Monday, 17 May 2021

The Pact - episode one - BBC TV review

Tonight saw the first episode of a new BBC Wales TV drama series, The Pact, written by Pete McTighe. It got off to a good start. The story is in six parts and I'm really hoping that there is enough material to fill them all as effectively as the first episode. All too often these six-parters begin to sag, but with any luck it will be more like the brilliant (and equally down to earth) Happy Valley than Finding Alice.

There are plenty of things to like about The Pact. The first is the setting. Wales is a country I've loved since I was a small boy, and when I took part in the recent Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival, I was reminded of how much I've missed. (And that reminder has prompted me to book a short break in north Wales later this week, to celebrate the latest easing of lockdown - while I have the chance!) I didn't recognise the locations - apparently the wood and lake scenes were filmed near Merthyr - but they were certainly evocative.

The story concerns a group of four women who work in a brewery. One of them, Anna (Laura Fraser) has applied for promotion to a supervisor's job. Unfortunately, the youngish owner of the brewery, Jack, (Aneurin Barnard, in a very different role from the supportive husband in Cilla) is horrible to everyone. There is some good character drawing in The Pact, but it doesn't extend to Jack, who is an almost cartoonish bully. Maybe future episodes will present a more nuanced picture of him; I hope so. He's also one of those bosses, overwhelmingly more prevalent in TV shows than in real life, who never seems to have heard that we've had a law of unfair dismissal since 1972.  

When Jack commits one misdemeanour too many, the gang of four decide to teach him a lesson. Unfortunately, it goes badly wrong and they find themselves committing a series of colossal misjudgements on the way to forming a conspiracy of silence. It seems unlikely to work well and I'm interested to discover precisely how things unravel. 


Bodies from the Library and other online events

When the pandemic began, I'd never even heard of Zoom, let alone or all the other ways of conducting online events. But now I must have taken part in upwards of sixty online events, plus a variety of podcasts (including one for the admirable literary journal Slightly Foxed which will be aired in June). Thankfully, the technology has been sorted out by other people and I'm very grateful to them. As a result I've been able to connect with crime readers not just in Britain but in various other places, with virtual events being run from the US, Australia, India and so on. It's been a great boon in difficult times, with two books (Mortmain Hall and Howdunit) published but no live launches or supporting events.

There are, of course, pros and cons to online events. Inevitably you don't get the same buzz that comes from a live festival or library gig. The personal connection is much more limited - a real drawback. But it's there to some extent, and that's far better than nothing. And you do save a lot of travel time - as a result, I've been able to write more than ever before during the past fifteen months. Further, an online event enables you to reach people who wouldn't be able to attend a live event - and for this reason, I suspect that an online ingredient is likely to become a component of many events and festivals in the future, even when all restrictions are lifted. People with disabilities that restrict their ability to attend in person, for instance, should enjoy much greater access to events than in the past.

Saturday was especially busy. Bodies from the Library again couldn't be held at the British Library, but this year the organisers put on a virtual version. Congratulations to Mark Green and his colleagues for all their hard and efficient work behind the scenes. The event opened with a panel in which I discussed Howdunit with Alison Joseph and Kate Ellis, and this was promptly followed by a conversation between Christine Poulson and myself about Anthony and Peter Shaffer. I also took part in a discussion at the end of the afternoon, on the question of whether every fictional detective needs a Dr Watson.

But in between times, I was also taking part in a murder mystery weekend splendidly organised by Sara West. I spent rather more than an hour fielding questions from attendees about Howdunit and the craft of crime writing. It was a lot of fun and another great chance to promote a book I'm really proud.of. Howdunit was recently nominated for a fifth award, the Anthony, which is a definite bonus.

And the reach of online events was underlined by the number of emails I received after I zoomed out (feeling, it has to be said, rather weary - I do find online events more tiring than live ones, perhaps because of my innate technoangst) of my final panel on Saturday afternoon. The reaction makes it all worthwhile. 

Friday, 14 May 2021

Forgotten Book - Flush as May

P.M. Hubbard came late to novel writing. He was 52 when his first novel of suspense, Flush as May, was published, on 7 January 1963. He'd written poetry at Oxford, winning the Newdigate Prize, and spent many years as a civil servant in India prior to returning to Britain and becoming a freelance writer. He wrote for Punch, but once he'd established a distinctive niche in the suspense genre, that was the area on which he focused until his death in 1980, with occasional ventures into young adult fiction.

Flush as May reflect his literary tastes. The writing is maturing and sophisticated, with a crisp eye for the right word which is a very clear clue to Hubbard's poetic leanings. The setting was rural England, and almost all of Hubbard's books were set in the British countryside. As a young library user, keen on dramatic action and mystery, I didn't read Hubbard. His writing, from a quick perusal of a few pages, seemed too low-key and unexciting for me. I suspect I was in the majority - he won the admiration of a wide range of connoisseurs but never became a bestseller (a cynic would say he was too good a writer for that!). Now I'm older and slightly wiser, I recognise his merits. 

Flush at May is in essence an amateur detective story. It begins splendidly, on May morning, when a young woman called Margaret comes across a man's body. But when she alerts the sceptical village constable, and takes him to the scene, the body has disappeared. She encounters a young man called Garrod who proves to be a fellow student at Oxford, and the two of them investigate, with Margaret taking the lead.

The story is never less than intriguing, and there are moments of drama and action, but I suppose my younger self would have felt dissatisfied by the ending, and would have found it anti-climactic. I think that, to some extent, Hubbard's inexperience as a novelist is evident. For instance, the village constable is an interesting character, but he never reappears in the story. Readers who look for a conventional resolution in the usual detective story manner will probably feel frustrated. But now I can see what Hubbard was trying to do and I'm impressed. 

