In my last post for 2010, I want not only to send my very warmest wishes to my readers for the year ahead, but also to express my thanks for the way in which your kindness and encouragement, manifested in a variety of forms, has helped to carry me through twelve months that have sometimes been more than usually challenging. I am truly grateful.
I also wanted to reflect on some of the good things that have happened this past year. On the writing front, I was thrilled by the response to and reviews of The Serpent Pool, and to have two launches in Hawarden and London, the latter a joint event with Ann Cleeves, was very gratifying. I enjoyed putting together the anthology Original Sins and an excellent press lunch organised by the publishers at a posh restaurant in London. And I’m really pleased about The Hanging Wood – I like to think it is the best Lake District Mystery so far. My trip to the Lakes on my birthday was a real highlight of 2010 - the wonderful weather of July seems a very distant memory now!
Crimefest in Bristol was great fun, including a pub quiz in a team of delightful people and the ordeal that calls itself Criminal Mastermind! I now have two lovely inscribed commemorative pieces of Bristol glassware to remember the last two years’ quizzes by; in 2011, I shall be very glad to be in the audience, instead of in the black chair. I met a good many pleasant writers and readers (including readers of this blog) for the first time in 2010, not least at Crimefest, and hope to see at least some of them again next year.
The CWA conference in Abergavenny was great - one of the photos shows my Saturday dinner companion Janet Laurence, and another shows a gathering of crime writers at Abergavenny Castle. For various reasons, I couldn’t manage a trip to a US convention this year. However, I paid a fleeting – but very pleasurable – visit to the Harrogate Crime Festival, and missed out on the St Hilda’s Conference in Oxford last August for the best of reasons: a cruise in the sun around the magnificent Baltic capitals. But I shall be one of the speakers at St Hilda’s next August. I’m looking forward to it already. And next October may – exam results permitting – see both junior Edwardses studying at Oxford, which would be lovely if it happens.
I’ve given a number of talks, and put on my Victorian murder mystery event a couple of times. And I’ve read a lot of good books, some old, some new, and most of them (as well as most of the films I’ve watched) have featured on this blog. Although I've cut down on the number of posts, I'm very glad that the blog continues to be visited very regularly. Above all, I’ve had the good fortune of much support from friends and family, and many reasons to reflect that the crime writing community really does contain some truly delightful people.
So, all in all, a year with plenty of ups as well as a few downs. But I’m certainly looking forward to 2011 with relish....
Friday, 31 December 2010
Wednesday, 29 December 2010
I enjoyed Rene Clair’s 1945 film version of my favourite Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. The screenplay, by Dudley Nichols – who had previously been the first person to refuse an Oscar – was sound, despite a number of changes from the original.
The set-up is an absolute classic – eight people, along with two staff, are invited to a lonely island by a mysterious stranger. A disembodied gramophone recording accuses those present of having each been guilty of murder. And then, one by one, the guests themselves are murdered...
Apparently, some of the script changes were to fit with the Hays Code of morals on screen that was in force at the time. Christie’s story included a child murder committed by one of the guest, and such a crime was deemed beyond the pale. This plot point is an instance, by the way, of Christie’s work sometimes being darker than her critics tend to allow.
The big cop-out is the ending, which is much less sinister than the brilliant original (even if the original does require a lengthy written confession, a sign of structural weakness in most detective stories, but not here). However, I thought Clair and his cast did a pretty good job on the film and I was glad to catch up with it at long last. My third 'Christie for Christmas'!
Monday, 27 December 2010
Agatha Christie’s Marple this evening gave us The Secret of Chimneys, from a book which dates back to 1925. Jane Marple does not appear in the book, and frankly the story – a cheerfully ludicrous thriller – would be long forgotten if Christie were not the author. I felt compelled to watch, though, to see what the scriptwriter, Paul Rutman – a capable and experienced TV detective drama writer - would make of a very tough challenge.
His approach was to take a few small plot elements and a number of characters (or, at least, their names) from the original but to create an entirely new story, with the scene being set in 1932 before moving into the 1950s, with Miss Marple, in the shape of Julia Mackenzie, improbably invited to Chimneys along with an exotic foreign aristocrat and a woman from ‘National Heritage’.
The cast was good, including the reliable Edward Fox, the beautiful Charlotte Salt and the talented Dervla Kirwan. But the story-line was risible and Christie probably turned in her grave at the identity and motive of the culprit. I was certainly amazed, but not in a good way.
I was left wondering what was the object of the exercise. I could see the point of the new TV version of Murder on the Orient Express, even though I’ve read some comments by purists who disapprove of the changes made to the original, because the focus on justice was – to me – genuinely interesting. But with The Secret of Chimneys, a silly but mildly amusing book from the 1920s just became a silly TV show of 2010. Disappointing, to say the least.
I've always celebrated Christmas in Cheshire, but I've never known one as white (or as cold!) as this year's! Here are some photos I took while walking out on the 25th. And I hope the festivities have been going well for the readers of this blog.
Sunday, 26 December 2010
I’m looking forward rather eagerly to a number of publications next year. When I first became a published author, I got a real kick out of seeing my manuscript turned into a ‘proper book’, and I’ve not lost the thrill of the experience, thank goodness. It really is exhilarating. The Serpent Pool appears in paperback in the UK early in January, and given the extensive and favourable reviews of the hardback edition, I’m hoping that reaction will again be very positive.
The Hanging Wood will appear, at least in the US, under the Poisoned Press imprint. I’m not yet sure what is likely to happen in the UK. Around the same time, my German publishers will bring out The Serpent Pool. Here is the proposed cover. The title, in translation, is ‘To Dust and Ashes’.
Take My Breath Away will be published by Five Star in the US in June, and although the book was written eight years ago, I’m absolutely delighted it’s having a fresh life. Of all my novels, it’s the one which I think was the most under-rated. Of course, it may be that authors are not the best judges of their own work. But even so...
On the anthology front, there should be a limited collectors’ edition of the CWA anthology, Original Sins. And the follow up to that collection, Guilty Consciences, may be out in May. I hope so, as it would mean we could launch it at Crimefest. But there’s still some work to be done before we can know for sure....
Murder on the Orient Express, starring David Suchet, the latest Agatha Christie’s Poirot to hit the TV screen, was my choice for Christmas Day viewing. And I’m glad I watched it, since it was one of the best of all the screen versions of any Christie story. Better, certainly, than the film version of the book starring Albert Finney as Poirot, even though the film is not at all bad.
Why was this version so good? The answer lies in the focus on the precise nature of the motive for the crime and the proper response to it. I guess that most readers of this blog are familiar with the central gimmick, but I’m not going to give it away. However, the key theme of the book – as with And Then There Were None – is the idea of doing justice, and in particular the doing of justice in circumstances where conventional legal systems fail to achieve the ‘right’ result.
This is a powerful, perhaps eternal, issue, one that is apt to crop up in all societies, at all times. And Christie’s willingness to take on such issues, in the context of an elaborately and innovatively plotted classic detective story, is one of the reasons for her enduring success. The screenplay homed in on Poirot’s battle with his conscience, and I thought that Suchet’s performance was superb.
The supporting cast, including Eileen Atkins and David Morrissey, was very strong without being over-burdened by star names. The script by Stewart Harcourt was first class, creating a consistently sinister atmosphere. Anyone expecting an entirely cosy experience from watching this version will have been surprised. But also, I hope, impressed.
Friday, 24 December 2010
As Christmas approaches - and as you can see from the photo, it's a white Christmas here in Lymmm, can I sent my very best wishes to all of you who read this blog. Have a great time!
The TV schedules look promising. But how can I choose at 9 pm between Murder on the Orient Express – the new version with David Suchet – and the classic And Then There Were None, which is my all-time favourite Christie? We’ll see!
I do plan to review the new Poirot soon in any event. And maybe the older film too, while I'm at it...
My recent Jessica Mann reading binge has continued with A Private Inquiry, first published in 1996. This came twenty years after The Eighth Deadly Sin, which I discussed here recently, and the story is very different – but there are two elements which are similar.
The first is the way Mann shifts viewpoints. In the early stages of the book, she does so to almost bewildering effect. We begin with a planning inquiry, overseen by Barbara Pomeroy, and it seems as though this will be her story. But then the focus shifts to one of the inquiry witnesses, Fidelis, with off-shoots involving her new young assistant Sophie, Barbara’s family life, and the dodgy entrepreneur whose planning application is under consideration in the opening pages. It’s a clever and unorthodox technique, which has the effect that you don’t really know what the book is ‘about’ in terms of the central mystery, for quite some time.
