Wednesday, 25 November 2020

CADS 84

The arrival of a new issue of CADS is always a treat. Geoff Bradley, the editor of this splendid fanzine, cunningly spaces out the issues so that they arrive infrequently but always seem to fill a long-felt need. Incredibly, we are now up to issue 84. I have every copy and they form an invaluable resource, with lots of information about vintage detective fiction that simply isn't available elsewhere. If you love Golden Age fiction, this is an indispensable publication. And it also carries a range of other material, including articles and reviews relating to contemporary books.

In this issue, I was delighted to see an essay by Mike Wilson on the subject of Michael Gilbert's plays. Mike invited me to join his students at Loughborough University in February for a Golden Age workshop. I also gave a talk. It was an enjoyable visit, and I never imagined at the time that it would be my one and only event outside Cheshire this year. 

There are plenty of other interesting contributions. Philip Gooden, a thoughtful commentator as well as a crime novelist, writes about Lionel Davidson, while there are two typically snappy articles by Philip Scowcroft and a very interesting piece by Kate Jackson about an Australian mystery competition in the 1950s. Christine Poulson discusses Ethel Lina White and there's a reprint of an old essay by G.K. Chesterton about the Detection Club. Marvin Lachman's obituary column is full of interesting references and John Cooper writes interestingly about the short-lived writing career of Julie Burrows: the reasons why authors who have battled to achieve publication suddenly give up has always fascinated me, although we don't know why Burrows vanished from sight. There's a similar and much more recent mystery concerning Mary Moody, discussed by Lyn McConachie. 

There's much else besides, including two essays by me. One discusses Howdunit. The other, much longer, is the most detailed examination to date of the career of Mary Kelly. I've included a lot of information supplied by Mary's husband Denis, with whom I've enjoyed a fascinating correspondence in recent years. My essay is really a tribute to him as well as to Mary.    

 

Monday, 23 November 2020

A Patch of Fog - 2015 film review

A Patch of Fog is an interesting film made in Northern Ireland five years ago, directed by Michael Lennox. The script was written by John Cairns and Michael McCartney and concerns an author called Sandy Duffy, who made his name with his one and only novel, A Patch of Fog, 25 years ago. Fuffy (Conleth Hill) has failed to follow up his breakthrough, but lives well and is a lecturer who is also a familiar face on television. He works alongside his girlfriend, played by Lara Pulver.

From the start, however, we know that all is not well with Sandy. He's a compulsive shoplifter, and the psychological problems that lie behind his behaviour eventually become clear. Unfortunately for him, he's spotted, and filmed, by a security guard called Robert (Stephen Graham). Sandy begs Robert not to report his crime, and Robert eventually agrees. But he wants something in return. Not money, but friendship.

Bit by bit, Robert insinuates himself into Sandy's life. Graham captures his character's neediness and inadequacy as well as his creepiness. One's instinct is to sympathise with Sandy, but he is such an unlikeable character that it's tempting to think that the and Robert deserve each other. Each time Sandy thinks he's made good his escape from Robert's  clutches, he is swiftly disabused. The stakes become higher, the tension mounts.

For a low-budget film, this is pretty gripping. That's due mainly to the excellence of the lead actors, but the script has its moments (there is one especially clever twist when Sandy makes ingenious use of a compromising video tape) and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. I've often thought that the experience of writing a hugely successful first book and then being unable to follow it up with anything as good must be very depressing. This film offers a fresh, if downbeat take on that premise. Well worth watching.


Friday, 20 November 2020

Forgotten Book - Post Mortem

Post Mortem, first published in 1953, was the best-known novel published by Guy Cullingford (actually a woman called Constance Lindsay Taylor). It's a detective story narrated in the first person by an amateur sleuth. The unique feature of the story is that the narrator is investigating his own death. Yes, that's right, this is a case investigated by a ghost...

The deceased is Gilbert Worth, a moderately successful novelist who was a rather unpleasant fellow, which meant that several people had reason to wish him dead. The prime suspects are members of his family (wife, daughter and two sons) along with his mistress. The supporting cast includes his publisher, the family lawyer, and a number of servants including a bolshy gardener.

The tone of the story is fundamental, and it's relentlessly ironic. I was struck by the thought that one could easily imagine Richard Hull writing this story. It bears many of his hallmarks, including a focus on unattractive characters. Gilbert might have been a nasty piece of work, but he gets his come-uppance, not only as a victim, but also because he finds out what people really thought of him. The humour won't be to everyone's taste, but I was amused when I reread the story recently, having been slightly less impressed when I first came across the book many moons ago. 

I thought that the idea for the novel was clever, but one that was difficult to execute successfully. (And Hull is a good example of someone who came up with splendid ideas, but did not always manage to turn them into effective full-length novels). But to my mind, Cullingford does a really good job of maintaining interest from start to finish. It's an unusual piece of work by an author of considerable accomplishment.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The Assassination Bureau - 1969 film review

The Assassination Bureau is one of those madcap films that were rather characteristic of the Swinging Sixties, a star-studded comedy with a storyline that zoomed around all over the place. I've never watched it until now, but the recent death of Diana Rigg, whom I'd admired ever since her early days as Emma Peel in The Avengers, prompted me to give it a look.

The script has an unorthodox source. It is based on a story which Jack London started - basing it on an idea purchased from Sinclair Lewis - and Robert L. Fish completed decades later. I doubt that there's a great resemblance between the two, but these rather weird origins are reflected in the zaniness of the story. The eponymous Bureau is a bunch of highly effective paid killers, who only target people who, supposedly, deserve to be assassinated. Murky moral ground, to be sure, but the film just aims for light entertainment.

Diana Rigg plays Sonya Winter, a would-be journalist who has uncovered the Bureau's existence. She challenges the Bureau's killers to target their own head, Ivan Dragomiloff. Ivan is played by Oliver Reed with characteristic gusto. His second-in-command is Lord Bostwick, a role which gives Telly Savalas the chance to be as unKojak-like as possible. The supporting cast includes, like other films of this type, a galaxy of highly recognisable faces, often in very small parts. So we glimpse, among others, Beryl Reid, Warren Mitchell, Kenneth Griffith, Jeremy Lloyd, Frank Thornton, Arthur Hewlett, and Peter Bowles. 

It's no masterpiece, but as piece of pandemic escapism, it does the job. The story is better than that of, say, the original Casino Royale, even if the soundtrack (despite being by the estimable Ron Grainer) isn't a patch on that for the wackiest of Bond films. It goes without saying that Diana Rigg is terrific, and among other things The Assassination Bureau is a good reminder of her ability to entertain in undemanding roles as well as to excel in more serious parts.

 

 

  

Monday, 16 November 2020

More from the British Library

The British Library publications department is responsible for putting out a wide range of titles. Of course, my prime concern is with the Crime Classics, but I enjoy a good many of their other books. So today, as Christmas looms in the distance, I thought I'd mention some of these. 

There's no better place to start than with Yesterday's Tomorrows. The sub-title is The Story of Classic Science Fiction in 100 Books. So yes, it's a sci-fi equivalent to my own volume of musings about Classic Crime titles. The author is Mike Ashley, who is so prolific as to make me feel rather indolent. I've never met Mike but I've contributed to some of his anthologies and I find his commentaries and insights consistently interesting. One of the books Mike discusses in this enjoyable volume was of particular interest to me. It is The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks, published in 1920. It sounds quite fascinating and I'd like to read it, especially since my wife is a member of the Shanks family. Edward was, in his day, a well-regarded poet and critic and his other books include a good biography of Poe.


Mike Ashley has also edited a number of sci-fi anthologies for the British Library. I should say that I've only dipped in briefly to these so far, but the topics are interesting. Nature's Warnings, for instance, is a collection of stories of 'eco sci-fi'. One of the contributors is the American Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, better known as a high calibre writer of domestic suspense.

The British Library's anthologies of 'weird tales' are also of interest. Chill Tidings is a set of 'Dark Tales of the Christmas Season' edited by Tanya Kirk. Into the London Fog contains 'eerie tales from the weird city' and is edited by Elizabeth Dearnley. And there is a nicely produced hardback collection of The Gothic Tales of Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by X.A. Reyes. Dorothy L. Sayers was a Le Fanu fan - and so am I.



