Monday 30 November 2009

The First Verdict

Whenever one produces a new book, inevitably one awaits the verdict of readers and reviewers with a mixture of hope and trepidation. It's important, I think, for an author to retain belief in his or her book even if it is not widely appreciated to begin with - but of course, it's much more pleasurable if the early reaction is positive.

I have high hopes of The Serpent Pool, because although I struggled over it at first, later on it felt as though the plot strands had come together in just the way I'd hoped when I started out on chapter one. And the response of my agent and various publishers has been extremely encouraging. Even so, that is no guarantee of good reviews (or any reviews, these days.)

So I'm glad to say that Booklist has given the novel the thumbs-up in advance of publication, and I'm so pleased and relieved that I can't resist recording David Pitt's assessment in full:

'Book lovers, especially fans of nineteenth-century writer and opium addict Thomas de Quincey, will enjoy the latest Lake District mystery. DCI Hannah Scarlett reopens another cold case, this one involving the drowning death, seven years ago, of a young woman. But Hannah is distracted by her personal life, especially by her rocky relationship with book dealer Marc Amos, who is himself rather upset over the death of one his best customers (whose murder-by-fire opens the novel). Meanwhile, Hannah’s friend and sometime sidekick, historian Daniel Kind, is deep into a new book on de Quincey (who was among the first writers to consider murder as the basis of a literary art form), but he, too, soon becomes distracted: his sister thinks she has accidentally killed her lover, who also happens to be a book collector. In his usual leisurely but always compelling way, Edwards pulls together these various plot threads, rewarding the patient reader with a story that is complex and intellectually stimulating. Certainly the most labyrinthine of the Lake District novels, but perhaps also the best.'

Sunday 29 November 2009

Five Little Pigs

In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran hails Five Little Pigs as the greatest of her ‘murder in the past’ plots. He suggests that it is her most impressive combination of detective and ‘straight’ novel. I agree, though I’d add that some of the books in which she focuses essentially on a creating a complex mystery are even more brilliant. But Five Little Pigs is an impressive book, with more effective characterisation than in much of her work.

Christie often found inspiration for her plots in nursery rhymes, and the ‘five little pigs’ rhyme is there at the beginning – but Curran points out that before the detail of the story took shape, ‘she had considered a different murder method, a different murderer and different suspects.’

Not until she had indulged in a good deal of trial and error did Christie come up with the scenario she eventually chose. And what a chilling scenario it is – with the culprit watching the victim die. It’s much more horrifying, to my mind, than most of the graphic torture scenes so commonly found in modern books about serial killings. I would have assumed it was Christie’s starting point for the story, but far from it.

Writers like me can learn a lot from seeing how Christie played around with ideas, trying them out for size, discarding many plot twists that had superficial appeal in favour of alternatives that worked more effectively in the particular context. It’s a reminder that writing involves endless revision – and not just once one has completed the first draft.

I don’t work in the same way as Christie, but I empathise with many of her methods. When writing The Serpent Pool, I struggled over one aspect of the story for a long time. At a late stage, a way forward occurred to me. I am fairly confident that when people read the book, that late twist will seem fundamental to the whole story. As soon as it struck me, it felt ‘right’. But I confess – it did take an awfully long time to strike me!

Saturday 28 November 2009


Borders UK has gone into administration, and I’m sorry to hear it. We need all the bookshops we can get, and I have a soft spot for several of the Borders stores – and not just because they have often stocked my titles in gratifying quantities (surely, though, that can’t be why the business has run into trouble?)

The very first Murder Squad event, way back in 2000, was held at a Borders store in Ellesmere Port. I remember it very fondly – in the nine years our collective of Northern crime writers has been going, the seven founder members haven’t all appeared together that many times. But it was a good evening, and not long after, we all appeared at the Borders store in John Baker’s York.

Here’s a confession, though. Not every Borders event I’ve attended has been quite so successful. I recall one event with Kate Ellis and Chris Simms – two first-rate writers – where the turn-out was thin (and if you discounted those who were friends of Kate’s, it was very, very thin!). But even then, we had a good time, not least in the pub afterwards. It was my first meeting with Chris, and I’ve been pleased to see his career take off in a big way since. He’s currently working on an interesting short story project with which I am likely to become involved – more news about this at a future date.

I can only hope that the business can be salvaged, and that those large and appealing stores don’t disappear altogether. Of course, like many writers, I have an especially soft spot for smaller independent bookshops. But there are some marvellous people working for the chains, and it would be really sad if many jobs were lost as a result of Borders’ inability to withstand the pressures of the modern book-selling market.

Friday 27 November 2009

Forgotten Book - The Last of Philip Banter

I can never resist a book with a truly intriguing premise, and The Last of Philip Banter boasts one of the best, making it a worthy entrant in Patti Abbot's catalogue of Forgotten Books. It is one of three novels of psychological suspense which John Franklin Bardin wrote between 1946 and 1948, and although they did not attract too much attention at the time, the advocacy of that great critic Julian Symons ensured that they reached a wider readership over the years.

Symons seems to have managed to persuade Penguin Books to put together The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus (to which he contributed an introduction) in 1976. I was a student at the time and this was one of the few books, other than pricey legal textbooks, that I bought, rather than borrowed from a library. I definitely was not disappointed. The Deadly Percheron and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly are, perhaps, more admired than The Last of Philip Banter, but nevertheless it is the less celebrated book for which I have an especially soft spot.

