Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Big Somewhere by Steven Powell

The growth of academic interest in crime fiction over the past few decades has been quite stunning. When Julian Symons published the first edition of Bloody Murder in 1972, very few scholarly studies of the genre were available. Since then, hundreds have been published. Crime has become a "respectable" subject for academic study. Yet it's striking that not one of these academic books has had a fraction of the impact of Symons' book.

Why is this? Certainly, there are many insightful and scholarly studies of the genre which have taught me a good deal. But there is also a sense that some (too many, to be frank) of these books represent the work of a small group of people talking to themselves, rather than to the wider community of crime fans or crime writers. It's not uncommon, for instance, to find endless pages devoted to turgid footnotes which seem designed mainly to prove that the authors have done their homework and which, I suspect, hardly anyone finds useful. In my opinion, that's a real pity.

Not long after The Golden Age of Murder was published, I was invited to take part in a symposium focusing on the work of James Ellroy at the University of Liverpool. The event was organised by a lecturer at the university, Steven Powell, who has specialised in writing about American crime fiction, and in particular about Ellroy. I really enjoyed taking part (and meeting, amongst others, Woody Haut, whose books about hardboiled crime fiction, and its links with Hollywood have long appealed to me); I also found that I enjoyed reading Steven's own writings, which seemed punchier and more accessible than much other academic work about the genre.

Now Steven has a new book out; The Big Somewhere is published by Bloomsbury, and comprises a range of essays by various authors (including Woody Haut) on the subject of Ellroy's fiction.  My interest in Ellroy dates back to the late 80s, and although I've not read much of his work in the last fifteen years, I attended a talk he gave some time ago (making sure that he inscribed some of his books to me!) and found him as remarkable in person as he is in print. There is nobody quite like "the Demon Dog".

His unique qualities as a crime writer are well captured, and cogently analysed, in The Big Somewhere. In addition to a general introduction, Steven Powell contributes the first essay in the book, and co-authors the tenth and concluding essay, which deals with Ellroy's influence on the British writer David Peace. It's always the case with a book of this kind (as it is with an anthology of short stories) that one will not rate every contribution equally highly, but I found something of interest in all of them. Diana Powell's study of Ellroy's influence on Megan Abbott (in her earlier novels, at least) is particularly thought-provoking.

Because I'm a fan of books about the genre, I'm keen to see a narrowing of the gap between academic studies and more popular accounts of crime fiction, such as Bloody Murder. Novelists like me who are interested in the genre's range and possibilities can learn a great deal from the academics, and I think it's fair to say that there are plenty of academics who could profitably study the art of writing readably. Books like The Big Somewhere, which contain a good deal of valuable information without becoming unduly bogged down by scholar-speak, point the way forward. I enjoyed reading this book, and not only because of the absence of tedious footnotes in tiny print! I think that anyone who is a serious Ellroy fan will find The Big Somewhere worth reading. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

Launching Gallows Court


I've never had a launch party for one of my novels in London before, but Head of Zeus did me proud last week with the launch of Gallows Court at Hatchards in Piccadilly, a lovely venue and London's most historic bookshop. I arrived at the venue on a high, given that the book had just received fantastic reviews in The Times and The Sunday Express, as well as on various blogs and other sites. So I was very much in the mood to celebrate.




And what a fun occasion it was. Many years ago, when I was being published by Transworld, a senior editor gloomily warned me not to get over-excited about launches, and I've never forgotten that. But things are different with Head of Zeus. It really was a wonderful evening and the turnout was terrific.







Barry Forshaw was signed up to conduct a short QandA with me, and he handled it with his customary aplomb. Gary Stratmann kindly took photographs and I'm grateful to him and also to Sven Pehla for the photos accompanying this post.




Among many others, I was delighted to see my former agent, Mandy Little, her successor James Wills, my editor at Harper Collins, David Brawn, and my former editor (from my days with Hodder) Kate Lyall Grant, along with fellow crime writer and music agent Paul Charles. I'd lunched with Paul and chatted to Kate a week earlier in Florida: small world, huh? Simon Brett, my predecessor as President of the Detection Club, came along, and so did Sheila Mitchell, widow of Simon's predecessor, Harry Keating, Bodies from the Library organisers, and the family of CWA founder Roy Vickers. It was good to see Gordon Griffin, a terrific actor who has recorded many of my audio books. There were also numerous CWA chums including Mike Stotter, Linda Stratmann, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Ali Karim, Ayo Onatade, and Chrissie Poulson, other fellow writers such as Robert Thorogood, the lovely guy who created and writes Death in Paradise, blogging friends like Moira Redmond, and Golden Age enthusiasts like Sven, Seona Ford from the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, and Geoff Bradley, editor of CADS.