 

Friday, 13 November 2020

Forgotten Book - Heads You Lose

I have a vivid recollection of my first encounter with Christianna Brand's Heads You Lose. As a fourteen year old schoolboy, I raced to the local library one Saturday morning in September and borrowed it (in a reprint edition introduced by Michael Gilbert) before nipping back home and settling down to watch my favourite cricket team play their first cup final on television. Alas, my heroes were thrashed, and I was in a very grumpy mood for the rest of that weekend.

My humour wasn't improved by the fact that I felt Brand's novel didn't play fair with me as a reader. I'd greatly admired Green for Danger, but I felt that this village mystery was a let-down. I'm afraid that I'll forever associate it with a day when my juvenile dreams were dashed! However, I was encouraged to give it another go by a thought-provoking discussion of the story in Samantha Walton's Guilty but Insane, which deals with the treatment of psychological disturbance in Golden Age fiction.

On a second reading, my revised conclusion is that the book is a curate's egg. Brand skates over thin ice more cleverly than I appreciated in my youth. There's a pleasing false solution, but this was only her second novel, and it's well short of her best. It introduced her main character Inspector Cockrill, aka "Cockie", but I must admit I've never found him quite as engaging as do some fans. The book was published in 1942, and one of the characters, who is Jewish, is presented in sympathetic fashion - yet he still has to put up with a good deal of casual antisemitism before the story reaches its end.

On the plus side, there's a nice map and a neatly contrived "closed circle" of suspects. Samantha Walton's discussion has given me greater insight into Brand's handling of homicidal psychology, and is an uncommon example of an academic study which actually enhances the pleasure of reading Golden Age fiction. I still don't think Heads You Lose is really a fair play mystery, but I also think I judged it too harshly on first reading. As for that cricket match, well the scars run deep, but back then, I never dreamed that one day I'd become friendly with my team's opening batsman, Peter Gibbs, and that we'd go to a Society of Authors meeting together. Peter told me that they just froze on the big occasion. Oh well, even heroes are human...

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Angelica - film review

Angelica is a macabre film released in 2015. Or was it 2017? Apparently it disappeared from sight for two years, a mysterious experience which suggests a troubled genesis - which actually seems entirely appropriate for this particular movie! I've read some negative reviews, especially those which complain that the screenplay is very different from Arthur Phillips' source novel, but I found it extremely watchable. It's billed as a supernatural story, but it doesn't follow a conventional path and the events are susceptible, I think, to more than one interpretation. (Again, I've read some reviewers who strike me as being overly prescriptive about their take on what the story means - perhaps that's just a polite way of saying that I completely disagreed!)

The film's director is Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the legendary Roy, and the lead role is taken by another American, the impressive Jena Malone. But the story is mainly set in Victorian England, and there are key roles for several British actors, including James Norton, who plays such an inconsequential part that he must have been cast prior to becoming famous. When I say 'mainly', this is because the story is primarily told in flashback; there are scenes at the start and end from the twentieth century. I felt, however, that this 'framing' method was clumsy and unnecessary.

The crucial events begin when a young doctor (played by Ed Stoppard, another son of a famous father) falls for a shop assistant called Constance (Malone). Soon they are married, and their sexual relationship is passionate. But when Constance gives birth to their daughter, Angelica, things change for the worse. 

I don't want to say too much about the storyline, except to say that I found it unorthodox and compelling. There's a fascinating role for Janet McTeer - some critics feel her performance is over-the-top, but for me it fits the narrative. After a quiet build-up, the story reaches a horrifying climax, which I felt the 'frame' rather weakened. But this is a film which in my opinion is under-rated.




  

Monday, 9 November 2020

Celebrating the Crime Classics

It's bound to be a rather unusual Christmas this year, and I'll be among those missing a long-overdue reunion with loved ones, but it's important to remain positive. Over the coming weeks, I'll be making a few suggestions for Christmas reading and present giving - not just my own books (though I hope they will find their way into some Christmas stockings...) but also those written by a range of talented authors.

Today, though, I'd like to celebrate the British Library Crime Classics. I've really enjoyed my association with this imprint, and one particular joy has been that the books have found an enthusiastic readership not just in Britain but throughout the world. In the US, 'starred reviews' are one of the most sought-after yardsticks of a book's success, and I was amazed and gratified to be told by the US publishers Sourcebooks that the series has now garnered no fewer than thirty 'starred reviews'. The latest are for Carol Carnac's Crossed Skis and Margot Bennett's The Man Who Didn't Fly.

And here are some quotes - plenty of good gift choices here!:



"This outstanding mystery from Bennett (1912 - 1980) poses a genuinely original puzzle."  —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Man Who Didn't Fly

"This innovative mystery from Kelly (1927–2017) effectively uses time shifts to create suspense... a superior addition to the British Crime Classics series” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Spoilt Kill

“[An] intriguing entry in the British Library Crime Classics series...Carnac keeps the reader guessing to the end. Fans of clever literate murder mysteries will hope for more Carnac reissues.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Crossed Skis

“Edwards scores again with this outstanding reprint anthology of 15 short stories set in the world of sports and games...  The British Library Crime Classics series has produced another winner.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Settling Scores

“Excellent whodunit” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Castle Skull

“Everything you could wish for in a country-house mystery.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Death in Fancy Dress

“In this standout entry in the British Library Crime Classics series from Gilbert... The ingenious story line is enhanced by ample doses of wit.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Death in Fancy Dress

“Edwards combines the well-known (Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers) with the obscure (former actor Ernest Dudley) in this impressive anthology of 14 short stories featuring scientific and technical know-how. Fans of TV’s CSI will enjoy seeing the evolution of criminal forensics.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Measure of Malice

“A masterly job of blending whodunit, courtroom drama, and thriller...readers who like their detection balanced by action will be more than satisfied.”  —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Death Has Deep Roots

 "Edwards’s outstanding third winter-themed anthology showcases 11 uniformly clever and entertaining stories, mostly from lesser known authors, providing further evidence of the editor’s expertise...this entry in the British Crime Classics series will be a welcome holiday gift for fans of the golden age of detection.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

 “Ingenious reissue...Gilbert expertly combines fairly planted clues and self-referential humor. Well-drawn personalities and plausible twists are additional pluses. This high-quality whodunit deserves a wide readership.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Smallbone Deceased

 "A terrifically atmospheric puzzler...the ending is a stunner…like the best Golden Age crime fiction.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Murder by Matchlight

 “The latest reissue in the British Library’s Crime Classics series comes from a writer long acknowledged as a trailblazer in psychological suspense…Symons keeps readers on their toes with his unreliable narrator and numerous misdirections, but he amply rewards us with a story that makes us think. A very welcome reissue.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Colour of Murder

 “This reissue exemplifies the mission of the British Library Crime Classics series in making an outstanding and original mystery accessible to a modern audience.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Excellent Intentions

 “This story about guests gathered at a country house for the weekend, originally published in 1934, anticipates Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which appeared five years later…British crime novelist Martin Edwards provides his usual insightful introduction to this latest addition to the British Library Crime Classics series, letting readers know that Raymond Chandler was a huge fan of this novel. Bubbly social satire sets off a clockwork plot.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Weekend at Thrackley

 “Psychological depth enables Meredith to maintain engagement even after the killer’s identity is disclosed, and she effectively shifts points of view, incorporating that of the murderer in the crime’s aftermath and that of a character who may hold the key to achieving justice. Simple prose conveys personality in just a few words. Golden age fans will be enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Portrait of a Murderer

 “Edwards has done mystery readers a great service by providing the first-ever anthology of golden age short stories in translation, with 15 superior offerings from authors from France, Japan, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Holland, Mexico, Russia, and elsewhere; even Anton Chekhov makes a contribution —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Foreign Bodies

 “Originally published in 1939, this reissue in the British Library Crime Classics series from Farjeon (1883-1955) is a standout, with a particularly horrifying opening.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Seven Dead

 “…worthy of Agatha Christie at her fiendish plotting best, centers on an elaborately staged crime scene and a vast field of suspects, including village doctors who are envious of the victim (a “bone-setter,” or homeopath). Both of these tales are deeply satisfying reads…” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Dead Shall be Raised and The Murder of a Quack

 “As with the best of such compilations, readers of classic mysteries will relish discovering unfamiliar authors, along with old favorites such as Arthur Conan Doyle (“The New Catacomb”) and G.K. Chesterton (“The Secret Garden”).” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Continental Crimes

“The degree of suspense Crofts achieves by showing the growing obsession and planning is worthy of Hitchcock. Another first-rate reissue from the British Library Crime Classics series.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The 12.30 from Croydon

