A year or so back, I was puzzled by the regular appearance of Paul Temple cds in the top ten charts for audio books. Although I confess to a weakness for some of Francis Durbridge’s non-series cliffhanger thrillers, notably the excellent Bat out of Hell, the tv adaptations of the Temple stories, which I remember from my teens, left me underwhelmed.
So I invested in a set of 10 of the Temple audio books, just to see what all the fuss was about, and I enjoyed them far more than I expected. I have a long and very tedious commute to and from work each day, and the Temple mysteries certainly improved the journey. They are light and undemanding fare, and after a few stories, you start to anticipate the stock plot devices. Sir Graham Forbes from Scotland Yard pops in to the Temples' posh London flat with alarming regularity to seek help when the police are baffled. Every time the Temples get into a car, one fears that they will be driven off the road by a malevolent enemy. And their consumption of martinis is prodigious. Of course, the sensibilities are dated. But every now and then, Durbridge pulls off a genuinely clever conjuring trick, and this facility alone makes the stories fun escapism for fans of traditional detective fiction.
Friday, 30 November 2007
A year or so back, I was puzzled by the regular appearance of Paul Temple cds in the top ten charts for audio books. Although I confess to a weakness for some of Francis Durbridge’s non-series cliffhanger thrillers, notably the excellent Bat out of Hell, the tv adaptations of the Temple stories, which I remember from my teens, left me underwhelmed.
Thursday, 29 November 2007
I didn't know Peter Haining personally, but over the years I've read and enjoyed several of his anthologies, and so I was sorry to learn that he died just over a week ago, reportedly of a heart attack.
Haining wrote a few novels, apparently, but I'm unfamiliar with them. A journalist by profession, he became astonishingly prolific as an anthologist, working usually (but not always) in the crime genre. His particular forte was digging out obscure stories that had disappeared from sight. Unlike Mike Ashley and Maxim Jakubowski, say, he did not focus mainly on commissioning new work, but even though some of his books contained a leavening of familiar material, his capacity for research was remarkable.
Compiling anthologies is an interesting occupation, I think. I've edited sixteen myself, and for the most part I've focused on new material rather than previously published work. But when I edited Mysterious Pleasures, to celebrate the CWA's Golden Jubilee,I had to dig in the vaults to find stories by deceased former CWA luminaries. The co-operation I received from the families of such writers as John Creasey and Leslie Charteris was generous indeed. Sadly, the agents of one deceased writer - popular in the past, but now out of print - demanded such a high reprint fee that it wasn't possible to include the story. This struck me as short-sighted, for there was a chance to introduce a new generation of readers to a gifted practitioner of classic detection. And it's salutary how quickly even very popular writers slip out of the public eye within a few years of their death.
Wednesday, 28 November 2007
The Sleuth of Baghdad
I’ve been dipping again into some of the stories collected in The Sleuth of Baghdad, by Charles B. Child. Charles who? Well, I’d never heard of him either, until that excellent small press Crippen & Landru reprinted these post-war stories about Inspector Chafik J. Chafik of the Baghdad police, in their ‘Lost Classics’ series.
The stories are competent, but the real fascination lies in the portrayal of a vanished society. It’s sobering to read about Chafik’s cases and to reflect what has happened in his country in more recent times.
The stories would undoubtedly have remained lost had it not been for the enthusiasm of Douglas Greene, the guiding spirit behind Crippen & Landru. Their books are wonderfully produced – attractive and a pleasure to own. I’ve been a subscriber for years and my only concern is that Doug is producing books much faster than I can read them.
He hired me a couple of years back to edit a collection of lost stories by Ellis Peters, creator of Brother Cadfael. The result was The Trinity Cat, on which I collaborated with Sue Feder, a renowned Peters expert, who sadly died before the book appeared on the shelves. Doug’s a great authority on crime fiction – notably the work of John Dickson Carr – and his achievements as a publisher deserve to be celebrated.
Music to kill people by
One issue on which writers have sharply conflicting views is whether or not it helps to listen to music while they are working on their latest book or essay. Some people regard any sound as a distraction, but I’m firmly in the camp that listens to music –typically, these days, a selection from iTunes.
