Friday, 19 January 2018

Forgotten Book- Close Quarters

Image result for "michael gilbert" "close quarters"

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Harriett Gilbert, an acclaimed novelist and radio presenter - and also the daughter of one of my long-time favourite crime writers, Michael Gilbert. I invited her to be guest speaker at the Detection Club's most recent dinner, and like all all my colleagues I really enjoyed listening to Harriett talking, with great affection, about her father's work. And this splendid occasion, among other things, has prompted me to revisit several of his books.

Close Quarters, first published in 1947, was his first novel. I borrowed it from our local library at a very tender age; more recently, to my delight, I managed to lay my hands on a signed first edition, and because I think lovely books should be read, rather than just gazed at admiringly, I have just re-read it, with much pleasure. The story is set in 1937, and apparently Gilbert wrote it before the Second World War, but his time in service (including a spell as a prisoner of war in Italy) meant that his attempts to establish himself as an author were put on hold until hostilities ceased. Once he'd got into print, however, there was  no stopping him, and books and short stories began to flow from his pen.

Gilbert's work was exceptionally varied, but this first effort was very definitely in the tradition of the Golden Age whodunit. There is a "closed circle" setting which just happens to be a cathedral close. There's a cast of characters, maps of the close, and even a crossword puzzle which plays a part in the storyline. And Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who featured in several of Gilbert's later mysteries, makes his debut.

As you'd expect from a first novel, this one has some flaws. In particular, I feel that there are too many people - the first chapter introduces them at a rather dizzying rate, and although Gilbert's urbane storytelling style is already in evidence, I shared Hazlerigg's irritation at the fact that a crucial piece of information was kept from him for three days. Nonetheless, an enjoyable book, and the start of an admirable career. Many years later, incidentally, Gilbert returned to Melchester Cathedral for The Black Seraphim, though the later book wasn't a sequel to his debut.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

New York, New York...

I'm just back from a short stay in New York, my third visit to the Big Apple. Each trip has been unforgettable. The first time coincided with the first time I had a novel published in the US - Eve of Destruction. I recall vividly checking into my hotel just off Broadway, then walking towards Central Park only to be lured into a bookstore. Imagine my glee when I was confronted by a huge display of my latest hardback! That hasn't happened too many times in life, I can tell you. The second trip was for the Edgars, two years ago, when The Golden Age of Murder had a lucky night. Very, very  memorable.

And this time, I'd been invited to stay in the Yale Club for four nights by the Baker Street Irregulars. They'd asked me to give their annual "distinguished speaker" (their term, not mine) lecture, and to take part in the BSI annual weekend, timed to coincide with Sherlock Holmes' official birthday, as well as some remarkable weather, ranging from snow to 60 degrees in the blink of an eye. The Irregulars were formed back in 1934, and they are a very prestigious group. Being invested as an Irregular is a big deal for Sherlockians. As for the lecture, I was following in the footsteps of some genuinely distinguished people, including Sara Paretsky, Christopher Frayling, Laurie R. King, and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda . No pressure, then...

Anyway, I got to the US in good time and had the chance of a "bracing" i.e. very cold walk to the fascinating Strand Bookstore, a huge and impressive place, where I managed to bag a couple of excellent signed books. On the flight I'd watched Goodbye Christopher Robin, and this prompted me to visit the New York Public Library, which is impressive, and boasts among many other treasures the original Winnie-the-Pooh, plus chums such as Piglet and Eeyore, in a glass case, in front of the famous map of the 100 acre wood.

