Sunday, 30 June 2013

Festivals

Festivals come in all shapes and sizes, and I have enjoyed attending a wide variety over the years. One of the most upmarket was the Cheltenham Literary Festival, where the Murder Squad was invited some years ago - in fact, it was one of the relatively few occasions when all seven of us took part in the same event - a performance written specially for the occasion which took place in an old courthouse. An enjoyable and memorable occasion.

There have also been a good many smaller scale events, ranging from literary festivals at nearby Knutsford to the distinctly unorthodox Kidwelly ebook festival last year, which created a great deal of controversy, but at least gave me a fun week-end in a pretty part of south Wales on a sunny week-end.

This year I'm looking forward very much to Gladfest, scheduled to take place in August in the wonderful setting of Gladstone's Library in north Wales. I'll be hosting a Victorian murder mystery event on the Saturday evening, and among the others who are appearing is Stella Duffy, a writer of distinction, about whom I hope to write more another day. I'll also be talking about the late Ellis Peters, creator of Brother Cadfael, at the Wellington Festival in Shropshire in October.

But today has seen the finale of an annual "must" for me, the local Lymm Festival, which combines cultural events with a wide range of other activities. It's been running for a decade now, and goes from strength to strength. Today we've had a number of guests, including Kate Ellis and her husband, wandering round local gardens which have had an open day. I'm fascinated by the marvellous gardens that lie,often quite unexpectedly, behind all kinds of houses and this annual event, like the brilliant National Garden Scheme open days, of which I'm a big fan, is a lot of fun. And something more. It's given me an idea for my next book....




Saturday, 29 June 2013

Gimme Shelter

I've detected a trend which I find quite intriguing. I've just come across a third highly successful writer of screenplays who has finally turned to writing a novel. I've mentioned in recent times the former cricketer and Heartbeat scriptwriter Peter Gibbs, who wrote the wonderful Settling the Score, and also the admirable Robert Banks Stewart, creator of Shoestring,who has published a thriller, The Hurricane's Tail.

Now it's the turn of Rob Gittins to produce a crime novel. I'm pleased to see he's joined the ranks of those of us who favour Sixties song titles as titles of crime novels - his book is called Gimme Shelter, and it's published by a small press, Y Lolfa, which is based in Wales, where Rob lives. It's quite a gritty story which concerns witness protection, and features Ros Gilet, a witness protection officer whose job requires her to tell lies every day. Witness protection is a fascinating topic for a thriller. In fact, is a subject in which I'm very interested myself. Some years ago, I even wrote a synopsis of a mystery about witness protection, but never got any further with it - partly because I wasn't quite sure how best to research it.

I met Rob around ten years ago at a CWA conference in Hereford. Even at that stage he was a well-established member of the scriptwriting team of EastEnders, and his name continues to pop up on the credits at regular intervals - he's written more than 200 episodes. He also co-created and wrote all eight episodes of the BBC 1 crime series Tiger Bay, as well as a three-part political thriller for ITV, In the Company of Strangers. And much else besides.

The perception I have, which I think many people share, is that television writing is lucrative. And certainly Peter, Robert, and Rob have all achieved great success in their field. Yet, for most of us, writing novels is a long way short of being a massive money-spinner. So why are scriptwriters tempted to write novels? I guess that one reason is that writing a novel is essentially a personal thing, whereas television writing is highly collaborative - which can be rewarding, yet also frustrating because of the lack of control. And for a creative artist, retaining a significant degree of control over one's creation is often very important.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Forgotten Book - My Own Murderer

Richard Hull is a writer who has long fascinated me, and I've chosen another of his titles as today's Forgotten Book. This is My Own Murderer, published in 1940, but probably written just before the outbreak of war. I found a very battered old paperback edition in an Amsterdam bookshop many years ago, and I'm glad I did, as I've never seen a copy since. An obscure book, then, one that cries out for a new life as an ebook.

The story is narrated by a solicitor, but not one with whom I was quick to empathise. His name is Richard Henry Sampson, and it's worth noting that this was Richard Hull's real name. Yet we can be sure this wasn't any sort of wish fulfilment, as Sampson is not a heroic figure. Far from it. The choice of name springs from Hull's love of irony.

Sampson's affable but very dodgy client, Alan Renwick, calls on him one evening, and we know from the start that Renwick has killed someone - a valet called Baynes, who was blackmailing him. Yet Sampson's instinct is not to encourage Renwick to go to the police, but rather to help him in concealing his involvement in the crime. The plot thickens pleasingly from there.

This is one of Hull's best books. One of the things I like about it is the way he presents Sampson as a rascal, but very much a loser. He constantly persuades himself that he's ahead of the game, fooling the police and everyone else, when in reality he is getting deeper and deeper into trouble. This kind of self-deception is something that really interests me, as anyone who has read Dancing for the Hangman will understand. And Hull develops the story very nicely, all the way up to a rather chilling finale. I can recommend this novel highly to anyone lucky enough to find a copy.


Thursday, 27 June 2013

A Night to Remember


One magic moment after another...after dinner last week in the company of P.D.. James, something very different last night, when I had the thrill of attending a truly fantastic concert at the Royal Festival Hall,. The RFH saw the return of Burt Bacharach, whom I last saw there in 1996, a legendary occasion when Noel Gallagher came on stage to sing while the great man played the piano.

As a lifelong Bacharach fan, I've included references to his songs in all my novels (except the book about Dr Crippen, needless to say) and aspects of the songs actually play a part in the plot in three of the Harry Devlin books. So I was always going to love the show, but to judge by the repeated standing ovations, so did everyone else. And although in the past, some critics failed to 'get' why this man's music will last indefinitely, things have changed, and I enjoyed the laudatory reviews in The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

For a man of 85 to perform in concert for over two hours without an interval is a feat in itself - as he said, "at my time of life, this is the you've got to be kidding tour" -, but what was really striking was the huge affection as well admiration that the audience had for one of popular culture's iconic figures. Someone told me that when he arrived for a rehearsal and emerged from his limo he was mobbed by well-wishers. Quite something for a song-writer who started out as Marlene Dietrich's conductor.And he's still writing all the time. The current work in progress, he explained, is a musical co-written with Elvis Costello, and two new songs written with Steven Sater of Spring Awakening fame were included along with many of the classics..

