Friday, 27 March 2020

Forgotten Book - Stairway to an Empty Room

Dolores Hitchens is a writer I haven't read until recently. Thanks to Stark House Press, who have reprinted Stairway to an Empty Room and Terror Lurks in Darkness, I've now had a chance to make her acquaintance. This volume, with a useful intro by Nicholas Litchfield, brings together two stand-alone suspense novels she published in the early 1950s.

By that time, she was already a highly experienced crime writer. Born in Texas in 1907, her full married name was Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens, if Wikipedia is to be believed. She was married more than once, admittedly, but has any crime writer ever had so many names? One thing is for sure - she wrote even more books than she had names, sometimes under pseudonym D.B. Olsen. 

And those books were very varied, ranging from classic detective fiction to psychological suspense and pretty much everything in between. She even dabbled in the western. One of her novels, Fool's Gold, was filmed by none other than Jean-Luc Godard, as Band of Outsiders. Sleep with Strangers and Sleep with Slander are perhaps her best-known titles, but inevitably she has rather faded from view since her death in 1973.

On the strength of Stairway to an Empty Room, I can say she was a good writer, definitely a cut above the average, with a neat turn of phrase and a real interest in characterisation. This is an intriguing story, which begins with Monica taking charge of her niece after her sister has apparently been murdered by her husband. But the little girl doesn't believe that her father is guilty...

At first I thought this would develop into a typical clock-race story, as Monica - despite her reservations about both her sister and the man she married - tries to find out the truth, but in fact it's more unusual than that, with a nice couple of plot twists towards the end. Stark House Press have done us a favour by making this book available again in a new, attractive, and affordable edition. I've been reading several of their titles recently, including Ruth Fenisong's Deadlock, a story with a neat twist.  

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Under the Skin - 2013 film review

In these strange and unprecedented times, I may publish a few more blog posts than usual in the hope of keeping loyal readers entertained. I'll also talk a bit more about Mortmain Hall, which is due to be published on 2 April. I had many promotional events lined up for this week and for months to come, but of course these have all fallen by the wayside. I hope to make up for this, to some extent, by other means and an extensive blog tour is planned. More about this shortly.

Now a memory from the days when authors did live events! At a literary festival in Tallinn a couple of years ago, I met the highly regarded novelist Michel Faber, who was one of the other speakers. He made some thought-provoking comments, and I decided that I'd look at one of his books, but I have to admit that I haven't as yet got round to doing so. However, I have recently caught up with a very interesting film based on one of his books, Under the Skin. It's directed by Jonathan Glazer, who co-wrote the script and who was known to me previously as director of Sexy Beast, with Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.

Under the Skin is, in a sense, a sci-fi movie, because the central character is an alien who takes human form. Since the particular form is that of Scarlett Johansson, she finds it easy to pick up lone men as she drives around Glasgow and rural Scotland in a white van. It's predictable that their excitement will turn to horror, and so it does. They finish up in...well, let's just say, a very, very unfortunate predicament.

This is a film that, at times, moves at a glacially slow pace. There's not much of a clear narrative thread, and you have to make your own mind up about what is going on. But it's not a spoiler, I don't think, to say that, as the film proceeds, Scarlett discovers a touch of empathy, whereas in some of the early scenes, for all her superficial charm of manner, she has none.

This is a bleak and unorthodox film, which is (I gather) very different from the book, which I definitely want to read when I get the chance. It won't appeal to everyone, and it certainly deserves to be watched more than once, because it's one of those films where you have to put in some work to discern meaning in the mysterious action. But I must say that I found it strangely compelling. It's not quite like any other film I've ever watched.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Michael Gilbert's The Empty House and The Thriller Theory

As a committed Michael Gilbert fan, I hurried to borrow The Empty House from the library not long after it was published back in 1978. It was one of his thrillers rather than a police procedural or detective novel and I thought it was rather less memorable than much of his work, though I did rather like the evocative image (at the end of the book) that gives rise to the title.

