Monday, 23 April 2018

Peter Lovesey - Grand Master

Image result for "martin edwards" "peter lovesey"

At last year's CrimeFest, I had the easiest and most pleasurable of tasks, that of interviewing Peter Lovesey about his remarkable career, and a week ago, we had the chance to get together again during the CWA's annual conference, and the book-signing that followed it. (Peter is a former CWA Chair, and his continuing commitment to the CWA is something his fellow members greatly appreciate). Right now, he's in the US, and later this week at the Mystery Writers of America Edgars awards ceremony, he will be honoured as an MWA Grand Master.

The array of awards that Peter has received, over an astonishing span of almost half a century, is quite breathtaking. Right from the start, he made an impact on the genre, winning the Macmillan/Panther First Crime Novel prize for his debut Wobble to Death. He won the CWA Gold Dagger for that marvellous mystery The False Inspector Dew, and he's also picked up a couple of CWA Silver Daggers. He won the CWA Diamond Dagger in 2000, And there are many others. Take a look at the long list on his website.

His latest novel, Beau Death, is an excellent illustration of his versatility. There's a freshness of approach in his work, a refusal to be constrained by formula, that keeps his books as engaging today as when he first started writing. The quiet humour of his work is another important ingredient in his novels, and I should also say that he is unquestionably one of the finest short mystery writers to have emerged in the past fifty years. If you'd like to see the videos of my CrimeFest interview with Peter  that Ali Karim kindly allowed me to post on my Youtube channel, take a look here.

But there's much more to Peter Lovesey than wonderful writing. His kindness and modesty are admired by those who know him. You have only to look at the many tributes paid to him by his fellow Detection Club members in Motives for Murder, the short story collection I edited in celebration of his 80th birthday eighteen months ago, to see that. I'm truly delighted that he's agreed to give a talk about his classic and contemporary crime fiction at Alibis in the Archives in June (and there are a few non-residential places still available if you're in the UK then). In the meantime, warmest congratulations on becoming a Grand Master, Peter. You are the worthiest of recipients.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Forgotten Book - The Tin Tree

I've been musing recently on the impact that the First World War had on detective fiction, and among other things this led me to read The Tin Tree by James Quince, a book that's been on my TBR pile for a while now. Quince's pen-name masked the identity of J.R. Spittall, who signed my copy; he was a clergyman, and his career as a crime writer was quite brief, extending to a mere three novels.

The Tin Tree was the first, and it's a curious book. The opening scenes capture, very effectively in my opinion, the grim reality of soldiering during the First World War, as well as the eerie foggy environment surrounding the eponymous tin tree. The tree, built by the French army, was an observation post, with a ladder inside its trunk, and a platform "commanding an excellent view of the German lines".

The narrator of the story rejoices in the name of Roger Budockshed, although he's nicknamed, equally improbably, Secco - after Seccotine, which apparently is a brand of refined liquid fish glue. He is puzzled by a gunner called Rachelson, who is something of a mystery man. Eventually Rachelson confides in him, explaining that his real name is Montaubon, and that he's begun a new life after going on the run, following a murder in which he was the prime suspect.

It's an interesting set-up, but the story meanders quite a lot after that before reaching a twisty and pleasing climax that anticipates (in a sense) the plot-line of one of Agatha Christie's radio plays; both Quince's story and Christie's are based on the same classic precedent. The fact that the story sags in the middle is the mark of an inexperienced novelist, but Quince was a capable writer, and there is enough here to make it worth persevering, despite the longeurs.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

"Catch of the Day"

It's not often that my fiction appears in close proximity to that of the great Ben Okri (well, it's never happened before, if I'm honest), so you can imagine that I'm very happy to find my brand new short story appearing alongside one of his (and others by the likes of Sophie Hannah and Elly Griffiths). "Catch of the Day" is one of six stories to be found in Skald, an exciting and innovative collection produced by Audible.

The story behind my involvement with this collection is unusual. It goes back to March last year, when I took part in the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai. Among other things, I was interviewed with Rob Davies about Golden Age fiction and the British Library Crime Classics. Ellah Wakatama Allfrey proved to be an excellent interviewer, and it all went swimmingly. And shortly after my trip to the Festival, I set off for Honolulu, for Left Coast Crime. Because Hawaii is so far away, it made sense to expand my stay there, and I spent a few days on each of three very attractive islands, Oahu, Kauai, and Maui.

I had in mind, as I always do on these trips, that I'd soak up the local atmosphere, and research the places I visited, in the hope that an idea for a work of fiction of some kind would come along. And so it did. In fact, quite a few possible plotlines hopped into my mind, and before long, I started to sketch out a mystery set on Kauai, an island which I found entrancing. I decided it should be a first person narrative, told by a local driver, as I'd picked up quite a bit of background colour from drivers I met.

Then, out of the blue, Ellah came back into my life with news of the Audible project, and a commission for a new story with a theme of "discovery". She liked the concept of "Catch of the Day", and this spurred me into action. I found her editorial input extremely valuable, and I'm pleased with the resultant story. The photos illustrating in the post were all taken in Kauai and all feature locations mentioned in the story - except for the photo at the end, taken at the Emirates Literature Festival interview.

I'm trying, as a crime writer, to develop my skills and to stretch in fresh directions. This seems to me to be the best way to try to enthuse an increasing number of readers. I've been publishing fiction for a long time, but you can always improve, and this is what I keep aiming to do. And it certainly helps when you have a good and sympathetic editor. I'll never be a Ben Okri, admittedly, but after years of striving, I do feel that my fiction is moving in a more exciting direction than ever before. More news on that front shortly, I hope!   

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Roderic Jeffries R.I.P.

I've just been told that the crime writer Roderic Jeffries, who also wrote as Jeffrey Ashford and Peter Alding, died last year at the age of 90. He'd been living in Mallorca for over forty years, which perhaps explains not only why I've never come across him in person but also why his books have tended, in recent years, to be rather overlooked.

Jeffries was a prolific crime writer, as was his father, Bruce Graeme (whose real name was Graham Montague Jeffries). Graeme, a leading light in the Crime Writers' Association during its formative years, and a good friend of the CWA founder John Creasey, wrote a wide range of mysteries, but was best known as the creator of Blackshirt, a Robin Hood type of character, and Roderic wrote a number of Blackshirt novels himself in the Fifties and Sixties, as Roderic Graeme.

Roderic spent a few years in the legal profession, practising as a barrister, and this gave him material for some of his early crime novels from 1960 onwards. Many of his books appeared under the legendary Collins Crime Club imprint, which, like the Gollancz yellow dustjacket, was in the Sixties and for many years before a brand associated with reliable writers who were library favourites (not to mention stars such as Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard, both of whom were ten years younger than Roderic). More recently, his work has been published by Severn House, a company which has filled the gap left by the disappearance of the Crime Club and Gollancz imprints very effectively.

Mistakenly in Mallorca, which appeared in 1974, introduced Inspector Enrique Alvarez, who became a very long-running series character indeed. The only interview I've come across featuring Roderic is to be found here on the blog of J. Sydney Jones.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Shrewsbury and the CWA conference

I've just returned from Shrewsbury after an exhilarating weekend. It was the CWA's annual conference, an event I've rarely missed over the past thirty years. The setting was lovely - the ancient town is crammed with history and interest, and the Lion Hotel, whose previous guests have included Darwin, de Quincey and Paganini, was a splendidly historic venue.

