Saturday 28 February 2009

The London Mystery Magazine

I’ve heard of The London Mystery Magazine, but had never read it until the other day. For a long time I’ve been hunting for an ‘impossible crime’ short story by Peter Antony, and finally Bob Adey, the greatest of all experts on locked room mysteries, supplied me with a copy – which appeared in the LMM.

LMM was a quarterly publication and this particular issue was number 16. This issue was the first to appear under the house flag of Norman Kark Publications, and it included a foreword by Norman’s son, Austen Kark. Now, the name of Austen Kark was later to become well-known for a number of reasons, one of them tragic. Born in 1926, he became a prominent figure in the BBC, notably at the World Service. In 1954 he married for the second time, his wife being that very successful writer Nina Bawden. (Bawden wrote a couple of detective stories in the Fifties, incidentally; I’ve read The Odd Flamingo, which is atmospheric though now rather dated.) And, at the age of 75, he was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash; his widow, seriously injured in the same disaster, wrote a memoir Dear Austen, in which she inveighed against the failures that contributed to the tragedy.

In his foreword, Austen Kark set out the manifesto of LMM: ‘’We hope to present to our readers the best of the several genres which congregate under the banner of Mystery.’

Issue 16 contained reviews (sometimes scathing in tone – even the great Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr, gets a real hammering), articles and stories. Contributors included such major names as John Collier and Gerald Kersh. And there was a fact piece about an 18th century murder case from a young barrister and novelist called Anthony Shaffer. Shaffer went on to write the classic detective puzzle Sleuth, and that masterpiece of horror The Wicker Man. But he was also one half of Peter Antony – more about him another day.

Friday 27 February 2009

Forgotten Book - Death and Transfiguration

One of the reasons that Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books appeals to me is that it offers a chance not only to come up with ‘hidden gems’ of the genre, but also, quite often, with authors who have slipped off the radar but who do not deserve such a fate.

In that list, I’d include Stephen Murray, creator of DCI Alec Stainton, and author of, by my count, seven crime novels, of which the last to be published was Death and Transfiguration, which appeared in 1994. I’d hazard a guess that most readers of this blog are not familiar with Murray’s name, but when I started out in crime writing, he was already becoming established as one of the youngest and most promising writers whose work came out under the legendary imprint of Collins Crime Club. He is much the same age as me, but struck me as likely to be more of a high flier, and he’d taken the courageous step of giving up his day job as a surveyor to write full-time. I was never brave enough to do the same and give up the law, but I got to know Stephen and his family (the Muirray surname was a pseudonym), and we met quite often at events organised by the northern chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.

All the Murray books are solid, literate, readable mysteries, and Stainton is a likeable fellow, if not someone to set the pulse racing too fast. Death and Transfiguration was, I felt at the time, Murray’s best book, not least because DS Liz Pink played a prominent role, and she was a character of great potential.

In this book, a philanderer called Crossland goes missing, having abandoned his car on Stainton’s turf. Meanwhile, a serial killer called the Carver is wreaking havoc. Suspicions grow that Crossland and the Carver are one and the same.

Regrettably, this was the last crime novel that Stephen Murray had published. The Crime Club imprint disappeared, and he seems to have found it difficult to stay in the game. I included a very good short story he wrote, ‘Landfall’, in a CWA anthology called Crime on the Move, in the hope this would attract publishers to his writing, but so far it doesn’t seem to have happened.

A pity. He is a good writer, and his books, in particular Death and Transfiguration, should not be forgotten. Fifteen years ago, he kindly inscribed my copy of the book ‘To another rising star’. I still hope that Stephen’s star will rise again in the crime firmament.

Thursday 26 February 2009

Dancing again

Over the years, a number of my books have been reprinted. It’s quite a morale boost when this happens, so when Flambard Press told me that Dancing for the Hangman was to be reprinted, I was delighted. Then came the news that the printers had gone bust, victims of the economic meltdown. Aaaaagh!

Happily, another firm has now printed the book, and I finally received my copy of the reprint yesterday. And this gives me an excuse – or at least, all the excuse I need –to reproduce the basic artwork used for the cover (though my lack of know-how prevents me re-sizing it adequately...)

Rightly or wrongly, covers matter to a book. I’ve been fascinated in recent times to see how many cover images are actually used on several different crime novels. A number have been featured on those excellent blogs The Rap Sheet and Eurocrime, and I’ve been amazed that publishers of best-selling writers have shown such a lack of originality. (Incidentally, Jeff Kingston Pierce of The Rap Sheet has another blog called Killer Covers which is packed with interesting info and images on the subject of covers.)

For Dancing with the Hangman, Flambard chose an image marketed by an outfit called Art Evolution. It is ‘Sand Ridge’, by Harry Hall. The first time I saw it, I was mystified. No Edwardian gaslights!! I really wasn’t too impressed. But the more I have looked at the image, the more it has grown on me. Quite insidious. In the end, I became so partial to it that I bought a framed print of the image, which Harry was kind enough to inscribe for me, and it now hangs on the wall at home.

Wednesday 25 February 2009


Until I saw Hitman, I’d only watched one film based on a game. That was Clue, loosely derived from the excellent board game I know as Cluedo. Now Clue wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but alongside Hitman, it looks rather more like Citizen Kane.