“Edwards’s second winter-themed anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series is a standout. As in the most successful of such volumes, the editor’s expertise results in a selection of unusual suspects, expanding readers’ knowledge.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Crimson Snow

“Not only is this a first-rate puzzler, but Crofts’ outrage over the financial firm’s betrayal of the public trust should resonate with today’s readers.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Mystery in the Channel

“The combination of bracing Cornish cliffs and seascapes with cozy interiors and a cerebral mystery makes this one of the most deservedly resurrected titles in the British Library Crime Classics series. With an introduction by modern British crime writer Martin Edwards.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Cornish Coast Murder

“The settings of train, blizzard, and the eerily welcoming home are all engrossing. Dorothy L. Sayers characterized Farjeon as ‘unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.’ This reissue proves it.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Mystery in White 

“This 1931 novel, now republished as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, is a cunningly concocted locked-room mystery, a staple of Golden Age detective fiction.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Murder of a Lady 

“First-rate mystery and an engrossing view into a vanished world.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Death of an Airman

"Brilliant in construction and theme.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Antidote to Venom

"Worthy of Hitchcock… A wonderful rediscovery" —Booklist, Starred Review for The Sussex Downs Murder


  

Friday, 6 November 2020

Forgotten Book - So I Killed Her

I came across Leonard O. Mosley's 1936 novel So I Killed Her by chance, while browsing a dealer's catalogue. I'd never heard of it, but the blurb sounded interesting, so I investigated further and gained the impression that this was a book very much in the Francis Iles tradition. But there has been little or no discussion of it, so far as I could find, by crime fiction fans.

I'm not quite sure why this is. The book has been reprinted a time or two - I obtained a cheap paperback copy from the late 50s. Mosley was a young man - a very young man - when he wrote the story - and although he wrote one or two other crime novels, he became much better known as a biographer. I don't know if he was related to Oswald Mosley - his own second name was Oswald - but if so, there appears to be no obvious connection between them. When I read the book, I felt that, for all its limitations, it has a certain dark power, and definitely does not deserve the critical neglect that has been its fate.

Mosley must have been about 22 when he wrote the novel. He came from my neck of the woods, the north west, but travelled extensively and spent time in the US prior to writing this book. So one of the unusual features of the story is that, unlike the novels by Iles, Richard Hull, Bruce Hamilton and others who wrote in the ironic vein, it is predominantly set in the US. And the American hardboiled influence lurks, far in the background. There's more candour about sex in this book than you find in the overwhelming majority of Golden Age stories.

This is a first person narrative, and we know from the start that we are in the company of a murderer - apparently one who has committed the perfect crime, murdering his wife and framing someone else -who is about to be executed. The killer happens to be a detective novelist, although perhaps Mosley doesn't make quite as much of this idea as he could. The prose has verve, but the characters are mostly very unpleasant, and the wit that flavoured the books of Iles and the best of Hull is generally absent. All the same, it's a highly readable book, and I'm amazed that it has been ignored by the commentators.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Coyote Lake - 2019 film review

Coyote Lake is a film directed and (with Thomas James Bond) written by Sara Seligman. It begins in fairly conventional thrillerish fashion and then veers off in a rather more interesting direction. I've seen mixed reviews of it, but I thought it was pretty good, a rather more thoughtful piece of work than many a modern thriller.

The set-up is that a mother and daughter (played by Adriana Barraza and Camila Mendes) run a small guest house on the border between the USA and Mexico. They have got into a habit of drugging unpleasant guests (typically 'coyotes', that is, human traffickers) and then robbing and murdering them. The bodies of their victims are wrapped in plastic, taken out by boat on to the eponymous lake, and dumped into the water. The women share their lives with a mute handyman (Neil Sandilands) whom the mother occasionally takes to her bed. The mother is highly controlling and ruthless - we get the strong impression that for her, killing has become a way of life rather than a passport to a better and more prosperous existence - while her daughter is dutiful but not so bereft of human sympathy.

Two criminals, one of them wounded, show up. The younger, fitter man (Andres Veles) threatens to shoot the women unless they offer help and accommodation. But the film starts to move in a particularly interesting way as the young man finds himself attracted to the daughter. Needless to say, this relationship seems destined not to end well, and the final image is haunting, as is the photography throughout.

There is an eerie, under-stated quality to this film which ensures that it is a cut above quite a lot of the competition in the crowded field of psychological suspense. Not everything is fully explained, but for once I didn't find this irritating, but in keeping with the otherworldly mood. 


 

 

Bonfire Night and Murder

Quite a few crime novels have been set, in part at least, on or around Bonfire Night. This is hardly surprising, given that (except during a pandemic and a lockdown!) it's a time of vivid colours in the night sky, with the potential for crime in the hours of darkness. Several authors have had the idea of a Guy Fawkes on a bonfire turning out to be a murder victim. I doubt they have copied each other - it's just one of those concepts (and there are loads of them) that are quite likely to spring to mind when one is thinking up scenarios for a murder mystery.


Julian Symons' The Progress of a Crime, which is the subject of a timely reissue in the British Library Crime Classics series, is proclaimed on the suitably vivid cover as a Fireworks Night mystery, and that's when the eponymous crime occurs. The case is investigated by a young journalist, and Symons actually worked in a provincial newspaper office as part of his research. The crime in question was based, as I explain in my intro to the book, on a real life case which many people think gave rise to a miscarriage of justice - a subject that was of great interest to Symons at that stage of his career.

The book won the Edgar for best novel, and came close to winning a Gold Dagger for good measure. At this point Symons' career as a novelist was really at its peak in terms of acclaim and awards, but he continued to write extremely interesting fiction until the end of his life. The Colour of Murder, which did win a Gold Dagger, and The Belting Inheritance, one of his less well-known novels, have previously been reprinted in the Crime Classics series.

The Progress of a Crime has particular significance for me since it was the first Symons novel that I read, at the age of thirteen or so. It was also, as far as I can recall, the first time I'd graduated to contemporary crime writing after cutting my teeth on Christie, Sayers, and company. An old paperback copy was on the shelves in the house of some family friends and I picked it up and started reading it when I got bored with the adults' conversation. I was intrigued, and soon became a big Symons fan - after reading The Man Who Killed Himself. It's terrific to see him back in print again.




 

 

Monday, 2 November 2020

The Sister - ITV review

In the run-up to Halloween, I read and watched a number of ghost stories and other strange tales in fiction, film and TV. Everyday life at present seems weirder than fiction, but I must admit that I prefer strangeness in storytelling rather than in a world of masked passers-by and mysterious viruses. Stories are, at the very least, a wonderful escape. There was one particular film which I thought outstanding, but today I'm going to talk about The Sister, the fourth and final part of which aired on ITV the other day.

The story, told in part through multiple flashbacks, was adapted by Neil Cross from his own novel Burial, which I haven't read. Russell Tovey plays Nathan, who is married to Holly (Amrita Acharia). They are successful and live in a posh, if soulless house, and are trying for a baby without much luck so far. Nathan is, however, disturbed when a strange man, Bob Morrow (Bertie Carvel, in manic mode) turns up to tell him that a local woodland is being dug up to make room for new housing. Nathan panics, and no wonder.

To cut a long story short, it soon emerges that Nathan and Bob buried in the woodland the body of a young woman. This was Elise (Simone Ashley) and, although we don't at first know the circumstances of her death, we learn that she is Holly's sister. Obsessed by what had happened, Nathan sought out Holly and then fell in love with her. There are several creepy and unlikely elements to the story, but for me the one that really didn't work was Nathan's marriage to the dead girl's sister. Unfortunately, that's a cornerstone of the whole edifice. 

Cross is a good TV writer, and The Sister has had one or two favourable reviews, but after an engrossing start, I thought it went downhill. Several aspects of the plot development seemed all too predictable, and I didn't really buy in to Tovey's portrayal of Nathan, which may be a criticism of the material rather than the actor. As so often with contemporary TV series, it could have done with ruthless cutting. There was, however, some compensation in the final twist. 

 


  

Friday, 30 October 2020

Forgotten Book - The Flanders Panel

Arturo Perez Reverte is one of the most interesting Spanish crime writers of modern times and The Flanders Panel, first published thirty years ago, is a fascinating example of his work. The story is set in Madrid, and in 1994 it was filmed as Uncovered, although as yet I haven't managed to see the movie version, which stars Kate Beckinsale as Julia, the art restorer from whose viewpoint the events of the story are seen.

