Friday, 26 February 2021

Forgotten Book - The Robthorne Mystery

The Robthorne Mystery was first published in 1934, when its author, John Rhode, was at the peak of his powers. He was a popular member of the Detection Club and an exceptionally prolific writer who had already established other punning pen-names such as Miles Burton and Cecil Waye; his real name was Cecil Street. Dr Priestley, who appears in the Rhode titles, was unquestionably in the tradition of the Great Detective. Because he was so productive, Rhode's quality control suffered intermittent failures, but The Robthorne Mystery is one of the most enjoyable of his books - at least among those I've come across (quite a few, but there are still upwards of one hundred to go!)

Recently I was fortunate enough (thanks to a generous tip from Clint Stacey) to acquire the copy of this novel that was originally in the Detection Club's own library. After reading the book, I went back to see if Dorothy L. Sayers had reviewed it (yes, I did collect and edit her reviews, but there were far, far more of them than I can recall). Her reactions seem to have been broadly similar to my own, although the title of the novel wasn't memorable enough in her opinion. We discover early on that this story involves identical twins, and when one of them dies, the twist is foreseeable. Except that Rhode does something rather crafty with this hoary old plot device.

Rhode was, above all, an ideas man. His writing was competent but undistinguished and the same can be said of his settings (in this case, an English village). I presume that his method of composition was to come up with a cunning trick and then build his story around it. Sometimes there was more than one trick. This approach can have disconcerting results, especially as regards story structure and shifting viewpoints. 

Here, for instance, a sudden death occurs and is investigated - and then the case seems to be closed. Even Dr Priestley seems to give up. Curious, the reader thinks: perhaps it really was suicide rather than murder after all? We then jump to a related scenario, in which the glimmerings of a motive for murder seem to emerge. But Rhode has more developments up his sleeve...

When all is eventually revealed, I was left thinking that the culprit's behaviour when faced with an admittedly serious threat wasn't entirely convincing. Rhode wasn't much interested in the psychology of crime, and this book illustrates why that can be a weakness. Overall, however, I felt that he kept the story moving along entertainingly from start to finish. He was aiming to write light escapist fiction and this book achieves that objective very nicely.   

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Cast a Dark Shadow - 1955 - film review

Cast a Dark Shadow is sometimes referred to as a British film noir. I don't think that's an illuminating description. Really, it's an example of domestic suspense. The screenplay by John Cresswell is based on a play, Murder Mistaken, by Janet Green. Cresswell wrote for film and TV for about twenty years from the start of the 50s and he does quite a good job of disguising the essential staginess of the story. Janet Green was a talented writer, best known for films such as Sapphire and Victim, which dealt with significant social issues.

Cast a Dark Shadow is an unpretentious murder story which has a particularly good plot twist that lifts it a little out of the ordinary. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would later direct three Bond movies among other things. The cast is above average, with Dirk Bogarde playing an odious young rogue who rejoices in the name 'Teddy' Bare. He is well supported by Margaret Lockwood - a major star whose career was on the rocks at the time this film was released - Kay Walsh, Robert Flemyng, and Kathleen Harrison (playing a housekeeper of quite astonishing, but convenient, stupidity).  

Teddy marries a much older woman for money, and then kills her to prevent her making a will which will devise much of her estate to her sister. However, Teddy - who prides himself on his cleverness - is himself rather stupid and his murder actually has an effect very different from the one he intended. Undaunted, he gets to know a wealthy widow (Lockwood, in an uncharacteristic role which she handles with verve) and they get married. But then Teddy becomes interested in yet another woman...

This is an entertaining little movie. The music is by Antony Hopkins who later become a well-known radio presenter; I once attended a talk by him in the mid-70s, an occasion which I remember pretty well. The singer Lita Roza - remembered for 'How Much is that Doggie in the Window?' - appears in the film and sings a song; this contributes nothing to the story, but reflects a gimmick common in movies at that time. One other bit of trivia - the play was novelised in 1953 by Green in collaboration with Leonard 'Arsenal Stadium Mystery' Gribble.

The Chase - 1946 film review

The Chase is a drab title for a film based on a book with a rather better title - The Black Path of  Fear. But it's by no means a drab film, even if it is undeniably noir. I read the novel aeons ago when I was going through a real Cornell Woolrich phase, and although I can't recall much about it, I'm pretty sure that the film is very different. And it's certainly unusual.