Hitman is based on a computer game, and therefore comes from a world with which I’m unfamiliar. The premise is that a mysterious assassin, known only as Number 47, is destined for bad things from boyhood – and his bald pate is stamped with a bar code, for reasons which escaped me. Number 47 is played by Timothy Olyphant with a doughty relentlessness, but the screenplay defies any serious attempt at subtlety of characterisation. A good actor, Dougary Scott (excellent in a much more intelligent thriller, Enigma) is wasted in a role as a secret agent.

Roughly speaking, Number 47 becomes embroiled in a complicated plot concerning the supposed assassination of Belicoff, the Russian leader – or is the victim Belicoff’s double? A glamorous call girl, who sports a facial tattoo, is involved, and Number 47 becomes enamoured of her, saving her life on more than one occasion. The girl is played by Olga Kurylenko, previously known to me as the exotic Bond girl in Quantum of Solace. In this movie, we see quite a lot of Olga, in more ways than one, but despite her ready availability, Number 47 doesn’t succumb to her charms, In a film full of unbelievable things, this is one of the least credible.

I don’t like giving negative reviews of any book, tv show or film, but I can’t deny that – despite Olga’s lustrous presence – I lost interest in Hitman some time before the end. It is, at best, comic book stuff. When I checked the internet, I found that the Rotten Tomatoes site had given the film a paltry 15% approval rating. This was a relief, frankly. I’d hate to think I was so far out of touch that I’d completely missed the point of a modern masterpiece.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

The Maybrick A to Z

A number of classic true crimes have fascinated me for years. The Crippen case is the obvious example, and yesterday evening I was delighted to read some very positive commentary about Dancing for the Hangman on John Baker's very well-regarded blog. Awaiting me in the post was also a generous article in the Mensa Magazine, which I hope to be able to link to on the website before long.

Among my other favourite real life puzzles is the Maybrick case (especially interesting to me because of its Liverpool setting) and so when I chanced across Christopher Jones’ The Maybrick A to Z a week ago, I couldn’t resist buying a copy. And I've now dipped into it extensively, with pleasurable results. The book is published by Countyvise Press, a small but prolific outfit based on Wirral. The Press produced an anthology of northern crime writing that I put together in the 1990s, and later published my collection of short stories, Where Do You Find Your Ideas? and other stories. But I’d never heard of the Maybrick book until the other day.

Christopher Jones is a deputy head teacher based in Liverpool, the city that was home to James Maybrick and his young American wife Florence. He gives an account of how the couple met and married in 1881, and of the events leading up to James’ mysterious death in 1889. There is an account of the trial – at which Florence was found guilty of poisoning her husband, although she earned a reprieve from the gallows. After serving fifteen years in jail, she was released, and she lived to a ripe old age. But then, in the 1980s, came the sensational discovery of a diary, allegedly written by James, the author of which claimed to be Jack the Ripper.

The combination of these two classic, yet very different, murder cases makes for utterly fascinating reading, and Christopher Jones has done a good deal of research in putting his book together. The format of any A to Z book necessitates some repetition, but on the whole the concept is well-suited to such a complex story. An interesting and worthwhile addition to any true crime library.

Incidentally, this is my 500th post (in 502 days) since I started 'Do you write under your own name?' I'm glad I've kept it ticking over for so long, and I'm very grateful to everyone who has encouraged me to keep going.

Monday 23 February 2009

The Wine of Certitude

The Wine of Certitude would rank high in my list of unenticing book titles, yet – contrary to a fault - I’ve invested in a copy. Why? Because it is a brand new ‘literary biography’, written by David Rooney, of a rather interesting character, Father Ronald Knox.

Knox was a member of a family of high achievers (his brother Edmund, who edited 'Punch', also wrote a very funny skit on detective stories which is not mentioned here.) Ronald converted to Catholicism and became a major figure in the English Catholic literary revival of the first half of last century. He was a prolific writer, but the main attraction of the book to me is the insight it offers into Knox’s role in the Golden Age of English detective fiction.

It seems that the Knox family members were very keen on puzzles and word games (one brother was a master cryptographer ‘in the service of the British government’), and Ronald often compiled acrostics, publishing a book of them in 1924. The detective puzzle offered him a more elaborate kind of intellectual game to play – and the chance of supplementing a meagre priestly salary. In 1926, he produced his debut mystery, The Viaduct Murder, ‘complete with a map of the fictional environs around the murder scene, and a cast of characters who could hardly raise enough three-dimensionality among them to obscure the physical evidence placed before the reader.’

Knox introduced his regular sleuth, the insurance investigator Miles Bredon, in The Three Taps, a more sophisticated whodunit. Rooney regards The Body in the Silo as his best mystery. Knox abandoned writing crime stories after 1937, and it’s interesting to note that some of the most interesting Golden Age writers (Knox, Sayers, Berkeley/Iles and Rupert Penny) had given up the genre by the time the Second World War ended.

Rooney concludes that ‘for stylistic beauty and for ability to evoke the English and Scottish countrysides and manors of the interwar years, Knox had few equals, and his detective fiction would remain enjoyable for that reason alone…The golden age of the English detective story is the richer for his contribution.’

