Wednesday 31 March 2010

The Coming of Spring

It’s been a long, hard and at times horrible winter, and even this morning, on the last day of March, the headlines in Britain are about heavy snow and ‘traffic chaos’. The brighter days can’t come soon enough.

So I thought I’d indulge myself with a few photographs taken on Sunday, when the sun made an appearance. On my visit to St Deiniol’s Library in Hawarden, to launch The Serpent Pool last month, I became aware of the 18th century ‘new’ Hawarden Castle, once home to William Ewart Gladstone, the Prime Minister who founded the Library, and now home to his descendants. In the grounds are the ruins of a much older castle, built around the 13th century, but with Iron Age origins.

Because I love history, I love castles. Kendal Castle features in a scene in The Cipher Garden, and I like writing about Daniel Kind’s passion for history as a subject which does require many of the skills of a detective. I also love attractive gardens (I admit to preferring to visit them than to doing my own gardening!) and again this is reflected in The Cipher Garden. So when I heard that Hawarden Castle would open its gardens last Sunday, I seized the moment – and was rewarded with a thoroughly enjoyable trip to another country (well, Wales) that was only 35 minutes from home. A beautiful place.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Ocean's Eleven

Watching the 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven reminded me of my only visit to Las Vegas, to attend Bouchercon in 2003. I found the city as fascinating as the convention was enjoyable. I have many fond memories of those few days, including travelling to the Hoover Dam with Stuart and Doreen Pawson, a long conversation with Edward D. Hoch at a cocktail party, meeting Ali Karim for the first time at the Riviera, even though we only live a few miles apart in Cheshire, and a delightful dinner at the home in Henderson of expat British crime writer Douglas Stewart and his family.

Back to the film. I have never seen the original version, starring Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack, as well as Angie Dickinson (who makes a cameo appearance in the 2001 version.) Remakes are often unwise, but this one was enormously successful at the box office, and I can see why. There is an A-list cast (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and so on) and the film is directed with verve by Stephen Soderbergh.

Caper movies like this one follow, almost inevitably, the same pattern. The gang of robbers is put together bit by bit, generally by the smart guy who has conceived an ingenious masterplan to steal a fortune. Complications ensue, and the only question is: will they get away with it, or not? The Italian Job and The League of Gentlemen are probably my favourite films of this, and now Ocean’s Eleven joins the list.

Clooney has decided to rob the Bellagio casino (photo taken by Doreen Pawson, when we were wandering around the casinos) and spice is added to the venture because the casino is owned by a man called Benedict (played by Andy Garcia) who now lives with Clooney’s ex, Tess (Julia Roberts). Clooney wants the money, but he wants Tess even more. I enjoyed finding out whether he would succeed in his quest. I wonder if the two sequels to this movie, or indeed the Rat Pack original, are as good – any views?

Monday 29 March 2010

Complicit: review

My first encounter with the fiction of Nicci French was the superb Killing Me Softly, and I’ve read a number of the other French novels (‘Nicci French’ is, in fact, a husband and wife duo, Sean French and Nicci Gerrard). Their latest novel of psychological suspense, Complicit, has just been published, and I found it an excellent read.

The book is divided into past and present narratives, each told by a young music teacher, Bonnie Graham. The story set in the present recounts the bizarre sequence of events that unfolds once Bonnie finds the dead body of a man to whom she was very close (who is not identified to the reader for quite some time.) The ‘past’ narrative explains the events of a chaotic summer which led up to the man’s murder.

Bonnie is asked by a friend to play at her wedding, and so she forms a band that includes past, future, and would-be lovers. Her choice of fellow musicians is unwise in the extreme, as it turns out, and there were times when Bonnie’s folly irritated me intensely. Some of the events of the story are unlikely in the extreme, but the skill of Nicci French is to ensure that you suspend your disbelief because you do want to find out what has been going on, and how matters will be resolved.

At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this story, but it soon had me hooked. The split story-line is handled adroitly, and you can never be quite sure what will happen next (although my rule of thumb was that Bonnie would mess up in some way, and she consistently lived up to these expectations!) If you like pacy suspense novels, I am sure you will find Complicit gripping. It's not a short book, but I devoured it ravenously.

Sunday 28 March 2010

A Righteous Kill: review

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are formidable actors, and in A Righteous Kill, they are paired as veteran NYPD cops, Turk and Rooster, who are investigating a long series of killings by someone who leaves a little poem at the scene of each crime. The victims are bad people, and it is apparent that some form of vigilante campaign is behind the murders.

Turk and Rooster are teamed with a younger duo, Perez and Riley, and tensions soon mount between the cops. These are fuelled by the fact that Turk is living with an attractive younger cop, Corelli (the very pretty Carla Gugino) who is Perez’s ex. An added complication is that Rooster fancies Corelli. Before long, Perez theorises that a cop is the poet-killer, and soon he focuses attention on Turk as a prime suspect.

The relationship between Turk and Rooster is pretty well done, and there are some other good things in this movie, as there are bound to be with such a cast (Brian Dennehy also crops up, as the Lieutenant), and the pace is well maintained. On the whole, however, I felt rather underwhelmed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the story-line had an over-used feel to it.

