New Year's Eve is often a time for reflection. Plenty of good things have happened in the past twelve months, as well as, inevitably, some not so good. Here is a random selection of photos of a few of the moments I am delighted to remember from the past year.
This is also a time for listing the year’s highlights. I’ve been delighted by the reception accorded to Dancing for the Hangman, and Marshal Zeringue kindly featured it in his fascinating page 69 feature recently.
Looking ahead, publication of The Serpent Pool is not too far away, and I’m gratified by an extremely positive review from Kerrie, whose Mysteries in Paradise blog is a must-read for crime fans. I dropped her an email to thank her, and she invited me to list my ten favourite crime novels read in 2009. I’ve done just that here, and added my favourite non-fiction crime book as well, for good measure….
Thursday, 31 December 2009
Wednesday, 30 December 2009
For the first time in many years, I’ve watched The League of Gentlemen, the classic 1960 film from which the comedy show took its name. It’s a black and white movie, broadly in the tradition of the Ealing Comedies, and a thoroughly good period piece, as well as excellent light entertainment that has retained its charm and grip.
The film was based on a book published a couple of years earlier by John Boland. The story involves a redundant and embittered senior army officer, at odds with post-war British society, who hatches a plan to rob a bank. He decides to rope in a number of former military men who have fallen on hard times in the years since the war, and who have indulged in a variety of crimes or shady dealings, but who bring a range of skills to his heist team.
The ensemble cast is led by Jack Hawkins, at his imperious best, and is full of names who dominated British cinema and television for many years. They include Bryan Forbes, who directed (his wife Nanette Newman also has a small role), Richard – later Lord – Attenborough, Terence Alexander (best remembered as Charlie Hungerford in the long-running Jersey cop series Bergerac) and a host of other fine performers. Even Oliver Reed has a walk-on part.
It’s a movie quite different in style from The Italian Job, made only nine years later, but very much a product of the Swinging Sixties, while The League of Gentlemen harks bark to an earlier time. As for John Boland, he was a prolific thriller writer, but I am not familiar with his other work – though the success of his most famous book did prompt him to bring back the Gentlemen for subsequent adventures.
Tuesday, 29 December 2009
I mentioned recently that I enjoyed Peter Lovesey’s latest novel, Skeleton Hill, and I’d like to supplement my comments on that book with a more general, abeit brief, outline of the work of an author who ranks highly on my list of all-time favourites.
One of the impressive features of Lovesey’s long career is that he has succeeded at various different types of mystery story – in this he resembles his brilliant friend Reginald Hill (who was also born in 1936, as was the estimable Robert Barnard.) For instance, he excels at the short form - ‘Youdunnit’, for instance, is a wonderful gimmick story.
He began his career with books about the Victorian detective Sergeant Cribb, and helped to cement the popularity of the history-mystery. The Cribb books were televised (though somehow I managed to miss the TV versions – one day I shall have to track down the DVDs.) with Alan Dobie in the lead role. My favourite of the books is Waxwork.
Bertie and the Seven Bodies was an entry in a series featuring the former Prince of Wales, and is an especially appealing light mystery, in the vein of And Then There Were None. His Peter Diamond books show his ability to achieve a consistently high standard when writing a contemporary series, and The Secret Hangman is a stand-out title. The Vault and The Circle are also very good.
Among the other Lovesey classics, Rough Cider has many admirers, but I’d like to highlight two very different books. On the Edge is a splendid one-off, set in the past, but really a novel of psychological suspense which was very well adapted for television a few years back. And then there is The False Inspector Dew, which takes elements of the Crippen case and weaves them into an absolutely fascinating mystery. Any writer would have been proud to have written either of these novels. But Peter Lovesey has done so much more, and so well.
Monday, 28 December 2009
I was disappointed by the first episode I watched of Murder Most English, the 70s mystery series now on DVD, so I’m glad to report that the second was a distinct improvement. This was Lonelyheart 4122, in which Inspector Purbright (Anton Rodgers, warming to the role) is called upon to investigate the unexplained disappearances of two respectable middle-aged women.
Before long, the detective decides that there is likely to be a connection between the missing women and an upmarket matrimonial agency run by a Mrs Staunch. But attempts to establish a link between the women and a particular male client of the agency get nowhere. So Purbright decides to keep an eye out for other potentially vulnerable women.
He lights upon Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, newly arrived in Flaxborough. She is a woman who intrigues him, and she is less than frank about the fact that not only has she signed up with the agency, but she has also met up with a rather predatory chap who says he is a retired naval officer. But it soon becomes clear that Miss Teatime is not as naïve as she seems, and that anyone who crosses her path needs to be very sharp-witted indeed.
I found this episode entertaining, though not up to the high level of the very enjoyable book by Colin Watson upon which it’s based. Brenda Bruce (who apparently was a notable classical actress, and the first victim in Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom) is a charismatic Miss Teatime, while John Carson, once a familiar figure on British TV (usually as a smooth villain), is appropriately awful as the gruff old salt.
Coming right up to date, I also wanted to mention Outnumbered - a UK series which had its Christmas special edition last night. This is a comedy, not a crime show (although the special did feature the aftermath of a burglary and a possible insurance scam) but I find it hugely entertaining, and I do admire the writing. It's the work of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (the latter also wrote for the superb time travel crime series, Life on Mars), and their scripts are both funny and, at times, poignant. There is much for anyone interested in the craft of writing to learn from scripts like these - the way that humour flows from character and situation, which the added twist, in this case, that the lines of the three young children who star in the show (and 'outnumber' their hapless parents, very believably played by Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner) are not fully scripted. The scenes featuring the kids' grandfather in particular are almost invariably funny and moving. Last night's excellent special was well up to standard.
Sunday, 27 December 2009
The snow I featured in my photos the other day has turned to ice, and our little cul-de-sac has transformed into a skating rink. Too dangerous to contemplate shifting the car. So what could be more appropriate than to seize the chance to watch a film set in a snowbound mansion?
This is 8 Women, aka 8 Femmes, and I became aware of it thanks to the very informative comments by Philip and Bob Cornwell in relation to my recent post about the play Trap for a Lonely Man, written by Robert Thomas. Thomas also wrote the play on which 8 Women is based, although the credits say that the movie ‘liberally adapted’ it, and this I can well believe.
In fact, the film version followed more than 40 years after its theatrical source, and my guess is that director Francois Ozon utilised Thomas’s clever multiple plot twists, whilst turning them into something Thomas never expected: a send-up of a classic, Christiesque scenario, - with songs! The resultant mish-mash of murder and music is weird, but very watchable – especially because the cast is quite dazzling. It includes Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, and Emmanuelle Beart, an extraordinary wealth of glamour and talent.
The eponymous eight women are all potential suspects in the murder of Marcel, a lecherous businessman on the verge of bankruptcy. Poor old Marcel never gets to utter a word, but it doesn’t matter because the women occupy all our attention, fighting amongst themselves, and embarking on voyages of self-discovery. Fun viewing, and a good way to spend a snowbound evening.
Saturday, 26 December 2009
I had a lovely Christmas Day and I do hope you did too. Amongst other pleasures, I was lucky that Santa recognised my continuing fascination with crime fiction, and delivered many good things that will keep me occupied for a long time to come. They will also, no doubt, provide plenty of material for future blog posts.
I’ve already dipped into a lavishly illustrated guide, Agatha Christie’s Devon, by Bret Hawthorne, and read the chapter about Burgh Island, which provided the setting for And Then There Were None, and Evil Under the Sun. I do love islands, and it is a place I am really keen to visit one day.
I also received four audio books on CD featuring Francis Durbridge’s most famous creation, Paul Temple. I’ve enjoyed a good many of the Temple audio books – they are fun to listen to whilst commuting, and the new ones will definitely improve my tedious journey to and from work.
Among the new DVDs, there’s an absolute gem – The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. I received the anthology which inspired the TV series as a Christmas present when I was a teenager, and not long afterwards, I watched some of the episodes on the box. I look forward to seeing the rest of them, at long last, during the course of 2010.
Friday, 25 December 2009
Warmest wishes to anyone who takes a glance at this blog on this special day!
The answer to yesterday’s quiz question was indeed Ian Brown, formerly of the Stone Roses. It was through getting to know Ian that I decided to feature the Stone Roses’ 'I Wanna Be Adored' in the eighth and most recent Harry Devlin mystery, Waterloo Sunset, at a moment when Harry is rescued from a very tight spot.
