Friday, 14 December 2018

Forgotten Book - Left-Handed Death

Left-Handed Death, first published in 1946, is a novel by Richard Hull which draws on his wartime experience as an accountant working on behalf of the government. If that sounds less than enticing, I can offer some reassurance, since Hull was a writer both witty and inventive, and this book bears his hallmarks, even though it's not, in my opinion, one of his major works.

Shergold Engineering Company Ltd is in difficulties. The principals, Arthur Shergold and Guy Reeves (who has lost three fingers of his left hand), are worried that Barry Foster, the accountant employed by the Ministry to check on government contractors, has identified something amiss with the company's records. Yet the accountant in question, Barry Foster, is lazy, and focused mainly on getting "through his duties easily and without argument or fuss". So why be concerned?

Cynthia Trent, a secretary in the business whom Reeves wants to marry, becomes embroiled in a strange scenario when - so it seems - Reeves murders Foster and promptly confesses his guilt to the police. Yet the police are surprisingly reluctant to accept the truth of his story. What is going on? As readers of Richard Hull know, appearances are invariably deceptive. 

I suspect that Hull enjoyed himself in writing this novel, and I suspect that his portrayal of Foster, and of the haplessness of the Ministry and the people working in it was to an extent a jokey expression of his own dissatisfaction with working for a bunch of bureaucrats. As often with Hull's novels, this one has the feeling of a novella stretched out beyond the natural length justified by the plot material, but it provides an interesting picture of the times.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Audio books and Gallows Court


Image result for sheila mitchell actor

This week, Sheila Mitchell has been recording the full-length audio book version of Gallows Court. I was thrilled when she proposed this to my publishers, and so were they. Over the years, I've been lucky in the actors who have recorded my books for audio. Gordon Griffin in particular has done sterling work, and last month I had the pleasure of meeting Julia Franklin, who recorded The Cipher Garden some years back. But this is the first time Sheila has been involved with any of my books.

Sheila has been (as was her late husband Harry Keating, formerly a distinguished President of the Detection Club) a friend for many years. I've learned a great deal from her about such things as voice projection - not that I'm much good at it, even now, though she's done her best to train me! Harry, I gather, recorded one of his own novels, before concluding it was best left to the professionals. I very much agree, and I can't see myself ever wanting to record a novel of my own, even though I did once record a short story, "No Flowers", for an Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine podcast.

Done well (as it needs to be), audio recording is a demanding job. Sheila has recorded countless audio books over the years, and her preparation continues to be absolutely meticulous. During recent conversations, I was interested to find out how she goes about it, and it's become clear to me that an in-depth understanding of the characters and incidents, as well as oddities of pronunciation, is invaluable for someone about to embark on a marathon of reading aloud.

I was greatly impressed by the list of questions she fired at me after her second reading of the text; thankfully, I managed to figure out the answers. Her incisive analysis of the tricky bits will, I feel sure, be a real benefit. She spent the first three days of this week full-time (about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) in the studio, recording Gallows Court. That she's been willing to do this is something I regard as an honour and I very much look forward to listening to the result.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Gallows Court - the special editions


I'm absolutely thrilled that my publishers Head of Zeus have produced two very special editions of Gallows Court for collectors. These are signed limited editions, 75 in a numbered series, and 26 in a lettered sequence. I've never before had a limited edition produced of any of my novels, and this initiative is particularly gratifying for me, given that I'm a huge fan of beautifully produced limited editions, and have quite a few in my own collection.

The production details are: notched case, quarter bound with Wibalin Buckram on the spine. And each copy, as I say, is signed. (Yes, I know the old joke about unsigned copies having greater scarcity value, but never mind!)



For anyone interested in acquiring a copy, perhaps as a Christmas gift, here are the ordering details:

TO ORDER:
Call 01256 302692 or email your order and phone number to direct@macmillan.co.uk and someone will call you back.
The order line is open 8.30am - 5.30pm (GMT) Monday to Friday.
To process your order you will need the title, author name and ISBN (please select the correct ISBN for the edition you wish to purchase from the below), as well as quantity and your delivery address. Payment details will be taken over the phone but your card will not be charged until your order is despatched.
Quote promo code RC5 to receive free p&p within the UK.
Order details: 
GALLOWS COURT SPECIAL EDITION LETTERED, Martin Edwards, ISBN 9781789541748, £100
GALLOWS COURT SPECIAL EDITION NUMBERED, Martin Edwards, ISBN 9781789541113, £50   



Friday, 7 December 2018

Forgotten Book - On Suspicion

Dulan Friar Whilberton Barber (a great name!) was a talented novelist who wrote crime fiction under the rather less memorable name David Fletcher. His career in the genre lasted fifteen years, and the quality of his writing suggested that, (even though I think it's fair to say that he was never a leader in the field), there was a good chance that he might have become a major star. Sadly, it wasn't to be, because he died of a heart attack at the age of only forty-seven.

