Friday, 22 March 2019

Forgotten Book - The Killer Inside Me


Image result for killer inside me jim thompson


Jim Thompson's 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me has been filmed a couple of times, though I haven't seen either movie. In fact, I've only just got round to reading the book. I was very taken with Thompson's The Getaway, but did wonder if The Killer Inside Me would suffer by comparison with an earlier novel, which also presents the world from the perspective of a psychopathic serial killer, Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place. In fact, it's very different, and also very powerful.

The premise is gripping. Lou Ford is a 29 year old deputy sheriff in a small town in Texas. Everyone likes him, he helps people out when the chance arises, and he's very attractive to women. The local newspapers extol his virtues. The only snag is that he's afflicted by "the sickness" - an urge to kill. He's kept things under control for a long time, but when he meets Joyce Lakeland, the old demons re-emerge.

Whereas Hughes wrote her novel in elegant prose, there's something visceral about Thompson's style that suits the material. Lou's habit of talking in endless cliches is an intriguing way of characterising an apparently easy-going guy who begins to lose control of his behaviour. As the body count rises, so suspicion starts to swirl around him. Can he get away with multiple murder?

There's a fascinating chapter towards the end of the story where Lou converses with a man named Walker. I don't want to give any spoilers, but it rather sums up why I admire this book - in a deceptively simple style, Thompson makes points that pack a punch. It took me a long time to get round to reading much Thompson, and I gather that his work is uneven, but at his best, he was very, very good.





Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Gallows Court - the paperback edition


I'm delighted to share the cover artwork of the forthcoming paperback edition of Gallows Court. It will hit the shops on 4 April, and I'll be signing copies that day at Waterstones in Knutsford. Head of Zeus have devoted a lot of thought to the artwork of Gallows Court, in the original hardback edition and also the wonderful special editions, which are available in signed lettered and numbered versions. The car headlights image was tried out in various incarnations before a final decision was taken, and I think it works really well, capturing a 1930s mood in a clear yet subtle way.

Do covers matter? The received wisdom is that they certainly do. It was a point emphasised to me early in my career by publishers' sales reps, and although in those days I was reluctant to accept it, the evidence suggests they were right.

In truth, I've never before had the experience of a publisher of my novels devoting so much care and time to the artwork. It's all a bit of a contrast with my first experience, many moons ago, when All the Lonely People was published in paperback by Bantam. My very pleasant editor shared the artwork with me and asked what I thought. It was a nice enough image by a first-rate artist, and I still have a framed print. But there was something odd about it. I pointed out that the artist had placed a corpse on the Liverpool waterfront, which doesn't happen in the story (Harry Devlin's wife meets her end in a dingy back street). "Don't worry," I was told. "It really doesn't matter." Perhaps it didn't, but it seemed strange...

Anyway, I'm delighted that this book, which has meant a great deal to me, is now moving into paperback, and I'm celebrating by cracking on with a sequel, which is progressing rather well at the moment. Fingers crossed...

Monday, 18 March 2019

A Golden Age week-end



I've just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable week-end at the Essex Book Festival. This is a very well-organised festival indeed. I've been lucky enough to attend for the past three years, and each time I've been impressed by the range and quality of the programme as a whole, as well as for the Golden Age week-end at Southend-on-Sea in which I've participated. Ros Green, Jo Nancarrow, and the team do a very good job.

Two years ago, in fact, my trip to Southend inspired me to use the resort as the setting for one of the chapters in Gallows Court. And this year, I had the very enjoyable experience of being interviewed by Seona Ford, Chair of the Festival, about the writing and publication of Gallows Court. When high winds caused the lights in the hotel venue to go out for a few moments near the end of the session, it really was suitably atmospheric! All in all, the session was great fun, and so was a panel about Queens of Crime, moderated by Seona, earlier in the afternoon. My fellow participants were Barry Pike and Geraldine Perriam, and it really was a terrific session as we debated the relative merits of Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Tey, and company.

Now Essex is a very long way from home, and I felt that as I was undertaking such an epic journey, it would make sense, weather permitting, to see something of a part of England that I'm not very familiar with. On the way down, therefore, I digressed to the old Roman city of Colchester, which I've never visited before. It was a fleeting stop, but I saw enough of the place to be rather taken with it. An excellent dinner in Southend with Seona and others rounded the day off nicely in good company.

On the way back to Cheshire yesterday, I decided that, as the sun was shining (well, intermittently; there was also hail and torrential rain), I'd take a look at the island of Mersea. I've come across the place in the fiction of Margery Allingham and Andrew Garve (The File on Lester), and  Seona told me it also features in a non-crime novel by Sabine Baring-Gould. As I am very keen on islands, I wanted to see what it was like in reality.




I liked Mersea, both the quiet east side, with its mud flats, and old gun emplacements, and the bustling west side, with all the fishermen's boats, oyster bars, and restaurants. You reach the island by a causeway known as the Strood and it's definitely worth a visit. Time didn't permit a visit to the little museum in West Mersea village, but Mersea is a place with a distinctive charm, and I'm glad I visited it. And on the way there and back, I passed through Tolleshunt d'Arcy, a village where Allingham made her home. How nice it was to see that she's remembered in a street name!




Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Tom Burns - Guest Blog Post

One of the pleasant consequences of blogging is that one receives communications from around the world, and I do find these interesting. (Well, not the spam comments that sometimes inundate my inbox, but otherwise, this is true...) And I was intrigued recently to be contacted by Tom Burns, a writer with whose work I was unfamiliar, who turns out to be setting a Sherlock Holmes story in the Lake District. I'm wondering why I didn't think of that...anyway, Tom has written a guest post, and here it is:


"I met Martin while researching the Lake District for a Sherlock Holmes story I’m writing for submission to The MX Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. A search turned up Martin’s Lake District Mysteries, and since my total experience of England consists of train rides from Gatwick to Luton and back, I thought that reading Martin’s books might help me capture the atmosphere of an unfamiliar place. I friended him on Facebook and inquired about a guest post, and he kindly assented.



A detailed setting is essential in any genre, but I think it’s doubly important in mysteries. An entire subgenre, the cozy mystery, is partly characterized by its intriguing and detailed setting. The setting for the first two Natalie McMasters books is a major university in the capitol of an unnamed southern U.S. state. When I first conceived the series, I had to decide between an actual or fictional setting, and I chose the latter for several reasons. 

First, flexibility. For example, if I needed a teaching hospital on campus as a plot device, I could just have it there, without worrying about hauling my characters across town to a real-world location. Second, since the McMasters series is edgy and gritty, I didn’t want to attach sordid fictional doings and characters to existing institutions. Of course, the state capital and university do have their real-life counterparts (I’m not saying where), because this is essential for helping me include the kinds of minute details that will bring the setting alive for the reader.

Conversely, I chose an actual setting for the newest McMasters book. Trafficked! (https://amzn.to/2STwlrI) is set mostly in New York City, and tells of Nattie’s search for a very important person in her life. Of course, I had to include fictional details, but most fictional locations are based on actual places. In the end, writing in the real-life setting wasn’t much different than writing in the fictional one.

For my Holmes story, I wanted Holmes and Watson out of London, so I chose the Lake District because of its remoteness, natural beauty and ease of adaptability to a quasi-supernatural plot. Thank God for the Internet! I had spent several years in New York City, so was familiar with it, but I barely knew where Cumbria was on the map before I began my research. Now I want to hop on a plane and explore the Lakes, but I’ll have to sell a few books first!

Readers want to vicariously experience exciting and interesting events, but many also want to be transported to exotic or mundane places they’ve never seen, and maybe never will visit. It’s the writer’ s job to make those places come alive in a reader’s mind. The writer’s bonus is that he can experience those places too."

Monday, 11 March 2019

Elizabeth Gaskell and Elizabeth Gaskell's House in Manchester


Image result for gaskell house manchester

The Victorian novelist, biographer (of Charlotte Bronte) and short story writer Elizabeth Gaskell has fascinated me for many years. The original connection arose through her association with Knutsford in Cheshire, which was the setting for her marvellous novel Cranford; and I was born in Cranford Lodge in the town. In the 1990s, I organised a northern crime writers' week-end in the town. The likes of Reginald Hill, Caroline (Midsomer Murders) Graham and Robert Barnard came along, and a talk by a Gaskell expert was one of the highlights. And later, I wrote a story in which Elizabeth does a bit of detective work.

Now I've been commissioned to write a short story for an interesting-sounding anthology, of which more another day, and I've taken the opportunity to write about a different aspect of Elizabeth's life. This story is set in 1839, when she was living in Manchester - her husband was a Unitarian minister in the city.

As part of my research, yesterday I paid a visit to Elizabeth Gaskell's House in Plymouth Grove, Manchester, where she and her family lived from 1850 onwards. The house has been lovingly and rather splendidly restored in recent years. At one point it was at risk from the developers, but it offers an important insight into our literary heritage, and I'm so glad that it's been preserved.

Walking round the rooms, I did my best to try to soak myself in the experience of the Gaskells' lives. This task was made easier because Elizabeth was such a down-to-earth, engaging woman. I can imagine that she was very popular, and her circle included not only Dickens, Bronte, and Ruskin but also Halle, founder of the orchestra. Even though she was not living in the house at the time of my story, I was able to pick up some valuable information about her lifestyle which I hope will give my short story a touch of authenticity. We'll see...

Friday, 8 March 2019

Forgotten Book - The Chief Inspector's Statement

Maurice Procter put his experience as a policeman in Yorkshire to excellent use in a series of crime novels. His best-known book is Hell is a City, which introduced the tough but decent cop Harry Martineau, portrayed by Stanley Baker when the novel was filmed. The Chief Inspector's Statement, which predated that book, came out in 1951, and introduced another strong character, DCI Hunter of Scotland Yard. It's not a well-remembered title these days, but it's a good example of Procter's craftsmanship.

The setting is the fictitious Yorkshire village of Pennycross, and the alternative title of the story is  The Pennycross Murders. Hunter is summoned back there when a child is murdered, the second such crime in the space of a few months. His investigation of the first killing drew a blank, although he found himself attracted to the victim's older sister, Barbary. On his return, he manages to combine his investigative work with a developing friendship with Barbary.

