Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Ritual - 2017 film review

Sweden is a fascinating country, and I don't say that simply because my daughter lives there. It's a beautiful place, with an intriguing and mysterious landscape that film-makers have used effectively in numerous films and TV series. Midsommar is perhaps the most famous modern horror film set there, but the rather less ambitious, pretentious, and derivative 2017 British movie The Ritual is arguably as good if not better.

Five young men discuss their plans for a holiday, which are rudely interrupted when one of them is cruelly murdered during a burglary that goes wrong. He'd favoured a hike in north Sweden, and the remaining quartet decide to do just that, as a tribute to his memory. It turns out, surprise, surprise, to be a poor decision...

Shortly after they set out, one of them suffers an injury. To save time, they decide to take a short cut away from the marked trail and through a dense forest. Big mistake. Spooky things start to happen, and when they take refuge from a storm in an abandoned cabin, things go from bad to worse. Something is going on in the woods, and it's no teddy bears' picnic...

Rafe Spall, a first-rate actor, leads a small, high-calibre cast which also includes Sam Troughton (grandson of Patrick). Joe Barton's screenplay, based on Adam Nevill's novel, is tightly written, with more sophisticated delineation of character than one finds in many horror films. Consistently watchable and definitely above average in its genre.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Forgotten Book - I Love, I Kill

I Love, I Kill, is an absurdly lurid title for a book that isn't at all lurid, by a writer of considerable discernment, John Bingham. It's a novel of psychological suspense and my copy has a cover blurb from Julian Symons praising the subtlety and psychological penetration of his best fiction. This book, however, was published in 1968, at a time when Bingham's powers were beginning to falter. It's extremely interesting (I even found its flaws rather interesting), but I don't think it ranks with his best.

The story is told in the first person and framed, so that the narrator is speaking in the present and looking back on events of the past. We know that someone called Paul King has been killed but we don't know why or by whom. Most of the story takes the form of extended flashbacks as the narrator, Charles Maither, looks back to his first meeting with King, a fellow actor, and how King married the woman that Charles loved, another actor called Shirley. Charles then explains how he conceived a highly elaborate plan to win Shirley back.

It's not a spoiler to say that the plan was for Charles, in his new role as a publicity agent, to help King (a vain and handsome man with limited talent as an actor) to become a success, so that King became bored with dull old Shirley, leaving the way clear for Charles to reclaim her. Of course, things don't go quite the way that Charles planned.

In Michael Jago's interesting biography of Bingham, he says that the publishers were worried that they might be sued for libel by Richard Burton. Maybe Bingham revised the book to address this, because King didn't remind me of Burton at all. Jago also says that the publishers' reader found parts of the story boring. Because I like Bingham's crisp, readable style, I did not have that problem with the book. He was a genuinely engaging stylist in my opinion. A fairer criticism is that he lacked in-depth knowledge of the theatrical background, but on the whole I felt he did enough to make the setting credible.

I did, however, struggle with the premise. Bingham simply didn't make me understand Charles' obsession about Shirley. She is not terribly interesting at any point in the story, while Charlie is unpleasant and at times surprisingly stupid - a big disadvantage with a first person narrator. As for his plan to make Charlie famous and thus get hold of Shirley, I thought it crazy. Nor did the resolution of the murder plot, handled in a very casual way, satisfy me. The structure was clearly designed to build tension - or rather to overcome the inherent lack of tension in the story, but it didn't really work for me. There are some good scenes in which the police interrogate Charlie, but here Bingham was simply repeating what he'd done in more successful books such as My Name is Michael Sibley.

All in all, I can understand why this book didn't do particularly well on its first appearance, and why it has since slipped out of sight. So why did I rather like it, despite its manifest failings. The answer, as I say, is because Bingham knew how to write readable prose and was a talented storyteller. Even though this story isn't a strong one, I raced through it, rather than giving up because I was frustrated by Charlie's behaviour. Which has to be a positive sign.   

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Goodbye Lover - 1998 film review

I came to the neo-noir film Goodbye Lover by the most circuitous of routes. Wandering around Youtube, I stumbled across a wonderful, smoky piece of film music by John Barry. It was labelled as a demo from Barry's rejected score for the film Goodbye Lover. I was amazed. How could it have been rejected? The soundtrack actually used was written by someone called John Ottman. Who? No disrespect to him, but Barry won five Oscars. What on earth was going on?

It turns out that the film was made by Roland Joffe, a director of some distinction. He hired Barry, but they fell out, apparently because Joffe felt that Barry's music didn't quite capture the mood he was looking for. So I had to watch the film to figure out why. Having done so, the explanation has become clear. Barry thought he was writing music for a film a bit like Body Heat. Goodbye Lover is a crime film with plenty of twists. But it's primarily a black comedy. And in many ways it's a mess. 

The film flopped on release, with the critics hating it, but I must say that it does have a number of redeeming features and despite myself I rather enjoyed it. The cast is very good, with Patricia Arquette funny as a femme fatale who is obsessed with The Sound of Music, and a great double act in the detectives - one is a hard-bitten woman splendidly played by Ellen De Generes, the other a naive young man who sees the good in everyone, even really evil people. Some of the dialogue is genuinely witty. And some of the plot twists are entertaining.

