Friday, 30 March 2012

Forgotten Book: Crime on the Coast and No Flowers by Request

Crime on the Coast and No Flowers By Request are two round-robin novellas that have been published in hardback and paperback in a single volume which is my Forgotten Book for today. They are often assumed to be Detection Club productions, but in fact Crime on the Coast was put together by a group which included non-Club members.

No Flowers by Request first appeared in 1953 as a serial in The Daily Sketch. It’s a domestic poisoning mystery, with two chapters written by each of the five contributors. The story is kicked off by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I suspect this may have been her last published foray into detective fiction – though I stand to be corrected. She introduces the story in characteristically assured fashion, with a first person narration by a widow who decides to become a cook-housekeeper. When reading her contribution, I thought what a pity it was that, effectively, she gave up writing mysteries before the start of the Second World War. Her talent was undimmed more than a decade later, even in this fragment.

Later chapters are supplied by E.C. R. Lorac, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Gilbert and Christianna Brand. An all-female line-up of writers (Gilbert’s real name was Lucy Malleson) and perhaps that is why a domestic setting was chosen. It is certainly well portrayed, and the mystery isn’t bad.

Crime on the Coast was serialised a year later in The News Chronicle. This time the story begins, in typically atmospheric fashion, with John Dickson Carr describing a strange encounter at a slightly macabre seaside fun fair. Later chapers are supplied by Valerie White, Laurence Meynell, Joan Fleming, Michael Cronin and Elizabeth Ferrars. I must admit I’ve never heard of White or Cronin, but their sections aren’t at all bad. However, as is often the case with round-robin mysteries, the story-line becomes increasingly unlikely as events move on. This is partly because of the need to provide cliffhanger chapter endings for the serialisation in the newspaper.

All in all, these are minor pieces of work, but I enjoyed reading them. They rank as curiosities, but collaborative writing is extremely interesting, both in theory and in practice, and the stories are, therefore, worth a look, especially for fans of Carr and Sayers. No Gideon Fell or Peter Wimsey, though!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Narratives of Enclosure

A brand new study of the locked room mystery has just been published – the first of its kind. The title is Narratives of Enclosure in Detective Fiction, the author Michael Cook, and the publisher Palgrave Macmillan. It’s an expensive book, like so many academic texts, but I decided to treat myself.

In fact, the book is not quite what I expected, for a number of reasons. The author’s starting point is interesting. He suggests that Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” set a pattern for detective fiction with an emphasis on “enclosures, death and references to sequestered lives”. So although there is quite a bit of focus on Golden Age fiction, when – most people would accept, I think – the locked room mystery was in its hey-day, the book includes extensive discussion of some stories that one wouldn’t really associate with the locked room sub-genre. A key example is that splendid Charles Dickens story, “The Signalman”.

Seven of the eight chapters focus predominantly on specific authors. The obvious candidates, G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr, are among them. But so too are Dickens, Anna Katherine Green, Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster. This eclectic and surprising mix offers much food for thought.

A possible criticism of the book is that, at times, there seems to be almost as much discussion of academic studies of crime fiction as there is about individual locked room mysteries. Some excellent locked room mysteries are not even mentioned – for instance, Rim of the Pit, by Hake Talbot.

However, perhaps it is unfair to focus too much on omissions. All books of this kind have to be selective; there is no alternative. This is a thought-provoking book, and although I don’t see it as truly definitive as a study of its subject, it’s well worth a look if you are keen on studies of crime fiction.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Dead Image and Avon Street

The combination of history with mystery is a beguiling one. It's hard to believe now, but when Agaaha Christie wrote a whodunit set in Ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End, it was an unusual - and rather brave - thing to do. Now, historical mysteries abound, and a number of authors have carved terrific reputations in the field.

I first came across The History Press when they agreed to publish last year's Murder Squad anthology, Best Eaten Cold. The book appeared under a new imprint, The Mystery Press, and this is a brand which seems to be going from strength to strength.

Two recent titles from this stable deserve particular mention. Dead Image, by Joan Lock, is a paperback edition of a book which first appeared more than a decade ago. Joan Lock is a former police officer (so was her late husband Bob, a chap with a delightful sense of humour whom I first met, with Joan, at CWA conferences more than 20 years ago.) She has a great deal of expertise in the field of police history, and this book, featuring Detective Sergeant Best, is a typically well-researched and entertaining novel. Joan is definitely an author to check out, and an acknowledged expert in her field.