This is a village mystery, but we are a long, long way from St Mary Mead or "Mayhem Parva" here. The mood is realistic, and rather dark, as one would expect in a story about child murders. Procter's descriptions of place are as sound as his accounts of police procedure, and although there are really only two credible suspects, he still manages to maintain interest in whodunit.

I was impressed by this book, and I can see why Procter earned a considerable reputation in the 1950s. Even those great traditionalists, the American critics Barzun and Taylor, were great fans of his work. What is rather less easy for me to understand is why Procter seems to have fallen off the critical radar since his heyday. Julian Symons never mentioned him in Bloody Murder, and his work is rarely discussed. A shame, because he was a very capable writer.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Victor Canning and Birdcage

I've mentioned my enthusiasm for thrillers often enough in these blog posts, but the only time I've covered Victor Canning was nearly ten years ago, when I blogged about The Minerva Club, a Crippen & Landru collection of short stories edited by John Higgins. Some time later, I began an email correspondence with John, who is a great advocate for Canning and runs an excellent and informative set of web pages about Canning.

I first became aware of Canning as a teenager, thanks to my father, through whom I also came across writers such as Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley. Canning wasn't quite in their league, but he was a very successful novelist, and my dad liked the books about Rex Carver, a private detective. They didn't, however, make a strong impression on me. Conversely, I much enjoyed Hitchcock's Family Plot, based on Canning's The Rainbird Pattern, which won the CWA Silver Dagger (an award which no longer exists) and was nominated for an Edgar.

Inspired by John's advocacy, I've decided to take a closer look at Canning. His career as a published novelist lasted about half a century, which is quite something, and it's clear that he was quite a versatile writer. The Golden Salamander, for instance, was made into a successful film, and he wrote an Arthurian trilogy as well as books for children.

He also wrote a series of spy novels, and John has kindly supplied me with a copy of Birdcage, published in 1978, and an entry in Canning's series of "Birdcage" books. It has a striking opening, as a young nun attempts to commit suicide by drowning. She survives, and is befriended by a man called Richard Farley, who discovers that she mistakenly thought she was pregnant, and becomes increasingly attracted to her. But her family connections are complicated, and Farley finds that his life is at risk as we are introduced to a formidable villain.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but what struck me forcibly was the quality of the writing. Canning was no mere blood and thunder merchant. As a young man, he became friendly with a fellow serviceman, Eric Ambler, and there were aspects of this book that reminded me of Ambler. He wasn't quite as good a writer as Ambler, but not many thriller writers of the 20th century were. I'm definitely interested in reading more Canning, and I really must track down The Rainbird Pattern... 

Forthcoming Crime Classics


The British Library has just issued its catalogue of publications for the second half of this year, and there are many good things in store. And of course that includes the forthcoming Crime Classics. Among notable features of the list is another novel written by E.C.R. Lorac, whose work has proved extremely popular with fans. This is Fell Murder, set in Lunesdale, where she made her home. It is a lovely part of the world, and this is a book with an exceptionally strong sense of place, and a sense of the intimacy of the rural community.

I'm especially thrilled that the series will, for the first time, include a novel by John Dickson Carr. This is It Walks By Night, which was his very first novel, set in Paris and featuring his first major series detective, Henri Bencolin. I've been hoping for some years that it would be possible to include Carr in the series, but it has proved tricky, because the rights position is extremely complicated. But the Library team has done great work in finally overcoming the obstacles and achieving success. Although Carr was American, his work seems to make a very natural fit with the series; he was an Anglophile who lived in England for many years and was Secretary of the Detection Club and a gifted practitioner of the "fair play" whodunit. This book also includes a Bencolin short story.

Anne Meredith's Portrait of a Murderer was a very successful book the Christmas before last, and Lucy Malleson who wrote under the Meredith name returns to the series with a book written under her best-known pen-name, Anthony Gilbert. This is Death in Fancy Dress, a country house mystery very much in the classic tradition. The book will also include a couple of Gilbert short stories.

Talking of short stories, there will be another anthology, The Measure of Malice, which is a collection of tales of scientific detection that I've put together. I'm delighted that the British Library anthologies have done so well in terms of sales and reviews, and I can also commend their "weird tales" collections, some more of which will be forthcoming (I like the sound of a collection of "killer tales of the botanical Gothic"!)

Other crime titles include another novel by George Bellairs, who is back by popular demand, Mary Kelly's The Christmas Egg, and a second Pocket Detective puzzle book by Kate Jackson. Something for everyone, in other words! And I can assure you that plans for 2020 are already making good progress. At least one more Carr title is on the way... 

Monday, 4 March 2019

Remembering Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly won a CWA Gold Dagger, and she also attracted a good deal of critical praise. Her writing was stylish and unorthdox, and she wrote books featuring a police detective, others featuring a private investigator, and several stand-alone novels of psychological suspense. A good mix of work, to say the least. She also served as Secretary of the Detection Club, and was friendly with writers as diverse as Anthony Berkeley, Michael Innes, Harry Keating, Joan Aiken, and Patricia Highsmith. Yet I don't think it's unfair to say that she is now forgotten. How can this have happened?