The trouble is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There are enjoyable scenes, but Joffe fails to knit them together in a way that's artistically satisfying. As a result, we lurch from one crazy situation to another, and have no real empathy with any of the characters. It's a great shame, because there were some nice ideas in the script. That was probably what attracted John Barry to the project. Perhaps Joffe would have been well advised to create something closer to the mood of the music that Barry wrote.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Antony Johnston guest post - A Mysterious Love

I'd like to welcome Antony Johnston to the blog. I first met Antony at a get-together to celebrate 30 years of the CWA northern chapter, and discovered that among many other accomplishments, he is the author of Atomic Blonde, filmed with Charlize Theron. Quite something. To celebrate publication of his new book, The Tempus Project, he's kindly written a guest post which I find quite fascinating. Over to Antony... 
Antony Johnston
'First of all, I’d like to thank Martin for offering me space on his blog, despite the fact we write very different books… on the surface, at least. But one thing unites us, and indeed almost all crime and thriller writers, and to be honest it took me some time to realise it about myself.
Writers are often blind to our own work. We spend so long fretting over details of plot, words, and continuity that it becomes difficult to step back and look at a story from the perspective of someone reading it for the first time. Throughout my career I’ve written many different genres, in many different media, and for the first ten years or so when asked I told people I wrote ‘adventure stories’. I love a good turn of phrase or thought-provoking situation as much as anyone, but my work is always primarily intended to entertain and excite, and I’m happy to occasionally sacrifice realism on the altar of derring-do.
But some years ago, now with a hefty body of work to my name, an interviewer asked me, ‘Why do you always write mysteries?’ My first instinct was to answer that I don’t, that only a few specific stories were about crime, while many of the others were… oh.
As I looked over my library shelf, where I keep a single copy of everything I’ve written, I realised he was right. That what united all these books, graphic novels, scripts, and even videogames I’d written were the mysteries locked within their hearts.
That led me to consider the stories I loved reading and watching, the books, comics, and movies I’d grown up reading, the works that had stuck with me through the years and to which I returned more often than any other. The Famous Five and Three Investigators books of my childhood, the Sandman and Sherlock Holmes stories of my youth, the Atticus Kodiak and Vurt novels of my adulthood.
Not all of these are crime, any many can definitely be classed as adventures. But more importantly, they’re all mysteries. Even without a corpse and a detective, a story can revolve around a question that must be answered to make a satisfying finish. William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer is essentially a sci-fi heist, but centred on the mystery of what shadowy figure hired the crew, and why. Cherie Priest’s The Family Plot is a ghost story, but at its core is the mystery of the spirit’s malevolent motives. Neither book could end without answering its central question. My shelves are filled with hundreds of such stories.
Then there’s my own work. Over the years I’ve written sci-fi, westerns, horror, fantasy, manga — and, yes, crime and thriller books. Almost every one is centred around an overriding question the protagonist/s are compelled to answer despite the obstacles in their way.
So why do I always write mysteries? The answer, I realised at last, was deceptively simple. I’m a firm believer in writing stories I’d like to read myself… and nothing keeps me turning the pages faster than not knowing something, trying to solve a puzzle before the protagonist, with the promise that all will eventually be revealed. For me there’s no greater praise than a reader telling me they gasped when a villain was unmasked, or they remained baffled (but compelled!) until the final resolution. That’s how I feel when I read a great mystery, and I know the satisfaction it brings me as a reader, so to hear it about my own work is wonderful.
Unlike Martin, I’m no historian. I’ll leave him to ponder why mysteries are so compelling to readers, where the modern form began, and to trace its roots as only he can. For me, it’s enough to have gained the self-awareness that to truly enjoy a book — both as reader and author — its heart must beat with a mystery to be solved. I’ll keep writing them if you all keep reading them.'

Antony Johnston is the creator of Atomic Blonde and The Exphoria Code, and hosts the podcast Writing And Breathing. His new Brigitte Sharp thriller The Tempus Project is mysteriously published on May 25.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Forgotten Book - First Person Plural

First Person Plural by Richard Wiseman

Sometimes it is rather harsh to describe the books I cover in this Friday blog post as forgotten But I don't think there can be any doubt that Richard Wiseman's First Person Plural qualifies for that description. It was published in Macmillan in hardback in 1975 and as far as I know it never made it into paperback. I don't know anything about the author (though I did know someone with the same name!) and as far as I know he wrote only one other crime novel, which was published by Hale.

I saw the book in a second hands shop and bought it on impulse, not knowing anything about it other than the tag-line: "Obsessive Love Led to Murder". I didn't have high hopes, for sure, but once I started reading, I couldn't stop. It's a short book, but I finished it very quickly indeed. It's certainly easy to read, and quite compelling.

The structure is clever. The story is told by three children, who are orphaned and left in effect to their own devices. I don't want to say too much about what happens, for fear of giving spoilers. The blurb calls it "a very unusual novel of suspense....The author displays marvellous invention and a compulsive narrative power..." This isn't an exaggeration. Wiseman may not have been an experienced crime novelist, but he could certainly write.

