In the 1980s, I lived for eight years on the Wirral peninsula, not far from the seaside resort of New Brighton, which faces Liverpool across the River Mersey. Now it has to be said that New Brighton’s heyday as a tourist haven was about a hundred years ago, and in the 80s, it had a rather decayed feel. I tried to capture that in the opening chapter of my second Harry Devlin book, Suspicious Minds, but when the novel was at proof stage, I took the precaution of making a return visit to find that the place was being spruced up, and so I hastily modified what I had said about it.
Fast forward seventeen years, and I have just given a talk on Dr Crippen at the brand new Floral Pavilion. The idea was to have a couple of crime fiction events (by Margaret Murphy and me) to coincide with a week-long performance in the theatre of Agatha Christie’s play Spider’s Web, which has played to large and appreciative audiences.(The list of forthcoming attractions also impressed me – ambitious and interesting.)
I must say I was enormously impressed by the Floral Pavilion and by the ongoing regeneration of New Brighton. Of course, I was seeing them on a beautiful day, but even so it was great to see people on the beach at Fort Perch Rock a hundred yards or so from the Pavilion. I’m not saying New Brighton will ever replace Majorca as a sun-seeker’s paradise, but the past-it atmosphere that struck me twenty-odd years ago is now itself clearly out of date.
Incidentally, Crippen had a connection with New Brighton. Apparently he gave a lecture there in 1907 about one of his supposed medical cures. Maybe they ought to put up a plaque to record the historic association. But on second thoughts…..
Sunday, 31 May 2009
Saturday, 30 May 2009
Six months ago, I had the pleasure of awarding first prize in the Liverpool, Capital of Culture Year, short story competition to Cathy Roberts. We had entries from a wide range of countries, but as luck would have it, the winner lived on the doorstep – actually, in a tugboat, MV France-Hayhurst, currently moored in the Albert Dock.
Circumstances have conspired to prevent Cathy and me from meeting again until now, when I had the chance to visit the boat for coffee and an all too brief chat. Cathy continues to write (her brilliant winning story is being adapted into a play) and is engaged on a wide variety of activities, and she has a marvellous fund of stories about life in the dock world.
Quite apart from the fascination of maritime history and travel around the world under sail, there’s obviously something special about the camaraderie between people who live and sail on boats. Their lifestyles are intriguing. For instance, Cathy introduced me to one neighbour who divides his time between Liverpool in the summer and Egypt in the winter.
The society centred around the boats moored at Albert Dock is a classic ‘closed community’, and even on a sunny day when Liverpool and Albert Dock looked terrific, with many interesting contrasts between the old buildings and the brand new (the still unfinished new museum is in the next-to-bottom photo) I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a fantastic setting for murder, mystery and a classic form detective story…
Friday, 29 May 2009
The BBC Radio series of Victorian detective stories featuring Inspector James McLevy were completely unknown to me until I discovered, in my Crimefest delegate bag, a promotional CD of one of the episodes, For Unto Us. I’ve now listened to it and done a bit of research about McLevy.
The radio series was conceived and written by David Ashton, and features Brian Cox, a formidable actor, in the title role. The setting is Victorian Edinburgh and McLevy is a ‘thief-taker’ feared by the city’s villains and his subordinates in equal measure. His prime adversary is Jean Brash, as intelligent and sexy as she is criminally inclined, and her personal relationship with McLevy is pleasingly equivocal. She’s a sort of Irene Adler, if you like, but developed more fully than Conan Doyle’s adventuress.
The strength of the episode I heard was definitely in the interplay of the characters. The ‘mystery’ element was distinctly underwhelming; neither the main story nor the sub-plot held my interest, unlike the gibes traded between the cops and the robbers, which were pretty entertaining.
It turns out that there was a real James McLevy, who wrote about his cases, and was quite a star in his day. David Ashton has also written novels about his hero, and it may be that the novel form gives him rather more scope to develop the plots of the stories. Overall verdict on the CD: decent easy listening to while away a tedious commute by car.
Thursday, 28 May 2009
Music is an important element in many crime films and television series. A great theme can add an extra dimension to any story. Sometimes the music lingers longer in the memory than the film or tv show itself (an example is the score for the 1967 version of Casino Royale), but when all the elements come together perfectly, the result is superb.
In the movie world, I think of Roy Budd’s theme for Get Carter and John Barry’s haunting score for Body Heat as quite unbeatable. The mood of each film is set by the opening moments, in which the main theme creates a sense of unresolved tension and menace – on Jack Carter’s train ride to Newcastle in Get Carter, and the sinuous credits that precede our introduction to Ned Racine in Body Heat.
In the tv world, one of the best themes ever written was composed by Laurie Johnson, who wrote the music for The Avengers. It’s a great tune, which I loved as a boy and still much admire. Now a box set of Johnson’s work, including his masterpiece, and many other pieces of music written for the series (including ‘Return of the Cybernauts’ – not the easiest story to set to music) has been made available. Three CDs for under a fiver on Amazon can’t be bad.
Of course, as with so many box sets, some items are included which will not feature in anyone’s list of favourites. Johnson is a professional who has turned out a lot of good material in the course of a long career (other well-remembered crime themes of his include The Professionals) but I think most people will regard The Avengers as his greatest achievement.