Waterloo Sunset takes its name, of course, from a wonderful song by Ray Davies, who also first made his name as part of a group – the Kinks – but is now widely acknowledged as one of the finest of all British songwriters. There was a very good programme about him in the excellent ‘Songbook’ series on Christmas Eve, which featured the great man talking about the composition of ‘Waterloo Sunset’, as well as performing it splendidly in the studio. If you like Sixties music and you get the chance to see this programme, I can recommend it unreservedly. The insight Ray Davies gives into his craft is, despite his self-deprecating manner, utterly fascinating.
Thursday, 24 December 2009
I’d like to wish all readers of this blog a happy and peaceful Christmas, and all the very best for 2010 – may it be full of good things for you and your families.
I have very much appreciated the comments people have contributed to this blog since last Christmas. I’ve had the chance to meet a number of you, and that’s been an enormous pleasure, but I’ve also relished the ‘virtual friendships’ spanning the globe, to which participating in online communities give rise. This interaction, and your enthusiasm for the blog, has been very motivating for me in a year that has included many happy moments, as well as some that were more difficult. I’ve not written as much fiction as I meant to this year, especially during the past six months, but writing the blog posts has kept my hand in. And the blog posts will continue during the holiday period.
The weather here in Lymm right now is ‘seasonal’ – a euphemism for very cold. I thought I’d share a few photos from yesterday and set a quick quiz question. The photos show my next-door-but-one neighbour and his son taking advantage of both the snow and the slope of our drive. Suffice to say that he too is active in the arts world – but he is much more famous than me. His name will be revealed tomorrow, but can you guess it in the meantime?
Wednesday, 23 December 2009
I’ve enjoyed being involved in a wide range of events during the past twelve months, ranging from convention panels to a workshop for aspiring writers at Harrogate, the Crimefest Mastermind competition, bookshop and library talks, and various performances of ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’
One of the pleasures of these events is the chance to meet readers (and potential readers – a much larger category!) and, of course, some of those who read and comment on this blog. I hope very much that 2010 will enable me to make the acquaintance of more of you.
My webmaster has now updated the Events page on my website to include details of next year’s events, so far as they have been scheduled. The first, on 30th January, is to take place at Ormskirk Library. It’s been arranged by Jenn Ashworth, herself an author and blogger of note. For the first time in several years, I’m teaming up with that fine writer Sophie Hannah. We last met in the autumn, when Sophie was inducted into the Detection Club, and I’m looking forward to working with her again.
Tuesday, 22 December 2009
There are many, many good things in the latest issue of CADS – issue number 57, in fact, of this ‘irregular magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective stories’ edited by Geoff Bradley, whom I first met at a Bouchercon held in London almost two decades ago.
Liz Gilbey writes about Adam Diment, a trendy and very successful writer of the Swinging Sixties, who literally disappeared from sight. What on earth happened to him? Marvin Lachman contributes a long list of obituaries concerning crime writers or those otherwise connected with the genre. There are articles on a range of tiopicesby seasoned commentators such as Philip Scowcroft, Mike Ripley and Bob Adey. B.A. Pike, who knows a great deal about Golden Age mysteries, contributes a piece about an Irish writer unknown to me, Sheila Pim, who published four novels between 1945 and 1952 – he makes them sound well worth searching for.
Pim apparently included ‘erudite footnotes’ in her work, and ‘Footnotes in Crime and Detective Stories’ is the title of a fascinating article by David Ellis. He covers footnotes in the work of Poe, and the pseudonymous early crime novelist Charles Felix, in Golden Age stories, and in modern books by the likes of Somoza and Mark Haddon.
I find articles on quirky subjects, such as Ellis’s, thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative. Geoff Bradley, the editor of CADS, does a great job in bringing these pieces together in a form where they can be widely appreciated. For anyone interested in the genre, especially in mysteries of the past, I can recommend this magazine without any reservations whatsoever.
Monday, 21 December 2009
Time management is an important consideration for authors of mystery series, even though we don’t always pay it enough attention when our series characters start out on their fictional journeys. I’m not talking here about time management in the sense of how does one find the time to write the books, but rather in the sense of connecting the chronology of the series to real time.
The classic illustration of the problem is the obituary of Hercule Poirot in The New York Times – ‘by conventional reckoning, Poirot must have been over 130 years old when he solved his last case’). Similarly, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford was already a senior cop when his first case was published in 1964. It’s sometimes said that authors should start out with young detectives – but ageism isn’t a great solution to the problem! We need and want senior sleuths to figure in series!
So what is an author to do? My own method – I don’t for a moment suggest it’s perfect, but it’s the best I can do – is to elide time somewhat. An example in the Harry Devlin series is the way I dealt with the passage of time between the events of First Cut is the Deepest, and those of Waterloo Sunset. I acknowledge very specifically the passage of time in Harry’s life, and in the redevelopment of Liverpool. But I reduced (in effect) the length of the interval between books. Harry was 32 when All the Lonely People was published; that was my age when I started writing the manuscript. Suffice to say that he’s aged much better than me.
So far, time pressures haven’t been acute in the Lake District Mysteries. But I am planning to deal with them in much the same way. This is fiction, after all. Of course, I’d be interested in the views of others on this tricky subject – it’s one where, I suspect, the right answer is that there is no right answer.
Sunday, 20 December 2009
Reading other people’s blogs is fascinating, I find. And on one memorable occasion, a blog link provided me with the key that helped me to solve the mystery of The Serpent Pool. I’d been puzzling how to deal with a central element in the story, and the book didn’t quite seem to work. Then one day I took a look at a very appealing blog called Letters From a Hill Farm – and there I found a link to an old Youtube video.
The video featured Rupert Holmes, an excellent singer-songwriter, performing a song called ‘Him’ that I greatly enjoyed when it was a Top Ten hit in the UK, about 30 years ago. The story of the song gave me an idea for the book – and from that moment, the writing seemed to go much more easily.
There were a couple of added bonuses. First, Rupert (now an estimable crime writer as well as a composer) permitted me to reproduce a portion of his lyric in my novel – something for which I’m very grateful. Second, the appearance of the blonde-haired singer in the video gave me a picture of the appearance of a character in my story who had, until then, rather eluded me.
So there you have it. An odd little anecdote, perhaps. But an illustration of the way in which the online community can exert an influence over the creative process that is completely unexpected by all concerned. I bet there aren't that many crime novels that have been influenced by a blog link. But maybe one day it will become commonplace!
Saturday, 19 December 2009
BBC 4 has resumed its series of the Swedish version of Wallander, starring gruff but appealing Krister Henriksson as the detective, and Johanna Sallstrom as his daughter. I’m not sure why the series, shown to considerable acclaim (not least among crime bloggers!) earlier this year, was interrupted – but then, the scheduling of television programmes is an arcane process, as difficult to fathom as the Duckworth-Lewis method of calculating victory targets in a rain-affected cricket match.
The latest episode, Bloodline, opens with a man and a woman quarrelling on board a boat. The man storms off, but some time later, a masked individual comes on board, and brutally murders the woman. It’s a dramatic beginning, very much in the style we associate with Wallander.
When the police investigate, their inquiries soon take them to a group of people at a farm commune. Needless to say, there are various secrets to be uncovered, and the mystery is satisfyingly done. As always, however, the interplay of the characters is the great strength of the show. The relationship between Wallander and his daughter is very well done indeed. In fact, I’m not sure if I can think of any detective-and-daughter relationship in the genre that is more compelling.
Friday, 18 December 2009
Once again, my pick for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a title by the late, great Julian Symons. The Blackheath Poisonings is one of his ventures into Victorian crime – Sweet Adelaide, based on the real-life Adelaide Bartlett case, is another – and it carries a particular memory for me.
During the 1990s, Nottingham was the place for crime fans to visit, during the annual Shots on the Page convention. The convention was, so far as I know, the brainchild of Maxim Jakubowski, who worked closely with film specialist Adrian Wootton. I missed the first of the conventions, but attended all the others and found them most enjoyable. They paved the way for Nottingham to host Bouchercon itself – quite a coup for Maxim and his colleagues, and the last time that Bouchercon crossed the Atlantic.
