Monday, 10 August 2020

Vintage Crime

Vintage Crime: from the Crime Writers' Association (Fiction Without Frontiers) by [Crime Writers' Association, Martin Edwards]

Vintage Crime is published tomorrow. It's my latest anthology to be edited on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association, and it differs from its predecessors in a couple of respects. First, we have a new publisher, Flame Tree Press, with whom I've worked in the past. They are lovely people to work with, and the care they devote to their publications is admirable. The production values on Vintage Crime are terrific.

Second, this is not a collection of newly written stories, but rather a book that is designed to showcase the evolution of the crime short story throughout the existence of the CWA. The CWA was founded back in 1953, and its first anthology appeared in 1956. Since then the CWA has been a major supporter of crime short stories, and many award-winning stories made their first appearance in a CWA collection.

In essence, I've mined the CWA archives to put together a book of stories which have appeared in previous CWA anthologies but which seem to me to deserve a new life. I've chosen stories dating back to the 1950s, written by a range of writers whose names are mostly well-known, including the brilliant Mick Herron and the equally gifted Andrew Taylor, two of the finest authors working in the genre today.

There are some terrific names here, including Robert Barnard (whose "Sins of Scarlet" won a Dagger), Frances Fyfield, Celia Fremlin, Peter Lovesey, Liza Cody - and John Dickson Carr. Yes, the king of the locked room mystery was a CWA member. The contributors have, between them, won enough awards to fill a locked room, and I'm hopeful that many readers will enjoy devouring these mysteries from the (sometimes quite recent) past.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Forgotten Book - A Penknife in My Heart

Nicholas Blake - A Penknife in my Heart - Collins Crime Club ...

Nicholas Blake's A Penknife in My Heart, first published in 1958, is highly readable, but in some ways a curious book. It's very well-written on the whole, as you would expect from this author, yet there's something slightly amateurish about the way he jumps from one viewpoint to another in a single scene, and in the way he tends to "tell" rather than "show". I suspect this may have been because he did not put as much effort into his novel writing as he did into his poetry published under his real name, Cecil Day Lewis.

Another oddity is that the central situation, of an exchange of murders, replicates that of Strangers on a Train. By the time Blake's book came out, Patricia Highsmith's classic was several years old, and had been successfully filmed by Hitchcock. Yet Blake insists he was unaware of this, and is clearly embarrassed by the coincidence that he also used two of the same character names that appear in Highsmith's story. In a preface, he thanks Highsmith for "being so charmingly sympathetic".

Some may think that it beggars belief that Blake was unaware of the earlier book. I am happy to take him at his word, even though it may be that some information about the film, if not the book, had seeped into his subconscious. It's common for different writers to come up with much the same idea, quite separately. And it's also the case that Blake's story develops in a rather different way from Highsmith's. Some commentators prefer Blake's book, but I think Highsmith's stands the test of time better.

All that said, I did enjoy this story. It's a good, fast read, and I devoured it in a single sitting. It's interesting that Simenon is name-checked in the story; he clearly influenced some of Blake's post-war fiction. Since Blake's book was published, several novels, by authors as diverse as Evelyn Berckman, Sheila Radley, and Peter Swanson, have used the exchange of murders concept in a variety of ways. And it's a concept with rich potential. One of these days, I'm tempted to have a go myself...   

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Blind Corner aka Man in the Dark - 1963 film review

Blind Corner is a British film, not to be confused with the Dornford Yates novel with the same title. In the US it was known as Man in the Dark, and it's one of those thriller films featuring a blind protagonist who is menaced by sighted people with sinister motives. The script, not based on a novel, was written by James Kelley and Peter Miller. Kelly died relatively young, but Miller continued working into the 1980s and his later TV credits included scripts for the likes of Bergerac and Shoestring.

Like so many British B movies of its day, this is a film with an American star in a lead role, a ploy designed to make the film more commercial. William Sylvester is Paul Gregory, a gifted but irritable composer who has settled for making money by writing pop songs. Gregory is married to Anne, a beautiful woman (played by Barbara Shelley) whose interest in him has faded since he tragically lost his sight. It soon emerges that she's having an affair with a young artist, Rickie Seldon and Paul's manager (Mark Eden) reveals this to Paul. Faced with the prospect of losing her luxury lifestyle, Anne contemplates murder...

It's a familiar enough story, but the plot is quite nicely handled. One weakness of the film is that, again no doubt for commercial reasons, it's padded out by the inclusion of two so-so songs performed by Ronnie Carroll, who was quite a star at the time. These scenes don't really add to the story's development at all.