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Accountants don’t often find themselves taking heroic roles in thriller films, for some unfathomable reason, but Jonathan McQuarry manages it in Deception, a film which came out about a year ago. The fact that the nerdy McQuarry is played by charismatic Ewan McGregor certainly helps. We first meet him when he is feeling lonely during an audit visit to a corporate client. He is befriended by slick lawyer Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) and soon he is discovering that there is more to life than balance sheets.
An accidental (or is it?) exchange of mobile phones plunges our hero into involvement with a mysterious sex club. Strange – but invariably glamorous - women start ringing him up to ask if he is free this evening. They meet at hotels, and after a quick bedroom romp, but no conversation, they disappear out of his life again. One of the ladies thus briefly encountered, amazingly, is the legendary Charlotte Rampliing. Suffice to say, she is still stunningly attractive after all these years. I kept expecting her to reappear later in the film, only to be disappointed. Then McQuarry meets through the game a very pretty blonde girl (Michelle Williams) he has already taken a shine to, and the plot begins to thicken.
Jackman, McGregor and Williams are all excellent in this movie, but although there are plenty of plot twists, some of them are rather predictable, while there is at least one gaping hole in the plot. As is often the case with films of this kind, the first part of the movie, when characters and events are being set up was rather more convincing than the later stages, when disbelief has to be suspended time and again.
All the same, I enjoyed Deception. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s well made, and the actors do a good job with the material. Worth watching.
Tuesday, 26 May 2009
The Bank Holiday weather was excellent, so I spent a good part of it outdoors, but I still managed to catch the Sky documentary about Alfred Hitchcock, introducing a season of his films. In half an hour, the programme provided a good summary of some of the reasons why the portly film director was one of the most influential movie-makers of the twentieth century.
Film pros such as Stephen Frears waxed lyrical about the way in which Hitchcock’s visual imagination, coupled with his artistic and technical skills, enabled him to create so many suspenseful scenes. The point was made that Hitchcock didn’t bother much with dialogue, but rather focused on set pieces – the crop-dusting sequence in North by North West and the shower scene in Psycho are classic examples. This is something which perhaps differentiates the thriller from the conventional mystery, where dialogue is often highly important (yes, it’s a generalisation, but I think it’s broadly true.)
Another key point was that humour played an important part in many Hitchcock films. Thrillers which are unrelentingly bleak can be wearisome, and I'd guess that the wit of the films is one of the reasons why they have lasted so well.
It isn’t just movie-makers who can learn from the Master of Suspense. Novelists keen to fathom the craft of building tension (and I’m one of them) can hardly fail to benefit from studying Hitchcock’s techniques. Even in his supposedly weaker films, such as Frenzy and Family Plot, there are many clever touches. I’m planning to record one of the Hitchcocks I’ve managed to miss over the years, Notorious, and another that I haven’t seen for a very long time, To Catch a Thief. Something to look forward to.
Monday, 25 May 2009
The latest episode of Inspector George Gently was set in Durham at the time of the 1964 general election. Gently Through the Mill opens with the death by hanging of a former owner of a flour mill, who has recently sold the business to the Labour Party election candidate. It appears to be a case of suicide, but Gently and his infuriating sidekick Bacchus find that lately there has been a great deal of trouble at the mill. And before long there is a second death.
I haven’t read the Alan Hunter book on which the show was based, but I’d like to bet that most, if not all, of the political stuff wasn’t in the original. The same may or may not have been true of the scenes involving freemasonry. It seems that the novels have just been used as a starting point for the scriptwriters, but although the stories have one or two jarring anachronisms, nevertheless I thought this episode, like the others that I’ve seen, had something that lifted them out of the ordinary and made them worth watching.
The more I’ve seen Martin Shaw as Gently, the more I’ve been impressed by the quiet authority of his performance, and the less his previous incarnations as Adam Dalgleish and Judge John Deed have got in the way of my appreciation of the humanity he brings to Gently. But I still wish that, having transplanted the stories to the North East, the programme makers had filmed them there, rather than in Ireland.
Sunday, 24 May 2009
As a postscript to Crimefest, a few people have asked me how it felt to compete in the Mastermind quiz, in that leather chair made famous by the TV programme, with lights dimmed, except for one very bright one, shone right into the contestant’s face. The short answer is that it is a bit like doing an exam, with the added frisson of making a fool of yourself in front of various friends and readers. The consolation was that Simon Brett, Meg Gardiner and David Stuart Davies were in the same boat, and very good-natured fellow sufferers they were.
The setting was certainly intimidating, as with the TV show. The Crimefest organisers did a good job of replicating the menacing atmosphere, and Maxim Jakubowski is a seasoned - and both authoritative and fair-minded - interrogator. In fact, the very first time I met him was as long ago as 1990, when he organised a similar event for the London Bouchercon, in which I participated (and thereby met some fascinating people, including Geoff Bradley, editor of that great fanzine CADS.) Maxim repeated the quiz at the 1995 Bouchercon in Nottingham, with panellists including the late Edward D. Hoch and US crime expert Marv Lachman, and me.
So I did have some past experience of what it feels like to expose my ignorance, as well as my fund of criminal trivia, to a crowd of curious onlookers. As one friend said to me: ‘How could you possibly have forgotten the first name of Marcus Didius Falco’s beloved? It’s the same as your wife’s….’