Although I like most kinds of music, movie themes and soundtracks – including those for crime films - are high on the list. And here’s a quiz question: the work of one particular songwriter has featured in every novel I’ve ever written. But who?
The answer isn’t John Barry, but I’ve always admired his work and his score for Body Heat – which happens to be my favourite crime film – is outstanding. It certainly contributed to the steamy atmosphere created by the brilliantly twisting screenplay. Roy Budd’s score for Get Carter is almost as good, and I think the Francis Monkman theme that accompanies the stunning final scene in The Long Good Friday is terrific. The Quincy Jones song ‘On Days Like These’, written for the opening titles of The Italian Job is an easy listening classic, and as I type these lines I’m listening to Lalo Schifrin’s theme for Bullitt. Though in a few minutes I won’t be thinking about Steve McQueen or car chases, but rather how to tackle the next element of the synopsis for the fourth Lake District Mystery…..
Monday, 26 November 2007
I’m delighted to hear that Ann Cleeves’ novel Raven Black has been short-listed for Sweden’s Martin Beck award (named after the gloomy cop created by Sjowall and Wahloo) for the best translated novel of the year. The same book earned Ann the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel of 2006, and led to her breakthrough into crime fiction’s Premier League.
The reason for my delight is that Ann has been a great friend for upwards of fifteen years, as well as a fellow member of Murder Squad for the past seven. I read and enjoyed her early novels before we met for the first time and it’s a real pleasure to see that her talents are now, at long last, being very widely recognised.
What made Raven Black stand out more than her earlier books? It’s quite tricky to analyse. The Shetland setting is evocative and memorable – but then, she’s been a leading exponent of the rural mystery for a long time. The plot and characters are very good, but the same can be said of the other books. The Healers, The Baby Snatcher, and The Sleeping and the Dead are also terrific novels, but they made much less impact upon publication. A key factor is probably the marketing push that her publishers gave to this particular novel – and they were well rewarded for their faith in it.
One of the features of Ann’s work is her economical literary style. She writes very good short stories, several of which I’ve included in anthologies I’ve edited. I hope that before long she’ll put together a collection of them. In the meantime, look out for ‘The Plater’ (which was short-listed for a CWA Dagger) and ‘Games for Winter’ in particular. They are both first rate.
Sunday, 25 November 2007
George Hargrave dies again
This week saw the last performance, in 2007, of my Victorian murder mystery event, ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’ It took place at the Dudson Museum in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, and the actors performed on a wonderful set conceived by the curator, Alison Morgan.
I’d never even heard of the Dudson before Alison contacted me to enquire about the mystery evening, but I liked the place a lot (once I’d calmed down after a journey made fraught by a pile-up on the M6 which resulted in a ten-mile tail-back.) The theme of the museum is Staffordshire pottery, and the centrepiece of the group of buildings is a renovated bottle oven, which reminded me of a similar place where the mystery was performed last year, in Swadlincote, Derbyshire. I am a huge fan of museums (in my day job, one of my absolute favourite clients is the World Museum, Liverpool – great people) and I’m often struck by the charm of the many small, relatively unsung museums tucked away up and down the country. They tell us a great deal about our heritage, in a very digestible manner. Take a look at the Dudson if you are ever in the Potteries.
The actors performed with gusto and the evening was a sell-out. All very gratifying. This year I’ve staged the event more than ever before and one thing that I never expected when I first wrote it is the variety of interpretations that different groups of actors find in material that (for plot reasons) is necessarily very tightly scripted. In the past twelve months, we’ve done the event in places as far apart as Stroud and Huddersfield, and in a stately home as well as at the Dudson and assorted libraries.
So, no more events for me until the new year. I might even get a bit of writing done in the near future. But in March, George Hargrave will bite the dust on three consecutive evenings at different venues in the North East – a Victorian murder mystery tour! More details soon on my website.
Saturday, 24 November 2007
Gently Does It?
More than seven months after it was originally screened, I’ve finally got round to watching a recording I made of the TV pilot for a new detective series, ‘George Gently’, starring Martin Shaw as the eponymous cop.