The Yale Club proved very atmospheric, and among other things it boasts a fantastic library. I had the chance to attend a range of events, including a Baker Street Journal cocktail party, the main BSI dinner, a fabulous affair, a reception and lunch, a book fair and a private party given by Otto Penzler at the Mysterious Bookshop. Best of all, I had the chance to meet delightful people, including Mike Whelan, head of the BSI, and Les Klinger who invited me over, as well as many others. My thanks go to Dana Cameron for the photo at the top of this post, taken in the Club when I was fielding questions after my lecture. And then, on my last day, the sun shone (though it was again "bracing") and Michael Dirda and I had brunch together before doing sightseeing stuff at the Rockefeller Center, including a trip to Top of the Rock, with amazing views all around an amazing city. Quiet and understated New York is not, but I had a whale of a time.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Web of Evidence - 1959 film review

Web of Evidence is the American title of a 1959 British film which in this country was called Beyond This Place. The screenplay was based on a novel by A.J. Cronin, also called Beyond This Place. Cronin isn't someone I associate with crime writing, and I guess the novel may be a bit more of a mainstream book than a thriller. But he was a good novelist - and the creator of Dr Finlay's Casebook - and I imagine it's worth reading.

The film is one of those which grafts American actors on to a British story solely for commercial reasons. Fortunately, in this case the actors are Van Johnson and Vera Miles, both of whom were very capable performers. Oddly enough, the setting is Liverpool, and I was fascinated to see shots of the city as it was in the late Fifties - a much grimmer place than it is today, for sure.

Johnson plays Paul Mathry, who docks at Liverpool for a few days in the hope of tracing his father, whom he lost touch with at the start of the war, when his mother took him away to the United States. He is shocked to find that his father (played by Bernard Lee, just before he became "M" in the James Bond films) was convicted of murder, and only escaped the gallows with the help of a campaigner (Emlyn Williams).

Johnson decides Dad was innocent, and sets out to prove it. But he faces obstruction from the authorities, who don't want the old case to be re-opened. Vera Miles, a local librarian, helps Johnson in his quest, and naturally they fall for each other. But she too has a secret in her past. I wasn't qutie convinced by some of the legal aspects of the plot, but that didn't matter too much. The quality of the acting (the likes of Leo McKern, Geoffrey Keen and Rosalie Crutchley also appear) coupled with a solid story make this a very watchable film.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Forgotten Book - Burn This

Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was one of the most talented of American crime writers. I've enjoyed a number of her clever and often off-beat mysteries, both those featuring her regular amateur sleuth Dr Basil Willing, and those in which he doesn't appear. Burn This (1980) marked Willing's final appearance, as well as being his first for twelve years. It also proved to be McCloy's last novel

The story is set in Boston and although the critical consensus is that it's not one of her masterpieces (a view which I share) it is still full of pleasing elements, especially given that McCloy seizes the chance to crack a few jokes about the writing business, and offer a few insights into it. A widow, Harriet Sutton, consults her lawyer about making a fresh start in life. Encouraged by him, she buys a house for herself in a historic neighbourhood, and funds the cost by taking tenants. Because she's a writer, she decides that her tenants should be writers too.

However, the tranquillity of her new existence is disturbed when she comes across an anonymous note marked "Burn this". It appears to be a message from one person living in the house to another saying that a fellow tenant is "Nemesis", a critic of legendary virulence, and that "Nemesis" should be given his - or her - final come-uppance. But who wrote the note, who was to receive it, and who is "Nemesis".

Harriet mistakenly reveals the existence of the note to her tenants, and chaos ensues, but when murder duly occurs, the victim is unexpected - Harriet's lawyer. Is the death connected with the note? In the second half of the book, the victim's heir introduces Harriet to Basil Willing, who lends the  police a hand. I wasn't altogether blown away by the solution to the mystery, which seemed to me to be less interesting that such a tantalising set-up deserved. So it's not vintage McCloy. But it is still decent entertainment, a quick and easy read, though not the best introduction to a fine writer.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Frightened City - 1961 film review

Even before he became James Bond, Sean Connery was an actor whose performances packed a punch, and in The Frightened City, released in 1961, he gives a notable, and indeed nuanced, performance as a gangster called Paddy Damion. Damion can be brutal, and treats his girlfriend Sadie badly, but he is a good friend, even if he chooses his friends from people he's shared a prison cell with, notably an aged gangster called Alfie, and a former burglar (played by Kenneth Griffiths) who is now disabled..

