Thursday, 30 September 2010

Forgotten Music - Jackie Deshannon


Jackie DeShannon is a very good songwriter, but perhaps even better as a singer, certainly in her heyday in the 60s and 70s, and my contribution today to Scott Parker’s series of Forgotten Music is a selection of obscure recordings Jackie made that deserve to be remembered.

Her most famous song is What the World Needs Now – definitely not forgotten! It was written by Bacharach and David, originally with Gene Pitney in mind, but Jackie’s version is definitive, especially since it featured in the closing scene of the movie Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. This success prompted the songwriters to team up with DeShannon on a number of other records. For all her class, she wasn’t really Dionne Warwick, and none was a big hit, but I like, among others, Windows and Doors and Come and Get Me.

In the late 70s, with his career temporarily in the doldrums, Bacharach collaborated with Paul Anka on the soundtrack for a rather strange film called Together. The music is excellent, but again little known. I’m delighted that YouTube has come up with videos of Burt and Jackie performing two of the songs she sang for the film, Find Love and I Don’t Need You Any More. A bit of Jackie trivia from Wikipedia: she was apparently once Elvis Presley’s girlfriend.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Proof of Guilt


I’ve just come across the fact that Tales of the Unexpected are being re-run on Sky Arts channel. I first saw this series in the70s. It began with adaptations of stories by Roald Dahl, including some real classics, and it went on to include a wide range of mysteries. The quality was sometimes uneven, and I only saw some of the episodes, but I enjoyed many of those I did see.

So I decided to take a look at a programme I hadn’t seen before, although I seem to recall the original short story from an anthology. This was ‘Proof of Guilt’ by Bill Pronzini. It begins with a shooting in a locked office room on the sixth floor of a tower block. The victim must have been shot by his visitor – but where is the weapon?

It’s a very neat example of the ‘locked room’ mystery, with a rather witty and appealing solution. This version featured Roy Marsden as the initially confident detective – some years before he became P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish. Jeremy Clyde played the smooth suspect. As often is the case with 70s shows, the set was a bit wooden, but I found the episode entertaining

The terrific theme music, by the way, was written by Ron Grainer, also responsible for the memorable theme for Doctor Who.

Monday, 27 September 2010

DCI Banks: Aftermath - review


Aftermath, the first DCI Banks story to be televised, was on tonight, and I’d been looking forward to the first episode of this two-parter eagerly. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a long-time fan of the books by Peter Robinson, having come across his work shortly after Banks made his debut. Books like Gallows View and The Hanging Valley were early favourites, along with the non-series, and quite excellent, Caedmon’s Song.

DCI Alan Banks is played on TV by Stephen Tompkinson, a reliable actor who strikes me as very well cast as the Yorkshire cop. You can, of course, argue that there has been a surfeit of crime shows featuring a somewhat world-weary lead character with a troubled personal life, but the fact is that Banks first appeared in 1987, the same year Inspector Morse turned up on TV. So he isn’t a derivative of Morse, even if plenty of other detectives have been cut from similar cloth in the intervening years.

What sets the Robinson books apart, though, is ultimately the author’s story-telling skills rather than Banks, likeable though the guy is. Aftermath is a good story, out of the ordinary run and the adaptation was well done. The set-up is gripping. The police stumble upon the lair of an apparent serial killer when investigating a 'domestic'. There are four girls’ bodies in his cellar – but five girls fitting the same profile have gone missing, so where is the fifth girl, Leanne? I felt this episode got the character, and the series, off to a cracking start. In the early part of the story, Banks came over as something of a wimp (he isn’t in the books) but he toughened up a bit later on, and I thought the chemistry between him and Annie Cabot was terrific. You can bet I’ll be tuning in for the second part of the story next week.

Incidentally, a short time ago I came across the typescript of an article I wrote in the late 80s, for a countryside magazine. It featured crime fiction with rural settings, and never got published, but it highlighted the merits of two new writers I had recently read and admired, and whom, at that time, I’d never met in person. One was Robinson, the other was Ann Cleeves, whose own books about Vera Stanhope will soon appear on the small screen. Now that’s what I call talent spotting!

Coincidences and Loose Ends


As I said the other day, I really enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s new book, Started Early, Took My Dog. It’s a very witty piece of work, with several laugh-aloud moments. And although it is hardly an orthodox crime novel, I think we can claim it for the genre. Not just because the main characters are a private eye and an ex-cop, either. Crimes are central to the plot, and there are several mysteries to solve.

And yet. This is certainly not a book in tradition of Golden Age detective fiction. For instance, the plot abounds in coincidences. Time after time, connections emerge between characters, to the extent that one really does have to suspend disbelief. It is a tribute to Atkinson’s skill as a novelist that we are (or, at least, I was) more than happy to do this.

