I’ve never visited the Shetland Islands, but reading Ann Cleeves’ breakthrough novel Raven Black made me want to. It was the first book I’d ever read about Shetland and it made a great impression on me. Now, there’s a positive flurry of Shetland-based crime novels. Ann’s follow-up novel, White Nights is due out soon. Meanwhile, there’s a new author to look out for She is S.J. Bolton, whose debut novel Sacrifice is also set on Shetland.
Sacrifice looks as though it may venture into territory occupied by one of my favourite horror films, The Wicker Man. The author says she is fascinated with British traditional folklore, and the story is apparently based on an eerie Shetland legend, about the story of the ‘Kunal Trows’ of the most northerly Shetland island, Unst. It’s high on my to-read list.
White Nights is right at the top of that list, after the success of Raven Black. Ann’s a fellow member of Murder Squad who has been writing thoroughly enjoyable mysteries for about twenty years, but her career received a real fillip when Raven Black won the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best novel of 2006. The book combines atmospheric writing (the traditional fire festival Up Helly Ya provides a vivid backdrop to the latter stages of the book) with a neat plot and an engaging detective, Jimmy Perez. Originally Ann conceived the novel as a one-off, but its popularity prompted her to sign a contract to write three more Shetland books, one for each season of the year. Quite apart from good sales in this country, the award of the Dagger has raised her profile overseas, and she’s now a best-seller in Scandinavia, in addition to have signed deals to publish in a variety of other countries around the globe.
The Shetland setting, I think, is probably the feature that caused this particular novel to achieve more recognition than its predecessors, even though such books as The Sleeping and the Dead really are very good indeed. There’s something fascinating about islands, and they do make excellent settings for crime novels (think And Then There Were None and P.D. James’ The Lighthouse.) Maybe island magic will work wonders for S.J. Bolton’s career too.
Thursday, 31 January 2008
I’ve never visited the Shetland Islands, but reading Ann Cleeves’ breakthrough novel Raven Black made me want to. It was the first book I’d ever read about Shetland and it made a great impression on me. Now, there’s a positive flurry of Shetland-based crime novels. Ann’s follow-up novel, White Nights is due out soon. Meanwhile, there’s a new author to look out for She is S.J. Bolton, whose debut novel Sacrifice is also set on Shetland.
Wednesday, 30 January 2008
Tell No Lies and Presumed Innocent
I’ve been reading a debut novel by an American lawyer, Julie Compton, called Tell No Lies. It’s strange that so many attorneys write crime novels, whereas in the UK there are only a handful of lawyer-novelists. Why is it? I’ve never understood. I do, though, know a number of English solicitors who tell me that they mean to write a book ‘when they have a bit more time’. Can it really be true that our colleagues in the States are, in comparison, under-worked? Doesn’t seem likely, somehow.
Certainly, the protagonist in Tell No Lies is kept fully occupied. Jack Hilliard is a trial lawyer with an apparently happy all-American family life who runs for D.A. at the same time as embarking on a dangerous liaison with a sexy attorney called Jenny Dodson. Poor old Jack finds it all too easy to compromise his principles, not least in relation to his stance on the death penalty. When Jenny is accused of murder, he finds himself in the embarrassing position of being aware that she has an alibi – it seems she was frolicking with him at the time the victim was shot to death.
As ever with an American novel about a murder trial, the publishers are making comparisons with Scott Turow. However, it’s better to judge Julie Compton’s book on its own merits. Turow is, as far as I’m concerned, in a different league from all other American lawyer-novelists, or at least all those I’ve read. Presumed Innocent is a genuine masterpiece – one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve ever come across. It is one of the few books that literally kept me up half the night, so keen was I to find out what was going to happen. Nothing by John Grisham (and I’ve enjoyed a number of his books, especially the first half of The Firm and The Rainmaker) comes close. I’ve not read everything Turow has written, but it must be open to doubt whether he can ever surpass that brilliant first novel. It combines a great plot with superb characterisation, a wholly credible portrayal of the legal system, and very good writing. What more could anyone ask?
Tuesday, 29 January 2008
When I first embarked on the Harry Devlin books, I was surprised that no fictional whodunit series had previously been set in Liverpool. One of the reasons why this seemed odd was that not one, but two of the most extraordinary and fascinating real life murder mysteries of all time occurred in Liverpool. I mentioned the Wallace case recently in connection with the death of Jonathan Goodman. The other case was that of the murder (if it was murder) of Florence Maybrick.
The Maybrick case has, in recent years, attracted renewed interest because of the purported diary of Florence’s husband, James Maybrick, who is believed by some people to have been Jack the Ripper. That’s another story (also fascinating, since whether you believe that the diary was fabricated or not, it’s an extraordinary piece of work) which I’ll talk about some other time.
Florence was an American who married a cotton broker (whose brother was a well-known composer) and settled in Battlecrease House at Aigburth, Liverpool, across the road from the cricket ground. The marriage wasn’t perfect; James had various mistresses, one of whom bore him five children, and Florence had a fling of her own. When James suffered an illness and then died, arsenic was found in his body. Florence was thought to have had motive, means (she’d bought arsenical fly-papers) and opportunity. Amidst massive publicity, she was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The judge who presided over the case eventually went insane. Florence was reprieved at the last minute, but not before she’d heard the sound of hammering outside her prison cell as her gallows were constructed. She spent fifteen years in prison before being released and promptly wrote a book about her experiences and went on the lecture circuit. More than half a century after being sentenced to hang, she finally died in impoverished obscurity in her native USA.
And that’s only a much-condensed summary of an amazing story. It’s long fascinated me and, some years ago, I had the rare privilege of being taken around the hugely atmospheric Maybrick house by its owner – a memorable experience. The Maybrick case has inspired a number of novels – some say it even influenced the Sayers classic Strong Poison. There’s a much closer connection with Joseph Shearing’s Airing in a Closed Carriage, and The Wychford Poisoning Case by the marvellous Anthony Berkeley. For some reason, I’ve not said anything much about Berkeley on this blog. But he’s one of my favourite detective story writers of the past; more about him soon.
Monday, 28 January 2008
A re-make is never as good as the original movie (well, hardly ever; I suppose there are exceptions to the general rule, though none spring to mind as I type.) What about sequels? Do they ever surpass the first work?
The question is prompted by recent comments on this blog about sequels to Rebecca, and also by a couple of other things. Over the week-end, I watched Children of the Damned, the sequel to Village of the Damned, which I posted about recently. The second film owes nothing to its predecessor apart from John Wyndham’s original idea of spooky children with uncanny and terrifying powers of mind control. It’s very much a film of its time, with a heavy Cold War influence. The cast is excellent, and includes not only Alan Badel, but also Ian Hendry (who was originally the main star of ‘The Avengers’, believe it or not, Patrick Macnee being his sidekick), and Alfred Burke, later to star in perhaps the best of all British p.i. television series, ‘Public Eye’.
The first half-hour is brilliantly creepy, but the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to that initial promise. One of many differences from the first film is that there’s no personal connection between the main characters and the children, and lack of such immediate involvement is a real weakness in the closing scenes. I think the sequel was worth doing, because it contains some thought-provoking ideas, but overall it doesn’t adequately resolve them, and isn’t as good as the earlier film.
