Monday, 6 July 2020

If You Can Walk With Kings by David Ian Chapman

Chapman David Ian - AbeBooks

William Le Queux was a famous name in his day, a bestseller whose influence extended far beyond his readers. It may be argued that his warnings about the threat of invasion in the period leading up the First World War was of great benefit and may have led, at least indirectly, to the creation of the modern British secret service. For most of the past century, however, his reputation has been in serious and sustained decline.

David Ian Chapman has set out a revisionist view in If You Can Walk With Kings: a view of William Le Queux, seeking to put forward a more balanced assessment of a writer and public figure who was undoubtedly a talented entertainer. Like many writers, he lived a great deal in his imagination, and his liking for fiction extended to accounts of his own life. I've never, for instance, found his account of an encounter with Dr Crippen plausible, and David Chapman doesn't cover it in this book, perhaps for that reason.

But he does cover a great deal, and in an accessible style. The text is supplemented with illustrations, some of them in full colour, as well as extensive quotations from Le Queux's correspondence. A good deal of painstaking research has gone into this book, but even more importantly, David Chapman has thought carefully about his subject, and has avoided the trap of simply repeating the standard criticisms of Le Queux.

At the same time, he doesn't overlook the man's faults. Le Queux's personal life was complicated,and although he made a great deal of money, he also spent extravagantly. As a result, he was declared bankrupt. He is best-remembered as a leading proponent of "invasion fiction", but as this book explains, he was highly prolific and wrote detective fiction as well as thrillers. I found this a very interesting and readable study, a nicely produced paperback from Janus Publishing which first came out four years ago.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Forgotten Book - Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke

When I was about thirteen or so, a friend of mine, knowing of my interest in detective stories, lent me a copy of a novel by R.Austin Freeman that belonged to his family. I took a look at the first page, but found the style off-putting. I never got any further and in the end I gave the book back. But a little while later, another schoolfriend lent me an omnibus volume of Freeman's short stories about Dr Thorndyke, and I found that much more to my taste. (Yes, I was lucky in my schoolfriends, wasn't I?) Ever since then, I've had a soft spot for Austin Freeman.

The novel that I failed to persevere with was Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke, and I've finally got round to reading it. And guess what? This time, I rather enjoyed it. It's one of those books with two distinct plot strands which eventually come together. The early pages are narrated by a likeable young fellow called Jasper Grey who gets involved in some mysterious goings-on, while the puzzle put before Dr Thorndyke concerns the inexplicable disappearance of Sir Edward Hardcastle.

Austin Freeman is often described, and fairly, as a major figure of the Golden Age, but several factors differentiate his work from that of, say, Dorothy L. Sayers (who greatly admired him) and Agatha Christie. He was an older person who came to prominence as a writer in the Edwardian era, and there is an old-fashioned feel about his prose and dialogue. This is partly why I was deterred from reading this book originally, and helps to explain why Julian Symons famously (if too harshly) compared reading Freeman to "chewing dry straw". There's also a whiff of antisemitism about some of the language used; whether that reflects Freeman's thinking or simply the attitudes of his characters, I'm not sure, but I suspect the former. Another issue is that Freeman's great interest lay in the meticulous scientific and technical accuracy of his criminal and investigative schemes. So if you're looking for "least likely person" whodunits, you won't get much joy from a book like this. His ingenuity was of a very different sort to Christie's.

Yet despite these reservations, I found myself being more entertained by this book than I'd expected. It's not a masterpiece, and I don't even suggest that it's one of Freeman's best books. But it's a bit out of the ordinary and that's no bad thing. I'm glad that, after so many years, I finally got to the end of it.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Nothing But the Night - 1973 film review

Nothing But the Night is a curious film with a first-class pedigree and an outstanding cast. It's fair to say that the whole is less than the sum of its considerable parts, but I found it watchable and interesting, despite several significant flaws. It's a film that spans more than one genre: crime, sci-fi, and horror all play a part. Overall, though (and I'm trying to avoid spoilers here), it would be a stretch to describe it as a crime film.

The stars are Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, two actors who were never less than watchable. In fact, this was the film that Lee made just before The Wicker Man, and there's one scene which has slight Wicker Man aspects to it, although this movie doesn't compare in quality to Anthony Shaffer's classic. Lee here plays a retired senior cop called Bingham, who is convinced that there is a connection between three recent deaths.