The second is the focus on women characters and the issue that concern them. We start with Barbara and her career, and before long her family life – which involves an impotent husband who takes a keen interest in a mysterious neighbour, and a child who has recovered from serious illness – becomes significant. Fidelis, who has had a double mastectomy, is a fascinating and complex character, who finds herself strangely attracted to, and envious of, young Sophie. Sophie herself is an intriguing character, a biker with an interest in psychology. And finally there is Buffy, the wife of the entrepreneur, who has gone missing in rather odd circumstances.
All these ingredients are mixed with subtle skill. I guessed some elements of the plot, but by no means all of it, despite the fact that the clues are fairly supplied, and for me, the suspense became truly gripping in the latter part of the story, as I began to realise the nature of the puzzle. An unusual and satisfying book, which unquestionably deserves to be better known.
Wednesday, 22 December 2010
Nordic Noir was an interesting BBC 4 documentary about Scandinavian crime fiction. As regular readers will know, I have quite a long-standing enthusiasm for a number of Scandinavian crime writers – as well as for their countries, which I’ve visited occasionally, and this was a worthwhile assessment with the added bonus of shots of fascinating towns, cities and landscapes (the photo is Stockholm, a city I really liked on my first visit this year.)
Inevitably, the main focus was on Stieg Larsson, but there was also discussion of a range of other writers, including Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Sjowall and Wahloo – and Arnaldur Indridason, whose native Iceland is one country I haven’t visited and which is high on my to-be-travelled-to list.
And there was mention, too, of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg, which some might call a ‘literary’ crime novel, and certainly a book which is memorable, especially perhaps for its early scenes. No mention,though, of Gunnar Staalesen, whom I discussed here a little while back.
The talking heads included the crime fiction commentator Barry Forshaw, and novelists Val McDermid and Hakan Nesser. The witty and amiable Nesser made the point that there are fashions in crime fiction as in other areas of life, and that one of these days, attention will shift elsewhere. Another interesting comment was that younger writers may be more interested in global issues than in exploring localised societies – I’m not sure whether I agree with this broad generalisation, but it certainly got me thinking.
Monday, 20 December 2010
‘Write what you know’ is a tired – and unnecessarily limiting - cliché of advice for budding writers, but like most clichés, it contains an element of common sense. However, the nature of fiction is that it is an imaginative form, and so to my mind, there is a limit to ‘writing what you know’ – because it’s good to escape from what you know, and to explore things you don’t really know at all. To take an obvious example, I’m fascinated by writing about murder, and motivations for murder. But I’ve never murdered anybody, and I don’t plan to. Honest.
Having said all that, it would be silly to deny that sometimes there is an element of autobiography in fiction, and this can sometimes creep in quite unintentionally. This is a point which Jessica Mann made when responding to my enthusiastic post about her book The Eighth Deadly Sin. A writer will often take elements from their own life and use them in fiction – but perhaps subtly, or dramatically, changed.
There is a great temptation, when reading a novel, to seek clues to the author’s personal life and thoughts. And sometimes the clues are fascinating. But this kind of amateur detective work is often liable to result in one jumping to the wrong conclusions. It’s fun to do, sometimes, but not to be taken too seriously.
With my own books, Harry Devlin shares a number of characteristics with me. He’s a lawyer based in Liverpool, who likes soccer, cricket, films and 60s pop music. But I never wanted him to be a portrayal of myself, so I wove in plenty of stuff that he and I do not share. For instance, he gets involved with criminal and divorce work, and I’d hate to do so. He also lives less in his imagination than I do, and as a result, he’s a lot braver than me. But I’ve never seen this as wish fulfilment – I created a life for him that I really would never want to have for myself!
With Daniel Kind, it’s different. He and I both come from the north of England, and went to Oxford, but otherwise our lives are dissimilar in countless respects. Sometimes the differences - as well as similarities, are written into the character without pre-planning. I still can’t understand why he got hooked up with people like Aimee and Miranda, and judging from emails I receive, nor can many of my readers!
Strangely enough, I’ve become more fascinated by Hannah Scarlett than by Daniel in recent years. I love exploring her life and psychology. The way women think is something else that fascinates me, even though sometimes it perplexes me. And I've written short stories from the perspective of historical characters, an American, and a gay politician. I’m just intensely curious about other people’s lives, and on the whole, fiction appeals to me much more as a means of exploring other lives than of presenting an autobiographical picture of myself.
Saturday, 18 December 2010
My latest choice for a Forgotten Book is No Friendly Drop, by Henry Wade, which dates back to 1931. When I read the first chapter, I feared the book might be a big disappointment. There was quite a bit of seemingly aimless chit-chat between the landed gentry – Lord and Lady Grayle, of a decaying great house called Tassart, and their son and daughter-in-law. But before long, my interest quickened and it became clear that Wade had planted important clues in that first chapter.
Lord Grayle dies, in mysterious circumstances, of an odd combination of poisons. The local police call in Scotland Yard, and Wade’s regular cop, Inspector John Poole, is sent to investigate. Poole is nicely characterised – young, intelligent if sometimes fallible, keen and likeable, a much more rounded figure than, say, Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French. Even the minor characters are nicely done – I rather enjoyed the idea of an aged solicitor ‘who had never used a telephone in his life’. And I liked Wade’s wry reflection, when Poole thinks that a woman of 55 might not be driven by passion, that ‘Poole did not yet know everything about life’!
In fact, the story is cunningly designed, and the book held my interest even though it is quite lengthy. Wade (real name Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th baronet) was a wealthy man, and you get the feeling that he really did know his way around grand country houses – more so than colleagues who simply used them as a convenient setting for a murder mystery. His instincts were conservative – punitive taxation gets a critical mention here, as in other of his books – but He is very good at dealing with the politics of relations between different branches of the police, and Poole delves much deeper into motive than, say, French. In fact, a puzzle about motive is at the heart of the book. Poole’s humanity is such that, at the end, ‘though it was impossible not to feel horror at the callous cruelty that had destroyed two human lives, it was also difficult not to feel some sympathetic understanding of the provocation that had led to it.’
All in all, a good book. Not a match for the best of Christie, but readable and intelligent. I am definitely a member of Henry Wade’s fan club.
Friday, 17 December 2010
Canon Victor Alonzo Whitechurch was a founder member of the Detection Club, and a book he wrote in 1926 is my latest choice as a Forgotten Book. It is The Crime at Diana’s Pool, and is one of his six crime novels – he also wrote some good short stories with railway settings, several of which feature Thorpe Hazell, a sleuth who memorably combines vegetarianism with health faddishness and an enthusiasm for rail travel.
This is a book with a classic country house setting. A garden party ends in the murder of the host, Felix Nayland, and the obvious suspect is a mysterious chap – foreign and needless to say, bearded – who cons his way into the band that had been hired to entertain the guests. One of those guests was Harry Westerham, a likeable cleric who does some of the detective work, along with the industrious Sergeant Ringwood.
Whitechurch makes the point in a preface that he had no idea of the solution to his mystery when he wrote the first chapter. I have to say that I figured out the culprit at an early stage, but it’s a tribute to the author’s light and agreeable style that he kept me interested despite this.
My copy is, in fact, not a musty volume dug out of a second hand stall, but a brand new, nicely produced paperback published by Ostara, a Cambridge-based print-on-demand outfit who have brought back a number of obscure titles – college and clerical crime as well as some good thrillers – and have also reprinted some nice books by splendid modern authors such as Keith Miles and Kate Charles. I am a fan of Ostara, and encourage others to support their enterprise.
Thursday, 16 December 2010
I raised the question a while back as to when you can draw the line with a book, and send it off to a publisher. But of course, there is a question that needs to be dealt with earlier – how much time and effort should I devote to revising?
The short answer, alas, is usually ‘a lot, and rather more than you would have hoped’. I readily confess that I need – always – to do a lot of revising. Take My Breath Away remains the book that I revised most heavily – cutting it from 150,000 words to 85,000 in the process. I still feel a bit faint when I remember that agonising process...
How to go about revising? Well, there is no all-encompassing answer – there are various possible approaches. I think it is easier to cut than to expand. If a story is wordy, it can be trimmed. But if it’s anorexic, it may require significant additional plotting and development, which is harder to achieve. I don’t worry too much if my initial writing is a bit wordy, but I do try to remedy this at re-write time.
