Thursday, 30 April 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic novel of the last century, and the film of the book is equally revered. So it’s quite a confession to say that I’ve never watched the movie – an omission I’ve just repaired.

Gregory Peck is, of course, superb as Atticus Finch, the lawyer who takes on the defence of a young black man charged with raping a poor white girl. The court scene is famous (if, one hopes, improbable) and the fact that the story is told by Atticus’s young daughter Scout adds an extra layer of significance.

As a lawyer, I recognise Atticus as one of the great legal figures of fiction. It’s a wonderful story, and shows how good ‘legal fiction’, or, at least, a story with a legal element, can be.

Famously, Harper Lee has never published another book, and she has long declined to discuss her masterpiece. I have to say I find this baffling – if I wrote a book half as good, I’d find it almost impossible to keep quiet. And I love writing too much to contemplate giving up on it. But each to his or her own. Even with a single book, Harper Lee has achieved something most writers can only dream of. Her writing has helped to shape attitudes – and for the better.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

From Russia With Love

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched, at long last, the first three James Bond films. From Russia With Love was the follow-up to Dr No, and it introduced a number of trademark features, including a score by John Barry, and the debut of Desmond Llewellyn as Q, the technical wizard. Again, I thought the film had worn well, considering its age – thanks partly to the excellence of Sean Connery in the lead role, and largely to a tight and fast-moving screenplay, packed with incident.

In this movie, the villainous organisation SMERSH plays Russia off against Britain, and Bond is meant to be the fall guy. We don’t get to see the face of the evil mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but are allowed a few shots of him stroking a cat with gleeful menace. His henchman include Rosa Klebb (memorably played by the legendary Lotte Lenya), Walter Gotell, who regularly appeared on tv in my youth, and that notable tough guy actor Robert Shaw, who was born in Lancashire – though you’d never guess it from this performance. When one thinks of Shaw’s very different role in The Sting, one realises what a good actor he was, and apparently he was also a novelist of some distinction.

Pedro Armendariz, a Mexican actor, also had a key role in the story, as Ali Karim Bey, who assists Bond before falling victim to assassination by Shaw. I was sad to read that, while the film was being made, Armendariz was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that he committed suicide shortly after the film was completed. His performance in the movie is very likeable, and he is deservedly remembered for it.

As usual, I enjoyed the John Barry soundtrack. Monty Norman is credited, as usual, with writing the James Bond Theme itself. But, having failed to be commissioned to score the movie, he must have been further and very understandably irked to see his name misspelt on the final credits.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Waterloo Sunset and the Kinks

An endlessly intriguing feature of the blogosphere is that you stumble across all sorts of unexpected delights. I think it was a link from John Baker’s blog that took me to a site on the topic of ‘The Kinks in Literature’, where I found a very positive review of Waterloo Sunset (the song which provided the title was, of course, a Kinks hit written by the great Ray Davies.) It turned out that the compiler of the site is Dave Quayle, and among other things he’s acquainted both with John and that very fine short story writer Mat Coward.

When I was young, my parents used to go out to a club in Northwich called The Grey Parrot (a name slightly reminiscent of The Odd Flamingo, the eponymous club in Nina Bawden’s crime novel, perhaps?) There was a small hotel attached to the club and many bands who played Saturday gigs in the town in the 1960s stayed there overnight. So my parents – rather improbably, it must be said – met a good many pop stars of the 1960s. Their number included the Kinks, and they even obtained for me a photo signed by the band members, though I’m afraid it disappeared years ago. I can’t remember many of the others whom they met, though Lulu was among them, but it does strike me as an amusing paradox that a couple who were definitely not part of the Swinging Sixties should actually have had a few late night drinks with so many stars of the day.

I’ve included a link to Dave’s site in the blogroll. Other recent additions include Pulp Serrenade, which I discovered recently – very good!

Monday, 27 April 2009

Margaret Murphy

Immediately before our prison visit and reception, which I described yesterday, Margaret Murphy was voted in by the members of the Crime Writers’ Association as the CWA chair for the next twelve months. Margaret and her husband Murf weren’t able to attend the whole conference, because of other commitments, but it was great to catch up with them at Lincoln Castle.

The CWA couldn’t have made a better choice than Margaret. She is a very good writer, and (unlike many writers, including me) she is conspicuously, and consistently, efficient. I’ve known her for around 15 years – we first met through the CWA’s northern chapter meetings – and, helped by the fact that her home in Heswall is not too far away from my patch, I’ve had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with her in the intervening years. For a long time, Murf, Margaret and I regularly attended dinners together organised by another crime writing mate, Jim Parkinson, and these were always very enjoyable occasions.

Margaret founded Murder Squad, a ‘virtual collective’ of Northern crime writers, back in 2000, and she invited me to join, along with Ann Cleeves, Cath Staincliffe, John Baker, Chaz Brenchley and Stuart Pawson. The Squad experience has been great for all of us, and we’re meeting up again shortly, after too long a gap. Without Margaret, it would never have existed.

In these difficult economic times, an organisation like the CWA, as well as its members, is bound to come under financial pressure. But I’m sure Margaret will take it in the right direction. I only hope it doesn’t get in the way of the production of more of those splendid novels of hers.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

In Prison

At the CWA annual conference in Lincoln, we had a reception on the Saturday evening, before dinner, at the Victorian prison in Lincoln Castle. This was a fascinating place, and we had a chance to look around the condemned cell and elsewhere, nerves appropriately steadied by a glass of wine paid for by the admirable Flambard Press.