Similarly, a number of issues are left unresolved, or at least are not resolved conclusively, at the end of the book. So, if you like your crime fiction straightforward, it may be that this is not the story for you. Very often, excessive dependence on coincidence, and failure to tie up plot strands, is a mark of sloppy writing. Not here, though, in my opinion. There are very few sentences that one could class as lazy – those that there are stand out, because they are so uncommon, and that’s not something that can be said of many crime novels.

Atkinson is a very different writer from Ruth Rendell – and she is much wittier. But they have in common a willingness to take risks, and to allow coincidence to shape their narratives. Most crime novelists need a bit of help from coincidence now and then, but these are two writers who turn a vice into a virtue. Quite an achievement.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Fargo


It’s a long time since I watched Fargo – so long that I ddn’t remember much except that I enjoyed it, and especially admired Frances McDormand as the heavily pregnant cop who is far and away the most appealing character in the film. So I took another look at it, and enjoyed it all over again.

It’s a Coen brothers movie, a darkly funny thriller. The starting point is that an inadequate car dealer, splendidly played by William H. Macy, is in deep financial trouble. His wife comes from a wealthy family, but his father in law keeps a tight grip on the purse strings. So he comes up with a cunning plan. He will hire a crook to kidnap his wife, pocket half the ransom, and get her back safe and sound. Easy.

Of course, it all goes belly-up. The crook brings along an associate, taciturn and – as it turns out – sociopathic. The kidnap is botched, and before long the sociopath turns violent, killing a cop and a couple of witnesses. This is where McDormand’s character is introduced, and her dogged detective work leads her to the car dealership. The father-in-law agrees to keep the kidnap secret, but the handover of the ransom goes disastrously wrong.

There are some grim moments in this film, but it’s oddly uplifting, because of the straightforward likability of McDormand and her husband, and their pleasure at the prospect of the birth of their child. There are many vivid images of small-town America in this film. Fargo has a high reputation, and deservedly so. It was one of the best crime movies of the 90s.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Petite Anglaise


Petite Anglaise, by Catherine Sanderson, is not a crime novel, but it earns a mention here because it’s the first book about blogging that I have read. The author is a Brit who moved to France, found a French partner, had a baby, and then started a blog which became very successful and changed her life.

It’s clear she was dissatisfied with her relationship, and before long her blog attracted comments from ‘Jim in Rennes’ with whom she struck up an email correspondence. When they met in person, she fell for him big style. An affair followed and she left her partner. But Jim proved not to be into commitment and she was left literally holding the baby.

You can interpret this story in a number of ways – not just about the perils of blogging! The author struck me as a slightly self-absorbed person, but I must say she does write really well and entertainingly. I’m not surprised her blog was a success and her book is very readable.

There’s a big difference, though, about that type of blog, which focuses on the writer’s life in a manner similar to a reality tv show, and a blog like this, which focuses on a shared interest, namely crime fact and fiction. Any blog reveals something of the personality of its author, and that is fine, but I am not convinced that turning one’s life into a soap opera via a blog is a great move. Don’t worry, dear readers – I shall continue to spare you most of the quotidian details of my life away from the world of crime!

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Double


It's so long since I read Ruth Rendell's short story 'The Double' that I'd pretty much forgotten it. So I decided to grab the chance to watch a tv adaptation from the 90s when it popped up on TV. I'm glad I did, because it reminded me what a fine short story writer Rendell is, while not feeling padded out, as some short stories do when adapted for the screen.

There's a characteristically creepy Rendellesque feel about the set-up. A lovely, virginal young woman with a leaning towards superstition is the daughter of a wealthy widow who is trying to make contact with her dead husband in the spirit world. The daughter, Lise, is engaged to a raffish young stockbroker, who sees her as a meal ticket, and is desperate to take her virginity. When they visit an arty show, Lise talks about a superstition that, if you see your double, you will soon die.

Guess what? Lise sees her double. This is sexy, and not in the least virginal, Zoe, who makes a play for the stockbroker as soon as Lise goes off with her mum for a spiritual trip abroad. There is a doom-laden atmosphere throughout this screenplay, which does justice to Rendell's disturbing literary style. I enjoyed this a great deal, and really rather more than I expected.

A word for the lead actors. Jason Flemyng is pretty charismatic, and someone I've seen several times before, but Camilla Power, who played both the 'twins' was unfamiliar to me - but very appealing, and very good in the dual roles.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Original Sins



Here is the cover artwork for the forthcoming CWA anthology Original Sins, which I edited, and which is to be published by Severn House. I really like the jacket, and the book, due out officially in a few weeks' time, has been introduced to the press already.

One of the pleasures of working with Severn House on this project has been the chance to see Kate Lyall Grant, who was my editor at Hodder for a while. She took the Harry Devlin series to Hodder, and also reprinted the first four books in paperback, some years after Transworld/Bantam had published the original paperback editions. So I do like her taste in crime fiction!

A bit of news is that Severn House have taken over the Creme de la Crime imprint, which Kate willbe editing. I've written before about my admiration for Lynn Patrick's efforts in creating the Creme list, and it will be in safe hands with Kate.