‘The Sunday Times’ carried a story yesterday about the ‘mystery of the missing Da Vinci sequel’ – the fact that Dan Brown has not yet produced the promised follow-up to his mega-seller. The story says that The Da Vinci Code has earned him ‘an estimated £125 million.’ Perhaps there is no mystery, and Mr Brown is simply enjoying his enormous wealth. Meanwhile, I'm striving to resist the temptation to call my next Lake District Mystery The De Quincey Code!
The really amazing aspect of the story is nothing to do with sequels, but rather a suggestion that authors never have to endure Deadline Hell. Dan Brown’s British publisher is quoted as saying ‘there is never any clause from a publisher to a novelist that they have to deliver at a certain time. We would not impose such a thing on a contract.’ This observation will, I think, startle a number of authors, as it did me.
Sunday, 27 January 2008
Like Shelley Smith, Philip Macdonald had a book chosen by Julian Symons for inclusion in the Collins Crime Club Golden Jubilee Collection. Like her, he is a writer of the past whose work deserves to be read today. I’d rate him as one of the most interesting crime novelists to emerge from the Golden Age. Even though many of his books have flaws of one kind or another, he had the gift of creating fascinating situations that keep you turning the pages.
His usual detective was Colonel Anthony Gethryn. Gethryn was in spirit a character of the 1920s, and he featured in The Maze, which kicked off the Crime Club list in 1930, but he appeared as late as 1959, in a weird but entertaining serial killer story, The List of Adrian Messenger. This is the book that, in its 1963 film version, included fleeting appearances from such unlikely Golden Age figures as Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster. George C. Scott was cast, rather improbably, as Gethryn.
There is something intensely cinematic about most of Macdonald’s work and it’s no surprise that he finished up working in Hollywood. He was associated with the screenplays of Rebecca and Forbidden Planet (and he wrote the novelisation of the latter, under a pseudonym.) These are credits that most writers would kill for. Oddly enough, he did not write the screenplay for Twenty Three Paces to Baker Street, a very good 1956 movie based on a Gethryn novel. The script came from the pen of Nigel Balchin, a writer of considerable literary gifts who sometimes ventured into criminal territory. Balchin's own work is of great interest, and I'll post about him separately one of these days.
Macdonald wrote two lively multiple murder books, X v Rex and Murder Gone Mad, long before The List of Adrian Messenger. He tried his hand at impossible crimes and wrote a few good short stories. Michael Gilbert, an even better crime novelist than Macdonald, said that the cleverly conceived denouement to The White Crow, an early Gethryn story, influenced the resolution of his play A Clean Kill. If you enjoy Golden Age detective stories, do give Macdonald a try.
Saturday, 26 January 2008
Questions of Identity
Questions of identity – and not just ‘whodunit?’ - lie at the heart of many of the finest crime stories ever written. Ten years ago I wrote an article about impersonation which was included in the Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing. Now Cambridge Scholars Publishing have produced a book of erudite essays called Questions of Identity in Detective Fiction, edited by Linda Martz and Anita Higgie. My copy has just arrived.
A quick glance suggests that the book contains a good deal that is of interest. Gillian Linscott, a very capable writer, is the subject of a study of her ‘suffragette fictions’ featuring the feisty Nell Bray. One chapter addresses Christie’s work for the stage, another tackles Tony Hillerman, yet another (by Suzanne Bray) examines ‘a new generation of Anglican writers’ – the books of Kate Charles, D.M.Greenwood and Phil Rickman are among those considered.
Sharon Wheeler asserts, provocatively but intriguingly, that ‘in the 1980s crime fiction was a tired and stale-looking genre.’ She argues that it was rescued by feminists, some of whom were lesbian writers, notably Val McDermid, who is now widely acknowledged as one of the leading crime novelists in the UK, and indeed the world, and (a novelist I feel deserves to be better known) Katherine V. Forrest. Her main subject is the work of someone I've never read, the American gay writer John Morgan Wilson, and she says of the books: ‘the plotting is of a high standard, but Wilson’s focus is on his central character and how a man who has lost everything can survive.’
Opinions vary about the merits of taking an academic approach to the genre. It can be over-done and in the past I've read some essays which gave the impression that the authors had neither read widely in the genre nor enjoyed what little they had read. But there are some academics whose work is thought-provoking and worthwhile even for those who read crime simply for entertainment. And one benefit of works of crime reference which is, to my mind, indisputable, is that they draw attention to writers who might otherwise go more or less unnoticed. I’m looking forward to finding out which hidden gems the various contributors to this volume recommend.
Friday, 25 January 2008
An Afternoon to Kill
Reprinting neglected classics of crime fiction is a great service performed by a small number of admirable publishers. It’s still a great service, even if the books turn out, in the cold light of day, not to live up their reputations. In the field of short fiction, Doug Greene’s Crippen and Landru have done a marvellous job in resurrecting innumerable splendid stories that would otherwise still be gathering dust. I’ve mentioned Rue Morgue Press recently in connection with Dorothy Bowers, and their books are always worth a look Ramble House have reprinted the weird yet unforgettable Harry Stephen Keeler, as well as some books by such interesting and varied authors as Rupert Penny and Joel Townsley Rogers.
I’d like to think that one day, someone will reprint the hard-to-find books by C. Daly King that I mentioned the other day. Obelists Fly High was reprinted in the UK in 1980, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Collins Crime Club (a great imprint, sadly no more – killed off by the accountants, I guess.) Symons chose and introduced twelve titles in all. Some were familiar – such as Christie’s The ABC Murders. Others were competent but unexceptional – books by Freeman Wills Crofts, Elizabeth Ferrars and Andrew Garve. And there were one or two gems.
Best of all, I thought, was Shelley Smith’s An Afternoon to Kill. Smith was a very good writer, whom Symons plainly admired, but who seems to have given up on crime fiction prematurely after producing some very good books (the same is true of Margot Bennett, again someone I read and enjoyed on Symons’ recommendation.)
An Afternoon to Kill is such a terrific story that I don’t want to say much about it, for fear of giving the game away. But it really is very enjoyable, as well as clever. Time for another reprint, perhaps?
Thursday, 24 January 2008
A different kind of crime
Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, a colleague at work suggested that we take half an hour to visit Liverpool Town Hall – a stone’s throw from our office – and have a look at an exhibition relating to Holocaust Memorial Day. So I went along, and I was very glad I did.
The exhibition is called RESPECTacles. It’s a quite extraordinary work of art consisting of innumerable pairs of second hand spectacles (some donated by celebrities ranging from Elton John to Ronnie Corbett, to say nothing of Tony Blair) and it’s inspired by photographic images taken during the Holocaust. I found the record of the Nazis’ terrible crimes very moving – as much so as when I visited Anne Frank’s house nearly twenty years ago, and that’s saying something.
The setting for the exhibition is utterly magnificent. The Town Hall is impressive externally, but even better on the inside. Yet although I pass it every day, I’d only ever been inside the Town Hall once before. This too gave me pause for thought. It’s so easy to take things for granted – to assume that ‘we’ll get round to them sooner or later’. And sometimes we never get round to it.
