Two novels vie for the title of best British whodunit with a legal setting, in my opinion. One is Tragedy at Law, by the admirable Cyril Hare. The other is Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased.
Gilbert’s book was published in 1950. His first novel, Close Quarters, was – so the story goes – started before the Second World War, but rudely interrupted by the Nazis. By the time he got round to seeing it in print, he’d endured a spell in an Italian POW camp, which provided the setting for an excellent mystery, Death in Captivity, also known as Danger Within (Don Chaffey’s enjoyable film of the story uses the latter title.)
When he turned his attention to writing a book set in a solicitors’ firm, Gilbert’s own legal career was soundly established. Quite apart from his literary gifts, he was clearly a very good lawyer; he rose to become the second most senior partner in a prestigious Lincoln’s Inn firm, and his clients included his friend, the legendary Raymond Chandler.
Smallbone Deceased makes clever use of his professional knowledge. Gilbert has a very accessible style, and his wit was seldom more evident than here, when he was writing about a world with which he was very comfortable. No wonder Harry Keating included it in his list of the 100 best crime novels. The body of a trustee is found in a hermetically sealed deed box and a cleverly conceived mystery ensues. The story features not only Hazelrigg, the cop who featured in several of his early books, but also the para-insomniac solicitor Henry Bohun, who sadly never returned in a follow-up novel, although he did feature n several short stories. I say ‘sadly’, but it was Gilbert’s way to ring the changes. He varied his characters and his plots with astonishing ease.
I like so many of his books (perhaps the out-and-out thrillers a bit less than the rest) that it’s hard to pick out other favourites. Death Has Deep Roots is a good courtroom thriller. The Night of the Twelfth is an excellent mystery, much darker in tone than most of Gilbert’s work. The Dust and the Heat and The Crack in the Teapot, very different from each other, are rich in entertainment, but also quietly thought-provoking. And there’s a late work, The Queen against Karl Mullen, which I found very impressive. Gilbert put a lot of effort into it, and was understandably disappointed when it was more or less ignored by the critics. By that time, he was an elderly man, and the focus was on more fashionable writers. As a result, few readers are aware of a thoroughly accomplished crime novel, which again makes effective use of Gilbert’s legal expertise.
Friday, 29 February 2008
Two novels vie for the title of best British whodunit with a legal setting, in my opinion. One is Tragedy at Law, by the admirable Cyril Hare. The other is Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased.
Thursday, 28 February 2008
Do you write under your own name? I’d never be asked that question, would never have conceived it as the title of this blog, if writers didn’t sometimes use pseudonyms. I tend to answer the question with another: ‘Why would I work so hard on a book and then want to put it out under someone else’s name?’ But in truth there can be good reasons why authors want to adopt a pseudonym.
Occasionally, it may be a matter of seeking privacy. The first detective novel published by the humorous journalist A.B.Cox, an intensely private man, appeared anonymously. Later he wrote as Anthony Berkeley. When he wrote stand-alones as Francis Iles, a prolonged debate took place as to the author’s true identity; suffice to say that many of the guesses were ludicrously wide of the mark.
Sometimes a pseudonym is used to conceal the fact that the book is written by more than one person: Ellery Queen, Francis Beeding and Nicci French are obvious examples. Sometimes there are commercial reasons, for instance if a publisher does not want to flood the market with books coming out under the same author’s name: thus John Dickson Carr became Carter Dickson, and Cornell Woolrich transformed into William Irish. The immensely productive John Creasey used countless pen-names.
On other occasions, there is a desire to brand certain books separately from the rest of the author’s output. I suspect this is why Ruth Rendell sometimes writes as Barbara Vine, even though there is no attempt to conceal her true identity. Similar considerations explain why John Banville, the Man Booker Prize winner, writes crime as Benjamin Black.
John Banville told me recently: ‘Christine Falls was something different, compared to my earlier work. It was important to make that clear to readers, to give them a signal that this book would be more straightforward in some ways, not post-modern at all.’ In his early books, he had a character called Ben White, and his first plan was to adopt Benjamin White as a pseudonym. But his publishers felt that Benjamin Black sounded better – and, alphabetically, would get closer to the top of librarians’ and booksellers’ purchase lists!
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
It’s desperately difficult to be truly original when writing a novel, no matter how hard one tries. There are a few landmark books that do seem to pass that test of originality – yet, on closer inspection, doubts may set in.
One example is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The ingenious solution caused outrage (misplaced, surely) when the book came out in 1926. Yet Christie had made a gesture towards the same plot device in an earlier book, The Man in the Brown Suit. And later in came to light that Anton Chekhov, no less, had written a book with a similar twist called The Shooting Party, back in 1884.
Christie’s And Then There Were None is another all-time classic. But the idea of a closed circle of characters trapped by a mysterious adversary had been done before – by the husband and wife duo Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, in The Invisible Host.
And then there is Kenneth Fearing’s masterly The Big Clock, twice brilliantly filmed. The idea of a man being set to investigate himself was used later, by Derek Marlowe in A Dandy in Aspic. But now it seems, from an article by David Ellis in the latest issue of CADS, that the basic plot was used earlier, by Bruce Graeme, in a book I'd never heard of before, Not Proven (1935.)
There are all kinds of similarities that can be found in superficially very different books. The device in Christie’s The ABC Murders has often been used, for instance by writers as different from her as Ed McBain and Lee Child. But this is definitely not a sign of lack of originality, in my opinion – it’s a challenge for any writer to breathe new life into an old idea, and very satisfying when it comes off, as it did when McBain and Child spun their own variations on the basic theme.