Philip Banter is an advertising man with marriage trouble and a drink problem. He finds a typed manuscript on his office desk, apparently typed by himself, which confuses past and future. It describes what is going to happen as though it had happened already. Then the ‘predictions’ start to come true….

It’s a gripping concept, and a fluently written novel. In later years, Bardin (1916-1981) wrote a few more crime novels under pseudonyms, but they didn’t compare in intensity to the three early books. But I share Symons’ admiration for his work.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Talking About Detective Fiction

I devoured P.D. James’ new book about detective stories with a great deal of enthusiasm, as well as interest. Talking About Detective Fiction is a short book, and naturally, therefore, it cannot compare with some of the much more detailed studies of the genre (my favourite remains Julian Symons’ masterly Bloody Murder, and I was pleased to see that Symons is mentioned more than once by James.) But it is a pleasure to read.

With books of this kind, much critical attention often focuses on the boundaries that the author chooses to draw. Whereas Symons tried to show that the detective story had transformed into the crime novel, James differentiates the detective story both from ‘mainstream fiction and the generality of crime novels’. The difference, she argues, is that detective stories have ‘a highly organised structure and recognised conventions.’ The trouble with generalised dividing lines, of course, is that one can always come up with exceptions to the general rule. But this doesn’t really matter. James, like Symons, offers an assessment of our favourite genre that is articulate and appealing.

This is a highly personal book, and I found James’ references to her own work illuminating. She emphasises, of course, her fascination with settings for murder and explains how, in Original Sin, she tried to ensure that the River Thames exerted ‘a unifying and dominant influence on both the characters and the plot.’

Whenever I have heard James speak, I have been struck by her very agreeable wit – something which is not as evident in her novels, which can be rather bleak in mood. For instance, I liked her comment here about Baroness Orczy’s detective Lady Molly, who has the blokes at Scotland Yard swooning as she hunts for the truth about the murder for which her husband was wrongly convicted: ‘I suspect that Lady Molly’s husband was in no hurry to be liberated from Dartmoor Prison.’ Quite.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Ian Rankin and Jekyll and Hyde

I watched Ian Rankn’s documentary about Robert Louis Stevenson and the writing of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with a good deal of interest. Ian is an effective presenter, and he did a good job in explaining the eternal appeal of this very memorable novella.

So the story goes, Stevenson’s wife reacted negatively to the first draft of the story, so he burned the manuscript. Thankfully, he rewrote it, and in the process created a masterpiece. The idea of the duality of human nature is truly fascinating, and in a short space, Stevenson told a tale so vivid that the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has entered the language.

It’s hard for me to understand why some commentators (apparently Virginia Woolf was one of them) have been dismissive of Stevenson’s literary accomplishments. Despite the fact that his life was short and dogged by ill-health, he produced an extraordinary range of work. As a boy, I loved Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but if he’d written nothing other than The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he would merit a place in a literary hall of fame.

Ian Rankin’s admiration of Stevenson’s imaginative power shone through the programme. It’s an admiration that I share.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Poirot and a Lake District Mystery

I was amazed, the other day, to chance upon a repeat on ITV3 of an episode of Poirot from 1990 that I hadn’t seen before, and which was set in the Lake District. I couldn’t remember an Agatha Christie story set in the Lakes – despite the fact that she knew Cheshire through her visits to Abney Hall and Marple, I am pretty sure that she wrote fewer stories set in the north of England than in the Middle East.

The story in question was based on ‘Double Sin’, which (in the UK) appears in the posthumous collection entitled Poirot’s Early Cases. The literary Lakes mystery was easily solved – in the original version, the story is set on the south coast of England, with which Dame Agatha was very familiar indeed.

The televised adaptation – written by the late Clive Exton, a first class screenwriter whose work was consistently reliable – benefited considerably from the scenic backdrop. The mystery was slight, involving a scam concerning the sale of valuable Victorian miniatures, but the interplay between Poirot, Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp was done so agreeably that an hour passed by very enjoyably.

As a postscript to this Lake District post, I want to add how shocked and saddened I have been to see the television pictures showing the devastation wrought by floods in parts of Cumbria, including Cockermouth, where Wordsworth lived, and Keswick, where I stayed just a month ago. My heart goes out to those whose lives have been so dreadfully affected.

Monday 23 November 2009

A Book Lover's Paradise

I’ve been aware that St Deiniol’s Library is something special for many years, but a conversation in Ludlow during the summer set me thinking. A fellow writer who lives in the South of England told me that she’d spent time there working on her novel, and she’d found it a wonderful ‘get away from it all’ place where she could write and research. Given that St Deiniol’s is quite a journey from her home, it was clear that the place must exert a strong pull.

When I was playing about with ideas for my next novel, it struck me that somewhere like St Deiniol’s might provide a good background.for a few scenes. So it was about time I had a look at the place, even if I meant to transplant a fictionalised version of it to the Lake District. And I’m very glad I did.

Let me explain. St Deiniol’s Library is tucked away in the small Welsh town of Hawarden, not far from the border with my home county, Cheshire. It was founded in 1889 by William Ewart Gladstone, the legendary politician who served as Prime Minister no fewer than four times. Gladstone came from Hawarden and he donated his own massive book collection to get it off the ground, though he didn’t live to see the project completed.