I’ve read Knox’s celebrated short story ‘Solved by Inspection’, but none of the novels – an omission I mean to repair. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's read the novels, and who has any recommendations. There’s also quite a bit more to be said about Knox’s contribution to the Golden Age – this will be the subject of a future post.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Rafe McGregor

I’ve only met Rafe McGregor briefly, but he seems to me to be one of the more interesting new figures to arrive on the crime scene. What strikes me above all is his appreciation and understanding of the traditional aspects of the genre – he’s a great enthusiast for Sherlock Holmes, for instance, and for a while his ezine Cobwebby Bottles covered Sherlockian topics in a very pleasing way.

Rafe is also a prolific blogger, and he reviews crime fiction from time to time – for example, for that very extensive online resource Tangled Web UK But now, I’m delighted to say, he is about to establish himself as a novelist.

I’m very pleased to have received a copy of his debut novel, The Architect of Murder, published by Robert Hale. Hale is a long-established company, traditionally associated with the library market, and in recent years they have quietly brought out some fascinating books. Examples include the final novels and a number of story collections by the late Michael Gilbert – the print run of The Mathematics of Murder was, however, not enough to meet demand, so copies are famously rare and expensive. I’ve never even seen it.

Gilbert was a big name in his day, but it’s good to know that Hale are prepared to bring out the work of new writers such as Rafe. His novel is set at a fascinating time in British history, in the run-up to the coronation of King Edward VII, and I look forward to reading it.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Saturday Selection - Gilbert Adair and Margie Orford

I first encountered Gilbert Adair’s fiction when I read A Closed Book some years ago – it was an intelligent and ingenious spin on the crime genre. More recently, Adair has mined the fertile ground of the classic Golden Age whodunit for two amusing and neatly constructed pastiches, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style. Both featured an agreeable amateur sleuth, Evadene Mount.

Now Evadne has returned in And Then There was No One, sub-titled The Last of Evadne Mount. It involves the murder of a Booker Prize winning novelist during a Sherlock Holmes festival in Switzerland. The Faber blurb is rather witty and pretty much irresistible:

‘It’s a novel like no other, a hall of mirrors, a hole-in-one, a tour de force of stylistic brio and narrative ingenuity, a conjuring act which ends with the conjuror, or author, actually sawing himself in half’.


A little more conventional is the tag-line ‘A killer who won’t stop. An investigator who won’t give up’ which adorns Margie Orford’s first novel Like Clockwork (Atlantic). The author lives in Cape Town, and that is where the story is set. A profiler, Dr Clare Hart, does the detective work and, needless to say, ‘is drawn into the web of a brutal serial killer’. The material may be samey, but Michael Connelly has given the book a very positive blurb, which makes it seem rather tempting.

Friday 20 February 2009

Forgotten Book - The Dust and the Heat

Michael Gilbert was such an important figure in British crime writing, and for so long, that it is hard to think that any of his books might qualify for inclusion in Patti Abbott’s series of ‘forgotten books’. But the sad fact is that memories are short, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that his 1967 stand-alone novel The Dust and the Heat is not widely remembered today.

Yet The Dust and the Heat is a characteristically interesting piece of work, and really rather original. It’s the story of Oliver Nugent, a rather macho figures who moves seamlessly from military service to warfare in the business boardroom, and proves highly effective in deploying in the commercial world the ruthless tactics he learned in the Armoured Corps. But there is a secret in his past which exposes him to the risk of blackmail – and the hunter becomes the prey.

The section of the book called ‘Giulietta v. Lucille’ is one that has long stood out in my memory as containing a clever and witty example of ingenious one-upmanship in the business world, and the book as a whole is crammed with incident and Gilbert’s trademark elegance of prose. I’m sure that Gilbert made very good use in fashioning his plot the experience he’d gained from working as a lawyer in central London, but he was always careful to distance his fictional characters from people in real life – like any good solicitor, he was keen not to be sued.

As in a number of Gilbert books, the ending of this novel is rather downbeat. When I read these novels as a teenager, that seemed to me to be a flaw, but now I recognise it as a sign of his maturity as a story-teller. He was a varied and talented crime novelist, and, although The Dust and the Heat is often overlooked, it is a good showcase for his gifts as a thoughtful entertainer.

Thursday 19 February 2009

A BBC day

Something completely different yesterday – ten hours spent in the unlikely setting of the Trafford Centre, the huge shopping mall on the outskirts of Manchester, surrounded by BBC cameras, microphones and presenters. All very strange, and rather hard work, though certainly interesting.

It wasn’t, unfortunately, anything to do with the BBC filming one of my works of fiction. In fact, they had decided to respond to the economic crisis by taking their ‘Working Lunch’ television show and various radio programmes such as 'Money Matters' out of London, to see how people were coping and arrange for them to be offered help. The idea was to bring together a couple of dozen expert advisers and match an adviser to each problem raised by a member of the public. Most of the advisers were finance people, debt advisers or charity workers who help people with difficulties in a variety of sectors. I was there to offer guidance people who face redundancy, or have other work-related difficulties. (Some years ago, I wrote a book called How To Get the Best Deal From Your Employer, a title which I confidently expect nobody reading this blog will ever have encountered.) Anticipating that ten hours of this would be rather challenging, I invited a colleague, Anne Greenwood, along and was I glad to have back-up.

