Monday, 13 August 2018

Gallows Court

Receiving an advance copy of one's latest book is always exciting, and the arrival of a first copy of Gallows Court is a very special moment for me. Partly because I worked on it for such a long time, mostly for the connected reason that it's such a departure for me as a crime writer.

Head of Zeus have worked tirelessly on the jacket artwork. This is always an important part of the process, and I've been hugely impressed by the attention they've given to it. A wide range of designs were considered in the search for something that captured the flavour of a 1930s thriller, and I'm really pleased with the outcome of their efforts.

I've talked to Crime Time about the book; my thanks to them for commissioning the interview. And I'm thrilled by the reaction of a number of leading authors who read the book at proof stage. More about what they've had to say on another occasion.

It's all very exciting, and Head of Zeus have kindly arranged a launch in central London on 18 September which should be great fun. If any readers are interested in attending, let me know either by email or by commenting on this post and I'll see if an invitation can be sorted out.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

The Story of Classic Crime in paperback

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has just been published in paperback, another stage in the story of a book which has itself become a personal favourite of mine. Like The Golden Age of Murder, it's been a very lucky book for me. What started out as an idea to write a straightforward sort of companion to the British Library's Crime Classics series turned into something rather more ambitious.

It's in the nature of writing that, when you get to work, you find that you go in directions not necessarily contemplated when you first drew up a synopsis for a publisher, or first had your bright idea to create something new. With this book, I found myself telling a story of the evolution of the genre in the first half of the last century, a period of remarkable development. The books I chose (and in my enthusiasm, I did sneak over the 100 mark!) told part of that story, but so did the detailed intros to each of the chapters, which sought to set individual titles in context.

With all books, you never really know how the majority of people are going to react until it's too late. Will they "get" what you're trying to do? It's far from certain. This time, though, the reaction has been hugely gratifying. Only the other day, there was a wonderful review on the Random Jottings blog which truly delighted me. "Prepare to be beguiled" is a lovely phrase to link to a work of non-fiction...

The icing on the cake is that this year has seen the book nominated for five awards, three in the US (Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity) and two in the UK (Gold Dagger for non-fiction and HRF Keating). This sort of thing doesn't happen very often in an author's life, if at all, and it's another reason why it's been such a lucky book. I'm hoping, too, that the paperback edition will find a further readership. And perhaps that some of those who enjoy the book will be tempted to see what I've made of the Golden Age thriller in Gallows Court!

Friday, 10 August 2018

Forgotten Book - Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall is a novel which illustrates, among other things, the late Stanley Ellin's versatility as a crime writer. He was always, and will I think remain, best known as an author of short stories, most famously "The Specialty of the House", but he was also an accomplished novelist, equally at ease with the private eye story and with the novel of psychological suspense.

The first edition dust jacket of Mirror, Mirror, describes the book as "spellbinding, shocking - unlike anything else Stanley Ellin has ever written". The victim of the bullet lies on Peter Hibben's bathroom floor in his Greenwich Village apartment. What has happened? The scene seems like a nightmare, yet it is not. Peter's search for answers becomes a journey into his sexual past". The blurb concludes: "The disclosures will be disturbing to some, but you will not be able to put Mirror, Mirror down any more than you can guess the outcome".

The book was first published in 1972, and the date is significant. At the time, the publication of Portnoy's Complaint had ushered in a new era of frankness about sex; it's impossible to imagine this book being regarded as publishable even ten years earlier, even though the central plot twist was comparable to that in an earlier classic of psychological suspense (no, I'm not going to reveal which one!) I suspect that present day readers may feel that Ellin takes the then-new freedoms a bit too far at times, but it's certainly true that he manages to blend controversial material with a plot of classic ingenuity. The story is, in essence, a cunning refashioning of the "whowasdunin" type of mystery, and there is even a sort of cipher which provides a vital clue to the mystery.

Harry Keating included this novel in his list of the 100 best crime books; it also won a major prize in France. Keating pointed out, correctly, that as well as all the shocking stuff, there's plenty of humour. This was, in its day, a ground-breaking crime novel, and although I have some reservations about it, it is nevertheless a good example of the taut, readable prose of an author who was in the front rank of post-war American mystery writers, and deserves to be remembered. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Great News for Locked Room Fans

On this blog and elsewhere, I've mentioned many times that one of my absolute favourite books about the crime genre is the late Bob Adey's marvellous and unique Locked Room Murders. Bob was a great guy, to whom I dedicated Miraculous Mysteries, and from whose widow Sue I've been able to acquire a number of gems for my own collection. I'm the proud possessor of copies of the first and second editions which Bob inscribed for me years ago, but for a long time it's been a source of frustration and regret that other fans have been unable to track down copies at affordable prices. 