Among a group of guests whom I first got to know at university were two guys I'd last seen when I took my degree - a very long time ago indeed. Wonderful to see them again after all this time. I very much appreciate the efforts of Nic Cheetham, Suzanne Sangster and the rest of the Head of Zeus team to make the event a success. And I was truly grateful that so many nice people took the time to help me celebrate a book that means a good deal to me.







Friday, 21 September 2018

Forgotten Book - Murderer's Fen

Andrew Garve enjoyed a long and fairly illustrious career as a crime writer, as well as pursuing a successful career as a journalist under his real name, Paul Winterton. I tend to bracket him with Michael Gilbert, who was just a few years younger, because they were both versatile and highly professional writers whose books are invariably smooth reads. If I lean in favour of Gilbert, it's partly because he uses his legal expertise so brilliantly, and I think he was a slightly more gifted writer. But Garve was good, make no mistake about that.

Today I'm focusing on Murderer's Fen, a novel he wrote in the mid-Sixties and which is nowadays available again, thanks to Bello. If I didn't know Garve had written it, I could guess, because it features life on a boat as one of the elements in the story - Garve plainly loved sailing, almost to the point of obsession. It crops up time and again in his novels, and it's to his credit that although I'm not interested in the technical details of boats and sailing, this quirk doesn't irritate me at all.

Murderer's Fen is interesting as an example of the "inverted mystery". We're introduced to Alan Hunter, handsome and persuasive, while he's on holiday, eyeing up the girls. Before long we realise that he's actually a nasty piece of work, a sexual predator with little or no empathy for the girls he seduces. And soon, he has cause to contemplate murder.

Garve offers us a variation on the classic form of inverted mystery, by shifting the viewpoint from time to time between the culprit and the investigating detectives (a nicely contrasted pair). This device works well as a means of building suspense. An idea for a twist occurred to me which never materialised - perhaps I'll use it myself one day! Garve wasn't super-ingenious, really, but he knew how to tell a good story. And Murderer's Fen is a good read with an excellent setting in -naturally - Fen country.. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Eyewitness - 1956 film

I didn't have particularly high hopes when I settled down to watch Eyewitness, a 1956 British B movie, on Talking Pictures. But I liked the music that accompanied the titles, and soon discovered that it was written by Bruce Montgomery (better known as Edmund Crispin).  A plus. And then I saw the script was written by Janet Green, who was also responsible for those excellent screenplays, Sapphire (which won an Edgar) and Victim. A definite plus. What's more, the cast was excellent, packed with good actors of the period.

The film proved to be excellent, taut and highly entertaining. It must rank as one of the finest achievements of the director, the under-estimated Muriel Box. The suspense is maintained throughout, but there are also plenty of nice touches, including quite a bit of social comment and comedy, that make the watching experience very enjoyable. I'm surprised it isn't better known.

At the start, Jay Church (Michael Craig) buys a television on hire purchase, infuriating his wife Lucy (Muriel Pavlow, actually a former girlfriend of Edmund Crispin). The couple argue, and she storms out of the house, and goes to watch a film to simmer down. Becoming bored, she leaves her seat in the cinema, and chances upon an armed robbery. Two crooks (Donald Sinden and Nigel Stock) are robbing the manager's safe, but the manager turns up unexpectedly. While Barney (Stock, a future TV Dr Watson) chases Lucy, Wade (Sinden) shoots the manager dead. Lucy runs out into the street, and is knocked down by a bus.

Wade realises that he needs to silence Lucy, and discovers the hospital she's been taken to. Together with the hapless Barney, he follows her there. But things get complicated, as the ward is busy, with an eagle-eyed sister, an extremely attractive nurse (Belinda Lee, who five years later was tragically killed in a car crash at the age of 26), a chatty old patient, and an inquisitive young girl. Tension builds as Wade's murderous designs are thwarted more than once.

The wonderful cast, which also includes Richard Wattis, Nicholas Parsons (as a charming young doctor!), Leslie Dwyer, and Allan Cuthbertson, does an excellent job. But the strength of the film lies in its script, economical yet full of telling lines and scenes. Janet Green was a class act, and Eyewitness is definitely an under-rated film, absolutely worth watching.

The Commuter and The Negotiator (aka Beirut) - two 2018 films

When I travelled to Florida recently, the long trip gave me time to read a number of books and to watch a number of movies. Today I'll talk about a couple of the films I watched, two thrillers that made for good aeroplane entertainment.

Liam Neeson is an actor I really like; his combination of crumpled charm and ordinary man turned tough guy heroics isn't easy to resist even if his performances follow a very similar pattern. In The Commuter, he plays a decent family man down on his luck, an ex-cop who is sacked from his job through no fault of his own. As always in films and television, the dismissal is conducted in an off-the-cuff manner that (after my years as an employment lawyer) I find risibly crude and implausible because it's an invitation to litigation that no boss in his right mind would risk. But since it's not a story about employment law, perhaps this is nothing to worry about unduly.