Mark Eden is a very reliable actor, and he and Barbara Shelley give strong performances in a movie that's certainly watchable, if not exceptionally memorable, and Elizabeth Shepherd is also good as the secretary who is devoted to Paul, but despite my sympathy for his vulnerability, I felt Sylvester rather overdid the irascibility.   

Monday, 3 August 2020

Game Night - 2018 film review

Game Night is a comedy rather than a crime film, but it revolves around mystery games, so it's more than eligible for a review in this blog. I came across it by chance when we were looking for some relaxing viewing and it more than filled the bill. There are plenty of American comedy films that leave me cold, but this wasn't one of them. It's funny and clever.

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play a couple who are highly competitive game-players; they are also trying for a baby. They have a neighbour, a sad and lonely cop who is obsessed with games and has been deserted by his beloved wife. One evening, they go to some lengths to pretend to him that they are not going to be playing a mystery game with their friends, in order to avoid his company, only for Bateman's brother, a loud egotist to whom he has always felt inferior, to blow the gaff.

The game is rudely interrupted by the kidnapping of the brother. At first the game players think that this is some ingenious variation of the game. Unfortunately, it turns out that the brother is in hock to some gangsters and his life is in jeopardy. Undaunted, the game-players set out to rescue him.

The complications come thick and fast. The script is witty and the acting exuberant and I'm not surprised that this film was a big hit at the box office; the success was well-deserved. I was also interested in the way that the writer, Mark Perez, reinvented for a modern audience the mystery game concept which features in so many Golden Age detective novels - Christie's Dead Man's Folly is one example that springs to mind. There's life in the old tropes yet.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Forgotten Book - The Red Scarf

The Red Scarf / A Killer is Loose: Gil Brewer, Paul ...

Many years ago, I remember hearing good things about The Red Scarf by Gil Brewer, but I've only recently laid my hands on a copy, thanks to Stark House Press, who have republished it together with A Killer is Loose in a volume introduced by Paul Bishop. Once again, Stark House have been responsible for the rediscovery of a first rate novel - if A Killer is Loose, which I have yet to read, proves to be as good as The Red Scarf, it will be quite something.

At first, it seems that we are in James M. Cain territory, as the opening is suggestive of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The story is narrated by Roy Nicholls, and we meet him as he is dropped off in the middle of nowhere by a truck driver who has given him a lift. He finds a nearby bar and there he encounters a glamorous young woman, Vivian, and her deeply unpleasant boyfriend Noel Teece.

From there, the story develops a personality of its own. Brewer uses familiar tropes - the decent guy who is so financially hard-pressed that he finds himself contemplating crime, the uncomprehending wife, the femme fatale, the unscrupulous gangster, the sceptical cop, the suitcase full of alluring banknotes. And so on. But Brewer uses these elements to fashion an extremely gripping story.

It's all the more gripping because it is short. So often, writers forget that less is more (especially when writing modern television serials) but Brewer was adept at maintaining a relentless narrative pace. There's one first-rate surprise development, and a satisfying conclusion. The merit of The Red Scarf is not originality, but the skill and economy with which an exciting story is told. I'm very glad I caught up with it at last.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Finisher by Peter Lovesey - review

The Finisher (Peter Diamond Mystery) by [Peter Lovesey]

The Finisher is not merely the 19th novel in Peter Lovesey's highly successful series about Bath cop Peter Diamond. Its appearance marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Peter's award-winning debut novel Wobble to Death. And very cleverly, Peter has returned to a key theme from that first novel and given it a fresh spin. The 'wobble' was a Victorian race, and The Finisher deals with present day half-marathon running. It's a great way to celebrate a literary career of sustained achievement.

The storyline is constructed with such cunning that I don't want to say too much about it, for fear of giving too much away. I was hooked right from the first two sentences: "The city of Bath isn't all about Roman plumbing and Georgian architecture. It offers unrivalled facilities for getting rid of unwanted corpses."

We're promptly introduced to a ruthless killer known as the Finisher (and "finishing" is a concept used astutely throughout the story) but then events move forward in quite a discursive way, as Lovesey constantly teases us with different possibilities about what might happen next. Not just who is the killer, but who might be killed. I have a particular, if inexplicable, enthusiasm for crime novels with underground scenes, and there is plenty in this book to satisfy that taste - there's even a "tunnel of death". There's much else to enjoy, including a good deal of humour, with a lovely, sly P.G. Wodehouse joke.