Since Christmas I’ve been labouring over the tedious task of proof-checking, hating the unpleasant weather and the traffic queues on the motorway, reading tedious financial documents, and sometimes feeling fed up. The January blues, and I suppose plenty of other people succumb to them. But seeing those dreadful photographs of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and learning about the lives of people who were sent there, never to return, made me realise how absurd it is not to appreciate to the full all life’s pleasures while one can. I knew that already, but it did no harm to have such a poignant reminder of a fundamental truth.
Wednesday, 23 January 2008
When I posted recently about Dorothy L. Sayers, fellow blogger Jilly asked if I’d read Thrones, Dominations. This is the book that Sayers started and abandoned. The writing wasn’t interrupted by her death; she simply gave up on writing detective fiction. Eventually, the estate selected a writer of distinction, Jill Paton Walsh (who has tried her hand at detective stories in the past) to complete the book. It can have been no easy task, but I was impressed with the result; she did the job as well as it could have been done, and that the book, read as a whole, was better than, say, Whose Body? or Five Red Herrings. Encouraged by this success, Paton Walsh produced A Presumption of Death, utilising some of Sayers’ material. I felt this was not quite as gripping as the earlier book, but still a likeable read.
Finishing a book written by someone else is a fascinating challenge. Almost everybody seems to have had a go at The Murder of Edwin Drood - Dick Stewart has even written a book, End Game, devoted to listing all those who have done so. Unfinished novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich are amongst those that have been completed by other hands.
On a slightly less exalted level, I had the privilege of completing the late Bill Knox’s last Thane and Moss story, The Lazarus Widow. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it at length right now – but it was certainly one of the most interesting experiences of my writing career. The fact that it worked out happily in the end (and, most important, for Bill’s family, who have become friends) was intensely rewarding. I’m not surprised that Jill Paton Walsh found the invitation to complete Thrones, Dominations impossible to resist.
Tuesday, 22 January 2008
The trouble with ingenuity
I’m someone who loves elaborate plots in crime novels, and as I mentioned the other day, I started Fear and Miss Betony, by Dorothy Bowers, with high hopes, given the claim that ‘The Golden Age of detective fiction was known for elaborate plots. This may well be the most ingenious one of them all.’ Now I’ve finished the book, I’m reflecting on both its strengths and its weaknesses.
Bowers’ writing style is literate and appealing. Here, the encounter between the eponymous Emma Betony and a sinister fortune teller called The Great Ambrosio is highly atmospheric and memorable. The setting (the book was published in 1941) is nicely done; the story gives a reminder that, albeit changed, life in England still went on while the Second World War raged. And Bowers understood the importance of character. Right at the end, Inspector Dan Pardoe makes the point that: ‘The key to this was character – as to so much else. The impact of character on circumstance, circumstance on character.’
The structure of the book is unusual. Emma is brought in by her former pupil, Grace Aram, to help understand an apparent campaign to murder a patient run at the nursing home-cum-school that Grace runs. Pardoe only appears near the end of the book, after murder is done. But the victim is not the person whom one has been led to expect: shades of Christie’s Peril at End House.
However, there are shortcomings. The detective work seems a bit perfunctory and at least one clue is withheld from the reader – not exactly fair play. More important, there are too many characters (this is a subject touched on in a recent post and comments.) This means that one quickly comes to the conclusion that the culprit is likely to be one of the few individuals in the story who is truly memorable. Worst of all, I still can’t understand why the murderer went to so much trouble. It seems to me that the objective might have been achieved more easily and at much less risk.
This is the trouble with ingenuity – much as I admire it. Sometimes the whole exercise is over the top. Ultimately, the reason I like the book is not because of the plot (because I’m afraid I figured out the solution some time before the end) but because Emma Betony is a splendid character, depicted with skill. One can see that the author really liked her, and with good reason. My favourite Bowers book remains Deed Without a Name, but Rue Morgue Press have done whodunit fans a real service by reprinting all her five novels. Each of them has elements of distinction and her early death was a tragedy that robbed us of a writer of genuine talent and rich promise.
Monday, 21 January 2008
Jonathan Goodman, who died earlier this month, was one of the leading British criminologists of the past forty years. He was probably best known for a book about one of Liverpool’s most celebrated real life murder mysteries, the killing of Julia Wallace. The Wallace case attracted the interest of crime writers as eminent as Raymond Chandler and Dorothy L. Sayers; DLS wrote an essay about the puzzle (she believed, no doubt rightly, that Julia’s husband was innocent of the murder) and, in a letter to John Dickson Carr in 1937 expressed astonishment that he had never heard of it, saying ‘it certainly is a grand case.’
Less celebrated, but equally intriguing, is a crime committed at Gorse Hall, Stalybridge, (about 40 miles from Liverpool and close to the area where Dr Harold Shipman later pursued his murderous trade), which Goodman considered in an excellent book, The Stabbing of George Harry Storrs. The Storrs case dates back to the early years of the last century, but it continues to intrigue. Two different people were tried for the murder, but neither was convicted. Gill Linscott used some of the basic facts in her Nell Bray mystery, Dead Man’s Music.
I first became interested in the Crippen case when I created a character – Nic Gabriel in Take My Breath Away – who had written a book about it. Over the years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the story. My own researches into the case were greatly assisted by Goodman’s The Crippen File, a wide-ranging collection of newspaper cuttings and other documents about the police investigation and trial of one of my favourite (alleged) murderers. I tried to make contact with Goodman to discuss the case a while ago, only to learn he was unwell. Thus a conversation that I would have found fascinating never happened. Goodman’s other work included The Passing of Starr Faithfull, and The Burning of Evelyn Foster. Bloody Versicles: the rhymes of crime, is a unique compilation of felonious verse: here is a segment of one grotesquely unfair ditty from the time of the Wallace case:
‘Willie had a mistress,
Willie had a wife.
He only wanted one of them,
So Willie took a life.'
Sunday, 20 January 2008
I’ve had a weakness for parodies since I was about eleven years old and the English teacher asked us to write a couple in successive weeks – one a sci-fi parody, one a parody of a detective story. My effort at the former made it into the school magazine – my first ever publication – but the latter has plenty of nostalgic appeal for me, as it was a Sherlockian pastiche, ‘The Orange and Purple Worms’.
I’ve managed to avoid most of the action movies mercilessly parodied in Simon Pegg’s comedy Hot Fuzz, but I enjoyed the film a lot all the same. Pegg plays a Scotland Yard cop who is too smart for his own good and finds himself exiled to a pretty town in the west country, where crime is minimal and the police have no interest in detection. Needless to say, mayhem ensues, with a series of violent and wittily executed murders taking place. However, there is remarkably little effort on the part of the local constabulary to solve them. What is going on?
Hot Fuzz is from the same people who made Shaun of the Dead an entertaining spoof of zombie films. The cast is brilliant, including the likes of Timothy Dalton as a rascally supermarket manager and Edward Woodward taking charge of the Neighbourhood Watch. Maybe the action goes on a few minutes too long – comic crime is notoriously difficult to do perfectly, whether on the page or on the screen – but even so, this is well worth watching, with plenty of genuinely funny moments.
P.S. This is my 100th blog post. I think of the blog essentially as a conversation between people whose interests have much in common with mine and I've really appreciated all the comments and feedback. Thanks.
