Friday, 22 September 2017

Forgotten Books - The Pyx

John Buell was a Canadian academic and, it seems, quite a retiring person, who combined his day job with writing. He was far from prolific, but his work earned plenty of praise in its day. I came across mention of his debut novel The Pyx, first published in 1959, and thought it sounded interesting, so I picked up a copy - and I'm glad I did.

The premise is familiar. A young woman falls to her death from a tall building. Accident, suicide or murder? It is, of course, the same initial scenario as we find in Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling - and plenty of other books. But the material is handled with great assurance considering that the author was making his debut as a novelist. Buell wrote taut and gripping prose, and told an interesting story well.

His method is to alternate between events in the present, when Detective Henderson tries to find out what led to the death of young and beautiful Elizabeth Lucy, and events in the days leading up to her untimely demise. Elizabeth was a prostitute, addicted to heroine, and effectively a captive, at the beck and call of Meg Latimer. But Meg herself is at the mercy of ruthless men. Both women are victims.

It's a short, snappy book, and given added depth and interest by religious imagery and plot elements. Catholicism plays a central part in the story. I found this book a good,read. The mood is bleak throughout, but that didn't stop my admiring Buell's laconic style and occasional touches of wry humour. The book was adapted into a film in the 70s, starring Christopher Plummer and Karen Black. Reviews suggest that the movie isn't anything like as good as the book.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Delavine Affair - film review

The Delavine Affair is a snappy B movie from 1954 (some sources say 1955) which was based on a story called Winter Wears a Shroud, written by Robert Chapman. I've not been able to find out anything much about Chapman or the original story, but the film is a competent mystery which, like so many crime films of that era, featured some very good actors as well as the occasional rather wooden lead.

The lead in this case is Peter Reynolds, who hailed from Wilmslow, and sadly died young. Here he plays a newspaper agency man called Banner who is contacted by a hellfire preacher called Gospel Joe. But when he goes to see Joe, he finds him dead. The police turn up, having been tipped off that Joe has been mrudered, and our hero becomes the prime suspect.

He has the good fortune to be married to Honor Blackman, but she thinks he spends too much time at work, and has taken up with an admirer played by Gordon Jackson.  Banner discovers that there appears to be a connection between Joe's death and a robbery - the as yet unsolved Delavine jewel theft - which took place some time back.

Banner's investigations bring him into contact with a mixed bag of characters, played by Michael Balfour and Katie (The Ladykillers) Johnson. There are a number of pleasing plot twists, and overall this is a decent crime film, unpretentious but perfectly competent. I'd be interested to know more about Winter Wears a Shroud, if any readers of this blog are familiar with it.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Scarlet Web - 1954 movie review

The Scarlet Web is a black and white British B-movie first screened in 1954, and it's a film with a number of interesting elements in its storyline - the script was written by Doreen Montgomery. It opens with quite a novel situation. A young and attractive blonde woman (Zena Marshall) parks outside a prison. Among the prisoners released for freedom is Griffith Jones. She offers him a lift - and a proposition. Will this man with a criminal past help her and her husband, a man called Dexter, to recover a compromising document?

Unfortunately, she's made a poor choice. Jones' character isn't actually a hardened criminal at all. he's an insurance investigator who has spent the past couple of months  inside on behalf of his employers, trying to find out vital information from another prisoner.  He goes along with the plan out of curiosity. But things go pear-shaped when he's drugged by his new friend, and framed for the murder of a woman who proves to be the real Mrs Dexter.

Aided and abetted by a colleague in the insurance firm (Hazel Court), our hero tries to establish his innocence and also to figure out exactly what is going on. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Dexter has a girlfriend, and that they have conspired to murder his wife for the insurance money, but proving the truth is far from easy.

This is a lively, unpretentious little film, and the appearance of those reliable supporting actors Ronnie Stevens and Michael Balfour in cameo roles is a bonus. Jones is a rather wooden hero, but the two female leads make more of an impression. Our hero soon falls for Hazel Court, and the outcome is predictable, but overall the film offers likeable light entertainment. .

Friday, 15 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Murder Mars the Tour




My Forgotten Book today is Murder Mars the Tour, the debut novel of Mary Fitt, published in 1936. Fitt was an interesting writer, and I'm sure she was an interesting person, too. In real life she was an eminent classicist called Kathleen Freeman (1897-1959), an academic with a specialism in Greek whose first book, The Work and Life of Solon, included translated poems.

She wrote a number of scholarly articles and mainstream novels before adopting the Fitt name, and turning to crime fiction with this book. Presumably it was well received, and she proceeded to write a run of detective stories which often had something out of the ordinary about them. They weren't always successful - I'm afraid I found her last book, Mizmaze, dire - but they were often interesting, and she was well-regarded enough to earn election to the Detection Club in the early Fifties.

Murder Mars the Tour is a likeable book. As a mystery, it's slightly unorthodox, and the whodunit plot is scarcely in the Agatha Christie league. Even so, it kept me engaged from start to finish. It's narrated by a chap whose brother encourages him to go on a walking tour in Europe with a motley group of individuals who belong to the same club. During the holiday, they come across a woman whom the brother had been involved with. When a murder occurs, the plot (not before time, it must be said) begins to thicken.

The narrative voice, intelligent and rather prissy, is distinctive, and although the puzzle is nothing special, the writing is certainly proficient. I liked the atmospheric way in which the tour was described, though I was intrigued that.there was no real mention of the political difficulties that were convulsing Europe at the time. I assume that Fitt went on a tour of the kind she describes, and decided that it would make a good setting for a mystery novel. If so, she was right. I'm not suggesting that this book is a lost masterpiece; it isn't. But it did entertain me.  .

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Marilyn - 1953 film, aka Roadhouse Girl

There are several surprising things about the shortish 1953 British film Marilyn (renamed Roadhouse Girl in the US). For a start, it's a film noir in the tradition of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but quite distinctive. And I was very taken with the fact that it was based on a play (later televised) called Marion, written by Peter Jones - the same Peter Jones who became a very well known actor in later years.

The story begins with a young man, down on his luck, taking a job as a garage hand, the garage owner being a grumpy older man played by Leslie Dwyer (best known as the Punch and Judy man in Hi-De-Hi). When we learn that the old guy is married to a pretty but discontented young blonde woman (Sandra Dorne), we rather suspect that the marriage will come under strain. An added complication is that there's a housemaid called Rosie who idolises the younger woman, and is desperate for her affection.

Before long, the inevitable happens, and the old guy is killed. An inquest rules the death to be an accident. So far so good? Well, as ever in these stories when a naive chap is ensnared by a blonde femme fatale, things don't go according to plan. The femme fatale here is selfish and not very bright rather than sophisticated in her calculations, and her lover is rather less sophisticated than, say, the doomed lovers in Double Indemnity and Body Heat.