There were, I think, 14 victims of the serial killer in this film, and I rather think that when the body count rises so high, it is easy to stop caring. The idea of meting out justice to criminals has also been done many times before. A Righteous Kill is not a bad movie, but it’s not one that will stay in my memory in the same way as, say, The Lives of Others.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Christine Poulson

The Crime Writers’ Association has announced that Christine Poulson is to succeed Rebecca Tope as its membership secretary – so, if you are a published crime writer, in the UK (or overseas – there are many members from different parts of the world), and you would like to join this very friendly and worthwhile organisation Chrissie is the person to contact.

I got to know Chrissie quite a few years ago as a fellow member of the Northern Chapter of the CWA. Born in Yorkshire and now living in Derbyshire, she is an academic who wears her considerable learning lightly. She has, among other things, published a book on Arthurian legend in British Art.

She and I shared a platform last August, giving successive papers at the very convivial St Hilda’s College Crime Fiction week-end, and her contribution was really fascinating. It was intriguing that we’d picked some similar examples from the genre to make our points on the theme of the conference.

In addition to her other accomplishments, Christine Poulson is also a talented author, and she deserves to be better known. I had the pleasure of including her enjoyable story ‘The Lammergeier Vulture’ in a CWA anthology, Crime on the Move, that I edited a while back. When it comes to novels, she has enjoyed success with a series featuring a Cambridge academic, Cassandra James. I have on my over-loaded bookshelves two of the books in the series, and I’m looking forward very much to reading them. There is a link to Chrissie’s blog on the blogroll, and I can recommend it. Her posts are always thoughtful and full of interest.

Friday 26 March 2010

Forgotten Book - The Lawyer's Secret

My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a slim volume, even when padded with a short introduction by Matthew Sweet, and an additional story called ‘The Mystery at Fernwood’. Nevertheless, The Lawyer’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, caught my eye at the week-end when I called in at that splendid bookshop, Blackwell’s of Oxford, and it proved to be a swift and rather entertaining read.

The story opens in truly classical fashion, with an enigmatic lawyer announcing the eccentric contents of a will to a young woman. Here are the first lines:

‘”It is the most provoking clause that was ever invented to annul the advantages of a testament,” said the lady.

“It is a condition which must be fulfilled, or you lose the fortune,” replied the gentleman.’

A good start, I think, and I enjoyed this story. It’s a ‘novella with a secret’ or perhaps an example of ‘sensation fiction’ rather than crime fiction in the modern sense. The mystery at the heart of the story is not really concealed with great art for very long. But the pace carries the reader along, and although I don’t claim this as a neglected masterpiece, I was glad I found it.

The story, and ‘The Mystery at Fernwood’, were both first published as long ago as 1861. Shortly after that, Braddon published Lady Audley’s Secret, which remains her most famous work. Hers was a long career – she wrote over 70 books and died in 1915. Not in the Wilkie Collins class, perhaps, but an author to be reckoned with.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Forgotten Music - The Fool KIiller

Helen Eustis wrote a stunning debut crime novel, The Horizontal Man, a fine work of psychological suspense, but she did not attempt to build on that success by carving out a career as a novelist. She did, however, in due course write a second novel, The Fool Killer, which was turned into a film in 1965 starring Anthony Perkins.

In the 60s it was common for movie-makers to commission songwriters to produce a song to promote a forthcoming film. Often, the song did not appear in the film. A famous example is Gene Pitney’s 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance', another is Jack Jones’ 'Wives and Lovers', and yet another (though Cher’s version did appear in the US version of the movie) was Cilla Black’s 'Alfie'. Those three songs were enormously successful, and each of them was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

The duo were, it seems, hired to write a promotional song for The Fool Killer, and Gene Pitney (who recorded many of their songs, and was actually the intended performer of ‘What The World Needs Now is Love’, ultimately recorded by Jackie De Shannon) was asked to sing the song. But it was not a hit – it’s too unusual to have been a hit - and very few people are aware of it.

Yet it is an extraordinary piece of work. 'The Fool Killer' is to be found on Youtube and the observation is made in the comments that it’s a unique song. I agree – it’s a haunting melody, yet quite unlike any of Bacharach’s other tunes, just as the enigmatic lyric is far from typical of Hal David’s work. This is a song that should not be forgotten.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Take My Breath Away

I’m truly thrilled to have received a contract for the publication in the United States of Take My Breath Away, which appeared in the UK back in 2002. It’s a book which I’m very proud of, although it’s only fair to admit that it attracted much less attention than my other books.

The idea behind the story was one I was (and am) truly passionate about. It represents a complete break from the Harry Devlin series, even though the setting is a law firm – a glitzy outfit called Creed, based in the heart of London. The first chapter is set at a posh reception organised by a headhunter, and the opening line is: ‘The dead woman smiled.’ Some people whose judgement I respect have said the first chapter is one of the best things I’ve ever written, and the story that develops from there is quite elaborate, following the twin journeys of true crime writer Nic Gabriel, and a mysterious young woman who calls herself Roxanne Wake.