One further bit of news which I'm really pleased about is that there will be a de luxe signed limited edition of Original Sins, to be published by Scorpion Press.Scorpion produced lovely books, and many of them have become collectors' items. This one also includes a special tribute to the late Lionel Davidson written by Scorpion's Michael Johnson.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Raoul Moat Tapes


The Raoul Moat Tapes was a TV documentary about true crime which, although flawed by a faintly sensationalist tone, still provided an interesting insight into the life of the man whose brief shooting spree in the North East last month ended in a stand-off with police negotiators and Moat’s ultimate suicide.

Moat’s case has prompted controversy because of the startling level of sympathy that he received, bearing in mind that he shot his lover, murdered her new partner, and blinded a police officer. He had a long-running grudge against the police, and because he eluded them for a few days, in the simple minds of some he seems to have acquired a sort of cult hero status.

Moat was big on self pity, and this comes out very strongly in the series of tapes that he made and passed to a friend shortly before his death. He did not seem to see that he was the author of his own problems. And yet, it is easy to be harsh about a jealous and violent man, and Moat was not necessarily without potential redeeming features. He was not unintelligent, and it may be that if he’d had better role models in his early years, he could have made something of his life. Instead he gave in to his worst instincts, and inflicted great harm on innocent people.

Psychiatrists suggested that there is a strong link between violence and jealousy (interesting to me, bearing in mind the theme of The Serpent Pool) and also that there can be a close link between suicide and homicide. These were interesting insights, but my overwhelming emotion after watching this programme was sadness. I felt sorry for Moat, although the world may well be better off without him, and terribly sorry for his victims. Once again, I was struck by the sheer self-destructiveness of violence, and the pointless waste of life in which it so often results.


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Blackout


Claustrophobia is a key element in many good mysteries, and what could be more claustrophobic than being trapped in a lift? This is the classic premise of the 2007 film Blackout, which I’ve just seen.

Two men and a woman enter a lift in an apartment block and find themselves trapped. It’s a holiday week-end, and the block is deserted. How can they escape? While they try to adjust to their grim situation, we learn more of their backstories, all of which have elements of the sinister.

The woman, who has asthma, has been involved with a dying relative and is splashed with blood, one of the men had a bust-up with his girlfriend’s father, and the other man is a doctor, whose wife recently died in tragic circumstances. It soon becomes evident that at least one of the characters is not what they seem.

There is some very graphic violence in this movie, but it’s a fairly gripping story, with good performances from Amber Tamblyn (daughter of Russ, who was in West Side Story) and Aiden Gillan. Not for the squeamish, and certainly very dark, but worth watching.


Monday, 20 September 2010

Started Early, Took My Dog


Two years ago, Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? had me spellbound, and I’ve looked forward to the next book – actually, the fourth in the series - featuring Jackson Brodie ever since. Now it has appeared, and I devoured Started Early, Took My Dog with great enthusiasm. Don’t be put off by the odd title – it is a terrific book.

It’s also book that is quite hard to sum up, zipping to and fro as it does between the 1970s and the present. The main scenes are set in Yorkshire, and the key element in the plot is child abduction. The main female protagonist, Tracy, succumbs to a sudden urge to take a small girl off the hands of her dreadful mother. Money changes hands, and at once Tracy, a retired detective, becomes a woman on the run.

Meanwhile, Jackson is investigating the antecedents of a woman whose past is shrouded in mystery. Whereas Tracy finds herself with a new child, Jackson contents himself with a dog. As the complex inter-relationship between events of the past and the present becomes more and more apparent, the mood darkens.

The story is told from several points of view – those of Jackson and Tracy are central, but there is also a perspective from an elderly actress whose mental faculties are deteriorating. It’s a complex mix, but and there is a large cast of characters, but this very funny and fascinating book kept me gripped from first to last.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Le Boucher and Chabrol


A week after the death of the eminent film-maker, Claude Chabrol, I’ve watched one of his most famous movies, Le Boucher. It’s not exactly a homage to Hitchcock, but the influence of the master of suspense is evident in a various ways, most notably in the appealing yet repressed blonde heroine, played by Chabrol’s wife, Stephane Audran.

At a wedding in the idyllic village where she is in charge of a small school, she meets a butcher called Popaul, who has returned after 15 years in the army. They strike up a slow-burning friendship, but the community is rocked when a woman is murdered in a nearby wood. A tramp is suspected, but there are no real clues.

Soon, in a very memorable scene, a second woman’s body is discovered, during the course of a school outing. Near the corpse, the teacher discovers a lighter that she gave to the butcher. She hides it, but her trust in him is destroyed and the story develops from there through a doom-laden sequence of events.

Chabrol, who also wrote the screenplay, favoured simple plots and complicated characterisation, and this film demonstrates his approach well. It’s not in any sense a whodunit, but it is a disturbing and noteworthy example of French film. No wonder Hitchcock said he wished he’d made it.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Octave of Jealousy


Some of my regular readers may recall my mentioning Margaret Yorke, and her comment about writing a book rather along the lines of La Ronde. This led to mention of the long-deceased short story specialist, Stacy Aumonier, and his tale ‘The Octave of Jealousy’ – of which I’d never heard.