The speakers included the legendary investigative psychologist David Canter, author of the Gold Dagger-winning Criminal Shadows, who shared many insights about the pros and cons of offender profiling. A psychiatrist explored the way that her discipline can contribute to cutting edge fiction. A forensic expert cleverly updated us on latest forensic techniques, and how they might be used in solving The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There were talks about Ellis Peters, and about marketing books in the modern age. A leading scientific advisor to government was the after dinner speaker. And there was much more besides...

Quite a bit of alcohol was quaffed, and we also had a visit to Tanners' ancient wine cellars, again fascinating and historic. A ghost tour around the town was followed by a trip to the castle and the amazing public library, where an extremely old building which once housed Shrewsbury School has been cleverly integrated into a modern facility. I've never seen a library like it. There was also a book-signing at Waterstones.

It was great fun to catch up with old friends and also to meet many of the CWA's newer members, such as playwright Derek Webb, novelists Stephen Norman and Jo Summers, and human rights campaigner Stephen Jakobi. Great credit goes to Cilla Masters for organising things with such verve, and to Dea Parkin for all her support work. As for the CWA's AGM, it was a well-attended forum for lively debate and some very good exchanges of ideas for the future. And the upshot is that I've been re-elected as Chair of the CWA for a further (and definitely, definitely final) twelve-month term. It's a great honour to lead such a thriving and fun organisation. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Forgotten Book - Death Knocks Three Times

Lucy Malleson was an interesting and capable writer who enjoyed a good deal of success without ever, really "breaking through" into the literary big-time. After her death in 1973, her work quickly faded from view, but she'd had a long career, writing under a variety of pen-names: J. Kilmeny Keith, Anthony Gilbert, and Anne Meredith. The Gilbert name became the best-known, but last year I was delighted to write an introduction for her first Anne Meredith novel, Portrait of a Murderer, when it became the Christmas title for the British Library's Crime Classics series. The book did well- so well, in fact, that although the main focus was on the paperback edition, I gather that the hardback edition swiftly sold more copies than the original first edition! Who would have expected that?

I've read a few of the Anthony Gilbert titles over the years, and I've had mixed feelings about them. She was a capable writer, and she had the important strength of caring about her work which meant that she was not content to stick rigidly to a single storytelling formula. Her main protagonist, Arthur Crook, is a rascally solicitor, so you might think he has a particular appeal for me, but in truth I'm not much of a Crook fan. Sometimes he seems to get in the way of the story, and to me, it's no surprise that a good film made of one of her books, My Name is Julia Ross cut him out of the storyline altogether. So did the remake, Dead of Winter.

All of which brings me to Death Knocks Three Times, a novel she published in 1949. The date is significant, because a key element of the story is the period setting: we really get a feel of life in post-war austerity Britain, although some of the political comments seem a bit delphic to a modern reader. The story begins, like others such as The Nine Tailors, with the detective hero - if one can call Crook a hero - stuck in the middle of a car journey due to bad weather, and taking refuge somewhere just before a mysterious sudden death occurs.

It's not quite clear whether murder has taken place (though the reader will suspect it has...) and the action then shifts to a sequence of poison pen letters, sent to a rather unpleasant elderly lady, who summons help from another woman, who is very nicely characterised and whose name is Frances Pettigrew (was Gilbert referencing Cyril Hare's Francis Pettigrew? Given the number of literary and specifically crime fiction allusions in the book, it is possible). Anyway, as the book title suggests, two more deaths fall to be considered, but an unusual air of mystery pervades the story. It's far from clear what is really going on until Crook comes up with an explanation - which, to be honest, I didn't find wholly satisfying, especially in relation to the first death. 

This is a novel that has earned rave reviews from good judges such as John Norris. For my part, I admired Gilbert's ambition, and her attempt to do something different and unusual, but I felt that the narrative was too diffuse to be altogether successful, and Crook's muted role also felt rather unsatisfactory. An interesting book, though, and despite my reservations I'm glad I read it.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Tenth Man - DVD review

The Tenth Man was originally written by Graham Greene as a film script. Abandoned for many years, it became a TV screenplay, directed by Jack Gold (whose work included Praying Mantis, a terrific thriller which I'd love to see again). I missed the TV broadcast thirty years ago, but caught up with it on DVD recently, and felt that it put many films to shame, in terms of casting, production values, and emotional impact.

Anthony Hopkins plays Chaval, a rich and selfish lawyer in occupied France, who one day in 1941 is picked up by the Nazis and thrown into jail. They used to pick hostages at random off the street, and execute a handful of them every now and then in an attempt to terrorise people into submission. A pivotal moment occurs when it's announced that one in ten of the men in jail are to be shot. Lots are drawn, and Chaval is unlucky. But he persuades a fellow prisoner to be executed in his place, in return for the gift of his home and possessions, which the prisoner intends to leave to his mother and sister.

When the war ends, Chaval is freed, but has no money. He makes his way back to his old home, and inveigles himself into the household, using a false identity. He finds that the sister (Kristin Scott Thomas) has been waiting for Chaval's return, because she wants to kill him for being, in effect, responsible for her brother's death. Slowly, a bond forms between him and the sister. All goes well until one day a stranger arrives (played by Derek Jacobi), claiming to be Chaval...

The story is a strong one, and the game-playing about identities works very well. The quality of the acting from the three charismatic stars, and of Gold's direction, is impressive. I find it astonishing that this script was apparently forgotten for so many years; I'm a Greene fan, and I think The Tenth Man ranks with his best work.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Black Widow - 1954 film review

Black Widow is a popular title for crime films. The one I'm discussing today showed up recently on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV channel. I've made many fascinating discoveries thanks to Talking Pictures. As with forgotten books, there are some forgotten movies that really ought to be left in peace. But Black Widow, I was delighted to find, is based on the book of the same name by Patrick Quentin. I've read quite a lot of Quentin books (and novels by the PQ alter ego, Q. Patrick) and they are invariably well-plotted. Black Widow is no exception.

The film was made in Cinemascope, and the bright colours slightly distract from the darkness of the storyline. It's almost a film noir in mood, if not in look. The cast is very strong, with Van Heflin, a dependable performer, playing the hero, Peter Denver (in the books, Peter Duluth - was that surname deemed "too difficult" for audiences of the time?) At the start of the film, Peter is waving goodbye to his beloved wife Iris (Gene Tierney) at the airport. She's off to look after her sick mother, and she urges him to show his face at a party thrown by an actress who is starring in Peter's current show, and who lives in the same block as the Denvers.

The actress is "Lottie" Marin, played by Ginger Rogers (who doesn't dance in this story.) She's a famously unkind woman with a huge ego and a sharp tongue. Her husband Brian (Reginald Gardiner) is a weak character who allows her to bully him. At the party, Peter meets a young woman, Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner) and they become friends. Their relationship is platonic, but Peter invites her to stay in his apartment while Iris is away, and on the day of her return, Nancy is found there, dead. It appears to be a case of suicide, but soon questions arise. Is it possible that Peter has killed her?