One of the background elements of the book is that there is a vein of political satire. Creed is a very ‘New Labour’ firm, and some of the dialogue of the senior partner, Will Janus, owes much to the inspiration of Tony Blair. I was pleased with the way this worked, but it didn’t seem to be noticed by the critics (except the perceptive Mat Coward, who has long been very supportive of my work – perhaps his insight into left-wing politics explains how he latched on to the political bits more readily than others.) Maybe it was too deeply buried in the text for most people to see it, I’m not sure. But I still think it works, although of course the story can be read as a psychological suspense novel, with various elements of mystery, without any regard to the political dimension.

I left open the possibility that Nic Gabriel might one day return. This may still happen, though I decided to strike out in a new direction with the Lake District Mysteries, and their much greater success means I’ll be sticking with them for the foreseeable future. Oddly enough, those people who did read Take My Breath Away tended to like it a lot. Trouble was, there weren’t enough of them! They included Priscilla Masters, who was kind enough to feature the book in a novel of her own. I’m absolutely delighted the book is to have a new lease of life.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Cat Among the Pigeons: review

Cat Among the Pigeons was one of the first detective stories that I read. I liked it a lot the first time round, but later I realised that it was a long way short of Dame Agatha at her best. The plot is rather cluttered, and Mark Gatiss, who wrote the screenplay for Agatha Christie’s Poirot, addressed that by making a number of pretty radical changes to the story. By and large, however, they worked, and the result was very watchable.

One change sees Poirot in at Meadowbank School from the outset. The soon-to-retire head teacher (a suitably imperious Harriet Walter) has invited him to make a speech, but then asks him to stay on at the school to assess the quality of the potential candidates to succeed her. Not very likely, but a device to allow Poirot to dominate proceedings from start to finish, and in story-telling terms, this was a good idea.

Mrs Upjohn (played by Pippa Haywood, who I used to like in The Brittas Empire, and who seems destined to be typecast as a scatty woman) recognises someone at the school who is supposed to have died years ago – but nobody follows up on this tantalising remark, and she promptly takes herself off to Anatolia. A sequence of murders and other crimes duly ensue.

The cast includes Claire Skinner (best known as the harassed mum in Outnumbered), but inevitably David Suchet turns in the most memorable performance, somehow convincing us that Poirot would be completely at ease in the (to him) wholly alien surroundings of Meadowbank. Overall, I’d say this is one of those Poirots where the television version is on a par with the book which sourced it.

Monday 22 March 2010

A Visit to Midsomer

One of the great joys about being part of the community of crime writers and readers is that one forms friendships, sometimes gradually and over many years, that are enormously rewarding. I first came across that fine novelist of psychological suspense Margaret Yorke in person in the 1990s, though I’d been reading her books avidly for a long time before that. But it’s only in recent times that I have come to know her better, and discover what a fascinating conversationalist she is.

I talked with Margaret recently at a Detection Club dinner, and, on learning that I’d be coming down to Oxford this past week-end, she invited me to have lunch at her home, which is only half an hour away from the city of dreaming spires. Needless to say, it was an invitation I accepted with alacrity.

I found that Margaret lives in a village that has the classic prettiness of the kind of English village beloved of Golden Age writers – and it did not really come as a surprise when she told me that some episodes of Midsomer Murders are filmed there. Margaret’s own cottage is delightful – low beams, a lovely garden and oodles of character. And it’s packed, of course, with books.

Margaret’s novels are crammed with insight into the way that people behave, and the forces that sometimes propel them into crime. When talking to her, it’s easy to see how her abiding interest in human motivation informed her fiction, and gave it the strength and credibility that earned her such a high reputation, and ultimately the CWA Diamond Dagger. Spending around three hours at the home of such a distinguished writer (who is also, incidentally, someone who cooks a very good lunch) and learning more about her life and experiences as an author – she even showed me her very first rejection slip! - was not just a pleasure; it was a privilege

Sunday 21 March 2010

The Deep End

The Deep End is a 2001 movie starring Tilda Swinton which is sometimes described as a re-make of a James Mason film called This Reckless Moment. In fact, both are based on The Blank Wall, a novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.

I haven’t read the book, but I was first alerted to Holding’s qualities as a crime writer by Ed Gorman’s blog, and it turns out that her other admirers included Raymond Chandler and the legendary critic Anthony Boucher. She started out writing romances, with titles including The Invincible Minnie, before turning to novels of suspense, apparently as a way of making more money after the Wall Street Crash. She died in 1955.

As for the movie, I have to say I was underwhelmed. The basic premise is that Tilda plays Margaret Hall, whose son is in a relationship with an unsavoury older man. When the older man dies, and her son is implicated, Margaret tries to cover things up, only to become embroiled in a blackmail scam.

The raw material of the story is strong (the book and the James Mason film were successful) but I did find it difficult to care much for either Margaret Hall or her son, and in a story like this, it is almost always essential to have some form of empathy for the main characters. The production values of the film are high, and the Lake Tahoe area looks attractive, but I am afraid this was a thriller which thrilled me much less than I had hoped. I would, however, be very interested to learn the views of other Holding fans about her best books.

Saturday 20 March 2010

State of Play: review

When the film of State of Play came out, I heard about the television serial on which it was based, which I missed completely when it was screened seven years ago. But I liked the sound of it, so I bought the DVD version, and I’ve just finished watching it – something that proved to be a very enjoyable experience.