I remember borrowing his books from the library in the 70s and 80s, and my wife met him when she went on an Arvon writers' course which he was leading; she was impressed. Recently, I was pleased to acquired the inscribed dedication copy of a suspense novel he published in 1985, On Suspicion, which I hadn't come across before.

At first the story looks as though it will turn into a rite-of-passage narrative. The focus is on 18 year old Nick Garfield, who has just passed his exams with flying colours and is destined for Oxford. But the story becomes something darker when, having stumbled across a corpse when taking a girlfriend into the woods, Nick becomes a suspect in a serial killer investigation.

This is, essentially, a book about character and relationships. The plot twists are essentially character-related. We know that Nick is innocent, but he tells stupid lies in a manner reminiscent of John Bingham's Michael Sibley, and the police pursue him relentlessly. It's a highly readable story, and although there are one or two points which bothered me and which I'd have liked Fletcher to elaborate upon, I found it gripping. Dulan Barber alias David Fletcher left us too soon, and deserves to be better known. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Do You Know This Voice? - 1964 film review

Do You Know This Voice? is a shortish British film based on a novel of the same name published in 1961. The author was Evelyn Berckman, someone I've not yet read, but there is enough in this movie to persuade me that her books would be well worth seeking out. Apparently, she was an American who moved to Britain, having published her first novel at the age of 54, and she went on to carve herself quite a reputation. She also published several books on the unexpected topic of naval history.

At first, the film seems to be a mystery about a kidnapping. A mysterious individual makes a phone call to the parents of a kidnapped child, demanding money they haven't got. The parents call in the police, in the fairly sympathetic shape of that excellent character actor Peter Madden. He arranges for the kidnapper's next call to be tape-recorded. But alas, things go terribly wrong. The faint-hearted should be warned that this is a story in which a child dies, and so does a domestic pet. I'm not sure how many writers would risk that nowadays...

As the title suggests, the police issue a public appeal for information about the mysterious caller. But in a plot twist (quite neat, but foreseeable) the identity of the person in question is quickly revealed, and the film becomes a suspense story, as a desperate killer tries more than once to murder the one woman who can reveal the caller's identity.

The tension is nicely built up, and this film has won admirers over the years. The cast is pretty good, with another good actor, Gwen Watford, playing an important part; Dan Duryea is at the heart of the action, as is the Italian Isa Miranda. My main reservation about the storyline is that the killer is ludicrously incompetent. Frankly, it was inconceivable that someone so clueless would ever get away with murder, even though the police make a fair few blunders as well. And the relationship between the married couple at the centre of the story, although very interesting, is not drawn in depth. So I wasn't convinced by the story, but I suspect the source novel is superior. 


Monday, 3 December 2018

The Golden Age of Murder in Japan - and classic crime in China


I've just received my copy of the new Japanese edition of The Golden Age of Murder. And a handsome hardback volume it is. Of course, I can't read a word of it, since I don't speak or read Japanese, but seeing a book that one laboured over for so many years translated in this way is truly gratifying. I'm very grateful to the publishers and the hard-working translators who are, I'm assured by a Japanese friend, highly skilled.

I've never visited Japan (or at least I haven't so far; one never knows what the future may bring) but it's a country that I find increasingly fascinating. This is partly as a result of reading more Japanese detective fiction, partly as a result of having more contact with people from Japan. A couple of years ago, I was flown down to London to take part in a documentary for Japanese TV about classic detective fiction, and there's clearly a great appetite for the genre in Japan.