Well, thanks to the generosity of Fiona B, I’ve received a splendid Penguin paperback, containing the story, and I’ve just read it with much pleasure: what a nice thing it is to be a blogger, connecting with people such as Fiona, whom I’ve never actually met. I should say that although Aumonier wrote some well-regarded crime stories, this is not a mystery. It’s simply a rather neat and vivid comment on human nature.

There are eight sections in the book. It begins with a tramp feeling a pang of jealousy when he spots someone with a more settled domestic life. We then see that someone in close-up, and find that he envies someone else, who in turn,... well, you get the picture.

It’s a nice idea, and nicely done. I’m surprised, on reflection, that this type of story has not been done in the crime genre more often. Perhaps the nature of crime writing militates against it. All the same, I’m tempted to have a go myself. One of these fine days...

Friday, 17 September 2010

Forgotten Books - The Fifth Point of the Compass


I’ve included books by Miles Tripp before in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. One I’ve just read, supplied by that very good bookseller Jamie Sturgeon, is The Fifth Point of the Compass, which dates back to 1967. It has the style of a thriller, although it’s more a study in character than a crime novel.

The main protagonist is David Walters, a veteran pilot, whose seemingly happy marriage is faltering, as his wife has become fed up with his frequent absences, and is now more interested in a suave barrister. Walters is hired for a job by a rich Canadian businessman, Jim Orloff, and soon becomes embroiled in the Orloff family’s affairs.

Orloff is a bully, whose gorgeous wife Sue has fulfilled her purpose by providing him with a son and heir, young Paul. Orloff is determined to make a man of Paul and puts him through a cruel survival test. Orloff is drawn to both Sue and Paul, and they to him. But will Orloff’s power prevail?

This is a well-written book, short and quick to read. It wasn’t quite what I expected, and the closest comparison I can make is with some of the books of Nevil Shute – mainstream novels written with a focus on suspense worthy of the crime genre at its best. The story is unusual, and reminded me of what an interesting and thoughtful writer Tripp was.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Brian Epstein Story


I’ve just watched an Arena documentary, made a while ago, about the extraordinary life of Brian Epstein. It’s not a crime story in any way, but Epstein’s short life and indeed his rather mysterious death certainly had dramatic elements that make truth seem stranger than fiction.

Epstein was the man who discovered the Beatles, became their manager, and piloted them to the status of pop, and pop culture, legends. The documentary gave a fascinating picture of Liverpool in the 60s, before I knew it, and there was some amazing footage of a crowd at Anfield football ground singing ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ – Epstein managed Cilla Black as well, along with groups like Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Epstein came from a wealthy business family, but he was a closet gay, although he never seems to have had a truly fulfilling relationship on a purely personal level apart from with his family and favourite acts – above all, with the Beatles and John Lennon in particular. Despite his wealth and success, he did not seem to find happiness, although he had plenty of friends, and he became an increasingly heavy drug user.

He died in London (he’d moved from Liverpool by this time) at the age of 42 from a drug overdose. The official verdict was accidental death, rather than suicide. The Beatles were devastated, and one can see why. Epstein was a fascinating, complex individual, and the Arena documentary captured the contradictions in his life and character pretty well, as well as providing a good supply of nostalgic material about a golden era in British culture and the history of Liverpool.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

100 Great Detectives


Over the years, I’ve contributed to quite a number of reference books about crime fiction, including The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert. But the very first book for which I wrote an essay about the genre was 100 Great Detectives, edited by Maxim Jakbowski.

My subject was an amateur sleuth whose few cases I have much enjoyed, This was Francis Pettigrew, created by Cyril Hare. He is a barrister, who becomes involved in mysteries against his will. The classic Pettigrew case is A Tragedy at Law, a unique masterpiece, but all of Hare’s books are worth reading. They have stood the test of time pretty well.

The idea of the book in a nutshell was that each detective would be the subject to an essay by a crime writer or critic who was enthusiastic about the particular character. The concept worked very well, I thought. The variety of styles of the essays is a part of the book’s charm.

Of course, the snag with such a book is always that some deserving detective characters are bound to be left out. Even so, the coverage was wide and eclectic. Not surprisingly, Maxim won an Anthony Award for the book. It has a quirky charm, but it’s also packed with fascinating material by a remarkable range of contributors.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Characters who self-destruct


Many fine crime novels (and other novels!) focus on characters who self-destruct, in one way or another. The way in which self-destructive impulses are charted often gives a clear idea of a writer’s quality. I think, for instance, of Ruth Rendell’s brilliant depiction of the illiterate Eunice Parchman in that fine book A Judgment in Stone.

