Monday, 16 May 2022

CrimeFest 2022 - a wonderful weekend

I've just returned from a brilliant weekend in Bristol at CrimeFest 2022. Along with Ann Cleeves, Andrew Child, and Robert Goddard, I was a guest of honour. A huge privilege. When I attended the inaugural CrimeFest fourteen years ago, I never imagined this level of recognition; as things have turned out, over the years, CrimeFest has been the scene of plenty of magic moments in my personal crime writing journey. Incidentally, one of the benefits to me of this blog is that some of the detail in the older posts reminds me of great times from the past - as with that 2008 festival. Huge thanks go to Adrian Muller and Donna Moore for all their hard work. They are supported by an excellent team of volunteers and others, including sponsors, and it was great to hear from Dame Mary Perkins that Specsavers intend to sponsor CrimeFest for at least the next three years. And I was presented on stage with a lovely Bristol Blue glass vase as a memento of the occasion. 

It was thrilling to go into the bookroom and see, for the very first time, a pile of copies of The Life of Crime. And it was even more thrilling to sign copies and see, on the final morning, that every copy on the bookstall had been sold. HarperCollins kindly gave me the chance to invite some old friends to a drinks do (not an actual launch, since the book is technically not published until 26 May) and how pleased I was to spend time with the likes of Simon Brett, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Felix Francis, Cath Staincliffe, Chris Ewan, Robert Goddard, Michael Ridpath, and Linda and Gary Stratmann (special thanks to Gary for acting as event photographer!) among others. Afterwards, HarperCollins hosted a small group of their authors at a private dinner; it was a particular pleasure to sit next to Jane Shemilt, whom I hadn't met before. The previous night I'd had dinner with a group of friends - Kate Ellis, Christine Poulson, and Cath Staincliffe (who was about to learn that she's been shortlisted for the Dagger in the Library) - and I also had a pleasant lunch with Ann Cleeves - as well as coffees with various other friends and fellow authors.

A major highlight came when Donna interviewed Robert and I as Diamond Dagger winners from 2019 and 2020. This was great fun, not least because I've been a fan of Robert's writing for many years. I moderated a panel, 'Suspect Everyone', with Rachael Blok, James Delargy, Victoria Dowd and David Hewson and also took part in a Golden Age panel moderated by Simon Brett, together with Janet Laurence, David Brawn, and TV's Barry Ryan (who made some insightful points about Golden Age stories on television). 

There's never enough time to chat to all one's pals at these events, because the time whizzes by so fast. For instance, I only got a chance to catch up with Yrsa Sigursdottir on my way out of the hotel to catch the train home, but I did enjoy seeing Dolores Gordon-Smith, whom I first met way back at that 2008 CrimeFest as well as Joyanna Lovelock (pictured above), who interviewed me a while back for her podcast. It was a weekend that will stay in my memory for a long time. And as an added bonus, I went to a second hand bookshop in the market and found a rare signed Golden Age mystery for a very modest price. Lucky? You bet. 

Friday, 13 May 2022

Forgotten Book - Family Skeletons

Patrick Quentin, in various incarnations, is an American crime author I've enjoyed reading for many years. The name (and the names Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge) conceals a complex set of collaborations, but in the 1950s the brand adorned a final run of books by Hugh Wheeler, writing solo. The last of the books, Family Skeletons, has eluded me until now, but when I had the chance to acquire Dorothy B. Hughes' review copy, I snapped it up.

Hughes was, like me, a Patrick Quentin fan, but I think she probably enjoyed the book rather more than I did. I sense that, by the time this title appeared in 1965, Wheeler was tiring of the game. He'd become established in the world of musical theatre, where great success still awaited him. This story has, as Hughes said, the touch of a professional - especially in the way that suspicion shifts around a pool of possible suspects. But there is something perfunctory about the whole exercise, as if Wheeler's heart wasn't really in it.

