Monday, 8 August 2022

Fear No More - 1961 film review

Fear No More is an obscure film noir dating from 1961. The script is based on a novel of the same name by Leslie Edgley (who was born in London but spent most of his life on the other side of the Atlantic). Some reviews compare the style of storytelling to Hitchcock, but in view of the multiple - and sometimes dazzling - plot twists, I think a closer comparison is with Francis Durbridge.

This is a film with some rough edges and some pretty rough acting, but the lead character, Sharon Carlin, is well played by Mala Powers, who invests the part with the right balance of innocent charm and paranoia. She is asked by her boss to take an important message by train, but immediately finds herself in a train compartment with a dead woman's body. 

That's only the start of her misfortunes, which multiply with dizzying speed. A villain coshes her and then a cop accuses her of murder. She escapes from the cop and is almost run over by a car driven by Paul Colbert (Jacques Bergerac, a rather wooden and unconvincing performer, I'm afraid), who then offers her a lift. The plot continues to thicken impressively.

In essence, this is one of those situations where we root for a protagonist who is faced with an ingenious and implacable enemy and who finds herself unable to convince anyone that she is telling the truth. It's a good story, despite the inevitable implausibilities. The ending is clumsy and one feels that with more care this could have become a minor classic. Debatable, I accept, but for all the film's flaws, I enjoyed it.

Friday, 5 August 2022

Forgotten Book - With No Crying

Abortion, kidnapping, squatters, under-age sex. The ingredients of a cutting-edge novel of today? Well, perhaps, but they also form the core elements of a novel published way back in 1980. With No Crying is another of Celia Fremlin's remarkable novels of suspense and, as usual, almost all the main characters are women. Strong women, weak women, jealous and malicious women (she was especially good at chronicling vindictiveness between so-called female friends). It is perhaps hard for a male reader to judge some of these characterisations fairly, but for me Fremlin was one of the finest suspense novelists of her era.

In this story, Miranda Field is a dreamy fifteen year old who, along with her pal Susan, fantasises about boys she doesn't know. When a 'chance encounter' with the object of her affections is contrived, the result is a brief sexual encounter which results in her becoming pregnant. Her parents are left-wing progressives, but although, on the surface, they seem supportive, in fact their attitude is selfish. Fremlin was herself a left-wing progressive by instinct, and her portrayal of the Fields is all the more convincing because one suspects that she knew many people like them in real life.

Miranda agrees, very reluctantly, to have an abortion, but she is embittered by her parents' treatment of her. Before long, she runs off and ends up in a squat with a number of idealistic young people. But she pretends that she is still pregnant, and this deception has alarming consequences.

This is a short book, but it is unpredictable and it packs a punch. There's a good twist, which as the blurb says, is carefully foreshadowed. The story is a good one but really it's the presentation of the characters that makes it stikc in the mind .Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Teller of the Unexpected and Deadlier

Many years ago - sometime during the late Seventies - I went to a party at Roald Dahl's house in Buckinghamshire. Was I invited as a promising young writer, whom the great man was keen to encourage and mentor? I'm afraid not. I was basically just a hanger-on - my newish girlfriend (the future Mrs Edwards) was a schoolfriend of Tessa Dahl and when she was invited, I had the chance to accompany her. It was a memorable occasion, but I can't pretend that Roald and I had a long and intense conversation debating how to twisty tales of the unexpected. I suppose I ought to make up a better story...

I was, however, by that time a firm fan of his work, having come across 'William and Mary' in my early teens, and then 'The Way Up to Heaven'. Two terrific short stories, and in terms of adult fiction, I'd say that he was much better suited to the short form than to the novel. His children's fiction came later. He's been the subject of several biographies and the latest is Teller of the Unexpected by Matthew Dennison.

This is an unofficial biography, with the limitations that implies, and there's no discussion - for instance - of Dahl's friendship with Ian Fleming, which led to 'Lamb for the Slaughter'. But it's a brisk read and the story of an extraordinary life is recounted in workmanlike fashion. I never knew, for instance, that one of his most influential teachers at school was a former Derbyshire cricketer. Dahl's personal shortcomings have been well-documented, but he's always struck me as a slightly tragic figure. He certainly experienced more than his fair share of family tragedy.

Dennison's book is published by Head of Zeus, my own publishers, who have also been responsible for some impressively weighty anthologies. One of these - very attractively produced, by the way - is Deadlier, a collection of 100 short crime stories by women writers, edited by Sophie Hannah. It's a very wide-ranging book (from Allingham to Attwood, and that's only the As!) and I can warmly recommend it.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films - by Barry Forshaw

Very few authors of books about the crime genre feature as extensively in the Bibliography of The Life of Crime as Barry Forshaw. Barry is an impressively prolific writer and he has now come up with another snappy book, published by No Exit Press about the Belgian maestro of crime. No, not Poirot, but Georges Simenon. The title is Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films, and it represents a crisp and user-friendly introduction to the subject.

