Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Magic -film review

I enjoyed catching up with Marathon Man at long last so much that it didn't take me long to watch another film written by William Goldman not long afterwards. This is Magic.Goldman really is a gifted story-teller, and it's remarkable that as well as these two screenplays (he also wrote the novels on which each film is based) he was also the man responsible for the Western that even non-fans of Westerns love, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Magic stars that compelling actor Anthony Hopkins as Corky, a rather reserved magician who finds fame and fotune when he adds Fats, a dummy, to his act, and combines magic with ventriloquism. Now, anyone who has watched that classic portmanteau movie knows that ventriloquists' dummies are exceedingly sinister characters. And Fats is as spooky as any dummy could be.

The plot starts to thicken once Corky, who is becoming increasingly troubled, heads off to the Catskills, and meets up with his old flame, Peggy (Ann-Margret). Old flames, in stories like this, certainly don't die down, and the pair quickly become lovers. The snag is that Peggy has a husband, the limited and jealous Duke, and soon Duke's suspicions are aroused. When Corky's agent comes to find what has happened to his client, things take a very dark turn indeed,

This film was directed by Richard Attenborough, and has music by Jerry Goldsmith. In other words, as with Marathon Man, the credits are really impressive, and it shows. The basic plot material could, in inferior hands, be pretty crass, but Goldman and company combine very effectively. I haven't read the book (which I gather has a dimension to its plot that could not be translated to the big screen) but if it's as good as the film, it is definitely worth reading.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - film review

I've long been interested in spy fiction - when I was a small boy,I was given as a present The Spy's Bedside Book, an anthology by Graham and Hugh Greene, and that fuelled my interest in the genre. In recent years, though, my focus has been on detective fiction. However, partly as a result of getting to know the great Len Deighton, and partly through reading several spy thrillers on behalf of the British Library, my interest has been re-kindled.

So I looked forward to watching the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on the classic novel by another great of the genre, John Le Carre (who began life, let it be remembered, as an author of detective fiction.) This version has been widely acclaimed, and the cast is superb. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, and John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth are there too. Plus Kathy Burke. And even Le Carre himself in a "Hitchcock" type cameo. Wow...

I suspect, though, that if you didn't know the story,you might struggle to follow what is going on. Compressing such complex material into a film inevitably requires sacrifices, but I felt that there was too much mystification for the sake of it. And I also thought that it was odd not to devote more time to the relationship between George and his wife,which does have an important bearing on the plot and theme. I can see what the writers were trying to do,but for me it didn't quite work.

Nevertheless, this is a long film which is well worth following right to the end. Partly because of the story, but especially because the cast does such a good job with the material, cryptic though it is at times. Some people regard this film as a masterpiece. I'm not convinced it matches the quality of the original TV series, let alone the book, but it certainly deserves watching.

Truly Criminal - a true crime collection, and thoughts about anthologies

Anthologies have always appealed to me. When I was quite young, I came across the CWA anthology, in those days edited by Herbert Harris, and never dreamed that one day I'd edit CWA collections myself. This I have now been doing for about twenty years. But until now, I've never produced an anthology composed exclusively of true crime essays. The time felt ripe to tackle such a project, and the result is Truly Criminal, which has just been published (very attractively indeed) by The History Press.

I'm really pleased with this book. Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I? But I do think it offers much that is unusual and intriguing. The range of contributions is terrific. We have essays by several stellar names, including this year's CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Catherine Aird, Peter Lovesey, and Andrew Taylor, plus CWA Non-fiction Gold Dagger winner Paul French. The foreword has been written by Peter James.

There are notable contributions by familiar names in the true crime field, like Kate Clarke, Linda Stratmann and Diane Janes, as well as excellent pieces by novelists Quentin Bates and Peter Guttridge, and a Shetland story by Shetland-based Marsali Taylor. A couple of contributions come from foreign members.

My own effort tackles the "Blazing Car" murder of 1930, a crime that has long fascinated me. It inspired a number of Golden Age stories, as did the Brides in the Bath case, which is the subject of Peter Lovesey's highly original essay, the Maybrick case, covered admirably by Kate Ellis, and the Wallace case, the subject of a recently discovered essay by Margery Allingham (who was a CWA member as well as a member of the Detection Club.).

