Tuesday, 30 June 2009

George Dies Again

Friday evening saw me visiting Carlisle Library, to host another Victorian murder mystery evening when the question again was asked – 'Who Killed George Hargrave?' There was a large audience, which engaged admirably with the puzzle, and Paul Kimberley ultimately proved himself the best detective in Carlisle. The actors who played the suspects, from the Green Room company, were extremely good – the person who took the role of the culprit in particular put in a truly exceptional performance.

I’ve hosted more than twenty of these mystery events now, and typically, I find they attract much bigger audiences than conventional talks or panels with other writers. Why is this? I think it’s to do with the interactive element – people like the idea of being involved in solving a mystery. It’s not the prizes that matter to them, I’ve learned, as much as the sheer fun of taking part. One is reminded of those whodunits, very popular in the Golden Age, where writers such as Ellery Queen overtly set a ‘Challenge to the Reader’. But perhaps today more of us than in the past prefer to play the game in person rather than as readers.

One of the incidental pleasures of these events involves the people you meet. On Friday, a former client of mine showed up together with her partner – it was great to see her again. And the library staff were terrific – top marks for their period costume!

A special word of thanks to Helen Towers, the Reader Development Officer for Cumbria Libraries, who looked after me superbly. She has a large area to cover, and does a great deal of driving in her job, which must be hard work, but her enthusiasm is infectious – and her efficiency admirable.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Scene of the Crime Novel

Last week I gave a couple of talks about the life and misadventures of Dr Crippen, and was very pleased with the audience feedback. First up was an evening at Stretford Library, as part of the Wordfest celebrations. I was informed by someone that I was in competition with a concert by Take That, but the turnout was pretty good, and the question session long and fascinating.

On Friday, I gave the talk at Kendal Library. This is the one and only real life library that I’ve ever featured in a novel – in The Coffin Trail. So it was a real pleasure to be invited by Cumbria Libraries to take part in their Midsummer Murder festival.

The staff were, as at Stretford, very friendly and welcoming. Kendal is one of the Carnegie Libraries, and is celebrating its centenary. There is a new extension to the original building and I was impressed by the mural that decorates it, segments of which are shown in the photos.

Both occasions confirmed me in my belief that libraries form an extremely important part of most communities. It seems inevitable that the burden of debt the government has built up will lead to spending cuts, whoever wins the next election. But I really do hope that this does not mean that libraries suffer. If we are to get through the social problems that financial crises cause, we need strong community cohesion, and libraries have a vital role to play in fostering that cohesion.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

On Show

I paid a quick visit last week to the Cheshire Show, a major event for the local rural community that benefited from truly glorious weather. There were countless stalls (even local solicitors were represented – hence my presence!) and many displays and exhibitions, as well as musical performances, motorcycle displays (see the middle photo) and processions. The mood was as sunny as the afternoon.

Although I’ve lived in or near to Cheshire for most of my life, I can’t claim to be deeply versed in the ways of the county’s many farming communities (and I’ve always found the very idea of fox-hunting a complete turn-off), but in recent years, I’ve come to value some aspects of traditional countryside lifestyles much more than I used to.

I used to think of myself as an urban writer, and my first eight books were set in cities. But, in writing the Lake District Mysteries, I’ve learned much more about the countryside – and the many threats that it faces. In working on The Serpent Pool, I was influenced by that sense of threat – in the book, there’s a palpable tension as pubs, schools, and post offices close, bus routes are scrapped, and people are almost tempted to feel they are living under siege. And from a crime writer's perspective, as Sherlock Holmes pointed out in 'The Copper Beeches', the smiling countryside can be a place where evil deeds are done in secret.

But at the Cheshire Show, there was no sense of menace, evil or fear. I found
the whole event thoroughly enjoyable. Though I wished I'd brought a sun hat.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

In Prison

I once spent a week in a prison. All in the interests of scholarship, of course. At university, I studied penology, and as part of my course, I attended an open prison for a week. It was a memorable time. Since then, I’ve managed to keep out of jail, but this last week I went back inside.

The journalist (and fashion blogger) Jane Gallagher is someone I’ve mentioned before. She is a busy and talented person, and among her many activities, she is writer in residence at a prison in the north of England. When she invited me to talk to a group of prisoners with an interest in creative writing, I was happy to go along.

The prison is ‘category B’ and this means that those inside have generally committed much more serious crimes than those I met at the open prison all those years ago. But this group, although it included a couple of convicted murderers, and others who have done terrible things, was lively and engaging (and, if the samples of work I saw are anything to go by, not short of talent, however raw it might be at present.)

