Monday, 30 June 2014

Run, Lola, Run - film review

Story structure is a subject that fascinates me, and this is what led me to watch Run, Lola, Run, a 1998 film shot in Berlin and written and directed by Tom Tykwer. Intriguing and original, this film really gripped me from start to finish. It deals with a number of themes, but above all it addresses the question of how chance events can have a profound effect on lives. This is a subject tackled very well by the hugely enjoyable Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, and Run, Lola, Run is just as good.

Franka Polenta plays Lola, a feisty and charismatic young woman whose dodgy boyfriend has made a total mess of his part in a crime. He's lost a lot of money as a result, and the bad guys are just about to find out, and make him pay. They are likely to show up in twenty minutes. Lola tells him, in effect, not to panic. She will sort things out and dash over to meet him within that timescale.

We are supplied with three different versions of what happens on Lola's run. In each of the stories, she encounters the same people, but the outcomes differ strikingly. The compressed timescale, pulsating soundtrack and the sight of Lola dashing frantically through the streets of Berlin keeps the viewer gripped. What is going to happen this time? The boyfriend is a rather pathetic loser, and Lola has a crazy streak,but never mind. We want a happy ending - of course we do. Unfortunately, it's not always available.

This is one of the best foreign films I've seen in a long time. As long as you buy into the premise, it's engaging from start to finish. Polenta is terrific, and the variations in the storylines (which have many connecting elements) are compelling. If you needed any reminder about the lottery element in life's big decisions, Run, Lola, Run supplies it. I found this a really thought-provoking film, and I can strongly recommend it.




Friday, 27 June 2014

Forgotten Book - Night at the Mocking Widow

John Dickson Carr used the name Carter Dickson for the books he wrote about Sir Henry Merrivale, a detective whom some fans prefer to Dr Gideon Fell. Today's Forgotten Book, Night at the Mocking Widow, was published at the start of the Fifties but is set in an English village - with the excellent name Stoke Druid - in 1938. It's an English village mystery, and has a touch of nostalgia about it, as well as displaying Carr's love of England very clearly.

Stoke Druid is plagued by poison pen letters, and when one of those accused by the letters dies in tragic circumstances, the letters stop,only to start up again. The Mocking Widow (another great name) is a dominant stone in an ancient circle, and there is an "impossible situation" which does not actually involve a murder, with murder only taking place towards the end of the book. Stone circles have often featured in crime novels, and no wonder -they are so often spookily atmospheric.

I can't better the summary of this book to be found in Douglas Greene's biography of Carr, a book I regard as one of the best biographies of a detective novelist ever written. He is largely positive, though he recognises that the novel does not have the power and grip of Carr's best pre-war work. I thought that the ingredients were impressive and appealing, although I find the comedy associated with Merrivale much less appealing than do his biggest fans - for me, the Fell stories are on the whole markedly better.

I didn't guess the culprit in this one, but I felt this was in part due to the fact that the motivation is very thin. Carr made strenuous attempts, especially in the comic scenes, to compensate for the lack of a murder investigation from the outset, but by this time his powers were just beginning to fade. Perhaps the classic example of a village poison pen letter campaign is Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger. Even though that too is not one of her masterpieces, which perhaps explains why I've not mentioned it on this blog before, it is a smoothly accomplished whodunit and, to my way of thinking, clearly superior to Carr's effort. Overall verdict on this one- not bad, but unfortunately anti-climactic.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Devil's Advocate - film review

The Devil's Advocate is a film dating from 1997, but I've only just caught up with it. It's odd that it's taken me so long to do so, given not only that it's a dark thriller with a fantastic cast, including Al Pacino, Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves, but also features one of my favourite subjects - a dodgy law firm. We've had stories about lawyers in league with the Mafia. This one, based on a novel by Andrew Neiderman, a prolific specialist in the supernatural, goes much further....

Reeves plays Lomax, a clean-cut Florida lawyer with a highly religious mother and a beautiful wife, played by Theron. Lomax never loses a case, which seems suspicious in itself, and he soon finds himself lured to New York by the charming but malevolent John Milton (Pacino) whose law firm boasts a dazzling international client list. The lure of the money proves irresistible, but inevitably there is a price to be paid. In particular, Reeves finds himself tempted by a glamorous colleague (played by Connie Nielsen) while Theron begins a descent into hallucinatory paranoia.

Taylor Hackford, the director, faced a tricky task with this movie. A large part of the storyline is set in the courtroom,and although I'd be the first to admit that legal life can have its surreal side, this relatively realistic type of material could easily jar with some of the melodrama. It would be easy to say that The Devil's Advocate is hokum, but if so, it's hokum of a superior kind, because Hackford manages to keep the audience engaged from the start to the pleasing twist at the end.