There are other things to do, as well. Ensuring consistency of theme and mood is often important. So is eliminating inconsistencies of style, and repetitions. But I don’t, personally, find revision too boring (unlike proof checking, which is incredibly tedious). It offers a chance to make a book much better. And I am firmly of the view that a few relatively limited changes can often make a disproportionately significant difference to the quality of a book.
Authors who skimp on revision do so at their peril. Many years ago, I met a writer who announced she never revised. I felt this was a mistake. And it may not be a coincidence that she has more or less disappeared from sight since then. A pity, since she was a nice person and a good writer. But even a good book can be improved by revision.
Monday, 13 December 2010
Jessica Mann is a British writer I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, and I’m surprised her work is not more widely discussed, as she has produced a number of very well-written novels over a long period. I’ve just read one that dates back to 1976, The Eighth Deadly Sin.
The set-up is intriguing. A sleazy lawyer (yes, believe it or not, they do exist!) meets an attractive woman at a party and they begin an affair. But she conceals her true identity from him. Gradually, his lust turns to love, but she doesn’t reciprocate. When he runs into significant financial trouble, he wants to turn to her for help. Trouble is, she has vanished, and his attempts to trace her run into a brick wall.
Then the viewpoint switches, and we start to see things from the woman’s perspective. And it becomes clear that Mann’s real preoccupation is not so much to do with the mystery of who the woman is, but the question of how she can escape from what stifles her in her everyday life. The rather unappealing and unfortunate lawyer fades increasingly into the background even though he remains, in a sense, pivotal to the plot.
There are crimes, a mystery, and ultimately a murder and a trial in this story, yet it is far removed from a conventional crime novel. If you are interested in the way women think and behave - and who is not? - I’d say that you are likely to find this unusual book worth tracking down. There aren’t too many fireworks, but the story-line does provoke thought.
Friday, 10 December 2010
There is a good deal of period interest in Big Business Murder, by G.D.H. and M. Cole, my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. It was first published in 1935, when the husband and wife co-authors enjoyed a considerable reputation for their detective stories as well as in their capacity as leading socialist thinkers. Three years earlier, George Cole had published a book called The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos (sadly, I’ve never seen a copy – perhaps the intelligent men all kept hold of theirs) and he was also a prominent economist, as well as a mentor of the future Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
The novel begins with a gripping scene, at a board meeting of Arrow Investments. Kingsley Manson, the managing director, reveals to his colleagues that the business is founded on a swindle, which seems likely to unravel unless they all support his attempts to solve the problem. An honest director called Gathorne objects, but the others go along with Manson. After the financial dramas of 2008, some of the Coles’ points struck a surprisingly modern note, I felt. There is a timelessness about greedy, vain or naive people who think that business is all boom, and never bust. The scene was set for a great book.
Gathorne, predictably, is murdered, but after this the story rather falls apart. One of the directors, believing that Manson’s wife is the killer, tries to clear her by confessing to the crime. The Noble but Misguided Confession was a staple of Golden Age detective fiction and Agatha Christie was among those who used the device to complicate her plots. It can, however, be irksome if over-done, and the Coles over-do it badly, so that half the book is devoted to the ramifications of the false and foolish confession before Superintendent Wilson makes a belated appearance.
There are various references to the Nazis, or economic problems in Germany, and there are nice but all too brief touches of satire. The unlovable Inspector Ebenezer Jones is made to say, ‘I don’t hold with Socialism’ – the sort of in-joke that writers often enjoy introducing into their stories. The snag is that, rather than use the business scam as a context for a probing study of the pressures that may drive people to crime, the Coles came up with a half-hearted plot and Wilson solves the mystery in a very anti-climactic fashion. This is a book that is interesting, but for reasons other than those which the authors intended.
Thursday, 9 December 2010
Charles Williams is a name associated with a hardboiled American writer, but it was also the name of a British man of letters who was a chum of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and a member of the Inklings who gathered in Oxford in the 30s. He wrote a few books which included elements of the detective story, though he wasn’t a crime writer in the conventional sense.
He was, however, a keen reader of Golden Age stories at the time they were being written, and for about five years he reviewed them in a positive and readable way for English newspapers including The Daily Mail. Happily, an American, Jared Lobdell, has compiled a collection of them, in a delightful book called The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams.
Lobdell sets the reviews in context, writing interestingly about the Golden Age and providing notes about the many authors discussed. They range from Christie and Sayers to totally forgotten names such as Dale Collins and Richard Essex. He is fairly kind even to books that he clearly did not rate highly, but you can always get a clear sense of when he regards a novel as genuinely impressive. And his judgment, to my mind, is consistently sound.
This is not easy to achieve. There are many books that make a splash on publication which do not stand the test of time. But Williams was very good at spotting a class act – as well as at identifying books which rose above the formulaic. There are a good many books that he praises that I haven’t encountered, though. Even if some of them aren’t as impressive as he suggests, I’m strongly tempted to track them down.
Wednesday, 8 December 2010
Last Will is a recent movie starring Tatum O’Neill as a newlywed who marries into a very rich family. Her husband, played by Tom Berenger, is a nice guy who is also a surgeon, but it soon becomes apparent that his two younger brothers are much less appealing characters. Tatum is perceived by the brothers as a gold-digger – which she isn’t – and things take a nasty turn after she becomes involved in the family business.
The husband, an older man, has a history of health problems and it is soon telegraphed that he is not in great shape. When a rich person in a crime movie makes a fuss about signing a new will, it does not take a Poirot to deduce that he isn’t long for this world. And, all too soon, Tatum is widowed. But worse is to follow when evidence points to her having killed her husband in order to inherit.
Fortunately, a likeable cop, played by James Brolin, is on hand, and he has good reason not to like the surviving brothers. But matters go from bad to worse during a court case over the inheritance, when it emerges that the judge is in the brother’s pocket. Tatum’s brother, who is also her lawyer, does a bit of amateur detective work, and is beaten up for his pains. How can the grieving widow save herself?
This is quite an entertaining thriller, and it isn’t formulaic. I really liked Brolin’s performance, which was the strongest part of the film. But I did think that the story-line jumped around a lot, and some of it struck me as unconvincing. I know that American law is different from British law, but even so.... I’d rate this as worth watching, but not much above average. If you want a great film with plenty of legal twists and turns, Body Heat remains at the top of the heap.
Sunday, 5 December 2010
I haven’t read Dennis Lehane’s novel, on which it was based, but I’ve just watched Clint Eastwood’s movie, Mystic River. The film garnered several Academy Award nominations, and two Oscars, and I’m not surprised. It is very involving.
Three small boys are playing in a Boston street, years ago, when a pair of paedophiles abduct one of them. The lad escapes, eventually, but is permanently affected. The rest of the story is set in the present day, when the three boys have grown up. But that past event continues to haunt them.
One of the boys (Sean Penn) is an apparently reformed villain, whose beloved daughter goes missing. When she is found murdered, the case is investigated by the father’s childhood chum (Kevin Bacon) while sympathy is offered by the man who was abducted in his youth (Tim Robbins.) A series of misunderstandings, rooted in that abduction, lead to terrible consequences.
The performances of Penn, Robbins and Bacon are uniformly excellent. I did not know that there really is a Mystic River – it turns out to be the backdrop for a grim execution. This is a restrained piece of film-making, but all the more powerful for that. I was impressed.
Thursday, 2 December 2010
The very title of The Boat-House Riddle by J.J. Connington gives away the fact that it is not a modern book. You’d never use such a title nowadays. And I think it’s a worthy entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books, because I’d like to bet that very few even of the knowledgeable readers of this blog have ever come across this particular novel. It was published in 1931, and my copy is a 1969 reprint, published by Lythway, who produced a lot of books for libraries in those days, some of which I read in my teens.
The boat-house in question belongs to Wendover, pal of Connington’s usual detective, Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield. Driffield comes to stay with Wendover, and soon the body of a gamekeeper is discovered near the boat-house. We are provided with a plan of the scene. And eventually a second body is dredged up from a lake.
This is a soundly constructed story, although the circle of suspects is small and there isn’t a great deal of tension or dramatic action. Much of the story is devoted to working out the sequence of events on one particular evening. But I found the book a quick and agreeable read.
An interesting feature of the novel is the observations about social class, which probably tell you a lot about England in 1931 (though I should add that Connington was a Scot who lived in Belfast.) For instance: ‘If Ferrers had been one of those foreigners who can be strung up to any pitch by jealousy, there might be something in it. But an Englishman of that class would never turn a casual flirtation into a murder drama.’ But my favourite line is: ‘In science, an international reputation implies merely that an author’s papers are read by a handful of specialists, half of whom probably disagree with the conclusion’. Connington was a scientist, and I suspect he enjoyed writing that line.