The story zips along entertainingly from start to finish. The moral standards of the time meant that the lesbian sub-text, which might have added a bit of depth, is only hinted at, and the quality of the acting, like the script, is competent rather than dazzling. All the same, I enjoyed it.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Malice Aforethought - BBC TV - 1979


Image result for hywel bennett malice aforethought



I was sorry to learn recently of the death of Hywel Bennett. I've mentioned him several times on this blog, and I always felt that he was a first-class actor, perhaps under-rated simply because in youth he was very good-looking. But he had tremendous range, and was equally good in Twisted Nerve and in Agatha Christie's Endless Night. He was also successful in comedy. But my favourite performance as his was his portrayal of Dr Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought.

I first watched that four-parter when it was screened originally in 1979. I was impressed then, and watching it again, in a grainy version on Youtube (there doesn't seem to be a DVD) I was equally impressed. Of course, it's a very fine story, which made the name of Francis Iles famous, even though nobody knew he was really Anthony Berkeley Cox, already a leading detective novelist. But Philip Mackie deserves much credit for an excellent screenplay which captures the essence of the book.

Mackie was an excellent television writer, whose other credits included The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and Praying Mantis. I've often wished I could see the latter again; it's a gripping psychological chiller, - what a shame that it, too, isn't available on DVD. Mackie also wrote successful crime plays, but I've not seen them. His writing gave Bennett the chance to present Bickleigh ia a three-dimensional way. He's not a likeable man, the doctor, but his capacity for self-deception is quite fascinating.

The cast is excellent. Judy Parfitt plays the disagreeable Mrs Bickleigh, while Cheryl Campbell is the woman the doctor becomes obsessed with, and Harold Innocent is the vicar. I'd forgotten that the inspector was played by James Grout, who went on to become Superintendent Strange, John Thaw's boss in Inspector Morse; this role was almost a rehearsal for the later part. Overall, an excellent show, and a reminder of Bennett's charisma, even when playing someone unattractive.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Night Exercise

The story of the Home Guard is truly fascinating, and it's why - in addition to great writing and superb acting - Dad's Army became such an enduringly popular sitcom. The notion of ordinary people, not able to take part in active military service for whatever reasons, banding together to defend Britain against a feared and formidable invading force, is intensely appealing. The story of the Home Guard tells us a lot about human nature.

My father was in the Home Guard. He was a young man when the Second World War began, but he wasn't able to follow his older brother into the Services because he had a "reserved occupation" as a draughtsman, and became involved in work on the Mulberry Harbours. When I was small, he told me a lot of funny stories about his time in the Home Guard, and I'm sorry that I can't remember them. He had a gift for storytelling, and I wish he'd applied it to writing fiction, but he didn't think that writers were people like us. When the first episode of Dad's Army was shown, naturally we watched it, and became instantly hooked. He was a big fan of the show, though in his sardonic way, he suggested that the reality was even crazier than the fiction.

All this explains why I was delighted when Seona Ford presented me with a copy of Night Exercise, a 1942 novel by John Rhode, which centres around Home Guard activity in a rural community. The book was called Dead of Night in the US; perhaps the American publishers feared that readers would get the wrong idea of what the book was about. The first part of the book, in fact, gives a detailed (and, by Rhode's standards, absolutely gripping) account of a Home Guard exercise overseen by a Major Ledbury. The detail is very convincing, and I feel sure Rhode must have based it on Home Guard activities he was involved with; Ledbury seems rather like a self-portrait.

Ledbury is plagued by a visiting senior officer, Chalgrove, who is so obnoxious that it is soon clear that he is destined to be murdered. And he does go missing after the exercise - but what, in fact, has really happened to him? Is he dead, or has he vanished for reasons of his own? This is an unusual Rhode book in that Dr Priestley doesn't appear. And indeed, the detective element of the story is pretty slight. If you're after an elaborate whodunit, you'd better look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a highly credible, contemporary snapshot of life in the Home Guard at a time when British people were at risk of conquest by the Nazis, you couldn't do much better than read this one.


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Defence of the Realm - 1986 film review

I missed Defence of the Realm on its original release, just over 30 years ago, and I've only just caught up with it. The film is a conspiracy thriller, well-written and acted, with a truly excellent cast. As I've mentioned before, I'm very interested in the art of structuring a thriller - the sort of thing that Lee Child does with apparently effortless ease - and the narrative here is enticingly contrived.

The action begins with two young tearaways, about whom we know nothing, being pursued in their (perhaps stolen) car. It seems they are about to be apprehended when the action switches to a classic newspaper "sting". A journalist is tipped off that a leading Labour MP is to be found in compromising circumstances rather reminiscent of the Profumo Scandal. The MP (played by Ian Bannen) resigns, and that seems to be that.

But the focus then switches to a team of investigative journalists. Hard-drinking Denholm Elliott plays Bayliss, an old chum of the MP; also working on the story is Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) who suspects that there's something fishy about the MP's exposure. His suspicions become more acute when Bayliss is found dead. Is it possible that he has been silenced? If so, by whom, and why?

Although the conspiracy deals with issues current in the mid-80s, this film is much less dated than one might expect. This is because the story, even in its more routine phases, benefits from very convincing performances, especially from everyone involved at the paper - including Fulton McKay, Frederick Treves, and Bill Paterson. Greta Scacchi also plays a key part in the unravelling of the mystery, and the dramatic conclusion. A fast-moving thriller, not exactly original, but well done.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Fifty Years of The Prisoner


The Prisoner is fifty years old. In television terms, that is very old. And yet somehow it retains its power to entrance, entertain, and - sometimes - to irritate. It's an eccentric, almost uncategorisable series, one that surely could only have been conceived and made in the 1960s, that decade of extraordinary creativity and innovation.

I am old enough to have watched the very first episode, the first time it was screened. And I can therefore remember the general astonishment created by the series. To understand this, one has to know the background. Patrick McGoohan, the star of the show, was already a big name. He'd played John Drake in the highly successful series Danger Man and was often talked of as a "natural" for the role of James Bond.

I know I watched and enjoyed Danger Man as a very small boy, but I can't remember any of the stories. I think it was a conventional thriller series about a secret agent. But I suppose I was expecting The Prisoner to be a sort of variation on Danger Man, and probably everyone else was. Instead we found ourselves watching a weird show in which McGoohan becomes trapped in a strange village, where he desperately tries to find out what is going on. It was all very odd. But it made for mesmeric viewing.

Part of the pleasure, for me, came (and still comes) from knowing the village from personal experience. In real life it's Portmeirion, a fantastic resort on a sheltered Welsh coastline that I've visited a good many times, and I always find it delightful. They make a great deal of the connection with The Prisoner, and for good reason. Although it infuriated the critics back in the 60s, it became a cult success, and has remained so ever since. Long may its mysteries continue to tantalise!


Saturday, 2 September 2017

Some Lovers at The Other Palace - review


Image result for some lovers bacharach

It doesn't seem that long ago to me, but in fact it's 21 years since my agent Mandy and I went to see a London revival of the musical Promises, Promises! at the fascinating Bridewell theatre. I knew the soundtrack very well, but was intrigued finally to see the show in performance, and really enjoyed it. And the outcome was a scene in The Devil in Disguise, with the theatre transferred to Liverpool and given a fresh guise. Suffice to say that in the book, Harry Devlin loved the show as much as I did.

