Monday, 6 December 2021

The Power of the Dog - 2021 film review



A few years ago Liz Gilbey recommended me to read Thomas Savage's novel The Power of the Dog, which was first published in 1967. I'd never heard of the book or the author and I was surprised when Liz told me that it was a superb crime novel - even more surprised when I bought a copy and started reading. But I soon realised that it's a terrific novel and that Liz's praise was well merited.

Now, more than fifty years after its first appearance, the book has been filmed, by Jane Campion no less. The lead character is the malevolent Montana rancher Phil Burbank and I must admit that if I'd been casting this part, I certainly wouldn't have thought of offering it to Benedict Cumberbatch. But I'd have been wrong. What a brilliant actor he is. Phil is a trick character to portray, but he does a great job.

On the surface, this is a Western, and I would not describe myself as a fan of Westerns (other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). It's also a long film, a real slow-burner. The events of the book also move at a measured pace. I do feel that I enjoyed the film more because I'd read and loved the source novel. I felt Campion did Savage justice. It's an impressive piece of work.

I don't want to say too much about the storyline, but Phil and his amiable brother George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy men who are very different but have a close relationship. That relationship is, in Phil's eyes, threatened when George marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenage son who is intelligent but not exactly macho. Kodi Smit-McPhee does a great job in the role of young Peter. It's a compelling story which is watchable and indeed gripping throughout - even if, like me, you usually prefer your stories to have a bit more pace. 


  

Saturday, 4 December 2021

Bond Behind the Iron Curtain: Guest post by James Fleming


In recent months, I've enjoyed a very pleasant correspondence with James Fleming, nephew of Ian and himself an author of note as well as editor of The Book Collector magazine, which Ian Fleming founded seventy years ago and is still going strong, I'm glad to say.

James' latest book is a nicely illustrated little volume which would make a lovely Christmas gift for the Bond fan in your life. It's called Bond Behind the Iron Curtain. I invited James to talk about it:

'The story is frankly sensational. Amid all their denunciations of capitalism and the west, the Politburo decides to launch an attack on Ian Fleming – in 1962, even before Broccoli and co. had finished filming Dr No. ‘Who is Mr Ian Fleming, the creator of this – to put it mildly – rubbish?’ asked Yuri Okov in Izvestiya? He answered it himself: ‘A retired spy who has turned mediocre writer.’ Why did they do it? As a cover for their nuclear adventure in Cuba? To deflect the anger of the Russian proletariat from their abysmal living conditions? (One May Day banner read: CUT KHRUSCHEV UP FOR SAUSAGES.) “We will probably never know.

Even after the Cuban crisis had been resolved, the Russians kept up their onslaught on Bond. They became obsessed by what they saw as Fleming’s attacks on socialism and Bond’s success with women (which they termed ‘pornography’). Eventually the KGB (no less!) arranged that a Bulgarian novelist, Andrei Gulyashky, who had a hero handy, should write a book in which the hero kills Bond. Gulyashky did as he was told and was then given hard currency, a minder and a visa for Britain and packed off to sell his book internationally. In London he came up against Ann Fleming – Ian’s widow – a tough lady if ever there was one, and her copyright lawyers. When it turned out that no one could legally use 007 except Fleming’s estate, Gulyashky, hilariously, called his man 07.

The KGB may have got nowhere near killing Bond, but through the Gulyashky idea, they certainly rattled the Fleming estate, which was beginning to make big money from the films and books. In order to keep their hands on the golden goose, they now got Kingsley Amis to write the first of what is, to date, thirty-eight spoof Bond books.

In Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, and probably other communist countries as well, the underground market in Bond flourished, despite the authorities trying to stamp it out – indeed, to kill him. It’s a fabulous story, completely unknown until now.'

 James Fleming, Bond Behind the Iron Curtain, 128pp, hardback, 16 illustrations, from the Book Collector (thebookcollector.co.uk)

Friday, 3 December 2021

Forgotten Book - The Murder of the Circus Queen


Anthony Abbot published About the Murder of a Circus Queen in 1932 and the UK edition, which dropped 'About' from the title, came along three years later. It's another Thatcher Colt mystery set in New York City, and his 'Watson', Abbot himself, doesn't hold back: 'Not only was it Colt's most baffling case; it was the most glamorous and sinister'. It's certainly vivid and atmospheric, and the story was promptly filmed. I haven't seen the movie, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, the screenplay made many changes from the original, not least the identity of the culprit and the motive.