Saturday, 23 May 2009
Various bloggers have been reflecting on the pros and cons of crime conventions in the wake of Crimefest, and this debate mirrors many of the conversations that go on in the book rooms and bars wherever conventions are held. Two of the main reservations from the perspective of writers and readers are these. For authors, arguably, conventions sell very few books for the panellists attending (other than the star names.) For readers, once you have heard a writer a couple of times, and attended a panel of theirs on a certain topic (‘the importance of setting’ is an example), future panels on such themes can turn out to be samey.
There is truth in both these points, but there are also strong reasons why I really enjoy conventions, long after my first visit to the 1990 Bouchercon in London (when I wasn’t even a published writer.) As a mid-list novelist, attending a convention may not work out on a strict cost-benefit analysis, but I think there are hidden benefits in terms of profile-building – all the more important at a time when market conditions are so dire. From a fan’s point of view – and I’m still very much a fan, as I hope this blog illustrates – there is much fun to be had from attending panels, even on familiar topics. Though I think it makes sense to be selective. Back in 1990, I attended every panel I could. Now, short as a convention is, I tend to take breaks. This does mean I miss some treats – for instance, at Crimefest 2009, I made a mistake by missing the translators’ panel, which everyone seemed to like. However, I did enjoy, among others, the Hakan Nesser interview, and the panel chaired by Maxim featuring the likes of Paul Johnston (a terrific writer, who deserves to be better known) and the witty Declan Burke.
I’ve mentioned before the pleasure of meeting old friends, and of getting to know others for the first time. In the breaks I take, very often away from the melee of the convention hotel, I enjoy having the chance to get to know one or two people better. For instance, from last year’s Crimefest, I recall a thoroughly agreeable lunch with Natasha Cooper. This year, I had a long chat with Chris Ewan, a fellow lawyer and highly promising author, and also got together with Russell James, who wasn’t involved in the convention, but lives close to Bristol and had travelled in for the day. Russell is an interesting writer, whose fiction is very dark, and who has recently diversified into non-fiction with much success – Great British Fictional Detectives is his latest title, and it’s packed with tons of information. I’ve known Russell for years, but we’ve never talked at such length before, and I found him fascinating and informative on the life of a full-time writer after years as a self-employed business consultant.
So are conventions worth it? In my experience, the answer is an unequivocal yes. I’ve never been to one, either here or in the US, that that didn’t teach me a good deal and wasn’t great fun.
Friday, 22 May 2009
Following up the ‘Forgotten Authors’ panel at Crimefest, my entry for Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books is the novel which I said, in answer to a question from the floor, I would most like to see reprinted. In fact there are lots of them, but this is definitely a good one. It is Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley.
The set-up is brilliant. Little Mr Todhunter is terminally ill. So he decides to make one final gesture, committing an ‘altruistic murder’ by killing the most obnoxious person he can find. He shoots Jean Norwood, ‘famous actress manager’, and believes he has committed the perfect crime. The snag is that an innocent person is charged by the police with Jean’s murder, and the police seem to have an ‘iron-clad’ case. So Mr Todhunter has to turn detective to prove himself guilty of murder and save an innocent life.
This is Berkeley’s finest books, widely regarded as a Golden Age classic – yet at Crimefest, very few people seemed to be familiar with it. This is sad, because Berkeley’s cleverness and cynical wit make Trial and Error a unique piece of work. On publication, the book aroused much debate because of a legal point – and in my edition, a green Penguin, Berkeley justifies his interpretation of English law in a way that seems to me to be pretty convincing (mind you, I have never practised criminal law…)
Berkeley dedicated the book to P.G. Wodehouse, and his earlier fiction reflects Wodehouse’s influence, but by the time this novel was published in 1937, his writing was truly distinctive. It is sad, and astonishing, that within a mere two more years, his career as a crime novelist was at an end.
Thursday, 21 May 2009
Last Sunday morning at Crimefest, I moderated a panel given the tag-line ‘Edge of Doom’ – in effect, about suspense and pushing characters as far as you dare. The four panellists were authors who have published with great success, but not for that many years, and (apart from a brief chat with Caro Ramsay a year back), I’d never met them before this week-end.
When you are moderating a panel discussion, you want to make sure that everyone gets their chance to speak, and also that the conversation is both informative and informal – so that the audience feels that they like, and are interested in, the people who are talking, and might therefore be inclined to like their books. Usually, I know at least one or two of the panellists when I’m moderating, but on this occasion I wasn’t at all sure in advance how things would go. One option would have been to draw up a fairly rigid framework, but that doesn’t seem appealing to me, and the panellists expressed a similar view when we exchanged emails in advance of the week-end.
As things turned out, I needn’t have worried. Caro, Brian McGilloway (like Len Tyler and Aliya Whiteley, a product of the excellent Macmillan New Writing project), M.R.Hall and Steven Hague interacted extremely well with each other and each of them had plenty of interest to say. They were a diverse group, and I felt this added to the pleasure of the morning. A special word for Steven, who has published just one novel so far, and who had never participated in a crime panel before that Sunday (when he did it twice!). He contributed with the assurance of a seasoned performer. I was impressed.