This week I went back to London to watch another musical, Some Lovers, at the Other Palace (so named because it's very close to Buckingham Palace - great location and a very appealing venue). The show was on a very short run, as part of a festival of new music. And I found it irresistible because it's the first musical Burt Bacharach has written since 1968, when Promises, Promises! was a big hit on Broadway and in the West End. Promises, Promises! had lyrics by the great Hal David, and a book by the very witty Neil Simon. I once went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice explained how much they were influenced by that show. I don't suppose Some Lovers will prove quite as influential, but you never know.

What I do know is that I had a great time. The venue was very intimate, and on the front row, we were within arm's reach of the performers. The four cast members play two people. The book adapts O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi", and presents a couple when their relationship begins and then, twenty years later, after it has fallen apart. Yes, they are older - but are they any wiser?

The lyrics and book are by Steven Sater, best known for Spring Awakening. He was in the bar at the start of the show and I was glad of the chance to have a brief chat with him/.I thought the four performers did a good job, and I enjoyed listening to so many new songs by the great man, who is still writing terrific music. Some of the songs have already been recorded or tried out in live performance. For example, here is Rumer singing Some Lovers, and Karima singing Just Walk Away. The Italian version of Every Other Hour has already been a success for Karima and Mario Biondi. Among other excellent tracks, I'd single out  the terrific Welcome to My World, which was the highlight for me of a very enjoyable night. Will Some Lovers find its way into another mystery novel one day? Don't bet against it!

Friday, 1 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Inspector French's Greatest Case



Freeman Wills Crofts published Inspector French's Greatest Case in 1924. It was his fifth book in five years. Already he'd enjoyed considerable success, especially with his best-selling debut, The Cask, and he hadn't troubled to create a series character. The title of this novel suggests that he didn't contemplate that Inspector French would be anything other than a one-trick pony. But things often don't work out as authors expect. In fact, French became a popular detective and Crofts continued to write about him to the end of his life, more than 30 years later.

The opening of the story is relatively conventional - it even reminded me, very distantly, of Gaboriau's The Blackmailers. A firm of diamond merchants is robbed, and a man named Gething is killed by whoever was responsible. Inspector Joseph French of the Yard is called in, but at first his determined inquiries get nowhere.

French, however, is made of stern stuff. He's known as "Soapy Joe" at the Yard, in reference to his habit of charming witnesses and suspect into telling him what he needs to know. We get a few insights into his domestic life - in moments of difficulty, he confides in his wife  Emily, who comes up with suggestions about how to tackle some of the puzzles he confronts. We also learn, in a gruff moment, that he lost his eldest son in the war. This is a book, like many others of the Golden Age, in which the shadow of the conflict looms, even though years had passed since the Armistice.

The plot is convoluted, and the planning of the crime turns out to have been as meticulous as French's investigation of it. French manages to pack in quite a lot of overseas travel, and Crofts' handling of the travelogue-type scenes suggest he was a seasoned and enthusiastic traveller. I very much enjoyed this book, and I'm glad that its recent reissue in paperback makes it widely available once again.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Return of Notable British Trials

Regular readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for true crime cases, and books about them. It's this interest that fuelled my novel Dancing for the Hangman, my non-fiction book Urge to Kill, and my CWA anthology Truly Criminal. And I've enjoyed many fascinating conversations with criminologists - only the other day I had a very pleasant lunch with someone who did ground-breaking research on the legendary Wallace case, and who turns out to live just a few miles away.

Given all that, I was naturally delighted to learn from Kate Clarke that the Notable British Trials series of books is to enjoy a new lease of life, after a hiatus lasting more than half a century. This is, I imagine, another spin-off of changes within the publishing industry, and the economics of publishing, and very welcome it is. The new publishers, taking a licence from the rights owners, are Mango Books, evidently a young and forward- looking company.

Adam Wood, who runs Mango, told me: "One of the intriguing parts of identifying cases which should be added to the NBT series is whether a transcript of the trial is available. We prepared a list of cases which were obvious omissions in the original series, but on further investigation realised that none existed in the obvious places and that's probably why William Hodge didn't include them. Thankfully, with the British Newspaper Archives now available online, we are able to access contemporary newspaper reports of trials, many of which are very detailed. This means we're able to piece together a trial without a formal transcript, or at least a complete one. It's been a lot of fun walking in the footsteps of the likes of William Roughead and W. Teignmouth Shore."

The first title in the series will be The Trial of Israel Lipski, to be edited by experienced true crime writer M.W. Oldridge. Two more forthcoming titles will feature a pair of railway-related mysteries - more "blood on the tracks"! I've read a number of the original books in the series, and found them very helpful with a range of projects, as well as fascinating in their own right. So I'm certainly awaiting the publication of the new titles with eager anticipation. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling - BBC TV review

Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling, screened last night, opened a new seven-part private eye series based on the books of Robert Galbraith. As all the world now knows, Galbraith is a pen-name, and it conceals the identity of J. K. Rowling. But the secret was kept, not only until publication day, but for weeks thereafter, until an incautious leak revealed the truth.

Rowling has long been a detective fiction fan, and she's been quoted expressing admiration for predecessors such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. And there are plenty of parallels between her hero, Cormoran Strike, and Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey - and not just the fact they both have odd names. Both are sons of the rich, both attended Oxford, both have fought in war, and suffered because of it. Wimsey was shell-shocked; Strike lost his leg in Afghanistan.

The cleverness of this BBC version of Rowling's first novel, lies in the casting of Tom Burke as Strike. He captures the character superbly, on the evidence of this first episode, just the right mix of scruffiness and that dogged determination displayed by all the best detectives. There was a classic scene in this episode, when a suave lawyer (the always dependable Martin Shaw) tries to warn Strike off. We've seen this kind of thing a thousand times before, but these two actors handled the situation in compelling fashion.

When I read the book, I thought that it was enjoyable but over-long, and the early signs are that the discipline of TV adaptation will be good for it. The mystery concerns the apparent suicide of a supermodel, and the scenario of a supposed suicide that may just be murder is again very familiar to fans of the genre. But Burke, and Holliday Grainger, who plays his newly arrived assistant, make a very likeable team, and I'm looking forward to episode two.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Forgotten Book - The Conjure-Man Dies



The Detective Story Club imprint has, since its welcome recent revival by Harper Collins, seen some fascinating titles come back to life. I've enjoyed my own involvement, writing intros for books by authors as diverse as Hugh Conway, Edgar Wallace, and E.C. Bentley, and I've enjoyed equally reading some books that are entirely new to me, by authors such as Vernon Loder.

A particular example is The Conjure-Man Dies, sub-titled "A Harlem Mystery". The author is Rudolph Fisher, and there is an excellent intro by that very fine writer Stanley Ellin, who is perhaps best remembered for his brilliant short stories, although he was no mean novelist. As he says, the book is "highly readable, wholly entertaining."

The book was, as far as is known, the first detective novel written by an African-American. His name was Rudolph Fisher, and he had previously one mainstream novel. By profession, he was a doctor, and his interest in the potential of science as an aid to detection is very much in tune with the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and Richard Austin Freeman in Britain. The reason that, despite his considerable gifts as a writer, his name has been more or less forgotten, is that he died all too young. He was born in 1897, this book appeared in 1932, and he died in 1934. Very sad.