I've seen Burt Bacharach in concert five times and, expecting this to be my last opportunity, I was determined to seize it. I'm so glad I did. There was also a nice moment when a young man came on stage to play keyboards briefly and, as  he departed, Burt announced it was his son, Oliver Bacharach. When someone shouted out, "Bring him back"", Burt said, "He only knows one song!" He did come back though, to share in a truly memorable occasion.






Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Edmund Crispin's Classic

I first came across the work of Edmund Crispin as a teenager, and I vividly remember reading The Moving Toyshop at school when I was about fourteen. I'd borrowed it from the town library, and took it in with me to while away dull moments in between lessons. The book had a map of Oxford, a city which I'd never visited, and never dreamed that I would get to know well. I really enjoyed the story, and acquired my own copy of the book many years later. But for some reason I've not got round to re-reading it until now.

There are a couple of reasons why I returned to The Moving Toyshop. First, I've been asked to talk to visiting crime writers from overseas about Oxford detectives at a conference in a couple of months' time and I felt I'd better do some homework. Second, I attended a talk given by Susan Moody at Crimefest on the subject of Oxford detective stories. Susan's enthusiasm made me think it was time to go back to Crispin.

I'm glad I did. The Moving Toyshop is tremendous fun, light-hearted and with an unusual, if occasionally eccentric plot that makes use of a very interesting legal device, the secret trust. The early chapters are quite dazzling and there are some memorable characters, including a very dodgy solicitor, and lots of witty lines. Gervase Fen, the amiable English don, leads the chase for the person who killed Miss Tardy in the toyshop..

Of course, in a high-spirited book like this, it is not easy to maintain tension throughout, and there are moments when farce predominates. The mystery is nicely constructed, but not as striking as the wonderful premise of the toyshop that appears to be in two different parts of Oxford. Crispin is very good at capturing the city's essential atmosphere, and it is a genuine tragedy that his great talent burned out so soon. After a flurry of novels, he was in effect burned out at the age of thirty and he spent the rest of his life drinking himself slowly to death. We had a long wait for his last book,The Glimpses of the Moon, but it proved to be a disappointment. Far better to remember this witty entertainer by books like The Moving Toyshop.

(Incidentally, are other Blogger users finding, as I have done lately, that the previous torrent of spam comments has reduced to a trickle at most? Long may this continue...)

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Pleasures of Research



Shotsmag, run by Mike Stotter, is a crime and thriller ezine that grew out of a print magazine that was established in the Nineties by a group of fans including Bob Cartwright. The continuing energy, enthusiasm and expertise of Mike and the current team has resulted in a resource that is of tremendous value to crime fans.

Mike has kindly published an piece of mine discussing the pleasures of researching The Frozen Shroud in lovely Ullswater. Shotsmag also includes a great review of the book written by Sue Lord, which naturally I was delighted to see.

On the subject of research, I'm currently turning my attention to the next Lake District Mystery, number seven in the series. Since I finished The Frozen Shroud, I've not been totally idle, mind you. I've been tackling a major non-fiction project which I very much hope will see the light of day at some stage in the future. I've also been working on the CWA's Diamond Jubilee anthology, Deadly Pleasures, which contains some wonderful brand new stories by star names such as Peter Robinson, John Harvey and Ann Cleeves.

But now it's back to fiction. I'm warming up with a short story, a light-hearted piece written in tribute to the late Maxine Clarke which I'll be submitting to a proposed charity anthology in the near future. Then I should be ready to produce a synopsis of the new book. And I'm tempted to research a different part of the Lakes this time. Somewhere where I might construct a sandstone quarry, perhaps....

Monday, 24 June 2013

Publication Day



The Frozen Shroud is published in the UK today by Allison & Busby. What, if any, reaction will this event, admittedly rather more momentous for me than for anyone else, provoke? One thing is for sure - it's a mistake for writer to devote much time to waiting for reviews. For a start, they might never arrive. You'd be surprised how many really gifted and long-established writers experience a lack of reviews of their excellent books. Even Harry Keating, about whom I wrote yesterday, a man who won two Gold Daggers,the Diamond Dagger and much else besides,found it far from easy to get his last few books reviewed in the national press - and he had for many years been a critic for national newspapers himself. Fortunately, online reviews have become more significant and much more numerous in recent years.

Another thing to fret about is that the reviews might not be kind. It's all the more a risk when one has tried to  take one's series in a slightly different direction, as I have done with The Frozen Shroud. But any writer of entertainment fiction is bound to be anxious to know whether their latest effort works for readers. And I'm no exception.

Due to the curious quirks of the publishing world, The Frozen Shroud has appeared in the US a little before its appearance in the UK edition. And this has meant that I've had a preview of reader reaction from reviewers of the American edition. I hope it's an indication of how British readers will respond, since the reviews have been gratifying, and there have been plenty of them so far, which makes me feel rather lucky.

Writers sometimes tend to feel insecure, and even if we're not insecure, we like to be told positive things about our books. Bad reviews hurt, and often stay in the memory longer than good reviews. But at the same time an author has to be realistic. You can't expect even your fans and your friends (even your family!) to like every book you write in equal measure. Constructive and supportive criticism, as long as it's delivered in a positive and sympathetic context, can be helpful. Anyway, that's what I keep telling myself, and I'm fairly sure I believe it when my books are being reviewed, not just when I'm reviewing books by others!

Reviews of The Frozen Shroud to date have just been uploaded on to my website. Of course I'm pleased about the nice quotes from Mystery Scene, Publishers' Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and so on, as well as the line:"One of those novels that plays with your mind..." from Readful Things. I'm rather flattered by the idea of my novel playing with my reader's mind, I must admit. But the reality is that, like most crime writers, I'll be content as long as reviewers and readers find my work enjoyable to read.




