New Year's Eve is often a time for reflection. Plenty of good things have happened in the past twelve months, as well as, inevitably, some not so good. Here is a random selection of photos of a few of the moments I am delighted to remember from the past year.
This is also a time for listing the year’s highlights. I’ve been delighted by the reception accorded to Dancing for the Hangman, and Marshal Zeringue kindly featured it in his fascinating page 69 feature recently.
Looking ahead, publication of The Serpent Pool is not too far away, and I’m gratified by an extremely positive review from Kerrie, whose Mysteries in Paradise blog is a must-read for crime fans. I dropped her an email to thank her, and she invited me to list my ten favourite crime novels read in 2009. I’ve done just that here, and added my favourite non-fiction crime book as well, for good measure….
Thursday, 31 December 2009
New Year's Eve Thoughts
Wednesday, 30 December 2009
The League of Gentlemen
For the first time in many years, I’ve watched The League of Gentlemen, the classic 1960 film from which the comedy show took its name. It’s a black and white movie, broadly in the tradition of the Ealing Comedies, and a thoroughly good period piece, as well as excellent light entertainment that has retained its charm and grip.
The film was based on a book published a couple of years earlier by John Boland. The story involves a redundant and embittered senior army officer, at odds with post-war British society, who hatches a plan to rob a bank. He decides to rope in a number of former military men who have fallen on hard times in the years since the war, and who have indulged in a variety of crimes or shady dealings, but who bring a range of skills to his heist team.
The ensemble cast is led by Jack Hawkins, at his imperious best, and is full of names who dominated British cinema and television for many years. They include Bryan Forbes, who directed (his wife Nanette Newman also has a small role), Richard – later Lord – Attenborough, Terence Alexander (best remembered as Charlie Hungerford in the long-running Jersey cop series Bergerac) and a host of other fine performers. Even Oliver Reed has a walk-on part.
It’s a movie quite different in style from The Italian Job, made only nine years later, but very much a product of the Swinging Sixties, while The League of Gentlemen harks bark to an earlier time. As for John Boland, he was a prolific thriller writer, but I am not familiar with his other work – though the success of his most famous book did prompt him to bring back the Gentlemen for subsequent adventures.
Tuesday, 29 December 2009
I mentioned recently that I enjoyed Peter Lovesey’s latest novel, Skeleton Hill, and I’d like to supplement my comments on that book with a more general, abeit brief, outline of the work of an author who ranks highly on my list of all-time favourites.
One of the impressive features of Lovesey’s long career is that he has succeeded at various different types of mystery story – in this he resembles his brilliant friend Reginald Hill (who was also born in 1936, as was the estimable Robert Barnard.) For instance, he excels at the short form - ‘Youdunnit’, for instance, is a wonderful gimmick story.
He began his career with books about the Victorian detective Sergeant Cribb, and helped to cement the popularity of the history-mystery. The Cribb books were televised (though somehow I managed to miss the TV versions – one day I shall have to track down the DVDs.) with Alan Dobie in the lead role. My favourite of the books is Waxwork.
Bertie and the Seven Bodies was an entry in a series featuring the former Prince of Wales, and is an especially appealing light mystery, in the vein of And Then There Were None. His Peter Diamond books show his ability to achieve a consistently high standard when writing a contemporary series, and The Secret Hangman is a stand-out title. The Vault and The Circle are also very good.
Among the other Lovesey classics, Rough Cider has many admirers, but I’d like to highlight two very different books. On the Edge is a splendid one-off, set in the past, but really a novel of psychological suspense which was very well adapted for television a few years back. And then there is The False Inspector Dew, which takes elements of the Crippen case and weaves them into an absolutely fascinating mystery. Any writer would have been proud to have written either of these novels. But Peter Lovesey has done so much more, and so well.
Monday, 28 December 2009
Lonelyheart 4122 - and Outnumbered
I was disappointed by the first episode I watched of Murder Most English, the 70s mystery series now on DVD, so I’m glad to report that the second was a distinct improvement. This was Lonelyheart 4122, in which Inspector Purbright (Anton Rodgers, warming to the role) is called upon to investigate the unexplained disappearances of two respectable middle-aged women.
Before long, the detective decides that there is likely to be a connection between the missing women and an upmarket matrimonial agency run by a Mrs Staunch. But attempts to establish a link between the women and a particular male client of the agency get nowhere. So Purbright decides to keep an eye out for other potentially vulnerable women.
He lights upon Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, newly arrived in Flaxborough. She is a woman who intrigues him, and she is less than frank about the fact that not only has she signed up with the agency, but she has also met up with a rather predatory chap who says he is a retired naval officer. But it soon becomes clear that Miss Teatime is not as naïve as she seems, and that anyone who crosses her path needs to be very sharp-witted indeed.
I found this episode entertaining, though not up to the high level of the very enjoyable book by Colin Watson upon which it’s based. Brenda Bruce (who apparently was a notable classical actress, and the first victim in Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom) is a charismatic Miss Teatime, while John Carson, once a familiar figure on British TV (usually as a smooth villain), is appropriately awful as the gruff old salt.