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
For the first evening of Crimefest, it was off to the pub, for a meal, plenty of wine, and a crime quiz. I met Len Tyler for the first time – he wrote that excellent novel The Herring-Seller’s Apprentice – and it was also good to have a chat with fellow blogger Rafe McGregor. I wangled my way into a good quiz team – the Euromonkeys! – and when we came out on top, we were given a bag of books and DVDs of our own to share around. Lots of fun, and there are even pictures of the Euromonkeys on Karen Meek’s Eurocrime blog…
Among the varied events of Friday and Saturday, I was impressed by the fluency and charm of one of the guests of honour, Hakan Nesser, about whom I’ll post more in a future blog. Suffice to say that he does not conform at all to the stereotype of the gloomy Scandinavian crime novelist. Along with a group including Barry Forshaw, Ann Cleeves (whose interview of Hakan skilfully brought out his personality, as well as much information), and Elizabeth Saccente, who was short-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger, I was on Hakan’s table for the Gala Dinner on Saturday evening, which followed immediately after a party for all Crimefest delegates given by publishers Constable & Robinson.
A highlight twenty-four hours earlier was another publishers’ party, held by Crème de la Crime to celebrate the publication of the anthology Criminal Tendencies, which I’ve talked about on this blog in the past. A raffle was held for a special signed copy, and my pact with Beelzebub resulted in my number coming up when Mark Billingham made the draw. Much credit goes to Lynn Patrick of Crème for the money she has raised for breast cancer charities.
I was glad to meet up again with Caroline Schiach, a new writer who won a competition to contribute to Criminal Tendencies. There were quite a few people at the convention who, like her and Elizabeth, are working hard on their debut novel, and it is good to see that the crime genre attracts continuing enthusiasm and commitment from those who are keen to become involved. They deserve every encouragement – it’s not always easy for them in the current market, but maybe their number includes the next Ruth Rendell and the next Reginald Hill.
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
For me, the Crimefest convention kicked off with a panel that I moderated on Thursday afternoon. The topic was ‘Forgotten Authors’, and the panel comprised Barry Forshaw, Declan Hughes, Sarah Rayne and Mary Andrea Clarke. It was good to have the benefit of Barry’s expertise (he wrote The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and edited the massive, two volume encyclopaedia about the genre in Britain, published by Harcourt at the turn of the year) and Declan, Sarah and Mary displayed real passion for their chosen writers – factors which contributed to a lively and, I think, hugely entertaining debate.
Declan focused on that great husband and wife team, Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar, while Mary’s choices were two writers of a very different type, Georgette Heyer and Ethel Lina White. White’s name is not widely known these days, but she wrote the books on which three very successful films were based – The Lady Vanishes, The Spiral Staircase and Wax – and was a specialist in the ‘Had I But Known’ school of crime fiction.
Sarah spoke with much enthusiasm about Francis Iles and that mistress of ingenuity, Christianna Brand, two writers I’m very fond of myself. Barry ranged over writers such as Eric Ambler, the neglected Alan Williams, the thriller writer Francis Clifford, and Peter O’Donnell, who created Modesty Blaise. My own choices were Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons.
The audience became very enthusiastic and involved, and I’m sure it wasn’t simply because there was a goody bag of books to be awarded to whoever asked the best question (Jennifer Palmer got the vote.) All in all, it really was one of the most enjoyable panels I’ve ever been involved with.
Monday, 18 May 2009
Crimefest 2009 was tremendous fun, and as I drove through the rain from Bristol back to Lymm, in the company of Kate Ellis, we reflected on an eventful and occasionally exhausting few days that, for several reasons, will linger long in the memory.
I suspect there are a good many crime convention-goers who, like me, are not naturally gregarious or sociable, but who nevertheless find these events represent unmissable dates in the calendar. There are always some excellent panels and events, and the chance to discover a few new writers of real merit. But for me the greatest pleasure is to spend time with old friends, and to make new ones.
I’ll be posting more thoughts inspired by Crimefest, but for now I’d just like to express my admiration for all the hard work done by Adrian, Myles and their admirable colleagues. In my experience, the whole crew are invariably helpful, friendly and efficient and they deserve the thanks of everyone who attended. Next year’s event runs from 20-23 May, and any crime fan who can make those dates is, I am sure, in for a real treat.
Sunday, 17 May 2009
I tend to think of Bitter Lemon Press as a ‘new’ publisher, but in fact they have now been around for a few years, and they have certainly made an impact in the increasingly popular field of translated crime.
Looking at their current catalogue, I was struck by the variety of the writers they have introduced to UK publication. Two of my favourites (but very different from each other) are the late Friedrich Glauser, creator of a quietly determined cop called Studer, and the quirky and interesting Dutch writer Saskia Noort.
As for other names on the list, Leonardo Padura, Tonino Benacquista (who contributed a story to one of my anthologies for the Crime Writers' Association, I.D.) and Gianrico Carofiglio are also authors who have attracted a good deal of interest in this country.
I’ve just received review copies of the latest offerings from BLP. Rage by Sergio Bizzo is soon to be filmed by the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, while David’s Revenge by Hans Werner Kettenbach looks especially interesting. I’ve been interested in revenge stories ever since those long ago days when I first came across The Count of Monte Cristo, and Kettenbach’s book will be excellent if it matches the promise of its blurb.