This is a story firmly set in the present day (or at least the immediate pre-pandemic present day!) but Peter Lovesey's storytelling skills, and certainly his gift for constructing a fair play puzzle, match those of the finest exponents of Golden Age fiction. As a bonus, there is a delightful map in the classic tradition. Even though I've followed Peter's career closely since my student days, I found the afterword, "Running into Writing", informative and enlightening. I won't pretend that I share Peter's enthusiasm for running, any more than I shared Dick Francis's devotion to horse racing. The gift of both men is an ability to write about their passions in a way that attracts even sceptics like me.

I often think of Peter in connection with two writers born in the same year, Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard. Three delightful men, three outstanding crime novelists (and equally accomplished writers of short stories and non-fiction). Three superb entertainers, in short. Now, alas, there aren't any new novels by Reg or Bob to look forward to, so there is all the more reason to appreciate the consistent excellence of Peter Lovesey's work. He is more than entitled to rest on his laurels after such a career but I find it thrilling that he continues to write so inventively and with such panache. Long may he continue to do so.

Monday, 27 July 2020

New artwork for Gallows Court

Gallows Court: a gripping historical murder mystery set in 1930s London by [Martin Edwards]

Today - a cover reveal of a slightly unorthodox sort. The artwork for the UK edition of Gallows Court has been given a makeover. This is, in a nutshell, because Ed Bettison's cover for Mortmain Hall has received a great deal of acclaim. As a result, my publishers in Britain, Head of Zeus, decided that it would be a good idea to commission fresh artwork for the first Rachel Savernake from Ed. And this is the result. As you can see, it's very different from the original artwork, and very much in keeping with the approach that Ed adopted when working on Mortmain Hall.

I find this absolutely fascinating. I'd never appreciated the importance of book covers until that fateful day when a rep from my first paperback publisher, Transworld, told me that in his job they mattered more than the content! This came as quite a shock to a young novelist who'd just had his first book published. But even if he was exaggerating, there was a kernel of truth in what he said from a commercial point of view. Much as authors may not want to hear it, artwork is crucial in helping to market books, and is very relevant to the commercial proposition. And nowadays the artwork has to be effective as an online thumbnail icon as well as in reality. Not easy...

I must say that I did love the original artwork for Gallows Court, and the publishers went to a great deal of trouble in their efforts to get it right. They also did a brilliant job with the special limited edition, which didn't have a dust jacket, but was quite beautifully bound. The paperback cover was a sort of homage to the Crime Classics, and again a lovely picture. But much as I loved those first edition images (and I did), I must say that the enthusiasm with which readers and reviewers have, without any prompting, reacted to the Mortmain Hall cover has been remarkable. Hence this new look. 


Friday, 24 July 2020

Forgotten Book - Too Much of Water

Bruce Hamilton, the brother of Patrick Hamilton, was an interesting and under-estimated novelist whose career as a crime writer lasted for more than a quarter of a century without ever really earning him a significant reputation. I've written about him several times, here on this blog, in The Golden Age of Murder, and in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, but I've not found many other fans of his work - although I live in hope!

After a long silence, he produced a final novel in 1958, which was very much a nod to the Golden Age of detective fiction. This was characteristically idiosyncratic, given that during the Golden Age itself, he'd never bothered with the conventional whodunit. I first read the novel many years ago, and was rather underwhelmed by it. So I decided it was about time I gave Too Much of Water (the title is a quote from Hamlet) a second chance to make a good impression.

This is a cruise mystery - the good ship Goyaz is sailing from Liverpool, via Portugal, to the West Indies. In classic fashion, a plan of the three decks is included. We are introduced to a motley assortment of passengers, and Hamilton's interest in cricket and also in music is evident in the text. (He makes passing mention of Eric Blom, the music critic; whether he was aware that Blom wrote Death on the Downbeat, an interesting mystery novel published as by Sebastian Farr, I don't know, but I suspect he didn't.)

