Friday, 18 October 2019

Forgotten Book - A Bullet for Rhino

Clifford Witting (1907-68) is one of those writers who flew somewhat under the radar. His work isn't often discussed, but he was elected to membership of the Detection Club ten years before his death, and his books are admired by such knowledgeable aficionados as Barry Pike and Nigel Moss. Nigel it was who lent me his copy of A Bullet for Rhino, originally published in 1950, and I'm glad he did.

This was the ninth case for Inspector Harry Charlton, a likeable fellow who happens to be an old boy of Mereworth School. He's invited to a reunion, at which, he's told, his well-known but highly controversial contemporary "Rhino" Garstang will be present. But it becomes clear that someone is anxious for him not to attend. It's clear (and not merely from the title) that murder is in the air. And as soon as we are introduced to Rhino, it's clear that he is a very suitable victim. He is one of those Golden Age victims who makes a point of giving people reasons to kill him. Most unwise.

Even though this is a post-war novel, it certainly has a Golden Age flavour. The restricted private school setting, so popular with Golden Age novelists, contributes to this. And Charlton here acts rather like an amateur detective, with the local cops taking charge when someone tries to blow up Rhino. The clever finale in particular seemed to me to be more typical of a Golden Age mystery than a conventional police story.

A cricket match at the school plays quite a significant part in the storyline, and as a cricket fan myself, I found this pleasing. Possibly those who aren't cricket lovers may be less impressed, but again cricket, with its ethos of fair play, is very much a game in keeping with the Golden Age tradition. All in all, I liked this book and felt Nigel's recommendation was spot on. 


Wednesday, 16 October 2019

More Crime Classics on the way



The British Library has just issued its catalogue for the first half of next year, and it's full of good things. Including, naturally, half a dozen Crime Classics that will offer a wide variety of delights for fans of good mystery fiction. For many people, I suspect the stand-out title will be The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer. This splendid impossible crime story was the work of a major writer in the making. Shaffer wrote it in his early twenties and I've been trying to get it back in print for years. This has not been easy to achieve, but I'm glad that a new generation of readers will have a chance to enjoy it at last.

John Dickson Carr returns, with another Henri Bencolin story, the splendidly atmospheric Castle Skull, set in the Rhineland. We're also back in continental Europe with Crossed Skis, by Carol Carnac. Carnac was a pen-name of Carol Rivett, better known as E.C.R. Lorac, and this is a very enjoyable Alpine mystery indeed - even if, like me, you wouldn't want to be caught dead on a pair of skis.

I'm delighted that Mary Kelly's The Spoilt Kill is included in the list. This is the book that won her the CWA Gold Dagger when she was  still in her early thirties - perhaps there have been younger winners since then, but not many, that's for sure. I read the novel many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it when rereading it prior to writing my intro for this edition. I've also benefited from the insights of the author's husband, Denis, who has been enormously helpful.

By popular demand, there's another John Bude book - in fact, a volume which contains two rare Bude novels, Death in White Pyjamas and an impossible crime story, Death Knows No Calendar. And finally there is another anthology which I've put together. Settling Scores is a collection of sporting mysteries; each story is by a different author, and each features a different sport. 

Monday, 14 October 2019

The Hooded Gunman by John Curran - review

John Curran is renowned as an expert on Agatha Christie, and his research into her private notebooks broke fresh ground in terms of the analysis of how detective novelists devise their stories. I've referred to his books many times, and I've no doubt that I'll be referring frequently to his latest book, The Hooded Gunman, just published by HarperCollins. It's a detailed assessment of that splendid, and much-missed imprint, the Collins Crime Club. I should disclose that I'm one of those thanked in the acknowledgements at the front of the book, but regardless of that, I can recommend this book unreservedly to all serious students of the genre.

The Hooded Gunman is a beautifully presented book, crammed with full colour illustrations of dust jackets as well as many photographs of great interest to the crime fan. It's the most gorgeous book about the crime genre I've seen since It's All One Case, a superb book about Ross Macdonald's work published three years ago which deserves to be much better known. Terence Caven's design work is admirable.

