Monday, 22 July 2019

Book Talk - and a Starred Review

Image result for martin edwards gallows court poisoned pen

I've had a thoroughly enjoyable few days at Harrogate, where among other things I was celebrating the news that Gallows Court has received a starred review in Publishers' Weekly. For good measure, PW also invited me to take part in a Q and A for the magazine, so I felt quite honoured. The book is due to be published in the US in September, by the Poisoned Pen imprint of Sourcebooks, and all being well I'll be promoting it in Arizona and Texas. As you can see, the cover image is very different from the UK hardback, paperback, and limited editions, but reaction to it so far has been encouraging.

The CWA also announced that a deal has been done with an excellent indie publisher, Flame Tree Press, to publish Vintage Crimes, an anthology which I'll be putting together and which selects stories from the "hidden gems" in the CWA vaults - those which have appeared in anthologies  dating back to Butcher's Dozen in 1956. It should be a fun project with a diverse range of stories and authors, and publication is due about this time next year.

My next novel is to be Mortmain Hall. It's a sequel to Gallows Court and I'm truly excited about the story for a number of reasons that I'll talk about at a future date. Publication is due in March, and on Friday I had an enjoyable lunch with my agent James Wills to discuss the manuscript, as well as a get-together with the publishers, Head of Zeus on Saturday evening.

There was plenty of other activity over the weekend, including a CWA drinks get-together, a party hosted by Bonnier, and a quiz evening in a team with Ali Karim,  Caroline Todd, Craig Sisterson and co. It was also good to meet Vanda Symons from New Zealand for the first time as well as a host of other nice people (sometimes, as is the nature of these events, all too fleetingly). And even the threatened torrential rain proved to be something of a damp squib, which was a welcome bonus.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Forgotten Book - Mystery on the 'Queen Mary'

Mystery on the 'Queen Mary', first published in 1937, is a thriller set on board the RMS Queen Mary on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. An intriguing aspect of the story is that the author, Bruce Graeme, was actually a passenger on that voyage. What I don't know is whether the voyage gave him the idea for the book, or whether he sailed on the ship in order to research the novel. I suspect the latter, but I'm not sure, and I'd be interested if anyone has the answer to this little mystery.

The story opens with a protagonist, Robin MacKay, who has come down in the world. He finds work at a Clydebank shipyard and before long is working on the ship that is destined to become the Queen Mary. One foggy day, he overhears a sinister conversation, about a crime connected with the ship, and is bludgeoned for his pains.

He reports what has happened to the police and is engaged to travel on the ship to assist the police in their hunt for the criminal. Also on board is Superintendent Stevens, one of Graeme's series characters, who is joined by another, the suave Frenchman Inspector Allain. When the ship sets sail, we are introduced to several characters who become key to the policemen's attempts to foil the criminal.

This is a light and fairly engaging thriller which benefits from Graeme's knowledge of the ship. His descriptions are authentic, but I also felt that his interest in the ship (and its pursuit of the Blue Riband) and one or two of the characters were greater than his interest in the plot, which was workmanlike but not, for me, entrancing. Overall, the book is a mildly entertaining story about a police investigation coinciding with a slice of maritime history, no more, no less.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The Maestro

There are some opportunities in life that are simply not to be missed. As soon as I discovered that Burt Bacharach was returning to Britain to appear in concert with Joss Stone, I knew I had to grab a ticket. The great man is 91 years old now and even if I managed to get to that age with faculties intact, I'm sure I wouldn't be contemplating two hours non-stop in concert. But that's exactly the treat that was in store for last night's audience at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith.

It's often struck me that Bacharach has something in common with Agatha Christie. Both were great innovators with the gift of taking a form of popular culture and reinventing it in a unique way. Both have enjoyed phenomenal and lasting success (Bacharach's first two number one hits are now more than 60 years old). Both have had their work sneered at and dismissed as uncool,. And both are now recognised, perhaps more widely than ever before, as having achieved something very special in a hugely competitive field, with a body of work that continues to exert global appeal.