It’s now a remarkable – I’m tempted to say, unique - place, with a wonderful book collection that has an emphasis on scholarship and religious studies. The interior of the library is marvellously atmospheric, but there is more - you can actually stay there overnight! For St Deiniol’s is a residential library which accommodates visitors at a remarkably modest price. There’s not only a pleasant restaurant but a lovely drawing room where you can read to your heart’s content in peace and quiet. Conferences take place regularly – one on creative writing next spring, I noticed - and there are plans to build an Islamic studies reading room.

I only had time for a short visit to St Deiniol’s, but I was seriously impressed. I will be back, for sure.

Sunday 22 November 2009

The ABC Murders

Everywhere you look in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran, there are insights into the thought processes of an extraordinary writer that I find truly fascinating. One of the points that emerges very clearly is that good plots do not necessarily come into a writer’s mind fully formed. They often evolve over time.

This is something I needed to learn as a young writer. When, in my twenties, I wanted to write a murder mystery, I was daunted by the challenge of dreaming up a complex plot. Only when I realised that you can build up your story bit by bit did I really make progress.

A good example of the Christie technique is provided by her notes on The ABC Murders, which I believe is one of the finest whodunits ever written, with a central device that has been borrowed by many later writers (including several of real distinction.) It turns out that Christie flirted with the idea of having the murderer as one of the supposed victims of a serial killer. She pondered having a house party in the story – there isn’t one in the book. And, remarkably, her early notes make no mention of the alphabetical sequence which is at the heart of the novel. This seems to have occurred to her later.

It turns out that the first ‘A’ murder was originally due to take place in Aberystwyth, a resort I know and like. But for some reason she changed her mind and shifted the crime to Andover. It was left to Malcolm Pryce to make Aberystwyth a name to be reckoned with in crime fiction….

Saturday 21 November 2009

Anticipating Diana Devon

I’ve never had any dealings with the publishers Robert Hale, but I am full of admiration for the way in which they have achieved the publication of all the previously uncollected short stories by that wonderful writer Michael Gilbert.

The latest book of Gilbert stories has just landed on my doorstep, courtesy of Tangled Web UK, for whom I shall be reviewing the collection. It’s called The Murder of Diana Devon and Other Mysteries, and it’s been edited by John Cooper (co-author of a wonderful book about collecting detective fiction which I’d love to see reissued and brought up to date.)

Cooper says in his introduction that Gilbert ‘was one of the greatest crime writers to emerge after World War II’. He was awarded the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger and both the Mystery Writers of America and the Swedish Academy of Detection honoured him as a Grand Master. He published 30 novels and no fewer than 185 short stories, all of which have now been gathered together in 14 volumes.

Gilbert was a fluent and varied writer, and although Smallbone Deceased is widely regarded as his masterpiece, many of his other novels can still be read with enormous pleasure. I’ve mentioned some of them on this blog over the last couple of years. He was equally adept at the short form, and I’m anticipating The Murder of Diana Devon with a great deal of pleasure.

Friday 20 November 2009

Forgotten Book - Victims

One of the more successful British crime writers of the 1980s was B.M. Gill. She was a CWA Gold Dagger winner, yet her name is seldom mentioned today, and I think her 1981 title Victims is an eminently suitable entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. She was a novelist who eschewed personal publicity, and this may account for the undeserved neglect of her work.

B.M. Gill was the pseudonym used by Barbara Margaret Trimble, who also wrote as Margaret Blake. Born in 1921, she began her crime writing career with a thriller, Target Westminster, which I haven’t read and which wasn’t conspicuously successful, but she found her feet with a sound psychological suspense novel set in a school and called Death Drop.

Victims followed. It introduces DCI Tom Maybridge, a likeable cop who returned in some of Gill’s later books. The focus of the story is on the apparent persecution of a neurosurgeon called Paul McKendrick. Three people who are associated with him are murdered – but is McKendrick the principal target?

Victims reads well to this day. It offers a good combination of detection and psychological suspense, and it’s not surprising that Gill’s writing sometimes prompted comparisons with P.D.James. She proceeded to win the CWA Gold Dagger for The Twelfth Juror, while Seminar for Murder (in which Maybridge attends a crime fiction seminar) is very enjoyable.

Unfortunately, her last crime novel, The Fifth Rapunzel, appeared as long ago as 1991, and since then, she has completely blipped off the radar. A fellow admirer tried to find out from her publishers some time ago what had happened to her, but answer came there none. All I can say is that B.M.Gill’s career may have been relatively short, but it demonstrated real accomplishment.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Checking out the Bookshops

There’s a dilemma that authors face whenever they go into a bookshop (and, naturally, they go into bookshops as often as they can! Should they check to see if their own latest book is in stock?

You might think this is a no-brainer. Why shouldn’t one check? But it can be rather demoralising to keep finding that your titles are nowhere to be seen! One can always console oneself (using a bit of writer’s imagination) that perhaps the shop ordered heavily and sold out quickly. But in that case, why are they so many best-sellers still left on the shelves?

There are subsidiary questions. If one’s book is nowhere to be seen, should the reaction be to ask the store manager why? Or ring the publisher with one more complaint? Tempting, possibly, but neither is a good way to win friends and influence people.

And what if the book is there? Should one march up to the shop staff and offer to sign the stock? Admittedly, I ask all these questions with tongue in cheek. But I think it’s true that writers tend (big generalisation, I know there are many exceptions) to be rather reticent people whose morale can be fragile. Amongst the many pleasures of bookshop visiting, then, there are one or two potential pitfalls.