Wednesday, 1 December 2010
I promised to talk about the art of putting together an anthology - so here goes. Of course, I claim no special expertise, but after editing seventeen anthologies, and being invited to contribute to a good many others over the years, at least I do have experience!
My own preference tends to be for anthologies that have a connecting theme or link of some kind. This helps to give a bit of shape to what might otherwise be shapeless. But I don’t tend to obsess about the theme. ‘Perfect crimes’ or ‘Identity’ are themes that can encompass a remarkably wide range of stories.
Variety does seem to me to be important. The risk is that a reader may like some stories more than others. But that is inevitable. The key is to try to include good stories, so that even if some readers aren’t bowled over by one story, others will be. And variety includes variety of length. Sometimes I include pretty short stories, sometimes much longer ones, though never anything above 10,000 words.
It’s great fun to receive and read the stories. Crime writers, I’ve found, are very generous. I like to include stories by overseas writers when I can, and I also like the idea of mixing star names with unfamiliar names, and relative newcomers. The only part of the process that I hate is rejecting stories. None of us likes rejection, and I don’t like inflicting it. But it’s unavoidable, because every time, I receive more stories than there is space. To reject a story does not imply fault within the story itself, and I do try to make that clear to the authors concerned. I can only hope they understand the dilemma.
I love writing short stories, and I love reading them too. I’ve been especially thrilled when stories I’ve selected have gone on to win prizes – CWA Daggers, an Edgar, a Barry, and many nominations over the years. These honours give me a vicarious sense of satisfaction. But even more rewarding is the privilege of having been the first to see some masterly stories by the likes of Ian Rankin, Lawrence Block, Edward D. Hoch, Reginald Hill and so on. For a crime fan, what could be better?
Monday, 29 November 2010
There was a time when authors didn’t have to ‘do publicity’. Anthony Berkeley published his first crime novel anonymously. When he used the name Francis Iles, it was two years before people realised he’d written the books – though actually, that was quite a good publicity gimmick, because there was a lot of debate about Iles’ identity. Agatha Christie was famously shy and I know other authors who hate promoting themselves.
But in the modern age, publishers expect authors to do their bit to promote their books. The vast majority of crime writers don’t have massive publicity budgets, so it’s a matter of doing what one can. And this sometimes involves public speaking, something I used to hate. This might seem odd, given that as a lawyer, I’d done plenty of advocacy. But that is rather different.
On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at the Nottingham Readers' Day, doing a talk I'd never done before - on Golden Age fiction (hence my current flurry of posts on this subject!) I decided not to over-prepare, but simply to focus on conveying my enthusiasm for the topic, and this seemed to go down pretty well. An added bonus was the chance to meet Gordon Griffin at last - he has read many of my audio books, and done it really well. An example of an enjoyable semi-promotional experience.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s marvellous blog often has very helpful tips on promotion, and it repays reading by anyone who is uncertain about this area. For my part, early on, radio interviews used to worry me a good deal. So did my first appearances at Bouchercon. I remember reading an extract from my first novel at Toronto in front of an audience including the great Reginald Hill (who had kindly come to offer moral support) and I can still recall how nervous I felt. To make matters worse, I’m naturally quietly spoken, so it’s easy to become inaudible.
But practice does help a lot. I find that I don’t worry about public speaking in the same way now, simply because I have done a good deal of it, and I think I’ve improved my performance from very uncertain beginnings. I’ve also decided that if I can cope with the potential humiliation of appearing on a ‘Mastermind’ panel, maybe I can cope with most public arenas. If public speaking bothers you, I do urge you not to give up on it. Audiences want you to do well, not to fail. If you remember they start out on your side, that is half the battle.
Friday, 26 November 2010
Francis Iles’ second book, Before the Fact, is my latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. In truth, I hope it isn’t a forgotten book, and it certainly should not be, but the reality is that it hasn’t been available in the bookshops in the UK for far too long – my reprint dates from 1991 and may have been the last mainstream edition here.
Francis Iles was the name of a notorious smuggler, an ancestor of Anthony Berkeley Cox, who first found fame as the innovative Anthony Berkeley. The first Iles book, Malice Aforethought, was hugely influential. Before the Fact is also much admired, and it is memorable, although flawed.
It is the story of Lina Aysgarth, a born victim. She marries the charming Johnnie, but slowly becomes aware that he is a rogue. In time, she realises that he does not scruple at murder. And in the end, she discovers that he means to kill her.
This book was filmed by Hitchcock as Suspicion, but the master of suspense bottled out and changed the ending. It is a very bleak story indeed – the flaw, though, is that Lina is maddeningly passive. You end up wanting to scream at her to save herself. Even so, this is a remarkable story by a unique innovator.
When reading a series of crime novels, is it necessary to begin at the beginning? In the past, it hardly mattered. Poirot and Sherlock Holmes don’t exactly ‘grow’ as characters. Nor, really, do Father Brown or Gideon Fell or Jane Marple. But Lord Peter Wimsey did develop, in the books featuring Harriet Vane, and Dorothy L. Sayers set the trend for treating detectives as people who would change over time, almost (if not quite) in the way that people do in real life.
Now, it is common for detectives’ lives to change as the series goes on. In fact, many readers love this aspect of a crime series – I do myself. But it raises the question – should one read the stories in the chronological order in which they were written? And to complicate matters, some authors write ‘prequels’.
I have read many crime series, but very few have I read in the order in which they were written. An exception is Ann Cleeves’ books about Jimmy Perez, the Shetland Quartet. And that is a series where, in my opinion (but for reasons I won’t explain – no spoilers here!) it is best to read them in order. Often, though, this is a luxury which a reader does not have. What if the early books are out of print (like my early Harry Devlin books), for instance?
As a rule of thumb, I am relaxed about reading a series out of order, and I think most readers should be. But the author’s side of the bargain is that it’s important to bear new readers in mind even when one is writing, say, book six in a series – one needs to sketch in the backstory, but with great economy, so that spoilers are avoided, and long-time readers do not become bored by repetition.
In the late 1960s, the Collins Crime Club produced a ‘collected edition’ of books by Freeman Wills Crofts, a leading writer of the Golden Age. When I’d read all the Christies and Sayers I could find, I borrowed from our local library a Crofts book called Sir John Magill’s Last Journey. A good title, but I’m afraid I didn’t get very far with the book. For a boy aged about 13 it was simply too dull. But it’s a book admired by some fans, so I decided to give it another try and bought a copy from the same edition– and this time I battled on to the end!
It’s a good example of Crofts’ work, showing both his strengths and his weaknesses. Sir John, a wealthy businessman, disappears and his body is soon found in Northern Ireland. Who killed him? There are several possible suspects, and Inspector Joseph French, pleasant and determined, slowly and methodically seeks out the truth. After a prolonged reconstruction of the crime, there is a dramatic climax at dead of night.
Crofts is good on painstaking plotting – Raymond Chandler, no less, admired his work. He is usually much less careless with details than many of his contemporaries, although the trouble with French is that he specialised in breaking down alibis (‘Of alibis French was usually sceptical’, Crofts says in his ponderous way.) So anyone with a great alibi is our prime suspect. Crofts also uses many interesting geographical settings, and some of these, in Northern Ireland, Cumberland and Scotland, are quite well described in this book. I was interested by this sentence about Northern Ireland, written in 1930: ‘The “troubles” were definitely over and had been for years.’ Sadly, not very prescient.
The weakness is the clunky prose and thin characterisation. This is from what we are told of Magill: ‘Intercourse with his associates was therefore restrained in cordiality.’ No wonder the young Martin Edwards rather lost the will to live when reading that sort of stuff. And worse: ‘Of all the jobs that fell to French, the investigation of the life, habits and human relationships of a given individual was that which he found most tedious.’ This is a cop who is happier with train timetables than psychology. The result is a book that, despite various merits and historical interest, is a bit soporific for much of the journey
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Paul Beech, commenting on the publication of Original Sins, suggested that I write a blog post about the art of putting together an anthology. It is an art, not a science, that is for sure. I know of no guidelines, though I’ve invented a few for myself over the years.