One year, the convention hosted an advance screening of an adaptation for TV of The Blackheath Poisoinings. The small screen version was excellent, benefiting from a first rate cast that included Zoe Wanamaker, Judy Parfitt and Ronald Fraser, as well as a screenplay that was sympathetic to Symons’ original story.
And a very good story it is, with a sharp eye on the sexual complexities lying just beneath the surface of late Victorian society. A respectable family is torn apart by poison, and poisonous suspicion. One of the characters is tried for murder, but before the story is concluded, there will be another death, and the revelation of an unsuspected criminal.
Julian Symons inscribed my copy of this novel (which is a hardback reprint, published not long before his death from cancer)when we were together at a CWA conference in Brighton. Characteristically, he added a question: ‘A good Victorian crime story?’ The answer is an unequivocal yes.
(P.S. - For unfathomable reasons, at present, I am able to send but not receive emails, so if you've emailed me in the past three days, please don't think the absence of a reply means I'm ignoring you....)
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Reading a novel by Peter Lovesey is rather like settling down to watch a favourite tv show or film, in good company and with a bottle of wine and box of chocolates within easy reach. You just know you are going to have a good time. So it is with his latest Peter Diamond novel, Skeleton Hill.
Lovesey never writes the same book twice, and this one is structured very differently from the last Diamond, The Secret Hangman. What both have in common is an intriguing and unusual motive for crime. Here, the motive strikes me as pretty much unguessable (or do I just mean that I didn’t come close to guessing it, even though I did figure out the culprit in good time?)
The basic set-up is that, during a Civil War re-enactment in Bath, a lecturer comes across a hidden bone. Someone was murdered, years ago. But then the lecturer goes missing, too. Diamond investigates, and along the way, we learn a great deal about the history of Bath, as well as something about the equine world.. It’s a pity that a map of Lansdown is not included by the publishers, as this would have helped readers to visualise the geography of key incidents, as well as chiming with the traditional mood of the story.
The build-up to the sequence of surprises and revelations that occur late in the story is elaborate and quite leisurely. My impression was that there was rather more about police procedure, and relationships within the investigating team, than in previous Diamond novels. The structure of the book means that, necessarily, the pace of the narrative is not as quick as in many Loveseys, but there is much pleasure to be gained from the author’s easy way with character and incident. I’m a confirmed Lovesey fan, and this rather unorthodox book from one of our leading detective novelists is another winner. Recommended.
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
One of the stand-out memories of my teenage theatre-going was a trip to Chester’s Gateway Theatre to see a production of a play called Trap for a Lonely Man, involving a chap whose wife disappears and is replaced by a stranger. It proved to be an excellent thriller, with a classic final twist. Fast forward to the present, and I’ve tried to find out more about the play. It seems that it is something of a staple of provincial theatre even now, and it was written by a Frenchman, Robert Thomas.
A little more digging revealed that the play has been adapted into no fewer than four films. I haven’t seen any of them, although I’ve put in an order for Chase a Crooked Shadow, a version starring the young Richard Todd, who died recently. It also seems that Hitchcock planned to film the play, and I can well imagine that the premise would appeal to him, although he was evidently beaten to it.
The story-line is strongly reminiscent of the work of those French masters Boileau and Narcejac. I’ve mentioned before that group of writers, including Montheilhet, Arley and Valmain, who followed in the footsteps of Boileau and Narcejac, and this notable play suggests that Robert Thomas should be added to the list.
But who was Robert Thomas and what else did he write? So far, I’ve not come up with any detailed information about him, but surely he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder?
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Changeling, a 2008 movie by Clint Eastwood, is one of the finest films I’ve watched in recent times. It’s a lengthy and complex, yet consistently gripping drama, and one of the most remarkable things about it is that it is based – I gather, quite closely – on real-life events.
The setting is Los Angeles, and the story opens in 1928. Angelina Jolie plays a hard-working single mother, Christine Carter, who returns one day from her office to find that her nine-year old son Walter has vanished without a trace. Some time later, the police find a boy who says he is Walter. Amidst a fanfare of publicity, Christine and Walter are reunited. The only snag is that the mother denies that the boy is her son.
The police are insistent, and when she protests, she is treated as delusional. We gather that the LAPD of the time was up to its ears in corruption, and there are shocking scenes when the Christine is treated as a psychopath and locked up in a dreadful asylum. But events take a sudden turn when a cop who is not mired in corruption is told a horrifying story by a young boy. It emerges that a madman called Northcott has been kidnapping, abusing and killing boys at his remote ranch. The question then is - was Walter one of the victims?
I thought Jolie’s performance was excellent, and the film as a whole was moving and memorable. The jazz-influenced music sounded as though it might have been written by John Barry, but I was taken aback to discover that it was composed by Eastwood himself. Truly, a man of many talents.
Monday, 14 December 2009
I’ve mentioned how much I enjoyed P.D. James’ new book, Talking About Detective Fiction. That does not mean, of course, that I agree with every view expressed in it. For example, I felt she was rather hard on Agatha Christie, even though she does express admiration for Christie’s mastery of her craft.
‘The last thing we get from a Christie novel is the disturbing presence of evil,’ James argues. I just don’t think that’s right, just as I’m rather surprised that James does not pay much attention to the fact that Christie’s settings were very varied indeed – she was far from being someone who specialised in village-based whodunits, even though many people associate her more or less exclusively with the Mayhem Parva type of mystery.
There has been an interesting discussion on the Golden Age Detection discussion forum about Christie and evil, and I’m with those who believe that Christie had a strong sense of evil, and let it show clearly in quite a number of her books. The closing paragraphs of Five Little Pigs and 4.50 from Paddington illustrate the point, and there are plenty of other examples.
I was also startled that James said of Christie: ‘She wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre.’ Blimey. What about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Death Comes as the End, Murder on the Orient Express, Endless Night, and Curtain? I’m not sure how many detective story writers have been more innovative than Christie.
But there you go. Only a dull study of detective fiction would fail to spark debate, and this is a book without a dull paragraph. No doubt there are many people who agree with P.D. James on the subject of Christie. just as I agree with her when she concludes this fascinating book by predicting that: ‘in the twenty-first century, as in the past, many of us will continue to turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world.’
Sunday, 13 December 2009
My favourite Al Pacino film is Insomnia, which I really enjoyed. The more recent serial killer movie 88 Minutes is not in the same league, but it is certainly one of fastest and most furious thrillers I’ve watched in a long time. The critics didn’t much care for it, but the pace is so frenetic that you tend not to notice some of the flaws – or the fact that it lasts rather longer than its title suggests.
Pacino plays Dr Jack Gramm, a forensics expert who combines an academic career with a sideline working for the FBI. He has – surprise, surprise – a deeply troubled past, from which he has fled to Seattle, where he enjoys a formidable reputation and a complex sex life. Nine years ago he gave crucial testimony which helped to convict a man accused of being ‘The Seattle Slayer’, a murderer with a penchant for trussing young women up and torturing them. The appeal process has now been exhausted, and the killer is about to be executed when a further killing occurs which bears all the hallmarks of The Seattle Slayer.
The victim is one of Gramm’s students, and soon he receives a phone call telling him that he has just 88 minutes to live. (88 minutes, we learn later on, is a time period which has deep significance for him.) What follows is a dramatic ‘clock-race’, and Gramm becomes understandably paranoid as he narrowly avoids being blown up in a car, and is framed for two murders in quick succession. Someone is out to get him – but who? There are plenty of potential suspects, and I didn’t guess the culprit, though a cynic might say that is because the explanation is so far-fetched.
Overall, for me this film was something of a guilty pleasure. I can see that the story is, when considered in the cold light of day, implausible in the extreme. And Pacino’s hair is as frantic as the action. But 88 Minutes kept me interested all the same. That’s the merit of the ‘clock-race’, in either a film or a novel. You can’t help wanting to know how it will all end.
Saturday, 12 December 2009
From the United States comes the news that another source of crime fiction reviews is to cease publication. This time it is Kirkus, which that I’ve never actually seen in the flesh, so to speak, but only via extracts either photocopied or online. For those unfamiliar with it, Kirkus was well-known for including quite a number of rather harsh reviews, and at least one good crime writing friend of mine becomes quite animated (not in a happy way) if ever Kirkus is mentioned. But we are all prejudiced by our own experiences, and when Kirkus reviewed my books, it always seemed positive. So I’m sorry to see Kirkus disappear from a personal perspective – but more important, this development means that mid-list writers will tend to get even less attention from now on, and that’s a shame.