I wrote about The Tokyo Zodiac Murders the other day, and it's one of a number of ingenious detective novels from Japan which have been translated into English. Pushkin Vertigo have, for instance, published a couple of books by that fascinating character Masako Togawa. I've also enjoyed the work of Alice Arisugawa, whose non-fiction book about locked room mysteries is delightful to leaf through, even if one doesn't know the language, because of the gorgeous illustrations. Japanese culture seems very different to someone like me, raised in conventional fashion in the west. But it's enormously interesting, and Japanese crime fiction certainly appeals to me much at least as much as Nordic Noir. 

I'm delighted to say that there will also be a Chinese translation of The Golden Age of Murder, though that won't be published for another twelve months. In the meantime, I've just received a book from China that I'm really thrilled to see. It's primarily a collection of signatures and inscriptions from classic crime writers, British and American, and again the emphasis on images means that even if, like me, you speak no Chinese, it's still fascinating to look at. I supplied some images of inscribed books from my collection to the two editors, and my congratulations go to Eliot Han and his colleague for producing a splendid and (as far as I know) unique volume. Great stuff!











Friday, 30 November 2018

Forgotten Book - Singled Out

Simon Brett is a multi-talented author, and the range of the 100-plus books that he's written is truly impressive. Not all his work is within the crime genre, but that's the specialism for which he's best known, perhaps above all for his long and very entertaining series featuring the actor Charles Paris. His dark novels of psychological suspense are interesting, but only the first of them, A Shock to the System, is well-known, thanks to the film version starring Michael Caine.

Singled Out was published in 1995. It's not an easy book to write about in detail, because the plot is so elaborate that it's almost impossible not to give spoilers. But let me have a try. The story begins in 1973, with attractive Laura Fisher, whose marriage has recently broken down, setting out to seduce a man so as to become pregnant. In this first section of the book, we learn about Laura's past - and of how she'd been deeply affected by a murder. Laura works in television, and Simon Brett's understanding of the  TV world makes the background seem authentic, even if the events of the story are outlandish.

The story then moves on to 1993, and a sequence of events which forces Laura to confront the horrors of her personal background, and the fear that history may be about to repeat itself. The narrative is concerned not just with murder, but with child abuse and incest. Reading it now, a quarter of a century later, it seems to reflect the mores of the time, which are in some ways rather different from those of the present.

I see this book as forming part of a tradition of British psychological suspense, reaching back to Francis Iles' novels, and including several of the novels of Julian Symons, such as The Plot Against Roger Rider. Like Iles and Symons, Brett is an expert plotsmith, but for me, his greatest strength as a crime writer is his wit. Humour isn't much in evidence in such a bleak story as this, and I suspect that explains why he moved away from this type of writing. Singled Out isn't by any means his best book, but it's an interesting and laudably ambitious example of a fast-paced and very readable novel of suspense.



Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Last Man to Hang - 1956 film

The Last Man to Hang is a movie based on Gerald Bullett's most famous novel, The Jury, which was published in 1935. The film's title reflects the fact that the story has been updated and set in the mid-Fifties, at a time when a debate about whether to end capital punishment in the UK was occupying Parliament. Will Sir Roderick Strood be found guilty of murdering his wife, and pay the ultimate price?

Strood (played by Tom Conway) has been having an affair with an American singer, Elizabeth (Eunice Gayson), much to the distress of his wife Daphne (Elizabeth Sellars) and the disgust of Daphne's devoted servant Mrs Tucker (Freda Jackson). When Daphne dies of an overdose, Strood is arrested at London Airport - he'd been about to fly off with his lover. Unfortunately, what he tells the police seems damning, especially when it emerges that he'd given Daphne some powerful sleeping tablets.

This is a courtroom drama where (as in books like Verdict of Twelve and films like Twelve Angry Men) much of the focus is on the jurors, and what factors will determine their verdict. The story is competently presented, and there's a surprise (and, I thought, highly unlikely) twist ending. Overall, it makes for good entertainment.

I wasn't especially impressed by Conway, who seemed to me to lack the charisma the part required; I was rather surprised to learn that his real name was Tom Sanders, and he was elder brother of George Sanders, who might have made rather more of the role.  Freda Jackson is excellent as the malevolent housekeeper, but it was the supporting cast that really caught my eye. So there's a small comic part for Joan Hickson, while Anthony Newley plays a Jack-the-lad juror. His latest girlfriend is played by Gillian Lynne, who became a legendary choreographer and died not long ago. There's even an appearance by John Schlesinger, better known as a film director. Spotting these familiar faces is enjoyable in itself, and the film is well worth watching. 