Having managed to acquire a nice signed copy at long last, I decided it was time to try it again. I'd completely forgotten the story - other than that final scene. And once again I'm afraid I was slightly underwhelmed. What interests me is - why? This is a book written in Gilbert's characteristically lean style, with no wasted words. There are loads of fascinating ingredients. A missing person, who may or may not be dead, a likeable hero (one of the very few loss adjusters in crime fiction, young Peter Manciple), a glamorous femme fatale who is responsible for Peter's sexual initiation, biological warfare, spies, soldiers, action, a good Exmoor setting, a dodgy archaeologist, an apparent suicide, an enigmatic solicitor, a clue concerning property law - yes, you name it, this book has it.

Gilbert famously said that thriller writing is more difficult than writing a detective story. And he did write some very good thrillers. He was sometimes criticised for not focusing more on characterisation, but Peter Manciple is a very well-drawn individual. No, the problem lies elsewhere and concerns the story. Packed with incident though it is, I didn't really care enough about what was going to happen.

Maybe there are just too many ingredients in this book. The deaths of various minor characters don't register as much as they should do, because they are handled in such a matter-of-fact way that the emotional impact is negligible. I felt Gilbert could have made a lot more of them. Even the big plot twist at the end was one I didn't care as much about as I should have done.

Yet Peter's fate did matter to me as a reader, and that's why I remember the scene in the empty house, not all the supposedly more exciting stuff. Because Michael Gilbert was a supremely professional writer with a flair for thrillers (one reviewer, often quoted on his books, said he "understands the thriller theory to perfection") and he was never less than competent. The Empty House is decent entertainment but it still feels to me like a book which isn't quite the sum of its many parts.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Forgotten Book - The Crime against Marcella

I was prompted to seek out George Milner's The Crime Against Marcella, which dates from 1963, after reading a laudatory review by Francis Iles, who was no mean judge of a book. Milner was really George Hardinge, a noted publisher, who was the editor of (among many other crime writers) Julian Symons. He also edited the Winter's Crimes anthologies before handing over to Hilary Watson, aka Hilary Hale, another editor of distinction.

Milner was a good enough novelist to earn election to the Detection Club, and this book is fluently written. In a distant way, it seems to me to be an update for the Sixties of the type of ironic crime story in which Francis Iles himself specialised. The tone is reminiscent of that to be found in other crime books of similar vintage by the likes of John Bingham and Symons.

Milner plays a game with the structure of his story, while his title is ambiguous. The scene is set by internal memoranda from Scotland Yard, which discuss the disappearance and presumed murder of a young married woman called Marcella Pemberton, but the bulk of the novel is a first-person narrative by her husband. Jim Pemberton explains how he became besotted with Marcella, and the various complications that ensued from the fact that his best friend and business partner was equally interested in her.

I figured out the principal plot twist some time before the end of this short, snappy mystery, and my main reservation about the book is that it reads rather more like a novella than a full-length story. But it's agreeably written, and a good example of the way in which writers of the time were trying to update the conventional puzzle story with a focus on character and exploration of the nature of sexual repression and jealousy. An obscure book nowadays, but well worth reading. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Top Ten Escapist Crime Reads

As promised yesterday, here are ten escapist crime reads. I call it a "top ten" but my inner lawyer advises me to include, well, if not a disclaimer then at least a note of explanation! I've opted for books that are British (I may do more top tens with other criteria, for instance American books, if this little list finds favour), and easy to obtain, here if not everywhere. So I've excluded some great stories that are harder to find, such as Henry Wade's Heir Presumptive and Robert Player's The Ingenious Mr Stone. I've limited myself to one book per author (sorry, Agatha) and I've tried to inject some variety, so that these are not exclusively Golden Age stories or novels inspired by the Golden Age.

With that in mind, here goes:

Agatha Christie - Why Didn't They Ask Evans? a light-hearted mystery with a clever clue in the title and a likeable pair of amateur detectives.

