Thursday, 26 December 2013
Traditional Golden Age detective fiction, of which the admirable P.D. James is - perhaps alongside Colin Dexter - the greatest modern exponent, is often associated with country house settings, and a storyline which presents a sort of homicidal sequel to Pride and Prejudice was James' neat way of combining the country house backdrop with a historical mystery paying due homage to Jane Austen. She isn't, however, the first British crime writer to have made good use of Austen's work. The late Reginald Hill wrote a notable story inspired by Emma, a book which he argued had many of the attributes of a detective novel.
This first episode of three began enigmatically, in the grounds of the Darcys' mansion. Two young women servants walking in the woods become frightened and claim to have seen a ghost, although we do not learn for some time the legend behind the apparition, or that it is (surprise, surprise!) supposed to be the precursor of misfortune. After this promising opening, though, the focus was for a long time rather more on pastiche Austen than on mysterious murder, and there were moments when I found myself wondering when the detective work was likely to get going.
Things did, however, start to warm up when, after shots were heard, a man was found dead in the grounds of the house. A local magistrate (Eve, in terrific form) was duly called in, and the credits rolled as the obvious suspect was driven away for further questioning while protesting his innocence. We can, of course, be sure that there is more to this crime than meets the eye. How much more, I don't know, because this is one of only a couple of James' books that I haven't read. But I'm looking forward to finding out..
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Monday, 28 October 2013
For a start, I'm really pleased that this admirable writer, whose The Maul and The Pear-Tree (co-written with T.A. Critchley) is a very good book about a nineteenth century case, has turned again to a historical puzzle.There is a long and rather splendid tradition of crime novelists taking an interest in real life cases and I'm pleased to see from this essay that the Queen of Crime is on top form. Not that, after her very enjoyable paper about the Golden Age at St Hilda's a couple of months back, I had any doubt about that.
I would like to think that this stylish and ingenious essay will kick-start a revival of interest in classic murder cases. They were in vogue again about 20 years ago, but with a few notable exceptions (above all, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher) the trend in "true crime" writing has seemed to be rather downmarket, with a number of lurid books about gangsters and the Mafia that prioritised sensation rather than quality.
As regards Wallace, I'm still mulling over P.D. James' arguments, but on the whole I side with the "Wallace was innocent" campaign. I don't attach much importance, for instance, to the fact that the presumed killer's ex-girlfriend said late in life that she didn't believe he was a murderer. There could be various reasons why she said that. Most important, though, is Wallace's psychological profile. Does it suggest a murderer? (Or someone who would dress up as his wife in order to create confusion about the time of death?) Well, we are all capable of unexpected behaviour, but I don't see him as a man who could commit such a crime and then maintain a resolute protestation of innocence until he died. He might have been an insurance salesman (and a former political agent) but I don't know of any evidence suggesting he was capable of sustained dishonesty, let alone violence. The alternative suspect, Parry, on the other hand, had a criminal record, albeit for comparatively minor offences.
One thing is for sure. As the never-ending debate about Jack the Ripper shows, these classic cases are never closed. There's always the chance that some fresh and plausible theory will crop up. And that explains the enduring appeal of true crime writing.
Sunday, 27 October 2013
First, a brief recap on the main facts. William Herbert Wallace was a middle aged, respectable and apparently happily married insurance agent who received a telephone message at the Chess Club where he played, from a prospective new client, R.M. Qualtrough. Wallace was asked to call at Qualtrough's home the following evening. He duly et out, but the address given to him did not exist. When he returned home, he found his wife dead. She had been battered to death. Wallace was found guilty and sentenced to death, but reprieved on appeal. However, he died not long after being released from prison.
Research undertaken by Jonathan Goodman and Roger Wilkes seemed to establish that the actual killer was a man called Parry.However,P.D.James has cast doubt on this conclusion. To follow her detailed reasoning, one has to read her essay very carefully(and it is behind a paywall). I think it's a truly fascinating piece of work.