It's often said - especially by gloomy publishers - that the market for anthologies is very limited. I'm not sure that's right. A book with a pleasing mix of ingredients can have a very widespread appeal. For proof of this, I can't resist mentioning my first two anthologies for the British Library - Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder. Sales figures for these newly published books are already very high, and in fact higher than those of any previous anthology I've edited. Seems extraordinary, but it's true. And I hope that Truly Criminal will also find a receptive readership. It's a different sort of collection, and the contributors have done a wonderful job in telling their tales.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Promoting a Book

Once a book is written, how does one go about promoting it? Things have changed out of all recognition since the days when authors like Anthony Berkeley, Ethel Lina White, and many others declined to allow their publishers to print biographical information or even, in some cases, to publish their photographs. Nowadays, authors - even those whose publishers boast substantial publicity departments - have to get stuck in and promote their books. But it doesn't come naturally to many writers. Most of us still value our privacy, and we're very well aware that self-promotion is, as always in life, fraught with danger. It can become tedious (and self-defeating) when an author keeps banging on endlessly about their magnum opus.

So with The Golden Age of Murder, I'm groping for a suitable balance. Mind you, I simply can't resist announcing that The Times has this morning described the book as a "richly rewarding study of the genre" - definitely a quote to cherish, and the sort of thing you dream of as an aspiring writer!

I can also report that the book has been chosen as one of Lovereading's Books of the Month for May, and that I've also written a number of articles linked to the book for a range of publications, including Oxford Today in the UK and Publishers' Weekly in the US..

In the run-up to publication, I'm also taking my first ever blog tour, contributing to some wonderful and very varied blogs. I'm truly grateful to the bloggers in question - when you read their blogs (and you should!) the generosity of spirit that is the hallmark of the best blogs and indeed the best bloggers is very evident. The plan for the tour is as follows:

27 April - Janet Rudolph's blog - Mystery Fanfare
28 April - Margot Kinberg's blog - Confessions of a Mystery Novelist
29 April - The SleuthSayers blog - Rob Lopresti has kindly invited me on to his fortnightly slot
30 April - Sergio Angelini's blog - Tipping My Fedora
1 May - Elaine Simpson-Long's blog - Random Jottings
2 May - Moira Redmond's blog - Clothes in Books
3 May - John Norris' blog - Pretty Sinister Books.
4 May - Patti Abbott's blog - Pattinase
5 May - B V Lawson's blog - In Reference to Murder
6 May - Christine Poulson's blog - A Reading Life
7 May - Kristopher Zgorski's blog -Bolo Books

All these blogs appear in my blogroll, which incidentally I hope to update soon. The blog tour is timed to coincide with my trip to Malice Domestic, when, among other nice activities, I'll be taking part in a panel about the Golden Age moderated by Doug Greene, a real expert on the subject. Doug read an early version of the book and also kindly allowed the publishers to reprint some wonderful photos in his possession.

Then it's back to the UK, and more events, including festivals in Carlisle, Cheshire and London. Believe it or not,I'm also a keynote speaker at a conference about James Ellroy in Liverpool in July, and again my subject will be the Golden Age. Preaching to the unconverted, perhaps, but I'm sure it will be fun.

Before that, in mid-May, there is Crimefest at Bristol. On the first afternoon of the convention, I'll be moderating a panel focused on (yes!) The Golden Age of Murder, with a terrific group of panellists including this year's CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Catherine Aird. Lots to look forward to...

Friday, 24 April 2015

Forgotten Book - Who is Simon Warwick?

Who is Simon Warwick? is another Forgotten Book that I've chosen by Patricia Moyes, whose memory is being honoured this year at Malice Domestic. This is a book first published in 1978, and whilst I have not read every book that Moyes ever wrote, suffice to say that if she ever wrote a more ingenious whodunit than this one, I would be as surprised as I'd be impressed. Yes, you'll have gathered that I'm very enthusiastic about this one - it's my favourite Moyes.