Here are a few photos, but I’d like to draw your attention in particular to the prison chapel. This is the only surviving example in Britain of a chapel where the ‘separate system’ was operated. In the mid 19th century, there was a vogue for keeping prisoners completely isolated. They were denied all contact with each other, using solitary cells, a rule of silence – and hoods.

The pews in the chapel were specially designed so that the prisoners could only see the chaplain in his pulpit. Each prisoner stood, or sat, in a wooden compartment which was locked before another prisoner was admitted. Condemned criminals sat at the back, women at the front and debtors to the side. Sitting was actually not easy, since the ‘seats’ were slanted rather than straight – anything to deny comfort, I suppose (and anyone unwise enough to fall asleep mid-sermon would slide on to the stony floor...)

Even in those days, it was recognised before long that this was an utterly inhumane way of dealing with people, and the ‘separate system’ was abandoned. But seeing it was a reminder that being ‘tough on crime’ means very different things to different people at different times.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Red Leaves and Crippen

I’ve been having a very busy time since returning from Lincoln, and this week has included not only a good deal of work, but also two enjoyable events.

The first was an evening at the shiny new branch of Waterstones in Altrincham. Cath Staincliffe and I talked to a pleasingly large audience about our approach to writing, and specifically about Thomas H. Cook’s excellent novel of psychological suspense, Red Leaves. Cath and I are huge fans of the book, though interestingly, some of the readers’ group members in the audience disliked it, mainly because it was too bleak, although one plot hole was cited by Ayisha of Waterstones.

It was good to meet, for the first time, Paul Beech, who sometimes comments on this blog, Jennifer Palmer, who is organising a Mystery Women event which I shall participate in at Manchester’s Portico Library in July, and Caroline Shiach, the competition winner whose story appeared in the anthology Criminal Tendencies, which I mentioned recently.

The second event was another talk about the life and mishaps of Dr Crippen, this time hosted by Alison Russell and taking place at Runcorn Library. A smaller audience, but many questions and much discussion, so a very satisfactory session. The consensus of those attending was that Ethel Le Neve played a more prominent part in the death of Mrs Crippen than has been acknowledged.…

Friday, 24 April 2009

Forgotten Book - Treason in the Egg

My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is the final novel by L.A.G. Strong, Treason in the Egg, published in 1958.

If John Rhode's Vegetable Duck is the oddest title for a detective novel that I know, Treason in the Egg runs it close. Anhd it is not just the title that is a bit out of the ordinary. The novel is described on the title page as ‘a further police diversion’ and the author refers to it in the dedication as ‘this mad offering’. When Ellis McKay, Strong's regular Scotland Yard detective, explains the solution to the mystery to a female admirer, she describes it as ‘a mad rigmarole’. So we may be sure that Strong himself regarded this as a rather eccentric story – and he was right.

Not for the first time, McKay ventures out to the west country and at the start of the book calls at the office of his old chum, Inspector Bradstreet, who is being troubled by a dope-smuggling scare. The reason for McKay’s visit is, however, nothing to do with police work. He is, in his spare time, an accomplished musician and he has been persuaded to speak at a course on Modern Art conducted at nearby Armada House, as a last minute replacement for a lecturer who has been taken ill. Following his arrival at Armada House, McKay finds himself embroiled in a sequence of strange events, including the showing of a bizarre arty film, the highlight of which is a scene featuring an image of an enormous egg. What follows tested my credulity, however.

Strong was a well-regarded novelist - and poet - in his day, although his reputation has not lasted, which is a shame. Sadly, he died suddenly in the year this book first came out. His light-hearted and economical prose style remains agreeable to read, and in McKay and Bradstreet he created a couple of amiable fellows, but his plotting skills were modest. Two other poets who became crime writers and were being published in the Collins Crime Club at the same time, Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day Lewis, an old friend of Strong’s) and Julian Symons, are giants of the genre by comparison. This book certainly has curiosity value, but the whodunit aspect of the story barely registers.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Any writer of contemporary crime fiction needs to have some know-how about forensic science. It may not form the heart of the novel (in fact, personally I prefer novels where the author’s knowledge of forensic science is worn lightly) but it’s important to try to avoid crass errors, and this means doing your research.

One of the enjoyable features of the CWA annual conference was a visit to Lincoln University’s state of the art forensic science facilities. A team of experts was on hand to give us valuable insights into a wide variety of aspects of their work – ranging from forensic entomology, through dating dug-up bones, to sample crime scenes with blood spatter evidence.

The experts were friendly as well as informative, and at dinner that same evening I had the pleasure of sitting next to Dr Dorothy Gennard, one of the UK’s five forensic entomologists. Her enthusiasm for her work was palpable and she proved a very agreeable companion.

My Lake District books usually include some forensic science detail – The Arsenic Labyrinth is a particular example – and there can be few pleasanter ways of researching a sometimes dark topic than that offered by the trip to Lincoln University.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Mayo and Marjorie

Many writers dream of having their books televised. In 2006, the dream came true for a long-time friend of mine, Marjorie Eccles. Her series about Inspector Gil Mayo was brought to the small screen by the BBC, and the popular impressionist Alistair McGowan was cast as Mayo.

But it only lasted for one series. I found the pace and quirky humour of the scripts rather appealing, as did the rest of my family, but it seems that we were in a minority. The series was not, in general, well reviewed, and no further programmes were commissioned. A disappointment.

At the CWA annual conference in Lincoln, I spent some time with Marjorie – in fact, as crime writers are wont to do, we visited a forensic science laboratory together! We talked a bit about Mayo, and I imagined what it must be like to experience the mixed emotions of seeing one’s books televised, and yet to feel that the TV versions of the stories are so different from the originals that they are scarcely recognisable.