Damion only comes into the story after an intriguing scenario has been established. Herbert Lom plays Waldo, a sinister accountant, who talks protection racketeer Foulcher (Alfred Marks) into joining forces with other gang leaders to create a reign of terror in London The police, with John Gregson to the fore, are struggling to cope with the menace.

But Waldo and Foulcher become greedy, while Damion's wandering eye leads him into trouble when he falls for Waldo's lady friend Anya, played by Yvonne Romain. Romain is convincing as a sultry foreign seductress, so it came as something of a surprise to me to earn that her real name is Yvonne Warren, and she was born in London. She's been married to prolific songwriter Leslie Bricusse from almost sixty years, but the background music in the film is provided by Norrie Paramor and The Shadows.

This is a realistic, and occasionally subtle film which is at least a couple of notches above the ordinary in terms of both screenplay (by Leigh Vance) and performances. The focus is more on the villains than the cops (who are not above breaking the law themselves to try to do justice as they see it), and that works pretty well. And the climactic scene in Waldo's exotically furnished home is nicely done.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Maelstrom - DVD review

Image result for maelstrom bbc 1985

Maelstrom was a six-part BBC series screened in 1985. I didn't see it then, but I'd read good things about it, and I've developed an interest in the writer, Michael J. Bird, who wrote a number of very popular TV series in that era.. So I was delighted to receive the DVD two-disc set as a Christmas present, and quick to watch it. And I found it very enjoyable.

In essence, it's a Scandi-crime show written by an Englishman. The premise is interesting. Catherine loses her job only to fall on her feet. A summons to a solicitor's office results in her discovering that she has inherited valuable property in Norway. The benefactor was a wealthy Norwegian, but she knows nothing about him, or why she has been mentioned in his will. She sets off to Alesund to learn more about her inheritance and meets an enigmatic bunch of characters.

Most enigmatic of all are the two daughters of her mysterious and recently deceased benefactor, who welcome her warmly (and are wealthy in their own right, so have no need to be jealous of her inheritance). Yet there's something very odd about the situation. And does the local doctor know more than he's letting on? She is befriended by a handsome local journalist, who believes there was somethiing suspicious about her benefactor's death. And what is the secret of the island house she has inherited, where one of the rooms is inexplicably locked, and to which a hundred or so dolls lend a certain spookiness?

By the standards of modern TV crime dramas, Maelstrom doesn't move at a fast pace, but the scenery is gorgeous, and the story builds suspense very well. I was interested to study Bird's technique. His plot is sound, and although I figured out the  main twist early on, he still kept one surprise up his sleeve. The cast does a decent job, especially Tusse Silberg as Catherine, and Northwich-born Ann Todd, who plays Astrid. And although the creepiness of dolls has been explored in other films and TV shows, Bird uses them very well here in creating a macabre atmosphere. I can recommend this one.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Forgotten Book - Death at Breakfast

Image result for john rhode death at breakfast

John Rhode was probably at the height of his fame when he published Death at Breakfast in 1936. It's long been a hard-to-find novel, but not any more, thanks to a paperback reissue by Harper Collins which uses the splendid (if not quite true to the storyline) original cover artwork. It's another example of a reissue that, a few years ago, would have seemed an impossible dream.

But is it any good? Well, yes, I think it is. This isn't an entry in the publishers' Detective Story Club, so there is no introduction, but there is a prologue - not a device that Rhode commonly used, I believe, though I have to say that there are over 100 of his detective novels that I haven't read. We're introduced tot he miserly and unpleasant Victor, who is anticipating some kind of mysterious windfall. Suffice to say, the reader is not heartbroken when Victor quickly meets his death as a result of nicotine poisoning.