The starting point is a search for a missing heir - a topic that has driven varied and interesting novels by Josephine Tey (the splendid Brat Farrar) and Julian Symons,(whose novels are nowadays sadly under-estimated, although The Belting Inheritance is enjoyable rather than brilliant) among other crime writers.

A rich man who does not have long to live summons his solicitor, who rejoices in the name Ambrose Quince, and asks him to draw up a new will, disinheriting various hopefuls in favour of his nephew,who was born during the war, and later adopted. This is the very mysterious Simon Warwick of the title.

Despite various well-founded reservations, Ambrose does as he is told, and when his client dies, he advertises for Simon Warwick - but two potentially credible claimants come forward  One of them - at least - is an impostor. But which one? When one of them is murdered, the plot thickens further. Did one of those who were disinherited commit the crime?

Henry Tibbett investigates, and as usual his wife Emmy gets in on the act. There are some splendid plot twists, and a neat solution to the various mysteries that Moyes has constructed with real cunning. She was, really, working in Golden Age territory long after the Golden Age - and using some of the freedom given by changes within society to come up with new ideas. A very entertaining puzzle.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A Simple Plan - film review

A Simple Plan is a 1998 film directed by Sam Raimi and based on the book of the same name by Scott Smith. I haven't read the novel, though it was a big, big best-seller, but if it's as good as the film, then there' s no doubt that it deserves its success. The film is gripping pretty much from start to finish, with good acting, moral dilemmas to think about, and several decent twists.

Hank (Bill Paxton) is a well-educated married man living in a snowy and remote rural community; his wife (Bridget Fonda) is a librarian who is expecting a baby. He has a brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) who isn't bright, but the siblings have a close relationship. One day, they go on a trip with a pal called Lou, and come across a plane, buried in the snow. When Hank climbs inside, he finds that the pilot is long dead. He also discovers that the cargo is a load of money - not far short of five million dollars. So what should they do?

What they don't do, needless to say, is report their find to the proper authorities. After some hesitation, Hank takes control of the money, and the trio agree to wait to see what happens about the plane before spending any of it. To his surprise, Hank finds that his wife soon agrees that they should keep their share of the money. The way in which the film shows essentially decent people making very questionable choices is a real strength.

As you might imagine, things do not go as the three amateur thieves would hope, and before long, innocent blood is shed. Hank and Jacob don't behave admirably, and yet I didn't lose sympathy for them. (Perhaps some viewers will take a harsher view of them, but I felt that Paxton and Thornton did a brilliant job of conveying the way that human beings so often rationalise self-serving decisions.) I'm glad I watched this film. It's one of the best thrillers I've seen recently.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Ann Cleeves, Malice Domestic,and Thin Air

Ann Cleeves is this year's international guest of honour at Malice Domestic, and given the great support she always gives to other writers, it provides a welcome opportunity for fellow novelists as well as fans to express their appreciation of her achievements. I'm delighted that I've been asked to interview Ann at Malice, and given that I've followed her career since she published her very first novel, way back in 1986, I might just be able to manage without any notes!

A few years after that first book appeared, I met Ann at a northern chapter meeting of the CWA, and we have been friends ever since. In discussing her books, therefore, I will not suggest that I'm totally impartial, but I am as sure as I can be that her latest novel in the wildly successful Shetland series, Thin Air, will be regarded by any objective judge as a very enjoyable whodunit.

This is a Jimmy Perez story, of course, and Jimmy is still coming to terms with a bereavement suffered earlier in the series. Whereas I think that Ann's books about Vera Stanhope can probably be read in any order, it may be that some readers would prefer to start the Shetland series at the beginning, with Raven Black, which was Ann's breakthrough book. Whether or not you begin with Thin Air, though, I'm confident you'll find it an appealing story in the traditional pattern, with plenty of the deft touches and shrewd observations about humanity that Ann does so well. Her writing is authentic, but not in such a way that the narrative becomes bogged down. She says in a prefatory note: "I do know that it's impossible to send an email by iPhone from Unst, but this is a story",and this reflects a sensible approach to a writer's priorities - the story must come first.

