Monday 17 June 2024

Forgotten Book - Uncle Paul

Uncle Paul was Celia Fremlin's second novel, published in 1959 after the tremendous success of her debut, The Hours Before Dawn, which duly won an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America. This novel is much less well-known, but pleasingly it enjoyed a new life last year, and was a Waterstones Thriller of the Month in a handsome new edition published by Faber, who marketed it with the tag-line: 'Welcome to the Nightmare Summer Holiday'.

We see things through the eyes of Meg, a young woman who is summoned by her sister Isabel to a seaside caravan because their older half-sister Mildred needs help. There's a cottage at the seaside, where fifteen years ago Mildred's first husband, the mysterious 'Uncle Paul' of the title, was arrested for attempted murder. Now, it seems, Paul may have been released for prison and may have returned to the scene of the crime.

Fremlin juggles various ingredients in this story. There are occasional 'Had-I-But-Known' touches: 'Meg smiled...She could not guess then, how soon and in what circumstances, she'd be recalling those words of Isabel's.' And she pokes fun at the Golden Age cliches, when discussing a book called Murder for Two: 'she's got such a cast-iron alibi that I think it must be her.' 'Don't be too sure,' Freddy said darkly. 'They tend to double-cross you nowadays.' And there is some excellent social comedy, with Fremlin's characteristically sharp observation. The dampish English summer holiday is wonderfully evoked, and there's a marvellous young boy called Cedric, a know-all whom everyone would really love to throttle. He also plays a part in the plot. As usual with Fremlin, the adult male characters are shadowy and generally less convincing than her women.  

As an attempt to surmount the 'second novel hurdle' that confronts authors who have written a great first book, Uncle Paul is an interesting case study, because it showcases Fremlin's considerable gifts, but also illustrates her weaknesses. There is suspense and a sense of menace and threat, but the tension is dissipated because things move too slowly, with too much padding. The problem is that the plot is flimsy and the ending something of a let-down (this appears to be a widespread reaction, judging by reviews that I've read). At this point in her career, Fremlin was, I think, trying to figure out how to structure a suspense novel successfully. In a number of her later books, as well as in her debut, she managed to do so splendidly. Here, she doesn't get the balance right.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Lessons in Crime - a new British Library anthology of academic mysteries


My latest anthology, Lessons in Crime:academic mysteries, has just been published by the British Library in the Crime Classics series. This book was a lot of fun to put together, and the lovely cover artwork certainly takes me back to the dreaming spires of Oxford, always a great place to be.

I've written quite a lengthy introduction this time, discussing a wide variety of academic mysteries, including some from the USA. The individual story intros try, where possible, to focus on the authors' own academic experience, which in some cases had a significant bearing on what they wrote. As ever, there's a mix of familiar names and some that are less familiar. The latter group include Miriam Sharman and Herbert Harris. There's also a little-known story by Colin Watson, author of the Flaxborough Chronicles. 

I'm extremely pleased to say that there's also a story which I don't think many readers would have expected. It's an obscure early piece of work by a very distinguished author - Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who is of course best known as a writer for children and young adults. As I've said before, her early psychological suspense novels were good reads and she was a real loss to the world of crime fiction when she moved away from the genre. 

This is, believe it or not, number 126 in the Crime Classics series, reflecting the fact that one book per month has appeared over the past ten years or so. I'm so glad that the British Library has kept faith in the anthologies and that they have done so remarkably well in sales terms - only yesterday I received a translation enquiry from an overseas publisher for one of the earlier collections. And as if that's not enough, today I've been in correspondence with various people about no fewer than four anthologies - one for the British Library plus three others that are currently in the course of creation. Exciting times! 

Monday 10 June 2024

Alibis in the Archive 2024

Alibis in the Archive 2024 was a truly exhilarating weekend. The weekend was a sell-out, with quite a few crime writers in the audience as well as those who were speaking, and we were joined by online participants from far-flung parts. As ever, the Gladstone's Library team, led by Louisa Yates and warden Andrea Russell did a great job in ensuring that everything went smoothly and, as usual, people who hadn't sampled the delights of Gladstone's Library before were blown away by the marvellous atmosphere. If ever a place has the wow factor, it's Gladstone's Library, and there was a real buzz about things from start to finish.

In organising the programme for the weekend, my aim is to provide an eclectic mix of speakers and topics - the common factor is that they are all delightful people as well as people who make a great contribution to the crime genre. Andrea hosted reception drinks before dinner, which was followed by a quiz, dreamed up by me, and a mini murder mystery run by Rhian Waller of the Library. Matthew Booth's team was triumphant. A pleasant evening of drinks and conversation followed.

