Friday 31 July 2009

Forgotten Book - The List of Adrian Messenger

My entry this week for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is another title from the pen of Philip Macdonald, his last novel and yet possibly the most famous – The List of Adrian Messenger. The book’s celebrity derives to a large extent from the fact that it was filmed in 1963, four years after publication. George C. Scott was improbably cast as Anthony Gethryn, and the movie boasted unlikely cameos from Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum.

Messenger’s list contains the names of people who have died, over a period of time, in seemingly random fashion. What is the connection? Gethryn is intrigued, and embarks upon a quest to solve the puzzle and track down one of the most amazingly remorseless murderers in the annals of crime fiction.

I enjoyed the book as well as the film. The hook is genuinely gripping, and although the story falters a little here and there, it provides plenty of evidence of Macdonald’s storytelling gifts. Oddly, he did not write the screenplay – that was written by Anthony Veiller, about whom I know nothing.

Now, by the time you read this, I should be off on holiday for just over a week. I’ve scheduled daily posts in advance, and (provided I can master the technology….) I aim to be able to respond to comments and read other favourite blogs whilst away. Be good in my absence!

Thursday 30 July 2009

The Thriller Technique

I mentioned a few days ago that I’m becoming increasingly interested in thrillers, and so I was keen to attend one of the main events of the Harrogate Festival, an interview of Lee Child by Natasha Cooper. A special guest was Lee Child’s brother, Andrew Grant, who has just published his own debut novel, Even.

Interviews at conferences vary in quality, but Natasha is very experienced and accomplished at drawing her interviewees out, and the result was very thought-provoking as far as I was concerned. Anyone with an interest in writing thrillers would have learned quite a bit, I feel.

I was impressed, above all, by two crucial qualities that Lee Child brings to his craft, which I’d summarise as focus and simplicity. I’d guess he’s always been very focused, but it seems that being made redundant from Granada TV in the 90s kick-started his career as a novelist – the injustice of his treatment clearly still burns. As an employment lawyer, I’ve known many people who have had similarly harsh experiences, but none have responded by forging careers which were both financially successful and earned them worldwide fame.

Allying simplicity to quality, it seems to me, is one of the hardest tricks for any creative artist to pull off. Simplicity is one of the reasons why Agatha Christie’s books have lasted so well. It is one of the reasons why Hal David’s lyrics have entered the consciousness of people the world over who would not recognise his name. I once heard Hal David say in an interview that it’s too easy to make things complicated, and the more I’ve reflected on this, the more I realise, he is right. And hearing Lee Child (one of whose books is sold every second, apparently – blimey!) explain his approach to the Jack Reacher books gave me a real insight into the secrets of his success. Not easy to emulate, though if anyone can do it, it may just be Andrew Grant.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Who Killed Mark Billingham?

The second event at the Harrogate Festival with which I was directly involved was a murder mystery dinner on Saturday evening. organised by Ann Cleeves. I was one of a number of authors (including Tom Cain and James Twining, two very successful thriller writers I hadn’t met before) to host a table of readers. The challenge was to solve the mystery of who had killed Mark Billingham (by atropine poisoning). The suspects were Natasha Cooper, Martyn Waites, Cath Staincliffe, and Stuart MacBride.

The puzzle prompted lively debate on our table and we guessed the solution correctly, as did several other tables (prompting a lucky dip to select the winner – not us). I thought this was a really good entertainment, and the readers really seemed to love it. Last year I was involved in the Saturday night dinner, but there was no mystery to solve. I hope something similar is done next year to build on the success of Ann’s event.

Later that evening came the quiz, a fave Festival event hosted by Val McDermid and (just to prove he wasn’t really dead after all) Mark Billingham. I was on a team of genuinely delightful people: Ali Karim, Rhian of the It's a Crime blog, Joni Langevoort (whom I first met a few years back, attending Malice Domestic in Washington DC), publisher Selina Walker and the recent CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger winner Andrew Taylor. We came a respectable third, but ended up gnashing our teeth that we didn’t figure out the right answer to the question which asked which novel by Perez-Reverte shares a title with a Scottish football team. I said to Val the following day that I still can’t believe I didn’t get that one!

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Harrogate - the panels

Once you have attended a few crime fiction conferences, you learn that it’s a good idea to pace yourself. It’s inevitable that some themes and interviews crop up regularly, and it’s a good idea to be selective. It also helps to take time out to recover from those late nights chatting in the bar….

But I really did enjoy a diverse range of events and activities during the Festival. These included a panel hosted by Barry Norman, and a session where Mark Lawson interviewed both Reginald Hill and John Banville, a brilliant and contrasting pair of writers. I had the pleasure of a long chat before and during lunch with Reg and, as ever, he was as witty and entertaining in person as he is in his books. (The photo of Reg and myself was kindly supplied by Ali Karim.)