The story is a good one, dealing with the death, in exotic and highly mystifying circumstances, of Frimbo, a "psychist". The official detective, Perry Dart, is assisted by John Archer, a doctor, in a pleasing variation on the Holmes-Watson partnership: both are good characters. This edition carries an extremely welcome bonus, a short story called "John Archer's Nose" which was published just after Fisher's death. As Ellin says, this novel offers not merely a good mystery puzzle but also a fascinating social document. Recommended.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Every Secret Thing - 2015 film review

Laura Lippman is a crime writer of the highest calibre, and so I watched the recent film version of Every Secret Thing, based on her book of the same name, with great interest. I expected a strong story, and I wasn't disappointed. There aren't many major characters, but a clever storyline springs a series of surprises that help to reveal crucial elements of the protagonists' personalities.

The present day story links in with a crime in the past - the abduction and killing of a baby by two young girls. Those girls, Ronnie and Alice, are convicted, and eventually released, and the focus is on how their past actions continue to affect their lives, and the lives of those around them. There's a similarity here with the concept of Alex Marwood's enjoyable novel Wicked Girls, but the two stories are very different, though equally compelling.

When a young girl goes missing in the neighbourhood where both Ronnie and Alice are based, the police are immediately suspicious. Elizabeth Banks is very good as the cop with a personal stake in the case, while Diane Lane gives a subtle performance as Alice's mother. At first we regard her as loving and kind, but the complexity of her attitudes towards the two girls become increasingly apparent.

As Ronnie and Alice, Dakota Fanning and (especially) Diane Macdonald are very well cast. Ronnie's background is apparently less privileged than Alice's, but in reality, both of them are damaged people. I've seen some fairly negative reviews of this film, but as the truth is gradually revealed, I found myself increasingly impressed. It is a relatively short film, and its psychological intensity makes it, in my opinion, both watchable and thought-provoking.


Payroll - 1961 film review

I was urged to watch Payroll by book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, and what a good recommendation it turned out to be. Filmed around Newcastle and Gateshead, and released in 1961, it anticipates Get Carter, a much more renowned gangster movie set in the north east, but makes compelling viewing. Part of this is due to an excellent script by George Baxt, based on a book by Derek Bickerton, and part to excellent acting from a cast that includes Billie Whitelaw, Kenneth Griffiths, Michael Craig, Tom Bell, and Glyn Houston.

It's a heist movie, as the title implies (the film's alternative title, I Promise to Pay, doesn't make much sense to me). A large business changes its payroll security arrangements, much to the dismay of a gang of robbers, led by Craig and including the menacing Bell in an early role as well as the flaky Griffiths. They have persuaded the firm's accountant, played by William Lucas, to help them - his' motive is to earn more money so as to keep his beautiful but demanding foreign wife (played, very well, by Francoise Prevost) happy. The new security system seems invincible, but Craig is determined to go on with his plan.

The result is tragic - in the raid on an armoured van, one member of the security team loses his life. His widow, played by Whitelaw with her customary intensity, determines to avenge him. Meanwhile, the robbers have lost one of their own men, and they soon begin to fall out among themselves. Further complications arise when Craig starts to take an interest in Prevost, whose role in the story proves to be pivotal.

The story is gripping, but the script also has depth, and the characterisation is subtler than I'd expected. Bell and Griffiths come to a very sticky end, quite literally, and the final scenes involving Craig and Prevost make for a suitably dramatic conclusion. I really enjoyed this one. The black and white location shots are highly atmospheric, and all in all, Id' say it's a hidden gem. Strongly recommended.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Blood on the Tracks


I'm delighted to announce that I have been compiling an anthology of railway mysteries for the British Library. My work is now more or less completed, and the book will be published in the first half of next year. The title? Blood on the Tracks.

Trains and rail travel make a great setting for a mystery, and there are countless examples, ranging from Murder on the Orient Express to The Girl on the Train (to say nothing of Sleeping Car to Trieste, which I reviewed here last week.) And short train mysteries are also great fun - example that have been included in previous BL anthologies include "Beware of the Trains" by Edmund Crispin, in Miraculous Mysteries, and John Oxenham's "A Mystery of the Underground" in Capital Crimes.

I've even been responsible for one train story myself - "Bad Friday", included in the recent American anthology Busted!, a collection of law enforcement mysteries published by Level Best. That one was inspired by a train journey I took in real life, and last week I sought further inspiration by taking time out for a trip on one of Britain's best preserved railways, the Severn Valley line.

Stopping overnight in Shropshire enabled us to make the most of the day, starting the journey from Bridgnorth and travelling all the way to Kidderminster, before halting on the way back for a look round Bewdley, a pleasant Worcestershire town I've never visited before, which has an excellent free museum. The line tracks the Severn, and it really did make for a pleasant day out, rounded off by another, albeit very short rail trip - on Bridgnorth's Cliff Railway (shades of John Rowland!) All great fun, and nobody got murdered, either.


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Sleeping Car to Trieste - 1948 film review

Sleeping Car to Trieste, first screened in the aftermath of the Second World War, when international tensions were still running high, is a remake of a film called Rome Express, written by Clifford Grey, which I haven't seen. But it has a real freshness even now, and I found it very entertaining indeed, even if it didn't give viewers much of a picture of Trieste itself, since all the action is done and dusted by the time the train gets there!

The story begins with a robbery and a shooting. A diary is stolen from an unidentified embassy in Paris; the thief is in cahoots with a woman (Jean Kent) who fears that the diary, if it falls into the wrong hands, will lead to revolution. Unfortunately, the pair have opted to conspire with a villain (played by Alan Wheatley, better known as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood) who proceeds to run off with it, and take the train to Trieste. They follow him, but find it difficult to figure out which compartment he's staying in.

The strength of the screenplay by Allan Mackinnon lies in the clever use of a range of characters on board the train who each play a part in an increasingly convoluted storyline. The diary is a Macguffin in the finest Hitchcockian tradition. The guy who has taken the diary hides it, only to be forced to move out of his compartment. A lawyer who is on the train with his girlfriend finds himself mixed up in it all, and the tension mounts before, eventually, murder is done.

There are plenty of nice comic touches, and John Paddy Carstairs' direction reminded me of Hitchcock's. He keeps the action going, and the use of comic minor chatacters, such as the lawyer's tedious and thick-skinned old friend (David Tomlinson) and the long-suffering secretary (Hugh Burden) of a vain and selfish author (Finlay Currie). So it's a good cast, and an even better story. Most enjoyable.


Monday, 14 August 2017

The Long Arm of the Law


We tend to associate classic crime fiction with amateur sleuths, Wimsey, Sheringham, Marple, and company. In reality, though, police stories abounded during the first half of the twentieth century. The "police procedural" may be thought of as a concept of the Fifities onwards, but Freeman Wills Crofts and others were writing books about meticulous police investigations long before the days of Lawrence Treat, Ed McBain, and Maurice Proctor.

