Friday, 14 August 2020

Forgotten Book - The Unsuspected

I've mentioned Charlotte Armstrong before on this blog. She was a high calibre American writer of domestic suspense. The Unsuspected is highly regarded among her books, and has been reprinted in recent times as part of the revival of interest in crime fiction from the past. So I was delighted to pick up a copy of the novel, which first appeared in book form in 1946, having been serialised the previous year in the Saturday Evening Post.

It's sometimes described as an inverted mystery, but it doesn't follow the usual inverted pattern. Right from the start, we learn that Luther Grandison, a successful stage and film director, is a murderer. He thinks he's unsuspected, but he's wrong. Young Francis Wright and his aunt Jane Moynihan suspect that he's a sociopath responsible for the hanging (supposedly a suicide) of his secretary Rosaleen Wright.

They hatch a plan to infiltrate Grandison's household in order to prove his guilt. This involves Jane working for Grandison and Francis pretending to have married Grandison's ward, who has recently disappeared and been presumed drowned. The snag is that the dead lady turns up out of the blue...

My problem with the story is that the scheme to unmask Grandison seemed to me to be totally hare-brained. Provided one can accept the premise, it's an entertaining enough mystery, with an excellent climactic scene, and I'm not surprised that the book was made into a film, which starred Claude Rains and is sure to be worth watching. But I'm afraid it didn't live up to my expectations, not least because there is little effort to characterise Grandison. He's rather a two-dimensional baddie; Armstrong's real focus is on the young people he torments.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Bognor is Back

Bognor | Nostalgia Central

I never got to see Bognor when it was first shown on television. It ran for 21 episodes from 1981-2 at a time when I wasn't watching much if any TV. Years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Heald, author of the books on which the show was based, and asked him about it. To cut a long story short, he felt that Thames TV had made a bit of a mess of it. For instance, he'd very much favoured Derek Fowlds being cast in the lead as Simon Bognor, but in the end the role went to David Horovitch, a decent actor but perhaps not ideal for the part. They also put the shows out at times which were unlikely to attract a big audience.

Thanks to Talking Pictures TV, it's now possible to judge Bognor for myself. This channel has a real knack of finding lost gems, as well as some shows and films that haven't really stood the test of time. They have run Public Eye, the downbeat series about the private eye Frank Marker, which was very low-key but pretty good, and the obscure but rather enjoyable anthology series Shadows of Fear as well as the original Van der Valk, which I found surprisingly disappointing.

Bognor comprised the adaptations of four books, starting with Unbecoming Habits, set in a monastery, with one of the monks played by Patrick Troughton. Bognor, who works for the Department of Trade, is sent to investigate a suspicious death. There are some pleasing moments in the story, but overall it's pretty lightweight and forgettable. Apparently the series was cancelled long before it came to an end, and in all honesty, I can see why.

I'm glad to have caught up with it, though. Tim was as amusing in person as he was on the page, and although he took the disappointment of the adaptations in his stride, his enthusiasm for writing about the character waned. I encouraged him to consider reviving Simon Bognor after a long hiatus, and he duly contributed a fresh Bognor short story to an anthology I edited for the CWA, Original Sins. Before long, he was working on a new Bognor novel. Thanks to Bognor, I've thought back to those times (too few, alas) that I spent in his convivial company, and those pleasant memories are enough to keep me watching, even if the scripts don't quite do the trick.

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of attending literary events and festivals (at least in those happy days when they were taking place regularly!) is the chance to meet both readers and fellow writers. Over the years, I've met some wonderful people in that way, and formed many lasting friendships that mean a lot to me. One particularly memorable trip was to the Emirates Literature Festival a few years back. During our week there, we met a young writer called Vaseem Khan and his wife. The four of us spent a little time together and they were most congenial company.

When I got back home, I decided to read Vas's work (another nice spin-off of meeting authors) and discovered that he is a talented novelist with the ability to entertain readers while sharing interesting observations about the world. I was therefore keen to invite him to contribute to Mystery Tour, a CWA anthology with an international flavour, and he came up with a terrific story which I recommend you to seek out. It's called 'Bombay Brigadoon'.

