Monday, 25 June 2018

Gallows Court


Today, I'm truly delighted to be able to talk about a book that has meant a great deal to me over the past three years. After many years of striving, I've finally managed to realise an ambition I've long held as a crime novelist - simply, to write a story that a major publisher loved enough to get behind in a significant way.

The book is Gallows Court, publication date is September 2018, and it will be the lead crime fiction title of Head of Zeus (whose other authors range from Ben Okri to Jim Naughtie) this coming autumn. For me, then, a thrilling development.

During the recent past, I've combined the writing of the novel with various other ventures, notably The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and another non-fiction project which is still ongoing, and will be for some time. But I've always seen myself first and foremost as a novelist, and I've always tried to develop and progress as a writer of fiction. Writing this novel was an attempt to do something very different, in all sorts of ways, from my previous work.

Gallows Court is set in 1930, and it builds on my fascination with that period in our history, and my love of Golden Age detective fiction. But it's not a pastiche whodunit. Rather, it's a novel of psychological suspense, fast-paced, with plenty of plot twists.

In writing the book, I deliberately adopted a different approach from that of my other novels. Rather than planning out "whodunnit", I began with a character, and a scenario, and took things from there. This was a bold move, for me, which often felt as though it might prove foolhardy. But as I kept working on the story, it began to come together, and I found myself increasingly gripped by its potential.

I wrote the book without the comfort blanket of a contract or expression of interest from a publisher, because I wanted to set my agent the task of trying to finding a really good, fresh home for the book. In many ways, this was a real risk, because it's so easy to become typecast as a writer, and publishers do not necessarily want writers to change direction. Thankfully, Nic Cheetham of Head of Zeus "got" exactly what I was trying to do - an incredibly lucky break for me. I've worked with many lovely publishers over the years, and I must say that I'm exceptionally excited by this relationship. And I'm keeping my fingers crossed that readers will love the book as much as Nic did. The book cover image is subject to change, but I think it captures the period setting.

I'll be telling you more about the novel in the run-up to publication. Suffice to say at this stage that it concerns Rachel Savernake, an attractive and fabulously wealthy - but ruthless and mysterious - woman who comes to London and becomes embroiled in a sequence of bizarre murders. A young journalist, Jacob Flint, determines to find out her secret...   

At the British Library the other day, I did a podcast with two splendid bloggers and locked room enthusiasts, Jim and Dan, and towards the end I talked a bit about the new book. Here's a link to the whole podcast - and do check out their blogs, The Invisible Event and The Reader is Warned, both of which are excellent.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Forgotten Book - Go, Lovely Rose

The late Robert Barnard was a great admirer of Jean Potts' novels. As well as being a novelist of renown, Bob was a savvy critic; over the years, he recommended quite a few writers to me, and I don't think any of them have ever disappointed. But it's taken me a long time to get round to reading Jean Potts. When I did, I decided to start with her debut novel, Go, Lovely Rose.

The novel was first published in 1954, but it's a very mature piece of writing for a beginner; no doubt this is due to the fact that Potts had served a literary apprenticeship as a writer of short stories before trying her hand at a full-length story. It proved to be a good move: Go, Lovely Rose won an Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Rachel Buckmaster returns to the small town of Coreyville, where she and her brother Hartley grew up, following the death of Rose Henshaw. Rose had been living in Rachel's family home, thanks to a mystifying provision in the will of Rachel's late father. Mystifying because Rose was a nasty piece of work. Rachel had been glad to escape her influence, and she fears that Rose's spiteful nature may have driven Hartley to pushing the old woman down the cellar stairs. For Rose's death means that the siblings can now cash in by selling the house.

Soon it becomes apparent that Hartley was not the only person with good cause to wish Rose ill. Rachel finds herself caught up in a teasing mystery, and Potts builds the suspense with an expertise remarkable in a first time novelist. When she died in 1999, Ed Hoch (who was, like Bob Barnard, a very perceptive judge of these things) praised her gifts of characterisation, and her ability to evoke authentic small-town middle-America settings. These qualities are on display in her impressive debut novel. I'm not sure if she ever surpassed it in her later work, but I have more of her books, and I enjoyed this one enough to be determined to give them a try.



Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage - film review

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage marked the debut in 1970 of Dario Argento as a film director. The movie was a big success, and he proceeded to become known as "the Italian Hitchcock", although as he has himself admitted, his output differs from Hitchcock's in many respects - even if both men are Catholics, with an acute sense of sin that is relevant to their work.

I find it interesting that Argento was inspired to write the film in part by Fredric Brown's excellent thriller The Screaming Mimi, and in part by the film The Spiral Staircase, based on a novel by Ethel Lina White. The connection between these works isn't obvious, but it is there for those who want to look for it - rather like well-hidden clues in a mystery.

Tony Musante plays Sam Dalmas, an American holidaying in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). Walking past an art gallery, he sees a bizarre sight - a woman is stabbed after grappling with a leather-clad assailant. His attempt to save her is thwarted, but even so, she survives. The Rome police are investigating a series of killings of women in the city, and Sam forms a bond with the chief detective, while pursuing an investigation of his own.

There are some gripping set piece scenes - for instance when a brutal hitman in a yellow jacket hunts Sam down in a coach park. Some of them are set in darkened rooms, with lights and telephone lines cut - yes, Argento plays around with cliches, but he does so in an arresting way. A soundtrack by Ennio Morricone offers a jaunty bonus to the action, and although the psychological explanation put forward for the crimes struck me as dodgy to say the least, I thought this film - which launched the "giallo" movement of lurid Italian crime films - was very watchable.

Monday, 18 June 2018

A very brief breather...



I've arrived home after an action-packed few days in London. Whilst I was in the capital, I received the delightful news that The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has been shortlisted for a Macavity award by Mystery Readers International. The book has now received five major award nominations, three in the US, two in the UK, something I never dreamed of a few years ago when I first became involved with the British Library.

My trip included a variety of CWA events, notably hosting the annual lunch for former CWA chairs, an extremely convivial occasion in Covent Garden, a CWA board meeting, and the Detection Club's summer dinner at the Garrick Club. There was also a meeting with publishers to discuss marketing my new novel - more news about that very soon. I caught up with a number of old friends, including Tim Benson, with whom I went to school; among other things, he's now a guide at the Royal Academy, and he took me around the Summer Exhibition. If you like art, it's really a must-see.

Saturday saw the fourth Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library, and it proved to be another enjoyable occasion. The only downside is that because the programme is so full of things to do, there's never enough time to chat to all the people with whom one would like to catch up. But you can't have everything, and I'm delighted that Bodies is to return next year.