Gently was created by Alan Hunter, a Norwich-born author who died a couple of years ago. It’s sad that, after writing a long-running series at the rate of more or less one book a year for around half a century, Hunter didn’t live to see his creation adapted for the small screen (and by a much acclaimed writer, Peter Flannery.)
I never met Alan Hunter, but we were in touch once, more than a decade ago, when he contributed a short story to an anthology I co-edited with Robert Church on behalf of the East Anglian chapter of the CWA, Anglian Blood. That is a book, incidentally, with a claim to having the most horrible cover artwork of all time. I’ve only read one of Hunter’s books, Strangling Man, which I suspect (and, frankly, hope) was not one of his best.
Given that Hunter was very much a man of East Anglia, I was rather baffled by the fact that the television show was set in the North East (and further confused to discover that it was actually filmed in Ireland.) Shaw is a good actor, but given that he is quite familiar to us as the most recent incarnation of Adam Dalgliesh, I did wonder whether he was the ideal choice for yet another senior cop from Scotland Yard. His spiky relationship with a new sidekick was well done, but for me the show was stolen by Phil Davis, as a genuinely menacing villain. Further episodes are planned for next year.
Friday, 23 November 2007
Eurocrime is all the rage these days. And I’m not just referring to Karen Meek’s excellent website and blog of that name. Not so long ago, crime fiction by authors from the Continent was hard to find in the shops; now, it’s everywhere, and a good thing too.
I’ve just finished Unseen, by the Swedish writer Mari Jungstedt, which first appeared in the UK (in a translation with a distinctly American flavour) a couple of years ago. It’s a serial killer novel which benefits from an excellent setting – the island of Gotland. The story is extremely readable and the depiction of a woman torn between her family commitments and an exciting new lover is very well done. I was less convinced by the detective work of the investigating team, whose failure to pick up crucial clues stuck me as bordering on the negligent. Even so, I liked the story, and I’ll keep an eye out for Jungstedt’s next book, Unspoken.
Thursday, 22 November 2007
Ira Levin, who died a few days ago, was an extraordinarily gifted story-teller. He can’t be accused of being prolific, producing a mere seven novels in the last half-century or so. But several of those novels were masterpieces of story-telling. His debut, A Kiss Before Dying, came out when he was only 23, but it remains an outstanding crime novel. Rosemary’s Baby is utterly gripping, as was Polanski’s film, while The Stepford Wives is another example of Levin’s flair for depicting innocents in the grip of dark forces quite beyond their control.
Levin wrote more plays than novels. Deathtrap is by far the most renowned, but I enjoyed Veronica’s Room(I’ve only read it, never seen it performed) even more. I’ve always been interested in crime stories written for the theatre and it’s a subject to which I’ll return in the future, as it seems to me that mystery plays are almost always overlooked in studies of the genre. And there have been some very good ones over the years.
But for now, it’s enough to salute the memory of an author whose best work I found utterly compelling.
Wednesday, 21 November 2007
Signpost To Murder
Thanks to TCM and similar channels, it’s become possible to check out all manner of rather obscure movies and one of the latest I’ve seen is Signpost to Murder, starring a young Joanne Woodward and the rather less celebrated Stuart Whitman. It’s a black and white film from the early sixties, based on a play by Monte Doyle, which still turns up from time to time in productions by provincial repertory companies. The play was evidently a success in its day, although Doyle’s career appears to have been short-lived.
Most films based on stage plays struggle to conceal their theatrical origins, and this one is no exception. The main action is confined to a single, albeit elaborate set, a house dominated by a huge water wheel, located in an isolated rural community. Whitman is an allegedly insane convicted murderer, on the run after escaping from the institution where he has been confined for the past five years. Woodward is waiting for her husband to return from a plane trip and after Whitman breaks in and threatens her with a gun, she finds herself forced to co-operate with his attempts to escape justice. A relationship develops between them, with a touch of Stockholm Syndrome about it, but then a body turns up, and the plot twists begin.
The mystery is cunningly contrived, with a dramatic finale. Woodward and Whitman give charismatic performances, unlike the rest of a rather unconvincing cast, and one is only just able to forgive the dialogue, which creaks like the water wheel. Worth watching, but no masterpiece – more like a period piece.