As it turned out, the questions raised were many and various, and gave me a vivid insight into the difficulties being faced by many people – not just those in debt or out of work, but those who see hard-earned savings being eroded through no fault of their own. All very thought-provoking. I did three BBC interviews in all during the day, although the closest I came to appearing on telly was when the camera panned round the advisers, who were all in the rather quirky setting of a zoo-like pen situated between a department store and a gushing fountain, while a long queue of people with carrier bags and rucksacks full of the paperwork about their problems waited patiently to be seen,

I kept an eye out for BBC drama producers hunting for novels that deserve to be televised, but they’d all stayed at home. Never mind. It was an unusual day, one to remember.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

The Proposition

William Hurt is an actor I’ve admired ever since I came across him in that brilliant movie Body Heat. He was superb as the not very competent lawyer Ned Racine, and in the years that have followed, his acting range has earned him well-deserved acclaim.

In The Proposition, set in Boston in the 1930s (the film came out ten years ago and is not to be confused with an action thriller of the same name), Hurt plays the part of an apparently chilly and very wealthy man called Arthur Barret. Arthur is highly successful and is married to a beautiful writer with feminist inclinations (Madeleine Stowe.) The snag is that Arthur is sterile. He wants an heir and his wife wants to give birth to her own child. So they come up with a proposition – an intelligent young man will be recruited to impregnate Mrs Barret, and paid handsomely on the basis that he has no claim upon the child.

Needless to say, this dodgy arrangement runs into all kinds of trouble. Further complications ensue when a recently appointed priest, played by Kenneth Branagh, starts to take a less than altruistic interest in Arthur’s wife. And it turns out that the priest has a secret of his own to hide.

The story involves a murder, but it would be a stretch to call it a crime movie. From the start, the music very definitely signals that this is not a mystery, and it must be said that the film suffers from a certain lack of pace, even though there are several moments of high drama. But although it wasn’t what I was expecting, I found it a watchable and thought-provoking drama, with acting of high quality.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

The Transporter

Christopher Fowler rated The Transporter as one of his top ten crime films in a recent newspaper piece, and this prompted me to take a look at a movie which was screened in 2002 and has spawned two sequels.

The eponymous ‘transporter’ is Jason Statham, whom I encountered recently in the popular but, to my mind unsatisfactory, Crank. Here he is in excellent form, as Frank Martin, an ex-soldier who earns a very good living in the south of France, transporting people and packages. The film begins with his giving a lift – by way of a frenetic car chase - to a group of bank robbers (who fail to engage him to take them to their next destination, and finish up under arrest.)

Frank is then hired by a villain called ‘Wall Street’ to deliver a package. When the package starts to squirm, he breaks his own rules and, succumbing to curiosity, he opens it up – to discover a gorgeous Chinese girl called Lai. He duly delivers her, but after falling out with his hirer, he rescues her, and a relationship of sorts develops between them.

I enjoyed this film. Yes, it may be described as a bit mindless, but of its kind, it is very well done (Crank is an example of how not to do it) and the pace never relents. The downside is that the plot is rather thin, and there’s not much of an attempt to make it all plausible. ( I never really figured out why Lai was put in the package in the first place – if anyone can explain this, I’d be glad to know.)

If you’re looking for sensitive insight into the human condition, The Transporter is not for you. But I go along with Chris Fowler - as a piece of fast-moving escapism, it’s pretty good.

Monday 16 February 2009

Michael Gilbert

I’ve mentioned Michael Gilbert a few times in this blog, and one of his titles is my ‘forgotten book’ this coming Friday. He’s a writer whom I came across in my teens. My parents liked his books and encouraged me to read him.

They had an ulterior motive, actually. The biographical note in the Gilbert books that Hodder published in those days explained that Gilbert combined a career as a solicitor with his crime writing. He achieved a good deal of success in both fields (he was Raymond Chandler’s solicitor in England, incidentally and a good friend of the great man). At this time my parents were unnerved by my stated ambition to become a crime writer, and naturally wanted me to have a ‘proper job’. When I proved resistant to this, they pointed to Michael Gilbert as an example of someone who wore both hats.

Duly persuaded, I studied law and ultimately became a solicitor. I remained a firm fan of Michael Gilbert’s books and during the 1980s, I persuaded a legal magazine to allow me to write an article about his work. This gave me the chance to interview a man who was something of a hero. I talked to him at length on the telephone and found him as urbane and likeable as his books. He was, too, remarkably and genuinely modest, a man who had spent most of his career in a world where solicitors were not allowed to advertise and in grave trouble if they did so surreptitiously.

After that, we spoke again on various occasions. He encouraged my own writing and was kind enough to provide an extremely positive quote for Eve of Destruction (something he seldom, if ever, did for other writers, and something of which I am rather proud). In later years he allowed me to reprint some of his classic short stories for CWA anthologies and shared with me his disappointment at the lack of critical attention given to The Queen against Karl Mullen, one of his last books, and quite splendid. The pity was that, by the time the novel came out, Michael Gilbert was no longer truly fashionable. Even Hodder, to whom he had long been faithful, dropped him. He had won much acclaim, including the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, but he is associated primarily with the post-war era, in which his most famous whodunit, Smallbone Deceased, is set. Yet he wrote with great accomplishment for half a century.