Christine Poulson hosted a conversation between Tony Medawar and myself about Golden Age anthologies, and it was good to see Tony again. We first met at, of all things, a Mastermind crime quiz at Bouchercon 1990, in London, before I was a published novelist. A lot of water under the bridge since then...Later in the morning I gave a talk about Richard Hull, and the various sessions included a panel about Francis Durbridge, a talk about Christianna Brand, one about crime dossiers, and a slightly bizarre Ellery Queen radio mystery from the 1940s. The final panel event, pictured, saw us discussing "Desert Island Detectives". Just to be quirky, I chose Ambrose Chitterwick...

There are detailed reports of the day on two of my favourite classic crime blogs, In Search of the Classic Mystery, from which I've taken the photo (well, crime is our shared enthusiasm...), and Cross Examining Crime. I was also delighted to chat to two more excellent bloggers, Jim and  Dan, with whom I recorded a podcast about impossible crimes. More about this another day.

It was good to meet Melvyn Barnes, and I hope to review his book about Durbridge, as well as Tony's new anthology, on this blog before long. In the meantime, I'm enjoying a breather today. Only two meetings, and a whole 24 hours of catch-up time before my next library talk tomorrow evening, which will be followed by a trip to the Lake District for a charity event...




Sunday, 17 June 2018

Forgotten Book - The Tube

Regular readers of this blog will know of my admiration for the books that Pierre Boileau wrote in tandem with Thomas Narcejac. Their excellent crime stories were by no means limited to the books that were brilliantly filmed as Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. They were, like Hitchcock, masters of suspense. They were also very clever plotsmiths, and The Tube is a case in point.

The book was originally published in France in 1958, under the title L'ingenieur aimait trop les chiffres, and was translated into English in 1960 by Robert Eglesfield. It continues to surprise me, by the way, that some of the duo's work remains untranslated. You'd think that their success would make their work very much in demand.

In this novel they set out to update the locked room mystery. We are presented with a classic impossible crime scenario, but in what was then a highly topical and controversial setting - a nuclear laboratory. The story opens with a shooting. The victim is a scientist who has been working on a nuclear device, misuse of which could kill millions. Not only is it impossible to figure out how the killer escaped detection - the tube containing the lethal material has gone missing. Yes, I'm afraid that health and safety systems at the lab were astonishingly lax.

The story is told with characteristic pace, and assurance - Boileau and Narcejac really were very skilled writers. They were also pleasingly ingenious. Their taste of the macabre is not quite so much in evidence here as in some of their mysteries; then again, the threat of  the exploding tube will be potent even for most readers' tastes. It's  a quick, light read, and I'm surprised that nobody has seen fit to reprint the story in English for almost sixty years.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Forgotten Book - The Crack in the Teacup

Michael Gilbert's The Crack in the Teacup, first published in 1966, was a book I borrowed from the library when I was about thirteen or so, and discovering what an entertaining writer he was. In those days, of course, he also seemed very contemporary in comparison to Christie and Sayers, for instance, and this element of his writing also appealed to the young Martin Edwards. I remember really enjoying this book in my youth, and wondered how it would hold up now that I'm so much older. To my delight, it gripped me from start to finish. And because I've now had a lifetime in the legal profession, I appreciated Gilbert's wry observations about legal life much more than I could have done all those years ago.

And that is despite the fact that this is in many ways a low-key book, quite close (as was The Dust and the Heat) in style to a mainstream novel, and not quite what you'd expect from a conventional thriller or detective story. Anthony Brydon, the hero, is a young solicitor. He's 23, and already a partner in his firm (blimey; wouldn't happen today) and has no experience with women (blimey again) despite his eagerness to put that right - something he achieves over the course of the story.

The setting is a pleasant, well-heeled coastal town. The place seems almost idyllic, but something unpleasant is going on beneath the surface. Anthony becomes convinced of the existence of some form of corrupt conspiracy, and delves into local politics and planning law in the course of his unlikely investigation. And along the way, The Crack in the Teacup turns into a sort of genteel British counterpart to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, but with much less bloodshed, as Gilbert presents a compelling picture of the way that a society that can be ruined by corruption. And, Gilbert being a pragmatist with a cynical turn of mind, the result of Anthony's investigations is not quite what one might expect.

A book as under-stated as this won't appeal to everyone. There isn't even a killing until very near the end. But if you like cool, exceptionally readable and slyly humorous writing, and if you're interested in a picture of English provincial life in the 60s, you'll find a lot to please you in The Crack in the Teacup. It's one of the best books Gilbert ever wrote. The title, by the way, comes from W.H. Auden.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - 1969 film review

Horace McCoy's excellent Thirties novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was turned into an equally good film in 1969 by Sydney Pollack. The book is short, and the film is long (perhaps too long), but in different ways they present a chilling story about a dance marathon of the kind that was popular in Depression era America.

We might be tempted to feel rather superior about the behaviour of the contestants, organisers, and audiences of these dreadful events, when people half-killed themselves dancing for hour after hour in the hope of winning cash prizes - until we realise that in many ways the marathons were simply forerunners of the modern reality TV show. They appeal to much the same instincts.

The excellent cast includes the likes of Bruce Dern, in an early role, Red Buttons, and Michael Sarrazin, but there are three stand-outs. Two are contestants - Jane Fonda and Susannah York - both of whom give superb performances. York was nominated for an Oscar, and must have been dismayed not to have won. Like Fonda, she was such a beautiful woman that perhaps her very considerable acting talents tended to be under-estimated. One person who did win an Oscar was Gig Young, who plays the deeply unpleasant M.C. Again, his is an outstanding performance. But Young's story was a very sad one: he was an alcoholic who, six years after this film was made, murdered his fifth and latest wife and then killed himself.

I first saw this film a long time ago. If anything, I liked it even more the second time around. It's a very powerful story, and despite the movie's length, I think it shows Pollack's great ability as a film director. And it's a reminder of what a compelling and interesting writer McCoy was. Few books give quite such a memorable insight into life during the Depression, and the same can be said of this very watchable film.


The Challenge aka It Takes a Thief - 1960 film review

The Challenge is a British film, roughly in the film noir tradition, written and directed by the prolific John  Gilling. The movie dates from 1960 and was known in the US as It Takes a Thief. Neither of the titles is particularly inspiring, and given that the lead role was allotted to Jayne Mansfield rather than Anthony Quayle, I sat down to watch it without very high hopes. I soon realised that I was actually watching a film which is surprisingly gripping, and at times rather dark and disturbing.

Quayle plays Jim Maxton, an essentially decent if rather dim widower with a young son. He is besotted with a glamorous blonde woman called Billy (Mansfield), and dreams they'll have a life together on a farm. But Billy is mixed up with a bunch of criminals, and persuades Jim to take part in a violent robbery. Things go awry, and just after Jim has hidden the loot in a remote rural location, he is picked up by the police following a tip-off. He is sent to prison, but keeps his mouth shut about his fellow villains and about where he's hidden the cash.

