The latest series of Lewis came to an end with Falling Darkness, an episode written by a highly experienced screen writer, Russell Lewis. It was set at Hallowe’en, and focused on Laura Hobson (Clare Holman), the attractive pathologist whose slowly developing relationship with Lewis (Kevin Whately) has been one of the recurrent themes of the series.
The concept of encountering friends, and ghosts, from the past, is at the heart of the story. Laura is about to meet up with two friends and one-time housemates from student days when she is called to a crime scene. When she arrives, she finds that the victim is one of those friends, whose name is Ligeia. Soon another murder occurs – and the scene this time is the same student house where Laura and her friends lived twenty years ago. The second victim is a girl called Rowena.
Now, if you know your Edgar Allan Poe, you will be ahead of me here. Ligeia and Rowena are characters in one of Poe’s doom-laden stories. Reasoning this couldn’t be a coincidence, I decided there must be a Poe theme to the plot, and this neatly led me down entirely the wrong track in my attempts to figure out what on earth was going on. The red herrings that piled up included the warnings of a mysterious spiritualist, which turned out to have nothing to do with the explanation for the crimes, as far as I could tell. Shamefully, for a crime writer, I finished the episode still unclear about the motive for poor Rowena’s murder.
Throw in a mysterious disease which this time was relevant to the story (I’d never heard of it before, but according to a quick internet search, actually it affects only a small number of families worldwide) and you might think I found this was an unsatisfactory episode. It wouldn’t have worked as a novel, yet somehow – thanks mainly to a string of terrific performances by a high calibre cast – it made good Sunday evening TV viewing. I’ve enjoyed this series, and I’ll miss it. But I’m sure Lewis will be back, and I hope Laura will be, too.
Monday, 31 May 2010
Sunday, 30 May 2010
Butterfly on a Wheel (also known as Shattered, for some reason) is a 2007 movie starring Pierce Brosnan, as a kidnapper who reprises the sinister stare into a driver’s rear view mirror that many of us remember from that great film The Long Good Friday. Since that early appearance, Brosnan has become a superstar, but he still conveys menace better than most.
The set-up of the story is straightforward. An apparently perfect Chicago family comprises a rising corporate executive called Randall (Gerard Butler), his gorgeous wife (Maria Bello) and their adorable daughter. But the mysterious Brosnan is watching Randall, and when he catches up with the couple, he makes it clear that their little girl has been kidnapped, and that they must do his bidding.
His first step is to force them to withdraw their life savings – and he then sets fire to them. Various other humiliations follow. Brosnan is playing mind games with Randall. But what isn’t clear is his motive – is there some hidden connection with Randall’s work that explains the terrifying sequence of events?
This is a taut and pacy thriller, and Robert Duncan’s soundtrack music is in the moody John Barry style. The double twist of the ending took me by surprise, even though it probably shouldn’t have done. Brosnan is a powerful presence on the screen, and although there were (perhaps inevitably) some implausibilities in the plot, on the whole I thought it worked very well. The premise may seem formulaic, but the story-line proves to be out of the ordinary. Good entertainment.
Saturday, 29 May 2010
For the last in my series of posts about Crimefest, I’d like to reflect on the appeal of crime fiction conventions, perhaps especially for the benefit of any readers of this blog who have not attended such a convention, and wonder whether they would enjoy such an event, or whether they would feel a bit isolated.
My first crime convention was 20 years ago this autumn – the Bouchercon that was held in London. At the time, I had not enjoyed any success whatsoever as a crime writer, although I had joined the Crime Writers’ Association on the strength of writing and reviewing about the genre. I knew a few of those who attended, but not many. However, it was an eye-opening experience. Among many others, I got to meet Patricia D. Cornwell, who had just published her first novel, Maxim Jakubowski, Geoff Bradley of CADS and the great Golden Age expert Tony Medawar. I’m still in regular contact with Maxim, Geoff and Tony – not Patsy Cornwell, though, alas!
The event was so much fun – even for someone who is not naturally very sociable, like me - that I was hooked, and since then I’ve attended conventions in various different parts of the UK, as well as at Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Washington. I don’t claim that every event has been perfect, but each time I have met pleasant people for the first time, and had the chance to renew existing friendships. As well as to talk crime long into the night with like-minded people on countless occasions. Can’t be bad, can it?
And here are some photos from Crimefest featuring some of those people whose company I've shared with such pleasure. The first photo shows me with Mike Stotter, editor of that great online magazine Shots, followed by blogger Peter Rozovsky, top crime fiction guru and reviewer Ali Karim, and finally the Monkey Coalition pub quiz team: Carol, Ann, Karen, Cath, me and Rik. Photos courtesy of Ali, Mike and Karen.
Friday, 28 May 2010
Adam Broome was one of the authors I highlighted at the Forgotten Authors panel at Crimefest, and so it seems appropriate to feature a book by him in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books.
I am not sure I’d ever heard of Broome until quite recently, and I have comments on this blog to thank. Philip drew my attention to the fact that Broome wrote an Oxford mystery which predated J.C. Masterman’s well-known An Oxford Tragedy. He also wrote a number of books set in Africa.
The Cambridge Murders is another of his academic mysteries. Two African students are found murdered and Chief Inspector Bramley of the Yard is called in to investigate. This book was first published in 1936. Happily, it has recently been reissued by Ostara Press.
I didn’t get much time on the panel to talk about Broome or his books, and I still have a lot to learn about him and them. But he was a notable figure of the Golden Age, even if mainly for historic reasons, and Ostara have done crime fans a service by making some of his work readily available again.
Thursday, 27 May 2010
My latest entry in Scott Parker’s series of Forgotten Music is a song that dates back almost half a century. ‘Waiting for Charlie to Come Home’ was recorded by Etta James and Jane Morgan when first written, but it was never a hit, and it might have faded from sight completely but for a couple of things.