Interestingly, the novel anticipates a much more famous book with a similar scenario, Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. Of course, the story develops in a different way, and of course McEwan is a better writer, but I do think it's a shame that Wiseman seems to have sunk so deeply into obscurity. On this evidence, he deserved a better fate. There are flaws in this novel, but I'm definitely glad I read it. 
POSTSCRIPT - thanks to Jamie Sturgeon, I've learned that Wiseman was a pen-name of Nick Bartlett, whose obituary is here:

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Escape Room - 2019 film review

Recently, some friends were telling me about their experience of an escape room. Trying to solve various clues in order to get out out of one of these rooms has become a popular pastime. I was rather tempted by their enthusiasm. Having watched the recent thriller movie Escape Room, however, I'm almost having second thoughts....

The premise of the film is pretty straightforward. Half a dozen people from assorted backgrounds receive a puzzle cube which, when solved, results in an invitation to take part in an attempt to get out an escape room, with a $10,000 prize for the winner. This proves an offer too good to refuse, but it's entirely predictable (given a rather dramatic, although perhaps unnecessary, scene just before the opening credits) that they will soon regret their decision to take part.

They arrive at an office block and wait to be told about the game. However, it soon becomes clear that they can't get out of the waiting room, and that room begins to turn into an oven. Can they get out alive before they are roasted to death? And what on earth is going on?

Ordeal by oven is by no means the last of the challenges the group face. The connecting link between the six participants isn't revealed for quite a while, but it's quite a good one. In fact, I found the concept of the film as a whole quite appealing. Yes, it's hokum, but done with great energy. Taylor Russell and Logan Miller, the two leads, are very good and in fact the whole cast performs with conviction as their troubles mount. It's clear from the final scenes that a sequel is envisaged.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Limping Man - 1953 film review

If you google The Limping Man, you're sure to come across discussion of the film's ending. Almost every commentator I've read has deplored the ending, and I have to say that I agree. It's dreadful. The only sensible advice is not to take it into account in deciding whether to watch the film - it didn't affect my choice, as I knew nothing about it before taking a look. And overall, it was worth watching, as an average British B-movie of the 50s.

There was a common practice in those days of including American actors in leading roles in British movies for commercial reasons. Here, the star is Lloyd Bridges. He's travelling to the UK on a plane, to reunite with the woman he loves after six long years. Once he gets out of the plane, he offers a light to a fellow passenger. And then the other guy is shot by a marksman.

Our hero is grilled by the police, played by the reliable Alan Wheatley and that eternal Lothario Leslie Phillips. He's reunited with his girlfriend Pauline (Moira Lister), who seems oddly distant. The deceased, he is told, was a bad lot called Kendal Brown. Alas, it emerges that Kendal was mixed up with  Pauline. And she wrote him some compromising letters. Tantalisingly, it seems that the content of those letters could result in her being sent to prison. However, we are never given further particulars.

There are some good actors in the supporting cast, including Rachel Roberts and a very young Jean Marsh. Lionel Blair also appears. The screenplay is based on a novel called Death on the Tideway by Anthony Verney. I've not been able to find out anything about this, and I just wonder if it was a short story rather than a novel. At all events, it's not a bad story. But that ending...

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Hazell - TV series

Gordon Williams and Terry Venables wrote three private eye novels together in the 70s, using the pen-name P.B. Yuill, under which Williams had previously published an intriguing if eccentric thriller The Bornless Keeper. Their private eye was James Hazell, a Cockney and ex-cop, and the snappy writing style ensured the books were more successful than most British attempts at stories about gumshoes.

So successful, in fact, that they were adapted for television. 22 episodes were screened in 1978-79. At the time, I only caught one or two episodes, and they didn't make a lasting impression on me. However, Talking Pictures TV have been screening the series, and rather to my surprise I've found that, even though some of the attitudes have inevitably dated, the stories hold up pretty well.

Much of this is due to Nicholas Ball's performance as Hazell. I don't think Ball has ever quite matched the success of this particular role, but he really handles very well the combination of cheekiness, wit, and vulnerability in the character. Interestingly, I've just given an endorsement to a non-fiction book which includes an interview with him. Anyway, Hazell does misbehave from time to time, but overall it's clear that his heart is in the right place. More or less.

Several good scriptwriters contributed to the series, including Tony Hoare, and there are a number of excellent performances in individual supporting roles from actors ranging from Clive Swift to Pamela Stephenson (who was, in fact, married to Nicholas Ball at one time). A regular character is the dour cop "Choc" Minty, played by Roddy Macmillan; it was his last role prior to his premature death. Another is Dot Wilmington (Barbara Young), for whom Hazell works in the early episodes, an early and interesting example of a lesbian character in a British television series. The theme song is performed by Maggie Bell with the same verve she later brought to the Taggart theme, and it even made number 37 in the charts. There is violence in many of the episodes, but it's not as brutal as The Sweeney. Yes, I've enjoyed watching Hazell forty-plus years on.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Forgotten Book - After the Fine Weather

Michael Gilbert used to tease his fellow detective novelists by saying that it was harder to write thrillers than it is to write detective novels. He was unusual in that he was equally accomplished whether writing classic whodunits or stories of action and adventure (or, come to that, police procedurals or spy stories). After the Fine Weather was published in 1963, four years after his previous novel, which was a London-based police story, Blood and Judgement. This book could hardly be more different from its predecessor.