Saturday, 19 January 2008
Culture and Coroners
Liverpool’s year in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture got under way with a free event said to have been attended by around 50,000 people. I couldn’t be there – ironically, work had taken me down the East Lancashire Road to Manchester – but it was fun to see highlights on television, especially of the long-absent Ringo Starr playing the drums and singing his latest song, ‘Liverpool 8’ (admittedly, it’s not exactly up to the standard of ‘Penny Lane’ or ‘Strawberry Fields’.)
After I started working in Liverpool, it occurred to me that it would be a great place to set a mystery series and I still think so. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric location; I took these photos, and many others, while walking round the city centre and thinking myself back into Harry Devlin's view of the world. Above all, it's a city in which anything can happen. The people are great and – true to the cliché – naturally and spontaneously witty.
When I was writing Waterloo Sunset, I needed to do much more research than usual. I received a great deal of generous help from a number of people, including the former Dean of the Anglican Cathedral, the boss of a community cinema, and the head of Merseytravel (who provided me with elaborate plans of subterranean Liverpool that I found so compelling as to persuade me to adapt the story-line to them.) Most of all, I was assisted by the city coroner, Andre Rebello. There is an important character in the story who is a coroner, and an inquest scene featuring a couple of suspects in the mystery. The snag is that I’ve never attended an inquest. But Andre gave me generous assistance and readily came up with workable solutions to potential plot problems. So did another local coroner, Jean Harkin, when a last minute query was raised by my editor. My discussions with Andre and Jean proved quite fascinating and I was left with great admiration for the work that coroners do.
I’m one of many writers who owe a good deal to people who willingly provide information which may make a huge difference to the quality of the final book. In my early days as a novelist, I tended to rely on my own knowledge and didn’t do much research. Now I do much more – and I’ve discovered that it’s hugely enjoyable.
Friday, 18 January 2008
News travels fast on the internet; a good thing, except perhaps when the news is bad. I was saddened last night to learn of the death of Edward D.Hoch, one of the finest of all writers of short mysteries, and certainly the most prolific. His first story appeared in 1955 and he has contributed a story to every issue of ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’ since 1973. Although he wrote five novels, the short form was what he loved and he was a master of it.
Crippen & Landru published several excellent volumes of his stories, including Diagnosis: Impossible and The Ripper of Storyville. He paid tribute to the inspiration of Ellery Queen in another C&L book, the fascinating The Tragedy of Errors, and his close relationship with Fred Dannay (one half of the Queen writing duo) was clearly a major influence upon his career. He was a very versatile writer, but had a particular interest in ‘impossible crimes’ and stories involving codes and ciphers, and produced many excellent examples which rang the changes on the basic themes quite splendidly.
Ed Hoch edited numerous anthologies; as a contributor, he was also an anthologist’s dream, as I found out after I got to know him. We met a handful of times at Bouchercons, but thanks to the wonders of email I came to think of him as a friend. Our first encounter was in Nottingham in 1995. Ed and I competed in a ‘Mastermind’ quiz along with Sarah J. Mason and Marv Lachman – the quizmaster being the renowned bookseller, writer and editor Maxim Jakubowski. It was great fun, and Marv included a photo that I cherish of the four of us on stage together in his book The Heirs of Anthony Boucher. The copious references to Ed in the book illustrate his importance in the world of mystery fiction.
After that encounter, I would invite Ed from time to time to contribute stories to CWA anthologies. He always replied quickly and affirmatively and always delivered excellent work. I was truly delighted when he told me that one of them, ‘The War in Wonderland’, (set in Cheshire) from the Green for Danger collection of rural mysteries, had won a Barry award.
The last time I saw Ed and his wife Pat was at a cocktail party during the Las Vegas Bouchercon. I hardly knew anyone else there, but as ever, they were welcoming and very good company. The final time I heard from him was about ten weeks ago, shortly after I started this blog. His reaction to it was very encouraging, and that was typical. He was a true professional, but more important even than that, he was a genuinely kind and generous man. I shall miss him, but his stories are a wonderful legacy. They will be enjoyed for many years to come.
Thursday, 17 January 2008
What is an Obelist?
C. Daly King was one of the most intriguing American writers of the Golden Age. His work could be fascinating, but also frustrating. He is best remembered for his short story collection The Curious Mr Tarrant, which features a number of ‘impossible crime’ situations, including a much-anthologised classic, ‘The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem’, as well as a fresh take on the Marie Celeste mystery. His six detective novels include Obelists at Sea, Obelists en Route and Obelists Fly High.
‘Obelist’ was a word that King made up. He defined it in Obelists at Sea as ‘a person of little or no value’ and then re-defined it in Obelists en Route as ‘one who harbours suspicion’. Why on earth you would invent a word, use it in your book titles, and then change your mind about what it means?
It beats me, but it illustrates Daly King’s quirky approach. He was a psychological theorist, author of books such as Beyond Behaviourism, which maybe explains things. It certainly explains, though it hardly excuses, the rambling debate about psychological theory in Obelists en Route (one footnote draws the reader’s attention to ‘as good an account of the hormic apologetics as can be found’ in a journal called ‘Psychologies’, which I’m sure is not the same as the glossy publication on sale in W.H.Smith.)
Julian Symons thought King wanted to demonstrate psychological theories through his elaborate whodunits, but if that is so, he wasn’t really successful. And yet there’s something about his work which compels interest, despite the failings. As Symons says, Obelists Fly High is ‘an astonishing performance…almost nothing is as it seems.’ True to form, King started the book with an epilogue and ended it with a prologue. As Symons said, the latter is likely to leave the reader ‘gasping and possibly indignant…There is a plan of the plane, and not one but two full pages given to the ‘reported movements’ and ‘actual movements’ of the characters at given times. Top this with the ‘Clue Finder’ which…suggests nearly forty points that might have led you to the murderer, and you have – well, certainly you have one of the most extraordinary detective puzzles of the twentieth century.’
Obelists En Route boasts no fewer than seven diagrams, a Clue Finder and a ‘bibliography of references’. Obelists at Sea under-achieves, with a measly five diagrams and no Clue Finder. I’ve never seen Clue Finders in any other detective novels, although I’ve heard it said that Elspeth Huxley used a similar device in one or two of her books. They were rather an appealing idea.
Daly King published three other detective novels. I found Bermuda Burial dull and disappointing. Arrogant Alibi and Careless Corpse are fabulously rare and I’ve never come across copies at an affordable price. But, because he was such a quirky writer, I will keep looking for them.
Wednesday, 16 January 2008
Crime fiction and science fiction
After watching the film Village of the Damned last weekend, I started to think about the links between sci-fi and crime fiction (or should I say cri-fi?) The film is based on The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, someone whose books I devoured as a teenager. Wyndham, like H.G. Wells, was a writer who tends to appeal to readers who aren’t really sci-fi buffs, as well as enthusiasts for the genre. The film might be rather dated (I saw the 1960 version, not the re-make) but I thought it well-done, with plenty of suspense, and one or two nice mysteries. It’s a long time since I read the novel, but the adaptation is, I think, reasonably faithful to the original.
