Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Day After Tomorrow

Disaster movies were much in vogue in my student days – The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and plenty more – but they haven’t been quite so common in recent years. But The Day after Tomorrow is a very competent example of the genre, starring Dennis Quaid as Jake Hall, an expert on climatology, who warns a sceptical Vice President of the risk of a climatic disaster. Ian Holm, playing a British scientist, is more sympathetic and needless to say, the dire warnings of impending doom are soon fulfilled.

Jake has a troubled relationship with his son Sam, who together with a couple of friends is in New York for a student event. All of a sudden, freak weather conditions assault the Northern Hemisphere and the US President belatedly orders evacuation to the south – this offers the opportunity for a few ironic thrusts, including the temporary closure of the Mexican border by the Mexican authorities, to deter illegal immigrants from the States. Sam and his pals hole up in a library, following Jake’s instruction that they must not risk going outside in the desperate conditions, while Jake and a couple of colleagues trek up through the snow to rescue them.

I enjoyed this film. Quaid and Holm, as usual, do a very professional job, and the scenes featuring the survivors in New York are memorable – especially when Sam and the others are attacked by a pack of wolves.

The other thought that struck me was this. The disbelieving Vice President says near the start of the film that the world economy is as fragile as its climate. Maybe the next big budget disaster movie will feature the recent catastrophes on Wall Street…..

Saturday, 29 November 2008

A memorable week








Tuesday's launch of Dancing for the Hangman and the short story competition prize giving was one of my highlights of the year. Here are a few more photos, which I hope give a hint of the magnificence of St George's Hall to those who are unfamiliar with it. My thanks for the pix go to Jane Gallagher, Tony Higginson, Clare Dudman and Ray Farley.

As well as an interview on Radio City, I featured in Thursday's edition of The Liverpool Daily Post. What was wildly unlikely about this (as anyone who knows me and my clothes sense, or lack of it, will confirm) was that the piece was in the 'style' column.

Meanwhile, two authors of highly regarded blogs, Maureen and Nan, have been commenting on my Lake District Myteries:

Random Distractions

Letters From A Hill Farm

Their positive reactions to the books are really helpful, because it is so difficult nowadays for midlist writers like me, lacking mega publicity budgets, to have readers' attention drawn to our work.

And as if that wasn't enough, this blog has been featured on sites as diverse as the discussion forum of A House is not a Homepage (Mark Meister's admirable Burt Bacharach site) and, in a discussion about whether blogging can be lucrative, Iain Dale's Diary, one of the most prominent of all the British political blogs.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Forgotten Book - The Girl Who Loved Crippen

For this week’s entry in Patti Abbott’s series about forgotten books, I decided to make a choice that fits in with the Crippen theme of this week’s posts, to coincide with publication of my own bit of fictionalised Crippenology, Dancing for the Hangman.

The Crippen story has inspired a good many novels, as well as true crime books and essays. I’m especially keen on Peter Lovesey’s The False Inspector Dew, but as this one earned Peter a CWA Gold Dagger, I don’t think it quite counts as a ‘forgotten’ book – nor should it be.

One effort that has certainly sunk into oblivion is Ursula Bloom’s The Girl Who Loved Crippen. Bloom was a prolific and very successful writer of romantic fiction, and a freelance journalist who made quite a bit of money in the 1950s after discovering the true identity of Crippen’s mistress Ethel Le Neve. Le Neve took a different name, married a man called Smith and had a couple of children, and lived for more than half a century after she (unlike her lover) was acquitted of murder and escaped the gallows. She hid her true identity so well that her husband apparently went to the grave not knowing that his missus was one of Edwardian England’s most legendary ‘scarlet women’.

Bloom befriended Ethel and wrote a series of articles about her, while maintaining her privacy. She also turned the story of Ethel’s affair with the meek little doctor into a novel.

Unfortunately, The Girl Who Loved Crippen does not have much to recommend it other than as a historical curiosity. It’s a slushy romance which plays fast and loose with the facts and certainly does not get under Ethel’s skin. For once, I’m afraid, this is a forgotten book that probably deserves to be forgotten.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Much ado about Crippen



In the run-up to the publication of Dancing for the Hangman, I’ve added (or rather, my industrious webmaster has added) a new page to my website that covers the book and various aspects of the story of Dr Crippen’s misadventures. There is background detail about the facts of the case, suggested questions for readers’ group discussions and a photo gallery.

As with other pages of the website, I’m planning to develop these materials as time goes by. Whilst blog posts tend to be more topical, I see the website as a resource with the potential to carry a great deal of information for people interested in crime fiction and the writing of it generally, as well as in my books. (Of course, I hope that some visitors who are among the vast numbers who have never read my books will be tempted to sample one or two of them…)

There are also new pages on the website dealing with the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association. They aren’t in any sense ‘official’ pages of these organisations, but meant to give interested people more information than is readily available elsewhere. These pages too will be expanded in weeks to come. Meanwhile, here are more pix from Tuesday night's launch of the book and competition prize giving.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

A Great Night


Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to St George's Hall in Liverpool (my photo really doesn't do the illuminated building sufficient justice), and gave many of his famous readings in the elegant surroundings of The Concert Room. Last night that same room was the venue for a truly memorable event, when I launched Dancing for the Hangman and we announced the winners of the Mace & Jones short story competition to celebrate Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture.