In one sense The Hooded Gunman is a coffee table book, because of the heavy focus on quality illustrations. But it's much more than that. I'm not quite sure if John has read every single book published under the Crime Club imprint, but I wouldn't be surprised. He's certainly done a huge amount of research, and as a result, the text is more interesting and valuable than is usually the case with coffee table books (something else it has in common with It's All One Case). A large section of the book is devoted to reprinting jacket blurbs which will be a very useful tool for readers who want to consider seeking out particular titles. 

There are also several short but informative sections, for instance about Crime Club card games and the dons' detective novel competition judged by Agatha Christie among others. John makes the point that E.C.R. Lorac was particularly well-served by the artists who produced dust jackets for her books, and there's evidence here to substantiate this claim. I've enjoyed reading John's text and I've also had a lot of pleasure simply leafing through this handsome volume, admiring the illustrations. A joy for book lovers, and a very good Christmas present for the detective fan in your life.

The Isle of Wight Literary Festival


This weekend, I was delighted to take part in the Isle of Wight Literary Festival, at Northwood House in Cowes. It's a long time since I last visited the island (back in the days before I had a car; the future Mrs Edwards and I spent a few days touring around via the local bus service...) and so I seized the opportunity to combine the event with some sight-seeing. The luck I've had all year with the weather finally ran out, but even in damp conditions, the island is a pleasant place to visit, and this time I travelled over via the car ferry from Southampton, which made it possible to drive around from place to place and dodge the showers.


The Festival has been running for a number of years now, and the Chair, Maggie Ankers, has an excellent team of colleagues assisting her and making sure that this is an event that many writers, ranging from Dan Snow to Alexander McCall Smith, are keen to attend. The hospitality was first-rate, with not one but two receptions, each followed by a pleasant meal in the setting of a yachting club. I enjoyed learning about the island.



It's a place with a lot of history, and I visited Newtown, once a major medieval harbour, now a highly atmospheric coastal village, as well as the Bembridge Windmill and the Needles. There's a chairlift for sight-seers at the Needles, but the wind was so strong that it was out of action when we visited Alum Bay.


In Victorian times, tourists flocked to the island, and many of the resorts are now enjoying a renaissance. Again, we didn't see them at their most inviting, but Yarmouth, Ventnor, Shanklin, and Ryde all have a lot going for them, and I'd like to return sometime. One of the most memorable places was one I'd never heard of. This was Quarr Abbey, a magnificent brick-built Benedictine monastery, with ruins of a medieval abbey in its grounds. A very special place. After my talk, it was fun to meet fellow crime fans before making the long journey back to Cheshire. All in all, a memorable weekend. 



Friday, 11 October 2019

Forgotten Book - Fer-De-Lance

Of all the great American crime writers, Rex Stout has been something of a blind spot for me. Many years ago, Some Buried Caesar was strongly recommended to me, and I was underwhelmed. But he was an important figure in the genre, and I decided to give him another try. I opted for the first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, which dates from 1934.

The story was the first recorded case of Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin, who narrates. But as Loren D. Estleman, who wrote the intro to my paperback edition says, you really wouldn't realise this - the duo are portrayed compellingly, and as Estleman points out, that portrayal really didn't vary during their long career. Wolfe was the supreme armchair detective, and Archie did the leg-work.

It was a clever idea, to combine a Great Detective in the classic mould with a character who might have sprung from the pulp magazines, and Stout married the two traditions to better effect than perhaps anyone else. I was more impressed this time around than on my first encounter with his work, and the mystery is a clever one. But although I'm warming to Stout, I still wouldn't class myself as a devotee.

The principal murder method here is very much in the Golden Age tradition, and so is the idea of murder committed on a golf course, while the vivid finale is in keeping with the action story template. It's also historically interesting that Wolfe is struggling financially because he is as affected by the Great Depression as everyone else in the US at the time, an unusual aspect of the story which did appeal to me. Well worth reading, and some regard this one as a masterpiece. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Last Seance and Tales of the Troubled Dead


Image result for the last seance agatha christie


I like ghost stories, and enjoyed writing one a while back - "No Flowers", which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and which I even recorded for their website podcast. Over the years, quite a few crime writers have dabbled in stories of the supernatural. Agatha Christie is a notable example, and now HarperCollins have had the bright idea of putting together a chunky volume of twenty of her tales of the uncanny (but not those featuring Harley Quin). It's called The Last Seance, and it's just come out.