The story gets off to a dramatic start. A ruthless gunman shoots a young black man, and also fires at a passing driver who witnessed the crime. A woman dies in an accident on the Tube – but did she jump or was she pushed? She turns out to have been an assistant to a prominent back-bench MP – and they had been involved in a torrid affair. The truth about their relationship quickly comes out, and a friend and former campaign manager of the MP, who is also a top investigative journalist, starts to look into the mystery. To complicate matters further, the newshound begins an affair with the MP’s unhappy wife.

There are six episodes in all, and while the series begins quite brilliantly, I felt that episodes four and five could easily have been reduced to a single episode, since the pace flags. However, the final instalment is very good, and there is a pleasing twist to the conspiracy-thriller type of plot.

State of Play was written by Paul Abbott, one of our most successful TV writers, and he gave a fascinating account of the newspaper and political worlds. His excellent screenplay was enhanced by terrific acting. John Simm, whom I really admire as an actor, was as good as ever as the journalist, while David Morrissey was appropriately selfish as the MP. Bill Nighy’s quirky performance as the newspaper editor was marvellously conceived, and there were excellent contributions from the rest of the cast, which included Philip Glenister and the under-rated Amelia Bullmore. Recommended.

Friday 19 March 2010

Forgotten Book - Wall of Eyes

Margaret Millar, Canadian born, and wife of Ross Macdonald, was a brilliant crime writer. Many people – including me – prefer her books to those of her highly successful and talented husband. My latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is an early Millar from 1943, Wall of Eyes.

Millar excelled at openings and this book begins splendidly:

‘They moved briskly along the street, the girl carefully indifferent to the stares of the people who passed, the dog unaware of them. He padded along looking neither to the left nor right, his eyes careless and shifty. But when he came to a hole in the sidewalk, he guided Alice around it and she felt the firm gentle tug of his harness and followed him.

I wonder if he knows I’m not blind, Alice thought.’

This strikes me as very clever writing – creating a situation, and then changing the reader’s perspective on it in a single sentence. You really have to keep reading.

Millar’s early detective, Inspector Sands, features in this book: ‘He had no strong sense of identity…Because he lived in a vacuum he was able to understand and tolerate and sometimes to like the strange people he hunted.’ I have always been rather sorry that Millar abandoned Sands, although her later books were, in the main, even better than this one – and this one is very good.

The late reviewer Matthew Coady said: ‘In the whole of crime fiction’s distinguished sisterhood, there is no-one quite like Margaret Millar.’ I agree. Matthew was a terrific judge (not only because he reviewed my debut novel kindly!) and anyone who has not read Margaret Millar has a treat in store.

Thursday 18 March 2010

The Man Behind Masquerade

As a lover of puzzles, I was fascinated recently to watch The Man Behind Masquerade, the story of Kit Williams and his best-selling treasure hunt book, Masquerade. It is 30 years since the book was published, and as I watched the programme, I found myself wondering why I had never got round to reading it. But then, there are so many marvellous books that I haven’t read that even to contemplate them is a bit daunting….

Williams is a gifted artist. He is also a very practical man, with a highly ingenious turn of mind – should he ever turn to detective fiction, it would be fascinating. His work includes, for instance, the Wishing Fish Clock in the Regent Arcade shopping mall in Cheltenham (which I first discovered, incidentally, during a lovely weekend spent at a CWA conference in that elegant spa town some years ago.)

Masquerade is a beautiful book, with complex clues pointing to the place where Williams, with Bamber Gascoigne as a witness, buried the golden hare that Williams designed and made Countless people tried and failed to unravel the mystery, but the solution was attended by intrigue. The winner was later discovered to have relied on information as to the hare’s whereabouts supplied by someone who knew Williams, rather than pure deduction. The hare was sold at auction and is now owned by an unnamed family in a distant land. However, the programme saw Williams reunited with the hare for the first time – an emotional moment for this remarkable man.

This all set me wondering how many detective novels have featured treasure hunts. I can’t think of many off-hand, although Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly makes clever use of a ‘murder hunt’.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

The Draughtsman's Contract

The Draughtsman’s Contract is an 1982 film by Peter Greenaway that contains elements of the country house murder mystery, transported to the 17th century. It is, of course, much more than a whodunit, though it’s amusing to note that one of the central characters, Mr Talman (son-in-law of Mr Herbert, who owns the house)is played by Hugh Fraser, better known to us as Poirot’s na├»ve sidekick Captain Arthur Hastings.

The contract that the eponymous draughtsman, Mr Neville, is asked to enter into with the lady of the house (played by Janet Suzman) during her husband’s absence involves his producing twelve drawings of the Herbert house and grounds, but he insists on being granted twelve sexual favours as a condition of agreeing to the project.

It gradually becomes apparent that strange things are happening while the draughtsman undertakes his commission – not least the antics of a mysterious ‘living statue’. And it becomes ever more clear as the film goes on that not only is Mr Herbert dead, but that, far from being in control of events, Neville is a dupe. The ending is quite horrific.

