think herself into a man's mindset, different as it may be in very many respects? Isn't that element of imagination integral to the novelist's craft?

One positive comment cited the great Ruth Rendell as a good example of someone who often writes beautifully from a male point of view. I very much agree, though I'd add that many of her male characters are highly unusual people, and their masculinity is sometimes not a key feature of their personalities. Just possibly, Ruth Rendell may not know much about, or have much empathy for, 'ordinary blokes' who go to the pub and follow the football avidly, but it doesn't matter, because she is not writing about them, but about strange and troubled young men who sometimes slip into a murderous madness. It's certainly never bothered me in the least that she is a woman writing about men. There's something eerily credible about her characters, however bizarre their behaviour. The same was true of Patricia Highsmith, creator of Tom Ripley, and there are many other examples.

Anyway, I continue to mull over the arguments - and I'd be extremely interested to learn your views.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Forgotten Book - For Murder Will Speak

J. J. Connington was a leading light of British Golden Age detective fiction, although in the post-war era, his reputation declined and until recently, most of his books were hard to find.. He was an interesting writer, and although some aspects of his work are very dated, he wrote a number of unusual novels with ingenious plots, and was a strong believer in 'playing fair' with his readers. He is the author of today's Forgotten Book, For Murder Will Speak, which was originally published in 1938.

This was the novel he wrote immediately after the very disappointing Truth Comes Limping, and my expectations were none too high. There's a widespread view that his best work was done earlier in his career,before ill-health began to dog him. But as with The Four Defences, I felt that this book had much to commend it. And it features poison pen letters, a subject dealt with very enjoyably in recent posts on the admirable Clothes in Books blog.

The viewpoint to begin with is that of a businessman called Hyson, a nasty piece of work who messes about with female subordinates as well as with the firm's finances. It soon becomes clear that he is one of those Golden Age characters who is destined for an unpleasant end, but the structure of the book is unusual, and although a couple of deaths occur, it's not clear whether either or both of them are murders. Connington's usual detective, Sir Clinton Driffield, eventually comes into the story and sets about untangling a complicated web.

As so often with Connington, the technical complications and focus on fair play mean that it's not terribly difficult to figure out who is sending the poisoned pen letters, or who is responsible (directly or indirectly) for Hyson's death. But I found the story engaging and readable, even though I was rather taken aback by one of the plot strands (which to quote a review on the GAdetection site involves "a woman whose nymphomania has been corrected through a glandular adjustment".). All a bit odd, and reflecting Connington's attitudes, which were not exactly modern or progressive. As a result, the book ranks as something of a curiosity - but to my mind, an under-rated one.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

On the Christie Trail

A family gathering in Wallingford took me to Oxfordshire for a long week-end, and gave me the chance to explore this pleasant English market town on Saturday afternoon. I'd had my eye on the second hand bookshop there, which has some very interesting books indeed, although I exercised uncharacteristic restraint. What I hadn't expected was to stumble across a local festival celebrating Agatha Christie, or to more or less gatecrash a book signing by Lucy Worsley.

The reason why Wallingford should take a special interest in Christie wasn't anything to do with the publication of Sophie Hannah's new Poirot novel. Christie lived in the town for over 40 years, and the locals have decided to make the most of the connection. And why not? Christie is as popular as ever, and the events seemed to have attracted plenty of people. I was impressed by the local museum, which had an excellent little exhibition, including people's personal memories of Christie. As usual, she was regarded as a quiet but very amiable woman, and there was a rather moving account of her kindness to a young girl who fell ill.

Christie's house backed on to the river, as does the house we were visiting. Her house had its own boathouse, and an enjoyable feature of the family gathering was a walk along the river bank on a wonderful September Sunday, with the sun shining as if it was the height of summer. Christie was very fond of her more famous home, Greenway in Devon, but I can certainly see why she also enjoyed Wallingford.

I stayed in Dorchester on Thames, a pretty village three or four miles away. Some scenes in Midsomer Murders have been shot there, and I did wonder if Christie had it in mind when she wrote about places like St Mary Mead. Suffice to say that this is a quintessentially English part of the world. One of the pleasures of my trip was to be reminded of Dame Agatha's enduring appeal. And incidentally, on the way home, I enjoyed looking round Evesham, and discovering this Victorian hearse. They don't make 'em like they used to...

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Driver - BBC 1 tv review

The Driver, which began on BBC 1 tonight, opens with a car chase. It's not exactly Bullitt, and not only because the setting is Manchester, but no matter. The chap behind the wheel, fleeing the police, is David Morrissey, one of the most charismatic British actors, and these scenes makes for gripping viewing - a really good start to Danny Brocklehurst's three-part series. There's something in his boot that the driver doesn't want the cops to find - but what is it? When Morrissey finally makes good his escape, the action goes back in time by four weeks, and we learn what has led up to the chase.