It helps to have the likes of Pacino, Reeves and Theron on board. I thought Theron in particular handled the development of her character very well indeed. The story may be Grand Guignol, but this was acting of a very high standard. Pacino really enjoys himself as the bad guy, and (by and large) resists the temptation to ham it up too much. All in all, a good watch. And a reminder, if anyone needed one, that you really need to keep your eye on some members of the legal profession...


Miss Potter and the Lake District

Miss Potter was being filmed while I wandered around the Lake District researching the area in the early days of the series, but I have only just caught up with the film. It's a feelgood movie that does not stick precisely to the facts of the life of Beatrix Potter, but is still, I think, pretty successful in capturing the spirit of the woman and her writing, and also the appeal of that wonderful part of England which captured her heart.

Renee Zellwegger plays Beatrix, and is quite captivating in the role. The cast as a whole is very good. Barbara Flynn, so often so likeable in so many roles, is a rather unappealing matriarch, but Bill Paterson is affable as Beatrix's dad. Ewan Macgregor plays the charming publisher (yes, such creatures definitely exist!) to whom she is secretly engaged. His sudden and tragic death is poignantly handled.

Lloyd Owen, son of the late Glyn, a stalwart of so many TV shows in the 60s an 70s, plays William Heelis, the solicitor whom Beatrix eventually marries. The name of Slater Heelis still survives; it's a legal firm respected in the North West to this day. But there's no doubt that the heart of the story is Beatrix's struggle to establish herself as an independently minded woman, and her passion for the Lakes. Zellwegger conveys all this very well indeed.

Heelis comments during the film about the London-orientation of Britain, and of course, nothing much has changed in that respect in more than a century. I like London a lot, but when I talk to friends from overseas, I often find that those who have visited England seldom get beyond London. This is a shame, because for all its merits, London posseses only a fraction of the country's must-see places. These undoubtedly include the Lake District, and it's due in no small measure to Beatrix Potter and the National Trust that the Lakes have been preserved in such a marvellous state for succeeding generations to enjoy. The film's a good one, but inevitably it can't convey the full grandeur of one of the most scenic and appealing areas in Europe. And dare I add, one of the best possible settings for a series of mystery novels!

Russell James - guest blog


Russell James is the author of ten books, and is a former chair of the CWA. I've enjoyed many conversations with Russell in the years since I first came across him when I read his novel Underground. He is a varied and thoughtful writer who deserves to be better known. His non-fiction includes an excellent book about fictional detectives. When I last met Russell, I invited him to contribute a guest post to this blog at some point. Here it is:

'Art is fertile ground for crime writers.  Huge sums are paid for a single item, a work that can be relatively small and transportable.  In the first of my novels to revolve around the theft of an old master (Daylight, now out of print and hard to find) part of the fun lay in how the stolen masterpiece would be smuggled out of what was then the Soviet Union.  The story included an art tutorial on the differences between copies, fakes and restoration – distinctions not as clear as you might hope.  Great for complicating the plot.
In my most successful novel, Painting In The Dark, the art world underpinned the plot – yet it frightened some potential publishers who saw it as politically dangerous.  I guess it was controversial: set in 1997 but looking back to the 1930s and 40s, it suggested that Tony Blair’s New Labour Party had bewitched a nation and swept to power much as Hitler’s New Socialists had in Germany.  But the book’s main theme was art and the mania of art collectors motivated by more than money, more than sex, by an obsession to acquire and own a unique fetishistic object.  They’ll stop at nothing to achieve their ends, making them ideal characters for a crime story.  They are driven, they want ‘a brush with genius’.  We readers understand and sympathise – even if we wouldn’t kill to gain our ends.
Plenty of crime novels allow wrongdoers to achieve their ends, and we law-abiding readers sometimes cheer – though when villains are motivated by cash alone the odds are they won’t get away.  But an art fanatic?  Why shouldn’t such a so-called villain keep the prize?
Remember: these are crime novels, not moral tracts.'

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Frozen Shroud in paperback


The Frozen Shroud has just been published in paperback by Allison & Busby, a pleasing boost to morale as I work on its successor, which will be the seventh Lake District Mystery. The new book is set on the west coast of Cumbria, but the events of the The Frozen Shroud take place at Ullswater at Hallowe'en. Three women have been murdered in the tiny hamlet of Ravenbank over the space of one hundred years. The question for DCI Hannah Scarlett and her friend Daniel Kind is, of course: what can possibly connect the deaths?

