Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Diamond Dagger

Image result for cwa diamond dagger

Well, it's been quite a twenty-four hours. Since the news was announced that I'm this year's recipient of the CWA Diamond Dagger, I've been inundated with generous messages. Literally hundreds of them. As if the joy of receiving the highest honour in UK crime writing were not enough, receiving the good wishes of so many kind people from all over the world has been truly humbling.

I'm still processing it all, to be honest, but I thought I'd just reflect on a conversation that I had many years ago - I'd guess it was 1996 or 1997 - with a dear friend, the late Reginald Hill. He'd recently won the Diamond Dagger himself, and was asked by the CWA to form a sub-committee which would put forward suitable candidates for the Diamond Dagger from the plethora of nominations submitted by CWA members - a sort of "quality control" process.  

So Reg rang me up and said he didn't really like committees, but thought that if I joined him, the two of us could treat the exercise seriously, but also as an excuse for a chat and a gossip. He'd become something of a mentor to me, and wrote a lovely and characteristically witty introduction to an early collection of my short stories.

He knew of my intense love of the crime genre, and he said that, having won the Diamond Dagger himself, he wanted us to ensure that standards were maintained. He also said that he felt that as I wasn't going to be a candidate for the next few years, I could contribute my opinions with an open mind. And then he added that he believed that one day I would follow in his footsteps and receive the award. This struck me as extraordinary, not merely because I'd only written five or six books at this point, but also because he simply wasn't the sort of person who would volunteer such a thing without meaning it; he certainly wasn't given to casual flattery. Smart guy as he was, though, I couldn't believe that his forecast would come true. 

For a number of years Reg and I submitted shortlists of candidates for the award to the committee and we did indeed have some very enjoyable chats along the way. (The usual process is essentially this: nominations are submitted by CWA members; a dedicated sub-committee produces a shortlist of say half a dozen, perhaps up to ten, candidates; and then the CWA committee decides.) That original conversation with Reg has stuck in my mind but I must say that even though my name began to feature occasionally in nominations, I continued not to believe it would happen. Now that it has, I'm very happy about it. And I'd like to think that Reg would be happy too.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Forgotten Book - I Wake Up Screaming

I Wake Up Screaming is a pulpy crime novel by Steve Fisher, set in Hollywood and first published in 1941. It was turned into a film noir which was also known as Hot Spot, and later remade as Vicki. Unusually, Fisher updated the story for later editions. He had crammed the novel with topical allusions, and sought to modernise them to retain a contemporary feel.

In classic noir fashion, this story, narrated by a Hollywood writer, involves a man trapped in a nightmarish situation. The protagonist falls for a studio secretary, Vicki Lynn, who is aiming to become a film star, although he also finds himself attracted to her sister, a torch singer, Jill. Just as Vicki's dreams are starting to come true, she is murdered. And our hero is a prime suspect.

The unusual feature of the story is the obsessive pursuit of the protagonist by a detective, a dying man called Ed Cornell. Cornell was based in part on Cornell Woolrich, who can hardly have felt flattered. Cornell is a gifted detective, but he seems uninterested in any other suspect, although several other people might have had a motive to kill Vicki.

Fisher references Raffles, and crime writers ranging from Dorothy L. Sayers to Horace McCoy, whose They Shoot Horses, Don't They? seems to me a much more powerful novel of crime in Tinseltown than this one. It's a book I'd been after for years, and it's certainly pacy. Overall, however, I was rather disappointed. I was expecting something more than simply a workmanlike effort. The story didn't grip me, I'm afraid. Woolrich did this sort of thing much better.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Loughborough and the Academic World


I'm just back from a fascinating trip to Loughborough University. Thanks to the good offices of Professor Mike Wilson, I did a couple of events, one a public talk, the other an extensive workshop with Mike's third year students. The students are working on a dramatic version of Farjeon's Thirteen Guests, and I was very interested to hear the take of these young, thoughtful people on Golden Age fiction. Their positivity was refreshing and my visit as a whole very enjoyable. I was also greatly entertained by the poster designed to promote the event...

Nor is this to be my only encounter with the academic world this year. In April I'm taking part in a Golden Age weekend of events organised by the University of Chester. And later in the summer, the Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction will be published; an academic tome, with many contributions from academics - plus me.

My interest in the academic world goes back a long time. In my younger days, I thought seriously about becoming an academic and once I started to train as a solicitor, I wondered if I'd be better suited to lecturing and researching rather than working in a legal office. In either case, I wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a crime novelist, but I thought the academic life might be more conducive to that. So I went for lunch with one of my tutors at Balliol, a wonderful New Zealander called Don Harris, for whose judgement I always had the greatest respect. We talked it over, and he persuaded me that, at that time, the uncertainties of academic life were unappealing. So in the end I stayed in the legal profession, and it worked out well - in the long run.