Coming right up to date, I also wanted to mention Outnumbered - a UK series which had its Christmas special edition last night. This is a comedy, not a crime show (although the special did feature the aftermath of a burglary and a possible insurance scam) but I find it hugely entertaining, and I do admire the writing. It's the work of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (the latter also wrote for the superb time travel crime series, Life on Mars), and their scripts are both funny and, at times, poignant. There is much for anyone interested in the craft of writing to learn from scripts like these - the way that humour flows from character and situation, which the added twist, in this case, that the lines of the three young children who star in the show (and 'outnumber' their hapless parents, very believably played by Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner) are not fully scripted. The scenes featuring the kids' grandfather in particular are almost invariably funny and moving. Last night's excellent special was well up to standard.
Sunday, 27 December 2009
The snow I featured in my photos the other day has turned to ice, and our little cul-de-sac has transformed into a skating rink. Too dangerous to contemplate shifting the car. So what could be more appropriate than to seize the chance to watch a film set in a snowbound mansion?
This is 8 Women, aka 8 Femmes, and I became aware of it thanks to the very informative comments by Philip and Bob Cornwell in relation to my recent post about the play Trap for a Lonely Man, written by Robert Thomas. Thomas also wrote the play on which 8 Women is based, although the credits say that the movie ‘liberally adapted’ it, and this I can well believe.
In fact, the film version followed more than 40 years after its theatrical source, and my guess is that director Francois Ozon utilised Thomas’s clever multiple plot twists, whilst turning them into something Thomas never expected: a send-up of a classic, Christiesque scenario, - with songs! The resultant mish-mash of murder and music is weird, but very watchable – especially because the cast is quite dazzling. It includes Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, and Emmanuelle Beart, an extraordinary wealth of glamour and talent.
The eponymous eight women are all potential suspects in the murder of Marcel, a lecherous businessman on the verge of bankruptcy. Poor old Marcel never gets to utter a word, but it doesn’t matter because the women occupy all our attention, fighting amongst themselves, and embarking on voyages of self-discovery. Fun viewing, and a good way to spend a snowbound evening.
Saturday, 26 December 2009
What Santa Brought
I had a lovely Christmas Day and I do hope you did too. Amongst other pleasures, I was lucky that Santa recognised my continuing fascination with crime fiction, and delivered many good things that will keep me occupied for a long time to come. They will also, no doubt, provide plenty of material for future blog posts.
I’ve already dipped into a lavishly illustrated guide, Agatha Christie’s Devon, by Bret Hawthorne, and read the chapter about Burgh Island, which provided the setting for And Then There Were None, and Evil Under the Sun. I do love islands, and it is a place I am really keen to visit one day.
I also received four audio books on CD featuring Francis Durbridge’s most famous creation, Paul Temple. I’ve enjoyed a good many of the Temple audio books – they are fun to listen to whilst commuting, and the new ones will definitely improve my tedious journey to and from work.
Among the new DVDs, there’s an absolute gem – The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. I received the anthology which inspired the TV series as a Christmas present when I was a teenager, and not long afterwards, I watched some of the episodes on the box. I look forward to seeing the rest of them, at long last, during the course of 2010.
Friday, 25 December 2009
Warmest wishes to anyone who takes a glance at this blog on this special day!
The answer to yesterday’s quiz question was indeed Ian Brown, formerly of the Stone Roses. It was through getting to know Ian that I decided to feature the Stone Roses’ 'I Wanna Be Adored' in the eighth and most recent Harry Devlin mystery, Waterloo Sunset, at a moment when Harry is rescued from a very tight spot.
Waterloo Sunset takes its name, of course, from a wonderful song by Ray Davies, who also first made his name as part of a group – the Kinks – but is now widely acknowledged as one of the finest of all British songwriters. There was a very good programme about him in the excellent ‘Songbook’ series on Christmas Eve, which featured the great man talking about the composition of ‘Waterloo Sunset’, as well as performing it splendidly in the studio. If you like Sixties music and you get the chance to see this programme, I can recommend it unreservedly. The insight Ray Davies gives into his craft is, despite his self-deprecating manner, utterly fascinating.
Thursday, 24 December 2009
I’d like to wish all readers of this blog a happy and peaceful Christmas, and all the very best for 2010 – may it be full of good things for you and your families.
I have very much appreciated the comments people have contributed to this blog since last Christmas. I’ve had the chance to meet a number of you, and that’s been an enormous pleasure, but I’ve also relished the ‘virtual friendships’ spanning the globe, to which participating in online communities give rise. This interaction, and your enthusiasm for the blog, has been very motivating for me in a year that has included many happy moments, as well as some that were more difficult. I’ve not written as much fiction as I meant to this year, especially during the past six months, but writing the blog posts has kept my hand in. And the blog posts will continue during the holiday period.
The weather here in Lymm right now is ‘seasonal’ – a euphemism for very cold. I thought I’d share a few photos from yesterday and set a quick quiz question. The photos show my next-door-but-one neighbour and his son taking advantage of both the snow and the slope of our drive. Suffice to say that he too is active in the arts world – but he is much more famous than me. His name will be revealed tomorrow, but can you guess it in the meantime?
Wednesday, 23 December 2009
I’ve enjoyed being involved in a wide range of events during the past twelve months, ranging from convention panels to a workshop for aspiring writers at Harrogate, the Crimefest Mastermind competition, bookshop and library talks, and various performances of ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’
One of the pleasures of these events is the chance to meet readers (and potential readers – a much larger category!) and, of course, some of those who read and comment on this blog. I hope very much that 2010 will enable me to make the acquaintance of more of you.