Saturday, 16 May 2009
I’ve received my copy of the latest Lake District Mystery to be published in Germany by Luebbe. The Arsenic Labyrinth has metamorphosed into Kein Einsames Grab. As with previous books in the series, the title is not a direct translation, but an attempt to capture the flavour of the story (‘No Solitary Grave’ – a reference to what happens when police search for a body at the labyrinth site up in the Coniston fells.)
I definitely get a kick out of seeing my books appear in overseas editions. I can read German (although I’ve got rather rusty) but I’m not keen on reading my own books once they have been published, and I’ve not had the temerity to check the translation, which is once again by Ulrike Werner – I’m sure she’s done a great job.
Someone asked me if I was planning to do an ‘author tour’ of Germany. Unfortunately, the constraints of the day job do not permit it. But maybe one of these days…
Friday, 15 May 2009
Successful crime novels with a sporting background are rare – Dick Francis’ racing thrillers being a notable exception. Cricket, a complex game that provokes passionate devotion in its fans and baffled boredom in its detractors, features as a background element in quite a number of crime novels, perhaps most famously in Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers, while the gentleman burglar Raffles was a skilled bowler. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a cricketer and huge fan of the game, but sadly he never involved Sherlock Holmes in a cricketing mystery.
My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is Testkill, in which cricket is very much in the foreground. Testkill was co-written by Ted Dexter, a former England cricket captain, and one of the game’s most charismatic figures (‘Lord Ted’ was his nickname, and he played to entertain, unlike many of his contemporaries n the dour 1960s), and Clifford Makins, a journalist. It was first published n 1976 and I devoured it the following year, as soon as Penguin published it in paperback – it was the first book I read when recovering from over-indulgence after my final exams at university, and the light, agreeable mystery definitely assisted the recovery process!
The setting is a Lord’s Test Match, with England playing Australia. When one of the bowlers collapses and drops dead in mid-pitch, it soon becomes apparent that murder has been done. The background is authentically done, and this is the real appeal of the book. The whodunit plot isn’t really in the Christie class, but it’s a breezy thriller, and it achieved enough success to tempt Dexter and Makins to write a follow-up, this time set in the golfing world, called Deadly Putter, which I haven't read. If you fancy a bit of escapism with lashings of cricket lore, Testkill is still worth a read.
Thursday, 14 May 2009
Jon L. Breen is one of the best mystery critics around, and Ramble House have done a great service to crime fans by publishing a collection of the American writer’s selected mystery criticism, A Shot Rang Out. This is, I think, a book to dip into rather than to read straight from cover to cover – though you could enjoy doing just that – and it offers the delights of the bran tub: turn to any page and you will find something of interest, and perhaps something unexpected.
The contents are very varied. There are in-depth author studies of writers as diverse as Henning Mankell, P.D. James and Chester Himes, and ‘short takes’ on another hundred writers, including perceptive choices such as that splendid British writer Mat Coward. There are essays on distinct topics, including a witty and wise piece on ‘advice to writers’, a quick but neat attack on plagiarism, and a very good outline of ‘round-robin’ or ‘group’ mysteries, notably The Floating Admiral.
Why is Breen such a good critic? It’s because he is an enthusiast for the genre, but not by any means afraid to point out shortcomings. In this he reminds me of Julian Symons, who could be acerbic, but at heart was and always remained a true fan of crime and detective fiction. Commenting on one of my short stories, ‘The House of the Red Candle’, Breen is complimentary about the characterisation and atmosphere, but less so about the plot (‘easily seen through by the alert reader’) and I have to admit that his criticism is fair. (When, in a review of Waterloo Sunset not contained in this book, he was very positive, I basked in the praise, knowing that he would not be generous about the writing if he didn’t mean it.)
As I said, a book to dip into. I haven’t read it all yet, but so far I haven’t read a single segment that wasn’t informative. A Shot Rang Out is one of the best collections of mystery criticism ever published.
Now – when will some enterprising soul gather together Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery criticism?
P.S. - Today I'm travelling to Bristol for Crimefest. Posts will continue between now and the end of the convention, which I will then reflect on next week.
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Priscilla Masters’ versatility as a crime writer is demonstrated by her latest novel, Buried in Clay. I first came across her work when her first Joanna Piercy novel was published, and after we got to know each other, we did a few library events together, which I found highly enjoyable. Over the years, I’ve read almost all of her books, including a children’s story she published before becoming a novelist (the tale is set at Biddulph Grange, a National Trust property which boasts one of the most fascinating gardens I’ve ever visited), but this book strikes me as rather different from its predecessors. In essence, it’s a venture into the field of romantic suspense.
In a note at the start of the book, Cilla explains that she started writing the story in the 1980s, at a time when she was running an antiques business specialising in Staffordshire pottery and period furniture. Travelling in Cheshire, her eye was caught by a 16th century black-and-white house called Hall o’th’Wood: old black-and-white houses are relatively plentiful in the county and I share Cilla’s enthusiasm for them. Musing about the house’s history, she developed an idea for a novel, although it was never published.
Years later, when Cilla was being published by Allison & Busby (who also publish my Lake District Mysteries) she was asked about her early writing and was encouraged, although the original manuscript was lost, to re-write the story of Hall o’th’Wood.
Buried in Clay is the result, and very readable it is too. I’ll be reviewing it for Tangled Web UK, but suffice to say that the blend of history and contemporary suspense is handled in an accomplished fashion and the rural setting is beautifully evoked.