I continued to write the occasional academic article, as well as more prosaic stuff for newspapers and magazines. And in recent years, as academic interest in crime fiction has risen, so my contacts with the academic world have increased. I very much enjoyed being part of Steven Powell's seminar on James Ellroy at Liverpool University a few years ago and I'm keen to see closer contact between crime novelists and academics interested in the genre.

There is some fascinating research going on, and some very good writing, but at present it seems to me that there's also some surprisingly poor writing in the academic field, stuff that - whatever its intellectual merits - is desperately boring to read, because some authors seem to pay more attention to things (such as bibliographies and other references) which try to show how well they have done their homework, rather than writing accessibly and in a way that others will find inspiring. I understand that part of the thinking is to assist future researchers, but the balance often seems to be tipped against good prose, a strange example for teachers to give to students. Thankfully, the likes of Steven Powell and Mike Wilson recognise the importance of communicating clearly, widely, and well. I'm optimistic that a similar approach will be followed by more and more academics in years to come.

Monday, 17 February 2020

The Screaming Skull - 1958 film review

The Screaming Skull begins with a chilling warning coupled with an offer of a freebie. The story, we are told, is so terrifying that we may die of fright. But if watching the film kills us, the makers are willing to bury us free of charge. Very good of them. I did feel, however, that the terror induced by this macabre opening was rather undercut by the preamble on the TV channel when we were told that the film was rated "Parental Guidance". Maybe not quite so frightening in the 21st century, then...

The premise is rather like that of a minor Rebecca. A charming husband brings his nervy young second wife to the grand country home where his first wife met an unfortunate end. However, it has to be said that the screenplay writer, John Kneubuhl, was not Daphne du Maurier, while the actor playing the husband, John Hudson, was not in the Olivier class. I did, however, think that Peggy Webber, playing the wife, did a good job, and I was interested to learn that she became a leading radio actress and is still alive today, aged 94.

It soon becomes clear that creepy things are happening at the house. There's a mysterious gardener with an obsessive devotion to the deceased first wife, and a neighbouring vicar - who turns out to be an improbably cast Russ Conway, the British pianist who had two number one hits in the charts. The soundtrack, by the way, is the work of Ernest Gold (father of the gifted singer-songwriter Andrew Gold) who also wrote the music for Exodus.

A long time ago I toyed with the idea of writing a story called The Screaming Skull after reading about some legends concerning skulls. In the end, I decided against it, although I wasn't aware of this film at the time. Horror is a tricky genre. M.R. James' stories still exert a particular magic, but Kneubuhl, whatever his other gifts, was no M.R. James. I foresaw the main plot twist, and found the story distinctly unterrifying. And even the offer of free burial wasn't original to this film....

Friday, 14 February 2020

Forgotten Book - Murder is a Kill-Joy

My copy of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's Murder is a Kill-Joy is a little Dell mapback paperback. Mapbacks have a depiction of a key crime scene on the back of the book and are highly collectible. This one features an attractive depiction of "the house in the marshes" which is a murder scene in the novel, which was originally called Kill Joy. I wish that someone would compile an illustrated book featuring all the mapbacks; I'm sure it would be fascinating.

I've talked before about my admiration for Holding, a very good writer. When this book first came out, Kirkus Reviews said, in effect, that it was ok but not up with her best work, and that's essentially my view too. But it's a pacy story with plenty of twists and turns, even if the central situation didn't interest me quite as much as it evidently appealed to Holding.

Maggie Macgowan, a 19 year-old woman, is working in domestic service, trying to find her way in the world, when out of the blue Dolly Camford, for whose family Maggie works, persuades her to join her in a new career. They leave home in a hurry -  Dolly says she is fleeing from a menacing man, but it soon becomes clear to Maggie that Dolly's word is not to be relied upon. And they end up at the house in the marshes.

The complications come thick and fast, but in many ways the most appealing aspect of the book is the way Maggie matures as she experiences a whirl of conflicting emotions. Holding portrays her with a good deal of skill. Not a masterpiece, but any crime novel by Holding is worth a read.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The Nanny - 1965 film review

Having enjoyed one film version of an Evelyn Piper novel, Bunny Lake is Missing, I thought I'd try another. The Nanny is a black and white suspense movie released in 1965 and the title role is played by the legendary Bette Davis. The supporting cast is impressive: Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, Jack Watling, James Villiers, Maurice Denham and the eternally under-rated but consistently impressive Alfred Burke, who makes a powerful impact in one scene towards the end.

This was a Hammer movie, with a screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, a capable writer with a talent for entertainment who had a tendency to go over the top. Here, however, the story is told subtly and information about the characters is withheld cleverly rather than irritatingly. I haven't read the book by Piper, but I gather that quite a few changes were made in the film version. The result is a film that I found gripping, and at times harrowing.

Villiers and Craig are a rich couple, but he's something of a bully and she suffers from low self-esteem. Their young daughter died a couple of years ago and they have a ten year old son, Joey, who is due home. It turns out that he's been in a hospital, because he was responsible, apparently unintentionally, for his sister's death. When we're introduced to him, it becomes clear that he has a macabre streak and also that he hates Nanny.