Now that's going to be put right. I'm delighted to hear from John Pugmire that the book is to reappear, under his Locked Room International imprint. And even better news, an update is in the works. Here is the information John has passed on to me:

"Locked Room Murders is a bibliography containing a description of the problem and, separately, the solution to locked room and impossible crime novels and short stories.

It has been a classic in the locked room pantheon for over 40 years, beginning with a 1972 article by Bob Adey in The Armchair Detective. The first edition of Locked Room Murders, published by Ferret Fantasy in 1979, covered 1280 titles. The 1991 second edition, published by Crossover Press, covered 2019 titles.

Due to limited print runs, both editions have become prohibitively expensive. Locked Room International (LRI) is now making a revised version of the Second Edition available at an affordable price. Edited by Brian Skupin, LRI consultant and co-publisher of Mystery Scene magazine, this revised version contains the same 2019 titles, but with corrections and additional references which have appeared since 1991.

Plans are in place to publish a Supplemental Edition in 2019, to include novels and short stories (including translations from sources outside the Anglosphere) published since 1991, films, TV series, graphic novels, and other media. It will not contain any of the titles in the Second Edition, Revised."

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Dorothy L. Sayers Society Annual Conference

I had a fleeting trip to Lancaster this week-end, to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society's Annual Conference. I've been a member of the Society for quite some time, and six years ago, gave their Annual Lecture at Witham in Essex, on the subject of DLS' true crime writing. More recently I worked with them on the publication of Sayers' collected crime reviews, for which I wrote a long commentary: Taking Detective Stories Seriously is a book I'm rather proud to be associated with. This time, I'd been invited to be guest of honour at the conference banquet on Saturday evening.

When the invitation first arrived, my plan was to make the most of the trip by attending the whole conference. Writing commitments made that impossible, alas; a real shame because it was clear from what I heard while I was there that delegates had been treated to several fascinating talks. The venue, incidentally, was Lancaster University, and I was intrigued by the campus, the geography of which seems to a stranger to be rather Kafkaesque. Bemused, I stopped at a map at one point, to be joined by a taxi driver, who said, "I've been coming here thirty years, mate,and I still get lost."

Anyway, I eventually found my way around, and met up with the Society members. The banquet was really enjoyable, and I was especially interested to meet someone who once corresponded with Paul McGuire, a relatively obscure but highly capable Australian detective novelist of the Golden Age, whom Sayers - among others - reviewed warmly. And once I'd given my speech at the conclusion of the banquet, I was able to relax over a drink or two. All very agreeable.

The Society does a great job in engaging with Sayers fans all around the world, and is well worth joining if you're a fan. My thanks to Seona Ford, Chair of the Society, for making my trip such an enjoyable one.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Forgotten Book - The Greek Coffin Mystery

Ellery Queen's name lives on today mainly through the wonderful mystery magazine which bears his name, and I suspect that there are plenty of modern readers who are unfamiliar with the Ellery Queen novels. Yet the books written by Ellery Queen (a pen-name for two cousins) and starring a young and brilliant amateur detective whose father was, conveniently, a cop, made a huge impact during the Golden Age, and for decades afterwards. It's interesting, however, that when I give talks about Golden Age fiction, I'm sometimes asked if there were any American counterparts to Christie, Sayers, and company. Mention of Ellery Queen's name is often greeted by blank faces.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, first published in 1932, was the fourth Queen novel, and is widely regarded by connoisseurs of Golden Age fiction as a classic example of the cerebral whodunit. There is a cast of characters - 33 of them, plus six staff detectives, are named. There is a foreword, explaining that this case occurred very early in Ellery's sleuthing career. There's a map of the location of the main action. There are two floor plans. There is a jaunty "challenge to the reader". There are no fewer than four elaborate solutions to the mystery put forward at various times. And there is a contents list which reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles form an acrostic, giving the title of the book and name of the author. What more could any Golden Age fan want?