The plot is pleasingly convoluted, although I found Nancy's psychology slightly baffling. Peter, naturally, tries to find out what is going on, but the official detective work is undertaken by a cop played by George Raft, whom one associates more with gangster roles. Even as a detective, he is pretty menacing. The film wasn't a huge box office hit, but it's worn pretty well, mainly because of the cast and the strength of the plot twists. Overall, definitely worth watching.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Forgotten Book - The Rynox Mystery

Image result for rynox philip macdonald

Philip Macdonald was one of the breezy entertainers of the Golden Age, an author with a flair for coming up with enticing scenarios. The republication of The Rynox Mystery in the Detective Story Club reprint series gives present day readers a chance to appreciate one of his most appealing set-ups. The book begins with an epilogue, a device used in other crime novels (for instance C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High). But I can't think right now of an example that predates this one, from 1930.

In the epilogue, two large and heavy sacks are delivered to the offices of an insurance company. When the unexpected delivery is opened, it turns out that the sacks contain more than a quarter of a million pounds. A lot of money today, never mind in 1930. What's the meaning of it? We go back in time to find out, and Macdonald presents his chapters as "reels"; no wonder he later moved to Hollywood.
This is a light thriller rather than a whodunit, and it's short and snappy if at times a little too whimsical.

The puzzle concerns the misadventures of a company called Rynox, and the demise of its presiding genius. The identity of the killer appears obvious, but the police struggle to identify him. What is going on? Well, I think most astute readers will figure out the answer, but not to worry. It's not a bad story, and this edition benefits from an intro written by Macdonald himself in the 60s, which I found interesting. He explains that he was aiming to satirise a number of people and institutions, though I'm afraid some of the point of the satire has been lost due to the passage of time.

Another extremely pleasing touch, given that the novel is a short one, is that Harper Collins have added value by including the one and only short story to feature Macdonald's Great Detective, Colonel Anthony Gethryn (who doesn't feature in the novel). The story is called "The Wood-for-the-Trees", and it's a serial killer mystery, with a plot device that crime fans will associate with a rather famous novel.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Hell is a City - 1960 film review

Of all the black and white British cop films of the 50s and early 60s, Hell is a City stands out. There were some other good police movies, certainly, but this one, directed by Val Guest, is excellent from start to finish. There are two reasons for this.

First, the source material. The film was based on Somewhere in the City, a novel by Maurice Procter, who had been a serving police officer before his writing career took off. Procter's books were authentic, and this authenticity is, thankfully, preserved in the movie version. I've been a Procter fan for a long time, and about twenty years ago, I wrote an intro for another of his books, The Midnight Plumber, which features Harry Martineau, as this story does. The late Peter Walker, another cop who became a crime writer, told me that Procter encouraged him to join the CWA back in the 60s. They never actually met, but Peter took the advice and went on to become Chair of the CWA.

Second, the acting. The cast is excellent, and the brilliant Stanley Baker is ideally suited to the role of Martineau, who is married, but not very happily, to the equally discontented Maxine Audley. Billie Whitelaw makes a brief but telling contribution as an ex girlfriend of the killer on the run whom Martineau is hunting, and her husband is played by Donald Pleasence, taking a meek rather than sinister role for once. Joby Blanchard, who starred in Doomwatch, is one of the bad guys, and George A. Cooper, Warren Mitchell, Russell Napier, and even John Comer and Doris ("Annie Walker") Speed in very small parts, all contribute.

The story is a simple one. It's a manhunt, and we're never in doubt that Martineau will get his man. But Val Guest's screenplay compels interest from start to finish, and although Stanley Black's jazzy soundtrack is occasionally intrusive, overall it adds to the atmosphere. The scenes on the moors north east of Manchester, which a few years later would become associated with Brady and Hindley, also make an atmospheric background to key parts of the film. Recommended.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena - book review

Image result for shari lapena

The Couple Next Door is a bestselling novel of psychological suspense by Shari Lapena, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the whirl of the Toronto Bouchercon last year. Shari, who is herself based in Toronto, is a former lawyer, and I've always particularly enjoyed reading the crime fiction of legal eagles who have managed to fly away from the desk, the computer, and the clients for long enough to write a novel.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm a long-term fan of novels of psychological suspense, and when I read them, I find myself not only enjoying the story (assuming it's a good one) but also of studying the approach taken by the writer - whether it's Patricia Highsmith or Celia Fremlin in days gone by, or Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn today. For instance, a key decision is whether to opt for a first person narrative, or a third person single viewpoint narrative. Shari Lapena has chosen the third person multiple viewpoint method, and it's a choice well-suited to her plot. A key reason why it works so well is that it enables her to shift suspicion around a small cast of characters in a very effective way.

In a nutshell, this is a "baby in jeopardy" thriller.  Anne and Marco have been invited round to dinner by Graham and Cynthia, the couple next door, and have unwisely succumbed to pressure from Cynthia to leave their tiny daughter Cora at home, checking on her regularly. You can guess what's coming, can't you?

It's a long time since my own children were as small as Cora, but anyone who's been a parent can, I think, empathise with the terror of Anne and Marco as their life together rapidly falls apart, with Cora missing, and the police deeply suspicious that one or both of them may be implicated in the kidnap. Losing your child is really a parent's worst nightmare. At least Anne's own parents are rich enough to be able to afford to pay a ransom demand, but is that really such a good idea? The moral dilemmas come thick and fast, and so do the plot twists. This is a pacy, action-packed thriller, brimming with suspense. No wonder it's achieved such success.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Ordeal By Innocence - BBC TV review

Luke Treadaway, Anna Chancellor, Bill Nighy and Morven Christie in Ordeal By Innocence.

Ordeal By Innocence, episode one, finally appeared on BBC TV this evening, the intended screening at Christmas having been postponed. This was because one of the actors, Ed Westwick, has been accused of sexual offences, allegations which he denies. His scenes have now been re-shot, with another actor, Christian Cooke, taking his place. It's all been done very skilfully, so that the effect is as if his contribution had never existed. 

The Agatha Christie novel on which Sarah Phelps has based her screenplay was published in 1958, and it's one of the most interesting books written by the Queen of Crime in the later part of her career. In particular, it explores a theme which fascinated her, as it continues to fascinate me: the idea that suspicion can have a cruel and corrosive effect on people who have not actually committed a crime; perhaps they may not even have done anything wrong at all. Suffice to say that more than one of my own novels have addressed this concept, and in writing them I've borrowed the phrase "ordeal by innocence", in homage to Christie. A thought-provoking issue, isn't it?

It's a sort of cold case mystery. Jacko Argyle was convicted of murdering his mother (played, excellently as always, by Anna Chancellor) and is now dead. He always claimed to have an alibi, but the witness who might have got him off the hook was never found. Now Arthur Calgary turns up, explaining that he's been away on an expedition to the Arctic, and has only just found out what has happened. Which gives rise to a question: if he's telling the truth, who did kill Mrs Argyle?

Bill Nighy leads a stellar cast, and the production values are high. The stunning setting is, apparently, Ardgowan House in Scotland, which looks utterly wonderful: I'd love to visit it. Phelps' screenplay brims with Gothic touches, although so far it's not as compelling as her version of And Then There Were None. Whether it was a good idea to stretch the story out to fit three episodes of one hour is, however, debatable. My instinct is that less is more, but we'll see...   

Friday, 30 March 2018

Forgotten Book - The West Pier

Patrick Hamilton was a fascinating writer. I've read no fewer than three biographies of him, those by his brother Bruce, Nigel Jones, and Sean French (all are good, by the way), and I find his life story intriguing, though I have to say he was welcome to it; a classic case of money not being everything, really. He suffered disability and disfigurement as a result of a road accident that wasn't his fault, but even by then he was a heavy drinker, and his health deteriorated steadily until he died in his late fifties.