I enjoyed the visit a good deal, and was impressed both by the work that Jane does with the men, and by the seriousness of their interest in a wide range of forms of writing. The experience of the locking and unlocking of countless doors, and the sound of footsteps echoing along endless corridors, will stay with me for a long time. And if, one day, the germ of an idea of a story set in closed prison comes to me, I’ll know where it came from.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Forgotten Book - Praying Mantis

My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is Praying Mantis, by Hubert Monteilhet. I’ve never heard anyone discuss the novel, even though it is a brilliant example of Eurocrime (but from a period when Eurocrime was distinctly unfashionable.) But I became aware of it back in 1982, when it was (I think) the very first film made specifically for Channel Four Television. It starred Cherie Lunghi and Jonathan Pryce and I thought it first-rate. Ever since, I’ve been trying to track down a copy, and a few weeks ago, I finally saw one in Jamie Sturgeon’s latest catalogue.

The novel was published in 1962, and it was Montheilet’s debut – and a brilliant one too. I’ve read one other of Monteilhet’s books, the excellent Return from the Ashes, and he seems to me to be good enough to be bracketed with those masters of suspense Boileau and Narcejac. Catherine Arley and the better known Sebastian Japrisot were other authors of the same era who worked in much the same territory.

The story is clever and compelling. A professor called Paul Canova takes out an extremely valuable insurance policy benefiting his wife. When his wife dies, he re-marries a beautiful but heartless woman, but before long he has an affair with a young student called Beatrice. Beatrice marries one of her teachers, Magny. But Magny has become embroiled with the second Madame Canova….

The telling of the tale is ingeniously handled – it’s done by extracts from letters, a diary, a tape recording and so on. Beatrice soon uncovers a cunning murder plot, but before long the reader is thrown into confusion about who is plotting against whom. Definitely a book that deserves to be better known.

Thursday, 25 June 2009


The latest issue of Arthur Vidro’s crime fanzine Give Me That Old-Time Detection has just arrived. It is similar to CADS, although being less well-established, it is shorter and tends to include more reprinted contributions and fewer original pieces of research. There is, among many other items, a piece of mine which originated in this blog.

A short piece by Francis M. Nevins announces a forthcoming documentary about Ellery Queen (although, since it is being produced for Japanese TV, I’m not sure whether it will be available in an English-speaking version.) The next issue of the magazine will focus on Ellery Queen.

Among many pleasing items, there is another instalment of Marvin Lachman’s study of mystery stage plays. A Charles Shibuk review heaps praise on a book called A Funeral in Eden by Paul McGuire (1938) - I have never heard of either book or author, but it sounds intriguing. And the merit of magazines such as this is that they lead one to fresh and fascinating discoveries.

The cover is marvellous. It was drawn by the Golden Age crime novelist Stuart Palmer, author of The Penguin Pool Murder, and features a variety of penguins posing as famous detectives. A 1950 article by Palmer, ‘Some of My Best Friends’ entertainingly describes his enthusiasm for penguins and describes Sherlock Holmes as a ‘super-penguin’.

With that teaser, I shall say no more. I hope it encourages one or two people to seek out the magazine, because Arthur Vidro’s enterprise and enthusiasm for classic crime fiction deserves support.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Hakan Nesser

My first encounter with Hakan Nesser’s work was when Borkmann’s Point was first published in England a couple of years back. This introduced me to his series detective, Inspector Van Veeteren, and an intriguing setting in a country that is not named – some people suggest his home town is on the border between Germany and Holland, but who knows?

I haven’t yet read The Return, second in the English version of the series (we have not seen them in the chronological order in which they were written) but I found the third book, The Mind’s Eye, to be quite superb. I’d thought the solution of Borkmann’s Point – much as I enjoyed the story – to be slightly predictable, but The Mind’s Eye ticks all the boxes.

In person, Hakan Nesser is very tall and extremely articulate and personable. He’s a prolific novelist, and wrote ten books about Van Veeteren, although he’s now focusing on other things. He told delegates that he likes to write the first draft of his stories in longhand before typing them up, and he’s one of those authors who doesn’t know in detail how his books are going to develop when he starts writing them.

I talked to him briefly when he inscribed copies of his books for me, and at greater length during the Gala Dinner. His speech was arguably the best of a good bunch, and for someone whose first language is not English, it was an astonishing achievement. I found myself admiring him, as well as being deeply impressed that he is famous enough to warrant the production of a small book about him – The Freewheeling Hakan Nesser, copies of which were available to the delegates at Bristol. I've just obtained a copy of his latest UK book, Woman With a Birtmark, and I look forward to devouring it.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Marie Belloc Lowndes

Mrs Belloc Lowndes (1868 – 1947) was a prolific novelist who came from a famous and socially well-connected family – her brother was Hilaire Belloc and Joseph Priestley was an ancestor. She is remembered today, however, for just one book. The Lodger (1913) is a fictionalised account of the Jack the Ripper murders, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and then on no fewer than three further occasions.

I thought it would be interesting to pick up a copy of a book I saw in a catalogue from Jamie Sturgeon, compiled by her daughter Susan (and including a selection of her letters from 1911 to the year of her death. Very few crime writes have had collections of their letters published. The only name that springs to mind is Dorothy L. Sayers – no fewer than five collections of her letters have been published; she must have spent a fortune in stamps.