Burt Bacharach was in fantastic form last night. As well as many of the famous songs, we heard newish ones (last year's anti-Donald Trump song With a Voice and this year's anti-gun violence song Live To See Another Day) and less familiar ones such as Falling Out of Love, a terrific song which was a minor hit for Aretha Franklin, and the film song Something Big. Joss Stone's best contributions were also relatively unfamiliar songs, In Between the Heartaches and Are You There With Another Girl? She's no Dionne Warwick, but she did a good job.

It was a feelgood occasion, even though the venue was markedly inferior to the Royal Festival Hall (different tickets had different start times for the concert, and the staff didn't seem to know much about the timings). I was delighted to meet up with a group of Italian fans who had come over to London specially for the concert. They included my good friends Davide Bonori and Roberto Pinardi, and it was amazing to recall that we've been sharing rare Bacharach tracks for upwards of twenty years now. As he often does these days, Burt introduced his young son Oliver, who performed on the keyboards for a couple of numbers. His band and the background singers were excellent, as always. One reviewer preferred the three singers to Joss Stone, whereas another took the opposite line, and allowed one or two of the old cliches about this kind of music to slip into an otherwise reasonable assessment. For the fans, it was an utterly memorable occasion. Whether we'll see Burt Bacharach on these shores again, I don't know, but he fully deserved the ecstatic standing ovation he received at the end of a wonderful night.

Monday, 15 July 2019

The Newark Book Festival

I've just returned from an enjoyable trip to the other side of England, the result of an invitation to take part in the Newark Book  Festival. I visited Newark about three years ago to give a talk in the library, and was very impressed by the town. It's full of history, with a nice ruined castle by the riverside, and my event was held in the recently established Civil War Centre - in a splendid old Tudor room.

The panel, about Golden Age crime, was chaired by Mary Haig (mother of the very talented Matt), and my fellow panellist was Tammy Cohen, alias Rachel Rhys, whom I'd never had the pleasure of meeting before. And it was great to see Elly Griffiths, who had taken part earlier in the afternoon. Our event was closing the festival, which had evidently been a big success, thanks to the efforts of Sara Bullimore and her team. There were drinks, canapes and opportunities to chat to people before our event began.

The only snag was that it began just as the World Cup cricket final entered the final over, and the Wimbledon men's single final reached its almost equally remarkable climax. So it's a wonder that anyone turned up at all. But it was a very good crowd (including a gentleman whom I last met at the Nottingham Bouchercon in 1995 - delighted he's still reading my books!)  and I managed to catch up with the highlights of that truly amazing game of cricket later on in the evening, so all was well. With the cricket, as with the tennis, it was a shame that anyone had to lose.

The session went well, and Mary and Tammy were good companions. When I woke up this morning in my very nice B&B, the weather was so promising that I decided to make the most of it. So I wandered round Newark, and then, because it isn't far away, I ventured to Lincoln, where I found an excellent display of British Library Crime Classics (and no, I'm afraid I didn't resist the temptation to volunteer to sign copies of my anthologies and Gallows Court) and had lunch in the sun at a bookshop-cum-cafe. As I did a few weeks ago when sunning myself on the Broads, I cast my mind back to the days of long hours spent commuting in to work each Monday. But it's not all play now, oh no. As if to salve my conscience, I have done a bit of legal work today, and on the drive home I dreamed up a short story idea about a B&B (not the one in Newark or any of the others I've patronised recently, I hasten to add). This evening, I get on with some writing...

Friday, 12 July 2019

Forgotten Book - The Third Skin

The Third Skin was John Bingham's third novel, appearing in 1954 (in the US, the paperback edition was called Murder is a Witch). It's a little-known book, having received only limited coverage over the years. This is surprising, because Bingham's first two novels were well-regarded, and this one is certainly up to standard. It also marked a departure from his early books, which contained much fictionalised autobiography, and were narrated in the first person.

This is a story about a naive and weak-willed youth, Les Marshall, who works in a newspaper office and gets himself mixed up with a gang of youths with disastrous results. Les falls for Hester, the girlfriend of his pal Ron Turner, and finds himself lured into a trap, collaborating with Ron on a burglary which goes tragically wrong. And gradually the spotlight shifts away from clueless Les, and on to his mother, the resourceful widow Irene. It's a study of character as well as of crime, and as so often with Bingham, it offers an account of relentless police interrogation, this time with a sympathetic and well-rounded presentation of the lead detective, Vandoran.