One other thing about Michael Gilbert. He had a great deal of insight into the crime genre in all its forms. As well as many novels and countless short stories, he wrote with success for both tv and stage, and Death in Captivity , Danger Within, was enjoyably filmed by Don Chaffey. He was a friend and admirer of Cyril Hare, and edited a posthumous collection of Hare’s best short stories. He wrote intelligently about the work of other writers, and thereby introduced me to such notable authors as Henry Wade and Christianna Brand.

Oh, and he and his wife found time to produce seven children, one of whom also became a successful writer. Quite a man.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Sunday Selection - Tyler, Nunn, Van Der Vlugt

An interesting crop of new and forthcoming books this week – they all seem rather tempting to me.

No sooner have I lavished (very well deserved) praise on L.C. Tyler’s debut novel, than I receive a copy of his second book, A Very Persistent Illusion, again published by Macmillan New Writing. This novel does not feature the luckless crime noveliste Ethelred Tressider (although we are promised Ethelred will return before long) but is instead ‘a darkly comic novel about family, madness and the nature of reality’. The main character is Chris Sorensen, a middle manager and closet poet.

Over the years, quite a number of crime writers have made a splash with their first book and never been able to repeat the success (Richard Hull and Kyril Bonfiglioli spring to mind, but the list is quite a long one.) However, my bet is that Tyler’s talent is such that he is no one-hit wonder, and I look forward to reading A Very Persistent Illusion.

Malla Nunn, author of A Beautiful Place to Die (Picador) has garnered praise for her first book from the estimable Minette Walters (‘A terrific page-turning debut’) I tend to discount blurbs written by authors who share a publisher as the blurbed writer, but I must say that this book does look very interesting indeed. The story is set in 1950s South Africa, when ‘the colour of a killer’s skin matters more than justice’ and a glance at the opening pages suggests that DS Emmanuel Cooper is an interesting character, and Nunn a writer to watch.

Simone Van Der Vlugt is the author of The Reunion (tag-line ‘Never. Go. Back.) , published by Harper Collins. Simone is described as ‘Holland’s top-selling crime writer’ and the book is said to be reminiscent of Minette Walters and Nicci French. Again, I’m not sure how helpful such comparisons really are, but there must be a reason why publishers are so fond of them – perhaps many readers find them helpful, though I don’t, as I prefer to judge an author on his or her own merits. Again, this story sounds full of promise: ‘Sabine was fifteen when Isabel disappeared…Nine years later, unwanted memories are returning.’.

Saturday 14 February 2009


Valentine’s Day. A day for romance. And a good day for a massacre, too. The eternal themes of love and death run alongside each other in much crime fiction. They are certainly at the heart of my own work, and have been from the beginning.

On the very first page of my very first book, All the Lonely People, Harry Devlin comes home to find his estranged wife Liz watching a Woody Allen film. And the film, naturally, is Love and Death. Heavy symbolism, huh? Soon poor old Liz is dead herself, and Harry has to find her killer.

I remember, incidentally, receiving the page proofs of that first book. It should have been a great moment, but I became miserable when I re-read the opening pages. I felt I’d achieved a great ambition in getting published – but felt depressed that the book wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. Looking back, I think I was too hard on myself, or perhaps simply too emotional about it. The book really did very well, and although I’d write it differently today, when I glance at it now, the story does seem at least to have a real energy about it, as well as a bit of heart.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away too soon to mention that my current work-in-progress, The Serpent Pool, involves a murder committed on Valentine’s Day. And needless to say, this turns out not merely to be an accident of the calendar…

Friday 13 February 2009

Forgotten Book - The Plot against Roger Rider

My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series is a crime novel by Julian Symons which first appeared in 1973, The Plot against Roger Rider.

Symons is a writer whom I admired enormously. His output was impressive in its diversity, as well as in its quality. He is renowned for his theory that the detective novel had evolved into the crime novel, though I tend to think the reality is not as neat as he suggested. Some lovers of classic mysteries are critical of Symons, but the fact is that he liked ingenuity of puzzle as much as most people – he just felt it was desirable for a novel to offer something in addition to a clever plot.

This novel showcases his talent. It starts teasingly: ‘You could say that the plot against Geoffrey Paradine started at the same time as the plot against Roger Rider’ and quickly and smoothly introduces a range of interesting people and incidents. Rider is a tycoon who gives a job to his old schoolfriend Paradine. Later, Paradine sleeps with Rider’s wife. So the question is – when Rider disappears in Spain, is Paradine responsible?

There is a marvellous and rather shocking twist at the end of this complex novel, one of Symons’ very best. It’s a first class advertisement for the way in which classic ingenuity can be integrated with swift, yet effective character portraits. A book that does not deserve to be forgotten.

Thursday 12 February 2009

The Lineup

Poetry and crime fiction may seem to be strange bedfellows, but there are plenty of poets who have written crime fiction (or crime writers who have tried their hand at poetry). More surprisingly, there are quite a few poems with a crime fiction theme.

Fellow blogger Gerald So recently sent me a pdf of The Lineup, a collection of poems about crime. He has put it together along with Patrick Shawn Bagley, R. Navaez and Anthony Rainone.

Gerald says in his introduction: ‘Before I ever thought to write poetry, I was a fan, editor and writer of crime fiction. I especially enjoy how every paragraph, every sentence, every word has purpose: to plant clues, reveal character, move towards resolution. I’ve come to appreciate the same purpose in poetry…’

Suffice to say there is some powerful material here from a range of contributors, including Gerald himself, and Sandra Seamans, whose blog I found (via David Cranmer’s excellent blog) a few days back, and which I’ve now added to the blogroll.