At first, suspicion falls on his half-sister and her brother. But soon it becomes clear that the mystery is more complex than seemed to be the case. Superintendent Hanslet and young Jimmy Waghorn make a nicely contrasted pair of detectives, but for all their talents, they find it necessary to consult Dr Lancelot Priestley when the puzzle become hard to solve.

Hanslet is not impressed by some of Priestley's reasoning, and naively concludes that the great man, who is getting on in years, may be losing his grip. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. I figured out the central trick in the story quite some time before the two cops, but that didn't much lessen my pleasure in an entertaining mystery. Rhode was a capable craftsman, and he built his plots with care. This is a pretty good one.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Where Does the Time Go?

Welcome to a new year of "Do You Write Under Your Own Name?" I've not broken any new year resolutions yet, thanks to the cunning plan of not making any. But of course the start of a new year offers an opportunity to reflect, and to plan ahead. I'm already looking forward to the appearance of my next anthology, Blood on the Tracks, and next week I head off for New York, where I'll be giving the "distinguished speaker lecture" to the Baker Street Irregulars, Life is short, so the challenge is always: how to make the best of it? And so questions of time management start to rear their head...

Perhaps 25 years ago, the Law Society published some guidelines on time management for lawyers, and I was featured. My hazy recollection is that this came about because I was at the time a member of the Society's employment law committee, and its secretary gained the impression that if one combined writing novels with writing legal books and articles, and being a partner in a law firm, one must have some thoughts about effective time management. I'm still not sure that I can claim true expertise in this field, because I usually feel less efficient than I'd like to be. But lately a few people have asked me about my approach, most recently, on New Year's Day, fellow writer Noreen Wainwright.

So in response to Noreen's question in particular, here are a few thoughts about how I go about my writing life. Be warned, though. You may feel as disappointed as Dr Watson sometimes did, when Sherlock Holmes explained his deductions. There's no great magic in any of this.

It seems to me that effective time management requires a number of things that can't be guaranteed. Good health makes things so much easier (though I'm repeatedly impressed by the achievements of disabled people I know, I'm doubtful I could emulate them), and so does a supportive family. These are blessings not to be taken for granted.

But what can one do, personally, to try to achieve more in a limited amount of time? It's a question I'm pondering for myself right now, as I anticipate becoming involved with a major literary project later in the year that will be very time-consuming. More about this another day, but the point is that I'm acutely conscious that I'll have to juggle various literary commitments, as Chair of the CWA, President of the Detection Club, archivist of both, CWA anthologist, consultant to the British Library's Crime Classics, and so on.

In addition, at the moment I still work part-time as a solicitor (mainly from home, nowadays, thank goodness: the reduction in lost time commuting has been a real advantage), although that aspect of my life is drawing to a natural and contented conclusion. As well as the driving, one time-drain I don't miss is having to manage solicitors. Even when you have a great team, as I certainly did, it's very wearing, and eats into one's time at an alarming rate, if one spends plenty of time with everyone, making sure that all is well with them; and if one doesn't devote time to that, perhaps one shouldn't be a manager.

Anyway, as well as my various commitments, I also want to do plenty of writing, and also take part in festivals and other events. I write because it's what I've dreamed of doing since I was a small child, and although events do take up a lot of time, they are a good way of meeting readers and prospective readers, people who are almost invariably pleasant to chat with..But I'm also very firmly of the view that, so far as possible, one should minimise the time one spends doing unpleasant and thankless tasks, So if I disliked crime conventions, panels, and talks, I'd rarely bother with them. Because I enjoy them, and meeting fellow writers and readers, I don't find them hard work.

One challenge is to spread the load, so that one isn't constantly travelling. This is especially true in my case, as I find it hard to write when I'm travelling (and this is an area where I'd definitely like to improve). So I use travel time as a way of refreshing my ideas about possible stories - I mentioned last Saturday various ideas for short stories that came to me through travelling in 2017. Even so, I've had - reluctantly - to turn down quite a number of invitations in recent times.