I don’t read much sci-fi (though I’m an avid watcher of Dr Who), but in Waterloo Sunset, I have used science fiction as one of the background elements. The reasons for this relate to the theme, as well as the plot. Harry Devlin spends quite a lot of time in a (fictitious) bar called the Stapledon. I named it after Olaf Stapledon, a Merseyside man who wrote well-regarded science fiction books in his spare time. (Has there ever been another Scouser called Olaf? I wonder.) He went to the same Oxford college as me and worked in a shipping office in Liverpool close to my own office. Nevertheless, I haven’t yet got round to reading any of his novels. Perhaps a treat in store?
Back to John Wyndham. His first literary executor was a friend of mine, a solicitor who was a marvellous companion, but confessed – to my amazement, for in all other respects he was a civilised fellow of fine judgment – to having no interest whatsoever in fiction. Maddeningly, when I interrogated him about what John Wyndham was like, and what he had to say about his books, he could recall very little. Wyndham was evidently a quiet and private individual, pleasant but not inclined to open up too easily.
I did, however, recently discover a little known fact - that, in the 1930s, Wyndham wrote a detective story called Foul Play Suspected, under the name John Beynon. It’s a rare book, which cropped up on eBay a while back and was sold for a sizeable sum.
There are plenty of other writers who have crossed over between sci-fi and crime. Isaac Asimov is an obvious example, and the excellent Fredric Brown achieved success in both genres. Among detective writers who have dabbled are W.J. Burley and P.D. James, while a good many novels combine elements of both genres. I’ve never tackled sci-fi myself, but I would like to have a go one of these days – in a short story, not a novel.
Tuesday, 15 January 2008
Dorothy Bowers and Rue Morgue
I came quite late to the work of Dorothy Bowers. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of her, but an article by the industrious Philip Scowcroft in Deadly Pleasures alerted me to her existence. She only wrote five books and died in 1948, shortly after being admitted to the Detection Club. Yet her work earned much acclaim, and in some quarters she had been seen as a successor to Dorothy L. Sayers. I was impressed by Deed Without a Name, which features Inspector Dan Pardoe, and has a very well-realised setting in England’s ‘phoney war’, and wanted to find out more about this relatively little known author
In the end, I did, thanks in part to the admirable detective work of Tom and Enid Schantz. They are booksellers based in Boulder, Colorado, who have set up Rue Morgue Press, which is dedicated to rediscovering worthy but forgotten detective novels. They’ve now reprinted all of the Bowers books, and have discovered facts about her rather sad life which are recorded in the valuable introduction to these nicely produced new editions. Like several other detective novelists, including Colin Dexter and Bob Barnard, she was keen on crossword puzzles and sometimes compiled them for publication. She never married, and succumbed to TB, which no doubt explains the six-year gap between her fourth and fifth books; she died at the age of 46, a year after the publication of The Bells at Old Bailey, a book that, compared to her best work, I found rather disappointing,. Before long, all her work was out of print.
Bowers’ mysteries remain intelligent, well-written and readable to this day. There’s something out of the ordinary about them which puts Bowers head and shoulders above many of her contemporaries. I’ve been hoarding the one that I haven’t read, and which Tom and Enid reckon is one of her best – Fear and Miss Betony. I’m starting it now and after a run of modern crime novels, it will be good to slip back sixty-odd years in time.
As for Rue Morgue Press, it’s worth checking out their list. I thought I was familiar with plenty of crime writers of the thirties and forties, but I must admit the names of Maureen Sarsfield and Joan Coggin had completely passed me by. Thanks to Tom and Enid, though, the books of those writers, both of whose careers in the genre were very brief and frankly made little impact even at the time, have been made available for a fresh generation of readers. And Murder at Shots Hall, by Sarsfield, became one of their best-sellers.
Monday, 14 January 2008
A change of scene
One of the interesting things about writing two different series, set respectively in Liverpool and the Lakes, is the need to change approach when shifting from one to another. After a long break, I really enjoyed getting back into the city scene with which I’m very familiar (because I’ve worked there since 1980) in Liverpool. So creating the environment for Waterloo Sunset was pretty straightforward – even though I still needed to do plenty of research, which included exploring the building of the block opposite my own office and taking the opportunity provided by a fire drill one morning of exploring a little oasis of greenery tucked just off a six-lane highway and which I'd not paid much attention to over the years.
Now I’m back writing about the Lake District and although I know parts of the area (not all of it, by any means) very well, it’s a different matter creating a strong picture of a place that you don’t see as regularly. All the more so because I don’t have a particularly strong visual memory. This means there is a need for regular return visits (which prompts family members to urge me to write a Lakes book set in the height of summer again, rather than another with a winter backdrop – well, maybe next time!) For my own part, I need no excuse to escape to the Lakes whenever the opportunity arises. Even the areas that attract the tourists still have plenty of appeal to me and, after The Arsenic Labyrinth was set in Coniston, the new novel is taking me to Ambleside, where Hannah and Marc have moved.
On my first visit of the year to Ambleside, I had the pleasure of meeting Steve at Fred Holdsworth’s bookshop in the centre of the town. I’m a huge admirer of the work that independent booksellers do in a far from easy commercial climate and this is a small but very welcoming and well-stocked shop that has flourished for many years, and will, I hope, continue to flourish far into the future.
Because the new book is set at around this time of year, it’s all the more important to remind myself of how places look and feel in the depths of winter. The contrast between a bright summer day on the fells and their brooding atmosphere in winter is quite something. As my career has developed, I think I’ve become both a more descriptive writer and one who deals with characters’ relationships in increasing depth. This evolution is something I’m happy with, though I keep reminding myself that story is paramount. And in a mystery novel, I think that means that a strong plot and a reasonable amount of incident remain important.
Sunday, 13 January 2008
The Page Turner
With films, as with books, variety is good, and I’ve watched a very varied group of movies lately. The Page Turner, directed by Denis Dercourt in 2006, is the only one with sub-titles, and certainly the most under-stated. But the build-up of tension is highly effective, resulting in one of the most disturbing psychological suspense movies I’ve seen in a long time.
The basic set-up is this. Young Melanie, daughter of a butcher, has her heart set on a career as a pianist. But at an important examination, her concentration is disturbed when one of the assessors, herself a successful pianist, unpardonably allows an autograph-hunter to disturb the playing. The girl’s dreams are ruined as a result.
We next encounter her a few years later, working as an intern for a top lawyer. She manoeuvres a short-term assignment to look after the lawyer’s young son, himself a would-be pianist. When it turns out that the lawyer’s wife is the woman who wrecked her ambitions, it becomes apparent that Melanie is bent on revenge.
There are all kinds of hints as to the horrors that may or may not unfold. Will the boy be drowned, will his favourite pet have its throat cut? Will Melanie seduce the lawyer, or his wife? In fact, the most dramatic moment of violence in the whole film is unexpected and cleverly in keeping with Dercourt’s method of defying expectations.
Music plays a huge part in the creation of a chilling atmosphere and the concept of the intense relationship between a pianist and the person who turns the pages of sheet music for her is brilliantly exploited. If it’s whiz-bang action you want, The Bourne Identity is recommended. But I liked the subtlety of The Page Turner just as much.
Saturday, 12 January 2008
How many characters?
One question that any writer has to answer is this: how many characters (excluding the walk-on parts) shall I create for this book? For a writer of detective stories where plot is important, there is a particular challenge. Too few credible suspects, and the mystery suffers. Too many, and it’s hard for the reader to get a handle on who is who; it may also be difficult for the author to draw the people in sufficient depth.