There is, of course, one famous detective who is also a poet – P.D.James’ Adam Dalgleish. I once heard James say in an interview that the late W.H.Auden (a fan of the classic detective story) had offered to write a poem for Dalgleish to be included in one of her novels; she thought she might have had much mischievous pleasure from people who criticised her poetic skills, only to find that the verse was the work of one of the greats. A lovely story, I think. A pity it never happened. We still await sight of Dalgleish’s work.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Bucking the Trend

There is great news on Ann Cleeves’ website diary, which is that the transformation of her Vera Stanhope books into a television series is progressing quite swiftly. A good scriptwriter is in place and Ann and her husband Tim have been given him a tour of Vera’s backyard in the North East (Ann also gave my family and me a flavour of this fascinating part of the world when we were up there last spring – it’s an area I hope to explore further this summer.)

I’m delighted about Ann’s success. Vera is a great character - I’d go so far as to say she’s one of the most interesting British cops to have appeared on the scene in the last ten years. When I read the book in which she first appeared, The Crow Trap (originally conceived, I think, as a stand-alone) I expressed the hope in a review that she would return. So she has, and to increasingly impressive effect. The success of Ann’s books set on Shetland (which also cry out to be televised) has caused some readers to overlook the Stanhope novels, but I can recommend them. The Crow Trap is a rather longer book than usual from this writer, and perhaps not as immediately arresting as, say, Raven Black, but it’s still a good place to start.

Not surprisingly, given her success, Ann expresses optimism in her diary about the current state of the publishing business. Given that I have a natural streak of pessimism, I’m not quite as upbeat, since the scale of the economic calamities that have befallen us – and the UK’s economy seems to me to be in a worse state than some others - appears so great that publishing (and libraries, too – I’m thinking of the massive cutback and closure plans in Wirral, where I used to live) will almost inevitably suffer, perhaps quite badly. But this is one prediction which I hope will be proved very wide of the mark.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

City Talk - good news and bad

Another freezing cold day yesterday, but in the evening, it was great to spend some time with Janette Fleming, a delightful librarian I’ve worked with on several occasions over the years. Janette is a reader development officer at Halton Lea library in Runcorn, and she’s organised a number of talks I’ve been involved with, as well as a Victorian mystery event, and a day-long workshop at which I first met Sophie Hannah.

On this occasion, she was pre-recording an interview for the radio station City Talk – my second visit to the Liverpool Beacon in a week, and a chance to see the illuminated night-time city from the viewing platform (which, when I first came to the city was the window for a marvellous revolving restaurant.). Our conversation ranged over a number of topics, including Dancing for the Hangman and Dr Crippen (a few years ago, Janette was the first person to hire me to give a talk on true crime, as opposed to crime fiction, and I much enjoyed it.)

However, I caught up with some sad news. I mentioned in my post of 3 April that I’d been interviewed on City Talk by the breakfast presenters Phil and Kim and that Phil Easton had given Waterloo Sunset enthusiastic and well-researched coverage. I was shocked to learn that Phil died a few days ago – without any prior warning, of a massive stroke. Oddly, I’d heard his voice just before his death – he was the announcer at Liverpool Football Club’s home matches, and he was working there when I watched the match with Chelsea last Sunday. I only met him that one time, but he was clearly a highly professional broadcaster and I’m very sorry he has died.

Monday 9 February 2009

The Herring Seller's Apprentice

It’s a long time since I’ve been amused by a detective story as much as I have been by L.C. Tyler’s debut novel, The Herring Seller’s Apprentice. It was published as part of the Macmillan New Writing programme, and I found it really good fun.

The story is told – for the most part – by Ethelred Tressider, a gloriously unsuccessful writer of detective stories featuring an uninspiring cop by the name of Fairfax. Ethelred’s marriage, to the faithless Geraldine, has long since collapsed, but the police come calling one day to say that she has gone missing – and a body has been found.

Events quickly gather momentum. Ethelred identifies the body, and is assisted (or hindered) in his quest to find out what happened to Geraldine by his literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle, who claims to enjoy neither the company of writers nor literature of any sort.

This is a clever story, and even though I spotted the main plot twist at an early stage, this did not detract from the pleasure that Tyler’s witty and intelligent writing gave me. I can thoroughly recommend this book.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Murdoch Mysteries

The newish crime drama TV channel Alibi has contacted a number of bloggers, including me, with information about an interesting offer linked to their series ‘Murdoch Mysteries’, series two of which opens on 10 February. To celebrate the launch, they say they are ‘giving you and a friend the chance to win tickets to a special preview screening in London.’ It’s hosted by Thomas Craig, with champagne on arrival

Yannick Bisson and Alastair Mackenzie star alongside Craig in this series, based on novels by Maureen Jennings. Set in Victorian Toronto, the show follows the exploits of detective William Murdoch ‘who brings evil to justice and solves some of the city’s most gruesome murders thanks to the new science of forensics.’

I watched one episode of the first series – it featured Arthur Conan Doyle (who rather to my surprise didn’t have a trace of a Scottish accent) and had various Holmesian references. I thought it an okay whodunit, not exactly 'Taggart' at its best, but a series I’d certainly look at again.