Tuesday, 20 November 2007
Codes and Ciphers
Codes and ciphers have featured in detective fiction since the days of Edgar Allan Poe, and I’m as fascinated by them as most people. Hence, of course, The Cipher Garden, which was the second Lake District Mystery. I just about resisted the temptation to call it The Da Vinci Code Garden…and certainly, the idea of having a sort of cipher set within a garden appealed greatly to me. It sprang from a visit years ago to Mellor’s Garden, near Macclesfield, a truly memorable place.
Recently I received yet another novel which follows in the wake of Dan Brown, The Alexandra Cipher, by Will Adams, published by Harper. It features an ‘outcast Egyptologist’ called Daniel Knox. I’m hoping that any ciphers in the story give the reader a fair chance to puzzle them out. Not so long ago, I read Policeman’s Evidence, an obscure Golden Age detective story by Rupert Penny, a writer whom generally I admire Alas, the cipher that Penny included was so complex that it defeated me (not difficult) and demanded an extensive explanation at the end of the book (not desirable.) Penny, whose real name was Basil Thornett, worked at Bletchley during the Second World War, probably as a cryptographer. His books are always ingenious, although this particular novel was a bit too clever for its own good, and thus a bit dull. It has recently been reprinted by Ramble House, and I’m hoping that they soon reprint some of the other, superior Penny mysteries.
Monday, 19 November 2007
I feel a strangely proprietorial interest in the BBC’s latest costume drama with an all star cast, because Cranford (aka Knutsford) is the town of my birth and my firm has an office in King Street, which got a name check in episode one of the adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic. I thought it was excellent, although from a narrowly parochial point of view, it was a pity that the key locations were not shot in the town. The screenplay makes it clear that the people of Cranford are a proud and sturdily independent lot, and the rather anonymous, though pretty, street scenes, did not adequately convey the vibrancy and character of the real place. But the script was first rate and the performances excellent. I spotted John Bowe (the killer in the very first episode of ‘Prime Suspect’) and the estimable Philip Glenister (Gene Hunt from ‘Life on Mars’), among the cast. I shall certainly keep watching.
As far as I know, I’m the only novelist to hail from Knutsford (it’s not exactly a massive claim to fame, I do realise…) and it’s a town I hold very dear. I featured it in a short scene in my second book, Suspicious Minds, but it takes centre stage in my most recent short story, ‘The Mystery of Canute Villa’, which appears in Mike Ashley’s new anthology of Dickensian whodunits. It’s a tale which brings together Elizabeth Gaskell and her friend Charles Dickens, and results in a fictional resolution of a tragic mystery from Gaskell’s personal life.
Sunday, 18 November 2007
A Cold Case
I mentioned recently the many sources for a writer’s inspiration. I’ve been hoarding press cuttings that intrigue me for 20 years or more, and one of the early snippets looks as though it may just help with the story-line of the fourth Lake District Mystery. It’s a yellowing extract from ‘The Daily Telegraph’ (a newspaper that rather likes a good murder case) about the strange death of a woman called Shani Warren. She was found dead and bound in a shallow pool, but it wasn’t clear whether it was a case of suicide or murder. The authorities seem to have settled for the former, but the case still features on the internet as part of a popular conspiracy theory, connected with the business of her employers.
I’m not focusing on the conspiracy angle, but the odd circumstances of the death are hard to explain and they have set me thinking – just as they did when I first read the report (at a time when I was a very long way from publishing my first novel, and kept fretting that it would never happen.)
It’s odd to look at the other stories in the same newspaper and cast one’s mind back. Mrs Thatcher had just won another general election victory and there was much discussion about the plans of politicians who have long since disappeared from the scene I am sure that the emotional impact of Shani Warren’s tragic and rather terrible death upon her family and friends has, however, continued to endure.
Saturday, 17 November 2007
Poetry And Inspector Morse
A successful detective series can generate all manner of spin-offs. Think of all the interest in Sherlockiana. These days, Inspector Morse is beginning to rival the great consulting detective in terms of the extraordinary by-products of his recorded cases. In the summer, I accompanied a group of American readers to The Trout pub in Wolvercote, which had all the Morse book covers on the wall – fantastic publicity, quite apart from the contribution to the atmosphere.