The setting is Lienz, a tiny Austrian province on the border of South Tyrol. After an introductory chapter which follows the release from prison of a brutish chap called Albin Boschetto, Gilbert switches focus, as we meet twenty-year-old Laura, who is in Rome, and about to travel to Lienz to meet her brother Charles, who is a diplomat.

One of the interesting features about this story, which I think was unusual at the time it was written, is that it's an action thriller with a strong and likeable female protagonist. Laura is a good character, and Gilbert's presentation of her is appealing. Before long, she witnesses an assassination, and although the local authorities have picked their own scapegoat for the killing, she insists that someone else was responsible. The tension mounts from there.

Like all Gilbert's novels, this one is written with great assurance. One of the quaint features is the absence of communications when Lienz is cut off from the rest of Austria by snow. No internet, no mobile phones, nothing like that. The sense of people being dependent on their own personal resources is strong in this story, and it makes for an entertaining read. When I first read it, as a teenager, I was slightly underwhelmed. Belatedly, I've revised my opinion. It's a pity that Laura never returned.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

A Spot of Folly by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell was as talented a short story writer as she was a crime novelist, and that's saying something, because so many of her novels were so good. I've devoured her various collections over the years, and now I've had a chance to read her final, posthumously published (in 2017) collection, A Spot of Folly, and to remind myself of her remarkable talent.

The hardback's dust jacket proclaims that it is a book of "New and Uncollected Short Stories." New? Well, they haven't previously been collected together in book form under Rendell's name, although one appeared in Winter's Crimes. But it simply is not correct to imply that these are "new" stories. Most of them were first published in the 1970s, and one of them, the splendid "The Irony of Hate", is discussed in some detail in Harry Keating's equally splendid book about the craft of crime writing. The most recent story was published more than a decade before this book.

Anyway, what of the book itself? It benefits from an intro by Sophie Hannah, who is like me a long-time Rendell fan, and the copyright page reveals that the selection was made by the very knowledgeable Tony Medawar. The contents are billed (more accurately this time) as "ten and a quarter stories" - the quarter story is just a few lines long, but it's neatly done. The story from Winter's Crimes, "A Drop Too Much", shows Rendell, unusually, in comic mode, and it's an entertaining biter-bit tale.

As for the others, they are a mixed bag. There are ghost stories, and also an interesting dystopian story, "Trebuchet", which deserves to be read more than once. It dates from the Eighties, and again it's best read if one remembers that it was written during the Cold War; even so, it has resonance today. There is also an intriguing and unusual story, "In the Time of his Prosperity" which I'm sure will stay in my mind. The novella "The Thief", alas, is a later work, and it rather illustrates Rendell's decline. Plenty of authors would be glad to have written it, but for such a superstar, it's pretty unconvincing. So, overall, this book is a mixed bag, but that is the nature of such things. I'm glad to have caught up with it.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Knives Out - 2019 film review

Knives Out (2019) - IMDb

Knives Out has attracted a lot of attention as a high profile film which is also in the vein of the traditional mystery. The cast is superb, led by Daniel Craig (sporting an unlikely American accent) and including such famous names as Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Frank Oz, and Christopher Plummer. Reviews and audiences have been very positive, and there is talk of a sequel being made.

Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a crime novelist who is cared for by a nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) has made a fortune from his books (well, it is fiction..) and who invites members of his family, in classic fashion, to his great mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. Needless to say, there is a lot of jockeying for position among the greedy and undeserving, and again in traditional manner the contents of Harlan's will play a central part in the story.

We know from the start that Thrombey is dead, but a good deal of mystery surrounds the precise circumstances. The police are willing to treat the case as one of suicide, but an unknown person hires the great private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) to investigate. Craig has a lot of fun in this part. He's an actor I really like, although I did struggle to get accustomed to that accent.

The film is written and directed by Rian Johnson and his screenplay manages to keep you interested in the plot while making points about greed, power, and entitlement. I find it very interesting that, many years after Alfred Hitchcock highlighted the difficulties inherent in filming whodunits, a young film-maker has shown that it's possible to entertain twenty-first century filmgoers with a puzzle mystery. 


Friday, 8 May 2020

Forgotten Book - They Don't Dance Much

They Don't Dance Much is a novel by James Ross that was published in 1940 and earned the approval of Raymond Chandler, no less. But it didn't do much commercially, and it wasn't until the 1970s that a reprint appeared, with an afterword by George V. Higgins, which re-ignited interest in Ross. More recently it was reprinted again, with an intro by Daniel Woodrell. Even so, it's a book which I think deserves to be better known.

The pace of the story is leisurely, and at first I wasn't overly impressed, but gradually I began to find Ross's laconic prose hypnotic. The story is told in the first person by Jack, whose family farm in North Carolina isn't making any money. As a result he finds himself forced to work for Smut Milligan, who runs a petrol station which he soon develops into a roadhouse.