Anyway, the prize on offer includes a pair of tickets for you and a friend to a special preview screening of 'Murdoch Mysteries' on Thursday 19 February 2009 at the Covent Garden Hotel, London. The winners will arrive at 6:30, and will be offered champagne (or a soft drink, if your drinking tastes are not typical of many of my friends in the crime fiction world!). Thomas Craig will also be there to introduce the episodes and afterwards you will get the chance to ask questions to the man himself.

There are 20 pairs of tickets available, so for your chance to enter simply click here: Competition

Entrants must be over 18, see the competition entry page for full terms and conditions. The competition closes on 12 February and the winners will be notified within 24 hours.

I must say that, if I were not too busy to make it, I'd be very interested in this. The last event of a similar nature I attended was years ago, a preview of 'Dalziel and Pascoe' - the first episode featuring Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan - and it was a hugely enjoyable occasion.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Saturday Selection - Tom Bradby, Barry Eisler

Tom Bradby is the political editor of ITV, which must be a very demanding job (influential, too, as he is said to have been instrumental, through his reporting, in David Cameron’s elevation to leadership of the Conservative party – blimey!) Somehow, he also finds the time to write thrillers which evidently sell very well indeed. I confess that I haven’t yet read any, but they look interesting.

Now I have received a review copy of his latest, Blood Money (Bantam). The press release says: ‘A banker lies dead on Wall Street and rookie cop Joe Quinn is assigned to find out how he got there’. Yes, you guessed it – the setting is 1929, and amidst economic turmoil, bankers are not the most popular people around. So – a historical crime novel, but perhaps with relevance to the present day. I must get round to reading this one.

Another writer on my shamefully long list of those I haven’t read at all is the American Barry Eisler. Like Bradby, he has an intimidatingly impressive CV- he worked for the CIA’s director of operations before moving to Japan and earning a black belt in judo. So even if I didn’t enjoy his work (perish the thought) I’d be inclined to keep very quiet about it.

Eisler’s latest is Requiem for an Assassin (Penguin), the fifth book in a series featuring an assassin called John Rain. It looks like a thriller crammed with authentic background detail.

Friday 6 February 2009

Forgotten Book - Payment Deferred

My latest contribution to Patti Abbott's series is a book by C.S. Forester, who is best known as the creator of Horatio Hornblower. As well as his swashbuckling maritime stories, however, he wrote a couple of crime novels. The first was Payment Deferred, which came out in 1926. For me, it is a book that was way ahead of its time – it anticipates, for instance, the brilliant Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles. And its relentless bleakness also makes it seem rather modern (so do the references to economic woes, unfortunately...)

I first read the book as a teenager, and found it both dark and intensely gripping (it also has the merit of being short and brisk in pace.) The basic premise is simple. Mr Marble, a bank clerk, is desperately short of cash. Unexpectedly, a rich nephew from Australia comes to visit his seedy suburban home. Marble sees in him the answer to all his troubles. He poisons the nephew and buries him in the garden. It seems like the perfect crime – but, needless to say, things prove to be much less straightforward than the wretched Marble anticipated.

The irony of the story set a pattern not only for Iles, but also for various other writers of a similar bent, such as Richard Hull and Bruce Hamilton. Forester returned to crime genre a few years later with Plain Murder, but on the whole this book, although very readable, did no more than repeat the themes of its predecessor. Soon Forester decided to concentrate on Hornblower. But his pioneering contribution to the genre is too often overlooked – it’s time he got the credit he deserves.

Thursday 5 February 2009


In my early days as a writer, I never used to be a great fan of research. I probably took the old advice ‘write about what you know’ rather too literally. But all too soon, I ran out of things I knew – and I needed to find out more intriguing stuff to make sure that my new stories remained fresh and, where possible, ‘different’. Over the past few years, I’ve done a great deal of research, and although it can be time-consuming, it’s also very enjoyable.

Often, research is straightforward, at least in theory. To write credible Lake District scenes set in the bleak midwinter, for instance, you really have no choice but to brave the elements and see what the place is like when the tourists are few and far between. It was relatively easy, when writing Waterloo Sunset, to explore places in Liverpool where scenes were set – the map on my website highlights some of them. And the marvellous help given to me by the City Coroner, Andre Rebello, made a real difference to key aspects of the story.

Reading the newspapers can be very useful – so can surfing the net. I keep press cuttings about things that strike me as odd or entertaining, and a story I clipped from a national newspaper 20 years ago has helped me with the novel I’m writing at present.

But sometimes effective research takes a much less tangible form – it can be more a matter of talking to people, and letting ideas seep into your consciousness. The joy of escapist fiction is that the incidents and characters that emerge are very different from those you have encountered in real life. And yet, without the spark of a stimulating conversation, you might never have had those ideas. Something I remind myself of when in anti-social mood!

Over the past fortnight, for instance, I’ve had the pleasure of conversations with some fascinating people, including a barrister, a judge, a retired taxman, and a former SAS man, as well as soaking up the atmosphere in the directors’ box and guest lounge at a big football match. The conversations were fun for their own sake, and I wasn’t particularly discussing plot ideas with my companions, but they are all knowledgeable and friendly people, with interesting things to say not only about their work, but also about life in general. Perhaps one of these days, their insights will help inspire a plot element in a future story - it's the closest I can get to defining 'inspiration'. But just in case they don’t, I’ll keep devouring any scraps of information that catch my interest, from any source I can find.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

The Vampire of Ropraz

Bitter Lemon Press have introduced British readers to some excellent authors from overseas – for instance, I’d never heard of the late Friedrich Glauser until they printed his highly enjoyable books about Sergeant Studer, and there have been many other examples. So I fell on The Vampire of Ropraz by Jacques Chessex with great enthusiasm. I did, however, have mixed feelings about the book.