Victoria Dowd got Saturday morning off to a great start with a talk about Witness for the Prosecution. Victoria is a former criminal barrister as well as a Christie fan and thus ideally suited to the topic. She was followed by Glenn Chandler, who had kindly agreed to give not one talk but two. The first was about Taggart, the brilliant TV cop show that he created over 40 years ago. It was fascinating to get the inside scoop, with lots of good stories as well as touches of poignancy. Interestingly, his favourite of the episodes he wrote was not one of the early classics with Mark McManus, but the public school story Out of Bounds, the writing of which was evidently very cathartic, given that Glenn was himself the product of a high-profile public school, the Royal High in Edinburgh. I watched Out of Bounds again last night - it's on ITV X nowadays - and enjoyed the mystery all over again. Glenn explained that Yoko Ono agreed to allow John Lennon's 'Imagine' be used in the episode free of charge and followed this session up with a talk about the case of Sidney Harry Fox, about which he's written a very interesting book. The audience was mesmerised by Glenn's wonderful contributions. He's in the photo above with me and below with Andrea as well:

Ayo Onatade interviewed me about the history of crime writing criticism and Elly Griffiths provided us with another highlight, talking about where characters come from. Then Tony Medawar talked about Agatha and the occult and tantalised us with news of rediscovered Agatha short story. Here's a photo Victoria took of my interview and one Tony took during the quiz:

One wonderful highlight arose from the fact that the CWA Diamond Dagger now has a long-term home in the British Crime Writing Archives which are held at the Library. This meant that Alexandra Foulds, the Library archivist, ably assisted by Jonathan Hopson, was able to arrange not only a display of archive material but also the Diamond Dagger itself (see the photo at the top of this post). The fact that the Dagger is now publicly accessible in this way is a great step forward so far as the CWA, the Archives, and the Library are concerned. A real win-win. It's never happened in the past, and I think it's the most exciting thing that has happened since the Archives were established.

After another convivial evening we returned for Sunday morning with a talk by Tom Mead about locked room mysteries and magic. Ayo then gave a very interesting talk about writers of colour, including famous names and quite a few who are not so famous - at least not yet. And then Leigh Russell (below photo, taken by Dea Parkin) rounded things off splendidly with a talk about crime writing research.

It was wonderful to catch up with old friends (including Martine Bailey and her husband Martin; below photo) and I was absolutely delighted with the feedback. A memorable weekend. And for those who fancy coming next year - make a date in your diaries! Alibis 2025 will be over the weekend of 6-8 June, and we're hoping and expecting another sell-out. So do get your name on the Library's list as soon as you can!

Friday 7 June 2024

Forgotten Book - Saturday Games

A long time ago, probably back in the mid to late 70s, I read a rave review or recommendation somewhere of Brown Meggs' Saturday Games, which was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club. I borrowed a copy from the library and thought it was pretty good, if not quite living up to the hype, and I also read Meggs' second and last crime novel, The Matter of Paradise.

Fast forward to 2024, and I acquired an inscribed US first edition of the novel. Meggs' day job was as a music executive with Capitol Records and famously he signed the Beatles in the US. Paul McCartney even named one of his puppies 'Brown Meggs'. His inscription is to Mickey Diage (Mary Diage), a colleague at Capitol who was also closely involved with the Beatles in the US, and he thanks her for 'all kinds of moral support and encouragement'. 

The novel was a big success and was nominated for an Edgar, although it was pipped by Gregory Mcdonald's very enjoyable Fletch. There's an excellent review here by the late Ed Gorman, who was a really shrewd judge of crime fiction. Read today, it's very much a book of the 70s, with an emphasis on sex that reflects the so-called Permissive Society. I think it was intended to be a combination of a slick murder story and a meditation on the male mid-life crisis, and as such it casts an interesting light on social attitudes in upmarket California at the time.

But what's it like when judged purely as a mystery? Reading it now was a different experience from reading it forty or more years ago, because my experience of writing novels now gives me a rather different perspective on the craft. I admire the way Meggs structures his story - it's really clever - and not only had I forgotten the clever twist at the end, I enjoyed it even more than I did originally.  

Wednesday 5 June 2024

Peter Lewis R.I.P.

I was extremely sorry to learn of the death, on 25 May, of my friend Peter Lewis, after a long and difficult illness. I first met Peter and his wife Margaret on my very first crime writing event - the inaugural lunch of the northern chapter of the CWA at Boroughbridge, back in 1987; also in attendance were such great names as Reg Hill, Bob Barnard, and Peter Walker. We all became good friends.