The words were written by Bob Hilliard, a terrific lyricist who died more than 40 years ago, but was responsible for some great songs, including Any Day Now, Please Stay and Mexican Divorce, as well as comic tunes like Three Wheels on My Wagon. He could do humour or high drama equally well.
But the reasons for the song’s survival are twofold. One, it comes from Burt Bacharach’s back catalogue, and Burt’s longevity has helped the song to find fresh life, most recently in jazzier versions by two fine European artistes - Traincha, from Holland, and the Italian Karima. And two, it is quite simply a very good song.
For me, the final act of the hugely enjoyable Crimefest 2010 was, as last year, the Criminal Mastermind quiz. The organisers of Crimefest kindly gave me a free pass to the convention on the condition that I returned to ‘defend the title’ that I won last year. My fellow contestants were Peter Guttridge, Ali Karim and Cara Black, and the quizmaster was Maxim Jakubowski.
The format of Criminal Mastermind follows closely the format of the TV show. You have two minutes each on your chosen special subjects in round one, and two minutes on general crime fiction questions in round two. As with exams and crosswords, there is a bit of a knack to it, which is why it is always more difficult for American contestants who haven’t seen the programme. I’ve been involved with four Mastermind quizzes over the years, and each time I’ve appreciated the American contestants’ willingness to have a go at something unfamiliar – not an easy task, especially in that famously menacing black chair, with the lights dimmed and in front of a large audience. You can see us all twitching in the photo before the ordeal began!
The first Criminal Mastermind took place at the London Bouchercon in 1990 – that was where I first met Maxim – and the second at the Nottingham Bouchercon in 1995. I won in 1990, and was runner-up in Nottingham, where the contestants included that marvellous American writer, the late and much lamented Edward D. Hoch.
One alarming feature of the entire week-end was the number of people who came up to me and predicted that I would win. Their faith may have been gratifying, but I couldn't help feeling daunted. My chosen subject was the crime writing of Julian Symons, and various people asked if I had re-read his work in preparation. In fact, I didn’t re-read any of it, since surely nobody setting a quiz would ever plough through the whole body of work - you can have too much information! So I assumed I could get away with relying on my long-standing enthusiasm for one of the great British crime writers. Doing a quiz is a bit like doing an exam – you just have to stay calm and focused and not worry about the things you don’t know, of which - as in life - there are always far too many. Happily, it all worked out and I’ll be receiving an inscribed Bristol glass tankard by way of commemoration. But next year, I’ll be very happy to sit in the audience instead of in the dreaded black chair and watch others suffer!
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Two highlights of Crimefest for me were first meetings with two men whose work I admire for very different reasons. One of the advantages of spending a bit of time in the bar at conventions is that you meet some very interesting people, and this was never more the case than when Maxim Jakubowski and his wife introduced me to Mike Hodges, whose first novel is being published by Maxim’s new imprint.
Mike Hodges is, of course, the legendary film director whose masterpiece is Get Carter. I’ve mentioned before in this blog that Get Carter is in my opinion one of the finest British crime films ever made, and it was a real pleasure to have a lengthy chat with Mike, who at 77 is a lively and entertaining companion. He told me a bit about his working relationship with Roy Budd, who composed the brilliant score for the film. He also mentioned that his fee for the film was a princely £7000. Not much for creating a classic, even allowing for inflation.
I also met up with John Curran, author of the wonderful Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. I’d been listening to Marcel Berlins, a top crime reviewer, interviewing John and Matthew Pritchard, Agatha’s grandson, whom I’ve met a couple of times before. John, Matthew and I then had lunch together – for a Christie fan like me, this was a terrific experience.
I was glad to hear that John is bringing out a follow-up to his book next year. And very interested to learn that he has given up his job to do a PhD on Christie and other Golden Age writers. To spend your time having a wonderful excuse to read classics of the genre! It sounds enviable to me. But John deserves it; he has done crime fans a real service with his original work on the notebooks, which not only expand our knowledge of Christie, but cast light on the plotting process in a way that is hugely thought-provoking.
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
I Fought the Law was the slightly mysterious title of my first Crimefest panel this year. I moderated an appealing group comprising Diane Janes, Frances Brody, Alison Bruce and Dan Waddell. The theme was crime fact and fiction. All four panellists have had their first crime novels published in recent years, but they were all very professional and this made for a lively discussion, even at 9 a.m., which is not my favourite time of the day. The audience was excellent, too
I hadn’t met Dan Waddell before, but found him a splendid panel colleague. He has written a couple of books which make use of his knowledge of genealogy, and oddly enough there was a time (probably about 15 years ago) when I did some research with a view to writing a genealogical mystery myself. But I gave up on the idea, and I have no doubt that Dan is much better suited to it than I would have been.
I was asked to reprise the Forgotten Authors panel, which was popular last year, although with a different group of authors. I’d been on panels previously with Caro Ramsay, Caroline Todd and Suzette Hill, but this was my first encounter with Stan Trollip, who is one half of the South African double act known as Michael Stanley.
We talked about a wide range of authors, ranging from John Buchan to James McClure. Caro amused me with her theory that Desmond Bagley and Duncan Kyle were one and the same person, and it has to be said that their photos do bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. A fun panel, and the only problem was that there was so much to say about the chosen authors that 50 minutes simply was not enough.
Monday, 24 May 2010
I returned yesterday afternoon from a thoroughly enjoyable trip to Bristol, and I think everyone shared the view that Crimefest 2010 was a highly successful event. Congratulations are due to the hard-working team of volunteers who make sure that things go so smoothly, a tricky task accomplished with good humour and efficiency.
The superb weather was an added bonus and I took the opportunity to have a look round some parts of Bristol within walking distance. It's a rather appealing city, and one that, surprisingly, has not been featured too often in crime fiction.