When he emerges from jail, the gang want their share of the money. The police are also keeping a close eye on things, as they are determined to arrest the criminals who evaded detection. Jim goes to live with his mother (Barbara Mullen) and six year old son, but things take a nasty turn when Buddy is kidnapped, and one of the gang members, a psychopath called Bud (Peter Reynolds) contemplates killing the boy.

Quayle, a fine actor, makes us root for Jim, despite his stupidity, but for  me the revelation was Jayne Mansfield. Her role is a tricky one to play, since Billy is torn between greed and a dislike of violence, and although Gilling wrote the action scenes very well, I don't think characterisation was his strength. Even so, I felt that she did a good job. Some reviews I've seen disagree, perhaps because Mansfield is widely regarded as a stereotypical "blonde bombshell", whose success owed much to assets other than her acting. On looking up her biography, however, a different picture emerges. It's apparent that she was a highly intelligent woman, gifted musically and quite a capable actress, whose looks and lifestyle probably did her no favours in the long run: she died in a car crash at the age of 34, after three marriages, countless affairs, and five children. Her performance as Billy suggests that she had genuine and significant acting talent, and it's sad that she found few roles that made the most of it     

Monday, 11 June 2018

Alibis in the Archives 2018



I'm back from Alibis in the Archives at Gladstone's Library, the second week-end event celebrating the British Crime Writing Archives which are held there. As archivist of the CWA and of the Detection Club, I set up the BCW Archives, and as a result found myself organising Alibis, in conjunction with the Library's wonderful team, brilliantly led by Louisa Yates.

The week-end was, like last year, a sell-out. The plan is for Alibis to take place again next year, from 22-24 June, and I encourage you to make a note of those dates in your diary!

This year's programme kicked off on Friday evening with "Bannocks and Blood", a murder mystery written by Ann Cleeves which was good fun. Then on Saturday morning, Simon Brett got everyone in the right mood with his extremely witty Golden Age murder mystery - in verse. Andrew Taylor talked about three real life cases in which he has a personal interest and then interviewed me about collecting crime fiction. To illustrate some of my themes during the conversation, I brought along various books, correspondence, and ephemera from my own collection, and there was a chance for members of the audience to have a look at these before Sarah Ward talked about crime in Derbyshire.

After lunch, Ruth Dudley Edwards talked about subversive crime writing, and Mike Jecks about historical mysteries. Then there was a special treat - Professor James Grieve, the leading Scottish forensic pathologist, discussing some famous cases. The day's formal programme ended with a crime writers' panel - see the photo, taken from The Puzzle Doctor's blog about the weekend.

Yesterday began with Jessica Mann talking about female crime writing, and I discussed the BCW Archives with Peter Lovesey and Sheila Mitchell (widow of H.R.F. Keating) before Peter Lovesey closed the show with a very witty account of the calamitous crime writing of James Corbett. By the end of it all, I was just a little tired, but also exhilarated as a result of the enthusiasm of the delegates (and indeed my fellow speakers) which really did make all the work and the planning worthwhile.


Friday, 8 June 2018

Forgotten Book - The Man Who Loved Lions

A number of crime writers have, over the years, made effective use of the sinister qualities of some animals. Stories set in a zoo are, however, pretty rare, Freeman Wills Crofts' Antidote to Venom excepted. Mind you, some years ago, I planned out a short story with just such a background, after undertaking a behind-the-scenes tour of Chester Zoo; that story never got written, due to lack of time, and one of these days I may return to it. These musings are prompted by my latest foray into the works of that interesting crime writer Ethel Lina White, and her penultimate novel.

The book in question is The Man Who Loved Lions, and it was published in 1943, the year before White's death. In the US it was known as The Man Who Was Not There, which although not a terrible title isn't quite as evocative; I'm puzzled as to why it was felt the change was desirable. Anyway, the set-up of the story is tantalising and full of promise.

Ann Sherborn has recently returned to Britain after years abroad. Seven years earlier, at the age of sixteen, she was a member of a group of seven youngish people who dubbed themselves "The Sullied Souls". The leader of the group, Richard, proposed that seven years later, they should hold a reunion at "Ganges", the home of his uncle (who would, he expected, be dead by then). Richard was always an unpleasant character, but Ann was in love with another member of the group, Stephen, so she heads for Ganges in the hope that he will show up there too.

It turns out that Richard's uncle is still very much alive. And he has created his own private zoo at Ganges: he is the man who loves lions. Richard is as odious as ever, and while one or two other people present at Ganges are also unappealing - but Stephen, alas, is not there.

The presence of wild animals in the grounds contributes to several atmospheric scenes. Yet I found this book rather frustrating. The notion of the private zoo has huge potential, as did the reunion concept, but I didn't think that the storyline as a whole lived up to its initial promise. In particular, the bickering between some of the characters was rather tedious. All in all, after a good start, the novel fails to deliver. I have to rate it as a disappointment.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Nobody Runs Forever - 1968 film review

Nobody Runs Forever, also known as The High Commissioner, is based on a novel with the latter title, written by the Australian Jon Cleary. I've never read anything by Cleary, but when I was growing up, paperback editions of his novels were popular, and I bracketed him, rightly or wrongly, with the likes of Desmond Bagley, Alistair MacLean,and Geoffrey Jenkins.

The book introduced Scobie Malone, an Australian cop who became a long-running series character. In the film, he's played by Rod Taylor, who was probably at the height of his fame in the late 60s. Scobie is summoned to Sydney to go on a special mission to London - to bring back the Australian High Commissioner, who is suspected of having murdered his first wife. The order comes, incidentally, from Russell Napier, the veteran cop from the Scotland Yard TV series, whom I hadn't realised was indeed Australian.

In London, Scobie is persuaded by the High Commissioner - Christopher Plummer, at his most charismatic - that he needs a few days' grace before returning home, in order to conduct delicate (if rather vague) negotiations about world peace. Plummer's character proves to be a target for assassination, and Scobie finds himself confronted by a host of sinister and mysterious characters ranging from  Dahlia Lavi, Burt Kwouk, Clive Revill, Lee Montague, and Derren Nesbitt.

Overall, this is a competent rather than memorable thriller. The script-writer, Wilfred Greatorex, was a familiar name on the credits of TV shows at the time, and the ingredients are good, but I have never been a huge fan of Rod Taylor, who was, let's face it, no Sean Connery. Personally I'd have liked the storyline to focus more on Plummer's character. I found him more complex and more interesting than Scobie.  

   

Monday, 4 June 2018

Historical Noir by Barry Forshaw



Barry Forshaw's latest book, Historical Noir, published by Pocket Essentials, is a pleasingly concise, chronological survey of historical crime fiction which ranges from Lindsey Davis, chronicler of Ancient Rome, to authors whose chosen time period is rather more recent, such as James Runcie, Laura Lippman, and William Shaw. I should declare that there's an entry about myself, so I won't pretend to be wholly unbiased, but that said, I can assure you that I'd have enjoyed, and would have learned from, this book even if my work been completely overlooked. If you like history blended with mystery, you'll find here innumerable tips about what to read next, as well as pithy discussion of a sub-genre that is much more diverse than is often acknowledged.