For what it’s worth, I think it unlikely that Christie had read either The Shooting Party or The Invisible Host when she wrote those masterpieces that have some resemblance to the earlier books. Different people frequently come up with the same idea at different times (and, when it’s a topical idea, often at much the same time.) Incidentally, The Shooting Party is rather enjoyable, and well worth seeking out. As for The Invisible Host, I’m hoping to read it soon.
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
I was dubious about the concept of ‘Lewis’, the spin-off from ‘Inspector Morse’. Much as I enjoyed the character and the actor in the original series, my instinct was to side with those who felt that enough was enough, and that television should give the dreaming spires a rest for a while longer. I’d been (apart from a few episodes) disappointed with the Geraldine McEwen version of ‘Marple’, and less than enthralled by the news that Julia Mackenzie is now being lined up to play Christie’s great spinster sleuth. I’m sure I’m not the only crime writer around who couldn't help thinking that it was time to give a few less familiar detectives a try on the small screen!
But that was before I saw ‘Lewis’ for the first time last Sunday. A very strong episode, written by the reliable Alan Plater, ‘And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea.’ The cast was excellent, with the likes of Neil Pearson and Haydn Gwynne joined by the very attractive Emily Beecham (a murder victim all too soon, alas) and, in a very fine performance, Tom Riley as a gifted young artist with a form of autism. The Oxford locations were as pretty as ever, and the story-line came up with murder in the Bodleian – a classic ‘body in the library’, if ever there was one.
I really enjoyed the show. It may have lacked John Thaw, and one or two of the plot elements were a shade contrived, but it was great entertainment, up there with the best episodes of ‘Inspector Morse’. Lewis’s new sidekick Hathaway is an appealing character, and the mystery was witty (I loved the hoax Oxford tourist tours) and ingenious, with a couple of very interesting underlying themes linked with plagiarism and probability theory.
Excellent Sunday evening entertainment. It wasn’t quite as good as seeing Dionne Warwick live the previous week, but I shall certainly watch ‘Lewis’ again.
Monday, 25 February 2008
The Arsenic Labyrinth
Today is the official UK publication date for the paperback edition of The Arsenic Labyrinth, my third Lake District Mystery. It’s a book that gave me a good deal of pleasure for a number of reasons.
I’ll talk another day about the process of researching the story-line and background material. From a crime fan’s perspective, I enjoy combining, every now and then, the contemporary mystery and characters with plotting elements usually found in books of the past. So I used a ‘dying message’ clue in Eve of Destruction and I’ve tried my hand at ‘locked room mysteries’ in several short stories. In The Arsenic Labyrinth, I introduced a family tree - in fact, two family trees, showing the lines of descent in two families, the Inchmores and the Cloughs, whose contrasting fortunes are relevant to the plot (but in saying this, I’m not really giving much away at all!.)
When I was hunting for information about arsenic labyrinths, I came across an website for an art gallery in Falmouth which was running an exhibition of work by local artists, including a series of etchings and oil paintings by the talented Bren Unwin. I was very taken with a limited edition black and white lithograph of a rather spooky arsenic labyrinth. And now one of them hangs on one of our walls at home, a reminder of a book that was so much fun to write.
Sunday, 24 February 2008
Libraries and readers' groups
Like many other writers, I owe an enormous debt to libraries. I became a member of the children’s section of my home town library when I was young, and in the years since then I’ve been a member of a good many other libraries, including the Bodleian and Oxford Union’s library (no spare cash to buy books when you are a student, so I devoured scores from the fiction stock held by the Union)
Since becoming a published novelist, I’ve had an added pleasure – the chance to visit libraries up and down the country to give talks, hold events, and meet readers face to face. This is one of the most rewarding pastimes for any writer, I think.
One of the most appealing developments in recent years has been the increasing popularity of readers’ groups, very often (though not always) associated with libraries. I’ve found that group members who attend library talks are invariably well-informed and the fact they have had a chance to discuss and debate one of my books before meeting me gives an added dimension to any event.
With readers’ groups and future library discussions in mind, I’ve added a new page to my website. It features both The Arsenic Labryinth and Waterloo Sunset at this stage, and contains background info as well as suggested questions for discussion. I hope it’s found useful and would welcome any feedback or ideas for improvement.
Saturday, 23 February 2008
The Last Post
I’ve received an early copy of the latest novel by Robert Barnard. It’s called The Last Post and it looks very promising. The back cover carries a review from ‘The Daily Telegraph’ which, while not recent, remains true to this day: ‘Robert Barnard is always original, never repeats himself and has a delectable wit.’
I’ve known Bob Barnard for about twenty years, but I started reading his books some time before we first met, through a social event held by the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers Association. His first detective was Scotland Yard man Perry Trethowan, and later books have often featured another cop, Charlie Peace, but the series don’t focus on the central character in quite the same way as you find with, say, Ian Rankin, John Harvey or Val McDermid. Bob’s books are snappy and fairly short, and full of acute social observation, as well as gleeful humour.
One of my favourites is A Scandal in Belgravia , but although his work is very varied, the books are consistently enjoyable. He's written several books under the pseudonym of Bernard Bastable; these are light historical mysteries, and one of them, A Mansion and its Murders, has never been published in the UK - odd, this, because I found it typically entertaining. He is also a prolific writer of short stories, several of which I've had the pleasure of including in anthologies I've edited (one of them, 'Sins of Scarlet', won the CWA award for best short story of 2006.) A few years ago he was a worthy winner of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, and his reputation is secure. I’m looking forward to The Last Post.
But there’s one Bob Barnard book which isn’t a novel that I’d particularly like to recommend. It is A Talent to Deceive, his appreciation of the work of Agatha Christie. It’s packed with insight, especially in relation to Christie’s ‘strategies of deception’. If you like Christie, you’ll find this book an excellent and characteristically succinct, as well as highly readable, companion to her work.