A elderly, blind Greek art dealer and collector dies of heart failure at his residence in New York. But was he blind? Did he die of natural causes? These questions spring instantly to mind, but aren't really central to the mystery. A missing will - another classic Golden Age ingredient - certainly is, and so is the discovery of the body of someone who is undoubtedly a murder victim.

The plot twists and turns, and it almost goes without saying that it's very cleverly constructed. That long list of characters is a clue to one of the story's flaws - there are so many people in it that it's not entirely easy to keep them all straight in one's mind, and it's certainly impossible to care about the fate of most of them. And I do find the early Ellery a bit wearisome - he became more human and, to my mind, more appealing in later books. But if it's an ingenious plot you're after, this novel certainly delivers.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Francis Durbridge: the Complete Guide

One of the pleasures for me of June's Bodies from the Library event was the chance to meet Melvyn Barnes. I first came across his work when I read his Best Detective Fiction, and then its subsequent incarnation, Murder in Print. We've corresponded for some years, but this was our first meeting in person. He was at the British Library to speak about Francis Durbridge, an author on whom he is our leading authority, and about whom he's written a book.

This is Francis Durbridge: the Complete Guide. In fact, it's an updated and significantly expanded version of his Francis Durbridge: a Centenary Appreciation. That book was self-published; this one appears under the imprint of a worthy independent press, Williams and Whiting. I enjoyed the earlier book, but the new version does offer much more, and is definitely worth buying even if you invested in  its predecessor.

A brief biographical chapter is followed by a lengthy survey of Durbridge's career. Then come sections on his novels, his work for radio (there was a lot of it), his work for television (which is how I first came across his name in my youth), his stage plays, films of his stories, and (yes!) the Paul Temple comic strip.

One of the valuable features of the book is that it disentangles the numerous overlapping strands of Durbridge's output. He was prolific, sure, but he also re-used the same plots on many occasions. This can be confusing and indeed irritating, so it's helpful to be able to find out, for instance, that Design for Murder is actually a novelisation of the radio serial Paul Temple and the Gregory Affair, while Paul Temple and the Alex Affair is actually a revision of the earlier Send for Paul Temple Again. This is a book I shall refer to time and again, and it's a must for any serious Durbridge fan; a bonus is an intro by Nicholas Durbridge. I should declare that I'm mentioned in the acknowledgements, but that's immaterial - I'd recommend this book anyway.

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz - review

The Word of Murder, Anthony Horowitz's latest bestseller, is to my mind even more fascinating than Magpie Murders, his take on the Golden Age detective story. In this book, set just a few years ago, he introduces a new character in the tradition of the Great Detective, a former cop called Daniel Hawthorne. And Hawthorne has his very own Watson figure to admire and record for posterity the brilliance of his deductions - and this happens to be none other than Horowitz himself.

It's a bold step, to introduce oneself as a major character in a novel of one's own, and I can't imagine that I'd ever attempt it. At first, I thought that I wasn't going to like the device. But to my surprise and pleasure, Horowitz proved once again that he is such a smooth and appealing storyteller that he can get away with murder (and no, that's not a plot spoiler!)

The opening premise is terrific. A woman called Diana Cowper goes into a funeral parlour, and arranges her own funeral. Six hours later, she is dead, strangled in her own home The police call in Hawthorne as a consultant, and he in turn persuades Horowitz to write up the story. The results I found fascinating - not least Horowitz's musings on the narrowness of public debate in modern society.

This is a fair play mystery, with a clever red herring which I dutifully swallowed. Yes, Horowitz outsmarted me. And I'm glad. I always found with Agatha Christie that my favourites among her books were those when I was led up the garden path, as I was here. There are twists a-plenty, and although one element of the plot didn't strike me as totally convincing, I was more than willing to suspend disbelief throughout. Great fun.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Forgotten Book - Elizabeth X

Vera Caspary (1899-1987) is remembered today chiefly as the author of Laura, but that book launched her as a crime writer, and she continued to work in the genre for more than 35 years. Her very last novel was Elizabeth X, published in 1978, and it's relatively obscure. But it's well worth a look, especially for anyone who enjoyed Laura.

I don't say that because the stories are similar: they aren't. Laura is a murder mystery; Elizabeth X offers a puzzle of character and identity. An attractive young woman in her early twenties, apparently suffering from amnesia, is found wandering in the road by a married couple called Kate and Allan Royce. The Royces take her home and look after her, but attempts to discover her true identity prove surprisingly unsuccessful.

