Monday 30 June 2008

Canals and crime

Cheshire is a county of many canals. I’ve always enjoyed drifting along on a barge, but I haven’t done it all that often. Last Saturday, though, was spent in a small party which took over a barge-restaurant for the evening, and we combined an excellent meal with a trip from Bollington, near Macclesfield, to a spot not far from Lyme Hall, where some of the celebrated scenes from the TV production of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was filmed.

I enjoyed the trip so much that I resolved to do it more regularly. And the experience also reminded me of the few crime novels I’ve read where canals play an important part in the plot. Two stand out in my mind.

In Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, Morse investigates an old crime while recuperating from illness in hospital. The framing device is strongly reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s, in The Daughter of Time, but Dexter used it very effectively, with Morse delving into a nineteenth century crime after becoming intrigued by a book about murder on the Oxford Canal. The novel went on to win the CWA Gold Dagger.

Coming right up to date, Deborah Crombie used the Cheshire canal network as an important background to her latest, Water Like a Stone. I was impressed by the way in which Crombie had researched the setting. You would never guess that she was an American writing about Britain.

As for myself, ten years ago I contributed a historical mystery to Maxim Jakubowski’s collection Past Poisons. ‘To Encourage the Others’ was a story about an execution, but the murder case in the story was based on a real-life crime which took place long ago in my home village of Lymm – on the Bridgewater Canal.

Sunday 29 June 2008

Notes on a Scandal

I haven’t read Zoe Heller’s book from which Patrick Marber produced the screenplay for the film Notes of a Scandal, though I have read quite a bit of her journalism. The novel was a Man Booker Prize nominee, and the film did well in the Oscar stakes. The success is easy to understand. It’s a psychological suspense story; there is a crime, though it’s a long way short of murder (unless one thinks in metaphorical terms, about the killing of a family), but essentially it’s all about character. Judi Dench plays Barbara, the dried-up unmarried battleaxe of a teacher at a London comprehensive school. She’s formidable and scary, devoted to her cat and confiding only in her diary. When a new art teacher called Sheba Hart (the utterly gorgeous Cate Blanchett) joins the staff, Barbara is immediately interested. She intervenes when Sheba fails to deal with an altercation between two 15 year old boys, and the two women form a rather strained friendship. Sheba is married (her husband is played by the always excellent Bill Nighy) with two children, a stroppy teenage girl and a 12 year old boy with Down’s Syndrome. She is an excellent parent, but something is lacking in her life. Can Barbara supply it? The answer is no. Sheba has begun a dangerous relationship with one of the boys in the fight, and when Barbara discovers her pal having sex with him, she is furious. But she decides to turn events to her own advantage, and claim Sheba for herself. When the relationship runs into trouble (because Sheba is insufficiently sympathetic about the demise of the cat) Barbara extracts a cruel revenge. I felt that at this point, drama turned into melodrama, and the turns of events became increasingly unlikely. But the chilling final scene, although perhaps predictable, lingers in the memory. I enjoyed this film a lot. It would be worth watching just for the opportunity to contemplate Cate Blanchett's excellent performance. But Dame Judi is even better – quite brilliantly sinister, yet vulnerable at the same time. Recommended viewing. (Incidentally, I've been experiencing various computer problems, which are not yet fully resolved. So if I have overlooked any emails, the chances are that they have not reached me. Sorry.)

Saturday 28 June 2008

Two disappointments

I’ve watched a succession of good films lately, so perhaps it is due to the law of averages that I’ve just encountered a couple of duds.

Radioland Murders seemed quite promising in theory, a comedy with a background in 30s radio, but it turned out to be dire. At least, the first few minutes were; I couldn’t cope with any more. I can only hope it improved later on.

The Reaping is a more recent film, with two excellent stars in the ultra-watchable Hilary Swank, and Stephen Rea. It’s a religious-themed horror flick, with a focus on the ten plagues of Egypt. Unfortunately, the script failed to match the quality of the cast. There were endless flashy effects, and some genuinely unpleasant scenes; not even a rather good final twist redeemed the movie as far as I was concerned.

It is instructive to compare this film’s exploration of a Satanic cult with that splendid sixties movie based on a brilliant Ira Levin best-seller, Rosemary’s Baby. Roman Polanski’s classic film didn’t rely on gory visual imagery or a ludicrous switch-back plot; cool, clear and under-stated, it achieved its object of frightening the audience by the simple expedient of telling a clever and deeply unsettling story. A real lesson in effective film-making for over-the-top gore-merchants.

Friday 27 June 2008

The Headhunters

For sheer ability to entertain, very few contemporary writers from Britain or anywhere else can match Peter Lovesey. He has won awards all over the world, including the CWA’s Gold, Silver and Diamond Daggers, and his latest novel, The Headhunters, is a hugely enjoyable example of his work.

Lovesey’s last book, The Secret Hangman, featured his regular cop Peter Diamond, and I felt that – although these things are always difficult to judge with precision – it was as good as, if not better than, anything he had ever written, with the possible exception of his masterly The False Inspector Dew. The Headhunters is not a Diamond book, but sees the reappearance of a female cop, DCI Hen Mallin, who previously appeared in The Circle.

One of the reasons I found this book such fun to read is that the story is wonderfully convoluted. It’s impossible to guess in which direction Lovesey will take us next – a far cry from those formulaic traditional mysteries of the past, which so often became bogged down with endless, repetitive interviews of the suspects. Yet Lovesey honours the traditions of the genre, and this is a very elaborate puzzle indeed. It is possible (though far from easy) to guess who is responsible for the mysterious deaths of two drowned women, but the motive remains unclear until the end of the story.