Now I’ve laid my hands on a real curiosity – Morse and More, ‘a poetic tribute to the thirteen Inspector Morse novels of Colin Dexter’. This is the work of Patricia Buchanan, with illustrations by Janet Owen, and is compiled and edited by Antony J. Richards. It’s an avowedly unpretentious, light-hearted publication, which includes summaries of the TV shows to which the poems relate. Richards is also responsible for a nice little guide booklet called The Oxford of Inspector Morse. Both works are published by The Irregular Special Press.
Friday, 16 November 2007
I’m reading a lot of Thomas de Quincey at the moment. He’s a writer I’ve somehow missed over the years (and I’m afraid he’s not the only significant gap in my literary education) but I’m finding both his essays and his life story intriguing.
The Oxford World Classics edition of On Murder has an introduction by Robert Morrison. The closing lines of his Introduction struck me as thought-provoking, and worth sharing:
‘In [de Quincey’s] hands, violent crime became a subject which could be detached from social circumstances and then ironized, tamed, analysed, exploited, and avidly enjoyed by his burgeoning magazine audiences, and by generations of murder mystery connoisseurs and armchair detectives who enjoy the intellectual challenge, rapt exploration, and satiric safety of murder as a fine art.’
We don’t hear too much about old Thomas in histories of the genre. Possibly we should.
Thursday, 15 November 2007
The Allison & Busby catalogue for the first six months of 2008 has just appeared. It features the paperback edition of The Arsenic Labyrinth, scheduled for February, plus the return of Harry Devlin, in Waterloo Sunset, next June. It’s always exciting to see the first publicity for one’s new book, and I’m pleased with the cover of Waterloo Sunset. It is a moody picture of the beach at Waterloo, in Merseyside, which features significantly in the story. The cover style is the same as for the Lake District Mysteries, which seems like a good idea to me.
But what really caught my eye were the names of the other authors with books coming out in the same period. A&B now publish CWA Diamond Dagger winner H.R.F. Keating (who has written a new Inspector Ghote) and Jonathan Gash, creator of that one-time staple of popular television, Lovejoy. Add to the mix such notable writers as Robert Barnard, Marshall Karp, Priscilla Masters, Judith Cutler and Keith Marston, and it’s company that I’m honoured to share.
Wednesday, 14 November 2007
Film It Again
It’s unusual for a brilliant crime novel to be turned into an equally brilliant film. For there to be a re-make of the film that is as good as the original is rare indeed. Kenneth Fearing was a poet who wrote a handful of crime novels. By far the best known is was The Big Clock, which was turned into a first-rate movie starring Ray Milland. The re-make, No Way Out, featured Kevin Costner. It updated the story to the Cold War era, abandoning the magazine empire setting for the Pentagon, and adding an extra twist at the end. I’ve just watched it for a second time and thoroughly enjoyed it.
The temptation to add an extra twist in a re-make is understandable. Yet it is fraught with difficulty. An example of is to be found in Diabolique, starring Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani. This is the 1990s version of Les Diaboliques, based on a novel by Boileau and Narcejac. It begins extremely well, but towards the end, my patience was tested by the contortions of the screenplay. Though Isabelle Adjani is always watchable, to say the very least.
Tuesday, 13 November 2007
Where Do you Find Your Ideas?
All writers are asked this question from time to time. I once wrote a short story that used the question as a key plot device, as well as a title - and it later became the title story of a book-length collection of my stories, each of which I introduced with a short account of the inspiration for that particular mystery.
When one is casting around for ideas – as I am today, in planning the next Lake District Mystery - there are endless possible sources. It may be a news story, it may be a chance remark overheard (like ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’, which so intrigued Agatha Christie.) In so far as there is a secret of success in coming up with ideas, I suspect it involves keeping an open and receptive mind at all times.
Before I wrote my first novel, I used to worry about ideas, and plots, and this anxiety held me back. Now I’m much more relaxed. The challenge is to come up with ideas that offer something fresh, rather than familiar. But this may sometimes simply be a matter of giving an old idea a new spin. In my case, this is especially true with short stories. One of the first I ever wrote, ‘The Boxer’, is really a late 20th century take on that Sherlockian classic, ‘The Red-Headed League – transplanted to Harry Devlin’s Liverpool. But I’d like to think that not many people realised this until I pointed it out.