The book is discussed in Michael Jago's enjoyable biography of Bingham, The Man Who Was George Smiley, and Jago makes the point that Bingham really didn't know anything about teenage gangs. That's true, and arguably it's a flaw in the story. But I don't know much about gangs either, and really I felt that Bingham's lack of first-hand knowledge wasn't a significant disadvantage. Hester, presumably the witch of the alternative title, is portrayed in a fairly superficial way, but Les is all too believable. There is also some excellent comedy in Bingham's presentation of Irene's friends, Gwen and Frederick Perry.

Although Jago doesn't mention it, I feel almost sure that Bingham's original idea for the story came from the circumstances of the Craig and Bentley case, in which a weak young man was hanged for a murder committed by his pal. Derek Bentley was, to an extent, the model for Les Marshall. The way he develops the idea, and in particular the passages dealing with Irene and her circle, is pleasing and reasonably original. As a result, suspense builds all the way to the end of the book. This is an under-rated novel, which I was very glad to read.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Harry Devlin and Eve of Destruction

It's a long time since I've talked about Harry Devlin on this blog. Harry was my first series character, a lawyer based in Liverpool, and he appeared in eight novels and a handful of short stories. I still get asked if I intend to write another book about Harry, and in a perfect world, I would love to. He's a character I really like, and I am sure there is more mileage in him. But it's not likely to happen in the near future, I'm afraid, because of other pressing projects.

Eve of Destruction (Harry Devlin Book 5) by [Edwards, Martin]

However, I'm delighted that the Devlin chronicles continue to entertain readers, and they have been given a new lease of life by digital publishing and print on demand (two of them were also reprinted as Arcturus Crime Classics a few years ago). But there's been a frustrating gap in the list. There hasn't been a readily available ebook version of the fifth book in the series, Eve of Destruction. The reason for this is to do with complications about the rights. It's all been rather annoying and I've had plenty of emails from readers who have been kind enough to urge me to sort things out.

The good news is that, at long last, this has happened. I'm delighted to say that the novel is now available on Amazon UK, and it will soon be available additionally as a print on demand paperback and in a new hardback format. I'm so pleased about this.

What of the book itself? It was written at a time when I was increasingly keen to introduce Golden Age elements into the series (not that the critics noticed; times were different then....) So, for instance there is a "dying message clue" in the Ellery Queen tradition. The storyline involves a mystery about matrimonial entanglements and mysterious phone messages, and it's a book I really enjoyed writing.  I hope that those who have been patient enough to wait for it to reappear will approve...

Monday, 8 July 2019

The birthday trip

Even when I was working full-time, I got into the habit of taking the day off for my birthday, and I've had a good many fun experiences as a result. Going up Snowdon, sailing round Puffin Island, and taking the steam train from Llangollen in north Wales, for instance, as well as journeys to the Lakes, a river cruise on the  Dee, and so on. This year, with the weather forecast looking promising, I decided to fulfil a long-held ambition and travel on the Settle to Carlisle railway line.

It made sense to turn it into a weekend trip, staying overnight in High Bentham, not far from the very attractive tourist centre of Ingleton. Wandering round the Yorkshire Dales is a pleasant way to pass the time, and we stopped in Sedbergh and Hawes before reaching Ingleton. Sedbergh is England's book town, and although it doesn't compare to Hay-on-Wye in terms of the number of shops, I managed to pick up several paperbacks that appealed to me. And Celia Fremlin's short suspense novel Possession made such a good impression on me that I could hardly put it down.

Then to Settle yesterday morning to pick up the train. This is a regular Northern Line service, though I believe that steam trains also run on the line from time to time. Settle's a nice town (though its two bookshops are closed on Sundays; perhaps just as well) and the journey lived up to expectations. The countryside along the route is gorgeous, and unspoilt. The train travels over the famous Ribblehead Viaduct. The viaduct isn't unusually long - what makes it more noteworthy than, say, the "Arches" in Northwich which I used to walk past on my way to school is the glorious setting.