The complexity of the structure of the novel derives from the fact that Lovesey does not focus mainly on Hen’s investigation, but rather upon the curious and developing relationship between the four friends who are the eponymous ‘Headhunters’. They begin by plotting a murder (of Gemma’s boss Mr Cartwright) as a joke, but before long, likeable Jo stumbles across a real corpse and the plot complications begin. I wasn’t entirely impressed by Hen’s detective work here – her prime suspect’s criminal record didn’t, to my mind, fit the profile of a psychopathic murderer. But this is a quibble. The pleasure to be had from a book like this is that it keeps one intrigued from first page to last. A mystery fan can’t ask for much more.

Thursday 26 June 2008

Vegetable Duck

On a visit to a book fair the other day, I couldn’t resist buying a copy of Vegetable Duck, a detective novel by John Rhode whose title I became aware of through the Golden Age detection discussion group. 'Vegetable Duck' is also used as a pseudonym by Curt, an extremely knowledgable chap who shares my enthusiasm for the late Henry Wade and who is writing what sounds as though it will become the definitive study of Golden Age mysteries.

I haven’t read much by John Rhode, although I have to say that my current impression is that he wasn’t in the same league as Wade in terms of literary quality, innovative instinct or stylistic range. But he was very prolific and, interestingly, he remains very popular with some fans of Golden Age mysteries. A leading second hand bookseller told me recently that to buy all the Rhode books in first edition and dustjackets would be an impossible dream because, even if the books could be found, they would be unaffordable – rare Rhode titles are very expensive indeed.

I want somehow to find the time to read more Rhode, to get a better idea of the reasons for the fervent loyalty that he continues to attract, more than forty years after his death. Vegetable Duck strikes me as one of the most counter-intuitive of all titles for a crime novel, and I can’t help admiring the boldness of the author in choosing it.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Reading in order

I was asked recently by a bookseller whether it was important to read my Lake District Mysteries in the order in which they were written. It’s a reasonable question, and one often asked, but it’s not entirely easy to answer.

My own feeling is that the books can be read in any order, because the main plot in each book is independent. I take a lot of care not to introduce spoilers in later books. I also have a vague worry (which is probably groundless) that if people start with the first novel, The Coffin Trail, they may not enjoy it as much as the later books. I do feel that The Cipher Garden and The Arsenic Labyrinth are superior books, with complex mysteries that I’m rather proud of – yet The Coffin Trail has sold more copies (as is common with first books in series.)

The counter-argument is that many readers like to follow the development of characters and relationships through a series – and, certainly, the evolving relationship between Hannah and Daniel was always intended to be a cornerstone of the series.

This sort of dilemma applies to many modern crime series. It’s the price we pay for character development. It was easier in the old days – Poirot and Miss Marple don’t develop as characters, so it really doesn’t matter in which order you read their cases. On the other hand, Christie was so sure she was writing disposable fiction that she rather carelessly allows Poirot to give away the solutions to some of her earlier books – a sign of modesty, but rather frustrating if you haven’t read the mysteries that came first.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Glad tidings

I’m happy to relate that The Arsenic Labyrinth has been short-listed for the Lakeland Book of the Year award. This is an award conceived by the celebrated Cumbrian author Hunter Davies, whose The Good Guide to the Lakes is one of my key reference books. I’ve never met Hunter Davies, but I’ve read his books and journalism for many years. The award is open to books of all manner of descriptions, and last year the winner was a major biography of Beatrix Potter.

This means that I’m in the (for me) unprecedented position of being in the running for two prizes to be announced in July. The first rule in these situations is, no doubt, to manage one’s own expectations so that it doesn’t come as a psychological blow if and when one does not win. This isn’t a problem: I mentioned in an earlier post that being among the runners-up is a familiar experience.

My mood, though, has definitely been lifted by the two short-listings. It is good to be in contention, because the nature of writing is such that one can so easily persuade oneself that there are very few people out there taking an interest in one’s work. This is all the more so in the current climate, when newspapers are much more reluctant to review mid-list titles than was the case ten or twenty years ago, and I see with dismay that a number of very good writers whom I much admire are currently without a publishing deal. The Arsenic Labyrinth was widely and warmly reviewed in the US, but attracted less attention on publication in the UK, so it's good for it to have this recognition.

Part of the appeal of doing this blog has, indeed, been the chance to make contact with people whom I didn’t know before. It’s been a wholly positive experience as far as I’m concerned. In fact, it seems to me that a number of good things have happened since I started blogging – so my thanks to everyone who has encouraged me. Your helpful feedback has been more beneficial than you might imagine.

Monday 23 June 2008

Another pilgrimage

I mentioned my visit, a few weeks ago, to Agatha Christie’s grave in Cholsey. While in Grasmere to call at Sam Read’s bookshop, I took the opportunity to wander around the village for a few minutes, soaking up the atmosphere. Needless to say, I have the backdrop of a future Lakes book in mind. The little churchyard is charming, and the group of Wordsworth graves simple yet somehow impressive in their plainness.

I stopped for a moment at, but didn’t have time to go round, Dove Cottage, which I last visited as a schoolboy. However, a tour is high on my list of priorities this summer, given that it was home not only to the Wordsworths, but also to Thomas de Quincey, who features in the next Lake District Mystery (progress on which is currently rather slow, I fear.)

Grasmere is a fascinating place. I barely knew it until 1992, when Regniald Hill organised a weekend symposium for members of the northern chapter of the Crime Writers Association, which was held at hotel on the edge of the village. One of the things I remember from a great weekend was Peter Walker telling us that his ‘Constable’ books were going to be adapted for television in a new series called ‘Heartbeat’. We were all thrilled for him, but I don’t think any of us realised at the time that, sixteen years on, the show would have become a national institution.

Sunday 22 June 2008

A visit to Sam Read

Grasmere is one of my favourite places and, I suppose, one of the British villages most visited by tourists because of the Wordsworth associations. I managed to combine a trip to the Kendal book fair with a call at Sam Read’s bookshop in Grasmere, where I was made very welcome by the owner, Elaine Nelson, and had the chance to sign plenty of copies of the Lake District Mysteries.