I wanted to love this book, but I feel compelled to say that I didn't. It's well-written, and the characters and setting are competently realised, but there is a lamentable lack of pace and even (despite the number of mysterious deaths that occur on the ill-fated ship) suspense. When one reads, say, Death on the Nile, one is excited by the mystery, if one is a whodunit fan. Here, I'm afraid I wasn't excited at all. I'd even forgotten that Hamilton borrows (with due acknowledgement) a plot device from Agatha Christie. Alas, he doesn't handle it anything like as well as the Queen of Crime. There's a nice twist at the end, but it's not enough. All in all, this is a book that sums up why Hamilton was one of the genre's nearly men.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Stage Fright - 1950 film review

Stage Fright is one of Alfred Hitchcock's less well-known films. I watched (and reviewed) it eleven years ago, but perhaps significantly, I found when I looked at it again that I'd forgotten all about it. The script is based on Man Running, a novel by the British writer Selwyn Jepson, whose father Edgar was himself a writer of some note whose output included a number of crime books and who was an early member of the Detection Club. I haven't read the source book, though I gather that Hitch made drastic changes to the storyline, as was his wont.

The first thing to say about the film is that the cast is impressive. Marlene Dietrich plays Charlotte Inwood, an actress whose husband is murdered. Richard Todd plays Jonathan Cooper, her lover. There are also parts for Sybil Thorndike, Miles Malleson, Andre Morell, and Ballard Berkeley (now remembered fondly as the Major in Fawlty Towers). At the start of the film, Cooper tells his friend, an aspiring actress called Eve Gill (Jane Wyman, whose five marriages included one to Ronald Reagan) about the way that Charlotte's behaviour led to his being suspected of the murder, which she committed. We see his version of events in a lengthy flashback.

After Jonathan flees from the police and takes refuge with Eve and her father (Alastair Sim), Eve starts to play detective. This brings her into contact with a likeable cop called Smith (Michael Wilding), who is hunting for Cooper. Although Eve is devoted to Cooper, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Cooper, while using her acting skills to inveigle her way into Charlotte's household.

This is an entertaining film, as you'd expect from Hitchcock, but it's also flawed. The decision to cast Wyman, who makes no discernible attempt to conceal her American accent, as the daughter of Alastair Sim, strikes me as bizarre. It may have made crude commercial sense, but artistically it was foolish. More serious, though, is the way the audience are deceived about what has happened - the antithesis of fair play. Years later, when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted that in misleading us as to what has happened, he'd got it badly wrong. I agree. So while Stage Fright is perfectly watchable, it's also somewhat disappointing.

Bodies from the Library 3 - edited by Tony Medawar

Bodies from the Library 3 eBook: Medawar, Tony: ...

I've mentioned Tony Medawar before on this blog as the leading researcher of obscure crime fiction. He's a great fan of Golden Age mysteries who has uncovered some fascinating material over the years. An example was the Agatha Christie competition story "Manx Gold", which fascinates me. Tony is currently developing a niche as an editor of story collections, including the Bodies from the Library series, which has now reached its third installment. In addition, he's become the supremo of the Agatha Christie International Festival in Torquay, an event I was eagerly anticipating until the pandemic intervened.

I have a vivid memory of my first encounter with Tony. It was at the London Bouchercon, way back in 1990, before I'd published a single piece of crime fiction. We happened to be contestants in a Mastermind quiz. The quizmaster was Maxim Jakubowski, himself a supremely prolific and versatile anthologist. The score was kept by Geoff Bradley, the editor of CADS. On that pleasant afternoon I never imagined that, thirty years on, Geoff, Tony, Maxim, and I would still be in regular contact, having all sorts of criminal conversations. These are three people from whom, in different ways, I've learned a lot.

The other contestants in the quiz, by the way, were Jim Huang, an American crime fan, and the writer Sarah J. Mason, who also took part with me in a re-run of the quiz at the 1995 Nottingham Bouchercon, along with two very knowledgeable Americans, Marvin Lachman and Edward D. Hoch. There is discussion about the quizzes in Marvin's admirable book The Heirs of Anthony Boucher.

Turning to Bodies from the Library 3, like its predecessors it is a mixed bag, with the main connecting link that most of the stories are unknown or little-known efforts by Golden Age writers. (Six stories are also linked by a theme: an orange that saves someone's life, of all things. Of these little tales, Ethel Lina White makes the best attempt to come up with a strong story.) I'd already come across a handful of the entries in the book, including an extremely good Agatha Christie, "The Incident of the Dog's Ball". There are extensive notes about the contributors, and I was especially pleased to learn more about the enigmatic Lynn Brock.

One of the best stories, I felt, came from that talented but rather inconsistent writer Christopher Bush. "The Hampstead Murder" is pleasingly different, and I really liked it. Bush wrote far too much, but this story shows just what he could do on a good day. There's also a story by Christopher St John Sprigg, which makes use of his interest in aeronautics, although this particular mystery is not in the same league as his novel with a similar background, Death of an Airman.