On a much happier note, I am in the debt of that witty blogger (and notable crime writer) Bill Crider, who kindly supplied me with a scan of a marvellous review of Dancing for the Hangman in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Jon L. Breen is one of the most respected crime reviewers in the US, and so I’m especially gratified that he said that the book is ‘one of the finest fictionalizations of a classical criminal case I’ve ever read.’
Suffice to say that this is a quote I’ll long cherish. Jon Breen also mentions ‘excellent and sometimes amusing writing’, and he picks up on the fact that the book contains one or two crime fiction in-jokes – not many readers have noticed this. For instance, as he points out, my ‘Notes for the Curious’ at the end of the book are so called in tribute to the great John Dickson Carr,
Publishers’ Weekly adds that the book ‘ranks among Edwards’s best work’, and I’ve been lucky enough to have The Serpent Pool noticed by the same publication at almost the same time. And kindly noticed, too: ‘The musty, sedate world of old books provides the backdrop for a series of gruesome murders in Edwards's absorbing fourth Lake District mystery.’
Good reviews are no guarantee of huge sales, that’s for sure. But they do help, and in any event they are great for morale. One can only hope that online reviews of quality fill the gap that Kirkus will leave.
Friday, 11 December 2009
My entry in Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books series this week has a melancholy flavour as far as I’m concerned. I’ve just received the latest issue of that wonderful magazine CADS, but my pleasure at delving into its varied contents was muted this time, because I learned from editor Geoff Bradley’s notes that Dick Stewart has died.
Dick Stewart published books and articles about crime as R.F.Stewart. One of his articles for CADS discussed the 50s novelist George Bellairs, and his archive at Manchester’s John Rylands Library; I found the article so fascinating that I visited the library and spent a fascinated afternoon reading Bellairs’ correspondence, and realising that writers of the past had much the same anxieties as those of the present, and probably those of the future.
All Dick Stewart’s writing was distinguished by a keen intelligence (he worked for many years at Manchester University), as well as laconic wit and a taste for the out-of-the-ordinary. My choice of Forgotten Book that does not deserve to be forgotten is And Always a Detective…, first published in 1980.
Sub-titled ‘Chapters on the History of Detective Fiction’, the book is a quirky and meandering survey of early detective fiction, that is as enjoyable to dip into randomly as it is to read from cover to cover. His knowledge of pre-Holmesian mysteries was very extensive, and generally he preferred Victorian fiction to present day mysteries. I notice that his book is one of the relatively few titles to appear in the select bibliography at the back of P.D.James’ recently published Talking About Detective Fiction – quite a compliment. Among many other things, I like the sentence in Dick’s bio note on the inside back cover: ‘He has one wife and six children, despite whom this book was written.’ In my mind, I can hear him saying it in that considered Scots accent of his.
I featured Dick Stewart in this blog in July last year – almost exactly a year to the day before his death. I’d called in at his home in south Manchester and bought some crime reference books from him – including one or two fascinating titles that I shall talk about in future posts. As usual, he and his wife Liz were most hospitable. I certainly didn’t imagine that I would never see him again, and I shall remember him with affection and respect.
Thursday, 10 December 2009
One of my must-read blogs is Petrona’s, and a typically interesting post a while back reminded me of a thriller writer who was a huge star in the 1970s, and who is not remembered often enough today. As a teenager, I was a fan for years of Alistair MacLean, until his later books began to seem very samey, and then I read a few by Desmond Bagley, before concentrating my attention on whodunits.
Bagley was, arguably, second only to MacLean among British thriller writers of the time. My late father was very keen on Bagley’s books, and encouraged me to read him. I agreed with his verdict that Running Blind was an excellent story, benefiting from a well-realised setting in Iceland. (Dad also tried to persuade me to take an interest in Wilbur Smith, but his books never appealed to me in the way that Bagley’s did.)
Bagley died at the age of 59, and a highly successful career came to a sad and premature end. Some time after that, I met his widow Joan at a CWA conference in Tunbridge Wells. Joan was a very pleasant woman, and she was a close friend of a friend of mine, Eileen Dewhurst. Eileen stayed with Joan several times at her home in Guernsey, and one of these trips inspired her to write an excellent Guernsey-based novel, Death in Candie Gardens.
I was rather baffled at one point in the conversation, when Joan started talking about someone called Simon. It turned out that this was Desmond Bagley’s real name. But I never asked why he adopted a pseudonym. Sadly, Joan died about a decade ago, but I have discovered that there is a very good website about her husband’s books which pays proper tribute to them both: http://www.desmondbagley.com/
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Ed Gorman, one of the wisest people in the world of crime fiction (read his superb blog and you’ll see why I say that), described it in a recent comment as a ‘timeless question’. Is it a good idea to plan, or outline, one’s crime novel in detail before starting to write it? Or should one just start with a gripping idea, and see where it leads?
Rob Kitchin (who also has a very interesting blog) commented that he is not a planner, and that he takes a different approach with his fiction compared to his academic writing. Having written eight non-fiction books myself, I can empathise with that. When writing a non-fiction book, it’s (usually) imperative to know where you are going. And publishers tend to want to know too, before they commit to commissioning you.
I participated in a panel some time back where a gifted author proclaimed that he didn’t plan at all. A few days later, I had a chat with him and his wife at another function – and his wife reckoned he did plan in quite a lot of detail! So you never know.
The extent to which I plan does vary from book to book. So does the extent to which I stick to my original plan once I’ve started writing. Take My Breath Away was 150,000 words in its first incarnation, but the published version was 85,000 words long. I certainly didn’t plan that.
The most interesting exercise I had in dealing with unplanned fiction was when I completed The Lazarus Widow by the late Bill Knox. Bill didn’t plan at all. But it did leave everyone in a quandary when he died tragically and unexpectedly in the middle of writing the book. Though, I hasten to add, that sad story isn’t in itself a reason to start planning if it is not the writing method that works for you. The answer to the timeless question is, I think, that there is no right answer – it really is a question of what suits the individual.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
It’s trite to say that writing is a solitary occupation, but it’s usually true. However, there is more scope for collaborative writing than is often appreciated, and I must say that I very much enjoy writing in collaboration, and I've written several books (including one novel, The Lazarus Widow) with one or more other writers. After all, if it worked for Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney and Bacharach and David, why can’t it work with novels?
In the crime genre, there have been quite a few notable writing teams over the years. Two cousins working together made the name of Ellery Queen famous, while in Britain, the names Manning Coles and Francis Beeding concealed pairs of writers. In the 60s and 70s, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo wrote the Martin Beck series, while in the States, two female writers combined to produced the finance-based Emma Lathen mysteries. Behind the pseudonyms of Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge and Q. Patrick hid Hugh Wheeler – better known later for his work on musicals – and a variety of associates. Dick Francis collaborated with his wife Mary on his racing thrillers, although her name did not appear on the books – it’s different now that he is writing with his son.
Nowadays there are plenty of examples of writing teams. Nicci French is a notable husband and wife pairing, while Charles Todd writes with his mother Caroline. There are even crime writing twins – the Mulgray Twins.
‘Round-robin’ novels involve an especially elaborate form of collaboration, where a story is told by a succession of different authors. The Detection Club’s The Floating Admiral is a very famous example, but there are plenty of others, including a 19th century curiosity, The Fate of Fenella, whose contributors include Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. Intriguingly enough, I was asked a while back to contribute to a round-robin novel. Whether it will see the light of day, I’m not sure – but it’s an appealing idea.
Monday, 7 December 2009
I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips to prove it, but I suspect that, commercially, The Coffin Trail is my most successful book to date. It’s often the case that the first book in a series is an author’s most popular, even if later books are ‘better’ in various respects. Many readers like to start with the first in a series, so it’s likely – all other things being equal – that sales of that title will be highest.
Another reason why The Coffin Trail did well was that it reached the shortlist of six for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Prize for best crime novel of 2006. The award ceremony at the Harrogate Festival that year was hugely enjoyable, even though I realised from the outset that, given the shortlist included Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stephen Booth and Susan Hill, it wasn’t likely that I’d carry off the prize.