Those deaths get the film off to a dramatic start. They are all incidents which are designed to appear as accidents, but the viewer knows from the start that they are murders. It turns out that all three victims are trustees of an orphanage on a Scottish island. In fact, when I first saw a brief synopsis of this film, I did wonder if the story might bear a resemblance to Gallows Court. It's always irritating when you come up with an idea, and then find someone else had the same notion years earlier! But I needn't have worried. Suffice to say that it is a very, very different sort of story.

The script was written by Bryan Hayles, who was an accomplished exponent of sci-i, and based on a novel by John Blackburn, whose work did span several genres. The cast includes Keith Barron, Georgia Brown (better known perhaps as a singer), Diana Dors (a very over-the-top performance), Fulton McKay, and a young Michael Gambon. The soundtrack was written by Malcolm Williamson, later the Master of the Queen's Music. With all that talent involved, one would have hoped for a less uneven film than this, but it's not bad entertainment. 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Forgotten Book - The Little Lie

While I was reading Jean Potts' The Little Lie, I must confess that for quite a while I was in two minds about it. On the one hand, Potts's prose is very readable and I know that two excellent judges of a crime novel (John Norris and Kate Jackson) rate this story highly. On the other hand, I felt that the narrative was so low-key, I simply wasn't too excited about what was going to happen. But as I kept turning the pages, it began to dawn on me that this is, indeed, a top-class novel of suspense.

Suspense is the key word. Often, for example in the work of Cornell Woolrich or some of today's psychological thrillers, the author sets out to keep the suspense at fever pitch. This can work brilliantly, although sometimes it can also become rather exhausting. Jean Potts is at the other end of the spectrum, a quiet craftswoman who ratchets up the tension so gently that you hardly notice that you're being squeezed into a breathless state.

This book is one of two in another of those nicely produced volumes from Stark House Press, through whom I've discovered a number of gems lately. John Norris provides the introduction. The little lie of the title is told by Dee Morris, a landlady who has a bitter argument with her boyfriend, Chad. When Chad walks out on her, she pretends that nothing is wrong between them. However, the row has been overheard by one of her tenants, the nosey teacher Mr Fly.

Mr Fly is a great character, someone whose undeniable good intentions prove disastrous because they are accompanied by inquisitiveness and naivete. Potts draws him with great skill. For quite a long time, not a great deal happens, hence my initial reservations about the book. But a patient reader will reap a considerable reward. The later chapters are quite devastating. Definitely a novel to savour. I admit it - this is a book much subtler than at first I realised. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Lockdown Musings

The virus is still very much with us, but at least there are signs that British society is taking tentative steps back to some semblance of normality. And I'm continuing to do what I can to make good use of the time that I'd normally be devoting to events, festivals, and travel.

At present I'm working on revisions to the new Lake District Mystery, The Crooked Shore. I'm still reluctant to travel to the Lakes to do a final bit of scene-checking, but the book is now getting into reasonably good shape ahead of being sent to the editor. This one is rather different from earlier books in the series, with more emphasis on psychological suspense.

I've also been working on a couple of non-fiction projects, one of them speculative at present. More about these at a later date.

In the meantime, I've been doing what I can in terms of promotion, most recently on Monday, a Facebook Live chat with Mitzi Szereto about my essay on Dr Harold Shipman, the serial killer, "The First of Criminals":

And last but by no means least, I've been thrilled by a review of Mortmain Hall by A.N. Wilson, of all people. The Booker Prize-nominated author describes the book as: "an ingenious modern 'take' on the classic whodunnit...It's a winning formula...A whole page would not give me space to explain the intricacy of this story. A tangle of satisfying clues and a pleasing denouement in the classic Christie manner". Very pleased with that!

Monday, 22 June 2020

Collecting Richard Austin Freeman

Whilst I was researching The Golden Age of Murder, I corresponded with David Ian Chapman, who had been introduced to me by a mutual friend as someone very expert in the work of R. Austin Freeman, a crime writer admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, T.S. Eliot, and Raymond Chandler (and many others, but that's not a bad trio to start with...)

I've never met David, but the information he supplied me was very helpful. This included fascinating insight into Freeman's coded journal, extracts from which David allowed me to publish in the book. Our hope was that someone would come along and help to decipher it. This hasn't happened as yet - Freeman's code is tricky! But I live in hope.