What is striking about the Belloc Lowndes letters is how little reference is made to crime writing.and crime writers. Christie and Sayers don’t get a mention. She wasn’t a member of the Detection Club, and she seems to have spent more time mixing with politicians and ‘the great and the good’. But is clear from the letters I’ve read so far that she was a fascinating and sociable woman with an inquiring mind.

Lowndes, by the way, created a detective called Hercules Popeau. Some people say that he was the inspiration for Hercule Poirot, and they certainly have some things in common, not least their vanity. But just to illustrate how unreliable some information is, I’ve seen at least one suggestion in print that Popeau was conceived as a parody of Poirot. But this suggestion seems to do a disservice to the originality of Lowndes’ creation..

Monday, 22 June 2009


One of Francis Durbridge’s most famous tv serials was Melissa. The original was first shown in the 60s, and I watched a version written – unlikely though it seems – by Liverpool playwright Alan Bleasdale a few years ago. Bleasdale is a good writer, and I was delighted to discover that he was a Durbridge fan, but suffice to say that on the evidence of his take on Melissa, weaving mysteries is not his strong suit.

So I didn’t quite know what to expect when I watched a DVD of the three-episode remake of Melissa shown on BBC TV in 1974, and starring Peter Barkworth as Guy, the grumpy writer whose glamorous wife disappears one evening and is found strangled.

What I got was a classic Durbridge plot, and it was a challenge to keep up with the twists and convolutions of the story-line Wherever Guy turns, he seems to find himself in more and more trouble. Like many a Durbridge protagonist, he receives enigmatic messages inviting him to a rendez-vous where – guess what? – the next victim of the devilish strangler turns up.

This is escapist fiction at its best. Durbridge isn’t strong on characterisation and social comment is almost non-existent. Agatha Christie is often accused of weakness in these areas, but Durbridge is even more focused on plot than Christie. But judged by what he is trying to do, he is very good indeed. Peter Barkworth, incidentally, was as excellent as ever as the baffled, irritable but rather likeable lead.

However, there was one element of the plot that, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out. Has anyone else seen this one, and been equally baffled, I wonder?

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Wirral Writers

I’m rather preoccupied at present, as my mother is ill, and if there are any delays in publishing or replying to comments, please accept my apologies, but I am striving to follow as normal a routine as possible in the circumstances, and to include some enjoyable events in a fairly crowded diary.

An example was on Friday, when I had the pleasure of revisiting Wirral Writers – a group of which I was a member in the 80s, before my first novel was published. Three of the members from that time are still around, and I was delighted to be in touch with them again.

I was asked to judge this year’s short story competition, on the theme of ‘crime’, and I was glad to present the Maynah Lewis Cup to Mike Wood, whose story (under the pen-name Sean McCann) was not merely enjoyable but impressive.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Editing the Editor

Geoff Bradley has written an article in the latest issue of CADS which I find interesting on a number of levels. He calls it ‘Editing the Editor, or “I Can’t Have Written That Can I?”’ and it deals with an essay he contributed to Barry Forshaw’s monumental British Crime Writing: an Encyclopaedia.

Geoff’s subject was Freeman Wills Crofts, a prolific and highly successful writer of the Golden Age whose Many a Slip I covered in a recent entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books. Geoff explains how, when he received his copy of the book, he checked his entry and found that various unsatisfactory changes had been made to what he had written. It seems that the changes weren’t made by Barry, but rather by a sub-editor at the publishers. Geoff was dismayed at the mauling his piece had received. Over the years, he has written a good deal of non-fiction for CADS and is a sound judge of writing quality, as well as being a first-rate editor (as is Barry) so I’m sure he was right to be concerned.

A number of things struck me about this article – quite apart from the natural sympathy that any author feels for a colleague who is dissatisfied by the way he or she is treated. I thought about the issues it raised in a more general sense and realised that, although I had contributed quite a number of essays to the same book, I had never checked whether my work had suffered a similar editorial fate. And I started to wonder whether this was down to laziness, lack of time - or simply a kind of authorial fatalism…

On a happier note, Geoff, like me, was impressed by the scope and readability of the encyclopaedia as a whole. It's one of the best reference works on the genre, in my opinion (and leaving aside my own contributions) to have appeared in recent years.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Forgotten Book - Israel Rank

One of the finest films ever made, at least in my opinion, is Kind Hearts and Coronets, that witty and ingenious Ealing movie starring Alec Guiness and Denis Price. But how many people have read the book upon which the film is based? Or even know that it was called Israel Rank, and that its author was Roy Horniman?

This novel is my pick for Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books. It was first published in 1907. It’s darker in tone than the movie and different in various other ways, but this ‘autobiography of a criminal’ strikes me as conspicuously modern in several respects, perhaps above all in its relentless irony. There has been some debate as to whether it has anti-Semitic elements; one or two people seem to have thought so, but most commentators today tend to regard this as a complete mis-reading of the way Horniman seeks to parody the anti-Semitism of Edwardian England.