This is a film that requires careful watching, and I’m not sure I paid it all the attention it deserved – a drawback of late night televiewing. I’d like to see it again to gain a better understanding of some of Greenaway’s sub-texts. Michael Nyman’s soundtrack has been much praised, as has Greenaway’s cinematic skill. Some may call this film pretentious – it’s absolutely not an ‘action thriller’ – but it’s undeniably intriguing.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Towards Zero

I was never wild about the version of Agatha Christie’s Marple starring Geraldine McEwan as the great detective, and so it took me a long time to get round to watching Towards Zero. The book is a Christie with a clever plot that I enjoyed a good deal when I first read it at a tender age. Jane Marple doesn’t even appear in it, so I rather feared the worst from Kevin Elyot’s adaptation. My expectations were low, but I resolved not to make too many comparisons with the original book, and in fact it proved to be an eminently watchable programme; Miss Marple fitted into it pretty well.

The key to the plot is the idea that the story of a murder occurs long before the commission of the crime, but the key question is: whose murder is being contemplated? There are plenty of red herrings, especially those arising from a story told by the old lawyer Mr Treves (here, he was a barrister rather than a solicitor) about a youthful criminal of long ago whom he had recognised again. Needless to say, Mr Treves is soon found dead.

The cast of this version was filled with famous names. Even Greg Rusedski appeared, as a Wimbledon opponent of tennis-playing Nevile Strange (played by Greg Wise.) Saffron Burrows was a glamorous former Mrs Strange, and Eileen Atkins played the invalid aunt whose lovely house accommodates the party of suspect. The cast also included Dr Who (Tom Baker, doing a roguish version of Mr Treves) and Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies, as the superintendent bemused by Jane Marple’s insights)

Elyot’s screenplay was pretty good, given the decision to introduce Jane Marple, which necessitated various changes of structure. The locations, on the Devon coast, were sumptuous and added to the pleasure of classic comfort viewing. Christie purists wince at some of the television versions of the books (the train wreck that was The Sittaford Mystery remains my pet hate) but events here moved Towards Zero in undemanding and rather agreeable fashion.

Monday 15 March 2010

Brother Grimm

Brother Grimm was the second thriller published by Craig Russell. It appeared in 2006, and a couple of years later, he won the CWA Dagger in the Library. On that same evening I was introduced to him, having been awarded the Short Story Dagger, and that’s when we had our photo taken together. But I’ve only just got round to reading one of his books.

And it is, I must say, a gripping story. Set in Hamburg, it features a likeable cop called Jan Fabel and a psychotic murderer with a fixation on the folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm. I’ve been working on an idea with a folklore angle myself, and I did wonder whether there was any worrying similarity between his concept and mine – fortunately, the answer is no. I liked the way in which Russell ‘followed through’, in the sense of embedding the Grimm’s fairy tale concept in almost every aspect of his novel. This isn't an easy trick to pull off, but he managed it very well.

A girl’s body is found, and there is some puzzling confusion about her identity – is she, or is she not, a teenager who disappeared three years ago? The answer soon proves to be no, which begs a question – why did the killer leave a message sending the police off on that particular track? A couple having an affair are the next victims, and it soon becomes clear that a serial killer is at work.

There are copious red herrings, but this was one book where I managed to spot the culprit on his first appearance (the overly casual way he was brought into the story was the giveaway) - but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. There were a few points in the middle when there was possibly a bit too much ‘tell’ and not enough ‘show’ in the writing, but by the end of the book I realised this was nothing more than a minor quibble. Fabel and his team are an interesting bunch, and Brother Grimm is a highly entertaining piece of work. I very much look forward to reading more of Craig Russell's fiction in the future.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Mystery Scene

That excellent publication Mystery Scene has now reached its 113th issue – quite an achievement, given that so many magazines about our genre prove short-lived. I’ve contributed to it on a number of occasions, and the current issue includes a short piece about The Serpent Pool, as well as (and of course I was delighted to chance upon this) an extremely kind review of the book by Mary Helen Becker, quotes from which I’ve now included on the Lake District page of my website.

There are many good things in this issue, including a terrific piece by that fine writer Lawrence Block, who reminisces about a writer I have never read, Ross Thomas. Block’s account made me want to read Thomas, and is quite fascinating.

I very much enjoyed an article by Twist Phelan, ‘Romancing the Con’, about four couples who got together at mystery conventions. I’ve always been fascinated to find out how couples I know first met – some of the stories I’ve heard have been hilarious, some truly romantic – and the contrast between the four couples makes this a very interesting piece indeed.

I thought Nate Pedersen’s article about book collecting contained very useful information, and I liked William F. Hirschmann’s essay about Rupert Holmes, who has adapted Agatha Christie’s classic story ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ for a fresh stage production. Some readers of this blog may recall I wrote about Rupert in connection with The Serpent Pool, which features an extract from the lyric of his song ‘Him’.

There is much more besides, and if you are interested in crime fiction, you are sure to find plenty to like in every issue of Mystery Scene. If you aren’t familiar with it, I recommend you to give it a go

Slumdog Millionaire

There are crimes aplenty in Slumdog Millionaire, which I’ve just watched, although it isn’t a ‘crime film’ – the crimes are not the prime concerns of the story. It is a truly marvellous movie – I’ve seen a number of very good ones lately, but this is probably the most exhilarating. And it’s interesting from a writer’s perspective because of its narrative structure.