Friday, 22 February 2008
After mentioning Michael Gilbert several times in this blog, I wanted to say something about the influence he exerted on my writing career. When I first came across his novels in the late 60s, they were in a uniform edition that included a biographical note which explained that he combined his writing with a career as a solicitor. He wrote his books on the train, commuting to work in a prestigious London law firm.
My parents were, at the time, worried about my stated ambition to write detective novels. They didn’t want me to starve, so they thought it would be a good idea for me to have a proper job. In the legal profession, for instance. Cunningly (for they too liked Michael Gilbert) they pointed out that it was possible to combine a legal career with crime writing. And I was duly persuaded, although I’ve never written a word when commuting to work (tricky, when you are driving on the M6.)
Shortly after I became a solicitor I started writing legal articles for'The Law Society’s Gazette' and eventually I persuaded the editor to let me write an article about Michael Gilbert. By this time, I’d read every novel he’d written, as well as many of his first rate short stories. The chance to interview my hero by telephone arrived, and it was tremendous fun to speak to him at long last. He was, predictably, urbane, charming and highly articulate. The perfect interviewee.
I’ve written several more articles about him over the years. After I became a published crime writer, he offered me encouragement and even contributed a very supportive quote for the book cover after reading Eve of Destruction – a gesture that meant a good deal to me. The last time we were in touch, he was well into his 90s and very infirm, but happy to grant me permission to include his classic London Underground mystery ‘A Case for Gourmets’ in an anthology I was editing.
There’s much more to say about a man who had such a distinguished and lengthy literary career. Future posts will focus on both his novels and his short stories. I owe Michael Gilbert a lot, but above all for the reading pleasure he continues to give.
Thursday, 21 February 2008
Footnotes and The Athenian Murders
David Ellis wrote an interesting article on Chekhov’s career as a crime writer (yes!) in the latest issue of CADS. He also added an interesting ‘footnote about footnotes’, commenting that ‘there is surely a treatise to be written on the role of footnotes in crime and detective stories.’ As he points out, footnotes can be found in Poe’s ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’, as well as in Chekhov’s The Shooting Party and the work of John Dickson Carr
Several whodunits of the Golden Age made regular use of footnotes, sometimes merely for the purpose of advertising previous books by the same author. C. Daly King, whom I mentioned recently, used footnotes extensively, sometimes perhaps to bolster the impression of erudition in the field of psychiatry.
Ellis also makes mention of The Athenian Murders, by Jose Carlos Somoza, published in the UK very successfully a few years ago. It’s an astonishing performance, quite unlike anything I’ve read – a one-off to rank, arguably, alongside two strange masterpieces: The Face on the Cutting Room Floor by Cameron McCabe and The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers. I don’t wish to spoil the story, but Ellis summarises the relevance of footnotes well: they ‘at first appear to be helpful comments from a translator [but] become more frequent and assertive until the translator intrudes into the actual story.’ Suffice to say that it’s a very clever book. Some may say it’s too clever for its own good, but I found it refreshingly different.
Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Yesterday was interesting, with a lunch-time photo-shoot followed by an interview with the Liverpool Daily Post, in connection with the forthcoming paperback publication of The Arsenic Labyrinth and the arrival in May of the long-awaited (by me, at least!) return of Harry Devlin in Waterloo Sunset.
The photographer asked me to drive up to the beach at Waterloo (a coastal suburb of Liverpool), where a couple of key scenes in the new novel take place. The big attraction at Waterloo and neighbouring Crosby these days is the unforgettable Another Place, 100 cast-iron figures scattered along a mile or so of beach. This is the work of artist Antony Gormley, creator of ‘the Angel of the North.’ I like Another Place very much and the photos above have been taken on occasional visits over the past two and a half years. The mood the figures create on the shore-line changes with the weather, and the tide. Often the figures are half-submerged by sand or sea. I find them thought-provoking, and so does Harry Devlin. And on a sunny day, like yesterday, Waterloo was a good place to be, even if only for a few short minutes.
Tuesday, 19 February 2008
I’ve succumbed to temptation and bought an obscure 1928 crime novel by a writer previously unknown to me, called Walter S. Masterman. It’s called 2LO, and I didn't even know what the title meant until a short time ago. Much of the collectability of this particular volume stems from the fact that Masterman inscribed it to his fellow crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers.
I’ve done a bit of detective work and as far as I can make out, the story behind the inscription is this. In 1928, Victor Gollancz, eventually to become a crime publisher of enormous distinction, commissioned work from a number of respected mystery writers and brought out the first dozen detective stories under his new imprint. Apart from Sayers and Masterman, the authors included Milward Kennedy and J.J. Connington (whose work Sayers read avidly; Five Red Herrings pays special tribute to his The Two Tickets Puzzle.) This was an interesting new venture and apparently the authors met up together on a number of occasions and exchanged copies of their books with each other. Evidently this is how Masterman came to present his story to Sayers.
Needless to say, Masterman’s reputation has not survived anything like as well as Sayers’. But he wasn’t lacking in distinction – his first novel boasted a foreword by no less a celebrity than G.K.Chesterton, and he wrote about a dozen before the war came and his crime career ended. He died young, in 1946.
So what was 2LO? I gather that it was the original Marconi broadcasting system in the UK, which soon became the BBC. Golden Age expert L.J.Hurst tells me that there were regional broadcasting services, and people would say they were listening to 2LO to indicate they were listening to the BBC London, rather than, say, BBC Manchester.
