Monday 31 August 2009

Rupert Holmes and The Serpent Pool

Rupert Holmes is a highly successful pop music singer-songwriter who also happens to be a rising star in the world of crime fiction. I’ve been a fan of his songs since he was first in the charts thirty years ago, and I became all the more intrigued when I learned that this apparently all-American musician was actually born in Northwich, Cheshire, my own home town. (His father was an American who did war-time service in England, and married a local girl.)

Through one of those strange strokes of luck, at a time when I was struggling with one aspect of my latest Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool, I picked up an idea from a fellow blogger, Nan. She just happened to post a link to a Youtube video of a youthful Rupert Holmes, singing my favourite of his songs, ‘Him’. It was a big hit in its day, though Rupert is best known for his classic ‘Escape’, also known as ‘The Pina Colada Song’ (clever and witty lyrics coupled with catchy tunes are his speciality.)

As I watched the video, it dawned on me that the lyric suited the theme of my book perfectly. And as an added bonus, there was a very attractive blonde girl backing singer who looked just like my idea of one of the main characters in the story. I often refer to pop songs in my books – a long list of titles from the great Burt Bacharach feature in all of them except, of course, for Dancing for the Hangman – but this time I was keen to quote from the lyric itself, and of course this meant copyright permission was essential.

I’ve told the story in the past of how fellow crime writer Paul Charles, who represents Ray Davies of the Kinks, arranged for me to quote from the lyric of ‘Waterloo Sunset’. By a lucky chance, it turned out that Rupert and I share a publisher, and when I contacted Rupert, he responded quickly and graciously to grant permission to reprint some of the words to ‘Him’. I’m enormously grateful, and our email correspondence has encouraged me to look our, not only for Rupert’s novels, but also a musical he’s written based on The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Bank Holiday Blog Thoughts and Questions

I’m currently working on the synopsis for my next book. An exciting experience. Domestic issues and the day job have kept me away from fiction writing for a while, and I’m champing at the bit, really keen to get back to it.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated by the extensive response to my question ‘Why so gruesome?’ The comments certainly did make me think, and illustrated how much a blogger can gain from those who are kind enough to reply to questions (similarly, my essay about Oxford murder stories would have been incomplete, had comments not alerted me to the work of Adam Broome and Victoria Blake.) I’m most grateful. Incidentally, sometimes there are occasions when I can’t publish or reply to comments for a few hours. This is almost invariably because of work demands!

Here’s a question that’s bugging me at the moment. Do you prefer an author to get right into the main story without delay? Or do ‘prologues’ and similar devices help to set the scene. Prologues rather suit the Lake District Mysteries, I think, but although I’ve used them previously, I did without them in The Serpent Pool.

And while I’m at it, if there is anyone expert in Blogger out there, perhaps you could help me to understand how to restore to the sidebar the icons of this blog’s followers. They appear on my Blogger Dashboard, and on preview – but then they disappear. Very mysterious…..

Finally - several people have told me that Facebook is a good idea for writers who want to communicate with readers. So far I've registered with Facebook, but done nothing with it. Any views and/or advice would be very welcome.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Celia Fremlin

I was sorry to learn that Celia Fremlin, a British suspense novelist of genuine distinction, died earlier this summer. I only found out because I read an obituary notice by Rebecca Tope in the CWA’s private members’ newsletter. If her passing has been discussed in the newspapers, or online (and surely it must have been?) then I have missed it.

One thing is for sure – Fremlin’s work is not talked about too much these days. But it deserves to be, because she was a class act. To my regret, I only met her once, very briefly, at a CWA conference in the early nineties. Her sixteenth and last novel appeared not long after, in 1994, when she was 78.

The lack of attention paid to Fremlin’s work is all the more sobering when one reflects on the immediate impact she made when her first novel, The Hours Before Dawn, appeared in 1958. It’s a good title and an even better book – it went on to win an Edgar. My copy is a 1988 reprint, which benefits from a pithy preface by Fremlin. The story involves a harassed mother, Louise Henderson, who lives in suburbia and who takes in a lodger with unexpected consequences. The domestic milieu is very well drawn, and Fremlin was one of those who led the way in developing the psychological suspense set in recognisable everyday surroundings.

It’s a long time since I read Fremlin, but although I can’t remember much about them, I do know that The Spider-Orchid and Appointment with Yesterday were good books, written by a novelist both sensitive and intelligent. Are any readers of this blog Fremlin fans? I hope so, for she should not be forgotten.

Saturday 29 August 2009


Now, at last, the story can be told. I am delighted to share the news that the Vera Stanhope novels written by my good friend Ann Cleeves are to hit the television screens. Last weekend, I took Ann and Cilla Masters (also pictured, outside Christ Church College) on a walking tour around Oxford and Ann mentioned that the news was about to break, while swearing us to secrecy. But now the embargo has been lifted, and it’s really very exciting.

The equally good news is that Vera will be played by that splendid actor, the Oscar-nominated Brenda Blethyn.OBE, whose glittering CV includes films such as Pride and Prejudice. I first came across her in a very enjoyable comedy series called ‘Outside Edge’, which featured my favourite sport of cricket, and drew her to my attention as a performer of real talent. It’s no surprise to me that she’s gone on to enjoy such success, and I’m sure she’ll be good as Vera.

Vera first appeared in The Crow Trap, which was Ann’s first stand-alone and quite a departure from her previous work. Ann acknowledges today that the book was perhaps over-long, but when I read it, I was immediately impressed with the character of Vera, who is that rarest of creatures, a genuinely distinctive detective.

The first ‘Vera’ will be based on Ann’s novel Hidden Depths. Filming begins in October and I can’t wait to see the finished version. Ann is a fine writer who wrote splendid novels for many years before receiving the scale of acclaim that she deserves, and it’s great to see her achievements in the genre rewarded.