Peter was an academic who wrote two major literary biographies. The first, about John Le Carre, won an Edgar in 1986. The second, about Eric Ambler, was published in 1990 and Peter wrote a guest post for this blog almost a decade ago about the revised edition. He dabbled in crime writing himself, and I included a couple of his stories in Northern Blood anthologies - the second of which was published by Flambard Press, the small press which he and Margaret (herself the author of two excellent books about notable crime writers, Ngaio Marsh and Ellis Peters) set up.

Flambard also published the UK edition of my novel Dancing for the Hangman. I was very grateful for the enthusiasm that Peter and Margaret showed for the book and I still have in our hall the lovely framed artwork they commissioned for the cover. The book didn't make any of us a fortune, but I'm still proud of it.

I met Peter and Margaret many times over the years. The photos at the top and bottom of this post were taken almost exactly fifteen years ago, in the back garden of the home of Ann and Tim Cleeves at Whitley Bay. It's sad to think that both Tim and Peter are no longer with us, but I have many happy memories of convivial times spent in their company. My deepest condolences to Margaret and her family.


Monday 3 June 2024

Bodies from the Library 2024

This year's Bodies from the Library was a great success, and I gather that audience numbers are now back to pre-pandemic levels, which is good news. Congratulations to John, Mark, Susan, Liz, and everyone at the Library who was responsible for the smooth organisation (and thanks to HarperCollins for the wine reception which made a lovely end to a very good day).

I was due to be in conversation with Chrissie Poulson, but unfortunately illness intervened at the last moment to prevent Chrissie attending. Luckily our mutual friend Moira Redmond stepped in and did a great job. The subject of my talk was John Bude and Ten Years of the British Library Crime Classics, and this followed a presentation by Simon and Lucy Brett about the Lord Peter Wimsey radio shows, complete with sound effects.

There were several excellent talks, by Tony Medawar, Dolores Gordon Smith, Jake Kerridge, Ronaldo Faragazzi (on the Detective BBC TV shows - fascinating!), Moira, Mark Aldridge, and John Curran. Special mention to Jim Noy for a very funny account of Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers and their take on the Detection Club. It was also great to get my own first sighting of my new Classic Crime anthology Lessons in Crime: academic mysteries.

There's never enough time at these events to have a long chat with everyone one would like to chat to. However, it was great to see a number of friends, including Richard Reynolds, Nigel Moss, Christina Koning, Clint Stacey, and Jasmine Simeone and also to talk to up and coming writers such as Emma O'Driscoll. All in all, a marvellous day, and I'm now gearing up for Alibis at the Archive this coming weekend...

Friday 31 May 2024

Forgotten Book - And So to Murder

 And So to Murder, first published in 1941 is one of Carter Dickson's (i.e. John Dickson Carr's) novels about Sir Henry Merrivale, but it's rather different from the 'typical' Carr story, if there is such a thing. There's no locked room mystery, for a start, and the setting is a film studio (Carr had worked in just such a studio three years earlier, and he enjoys poking fun at the excesses of film-makers). Even Sir Henry is, by his standards, relatively subdued.

Events are first seen through the eyes of young Monica Stanton, who has written a bestselling novel which is rather too raunchy for some of her family. She has been assigned to Pineham studio - but is told to write a script based on a detective novel by Bill Cartwright, while Bill is asked to adapt Monica's story for the screen. Monica takes an instant dislike to Bill, but it's soon obvious that Cupid will bring them together in due course.

Things take a dark turn when someone tries to damage and disfigure Monica by pouring sulphuric acid down a speaking tube. This is an ingenious if horrible attempted crime. Later, a cigarette is poisoned, and Carr obligingly cites a real life precedent. The central mystery is this: who would want to harm innocent Monica? It doesn't seem to make sense.

This is a minor book by the standards of this author, partly because the circle of suspects is very small. I'm not absolutely convinced that the motive for the crimes was 'fair'; or at least, I never spotted any clues to it, as opposed to physical clues that identified the culprit. Overall, it's a decent light read.

Wednesday 29 May 2024

A Bellini at Harry's Bar and other literary inspirations

I'm back from a lovely holiday which combined a yacht tour of the Croatian islands between Split and the north of the country with a catamaran ride taking me on a short break in Venice, a city of which I never tire. Much as I love Britain, it was great to enjoy a spell of excellent weather broken only by a thunderstorm on arrival in Venice and which didn't last long. 