A traditional stand-by in the Golden Age was the ‘cast of characters’ which helped readers to keep all the suspects straight in their mind. Ngaio Marsh and Christianna Brand were among those who made use of this device. So did the eccentric, but interesting, American C.Daly King, author of the ‘Obelist’ books. (I'll post more fully about King another day.)
Cast lists have fallen out of fashion to some extent in modern times. Some readers positively object to them, arguing that if a cast list is required, it’s a sign that something is wrong with the book. I understand this argument, but don't think it's necessarily correct. Cast lists are still to be found in some books, notably history-mysteries. Good examples are to be found in a couple of highly successful, high quality series set in the past: Lindsey Davis’s Falco books and the 1950s Lydmouth series by Andrew Taylor.
I tend to like reading and writing books with reasonably large casts of characters. From a writer’s perspective, perhaps large casts are easier to handle within a series, where the core cast is already established. Existing relationships can be nudged forward, while space is given to developing the characters who haven’t appeared before.
But the right answer to the question posed by the title of this post is probably that there isn’t a right answer. It all depends on the book in question, and on what the writer is trying to achieve.
Friday, 11 January 2008
Have His Carcase
I saw some of the tv adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers novels at the time they were made in the 1980s, starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter, but not all of them. At last I’ve got round to watching one that escaped me first time around, Have His Carcase. It’s a Sayers book for which I have a genuine fondness, because it was the first of hers that I ever read, at the tender age of around 13.
By then I’d read plenty of Christie, and all of Sherlock Holmes, but Sayers was a very different writer and I quickly devoured her novels and short stories. Some of the period stuff and background I found tedious as a teenager, but I admired the writing as well as the plots, and I still do. My all-time favourites are The Nine Tailors, Murder Must Advertise and (although a lot of people don’t rate it) the interesting and unusual The Documents in the Case, co-written with that shadowy figure Robert Eustace. (Eustace also co-wrote one of the all-time classic detective short stories, ‘The Tea Leaf’.)
Lord Peter Wimsey is a challenge for any actor because of his evolution over the years from a Bertie Wooster type to someone of genuine sensitivity and deep passion, as well as intellect . In the 70s, I enjoyed the series starring Ian Carmichael, which focused on the earlier books. Petherbridge is a more serious actor, and he did justice to the way in which Sayers developed her detective. As for the casting of Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane, I think it was inspired. Walter is invariably an impressive performer, but she caught the subtleties of Vane’s character to perfection.
The pace of the story is noticeably slower than you would find in present day tv drama, but the production values were high, and even today it is easy to see why the series was a popular success. It’s also good to be reminded of an interesting book and I look forward to watching the remaining episodes.
As for Sayers, she had faults as a writer, and critics such as Julian Symons, Raymond Chandler, Q.D. Leavis, Edmund Wilson are amongst those who have pointed them out. But she aimed high and was capable of brilliance, and for those qualities, she can be forgiven much. It’s no surprise to me that, half a century after her death, she is still regarded as one of the major detective novelists of the last hundred years.
Thursday, 10 January 2008
Harcourt and Henry Wade
Just when I thought I’d finished my set of essays for the Harcourt Encyclopaedia, the phone went and the editor, Barry Forshaw, asked me to write something about Henry Wade. It’s a pleasure to do a short piece, because if there is one Golden Age British writer who deserves to be better known, in my opinion it is Henry Wade.
‘Henry Wade’ was the name under which Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher wrote varied, thoughtful and entertaining crime fiction for thirty years. His career stretched from the 1920s to the late 1950s, when psychological suspense was coming to the fore. He played an important part in the development of the genre, especially but not only in the credible portrayal of the business of detection, and the ordinary people whose lives are changed by crime. I am really not sure why his gifts have long been under-estimated by commentators, who are apt to bracket him with the so-called ‘humdrum’ writers such as John Rhode.
Aubrey-Fletcher had a distinguished military career during the First World War, and several of the Henry Wade novels reflect his understanding of the impact that conflict had on those who lived through it. The Dying Alderman (1930) is a capable whodunit with neat use of a ‘dying message’ clue, but Mist on the Saltings (1933) is even more effective; a study in character that was ahead of its time. The novel also benefited from an evocative setting on the East Anglian coast. Released for Death (1938) presents a sympathetic picture of a criminal exploited after leaving jail by a career villain.
Lonely Magdalen (1940) is even better, offering a realistic yet gripping account of an investigation into the apparently commonplace murder of a prostitute whose body is found on Hampstead Heath. The book, structurally very accomplished, is written in three sections; the central part of the book details the dead woman’s misadventures in her younger days before the police inquiry resumes following her identification. This novel, like many of Wade’s best, features Inspector John Poole, a shrewd and sympathetic Oxford-educated detective whose other cases include a very enjoyable ‘inverted mystery’, Too Soon to Die (1954.)
I’m not suggesting that everything he wrote was a masterpiece. But many of them still read well today. His work bridged the gap between the detective novel as game and the crime novel focusing on character. Henry Wade also had a far better understanding of police procedure than most of his contemporaries - and he described it well.
Wednesday, 9 January 2008
The Bourne Identity
One disappointing experience with an author can put you off for a long time, perhaps forever. Many years ago, my late father enjoyed an early thriller by Robert Ludlum, but when I tried it, I didn’t get beyond the first twenty pages or so and I was never tempted to try Ludlum again. But of course, it’s a mistake to be deterred too easily. I worry sometimes that if a reader didn’t enjoy an early book of mine, they will give up on me permanently, when all the time I’m trying (hard!) to get better.
Did I miss out by giving up so quickly? Well, Ludlum’s sales were in no way adversely affected by my lack of interest. By the time he died in 2001, he’d sold upwards of 200 million copies (estimates seem to vary; perhaps figures become meaningless by the time you reach that level) and I gather that more than a dozen ‘Robert Ludlum’ novels have appeared since then, apparently thanks to the efforts of various writers chosen by Ludlum’s estate to keep the torch burning.
At long last, I’ve been induced by the generally excellent reviews to sample the Bourne movie series starring Matt Damon and based on Ludlum’s most celebrated character, an amnesiac CIA man. And I thoroughly enjoyed The Bourne Identity – certainly enough to try the next in the series, and perhaps the books on which they were (very loosely, I guess) based.
Although I didn’t care for that one Ludlum book I tried so long ago, I do admire the thriller writer’s art, even when it’s practised by authors with relatively few literary pretensions, like Ludlum. The film tells a gripping story and there is plenty of focus on the character’s dilemma, as he tries to work out who he is, and how to survive the seemingly overwhelming forces stacked up against him, as well as on incident (the car chase is terrific, the love interest neatly handled.) First class light entertainment. I’m looking forward to watching the sequel soon.
There’s a real difference between thrillers and detective novels, by the way, though it’s not easy to define in a sentence. One of the best accounts of the distinction came from someone skilled at writing both, the late Michael Gilbert, in an essay called ‘The Moment of Violence’. It’s included in a book of essays that he edited called Crime in Good Company, and it remains full of insight, fifty years after it was written.