Friday 28 August 2009

Why So Gruesome?

Jill Paton Walsh’s paper at the St Hilda’s conference last Saturday morning sparked quite a debate. She suggested that it was interesting to consider why crime fiction had become so much more gruesome in recent times, and she advanced the theory that it might have some connection with the fact that capital punishment was abolished in the UK in the 1960s.

The idea was, in part, that since readers no longer had to contemplate the horrors of the scaffold, the hood, and the trapdoor, when the culprit was hanged after being brought to justice, they searched for them elsewhere As a great expert on Dorothy L. Sayers, she drew attention to the fact that Wimsey (towards the end of his detecting career, in particular) took the fate of the criminal rather more seriously than many of his fellow sleuths.

Someone in the audience pointed out that the snag with this particular theory (which Jill expressed much more persuasively than my crude summary might indicate) is that crime fiction has become much more gruesome in many countries around the world, some of which retain the death penalty to this day. On reflection, Jill accepted this was a fair point.

So, has crime fiction become gruesome in recent years, and if so, why? Inevitably, we are generalising, but the strong consensus at St Hilda’s was that it has indeed become more gruesome. That’s certainly my view. But what is the reason for it? I really don’t know, but I suspect the answer may have something to do with the fact that – at least on a certain level - life tends to feel more secure today than it did, say, sixty years ago Fiction often seeks to engage very closely with real life, but it also has an escapist component. But does anyone have a better explanation?

Thursday 27 August 2009

Oxford and Crime

It’s intriguing that such an apparently civilised place as Oxford should have formed the backdrop to so many murder stories, on the page, and on the screen. I’ve much enjoyed working on a new essay about the city’s murderous heritage. Of course, Colin Dexter is the leading writer of Oxford crime, but there have been many others.

The reason for Oxford’s long-term popularity as a setting for crime fiction s is surely not so much the inherently criminal tendencies of the local population as the enthusiasm of alumni of the University, and others associated with it, and with the city, for writing detective stories. For instance, more than thirty old members of Balliol College alone have published crime fiction.

J.C. Masterman, who later became a notable war-time spymaster, and then Provost of Worcester College, is credited with inaugurating the Oxford whodunit set in academe, in 1933, with An Oxford Tragedy. Soon, there was a flurry of books to delight dons and many others. Michael Innes, who again would become a don, introduced his series policeman John Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging, set in a fictional university strongly reminiscent of Oxford, and Operation Pax sets key scenes in the Bodleian. Innes’ principal disciple was Edmund Crispin (the pen-name adopted by Bruce Montgomery, whose first detective novel was written while he was still an undergraduate.)

Surely the most famous crime novel set in Oxford appeared just four years after An Oxford Tragedy. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night,, in which Somerville College (where Sayers read English) is fictionalised as Shrewsbury College, which she locates in Jowett Walk, on Balliol's cricket ground. Ian Morson’s historical Falconer series is set in medieval Oxford, while Veronica Stallwood has written eleven books to date featuring historical novelist Kate Ivory. The late Michael Dibdin wrote a witty stand-alone set in the city, Dirty Tricks – and fascination with the city is not confined to English authors. And even a novelist from Argentina, Guillermo Martinez, got in on the act. He wrote The Oxford Murders, the film of which I covered in a blog post a while back.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Cadfael Country

I’ve been asked to contribute a couple of essays to a book about locations associated with crime fiction, and by a lucky chance, I’ve managed to visit them both in the last week. One was Oxford, the other Shropshire.

Now, Shropshire is a green and pleasant county, but its tranquillity was regularly disturbed for fictional purposes in the books of the late Ellis Peters. Peters (whose real name was Edith Pargeter) was an author of considerable distinction for many years, but it was only with the success of the Brother Cadfael series, the first of which she published (expecting it to be a one-off) at the age of 64 that she became an international best-seller.

Peters was born in the little village of Horsehay, close to Ironbridge Gorge, and she retained a lifelong devotion to her native county, which was where she lived for most of her life. It’s worth noting that not only in the Cadfael Chronicles, but also in her Felse series, which have a contemporary setting, she makes use of the Shropshire landscape, though she tends to disguise it.

Shropshire is an attractive place to visit. There are many lovely rural walks, I am sure, but last week I concentrated on the old and charming towns. Ludlow and Shrewsbury are terrific, but there are other appealing places, such as Bridgnorth and Church Stretton. As Peters said:

‘I have used this landscape, native and familiar to me, in all my books; sometimes in its veritable shape and by its own names, sometimes with its edges diffused into a topography between reality and dream, but just as recognisable, for those who know it as I do, as if it had been mapped with the precision of an Ordnance Survey sheet. I did not set out deliberately to make use of my origins. Shropshire is simply in my blood, and in the course of creation the blood gets into the ink, and sets in motion a heartbeat and a circulation that brings the land to life

Tuesday 25 August 2009

St Hilda's

I was lucky in that my paper for the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery weekend conference was scheduled for presentation at 11.30 on the Saturday morning – an excellent time. Not too early, but soon enough that, having given the presentation, one can then chill out without agonising further about last minute edits to the paper.

The opening paper was presented by Jill Paton Walsh, who talked fascinatingly about The Attenbury Emeralds (Lord Peter Wimsey’s first case) and retribution. She was paired with the Conference’s guiding light, Kate Charles, whose main focus was on that classic by Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke. I’m not an Allingham expert, but I agree with Kate that it’s one of the most notable books in the genre.

The theme of the weekend was The Wages of Sin, and I focused on the topic of sinful victims in crime fiction. I’m planning to publish the paper on my website in due course. My aim was to highlight, amongst the famous titles, a few books that are undeservedly obscure. The set-up is that two linked papers are presented, and then the two presenters answer questions from the (formidably well-informed) audience. I was partnered with my friend Christine Poulson, a very good writer about whom I’ll have more to say in a future blog post. We were both very pleased with the reaction to our session.