There were about a hundred people in attendance, and the guest speaker was Phil Redmond. Phil is deputy chair of the Liverpool Culture Company, and famous for his work on television, including the creation of 'Brookside' and 'Hollyoaks'.

The winner of the competition, and £500, was locally based Cathy Roberts - who told me she lives in a boat moored at the Albert Dock. Entries came in from such far flung places as India and New Zealand, with a top 10 entry from Spain; the full list of winners can be found on the Mace & Jones website. Suffice to say that, as ever, it was very difficult picking the best stories.


Earlier in the day I'd been interviewed about the competition and the new book for Radio City by Duncan Bracks. The radio station operates from the top of the Beacon, which used to be a revolving restaurant when I first arrived in Liverpool in 1980 (I once had dinner there - literally a moving experience!) The view on a sunny day - and it was very bright yesterday - is quite spectacular. And you can just about make out the lights from the Beacon at night on the left side of the photo.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Crippen Debate

One of the joys of blogging – maybe the greatest joy - is that it can put you in touch with interesting people whom you would never encounter otherwise. Andrew Rose is a case in point. He’s a barrister and true crime writer, but we’ve never met. He got in touch with me having read an earlier post on this blog about the role played in the Crippen trial by the renowned pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury. And last year, Andrew published a new biography of Spilsbury called Lethal Witness, which casts new light on the man, and on the quality of the damning evidence that he so often gave in capital cases.

It turns out that Andrew and I have a couple of friends in common – another reminder that it’s a very small world – and as one more coincidence, I have a copy of another book written by Andrew, back in the 90s. It’s a study of the Fahmy case, Scandal at the Savoy, which is both very readable and carefully researched.

I have to confess that I haven’t read Lethal Witness yet, but I shall repair the omission very soon. In the meantime, it’s been fascinating to debate some aspects of the Crippen case with Andrew. He appeared on the Channel 5 programme in which it was suggested that the flesh found in Crippen’s cellar didn’t belong to Mrs Crippen – a theory I find intriguing but unlikely – and his professional expertise in criminal law gives his views extra weight. Some people think that because I’m a crime writer and a lawyer, I must specialise in criminal law. But the truth is, I’m an employment lawyer and I’ve never conducted a criminal case in my life.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Cafe d'Art



The publication of Dancing for the Hangman is a nice excuse for a variety of celebrations. Last Wednesday evening I was in Formby, half-way between Liverpool and Southport, for a pleasurable event at Café d’Art. It was organised by Tony Higginson from the local indie bookshop, Pritchard’s. The format of the evening was that I was interviewed by Jane Gallagher – we did something similar three years ago, when The Cipher Garden was first published, and it seemed like a good moment for a reprise to coincide with the publication of the new book.

Jane must have an extremely good memory, for she remembered that, on my previous visit, I’d been rather struck by the café’s ambience and mused idly about including such a place in a scene in a future novel. As it happens, I did indeed use the setting in The Arsenic Labyrinth – but transplanted to Kendal in Cumbria and changed around a bit. It’s the scene of a rendezvous between Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind.

Jane is a local journalist and our paths have crossed on many occasions – she once wrote a feature about our home for the ‘Real Rooms’ column in the Liverpool Daily Post – and among her accomplishments, she has become a highly successful blogger. In fact, she has two main blogs, one dealing with matters literary (see the new link on my blogroll) and another, very well visited, blog, Work That Wardrobe, dealing with clothes and fashion. Now there is nobody less competent when it comes to elegant clothes and fashion than me, but even I can recognise hers as a very appealingly personal take on the subject.

Jane is also writer in residence at a prison and, as if all this, freelance p.r. work and bringing up a family wasn’t enough, she’s currently working on her first novel. I haven’t read the manuscript, but Jane is a high calibre writer whom any publisher is bound to find very marketable. I have little doubt that she has the potential to achieve just as much success as a novelist as she has in her various other activities.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

CADS 55

It’s always a good week when the latest issue of CADS arrives. I have a copy of every magazine that Geoff Bradley has produced over a twenty-year span, and each of them contains something unexpected and fascinating. CADS 55 is no exception.

The headline item is ‘Detective Writers in England’, an article Agatha Christie wrote for publication in a Russian magazine in 1945 at the request of the Ministry of Information. It’s been freshly discovered by that tireless researcher Tony Medawar, and is an interesting read. It is by no means bland (she refers to Lord Peter Wimsey as ‘a good man spoiled’ and describes his beloved Harriet as ‘tiresome’) and is a real find.