Right from the outset I also had the chance to catch up with a number of old friends - within minutes of arrival, I found myself in the company of first Ruth Dudley Edwards, Linda Regan and Brian Murphy, and then Ali Karim, Maxim Jakubowski and Neil White. And the social aspects of the convention continued throughout the week-end, right down to the journey home with Kate Ellis, who kindly presented me with a copy of her latest book, The Flesh Tailor, about which more at a future date..
On Friday evening, a pub meal at The Green House, conveniently located opposite the convention hotel, was followed by a quiz set by Peter Guttridge. Our team, the Monkey Coalition, ran out winners despite struggling with various questions, especially about film. It was a very convivial occasion, and my colleagues were Rik and Carol Shepherd, Karen Meek, Ann Cleeves and Cath Staincliffe. Our prizes were a choice of books, cds and dvds, and I’m hoping that audio versions of books by Peter Robinson and Lee Child will improve my commutes in the weeks to come.
Sunday, 23 May 2010
Little Voice, the 1998 movie, is not a crime film – although it features several actors very familiar in roles from crime films or TV series – but has a screenplay which illustrates the interplay between story-line and characterisation. It is based on a play written by Jim Cartwright, and I thought it a well-crafted piece of work.
Cartwright’s approach is to create vivid and memorable characters. Jane Horrocks is Little Voice, the almost mute young woman who is devoted to her late father, a fan of light music, and possesses a dazzling gift for mimicking singers such as Shirley Bassey, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. Her mother, played by Brenda Blethyn, is loud and tarty, and she is ‘discovered’ by a small time showbiz agent, played by Michael Caine. The cast also includes Ewan Macgregor, Alex Norton (Burke, from Taggart) and Philip Jackson (Japp, from Poirot.)
Blethyn and Caine give wildly over-the-top performances, but for the very good reason that these are called for by the way in which the screenplay is written. Cartwright’s story is straightforward, and would not work if his characters were subdued. In this respect, the demands of the story reminded me of the demands of an action thriller – with a straightforward plot, there isn’t much room for subtlety of interpretation, but the effect can be very satisfying if the performances are strong.
And the performances in Little Voice are strong. Above all, Jane Horrocks is excellent, and her singing quite superb. Apparently Cartwright wrote the original play especially for her, and I can see why. The setting, incidentally, is in Scarborough, a resort I know very well indeed. My parents first met there, and made many return trips on holiday, taking me with them year after year. I’ve not been to Scarborough for some years, but seeing the town again in Little Voice was a trip down memory lane.
Saturday, 22 May 2010
My researches into the history of the Detection Club have been helped by a friend who supplied me with a list of club members dating back to 1932, not long after the august institution was founded. The committee members, led by G.K.Chesterton as President, were E.C.Bentley, Anthony Berkeley, G.D.H. and M. Cole, Edgar Jepson, Milward Kennedy, John Rhode and Dorothy L. Sayers.
But what really caught my eye was the addresses of the members. A very high proportion of them lived in London and nearby counties. Only J.J. Connington (Belfast), Robert Eustace (Cornwall), Baroness Orczy (Monte Carlo – at the Villa Bijou!), John Rhode (Somerset) and Hugh Walpole (Keswick) came from further afield.
Was this representative of where British crime writers lived during the Golden Age? To a large extent, I think it was. Of course, the Club membership was self-selecting and this may have resulted in fewer writers from other parts of the Kingdom being elected, but by and large, I think that one of the changes in the crime genre over the past 80 years is not only that more stories are written with a regional backdrop, but more of the people who are writing them come from different places in Britain. I guess that there may have been a broadly similar trend in the US over a similar time-frame.
The crime writing community seems, therefore, to be much less enclosed than it used to be. And websites, social networking and – yes! – blogs are surely bound to strengthen this development. Of course, I think it’s healthy, and I can recall that even in my teens, my parents felt that writing novels was not really something that ordinary people like us did, which was why they encouraged me to get a proper job. So the changes are for the better, but I remain fascinated by the cliquey yet intriguing world of the 1930s detective-writing community.
Friday, 21 May 2010
The reissuing of good detective stories that have long been out of print is always a cause for rejoicing, and Tom and Enid Schantz’s Rue Morgue Press deserves special praise for reviving a number of very obscure titles, including the two detective novels written by Maureen Sarsfield.
I must confess that I had never heard of her, but Sarsfield was a British writer active for just a few years shortly after the Second World War; she also published a mainstream novel and (as Maureen Pretyman) children’s books. Even the Schantzes’ diligent researches have failed to turn up much information about her – or an explanation as to why, after a brief burst of energy, she disappeared from the scene as suddenly, and with as little fanfare, as she had arrived. As the Schantzes say: ‘Whether she died young, commenced her short career at an advanced age or simply grew tired of the writing life is unknown.’
On the evidence of this, her first book, previously and rather more evocatively titled Green December Fills the Graveyard, she was brimming with youthful exuberance. The narrative, set in a bombed Sussed manor house and the local village, and featuring Inspector Lane Parry of Scotland Yard, fizzes from start to finish. In rather less than 200 pages there are three murders and a near-fatal poisoning together with neat touches aplenty. The victims all have connections with Shots Hall and its owner, the sculptress Flikka Ashley. Flikka is much admired by Parry as well as a number of men in the village, but she is an enigmatic character – at times, I thought, maddeningly so. Sarsfield gives the impression of being more captivated by Flikka than by her plot or by some of the subordinate characters who, although colourful, are too lightly sketched to be credible suspects.
I found the explanation for the crimes less than wholly convincing and, taken as a whole, this novel bears the hallmarks of a talented but inexperienced writer. With firm editorial guidance she might have developed into a significant contributor to the genre, but it was not to be. I would not go as far as the publishers in claiming that she stands ‘in the front rank of the second raters’, but they are to be congratulated on rescuing Sarsfield’s books (the second Lane Parry novel is Murder at Beechlands), which are well worth a fresh airing. Meanwhile, the mystery of what happened to the author is a puzzle to intrigue any whodunit fan.