Monday, 18 February 2008
I’ve received a copy of the latest novel from that excellent publisher of Eurocrime, Bitter Lemon Press. The Spoke, by Friedrich Glauser, is the fifth and final book featuring the determined Sergeant Studer. It follows Thumbprint, In Matto’s Realm, Fever and The Chinaman. I like Glauser’s work, which is clear, thoughtful and a bit different. The fact that the books are short is also no bad thing in these days of hefty best-sellers which, for all their merits, are alarmingly time-consuming to read. I’d never even heard of Glauser before Thumbprint first appeared; thanks to Bitter Lemon, he has now become much better known in the UK than ever before.
Glauser gave his name, according to the biographical note, to Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction award. He was born in Austria, but confusingly known as ‘the Swiss Simenon’. But his life was evidently extraordinary: ‘Diagnosed a schizophrenic, addicted to morphine and opium, he spent much of his life in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and, when he was arrested for forging prescriptions, in prison. He also spent two years with the Foreign Legion in North Africa after which he worked as a coal miner and a hospital orderly.’ And he died at the age of 42, a few days before he was married. So – not a conventional existence and presumably for much of the time a very unhappy one.
Yet out of all those troubles, he fashioned novels which have stood the test of time. The Spoke, which is translated by Mike Mitchell, was first published in 1937. The eponymous spoke comes from a bicycle wheel and has been filed to a point at one end. It makes an appearance on the first page of the novel, stuck in the body of a dead man. The mood of the opening pages is dark, and surprisingly modern, far removed from the country houses and tennis parties of so many of the whodunits being written in England at the time.
Sunday, 17 February 2008
All the stars that never were...
This evening will be a highlight – seeing my favourite diva, Dionne Warwick, on stage at the Lowry in Manchester. I’ve watched her concerts several times over the years, starting when I was a student at Oxford in the 70s; most memorable of all was seeing her at the Royal Albert Hall, with Burt Bacharach, the man whose compositions made her name, playing the piano and conducting the orchestra. Her voice isn’t quite what it once was, but she remains a class act. And those wonderful Bacharach-David songs have formed the soundtrack of my life.
One of them gave me the key to the construction of my fourth novel, Yesterday’s Papers. I was driving into work on day, listening to Dionne when I halted at traffic lights in Aigburth, a suburb of Liverpool. She was singing ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’, a classic track I’d heard hundreds of times before. But the line about all the stars who never were, parking cars and pumping gas, suddenly hit me. What happens to performers who never quite make it? By the time the lights turned to green, I had a crucial plot twist fully formed in my mind.
In Yesterday's Papers, Harry Devlin, similarly, figures out the mystery while listening to the song. The book is one of my own favourites. It was listed by The Sunday Times as one of only two crime novels in its Paperbacks of the Year, more than a decade ago; side by side with mega-sellers such as Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It should have been a breakthrough moment. Unfortunately, my then publishers had already decided to give up on Harry (they only published the paperback editions; I had a different hardback publisher in those days.) The book had sold out and they didn’t reprint. The result was that not a single extra copy was sold on the strength of The Sunday Times accolade. Frustrating, to say the least.
But listening to Dionne singing live again will be something special.
Saturday, 16 February 2008
Ashes to Ashes
The most original crime series on British television since the wonderful Jonathan Creek was, in my opinion, Life on Mars. Admittedly, I don’t watch much tv, but that show really was something out of the ordinary. The plotting was at times haphazard and DI Sam Tyler’s time travelling between Manchester past and present demanded plenty of suspended disbelief, but for style, originality and wit, the show was hard to beat, while the macho Gene Hunt, brilliantly played by Philip Glenister, was surely the best new cop on the block in many years.
Life on Mars, like Sam Tyler, may be dead and gone, but now we have Ashes to Ashes, in which Glenister returns, this time in London, with much the same team as before, but a female co-star in DI Alex Drake, aka Keeley Hawes. I’ve not seen much of Hawes in the past – having missed Spooks, which I gather was very good – but she is certainly glamorous enough to keep Gene Hunt happy.
A follow-up to such a ground-breaking show as Life on Mars will inevitably suffer by comparison. But I enjoyed the first episode, in which poor old Alex is shot by a weird man who has somehow managed to evade the clutches of a team of armed detectives and hidden himself in Alex’s car: plausibility continues not to be the strongest feature of the story-lines. Evidently the gunman has some connection with her past life, and there’s a mystery about the deaths of her parents. We know from Life on Mars that, to have any chance of regaining consciousness, Alex will have to solve the mystery in collaboration with Gene and his team. I’m eagerly anticipating future episodes.
Friday, 15 February 2008
I’m a long-time Alfred Hitchcock fan, and I’ve started filling a few gaps in my education by watching some of his movies which had previously escaped my attention. I posted a while back about the impressive Lifeboat, and I was looking forward to seeing Topaz.
I didn’t know much about the movie, other than that it is based on a novel by Leon Uris, whose work I’m not familiar with. The film dates back to 1969, past the Master’s peak, but pre-dating the enjoyable and under-estimated Family Plot (taken from a book by the prolific but now largely forgotten Victor Canning.) The cast doesn’t include big, bankable Hollywood names, but that didn’t put me off.
However, the funereal pace of the story did. I was startled that a director of genius, as I believe Hitchcock to be, could have come up with something so pedestrian. The story begins with the defection of a senior Russian official, and there’s plenty of fuss about a spy ring in Cuba, but I lost interest even before the characters appeared to lose the plot.
Another disappointment was the lack of a strong central character I could identify with and root for from the outset. Think Cary Grant in North By North West, James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Robert Donat in The 39 Steps. There’s nobody like that in Topaz, and frankly I’m not sure what attracted Hitchcock to such a tediously meandering story. Yet I’m sure there must be keen Topaz fans out there. What was I missing?
Thursday, 14 February 2008
The Crime Writers’ Association recently announced that the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger is to be awarded to Sue Grafton, creator of that very popular private investigator Kinsey Millhone.