There was also an interesting discussion of ‘nursery crimes’ led by Andrew Taylor which featured a classy line-up, including three writers I’ve never heard speak before, Suzette Hill, Christopher Fowler and Jasper Fforde, all of whom were very good indeed. The level of discussion was so high, I wished the hour could have stretched to two.

Monday 27 July 2009


I had a lot of fun at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, and as usual the combination of socialising and crime fiction-related activities made the hours fly by all too quickly.

For me, the event got off to a brisk start as I presented a session on ‘Legalese’ as part of the Creative Thursday session for aspiring crime novelists. Zoe Sharp, ably assisted by husband Andy, had presented a very popular session on self-defence, just before lunch, and the morning’s topics had also included crime scene investigation, so I did wonder if my 45 minutes on legal stuff would see the audience nodding off or checking their watches. But they became very engaged, and a fascinating range of questions showed how seriously and intelligently they took their craft.

I’d prepared hand-outs for attendees to take away, which offered an outline of some of the detail of the law as it applies to writers, and in the session itself I focused on telling stories about writers who have become caught up in litigation. I hoped this would prove entertaining, but I couldn’t be sure in advance whether this was the best approach. Fortunately, the feedback was very positive, and if I ever did something similar in the future, I think I’d use the same type of format.

What struck me throughout was the cool professionalism of the team that runs the Festival. I once organised a week-end social get-together in Knutsford for northern crime writers, and even that relatively small event proved quite challenging to organise. It must be extremely stressful to run a complex Festival, because hitches are utterly inevitable, but I thought that Sharon Canavar, Erica Morris and their colleagues did a great job, as usual. They have the knack of remaining pleasant and seeming unflappable whatever the circumstances. This is no mean achievement, and it adds considerably to the enjoyability of the occasion for all the writers and readers who attend.

Sunday 26 July 2009

A Small Case for Inspector Ghote

H.R.F. Keating (universally known as Harry) is the doyen of British crime writing – and of crime reviewing too. He has twice won the CWA Gold Dagger, and he has also received the ultimate honour in British crime fiction, the CWA Diamond Dagger for his lifetime achievement in the field. Critics have heaped praise on his work for decades, and with good reason. Among his many career highpoints, a book of his called The Murder of the Maharajah is probably my personal favourite. It isn’t (except in a cleverly indirect way) a Ghote novel, but it’s a first-rate mystery.

Apart from the rich entertainment he has given to readers for about half a century, he has always encouraged less eminent writers – including me. So it is a real pleasure to record that Allison & Busby have recently published the latest mystery to feature Harry’s most famous character, Inspector Ganesh Ghote.

A Small Case for Inspector Ghote sees our hero becoming involved with the hunt for a brutal murderer, whose victim is a peon called Bikram The dead man’s lowly status means that there is no great desire to see justice done on his behalf. But Ghote, humane to his core, thinks differently.

Because, understandably and properly, exciting young writers tend to grab the headlines, there is a danger of an undesirable consequence – that veterans such as Harry Keating are taken for granted by the reading public and overlooked by present day reviewers. But I really do hope that the new Ghote book receives plenty of attention and that Harry keeps entertaining us for years to come.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Nigel Balchin

I mentioned Nigel Balchin recently, in relation to the screenplay he wrote for 23 Paces to Baker Street, a film adaptation of a thriller by Philip Macdonald. But Balchin’s screenwriting was a relatively minor aspect of his work. He was, in his day, a novelist of real distinction who often worked in or on the edge of the crime genre.

It’s often struck me how many novelists start their writing careers with rather improbable titles. Colin Dexter is one example, and my little tome Understanding Computer Contracts possibly takes a bit of beating in terms of quirky subject matter. But the title of Balchin’s debut was a classic oddity – published in 1934 under the name of Mark Spade, it was called How to Run a Bassoon Factory. (I think it was a satire…)

Balchin worked as a scientist, and also as an industrial psychologist. When he tried his hand at advertising, he is supposed to have popularised the Kit Kat brand of chocolate biscuit. His versatility is reflected in his writing. Although his most famous book is the war-time thriller The Small Back Room, other novels such as Mine Own Executioner and Darkness Falls From the Air were in much the same league in terms of quality.

Balchin seems to have had a tangled private life, and a wife-swapping episode resulted in divorce. One of his daughters is the childcare expert Penelope Leach, while another married John Hopkins, the screenwriter responsible for, among other things, Thunderball. He’s a writer who has fascinated me since my teens, and I’ll say more about his work in the future.

Friday 24 July 2009

Forgotten Book - The 31st of February

The advertising business has given rise to a number of very good mysteries. One thinks of that absolute classic, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. And it’s true that a surprising number of novelists have honed their writing talents, like Sayers, on the drafting of advertising copy.

Julian Symons had a spell himself as a copywriter and he used his experience to good effect in my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books, The 31st of February. This book was first published in 1950 and it illustrates the break between the generation of crime novelists who started work after the Second World War and their predecessors.