Just as good is an article by David Ellis about Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank, an inexplicably overlooked masterpiece that formed the basis of that wonderful film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

There are many other gems. Two articles covered authors about whom I knew nothing – Mildred Davis and A. Fielding. I was especially tempted by Josef Hoffmann’s article to read something by Davis. Does any reader of this blog know her work.

I greatly enjoyed the first part of Nick Kimber’s article about the fascinating, maddening S.S. Van Dine, and the other authors covered in detail include Arthur Upfield, John Rhode (an excellent piece by Ian H.Godden) and Harry Kemelman. The focus is on traditional mysteries, but there are reviews of some newer books, and I was pleased to see an article by fellow blogger Rafe McGregor. Rafe is one of the rising generation of crime writers and commentators and a name to look out for.

I’ve long been a contributor to CADS, and this issue includes a couple of reviews of my own. But the reason I like it is because Geoff Bradley’s labour of love has created, in an overcrowded world of crime commentary, something with a unique flavour. If you are interested in buying a copy, Geoff’s email is Geoffcads@aol.com

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Saturday Selection



Encouraged by the response to the first Saturday Selection, I've decided to continue with the concept as a means of highlighting recent or forthcoming titles. So here is news of a couple of very interesting new short story collections.

I’m delighted that Tangled Web UK, one of my favourite online crime resources, has asked me to review a new book of short stories written by the late Michael Gilbert, one of my all-time writing heroes. Gilbert was a prolific short story writer, and several posthumous collections have appeared, but A Pity about the Girl and other stories, published by Robert Hale, is expected to be the last. (A previous collection, The Mathematics of Murder, is very hard to find and I've been looking for a copy for ages - so if anyone has a copy they'd be willing to lend or let go, do get in touch.)

John Cooper, an expert on classic detective fiction, furnishes a short but informative introduction to this book, outlining Gilbert’s achievements in the field of short fiction. This collection features characters familiar to Gilbert fans, including the lawyer Henry Bohun, and includes both a ghost story and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I intend to devour it imminently and I hope the review will appear soon.

Killer Year (sub-title, Stories to die for) is a gathering of short thriller stories edited by Lee Child and published by Mira. These are new stories by writers whose names are (with a few notable exceptions such as Ken Bruen and Sean Chercover) unfamiliar to me, but they look promising and this is another book that I’m looking forward to reading.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Forgotten Book - Woman of Straw

My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is Woman of Straw, a novel by an author who is also, as far as I can tell, well and truly forgotten. She is the French novelist, Catherine Arley, a talented exponent of psychologically suspenseful Eurocrime.

Translated by Mervyn Savill, this French suspense novel was published by the Collins Crime Club in 1957. It is to my mind much more effective than Arley’s interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory Dead Man’s Bay. Like so much of the work produced by Arley’s brilliant contemporaries Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the story has a definite filmic quality; it comes as no surprise to learn that in 1964, the novel was turned into a movie, with a starry cast including Sean Connery, Gina Lollobrigida and Ralph Richardson. Reputedly, the film earned Connery – who had just completed the first two Bond movies – his first million dollar pay check. The screenplay seems to have differed greatly from the source material, but reviews suggest it is worth watching, although at the time of writing I have not been able to track it down.

I can, however, recommend Arley’s book. The premise is intriguing: Hildegarde Meisner responds to an advertisement placed by a millionaire seeking a female companion with a view to marriage and soon finds herself conspiring to become the rich man’s wife – and heiress, should he die. Hildegarde is a woman on the make, but nevertheless she attracts the reader’s sympathy as she finds herself enmeshed in an ingenious criminal scheme, with wheelchair-bound Carl Richmond at its heart. The mystery is gripping and its resolution dark.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Empire of Lies

Andrew Klavan is a first-rate thriller writer, whose work I have admired for a long time. Years ago, he wrote a number of fast-paced novels under the pen-name Keith Peterson and I remember enjoying one which was called The Scarred Man. As a screenwriter, he was responsible for adapting Simon Brett’s non-series psychological suspense novel A Shock to the System and more recently he’s produced a number of highly successful blockbusters, including True Crime. True Crime is a classic race-against-time story, which handles conventional material in an adroit and compelling way.

I therefore fell upon his latest book, Empire of Lies, with a great deal of enthusiasm. The main character is Jason Harrow, who has got over a wild past and become a Christian conservative leading a respectable and principled life. But he is dragged out of his comfort zone by a call from a former lover and soon finds himself plunged into a terrorist plot.

I relish the idea that Klavan is hostile to political correctness, and I like the idea that he rebels against the notion that literature is a no-go area for people who hold conservative views. He argues on his blog for conservatives to express their values with ‘courage, openness and honesty.’ Fair enough. But I must admit that I did not warm to Empire of Lies as much as I have to previous Klavans. The story-line did not grab me, and I felt that possibly he was allowing his personal views to intrude into the story to too great an extent. So, a bit of a let-down as far as I was concerned. But it’s only fair to add that various other people have responded very positively to this novel. And one thing is for sure. Klavan is an interesting and intelligent writer and I shall certainly read him again.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Half Broken Things

It is very difficult to work in the same territory as Barbara Vine and not be completely overshadowed. But Morag Joss managed it with a quite magnificent novel, worthy of Vine at her best, Half Broken Things. It’s one of the best novels of psychological suspense that I have read in the last ten years.