Marjorie is an entertaining writer who deserves the success she has achieved. I’m sorry that Mayo did not turn into a long-running series, but I’m glad she had the pleasure of seeing her name on TV credits. She and I share a publisher these days, and she continues to publish very enjoyable mysteries at regular intervals. And to be a very pleasant companion.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


The CWA annual conference in Lincoln was pretty hectic, with plenty of fascinating talks and activities. I was rather startled to realise that it is 21 years since I first attended a CWA conference, at Scarborough way back in 1988. And I’ve been to most, though not all, of those that have been held since. They are always great fun.

The emphasis of the week-end is social – members’ families are welcome, but it’s not primarily an event for readers (Crimefest, Harrogate and St Hilda’s are all on my schedule for the next few months, though) and there is an educative aspect to many of the talks, which are often given by senior police officers or other experts on the technicalities of crime.

But one marketing event that was included was a book-signing session at the Lincoln branch of Waterstone’s, which I squeezed in between lunch and a tour of some of the excellent second hand bookshops in the city.

And yes, I was very restrained, confining myself to one crime novel purchase – a first edition of Scandal at High Chimneys, a historical crime novel by John Dickson Carr, the king of the impossible crime.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Ghost Walk

I’ve returned from a hugely enjoyable weekend at the Crime Writers’ Association annual conference in Lincoln. This was organised by Roger Forsdyke, a very experienced police officer and long-standing member of the CWA, with help from his wife Penny and various colleagues in the CWA. Roger did a great job, and there were numerous highlights.

The first came on Friday evening, with a ghost walk around the city’s historic castle and cathedral area, only a stone’s throw from the hotel where we were staying. Here are some photographs from the evening – the weather was much sunnier than one normally associates with a ghost walk, but appearances deceive, as it was rather cold. But in the low evening sun, Lincoln looked lovely. Not a city I know too well, but it's very appealing.

In the photo featuring the cannon, incidentally, you may recognise a number of very talented writers – Robert Richardson, Keith Miles, Judith Cutler, Rebecca Tope, Peter Lovesey and Kate Ellis.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Walker

The Walker is a 2007 movie, directed by Paul Schrader, which apparently went straight to DVD after a poor initial reception. But on viewing it the other night, I thought it quite a watchable movie, and notable for an appearance by the legendary Lauren Bacall, playing an elderly socialite.

The setting is Washington D.C., and the rich ladies of the city while away their time in the company of Woody Harrelson, who plays Carter Page III. Carter, the gay son of a hero of Watergate, is the eponymous ‘walker’ – that is, he keeps the ladies entertained while their men busy themselves in the murky world of politics. One of the ladies is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, and Carter drives her to her lover’s home. But she soon comes rushing out, saying that he has been stabbed to death. Carter takes care of her, but himself becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation.

Schrader depicts the pre-Obama Washington scene with a careful, though often contemptuous, eye. Thomas is very good as the brittle woman under pressure and Harrelson, not an actor I’ve often watched, is effective in a difficult role. The film is neatly scripted, though rather under-stated at times. A competent piece of film-making.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Seeking the Dead

I mentioned the other day Kate Ellis’s first book in a new series, Seeking the Dead. In some respects, it’s a departure from her previous books, set in a fictionalised Dartmouth, and featuring Wesley Peterson. The backdrop here is Eborby (a fictionalised York) and the detective Joe Plantagenet, who gave up a calling as a priest to become a cop. But the new book possesses the same virtues that have made the Wesley books very popular.

Prime amongst those virtues is a gift for complex, yet credible plotting. Kate’s books invariably offer a traditional convoluted whodunit in modern guise. Here, the mystery concerns a serial killer, the Resurrection Man, who is terrorising Eborby. There is a very neat red herring and I have to admit I fell for it. I was for many chapters convinced that I’d figured out the solution, but Kate managed to confound my expectations with a double twist ending.

Kate’s enthusiasm for history and archaeology is again well to the fore. The Wesley books offer a historical mystery that runs in parallel with the contemporary puzzle, and in this book there is a comparable plot strand, harking back to the Great Plague.

Joe is a likeable fellow, similar to Wesley in that respect and various others, and I look forward to his next outing. Kate is a prolific writer, so fans can be assured that there will not be too long to wait!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Forgotten Book - The Documents in the Case

The author of my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is very definitely not forgotten. Dorothy L. Sayers’ reputation as one of the greatest British detective writers is secure. But The Documents in the Case is a book which doesn’t often seem to be discussed these days – something that surprises me, because it is an unorthodox and original piece of work.

For sure, it’s a very different book from the classic Wimseys. For a start, a co-author is named alongside Sayers. This is Robert Eustace, a shadowy figure who collaborated with a number of crime writers (most notably with Edgar Jepson on the classic short story, ‘The Tea Leaf’), supplying scientific expertise. And science plays a very important part in the story.

There are a number of intriguing themes in the book, but what has always fascinated me is that this is an epistolary novel. The story told through letters by various hands appears to be relatively commonplace but, bit by bit, a complex set of relationships is presented. I first read this as a teenager. At the time, I admired the skill with which Sayers conveyed information through correspondence, and I still do (I’ve flirted with variations of the device in one or two short stories, and I plan to do so again in the future.)