And no, I don’t usually introduce myself when I visit bookshops, even though some friends have recommended that I should routinely do so. When The Serpent Pool finally comes out next February, should I be braver?

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Murder Most English

Adapting crime fiction into successful television is a task that demands a great deal of skill. This is all the more so when you are talking about humorous crime fiction. Humour on the page doesn’t always translate effectively on to the screen – and humorous television can also become dated very quickly.

With this in mind, I started watching my new box set of Murder Most English with a degree of trepidation. This is the series based on Colin Watson’s deservedly acclaimed Flaxborough Chronicles. I missed it when it was first shown during my student days, so I wanted to see what I had missed.

The first episode is Hopjoy was Here – I covered the book in a favourable review a few months back. The screenplay was written by Richard Harris – not the actor, but a highly experienced tv scriptwriter, whose many credits include Adam Adamant Lives! The Avengers, Shoestring and Outside Edge. The lead detective role was taken by the late Anton Rodgers, backed up by a young Christopher Timothy.

Unfortunately, I was rather underwhelmed by the show. Rodgers and Timothy do a likeable job, but some of the acting of the supporting cast, including the prime suspect and the forensic pathologist, struck me as sub-optimal, to put it kindly. That trepidation seems justified. I will, though, give the other episodes a try.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks

I’ve already expressed my enthusiasm for John Curran’s analysis of Agatha Christie’s plotting notebooks. One of the many insights that fascinated me is the way in which Christie played around with ideas, sometimes for years, before coming up with an approach to a story that satisfied her.

Something that Christie’s critics foolishly overlook when they dismiss her as a ‘cosy’ writer whose characters were ‘cardboard cut-outs’ is her determination to experiment, and to push the boundaries of the whodunit. Her originality of approach is one of the explanations for her enormous success. Curran rightly points out, for instance, that relatively few of her novels are set in the cosy English villages with which she is so often associated. Her range of settings was remarkable.

One of her most interesting ideas was to set a murder mystery in Ancient Egypt. Death Comes as the End is in some ways a flawed book, although I do like it. I was intrigued to learn from Curran that Christie toyed with a number of different possible culprits.

But most intriguing of all is the revelation that Christie toyed with having a modern day story running in parallel to the ancient one. Shades of Possession or The French Lieutenant’s Woman – but this is not a concept that (so far as I know) has ever been adopted in a murder mystery. It’s a great idea, and someone really ought to give it a crack, even though Christie didn’t. I’m almost tempted myself….

Monday 16 November 2009

The Waters of Mars

As I’ve mentioned in responding to comments on my post on Saturday, I share the view that the links between crime fiction and science fiction are very strong. A long list of the fine writers who have worked in both genres includes Isaac Asimov, John Sladek, Fredric Brown, and John Wyndham (though Wyndham seems to have given up on detective fiction once the Golden Age had passed.)

I was reminded of the crossover between genres by the TV special of Doctor Who which was screened last night. The Waters of Mars, in which the excellent David Tennant was paired with Lindsay Duincan, saw the Doctor land on the red planet and become embroiled in a disastrous confrontation between the first human settlers on the planet and dark, water-based forces from Ancient Mars which were hell-bent on taking over the incomers. In a nice joke, the settlers occupy Bowie Base One – a nod to the composer of that marvellous song ‘Life on Mars.’

In the last series of Doctor Who, my favourite episode featured Agatha Christie, and countless quips based on the titles of Christie’s detective novels. Here, the focus of the story was on psychological suspense, with a classic race against time. The Doctor knows that the settlers are about to die, on the very day he lands on Mars, and he fears that he can do little or nothing to save them. But might the course of history be changed in any event – and what is to happen to the Doctor himself?

The writers of The Waters of March did a good job of ratcheting up the tension – a skill required of both sci-fi and crime writers. Less time than usual was devoted to the internal anguish of the characters, a feature of the modern Doctor Who stories which sometimes slows down the action. At its best, Doctor Who is a terrific show, and The Waters of March was one of the most compelling and sharply written episodes I’ve watched for some time.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Dancing in the USA

This year has been rather strange in some ways, not least because I haven’t published a brand new novel. My last book came out just before the end of 2008, and The Serpent Pool will appear next February. But I have had some overseas publications to celebrate, and I’m pleased that Dancing for the Hangman will appear under the Five Star imprint on 9 December.

I know that I’m very fortunate, in the current climate, to have books published by two American publishers. While Poisoned Pen Press have done a fantastic job in bringing out, and publicisng, the Lake District Mysteries, and Waterloo Sunset, Five Star published the first two Harry Devlins as well as the new book about the misadventures of Dr Crippen.

The reviews of Dancing in the UK were great, and the first American review has just appeared, in advance of publication. Booklist calls it ‘a clever reappraisal of the case’ and concludes: ‘Alternately funny and unsettling, the book examines the historical record, filling in some of the gaps and offering up new answers for some of the case’s key questions. An excellent example of the nonfiction novel.’

You can never be sure how reviewers will react to a book, however much you care about it and believe in it. Dancing is very different from my other novels, but it is a book which I am particularly proud to have written, and so it’s all the more pleasing that the critical response has been so positive.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Bad Blood

The overlapping territory between stories with a sci-fi or paranormal element and crime fiction is one that interests me a good deal. I mentioned a while back the vampiric elements that I introduced into the seventh Harry Devlin novel, First Cut is the Deepest – although the murder mystery there had a solution based entirely in the rational world.