One of the great merits of Barry Forshaw's writing is its readability; another is his lively enthusiasm for the genre. If you want lengthy academic disquisitions about crime writing, there are plenty of those around nowadays (though most will set you back a lot of money), but the "noir" series of genre studies that Barry has produced in recent years is packed with information and insight at a bargain price.

Some of those insights stem from Barry's past experience as a judge of the CWA Historical Dagger; others come from the authors themselves. There are many interviews with crime writers, again including myself, so the book contains a valuable range of viewpoints on this fascinating sub-genre. A word about the title, by the way: the introduction explains that "noir" is used here simply as a synonym for crime; it is, in effect, a brand for the series, and does not imply that the books discussed are invariably dark and disturbing - far from it.

It's customary, when reviewing a book such as this, to pick up on alleged omissions, and to challenge some of the author's judgements. Customary, and sometimes an excuse for the reviewer to show how well-read he or she is. On this occasion, I won't be tempted down that path. I'll simply say that I appreciate Barry's observation that Dancing for the Hangman is "a book to make readers wish that the versatile Edwards might tackle the historical crime genre more often." I'm pleased to say that those readers won't have much longer to wait for my next foray into the past - more news about this soon!


Friday, 1 June 2018

Forgotten Book - The Affair at Little Wokeham

Rather more than a decade ago, I was sent a catalogue of books by a collector who was seeking to dispose of some of his treasures. A good many rare titles by Freeman Wills Crofts were available, some of them signed; although at that time I had very mixed feelings about Crofts' work, I was tempted and I fell. Taking a deep breath, I splashed out on five books. If I wondered whether I'd regret it, these days my only regret was that I didn't snap up some of the other titles that were on sale. With rare books, one has to be opportunistic, since the chances are that one will never get a second chance.

Today, I appreciate Crofts much more than I did, even though there's no denying his limitations as a writer. What's more, because he wrote a good deal, sometimes his standards slipped. But The Affair at Little Wokeham, first published in 1943, is a pleasing inverted mystery, set in the pre-war era. It's an inverted mystery, but rather different from Crofts' three previous ventures into this sub-genre. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of one of five main characters - four of them are embroiled in the case, the fifth is Inspector Joseph French. It's a device that works well.

At the time this book was written, Crofts had long been resident in Guildford, and Little Wokeham is a village in the area he was familiar with. We are first introduced to Anthony Mallaby, a likeable if naive doctor who settles there, and falls in love with a young woman called Christina Winnington. She is the niece of one of those unappealing elderly rich folk who so regularly crop up as victims in murder mysteries. And soon we watch Guy Plant plan the murder of old Clarence Winnington.

As so often with Crofts, the story turns upon a cleverly constructed alibi. Guy's cunning plan does, however, entail involving someone else in his plot, a high-risk strategy to say the least. When the crime is committed, French is initially at a loss, but the reader can be sure that he will pursue the murderer to the bitter end, and so he does. I really enjoyed this story, although it didn't appeal to me as much as Antidote to Venom, which I regard as Crofts' finest inverted mystery, given the unusual setting in a zoo, ingenious murder method, and rather likeable protagonist. Guy is a nasty piece of work, and we don't empathise with him as much as is, I think, desirable in a story like this. Instead, our main sympathies are directed towards Mallaby, who finds that one terrible mistake puts his own life in jeopardy. Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Fragment of Fear - 1970 film DVD review

I've become increasingly interested in the work of John Bingham, and as a result I sought out the DVD made of his 1965 novel, A Fragment of Fear. I've not read the book as yet (though I hope to do so before long) but I was tempted by reviews of the DVD of the film version made five years after the book's appearance. The film sounded very appealing, not least because of a terrific cast, led by David Hemmings, who was at his peak at around that time. Hemmings was, like the late Hywel Bennett, an immensely charismatic actor whose career faded somewhat, and who died too young.

The screenplay was written by Paul Dehn, who like Bingham was a former spy (he was also a poet and critic, and his other scripts included Goldfinger and Murder on the Orient Express). The film opens in Italy, with Hemmings chatting to his aunt (played by Flora Robson). He's a reformed drug addict who has recently published a successful book. His aunt is found dead in mysterious circumstances, and a strange message left with a wreath which refers to "the Stepping Stones" intrigues our hero. He falls for an attractive woman (Gayle Hunnicutt), and takes her with him to England, where they plan to get married. But his determination to find out what happened to his aunt soon becomes obsessive.

The suspense builds with some splendidly mysterious plot twists, worthy of Francis Durbridge at his best. Hemmings becomes trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, as strange, menacing things happen to him which seem inexplicable. When he tries to explain himself to the police, they suggest he is going mad. Then Whitehall (in the person of Arthur Lowe, of all people) gets involved. What on earth is going on?

The ending of the film is perhaps controversial. Suffice to say that things aren't wrapped up in the classic Durbridge style. Really, this is a film which has to be seen as a product of its time - yes, it's enigmatic, but so was Blow Up, a Hemmings film which made a great impression when I saw it in my teens. But even though I like stories with clever and comprehensive solutions, I'm also a big fan of Franz Kafka's The Trial. And there's a touch of Joseph K. about Hemmings' luckless character.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Back from the Baltic


When I had the good fortune to be invited to take part in Tallinn's HeadRead Literary Festival, I was thrilled to accept. Tallinn's a city brimming with atmosphere and sights, and the festival programme was packed with stellar names from around the world. And having just returned (though by an unexpectedly circuitous route) I must say that the event more than lived up to expectations. For its success, great credit goes to Krista Kaer, and her excellent team of organisers. They even managed somehow to arrange gorgeous weather from start to finish!


I've visited Tallinn once before, as a stop on a Baltic cruise. One of the merits of cruising is that you can sample a destination and decide if you'd like to go back one day. Tallinn's always been high on my list of places meriting a return visit, and luckily the programme included several trips which allowed me to see more of Estonia, a real treat, as well as an evening reception in the remarkable historic setting of Tallinn's town hall, and another reception at the British Ambassador's residence. 


The itinerary included a walking tour and a rare chance to see the stunning altar piece in the church of St Nikolai (now a gallery) fully opened up by the curator. A bus trip to the coast included a visit to an art museum, and lunch at a delightful place called Kasmu. My event was a conversation with Sophie Hannah, hosted by fellow crime novelist, Jason Goodwin. I last met Jason in a bar in Baltimore ten years ago; he was very good company then, and again in Tallinn. What I hadn't known before was that his dad is Richard Goodwin, co-producer of the Albert Finney version of Murder on the Orient Express and other Christie films. 