All this is by way of preamble to news that Vas has a new book out published by Hodder. Midnight at Malabar House marks a significant change in direction for him, which I'm sure will be well-received. First, it's a history-mystery, set in India at the start of 1950, two years after Partition. Second, it introduces a new character, Inspector Persis Wadia, who represents an extremely interesting variation on the concept of the 'Great Detective'. The discovery of the body of a prominent Englishman, murdered on New Year's Eve, leads Persis to face many challenges as she strives to discover the truth about the crime.

What I love about this book is the way Vaseem Khan blends classic tropes with interesting and insightful observations about a vast country of infinite potential grappling with the challenges and opportunities of independence. So, we have a mysterious cipher and a detective duo (Persis's sidekick is Archie Blackfinch, another character with plenty of possibilities) in the classic mould. Persis, in time-honoured fashion, rubs her superiors up the wrong way, but as we root for her, we have a quiet confidence that she'll get to the solution of the mystery in the end. Before she does, there's a lot of entertainment to be had. I'm not very knowledgeable about either India or Indian history, and so I learned a lot. Much more importantly, I enjoyed the book. A definite winner - I'm sure it will be a big hit.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Vintage Crime

Vintage Crime: from the Crime Writers' Association (Fiction Without Frontiers) by [Crime Writers' Association, Martin Edwards]

Vintage Crime is published tomorrow. It's my latest anthology to be edited on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association, and it differs from its predecessors in a couple of respects. First, we have a new publisher, Flame Tree Press, with whom I've worked in the past. They are lovely people to work with, and the care they devote to their publications is admirable. The production values on Vintage Crime are terrific.

Second, this is not a collection of newly written stories, but rather a book that is designed to showcase the evolution of the crime short story throughout the existence of the CWA. The CWA was founded back in 1953, and its first anthology appeared in 1956. Since then the CWA has been a major supporter of crime short stories, and many award-winning stories made their first appearance in a CWA collection.

In essence, I've mined the CWA archives to put together a book of stories which have appeared in previous CWA anthologies but which seem to me to deserve a new life. I've chosen stories dating back to the 1950s, written by a range of writers whose names are mostly well-known, including the brilliant Mick Herron and the equally gifted Andrew Taylor, two of the finest authors working in the genre today.

There are some terrific names here, including Robert Barnard (whose "Sins of Scarlet" won a Dagger), Frances Fyfield, Celia Fremlin, Peter Lovesey, Liza Cody - and John Dickson Carr. Yes, the king of the locked room mystery was a CWA member. The contributors have, between them, won enough awards to fill a locked room, and I'm hopeful that many readers will enjoy devouring these mysteries from the (sometimes quite recent) past.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Forgotten Book - A Penknife in My Heart

Nicholas Blake - A Penknife in my Heart - Collins Crime Club ...

Nicholas Blake's A Penknife in My Heart, first published in 1958, is highly readable, but in some ways a curious book. It's very well-written on the whole, as you would expect from this author, yet there's something slightly amateurish about the way he jumps from one viewpoint to another in a single scene, and in the way he tends to "tell" rather than "show". I suspect this may have been because he did not put as much effort into his novel writing as he did into his poetry published under his real name, Cecil Day Lewis.

Another oddity is that the central situation, of an exchange of murders, replicates that of Strangers on a Train. By the time Blake's book came out, Patricia Highsmith's classic was several years old, and had been successfully filmed by Hitchcock. Yet Blake insists he was unaware of this, and is clearly embarrassed by the coincidence that he also used two of the same character names that appear in Highsmith's story. In a preface, he thanks Highsmith for "being so charmingly sympathetic".

Some may think that it beggars belief that Blake was unaware of the earlier book. I am happy to take him at his word, even though it may be that some information about the film, if not the book, had seeped into his subconscious. It's common for different writers to come up with much the same idea, quite separately. And it's also the case that Blake's story develops in a rather different way from Highsmith's. Some commentators prefer Blake's book, but I think Highsmith's stands the test of time better.

All that said, I did enjoy this story. It's a good, fast read, and I devoured it in a single sitting. It's interesting that Simenon is name-checked in the story; he clearly influenced some of Blake's post-war fiction. Since Blake's book was published, several novels, by authors as diverse as Evelyn Berckman, Sheila Radley, and Peter Swanson, have used the exchange of murders concept in a variety of ways. And it's a concept with rich potential. One of these days, I'm tempted to have a go myself...   