Smut is a brilliantly evoked character, a man not totally devoid of charm, but utterly selfish and extremely cruel. He involves Jack in a robbery which turns, during a very chilling scene, into a case of torture and murder. Equally shocking to a modern reader is the way the black characters in the book are portrayed; but Ross is telling us something important about the nature of race relations in the South during the Depression era. His observations about relations between men and women are equally acute: there is only one significant female character, a typical femme fatale, but there is a very funny scene when a group of men discuss an agony columnist's advice to young women.

Long before the story came to its bleak conclusion, I was persuaded that Chandler, Higgins and Woodrell were absolutely right to admire this book. It's not perfect - it was a first novel and Ross, disillusioned, never published another - but it's memorable. Woodrell describes it as "country noir", and it's an apt characterisation.   

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Passenger - 1975 film review

The first film by Michaelangelo Antonioni that I ever saw was Blow-Up (a film that gets a passing mention in the Lake District Mystery I'm writing right now.) I was seventeen or so at the time and it was quite a memorable evening. Mainly because the film was screened by the film society jointly run by my school and the local girls' school. In those days, societies which overcame the segregation of our single-sex schools were very popular....

Anyway, I enjoyed my trip to watch Blow-Up, but I never got round to seeing The Passenger, which is perhaps Antonioni's most famous film. I've only just repaired this omission. The Passenger is sometimes described as a thriller, but that's a label so unhelpful as to be almost meaningless. And indeed, the glacial pace is distinctly unthrilling. But the basic idea is one that might well have come from Patricia Highsmith.

A journalist called Locke (Jack Nicholson) comes across Robertson, a businessman, while working on a documentary in Chad. The businessman dies suddenly (from a pre-existing condition) and Nicholson discovers the body. On an impulse, it seems, perhaps inspired by his resemblance to the deceased, Locke decides to switch identities with the dead man. He falsifies his passport and successfully becomes Robertson.

Among other things, he abandons his wife (Jenny Runacre), and finds himself embroiled in Robertson's murky business activities. He encounters a beautiful young woman (Maria Schneider) and they become lovers. But you can bet that if his purpose in becoming Robertson was to escape his old life and to find something better, he will be disappointed, to say the least. And so it proves. The film is beautifully shot, but the bleakness of its philosophy is depressing. I'm glad that I finally got round to seeing it, though. It's an interesting piece of movie-making, even if there's less to it than meets the eye or than its reputation suggests.

Monday, 4 May 2020

The Mysteries of Lockdown

We're living in extraordinary times right now, encountering situations that none of us could have dreamed of a few short months ago. Writing and reading offer a very welcome form of escapism for many of us, and I'm not planning to write extensively about my experiences of lockdown or indeed to keep a lockdown diary. But among other things, this blog is about one person's take on the writing life and it wouldn't make much sense to ignore something as significant as the impact on lockdown.

Fortunately, I and my family have so far kept well, and when one sees the problems being experienced in some places, any difficulties I've encountered are really of little consequence. The biggest downside in terms of my writing life, apart from not being able to meet friends, has been that I'd arranged a very busy year of events and travel, and pretty much everything has fallen by the wayside.

But there have been upsides - including a chance to reflect on the simple pleasures of nature, as with the rainbow over Lymm Dam, above. I'd been acutely conscious that, because of all my commitments, I would struggle to meet my various writing deadlines. When it began to seem likely that there would be some kind of lockdown, I resolved to try to treat the problem as an opportunity. So, among other things, it's been possible to complete work on the proofs of the next CWA anthology, Vintage Crimes, and the Detection Club's hefty book about the art and craft of crime writing, Howdunit. The publication of Howdunit has, however, been delayed from June to September.

Given that there was to be no launch of Mortmain Hall or promotional events, I've also done my best to pursue opportunities to promote the book online. The big challenge has been to cope with unfamiliar technology - BeLive, Zoom, Facebook Live, and so on, and that hasn't been easy for a dinosaur like me. But I've been hugely gratified by the response to the book so far. The latest lovely review is by Lynne Patrick for Mystery People:"
The biggest task was to crack on with the next Lake District Mystery. It's hard to credit that it's five years since The Dungeon House was published - so much has happened since I finished writing that one. The basic idea for the new book, The Crooked Shore, has been spinning around in my head for a long time, but some key ingredients only came to me late last year - including the setting (the top photo gives a clue as to how I solved this riddle). I felt I had a great concept but something was missing before then. Once I started writing it in December and I've finished the first draft. It took 137 days to write the book, the fastest I've ever completed a novel. I'll take another look at it soon to do some further revision, but I'm very pleased to have got to this stage and I'm pretty happy with the story. Certainly I feel that it's up to the standards of the earlier books in the series. And so, for all the drawbacks of lockdown, for me there have certainly been compensations.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Forgotten Book - Death of a Frightened Editor

Dean Street Press have done excellent work in reviving a wide range of vintage detective fiction titles and one of their latest rediscoveries is the husband and wife partnership of E. and M.A. Radford. These books benefit from informative introductions by Nigel Moss, and I've just read Death of a Frightened Editor, which was first published in 1959.