There was plenty of time to socialise with fellow writers, most of whose work is far removed from crime fiction; so I had breakfast with a delightful Norwegian poet, lunched with an American journalist, dined with a Danish crime writer, and went out for a drink with a group including Jason, storyteller Janis MacKay and Helen Rappaport, as well as chatting with such luminaries as brain surgeon and author Henry Marsh, Scottish novelist James Robertson, and Michel Faber. When Jason arranged an impromptu tram trip to the baroque Kadriorg Palace, I had the pleasure of a chat with Louisa Young, whose forthcoming memoir You Left Early sounds as though it is both poignant and brilliant.


I'm so grateful to Krista and her colleagues for inviting me to Tallinn. My return to Britain yesterday took a bizarre turn when a series of mishaps on the part of Finnair led to my spending several  Kafkaesque hours in Helsinki airport before being told that I had to fly to Munich in order to get home. It took a very long time, and I arrived back in the small hours, exhausted. But never mind. Even on that bizarre journey I had the consolation of having the time to read from start to finish a quite superb novel, Newton Thornburg's Cutter and Bone. And I'm so glad to have brought home so many memories of a fantastic festival.  







  


Friday, 25 May 2018

Forgotten Book - To Be Hanged

Bruce Hamilton was one of the most under-rated crime writers of the 1930s. I've mentioned my interest in his work several times on this blog, and today I'd like to focus on his first novel. (Incidentally, in a fit of enthusiasm allied to technical incompetence, I published a draft version of this post last week, along with a couple of other premature posts; my apologies for inundating you). While Bruce is less renowned than his brother Patrick, for the perfectly good reason that his literary gifts were of a lower order, I think that comparison with Patrick is the key reason why the quality of his work has been under-valued. I certainly accept that it has flaws, but I admire the way he kept trying to do something different, and avoided the constraints of formula.

To Be Hanged was published by Faber in 1930, and it's very different from the conventional Golden Age whodunit. A journalist overhears a conversation which leads him to suspect that a man's conviction for murder is a miscarriage of justice. He then sets himself the task (seemingly untroubled by any other calls on his time) of securing the wretched fellow's release. Which in turn means that he has to establish the guilt of someone else.

This is, therefore,  a detective story, but of an unconventional sort; at times it seems more like a straightforward thriller. The detective is aided by a barrister who again doesn't seem to have anything else to occupy his time, and together they follow an elaborate trail. Could it be that the scapegoat has been deceived by the woman he loved? The answer to that soon becomes obvious, but Hamilton has one or two pleasing plot twists up his sleeve.

Overall, I'd say that this is an accomplished piece of crime writing, especially given its date, and the fact that it was a first novel. Arthur Conan Doyle is quoted on the jacket as saying how clever the story is, and although one has to bear in mind that he was Bruce Hamilton's godfather, this is a novel that doesn't deserve to be forgotten. It should have heralded a career of distinction, but in the event, Bruce's crime writing proceeded in fits and starts before spluttering to a dead halt in the 50s. A real shame.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Innocent - ITV drama review

I've just caught up with Innocent, last week's ITV crime show, a four-parter written by Chris Lang and Matthew Arlidge. I thought it was very watchable, and though it wasn't in any way ground-breaking, that's not a criticism, There are times when TV shows that try too hard to be original simply descend into absurdity. Innocent had its flaws, but overall it was good entertainment.

The basic premise is that David Collins (played very well by Lee Ingleby, an actor of considerable range) has just been released from prison, eight years after being charged with the murder of his wife Tara. His one supporter has been his older brother Phil, but he's lost his two children to his brittle sister-in-law (Hermione Norris, excellent as usual) and her husband. Now, for David, it's payback time. And soon his in-laws come under suspicion themselves.

The police re-investigate the crime, and soon the senior officer discovers that her partner, who conducted the original inquiry, was responsible for a miscarriage of justice. There were some aspects of the police side of the case which didn't seem totally credible to me, and similarly I was baffled by the suspension of the doctor who was one of the suspects - he seemed to be the top man in the practice, but was treated as a junior employee; my inner employment lawyer wasn't convinced. But these are the compromises with reality that writers often feel they have to make.

The location shots were absolutely marvellous - it turns out that Malahide, a lovely spot, stood in for the supposed setting in Sussex. The surprise twist was, to me, entirely foreseeable as early as episode two, but that didn't really matter too much, because the story was nicely paced, well acted, and didn't culminate in one of those tedious cliffhangers which are meant to pave the way for a second series. I don't expect Innocent to return, but it was good while it lasted.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Daggers and CrimeFest


I'm back home, briefly, following an action-packed CrimeFest in Bristol. The convention celebrated its tenth anniversary in style, and a large room was packed to the rafters for the panel about our celebratory anthology, Ten Year Stretch. Considering that my fellow panellists included Lee Child, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, Simon Brett, John Harvey, and moderator Donna Moore, that wasn't perhaps surprising, and we had a great time. It was also good to see fellow contributors such as Jeffrey Deaver and Zoe Sharp during the course of the weekend.

I also, as usual, enjoyed moderating the Authors Remembered panel. This time I shared the platform with Sarah Ward, Nick Triplow, John Lawton, Chrissie Poulson and a new friend, Chris Curran. As ever time flew by all too quickly: so many great books to discuss, so little time. Sarah also moderated a splendid panel on "England's Green and Pleasant Land" in which I took part.

A very special highlight for me was the announcement of the CWA Daggers longlists. I'm truly delighted to say that, for the first time, and rather incredibly, I've been nominated for two Daggers in the same year: the CWA Dagger in the Library, and the CWA ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction (the latter for The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, which has this year been nominated for four awards, two in the UK, two in the US). It's all rather dizzying, and I'm hugely grateful.

Among many other things, I was delighted to present Peter James with a personal memento recording the award to him (a couple of years ago) of the CWA Diamond Dagger (see him wielding it with great aplomb below!). I also had a highly enjoyable dinner with my publishers, about whom more news before long...All in all, a terrific week-end. The delegates were sorry to hear Adrian Muller announce at the Saturday night banquet that there is some uncertainty about whether CrimeFest will take place next year, but here's hoping...



Friday, 18 May 2018

Forgotten Book - Murders in Sequence

I'd heard a little about the American author Milton Propper before I finally got around to sampling his work. Several commentators have compared his work to that of Freeman Wills Crofts, whom Propper admired (he was also a fan of Lynn Brock, I gather from the Passing Tramp blog). I was rather intrigued by the title of his last novel, Murders in Sequence (and also by its alternative title, The Blood Transfusion Murder), which was first published in 1943. Propper (1906-62) was a writer in the Golden Age tradition; his first novel appeared in 1929..

After a group of young people have been out on the town in Philadelphia, a car crash results in serious injury to Victor Watson. His cousin, Eugene Talbot, volunteers to donate blood to help save his life, but Talbot is murdered before the transfusion can take place. The strange sequence of murders foretold by the book's British title then starts to unfold. And it appears that the crimes are linked to inheritance, and a tricky family tree.