But sometimes stories about murder wander away from the established science and into realms of speculative fiction. An example is ‘Bad Blood’, an episode from ‘The X Files’ that I’ve just watched. It’s a story set mainly in a tiny community called Chaney, somewhere in Texas. Half a dozen cattle have been killed and exsanguinated, and when murder is done, Mulder and Scully are called in. But is there a vampire at work, or do the crimes have a different explanation?

Matters are complicated by the fact that we know from the start that Mulder has killed a young man, whom he thought was a vampire, and the events leading up to this are seen first through Scully’s eyes and then through Mulder’s. After the flashbacks, the story moves forward, and it becomes apparent that all in Chaney is not as it seems.

There are several elements in this story that have links with crime fiction – there are some neat clues, and one part of the plot reminded me of a book by Val McDermid. This is not, in the end, so much a crime story as an exercise in fantasy fiction. But it’s a pretty good story, cleverly told.

Friday 13 November 2009

Forgotten Book - Woman at Risk

I’m fairly confident that few readers of this blog will be familiar with my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books – even though it dates back only as far as 1974, and its author died just nine years ago, not too long after publishing his final novel. The book I’ve chosen is Woman at Risk, the author is Miles Tripp.

Tripp qualified as a solicitor after serving in the RAF during the war, and he produced no fewer than 37 novels, 14 of them featuring a private eye called John Samson. During the 1970s, I had a phase of enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve blogged previously about a very unusual novel of psychological suspense of his called Five Minutes with a Stranger.

Woman at Risk is a very different, possibly unique, novel. I don’t want to say too much about its structure, because that would spoil some of the surprises in store for anyone who cares to read it. In a nutshell, it’s a short but clever novel, with a number of quite remarkable twists.

On the face of it, the story is about a rather selfish solicitor called Robert, whose wife mysteriously disappeared three years ago. He is a workaholic and his social life is confined to a regular Friday evening get-together in a pub with three other men. But he starts an affair with the wife of a client, and in the first few pages of the story, the woman dies in his house. In a panic, he decides to bury her body in a wood. Suffice to say that this is not a wise decision, and that his sins are bound to find him out. But what his sins are, and how they are found out, are questions to which few readers will guess the answers at an early stage of this ingenious narrative.

There’s just a hint of Boileau and Narcejac about some of the melodramatic touches in this novel, and I really enjoyed devouring it. I picked up my copy by chance from a catalogue issued by that very good bookseller, Jamie Sturgeon of Littlehampton. I was attracted by Tripp’s inscription in this copy to a policeman friend. He says that ‘Anglia TV bought the TV rights of this book but couldn’t get a suitable script written.’ This puzzled me, until I realised how the complexity of the story might well defeat a script writer. To find out what I mean, you’ll have to read the book – and if you do, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Thursday 12 November 2009


A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession plays a part in the story-line of The Serpent Pool. It was a pleasure to give a nod to a book that I greatly admired when I first read it, not long after it won the Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize.) The novel is splendidly written, for sure, but it also tells a really good story – and there are some very well written books which don’t really do that as effectively as one might wish.

There’s a lot of debate about literary snobbery, and the reasons, or supposed reasons, why crime novels never seem to get close to winning the Man Booker. I don’t think crime writers should be overly sensitive about this sort of thing, but I do believe that there are some crime novels which deserve serious consideration when the best books of the year are ranked. Perhaps more serious consideration than they have actually received over the years.

It’s ironic that people doubt whether ‘genre’ novels are worthy of being classed as high-quality fiction, given that publishers are often keen to brand ‘literary’ novels as ‘detective stories’, no doubt in the hope that this will broaden their appeal to the reading public.

Possession, certainly, is a book that can be described as a kind of detective story. A young researcher called Roland Michell teams up with an academic, Maud Bailey, as they hunt for the mysterious truth behind the relationship between poet Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Byatt ensures that interest never flags as the story unfolds. I don’t know if she has any aspiration to write an out-and-out detective story; perhaps not. But I bet she could write a very good one, if she wanted.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

John Curran

I’ve been reading the recently published Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (‘Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making’) by John Curran. It’s an extraordinarily interesting book, and I will post a variety of thoughts about some of the material it contains in the coming days and weeks.

But first I want to express my admiration for the work of John Curran in ensuring that this material has seen the light of day. I don’t know John Curran personally, but I do know of him as someone with a great love of the work of Christie, and that enthusiasm is apparent in every page of this book.

Curran got to know Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson, and became a regular visitor to Christie’s old home, Greenway, in Devon. There he became immersed in the handwritten notes that Christie had crammed, over many years, into no fewer than 73 cheap exercise books. He deciphered her handwriting with painstaking care – a task that could only be accomplished efficiently by someone who knew the novels and stories intimately and could thus understand the many obscure references. According to Prichard’s foreword, ‘had to be prised out for meals, sometimes spending 12 hours a day immersed in the history of Agatha Christie’s work.’