If you are interested in learning more about Hubbard, there are some excellent pieces and links on the Existential Ennui blog This is not a flawless book, but it's made me want to read much more of his work. My copy, by the way, although it lacks that excellent Kenneth Farnhill dust jacket which is pictured above, has an inscription to a friend on the day after publication. bearing the phrase 'but for whom...' Very appealing. 



Wednesday, 12 May 2021


I've often extolled CADS on this blog. I've read every single issue, and it's now up to number 85. The editor, Geoff Bradley, has done a brilliant job for decades and crime fans, especially fans of traditional mysteries, have much to thank him for. I've contributed articles from time to time since issue 6, but for me it's a real pleasure to make fresh discoveries as a reader - which happens with every issue. There are so many riches in the back issues that I often find things I've forgotten when browsing through them, or which make more impact second time around, for example because I've now read the book or author under discussion.

The latest issue is CADS 85 and it's full of interest. I wrote one of the articles - it's called 'Hunting The Cornish Fox' and it concerns C.H.B. Kitchin's novel of that name, and some interesting letters he wrote about it. A niche subject, admittedly, but one that I found really fascinating for the light it cast on one author's thoughts about his book.

There is a long and eclectic list of contributors, including - to name but a few - Melvyn Barnes, Philip Scowcroft, Philip Gooden, Barry Pike and Kate Jackson. Liz Gilbey writes about P.B. Yuill, an author I really like, and Marvin Lachman's very well researched obits column is informative as always, if occasionally touched with melancholy. I wasn't aware, for instance, that Jerry Oster and Anthony Quogan, two pretty good and very different writers, had both died.

One of the contributors is Professor Michael Wilson, who writes about one of his specialist subjects, Grand Guignol. It's good to see an academic writing in a very accessible way for a magazine like CADS and I hope to see further contributions from Mike and from other academics in issues to come. There is no online version of CADS, but if you'd like to buy a copy, contact Geoff at  


Monday, 10 May 2021

Anabel Donald R.I.P.

There are many, many good writers whose work flourishes for a few years and then fades from view. One of the reasons why I feel so committed to working on the archives of the CWA and the Detection Club (not that I have any training or professional expertise as an archivist) is that I'd like to help in some way to keep memories of such writers alive. And on Friday, I heard from Maxim Jakubowski, the recently elected CWA Chair, the news that Anabel Donald, who was undoubtedly a good crime writer, has died at the age of 76. 

I came across Anabel's books, published by Macmillan, when I was reviewing crime for 'The Criminologist'. It's twenty-five years since I last read her, but I recall that I enjoyed her writing. She created a female TV researcher and detective called Alex Tanner and she wrote with plenty of zest. There was a short series of books about Alex and they might have made good TV. Yet it's almost twenty years since Anabel's last novel appeared. I don't know why she gave up, but regular readers of this blog will know that I regularly bemoan the fact that talented writers so often stop publishing after few books, sometimes because of frustration with the publishing world, sometimes because the well of inspiration runs dry, sometimes simply because life gets in the way.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Anabel. In fact, she inscribed three of her books for me - one of them, In at the Deep End, to 'Martin, the non-working solicitor'. This was back in May 1995, a jokey reference to the fact that I was a full-time partner in my firm but still determined to attend crime fiction  events whenever I got the chance! Having liked her work, I was glad to have a chat with her. I remember she struck me as charming and good company but for some inexplicable reason my abiding memory of her is an anecdote about her having, as a student at Oxford, taken part in University Challenge. I'm not even certain now exactly where we met - it may well have been at a CWA northern chapter event, since at the time she was living in Doncaster.

She was born in India and published her first novel as long ago as 1982. After many years as a lecturer, she became a head teacher. In at the Deep End is actually dedicated to the pupils of St Mary's School, Doncaster. Her husband Miles was an author, while one of her sons is an agent and another, Dominick, scored a hit three years ago with his novel Breathe (which I haven't read, but which sounds excellent).  Her contribution to the genre may not have been on the grand scale, but it made a positive impression on me, and I am sorry that she did not write more.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder After Christmas

Detective stories set at Christmas have become, if not the Holy Grail of modern publishing, something not too far from it. One consequence of this is that the search for vintage mysteries with a Yuletide setting has intensified. Books have been retitled and snow-covered artwork commissioned in order to emphasise the Christmassy credentials of a variety of novels, some of which only touch on Christmas in a rather incidental way. 

To find an unfamiliar Christmas mystery from the Golden Age has therefore become something of a rarity, almost a luxury. And I must say right away that very few examples of classic crime at Christmas capture the flavour and atmosphere of the 'season to be merry' to the same extent of Rupert Latimer's Murder after Christmas, which was first published during the Second World War, and perhaps because of that unfortunate timing has seldom if ever been discussed. The storyline is also interesting for its depiction of domestic celebrations during war-time.

The story begins at the home of Frank and Rhoda Redpath, who decide to invite 'Uncle Willie', as he is known, to spend some time with them at  Christmas. 'Uncle Willie' is actually Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, a rather disreputable character but extremely rich. So rich that jokes are cracked about killing him for his money....

What follows is a madcap series of events involving mince pies, potentially poisoned chocolates, a snowman, and much else. Time of death and alibis play an important part in a dizzying sequence of events which ultimately end in a pretty satisfactory resolution. This is a witty and entertaining story, even if at times it is a bit barmy. Rupert Latimer was a pen-name for Algernon Victor Mills (1905-1953), about whom I am trying to find more information. He published Death in Real Life before this book, but doesn't seem to have returned to the genre. A pity. 


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.