I'm celebrating publication on Wednesday evening at Formby Books, and I'll be joined at the event by fellow novelists Sheila Quigley and Kate Ellis, who also have new paperbacks out. In writing The Frozen Shroud, I made one or two adjustments from my previous approach, as I'm very keen to keep the series fresh and interesting, rather than just repeating a formula. The reaction from people who have read the book so far has proved to be very gratifying. On my website, there is a whole collection of reviews - I felt lucky to receive so many - but here are four which gave me especial pleasure, given the publications in which they appeared:

"Martin Edwards...makes all the characters real, credible, and in the cases of the heroine, DCI Hannah Scarlett...and the slightly less heroic local historian Daniel Kind, highly sympathetic...Writing with scrupulous exactness, but sparing his readers too many disgusting details, he supplies fair clues, an agreeable setting, and a good, gripping, credible tale, which I highly recommend."
Jessica Mann, Literary Review

"Edwards draws on his knowledge of criminal research to interweave a hundred-year-old tale of a jilted wife allegedly killing her husband’s lover—and the legend of the victim’s faceless ghost—with a five-year-old cold case involving a similar murder of the young lover of a wealthy widower. Daniel Kind is in Ravenbank researching the original case when, following a Halloween dance, a third victim is discovered. DCI Scarlett arrives to investigate and the tension between detective and history professor rekindles. In addition to clever plotting and an evocative atmosphere, Edwards has given us a pair of characters whose mutual attraction and repulsion make a perfect recipe for tension."
Steve Steinbock, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

‘If you like your whodunits with a small list of possible suspects and motives à la Dame Agatha; more than one murder investigation happening at the same time à la Peter Robinson; and important links to the past à la the late Reginald Hill, you’ll love this book... I can highly recommend it.’
Joseph Scarpato Jr, Mystery Scene

Layered, atmospheric...creepy premise.
Publishers’ Weekly

Friday, 20 June 2014

Forgotten Book - Death of an Airman

Death of an Airman, which dates from 1935, is today's Forgotten Book,but the fact that it counts as forgotten has nothing to do with its quality - which is high - but everything to do with its scarcity. Most of the seven detective novels written by the author, Christopher St. John Sprigg, have been hard to find for more than half a century, though the publishing revolution may change things soon. My copy of this book was loaned by a kind friend. He has a wonderful Golden Age collection, but even his copy of this one is an American reprint rather than the UK first edition.

Sprigg knew a good deal about the world of aeroplanes, and this makes the background - a small, fictitious aerodrome in the south of England - both credible and fascinating. His story involves an apparently impossible crime, and here again his inside knowledge contributed to the plot. But there is more to this story than technical detail - the suspects are not drawn in great depth, but they are at least entertainingly characterised.

One of the main viewpoint characters is an Australian bishop, and he is pleasingly portrayed as a decent man whose presence at the scene of a plane crash, in which a pilot's corpse is discovered, proves the catalyst for a discursive investigation which takes in an elaborate international cocaine smuggling operation. Books - especially perhaps those from the Golden Age - in which cocaine smuggling plays a part tend to have to do a lot to convince me of their merit, but Sprigg does a surprisingly good job of weaving the scam in with a clever whodunit plot.

Overall, there is a great deal to like about this book, and it's the best Sprigg I've read to date. In fact, I enjoyed reading it much more than I expected, partly because of the period detail, but also because Sprigg writes with a light and deft touch. What a tragedy and a waste that this gifted man died before he was 30, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He really could write well..

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Mavis Doriel Hay

Mavis Doriel Hay's detective fiction seems to be making more impact now than it did on its first appearance in the 1930s. This is thanks to the British Library's very welcome decision to reprint her three long-neglected novels in their Crime Classics series. I've previously talked about The Santa Klaus Murder, and in today's post I turn my attention to the two books that preceded it, Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell. They both benefit, by the way, from nice intros by Stephen Booth, who spoke enthusiastically about them on the Forgotten Authors panel at Crimefest.

Mavis was a student at Oxford at roughly the same time as Dorothy L. Sayers, and although she was an alumna of St Hilda's, rather than Somerville, it may be that their paths crossed. Did this influence Sayers' warmly positive review of Murder Underground? I very much doubt it - Sayers was not someone who said things about books that she didn't mean, and some of her reviews of friends' work were scarily acerbic. Sayers liked "good English", and Mavis was a stylish writer - it is this that lifts her novels out of the common run of Golden Age stories, and helps to explain why the British Library have chosen to republish her books. That said, I don't rate Murder Underground as highly as her two later novels. As the title suggests, the killing of an elderly spinster takes place at a Tube station (maps are provided), and the manner of the story-telling is light and amusing. It's a pleasing period piece. The plot, and in particular the solution, are however rather slight.

Mavis created a fictional Oxford college, Persephone, plainly influence by St Hilda's, for Death on the Cherwell. Again, we have a map of the scene of the crime, and a victim who is an unlovely spinster. A group of young female students find the body of the college bursar in a canoe floating down the river - shades of the beginning of The Floating Admiral. There is a lot to enjoy in this book, and Mavis's light touch is more expertly deployed than in her debut. Again, there is a shortage of suspects (not a mistake she made in The Santa Klaus Murder, which has a dauntingly large cast) and the "surprise twist" is foreseeable. But the story is fun.