The initial police investigation results in the arrest of the obvious suspect, whose girlfriend seeks help from Propper's regular detective, cop Tommy Rankin. He operates almost like an amateur sleuth, re-examining the work undertaken by colleagues,and discovering that the case is far more complex than it seemed at first sight. Unfortunately, I found the investigation, and even the dramatic final plot twist, rather less engaging than I'd hoped.

This is partly because Propper's style of writing is so undistinguished that he makes Crofts seem like Graham Greene. The characters are lifeless, and even Tommy is a rather dull dog. The plotting, although quite crafty, seemed to me to be less meticulous than Crofts'. All this is a pity, because in other hands, the plot could have been the foundation of a very lively story. After writing this book, Propper abandoned the genre, and it may be that the lacklustre writing reflects the fact that he'd wearied of detective fiction. His later life seems to be have been deeply unhappy, and ultimately he committed suicide. So it would be harsh to judge him on this book alone. His earlier work may well brim with zest, but that can't really be said of Murders in Sequence.


Forgotten Book - Holy Disorders

Holy Disorders was Edmund Crispin's second book, written in 1945 and published the following year, but set in wartime, and featuring German spies as well as Gervase Fen. It begins with a young composer called Geoffrey Vintner receiving a bizarre warning not to accept an invitation to travel to a small town called Tolnbridge to play the organ. An equally bizarre telegram from his old friend Fen asks him to buy a butterfly net.

When Geoffrey obediently goes to a department store to purchase the net, he is attacked, only to be rescued by a young man who works there, and whose name, he says, is Henry Fielding. He also reveals that he's a member of the aristocracy. What's more, he accompanies Geoffrey to Tolnbridge to help him find out what on earth is going on.

One organist at Tolnbridge has already bitten the dust, and before long there is another tragedy. Fen is as exuberant as ever, and irritatingly keeps saying that he knows what is happening, while refusing to reveal the truth to Geoffrey or the police. This know-all behaviour was, of course, a feature of Great Detectives - Hercule Poirot was apt to tease in similar fashion - but Fen rather overdoes it.

But that doesn't detract from the enjoyment of a complicated mystery with a startling "least likely person" solution. You don't read Crispin for the characterisation, and the main villain wasn't really believable to my mind, but there is more than adequate compensation in the witty writing. There's even a cluefinder element - footnotes to the closing pages referring the reader to the clues in earlier chapters. Great fun.

Forgotten Book - Mystery at Olympia


Mystery at Olympia

Not so long ago, the prospect of five of John Rhode's detective novels being republished as mass market paperbacks seemed as unlikely as the solutions to some of his more technically complicated mysteries. Rhode's books have long been popular with collectors (or at least, collectors with deep pockets), but the consensus in the publishing world was that there was no real market for them. But the British Library republished two of his Miles Burton novels with considerable success, and this breakthrough has been followed up by Harper Collins, with, so far, three more titles in paperback, plus a hardback of The Paddington Mystery due in June.

I've reviewed Death at Breakfast and Invisible Weapons previously; now it's time to take a look at Mystery at Olympia. This is a story which, on its first appearance in 1935, had a topicality and freshness about its opening scene. Rhode tried to keep up to date, and here he sets the first chapter at the Olympia Motor Show. Among the visitors is Dr Oldland, a chum of Dr Lancelot Priestley, and his professional skills are called upon when an elderly man collapses and dies from no apparent cause. The deceased, it turns out, rejoices in the name of Nahum Pershore, and Superintendent Hanslet soon has reason to suspect that he was murdered - but how, and by whom?

When Pershore's household is investigated, it becomes apparent that there have been some very strange goings-on in the run-up to his death. Someone shot him in the leg, but he made light of it, for some reason. The parlour-maid has been poisoned with arsenic. And another attempt seems to have been made on his life. In this story, unlike many of Rhode's, there's a good-sized cast of potential suspects, with a range of motives, and suspicion shifts around them in pleasing fashion.

So there are plenty of things to like about Mystery at Olympia. That said, it's also a novel that demonstrates Rhode's habitual failings. The first chapter devotes rather more than two pages to a discussion of a new motoring transmission device, but it proves not to have anything to do with the plot, and is simply a form of heavy-handed satire, when - speaking personally - I'd have been more entertained by a page or two devoted to satirising an obsession with cars. But that would have been too much for Rhode, whose love of motoring is also evident from the rather tedious The Motor Rally Mystery.

The murder method struck me as much more chancy than Rhode would have us believe, while the motive is thinly sketched. The same is true of books like The Motor Rally Mystery and Shot at Dawn, where Rhode's lack of interest in humanising his killers makes one as indifferent to their psychology and their fate as Dr Priestley, whose behaviour at the end of this novel offers an intriguing example of a Great Detective doing justice in his own inimitable way. Not a masterpiece, then, but certainly worth a look.



Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Ten Year Stretch - celebrating a decade of CrimeFest


Image result for ten year stretch

Tomorrow I set off for Bristol, and CrimeFest, which this year is celebrating its tenth anniversary. I've attended every single one, and they are always great fun. So I was delighted when, a couple of years ago, the organisers approached me and asked if I'd like to help them to put together an anthology to celebrate CrimeFest, and also raise money for a very worthwhile cause, the RNIB Talking Books Library.

The result of our endeavours has just seen the light of day. Ten Year Stretch, edited by myself and Adrian Muller of CrimeFest, is published by No Exit Press. The list of contributors is quite glittering: it includes such luminaries as Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Jeffrey Deaver, Sophie Hannah, Mick Herron, Ian Rankin, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, and Andrew Taylor. There is also a story from the legendary Maj Sjowall which has been freshly translated from the Swedish by Catherine Edwards, journalist, editor, linguist - and daughter of the co-editor!

I've always believed that diversity of content is the hallmark of a great anthology, and we certainly have that in abundance in Ten Year Stretch. Ann, for instance, has written a "locked tent mystery" set in Africa, and hers is not the only variation on the classic "locked room" theme: I really hope that the new character she introduces will return in future. As for my own story, "Strangers in a Pub", it too introduces a sleuthing odd couple who may well return at some future date. I enjoyed writing about them and would like to explore their continuing relationship in fresh adventures.

It was both a pleasure and a privilege to read the stories as they came in, one by one, over the course of time. Getting the chance of a sneak preview of a new Child, Rankin, or Deaver is a hugely enjoyable treat for any crime fan. Over the weekend, among other things, I'll be taking part in a panel with Lee, Ian, and Yrsa, and every delegate will receive a free copy of our book, thanks to the generous support of Jane Burfield, to whom we have dedicated the anthology. It should be yet another wonderful convention.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Guernsey and Jersey


I'm back home, briefly, after a trip to the Channel Islands, one of my favourite destinations. Originally, I was asked to give a library talk in Jersey, and this led in due course to a similar invitation from the library in Guernsey; that in turn prompted the organisers of Guernsey Literary Festival to get in touch. So in the space of a couple of hectic days, I undertook three events on two islands and met a good many pleasant people.