I have a bit of involvement in the process for selecting the recipient of the Dagger, although the final decision is very definitely that of the CWA Committee each year, and I'm not a member of the Committtee. So it may be of interest to explain the process by which decisions are reached.
The Diamond Dagger is an award for a writer whose career has been marked by sustained excellence (‘sustained’ is as important as ‘excellence’ – there are other awards for gifted newcomers and brilliant individual novels) ‘and who is judged by his or her peers to have made a significant contribution to crime fiction published in the English language. Members of the CWA nominate suitable recipients and the nominations are considered by a small sub-committee. I became involved some years ago when the legendary Reginald Hill (who is not only a terrific writer and a great influence on my own work, but also perhaps the wittiest person I've ever met) was chair of the sub-committee. There have been a few changes over the years and now, as chair, I collect the nominations and then reach a consensus with Janet Laurence, a friend and novelist who chaired the CWA itself a few years back, as to an appropriate short-list containing, say, five or six names. This is then submitted to the Committee and, once they have deliberated, the recipient’s name is made known.
Sue Grafton is a deservedly successful writer. It’s interesting to note that her father, C.W.Grafton, was also a capable crime novelist whose first book, The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope, I read a good many years ago. I can't, to be honest, rememeber much about it, but I do recall that I enjoyed it. There have been a few children who have followed in their parent's footsteps as a crime writer - in Britain, the Graemes, the Bentleys, and the Jepsons spring to mind - but few have enjoyed as much fame as Sue Grafton.
Wednesday, 13 February 2008
The White Crow
When I was first starting to read crime fiction of different kinds in my teens, I benefited hugely from the opportunity to borrow from the local library in Northwich the reprints of genre classics that seemed plentiful. With hindsight, it was quite a privilege, because many of the books I encountered then are very difficult to find these days.
One of the best reprint series was Hodder’s ‘Classics of Detection and Adventure’, edited by Michael Gilbert. Thanks to his judicious selections, I encountered for the first time such entertaining writers as Anthony Berkeley, Henry Wade, Christianna Brand and Philip Macdonald. Each book included an introduction by Michael Gilbert which invariably revealed a real understanding of what the author was trying to do. And there’s no doubt that Gilbert’s comments helped developed my own understanding of the crime writer’s craft.
The Macdonald title in the series, which I mentioned recently, was The White Crow. Gilbert said that Macdonald ‘manages, with great skill, to combine the arts of the thriller and the craft of the whodunnit’. His remarks on the denouement are full of insight; he says it is the cleverest thing in the whole book. I’d agree with that, although when I read the book at the time, it didn’t as a whole seem to live up to Gilbert’s praise. Recent comments on the excellent GADetection Forum (where many very well-read fans of older books engage in fascinating debate) confirm that, thirty-plus years further on, it has not stood up well to the test of time. But I was interested enough to read other Macdonalds, and found quite a few that I thought really successful.
In the 1990s, Chivers’ Black Dagger series not only brought back enjoyable crime stories of the past, but included introductions from present day crime writers. I introduced several myself – I struggled to find much good to say about Joan Aiken’s Dark Interval, but enjoyed enormously the chance to re-read and then talk about Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly and Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black. Eventually, though, Chivers gave up on the introductions. A pity, I felt, remembering how much those Michael Gilbert intros had taught me all those years ago.
Tuesday, 12 February 2008
Another of my purchases at Hay on Wye at the weekend was Missing by Karen Altvegen. Several of her books were available, and I had to exercise great (and, when it comes to books, uncharacteristic) self-discipline to confine myself to buying only one.
I haven’t read Altvegen before, but a number of people whose judgment I respect have spoken of her work positively. The number of Scandinavian crime writers who have attained popularity in the UK in recent years is quite startling. At one time, only Sjowall and Wahloo enjoyed any sort of profile in this country (check out the recent paperback reprints of their Martin Beck books, which include excellent and thoughtful introductions by Andrew Taylor and others.)
The catalyst for change was probably twofold (if a catalyst can be twofold?) Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow achieved great success, although I felt it faded a little after a very good start. And Henning Mankell’s books really took off once Sidetracked won the CWA Gold Dagger.
I’ve enjoyed a number of Scandinavian writers (in translation) in recent years. Jar City, set in Reykjavik and written by Arnaldur Indridasun, was first class, and I’ve also appreciated books by Karin Fossum, Hakan Nesser and Marie Jungstedt. I’m hoping to read my first Jo Nesbo soon.
Fossum is one of the guests of honour at the Harrogate Crime Fiction Festival in July and I’m looking forward to hearing her talk about her work, as well as reading more of it. Meantime, it will be good to sample Altvegen.
Monday, 11 February 2008
One of the books I bought in Hay on Saturday was Prinvest London. It was published in 1965, and written by Val Gielgud. I’ve never read anything by him before, but I recently bought an American edition of a book he wrote with ‘Holt Marvell’ (Eric Maschwitz), originally titled Death at Broadcasting House; Maschwitz was editor of ‘Radio Times’ and for a while Gielgud was his sidekick. Prinvest is a detective agency run by Gregory Pellew, now retired from the CID, who features in several of Gielgud’s books.
Gielgud was the brother of the more famous Sir John. I don’t know much about him, but he was an eminent figure in the BBC for many years and his career as a crime writer was long-lasting, even though his books are not particularly well-known today. In addition to his literary and radio careers, he also managed to find the time for a bit of acting, and five marriages. Clearly a fellow who liked to keep busy.