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Blind Corner aka Man in the Dark - 1963 film review

Blind Corner is a British film, not to be confused with the Dornford Yates novel with the same title. In the US it was known as Man in the Dark, and it's one of those thriller films featuring a blind protagonist who is menaced by sighted people with sinister motives. The script, not based on a novel, was written by James Kelley and Peter Miller. Kelly died relatively young, but Miller continued working into the 1980s and his later TV credits included scripts for the likes of Bergerac and Shoestring.

Like so many British B movies of its day, this is a film with an American star in a lead role, a ploy designed to make the film more commercial. William Sylvester is Paul Gregory, a gifted but irritable composer who has settled for making money by writing pop songs. Gregory is married to Anne, a beautiful woman (played by Barbara Shelley) whose interest in him has faded since he tragically lost his sight. It soon emerges that she's having an affair with a young artist, Rickie Seldon and Paul's manager (Mark Eden) reveals this to Paul. Faced with the prospect of losing her luxury lifestyle, Anne contemplates murder...

It's a familiar enough story, but the plot is quite nicely handled. One weakness of the film is that, again no doubt for commercial reasons, it's padded out by the inclusion of two so-so songs performed by Ronnie Carroll, who was quite a star at the time. These scenes don't really add to the story's development at all.

Mark Eden is a very reliable actor, and he and Barbara Shelley give strong performances in a movie that's certainly watchable, if not exceptionally memorable, and Elizabeth Shepherd is also good as the secretary who is devoted to Paul, but despite my sympathy for his vulnerability, I felt Sylvester rather overdid the irascibility.   

Monday, 3 August 2020

Game Night - 2018 film review

Game Night is a comedy rather than a crime film, but it revolves around mystery games, so it's more than eligible for a review in this blog. I came across it by chance when we were looking for some relaxing viewing and it more than filled the bill. There are plenty of American comedy films that leave me cold, but this wasn't one of them. It's funny and clever.

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play a couple who are highly competitive game-players; they are also trying for a baby. They have a neighbour, a sad and lonely cop who is obsessed with games and has been deserted by his beloved wife. One evening, they go to some lengths to pretend to him that they are not going to be playing a mystery game with their friends, in order to avoid his company, only for Bateman's brother, a loud egotist to whom he has always felt inferior, to blow the gaff.

The game is rudely interrupted by the kidnapping of the brother. At first the game players think that this is some ingenious variation of the game. Unfortunately, it turns out that the brother is in hock to some gangsters and his life is in jeopardy. Undaunted, the game-players set out to rescue him.

The complications come thick and fast. The script is witty and the acting exuberant and I'm not surprised that this film was a big hit at the box office; the success was well-deserved. I was also interested in the way that the writer, Mark Perez, reinvented for a modern audience the mystery game concept which features in so many Golden Age detective novels - Christie's Dead Man's Folly is one example that springs to mind. There's life in the old tropes yet.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Forgotten Book - The Red Scarf

The Red Scarf / A Killer is Loose: Gil Brewer, Paul ...

Many years ago, I remember hearing good things about The Red Scarf by Gil Brewer, but I've only recently laid my hands on a copy, thanks to Stark House Press, who have republished it together with A Killer is Loose in a volume introduced by Paul Bishop. Once again, Stark House have been responsible for the rediscovery of a first rate novel - if A Killer is Loose, which I have yet to read, proves to be as good as The Red Scarf, it will be quite something.

At first, it seems that we are in James M. Cain territory, as the opening is suggestive of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The story is narrated by Roy Nicholls, and we meet him as he is dropped off in the middle of nowhere by a truck driver who has given him a lift. He finds a nearby bar and there he encounters a glamorous young woman, Vivian, and her deeply unpleasant boyfriend Noel Teece.

From there, the story develops a personality of its own. Brewer uses familiar tropes - the decent guy who is so financially hard-pressed that he finds himself contemplating crime, the uncomprehending wife, the femme fatale, the unscrupulous gangster, the sceptical cop, the suitcase full of alluring banknotes. And so on. But Brewer uses these elements to fashion an extremely gripping story.