So I approached the televised version of the book – which appeared on the small screen last year; I’m characteristically late in catching up with it – with mixed feelings. I wanted the tv programme to be as good as the novel, but doubted whether it would be possible.

Happily, my fears were unfounded. Thanks to a superb cast, led by the delightful and compelling Penelope Wilton, here at her considerable best, the screen version was gripping from start to finish. This is a wonderful story of self-deception, involving Wilton as a slightly barmy house-sitter who ‘adopts’ an odd couple who have only just met, and the young woman’s soon to be born baby. What follows is poignant and terrible.

If you haven’t read the book, or seen the tv adaptation, you have a treat in store.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Faber Diary

Faber and Faber have a long track record of publishing important and interesting work, and some of the classic titles in the company’s backlist are celebrated in a 2009 Diary that they have kindly sent to me. Effective marketing, because I'm impressed. It is an attractively produced publication and a well-conceived reminder of the calibre of their books.

According to the introduction to the diary, T.S. Eliot joined Michael Faber on the company’s board ‘and the story goes that Walter De La Mare suggested adding a second, fictitious Faber to balance the company name’ – a story I find rather appealing. Auden was published by Faber, and so too were Hughes and Plath, as well as major dramatists such as Stoppard and Osborne. Novelists on the list have included William Golding, Lawrence Durrell, Paul Auster and Milan Kundera.

Faber have also published first-rate crime writers,including a lawyer-novelist whom I have long admired, the late Cyril Hare as well as such major figures as P.D.James and Michael Dibdin.

This generously illustrated diary strikes me as a splendid way of celebrating the quality of Faber’s output, as well as eighty years of publishing. Long may they continue.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Dedicatee


I’ve dedicated Dancing for the Hangman to Mandy Little. She’s my literary agent, and has been since I first sent out the original manuscript of what became my debut novel, All the Lonely People. Mandy liked the story, but suggested some (very reasonable) changes and then found a publisher for the book.

She and I have been together ever since, and I greatly appreciate her loyalty and commitment – not least because I certainly haven’t earned her a vast amount of money in commission. Nevertheless, she has always had faith in my work, and that means a lot to any writer.

Mandy encouraged me to write a novel about the Crippen case several years ago, and it’s fair to say that Dancing for the Hangman would not have existed without her prompting. Not so long ago, she took me to Hilldrop Crescent, not too far from her offices, to see the site of Number 39 (the actual house was destroyed in the Blitz) where the Crippens lived. The excursion was followed by a very enjoyable lunch and the hours flew by, as they always do in her company.

The relationship between author and agent is very important. You need to feel you have someone batting on your side. I know plenty of authors who are disappointed in their agents, and this must be very disheartening. I’m lucky to have Mandy – hence the dedication.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Private Patient

I was very pleased to be sent a review copy of the latest Adam Dalgleish mystery, The Private Patient, written by P.D.James. I’ve realised that I’ve barely mentioned James' work in almost a year of blog posts, and that is quite an omission, not only because she is undoubtedly one of the major British crime writers of the past half century, but also because I have a great deal of admiration for her and her work.

P.D. James is now 88, and she is certainly one of ‘the great and the good’ – her c.v. is deeply impressive, and she is a member of the House of Lords. As she points out in the dedication to this book, she has been published by Faber for ‘forty six unbroken years’ – a remarkable achievement by any standards. Her first book, Cover Her Face, was conventional detective fiction, but written nonetheless with a considerable assurance, and as her confidence grew, she established herself as a major figure in the genre. I’ve read almost all of her books, including an interesting non-fiction story about a real life case, The Maul and The Pear Tree, and my favourites are Death of an Expert Witness, Innocent Blood, A Certain Justice and, finest of all in my opinion, Devices and Desires.

James excels at ‘closed communities’. Dalgleish is her most popular character, and he was very well portrayed on television first by Roy Marsden and then by Martin Shaw, but I also liked Cordelia Gray from An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. (Cordelia’s reappearance, in The Skull Beneath the Skin, struck me as a rare misfire, and the television series featuring Cordelia didn’t do much for me either.) Of one thing I am certain - her best books will stand the test of time. She is one of the finest British detective novelists of this or any other generation.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Saturday Selection




Here's a new idea for this blog. I come across plenty of interesting books, either just published or soon to appear, and today I'm going to give a quick preview of some that have caught my eye. I may review some of them more fully at a later date (I won't review every single one - definitely not enough hours in the day!) If the idea of an occasional or regular Saturday Selection of this kind appeals, do let me know.