On the train back home, Neeson is approached by a pleasant, mysterious woman, who offers him $100,000 dollars to undertake an apparently simple task. Needless to say, there's a catch...before long, he's involved in a frantic race against time to find which of his fellow passengers is a mysterious character called Prynne, and to figure out why it matters. Yes, it's hokum, but it makes for enjoyable and exciting viewing.

The Negotiator, also known as Beirut, features another class act, Jon Hamm, in the lead role. He plays Mason Skiles, a top diplomat in the Lebanon whose life is wrecked in 1972, when his wife is killed. He returns to the US, and becomes a workplace negotiator before being summoned back to Beirut when his old friend Cal is kidnapped by terrorists.

The screenplay is written by Tony Gilroy, responsible for the Bourne movies, and it's quite accomplished, but it seemed to me that Gilroy was trying to achieve something more than an action thriller, and I'm not quite sure he managed it. Hamm's relationship with Rosamund Pike, one of the kidnap negotiation team, for instance, is rather inadequately developed, while the eternally elaborate politics of the Middle East are tackled in a serious way, but without casting any real light. John Le Carre would, I think, have made more of the material. So what we are left with is an action movie, and it's a perfectly good one, hardly memorable, but a very good way to spend time on a long flight. 


Friday, 14 September 2018

Forgotten Book - A Rage in Harlem

Chester Himes was one of the most interesting American crime writers of the twentieth century. He was sent to prison for armed robbery as a teenager, and after serving his sentence he began to establish himself, both in the US and in France, as a writer of distinction. At one point he spent time at the writers' colony at Yaddo, also frequented by Patricia Highsmith and Kenneth Fearing at the outset of their careers as novelists.

I think it's fair to say that his work has never been as well-known in Britain, perhaps because it seemed so different, so ahead of its time in the late 50s and then the 60s, when he was at his peak. I've only just caught up with his debut novel, A Rage in Harlem, which I read on the plane back from Florida, and I was greatly impressed. Yet, though it first came out in 1957, my paperback edition from 2000 seems to be the first British edition.

It's an exuberant, witty, tough novel, written with an unflinching eye for the follies and foibles of human nature. The opening premise is very funny - a naive chap called Jackson, who works for an undertaker, falls victim to confidence tricksters, who persuade him that they can make him rich. As a result, he loses everything and finds himself pursued by the police when he steals from his employer. He has to turn for help to his twin brother, a hoodlum who masquerades as a nun. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it works, and it's very funny as well as quite exciting.

Himes introduces Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who became his series detectives, and very formidable they are too. I don't know Harlem, so I can't be sure that Himes' portrayal of it is authentic. But what matters is that it seems authentic. He had me hooked, and I devoured this short, violent book with a great deal of enthusiasm.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

A Macavity and more...




I've returned from a week in St Petersburg - the Florida version, rather than the Russian one - which was the venue for this year's Bouchercon. And I am in exuberant mood, because not only did the past few days see the publication (in the UK, but not as yet in the US) of Gallows Court, and a gratifying flow of wonderful reviews, but I also managed to win a Macavity award, presented on behalf of Mystery Readers International.



My plan was always to combine Bouchercon with sight-seeing, and to hope that no hurricanes struck. There were plenty of rumblings of thunder and flashes of lightning, but apart from getting caught briefly in one downpour, the weather was mainly sunny and humid. I liked St Petersburg, which has a rather nice tourist trolley bus called the Downtown Looper, and I was hugely impressed by the Dali Museum. As anyone who has read Gallows Court will be aware, there is a modern art ingredient lurking in the background of the story, and my visit also gave me a few ideas for the book's sequel (because there will be one!) relating to surrealism and Dali's early work. There are hidden meanings in his pictures, just as there are in a good crime story.


The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has been nominated for five major awards, which is highly gratifying, but such is the strength of competition this year that I thought it unlikely that the book would win anything; so to receive the Macavity for best non-fiction book at the Bouchercon opening ceremony was a real bonus, all the more delightful for being so unexpected. And on the same day that Gallows Court came out, too!


As ever, the chance to meet up with old friends was a major highlight of the convention. Lunch one day with Paul Charles and on another with Ragnar Jonasson offered a great chance to catch up, and the same was true of several dinners with a host of lovely people, including Art Taylor, Bruce Coffin, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Kathy Boon Reel, Alan Orloff, Shelly Dickson Carr, Gigi Pandian, and Elly Griffiths. And it's always good to meet nice people for the first time, including Lesley Thomson, a fellow Head of Zeus author, Zack Urlocker, and Christina Kovac.