When I last visited St Hilda’s College for the conference some years back, it was the last remaining women-only college in Oxford. Now it has bowed to the inevitable and become mixed, but if traditionalists feared that the atmosphere around the place would be adversely affected, their anxiety was misplaced. St Hilda’s benefits from a gorgeous setting by the River Cherwell, close to Magdalen and the Botanic Garden, and to sit in the grounds on a sunny day and watch people drifting by on punts is extremely relaxing and agreeable. I can recommend this conference unreservedly.

Monday 24 August 2009

Back from Oxford

On a sunny summer day, Oxford is a truly idyllic place, and the St Hilda’s conference was blessed with wonderful weather from Friday to Sunday. I’ve been to the conference(which has been running now for 16 years) a couple of times before, but this was definitely the best yet in my experience. Everything about it seemed right.

I’ll be blogging about it in more detail shortly, but first I want to pay tribute to some of the people who made it such a great event. Eileen Roberts, from St Hilda’s, works closely with Kate Charles to make sure that everyone, from regular attendees to newcomers, feels welcome. And Natasha Cooper (or N.J. Cooper – she assures us that the ‘J’ stands for Jezebel…) was a terrific chairman, who also delivered a marvellous paper, ‘Behind the Mask’, which had a genuine element of poignancy.

Cilla Masters gave a very good after dinner speech on Friday, while the legendary Colin Dexter spoke, again with poignancy, on Saturday evening, a memorable occasion.

I also had a chance to look round the city. Hence the photos of the dreaming spires among other scenes.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Cadfael's Home Town

On my trip to Ludlow, I stopped off at Shrewsbury, to look around a town I like a great deal. The last time I went there was for a legal case, and it’s been a few years since I’ve had the chance to wander round the old streets at leisure. It was good to be back.

I visited somewhere I hadn’t, oddly enough, gone to before. This was Shrewsbury Abbey, an ancient place made famous to crime fans by Ellis Peters’ books about Brother Cadfael. Needless to say, the books were on sale inside, but it’s also right to say that there’s a lot more to the Abbey than just the literary connection. It has a fascinating history, which Peters chronicled faithfully in her best-sellers about the twelfth century sleuth.

Cadfael was, of course, a herbalist, and I couldn’t resist taking a shot of a shop window advert for one of his modern day successors. I also wandered down the Abbey Foregate, which is now by-passed by most of the traffic, and which is thus rather more tranquil than the bustling place described in the books.

There was also time for a quick look at the Castle and its very attractive gardens. But because of the need to press on towards Ludlow, I couldn’t stay long, and I’m hoping to make a return visit to Shrewsbury before too long.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Ludlow Castle

Wednesday evening was a lot of fun. The Mystery Women event was organised by Kate Charles, of whom more another day, and the setting, Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, was quite idyllic – especially as the weather was very kind to us.

I was a member of a panel of eight writers. My colleagues, in addition to Kate, were Andrew Taylor, Marcia Talley (an American writer who deserves to be better known in the UK), Suzette Hill, Laura Wilson, Natasha Cooper and Phil Rickman. It proved to be a good mix. The one person in the group I hadn’t met in person before was Phil Rickman, although he has interviewed me on the radio a couple of times. So it was good to make his acquaintance, and to hear him tell the audience that there is serious television interest in his books featuring Merrily Watkins.

We had a capacity audience – selling 100 tickets for a literary event is quite an achievement, and a tribute to the organising skills of Kate, and those working with her. A special mention for the Castle Bookshop, which supported the event admirably. Each of us spent a few minutes talking about our books, and then there were questions from a group of readers who were very well-informed. The event lasted for close on two and a half hours in all, and even then it seemed too short – a sign of the enjoyable time we had.

I can’t think of many venues for writing panels that I’ve found as delightful as Ludlow Castle. It really does reek of history. Prince Arthur (the first husband of Catherine of Aragon, and brother of Henry VIII) spent time there, for instance. A truly memorable occasion. I’m very grateful to Kate for having invited me to be part of it.

Friday 21 August 2009

Jonathan and Ten Little Herrings

This is a blog about crime writing, and I don’t usually feature my family in it – they have more than enough to put up without my intruding on their privacy. But today I’m making a bit of an exception, because it’s been a special twenty four hours in the life of my webmaster and the designer of this blog, Jonathan. He’s done very well in his A Levels, so he can now accept the offer of a place at Oxford – he’ll be reading Law at my old college, Balliol, as from October. I'm truly delighted for him.

Jonathan is, like me, a big fan of the writing of L.C.Tyler, one of my favourite discoveries of the past few years. Len’s latest, Ten Little Herrings, follows up The Herring-Seller’s Apprentice. The only snag is that due to a variety of commitments, I haven’t got round to reading it yet - but Jonathan has, and therefore he has contributed this guest review, his first:

‘We rejoin the enigmatic Ethelred and his irrepressible agent Elsie Thirkettle in a faded hotel in a French backwater some months after the events of The Herring Seller’s Apprentice. With his credit cards cancelled and worrying about his Sussex boiler, it seems Ethelred has no alternative to return with Elsie to England. That is, until murder intervenes.

The hotel becomes the backdrop for a traditional detective setup as the guests all fall under suspicion. Elsie begins her own amateur investigation and soon discovers that few of the guests are the simple philatelists they claim. Her zeal and fondness of chocolate cause her to clash with the police, while Ethelred is resolutely unhelpful. Meanwhile, the proceedings are clouded by the recent emergence of two rare stamps, rumours of a notorious necklace, and an intrigue of Ethelred’s own.