The Watcher was published last month by Avon as a paperback original (a rapidly growing trend; my Dancing for the Hangman is the first paperback original I've produced) and it's written by Grace Monroe. In fact, the authorial name conceals a partnership between Maria Thompson and Linda Watson-Brown. It features Brodie McLennan and the discovery of a woman's corpse at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, with the message 'more will die' written on her naked body, and it's hailed as an example of 'Tartan Noir'. Brodie is described as 'a headstrong young lawyer'. One or two of them about in real life, let alone fiction!

The Scandalous Life of the Lawless Sisters, published by Faber, is a just-published book by Philip Ardagh. I know his work from his very entertaining and popular children's stories, including the Eddie Dickens books. My son is a big fan of Ardagh, and this book applies new captions to pictures from Punch of 1880. Looks good.

Exposed, by Alex Kava, is published by Mira in December. FBI criminal profiler Maggie O'Dell has to expose a killer 'before her time runs out'. The killer's weapon 'is a deadly virus, virtually invisible and totally unexpected.' I haven't read Nebraska-based Kava's work previously, and her reviews on Amazon are somewhat mixed (though there is, of course, a debate about the merits of Amazon reviews) but her sales are apparently very high, so she looks like someone to watch.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Forgotten Book - The Big Clock

My contribution this week to Patti Abbott's series Friday's Forgotten Books is one of my all-time favourite American crime novels, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock.

Fearing's name is less well known than those of some of the authors featured in this series of mystery classics, but his stunning thriller is undoubtedly one to be remembered on merit. Fearing was a notable poet in America’s Depression era, but with this novel, first published in 1946, he struck gold. The remarkable plot has been copied by other writers and has formed the basis of two oustanding films. The first starred Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, while the excellent remake ‘No Way Out’ starring Kevin Costner offered a fresh twist on an already complex story.

The writing of the novel is clipped and tense, the characterisation economical yet witty, and the pace frenetic. George Stroud is a charming, yet amoral executive working for a magazine empire run by Earl Janoth. Stroud embarks on a dangerous affair with Janoth’s mistress and when Janoth kills the woman, Stroud is the only witness who can pin him to the crime. The catch is that Janoth does not know that the man he saw in a shadowy street was Stroud – and he gives Stroud the job of tracking down the witness. Stroud knows that, if he is identified, he will be killed, and he has to use all his ruthless ingenuity to keep one step ahead of his desperate boss. This short novel is an unmissable triumph of style and plot. Not surprisingly, Fearing was unable in his subsequent books to match it.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Michael Clayton

A film that boasts input from the likes of that late, lamented pair Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella and a cast led by George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson has a great deal going for it. So it’s no surprise that Michael Clayton won a great deal of acclaim when it reached the screen last year.

It’s billed as a thriller, a story about a corporate law firm’s ‘fixer’, played very effectively by Clooney, who is involved on the fringe of a law suit that in its longevity rivals Jarndyce versus Jarndyce – a mega-conglomerate called U-North is being sued by a group of plaintiffs whose health has been damaged by its products. A colleague (Tom Wilkinson, whom I have long admired) has a mental collapse after failing to take his medication: he suffers from bipolar disorder. But it also becomes clear that the sick, troubled man has stumbled upon a secret that could destroy U-North, and, amongst others, their brittle in-house counsel (Swinton, serving up another good performance.) Pollack, as so often, makes a relatively brief, but telling appearance as another of Clooney’s associates. The production values are consistently high.

So, with all these great ingredients, why didn’t I enjoy the film more? It has something to do with the structure of the story-line, which I thought bordered on the inept. For reasons unclear, much of the tale is told by way of flashback – a tricky device that needs more justification than we have here. It’s not an excessively long film, but still the action often drags.

Much of the problem lies with the basic story – strip away the window-dressing, and it’s neither original nor compelling. The bad guys go to so much trouble to eliminate Clooney and Wilkinson that I couldn’t fathom why they allowed the catastrophic memo that seals their fate to see the light of day. Things improve towards the end, but overall I was disappointed. It’s a thriller that seldom thrills. Far better to describe it as a character-based drama, with some very good acting.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Sarah Caudwell

I mentioned Sarah Caudwell in relation to her ‘forgotten book’, Thus Was Adonis Murdered. In fact, Sarah was someone whom I came to know slightly and I found her a fascinating companion.

We came across each other when I was asked by the ‘New Law Journal’ to write an article about her work – the commission came because we were two of the very few British lawyers writing crime fiction in those days, the others including Frances Fyfield and my long-time hero Michael Gilbert. I enjoyed talking to Sarah over the phone –she was a very charismatic, off-beat individual. Later, we met in London, and had a drink at the bar in the heart of the city which she had fictionalised as a watering place frequented by her barrister characters.