Val Gielgud worked with the great John Dickson Carr on a number of radio plays, and a collection of them, called Thirteen to the Gallows, is due to be published soon by Crippen and Landru, edited by the highly knowledgeable Tony Medawar. Recently, a copy of Carr’s The Seat of the Scornful which he’d inscribed to Gielgud (clearly on a day when he was in a gloomy mood) was sold on eBay for a handsome price. There’s quite an extensive discussion of Carr’s relationship with Gielgud in Doug Greene’s excellent biography of the master of the locked room.
Sunday, 10 February 2008
I’ve just come back from one of my favourite places, the book town, Hay on Wye. Yesterday was the sunniest and pleasantest day of the year so far and the good weather made the trip all the more enjoyable.
It’s an atmospheric place, with narrow streets, a castle, and a town clock (the latter currently encased in scaffolding) and an almost endless supply of second hand bookshops. Here are pictures of the castle, Richard Booth's legendary shop, and the specialist crime shop 'Murder and Mayhem'. The temptation to make too many purchases in such a place is almost impossible to resist.
I limited myself to buying a mere seven books. Admirable restraint, in my opinion, though an alternative view is that it strengthens the grounds for divorce. The titles include Writing Crime Novels by John Paxton Sheriff (I must confess Mr Sheriff’s own work in the genre has so far eluded me.)
The real gem, though, was Faces in the Dark by my favourite French writers, Boileau and Narcejac. A bargain and, in fact, a book I’ve never even seen for sale before. Really looking forward to reading it.
Saturday, 9 February 2008
‘How-to-do-it’ manuals for beginning writers have been around a long time and I’ve amassed quite a collection of them, mainly out of sheer curiosity. Some of the advice given is very sound, sometimes – naturally – opinions conflict. And sometimes the passage of time, and social advance, render the advice rather quaint.
Take, for instance, a chapter on ‘Taboos’ from Mystery Fiction: theory and techniques by an American crime writer called Marie F. Rodell. It was published in 1954 and in his introduction, Maurice Richardson said it was the only manual of its kind of which he was aware. How times have changed, both in terms of the availability of guidance for crime writers, and what they tend to write about.
I thought some of you might be entertained by Rodell's words of wisdom:
‘Chief among the taboos are those relating to the handling of sex.
The true mystery fan – as opposed to the reader of ‘tough’ adventure novels – is strait-laced in matters of sexual morality...booksellers and librarians will tell you it is especially true of the feminine majority of mystery addicts.
Sexual perversions, other than sadism, are definitely taboo. And sadism must be presented in the least sexual form. Homosexuality may be hinted at, but never used as an explicit and important factor in the story…All other perversions are absolutely beyond the pale.
Even references to normal sex relationships must be carefully watched. Except in the ‘tough’ school, unmarried heroines are expected to be virgins, and sympathetic wives to be faithful to their husbands. (A tearful and truly repentant Magdalene is sometimes possible.) A certain amount of sexual joking between married characters is permissible, so long as it is not crude…
There can be no question but that these taboos do limit the field of potential material for murder fiction; but it is easy to see that outraging an audience in this fashion will not help to shock them in the way the mystery writer intends.’
So now we know!
Friday, 8 February 2008
Ask a Policeman
Ask a Policeman, which I mentioned yesterday, was not the first ‘collective’ detective story produced by members of the Detection Club, nor was it the last. The Scoop and Behind the Screen were serials initially written for radio, by collaborators who included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley and Anthony Berkeley. The stories were not published in book form until the 1980s. The Floating Admiral, however, was first published in 1933 and it is widely regarded as the best example of this kind of joint effort. A complicated puzzle (that master of paradox, G.K.Chesterton was one of those who contributed to its construction) is ultimately resolved by the ingenious mind of Anthony Berkeley.
The success of The Floating Admiral in particular must have encouraged Club members to produce a follow-up. It opens with an exchange of letters between Milward Kennedy (an interesting writer, now more or less forgotten) and John Rhode, in which Kennedy proposes the title Ask a Policeman and Rhode offers a plot with ‘a choice of many Policemen to interrogate as to its solution.’ He adds that ‘writing detective stories is just like any other vice. The deed is done without one’s having any clear knowledge of the temptation which led up to it.’
Rhode’s ‘Death at Hursley Lodge’ poses the problem to be solved (a map of the crime scene is also supplied) and Kennedy then invites fellow Club members to solve it – but not with their usual detective. So Dorothy L. Sayers is asked to explain how Roger Sheringham (Berkeley’s regular sleuth) would tackle the mystery and Berkeley is asked for Lord Peter Wimsey’s take on it. Helen Simpson and Gladys Mitchell also swap their usual sleuths, Sir John Saumarez and Mrs Bradley. They come up with four different solutions before Kennedy (on his own admission, not playing entirely fair) comes up with ‘the Correct Answer.’
Any book written in this way will almost inevitably have inconsistencies of style and characterisation. But with Ask a Policeman, as with The Floating Admiral, I don’t think the failings detract from the charm of a project that was pleasantly eccentric and very much in keeping with the spirit of detective fiction between the two world wars.
Thursday, 7 February 2008
Writing in company
It’s almost a cliché that the writing life is solitary. Because writing is such a personal activity, it’s uncommon to write in collaboration with others. But it does happen from time to time, sometimes with massive success. Two cousins, Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee, wrote together as ‘Ellery Queen’ and produced some of the best American examples of Golden Age detective fiction. In the present day, collaborators include husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, whose Nicci French novels of psychological suspense have become best-sellers. I particularly recommend Killing Me Softly, which is a chilly yet truly gripping story. Last year Allison & Busby published the debut novel of the identical Mulgray twins, while the American mother-and-son combination, Charles Todd, and a mother-daughter duo, P.J. Tracy, have produced a number of very popular books.