I’ve just watched a movie which portrays a real-life character with a self-destructive impulse quite brilliantly. This was The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Geoffrey Rush plays Sellers superbly – a stunning performance from an actor previously unknown to me. I’ve always been a fan of Sellers, and enjoyed a good many of his movies, even though he made a few poor ones along the way, and this film also has a nostalgic edge.

But it is a dark film. Sellers is portrayed as a tormented genius, someone who had a gift for inhabiting other characters, but whose own personality was somehow hollow. His rages, obsessive perfectionism, affairs and drug taking are all presented unsentimentally, and I found some of the scenes not only sad, but troubling. How many liberties was taken with the precise facts, not least to avoid libelling the living, I don't know.

I’m writing at the moment about a character who self-destructs, so this film had an added level of interest for me. But what really matters is that it is a rather cleverly done film, which held my attention from start (like The Damned United, it opens with Tom Jones singing ‘What’s New Pussycat?’) to finish. Rush’s excellence, by the way, is supported by the rest of the cast, including the beautiful Charlize Theron as Britt Ekland, Sellers’ second wife. Recommended, even if you aren’t really a Sellers fan.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Long Memory


I chanced upon the 1952 movie The Long Memory by accident when browsing the schedules – and it was a really good find. Some people describe it as a British film noir. It certainly moves at a lively pace from start to finish – and you can’t be at all sure how it will finish, which is a bonus.

John Mills stars as Davidson, a man just released from prison after serving 12 years for a murder he didn’t commit. He was convicted thanks to perjured testimony and now he is out for revenge. By a pleasing twist, the girl who betrayed him (to save her own father) is now married to a senior cop who is keeping an eye on what he is up to. Davidson is, perhaps understandably, a grumpy chap, and even when a glamorous young Norwegian woman befriends him and takes up residence in the ruined boathouse that is his adoptive home, he is amazingly unimpressed – to begin with, anyway.

The film, set mainly on the Thames estuary, an evocative locale, was directed by Robert Hamer, who was responsible for one of my favourite films, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Hamer, a gay alcoholic who died young, was clearly a superb director and I’d like to know more about him and his work.

The cast, also, is excellent. It includes Geoffrey Keen (who later appeared in several Bond films), Thora Hird, John Slater (later in Z Cars), John Horsley (later the doctor in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) and the young Christopher Beeny (later in Upstairs, Downstairs). I found the story entertaining and the script taut. It was based on a book by Howard Clewes, of whom I must admit I’ve never heard. Recommended.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Deadline


Deadline is a 2009 movie about a writer under pressure of time to finish her latest work in progress, a theme that I found sufficiently close to home to tempt me to watch it. The writer in question goes away to stay in a quiet house in order to get the work done, a method that seems very sensible – in theory. But not, perhaps, if the house is in the middle of nowhere, and the writer’s violent former lover has just been released from prison.

The star of the film, Brittany Murphy, died in sad circumstances shortly after the film was made, and it would be pleasing to report that the movie was a good showcase for her talents. But, for a start, I found it difficult to believe in her character as a writer. There was nothing in the script to persuade me that this attractive, young and utterly flaky woman was really likely to be a writer. I’m not, of course, saying that writers can’t be attractive, young, or utterly flaky! Just that Brittany Murphy didn’t remind me of any writer I’ve ever met. Nor did the script make any effort to make her (or anyone else in the film) likeable.

Once she is installed in the house to set about writing, we are treated to a range of ‘creepy’ effects – dripping taps, falling chairs, swinging lampshades, creaking doors – that were clich├ęs long before Ms Murphy was born. The action warms up, though, when she discovers a camcorder and a set of tapes. These seem to show former occupants of the house, a man and his pregnant lover, in a dangerously deteriorating relationship. But are the tapes what they seem?

There is surely much that is very interesting to be said in crime novels and films about voyeurism, but Deadline does not say it, in my opinion. The merit of the film is that it is not boring, but although the script does hold the attention, it struck me as a missed opportunity. Disappointing.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Following the Detectives



I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve contributed a couple of essays, on Ellis Peters’ Shropshire and Inspector Morse’s Oxford, to a forthcoming book edited by Maxim Jakubowski, dealing with real life scenes of fictional crime. Two subjects I found very agreeable to research as well as write about. Marvellous, contrasting, yet each very English.

The book is due to come out on 25 September, published by New Holland Press, and I’m looking forward to reading the other contributions. All the more so as the authors are a distinguished list – I feel as though I’m in the best company.

This comes as no real surprise though, as Maxim has a knack of compiling very good books. I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to a number of them, and on another day I’ll write about a long ago volume called 100 Great Detectives for which I wrote an essay.