Where Elizabeth X does resemble Laura is in its structure. Again, Caspary employs the Wilkie Collins method of telling a story from several different first-person viewpoints, starting with that of Chauncey Greenleaf, a man much older than Elizabeth, who nevertheless founds himself strongly drawn to her. But is he destined for misery when the truth about her past emerges?

A plot development later in the story also betrays the Collins influence, though I won't say too much about it for fearing of spoiling the surprise. Collins was, at his best, a master of plotting, and I don't think even Caspary's admirers would make a similar claim for her. She is, though, very good at depicting character, and writing incisive, readable prose. I wanted to find out the truth about Elizabeth, even though I feared I might be slightly disappointed at the end of the book (as, to be honest, I was). But Caspary was an independently minded woman who always does an excellent job of portraying the pressures faced by equally strong-minded women, and Elizabeth X , the final example of her gifts, is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The CWA Dagger in the Library

I've written many times on this blog, and elsewhere, about my lifelong love of libraries. I vividly remember being, at the age of ten, allowed to become the smallest member of the adult section of Northwich Library, in order to feed my addiction to Agatha Christie, and then to many other crime writers. And in recent years, in recent weeks even, I've enjoyed doing a range of library events up and down the country, as well as hosting Alibis in the Archives at Gladstone's Library.

So you can imagine that I'm as pleased as Punch to find my name on the shortlist for the CWA Dagger in the Library, along with such luminaries as Nicci French, Peter May, Simon Kernick, Rebecca Tope, and Keith Miles (aka Edward Marston). This is an award where the nominees are selected by librarians throughout Britain, and I'm duly honoured.

There are some truly wonderful libraries in this country. It's been a privilege for me, over the past few years, to become quite closely associated with the British Library, and that relationship, in particular with Rob Davies and his team in the publications department, has brought me enormous pleasure. The same goes for Louisa Yates and her colleagues at Gladstone's, a very different place, an independent library run as a charity, and rich in history, atmosphere and charm.

And then there are the public libraries which mean so much to the communities of which they form part. I've enjoyed working, for instance, with local and area librarians, and also a Friends Group in Stockton Heath which aims to support the professional staff in a variety of ways.

Hard to believe, but it's almost two years since I wrote about the threat posed to Lymm Library, a short walk away from my home. Like other local people, I was deeply worried about its future, but I'm thrilled to be able to report that it's just been announced that the library is not only to be saved, the empty space in the building is to be utilised for the benefit of the community: the detail is here.

So there is a great deal of room for optimism about libraries, despite the undoubted financial pressures they face, if all of us who believe in libraries pull together. I look forward very much to trying to play a part, in the coming months and years, to trying to play a small part in helping their almost limitless potential to be realised for the benefit of communities not just in my neck of the woods, but further afield as well.

Monday, 23 July 2018

More from Dean Street Press

One of the joys of the revival of interest in Golden Age detective fiction is that quite an avalanche of long-vanished books are now readily available. As in any era, the quality varies. But the range of books that one can now obtain is striking - within the British Library series, for instance, there's a huge difference between the work of, say, Alan Melville, E.C.R. Lorac, Richard Hull, and Raymond Postgate. So readers can discover new writers, and then focus on those they enjoy most.

Various publishing models have been adopted. The British Library focuses on high quality mass market paperbacks, Harper Collins on hardbacks, and others mainly on ebooks and print on demand publications. Dean Street Press fall into the latter camp. They do a really good job, and I'm not just saying that because I've written a few intros for them. Their model makes it possible to reissue a large number of books by the same author. The complete works of Annie Haynes, say, would not be commercially viable if the focus were on mass market paperbacks, because their isn't enough interest in them for the books to be sold in large quantities in paperback format. But thanks to DSP, we can now try out Annie's work in ebook or as a print on demand paperback, and much else besides. One of the DSP authors whom I particularly enjoy is Peter Drax, and I'll be saying more about his books in the future.

At present, DSP are reissuing, in large batches, the Ludovic Travers novels of Christopher Bush. Bush was a writer who wrote so much that sometime quality suffered, but I really enjoyed The Case of the Monday Murders, first published in 1936. The mystery is good, even if I did guess the solution early on, but the satiric touches are even better. This book contains plenty of swipes at Bush's fellow practitioners, and as Curtis Evans says in his intro, the character of crime writer Ferdinand Pole, founder of the Murder League, is surely based on Anthony Berkeley. One chapter title is borrowed from Philip Macdonald: "Murder Gone Mad". There's also a hint of self-mockery in the killer's taunting letters, signed "Justice", which might make one recall the comparable correspondence in Bush's own The Perfect Murder Case.