For some time, though, The Coffin Trail has been out of print in the UK. Good that it's sold out, but still very frustrating! So I’m truly delighted to say that Allison & Busby will be reissuing it, to coincide with the publication of the fourth book in the series, The Serpent Pool.
What is more, they have decided to go for new cover artwork, and I’m very pleased with it. Here is a preview.
Incidentally, I’m sometime asked which of my own books are personal favourites. They are: Yesterday’s Papers, The Devil in Disguise, Waterloo Sunset, Dancing for the Hangman and now The Serpent Pool. As for The Coffin Trail, I’m thrilled that it is about to have a fresh lease of life.
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster, is one of the most gripping thriller movies I’ve seen in quite a while. It originally came out in 2002, but I missed it then. The excellent reviews convinced me it was a film I had to see, and the reviews were right (it isn’t always the case, of course!)
The central idea is simple. Foster, recently split from her rich husband, and with a troublesome teenage daughter in tow, acquires a tall house in Manhattan that has its own panic room – in effect, a steel safe room where the householder can hide in the event of some form of unwelcome intrusion. It’s inaccessible, and equipped with a range of CCTV screens monitoring different parts of the house.
On her first night in her new home, Foster is disturbed by the arrival of three burglars. She flees with her daughter into the panic room – only to find that what the intruders want is inside the panic room itself.
The claustrophobic atmosphere is very well done, and director David Fincher piles on the tension with gusto. There are several heart-stopping moments, and the interplay between the ‘hostages’ and the intruders is cunningly manipulated. This isn’t a film with layers of sophisticated meaning – there isn’t much about the shortcomings of a society where panic rooms are necessary bolt-holes for the rich, for instance. But judged as a straightforward thriller, it ranks high. And above all, it is memorable for Foster’s performance. She is very good indeed. It’s hard to believe that the part was originally intended for Nicole Kidman.
Saturday, 5 December 2009
Chester is a marvellous city, brimming with history. As a small boy, I used to love visits there, especially when I had the chance to walk along the Roman walls. I’ve spent most of my life living within easy reach of the place, and I’m not quite sure why I don’t visit it more often. Lack of time is the only excuse. But last night I had the chance to return to Chester, for my final Victorian Murder Mystery event of the year.
It was a good evening, all the more so because the week which led up to it had quite a few stressful moments. But one of the pleasures for me of detective fiction is the opportunity that it affords for escapism, and last night I was delighted to have the chance to meet crime fans and other readers, as well as the amiable staff of Chester Library.
One member of the audience asked why I don’t set my books in Cheshire, given that it’s the county I know best. My off the cuff answer was that Cheshire is far too peaceful a place for murder and mayhem, but of course one only has only to think of fictional Midsomer to realise that rural settings are very far from murder-free. And of course I write the Lake District Mysteries, set in a county that on the surface is even quieter than Cheshire.
I was invited to Chester by Debbie Owen, who was involved with my first production of Who Killed George Hargrave? at Ellesmere Port – I can hardly believe that it was five years ago. Since then I’ve taken the event around the country, and I continue to find it a fun way of spending an evening. For as long as audiences continue to give great feedback on the mystery, I aim to keep running. And perhaps to write another.
Friday, 4 December 2009
The second edition of Detective Fiction: the Collector’s Guide, by John Cooper and B.A. Pike, appeared in 1994. Sadly, no third edition has ever seen the light of day, so I think this splendid volume qualifies for inclusion in Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books.
Splendid on two levels, I think. First, there is a concise account of the work of each of the authors featured, and these short essays are invariably packed with insight. Second, the book reproduces the cover artwork from many Golden Age classics – sometimes in full colour – and some of the covers are quite entrancing. Collecting crime fiction has a great deal of appeal for me - which is why I've devoted a page on my website to it - and reading what Cooper and Pike have to say has, over the years, deepened my enthusiam for the pastime.
There is a great deal of bibliographic information, and the emphasis of the book is unashamedly on the classic whodunit- books that can be described as hard-boiled, thrillers or psychological suspense novels are largely ignored. So it is, inevitably, highly selective – but were it otherwise, a huge tome would need to be assembled, and the production costs would be prohibitive (I suspect that’s why there has never been a third edition.) A few current high-flyers are, however, included: for instance, Ann Cleeves, and it’s interesting to remember, given Ann’s relatively recent rise to international prominence, that by 1993 she had published no fewer than ten novels. More unexpected, perhaps, is the inclusion of Patricia D. Cornwell.
One of the great benefits of reading the book, I’ve found, is that it has introduced me to a range of writers I hadn’t come across before. James Fraser is a case in point, and Cooper and Pike are so enthusiastic that I’ve bought a few of his books although unfortunately I haven’t had time to read any of them yet. This is a book that gives me a great deal of pleasure whenever I dip into it, and I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of the whodunit.
Thursday, 3 December 2009
Agatha Christie was not just the best-selling novelist of all time. She also achieved, among other things, extraordinary success as a playwright. Some of her plays were based on novels, or short stories, while others were originated for the stage.
Her final play was written for the theatre, and it has a special significance for me. As my 16th birthday approached, my parents discovered that a new Christie play was to be performed in Manchester. And because they knew of my passion for Christie, I was therefore taken to the Palace Theatre to see it as a birthday treat.
The play was called Fiddlers Five. It starred Colin Bean, best known as Private Sponge, a supporting character from ‘Dad’s Army’ and nobody else of any note at all, so far as I can remember. I was rather baffled by the play. It seemed to be intended to be a sort of comedy, and the mystery complications took ages to develop. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not a great play with a great plot, and that was a surprise and a disappointment.
I wasn’t alone in my dubious reaction. In fact, most critics were less kind. Christie re-wrote the play as Fiddlers Three, but it doesn’t seem to have effected much of an improvement. It never reached the West End. John Curran devotes some space to Christie’s planning of the play in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and it seems she started work on it as early as 1958. But he is right to describe it as ‘a sad curtain call’. Apparently, it’s never even been published.
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Guilty as Sin is a 1993 movie directed by Sidney Lumet, whose CV includes such notable ‘legal world’ films as 12 Angry Men and The Verdict. Guilty as Sin is not in the same league, but even so, I thought it was pretty effective entertainment.
The stars are both very good-looking – Rebecca De Mornay and Don Johnson. De Mornay plays a hot-shot criminal defence lawyer, while Johnson is a manipulative womaniser accused of throwing his rich wife out of a window. De Mornay unwisely succumbs to his pleading that she represent him, and spends the rest of the film regretting it.
I’m not a trial lawyer, and in particular I’m not familiar with the American legal system, but with this movie, as with many others, there were aspects of the story that stretched my credulity. Would a judge really have forced De Mornay to continue representing Johnson when she wanted to back out – and wouldn’t her bosses have fielded some other advocate when Johnson suggested that the two of them were having an affair?
But once disbelief was suspended, I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot, even if the finale was rather abrupt. It’s certainly never a hardship to watch a film starring Rebecca De Mornay, and although this wasn’t one of Lumet’s masterpieces, it demonstrated his ability to tell an entertaining story.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Sheila Quigley is a fellow member of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, and someone I always enjoy bumping into at social events and conventions. I first met her not long after she’d hit the headlines, when her first two books were sold by her agent for a very large sum. According to one article on the internet, the figure was £3 million, but I suspect this is a misprint, and an extra zero was added by mistake! Even so, £300,000 (if that was the right figure) is a fabulous two-book contract, the sort of achievement most of us can only dream about.
One of the things that made Sheila’s personal story so newsworthy was her background. She started work at 15 in her native North East, as a tailor’s presser. She married at 18 and now has nine grandchildren. But fame and fortune haven’t changed her – she has lived on the same estate for 30 years.
Sheila has spoken in public of how health problems, including cataract operations, a couple of years ago set her back a bit, but I’m delighted to see that she has made a good recovery, and has just published a new novel. She’s changed publisher, and is now with an outfit I haven’t come across before, called Tonto Books, who are based in the North East. And Tonto really have done her proud with a nice looking hardback edition of The Road to Hell.
I’m looking forward to reading the book, which I’m sure will be as gritty as its predecessors. From the blurb, I gather that it’s a story involving a murder which replicates a crime of many years before. And it boasts a front cover quote from Tess Gerritsen, no less – impressive.