Thursday, 20 May 2010
Today I set off for Bristol, and Crimefest. I’ve been looking forward to it, whilst worrying for some time that family health issues would prevent me from attending. Happily, this is not the case, and I am hoping that I’ll find the week-end as restorative as I have done on previous occasions.
I’m moderating a couple of panels. ‘I Fought the Law’ on Friday morning concerns writers who write fact and fiction, and those involved include Frances Brody, Alison Bruce, Dan Waddell and Diane Janes.
On Sunday morning, we will reprise the ‘Forgotten Authors’ panel that proved popular last year. Those involved include Caro Ramsay, Michael Stanley, Caroline Todd and Suzette Hill.
Shortly after that, I’ll be involved again with the Mastermind quiz. All in all, it should really be a fun week-end and I do hope to see some of you there
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
We all want our books to be, and to seem, authentic – don’t we? – but there is plenty of room for debate about what that really means. Robert Barnard tells a story about an American critic who praised his deep understanding of the backstage world of opera, when in fact Robert had no first hand knowledge of that milieu at all. But he wrote well enough to persuade the critic that he did.
A book or film that makes obvious mistakes of fact will tend to be panned, but a common experience is that people with specialised knowledge recognise that authenticity is lacking when others do not. A good example, I thought, was the comment made by Josephine in relation to my review of Lewis on Monday – she felt that the work of a translator was not convincingly portrayed.
More usually, the complaint is voiced by police officers that crime novels fail to describe their work with sufficient authenticity. Journalists often say the same. So, come to that, do lawyers. I cringe occasionally when I read some of the unrealistic descriptions of legal life, although if the fiction is written well enough, I am certainly prepared to forgive a lot. It’s a mistake to be excessively picky, I think.
Sometimes, an issue arises about authenticity as a result of a deliberate decision by the author, rather than a mistake. The other day I received an interesting email from a reader who enjoyed The Serpent Pool, but was troubled because I’d created a fictional university in Cumbria. She made the point that resources are barely enough to support the one uni that does actually exist in the area. I'm sure that is true, but I tried to explain that I was very well aware I was inventing something. I just didn’t want to libel inadvertently an existing institution, or the people who work there. The whole point about fiction is that, whilst it may seek to cast light on real life, it is not quite the same as real life.
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
The Leopold-Loeb case is one of the most famous American crimes. Two students – intelligent, but not as intelligent as they believed themselves to be – abducted and murdered a young man as a Nietzschean ‘experiment’ in committing the perfect crime in 1924. Of course, it was far from perfect. They were duly caught and convicted, but Clarence Darrow’s advocacy saved them from execution. Loeb was murdered by a fellow prisoner, but Leopold was released after 33 years and died in 1971.
The story inspired Patrick Hamilton to write the famous play ‘Rope’, filmed equally famously by Alfred Hitchcock. Meyer Levin based his book and play Compulsion on the story, and I’ve just watched the film of the same title, starring Orson Welles as Darrow, made in 1959. Apparently, Leopold tried to prevent the film’s release, arguing that it breached his privacy. This may be why the characters are named Steiner and Strauss rather than Leopold and Loeb.
Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman do a good job as the selfish young men, and convey the gay undercurrents of their relationship reasonably well, given the constraints that existed at the time the film was made. But it has to be said that they are unappealing characters, and although their motivation was fascinating, it is less than fully explored. The abduction and murder of the victim is not shown at al, and I felt that was a structural weakness since the central horror of the story is dealt with at one remove. I do not suggest that the crime should have been depicted graphically – that would also have been a mistake – but to omit it altogether struck me as odd, though it is a reminder that the focus of the film is different from that of most crime-based movies. Further weaknesses are the duo’s attempts to avoid arrest are puerile, and the action is rather slow at times.
However, Welles gives a towering performance as Jonathan Wilk (the Darrow equivalent) and his passionate opposition to capital punishment is so effectively conveyed that it is the highlight of the film and the reason why, more than half a century after it was made, it remains well worth watching to this day.
Monday, 17 May 2010
Your Sudden Death Question, this week’s episode of Lewis, was written by Alan Plater, which is usually a guarantee of high quality writing, and Plater did not let us down, with an entertaining story combining two of my favourite things, a quiz and an elaborate murder mystery.
The idea was that Marcus, played by Alan Davies (yes, Jonathan Creek himself) had organised a bank holiday quiz show, taking place in an Oxford college, in which pairs of contestants played for a £5000 prize. One of those involved, Ethan Croft (Adam James) was a know-all who clearly knew something to the discredit of at least one of his rivals. Needless to say, he soon winds up dead in the college fountain. Soon one of the women to whom he’d taken a shine is murdered as well.
Lewis and Hathaway investigate with their customary determination and unravel a host of connections between the quiz players. This was a very good example of the classic ‘closed circle’ of suspects, in the Agatha Christie style, in a story which updates the whodunit traditions, while remaining pretty true to them in all essentials. You either love this sort of thing, or loathe it, and I must say I love it. I especially liked the grumpy old men played by Timothy West and Nicholas Farrell.
I enjoyed the episode all the more because I didn’t figure out the solution, and because there were so many nice touches in the dialogue. I also liked the development of the relationship between Lewis (Kevin Whately) and the pathologist (Claire Holman.) Hathaway (Laurence Fox), who managed to have his guitar nicked when he attended a music festival, was as agreeably quirky as ever. Great stuff.