The funniest moment in the book is when Bush mocks Dorothy L. Sayers and E.R. Punshon in the same breath, parodying Sayers' famous review lauding E.R. Punshon (in the guise of "Petrie Cubbe"), but attributing it to Pole. It does make you wonder how on earth Bush managed to earn election to the Detection Club the year after this book came out, especially since Berkeley was famously thin-skinned. It would be good to think that those who are guyed took it in good part. Or perhaps they just didn't read it! (Though given how many of them were prolific reviewers, that would be surprising). Whatever the truth, the great thing is that readers today have the chance to enjoy this one, and I suspect that it is one of Bush's best. 

Friday, 20 July 2018

Forgotten Book - The Theft of the Iron Dogs

The Theft of the Iron Dogs is one of the more intriguing titles for a crime novel. The book was written by E.C.R. Lorac, and first published by Collins Crime Club in 1946. It's one of a number of her novels set in the north west of England - Lunesdale. This is an area to which she relocated, and where spent most of her later years. Her love of the area comes through very strongly in the narrative.

The period atmosphere is equally strong. The book opens in September, and the early paragraphs begin with a description of harvesting time in the dairy farming district, where "the war effort had not been concerned with the nervous energy required by resistance to bombs or doodles or rockets; it had been the strain of sustained physical effort."

We are introduced to a farmer called Giles Hoggett, of Wenningby, and one rainy day he decides to go fishing. He takes a look at a summer cottage, only to find that two iron dogs are missing from the fireplace, as well as a complete reel of salmon line, a strong chain and hook, a clothes-line - and a large sack. It doesn't take much of a detective's instinct to figure out that someone has set about sinking something in the river Lune. And the experienced detective fan will have no doubt about what that something might be...

Yes, it's another murder mystery case for Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald of Scotland Yard. Madonald has already developed a love of the Lunesdale landscape and lifestyle, and he sets about untangling a neatly contrived mystery. Lorac's writing is characteristically under-stated, and so is her detective. I imagine that this reflects her own personality. In her quiet way, she was a highly professional writer, and although those who crave melodrama should probably look elsewhere, this book is another example of her capable mystery-making. I'm so glad that, thanks to the British Library's Crime Classic series, she has come back into public view. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Married Life - 2007 film review

Married Life is the rather odd (and to my mind unsatisfactory) title given to a 2007 American film version by Ira Sachs of a novel published more than half a century earlier by the British crime novelist and spy John Bingham. The book, Five Roundabouts to Heaven, was his second published novel, and is regarded as one of his best. It appeared in 1953 and had the alternative title The Tender Poisoner, which was the name given to a tv version in 1962 in the Alfred Hitchcock Hour series.

The film is set in 1949, with the action shifted across the Atlantic: many of the scenes were filmed around Vancouver. The strong cast includes Pierce Brosnan, who plays Richard, a likeable chap who has a particular liking for attractive women. His closest friend, Harry (Chris Cooper) is married to Pat (Patricia Carlson) but actually having a torrid affair with Kay (Rachel McAdams). After being introduced to Kay, Richard too becomes smitten, and things inevitably become complicated.

As the alternative title to the book suggests, Harry decides that the ideal solution to his marital dilemma is to murder Pat painlessly. But like so many other wannabe killers before him, he discovers that committing the perfect crime is not as easy as he'd like to believe. And then it turns out that Pat nurses a secret of her own...

This is a quirky film, and is much more entertaining than its commonplace title suggests. Ira Sachs offers plenty of touches of dark humour as well as a sequence of unpredictable developments. The historical setting adds to a sense of playful unreality which is part of its appeal. A major bonus with the DVD is the director's commentary on the three alternative endings that he toyed with. No spoilers from me, but they are well worth watching, as is the film as a whole. Although I haven't read Bingham's book, I'm now keen to do so. He was an interesting and sometimes original writer.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Forgotten Book - Laura

Laura, by Vera Caspary, is a famous crime novel that became an even more famous film noir, as well as a stage play, and haunting song. The book was originally published in 1942, and it made an instant impact. Caspary was a talented mainstream writer, whose memoirs, The Secrets of Grown-Ups, make fascinating reading. She makes it clear that she wasn't really a mystery fan, but it's noteworthy that her favourite crime writer was Cornell Woolrich, her favourite crime novel Francis Iles' Before the Fact. Suspense appealed to her, in other words, and Laura is a novel of suspense as much as it is a detective story.