There are one or two well-known stories here, perhaps most notably "Philomel Cottage", while  no fewer than eleven of them (including the title story) were included in The Hound of Death, an interesting and under-estimated collection. Christie is famous as an exponent of highly rational whodunit plots, but this book illustrates that she had an abiding interest in the supernatural, and quite a flair for writing about it. There is no introduction (I believe one was planned, but fell through: a pity), but there is a good bibliography.

Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History, is very different. It's a non-fiction study written by Catherine Belsey and published by Edinburgh University Press. The author is an experienced academic, and although I find academic books about popular fiction interesting, all too often I find the style of writing depressingly dense. A tendency to overload the text with cross-references (surely books written for academics should assume that the readers are capable of finding page numbers for themselves) is another recurrent weakness. Happily, this book is an exception, because Catherine Belsey writes entertainingly and with insight, and doesn't feel the need to encumber her text with tedious material designed to prove that she knows her stuff.

"Ghosts don't stay put" is the opening sentence, and perhaps my favourite illustration of Belsey's pleasing literary style can be found in an engaging chapter about Women in White: "Ghostly dress codes vary". I also liked her wry reference to Tony Blair: "The ex-premier, however, is not entirely fictitious." The book veers around its subject in a discursive way that I found agreeable. It's not in any way a text book, and all the better for that. Many other academic writers could benefit from adopting a more relaxed, less insecure approach to their writing in the manner of Belsey. 

Apulia and Allotments


In recent times, I've enjoyed combining my crime writing life with travel, and I've found increasingly that escaping from my computer tends to help me to come up with fresh story ideas. Not, usually, because I've gone to great lengths to seek out specific ideas, but rather because having a more relaxed mindset is often the best way to find inspiration. Anyway, when booking a holiday in Apulia (or Puglia as it's known here) I thought I might get the germ of an idea for a story in Matera, a town I've wanted to visit for several years. But things took an unexpected turn...


Apulia is rather less well-known to British visitors than many other parts of Italy but it's very attractive and relatively unspoiled. The first stop was Lecce, which has among various baroque delights (and papier mache figures) some remnants of a Roman amphitheatre. A nice town, but in many ways a warm-up act for a wonderful place, Alberobello, famed for its distinctive Trulli houses, and somewhere that appealed to me hugely.



After that, we (along with our pals Kate Ellis and her husband Roger, whose company is always enjoyable) headed for Matera. When an artist I met told me about Matera's wonderful atmosphere, I wanted to take a look for myself, though I wondered if it would live up to the hype. No question, it did. It's the third oldest continuously inhabited town in the world, we were told, after Aleppo and Jericho, and the cave-dwellings which were once "the shame of Italy" are now a key attraction at this year's European Capital of Culture. A destination I can recommend unreservedly. And the mysterious bones in an underground crypt certainly provoked a lot of thought...






Bari, an ancient port, exceeded my expectations, while the remote mountainside town of Monte Sant Angelo was very impressive, as well as slightly eerie: now that's somewhere that would be a good setting, I thought....After that it was on to Vieste, and Peschici, two coastline towns offering dramatic scenery as well as labyrinths of narrow streets and alleyways. A boat trip along that coast, during which we ventured into various caves and grottoes, was utterly memorable.





Our other travelling companions included two people who extolled the virtues of having an allotment; and that's when a story idea unexpectedly came to me - at a point in the trip when I was already worked on another short story, a version of a locked room mystery with a difference. They were very helpful in supplying me with background information and by the end of the trip I had sketched out the whole story in note form. As for a story set in the mountains or in the crypt of a cave, you never know...






     

Monday, 7 October 2019

In a Lonely Place - DVD review

The film of In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray, is rather better known than Dorothy B. Hughes' novel (1947) from which it was adapted. Both are quite excellent, but very different. I read the book first, and now I've caught up with the DVD of the movie, which stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Bogart plays Dix Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter whose career is in decline.