The shop dates back to the 1880s, and is apparently one of the very oldest independent bookstores in England. I’m a huge fan of the independents, and worry about the disappearance of good shops in the face of fierce price competition from the supermarkets and the internet. Happily, Sam Read is evidently continuing to do very well, benefiting not just from Elaine’s personal management, but also a superb location – always a huge asset for a retailer.

Elaine and her husband live just across the road in a house called Undercrag – a great name that she’s agreed that I can borrow for Hannah’s newly acquired home in the next Lake District mystery. Not only do they have no commuting to worry about, they divide their time between Grasmere and France; sounds like an idyllic lifestyle.

Saturday 21 June 2008

British Crime Writing

British Crime Writing: an Encyclopaedia, is the new title of the book that was at first provisionally entitled The Harcourt Encyclopaedia of British Crime Writing. It is edited by Barry Forshaw, who was also responsible for The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, and is the editor of that splendid magazine Crime Time. I understand the book is due to be published in December, and I recently received the contract in respect of my contributions to it.

I’ve written seven essays, a couple of which – Crime Short Stories and The Detective in British Crime Fiction - have already appeared (by kind permission of Barry and the publishers) on my website. The other subjects are:

James McClure
Henry Wade
Robert Richardson
Cath Staincliffe
Inspector Morse (my brief was to focus on the television series rather than the novels)

I enjoy writing the occasional article for reference books such as this. My first effort along these lines was a piece for Maxim Jakubowski’s 100 Great Detectives and I later wrote quite extensively for both the St James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writing and the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. The latter book, edited by Rosemary Herbert, is a formidable tome which took years to put together – too many years, really, but I still find it an invaluable research tool. I’m sure that Barry’s encyclopaedia will be equally worthwhile and I’m looking forward to discovering the remainder of its contents.

Friday 20 June 2008

Locked Room Mysteries

Locked room mysteries may be artificial, but they have an enduring appeal. The very first detective story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, was an example and many of the best mystery writers have tried their hand at a story of apparently impossible crime. In recent years, the massive success of the ‘Jonathan Creek’ television series is a reminder that this type of mystery story is not necessarily as played-out as critics might suggest. My Victorian mystery event, ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’ is an example of the locked room story – it’s based on one of four or five locked room short stories that I’ve turned out over the years.

One of my all-time favourite reference books is Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey. The second edition, which was published in 1991, was a revised and expanded version of the original ground-breaking work, in which Bob Adey – a very knowledgeable crime fan indeed – listed all the locked room and impossible crime stories he could find, setting out the basic puzzle and, separately, the solution.

There is more to the book than this – such as an informative introduction and an analysis of the ‘twenty different ways in which that locked room can be breached.’ But the solutions are at the heart of the book and some of them are so weird and wonderful that they are great fun to read even if one does not know the puzzle.

Here are just a few examples:

146. The killer, a midget, was still in the room hidden in a leather hatbox….

156. The victim was strangled by a trained chimpanzee who entered and exited via a dumb waiter serving hatch.

202. Murder by a disembodied extraterrestrial being.

258. A ventilator above the corpse was removed, leaving a small hole through which an armadillo, rolled into a ball, was lowered….

More examples another day.

Thursday 19 June 2008

The Game

Eleven years after it came out, I’ve finally caught up with David Fincher’s film The Game. And it was worth the wait – an intriguing and, at times, compulsively watchable thriller in which nothing can be taken for granted.

Michael Douglas plays Nicholas van Orton, a fabulously wealthy financier who has reached the same age (48) as his father, who committed suicide. Nick is a control freak with an empty emotional life, although he maintains a relationship of sorts with his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) and his ex-wife. When Conrad offers him, as a birthday gift, the chance to participate in a mysterious game, Nick reluctantly succumbs to temptation and pays a visit to the people who run the game, an outfit known as Consumer Recreation Services. They put him through a series of tests so intensive that one is reminded of the chillier scenes of The Parallax View. Nick is told that he has not been accepted for participation in the game – but nevertheless his life soon starts to move in very mysterious ways.

Before long, bad stuff starts to happen to him and his life and fortune are put in jeopardy. All of a sudden, it’s not clear whether he can trust even those closest to him. Conrad? His lawyer? His ex-wife? Or maybe the waitress who was hired by CRS to throw drinks over him in a restaurant?

I can well understand why this film has become something of a cult. One or two commentators have suggested that the ending is anti-climactic, but I think it works pretty well.

Games appeal to me, and they crop up in crime fiction in a wide variety of guises. For instance, I wonder whether anyone else remembers that excellent thriller The Ludi Victor by James Leigh. The book won the CWA’s John Creasey Memorial Award for best first crime novel of 1981. The winner of the same award the year before was Liza Cody, the winner the year after was Andrew Taylor. Both have gone on to great things. But James Leigh seems to have faded out of view. Baffling.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Show Time

One of the developing themes of my Lake District series of novels concerns the loss of community life in English society and the disappearing traditions of rural and village society. Much as I applaud progress (the dramatic regeneration of Liverpool is a wonderful example), I’m a lover of tradition and a firm believer that progress should not mean the abandonment of long-cherished values, or the splintering of communities. On the contrary, it does seem to me that many of the tensions in the modern world might be eased if only we could develop more of a sense of community – making communities real, rather than just paying lip service to them in the way that some politicians do.

These reflections are prompted by a visit yesterday afternoon to the Cheshire Show. It’s at least ten years since I last attended this event, which is one of the major county shows in England. I’ve been too busy (or felt that I was too busy, not quite the same thing) to go in the intervening years, but this year I was invited to support colleagues from our office in Knutsford, only a mile or so from the Tabley Showground where the Show has taken place more or less every year for, I believe, well over a century and a half.