This truly has been a labour of love. To uncover and interpret such a treasure trove of material – which I am sure must, in its scope and range, be unique in the history of crime fiction, given Christie’s fame, productivity, and mastery of plot – is an extraordinary achievement. Curran must have felt like a child put in charge of sweet shop. A wonderful experience, and he is a lucky chap to have had it. But he deserves that luck, and the gratitude of all Christie fans, for he has done a magnificent job. I have found his book absolutely enthralling – not only as a lifelong admirer of Christie myself, but as a crime writer fascinated by plot and puzzle. I can heartily recommend Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks to anyone who loves traditional mysteries and would like to learn more about the creative process.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

The Ourslers

Much as I like crime novels that explore character and matters of social significance, one of my guilty pleasures continues to be those detective stories which are, in essence, games between the writer and the reader – to see if the reader can pick up the clues to solve the mystery in good time before the truth is revealed.

The ‘game’ aspects of the detective story were highlighted when Father Ronal Knox devised, with tongue in cheek, his ‘ten commandments’ for the genre, and when the Detection Club devised its first ‘ritual’ to be observed at the induction of new members. Books started to appear that did more than just include a ‘challenge to the reader’ in the style of Ellery Queen – they were wholly devoted to mystery puzzles. The Baffle Book is an example, and in the late 1930s, Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links took things a stage further with their Crime Dossiers, starting with Murder off Miami.

I’ve written about the Crime Dossiers on my website, and I’m also interested in similar dossiers devised by those who followed in the footsteps of Wheatley and Links. Jamie Sturgeon recently supplied me with an example from 1950, Murder Meo to the Commissioner: The Carl Houston Case.

This dossier is written (or compiled) by Will Oursler and, though I haven’t yet studied it, I’ve done a bit of research on Oursler, whose work was unfamiliar to me. It turns out that he wrote a number of murder mysteries, along with various books about religion, a book about boy scouts, and a biography of the founder of Boys’ Town (who was famously portrayed on screen by Spencer Tracy).

The latter book was co-written with Will’s father, Fulton Oursler, and it turns out that Fulton also wrote about religion, and produced mysteries of his own, under the name Anthony Abbott. There are quite a few examples over the years of children following in their parents’ footsteps as mystery writers, but (although they evidently enjoyed considerable reputations in their day) the Ourslers were new names to me, though I had heard of Abbott, who I gather was fairly popular inhis day.

I shall report on Will’s crime dossier in due course…..

Monday 9 November 2009

A Small Step for Martin

…but a giant leap for his morale. I’ve just written the first couple of pages of the new Lake District Mystery, having had my synopsis approved – with enthusiasm! – by my agent.

It took me a long time to write The Serpent Pool, and I’m hoping that I will be able to produce the new one more quickly. One difference of approach is that I’ve reverted to planning the book rather more in advance – something I used to do in my early years as a novelist. I didn’t do much planning with The Serpent Pool, and on the whole, this slowed me down and made much of the writing of the first draft feel like wading through treacle.

I’m not going to say much that is specific about the new book until it is very well advanced (may be a long way off, then!) But I’m sure the writing process itself will prompt thoughts about the craft of fiction which I’m likely to post on this blog.

Now – a change of subject. So far, I’ve read only the first of Stieg Larsson’s three books. I mean to read the other two, but I’m not sure when this will be, due to countless other commitments. Can any reader of this blog help me on one question, please? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sees various references to the crime fiction genre (e.g. Val McDermid gets a mention) and what is described as a ‘locked room’ type of mystery. Do the other two books nod towards the genre in a similar way, and if so, in what respects?

Sunday 8 November 2009

Patrick Hamilton

There are three interesting biographies of Patrick Hamilton – few writers who work in the crime genre are so blessed, although maybe this is because Hamilton is not always described as a ‘crime writer’ (though he would be if he were working today, I think.) One of the books is Through a Glass Darkly, by Nigel Jones, a sound piece of work that is well worth reading.

Jones is in possession of many private papers relating to Hamilton, and was generous enough to make these available to Sean French, who wrote another biography not long afterwards. Sean French is now better known as one half of the best-selling crime-writing duo Nicci French, but his Patrick Hamilton: a life shows him to be a very accomplished biographer as well.

Rather spookily, French describes the sociopathic Ralph Ernest Gorse as an ‘oblique self-portrait’ of Hamilton. Like Jones, he doesn’t try to place Hamilton in the context of crime writing history generally (a missed opportunity, I feel) but he describes with some poignancy the bitter life of a man who knew great success, but also tragedy – he was disabled and disfigured when a motor car ran into him while he was crossing the road, his sex life was often depressing, he suffered mental problems, and his addiction to alcohol ultimately cost him his life. His judgment, it has to be said, was hopeless – a Marxist who never joined the Communist Party, he was a big fan of Stalin, and was bemused when the truth about his hero came out.

The third biography is The Light Went Out, by Patrick’s elder brother, Bruce Hamilton. There was a close and curious relationship between the two men. Bruce was also a writer, and much of his work unquestionably falls within the crime genre. His frustrated devotion to Patrick shines through the pages, even though, according to Sean French, the longer and unpublished version of the memoir casts a rather different light – he seems to have been jealous of Patrick’s greater literary talents.

Because Patrick was a fine writer, Bruce’s own literary achievements tend to be under-estimated, even by Sean French. I’ve read several of Bruce’s books, and they are interestingly different from the run of the mill whodunits of the time, though one or two of them show the same weird adoration of Stalin and Soviet Russia. But there’s no doubt that Patrick is, and will remain, better remembered, and these three books, taken together, provide copious fascinating nformation about a life of soured brilliance.