Nanny has looked after his mother (and her sister Pen, played by Bennett) since they were children. She knows her place, but she is trusted implicitly. When Joey is rude to her, she turns the other cheek quite selflessly. We only start to get a fresh slant on things when Joey makes friends with a 15 year old girl who lives in the same building. She is played by Pamela Franklin, whose performance is absolutely excellent; so much so that I'm surprised she didn't become a huge star. William Dix, who plays Joey, is also very good, and it's a shame that his career apparently didn't survive into adulthood. Jill Bennett, whom I have long admired, makes the most of a tricky part; she was a terrific actor and again it's sad to think of her unfortunate later life. Wendy Craig, later to become noted for light comedy, is very good as the vulnerable Mrs Fane. And Bette Davis is first class.

I was impressed by this film and can thoroughly recommend it. Thanks to the rather under-stated approach to essentially melodramatic material, it's genuinely chilling and it stands the test of time very well.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Venetian Bird aka The Assassin - 1952 film review

Victor Canning was a thriller writer whose work was, on the whole, a cut above that of many of his post-war contemporaries. I haven't read his 1950 novel Venetian Bird, but thanks to Talking Pictures TV, I've watched the film version (given the alternative but rather humdrum title of The Assassin in the US). The film was made in black and white but still manages to evoke Venice's charm.

I wondered if the storyline might be some sort of poor man's version of The Maltese Falcon, but was glad to find that wasn't the case. Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) is a private investigator who arrives in Venice on an errand. He's placed an advertisement to find information about someone, but this element of the plot turns out to be a MacGuffin. It's not what the film is mainly about.

Mercer becomes curious about a gallery owned by the wealthy Count Boria and finds himself attracted to an enigmatic and glamorous woman who works there called Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok, who is the subject of a rather interesting tribute website; suffice to say here that she had a full life!) Eventually it emerges (as that crass alternative title flagged up at the outset) that this is really a story about a plan to carry out a political assassination. There is also a mystery element, which although very guessable does add texture to the story.

The supporting cast is strong; it includes John Gregson in an uncharacteristic role, the wonderful Miles Malleson, and Sid James, of all people, playing an Italian undertaker, one of the least likely bits of casting I can recall. George Coulouris is surprisingly empathetic as the chief of police; he was a very good actor, and I was surprised to discover that he was born in Manchester and grew up there and in Urmston, not too far from my home village of Lymm. The direction by Ralph Thomas is snappy, with a good rooftop chase at the end. Overall, this film is well worth watching.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Pale Horse - BBC TV review

The Pale Horse began on BBC tonight, the first episode of a two-parter based on an Agatha Christie novel and scripted by Sarah Phelps. She is one of TV's leading popular dramatists, with an enviable track record. She began as a writer on EastEnders and the disciplines learned through writing soap opera scripts must be invaluable when one turns to other projects. (And of course some crime series, albeit not Christie's, have strong soap opera elements.) But having discussed Sarah Phelps' adaptations with many crime enthusiasts, I find it tempting, if overly simplistic, to suggest that her versions of Christie are geared more to viewers who aren't natural Christie fans than to the purists.

I'm a lifelong Christie fan but I have always felt it's perfectly reasonable to make changes to the original stories for dramatic purposes - the real question is: do they actually work? I've watched all Sarah Phelps' versions of Christie stories, and my impression is that they are more effective when she digs down into the essence of the original storyline than when she goes off on a tangent of her own. When she's inventing new stories, she'd surely be better to craft her own series rather than tack them on to someone else's.

I enjoyed Phelps' And Then There Were None, and to a lesser extent Witness for the Prosecution, but felt that Ordeal by Innocence (despite a new plot ingredient that I really admired) rather missed the point of the story. The ABC Murders was a curate's egg, with some compelling elements marred by a decision to give Poirot a backstory that, for me, simply didn't carry conviction. 

These mixed experiences led me to watch The Pale Horse with an open mind, but a keen desire to enjoy the story as much as possible. The earlier adaptations have demonstrated that the quality of the opening episode is not always sustained. But I must say that I think this was a very good choice of Christie story, a rural melodrama with a looseness of structure that suits Phelps' talents better than the confines of a traditional whodunit. 

The starry cast is led by Rufus Sewell (cast as Aurelio Zen in the regrettably short-lived TV versions of Michael Dibdin's novels) who plays Mark Easterbrook. The three witches include the wonderful Rita Tushingham and Sean Pertwee is very good as the cop Lejeune. There's a strong Wicker Man feel to the village fete scene - here Phelps is paying homage not to Christie but to another screenwriter who adapted the Queen of Crime with verve, Anthony Shaffer. Will I be tuning in to part two? Yes, definitely. 