Events are concluded with a stereotypical gathering in the dining room, where Elsie produces her controversial discoveries. As with the entire story, this scene combines traditional detective fiction with memorable wit and a modern twist. Ten Little Herrings is a light-hearted and thoroughly entertaining sequel.’

Thursday 20 August 2009

Marshall Karp and Richard Jay Parker

I’d like to mention a couple of new books which have just appeared under the imprint of my own publishers, Allison & Busby. One is Flipping Out, the third novel by American Marshall Karp. It features a bestselling mystery author, Norah Bannister, who has developed a lucrative sideline in buying and improving houses. I haven’t had a chance to read my copy yet, but I’m looking forward to it: Michael Connelly and James Patterson are the big names who have given it an endorsement.

Richard Jay Parker’s Stop Me examines how technology - emails and websites - can be used for macabre purposes. He told me recently:

‘Everyone suspects there’s something sinister about email chain letters. This is what mainly inspired me to write Stop Me. It begins with an email chain letter from the Vacation Killer. It describes a girl and must be forwarded. If it ends up back in the killer’s inbox he won’t slit her throat. Nobody takes it seriously to begin with until the jawbone of a prostitute is sent to the police. The missing prostitute fits the description in the email. But the real story of Stop Me is in the relationship between two men via a website.

John R Bookwalter claims to be the Vacation Killer and runs a website based around this alleged delusion. He’s never left the state of Louisiana and the Vacation Killer has killed around the globe. He’s dismissed by the police as a crank but claims to have Laura, the wife of Leo Sharpe. She disappeared in London and the Vacation Killer was suspected. However, her remains were never sent to the police and Leo wonders why – did the email get back to the Vacation Killer’s inbox?

But as everyone around Leo gives up on Laura ever being found Bookwalter is the only person talking about her in terms of her still being alive. A bizarre relationship ensues and Bookwalter comes up with the most plausible theory of how she was kidnapped.

Leo has to decide whether he should accept Bookwalter’s invitation to fly to Louisiana to find out if there’s any truth in what he’s saying. That’s what the title Stop Me refers to - more than the emails. It’s about being drawn submissively into something you know you shouldn’t.’

Sounds very promising, I think. I hope it marks the start of a long and successful crime writing career

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Accountants and Crime

Why don’t accountants feature more often in crime fiction? For every accountant who turns up in a mystery, there must be a hundred lawyers, and yet you would think that accountants are very well placed to indulge in criminal activity. Perhaps they are just better at getting away with it?

My question was prompted by the fact that one of the two narrators in Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present, which I reviewed the other day, is an accountant. It has to be said that Vine, aka Ruth Rendell showed no interest in her character’s work, and portrayed him as a pretty dull dog. But it doesn’t have to be so. Some of my very best friends are accountants, and in person they are as varied a bunch as any other group One of the accountants I used to work with played drums in band that later became The Beatles.

Emma Lathen (actually, the pen-name concealed the identities of two female writers) wrote about a banker-sleuth called Thatcher, and one of her novels (a pretty good one) was called Accounting for Murder, but accountant-authors who write crime have always been thin on the ground. Perhaps one of the reasons why lawyers crop up so much more often in the genre is that so many crime novels are written by people who are either lawyers or have had legal training (it’s a long list that even includes such luminaries of long ago as Wilkie Collins.)

Richard Henry Sampson, who wrote as Richard Hull, is probably my favourite accountant-author; he emerged during the Golden Age, but his books were by no means conventional puzzles. His ironic mysteries weren’t uniformly successful, but almost all contain an interesting idea or two, and they deserve to be better known.

The recent film Deception, which I talked about a few weeks ago, is a contemporary examination of the criminal potential of accountancy, and a pretty good one. But I’m sure there’s scope for plenty of other interesting accountancy-linked mystery fiction. In the meantime, are there any really enjoyable examples I’ve missed?

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Lizzie Hayes and Mystery Women

The latest issue of the Mystery Women newsletter is just out, and as usual it is a good read. The tag-line is ‘Promoting Crime Fiction’, and Lizzie Hayes, Ayo Onatade and their colleagues do a wonderful job in the selfless and time-consuming work that they do to spread the news about mysteries they enjoy. Lizzie and Ayo are almost always to be found at crime festivals and they are great company.

I’ve been a member of MW for a number of years – yes, they do allow men to participate! – and I’ve enjoyed participating in a number of their events. A recent example was the panel at the Portico Library in Manchester moderated by Jennifer Palmer. And this week sees two major events associated with MW which I am really looking forward to.

On Wednesday evening, Kate Charles has organised what seems likely to be a super evening of crime talk at a fantastic venue, Ludlow Castle. Amongst those appearing are Andrew Taylor, Deborah Crombie and Laura Wilson. I’m honoured to have been invited to join them.

And then, this coming weekend, we have the annual Crime and Mystery weekend at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. I’ve attended this in the past, although not for a few years, and found it thoroughly agreeable. This year, I’m presenting a paper connected with the weekend’s theme, ‘The wages of sin’. The setting is terrific, the atmosphere is sure to be great; I only hope the rain doesn’t bucket down, for Oxford in the summer sunshine is a truly idyllic place to be.

Monday 17 August 2009

Hurting Distance

Sophie Hannah is one of the most interesting British novelists of psychological suspense to have emerged in recent years. Perhaps the most interesting. She admires (as I do) the work of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, and you can see their indirect influence in her novels – the delineation of character is sharp, and the plots are complex and compelling.

I enjoyed Little Face, her debut, but I found Hurting Distance, which sees the return of DS Charlie Zailer, to be even better. Unusually for a crime novel, the central crime is rape rather than murder, and I thought Hannah treated a very difficult subject very well.

The set-up is characteristically intriguing. Naomi has been conducting a passionate affair with a married man, but when he suddenly disappears, his wife denies that anything has happened to him. Naomi goes to the police, but only Charlie treats the investigation seriously. The truth emerges gradually, with a dazzling series of twists and turns. Christie could never have written such a book, but I feel she would have admired the author’s craftsmanship.

