Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The Neighbor aka Last Days of Summer - 2018 film review

The Neighbor
is a film released in 2018 which is also known as Last Days of Summer. Both titles are rather low-key, perhaps excessively so, and this rather reflects the mood of the film itself. The story is one of those which involves crime but which is perhaps better described simply as a drama. It's not a whodunit, for sure, and the mystery is really just about what fate holds in the store for the central character.

That person is Mike Prentis, a man in late middle-aged, married with a son, who works from home as a technical writer. Mike is a mild-mannered chap, almost an everyman figure. If that doesn't sound exciting, well, excitement isn't what this film is all about. It's a study of character and although the story is slight - no elaborate plotting or cluefinders here! - it's carried along by the superb performance of William Fichtner as Mike.

I don't know much about Fichtner, but I was very impressed by his nuanced reading of an essentially decent man who becomes increasingly obsessed with his pretty neighbour Jenna (Jessica McNamee), who has moved in next door with her outgoing and extremely irksome car salesman husband Scott (Michael Rosenbaum). Mike has, in many ways, a very good life. His wife Lisa (Jean Louisa Kelly) is attractive and intelligent, a teacher with great commitment to her work. Kelly does well, however, to convey Lisa's essential selfishness and coldness. She complains, quite reasonably, that Mike doesn't show great interest in her work, but fails to recognise that she is even less interested in him. Their son Alex is closer to her than to Mike, and although Mike is a pleasant guy, we have a sense of his increasing isolation.  

Mike becomes concerned that Scott is abusive towards Jenna, but although he tries to protect her from harm, matters are complicated by the fact that he fancies her like mad. He wants to do the decent thing, but from an early point in the story, one worries that it won't end well. This is a sad film, a sobering story of disintegration. Even though the plot is thin, I thought it well-made and conspicuously well-acted.  

Monday, 3 May 2021

Enola Holmes - 2020 film review

One legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic will, I'm sure, be a high level of demand for escapist entertainment in a wide variety of forms. We're already seeing evidence of this in a number of places, and the popularity of the Netflix movie Enola Holmes is a good example. It's a light, feelgood movie with some excellent acting and high production values and although it does have various weaknesses, to some extent it chimes with the mood of the times.

The great strength of the film lies in the appeal of Millie Bobbie Brown, who plays Enola, the younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. She brings a great deal of verve to the part, and in an interesting move, she breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience. The film begins on her sixteenth birthday, with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter).

Sherlock and Mycroft hasten back home - having ignored Enola for many years - and Mycroft's attempts to send Enola to finishing school prove abortive. She sets off to find her mother and becomes involved in another mystery, involving an attempt to kill young Viscount Tewkesbury. I particularly enjoyed the railway scenes, filmed on the wonderful Severn Valley Railway. 

There is an enjoyable role for Frances De La Tour, and the reliable Fiona Shaw is also in the cast, but this is Enola's film. Her character is genuinely interesting and engaging, whereas the mystery storyline is pretty ordinary. The detective work is nothing special - it's mostly to do with codes and ciphers - and we don't get to meet Dr Watson, while this version of Mycroft is unappealing. The script isn't a model of subtlety and because the film is far too long, my attention did begin to wander. Just as the best Sherlock stories were the short ones, so the best screen versions of stories featuring the great detective are crisply written and don't outstay their welcome. This isn't one of the best, but it's a pleasant time-passer. And it's made a vast amount of money, so a sequel is on the way. 

Friday, 30 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The Litmore Snatch

The Litmore Snatch, published in 1957, was Henry Wade's final novel. He was 70 when it appeared. I've had a copy for years, but until now I've never got round to reading it, despite the fact that I'm a long-term fan of Wade. I suppose the reason was because I feared it wouldn't be much good. The title, with its faint hint of desperate trendiness I found off-putting. Another factor was that I've read very few really good books about kidnapping. And there's been very little discussion of this one, despite a revival in Wade's popularity in recent years.

But I decided, for no particular reason, to give it a go, and I'm very glad I did. Rather like Wade's debut, The Verdict of You All, written more than 30 years earlier, it's a story which is heavy on police investigation, and rather reminiscent of the work of Freeman Wills Crofts. The setting is interesting and untypical - the north east coast of England. The main locale is the fictional town of Harborough (rather more built-up than Scarborough, and to the north) but Hartlepool also plays a part. 