I was even given the bonus of a short sightseeing trip around the west coast of Guernsey, with a chance to see the little off-shore island of Lihue as well as to visit an ancient cavern steeped in myth and legend. Then it was off to St Peter Port, and a workshop on crime writing at Les Cotils, with a group which included, to my surprise and delight, that excellent blogger Harriet Devine. I've not run many workshops, but this one was so interesting that I'm tempted to do them more regularly.


On Friday evening I gave a talk about The Golden Age of Murder at Guernsey Library, and also had the chance to catch up with fellow crime writer Jason Monaghan (who sometimes writes as Jason Foss) and the editor of The Golden Age of Murder, David Brawn, whose presence on the island was a delightful coincidence. The three of us had dinner together after the talk, a convivial end to a rather long day.


It was up early again to take the short flight to Jersey, with a chance to look around St Helier before I gave another Golden Age talk to an excellent audience. After dinner I headed back to my hotel and promptly went to sleep for eleven hours: tiredness rather than too much to drink, I can assure you! But next morning I managed to fit in a little more sightseeing before catching the flight back to Manchester.


I've visited the Channel Islands six or seven times over the years, and each time I find something new and intriguing about them. On my last visit, I even planned out a short story set in Alderney, though I fear that it still remains unwritten. One of these days I do hope to get round to writing a mystery set on one of the islands. In the meantime, I'm very grateful to those who looked after me so well during my whistle-stop tour, and I'm very much looking forward to my next trip there - which will be in September, for the Jersey Literary Festival. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

Forgotten Book - The Saltmarsh Murders

It's fair to say that the exuberant detective fiction of Gladys Mitchell is an acquired taste. Julian Symons, one of the best judges of all, never acquired it, and it's easy to understand why. Her books, or at least those that I've read (she was very prolific, and I've focused on reading her work from the 30s and 40s) often seem rather over the top. But I get the impression that she was a fun person, and had fun writing her novels, and that in itself I find appealing.

The Saltmarsh Murders, first published in 1932, was her fourth novel featuring Mrs Bradley, who is fine form, cackling and screeching as she sets about solving a whole series of mysteries which centre around the little coastal resort of Saltmarsh. The story is narrated by Noel Wells, the local curate, but one thing is for sure. This is really not a re-run of The Murder at the Vicarage. In place of Christie's coolly assembled and crystal clear storyline, we have a whirl of activity that often threatens to descend into incoherence - though it just about avoids doing so.

The starting point is that Meg Tosstick, a young girl who works at the vicarage, has got pregnant. Rumours swirl as to who the father might be. The baby is born, but nobody sees it. Then Meg disappears, and in due course is discovered to have been murdered. But there is more, much more going on than that.

I found some of the comedy in the book quite effective; not for nothing is mention made by Noel Wells of P.G. Wodehouse. Some of it, however, has not stood the test of time, while the presence in the story of a black servant prompts some depressing racial stereotyping. And although the presentation of sexual repression might have seemed advanced in the 30s, it's now unappealing. However, if you can cope with all the downsides of Mitchell's eccentric approach to crime writing, this is a book that most of her devotees regard as one of her very best. Me? I'm glad I read it, but I prefer Christie, no question.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn - book review

A. J. Finn's debut novel The Woman in the Window has been riding high in the bestselling charts, and having read it, I can see why. Finn's story blends classic ingredients of psychological suspense with an unreliable narrator, excellent plot twists, and (especially in the early part of the book) compelling prose. There are a lot of books in this vein at present, but this is one I can safely recommend.

The premise of the story owes a great deal to the master of the emotional thriller, Cornell Woolrich: it's really lifted straight out of Rear Window, and Finn cleverly makes a virtue out of this borrowing by having his narrator, Anna Fox, talk endlessly about film noir. Anna is confined to her apartment by agoraphobia, and whiles away her time by spying on her neighbours. Needless to say, the day comes when she sees something shocking - but when the police come on the scene, her account appears to be incredible, and nobody believes her. What on earth is going on?

Although the premise is familiar, what Finn does with it is so cunningly thought out that I'd better not say too much about the way the storyline develops. I felt that Woolrich and his French disciples Boileau and Narcejac (Vertigo, based on their most famous book, is naturally referenced in this story) would not only have recognised the way Finn sets up his mystery, but also admired it. The question then is: can Finn resolve the puzzle he's created without letting us down? Woolrich in particular often struggled to avoid anti-climax, but I think Finn does an excellent job in tying up the loose ends. Having read this skilfully crafted novel, I wasn't in this least surprised to discover that Finn was an experienced book editor.

Finn's real name is Daniel Mallory, and I've been interested to read interviews in which he's discussed his experience of misdiagnosed depression - a topic I touched on the other day in the context of writers and wellbeing. That experience has evidently fed into his presentation of Anna, a deeply troubled woman, who seems to me to be portrayed very effectively. Yes, I enjoyed this book very much. The real challenge for Finn is now simply this: how can I improve on my excellent debut? 

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Writing and Wellbeing

From my early years, I've been fascinated by stories - hearing or reading them as well as telling them. Stories always seemed to me to represent a way of escaping from the real world and into my imagination, and growing up, I found that extremely appealing. I still do. Even when something from real life influences my fiction (for instance, the Crippen case which inspired Dancing for the Hangman), my main focus is on the imaginative aspects of the story. And stories also offer us ways of trying to understand the world (and the people in it) a little better. That's surely one of the key reasons why perfectly law-abiding people love stories about crime and criminals.

Writing and wellbeing seem to me to have clear and close connections, and these have interested me for a very long time. At Malice Domestic, Catriona McPherson made a telling point when she reminded us that, in many ways, writers' lives are privileged: she drew a comparison with the work of psychiatric nurses, for instance. Having once worked for six months as the world's most incompetent factory labourer, I know she's right; I'd much rather be a writer than anything else. Equally, it's the case that, for many writers, the privileges are offset by the downsides - emotional and financial insecurity and rejection being among them.

Writing can, apart from anything else, act as a very positive form of therapy, even for those who don't seek to publish what they write. I know that when I was at my lowest ebb, eight years ago, when everything that could go wrong in a hitherto blessed life seemed to be going wrong, writing was a lifeline. And this blog, and the kindness of its readers, played a valuable part in helping me to get through an extremely difficult time.

The Society of Authors recently took wellbeing as a theme for an issue of its quarterly magazine, and this prompted me to start an initiative on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association. I wanted to encourage the sharing of experiences so that members who were encountering setbacks would realise they are not alone, and that some of the taboos would start to break down. Simon Brett, a friend and a man I've long admired, has written movingly about his own struggles with depression, and at my suggestion he contributed an article to the CWA members' private newsletter, Red Herrings.