I’ve done quite a bit of collaborative writing myself and I enjoy it, because to write with someone else forces one to think in a fresh way – which way varies, depending upon the style and preoccupations of one’s collaborator. I’ve mentioned before finishing a book written by the late Bill Knox, and I’ve co-written various textbooks. An email from a legal publisher the other day reminded me of one of the strangest ventures I ever embarked on. About fourteen years ago, I was asked, along with two other solicitors, to produce a book called Know-How for Employment Lawyers (racy title, huh?).
The idea was that the three of us would talk together about issues, following an agenda at each meeting, and that our conversations would be tape-recorded, so that our views could be turned into a book by two young legal researchers who worked on an employment law magazine produced by the publishers. It was a very weird experience, seeing one’s words and ideas written up by two other people. I enjoyed it, because my colleagues were interesting and very knowledgeable individuals, and to our surprise we found that although we came from very different backgrounds (one of the lawyers was a partner in a prestigious City firm, working mainly for large employers, the other was a leading trade union expert, while I was the regional guy) we found that there were hardly any issues on which we strongly disagreed. The book came out in 1995 and there has never been a second edition. But now the publishers are thinking of reviving it. Whether it will happen remains to be seen, but even if it does, I doubt whether we’ll tackle it in the same way as last time.
Back to crime fiction. I’ve recently acquired a book called Ask a Policeman, a collaborative effort inscribed by one of the contributors, John Rhode, ‘In memory of our violent onslaught upon the Detection Club, 14/3/34’. I’ll be featuring it soon in the ‘collecting crime fiction’ section of my website, which brings together various examples of books and crime-related memorabilia which have caught my interest over the years. Quite apart from the inscription, the book is worthy of comment because of the unusual way in which the six co-authors, who included Dorothy L. Sayers, went about writing it. More of this another day.
Wednesday, 6 February 2008
Although it was a box office flop, the 1991 movie Deceived is okay entertainment, made watchable above all by the performance of Goldie Hawn as a woman whose perfect life disintegrates when she starts to suspect that husband Jack is not all he seems. Attractive as she is, I’ve never been a huge Hawn fan, and I associate her mainly with comedy roles, but here she plays the woman-in-jeopardy very well.
The screenplay is a mixed bag. After a slow start, establishing Hawn’s apparently blissful life – successful in her art restoration business, good-looking husband, cute daughter, obliging nanny, pet cat - the twists are soon coming thick and fast. A weakness is over-reliance on rather tired plot devices – the cat is there to create a few artificially spooky moments, the nanny finishes up in the wrong place at the wrong time, the little girl inevitably becomes a kidnap victim – but following the death of one of Jack’s colleagues, the tension does mount.
Jack’s car is involved in a fatal crash and Hawn’s persistent detective efforts succeed in uncovering secrets of the past. There is a scene involving college year books that reminded me of a truly brilliant crime film, Body Heat, and it has to be said that, overall, Deceived lacks genuine originality. Nor was I absolutely clear about the motivation of the villain of the piece. The closest we get to an explanation is that he always does ‘what comes next’ – not the greatest insight into character one might hope for. The subject of living a lie offers wonderful opportunities for a crime writer. Workmanlike as this movie is, it really does not make the most of them.
But if you have a couple of hours to spare, Deceived is a relaxing and undemanding way to pass the time. Just don’t expect something in the Hitchcock class.
Monday, 4 February 2008
The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth
I’ve received from Faber a proof copy of a new book by Frances Wilson, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, and its appeal for me is twofold. First, it’s good to have a break from a steady diet of crime fiction every now and then (even though my to-be-read pile of crime novels grows higher and higher in the meantime.) Second, I like to think that absorbing myself in Dorothy’s Grasmere is good preparation for work on the new Lake District mystery, especially as the Wordsworths’ associate, Thomas de Quincey, will feature in my story. It's always refreshing to escape from the everyday world into the Lakes - a place which seems to me to have an almost dream-like atmosphere.
On a quick first look, Wilson has done a good job with this biography, drawing in particular on four notebooks written by Dorothy and known as the Grasmer Journals. She presents a picture of a woman much more complex than her conventional image. De Quincey said she was ‘all fire…and ardour’ and the ‘very wildest (in the sense of the most natural) person I have ever known.’
I’ve already discovered how little I know about Dorothy’s life, which ended in the tragedy of a profound mental collapse. De Quincey suggested that her breakdown was due to boredom after the marriage of her brother (she was too distraught to attend the wedding ceremony and she stopped writing shortly afterwards) and to the long-term effects of suppressed literary talents. So it’s a story with an unhappy ending, but Wilson seems like a writer both sensitive and sympathetic to her subject and I’m expecting to learn a good deal from her book.
Television and novels
The relationship between television and novels is often complicated. A screenplay is so different from a novel that it’s no wonder that authors are sometimes frustrated by the way their work translates to the small screen. It’s said that Rodney Wingfield, creator of Jack Frost, never watched the highly successful tv series based on his character because he was so disgruntled by the pilot. Presumably the royalties must have sugared the pill, but I know several authors who were utterly dismayed by the changes made to their creations, which failed to result in high viewing figures.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about Marple and the cavalier treatment of the original Christie novels by the screenwriters. I can understand why changes may be made for a fresh generation of viewers, but sometimes they seem to be changes for the worse. I liked one or two of the early episodes of Marple, but thought the new version of The Sittaford Mystery, an enjoyable book, was so ludicrous that it verged on the embarrassing.
I was fascinated to learn that Christine Falls, John Banville’s first, and critically acclaimed, venture into crime fiction as Benjamin Black, started out with a tv screenplay. It was meant to be a co-production between Irish and Australian television, but it fell through. He decided to turn it into a novel, but moved the Australian scenes to the USA.