I found the opening pages a bit ponderous. In some books (but not others) Wade's prose did plod along rather than move with a zing, and at first I felt this was indeed going to be an anticlimactic novel, lacking the energy of its predecessors. But once the son of newspaper owner Herbert Litmore is kidnapped, things liven up. One very interesting element in the second half of the story is the part played in the inquiry by a woman police officer, Sergeant Mary Wittam. There may have been British books before this which featured female cops, but I can't think of any.

Wade does try to move with the times - a holiday camp, Bullivant's, which is presented as a sort of upmarket Butlin's, is relevant to the storyline, for instance - but as so often, it is his interest in the relationships between police officers that is most striking and effective. The plot is workmanlike rather than dazzling, but it kept me entertained. Overall, The Litmore Snatch is a good read, and represents a perfectly sound finale to a first-rate crime writing career.


Wednesday, 28 April 2021

The Life of David Gale - 2003 film review

The Life of David Gale was the last film made by that excellent director Alan Parker. Nicolas Cage was also involved in the production, and the screenplay was written by Charles Randolph (whose other credits include The Interpreter). The cast is led by Kate Winslet and Kevin Spacey, and their names tempted me to give it a watch. This is a film which seems to have divided opinion quite sharply. Critics disliked it. Audiences give it high ratings.

What explains this disparity of reaction? I think it must have a great deal to do with the central theme of the story. This is a thriller which has capital punishment at its heart. There is a race against time in the traditional way as Winslet's character (journalist Bitsey Bloom) strives to save the life of Gale (Spacey) before the time appointed for his execution. But the pros and cons of the campaign to abolish the death penalty are also central to the film, and.Parker described it on his very informative website as 'a thriller with a polemical heart'.

David Gale is a philosophy lecturer and passionate campaigner against the death penalty who is about to be executed when Bitsey is offered the chance (in return for half a million dollars) to have an exclusive interview with him for her magazine. The deal is done, but as Bitsey listens to Gale tell his story, she begins to believe that he is innocent of the crime. But if he didn't kill his fellow activist Constance, who did?

The quest to find the truth is very well handled, although there are also various holes in the plot. But if you consider this film as a thriller, I think it works pretty well despite those flaws, mainly because of the excellence of the acting. It's quite a long film, but Parker certainly knew how to keep the momentum going in a movie. If you're looking at the polemical side of things, however, I'm sure you'd find it equivocal. For my part, I was engaged right to the end and the final, truly outrageous twist.

Monday, 26 April 2021

The Rental - 2020 film review

Inevitably, one's reaction to a book or film is often coloured by one's expectations. This is one of the reasons why it can be a good thing, when time allows, to give a novel or movie a second chance if it didn't live up to those expectations the first time around. When I watched The Rental, a recent crime film which teeters on the edge of the horror genre, I must admit that I wasn't expecting much - just another routine home invasion film, I presumed. But although it's no masterpiece, it is better than I anticipated.

I've never stayed in an Airbnb rental home, but apparently the director and co-writer David Franco got the idea for the story from an experience in such a place. Suffice to say that his film isn't a great advertisement for that kind of short break. From the moment that Charlie and Mina contemplate renting a house in a very remote - though lovely - location for the weekend, one fears for them. And rightly so.

Charlie and Mina are business partners. Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina is dating his brother Josh, who has recently served time in jail but is trying to make a fresh start. I have to say that, before long, I began to dislike all four of them (and their dog), and one of the flaws in the script is that they are almost as unlikeable as the creepy chap who shows them round the rented house.  

There's quite an interesting idea at work here, which only becomes clear right at the end of the film, and this means that the story isn't quite as predictable as seemed to be the case for much of the running time. Before that intriguing climax, the two couples make some stupid decisions with disastrous consequences. At least the dog comes to no harm...  

Friday, 23 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The Dark Page

Samuel Fuller is remembered today mainly as a film director. His movies were sometimes under-estimated and often made on the cheap, but his storytelling flair often shines through. Among various other accomplishments, he was also a talented novelist and The Dark Page, published during the Second World War while he was serving as a soldier in Europe, is a particularly interesting and highly readable book.