Israel Rank has long been legendary for its scarcity. I searched in vain for it for years, until finally coming across a reprint that was published just before the movie came out. Copies have always commanded high prices – until now. Faber Finds, an excellent print-on-demand service, have made it available at a very affordable cost. They deserve congratulation

And what of Roy Horniman? He wrote a number of other novels, and I recently picked up a copy of The Viper, but have yet to read it. Splendidly, he was also responsible for a book called How To Make the Railways Pay for the War. The sub-title was A Transport Problem Solved. Ah, if only…..

Thursday, 18 June 2009


My recent post about Alfred Hitchcock prompted comments encouraging me to watch his 1946 film Notorious, and a sensible blogger always pays heed to people who take the trouble to offer constructive comments. So I’ve now seen Notorious, and on the whole I enjoyed it.

I say ‘on the whole’ because it got off to a very slow start. In fact, watching it after a very long day at the office, I was on the verge of going to sleep after quarter of an hour. But then the story warmed up, and so did my enthusiasm for the movie.

Ingrid Bergman is the patriotic American daughter of a traitor who is persuaded by secret agent Cary Grant (playing T.R. Devlin – no relation to Harry) to infiltrate a group of German sympathisers based in Brazil. She takes the job so seriously that she marries wealthy mummy’s boy Claude Rains, and duly discovers the wherewithal for a uranium-based bomb in his wine cellar. Rains discovers her duplicity, and he and Mum start to poison her, but of course they haven’t reckoned on Grant’s devotion to Ingrid.

There are several neat Hitchcockian touches in the film, and the ending is genuinely chilling – not least because Rains makes the bad guy rather sympathetic. He was an interesting and talented actor, whose CV includes not only a famous role in that great movie Casablanca, but also teaching Gielgud and Oliver, and somehow finding the time to marry no fewer than six times.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Original Sinners

I’ve started work on the paper that I will be delivering at the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Weekend in August. It’s an event I’m really looking forward to – a chance to revisit old haunts in Oxford and to meet up with old (all right, yet fairly young!) friends. It’s a few years since I last spoke at St Hilda’s, and the last time I attended the week-end I had the delightful experience of meeting up with John Prest, who was a history don at Balliol when I was a student. John has given me help during the intervening years with the character and work of Daniel Kind, the historian in my Lake District Mysteries.

The theme of the weekend is The Wages of Sin. I’ve received a flyer telling me that speakers have been chosen to match the topic, which says something not entirely flattering about my reputation, but I’m in sinfully good company, with such marvellous writers as Robert Barnard, Kate Charles, Christine Poulson, and Andrew Taylor. I’m proud to count them all as friends. Cilla Masters, another good mate, is one of the after-dinner speakers.

I’ve decided that my paper will focus on sinful victims. I can think of quite a few characters who meet that description – for instance in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But any suggestions from more modern books or authors will be gratefully received!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


I mentioned the latest issue of that terrific magazine CADS the other day and I’ve been dipping into it, as usual, with great pleasure. The range of articles is as wide as ever. Examples include an excellent piece by Dick Stewart on Little Dorrit, a book which I have to own up to never having read. There’s a history of the spy story, an examination of the crime novels of Macdonald Hastings by the indefatigable Philip Scowcroft, and an account of the first Dennis Wheatley Convention. I’m not really a fan of Wheatley, but his Murder Dossiers were a fascinating idea, and there is an article about them on my website.

A number of current crime novelists read and contribute to CADS. Among them is Harry Keating, who has written an entertaining piece about the return of Inspector Ghote, his most popular character, in A Small Case for Inspector Ghote? Marvin Lachman continues his features about mystery series characters who have made the transition from printed page to television, and includes a long list of recent genre-related obituaries. There’s an intriguing article by John Herrington called ‘The Case of the Novel that Never Was’, about a banned detective story of the 30s, and a range of short reviews by the phenomenally knowledgeable Bob Adey.

Bob Cornwell contributes an assessment of reviews of crime novels published in 2008, and does an extremely interesting Q&A with Len Deighton, but the emphasis of the magazine is on books and short stories of the past. There’s a continuation of Nick Kimber’s article about S.S. Van Dine and Philo Vance, while an academic with a great interest in crime fiction, B.J. Rahn, writes about ‘The Mystery of Ernest Bramah’.

Bramah, by the way, created the blind detective Max Carrados – but his first book was English Farming and Why I Turned It Up. Later, he published A Guide to the Varieties and Rarity of English Royal Copper Coins. Who says crime writers can’t be versatile?

Monday, 15 June 2009


One of the best gangster films I’ve ever seen is Robbery (1967.) A recent re-watching reminded me of its quality and I’m amazed that the movie isn’t regularly ranked along with other classics of the 60s like Get Carter and The Italian Job.