I’ve decided to do a two-part post, starting with a brief account of my own work as an anthologist. I got started after suggesting to fellow members of the CWA’s Northern Chapter that we put together a book of our stories. They were enthusiastic – provided I found a publisher and did the putting together. I remember a planning meeting at the Whitley Bay home of Ann and Tim Cleeves, with Robert Barnard, Val McDermid and Chaz Brenchley, as we kicked around ideas. The result was Northern Blood, a book that was very well received, and I was proud to be associated with it.
Over the years, two more Northern Blood books followed, and I was even asked to help the East Anglian Chapter with a book. In the mid 90s, the CWA committee asked me to take over editorship of the national anthology. My predecessors since the 1950s had been distinguished, but invariably encountered the problem that publishers tend to be less than enthusiastic about anthologies from a commercial perspective.
I found a publisher – Severn House, with whom I’ve just become reunited – and Perfectly Criminal was the first of three books they produced. We’ve been involved with several publishers over the years, but the aim is always the same – to produce a great book that showcases the talents of CWA members, famous and not so famous alike.
More soon on how I go about the editorial task.
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
A striking number of readers of this blog were as intrigued as I confess I am. by the fact that Anthony Berkeley married his agent’s ex-wife. This may actually be a unique event in the history of British literature!
Berkeley does fascinate me, for many reasons. He was a very clever writer, and also an intriguing man. Malcolm Turnbull wrote a good biography, Elusion Aforethought, which is well worthe seeking out.
Some of the books are dated, but all of them have something a little unusual about them. You may also be entertained by this brief time-line:
1930 – Berkeley dedicates The Second Shot to his agent.
1931 – Berkeley dedicates Malice Aforethought to his first wife – and proceeds to divorce her.
1932 – Berkeley marries his agent’s former wife, and dedicates Before the Fact to her.
It’s not just the sequence of events, I think, it’s the pace of change that is remarkable...
His second marriage failed, too. But Berkeley, a complicated and rather mysterious fellow who claimed to dislike everyone, remained on surprisingly good terms with both his exes. He left money in his will to his first wife. And his second wife moved into a London flat on the floor just below his. As well as continuing to do his washing....
Monday, 22 November 2010
Today sees the official publication by Severn House of my latest anthology for the CWA, Original Sins. I'm pleased with the book, and I think it offers a really good mix of stories and authors, with characters from no fewer than five well-loved series making an appearance. I'm extremely grateful for the contributions of a terrific line-up of writers. A word of thanks, too, for the publishers, who have done a very good job of work.
There is an intro from me, and a foreword by Tom Harper, chair of the CWA. Here are the stories:
Simon Brett – Doctor Theatre
Ann Cleeves – Beastly Pleasures
Martin Edwards – Clutter
Kate Ellis – Feather
Chris Ewan – Art of Negotiation
Christopher Fowler – Bryant and May in the Soup
Sophie Hannah – The Asking Price
Tim Heald – Dukws and Drakes
Reginald Hill – Where Are All the Naughty People?
Peter Lovesey - Ghosted
Rick Mofina – The Last Pursuit
Barbara Nadel – Two Stars
Christine Poulson – Fishy Story
Chris Simms – Tick Tock
Zoe Sharp – Rules of Engagement
Andrew Taylor – Little Russia
Charles Todd - Yesterday
Laura Wilson – Precious Things
By the way, tomorrow, in the hope it will entertain/amuse you, I'll post a bit more information about Anthony Berkeley's complicated life.
Friday, 19 November 2010
My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a novel by a Scottish writer, William McIlvanney (whose brother, I learned recently, still writes about football for ‘The Sunday Times’). It’s called Laidlaw, and it dates from 1977. Ian Rankin admires it, and so do I. So too did Ross Macdonald, of all people, which must count for something. (I’ve never written about Macdonald in this blog, but he’s one of the American crime writers I really enjoy, even though admittedly I’ve only read a handful of his books.)
Right from the start, you know that McIlvanney really can write. The first paragraph begins’Running was a strange thing’, and at once we are with the viewpoint character, as his feet are ‘slapping the pavement’. Running, we are told, ‘was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic; a neon sign spelling guilt.’ I think the style is arresting, and although it was a very modern-seeming book in its day, it hasn’t dated too badly. The obvious adjective is ‘gritty’, but however you describe it, it’s a powerful read.
The eponymous Laidlaw is an unconventional Glaswegian cop, who does not know which side he is really on. A girl’s body is found, and the question is whether Laidlaw’s methods will help him to the truth, or whether a more orthodox will prevail. Can you guess the answer?
This was McIlvanney’s crime debut, after three earlier novels. The dust jacket announces it as ‘the first of a series of police thrillers’, but as far as I know, McIlvanney only wrote one more crime novel, The Papers of Tony Veitch, which I also liked, but perhaps not as much as Laidlaw. Maybe he didn’t have the energy or the interest to sustain a crime-writing career over a period of time – something which requires stickability as well as talent. But this book is a good one.
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
After I posted about the film of The Long Memory, I was contacted by Liz Gilbey, a long-time contributor to CADS, who had written about the book previously. A very enjoyable correspondence has followed, and Liz has kindly supplied both the images above from the original book (the photo depicts the talented but now forgotten author Howard Clewes) and the following guest post about this very interesting story:
'Philip Davidson has served seventeen years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Released on parole, he hunts down the two people who lied and condemned him.
So far, so standard fare. But Howard Clewes wrote a crime masterpiece with this book, still fresh and exciting when read 59 years on. Little wonder it was compared to early Graham Greene when first reviewed.
There is a complication to what starts as a tale of revenge. One of the perjurors is married to a policeman who investigated the case. He has always had his suspicions.....and he is also the narrator of the book.
Inspector Lowther is not a hero nor is he an admirable man. He had his suspicions at the time of the murder, but quashed them; because he fell in love with Fay - Davidson's girlfriend - when investigating the case, and love made him blind.
But now Davidson is out seeking revenge, and the marriage has faded into inertia. Lowther fears for his wife, and his conscience is needling him about the miscarriage of justice, even though he had tampered with evidence to put Fay in a good light, and his career will be destroyed if this comes to light.
The book is psychologically rich and complex, dealing with love, marriage, injustice, people smuggling, displaced persons, poverty, social and industrial decay. The characters are strong, from the over conscientious reporter on the case to the harrassed wives. Even the dead man who turns out not to be dead at all. And the setting - the Thames estuary - has it's own grim identity.
Coming to the book from the film (increasingly being accalimed as a great British film noir) it is remarkable how faithful one is the the other - sometimes you have to check to make sure the book was indeed written first, for action and descriptions replicate wholesale, as if the author is directing and even casting the film. The only odd man out is John Mills as Davidson. Davidson is written as a hulk of a man, not the physically slight Mills (whose confidence building participation was part of a brave rush of films seen at the time as mere quota quickies to keep the British film industry alive.) But his characterisation is true and strong.
Story changes for the film strengthen and simplify some themes and accomodate the narrator's inner musings without detracting from the book.
Track down and enjoy the book, see the film. Both are true masterpieces, spare and strong.'
I've not yet read the book, but I certainly endorse Liz's views about the film. Thanks, Liz!
Monday, 15 November 2010
Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer, won the CWA Gold Dagger this year. A notable achievement at any time, but all the more so when you discover that this is her first novel. I’ve just read the paperback edition, and reviewed it for Tangled Web UK.
Blacklands is a book about the strange relationship between a serial killer and the young nephew of one of his victims. Most of the action is seen from the point of view of Steven Lamb, who is one of the most memorable, and likeable, characters I’ve come across in the genre lately. And we are also taken into the twisted mind of the killer, Arnold Avery.
I liked the fact that, for the most part, Bauer opted for subtlety of treatment of her material, and avoided graphic violence. I’ve read plenty of graphic serial killer novels, and some of them are very good. But this book, in my opinion, is better, and certainly more original. I haven’t read as gripping a book about serial murder in years. Why is this novel so successful? The answer lies in the quality of Bauer’s writing, as well as in her story-telling gift and ability to create believable people and evoke setting (several key scenes are set, very effectively, on Exmoor.) I might quibble about a few aspects of the story, but the quibbles are insignificant in comparison to the overall achievement.
There is a short but valuable afterword in which Bauer explains how she came to write the book – because she was interested in how it might be to belong to a family affected by murder. Until now, Kate Atkinson’s hugely enjoyable new book was my favourite read of 2010. But Blacklands made an even greater impression on me. The only question is whether this very talented writer can maintain such a standard in future. I very much hope so.