Morrissey's character, Vince, is introduced to as a regular guy, a taxi driver with a pretty wife who is more interested in running marathons than their marriage, and an extremely pretty daughter whose taste in boyfriends dismays him. He works hard to make ends meet, but it isn't easy. His fares are rude and unpleasant, and his closest friend is a chap (nicely played by Ian Hart) who has just come out of prison after serving six years.

Vince is bored and depressed, and looking for something better out of life. His mate takes him to play poker with a philosophy-spouting gangster, who is keen to recruit a new driver who is reliable and doesn't ask awkward questions. He makes Vince an offer that is quickly refused, but before long, Vince has second thoughts. And, of course, his first job for the bad guy is easy, and well remunerated. But we know that things will go rapidly downhill from there.

And so they do. I thought the script well-written, with a few genuinely witty lines, and although the development of the story was rather predictable, it was done so capably that I didn't mind. Above all, though, Morrissey turns in a compelling performance - he really is at the top of his form at the moment. I'll definitely be watching again next week, and Morrissey is the main reason why.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Call - film review

Halle Berry is such an appealing actor that she improves any film in which she appears. This is just as well, as she's appeared in some rather poor movies over the years, as well as a number of good ones. The Call, which first hit the cinemas last year, ranks as a good one in my book, even though it's had mixed reviews, partly because the story changes for the worst in the latter stages.

Berry plays a senior operator working in a 911 emergency call centre. This is a fascinating setting. I was once lucky enough to be given a guided tour of an ambulance headquarters, and I was hugely impressed by the calm efficiency of the staff working on the emergency phones. It can be a stressful job, and when our heroine takes a call from a young blonde-haired girl who is abducted and then murdered, she blames herself - a mistaken reaction, but a very human one.

Six months later, another call come in from a blonde-haired teenager (played by Abigail Breslin). She too has been abducted -in a car park, by a mysterious character played by Michael Eklund, and has been bundled into the boot of the bad guy's car. He does not, however, take the precaution, of removing her mobile phone, and the tension builds as Berry talks Breslin through a series of escapades designed to attract attention so that the police can rescue her. But things go badly wrong, and Eklund murders two men who happen to get in his way.

I thought these scenes were gripping, but the film falters somewhat when Berry, having finished her shift, decides to play detective and track down Breslin herself. Very unwise! Eklund's behaviour becomes increasingly deranged, and towards the end, The Call turns into a common or garden slasher movie, although the ending is quite neatly done. Overall, I enjoyed the film. Not a masterpiece, but well worth a watch.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Forgotten Book - Mystery in Kensington Gore

My Forgotten Book for today is one of a stack of novels written in the early Thirties by Philip MacDonald. He was at that time so productive that he used a pseudonym for some of his non-series work, and Mystery in Kensington Gore was written under the alias of Martin Porlock. It's a stand-alone thriller, rather than a classic whodunit, and there are signs that it was written quickly and carelessly. Yet it also displays some of MacDonald's characteristic strengths.

First and foremost, he was a really good story-teller. This book opens with a man called Peter Craven, down on his luck, and breaking in to a London house for a bite to eat. Things take an unexpected turn after he falls asleep and, on waking, encounters a young woman called Frances. It turns out that they are sharing the house with a recently murdered man, Frances' stepfather. Frances is terrified that she will be accused of his murder, and persuades Craven to take the body away and dump it somewhere. This he does - but before long, the body reappears in the house...

I thought this was a terrific spin on the classic "vanishing body" plot. Horrified, Peter and Frances make a run for it, but soon the police are in hot pursuit. After a series of escapades, the pair start (rather belatedly, if you ask me) to try to puzzle out who has really committed the murder, and why. There is one likely suspect, but is the truth more complex? The answer is yes, but there aren't as many twists as I'd hoped for.

This book was written a few years before MacDonald left the UK for Hollywood, but it is a good example of the filmic style of his writing. The storyline is strongly reminiscent of Hitchcock's much-loved and often-used plot device - the ordinary man (and woman) trying to flee from both the forces of evil and the authorities. I thought it was well done, although it's only fair to mention that one Golden Age expert, with whose judgments I often agree,considered the book to be "utter tripe". Well, we are all entitled to our own opinions. I enjoyed this story, even though the climax was rather flimsy, with a detailed written confession that smacks of lazy and hurried writing. Certainly, the reader needs to suspend disbelief somewhat. But that's true of many lively thrillers, is it not?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

When In Sicily....

Sicily is, understandably, associated in many people's minds with the Mafia, and the short story I was researching on my recent visit there does have a ("sort of") Mafia connection. Yet I have to admit that I've never read The Godfather, and have only seen the first of the famous films based on Mario Puzo's books, and that was so long ago I've forgotten most of it. However, I'm tempted to give The Godfather book and film a go now. During my trip, I visited the incredible Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the third biggest theatre in Europe, where the final scenes of the third of the movies were filmed.

Nearby is the cathedral where the priest Pino Puglisi, who was killed by the gangsters and later beatified, is movingly remembered. This is a reminder that, for all the jokes cracked about mafiosi, they are shockingly violent people who have to be taken seriously and tackled with the full force of the law. Not that this seems to happen often enough, from what I was told.