Anyway, it's only recently that I've acquired a copy, inscribed by David, of his bibliography of Freeman and also his biography of another author he's very interested in, William Le Queux. Le Queux was a fascinating character and I am planning to devote a separate blog post to David's very enjoyable study of his extraordinary life.

In the meantime, I've enjoyed the Freeman book, because I've collected a number of the author's novels and David discusses them, and their background, in fascinating depth. He also explains how he came to collect Freeman's work, and if you fancy collecting a crime writer, what he has to say will be of special interest. I'm in regular correspondence with a number of collectors in different parts of the world and my impression is that interest in the older detective stories is growing.

The lovely illustrations in Collecting Richard Austin Freeman, some of them in full colour, are in themselves a delight. If you're interested in Austin Freeman, do take a look at David's book. It was published two years ago by Highfield Press.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Forgotten Book - The Broken Penny

Broken Penny : Julian Symons : 9780552082587

For all my admiration of Julian Symons as a novelist, as well as as critic and historian, one of his novels has always passed me by. Until now, that is. The book in question is The Broken Penny, first published in 1953, and Symons' only attempt at writing a political thriller. In the first edition of his Bloody Murder, Symons invited Edmund Crispin to comment about his writing, and Crispin - though positive generally - was less than enthusiastic about the book. I suppose that may have influenced me.

More recently, I discovered, to my surprise, that Symons had quite a soft spot for the novel, so I thought I'd give it a go. And I was even more surprised to discover that it's a good book, far superior to a good many thrillers I've come across. Interestingly, it seems that Symons based the central character, Charles Garden, very vaguely on George Orwell...

Garden is a man of 45, and has a history of political radicalism, although the war has left him somewhat disillusioned. It is the post-war period, when the map of Europe has been redrawn, and it seems that a small country - not named, but shaped like a broken penny - may offer a foothold for Britain and its allies who are concerned by the power of Russia. A man named Arbitzer from that country is now based in Britain, and he is seen as a suitable leader for a movement of insurgents.

Against his better judgement, Garden is persuaded to join Arbitzer and his family as they return to the Broken Penny, but the planned revolution rapidly unravels. A tale of one double-cross after another unfolds. It's all done rather excitingly, and it's not like any other Symons novel. I was impressed. The Broken Penny is a book of its time, but it's an entertaining story which deserves to be better known.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The Salisbury Poisonings - BBC TV

Salisbury is a wonderful city that I've visited many times over the years. My last trip combined the pleasure of seeing family members based there with an appearance at Salisbury Literature Festival, and an overnight stay in the lovely Cathedral Close. But it was an unusual visit, because Salisbury was at that time in the process of recovering from a chemical weapons attack by a foreign power.

This was the extraordinary case of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a Russian father and daughter, who were found on a bench at the Maltings suffering from what proved to be Novichok, one of the deadliest substances on earth. Sergei Skripal was a former spy who had been the subject of an exchange deal with Russia eight years earlier and had made a new life in Salisbury. The Skripals eventually recovered well enough to leave hospital, and apparently they are now living under new identities elsewhere in the world. Another innocent victim was police officer Nick Bailey. A couple who touched a discarded perfume container, which had held the Novichok, were less fortunate. Charlie Rowley gave the perfume to Dawn Sturgess; Dawn died and Charlie continues to suffer the after-effects. The killers have never been brought to justice.

The BBC have just shown a three-part series about the case, written by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn. The focus of this version was on the handling of the public health crisis occasioned by the poisonings. Anne-Marie Duff gave her usual professional performance as the public health director whose quick thinking averted even more casualties. Rafe Spall was an empathetic Nick Bailey, while MyAnna Buring did a good job as Dawn Sturgess. Another high-calibre actor, Mark Addy, was given a small part as a friend of the Skripals.

The human cost of this tragedy, the horrific 'collateral damage' if you like, was huge, and that was the theme of the series. As far as it went, the script was competent and at times affecting. However, there were yawning gaps in the story. We learned practically nothing about the Skripals, since the people who were actually targeted by the killers hardly featured. Addy's character, for instance, told us very little about them, and I found this frustrating. What of their human tragedy? The writers ignored it. Maybe this was inevitable in the circumstances, but if you choose to write about such a case, it seems odd to discount the people at the heart of it. As a result, The Salisbury Poisonings felt like a story half-told. 

