Friday, 9 April 2021

Forgotten Book - Death Goes to School


Death Goes to School was first published in 1936, under the pen-name Q. Patrick. My copy is a 'Banner Mystery' paperback from 1945, as per the image above. According to the invaluble online resource Crime, Mystery & Gangster Fiction Magazine Index, this imprint, edited by Ken Crossen, extended to just two publications. This was the second, but the story itself can't  be the reason that Banner folded up. Although this is far from the best of the Q.Patrick stories, it's not bad.

The Banner version of the book is so slim that I wondered if the original novel was abridged. This seems, however, not to be the case. And if the story had been any longer, it would have outstayed its welcome. The length of this version seems right for the ingredients of the story and the number of possible suspects (which is very limited, and I think a significant failing).

This is one of many Golden Age detective stories set in a fee-paying school. (I've never, ever read a novel written during the 1930s which is set in a grammar school). Indeed, the two murder victims in the story (others die off-stage) are children, and one of the crimes has an especially macabre flavour. The setting is England, but there are a number of American characters, and the story has its roots in the United States. 

Online sources disagree as to the precise authorship of the book, but it seems pretty clear that it was written by Richard Wilson Webb, while Curtis Evans has suggested that his future collaborator Hugh Wheeler may have had some input, prior to Webb and Wheeler becoming a fully-fledged writing partnership. Both Webb and Wheeler were Englishmen who moved to the US. The build-up is so-so, in my opinion, because I didn't find the characters or indeed the central mystery especially engaging. But the weaknesses are redeemed in the later chapters as the pace hots up and there are one or two pleasing plot twists. 

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

British Library Crime Classics - Looking Ahead

The British Library Crime Classics series continues to go from strength to strength. This is more of an achievement than it may seem, given that sales have been extremely strong in Britain and elsewhere for the past six or seven years. But the series has benefited enormously from the enthusiasm of booksellers, both a large number of marvellous indies and also the likes of Waterstones and Heffers. With the shops shut, many new books have suffered accordingly. The Crime Classics paperbacks, with their very popular artwork, have attracted a lot of interest from shop browsers. Thankfully, ebook sales have been excellent. while to the best of my knowledge, paperback sales have held up better than one might have expected. Much credit is due to the BL's publications department, who have kept things going even when the Library itself has been closed to the public - it's over sixteen months since I was last there.

And now the Crime Classics to be published in the second half of this year have been announced. I think it's a great list, with some personal favourites of mine .These include E.C.R. Lorac's These Names Make Clues, which along with Bats in the Belfry is probably my favourite of her books - though the standard is pretty even, so it is hard to choose. A real gem is John Dickson Carr's excellent Till Death Do Us Part.

There are two books which, interestingly, I enjoyed more the second time I read them than first time around. I think that's probably because to some extent both of them weren't quite what I expected. One is Margot Bennett's The Widow of Bath, which is very witty and well-written, and also cunningly plotted. Another is Anthony Berkeley's 'whowasdunin', the under-estimated Murder in the Basement.

One book the BL, rather than I, discovered was Rupert Latimer's Murder after Christmas. I'm sure I'll say more about that one nearer to the festive season. And there will also be another of my own anthologies, this time with a book-related theme. The precise contents and indeed the title are still being considered by the BL in the light of my various suggestions - I can't imagine it will be possible to include everything that I put forward, for reasons of space, but this will be an eclectic collection and, I like to think, will offer a great deal of entertainment.


Monday, 5 April 2021

Street of Chance - 1942 film review

The first Cornell Woolrich novel I read, back in the early 1980s, was The Black Curtain. It happened to be the first Woolrich book that was filmed. The movie version was called Street of Chance, and many more film adaptations of Woolrich novels and stories followed. His storylines were highly cinematic, with hapless protagonists facing nightmarish dilemmas and dangers. Street of Chance is a good example.

Debris falling from a building in New York City hits Frank Thompson (Burgess Meredith) as he is passing by. When he recovers consciousness, he is disconcerted to find that his hat and cigarette case are marked with unfamiliar initials. He goes back home to discover that his wife Virginia (Louise Platt) has moved. When he tracks her down, she reveals that he has been missing for five years...