Paul Emanuelli, in contrast, is a new name to me. His book Avon Street, is a tale of murder in Victorian Bath. As Peter Lovesey has shown, Bath is a fascinating setting for a mystery, and Emanuelli has produced an adventure story with its roots - as a short afterword explains - in reality. There's some good stuff here, but the book is twice as long as Dead Image, and I think Joan Lock's book shows that there is often a great deal of merit in concision, even if it means excluding some interesting research material.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Forgotten Book - The Footsteps at the Lock

Ronald Knox, author of today’s Forgotten Book, The Footsteps at the Lock, was to my mind a rather frustrating detective novelist. He had great gifts – an understanding of human nature, a sharp wit, and an intricate mind – that suited him ideally to Golden Age fiction. Yet overall, I fear, the verdict must be that he under-achieved.

This novel is an example of what I mean. It begins splendidly, and wittily, setting the scene for a story about complications over an inheritance. Two cousins who loathe each other decide, for dubious reasons, to go on a boat trip together – and one of them goes missing. Has he been killed by his cousin? The plot soon thickens agreeably.

Miles Bredon, an insurance investigator, is called in by his firm, and he is accompanied by his likeable wife Angela. Unfortunately, the story-line becomes bogged down in complications about what precisely did happen on the ill-fated boat trip, and the arrival on the scene of an improbable American called Erasmus Quirk doesn’t improve things, although it does turn out to be highly relevant to the plot.

The real trouble is that one of the cousins turns out to be very different in practice from the way in which he is at first presented, and this uncertain handling of character seems to me to be at the heart of Knox’s struggle with the genre. Intellectually, he was a master of it, but he could not inject into his books the same level of empathy with his people that, say, Henry Wade, Sayers or Christie achieved. For a priest, this seems rather surprising, and one does wonder whether his approach was over-intellectual. So The Footsteps at the Lock ranks as a fair example of the classic detective novel, but not the masterpiece I began to hope for when relishing the early pages.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Somnambulist: review

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox is one of the books featured in the TV Book Club 2012, sponsored by Specsavers. It’s described on the cover as “a spellbinding tale of lost love, grief, murder and madness in Victorian England”, and that’s a pretty fair summary.

There is mention of that Wilkie Collins masterpiece, The Woman in White, in the opening pages – it’s said that a painting by Millais of a young female somnambulist may have been inspired by it. This suggests that we are in for a densely plotted murder mystery of the kind Collins favoured, but although there is a murder which has a critical effect on the events of the story, I wouldn’t say that this is first and foremost a crime novel. And perhaps this book is a good illustration of the unsatisfactory nature of genre definitions – however one describes it, the key point is that it is a pretty gripping read.(It's an odd coincidence, by the way, that another fictional, though very different, painting by Millais features in The Hanging Wood.)

The focal point is young Phoebe Turner, and most of the story is told from her perspective. Her devotion to her Aunt Cissy leads her to a brief involvement in the music hall, and after her aunt’s death, because her mother is impoverished, Phoebe accepts a job as a companion to a sickly and reclusive woman who is married to businessman Nathaniel Samuels.

Several chapters are presented in the third person, with Samuels as the viewpoint character. A considerable amount of plot development is conducted in these chapters, which are rather less satisfactory than those narrated by Phoebe – a character who clearly fascinated her author. But this is a minor flaw in a truly accomplished debut novel.

I’m a fan of Victorian fiction, and also of more recent books set in the Victorian period. That age has an enduring appeal, and Essie Fox captures it very well. Her descriptive powers are formidable, and she conjures up splendidly both the bustle of the East End and the sinister atmosphere of the Samuels’ country retreat. A very good read.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Book collections

I am fascinated by other people’s book collections. You can tell quite a bit (but far from everything!) about someone from the books they own, and once or twice I’ve used this as an element in my own stories. As recently as last week, I was writing a scene for my new book, set in the sadly fictional Amos Books in the Lake District, and drawing on what I have learned from various expert book dealers and collectors.

Last September, I had the great pleasure of visiting John Curran’s home, and admiring his extensive and very well-organised book collection. As you would expect of a great expert on Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime is prominent, but John also has some fine examples of the work of other Golden Age writers, as well as some enviable signed and inscribed classics.

Just before Christmas, I called on James M. Pickard, who – like those other excellent bookdealers, Mark Sutcliffe and Jamie Sturgeon, all of whom I can recommend – has a terrific stock of second hand crime novels. James is not just a dealer, but also a collector, and he has a marvellous array of books and artwork associated with Ian Fleming.