Monday, 15 June 2020

H.R.F. Keating - A Life of Crime

H.R.F. Keating: A Life of Crime by [Sheila Mitchell]

There aren't many authors who publish their first book at the age of 94. And I bet there are even fewer whose debut is such a lively read as H.R.F. Keating: a Life in Crime, the biography of a notable crime writer and critic. But then the author in question, Sheila Mitchell, is quite a special individual. She's the ideal person to write the book, since she is Harry Keating's widow. And what is more, she is a very readable writer.

Harry Keating was an author I enjoyed reading long before I got to meet him. He was a highly successful novelist, winning two Gold Daggers as well as the Diamond Dagger. He was just as good as a short story writer. And I was a particularly big fan of his non-fiction, in particular his book  Writing Crime Fiction, a pithy piece of work, and one of the very best of innumerable how-to-do-it books, along with that marvellous compendium of information about the genre, Whodunit? If Julian Symons was Britain's leading crime fiction critic in the second half of the twentieth century, Harry was unquestionably the runner-up.

Sheila's book had the misfortune (believe me, quite a few of us know this feeling!) to be published during lockdown, and thus to emerge into the daylight without a formal launch, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable and informative study, published by one of the rising small presses in the US, Level Best Books. I first read the manuscript a few years ago, on Sheila's home computer, while staying at the lovely home she shared with Harry for more than half a century and I'm thrilled that it's now seeing the light of day.

There's an intro by the great Len Deighton, and (but don't let this put you off!) an appendix which is an essay by me. I wrote it in connection with Harry's being International Guest of Honour at Malice Domestic, back in 2005 and I remember with pleasure being invited to join him and Sheila on their table at the big gala dinner. Level Best has a strong connection with Malice Domestic, and so they do seem to me to be ideal publishers for this book.

What of the book itself? It's affectionate and entertaining and gives wonderful insights into the ups and downs of the crime writing life. As you read, you experience the frustrations as well as the pleasures that Harry experienced as a full-time author over the years, and this is salutary. Because he was a figure of great distinction in the crime writing world, not only in the UK but far and wide. Yet things didn't always run smoothly and Sheila explains this in a very balanced and thought-provoking way.

There are lots of interesting tit-bits. For instance, one thing I didn't know was that Harry wrote the novelisation of Neil Simon's Murder by Death. That must have been a fascinating project - it's a book I've never seen, but I now feel I really must seek it out. (I'm a big Neil Simon fan as well as a Keating fan.)

I hope this book will draw even more attention to Harry's very varied output; it certainly should. As for Sheila, her energy and determination to see this project through is entirely admirable. I'm so pleased, both for her and for Harry, that this delightful book is now available at last.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Forgotten Book - Possession

Celia Fremlin was by no means a prolific novelist, but I've never read a book of hers that failed to impress me. When I spotted a paperback copy of Possession in a second hand shop, therefore, I snapped it up. The novel was published in 1969, and although it's not her best-known book, I found myself gripped as soon as I started reading.

The story is narrated by Clare Erskine, a married woman with two daughters who lives in London and enjoys nothing better than a gossip and scoring points off her friends. Fremlin portrays Clare cleverly, making clear her shallowness, and the gulf between her perceptions and reality, yet in a way that creates genuine sympathy for her.

Clare is thrilled when her older daughter, nineteen year old Sarah, breaks the news that after worrying her mother with a string of unsuitable boyfriends, she plans to get married to Mervyn Redmayne, an accountant. But when Clare boasts to her friends, she starts to learn things about Mervyn and in particular his mother which give her some cause for concern. Clare being Clare, she brushes off any worries, but it soon becomes evident that there is something deeply unhealthy about Mrs Redmayne's personality.

The title of the book is also its theme. Fremlin is very good at conveying the nature of possessiveness of various kinds, and the harm it can do. Her skill at social observation is outstanding and we get a splendid insight into middle-class London life at the end of the Swinging Sixties. There is much brilliance in this novel, although I must say that I felt the final part of the story did not make the most of the set-up she created. Had it done so, I would have classed this book as a masterpiece of psychological suspense. It's not quite outstanding, but it's very enjoyable, and in its quiet way very dark.