It's as a playwright that he's best remembered. Rope and Gaslight were both highly successful, and both were filmed. But he felt that his novels were more important, and even if  many would disagree, I find them highly readable. The West Pier, set in Brighton, is a case in point. It was also the first of a trilogy that he wrote about the same character, Ernest Ralph Gorse.

The first thing to say about Gorse is that he's a deeply unpleasant individual. Hamilton makes that clear right away - in fact, the author's voice intrudes constantly, an odd feature that some would find irritating and others old-fashioned. Personally, I didn't mind, although I was surprised that such an experienced novelist resorted to such a device.

Gorse bears some comparison to Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, because he possesses a certain charm, and he lacks a conscience. But this isn't a murder story. It is, instead, the story of a minor crime, the work of an embryonic confidence trickster, and his deceitful treatment of a decent girl and two schoolfriends. And despite the lack of "high stakes", it's compelling because Hamilton creates a frighteningly credible picture of someone who indulges in petty acts of cruelty and revenge - and has a knack of getting away with it.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Death is a Woman - 1966 locked room mystery film review

Death is a Woman is spy film with a glamorous Mediterranean setting, a starring role for Wanda Ventham (mother of Benedict Cumberbatch), and a plot involving a locked room mystery. It's very much a product of the Swinging Sixties, with a soundtrack written by John Shakespeare, aka John Carter, who wrote (and performed) several hit songs. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot, actually. This is a film I really wanted to like, but in the end I had to admit defeat. It's like a poor man's version of James Bond or The Saint, minus Connery and Moore. The script was written by Wally Bosco, who as Wallace Bosco had begun an acting career way back in 1919; he was also a prolific writer, but he was in his 80s when this film was made. I'm afraid he and his colleagues who worked on the film lost the plot.

Right from the film's melodramatic opening, when a villainous couple murder a confederate, under the prying eyes of a blackmailer, the script is hard to take seriously. The quality of the acting doesn't help. The villainess of the piece is played by former pop star Trisha Noble, who divides her time between wearing a bikini and killing people, sometimes multi-tasking by doing both at the same time. She's pursued by an undercover agent, listlessly played by Mark Burns. Wanda Ventham assists him, and she too spends plenty of time in her bikini. Anita Harris, then at the height of her fame as a pop star, sings a song but otherwise contributes nothing, and the background music is irritating; Carter was no John Barry.

The best bit of acting comes from Blake Butler, a character actor of the era, who does a pleasing job as a lift attendant who accuses Burns of the locked room murder (of which he's innocent, of course). Alas, the detection and explanation of the crime is hardly in the John Dickson Carr class. It's all a bit of a mess. Worth watching mainly to remind yourself that it wasn't all Bond and The Ipcress File in the Sixties. At least the shots of Malta are nice.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Bletchley Park and Stowe

I've just got back home after a trip to an area of England I don't know at all well - that part where Buckinghamshire meets Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire. The purpose of my trip was to visit the CWA's St Albans chapter. Regional chapters are, in some ways, the heart of the CWA, and I've been trying to visit some of them when time permits. This time I was very fortunate to enjoy the hospitality of chapter convenor Leo McNeir and his wife Cassandra, and the lunch meeting of the chapter (actually held in Tring, rather than St Albans) proved most enjoyable.

Because it's a long journey, and because for once in this rather drab winter the weather was good on Friday and Sunday, I decided to make the most of the trip by fitting in some sightseeing. Although I've done quite a bit of overseas travelling in recent years, I feel that we tend to under-estimate some of the tourist sights in Britain, and the two places I visited would be stand-outs on any itinerary anywhere.

Stowe is a magnificent National Trust property, with beautiful walks and all kinds of intriguing and amusing architectural gems in the park, ranging from a grotto to a Gothic temple. I'm working on a story idea which features a country house with interesting grounds, and the setting was quite inspirational.

The same was true, but in a totally different way, of Bletchley Park. I've seen The Imitation Game, and read Enigma, but seeing the huts where the codebreakers used to work was something quite special. It's a place with lots to see - you could easily spend a full day there. I was impressed, and again I came away with an idea for a story, tentatively entitled "The Sound of Secrecy".

Friday, 23 March 2018

Forgotten Book - The Progress of a Crime

One of the first contemporary crime novels I read - in fact, I think it may have been the very first after my early diet of Christie and Sayers - was Julian Symons' The Progress of a Crime. It was first published in 1960 and I read it about ten years later. I remember borrowing it from a friend of my father's, having spotted it on his bookshelves. It's a drab title, and a bleak book, but it won an Edgar, and it's widely regarded as one of Symons' best books. I was probably too young for it at the age of 13 or 14, but I liked it, and I enjoyed it all over again when I reread it recently.

The setting is a provincial newspaper, and the protagonist is a young and rather naive reporter called Hugh. By accident, he gets mixed up in a murder case on Guy Fawkes night. But this isn't a classic whodunit. There's no doubt that a man called Corby has been killed by one or more members of a gang of youths. The interest of the story lies in Symons' merciless portrayal of damaged lives - the gang members, the failed journalists, the bullying policemen - and of the shortcomings of the justice system.

There is a very good extended trial scene. Symons had a real gift for courtroom drama, and he was advised by his friend, the author Michael Underwood, on legal procedure, so there is an authentic feeling to this section of the book, which was written long before the controversial development of the "joint enterprise" principle in gang cases. Symons also spent some time in a Bristol newspaper office, so as to capture the whiff of life among the reporters; this too is very well done.

With hindsight, reading this book was an important milestone for me, the beginning of a transition as a youthful reader from the classic world of Poirot, Marple, and Wimsey to modern realism: this is certainly Symons' grittiest book. What I've learned since then, is that both types of novel, as well as other types, have the potential to be highly entertaining. The key question is: how well has the writer told the story? Here, in crisp, sardonic prose, Symons tells a dark and often depressing story very well.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Story of Classic Crime - the paperback is coming...

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has been a lucky book for me. In fact my whole relationship with its publisher, the British Library, has been a very fortunate one as far as I'm concerned. And I'm pleased with the cover of the UK paperback scheduled for publication on 5 July, which has just been finalised - here it is.
When I first conceived the book, I was conscious that it might be, or might at least be perceived as, something of an anti-climax following The Golden Age of Murder, which truly was a once-in-a-lifetime book, shortlisted for six awards, winning four, and reaching readers around the world. This didn't concern me, because I've always written primarily because of the sheer satisfaction of writing, but I did want to make the book as interesting and as worthwhile for crime fans as I possibly could.

The British Library were hugely supportive, and to my delight the book was extremely well received. The first print run sold out quickly, and there were an amazing number of positive reviews. Some of those from the national press feature now on the paperback cover. It even earned a place in the Agatha award shortlist. I'm looking forward to promoting the paperback at various events, including pre-publication events such as Alibis in the Archive and Bodies from the Library.

On the subject of reviews, incidentally, I had an interesting conversation the other day with a well-known publisher who's been around the business for a long time and enjoyed a lot of success. He told me that at least as regards press reviews, he had no doubt that it's far better for a book to get bad reviews than no reviews. He said he'd always had trouble persuading his authors that was the case, but almost invariably he saw a strong correlation between a review in (say) Kirkus Reviews in the US, and sales, even if Kirkus didn't like the book one bit. I suppose this simply demonstrates the way that marketing works. And at least it's a consolation if someone gives your masterpiece a thumbs-down!

