Monday, 27 September 2021

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year


I'm truly delighted to be one of the twenty authors whose work is included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Lee Child, and this year's instalment of a series edited by Otto Penzler. The US version is published by Otto's Mysterious Press, the UK version (titled Best Crime Stories of the Year) by Head of Zeus. 

You can no doubt imagine my glee when Otto told me that Lee had selected my story for the book, and when I found out that the other contributors included such luminaries as Stephen King, David Morrell, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton (a posthumous publication, alas) and Joyce  Carol Oates. It's so gratifying to be in such company. And to have another story published by Mysterious Press in the US, just after The Traitor, my new bibliomystery, appeared.

My author copies of the anthology have just arrived and I'm looking forward to diving into my fellow contributors' stories. Early reviews have been terrific. Publishers' Weekly gave the collection a starred review, saying: 'Superior...this volume is a must for mystery aficionados.' There was another starred review from Kirkus, which referred to 'Twenty Gems'. And for good measure Library Journal called the book 'a delicious mixture of style and sub-genre...there isn't a weak link in the bunch.'

My story is 'The Locked Cabin', which originally appeared in Maxim Jakubowski's book of 'impossible crime' stories and was inspired by my Atlantic crossings on the Queen Mary a couple of years back. It's a history-mystery set on the original Queen Mary and was great fun to write. The fact that it's achieved this recognition is an unexpected added pleasure.


Friday, 24 September 2021

Forgotten Book - She Had to Have Gas

I last read Rupert Penny's She Had to Have Gas a decade ago and duly reviewed it on this blog. I felt it began splendidly but then got a bit bogged down. Over the years, I'd forgotten the story (and even the fact that I'd read it!) but I was prompted to take another look as a result of a typically interesting comment from the very knowledgeable Art Scott.

Art mentioned the book in relation to my recent post on Richard Whittington-Egan's book about the Cheltenham Torso case. He highlighted the fact that Penny wrote his novel not long after the real life case hit the headlines. It's an intriguing connection and I was prompted to dig out the book from the vaults to see whether it cast much imaginative light on the Cheltenham mystery, which remains officially unsolved.

The short answer is no. The events of the novel are very different from those in the Cheltenham case. It's not simply that the torso which is central to Penny's mystery is female, it's that the characters and motivations are very different. Even so, it's not impossible that Penny was inspired to dream up his convoluted puzzle by the news story.

My edition of the book is the one featured in the above image, published by Ramble House, whose list is definitely eclectic and worth a look. If you were to come across a copy of the Collins Crime Club edition at a cheap price, I recommend that you snap it up - Penny is definitely collectible, and his firsts are hard to find in good condition, let alone in dust jackets.


Wednesday, 22 September 2021

The International Agatha Christie Festival and exploring the south west

Last year the pandemic put paid to my plans to take part in the International Agatha Christie Festival once again. Happily this year, it all worked well and the dauntingly lengthy journey to Torquay was rewarded by plenty of sunshine and good company as well as some enjoyable stops along the way. I did, however, under-estimate just how long it would take me to drive from Rye to Torquay - basically, a whole day - and was very, very glad that I'd decided to break the journey back home to Cheshire, stopping in the delightful west country.

The director of the Christie festival these days is Tony Medawar, who is well-known to fans of vintage detective fiction as a result of his many contributions to CADS as well as, more recently, the popular anthologies of rare stories that he compiles for HarperCollins' Bodies from the Library series. (I hope to be reviewing the latest title at a later date.) Tony put together an impressively varied programme and invited me to do a couple of events. The first was a talk on 'Crafting Crime' and the second a workshop for a group of aspiring crime writers.

The talk was one I'd not done before, but I was pleased with the reaction as well as the chance to meet a number of delightful people, several old friends and some I'd not met previously (photo credit: Caroline Raeburn). I've done quite a few workshops but I felt the group I talked to at Torquay was especially good at coming up with interesting material in the impromptu exercises. Shortly I'll be launching an online crime writing course; it's called (surprise, surprise), 'Crafting Crime', and I'll talk more about it on this blog before long, but it was good to have the chance to conduct a face to face workshop at long last, after innumerable Zoom sessions. It was also good to return to the Grand (see the top two photos) where I stayed at the CWA conference in 1990, which coincided memorably with the Christie Centenary celebrations.