Monday, 26 November 2018

Writing Workshops

I've enjoyed an eventful year in 2018. It's also been event-full, as I've found myself in all sorts of interesting places talking about crime fiction. Tallinn, Iceland, Washington DC, St Petersburg, Florida, and New York City, for instance. To say nothing of Guernsey, Jersey, Woking, a fascinating church in Soho, a gorgeous library in Highgate, and places closer to home such as Hawarden, Kirby Lonsdale, and Lancaster. And on Saturday the curtain came down on the year's calendar of speaking events, at the Blue Cap Hotel in Sandiway in Cheshire.

It's a long time since I was last at the Blue Cap, a historic pub and restaurant dating back to the early eighteenth century. In particular, I remember a poignant lunch there with my mother, when I was twenty-two, and my father was desperately ill; thankfully, he recovered and lived another fourteen years. I couldn't help thinking back to that occasion when I turned up to deliver a crime writing workshop organised by Vale Royal Writers' Group. And I was glad that my return to the Blue Cap proved to be convivial and enjoyable.

It's the third writing workshop I've presented this year, although the others were less than half a day long, and so this time we were able to cover more ground. It's always enjoyable to talk to and spend time with fellow writers, and this is true whether or not they are already published - in fact, as at previous workshops, some of those attending had already published or self-published novels. The range of different ideas that come up in response to some of the writing exercises is always fascinating.

In the 1980s, years before I published my first novel, I was a member of a writers' group on the Wirral, and I also attended some meetings and seminars run by Southport Writers. I found all this experience rewarding, and I'd encourage any of you who are interested in writing to check out your local groups. As for conducting workshops, I didn't have much experience of them before this year, and thus I'm still learning, but I have been greatly heartened by the feedback. A few days ago I received an email from someone who attended my Guernsey writing workshop in spring whose first novel is now out, and to get this sort of happy news is truly delightful. So when time permits, I hope to conduct more workshops in the future, and if this is of interest to you or your local group, do let me know. 

Friday, 23 November 2018

Forgotten Book - The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

Today's Forgotten Book, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, dates back to 1981, but more than thirty years elapsed before the novel was published in English by those splendid publishers Pushkin Vertigo. The translation was undertaken by the equally splendid John Pugmire, whose own imprint, Locked Room International, has been responsible for bringing to to English language readers some truly fascinating locked room mysteries.

Shimada's book caused quite a sensation in Japan on its original release, in that it represented a striking move away from a focus on gritty realism. The story has many elements (such as floor plans and footprints in the snow) that are pure Golden Age, and Shimada is a long-time admirer of classic detective fiction from Britain and America, but it is also modern, dealing with some subjects in a degree of gruesome detail that you would never find in, say, the work of John Dickson Carr or Anthony Wynne.

The story deals with a sequence of murders (and dismemberments) that took place in 1936, and their reinvestigation in 1979. The new inquiry is undertaken by a sort of Holmes-Watson duo, the brilliant young astrologer Kyoshi Mitarai and his friend, the narrator (of most but not all of the book), an illustrator called Takeshi Yoshiki. So it's a cold case mystery, and a very complicated one too. But there are some nice touches of humour, as in Kyoshi's witty debunking of some of the most famous Sherlock Holmes stories - rather as Holmes affected to disdain Gaboriau's stories about Lecoq.

I've never visited Japan, but in recent years I've become increasingly interested in the country's detective fiction, and it was a great thrill for me when The Golden Age of Murder was bought by a Japanese publisher. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders paved the way for a new generation of writers such as Alice Arisugawa who have made intriguing use of classic tropes in their fiction, combining elements familiar from Carr and company with a Japanese sensibility that I find intriguing. I gather that Pushkin Vertigo are planning to publish more crime fiction from Japan, and I look forward to reading it.

Forgotten Book - Here Comes a Candle

I've written before about my enthusiasm for the American post-war crime writer Fredric Brown, and I'm surprised his work in the crime field isn't better known - certainly in the UK, and perhaps even in his home country. He was a successful science fiction writer, and this may account for a tendency to under-estimate his mysteries, but they are intriguing and sometimes innovative.