Monday, 12 November 2007
Stuart Pawson has been a colleague of mine in the Murder Squad collective of Northern crime writers since its inception in 2000, and his twelfth novel, with the excellent title Grief Encounters, has just been published. All the books feature the Yorkshire cop DI Charlie Priest, all have a distinctive, amusing and slightly off-beat flavour. The opening line of the new book is: ‘Johnny Mathis could go to hell.’ Well, it’s the first mention of Johnny Mathis I’ve come across for ages, but like Stuart I can remember the days when he was a fixture on the radio. I guess I liked him more than Stuart – a Bob Dylan fan - did.
Stuart’s unusual in having never published a novel outside his series. However, he’s contributed a couple of non-Charlie Priest stories to anthologies I’ve edited and one of them, ‘Les’s Story’, which appeared in I.D.: Crimes of Identity was short-listed last year for the CWA award for best short story of the year (the eventual winner was Bob Barnard, whose story appeared in the same book.) He is by nature a retiring (though very witty) chap but his reputation has grown steadily by word of mouth over the years and first editions of his early novels in fine condition now command high prices as collectors have started to seek them out.
Sunday, 11 November 2007
In between novels, I write the occasional short story and catch up with other things. So I’ve finally watched the 1990 movie Flatliners starring Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts. It’s a spooky thriller about bringing the dead back to life, not a conventional crime film, but in some ways not too distant from my favourite genre. I was very taken with the photography which gave parts of Chicago a very Gothic feel. I enjoyed the movie a lot. It’s intelligently scripted, with something to say about the importance of forgiveness.
I’ve never visited Chicago, but it’s on my list of places to see. Not so long ago, a Bouchercon crime convention was held there, but I wasn’t able to make it. One of the incidental pleasures of overseas conventions is the chance to visit somewhere different. I’m not sure I’d ever have visited Seattle had it not been for this year’s Left Coast Crime convention. And I was so glad I did. Despite all the warnings I was given about the weather, it turned out to be bright and sunny (well, most of the time) and among many highlights was sailing around the harbour on a lovely crisp morning.
Saturday, 10 November 2007
Before Patrick McGoohan created his cult 60s tv show ‘The Prisoner’, the same title was used for the English translation of a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
I’ve talked about these writers before in this blog. I love their cleverness, the way they play intricate games with the mystery of identity, and their fascination with stunning twists of fate. The Prisoner is the best of their books that I’ve found so far, even better than the book which gave rise to Hitchcock’s classic ‘Vertigo’.
My review of the book will be found in a future ssue of CADS. For now, suffice to say that I found it gripping. Gervais escapes from a war-time prison camp, and borrows the identity of a friend and fellow prisoner who is killed after the escape. But the strange household Gervais joins becomes a different kind of prison.
It may be trite to say ‘I could not put this book down.’ But for me, it was absolutely true of The Prisoner.
Friday, 9 November 2007
Green For Danger
I’ve filled a gap in my education at long last by catching up with the film of Christianna Brand’s finest whodunit, Green for Danger. Alastair Sim, who plays Inspector Cockrill, received much acclaim for his witty performance, and the praise accorded to the film seems to me to be entirely justified (though one reviewer’s comment that ‘the plot is superfluous’ had me well and truly baffled.)
I first read the book as a teenager and I doubt if there are many better detective stories set during the Second World War. The wartime setting is integral to the story-line, not mere background, and the mystery is ingeniously contrived. I’ve always liked the title of the novel, and borrowed it for a CWA anthology of crimes in the countryside a few years back.
Brand was a very clever writer, with a flair for plot. She is often praised for her characterisation too, although at times I find some of her more highly strung creations a bit irritating. Her short stories are well worth seeking out, because her gifts were especially well suited to the short form. A relatively recent collection is The Spotted Cat, edited by Tony Medawar and published by Crippen & Landru.
Brand was obviously quite a character in real life. CADS magazine recently reprinted her recollections of fellow members of the Detection Club. Indiscreet and very entertaining.