Classic police stories are celebrated in my latest anthology in the British Library's Crime Classics series. The Long Arm of the Law charts the development of the police story over more than half a century. The first entry is a very obscure one, "The Mystery of Chernholt" by Alice and Claude Askew. And we come right up to the (relatively) modern era with Sergeant Cluff featuring in "The Moorlanders" by Gil North.

I really enjoyed putting this book together. It is, believe it or not, the third of my anthologies that the British Library have published this year alone - and there's one more still to come! - and I like to think that this reflects an increasing interest in short crime fiction. Books of this kind, though I say it myself are a great way of discovering new writers and new detective characters. Anthologies are always a mixed bag, and I do aim for quite a high degree of variety, but there's sure to be something for every crime fan - or so I hope.

This book contains, it's fair to say, a higher number of obscure stories than my other anothologies in the series, although several of the authors are well-known names - Crofts, Henry Wade, Christianna Brand, John Creasey, and Nicholas Blake among them. My researches benefited enormously from help given by a number of experts, including John Cooper, Jamie Sturgeon, and Nigel Moss. I leave it to readers to judge the result, but I'm optimistic that this book will provide crime fans with a great deal of entertainment, and some truly fascinating new discoveries.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Forgotten Book - Trent's Own Case


Unlike many authors associated with Golden Age detective fiction, Edmund Clerihew Bentley was far from prolific. Yet his impact on the genre was immense. Trent's Last Case is seen by many people (including me) as the effective catalyst for the development of the classic whodunit after the First World War, and when Bentley's old friend G.K. Chesterton died, Bentley was a popular choice to succeed him, and to become the second President of the Detection Club. This more or less coincided with the publication of Trent's Own Case, which records Philip Trent's long-awaited return to the fray of detection.

Bentley's short stories about Trent were also collected in a volume entitled Trent Intervenes. But although Trent's Last Case has been relatively easy to find over the years, the other two Trent books have been less widely available. Now Harper Collins have reissued all three books together as part of their Detective Story Club imprint.

I feel confident that crime fans will be delighted by this initiative, though I should declare my own involvement - I have written a new introduction to Trent's Own Case. This commission caused me to re-read the book recently, and in so doing I found I revised my original opinion of it somewhat. I read it first as a teenager, expecting something similar to the first Trent book. It's much better, though, to judge the book on its own merits,not least because it was actually a collaboration - Bentley co-wrote the novel with his friend H. Warner Allen, and the storyline features Warner Allen's own detective character, the wine merchant Mr Clerihew (who was named in Bentley's honour). It's a well-made story, and still very readable.

In The Golden Age of Murder, I discuss the "Trent Dinner" held in 1936 to celebrate the book's publication, and one of my most precious possessions is a copy of the first edition signed by those who attended the dinner. I also talk about this in a little more detail in the "Collecting Crime" section on my website.. The addition of this book, and the two other Trent titles, to the Detective Story Club list, is very welcome.



 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

In the footsteps of Agatha and James Joyce

I've been intrigued by the city and sea port of Trieste since reading Andrew Eames' excellent The 8.55 to Baghdad, in which he follows the route taken by Agatha Christie across Europe to the Middle East. It sounded a fascinating place, and now I've been lucky enough to spend a few days there, meeting up with my well-travelled daughter and her boyfriend, I can report that I found it even more appealing than I expected from Eames' description. Was it just that I was escaping the rainy British summer for intense sunshine, interrupted only by one thunderstorm, the most dramatic I've ever experienced? No, it's a really interesting place, the product of a varied history; its strategic significance meant that it changed hands several times, though it's been part of Italy for the past seventy years, as well as for a period before then.
Christie wasn't the only literary figure to be associated with Trieste. Joyce, Kafka, and Rikle are among the others, and Joyce's statue (clutching a book) is to be found on the bridge over a remarkably short canal in the midst of the old quarter, where the architecture hints at the cosmopolitan influences on Trieste's past.



There's a lot to see in Trieste, and I enjoyed a wide range of sights, including the old Roman Theatre. I also came across a second hand bookshop which had a copy of Murder off Miami, the first "murder dossier" by Dennis Wheatley and J.G.Links in the window - the Italian version. Sadly, the shop was closed, and it was my last evening there, so I never got to find out how much they wanted for it. Quite a bit, I guess! The old cathedral and castle on the hill above the city centre are well worth a short climb, and there are plenty of other sights within a fairly short walk.
A bus ride away is the Risiera di San Sabba, an old rice factory which the Nazis converted into a bizarre and horrific concentration camp. You can still see the prison cells, the death cell, and the site of the crematorium. A museum on the site tells the story of what happened there. It's nothing like as well-known as Auschwitz, but I found the experience deeply moving and thought-provoking.




Further out of Trieste, there are some fabulous places to go. They include the Grotta Gigante, a massive underground cave where we took a guided tour, and Napoleon's Way, where the walk from the obelisk at Opicina to the village of Prosecco takes the route followed by Bonaparte's troops, and offers fantastic views. Best of all perhaps were the gardens and castle of Miramare, which were hugely impressive. Well worth braving the vagaries of the local transport system for. All in all, a memorable trip, which followed an enjoyable day in Milan, and a visit to the amazing cathedral. But what I really didn't expect was that storm, which for close to two hours provided a light show that put the Northern Lights in the shade. Amazing.



Monday, 7 August 2017

The Riverside Murder - 1935 film

Having recorded The Riverside Murder when it was screened by Talking Pictures, I was astonished to find, once I got round to watching it, that the source material was S.A. Steeman's excellent novel Six Dead Men. It has to be said that the script alters the storyline very considerably, and not just because the action is switched to England. But the writing is pretty slick, and that's no surprise, considering that the writer was a good crime novelist in his own right, Selwyn Jepson.

A wealthy financier is murdered by a mysterious gunman, and it soon becomes clear that present at the scene were (at least) two men with a very good reason to kill him. The tontine that features in the original story is, here, turned into a "pact", which means that a number of individuals have motives for murder.

The official detective work is undertaken by affable Inspector Winton (Philip Sydney), aided and abetted by Sergeant McKay (none other than Alastair Sim - apparently this was his first film appearance). But their investigation is interrupted by an intrepid and cheeky young woman who wants to make her name as a crime reporter - this isn't the only film of the 30s to feature such a character, and here she's played by Judy Gunn. Quite a few familiar crime story tropes make an appearance (the threat to take a cop off the case, leading to him to plead for just a few more hours, etc.) But they are handled in a light, entertaining way.

The suspects include one character played by Tom Helmore, who almost a quarter of a century later would make quite an impact as Gavin Elster in Hitchcock's classic Vertigo. The body count rises rapidly as Jepson's script breezes along to a pleasing conclusion. I must say I found it all very enjoyable: a real find.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Forgotten Book - Unexpected Night

I've been prompted to take a fresh look at the work of American whodunit writer Elizabeth Daly after listening to Sarah Ward talking about Daly's books on a couple of occasions recently. Sarah chose Daly as one of her authors to remember at Crimefest, and also discussed her work in some depth at Bodies from the Library. She also suggested that it helps to get a clear picture of the life of Daly's amateur sleuth, Henry Gamadge, if one starts with Daly's first book in the series.