A prime example is Here Comes a Candle. This is a book I'd been searching for over the years, with no success, until I came across a cheapish paperback edition while attending Bouchercon in Florida. It's described on the back cover as "Fredric Brown's BIG novel", and this is a reference to its ambition rather than its size - like all his books, it's not especially lengthy.

The story is interesting in itself.  We know that young, handsome Joe Bailey is destined to kill someone, and Brown cleverly ensures that we have empathy for Joe despite the fact that he's got himself mixed up with a gangster called Mitch who is grooming him to become a partner in crime. And we also know that something serious happened in Joe's youth. But at first the details aren't clear.

Brown offers an in-depth psychological portrait, and cunningly intersperses a straightforward narrative with a number of sections which take a variety of forms - a radio programme, a stage play, a sportscast, and so on. Yes, this is a gimmick, but he uses it to cast light on the events that took Joe down a path that seems likely to end in his doom. I found it highly readable, and the ironic finale is extremely poignant. Definitely worth a read - if you can find a copy!

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Iceland Noir


I've returned from my first ever trip to Iceland. It's a country I've wanted to visit for years, but I never seemed to get round to it. Then a few months ago, I was invited to take part in the local crime festival, Iceland Noir, and the temptation proved irresistible. All the more so because I was asked to take part on a panel about Golden Age detective fiction moderated by the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir - see above: it was once in a lifetime opportunity!




My first glimpse of the country wasn't entirely encouraging, mind you. The drab weather was warmer and wetter than I'd anticipated - it seemed all too Mancunian, really. But I soon found my way around, and the weather gradually improved. The festival was held at Idno, which combines a theatre space with a nice cafe, just across the way from the City Hall, which like Idno is on the edge of the "pond", or "lake", a pleasing stretch of water right in the city centre.





Katrin Jakobsdottir proved to be charming and extremely knowledgeable about Golden Age fiction. She was an excellent moderator, and the panel was great fun. Also taking part was that terrific young writer Ragnar Jonasson, and Katrin's brother Armann Jakobsson, a prominent academic who is also a great fan of the genre's classics. Both Armann and Katrin had read The Golden Age of Murder, and had nice things to say about it, which of course I found hugely gratifying. I also reflected that the occasion was something else that I never dreamed might happen while I was labouring over the book...





I was also glad to be invited to take part in a very convivial dinner meeting with members of the AIEP/IACW international group of crime writers, and discuss future plans for the organisation. More about this in due course; meanwhile, thanks to Nina George for the photos. Then it was back to sight-seeing, and a "Golden Circle" tour, taking in a volcanic crater, shifting tectonic plates, the original geyser, a horse show, a tomato-focused meal in a greenhouse, and a close-up of a spectacular waterfall. It was a fantastic trip. That just left half a day to go to the top of the Lutheran church tower and survey Reykjavik, and then look round a fascinating exhibition of the island's archaeology. A great place, Iceland, and I'm so glad that I went there.














Sunday, 18 November 2018

Lesley Horton R.I.P.








Image result for lesley horton

I recently received a phone call from one of my predecessors as CWA Chair, Danuta Kot (also known as Danuta Reah). She gave me the sad news that another former CWA Chair, Lesley Horton, had just died, and today I'd like to pay a short tribute to Lesley by way of personal reminiscence.

I first met Lesley about sixteen years ago, shortly after publication of her first novel, Snares of Guilt. Lesley was a Yorkshirewoman, and she and her husband became regular attendees at CWA northern chapter lunches. In those days, when there were fewer literary festivals in the calendar, the northern chapter members, led by Peter Walker and Reginald Hill,  used to organise week-end breaks, which were highly convivial. Lesley and I had a number of chats at those get-togethers. I enjoyed her company, and on looking at her website when preparing this post, I was touched to see that it still links to my website, as well as that of our mutual friend, another Yorkshire writer, the late Stuart Pawson.

Lesley had been a schoolteacher for many years before becoming a full-time crime novelist, and she joined the CWA Committee, organising an annual conference at Ilkley, one of the highlights of which was a guided tour of Bronte Parsonage arranged by Robert Barnard.It was a terrific weekend.