Here’s what the blurb has to say about the new book: ‘Whether it be the London of Sherlock Holmes or the Ystad of the Swedish Wallander, Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco or Donna Leon's Venice, the settings chosen by crime fiction authors have helped those writers to bring their fictional investigators to life and to infuse their writing with a sense of danger and mystery. "Following the Detectives" follows the trail of over 20 of crime fiction's greatest investigators, discovering the cities and countries in which they live and work. Edited by one of the leading voices in crime fiction, Maxim Jakubowski, each entry is written by a crime writer, journalist or critic with a particular expertise in that detective and the fictional crimes that have taken place in each city's dark streets and hidden places. The book includes beautifully designed maps with all the major locations that have featured in a book or series of books - buildings, streets, bars, restaurants and locations of crimes and discoveries - allowing the reader to follow Inspector Morse's footsteps through the college squares of Oxford or while away hours in a smoky Parisian cafe frequented by Inspector Maigret, for example.'

Friday, 10 September 2010

Forgotten Book - Mizmaze


My choice for Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books today is Mizmaze. Quite a nice title. It is the only book by Mary Fitt that I have read, although she was a prolific crime writer for almost a quarter of a century. I was attracted to her work by the praise accorded to her by Harry Keating in Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers and by Cooper and Pike in Collecting Detective Fiction.

The name of Mary Fitt concealed the identity of Kathleen Freeman, a well-regarded Greek scholar whose private nature is reflected in the biographical note in the Penguin edition of this book, in which she is quoted as saying: ‘It is… the writer of fiction who is of interest to the public, not the person of whom the writer is part.’

In a celebrity-focused age, such a modest outlook seems quaint, but it was not uncommon at the time; Agatha Christie, for one, felt the same and routinely declined requests from fans for signed photographs. What would Mary Fitt have made of blogging, I wonder?

This novel, Fitt’s last but one, was published in the year of her death, 1959. It boasts a murder in a maze – to my mind, always an evocative and appealing concept. Unfortunately, the victim, old Augustine Hatley, so lacks redeeming features that it is a wonder that he survived to a ripe old age, and the various suspects, including his two daughters, are scarcely more appealing. The detection is undertaken by Fitt’s usual pairing, Inspector Mallet and Dr Fitzbrown and the latter is oddly more prominent than the former. I have to say that it's not too hard to see why this book has long been forgotten. I'm sure Fitt wrote some good stories, but this is really more of a curiosity.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Living of Jericho





I first read Colin Dexter’s Morse novel The Dead of Jericho in the early 80s, and I remember enjoying the TV version a few years after that. It is classic Dexter – convoluted, yet highly entertaining.

Dexter’s Jericho is an area of Oxford, a short walk from the city centre, yet possessing a distinctive character of its own. My main memory of Jericho from student days is of occasional visits to the cinema there, sometimes to see arty films, sometimes to see something ultra-commercial – the far from sophisticated Death Wish with Charles Bronson being one movie a lot of us trooped out to see!

I revisited Jericho last week-end for the first time in many years. It’s now home to my webmaster, and I was struck by the liveliness of the area – an excellent mix of town and gown. Take Freud, for instance. A cafe bar in a former church that looks like an ancient Roman temple; I’ve not seen anything quite like it. St Barnabas Church is unorthodox and fascinating. And there are some pretty good murals.

All in all, it made me wonder if any crime writer has used Jericho as a setting in the last few years. The vibrant atmosphere of the area makes it a great backdrop for fiction. If nobody else has had a go since Colin Dexter, maybe there’s a gap in the market!

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Mouse that Roared


The late American writer Leonard Wibberley occasionally ventured into the crime genre, but he is best remembered for the series of satirical books starting with The Mouse that Roared, set in the tiny European country called the Grand Duchy of Fenwick. I’ve just seen the 1959 film version of the book, which (despite its fame) I’d never seen all the way through before.

I’m glad I did, for the Cold War satire has worn surprisingly well, given the passage of more than half a century. The premise of the film is that the Grand Duchy’s prosperity is threatened by the loss of its lucrative wine trade to the US. The government devises a plan to declare war on the US in retaliation, surrender quickly, and benefit from aid given generously by the US, as to other defeated enemies. The plan misfires when, through a series of wildly unlikely events, to put it mildly, the invasion of New York proves successful.

One of the strengths of the film is an excellent cast, led by Peter Sellers, who takes three roles. Jean Seberg is the love interest – she is the daughter of the scientist who has built the ‘Q bomb’. William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who) helps conduct the invasion, while Leo McKern (aka Horace Rumpole) is a populist politician.

The appeal of the script is that it combines two timeless elements, which are often used to good effect in thrillers. The first is the ‘David versus Goliath’ story-line, which always has an audience rooting for the underdog. The second is the cunning plan that misfires. The political issues that underpin the satire may seem dated now, but The Mouse that Roared remains a very enjoyable film indeed.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Ellis Peters memories


I mentioned Crippen & Landru the other day in connection with their new book by Philip Wylie. A few years back, I co-edited one of their books, a Lost Classic, featuring obscure stories by Edith Pargeter, aka Ellis Peters - The Trinity Cat and Other Mysteries.

My co-editor was Sue Feder. She was someone I never met, but she was a great fan of, and expert in, the work of Ellis Peters. Doug Greene introduced us via email and we corresponded about the various unpublished (in volume form) stories that Peters had written and which might be suitable for the collection. Sue’s enthusiasm was infections, and it was a sad blow when, some time before the book was published, she died after a long fight against serious illness.

