Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Here, there, and everywhere

I'm back at home briefly in between various crime-writing trips. A few days in London proved highly enjoyable, and the first event on my list was a talk to the Oxford University Society in a rather special and memorable location. This was the highly atmospheric French Protestant Church in Soho Square. There was an excellent turn-out, and led to a couple of remarkable encounters which were a real bonus. One lady in the audience had actually attended the very same village fete in Great Budworth, Cheshire, which I discuss in the introduction to The Golden Age of Murder, the occasion which first introduced me to Agatha Christie and detective fiction. And I also met another lady whom I last talked to back at Oxford more years ago than either of us would care to remember. Amazing.

The next evening, there was a Detection Club dinner - and my very first time at the Ritz Hotel. It all went swimmingly, and having hosted two posh dinners in the space of a fortnight, I felt hugely relieved that everyone seemed happy and there were no hitches. Phew!

After that, it was time for a visit to Woking Library. As I explained to the audience, one particular place nearby will feature in my next novel...The event was part of a festival run by Surrey Libraries, and as so often I was impressed by the enthusiasm and efficiency of the staff. It was also particularly good to see Fiona, a loyal supporter of my books, though I wasn't able to give her a definite date for the appearance of the next Lake District Mystery!

A trip to the War Museum gave the chance to see the very striking cascade of poppies, a reminder of the different but very impressive display at the Tower of London a couple of years back. And when I left London, I hared back up north in order to catch the last hour and a half of the annual detective fiction book fair in Harrogate. I did wonder whether it would be worth it, but I was delighted to find some excellent books. One in particular was a quite irresistible gem, and I'll talk about it on another occasion.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Forgotten Book - The Shop Window Murders

The Shop Window Murders Hardcover  by

Vernon Loder had been out of print for many years before Collins' Detective Story Club reissued The Mystery at Stowe, an engaging novel with an introduction by Nigel Moss, whose knowledge of Golden Age fiction is exceptional. I rather liked that book, and was pleased to see that Loder's 1930 novel The Shop Window Murders has been reprinted in the same series, again with a valuable introduction by Nigel.

The opening of the book is striking and memorable. Mander's Department Store (loosely based on Selfridge's) in the west end of London is renowned for its elaborate window displays. So much so that each Monday morning, crowds gather to watch the blinds being raised to reveal the latest display. Unfortunately, on this occasion, they see a human corpse nestling among the wax mannequins. To make matters worse, a second body is quickly discovered.

All this is enough to put a damper on any retail activity, and the store is closed while the investigation is conducted. Enter Devenish of the Yard, a shrewd and likeable fellow (I'm a little surprised that the prolific Loder did not turn him into a series character). As Nigel Moss says, Devenish is in the mould of Crofts' Inspector French, while one of the killings prefigures a crime in a later novel by two leading authors, published not long after Loder's death at the early age of 57.  Loder's real name, incidentally, was John George Hazlette Vahey, who wrote under other pen-names (including Henrietta Clandon - this was an unusual example of a male Golden Age author using a female pseudonym).

Nigel Moss points out the similarity between the opening situation of this book, and that in The French Powder Mystery, an Ellery Queen novel published in the very same year. A remarkable coincidence, as he says, and it may be one more example of the way certain story ideas seem to be "in the ether" at a particular time. I've been looking forward to having the chance to read this book since I read a laudatory review on John Norris' excellent blog four years ago. I'm not quite as much a fan of the story as are John and Nigel, because I found the solution frustratingly dependent on guesswork. The early chapters seem to me to be the best. But I'm delighted that this hitherto obscure novel is now readily available. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

See No Evil aka Blind Terror - 1971 film review

See No Evil is an unsettling film with a good cast led by Mia Farrow, who plays a young woman blinded in a riding accident. Like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, she finds herself menaced by a bad person, and all in all, she has an absolutely rotten time. I have mixed feelings about the film, but at least it avoids the hoary plot twist in which all the lights go out and the blind person being victimised is at last put an even footing with the person menacing him or her.

The script was written by Brian Clemens, a very fine television writer (he was responsible for some of the best scripts for The Avengers, among much else) but not as successful with the movies. The story is full of tension, with a few genuinely terrifying scenes, but I felt that the need to focus on suspense meant that short cuts were taken with the characterisation. Only Farrow's character, Sarah, is presented in any depth, and even aspects of her life and personality remain enigmatic.