In person, she was striking to say the latest – the only woman I can recall socialising with who ever smoked a pipe, which she did incessantly (and since she died of lung cancer, it may be that, sadly, it proved to be the death of her.) She was fiercely intelligent, and very witty indeed. I wish she'd written more short stories, for 'An Acquaintance with Mr Collins' is superb, a modern classic of the short mystery form

I have the feeling she was a deeply complex, and very private, character, but her outward demeanour was jovial and gregarious. We met again a few times, for example at the 1995 Bouchercon, when a historical play she had written was performed, but I hardly saw her after that as she struggled with writer’s block, or possibly with some other demons.

Sarah Caudwell was a one-off, both as a person and a writer. I certainly won’t forget her.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Remembrance Day

11 November is always one of the most sobering days of the year. Even though it was many years ago, I vividly recall a visit to the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Very moving.

Today is perhaps also a suitable occasion to recall a classic detective story which not only opens on Armistice, or Remembrance Day, but in which the coincidence of events on that particular day is absolutely crucial to the story.

The book in question is The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I was in my teens when I first read it, but a few years ago I caught up, very belatedly, with the tv version starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey. It's not the best book Sayers ever wrote, but it nevertheless deserves to be ranked as a classic.

Speaking of Sayers, I've just been reading a tribute to her by Michael Gilbert, which is included in Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration, edited by Alzina Stone Dale. Gilbert knew her mainly through their many encounters at the Detection Club. It's a frank and fascinating personal memoir, written by a man who admired Sayers, but wasn't blind to her idiosyncrasies. He describes her combination of sophistication and immaturity in a compelling way that brings Sayers alive as well as any of the lengthier biographies.

And if you are a Sayers fan, Dale's book is well worth seeking out.

Monday, 10 November 2008

A moment to cherish


The first copy of Dancing for the Hangman has arrived at Edwards Towers. It’s always an exciting experience to see one’s own book in its final form for the very first time. All those months (years, perhaps) of labour – at last in a shape suitable for sending out to an unsuspecting world.

I’m pleased with the look and feel of the book – Flambard Press are a smallish publisher, but over the years they have built up a very good reputation for quality, with major award successes and a very good roster of authors (including, in the crime field, Val McDermid and Harry Keating). It seems to me that they have done a terrific job. (The image above is the original artwork, not the final version, by the way.)

Of course, the pleasure is tinged with anxiety. Gone is the opportunity to fiddle yet again with the text – and, as someone who constantly revises, the thought that I’m no longer able to improve what I’ve written is inevitably rather agonising. And what will readers think of it? Are any reviewers likely to be interested?

The questions are more acute in the case of a book like this, which is so very different from my other novels. I’m conscious that Dancing for the Hangman doesn’t easily sit in a conventional category of crime fiction, and is not obviously ‘commercial’.

Yet this is a book I’m really glad to have written. So far, the reaction of those who have read it has been intensely positive, and that’s a great reassurance, especially as the advance comments from the likes of Frances Fyfield (whose quote now adorns the front cover), Andrew Taylor and Anne Perry come from novelists whose standards are high.

So I shall keep my fingers crossed and hope that readers of this blog are similarly enthusiastic!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Setting again

P.D. James is one of a number of writers whose imagination is sparked by setting. Many of her novels have sprung from a striking image of a distinctive and memorable place – The Black Tower and Devices and Desires are good examples, and I imagine that The Private Patient, about which I shall post before long, was also inspired in part by the image of an ancient stone circle, such as features in the book.

In the past, my ideas from stories didn’t tend to originate with a specific geographical location or feature. But this has begun to change, not least as I’ve absorbed thoughts about developing stories from other writers. The panel on settings at Bouchercon was quite thought-provoking – one question from the audience about where else we might set a book caused me to suggest Wales as a location I’d like to use (although I don’t know South Wales too well, I’m a lifelong devotee of North and Mid Wales.) This led to a mixed reaction (one fellow author commented that crime novels set in Wales tend not to succeed, though I don’t share that view) but the discussion was certainly interesting.

In one sense, ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ is the most successful thing I have written, because it won the CWA award - yet it is rare among my stories in having been directly inspired by a trip to Venice and a few moments spent gazing into the window of a musty bookbinder’s shop.

So although, when I went to Barcelona, I didn’t have a plot in mind, I had been there for less than twenty four hours when the idea for a short story set in the city came to me unbidden. Not quite sure when I’m going to write it, though. Or whether I will be able to resist the urge to call it ‘Gaudi Night'….

Saturday, 8 November 2008

A Not So Perfect Crime



When visiting somewhere new, I always like to seize the chance, if possible, to read a book set there. So my trip to Barcelona offered the ideal opportunity to sample a debut novel by a Spanish academic, Teresa Solana, called A Not So Perfect Crime. It’s just published by Bitter Lemon, who have made available some quite splendid books not previously available in English translation.

The novel is told by Eduard, one of two twin brothers, who run a detective agency together. In fact, it’s more or less a phoney operation, since neither of them is much good as a detective, and they invent a secretary to impress clients, spraying perfume around in their little office before pretending the girl has gone off on an errand. The office even has false doors leading nowhere, to give a grand impression to visitors.