The most striking and frustrating example came last autumn, when on one particular Saturday I was asked to attend three different festivals, in Lancaster, London, and Belfast respectively. In the end, I went to Lancaster, mainly because that invitation came first, but also because it was a less time-consuming trip. I was really sorry to miss the other two events, but the reality is that you can't do everything. As more opportunities have come my way, I've talked to more successful authors to pick up tips about how to choose what to do. The answer always comes down to having a clear sense of priorities. Prioritisation in life is crucial, it seems to me. It is a question of trying to figure out what matters most to you.

Keeping things simple also seems to me to be vital. Take this blog, for instance. I am keen to keep to my practice of publishing three blog posts a week, with a Forgotten Book on Friday, but I don't want to spend a huge chunk of time producing blog posts. So (as with this post, for instance) I aim for spontaneity - which is my excuse for the mistakes I make! I often think I should spend more time illustrating my blog posts, e.g. with film posters and book jackets. But again, the key is not to be over-elaborate. And it's desirable not to put oneself under too much pressure. So I always have a stock of blog posts that aren't time-sensitive available, in case I'm away on holiday or unwell. As with attending festivals, writing a blog should never feel like a chore. If one doesn't enjoy it, better not to do it. But my method has helped me to enjoy writing this blog for more than ten years, and I can honestly say that I enjoy it as much today as I have ever done. If that were to change, it would be time for a re-think, because I am sure it would become evident to you, my readers, and I don't want standards to slip.

Social media? Well, whether one is traditionally published or self-published, there's no denying that it's important to strive to promote one's own books. Relying on someone else to do it for won't get you very far unless you're a superstar. But that doesn't mean you have to spend endless time doing things on social media that you're uncomfortable with. I confess that I'm not very good at Twitter, partly because I fear that brevity can lead to saying something unkind or inappropriate quite unintentionally. We live in a world where it's all too easy to give offence without meaning to. So I prefer the broader canvas of a blog.

As for Facebook, I spend a bit of time on it, but not a huge amount. As I say, this blog post was sparked by a Facebook conversation, and some of these exchanges can be illuminating. Facebook is a wonderful way of making connections with people one seldom or never meets in person. But I'm slightly amazed at the way some very sensible people devote so much effort to sharing their latest rant on politics or whatever with people who then spend ages agreeing with them; the echo chamber aspect of social media is an oddity of our times. Other writers issue high calibre newsletters (and writing a regular newsletter is an idea I'm toying with myself - when I get that elusive moment!). It's again a question of figuring out what works for you, and prioritising that as best you can.

Another aspect of keeping thing simple concerns focusing on the task in hand .It is easy to become overwhelmed by the prospect of a series of demanding commitments, and I try to minimise that risk. To do this, one also has to be realistic about the commitments one takes on. Here's an example. Back in the 1990s, a kind editor offered me a two-book contract for more Harry Devlin novels. But I wanted to write a different and complex novel (which became Take My Breath Away) and I was working long hours in the office. I felt that to take on further deadlines would add to the stresses I was under. So reluctantly I turned the offer down. When I was ready to return to Harry Devlin, my editor had gone, and so had the contract offer. You could argue that I made a mistake, since Take My Breath Away was not, whatever its merits, a big seller. The Devlin books sold much better, and continue to do very well as ebooks. But if it was a mistake, then I haven't spent ages regretting it. We all make mistakes, and once we've apologised and learned from them, it's time to move on. Actually, I think the decision made sense. It also led me into writing the Lake District Mysteries, which have done even better than the Devlins.