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Inquest - 1939 film review

Inquests have provided scenes and storylines for many good crime narratives. The American author Percival Wilde, for instance, wrote a novel with this title that is well worth remembering. But today I'm looking at a short British black and white film made in 1939 by the Boulting Brothers before they became famous. It's based on a play by Michael Barringer, a writer who came to Britain from his native Canada and was especially prolific during the 30s.

It's a film which lacks stars - or perhaps it's simply that I'd never heard of any of the cast members. My hopes weren't especially high when I sat down to watch the film, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's actually quite gripping, with a storyline that kept me interested from start to finish, even though the basic format was familiar.

The peace of a village in the English countryside is disturbed when a chap finds a gun hidden in his cottage. What's more, someone has fired a bullet from it. Inquiries reveal that it belonged to a woman called Margaret Hamilton, who used to live there, and whose husband died, apparently from natural causes. When confronted, Mrs Hamilton (Elizabeth Allan) pleads ignorance but it seems she knows more than she is letting on. She has a boyfriend whose father is a leading barrister, and an exhumation reveals that her husband was actually shot, rather than dying of heart failure, as had been supposed (quite a shocking mistake to make, you might think...). When an inquest is convened, the barrister warns her that she is in for a rough ride, as the evidence is mounting that she killed her husband in order to start a new life.

The way in which coroners' inquests were conducted in the 30s became something of a scandal, and this film shows a coroner abusing his powers to conduct a witch hunt against Mrs Hamilton. It's all rather neatly done, and the plot develops in a pleasing way as the truth about Hamilton's death gradually emerges. Well worth watching..  

Monday, 19 March 2018

Blogging about Veronica's Room

Writing, as I've said often enough, is a tough game. But I've always believed that the pleasures and rewards far outweigh the downsides. And that's true of writing a blog. The rewards aren't financial, of course, because I don't take advertisements on this blog, and I don't intend to. The aim here is simply to share some of my enthusiasms. But the rewards are often unexpected, and are particularly gratifying when they take the form of unexpected contacts from readers.

I've had many happy experiences of such contacts, and the other day I received a comment from Tonya on a post dating back five and a half years, no less. It was a post about Ira Levin's play Veronica's Room  and it was a bittersweet moment when I realised that the first comment came from my friend and fellow blogger Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona, whose life was so sadly cut short by cancer.

Unlike Maxine, I'd never had the chance to watch a performance of the play, but Tonya kindly drew my attention to a Youtube video of a performance in which she took part, back in 1994. And I grabbed the first chance I had to watch it. Good old Youtube!

It's a very creepy play indeed (I see from the internet that a few years back, Harvey Weinstein was planning to film it...) and won't be to everyone's taste, for sure. It wasn't a big hit, unlike Levin's Deathtrap, which was more light-hearted, but I find the games that Levin plays with notions of identity truly fascinating. I like crime stories where people are not who they seem, and this is an extremely intriguing example. I'm so glad that Tonya got in touch.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Reckless Moment - 1949 film review

Eight years ago (blimey!) I reviewed on this blog The Deep End, a film starring Tilda Swinton and based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall. I was underwhelmed by that version of the story, I'm afraid, but when the chance came along to watch an earlier movie adaptation of the book, I decided to take a look. And I'm glad I did.

The Reckless Moment, released in 1949 is a domestic film noir of real merit. Joan Bennett, in her day quite a star, plays Lucia, a wife and mother who is preoccupied by family responsibilities at a time when her beloved husband is working abroad. She's a bossy mum, really, constantly chiding her son about his clothes, and taking it upon herself to tell an unpleasant unsuitable man who is seeing her 17 year old daughter that he must stop. She is even willing to offer him money to make himself scarce. It's not my idea of great parenting, and it doesn't work well. The chap, who is admittedly loathsome, turns up at the family home, where he and Lucia's daughter quarrel. She strikes him and then runs for it, and in a freak accident he winds up dead.

Lucia discovers his body, and in another desperately unwise move, decides to conceal the death. Needless to say, things soon start to unravel. The body is found, and the police start a murder hunt. Meanwhile, an unsavoury duo who have got hold of the girl's letters to the deceased set about blackmailing Lucia.

This is where the film becomes interesting, and it's all due to the relationship between James Mason, one of the bad guys, and Lucia. He finds himself falling in love with her, while she desperately tries to raise the money to buy him and his partner off. Although Mason's character behaves with improbable decency, he is such a charismatic actor that it's not too hard to suspend disbelief, while Lucia's valiant determination to keep her family safe makes up for her intermittent recklessness. A well-made film, and one I enjoyed rather more than The Deep End.

Forgotten Book - Invisible Weapons

Image result for invisible weapons john rhode

Invisible Weapons, first published in 1938, is one of John Rhode's innumerable mysteries; it's been hard to find for many years, but has now reappeared in a new paperback edition from Harper Collins. Rhode fans will, I'm sure, be absolutely delighted, as the chances of finding a first edition in decent nick at an affordable price are negligible. And it's a story which, in many ways, strikes me as typical of Rhode, both in terms of his strengths and his weaknesses.

Let's take the strengths first. The book is divided into two parts, and concerns two distinct crimes (although it's surely not a spoiler to reveal that there is a connection between them). The first victim is an elderly man, who is murdered in highly mysterious circumstances in the home of a doctor, while a police officer is present in the house. It's a locked room killing, and nobody can figure out how the crime was committed, even though there are strong reasons to suspect the doctor, who has been living beyond his means, and whose wife was the deceased's heir.

When the riddle is finally solved by Dr Lancelot Priestley, it turns out to be a variation of an old trick, but very pleasingly handled. There's also a complicated puzzle about the death of a rich and soon-to-be-married man in the second half of the book. Once again, Rhode deals with the mechanics of the crime in an assured way. He was a man with a practical turn of mind, and like Dorothy L. Sayers, he was rather more interested in howdunit than whodunit.

But, unlike Sayers, he had no ambitions as a literary stylist, and therefore the culprit's ingenious m.o. is the focus of interest. The culprit's character and motivation are of very subordinate importance, and here, as so often with Rhode, I found this a little frustrating. A murderer who indulges in such over-elaboration really deserves to have his crime investigated by a sleuth as formidable as Priestley!

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Essex Book Festival 2018

I spent last week-end taking part in Essex Book Festival. As the name suggests, the Festival involves events all around the county, but I was in Southend-on-Sea for a week-end focusing on crime fiction. It's a long way from Cheshire to Southend, but I accomplished the drive quite easily, only for my car to become immobilised in Southend. Cue a visit from the AA breakdown truck and then a frantic drive to a main dealer to get my key battery fixed - only to find the problem recurred when I returned to Southend. Apparently there are 'problems with electronics' in the vicinity of the hotel where I was staying. I can only assume that Russian hackers are to blame!

Anyway, after this drama, I was more than ready for a drink or three, and spent a convivial evening in the company of Festival organisers and fellow writers, among them Seona Ford, Camilla Shestopal, David Whittle, and Ruth Dudley Edwards. The following morning, David, Ruth, and I took part in a panel chaired by Seona which celebrated the life and work of Edmund Crispin. Later, I attended a talk by David - who wrote an excellent biography of Crispin - about the man behind the books (and the music he wrote under his real name, Bruce Montgomery).