My final memory of Lesley dates back to her time as Chair of the CWA in 2008. At an unforgettable dinner, she awarded me the CWA Short Story Dagger for "The Bookbinder's Apprentice". At that stage, I was still a full-time partner in a law firm, and I'd never won any literary award at all, although I'd made several shortlists. It was a fantastic moment. There's a wonderful account of that evening by Ali Karim on The Rap Sheet.



I certainly never imagined that night that Lesley's literary career had already come to an end. She'd published five novels, the last of them appearing in 2007, but for whatever reason, she dropped out of the crime writing world following her spell as CWA Chair. In recent times, she suffered a stroke, and lost touch with many of her author friends. But we'll miss her, and remember the good times in her company with affection. 

Friday, 16 November 2018

Forgotten Book - Vanish in an Instant

I've mentioned several times my admiration for the crime writing of Margaret Millar. She was, in my opinion, one of the best crime writers of the second half of the last century, and it's a shame that her reputation has faded somewhat, although that - sadly - is a fate common to many fine writers, as well as some who aren't quite so good. Happily, Pushkin Vertigo are reintroducing her work to readers of today, and when they asked me for a blurb, I was happy to oblige.

The book they sent to me for comment was Vanish in an Instant. It first appeared in 1952, at a time when she was moving away from her earlier, rather humorous stories, to crime novels which probed the well-springs of violence with subtlety and insight. The story starts at a point where Virginia Barkeley has been accused of murdering her lover, an unpleasant fellow called Margolis. Her mother brings in a young lawyer called Meecham, and he soon finds someone else confessing to the crime.

But Meecham isn't satisfied. The man who claims to have killed Margolis is seriously ill, and Meecham suspects he has an ulterior motive of some kind for making his confession. He begins to dig into the case, and starts to unravel a tangled web of multiple deceptions. As is often the case with Millar, there's a confusion about identity which plays a key part in the plot. It's a device I like, and she handles it very capably, time and again.

Meecham is in some ways a forerunner of her later protagonist, Tom Aragon. A cussed but likeable amateur sleuth, as he investigates, he also finds love. This isn't Millar at her absolute peak, but she was on her way up the ladder as she was writing this book, and there are plenty of good lines, as well as a plot pleasing enough to satisfy fans of the traditional mystery. Well worth reading. I'm glad Pushkin Vertigo have brought it back to the shelves.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Here, there, and everywhere

I'm back at home briefly in between various crime-writing trips. A few days in London proved highly enjoyable, and the first event on my list was a talk to the Oxford University Society in a rather special and memorable location. This was the highly atmospheric French Protestant Church in Soho Square. There was an excellent turn-out, and led to a couple of remarkable encounters which were a real bonus. One lady in the audience had actually attended the very same village fete in Great Budworth, Cheshire, which I discuss in the introduction to The Golden Age of Murder, the occasion which first introduced me to Agatha Christie and detective fiction. And I also met another lady whom I last talked to back at Oxford more years ago than either of us would care to remember. Amazing.

The next evening, there was a Detection Club dinner - and my very first time at the Ritz Hotel. It all went swimmingly, and having hosted two posh dinners in the space of a fortnight, I felt hugely relieved that everyone seemed happy and there were no hitches. Phew!

After that, it was time for a visit to Woking Library. As I explained to the audience, one particular place nearby will feature in my next novel...The event was part of a festival run by Surrey Libraries, and as so often I was impressed by the enthusiasm and efficiency of the staff. It was also particularly good to see Fiona, a loyal supporter of my books, though I wasn't able to give her a definite date for the appearance of the next Lake District Mystery!

A trip to the War Museum gave the chance to see the very striking cascade of poppies, a reminder of the different but very impressive display at the Tower of London a couple of years back. And when I left London, I hared back up north in order to catch the last hour and a half of the annual detective fiction book fair in Harrogate. I did wonder whether it would be worth it, but I was delighted to find some excellent books. One in particular was a quite irresistible gem, and I'll talk about it on another occasion.



Friday, 9 November 2018

Forgotten Book - The Shop Window Murders


The Shop Window Murders Hardcover  by

Vernon Loder had been out of print for many years before Collins' Detective Story Club reissued The Mystery at Stowe, an engaging novel with an introduction by Nigel Moss, whose knowledge of Golden Age fiction is exceptional. I rather liked that book, and was pleased to see that Loder's 1930 novel The Shop Window Murders has been reprinted in the same series, again with a valuable introduction by Nigel.