Monday, 30 November 2009
Whenever one produces a new book, inevitably one awaits the verdict of readers and reviewers with a mixture of hope and trepidation. It's important, I think, for an author to retain belief in his or her book even if it is not widely appreciated to begin with - but of course, it's much more pleasurable if the early reaction is positive.
I have high hopes of The Serpent Pool, because although I struggled over it at first, later on it felt as though the plot strands had come together in just the way I'd hoped when I started out on chapter one. And the response of my agent and various publishers has been extremely encouraging. Even so, that is no guarantee of good reviews (or any reviews, these days.)
So I'm glad to say that Booklist has given the novel the thumbs-up in advance of publication, and I'm so pleased and relieved that I can't resist recording David Pitt's assessment in full:
'Book lovers, especially fans of nineteenth-century writer and opium addict Thomas de Quincey, will enjoy the latest Lake District mystery. DCI Hannah Scarlett reopens another cold case, this one involving the drowning death, seven years ago, of a young woman. But Hannah is distracted by her personal life, especially by her rocky relationship with book dealer Marc Amos, who is himself rather upset over the death of one his best customers (whose murder-by-fire opens the novel). Meanwhile, Hannah’s friend and sometime sidekick, historian Daniel Kind, is deep into a new book on de Quincey (who was among the first writers to consider murder as the basis of a literary art form), but he, too, soon becomes distracted: his sister thinks she has accidentally killed her lover, who also happens to be a book collector. In his usual leisurely but always compelling way, Edwards pulls together these various plot threads, rewarding the patient reader with a story that is complex and intellectually stimulating. Certainly the most labyrinthine of the Lake District novels, but perhaps also the best.'
Sunday, 29 November 2009
In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran hails Five Little Pigs as the greatest of her ‘murder in the past’ plots. He suggests that it is her most impressive combination of detective and ‘straight’ novel. I agree, though I’d add that some of the books in which she focuses essentially on a creating a complex mystery are even more brilliant. But Five Little Pigs is an impressive book, with more effective characterisation than in much of her work.
Christie often found inspiration for her plots in nursery rhymes, and the ‘five little pigs’ rhyme is there at the beginning – but Curran points out that before the detail of the story took shape, ‘she had considered a different murder method, a different murderer and different suspects.’
Not until she had indulged in a good deal of trial and error did Christie come up with the scenario she eventually chose. And what a chilling scenario it is – with the culprit watching the victim die. It’s much more horrifying, to my mind, than most of the graphic torture scenes so commonly found in modern books about serial killings. I would have assumed it was Christie’s starting point for the story, but far from it.
Writers like me can learn a lot from seeing how Christie played around with ideas, trying them out for size, discarding many plot twists that had superficial appeal in favour of alternatives that worked more effectively in the particular context. It’s a reminder that writing involves endless revision – and not just once one has completed the first draft.
I don’t work in the same way as Christie, but I empathise with many of her methods. When writing The Serpent Pool, I struggled over one aspect of the story for a long time. At a late stage, a way forward occurred to me. I am fairly confident that when people read the book, that late twist will seem fundamental to the whole story. As soon as it struck me, it felt ‘right’. But I confess – it did take an awfully long time to strike me!
Saturday, 28 November 2009
Borders UK has gone into administration, and I’m sorry to hear it. We need all the bookshops we can get, and I have a soft spot for several of the Borders stores – and not just because they have often stocked my titles in gratifying quantities (surely, though, that can’t be why the business has run into trouble?)
The very first Murder Squad event, way back in 2000, was held at a Borders store in Ellesmere Port. I remember it very fondly – in the nine years our collective of Northern crime writers has been going, the seven founder members haven’t all appeared together that many times. But it was a good evening, and not long after, we all appeared at the Borders store in John Baker’s York.
Here’s a confession, though. Not every Borders event I’ve attended has been quite so successful. I recall one event with Kate Ellis and Chris Simms – two first-rate writers – where the turn-out was thin (and if you discounted those who were friends of Kate’s, it was very, very thin!). But even then, we had a good time, not least in the pub afterwards. It was my first meeting with Chris, and I’ve been pleased to see his career take off in a big way since. He’s currently working on an interesting short story project with which I am likely to become involved – more news about this at a future date.
I can only hope that the business can be salvaged, and that those large and appealing stores don’t disappear altogether. Of course, like many writers, I have an especially soft spot for smaller independent bookshops. But there are some marvellous people working for the chains, and it would be really sad if many jobs were lost as a result of Borders’ inability to withstand the pressures of the modern book-selling market.
Friday, 27 November 2009
I can never resist a book with a truly intriguing premise, and The Last of Philip Banter boasts one of the best, making it a worthy entrant in Patti Abbot's catalogue of Forgotten Books. It is one of three novels of psychological suspense which John Franklin Bardin wrote between 1946 and 1948, and although they did not attract too much attention at the time, the advocacy of that great critic Julian Symons ensured that they reached a wider readership over the years.
Symons seems to have managed to persuade Penguin Books to put together The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus (to which he contributed an introduction) in 1976. I was a student at the time and this was one of the few books, other than pricey legal textbooks, that I bought, rather than borrowed from a library. I definitely was not disappointed. The Deadly Percheron and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly are, perhaps, more admired than The Last of Philip Banter, but nevertheless it is the less celebrated book for which I have an especially soft spot.
Philip Banter is an advertising man with marriage trouble and a drink problem. He finds a typed manuscript on his office desk, apparently typed by himself, which confuses past and future. It describes what is going to happen as though it had happened already. Then the ‘predictions’ start to come true….
It’s a gripping concept, and a fluently written novel. In later years, Bardin (1916-1981) wrote a few more crime novels under pseudonyms, but they didn’t compare in intensity to the three early books. But I share Symons’ admiration for his work.
Thursday, 26 November 2009
I devoured P.D. James’ new book about detective stories with a great deal of enthusiasm, as well as interest. Talking About Detective Fiction is a short book, and naturally, therefore, it cannot compare with some of the much more detailed studies of the genre (my favourite remains Julian Symons’ masterly Bloody Murder, and I was pleased to see that Symons is mentioned more than once by James.) But it is a pleasure to read.
With books of this kind, much critical attention often focuses on the boundaries that the author chooses to draw. Whereas Symons tried to show that the detective story had transformed into the crime novel, James differentiates the detective story both from ‘mainstream fiction and the generality of crime novels’. The difference, she argues, is that detective stories have ‘a highly organised structure and recognised conventions.’ The trouble with generalised dividing lines, of course, is that one can always come up with exceptions to the general rule. But this doesn’t really matter. James, like Symons, offers an assessment of our favourite genre that is articulate and appealing.
This is a highly personal book, and I found James’ references to her own work illuminating. She emphasises, of course, her fascination with settings for murder and explains how, in Original Sin, she tried to ensure that the River Thames exerted ‘a unifying and dominant influence on both the characters and the plot.’
Whenever I have heard James speak, I have been struck by her very agreeable wit – something which is not as evident in her novels, which can be rather bleak in mood. For instance, I liked her comment here about Baroness Orczy’s detective Lady Molly, who has the blokes at Scotland Yard swooning as she hunts for the truth about the murder for which her husband was wrongly convicted: ‘I suspect that Lady Molly’s husband was in no hurry to be liberated from Dartmoor Prison.’ Quite.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
I watched Ian Rankn’s documentary about Robert Louis Stevenson and the writing of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with a good deal of interest. Ian is an effective presenter, and he did a good job in explaining the eternal appeal of this very memorable novella.
So the story goes, Stevenson’s wife reacted negatively to the first draft of the story, so he burned the manuscript. Thankfully, he rewrote it, and in the process created a masterpiece. The idea of the duality of human nature is truly fascinating, and in a short space, Stevenson told a tale so vivid that the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has entered the language.
It’s hard for me to understand why some commentators (apparently Virginia Woolf was one of them) have been dismissive of Stevenson’s literary accomplishments. Despite the fact that his life was short and dogged by ill-health, he produced an extraordinary range of work. As a boy, I loved Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but if he’d written nothing other than The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he would merit a place in a literary hall of fame.
Ian Rankin’s admiration of Stevenson’s imaginative power shone through the programme. It’s an admiration that I share.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
I was amazed, the other day, to chance upon a repeat on ITV3 of an episode of Poirot from 1990 that I hadn’t seen before, and which was set in the Lake District. I couldn’t remember an Agatha Christie story set in the Lakes – despite the fact that she knew Cheshire through her visits to Abney Hall and Marple, I am pretty sure that she wrote fewer stories set in the north of England than in the Middle East.