This raises a point that I find very interesting. A great many people I talk to say that they like to begin a series at the beginning. I can understand why. Characters and relationships can sometimes make more sense than if one plunges into a series when it's already very well-established. When my Lake District Mysteries are sold at events, The Coffin Trail, the first in the series, generally sells best. Yet there are downsides to beginning at the beginning. A good author will want to improve, and sometimes a first book will spend quite a lot of time setting the scene. Later books may be more impressive.

I've just read Daly's debut, Unexpected Night, set in 1939, and published a year later, when Daly was already over 60. Compared to most authors working in the Golden Age tradition - and Daly clearly was - she was a late starter, though she did go on to have a long and successful career. This one i's a decent whodunit with a nice, if well-telegraphed, plot twist, and it introduces Gamadge as an affable, youngish expert in manuscripts.

Overall, however, I think it's fair to say that Daly was one of those writers who honed her technique over the years, and some of her later books represent a significant advance on this one. I felt that the basic set-up, about a young but sickly man who comes into a fortune on his 21st birthday was very contrived, and that the pool of suspects was not the most interesting. Gamadge, too, though likeable, is not truly memorable. I'd rate this one as worth a read, but I think Daly's later books tend to be better.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Any Golden Age fan is bound to be drawn to Anthony Horowitz's recent novel, Magpie Murders. It's an example of metaficiton, in which Horowitz combines a capable pastiche of a Christie-style whodunit with a contemporary mystery, and a dollop of satire about the publishing business. There are plenty of jokes (the last Horowitz novel I read, The Killing Joke, also gave his wit a pleasing showcase) and there's ingenuity in abundance.

The first half of the book comprises a novel set in the year Horowitz was born, 1955. A cleaner has died in rather mysterious circumstances, and soon her employer, Sir Magnus Pye, is brutally murdered. There is no shortage of motives or suspects - but shortly before the climax, the story comes to a sudden halt. We are then transported to the present, and the publishing. Alan Conway, author of the story, has died, having apparently committed suicide - and the last two chapters of his novel seem to be missing.

Most of the rest of the story is narrated by Conway's editor, Susan, who begins to suspect that in fact Conway was murdered. Once again, she discovers a variety of people with good cause to wish that the author was dead. But which of them is guilty? There's a "least likely person" explanation that is pleasing, even if the motivation is thin. And then, at the end of the story, we are given the solution to the mystery in Conway's novel - and, once more, a suitably unlikely culprit is unmasked..

I like Horowitz's writing very much. He has a real gift for entertainment, as evidenced by his many successes with TV screenplays (which earn more than one mention in the book; I see this not as showing off, but rather as an illustration of his teasing sense of humour) as well as by his fiction. The first half of the book is, at times, rather slow-moving, but this is explained by the need to plant a range of pleasing clues. It's all very cleverly and agreeably handled. An interestingly original take on classic crime fiction which I was very glad to read.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Solace - 2015 film review

The script of Solace, a film first shown a couple of years back, apparently began life as a sequel to Se7en, one of the best serial killer movies, and certainly ground-breaking in 1995. Things changed radically along the way, and although director Afonso Poyart acknowledges the influence of the earlier film, and also of Silence of the Lambs, he claims that Solace is not a serial killer film, but aout much more than that, talking about life and death and raising "interesting moral dilemmas".

The film benefits from the casting of Anthony Clancy as John Hopkins, a psychic who works with the FBI, but whose daughter has died from leukaemia. A pair of cops played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Abbie Cornish persuade him, against his will, to lend a hand when a series of baflling yet apparently connected murders take place.

The link between the crimes emerges,and Colin Farrell comes into the story, playing Charles Ambrose, whose motives are central to the moral dilemmas Poyart mentions. Hopkins and Farrell are both excellent actors, whose work I've enjoyed numerous times, and here again they do a good job. But they are limited by the material in the script.

For all Poyart's laudable ambition, this seemed to me very much like one more in a long line of flashily put together serial killer movies, with Clancy's psychic gifts providing a distinctive but increasingly irritating gimmick. The story and the performances kept me watching, but the truth is that the serial killer genre has been with us for so long now that greater originality is required than is on offer here. And despite a final twist, it's not a patch on Se7en.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Forgotten Book - The Blackmailers

Harper Collins' Detective Story Club imprint is by no means confined to Golden Age detective fiction. Hugh Conway and Anna K. Greene are among the significant Victorian crime writers represented in the series. Another is Emile Gaboriau, creator of Monsieur Lecoq, a prototype of the Great Detective, and a master of disguise.

Richard Dalby's introduction contains useful background .The book was first published as Dossier No. 113 in 1867, and has also appeared in English translation as File No. 113. Apparently this original version ran to a massive 145,000 words. Collins commissioned a new translation by Ernest Tristan, which cut the word cut roughly by half while retaining the essentials of the storyline intact. The abbreviated version was called The Blackmailers, and this is the version of the story that has been reissued.

The story gets off to a very good start. A bank is robbed, and only two men appear to have access to the safe that the criminal(s) broke into. Which of them is guilty? Or has something else happened? The official police detective, nicknamed "the Squirrel", is keen but inclined to follow false scents. Before long, the rather enigmatic Lecoq becomes involved, sometimes in disguise.

After a suspenseful build-up, we then move into an extended flashback which charts events of the past which led up to the crime .Despite the (very wise) decision to cut the story in half, this melodramatic storytelling seems to go on forever, and my interest began to wane. This, the third case for Lecoq, is historically significant, but the structural weaknesses show that authors were still trying to figure out how best to tell a mystery story. Conan Doyle experienced similar difficulties with his own longer stories about Sherlock Holmes, but Holmes is an inherently more fascinating character than Lecoq. But, just possibly, without Lecoq there might not have been a Sherlock Holmes.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The CWA Dagger Shortlists

I've returned home after a brief and hectic trip to London that involved a variety of meetings (one of them in the historic Reform Club, which I've never been inside before), a pleasant book-signing session in Hatchards, and finally the CWA Daggers shortlist announcements reception at Waterstone's in Piccadilly.

To deal with the personal stuff first, I'm thrilled to say that my story "Murder and its Motives" has been shortlisted for the  CWA Short Story Dagger. This is my fifth appearance on a Dagger list, and it's the third short story of mine to reach this particular shortlist. "Test Drive" did so twelve years ago, and three years later, "The Bookbinder's Apprentice" earned me the Dagger. So I'm naturally very happy.

Happy, too, to see that two other stories from the Detection Club anthology Motives for Murder appeared on the list - those by Michael Ridpath and Len Tyler. What a happy book that has proved to be. I'd also like to say how pleased I am to see Leye Adenie on the shortlist; I've been following his career with keen interest ever since we got to know each other last year. The shortlist also features the legendary James Sallis and Ovidia Yu.

Overall, the event went extremely well, and the attendance was very good. I was especially pleased to meet that fine writer Louise Penny for the first time. The success of the event was due to good work on the part of several people, but I'd like to pay special tribute to Mike Stotter, the CWA Daggers Liaison Officer, an unsung hero of the CWA, who does great work year after year in ensuring that all goes smoothly with the independent judging process. It's that process that ensures the high reputation of the Daggers the world over.