The problem is that Lewis Denham, the protagonist, is a rather irritating figure. He's a member of a rich (and even more irritating) family and when he marries in secret, he pretends, for no reason that I could find credible or remotely sensible, that he is not married. Then, when he and his new wife come across a body and realise that she might be a prime suspect, they make matters much worse for themselves by stupidly taking away the corpse and pretending that nothing has happened. 

Overall, I felt that this was a story where the characters behaved in the way that they did mainly in order to build the suspense. Yes, contrivance is permissible in a crime story, but it needs to have a touch of believability and we usually need to empathise with at least one of the characters. Wheeler was a talented writer, and he could characterise rather more effectively than he does here. He was also adept at plotting, but I'm sorry to say that, some time before the end, I lost interest in the whodunit twists. This isn't a bad book, but there are certainly a good many better Quentin books than this one. Why was it the last? Probably because Wheeler was smart enough to realise that he'd lost his touch.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

A Week to Remember


It's not often in my life that I've had a week like this one. Three memorable events already, with a trip to CrimeFest yet to come. Yesterday saw the publication of The Edinburgh Mystery and other tales of Scottish Crime, my latest anthology for the British Library's Crime Classics series. I've included a lengthier intro than usual, discussing Scottish mystery fiction over the years. The stories in the book are an eclectic mix and as ever I hope that there will be something to please all sorts of tastes.

On Monday, Herb Lester Associates produced This Deadly Isle, my Golden Age mystery map. They've done a lovely job of production. I love the cover image and the map itself is a delight. There's information about a variety of GA mysteries, enough to keep dedicated fans who like to see the locations in which stories are set travelling for a long time to come. This really was a fun project.

And today, for the very first time, I've held in my hand a copy of The Life of Crime. Actually, it almost needs two hands - it's a big book! Nothing, obviously, compares to holding your own child in your arms for the very first time, but for any author the experience of seeing - at last! - the physical form of the book on which you have been labouring for so long is quite a moment. That's especially true of this book, if only because of the sheer length of time I've been thinking about this project, let alone working directly on it.

To celebrate the imminent arrival of this book (UK publication date is 26 May, and it will hit the shelves in the US at the start of August), I've written various articles for different platforms. One that has just been published is this piece on CrimeTime about some of my favourite writers of books about crime fiction.

How will The Life of Crime be received in the wider world? I really don't know, to be honest. But one thing I can say for sure is this. I'm really happy that I wrote the book, crazily ambitious though the whole project was. And I'm truly thrilled that it's finally seeing the light of day.

Monday, 9 May 2022

The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing

In the lead-up to publication of The Life of Crime, I was asked last week about my favourite books relating to the crime genre. This prompted me to think back to the appearance of The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert, which was finally published in 1999, but was a very long time in the making. 

Let's rewind to the late 1980s. At that time, I was reviewing and writing about crime fiction for a number of publications and also working on the novel that became All the Lonely People. I'd been taken on by an agent, Mandy Little, and I told her of my interest in writing a book about the genre. At that point in my embryonic career, I certainly wasn't foolhardy enough to believe I was equipped to write such a book on my own (a vital catalyst came years later, in a conversation with Andrew Taylor) but I thought I could marshall a book of essays. So I pitched to her the idea of an Oxford Companion about the genre. As luck would have it, Mandy was friendly with Michael Cox of the OUP, and he visited me in Cheshire to discuss the project. Michael was a delightful chap and we had a pleasant afternoon, walking around Lymm Dam in the sun. He later became a very successful novelist prior to a tragically early death. He was enthusiastic about the project, and things were looking good. I was excited.

Then came the news that, unbeknownst to him, OUP in the US had commissioned a very similar book to be edited by Rosemary Herbert. So 'my' Companion bit the dust. This was a shame, especially as it came during a period when a couple of my other pitches met a comparable fate - I was beaten to it by better-known writers - but that's life. It's quite common - a point I make in The Life of Crime - for several authors to have similar ideas at much the same time. I was very pleased when Rosemary asked me to write essays for her Companion. Time went by and requests to contribute further pieces came my way. In the end, I think I contributed more essays than almost anyone else. Later, I met up with Rosemary, and found her delightful company. She even commissioned a new Harry Devlin story for her anthology Murder on Deck

The main problem with the Companion was simply that it took so long to produce. Robert Barnard and Catherine Aird were in the team supporting Rosemary, and I suspect that all of them were probably frustrated by the delays, which saw several editors at OUP in New York come and go. I began to wonder if the book would ever appear and sadly quite a few contributors, including Julian Symons, who wrote several essays for the Companion, died before it saw the light of day.