Anthony Berkeley - The Poisoned Chocolates Case - a cerebral whodunit with six solutions, which must represent good value. Christianna Brand (whose own books make excellent escapist reading) and I both had the temerity at different times to come up with additional solutions, which can be found in the British Library reprint.

Dorothy L. Sayers - Murder Must Advertise - never mind the dodgy sub-plot, the main story is enjoyable, the advertising world wonderfully well evoked, and there's even a cricket match...

Michael Gilbert - Death Has Deep Roots - a consistently lively blend of courtroom drama and thriller, this is one of the best books of a writer I have always admired.

Donald Henderson - A Voice Like Velvet - a BBC radio announcer as a cat burglar! A great premise and good story from a very talented writer whose life and career were sadly cut short.

Cyril Hare- An English Murder - this Christmas mystery features an engaging sleuth in Dr Bottwink and a classic closed-circle setting.

Pamela Branch - The Wooden Overcoat - Branch was one of the most amusing crime writers of the 1950s, matched only by the excellent Colin Watson, and it's a shame that she only published a handful of books. This is probably the best of them.

Peter Lovesey - The False Inspector Dew - Peter's award-winning slant on the Crippen is characteristic of his entertaining and imaginative work. I've limited myself to just one living writer, which means no place for Simon Brett, Ruth Dudley Edwards, or L.C. Tyler, but all of them are splendid entertainers too.

Sarah Caudwell - Thus Was Adonis Murdered - the mannered style will take some readers a bit of getting used to, but once you're in the swing, reading about the exploits of Chancery barristers is, surprise, surprise, enormously pleasurable.

Robert Barnard - A Scandal in Belgravia - Robert was a gifted maker of mischief in life and in his fiction. There's a lot of fun to be had in novels like Sheer Torture but the brilliant finale of Scandal makes it my favourite of his books.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Crime, Comfort Reading, and Coronavirus

There is more - much more - to crime fiction than comfort reading. I'm sure we'd all agree about that. But I hope we'd also agree that there's nothing wrong with comfort reading. Reading and writing can, in my non-scientific opinion, have enormous and incalculable value in terms of making one feel better. And if ever we needed to feel better, it's right now, when we find ourselves in the midst of a situation that none of us have experienced before. Again, speaking as a non-expert, I have a feeling that coronavirus poses almost as much of a threat to our mental well-being as to our physical health.

I've always been a believer in the value of the imagination and the associated attractions of escapism. In the current situation there's a lot to be said for escapism, just as there is for staying positive, ignoring negativity, and for making a conscious effort to be kind to each other. Crime fiction deals with a subject that is inherently dark, yet it offers so much pleasure and so many different types of satisfaction.

The irony has not escaped me that a few short weeks ago I was worrying how I was going to meet various writing commitments, given the large number of events I had scheduled. Well, as long as I stay fit, writing time won't be in such short supply now! There won't be a launch event for Mortmain Hall, alas, and numerous events around publication time have necessarily been cancelled, including Murder Squad's 20th birthday party in Chester, which we were all looking forward to. Never mind, the main thing is for everyone to try to stay fit and for those of us who catch this virus (presumably most of us, in the long run) to shake it off with no lasting ill-effects. Here's hoping...

Anyway, tomorrow I'll post a list of ten crime books of different kinds which I think offer plenty of enjoyable light entertainment and which I hope may help others to get through the weeks ahead in as positive a frame of mind as possible.   

Monday, 16 March 2020

Seishi Yokomizo and The Honjin Murders

In recent times I've become increasingly interested in crime fiction from the Far East, countries like Japan, China, and Korea. (And that reminds me, I have some nice news to share. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has just been acquired by a Korean publisher - the first time a book of mine has been published in that country.) Pushkin Vertigo have done crime fans a service by publishing translations of two novels by Japan's Soji Shimada, whom I enjoyed spending time with in Shanghai last November. And now they've gone back in time by publishing two books by Seishi Yokomizo.