My webmaster has now updated the Events page on my website to include details of next year’s events, so far as they have been scheduled. The first, on 30th January, is to take place at Ormskirk Library. It’s been arranged by Jenn Ashworth, herself an author and blogger of note. For the first time in several years, I’m teaming up with that fine writer Sophie Hannah. We last met in the autumn, when Sophie was inducted into the Detection Club, and I’m looking forward to working with her again.
Tuesday, 22 December 2009
There are many, many good things in the latest issue of CADS – issue number 57, in fact, of this ‘irregular magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective stories’ edited by Geoff Bradley, whom I first met at a Bouchercon held in London almost two decades ago.
Liz Gilbey writes about Adam Diment, a trendy and very successful writer of the Swinging Sixties, who literally disappeared from sight. What on earth happened to him? Marvin Lachman contributes a long list of obituaries concerning crime writers or those otherwise connected with the genre. There are articles on a range of tiopicesby seasoned commentators such as Philip Scowcroft, Mike Ripley and Bob Adey. B.A. Pike, who knows a great deal about Golden Age mysteries, contributes a piece about an Irish writer unknown to me, Sheila Pim, who published four novels between 1945 and 1952 – he makes them sound well worth searching for.
Pim apparently included ‘erudite footnotes’ in her work, and ‘Footnotes in Crime and Detective Stories’ is the title of a fascinating article by David Ellis. He covers footnotes in the work of Poe, and the pseudonymous early crime novelist Charles Felix, in Golden Age stories, and in modern books by the likes of Somoza and Mark Haddon.
I find articles on quirky subjects, such as Ellis’s, thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative. Geoff Bradley, the editor of CADS, does a great job in bringing these pieces together in a form where they can be widely appreciated. For anyone interested in the genre, especially in mysteries of the past, I can recommend this magazine without any reservations whatsoever.
Monday, 21 December 2009
Time and the Detectives
Time management is an important consideration for authors of mystery series, even though we don’t always pay it enough attention when our series characters start out on their fictional journeys. I’m not talking here about time management in the sense of how does one find the time to write the books, but rather in the sense of connecting the chronology of the series to real time.
The classic illustration of the problem is the obituary of Hercule Poirot in The New York Times – ‘by conventional reckoning, Poirot must have been over 130 years old when he solved his last case’). Similarly, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford was already a senior cop when his first case was published in 1964. It’s sometimes said that authors should start out with young detectives – but ageism isn’t a great solution to the problem! We need and want senior sleuths to figure in series!
So what is an author to do? My own method – I don’t for a moment suggest it’s perfect, but it’s the best I can do – is to elide time somewhat. An example in the Harry Devlin series is the way I dealt with the passage of time between the events of First Cut is the Deepest, and those of Waterloo Sunset. I acknowledge very specifically the passage of time in Harry’s life, and in the redevelopment of Liverpool. But I reduced (in effect) the length of the interval between books. Harry was 32 when All the Lonely People was published; that was my age when I started writing the manuscript. Suffice to say that he’s aged much better than me.
So far, time pressures haven’t been acute in the Lake District Mysteries. But I am planning to deal with them in much the same way. This is fiction, after all. Of course, I’d be interested in the views of others on this tricky subject – it’s one where, I suspect, the right answer is that there is no right answer.
Sunday, 20 December 2009
Reading other people’s blogs is fascinating, I find. And on one memorable occasion, a blog link provided me with the key that helped me to solve the mystery of The Serpent Pool. I’d been puzzling how to deal with a central element in the story, and the book didn’t quite seem to work. Then one day I took a look at a very appealing blog called Letters From a Hill Farm – and there I found a link to an old Youtube video.
The video featured Rupert Holmes, an excellent singer-songwriter, performing a song called ‘Him’ that I greatly enjoyed when it was a Top Ten hit in the UK, about 30 years ago. The story of the song gave me an idea for the book – and from that moment, the writing seemed to go much more easily.
There were a couple of added bonuses. First, Rupert (now an estimable crime writer as well as a composer) permitted me to reproduce a portion of his lyric in my novel – something for which I’m very grateful. Second, the appearance of the blonde-haired singer in the video gave me a picture of the appearance of a character in my story who had, until then, rather eluded me.
So there you have it. An odd little anecdote, perhaps. But an illustration of the way in which the online community can exert an influence over the creative process that is completely unexpected by all concerned. I bet there aren't that many crime novels that have been influenced by a blog link. But maybe one day it will become commonplace!
Saturday, 19 December 2009
BBC 4 has resumed its series of the Swedish version of Wallander, starring gruff but appealing Krister Henriksson as the detective, and Johanna Sallstrom as his daughter. I’m not sure why the series, shown to considerable acclaim (not least among crime bloggers!) earlier this year, was interrupted – but then, the scheduling of television programmes is an arcane process, as difficult to fathom as the Duckworth-Lewis method of calculating victory targets in a rain-affected cricket match.
The latest episode, Bloodline, opens with a man and a woman quarrelling on board a boat. The man storms off, but some time later, a masked individual comes on board, and brutally murders the woman. It’s a dramatic beginning, very much in the style we associate with Wallander.