Yes, this is an amnesia story, and a good one. Frank soon finds himself pursued by an aggressive and violent man, and goes on the run. Before long he discovers that while he was out of himself he took another name and identity and got involved with Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor), a maid to the wealthy Diedrich family. Unfortunately he is suspected of having murdered Harry Diedrich, and is being hunted by the police.

Is he guilty of the crime or can he prove his innocence? The beauty of Woolrich's fiction is that, because he wrote stand-alones rather than novels with a series character, one can never be entirely confident that the protagonist will survive unscathed. Meredith does a first-class job as an ordinary guy thrust into a life-or-death drama and the film zings along at a satisfactory pace until the final climax. An early essay in film noir, it stands the test of time really well.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The End of Solomon Grundy

Julian Symons published The End of Solomon Grundy in 1964 and I first read it a few years later, after borrowing from the local library an omnibus of three of his novels. I must have been about fourteen or so at the time. Having exhausted the works of Christie and Sayers, I was venturing into what was then contemporary, cutting-edge crime. As I later learned, this book was one of Symons' own favourites, though I had mixed feelings about it. I'm now glad to have the copy Symons inscribed to his friend and fellow crime writer George Sims, but half a century later some misgivings remain. 

Symons was interested in social satire, and there's a good deal of that in the first part of the book. Along the way, he tackled various burning issues of the time, including suburban housing, racism, sexual mores, and homophobia. So the book casts very interesting light on progressive thinking of the time. I'm pretty sure that when I read it at a tender age, some of the points Symons were making went over my head. And of course, what was progressive then is not so progressive now, and today the book seems much more dated than some of Symons' other novels written in the Sixties. As a document of social history, however, it does have considerable fascination.

The main setting is The Dell, an upmarket housing estate which Symons based on a real-life development near his one-time home in Blackheath. There is a disruptive figure in The Dell, namely a ginger-headed Irishman called Solomon Grundy. He's lived there for some years, and is a successful commercial artist, but his marriage isn't faring too well and his temper is apt to fray.

At a party, Grundy has an encounter with a young woman, who claims he attacked her. Subsequently, she is found dead. Who has killed her? Grundy becomes the prime suspect and there's plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest his guilt. There is a trial, described at length, which features Magnus Newton QC, the criminal lawyer who had appeared in some of Symons' earlier books.

As always, Symons writes very engagingly. I enjoy reading him, as I enjoy reading such different writers as Michael Gilbert, Peter Lovesey, Reg Hill, and Robert Barnard. Their prose is lively and witty, their puzzles unorthodox, their stories always highly readable. But The End of Solomon Grundy isn't one of my favourite Symons mysteries. The plot felt rather anti-climactic when I first read the book, and it still does. And although Symons was focusing on psychology, I'm not convinced that he really captured the key relationships between his characters in adequate or convincing psychological depth. Beta plus, rather than an alpha.


Wednesday, 31 March 2021

More than Malice and the Agatha Awards

I was delighted to receive the news that Howdunit has been shortlisted for an Agatha award, following its recent nomination for an Edgar award. This is the third time a book of mine has featured in the Agatha nominations and it's all the more pleasing given that, as a result of the pandemic, members of the Detection Club who contributed to Howdunit have not been able to meet in person for more than a year. We are collectively honoured by the nomination!

I was also pleased to see the names of a number of friends in the list of nominees, including but not limited to Art Taylor, James Ziskin, Catriona McPherson, Lori Rader-Day, and  Shawn Reilly Simmons. It's especially gratifying to see Sheila Mitchell's biography of her husband Harry Keating in the list. I contributed an appreciation to that fine book and recommended Sheila to her excellent publishers, Level Best Books. Not that I realised our books would one day be in competition for an award, mind you!

It is all the more frustrating that, once again this year, I won't be able to attend Malice in person. However, the organisers have come up with a fascinating online alternative. This is More than Malice, which will take place from 14-17 July. A wide range of stellar guests will be taking part. In addition, I shall be involved in an event focusing on Golden Age detective fiction with a number of lovely colleagues. More details will be available soon.

The pandemic has made life difficult for all events organisers - including those of us who are involved with Alibis in the Archive, which will also take virtual form this year, in October. But the efforts that everyone is making to provide entertaining alternatives are admirable, and whilst an online event is not quite the same, it is far, far more enjoyable than sitting at home on one's own thinking about what might have been.