The film was directed by Peter Yates, and the story goes that it so impressed Steve McQueen that it prompted him to get together with Yates the following year in Bullitt. The story of Robbery was clearly inspired by the Great Train Robbery four years earlier, but the details and characters are heavily fictionalised. The scriptwriters included George Markstein, best known for his work on ‘The Prisoner’, and Edward Boyd, who wrote the tv show ‘The View from Daniel Pike’, later turned into book form by Bill Knox.

The cast reads like a Who’s Who of sixties British acting talent. Stanley Baker plays Paul Clifton, the criminal mastermind. Baker was a superb actor, knighted by Harold Wilson shortly before his untimely death at the age of 48. His co-conspirators include Barry (‘Van Der Valk’) Foster, George (‘Special Branch’) Foster, Frank (‘Casanova’) Finlay, and Ken (‘Coronation Street’) Farrington. In an uncredited bit part one can spot the young Robert Powell. The cop on Clifton’s trail is James Booth, someone who seemed at the time to be destined for stardom; it seems that booze and bad career decisions prevented this charismatic actor from fulfilling his potential. Booth turned down the role of Alfie, just as Baker had earlier snubbed the chance to play James Bond….

The style of the film is akin to that of a documentary. The pace is brisk, and the mood unsentimental, and there is no lack of tension as the plot unfolds. There have been very few better heist movies in the history of British cinema.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Crippen to be cleared? and other news

I’ve been intrigued by recent news reports suggestion that Dr Crippen’s name may finally be ‘cleared’ almost a century after his execution for the murder of his wife. Here’s a link to one of the articles:

Crippen Cleared?

The quality of Crippen’s legal representation during the course of his trial is one of the key elements of Dancing for the Hangman. I’m intrigued to see that Mr Di Stefano, now engaged in this matter, numbers Saddam Hussein among his former clients.

How far this particular campaign to exonerate Crippen will get, who knows? I suspect that issues about the validity of the ‘DNA evidence’ said to prove his innocence may be more complex than the news reports suggest.

Changing the subject, I was really pleased to hear from my German publisher this week that Kein Einsames Grab (aka The Arsenic Labyrinth) is being reprinted already. A German mate emailed me the other day to say that all three of the Lake District Mysteries are prominently featured in bookshops he’s visited lately, and for any mid-list writer, this has to be morale-boosting news.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Mr Brooks

Serial killer movies are two-a-penny, but a film starring Kevin Costner, William Hurt and Demi Moore cannot easily be dismissed as run-of-the-mill, and I found Mr Brooks, a 2007 film, to be a cut above most movies featuring sociopaths, benefiting from a complex plot which is nevertheless not so convoluted as to be incomprehensible.

Costner plays the eponymous Mr Brooks. He is a rich, successful and popular businessman with a gorgeous blonde wife and lovely daughter at college, but he is also a recovering serial killer who (in a scene that I didn’t find wholly convincing) even turns up at an AA meeting and announces himself as suffering from an unspecified addiction.

It’s two years since Mr Brooks last killed, but he’s getting the urge again, prompted by his mysterious alter ego, played by William Hurt – whom nobody else can see or hear. Hurt is one of my favourite actors. He never seems to play a character who is wholly likeable, but even at his nastiest, he is very watchable, with a trademark sly wit. He encourages Mr Brooks to kill a pair of lovers – but the crime is spotted by a creepy voyeur, who decides that he wants Mr Brooks to induct him into the world of psychotic murder. To add to the complications, the cop who is pursuing Mr Brooks is herself being pursued by a killer bent on revenge, while her own divorce leads quite literally to murder. And if that’s not enough, it seems that Mr Brooks’ daughter wants to follow in Dad’s footsteps….

Blimey. There’s enough material in all that for three movies. Of course, Mr Brooks is preposterous. But it’s very well done, and the stars do a great job that enabled me to suspend my disbelief for the best part of two hours.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Forgotten Books - Hopjoy Was Here

My latest entry in Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books comes from the pen of the late Colin Watson. For many people, Watson’s name is most closely associated with his study of Golden Age fiction, Snobbery with Violence, a jolly good book if rather meandering. But I think his best work came in The Flaxborough Chronicles.

Julian Symons reckoned that Hopjoy Was Here was the best entry in the Chronicles, featuring Watson’s regular cop, Inspector Purbright. The book was first published in 1962, and spoofs early James Bondery, along with a teasing mystery about the disappearance of a lodger named Hopjoy – has he been hammered to death and then had his body dissolved in acid?

The story enjoyed a new lease of life when the Flaxborough books were televised as Murder Most English with the late Anton Rodgers playing Purbright in the late 1970s. My paperback edition is a tie-in from that time, although I didn’t get to watch the show, and I don’t know how good it was. It only ran for one series, comprising seven episodes.