Hannah is clearly aware that her story appears to depend upon a string of coincidences and, cleverly, she tackles that issue head on in the narrative. I wasn’t quite convinced, though – the plot development that sees Charlie and her sister change holiday destination from Spain to a British location struck me as highly unlikely; so unlikely that it caused me to guess the outcome. But this is, I promise, a minor quibble, for Hurting Distance is, by and large, a quite superb piece of work. Charlie Zailer is sexy, intelligent, and vulnerable. She has quickly become one of my favourite detectives, and Hannah's characterisation generally is very good indeed. Strongly recommended.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Interview and Podcasts

One of the very pleasant things about participating in crime fiction events is that they can lead to all sorts of unexpected and agreeable further activities. A good example cropped up recently when I put on my Victorian mystery event at Stockton-on-~Tees. I was approached afterwards by a couple of chaps from Southside Broadcasting, which has links not only with hospital radio in the North East, but also festivals further afield, in particular in Lincoln.

The outcome of our conversation was that on Friday I was interviewed by Southside by phone about my writing. This was a pre-record, to be broadcast in the near future, and Southside kindly offered to let me have an mp3 version to upload on my site as a podcast.

A podcast would be a new departure for me, though there is already on my website a video interview that I did with Legal TV before it disappeared into oblivion (I don’t think this was solely because I used to appear on their programmes).

What I’m wondering is whether those of you who have websites, and those of you who visit authors’ websites, think that podcast interviews are potentially of interest and worth including on a site such as mine? Or don’t you have enough time to bother with them? In my own case, I’ve listened to very few, one of the exceptions being an interview that John Baker gave about his latest novel, which I found fascinating. My website contains plenty of text interviews, but it is worth expanding in this direction? All opinions, for and against, will be gratefully received…

Saturday 15 August 2009

George Easter and Deadly Pleasures

I haven’t had much time for reading since my return from holiday, but at least I’ve managed to devour the latest issue of George Easter’s fanzine ‘Deadly Pleasures’. This is issue 58, and I’ve been a reader (and, often, a contributor) to the magazine from the outset, having first got to know George as long ago as the memorable 1992 Bouchercon in Toronto.

‘Deadly Pleasures’ differs from other crime fan magazines that I’ve mentioned here, such as CADS and Give Me That Old-Time Detection, in that the focus is primarily on reviews of modern books. (We're talking here about print magazines; there are also some superb online publications such as Shots and Crime Time). But DP features numerous shortish articles too, invariably including a piece from the admirable Philip Scowcroft: this time, Philip surveys ‘Asia in British Crime Fiction’.

One of the many things I like about George is that he has a very soft spot for British mysteries, and from that first meeting I’ve always found him very generous about my own books. A regular section in DP is ‘News and Reviews from the UK’, and there is also an article on Scottish crime fiction by Jeff Popple. There is extensive treatment of Second World War mysteries, and Laura Wilson is featured on the cover.

Among many interesting bits and pieces this time around is a short article by Carlos R. Zafon and this reminds me that I still haven’t got round to reading The Shadow of the Wind. I bought my copy at the time of original publication after that very good judge Maxim Jakubowski told me it was his favourite book of the past twelve months. But somehow it’s slipped down the pile...

Friday 14 August 2009

Forgotten Book - The Lucky Policeman

Although I didn’t contribute to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books when I was sailing in the Med last Friday, I was busy at the time sitting in the sun and devouring a minor classic of the past which deserves to be highlighted this week.

Rupert Penny is a British writer who flourished briefly just before, and at the start of, the Second World War. He wrote convoluted puzzle stories in the best traditions of classic Golden Age detective fiction – and then he disappeared from sight (at least as a crime writer – a lover of flowers as well as ciphers and puzzles, he spent time working in Bletchley and he later became a doyen of the British Iris Society.)

Penny’s books were published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, but have become very scarce and expensive. Happily, that excellent publisher Ramble House has brought out several of his books, and supplied my copy of The Lucky Policeman. Suffice to say that it is the most enjoyable Penny novel I have read so far.

The set-up is excellent. An American shrink, Hilary Peake, has come to England and set up a private asylum (oddly, to my mind, it only has two patients, one of whom plays no effective part in the mystery, rather dashing one of my own theories about the puzzle.) When Simon Selby escapes from his quarters and disappears, we are presented with a variant on the ‘locked room’ concept, but matters take a more serious turn when a series of murders take place in the New Forest nearby. The local police are duly baffled, and send for Penny’s regular detective, the likeable Inspector Beale. Beale, as usual (although inexplicably) is accompanied by his pal and personal Watson, Tony Purdon, though Tony doesn’t play much of a part in the story.

There is a direct challenge to the reader to guess what has happened – shades of Ellery Queen and C.Daly King. I confess that I fell for Penny’s red herrings and got the solution wrong .The explanation for the mystery is cunning, if inevitably far-fetched and all in all this was wonderful holiday reading. Ramble House deserve heartfelt congratulations for making this lost classic available to modern puzzle fans at a very reasonable price.

Thursday 13 August 2009

The Birthday Present

I’m a huge fan of Ruth Rendell, whether writing under her own name or as Barbara Vine, and I’ve often cited A Judgment in Stone and A Fatal Inversion as favourite titles. The Lake of Darkness and A Demon in My View are almost as brilliant. But it’s been a while since I’ve read anything by her. No particular reason for this, though I was disappointed by Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, while finding Thirteen Steps Down at least a partial return to form.