Symons was an extremely skilled plotter, but he was much more interested in the psychology of crime than many of his predecessors. Ingenuity is put to the service of delineation of character, and the creation of a brooding atmosphere. In this novel, an advertising man called Anderson is responsible for his wife’s death and is pursued ruthlessly by the rather sadistic Inspector Cresse.

Symons explores issues of guilt and innocence, while at the same time creating a mood of tension that spills over into terror. Anderson finds himself in a world of paradox and uncertainty reflected in the notion of a date that doesn’t exist – the 31st of February. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed almost all of Symons’ novels, and although inevitably a little dated, this one is still well worth reading.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Off to Harrogate

I’m heading off to Harrogate this morning to take part in the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (for those of you unfamiliar with it, Theakstons Old Peculier is a type of beer; Theakstons the brewers sponsor the Festival.)

Today is ‘Creative Thursday’, when there are writing workshops given by a variety of authors including Mark Billingham, Zoe Sharp and me My topic is ‘Legalese’ (typecasting, I’m afraid.) On Saturday, I’ve been asked to host a table at the Readers’ Dinner; the entertainment will be a murder mystery event written by Ann Cleeves and featuring a cast of suspects including Natasha Cooper. It should be fun. There is also to be a quiz, and Ali Karim has already invited me to join his team, which includes fellow blogger Rhian from ‘It’s a Crime’.

Harrogate is a splendid town, and one of the great pleasures of the Festival is simply the socialising, the chance to meet old friends and make new ones. I’m really looking forward to it.

For my loyal and much appreciated readers, blog posts will continue while I am away, but I shall probably leave discussion of the Festival until it’s over and I’ve had time to reflect on what will, I hope, be a memorable few days.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Wallander - Mastermind

Good as the Kenneth Branagh series for BBC TV was, I’m starting to think that the Swedish television take on Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is even better. Thanks to Karen Meek of the excellent Eurocrime blog, I learned that the programmes are going out on BBC 4 and I have just watched ‘Mastermind’.

Needless to say, ‘Mastermind’ has nothing to do with either the television quiz show or its Crimefest equivalent! But it is an outstanding story, which I found gripping from start to finish. I’m not wildly enthusiastic about sub-titles, but on this occasion they proved no obstacle at all to my enjoyment.

Kirster Henriksson is very good as Wallander. It’s a more subdued performance than Branagh’s, but highly effective. In this story (which is original, not based on a Mankell novel) a middle-aged woman’s body is found hanging from her apartment ceiling, and drained of blood. Soon, the daughter of one of Mankell’s colleagues is snatched from her blood-spattered bedroom, and it turns out that the blood is not hers, but belongs to the murdered woman. Mankell’s daughter is then injured, and it emerges that someone is targeting the police. But why?

The climax is very tense. All in all, this is first-rate viewing. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Blood Law and Thriller 2

One of the people I met at Crimefest was Steven Hague, who was a member of a panel I moderated. I felt extremely guilty because any moderator worth his or her salt should study the work of their panel members in some depth before the panel takes place. But I was moderating two panels and, although I worked painstakingly through the books of the various other members of the panels (as well as the work of the ‘forgotten authors’ who were the focus of the other panel), to my dismay, I simply ran out of time before being able to do more than quickly skim Steven’s debut novel Justice for All.

Fortunately, Steven proved to be an affable and forgiving guy, and also an articulate and easy-going panel member. The quality of his contribution to the panel was all the more striking, since he’d never been involved in a crime convention panel prior to that day.

So I’m all the more pleased to have received a copy of his new thriller Blood Law, which is published on 31 July. I’ve been reading a few thrillers in recent months, when time permits, and it’s interesting to study the way that different writers tackle the ratcheting-up of suspense. Maybe one of these days I might try my hand at a thriller myself.

This is a book featuring ex-LAPD cop Zac Hunter. Angel Cortez needs his help because her daughter has gone missing – and Zac finds himself pitched into gang warfare among other tribulations.

Steven’s book is published by Mira, an interesting company which has carved a niche in the thriller genre very quickly. They focus on paperback originals – a sign of the publishing times. Another new Mira title is Thriller 2, a bulky short story collection edited by Clive Cussler, and including stories from such notables as Jeffrey Deaver and Ridley Pearson.

Monday 20 July 2009

From Russia with a Book

One of the most unexpected contacts I’ve received thanks to this blog was an email from a Russian lady called Anya Ru. She told me that she was a translator, and that together with various colleagues from Moscow State Unviersity who were fans of traditional mysteries, she was involved with the production of a forthcoming anthology of Golden Age classics. This was the start of a truly agreeable correspondence, of a kind impossible before the advent of modern technology.

It turned out that the group had already put together one book, comprising stories from the Sherlockian era. The title, translated, is Not Only Holmes, as the aim is to showcase some of the great man’s rivals. They have even produced a video about the book.