This allowed plenty of time for a bracing walk to the end of Southend's amazing pier - the longest pleasure pier in the world, more than twice the length of two piers I know well, those at Southport and Llandudno. I rather like Southend, and it will feature as one of the settings in my next novel, of which more news (I hope) fairly soon.

On Sunday, I chaired a panel featuring three authors who contributed to Mystery Tour, the CWA anthology: Paul Gitsham, Jeanette Hewitt, and Christine Poulson. We talked about a wide range of subjects concerning the ups and downs of the crime writing life, and it was a good deal of fun, as I think the photo (taken by Cheryl Shorter) makes clear. The Festival is very well organised, and I warmly recommend it.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Beast in the Cellar - 1970 film review

In the green and pleasant English countryside, someone is killing soldiers from a local military base in an especially gruesome way. Is a wild animal responsible, or is something even more sinister going on? This is the premise of a 1970 film written and directed by James Kelley, The Beast in the Cellar. The title is something of a plot giveaway, and needlessly unsophisticated given that Kelley was aiming for something relatively ambitious.

After the first killing, we're introduced to two elderly sisters who live together in a secluded old house, not far away from the base. They have connections with the military through their father, a former war hero. One of the sisters, played by Flora Robson, is the dominant one of the pair, looking after Beryl Reid, an affectionate but not very bright character, rather under her sister's thumb.

Robson and Reid were both very good actors, and one of the features of this film is that the cast is a cut above the average. Tessa Wyatt, hugely popular in those days, not least with me, plays a young nurse, and T.P, McKenna is the detective trying to solve the case. The body count begins to rise. But who has a grudge against the young soldiers?

The plot twists are fairly predictable. Kelley was, I feel sure, trying to combine suspense with a character-driven drama, but he falls rather between two stools. The film is certainly watchable, as you'd expect with such a cast, and a lively score by Tony Macaulay is a bonus - there's even a song performed by, believe it or  not, Ediston Lighthouse. But it's a very talky piece of work, and more of a not very horrific horror film than a crime story. Rural Britain provides plenty of scope for dark drama, just as it does for traditional mysteries, but this film, although it has merits, is really a missed opportunity. .

Monday, 12 March 2018

Blood on the Tracks - out now!

Railways have, for some mysterious reason, long been associated with crime fiction. Is it something to do with the feeling of rage that commuters feel when their train is delayed, or doesn't turn up? Or is there perhaps some subtler explanation? Whatever the truth of it, I'm delighted to say that the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of vintage mysteries themed around the railways is now available.

Blood on the Tracks (a title I found irresistible, even though I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan) is quite a chunky volume, I'm glad to say, and I hope that its contents are sufficiently varied to appeal to the broad range of taste of Crime Classics enthusiasts. I called in at the British Library shop last week, the day copies went on sale there, and several were sold during my stay of a few minutes, which augurs quite well.

As in the past when compiling anthologies for this series, I've mixed well-known stories and authors with less renowned counterparts. But when researching the book, I found that a striking number of high-calibre authors had tried their hand at railway mysteries, and even though I'd included examples in previous anthologies, by the likes of John Oxenham and Edmund Crispin, there were still plenty to choose from.

So there are quite a number of famous names in the book, from Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers to the two Michaels, Innes and Gilbert. And among the more obscure titles is "The Railway Carriage" by F. Tennyson Jesse, a writer I find very interesting and whose life and work  I've been researching extensively this past year. Doug Greene's collection of her complete Solange Fontaine stories, incidentally, is most enjoyable. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Forgotten Book - Death Runs on Skis

Recently I had the opportunity to acquire a signed copy of Death Runs on Skis by Hetty Ritchie, a book and author I confess I'd never heard of. A quick check of Al Hubin's monumental bibliography indicated that this was her one and only novel, dating from 1935, but further information was almost impossible to find. This copy didn't have a dust jacket, but I seized the chance to acquire it, partly because the title intrigued me, and partly because I'm always fascinated by the "singleton" detective story - I can never help wondering why an author, having managed to publish one novel, never returned to the fray. It's a topic to which I devote a chapter in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

I began to read the book and was impressed by the first chapter, partly because of the lively narrative voice. The story is told by Gerda, a young woman of German heritage, who lives in Scotland, and who has been looked after by her Uncle Angus. But now Angus is dead, and a kindly lawyer breaks the news that his estate is worth very little. But Angus has left a mysterious letter to Gerda...

I have a weakness for inheritance stories, but it soon became clear that this book isn't exactly an inheritance story, and it's not a Golden Age whodunit. Rather, it's an adventure story about a hunt for lost treasure. Gerda enlists the help of two young men as she embarks on an audacious plan to retrieve the treasure, but she soon finds herself in danger, since someone else is also pursuing the same objective. Much of the story is set in the Swiss Alps, and the setting, and the ski-ing which plays an important part in the action is well described.

I discovered that Lucius Books of York are selling a copy with an excellent dust jacket, and with their assistance I was able to look at the jacket blurb, from which I learned that the mysterious author was herself a ski-ing expert. But why didn't Hetty write any more crime fiction? She certainly could write, that's for sure. The style is light and entertaining, even if the plot is pretty basic. If anyone can offer a solution to the puzzle, I'd be delighted.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Spaniard's Curse - 1958 film review

I sat down to watch The Spaniard's Curse without high hopes, to be honest. The title didn't inspire much confidence, but the Talking Pictures TV channel has dug up are some hidden gems, and I was taken by surprise when the opening credits revealed that Kenneth Hyde's screenplay was based on a story by Edith Pargeter. And that, of course, was the real name of an author I've long admired - Ellis Peters.

The original story is, in fact, a novella, "The Assize of the Dying"; I hadn't even realised that it had been turned into a film. It's a reminder that she was doing very good work long before the era of Brother Cadfael. And the story is certainly a good one, a cut above many of the other short black and white British movies of the 50s.

We begin with a jury worrying over its verdict in a murder trial. Stevenson, the accused (Basil Dignam, in relatively early and untypical role) is ultimately found guilty, and when asked if he has anything to say, he uses the formula of an ancient Spanish curse on the judge (Michael Hordern), prosecuting counsel, and jury foreman. Hence the melodramatic title, although I feel it is  much inferior to The Assize of the Dying, which strikes me as genuinely evocative.

Soon both Stevenson and the jury foreman die, and attention focuses on the judge and his domestic circle, comprising his dashing journalist son (Tony Wright, who played Jack Havoc in the film version of The Tiger in the Smoke), his ward (Susan Beaumont, an attractive young woman whose screen career was bafflingly brief) and her new boyfriend (Canadian actor Lee Patterson). Hordern gives an excellent performance in quite a challenging role.

The set-up of the story is full of promise, and there's a very pleasing red herring which fooled me completely for a while. After that, it faltered a little, and personally I felt that had something to do with Patterson's lack of charisma. The ending also felt a bit rushed. On the whole, though, I found this an entertaining film, a little different from the run-of-the-mill, and it's worth a look if you get the chance.


The Hatton Garden Job and Freehold (aka Two Pigeons) - movie reviews

Two short, recent films today. Both have their moments, but not enough to live up to the potential of their storylines. And despite short running times, they both felt a bit too long, which rather said it all. The Hatton Garden Job disappointed me more, because the true story on which it's based is so remarkable - an extraordinarily lucrative heist carried out by a small gang of veteran criminals. Despite the arrests and convictions that followed, questions about the crime remain.