You get a flavour of the Watson style from the opening paragraph:

‘Never before had the inhabitants of Beatrice Avenue seen a bath carefully manoeuvered through one of their front doors, carried down the path by four policemen, and hoisted into a black van. Everybody watched, of course….A postman was frozen in silent contemplation five doors farther up. A butcher’s boy and two window cleaners huddled in temporary comradeship with a rate collector on the opposite kerb…Twenty or more children, mysteriously summoned by their extra-sensory perception of odd goings-on…savoured the affair with the discrimination of experts, comparing it with…last summer’s impaling of the greengrocer’s horse, and the wonderful, blood-chilling entertainment in Gordon Road the previous Easter when Mrs Jackson had gone bonkers and thrown all the portable contents of the house…down upon some men from the council.’

What lover of English mysteries could resist reading on?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Dead Like Her

Linda Regan’s first novel, Behind You!, published by Crème de la Crime a couple of years back, struck me as an enjoyable debut. It introduced two likeable cops, Paul Banham and Alison Grainger, with a relationship developing between them, and made good use of the author’s experience as an actor. She has appeared in a wide range of roles and her husband is Brian Murphy is himself well-known for his acting, perhaps most famously as George Roper, originally in 'Man About the House' and later in 'George and Mildred'.

Some time afterwards, I got to meet Linda and Brian, and so it was good - and a relief! - to find that Passion Killers, Linda’s next novel, didn’t display the failings often associated with second books. Now she has published her third book about Banham and Grainger, Dead Like Her.

The story opens with a striking and memorable image – Marilyn Monroe lookalike Sadie Morgan falls victim to a brutal murderer. She works as a staff nurse at a hospital, but earns almost as much for three spots a week, impersonating Marilyn at a club called Doubles. Meanwhile, Banham and Grainger, both newly promoted, have begun an affair – but how long will it last?

The body count soon mounts, but the private lives of the investigating cops are of equal interest to the reader. Linda, who herself played Marilyn some years ago in a touring production, and the launch of the book was timed to coincide with the anniversary of Marilyn's birth. Linda writes with increasing assurance a modern equivalent of the books that used to appear under the imprint of Collins Crime Club, or in the distinctive yellow jackets of Gollancz. Those great brands, have, sadly, disappeared forever, but Crème de la Crime does a good job of identifying other modern authors of talent such as Maureen Carter and Adrian Magson. Long may they flourish.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


Coroners play an important part in many crime novels – just how many, I discovered some years back, when I was asked to contribute an essay on coroners and medical examiners to the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Since I wrote that essay, there has been no let-up in the flow of stories featuring coroners – in fact, they seem increasingly to be taking centre stage.

Priscilla Masters has, for instance, created a likeable coroner, Martha Gunn, who features in one of her detective series. And a coroner called Ceri Hussain is one of the main characters in my latest Harry Devlin novel, Waterloo Sunset. When researching for that book, I received a great deal of help from the Liverpool City Coroner, Andre Rebello, and from a part-time coroner, Jean Harkin, and what I learned left me full of admiration for the work that good coroners do.

A recent big seller is M.R. Hall’s The Coroner, which introduces a new series character, Jenny Cooper. Matthew Hall proved to be an articulate panellist when we met at Crimefest recently. He is a former lawyer who has written extensively for television, and his experience is evident in the way he builds the suspense in a story which sees Jenny investigating the deaths of two young people, and finding that a conspiracy connects them.

Jenny has a history of depression, and I found this an extremely interesting aspect to the story, especially as I’ve known a number of friends suffer from this sometimes devastating condition. I have to say I didn’t find Jenny consistently sympathetic in the early chapters, and I certainly didn’t approve of her lying about her medical history in order to get the job – that isn’t something that any coroner should do, whatever the mitigating circumstances. But my reservations faded as the book wore on, and they didn’t stop me enjoying the accomplishment wit which Matthew fashioned the ingredients of the thriller, while paving the way for future entries in the Jenny Cooper series.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Writing Competitions

I’ve been asked to judge the annual story competition for Wirral Writers, a group to which I belonged in the 80s. The prize is the Maynah Lewis Cup – Maynah was a veteran professional writer who founded the group many years ago, and did much to encourage local authors on the Wirral peninsula.

I’m glad to be involved in something like this, because I do think Maynah was right, and that it is a Good Thing that writers continue to be encouraged – whether or not they have already had the experience of publication. I’ve been involved in judging prize competitions several times over the years, most recently for the Mace & Jones contest last year to celebrate Liverpool’s year in the spotlight as Capital of Culture. Of course, the judging process is inevitably very subjective, and this is something I remind myself of when I’m involved in competitions or awards in relation to my own writing.

I heard the other day that Hugh C. Rae, an excellent writer of many years’ standing has recently brought out a new book. Hugh judged the competition in which I entered an opening scene that later became the first chapter of my debut novel, All the Lonely People. I didn’t come close to winning, but I found his assessment of the piece very useful. And the first short story I ever had published was picked as a winner of a writing competition by the fiction editor of ‘Bella’. A few years later, as a published novelist, I had the pleasure of meeting Hugh at a couple of CWA conferences in Scotland - and he revealed that his most successful books were not thrillers, but romances written under the name of Jessica Stirling!