Anya is currently in Britain, but our paths haven’t crossed, though we have spoken on the phone. When she visited Liverpool, I was sunning myself on an all too brief trip to Anglesey. She was, however, kind enough to call at my office and leave a note together with a copy of the book – and it’s a beautifully produced piece of work. I hope I can meet Anya, and some of her colleagues, one of these fine days, to congratulate them in person.

Meanwhile, I find it delightful that young Russian people have developed an interest in our great mystery writers of the past (and also in one or two obscure writers with whom I’m much less familiar). And I also think it’s marvellous that the global reach of the internet has put me in touch with them – and that some Russian whodunit fans have actually read this blog….

Sunday 19 July 2009

Acts of Destruction

I’ve just managed to lay my hands on a copy of Mat Coward’s latest novel, Acts of Destruction, which pleases me a good deal, because this is a writer whose work I have long admired. I’ve never actually met Mat, who doesn’t go to crime conventions, but we’ve been in touch for a number of years, and he’s provided a string of excellent stories for anthologies that I’ve edited.

Mat’s fame in the crime writing world is, indeed, mainly in the realm of short story writing, and whilst it is well deserved, it has meant that he runs the risk of being typecast as a short story specialist. It’s a recurrent issue for writers that, if you do one thing well, publishers, critics and (yes!) some readers are tempted to think that is what you should stick with. It’s a bit like asking a favourite musician only to play their early hits – understandable, but apt to risk missing out on a lot of good stuff.

In fact, Mat’s a talented novelist whose previous work has appeared more often in the US than the UK. Acts of Destruction sees him branching out in a new direction, with a police series ‘set in a near-future London. In a world of fuel shortages, food scarcity, and wars over water, the Commonwealth of Britain is struggling to turn necessity into opportunity, and build a happier, more efficient and more democratic nation. It’s a new society with new rules; it’s just a pity no-one told the criminals….’

But still there is a link with his short stories, for DI Wallace from this book first appeared in one of those stories Mat produced for me – ‘Back to the Land’, which was included in Crime in the City, a collection published under my editorship back in 2002. So I feel an immediate affinity with the new novel!

I look forward to devouring it. And readers of this blog who would like a copy can pick one up for a tenner, post-free, from Alia Mondo Press, care of Elastic Press, 85 Gertrude Road, Norwich NR3 4SG.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Ripley Under Ground

I enjoyed listening to the second BBC Radio CD about Tom Ripley, this time based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground. Again, I read the book a long time ago, and although I don’t think it is as dazzling as The Talented Mr Ripley, it is nevertheless good.

In this story, eight yeas after the events of the first, Tom is married to a wealthy French woman, and living the good life. This is funded by his involvement in an art forgery scam. Tom and a few pals have arranged with a nervy British artist, Bernard, to fake pictures by Derwatt, whose death some years ago is (for some reason) unknown to anyone but the conspirators. But then an art collector begins to suspect tht he has been sold a fake, and although Tom impersonates Derwatt at an art show, Bernard loses his nerve and threatens to give the game away.

Tom soon finds himself driven to commit murder again. Not for the first time, the police suspect he has something to hide, but the combination of his silver tongue, and some outrageous luck and coincidences are the means by which Highsmith keeps him at arm’s length from justice.

This story was adapted for radio by Alan McDonald. Alan was one of the first crime writers I got to know – he wrote a couple of books about a Scouse female private eye called Rosie before I published my first Harry Devlin. But he had some bad luck with his publisher (the covers made the stories look like Catherine Cooksons) and he hasn’t written crime novels for quite a while – though, being based in the Lake District, he did give me some valuable help when I was working on The Coffin Trail. He has a long track record with the broadcast media and Ripley Under Ground is a typically professional piece of work.

Friday 17 July 2009

Forgotten Book - The Nursemaid who Disappeared

Philip Macdonald is a crime writer whose career spanned from the Golden Age to the post-war era, from 1920s London to Hollywood. He wrote some remarkable, if often slapdash, mysteries, and his gift for plot and suspense can be seen in his work on the brilliant screenplays for Rebecca and Forbidden Planet.

I could choose any one of a dozen Macdonald titles for my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books, but today I’ve opted for The Nursemaid who Disappeared – also known as Warrant for X.

Sheldon Garrett overhears two people in a teashop, apparently planning a serious crime. Scotland Yard are not interested, so he approached Macdonald’s regular amateur sleuth, Anthony Gethryn, who uncovers a dastardly kidnapping plot.

It’s a lively thriller, rather than a conventional whodunit like the early Gethryns. The story was rather well filmed in 1956 (with Van Johnson as a blind protagonist) as 23 Paces to Baker Street. The movie had a much-changed story – and no Gethryn. Oddly, the screenplay was not written by Macdonald but by the even more accomplished Nigel Balchin. Balchin was a writer so fascinating that he deserves a post to himself one day. Maybe more than one.