On holiday I read The Birthday Present, a Vine title, and I had mixed feelings about it. As ever, I admired the author’s insight into disturbed minds and the strange behaviour. The story has two narrators. One is the brother in law of an Old Etonian Tory MP whose sleazy behaviour during the Thatcher era when the Conservative Party dominated the British political scene is the catalyst for the book’s events. Ivor Tesham embarks on an affair with a married woman (who, in a nice touch, has changed her name from Hilda to Hebe) which ends in tragedy, and Hebe’s accidental killing in a car crash. Ivor fears exposure, and conceals the part he played in the events that led to her death. He is not really a criminal (unlike one or two real-life Tory MPs of the time) but his selfishness is portrayed with clinical distaste by Rendell (a Labour party donor who was herself elevated to the House of Lords, from where she has presumably contemplated the sleazy antics of contemporary politicians with similar contempt).

The other narrator is one of Hebe’s friends, a woman teetering on the brink of derangement. She knows Ivor’s secret, and one of the questions that teases the reader throughout is whether she will expose the politician, and thus destroy him. Rendell is very persuasive when she describes the thought processes of deranged people, and much of the book is very gripping.

However, there are weaknesses. The early pages are rather ponderous, and the finale seems unsatisfactory. There is a great deal of foreshadowing of future events, and at times this got on my nerves. If you’re looking for likeable characters, you won’t find many here, and I also thought there were a couple of gaping plot holes.

So, to my mind this is not a book to rank with Vine’s masterpieces. I venture to express various reservations simply because she is such a great writer that I think she has to be judged by the highest standards – not in quite the same way, at least for the purposes of a short blog review, as a debut or mid-list writer, or a purveyor of action thrillers. But I must emphasise that I really did enjoy reading it and, subject to those caveats, can recommend it warmly.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Back to reality

I’ve had chance to draw breath (and, because all good things come to an end, go back to work) after my summer holiday – a break all the more welcome as it gave me a chance to make at least a small impression on my massive to-be-read pile.

A couple of nights in Barcelona were followed by a seven-night cruise of the Mediterranean on a ship called the Norwegian Gem. The highlight in Barcelona was undoubtedly a trip to the marvellous Parc Guell, with its Gaudi sculptures, which reminded me that I’ve yet to write up the short story idea I had on my last visit in October, for a tale to be called ‘Gaudi Night’. But the sight of all the living statues on the Ramblas gave me another storyline…

Cruising has provided the backdrop for a number of mystery novels. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie must be the best-known, but others include Too Much of Water by the under-estimated Bruce Hamilton, and Obelists at Sea by that writer of extraordinary puzzles, C. Daly King. And listening to one of the shipboard pianists gave me yet another cruise mystery idea. The only question is when I’ll get round to writing up these stories…

This was my first cruise for nineteen years – since before children arrived on the scene, that is. Cruising has changed in the interim – the ships are much bigger, the facilities much better, the food even more plentiful and fattening than before. For lazy travellers like me, it’s the ideal way to sample fresh parts of the world. And among the sunny spots I visited were Valletta (the signboard in the picture was the closest I camee to spotting the fabulous Falcon), Naples, Pompeii, Livorno, Pisa and its leaning tower, Tarquinia and Cannes. The Bogartesque artwork, by the way, comes from Cannes – not far from where some of the scenes of To Catch a Thief (which I covered in this blog recently) were filmed by Hitchcock.

And one final thing. All authors like a morale boost now and then. And I got one when I found some of my books in the ship library, which was otherwise dominated by American bestsellers.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Beautiful Shadow

The experience of listening to the Ripley Mysteries on CD sent me hurrying back to Andrew Wilson’s exhaustive biography of Ripley’s creator, Patricia Highsmith. Beautiful Shadow was first published six years ago.and it is a diligently researched and most capably written study of a writer who intrigued yet perplexed Wilson, as she did most of the people she met – as well as many of her readers.

Wilson is an experienced journalist, but this was his first book. It’s quite an achievement, and benefits from very extensive research. Wilson draws on Highsmith’s very extensive archive of unpublished personal papers, as well as on frank interviews with many close friends, to paint a portrait of a woman who, for all the richness of her life experiences, seems to have suffered a great deal of unhappiness. Wilson charts her often troubled sex life, her various health problems, and her curious upbringing - as well as her obsession with snails.

All that the book lacks, for my money, is a real sense of Highsmith’s place in literary history, and an assessment of her contribution to the development of the crime genre. She possessed a remarkable talent, which is shown not only in the Ripley books and Strangers on a Train, but also in that splendid study of a murderer, Deep Water. I believe her influence can be seen in the work of notable contemporary writers such as Ruth Rendell, but Wilson doesn’t explore this. He is to be congratulated, though, for having written an important book about a major novelist.

One unique feature of the book also deserves a quick mention. This is the only biography of a woman crime writer that I’ve read that includes a topless photo of the subject. You wouldn’t find anything similar in a book about Christie or Sayers, that’s for sure. The picture, taken when Highsmith was about 21, shows an attractive young woman, which makes it all the more sad when Wilson relates that, in her later years, Highsmith’s plainness of appearance came in for comment. Time didn’t treat her kindly, but it should do no harm to her literary reputation, which in the case of such a remarkable writer really ought to be assured.

Monday 10 August 2009

Wallander - The Village Idiot

I'm just back from my holidays, about which more soon. One of the many good things about getting away was the chance to catch up with a bit of reading - in fact, I was reminded of how hard it has become to carve out enough time to read novels. But I've devoured four good ones, while soaking up the sun, and will have a bit to say about each of them.

Meanwhile, I raved recently about the excellence of the Swedish TV interpretation of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. ‘Mastermind’ was superb. Just before going away, I watched ‘The Village Idiot’, again with Krister Henriksson in the lead role, world-weary as ever, and my good impression has been confirmed, even though I didn’t think this story was in the same street as ‘Mastermind’.