Sunday, 23 June 2013

Agatha Christie's Marple: Greenshaw's Folly - ITV review

Agatha Christie's Marple continued tonight with Greenshaw's Folly. This title may be unfamiliar to many readers. In fact, "Greenshaw's Folly" is a short story, and the screenplay, by Tim Whitnall, welded plot elements from that story with some from another called "The Thumb Mark of St Peter". This might seem like a recipe for a rather disjointed show, but it began well, I thought, before becoming bogged down in excessive convolutions.

Julia Mackenzie held the story together. She may not be Joan Hickson, but she is more akin to my idea of Miss Marple than, say, Margaret Rutherford or Geraldine McEwan. She has identified the strength in Jane Marple's character, a combination of inquisitiveness and a determination not to be rebuffed, coupled with a firm moral sense and a genuine compassion. I tend to think that Christie would have approved her portrayal of the sage of St Mary Mead.

Miss Marple finds a position for a young woman, played by Kimberley Nixon, who seeks her help, but life at her new home, Greenshaw's Folly, proves far from straightforward, and before long the butler is found dead. Miss Marple crosses swords with a detective played by the always enjoyable John Gordon Snclair, and the usual excellent cast included such notables as Fiona Shaw, Julia Sawalha, Joanna David and Judy Parfitt.

I found watching the show a relaxing way to build up to Publication Day (in the UK, at any rate) of The Frozen Shroud.  This is not an event likely to stop traffic anywhere, but it's a book that I'm very glad to have written. Tomorrow I'll talk about that eternally tense subject for a writer - the experience of waiting for reviews of one's latest effort. Even Agatha Christie, I suspect, must have been a bit nervous about how people would react to her latest book, and I'm no different.

Harry Keating

The first book  about crime fiction that I read was Bloody Murder, by Julian Symons. It remains a classic commentary on the genre. I also much enjoyed Symons novels, and before long I tried another novelist of distinction who doubled as a crime critic, H.R.F. Keating. I didn't know it at the time, but Symons and Keating were very good friends. And I certainly didn't know that eventually, I would meet both men, and find them as pleasant in person as they were incisive in print.

I got to know Harry Keating rather better than Julian Symons, and I also met Sheila Mitchell, an actor who was Harry's wife. Harry, Sheila and I spent some time together at Malice Domestic in Washington D.C. when Harry was guest of honour, and they were kind enough to invite me to join them at their table for the main banquet. Later we met from time to time at the Detection Club. Harry's death was a great loss to family and friends, to the Club, of which he was a former President, and to the genre as a whole..

Sheila, I'm glad to say, is remarkably fit and active and recently I had the privilege of staying at her home when in London to attend a Detection Club dinner. She showed me the early chapters of a biography of Harry which she has more or less completed, and which I very much hope will attract a major publisher. I learned a great deal from her about Harry's early career. Sitting in the study where Harry wrote so many notable books - two of the CWA Gold Daggers was a genuine thrill. So too was a taxi trip through the city that evening, in the company of Sheila and her friend P.D. James, with whom I had a fascinating conversation over dinner. Truly memorable.

I'm glad to say that most of Harry's books remain readily available, no mean feat given that he was prolific. It's a reminder of his enduring popularity. There is, by the way, a special deal on his novel A Long Walk to Wimbledon on Amazon tomorrow. An excellent chance for you to catch up with an intriguingly different book from one of the major figures of the genre in Britain during the past fifty years. And if you want to know a bit more about the man and his work, there's an essay I wrote about him on the articles page of my website.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Bad Companions by Kate Clarke

Bad Companions, written by Kate Clarke, and published by The History Press, is a collection of six long essays about true crime cases with a common theme - the killers were all women, and the crimes were all based in London. Kate is a highly experienced true crime writer, and this book displays her usual sound research and readable literary style.

I'd heard of a couple of the cases, but most were new to me. They are a varied bunch, and the result is a fascinating book that gives the reader an insight into a different world, when you might be hanged for various crimes less than murder. And the first killer discussed in the book, Catherine Hayes, was burned at the stake. Her crime was "petty treason" - that is, the murder of her husband. I don't approve of wives murdering their husbands, for all kinds of good and obvious reasons, but the punishment was not only horrific but also a spectacle feasted upon by eighteenth century ghouls.

Catherine, with the help of two men friends, had her dead husband's head cut off, and a number of equally scary crimes are described. But Kate Clarke avoids the sensationalism that mars some true crime writing, and her account of Kate Webster's murder of her elderly employer, whose body she then proceeded to mutilate, burn and boil, gains in strength because much of it is taken from Webster's own words -when, facing execution, she finally made a clean breast of things.

Among the other cases, Eliza Fanning's conviction for poisoning some dumplings seems very much like a miscarriage of justice. And that's another problem with the death penalty - there's no putting right miscarriages after a wrongly convicted person has been executed. The brutality of Elizabeth Brownrigg towards her female servants, culminating in a vicious murder, is also very striking. Bad Companions shines a light on bygone times which were fascinating but frightening. Reading this excellent book makes one very glad to be living in the twenty-first century.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Forgotten Book - No Walls of Jasper

Few crime books by notable writers are as forgotten as my Forgotten Book for today, No Walls of Jasper by Joanna Cannan, first published in 1930. Yet the book's neglect is in many ways astonishing, because not only was it ahead of its time, it is also very well-written, and reads extremely well more than 80 years after it first came out. I can only blame its lack of fame on the title, which is taken from a poem by Humbert Wolfe (who? you may ask - he was apparently very popular in the Twenties), and which is rather off-putting and inappropriate.

In some ways, the book is in the same vein as Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles. Yet the Iles book came out a year later, so it was hardly derivative. Another comparison might be with C.S. Forester's earlier novel, Payment Deferred, or possibly Lynn Brock's later Nightmare. But Cannan's book is distinctive, because of its stylish and readable prose, and because a competent plot is in many ways subordinate to a study of character.