Like many innovative works, this one has a few flaws. There are not too many likeable characters, and the epistolary form does impose some constraints. But Sayers was a very fine letter writer indeed – examples of her mastery of that dying art are easy to come by, as five volumes of her letters have been published – and she deploys her skill to impressive effect here. In some ways, this book is as much a landmark in the history of the genre as the best Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The ABC Files

I shall keep you in suspense no longer! The answer to my quiz question yesterday was A.B.Cox, alias Anthony Berkeley, alias Francis Iles. It was the publication of his masterpiece, Malice Aforethought, under the Iles name, that provoked such interest in his identity. Anthony Berkeley Cox had already established a reputation under the name Anthony Berkeley as an accomplished writer of detective fiction. (He also wrote one exceptionally difficult to find novel as A. Monmouth Platts.)

Malice Aforethought is a genuine classic, even if the twist ending was anticipated by C.S. Forester in Payment Deferred. I am fascinated by the range of names suggested as the author of the book, and I was pleased that so many of you had a go at answering my question. Thanks again.

The first two Berkeley books were originally published anonymously, and he was a man who guarded his privacy jealously. He was not unsociable, and co-founded the Detection Club, but he gave up writing crime novels with the advent of the Second World War, retaining the Iles name for his incisive crime reviewing.

I obtained the details of the speculation about the identity of Francis Iles from a book I acquired last week from a London book-dealer, George Locke. The Anthony Berkeley Cox Files: notes towards a bibliography is the work of ‘Ayresome Johns’ – but that is itself a pseudonym, for George himself.

George’s book first appeared in 1993. It was an edition limited to 300 copies, and a unique feature was that each had, tipped in, an original typed manuscript by Cox. George’s idea was to ensure that each purchaser had the chance to own ‘the original typescript of an A.B.Cox short story, article or other piece of writing’ and this seems to me to be a very pleasing feature. The manuscript in my copy is of a light-hearted little piece, ‘Our Fire’.Cox-Berkeley-Iles is a writer I’ve long admired and it’s fascinating to encounter one of his original typescripts.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Quiz Question

I’ve acquired a new bibliography of a writer whose life has long been shrouded in quite a bit of mystery, and who used at least three pseudonyms. The material in the book prompts me to set a quiz question.

The real identity of this author was the subject of much speculation when he or she published a pseudonymous novel in 1931. Can you guess the real person - who was variously identified by critics and others as being:

Aldous Huxley
Rose Macauley
E. M. Delafield
Edgar Wallace
Francis Brett Young
H.G. Wells
Richard Hughes
W. Somerset Maugham
Marie Belloc Lowndes
R. Austin Freeman
Eden Philpotts
Francis Brett Young
Roland Pertwee
Bernadette Croce
Warwick Deeping
Robert Hichens
Marjorie Bowen
Osbert Sitwell
Charles Williams
Patrick Hamilton
Anthony Rolls
Stella Benson
E.M. Forster

An extraordinarily diverse list, I think you’ll agree. Some eighteen months passed after publication before the truth about the author’s identity was revealed. Who can guess what it was? (Clue: none of the above!)

The answer will appear here shortly.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Easter Break

An enjoyable way of celebrating the fact I’ve finished the first draft of The Serpent Pool proved to be to invite two good friends, the crime writer Kate Ellis and her husband Roger, to spend Easter Monday with us.

I’ve just finished reading Kate’s latest book, and the first featuring Joe Plantagenet, Seeking the Dead (about which, more soon), only for her to break the news that she’s another book of hers has just come out – a sure sign that I can’t keep up! She has now produced sixteen crime novels, and has built up a loyal following.

The sun shone on us, and as we walked the circuit from the house that winds around Lymm Dam, we saw a heron and a couple of cormorants – a reminder to me that there is a beautiful world away from the desk and computer. I must get out and see a bit more of it!

Monday, 13 April 2009

Pausing for breath

I began my current work-in-progress, the fourth Lake District Mystery, on New Year’s Day, 2008. It seemed like pretty good timing, since the story of The Serpent Pool opens on New Year’s Eve. And late last night, Easter Sunday, I finally reached the end of the first draft.

So, nearly sixteen months to produce a first draft. Rather longer than I usually take, but it’s been a hectic year, with a variety of ups and downs. Pressures of different kinds have slowed my progress, but I’m truly grateful for the many good things that have happened since 1 January last year, and especially indebted to those wonderful friends who have supported and encouraged me in many much-needed ways – certainly too many to mention right now.

It’s been a demanding book to write, because I have tried to come up with a really interesting and unusual story. A book in a series does not have to be written to a formula – in fact, it’s better if it isn’t. But it has felt like a long haul, and it’s no coincidence that I started and finished the first draft on public holidays – when working full-time, writing hours are at a premium during a normal week.

I don’t have a clue how people will react to the book, and soon I will submit it to the questioning eye of agents and editors. There may be a need for re-writing, and the book won’t appear on the shelves any time soon. Publication at some point in 2010 is what I’m aiming for.

But right now, I just fancy pausing for breath!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Adventures of Margery Allingham

Some years ago, I read a very good biography of the accomplished Golden Age writer Margery Allingham, written by Julia Thorogood. The Adventures of Margery Allingham, which I’ve just acquired, turns out to be an updated version of that book, appearing under the author’s current name of Julia Jones. The publisher, originally Heinemann, is now Golden Duck, which I imagine is in effect a private venture run by the author, or someone based in her (and Allingham’s) neck of the woods in Essex.