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
I’ve mentioned Murder Squad several times in this blog. It’s a group of seven Northern crime writers, founded by Margaret Murphy, and last Thursday evening, six of us (Chaz Brenchley, who is unwell, was the absentee) met up at the house of Cath Stainclife in Manchester.
It’s not easy for seven people who live in various different parts of the north to get together in the same place at the same time. In fact, the last time we were all together was three years ago, when another crime writer, Zoe Sharp, took the above photograph – at an Ilkley hotel, where a CWA lunch was taking place.
Since Murder Squad was founded, many good things have happened to its members. For instance, Cath has turned Blue Murder into a successful tv series, and Ann Cleeves has won the CWA Gold Dagger. Margaret is now the CWA chair, and I won the CWA Short Story Dagger last year. Together with Chaz, Stuart Pawson and John Baker, we’ve produced brochures, newsletters, performance events, a website, a CD, and an anthology of short stories.
But times remain tough in publishing, and Murder Squad is still a great support network for all of us. We discussed plans for the future – including ideas to celebrate our tenth anniversary next year. More information in due course.
Monday, 11 May 2009
The second episode of the current series of Inspector George Gently offered an urban setting in contrast to last week’s story centred around a lonely old building in the countryside. Gently in the Night featured the murder of a young woman called Audrey, who told her parents she was a nurse, but in fact worked as a ‘fox’ in a seedy night club under the name of Blaise.
Martin Shaw, as the eponymous cop, had a nice variety of suspects to question, including three couples. There was the husband and wife duo who ran the club, the parents of the deceased, and a religious campaigner, married to a solicitor with links to the club. Gently’s sidekick, Bacchus, turns out to have been a patron of the club, and he fancies another ‘fox’, who disappears after being questioned.
Setting the series in the early 60s has given script writer Peter Flannery the chance to give modern audiences a flavour of long-gone times. This was the era just before the legalisation of abortion, but something I had not known (and found truly startling) was that prescribing the Pill to an unmarried woman was actually illegal.
The show was worth watching, but I have to say that Bacchus is shaping up to be the stupidest detective sidekick since Captain Arthur Hastings was banished to the Argentine. He lied to his boss, became improperly involved with a witness, and foolishly taunted Gently about his boxing prowess. When challenged to a charity boxing match, he was, predictably, knocked out by a single blow from Gently’s fist. That will teach him.
Sunday, 10 May 2009
I’m looking forward to attending Crimefest in Bristol next week (blog posts will continue to appear while I’m away) and I hope to have the chance to chat to some of those who read this blog while I’m there. Please do come and say hello if you spot me wandering around the convention.
I’m involved in three events on the programme. At 4.30 pm on Thursday 14 May, I’m participating moderator in a panel reflecting on bygone authors. Panel members are: Mary Andrea Clarke, Barry Forshaw, Declan Hughes and Sarah Rayne.
At 11 am on the Sunday, I’m again participating moderator on a panel titled ‘Edge of Doom’. My colleagues will be Steven Hague, M.R.Hall, Brian McGillowray and Caro Ramsay.
And an hour later, I’ll be involved in the Mastermind quiz, presided over by Maxim Jakubowski. Also participating are Simon Brett, David Stuart Davies and Meg Gardiner.
It should all be very enjoyable and it will be good to meet old friends and make new ones – always the twin highlights of conventions such as this.
Saturday, 9 May 2009
The latest issue of the Mystery Women newsletter has just arrived, and one of the upcoming events advertised on the front cover is to take place at the Portico Library in Manchester at 6.30 pm on 8 July. The Portico is quite a famous venue but one which, unaccountably, I’ve never attended. But I’ll be putting that right on 8 July, since I’ll be appearing in a panel discussion with Kate Ellis, Dolores Gordon-Smith and Cath Staincliffe. The moderator is to be Jennifer Palmer, whom Cath and I met the other day when talking to an audience at Waterstones’ in Altrincham.
The Mystery Women newsletter covers events involving members, but the main focus is on reviews. I’m glad to say that there is a gratifying review of Waterloo Sunset by Sue Lord: ‘a well-plotted novel with twists, turns and surprises. The mix of beautifully drawn characters contains gangsters, cleaners and security men…’
Sue Lord also makes mention of the Lake District Mysteries, and the books have been reviewed very favourably in recent blog posts:
The Coffin Trail
The Cipher Garden: Books Please
The Cipher Garden: DJ’s Krimiblog
Friday, 8 May 2009
Detective fiction writers like to play games with their readers, and authors of all kinds are apt to fret, once their books have been published, that they have not done enough work on their stories, and that a little more revision would have worked wonders. This first edition of Many a Slip by Freeman Wills Crofts, my entry this week in Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books series, is a rather pleasing example of both.
Crofts was one of the giants of detective fiction’s Golden Age, creator of Inspector French and master of plots hinging upon a seemingly unbreakable alibi. His most famous books were novels, but Many a Slip is a collection of short stories. In a prefatory note, he explains their genesis thus:
‘All of these little stories were originally published in the Evening Standard (of London). Owing to newspaper space limitations they were then little more than skeleton plots and I have now tried to give them some small covering of flesh.
They are murder tales, and in all of them the criminal makes a mistake which gives him away. In the game with the reader, he wins if he spots these before they are revealed and (so to speak) I do if he doesn’t.’