I’ve been involved in various literary collaborations over the years, and I think of the Peters venture with considerable affection. The stories in The Trinity Cat, by and large, are set in fictionalised versions of her beloved Shropshire Many of them were written in the 50s, but they retain their charm, I think. She was a capable writer, though I’d describe her plotting as workmanlike rather than brilliant. Agatha Christie she was not –but she was much better than the great Agatha at evoking place.

I like to think Sue Feder would have been proud of ‘our book’. It was a pleasure to collaborate with her, albeit at a distance. It’s an odd thing, by the way, but three of the books I’ve produced over the years have been co-written with people whom, for one reason or another, I never actually got to meet.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Solving Mysteries


The world of mystery readers divides into two broad categories – those who like to try to solve the mystery themselves, before the solution is revealed, and those who simply enjoy the story and make no serious effort to work out what is going on. Many people I know, including some crime writers, are in the latter camp, but I’m firmly in the former group.

In the Golden Age of complicated plots and ingenious if unlikely solutions, I suppose many readers liked to figure out the answer to the puzzle, and this was why Ellery Queen introduced the Challenge to the Reader in his early books – an idea taken up, as I have mentioned recently, by Rupert Penny in The Talkative Policeman and some of his later mysteries. Agatha Christie set her challenges less explicitly, though she usually managed to ‘play fair’ with the reader by giving a variety of clues to the answer. Her great gift in this respect was a matchless ability to disguise her clues. Information is supplied so surreptitiously that you may not notice you are receiving it. Her ability to misdirect truly matched any conjuror’s.

Penny couched his Challenge like this: ‘At this point the intelligent reader, if he has not already done so, should be able to attempt the solution of the problem with every prospect of success by taking thought, eked out where necessary with a guess or two...The less intelligent reader may perhaps be allowed to guess first and think afterwards, always provided that he does not shirk the thinking...nothing can too strongly express condemnation of those who use guesswork alone....’

Plainly, he had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this, and generally, there’s a sense of fun about Penny’s writing that gives it an enduring appeal. For my part, as an author, I do like to set an implied challenge to readers who want a puzzle to solve, by offering clues to motivation and hidden secrets during the course of the narrative. Of course, plenty of my readers aren’t interested in this aspect of the stories, preferring to focus on the characterisation, setting and evocation of a particular society at a particular point in time, but that is fine by me. A writer of mysteries is in the business of entertainment, and it’s possible to entertain on a number of different levels. Rupert Penny and some of his contemporaries focused too heavily on things like train timetables for the taste of modern readers. But the fact that the genre has moved on doesn’t mean that there isn’t much pleasure to be had, both for writers and readers, in plots with fairly clued puzzles .

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments


I’ve just received my copy of the latest title published by Crippen & Landru, a wonderful American small press. This is Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments, by Philip Wylie, a writer of whom I must admit I’ve never heard. But Doug Greene, who created Crippen & Landru, is a sound judge, and I’m sure it is a book packed with interest.

My confidence is reinforced by a fascinating short introduction to the book by Bill Pronzini. I’ve never met Pronzini, but I’ve read some of his stories, and also his two wonderful and witty Gun in Cheek books, which celebrate some of the wackiest crime books of all time, by the likes of Harry Stephen Keeler.

Pronzini says Wylie included but was not limited to psychology, philosophy, biology, ethnology, technology, physics, atomic energy, modern education, women’s rights, environmental issues, engineering, UFOs, deep-sea fishing, orchid growing, Hollywod film-making, mainstream science fiction, and mystery and detective fiction.’ Wow!

Pronzini also outlines the remarkably wide range of books that Wylie, who died almost 40 years ago, published. The blurb of the book, which comprises six longish stories, describes Wylie’s detective fiction as ‘among the most ingenious and innovative of his generation’. Sounds fascinating. Doug does a great job in exhuming forgotten classics – I encourage mystery fans everywhere to support his efforts, and those of fellow American Fender Tucker, of Ramble House.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Damned United


David Peace is known for a number of dark books with crime themes, but The Damned United is something rather different. It’s about the 44 days that the controversial football manager Brian Clough spent in charge of Leeds United. I haven’t read the book, but I recently watched Tom Hooper’s 2009 film of the story, and much enjoyed it.

Brian Clough was a larger than life individual, and a very suitable character for fictional interpretation. He was both brilliant and deeply flawed (as so many brilliant people are deeply flawed) and his vanity led him into many disastrous errors. Prime among them was the decision to accept the job as manager of Leeds, a club which he despised. He also had a long-running vendetta with Don Revie, his predecessor at Leeds. When things go badly for Clough at Leeds, Revie finds it impossible not to gloat. In later years, Clough and Revie suffered ill-health and died relatively young, but in their hey-day they were truly formidable figures.