With every competition, there are bound to be more losers than winners. But my own experience makes me believe that there is something to be gained from entering competitions, even if one doesn’t succeed. And I hope that the current crop of Wirral Writers will include some stars of the future.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Dancing again

Dancing for the Hangman is due to be published in the United States towards the end of this year. I’ve just received this preview of the front cover, which seems good to me The publishers are Five Star, who have also published two of my Harry Devlin novels in the States (the Lake District Mysteries are published by Poisoned Pen Press.)

Dancing took quite a while to bring out, but I’m really pleased with the reaction to it in the UK. I’ve just received the latest issue of CADS – a magazine I’ll talk more about before long, because this issue is crammed with fascinating things, as usual – and although the main focus is on books of the past, there’s a nice review of Dancing for the Hangman. All the more pleasing because the reviewer, magazine Geoff Bradley, is someone whose opinion I value, because he never heaps praise on books he has doubts about.

Here’s part of what Geoff said:

‘I’m not really one for true crime and I know very little of the Crippen case, but I did find this novel fascinating. The author manages to get inside Crippen in such a way as to make his personality, inadequacies and motivations clear…I must confess I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book, but enjoy it I did. – very much so. Using the real story with the fictionalised insights into Crippen’s own mind make for a winning combination and a book which I highly commend.’

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Canals and Crime

Yesterday evening we went on a canal cruise that involved a very good dinner, consumed in excellent company that included crime writer Kate Ellis and her husband Roger (picture getting on to the narrow boat). The round trip along the Macclesfield Canal began and ended at Bollington, on the Cheshire side of the border with Derbyshire. There can be few more restful or enjoyable ways to travel.

And yet. Canals have been a scene of fictional crime more often than you might guess. I’ve even been responsible for one short story myself, ‘To Encourage the Others’, which included a canal-side murder.

Philip Scowcroft, an indefatigable researcher and expert on the genre, recently sent me a copy of an article he wrote some years back on the subject of ‘Canals and Waterways in British Crime Fiction’. Classic titles cited include The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, the first great spy story of the last century, and The Pit-Prop Syndicate by the alibi king, Freeman Wills Crofts.

Among the many other titles Philip mentions are Death in Little Venice (2001) by Leo McNair, and Joan Lock’s historical mystery Dead Image, as well as a book I have read, Night’s Black Agents, by the under-rated David Armstrong. The Llangollen Canal features in Andrew Garve’s The Narrow Search, and a fictionalised Stourbridge Navigation in Marjorie Eccles’ Requiem for a Dove. The most famous book in this sub-genre is, though, surely Colin Dexter’s acclaimed The Wench is Dead, which is distantly based on a real-life case.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Vantage Point

The title of the 2008 action thriller Vantage Point suggests the nature of the story. The planned (or apparent) assassination of an American president is seen from various different perspectives. And each time we see the events leading up to the attack, we learn more about the complex plot.

Multiple viewpoint stories can work very effectively in the crime genre. Wilkie Collins proved this long ago with The Moonstone, and in a very different way, Vantage Point reminds us that, although a single viewpoint can give a narrative a great deal of emotional power, multi-viewpoints afford great potential for story development.

I liked this film a great deal. Dennis Quaid is very good as the secret service agent who is one of the few good guys, and William Hurt is, as usual, splendid as the President: nobody does bafflement as well as Hurt, I think. The very good cast also includes Sigourney Weaver.

It’s a film that is so fast-moving and convoluted that it will repay more than one viewing. Vantage Point is not an in-depth, character-driven film, but very strong on plot complication and drama. If that’s to your taste, I think you will probably enjoy it as much as I did.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Forgotten Book - A Catalogue of Crime

Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books focuses this week on non-fiction. I’ve enjoyed collecting books about the genre for years, so I’m spoiled for choice, but I’ve opted for A Catalogue of Crime by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor. This monumental volume first appeared in 1971, and a revised and enlarged edition came out in 1989. not long after Taylor’s death. Barzun is now aged 102 – a remarkable man, by all accounts, and someone with whom I’d have loved to converse.

And A Catalogue of Crime is, beyond doubt, a remarkable book. It’s described as ‘A reader’s guide to the literature of mystery, detection and related genres’ and the second edition is nearly 1000 pages long. There are several sections, but the meat of the book is in the massive collection of brief summaries of thousands of crime novels, many but not all dating from the Golden Age. There is also a vast amount of information about short stories, both singly and in collections and books about the genre, as well as material about true crime and Holmesiana. The whole book is a gathering of the fruits of two lifetimes of avid reading, and this accounts for the rather random nature of the choices.