There are two plot strands. which may or may not be connected - the murder of an attractive woman, and the strange appearance of a local ghost of a young girl, "Peerie Lizzie". There's a mix of suspects, who are nicely contrasted. And the setting is, as always, very well done. All in all, an enjoyable read from a very popular author. Thin Air will be just one of the books of Ann's that we'll be discussing at Malice Domestic.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Forgotten Book - Death on the Agenda

I'll shortly be attending that excellent convention, Malice Domestic, and one of the treats that lie in store will be the chance to talk to fellow writer Katherine Hall Page about the late Patricia Moyes, whose life and work are to be celebrated in the annual Malice Remembers slot. I have dutifully undertaken my preparation, which has included the enjoyable task of reading some books by Patricia Moyes that I'd missed in the past. One is Death on the Agenda, first published in 1962.

The setting is Geneva, a lovely city well evoked, and in particular an international conference about narcotics. Among the attendees is Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett, who is, as usual in Moyes' books, accompanied by his wife Emmy. The conference and the main characters are introduced in rather painstaking fashion, but this otherwise crisp story revs up when the Tibbetts visit a wealthy couple called Paul and Natasha Hampton. Natasha is having an affair with a man called John Trapp, and isn't being very discreet about it.

Henry has already been told that someone is leaking secrets from the conference when he discovers the body of young Trapp, who has been stabbed with a dagger taken from the Hamptons' home. Because very few other people seem to have had the opportunity to commit the crime, Henry soon becomes the improbable prime suspect. Naturally, he sets about trying to find the real culprit. Emmy aids and abets him, but their relationship comes under strain when Henry succumbs to the charms of a glamorous young woman who is working at the conference.

The whodunit mystery turns on a plot device similar to one which Dorothy L. Sayers complained about decades earlier, but I thought Moyes skated over thin ice rather skilfully -and let's face it, that's a knack that crime writers definitely need! Overall, the story is lively and entertaining, and makes for a quick and easy read. This was only Moyes' third book, and she was still finding her feet as a crime writer, but already her craftsmanship is very apparent. Her second husband was an accomplished linguist,, and evidently she gained her insight into the world of translators and of international business conferences while travelling with him. There's a cosmopolitan flavour about her books that makes them quite distinctive, even though they are most notable for their adept updating of the conventions of the traditional murder mystery.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Ted Lewis, the "Get Carter" man

This blog tends to focus rather more on whodunits and novels of psychological suspense than it does on gritty, violent thrillers, but there are plenty of books in the latter category that I enjoy. And one of the most interesting of all British writers of tough and rather dark thrillers was the late Ted Lewis. I'm therefore very pleased that his work is enjoying a renaissance, thanks to Soho Press.

Lewis is best known for Jack's Return Home, a very good book in itself, which was brilliantly filmed by Mike Hodges as Get Carter. Along with The Long Good Friday, and possibly Layer Cake, it's one of my favourite non-American thriller films of the "gritty" variety (I'm not sure I really like describing books as "gritty", but in a blog post, this rather tired and often misused and overused adjective is at least useful shorthand.) The novel is just being reissued by Soho Press, under the title Get Carter, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Lewis dies at the age of 42, after a colourful life which, like so many colourful lives, ended sadly and all too soon as a result of heavy drinking. The publicity material accompanying the Soho Press reissues includes an extract from an as yet unpublished biography of Lewis by Nick Triplow, which I found very interesting. I do hope it finds its way into print before long. Suffice to say that I've been told a bit about Lewis' life by a friend of his whom I know, and his account very much corroborates what Nick Triplow has to say.

Among Lewis' other books is Plender. I haven't read this one, but I did discuss the French film version, Le Serpent in my early days as a blogger. The other Soho Press titles coming out just now are GBH, Jack Carter's Law,and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon. I gather that GBH in particular is a notable book (written towards the end of Lewis's life, when his powers as a novelist had seemed to be in decline) and I look forward to reading it.  

Monday, 13 April 2015

More Crime Classics from the British Library

The British Library has just issued its catalogue for the second half of 2015, and it features half a dozen new Crime Classics,together with two Classic Thrillers. One of these books is an anthology that I've compiled, and I've contributed introductions to the other seven titles,so I cannot pretend to be impartial. That said, I'm very optimistic that fans of traditional mysteries and thrillers will find that at least one or two titles, if not more, whet their appetite.