There was time to mooch around Carlisle in the sunshine. It's a pleasant city with (yes!) an open bookshop, and a good one at that, to say nothing of a castle, a citadel, and a cathedral. Then it was back on the return journey, in time for a trip to Dent, a quaint cobbled village, and the only one in Dentdale, apparently because in the days of Norse invaders, they favoured individual homesteads rather than larger settlements. The Yorkshire Dales (and the neighbouring bits of Cumbria) are a lovely part of the world, and the birthday trip was a resounding success, suitably rounded off by a meal in a canalside pub back at Lymm. 

Friday, 5 July 2019

Forgotten Book - It Walks by Night

Image result for british library john dickson carr walks by night

1930 was an important year for the detective novel. Among much else, it saw Jane Marple's first appearance in a novel, and the beginning of the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. This was also the year when a young American detective novelist, aged just 23, published his first book. The novel was called It Walks by Night, and his name was John Dickson Carr.

Actually, his original title for the novel was With Blood Defiled - a good job he changed it, I'd say! The story was an expansion of a novella, "Grand Guignol", which he'd published in his college magazine, The Haverfordian. There is an excellent account of the genesis of Carr's writing in Douglas Greene's marvellous biography of him.

It Walks by Night is set in Paris, and it brims with macabre atmospherics. It's a young man's book, definitely, and he would go on to write finer mysteries, but it's absolutely full of interest. And, of course, it boasts an impossible crime - the inexplicable beheading of Duc de Savigny. A case for Henri Bencolin to investigate, narrated by his Watson-like American friend Jeff Marle.

The late Bob Adey was a Carr fan, and I was thrilled to acquire from his estate the American first edition of this book (no jacket, but never mind), complete with an inscription from Carr about water flowing "over the matrimonial bridge". You can see in the book traces of the opened seal - a marketing gimmick from the publishers, Harper, who sealed the last third of the novel, and offered purchasers their money back if they returned the book with the seal unopened. I bet there are few copies with the seal unbroken...

Anyway, the good news is that the British Library is bringing this landmark title back into print, and there will be a bonus extra in the Crime Classics edition - the inclusion of a short story featuring Bencolin called "The Shadow of the Goat". I'm looking forward to its reappearance on the shelves.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Exploring Lorac Country

Last week I spent a fascinating day exploring the area where Carol Rivett, alias E.C.R. Lorac and Carol Carnac, lived for the last fifteen years or so of her life. This is Lunesdale in north Lancashire, an area that is - in comparison at least to the much-visited hot spots of the Lake District - somewhat off the beaten track, yet a very appealing area of the English countryside. The photo above is of Crook O'Lune - which supplied the title for one of Lorac's novels.

My guide was someone who actually knew Carol Rivett well, and who features as a minor character in one of her books. I learned a great deal from her, not least that Carol was a strong-minded woman with many talents. I had the chance to admire some of her artwork, embroidery, and calligraphy; she was also an accomplished musician, who taught the piano prior to the Second World War. I also learned something I hadn't realised before, that her output included a novel for children called Island Spell.

Carol moved to Lunesdale during the war, in the early 1940s, to be close to her sister Maud and her brother-in-law. The family was very close; there was a third sister, Gladys, and although she lived in London, all three sisters are buried in  the churchyard at Aughton (pronounced "Afton", and not to be confused with Aughton near Ormskirk) where Carol lived. We went on a pilgrimage there, and also to the neighbouring houses where Carol and her in-laws lived.

Whilst walking around the area - some of the narrow and bumpy rural lanes are not ideal for driving! - by chance we bumped into someone who lives in another house nearby which features in one of the Lorac books. She put a lot of her experiences (and people she knew) into her books, and it was a pleasure to be able to see them for myself. It's a lovely part of the world, and I can see why she was happy to live there. And I wondered what she would have made of the enthusiasm which has greeted the British Library's recent reprints of her work - with another title, Fell Murder, which is set in Lunesdale, due out next month.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Bodies from the Library 2019

I doubt I was the only person who was surprised to be reminded that Saturday's Bodies from the Library conference was the fifth to be held. What a five years it has been for lovers of classic crime fiction! How vividly I still recall my first chat over coffee with Rob Davies (a welcome attendee on  Saturday, even though he has now left the BL) and his suggestion that I write a couple of intros for forthcoming novels by John Bude, as well as my telling him that I was just about to conclude work on a manuscript about "the golden age of murder".....