Whilst there's no simple answer, one factor is that she ceased publishing crime fiction when she was in her forties, although she lived on for more than forty years after her last book appeared (and towards the end, she started work on a new novel). But that isn't the only reason. Mary Kelly was one of those admirable authors who wrote what she wanted to write, and when she wanted to write it. She was, I suspect, someone who made her publishers despair. But she really could write well.

I've been fortunate enough to talk to Mary's husband, Denis, over recent months, and I hope that I can weave some of the material with which he's kindly supplied me into a magazine article about Mary. Her approach to her craft was so unusual, and her gifts so distinctive, that she definitely deserves to be remembered. For the time being, let me focus on one particular title of hers that was published in paperback as a green Penguin.

Due to a Death, which first appeared in 1962, was her follow up to The Spoilt Kill, her Gold-Dagger winner of the previous year. It shares a key character with the earlier novel. Yet it's an exceptionally bleak book, and a dark tale is told rather elliptically. Most writers would have been tempted to try to cash in on a smash hit by writing a commercial novel, but this story hardly fits the bill. Penguin published it in paperback, but I'm guessing it was hardly a runaway bestseller. It is, however, very well written.

It's a first person narrative, and the story is told by a young woman called Agnes. She's married to a fairly decent cove called Tom, but she isn't content, and she finds herself drawn to a newcomer in the village. We know from the start of the book that someone has died, but the precise nature of the mystery doesn't become clear for a long time. The atmosphere is evocative but melancholy: the setting is a decaying village called Gunfleet. The secret at the heart of the story is even grimmer. Not a light-hearted read, that is for sure. But it's equally true that Mary Kelly was one of the most interesting British writers to emerge in the post-war era prior to the arrival of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. She wasn't in their league, but who was?   

Friday, 1 March 2019

Forgotten Book - Purloining Tiny

John Franklin Bardin was an American author whose brief career would have been deeply obscure had it not been for the advocacy of Julian Symons. Symons praised Bardin's first three novels in Bloody Murder, and in the mid-Seventies facilitated their being reprinted as a Penguin omnibus volume, which I devoured as soon as I could lay my hands on it. I shared Symons' enthusiasm for Bardin's work. The three books are very interesting examples of psychological suspense writing in the aftermath of the Second World War - pre-dating Patricia Highsmith, among many others.

The attention that the omnibus gained seems to have galvanised Bardin to resume his writing career in earnest, and he published another crime novel in 1978, with the characteristically odd title of Purloining Tiny. However, it wasn't a success, and copies are hard to find. It's only in relatively recent times that I've had the chance to read it.

The book has attracted one or two enthusiastic admirers over the years, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis said that it was "bizarre, wicked and wonderful". It also bears, on the back cover, a rather carefully worded blurb from Stanley Ellin, who described it as "certainly one of the strangest mystery tales I have ever read." As he says, the story focuses on "the perverse and shadowy wish-fulfillments of its astonishing characters". These are, it has to be said, not exactly words of undiluted praise.

I think Ellin got it right. It's a very odd book, about a glamorous young woman, a famous contortionist no less, who is kidnapped and held captive in an apartment by her long-lost father. At the time, I suspect it was seen as a cutting-edge example of a crime novel involving kinky sex. As with the earlier Bardin books, but to an even greater extent, incestuous desires play an important part in the story. For me, it simply didn't work. Really, it reads like an over-the-top pastiche of those early, intriguing novels. A major disappointment, I'm sorry to say.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Tigerlily's Orchids by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell published Tigerlily's Orchids in 2010. It's a stand-alone novel, and it's clear that she was trying to do something a bit different with it. I always find it admirable when an established author breaks away from their accepted patterns, or attempts to do so. In this case, the attempt is only partly successful, but it's still an intriguing and readable book.

What's different is that that this book is an ensemble piece. The main focus isn't on a single protagonist, or even on a single crime. Instead, we're presented with Lichfield House, in a dreary London suburb, a place which has been divided into flats. Rendell examines the lives of the occupants, and their numerous misadventures, and also gives a compelling picture of the transience of London life. By the time the story comes to an end, much has changed in Lichfield House. Some lives have ended, some have been changed forever. And as the final lines indicate, one of Rendell's concerns here is the gap between imagination and reality.

This is a good idea for a story, but it carries risks. In particular, there is a danger of a lack of focus, and I'm not sure that Rendell avoids falling into the trap. At first, the key storyline concerns Stuart, one of her superficially attractive young male protagonists, but really a stupid and unlikeable character. His affair with a solicitor's wife causes ructions when the solicitor finds out the truth. The solicitor and his wife are well matched; both are deeply unpleasant.  Murder is eventually done, but the crime (and its solution) is dealt with very casually by Rendell, almost as if having set up a teasing mystery, she could no longer be bothered with it.

Attention shifts from one character to another in a way that is, at times, irritating. And several of the characters are all-too-recognisable Rendell types. But there are compensations, including a sub-plot about a loathsome caretaker that raises interesting questions about society, and the behaviour of paedophiles. I found the story interesting and readable, but it's certainly not vintage Rendell. It felt rushed, and in need of a vigorous editor. This impression of a lack of editing was, unfortunately, a recurrent failing in Rendell's later books. I sense that she was writing too much, too quickly. But that said, even a minor Rendell novel still offers enough interest to deserve attention.