Of the novels, I'd like to highlight Death of an Airman, which I've blogged about previously, and The Z Murders, by J. Jefferson Farjeon. They are both fascinatingly original. The Farjeon book is an early example of the serial killer mystery that I found extremely gripping. There are also two books written by Alan Melville in his younger days; he later become a well-known TV personality and humorist. His detective stories are light and witty, and have long been neglected.

Silent Nights is an anthology of Christmas mystery stories, the third of five collections that the British Library has commissioned me to compile. As usual, my aim has been to bring together a range of stories that show the very different ways in which inventive crime writers may tackle a particular theme. The contributors include Dorothy L. Sayers, but there are a couple of exceptionally obscure stories, including one by Farjeon that was kindly unearthed for me by Golden Age expert Monte Herridge when it emerged that not even the British Library had a copy. I've written an intro to the book, and also a piece preceding each story; my aim, however, has been to try to avoid repeating myself, so that there are items of fresh information even in relation to authors whom (as with Farjeon) have featured previously in the Crime Classics series.

Crime fans will be heartened to know that there's more to come from the British Library. Much,much more. This past week-end, I put the finishing touches to the fifth Classic Crimes anthology, and also completed two intros for excellent thrillers, as well as working on intros for two more rare and accomplished novels of psychological crime from the Thirties. And I gather that a deal may be in the offing that, if concluded, may lead to the publication of one of my all-time favourites. Can't wait...

Friday, 10 April 2015

Forgotten Book - A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith's A Suspension of Mercy was first published in 1965, at a time when she was, arguably, reaching the end of her peak period as a highly original crime novelist specialising in tense stand-alones, in which it's almost impossible to predict the fate that awaits the protagonist. Later, much of her innovative work came in her short stories. But A Suspension of Mercy is a strong book, which I first enjoyed thirty years ago, and relished just as much on a second reading.

It's unusual, for Highsmith, on two counts. First, it's set in Britain - and I must say that she writes well about British life, just as she wrote well about the people and communities in a range of European countries. This novel is one that she wrote while living in  Suffolk, and the setting has an authentic flavour. Second, her protagonist is a crime writer. Sydney Bartleby is a novelist who fancies himself as a TV screenwriter, working in collaboration with a friend. Some of the storylines for his scripts are hugely entertaining; I am sure Highsmith had a lot of fun coming up with the ideas.

Sydney is married to a British woman. Alicia is young and attractive, but their relationship is heading for a crisis. Sydney fantasises about killing Alicia, and starts to behave erratically. His unwisdom becomes painfully apparent when Alicia leaves home without a trace. Has he killed her? The locals start to gossip, and the police take an interest...

This is a classically suspenseful Highsmithian situation. Sydney, like so many other Highsmith protagonists, behaves self-destructively, but his folly is less irritating than that of one or two of her other characters (Walter in The Blunderer springs to mind) because of the stylish, and ironic writing. Nor is there the sense, as there is in some books, that the situation is being dragged out beyond its natural span. The last phrase in the book is "everything was a matter of attitude", and this theme is cleverly conveyed by the storyline. A Suspension of Mercy is, I think, an under-rated Highsmith, and I really enjoyed it all over again.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Golden Age of Murder - the first reviews

I mentioned last week the trepidation with which one awaits the first reviews of a new book. Well, I'm delighted to report that The Golden Age of Murder has got off to a grand start pre-publication, with a very gratifying "starred" review in Publishers' Weekly, and some lovely comments in Kirkus Reviews. Needless to say, I'm not above quoting some of the good bits...

“A comprehensive and well-written narrative that combines biography with literary criticism... Along the way, he dispels numerous myths about Golden Age detective fiction: for example, that it was ‘an essentially British form of escapism... an effete counterpart to the tough and realistic crime fiction produced in the United States’...The trenchant analysis is coupled with revelations about the private lives of these very public authors, offering new information for casual fans and students of the genre alike.”