I was glad I made the effort. Not only was it good to have the chance to talk with colleagues away from the office environment, and to meet a few clients, it was enjoyable to soak up the atmosphere of a very impressive event. Even the rain kept away. And the trip encouraged me to hope against hope that, although it may be changing, life in the countryside is not changing out of all recognition in the way I sometimes fear.

Needless to say, my thoughts turned to crime during the course of the afternoon (sorry, it’s in the DNA.) I don’t know if any crime novel has ever been set against the backdrop of a county show – it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a Golden Age story, or perhaps a ‘Midsomer Murder’ of that kind, since it is almost as hard to come up with brand new settings as brand new plots – but it would make a very atmospheric locale, with all the animals, the crowds of people, the exhibition stands and so on. ‘Corporate hospitality’ is, inevitably, part and parcel of the Show, and my mind’s already toying with one or two ideas about murder in a marquee….

Tuesday 17 June 2008

The Error World

I’ve started reading The Error World by Simon Garfield. It isn’t a crime novel (although crime fiction does get a mention, including in particular a novel by a thriller writer I’ve never heard of called Vernon Warren), but it is a book about obsession, and that is what caught my attention, for obsession is at the heart of much of the best crime fiction.

I mentioned this quite recently in connection with K.O.Dahl’s Norwegian cop Frank Frohlich, but most of the great detectives from Holmes onwards have been obsessives of one kind or another. So have many of the great villains of our genre. So a book which explores the way in which an obsession can capture an otherwise perfectly reasonable individual is, to my mind, almost bound to be of interest to a crime fan.

The Error World concerns Garfield’s obsession with philately – collecting stamps that are rare simply because they have printing errors. It’s one of those confessional memoirs that are all too common nowadays – I saw with dismay recently that W.H.Smiths now have a rather large section devoted solely to what they describe as ‘tragic life stories’. Books of that kind don’t have much appeal to me, but Garfield’s book is in a different league, not least because he and I are of similar vintage and in my youth I too collected stamps (although never forking out the vast sums which Garfield invested when the hobby really took hold of him in adulthood.)

On the evidence so far, this is a well-written and interesting book, which explores the nature of this particular obsession pretty thoroughly and does a good job of trying to explain it to those who have never been bitten by the same bug. I’m really enjoying it.

Monday 16 June 2008

Awards and short-lists

Awards proliferate in many walks of life these days. Believe it or not, there are almost as many awards going for members of the legal profession as there are for crime writers. I’m sure there are various interesting sociological reasons for the trend. But is it a Good Thing?

I must confess that I have slightly mixed feelings. It’s wonderful to be short-listed for an award, and even better to win – of course. Yet, inevitably, the difficulty of making comparisons that are anything other than highly subjective means that any award or short-listing is bound to have an element of the lottery about it. Nothing wrong with lotteries, though.

I’ve judged quite a few awards, usually short story competitions, as well as having been a member of the CWA’s Diamond Dagger nominations sub-committee for several years. So I know that picking a winner is a tricky task, and sometimes a real toss-up. In terms of being on the receiving end, I’ve been short-listed for eight awards – four literary, four legal – and have won one (legal, not literary.) When The Coffin Trail reached the short-list of six for the Theakston’s prize for best crime novel in 2006, alongside books by the likes of Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, that was an undoubted career highlight. Yet do I really think that it is my best book? Definitely not. Perhaps an author is not the best judge of his own work, but even so….

Despite these reservations, there’s no doubt that an award can really do wonders for an author’s career. The impact that the CWA Gold Dagger for Black and Blue had on Ian’s reputation is but one example. And even at a humbler level, there’s no doubt that featuring on a short-list is – at the very least – good for morale.

So the fact that ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ has been judged one of the five best short stories of the year, in the exalted company of stories by Michael Connolly, Laura Lippman, Bob Barnard and Danuta Reah, has given me a real boost; I’m very grateful to the judges for picking my story. And that is, in itself, perhaps a sufficient justification for awards. Writing is a tough game, and anything that encourages and motivates is indeed a very Good Thing. Especially, perhaps, for those of us labouring in that commercial no-man’s-land known as ‘the mid-list’.

Sunday 15 June 2008

Instant gratification

On Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, I was a spectator at two very different events. The first was a 20twenty international cricket match at Old Trafford, between England and New Zealand. The second was the traditional May Queen procession in my home village of Lymm. I much enjoyed them both, but they also gave me pause for thought.

20twenty cricket is an instant brand of the game that was first invented, in England, about five years ago. Since then it has taken the world by storm, with massive crowds. On Friday, we were able to do a day’s work and then watch the cricket in the evening sun – much more appealing to many than investing a whole day watching a segment of a five-day Test match. This week saw the announcement of a million-dollar prize, winner-takes-all match to be staged later this year. Cricketers, so long sport’s poor relations, will soon become multi-millionaires (or at least, the elite few will.) The inflow of money is good for the game – but it’s bound to change its character.

The May Queen procession also took place in gorgeous sunshine and was good to watch. It's just the sort of tradition that featured from time to time in Golden Age detective stories in the era of people like Gladys Mitchell and Victor L. Whitechurch. My daughter, when younger, used to love participating in the parade. Yet I sense that each year, this tradition is attracting fewer and fewer people prepared to devote the time and hard work to it.

Almost all of us are attracted to easy, instant gratification, whether it’s in reading crime novels, watching sport, or anything else. I’m certainly no exception. Yet I remind myself that, with books as with many things, the greatest rewards tend to come from reading novels that demand both time and commitment from the reader. I enjoy breezy thrillers, but there’s also enormous pleasure to be had from a really elaborate crime novel – for instance some of the books of Charles Palliser. There’s room for all types of entertainment. It would be a shame if the thirst for instant gratification makes it increasingly difficult to find a commercial publisher for books that are not instantly accessible.