It's all the more gripping because it is short. So often, writers forget that less is more (especially when writing modern television serials) but Brewer was adept at maintaining a relentless narrative pace. There's one first-rate surprise development, and a satisfying conclusion. The merit of The Red Scarf is not originality, but the skill and economy with which an exciting story is told. I'm very glad I caught up with it at last.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Finisher by Peter Lovesey - review

The Finisher (Peter Diamond Mystery) by [Peter Lovesey]

The Finisher is not merely the 19th novel in Peter Lovesey's highly successful series about Bath cop Peter Diamond. Its appearance marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Peter's award-winning debut novel Wobble to Death. And very cleverly, Peter has returned to a key theme from that first novel and given it a fresh spin. The 'wobble' was a Victorian race, and The Finisher deals with present day half-marathon running. It's a great way to celebrate a literary career of sustained achievement.

The storyline is constructed with such cunning that I don't want to say too much about it, for fear of giving too much away. I was hooked right from the first two sentences: "The city of Bath isn't all about Roman plumbing and Georgian architecture. It offers unrivalled facilities for getting rid of unwanted corpses."

We're promptly introduced to a ruthless killer known as the Finisher (and "finishing" is a concept used astutely throughout the story) but then events move forward in quite a discursive way, as Lovesey constantly teases us with different possibilities about what might happen next. Not just who is the killer, but who might be killed. I have a particular, if inexplicable, enthusiasm for crime novels with underground scenes, and there is plenty in this book to satisfy that taste - there's even a "tunnel of death". There's much else to enjoy, including a good deal of humour, with a lovely, sly P.G. Wodehouse joke.

This is a story firmly set in the present day (or at least the immediate pre-pandemic present day!) but Peter Lovesey's storytelling skills, and certainly his gift for constructing a fair play puzzle, match those of the finest exponents of Golden Age fiction. As a bonus, there is a delightful map in the classic tradition. Even though I've followed Peter's career closely since my student days, I found the afterword, "Running into Writing", informative and enlightening. I won't pretend that I share Peter's enthusiasm for running, any more than I shared Dick Francis's devotion to horse racing. The gift of both men is an ability to write about their passions in a way that attracts even sceptics like me.

I often think of Peter in connection with two writers born in the same year, Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard. Three delightful men, three outstanding crime novelists (and equally accomplished writers of short stories and non-fiction). Three superb entertainers, in short. Now, alas, there aren't any new novels by Reg or Bob to look forward to, so there is all the more reason to appreciate the consistent excellence of Peter Lovesey's work. He is more than entitled to rest on his laurels after such a career but I find it thrilling that he continues to write so inventively and with such panache. Long may he continue to do so.

Monday, 27 July 2020

New artwork for Gallows Court

Gallows Court: a gripping historical murder mystery set in 1930s London by [Martin Edwards]

Today - a cover reveal of a slightly unorthodox sort. The artwork for the UK edition of Gallows Court has been given a makeover. This is, in a nutshell, because Ed Bettison's cover for Mortmain Hall has received a great deal of acclaim. As a result, my publishers in Britain, Head of Zeus, decided that it would be a good idea to commission fresh artwork for the first Rachel Savernake from Ed. And this is the result. As you can see, it's very different from the original artwork, and very much in keeping with the approach that Ed adopted when working on Mortmain Hall.

I find this absolutely fascinating. I'd never appreciated the importance of book covers until that fateful day when a rep from my first paperback publisher, Transworld, told me that in his job they mattered more than the content! This came as quite a shock to a young novelist who'd just had his first book published. But even if he was exaggerating, there was a kernel of truth in what he said from a commercial point of view. Much as authors may not want to hear it, artwork is crucial in helping to market books, and is very relevant to the commercial proposition. And nowadays the artwork has to be effective as an online thumbnail icon as well as in reality. Not easy...

I must say that I did love the original artwork for Gallows Court, and the publishers went to a great deal of trouble in their efforts to get it right. They also did a brilliant job with the special limited edition, which didn't have a dust jacket, but was quite beautifully bound. The paperback cover was a sort of homage to the Crime Classics, and again a lovely picture. But much as I loved those first edition images (and I did), I must say that the enthusiasm with which readers and reviewers have, without any prompting, reacted to the Mortmain Hall cover has been remarkable. Hence this new look.