The circus has come to town, or to Madison Square Garden to be precise, and it's there, in front of seventeen thousand spectators, that an ingenious murder is committed. Colt and Abbot are present, having been warned by the circus owner and manager, Colonel Tod Robinson, that someone is determined to destroy the business. 

Abbot captures the breezy mood of circus life, but I was startled by his presentation of one of the circus acts - members of the Ubangi tribe from Equatorial Africa, complete with their own witch doctor. On doing a bit of research, I discovered that there were real life circuses in the US in the 1930s which featured such acts. Today, this seems shocking and exploitative, but on the fascinating GA Detection site, Mike Grost argues that so far as the novel is concerned, Abbot's treatment of the African characters was, by the standards of the time, progressive. 

Judged as an American Golden Age whodunit mystery, this is quite a capable piece work. Abbot shifts suspicion around his suspects and comes up with a satisfactory 'least likely culprit'. There are some touches of ingenuity, especially in the method of killing the circus queen. Colt is very much in the tradition of the Great Detective, while the extraordinary stupidity of the District Attorney makes even Inspector Japp look like Hercule Poirot. Very much a period piece.

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction


I've been deplorably slow to discuss The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction on this blog, but since the book has just been awarded the International Crime Fiction Association's 2020 Book Prize, the timing of this belated post now seems perfect...Many congratulations to the four co-editors responsible for putting this hefty volume together: Janice Allan, Jesper Guiddal, Stewart King and Andrew Pepper. Given that I contributed a chapter on 'Plotting', I take particular pleasure in the book's success!

I'm the only non-academic who wrote a chapter in this book and the reason I accepted the invitation to contribute was because I felt it would be fun to write for a genuinely scholarly tome. I'm definitely not an academic, but it amused me to impersonate one. And in my twenties, I seriously considered a career in academe, at a time when I struggled to see myself working in a solicitors' office. I went so far as to have lunch with my old tutor Don Harris to discuss the possibility, but he encouraged me not to make the change, especially given that I hadn't done a further degree (which even in those days cost a lot of money, money that I did not have). Looking back, I am sure he was right. I do have some academic leanings, but if I'm brutally honest with myself - not enough.

I have for many years been extremely keen to bridge the gap between academic writers and crime writers. I am convinced that we can learn a great deal from each other. Just before the pandemic, for instance, I had a great time with Professor Mike Wilson and his colleagues and students at Loughborough University and a few years ago I took part in a terrific set of seminars about noir fiction organised by Steven Powell at Liverpool University. More recently I also enjoyed an online conversation with Jamie Bernthal when I was a speaker at an academic conference on Golden Age fiction. Mike, Steve, and Jamie are all people after my own heart, enthusiasts for the genre. The same is true of a number of my academic friends from overseas.

What's more, in working on The Life of Crime, I've benefited enormously from comments made on the manuscript by a number of distinguished academics. Scholarly insights can be invaluable. That said, my book (like The Golden Age of Murder) tells a story and I've been very keen to resist the trappings of academic work, such as footnotes, which I think sometimes get in the way. Now that so much information is available online, I think there's a case for challenging the value of the traditional approach to academic writing. Take academic citation, for instance: is this more about demonstrating that one has done one's homework, rather than providing material of genuine value to the reader?  And what about the quality of writing? I've read one or two academic books in the past where the author didn't seem interested in the writing process, just in making some polemical point in the dullest way imaginable.

I also worry that the price of academic books puts them out of reach as far as readers without access to a university library are concerned. This is a real shame, because accessibility should surely be a priority. As a strong believer in authors' rights, I also think it's interesting that, despite huge cover prices, contributors seem almost always to be unpaid. Whether that particular publishing model is, or deserves to be, sustainable in the medium to long term, is another question ripe for discussion - and perhaps even a polemic or two?