Thursday, 8 November 2007
Two More Anthologies
As a passionate fan of short stories, I’m delighted to receive two new collections, edited by well-known men of mystery.
Paris Noir – the title speaks for itself – is put together by Maxim Jakubowski. Maxim owns Murder One, a great bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, but I first came across him through the Zomba Books omnibuses that he edited in the 1980s – they introduced me to wonderful writers such as Cornell Woolrich, Fredric Brown and David Goodis. Our first face to face encounter was when he acted as a Magnus Magnusson surrogate quiz-master at the World Mystery Convention in London in 1990. I was one of the contestants – an occasion I recall as vividly as yesterday.
Since then, Maxim has included a number of my own stories in books he has edited and each acceptance has given me a real frisson of pleasure, because this is a guy who is steeped in crime fiction, who knows everyone there is to know, and can pick and choose from the superstars. This new book includes contributions from the likes of John Harvey, Jason Starr and Stella Duffy..
Dead Man’s Hand is edited by Otto Penzler, another influential crime bookshop owner and expert on the genre. This time the unifying theme is poker. Contributors include Jeffrey Deaver, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Connelly, and one of my long-time personal favourites, the brilliant Peter Robinson. Otto’s Mysterious Bookshop briefly had a presence in London, and Andrew Taylor and I once did a joint book-launch there. Shortly afterwards, the shop closed, but I don’t think this was directly attributable to Andrew or me….
Wednesday, 7 November 2007
Boileau and Narcejac
I mentioned Pierre Boileau and his partner in crime writing Thomas Narcejac the other day. They are my favourite (non-British) European mystery novelists, ahead of Simenon, Camilleri, Fossum and all the others. Narcejac once wrote a whole book about his hero Simenon, but for my money (I know it’s a minority view) the pupil surpassed the master.
Boileau-Narcejac books almost always have a filmic quality. So it’s no surprise that some of the very best crime movies ever made have been based on their novels – notably ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Les Diaboliques’
I’ve reviewed several Boileau-Narcejac novels for CADS, that excellent magazine edited by Geoff Bradley. One of the recent titles I had the pleasure of reading was Who Was Claire Jallu? It’s a typical Boileau-Narcejac work, with dazzling twists, and lots of confusion about identities.
But what struck me was that the publishers didn’t even get their authors’ names right. Both on the cover and in the bio note, the writers were named as Thomas Boileau and Pierre Narcejac.
And this was at a time when their fame was at its height….
Tuesday, 6 November 2007
Some may not agree, but it’s becoming almost as hard to stay published as it is to find a publisher in the first place. In this blog I’ve mentioned the likes of Kay Mitchell and Stephen Murray, two fine writers who have slipped from sight in recent years. And there are many more I can think of.
The other day I had an email from Mat Coward. I’ve never met him, but we’ve been in touch for a number of years. He’s written entertaining novels, and is an incisive reviewer and commentator on the genre, but his particular strength is as a short story writer. I’ve included many of his stories in anthologies that I’ve edited for the Crime Writers’ Association. Invariably, they are witty and original – ‘Nice People’ is one of several that stick in my mind.
Now Mat tells me that at present he’s not writing crime and he’s allowed his membership of the CWA to lapse. There are all kinds of reasons why this happens, and Mat is enjoying success as a freelance writer in other fields – but all the same, it’s a matter for regret when someone seriously talented decides to move away from the genre. I hope we’ll see more of his mystery fiction in years to come.
Monday, 5 November 2007
There is an excellent organisation called Mystery Women, and I’ll talk about them another day, but the title of this post relates to the revised first volume of an encyclopaedia compiled by Colleen Barnett. Published by Poisoned Pen Press, it deals with ‘leading women characters in mystery fiction’ and covers the period 1860-1979.
I’m a sucker for reference books and have collected dozens over the years dealing with different aspects of crime fiction. This meaty yet modestly priced volume (it’s £11.95 in the UK) certainly deserves a place on the shelf. It’s one of those books that it’s fun to dip in to, whether you are in search of information about, say, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray or just on the look-out for entertaining trivia about a large cast of rather unlikely detectives from days gone by. I’m lost in awe at the scale of Ms Barnett’s research.
