Sunday, 18 August 2019

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

I've had a copy of Iain Pears' most renowned novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, for more years than I care to admit. Like all too many others, it's stared at me reproachfully from the shelf, but to be honest I was put off by its sheer length, and its reputation for density - even though it enjoys, overall, a very good reputation. But I knew it was set in 17th century Oxford, and my recent Atlantic crossing, to be followed by five days in Oxford, seemed like the ideal opportunity to have a read of it at last.

This is a sort of "casebook" novel, in the manner of The Moonstone, and I should probably have freshened up my understanding of the historical period before plunging in. Many of the characters are taken from real life, and there's a helpful Who's Who at the back, though I didn't realise that until I got to the end of the story.

Four characters tell their version of, effectively, the same sequence of events concerning the death of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College, of which a pretty but enigmatic young woman Sarah Blundy is accused. We start with an Italian visitor to Oxford, a man with medical skills, Marco da Cola. I found his account engaging, though there is a development towards the end of his account that was truly shocking. Then it's the turn of Jack Prescott, son of a supposed traitor; his story was in some ways the least satisfying of the four. After that comes John Wallis, a cryptographer and deeply unpleasant individual. Like Grove, but unlike Prescott, da Cola, and Sarah Blundy, he is taken from real life.

Finally we have the story of a young antiquary, again a real life figure, Anthony Wood. He's a more likeable fellow, though he has his moments of weakness. Towards the end of the book comes a remarkable plot twist that I simply wasn't prepared for - but it's very well done. At times I thought the book was heavy going, perhaps in part due to my ignorance of the historical detail; I suspect that it could have been cut by a hundred pages without any great loss. But despite this, I was impressed with Pears' writing. This is an impressive novel, and I'm glad I finally made time to read it, even though it took me until the end of the Oxford trip to reach the climax. 

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Fifty Years of Shoot!

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Fifty years ago, man landed on the Moon, I was a teenager from a football-mad family, and Manchester City were one of the best teams in the country. And a football magazine called Shoot! was launched. I remember that my Dad bought me a copy (and devoured it himself, of course). Now, a book has been published by Carlton celebrating 50 Years of Shoot!

Leafing through the pages amounts to a nostalgia trip. It's an amusing walk down memory lane, to those long-ago days when eyebrows were raised by player transfers of a million pounds, and Don Revie was possibly the most admired English manager. On a more serious note, the article about black footballers is very thought-provoking, to say the least. I was pleased to be reminded of Manchester City's League Cup winning team from my student days by a full-colour two page squad photo. And yes, I had a team picture on the wall of my college room...

Well, a lot has changed since then. Nowadays, I can look back on a legal career advising a Premier League Club as well as the F.A. and my neighbours include a couple of young City players. I never imagined any of that when I was a student. What's more, there's no longer any room for sensible argument - City are the best team in the country and surely the best team England has ever seen. (Be quiet, LFC fans! Pipe down, United supporters!)

But who knows what the future will bring? Football, as we all know, is a funny old game, and this celebratory book is a reminder of how much has changed over the years, as well as a salutary warning that nothing stays the same, and that more changes in the beautiful game are bound to come. 

Friday, 16 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Eighty Dollars to Stamford

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Eighty Dollars to Stamford, published in 1975, was Lucille Fletcher's penultimate novel. She was 63 when she produced it, and although she lived until 2000, she only wrote one more novel after this one, a book called Mirror Image which appeared in 1988 and which I haven't read. Perhaps she tired somewhat of crime writing, but there is nothing tired about this novel.

It's a first-rate story of suspense, a verdict with which estimable fellow bloggers such as Kate Jackson, Xavier Lechard, and John Norris (all of whose blogs I strongly recommend in the unlikely event you're unfamiliar with them) concur. I agree with the view that in effect it amounts to a gender reversal on the traditional woman-in-jeopardy trope. This time the protagonist in jeopardy is a man, the naive but likeable David Marks. He is a school teacher who has taken up cab driving in the evening as an odd sort of psychological therapy following the death of his wife in a hit and run accident.