Barzun and Taylor are fans of the classic puzzle, and tend to be dismissive of ‘psychological suspense’. Many of their judgments are controversial, and some of them seem to me to be perverse. But never mind. Their opinions are intelligent and usually well-reasoned, and even when they are infuriating, they command attention. And there is a wealth of information here that is indispensable for trivia lovers. Of course there are mistakes in a book of this size and range. How on earth could they believe that Knutsford, town of my birth and model for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is located in Ireland? Such glitches shake one’s faith – but they certainly should not destroy it, for this is a marvellous book, and a labour of love that, for all its failings, deserves to be cherished by anyone who is fascinated by the history of the mystery.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Big Business Murder

Thanks to an excellent second hand book dealer, Mark Sutcliffe of Ilkley, I’ve just acquired a copy of an obscure Golden Age detective novel, Big Business Murder, by the husband and wife team of G.D.H. and Margaret Cole.

It will be interesting to see what the book is like, and whether it reflects, in an entertaining and instructive way, the Coles’ political leanings. Few Golden Age books show much meaningful engagement with the political issues of the period, and the Coles’ many books were – as a rule – no exception to this. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the couple were prominent socialists, and G.D.H, a leading figure in the Fabian Society, was a prolific writer of political books.

His early work included Some Essentials of Socialist Propaganda (1932) and What is Socialism? (1933). He compiled A History of Socialist Thought (1953-60) and managed to spin it out to five volumes, no less. I detect a note of weariness creeping in over the years, though. In 1919, he wrote Workers’ Control in Industry, but 35 years later, he penned What is Wrong with Trade Unions?

I’m not sure what, if they were alive today, the Coles would have made of the current travails of our politicians. Perhaps, again, they would have been driven to crime.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is more than just a mega-selling detective novelist who died more than thirty years ago and still manages to sell vastly more copies than present day scribblers like me. She has become a legend, and a universally renowned point of cultural reference.

Some years back, I presented a paper at a conference at Nottingham Trent University about the Christie ‘brand’, and day after day, there are fresh reminders in the media of the way in which Christie references are employed for a whole variety of purposes – often informatively, sometimes very entertainingly.

I was especially taken by an article called ‘Bodies are Piling Up in this Westminster Thriller’ by Rachel Sylvester in The Times yesterday. She used an analogy blending Christie with Cluedo to sum up the current political crisis in Britain:

‘And then there were none. Politics is starting to look like a murder mystery with more bodies than an Agatha Christie novel. It's death in the duck house with the lead piping, suicide in the moat with the rope. Will it now also be Alistair Darling, killed with the dagger in the grace-and-favour flat?’

Within twenty four hours of Sylvester writing those words, that body count has mounted rapidly. The Home Secretary is to abandon the sinking ship, together with a procession of junior ministers, former ministers and assorted backbench nobodies. I’m reminded of that famous Hercule Poirot mystery when it turned out that everyone was guilty.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Up the Garden Path

I’m very keen on visiting gardens, though not at all keen on gardening. It’s much more appealing to admire the fruits of other people’s labours. My interest in gardens (and above all, garden design) lay behind the idea of the mysterious garden at Tarn Cottage in my Lake District Mysteries – the secret behind the garden is a puzzle posed in The Coffin Trail and unravelled in The Cipher Garden.

Although last Sunday was primarily devoted to a hospital visit, I also fitted in a trip around a nearby garden, under the auspices of the National Garden Scheme. Under the Scheme, every Sunday in summer (and on a few other days) private gardens are opened for charity, and this affords a wonderful opportunity to benefit good causes and show off some remarkable labours of love. Cheshire is blessed with countless attractive gardens, although only a minority of them are well known.

The garden at Haughton Hall, near Nantwich, struck me as very impressive and there was a sort of ‘Agatha Christie’ feel to the setting – a rather grand house, which has been in the same family for at least half a century, with rolling lawns, a magnificent glass house and a lake with a bridge. You could easily imagine it as a setting for a delicious whodunit, and on a sunny afternoon, it was the perfect place to be.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Bomber's Moon

As a follow-up to the new set of episodes of Inspector George Gently, BBC TV have screened a repeat of Bomber’s Moon, which was first shown last year. I missed it then, but caught up with it last night.

In this story, when a Northumberland boatman discovers he’s hooked an eyeball in the water, the police are called, and soon a body is found. This struck me as a rather grisly scene, not conventional Sunday night viewing, but typical of the way in which the Gently shows combine the mundane with the startling. The deceased proves to be a German who had settled in the locality after the war, but almost twenty years after the cessation of hostilities, it seems that some old enmities have yet to be resolved.

The victim’s rather unpleasant son is an early suspect, but the solution proves to have its roots in the past. I thought it rather foreseeable that the dead man’s previous career as a bomber pilot would have a part to play in the story, and this was another example of why the Gently shows tend to be rather frustrating.

Production values are high, and there is much of interest in the 1960s backdrop. But the mysteries tend to be commonplace, and DS Bacchus – in this episode plagued by money troubles – is a constant source of irritation. When I compared him in a recent post to Captain Arthur Hastings, I think I was doing Hercule Poirot’s sidekick a disservice!