The programme for the day was packed but well-organised and as ever I'd like to congratulate all those who worked so hard to make the day a success. I was on a flying visit to London, but Moira Redmond of the Clothes in Books blog had invited me to join a small gathering for tea at the Wallace Collection, and this proved a convivial occasion, at which I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Friedman, a blogger based in San Francisco, who was over in the UK for a few days. (Moira took the photo above, of Christine Poulson, Kate Jackson, Brad and me). We even did a bit of book shopping in Charing Cross Road before heading over to Euston for a meal with the Bodies team, David Brawn of HarperCollins, and a number of other friends.

Because it's such a busy day, there's never as much time to socialise as would be ideal, but it was good to see the likes of Nigel Moss, Barry Pike, and Geoff Bradley during the breaks. I enjoyed listening to the various talks, including one by Sarah Ward about E.C.R. Lorac which was very timely given that earlier in the week I'd been on a trip to Lorac's country - about which, more another day.

There was a live performance of "Sweet Death", a radio play by Christianna Brand, which worked very well, and I was interested to learn more about June Wright, an author about whom I knew nothing, from Kate Jackson. I was interviewed by Christine Poulson about Cyril Hare, and there was also an enjoyable session at the end of the day when the speakers answered questions posed by audience members. Great fun.


Friday, 28 June 2019

Forgotten Book - Stalemate

Two men, each of them burdened by a wife who is no longer loved, but who refuses a divorce. How can they rid themselves of the inconvenience, and make the most of life. The two men do have a slight acquaintance, but it isn't widely known. They confide in each other, and one of them has an idea. Why don't they help each other out, by killing each other's wives?

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This is an idea that has cropped up in crime stories time and again over the year. Of all the variations on the theme, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train is by far the most renowned, though other good examples have been produced by the late Sheila Radley and the American thriller writer Peter Swanson. The book I'm referring to, however, is Stalemate. It was written by Evelyn Berckman, an expatriate American based in London, and published here in 1966.

My interest in Berckman was fired when I watched a film based on one of her books, Do You Know this Voice? It prompted me to acquire some of her other novels. And although the premise of Stalemate isn't original, it's handled in a fairly original way. The key twist is foreseeable, but it becomes clear by the end of the book that Berckman's interest is in character rather than puzzling her readers. And she is pretty good at characterisation.

I was particularly impressed by the quality of the writing in the first half of the book. Berckman has a pleasing turn of phrase, and there's an intensity about her prose which is appealing. In the later stages, there are one or two scenes which are perhaps over-wrought, and I was slightly surprised by the way she shifts focus from the main actors in the drama to a member of the supporting cast. So despite its familiar premise, it' becomes quite an unusual story. Not a masterpiece in the Highsmith class, but interesting.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Writing "The Sound of Secrecy"

I've published a couple of new short stories recently. "The Girl on the Bandwagon" appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and no prizes for guessing which branch of crime fiction it seeks to satirise! "The Sound of Secrecy" is to be found in a new anthology,  The Book of Extraordinary Historical Mystery Stories, published by Mango and edited by Maxim Jakubowski.

I came across the term "the sound of secrecy" last year, on a visit to Bletchley Park. It stuck in my mind, and I felt the urge to write a story about the war-time codebreakers of Bletchley. I had the beginnings of an idea, but it stubbornly refused to develop, which was frustrating.

Then Maxim announced the proposed publication of his book, and it sounded very appealing. Maxim has edited more than eighty anthologies, that is, more than twice as many as me, and he shares my love of the short story. In the past, he's included a number of my efforts in his books, and I told myself that the Bletchley Park story might find a very good home, if only I could breathe some life into it. 

The answer arrived unexpectedly. Last autumn, I went to St Helier to take part in a literary festival in Jersey, and had a little spare time, which enabled me to take a trip to Gorey and its splendid harbour and castle. Quite an inspirational place. Suddenly it struck me how I could write a story which shifted between wartime in Bletchley Park and the relatively recent past in Jersey. It was like finding a key to unlock a door.