The first edition appeared in 1991, and the 2009 version boasts an introduction by the best-selling novelist Nicci Gerrard (who also forms half of the ultra-successful writing partnership Nicci French). There is also an afterword, which tells the amazing story of how Allingham’s husband Pip (Philip Youngman Carter, a notable illustrator and occasional writer) was the father of a child borne by Nancy Spain, herself a detective novelist and tv personality of the 1950s, and something of a lesbian icon in the days when lesbianism was not as widely discussed and celebrated as it is today.

The book is so good, and the material so worthwhile, that I think it is a real pity that Julia Jones did not engage in a proper re-writing of the book for its second incarnation. The afterword is short and has an unsatisfactory ‘tacked-on’ feeling – it would have been better to have integrated the latest revelations into the Allingham story as a whole. I wasn’t really convinced that the money I spent on the book was worth it. But if you haven’t read the first edition, and you’re interested in Allingham and her work, the investment would certainly be justified, for Julia Jones is a good writer who definitely knows her stuff.

On a separate note, I send my thanks to that marvellous blogger Dorte H, for her ‘Grasshopper Award’. I don’t know how inspirational this blog really is, but I very much appreciate the comments and input of Dorte, and her own blog is a consistently delightful read.

Saturday, 11 April 2009


There’s a link (though sometimes a very tenuous one) between crime fiction and sci-fi. Although I’ve a strong preference for crime, I do have a soft spot for movies featuring alien creatures invading our everyday existence. Cloverfield is a good recent example of the genre, although in one respect I felt the building of suspense missed a trick. Even so, the movie is filmed in very contemporary style, albeit with a head-spinning surfeit of shaky camera work.

The idea is that a young man, Rob, is about to depart Manhattan for a new job in Japan. His brother arranges for their friend Hud to film a video memento of the party that they throw for him. The point of view throughout is that of the video maker (and the film opens with the message that this is a film recovered from ‘the area formerly known as Central Park’.) Things go awry when news comes of strange goings-on elsewhere in New York City. Before long, the party-goers are running for their lives.

It turns out that aliens have landed (their arrival is shown in the final shot of the film – part of the ‘home movie’ work.) The principal invader is a menacing Godzilla-like creature, and I felt that the movie-makers missed a trick here. Suspense would have built even more strongly had the nature of the creature been hinted at for longer, rather than being revealed so quickly. He is accompanied by various spidery parasites whose bite is fatal. Suffice to say, it does not do to become too attached to characters in Cloverfield. Rob and three others battle for survival against the odds – but bad stuff keeps happening, and the film ends in uncertain and unsettling fashion.

I enjoyed this film, although shorn of its gimmicks, for the most part it follows a well-worn path. It would amaze me if we don’t see Cloverfield 2 in due course.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Forgotten Stories - Loel Yeo and Hylton Cleaver

Patti Abbott’s ‘Forgotten’ series focuses this week on short stories. I’ve decided to highlight two obscure but marvellous stories by unknown authors which I’d never heard of until they were exhumed by Jack Adrian in his brilliant anthology Detective Stories from the Strand Magazine. This collection was published in 1991 and benefited from an introduction by the great Julian Symons. Adrian, who is clearly very knowledgeable about the genre, also credited the support of his editor at OUP, Michael Cox, whose untimely death last week I noted on Saturday.

In ‘Inquest’ by Loel Yeo, a chance meeting on a train with a man last seen two years earlier leads to revelations about an inquest and its aftermath. Nobody seems to know anything about Yeo – Symons thought the name ‘surely a pseudonym?’ Certainly, this is a very good story indeed.

‘By Kind Permission of the Murdered Man’ by Hylton Cleaver is equally impressive, a sort of variation on the old ‘perfect crime’ theme. I’d never heard of Cleaver either, but according to Adrian, an industrious and impressive researcher, he wrote mainly boys’ fiction, with a few well-crafted crime stories for adults on the side.

Yeo’s story first appeared in the magazine in 1932; Cleaver’s came out two years later. But despite their age, these stories definitely deserve to be remembered, as do the rest of the entries in Adrian’s book.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Dr No

Forty seven years after it was first screened, I’ve finally watched the first James Bond film, Dr No. And I have to say that I found it thoroughly enjoyable – in fact I was surprised at how modern it seemed.

One of the secrets of the film’s enormous success is that the screenplay is very taut. I was amazed to read on Wikipedia that Wolf Mankowitz, who was involved with the original version of the script, was so unhappy with it that he had his name removed from the credits. If true, it was weird judgment on Wolf’s part. One of the writers who was credited, incidentally, was the late Berkley Mather, a thriller writer who is now little remembered, but who was chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association in 1966.-67.

Sean Connery immediately establishes himself here as the definitive Bond (though I admire Daniel Craig’s updated interpretation) and Ursula Andress is the definitive Bond girl -she also played Vesper Lynd in the spoof Bond movie Casino Royale, in 1967, inspiring Burt Bacharach’s classic melody ‘The Look of Love’. The eponymous villain is played by Joseph Wiseman, an actor I’ve never come across elsewhere. He portrays the bad guy bent on world domination as a kind of precursor of Gordon Brown, but with added charisma and bionic hands.

What of the music? The soundtrack was written by Monty Norman, who has won libel claims against those who allege that the great John Barry composed the ‘James Bond Theme’ rather than simply arranging it. I was fascinated to learn that Monty was chosen for the job because of a musical he had written called ‘Belle’ (with a book by Wolf Mankowitz – it’s a small world.) Belle was the stage version of the story of another villainous Doctor – Hawley Harvey Crippen. And the story of that musical deserves a blog post to itself, on another day.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Criminal Tendencies

I’ve received my author copy of an interesting new anthology, Criminal Tendencies. It’s published by Crème de la Crime, and £1 from each copy is to be donated to the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline.