Saturday 14 June 2008

A tale of two covers

Now for a world exclusive. Well, perhaps I’m getting carried away – but I hope you may be interested in the proposed paperback cover for Waterloo Sunset (lower image)which was sent to me yesterday afternoon. If for no other reason than that it is so very different from the dust jacket of the hardback edition (upper image.) In fact, it could scarcely be more different.

Why would a publisher make such a radical change? Good question. It isn’t because the hardback sales have fallen below expectations (thank goodness.) Rather, I think it’s because the paperback market is very different from the hardback market, and it’s thought that the more dramatic red and black cover, with a change of font, will grab the attention of prospective readers.

Will it work? Well, who knows? But it looks good to me.

Friday 13 June 2008

Buried Too Deep

I’ve talked before about the pleasure of meeting fellow crime writers and readers at events. For some reason, when you meet someone in the flesh, it seems all the more appealing to start reading their work, if you haven’t encountered it before.

Jane Finnis is a case in point. I first met her three years ago, at a very enjoyable symposium organised by the northern chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association; we had a pleasant weekend at a waterfront hotel in Lincoln, a city I’d never visited before but really liked. I discovered that Jane was published by Poisoned Pen Press not only in the US (as I am) but also in the UK and that she is a writer of historical mysteries set in Roman Britain. We also bumped into each other last week at Crimefest in Bristol. Jane's latest is Buried Too Deep and this is what she told me about it:

‘I started writing mysteries because I always loved reading them; what's that saying about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? I chose Roman Britain as my setting because the Ancient Roman world has always fascinated me. I was brought up in Yorkshire, not far from where my books are set, and I remember as a child being curious about the straight Roman roads, and the Roman remains at York. Then I learned at school about all the amazing modern-seeming things the Romans had, like baths and underfloor heating. There was also, of course, the even more interesting stuff: gladiators and chariot racing and orgies...

My third Aurelia Marcella mystery is set in Yorkshire, like its two predecessors, and part of it takes place in the wolds, the gentle green chalk hills near the coast - not so dramatic as the Pennine scenery, but more comfortable and human. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for the wolds because I was brought up there. Some of the action happens by the sea too; I live only a couple of miles from the North Sea now, and you can take it from me that when I describe how cold the water is, or how thick a sea fog can be, I'm speaking from experience!’

Thursday 12 June 2008


Yesterday I spent an hour in Formby (on the outskirts of Liverpool), along with June Francis, at an event organised by Pritchards Bookshops and the U3a. I’ve heard of U3a before, but never had any involvement with them. In a nutshell which probably doesn’t do them justice, U3a is an organisation which attracts a very large membership from people, usually over 50, who are no longer in full-time employment. Members evidently get up to a wide range of activities, including attending talks given by writers. And I was very impressed that they conjured up an audience of around 100 people for June and me.

June is a writer of romances and sagas. She and I have known each other for upwards of 15 years. At one time we were both published by Piatkus in hardback and Transworld in paperback. Now we are both published by Allison & Busby, so although we write in different genres, our careers have run along similar lines. And we’ve appeared at various events together over the years.

I had a surprise when a member of the audience introduced himself. Twenty years ago, he was a client and we were involved in several tribunal cases together. He reminded me that we never lost a case, and I couldn’t help feeling a sense of satisfaction that this was his memory of our working relationship (in fact, it was good that he remembered it at all, given that it was so long ago.) At the time, he never knew that I was an aspiring novelist, and it was strange but pleasant to encounter him after such a long gap and in such a very different environment. Yet another example of why it’s good to try to find the time, every now and then, to get out and meet readers and potential readers. The atmosphere at these events is always congenial. Which is more than you can say about the atmosphere at some employment tribunal hearings.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Waterloo Sunset again

Here are a couple of photos from the launch of Waterloo Sunset at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel last week. The lower photo shows me with my business partner Richard Corran (centre) and the chief executive of Liverpool City Council, Colin Hilton. Above this is a photo with Colin and his partner Lyn, and on the left, fellow crime writer Margaret Murphy and her husband Murf. Reminders of a really enjoyable evening.

I’ve been gratified (and, yes, relieved, of course) by the very positive reaction of reviewers and readers to this book. A number of people whose judgment I trust and value have said that they think it’s my best so far. This is enormously encouraging, not least because it’s always difficult for authors to judge their own work in a truly dispassionate and objective way.

Amongst the reviews I’m thrilled with is a super one from Maxine Clarke in Shots

Of course, all positive reviews are very welcome, but it’s especially gratifying when a discriminating reader really ‘gets’ what one is trying to achieve with a book – which isn’t always the case. But Maxine’s reaction is exactly what I hoped for when I wrote the book. I did want it to be fast, funny and entertaining. But I didn’t want, in the process, to lose sight of the serious aspects of the story-line, and I’m truly glad that Maxine judges that the book met this particular test.

Tuesday 10 June 2008


A few more reflections about the first Crimefest, in Bristol. I was involved with a couple of panels and attended various others. For those who have not attended a convention of this kind, the idea is that each panel has a particular theme linked to crime fiction in some way. There is a moderator, who (in effect) leads the discussion between, typically, four other panel members. Ample time is usually allowed for questions from the audience.

Colin Campbell was an effective moderator on a panel with a broad ‘courtroom’ theme. Unusally, I hadn’t previously met Colin, or any of the other panel members – John Macken, Keith McCarthy and Chris Ewen. The ‘chemistry’ between panel members influences the mood of the debate, and I did wonder how it would all work out. Happily, even though we were strangers, Colin made sure we all gelled together. I was especially fascinated by Keith’s mention of pathologists playing music in the morgue.

When I was first told that I was to moderate a panel at 9 am on Sunday morning, I admit to feeling that I’d been handed a ‘graveyard slot’. But I cheered up on learning that my panellists included fellow lawyer Neil White, as well as Kate Ellis and Adrian Magson. I’ve talked about their books previously on this blog and they are a diverse and talented bunch of writers. I hadn’t met Pat McIntosh before, but she contributed a number of very good suggested topics in our exchange of emails prior to the week-end. She is the author of a series of historical mysteries featuring Gil Cunningham and his wife Alys.