The book was filmed (although not by Fuller) as Scandal Sheet; I haven't seen the movie, but reviews suggest that it lacks the novel's hypnotic grip. And grip the reader it certainly does, partly because of the punchy prose and partly because the set-up is very appealing, while the background - in the newspaper business, which Fuller knew very well - is done with tremendous conviction.

The story opens at a Lonely Hearts Ball, organised by ace newspaperman Carl Chapman. Carl has an eye for a headline and the event is a great success. He's at the peak of his powers, happily married, a family man. But disaster awaits. Someone at the Ball recognises him. And it turns out that Carl has a secret in his past, a secret he will stop at nothing to protect.

The plot influenced that of a better-known book, Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock. I admire Fearing's version of the basic idea, but Fuller's treatment is equally impressive. Even in the 21st century, an enterprising film-maker could conjure up a very good movie from the raw material. My paperback edition benefits from an intro by Wim Wenders and an afterword by Damien Love, both written in 2007 and both of considerable interest. I can definitely recommend this one. It deserves to be better known.


Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Len Tyler - The Detectives' Decalogue - part two

Today, Len Tyler follows up on his guest post on Monday with his proposed new ten commandments for classic detective fiction. Enjoy!

   1 No violence should take place on the page when it can take place off the page and be reported back without too much upsetting detail.

   2 No sexual activity should be included that cannot be easily replicated by a typical crime reader at home, with the aid if necessary of items that are readily obtainable from Waitrose.

   3 While not actually denying the existence of modern scientific methods of detection, the crime should as far as possible be solved by logic, ingenuity and sheer British pluck.

   4 The police should tolerate, and preferably welcome, the assistance of an amateur detective, especially one who has never come across a murder before.

   5 No clue should be discovered by a police officer if it could reasonably have been discovered by the amateur detective.

   6 The employment of secret passages is permitted, so long as they are not the entire solution to an otherwise inexplicable murder.

   7 Identical twins may be introduced into the book, provided they are knowingly referred to as ‘the Knox brothers’.

   8 Nobody shall be murdered in a town if they could have easily traveled to a small village to be murdered.

   9 Any technology not available during the Golden Age (mobile phones, internet etc) must fail just when most needed.

  10 Snowstorms shall, as a matter of course, last long enough for the amateur detective to investigate all aspects of the case before the police can arrive.

   I hope this revision of the rules will be of value to traditional crime writers and of some interest to those who read their books. Those who would like further discussion of these issues - and who might enjoy a fictional killing or two - may like to consider reading Farewell My Herring, the ninth instalment of the Herring series, available (as they say) from all good bookshops and the usual vendors of ebooks



Monday, 19 April 2021

Len Tyler - The New Detectives' Decalogue - part one

I first came across L.C. Tyler's fiction when I read and reviewed The Herring-Seller's Apprentice. This amusing mystery introduced luckless detective novelist Ethelred Tressider and his fearsome agent Elsie Thirkettle. I was greatly entertained and I've enjoyed the series ever since. Happily, Len is this week publishing another entry in the series, Farewell My Herring. To celebrate, he has kindly written a guest post specially for this blog. Today I'll post the first part,.leaving Len's revised Decalogue as a treat in store for Wednesday. Over to you, Len...

' When I wrote my first book, many years ago now, I thought I’d just written a novel. It was only when my publisher started marketing it as crime fiction that I accepted that writing about murder made me eligible to join the Crime Writers' Association, and indeed later to become its Chair. When I attended my first crime conference I was faced with a supplementary question: what sort of crime writer was I? It apparently dictated whether I was on the ‘Can You Ever Have Too Much Blood and Gore?’ panel or the ‘Quilt-makers Who Kill’ panel. I have always rejected the label of ‘cosy crime’ (unless speaking to an audience who only ever bought craft-based mysteries). I would probably describe what I do as comic crime or, better still, traditional crime. My ‘Herring' (aka Ethelred and Elsie) books look back, very consciously, to the Golden Age, its conventions and its rules.
   In Farewell My Herring, my two protagonists find themselves teaching on a seminar for writers of traditional crime fiction, at a remote location in the north of England. When the least offensive participant on the course is found strangled in the woodshed, and a snowstorm cuts the party off from the rest of the world, my two amateur detectives are obliged to investigate. As you do.
   The subject and the setting made me, of course, reflect a great deal on exactly what I mean by traditional crime fiction. And for those enjoy such things, Farewell My Herring does contain a certain amount of discussion of the genre generally. The ten rules of Golden Age fiction were famously tabulated by Ronald Knox in 1928 and have been much quoted and parodied ever since - including on this blog ( They also form the framework of my chapter in the Detection Club’s collaborative mystery, The Sinking Admiral. This ‘Decalogue’ stresses ‘fair play' and includes some very reasonable stipulations such as ‘the criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know’. It also includes the slightly quirkier ‘no hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end’ and ‘twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them’. Some rules, like ‘the detective himself must not commit the crime’ have been frequently and successfully broken.
   It is clear however that the Decalogue needs updating to reflect what we mean by traditional crime fiction today...'