I was fascinated to see some of the obscure Golden Age titles in James’ collection. One of the remarkable features of them was the excellence of their condition – very important to keen collectors, since in some cases, a fine dust jacket can increase the value of a book tenfold. Many investors are interested in rare books these days, not least because of the unreliability of the stock market. I don’t myself look on books as investments, but I can understand why some people do. But whether as possible investments or just lovely things to have, James’ stock is truly impressive. If you’d like to know more, take a look at
his website

Finally, after my Sayers lecture, I travelled to the Home Counties to stay with another friend who has a truly astonishing collection. And it is his books that feature in the photos. For any Golden Age fan, truly mouth-watering!

Murder, magic and music

Most readers of this blog are, I think, fans of independent bookshops, and I had a great time last Thursday evening visiting Formby Books, a newish venture set up by Tony, a very good and experienced bookseller. It really was as varied and enjoyable a bookshop event as I’ve participated in.

Formby is a very pleasing place, located between Liverpool and Southport, but with a distinct identity. The shop shares premises with a florist’s, and there is a cafe (a very good idea!). Tony had arranged wine and nibbles, but none of us expected a turnout of 60 on a chilly evening. A very gratifying response from the local community.

There was a magician, John Harding, who works sometimes for Manchester United (actually, Man City are in need of magic more at present, I'm sorry to say), and a glamorous singer, Vicky Abban, who amazingly turned out to be Tony’s deputy manager (should Marc Amos recruit a singing assistant, I wonder?). John did up-close tricks which engaged the audience greatly, while Vicky chose numbers with a crime/thriller link (but I should have requested my favourite Bond theme, “We Have All the Time in the World” – I’m sure she’d have done that brilliant John Barry-Hal David song really well.)

Then I shared the platform with my old chum Kate Ellis, who was launching her new book, The Cadaver Game. The event coincided very happily with publication of All the Lonely People as an Arcturus Crime Classic, and I’m really excited to see readers buying Harry Devlin’s first adventure 20 years after he first prowled the mean streets of Merseyside. In fact, the book sold out on the night, and various customers placed orders.

The audience included two more old friends, the delightful Liverpool romance writer June Francis, and the versatile sometime crime writer Ron Ellis. It was also good to meet a wide range of other mystery fans – including the moving spirit behind that very good blog In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Puzzle Doctor. All too soon the evening was over, but I hope its success will be the start of many good things for Tony and his team.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Forgotten Book - The Third Lady

My Forgotten Book for today is one of the few Japanese novels that I’ve read (in translation, I hasten to add.) It is The Third Lady by Shizuko Natsuki, and I learned of it from John Norris’s brilliant blog. John raved over it, and when I saw that Ed Gorman – someone whose literary judgment is irreproachable – had also admired the novel, I simply had to read it.

And I wasn’t disappointed, though I must say I thought the translation by Robert Rohmer had one or two infelicities here and there. But it’s a story of “murder by proxy” which takes the basic idea of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train, but puts a very different spin on it.

This idea of giving a fresh twist to an old idea is one that appeals to me. After all, most ideas have crossed someone else’s mind in the past. And Natsuki does very well to turn this story into a sort of moral fable, while giving the tale an excellent twist.

The premise is that a man and woman have a fleeting encounter and tell each other about someone they hate and whom they wish dead. The man, Kohei Daigo, finds that his enemy is killed by a mystery woman. He’s sure the killer is the woman by whom he is now quite obsessed. But can he bring himself to kill her enemy? It’s cleverly done, and I enjoyed reading the book. First published in 1987, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

And here’s a question. What other “murder by proxy” stories are out there? I can think of at least two, and that isn’t counting the embryonic story I dreamed up when visiting Dublin last year!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Dorothy L. Sayers and Witham

It is "all go" at the moment, but I'd like to reflect on a truly enjoyable visit to Essex, a county I hardly know at all. I was invited to give the Dorothy L. Sayers annual lecture by the Dorothy L. Sayers Society at the library in Witham, the town where she lived. This was a real honour, and a marvellous occasion.

Witham struck me as a pleasant place, and the library is impressive. Standing opposite is a statue of Sayers, and inside the Society has a splendid research facility, which I explored happily for as long as I could. An excellent preamble to the lecture was a buffet at Seona Ford' delightful home in the town (I say in the town, but really it's in a delightful oasis of greenery). Among the Society's members who were present were Carolyn Caughey, a very good editor at Hodder, and the crime writer and critic Mike Ripley.

The topic of my lecture was "Dorothy L. Sayers and True Crime", a subject which was fascnating to research. I feel there is plenty of evidence that Sayers could have carved a distinct reputation as a true crime writer, had she wished to. Her interest in the famous Wallace case is just one example, while her novels illustrate, if sometimes only indirectly, how intrigued she was by real life cases.

The hospitality that I received both from the Society and Jane Wheeler and her team at the Library was terrific, and I was left with the overwhelming feeling that interest in Sayers is growing. There's no doubt the Society is thriving, and Seona organised everything brilliantly, although I was sorry that illness prevented Christopher Dean, the chairman, with whom I've often corresponded, from attending.

Such was the feelgood factor engendered by the evening that a few days later, I was tempted to buy the Folio Society edition of five of the Wimsey novels, and duly succumbed. A very attractive set to look at, though of course it is what lies between the covers that matters most of all. If only Sayers had continued to write crime in the last 20 years of her life!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Rogue's Gallery

One of the finest writers of short mystery stories is Robert Barnard, who recently published Rogue’s Gallery, the third collection of his short stories to have appeared over the years. Single-author story collections are rare, and it’s a real tribute to both author and publisher (Allison & Busby) that this enjoyable gathering has made it into hard covers.

In these stories, Bob pokes fun at some of his favourite targets – Tory politicians, members of the Royal Family (with special reference here to the marriage of Charles and Diana) and religion. “Sins of Scarlet”, a story set in the Vatican, won the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2006, a source of particular pleasure to me, as it had originally featured in a CWA anthology that I edited.

A couple of the other stories here also featured in CWA collections, although Bob’s most recent story, “Just Popped In”, which appears in Guilty Consciences, was not available. One of the most interesting stories, “The New Slavery”, deals with an important yet under-discussed topic – the way grandparents may be exploited as no-cost child-minders by their own children. It’s clear from the story what Bob’s own views are.

I’m a long-time admirer of Bob Barnard’s work, and a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting him, and his wife Louise, at their home in Armley, Leeds. One of the outcomes will be an article about his career for the US magazine “Mystery Scene”. He’s one of the wittiest of writers, and if you are a Christie fan, I can also recommend his excellent study of the Queen of Crime, A Talent to Deceive.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Forgotten Book - Some Must Watch

Ethel Lina White is a writer I've mentioned a few times on this blog. She's remembered today mainly as the author of the book on which Hitchcock's great film The Lady Vanishes was based, but in the Golden Age, she specialised in "woman in jeopardy" stories with great success. Little is known about her, though, apart from a few basic details on the internet, and if anyone knows more about her life, and her approach to crime fiction, do get in touch.

Some Must Watch is one of her most famous stories, and again it was turned into a popular film, Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase. The book first came out in 1933, and it has now been republished by Arcturus Crime Classics. In fact, it's due out next week - along with titles by Erle Stanley Gardner, Anthony Berkeely, and others - including me. I'm flattered and thrilled to find All the Lonely People in such company.

I enjoyed the story, even though it's really a tale of suspense, rather than actual detection. The pert and likeable Helen, is recruited as a "lady-help" to a strange family who live on the Welsh borders. Unfortunately, a deranged serial killer is on the loose, and his first four victims have all been single young working women. Will Helen be next?

White does a very good job at building the tension. Inevitably, the story-line is dated, and some of the plot elements and characters (the invalid who may not be an invalid, the sinister nurse, the weird professor, the vampish woman) became over-used in the Golden Age and may thus be seen as cliched. But White writes with a great deal of skill, in my opinion, and she also comes up with a unique and extraordinary murder motive into the bargain. A marvellous period piece.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Velvet Scream - review

Priscilla Masters has featured in this blog several times before. She’s possibly a little less well known than other friends of mine of roughly the same generation- the likes of Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis and Cath Staincliffe spring to mind – but she’s a consistent and entertaining writer, and her latest book, A Velvet Scream, marks the return of her premier series character, DI Joanna Piercy. It is, in fact, Joanna’s tenth appearance.

One of the strengths of Cilla’s books is that they have a distinctive sense of place – her territory is the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, where she has lived for many years. It’s not a famous or even unusually dramatic part of the country, although Ellis Peters set her Cadfael stories not far away, but it’s certainly attractive and interesting area, and this book evokes the local scene well.