Having left hospital, Sarah returns home, or rather to the posh home of her uncle (the always watchable Robin Bailey), aunt, and cousin (Diane Grayson, whose career in acting seems not to have gone much further after this film), and tries to adapt to life without sight. The part of her boyfriend Steve, who still cares for her, is played by Norman Eshley, a good actor who was once a fixture on our television screens. Apparently Eshley suffered terrible injuries in a car crash in France in the 90s, but he continues to work, and can be seen on Youtube endorsing Talking Pictures TV, on which I found this film. The cast also includes Michael Elphick and Paul Nicholas.

We know from the start that a mysterious man, whose face is not revealed, seems to be stalking Sarah's uncle, and in due course murder is committed. The tension rises as we wonder how on earth the endlessly suffering Sarah can possibly survive, but the genuine suspense does not quite compensate for the plot holes (what on earth happened to the police when the alarm was raised?), or for the lack of interest in the villain's motivation. Farrow's performance is convincing, although the soundtrack, by the usually effective Elmer Bernstein, is at times obtrusive - John Barry would have done a much better job with material of this kind. Anyway, despite my reservations about the film, I kept watching and the scary bits were truly scary. 

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Christmas Card Crime

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (British Library Crime Classics)

So much has been going on lately that I've not even blogged  until  now about my latest anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. It's a seasonal compilation, The Christmas Card Crime and other stories, and it's my third anthology of this type, following Silent Nights and Crimson Snow. In all, I've edited eleven collections of short stories for the BL, and there's another to come in the first part of 2018, Deep Waters.

With this book, I wanted to concentrate on less familiar winter and Christmas stories. The three which I think dedicated crime fans are most likely to have encountered are those by Baroness Orczy, John Dickson Carr, and Cyril Hare, but there are some pretty rare tales, including the title story, written by Donald Stuart. Stuart was one of several pen-names written by the author best known as Gerald Verner, and whose real name was J.R.S. Pringle.

There's a relatively unfamiliar story by Ronald Knox, and also one by Francis Durbridge. John Bude and John Bingham, two very capable novelists who seldom wrote short stories, are also represented, while other contributors include E.C.R. Lorac and Julian Symons, both of whom are, like Bude, the authors of a number of novels in the Crime Classics series.

Apparently, this book shot into the independent bookseller bestseller lists, and last time I looked, it was also riding high in the Amazon crime anthology bestseller charts. Last week, the kindle version and the paperback featured at number one and number two respectively. Whatever one thinks of bestseller charts, that can't be bad.

So, here's hoping that this book will (along with Gallows Court, obviously....) help to solve your Christmas present buying dilemmas! And I'd also like to recommend another British Library title which is sure to be a highly popular stocking filler. This is Kate Jackson's The Pocket Detective, a compilation of puzzles for fans of the Crime Classics series. I'm working my way through it right now, and having a great deal of fun.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Forgotten Book - And Death Came Too

Richard Hull is known to crime fans as a follower in the footsteps of Francis Iles, an exponent of the ironic mystery in stories such as The Murder of My Aunt and Excellent Intentions, both of which have appeared in the British Library's Crime Classics series this year. So it is interesting to turn to And Death Came Too, one of his most obscure titles, first published in 1942. It's as close as he came to writing a conventional whodunit.

The main setting is the Welsh county of Treve, and many of the key moments take place in a house called Y Bryn. Although I'm not absolutely certain, I strongly suspect that here Hull was re-using the locale of The Murder of My Aunt, and in particular fictionalising his family home of Dysserth. Four young people are invited by a man called Arthur Yeldham to Y Bryn, but when they turn up, Yeldham is nowhere to be seen. Instead they encounter a sardonic fellow called Salter and a rather strange woman, who says very little. And then it turns out that Yeldham is in the house, after all. He has been stabbed to death.

The local police get involved, and they are rather nicely characterised, in particular the Chief Constable and a slow-moving but rather appealing cop called Scoresby. Hull shifts from one viewpoint to another as it emerges that Yeldham was a school teacher, and that quite a number of people had reason to wish him dead.