The story in question was based on ‘Double Sin’, which (in the UK) appears in the posthumous collection entitled Poirot’s Early Cases. The literary Lakes mystery was easily solved – in the original version, the story is set on the south coast of England, with which Dame Agatha was very familiar indeed.
The televised adaptation – written by the late Clive Exton, a first class screenwriter whose work was consistently reliable – benefited considerably from the scenic backdrop. The mystery was slight, involving a scam concerning the sale of valuable Victorian miniatures, but the interplay between Poirot, Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp was done so agreeably that an hour passed by very enjoyably.
As a postscript to this Lake District post, I want to add how shocked and saddened I have been to see the television pictures showing the devastation wrought by floods in parts of Cumbria, including Cockermouth, where Wordsworth lived, and Keswick, where I stayed just a month ago. My heart goes out to those whose lives have been so dreadfully affected.
Monday, 23 November 2009
I’ve been aware that St Deiniol’s Library is something special for many years, but a conversation in Ludlow during the summer set me thinking. A fellow writer who lives in the South of England told me that she’d spent time there working on her novel, and she’d found it a wonderful ‘get away from it all’ place where she could write and research. Given that St Deiniol’s is quite a journey from her home, it was clear that the place must exert a strong pull.
When I was playing about with ideas for my next novel, it struck me that somewhere like St Deiniol’s might provide a good background.for a few scenes. So it was about time I had a look at the place, even if I meant to transplant a fictionalised version of it to the Lake District. And I’m very glad I did.
Let me explain. St Deiniol’s Library is tucked away in the small Welsh town of Hawarden, not far from the border with my home county, Cheshire. It was founded in 1889 by William Ewart Gladstone, the legendary politician who served as Prime Minister no fewer than four times. Gladstone came from Hawarden and he donated his own massive book collection to get it off the ground, though he didn’t live to see the project completed.
It’s now a remarkable – I’m tempted to say, unique - place, with a wonderful book collection that has an emphasis on scholarship and religious studies. The interior of the library is marvellously atmospheric, but there is more - you can actually stay there overnight! For St Deiniol’s is a residential library which accommodates visitors at a remarkably modest price. There’s not only a pleasant restaurant but a lovely drawing room where you can read to your heart’s content in peace and quiet. Conferences take place regularly – one on creative writing next spring, I noticed - and there are plans to build an Islamic studies reading room.
I only had time for a short visit to St Deiniol’s, but I was seriously impressed. I will be back, for sure.
Sunday, 22 November 2009
Everywhere you look in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran, there are insights into the thought processes of an extraordinary writer that I find truly fascinating. One of the points that emerges very clearly is that good plots do not necessarily come into a writer’s mind fully formed. They often evolve over time.
This is something I needed to learn as a young writer. When, in my twenties, I wanted to write a murder mystery, I was daunted by the challenge of dreaming up a complex plot. Only when I realised that you can build up your story bit by bit did I really make progress.
A good example of the Christie technique is provided by her notes on The ABC Murders, which I believe is one of the finest whodunits ever written, with a central device that has been borrowed by many later writers (including several of real distinction.) It turns out that Christie flirted with the idea of having the murderer as one of the supposed victims of a serial killer. She pondered having a house party in the story – there isn’t one in the book. And, remarkably, her early notes make no mention of the alphabetical sequence which is at the heart of the novel. This seems to have occurred to her later.
It turns out that the first ‘A’ murder was originally due to take place in Aberystwyth, a resort I know and like. But for some reason she changed her mind and shifted the crime to Andover. It was left to Malcolm Pryce to make Aberystwyth a name to be reckoned with in crime fiction….
Saturday, 21 November 2009
I’ve never had any dealings with the publishers Robert Hale, but I am full of admiration for the way in which they have achieved the publication of all the previously uncollected short stories by that wonderful writer Michael Gilbert.
The latest book of Gilbert stories has just landed on my doorstep, courtesy of Tangled Web UK, for whom I shall be reviewing the collection. It’s called The Murder of Diana Devon and Other Mysteries, and it’s been edited by John Cooper (co-author of a wonderful book about collecting detective fiction which I’d love to see reissued and brought up to date.)
Cooper says in his introduction that Gilbert ‘was one of the greatest crime writers to emerge after World War II’. He was awarded the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger and both the Mystery Writers of America and the Swedish Academy of Detection honoured him as a Grand Master. He published 30 novels and no fewer than 185 short stories, all of which have now been gathered together in 14 volumes.
Gilbert was a fluent and varied writer, and although Smallbone Deceased is widely regarded as his masterpiece, many of his other novels can still be read with enormous pleasure. I’ve mentioned some of them on this blog over the last couple of years. He was equally adept at the short form, and I’m anticipating The Murder of Diana Devon with a great deal of pleasure.
Friday, 20 November 2009
One of the more successful British crime writers of the 1980s was B.M. Gill. She was a CWA Gold Dagger winner, yet her name is seldom mentioned today, and I think her 1981 title Victims is an eminently suitable entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. She was a novelist who eschewed personal publicity, and this may account for the undeserved neglect of her work.
B.M. Gill was the pseudonym used by Barbara Margaret Trimble, who also wrote as Margaret Blake. Born in 1921, she began her crime writing career with a thriller, Target Westminster, which I haven’t read and which wasn’t conspicuously successful, but she found her feet with a sound psychological suspense novel set in a school and called Death Drop.
Victims followed. It introduces DCI Tom Maybridge, a likeable cop who returned in some of Gill’s later books. The focus of the story is on the apparent persecution of a neurosurgeon called Paul McKendrick. Three people who are associated with him are murdered – but is McKendrick the principal target?
Victims reads well to this day. It offers a good combination of detection and psychological suspense, and it’s not surprising that Gill’s writing sometimes prompted comparisons with P.D.James. She proceeded to win the CWA Gold Dagger for The Twelfth Juror, while Seminar for Murder (in which Maybridge attends a crime fiction seminar) is very enjoyable.
Unfortunately, her last crime novel, The Fifth Rapunzel, appeared as long ago as 1991, and since then, she has completely blipped off the radar. A fellow admirer tried to find out from her publishers some time ago what had happened to her, but answer came there none. All I can say is that B.M.Gill’s career may have been relatively short, but it demonstrated real accomplishment.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
There’s a dilemma that authors face whenever they go into a bookshop (and, naturally, they go into bookshops as often as they can! Should they check to see if their own latest book is in stock?
You might think this is a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t one check? But it can be rather demoralising to keep finding that your titles are nowhere to be seen! One can always console oneself (using a bit of writer’s imagination) that perhaps the shop ordered heavily and sold out quickly. But in that case, why are they so many best-sellers still left on the shelves?
There are subsidiary questions. If one’s book is nowhere to be seen, should the reaction be to ask the store manager why? Or ring the publisher with one more complaint? Tempting, possibly, but neither is a good way to win friends and influence people.
And what if the book is there? Should one march up to the shop staff and offer to sign the stock? Admittedly, I ask all these questions with tongue in cheek. But I think it’s true that writers tend (big generalisation, I know there are many exceptions) to be rather reticent people whose morale can be fragile. Amongst the many pleasures of bookshop visiting, then, there are one or two potential pitfalls.
And no, I don’t usually introduce myself when I visit bookshops, even though some friends have recommended that I should routinely do so. When The Serpent Pool finally comes out next February, should I be braver?
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Adapting crime fiction into successful television is a task that demands a great deal of skill. This is all the more so when you are talking about humorous crime fiction. Humour on the page doesn’t always translate effectively on to the screen – and humorous television can also become dated very quickly.
With this in mind, I started watching my new box set of Murder Most English with a degree of trepidation. This is the series based on Colin Watson’s deservedly acclaimed Flaxborough Chronicles. I missed it when it was first shown during my student days, so I wanted to see what I had missed.
The first episode is Hopjoy was Here – I covered the book in a favourable review a few months back. The screenplay was written by Richard Harris – not the actor, but a highly experienced tv scriptwriter, whose many credits include Adam Adamant Lives! The Avengers, Shoestring and Outside Edge. The lead detective role was taken by the late Anton Rodgers, backed up by a young Christopher Timothy.