Mark Billingham contributes an introduction, and Lynne Patrick, the presiding genius at C de la C, has assembled a varied range of contributors – including Caroline Schiach, who won an international competition that gave her the chance to see her story in print alongside those of such notable figures in the genre as Reginald Hill, Peter Lovesey, Peter James, Sophie Hannah, Andrew Taylor, Val McDermid and Simon Brett. Chris Nickson, winner of a regional competition, also has a story in the book.

My contribution is a story called ‘Mindstalker’, which first appeared six years ago in an anthology edited by Maxim Jakubowski and M. Christian, The Mammoth Book of Future Cops. As the title of the anthology suggests, the story is very different from the rest of my work. Writing it was an interesting experiment, and I’m glad to see the story have a second outing, especially for such a good cause.

I’m looking forward to reading this book – I’ve read a handful of the stories before (in fact, two appeared in anthos I have edited) but I’ll be coming to most of them afresh. And here’s hoping that the Helpline funds are nicely boosted by the book’s sales.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

John Baker again

Here is the second part of my interview with John Baker about his new book, Winged With Death.

Martin: One of the differences between us that I mentioned is your love
of dancing. Whereas I have two left feet. The tango plays an important
part in your book - was that part of your original plan for the novel,
or something that developed as you wrote?

John: I have wanted to use dance as a metaphore for some time, so it was
part of the original plan. It fitted this time because of the location
of the action. The River Plate is where the tango was born in that
critical period around the 1880s. The original maetaphore was coined by
the tanguerros; the leader was immigrant washed up on the shores of this
strange land, while the follower was the land itself. The dance was
about the settlement of the immigrant, the acceptance of the immigrant
by the land, the battle of each against the other and the knowledge that
each needed the input of the other.

For my own purposes, although this original metaphor was almways in the
background, was about communication. It was still about a fight, of
course, because that is what literature is always about, but it was about
reconcilliation as well. And it was there to temper and to modify and to
echo some of the other themes in the novel.

Martin: The book is, in part, set in Montevideo. Yet you've never been
to Uruguay. Of course, you did quite a bit of research, but what
prompted you to write about a real geographical location that you've
never visited?

John: I dreamed about Montevideo. I woke up one morning and realised
that I'd just returned from a night-long trip to Montevideo. I could
still smell it, I could see the colours and hear the sounds of a South
American city in the late sixties/early seventies. I thought I would
have to go there, to visit to make sure that I got everything right. But
then I realised that it could just as easily remain as a dreamscape. I
did the research. I spoke with others who knew the city with some
intimacy. I made sure that I got it right while all the time being aware
that in a very real sense it didn't matter. I was anyway playing with
the concepts of time, why not include those of space as well?
And now, when all that work has been done, do I want to go to Montevideo?
To have a look, to measure perhaps how right or wrong my idea of it was?
It's a place I love. I don't want to give myself an excuse to change it.

Martin: It might be said that one of the themes of the book is 'denial'.
Do you agree, and if so, what fascinates you about denial?

John: In terms of denial in the book, it is one of those themes I
mentioned earlier, which contrast with the theme of dance. Because
denial is an active emotion. It keeps you on the move, keeps you running
away. Whereas dance, in a very real sense is about the moment, and the
moment is about stillness.
What is fascinating about denial is that it represents the modern dilema.
Everyone is hurtling through time with pretensions of permanence; becoming
precious about rock climbing, the razor-edge of a blade, Jesus or
Mohammed. They believe the obsessions of those around them to be founded
on illusion.
That millions of Americans, sophisticated people in many other respects,
can block out all the evidence and assert that some simple controls over
the sales of guns will not affect the stats on the death rate from
firearms accidents, school-room killings, etc., is only one example of the
place of denial in the society in which we live.
There is also the concept of Holocaust denial which is fought against by
the Israeli's, who in turn are in denial about their own State’s murderous
policies in relationship to the Palestinians.
And on a personal level it's exactly the same. Denial is a defense
mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable
to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite
what may be overwhelming evidence.
A man told that his wife is dead may refuse to believe it, setting the
table for her and keeping her clothes and other belongings in the bedroom.
A woman having an affair may not think about pregnancy or sexually
transmitted diseases.
People usually take credit for their successes and find 'good reasons' for
their failures, often blaming the situation or other people.
Alcoholics and drug users often deny that they have a problem.
Optimists deny that things may go wrong. Pessimists deny they may succeed.
There have been many documented cases of people refusing treatment for a
terminal disease because they do not believe it is happening to the. They
would rather die than accept reality. And they do.

Martin: What was the starting point for your writing of this book?

John: I can't honestly say. My starting point is always thematic. I'm
not interested in plot. The themes which converged around Winged with
were time, tango, denial, revolution and abduction.

Martin: Your prose is extremely well-crafted. I'd like to think that
this is the product of endless painful revision, and suffering for your
art, rather than effortless, otherwise the envy wouldn't be easy to
control! Do you write many drafts, and how long did the book take to

John: My first drafts are not very inspiring. Writing, for me, is about
rewriting. About revision and rewriting. I don't go through a fixed
number of drafts, but there are always more than I expected.
Winged with Death took a long time. Around two and a half to three years.
The best part of the experience was the editing. Lots of things came
together then. While I was writing it seemed as though the connections
weren't always there; only in the editing stage did everything fall into

Martin: And did you enjoy the writing process?