Thursday 16 July 2009


The Crippen story has inspired many writers over the years, long before I wrote Dancing for the Hangman. One of the most remarkable fruits of that inspiration was a musical called Belle, alternatively titled The Ballad of Dr Crippen.

The music was written by Monty Norman, with a book by Wolf Mankowitz. It opened at the Strand Theatre on 4 May 1961, and managed a mere 44 performances before critical opprobrium killed it off. There was an outcry about bad taste, with the acerbic Bernard Levin in the vanguard. However, a CD of the show has been issued, and the notes claim that it ‘has to be one of the truly great British musicals, admirably incisive in its invention, wit and sympathy for its subject’.

The music hall style is not really to my taste, but the score does have verve, and it might be argued that the show was simply ahead of its time. The cast featured George Benson as Crippen (I remember him from countless TV comedy shows in the 60s), Rose Hill as his wife, and Virginia Vernon as Ethel Le Neve. There is a track listing on the Crippen page on my website.

I have managed to obtain a programme of the show, inscribed by Vernon. She was a pretty young actress who had already appeared in The Millionairess with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, but her musical career ended with Belle. She married a comedian, Ben Warriss, and retired from the stage.

As for Norman, at least his music attracted the attention of the producer of a new spy film. And so it was that Norman was asked to write The James Bond Theme….

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Points of View

So much in life depends on your point of view, and the same is true of writing fiction. There is a world of difference between a fast-paced first person single viewpoint thriller, for instance, and a book where third person viewpoints are forever shifting around. Choice of approach to viewpoint is an important decision for most novelists.

I’ve been reading a thriller which prompted reflections on viewpoint, because it does something I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. I won’t give the title, or any details, because I don’t want to spoil the story, but the basic set-up is this. We begin with a first person account of dramatic events, which set up the mystery very effectively.

The viewpoint then shifts, and events are seen from the perspective of someone to whom the first protagonist turns for help. This shift from first person writing to third person is something I’ve never done, but it does seem to be becoming increasingly popular. In a nutshell, I guess the author is trying to combine dramatic tension (first person) with plot development (third person).

We then have a second third person viewpoint (a colleague of the second viewpoint character). Again, the author was clearly trying to get round a plot development challenge.

But then comes the great shock. The first person viewpoint character is murdered. The last we hear is that the villain is about to kill him – end of chapter. I wondered if there was to be a cunning twist, but no – his body is discovered, and that is the end of him

This left me feeling rather unsettled. How was the first person viewpoint character able to tell his story in this way?

I’m not sure I’ve explained this very well, but I’m trying not to give too much away. I’d be interested in how other readers and writers feel about viewpoint shifts of this kind.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The Talented Mr Ripley

It’s a long time since I first read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, but I enjoyed both the book and the film version starring Matt Damon. Ripley’s characertistic amorality has made him one of the most complex – and most widely discussed - villains in the history of the genre. And now, courtesy of the Crimefest quiz, I have a set of CDs of the BBC Radio adaptations of the five Ripley novels which were broadcast earlier this year.

Each of the books has been reduced to one hour, so needless to say the editing is ruthless and, inevitably, something is lost along the way. But the story is a strong and essentially simple one, and I felt that it survived the abridgement in very good shape. Tom befriends wealthy Dickie Greenleaf, and gradually starts to inhabit his life. He kills Dickie, and after various misadventures – gets away with it.

Ripley is not to everyone’s taste, but I find him extremely intriguing. When I’ve written short stories, or scenes in novels, from the perspective of amoral people, it’s been a fascinating experience. Guy, in The Arsenic Labyrinth, is such a person, and I really loved writing about him.

Highsmith famously said that she preferred to write about criminals because, for a time, they are ‘free in spirit’ and thus dramatically interesting. This may be more true of fictional criminals than the real life variety, but I can understand what she was driving at.

Monday 13 July 2009


I’ve just finished Karin Alvtegen’s novel Missing, and I enjoyed it immensely. The cover of the book compares her to the great Ruth Rendell, and before I read the book, I thought this must be over-praise. But I discovered that Alvtegen is a very good writer, and on this evidence, the tribute is well-deserved.

Sibylla is a woman in her early thirties. She is estranged from her wealthy family, and living on the street. As a means of getting a night in a posh hotel room, she flirts with strange man and then claims to have had all her money stolen. He pays for her room, but she doesn’t sleep with him. Then, in the morning, he is found to have been murdered. Sibylla is the prime suspect.

More deaths follow – and Sibylla remains in the frame. The police start to close in on her. What is going on – why are the murders being committed, and who is targeting Sibylla. Bit by bit, we learn her tragic backstory, and gain some insight into life on the street.