Wending our way back home took us through Devon and Somerset, two delightful rural counties that I don't know as well as I'd like to. Where possible I avoided the motorways and this made the long drive even longer but more bearable. Highlights included Dawlish (blacks swans and all...), Tiverton, Dulverton, Watchet, Monksilver (with its famous grotesque), Dunster Castle, Selworthy (the climb up to the Iron Age fort of Bury Castle was demanding, but the views made it worthwhile), and Porlock Weir. Calling in at Cullompton (E.M. Delafield's old stamping ground) I was impressed by the library, which seemed like a model of a 21st century community hub.  And towards the end of an epic trip, massive queues on the M6 prompted a return to Shugborough near Stafford. Gorgeous places in a green and pleasant land.


Monday, 20 September 2021

Returning to Rye

I'm just back from a lovely break in the south of England, which was blessed with astonishingly good weather. It was clear early on this year that I wouldn't want to be travelling overseas - although I look forward to the day when that's easy to do again! - and so I decided to concentrate on exploring England, especially rural England. I've also had in mind the potential for researching locations for my next novel and maybe one or two short stories. And I must say that it's been terrific fun. There is so much to see. My latest trip encompassed two really good festivals, the first being Rye Arts Festival.

Because Rye is so far from Cheshire, it made sense to stop off along the way. This led to a first visit to Henley-in-Arden (not to be confused with the Henley of regatta fame), a charming old town, and a break in the journey at Cassington in Oxfordshire, which afforded a chance of a walk around the grounds of Blenheim Palace at the end of the day and then a wander around Scotney Castle and the town of Battle in Sussex the next day.

Next it was on to Rye and three nights in the wonderfully historic Mermaid Inn. After my last visit to the Rye Arts Festival in 2019, I was tempted to reference the town in the storyline of The Crooked Shore, although no action scenes are set there. The town definitely has potential to feature in a Rachel Savernake story and I spent some time exploring its curious byways, trying to figure out what might happen where. 

'The Cryme Day' in which I took part at the Mermaid was really enjoyable. My fellow speakers were Andrew Wilson, Elly Griffiths, and Nicola Upson, all of whom are not only terrific writers but also very convivial companions. Special thanks go to John Case, who again organised everything with unobtrusive excellence. John's calm personality makes an event very agreeable, and given how challenging it has been to organise anything during the pandemic, I think he's done a quite brilliant job. 

For good measure, John recommended us to explore places such as Appledore, a village on the Romney Marsh (another good setting for Rachel!) and Hythe, a coastal resort I've never visited before. There is an astonishing ossuary in the church crypt at Hythe which is one of only two in England; seeing it was a memorable experience. There was also time for a steam railway trip to New Romney and a chance to look at the marsh from a different perspective.

So, plenty of promising raw material for mysterious settings, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable trip.  



Friday, 17 September 2021

Forgotten Book - Case with No Conclusion

Leo Bruce's third book about Sergeant William Beef, originally published in 1939, was Case with No Conclusion. The title is enticingly challenging - it suggests something very different from the conventional Golden Age mystery in which, so we are often told, order is disrupted only to be restored at the end. And there's no doubt that the central plot idea is a strong and attractive one.

Two features of the Beef series help the books to stand out from the crowd. Lionel Townsend is an entertaining narrator, constantly bemoaning Beef's failings, and just as consistently missing the point. He really is one of the most enjoyable and distinctive Watson surrogates in detective fiction. Add to this the plentiful references to the detective genre, and you have a sort of light-hearted metafiction which is very agreeable.

In this story, Beef has left the police and set up as a private investigator. But were his early successes in detection simply due to luck? This question lies at the heart of the story. Peter Ferrers engages his services in connection with 'the Sydenham Murder'. Peter's brother Stewart has been arrested in connection with the killing of an unpleasant character called Dr Benson. But was Stewart guilty? Beef becomes convinced that he was not, but he struggles to prove it.

The only reason why I don't rate this novel as a minor classic of its type is that I feel it sags in the middle, with a cross-Channel foray that seems rather like padding. I think that Bruce, like so many other Golden Age novelists (Richard Hull is an example that springs to mind) found it relatively easy to come up with clever ideas, but didn't always supply enough ancillary plot material (or strong characterisation) to make his novels gripping from start to finish. It might be harsh to say that here we have a brilliant idea for a short story, expanded beyond its natural length, but I do think the storyline would have benefited from further development and texture. But I don't want to criticise too severely, because it was an engaging read and confirmed my enthusiasm for Sergeant Beef.        

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

2.5 million and counting...

A little while ago, this blog passed a milestone of sorts - two and a half million pageviews. I've been a bit distracted lately, not least because of the sadness of learning of the loss of two old friends in Caroline Todd and Robert Richardson, but I guess that this figure is a cause for a modest celebration. One thing is for sure. The blog began back in 2007 and I still enjoy putting the posts together. I haven't become bored with it at all. And I like to think my readers haven't, either!