In judging this writer, and these books, I think it's important to keep in mind that she was an inexperienced novelist, and this accounts for some of the flimsiness of plot and structure. Given her fluent writing style, I think that, had she kept writing mysteries, she might have developed into a notable contributor to the genre. It was not to be - she seems to have lost interest, although she wrote non-fiction later and lived until the Seventies. But it's marvellous to see these books given a new life, in very attractive editions, and they are being very successfully marketed by the British Library. The Golden Age is in vogue at long last!

Monday, 16 June 2014

Christine Poulson - guest blog


I'm glad to welcome my friend Christine Poulson as a guest contributor to this blog, with a charming personal story. Christine is very good company in person and also a very good novelist with whom to spend time. I'm pleased to say that her new book, Invisible, published by Accent Press, is now available in paperback and as an ebook (the latter is an especial bargain) As you will see, the starting premise of the story is a gripping one. Over to you, Chrissie....

‘Had a good break over the summer?’
   ‘Great, thanks, spent three weeks touring the cemeteries of southern Sweden.’
   ‘Oh . . . lovely . . .’
    It was, too. I was accompanying my husband who was researching a book on the great Swedish architect, Gunnar Aspland, designer of, among other things, the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, a World Heritage Site.
      I came home knowing that I wanted to set at least part of a novel in Sweden. As a young art historian I had been more drawn to Italy and France and was late coming to Scandinavia. With my blue eyes and with a name like Poulson, I almost certainly have a Viking or two among my ancestors. Perhaps that’s why I felt an immediate affinity with Sweden and fell in love with Stockholm.
    There was another memorable aspect to the trip: in our seven years of marriage this was the first time my husband and I had spent three weeks alone together. When we met he was a widower with two children and we had been a family right from the start. Holidays had been great fun, but busy and full of distractions. On this trip there was plenty of time for ideas to start bubbling over: the long midsummer days, nights that were barely more than twilight, the hours on the road, the waiting while my husband took photographs . . .
     The character of Lisa began to form in my imagination, a woman who was only ever alone with her lover. No-one knew about him and she saw him for a week-end only once a month. The novel would begin when he failed to show up.
      I was already committed to writing the third in my Cassandra James series and it was a few years before I got round to writing Invisible. By then I knew why Lisa’s lover had to vanish and why it would be so dangerous for her to search for him.
      Invisible is a novel that for many reasons is close to my heart and it all began on that wonderful trip.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Craft of Writing - Where Do You Find Your Ideas?

One of the questions writers are asked most often is: "Where do you find your ideas?" In fact, I gave this title to a short story I wrote years ago, about a not very successful novelist who conducts a bookshop event. A member of his small audience asks the question, with alarming results. I got the idea for that story from a real life literary event, as it happens.

There's no easy answer to the question, because story ideas are all around us, all the time. You just have to spot them - or more often, tease them out, if they are hiding. As a teenager at school, hoping that one day I'd become a writer of crime fiction, I worried that I wouldn't be able to come up with a plot idea strong enough to sustain a full-length novel. It wasn't until much later that I realised that it doesn't matter if you don't have the whole concept of your novel clear from the outset. The key is to have an interesting starting point - a setting, perhaps, or a type of person, or an event or incident - that sparks your imagination and gets you going. Then you can ask yourself: "What if?"- always a good technique for a teller of tales.

My idea for "Acknowledgments", the story that won the CWA Margery Allingham Prize last month, came along after I read a couple of books which had rather lengthy and (in my opinion) rather rambling and tedious acknowledgments to the authors' countless acquaintances. I thought it might be possible to create a story out of such material. The spark for "The Bookbinder's Apprentice", which won the CWA Short Story Dagger, came when I looked in the window of a bookbinder's shop in Venice. A couple of days after my recent visit to the North East, I was asked to write a story for an anthology featuring a bookshop. I decided that an imaginary lonely second hand bookshop in Hartlepool, a town which I'd just visited, might be a suitable background. And I mentioned on this blog the other day that, during my recent trip to Berlin, thoughts about the reunification of Germany led me to an idea for a story about a reunion in the city between a couple who have not seen each other for many years.

The very idea of meeting someone again after not having seen them for many years absolutely fascinates me. It is at the heart of the seventh and latest Lake District Mystery (which I'd be writing right now if I hadn't been lured away by the temptation of doing this blog post!) And at the week-end, a very enjoyable experience gave me a premise for another possible story. For the first time in 40 years, my school had a reunion. The school (once a boys' grammar school, now a mixed sixth form college, Sir John Deane's) has changed out of all recognition, although the core of the old building has, happily, been preserved. Reassembling for lunch in the old main hall was a very nostalgic experience. And it was fascinating to meet again a group of men whom I'd not seen for four decades. I was pleased to hear many interesting stories of what they have been up to, and as amused as ever to be asked by someone- yes! - "do you write under your own name?" - although it was poignant to pause and reflect on two or three friends who have died in the intervening years. One of these deaths I'd had no knowledge of previously.