Another thing about Bruce, by the way (sorry, I just can’t resist trivia.) His godfather was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Saturday 7 November 2009

David Suchet and Poirot

ITV 3 repeated a documentary from 2005 the other day, which took us ‘behind the scenes’ with a year of Poirot stories for the small screen. I found it interesting, and a reminder of what a fine actor David Suchet is, and of how completely he has made the role of the Belgiam supersleuth his own.

There were clips from four episodes. One (The Mystery of the Blue Train) was based on a mediocre book, but the other three stories – Cards on the Table, After the Funeral, and Taken at the Flood, all boast high calibre plotting. But as one of the galaxy of talent in the various casts said, you can’t spot the murderer by figuring out who is the most famous star in the show, ‘because everyone is famous’!

Whenever I’ve seen Suchet interviewed, he comes across as a charming and modest man (the same seems to be true of his brother John, who was an affable news reader for many years.). It’s clear that he is a perfectionist, and that his attention to detail has helped to bring out the human side of Poirot. I think that, in original concept, he was something of a cipher, a great reasoning machine, with a personality that was largely composed of a collection of eccentric mannerisms. But out of Agatha Christie’s raw material, Suchet has fashioned a very appealing character. Among classic tv interpretations of detectives from novels, he is right up there with John Thaw’s Morse and Joan Hickson’s Jane Marple.

To my mind, Suchet is a better Poirot than Peter Ustinov, and far better than Albert Finney. One Poirot I haven’t seen is Tony Randall, who played the part in The Alphabet Murders, based on The ABC Murders. This is apparently a case of a very fine book and a rotten film adaptation, but I’ve always wanted to see it, to check whether the universally scornful reviews are justified, and just what the screenwriter did to mess up such a good story. But the film is unavailable on DVD and I’ve never seen it on telly. Maybe that speaks volumes?

Friday 6 November 2009

Forgotten Book - Who Goes Hang?

My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books for Friday is Who Goes Hang?, the debut novel of Stanley Hyland. Published in 1958, it was later described by Erik Routley, in his idiosyncratic survey of the ‘puritan pleasures’ of detective fiction as perhaps the last in the line of the ‘real sexless cerebral’ detective stories.

This was a novel which gained much from its author’s knowledge of the setting. Hyland was a Yorkshireman who went to work in the Houses of Parliament as a research librarian, and his book opens with the discovery by Fred Armytage, a workman carrying out repairs to the Clock Tower, of a mummified corpse in the wall cavity beneath Big Ben's bell chamber. The body is that of a man about 40, dressed in the clothes of the mid-nineteenth century. The crushing of the skull indicates that murder has been done.

Amongst those attending the inquest - conducted by the Coroner of the Royal Household and quite splendidly described - is a young M.P. called Hubert Bligh. He becomes intrigued by the case and gathers together a non-partisan committee of M.P.s to investigate further, with each member following a different line of research.

This is only the start of a neatly constructed story. The way in which Hyland feeds into his narrative substantial chunks of history without distracting interest from the central puzzle is especially interesting - the more so when one reads his note at the end of the book, which reveals just how much fact there is within the fiction. It even appears that repairs were indeed effected to the Clock Tower in l956, although not with the dramatic results that occurred in the novel.

Stanley Hyland only wrote two more crime novels, neither comparable to this one. He became heavily involved in politics and television. He was close to Harold Wilson and produced several of his election broadcasts. He was also involved in early TV shows focusing on do-it-yourself. A man of many talents, he died in 1997, at the age of 82.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Researching Place

To what extent should writers research the settings for their books? Opinions vary – after all, Harry Keating famously never visited India until long after his series about Inspector Ghote had won widespread acclaim, not least in India. I gather that the recently deceased Lionel Davidson didn't visit Tibet before writing the Gold Dagger winning The Rose of Tibet. But I think most writers nowadays like to be pretty familiar with their settings, and that’s certainly true of me.

But how do you acquire that familiarity? Sometimes it’s easier said than done. Many years ago, at a crime convention, a member of the audience from Liverpool expressed the view that the fact I hadn’t been born in the city disqualified me from writing about it. Working there for 20 years wasn’t enough. I think the general reaction from the audience was that this was absurd, and in fairness the chap in question (whom I decided to talk to later) eventually seemed to realise this.

With the Lake District, the challenge is different. I’ve never lived or worked there, although I do visit the area as often as I can to try to soak up the atmosphere – and get the details right. But with the Lakes as well as with Liverpool, what I suppose I’m really aiming to do is to convey my personal take on the setting. There is bound to be a degree of subjectivity. I was, therefore, especially gratified last year when The Arsenic Labyrinth was short-listed for Lakeland Book of the Year - the reaction from local people at the Awards lunch to my portrayal of the Lakes was very positive. The same was true this year, when I did a short tour of the area as the guest of Cumbria Libraries.

And finally, though I’m writing about real places, I also make up some of the component parts of those places, partly because I don't want to libel anyone unintentionally (easily done in a murder story set in a real place) and partly because a writer needs a degree of freedom with his or her fiction. You won’t find Brackdale, where Daniel Kind lives, on any map, just as you won’t find Empire Dock in Liverpool, where Harry Devlin has his flat. Authenticity is very important, but with fiction, ultimately the facts have to suit the story.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

The Point of Vanishing

Bit by bit, I’ve been catching up with episodes of Lewis that I’ve missed, and the latest is The Point of Vanishing, first shown in April. It’s written by Paul Rutman, who is responsible for the screenplay for the forthcoming Ann Cleeves television drama featuring Vera Stanhope. I gather that Rutman actually lives in Oxford, so he is ideally placed to be able to create the ‘feel’ of the city when writing for Lewis.