John: Yes. Writing is the one thing in my life I always enjoy. Even when
I hate it. When it's absolutely impossible I still manage to hang on,
not go insane, kep the faith. Every time something doesn't work I know
it's only like that as a trial of strength. I only have to close my eyes
and hang in there and it'll all come together.

Martin: You have been blogging for some years, and to much acclaim.
What, for you, is the appeal of blogging? And does it get in the way of
your other writing?

John: Blogging does get in the way of my other writing. But it's part of
my day now. It's a way of communicating with my readers, and with other
writers; it's a way of publishing stray thoughts and irritations and
freeing myself up for the main job of writing another novel. If I didn't
blog I'd have to invent some other way of avoiding the beginning of
another novel.
Blogging is my way of sharpening my pencils, of getting ready to do
something else.

Martin: And finally, what next for John Baker the writer?

John: I'm writing a novel set among the people who left Europe for
America during the middle part of the 19th century. I suppose it's a
kind of quest novel. America is the grail; and the question, or one of
the questions, might be: when you find the grail, what then? When you
find it and collect it up and it ceases to be a quest and becomes
instead a possession, are we actually better off?

So there you have it. I'm not sure I agree with John that it's not a crime novel - in fact, one aspect of the story has a faint echo of a famous Christie mystery. But what can be said for sure is that it's an intensely readable and very rewarding piece of work from a polished writer with a worldview that I find fascinating, even though (or maybe because) it is very different from my own. Recommended.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Winged With Death

I first met John Baker through the Northern Chapter of the Crime
Writers' Association, and he and I were later invited by Margaret Murphy
to form the seven-strong collective of northern crime writers called
Murder Squad. I was in on John's crime writing career
from the outset, when I read and enjoyed his first book, Poet in the Gutter, introducing Sam Turner

John has become a noted blogger, but it's been some time since he last published a novel. Now, he's back with something rather different, a notable novel published by
Flambard Press and called Winged with Death. We talked though cyberspace: here's the conversation - which continues tomorow.

Martin: I'm not sure you would describe Winged with Death as a crime
novel, though I tend to think the genre is elastic enough to accommodate
it. Not that it matters - the important point is that it's a really good
book. And very different from those of your other books that I've read.
Was it a deliberate choice to write 'something completely different'?

John: I don't think Winged with Death is a crime novel. There is a crime
in it, probably several, but it isn't a crime novel because it makes no
nods to the conventions of the genre. One of the inspirations for the
novel came from looking at the works of people like JB Priestley and HG
Wells, Orwell as well, those writers who were concerned with the nature
of time. The initial idea was to write a novel about time and it was
that that gave me the impetus to internalise the process, to take it to
bed with me and to begin mulling over the ways that I might approach it,
consciously and sub consciously. Many of the elements of the novel first
came to me in dreams, the location for instance, and the idea of using
the narrative like a dance, moving the reader this way and that, setting
her spinning for a while and then bringing her to a kind of stasis. I
use the word dance with some insight, meaning its ability to communicate
rather than manipulate.

I was also determined to write a novel in the first-person. All of my
previous novels were written in the third person (one partially in the
second-person) and, as a writer, I needed to come to grips with a
first-person narrative for my own satisfaction.
So the answer to your question is yes. Winged with Death is something
completely different to anything I have attempted before, and it was
always going to be that.

Martin; You'd probably agree that we are very different writers (in
fact, you may be very glad about that!) Yet I like to think that there
are some points of similarity between us. One is that our latest books
represent a significant departure from our previous work - although
writing up the life of Dr Crippen is a temporary departure from
contemporary crime in my case. Winged with Death, like Dancing for the
, is published by Flambard. How did you find the experience of
working with a smaller publisher after years with Orion?

John: I only ever had one good editor at Orion, and that was Mike Petty,
so it was good to work again with someone who actually liked my work. My
later editors at Orion were people who inherited me and we didn't work
together over a project for which we shared a passion. We worked around
something which actually divided us rather than united us, and I was
asked more than once if I could write like (this months popular author)
or (the current projection for next year's breakthrough darling).
I suppose there must be people who are prepared to prostitute themselves
in this way; but it was never going to be a possibility for me.
Working with Flambard was good because the general attitude was 'how can
we make a good manuscript better', and that is something I've always been
happy to go along with.

Continues tomorrow....

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Suicidal Lawyer and CFG

Two new editions, British and American, of a single book have landed on my doormat, and it’s a book of which I have very fond memories. It’s called The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, and it’s edited by that prolific and accomplished anthologist, Mike Ashley. The book includes the very first Sherlockian pastiche I ever wrote. ‘The Case of the Suicidal Lawyer’.

I was startled to realise that the book originally appeared as long ago as 1997 – how time flies. Mike’s idea was to come up with a comprehensive timeline for Sherlock’s life, and to include contributions that featured on those cases mentioned, tantalisingly, in passing by Dr Watson.

I chose Watson’s mention of ‘the Abergavenny murders’ in ‘The Priory School’, although I decided to give that reference a twist. And, in a dark sort of way, the title I thought up rather amused me – perhaps I was feeling over-worked at the time!

Over the years, this has been one of the most successful short stories I’ve ever written. Duly encouraged, I’ve followed up with a number of other Sherlockian pastiches, for magazines such as ‘The Strand’ and they are always fun to write. As for Mike Ashley, I’ve never met him, but we correspond by email and he’s invited me to contribute to quite a number of his collections. He is a very good editor indeed.