A number of chaps were still instantly recognisable, but that was certainly not always the case. And as I struggled to recognise one or two people, the thought crossed my mind - what if someone came back to such a reunion having assumed a false identity? There could be a story there, couldn't there? Or what if some long-buried grudge was rekindled at such an occasion? Or what if a crime committed forty years ago came to light because of a casual remark dropped at a reunion? Ideas are everywhere, you see. It's really a matter of using one's imagination to create something fresh, different and worthwhile out of them.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Forgotten Book - Vegetable Duck

John Rhode, like so many of his Detection Club colleagues, was fascinated by true crime, and he was one of those novelists (Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and recently P.D. James, are others) who was enthralled by the mystery surrounding the Wallace case. Did the mild-mannered insurance agent William Wallace batter his wife Julia to death with a poker, or was someone else guilty? To this day, there is not a total consensus. Sayers suspected he was innocent, but I'm not sure Rhode took the same view.

He adapted the case for fictional purposes in The Telephone Call in 1944. For good measure, he returned to it again four years later in Vegetable Duck, which is my Forgotten Book for today. Here is where I confess my ignorance - "vegetable duck" is apparently a delicacy of sorts, a marrow stuffed with mince, which happens to be the favourite foodstuff of one of the characters in the novel. I must admit, though, that I'd never heard of it. And it's not on the menu at any of the happily numerous pubs which do meals in this neck of the woods!

Rhode makes explicit reference, more than once, to the Wallace case in this book. The circumstances of the murder are very different from those in the original crime - you guessed it, the vegetable duck is poisoned - and the setting is a reasonably prosperous part of London rather than a northern city. But the type of "alibi" put forward by Wallace is used by the victim's husband here. Dr Priestley utters words of wisdom in the background, but the main detecting is done by a cop, Jimmy Waghorn, who often featured in Rhode stories.

I enjoyed this book. It was crisp and readable, and contained a number of points of interest. Rhode's technique means that I was able to spot the culprit on first appearance, but the means by which the dreadful deed were done remained unclear to me at that stage. "Means" fascinated Rhode rather more than they do me, or most other modern writers. But he was a capable performer, and this is a good example of his post-war work.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Three New Books

Today I'd like to draw your attention to three very varied new books which, taken together, should appeal to a wide range of tastes. The first is a collection of short stories, The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 11, edtied by Maxim Jakubowski and published by Robinson. It's dedicated to the late Bob Barnard and Nick Robinson, and contains a very wide range of stories, including one by me. More famous contributors include Lee Child, Val McDermid, Alexander McCall Smith and Simon Kernick. Maxim is a very widely read fellow, and I've enjoyed devouring his collections for many years. If you like short stories, it's a terrific compilation.

I've been singing the praises of Priscilla Masters for about fifteen years now. She is an under-rated writer of traditional mysteries, and her latest,The Devil's Chair, has just been published by Severn House. Cilla is best known for her books about Joanna Piercy, but this is an entry in her equally appealing series featuring Martha Gunn, who is a coroner. The setting is Shropshire, and I think it's fair to say that Cilla evokes the mysterious atmosphere of that green and pleasant, yet sometimes eerie county better than any other crime writer with the distinguished exception of Ellis Peters. Cilla has beaten me to it in retiring completely from her day job, and I hope this means that we'll see even more of her fiction in the future.

Finally, a first novel by a writer whom, unlike Maxim and Cilla, I've never met. The Vistiors, by Simon Sylvester, is published by Quercus and is set on a remote Scottish island called Bancree. Why are some people mysteriously disappearing from Bancree? This is a book which doesn't really fit into the conventional pigeon-hole of detective fiction, but it's nicely written, and reflects the vogue for books set on Scottish islands, a fashion perhaps inspired by the great success of Ann Cleeves and Peter May. I think Simon Sylvester will be a name to watch in years to come.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Plausibility and Patricia Highsmith

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith has been made into a film, something I learned immediately after reading the book for the first time. I'm a Highsmith fan, and have read quite a lot of her work over the years, bu this title had escaped my attention, although Julian Symons admired it, and mentioned it in Bloody Murder. Fitfy years after it was published, it remains a gripping read - although Symons rightly made it clear that not everyone "gets" Highsmith, because of her strange outlook on the world, and the odd way in which her people behave.

And she could be inconsistent - I've also recently read A Game for the Living, which has a fascinating and very well evoked setting (Mexico) but not much else to recommend it in my opinion. Highsmith herself judged it one of her failures, perhaps because it is a sort of whodunit, and the feeble mystery is poorly constructed (I wasn't surprised to learn that she changed her solution, though she didn't come up with a satisfying one.) As in The Two Faces of January, the focus is on a rather odd relationship between a couple of youngish men, but although the book opens with the savage murder and mutilation of the woman both men slept with, tension soon dissipates, and even a mysterious message apparently sent by the dead woman is handled in a casual, anti-climactic way.