The question she has presented us with is this - was Wallace in fact guilty, after all? She thinks he was. I think it's marvellous that she has reinvestigated the case, and her essay is intensely readable, as you would expect. Even for those who are not true crime fans, it's an engrossing mystery. I want to reflect on P.D. James' arguments before coming to any conclusions - that's the lawyer in me, I guess! - but I must say that my instinctive view is that I still believe Wallace was innocent. Anthony Berkeley said of the Crippen case (I'm paraphrasing, but only slightly) that a man "does not become a fiend overnight", and I think he was right. The psychological profile of Wallace doesn't seem to me to be that of a murderer, and there are one or two other aspects of the latest theory that don't instantly convince me. But - the debate is now reopened, and I would be extremely interested to know what others think about this enduring and extraordinary puzzle.
Wednesday, 3 July 2013
Memoirs of showbiz stars and politicians are especially dodgy. I am a huge fan of Dionne Warwick, whose voice at its best was almost unequalled in its power, range and sensitivity. Yet her memoirs were very disappointing as far as I was concerned. I learned little of interest and felt that she was too anxious to present herself positively.
Accordingly, I approached the brand new autobiography of Burt Bacharach, Anyone Who Had a Heart: my life and music (published by Atlantic Books in the UK) with trepidation. I admire the composer enormously, but I've heard all his anecdotes before. Or so I thought. I wasn't prepared for a book that was far from an exercise in self-justification. Bizarrely, it's more like an exercise in self-flagellation. There's a great deal about his failed marriages and other relationships (he was the perfect choice to write a movie song called Wives and Lovers, that's for sure) and a huge amount about the tragic life and eventual suicide of his daughter Nikki, If I had three ex-wives, I am fairly sure I wouldn't have the courage to invite them to express their views about me in my autobiography, but that's what we have in this book, and it sometimes makes for very bleak reading.
The ghost writer is Robert Greenfield, a long-time journalist for Rolling Stone, and in many ways he has done a very good job. It's an extremely readable book, with many witty and unexpected stories (I specially liked the one about Elizabeth Taylor's dining habits). More importantly, it casts light on what it is like to be an obsessive, someone so ferociously devoted to perfectionism in his craft that he allows other things to happen in his life that are a long way short of perfect. It's an extraordinarily human, warts and all portrait. For a novelist like me, this makes riveting reading, and it would do even if I had not loved the man's music for as long as I can remember.
I do, however, think that Greenfield could have produced an even better book with a bit more work. There's not enough analysis of the people, the fascinating world that Bacharach has moved in, or of the music. It's very interesting and entertaining, there's plenty of scope to read between the lines, and it must be one of the best showbiz memoirs for many a long year. But I still wish Greenfield had shown some of the perfectionsm of his subject. Had he done so, he'd have contributed to an even better book.
Monday, 18 February 2013
This year, the week-end is scheduled for 16-18 August. Although this coincides with the holiday season, and I've been unable to make it a few times for that reason, I do encourage crime fans who might be free to come along, even if they've never been to this particular event before. It really is fun, and - especially if the weather is kind - it's a very good time of year to visit Oxford.
Each year, the week-end has a theme, and papers are presented on that theme. This time, it's "From Here to Eterrnity: the present and future of crime fiction." Plenty of scope there! I'm honoured to have been invited to be one of the speakers - and especially honoured because it's otherwise a pretty starry gathering - fellow speakers include P.D. James, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid, Andrew Taylor and Frances Fyfield. The chaiing is done by N.J. Cooper, and as anyone who has seen Natasha in action will agree, she is quite brilliant at it.
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
East Anglia is the setting for some marvellous crime fiction, but it's a part of England that I've seldom visited. This is quite a confession, given that in the 90s I co-edited, with Robert Church, Anglian Blood, a CWA anthology of East Anglian crime fiction; the local chapter invited me to become involved, not because of my knowledge of the area but because of my interest in short stories. That book boasted a cover that I really did not like, but thankfully, the contents were better than the artwork, and the book contained a couple of stories that were short-listed for CWA Daggers. Suffice to say that I felt that a return trip to Fenland was long overdue.
So, on a September Sunday as lovely as any we've had all year, my webmaster and I headed from Cambridge to Ely - a place I've never been to before, but of which I've heard good things.In a nutshell, the praise Ely receives from its fans is well-deserved. We had a terrific day, which included a walking tour and a trip to the top of the remarkable octagonal tower of the utterly stunning cathedral.
I suppose the most famous East Anglian detective novel is Sayers' The Nine Tailors, which most people would acknowledge is a classic of the genre (though after re-reading most of her work earlier this year, I decided I preferred the very appealing Murder Must Advertise.) She captures the atmosphere of the Fens very effectively. P.D. James also loves the area, and Devices and Desires in particular benefits from an evocative setting.