This is a tense, atmospheric and extremely readable novel, with a clever and (to the best of my knowledge) original motive. Recommended.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Private Libraries

Private libraries – the older the better – enthral me. There’s something very special about these places, which are usually oases of calm in the middle of a bustling city. For about fifteen years, I have been a proprietor (that is, member) of the Athenaeum in Liverpool, which has a truly fabulous library, full of antiquarian curiosities. And last year, I did a Victorian mystery event at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, a place I found deeply impressive (especially because of its wealth of obscure crime novels.)

This last week, I added an excellent new private library to my list. This is the Portico Library in Manchester. I’ve walked past it many times, but never been inside before. This changed when Jennifer Palmer, of Mystery Women, invited me to take part in a panel discussion.

My fellow panellists were two long-time friends, Cath Stainclife and Kate Ellis, and another local crime writer, Dolores Gordon-Smith, whom I first met at Crimefest last year. I’ve never done an event with Dolores before, but she proved to be a lively and entertaining speaker, and I felt the combination of the four of us worked well (even if I am a rather unlikely Mystery Woman...)

The Portico organised a first-rate buffet, and the ambience was fantastic. You really had the sense of history, in a room where people have read and studied for a couple of centuries. There was a thought-provoking exhibition about myth and legend in literature, very well illustrated, that I enjoyed reading. And I loved the heading above one set of bookshelves: ‘Polite Literature’. Couldn't help wondering how many have searched in vain for the Rude Literature….

Saturday 11 July 2009

Writing in an Age of Silence

Verso have just published a paperback edition of Sara Paretsky’s Writing in an Age of Silence, which first came out a couple of years back. Paretsky is, of course, the creator of that notable gumshoe V.I.Warshawski, who was brought to the screen by Kathleen Turner (I haven’t seen the movie, but some reports suggest it didn’t match the quality of the books.)

It is a short book, well summed up by P.D. James in ‘The Spectator’: ‘This poignant and compelling personal testimony explains both the influences that made her a writer and the kind of writer she became.’ James is by instinct a conservative, and Paretsky is a radical feminist, but despite their political differences, writing is clearly a bond which unites them. And so it should be.

This book was written before the election of Barack Obama and it may be that Paretsky’s view of American politics would be a little different if she were starting the book today. There may also be too much here about American politics to appeal to some British readers. But I like this sentence in particular:

‘Because my own great comfort comes from other writers’ words, my hope is that my stories may also bring readers some solace in the night, provide some lamplight on a darkened path.’

Most writers, whether of crime or any other form of fiction, would probably feel the same.

Friday 10 July 2009

Forgotten Book - Clerical Error

My last entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books featured a title from the pen of Richard Hull. This week, the focus is on novel written by another disciple of Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles. Clerical Error has also appeared as The Vicar’s Experiments, and it has been published under two different names – first as by Anthony Rolls, and then under Rolls’ real name, C.E. Vulliamy.

Vulliamy wrote, among other things, biography and satire. It is his satiric instinct which prevails in the opening chapter, when a seemingly inoffensive cleric snaps during a conversation with a disagreeable loudmouth:

‘Up to a quarter past three, Mr Pardicott might have been described as the gentlest of rural clergymen; at twenty minutes past three he was a criminal of the most dangerous kind. In a dizzy moment of revelation he saw that he had been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.’

Alas, even when the murder of Colonel Cargoy has been accomplished, Pardicott does not rest content….

Vulliamy wrote a number of other crime novels. I’ve read one of them, Don Among the Dead Men, which follows a broadly similar pattern. I wouldn’t claim either book is a masterpiece. In each case, there is a neat initial idea, and some witty writing, but (at least, for a modern reader) the plot isn't complex or credible enough for the whole novel to live up to the promise of the early pages. But they have, at the very least, a deal of interest for readers fascinated in the development of the genre. Vulliamy was no Ruth Rendell, but he was no mug, either.

Thursday 9 July 2009

CWA Daggers

This time last year I was eagerly looking forward to the CWA Daggers dinner, which turned out to be the highlight of my career as a writer to date. A year on, the latest award ceremony is imminet, and Meg Gardiner has emailed to say that a few tickets are still available - if you get your skates on. Here are the details:

The Crime Writers' Association Dagger Awards
Wednesday 15th July 2009
Tiger Tiger, Haymarket, London

The Debut Dagger
The Short Story Dagger
The International Dagger
The Dagger in the Library

And the shortlists for:
The John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger
The Ian Fleming Steel Dagger
The Gold Dagger

6.30 pm Pimms reception
7 pm awards
Drinks and canapes to follow

Tickets are £45 each.

Each ticket holder is entitled to half-price dining at Tiger Tiger on July 15th.

If you're interested, tickets can be ordered by sending a cheque and SAE to:

PO Box 273

Die With Me

My haul of goodies from Crimefest included an abridged audio book of Elena Forbes’ debut novel Die With Me. It’s a serial killer story, and although scarcely a ground-breaking work, I found it provided five hours of very agreeable car-listening.