We begin with Chuck Scott, clearly down on his luck and unable to afford breakfast. He's popping some pills, but it's not clear what's wrong with him. Then he finds a wallet on the ground and it's stuffed with cash. He buys breakfast but then heads off to the mansion which is home to the wallet's owner. This proves to be a rich guy called Roman, who is clearly a psychopath. Roman has a sidekick called Gino, played by Peter Lorre with characteristic sleazy menace. But when Roman offers Chuck a job as a driver, it's an offer too good to refuse.

Roman and Gino cross swords with a businessman who has outsmarted them, and manage to imprison him in the wine cellar, together with a hungry and vicious dog. Meanwhile, Roman's glamorous wife, clearly unhappy, keeps asking Chuck to drive her to a lonely coastline. She wants to escape to Cuba and offers Chuck $1000 to take her there. But then strange things begin to happen....

I don't want to spoil the story, which offers an intriguing take on psychological disturbance. Suffice to say that the narrative takes a very disconcerting course. I'm not sure this is entirely successful, but my attention was held throughout. Some aspects of the film are unsatisfactory - the music, for instance, struck me as over-the-top and occasionally irritating. The censors probably toned the film down to its detriment, but it retains an uncanny appeal.  


The Silent Partner - 1978 film review

The Silent Partner is a Canadian film from 1978 based on a Danish novel, Think of a Number, by Anders Bodelsen. The script was an early work of Curtis Hanson, whose later screenplays included L.A. Confidential. The score was written by Oscar Peterson and the lead roles were taken by Elliot Gould, Susannah York, and Christopher Plummer. In other words, there was a lot of talent at work here, and it shows.

Gould plays Miles Cullen, a bank teller who works alongside Julie Carver (York). Unsurprisingly, he fancies Julie, but she is having a rather desultory affair with the bank manager. When Miles realises that someone dressed up as Santa Claus is planning to rob the bank, he craftily arranges things so that the robber gets away with small change, while he keeps the money supposedly stolen. The snag is that the villain he has cheated (Harry Reikle, played by Plummer) is a violent psychopath, who is determined to take revenge on Miles as well as getting his money back.

Miles contrives Reikle's arrest on another charge, and although his attempt to seduce Julie doesn't end well, he finds comfort in the company of another beautiful and adoring young woman, Elaine (Celine Lomez). But is Elaine all that she seems?

Although Julie's part is under-written, with the result that York, a terrific actor, is given some rather banal dialogue, this is a twisty and entertaining film, with one or two shocking moments of violence. Plummer is excellent - as usual - and Gould, an actor whom I find a bit erratic, is on good form here. I'm surprised this film isn't better known. I enjoyed it, and I'm keen to read the book to see how different (or similar) it is. 

Three Novels On The Horizon

This week came an announcement that gave me a lot of pleasure. I've signed a deal with Head of Zeus to publish two more books set in the 1930s, taking forward the mysterious career of Rachel Savernake and her not entirely reliable sidekick Jacob Flint. I'm hugely committed to these books. Writing them is so rewarding. The reaction from reviewers and readers has been fantastic.

When I wrote Gallows Court, I was nervous about the response because although I wanted to write a twisty thriller with a difference, I was conscious that it was very different from, say, a conventional Golden Age pastiche. There is definitely a Gothic flavour to these stories. The same is true, though not quite in the same way, with Mortmain Hall. True originality is rare (I'll talk about this on the blog next week) but I do think these books are not quite like anything else on the market. Of course that carries some risks - this type of writing is not to everyone's taste, but it seems to have appealed to a lot of people, definitely at the top end of my hopes, let alone my expectations.

One positive consequence of lockdown is that I've been able to crack on with the next book in the series. In between lockdowns one and two, I did quite a bit of location research, when such a thing was possible, and very enjoyable it proved. The new book (which may be called Blackstone Fell, rather than Darkstone Falls as announced - we'll see...) is again an attempt to do something unusual with the classic crime story. I think it likely that this book will be published early next year, with Sepulchre Street to follow in 2023. 

What of this year? Well, I'm delighted to say that in June, Allison & Busby will publish the eighth and latest Lake District Mystery, The Crooked Shore. The US edition from Poisoned Pen Press will follow at a later date. It's quite a few years since The Dungeon House appeared, and I think the break has done me and the series a great deal of good. The Crooked Shore takes the lives of Hannah and Daniel a stage further, but again I like to think it offers something rather unusual compared to the typical series mystery. I'll be talking more about this book nearer the time of publication. In the meantime, I can say that I loved writing about the Lakes once again, and my personal feeling is that there is still a huge amount of life and potential in this series for future development.   