One night he is asked by a beautiful young blonde woman to take her to a house in Connecticut. She offers him eighty dollars for the return trip. One of the problems with writing about sums of money in a novel is that inflation dates the narrative, but in 1975, this was a huge sum of money for such a journey. David is puzzled and becomes suspicious, especially when his passenger asks him to take her on another such journey a few days later.

Before long, David finds himself embroiled in a murder plot. This is a novel of mounting suspense, although it also has an excellent plot twist. Fletcher's taut writing reveals her apprenticeship as a radio writer: she knows how to make each word count. The book was turned into a film in 1982, and renamed Hit and Run (such a forgettable title that it's been re-used several times for other films), alternatively known as Revenge Squad. I haven't seen the film, and judging by comments on the internet, it's barely worth watching. But the book is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Marlborough Court publishing - guest blog

Writers, including me, often joke about our relationships with publishers, but the truth is that there are some great publishers out there, large and small. I've been lucky enough to work with quite a lot of very good ones in a number of different countries, and I know that their task in getting books to readers isn't as easy as it may look. So when I was approached by a new kid on the block, a small firm trying to make its way, I was sympathetic, and invited Peter Tong to contribute a blog post describing his venture:

"I’ve had an eventful writing life with radio & TV comedies and thrillers, stage plays, screenplays and novels. But I can’t sit at the desk for too long and have to get my hands dirty. I have run a film production company and co ran a theatre, producing my own work into the bargain. I have also been fascinated by books and how they are put together, the jacket design, text fonts, page layout etc. With like-minded colleagues I have started a small publishing house, Marlborough Court. Although publishing is a tough game to play, with passion and smart thinking it can be won.

For instance, in order to stand out, we have aimed at on-the-go readers publishing small format Pocket Paperbacks and classy hardback Pocket Specials, along with humorous posters. We have a bold company statement: Marlborough Court: Something good to read. We use Clays, a printer who encourages small publishers like ourselves. They have given us a special deal with the book wholesalers who sell to Waterstones and the other bookshops. It’s hard work but it’s fulfilling when you know you are giving people lasting pleasure.

 Our latest offering is The Missing Mr Moonstone, the first in an upbeat Victorian crime series in which Sherlock Holmes’ landlady and her maid take over his work following his presumed death; the public at first not knowing he is dead and continue to call at 221b Baker Street for his help. The Ladies then gain a reputation for dependable detecting – despite being only women in a male dominated society!

I will be delighted to have a signed advanced review copy sent to any blog reader who would like to write an honest personal review for us." 

If you'd like to take advantage of this offer, drop Peter an email:

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Lizzie - 2018 film review

One session of The Art of the Whodunit programme that I discussed on Monday concerns true crime, and I was asked by one group member for my opinion of the Lizzie Borden case of 1892. It's not a case I've studied in detail, but I think there's a widespread consensus that Lizzie was guilty of the axe murders of her father and step-mother, despite being acquitted of the crimes (nobody else was ever charged). A long time ago I read a couple of novels inspired by it, written by Ed McBain and Walter Satterthwaite. And now I've just watched a film about the case made as recently as last year, Lizzie - the same title as McBain's novel.

I gather that this was a long-term project for Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lizzie, although she has been reported as being disappointed with the way it worked out. I have mixed feelings about the film. The cinematography is excellent, and Sevigny is a good actor. The sombre mood is sustained from start to finish, and the restraint of the film, with much of the story being told in flashback at a very measured pace, means that the depiction of the frenzied killings, portrayed in a vivid and in some ways oddly sensual manner, makes a melodramatic and effective contrast.

However, there are reservations. It seems to me that the local community of Fall River, in which the Bordens lived, is an important ingredient of the real life story. Yet apart from one scene, it hardly figures. The focus is on the domestic; I've read that this was due to budget constraints, but it's a pity. Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is almost a caricature, a two-dimensional Horrid and Perverted Patriarch of the kind that we've become wearily familiar with in recent years. We certainly don't mourn his passing, and his wife (a very subdued Fiona Shaw) isn't much more appealing. Emma, Lizzie's sister, is an oddly shadowy figure; the part seems under-written.