But let me get off my hobby horse and return to The Routledge Companion. I'm not sure readers will be rushing out to buy their own copies, because the pricing is clearly aimed at university library budgets. But I hope that people do read the book, because my fellow contributors have supplied a great deal of info and analysis that I found really interesting. Given the wealth of erudition between the covers, it's hard to pick out particular chapters, but as an example, I did find the discussion of the impact of digital media on the genre especially thought-provoking. I'm grateful to the joint editors for asking me to take part, and also for their forbearance when confronted by my tendency to rebel against the constraints of academic writing. Putting together a book of this kind takes a lot of work and time and they deserve wholehearted congratulation. 

Whilst I'm discussing academic works, I'd also like to make a quick and again belated mention of another scholarly volume, Criminal Moves: Modes of Mobility in Crime Fiction?  which came out a couple of years ago. Two of the editors are Jesper and Stewart, along with Alistair Rolls, and the book explores fresh ways of looking at the genre. Not every crime fan wants to dig deeply into the minutiae of crime writing, but many do, and the growth of academic interest in this wonderful genre is, in my opinion, to be welcomed. Now the challenge for everyone is to make the academic materials more widely accessible and to see increased focus on the quality of the writing as well as the intellectual analysis.



Monday, 29 November 2021

In Praise of Spooks


Five years ago, I gave a favourable review to the film which was a spin-off from the long-running TV series Spooks, which I somehow managed to miss when it was first screened (my excuse is that in those days I was a full-time lawyer as well as a novelist). I was encouraged to indulge in a binge-watch but the fact that there are no fewer than 86 episodes of the TV show was a deterrent. Things changed, however, during lockdown and it became one of my viewing treats.

Thanks to good old Iplayer, I've now watched Spooks from start to finish and I must say that although it wasn't meant as pandemic-escapism, it worked brilliantly as far as I was concerned. Even the weakest episodes make for acceptable viewing, while at their best the scripts are razor-sharp. One thing that is very striking is the extent to which global geopolitics have changed in the years since Spooks, which was created by David Wolstencroft, first aired almost 20 years ago - long before Brexit, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Aukus defence pact. It's been suggested that one or two of the writers let their anti-Israel feelings get the better of them, but in general I thought the political material was well handled, although there were various incredible features (not least the emphasis in later series on a Home Secretary who seems responsible for everything, with the Prime Minister remaining invisible). 

The stellar cast is superb. Peter Firth appears in every episode as Harry (later Sir Harry) Pearce, while the wonderful performers who work alongside him at different times include Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, David Oyelowo, Nicola Walker, Rupert Penry-Jones, Gemma Jones, Hermione Norris, Miranda Raison, and Lara Pulver. The supporting cast, including the data analysts, were just as good and the fate of Colin (Rory MacGregor) was one of the darkest and most poignant moments of the series. But right from the start, the writers were ruthless about disposing of characters. One can only ever be confident that Harry, the lynchpin, will survive.

Some critics detected a falling-off in quality in the tenth and final series. I don't agree. The negativity probably just reflects the fact that Spooks was no longer new. With few exceptions, the episodes have tremendous pace, and although the attempts to humanise the spies with soap opera type backstories weren't entirely successful, the overall standard of writing was very good. Watching this show (along with Bleak House) has been a delight. If you haven't seen it, don't leave it as long as I did before you repair the omission.



Friday, 26 November 2021

Forgotten Book - The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple


I first read Julian Symons' The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple not long after its original publication in 1985. I must admit that I found the title rather off-putting (in the US, it was retitled A Criminal Comedy) and the story didn't really strike a chord with me. I'd forgotten all about the characters and plot by the time I came to reread it the other day. And on the whole, my reaction second time around was much more favourable.

Symons felt it was one of his best books, noting in Jack Walsdorf's bibliography of his work that he found the writing of it unusually smooth, 'with none of my customary back-tracking and elimination of what seem otiose characters'. That said, although the writing is very snappy, with short scenes and multiple changes of viewpoint, there are a lot of minor characters, almost certainly more than necessary for the purpose of the plot. But they contribute to Symons' purpose, which was at least in part to offer a satirical portrayal of bourgeois English life; in that respect the novel now reads like a slice of social history. 