Monday, 22 February 2021

Bloodlands - BBC TV review

Bloodlands, the first episode of which aired on the BBC last night, has a great title and is a four-part thriller set in Northern Ireland. The writer is Chris Brandon, a new name to me, but the highly experienced Jed Mercurio is involved with the production, and there's a solid professionalism about the first episode which was more than enough to persuade me to keep watching. 

James Nesbitt takes the lead role as Brannick, a cop with (surprise, surprise) a troubled past, who is called in to investigate when a haulier with links to the IRA goes missing. There is a curious connection between this incident and crimes dating back to the era of the Irish Peace Process, which were the responsibility of an undetected serial killer known as 'Goliath'. And our hero's wife was one of the victims...

I don't know Northern Ireland as well as the Republic, which I've visited several times, but although the atmosphere is brooding, the scenes at a lough, where a small island yields its secrets at the end of the first episode, are a reminder that this is a country I've long wanted to see more of. One of the these days, maybe...

The main reservation I have is that the plotting verges on the clunky. I thought Brannick's behaviour when he went to visit the wife of the missing man was improbably naive and it seemed to be designed to create tension. Too artificial to convince, alas. And when the cops followed a lead to the island, the way they got confused about its rather simple geography was unimpressive to say the least. Again, it was a contrivance that was desperately unsubtle. But even if one deducts marks for these failings, there is enough grip in the storyline to make this worth watching again.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Forgotten Books - The Three Taps

Ronald Knox was an important and interesting figure in the history of detective fiction. He pioneered Sherlockian scholarship and popularised the idea of 'rules' for the game of writing detective stories, and in his work in both fields there is evidence of the flair for satire that was one of his trade marks. He was a founder member of the Detection Club, editor of a major anthology, and author of six detective novels.

Knox was a polymath and his interest in detective fiction was one among many of his enthusiasms. Perhaps this helps to explain why the six detective novels he wrote, although admired in their day, have not survived as well as the work of some of his Detection Club colleagues. But The Meirion Press has now produced paperback editions of his first two ventures into crime fiction. The Three Taps was his second novel, published in 1927, and the first to feature his series sleuth, the insurance investigator Miles Bredon. 

The book begins with an example of Knox's writing at its satiric best as he describes the wonderfully named Indescribable Insurance Company, for which Bredon works. We're also told about a 'euthanasia policy', a concept possibly (I don't know) of Knox's own invention, which plays an important part in the plot. Such a policy has been taken out by a man called Jephthah Mottram. When Mottram dies in mysterious circumstances in a decrepit inn in a Midland town, Bredon is called in.

We seem to be confronted here with a locked room puzzle. But is it a murder case? Might Mottram have committed suicide or died by accident? These questions are central to the story and Knox focuses at least as much on 'howdunit' as on 'whodunit'. The trouble is that the contrivances which ultimately explain what happened didn't engage my interest as much as I'd hoped. There is some very enjoyable writing along the way, but on the whole I was underwhelmed. Worth reading, though, for Knox's prose, which (at its best) is stylish and entertaining.  

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You

In the very early days of this blog, I mentioned the TV series featuring Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen. I acquired the shows as a box set and have watched one or two episodes. The series was created by William Link and Richard Levinson, prolific writers who are probably best known for Columbo. One TV film for which they are not so well-known is Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You, from 1971. They wrote the script but are credited as 'Ted Leighton'.   

So the story goes, the duo were lifelong Queen fans, and jumped at the chance to write a pilot for a Queen series. They chose to adapt the novel Cat of Many Tails, a serial killer story, and the result was Don't Look Behind You. However, while they were off on holiday with their wives (at Universal's expense, Link explains in an interview I found on Youtube), the producer decided to make changes to the script that they disliked intensely. Another misfortune was the casting of Peter Lawford as Ellery Queen.

Lawford was very well-known in his day, but although he'd lived in the US for many years, he was English, and his smug smoothie persona, was quite unlike the character of Queen as almost everyone envisages him. In addition, his range as an actor was limited. One can well imagine the dismay that Levinson and Link felt. No wonder they disowned the script.