Friday, 7 February 2020

Forgotten Book - Sudden Fear

One of the wonderful consequences of global communication via the internet is that it's now possible to come across information in a matter of moments that in the not too distant past would either have been unobtainable or would have take extensive research to track down. For anyone with a special interest, that's terrific. Book lovers like me have really benefited from the dissemination of information worldwide via blogs and other means.

I look at a good many blogs sporadically; one of those I check out regularly is Kate Jackson's Cross Examining Crime, because she seems able to read more books than almost anyone and her taste is excellent. When she raved about Edna Sherry's Sudden Fear, I sat up and took notice - and it took me a while to realise that I'd already seen and enjoyed the film based on the book. The book came out in 1948 and the film in the early 50s. Thanks to Jamie Sturgeon I've now been able to read the book for myself, and it turns out that Kate was spot on. It's a gripping story.

I don't know much about Sherry, but it seems that although she'd done plenty of writing, this was her first crime novel to be published under her own name, when she was 67. She continue to publish, but this appears to be far and away her most successful novel, though John Norris (another of my favourite bloggers) has praised Girl Missing. Certainly, the portrayal of Myra, the ruthless playwright who discovers that her younger husband is plotting with his lover to kill her and inherit her fortune, is compelling. 

Kate is, I think, right to say that in some respects this story is in the Francis Iles vein, but she's also right to highlight its distinctive qualities. There are one or two oddities about the writing (e.g. some unnecessary mid-chapter shifts of viewpoint) but these are minor matters - Sherry knew how to tell a good story. Much as I liked the film, the book seems to me to be better.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Medusa Touch - 1978 film review

In my youth, I used to see Peter Van Greenaway's books in the library quite often. When I looked at the blurbs and first few pages, I was never sufficiently enthused to borrow them, probably because it was clear he wasn't writing novels in the same vein as contemporary writers of the time whom I admired, such as Julian Symons. Probably this was a mistake (even if it wasn't a misjudgement of his type of writing) on my part, because I rather enjoyed The Medusa Touch, an unorthodox film made by Jack Gold from one of his unorthodox novels.

Nowadays, I'm much more receptive than I was then to genre-bending stories, and this film blends three distinct types of story - murder mystery, sci-fi, and horror. Let's take the murder mystery first. The film begins with an apparently fatal attack on a writer, John Morlar. The case is investigated by Scotland Yard in the unexpected person of a French cop who is there on some sort of exchange scheme. He is played, pretty well, by Lino Ventura. The first big surprise for him is that Morlar isn't quite dead from the bludgeoning he's suffered. He's rushed to hospital, while Ventura delves into his past.

A series of flashbacks follow. This isn't usually a good way to present information, but it's done fairly well. Morlar is played by Richard Burton and he has been seeking psychiatric help from Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick). We learn that, throughout his life, Morlar seems to have had a strange power to inflict harm on people who get on his wrong side. And in recent times his misanthropy has been increasing.

The murder mystery element of the story proves to be quite perfunctory, so to that extent my youthful instincts may have been on the right lines. We're dealing with telekinesis here, though (spoiler alert) the source of Morlar's powers is never explained, and I find that irritating. The later stages of the film turn into a dramatic attempt to prevent Morlar inflicting colossal harm on institutions that he despises, and these action scenes are pretty well done. The supporting cast is terrific - it includes Jeremy Brett and Michael Hordern as well as many stalwarts such as Harry Andrews, Philip Stone and Norman Bird. To sum up, an odd film based on what I suspect is an odd book by a writer who was attracted to oddity. But interesting enough to make me curious about Van Greenaway's other work and - at last! - ready to try reading him.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Curtains - a murder mystery musical

Image result for curtains musical

To write a murder mystery musical is a huge challenge. Blending a strong, well-plotted story with appealing music and a script which offers consistently high entertainment value is so difficult to achieve, it's no surprise that it's hardly ever been done. So I wondered what to expect when, last week, I went to the Liverpool Empire to watch Curtains. The Empire's a classy old theatre on Lime Street, but I've only ever been there once before, to watch Dionne Warwick in concert, many moons ago. It was a great venue for this production.

Curtains is a show with a complex and troubled history. The original idea was conceived by Peter Stone, an accomplished writer for tv, film, and stage. His scripts include Charade and the original film version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Apparently he also wrote a pretty obscure mystery musical, Death Takes a Holiday, before the end of his life. Curtains seems to have been started earlier, but was unfinished at the time of his death in 2003.

The plan was for the music to be written by John Kander and the lyrics by his regular partner, Fred Ebb. This pair were responsible for such classic musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as many others that weren't quite as successful. However, Ebb died in 2004, with the work still incomplete. (Incidentally, I gather that one of the duo's last projects was a musical based on Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit, a book I studied for A Level, and I'd love to see that one..)