As the boat drifted along the Adriatic, calling at places such as Rab, Pula, and Poruc, I managed to do quite a bit of reading (mainly of some novels that will feature in the future as Forgotten Books) and even more importantly I found the time away from my desk inspired me creatively, as often happens. I was able to solve some of the issues that had been challenging me in connection with the novel I'm writing at present, a real bonus.

There were many highlights, too many to itemise in this post, but I'd like to single out Zadar as a place I thought was really special - the sea organ and the light show in the evening (see the photos at the end of this post were truly memorable, even if we missed out on the sunset that Alfred Hitchcock rhapsodised about. Croatia is a fascinating country; this was my fourth visit, and they've all been enjoyable.

In Venice, it was good to look round St Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace for the first time; both of them have fantastic interiors. A real highlight for me was crossing the Bridge of Sighs. I've seen it many times from the outside, but walking the walk that so many prisoners took is quite special. And I persuaded all my companions to come along with me to Harry's Bar, where I sampled a rather delicious Bellini in the place it was created and fancied myself as a latter day Hemingway or Bogart - or perhaps not! I really think that Rachel Savernake should take a trip to Venice one of these days. It's the sort of exotic locale that suits her. Anyway, a great trip, and it's energised me - which is just as well, as I've come back to a mountain of writing projects!

Monday 27 May 2024

Watcher - 2022 film review

I've never been to Bucharest and although I'd like to go, there's nothing in Watcher, a 2022 film set in the city, that does any favours to the local tourist trade. In this story, a young American couple move to Rumania because the husband, Francis (Karl Glusman) is relocated by his employers. His wife Julia (Maika Monroe, who was also in that strong suspense film Greta) has a lot of time on her hands.

Julia becomes aware that a man in the block of flats opposite hers is watching her from his window. This is creepy enough, but a serial killer is also at work in the city, targeting women. Things go from bad to worse when Julia becomes aware that the watcher has followed her into a cinema and then into a mini-market. 

On one occasion, Julia waves to the man - not a good idea, surely? - and he waves back. She tells her husband what is happening, but he is less than sympathetic. A female neighbour, Irina, seems able to offer more meaningful support, but she is being bothered by a troublesome ex, and eventually she disappears from her flat.

Tension builds slowly in Watcher, but at least it does build. Maika Monroe gives a strong performance, although the storyline becomes much more predictable than I'd hoped. The New York Times called this film 'one of this century's most arresting tales of female anxiety' and although I think this level of praise is over the top, I do think that Watcher, despite its lack of pace, is very...watchable.  

Friday 24 May 2024

Forgotten Book - Door Nails Never Die

There were quite a few eccentric book titles during the Golden Age and Door Nails Never Die has to be right up there with the weirdest of them. This novel, by impossible crime specialist Anthony Wynne, was published in 1939 - not a good year to promote your book, I imagine, given that people had other things on their mind (rather like the early days of the pandemic, I guess!). I'm not aware of any discussion anywhere concerning this particular novel, which I believe is very rare, even though it was published in the US as well as in the UK.

This is another novel featuring Dr Eustace Hailey, and it benefits from a good setting in the New Forest. The great man is consulted by the Reverend Ronald Foglore about a strange recent killing, during a horse-and-hounds hunt. Jack Stown was found by his cousin Patrick near a gate, dying of a stab wound. Nobody else was nearby. So Patrick appears to be the only suspect. The motive appears to be connected with Patrick's involvement with Prudence, the perhaps inappropriately named wife of Colonel Pykewood. Colonel Wickham (yep, no shortage of Colonels in this one) is convinced of Patrick's guilt. But Hailey is less certain. However, when another murder follows, things look very black indeed for Patrick, and he goes on the run.

This story has some features in common with Death of a Banker which I reviewed here eight years ago and which was published five years before this one. Again, that involved an impossible crime with a background of a hunt. But an intriguing set-up in each case, is - I'm sorry to say - followed by some very turgid stuff indeed. This is a real shame, because there are moments when Wynne writes well, but they are lost in the attempt to spin the story out far beyond its natural length. 

Spoiler alert - Patrick is not the murderer, surprise, surprise! The trouble is that it's screamingly obvious quite early on who is the guilty party. There's a huge amount of tedious circumlocution about impotence, and the only real interest is in learning how precisely the deed was done. I'm afraid I was very disappointed. It's not only a barmy title but a fairly barmy novel. I feel genuine regret in saying this about such a rarity, especially since Wynne was clearly trying to do something a bit different in certain respects. But it's not one I can really recommend, other than as a curiosity.