The central idea of the plot is that a poor young man who works in an Indian call centre embarks on a winning spree answering questions of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ The police interrogate (and torture!) him, believing him to be a cheat. But as he explains how he knew the answers to the questions he was asked, a remarkable story unfolds.

Flashback is a tricky device for any writer. If it isn’t handled carefully, it can wreck the momentum of the story. Even the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle struggled with flashback in the longer Sherlock stories. But here, Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay, based on a novel by Vikas Swarup, is extremely effective. The secret of success lies in the combination of character development with fast-paced action and a stunning evocation of the life of the ‘slumdogs’ And because I’m keen on quizzes, the quiz element added a layer of fascination.

A terrific film. Before I saw it, I wondered if its reputation was overblown – but I’m delighted to say that it deserves the accolades it’s received. Superbly acted, with very good music by A.R.Rahman. Recommended.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Following the Detectives

I've had the pleasure of contributing short stories to a number of anthologies edited by the prolific (and hugely knowledgable) Maxim Jakubowski, but the first piece I ever wrote for one of his books was a little essay for a non-fiction volume he edited. This compilation was called 100 Great Detectives (my piece featured Cyril Hare's Francis Pettigrew).

More recently, I've written a couple of essays to feature in one of his latest projects, another factual book about locations associated with great detectives. The book is due to appear in the autumn and I'm very much looking forward to reading the entries from a range of very well-informed commentators. The book will be called Following the Detectives and the full list of places and authors is:

• Boston: Michael Carlson
• Brighton: Barry Forshaw
• Chicago: Dick Adler and Maxim Jakubowski
• Dublin: Declan Burke
• Edinburgh: Barry Forshaw
• Florida: Oline Cogdill
• Iceland: Peter Rozovsky
• London: David Stuart Davies
• Los Angeles: Maxim Jakubowski
• New Orleans: Maxim Jakubowski
• New York City: Sarah Weinman
• Nottingham: John Harvey
• Oxford: Martin Edwards
• Paris: Barry Forshaw
• San Francisco: J. Kingston Pierce
• Shropshire: Martin Edwards
• Sicily: Peter Rozovsky
• Southern California: Michael Carlson
• Sweden: Barry Forshaw
• Venice: Barry Forshaw
• Washington, D.C.: Sarah Weinman

Friday 12 March 2010

Forgotten Book - Sudden Departures

Before the television presenter Jonathan Ross became famous due to his wit, mischievousness and massive salary, the same name was used by a former police superintendent called John Rossiter for a series of crime novels. My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is Sudden Departures, published in 1988, which introduced me to Ross’s work.

It’s a short, snappy novel, in which an anonymous note to the police, warning of a murder about to be committed, precedes the burning to death of Andrew Latimer in his exploded car. Latimer’s greedy wife has gone missing, and Detective Superintendent George Rogers (the series cop employed in the Jonathan Ross books) is also troubled by the behaviour of the dead man’s siblings. It emerges that Mrs Latimer’s first husband met a violent end, while another man, who knew her, is choked to death after a late night assignation with an unknown woman.

This was a good police story, the 15th to feature Rogers, benefiting from the author’s professional experience. Seven more Rogers novels were to follow, the last being published in 1997. Since then, it appears that this capable writer has been enjoying a well-earned retirement; Rossiter was born in 1916, but as far as I am aware he is still alive.

Ross/Rossiter is a good example of a ‘mid-list’ writer who never hit the heights, or won lots of awards, but wrote a good many entertaining novels which afforded many readers (especially library users) much pleasure. I’ve never come across any discussion of his work among crime fans, but I enjoyed Sudden Departures and I’d be happy to read more of the books he produced.

Thursday 11 March 2010

The Minotaur

I’ve often spoken and written of my admiration for the work of Ruth Rendell, both the books published under her own name and as Barbara Vine. I’ve now caught up with The Minotaur, a Vine book published in 2005, and found much in it to admire, although I must also confess to some reservations.

After a very short opening set in the present day, the bulk of the story is set in the past, when a young Swedish girl, Kerstin Kvist (who narrates the story), comes to England to be closer to her boyfriend, and takes up a job in rural Essex at Lydstep Old Hall, home to the dysfunctional Cosway family. Her duties involve looking after John Cosway, who behaves strangely and is kept on medication at the behest of his domineering mother. There are also four Cosway sisters, three of whom compete in different ways for the attention of a feckless painter who comes to live in the village.

We know that Something Terrible Will Happen, because Kerstin tells us so. Again and again. The relentless foreshadowing, which I mentioned in relation to another recent Rendell, The Birthday Present, rather got on my nerves, I’m afraid. I also found the characters unlikeable (this is not unusual with Rendell/Vine) and thought it difficult to understand why clever Kerstin couldn’t bring herself to leave and get a better job.

On the plus side, the atmosphere of the decaying Hall is marvellously evoked. Above all, there is a fascinating library, which contains a labyrinth of bookshelves – a truly memorable image. Indeed, the title of the book and the extraordinary nature of the labyrinth made me think it would play an even greater part in the story than proved to be the case. There are several gripping, and very vivid scenes, and many nods to Gothic fiction, not least in the explicit references to Thornfield and Manderley late in the narrative.