Monday, 25 February 2019

The Bat - 1959 film review

Long before Ethel Lina White, and her tales of women in jeopardy, even longer before Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and company and their stories of girls in difficulty, there was Mary Roberts Rinehart. Mary it was who established the "woman in peril" story in the twentieth century, taking ingredients from Mrs Braddon and other Victorian writers, and fashioning them afresh in creating stories of suspense with female protagonists.

The most famous Rinehart story was The Circular Staircase, and the play that she and Avery Hopwood developed from it, The Bat, has been filmed several times. The version that I've come across recently on Retro Movies dates from 1959, and stars Vincent Price, although really Price is just one figure in an ensemble cast.

The Bat was marketed in those more innocent times as a horror movie, but essentially it's a classic mystery, with a least likely person suspect. There are two crimes at the heart of the story. First, there's the mysterious serial killer "the Bat". Second, there's a chap who steals a million dollars from his bank in a robbery that struck me as profoundly misconceived. The hapless thief dies early in the story, shot by Vincent Price.

This is a creepy mansion story, and the key question is: where is the secret room in the mansion, and the loot hidden within it? We are treated to a variety of plot developments, including the cutting of phone lines, before the truth is revealed. Yes, it's hokum, but it's done with a zest which means that the film is quite watchable, despite flitting from one cliche to another. 

Friday, 22 February 2019

Forgotten Book - The Strange Case of Harriet Hall

Dean Street Press have done great work in recent years, making available again a very large number of previously obscure Golden Age mysteries. Although their main market is in ebooks, they also issue print versions which are nicely produced paperbacks and which are well worth seeking out if you prefer that format (as I do). Their approach has enabled them to print long runs of the works of certain authors, such as Punshon and Bush, and this is a valuable service for readers. Not so much because thousands of people will want to read the complete works, but because at long last fans have the chance to pick and choose titles, according to their taste.

The Press's latest ventures have been to reissue books by authors I haven't previously read, Moray Dalton and E. and M. Radford. Another merit of their approach is that they include informative introductions. The Dalton books are introduced by Curtis Evans, and the Radford books by Nigel Moss. And in the case of Dalton's The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, there is also a very useful afterword which deals with a subject that would otherwise be a spoiler.

Moray Dalton was the pen-name of Katherine Dalton Renoir (1881-1963), who wrote a couple of early novels before indulging in criminal fiction from 1924 to 1951. In that time, she produced no fewer than 29 books, but they have long been hard to find; now Dean Street Press has issued five, and there may well be more to come. In her early days, she shared a publisher with E.C.R. Lorac, but never achieved anything approaching Lorac's success.

On the evidence of this book, Dalton was a good writer. She has a nice turn of phrase, and her interest in character is striking. I was impressed. There is also a memorable plot twist before the story is half-way through. On the debit side, there is a certain lack of focus about the story. We begin with one likeable character who has an odd encounter with Harriet Hall before attention switches to tensions within the Dene family, which comprises a mother and three siblings. The Denes clearly fascinated Dalton, and relations within the family become central to the story. I felt that the later plot developments didn't exactly reflect a commitment to fair play plotting, and I sensed that Dalton was less concerned about unravelling the mystery in a satisfactory fashion than most Golden Age writers. This may help to account for her obscurity. But her prose, straightforward and readable, is of a quality to make this novel well worth reading. 

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Agatha Again


Image result for hercule poirot greenshore

In my young days, I had a recurrent dream. It was a dream in which I discovered an Agatha Christie novel I'd never read. Yes, I'm afraid that I was so hooked, and so frustrated when I'd read her complete works (up to that point) in the genre that I yearned to find a new one. And to this day, when new Christie mysteries come to light, I'm very pleased.

I've just caught up with Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly, a novella written in 1954, but not published until 2014. Christie turned the story into the novel Dead Man's Folly, a mystery for which I've always had a soft spot, even though many Christie purists assure me it's not one of her best. This edition has wonderful jacket artwork by Tom Adams, who was responsible for so many of the covers of Fontana paperback editions of Christie that I devoured in my youth. He also contributes a foreword, and in addition there are pieces by Mathew Pritchard and John Curran.

The novella is a truncated version of the novel, but I was pleased to read it. And it's a lovely production, with illustrated endpapers and a colour reproduction of Adams' artwork for Dead Man's Folly. Incidentally, if you fancy buying the original typed ms of the novella, you can pick it up on Abebooks for a mere £10,000. But if that's a bit too much of a stretch even for a completist, I can definitely recommend the Harper Collins edition!

An early and rare Christie short story is the highlight of another Harper Collins publication, this time dating from last summer. Bodies from the Library is an anthology edited by that leading researcher Tony Medawar. It comes as something of a shock to me to recall that Tony and I first met almost thirty years ago, when we both took part in a Mastermind quiz at the 1990 London Bouchercon. Since then, he's made many discoveries, often reporting them in CADS (whose editor Geoff Bradley kept score in the same quiz.) One of the most interesting is a lost Christie treasure hunt story, set on the Isle of Man and called "Manx Gold." It can be found in While the Light Lasts.