Unfortunately, I was rather underwhelmed by the show. Rodgers and Timothy do a likeable job, but some of the acting of the supporting cast, including the prime suspect and the forensic pathologist, struck me as sub-optimal, to put it kindly. That trepidation seems justified. I will, though, give the other episodes a try.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
I’ve already expressed my enthusiasm for John Curran’s analysis of Agatha Christie’s plotting notebooks. One of the many insights that fascinated me is the way in which Christie played around with ideas, sometimes for years, before coming up with an approach to a story that satisfied her.
Something that Christie’s critics foolishly overlook when they dismiss her as a ‘cosy’ writer whose characters were ‘cardboard cut-outs’ is her determination to experiment, and to push the boundaries of the whodunit. Her originality of approach is one of the explanations for her enormous success. Curran rightly points out, for instance, that relatively few of her novels are set in the cosy English villages with which she is so often associated. Her range of settings was remarkable.
One of her most interesting ideas was to set a murder mystery in Ancient Egypt. Death Comes as the End is in some ways a flawed book, although I do like it. I was intrigued to learn from Curran that Christie toyed with a number of different possible culprits.
But most intriguing of all is the revelation that Christie toyed with having a modern day story running in parallel to the ancient one. Shades of Possession or The French Lieutenant’s Woman – but this is not a concept that (so far as I know) has ever been adopted in a murder mystery. It’s a great idea, and someone really ought to give it a crack, even though Christie didn’t. I’m almost tempted myself….
Monday, 16 November 2009
As I’ve mentioned in responding to comments on my post on Saturday, I share the view that the links between crime fiction and science fiction are very strong. A long list of the fine writers who have worked in both genres includes Isaac Asimov, John Sladek, Fredric Brown, and John Wyndham (though Wyndham seems to have given up on detective fiction once the Golden Age had passed.)
I was reminded of the crossover between genres by the TV special of Doctor Who which was screened last night. The Waters of Mars, in which the excellent David Tennant was paired with Lindsay Duincan, saw the Doctor land on the red planet and become embroiled in a disastrous confrontation between the first human settlers on the planet and dark, water-based forces from Ancient Mars which were hell-bent on taking over the incomers. In a nice joke, the settlers occupy Bowie Base One – a nod to the composer of that marvellous song ‘Life on Mars.’
In the last series of Doctor Who, my favourite episode featured Agatha Christie, and countless quips based on the titles of Christie’s detective novels. Here, the focus of the story was on psychological suspense, with a classic race against time. The Doctor knows that the settlers are about to die, on the very day he lands on Mars, and he fears that he can do little or nothing to save them. But might the course of history be changed in any event – and what is to happen to the Doctor himself?
The writers of The Waters of March did a good job of ratcheting up the tension – a skill required of both sci-fi and crime writers. Less time than usual was devoted to the internal anguish of the characters, a feature of the modern Doctor Who stories which sometimes slows down the action. At its best, Doctor Who is a terrific show, and The Waters of March was one of the most compelling and sharply written episodes I’ve watched for some time.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
This year has been rather strange in some ways, not least because I haven’t published a brand new novel. My last book came out just before the end of 2008, and The Serpent Pool will appear next February. But I have had some overseas publications to celebrate, and I’m pleased that Dancing for the Hangman will appear under the Five Star imprint on 9 December.
I know that I’m very fortunate, in the current climate, to have books published by two American publishers. While Poisoned Pen Press have done a fantastic job in bringing out, and publicisng, the Lake District Mysteries, and Waterloo Sunset, Five Star published the first two Harry Devlins as well as the new book about the misadventures of Dr Crippen.
The reviews of Dancing in the UK were great, and the first American review has just appeared, in advance of publication. Booklist calls it ‘a clever reappraisal of the case’ and concludes: ‘Alternately funny and unsettling, the book examines the historical record, filling in some of the gaps and offering up new answers for some of the case’s key questions. An excellent example of the nonfiction novel.’
You can never be sure how reviewers will react to a book, however much you care about it and believe in it. Dancing is very different from my other novels, but it is a book which I am particularly proud to have written, and so it’s all the more pleasing that the critical response has been so positive.
Saturday, 14 November 2009
The overlapping territory between stories with a sci-fi or paranormal element and crime fiction is one that interests me a good deal. I mentioned a while back the vampiric elements that I introduced into the seventh Harry Devlin novel, First Cut is the Deepest – although the murder mystery there had a solution based entirely in the rational world.
But sometimes stories about murder wander away from the established science and into realms of speculative fiction. An example is ‘Bad Blood’, an episode from ‘The X Files’ that I’ve just watched. It’s a story set mainly in a tiny community called Chaney, somewhere in Texas. Half a dozen cattle have been killed and exsanguinated, and when murder is done, Mulder and Scully are called in. But is there a vampire at work, or do the crimes have a different explanation?
Matters are complicated by the fact that we know from the start that Mulder has killed a young man, whom he thought was a vampire, and the events leading up to this are seen first through Scully’s eyes and then through Mulder’s. After the flashbacks, the story moves forward, and it becomes apparent that all in Chaney is not as it seems.
There are several elements in this story that have links with crime fiction – there are some neat clues, and one part of the plot reminded me of a book by Val McDermid. This is not, in the end, so much a crime story as an exercise in fantasy fiction. But it’s a pretty good story, cleverly told.
Friday, 13 November 2009
I’m fairly confident that few readers of this blog will be familiar with my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books – even though it dates back only as far as 1974, and its author died just nine years ago, not too long after publishing his final novel. The book I’ve chosen is Woman at Risk, the author is Miles Tripp.
Tripp qualified as a solicitor after serving in the RAF during the war, and he produced no fewer than 37 novels, 14 of them featuring a private eye called John Samson. During the 1970s, I had a phase of enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve blogged previously about a very unusual novel of psychological suspense of his called Five Minutes with a Stranger.
Woman at Risk is a very different, possibly unique, novel. I don’t want to say too much about its structure, because that would spoil some of the surprises in store for anyone who cares to read it. In a nutshell, it’s a short but clever novel, with a number of quite remarkable twists.
On the face of it, the story is about a rather selfish solicitor called Robert, whose wife mysteriously disappeared three years ago. He is a workaholic and his social life is confined to a regular Friday evening get-together in a pub with three other men. But he starts an affair with the wife of a client, and in the first few pages of the story, the woman dies in his house. In a panic, he decides to bury her body in a wood. Suffice to say that this is not a wise decision, and that his sins are bound to find him out. But what his sins are, and how they are found out, are questions to which few readers will guess the answers at an early stage of this ingenious narrative.
There’s just a hint of Boileau and Narcejac about some of the melodramatic touches in this novel, and I really enjoyed devouring it. I picked up my copy by chance from a catalogue issued by that very good bookseller, Jamie Sturgeon of Littlehampton. I was attracted by Tripp’s inscription in this copy to a policeman friend. He says that ‘Anglia TV bought the TV rights of this book but couldn’t get a suitable script written.’ This puzzled me, until I realised how the complexity of the story might well defeat a script writer. To find out what I mean, you’ll have to read the book – and if you do, I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession plays a part in the story-line of The Serpent Pool. It was a pleasure to give a nod to a book that I greatly admired when I first read it, not long after it won the Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize.) The novel is splendidly written, for sure, but it also tells a really good story – and there are some very well written books which don’t really do that as effectively as one might wish.
There’s a lot of debate about literary snobbery, and the reasons, or supposed reasons, why crime novels never seem to get close to winning the Man Booker. I don’t think crime writers should be overly sensitive about this sort of thing, but I do believe that there are some crime novels which deserve serious consideration when the best books of the year are ranked. Perhaps more serious consideration than they have actually received over the years.
It’s ironic that people doubt whether ‘genre’ novels are worthy of being classed as high-quality fiction, given that publishers are often keen to brand ‘literary’ novels as ‘detective stories’, no doubt in the hope that this will broaden their appeal to the reading public.
Possession, certainly, is a book that can be described as a kind of detective story. A young researcher called Roland Michell teams up with an academic, Maud Bailey, as they hunt for the mysterious truth behind the relationship between poet Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Byatt ensures that interest never flags as the story unfolds. I don’t know if she has any aspiration to write an out-and-out detective story; perhaps not. But I bet she could write a very good one, if she wanted.