The next step was to bring in the singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes, who has established a second career as a crime novelist and playwrigth and also wrote the Dickens-inspired musical Drood.  I've mentioned before on this blog my admiration for Rupert, who was kind enough to help me some years ago when I was working on a Lake District book, The Serpent Pool. He is multi-talented and was the perfect choice to write the book and help out with the songwriting. And it was fun to watch this musical of his performed only about thirty miles from his birthplace, in Northwich.

Curtains finally made it to Broadway in 2007. It received many award nominations and had a good run, although critical reaction was mixed, perhaps because of the production, perhaps because of critical snobbery. (And Rupert makes sure that critics get a real kicking in the script...) I'd hazard a guess that perhaps in 2007 some people were a bit less receptive to whodunits of this kind than they are today. The show faded from view but is now enjoying its first tour in the UK, after all this time, with Jason Manford in the lead, playing Lieutenant Choffi, supported by Carley Stenson, Rebecca Lock, Samuel Holmes, and Ore Oduba.

The show is a musical about a musical. A dire show called Robbin' Hood is having a pre-Broadway try-out when the dreadful female star is murdered. Enter Cioffi. He has plenty of suspects to choose from. Matters are complicated by the fact that he's a wannabe performer in a musical and also falls for a member of the cast. Before the end of the first act, another murder has been committed on stage...

I enjoyed the show enormously and I'm pleased to see that reviews of the UK tour have been extremely favourable. Rightly so. Jason Manford is excellent and the cast as a whole injects the show with the necessary energy (I can imagine that a lack of pace in the performances would present all sorts of problems, but there was an abundance of zest). The songs are pretty good, and sometimes witty. There's nothing in the same league as Kander and Ebb's Maybe This Time, but the songs do a good job of moving the story along, one of the major requirements in a show of this type. The result is hugely entertaining, and if you get a chance to see it, I can warmly recommend it.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Forgotten Book - Death of a Bookseller

Image result for bernard j farmer death of a bookseller

Bibliomysteries, in which books play a part in the story, are an interesting branch of crime writing. Otto Penzler has produced a slim volume which catalogues some of them. I've dabbled myself, given that Marc Amos and his books play a part (in some stories a significant part) in the Lake District Mysteries. And now I've read a much sought-after novel, first published in 1956, called Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer.

I know it's sought-after because some good judges have been hunting down a copy for years. I came across a nice first edition in a dust jacket at York Book Fair at the start of this year. The only snag was that it was priced at £400 - yikes! I was not tempted to invest, but I have now read the story and it's rather enjoyable.

The author, Bernard J. Farmer was born in 1902 but I don't know when he died. He was at one time a policeman, but again I'm not sure for how long. However, it is clear that he was a keen book collector, and in 1950 he published a book about the subject. This novel, which was his third, and features his series character Sergeant Wigan, himself very keen on books, appeared six years later. Barzun and Taylor say that the prose style is flat, and there is at least a morsel of truth in this. But there is also some gentle humour and wry observation of human nature. They also say that Farmer wrote as Owen Fox, but I'm not sure this is correct. If anyone out there knows, I'd be interested to hear from them.

What I like about this story is that it's a compassionately told tale (with lots of bookselling lore) about a compassionate man, Wigan, trying to solve the murder of a friend. It's also a clock race story, as Wigan battles to find the truth before a man he believes to be innocent is hanged. The man in the condemned cell is rather well characterised - he's not at all likeable but the cop realises that doesn't mean the man is guilty. Wigan is concerned with justice as well as with books. This is a well-made traditional mystery of that kind in which George Bellairs specialised, and I was glad to read it. I'd also be glad to learn more about its author.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? - 1969 film review

No sooner did film audiences of the 60s discover the fate of Baby Jane than they had to find out the mystery concerning Aunt Alice's demise. What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? was produced by Robert Aldrich and based on The Forbidden Garden, a 1962 novel by the talented suspense writer Ursula Curtiss.

I've not read the book, although Francis Iles admired it, which is a good enough recommendation, so I've put it on my list. The film utilises the plot material for a black comedy about a homicidal widow, Claire Marrable, played with gusto and no little flair by Geraldine Page. She doesn't mourn the death of her husband, but isn't happy to find he's left her destitute. She moves to Arizona and seeks to solve her financial problems by hiring single women as housekeepers, getting them to entrust their savings to them, killing them, and burying them in her garden.

Although in many ways she really is not very bright, she pursues her m.o. with some success, until she hires a new companion, played splendidly by the redoubtable Ruth Gordon. We soon find out that she is really trying to figure out what happened to her predecessor in the role, who happened to be an old friend. A battle of wits between the two women ensues.

The plot complications are handled nicely and the two women in the lead roles are terrific, and although I tend to agree with the critic who thought that the script was underdeveloped, it is still entertaining. Apparently it falls within the sub-genre of so-called "psycho-biddy" films of its era. Hmmm....My main reservation was that Gerald Fried's soundtrack was obtrusive and didn't seem to fit. But that's a quibble. It's a good film. 