Some of the pleasure derived from an excellent reading by Dan Stevens, an actor previously unknown to me. The story opens with the mysterious killing in a church of a 15 year old girl called Gemma by a man who appears to have persuaded her to join in a suicide pact. But he gets a kick out of watching her die.

Soon Mark Tartaglia and his fellow cops are on the case, and it turns out that Gemma is not the first of the killer’s victims. Tartaglia is irritated when a senior woman cop is brought in over his head to lead the investigation, and even more irked by his new boss’s enthusiasm for a dodgy criminal profiler.

I had one or two reservations. The link that connects the victims should surely have been discovered sooner than it was, and the killer’s precise motivation was not as clear as I’d have wished. Forbes paves the way for a sequel, and perhaps the next story will fill in some of the gaps. Suffice to say that, on the evidence of this debut, it will undoubtedly be worth reading – or listening to.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

The Freewheelin' Hakan Nesser

One of the treats in the Crimefest delegate bag this year was a small booklet celebrating the achievements of guest of honour Hakan Nesser. The Freewheelin' Hakan Nesser turns out to be the sort of thing any author would love to have produced about himself – lavishly illustrated and full of intriguing snippets.

Included also are samples of a Nesser manuscript – he always starts by writing in longhand. Someone at Crimefest asked how anyone could be expected to read it – and he replied by saying he needs to type up from the longhand draft within a week, otherwise he too will be unable to decipher or recall what he wrote!

The booklet does not major on Nesser’s Van Veeteren novels, but give a flavour of his overall work, including the delightfully titled Kim Novak Never Bathed in Lake Genesaret; only about half of his books, it seems, fall squarely within the crime genre, and he is properly cautious about the merit of categorising books as crime or non-crime. He is formidably well-read, and says of his attitude as teenager: ‘An author who wrote a book where nobody died was an idiot, I was quite convinced of that.’

The assessment of Nesser’s work is thought-provoking and persuasive. His emphasis on the logic of narrative, the importance not only of detail, but choice of detail, the search for pattern in incident and character, these are elements in his writing that repay further study. For my part, I look forward eagerly to reading more of his books. I’m sure there’s a lot that a writer like me can learn from them..

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Mysterious Castles

Castles feature rather more in children’s mystery stories than in adult crime novels, I think – The Castle of Adventure, by Enid Blyton, is a book I loved in the early years before I was introduced to Agatha Christie.

Visiting Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island reminded me of what intriguing and eerie places castles can be. In recent weeks, I’ve wandered round Flint Castle, on the North Wales seafront, and Richmond Castle, in Yorkshire, which is certainly impressive. But for setting as well as style, Lindisfarne Castle is very hard to beat.

It was never a castle that saw serious combat, and Edward Lutyens transformed the interior for the pleasure of a rich Edwardian owner. The equally renowned Gertrude Jekyll created a lovely walled garden a short walk from the rocky outcrop on which the castle stands. Nowadays, the castle is in the very safe hands of the National Trust, and in the sunshine, it all looked gorgeous. Though it crossed my mind that the upturned boat sheds and the disused lime kilns (both pictured) would be excellent places to stash an inconvenient corpse or two.

Such reflections left me wondering just how many crime novels have been set in castles. None instantly spring to mind, but I’m sure I must have overlooked quite a few.

Monday 6 July 2009

Mystery Islands

I love islands – especially small ones. They seem to me to be tranquil places, yet full of mystery. The best Golden Age detective story (in my opinion) is set on a small island – Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And the enduring appeal of the island setting is highlighted by the success of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

For years, my favourite island has been Herm, in the English Channel, a marvellous little place, but now it has been displaced at the top of my list by Holy Island, aka Lindisfarne (not to be confused with the 1970s folk/rock group of the same name), off the coast of Northumberland, not far from the Scottish border.

Staying overnight in the Old Manor House, right next to the ancient priory, was a great experience. The weather was glorious and that meant plenty of opportunity to explore the main sights, even though time ran out before it was possible to roam to some of the less visited parts of the island.

Holy Island is a place of pilgrimage, and no wonder. I found it utterly fascinating. I am not aware that it has featured in any mystery novels, though perhaps Ellis Peters or Peter Tremayne may have set medieval stories there. But it would be a perfect setting for a modern day mystery in the classic mould.

Sunday 5 July 2009

North by North East

I’m just back from a fascinating trip to the North East of England. All too brief, but restorative (at least, once I’d had an extensive lie-in this morning!) Among other things, there was the chance to meet up with Peter and Margaret Lewis, of Flambard Press, publishers of Dancing for the Hangman. We had coffee and scones together on Friday morning at the home of our mutual friends Ann and Tim Cleeves, in Whitley Bay. Great to see all of them again.