Julian Prebble works for a publishing house, and is fed up with his pretty but down-trodden wife, Phyl. He has two sons, of whom he is a proud but distant father, and he does not earn enough to be able to impress a coquettish author on his list, the glamorous Cynthia. However, he does have a rich and rather disagreeable father, and when it occurs to Julian that his Dad's demise would solve all his problems, his thoughts turn to murder.

I really enjoyed this one. It's a book to savour, because Cannan's description of people and relationships, and Julian's desperate quest for respectability ring so true, even so many years later. Joanna Cannan wrote other mysteries, which I haven't read, but if they are half as good as this book, they must be worth reading. She became better known for children's books, and her daughters became famous writers of pony stories. And perhaps that's another reason why No Walls of Jasper has for so long been overlooked. Writers so easily get pigeon-holed, and that is a real shame.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Motive: Universal TV review

Motive is a new television series shown on the Universal channel which began last week. I decided to watch the first episode of this North American cop show because it has an unusual premise. The viewer knows throughout who is the killer and who is the victim. This is because they are captioned "KILLER" and "VICTIM" in large letters on the screen at the start of the show. The real question is - what is the motive for the crime?

This is a clever spin on the classic detective plot. It was Richard Austin Freeman, back in the early years of the last century, who first came up with the idea of the detective story which starts out by showing the reader the culprit committing the crime, and then describes the detective work that led to the solution of the mystery. Freeman was a talented and inventive writer, and I mean to say more about him on this blog in the future.

Freeman's idea of the "inverted" story has been adapted many times, for instance by Roy Vickers in his stories about the Department of Dead Ends, and in the hit TV show Columbo. But I can't think of anyone who has tweaked the detective story in quite the same way as happens in Motive. For that touch of originality alone, the show deserves praise. Slightly less original is the decision to cast two exceptionally attractive women, Kristin Lehman (as the cop, Angie Flynn) and Lauren Holly (as the pathologist) in lead roles.

The first episode involved the killing of a teacher by a pupil. Why did the lad do it? I have to say that the mysterious motive wasn't especially memorable, and this was a bit of a disappointment. Overall, I'd say that the show was efficient rather than brilliant. But the premise alone makes it worthy of note. Will I watchi it regularly? Unlikely, because life is short. But I'd be quite happy to watch an occasional future episode.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Robert Banks Stewart

With surprisingly little fanfare, Robert Banks Stewart recently published a thriller, The Hurricane's Tail. Why do I say 'surprisingly'? Well, the fact is that Mr Stewart might be described as one of the more successful crime writers of the past half-century. Yet I guess that although plenty of readers will recognise his name, they will not be quite sure why it seems so familiar.

The explanation is that the name of Robert Banks Stewart has appeared on our television screens countless times, as he has been a producer and screenplay writer of great distinction. I first became aware of him years ago, and he was involved with many of the great television series. In his early days he wrote scripts for the Edgar Wallace thriller series, as well as Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan. These were among the first crime shows I watched on the box when I was very young.

After that, the hits kept on coming. He wrote for Doctor Who and also for The Avengers - an episode featuring a parodic version of Mensa, of which his wife was a member. He created Shoestring (one of my all-time favourite TV detective shows), starring Trevor Eve, and when that came to an end, followed it up with the even more successful, if less quirky, Bergerac, starring John Nettles. What a CV!

I've been lucky enough to come into contact recently with this wonderful writer, and I asked him about the difference between writing for TV and writing a novel. He told me, "The thing you learn as a screenwriter...ist that economy is important. The picture tells the underlying story...to a certain extent." He found that with his novel, the dialogue came easily, but that he had to work much harder to make everything else convincing: "Funny, isn't it, on screen you don't leave a lot to the imagination. In  a book, huge chunks are down to the imagination of the reader." 


The pleasure of becoming acquainted with this legendary writer has prompted me to take another look at his work, and I'll be returning to Robert Banks Stewart's brilliant career in a future post. In the meantime, The Hurricane' s Tail is definitely worth a look.



Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Walking the Line as a Writer

In a comment he made on my blog post on Friday, in relation to what I'd said about The 10.30 from Marseille, Daniel asked a very interesting question. How does a writer stay on the right side of the line between enticing readers with a fascinating premise or storyline, and irritating them either because of the way the story is told, or because the climax to the story is rather a let-down?

Like so many good questions, this one isn't that easy to answer. And it would be over-confident of me to claim that I have always managed to stay on the right side of that line in my own books. But let me offer some thoughts related to the way I approached The Frozen Shroud. This is a book which, even though it's not a locked room mystery, has one or two elements that might remind Daniel of John Dickson Carr. Three murders, each committed on Hallowe'en over the span of one hundred years, have disfigured the history of the lonely community of Ravenbank on the edge of Ullswater. And a local legend has grown up, about a spectral presence known as The Faceless Woman.

This is all rather Gothic, and a bit different from the mood of most of my stories. I wanted to create a spooky atmosphere, and there's a crucial scene towards the end of the book, when the fog descends over the lake, and someone is out on the water in the mist, facing death. But I didn't want my story to hopelessly implausible, or even worse, risible, and it's not a venture into the supernatural. So how to walk that line?

My method was to make sure that almost all of the action, and every bit of the dialogue, is grounded firmly in the here and now, with people like Hannah Scarlett, Daniel Kind and his sister Louise going about their lives and encountering a variety of believable obstacles as they do so. I did a good deal of research to build an authentic background. That fog-on-the-lake scene benefited greatly from practical advice from the local mountain rescue team, who helped me to make sure that what I described reflected what would happen in real life. They were even kind enough to read the draft scene, and make comments which I took on board. All this does, I think, help a great deal.

Above all, though, it's people that count in a novel, and there are life-changing developments in Hannah's life, all of which I see as very credible. They are relevant to the plot, and which introduce elements of realism, counterpointing the macabre stuff about legends and the eponymous Frozen Shroud.