There are plenty of enjoyable vignettes in this story. Most of the events take place in the prosperous town of Headfield, but there are important developments in Venice and on the island of Elba. One character, Jason Durling, is interested in an obscure writer called D.M. Cruddle (here Symons was reworking his brother A.J. Symons' The Quest for Corvo) and also records some events in his diary. An extract from a newspaper article at the start of the book tells us that two mysterious deaths connected with Headfield take place in Venice, but for a long time it's really unclear where the story is heading. On first reading, this irritated me, but this time I felt more sympathetic to what Symons was trying to do. 

What strikes me very forcibly now is that, in a roundabout way, Symons was updating the classic Golden Age novel. Yes, the scourge of the Humdrums was playing the game! I don't think this has been sufficiently appreciated, either by me or by other critics. But consider the ingredients: a spate of mysterious poison pen letters; ingenious use of poison; disguise/impersonation'; literary references aplenty; an amateur detective solving a puzzle that defeats the official police; and even a thinly disguised version of the 'challenge to the reader' beloved of Ellery Queen and various other Golden Age greats, which is put forward in the newspaper article towards the end of the novel. 

To cap it all, there is a pleasingly ironic finale that I'm sure Francis Iles would have approved. I don't claim that this novel is a masterpiece - the build-up is too fragmentary for that - but it's an enjoyable and unexpected piece of work. I'm very glad I gave it a second try.



Wednesday, 24 November 2021

A Jolly Bad Fellow aka They All Died Laughing - 1964 film review


C.E. Vulliamy wrote his crime fiction in two phases. First came the Anthony Rolls books in the Golden Age - two of them have appeared as British Library Crime Classics. And then, for a dozen years from 1952, he wrote a further set of novels. Francis Iles was, I think, his principal inspiration, but his writing had a distinct flavour of its own.

That 1952 novel was Don Among the Dead Men. Twelve years after it appeared it was made into a film with an equally punning title, A Jolly Bad Fellow. It's a black comedy directed by the accomplished Don Chaffey, and although it wasn't a box office success, it still remains very watchable today, because of the range of talents which contributed to its making, not least the principal scriptwriter, Robert Hamer, who is best remembered for the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets. The jaunty soundtrack was written by the great John Barry. And the cast is terrific.

The setting is an august university, Ockham. Professor Bowles-Ottery (Leo McKern) is a chemistry don with a taste for publicity that irritates his collegues. Conversely, their prudishness irritates him. He's married to an actress (Maxine Audley) and has an extremely glamorous lab assistant called Delia (Janet Munro). Whilst working in the lab alongside a junior assistant (Dinsdale Landen) he comes across a poison which causes lab mice to dance manically before expiring. Soon he is putting the poison to work as a means of disposing of people who make a nuisance of themselves, while embarking on a dangerous dalliance with Delia.

The lead actors perform with gusto and the supporting cast is distinguished. To name but a few, we see: Dennis Price, Miles Malleson, Leonard Rossiter (a very small part, alas), Alan Wheatley, John Sharp, Ralph Michael, Mervyn Johns, Duncan Macrae, and George Benson. I found the film to be really good escapist entertainment.

Long before his days as Rumpole, McKern gives a performance of great verve. Incidentally, I was sorry when I researched the cast to discover that Janet Munro died, after a period of alcoholism, at the age of 38. She was well-known for her exceptional good looks, but like her rival in this film Maxine Audley, she had a compelling screen presence and a great deal of acting ability.


 


 

Monday, 22 November 2021

My People And Other Crime Stories - Liza Cody


Liza Cody is one of a particular group of crime writers whom I admired long before I met any of them. This group (other members included Andrew Taylor, Frances Fyfield, Ann Cleeves, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin) wrote varied types of mystery fiction but they had something in common: they were young British authors who published debuts in the genre during the 1980s which struck me as appealing and exerted some influence on my own thinking and writing while I was working on the first Harry Devlin novel. There were older writers who influenced me as well, of course, but this was a group of people of my generation, more or less, who were setting a high standard. 