As things turned out, the audience on Sunday morning was impressively wide awake and receptive, and I was really pleased with the way the panel discussion progressed. A good way of finishing a memorable week-end.

Monday 9 June 2008

Back from Bristol

My trip to Bristol was truly pleasurable. This weekend saw the first Crimefest, originally scheduled as a bi-annual event, but already the positive response from crime fans and writers has prompted a re-think, and the good news is that Crimefest will now return next year, as well as in 2010.

It’s not possible to cover everything that happened over the weekend in this post, but the first thing I’d like to say is that, as always, it was good to meet a number of pleasant people for the first time, as well as seizing any chance that presented itself to spend time with old friends. Of course, there’s never enough time over these weekends and I missed a few people I was looking out for.

Among fellow bloggers, I met Declan Burke, Petrona and Crimefic Reader at long last. It turns out that Declan, like me, will be heading to Baltimore for Bouchercon in October and it will be good to catch up with him again then. The writers I talked to whom I hadn’t met before included Laurie King, Pat McIntosh, John Macken and Patricia Finney. And also Dolores Gordon-Smith; in the ‘small world’ department, it turns out that her husband works closely with colleagues in my firm, and Dolores lives not too far away from me in Cheshire.

I’d also like to say that Adrian, Miles and their team did a great job of organising the event. It must be hard work, but as far as I could tell, everything ran smoothly and people enjoyed themselves. Which is the test of success for any convention.

Sunday 8 June 2008

If at first you don't succeed...

Some writers make an impact with their very first novel. Others have to pay their dues, writing plenty of books before they achieve the recognition they deserve (yet others, of course, never win great acclaim and sometimes give up on the genre, or find that impatient publishers give up on them before they manage a real breakthrough.)

Minette Walters was an instant hit, and so was Patricia Cornwell. But Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Andrew Taylor and Peter Robinson are among the best-sellers of today who had to keep the faith for a number of years, and plenty of books, before their talents were at last widely recognised (I think this is a fair summary, even though Andrew's very first book did win an award, and all these writers were critically applauded before they hit the commercial jackpot.)

So what happened to change things for these writers? In some cases, it’s fairly easy to spot the turning point, in other cases less so. Rankin’s Black and Blue was his breakthrough book; it won the CWA Gold Dagger and the rest was history. McDermid’s pivotal moment was probably similar, with the winning of the CWA Gold Dagger for The Mermaids Singing. Taylor’s The American Boy was chosen by the TV show Richard and Judy, and not long afterwards his brilliant Roth Trilogy was televised as ‘Fallen Angel’. With Robinson, the explanation is less straightforward. He once told me that he believed that the key was finding an editor who really believed in him, and a publisher who was prepared to back that judgment by investing real money in promotion.

The rise to prominence of Ann Cleeves, whose White Nights I have featured in this blog lately, is again largely due to the CWA Dagger effect. Interestingly, her Dagger-winning Raven Black opened her fourth distinct crime series. She began with a pair of amateur sleuths, George and Molly Palmer-Jones, in books which had an ornithological background. She tends to be self-deprecating about these early efforts, but I liked them, even though I’d never had much interest in bird-watching, and I was delighted when she contributed to an anthology I edited which reintroduced George in a story called ‘Owl Wars’. Later came a police series set in the North East and featuring an appealing cop called Stephen Ramsay. Vera Stanhope, said by some reviewers to remind them of a female Dalziel, first appeared in The Crow Trap; the book was conceived as a stand-alone, but Vera was too good a character to let go after only one outing. And finally Ann struck gold with her first novel about the Shetlander Jimmy Perez.

Saturday 7 June 2008

White Nights

Time to say more about Ann Cleeves’ latest novel, White Nights. Her idea for the Shetland Quartet is that each book will be set in a different season of the year. Here the backdrop is summer, the time of the long white nights. It’s not always an easy time:

‘…at this time of year Edith had trouble sleeping at all…She’d put thick curtains at the window, but something about the white nights threw her body clock out. It took some people that way…He was glad when the days got shorter and she returned to her old self.’

The Shetland setting is beautifully done. Few if any modern crime writers convey the essence of a rural community as effectively as Ann Cleeves, and with the islands off the north of Scotland, she is in her element. Although she is not Scottish, she met her husband Tim on Fair Isle around thirty years ago, and she has the ability to get under the skin of the local people. There is also a lot of interesting background detail. I now know what the ‘simmer dim’ is and what ‘singling neeps’ involves, while Raven Black introduced me to the tradition of Up Helly Aa, Europe’s largest fire festival. Reading these novels has made me want to visit Shetland and see the locations for myself (one quibble is that a map would have been a welcome inclusion; I understand that one is due to appear in the American edition.)

This book begins with a masked man, dressed as a Pierrot, handing out leaflets to tourists arriving at Lerwick from a cruise ship. Then the attention shifts to Perez and his lover Fran, attending an art exhibition at which a stranger falls to his knees and begins to weep. Soon afterwards, local man Kenny Thomson looks into a hut on a jetty and finds a man, dead from hanging. He is wearing the mask of a clown.

Like the late Julian Symons, I’m fascinated by the idea of masks, and the intriguing nature of this plot device was one of the elements that drew me into the book. A second murder soon follows, and the momentum is maintained throughout, whereas the pace in the first hundred pages of Raven Black was rather more leisurely. There are a couple of features of the plot that struck me as a little unlikely, but perhaps legitimate given that the story-line involves performance and playing a part. The great merit of this book is that the people and places are described with such conviction as to ensure that the tale told never becomes unbelievable. This is a first rate crime novel.