When a top Catalan politician asks them to investigate whether his gorgeous wife is having an affair with a painter for whom she has apparently modelled. The shameless Borja, much the more entrepreneurial of the twins, extracts large sums of money from the client for doing very little, but when the wife ends up dead, our heroes find they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

This is a funny and enjoyable novel, and I was amused by the coincidence that one scene of the book took place in a café where we’d had lunch twenty-four hours earlier. The twins are a memorable duo and there are some laugh-aloud scenes. The element of the book that satirises Catalan politics rather passed me by, but this didn’t spoil the fun. The zany plot is a mess – but, to some extent, that is the point: this is a sort of ‘anti-detective’ novel. If Solana brings the twins back, she will almost certainly have to treat the story-line more seriously, but I hope this doesn’t deter her from a follow-up. Such good characters deserve to live again.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Forgotten book - Fear and Miss Betony

My latest contribution to Patti Abbott's series of forgotten books is Dorothy Bowers' Fear and Miss Betony. Once rather obscure, this title has recently been republished in a modestly priced paperback edition by the admirable Rue Morgue Press.

Rue Morgue have revived some very interesting yet neglected Golden Age writers and Dorothy Bowers is possibly the most interesting of them all. They have reprinted all five of Bowers’ crime novels. This one, first published in 1941, marked the final appearance of her likeable series detective, Inspector Dan Pardoe, although he only turns up towards the end of the story. Bowers’ early death from TB robbed British crime fiction of one of its great hopes – she was seen by some as a natural successor to that other Dorothy, Miss Sayers. This book was much praised in its day, not least by the great American critic James Sandoe, and the publishers summarise its appeal thus: ‘The Golden Age of detective fiction was known for elaborate plots. This may well be the most ingenious one of them all.’

Oddly, though, I’m not sure that the ingenuity of the plot is the real reason why the book deserves t be revived. Bowers’ writing style is literate and appealing. Here, the encounter between the eponymous Emma Betony and a sinister fortune teller called The Great Ambrosio is highly atmospheric and memorable. The setting is nicely done; the story gives a reminder that, albeit changed, life in England still went on while the Second World War raged. And Bowers understood the importance of character. Right at the end, Pardoe makes the point that: ‘The key to this was character – as to so much else. The impact of character on circumstance, circumstance on character.’

The structure of the book is unusual. Emma is brought in by her former pupil, Grace Aram, to help understand an apparent campaign to murder a patient run at the nursing home-cum-school that Grace runs. But the victim is not the person whom one has been led to expect: shades of Agatha Christie's Peril at End House. Unfortunately, the detective work seems a bit perfunctory and at least one clue is withheld from the reader. More important, there are too many characters and so one quickly comes to the conclusion that the culprit is likely to be one of the few who are truly memorable. In the end, I still can’t understand why the murderer went to so much trouble. It seemed to me that the objective might have been achieved more easily and at much less risk. The over-riding merit of the book lies not in the plot but in the splendid characterisation of Emma Betony.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Detection Club


My thanks again to those who have commented on my Detection Club post, or sent emails. To the world at large, the Club is best known for the production of a number of well-known books, both anthologies and 'round-robin' novels by various hands, and I will post about some of them at a future date. In the meantime, I thought I might answer a few of the questions I've been asked.

Is there a fixed number of members of the Detection Club? I'm not sure of the answer, but in his brief history of the Club, contained as a finale to the excellent 2005 anthology The Detection Collection, Simon Brett says the number 'has always ended up round the fifty mark.' He explains that election is by secret ballot, and that no-one knows their names have been put forward unless and until they get a letter informing them of their election' (and I can confirm this is absolutely true.) He adds: 'I have never been aware of anyone lobbying to get themselves elected. Which I think is just as well, because lobbying is not behaviour that would endear anyone to the membership'.

Simon's account also contains selective information about the Initiation Ceremony, the form and content of which has changed over the years (Ngaio Marsh recalled that Dorothy L. Sayers fired a pistol on one occasion, but who knows whether there was a touch of fiction in her reminiscence?) There's no secret handshake, but one element of 'apparent continuity' over the years has been that the President wears what Simon describes as 'a rather splendid quasi-academic gown'.

He concludes: 'Like everything else about the Detection Club, the mythology is...blurred and unreliable...which I must say I find one of the most enduring - and endearing - qualities of the organisation.'

And long may it continue!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

In the Club




For me, Tuesday, 28 October, was a deeply memorable occasion. It was the day when I was formally confirmed as a member of the Detection Club. And because I’m a lover of the traditions of the genre, it meant a good deal to me that I’d been elected to join the oldest association of crime writers in the world.

There’s a pleasing, and highly appropriate, air of mystery about the Detection Club, which I gather has about 60 members in all. Even the precise date of its formation is uncertain – some say around 1928, others put it a year or two later. The first president was G.K.Chesterton, and he was succeeded by Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. More recently, presidents have included Julian Symons and Harry Keating; the current incumbent is Simon Brett.