This is a novel brimming with Golden Age tropes. We have an apparent "closed circle" of suspects, the seven people who regularly travel in the first class coach of the London to Brighton train, all of whom seem to have a reason to wish the eighth person dead. We have poisoning by strychnine. We have a character leading a double life. We have gossip and mischief-making in country houses. We have a disparity between the victim's legitimate earnings and his evident wealth. We have a scientific puzzle worthy of Austin Freeman. We have...well, you get the picture.

The lead detective is Doctor Manson, who is not only a scientific expert in the Thorndyke class but happens to work for Scotland Yard. The technical trickery at the heart of the plot is rather neat - as with the Cecil M. Wills book I reviewed here last week. Mind you, I was rather baffled as to why this particular group of seven suspects should travel so regularly with the unpleasant victim.

The Radfords only turned to crime writing in their fifties, but they became quite prolific. I enjoyed a passing reference to the then fledgling Crime Writers' Association - my guess is that members of the CWA at that time liked to mention it in their books in order to boost its public profile. In many ways, this book reads as though it was written in the mid-30s - it's very different from the kind of novel that Julian Symons and Margot Bennett were publishing in the late-50s, in terms of plot, characterisation, and prose style. And it's a reminder that, long after the Golden Age, there were still plenty of writers around who were working in the traditional vein. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Maj Sjowall

Författaren Maj Sjöwall död - DN.SE

I was sorry to hear of the death earlier today of Maj Sjowall, at the age of 84. I've been a fan of her work for decades, and it was a pleasure to meet her in person at a CrimeFest gala dinner almost exactly five years ago. She graciously autographed a menu card for me. A treasured signature, I can tell you.

When Adrian Muller and I put together an anthology to celebrate the 10th anniversary of CrimeFest, we were very keen to include a story by Maj. She'd written just a handful of stories that might fit, and in the end we were delighted that she agreed to contribute "Long Time, No See" to Ten Year Stretch. She also agreed that the new English translation could be made by my daughter Catherine, who is based in Stockholm.

Maj's name is, of course, forever associated with that of Per Wahloo (1926-1975). Their ten-book series about Martin Beck blazed the trail for Scandi-noir long before the days of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. The novels are police stories, and were designed to make a point about society from a Marxist perspective. But because the political stuff was carefully handled, the literary results were much more compelling than most fiction written from a strong political standpoint.

The books remain highly readable, but after Wahloo's early death, Maj didn't write crime novels of her own. She preferred to work as a translator, and left the Communist party; in later years she was content to describe herself as a "socialist". Wahloo had written several interesting books of his own before their relationship and collaboration began, and I'm not entirely clear how their writing partnership worked. But their joint productions were far more significant than anything either of them wrote on their own. I'm sad that's she gone, but her achievements will live on. And I'm glad I got the chance to say hello to her. 

The Jigsaw Man - 1983 film review

The Jigsaw Man is a spy thriller, and a pretty strange one. The ingredients are, in many ways, highly impressive. Take the cast, for a start. Not just Michael Caine, but Laurence Olivier, Charles Gray, Susan George, and Robert Powell. Wow! The director was Terence Young, whose CV included several early James Bond films and Wait Until Dark. The screenplay is by Jo Eisinger, whose credits included that excellent film noir Gilda. And there's even a song by Dionne Warwick - 'Only You and I', though it has to be said that it's so obscure that even I, a lifelong Dionne fan, had never heard of it.

How could you possibly go wrong? Especially when Young was directing a film based on a novel written by his wife, Dorothea Bennett (whom he'd given a tiny role in From Russia With Love) and published in 1977, which drew inspiration from the case of Kim Philby.

The film begins with Kimberley, a senior British politician who has defected to Russia, having his death faked. He undergoes plastic surgery and then an intensive physical training regime which makes him look very much like Michael Caine. He returns to the UK to recover some vital information for his paymasters, but promptly defects - so that the KGB, as well as the British police and secret services are after his blood.

It's a good set-up, but the film is a mess. The script is wordy and keeps shifting focus so that, although one would expect Caine to be the key character, he is off-screen for long spells as the story wanders down assorted sidetracks and descends into silliness more than once. I found it impossible to care about what happened to the characters. Dionne's song isn't one of her most memorable, but it was probably the best thing about this odd movie.   

The Perfect Host - 2010 film review

The Perfect Host is a psychological thriller that seems to be following a familiar pattern, only to take new life as a result of a couple of pretty good plot twists. My expectations when I sat down to watch this film weren't especially high, but there is a mood of black humour right from the start as John, an injured young man (Clayne Crawford), evidently a criminal, gets embroiled in a hold-up from which he is lucky to escape alive. He is desperately seeking sanctuary and seems to find it at the house of a pleasant, rather effete man called Warwick (David Hyde Pierce). John pretends to be a friend of a friend of Warwick's, and although his lies are transparent, Warwick treats him generously.