The previous evening, I’d staged the Victorian mystery event at Stockton-on-Tees. Claire Pratt and her colleagues really did me proud. I’ve never been to Stockton before, and I have to say that its traffic system and gyratory provided a mystery more challenging than anything Agatha Christie ever devised. But Claire talked me through it on the phone and I was delighted to meet her at last – we’ve been trying to organise the trip for a couple of years. The wait was well worth while as far as I was concerned.

The next day, a trip by Metro from Whitley Bay took me to the sparkling new city library in the centre of Newcastle, and another big audience for ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’ Sheila Naughton told me that Val McDermid appeared at the library a fortnight ago, and Lee Child is due there shortly, but this was their first interactive mystery event. A fabulous place, and it would be good to think that other cities model their library plans on Newcastle’s stunning achievement.

Saturday 4 July 2009

To Catch a Thief

Alfred Hitchcock based his famous film To Catch a Thief on a book by the American crime writer David Dodge. It’s the story of jewel theft on the Riviera and it stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, who combine together splendidly. To use a term that wasn’t around when the film was first shown, it’s a ‘feelgood movie’.

Grant , who plays John Robie, lives quietly in a lovely villa. He was once a famous jewel thief, but worked in the Resistance during the war, and has now renounced his old criminal ways. But when wealthy women of the south of France suffer a fresh series of jewel thefts which seem to bear all his hallmarks, Robie is the inevitable suspect. His old friends don’t believe in his innocence, let alone the police. Danielle, daughter of a former comrade who is now a wine waiter, urges him to take her to South America with his ill-gotten gains. But Robie decides to prove that he is innocent by catching ‘the Cat’.

This brings him into enjoyably close contact with Grace Kelly, playing the daughter of a scoundrel’s widow whose jewels make her an obvious target for ‘the Cat’. Kelly’s lustrous beauty and the couple’s developing relationship are more memorable than the actual plot. This is one of Hitchcock’s lighter movies, and the plot is scarcely complex, but even so, it offers a couple of hours of pleasant entertainment.

Friday 3 July 2009

Forgotten Book - Excellent Intentions

Richard Hull was one of the few chartered accountants to become a notable writer of detective novels. He burst on to the scene in 1935 with The Murder of My Aunt, which remains the book for which he is best known. It is a good story, although the ironic ending is easily foreseen by the modern reader. But my choice for the latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is Excellent Intentions, which came out in 1938.

The plot is very clever. Henry Cargate has been murdered, and because he was an unpleasant chap, there are plenty of suspects. But although a murder trial is taking place, Hull does not reveal who is in the dock. Court scenes and police investigations are blended together cunningly so as to build the suspense.

But even when we do discover who is on trial, there is a terrific twist. It has a legal element that I certainly will not spoil for anyone who would like to track down this rather obscure title. Suffice to say that Hull is trying to show that sometimes the only way to achieve a truly just outcome is to thwart justice.

Richard Hull was one of those writers who were influenced by the ironic flavour of the work of Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles. His reputation has not lasted as well, but he deserves not to be forgotten.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Nigel Jay

I mentioned Nigel Jay yesterday. He was a regular on North West television screens for a number of years, reading the regional news. Now he has what seems like an idyllic lifestyle, taking the narrow boat on which he lives around the canals of Cheshire, and marketing his first novel.

(Narrow it may be, by the way, but it's also a long boat - no less than 70 feet in length, and Nigel explained that, although it suits the Cheshire canal system, it's too long for the locks in Yorkshire.)

Nigel had timed his arrival in Lymm to coincide with the Festival, and he and his partner Denise (pictured with Nigel) offered my wife and me coffee as we chatted on the canal bank about the ups and downs of the life of an author. He has set up his own publishing business, Joint Impressions, and their first title is his debut – And No Wings.

This is a chunky book – almost 700 pages – and it’s a story about the extremely topical subject of climate change. No murders in it, as far as I know, but I hope that Nigel’s entrepreneurialism is rewarded with good sales.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Festival Time

Lymm Festival is in full swing. It’s an annual highlight of the village calendar, now in its tenth year, and I’ve been involved a number of times in judging the literary competitions, though not this year – so I’ve had some time to enjoy one or two of the many events on offer.

These include last Thursday’s Foodfest, when the main road through the village is closed to traffic and occupied by stalls selling a wide range of food and drink, and the opening on Saturday of the excellent Sculpture Garden, a magical private garden on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal. At the latter event, I met Nigel Jay, a former BBC regional news reader, now an author, of whom more shortly.

On Sunday, upwards of a dozen gardens were opened to the public, and we took a number of friends along, including Kate Ellis. She’s pictured with me next to the skull and crossbones – it seemed like a suitable snap for two crime writers.

One of the gardens is owned by Matthew Corbett, who with his father Harry made The Sooty Show famous. Matthew (real name Peter Corbett – you can see him under the parasol in the bottom photo) has a marvellously designed small garden, again by the canal, but there was no sign of Sooty…