Monday, 29 March 2021

Heartstones - 1996 ITV review

began life as a novella by Ruth Rendell. I remember that it was published along with a novella by a younger writer, Helen Simpson (no connection with the Helen Simpson who wrote crime int the Thirties). I read the story when it first came out, way back in 1987. I remember enjoying it - I was a very big fan of Rendell, and at that time she was at the peak of her powers - and I believe I reviewed it for a magazine. 

I didn't, however, see the TV version which came along as part of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries anthology series in 1996, and it's taken until the lockdown to repair that omission. The script is by Guy Meredith, and although the decision to turn the story into two episodes of over fifty minutes each mean that there is a bit of padding, overall it's a production which stands the test of time pretty well.

The cast is top-notch - there is even a small part for Idris Elba, playing a young pest controller. Anthony Andrews plays Luke, a handsome canon at a lovely cathedral (I gather the production was filmed at Winchester). His wife has recently died after suffering from cancer, although as the story begins, it seems there is a possibility that she may have been poisoned.

We see events through the eyes of Elvira (Emily Mortimer), the elder of Luke's two daughters. She and her sister Spinny (Daisy Haggard, whose father Piers was the director) have a close relationship, and they are devoted to Luke. When Luke falls for another woman, however (played by Helena Michell), tensions mount and it is foreseeable that there will be fatal consequences. This isn't one of Rendell's best-known stories, but it's pretty good and well worth watching. 


Friday, 26 March 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder in the House of Commons

Ellen Wilkinson's The Division Bell Mystery is a fascinating example of a detective story with a political background which benefits from an insider's know-how: the author was a leading figure in the Labour movement between the wars and in the 1940s. The book was quite well-known even before it reappeared as a British Library Crime Classic. But it was anticipated by a novel published in 1931 by another prominent female Labour politican which has rarely been discussed. This is Murder in the House of Commons by Mary Agnes Hamilton.

Hamilton (1882-1966) was a  Manchester-born writer, broadcaster, and civil servant who served as Labour MP for Blackburn from 1929-31. Her brief Parliamentary career came to an end with her party's political collapse in the general election. Unlike Wilkinson, who was a politician to her fingertips, she did not return to Westminster. But she turned her knowledge of the political scene to account in her novel.

Hamilton was educated at Cambridge and had a varied literary career. She wrote a book about Greek legends, biographies of women trade unionists and Ramsay MacDonald, anti-war fiction, a book about John Stuart Mill, and much more. Quite a polymath. I don't know why she didn't write more detective fiction. I suspect the simple explanation is probably right - that, like a lot of intellectuals during the Golden Age, she dabbled with the genre without having a passionate commitment to it.

A very good judge strongly recommended Murder in the House of Commons to me, and it is conspicuously well-written. The Westminster setting is used throughout, which makes for a slightly claustrophobic feeling, and the focus is on amateur detective work conducted by a couple of Parliamentarians. An oddity is that neither the victim nor one of the key characters spends much time on centre stage, and the book is very talky. 

Intriguingly, there is a seal before the solution - a marketing gimmick that Hamish Hamilton had used previously when publishing UK editions of John Dickson Carr's first novels which were Sealed Mysteries. I don't know if Hamish Hamilton used this device on other books by other British authors. This title is rather a curious choice for the 'sealed mystery' approach, since the whodunit puzzle isn't especially strong. I doubt Mary Agnes Hamilton was much interested in ingenuity for its own sake. This is an interesting novel in a number of ways, but I don't think that Hamilton was, for all her literary prowess, really a top-flight storyteller. The Division Bell Mystery is less ambitious as a novel, but the story has greater verve.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle - 1973 film review

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is based on a novel by George V. Higgins, published three years earlier in 1970. It was his first book, and there are those who think that in his long career he never surpassed it. The film was directed by Peter Yates, a Briton who had previously directed two other crime films, Robbery (very British) and Bullitt (very American), to great acclaim. He does an equally good job here. 

Robert Mitchum is at his best in the role of Eddie Coyle. This is not Mitchum at his most menacing, but a rather nuanced performance of a low-level criminal, a gun-runner who works for the Irish Mob in Boston. He's at risk of going jail, and so he turns informer. But of course, where the Mob are concerned, informing is a very dangerous game. Can he stay one step ahead of the police and the criminals?

Coyle supplies a gang of bank robbers with guns, and the robbers use their weapons to take hostages. We see two robberies in some detail. The first goes to plan, but the second goes awry, with fatal results. This has consequences for the gang members and also for Eddie Coyle.