However, it was most definitely worth waiting for and I think it's still got a lot to offer the student of crime fiction. There are some wonderful pieces by a range of very well-informed writers - the essay on 'Singletons' by Barry Pike is one example, but I could mention many more. The book earned an Edgar nomination and to me, the only surprise is that it isn't better known today. Rosemary and her team did a great job, in what I suspect were challenging circumstances, and she also produced, in 2003, a slimmed-down version, Whodunit? A Who's Who in Crime Writing in which she generously included an essay about a young novelist called Martin Edwards. So although I never got to edit an Oxford Companion, this particular story led to what, for me, was a happy ending. 

Friday, 6 May 2022

Forgotten Book - He Who Whispers

He Who Whispers was first published in 1946 and many people rank it as one of John Dickson Carr's finest novels. It features Dr Gideon Fell, my favourite Carr detective, and some crafty work with impossible situations. So why haven't I got round to reading it until now? Too many books, too little time, is the answer. But at last I've read the story - and with considerable pleasure.

The novel opens in post-war Soho. Miles Hammond has been invited to a dinner of the Murder Club, which seems to be modelled to an extent on the Detection Club and also on its true crime counterparts. However, when Miles arrives at the restaurant, neither his host (Fell) nor any of the other Club members are present. Instead, he meets a young woman called Barbara Morell and a French professor called Rigaud. What has happened to the Club members? This preliminary riddle turns out to be quite easily solved: what matters is that the conditions are ripe for Rigaud to tell his two companions a tale about a mysterious murder committed in France before the war. 

The story of the murder amounts, in effect, to a fairly long flashback. I did wonder, as I was reading, why Carr did not opt for the greater immediacy of presenting the events as they happened, rather than in retrospect. On reaching the end of the book, I understood why he opted for this method, although I still think it might have been worth structuring the story differently. Fortunately, Rigaud's account is itself quite atmospheric, and the puzzle he presents is intriguing.

I don't want to say too much about the detail of the book, in order to avoid spoilers. The cast of characters is quite small and early on I spotted a point of similarity between this novel and one of Carr's early Bencolin books. This prompted me to come up with a theory about the puzzle that, I'm very happy to say, was completely mistaken. As a result, a crucial plot twist took me completely by surprise - yet it was adequately clued and foreshadowed. Fell isn't as prominent as usual, but this is an entertaining mystery in the classic tradition.



Wednesday, 4 May 2022

The Colonsay Book Festival

I've just returned from a memorable trip to Scotland's west coast and the Colonsay Book Festival. I've been lucky enough to take part in some wonderful book festivals around the world, and I must say that this one ranks among the most enjoyable. Not simply because it's so good to get back into the festival way of life after the pandemic, grand though that is, but because the location - on a small and remote island more than two hours by ferry from Oban - was fantastic and the company and organisation of the festival equally excellent. 

I was one of half a dozen speakers and given that two of them have been nominated for the Booker Prize, it felt like very select company indeed. I was interviewed by Neil Hutton, an academic expert in criminal justice, and the time whizzed by during our session. It was good to see two auld acquaintances, Alex Gray and her husband again, and to meet Karen Campbell and hers. The other speakers were John Burns, the poet Robin Robertson, and the novelist and journalist Andrew O'Hagan. Andrew read from his forthcoming 'state of the nation' novel Caledonian Road, a superb extract and enough to make me think this is a novel that might be a Booker winner - you read it here first! The hospitality (with excellent meals at the Colonsay Hotel - strongly recommended) was terrific from first to last and the photo shows the six of us relaxing outside the village hall where the events took place before catching the ferry back to the mainland.