I noticed that I'm quoted in the endorsements of one of Barry's previous books, saying that Barry's constructive approach comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. I'm glad I said that, because it sums up a key merit of his writing - the positive tone. In addition, he is concise, and that too is a bonus because verbose lit.crit., however well-informed, can become tedious.

From start to finish, Barry's experience as a journalist informs his approach as well as his straightforward and readable writing style. To take just one example, the section 'Adapting Maigret' is essentially an extended quotation from an interview with Alison Joseph, who is at home with radio writing as she is with penning detective novels. Barry has also built upon a bibliography developed by the late David Carter almost twenty years ago.

One of Barry's strengths is his knowledge of films and he itemises many films based on Simenon novels that I'm unfamiliar with. Of the British TV series, it's clear that he prefers the portrayals of Maigret by Rupert Davies and Michael Gambon to Rowan Atkinson's recent interpretation. I don't know if there's ever been a Simenon encyclopaedia, but if not, this little book is an excellent, scaled-down alternative.

Friday, 29 July 2022

Forgotten Book - Impact of Evidence

Impact of Evidence is a novel by Carol Carnac (better known as E.C.R. Lorac) which was published in 1954, towards the end of her life. Beyond doubt, it can safely be described as a forgotten book. I've never read a review of the novel and at the time of writing, only one copy is for sale anywhere in the world - for the less than modest cost of £650 for an American first edition (pictured). One wonders what price a UK first in a jacket would command. As far as I know, there was never a paperback edition.

Does the novel deserve such obscurity? My answer is an emphatic 'no'. This is a novel typical of the Lorac stories that she wrote from the 1940s onwards, after moving to live in Lunesdale. But it's not set in Lunesdale. The action takes place on the English-Welsh border (towards the southern end of that border; towns such as Hereford are mentioned in passing). Yet in many ways, the setting is strongly reminiscent of Lunesdale. I suspect the main reason that it wasn't set there was that the author was trying to differentiate her two series (which did have a great deal in common).

Lorac was a keen driver, as readers of Two-Way Murder will appreciate. This Carnac title again reflects her interest in motor cars and centres around an accident in the snow that involves two vehicles, one of them driven by elderly, infirm Dr Robinson, who dies in the crash. But when people look inside his car, a second body is discovered. The deceased is not a local, and he died before the accident. What on earth has been going on?

This is a pretty good premise for a traditional detective story and Inspector Julian Rivers of Scotland Yard turns up to conduct the investigation. We learn that he spent some of his early days on a farm in Norfolk and it's clear that, like Inspector Macdonald in the Lorac books, his burgeoning interest in the countryside and the challenges of farming life reflects his creator's enthusiasms. As so often with these books, the evocation of rural Britain is the strongest point, but I'd add that the plot is very soundly constructed. If you're a fan of traditional mysteries, this is a most enjoyable read.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Deep Water - 2022 film review

I read Deep Water during my first 'Patricia Highsmith phase', many moons ago. The novel was published in 1957, when she was arguably at the height of her powers as a novelist. The plot struck me as nothing special, but the presentation of character and situation impressed me. It isn't her best book, but it's a very good one. So naturally I was keen to see what Adrian Lyne's recent film version would be like.

He decided, reasonably enough, to update the story. So Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) is now a man who has made a fortune out of developing guidance chips for use in combat drones. Although still young, he has settled to affluent retirement together with his sexy wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) and young daughter. But Vic is moody and Melinda flirtatious and it soon becomes clear that all is not well between them.

Vic is jealous of her flings with other men and he warns off one lover by claiming to have murdered a man that Melinda had an affair with. Is he telling the truth? Probably not, but it's not entirely clear, and there's little doubt that Vic is a man on the edge. Violence isn't far away and Melinda's provocative behaviour causes his behaviour to become increasingly irrational. An older man, a rather annoying writer called Don, become suspicious of Vic and the conditions are created for a deadly confrontation.

The main problem with the film is its lack of pace, the result of a script which seems less than assured and is over-long. Affleck and de Armas do their best with the material, but more could have been done by the writers to make the psychosexual undercurrents in their relationship more compelling. It's not a terrible movie, but it could and should have been so much better.   

Monday, 25 July 2022

Interesting Times

It's all been happening lately. I'm thrilled to report that a major US publication has agreed to publish an extract from The Life of Crime to coincide with the book's appearance in the US next month. And I was delighted to see a wonderful review of the book by Barry Turner in the Daily Mail: 'awe-inspiring...a masterclass...highly readable.'

I got word of both those developments while I was in Harrogate for the Theakston's Festival. I'm still not driving at the moment, following that hit and run car crash, but a kind reader offered me a lift, so I was able to get across the Pennines and have a really good time. There's no doubt that the car crash has had an effect, and I'm definitely pacing myself at present, but I'm optimistic that I'll be firing on all cylinders before too long.