I did a couple of panels, and in the bookroom I somehow managed to restrict myself to buying only three vintage books, but they were good finds, and you'll be hearing more about them at a later date. On the tourist trail, an absolute highlight was a sunset cruise, catching glimpses of dolphins and soaking up the scenery. And the long flights gave me the chance to read seven books and watch four films, including the excellent On Chesil Beach. All in all, it was a wonderful time and I felt not only exuberant but also very fortunate.


















Friday, 7 September 2018

Forgotten Book - In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place is a justly admired film noir starring Humphrey Bogart, but until this year I'd never come across the novel on which it is based, written by Dorothy B. Hughes, and first published in 1947. The book is quite different from the film in some crucial respects, but I must say that I really, really enjoyed it. It's compelling, very well-written, and just the right length for the material.

The story is told in the third person, but everything is seen through the eyes of Dickson (Dix) Steele, a former pilot who has not found the adjustment to peacetime easy. Hughes describes something that hadn't really struck me very powerfully before - how for some men, war service offered excitement, and a sense of achievement that was unavailable elsewhere. And she describes it so well that I was convinced by Dix and by his often irrational behaviour. He is a memorable character.

The setting is Los Angeles, and very well-evoked that city is too, with fogs worthy of Bleak House, and a strange mix of urban glitz and leisurely beach life. Dix is staying in the home of an absent rich friend, and renews a friendship with a former colleague in the military, only to find that Brub Nicolai has married, and become a policeman.

Given that it soon becomes clear that Dix is a serial strangler, this relationship offers both insight into the police investigation and huge risks. Matters are further complicated when Dix falls for a neighbour, a glamorous but erratic actress called Laurel. Hughes describes Dix's increasingly wild mood swings credibly and with occasional touches of cool wit. This is a very, very good book, and although similar ground has been covered many times since, the quality of Hughes' prose makes it memorable in its own right, and not just as a precursor to later books by Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and countless others.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

CrimeSquad and Gallows Court

I'm away in Florida this week for Bouchercon, a trip arranged some time before official publication of Gallows Court was scheduled for tomorrow. But I'm sure I'll find a way of celebrating!

Anyhow, I'm delighted to have been chosen to be Author of the Month by CrimeSquad.com and the site includes both a review of the novel (a review that pleases me greatly!) and also a question and answer session in which I talk about the book and one or two other things.

My thanks go to Chris Simmons and my publishers Head of Zeus for organising this - here's the link to the feature.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Editing Anthologies

I was pleasantly surprised, last week, to see that Blood on the Tracks, my anthology of classic crime stories with a railway theme, had become a number one Kindle bestseller. And this prompted me to reflect on my unexpected but now quite lengthy career as an editor of anthologies. It dates back long before my involvement with the British Library - to the early 1990s, in fact.

At that time, I suggested to my colleagues in the northern chapter of the CWA that it would be nice if we could produce an anthology of our work. Before I knew it, I'd been elected to edit the book and find a publisher for it. It proved to be great fun. I enlisted the help of a small press, Didsbury Press, and I remember a fun weekend staying with Ann and Tim Cleeves, and meeting up with fellow contributors Reg Hill, Bob Barnard, Chaz Brenchley and Val McDermid to discuss the project. The book that resulted, Northern Blood, did pretty well and earned some nice reviews. And that appeared to be that.

Except that I was then asked to collaborate with members of the East Anglian chapter on an anthology called Anglian Blood; the contributors included P.D. James and Alan "George Gently" Hunter. Another fun project with another small press, though I have to say that the cover artwork was about the most horrible I've ever seen - I was never brave enough to ask Phyllis James her opinion of it!

One thing led to another, as it so often does in life. A year or two later, I was asked to take over as editor of the national CWA anthology, and (again) to find a new publisher for it. More than twenty years later, I still sit in the editorial chair. The experience of editing the book nearly every year has been hugely rewarding - what could be better than being the first person to see a new story by Ian Rankin, or Christopher Fowler, or Liza Cody, or Simon Brett, or...well, you get the idea. It's also been fascinating to take on stories by relatively unknown (at the time) writers such as Sarah Hilary and Mick Herron, who have proceeded to become hugely successful.

As a reader of anthologies as well as an editor, I do feel that it's desirable for each book to have a personality of its own. Typically this comes from a unifying theme, even if it's a relatively broad theme. I've read anthologies that are really just random collections of stories, and that approach isn't for me. That said, I do think it's inevitable that not every story in a book will appeal equally to all readers.

In a few days' time, I'll be taking part in a panel at the Florida Bouchercon which concerns anthologies,and I'm looking forward to it. The joy of an anthology comes from the blend, in my opinion, the combination perhaps of the well-known and the much less well-known, a range of writing styles, and so on. So the editing process does seem to me to be a highly subjective one; but then, that's the nature of writing. This career as an anthologist is something I never anticipated all those years ago. But for me, it continues to be genuinely enjoyable.