An appealing concept. But in my copy of the book, Crofts noted sadly in his own hand:
‘Now that I see these little tales in book form, I think they should have been further expanded, with some build up of the characters. Alas, that is now too late!
Freeman Wills Crofts
11th June 1955’
By the way, I’ve added this title to the Collecting Crime Fiction page on my website: there are more examples there of books and crime-related material that appeal to me.
Thursday, 7 May 2009
All I knew about the movie Pathology when I started watching it was that it was fairly new (released only a year back) and that it was a ‘macabre thriller’. It soon became clear that ‘grisly’ and ‘gruesome’ were equally appropriate adjectives. This is a story about a group of gifted young pathologists with a taste for the dark side. They play a ‘game’ which involves committing undetectable murders, on victims who deserve to die.
Or so clean cut intern Dr Ted Grey is led to believe when his colleagues inveigle him into playing the ‘game’. Ted is one of those guys who has it all. He’s clever, handsome and engaged to be married to a sexy young law student whose father is fabulously rich. Needless to say, things can only go downhill from there…
It turns out that the ‘game’ is not all that it seems and soon some very, very disturbing stuff starts to happen. There are those who say that the modern fascination with autopsies verges on the pornographic, and they might find some support for their case in Pathology. I’d like to think that the most successful crime novels and films of the future will deal with sex and violence much more subtly than this film. It is definitely not a movie for the squeamish, and the finale seemed to me to be completely over the top.
Yet although I don’t care for gorefests, I did think that the film – despite its unpleasant elements – was very well made. It left few taboos unbroken, but it would be good to think that, having got all that out of their system, the writers and production team will turn their talents to something rather less graphic, and with rather more meaning, in future.
Wednesday, 6 May 2009
I’ve received the latest issue (number 57, and I own every one of its predecessors) of George Easter’s very well-regarded fanzine, Deadly Pleasures. I haven’t contributed to this particular issue, but as ever there is a variety of good things, including a major features about that excellent writer Peter Robinson. I’ve been friendly with Peter since the early days of our careers, and his enormous success in recent years is richly deserved. On the occasions when reviewers have bracketed my books with his, I’ve been very pleased, and certainly we share a number of the same preoccupations as crime writers.
One of the pleasing features of DP is that the reviews are by no means bland – Larry Gandle, for instance, can be a pretty acerbic (but astute) commentator. The same is sometimes true of Marv Lachman, a hugely knowledgeable fan of traditional mysteries and the short story form. In his latest column, Marv highlights a very interesting book published a year or two back, collecting the detective fiction reviews of Charles Williams from 1930-1935. The book, edited by Jared Lobdell, contains a great deal of interesting material, and I share Marv’s enthusiasm for it. If you’re a serious fan of Golden Age mysteries, it’s packed with fascinating information.
George has long been a fan of British crime fiction, and as usual this issue contains generous coverage of UK authors and books – the contributors include Cath Staincliffe, Philip Scowcroft and Ali Karim. All in all, it’s a magazine that has established itself very firmly with fans, and for good reason. Its production is not a commercial enterprise, but a labour of love, undertaken by a man whose passion for the genre over the 17 years or so that I’ve known him has never dimmed. Long may George continue to share his deadly pleasures with the rest of us.
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
I spent a chunk of Thursday attending a reception at the House of Lords to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Local Solutions, a Merseyside social enterprise that does wonderful work in caring for vulnerable members of our society. The event was hosted by Lord Alton, maybe better known as the former Liberal MP David Alton, who is a previous chair of Local Solutions. The speakers included two people who spoke very movingly of how Local Solutions had changed their lives for the better – one the mother and carer of a severely disabled woman, and the other a former refugee from Rwanda who fled from genocide and is now herself a trained, and, I have no doubt, highly compassionate carer.
I’ve visited the Lords once before, to attend a Crime Writers Association Diamond Dagger ceremony – the recipient that day being a terrific writer, Margaret Yorke. I was so impressed by the setting, with its wonderful views up and down the Thames, that I used it as a backdrop for the first chapter of my London based novel of psychological suspense, Take My Breath Away. The book was not a massive commercial success, but I'm fond of it, and some people whose judgment I respect reckon that first chapter is one of the best things I’ve written.
After the reception, I went with a colleague and the rector of Liverpool Parish Church (which itself featured in Waterloo Sunset) to look round Westminster Hall and sit in on a debate. A number of famous faces were there to be seen, although the debate – on defence – lacked obvious drama. I wondered about looking in on the House of Commons debate on MPs’ expenses, which by all accounts was a bizarre affair, but decided against. Though perhaps I could have learned something - some of the expenses claims we have been reading about recently suggest that our elected representatives are accomplished exponents of creative fiction
Monday, 4 May 2009
It’s a tragic irony that Alan Hunter’s novels about George Gently should only be televised subsequent to his death, at the age of 82, back in 2005. The Gently series began in 1955, and Alan went on to write roughly one a year for over forty years. I never met him, though we were in touch briefly when he contributed a story to Anglian Blood, an anthology I co-edited with Robert Church. It was, in fact, a story he’d originally written before that first novel appeared, at a time when he was working as a book-seller and was known as a poet rather than a crime writer.