I was glad to take part in a panel about a favourite topic of mine - the ups and downs of the writing life - on Friday. The chair was Denise Mina and the panel members were myself, Mick Herron, Andrew Taylor, and Adele Parks - all pictured above. Very good company to be in! Adele is currently riding high in the bestseller charts. I'd never met her before, but I soon learned that not only is she an extremely successful writer, she is a highly engaging speaker.

There were plenty of other highlights, including an excellent lunch with my agent, James, at which we discussed plans for my future writing projects, a dinner with HarperCollins and a brunch with Head of Zeus, as well as many enjoyable conversations with writers and readers. It was good to be back. 

The IPCRESS File - ITV review

The IPCRESS File was one of the great spy novels of the 1960s. It's a book often bracketed with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but people often forget that Len Deighton's novel came first. It was the book that first made Len's name and it became an iconic Sixties film, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer (the protagonist whose name is not actually mentioned in the book). Now it has been made into a TV series in six parts, scripted by John Hodge, with Joe Cole as Harry.

Some critics have questioned the rationale for a new version of the story, but after a gap of more than half a century, it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable to come up with a new take on this espionage classic. The real question is: is it any good? After all, it has to be measured against the high standards of novel and film.

At first I wasn't sure about this version. As I've often said, the desire that TV people have to turn stories into six episodes when two, three, or four episodes often mean a tighter story, is regrettable. The first episode left me unimpressed, but I stayed with it and was rewarded by a steady improvement. The last couple of episodes in particular are excellent. An added bonus was that much location shooting was done in Liverpool - and in Great Budworth, the Cheshire village where I first discovered Agatha Christie! I was also amused by the fact that Agatha Christie's The Clocks features, although no real effort was made to make anything of it in the script.

Joe Cole does a good job; his performance is more nuanced than Michael Caine's, although less memorable. Lucy Boynton keeps her emotions in check as Jean Courtney, and the result is a bit uninvolving, but Tom Hollander is excellent as Dalby. Special mention for Anastasia Hille, who is quite brilliant in a supporting role. So, despite some padding in the script, this one is definitely worth watching. Alas, the music is nothing like as good as John Barry's soundtrack for the film, but that was probably inevitable! 

Friday, 22 July 2022

Forgotten Book - Mr T

Reginald Hill was an admirer of Martin Russell's crime fiction, and for the first two editions of that magisterial tome Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, he contributed an essay about Russell's work (I took over this pleasurable task for the third and fourth editions). In that piece, he highlighted Mr T, published in 1977, as one of Russell's cleverest stories. 

I'd agree with this verdict and it's significant that Harry Keating chose this book as one of the titles reprinted to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Collins Crime Club in 1990. The puzzle is ingenious and unusual (although I should say that I recognised one key plot device from another Russell novel, almost equally tricky, but the stories are really very different in other ways). The set-up is one that Cornell Woolrich would have loved, but the resolution is rather more carefully put together than is the case in many of Woolrich's stories. Woolrich was in some ways a superior writer to Russell, and he certainly had greater pretensions as a prose stylist. I'm a Woolrich fan, but I do think Russell is under-rated.

John Tiverton arrives home from work to find that his own wife doesn't recognise him. Nor does a neighbour called Elkins. The police are called and he's thrown out of the house. People at work don't recognise him, either. He's told that John Tiverton was killed in a car crash six months ago. In a phone call, his mother confirms this.

He's a metallurgist who has been working on a secret project and has been carefully vetted by the security services. As he tries to put the pieces of his shattered life together, we make assumptions about what has been going on. But Russell has kept several things up his sleeve. This is an intriguing story and, despite tricky and far-fetched elements in the narration of events, it deserves to be better knonw.   

Wednesday, 20 July 2022

The Stranger - 1946 film review

The Stranger is an intriguing film noir from 1946. It's really a story of a cat-and-mouse relationship between a Nazi hunter called Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) and a superficially charming professor (Orson Welles, who also directed and co-wrote the film) who is actually Kindler, a Nazi who has escaped to the United States and reinvented himself as a plausible academic who marries a judge's daughter (Loretta Young).

Despite the fact that The Stranger was made so soon after the war ended, it gives a powerful sense of the horror of the Holocaust, even if the details of Kindler's backstory are rather vague. The story begins with a reformed ex-associate of Kindler's making contact with him - on the day that the villian of the piece is due to get married - unaware that Wilson is on his case. The wedding does take place, but Kindler also finds time to kill his former crony. There is a great scene in the woods which involves Kindler hiding the body and risking discovery when a bunch of his students run through the woods on a paper chase.

The principal writer is Anthony Veiller, whose other work included The List of Adrian Messenger. In many ways, though, it is the visual ingredients of the film rather than the storyline - tense as it is - which make it worth watching. The climactic scene, which takes place at the top of a clock tower (Kindler is obsessed with clocks) is especially memorable. 

Orson Welles was a towering figure in the film world, even if his achievements were somewhat mixed. I liked his performance as Kindler, even though it's by no means his most acclaimed role. The Stranger isn't a masterpiece, but it's not mundane, either. Well worth a watch.