Finally, a quick mention of ‘Crime Fiction Gazette’, a forthcoming crime fanzine to be put together by Paul Moy. Again, I haven’t met Paul in the flesh, but I’ve bought various books from him and he’s very knowledgeable about traditional detective fiction. Worth watching out for.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Michael Cox

I was sorry to learn of the death this week of Michael Cox, who became a published crime novelist relatively late in life, but earned massive success in a short career. Michael’s first novel, The Meaning of Night, was many years in the writing, but when he finally finished it, it earned a six figure advance and became a best-seller.

But I met Michael just once, twenty years ago, when he was working as an editor at Oxford University Press. I’d come up with an idea for a reference book about crime fiction – an Oxford Companion. To cut a long story short, I came into contact with Michael, and he was enthusiastic about the concept. So much so that he travelled up to my home in Lymm and proved a very pleasant companion as we knocked ideas back and forth. At this point, I was not a published novelist, but I’d published several non-fiction books, and many articles, and he was very encouraging.

Then came the hugely disappointing news that OUP in the US had just commissioned a Companion which sounded very similar to mine. So that was the end of that. But Michael kindly put me in touch with his American colleagues, and I got to know Rosemary Herbert, editor of the Companion . And I finished up contributing twenty-odd essays to her book. Rosemary’s book turned out to be somewhat different from what I had in mind, but I like it a lot, and I think she did a really good job. I’m surprised the Companion isn’t mentioned more often in discussions about the genre, as it contains much interesting material.

I lost touch with Michael, but I enjoyed several chunky OUP anthologies that he edited and which showed his extensive knowledge of Victorian genre fiction. And then, out of the blue, came the news that he’d published this best-seller. However, his luck was not all good. He’d been diagnosed with a rare cancer that affected his sight. This seems to have spurred him to finish his book. I haven't got round to reading it yet, but I hope its success gave him enormous pleasure. Tragically, the cancer has now claimed him, but he was a nice guy and I’m sorry I never had the chance to work with him.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Forgotten Book - Behind the Screen

My latest entry to Patti Abbott’s series of forgotten books is a companion piece to last week’s entry, The Scoop. The very first collaborative work by members of the Detection Club was the 1930 serial Behind the Screen, written for broadcast and published initially in ‘The Listener; but not brought out in book form until more than half a century had passed.

It’s historically very interesting indeed. Having said that, regarded simply as a detective story, it's a slight piece, not in the same class as The Scoop in my opinion. The body of a very unpleasant lodger called Duddon is found behind a japanned screen in the house of the Ellis family. The story is opened by Hugh Walpole, best known for his Herries Chronicles, but also the author of several rather dark thrillers. Above the Dark Circus was much admired by Julian Symons, but my favourite is The Killer and the Slain, a stunning novel that has unaccountably been overlooked in writing about psychological suspense.

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers continue the narrative in their contrasting styles, and the later chapters are written by Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley and Ronald Knox.

Milward Kennedy set a competition for readers of ‘The Listener’, and his assessment of the entries is included in the Gollancz volume that brought this story and The Scoop together in book-form for the first time. Sadly, the original illustrations were not included, though I’ve seen some of them, and thought them rather pleasing.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Red Bones

I’ve just finished reading the new Jimmy Perez mystery, set in Shetland, by Ann Cleeves. It’s called Red Bones and it’s set in spring – each of the Shetland Quarter is set in a different season of the year. I’m planning to review the book for Tangled Web UK, but suffice to say that I very much enjoyed the fluency of the writing, as well as the wonderful way in which Ann evokes the setting. A gift for evoking place - above all, for portraying rural communities in depth – is one of Ann’s great strengths as a writer.

I’ve mentioned before that Ann is a friend of long-standing and one point that sometimes crosses my mind is whether it’s legitimate to review books written by personal friends. I began reviewing crime fiction, for a magazine called ‘The Criminologist’, back in 1987 – having learned, from reviewing legal books, that it was a good way of expanding one’s library at little or no cost. I enjoyed reviewing, and in those days I was not a published novelist. But of course, as one publishes more and more, inevitably (and happily) one gets to know more and more fellow writers. Does this mean that one should stop reviewing their work?

I don’t think so. Where practical, it’s a good idea to flag up to readers of the review that the author of the book is someone known to the reviewer. This is what I try, in most cases, to do. But to do it every single time would become wearisome for readers – it would seem as if the reviewer were showing off how many people he or she is acquainted with.

I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to this sort of dilemma. My own approach is to try to be both honest and positive, whether or not I know the writer in question. I would not wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. But where I sense weaknesses in a book, even one written by a good friend, I would be likely to allude to them in a review, whilst striving to highlight the positive aspects of the book. And if I really did not like a book, then almost certainly I would not review it. This approach suits me, not least because I’m a passionate crime fan, and I’m naturally predisposed to enjoy crime novels - whether or not the writer has ever crossed my path.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

April Fools

25 years ago today, I became a partner in Mace & Jones, the Liverpool law firm where I continue to work. So my elevation came on April Fool’s Day – and by an interesting coincidence, I qualified as a solicitor on April Fool’s Day, back in 1980. Perhaps that says something about my legal career.

I also got married one April day, and – much to my Dad’s amusement – insisted that the celebratory music, nearly all of which was written by my hero Burt Bacharach, should include the theme song to an unremarkable movie that I’ve never seen, called… The April Fools. A very beautiful melody, by the way.

All of which leads me to a question which I hope the knowledgeable people who glance at this blog may be able to answer. I’ve never come across a story which had, as an important element of the plot, the fact that it was set on April Fool’s Day. I have such an idea in mind, but before I start writing it down, I’d be interested to know if anyone has beaten me to it…..