Warwick reveals that he's about to host a dinner party. He plies John with wine, and invites him to join his guests. John, in a panic, threatens him and instructs him to call the guests and cancel the meal. But soon it becomes clear that all is not as it seems...

At this stage, the story was moving along familiar lines, although with verve. But it starts to take an interesting turn as we learn more about Warwick and the reach of his imagination. There's a cameo role for Helen  Reddy as Warwick's nosey neighbour. Yes, that Helen Reddy, who had chart hits with the excellent and mysterious "Angie Baby" and "I am Woman" back in the day. A very good singer who makes the most of a small part here.

We also see the detectives closing in on John, who proves to have robbed a bank. One of the cops is played by Nathaniel Parker, another unexpected piece of casting, and at first this strand of the story seems insignificant, just like the flashbacks to John's plans to commit the crime, in collaboration with his girlfriend Simone. But really, nothing as it seems.

I liked this film a lot. It's well-written and well-acted, and definitely a cut above the average psychological thriller movies.

Monday, 27 April 2020

One Deadly Summer - 1983 film review

Four years ago I extolled Sebastien Japrisot's novel One Deadly Summer on this blog, mentioning the film version, which dates from 1983 and benefits from a script co-written by Japrisot, along with the director Jean Becker. The film was a huge hit in France in its day and I've finally caught up with a sub-titled version.

The film came out a couple of years after Lawrence Kasdan's brilliant updating of the film noir, Body Heat and this movie has been called an example of "pastoral noir". Certainly, the French countryside, lovingly presented, is bathed in sunshine, but after a while the darkness of the story and the central character's motivations begins to dominate.

The book is subtly written and can't have been easy to film, but Japrisot's involvement means that the movie is a good one. It also has one massive plus, the casting of Isabelle Adjani as Eliane, or Elle, the young woman who seduces the amiable but naive fireman Pin-Pon (Alain Souchon). She's as much a femme fatale as the women in Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but her motivations are subtle and the demons that possess her are, for a long time, difficult to identify.

Adjani captures Elle's beauty and wilfulness, as well as the complexity of her nature. I imagine that the nude scenes in which she appears did no harm to the film's viewing figures and I do wonder if the movie would be shot in quite the same way today. On the whole, though, the sexual content is appropriate to the storyline. It's a long film, and at times I felt it moved too slowly. But the power of the story is such that it's definitely worth waiting for the calamitous events to unfold, leading to a shocking finale. It's a very different film from Body Heat, but quite compelling.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Sheila Quigley R.I.P.

Author Sheila Quigley

I was so very sorry to hear yesterday that Sheila Quigley has died quite suddenly at the age of 72. The newspaper report I've read indicates that although her health declined very rapidly in a matter of a few days, this was not a virus-related tragedy. She was such a vibrant personality that it is hard to believe she is no longer with us.

Sheila's life story was remarkable. A straight-talking former factory worker, she secured a £300k deal for her first two books when she was in her 50s, a brilliant achievement that understandably gained national attention. I got to know her through meetings of the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association.

I wrote a blog post about her back in 2009, and I always enjoyed her company. She was a much more outgoing person than me and very different from me as a writer (not least in having secured such a massive deal!). Perhaps because of this, I found that appearing with her at events seemed to work really well. On one occasion she dropped me a line about her delight over a new publishing deal she'd secured, observing that "there are so many broken-hearted authors around.", which remains truer than many on the outside might think.
The last time I was with her was at a bookshop event in Merseyside. She'd travelled, with members of her family, all the way from her home in the north east for that one event. It was an illustration of her commitment to her writing. We had a good time together that evening as always. I shall remember her not only with affection but with admiration.


Friday, 24 April 2020

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Calabar Bean

There's something very Golden Age about a title like The Case of the Calabar Bean. You simply don't get book titles like that these days. The author was Cecil M. Wills and the novel was published right at the end of the Golden Age, in 1939. The publishers were Hodder & Stoughton - Wills had moved to this prestigious imprint a year or two before, having earlier been published by a less notable house. At the time, he seems to have been moving up in the crime writing world. He never quite made it to the Premier League, but he is a good writer of the second division.

My own copy bears a pleasing authorial inscription: " regale scanty house of leisure- or to put him to sleep," and certainly this story has an amiability about it that suggests Wills, about whom I don't know much, was an amiable fellow. So is his series detective, Chief Inspector Boscobell of Scotland Yard, generally referred to in the text as Geoffrey rather than by his surname.

An interesting feature of the book is the "prologue", which is actually half a dozen short first person accounts of life in Molton Priory, the scene of the crime - a scene which benefits from two floor plans, on the front and rear endpapers of the book. We are then plunged into the murder case - Rex Farradale is found dead and his wife Myrtle is seriously ill. They have evidently been poisoned. So who is responsible?

The book is presented as a challenge to the reader, although I must say I found it easy to figure out the culprit's identity. This is because there are too few credible suspects. I suspect that Wills came across one very interesting piece of information which he felt he could build a plot around. It is indeed interesting, but I think he could have made better use of it, perhaps by introducing more plot complications. As it is, the story seems over-long. What's more, it seems almost inevitable to me that the culprit's cunning plan would have gone awry. Yet despite these flaws, I rather enjoyed this one. Wills writes agreeably and although he can be a bit long-winded, he was a capable entertainer. I'm definitely interested in reading more of his work. 