Friday, 12 November 2010
Anthony Berkeley’s name has cropped up several times in my contributions to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books, sometimes in relation to the work of his alter ego, Francis Iles. My choice today is the book he wrote immediately before Iles launched his distinctive career – The Second Shot, which was published in 1930.
Historians of the genre have often drawn attention to Berkeley’s preface, addressed to his literary agent. This is where he set out his manifesto for the future of crime fiction, emphasising his belief that the story based purely on puzzle was ‘in the hands of the auditors’, and that the future lay in exploring the psychology of his characters.
The thinking was ahead of its time, yet disappointment has often been expressed in the fact that The Second Shot was not truly ground-breaking. Julian Symons, for instance, rather dismissed it. True, it is really a tricksy whodunit, and the psychological forays are relatively shallow. And the setting, in an English country house (there is a map of the scene on the endpapers) is very much in the classic tradition.
Yet it is a clever piece of work, with Roger Sheringham proving even more fallible than ever in his role of interfering amateur sleuth. You can see that Berkeley was groping towards a different kind of story-telling, and in the following year, with Malice Aforethought, as by Iles, he made a real breakthrough. But The Second Shot is still worth a look.
By the way, a couple of years later, Berkeley married his literary agent's ex-wife. A bold step for any author, I would have thought.....
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Nigel Kneale was an interesting writer, born in Barrow of Manx origins, who earned lasting fame by creating Bernard Quatermass (the surname is Manx) for a six part BBC serial, The Quatermass Experiment. Its success led to various sequels, as well as this film version from the Hammer Studios.
I saw a modern re-make of this story on BBC 4 a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but at last I’ve caught up with the original, and I did like it, even though the characters behave in a barmy way after a rocket designed by Quatermass crash lands on a farm. Only one of the three astronauts, Caroon, is found on board. And he is sick – very sick.
Almost inevitably, it turns out that Caroon has been taken over by an alien life form – a sort of slimy gel with hunger pangs – that threatens mankind as we know it. The police hunt is led by amiable Jack Warner, better known to us as P.C. Dixon, of Dock Green fame. Quatermass is wildly miscast, played by the American Brian Donlevy, whose relentless rudeness and intransigence make it a wonder he was ever allowed near a rocket. The support cast includes the ever-reliable Thora Hird and Sam Kyd, while Caroon is played by William Wordsworth’s great great great grandson Richard.
I was tempted to say the film was terribly dated, until I realised it was made in the year of my birth – not that long ago, then! But despite the creakiness of the story, I enjoyed it, because the tension is built up really well by director Val Guest. It’s not too much to say that it verges on being a masterclass in the art of creating suspense. It may be sci-fi, but it has the virtues of a good thriller. And that is why it deserves its classic status.
Tuesday, 9 November 2010
The Little House concluded on Monday evening, with a stand-out performance from Francesca Annis as the mother-in-law from hell. I thought this was quite a good suspense story, made all the more watchable by Annis. But the action fizzled out somewhat, and I was left at the end asking myself: 'Is that it?'
I’ve also just seen Annis in an episode from Partners in Crime, playing Tuppence Beresford in Agatha Christie’s story The Crackler. This programme dates back to 1982, but again she is the outstanding performer, lifting relatively mundane material to a higher level by the sheer exuberance of her acting.
In The Crackler, Christie parodied the work of Edgar Wallace. The Beresfords are asked by Scotland Yard to help to uncover the truth behind a forgery scam, and they infiltrate the high class, yet murky, Python Club to do so. Tommy is vamped by a Frenchwoman, played by Carolle Rousseau. Rousseau, like Annis, is extremely attractive, but an internet search suggests she did not do much acting after this show.
Whereas Annis has gone from strength to strength, not least in The Little House. I hope that excellent roles for characters of her age continue to be written – they should be. Incidentally, many years ago, my own mother-in-law (who died very young and whom, sadly, I never met) taught Annis for a while. Apparently, her brilliance was evident even at a tender age. As The Little House shows, she continues to be brilliant.
Monday, 8 November 2010
When is a book finished? Does this seem like a silly question? It certainly vexes me, and I suspect it vexes some other authors too.
A case in point. I’ve just finished work on The Hanging Wood, the fifth Lake District Mystery – hurrah! It is in good enough shape for it to be sent to my agent for assessment. (She earlier looked at a portion of the first draft.) But within an hour of my sending it to her, another idea occurred to me. A small point which I felt would improve the book.
This happens all the time. I keep thinking of ways to make a book better. Worst of all, when I am unwise enough to re-read my early efforts, I have lots of ideas as to how I could have improved them! But the fact is, you have to draw a line somewhere. There is some scope, though limited, to revise bits during the publishing process. But in due course, you have to say, ‘That is it.’
My ideal, I guess, would in theory be to have enough time to put a manuscript away for a few weeks, look at it again with fresh eyes, then put it away again, revise again, and so on, perhaps half a dozen times. But this is not possible. Deadlines keep looming, other projects crop up. Making any artistic work does involve some element of selection, and sooner or later every creative artist, however humble their efforts, has to say to himself or herself that it’s time to let go. Not easy, though!
Friday, 5 November 2010
I’ve mentioned before my enthusiasm for the work of Henry Wade, and his Heir Presumptive, first published in 1935, which I’ve only just caught up with, is my choice today for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. I’d sum it up as ‘Francis Iles meets Kind Hearts and Coronets’, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that this is meant to be high praise!
Eustace Hendel is alerted by a newspaper item to the fact that he just might be line for an inheritance that will solve all his financial problems. And those problems are pressing; he is running out of cash, and risks losing his lovely but greedy girlfriend as a result. However, he sees a possible route to becoming the next Lord Barradys. Unfortunately, some family members stand in his way – you can guess what rascally Eustace starts to contemplate...
Henry Wade provides a family tree of the Hendels, which repays careful study. The account of Eustace’s attempts to secure the title and a fortune is very entertaining, and the action moves at a fast pace. There is a double twist at the end, and despite one or two implausibilities, the book is a light and lively read from start to finish.
Wade kept trying out different types of story – this may account for his relative lack of fame, but it also helps to make him a quite fascinating writer, arguably the most versatile of all the Golden Agers. Most of his work is darker in tone than Heir Presumptive, but I found the change in mood pleasing and achieved with real flair. This is a breezy book that I’d strongly recommend to fans of older mysteries.
Wednesday, 3 November 2010
Stuart Pawson is a friend of mine and a Murder Squad colleague who shares a publisher with me, so I cannot claim that I’m entirely unbiased, but I must say that I was very pleased to receive from Allison & Busby a copy of his latest book, A Very Private Murder, and equally delighted to read it.
Stuart is one of those relatively unusual novelists who has focused throughout his career on a single detective character. He’s tried a few non-series short stories, but all the novels feature D.I. Charlie Priest, a very likeable fellow indeed. I well remember Stuart once reading a very funny, and rather rude, scene from an earlier book when we did a Squad event at Knutsford, and the respectable Cheshire ladies in the audience absolutely loved it.
This time, Charlie finds himself investigating the death of the mayor of Heckley. The story is full of Stuart’s trademark dry humour, whether he muses on nasal hair razors or Friday night in a small town. And I love the idea of domino players in a pub being compared to the chess players in The Seventh Seal. The book is packed with great lines.
The first person narrative technique works very well for Charlie, and there is so much pleasure to be derived from the Yorkshire ambience (I speak as the son of a Yorkshire woman, who was firmly of the view that there was no better place in the world) that the plots sometimes seem of secondary importance. But Stuart Pawson always tells a good story, and tells it well.
The photo, by the way, shows Stuart and me in Nevada a few years ago and was taken by Stuart's wife Doreen. Nothing to do with his book, admittedly, but a reminder to me of a fun trip with two great companions.
Monday, 1 November 2010
The Little House, which started on ITV this evening, is based on a Phillipa Gregory novel that I wasn’t aware of, but which appears to date back to the late 90s. I was drawn to watch it by a cast that includes Francesca Annis and Tim Pigott-Smith, and wasn’t I glad I did.
It’s a psychological suspense story, involving a young married couple and the husband’s charming but perhaps oppressive parents, played by Annis and Pigott-Smith. The wife, played by Lucy Griffiths, is a teacher, who is trying to understand a mystery from her own past.
When she falls pregnant, she is persuaded – against her will – to keep the baby and put on hold plans to research her past. Her husband also persuades her to accept an offer of a lovely home. This is the eponymous little house; the setting is wonderful, but the snag is that it’s right next door to her in-laws.