When the police investigate, their inquiries soon take them to a group of people at a farm commune. Needless to say, there are various secrets to be uncovered, and the mystery is satisfyingly done. As always, however, the interplay of the characters is the great strength of the show. The relationship between Wallander and his daughter is very well done indeed. In fact, I’m not sure if I can think of any detective-and-daughter relationship in the genre that is more compelling.
Friday, 18 December 2009
Forgotten Book - The Blackheath Poisonings
Once again, my pick for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a title by the late, great Julian Symons. The Blackheath Poisonings is one of his ventures into Victorian crime – Sweet Adelaide, based on the real-life Adelaide Bartlett case, is another – and it carries a particular memory for me.
During the 1990s, Nottingham was the place for crime fans to visit, during the annual Shots on the Page convention. The convention was, so far as I know, the brainchild of Maxim Jakubowski, who worked closely with film specialist Adrian Wootton. I missed the first of the conventions, but attended all the others and found them most enjoyable. They paved the way for Nottingham to host Bouchercon itself – quite a coup for Maxim and his colleagues, and the last time that Bouchercon crossed the Atlantic.
One year, the convention hosted an advance screening of an adaptation for TV of The Blackheath Poisoinings. The small screen version was excellent, benefiting from a first rate cast that included Zoe Wanamaker, Judy Parfitt and Ronald Fraser, as well as a screenplay that was sympathetic to Symons’ original story.
And a very good story it is, with a sharp eye on the sexual complexities lying just beneath the surface of late Victorian society. A respectable family is torn apart by poison, and poisonous suspicion. One of the characters is tried for murder, but before the story is concluded, there will be another death, and the revelation of an unsuspected criminal.
Julian Symons inscribed my copy of this novel (which is a hardback reprint, published not long before his death from cancer)when we were together at a CWA conference in Brighton. Characteristically, he added a question: ‘A good Victorian crime story?’ The answer is an unequivocal yes.
(P.S. - For unfathomable reasons, at present, I am able to send but not receive emails, so if you've emailed me in the past three days, please don't think the absence of a reply means I'm ignoring you....)
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Reading a novel by Peter Lovesey is rather like settling down to watch a favourite tv show or film, in good company and with a bottle of wine and box of chocolates within easy reach. You just know you are going to have a good time. So it is with his latest Peter Diamond novel, Skeleton Hill.
Lovesey never writes the same book twice, and this one is structured very differently from the last Diamond, The Secret Hangman. What both have in common is an intriguing and unusual motive for crime. Here, the motive strikes me as pretty much unguessable (or do I just mean that I didn’t come close to guessing it, even though I did figure out the culprit in good time?)
The basic set-up is that, during a Civil War re-enactment in Bath, a lecturer comes across a hidden bone. Someone was murdered, years ago. But then the lecturer goes missing, too. Diamond investigates, and along the way, we learn a great deal about the history of Bath, as well as something about the equine world.. It’s a pity that a map of Lansdown is not included by the publishers, as this would have helped readers to visualise the geography of key incidents, as well as chiming with the traditional mood of the story.
The build-up to the sequence of surprises and revelations that occur late in the story is elaborate and quite leisurely. My impression was that there was rather more about police procedure, and relationships within the investigating team, than in previous Diamond novels. The structure of the book means that, necessarily, the pace of the narrative is not as quick as in many Loveseys, but there is much pleasure to be gained from the author’s easy way with character and incident. I’m a confirmed Lovesey fan, and this rather unorthodox book from one of our leading detective novelists is another winner. Recommended.
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
Trap for a Lonely Man
One of the stand-out memories of my teenage theatre-going was a trip to Chester’s Gateway Theatre to see a production of a play called Trap for a Lonely Man, involving a chap whose wife disappears and is replaced by a stranger. It proved to be an excellent thriller, with a classic final twist. Fast forward to the present, and I’ve tried to find out more about the play. It seems that it is something of a staple of provincial theatre even now, and it was written by a Frenchman, Robert Thomas.
A little more digging revealed that the play has been adapted into no fewer than four films. I haven’t seen any of them, although I’ve put in an order for Chase a Crooked Shadow, a version starring the young Richard Todd, who died recently. It also seems that Hitchcock planned to film the play, and I can well imagine that the premise would appeal to him, although he was evidently beaten to it.
The story-line is strongly reminiscent of the work of those French masters Boileau and Narcejac. I’ve mentioned before that group of writers, including Montheilhet, Arley and Valmain, who followed in the footsteps of Boileau and Narcejac, and this notable play suggests that Robert Thomas should be added to the list.
But who was Robert Thomas and what else did he write? So far, I’ve not come up with any detailed information about him, but surely he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder?
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Changeling, a 2008 movie by Clint Eastwood, is one of the finest films I’ve watched in recent times. It’s a lengthy and complex, yet consistently gripping drama, and one of the most remarkable things about it is that it is based – I gather, quite closely – on real-life events.
The setting is Los Angeles, and the story opens in 1928. Angelina Jolie plays a hard-working single mother, Christine Carter, who returns one day from her office to find that her nine-year old son Walter has vanished without a trace. Some time later, the police find a boy who says he is Walter. Amidst a fanfare of publicity, Christine and Walter are reunited. The only snag is that the mother denies that the boy is her son.