Colonsay is a gorgeous island and luckily the weather was mostly kind, enabling us to to drive round the island and also to wander across the Strand as far as the beach at Oronsay, an island that is paddling distance from Colonsay. Standing stones and lovely, almost empty beaches contribute to the appeal of the landscape and the views take the breath away. The trip fired my interest in the western isles and I hope to return to that part of the world before too long.

On the way, we stopped off at Inveraray and went round the castle and its grounds and also the ancient and highly atmospheric Inveraray Jail. A sunlit evening walk along the banks of Loch Fyne was quite idyllic. Other highlights of the trip included a look around St Conan's Kirk on the edge of Loch Awe. On the way back, Oban greeted the ferry with a spectacular sunset and next morning there was time to explore Seil Island, which is linked to the mainland by the steep 'Bridge over the Atlantic' - another intriguing place with bags of atmosphere - and also Luss, which claims to be the loveliest village in Scotland. A wonderful trip and I'm very grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make it such a success.


Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Backfire - 1987 film review

There have been several films called Backfire. The one I'm focusing on today comes from the late 1980s and is, I think, rather under-estimated (one commentator said it should have been called 'Misfire', a harsh verdict from which I dissent). The main trouble with any discussion, however, is that there are some interesting plot twists and it's not easy to avoid spoilers. But I shall try!

Jeff Fahey plays Donnie McAndrew, a Vietnam veteran who is suffering from PTSD as a result of his experiences in the military. He has terrible nightmares and he's also plagued with jealousy because he is upset by a relationship that his attractive wife Mara (Karen Allen) had with a local chap called Jake (Dean Paul Martin, whose last film this was before his tragically early death in a plane crash) ten years ago. Mara tries to reassure him, to no avail.

The McAndrews live in a vast mansion on the coast and are obviously a very affluent couple. If only Donnie could get over his mental health issues, everything would be fine. Or would it? The complications begin a at this point. An important character called Reed (Keith Carradine) comes into the story, but to say too much about him wouldn't be fair on anyone who hasn't seen the film yet.

The script is written by Larry Brand and Rebecca Reynolds, about whom I know nothing, but I think they do a pretty good job in creating a mystery that has familiar ingredients yet also benefits from touches of the unexpected. Yes, tighter direction might have built the suspense a little better, but I felt that Backfire supplied me with good entertainment.


Friday, 29 April 2022

Forgotten Book - The Trouble Makers

I've spoken before on this blog about my admiration for the work of Celia Fremlin. She's one of the authors to whom I've given quite a bit of attention in The Life of Crime. Inevitably, it's only been possible for me to talk at length in that book about a selected number of authors whose work I love, but I do see her as influential and important in terms of the development of domestic suspense. 

Francis Iles, a very shrewd critic and excellent judge of writing quality, heaped praise on Fremlin's first two books. She didn't need to focus on violence and murder in her stories. Skilful characterisation allowing for the creation of tense situations was her forte. The Trouble Makers, her fourth book, first published by Gollancz in 1963, is a case in point. It presents a picture of suburban life which is as disturbing as it is compelling.

The lead character is Katharine, a harassed mother of three girls whose marriage to Stephen is far from blissful. She takes solace and indeed pleasure from the fact that her friend and neighbour Mary seems to be having a worse time in her own marriage, to an older man called Alan. A number of other women in the neighbourhood who are friendly with Mary also enjoy feeling superior to her.

This is a subtle, slow-burning novel which presents a rather horrifying picture of the interactions between a number of women. Their husbands have considerable failings, but they remain in the background. Fremlin's focus is on the shortcomings of her own sex. To what extent her views were influenced by her own experiences, I don't know, but the outcome is truly chilling. Fremlin describes a way of life which in some respects now belongs to the distant past, but there is something timeless about her portrayal of the casual cruelties of which seemingly decent people are sometimes capable.   