In this story, the key characters are a religious fanatic, and his housemate, and a celebrity atheist and his somewhat dysfunctional family. Early on, a man’s murdered corpse is discovered. Once he is identified as Steven Mullin, the religious fanatic, attention focuses on those with a motive to kill him. Heading the list are various members of the atheist’s family, because Mullin was responsible for a car crash that left the atheist’s teenage daughter permanently disabled.

There are plenty of twists and turns, including a pleasing identity switch (I think I am at least as keen on identity switches as a plot device as I am on locked rooms!) The character of Hathaway is developed by revelations of a failed romance, and for once Jenny Seagrove plays a part in which her enduring good looks are irrelevant, and she behaves unpleasantly throughout.

There were a few aspects of the plot that I found hard to swallow, including a birthday party for the disabled girl in which (because of the demands of the story) nobody paid attention to the birthday girl, enabling her to wheel herself off to a disastrous encounter in a maze. Given that US government security was also in attendance at the event, it did seem rather unlikely that the murderer would choose such an environment to commit his next crime. And the motivation of the killer was not quite credible, at least to me. But as ever, the production values were superb, and the quality of the performances meant this provided a pleasurable couple of hours of viewing.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Murderland concluded

The third and final episode of ITV’s serial Murderland, by David Pirie, was much meatier than last week’s. We finally learned the explanation for the murder of a single mum and part-time prostitute Sally, whose daughter Carrie, years later, is determined to solve the mystery so that she can get on with the rest of her life.

As part of her detective work, Carrie decided to start working at Cleo’s, the massage parlour where her mother had plied her trade, and this was one of several plot developments that tested my ability to suspend disbelief. The behaviour of a number of shifty characters associated with Cleo’s verged on the improbable – but at least this enabled Carrie to discover what had happened.

The investigation of cold cases fascinates me – as you might expect from Hannah Scarlett’s work in the Lake District Mysteries – and Murderland had plenty going for it. Above all, the acting was first rate. Robbie Coltrane put in a superb performance as Hain the discredited detective who loved Sally, while Carrie past and present was splendidly portrayed by Bel Powley and Amanda Hale respectively.

Watchable though the story was, however, I felt that the detail of the plot didn’t live up to the potential of the basic premise. The suspects other than Hain (who was obviously innocent) were thinly characterised, and the behaviour of the culprit, when unmasked, seemed to me to be unconvincing. Even though his actions did allow for a poignant conclusion to the story, I struggled to believe that particular individual would have acted in the way he did, given how, over many years, he'd successfully got away with murder.

Monday 2 November 2009

Lionel Davidson

I’ve only just learned, via the blogs of Bill Crider and Sarah Weinman, of the death less than a fortnight ago of Lionel Davidson, at the age of 87. It is sad news, for Lionel Davidson was a remarkable writer.

His work was very varied in nature, and he produced a number of books for children. But his literary reputation rests on his eight novels for adults, which range from serial crime to espionage and adventure thrillers.

Of those eight novels, no less than three won CWA Gold Daggers. Three out of eight! Think about it! It’s an astonishing success rate – who has ever matched it, far less surpassed it?

One of those titles was The Chelsea Murders, which I read not long after its publication in 1978 – it’s a book whose reputation hasn’t survived quite as well as one might have expected at the time, but it’s still a notable example of the serial killer mystery novel.

I never met Lionel, and to my regret I missed his being awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger eight years ago. However, I corresponded with him several times over the years and I formed a clear impression of a very pleasant man indeed. He responded promptly and most generously, for instance, when I asked if he would contribute to the CWA Golden Jubilee anthology that I was editing. And as a result, ‘Indian Rope Trick’ duly appeared in Mysterious Pleasures. I had hoped that our paths would cross at a Detection Club dinner, but it was not to be. I’m sorry about that, but he leaves a literary legacy which, although small in size, is truly formidable in quality.

Sunday 1 November 2009


I found my trip to the Lakes inspiring on more than one level. I’ve spent too long fiddling with the synopsis for the fifth Lake District Mystery, and wandering around the Lakes put me in the right mood to finish the job. The drive from Grasmere to Keswick is very attractive, and I was only sorry that time didn’t permit a short detour to Castlerigg, to see the old stone circle again.

Keswick is home to just 5,000 people, but it has a thriving atmosphere, and seems to have weathered the recession much better than most places. There’s a busy market on Thursdays and Saturdays, with stalls spilling down the main street from the Moot Hall, which is now a tourist information office. There’s a good second hand bookshop (hooray!) and an equally good independent book store, Bookends, as well as loads of places to eat and drink. The Theatre by the Lake is hugely popular, and I’d love to see a production there one day.

I was entertained by the news placard, which suggests that there isn’t too much everyday drama in real-life Keswick at the moment - impossible to resist the temptation to photograph it. Simply by walking around the town, and along the edge of the lake to Friar’s Crag (the first place John Ruskin remembered visiting as a child), I found I was getting ideas for my story. The atmosphere of Keswick is so charming that it seems mean to disturb it with a murder investigation

But a crime writer’s gotta do what a crime writer’s gotta do!