A check on the internet suggests that opinion is divided on this book. The Daily Telegraph savaged it, for instance, but many others love it. My own feeling – I hope this does not seem disrespectful to an author who has given me endless pleasure over the years - is that, for all the merits of The Minotaur, it would have benefited from quite a bit of pruning, rather like the Virginia creeper that shrouds the old mansion. If you fancy sampling Barbara Vine (and you should, because she is a wonderful writer), you are likely to find A Dark-Adapted Eye or A Fatal Inversion more consistently rewarding.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Lennox Kemp and M.R.D. Meek

When I first started reviewing crime fiction in the late 1980s, I received a number of books published in the famous Collins Crime Club, an imprint astonishingly axed more than a decade ago. The Crime Club brand was a by-word for reliability – very few poor books appeared under that imprint, and a great many fine novels did. Apart from top writers such as Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard, the Crime Club was also a good home for mid-list writers, including the prolific and ingenious Martin Russell, who seems to have been forgotten in recent years – though he wrote some remarkably clever stories with many twists and turns. Russell wasn't great on characterisation, but he deserves not to be forgotten and I will say more about him another time.

Another reliable Crime Club author was M.R.D. Meek. I’d never heard of her before one of her titles arrived through the post, but I read it with considerable pleasure, not least because her protagonist, Lennox Kemp, had been a solicitor before becoming a private eye. It was quite obvious that Meek had a very good understanding of the legal profession – something that isn’t always so obvious in some of the books written about lawyers! I read several of them, and found them soundly plotted and very readable. Not in the Premier League of crime fiction, but decently placed in the Championship!

Meek was a member of the Crime Writers’ Association for many years, though I never came across her at any events. And it won’t happen now, because she died towards the end of last year. An obituary belatedly appeared in ‘The Times’ some weeks ago, which already appears to have disappeared from cyberspace, presumably as part of News International’s campaign to limit free online resources in favour of a paid-for model.

I was sorry to learn of Meek’s death, but her memory lives on. I still have my copies of several of her books and they are a fitting testament to someone who came to crime fiction relatively late in life, but produced good work for a couple of decades – no mean achievement.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Appleby Talks About Crime

Those excellent publishers Crippen & Landru have produced another in their series of ‘Lost Classics’, this time edited by the very knowledgeable John Cooper, who has previously edited collections written by two British greats, Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons. Appleby Talks About Crime brings together 18 previously uncollected stories by Michael Innes.

The book has just landed on my doorstep, so I haven’t had time to read it all yet, but I did like Cooper’s introduction, which is very informative. There is an overview of Innes’ life and crime writing career by Cooper, as well as a short account by Innes of how Appleby came into being (‘during a sea voyage from Liverpool to Adelaide’).

Here’s a sample of Innes’ reflections on his most famous books: ‘The social scene may be embalmed, in that baronets abound in their libraries and butlers peer out of every pantry. But Appleby himself ages, and in some respects perhaps even matures. He ages along with his creator, and like his creator ends up as a retired man who still a little meddles with the concerns of his green unknowing youth.’

The book includes a reminiscence about her father, the author, by Dr Margaret Macintosh Harrison (he seems to have been a man of great charm, as well as intelligence) and a complete list of all the known Innes short stories. I haven’t read much by Innes, and my preference is for his short stories rather than the novels – an early sampling of the novels in my teens was a bit off-putting, though that was probably due to my lack of sophistication – but he was a major figure in the genre, and Crippen & Landru are to be commended for having made these rare stories available to a modern generation of readers.

Monday 8 March 2010

Original Sins?

I’m hoping to conclude a deal shortly that will result in two new Crime Writerss’ Association anthologies, under my editorship. The last CWA anthology, M.O.: crimes of method, appeared almost two years ago, and although family and work issues have limited the time I have available for progressing the anthology since then, I’m delighted that a new project is about to take shape.

A number of Dagger-winning authors are already on board, and I’ve already received a brand new story from one of them. I can’t say too much about it just at the moment, but it’s a characteristically witty and clever piece of work from a great entertainer. If other submissions reach the same standard, the book will be marvellous.

One of the great pleasures of editing such a book is the chance to see new work by very good writers before anyone else – a privilege that I value. One tricky task, though, is coming up with a suitable title. My current idea is Original Sins, but if anyone has a great alternative suggestion, (or an idea for the title of the companion volume) I’d be very glad to hear it!

Meanwhile, there has been more lovely reaction to The Serpent Pool. The book, and I, were featured in ‘The Westmorland Gazette’, the Cumbrian newspaper that Thomas De Quincey himself once edited. And further generous reviews have appeared in Shots Magazine and elsewhere, and have included a truly gratifying one from the very prestigious The Literary Review. Here is an extract:

‘Interesting titbits about a former local resident, Thomas De Quincey, skilled evocation of landscape, and a clever plot add up to an excellent read.’

Sunday 7 March 2010

The Lives of Others

I don’t watch too many German language films with sub-titles, even though there was a long ago time when I was very keen on studying German. Undoubtedly, though, The Lives of Others, which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film is the best German movie I’ve ever seen.