When, many years ago, I first saw the film, and read the book, I enjoyed them without fully appreciating them. That was because I paid too much attention to the plot, and although the story has one excellent plot twist, Caspary's strength didn't lie in plotting. On rereading the book after having done some research into Caspary's life, I got more out of it than I did the first time around.

Mark McPherson is called in to investigate the murder of Laura Hunt, a very attractive woman who works in advertising. She is engaged to be married, and her fiance becomes a suspect. McPherson becomes intrigued by Waldo Lydecker, a rather effete older man who was close to Laura, and who is one of the narrators.

In telling her story, Caspary borrowed the narrative device favoured by Wilkie Collins - using different points of view, so as to conceal as well as reveal. It's a device which, when employed with skill (and Caspary was highly skilled), I find engrossing. I've never written a "casebook" novel, but it's something I'd certainly consider at some future date, because the form has a great deal of potential for the crime writer. It's fair to say that Caspary never surpassed Laura, but her other books are also intriguing and well-written, and I'll talk about one or two of them in the future.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Jessica Mann R.I.P.

 Image result for jessica mann
I'm truly sorry to report the death, on Wednesday, of Jessica Mann, a crime writer and reviewer of distinction. It's only a month ago that she played a full part in the Alibis in the Archives weekend, talking with her customary fluency and passion about female crime writing, and then joining a panel of authors for a wide-ranging discussion about the genre. A fortnight ago, she was - as so often - a convivial guest at a Detection Club dinner. And only last week I received a parcel of books from her. It was, therefore, with great shock and much sadness that I heard the news from her daughter Lavinia yesterday. 

Jessica lived a full life of high accomplishment, and I’ll remember her with huge affection not just as a talented author but as someone who was always ready, willing, and able to give younger colleagues, myself included, a great deal of help and encouragement. I first met her in the late 1980s, some years after I first read her books, but it's really been in the past ten years that she and I became friends. She followed this blog and emailed me regularly to urge me to keep busy, travelling and writing. We'd even talked recently about collaborating on a book together. She was a great believer in making the most of life, a philosophy that stood her in good stead.

Jessica Mann was educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied archaeology, and Leicester University, where she took a degree in law; she became a barrister, but did not practise, although she later served as an employment tribunal member. Over the years, she served as a planning inspector as well as serving on numerous committees – including the CWA committee – and as Secretary of the Detection Club. A week after she completed her finals at Cambridge, she married the distinguished archaeologist and historian Charles Thomas; they had two sons and two daughters. Jessica and Charles lived in Cornwall for many years, but after his death two years ago she came back to London, the city of her birth.

Jessica’s first crime novel, A Charitable End, appeared in 1971; her penultimate book, Dead Woman Walking took her career full circle, as it reintroduced one of the characters from her debut, as well as the psychiatrist Dr Fidelis Berlin, who appeared in a handful of earlier novels, perhaps most memorably the superb A Private Enquiry, which was shortlisted for a CWA Gold Dagger. Her final novel, The Stroke of Death, saw the reappearance of perhaps her most popular character, the archaeologist Tamara Hoyland, after an absence, regretted by many readers, of a quarter of a century. 

Jessica’s non-fiction included Deadlier than the Male, an excellent study of female crime writing, and she was in much demand as a journalist and broadcaster from the time she first appeared on Radio 4’s Any Questions in the 1970s; she also featured on Question Time, Start the Week, Stop the Week, and the Round Britain Quiz . For many years, she reviewed crime for the Literary Review. For about fifteen years, she’d coped with Parkinson’s, which must have been very difficult, but her spirit was indomitable. Her life advice to me, regularly repeated and much appreciated, was very simple: “Do it now!”  Jessica was, you see, a wise woman as well as a good friend and a fine writer. She will be much missed.

Double Confession - 1950 film review

Double Confession is a British post-war film which is sometimes described as a film noir, despite the fact that the action mostly takes place on a bright summer day at the seaside. In fact, the basis for the screenplay was a novel called All on a Summer's Day, written by John Garden (a title and author name which seem distinctly non-noir). The Garden name was actually a pseudonym for Harry Liff Verne Fletcher (1902-74), whose day job was as a schoolteacher in Llandridnod Wells.