It's a real pity, because the story has some potential - the quest to find the link between seemingly unconnected killings in a series can be fascinating. This film does have its moments, although not as many as one would wish. What's more, the cast benefits from the presence of Stefanie Powers. However, Inspector Queen in this version is Ellery's uncle, rather than his father, and the script's attempt to update the relationship doesn't work well. The Jim Hutton series was, from what I have seen of it, a significant improvement, because it made a determined attempt to stay true to the spirit of the original stories.  

Monday, 15 February 2021

Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots by Michael Richardson

I was lucky enough to grow up in the Sixties, an exciting time for popular culture in Britain. The Beatles, Bond movies, The Prisoner, and much, much more. One of my favourite TV programmes as a young boy was The Avengers. I never saw the early Ian Hendry or Cathy Gale episodes - my introduction to the series (which my parents enjoyed hugely) was with the arrival of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. And so I've been interested to dip into a reference book about the series published a while back by Telos.

Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots is described as 'The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Avengers'. Well, it may not be authorised, but it certainly doesn't lack authority. It's a weighty tome, and Michael Richardson must have put a huge amount of work into writing it. The detail (which extra played a stuntman, that sort of level) is at times almost overwhelming.

So, for instance, there is material about unmade episodes (such as 'unmade wild west episode') as well as accounts of how scripts evolved and background info, including mention of a failed rival to the series, The Unusual Miss Mulberry, starring another Diana - Ms Dors - which was never made. The TV world, as I know all too well, is unpredictable. Series that seem to promise much never reach the screen. Series that are made might have been better left in the cutting room. To a large extent, it's a game of chance. But The Avengers went on for year after year. Whilst I think that a decline set in after Diana Rigg left, there was much to enjoy in some of the later episodes.

The point is made that fun was a key component of The Avengers. Yes, the storylines were outlandish in the extreme, yes, they were 'of their time', but the tales were told with such panache that the results, when the series was at its peak, were consistently enjoyable. Michael Richardson's book is a pleasing and in-depth companion to a classic example of television at its most entertaining. 


Friday, 12 February 2021

Forgotten Book - Sudden Death

Sudden Death was published in 1932, at a period when Freeman Wills Crofts was experimenting with the traditional detective story. Here he offers a locked room mystery, with not one but two 'impossible crime' scenarios. These have received high praise from astute locked room fans such as Jim Noy of the Invisible Event blog, which indicates that Crofts did a good job of the practical technicalities of mystification.

I'm a fan of locked room mysteries myself, very definitely, but I prefer those which have a touch of the baroque about them. Why? Because the locked room situation is essentially improbable, I think its treatment needs to be something out of the ordinary. Its appeal is that of the paradox - which is why G.K. Chesterton enjoyed writing 'miracle problem' mysteries, some of them first-rate. John Dickson Carr was especially good at laying on the atmospherics. Crofts' plain prose seems to me less well-suited to this type of writing. He had a gift for engineering technicalities, so this book is not short of diagrams or detail as to how the tricks were worked. But for me, the appeal of these things is reduced if I don't have the sense of the dazzling conjuring trick which is a large part of the appeal of the stories of Carr (and of other locked room specialists, such as Clayton Rawson). I enjoy being bamboozled in a melodramatic way, but the minutiae of howdunit don't excite me, maybe because I'm hopelessly impractical myself.

More interesting to me, as a writer certainly but also as a reader, is a point highlighted in the blurb of the first edition: Crofts 'constructed his mystery on novel and interesting lines. The action of the book is seen alternately through the eyes of two persons, Anne Day...and Inspector French.'  The shifts of viewpoint are done pretty well, in my opinion. Anne takes a job as a housekeeper with a man called Grinsmead (who happens to be a solicitor, although his profession isn't significant) and eventually forms a bond with Sybil Grinsmead. Sybil is convinced that her husband is having an affair and wants her dead. And guess what? Sybil dies. But in a locked room...

We think we know what is going on, but Crofts does have a significant plot twist or two up his sleeve. The trouble is that I wasn't convinced by the psychology of the culprit. Would this person have committed crime in that way? I wasn't persuaded that the answer was yes. At the time this book was written, the leading detective novelists were becoming interested in the psychology of crime, and Crofts himself ventured into this area in some of his books, with rather mixed results. Here, his prime focus is on method. This is a readable mystery, and Crofts' desire to try something new deserves praise. Even so, this is not one of my favourites among his books.