Coyle is giving information to Dave Foley (played by Richard Jordan), a cop who also has a relationship with Dillon (Peter Boyle), who runs a bar and is a hit man on the side. The relationships between the key characters is reveled in laconic dialogue - dialogue-writing was Higgins' great strength, and Paul Monash's script does his book justice. The New York Times said this is a 'good, tough, unsentimental movie', and that sums it up perfectly. 

Monday, 22 March 2021

Two-Way Murder by E.C.R. Lorac


I've been rather consumed in recent weeks by the demands of the novel that I'm writing at present, as well as a series of online lectures and researching future titles for the British Library Crime Classics. But I did want to mark the publication at long last of Two-Way Murder by E.C.R. Lorac. This is book 89 in the Crime Classics series (who would have thought we'd ever manage to produce so many? Not me, that's for sure) but it's unique - because it isn't a reprint. This is a book that was originally written in the 1950s but which has never been published before.

I talked about this book in a blog post last autumn and I must reiterate what a joy it is, after so many years of striving, to see the manuscript I'm familiar with turned into a book on the shelf. It's a different emotion from the experience of seeing one's own book in print, of course, but it still gives me personal pleasure - I feel like a literary detective! 

It will be interesting to see what readers make of the story. I'm very encouraged by the positive response of blogger and GA fan Steve Barge, whose views about it happen to be similar to my own. This is the very first review I've seen. Steve explains (and this is entirely understandable) that his expectations were modest, but that he thinks it is 'really rather good'. As he says, the characters are interesting and he likes the 'damn fine trick' played by the murderer. 

I'm always inclined to look at things from the author's point of view. I'm as sure as I can be that Lorac would have been absolutely thrilled had she been able to conceive of the possibility of her novel finally being brought to public attention more than sixty years after she wrote it. It is such a shame when decent work fails to see the light of day. I'm genuinely proud of this particular entry in the series.

Friday, 19 March 2021

Forgotten Book - Death of Mr Dodsley

John Ferguson was a Golden Age writer whose work enjoyed some success in its day but has seldom been discussed in modern times. He was a Scot who made a remarkable transition in life: he was a railway clerk who became ordained as a clergyman and earned a separate reputation as a crime writer and playwright. In the field of detective fiction, he was talented enough to be snapped up by Collins Crime Club. His ministry took him far and wide, and a spell in the Channel Islands gave him background material for Death comes to Perigord, which might just be the earliest detective novel to be set in Guernsey. 

I came across Death in Perigord many years ago in that very good series of Dover paperback reprints of vintage mysteries. Although I recall being underwhelmed by the plot, the setting appealed to me, and I decided to seek out Ferguson titles whenever I could find them. Perhaps because he had a full life, he was far from prolific: the invaluable GADetection site lists just ten crime novels, published between 1918 and 1942. Yet his versatility as a writer was impressive. He was a playwright of some renown, and he also wrote historical fiction, one of his books being set in the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. In the crime field, Dorothy L. Sayers admired Night in Glengyle, although she was less enamoured of The Grouse Moor Mystery, a venture into the 'impossible crime' field. I rather share her view of the latter; as for the former, I acquired a copy a while ago and hope to cover it on this blog before long. 

One of Ferguson's greatest strengths was that he wasn't content to work to a formula, and Death of Mr Dodsley, published in 1937, is a bibliomystery concerned with the murder of a bookseller in his shop on Charing Cross Road. There's an opening chapter set in the House of Commons, although the bulk of the story concerns the detective efforts of the official police and Ferguson's series detective, the Scottish private detective Francis MacNab. MacNab is a sympathetic character, but we don't learn much about him in any of the books that I've read, and this is rather a pity. 

This is a story where, as Ferguson makes clear in a dedicatory preface, the emphasis is on a 'fair play' puzzle. Not for the first time with Ferguson, I felt that the early part of the story was the best, before we get embroiled in the complications of the plot, This is because, although I sense from occasional passages in his fiction that he was very interested in human behaviour, there is a sense of constraint about the writing that keeps one at a distance. I don't have the same experience with Agatha Christie's books, despite the criticisms so often made of her presentation of her people. Ferguson is, therefore, to some extent a frustrating writer, but Death of Mr Dodsley is nevertheless an interesting example of period detective work.