This has in turn prompted further articles and also thoughtful online discussion, just as I'd hoped. And only today, C.J. Sansom wrote a moving article in The Sunday Times about his own experience of depression, which stems back to his childhood and unhappy time at school. Each person's experience is different, but understanding more about what individuals have gone through (and, where they've been able to overcome difficulties, how they've gone about it) is important in so many ways.

Progress has been made in recent years in terms of reducing the stigmas that surround mental health problems, but fresh challenges for writers have emerged, and the public nature of social media (wonderful though it can be) exacerbates the problems. So I believe that talking about these things (which is very different from over-sharing), rather than hiding away from them, is a Good Thing, and I'm glad to find that others take the same view. None of us want to dwell too long on gloom and doom; there's enough of that in the world already. But recognising that life has its downs as well as its ups equips us better - in the long run - to value and make the most of those ups.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Forgotten Book- Printer's Devil

Sometimes an old book is a lovely thing to have, even if its contents are less than scintillating. That isn't a view I've always held. At one time, for me, the story was always the thing. But in the last fifteen years or so, I've enjoyed collecting old crime novels, especially if they have an interesting signature or inscription. And I was fortunate to be able to acquire from the estate of a great collector and crime fan, Bob Adey, a number of terrific books.

One of them is Printer's Devil, by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson. It's a scarce novel, by two founder members of the Detection Club who were undoubtedly skilful writers, first published in 1930. The copy which I bought from Bob's estate is still in its jacket, and has been signed by Helen Simpson. A very nice thing to have. The next question: is the story any good?

This was a follow-up to Enter Sir John, featuring Sir John Samaurez, which was filmed by Hitchcock as Murder! Samaurez also plays a part in this story, but in a very minor role. The book clearly shows the authors' shared ambition to raise the literary standard of the crime novel, focusing on people as well as plot. And according to the jacket blurb, "right to the last page readers will be undecided whether they have enjoyed a first-rate comedy or a breath-taking thriller, for both are to be found in this story".

I'm sorry to say, however, that I wasn't undecided, because I didn't find it remotely breath-taking or thrilling. The premise of the story is interesting and unusual: a pioneering woman publisher is presented with a manuscript by her star author. He's written something scandalous, full of revelations about people's secrets. The publisher, a decent woman, is deeply concerned about the implications of the book, and soon she is found dead. A coroner's jury brings in a verdict of misadventure? But could it in truth have been a case of murder?

The trouble is that there is not much mystery about it all, and the "crime" element of the book could have been put across in a short story, where it would have worked well. Because it's smothered by dated humour, and a romance that I found extremely tedious (it's "ridiculous, charming", according to the blurb", but the charm was lost on me) I wasn't impressed. The fact the book is well-written isn't adequate compensation for the fact that it's not terribly interesting to a modern reader. What we have here, I think, is an experiment which fails because the authors strike the wrong balance between people and plot. In that respect, you might say that Printer's Devil makes Gaudy Night look like And Then There Were None. But I'm still glad to have Bob's copy.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Malice Domestic


I'm back home from Malice Domestic 30. Malice is an excellent convention that I've recommended before and will definitely be recommending many times in the future; it's for all those who enjoy the traditional mystery. It's also very slickly organised by an experienced Board whose hard-working members are committed to making sure that everyone has a great time. This year, the convention moved to a new hotel, still in Bethesda, Maryland, and conveniently close to a Metro station, so that I was able to fit in some sight-seeing in Washington DC before the festivities began.


Those sights included the lovely garden at Dumbarton Oaks, where the spring blossom was gorgeous and memorable, and the famous steps which feature in the film of The Exorcist. Naturally, I fitted in second hand bookshop or two, though for once I resisted the temptation to purchase, knowing that many good books would await me at Malice. Washington DC is a marvellous tourist spot, and the Georgetown area is among its attractive destinations. For dinner,  a historic restaurant with the irresistible name of Martin's Tavern proved a brilliant recommendation, not just because the food was good but because it's a place brimming with atmosphere and history; among other things, it's where JFK proposed to Jackie. And when the sun shone, I even found myself reading a book for an hour in the improbable setting of the middle of a busy roundabout, at the rather appealing Dupont Circle.


This year's recipient of the Poirot Award was Brenda Blethyn, twice-nominated for Academy  Awards, and now renowned as DCI Vera Stanhope. As last year's recipient, I was asked to host a discussion with Brenda and Vera's creator, Ann Cleeves. There could have been no easier or more pleasurable task, and the vast ballroom was packed. My thanks to Elisa Varey for the photos. The following day I was on an Agatha nominees panel with Cindy Callaghan and Mattias Bostrum, and then on Sunday Kristopher Zygorski moderated a panel about the darker side of traditional fiction with his customary verve.


As always at these events, there was a chance to catch up with old and valued friends, such as Doug Greene, Josh Pachter, Shelly Dickson Carr, Les and Leslie Blatt, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Catriona (who is in the photo with me below), Cathy Ace, Michael Dirda, Janet Hutchings, and many more, as well as to make new ones - Mattias, Patricia Gouthro (who interviewed me for a research project), and Gabriel Valjean among others.


These contacts are a hugely enjoyable part of a convention, even if at times the whirl of activity can become a bit overwhelming. I have to admit that I was running out of energy before the time came to brave the long double flight back to Manchester, and I've arrived home rather wearily. But I need to spring back into action soon - my next flights and next festival are next week...





Monday, 30 April 2018

Trial of Louise Masset - Notable British Trials No. 85

For anyone interested in the history of crime and punishment, the Notable British Trials series has long been a rich source of reliable information. The original series, published by William Hodge and Company, became extremely well-known, and its recent revival by Mango Books is welcome. The second of the "Mango" titles has now been published; it is the Trial of Louise Masset, edited by Kate Clarke.

I must admit that I knew next to nothing about this case, sometimes known as "the Dalston mystery", before picking up this book. It deals with that most horrible of crimes, the murder of a very young and defenceless child. The body was soon identified as three-year old Manfred Masset. His mother Louise was the prime suspect right from the outset.

Louise was a governess in her mid-thirties. Manfred was illegitimate, and in the late 1890s, that was of course a source of social stigma. The position of an unmarried mother was extremely difficult and stressful. Louise vehemently denied killing her own child. On her account she'd already arrived in Brighton, where she was planning to spend the week-end with her new lover, Eudore Lewis (Eudore is a new name to me, I must admit.) The couple registered in the hotel under false names, claiming to be brother and sister.

Louise's denials didn't persuade the police. Eventually, they failed to persuade the jury. She was sentenced to death, and became the first person to be executed in Britain in the 20th century, a miserable distinction. But as Kate Clarke explains, the case was less straightforward than it might seem. There are some remarkable ingredients, not least the involvement of Arthur Newton, the dodgiest solicitor of his era, who would later act for Dr Crippen. Train times come into the story, rather as in a mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. All in all, a welcome addition to an excellent series.