Luckily for me, the story worked, and Maxim accepted it. I'm delighted to see "The Sound of Secrecy" appearing in his book alongside a host of good writers such as Sally Spedding, Kate Ellis, Linda Stratmann, Amy Myers, Jane Finnis, Michael Bracken and Paul Magrs. 

Monday, 24 June 2019

Alibis in the Archive 2019

Over the past weekend, I've been at Gladstone's Library, hosting the third Alibis in the Archive conference. As before, this was a celebration of crime fiction, and its heritage, in a gorgeous setting made all the better by good weather. The Library is home to the British Crime Writing Archives, the collections of the Crime Writers' Association and the Detection Club, and the Library's head archivist had arranged a marvellous display of some of the items from the collection.

The programme began on Friday with dinner and a library-based version of a "pub quiz". I was question master, the first time I've done such a thing. It was a lot of fun, with book prizes generously donated by HarperCollins. And it was a good way for attendees to get to know the writers who had come along for the weekend. There's a lot of mingling at Gladstone's. It's such a friendly place and that's the ethos of the Alibis conference.

On Saturday morning, David Whittle kicked off the series of talks with a lovely discussion about Edmund Crispin, interspersed with recordings of some of the music Crispin wrote, under his real name Bruce Montgomery. Then Alison Joseph gave a thought-provoking talk about the books Agatha Christie wrote as Mary Westmacott.

Many people had come along specially to hear Peter Robinson, and he did not disappoint, with a frank and fascinating talk about his crime writing career and the experience of seeing his DCI Banks series televised. It was quite riveting, and so was Frances Fyfield's personal and moving account of a literary friendship, between her and P.D. James.

After lunch came Aline Templeton (whose husband Ian took some of these photos), with a wide-ranging survey of Scotland's contribution to the crime genre, from James Hogg onwards, and Michael Ridpath, talking about the settings of his books. I finished off the day's formal programme, with a talk about Julian Symons and Michael Gilbert, and brought along a collection of books by both men to illustrate it. Several people were intrigued by Julian's particularly modest way of inscribing his work.  The evening was also memorable - many of us sat outside, talking over a glass of wine or two, enjoying the long hours of daylight.

Sunday saw a talk by Janet Laurence about women and crime writing, a conversation between Peter and me, and then a panel discussion involving the whole group of writers to round things off. It was all over too soon, and feedback was extremely positive. And the good news is - Alibis will be back next June! It's a great event and I do hope you'll think about coming along. 

Friday, 21 June 2019

Forgotten Book - Obelists Fly High

Image result for obelists fly high

I first came across the name of C. Daly King in Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. Symons was notoriously dismissive of many Golden Age writers, although he admired Anthony Berkeley and Agatha Christie, and he clearly had a sneaking affection for King's work. I think he recognised that although King's stories were usually quite barmy and riddled with flaws of various kinds, there was something breathtaking and at times admirable about the sheer outrageousness of his use of the tropes of the classic whodunit. My feelings are much the same.

Symons felt, and again I agree, that King's most notable novel was Obelists Fly High. When introducing a 1980 reprint for Collins Crime Club (which had published several of King's books - first editions are rare and much sought-after by collectors; the jacket image comes from Mark Sutcliffe's site), he summed it up as "one of the most extraordinary detective puzzles of the twentieth century". It was the third of the "obelist" books, each of which involved a bizarre killing aboard a particular form of transportation: the first as on board ship, the second on a transcontinental express, and this one on an aeroplane.

There are three diagrams, one of them a plan of the plane. Then comes a "schedule of reported movements" of the passengers, because this is one of those books where timings and whereabouts of suspects are key. And finally there is a "schedule of actual movements", whose contents are naturally rather different. But there is more. The book begins with an epilogue. And it ends with a prologue. King was one of those writers who played games with the structure of the whodunit, and I'm sure Borges would have approved.

There is also a "cluefinder", a device I really love. Basically, it ties in with the idea of "fair play" in detection, and highlights clues in the text that the reader may have missed. It's sometimes been said that King originated the "cluefinder", which isn't the case, although the example in this book is my favourite. J.J. Connington came up with one before King turned to fiction, and his example was followed by others, including Freeman Wills Crofts. If there was an earlier pioneer of this device than Connington, I'd be interested to know, but I'm not aware of one. (Similarly, whilst other writers have begun their books with an epilogue, has anyone else ended with a prologue as well?)