Sunday, 16 May 2010
I’ve just watched The Leak, another episode in the Swedish TV series of Wallander, and it reinforced my view that the success of Wallander does owe quite a lot to the power of the opening scenes. In this one, a man is jogging through a forest. He comes across a chap with a gun, pauses for a look, and then jogs on. Unwisely, I thought, he stops for a breather, and is duly shot.
It’s a chilling start to the story, and it’s somehow rather typical of the Wallander series. Almost every episode begins with a dramatic and frightening scene, and after that it is virtually impossible to resist the temptation to keep watching. In this case, the victim was not important to the story – which is about a series of high value security van robberies. But you want to know what the killer was up to, and whether he will get away with it.
If it’s true that a tv show needs a striking opening, it’s almost equally true of a novel. Page one counts. In fact, paragraph one counts, and so, certainly, does sentence one. Unless one’s attention is grabbed from the outset, there is a real likelihood that one will move on to something else that is more immediately appealing.
Of course, a good beginning does not mean that the whole story is worth watching or reading. But it is an important tool in the writer’s box. In The Leak, I’m glad to say, the rest of the story lived up to the promise of that bleak beginning. The story developed into a parable about the choices, good and bad, that people make, and I thought it was one of the highlights of the series. As usual, Krister Henriksson was excellent, but the whole team played a part in the unfolding of events, to great effect.
Saturday, 15 May 2010
Amongst other things lately, I've been co-judging the Mystery Women short story competition with my good friend Ayo Onatade, who happens not only to be a great fan of crime fiction, but also one of the most knowledgable and supportive readers around. We've found it far from easy to make our decision, but finally we've managed to do it.
I well remember entering my own work for competitions, before I ever had any fiction published. For example, I submitted an early version of what became the first chapter of All the Lonely People. It got nowhere. But eventually, I won one, and it did give me a great motivational boost for which I shall always be grateful.
So I don’t begrudge the precious time devoted to reading competition entries when I really ought to be writing my own fiction. It’s a genuine privilege to have the opportunity to encourage people who write good stories, and I think it’s also something that is very worthwhile.
In a different way, it’s a honour to have the opportunity to consider contributions to the forthcoming CWA anthology that I’m editing, Original Sins. Here, of course, the standards of writing are very high – as one would expect from professional writers. The real challenge is to decide which of the many submissions to omit from the book. That’s the bit I don’t enjoy, but on the other hand it’s a rare treat to be the first person to read a new story by, for instance, Christopher Fowler or Reginald Hill. And a honour.
Friday, 14 May 2010
In discussing Linda Stratmann’s book Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion, I mentioned that she devotes a chapter to the case of Adelaide Bartlett. This is one of the most fascinating of the classic British murder cases, I think, right up there with Maybrick, Crippen, Wallace, Ruxton and the Croydon Poisonings.
The trial of Adelaide Bartlett took place in 1886, and as Statmann explains, it ‘both scandalized and titillated Victorian society’. Adelaide was accused of using chloroform to murder her husband Edwin, and it emerged that she had been the subject of more than one sexual intrigue. However, in the end she was acquitted, although the consensus view is that she was responsible for Edwin’s death.
The case formed the basis of one of the three novels that Julian Symons wrote about Victorian murder mysteries, Sweet Adelaide. It’s a pretty good novel, with a clever solution (although not one with which Stratmann agrees) and it deserves to be better known, not least because of its entertaining characterisation of the people in and around the Bartlett household and compelling evocation of Victorian social attitudes.
After her perhaps lucky acquittal, Adelaide disappeared from public view. Stratmann describes a couple of accounts of Adelaide’s later activities, but explains that neither stands up to scrutiny. Adelaide’s later story is unknown. Now there, surely, is an opportunity for another interesting novel to be written!
Thursday, 13 May 2010
I’ve watched another in the Partners in Crime series from the 80s, featuring Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This episode was 'The Man in the Mist', and involved the murder of an actress who is about to marry and is seeking a divorce from a reluctant husband.
The idea of the original stories which formed Partners in Crime was that Agatha Christie would conceive a mystery in the style of a popular whodunit writer of the 1920s, and Tommy and/or Tuppence would, in effect, detect in the manner of the writer’s sleuthing hero. It was a clever idea, and as far as I know has never been done in quite the same way before or since (if I’m mistaken on this, please don’t hesitate to point it out – I’m aware of plenty of mystery parodies, such as Gory Knight, but not an extensive series of linked stories forming a single book in the manner of Partners n Crime.)
In this particular story, Tommy takes on the role of G.K.Chesterton’s legendary Father Brown, and spends the episode dressed improbably as the little priest. He also leads a re-enactment of the circumstances surrounding the crime which help to reveal how it was done.
This was an enjoyable episode. It’s very light entertainment indeed, comfort viewing if you like, but done very well. Of course, the plot has limitations, but I enjoyed it. And the verve with which Annis and Warwick play their parts is central to the pleasure.
Lindsey Davis, author of the Falco novels, is someone I had the pleasure of getting to know a little when she was chair of the Crime Writers’ Association a few years back. In my capacity as editor of the CWA’s annual anthology, I need to liaise with the Chair on various practical matters, and I always find them kindly and supportive. That was certainly true of Lindsey.
I’ve read a few of the Falco stories, and their amiable wit is characteristic of their author. I was delighted, incidentally, when (although not a keen short story writer) she contributed a story to one of my anthologies. And now, I’ve received a review copy of her latest, a book that will delight many of her fans – Falco: The Official Companion. I shall be reviewing it fully after publication on 3 June.
In fact, it’s much more than a mere guide to the books. There is a good deal of autobiographical detail, much of it previously unknown to me. Lindsey has endured a number of heart-rending experiences. Her mother had a nervous breakdown, and her brother committed suicide. I did know that, recently, her partner died after a period of illness. Yet she writes about these tragedies with not a trace of self-pity.