Back to The Two Faces of January. The story is told from the perspectives of two men. Chester MacFarland is an American con man travelling in Europe with his pretty young wife Colette. They are staying in Athens at the start of the story, as is a young American called Rydal Keener, a former law student, who spots the couple and thinks that Chester is like his father, while Colette resembles a girl with whom he misbehaved in his teens. Rydal finds himself strangely drawn to the MacFarlands, and when Chester kills a Greek police officer by mistake, Rydal - for no instantly obvious reason - helps him to get away with it.

None of the three main characters behave in a predictable way, and this seemingly irrational way of living, quite typical of Highsmithland, can be off-putting to some readers. Interestingly, her American editor, the legendary Joan Kahn, rejected this book, and she was herself unhappy with what she'd done, re-writing extensively. Yet if you buy into the characters, it's a very rewarding read. The settings - Athens, Crete, Paris - add to a feeling of exoticism, certainly by standards of Fifties fiction, which is a hallmark of many of her books..

Highsmith was interested in the choices that people make in life, and this is very fertile territory for any crime novelist. I suppose the closest I've come to a Highsmith (or Rendell) type of character is Guy in The Arsenic Labyrinth. I really enjoyed writing him. The challenge is to make the way that people like Chester and Rydal behave seem believable. It requires an intensity of vision and writing that makes even apparently inconsistent behaviour (I'm thinking of what Chester does at the end of the story) seem plausible. This is much easier said than done, but in my opinion this particular book is an example of Highsmith at her best. I would admit that the quality of her novels, except perhaps those that revisited Tom Ripley, slipped after the late Sixties, but she remains in my view one of the most notable crime writers of the 20th century. If you haven't read this one, I can recommend it. I only hope the film will be as good.

Monday, 9 June 2014

A New Life for Take My Breath Away


Take My Breath Away is a novel of psychological suspense that means a great deal to me, and I'm delighted that at long last, it's beginning a new life as an ebook, published by Allison & Busby. This was the novel that brought me to A&B, when David Shelley, the then editor, took a shine to my work. It was after this stand-alone book appeared that David suggested I write a new series with a rural setting. The result was the Lake District Mysteries, so I'll always be grateful to him. And he's now the editor of a promising writer called J.K. Rowling, so I hope he does as much for her career!!

The background to Take My Breath Away is that, after seven Harry Devlin novels, I was ready for a change, and to stretch my writing in a fresh direction. I wasn't (and still am not) fed up with Harry - I'd love to continue writing about him in the future, no question. But I had an idea for a one-off book that really excited me, and I was desperate to write it up.

I knew that executing the story idea would be a challenge, because of its unusual and ambitious nature, but I didn't realise quite how much of a challenge it would prove to be. The book was harder to get right than any other that I've produced, and it went through many revisions, and much cutting. David was keen that I make the story crisper and more accessible, and though this took time to achieve, I am sure his editorial advice was spot on.

The novel is set in London, and I still think the tantalising opening scenes are among the best I've written. Two storylines gradually converge, and there's a sub-text that (to my surprise) few reviewers spotted, though I was, and am, pleased with it. I hoped that this would be my "breakthrough" novel, but it wasn't to be. Reviews were very good, but sales weren't as high as for the Harry Devlin books, and certainly far below those for my Lake District Mysteries. I must admit I was disappointed, because I feel that it's at least as good as my series novels, and despite the many differences, it does have a whodunit aspect.

To this day, I remain proud of the book, and I like to think it has aged well. And you never know - perhaps its time has finally come, and lots of ebook fans will take it to their hearts! I'd love it if that happened. Take My Breath Away is certainly different from my other novels, and if any of you do give it a go, I hope you'll find it a satisfying and intriguing read.


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Happy Valley - how good was it?

After settling in back home, I've caught up with the final two episodes of Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley. Suffice to say that they lived up to the quality of the first four instalments. If there is a better crime series on television this year, I'll be surprised and impressed. I was gripped from start to finish.

A word about the acting. Sarah Lancashire was brilliant as the appealing yet damaged police sergeant, and is sure to win plenty of awards for demonstrating a remarkable range of very believable emotions. The supporting cast was also excellent. James Norton played a chilling and psychopathic villain, yet he managed to endow Tommy Lee Royce with one or two redeeming qualities. He was such a plausible loser,you would never guess that Norton is a product of Ampleforth and Cambridge. His shifting relationship with scheming villain Ashley (Joe Armstrong) was superbly done. Those two men really can act to a very high standard.