Monday, 27 January 2020

The Lost Winner by Fei Wu

When I visited Shanghai last November my principal host was a young Chinese crime writer, Fei Wu (pictured above). I very much enjoyed our conversations and learned that, in addition to having a story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Fei was just about to publish, via CITIC Press, a detective novel of his own called The Lost Winner. But it isn't any ordinary detective novel. It's a story in three dimensions...

I haven't read The Lost Winner myself, and it has yet to be translated into English and my Chinese is non-existent, but I've seen the book and the associated materials, including a rather wonderful model of the crime scene which I believe contains its own clues to the solution.

British and American writers of the Golden Age made steps in this direction. One thinks of Evelyn Elder's Murder in Black and White, with clues in the illustrations, and of Francis Beeding's The Norwich Victims and the less renowned but very interesting No Fury, both of which contain photographs. And there are other examples, but nothing on this scale of ambition. The closest to it that I can think of are the Crime Dossiers of Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, starting with Murder off Miami, and the American versions of them, with compilers including Q. Patrick among others.

Fei Wu's book shows that the traditions of the Golden Age mystery are not only alive and well and enjoying popularity in unexpected parts of the world, but also that the tropes of classic crime are flexible and capable of ingenious adaptation. And, as the picture below suggests, construction... 

Friday, 24 January 2020

Forgotten Book - Dread Journey

Dorothy B. Hughes was a first-rate writer, and my admiration for In a Lonely Place is unbounded. So when, in the splendid second hand bookshop at Carnforth, I spotted a copy of her 1945 novel Dread Journey, I couldn't resist. It's a book in which the action takes place during a long train journey, and really it blends elements from women-in-jeopardy novels and Murder on the Orient Express (but there's no snowdrift...)

I should say at the start that, although it's a well-written book, I struggled with the basic premise. Kitten Agnew, a shallow actress is terrified (and with good reason) that the wealthy Hollywood mogul Viv Spender intends to kill her during the course of the journey. Spender is a sociopath with a long track record of mistreating women, and his previous interest in Kitten has cooled - he's now turned his attention to someone else. But despite knowing that her life is at risk, Kitten wants to marry him, and persists in provoking him. Why? I wanted to scream. For all Hughes' skill, I unable to suspend my disbelief in the fundamental set-up of the story, and that was a drawback.

There are, however, some very strong elements in the story. The portrayal of Spender is interesting in the #MeToo era; one might conclude that Hughes, who knew about Hollywood men, was making a point that is not only powerful but unfortunately of enduring relevance. Her writing still resonates today. And her presentation of a black character who plays a significant part in the storyline is equally interesting and ahead of its time.

So there is much to enjoy in this book, recently reprinted by Otto Penzler in the US and thus readily obtainable, even if I don't rate it as highly as some critics do. But I'm certainly glad I read it. Hughes was not only a talented writer but a thought-provoking one.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

The Man Who Haunted Himself - 1970 film review

The Man Who Haunted Himself is a psychological suspense thriller movie starring Roger Moore. That sentence is by itself perhaps enough to furrow brows. Roger Moore was a big star but he wasn't  renowned for his acting range. Yet this low-budget 1970 film was a favourite of his and apparently he accepted a fee far below his going rate to appear in it. The supporting cast is impressive, with plenty of familiar faces from that era.

The story begins with Moore as Harold Pelham, a respectable businessman, leaving his office and setting off in his car. The sight of Moore in a bowler hat is an odd one, but things become odder as he seems to become crazed and drives his car off the road. He's badly injured and at one time it seems he's died on the operating table, but he recovers, apparently none the worse for the experience. There's a sad irony about the car crash, by the way. This film was the last to be directed by Basil Dearden (whose earlier work included such excellent movies as Sapphire and The League of Gentlemen), who died shortly afterwards - in a car crash.

Pelham is reunited with his wife (Hildegarde Neil), who is devoted, but despondent about his lack of interest in her sexually. In the office, there are further problems, with fears of industrial espionage (as so often in the movies, the business world is conveyed quite unrealistically - the discussion about a planned merger is rather juvenile). Before long people claim to have seen Pelham in places and at times when he was elsewhere. A beautiful photographer called Julie claims to be his lover - could he really have forgotten sleeping with Olga Georges-Picot? (an actress who had a very sad personal life, according to Wikipedia). His wife is unsurprisingly suspicious.

It seems Pelham has a doppelganger. But what precisely has happened? Moore's acting skills are tested to the limit - beyond the limit, to be honest - as Pelham's terror increases. The story's an interesting one, though, and although the film was not a success, it's been more appreciated in recent years. Yes, there are flaws, but the idea of split personality appeals to the imagination and this is one of those stories where a remake could work well. The original story was written by Anthony Armstrong and he developed it into a novel in 1957, The Strange Case of Mr Pelham

Monday, 20 January 2020

White House Farm - ITV review

I can remember the sensation caused by the White House Farm Murders vividly, even though the tragedy took place way back in 1985. Five members of the same family were shot dead in a farm house in Margery Allingham country, the attractive Essex village of Tolleshunt d'Arcy. Few British murder cases in my lifetime have caused quite such a media frenzy or given rise to so much controversy. Jeremy Bamber was found guilty of the crimes, and is currently serving a whole life sentence. But he continues to protest his innocence.