Friday 6 June 2008

Lupoff and Lovesey

I recently received the two most recent short story collections published by the estimable Crippen & Landru. Quintet: the cases of Chase and Delacroix is by Richard A. Lupoff, an author with whom I’m relatively unfamiliar. This is a gathering of half a dozen tales, set in the 1930s and following the Golden Age pattern of pitting the eccentric amateur sleuth against a brain-teasing mystery. The stories include at least one locked room mystery.

Murder on the Short List is the latest collection of Peter Lovesey’s work in the short form. Peter has produced several books of short stories (in fact, I can think of few if any British authors who can match his productivity in this respect) and they are always good value. Three of the stories are already well known to me, because they first saw the light of day in anthologies that I edited. And I can say that, whenever I have asked Peter for a story, despite his many other commitments, he has always delivered – and delivered high quality.

‘The Field’ first appeared in my collection of countryside crimes, Green For Danger, while ‘A Blow on the Head’ featured the year before last in I.D.: crimes of identity. Peter wrote ‘The Man who Jumped for England’ for the CWA’s Golden Jubilee book, Mysterious Pleasures. Three very different stories, but with one thing in common: the sheer accomplishment of their author.

Crippen & Landru have also published separately Peter’s snappy little story ‘The Homicidal Hat’, which celebrates his lifetime achievement award at the recent Malice Domestic convention in Washington D.C. A fun tale, of the sort he does so well.

Thursday 5 June 2008

A happy coincidence

There are good days and there are not so good days and it makes sense to cherish the good days. Yesterday was, for me, definitely a day to remember fondly. The new Hard Day’s Night Hotel in the centre of Liverpool saw the official launch of Waterloo Sunset, coupled with the launch of my firm’s short story competition; details of the latter can be found at The competition entry fees will be donated to Local Solutions, a social enterprise with which I’ve long been fortunate to have an association. They do marvellous work in Merseyside, helping vulnerable people of all ages to live independently and to maximise their potential.

Around a hundred people showed up for the event, and the atmosphere was terrific. The main speaker was Colin Hilton, whom I first got to know about 15 years ago when he worked in the education sector in Knowsley, and was a witness in a case I conducted. Colin is one of the good guys, and I was delighted a couple of years ago when he was appointed chief executive of Liverpool City Council. He’s a great advocate for literature, as well as for the merits of the great city, and he spoke with real passion about the progress that Liverpool has made in the past few years, after decades of being regarded as an economic dead zone.

For me, by a happy – and in fact, quite amazing - coincidence, on the very day of launching the competition, I received the news yesterday morning that my story ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ has been shortlisted for the CWA award for best short story of the year. I’ve not quite recovered from the surprise yet, but when I do, I’ll have a bit more to say about this, and I also hope to have a photo or two from the event to share. In the meantime, it’s off to Bristol for Crimefest, but thanks to the wonders of Blogger’s post scheduler, I’ll be talking about one or two other books over the next two or three days.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Christopher West

I first came across the name of Christopher West in 1994, through a copy of a book in the late lamented Collins Crime Club series, called Death of a Blue Lantern. It was set in China and featured a likeable cop called Wang Anzhuang. The background was highly authentic and the plotting sound; impressively so for a first novel. Not long afterwards, I met Chris West at a CWA annual conference in Scotland (Pitlochry was the venue, if memory serves) and found him a very agreeable companion.

After that we bumped into each other every now and then, at events such as the excellent Shots in the Dark convention which was held in Nottingham for several years in the 1990s. But we spent most time together when we both attended the Philadelphia Bouchercon ten years ago. By coincidence, we were both being published in the US for the very first time and over a pint or two we speculated what the future might hold for us in terms on international sales, and how best to go about marketing our work

When the Crime Club ceased to be, Chris moved to Allison & Busby, but after a mere four novels – the China quartet – featuring Wang, he gave up on the genre. He has a range of talents (for instance, he is an accomplished musician, and I learned only recently that he was once a member of the Oxcentrics band, which I remember from my younger days) and he discovered a taste for writing business books. His success in this field has caused him to shift away from fiction.

However, his first novel has just been reprinted by Allison & Busby, and I hope that this development will encourage Chris back to his old criminal ways at some point in the future. In the meantime, anyone with an interest in the extraordinary and fascinating country that has become an economic powerhouse with the capacity to affect all our lives could do a lot worse than learn a bit about it through the Wang novels.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

The progress of a crime writer

One of the first non-Christie crime novels that I read was The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons. A good book, but this post is about something which I find even more interesting – the progress of a crime writer’s career. It’s fair to say that most writing careers have their ups and downs, with sometimes many more downs than up. I know a good many very capable authors who are currently without a publishing contract. So it’s a pleasure to tell a story that does a happy ending.

I’ve just finished White Nights by Ann Cleeves. It’s the second book in the Shetland Quartet featuring DI Jimmy Perez – the first book in the series, Raven Black, won the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel of 2006. I’m happy to say that I started reading Ann’s work when her first couple of novels came out late in the 1980s. We later met and became friends, and colleagues in the Murder Squad collective of seven Northern crime writers. So of course I feel a degree of prejudice in her favour. But since I liked her writing – and reviewed her books - from the outset, I also feel that I can retain a degree of objectivity in commenting on her work, as is the case when I talk about the novels and short stories of other friends.

I’ve read all Ann’s books, and almost in the precise order in which they were written and it’s good to see not only how her work has developed over the past twenty years, but also how her career has really taken off since she won the award. Of course, awards are a lottery, to some extent, but their real merit, it seems to me, is that they can help lift a writer to a higher level of public awareness, and this has certainly been true in Ann’s case. She was a very accomplished writer long before she achieved wide public recognition and high sales.

In fact, it seems scarcely credible today that one of her early books, Sea Fever, failed for some years to find an English publisher. It came out in the States, but then she lost her American publishing contract. For some years, she was not published in paperback in the UK. But following that CWA Dagger triumph, her work is not only increasingly prominent in the US, but available in translations in many languages.