The opening of the book is striking and memorable. Mander's Department Store (loosely based on Selfridge's) in the west end of London is renowned for its elaborate window displays. So much so that each Monday morning, crowds gather to watch the blinds being raised to reveal the latest display. Unfortunately, on this occasion, they see a human corpse nestling among the wax mannequins. To make matters worse, a second body is quickly discovered.

All this is enough to put a damper on any retail activity, and the store is closed while the investigation is conducted. Enter Devenish of the Yard, a shrewd and likeable fellow (I'm a little surprised that the prolific Loder did not turn him into a series character). As Nigel Moss says, Devenish is in the mould of Crofts' Inspector French, while one of the killings prefigures a crime in a later novel by two leading authors, published not long after Loder's death at the early age of 57.  Loder's real name, incidentally, was John George Hazlette Vahey, who wrote under other pen-names (including Henrietta Clandon - this was an unusual example of a male Golden Age author using a female pseudonym).

Nigel Moss points out the similarity between the opening situation of this book, and that in The French Powder Mystery, an Ellery Queen novel published in the very same year. A remarkable coincidence, as he says, and it may be one more example of the way certain story ideas seem to be "in the ether" at a particular time. I've been looking forward to having the chance to read this book since I read a laudatory review on John Norris' excellent blog four years ago. I'm not quite as much a fan of the story as are John and Nigel, because I found the solution frustratingly dependent on guesswork. The early chapters seem to me to be the best. But I'm delighted that this hitherto obscure novel is now readily available. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

See No Evil aka Blind Terror - 1971 film review

See No Evil is an unsettling film with a good cast led by Mia Farrow, who plays a young woman blinded in a riding accident. Like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, she finds herself menaced by a bad person, and all in all, she has an absolutely rotten time. I have mixed feelings about the film, but at least it avoids the hoary plot twist in which all the lights go out and the blind person being victimised is at last put an even footing with the person menacing him or her.

The script was written by Brian Clemens, a very fine television writer (he was responsible for some of the best scripts for The Avengers, among much else) but not as successful with the movies. The story is full of tension, with a few genuinely terrifying scenes, but I felt that the need to focus on suspense meant that short cuts were taken with the characterisation. Only Farrow's character, Sarah, is presented in any depth, and even aspects of her life and personality remain enigmatic.

Having left hospital, Sarah returns home, or rather to the posh home of her uncle (the always watchable Robin Bailey), aunt, and cousin (Diane Grayson, whose career in acting seems not to have gone much further after this film), and tries to adapt to life without sight. The part of her boyfriend Steve, who still cares for her, is played by Norman Eshley, a good actor who was once a fixture on our television screens. Apparently Eshley suffered terrible injuries in a car crash in France in the 90s, but he continues to work, and can be seen on Youtube endorsing Talking Pictures TV, on which I found this film. The cast also includes Michael Elphick and Paul Nicholas.

We know from the start that a mysterious man, whose face is not revealed, seems to be stalking Sarah's uncle, and in due course murder is committed. The tension rises as we wonder how on earth the endlessly suffering Sarah can possibly survive, but the genuine suspense does not quite compensate for the plot holes (what on earth happened to the police when the alarm was raised?), or for the lack of interest in the villain's motivation. Farrow's performance is convincing, although the soundtrack, by the usually effective Elmer Bernstein, is at times obtrusive - John Barry would have done a much better job with material of this kind. Anyway, despite my reservations about the film, I kept watching and the scary bits were truly scary. 




Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Christmas Card Crime


The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (British Library Crime Classics)

So much has been going on lately that I've not even blogged  until  now about my latest anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. It's a seasonal compilation, The Christmas Card Crime and other stories, and it's my third anthology of this type, following Silent Nights and Crimson Snow. In all, I've edited eleven collections of short stories for the BL, and there's another to come in the first part of 2018, Deep Waters.

With this book, I wanted to concentrate on less familiar winter and Christmas stories. The three which I think dedicated crime fans are most likely to have encountered are those by Baroness Orczy, John Dickson Carr, and Cyril Hare, but there are some pretty rare tales, including the title story, written by Donald Stuart. Stuart was one of several pen-names written by the author best known as Gerald Verner, and whose real name was J.R.S. Pringle.