It's interesting to look back (the photo above was taken in Aberdyfi a few weeks before the first blog post). In 2007, I'd had a couple of award nominations and I'd published eleven novels over a period of sixteen years. I was working on Waterloo Sunset, the eighth Harry Devlin novel, and mulling over the concept of another Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool. I was still very much a full-time partner in my law firm and still stuck on the commuting treadmill. A great deal has changed in the interim. There's no doubt my writing career has moved in a very positive direction, and I've been fortunate in a number of other ways. I'm still a working solicitor, I should add, but on a very part-time basis. My main focus now is on writing, and you could say that's a dream come true.

The blog may not be responsible for these happy developments, but I think it's helped me in a variety of ways. Above all, it's brought me into contact with some wonderful people, both in the UK and much further afield. I greatly value your comments and also the emails and other messages that you send in.

So, my aim is to keep going with the blog for an indefinite period of time. And I hope very much that you'll continue to take an interest in it. Whilst I'm perfectly capable of talking to myself, it's much better to have a bit of company!



Monday, 13 September 2021

Diamond and the Eye by Peter Lovesey - review

It's one thing to be prolific. To be prolific and innovative is quite another. Yet Peter Lovesey, more than fifty years after he burst on to the crime writing scene, continues to try out new ideas. This literary ambition, this willingness to take risks, this refusal to be content with the same-old, same-old, is one of the qualities that distinguishes the best writers. Their number certainly includes Peter, who is the only living author in Britain to have received the CWA Diamond Dagger and also been made a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America.

Now he's come up with Diamond and the Eye, the rear dust jacket of which carries a quote from this blog, which I was rather pleased and proud to see. It's the twentieth in his long-running series about Bath cop Peter Diamond, and he's celebrated by trying something very different and quite unexpected. To the third person viewpoint chapters featuring the police investigation are added chapters told in the first person by a character new to the series, Johnny Getz, who happens to be a private investigator based in Bath.

There is always a touch - and sometimes a generous helping - of humour in Peter Lovesey's novels, and here he focuses on having fun. In particular, he enjoys himself by parodying the style of the classic American private eye novelists, notably Raymond Chandler. Chandler is name-checked several times, and so are various other writers and gumshoes, including one of my own favourites, Amos Walker, created by Loren D. Estelman. The comedic ingredients also include a femme fatale in the unlikely shape of the much-married Lady Bede, who happens to be a member of the local police ethics committee.

The story begins with Johnny investigating the disappearance of a dealer in art and antiques and this forms the prelude to a convoluted case in which the equivalent of the Maltese Falcon is a work of art which, although fictional, has its origins in a piece of Bath's real-life history. This is a less serious mystery than the general run of the Diamond series, but I suspect that during the pandemic Peter was in the mood for light relief and I'm sure his many fans will feel likewise and welcome this good-natured jeu d'esprit

Friday, 10 September 2021

Forgotten Book - The Dream Walker aka Alibi for Murder

Charlotte Armstrong was a talented author capable of sharp psychological insight. She was also admirably ambitious, varying her approach to the task of telling a crime story with conspicuous regularity. Sometimes the result was extremely good, as in Mischief, sometimes more open to question. A case in point is The Dream Walker, first published in 1955. It's a novel with a very intriguing premise, but I must admit that I struggled with the use she made of her raw material.

It's one thing for a writer to have a good idea, quite another to make the best use of it. A conventional novel will often open with the discovery of a murder, but writers of psychological suspense often find a different and perhaps unorthodox starting point. In this book, I was surprised that the story (narrated by a young teacher called Olivia Hudson) began with a rather hurried account of a plot concocted by two men with a view to discrediting a saintly individual, Olivia's uncle, for the purpose of revenge. We don't identify with the bad guys, because they are not characterised in any depth, and more surprisingly we don't identify with the good guy, who is another cipher. I wondered if these characters would be more fully developed as the story progressed, but it's hardly a spoiler to say that they are not. And that did seem to me to be quite a defect.

The real meat of the story lies in the scheme hatched by the bad guys. From an early stage, we know that a woman called Cora, who seems to be in two places at one and the same time, is involved in the plot. Armstrong was aiming, I suppose, for the kind of suspense that you get - as in a Hitchcock thriller - where you know more than the people at the sharp end of the action. For me, however, it didn't work. And unfortunately I found Olivia irritating.