This film makes up answers to some of those questions, inventing a character played by Matthew Goode who is hired to do job by a glamorous female Hungarian gangster, played rather improbably by Joely Richardson. We never really learn enough about either character to become fully engaged with them, and I was amused by one negative review which compared Richardson's performance to that of a frazzled magician's assistant. Well, it isn't her finest hour, but I remain a fan of hers.

The snag with a heist movie is that it is easy to fall into the trap of following a formula: the gang is assembled, the heist is carried out, and then things go wrong. This film doesn't do anything original with those elements, even though the gang members, including the excellent David Calder, are a likeable bunch - much more likeable than their real life counterparts, no doubt.

A couple of days after watching this, I came across Ambush in Leopard Street, a 1962 B-movie about a diamond heist in London. Apart from Bruce Seton (aka Fabian of the Yard) the cast was as forgettable as the script, but really there wasn't any less to it than there was to The Hatton Garden Job, even though the new film looks much flashier.

Freehold, also known as Two Pigeons (I wonder why they changed the title... or perhaps I don't!), is a revenge thriller, a black comedy, including scenes which will appeal to connoisseurs of the repellent. Having met a few young London estate agents some years back, the idea of one of their number getting an overdue come-uppance is, I'm sorry to say, rather appealing, but again I didn't think the script fulfilled its theoretical promise. I did, however, think that the ending was pretty good, and rather better than the lead-up to it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Blanche Fury - 1948 film review

Blanche Fury, a 1948 historical melodrama starring Stewart Granger and Valerie Hobson, was based on a book of the same name by Joseph Shearing published nine years earlier. The Shearing pseudonym was used by Marjorie Bowen, a highly prolific and undoubtedly accomplished writer, and the Shearing stories were typically based on real life historical cases. For instance, Airing in a Closed Carriage is based on the Maybrick case.

Blanche Fury was inspired by a real life case rather less well-known than the Maybrick case, although quite notorious in its day. This was the double murder at Stanfield Hall in Norwich in 1848, when a father and son were shot dead by a tenant farmer. The details of the case are significantly changed in the film, not least in the transposition of the setting to Staffordshire, but perhaps the most significant change is the focus on the title character, played by Hobson.

Blanche is a strong woman, well-born but poor, who yearns for position and affluence. She is doing drudge work as a companion when she's contacted by Simon Fury, who wants her to come to Clare Hall, and look after his grand-daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia's father is played by Michael Gough, and he takes a shine to Blanche. But so, unfortunately, does the much more charismatic Philip Thorn (Granger) who believes he is the rightful owner of Clare, and has been denied his inheritance by the unfairness of the laws on illegitimacy.

There's a doom-laden feeling to the story, which proceeds at a sombre pace. By modern standards, the presentation of a gang of villainous gypsies seems like a classic example of unpleasant stereotyping, but leaving that issue aside, the story is quite a good one. It is, as I say, more of a melodrama than a murder mystery, but it's quite watchable The script was co-written by Audrey Erskine Lindop, who would later write I Start Counting, a novel which also became a successful film..

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Forgotten Book - Love Lies Bleeding

Image result for edmund crispin love lies bleeding

I'm reading up on Edmund Crispin at the moment. It's always a pleasure to read such an entertaining writer, and the forthcoming Essex Book Festival, when I'll be taking part in a panel (with, among others, Crispin's biographer David Whittle) focused on Crispin's work. It will be a long journey to Southend, but I had a great time at the Festival a couple of years back, and I'm looking forward to this one.

Anyway, what about the book? Well, Love Lies Bleeding was published in 1948, and it's an excellent example of the traditional detective novel. Crispin offers all the classic ingredients - an elaborate alibi, more deaths than one, an appealing amateur detective, a chase, and clever fair-play clueing. There's plenty of humour, and literary heritage plays a central part in the storyline. Yes, you can take it than I'm a fan of this book, even if the complications of the plot do take some explaining at the end.

The book has a school setting, like so many vintage mysteries: Gladys Mitchell, Nicholas Blake, James Hilton, Agatha Christie, and R.C.Woodthorpe among others all saw the potential of the school (and I mean, of course, the fee-paying private/public school, not a state school of the kind I attended) as a setting for a murder mystery. It provides for a "closed circle" of suspects, and also a setting in which tensions and jealousies can erupt into violence.

Gervase Fen has been invited to give a speech at Castrevenford School, a boys' school, and his arrival coincides with the mysterious disappearance of a girl from the local girls' school. Soon, two murders are committed, and Fen fears for the safety of the missing girl. Superintendent Stagge is all too grateful for his help, and the plot thickens further when a young man on a walking tour discovers a third body. It's all done with rare skill. My only regret is that Crispin's active career as a crime novelist was so short. 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Villain - 1971 film review

Villain is a British gangster movie made around the same time as Mike Hodges' Get Carter. If anything, it boasts an even better cast, led by Richard Burton, Ian McShane, Nigel Davenport, Donald Sinden, T.P. McKenna, Joss Ackland, and Colin Welland. The script, rather bizarrely, was written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais (more commonly associated with sitcoms), as well as an American writer. And the unsubtle soundtrack, I'm afraid, isn't a patch on Roy Budd's music for Get Carter. But it's an intriguing film, well worth watching, and based on a novel by James Barlow called The Burden of Proof.

Burton plays Vic Dakin, a sociopathic gay gang leader who is devoted to his mother but also susceptible to outbursts of violent temper. Evidently he was modelled on the Krays, His lover is Wolfie, played by McShane. Casting these two very charismatic male actors as a gay pair must have been a very audacious decision in 1971, and perhaps the audiences of that time weren't ready for it. Apparently a gay sex scene between the two men was cut from the film, but several rather nastily violent scenes were left in. Some of the violence in films (and even TV) in the Seventies seems very graphic and shocking when I watch it now. And the portrayal of pretty young women as sex objects is not only crude but also uninteresting. At least Britt Ekland was memorable in Get Carter..

Dakin and his crew get involved in an armed robbery that goes wrong, and the rest of the film deals with the consequences of the crime, as the cops, led by Davenport and Welland, pursue the bad guys with affable remorselessness. Sinden plays a crooked MP, alleged by some to be reminiscent of the late Lord Boothby, whom Wolfie blackmails into providing an alibi for Dakin.

This is a far from perfect film, for a variety of reasons, and not only because Burton's version of a Cockney accent is rather...well, Welsh. Get Carter is, in my opinion, a more sophisticated and effective film, but despite my reservations I must admit that I found myself quite gripped by Villain. The script is interesting, but really it's the star quality of the principal actors that stands out. . 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Fire in the Thatch - Lorac is back again!

Fire in The Thatch: A Devon Mystery (British Library Crime Classics) by [Lorac, E. C. R. ]

Just over a month ago, I was delighted to report the republication, the first for many a long year, of E.C.R. Lorac's Bats in the Belfry. I've been very glad to learn from the British Library that the book has sold really well, and has already been reprinted. Quite something. And this more than vindicates the decision the Library took last year to acquire the rights to a second Lorac title, which has also now been published.