And now for the writing. Sally Wainwright delivered an outstanding script that drew on some of the better elements of soap opera dramatics, without compromising on originality, and created credible characters with whom it was all too easy to empathise, even in some cases (Kevin the accountant springs to mind) where the empathy was barely deserved. There were several lines that were genuinely memorable, a few that were brilliantly witty, and a number of scenes that were poignant without being contrived. You could never be sure what was going to happen next. It was even more striking than Broadchurch, my favourite cop drama of 2013.

A few plot strands, especially about police corruption, were left unresolved, a whopping clue to the fact that a follow-up series is likely. Will it be as good as this one? I have no idea, but if it is, it will be unmissable.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Forgotten Book - Dictator's Way

Thanks to the sterling efforts of Ramble House, a very likeable publisher indeed, a few of E.R. Punshon's long-forgotten books have become available again to modern readers. Dictator's Way, first published in 1938, is among them, and it is notable above all for the insight it gives into the issues preoccupying thinking men and women like Punshon at the time - the grim state of international affairs and the threat posed by totalitarian dictators.

This is an entry in the Bobby Owen series, and another reason why Dictator's Way is of note is that it introduces Olive, a resourceful young woman who was to become the love of Bobby's life. The path of true love does  not run smooth at first, but it seems to me that Punshon, like Margery Allingham, Nicholas Blake, Ngaio Marsh and others was following the lead set by Dorothy L. Sayers in having a youngish male detective meet, during the course of his cases, the woman whom he would marry. In each case they are strong women, not content to sit on the sidelines of life, and this helps the reader to appreciate them.

Punshon had liberal/leftish political views, and takes the opportunity to show his contempt for Hitler, Mussolini and Oswald Mosley in the course of a story dealing scathingly with the so-called "Redeemer" of Etruria. This political perspective gives the book spice, and also gives the lie to the often repeated but false claim that Golden Age writers were just a bunch of cosy reactionaries. Why have so many otherwise sensible people made such a claim? I suspect it's because, for the most part, the really successful Golden Age writers were conservative in outlook, although I'd describe some of them at least as questioning conservatives.

Anyway, on to the book. It contains thrillerish elements and a loveable working class rogue whom I found rather irritating. The whodunit element of the story isn't especially memorable. You can see why Punshon fell into neglect - but you can also see why good judges found something to admire in his work. It's often a mixed bag, but his thoughtfulness makes him a Golden Age writer about whom I'd like to know much more. But my knowledge of his life doesn't extend far beyond what's to be found on the internet. I don't suggest he's a superstar, but I do think he deserves to be remembered.  Ramble House are doing a great job in bringing some of his books back to life.


Thursday, 5 June 2014

The German Connection



It's a long time since I studied German, but I really enjoyed the country's literature, and A and S Levels introduced me to writers like Friedrich Durrenmatt, a playwright who also wrote several excellent, shortish crime novels, and whose book The Pledge was turned into an excellent film starring Jack Nicholson. Durrenmatt was Swiss, so there was no chance to pay homage to him on my recent visit to Berlin, but in wandering around the area outside the city, I had the chance to visit Wannsee, a pleasant place by the water's edge, where Kleist's grave, and the story of his short and tragic life were to be found.





A short rail journey from Wannsee is Potsdam, about which all I knew was that it hosted the Potsdam Conference (in the mock-Tudor mansion pictured just above the shot of the impressive Sans Souci Park). In fact, Potsdam is a terrific town, full of dramatic architecture and an ideal spot for sight-seeing boat trips It's another of those places that have been utterly transformed by reunification.

I'd heard of Spandau only as the site of the prison where Rudolf Hess was incarcerated for so many years. I had no idea that it's actually a gorgeous old town on the outskirts of Berlin,, with a charm that has survived war and much else. The imposing Renaissance fortress, the Citadel, looks as though it might have housed Hess, but in fact it didn't. Again, it is being cared for and developed as a tourist centre with the efficiency that is, just as the stereotypes suggest, so often to be found in Germany. You get the feeling that if a modern Freeman Wills Crofts were writing in Germany, he might be able justifiably to write an alibi murder mystery that depended on the very frequent trains running precisely to time. Another thing I never knew was that Spandau was the base of a thriving film industry. The posters on display in the museum in the Citadel suggested that Edgar Wallace was a particular favourite...





The story that I'm writing with a Berlin setting is, admittedly, rather dark. But overall, I was left with the strong feeling that Berlin, dramatically changed as it is since my last visit, is a fun city, more appealing than many capitals. I found the trip quite inspirational. All I need to do now is turn the ideas that I gained on my trip into a story that does the city justice...



Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Reunion and Berlin




I'm just back from a week in Berlin which was memorable for many different reasons. It's a wonderful city, rich in character and history, and with a very bright future as one of the world's great capitals. Yet it's also a place that has witnessed very dark days. This was my first time back there since the mid-70s when, as a student, I stayed with the Wehymeyers, a pleasant family who lived in an apartment in West Berlin (as it was then) right next to the Berlin Wall. That was another unforgettable week. One ineradicable memory was sitting down to dinner, which was then interrupted by the sound of rifle shots. East German guards, it turned out, were shooting at someone who was trying to escape over the Wall to the West, and to freedom. It was a common occurrence, and the desperation of those people who were willing to risk death or lengthy imprisonment made a deep and lasting impression on me. So did the "live for the day" mentality of the young West Berliners I got to know. There was a real sense of a society on the edge, relatively affluent, yet frightened by the ever-present menace just next door and totally unsure about what the future might hold..

Ever since the Wall came down, I've wanted to go back, and after twenty-five years, I've had the chance to see what has happened in the quarter-century since the brutal regime of the East was overthrown. Capitalism has triumphed, for sure, but it's not as simple as that. There's an engagingly anarchic feel about the East Side Gallery, for instance, where a long stretch of the Wall has been turned into a massive open air art installation.



 
Thinking about the issues raised by Germany's past, and by reunification, has inspired me to start work on a story, "Reunion in Berlin", which involves a crime, perhaps more than one, and yet is more of a mainstream story than specifically a mystery. Time will tell how it turns out, but there's no denying that Berlin offers plenty of inspiration for creativity. I found it unexpectedly poignant, walking among the crowds who pass all the time beneath the Brandenburg Gate and down Unter den Linden. The last time I visited Berlin, that was impossible I went on a pilgrimage with Ute Wehmeyer and her friends to see the Gate, but it was just on the wrong side of the dividing line between West and East. Alexanderplatz, now an extremely busy central hub with a fascinating world clock and the nearby TV tower, which offers wonderful views of the city, was cut off from the West. The large station there was a "ghost station" as far as the West Berliners were concerned.




Berlin has, of course, inspired some marvellous fiction, not least some of Christopher Isherwood's books, as well as, in our genre, Len Deighton's classic Funeral in Berlin, Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin (which I'm just about to start) and Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy. The story I'm planning to write will try to capture some of the qualities of this city that have helped it to survive and, almost magically, to flourish. Visits to the DDR Museum and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum provided moving reminders of the suffering that took place during the Cold War, while the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is striking and unforgettable.



There are far more sights to see in Berlin than one can possibly visit in a week - though I did my best! - but plenty of those I went to will linger in the memory, as will some of the places outside the city that I managed to fit in (more about these tomorrow.) It's an unexpectedly green city, with one of the world's finest botanical gardens, despite the vast amount of construction that is taking place and which is likely to make it an even more irresistible destination. I'm so glad to have got back there at last. And on a personal note, it was a great joy to have a Berlin-based guide, a future journalist by the name of Catherine Edwards. She is 21 tomorrow - happy birthday, and thank you!








Monday, 2 June 2014

#Youdunnit - tweeting about murder, and other crime stories with a gimmick

#Youdunnit is a slim and interesting volume published as a giveaway by Penguin, and it's a very good example of the inventive way in which crime stories can be written. As the hashtag suggests, this is mystery in the age of Twitter, and is the first, as far as I know, "crowdsourced" crime story - or rather, three stories, for the book contains longish short stories by Nicci French, Tim Weaver, and Alastair Gunn.

A prefatory note explains that this book was a collaboration between Penguin and Specsavers (who have lent much support to the genre in recent years). Crime fans in the Twitter community were invited to come up with plot ideas, and 1000 tweets and nearly 700 plot suggestions later, the three authors got to work. It's a very interesting concept, and not entirely a surprise that, despite the common starting point, the writers came up with three very different stories.

Of these, I enjoyed "The Following" in particular. This came from Nicci French,  a husband and wife writing duo whose psychological novels of suspense I've admired for some years. Recently, they have turned to writing a series, which I haven't yet tried, and I'm not sure why they made the change, though I suspect they have made it with aplomb. This story is told in the first person by a woman, in classic French fashion, and is very nicely done. Weaver's story gives a cameo role to David Raker and is set in South Africa, while Gunn focuses on the bicycle plot element provided by crowdsourcing.

All in all, this little book is an enjoyable experiment, and it's worth recalling that it's just the latest in a long line of games played by crime writers. The "challenge to the reader" was a popular feature of many Golden Age novels, while I've always had a soft spot for "clue-finders" at the end of whodunits.Combining crime novels with jig-saws enjoyed a brief vogue in the Thirties. I like playing these games myself, and my first published short story, "Are You Sitting Comfortably?" was a sort of trick story. "An InDex" played with the idea of indexes and mystery, while "Acknowledgments" was a bit of fun aimed at those worthy but sometimes ludicrous pages of acknowledgments that take up an increasing number of pages in so many books these days. I'm always keen to hear of other examples of games played with the genre - please let me know of any games or gimmicks that strike you as especially interesting, either in concept or execution.