 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Hangman's Wharf - 1950 film review

Hangman's Wharf is a very good title, I think. It's the name of a short 1950 black and white film, directed by Cecil H. Williamson. It began life as a BBC radio serial written by John Belden, about whom I have been able to find out nothing. I almost wondered if it was a pseudonym adopted by Francis Durbridge, but there's no evidence of that.

Yet there are one or two Durbridgesque features to the storyline, including one of his favourite devices, the Enigmatic Message which lures our hero to an assignation at the Deserted House where, surprise, surprise, a corpse is waiting for him. There's also a touch of light-heartedness among the mayhem which reminded me of Durbrdge. Perhaps Belden was a disciple.

Dr David Galloway (John Witty) is a talented G.P. with hardly any patients- those were the days! An idealistic, he's opened a surgery in Shadwell, but hasn't endeared himself to the locals. When he gets a message calling him out to an accident on board a boat at Hangman's Wharf, he sets off only to find that he's been misled. But he bumps into a sinister rough-neck and a posh chap who send him packing. Then a warning shout from a young woman (Genine Graham) alerts him to the fact that someone is trying to kill him by dropping a barrel on his head.

The woman is a pretty young journalist, and he and she go to the police. But the affable inspector (Campbell Singer) doesn't beleive their story, and soon it becomes clear that someone is trying to frame the doctor for murder. The plot is nothing special, but it moves along at a decent pace. Singer is the only member of the cast with whom I was familiar, but I thought Genine Graham made the most of a limited role as the doc's love interest. I'm surprised she didn't become better known.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Harrogate Reflections

I arrived home yesterday afternoon from Harrogate after four fun-filled days at the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. So fun-filled, in fact, that I fear Friday's Forgotten Book was indeed forgotten! Never mind, it will return this week...

This year I spent more time than usual on writing business, as Harrogate offers a great opportunity to meet up with one's agent and publishers, and so on. But there was still a chance to catch up with friends such as Ann Cleeves and Ali Karim (who took the photo of me with Ann). I also met a good many readers - not least several from the Lake District and my home turf in Cheshire.

I've been on panels at Harrogate in the past, but this year for the first time I was asked to chair a panel - Double Indemnity: the theme was not the James M. Cain novel of that name, but rather lawyers who have become crime writers. Denise Mina (never actually a lawyer, but she did attend Glasgow Law School), Alafair Burke, Steve Cavanagh and Matthew Hall proved to be excellent panellists, and the discussion flowed nicely.

In the signing tent after the panel, I was pleased to meet not only a London crime editor who hails from my home village of Lymm but also a mutual friend of a great pal of mine from long ago student days. A little later I met up with the delightful Roz Dudley, whom I first met when she was performing in one of Joy Swift's brilliant murder mystery weekends (playing the part of a psychopathic serial killer, I should add). And it was good to have a chat with Vera herself, Brenda Blethyn. These unexpected encounters really are part of the pleasure of conventions.

I was invited to several publishers' parties, and these provide an opportunity to catch up with people in the writing business whom one might see only once in a blue moon if one is not London-based. As the wine flowed, there were plenty of fascinating conversations. The northern chapter of the CWA also had an informal get together with CWA colleagues from other parts of the country,  and pleasingly the turn-out exceeded our most optimistic expectations.

One of the parties was hosted by Harper Collins, and they'd organised an exhibition of correspondence between Agatha  Christie and Billy Collins that I found both interesting and informative. Of my various enjoyable get togethers, one was with a rare book dealer who told me about a notable discovery of his which I hope to talk about more in a future blog post.

All in all, a great weekend. The weather wasn't as kind as usual, with a mini-monsoon on Saturday. But even so, the clouds had a silver lining. Following encouragement from an American editor, I had a bit of time to myself to think out a new short story, featuring a new detective character who might just investigate further cases in due course. I even wrote the first few lines last night..



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Thursday, 20 July 2017

Grasmere and the Lake District Mysteries

I've not said much on this blog lately about the Lake District Mysteries. But if you're thinking that my attention has shifted away from them, as a result of my focus on The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, nothing could be further from the truth. My hope has always been that the work I do on classic fiction will have a beneficial impact on my contemporary work, and there are signs that this is what's happening. The latest of those signs is that Amazon have again included The Coffin Trail in their summer promotion. You can get the Kindle version for just 99 pence. If you haven't sampled the series before, I do hope you'll be tempted.
As it happens, I'm just back from a brief but pleasurable trip to the Lakes. It was a dual purpose visit. First, I was invited to talk to a group of visiting Americans. They were members of a party led by Kathy Ackley and Nicky Godfrey-Evans, whom I've known for a number of years, and they were a great group. A special bonus for me was that among them were those terrific crime writers Charles and Caroline Todd. In recent years, the Todds happen to have shared some happy moments with me at awards ceremonies both here and in the US, and it was great to spend time with them again - not forgetting Linda and DeAnna. A fun evening..
The location of the get-together was Grasmere, a village as charming in reality as its reputation suggests. Each of the Lake District Mysteries is set in a different part of the National Park, but I've not yet sent Hannah and Daniel to Grasmere, partly because it seemed a bit of an obvious step, and I wanted to explore one or two less familiar locations. But I do like Grasmere very much, and it may be time that it featured in one of my books. Meanwhile, I was very glad to sign books in Sam Read, the lovely local bookshop. What I think may be happening in quite a few cases, by the way, is that readers who sample my books (and those by others) as ebooks are starting to buy traditional print copies in the shops. Several people have told me that they've done this, and it does seem interesting that perhaps more of a crossover may develop between online and actual book retailing than has been thought likely in the past.
Another terrific bookshop, Fred Holdsworth's of Ambleside (above), featured on my itinerary on my way home. Again, it's good to see a proud independent bookshop really thriving, and playing an important part in the local community, and I was delighted to catch up over a coffee with Steve, the owner.  And as I toured the area, with research for the next novel in mind, I took in Stagshaw Gardens, Holehird Gardens, Kendal, and Sedbergh. It's a lovely part of the world, and now of course the Lake District is becoming a UNESCO World Hetitage site. About time too!


Monday, 17 July 2017

Catriona McPherson - guest blog




Catriona McPherson is a highly successful Scottish author who has become very popular in both sides of the Atlantic. I've enjoyed meeting her at several conventions, and to celebrate the publication of her latest novel, Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble, I'm delighted to welcome her to this blog with this guest post.

"For the first ten years of my writing career I lived in Scotland, producing books set in Scotland (and one in Leeds) that were published in London.  It was so easy. Then, in 2010, I moved to California, added a New York publisher and everything got much more complicado. 

For a start, research has to be squashed into a month or so every summer when I’m back in the old country. And that month might be after I’ve turned in the book.  Also, I haven’t experienced a British winter for seven years now and need to keep a post-it note on my monitor saying “It’s probably  raining!” just to remind me. I can feel sympathy draining away, though, so I’ll move on to the big issue.

The big issue, of course, is the deep chasm in our common language.