To be continued!

Friday, 16 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The Crime of Colin Wise

Michael Underwood was a self-effacing man, most of whose books reflected his interest in and knowledge of the law. The people I've spoken to who knew him regarded him as a likeable chap as well as a dependable writer, as this obituary by Harry Keating in The Independent indicates. To an even greater degree than his fellow lawyer Michael Gilbert, he preferred not to put much of his own personality into his fiction, and this may help to explain why he never became a high-profile writer.

I recently acquired a copy of The Crime of Colin Wise that he inscribed to some friends in the year of publication, 1964. The dust jacket blurb describes it as 'certainly the most intriguing and perhaps the most unusual crime story Michael Underwood has yet written'. It's an inverted story, told from the viewpoint of Colin Wise himself. Colin is a young man who works for a TV repair company (ah, those were the days, or perhaps not...) and who, when the story begins, has decided to commit murder for money.

His intended victim is an author who is about to embark on a six-month trip overseas. Colin's cunning plan is to kill him, hide the body parts (after dismembering the chap in the bath) and then take control of his finances. At first the plan goes well, but it soon becomes clear that Colin's crime is far from being a perfect murder.

I always find that Underwood keeps me reading, because his prose, although undramatic, is fluent. The story is interesting, because although we feel sure that things won't go smoothly for Colin, what exactly will happen to him is unclear. There are trial scenes and, as you would expect, these are handled authoritatively. Not does the story outstay its welcome. So I read the book quickly and with genuine and sustained interest.

My main reservation is that Colin himself is deeply unappealing. He's selfish and has few redeeming qualities. Compare Dr Bickleigh in Francis Iles' Malice Aforethought or the protagonists in Julian Symons' The Man Who Killed Himself and The Man Whose Dreams Came True. Those individuals also get involved in terrible crimes, but the authors persuade the reader to feel at least a degree of kinship with them. dreadful as they are. That is more than one feels for sociopathic Colin. And those books also had a superb ironic twist. Underwood contrives a twist at the end of his book, but because it hasn't been foreshadowed, I felt it didn't have as much impact as it should have done. Sometimes you can be too low-key.


Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Many Deadly Returns - the new Murder Squad anthology


None of us can quite believe it, but it's 21 years since Margaret Murphy formed Murder Squad, a group of northern crime writers, and if ever there was an anniversary worth celebrating, we reckon this it! (Especially since we were denied the chance to celebrate our 20th birthday by the pandemic). The cornerstone of those celebrations this year will be the publication of an exciting new anthology, Many Deadly Returns, which will be published by Severn House on 26 August.

Appropriately enough, there are no fewer than 21 stories in the book, a nice mix of brand new stories and examples of our work from the past that you may well not be familiar with. There are three stories written by each of the Squad's current members: Margaret, Ann Cleeves, Chris Simms, Cath Staincliffe, Kate Ellis, and me. And there is also a story from each of our three former members: Chaz Brenchley, John Baker, and the late Stuart Pawson. I've edited the book and there's a foreword by Margaret.

So, what of the stories? Well, a dawn swim turns deadly in a brand-new short story starring DI Vera Stanhope . . . Two bored cell-mates play a game with chilling results . . . A hen night in an isolated cottage brings new meaning to ‘I will survive’ . . .  A train traveller teaches a valuable lesson in reading labels . . . A day at the seaside turns stormy for a woman who doesn’t care for foreigners . . . A wealthy retiree makes a new friend who connects her to the Other Side . . . and much much more.

Murder Squad has been an important part of my life throughout those 21 years. It's a great pleasure to collaborate with such lovely people and during our time together there have been many wonderful occasions. And a few good anthologies too! We hope readers everywhere will enjoy this one.