Will this work/? Will readers be convinced that I've stayed on the right side of the line? I await reaction in the UK, and I'm currently looking through early reviews in the US. More about these soon.


Monday, 17 June 2013

The Shadow Collector by Kate Ellis

The Shadow Collector is the 17th and latest entry in Kate Ellis's series featuring Di Wesley Peterson.and set in a fictionalised version of Dartmouth. Reading these books has, over the years, made me keen to explore the area, and towns like Dartmouth and Totnes ('Neston' in this book), to which I've only paid flying visits in the past.

Very often with Kate's books, there is an atmospheric theme that links in with her interest in archaology. For example, in The Jackal Man (which, along with The Cadaver Game, is my favourite of her novels) it was Egyptology. Here it is witchcraft. Eighteen years ago, two modern 'witches' were found guilty of murdering two girls whose bodies were never found. The older woman is now dead, but her daughter is released from prison shortly before the action begins.

Kate, like me, is a fan of the dazzling early series of Taggart, written by Glenn Chandler, which used to begin with a series of complicated and seemingly distinct storylines which were eventually woven together in a compelling and elaborate way. This approach is mirrored in the opening chapters of this novel,which introduce several storylines, and an extensive cast of characters. In true Taggart fashion, It's a bit dizzying in the early stages, but as the book develops the strands begin to connect.

There's a very clever twist towards the end that I didn't see coming, even though I had focused on the right culprit. As with classic Golden Age mysteries, you do need to suspend your disbelief in one or two places (was the original evidence strong enough to sustain two murder convictions? why did the culprit make one particular life choice?) , but Kate's skill with plot makes this a  pleasure. As she is a good friend of mine, it's difficult for me to be totally objective, but I genuinely believe that this book, like the other Wesleys, will appeal to fans of Golden Age stories as well as lovers of contemporary mysteries with lots of plot complications. It's extraordinary that this very entertaining series is not even better known.
 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Agatha Christie's Marple: A Caribbean Mystery - ITV review

Agatha Christie's Marple returned this evening with A Caribbean Mystery, starring Julia Mackenzie as the amiable but steely sleuth from St Mary Mead, this time holidaying, courtesy of her generous nephew, on the small island of St Honore. Although the book, published in the Sixties, was one of Christie's later efforts, it was one of the first detective novels I ever read, and I've always had a soft spot for the story. And the televising of this particular episode today meant that my Sunday got off to a very unusual start.

For the first time in a very, very long while, I was up at 5 on a Sunday morning, since I'd been asked to appear on BBC TV's Breakfast show to talk about the enduring appeal of Miss Marple. After a slight panic when the taxi to collect me turned up at the wrong house, I duly arrived at the BBC's glitzy Media City premises in Salford in time to appear for the first of two slots at 6.40 a.m.

I've done live TV before, and I've also appeared on national TV before, but this was my first live interview on national as opposed to regional or special interest TV. I was warned in advance that guests on the show go to be "made-up" before appearing, and as I've never done any acting, this was a new experience for me. Quite a challenge for the make-up person. Anyway, before long I was being introduced to the very pleasant presenters, Roger Johnson and Nega Munchetty. My slot was a combination of a short film about the enduring appeal of Miss Marple coupled with an interview. Once it was done, there was a chance to chill out in the hospitality area before a second appearance (with different questions) two hours later. Slightly nerve-racking, but overall, a fun experience, made easier by kind messages from friends who had been startled to switch on their telly and find me chatting about Agatha Christie.

Back to A Caribbean Mystery. It certainly justified the enthusiasm I expressed this morning. The plot depends on elements that bear some resemblances to earlier Christie novels (to say more would be a spoiler), but the untypical and very photogenic setting worked very well for Sunday evening light entertainment. One of the points I often make about Christie's appeal is her universality, and that is true, I think, of this story. The show may have been set in the Caribbean, but the plot was straight out of the British Golden Age. Mind you, Miss Marple is allowed to reflect, rather amusingly, about sex. And this wasn't something tacked on gratuitously by the scriptwriter. The passage in question is taken straight from chapter one of the novel.

The cast, as ever, was full of stellar names. So we had, for instance, Robert Webb as Tim Kendal, MyAnna Buring as Lucky Dyson, and the ever-reliable.Oliver Ford-Davies as Major Palgrave. Anthony Sher was terrific as Mr Rafiel, and his interplay with Julia Mackenzie highly entertaining. The screenplay was by Charlie Higson, and offered a reminder of what a capable writer he is. He also gave himself a role which afforded the chance for a couple of James Bond jokes. Self-indulgent, possibly, but appealingly sot. An enjoyable episode, made especially memorable for me by that trip to Media City.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Three Books

Today I'd like to give a bit of coverage to a trio of new books by writers who don't have the benefit of Dan Brown style publicity teams. Their names may not yet be widely familiar but the three authors are starting to build a career in "interesting times" so far as the publishing world is concerned. One of the names, in fact, I have mentioned very recently on this blog. Helen Smith was on a panel with me at Crimefest and although I hadn't read her work previously, I was delighted when she presented me with a copy of her recent novel Invitation to Die.

This book has its focus on a writers' conference, but it definitely isn't a thinly veiled Crimefest. Not at all, it's a conference for writers of romantic fiction and the cast of characters includes an American blogger called Winnie Kraster. who, as we are told in the opening paragraph, accepts an "invitation to die", that is, to attend the conference. A very intriguing premise to kick off a book published by Thomas and Mercer, which I gather is an Amazon brand. Helen, by the way, has also written a novel with the a title I really love, Alison Wonderland.

Amazon is also the home of a straight-to-Kindle book by Roger Forsdyke. Roger is a former police officer whose enormous professional expertise has benefited a number of crime writers, including Cath Staincliffe and myself. The Frozen Shroud is the latest example of a novel of mine where he gave me invaluable help in ensuring authenticity in the portrayal of Hannah's working life. Roger is also the current convenor of the northern chapter of the CWA, having taken over from Peter Walker some years back. He brings his inside knowledge of police work to bear on Panther, his second novel, which is a fictional version of the hunt for the Black Panther, aka the late and unlamented Donald Neilson. The Black Panther case was one of the most chilling and memorable of its era, yet as far as I know, Roger is the first novelist to have adapted it for fictional purposes.