Fire in the Thatch has a rural setting, and so is very different in that respect, as well as in terms of plot, from Bats in the Belfry. In the early years of her career, Lorac often set her books in London, whereas later on, especially after she relocated to the Lune Valley, her main focus was on life (and death) in the countryside. The cover artwork of this particular edition strikes me as delightful, and very much in keeping with many readers' impression of Golden Age fiction.

There's no doubt that setting does influence the way one writes a novel. My first eight books all had urban backgrounds, seven in Liverpool, one in London, and when my new editor said he'd like me to consider a new series with a rural setting, I wasn't sure about it. In fact, I'm really glad I took up the challenge, and I'm sure that Lorac also enjoyed a change of scene for her crime stories. I don't want to give any spoilers in relation to Fire in the Thatch, but if you read it, you'll see that it is structured rather differently from Bats in the Belfry. Lorac was a more versatile writer than many people realise.

It will be interesting to see how Fire in the Thatch is received. My hope is that more Loracs will be republished, and there are certainly plenty of titles to choose from. The enthusiasm of readers for vintage crime stories seems, if anything, to be growing. The good news is that there are still plenty of titles out there waiting for someone to publish them...

Friday, 23 February 2018

Forgotten Book - The Doors Open

I've read Michael Gilbert's novel The Doors Open three times. First, when I was about 13 or 14 and was reading it purely as a light thriller. Second, when I'd qualified as a solicitor, and had become familiar with the legal case that Gilbert references in the book, and which may have inspired part of the plot. And third, recently, when I wanted to see how it stood up to the test of time .Each time, I found it an enjoyable read.

The Doors Open was Gilbert's third book, and first appeared in 1949. At that time, he was finding his way as a crime writer, although his smooth and readable style was already much in evidence. He'd begun with a classic detective puzzler, then followed with a thriller, and he would continue to ring the changes with his novels for about half a century. This versatility is admirable, in my view, though it may have meant that he never became quite such a household name as his gifts would have suggested.

The stern critics Barzun and Taylor regard this book as "his least satisfactory work", but I don't agree. On the contrary, it begins with an intriguing prologue, which relates to the theme of the book rather than the storyline itself, and then moves on to an equally intriguing chance encounter between a likeable young accountant and a middle-aged man who is contemplating suicide. The latter is subsequently found dead, and the police take little interest. But there is something suspicious about the case, and the young accountant starts to dig deeper. Before long, his curiosity puts his life in jeopardy.

A wide range of characters come into the story, including Nap Rumbold (who would go on to star in Death Has Deep Roots), Angus McCann, who had taking a lead role in Gilbert's previous novel, and Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, Different people take centre stage at different times. Stucturally, therefore, the book is rather unorthodox, but although this method of telling a story is risky, in my opinion Gilbert gets away with it, simply because he is such an accomplished entertainer. Worth seeking out.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Peter Lovesey - Beau Death - book review

Beau Death (Peter Diamond Mystery Book 17)
Peter Lovesey is one of those writers - his friends Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard were among the others - whose crime novels I read and enjoyed long before meeting the author in person. I've followed his career closely for a long time, and although I've not read everything he's written, there aren't many gaps. He's a wonderful entertainer, and it was a pleasure as well as a privilege to interview him about his long career at Crimefest last year.

All this is by way of preamble to the news that he recently published his latest novel, another entry in the very popular Peter Diamond series. It's called Beau Death, and given that the Diamond series is set in Bath, you don't have to be a detective to figure out that the fascinating historical character of Beau Nash plays a significant part in the story, even though it is very much an up-to-the-minute contemporary mystery. There's even a scene set at an infinity pool.

The story opens with a dramatic discovery during the course of a house demolition. A skeleton is found, seated on a chair and in 18th century dress. Peter Diamond finds himself investigating the potentially the coldest of cases, and we learn a great deal about Nash, someone about whom I'd previously known very little. As well as supplying a reminder of the author's fascination with history, it's all very interesting. Of all British crime writers at work at present, I doubt if any supply more background information than Peter Lovesey, with the possible exception of Stephen Booth, and I'm pretty sure that for some of their fans, that is an important part of their books' appeal.

For me, Peter Lovesey's characterisation, humour, and plotting are key, and I'm glad to report that these elements are here in abundance. It's quite a long book, and one of the reasons for this is that the plot is deceptively elaborate, so that one never quite knows what is coming next. I have to admit that I was fooled by the final twist, and not for the first time by this admirable writer. And I should also add that there are plenty of incidental delights, including a witness who has a thing about the Royal Family, and a host of amusing set-pieces.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Mr Bowling is Back!

Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper Hardcover  by

I'm delighted that Harper Collins have republished Donald Henderson's Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper in their splendid Detective Story Club series. It's an interesting book by an extremely interesting author. And it was lauded by, among others, Raymond Chandler. He referred to the book in his famous essay "The Simple Art of Murder", and separately he said: "I think it is one of the most fascinating books written in the last ten years."

Many years ago, it was Chandler's essay that caused me to search out the book, but it wasn't easy to find. He pointed out that it hadn't sold many copies, and added "There is something wrong with the book business". Well, the book business is certainly odd at times, and always unpredictable. Henderson was unlucky, although at last he's receiving his due, a nicely produced and very reasonably priced hardback reprint.

I hope the book does really well, because Henderson and his work deserve to be better known. Another book of his, Goodbye to Murder, was published as a Pan paperback, but other than that I'd never seen any of his other novels until last year, when I came across several. And my interest has in part been inspired by Paul Harding, who has researched Henderson's life, and allowed me to see Henderson's unpublished memoir, "The Brink". I've written the intro to this new edition, and the information Paul shared with me was not only fascinating but really helpful.

Henderson had a life that was often sad, and he died in his mid-forties, just when his career might finally have been about to take off. But he really could write, and I hope and expect that this won't be the last of his books to gain a fresh life in the twenty-first century.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Forgotten Book - The Woman in the Sea

Image result for shelley smith woman in the sea

An older woman called Mrs Robinson seduces a naive young man. Sounds familiar? Well, my subject today is not The Graduate, but a much less familiar story, Shelley Smith's novel of 1948, The Woman in the Sea. It was her sixth book, and it's the work of an accomplished and interesting novelist, much admired by Julian Symons.

There's an Author's Note at the beginning, in which Smith states that "Looking about me for a suitable plot by which to illustrate certain aspects of morality which were much exercising my mind..." she recalled a real life case which seemed "to provide a framework both solid and pliable enough for my purpose". Here she is referring, I have little doubt, to the Rattenbury and Stoner case of 1935 (although that case bears uncanny similarities to the earlier, and even more famous, Thompson and Bywaters case).  She denies that her characters are intended to represent their real life counterparts,and on the whole I think this denial is not disingenuous, but fair enough. Francis Rattenbury, for instance, led a very different life from Zoe Robinson's husband Bertram.

The book has a prologue involving the discovery of the body, and essentially the rest of the story is a flashback, recounting the events in a doom-laden house which led up to that particular death. I suspect that Smith realised that her method of structuring the story reduced the tension, but that she though it a price worth paying. A debatable decision, as far as I'm concerned, but despite being quite sure how it was all going to end, I kept reading.

This is because Smith was a writer of genuine ability and intelligence. She could plot very well when she wanted to, but her main concern here was with those issues of morality. To a modern reader, perhaps these are not quite as compelling as they were in 1948, but the account of Zoe's affair with a really rather stupid lad is handled with some poignancy. I'm glad I read it. Smith's constant determination to try to do something different strikes me as admirable.