This is the basis of the new ITV drams White House Farm, the first two episodes of which aired last week. The script is by Kris Mrska and draws on a book about the case by Carol Ann Lee and also a book written by one of the people who was closely involved with the real life events, Colin Caffell, the ex-husband of Sheila "Bambi" Caffell, one of those who died.

In a flashback in episode one, it's clear that Sheila (Cressida Bonas) is a troubled woman. She's split up from Colin, who is now involved with someone else, and they take their two children to the White House Farm, owned by Nevill and June Bamber, parents of Sheila and Jeremy (both of whom were adopted). There are hints of family tensions. And then the police get a call from Jeremy, claiming that his father has called him to say that Sheila is running amok with a rifle. When the police finally manage to get into the house, they discover the bodies.

It's a very shocking scenario and some reviewers have questioned whether it's a suitable subject for a TV dramatisation at all. I think there are real questions that need to be asked about TV shows (and, yes, books) which add dramatic spice to incidents in the lives of people who are still alive, but I don't think they are wrong in principle. The real question is whether the factual material is handled properly. On the evidence of the first two episodes, Mrska has done a fairly good job. The script isn't unnecessarily sensational - indeed it didn't need to be, given the real life events. However, the long, lingering shots of the countryside are perhaps over-done, even though they are well done.

So far, Freddie Fox has been very good as Jeremy Bamber, as has Mark Addy, playing the shrewd sergeant who begins to suspect that Sheila couldn't have committed the crimes. Stephen Graham, playing DCI Taff Jones as a pantomime villain, is a good actor in the wrong role. Many people have commented on the feebleness of his attempt at a Welsh accent and I'm afraid they are right. One other thing's for sure, if Jones were still alive, the laws of defamation would have ensured that he wouldn't be portrayed as such a bully and buffoon. I do feel rather sorry for his living relatives and this is the area where sensitivity of treatment is most important. This aspect of the script jars, but otherwise I've been gripped. 

Friday, 17 January 2020

Forgotten Book - Vulture in the Sun

John Bingham began his career as a novelist with books featuring relentless police investigations, starting with My Name is Michael Sibley. In real life, he worked in intelligence rather than in the police, and perhaps the requirement for official secrecy deterred him, at first, from tackling the world of espionage with which he was familiar. But things changed with The Double Agent, and my Forgotten Book for today is another of his spy thrillers, written in 1971.

The setting of Vulture in the Sun is Cyprus, a beautiful island. I visited the Greek side of the island many years ago for a very enjoyable holiday, and thought then how sad it was that such a delightful place should be divided, with so much tension between the two communities. This novel is set a generation earlier, when tensions were at their height.

Our hero is Tom Carter, an agent who is sent out to the island by a ruthless boss called Ducane. We know from the start that Carter is going to become involved with a beautiful and mysterious woman, which was pretty much compulsory for the protagonists of spy novels in that era. Carter is sent out to provide short term back-up for a local agent called Frank Baker. But right from the start of his trip, things don't go to plan.

I liked the way this story cast light on the tense nature of life on Cyprus at the time, with various terrorist factions at work, sometimes cancelling each other out. Carter is rather thinly characterised, but the way that Bingham deals with antisemitism in the storyline is very interesting. It's a short, snappy thriller, and there are enough plot twists to keep one engaged after a rather quiet beginning. Well worth a look.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Locked Room Murders Supplement by Brian Skupin

I've talked on this blog, and also at many library events over the years, about my love of the late Bob Adey's wonderful reference book Locked Room Murders. (The photo of Bob above was taken by Jamie Sturgeon a few years back.) I acquired the first edition from a London bookdealer many moons ago, and then the second expanded edition when it came out. After I got to know Bob, he kindly inscribed them for me. These are not easy books to find nowadays and so Brian Skupin and John Pugmire did fans a great service when they produced a new and affordable revised version of the second edition via John's Locked Room International imprint.

And now, they have gone the extra mile and done something that many of us had hoped Bob might live to do, producing an update of the second edition that is wide-ranging and highly informative. Brian is the author and Locked Room International again the publisher. They call it a "Supplement" but perhaps that description doesn't fully convey the scale of the endeavour. This is a very substantial book in its own right, running to 326 pages. On Amazon UK, it's for sale at about £15, and if you're a locked room fan, that makes it an unmissable bargain.

Brian and John are eminently qualified to undertake this project. They are experts in the field, yes, but even more importantly they are enthusiasts, people whose love of the genre informs their judgements. Their anthology The Realm of the Impossible is fascinating and I can't believe that I've not reviewed it at length on this blog as yet - one of these days, I'm sure I will get round to it.