A teenage girl is found in a bad way in the snow outside a nightclub in Leek. It seems a rapist is at work in the quiet town. Joanna is called in, but the girl’s story appears to have a number of holes. A comparable case that occurred six months earlier comes to light, serving to complicate the picture. The solution to the mystery makes good use of the author’s medical knowledge – she continues to work as a part-time nurse.

In some ways, Cilla Masters’ novels remind me of many that appeared under that long-established and highly successful imprint, Collins Crime Club. They are short, snappy and full of believable characters - not just Joanna, but the supporting cast as well. So many bestsellers today are twice as long – but that doesn’t mean they are twice as good. Life is short, and I have to say that a book like this one, that I can read reasonably quickly, has a lot to commend it. But it’s not just a question of length and concision. A Velvet Scream is not just a good title, it is a good book.

Monday, 5 March 2012

When a Reviewer "Gets" a Book

The internet has made it possible for anyone to become a reviewer, and like all developments, this one has both advantages and downsides. I'm very clear in my own mind, however, that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. It's good for a very wide range of people to be able to articulate their views, and it's also (usually) to the advantage of those whose work becomes the subject of debate.

Of course, there is always a risk that reviews will be written in bad faith (which is very rare, but does happen) or without a good deal of thought (more common.) But if one writes a book, or a song, or paints a picture, and allows the end product to be made available to the public, one has to accept that not everyone will care for it. Bad reviews can be very hurtful, but there is no escaping them. And the more successful a creative artist is, the more frequent bad reviews are - a paradox, but true, I think.

On the other hand, a good review is heartwarming, and may help a great deal with motivation. Sometimes, writers and other creative artists need a boost to keep them going, and a positive critical reaction can help. So, when I am writing a review, I do my best to maintain a balanced approach, and try to understand what the author was trying to achieve. Sometimes, of course, it's not entirely easy to figure out the answer!

I've also found occasionally, after taking a second look at a book or a film, that my original and immediate reaction seemed to have missed something. Sometimes you see more clearly the second time around.

As a novelist, I've found that one of the most positive experiences is when one's work is reviwed by someone who "gets" what you were trying to do. My first couple of books enjoyed, luckily enough, a lot of positive attention (though one review was one of the worst I've ever had.) But perhaps the best moment was reading a long review, in the New Law Journal, by Frances Fyfield, who had clearly figured out what was in my mind when producing the book, and appreciated it. I'll never forget the pleasure this gave me. Years later, I had the opportunity to say thanks in person when I finally got to meet Frances.

From time to time, I come across other reviews that are equally pleasing. A recent online example is this review of The Arsenic Labyrinth, by a blogger who was prepared to put up with the gradual build-up of suspense (an approach I thought about quite carefully when working on the book) and was pleased to have kept faith in the story. This kind of reaction is good for morale, and there's no doubt that, for any writer, maintaining morale is extremely important. I was at a writers' meeting recently when someone made mention of a vote of no confidence. As the chairman (a very successful novelist whose work has been filmed and televised) wryly remarked, writers are constantly giving themselves votes of no confidence!

Friday, 2 March 2012

Forgotten Book - Dead Man's Watch

My Forgotten Book today is one that was the subject of a very interesting review not long ago on that marvellous blog Pretty Sinister Books. It is Dead Man’s Watch, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, and it was first published in 1931.

This novel was one of their first joint efforts, and it’s written with a breeziness and zest that was less evident in some of their later works. The Coles are writers who interest me, although their mysteries tend to be flawed, perhaps because they didn’t take them seriously enough in comparison to their political activism and Douglas’s non-fiction.

What is especially intriguing about this book is its construction, which is quite unusual. The story opens with a young man discovering a body in a pool on the land of Sir Charles Wylie. The young man identifies the body as that of an uncle of his, but the forensic evidence indicates that the dead man had his beard shaved off after death, and a puzzle about identities ensues. The next section of the book sees Sir Charles acting as an amateur sleuth before Superintendent Wilson becomes involved formally in the final section.

The trouble with this narrative structure is that key events, and key characters, are not seen directly by the reader. One has to make do with third party reports, especially in the form of letters sent by a young woman to Sir Charles. This lack of immediacy militates against suspense, and although the clues are set out quite fairly, the overall result is that one doesn’t care enough about the mystery. This is a pity, because the book does have some pleasing features, and there are several examples of a quiet wit that isn’t always associated with the Coles. I’m glad I read the book, though, and it’s worth a look for those interested in the way Golden Age writers tried to vary the standard whodunit formula.