The centrepiece of this version of the story, as with McBain's novel, is a lesbian relationship between Lizzie and the family maid (Kristen Stewart). This is done well, and poignantly. Even if it's open to debate whether it has any basis in fact, I find it credible.. But the other characters in the film don't count for much. We're told at the end that the sisters were later estranged, and that the maid went off to Montana. Lizzie, for her part, stayed in Fall River, and lived into her sixties. This is a slow-moving yet watchable film, but I suspect Sevigny is right. It had the potential to be better. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Art of the Whodunit - again

I've returned from my latest trip, directing the Art of the Whodunit programme again for Road Scholar, and a group of lovely American crime fans (one of whom turned out to be a fellow Brit, who'd met and married a charming member of the group on a previous trip). Having run this programme for the first time in May, I felt more confident this time around, and that helped to make the journey even more enjoyable.

We began by flying out to New York City, where again I managed to find my way to the Mysterious Bookshop, somehow managing to restrict myself to buying just four books. There was also time for a river cruise on a hot Saturday afternoon before meeting the group, and the following day we all embarked on Queen Mary 2, a much more civilised and straightforward process than last time, when all the roads around the terminal were closed because of a bike race, meaning that we had to set out at the crack of dawn.

A seven day Atlantic crossing is quite an experience, and the days raced by. I'd made some changes to the programme this time, since I'd realised that it would be viable to stage my Victorian murder mystery, "Who Killed George Hargrave?" on board. Four members of the group volunteered to play the suspects, and did a great job.

After landing at Southampton we headed over to Oxford, staying at a hotel in the charming village of Iffley. Weirdly enough, I'd never got nearer to Iffley than the stadium, and the locks on the river, even though it's within walking distance of the city centre. I found it a lovely village. The various tours, of Balliol (where I admired the picture of Lord Peter Wimsey, below, which is to be found in the Buttery), Christ Church, the Sheldonian Theatre, the canal and river, and Blackwell's bookshop were great fun, and when it was time to say goodbye there was the chance to reflect on a quite wonderful fortnight in the company of delightful people. And now, I really do need to get my head down and embark on...some serious writing!! 

Friday, 9 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Speak of the Devil

I've written more than once on this blog about the excellence of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a pioneering American author of domestic suspense. Long before Patricia Highsmith came on the scene, Holding was producing unorthodox and compelling studies of criminal psychology which deserve to be better-known. A case in point is Speak of the Devil, first published in 1941, and expanded from a novella called Fearful Night.

The protagonist is Karen Peterson, a tall and attractive young woman, who is (and remains throughout the book) rather mysterious. She's very different in some ways from my own character Rachel Savernake, and yet there are one or two points of comparison that I noticed with interest. Karen is sailing for Havana when she is urged to take a job in a hotel by a man called Fernandez who has wants to marry. She decides, on the spur of the moment, and against her better judgement, to accept the offer of job, but not the offer of marriage .

The hotel is on the island of Riquezas, and given that Holding lived for some years on Bermuda, I wondered (without finding out the answer) whether to some extent the setting was based on Bermuda. Soon, a young woman called Cecily claims to have killed a man who was about to attack her. A body is found, but Miss Peterson doesn't think that Cecily is a killer. She starts to play the amateur sleuth, and encounters a sympathetic detective.

For a long time, I was unsure where this story was going. The cast of characters is small, and I was not clear how Holding was going to resolve the situation that she had created. But in a sequence of unpredictable (but not unreasonable) plot developments, she reminds us that, in a crime novel, nothing is what it seems. I found it all quite gripping, and another good example of Holding's quiet literary accomplishment.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Death in a Deck Chair

Death in a Deck Chair is a novel written by K.K. Beck and published in 1984. Kathrine Kristine Beck (also known as Marris, a surname of one of the characters in the story), who also wrote as Marie Oliver, was a prolific American crime writer for the fifteen years up to 1999. She was married to the talented British crime novelist Michael Dibdin, who sadly died in 2007, but why she gave up writing herself when she was still under the age of 50, I don't know. She originated from Seattle and evidently worked in advertising, as so many detective novelists have done.

This novel is very much in the American "cosy" tradition. It's set in the summer of 1927, and introduces an attractive 19 year old girl, Iris Cooper, who proceeded to appear in two further novels before Beck moved on to produce other stories. And it's another cruise ship story, as Iris and her aunt Hermione take a trip on board the luxury liner HMS Irenia, sailing from Southampton back home to Portland, Oregon.