There are a couple of stories by American writers, and two plays, including one by Ngaio Marsh that was previously unknown to me. Although most of the stories have been published before, this was often in obscure magazines (as with the Bush story) and some have never previously seen the light of day.

It is interesting to speculate why this might be. For example, John Curran, who was the first to reprint the Christie story, theorised that she opted to use key elements of the plot for the novel Dumb Witness, and that seems highly plausible. Whatever the reason, it's a story that Poirot fans are sure to enjoy. The best discovery in the book is "The House of the Poplars" by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I'd be fascinated to know why it's never been printed before. While it's no masterpiece, it's certainly good enough to have been published. Did Sayers have reservations about it, possibly because the ending is slightly anti-climactic? Perhaps, but I'm really not sure. At least now, thanks to Tony, we have a chance to read for ourselves a lost story by one of the giants of the Golden Age. 

Monday, 20 July 2020

Unman, Wittering,and Zigo - 1971 film review

Unman, Wittering and Zigo - UK, 1971 - overview and reviews ...

Over the weekend, I watched two films. In terms of quality they were at opposite ends of the scale. One was London Fields, starring Amber Heard, which barely justifies even its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it's truly awful, a strong contender for Worst Film I've Ever Seen. Thankfully, the other was Unman, Wittering, and Zigo, directed by John Mackenzie, who was later responsible for the brilliant The Long Good Friday. Unman... made a great impression on me when I first watched it many years ago and it stands the test of time.

Unman... was based on a radio play by Giles Cooper and is set in a public school. The pupils make even the rebels in Lindsay Anderson's If... seem tame. (Incidentally, we were shown If... when we were at school ourselves; pretty enlightened teaching, it seems to me.) Unman... stars David Hemmings, then at the height of his fame, as a John Ebony, a young teacher who has just arrived at Chantry School in mid-term.

Ebony is replacing a Mr. Pelham, who died in mysterious circumstances. He's young and keen, and accompanied by his wife (Carolyn Seymour). The head teacher, played by the splendid Douglas Wilmer, is just as remote and useless as the head in If... When Ebony comes into conflict with the boys in his form, Upper V B, they claim that they murdered Pelham and that he'll suffer the same fate unless he toes the line...

This is a chilling and compelling film which deserves to be much better known. Some people suggest that the title is off-putting, but I think it's memorable and resonant. I do, however, tend to agree with those critics who suggest that the ending isn't entirely satisfactory. Even so the story as a whole is first-rate. If.... is a much more renowned movie, and I enjoyed watching it again recently; even so, I found Unman... somehow more shocking, and also rather more sophisticated in its portrayal of rebellious young men. Watching it was a great way to get over the dismal experience of yawning my way through London Fields.     

Friday, 17 July 2020

Forgotten Book - Making Hate

Making Hate by Jacqueline Wilson

I've discussed a couple of Jacqueline Wilson's taut psychological thrillers on this blog in the past - the fairly distant past, admittedly. She made a splash in the 70s as a crime novelist before turning with huge success to children's fiction. I was impressed with her books when they came out and, although inevitably dated, they still show what a readable writer she has always been.

I've only just come across her fifth and final crime novel, Making Hate. Her earlier books were published in paperback by Penguin, but I'm not sure that this one was - certainly I've found it elusive. And now I've read it, I wonder if I have a clearer idea of why she gave up the genre. This is without doubt an admirably ambitious book, and again it's a good, fluent read, but it's also rather flawed.

She decided to tackle a story about a rapist, and to present it from two contrasting viewpoints. The main character is Simon Shaw, a divorced man in his thirties who has two children but is much closer to his daughter than his son. He works as civilian SOCO and fantasises about being a detective. He's lacking confidence, but when he picks up a pretty young girl, he doesn't seem to take any interest in how old she is. After they part, she is raped. It turns out that she is only fourteen and Simon is briefly a suspect.

Simon is cleared, but wants to bring the rapist to justice. Meanwhile, we are given an insight into the rapist's psyche in a series of short sections which reveal his troubled upbringing. Wilson is aiming here for psychological depth, but overall I felt that her attempts to get into the minds of Simon and the rapist weren't successful. This is an uncomfortable book for a number of reasons, and I can see why it made little impact. Yet I remain of the view that even a flawed book of the past may be of great interest if the author is trying to do something worthwhile and inventive with the story, and Making Hate fits the bill. It's no masterpiece, but you can tell that Wilson, even more than forty years ago, was a storyteller of high calibre.