Since my return, I've been recommending friends who haven't visited Sicily to give it a go. There are many archaeological treasures, and we visited many of them, including the tomb of Archimedes and a Roman villa with the best mosaics I've ever seen outside Ravenna. A boat trip around Ortiega was swiftly followed by a call at the church which is home to Caravaggio's masterpiece The Burial of St Lucy. And then there was perhaps the greatest highlight of all - a trip up Mount Etna, by coach, then cable car, then jeep, then on foot. An amazing experience, which reinforced my fascination with volcanoes. One day I mean to write a story with a literally volcanic setting.

The Montalbano novel I read on Sicily was The Scent of the Night, first published just over a decade ago. It's a light tale - the author admits it himself - about the disappearance of a swindler. I figured out what was going on at a fairly early stage, but the gentle humour and strong sense of place kept me reading  I can easily understand why Montalbano is so popular, although my own preference is for less whimsical mysteries than this one. It was, however, a perfectly pleasant complement to a memorable week on a truly beautiful island..


Monday, 15 September 2014

The Island of Montalbano and the Mafia

I'm just back from a week in one of my favourite countries, Italy. Rome, Bologna, Florence and above all Venice rank very high in my list of top city destinations, but this time I was returning to Sicily, an island I've visited briefly as a cruise stop in the past. Having liked it so much, I wanted to sample more of its delights, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. The airport at Catania seemed hopelessly disorganised, but the character and charm of Sicily make the whole place irresistibly appealing. And it is full of history; the trip began with a visit to the stunning Valley of the Temples.

Whilst there's a lot to be said for exploring places on your own, I went as part of a group, and this proved to be very enjoyable. I certainly wouldn't have fancied doing battle with some of the hair-raising mountainous lanes, and at one point our bus almost collided with a (presumably British) driver who was cruising along on the wrong side of the road.. This was just below the wonderful town of Taormina, which boasts not only an ancient amphitheatre, but wonderful gardens with quite magical follies. Higher still is the village of Castelmora, with a ruined castle and fascinating church.

As all crime fans know, Sicily is renowned as the base of the Mafia, and more recently it has benefited from association with the Inspector Montalbano mysteries written by Andrea Camilleri and successfully adapted for television. There are now "Inspector Montalbano tours", just as there are "Inspector Morse tours" in Oxford, although this particular crime-related diversion didn't form part of the package. Another time, perhaps.

For a writer, visiting somewhere like Sicily is inspiring not only in general terms, but also in some more specific ways. I tried to learn quite a bit about the island, as I'm working on a story set there, and I also met a number of people whose stories I found engrossing. It was an action -packed week, but I managed to read three novels - one of them a Montalbano. The other two are future entries in the Forgotten Books series. One was very good, the other, sad to say, rather turgid. But my trip to Sicily was anything but turgid. How about this for a view from the hotel room's balcony, where I did most of that reading?


Friday, 12 September 2014

Forgotten Book - The Shortest Way to Hades

It's clear from reaction to my recent comments on this blog about the late Sarah Caudwell that, despite the short and far from prolific nature of her career, she retains many admirers. I'm certainly among them. Sarah died more than fourteen years ago, but she definitely should not be forgotten. So I'm following up last week's post about her debut novel with some thoughts on the follow-up, The Shortest Way to Hades. This was first published in 1985, although Sarah published only one more novel in the last fifteen years of her life. Perhaps a case of writer's block? A great deal of intensity went into writing her complicated and witty novels, and although the effect is very smooth, this was - as usual - the product of much hard work.

This novel is again narrated by Professor Hilary Tamar (male or female? we are never told) in Sarah's witty, wordy and intelligent way, and again features a likeable group of young barristers from Lincoln's Inn. Sarah also makes good use of letters as a means of conveying plot information, and offers a gorgeous continental background, in this case Corfu,as a counterpoint to the London legal world where much of the story takes place. She even introduces a cricket match into the story - shades of Dorothy L. Sayers and Murder Must Advertise.

The story concerns a legal issue that is right up the street of Chancery barristers like Sarah and her charactes -a tax avoidance scheme designed to assist the beneficiaries of a multi-million pound family trust. A cousin called Deirdre demands a large amount of money for her consent (I didn't think this was quite as unreasonable as some of the characters seemed to do, I must say) and makes herself deeply unpopular. Then Deirdre suffers a fatal accident while the family is watching the Boat Race. But was it an accident?

Well, we can guess the answer to that question, but solving the detail of the mystery is quite a challenge. The clues are supplied, but are concealed with great skill and no little cunning. Once more, Hilary's mastery of the more arcane aspects of legal scholarship supplies the vital leads to what is really going on. When I re-read this book recently, I found it just as much of a joy to read as I did back in the 80s. If you are a Golden Age fan, I am pretty confident you will enjoy this book.