In the novel, Dix is a war veteran who hankers after becoming a writer, but doesn't achieve his dream. He becomes obsessed with picking up women and murdering them, and the book charts his mental decline. In the film, a young woman in whom Dix has shown an interest is murdered, but it's not clear until the end whether or not he is guilty of the crime.

Even though I knew in advance that the film script bears only a limited resemblance to the source material, I was still surprised that Andrew P. Solt, the writer, jettisoned so much of Hughes' book. Given the excellence of the novel, this was a high-risk gamble, but in fairness to Solt, he does create a mood of menace, and the actors do a superb job. I'm slightly surprised that nobody has attempted to re-make the film in a manner more faithful to the book; perhaps the success of Ray's version remains a deterrent.

In the bonus extras, the comment is made that in the movie, Dix is a man whom women watch, whereas in the book, he's a man who watches women. This distinction between the approach of the male and female writers struck me when I was watching; there's something very modern about Hughes' writing, and the same can't quite be said about Solt's script, despite its considerable merits. But I enjoyed watching the film almost as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Not least because of the soundtrack by George Antheil, known to locked room mystery fans as Stacey Bishop, author of Death in the Dark.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Forgotten Book - Twisted Clay

Twisted Clay by Frank Walford was in its day a very controversial novel - banned in the author's native Australia for a quarter of a century or so. It was originally published in 1933, but it certainly bears little or no resemblance to anything written by, say Christie, Sayers, or Marsh. I came across mention of the book on the blogosphere, on the admirable Pretty Sinister Books, if I remember rightly, and duly sought out a recent reprint from Remain Books.

This is one of those old novels that benefits enormously from being set in context, and the Remain edition does that job splendidly, as well as being very nicely produced. Johnny Mains explains what led him to bring the novel back to life; Jim Smith provides an account of the author's career; and James Doig explains the story of the book's reception. All this material, not over-long, I found valuable.

And the story? Well, it's a first person narrative, and Walford daringly adopts the voice of a teenage lesbian who graduates from minor misdemeanours into serial murder. One can certainly argue that the handling of the issue of sexual orientation is rather crude and simplistic, rather as well-meaning attempts by other writers at the time to tackle race issues can often seem inept to readers with a 21st century perspective. The handling of mental instability was also, for me, unsatisfactory. But Walford's ambition is undeniable, and his book certainly has both power and readability, features which go some way to compensating for other defects.

One thing is for sure. There is nothing "cosy" about Twisted Clay. I'm not even sure that "dark" does it justice. I read it very quickly, and I tend to feel that's the best way to tackle a story of such concentrated unpleasantness. It's no literary masterpiece, but it's historically (at least) very interesting. Not for everyone, I suspect, but worth a look if you're intrigued by the way crime writers have tackled morbid psychology down the years. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Murder She Said: The Quotable Miss Marple

Murder She Said: The Quotable Miss Marple is a stocking-filler published, in extremely good time for Christmas, by HarperCollins. It follows a similar little book of Hercule Poirot quotes, Little Grey Cells, which landed on the shelves a couple of years back. The earlier book was put together by editor David Brawn; the new one is the work of Tony Medawar.

Like the Poirot book, this one includes an interesting bonus feature, namely a short essay by Agatha Christie herself: "Does a Woman's Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?" This piece dates from 1928, and was originally published in The Star newspaper to coincide with final publication of the first set of Miss Marple short stories (there is also a bibliography of the Marple short stories, most of which appeared between 1927 and 1931, as well as an intro to the book by Tony Medawar).

The quotes are grouped into eight sections: the art of conversation, men and women, crime and detection, the young, murder, Marple on Marple, human nature, and life. Here is one of my favourites, from the very first Agatha Christie novel that I read, The Murder at the Vicarage:

"Observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets to expect not very much from it."

Cynical, of course, but in the past there have been times in my life (especially during my days as a partner in a law firm) when I have, despite my instincts to the contrary, felt much the same!