Iris befriends a shy young man called Twist, who is secretary to Professor Probrislow, a specialist in criminal lunacy. She is, however, warned against Twist by the ship's pianist. The other passengers include a Count, a Cardinal, a German governess, a newspaperman, a judge, and the rather enigmatic Mrs Destinoy-Pinchot.

Before long, someone is murdered, and a rather inept investigation is conducted on board, with Iris brought in to perform secretarial services. Needless to say, she decides to try her hand at amateur sleuthing. I'm afraid my attention was beginning to wander even before a Ruritanian-style European kingdom was introduced into the storyline. My worst fears were confirmed when affairs in Graznia proved to play an important part in the plot. It's quite competently done, but it was all too tame for me, I'm sorry to say. Death in a Deck Chair makes the typical Agatha Christie look like something by Jim Thompson.


Wednesday, 31 July 2019

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective

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When I met Susannah Stapleton at Alibis in the Archive a couple of years ago, she told me about a book she was working on, which sounded intriguing to say the least. We've met and spoken about it a couple of times since then, and I was very pleased to see it come out to highly positive reviews a short while ago. I've now had a chance to read it for myself.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, is published by Picador and subtitled "Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime".  Sounds tempting, doesn't it? I was hooked just from looking at the chapter titles - they are taken from the titles of classic crime books, starting with a prologue called "The Lady Vanishes" in which we learn about the mysterious Maud West, who was a private investigator based in London in the early part of the twentieth century. On finding out about her, Susannah decided to do a bit of amateur sleuthing herself, and this book is the result.

The market for non-fiction has changed in recent years. The internet offers such a mass of information that, to sell a book to a major publisher, let alone to readers, one has to offer something appealing that isn't available simply by Googling. There are various ways of achieving this, but a sensible technique is to tell a story - to produce what is often called "narrative non-fiction" - rather than simply to record facts.

Susannah Stapleton does this in very engaging fashion. She focuses on her personal voyage of discovery as she delved into the life of an interesting woman with a fascinating occupation. Her detective work , entertainingly described, strikes me as rather splendid. I was especially interested to discover that Maud was based in the same building as Dr Crippen a building that I visited myself when I was researching Dancing for the Hangman - though I wasn't aware of Maud's existence at the time. Dorothy L. Sayers also features in the story. I found the details of several of Maud's cases interesting, and indeed one of them has given me an idea for a story of my own. I may write it one of these days, but in the meantime I can say that this is a book that definitely lived up to expectations. I really enjoyed reading it.

Shock - 1946 movie review

Shock is a film noir from 1946, and it gave Vincent Price an early leading role as a murderous psychiatrist. It's a minor picture in many ways, a typical B movie perhaps, with a supporting cast whose members I've never heard of, just as I'm unfamiliar with the director and writers. But it's decent light entertainment.

The story begins with a young woman checking into a hotel, where she is due to reunite with her husband, who has been a prisoner of war. He is delayed, and as she waits nervously, she looks out of the window of her room. In true Rear Window fashion, she looks into another window, and sees a man battering his wife to death with a candlestick after an argument over their divorce. That man is Vincent Price.

When her husband shows up, she is in a state of shock. He calls for medical help, and the doctor tells him that luckily there is an expert in mental health problems in the hotel. It goes without saying that this turns out to be....Vincent Price. He realises he's been spotted by the woman, and makes sure she is transferred to a sanatorium that he runs, assisted by the nurse for whom he wanted to leave his wife.

It's a pretty good set-up, and the story moves along at a decent pace towards its inevitable conclusion. Price's performance is excellent, since he brings an element of thoughtfulness and conscience to a part that is quite lightly written. It's worth watching Shock just for Price's contribution. Interestingly, the film was condemned on release by a critic who thought it might deter war veterans with PTSD from seeking psychiatric help. This is, I think, a good example of a mistake that critics continue to make. It seems undesirable to judge books and films primarily in relation to their treatment of a particular social agenda, however important that agenda might be, above all if their intention is just to entertain.