The book begins with Julia's discovery of a Latin inscription hidden beneath a painting that she has been tasked with restoring prior to its sale. The painting depicts two knights playing a game of chess, watched by a woman. The inscription, translated, is :'who killed the knight?' Perhaps in the context of chess it could be interpreted as 'who captured the knight?' But Julia begins to wonder if the inscription is a clue to a crime of the past.

She confides in her mentor, an older gay man called Cesar, who represents a father figure. Her former lover also becomes involved, but is then found dead. Has he been murdered, and if so, by whom, and why? Do the elderly owner of the painting and his unlovely family members have something to hide? And what about another of Julia's friends, the glamorous but dissolute Menchu, who is also involved in the machinations to market the painting?

The story begins with a quote from a Jorge Luis Borges poem about chess, and the text includes numerous examinations of stages in the chess game in the painting, as a chess expert calls Munoz helps Julia to figure out what is going on. I like chess, but I think that even someone who doesn't play the game would find this story readable and pleasingly different. Recommended.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Lighthouse - 2019 film review

The Lighthouse is a recent horror film, made in black and white by Robert Eggers, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother. Apparently the original spark for the story came from Edgar Allan Poe's final, unfinished story with the same title, but otherwise there is no resemblance between the two works. This is an unsettling film, full of ambiguities. Explanations for what's going on are in short supply, but although in some movies that matters a great deal, here it does not. To me, the ambiguous nature of the storyline is a plus. So is the setting - lighthouses and small islands have fascinated me since I was young, and the combination is irresistible.

The set-up is simple enough. It's the late nineteenth century, and a young man, Ephraim Winslow, arrives at a lighthouse on a remote, fog-blanketed island for a four-week stint as a 'wickie', assisting the veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake. The two men are played respectively by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe and both give superb performances. 


We soon learn that Ephraim's predecessor went mad, and we aren't in any doubt that Bad Stuff is destined to happen. I don't want to say too much about the detail of the storyline, but suffice to say that the lighthouse lamp, a mermaid, and a one-eyed gull all play key parts in the events that unfold. There's a hallucinatory quality to much of the filming, and the desolate, lonely location is marvellously atmospheric.

With a horror story of this kind, a writer may opt to give the satisfaction of an explanation of events, or leave things murky. Either method can work; everything depends on the skill with which the story is told. Much as I love rational detective stories with ingenious solutions, I'm also keen on strange, inexplicable stories such as those written by the great Robert Aickmann. The Lighthouse isn't exactly an Aickmann-type of story, but its strangeness is a large part of its appeal. I found it compelling.  

 



Monday, 26 October 2020

British Library Crime Classics in 2021

The British Library recently announced their programme of Crime Classics for the first half of 2021 and I've already talked about my delight regarding the first-ever publication of E.C.R. Lorac's Two-Way Murder, which I think is a real coup for the imprint. I'm also pleased about the diversity, to use a topical word, of the forthcoming titles. They really are a mixed bunch. Some will appeal to certain readers more than others, but that's fine. I do think that the eclectic nature of this series is a big part of the reason for its continuing success. 'Classic crime' is much more than gentle whodunits set in English villages of the 30s, not that there's anything wrong with them - as I've mentioned in the past, The Murder at the Vicarage was my introduction to mystery fiction.


There's an anthology coming up. Guilty Creatures ('a Menagerie of Mysteries'!!) is a collection of stories connected with the animal world in one way or another. I'll talk more about the contents another time. Suffice to say that I'm pleased with the title. When I wrote the book that became Take My Breath Away, I intended to call it Guilty Creatures. But another novel with that title (not a crime story) came out ahead of mine, and my agent asked me to change the title. At last I've finally used it...

There's another John Dickson Carr, The Corpse in the Waxworks (we're using the US title) and another Mary Kelly. Don't be fooled by the cheery, summery cover of Due to a Death - it's a pretty bleak story, albeit very well-written and much praised by the top American critic, Anthony Boucher. 


For light relief, I can recommend Nap Lombard's Murder's a Swine, an amusing war-time mystery. And then there is The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes. She remains known for The Lodger, but her other work in the genre is under-rated. Real life crime intrigued her, and as a result her fiction studies attitudes towards crime in a way that, decorous as the prose may be, seems to me to be rather ahead of its time.





 

Friday, 23 October 2020

Forgotten Book - No Coffin for the Corpse

No Coffin for the Corpse, first published in 1942, was the fourth and final novel of Clayton Rawson. Rawson, an advertising artist and semi-professional conjuror, was a specialist in impossible crime mysteries and a good friend of John Dickson Carr. His Great Detective was the Great Merlini, who has a shop which sells magic tricks and a 'Watson' in the shape of narrator Ross Harte.

Rawson's career as a novelist was brief, although he continued to write short stories with a locked room or impossible crime focus. In addition to Merlini, he created Don Diavolo (great name!), who makes a fleeting appearance in this book, although generally the Diavolo stories were published under the name Stuart Towne. No Coffin for the Corpse failed to find a UK publisher and did not appear in this country until Tom Stacey brought it out in 1972, the year after Rawson's death.

It may be that Rawson became disappointed and frustrated as a novelist (it happens!), or it may be that he struggled to find story ideas that would sustain a full-length novel. It may be relevant that this story begins quite brilliantly but does not, in its later stages, quite fulfill its early promise. I do think it is a real challenge to write a high-calibre impossible crime novel - the locked room is a trope that, I feel, tends to suit the short story form better (and yes, I know there are quite a number of excellent exceptions, not only by Carr but by others).

Here, Harte is frustrated when the rich but odious Dudley Wolff determines to nip his daughter's romance with Harte in the bud. Wolff has a fear of death which again is eminently suited to this kind of macabre mystery, and when he becomes embroiled in an attack on a blackmailer, he persuades others to help him to bury the blackmailer's body in the woods. But then the corpse appears to take on a life of its own...

A great premise, but the amount of space devoted to justifying the legitimacy of the explanation for the mystery seems rather like protesting too much. I suspect Rawson realised that the trick he used would frustrate some readers. However, he does a good job in terms of coming up with - and juggling - multiple solutions to the key murder in the story. Overall, even though this book is not his best, it's good light entertainment.

The Diamond Dagger

The first thing to say about last night's CWA Dagger awards was how slickly and efficiently the whole event was organised. It was really impressive. I know how stressful it can be to organise the evening even in normal times and when you're reliant on technology, there's an added level of uncertainty. But it all went without a hitch. Many congratulations to Chair Linda Stratmann, Secretary Dea Parkin, M.C. Barry Forshaw and techno-wizard Antony Johnston as well as the rest of the team. They did everyone proud.


There's no doubt that to receive the Diamond Dagger is the greatest moment of my career as a writer (and it beats anything in my career as a lawyer, come to that). I was grateful that Ann Cleeves kindly agreed to present the Dagger virtually - when we recorded the presentation she made the point that there was a 'satisfying symmetry' about it, given that I presented her with the Diamond Dagger three years ago. The photo at the end of this post shows us with the actual Diamond Dagger, which is kept in a safe for most of the year, because it really is heavy with diamonds. Maybe I'll be allowed to touch it again at some future date!  

As I said, there are particular reasons why this award is very special to me. First, when one looks at the list of previous recipients. It's a stellar group - P.D. James, John Le Carre, Ruth Rendell, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Sara Paretsky, Michael Connolly, Reginald Hill, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Lee Child, Andrew Taylor, Ellis Peters, Eric Ambler - the list goes on. To join that exalted company is extraordinary.

And then there's the fact that the award is voted by one's fellow writers. Nominations come in from CWA members. They are then whittled down to a shortlist by a sub-committtee, and finally the CWA board votes on the shortlist. So quite an elaborate process. And perhaps I can share one anecdote about it from the late 90s.

At that time, I was phoned up by Reg Hill. He'd recently been awarded the Diamond Dagger and was on the CWA board. He'd been asked to form the shortlisting sub-committee, to ensure that standards were kept high. He said to me that he didn't really care for being on committees, but he'd like me to collaborate with him on choosing shortlists of suitable recipients. He said that, having received the award himself, he wanted to make sure that future recipients were of the right calibre and he explained in a very clear way what that meant. He felt talking it all through with me would work well and be fun for both of us. And he added that it was obviously too soon for me to be a candidate myself, but that one day, although not for a fair few years, he felt my time for the Diamond Dagger would come.