Sunday, 4 November 2007
I’ve been a fan of Continental crime writing for years. I never understood why some of the great European mystery writers were virtual unknowns in the UK. Things have changed dramatically in recent years, thank goodness – so much so that we’ve had quite a deluge of Eurocrime. Inevitably, some of the books have been better than others. Many of the best have appeared under the imprint of Bitter Lemon Press.
Their latest venture is an anthology of Italian short stories, Crimini. It’s due to hit the shops on 10 January. Edited by Giancarlo de Cataldo, it includes contributions from such excellent writers as Carlo Lucarelli and Andrea Camilleri.
Bitter Lemon, by the way, introduced to British readers that fascinating author Friedrich Glauser, creator of the dogged Sergeant Studer. If they had done nothing else, they would deserve much praise. But they’ve achieved much more, and have published a wide range of excellent novels by writers otherwise unknown here.
Only one question: why on earth have neither Bitter Lemon, nor anyone else in the UK, not as yet reprinted the work of that prolific and brilliant crime-writing duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac?
Saturday, 3 November 2007
Cause for Celebration
There were fireworks over Lymm tonight. Not actually in celebration of my finishing the final edit of Waterloo Sunset, but from a personal point of view, they might have been.
The book is the eighth in the Harry Devlin series, but the first since 1999. It’s been about a year in the writing; quite a tricky year, because of the need to juggle fiction with pressures of the day job.
The last task was to take account of editorial input from my UK publisher, Susie Dunlop. She came up with a number of thoughts that translated into minor changes (in terms of word count) which I reckon should have a disproportionately beneficial effect on the book as a whole.
By late afternoon it was done. In good time for us to set off for the bonfire at the local rugby field and watch a dazzling display in the night sky.
Friday, 2 November 2007
A master class in short story writing
I’ve belatedly caught up with a two-volume set of short stories by Ed Gorman which was published in the spring. The set initiates an ambitious project, The Collected Ed Gorman, and these two books, introduced respectively by Lawrence Block and Max Allan Collins, bring together many of his short crime stories, with another volume in the works. I was familiar with some of the stories, from a Crippen & Landru gathering, Famous Blue Raincoat, but the vast majority were new to me.
Gorman is an accomplished novelist, yet I’m sure that Collins is right to say that he is ‘a short story writer at heart’. Any writer (certainly including someone like me) can learn a lot about the craft from studying his short stories. Take ‘The Moving Coffin’, for instance. This manages to be witty, clever, scary and poignant – quite a feat. The over-optimistic parole officer Ralph is one of a host of quickly yet brilliantly drawn characters; the loyal criminal’s wife Delia is another.
Like many writers whom he’s encouraged by phone or email, I’ve never met Ed, but he’s become a significant influence upon my career – originally through his involvement with ‘Mystery Scene’ and US publishing, most recently through his excellent blog. His work doesn’t have such a high profile in the UK, but I’ve admired his writing since my first encounter with it – a novel called The Night Remembers, published in the early 90s. More recently I’ve tracked down and enjoyed a couple of entries in his elusive but entertaining Sam Cain series.
A word for the publisher. I must admit that I’d never heard of PS Publishing, but they turn out to be a venture run by Pete Crowther and his wife Nicky, whom I got to know years back via the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers Association. They focus mainly on sci-fi, fantasy and horror fiction, but this excursion into crime is wholly successful. The books are elegantly produced, and the limited slip-cased edition signed by Ed, and by Block and Collins respectively, would make a terrific and generous Christmas present for a deserving enthusiast for the best in short mystery fiction.
Thursday, 1 November 2007
A Literary Lunch
What better way to spend a chunk of a day’s holiday from work than as the only man in a room full of 240 women? My companions were members of the Cheshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, and the occasion was their annual literary lunch.
The image of the WI seems to have transformed in recent years. The movie ‘Calendar Girls’ and their famous slow-handclapping of Tony Blair must have had a lot to do with it. But I’d guess that there’s always been a lot more to the WI than many outsiders appreciate. Certainly, the people I met today were great fun to be with. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to such a large group before – certainly not as sole speaker – but the hour’s talk seemed to fly by. And there was no slow-handclapping.