The story begins with Jim Medway (Derek Farr) turning up at a remote coastal house at four in the morning, apparently to visit a woman. He passes a mysterious man who is leaving the house, whom Doctor Who fans will instantly recognise as the first Doctor, William Hartnell. A scream is heard...

The following day, it turns out that the woman is dead and so is a mysterious man who has plunged from the dangerous cliff path. Medway calls on Charlie Durham (Hartnell), a local entrepreneur who has been having an affair with the dead woman - who proves to be Medway's estranged wife. The plot complications thicken from there.

The quality of the cast lifts this film out of the ordinary. We have Naunton Wayne as an affable police inspector, and Peter Lorre as Durham's psychopathic sidekick. Medway manages to spend his day blackmailing Durham while getting friendly with an attractive woman (Joan Hopkins) who has personal problems of her own. The seaside locations help to make the implausibilities of the plot bearable, and Ken Annakin directs intelligently, even though the story meanders around quite a lot. It's not exactly Body Heat, far less Double Indemnity, but I enjoyed it.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Football Fever and other celebrations

As England celebrates an improbable run of success in the World Cup, the British Library publishes tomorrow a novel that is surely the best of all classic mysteries with a football setting, Leonard Gribble's The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. Great timing! I'm delighted to see this book back in print, and even though I'm not an Arsenal fan, it's an enjoyable fair puzzle mystery that was turned into an equally entertaining film.

England's unexpectedly convincing win against Sweden came as a happy extra birthday present on Saturday. I just got back home in time for the match, following a quick trip to London to watch Burt Bacharach in concert at the Royal Festival Hall. In keeping with the mood, the great man wore an England football shirt throughout. It was a wonderful evening, quite well reviewed here, and we were treated to three new songs, including a very good one that has never been publicly performed before. The standing ovation was utterly deserved, after more than two hours of non-stop melody. Few 90 year olds could compete with this stunning performance, that's for sure.

After the match on Saturday we headed to North Wales for an enjoyable dinner at a nice hotel before on Sunday I achieved a long held ambition. When I was a small boy, we often went on holiday to North Wales, and I became fascinated by an island off Anglesey called Puffin Island. For many years, rats took over from the sea birds, but now they are gone and wildlife boat trips to Puffin Island from the historic town of Beaumaris are available.

I've wanted to take such a trip for a while, and the perfect weather yesterday made it a memorable occasion. It was fascinating to see at close quarters the island which intrigued me so much when I was small. There were seals, as well as innumerable birds. And the puffins are back - it was fun to see them flying around. All in all, a marvellous weekend.  

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Forgotten Book - Game for Three Losers

Edgar Lustgarten was once a familiar face on British TV screens. A barrister from Manchester, he became a successful broadcaster, specialising in programmes about crime. The Scotland Yard TV series that he fronted (and which was very good) has recently been resurrected on the Talking Pictures channel, and this has reignited my interest in a writer who wrote occasional novels as well as numerous true crime books. His first novel, A Case to Answer, was especially well-regarded, not least by Julian Symons.

Game for Three Losers was first published in 1952; later, it was adapted for TV as part of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series which has again resurfaced thanks to Talking Pictures. The novel is written in Lustgarten's rather distinctive style, with rather more "tell" than "show"; today, this isn't a fashionable method, but he handles it pretty well.

Robert Hilary is a rising star in the political world, a Conservative MP in his late forties. When his trusty secretary leaves work to have a baby, her replacement is a stunningly beautiful young woman and Hilary finds her irresistible. He soon finds himself in a compromising position, and open to blackmail by the woman's rascally lover, who poses as her outraged brother.

I rather expected Hilary to decide that the only solution to his dilemma was murder, but Lustgarten's main focus is on charting the consequences of crime. This is a book roughly in the Francis Iles tradition that focuses on the way the legal system operates - not very justly, in some cases. The story is downbeat in mood, but Lustgarten's crisp writing kept me interested from start to finish.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Night Was Our Friend - 1951 film review

Night Was Our Friend is a rather good British B-movie which dates from 1951. The script was based on a play, though the film isn't as irritatingly stagey as so many movies based on plays tend to be. And despite the fact that most of the story is told via an extended flashback, that isn't as unsatisfactory as is so often the case. Both play and screenplay were written by Michael Pertwee, brother of Jon and uncle of Sean, and he did a good job.