It was an invitation I couldn't refuse, and he was right - our conversations over the years were a lot of fun. Because he wasn't the sort of man who ever indulged in glib flattery, I was hugely touched by the fact he thought my writing was potentially good enough to qualify me one day for the Diamond Dagger, though I found it almost impossible to imagine that I'd be so lucky. And now it's actually happened. I like to think that Reg, who gave me a lot of encouragement over the years, would be pleased. And I'm truly happy to receive an accolade that once seemed so distant and improbable.  



  


Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Jill Paton Walsh R.I.P.

I was so sorry to learn yesterday of the death of Jill Paton Walsh. Jill was an accomplished author in several fields and her Knowledge of Angels was famously shortlisted for the Booker Prize having originally been self-published. Detective fiction fans appreciated her short series of novels set in Cambridge and featuring Imogen Quy, and she made a real splash when she completed Dorothy L. Sayers' Thrones, Dominations. Not content with that, she proceeded to publish three more books featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.


I first met Jill (and her late husband John Rowe Townsend) some years ago at the St Hilda's mystery conference. I'd previously enjoyed both an Imogen Quy and Thrones, Dominations. There are, of course, widely divergent views about 'completion' and 'continuation' novels featuring favourite detective characters. The test for me is simply this: how well is it done? Suffice to say that Thrones, Dominations is the book of this type that I admire more than any other. To follow in Sayers' footsteps is particularly daunting, but Jill turned a fragmentary manuscript into a coherent whole with great style.

Jill was a member of the Detection Club, though I hadn't seen her for some time at the point when I was working on Howdunit last year. A mutual friend told me that she was rather frail, and at first my instinct was not to trouble her for a contribution. However, I decided to drop her a line rather than send an email, and received a cheerful and extremely positive reply. She told me it was the first handwritten letter she'd received all year...

Various enjoyable telephone discussions followed (the editorial process with Howdunit was fascinating and certainly unique in my personal experience). The upshot was that Jill contributed a lovely piece, developing points she'd made in an article some years ago, called 'One Thing Leads to Another'. It was very much in the inspirational spirit of Howdunit and presumably it was her last published piece of work. It's sad that we've lost her, but her literary legacy is impressive and will endure. On a personal note, I cherish the memory of those conversations.   


  

Monday, 19 October 2020

Changed Times

One of my techniques for getting through the pandemic has been to avoid thinking of what I might have been enjoying had everything gone to plan. It's far better to be positive wherever possible. I must admit, however, that over the weekend inevitably I was thinking about Bouchercon in Sacramento, a trip I was very much looking forward to. As I write these words, I should be on a flight back to England, and looking forward to the Daggers Dinner on Thursday, complete with presentation of the Diamond Dagger, the highlight of my career.

Oh well, things haven't turned out quite as hoped or expected, but that's the same for everyone. And a lot of people have been doing good work to give us crime writers and readers opportunities to get together, even if in a restricted way. The Bouchercon organisers set up a virtual event, for which I pre-recorded my interview with Anthony Horowitz. I also took part in a live panel (thank goodness I worked out the correct time zone and didn't miss it!), talking about cold cases with an old friend, Marcia Talley as well as a number of American writers who shared some fascinating insights. 

I was also delighted to see several friends' names among the Anthony winners, including Hank Philippi Ryan, Verena Rose and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor's wife Tara Laskowski. Congratulations to all of them, and also to the hard-working people who made it all possible. I just wish I could have bought them all a drink - but there'll be time for that in the future, with any luck.

Similarly, thanks go to Matthew Booth, who organised a virtual meeting of the CWA northern chapter on Saturday. So good to see people, albeit remotely. It's not the same as a proper get-together in person, of course, but it's much better to stay in contact in whatever way we can. The pandemic has really underlined the importance of our social lives - and how vital it is to enjoy every opportunity of being with our friends and family.

The CWA folk have also been busy organising a virtual version of the Daggers awards. Whilst I won't be able to get my hands on the actual Diamond Dagger (which is brought out once a year for the ceremony) I have received my personal award and I've recorded two videos for the occasion. Ann Cleeves kindly agreed to the CWA's request to 'present' the Diamond Dagger to me, and in addition to the video, we also recorded a conversation, reflecting on our personal journeys as writers. You can bet that I'll be quaffing champagne on the night, even if in my own living room rather than in a glitzy hotel in London. And it will be a good opportunity to reflect, not on the frustrations of pandemic life, but on all those good things which far outweigh the negatives.  


Friday, 16 October 2020

Forgotten Book - Deadly Hall

Deadly Hall is a relatively little-known novel by John Dickson Carr dating from 1971. His penultimate book, it is another of his history-mysteries, set in New Orleans in 1927. Jeff Caldwell is summoned by an old friend, Dave Hobart, to the family home in the Big Easy. It's called Delys Hall, and it is an old English manor house which has been transplanted to the United States.

Delys Hall has earned the nickname Deadly Hall: some years ago, a man died there in mysterious circumstances. Now Dave is perplexed by the will of his late grandfather, who has bequeathed the Hall to Dave and his sister Serena. It seems that the Hall contains a great deal of gold, but the treasure is well hidden...

There is a good story lurking in Deadly Hall. The treasure sub-plot is, I feel, really neither here nor there, but the method by which a murder is committed on the premises, and the motive and identity of the perpetrator are interesting and satisfactory. The main difficulty is that it's quite a slog to get to "the good bits" of the story. The narrative is, to put it kindly, discursive. Pace is often lacking as the narrative gets bogged down time and again.

Carr was not a well man at the time he wrote this book, and it certainly doesn't compare with his best novels. There were, I must confess, moments when I thought that Deadly Dull might have been a better title. However, developments later in the story did engage my interest. If you haven't read Carr before, I certainly wouldn't start here. And if you're a fervent fan, you need to manage your expectations of this one. Overall, however, I was glad I battled through to the final revelations. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Two-Way Murder

I'm thrilled that, for the first time, the British Library is going to include in its Crime Classics series a book that has never before been published. This is Two-Way Murder by E.C.R. Lorac, an author who enjoyed success in her lifetime and is now finding a new and appreciative readership among fans of the Crime Classics who have responded very positively to books like Bats in the Belfry, Murder by Matchlight, and most recently Checkmate to Murder. 


For me, this represents the culmination of a long personal journey. Those of you with excellent memories (including Fiona Birchall, who kindly pointed this out the other day) may recall that I spoke about the unpublished manuscript long, long ago. In September 2009, to be exact, I wrote a blog post referring to the leading bookseller James M. Pickard, who had obtained the manuscript. At the time I yearned for the book to be made more widely available, but I didn't know how this could best be done.

A great deal has happened during the past eleven years, and among the many wonderful developments has been the creation of the Crime Classics series. I have been urging the British Library for several years to consider publishing Two-Way Murder, and thanks to James Pickard's generosity we had the chance to study the manuscript some considerable time ago.

But progressing these projects can be complicated and sometimes it all takes much longer than you might expect to bring a plan to fruition. So it has proved with Two-Way Murder. But I'm absolutely delighted that the British Library is going ahead  - this seems to me to be a splendid project for our national library to undertake, giving life to a story that never saw the light of day during its author's lifetime, or for more than sixty years since. Truly gratifying.


Monday, 12 October 2020

A Surprise for Christmas - a new British Library anthology

A Surprise for Christmas has just been published by the British Library, the latest of my anthologies for the Crime Classics series. Perhaps it's not really such a surprise that this collection has appeared. It's my fourth Christmas collection of mysteries, following Silent Nights, Crimson Snow, and The Christmas Card Crime, and all three of the previous Yuletide compilations feature near the top of my personal anthology list in terms of lifetime sales. Fingers crossed that the new book does as well.

Sales aren't everything, though. They matter enormously to publishers, for obvious reasons, but for me it's always vital to try to make sure that these books are good enough to deserve some longevity. That is why I've always tried to produce anthologies that offer a distinctive personality and something more interesting than the same old, same old. For instance, I like to include some stories that will be unfamiliar to most crime fans. And I like to vary the mix, recognising that readers will have favourite stories - but personal faves vary from individual to individual.

The book takes its title from a story by Cyril Hare, a highly accomplished author of mysteries which were traditional in many ways yet generally had a distinctive and appealing tang. Hare was never a mega-seller, but he earned respect from fellow authors and readers and his work has lasted in a way that justifies his approach to his craft. 

Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and John Dickson Carr also feature as contributors, so there is no shortage of big names, but there are also some much less renowned authors and stories. I should say, incidentally, that as with other BL anthologies, I've benefited from help and suggestions made by friends such as Jamie Sturgeon, Nigel Moss, and John Cooper. The result is, I hope, a book that will find its way into many a Christmas stocking.



   

Friday, 9 October 2020

Forgotten Book - The Fair Murder

The name of Nicholas Brady is pretty obscure even by the standards of minor Golden Age authors. I'd never heard of him until Nigel Moss tipped me off about his work. Brady's real name was John V. Turner, and he published under that name and also as David Hume, which was his better-known pseudonym. Born in 1900, he died in 1945, so his work is now out of copyright.

There were just five books - the Brady bunch? - and his series detective in the first four books was an engaging amateur sleuth, the sharp-witted and self-confident parson Ebenezer Buckle. Ebenezer is very much in the tradition of the Great Detective, making enigmatic remarks right, left, and centre as he solves the mystery.

I recently read The Fair Murder, known in the US as The Carnival Murder, and it's an extraordinary story. There's a very good review of it by John Norris https://prettysinister.blogspot.com/2012/08/ffb-fair-murder-nicholas-brady.html on his Pretty Sinister blog, and I agree that this book has something i common with the "weird menace pulps" in the 1930s. I've certainly not read a Golden Age book with such a distinctive flavour. But be warned - it's not for the faint-hearted, and there will be plenty of readers who find it quite unpalatable, perhaps all the more so given the traditional murder puzzle storyline.

A woman is stabbed to death at a travelling fair and the circumstances are baffling. How was the crime committed? How is it that the victim, once very attractive, became grotesque? And what was the significance of the recent attempts on her life and her changed financial circumstances? It's a pretty good puzzle, and Ebenezer and the ultra-sceptical local police inspector are engaging characters. I was drawn to the book because one element of the plot is based on an idea that had occurred to me for a story I contemplated writing. But I'd never write anything quite like Brady's novel.

 

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Gift or Theft by Liza Cody

Liza Cody has just published a new novel, Gift or Theft, and this very welcome news prompts me to jot down a few thoughts about her writing. During the 1980s, when I was thinking about becoming a crime novelist (and I spent much of my spare time thinking of little else!), I read many different crime writers, from all sorts of periods and backgrounds. But I made a particular habit of reading the work of people of my generation or a little older, writers who were emerging at the time, to see what they were doing and how it related to the story ideas I was contemplating. I've often mentioned the likes of Peter Robinson, Ann Cleeves, and Ian Rankin, who came on to the scene at around the time I began to work on my first novel, All the Lonely People. But there were various others, including Frances Fyfield, Andrew Taylor, and Liza Cody. 


Liza Cody came to my attention as a result of the success of her very first book, Dupe, which introduced the private eye Anna Lee and won the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger. During my mid-twenties, I bought very few books, since money was tight, but I did invest in the paperback of Dupe, and I was much impressed. The character of Anna and the evocation of the world she lived in struck me particularly. As did the taut writing style. No wasted words with Liza Cody. Her books are always very readable.

As a result, I kept reading, and I've followed Liza's career ever since. Later, I met her in person, and found her charming and encouraging. She's also a first rate short story writer. Every now and then, when trying to put an anthology together, I've begged Liza for a contribution, and she's obliged with some wonderful stories. She also made a very valuable contribution to Howdunit, not only with a terrific essay (recommended reading!), but also with other help.

And now Gift or Theft has landed on my doorstep. Liza doesn't publish novels very frequently, so it's quite an event. The story concerns Seema, 'a gardener and a dreamer' and it looks intriguing. I'm very much looking forward to reading the latest work of a richly talented novelist.



 

 

Monday, 5 October 2020

Howdunit - early reaction

Howdunit is an unusual book, because although it contains lots of information that is valuable for people who want to write crime fiction (or detective stories, or short stories, or spy stories, or thrillers or adventure stories or radio or...you get the picture) it also seeks to entertain and engage readers who don't have literary ambitions. I don't think this has been attempted before, certainly not on such a scale, but I hoped to give readers genuine insight into the writing life. The contributors responded quite brilliantly. 


Early reaction to the book has been extremely heartening, both from writers and readers. Two interesting writers are Adam Croft and Robert Daws, who together produce a podcast called Partners in Crime. Adam is a prolific novelist whose books have sold millions of copies, while Robert has established a new career as an author of mysteries set on Gibraltar. He has another life as an actor and I remember vividly his terrific performance in the excellent TV comedy Outside Edge, in which his wife was played by Brenda Blethyn. That show, incidentally, was written by Richard Harris, who also wrote crime fiction as well as at least one excellent crime play and many TV crime series. Anyway, I digress. The latest Partners in Crime podcast included Robert's discussion of Howdunit. I was very pleased by his response to the book and encourage you to listen to the whole podcast. It's very polished, and worth subscribing to.

Kate Jackson is one of the most widely-read young bloggers around. Her Cross Examining Crime blog is required reading for Golden Age fans, and I'm delighted with her review, from the point of view of a traditional mystery fan with no particular wish to write crime fiction herself - so, quite a different perspective from that of Robert and Adam. She makes an important point about the debating issues raised by the various contributors. Anyone who reads Howdunit will realise that I made no attempt to present harmonised or sanitised opinions - on the contrary, the views of different authors vary widely, even on issues like whether or not there is such a thing as writer's block. So Howdunit doesn't present the 'official view' of the Detection Club on topics covered, because the Club doesn't have one - what it does have is a bunch of lovely members whose views I find enormously interesting and thought-provoking, whether or not I agree with them on specific points. And I'm so glad that Kate 'got' what we were trying to do. As she says: 'this book has something for everyone who is interested in crime fiction – modern or old.'

P.S. Since 'New Blogger' became compulsory. I've not figured out how to incorporate either labels or hyperlinks that work. If anyone can enlighten me, do drop me a line!




Friday, 2 October 2020

Forgotten Book - The Evil Wish

Jean Potts' reputation hasn't survived quite as well as that of one or two other authors of psychological suspense of her era, but she was a highly accomplished writer whose career began auspiciously with the Edgar-winning Go, Lovely Rose. I liked that book, but I felt that The Evil Wish, which I read recently, was superior. Published in 1962, it's quite excellent and deserves to be better known.

The storyline is essentially simple. Two unmarried sisters, Lucy and Marcia, live with their father, Dr Knapp, in a house in New York City large enough to accommodate a number of tenants. The doctor is a man of charm, but he's also domineering and selfish, and his daughters are little better than unpaid servants. Lucy doesn't work, and has a history of mental breakdown. Marcia has a job, and serious problem with alcohol.

Dr Knapp also has an eye for the ladies, and his latest affair is with a nurse, Pam Caldwell. Unfortunately for the daughters, he plans to marry Pam in secret, and then turf them out of the house. When they get wind of this, in their desperation they play about with ideas, mostly rather impractical, about murdering either Pam or their father. Then Fate intervenes, and Dr Knapp and Pam are killed in a car crash.

This proves to be anything but a happy ending for the bereaved daughters. Potts is interested in the idea of their moral culpability, the consequences of their "evil wish", even though they have committed  no crime. Both Lucy and Marcia display increasingly self-destructive patterns of behaviour and when an unscrupulous photographer called Chuck comes into their lives, disaster beckons...

This is an exceptionally well-written book. The characterisation of the daughters is first-class and the prose sinewy. There aren't any likeable people in the story, but that doesn't really matter. I was gripped from start to finish.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

The Shipman Files - BBC Two

There's been a glut of TV programmes about British serial killers in recent weeks. After Des, the Dennis Nilsen case, we've had a re-run of Appropriate Adult about Fred and Rose West, and this week there is a three-part investigation into the Harold Shipman case. This extraordinary story was the subject of an essay I published last year in a true crime anthology edited by Mitzi Szereto, and which I called 'The First of Criminals'.

The three cases are very, very different from each other, but they do have certain features in common. In particular, they reverse the usual situation with serial killers. Typically, a series of killings results in a hunt for the culprit. In each of these cases, the culprit was pinpointed, in connection with a particular crime, before the scale of their homicidal careers became apparent. In each case - and this is an absolute, enduring tragedy - the precise number and identities of the victims has never been established beyond doubt.