It's a rather meandering story, but although it's not one of those cunningly structured novels of psychological suspense in which Hull specialised, it is quite entertaining. Hull had a leisurely writing style, and as a result, the tension doesn't mount quite as much as one might hope; I have to say that I had a good idea of the culprit's identity early on, though the motive remained obscure for some time. A second murder occurs, and there is a classic gathering of the suspects before all is revealed. This is a novel with some good moments and several amusing lines, even if it doesn't rank with Hull's best work.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Birkenhead and Highgate

Image result for birkenhead central library

Image result for hlsi

Image result for hlsi

Libraries have played a big part in my life, and after last week's happy news, about the Dagger in the Library, I've been reflecting on some of the wonderful times I've had in libraries large and small, and in all sorts of places.

A private tour of the Library of Congress, the chance to see the original Winnie-the-Pooh in New York City Library, a look round Coimbra's university library, with its famous colony of bats, kept to deal with book-eating pests. Book launches, and hosting Alibis in the Archives at Gladstone's Library. Designing a murder mystery for customers at a pop-up shop in the British Library. And the list of memories goes on.

Britain's public libraries, above all, have been important to me since I started borrowing Enid Blytons from the children's section of the local library in the Cheshire town where I grew up (and what a joy it was to return there a couple of years ago to give a talk about my own books). I seize any chance I can get to do library events, and since I ceased to be a full-time partner in a law firm, I've been able to grab more of those chances.

Two splendid opportunities actually came my way last week, on the evenings immediately before the award of the Dagger in the Library. First came another trip down memory lane, to Birkenhead Central Library, to give a talk about the making of Gallows Court. When I lived on Wirral, I was a member of Moreton Library, near to my flat, but also of Birkenhead, because it had a vast stock, including quite a lot of books that were otherwise hard to find. It was great to go back there, and also to meet up with a few old friends.

Then came something rather different, a talk at an independent library, the very historic Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute. Like Gladstone's Library and the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, among others, it's a very atmospheric place. They have a long-standing tradition of weekly lectures, and this time I was talking about the Golden Age of detective fiction. Again, it was so enjoyable.

And that's not all. Surrey Libraries are currently running a literary festival, and a week on Friday I'm talking at Woking Library. Very much looking forward to it.   

Monday, 29 October 2018

The Dagger in the Library

Thursday evening proved to be one of the most enjoyable of my whole writing career. It was the occasion of the CWA Daggers Awards, a glitzy black tie event at the Grange City Hotel in London, and I'll remember it forever because I was fortunate enough to be awarded the CWA Dagger in the Library.

The Dagger in the Library is awarded for a writer's body of work that has brought pleasure to library users, and nominations are submitted by librarians up and down the country. I was delighted to feature on first the longlist, announced in May, and then the shortlist, announced in July. The other authors nominated included such prominent and popular bestsellers as Sophie Hannah, Nicci French, and Peter May. Formidable competition, to put it mildly.

The judging panel is composed exclusively of librarians, and so it was a very special moment when the chair of the panel, Sue Wilkinson, opened the envelope and read out my name. During the past three years, I've been nominated for three other Daggers, and to win on this occasion was a real joy. Exactly ten years have passed since the wonderful night when I won my first Dagger, for best short story, and this was if anything an even more cherishable moment.

There were many other happy moments during the evening, not least the chance to present the Diamond Dagger to Michael Connelly, and Red Herring awards to Ali Karim, Ayo Onatade, David Stuart Davies, and Mike Stotter. It was also grand to spend time with my editors at Head of Zeus and Harper Collins, and with my agent, as well as friends such as Mick Herron and Matthew Booth, and to chat over dinner with the guest speaker, tv scriptwriter Jude Tindall. It was all truly memorable. I've still not quite come down to earth, and I'm certainly feeling very, very fortunate.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Forgotten Book - The Murder of Martin Fotherill

Edward C. Lester is a little-known Golden Age writer who appears only to have written two books, both in the late 1930s. I hope to write about The Guy Fawkes Murder, the first of them, before long, but today my focus is on his second book, The Murder of Martin Fotherill. Both novels feature an elderly amateur sleuth called Moody. He's very much in the tradition of the Great Detective, and has an obliging Watson in the person of the narrator, a chap called Warrington.

The story begins with a man called David Fotherill reporting to the police that his brother Martin is missing. The authorities are not unduly concerned at first, but then a body is none other than Moody. Needless to say, he feel impelled to investigate, and given that Warrington was a work colleague of both the Fotherill brothers, he calls on his assistance.