In the meantime, let me say how much I've enjoyed dipping into the Supplement. It ranges very widely, paying due attention to the work of Paul Halter and the Japanese writers who have worked such ingenious variations on the locked room form as well as to TV shows such as Jonathan Creek. Various contemporary British writers feature in at least one entry - examples include Simon Brett, Chris Fowler, Jim Kelly, Ann Cleeves, and Kate Ellis. I am sure that Bob would be delighted to see this book in print. Brian and John have carried on the baton in admirable manner.

Four of my own stories are included - they are all short stories, since I've never contemplated taking on a full-length locked room novel. At least not yet. Another story, "The Locked Cabin", is due to be included in a forthcoming anthology of locked room mysteries, edited by Maxim Jakubowski although I should say that this isn't itself a locked room mystery in the accepted sense, but rather a story about the idea of creating a locked room mystery - on board the first Queen Mary.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Bunny Lake is Missing - 1965 film review

Bunny Lake is Missing is a film directed by Otto Preminger (whose masterpiece was Laura) in 1965. The screenplay is written by John and Penelope Mortimer, who were married at that time, and is set in London. The story is based on a novel by Evelyn Piper, published in 1957 and set in New York. What is more, although I haven't read the book, it seems clear from reviews that there are massive differences between film and book, not least the omission of one crucial character in the book from the screenplay...

Anyway, it's the film I'm talking about today and the first thing to mention is the high calibre of the cast. Laurence Olivier, no less, stars as Superintendent Newhouse, called in when an unmarried mother, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), panics because of the disappearance of her young daughter Bunny. Keir Dullea plays Ann's brother, while Anna Massey runs the garden school from which Bunny vanishes on her first day. The snag is that nobody seems to have seen Bunny and doubts begin to surface as to whether she actually exists....

Noel Coward, of all people, plays Ann's sleazy landlord, while Finlay Currie is an aged doll-repairer. There are parts for Clive Revill, Fred Emney, Victor Maddern, Megs Jenkins, Richard Wattis, and Adrienne Corri among others. Even the pop group The Zombies make an appearance in order to remind us that we are in the Swinging Sixties.

Paranoia and madness play a major part in this film, and in many ways (not only because it was filmed in black and white) it has a noir flavour, reminiscent of Cornell Woolrich up to a point, yet distinctive. The screenplay is, to my mind, too long and drawn out and the finale is melodramatic to say the least. But it's a film of genuine quality, even so. I gather that critical reaction was at first so-so, but Preminger's achievement is now more widely recognised. A remake is said to be in the works.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Forgotten Book - The Marriage Bureau Murders

My interest in John Bingham and his work has led me to cover quite a few of his books in this blog over the past year or so. I admire the originality of his approach to crime fiction, while his ironic storylines made him, along with Julian Symons, the most important successor to Francis Iles of his generation. It's no surprise to me that Iles the critic also admired Bingham. As novelists, they were both risk-takers. And as my regular readers will know, I do like a crime writer who is prepared to avoid formula and take a few risks. Nobody could sensibly accuse John Bingham of being formulaic. Although certain elements recur, each book he wrote strikes me as pleasingly different from its predecessor.

Taking risks doesn't, alas, necessarily pay off. Bingham could write in a very readable style, but his unorthodox plots often depend on coincidences outlandish even by the standards of our coincidence-rich genre. His literary style involves a good deal of authorial intervention: too much for my taste. And occasionally his attitudes strike me not merely as dated but also as a bit odd.

The Marriage Bureau Murders was published in 1977, when his crime writing career was more than a quarter of a century old. He should have been at his peak, but I'm afraid this is a novel of a writer whose powers are in serious decline. It's a pity, because there's a very dark and unusual idea (about a voyeur of murder) at the heart of the story which, although exceptionally tricky to handle, might drive a powerful work of crime fiction.   

This book, however, is a misfire. Sidney Shaw sets up a "friendship bureau" as a means of getting his kicks, but what happens after he chances upon a sociopath who signs up with his bureau is so odd and unlikely that I found the whole bizarre business hopelessly unconvincing. Of course it's reasonable to ask readers of a crime novel to suspend their disbelief - I do so myself in books like Gallows Court, and so do many of my colleagues - but there must be a limit. There are plenty of stabs at black humour, and I suspect that Bingham was trying for the mood of Symons' first two "Man Who..." books, but although I'm a fan of black comedy, it doesn't really work here.

So I was disappointed with this novel, and can't recommend it. Even at the time of its appearance, the critics weren't impressed. Edmund Crispin, who liked Bingham and his work, described it as a "nadir", and I'm not surprised. Despite Bingham's past achievements, it sold few copies and I don't think it's ever been reprinted. Many of his books definitely deserve a second look. This one certainly has curiosity value, but not much else.