Tuesday, 8 January 2008
Leslie S. Klinger and Sherlock Holmes
I mentioned recently the Sherlockian pastiche that I’ve been labouring over. As a way of practising the craft of writing, trying such a different style and voice is quite a useful exercise, as well as enjoyable. This is the fifth story I’ve written about the great consulting detective. Who knows? One day I may get the chance to collect them all into a single volume. Anyway, this time around, my attempt to think myself into the world that Conan Doyle created was assisted by a wonderful research tool,
There are plenty of books about Holmes, some of them excellent, but my main source nowadays for information about the man himself, Watson, and their world, is The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited in three volumes by Leslie S. Klinger, a monumental and expertly researched piece of work. (It’s also attractively produced and, in terms of value for money, very reasonably priced.)
It may give an idea of the quality of Klinger's achievement to say that John Le Carre, no less, contributes an Introduction. He describes Watson’s voice as belonging to ‘a tweedy, no-nonsense colonial Britisher at ease with himself’ and adds: ‘Professional critics can’t lay a glove on Conan Doyle, and never could.’ And he offers quite a tribute: ‘With no Sherlock Holmes, would I have invented George Smiley?’
Klinger’s own introduction, ‘The World of Sherlock Holmes’, is a fascinating read, and his annotations to the stories provide vast amounts of background information about the stories, answering questions like: ‘who was Watson actually married to, and when?’ For a writer following in Conan Doyle’s footsteps, Klinger’s work is invaluable. Open any page at random and there is almost certain to be something of interest that’s a bit out of the ordinary – for instance, a chart to help the reader decide which particular snake was the ‘swamp adder’ which featured in ‘The Speckled Band.’ There is also a lot of very entertaining trivia – I’m tempted to suggest that, even if you hate Sherlock (but, really, how could you?) you would find plenty here to amuse and entertain you, including various insights on the late Victorian era. But above all, for anyone wishing to re-acquaint themselves with the Canon, the Klinger editions are, quite simply, a source of almost endless pleasure
Monday, 7 January 2008
I’ve been reading the latest issue – number 52, it’s been running a long time - of George Easter’s crime fiction magazine ‘Deadly Pleasures’. As usual, it’s packed with interesting information, including some fascinating articles from immensely knowledgeable contributors such as Philip Scowcroft, who is always a mine of information, and Marv Lachman, author of that definitive study of crime fandom The Heirs of Anthony Boucher.
Marv’s book discusses Bouchercon crime conventions at length, and I first met George at one of them – in Toronto, back in 1992. He’d recently read All the Lonely People and it was immediately apparent that he had a real love of British crime fiction. Needless to say, I warmed to him instantly. My vague recollection is that he’d originally planned to write a book under the title Deadly Pleasures, but his plans changed and the magazine was the happy result.
It’s proved highly successful over the years and has spawned the ‘Barry’ awards, named after crime fan and former contributor, the late Barry Gardner; in 2007 George Pelecanos and Ken Bruen respectively won the prizes for best novel and best British novel.
The main emphasis of the magazine is on reviews; I contribute one or two myself, but the leading commentators include George himself, Larry Gandle, Bev de Weese, Ted Hertel jr., Britain’s own Ali Karim, and Maggie Mason. Ali is someone else I met at a Bouchercon – at the vast Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, in this case. A strange place for a first encounter, considering that at the time we lived not too far away from each other on the other side of the Atlantic, in Cheshire.
It’s fascinating to compare Larry Gandle’s shrewd and occasionally acerbic assessment of books nominated for CWA awards with the judges’ verdicts. On the whole, I concentrate on reviewing books I like rather than those I don’t, and (though I haven’t discussed it with him) I suspect that Ali has a broadly similar approach. However, the world would be a poorer, and less well-informed, place if all critics went about their work in the same way. I don’t always agree with Gandle’s opinions (although I had a lot of sympathy for his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of those of this year’s crop that I've read), but they are invariably insightful, well-argued and worth reading. And they are among the highlights of a consistently good publication.
Sunday, 6 January 2008
Many crime writers started their career in print by publishing something rather different from a mystery novel. Julian Symons began with poetry and Minette Walters with romantic fiction. Colin Dexter wrote texts for students (as N.C. Dexter) in the 1960s, and some of James Sallis' early work focused on the jazz guitar. Going back further in time, S.S. Van Dine (aka W.H.Wright) wrote well-regarded books of art criticism before creating the Golden Age sleuth Philo Vance (whose cases were best-sellers in their day, although to read them now, it's not entirely easy to believe.)
My own first published book was a racy little tome called Understanding Computer Contracts, and Priscilla Masters, a friend who also appears on the Allison & Busby list, started out with a little book called Mr Bateman’s Garden. It’s a children’s story, set in the extraordinary, long-forgotten but now restored, gardens of a Staffordshire National Trust property, Biddulph Grange (a must to visit if you are fascinated by unusual gardens, and a real favourite of mine.)
Some time after that, Cilla wrote her first detective novel, Winding Up the Serpent, published in 1995. It introduced her principal detective, DI Joanna Piercy, and earned much positive comment. It’s a book that has become highly collectible – a first edition in fine condition might cost as much as a thousand dollars. Since then, Cilla has produced a range of good stories, including mysteries with a strong medical theme (she works part-time as a nurse, and makes even better use of her expert medical knowledge than did Dame Agatha) and River Deep, a splendid book featuring a female coroner, Martha Gunn. Martha, a strong and appealing character, returns in Cilla’s latest, Slipknot. It's interesting to compare Cilla's modern day Shrewsbury with the town portrayed by Ellis Peters in the Brother Cadfael books.
I first got to know Cilla when we did a couple of library events together in Lancashire, the best part of a decade ago. She’s a witty and entertaining public speaker, and we’ve often talked of doing more gigs together, although so far work commitments have got in the way. But a couple of years ago she very ingeniously wove my novel Take My Breath Away into a Joanna Piercy book called Wings Over the Watcher. A unique and generous gesture that I much appreciated.
Saturday, 5 January 2008
John Banville, alias Benjamin Black
I’m reading Christine Falls, the first novel in a projected crime series written by John Banville under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black. It’s not a case of identity concealment, since the publisher trumpets the author’s real name on front and book covers and the first two pages of the book. Presumably, the creation of the Black pen-name is to differentiate this novel (and its successor, Silver Swan) from Banville’s other work.
Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea. I confess that I haven’t read that, or The Book of Evidence (short-listed for the Booker), but I did like The Untouchable, which features a character reminiscent of the spy Anthony Blunt
It’s nothing new for the best writers to try their hand at crime fiction (or, at least, novels with crime at their heart- which are perhaps not quite the same thing.) Dickens, Greene, Amis father and son and even Dylan Thomas are among those who have dabbled; and of course, Sebastian Faulks has been hired to write a James Bond thriller. But it’s certainly interesting to see what Banville does with some elements of the genre, even though I’m not sure he’s truly working within it.
This book won enormous praise on publication; the late Michael Dibdin, himself an estimable crime novelist, was among those who raved. It features a pathologist called Quirke, who encounters the corpse of the eponymous Christine and soon realises that her death is shrouded in mystery. However, there isn’t much resemblance to the work of Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs. No deranged serial killer, no DNA evidence. In fact, the setting of the early chapters is Dublin in the 50s, and after a hundred pages, it looks as though Banville’s focus is on examining the nature of sin rather than on springing too many surprises about the identity of the principal sinners. But we’ll see.