The Christie story in the book is "The Wife of the Kenite", which dates back to about 1922, and first appeared in an Australian magazine. The plot twist is one she used subsequently, not least in a splendid radio play, but this apprentice effort shows already the slickness of her storytelling. The anthology as a whole takes its title from the Bodies from the Library conference, which has become a highly enjoyable event based in the British Library over the last few years, and which will return in June.

The anthology doesn't have a connecting theme, and the stories are a random assortment from some notable names. I was pleased to see two long-time favourite stories of mine making an appearance - Cyril Hare's "The Euthanasia of Hilary's Aunt" and A.A. Milne's "Bread upon the Waters". Both are very well-crafted stories (Milne's makes me wish that he'd written more extensively in the genre), and the same is true of a Roy Vickers story I hadn't read, "The Starting-Handle Murder". This one dates from 1934, and forms part of Vickers' long-running and celebrated series of short stories about the Department of Dead Ends.


Monday, 18 February 2019

George Locke R.I.P.

I was sorry to learn of the death earlier this month of George Locke, a bookseller whom I got to know slightly some years ago. George was a well-known figure in the book trade, and he did some writing himself, as well as some publishing. He was particularly prominent in the field of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, and his imprint was called Ferret Fantasy, but our encounters concerned detective fiction.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, George published The Roger Sheringham Stories, a limited edition of 100 copies of tales about Anthony Berkeley's Golden Age sleuth. This book is now very hard to find - my copy once belonged to the late Edward D. Hoch - but George recognised Berkeley's merits at a time when his work had fallen out of favour and out of print.

He also produced The Anthony Berkeley Cox Files: notes towards a bibliography, in 1993, under the pen-name Ayresome Johns, which contains a good deal of interesting information about the enigmatic ABC. Again, this is a rare publication; at present there are two copies on Abebooks, the cheaper retailing at $350.

I bought a few items from George - not many, because his prices were high and my funds were limited - but his stock was always interesting. Two purchases in particular have brought me considerable pleasure. The first is Dorothy L. Sayers' typescript for the first chapter of "The Scoop", an expansion of the published version, which she intended to form part of a full-length novel, a Detection Club project that proved abortive. The second was Sayers' annotated copy of The Trial of Constance Kent, which I discussed in The Golden Age of Murder - utterly fascinating.

George tormented me from time to time over the years by talking rather vaguely about obscure Detection Club material which he thought he might have in his shed at home, but which he could never actually lay his hands on. Aaaaagh! He was also very deaf when I knew him, but although conversations were tricky, he was a fascinating character, and I was very sorry to hear the news. I'm remember him with affection.   

Friday, 15 February 2019

Forgotten Book - The Client

I was first drawn to Martin Russell's books many years ago, when I started borrowing them from my local library. His crime novels were a Collins Crime Club staple, and I very much enjoyed the clever plots. I think it's fair to say that characterisation wasn't his main interest, but his ingenuity was impressive. He continued to publish into the 1990s, and is still alive, though I've never met him, which I rather regret.

One day recently, while going through some old crime fiction reviews written by Edmund Crispin, I came across a rave review for Russell's 1975 novel The Client, and I decided to give it a go. It's an unusual stand-alone novel of psychological suspense - although Russell did create a series character, the journalist Jim Larkin, he didn't last long - and my impression is that the author was here aiming to create a more in-depth psychological portrait of a damaged individual, while preserving the mystery element.

Two men and one woman are drawn to a house in Streatham by an advertisement placed by a solicitor. They all had connections to a young and apparently wealthy woman, Susan Bradshaw, who dreamed of becoming a model. But Susan is dead (or is she? nothing can be taken for granted in this story) and she has given the solicitor some very curious instructions, which must be followed to the letter.

It soon becomes clear that the three people who have been summoned all played a negative part in Susan's life. Something sinister is going on, but we can't be sure exactly what it is. As usual with Russell, the story is told fluently, and the pages keep on turning. I wasn't convinced that the ending lived up to the premise, and I didn't love the book quite as much as Crispin did - but even so, its originality was impressive. Well worth seeking out. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Unsane - 2018 film review

Unsane is an intriguing recent movie directed by Steven Soderbergh. It's a psychological thriller, but as you'd expect from Soderbergh, it's by no means conventional or obvious, even if the final section of the story is more routine than what precedes it. And quite apart from the well-made script, the film is of interest because it was filmed on an iPhone. Blimey, what next? I've read some reviews which quibble about the quality of the film because of the way it was filmed, but all I can say is that it didn't bother me. On the contrary, it rather reinforces my admiration for what Soderbergh has done.

The star of the film is the accomplished Claire Foy. Now she was born in Stockport, which I still think of as part of Cheshire, although it was long ago sucked into the amorphous mass that is "Greater Manchester". In the film, she is reasonably convincing as an American rejoicing in the name Sawyer Valentini. We soon realise that Sawyer is troubled, though we don't know why.

When she seeks help from an apparently sympathetic counsellor, her life begins a downward spiral. She signs a document without reading it and finds that she has voluntarily committed herself into the "care" of a mental hospital for 24 hours. Her attempt to get the police to rescue her fails, and she proceeds to make matters worse for herself by claiming that one of the attendants in the facility is actually a man who has been stalking her.