What of the story? Well, it involves a threat to kill a famous surgeon. Michael Lord, King's series cop, is tasked with guarding the surgeon, but suffice to say that he doesn't make a good fist of it. There is plenty to cringe about in the story, quite apart from Lord's bungling, and King's habit of giving his characters jokey names is especially irksome. He doesn't ramble quite as much as in some other books, but his habit of inserting his own idiosyncratic opinions in his stories is also rather challenging to a modern reader. So it is undeniably a flawed novel. But if you are fascinated by the structure and techniques of the Golden Age mystery, as I am, it is a must-read.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Slaughter in Southwold - and Suffolk

I've just returned from my first proper visit to Suffolk - a county I've only passed through briefly in the past, en route to somewhere else. What a lovely place I've missed... Suffolk was beloved of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, and features in some of their books, as well as in plenty of other good crime novels. Rendell even published a glossy illustrated guide to the county. Suffice to say that when I was invited to take part in the Slaughter in Southwold Crime Fiction Festival, I accepted very quickly indeed.

And what a successful festival it was - a huge credit to Charlotte Clark and her willing team, and to Suffolk Libraries, for whom Charlotte works as an executive library manager. She told me that the festival originally began in conjunction with the CWA, a great example of collaboration. Everything was very well-organised, and I bumped into old friends such as Val McDermid, Kate Ellis, Felix Francis, and Mick Herron, as well as having the pleasure of meeting Nicci French (that is, the husband and wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) for the first time. The attendance was excellent and Beccles Books also did a grand job of selling Gallows Court among other titles.

Southwold is a very long way from where I live - roughly a 500 mile return trip that involves some of the most depressingly clogged motorway routes in Europe, so I was determined to make the most of my trip. Suffolk boasts some delightful market towns, several of them with second hand bookshops, and on the way down I stopped off at Bungay, and wandered round the old castle ruins (above) as well as just about resisting the temptation to add to my book collection.

I really enjoyed my first visit to Southwold, a very upmarket little resort, with an inland lighthouse and pretty little beach huts - you can buy one too, if you have £75,000 to spare! I travelled to the equally smart Aldeburgh (above photos of Moot Hall, Martello Tower and marina), just down the coast. Both towns are home to lovely, high calibre independent bookshops which I enjoyed visiting very much. I also made a point of going to Dunwich (above photos of boat on beach and priory gateway), site of a once great port, now lost to the waves; a ruined priory still remains inland. The notion of a lost village, let alone a lost port, has always fascinated me. There was also a chance to take a look at Leiston Abbey (above, lower photos), a very impressive ruin.

Making my way up the coast, I spent one night at a hotel on the edge of Oulton Broad - I hadn't realised that the Norfolk Broads actually extend into Suffolk. As I was very lucky with the weather, I couldn't resist the lure of a boat trip along the broad, Oulton Dyke, and the River Waveney - a truly delightful experience. I also continued to explore the towns and villages of the area - the likes of Thorpeness (rather close to the nuclear reactor at Sizewell, but very attractive), Burgh St Peter, and Beccles, where I finally succumbed to temptation, having managed to find a couple of inscribed crime novels at yet another second hand bookshop.

And then it was on to Sutton Hoo, legendary as the site of Anglo-Saxon burials, and pleasantly situated above the River Deben. After that, on to Bury St Edmunds, a cathedral city as charming as Wells which I visited the other week, and dinner with Kate and her husband Roger, who were also doing the tourist thing, having had a similarly long journey.

 On my last day in Suffolk, I explored the lovely village of Long Melford and then the gorgeous town of Lavenham. They say that Lavenham is England's best-preserved medieval town, and I don't doubt it. The Guildhall in the market place is a National Trust property, well worth visiting. And I decided to fit in one more National Trust visit before returning home. This was to Ickworth, a hugely impressive property. To my astonishment, as I was looking round the rooms, one of the guides addressed me by name. It turned out she's read all my Lake District and Liverpool novels. Believe me, that's not an everyday occurrence! It's hard for me to put into word how gratifying such encounters are. What a marvellous time I had. I'm so grateful to those who helped to make it possible, and to make it so special.