I’m not sure what he’d have made of Inspector George Gently, and my own feelings about it are rather mixed. I saw the pilot episode, but missed a couple of episodes shown last year. This story, Gently and the Innocents, featured the murder of an elderly man at his large, dilapidated home, which was just about to be bulldozed to the ground to make way for a building development.
Gently is played by Martin Shaw, in a performance I thought strongly reminiscent of his interpretation of Adam Dalgleish, another widower capable of being both sharp and benign. Shaw has a compelling presence, but the casting decision strikes me as unadventurous. I’m also baffled by the decision to move the setting from East Anglia to the North East – and then to film on location in Ireland!
The script was written by the acclaimed Peter Flannery and it was something of a curate’s egg. The ending was strong and effective – Flannery did a very good job of drawing out the theme and implications of the story. The story was set in 1964, and the period was well conveyed for the most part, although there were a couple of jarring notes. But I did experience despair when the Chief Constable threw Gently off the case for no good reason – only, of course, for Gently to carry on investigating and solve the mystery. One can only conclude that Flannery believes this cliché is a compulsory plot element in all television police dramas. And the moment it was revealed that the dilapidated house had once been a children’s home, I had a sinking feeling that child abuse would loom large in the unravelling of the mystery. And guess what?
Despite the flaws, Inspector George Gently is a well, and no doubt expensively, made show, and I shall watch it again. But I hope that the detection part of the script has a fresher feel to it next time.
Sunday, 3 May 2009
Combining the life of a (very) full-time partner in a law firm with a writing career presents various challenges and can feel rather exhausting at times. But there are compensations, and these include the chance to do a wide range of fun things. The past week, for instance, has been utterly hectic, but full of pleasures. These included a visit to the House of Lords (about which, more soon) and lunch at the state of the art training facilities at Liverpool Football Club's site at Melwood.
And on Wednesday, I had an enjoyable time combining business with pleasure at Chester Zoo. I’ve been professionally associated with the Zoo for over fifteen years, something which is all the more gratifying as I remember visits there when I was a small boy. Today the Zoo is one of the world’s best. In terms of audited statistics, it’s the UK’s second most visited tourist attraction, after the Tower of London (not all attractions have audited statistics, but even so, this is a striking achievement) and the Zoo’s staff play an increasingly important role in the worldwide struggle for better conservation and biodiversity. The work done in various parts of the globe in preventing the disappearance of rare species, and the promotion of animal care in societies that are financially poor yet rich in potential is largely unsung, but admirable. It is a truly magical place.
Lunch with the Director, and a video presentation of the Zoo’s ambitions plans for the future was followed by a guided tour. It’s a number of years since my last visit, and I was impressed by the changes, as well as the projects intended to establish the Zoo as a tourist portal for the north west of England – an area I love.
And needless to say, my visit prompted a few ideas about a short crime story set in a zoo. It might be a project to undertake while I await editorial feedback on The Serpent Pool. There must be examples of other zoo-based mysteries, but I can’t call them to mind. Any suggestions?
Saturday, 2 May 2009
Alan J. Pakula was a fine film director. His credits include All the President’s Men, which I watched when it first came out and much enjoyed. An early success was To Kill a Mockingbird, subject of a recent post here, and this prompted me to watch a film he made many years later, and not long before his death in a freak car accident, the 1992 movie Consenting Adults.
The film has a good cast, led by Kevin Spacey and Kevin Kline, and deals with two suburban neighbours who are both married to extremely glamorous women. Their male bonding leads Spacey to suggest a bit of wife-swopping. At first Kline is horrified by the proposed betrayal But he begins to warm to the idea, encouraged - it seems – by his own wife, and Spacey’s.. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that things are not what they seem, and murder ensues.
I’m afraid this was a film when the plot, although appealing in some ways, was woefully lacking in credibility. When Kline is set up for a murder he didn’t commit, why do the police and even his own lawyer take no interest in his defence? Not much of it made sense to me. My sympathy for Kline was also tempered by the sheer silliness of some of his behaviour.
It’s a well-made and rather glossy film, but as a thriller, sadly lacking. And To Kill a Mockingbird it most definitely is not. Pakula was capable of much better.
Friday, 1 May 2009
My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a novel first published in 1983, John Hutton’s 29 Herriott Street. I read this, and Hutton’s other book, Accidental Crimes, not long after they first came out in paperback and I was greatly impressed. All the more amazing, therefore, that he did not go on to enjoy a long and distinguished career as a crime novelist.
29 Herriott Street takes some of its basic facts from that classic Liverpool murder story from the 30s, the Wallace case. Hutton, a Mancunian by birth, transplants the crime to his native city and develops the story in a fascinating, though fictional way. Forty years after the savage woman at Number 29, a writer called Winnick re-opens the case and uncovers (you guessed it!) dark and hideous secrets.
The reviews of this book were outstanding. No less a figure than A.S. Byatt admired it, and I share her enthusiasm for the ‘plain English skill of the telling.’ Hutton was a formidable talent. Accidental Crimes is equally good. Hutton is still alive, I believe, and in his 80s. He has lived in North Wales for years, and his career was devoted to education. He has long been a member of the CWA, but I’ve never met him – or even heard anyone mention his name - baffling. But he deserves to be recognised as a man who can write powerfully and engagingly. This book alone is proof of that.