Chris Wilson's The Harold Shipman Files focuses, very properly, on the victims. Because Hyde is a town I know, although not well, I've been very interested in the case from day one. And I do feel quite strongly about it. Shipman's suicide robbed us of any chance of finding out his motivation, but the official report from Dame Janet Smith (which was very well done, in my opinion) explains the case with insight and empathy, and makes an attempt to fathom his mindset. The idea that he enjoyed playing God and that he became addicted to murder seems plausible to me. 

He clearly had an addictive personality. I find it shocking that the General Medical Council allowed him to practise as a doctor following an early conviction for the misuse of drugs without any proper monitoring. It seems to me to reflect a long-standing tendency on the part of professional bodies (including those governing solicitors and barristers) to be too lax in dealing with people who commit misdemeanours of a kind that really indicate they aren't to be trusted. In saying this, I fully recognise the importance of giving people an opportunity of redeeming themselves - this is true of criminals and it's true of others who make bad mistakes. But if Shipman's history had been better known, if the powers-that-be had exercised more diligence after he was allowed to continue in his work, how many lives would have been saved - over two hundred? For instance, there is understandable and proper criticism of the original police inquiry, when suspicions were raised about Shipman by a fellow GP in Hyde, and which seems to have been slipshod. But if the information about Shipman's past had been more readily available, the outcome of that investigation might well have been very different.

Wilson makes the point that the age of Shipman's victims was a key factor. He killed older people, and got away with it because others accepted that older people have 'had a good innings', even if their death was sudden and wholly unexpected. The truth is that he traded on society's inherent ageism.


 

Monday, 28 September 2020

Mortmain Hall - the US edition

Mortmain Hall has just been published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press and I've been delighted by the reaction so far. This includes a coveted 'starred review' in Publishers' Weekly, who say the book 'is a triumph, from its tantalizing opening, in which an unnamed dying man begins to explain an unspecified perfect crime, through its scrupulously fair final reveal'. What's more, the novel has been selected as one of Apple's best books of September, and was included in CrimeReads' list of the most anticipated books of the season and featured by Mystery Tribune as one of the best of the month.


All this is gratifying, especially given that I wasn't sure how this particular novel would be received in the US, given that it's very different from so many other books which pay homage, in one way or another, to the Golden Age detective story. It's not a cosy or a pastiche and it's even quite different from its predecessor, Gallows Court. Certainly it's a story that calls for a degree of investment from the reader, since the nature of the central mystery is withheld for some time, and the characters don't actually gather at Mortmain Hall until the last third of the book. There are bound to be some readers who don't 'get' it. But that's a risk worth running. I've always liked to experiment as a crime writer, and to try fresh approaches to storytelling (in my non-fiction as well as in my fiction) and writing Mortmain Hall was a truly exhilarating experience. 

Sadly, of course, there are no trips or events for me in the States to promote the book. But things are still happening. I've just taken part in a Youtube conversation with Ann Cleeves, hosted by Barbara Peters, discussing our new novels, and I'm also involved in 'virtual Bouchercon' in lieu of the real thing, which was scheduled for Sacramento. I was asked to interview Anthony Horowitz, but rather than meeting in person we've had to record our event from Europe, while I'm also due to take part in a panel about classic crime

All in all, therefore, I'm grateful for the way things have turned out, despite the pandemic. But I'm very much hoping that I'll be able to make it across the Atlantic next spring. I've missed Malice Domestic for the past couple of years and I'd love to go back there, as well as to attend next year's Bouchercon in New Orleans. Will it be possible? I don't know, but in the meantime I hope that more American readers will enjoy taking a trip to the north Yorkshire coast to find out what was really going on at Mortmain Hall.



Friday, 25 September 2020

Forgotten Book - Crime at Guildford

To celebrate Freeman Wills Crofts' publishing centenary, HarperCollins are reprinting half a dozen of his mysteries, and they include this novel, which dates from 1935. Its alternative title was The Crime at Nornes and its new title includes the name of Crofts' series detective, Inspector French. I was pleased to see the new edition, as it is one of Crofts' books that I've never got round to. And I'm equally pleased to report that it's a good one.


At the start of the story, we're introduced to the senior officers of a leading jewellery business, Nornes. They are in deep financial trouble, and Crofts shows his understanding of business life in the early pages. Although not exactly crackling with tension, they set the scene for what is to follow (although I thought it slightly odd that the character who is introduced in the opening lines of the book then fades completely from view). Before long, the firm's accountant is dead, and a vast haul of precious gems have been stolen from a safe. These two disasters supply the core mysteries: was the accountant killed, and if so by whom and how? And who stole the booty, and are the incidents connected?

Chief Inspector French comes on to the scene, and Crofts shifts his focus away from the misfortunes of the business, and on to the police inquiries. As usual, he charts the steps in the investigative process with such care and conviction that the rather pedestrian style of his storytelling doesn't really matter. If anything, it lends further verisimilitude to the story.

Forensic work proves to be crucial, and the technical aspects of the story are handled with Crofts' customary authority. There's a chase across the Channel at the end, but even this is treated unsensationally. Crofts wasn't a writer who set the pulse racing, but at his best - and this book is a good example of his work - he was able to keep his readers turning the page through the sheer relentlessness and dedication of French, a man intent on leaving no stone unturned in his quest for justice. 

 


 

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

The Hour - DVD box set review


The Hour (TV Series 2011–2012) - IMDb

This year has, for all its other shortcomings, at least given me the chance to catch up on some film and TV viewing pleasures. Some time ago my kind daughter gave me as a present a box set of the 2011-12 TV series The Hour, which had always sounded interesting to me, but which I missed when it was first screened. At last I've been able to catch up with it.

The show was the work of an experienced screenwriter Abi Morgan, whose films include The Iron Lady and Suffragette, both of which were very watchable. The premise of The Hour is particularly interesting, and again reflects her interest in history with a political slant. The two series were set in 1956 and 1957 respectively, around a BBC current affairs show called, you guessed it, The Hour. The political events in the background - the Suez Crisis and the nuclear arms race - play an important part.

Each series comprised six episodes. The producer of the fictional programme is Bel Rowley, played by Romola Garai, with the show's anchor played by Dominic West. Ben Whishaw is a reporter called Freddie Lyon. There are also key roles for Anton Lesser and, in the second series, Peter Capaldi. With a cast like that, you can't go far wrong. In particular, I thought that Dominic West was brilliant in his portrayal of the charismatic but deeply flawed Hector Maddern. It's a tricky role that calls for an actor with a considerable range, and West definitely delivered. 

The scripts are enjoyable, but they did suffer from a common weakness. The first series in particular sagged in the middle. I got the impression that Abi Morgan had enough ideas to fill three or four episodes, and that there was quite a bit of padding to spin things out. This criticism applies with less force to the second series, two episodes of which were scripted by other writers. But overall the virtues of The Hour certainly outweigh its weaknesses. 

The BBC cancelled the series because of poor viewing figures, which was a pity, because I think the idea had great potential that could have been developed further, perhaps in shorter series, or with two sets of three episodes in a single series. There were also, I gather, some anachronisms, but these didn't spoil my enjoyment at all. It's worth watching for the quality of acting, but the two stories are also entertaining, especially in the closing stages.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Joseph Goodrich - Unusual Suspects

When I featured Derek Marlowe's A Dandy in Aspic as a Forgotten Book recently, I mentioned Joseph Goodrich's new book Unusual Suspects, published by Perfect Crime. I'm delighted to say that my copy has just arrived and I'm enjoying reading it all over again. I say 'all over again' because I had a sneak preview of the contents when Joe asked me to write a foreword. Having admired his utterly fascinating study of the relationship between the two cousins who masqueraded as Ellery Queen, Blood Relations, I bit his hand off!


This is just the sort of book I enjoy, a collection of pieces about crime fiction that doesn't follow a predictable path. As I said in my foreword, 'the essays are always well-informed and skillfully composed, but what counts most for me is their enthusiasm - a vital ingredient in a book of this kind.' Joe says in his own intro that the collection comes from his 'passion for books', and this shines through.

The authors discussed range from the famous - such as Dashiell Hammett and, of course, Ellery Queen - to the rather less well-remembered, such as Marlowe. A discussion of Frederick Irving Anderson nestles alongside an appreciation of the multi-talented Nicholas Meyer, with whom I had a very enjoyable dinner in Scottsdale a year ago, not realising that I was on my last overseas trip for a long time. There's an account of Amnon Kabatchnik's massive set of books about mystery plays and a pithy discussion about Lucille Fletcher which concludes that her books deserve a renaissance: I very much agree. And there's much more, too.