Finally, a book by a new writer previously unknown to me, Stuart Fifield. His Fatal Tears introduces an Egyptologist called Rupert Winfield, and is a conscious take on the Agatha Christie tradition of crime writing, with a Nile paddle steamer setting. Len Tyler, author of Herring on the Nile, took such a trip a while back, and strongly recommended it to me. Well, maybe one day. In the meantime, this book is a reminder of the continuing interest in Eqyptology which has fascinated crime writers from R. Austin Freeman to Kate Ellis in the modern day.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Forogtten Book - The 10.30 from Marseille

Sebastien Japrisot, an author I've mentioned before on this blog, was one of the major French crime writers of the 60s, and although not very prolific, his books remain very readable indeed. The 10.30 from Marseille, also known as The Sleeping Car Murders, was his debut, but it's an impressively mature and original piece of work, which I really enjoyed reading.

The body of a young woman, Georgette Thomas, is discovered when the eponymous train comes to the end of its journey. An inspector called Grazziano, backed up by a young cop called Gabert, leads the investigation whilst his boss, Commissioner Tarquin, stays out of the firing line. The case rapidly becomes more complex as, one by one, the occupants of the sleeping car in which the woman was found are themselves murdered.

The translation by Francis Price is suitably crisp, and the pace is fast, aided by recurring changes of viewpoint. You can never be quite sure what, exactly, is going on, and the mystification is not irritating (as can sometimes be the case) but enticing. I really wanted to know what the solution was.

Inevitably, it turned out to be something unlikely, but it was also totally unexpected and, I think, cleverly done. Yes, one has to suspend disbelief, but Japrisot's skill is such that I was willing to do so. The fact that it's a relatively short book was also a strength. A puzzle as elaborate and unusual as this should not outstay its welcome. All in all, a remarkable debut, which heralded a career that was genuinely impressive, if not overly productive in terms of the number of novels Japrisot wrote. Those he did publish are definitely worth seeking out.

Incidentally, I'm going to be inflicting a new blog post on you on a daily basis for the next few weeks, all being well. Tomorrow, I'll look at three new books by relatively unfamiliar writers.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Dracula Country






My trip on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway last Saturday took me to Whitby, a seaside town I often visited with my parents when I was a child. When the time came for me to take my own children there, it always seemed to be raining, but Saturday was gorgeous, and Whitby was at its best, if not perhaps at its most Gothic.

The great literary association with Whitby is, of course, Dracula. Bram Stoker, creator of the Count, knew Whitby well, and in recent years the town has made the most of the connection. Climbing up the famous 199 steps to the impressive Whitby Abbey I saw that even English Heritage are getting in on the act, spotting an advertisement for a play about Dracula. In the Abbey's magnificent clifftop setting,I imagine watching the play would be a very enjoyable experience.

Next came a boat trip from Whitby Harbour, past the Captain Cook monument. Cook probably takes second place to Dracula these days, but he remains an iconic figure in Whitby's history. I don't have a clue about the technicalities of sailing, but boat travel.in fine weather is a marvellous way to spend the time.

Finally, coffee at a cafe called Sherlock's. The Holmes theme is done well in terms of interior design, and I would have posted an image of the appealing menu had the waitress allowed me to take one of them. But they are obviously much cherished items. Anyway, I started wondering if any detective stories have been set in Whitby. Surely there must have been? And in Scarborough just down the coast too, for that matter. But if so, I can't call them to mind. Just that one classic vampire novel.



Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Heartbeat Country




Peter Walker, who (under the name Nicholas Rhea) wrote the books on which the enormously successful TV series Heartbeat was based, is the man who set up the Northern Chapter of the CWA, of which he was the convenor for many years. He's a great guy, and it was really good to have lunch with him and his wife Rhoda at another chapter meeting in Yorkshire on Sunday.

I was able to tell Peter and Rhoda that the previous day I'd finally achieved an ambition by travelling on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, the preserved steam engine line that runs through "Heartbeat Country" on the moors, passing through the station at Goathland where a good many scenes in the series were filmed. Departing from Pickering, you can reach the other end of the line at Whitby in an hour and a half, and on a fine day, it's a beautiful trip. I'd made the excuse for years of waiting for a fine weekend, and happily Saturday was the ideal day to undertake the journey.

There's somethng about steam railways that provokes nostalgia, and whenever I've travelled on lines like this (an old favourite being the Tal-y-Llyn line in mid-Wales), I'm impressed by the devotion of the volunteers who devote so much time and effort to ensuring that these lines and trains are not lost forever, but are used to introduce people to lovely corners of the countryside. A sign of the success of the NYMR venture was the large party of German tourists who were having a wonderful time on board.

The NYMR is very different from the conscious glamour and luxury of the Orient Express, but in its own way, it is equally appealing (and a lot cheaper, believe me..) I had a great time, and I'd like to do the trip again and spend more time at Goathland. I was struck, too, by the number of guidebooks available with a Heartbeat theme. Peter's stories certainly struck a chord with millions of people. And I find it interesting that the leading scriptwriter on the series was the former cricketer and now novelist Peter Gibbs, whose Settling the Score I enjoyed so much, and whom I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time recently. Both the Peters, Walker and Gibbs, are delightful companions. And highly entertaining writers.


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Twittering

Ages ago (years!) I set up a Twitter account, under the name 'medwardsbooks'. Or to be strictly accurate, my son did it for me. I was encouraged to tweet by Maxine Clarke, but at the time, I quickly became overwhelmed with work and domestic issues, and decided to focus on writing novels and blog posts instead. So I abandoned Twitter.