The late Alan Hunter - who created Inspector George Gently and who, like P.D. James, contributed to Anglian Blood - was another East Anglian crime writer of note. It's sad that his books were not televised until after his death. Among present day practioners, Jim Kelly is especially good at Fenland settings, and I'm a fan of his enjoyable puzzle Death Wore White. My trip to Ely and Fenland, although very brief, helped me to understand why the landscape has made such a strong impression on writers over so many years. It's a fascinating place, and I shall aim not to leave it too long before exploring it more extensively.
Monday, 14 December 2009
I’ve mentioned how much I enjoyed P.D. James’ new book, Talking About Detective Fiction. That does not mean, of course, that I agree with every view expressed in it. For example, I felt she was rather hard on Agatha Christie, even though she does express admiration for Christie’s mastery of her craft.
‘The last thing we get from a Christie novel is the disturbing presence of evil,’ James argues. I just don’t think that’s right, just as I’m rather surprised that James does not pay much attention to the fact that Christie’s settings were very varied indeed – she was far from being someone who specialised in village-based whodunits, even though many people associate her more or less exclusively with the Mayhem Parva type of mystery.
There has been an interesting discussion on the Golden Age Detection discussion forum about Christie and evil, and I’m with those who believe that Christie had a strong sense of evil, and let it show clearly in quite a number of her books. The closing paragraphs of Five Little Pigs and 4.50 from Paddington illustrate the point, and there are plenty of other examples.
I was also startled that James said of Christie: ‘She wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre.’ Blimey. What about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Death Comes as the End, Murder on the Orient Express, Endless Night, and Curtain? I’m not sure how many detective story writers have been more innovative than Christie.
But there you go. Only a dull study of detective fiction would fail to spark debate, and this is a book without a dull paragraph. No doubt there are many people who agree with P.D. James on the subject of Christie. just as I agree with her when she concludes this fascinating book by predicting that: ‘in the twenty-first century, as in the past, many of us will continue to turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world.’
Thursday, 26 November 2009
I devoured P.D. James’ new book about detective stories with a great deal of enthusiasm, as well as interest. Talking About Detective Fiction is a short book, and naturally, therefore, it cannot compare with some of the much more detailed studies of the genre (my favourite remains Julian Symons’ masterly Bloody Murder, and I was pleased to see that Symons is mentioned more than once by James.) But it is a pleasure to read.
With books of this kind, much critical attention often focuses on the boundaries that the author chooses to draw. Whereas Symons tried to show that the detective story had transformed into the crime novel, James differentiates the detective story both from ‘mainstream fiction and the generality of crime novels’. The difference, she argues, is that detective stories have ‘a highly organised structure and recognised conventions.’ The trouble with generalised dividing lines, of course, is that one can always come up with exceptions to the general rule. But this doesn’t really matter. James, like Symons, offers an assessment of our favourite genre that is articulate and appealing.
This is a highly personal book, and I found James’ references to her own work illuminating. She emphasises, of course, her fascination with settings for murder and explains how, in Original Sin, she tried to ensure that the River Thames exerted ‘a unifying and dominant influence on both the characters and the plot.’
Whenever I have heard James speak, I have been struck by her very agreeable wit – something which is not as evident in her novels, which can be rather bleak in mood. For instance, I liked her comment here about Baroness Orczy’s detective Lady Molly, who has the blokes at Scotland Yard swooning as she hunts for the truth about the murder for which her husband was wrongly convicted: ‘I suspect that Lady Molly’s husband was in no hurry to be liberated from Dartmoor Prison.’ Quite.
Monday, 7 September 2009
The latest Adam Dalgleish novel, The Private Patient, is published in paperback by Penguin on 24 September. It’s P.D. James’ 18th novel, and I read and enjoyed it upon publication last year. Apparently, it was a ‘top five bestseller in hardback’. I’m never quite sure about the definition of ‘bestseller’. I can even recall seeing promotional literature which has referred to a couple of my books as bestsellers, which in all honesty does require a bit of an imaginative leap. But one thing is for sure, P.D. James is genuinely a Premier League crime writer, and her sales must put her close to the top of any table.