Joseph Goodrich strikes me as an ideal companion to go with on a wander around the by-ways of criminal fiction, on the page, on the stage, and on the screen. He has a knack of highlighting what matters about a book or a writer in a few words, a real and rather uncommon talent. He has already received one Edgar, for his play Panic, and this book, although very different, seems to me to be destined to earn him further acclaim. Strongly recommended. 





Friday, 18 September 2020

Forgotten Book - Duncan Is In His Grave

When I blogged about Richard Wiseman's unusual first novel, First Person Plural I knew nothing about the author. Thanks to Jamie Sturgeon, I learned that this was a pen-name of Nick Bartlett, who had written two mainstream novels before trying his hand at crime fiction. Thanks again to Jamie, I have obtained a copy of his second and final crime novel, Duncan Is In His Grave.

First Person Plural was published by Macmillan - a good start for a new crime novelist, but the book never appeared in paperback. Perhaps sales were poor, perhaps reviews were few. It's certainly a little-known book, though I think that it is a compelling if uncomfortable read. Duncan Is In His Grave was published by Robert Hale, who were library publishers and, to be honest, a step down from Macmillan. A step down taken by many good writers, admittedly, but either Macmillan didn't like this book or felt disappointed by reaction to the first one.

Like First Person Plural, which otherwise it doesn't resemble in terms of storyline, this is a mystery which revolves around warped sexual feelings. It was published in 1978, a year after Jacqueline Wilson's Making Hate, which was a similarly interesting (but flawed) attempt to explore sexual psychology in the crime novel.

The narrator is Stephen Inglis, an advertising copywriter (as Bartlett had been). He falls out with a client called Frimley and embarks on a childish campaign of revenge. In so doing, he's encouraged by discussions with a character called Duncan, and it soon becomes clear that Duncan is imaginary. What follows is a crisply related descent into madness. The author was no doubt influenced by the work of writers such as Symons, Highsmith, and Rendell, and he could certainly write well. This is a very readable story, and it's a shame that Bartlett-Wiseman gave up on the genre. I can only surmise that he was disappointed by lack of success.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Des - ITV review

When I wrote the other day about David Tennant's excellent performance as a psychopathic serial killer in Bad Samaritan, it didn't occur to me that I'd soon be singing his praises again, for his performance of a real life murderer. He takes the lead in the ITV drama series Des, which is running this week, playing the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. I've watched the first two episodes full of admiration for his chilling portrayal of a dead-eyed man without a conscience.


Nilsen's bizarre and horrific crimes were revealed back in 1983 and I remember the case vividly. He had worked as an employment adviser in a jobcentre in London and through a personal connection I learned a little bit about him. He wasn't a popular man, although everybody who knew him was astonished to learn of his crimes. He was best known as a trade union representative, a virulent left-winger who hated the government. All his victims were vulnerable people. 

Tennant is superb, and I don't think it can sensibly be said that this programme glamorises his crimes. Far from it. The material is sensational, but the scripts of the first two episodes treat it with sobriety. There is a proper focus on the quest to identify the victims. The main challenge faced by the writer, Luke Neal, is to maintain tension, given that Nilsen admitted his killings from the outset, and we all know that he died in prison. The real mystery is about what motivated him.

So far, we've been given a few clues. The main source material is Brian Masters' book about Nilsen, and Masters is a major character in the story, again very well played, by Jason Watkins. I'll be interested to see how the third and final episode brings the story to a conclusion. At the moment, there's a division of focus between the police's efforts to investigate and Masters' relationship with Nilsen. I wonder if the script writer considered taking the unorthodox step of telling the story mainly from Masters' point of view. That would have been a very bold approach, and may have paid dividends, but the method actually adopted in telling the story has so far been fairly effective. I look forward to the concluding episode. 



 

Monday, 14 September 2020

Howdunit

This week sees the long-awaited (well, by me, anyway) publication in the UK of Howdunit under the legendary Collins Crime Club imprint. (Publication in the US will follow before long.) Howdunit is the latest book by members of the Detection Club, following in a tradition that dates back to the early 1930s. But never before have so many members contributed to a single volume - almost every living member has taken part, including some who have not published for quite a while, including Jonathan Gash, Lord Denham, Baroness Cohen (aka Janet Neel) and June Thomson. And there are also pieces by many distinguished members of the past, ranging from Agatha Christie to P.D. James.

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Howdunit is a book about the art and craft (or graft!) of crime writing. It will, we believe, be a big help to people who want to write crime fiction themselves. But at least as importantly, it gives a unique insight into the writing life. Or rather, dozens of personal insights. Leading writers talk frankly about the ups and downs of a literary career, with topics such as 'imposter syndrome' and writer's block covered, as well as the strange things that can happen when your book is adapted for the screen. 

As President of the Club, I conceived and edited the book, and I wrote the short sections that link all the contributions. In addition, there are ninety contributions from members. The idea was to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of this splendid and unique social network. The book also celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Len Deighton's election to membership of the Club, and is dedicated to him. Len has also contributed a brand new essay about his own stellar writing career. It's a great shame that we can't have a launch or any of the other events that I had in mind at the time the book was compiled last year, but perhaps we can make up for this to some extent next year. 

In the meantime, I hope that this unusual book will appeal to people fascinated by crime writing, whether or not they fancy producing a novel of their own. It really was a joy to receive all the manuscripts - most of the material was specially written for this volume - and great fun to find suitabel ways of welding in existing pieces by the likes of Christie, Christianna Brand, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, and others. And the publishers have done a lovely job of production. I'm thrilled to see it on my bookshelf at last!






Friday, 11 September 2020

Forgotten Book - The Edge of Terror


The Edge of Terror (The Anthony Bathurst Mysteries Book 12) - Kindle  edition by Flynn, Brian. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @  Amazon.com.

Not so long ago, the books of Brian Flynn were an unknown quantity to most fans of detective fiction, certainly including me. Now, they are in the course of being reprinted by the estimable Dean Street Press. And this is largely thanks to the enthusiastic advocacy of one person, Steve Barge, who blogs as Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery, and provides informative intros to the reprints.

Flynn enjoyed a long career in excess of thirty years, and published over fifty novels. Some earned good reviews, and he was published overseas and in translation in the early part of his writing life. But he'd faded from the limelight long before his final book came out in 1958. And probably it's optimistic to suggest that he was ever actually in the limelight. The firms who published him in the UK were respectable but not exactly market leaders. As a crude rule of thumb, it's fair to say that most of the better writers are published by one of the top firms at some point in their career. For instance, Lorac migrated from Sampson Low to Collins, Cecil M. Wills from John Heritage to Hodder, and so on.

One of the key questions about forgotten authors, inevitably, is whether their neglect is understandable. You don't remain a published novelist for thirty years without having some ability as a storyteller (or so I often tell myself) but this doesn't mean that you're an overlooked master of the genre either. I tried a Flynn novel a while ago, but as a result of a number of distractions found myself unable to get into it. When I read Steve's blog post about The Edge of Terror, I felt the moment had come to give Flynn my undivided attention. And so I read the book within a few days of laying my hands on a copy.

I had mixed feelings about the story for a long time, but I felt that the final section worked well enough for me to be very glad I'd read it. The downsides involve Flynn's cluttered prose and often stodgy dialogue. The doctor-narrator has an irritating style, e.g. 'Bathurst had a sudden visualization of activity and, as was his invariable custom, he was shedding the mantle of meditation for the cloak of clash.' As for the Great Detective, Anthony Bathurst: 'Well, Inspector, you haven't come to the Rowfants to tell us about the status quo ante. I'm confident of that. What is it that's haunting your tortured soul. Open the can.' There's a touch of the wannabe Dorothy L. Sayers about this type of writing, and it didn't work for me. Nor did the middle section of the story, which lacked tension. The book introduces a woman whom Bathurst once loved, but I felt more could have been made of her contribution to the story.

And yet. Just when I was lamenting the lack of excitement and suspense in comparison to that conjured up in the serial killer novels Francis Beeding and Philip Macdonald were writing at around the same time, the story seemed to spring to life. I very much enjoyed the fact that Flynn utilised a version of an idea that I happen to be researching right now, but quite apart from that, I felt that the later chapters had a verve that had earlier been lacking. There's also a clue in a name that I didn't spot, and which is nicely done. All in all, there was enough here to make me see why Steve likes Flynn and to feel that I'd be happy to read more of the books.