One US editor now produces three lists of problem words:

Cultural references. We can usually kill these in the contemporary novels because no book lives or dies on mentions of Ribena, Barnardos or Heartbeat, now does it? In the 1930s, it’s a bit tougher. Pantomines, Punch and Judy shows, the Regional Programme . . . there’s a lot of historical texture in those social details.

Standard differences. These have to be managed with some finesse because fictional British people cannot speak American English. British characters just can’t say “pea coat” when they mean “donkey jacket”, or “stucco” when they mean “harling”.  (The answer is usually that the character wears a duffel coat and the house is whitewashed.)  Pudding is always a problem, though. Dandy Gilver can’t say “dessert” (My dear!) And clothes are a blimmin’ nightmare. Jumpers and vests, knickers and pants. A novel set in a naturist colony would be a great relief. I do get a bit shirty (no pun intended) because my enjoyment of Lisa Scottoline’s legal thrillers isn’t dented by the fact that every Philly law office seems to have a “credenza” and I’ve got no clue what one is.

Then there’s the non-standard dialect breenging in, all bolshy, turning the editor crabbit enough to start a stooshie. Here the London editor sometimes gangs up on me with the US editor. We slug it out in an unfair fight. I try to keep as many as I can, especially in the Dandy Gilver novels, because she’s English and can translate for the readers. The editor usually gives a lot of ground but insists on a wee-ectomy. That’s a fair point. It’s quite startling how often Scottish people use the word “wee”, and rarely to mean “small”.  I got 86 uses down to 35 last time.

“Wee” aside, I’m interested to know whether readers mind a smattering of unintelligible dialect in books? Or do you even – this would be a great weapon for the next fight – relish it? 


And if anyone knows what a credenza is, do tell me.".

Friday, 14 July 2017

Forgotten Book- Death By Two Hands

My Forgotten Book for today is another by Peter Drax. Death By Two Hands was first published in 1937, and until Dean Street Press reprinted six Drax books, it was the only one I'd ever found in a first edition. Like Murder on the High Seas, it's unusual for a crime story of the 30s, because it centres exclusively on working class people, with not a country mansion or secret passage in sight.

A young woman called Alma Robinson leaves her home town to live with her disreputable uncle, and becomes a pawn in a criminal game. A dodgy dealer called Rivers hires the ruthless Spike Morgan to steal a consignment of fox furs. Spike and his sidekicks carry out the plan, but things go wrong, and a man is killed. Soon there is another death...

Drax describes the crime with a realism that we tend to associate more with post-war novels than those of the 30s. He's also pretty convincing when it comes to police procedure. Chance plays a part in the investigation, but the story unfolds in a believable way, and there's a small twist right at the end. The treatment of criminals and their activities is much more convincing than was often the case during the Golden Age.

I'd also like to mention the quality of Drax's writing. He has a very good turn of phrase, and his observations are perceptive and convincing. His evocation of character is excellent, and the book is also good on urban settings. Drax's world is very far removed from Mayhem Parva. I'm surprised these novels weren't better known in the 30s, and I'm delighted that Dean Street Press have reprintged them.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The House Across the Lake - 1954 film review

I didn't know what to expect when I settled down to watch a British crime film from 1954. But The House Across the Lake turned out to be set around Windermere, and featured a struggling crime writer as the conflicted protagonist. Needless to say, this premise grabbed my attention right away!

Alex Nicol plays Mark Kendrick, an American writer based in the UK (for unexplained reasons) who rents a place in the Lakes as he tries to meet a deadline for his latest book. He encounters a blonde femme fatale, also played by an American, Hillary Brooke. She happens to be married to a rich man - played (rather to my amazement) by Sid James, in a rare straight role. She's well-known for dallying with other men, and Kendrick befriends the husband but becomes besotted by the wife - rather surprisingly, since the husband's daughter from an earlier marriage, played by Susan Stephen, seems much more appealing.

Anyway, we are in classic film noir territory here. The storyline owes a great deal to Double Indemnity, although it's based on a book called High Wray by Ken Hughes, who directs the film (and later directed many others, including Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang). Although it's not very original, it's well done, at least until the very rushed finale, which I found anti-climactic.

There's fun to be had in spotting the other cast members -including Joan Hickson, Paul Carpenter, John Sharp, and Alan Wheatley (later famed as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood). I hoped the titular house would prove to be Wray Castle, which I enjoyed visiting a few years back, but it wasn't to be. However, I did enjoy this short film. Definitely worth watching. Why was it called Heat Wave when released in the US? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Azure Hand - guest post by Cally Phillips

As a result of my writing activities, I've received many fascinating "out of the blue" contacts from people from all parts of the world. These are often not only enjoyable but also informative. So it was when I was contacted by Cally Phillips last year. She told me about a book and author I'd never heard of. I was tempted to explore further, and I'm very glad I did. The book in question was The Azure Hand, which thanks to Cally's enterprise is now being republished. I've invited Cally to tell the story herself:

"The Azure Hand was first published on 24th July 1917, one of several posthumous works by the writer Samuel Rutherford Crockett, who died in April 1914.  Crockett is better known, where he is known at all any more, as the writer of stirring ‘boys own’ stories of history, adventure, romance set in rural Scotland, France or Spain.  Once dismissed as ‘Kailyard’ he has more recently been seen as coming from the Stevensonian tradition.  

In his lifetime he lay claim to  more than sixty published works of fiction and he is hard to pin down because over the twenty plus years  of his writing career he adapted and adopted different styles in order to keep in step with the changing fashions of popular fiction.  It was not always a successful tactic and the fact that The Azure Hand was never published in his life-time suggests it was one of his ‘failures’.   However, with a centenary edition now due out, a new generation of readers are able to judge for themselves exactly what kind of book this is.

As a detective fiction novel it is unusual, though not unique among Crockett’s work.  He started experimenting with this form – via ‘sensationalist’ fiction in the early 1900s, but he never seemed to quite ‘hit the mark’ for the market at the time.  Looking back with the benefit of a century of hindsight however, we can see that he was in fact being quite experimental both in form and content and The Azure Hand dating well before the Golden Age of Crime presages it in some ways.  It is, to quote Martin Edwards a:   ‘very modern take on fictional detection.  It shows a determination to pick up some of the then popular tropes (clues, footprints etc) and do something relatively fresh with them.’

In 1917 Crockett’s widow, chasing an income from his royalties, persuaded Hodder and & Stoughton (with whom he had a long and fruitful connection) to publish The Azure Hand. Being during the First World War it was a small print run and the quality of the publication was poor – and it soon went out of print into obscurity. 

Ayton Publishing Limited was set up in 2012 with the explicit aim of promoting works by and about Crockett. In 2014 the 32 Volume Galloway Collection was published to commemorate the centenary of his death.  This was followed in 2015 by The Rainbow Crockett series (seven of his works for children) and since then sundry other works by and about him have been published and re-published. It seemed only fitting to bring out The Azure Hand on the centenary of its original publication date.

You can purchase the Ayton Publishing centenary edition in paperback direct from www.unco.scot online for the discounted price of £9.99.

To find out more about the life and work of S.R.Crockett you can visit the Galloway Raiders website www.gallowayraiders.co.uk which is the home of the S.R.Crockett literary society and a great place to start your exploration of all things Crockett related."