One of the many interesting aspects of the book is this passage: ‘I don’t say a writer must live alone; that is clearly untrue. But it helps…Richard and I had the closest companionship for over thirty years, but I remained single. I did most of my creative writing at times when I was alone in a quiet house.’
Very thought-provoking, don’t you think? This is a subject on which it’s extremely difficult to generalise, but perhaps it’s true that most writers have solitary instincts. And my guess is that, of the writers I know personally, a higher percentage than the average population is childless. But in my own case, the distraction of children is certainly a pleasure, even if I don't always admit it to them. It’s the day job that really gets in the way!
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Events of recent days have reminded me of a couple of crime novels (‘entertainments’, he dubbed them) written by Julian Critchley and featuring a lawyer and M.P. called Joshua Morris. The first was called Hung Parliament – a very topical title! I haven’t read it, but Marcel Berlins, no less, gave it a good review. The second was Floating Voter, and I have a copy dating from 1992. It’s set at the Conservative Party conference at Brighton, and features the kidnapping of Jeffrey Archer…
Critchley was a backbench Conservative M.P. and a witty commentator on the political scene who wrote a number of books, but no other detective novels. He had no time for Margaret Thatcher, and the feeling was apparently mutual. He suffered from a great deal of ill-health in his later years and died in 2000. By that time, he had been knighted and then expelled from his party because of his strongly pro-European views.
As for the events which have resulted in a Conservative- Liberal coalition, to run the country for the next five years (although it would be a very brave person of any political persuasion to bet on it actually lasting anything like as long), I felt they could easily have been scripted by a thriller writer.
We have had everything, really – mysterious negotiations, audacious plots, alleged treachery, a Prime Minister who resigned twice in successive days, careers made and destroyed, and countless twists and turns. I’ve found it exhausting just watching from afar – those involved must be utterly shattered. What will happen in the future? None of us know, given the new government’s dire inheritance, and the fact that its members seem unlikely bedfellows. One has to conclude that truth really is stranger than fiction.
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Ever since Stieg Larsson’s first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tatttoo, was posthumously published to enormous acclaim, first in his native Sweden, and before long around the world, Larsson mania has gripped the world of crime fiction world. This is in part because of the excellence of his Millennium trilogy, but also because of the remarkable story surrounding it, not least the tragic fact that the author died before he became a global phenomenon. I must say that I am really looking forward to watching the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Now Barry Forshaw has published Larsson’s biography, neatly titled The Man Who Left Too Soon, published by John Blake Publishing. One of the features of the book is that the author has called upon various contemporary crime writers to share their thoughts about Larsson and his work, and I should declare that I am one of them. Even so, I think it is reasonable for me to say that this is a book that will contain a great deal of interest for Larsson fans – even if they skip the page of so devoted to my ruminations!
Barry Forshaw is a very experienced journalist with a deep knowledge of the crime genre, who was until recently Vice Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association. He has reviewed widely, and I first came across him through his editorship of Crime Time, an excellent resource. Barry also wrote The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and the wonderful (again, I must admit to having contributed a few essays, but the rest of it is definitely wonderful!) British Crime Writing: An Encyclopaedia. He is an excellent choice for authorship of a book of this kind, and I can’t imagine that Larsson’s admirers, and those interested in finding out more about him, will be disappointed by this timely publication
Monday, 10 May 2010
Dark Matter, the second episode in the latest series of Lewis, lived up to the standard set last week by Dead of Winter. This was a college-based story, kicking off with the death in an observatory of the Master of Gresham College, whose tangled personal life was gradually unravelled as the story developed.
One of the many pleasures of Lewis is spotting the star guests. Warren Clarke, best known to crime fans as Andy Dalziel, played the college's head porter with great gusto. His wife was someone whose face seemed familiar, and when the credits rolled, I remembered Liz Crowther as Sonia, the receptionist at Radio West in that marvellous private eye series Shoestring, starring Trevor Eve. Robert Hardy played a legendary musician, and Diana Quick his wife. And Sophie Ward was the widow of the Master.
With such a good cast, you could hardly go wrong unless the script was completely hopeless, and Stephen Churchett did a good job in blending plot with entertaining depiction of the characters and the marvellous setting. Claire Holman had a bigger part than usual, not only doing her job as pathologist, but also performing in an orchestra rehearsing The Planets under Robert Hardy's watchful eye.
Lewis and Hathaway were their usual contrasting selves: Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox are an excellent team. All in all, very good entertainment, and certainly on a par with Inspector Morse - which is, I think, praise indeed.
Sunday, 9 May 2010
At the recent CWA conference at Abegavenny, there were, as usual, a number of excellent talks. Over the twenty-odd years that I’ve been attending the conference, there have been some marvellous speakers, and some memorable events, and this year was no exception. I was fascinated to listen, for instance, to the legendary pathologist Bernard Knight (a notable crime novelist himself) talking about the Cromwell Street murders.
One talk by an author whose name was previously unknown to me also struck me as impressive. This was a talk (very well delivered) by Linda Stratmann on the subject of chloroform. It turns out that Linda has written a book on the subject – Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion – and I was so interested in what she had to say that I bought a copy from her on the spot.
Although I wasn’t previously aware of the book, it turns out that it was originally published in 2003, by Sutton Publishing. Sutton produced a wide range of very good books, but unfortunately ran into difficulties of some description, and they are no more. This may explain why the book hasn’t quite achieved the profile it probably deserves.
Chloroform is a substance often used by crime writers as a handy way of stifling characters while crimes are committed. In fact, the fictional scenes are usually highly implausible. There is plenty of factual detail in the book, but it’s conveyed well, and I was especially interested by the chapter about Adelaide Bartlett, whose story I shall talk about in a future blog post.