On reflection, I think the brilliantly enigmatic feel of the early scenes of ‘Mastermind’ reminded me, subtly, of the appeal of early episodes of ‘Taggart’, more than twenty years ago. In the days when Mark McManus starred as Jim Taggart, and Glenn Chandler wrote most of the scripts, the Glaswegian cop series was unmissable, as far as I was concerned. Now, sadly, it is pretty routine, and the current run of stories rarely sets my pulse racing.

Perhaps the mistake with ‘Taggart’ has been to go on for too long. I hope that the same fate does not befall ‘Wallander’. In ‘The Village Idiot’, a troubled man strapped to a home-made bomb holds bank workers, and a woman customer, hostage, but the resolution of the siege is not the end of the story by a long chalk.

Interestingly, the script writer broke one of the ‘commandments’ for detective stories laid down in the 1920s by Father Ronald Knox. I won’t say which one, for fear of spoiling the story, but I think the script just about got away with it.. .

Sunday 9 August 2009

Ripley Under Water

The fifth and final CD in the Ripley Mysteries series was probably the most enjoyable as all. Ripley Under Water begins splendidly, with Tom receiving a phone call, supposedly from Dickie Greenleaf – the first person he murdered, years ago.

It soon becomes apparent that someone is obsessed with Tom – and it proves to be a new neighbour, a fellow American called Pritchard, who has moved in to the village with his brittle wife. Pritchard, it seems, is a sadist who beats up his wife every now and then. He has found out about Tom’s murky past, and is determined to subject him to mental torture.

Tom is, of course, not a good man to cross, and before long he is pitting his wits against Pritchard. It becomes increasingly clear that both men cannot survive. But who will be victor, and who the vanquished? And how many other people will suffer collateral damage?

I thought this story was beautifully done. The ending wasn’t entirely satisfactory, to my mind, but it was elegant and certainly in keeping with Highsmith’s eccentric yet fascinating style of story-telling

The five CDs in this set make for great, off-beat listening. Even if you are not an ardent Highsmith fan, I think you will probably enjoy them.

Saturday 8 August 2009

The Essence of Crime Fiction

In The Freewheelin’ Hakan Nesser, there’s a quote from Nesser which sums up beautifully the essence of mystery fiction. Offhand, I can’t think of anyone who has expressed it much more economically yet more accurately.

‘The crime novel is interesting because it is so clearly linked to the two basic questions every story tries to answer. What has happened? What’s going to happen now? The first is to do with the past and arouses curiosity. The second looks to the future and arouses excitement. In a detective story or crime novel, the relationship between those two time frames is interesting. The sequence of events comes together in the crime, which is both an end and a beginning. This is where the criminal investigation begins, and at the same time the crime marks the end of a conflict in the past.’

This analysis, it seems to me, can be applied as much to a Hitchcock movie as to, say, Trent’s Last Case or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Even some authors of classic, Golden Age style mysteries, played games with the starting point of their novels – Towards Zero by Agatha Christie and Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare are examples.

I’m not yet ready to start a new book, but when the time comes, I’ll give some thought to Nesser’s way of looking at the genre. Who knows, it may prompt fresh ideas.

Friday 7 August 2009


Simon Kernick’s action thrillers have earned him a massive readership, and it’s easy to see why. He specialises in placing his characters in extreme jeopardy right from the outset – and keeping them there all the way to a dramatic finale. The pace is fast, there is plenty of violence and the stakes are invariably high.

Target is his latest, and it features a psychopathic villain, a nasty criminal mastermind, and a kidnapping with a clever financial motive that turns out to be very different from the conventional ransom demand. I gulped it down very quickly, and was reminded, as with previous Kernick books, of my old favourite Francis Durbridge.

Kernick and Durbridge are writers of different generations, but both specialists in the cliffhanger chapter ending – and they are very good at building suspense in a manner that is genuinely thrilling. Both are unpretentious writers who share a real commitment to lively entertainment that deserves respect.

Target reads like a book that has been written quickly, and writing at speed is a method which has much to commend it when working on a thriller, because it helps to enhance the sheer relentlessness of the twists and turns of the narrative. The dictates of the story mean that there isn’t much scope for character development (although, as usual, we have the trusted character who turns out not to be what he or she seems) and there isn’t much in the way of atmospheric setting – but you get what you pay for, and readers who like an exciting roller coaster ride will be well satisfied. .

Thursday 6 August 2009

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

The Boy who Followed Ripley, fourth in Patricia Highsmith’s series, makes for very good CD listening. I felt it was a distinct improvement on Ripley’s Game. In this story, a young American lad who claims to be 18 but looks a couple of years younger approaches Ripley, and it soon becomes clear both that he has (for some mysterious reason) sought Ripley out, and also that the pair are very much on the same wavelength, psychologically and emotionally (because Ripley, for all his conscience deficit, can certainly be an emotional chap in certain circumstances.)

The truth about the boy’s identity, and his past, soon emerges. Despite the terrible nature of the boy’s revelations, Ripley is strongly attracted to him, and installs him in the house he shares with his rich and glamorous wife, nominally to help with the gardening.

The gay subtext of the earlier Ripley stories is much closer to the surface of this one, and plays a more important part in the development of the plot. There is extensive discussion of Highsmith's gay writing in Andrew Wilson's important biography of her, Beautiful Shadow, which will be the subject of a future post.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

One Missed Call

One Missed Call is a 2008 movie with a cast unknown to me, but a screenplay written by that very accomplished thriller merchant Andrew Klavan. The film is, in fact, a re-make of a successful Japanese movie of a few years earlier called Chakushin Ari.

The premise is gripping. A young woman called Beth is terrified by the deaths of a group of friends, all of whom suffer unpleasant fates after receiving phone calls, apparently from themselves in the future, showing the precise times of their demise. Beth’s attempts to convince a senior police woman of the connection between the fatalities get nowhere (bizarrely) but a detective whose sister has died in similar circumstances is more willing to listen.