The book reminded me of the fiction of Rupert Penny, a very clever writer who poured out Golden Age mysteries in the run-up to the Second World War before giving up the genre. Rather like Penny, Lester shows himself a master of the Golden Age conventions. We are offered a cipher, a challenge to the reader, and cluefinder footnotes. There are also numerous references to major Golden Age writers, such as Crofts and Austin Freeman, while Lester also borrows one trick from Richard Hull.

I enjoyed this book, and it's a pity that Lester (about whom I know very little, other than that he attended Westminster School) did not continue to write detective stories. The story begins splendidly, though I must say I felt it sagged after about half-way, as Lester piled on the complications rather too vigorously - I felt myself losing the will to live during the unravelling of the cipher. But for all that, it's a fun mystery, and doesn't deserve the total neglect which has been its fate.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The Circe Complex - DVD review

The Circe Complex was a six-part serial in the ITV Armchair Thriller series way back in 1980. The screenplay was written by David Hopkins and based on a novel by Desmond Cory, an interesting and accomplished author whom I've talked about before. I've not read the book, but I'd like to, and frankly I suspect it may have more to offer than the TV version, which is now available as a DVD. It's interesting, but in some respects unsatisfactory.

The story begins with Tom Foreman leaving his extremely attractive wife Val at home one day, only to kill a policeman for no obvious reason. He ends up in prison, and it emerges that he's stolen some very valuable jewels, and hidden them somewhere. But where are they? Val teams up with an oddball psychiatrist (Alan David, who gives a suitably melodramatic performance) to find out.

The pair organise a jailbreak, but events take a curious turn as Val becomes involved first with the villain who helps to spring Tom, and then with one of the cops who is investigating the case. It becomes clear that Val is indeed a Circe-like character. Beth Morris, a Welsh actress I've never come across elsewhere, is suitably seductive and sinister; she handles a difficult role well, and I'm rather surprised that (although she evidently enjoyed a fairly successful career) she didn't become a bigger star.

Overall, though, I felt this was a rather eccentric mystery, and somewhat frustrating, because there was a sense from start to finish of compelling ingredients inadequately blended together. Whose fault that was, I'm not sure. Yet despite my reservations, I don't regret having watched the show. Cory was full of interesting ideas and insights into human behaviour - his strange book Bennett is an excellent example of this - and The Circe Complex, for all its failings, is an intriguing mystery.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Salisbury Literary Festival

I've returned from a thoroughly enjoyable trip to Wiltshire, which arose from an invitation to take part in the Salisbury Literary Festival, which is in its second year. As the world knows, a terrible crime was perpetrated in this lovely cathedral city earlier this year, and it's had an adverse effect on trade which is continuing. So I was especially glad to show my support, not only for an excellent festival, but also for Salisbury itself. The city is definitely open for business, and it's a great destination. The unlikely crime scene (or at least, the place where the Skripals were taken ill) is shown in the photo below. On a lighter note, I was amused by Fudgehenge!

I was interviewed by  Tom Bromley, the Festival Director, at the Salisbury Playhouse, a very good venue which attracted a splendid audience (who were also able to see a panel of four leading female crime writers after my session). The main subject was Dorothy L. Sayers, who was educated at the Godolphin School in Salisbury, and the interview was fun. For me, certainly, and I hope also the audience. A special pleasure was the chance to stay at Sarum College in the Cathedral Close (above), with a view of the famous cathedral spire, which really was stunning. The great novelist William Golding once lived a few doors away.

When travelling such a distance, I usually like - if possible - to fit in some sightseeing, if not other events, so as to make best use of the time. On the way down, therefore, I stopped off at Cirencester, a town I've visited before, and at Malmesbury, which was new to me and quite delightful: the old abbey is the resting place of King Athelstan, and the whole town brims with history. There was also a trip to Mottisfont Abbey, an excellent National Trust property (as is Mompesson House in Salisbury's cathedral close, which proved well worth a visit).

I broke up the long drive back to Cheshire by stopping at Marlborough, and seizing the chance to call in at the White Horse Bookshop (excellent) and sign Gallows Court and British Library anthologies. Then it was on to Silbury Hill (the largest prehistoric mound in Europe!) and the incredible Avebury stone circle. I've never been to Avebury before, but the combination of wonderful sunny weather and first class sights made the visit truly memorable. It's a World Heritage Site, and for good reason. If you've never been there, I can thoroughly recommend it.