At Crimefest last week-end, a number of conversations prompted me to give Twitter another try. Karen Meek of Eurocrime (who, incidentally, gave her surname to a character in The Frozen Shroud) asked me to write a blog post in memory of Maxine for the Petrona Remembered blog. And this reminded me of the way Maxine used to encourage me to overcome my technofear.

Nev Fountain told me of how he'd written a story in tweets, and this idea of playing a game with the form did appeal to me a lot. He was enthusiastic about Twitter, as were several other people, notably Ann Cleeves, who often gives me, along with other writers, generous and helpful advice based on her own successful experience.

Of course there are lots of reasons not to spend too much time with Twitter. I'm still rather busy as a partner in a law firm, though becoming part of a firm as large as Weightmans has helped to ease the burdens that existed in the past. I've got to find time to write books, short stories and blog posts. And have a life outside writing. But I've decided that I won't continue to use these as excuses for not tweeting. Instead they will become excuses for getting confused about Twitter etiquette, and general incompetence. Given that my initial attempts to include the cover of The Frozen Shroud on my Twitter home page have been greeted with the message that "something is technically wrong" (any clues as to what I'm doing wrong would be welcome), it may be a bumpy ride...

Of course, as anyone who knows lawyers is aware, we tend to be verbose. So 140 characters is sure to prove a challenge. All the same, I look forward to trying to rise to it..

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Agatha Christie's Poirot: Elephants Can Remember - ITV review

Agatha Christie's Poirot began its final series tonight with Elephants Can Remember, featuring David Suchet as Poirot and Zoe Wanamaker as Mrs Ariadne Oliver. The book, it has to be said, is one of Christie's worst, a rambling effort written at the end of her career when her powers were failing and her publishers were too much in awe of her to edit what she wrote with the necessary ruthlessness. I read it not long after its first publication in the early 70s, and was so disappointed that it's one of the few Christies I've never bothered to reread..

Oddly enough, the flaws of the original presented more of an opportunity than a grim challenge for the screenplay writer, Nick Dear, a BAFTA winner whose CV includes a version of Jane Austen's Persuasion. I can think of a number of Christie books that have been ruined by over-the-top adaptatons in the past few years, but Dear did a good job with this "cold case" mystery, inventing liberally to compensate for a lack of dramatic material in the book.

As with a number of other televised Christies, the action was shifted to the between the wars period that seems well suited to puzzle stories of this kind, even when they were written much later. Wanamaker was, as usual, great fun in her zestful efforts to establish the truth about the apparent murder and suicide of the parents of Celia Ravenscroft (well played by Vanessa Kirby, who was equally good in Kate Mosse's Labyrinth). It was a shock to see the super-glamorous Greta Scacchi playing the part of an ageing battleaxe, but like the rest of the cast, she was excellent.

People who don't like Agatha Christie point to flaws in characterisation and wildly unlikely plot devices, and Elephants Can Remember is a book which suffers from these weaknesses. But this lavishly produced TV version showed that sympathetic adaptation can work wonders with unsatisfactory source material. The result was decent Sunday evening entertainment, and certainly the screenplay is better than the book. But it's only fair to add that Christie cannot sensibly be judged by her last few novels. Her reputation is built on those ingenious classic mysteries she wrote long before her powers declined, and could hardly be more secure.   

Friday, 7 June 2013

Forgotten Book - Puzzle for Fiends

Patrick Quentin was one of the Forgotten Authors featured at  Crimefest last week, and Quentin, alias Q. Patrick, alias Jonathan Stagge, is one of the most interesting of all pseudonymous American crime writers, not least because, in total, those names concealed not just one identity, but four. The most notable were Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler. They started a series under the Quentin name featuring Peter Duluth, and my Forgotten Book for today, Puzzle for Fiends, a Duluth story.

The premise is super. After a brief prologue in which Peter waves off his new wife Iris at an airfield, the picture transforms when he wakes up after an accident, suffering from amnesia. He is surrounded by people who claim to be family members or associates and who say that he is the wealthy Gordon Renton Friend the Third. Whilst it's some consolation that his newly found wife, mother and sister are all very beautiful, he finds himself trapped in a nightmarish situation, from which escape seems impossible.

Of course, variations on this theme have often been used in mysteries - the Liam Neeson film Unknown is an excellent recent example. But Quentin handles it well, and it's no surprise that this book has been highly regarded, not least by Julian Symons. There are plenty of plot twists along the way - you can always rely on the PQ (or QP) franchise for tantalising mysteries.

And yet. I felt there were some unsatisfactory features of the second half of the story which meant that I wouldn't regard it as a classic, much as it entertained me. There is a puritanical cult called the Aurora League which features heavily in the plot, and although it is satirically and wittily described, I felt that its sheer absurdity militated against suspense. As Cornell Woolrich showed in nightmare-scenario books like Phantom Lady, the way to handle a story like this is to maintain tension throughout, and Puzzle for Fiends didn't quite manage this. All the same, it remains a lively and efficient thriller, still worth reading.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Crimefest 2013 - part three

One of the highlights of my Saturday at Crimefest was the chance to appear on a panel moderated, with his customary wit, by Len Tyler. We were talking about detective duos, and fellow panellists were Helen Smith, whom I'd never had the pleasure of meeting before, Dorothy Cannell, who had been a member of our pub quiz team, and fellow Northern lawyer Neil White. Neil and I have a favourite shared trivia question: which character in his books used to work for me? The answer is Laura McGarritty/ The real life Laura's husband Duncan is a great friend of Neil's and was for many years a work colleague of mine, as was Laura. Neil used Laura's name for the female lead character in his first series of books.

Dorothy came up with an intriguing idea during the panel - she said she regarded characters in her books as employees who had to interview well to be included, and were subject to being dismissed every now and then if they didn't perform. There has to be an article worth writing to examine that metaphor. The panel was very enjoyable, and also rather relaxing, since I must say I find it easier being a panel member rather than a moderator.