She's deluded, of course. Or is she? The story develops in a pleasing way, with several shifts that I found intriguing. The question of what will happen to Sawyer keeps us gripped, but along the way Soderbergh raises other issues, about health care and insurance in the US, and the extent to which people who don't fit into society are disbelieved when a more balanced view may be much more appropriate. Thought-provoking and definitely worth a watch.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Murder Room - P.D. James on TV

The Murder Room is novel that P.D. James published in 2003, and it was brought to the television screens a couple of years later. Unaccountably, I neither read the novel (though a copy is to be found in my tottering TBR pile) nor saw the television show; I suppose the reason is that I was very preoccupied with my day job as well as my own writing at the time.

I was kindly given a DVD set at Christmas which contained the TV version (as well as that of Death in Holy Orders) and I've just caught up with it. Both shows feature Martin Shaw as Adam Dalgleish, rather than Roy Marsden, who made the role his own. But I felt that Shaw gave an excellent performance. He is an actor who made his name in tough guy roles, but he's very expressive, and a single glance counts for a thousand words.

I was equally impressed with the show as a whole. The script, by Robert Jones, was sharp, with some excellent lines (I'm not sure how many of them come from the book, which I'm now very keen to read). And the acting generally was of  a high standard, with Samantha Bond, Janie Lee, Anita Carey, and Jack Shepherd exceptional.

I loved the storyline, which focused on a museum with the eponymous murder room devoted to classic real life cases of the Golden Age - Wallace, A. A. Rouse, and so on. This is a subject I'm exploring at present in my work-in-progress, and I was fascinated to see what was made of it in the context of a twenty-first century whodunit. First-class viewing for mystery fans.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Forgotten Book - The Paton Street Case


Image result for john bingham paton street

John Bingham's fourth novel, The Paton Street Case, received rave reviews when it appeared in 1955. Julian Symons hailed it as a "brilliant tour de force" - high praise from a stern critic - while Time and Tide described it as "a superb detective story in the classical tradition". I enjoyed the book, but one thing to say right away is that to describe it as a detective story in the classical tradition strikes me as weirdly inappropriate. This is a police story in which the likeable detective makes various dreadful mistakes, more than once with fatal consequences. Although there is a pleasing twist, it's essentially a downbeat and disturbing story of post-war urban life, far removed from the world of the country house or the pretty village, to mention two milieux commonly associated with classic crime.

A fire at 127 Paton Street leads to the discovery of a dead body. Have the owners of the premises, a German-Jewish couple, something to hide? It soon emerges that Otto Steiner had reason to wish his unpleasant lodger ill, and although Inspector Morgan is sympathetic to Steiner in many ways, his treatment of Steiner proves disastrous.

At first, I thought this was going to be a relentlessly dismal story, and I didn't care over-much for the occasional bits of authorial intervention in the story as it unfolded. But I must say that as matters developed, and the plot complexities began to emerge, I found myself gripped by Bingham's blend of neat plotting and thoughtful characterisation.

I wouldn't go as far as Symons in praising this novel, but I did conclude that overall it was a very good example of the British crime story of the 1950s. It also casts considerable light on the lives and behaviours of fairly ordinary people caught up in extraordinary and distressing events. And it's also an intriguing social document. All in all, then, a book that is at times poignant and is certainly worth reading.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Gosford Park - DVD review

Robert Altman's acclaimed and award-winning 2001 film Gosford Park is a whodunit that isn't really a whodunit. The first time I watched it, rather naively I focused on the whodunit aspect of the story and the plot, and found the film enjoyable but not quite the masterpiece it was supposed to be. Now I've taken another look at the DVD version, which includes some useful bonus features, and I'm even more impressed than I was originally.

Really, Altman took the idea of a Golden Age whodunit in a country house setting and used it as a context for a story about the class divide in the age of masters and servants. More or less everything is seen from the perspective of "below stairs", and the amateur detective work, such as it is, is undertaken by a servant. There's a lot of humour in Julian Fellowes' script, and there are many nice observations. I've never watched Downton Abbey, but there's no doubt he's a talented writer.

There is a large ensemble cast, and one of the doubts I had about the film originally is that this means that many of the characters are undeveloped. A large cast also makes it difficult to care about many of the suspects, and the plot of the story isn't its strong point, though there is a pleasing and inventive use of tropes such as the body in the library, the double killing, and impersonation.  Stephen Fry's police inspector is amusing but buffoonish, perhaps excessively so.

As for that cast - wow! Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith (in brilliantly waspish form as the Countess of Trentham), Kristin Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Tom Hollander, Geraldine Somerville, Jeremy Northam (as Ivor Novello!), Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, Laurence Fox, Alan Bates, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, Eileen Atkins, Richard E. Grant...There's a lot of pleasure to be had from simply watching such stars in action. I can recommend this DVD; it's definitely a film worth watching more than once.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Alibis in the Archive 2019





I'm delighted to announce that this year's Alibis in the Archive will take place at Gladstone's Library from 21-23 June. Booking details are here. If you'd like to attend, you can choose between a residential place (either in the Library itself or a nearby guest house or hotel) or a non-residential place, making your own arrangements as regards accommodation or travelling in each day if you live in the area. There's plenty of accommodation in the vicinity and some excellent guest houses and hotels.