I was interested in the various changes made to the real life sequence of events for the purpose of making the story (and the rivalry with Revie) more dramatic. It’s a reminder that one has to take the ‘factual’ basis of most fact-based stories with a large pinch of salt. But, for the most part, the inventions seemed to be true to the spirit of the story.

Michael Sheen’s performance of Clough is superb; he really is an impressive performer. Timothy Spall does his usual great job as Peter Taylor, Clough’s long-suffering sidekick, and Colm Meaney is terrific as Revie. A very enjoyable film, even if you don’t like football.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Forgotten Book - Heart to Heart


My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten books is another novel co-written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Heart to Heart was published in the UK In 1959, in a translation by Daphne Woodward – not long, that is, after Hitchcock turned one of the duo’s earlier books into Vertigo.

Heart to Heart is rather different from other Boileau-Narcejac novels that I have read – in fact, their ability to ring the changes and their willingness to take risks are aspects of their writing that I much admire. Here the setting is the world of popular music. Jean Leprat is a young pianist who has embarked on a dangerous affair with the glamorous Eve, who is married to Faugeres, a famous songwriter who is also a selfish and sadistic husband.

Leprat is responsible for the death of Faugeres, with Eve a witness, but at first it seems that the couple have successfully covered up their involvement. But then records arrive which, when played, feature the songwriter’s last composition – and menacing messages from him.

It is a sinister and gripping set-up, but for once the authors came up with a plot that is relatively thin. I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it reached the high level of some of their other books, such as The Prisoner. The rather clunky English prose didn’t help, either. It’s a highly charged emotional thriller, and might have benefited from a less literal translation. And also, perhaps, from a protagonist rather less self-centred and weak than Jean Leprat.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Rivalries


Tony Blair’s newly published memoir, A Journey, looks as though it will sell a few more copies than any of my efforts. One of the main themes of Blair’s book, inevitably, is his love-hate relationship with Gordon Brown (more hate than love, it would seem.) I’m utterly fascinated by that relationship, and have been for years, now not least because the nature of rivalry is a core theme of the book I’m currently writing.

The Blair-Brown rivalry is one of the all-time classics, because it is so closely allied with issues about power, idealism (or the lack of it) and personality. It involved great conflict, and so has great dramatic potential. To put it simplistically, one might say that Brown was, and is, intellectually superior to Blair, but was self-obsessed and lacked an ability to connect with people. Blair won elections, Brown either ran scared of them or lost them. To complicate matters, Blair had an almost messianic sense of what to do with his power ( whether one agrees with his view or loathes it), while Brown seems to have seethed with jealousy of his more telegenic colleague, and was more concerned with becoming top dog than deciding what to do once he became Prime Minister. Jealousy is another subject which fascinates me – it’s at the heart of The Serpent Pool.

Many commentators have described Brown as a sort of Shakespearean tragic hero, and there was something deeply moving about his (second) resignation speech after he lost the Election, when he finally dragged himself away from Downing Street and revealed himself as a husband and father (and no doubt, a very good one) rather than an economic wizard (almost certainly, a very bad one, unless you share his view that he saved the world during the credit crunch.) It’s a fair bet that, away from power, he will become happier and more fulfilled than he was when he achieved his political dream.

I once had lunch with Tony Blair, when he met up with a committee of which I was a member, about eighteen years ago. He was a very pleasant person to talk to, even though he was a lawyer who didn’t seem too interested in law. Of all the ministers and shadow ministers we met, Tory and Labour, he was by far the most charismatic. Yet, above all because of Iraq, many people revile him. This contrast between private and public images is yet another issue that offers enormous potential to the novelist. One day it’s a subject I’d like to tackle – perhaps through the medium of a thriller.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Gilda Revisited


I posted a while back about Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. It was a film I watched rather casually one evening, and I liked it without thinking it was a great masterpiece. But some rank it as a ‘landmark in world cinema’, and on that basis, BFI Classics have published a study of the film by Melvyn Stokes, which I found very interesting.

Stokes provides a short account of the film’s narrative, wisely paying little attention to the rather barmy story-line involving a ‘tungsten cartel’, and focusing on the triangular relationship between Gilda, gambler Johnny Farrell, and casino manager Ballin Mundsen. He debates a gay sub-text in the relationship between Johnny and Mundsen that more or less passed me by when I watched the film; in my defence, it was rather subtly portrayed, in order to get past the censors.

Stokes rightly praises the excellence of Hayworth’s performance, and there is discussion as to where this movie fits in the history of film noir, as well as feminist takes on the part that Gilda plays in the story. It’s interesting that this is one of those films whose reputation has improved over the years, and it’s safe to say that this is despite rather than because of the crime plot.

One can, of course, over-analyse films as well as books. But I like learning from the critical reflections of others; provided they are not pretentions, they can often prompt me to go back to a film or book, and get more out of them second time around. So it is with Gilda. Melvyn Stokes has persuaded me to watch it again, and I think I’ll get more out of it on a second viewing.