Something different happened when Cath Staincliffe wrote a novel called Cry Me a River. The novel did not sell, but she turned it into a screenplay, which became the highly successful Blue Murder, starring Caroline Quentin. Cath then re-wrote the novel under the Blue Murder title. And since then, she’s continued to write both books and screenplays featuring the character played by Quentin.
Sunday, 3 February 2008
The arrival of a new issue of CADS is always a cause for celebration as far as I’m concerned. CADS is a magazine for crime and detective story fans produced by the tireless Geoff Bradley, and the latest issue is CADS 53. It’s a magazine to which I contribute reviews and the occasional article, but the reason why I recommend it – to all crime fans, but especially those with an interest in the books of the past – is the astonishing diversity of its contents, and the vast knowledge of contributors such as Tony Medawar, Marv Lachman, Bob Adey and Philip Scowcroft.
Bob, for instance, is the world’s leading authority on ‘locked room mysteries’, and has written a wonderfully entertaining survey of them. Tony keeps coming up with fresh bits of information – when he discovered that the Golden Age novelist Cecil Waye was really a pseudonym for the popular (especially amongst collectors of rare books) John Rhode, the value of Waye’s books on the second hand market suddenly shot up. They are now almost impossible to find.
There’s some great stuff in issue 53. One of the highlights is ‘Detective Writers’ Detection’ by Tony Medawar. He has unearthed a series of articles about unsolved real-life mysteries, printed in a newspaper called ‘The Star’ (no relation to the modern tabloid, I presume) in 1937. Famous authors and criminal investigators were asked to come up with solutions to crimes and readers were offered a prize if they came up with a better alternative explanation. The description of the cases and the solutions is packed with interest; and in fact, only one of the cases has actually been solved in the intervening 70 years.
Each issue of CADS is an absolute bargain; if you’re interested in a copy, email Geoff Bradley: Geoffcads@aol.com
Saturday, 2 February 2008
America's Agatha Christie?
The US publishers Crippen & Landru, presided over by Doug Greene, a great expert on the genre, have resurrected many ‘lost classics’ over the years, quite apart from producing attractive volumes of short stories by present day writers. I had the privilege of co-editing, with the late Sue Feder, a selection of obscure stories by Ellis Peters which featured in the C&L series and I’ve just received the latest: Dead Yesterday, a chunky book of stories by Mignon G. Eberhart.
The collection is co-edited by Rick Cypert and Kirby McCauley; Cypert is also the author of a 2005 biography of Eberhart, the title of which proclaims her as ‘America’s Agatha Christie’.
In her day, Eberhart was both prolific and commercially successful. Her life more or less spanned the 20th century and she produced 59 novels and a good many stories, plays and essays. Possibly her most popular character was Susan Dare, a detective story writer who can’t help getting mixed up in murder – a sort of Jessica Fletcher of the Golden Age.
I admit to never having read anything by Eberhart. I’ve gained the impression that she followed in the footsteps of Mary Roberts Rinehart and that her work was far less ground-breaking than Christie’s. But we'll see.
One of the joys of the Crippen & Landru books is that they give modern readers a chance to reach back into the past. Not all their rediscovered authors are great writers, but most of them have something of interest to offer – a nice example, by the way, is Joseph Commings’ collection of ‘impossible crime stories’, Banner Deadlines. The detective is an American senator who rejoices in the name of Brooks U. Banner and the mysteries are very clever. In one of them, someone is shot in a guarded room, and then a smoking gun is delivered, seconds later, in a sealed envelope next door. Worthy of John Dickson Carr.
Friday, 1 February 2008
The Sleeping Bacchus
I’d never heard of The Sleeping Bacchus until fellow blogger Xavier recommended it a few weeks ago. Now I’ve tracked down a copy, and the immediate reaction it inspires is that crime writing is a world full of curious connections.
The book was written by Hilary St George Saunders. Wonderful name, sounds like a pal of Lord Peter Wimsey, perhaps even Bertie Wooster, but not exactly well-known. However, he produced a good many books under the rather more famous pseudonym of Francis Beeding, in collaboration with a critic and Shakespearean scholar called John Palmer. I’ve mentioned the Beeding books – one of them was the basis for Hitchcock’s Spellbound – before. Palmer and Saunders were both Balliol men, but Palmer was 13 years older, and in fact they first met in the 1920s, when working at the League of Nations’ Permanent Secretariat. By the time Palmer died in 1944, they had written fifty novels, and Saunders had diversified into writing official Government booklets about subjects like the Battle of Britain.
Saunders wrote only the one novel under his own name, published in the year of his death, 1951, but its genesis was extraordinary. In 1937, he and Palmer were strolling along the Quai Voltaire in Paris when they came across a tattered copy of Le Repos de Bacchus, by Pierre Boileau (who later also found fame in collaboration, with Thomas Narcejac, co-writer of Vertigo.) They both liked the ingenious central idea and decided to buy the English rights if they could, but war intervened. Not until 1949 did Saunders revive the idea and write the book by himself. By then, though, the original model was out of date, so radical re-working was required. But Saunders acknowledged Boileau’s permission ‘to adapt for my purpose certain scenes and situations depicted in his novel’. Off-hand, I can’t think of any English crime novel with a similar origin.
By this time, Saunders was working as a librarian in the House of Commons. In his acknowledgments, he mentions his gratitude for the help given by, among others, Stanley Hyland. At that time, the name of Hyland was unknown to crime fans. In fact, he too worked as a Parliamentary librarian. But in 1958, he published the first of three diverse crime novels – a classic detective story called Who Goes Hang?, set in the House of Commons, which attracted much critical acclaim. Rather more, in fact, than The Sleeping Bacchus.