The story begins with a young woman on trial for murder. The case is a sensation, and when we see the jury debating their verdict, it's clear that the outcome is far from straightforward. In the end, however, the result is decided - and the woman is acquitted. She is then immediately confronted by the unhappy mother of her dead husband, who clearly believes her to be guilty. And then the man she really loves proposes to her, only for her to tell him that she did, in fact, murder her husband.

This is where the flashback begins. Sally (Elizabeth Sellars) is in love with Dr Harper (Ronald Howard) when unexpected news arrives. Her husband Martin (Michael Gough), who two years ago went missing presumed dead after a plane crash in South America has turned up alive! The couple are clearly not thrilled, and it's apparent that Martin was a difficult man to live with. But they do the decent thing, and Sally welcomes Martin back with open arms.

Alas, all is not well with Martin. His two years in the jungle didn't agree with him, and he's mentally disturbed, but refuses to undergo any treatment. He develops a habit of going on nocturnal prowls, and when he's involved in a serious incident, matters come to a head....

This is a well-made film, unpretentious and watchable to this day. Gough, as you'd expect, does a very good job in an unsavoury role. I enjoyed it.

Monday, 2 July 2018

The Dark Man - 1951 film review

The Dark Man is an enjoyable, lightweight British thriller written and directed by Jeffrey Dell, whose first crime screenplay was an adaptation of C.S. Forester's classic chiller, Payment Deferred, in which Charles Laughton starred. The producer was Julian Wintle, famed for his work on The Avengers in the Sixties. This movie has a good cast, with the likes of Barbara Murray, William Hartnell, and the ubiquitous Sam Kydd in minor roles. The mysterious villain who gives the film its title is Maxwell Reed, who was apparently the first husband of Joan Collins.

Reed's character takes a taxi to a lonely house where he seeks to rob a petty criminal. When the criminal retaliates, he is murdered. And then the taxi driver is murdered, for good measure. The Dark Man is evidently a psychopath, although we never get to find out much about him. But we fear for Molly Lester (Natasha Perry) when, cycling past the scene of the crime, she catches sight of him.

This fleeting identification drives the plot, since the dark man becomes determined to eliminate Molly as a witness. Frankly, I'd have thought he'd have been much better off making a run for it. But no, he hangs around the coastal resort where Molly is working as an actress, now under the protection of Scotland Yard's DI Jack Viner (Edward Underdown). Molly is attractive and charismatic, if foolhardy, so we care about her fate; she falls in love with Viner, who is very much of the stiff upper lip school. I felt, however, underwhelmed by Underdown's performance.

The coastal setting is in many ways the star turn of The Dark Man. It's rather bleak, with a military firing range, derelict castle, and old lighthouse, but highly atmospheric. I don't know south east England well enough to recognise the location, but I thought it very well chosen.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Forgotten Book - The Pit-Prop Syndicate

Freeman Wills Crofts has enjoyed quite a revival during the last couple of years. The British Library has reissued several of his best novels, and Harper Collins have reprinted others, both in paperback editions and in some cases as hardbacks under the Detective Story Club imprint. The latter include his third book, The Pit-Prop Syndicate, which first appeared in 1922.

Crofts was still learning his trade at that time. Inspector French was yet to be created, and he'd followed up the success of The Cask with the slightly disappointing The Ponson Case. Here, he experiments rather interestingly. The first half of the book follows an amateur investigation into a suspected criminal conspiracy. The second half sees the professionals take over, in the form of Inspector Willis. It's a tricky blend, but I found it appealing.

Seymour Merriman (great name!) is cycling in France when he chances upon a strange puzzle. Why would a lorry change its number plate? He comes across a pit-prop exporting business (one of those enterprises that presumably died out long ago) and also a pretty girl. Back in England, he tells a friend, and they decide to return to France to investigate (and Seymour also wants to get to know the pretty girl better). The plot thickens from there.

This is a classic Crofts story, meticulously planned and written. And I can't think of many Golden Age stories featuring Goole and Hull, but this is one! In the second half of the book, the investigation dragged a bit, and I found some of the detail a bit dull, much like Seymour's romance. All the same, it's an enjoyable story, and there's also a bonus in the dust jacket artwork, as well as the inclusion of an intro by John Curran and a little-known short story with a railway setting, "Danger in Shroude Valley". 

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.