The police are insistent, and when she protests, she is treated as delusional. We gather that the LAPD of the time was up to its ears in corruption, and there are shocking scenes when the Christine is treated as a psychopath and locked up in a dreadful asylum. But events take a sudden turn when a cop who is not mired in corruption is told a horrifying story by a young boy. It emerges that a madman called Northcott has been kidnapping, abusing and killing boys at his remote ranch. The question then is - was Walter one of the victims?
I thought Jolie’s performance was excellent, and the film as a whole was moving and memorable. The jazz-influenced music sounded as though it might have been written by John Barry, but I was taken aback to discover that it was composed by Eastwood himself. Truly, a man of many talents.
Monday, 14 December 2009
James on Christie
I’ve mentioned how much I enjoyed P.D. James’ new book, Talking About Detective Fiction. That does not mean, of course, that I agree with every view expressed in it. For example, I felt she was rather hard on Agatha Christie, even though she does express admiration for Christie’s mastery of her craft.
‘The last thing we get from a Christie novel is the disturbing presence of evil,’ James argues. I just don’t think that’s right, just as I’m rather surprised that James does not pay much attention to the fact that Christie’s settings were very varied indeed – she was far from being someone who specialised in village-based whodunits, even though many people associate her more or less exclusively with the Mayhem Parva type of mystery.
There has been an interesting discussion on the Golden Age Detection discussion forum about Christie and evil, and I’m with those who believe that Christie had a strong sense of evil, and let it show clearly in quite a number of her books. The closing paragraphs of Five Little Pigs and 4.50 from Paddington illustrate the point, and there are plenty of other examples.
I was also startled that James said of Christie: ‘She wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre.’ Blimey. What about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Death Comes as the End, Murder on the Orient Express, Endless Night, and Curtain? I’m not sure how many detective story writers have been more innovative than Christie.
But there you go. Only a dull study of detective fiction would fail to spark debate, and this is a book without a dull paragraph. No doubt there are many people who agree with P.D. James on the subject of Christie. just as I agree with her when she concludes this fascinating book by predicting that: ‘in the twenty-first century, as in the past, many of us will continue to turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world.’
Sunday, 13 December 2009
My favourite Al Pacino film is Insomnia, which I really enjoyed. The more recent serial killer movie 88 Minutes is not in the same league, but it is certainly one of fastest and most furious thrillers I’ve watched in a long time. The critics didn’t much care for it, but the pace is so frenetic that you tend not to notice some of the flaws – or the fact that it lasts rather longer than its title suggests.
Pacino plays Dr Jack Gramm, a forensics expert who combines an academic career with a sideline working for the FBI. He has – surprise, surprise – a deeply troubled past, from which he has fled to Seattle, where he enjoys a formidable reputation and a complex sex life. Nine years ago he gave crucial testimony which helped to convict a man accused of being ‘The Seattle Slayer’, a murderer with a penchant for trussing young women up and torturing them. The appeal process has now been exhausted, and the killer is about to be executed when a further killing occurs which bears all the hallmarks of The Seattle Slayer.
The victim is one of Gramm’s students, and soon he receives a phone call telling him that he has just 88 minutes to live. (88 minutes, we learn later on, is a time period which has deep significance for him.) What follows is a dramatic ‘clock-race’, and Gramm becomes understandably paranoid as he narrowly avoids being blown up in a car, and is framed for two murders in quick succession. Someone is out to get him – but who? There are plenty of potential suspects, and I didn’t guess the culprit, though a cynic might say that is because the explanation is so far-fetched.
Overall, for me this film was something of a guilty pleasure. I can see that the story is, when considered in the cold light of day, implausible in the extreme. And Pacino’s hair is as frantic as the action. But 88 Minutes kept me interested all the same. That’s the merit of the ‘clock-race’, in either a film or a novel. You can’t help wanting to know how it will all end.
Saturday, 12 December 2009
Kirkus and reviews
From the United States comes the news that another source of crime fiction reviews is to cease publication. This time it is Kirkus, which that I’ve never actually seen in the flesh, so to speak, but only via extracts either photocopied or online. For those unfamiliar with it, Kirkus was well-known for including quite a number of rather harsh reviews, and at least one good crime writing friend of mine becomes quite animated (not in a happy way) if ever Kirkus is mentioned. But we are all prejudiced by our own experiences, and when Kirkus reviewed my books, it always seemed positive. So I’m sorry to see Kirkus disappear from a personal perspective – but more important, this development means that mid-list writers will tend to get even less attention from now on, and that’s a shame.
On a much happier note, I am in the debt of that witty blogger (and notable crime writer) Bill Crider, who kindly supplied me with a scan of a marvellous review of Dancing for the Hangman in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Jon L. Breen is one of the most respected crime reviewers in the US, and so I’m especially gratified that he said that the book is ‘one of the finest fictionalizations of a classical criminal case I’ve ever read.’
Suffice to say that this is a quote I’ll long cherish. Jon Breen also mentions ‘excellent and sometimes amusing writing’, and he picks up on the fact that the book contains one or two crime fiction in-jokes – not many readers have noticed this. For instance, as he points out, my ‘Notes for the Curious’ at the end of the book are so called in tribute to the great John Dickson Carr,
Publishers’ Weekly adds that the book ‘ranks among Edwards’s best work’, and I’ve been lucky enough to have The Serpent Pool noticed by the same publication at almost the same time. And kindly noticed, too: ‘The musty, sedate world of old books provides the backdrop for a series of gruesome murders in Edwards's absorbing fourth Lake District mystery.’
Good reviews are no guarantee of huge sales, that’s for sure. But they do help, and in any event they are great for morale. One can only hope that online reviews of quality fill the gap that Kirkus will leave.
Friday, 11 December 2009
Forgotten Book - And Always a Detective...
My entry in Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books series this week has a melancholy flavour as far as I’m concerned. I’ve just received the latest issue of that wonderful magazine CADS, but my pleasure at delving into its varied contents was muted this time, because I learned from editor Geoff Bradley’s notes that Dick Stewart has died.
Dick Stewart published books and articles about crime as R.F.Stewart. One of his articles for CADS discussed the 50s novelist George Bellairs, and his archive at Manchester’s John Rylands Library; I found the article so fascinating that I visited the library and spent a fascinated afternoon reading Bellairs’ correspondence, and realising that writers of the past had much the same anxieties as those of the present, and probably those of the future.
All Dick Stewart’s writing was distinguished by a keen intelligence (he worked for many years at Manchester University), as well as laconic wit and a taste for the out-of-the-ordinary. My choice of Forgotten Book that does not deserve to be forgotten is And Always a Detective…, first published in 1980.
Sub-titled ‘Chapters on the History of Detective Fiction’, the book is a quirky and meandering survey of early detective fiction, that is as enjoyable to dip into randomly as it is to read from cover to cover. His knowledge of pre-Holmesian mysteries was very extensive, and generally he preferred Victorian fiction to present day mysteries. I notice that his book is one of the relatively few titles to appear in the select bibliography at the back of P.D.James’ recently published Talking About Detective Fiction – quite a compliment. Among many other things, I like the sentence in Dick’s bio note on the inside back cover: ‘He has one wife and six children, despite whom this book was written.’ In my mind, I can hear him saying it in that considered Scots accent of his.
I featured Dick Stewart in this blog in July last year – almost exactly a year to the day before his death. I’d called in at his home in south Manchester and bought some crime reference books from him – including one or two fascinating titles that I shall talk about in future posts. As usual, he and his wife Liz were most hospitable. I certainly didn’t imagine that I would never see him again, and I shall remember him with affection and respect.
Thursday, 10 December 2009
One of my must-read blogs is Petrona’s, and a typically interesting post a while back reminded me of a thriller writer who was a huge star in the 1970s, and who is not remembered often enough today. As a teenager, I was a fan for years of Alistair MacLean, until his later books began to seem very samey, and then I read a few by Desmond Bagley, before concentrating my attention on whodunits.
Bagley was, arguably, second only to MacLean among British thriller writers of the time. My late father was very keen on Bagley’s books, and encouraged me to read him. I agreed with his verdict that Running Blind was an excellent story, benefiting from a well-realised setting in Iceland. (Dad also tried to persuade me to take an interest in Wilbur Smith, but his books never appealed to me in the way that Bagley’s did.)
Bagley died at the age of 59, and a highly successful career came to a sad and premature end. Some time after that, I met his widow Joan at a CWA conference in Tunbridge Wells. Joan was a very pleasant woman, and she was a close friend of a friend of mine, Eileen Dewhurst. Eileen stayed with Joan several times at her home in Guernsey, and one of these trips inspired her to write an excellent Guernsey-based novel, Death in Candie Gardens.
I was rather baffled at one point in the conversation, when Joan started talking about someone called Simon. It turned out that this was Desmond Bagley’s real name. But I never asked why he adopted a pseudonym. Sadly, Joan died about a decade ago, but I have discovered that there is a very good website about her husband’s books which pays proper tribute to them both: http://www.desmondbagley.com/
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
The Timeless Question
Ed Gorman, one of the wisest people in the world of crime fiction (read his superb blog and you’ll see why I say that), described it in a recent comment as a ‘timeless question’. Is it a good idea to plan, or outline, one’s crime novel in detail before starting to write it? Or should one just start with a gripping idea, and see where it leads?
Rob Kitchin (who also has a very interesting blog) commented that he is not a planner, and that he takes a different approach with his fiction compared to his academic writing. Having written eight non-fiction books myself, I can empathise with that. When writing a non-fiction book, it’s (usually) imperative to know where you are going. And publishers tend to want to know too, before they commit to commissioning you.
I participated in a panel some time back where a gifted author proclaimed that he didn’t plan at all. A few days later, I had a chat with him and his wife at another function – and his wife reckoned he did plan in quite a lot of detail! So you never know.
The extent to which I plan does vary from book to book. So does the extent to which I stick to my original plan once I’ve started writing. Take My Breath Away was 150,000 words in its first incarnation, but the published version was 85,000 words long. I certainly didn’t plan that.
The most interesting exercise I had in dealing with unplanned fiction was when I completed The Lazarus Widow by the late Bill Knox. Bill didn’t plan at all. But it did leave everyone in a quandary when he died tragically and unexpectedly in the middle of writing the book. Though, I hasten to add, that sad story isn’t in itself a reason to start planning if it is not the writing method that works for you. The answer to the timeless question is, I think, that there is no right answer – it really is a question of what suits the individual.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
It’s trite to say that writing is a solitary occupation, but it’s usually true. However, there is more scope for collaborative writing than is often appreciated, and I must say that I very much enjoy writing in collaboration, and I've written several books (including one novel, The Lazarus Widow) with one or more other writers. After all, if it worked for Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney and Bacharach and David, why can’t it work with novels?
In the crime genre, there have been quite a few notable writing teams over the years. Two cousins working together made the name of Ellery Queen famous, while in Britain, the names Manning Coles and Francis Beeding concealed pairs of writers. In the 60s and 70s, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo wrote the Martin Beck series, while in the States, two female writers combined to produced the finance-based Emma Lathen mysteries. Behind the pseudonyms of Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge and Q. Patrick hid Hugh Wheeler – better known later for his work on musicals – and a variety of associates. Dick Francis collaborated with his wife Mary on his racing thrillers, although her name did not appear on the books – it’s different now that he is writing with his son.
Nowadays there are plenty of examples of writing teams. Nicci French is a notable husband and wife pairing, while Charles Todd writes with his mother Caroline. There are even crime writing twins – the Mulgray Twins.
‘Round-robin’ novels involve an especially elaborate form of collaboration, where a story is told by a succession of different authors. The Detection Club’s The Floating Admiral is a very famous example, but there are plenty of others, including a 19th century curiosity, The Fate of Fenella, whose contributors include Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. Intriguingly enough, I was asked a while back to contribute to a round-robin novel. Whether it will see the light of day, I’m not sure – but it’s an appealing idea.
Monday, 7 December 2009
The Coffin Trail
I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips to prove it, but I suspect that, commercially, The Coffin Trail is my most successful book to date. It’s often the case that the first book in a series is an author’s most popular, even if later books are ‘better’ in various respects. Many readers like to start with the first in a series, so it’s likely – all other things being equal – that sales of that title will be highest.
Another reason why The Coffin Trail did well was that it reached the shortlist of six for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Prize for best crime novel of 2006. The award ceremony at the Harrogate Festival that year was hugely enjoyable, even though I realised from the outset that, given the shortlist included Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stephen Booth and Susan Hill, it wasn’t likely that I’d carry off the prize.
For some time, though, The Coffin Trail has been out of print in the UK. Good that it's sold out, but still very frustrating! So I’m truly delighted to say that Allison & Busby will be reissuing it, to coincide with the publication of the fourth book in the series, The Serpent Pool.
What is more, they have decided to go for new cover artwork, and I’m very pleased with it. Here is a preview.
Incidentally, I’m sometime asked which of my own books are personal favourites. They are: Yesterday’s Papers, The Devil in Disguise, Waterloo Sunset, Dancing for the Hangman and now The Serpent Pool. As for The Coffin Trail, I’m thrilled that it is about to have a fresh lease of life.
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster, is one of the most gripping thriller movies I’ve seen in quite a while. It originally came out in 2002, but I missed it then. The excellent reviews convinced me it was a film I had to see, and the reviews were right (it isn’t always the case, of course!)
The central idea is simple. Foster, recently split from her rich husband, and with a troublesome teenage daughter in tow, acquires a tall house in Manhattan that has its own panic room – in effect, a steel safe room where the householder can hide in the event of some form of unwelcome intrusion. It’s inaccessible, and equipped with a range of CCTV screens monitoring different parts of the house.
On her first night in her new home, Foster is disturbed by the arrival of three burglars. She flees with her daughter into the panic room – only to find that what the intruders want is inside the panic room itself.
The claustrophobic atmosphere is very well done, and director David Fincher piles on the tension with gusto. There are several heart-stopping moments, and the interplay between the ‘hostages’ and the intruders is cunningly manipulated. This isn’t a film with layers of sophisticated meaning – there isn’t much about the shortcomings of a society where panic rooms are necessary bolt-holes for the rich, for instance. But judged as a straightforward thriller, it ranks high. And above all, it is memorable for Foster’s performance. She is very good indeed. It’s hard to believe that the part was originally intended for Nicole Kidman.
Saturday, 5 December 2009
Chester is a marvellous city, brimming with history. As a small boy, I used to love visits there, especially when I had the chance to walk along the Roman walls. I’ve spent most of my life living within easy reach of the place, and I’m not quite sure why I don’t visit it more often. Lack of time is the only excuse. But last night I had the chance to return to Chester, for my final Victorian Murder Mystery event of the year.
It was a good evening, all the more so because the week which led up to it had quite a few stressful moments. But one of the pleasures for me of detective fiction is the opportunity that it affords for escapism, and last night I was delighted to have the chance to meet crime fans and other readers, as well as the amiable staff of Chester Library.
One member of the audience asked why I don’t set my books in Cheshire, given that it’s the county I know best. My off the cuff answer was that Cheshire is far too peaceful a place for murder and mayhem, but of course one only has only to think of fictional Midsomer to realise that rural settings are very far from murder-free. And of course I write the Lake District Mysteries, set in a county that on the surface is even quieter than Cheshire.
I was invited to Chester by Debbie Owen, who was involved with my first production of Who Killed George Hargrave? at Ellesmere Port – I can hardly believe that it was five years ago. Since then I’ve taken the event around the country, and I continue to find it a fun way of spending an evening. For as long as audiences continue to give great feedback on the mystery, I aim to keep running. And perhaps to write another.
Friday, 4 December 2009
Forgotten Book - Detective Fiction: the Collector's Guide
The second edition of Detective Fiction: the Collector’s Guide, by John Cooper and B.A. Pike, appeared in 1994. Sadly, no third edition has ever seen the light of day, so I think this splendid volume qualifies for inclusion in Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books.
Splendid on two levels, I think. First, there is a concise account of the work of each of the authors featured, and these short essays are invariably packed with insight. Second, the book reproduces the cover artwork from many Golden Age classics – sometimes in full colour – and some of the covers are quite entrancing. Collecting crime fiction has a great deal of appeal for me - which is why I've devoted a page on my website to it - and reading what Cooper and Pike have to say has, over the years, deepened my enthusiam for the pastime.
There is a great deal of bibliographic information, and the emphasis of the book is unashamedly on the classic whodunit- books that can be described as hard-boiled, thrillers or psychological suspense novels are largely ignored. So it is, inevitably, highly selective – but were it otherwise, a huge tome would need to be assembled, and the production costs would be prohibitive (I suspect that’s why there has never been a third edition.) A few current high-flyers are, however, included: for instance, Ann Cleeves, and it’s interesting to remember, given Ann’s relatively recent rise to international prominence, that by 1993 she had published no fewer than ten novels. More unexpected, perhaps, is the inclusion of Patricia D. Cornwell.
One of the great benefits of reading the book, I’ve found, is that it has introduced me to a range of writers I hadn’t come across before. James Fraser is a case in point, and Cooper and Pike are so enthusiastic that I’ve bought a few of his books although unfortunately I haven’t had time to read any of them yet. This is a book that gives me a great deal of pleasure whenever I dip into it, and I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of the whodunit.
Thursday, 3 December 2009
Fiddlers Five (or Three)
Agatha Christie was not just the best-selling novelist of all time. She also achieved, among other things, extraordinary success as a playwright. Some of her plays were based on novels, or short stories, while others were originated for the stage.
Her final play was written for the theatre, and it has a special significance for me. As my 16th birthday approached, my parents discovered that a new Christie play was to be performed in Manchester. And because they knew of my passion for Christie, I was therefore taken to the Palace Theatre to see it as a birthday treat.
The play was called Fiddlers Five. It starred Colin Bean, best known as Private Sponge, a supporting character from ‘Dad’s Army’ and nobody else of any note at all, so far as I can remember. I was rather baffled by the play. It seemed to be intended to be a sort of comedy, and the mystery complications took ages to develop. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not a great play with a great plot, and that was a surprise and a disappointment.
I wasn’t alone in my dubious reaction. In fact, most critics were less kind. Christie re-wrote the play as Fiddlers Three, but it doesn’t seem to have effected much of an improvement. It never reached the West End. John Curran devotes some space to Christie’s planning of the play in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and it seems she started work on it as early as 1958. But he is right to describe it as ‘a sad curtain call’. Apparently, it’s never even been published.
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Guilty as Sin
Guilty as Sin is a 1993 movie directed by Sidney Lumet, whose CV includes such notable ‘legal world’ films as 12 Angry Men and The Verdict. Guilty as Sin is not in the same league, but even so, I thought it was pretty effective entertainment.
The stars are both very good-looking – Rebecca De Mornay and Don Johnson. De Mornay plays a hot-shot criminal defence lawyer, while Johnson is a manipulative womaniser accused of throwing his rich wife out of a window. De Mornay unwisely succumbs to his pleading that she represent him, and spends the rest of the film regretting it.
I’m not a trial lawyer, and in particular I’m not familiar with the American legal system, but with this movie, as with many others, there were aspects of the story that stretched my credulity. Would a judge really have forced De Mornay to continue representing Johnson when she wanted to back out – and wouldn’t her bosses have fielded some other advocate when Johnson suggested that the two of them were having an affair?
But once disbelief was suspended, I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot, even if the finale was rather abrupt. It’s certainly never a hardship to watch a film starring Rebecca De Mornay, and although this wasn’t one of Lumet’s masterpieces, it demonstrated his ability to tell an entertaining story.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Sheila Quigley and The Road to Hell
Sheila Quigley is a fellow member of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, and someone I always enjoy bumping into at social events and conventions. I first met her not long after she’d hit the headlines, when her first two books were sold by her agent for a very large sum. According to one article on the internet, the figure was £3 million, but I suspect this is a misprint, and an extra zero was added by mistake! Even so, £300,000 (if that was the right figure) is a fabulous two-book contract, the sort of achievement most of us can only dream about.
One of the things that made Sheila’s personal story so newsworthy was her background. She started work at 15 in her native North East, as a tailor’s presser. She married at 18 and now has nine grandchildren. But fame and fortune haven’t changed her – she has lived on the same estate for 30 years.
Sheila has spoken in public of how health problems, including cataract operations, a couple of years ago set her back a bit, but I’m delighted to see that she has made a good recovery, and has just published a new novel. She’s changed publisher, and is now with an outfit I haven’t come across before, called Tonto Books, who are based in the North East. And Tonto really have done her proud with a nice looking hardback edition of The Road to Hell.
I’m looking forward to reading the book, which I’m sure will be as gritty as its predecessors. From the blurb, I gather that it’s a story involving a murder which replicates a crime of many years before. And it boasts a front cover quote from Tess Gerritsen, no less – impressive.