Over to Kirkus“As Edwards writes, with a suitably enticing hook, 'Why was Christie haunted by the drowning of the man who adapted her work for the stage? What convinced Sayers of the innocence of a man convicted of battering his wife to death with a poker?' Having set up a fleet of questions, Edwards proceeds to answer them with murder-laced aplomb. He has a nicely naughty sense of humor about it, too, for the well-heeled Detection Club members often poked into business that was more than a little infra dig..Yet, when the tale turns tragic—not just because of awful crimes, but also because of sad developments in the lives of Sayers and other members—Edwards writes appropriately and well."

I'm naturally very happy with these comments,. and the overarching point made by Kirkus: "Engrossing...leaves the reader wanting more." My aim has been to write a book that will do more than merely preach to the converted, and will appeal to as wide a readership as possible, sharing the pleasures of Golden Age fiction with a new group of readers as well as fellow devotees. You can't please everyone, and of course not everyone will agree with my opinions. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed for more positive reaction when the book finally appears.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Dean Street Press

Last year, I was contacted by Rupert Heath, who is a well-known literary agent. His clients include such bright stars in the firmament as A.K. Benedict, a guest blogger here a while back. Rupert explained that he was setting up Dean Street Press - a new publishing company that aimed to revive a host of worthy books from the past, including some recent titles -and we have kept in touch since then. Now, I'm glad to say, Rupert's plans have come to fruition..

I'm especially pleased that DSP is making available once again the books of Tim Heald. They will be in ebook format, and this is good news for those of us who enjoyed Tim's novels about Simon Bognor when they first appeared, as well as for those yet to encounter them. It's easy to forget now, but the books were such a success that they reached the TV screens, with David Horovitch in the title role. In all, 21 episodes were screened.

By a happy coincidence, I was with Tim and his wife just over a week ago, at the CWA conference in Lincoln. The last time we met was at the most bizarre book event either he or I have ever attended - the unforgettable Kidwelly Festival - the photo was taken as we recovered over a drink, back at the hotel. Tim has not enjoyed the best of health in recent times, but I'm sure that the return of Bognor will give him a real boost. And DSP will at a later date be reissuing his Tudor Cornwall novels, and also his cricket books.

In the meantime, DSP have already brought out Stella Bingham's book Charters and Caldicott. These were the wonderful characters created for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. Oddly, they didn't appear in the source novel for the film, Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins. The Bingham book dates back thirty years, to the time of the TV spin-off series featuring the two men.

Going further back in time, DSP have also published ebook versions of two crime novels which were put out originally under the name of George Sanders, although I understand that the ghost writers were Craig Rice and Leigh Brackett respectively.The titles are Crime on My Hands and Stranger at Home,and I'm looking forward to reading them.

The good news doesn't end there. I'm delighted to see that DSP are planning to issue several Golden Age mysteries, and although the majority of these are likely to be in ebook only format, there will also be print editions of two early novels by Ianthe Jerrold; these titles will also include intros by Curtis Evans. Jerrold, a founder member of the Detection Club, only published books sporadically throughout her long career, occasionally under the pen-name Geraldine Bridgeman, and she faded from view long, long ago. .

And there's more to come from DSP at a later date. There will be a number of books by E.R. Punshon, featuring Bobby Owen, and it will be splendid to see more of his work readily available again (Ramble House in the US have done sterling work in producing paperback editions of a few Punshon titles, but he was much more prolific than Jerrold.) Two other authors to be featured by DSP, Annie Haynes and Harriet Rutland, are even less well known than Jerrold - they weren't even particularly renowned in their day. I know little about Haynes, but Rutland was a writer who impressed Dorothy L. Sayers..

All this is a reminder that new publishing methods are unlocking a host of long-neglected crime novels. Yes, we are overwhelmed with choice, and no, we can't read every book. But it's wonderful to have the opportunity to pick out titles we like the look of - a luxury denied to previous generations where the books in question were out of print. I'll be blogging about some of the other publishing newcomers before long, but in the meantime, I am delighted by Rupert's initiative.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Forgotten Book - Further Evidence

Alan Brock is a Golden Age author who has long been forgotten. I think he deserves fresh attention, and I'm delving into his life and work at the moment. My Forgotten Book today is Further Evidence, which was first published in 1934, and earned enough acclaim to be paperbacked, in the days when many good novels never made it into paper covers. Dorothy L. Sayers heaped praise on the book in a review for the Sunday Times, and that can have done it no harm at all.