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

The CWA Conference - Torquay 2022

Last weekend Mrs Edwards and I made the long journey to Devon to join the CWA's annual conference at the splendidly located Imperial Hotel in Torquay (the photo shows 'London Bridge', a rock formation just around the corner). I say 'annual', but because of the pandemic, this was the first conference since Windermere in 2019, which also marked the end of my time as Chair of the CWA. To be able to see so many old friends (and meet some lovely people for the first time) was a joy. Zoom is great, but there is something special about being able to share jokes and stories with other people in person.

Incredibly, 32 years have passed since I first attended a CWA conference in Torquay - that one coincided with the celebrations connected with the Agatha Christie centenary and it was a truly memorable occasion, with a trip to Greenway, still at that time owned by Agatha's daughter: it was my only encounter with her. This time, the organisation of the conference was overseen by Michael Jecks. He and his team did a terrific job. The fact that I've been involved with helping to organise a number of recent conferences gives me an added appreciation of the work that goes into making things run smoothly. It's not an easy job and I must say that I relished not having any responsibility this time - other than to enjoy myself.

Another trip to Greenway was on the programme this time, but having stayed there not so long ago, we opted to explore Torre Abbey instead. When I've been in Torquay in recent years giving talks at the Agatha Christie Festival in the Spanish Barn in the Abbey grounds, I've never had time to look round the place properly. It was definitely worth doing - and visiting the Agatha Christie Poison garden was a special bonus - see the photo above.

At the conference itself, there was a wide range of talks. Perhaps the stand-out was Harry Tangye (nephew of Derek), an excellent speaker, but I was also very taken with an ex-cop and jailbird turned cagefighter who has, in the time-honoured phrase 'turned his life around'. On Friday evening there was a reception at the local museum, which has one room dedicated to Agatha. The after dinner speaker at the banquet on Saturday evening was Victoria Dowd, who will be joining me on a panel at CrimeFest before long. Allan Martin kindly inscribed a copy of his new book for me, while I was glad to hear, among other things, that Derek Webb's plays are going great guns, as are Maxim Jakubowski's anthologies. I enjoyed a fascinating banquet chat with Stella Jakobi and also a meal with Frances Brody, Kate Ellis and Christine Poulson.  It was also good to see Keith Miles and Cath Staincliffe on the longlist for the Dagger in the Library. All in all, great fun.


Friday, 22 April 2022

Forgotten Book - In Face of the Verdict

In Face of the Verdict is a Dr Priestley novel which John Rhode published in 1936. It's an uncommon title and I was pleased to lay my hands on a White Circle paperback edition. Rhode was probably at the height of his powers at around this time, so it was a novel which I looked forward to reading. As it turned out, it is most interesting as an example of Rhode's craft as a detective novelist, and the strengths and weaknesses of his methods.

The blurb says: 'The sheer ingenuity of Mr John Rhode is deservedly a matter for enthusiasm. He is certainly one of our more resourceful providers of puzzles that are real brain-teasers.' In this case, Major Walter Bedworthy (great name; no jokes, please) is found dead, and the inquest verdict, to which the title of the novel refers, is 'Accidental death by drowning'. But his friend Sir John Hallatrow isn't convinced, and he summons assistance from Priestley.

A few days later, the Major's brother, one Ernest Bedworthy, also drowns. You don't have to be Dr Priestley to conclude that there's no coincidence here. But, as usual with Rhode, the question is how did the killer commit the crimes? As the story proceeds, Rhode takes the opportunity to poke fun at temperance and telepathy (he clearly equates the latter with spiritualism) - he was a strictly practical chap who liked his beer, after all.

The murder method is elaborate and difficult to figure out, especially if like me you don't have a practical turn of mind. But I'm afraid I didn't care enough to try to solve the puzzle. Agatha Christie's skills at characterisation are often criticised, but compared to Rhode, she created in-depth people. It's clear that the starting point for the story was a clever m.o., but the way Rhode handled it meant that the culprit is a shadowy figure, while two wearisome red herring suspects take centre stage. Disappointing.