There's a relatively unfamiliar story by Ronald Knox, and also one by Francis Durbridge. John Bude and John Bingham, two very capable novelists who seldom wrote short stories, are also represented, while other contributors include E.C.R. Lorac and Julian Symons, both of whom are, like Bude, the authors of a number of novels in the Crime Classics series.

Apparently, this book shot into the independent bookseller bestseller lists, and last time I looked, it was also riding high in the Amazon crime anthology bestseller charts. Last week, the kindle version and the paperback featured at number one and number two respectively. Whatever one thinks of bestseller charts, that can't be bad.

So, here's hoping that this book will (along with Gallows Court, obviously....) help to solve your Christmas present buying dilemmas! And I'd also like to recommend another British Library title which is sure to be a highly popular stocking filler. This is Kate Jackson's The Pocket Detective, a compilation of puzzles for fans of the Crime Classics series. I'm working my way through it right now, and having a great deal of fun.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Forgotten Book - And Death Came Too

Richard Hull is known to crime fans as a follower in the footsteps of Francis Iles, an exponent of the ironic mystery in stories such as The Murder of My Aunt and Excellent Intentions, both of which have appeared in the British Library's Crime Classics series this year. So it is interesting to turn to And Death Came Too, one of his most obscure titles, first published in 1942. It's as close as he came to writing a conventional whodunit.

The main setting is the Welsh county of Treve, and many of the key moments take place in a house called Y Bryn. Although I'm not absolutely certain, I strongly suspect that here Hull was re-using the locale of The Murder of My Aunt, and in particular fictionalising his family home of Dysserth. Four young people are invited by a man called Arthur Yeldham to Y Bryn, but when they turn up, Yeldham is nowhere to be seen. Instead they encounter a sardonic fellow called Salter and a rather strange woman, who says very little. And then it turns out that Yeldham is in the house, after all. He has been stabbed to death.

The local police get involved, and they are rather nicely characterised, in particular the Chief Constable and a slow-moving but rather appealing cop called Scoresby. Hull shifts from one viewpoint to another as it emerges that Yeldham was a school teacher, and that quite a number of people had reason to wish him dead.

It's a rather meandering story, but although it's not one of those cunningly structured novels of psychological suspense in which Hull specialised, it is quite entertaining. Hull had a leisurely writing style, and as a result, the tension doesn't mount quite as much as one might hope; I have to say that I had a good idea of the culprit's identity early on, though the motive remained obscure for some time. A second murder occurs, and there is a classic gathering of the suspects before all is revealed. This is a novel with some good moments and several amusing lines, even if it doesn't rank with Hull's best work.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Birkenhead and Highgate


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Libraries have played a big part in my life, and after last week's happy news, about the Dagger in the Library, I've been reflecting on some of the wonderful times I've had in libraries large and small, and in all sorts of places.

A private tour of the Library of Congress, the chance to see the original Winnie-the-Pooh in New York City Library, a look round Coimbra's university library, with its famous colony of bats, kept to deal with book-eating pests. Book launches, and hosting Alibis in the Archives at Gladstone's Library. Designing a murder mystery for customers at a pop-up shop in the British Library. And the list of memories goes on.

Britain's public libraries, above all, have been important to me since I started borrowing Enid Blytons from the children's section of the local library in the Cheshire town where I grew up (and what a joy it was to return there a couple of years ago to give a talk about my own books). I seize any chance I can get to do library events, and since I ceased to be a full-time partner in a law firm, I've been able to grab more of those chances.

Two splendid opportunities actually came my way last week, on the evenings immediately before the award of the Dagger in the Library. First came another trip down memory lane, to Birkenhead Central Library, to give a talk about the making of Gallows Court. When I lived on Wirral, I was a member of Moreton Library, near to my flat, but also of Birkenhead, because it had a vast stock, including quite a lot of books that were otherwise hard to find. It was great to go back there, and also to meet up with a few old friends.

Then came something rather different, a talk at an independent library, the very historic Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute. Like Gladstone's Library and the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, among others, it's a very atmospheric place. They have a long-standing tradition of weekly lectures, and this time I was talking about the Golden Age of detective fiction. Again, it was so enjoyable.

And that's not all. Surrey Libraries are currently running a literary festival, and a week on Friday I'm talking at Woking Library. Very much looking forward to it.