Once the baby is born, he appears more at ease with his grandma than his mother, and by the end of the episode it was plain that Annis, having packed her daughter-in-law off to a clinic, would be quite happy to be rid of her on a permanent basis. Annis is always excellent, I think, and here she shows a menacing side beneath the surface charm. A good story - and good enough to warrant a blog post I hadn’t planned to write!
Thorne: Scaredycat carried on where Thorne: Sleepyhead left off, with the irst episode of another unrelentingly bleak story. It began with Phil Hendricks (Aidan Gillen, edgy as usual) consoling Thorne over the death of his mother, and that was about as cheery as it got.
We witness a shocking attack on a young woman who returns home with her young son after a trip on a train. An intruder bursts into the house and beats the woman to death. But the boy is left alive – why?
On the same day, another killing occurs – this time, the victim is a prostitute. Thorne quickly comes to the conclusion that the murders are connected, and soon the theory is refined. Two serial killers are operating in tandem.
On her splendid It’s a Crime blog, Rhian has expressed the view that serial killer stories have pretty much passed their sell-by date. I agree that gory serial murder stories can be repetitive and formulaic, and there is sometimes a depressing tendency to go for the shock factor above all. But like Rhian, I believe there are notable exceptions. Mark Billingham’s books are at a level above much of the competition, and this television series, dark as it is, is striking, with David Morrissey excellent as Tom Thorne.
Friday, 29 October 2010
Xavier Lechard, a great expert on Golden Age detective fiction, alerted me to the book which I have chosen to feature today in Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books series. It is certainly forgotten – in fact, I’d never even heard of it. The title is Six Dead Men, and the author Andre Steeman.
The author was Belgian; he was born in Liege, and he was only 23 when this novel was published in 1931. It won the Prix du Roman d’Aventures that year, and was promptly translated by Rosemary Benet and published in the US. The blurb hails Steeman as ‘the Continental Edgar Wallace’. He never became as prolific, but research on the internet suggests he was pretty successful, and several of his books were the subject of screen adaptations.
The premise is appealing. Six young men have agreed to spend five years seeking their fortunes all over the world, before returning to Paris to share equally their gains. But one by one, they are murdered. Who will be next?
Does this remind you of And Then There Were None? I don’t know whether Agatha Christie read this book, but suffice to say that apart from a few similarities, the books are very different in mood and theme. I enjoyed Steeman’s pacy story, and the tension is built up very well. The plot is full of twists and cleverly done. Of course, there is much that is implausible, but it’s a book that deserves to be much better known. Arguably a real landmark in the genre.
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Hallowe’en Party is the latest instalment of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, due to be shown in the UK at 8 p.m. tonight, and as I’ll be away, I’ll be setting my recorder with a view to doing a review soon. For although the original book is one of Agatha’s least impressive, in my opinion, I am told by John Curran that the TV adaptation is excellent. And John, as the author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, is a very good judge of these matters.
This brings me to the question of whether TV adaptations can actually improve on the original book. The acting is crucial, of course, and David Suchet is always good value as Poirot. Much also depends on the quality of the screenplay, and Hallowe’en Party is written by Mark Gatiss, whose many credits include Sherlock and Doctor Who, as well as previous Christie stories. He’s a talented writer, to put it mildly, and more respectful, I think, of the source material than some other TV writers. But with Hallowe’en Party, the challenge unquestionably is to improve on the original, since Christie was nearing the end of her life when she wrote it, and I recall my disappointment as a teenager when I read the first edition. It simply wasn’t a good mystery.
Of course, only a major writer is ever likely to have his or her unsuccessful books adapted for TV. With Christie, the name is a brand, an assurance of enjoyable mystification, and such a strong brand that the quality of the original isn’t the key issue. Several of her masterpieces have been butchered by others over the years (The Sittaford Mystery was one of the most dismal recent examples) and so it will be a pleasing irony if Hallowe’en Party proves to be a triumph.
Good as Colin Dexter’s books were, I think the TV versions did improve upon them, and the same is true of some of the later and weaker Sherlock Holmes stories. On the other hand, the consensus seems to be that the first DCI Banks show did not live up to the standard of the books, while Tim Heald, Liza Cody, Marjorie Eccles and Frances Fyfield were not especially well served by the TV versions of their books. It’s all the luck of draw, I guess.
Sunday, 24 October 2010
Thorne: Sleepyhead reached a very grim conclusion in the third and final episode. I thought this was a very good new series, with David Morrissey leading a dynamic cast. The pace seldom faltered, even if there were occasional over the top moments. The finale wss deeply depressing, not my idea of cheery Sunday evening viewing, but even so, I'd guess Mark Billingham will be very pleased with the outcome, and so would I be in his shoes.
I've been catching up on one or two episodes from the first Swedish TV version of Wallander, the one featuring his daughter Linda, very well played by the late Johanna Salstrom. Ola Rapace is also excellent as her colleague Stefan. I'd missed The Joker the first time around, but I read good things about it, and they were certainly justified.
The story is cleverly plotted. I thought I'd figured out the twist early on, but the script had a good trick in store. This was a story about the murder of a woman outside her failing restaurant. The reason for her death can be traced back to events some years before at another restaurant, called The Joker.
Again this was a bleak story, if not quite as dark as Thorne. Much as I enjoyed both shows, I found myself longing for a bit of light relief by the end of them, so I may delve back into the Golden Age now. Apologies, by the way, for delays in responding to comments etc. I'm experiencing a few pc problems which are slowing me down at present.
Friday, 22 October 2010
Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley, is certainly not a forgotten book, even nearly a century after its first appearance. It is a real landmark n the history of detective fiction, much admired by Christie, Sayers and the critics, and it paved the way for the Golden Age. But Trent Intervenes qualifies for inclusion in Patti Abbott’s series. It is a collection of stories that was published in 1938, although I think the stories were actually written over quite a lengthy period before that date.
Bentley had published Trent’s Own Case, co-authored with H.Warner Allen, a writer of fairly nondescript mysteries, but this was a far less memorable book than his brilliant debut. But several of the stories in Trent Intervenes are pretty good, and quite a number have been anthologised over the years, sometimes a number of times.
My favourites include ‘The Genuine Tabard’, ‘The Inoffensive Captain’ and ‘The Clever Cockatoo’. Philip Trent is an amiable character, an artist, journalist and urbane man about town – where are his modern equivalents?! He investigates rather languidly at times, but Bentley was a capable writer, and even the slighter tales are perfectly readable.
Trent didn’t appear again in a book of his own, but Bentley did turn out a ‘thriller’ some years later. It was called Elephant’s Work, and it was a story featuring amnesia. Which was fitting, really, as it probably does deserve to be forgotten!
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
I've written before about my enthusiasm for the work of Andrew Taylor. The appearance of another historical mystery from Andrew, The Anatomy of Ghosts, is therefore a real treat. Bleeding Heart Square was one of my favourite crime novels of 2008, and while that book was set in the 1930s, here he writes with equal assurance about murky events in a Cambridge college in the late 18th century.
Taylor's fictional Jerusalem College is splendidly and atmospherically evoked. A map is provided at the start of the book, and it turns out that the layout of the college buildings and grounds is relevant to the unravelling of the mystery. I do like maps in books, and I'm actively thinking of trying to draw one for my next book. Only snag is, I'm not at all artistic...
The book opens in dramatic fashion, with the proceedings of the Holy Ghost Club, a secretive and sinister group based at Jerusalem, and a shocking initiation ritual ends in tragedy and death. Attention then switches to the misadventures of John Holdsworth, who suffers terrible double bereavement when first his young son drowns and then his wife commits suicide. Angered by the fact that his wife had been exploited due to her belief that her son's ghost was seeking to make contact with her, Holdsworth writes The Anatomy of Ghosts, debunking ideas about the spirit world, and comes to the attention of a wealthy woman who dispatches him to Jerusalem College to assess the state of mind of a student who was traumatised by events at the last meeting of the Holy Ghost Club.
The first half of the book is sedate, far removed from the quickfire style of many modern serial killer thriller, but is none the worse for that. Taylor establishes character and setting with equal care, and the period detail is very well done. In the latter stages of the story, the pace quickens and a number of plot threads are pulled together with the dexterity that we have come to expect of this highly accomplished author.