While battling rather wearily through the book, I checked to see what other people made of it. Interestingly, there is a positive review on an excellent blog, Mysteries Ahoy!. Aidan makes the point that Armstrong was indirectly referencing the McCarthy witch hunts, and he describes the book rather nicely as an 'inverted impossible mystery'. Aidan takes a more generous view of the characterisation and structure than I do. For once, though, I'm afraid I wasn't persuaded by his advocacy, skilful as it is. I felt that such a good premise deserved a more gripping presentation. Helen McCloy would, for example, probably have made much more effective use of it.



Wednesday, 8 September 2021

The Life of Crime

I've been pleased by the reaction on social media to my big news - the announcement in the Bookseller of my forthcoming history of mystery, The Life of Crime, to be published by HarperCollins. The sub-title is Unravelling the Mysteries of Fiction's Favourite Genre, and the book is due to land on the shelves on 12 May 2022. It will land quite noisily, because the book is no slim volume. It's about a quarter of a million words long, even after ruthless (believe me!) cutting.

I've been interested in the idea of writing a history of the genre for a very long time. In the 1980s, I kept a card index detailing authors, books, and topics of interest, but other things got in the way and the index gathered dust. Then, in the mid-90s, I had a conversation with fellow author Andrew Taylor, during a St Hilda's crime fiction conference, which stuck in my mind. He said to me that I really should try to write a book that was in effect an update of Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, the study of the genre that he and I greatly admire. Andrew is someone whose opinions I greatly respect. The fact that, even in those far-off days, he thought I was capable of such a feat stuck in my mind. I was flattered, but a bit daunted.

As things turned out, it wasn't until The Golden Age of Murder was published that I turned my mind in earnest to the idea of writing a history of the genre. I knew that it would be a mega-project, and by then I also knew that it would be a very, very different book from Bloody Murder. There are several reasons for this; one of them is that each chapter will begin with a vignette from the life of a particular writer. Symons, in contrast, didn't bother much with biographical details. One of the reasons why I chose this focus was that over the course of my career as a published novelist, I've given many talks on the theme of 'My Life of Crime' and I find that readers' appetites for information about writing careers is boundless. This book seeks to cater to that demand, but in a rather different way than did The Golden Age of Murder.

I'm very excited about this book. I realise that it's impossible to please all readers, or to say everything about every author and novel that deserves to be said. But Bloody Murder came out in 1972, and since then, there hasn't been anything comparable in terms of scope and influence. I've put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into The Life of Crime and I hope that, whether or not they agree with what I have to say, people will find it not only informative and interesting but an entertaining read.  


Monday, 6 September 2021

Robert Richardson R.I.P.


I was truly sorry to hear of the death of Robert Richardson, who – uniquely – served two distinct terms as Chair of the CWA. He also gave a great deal of support to Nancy Livingstone, whose stint as Chair was marred by serious illness. I was friendly with Robert and his charming wife Sheila for upwards of thirty years, and on the last occasion that we met, at a northern chapter lunch in Yorkshire shortly before the pandemic changed all our lives, I had the pleasure and privilege of presenting him with a Red Herring award in recognition of his distinguished service to the CWA and its members over the decades.

Robert was a journalist who moved from writing whodunits featuring an amateur sleuth to novels of psychological suspense. His first crime novel, The Latimer Mercy (1985), won the John Creasey Memorial Award for the best debut of the year. Firmly in the classic detective story tradition, it benefited from a cathedral setting (in Vercaster, a fictionalised St Albans), and an amateur detective who rejoiced in the name of Augustus Maltravers. Maltravers, a playwright, is an intelligent and likeable character, but three years passed before he returned and the mood in Bellringer Street (1988) is bleaker than in the first book. The Book of the Dead (1989), set in Cumbria, contains a lengthy – and well-wrought - Sherlockian pastiche. Memories of ‘Silver Blaze’ and the dog that did not bark in the night-time point Maltravers towards the solution to a murder mystery and help to prevent another killing. 

Maltravers appeared in three more novels before Robert published The Hand of Strange Children (1993), a book nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger. He blended extracts from news agency reports detailing the discovery of two bodies in a wealthy banker’s house with flashbacks so as to build considerable tension. Significant Others (1995), in which he made use of his knowledge of the newspaper industry, and Victims (1997), are also entertaining stand-alone novels.

After that, however, Robert produced no more mystery novels, a real shame, but I continued to see him regularly at CWA events, including our penultimate encounter, at the Lake District conference in 2019 when I came to the end of my own long run as CWA Chair. He presented me with a bottle of wine, ostensibly as a competition prize, but I suspect mostly just as a generous gesture of goodwill. He spent many years tormenting me gently about the misfortunes of Manchester City and in recent years he took it in good part when I retaliated as City gained the upper hand over their rivals, his beloved Man Utd. He had a fund of anecdotes and was a sparky character. I'll miss him.