Yokomizo lived from 1902-81. He was born in Kobe and his first story was published as early as 1921. He introduced his series detective Kosuke Kindaichi in The Honjin Murders, which won the first Mystery Writers of Japan award in 1948 but the book has never been translated until now, by Louise Heal Kawai (who, I think, has done a good job.) Pushkin Vertigo have also published The Inugami Curse, which I hope to read shortly.

In the meantime, I must say that I enjoyed The Honjin Murders, which is firmly in the "impossible crime" tradition. There's a list of characters and a plan of the crime scene, coupled with extensive discussion about locked room mysteries. As early as page two, John Dickson Carr gets a mention, along with Leroux, Leblanc, Van Dine, and an author I haven't read, Roger Scarlett, author of Murder Among the Angells. Scarlett, by the way, was a pen-name for two American women, Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page. Their five books were reprinted not long ago and I must take a look at one or two of them.

Yokomizo sets his story in 1937, a decade or so before it was written, and I was interested that it illustrates Dorothy L. Sayers' belief that 'respectability' and its preservation were key ingredients in Golden Age mysteries. In fact, I've just written a short Golden Age style story for My Weekly called "Respect and Respectability" which deals with the same theme. Anyway, Yokomizo got there a long way ahead of me. His book is short and entertaining, with an ingenious if unlikely plot. I'm delighted that it's finally been translated into English.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Forgotten Book - The Tooth and the Nail

Among the independent presses doing good work on both sides of Atlantic in terms of reviving excellent crime novels of the past, I'd like to highlight the work of Stark House Press. Typically, they issue  two books in the same volume, and they have in recent times brought back novels by the talented Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Dolores Hitchens.

I've now read Bill S. Ballinger's The Tooth and the Nail, which appears, along with The Wife of the Red-Haired Man, in a new volume with an interesting introduction by Nicholas Litchfield. It's due out in April. I've not read Ballinger previously, and I hadn't realised how good he is. On the evidence of this book, he was a gifted crime writer, who had something in common with Fredric Brown. Like Brown, he was interested in narrative technique, and the cunning with which he tells this particular tale is impressive.

The book opens with a short, tantalising prologue. When one reaches the end of the book, one may be tempted to quibble about the prologue, and I'm not sure it was really necessary. But it certainly provokes interest in the main narrative. Actually, in this novel there are two stories going on, told in alternate chapters, one told in the first person, one in the third. We can be sure that they are linked, but how they fit together is unclear for a long time.

One story involves a magician, Lew, and the other is a courtroom drama. Someone is on trial for murder, but we don't know the identity of the person in the dock and the identity of the victim seems rather puzzling too. I shouldn't really say much more than that. Stark House have done us a favour by bringing it back into print. I really enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more of Ballinger's work.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

In Praise of Inside No. 9

Image result for inside no 9

The fifth series of BBC 2's Inside No. 9 ended last night with another twisty black comedy, the cleverly titled Stakeout. Until a few weeks ago, I'd never watched this series, written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. but an article in the Sunday Times prompted my interest by drawing a comparison with Tales of the Unexpected, a highly popular anthology series in its day which featured some good stories and some good actors (plus great opening titles and theme music!), even though when you watch it now, some of the episodes seem very dated.

So I took a look, and soon I was hooked. Binge-watching is something I rarely do, since there is never enough time, given all the writing projects I have on the go, but the irresistible appeal of Inside No. 9 meant I changed my ways. Thanks to iPlayer, I've now watched every episode and they have left me lost in admiration of the brilliance of the storylines. Pemberton and Shearsmith are also accomplished and versatile actors, who take key roles in every episode, and the quality of the scripts attracts actors ranging from Kenneth Cranham and David Morrissey to Felicity Kendal and Sheridan Smith. But in this post I'd like to focus on the quality of their writing. It's so good that I want to watch each episode all over again, to appreciate more fully the subtleties of the scripts.