Brock's specialism was real life crime. He wrote non-fiction about crime investigation, and several of his books were based on actual cases. In a prefatory note to Further Evidence, he says that the plot was influenced by more than one murder trial of the previous forty or fifty years. I'm not absolutely sure which cases he's referring to. The Crippen case is an outside possibility, but the events there were very different from those in the book.

The story, soberly told, concerns the relationship between Robert Savage and Ethel Drew. Savage is married to a  nice woman, but falls for attractive, flirty Ethel. Local gossip about them provokes an incident which sees him losing his job. He ends up working for his unpleasant, sanctimonious brother, but he can't get over Ethel. The narrative is rather doom-laden, and it's clear that Something Bad is going to happen. And so it does....

I enjoyed this story. I don't claim that Brock was a masterly prose stylist, but he builds the tension pretty well, and I am certainly looking forward to reading more of his work. My main criticism of the book is the ending, which is anti-climactic, and a weak point (Sayers too had reservations about it.) According to Al Hubin's indispensable bibliography,Brock was born in 1886 and published nine crime novels under his own name, plus one as Peter Dewdney. My understanding is that he is the Alan St Hill Brock who was an expert on pyrotechnics, and a member of the Brock family famous for fireworks over many generations; their company is still going strong today..

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Len Deighton and The Golden Age of Murder

When you write a book that you care about (and why write a book that you don't care about?), it's natural to wonder about how it will be received. Because I've devoted so many years to researching as well as writing, The Golden Age of Murder, and also, if this doesn't sound too pretentious, invested a great deal of emotional energy and passion for the genre's traditions in the book, I'm probably as much on tenterhooks about its reception as I've been for any of my novels, even including the first,

I have, though, received both help and comfort from a number of wise people who read drafts of the book at different stages (and this is a book that has been much revised over the long years when it was a work-in-progress). They were all people I trusted to be supportive yet honest with me about the book, and I'll say more about their invaluable input on another occasion, but they include both fellow novelists and leading experts on Golden Age fiction. They all expressed enthusiasm for the versions they saw, and this gave me enormous encouragement.

But still, one wonders how people one doesn't know will respond!  Will they be equally forbearing? This was put to the test late last year, when my publishers, Harper Collins, decided to invite a leading writer to read the book, and express an opinion. The distinguished author in question was the legendary Len Deighton, someone I once said hello to at a dinner twenty years ago, but whom otherwise I didn't know. Len has lived abroad for many years, and although I've been a fan of his books since discovering them in my teens, we had never corresponded.

To my delight, Len not only agreed to read the book, but devoured it very quickly (and it is a very long book, so this in itself was quite something!) He even supplied me with a wonderful story about his early encounters with Agatha Christie, which amused me greatly. On request, he allowed me to include it in an end note.

Len has been one of the world's most respected writers of popular fiction for decades, but he is not someone who is often quoted in relation to other books, and this makes the comments he made even more precious to me. This is what he had to say:

"You don't have to be a fan of 'whodunits'  to enjoy this amazing story of their creators and their works. Here you will meet the Detection Club; a still existent and somewhat incongruous band of writers. Elected by secret ballot, their lives were seemingly stranger than fiction. I admire the way that Martin Edwards weaves the sometimes violent, sometimes unlawful, and always gripping, true stories of these writers with the equally wild tales they tell in their books.

Edwards is widely read and authoritative in his analysis. He probes the psychology of writers and dissects their plots. He provides true murder cases that inspired Christie books and Hitchcock' films. Best of all, he provides a new way of looking at old favourites. I found Martin Edwards' 'The Golden Age of Murder'  illuminating and entertaining; what writer could hope for more?" 

I must admit that I love that phrase "a new way of looking at old favourites". Suffice to say that Len has hit on precisely what I have tried to achieve with The Golden Age of Murder.