Saturday, 8 May 2010
When I wrote about the CWA conference in Abergavenny recently, I mentioned that as well as locally born Ethel Lina White, another writer from South Wales came to my attention that week-end. This was, in fact, Arthur Machen, who was born not too far away in Caerleon-on-Usk (the Usk, as I discovered, is a lovely river and there are a number of very pleasant towns in its environs.)
There is a nice little museum at Abergavenny Castle, and when we visited it, I was interested to see a small exhibition about the life and work of Arthur Machen. I first came across Machen’s name many years ago, when I read Julian Symons’ brilliant Bloody Murder. He praises Machen’s book The Three Impostors, while noting that ‘it falls outside the detective canon’ and describing it as a tale of terror.
The opening line of the book, Symons says, is both tantalising and disturbing: ‘And Mr Joseph Waters is going to stay the night?’ When I first read this, I thought Symons was over-stating the impact of that sentence, and thought it rather ordinary, but on reflection I agree it has a sinister, fairly subtle, quality..
Machen is featured at length in Julia Briggs’ excellent study of supernatural fiction, Night Visitors, which is introducing me to some very interesting writers and stories. He clearly retains a power to appeal to the modern enthusiast – I learned in Abergavenny that there is a Friends of Arthur Machen Society (FOAM!) and for all I know he may even have a Facebook fan club.
Friday, 7 May 2010
My choice this week for Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is Released for Death, a novel by Henry Wade which I've seldom seen discussed. It's a period piece, but of considerable interest, both historically and in its own right. I reviewed it for Geoff Bradley's marvellous magazine CADS a few years back. Here is an amended version of that review.
The rich variety of Wade’s work is illustrated by this book, which traces the misadventures of a cat burglar, Toddy Shaw. The early pages of the novel are set in Hadestone Prison, where Shaw is serving a sentence for a crime committed in collaboration with a cleverer and infinitely more dangerous villain, Jacko Carson. He is released earlier than Carson, who by that point is nursing a grudge that threatens, eventually, to cost Toddy Shaw his life. Wade shifts viewpoint regularly, both in the prison scenes and later, and this technique adds depth to the novel, although it is a little frustrating that, having interested the reader in the prison doctor and his wife in the space of a few pages, he never allows either character to return and play any part in subsequent events.
Following his release, Shaw contrives to stay on the straight and narrow – until family misfortunes and renewed acquaintance with Carson push him into resuming his criminal career with disastrous results. When he is charged with a murder he did not commit, he realises too late that he has been set up. The question then is: will he be able to free himself from the noose that Carson has so neatly arranged to fit his neck? As usual, Wade charts the police investigation – and the differing approaches of the members of the team – with calm authority.
An important part is played in the later stages of the novel by the ambitious young PC John Bragg, who appeared in the short story collection Here Comes a Copper, published in the same year as this novel:1938. Wade includes a scene in which Bragg admits to his wife that as part of his duties he is trying to win the affections of a woman who has given Carson an alibi. Arguably, it is a scene superfluous to the story, and it certainly slows the book as it approaches a climax. Yet Wade’s willingness to address the personal implications for a young policeman of his work is striking: he was a writer much more interested in character than most of the ‘humdrum’ school of novelists with which he is sometimes – misleadingly, I tend to think – associated by the critics.
It is a pity that Bragg did not appear in other books, but Wade (like the late lamented Michael Gilbert, of whom he was a forerunner) liked to ring the changes with his detectives as well as with types of story. Wade’s novels tend not to move at lightning speed and that is undeniably the case here - apart from a final scene that feels rushed after the stately pace of what has gone before. But he was much more than a mere plodder. This book may not be a masterpiece, but it presents an interesting and credible picture of a slice of British society in the bleak period immediately before the Second World War. Wade manages to hold the reader’s interest despite largely dispensing with puzzle and mystery. No mean achievement for a writer in the Golden Age.
Thursday, 6 May 2010
Every now and then in this blog, I touch on an issue concerning the writing of crime fiction, and I’ve been interested to see how many comments some of these posts have prompted. One example was when I asked about the gruesomeness of some modern crime fiction. And another came last Monday, with my post ‘Too Much Information?’
These are topics that intrigue me, though I don’t think there are simple answers to the questions I have posed, and I’m glad that you seem to have found them interesting too. Many readers, it seems, are fascinated by the craft of writing, and give it a lot of thought.
A number of comments on ‘Too Much Information?’ made the point that the key issue is that of balance, and I agree. If background information slows down the development of the story, that’s a drawback. But background information conveyed subtly can add a layer of interest to the book, and can also, sometimes, reflect some of the key themes.
If I were to choose an example from my own work, it might be The Serpent Pool. There’s quite a bit of stuff in there about Thomas De Quincey, which (I like to think) is interesting in its own right. But it’s also intended to cast some light on the plot, both in relation to the role that Daniel Kind plays in unravelling the central mystery, and in conveying ideas about motivation to murder.
Books that have a historical setting tend, by definition, to include a good deal of information about past times. Ellis Peters’ books about Brother Cadfael provide a classic example. And when I wrote Dancing for the Hangman, I tried to integrate historical background with the depiction of Crippen as a credible, if by no means wholly likeable, character. The pace of modern life is one of the reasons why a novel set today can seldom afford to become bogged down with an excess of background detail. But provided that detail is relevant and interesting, it can certainly add to reader enjoyment.
Wednesday, 5 May 2010
A short time ago, I was invited to contribute a monthly column to a new online venture known as Bookdagger. The dilemma was this. I really am rather over-worked at the moment, but on the other hand, Bookdagger looked good and I did fancy being involved with it.
So, needless to say, I succumbed to temptation. The subject I chose for my first piece was that of writing duos, and you can see what you think of my effort here.
I'm conscious, incidentally, that the photo I've used for this blog and my website is out of date. So maybe I'll get round to replacing it with another before long - possibly the slightly menacing Bookdagger version, taken a few weeks ago, unless it is greeted by howls of derision that are really too much to bear!