Essentially the Detection Club is a social gathering, with three dinners in London each year. Last week’s dinner was held in the august setting of Middle Temple Hall, shown in the photos (but the exterior shots don't do justice to the grandeur of the interior.) My wife Helena and I had the delightful experience of sitting on the top table with the likes of P.D. James, Jessica Mann, Simon Brett and his wife Lucy, the eminent journalist Katharine Whitehorn (whose late husband Gavin Lyall was a member), and the guest speaker, Lynne Truss, famed for her best-seller about punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. With us was my Murder Squad colleague, Ann Cleeves, who by a happy coincidence is the other person who has just been elected to membership.

Peter Lovesey gave me a very generous introduction in the joining ceremony, and Robert Barnard did the honours for Ann. After it was all over, Lynne Truss, Frances Fyfield, Helena and I wandered through the streets of London in a torrential downpour, searching in vain for a taxi. Earlier the same evening, it had been snowing in London for the first time in October for seventy years. But for me, the reason why it was an unforgettable night was nothing to do with the weather, and everything to do with the Detection Club.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Back from Barcelona





Just returned from a four-night family break in Barcelona, which proved a bit more challenging than expected – a lost passport and absolutely torrential rain weren’t in the script, for a start. So my apologies for not tracking down an internet café and moderating the numerous very welcome comments on this blog as quickly as usual.

There were moments over the past few days when Barcelona seemed wetter than Manchester at its worst, but the sun did eventually materialise, and I enjoyed a look at one of Europe’s great cities, though I’d like to go back there one day in less fraught circumstances.

One enjoyable feature of the trip was the chance to do some concentrated reading in the evenings. Much as I love reading, and above all reading crime, I’ve not had as much time for it over the past year as I’d wish and so this was a real bonus. I’ll be posting about my thoughts on the books over the next week or so.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Mr Loveday

I really enjoyed watching a re-run of the BBC 4 version of Evelyn Waugh’s classic short story ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’. I first came across this little gem at school, in the sixth form, when a very good English teacher called Jack Hetherington, who was also a terrific actor, read it to us. Jack, now sadly deceased, was politically in the opposite corner from Waugh, but he was smart enough to recognise a great story when he saw it – and I’ve never forgotten his very funny rendition of it.

The tv adaptation followed the story precisely, without either abridgement or change to Waugh’s chilly, economical prose. The cast was stellar, featuring Prunella Scales (aka Sybil Fawlty), the brilliant David Warner (almost typecast as the mad lord) and Andrew Sachs (aka Manuel from ‘Fawlty Towers’) as the eponymous Loveday.

If you haven’t read the story, I’m not going to spoil it for you in this post. You have a treat in store. It isn’t crime fiction really, and yet…mention of it is not, I think, out of place in this blog.

A witty, polished piece of work. If you get the chance to see it, do seize the opportunity and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Charade

I’ve watched, for the first time since my teens, a classic comedy thriller, Charade. Charade stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (as well as the likes of Walter Matthau and George Kennedy) and boasts a soundtrack from Henry Mancini when he was writing at his very best, so it’s not surprising that it achieved great popularity.

What I hadn’t realised before was that the screenplay was co-written by Marc Behm, author of a number of novels, including perhaps most famously The Eye of the Beholder. I first came across Behm’s name back in the 1980s, when Maxim Jakubowski produced one of those excellent Zomba omnibus volumes of his work (the same series introduced me to two wonderful American writers, Cornell Woolrich and Fredric Brown.)

Charade
is an ok movie, but I have to say that on this viewing, I wasn’t entirely spellbound. The main attraction is undoubtedly the interplay between Grant and Hepburn, but the story-line is no better than competent. I much prefer Grant in North by North West, which has stood the test of time astonishingly well.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

A Sleeping Life

A Sleeping Life was one of the first Wexford novels by Ruth Rendell that I read, and it has stuck in my mind because of the clever twist upon which the plot depends. So when the chance came to watch a repeat of the televised adaptation, featuring George Baker in his most famous role as DCI Reg Wexford, I seized it – and I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s classic British television from the 80s, with a first rate class. In addition to Louie Ramsey and Christopher Ravenscroft playing their usual parts as Dora Wexford and Mike Burden with great accomplishment, this episode saw appearances by two stars, Sylvia Syms (very good as drunken Mrs Crown) and Imelda Staunton.

When Rhoda Comfrey is stabbed to death on a visit to Kingsmarkham, it appears to have been a crime of passion. Rhoda was returning to her roots, seeing her dying father in hospital. She has lived in London for over twenty years. But when inquiries are made – nobody in the capital admits to knowing anything about her, and no trace of her existence can be found. Eventually, a link is established between Rhoda and a missing novelist, but even then all the leads turn into dead ends until a visit to the theatre gives Wexford the vital clue.

Just as I enjoyed the novel (which I can recommend) I enjoyed the tv version. I’ll be looking out for more Wexford repeats in the future.