From that point, it has to be said, the plot descends into horror-hokum. We aren’t talking Alfred Hitchcock or Claude Chabrol here. There’s something slick and superficial about the way the story unfolds – we’ve been here a good many times before. It isn’t a truly sophisticated genre.

Nevertheless, the pace and confidence of the script is a reminder of Klavan's expertise. These qualities carry the viewer along, without the need to delve too deeply into character or motive. I found the movie entertained me satisfactorily on an evening when I was more than ready for a bit of mindless time-passing.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Adrian Lyne

After watching the Richard Gere movie Unfaithful the other day, I looked up details of the director Adrian Lyne. His name rang a bell, and I soon realised why – his CV includes a number of highly successful movies, including the ultra-memorable Fatal Attraction.

It turns out that his other achievements include Flashdance, and directing the music video of a song from the soundtrack, ‘Maniac’, which I’ve always liked (it’s performed in suitably manic style by Michael Sembello in the film.)

Unfaithful is a good film, which has earned much critical acclaim. And although I called it a ‘Richard Gere movie’, in truth the show belongs to Diane Lane, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as Gere’s wife. Lane also starred in Untraceable, which I covered on this blog a while back. She is a fine performer, and also very lovely.

Lovely enough, in the film, to be seduced by a glamorous Frenchman. Their torrid affair is conducted so carelessly that it’s no surprise when Gere gets to hear rumours of it. He hires a private detective to follow Lane, and a series of calamities ensue. The film does, at times, move excruciatingly slowly, but it’s very well-made. Lyne is a genuinely accomplished director.

Monday 3 August 2009

Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh was one of the great names of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but I I’ve seldom if ever mentioned her in this blog. The omission isn’t due to disregard. In my teens, I read quite a few of her books, but although I thought her a smooth writer, the plots didn’t match up to those of Christie or Sayers, and before long I focused my attention on more contemporary writers, such as Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons.

But every now and then I’ve dabbled in Marsh. For instance, I watched one or two of the Inspector Alleyn mysteries on television, and I recently treated myself to the box set (when I’ll ever find time to watch all the episodes is a conundrum I haven’t solved as yet.) And I very much enjoyed Margaret Lewis’s biography of Ngaio. It’s a substantial work, tirelessly researched, by an academic with a huge love of detective fiction. In fact, Margaret, along with her husband Peter, preside over Flambard Press, an excellent small press who brought out Dancing for the Hangman late last year.

Margaret also helped me to include a short article by Ngaio which I featured in a collection of Northern crime writing called Northern Blood. How I managed to justify including something by a New Zealander in a book focusing on the North of England is another story!

I’ve now obtained a copy of Ngaio Marsh: the woman and her work. This is a collection of essays edited by B.J.Rahn – who, is, like Margaret, an academic whose passion for the genre is matched by her knowledge and understanding of it. The contributors include Margaret, Julian Symons, Catherine Aird, Harry Keating and Doug Greene. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Grosse Pointe Blank

Grosse Pointe Blank is a movie that has attracted such positive reviews that I’ve been meaning to get round to watching it for years. Then again, the list of things that I’ve been meaning to get round to doing is alarmingly lengthy…however, I have finally managed to catch up with the film, and I’m very glad I did.

It’s a dark comedy about a professional killer called Martin Blank, played by John Cusack, whose client wants him to carry out a hit in his home town – the eponymous Grosse Pointe Blank, in Michigan. The contract coincides with the 10-year reunion of Martin’s old school, and he has the chance to meet up again with the lovely Deb (played by Minnie Driver) whom he deserted when he left town abruptly a decade earlier.

Matters are complicated by the fact that Martin has become increasingly troubled by his work. He’s seeking psychiatric support from an unwilling shrink (well played by Alan Arkin) and a variety of other killers are after his blood. They include Dan Aykroyd, who wants to establish a club of professional assassins, and who is miffed that Martin doesn’t want to join.

This is a really enjoyable movie, with some very funny lines and scenes. One of my favourite moments occurs when Martin is involved in a gun battle with one of the hitmen in a minimart. The shop assistant is so absorbed in a blood-and-thunder video game that he has no idea what is happening all around him.

Saturday 1 August 2009

Ripley's Game

As I listened to the third CD of the Ripley Mysteries – this time it was Ripley’s Game – I found myself admiring the intensity that Ian Hart brings to the role of Tom Ripley. I’m not familiar with Hart as an actor, but judging by these performances, he is truly a class act. He captures Tom’s ambiguous nature and handles the American accent (to my ear at least) flawlessly. It’s a very convincing portrayal.

I haven’t read the novel on which Ripley’s Game is based, and this may be a disadvantage. The story sees Tom becoming involved with an Englishman called Jonathan, who is induced by one of Tom’s dodgy chums, Reeves, to commit a murder. Soon a second commission is forthcoming, and Tom helps Jonathan out. Before long, the two men become quite attached to each other – with potentially disastrous results.

One of the off-putting features of Highsmith’s work to some readers is its heavy reliance on coincidence and on behaviour that seems irrational on the part of the leading characters. At her best, Highsmith(like the wonderful Ruth Rendell,whom she surely influenced) overcomes these difficulties triumphantly, and manages to say something of real interest about human relationships.

In this particular case, though, I wasn’t entirely convinced. Why would Tom pit himself not only against the forces of law and order, but also against the Mafia? He is impulsive and somewhat lacking in conscience, yes, but he isn’t stupid. I think I’ll have to read the novel to see if it seems more credible.

My own feeling is that Rendell is, overall, an even more successful and gifted writer than Highsmith. But that is to judge by the highest standard. Highsmith, for all her irritating quirks, is fascinating, and she played a crucial part in the development of the novel of psychological suspense.