What about White Nights, then? I’ll have more to say about it on another day. For now, it’s enough to state that I think that it is probably Ann Cleeves’ best book so far. Better even than Raven Black , at least in my opinion.

Monday 2 June 2008

Judith Cutler

I first met Judith Cutler at a Christmas party in London, thrown by our then publishers Piatkus Books. I have a hazy recollection of a conversation with our editor, Kate Callaghan, just before she introduced us; she told me that I would definitely like Judith, and she was right. After we left Piatkus, she and I were later published by Hodder Headline and now we are both published by Allison & Busby. It’s quite strange that our writing careers should have run in parallel to such an extent. I have to say, though, that when it comes to novels, she has been rather more productive than me. Her latest, Still Waters, lists no fewer than 25 previous titles.

Judith is, then, a highly professional writer, but what is also interesting is the breadth of her range. She started with a likeable amateur protagonist called Sophie Rivers. These books drew on Judith’s experience of the academic world and her knowledge of Birmingham and the West Midlands. After that, she moved in the direction of the police procedural, with half a dozen novels featuring Kate Power (whose surname featured in each title.) Since then she has created two more series, featuring respectively Josie Welford and Chief Superintendent Frances Harman (Still Waters is a Frances Harman book.) She’s written stand-alones, historical fiction and romances. An impressive roster.

Judith spent a few years as Secretary to the Crime Writers’ Association, and a while back she married another friend of mine, Keith Miles – a former chairman of the CWA who also happens to be published by Allison & Busby; it’s a very small world. I took the picture of Judith and Keith (they are on the left, with Doreen and Stuart Pawson on the right) during a CWA weekend at Beverley two or three years ago. I’ll talk about Keith’s work in a future blog post, but Judith’s varied interests include growing organic vegetables – and cricket, a game for which she has enormous enthusiasm, and which occasionally features in her stories. Every now and then she writes a short story, and her work in this field deserves to be better known, including the memorable ‘Flying Pigs’, which she contributed to an anthology I edited back in 1999 called Missing Persons.

Sunday 1 June 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds #17

Carnival of the Criminal Minds was a brainwave of Barbara Fister, and I’m taking part immediately after Sandra Ruttan, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at crime conventions both in the UK and in the States. Carnivals are, in my mind, associated with sunshine and summer - perhaps, given the English climate, this is the triumph of hope over experience. All the same, I like carnivals a lot. I have fond memories of the Northwich Carnival of my childhood. In 1963, it was opened by the Beatles, just at the time they hit the top of the charts and were fulfilling a few pre-fame contractual obligations. At the age of seven or eight, I was lucky not to be crushed to death by the horde of teenage girls screaming at their four heroes in purple suits. More recently, a trip to North Wales led to a close encounter with Llandudno’s May bank holiday carnival – an exuberant event (see the photos) made all the better by very good weather.

But come rain or shine, there are plenty of blogs to keep me amused, entertained and informed. Each of those listed on my blogroll will repay a visit; today, I’ll select some highlights, but those I don’t mention are still very worthwhile. One of the first blogs I came across, and consistently one of best, is: Ed Gorman’s blog. Ed is not only an accomplished author of novels and short stories, but also founder of Mystery Scene magazine, savvy commentator, and great and generous supporter of other writers. I’ve never met him, but his work gives a very good flavour of a man who has led a fascinating, not always easy life and who always speaks with real authority – and, just as important, humanity.

Karen Meek was keen on Eurocrime before it became so enormously fashionable and her love of the genre shines through her blog: Eurocrime. Very knowledgeable, she doesn’t stick to just writing about the big names, and that’s one of the elements of her blog that makes it so interesting. Eric Mayer’s Byzantine blog is very different, yet equally appealing. With his wife Mary Reed, he is responsible for a refreshingly original set of mysteries featuring John the Eunuch; their website contains countless good things and his blog posts are full of insight.

Last September, in Yorkshire, I met a group of American crime enthusiasts; and two of them, Lourdes Fernandes and Roberta Rood, turned out to be notable bloggers. At that time, I hadn’t started this blog, but reading their posts was one of a number of influences which spurred me on to create ‘Do you write under your own name?’ Lourdes’ Lost in Books and Roberta’s Books to the Ceiling. Someone I haven’t met is the French Golden Age enthusiast Xavier Lechard. He doesn’t post very often on his blog At the Villa Rose (the name comes from the title of a book by A.E.W. Mason) but his comments about traditional mysteries are always intelligent, well-informed and stimulating.

For information about books of the past, you can’t do much better than consult Steve Lewis’s wonderful resource, Mystery*File. Time after time he comes up with material that simply isn’t available elsewhere. Indispensable for the researcher. With more of a focus on the contemporary, The Rap Sheet must be, I imagine, one of the most frequently visited of all crime blogs, and the reason is because the content is consistently varied and stimulating. Jeff Kingston Pierce presides, and other contributors include the British critic Ali Karim.

No fewer than five blogs by female British bloggers who do not focus exclusively on crime are among my must-views. Maxine Clarke is a scientist whose acute intelligence is evident in all her posts, whether on scientific topics or crime fiction:Petrona. It’s a Crime is equally thoughtful. I also consult the views of an author whose reviews are as persuasive and insightful as you would expect from a former professor of English: Harriet Devine.. Elaine Simpson-Long’s Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover are always worth reading (even thought I make no claims to be an opera buff) and Juliet Doyle’s Musings from a Muddy Island, which touch less often on crime than the others, contain not only marvellous photographs but also a portrayal of life in a small island community that I find quite fascinating.

I could go on – and let’s face it, all lawyers are tempted to go on at length. My blogroll lists a good many other very enjoyable blogs. But the new novel calls. Soon it will be time for the carnival to move on. Next stop is Australia, and Kerrie’s entertaining blog Mysteries in Paradise.