Looking back, I think that, whatever other mistakes I've made in my writing career, I chose my unwitting mentors well. It's been a great joy to me to meet many of the authors I admired back in the 1980s and still to be able to count quite a lot of them as friends. Of the people I've mentioned, Liza was the first to be published and to make a big impact. Although her first series focused on Anna Lee, a female private eye, and Harry Devlin was - and is! - a  male lawyer, I tried to learn from her style of writing. She never wastes words, but she is strong on insight and dares to be a bit different, qualities I relish. 

When I wrote my very first Harry Devlin short story and submitted it for an anthology Liza was co-editing, she turned it down, but with comments that I found thought-provoking and which meant that I not only published it elsewhere, but also felt moved to write several more short stories about Harry. Many years later, I was thrilled when she wrote a story connected with Anna Lee at my request for a CWA anthology.

That story, 'Day or Night', appears in Liza's new book, My People and other Crime Stories, published by Gatekeeper Press. So does another story that she wrote for a book I edited, the excellent 'Ghost Station'. The collection begins with a foreword - nicely titled a 'foreword of warning' - which is as worth reading and as insightful as all her work. She discusses the 'toxic environment' in which authors are working at present and the dangers of online bullying and the thought police. Her concern is that 'the fight against bigotry seems itself to have engendered bigotry.'   

Liza's range and originality is on display in this collection, with intriguing stories ranging 'A Hand' to 'I Am Not Fluffy'. In an afterword, 'Notes from an Untidy Desk', she makes kind mention of me as well as other editors, but I've said enough to explain why regardless of that, as a long-term fan, I'm always keen to read her work. Her individualism is a great strength and anyone who likes interesting crime writing that, every now and then, gives you pause for thought as well as a chance to listen to fresh and sometimes challenging voices, will find as much to savour in this book as in her novels.


 

Sunday, 21 November 2021

More about Josephine Tey


For a few years now, I've had an enjoyable correspondence with Jennifer Morag Henderson, whom I met after the publication of her excellent biography of that gifted writer Josephine Tey. I'm pleased to say that Sandstone Press have now produced an updated paperback edition of Jennifer's book, which I can warmly recommend.

Jennifer and I started discussing Josephine Tey's connection with the Detection Club, and the eventual outcome was a jointly-written article which has now been published on the excellent CrimeReads site. We've been pleased with feedback on the piece so far. Suffice to say that over the years I've collaborated with a wide range of authors on different subjects and every now and then it makes a very pleasant change from writing solo.  

Friday, 19 November 2021

Forgotten Book - Her Heart in Her Throat aka Midnight House aka The Unseen


In 1942, two years before her death at the age of 68, Ethel Lina White published a novel which began life under the title Midnight House. The American edition (which I have in paperback) was renamed Her Heart in Her Throat, and after the novel was filmed in 1945, it also appeared under the title of the film, The Unseen. One special point to note about the movie is that the screenplay was co-written by Raymond Chandler, a crime writer utterly unlike White. For the film, the setting was also switched from the British town of Rivermead to the US. 

The story has a number of classic ingredients. Our heroine is a governess in the Jane Eyre tradition. Elizabeth Featherstonehaugh is nineteen years old and has a fertile imagination. She's intrigued by her employer, Captain Pewter, but slightly bewildered by her charges, especially the young boy Barnaby. There's a creepy house next door which hasn't been opened up for years. And there's a killer on the loose...

At first I thought I was going to be swept along by this story. The opening is atmospheric and the set-up intriguing. There are one or two 'had-I-but-known' touches during the book, but these aren't intrusive. But there are some elements in the story, including vague and ambiguous references to a 'black man in the cellar', which have not worn well. As regards the murders, we're presented with a small circle of suspects, but there was something about the style of characterisation, and Elizabeth's interactions with the other characters that didn't really work for me.

As a result, I found myself losing interest in the second half of the book, despite White's best efforts to make sure that the tension kept mounting. There's a good story lurking in here, and I can see why the premise appealed to film-makers, but overall I don't think the execution lived up the potential of the plot.