I'm currently working on the next Bookdagger column, and it will appear soon. All being well.
Tuesday, 4 May 2010
The Dead of Winter kicked off the new series of Lewis on Sunday evening, and it was a very good episode, written (appropriately enough) by Russell Lewis, a highly experienced script writer. He was once mooted as a potential writer for a series based on my Harry Devlin novels; it’s my loss that this never came to pass.
The Dead of Winter was in the same mould as some of the best episodes of Inspector Morse, making the most of the Oxford setting, and a grand country house. Quintessential Englishness, if you like. The story was satisfyingly convoluted, too. With Lewis, as with so many good detective stories, sometimes the plot is rather unlikely when you stop to think it all through. But no matter – the key issue is the conviction with which the tale is told. And this one was told extremely well.
An academic is found murdered on an Oxford tour bus, but it soon becomes apparent that the deed was done elsewhere – in a church on the estate of a grand house where Lewis’s sidekick Hathaway grew up. Hathaway is a central figure in the story, and Laurence Fox’s performance was, I thought, compelling.
The rest of the cast was, as usual, excellent. Richard Johnson was splendid as a louche elderly aristocrat, while Nathaniel Parker was good as the lover of Johnson’s glamorous wife, played by Juliet Aubrey. Camilla Arfwedson, whom I haven’t come across elsewhere, was suitably seductive as love interest for Hathaway. And Clare Holman continues to make the most of a limited role as a pathologist who sometimes acts as Kevin Whately’s confidante.
All in all, first class light entertainment. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.
Monday, 3 May 2010
I’ve watched another episode in the second series of the Swedish TV version of Wallander. This was The Priest, and it was based on a book by Henning Mankell which I have not read.
The opening, as so often in Wallander, is dramatic and arresting. A couple are having a secret assignation in a hostel. The man is promising to tell his wife about the affair and to make a new life with his lover. When the couple part, someone outside the building shoots the man, and although the victim does not die immediately, his life-support is eventually turned off.
It emerges that the victim is a priest, and the prime suspects are the spouses of the two lovers. The priest was also involved with a rather controversial organisation that ships medical supplies and drugs to Africa. While Wallander (Krister Henriksson) and his team investigate, the detective’s attempts to develop a relationship with a female prosecutor are stymied by her interest in a younger man.
The notion of jealousy as a possible motive for murder is a compelling one, and here it is given added resonance by the sub-plot. I must admit that I found the eventual solution (and the means by which it was revealed) less interesting than what had gone before, but this was another watchable programme, if not by any means the best in the series.
Sunday, 2 May 2010
Not many crime novels have been set around elections, although people like me who live in marginal constituencies are probably tempted to murder by the persistence of party campaigners and their not very illuminating leaflets, which arrive by the bucket-load. Off-hand, I can think of a couple. Robert Barnard’s Political Suicide is very entertaining, and an old favourite of mine, although inevitably some of the political stuff now seems dated, almost 25 years after the book came out. Another example is Death By Election by Patricia Hall, a capable writer whom I’ve met a number of times and who deserves to be better known.
We are now into the last few days before Britain’s voters decide what to do with their vote at a time of serious economic uncertainty. I’ve followed the election news quite closely, but I haven’t heard anyone mention libraries. One can only assume that, whoever wins the election (and even if nobody wins, in the event of a hung Parliament, which seems quite likely at the moment) that the inevitable public spending cuts would affect libraries adversely. An alarming hint of the shape of things to come came a while back when a hung (Labour-Liberal) council on Wirral threatened to close a large number of libraries, mainly in poorer areas, where the need for them was arguably greatest. It was a deeply depressing plan and I’m glad it was scrapped. But the danger remains that local authorities of all colours desperate to save money will see library closures as an easy win.
I hope against hope that wiser counsels prevail. If we are to have a safe and contented society in this country, community bonds need to be strengthened, and this means, surely, that the steady erosion of the fabric of community life (closing libraries, post offices, pubs, village stores and local schools) needs to be reversed. I quite understand that there isn’t a limitless budget to fund the buying of books (let alone computers) but the key is to ensure that libraries remain open and accessible.
This idea that small communities are at risk from social change is very much there in the background in The Serpent Pool. It’s something that preoccupies me, and its importance is not confined to rural society; in truth cities are really collections of much smaller communities with which different, often relatively small, groups of people identify closely. I do hope that, whoever has the privilege of leading this country after Thursday’s vote, they have the wisdom to ensure that our excellent library network is preserved.
Saturday, 1 May 2010
Really good conspiracy thrillers are not common. One of my favourites is The Parallax View, but I also like Capricorn One, which I’ve just watched again, after such a long gap that I’d forgotten most of the detail of the story.
The idea is very appealing. NASA is about to send a rocket to Mars for a manned landing. But just before take-off, the astronauts are taken away to a secret hideaway, although the rocket goes off into space and the watching world is led to believe that the astronauts are on board. The explanation is that, due to an equipment malfunction, the trip became unsafe, but the authorities (led by the apparently pleasant but in truth fanatical Hal Holbrook) are determined to fake a landing on the Red Planet.
Elliot Gould plays a reporter who gets wind that something is amiss with Capricorn One, and although there are various (rather sporadic, I have to say) attempts to silence him, he pursues the truth against the odds. Meanwhile, the hoax goes wrong when the rocket crashes on its return to Earth – so the astronauts (with James Brolin to the fore) have to be dispensed with. They escape, but only into the unforgiving desert.
The action sequences in the film are terrific, and Peter Hyams, the director, ensures the story moves along with gusto, so that one is inclined to forgive most if not all of the implausibilities in the plot – after all, how many thrillers are totally plausible in every respect?
One bit of trivia that intrigued me – the two stars, Gould and Brolin, have both been married to Barbra Streisand.