Nev Fountain hosted an excellent session on Sherlock with Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, and Sue Vertue, and I enjoyed Nev's company when I found myself sitting with him and his partner Nicola, a very successful actor and also a songwriter, at the gala dinner. Among the award winners were the admirable Ruth Dudley Edwards and Barry Forshaw. Barry won the H.R.F. Keating award for best crime reference book of the past five years,which was presented by Sheila Mitchell, Harry's widow.

I had a hand in setting up the award, though since I'd contributed essays to two of the books on a fabulous shortlist which also included fine books by P.D. James, John Curran and others, I decided it wasn't right for me to vote. Anyway, it was so hard to choose. But Barry's encyclopaedia on British Crime Writing was a worthy winner, I must say. The quality of the shortlist shows how strong writing about the genre has become in the UK in recent years, a development which is enormously pleasing.

Sunday saw an enjoyable interview with Robert Goddard, and then the annual Mastermind quiz, which was won by Peter Guttridge. One of the questions for Peter was about the legal subject in which I specialise. His answer was corporate law, and although this is not now the case, he was closer than he realised. I did start out my legal career combining employment law with corporate work. In fact my first published book was Understanding Computer Contracts. There has to be another quiz question there...

All in all, a marvellous four days. Adrian Muller and his fellow organisers did a great job as usual, and I feel that Crimefest is getting better each year. As ever it was good to see old friends, and meet a host of delightful people for the first time, including Helen, Dorothy. Nev, Nicola, Jeff Siger, James Wills, Alexandra Benedict, Xavier-Marie Bonnot, Quentin Bates, as well as a good many others. I've already booked for next year.



Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Crimefest 2013 - part two

Among the pleasures of the second day of Crimefest 2013 were the chance to moderate a panel dealing with international mysteries. The panel members were Jeffrey Siger, Quentin Bates, Xavier-Marie Bonnot and Stan Trollip. I'd never met Jeff, Quentin or Xavier-Marie before, and it was a great opportunity to put faces to names and learn more about their books. Stan was a last minute addition to the team, replacing Peter James, who had been involved in a car crash (thankfully, Peter assures me he's still in one piece.) Despite the lack of notice, Stan made a terrific contribution to an enjoyable discussion.

I also attended a talk given by Susan Moody on Oxford Detectives. Susan is a long time member of an international group of crime writers who are coming to Oxford this August. As they have invited me to conduct a literary walking tour, I thought I'd better get some research in early, and Susan's enthusiasm for Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes in particular reminded me I ought to read more of their books. I've never been a great Innes fan, I must confess .I suspect I just read the wrong books long ago - a few of the later ones, which maybe don't fully represent his talent.

Other highlights included a chat with Lindsey Davis, and a meal with James Wills, whom I'd never met before. My literary agent, Mandy Little has represented me from the start of my career, but has recently announced that she will be retiring as an agent before long, while remaining with the business as a consultant. James is her successor and is now managing director of the business, so we were keen to meet each other at long last. And a very good companion he proved to be.

I also attended a panel moderated by Nev Fountain, which dealt with writing for other media. I'm not especially interested in (for example) graphic novels, but I do find the idea of writing for radio quite appealing In fact it's something I did at university, before moving back to the idea of writing novels. Various interesting points were made by a good panel which included Alison Joseph, the recently installed chair of the CWA. And it was especially interesting to me that I met Nev for the first time at the Crimefest gala dinner the following evening. More of that tomorrow.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Crimefest 2013 - part one

I've just returned from Crimefest 2013 in Bristol, a terrific event as usual. In fact, I feel that Crimefest is getting better each year. I know a number of people who told me they wanted to attend but were too late to book a place, and this is a sign of the convention's increasing popularity. It really does strike a nice balance between providing opportunities to socialise and providing panels, interviews and other events of genuine interest. There was a lot going on, and not for the first time I found myself, on leaving, amazed that I'd been so busy yet had still not managed to have a chat with a number of friends and fellow attendees. Next time!

I was lucky enough to be involved with three separate panels, two of them as participating moderator, and the first of these was Forgotten Authors, an event which is now a regular feature of the first afternoon of Crimefest. My fellow panellists were all very knowledgable and enthusiastic about books of the past. Moderating a group comprising John Curran (who chose two of my favourites, Dorothy Bowers and Patrick Quentin, to talk about) , Ruth Dudley Edwards (who chose two more, Cyril Hare and Edmund Crispin), Zoe Sharp and Adrian Magson was the easiest job in the world. The only snag with Forgotten Authors is that there is so much to talk about, we really need several hours. But the room was packed out, and people left with many suggestions about old books to seek out. There's always a feelgood factor about this panel, a sign of the rise in appreciation of books that vanished from the shelves years ago which remain worth reading to this day. I'm pleased to say the organisers have asked me to moderate the same panel again next year.

After a short break it was time for the annual pub quiz. I joined a team which included John, Zoe, Kate Ellis and my former editor at Hodder, Kate Lyall Grant. But it's also good to meet people for the first time, and these included the highly successful American author, Dorothy Cannell, with whom I was also due to be on another panel (at which she came up with an idea which fascinated me, and which I'll talk about in another Crimefest post.) We lost that knowledgeable crime fan Mike Linane to Ali Karim's team on the next table, but also joining us was Alexandra Benedict. There are two novelists called Alexandra Benedict, and so our colleague is published as A.K. Benedict. It turned out she is not only a Cambridge graduate who has written a highly successful debut, but also a composer of music for film and television, a singer and an expert on the ghost story. One website bio says she "writes words and music in a red-walled room filled with mannequins, teapots and the severed head of a ventriloquist's dummy." So really she ought to be a character in a book as well.

Anyway, it was an extremely convivial group and we called ourselves the Forgetful Authors. (In a surreal twist, this anticipated my forgetting the following day to post a Friday Forgotten Book for the first time in ages - you did notice, didn't you?) The quiz was closely contested and we finished up tying with Ali's team. The first tiebreaker question didn't separate the teams, but the next one enabled us to win the day, and collect some very nice prizes, including box sets of Sherlock, about which more soon.) Great fun, and I'll continue the Crimefest Chronicles tomorrow. If I don't forget, that is....