Monday, 18 October 2010
Thorne: Sleepyhead raises an interesting question. How long should a TV adaptation of a crime novel be? It's not really an academic question - it can made a great deal of difference to pace and suspense. The definitive TV tec show of recent times remains Inspector Morse, which began with each book turned into a single two hour show. Lewis follows the same pattern to this day, even though the screenplays have been original since TV ran out of Colin Dexter's originals many years ago.
Sometimes a novel may be squeezed into an hour - less if there have to be commercial breaks. Some years ago, one of the various TV deals relating to my books that never made it to the screen was based on the premise of 60 minutes per novel. It seemed a bit tight to me, but in the end it never got beyond the realm of theory.
Recently, DCI Banks turned a Peter Robinson novel into two hour-long episodes. The first seemed better than the second, which became a bit melodramatic. Thorne, however, turns Mark Billingham's book into three hour-long episodes. A bold move. The danger is that the story becomes very padded out if you aren't careful.
So far, however, so good. The second episode was fast-moving and pleasingly complex. It managed to hold my attention from start to finish, no mean feat on a somnolent Sunday evening. It's a good story, well translated to TV, and I'm enjoying it. Let's hope the final episode reaches the same standard.
Friday, 15 October 2010
I’m back after a day off! Thanks again for all your messages of support. I really do value your feedback and it's reassuring to know that regular readers have not become weary of these posts. Anyway, now for today’s forgotten book, and it’s a minor classic, Anthony Berkeley’s The Layton Court Mystery, first published in 1925 Berkeley published it anonymously at first – he was a strange man, who liked to hide his identity whenever he had the chance.
This is the book that introduced Roger Sheringham, who became Berkeley’s regular series detective. He was conceived as an antidote to the classic superman detective, and his behaviour is reprehensible in a number of respects. More than once in his career, he displayed a fallibility that would have made Poirot wince – in one book, his tendency to get it wrong is a crucial part of the murderer’s plan. Over the years, Berkeley toned down his portrayal, and he became a more conventional figure, less offensive, and more of a good guy.
Here Roger is a house guest at Layton Court when his host, Victor Stanworth, is found dead. Was it murder? The answer, in a Berkeley story, cannot be taken for granted. If it was murder, whodunit? The final revelation is clever and surprising, and you might say that it paved the way for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which appeared the following year.
This book was once very rare, so I was delighted when House of Stratus reprinted it a few years back. I wasn’t disappointed with the story, which in most respects has worn rather better than some other mysteries of the same period. For a debut, it was very impressive. No wonder that Berkeley went on to become one of the stars of the Golden Age.
Wednesday, 13 October 2010
This blog started life on 13 October 2007, and since then I’ve managed (more or less) a post a day. It’s been a real joy, and an exhilarating experience, and has brought me into contact with many marvellous people, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in person. I’ve learned a lot. Even more important, your kindness and enthusiasm continues to be a real source of delight and motivation as far as I’m concerned. I am truly grateful.
I never intended to be so prolific as a blogger, and didn’t expect to keep it going so long. But I most certainly plan to continue the blog. From now on, though, and at least until Christmas, I shall be posting less frequently. What I have in mind at the moment is to post on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week, while from time to time making additions to the schedule, for instance on topical issues.
I'm also wondering about filling in some or even all of the days when I don't write longer posts with things like crime related quiz questions and other snippets. I'd be interested to know if this appeals to my regular readers, or not.
There are several reasons for this adjustment of approach, most of which are linked to time pressures. Above all, though, I want both to keep the blog fresh and enjoyable for you and for me, and to strike a slightly different balance between blogging and my various other activities. Not least reading and writing more fiction!
Tuesday, 12 October 2010
All writers make mistakes, much as they strive to avoid them. I have certainly been guilty of a few in my books over the years. Very often the mistakes are of trivial significance – I know one eminent writer who confessed to me that he kept forgetting the colour of his hero’s eyes, and therefore changed them from one book to another. This kind of thing may irritate some readers, but it hasn’t harmed that author’s high reputation at all, thank goodness. His view is that story is more important than pedantic accuracy, and I agree.
But there are limits. I read a new book recently that contained mistakes and implausibiliites so significant that they did spoil my enjoyment of the story. It was a pity, because the book and the author seem to me, in many ways, to have a lot going for them. The story was one I really wanted to like. But it contained a key courtroom scene that struck me as so hopelessly unbelievable that I lost faith.
I wondered if this was partly because I’m a lawyer, and people with specialised knowledge often become frustrated when the exigencies of the story take precedence over factual accuracy and credibility. Novelists have to cater for the majority of their readers, not just a niche audience. But I don’t have any expertise in criminal law and procedure, and I’ve certainly never attended a major trial.
On reflection, it seemed to me that what happened in that courtroom would strike most readers, not just me, as implausible. A shame, because this was a book with real potential which, ultimately, didn’t work for me. So because I don’t like writing negative reviews, I’m not going to say any more about it. Especially as I feel pretty optimistic that the author is good enough to get it right next time.
Sunday, 10 October 2010
Thorne: Sleepyhead is a three-part crime show introducing Mark Billingham's cop Tom Thorne to the small screen. This was Billingham's first book, and it's a striking start to a TV series, just as it was a striking fictional debut.
David Morrisey, whom I best remember as the dodgy politician in State of Play (TV version, not the film) plays Thorne. He's confronted with a serial killer, who specialises in giving his luckless victims strokes. One young woman who succumbs does not die, though, and as she lies helplessly in hospital, Thorne tries to communicate with her. But is he playing the killer's game?
The episode ended in dramatic fashion, and I'll certainly be tuning in next week. Mark Billingham has not had as long to wait for TV success as Peter Robinson, but there are some similarities with DCI Banks. A tall, moody cop with a troubled private life, falling for a glamorous blonde professional. A series of savage murders. And so on. It really is quite hard to do something new in television crime, but Thorne made a good stab at it.
I first met Mark Billingham about ten years ago, at a crime convention in Manchester, when we sat next to each other at a gala dinner. He was charming and witty and very keen on the genre - I recall he collected Ian Rankin first editions. At that time, he was still unpublished, but he struck me as someone determined, and likely, to succeed. He's certainly done that, and I am sure he must be delighted to see Thorne on the box.
Last Monday evening, I hosted my Victorian murder mystery at Akryod Library, Halifax. It was an enjoyable occasion, and I found the venue especially fascinating. The library shares premises with Bankfield Museum, and the building is in a park – unfortunately, it was too dark for me to look around much outside.
But there were some treasures inside, including information about the long defunct Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society – a name that greatly appealed to me. The exhibits included the Halifax Gibbet, a truly fearsome means of execution. I was told it was a precursor to the guillotine. I’m not sure about the historic details, but I did wonder if gibbets had featured much in detective fiction – I imagine so, but can’t call any example to mind.
Bankfield Mansion was once home to a leading Yorkshire worsted and wooleen manufacturer – Edward Akroyd. He developed it into a palatial Italianate-style home. The original Library is one of the most impressive of the rooms. It still retains original oak bookcases, and a great marble fireplace. At one time Akroyd had a staff of 25 servants working at the house. But business problems forced him to sell Bankfield, and the Halifax Corporation took it over, creating the public museum and library. I’d never have gone to Bankfield had I not been invited to host the mystery evening. Yet another example of the unexpected pleasures that can come a writer’s way.
One more bit of news, by the way. Take My Breath Away will make its appearance in a US edition, published by Five Star, next June. I’m really pleased, as it is a book I remain proud of.
Saturday, 9 October 2010
I am always fascinated to see the places where other writers live and work. When – twenty years ago, I can hardly believe it! - I first visited Greenaway, where Agatha Christie lived, I was greatly intrigued, and I mentioned a while back my pleasure at visiting Margaret Yorke in her delightful cottage, with a study crammed with books. And Eileen Dewhurst, now retired but a Wirral based writer of note, has a great set-up in her flat in Birkenhead.
Closer to home in Cheshire, Kate Ellis has for many years worked out in the garden in a specially designed garden room. But now she’s moved her study and workplace indoors. She is a gifted plotter, and it’s fascinating to see how she maps out her intricate mysteries in a very visual way. This is something I don’t do, but it’s a method that has a good deal to commend it, I think. And the success of Kate’s ingenious puzzles shows that it works very well in accomplished hands.
What Kate and I do have in common as writers is that we both know the solution to the main mystery from the outset. My own starting point is almost invariably an interesting motive for murder. And that is why I am not one of those crime writers who does not know where the story is going to wind up when they begin writing. But all methods are valid – they are simply a means to an end. What really matters is the quality of the end product.