Inside No. 9 is really unclassifiable. Its defining features include dark (sometimes very dark) humour and startling plot twists, as well as claustrophobic settings linked (often tenuously, but that doesn't matter) by the number 9: a police car, an art gallery, a house where the owners are about to move, and so on. Fawlty Towers, Jonathan Creek and some episodes of Blackadder - three of my all-time favourite witty TV shows - illustrated the potential of a tightly confined setting, and Inside No. 9 rings the changes with extraordinary flair.

It's not a crime series, and the emotions evoked by the stories (as with The 12 Days of Christine, a terrific vehicle for Sheridan Smith) vary widely, but as you would expect, tropes from fiction's most popular genre often feature. One character in Stakeout made fun of the familiar ingredients of cop shows, although of course the pay-off was not what we'd been led to expect. This ability to keep confounding expectations is one of the hallmarks of high calibre writing, whether your name is Shakespeare, Dickens, or (yes!) Agatha Christie or Anthony Horowitz; and Pemberton and Shearsmith are first-rate writers. One episode I admired enormously, Once Removed, is a superb example of reverse chronology, a technique very difficult to master. Another is a story about a burglary with no dialogue. Hotel Zanzibar is a nod to Shakespearean comedy and the characters speak in iambic pentameter. 

Private View is a take on And Then There Were None, with a pastiche of Theatre of Blood thrown in. (Incidentally, the sheer number of contemporary stories which use the And Then There Were None tropes shows the depth of the impression Christie's novel has made on our culture). Even better was The Riddle of the Sphinx, in which crosswords and word play feature, before a truly shocking finale. And then there is Misdirection, possibly my absolute favourite episode (though how can one choose from such riches?), a brilliant updating of the John Dickson Carr/Clayton Rawson kind of conjuring trick mystery. If Pemberton and Shearsmith wrote detective novels, they would be huge stars in our firmament. I doubt they have many ambitions in that direction, but it's our loss.

I could go on and on, but you've got the picture. I've become a huge fan of Pemberton and Shearsmith as writers - and as I say, I'm also impressed by the range of their acting (I mentioned Shearsmith's performance in The Widower on this blog six years ago). I can't wait for the next series.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Settling Scores

Tomorrow sees the publication in the UK of my latest anthology in the British Library's series of Crime Classics. The unifying theme of Settling Scores is not revenge, but sport. Each story is not only by a different author, but it features a different sport. I'm not aware of any other crime anthology which is quite the same; there was a splendid book edited almost 80 years ago by Ellery Queen, Sporting Blood, but that one included poker, chess, and butterfly collecting.

I'm often asked what my favourites are among my own books - assuming that I do have favourites. Well, I never release a book on an unsuspecting world unless I'm happy with it, and it seems worthy of publication. And naturally it's a matter of personal and professional pride to try to make sure that each book is as good as it possibly can be. That said, inevitably there are books which give rise to different feelings - especially after a lapse of time. And different levels of satisfaction too.

Among my British Library anthologies, I'm especially proud of Foreign Bodies, because of its ambition, and several others, such as The Measure of Malice, strike me as interestingly different from the general run of anthologies. And Settling Scores is right up there, partly because there are some fascinating stories, and partly because I find it intriguing to see how different authors have set about integrating a sporting background into their narrative. I'm hopeful the book will do well.

So what of the specific contents? There's a long story by Julian Symons, set around Wimbledon, and a characteristically accomplished one by Celia Fremlin which is a bit different because it concerns a school sports day. And then there are stories by little-known figures such as F.A.M. Webster, David Winser, and Gerald Verner. Each of these three men, by the way, had a very interesting life, and I recently read a biography of Verner by his son Chris which I'm hoping will be published fairly soon. In the meantime, if you like sport, or if you hate sport but love crime fiction, do consider giving Settling Scores a try...