Actually, it’s closer to a novella than a novel – 106 pages of large type, with lots of white space – but that in itself is not a criticism. I often feel daunted by the length of doorstop-sized volumes, given that reading time is all too short. It’s a gruesome tale, apparently based on a true story. There are graphically described mutilations of corpses, starting with an attack on the body of young Rosa Gillieron in a remote Swiss village. Further violations follow, together with brutal attacks on animals. Suspicion shifts around, but finally settles on one young man, who is duly tried. But the story does not finish there.

To say more would be unfair, but this makes it rather difficult to discuss aspects of the story-line that I found unsatisfactory. It’s more a ‘literary’ piece of work than a conventional crime story, but that, of course, is not the problem. Suffice to say that, although Chessex is evidently a talented writer (the translation, by the way, is courtesy of W.Donald Wilson), and the remote community is very well evoked, the surprise ending seems rather out of place and tacked-on. Interesting, but a ‘miss’ for me, rather than a ‘hit’.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

City Life

A varied couple of days for me. I spent Sunday afternoon at Anfield, where a stadium packed to capacity watched the big match between Liverpool and Chelsea. A fascinating experience, though one of the coldest sporting occasions I can remember. It’s always fun to go to Anfield – and in my early days as a crime writer, I used the football setting as the backdrop for a short story featuring Harry Devlin, called ‘Never Walk Alone.’

The snow duly arrived yesterday, making commuting even less appealing than usual. However, I had an added incentive to venture through the blizzard that descended on the city in the afternoon, as I was due to be interviewed on City Talk, the Merseyside radio talk show, by Dean Sullivan during his regular show – the topic for discussion being Dancing for the Hangman.

I was looking forward to meeting Dean, a good actor who is best known for his long-term role as Jimmy on ‘Brookside’, since a few years ago he was mooted as a possible Harry Devlin in a televised version of my Liverpool mysteries. That never happened, unfortunately, and neither did my interview with him. Dean was unwell and the interview was conducted by an affable deputy, called in at short notice.

As I walked back to the office from the Liverpool Beacon which is home to City Talk, my mind wandered to those crime novels with a snowy setting. There are several good ones. A favourite of mine is Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, an under-rated detective story with a pleasing (if not extensively clued) solution. If you saw the recent, very unsatisfactory, televised version, but haven’t read the book, I can promise that the book is much better.

Monday 2 February 2009

Criminal Liverpool

Daniel Longman is a young Merseyside-based specialist in true crime. He’s published a couple of books in the past and this month sees the publication of Criminal Liverpool (The History Press), to which I have contributed a foreword.

In the book, Daniel investigates the antics of an alleged brothel in Lime Street, the tragic tale of Frances Wallace, whose mummified remains were found decomposing in the water closet of her Hope Place home, and the horrific tale of the Tuebrook baby-killer, Elizabeth Kirkbride.

One of the stories which I’d never heard before concerns a solicitor called James Wilcox Alsop, a member of a distinguished law firm called Alsop, Stevens. When I started work in the city back in 1980, Alsop, Stevens was the biggest name in the local legal profession; they were based in India Buildings, next door to where I am still based. One of their claims to notoriety is that a former articled clerk at the firm was Herbert Rowse Armstrong, later to achieve fame as the only solicitor to be hanged for murder (though not the only one to have killed someone.)

In my foreword, I mention the recent death of Jonathan Goodman, a master of the true crime genre who worked in Liverpool in the 1960s. It would be good to think that, one of these days, Daniel Longman’s reputation will rival that of Jonathan’s. Keep his name in mind.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Writers' Groups

A couple of new writers have contacted me during the past week. I feel a bit of a fraud when consulted for advice, in that I’m certainly not a best-seller, so there has to be a question mark about how valuable my suggestions might be. Having said that, the writing process does fascinate me, and it is for this reason, rather than because I see myself as a fount of knowledge, that I have the temerity to offer my thoughts on the writing game.

When I was working on what became my first published novel, during the 1980s, I was a member of Wirral Writers. We met every Friday at Bromborough Library, and I found it an enjoyable and sociable pastime. One of the members was a retired policeman, who gave me one or two ideas about police procedure, but the main benefit was the sharing of experiences and the chance to talk to other people with a common interest, including some who had actually published for money.

My first published story was one that I’d submitted for a competition run by another writers’ group, based in Southport (members included two people who would later contribute crime stories to anthologies which I’d edited on behalf of the Crime Writers’ Association.) This particular group was a very good one. The quality of groups does, naturally, vary but I am sure that there is much to be gained from joining your local group when you are starting out as a writer.

And after you have established yourself, it’s nice to stay involved, or at least in touch, with the group, if that is possible. I really enjoyed returning to Wirral Writers years after I’d moved away from the area, and had finally published a few novels. A great bunch of people, to whom I owe a lot.