A further way of avoiding wasting one's time is this. A sensible mindset, in my opinion, involves not worrying unduly about the possibility that others may not like what one writes. As I've said before, one can and should learn from constructive criticism, but there's no point in allowing oneself to be dragged down by negativity. You can't please all the people all the time, so you shouldn't fritter away your life trying to do so. All you can do is your level best, and if that's not good enough (for instance, if you write a book that nobody wants to publish) you just need to learn from the experience and do something else (actually, of course, you can self-publish easily nowadays if you wish, so there's no need to get too despondent anyway).

Again, it's a matter of priorities, and different people have different views. About three years ago I had a pleasant chat with an author who cheerfully rebuked me for producing half as many books as she had published in the same number of years. And she had a point. Most people regard me as prolific, but I started my first novel 30 years ago, and I've published 18 in all, which is less than many authors. When I mumbled a lame excuse about spending time on research and revision, she said brightly, "I never bother with those." As I say, it's a question of what you think really matters, and that has to involve a personal choice..

Writing is a tough game, and I would never pretend otherwise. It become impossibly difficult, I suspect, if you find that you don't really enjoy it most of the time, or if financial pressures become too great. One of the reasons I kept the day job going for all those years was that I didn't want money considerations to mess up my writing. Crime fiction is commercial, but within the limits of my talent, I've tried to write books I cared about, rather than to make money. It's just as well, perhaps. I'd have predicted that Dancing For the Hangman would have sold really well, and that The Golden Age of Murder wouldn't., but the reverse proved to be the case.

 Of course, I experience frustrations. All writers do, because what we write is never quite as good as we hoped it would be. One may be a perfectionist, and in some respects I am, but one simply has to accept that life isn't perfect, and neither is one's writing. So I revise endlessly, and listen with respect to suggestions from my agent, editors, and others, often taking their advice on board. But ultimately it's my novel, short story or non-fiction book, so the final responsibility rests with me. It's for me, the writer, to decide where to draw the line. Though I admit that I never stop wanting to change things - I was revising The Golden Age of Murder, for instance, until the day it went to press. And once I have drawn that line, I try to move on to the next project. Mind you, that didn't stop me making two further sets of revisions to The Golden Age of Murder when reprints came along! 

The business side of life can also prove time-consuming. In running the Detection Club, and the much larger and more complex CWA, I've adapted methods of management that I developed when running my own business (a big department in a law firm) and co-running another (sitting on the board of the firm as a whole, a much less pleasurable experience). The number one priority is to develop a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve and then to surround yourself with good people who genuinely want to help to achieve it,. Then, because they are good people, you should trust them to do what they are supposed to do, and not behave like a control freak. Because the simple truth is that there is a limit to what any one person can control, and there are times when one simply has to let go, because there is no sane alternative. The CWA is nothing like a law firm, but I think the broad principles of leadership don't change that much. The key is to apply them as sensibly as one can.

And before I stop pontificating (I bet Noreen's regretting she asked!), let me add one other observation about how not to spend one's time. Luck plays a big part in life, and in the writing life too. It's easy to feel that the Fates are lined up against you, and it's reasonable to devote a few nanoseconds to feeling sorry for yourself, but not much longer, otherwise it it will sour your outlook. Overall, I've been exceptionally lucky, but even so, time and again over the past twenty years, my work has been optioned or adapted for film, radio, or television, and nothing has ever come of it. Yet really, what sense is there in moaning about things one can't control? Countless others are either in the same boat, or much less fortunate..It's an equally pointless drain of energy to agonise over a mean-spirited review from someone with an axe to grind or whose opinion probably isn't worth much anyway.

Almost every author has a hard luck story to tell about their career, sometimes many such stories, but the successful ones, and I'm sure the happiest ones, are those who take the setbacks in their stride, and just get on with with the job. A platitude, maybe, but nonetheless true. Nobody begged us to write, we do it because we love it. And whilst money, success, awards and so on are absolutely terrific, and I'm partial to all of them, to quote a lyric (by a very fine lyricist whose genius was that he always kept things simple) it's that love that really counts.