So what's it all about, Alibis? Well, it's a weekend devoted to crime writing and its heritage, given that Gladstone's Library, one of the most stunning libraries in Britain or indeed anywhere else, is home to the British Crime Writing Archives. These bring together in one place the archives of the Crime Writers' Association and the Detection Club.

We've assembled a great line-up of speakers and subject to one or two possible tweaks, the programme is already more or less complete. The speakers include Peter Robinson, author of the brilliant DCI Banks series, which has given rise to a highly successful TV series. Peter will talk about the series and his TV experiences, and will also be in conversation with me about other crime writing subjects. There will be a talk by another of our leading crime novelists, the fantastic Frances Fyfield. She'll be discussing P.D. James, and since she was a very good friend of Phyllis James, I am sure there will be some fascinating insights into the person as well as the books.
Other speakers include Aline Templeton, Janet Laurence, David Whittle, Alison Joseph, and subject to confirmation Ragnar Jonasson, a translator of Agatha Christie as well as a highly successful novelist of the new generation. And me. So it's a varied line-up, and I know that each of my colleagues on the programme is a highly accomplished and interesting speaker on the subject of crime writing.

So there you have it. A week-end not to be missed if you're a crime fan, and in particular of classic crime. Among other things, there will be a pub quiz (but not in a pub!). There will be a chance to see some rare Golden Age books which I've gathered together over the years. And there will also be a chance to look at selected items from the British Crime Writing Archives. Those archives are fast-growing, so much so that we're on the look-out for suitable additional places to house some of the material that is coming in. All suggestions welcome...

Friday, 1 February 2019

Forgotten Book - Dreadful Summit

Stanley Ellin was one of those admirable writers who was always trying something different. He wasn't especially prolific, publishing fourteen novels in just shy of forty years, although he did write a good many short stories of high calibre. Today, he is best remembered for those short stories - "The Question" is one of my all-time favourites - but his novels definitely should not be overlooked. Those I've read are of a very high standard.

This is true even of his debut, Dreadful Summit (the title comes from Hamlet), which was published in 1948, the same year as his famous short story, "The Specialty of the House". It's a remarkable book, and was filmed in 1951 by Joseph Losey as The Big Night; I've not seen the movie, but reviews of it seem to be mixed. As far as I can tell, the novel has been out of print for years, though it was a green Penguin paperback in the 60s.

In some ways, the novel anticipates The Catcher in the Rye. It's a first person narrative, and all the action is crammed into 24 hours, as the narrator, George LaMain, turns sixteen. It's also the day his life changes forever. George's mother died when he was very young and he's been brought up by his father Andy, who runs a bar and grill in New York City. When a well-known columnist called Al Judge assaults Andy in front of George's eyes, the boy vows revenge.

At first, one's instinct is to sympathise with George. But it soon becomes apparent that he'd not really the nice young kid he might seem to be. He records disturbing incidents and behaviour in a way that makes the reader realise that he's deeply troubled. What will become of him? The tension mounts, and this is a good example of a book that benefits greatly from brevity. I'm always intrigued by narratives which disclose a gap between the narrator's perception of the world and objective reality - my own Dancing for the Hangman explored that very theme, though is otherwise utterly different from Ellin's book - and this is a striking, and dark novel. Recommended.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell


Image result for ruth rendell dark corners

Ruth Rendell was, in crime writing terms, a genius. For decades, her remarkable books set a new standard in excellence. I discovered her work in my early twenties, and promptly devoured every story of hers that I could lay my hands on. In the books she published from the late 1990s onwards, however, I sensed a touch of repetition and perhaps even fatigue creeping in, as regards character types, settings, and plot developments. Given how prolific she was, that was hardly surprising, and her books continued to be highly readable. Unfortunately, I found myself struggling to finish The Saint Zita Society, and I felt it better to take a break from her books. More recently, though, I've wanted to give her later books a go, and see how I felt about them.

Dark Corners was her final novel, published posthumously in 2015 following her death earlier that year. The last words of the books are truly poignant. They are: "'now it's all over'". And so it was. In the story, this phrase refers to an act of redemption which concludes a typically involved narrative with several plot strands.

The lead character is Carl, who unwisely gives some pills to a female friend and accepts money for them. The friend dies, and Carl is distraught. He feels guilty, although actually he has committed no crime. When he is blackmailed by someone who is aware of what happened, he submits meekly until eventually he can tolerate things no longer.

Carl is in some ways typical of Rendell's young male protagonists, but I found his behaviour less than convincing. Part of her genius (and the same is true of Patricia Highsmith at her best) lay in making extraordinary courses of conduct seem almost inevitable. For me, though, Carl didn't really work as  a lead character. Similarly, there is a truly Rendellesque sub-plot, but it's rather half-hearted and unsatisfactory. On the plus side, the story is very readable. I raced through it, and thought it much more gripping than The Saint Zita Society (I'll have to battle to the end of that one eventually and see if I've judged it too harshly). Dark Corners certainly is infinitely superior to Agatha Christie's sad finale, Postern of Fate. It's not, however, in the same league as her twentieth century stand-alones.