Friday, 4 January 2008
The first review
An unexpected New Year present was an early (astonishingly early) review in Publishers Weekly of Waterloo Sunset – ‘impressive…skilfully weaves the strands together…twisty whodunit’; yep, thanks, I’ll definitely settle for that.
It’s always difficult to predict how reviewers will react to one’s new book. The secret is not to fret about reviews too much in advance – but needless to say, this is much easier said than done, hence my relief right now. I’ve been very lucky with critical reaction over the years, but the reality is that you can’t please all the people all of the time. Nevertheless, if the vibes generally are negative, chances are that something has gone wrong. So I’m hoping that others will share the opinion of the PW reviewer. This is the first time that one of my Harry Devlin books (as opposed to the Lake District Mysteries) has been published in the US at the same time as the UK. So far, the Lakes books have probably struck more of a chord with American readers than the Liverpool series, but I’d like to think that Waterloo Sunset will make an equal impression on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s certainly a book I was very keen to write and I’d like to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate the support of my UK and US editors, Susie Dunlop and Barbara Peters, in agreeing (despite, I’m sure, reservations about my taking a year off from the Lakes) to let me return to my first series. Publishers need good writers, but it’s equally true that writers need good publishers. And my experience of Allison & Busby and Poisoned Pen Press (as well as Luebbe, my German publishers) has been enormously positive. I want to repay their faith by continuing to improve as a novelist
Right now, there’s only one snag. The PW review was based – as is often the way - on an uncorrected advance reading copy of Waterloo Sunset. I still have to crack on with the corrections for the American edition, as well as working on the copy edited manuscript from Allison & Busby. I confess that I’m not the most enthusiastic proof-checker in the world (I blame checking too many legal documents over the years – now I tend to read what I think I wrote.) Certainly, I lack the discerning eye of my fellow blogger Juliet Doyle, whom I came to know when she put in tireless and very effective work on the proofs of my last law book.
But at least now I can get on with the task in good heart, buoyed by that lovely first review.
Thursday, 3 January 2008
Writing about crime fiction
I’ve been grateful for the reaction to my essay about ‘The Detective in British Fiction’, which appears on my website. To set it in context, it may be worth saying a bit more about how essays like this, for crime reference books such as the forthcoming Harcourt Encyclopaedia, come into being.
I’ve contributed to a variety of encyclopaedias and similar compendiums about crime fiction over the years, including the St James Guide, 100 Great Detectives, and the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. The last of these was quite an experience.
The story of the Oxford Companion began, so far as I was concerned, with my coming up with the idea of such a book and pitching it to OUP. Michael Cox, an excellent editor and anthologist, later to achieve fame and fortune with his own novel, The Meaning of Night, came to my home in Lymm to discuss the project in (about) 1990. All looked good until the news came that OUP in New York had commissioned a similar book, to be edited by Rosemary Herbert. So my project died instantly. With hindsight, I realise that although the idea was attractive, the work involved would have been demanding – quite murderously so. And Rosemary was ideally qualified for the task.
I was asked to contribute to Rosemary’s book, and I met her at a Bouchercon in Toronto in 1992. Some of the topics for essays were challenging (‘The prodigal son in crime fiction’ struck me as especially tricky) but Rosemary and Catherine Aird, who led the UK branch of the editorial team, were terrific to work with. As time passed, the number of essays I was asked to write increased. However, the in-house editors at OUP kept changing and the process of getting the book to print seemed interminable. One or two contributors had, indeed, died by the time the Companion was published, and in the end (through no fault whatsoever of the external editors) at least one critic suggested it wasn’t quite as cutting edge in content as it might have been. I still think it’s a real mine of interesting information, though, and I'm proud to have been associated with it.
With the Harcourt book, as with any similar work, one is limited by the subject matter one is given, as well as by word count. So, when writing about the detective in British fiction, the real challenge is this: how can I squeeze more than a century and a half of material into 3000 words? To say that one has to be highly selective is an under-statement.
All this means that such essays tend to skim somewhat on the surface of things, due to constraints of length and the need to avoid duplication of other essays in the same book. Even so, I find that they are fun to write. Above all, there is always the hope that one will draw interesting books, characters or authors to the attention of someone who will enjoy reading them, and who would otherwise not have encountered them. That’s where the real satisfaction lies.
Wednesday, 2 January 2008
I don’t think it’s true that a good opening sentence means that the book as a whole is bound to be equally effective. But it helps. There’s much to be said in favour of grabbing the reader’s attention, although this can be done with subtlety as well as with a shock. Over the years, authors as good – and as different from each other - as Dickens, Orwell, Camus and Daphne du Maurier have created memorable openings to memorable novels.
There have been some wonderful opening sentences to crime novels, too. Ruth Rendell is very good in this department, as she is in almost everything she does in the genre – perhaps best of all at the start of the masterly A Judgment in Stone: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ Who could not want to know how that happened?
Mind you, some of the Golden Age detective novelists, including some of the best, seemed to work on the principle that the more mundane the opening, the better. Take an example that Harry Keating has quoted in Murder Must Appetise from Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel: ‘The 5.0 p.m. train from Cannon Street runs fast as far as Stourford, where it is due at 6.7. On Thursday, November 14th, it was, as usual, fairly full, but not uncomfortably so.’ At least this method does not raise expectations too high. Yet Burton (aka John Rhode and Cecil Waye) was a successful writer in his day and retains a loyal fan base; some of his novels go for very high prices in the collectors' market.
Of course, precisely how to open a novel is a subject much in mind since I have started work on a new book. Here are some of my past efforts:
‘Do you think I murdered Alison?’ asked Stirrup. (Suspicious Minds.)
‘How long have you been afraid of me?’ (First Cut is the Deepest.)
‘The dead woman smiled. So far, so good.’ (Take My Breath Away.)
‘You’d never believe it to look at me now, but once upon a time I killed a man.' (The Arsenic Labyrinth.’
And here – at least, unless and until I have a change of mind – is the start of the new novel:
‘The books were burning.’
Tuesday, 1 January 2008
A new beginning
What better way to begin a new year than to start writing a new book?
I’m working on the first chapter of the fourth Lake District Mystery today. It’s always an exciting time, that stage when the wonderful story ideas that have sprung to life in one's mind haven’t been compromised by the limitations of one's talent. I always begin full of hope - and then after a while the angst starts to set in. Why isn’t the plot working? How do I get from this scene to where I really want the story to be? Does what I’m saying about this character contradict his or her past, as described in an earlier book in the series? Talk about a roller-coaster ride.
But today, at least, it’s going well.
I send my best wishes to everyone who reads this blog from time to time, including in particular those who either encouraged me to start it, or to keep it going (or both.) To my amazement, I've managed to produce a new post for each day since the blog began and I've found the whole experience thoroughly enjoyable. In 2008, I'll continue to combine updates about my own writing with thoughts about crime fiction in general, past and present, as well as the occasional excursion into true crime.
Here’s hoping for a peaceful and healthy year ahead. – and for some really good reading from authors familiar and currently unknown. In a short space of time, I’ve been truly gratified to get to know some very generous people through blogging. It’s a great community, and I’m thrilled to have become part of it.