Forgotten Book - The Wench is Dead

The title of today's Forgotten Book comes from Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta, which has been referenced several times in crime fiction. The author of this novel was Fredric Brown, and it was published in 1955. I'm intrigued by my copy, which he inscribed to his ex-wife Helen. Whether it was because their relationship was amicable, or he was wanting to make some kind of macabre joke, I don't know, but I suspect and hope it was the former.

I've heaped praise on Brown several times in this blog. He was a terrific writer, but one of those who - despite the admiration he received during his lifetime - seems to me never to have been appreciated quite as extensively deserved. Although he wrote a series of books about Ed and Am Hunter, most of his finest novels were stand-alones. And this one has received praise from various good judges.

I have to say, though, that it's not one of my favourites. This is partly because the plot is relatively straightforward, and lacks the brilliance of Brown's best work. Another reason is because it's a story in which Brown's interest in alcohol and alcoholics is very much to the fore. Much as I like a drink, I find reading about drunks rather tedious.

The protagonist is Howie Perry, who plans to take a degree in sociology, and is gearing up for this by posing as a wino and working as a dishwasher. His pose becomes something of a reality as he starts drinking to excess and gets involved with a gorgeous prostitute called Billie. But things get tricky when a woman he's called on is murdered. Soon, it seems, he is the number one suspect. I didn't find myself as involved with his fate as with the misadventures of other Brown protagonists. The Wench is Dead is a satisfactory quick read, but not one of his masterpieces.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Quiz - ITV review

Quiz, which ran for three episodes on consecutive nights last week, was perfect lockdown televiewing. A family entertainment show about family entertainment, with an ingenious crime and a bit of courtroom drama. Fittingly, for a show about quizzes, it posed a tricky question. Did Major Charles Ingram and his wife Diana conspire with Tecwen Whittock in 2001 in an attempt to cheat a million pounds out of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

I was a big fan of Millionaire in its early years. I've always enjoyed quizzes and the TV show I watch most regularly is University Challenge, where the contestants play for glory rather than cash. A lot of the popular quiz-type shows with big cash prizes leave me cold, but Millionaire fascinated me until it became too samey. Quiz showed how Millionaire began before showing how the Ingrams, and Diana's brother became obsessed with the possibility of winning a million. In short, the issue was whether strategic coughing by Whittock was what tipped Ingram off about the right answers.

Quiz boasted impeccable credentials, with a script by James Graham and direction by Stephen Frears. The Major was played by the always appealing Matthew Macfadyen and Diana by Sian Clifford, who was excellent in Fleabag. Especially brilliant - but when is he not? - was Michael Sheen, with an extraordinarily convincing performance as quiz master Chris Tarrant. The third episode was cunningly written so as to strike quite a good balance between the competing arguments - in effect, the allegation of fraudulent conspiracy versus the defence of innocence and eccentricity.

History relates that the Ingrams and Whittock were convicted of the crime. But they have always maintained that the conviction was unjust. I thought that Quiz was not only extremely watchable but also extremely fair to the accused. It didn't, for instance, highlight the fact that two years after they avoided prison in this case, Ingram was convicted of an unrelated insurance fraud.

Monday, 20 April 2020

The Coffin Trail and the Lake District Mysteries

The Coffin Trail: You can never bury the past... (Lake District ...

The Coffin Trail is available today as an Amazon Kindle Daily Deal for a modest 98p - a price which I hope will tempt you if you haven't already read it! (The offer isn't available in the US, I'm afraid.) And this reminds me that I ought to give an update on progress with the Lake District Mysteries. In case you're wondering - I'm writing a new one right now!

The Coffin Trail is the first book in the series and when I went back to it to refresh my memory about a number of details, I was startled to realise that I wrote it seventeen years ago; it was then published in 2004 and shortlisted for the Theakston's Prize for best crime novel of the year. Since the other shortlisted novels were by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Susan Hill, Stephen Booth, and Lindsey Ashford, it was a truly memorable experience.

When I wrote The Coffin Trail, I intended that it should be the first in a series. That said, I didn't anticipate the direction my career would take in the ensuing years; if you'd told me what would happen, I doubt I'd have believed you. But because I write for the long term, there were ingredients of that first story which I intended would gain greater significance in subsequent books.

The first of those ingredients concerned the garden of Tarn Cottage, which becomes relevant in the second book in the series, The Cipher Garden. The second ingredient - well, I'll leave you to figure it out. Suffice to say that, at long last, I've picked up those early threads in the new book, The Crooked Shore. And readers will therefore encounter the resolution of a mystery they might not even be aware was bubbling under the surface...

I'm hoping that within a week or so, I will have completed the first draft, with a view to the book being published next year. It's been fascinating to return to the Lakes, after a break of several years while I've focused on Gallows Court and Mortmain Hall, among other projects. And I hope that today's deal will introduce a few more readers to the delights of the Lakes as well as the tangled lives of the lead characters, Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind.