Saturday 30 January 2010

Joan Edwards

I’ve written a good deal over the years, on many subjects, but this blog post is beyond any doubt the saddest thing I’ve ever written, for my mother has died. She was 93 years old, and until the last stages had thoroughly enjoyed what she always recognised (and this awareness was a gift, one of the many examples of her wisdom) was a wonderful and very happy life. She was a teacher who believed that teachers should have a love of children, and a remarkable number of her pupils, some of whom are now long retired themselves, stayed in touch with her, a tribute to her kindness and friendliness. She delighted in people, and they delighted in her. My cousin described her recently as ‘invincible’, and I thought she was too, but in the end, nobody is invincible.

In the last real conversation we had before sickness took hold, at the end of November, she gleefully told me she was planning to re-read all my books, and had nearly reached the end of my first, All the Lonely People. This was absolutely typical, and I owe her more than I can ever describe. She was the person who first read to me, and was responsible for my love of stories. It was even her idea to introduce me to Agatha Christie. Of course, she was thrilled when I achieved my childhood dream of becoming a published writer – this prompted her to write a couple of very good short stories herself, but she never sought publication. Her love for me was absolute and unconditional, and I always wanted to be worthy of it.

The photos are the last I have of her – taken on Mother’s Day last year, when she was still quite well. I have a stock of pre-prepared blog posts to cover for unexpected emergencies, but I’m not tempted to post them in the present circumstances. So this blog will fall silent until next week-end.

I will start posting again then, because during the last disheartening months, the pleasurable experience of connecting with readers and fellow bloggers really has helped to keep me going at a time when for the first time in my life, I found it almost impossible to write fiction. Can I just say how much I appreciate the kindness that so many people, most of whom I’ve never met, have shown me via the blogosphere?

I have never wanted this blog to be about my personal life, and it isn’t going to change focus now, or become self-indulgent. Having explained why the blog will be quiet for a few days, I’m not intending to say much more about what has happened. This is a blog about crime writing and crime fiction, including but not limited to my own efforts. One of the things I like most about fiction, and writing, is the chance of escapism, and in the weeks ahead, a bit of escapism is what I seek.

Friday 29 January 2010

Forgotten Book - Suspects

My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a novel (or at least, I think it can be described as a novel) which was published in 1985 and is in my experience scarcely, if at all, mentioned in surveys of the genre. Yet it is a truly fascinating piece of work, which will appeal most of all to fans of film noir. The book is Suspects, and the author David Thomson, a notable film critic.

Thomson himself says that the book is both a novel and a non-fiction book about movies. The book comprises a long series of capsule biographies of characters from crime films, starting with Jake Gittes, the private eye from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The first dozen bios include Ilse Lund, from Casablanca, Eileen Wade from The Long Goodbye, and Waldo Lydecker from Laura.

As you read on, you become aware of a loose narrative connecting the disparate characters. It is a peculiarly labyrinthine book, and it concludes with a family tree that highlights a number of key relationships. I read this book when it first appeared in paperback, and quite simply, I have never read anything like it, before or since.

It’s certainly an advantage if you have seen a decent number of the movies to which Thomson refers. If you’d seen very few of them, I guess the story might prove heavy going, and some readers might even wonder, what was the point? But film buffs with an interest in crime will surely be fascinated by this strange but dazzling piece of work. It's a genuine one-off.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Chase a Crooked Shadow: review

I posted recently on the similarities between the Osborn-Sinclair screenplay for the 1958 film Chase a Crooked Shadow, and Robert Thomas’s play Trap for a Lonely Man. The film, which is in black and white, is a minor classic of psychological suspense. Even if you know the essentials of the plot (which in its various guises is pretty familiar these days) there is a good deal of pleasure to be had from watching events unfold.

A diamond heiress called Kimberley Prescott (played by Anne Baxter) is spending time at a villa on the coast near Barcelona. An apparently doting elderly uncle lives nearby. But one day, an enigmatic stranger (Richard Todd, who died just before Christmas) turns up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Ward, a racing driver. The snag is that Ward died a year back in a car accident, and Kimberley identified the body.

She calls the police (in the form of the eternally sinister Herbert Lom) but the intruder’s ID is in order, and the cop departs, thinking that the girl is neurotic. ‘Ward’ brings in a female associate (Faith Brook, whom I have always thought an under-estimated performer) and even a new butler, and Kimberley’s terror mounts as it becomes clear that the newcomers are playing their mysterious game for very high stakes.

There are some great twists in the story, the acting is competent, and Julian Bream’s guitar music adds to the atmosphere created by Michael Anderson’s direction. This is a very entertaining thriller, and at less than five quid from Amazon, it was also a real bargain.

Footnote one – Faith Brook’s father Clive was also an actor, and one of his final roles was in the film of that Philip Macdonald classic, The List of Adrian Messenger. Much earlier, he was in a 1920 version of Trent’s Last Case, and he also played Sherlock Holmes in three films.

Footnote two – Herbert Lom was born in Prague, and his real name was Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru. Bet you didn’t know that!

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Transsiberian: review

Transsiberian (2008) is a movie thriller that really does thrill. It's one of the most gripping films I’ve seen in a long while. The script is intelligent and taut; the cast is excellent, and is headed by Woody Harrelson, a versatile actor I very much admire, and Emily Mortimer (daughter of the late Sir John) and includes Ben Kingsley.

The story opens dramatically, with the discovery of a murdered man in Vladivostok. Inspector Grinko (Ben Kingsley) suspects that the crime is connected with drug trafficking. But then Grinko disappears from the action and attention switches to an American couple (Harrelson and Mortimer) who have just completed work on a charitable project in China.

Harrelson’s character is gregarious, and thanks to him, the Americans befriend a very attractive younger couple, a Spanish man with a girlfiriend from Seattle, who share their compartment on the Transsiberian Express. Unfortunately, Mortimer finds herself attracted to the Spanish chap, and the complications escalate from there.

It takes a long time for the action to erupt in this movie, but we are never less than fascinated by the interplay of characters. Harrelson is a cheery do-gooder, Mortimer has a dark past and is dissatisfied with the marital status quo. Their relationship is put under intolerable strain, and part of the appeal of this film is the way in which the couple face up to the challenges with which they are confronted. When Kingsley shows up on the train, all charm and subdued menace, we are never quite sure whether he is one of the good guys or one of the bad guys.

The Lady Vanishes and Murder on the Orient Express were earlier crime films of quality that were set mostly in the confined space of a train. In my opinion, Transsiberian deserves to rank with them as one of the best train-based films ever made.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Writing Competitions

I’ve been involved with writing competitions a good many times, mainly as a judge in recent years, but also sometimes as an entrant. An early version of what became the first chapter of my debut novel, All the Lonely People, was submitted to the Southport Writers’ annual seminar competition in the late 80s and got nowhere. Actually, that’s not quite true or fair, since I did get some feedback from the judge, Jessica Stirling (who was in fact a very likeable fellow, Hugh C. Rae) which offered some encouragement.

A couple of years later, the Southport Writers’ ran a short story competition judged by the senior fiction editor of ‘Bella’. My story, ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ won – a truly great moment. The story was published in ‘Bella’ (which sadly does not take fiction any more) and in ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’ and it helped to launch my career in print..

I’ve been asked to mention a writing competition run by that admirable organisation Mystery Women, and the details are here. Mystery Women does, I’m glad to say, allow men to join, but its special mission is to encourage women writers.

Is it worth devoting time and trouble to entering a writing competition? On balance, I think it often is – though it’s very important not to allow an initial lack of success to deter you from continuing to apply fingers to keyboards. Winning competitions and literary prizes is the icing on the cake – the ultimate measure of success is having readers who want to keep coming back for more of your work.

Monday 25 January 2010

'Character, Atmosphere, Plot and Pace...'

The Serpent Pool, and its forthcoming publication, were far from my mind over the weekend, as I cleared the last possessions from my mother’s home, and then set about trying to find a good place where she can be cared for in future. All very, very thought-provoking, but as if to remind me that Life Must Go On, I have been lucky enough to receive quite marvellous reviews of the new book on both sides of the Atlantic - and in major newspapers.

Here’s what Laura Wilson has to say in The Guardian:

‘On the face of it, the Lake District couldn't be more different from the frantic, grasping shallowness of [London], but in Martin Edwards's capable hands, it proves just as effective a backdrop to murder. Local "cold case" specialist DCI Hannah Scarlett is tasked with uncovering the truth behind a young woman's apparent suicide by drowning. Naturally there's more to it than meets the eye, and it soon becomes clear that the death is connected to some recent murders. With evocative descriptions of everything from landscape to cocktail parties, expert plotting, an engaging protagonist and strongly delineated characters, The Serpent Pool is old-fashioned, well-made crime fiction at its best, and the dénouement will have you choking on your Kendal mint cake.’

In The Denver Post, Tom and Enid Schantz said:

‘For whatever reason, it's taken a small press to publish this outstanding series of English traditional mysteries in the United States. All feature DCI Hannah Scarlett, a cold- case investigator, and Oxford historian Daniel Kind, whose policeman father was Hannah's mentor.

The setting is England's beautiful (but gloomy) Lake District, where both live and work. Like its predecessors, this one has a wonderfully convoluted plot, further complicated by a subtle chemistry between Hannah and Daniel that neither is ready to acknowledge.

In their fourth outing, the relationship between Hannah and Daniel continues to slowly progress, with Hannah now having problems with her live-in bookseller boyfriend Marc Amos and her insolent new junior officer and Daniel, now unencumbered, writing a biography of the opium-addicted 19th century writer Thomas De Quincey.

A cold case that Hannah is working on, the drowning of a young woman in the Serpent Pool near her home, seems to be connected to two more recent murders, and she thinks it's no coincidence that all three victims died in the exact way that would have been the most terrifying for each of them, and that all three cases have a rare-book connection that could disturbingly point to Marc.

Character, atmosphere, plot and pace — this series has it all, and fans of Stephen Booth and Peter Robinson would do well to check it out.’

Sunday 24 January 2010

Criminal Connections

Before Christmas, I wrote about Robert Thomas’s famous play Trap for a Lonely Man and suggested that one of the four films based upon it was Chase a Crooked Shadow. It was pointed out to me by Jamie Sturgeon (not only a very good bookseller, but a mine of info on matters criminous) that Chase a Crooked Shadow dated back to 1958, while the original version of the Thomas play seems to have been first performed in 1960.

Intrigued, I have now bought the DVD of Chase a Crooked Shadow and watched (and enjoyed) it – more about this shortly. Jamie is absolutely right – and the screenplay of Chase a Crooked Shadow was written by David D. Osborn and Charles Sinclair, about whom I know nothing else. One or two reviewers comment that the film, with limited sets, gives the impression of being based upon a stage play, but it appears Osborn and Sinclair wrote it directly for the cinema.

There is a strong similarity between the twisty plot of Chase a Crooked Shadow and the Thomas play – I can only assume this is a coincidence, but it does explain why some sources list the film as being a version of the Thomas play.

But the story doesn’t end there. In the 1980s, the screenplay was belatedly adapted for the stage, and given the title Double Cut. The writer this time was Alfred Shaughnessy, now deceased, but famous as script editor and chief editor for ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. He wrote a good deal for television and stage, plus a couple of novels. It seems that to this day, Double Cut is still regularly performed in regional theatres – as is Trap for a Lonely Man.

Finally, Bob Cornwell has sent me an extract from a fascinating and evidently voluminous French encyclopaedia compiled by Claude Mespiede about crime fiction, which adds more detail to my knowledge of Thomas. I shall share this info (the particular entry is written by a French bibliographer, Jean-Marie David, on this blog on a future occasion.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Short Stories and Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff is a significant figure in the literary world, but I must confess, a writer I haven’t got round to reading in the past. The other day, though, I was given a copy of his short story ‘The Chain’, taken from a collection called The Night in Question, with the recommendation that I’d like it.

And I did. The opening is dramatic – a man called Gold, who owns a not very successful video shop, sees a vicious dog on a chain (but an excessively long one) lunge after his young daughter, with potentially disastrous consequences. Gold rescues the girl, who is not harmed, but the incident preys on his mind. He confides in a friend who offers to deal with the dog. And after hesitating, Gold accepts the offer.

This sets off a chain of events (‘chain’ has a double significance in this story) which leads to murder. There’s a touch of Strangers on a Train about the first part of the story, but overall the effect is highly distinctive. I enjoyed it, and I will definitely read more Tobias Wolff.

In fact, reading ‘The Chain’ reminded how much I love short stories – even if they don’t fall within the conventional parameters of the crime genre. I have a great many favourites, but possibly the number one in my list is another story which isn’t conventional ‘crime fiction’ and yet deals with a sort of crime. It is Shirley Jackson’s brilliant ‘The Lottery’.

So, I wonder, what is your favourite short story?

Friday 22 January 2010

Forgotten Music - What Am I Doing Here?

Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books on Fridays is digressing into music today, and this gives me the chance to mention a song I really love which I’m sure few if any readers of this blog will ever have heard. And it has an indirect connection to one of my Harry Devlin novels. It’s a forgotten song because it was written for a musical, and then cut out of it. It’s common for such changes to be made to a musical, but a real shame that such a haunting ballad should be consigned to the vaults

My choice is ‘What Am I Doing Here?’ and I came across it thanks to a series of CDs called ‘Lost in Boston’ which collect songs that were cut from musicals. Liz Callaway’s version appears on ‘Lost in Boston 2’, and is quite marvellous – she is a very good singer.

The song was written for the musical Promises, Promises, which debuted on Broadway in 1968, but it was cut out at the last minute. The book of the show was written by Neil Simon, the music by Burt Bacharach, and the lyrics by Hal David. The show was based on that splendid Billy Wilder film The Apartment. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a keen young American who lends his apartment to his bosses so they can conduct their affairs. Our hero falls for Fran, who has been seduced by a senior executive, J.B.Sheldrake. In this particular song, Fran wonders why she keeps on with the affair, which she realises is hopeless.

Promises, Promises was enormously successful in its day. It won awards and yielded the famous song 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again'. However, the book is very much of its time, and the show hasn’t been seen much since (though I gather a revival on Broadway is forthcoming.) In about 1996 it was performed at the Bridewell Theatre in London, and I went to see it. I enjoyed it so much that I introduced a performance of the show in Liverpool, as a backdrop to one of the scenes in The Devil in Disguise. But although the Bridewell version did include one of the many songs dropped from the Broadway original, they didn’t find room for ‘What Am I Doing Here?’ Burt Bacharach continues to write great songs to this day, but he's never written another stage musical, and I suspect I remain destined to be one of the few people who think 'What Am I Doing Here?' is a masterpiece. A shame.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Wallander - The Secret

I have caught up with the final episode of the Swedish TV series about Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. This was The Secret, and it has to rank as about the darkest episode in a television cop series that I’ve ever seen. Not easy viewing, but impressively done.

The story involves the abduction and murder of an 11 year old boy. Early scenes also detail the abuse of another young boy. Wallander and his team soon identify a prime suspect, but he is found murdered. By this time, Stefan (brilliantly played by Ola Rapace) has become very personally involved in the case. He knows the dead boy’s father, but this does not seem to explain the depth of his rage about the crime.

A retired cop who was associated with the dead suspect comes into the frame. He appears to be a sinister character, but it turns out that he has a track record of pursuing paedophiles with considerable success. However, there are further twists in the story before the traumatic final moments of the story.

I found this series – and I watched almost all of the 13 episodes, something I don’t often manage to do – exceptionally good viewing. At its best, it was outstanding, and even the weaker story-lines were competently done. Krister Henriksson was superb as Wallander, but part of the strength of the series lay in the quality of the supporting cast, notably Rapace and Johanna Sallstrom as Linda Wallander. Others have written about the sad death of Sallstrom after the series was filmed. Suffice to say that hers is a tragic story, and a great loss.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Robert B. Parker R.I.P.

Robert B. Parker died on Monday at the age of 77. I learned of the passing of one of the great private eye writers of the modern era from the excellent and consistently informative blogs of Bill Crider (who met Parker a couple of times) and Sarah Weinman, and I was sorry to learn the news. For I have read perhaps nine or ten of his books, and enjoyed them.

Parker is most famous for creating Spenser, the gumshoe whose first name remained (as far as I am aware) unknown. The Spenser books are very much in the Raymond Chandler tradition, and are distinguished by a real gift for dialogue. There were times when I found the main supporting character, the lovely Susan and the violent Hawk, a bit hard to take for different reasons, but Parker’s snappy way with words made his books insistently readable. He wrote fairly short books, and although it is fashionable to write books twice as long, many writers (including me) can learn from Parker’s succinct style.

I’d like to mention a non-series Parker book which I devoured a long time ago, not long after I started work in 1980. I can’t recall much about the detail of the plot, but I do remember thinking it was one of the most gripping thrillers I’d ever read. It’s a book called Wilderness, and it’s the story of a relatively ordinary man confronting the darker side of life after witnessing a murder, and finding himself plunged into a fight for survival. I really must re-read it to see if it’s as good now as it seemed then. I suspect it is.

Monday 18 January 2010

Casts of Characters

I was away in Oxfordshire over the weekend and we stayed with someone who mentioned that he can find it frustrating if books contain plenty of characters. This is an observation I’ve heard on a number of occasions, often from very busy people who only have time to read books in short segments, and who therefore can easily lose track of who is who. I find the same problem myself from time to time.

When I returned home, I had the pleasure of finding a very generous review of The Arsenic Labyrinth on that splendid blog Crime Scraps (blog supreme Uriah occasionally sets a fiendish crime quiz – well worth looking out for.) Uriah made a comparable point about the complexity of the character relationships, and it made me wonder – yet again – whether it would be a good idea to include character lists at the start of my books.

This device was used quite often in the past (Christianna Brand and Ngaio Marsh both employed it, for instance.) In the classic reprints published by that excellent small American press, Rue Morgue Press, there are generally character lists. I find these rather helpful, but I do know that some readers are instinctively sceptical about books which start off with a cast of characters. Someone once told me that they wouldn’t read such a book, because they would infer that the writer hadn’t taken enough care to delineate the characters in a memorable fashion. A comment that deterred me from including a cast list, I must admit.

Incidentally, I should mention a clever mystery by Francis Beeding, The Norwich Victims. This went further by including photographs of the main characters – with accompanying red herring! Most ingenious, and it did make me wonder if there have been cast lists which contain clues or red herrings.

Anyway, I would be interested in the views of readers of this blog on casts of characters. Is there a revival of interest in having a cast list, would you say? Or is it to be seen as an admission of failure on the part of the author?

Sunday 17 January 2010

Robert Barnard

I mentioned recently that 1936 was the year in which three of Britain’s finest crime writers were born: Peter Lovesey, Reginald Hill, and Robert Barnard. They are three writers whom I admired long before I had the pleasure of getting to know them personally. I still can’t quite believe that I’ve joined them in the Detection Club.

I’ve not had much to say on this blog about Bob Barnard, so it’s time to remedy the omission. He’s a witty writer, who crafts neat and sometimes highly ingenious plots. His gifts are often shown to advantage in the short story, a form at which he excels, and I’ve been lucky enough to include several of them in anthologies that I’ve edited.

Bob Barnard is also a keen student of the genre, and his study of the work of Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive, is widely acknowledged as one of the best books ever written about the Queen of Crime. His enthusiastic, yet clear-eyed assessment of her work, is highly readable, and his analysis of her main plot devices is especially interesting.

Yet it is for his novels that he is best known, and quite right too. He has employed recurrent detectives – Perry Trethowan and Charlie Peace in particular – but the main focus on his books is on the skewering of pretension, coupled with neat mystification. Death in Purple Prose pokes fun at romantic novels, while Political Suicide offers a highly entertaining, if now rather dated, glance at political shenanigans.

My favourite Barnard is probably A Scandal in Belgravia. The title suggests a Sherlock Holmes connection, but this proves to be a red herring. The focus is, again, on politics (Bob used to work for the Fabian Society), and there is a great final twist. A fun book from a writer whose own talent to deceive is of a high order.

Saturday 16 January 2010

The Water's Edge

Quite a while ago, I was sent a review copy of the latest Karin Fossum title by Mike Stotter, editor of that excellent online crimezine Shots. I’ve read Fossum in the past – He Who Fears the Wolf, a book I thought pretty good – but it took me a long time to read The Water’s Edge.

This was, in part, due to pressure of work and other commitments, but it was also due in part to the subject matter, which is the mistreatment and murder of young boys. I find books which deal with the harming of children difficult to read, although I recognise that this is not only an entirely legitimate subject for crime fiction, but an important one. Well-written fiction can sometimes help to give us an insight into cruel or sociopathic behaviour that otherwise one finds inexplicable, as well as deeply offensive.

Fossum certainly is a skilled writer, and The Water’s Edge is a sensitively composed book. It begins, after a short italicised preamble, with a man walking through a wood, carrying a ‘burden’ which, it becomes plain, is the body of a child. But he is spotted by a couple who are taking a walk. Kristine and Reinhardt react in very different ways to their experience of seeing a child-killer, and the story of their disintegrating relationship is one of the most compelling strands of the whole book.

Once the body is found, the detective work is done, as usual, by Inspector Sejer, but soon he has another missing boy to contend with. The story is as dark as the heart of a Swedish forest. I can’t say that I found this one fun to read, but I did admire Fossum’s literary accomplishment and insights into human behaviour..

Friday 15 January 2010

Forgotten Book - Never Come Back

Never Come Back was prophetically titled, since it proved to be John Mair’s one and only novel. My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books was first published in 1941, when the author was just 28. It met with acclaim, and George Orwell, no less, wrote in a review that it might be a new type of thriller, ‘in which political events subsequent to 1920 are considered mentionable’.

Most of the book was written after the outbreak of war, as Mair awaited call-up. He joined the RAF, and was killed in a training accident off the Yorkshire coast in 1942, when two planes collided. The book appeared as a Penguin paperback, but even though Julian Symons, who admired it greatly, included it in his list of the ‘hundred best’ crime novels in 1958, it remained out of print until 1986, when Oxford University Press reissued it as a ‘20th century classic’. Symons contributed a typically intelligent and unsentimental introduction.

The central character of the book, and the reason it remains memorable, is Desmond Thane, whom Symons describes as ‘the first anti-hero in crime fiction’. Thane is in Symons’ opinion, to an extent, a self-portrait of Mair. He is conceited and sometimes cowardly, and his lack of scruple is sometimes startling, but this ‘cool-hearted epicurean’ is a thoroughly believable individual, and we can’t help hoping that he will survive when he finds himself pursued by a shadowy organisation bent on turning wartime uncertainty to its own advantage.

Symons describes this as ‘a young man’s book…At times it is serious and at others frivolous. It is ingenious, exciting, in places implausible, but borne along always on a wave of high spirits’. As usual, he sums it up perfectly. I need only add that it seems to me that the last sentence captures the flavour of Mair’s writing: ‘For what, after all, were two small murders in the midst of so much slaughter?’

Thursday 14 January 2010

Avoiding Libel

The threat of a libel action haunts some writers - it featured as a plot device in Andrew Garve's The Megstone Plot, a lively thriller of the Fifties, and there may be other examples. A claim of libel can be very damaging, not only because of the risk of having to pay out compensation, but also because a book that contains libellous material may have to be withdrawn, at great cost. Yet, because of the – sometimes unsatisfactory - way in which the libel laws work, there are various traps for the unwary.

Even very sensible people can become ensnared by libel law. Michael Gilbert, an eminent solicitor, ruefully told of how a short story he wrote landed him, and the magazine which published it, in trouble. I read about this mishap and once asked him about it, but it was plain that the memory was still painful. One of the main pitfalls is that it is possible to libel a person unintentionally (for instance, where there is a coincidental overlap between what you write and something or someone in real life) whereas most legal wrongs can only be committed if you are proved to have the intention to commit them.

The newspapers often campaign for a relaxation of the laws of libel. This is said to be in the public interest, although of course there is a degree of self-interest there, too. A complex society such as ours does need laws to protect the reputations of people, which can so easily be destroyed, causing much distress and without any justification. Yet a balance needs to be struck, because there is a genuine public interest in free speech. All of us (except for libel lawyers) would benefit from a simplification of the libel laws, and a method of dealing with alleged defamation that was easy and cheap to operate. Easier to wish for than to achieve, I appreciate.

I know some writers who say they aren’t bothered about libel, and merrily depict real people in their fictions. Not a course I would recommend. In my own case, I do make a serious effort to ensure that, even though I’m using the real settings of Liverpool and the Lake District, my characters, and the incidents in the story, are invented. I certainly would hate to hurt anyone’s feelings, even by mistake. It was very different with Dancing for the Hangman, the only book in which I’ve used real people for a story. But there, not only Crippen, but all the other actors in the drama were long dead.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Val McDermid

Val McDermid has been awarded the Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger – the most prestigious crime fiction award in the UK – and it’s an honour which recognises the consistently high quality of her writing over a good many years. Her first novel appeared in 1987, and she is best known for her books about Tony Hill, which were adapted into a highly successful TV series starring Robson Green, The Wire in the Blood.

Although Val and I are almost precisely the same age, and were student contemporaries, we did not meet until about 1992, by which time we were both members of the Northern Chapter of the CWA, founded by Peter Walker a few years earlier, and a group which has introduced me to many wonderful writers who have become friends. At that stage, Val was branching out with a new series featuring the Manchester private eye Kate Brannigan, and this was the point at which her career really began to take off in a big way.

I’ve followed her career pretty closely ever since, and I well remember being present at the Awards Dinner when Val received the CWA Gold Dagger for the first Tony Hill book, The Mermaids Singing. She’d had the extraordinarily galling experience of having her publishers omit the final few pages of the book from the first edition – what could be worse for a crime writer? But it would take much more than that to stop Val from achieving success.

It’s often said that Val’s books ‘are known for their graphic depictions of violence and torture’ (this is a phrase from the Wikipedia article about her) but my view is that more emphasis should be placed on two features which I think go a long way towards explaining her success. First, her books are very intelligently composed – not in a knowingly learned way, but in a way that helps to enhance reader satisfaction. Second, she has a genuine respect for classic crime fiction, and her understanding of the appeal of complex whodunit plots helps to inform her own carefully constructed mysteries. To respect good traditions, whilst updating them, is a gift for a crime writer, and she definitely possesses that gift.

Perhaps I should mention that I have an involvement with the Diamond Dagger, to the extent that I chair a small sub-committee which sifts through nominations for the award. Once we have agreed upon a shortlist of up to seven names of great candidates, those names go forward to the CWA committee, who make the actual decision. Needless to say, I’m very much in agreement with their choice!

The photo shows Val and I, with Martyn Waites, on the stage at Bouchercon in Baltimore about fifteen months ago, when we were involved with presenting awards to various guests of honour.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Classic Libraries

I love libraries. Perhaps that should be a statement of the obvious when made by any writer or avid reader. But of course, in dark economic times, public expenditure on libraries is apt to come under the microscope, with potentially alarming consequences. I was greatly impressed with the new central library at Newcastle, at which I was delighted to appear last summer, though I share the anxiety of those who fear that there will be few if any new major libraries like it built in the next ten years.

But let’s celebrate libraries, private as well as public. I’ve mentioned some of my favourites before. They include Manchester's Portico Library and John Rylands Library, the library at Liverpool’s Athenaeum Club, of which I’m fortunate enough to be a member (strictly, ‘proprietor’) and the wonderful Lit and Phil, again in lucky old Newcastle, at which I appeared in 2008.

The Bodleian is, of course, in a class of its own, although I was never too keen, as a student, on the newish law library in the St Cross Building. To my shame, I have yet to visit the revamped British Library in London. Speaking of the capital, I know some people who rave about the London Library, but again I’ve never visited it.

I’m looking forward to the launch of The Serpent Pool in St Deiniol’s Library in Hawarden next month. When I received the invitation to appear there, not long after I featured this remarkable residential library on this blog, I was truly delighted. And I’ll be taking the opportunity of an overnight stay. To sleep in a library! Can’t be bad.

Monday 11 January 2010

Chinatown: review

I've watched Roman Polanski's classic movie Chinatown for a third time. Because it’s one of the great crime films, I feel I gain something new each time I see it. It’s not my favourite film by any means, but I certainly admire its technical accomplishment, the superb acting, and Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting theme tune.

Jack Nicholson is terrific as Jake Gittes, a private eye who is hired by a woman who claims that her husband, Hollis Mulwray, is having an affair. Gittes finds Mulwray with a young woman, and discredits him, but then Mulwray’s real wife (played by Faye Dunaway) turns up, and the plot begins to thicken.

The story, set in 1937, involves dirty dealings over water rights in Los Angeles, and was based on a complex and long-running real-life controversy. Polanski himself appears briefly as a vicious gangster, and John Huston is brilliantly effective as Dunaway’s rich and corrupt father.

The script was written by Robert Towne, and it won an Academy Award. The mystery element is more than competently done, but what really marks out Towne’s work is the attention to character and setting, not least the enigmatic backdrop of Chinatown itself in the chilling final scene. Apparently, Towne planned a trilogy featuring Gittes, but it was a long time before the sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes, appeared, and many people (not me) thought it was a let-down, with the result that the third film in the sequence has never been made.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Between the Dark and the Daylight

I’ve just received the very handsome and substantial hardback and paperback editions of Between the Dark and the Daylight, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, published by Tyrus Books. This is a collection of 28 ‘of the best crime and mystery stories of the year’ and I’m proud to say that it includes ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’, a story which was a joy to write, and which has been so good for me, having won the CWA Dagger for best short story and featured in Maxim Jakubowski’s equivalent UK anthology of Best British Mysteries.

Even before you get to the stories, there is a fascinating and authoritative preface by Jon L. Breen which reviews ‘the mystery year’, covering not only novels and short stories, but also movies; in addition, there is a detailed list of major mystery award winners in 2008.

The list of contributors to this volume is so impressive, that it’s flattering, as well as a privilege, to be part of the project. The authors include Michael Connelly and Joyce Carol Oates, two fellow Brits in John Harvey and Peter Robinson, and fellow bloggers including Bill Crider and Patti Abbott (there is also a story from Patti’s daughter Megan, whom I was glad to meet at the Harrogate Festival last summer.) The collection takes its title from a story by Tom Piccirilli.

Tyrus have done a good job in producing an attractive book which weighs in at just short of 600 pages; having declared my interest, I have to say that it seems a real bargain. One thing I have noticed is that the permissions list indicates that several of the stories included first appeared online. Is this a sign of things to come? It’s notoriously difficult to find print markets for short stories, but maybe the internet offers fresh possibilities. So far I have never had any of my stories appear online prior to print publication, but who knows what the future may bring?

Saturday 9 January 2010

The Economy and Crime Fiction

To what extent is there a link between prevailing economic conditions and the type of crime fiction that people want to write and to read? It’s an interesting question, although I’m not confident that I know the answer.

The 1920s, for instance, was a time of great economic difficulty, and it coincided – certainly in Great Britain – with the rise of escapist puzzle-fiction, the whodunits of Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and so on. One might argue that the light, entertaining mysteries offered people an escape from often grim personal circumstances, as well as the aftermath of war. There were similar books written in the US, by the likes of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen, but this period also saw the growth of the pulps and the arrival on the scene of writers like Dashiell Hammett.

We have, in recent years, had a period of economic prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic, and perhaps this (in part) supplies an answer to the question I posed a while back, as to why modern crime fiction has, in many cases, become so much more gruesome. Possibly, a prosperous society that feels relatively safe looks to fiction to provide it with danger and excitement.

But things are changing for the worse in economic terms, certainly in the UK, and if the forecasters are to be believed, once the general election is out of the way, the next few years are going to be tough for many people, though of course there will be exceptions to the general rule, as there always are. Does this mean that there will be a renewed appetite for lighter, escapist fiction? I’m unsure, but I’d be interested to learn the views of others.

Surveillance - review

Surveillance is a 2008 movie produced by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of the legendary David Lynch(Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, etc.) and is only her second film after a long gap –the break apparently being due to the critical mauling accorded to her first, which I haven’t seen. But although it is very gruesome indeed, Surveillance gripped me from start to finish.

On the surface, it’s a conventional enough story about crazed serial killings in a sunny American state. A rural police station finds itself invaded by a smooth man and his admiring female associate – evidently, the FBI have come to town, and the scene is set for a clash of cultures, as it becomes clear that the local cops are corrupt, and have been having themselves a fine old time terrorising innocent characters who stray into their path.

But one of the cops has now been murdered by the serial killers, and his partner has survived, although he is injured. As the two agents interrogate a group of witnesses, the sequence of events is told through flashbacks, and it becomes apparent that a young girl whose family has been killed holds the key to the mystery. This is still a conventional set-up, but Lynch has a very effective twist up her sleeve, and the ending of the film (after more gory scenes) is very troubling.

Not everyone will like this film, but I was impressed, almost despite myself. Surveillance isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it’s a relatively original, and rather memorable, piece of work. Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond are the stars, but the cast as a whole performs with gusto.

Friday 8 January 2010

Forgotten Book - The Blotting Book

E.F. Benson is the author of my latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books. He was a member of a famous family; his father became Archbishop of Canterbury, his mother was described by Gladstone as ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ (blimey!), and his three brothers all achieved fame. E.F. (aka Fred) was a noted author, best remembered today for his humorous stories about Mapp and Lucia.

Fred’s work occasionally strayed into our territory, and The Blotting Book, published in 1908, is an example, and seven years earlier, he wrote The Luck of the Vails. Even though he did not feel the inclination to write any more crime novels, the Australian academic and crime expert Stephen Knight said, in his introduction to a paperback reprint of The Blotting Book in 1987, ‘he seems to have been briefly swept on the flow tide of the crime novel, as it developed out of the widespread popularity of the short story mystery.’

The setting is well-to-do Brighton and the book opens with a careful description of Mrs Assheton’s home in Sussex Square, where ‘everything moved with the regularity of the solar system’. But dark passions stir behind the façade of respectability. When murder is done, a suspect is arrested, and Benson offers a trial scene with a dramatic late twist. The pace is sedate – an all-action thriller this is not! - but the writing is smooth and capable.

Knight notes that ‘the shape of a short story grown into novel is quite apparent. Benson makes do with few characters.’ This militates against complexity of puzzle, but Knight suggests that Benson was paving the way for Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles, and that in this book, ‘time and place are as important as they would be to the Detection Club.’ An interesting slice of historic crime, not to be forgotten.

Thursday 7 January 2010


When I reviewed recently, for that splendid site Tangled Web UK, Michael Gilbert’s The Murder of Diana Devon, I reflected – not for the first time – on Gilbert’s remarkable versatility. That volume alone includes short stories, magazine competition puzzles, radio plays and a poem. Gilbert’s novels were many and various, and he also wrote for television, as well as creating four stage plays. He even found time to build a successful legal practice, his clients including Raymond Chandler.

There are some other writers of roughly comparable versatility. Francis Durbridge is a name that springs to mind. He achieved great success with his Paul Temple stories on the radio, and his television serials were hugely popular in their day (I’ve posted previously about my admiration for Bat out of Hell in particular.) He wrote numerous plays which had outings in the West End, and he was a prolific novelist – although oddly, I’d suggest, his novels tended to be less effective than his other work, because dialogue was his forte and characterisation and setting mattered much less to him.

Then there was Nigel Balchin, a fine novelist, who also wrote for stage and television, and had considerable success in the film world. He adapted Philip Macdonald’s The Nursemaid Who Disappeared for the silver screen, and arguably improved upon it. He even wrote, as I discovered recently, what Clive James describes as ‘the ur-text’ for Cleopatra.

But how many writers of today (especially in Britain) demonstrate comparable versatility? I’d love to write for radio, tv, film and stage, but unfortunately, I can’t see it happening in the near future. Producing novels and short stories is challenge enough (though I have bought a book on screenwriting, so who knows?). Has writing become more specialised – or am I simply overlooking the achievements of some great all-rounders of the present day?

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Snowbound - and Murder Mysteries

I don’t remember snow like this in Cheshire since my schooldays. Lovely to look at, even if massively inconvenient as regards commuting to work or hospital visiting. Yesterday evening, the dramatic weather prompted me to reflect on murder mysteries that I’ve enjoyed over the years where snow falls have played a prominent part in the story. One of the best in the last twenty years was Jim Kelly’s Death Wore White, a modern take on the classic locked room mystery, which I reviewed on this blog a year or so ago.

Snow also plays a background role in Cyril Hare’s An English Murder, a classic whodunit, and one of the finest of all mysteries set at Christmas, which dates from 1951. It was based on a radio play that Hare had written three years earlier; this was one of a series of six plays written by member of the Detection Club, and it would be wonderful if some enterprising publisher could one day republish them all.

An English Murder
features an appealing amateur sleuth, Dr Bottwink, who is very different from Hare’s regular characters, notably the sceptical barrister Francis Pettigrew. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable story, which I first read more than twenty years ago. At the time of his premature death, Hare had just started writing another novel featuring Dr Bottwink, and a few years ago, I had the privilege to be shown the very short incomplete manuscript by Hare’s son. It was utterly fascinating to see it, although Hare wrote so little of it that it was impossible to figure out the nature of the mystery, far less the prospective solution.

A couple of years ago, I co-authored with Philip Scowcroft for CADS an article about Cyril Hare, and anyone interested in this fine writer (who is referenced in the latest P.D. James) can find the piece on the articles page of my website.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Wow Factor?

My new year has got off to a great start with a starred review of The Serpent Pool in 'Library Journal' in the US. After an outline of the plot, the verdict is as follows:

‘The juxtaposition of human relationships past and present, the interweaving of the writings and life of Thomas de Quincey with the contemporary plot, and the backdrop of England's Lake District, famous for its literary connections, make this an excellent choice for discerning readers who want an unusual and challenging puzzle mystery that will keep them guessing until the final pages. Wow!’

Of course, it’s important to retain a sense of proportion about reviews, because they are inevitably subjective – and also because one doesn’t want to become too upset if some reviews are negative! However, 'Library Jounal' is an important publication, perhaps especially for mid-list writers like me, and this kind of approval is really heartening, especially as there have now been four advance reviews of the book, and each of them so far has been very positive.

I’m also grateful to Peter Lovesey, no less, for drawing my attention to a super review of Dancing for the Hangman in the latest issue of Mystery Scene magazine. He was even kind enough to send me a copy.

All this does help greatly, of course, in motivating me to make progress with the next Lake District Mystery. After a long lay-off, I have done quite a bit of fiction writing over the Christmas break, and certainly feel the better for it.

Monday 4 January 2010

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Three Act Tragedy: review

Three Act Tragedy, with David Suchet as Poirot, was shown on ITV1 last night and proved to be the best Agatha Christie adaptation I’ve seen in quite a while. The novel was one of the first mysteries I ever read, and stands out in my memory as a truly enjoyable read, so I was delighted that the screenplay by Nick Dear stayed as faithful to the original as one could reasonably hope.

The story opens at the Cornish home of a famous actor, Sir Charles Cartwright, played by Martin Shaw. Poirot is present at a party which turns to tragedy when a local vicar dies suddenly. An inquest rules out foul play, but Sir Charles is not satisfied – and neither, of course, is the typical Christie fan. A month later, in Monte Carlo, he shows Poirot a news report of the apparent murder of Bartholomew Strange (Art Malik, who seems to appear sooner or later in every detective series) at his Yorkshire home – in the middle of a party with an almost identical guest list. Sir Charles and Poirot hot-foot it to Yorkshire to investigate, and suspicion falls on an enigmatic butler, who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. But can he really be the guilty party?

The locations in this story may not be quite as exotic as those in the Christies set in the Middle East, but they were equally sumptuous. As usual, the supporting cast, which included Jane Asher, was first-rate. It goes without saying that Suchet was great, but Martin Shaw, I thought, was as at his very best – he obviously relished the role. I was glad that the book’s excellent last line, one of Christie’s best, was retained.

The book tends not to be ranked along with Christie masterpieces, and I suspect this is because most of the characters have no compelling motive to kill either the vicar or Strange. They were equally lightly sketched in Nick Dear’s otherwise very effective screenplay (which omits altogether Mr Satterthwaite, who acts as a sidekick in the novel.) But I think the concept behind the book is marvellously cunning – especially in the way the first murder is explained – and as far as I know it is original to Christie. A clever mystery, turned into splendid Sunday evening viewing.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Appointment with Death: review

Appointment with Death is one of my least favourite Poirot novels, but I’ve just caught up with the David Suchet version screened on Christmas Day and it made enjoyable viewing. This was the result of a number of pleasing ingredients, including good background music and excellent photography – the setting of the screenplay is Syria in 1937, and the programme was visually impressive.

The cast, needless to say, was of high quality. I’ve talked before about my admiration for Suchet’s interpretation of Poirot, but among the other performances I enjoyed was that of Paul Freeman as Colonel Carbury. I always associate Freeman with his role in The Long Good Friday, in which his unwise shady dealings lead to disaster for Harold Shand, played by Bob Hoskins. A very different role here, and he played it with gusto. Other notable cast members included Cheryl Campbell, Mark Gatiss, Tim Curry – and Beth Goddard, who is so attractive that the nun she played was instantly noticeable and therefore highly suspicious.

Guy Andrews’ screenplay took plenty of liberties with the original, but got away with it, because the criminal’s motivation in the book is profoundly unsatisfactory. I still remember being disappointed by it when, as a Christie addict, I first devoured the book as a teenager. In the tv version, the motivation is totally different, and there are two culprits working hand in glove rather than one, as well as new characters and (groan!) that now hoary old stand-by, child abuse.

Purists will say that the screenplay was wildly over the top, and this is certainly true of the climactic scene. But on the whole, this is surely forgivable in the case where the original book is very far from being a classic. Appointment with Death was fun to watch.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Doctor Who - The End of Time: review

The End of Time was a two-part holiday special episode of Doctor Who which saw the departure of David Tennant, who has been superb in the role of the Doctor, and the arrival of Matt Smith. The story involved the attempt of the Master (played by John Simm, who was so good in Life on Mars) to take over Earth, and the intervention of the Time Lords, led by that one-time James Bond, Timothy Dalton. Aiding and abetting Tennant was the splendid Bernard Cribbins.

Given such a starry cast (Billie Piper and June Whitfield were among other famous faces that popped up) the show was always going to be fun to watch, and so it proved. As usual, I enjoyed Russell T. Davies’ script; he is a very good television writer, although his Doctor Who stories sometimes seem stretched out beyond their natural limits, with the extra time occupied by rather sentimental interludes, and this was for me the only weakness of The End of Time. Overall, though, it was good holiday entertainment.

I first watched Doctor Who in the days of the first Doctor, William Hartnell, and it’s interesting to see how writers have grappled over the year with the departure of their hero. In television, this may be due to an actor afraid of becoming type-cast, or even dying. Taggart survived the death of Mark McManus, and the show is still named after his character, although I don’t think the stories are quite as compelling as in the early days, when McManus was at his best and Glenn Chandler wrote some quite brilliant scripts.

In crime fiction, the author may simply tire of writing about his or her detective. Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, although public pressure (and lots of money) persuaded him to revive the great detective. When Nicolas Freeling killed off Van der Valk, he had Arlette, the cop’s widow, take centre stage, although not with the same level of success. I once attended a talk given by P.D. James, when she described killing off your hero as ‘foolish’, and within the crime genre, I’m inclined to agree. But in the anything-goes world of Doctor Who, a Time Lord can transform himself and sometimes, as in the Tennant era, with dazzling results.

Friday 1 January 2010

Sleep With Me review

Sleep With Me was an intriguing choice for ITV 1’s New Year’s Eve drama production. Billed as an erotic thriller, it had a very good pedigree – adapted by the legendary Andrew Davies from a novel by Joanna Briscoe – and a good cast, headed by the reliable Adrian Lester. And it was the type of psychological suspense story that writers such as Nicci French do so well.

The basic premise is that Richard, a journalist and would-be novelist, and Lelia have a seemingly perfect relationship, but their lives are invaded by an apparently mousy (yet at the same time smouldering and intense!) French woman, Sylvie, who has literary ambitions of her own. She seduces Richard, rather improbably I thought, but her real target turns out to be Lelia. And then it emerges that she and Lelia have a shared past, which includes a tragic secret.

I found Sleep With Me to be watchable, and I didn’t regret following it to the end, even though the final plot developments didn’t seem especially credible or satisfying. A harsher view might be that it was neither erotic nor thrilling. The real problem, I think, was that the motivation of Sylvie was ambiguous, and unsatisfactorily conveyed. Maybe the ambiguity was intentional, but maybe it resulted from an uncertainty about characterisation. This impression of uncertainty meant that Sleep with Me was an okay drama, rather than attaining the levels of excellence so often associated with Andrew Davies.

So that’s my reading and viewing for 2009 done. Much more is to come in 2010 – in the meantime, my very best wishes go to all readers and writers of crime fiction for the year ahead, and especially to those who are kind enough to spare some of their time to take a look at this blog.