The key figure in the book is Rhoda Gradwyn, a notorious investigative journalist. Her face is scarred, and as the blurb correctly, if rather melodramatically, puts it, the scar ‘was to be the death of her’. She checks into a private clinic for cosmetic surgery, only to meet her Maker in rather grim circumstances.
Rhoda is one of those characters whose life and behaviour provide plenty of people with reason to kill her. By detective fiction standards, she is a natural victim. This book was one of those that I covered in my recent paper at the St Hilda’s conference, dealing with ‘sinful victims’. Sinful victims, as I tried to show, are a staple of the genre, although I very much enjoy those books where the victim is apparently so blameless that there is a real mystery as to who would wish to kill them. Playing games with human motivation is one of the great challenges for whodunit writers, I think. The aim nowadays must be to come up with a solution to the game that does not defy credibility, and treats the players in the game as believable human beings.
P.D. James is very good at this, I think. The Private Patient is not by any means her best book (my choice would be Devices and Desires), and there are some parts of the closing section which I struggled with, but it’s nevertheless an excellent read. An incidental pleasure for me came with her references in the story-line to the late, great Cyril Hare, in whose footsteps she followed when she first signed up with Faber and Faber – which, remarkably, was not all that far short of half a century ago.
Friday, 23 January 2009
Discussion about great opening lines in crime novels is common enough. But what about great last lines? A number spring to mind, but I don’t want to include spoilers. One of the best, though, crops up in Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law – and it must be one of the most original. I thought I'd include it in Patti Abbott's series Friday's Forgotten Books, but I do hope that at least those who have read it haven't forgotten it.
Tragedy at Law, first published in 1942, is in fact full of good things. I was drawn to it as a law student by high praise from Michael Gilbert and Henry Cecil, and I was certainly not disappointed. It’s a brilliant and unusual detective story, in which the murder is committed quite late in the book. But interest is maintained throughout, because of the evocative description of the life of an English circuit judge, Sir William Hereward Barber, coupled with acute characterisation and Hare’s good ear for dialogue.
The novel features Hare’s police detective Inspector Mallett, but also introduced the unlucky barrister, Francis Pettigrew. Pettigrew proved to be such an effective and appealing amateur sleuth that Hare wisely decided to bring him back for further adventures.
Cyril Hare died all too young. He was Faber and Faber’s star detective novelist, and when they were casting around for a successor, they had the good fortune to receive a manuscript from a new writer called P.D. James. The rest is history. But I was delighted to see that, in James’ latest novel, The Private Patient, not only does a plot-line from another novel by Cyril Hare plays a significant part in the story, but she takes care properly to acknowledge her gifted predecessor.
I too had a bit of good fortune a few years ago, when out of the blue I was contacted by Cyril Hare’s son, Charles Gordon Clark. To my regret, we never met, but Charles provided me with a great deal of fascinating information about his father. Some of it found its way into an article that I co-wrote with that tireless researcher, Philip Scowcroft, and which, having first appeared in CADS, is now to be found on my website: Cyril Hare.
Sunday, 9 November 2008
P.D. James is one of a number of writers whose imagination is sparked by setting. Many of her novels have sprung from a striking image of a distinctive and memorable place – The Black Tower and Devices and Desires are good examples, and I imagine that The Private Patient, about which I shall post before long, was also inspired in part by the image of an ancient stone circle, such as features in the book.
In the past, my ideas from stories didn’t tend to originate with a specific geographical location or feature. But this has begun to change, not least as I’ve absorbed thoughts about developing stories from other writers. The panel on settings at Bouchercon was quite thought-provoking – one question from the audience about where else we might set a book caused me to suggest Wales as a location I’d like to use (although I don’t know South Wales too well, I’m a lifelong devotee of North and Mid Wales.) This led to a mixed reaction (one fellow author commented that crime novels set in Wales tend not to succeed, though I don’t share that view) but the discussion was certainly interesting.
In one sense, ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ is the most successful thing I have written, because it won the CWA award - yet it is rare among my stories in having been directly inspired by a trip to Venice and a few moments spent gazing into the window of a musty bookbinder’s shop.
So although, when I went to Barcelona, I didn’t have a plot in mind, I had been there for less than twenty four hours when the idea for a short story set in the city came to me unbidden. Not quite sure when I’m going to write it, though. Or whether I will be able to resist the urge to call it ‘Gaudi Night'….