The film is written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and stars Ulrich Muhe, Martine Gedeck and Sebastian Koch. The setting is East Germany in the 1980s, a time of severe state repression. A writer called Dreyman is having a relationship with an actress, Christa-Marie Sieland. A secret service man from the dreaded Stasi, Wiesler, is told by a superior to head a surveillance operation focused on Dreyman’s flat. The reason is that a minister is besotted with Christa-Marie and wants to find evidence of treachery on the part of his rival, Dreyman.

As Wiesler conducts the operation, he becomes fascinated by Dreyman and Christa-Marie, and his unquestioning obedience to the totalitarian regime begins to falter. He tries to warn Christa-Marie, but she finds herself trapped, and a series of cheerless events lead to tragedy. The ending of the film is, however, unexpectedly uplifting.

The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman, has long been my favourite film about surveillance, but this one runs it close. Muhe’s nuanced performance is excellent, and the claustrophobic feeling of a state-controlled society is conveyed with great power. One would like to think nothing similar could ever happen in Britain, but our surveillance society is developing apace, so who knows? This is a truly thought-provoking film, and it deserves the acclaim it has received.

Saturday 6 March 2010

River of Darkness

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth was published ten years ago to huge acclaim. I read it at the time, and very much enjoyed it. But a lot has happened since then, and my recollection of the detail of the story had faded by the time I acquired an audio version of the book. So I listened to it whilst commuting and enjoyed it all over again.

The story is set in 1921. The bodies of Colonel Fletcher, his wife, and two staff members are found – they have been the victims of a frenzied killer. Detective Inspector Madden from Scotland Yard is called in. He is a war survivor, and his experiences in battle have scarred him – but he is a very human character, and we are pleased for him when he falls for a sexy doctor, Helen Blackwell. But although he is a very good detective, he is unable to stop the body count from rising.

The reading is by Nathaniel Parker, aka Inspector Lynley, and he did a very good job. This story is not a whodunit – the identity of the culprit is revealed at a relatively early stage, although the mystery as to his precise motivation (which clearly has deep and disturbing roots) is preserved until almost the end of the tale. For at least half of the audio version, the focus was on a manhunt – the forces of law and order in pursuit of a desperate but resourceful bad guy. Gripping stuff.

Friday 5 March 2010

Harm Done

There was a time when I devoured each new Ruth Rendell book as it appeared, but she became so prolific that, in the end, I faltered, and I managed to miss a couple of Wexfords, including Harm Done. I’ve now belatedly watched the television version, and I was very impressed. It gives the impression of being reasonably faithful to the original, not least by virtue of its sheer complexity.

Rendell manages to tackle three difficult subjects – domestic violence, vigilante mob violence, and child abduction – and to combine a deep understanding of character with a clever plot, full of unexpected turns. In some of her recent books, I have felt her attempts at social and political commentary have detracted from the impact of the story, but that was not the case here, where the various elements of ‘message’ and ‘mystery’ were skilfully blended.

At first, it seems as though the main story will involve the abduction of two teenage girls from a bus stop. The girls tell a tale, once they come back home, that reminded me slightly of the Elizabeth Canning affair – but Rendell gives it a modern and chilling, yet ultimately melancholy, twist.

In fact, the central characters are a wealthy and seemingly devoted couple who have three young children. The husband, a successful businessman, has recently been receiving hate mail. When their daughter goes missing, it seems as though a paedophile is at work, and local vigilantes vent their fury on a woman whose elderly husband, just released from prison after serving a sentence for killing a child, has come to live with her because he has nowhere else to do. The unreasoning rage of the mob is very well captured, and the story-line has lashings of irony.

It turns out that the explanation for the little girl’s disappearance is nothing to do with paedophiles, but it rings frighteningly true. Clare Holman, an under-rated actor who was excellent in both Fallen Angel and Lewis, is very good as the unhappy wife. And George Baker and Christopher Ravenscroft excel as Wexford and Burden. I enjoyed and admired this episode. I switched on expecting a bit of comfort viewing – in fact, it was an uncomfortable story, but a memorable one.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Strangers on a Train

I’ve watched Hitchcock’s classic movie Strangers on a Train more than once, as well as reading the book by Patricia Highsmith on which it was based, but this is a film which is so masterful that it was good to see it again the other day. And as I watched, I reflected that, after almost half a century, it has lost little of its power.

The story-line of the ‘exchange of murders’ is now very familiar, and it has been referenced countless times subsequently (my favourite is the Peter Lovesey story called ‘Strangers on a Bus’). As with many of Highsmith’s plot ideas, the material is melodramatic, but the story is developed brilliantly, and although Hitchcock made some changes for the film, he was able to capture, in his own way, the chilling, obsessive atmosphere of the literary source. Apparently he approached Dashiell Hammett to write the screenplay at first, then gave the job to Raymond Chandler, but the pair did not get on, and little of Chandler’s writing survived in the final version. Famously, Highsmith was only paid $7,500 for the rights - not much for one of the classics, really.

Farley Grainger plays Guy, the likeable tennis player with a faithless wife, and Robert Walker is the superficially charming but sociopathic Bruno, who wants his own father dead. Ruth Roman does a decent job as Guy’s girlfriend, and her younger sister is played by Hitchcock’s own daughter, Pat. I was sorry to learn that Walker, whose performance is quite brilliantly spooky, died not long after the film was screened; he suffered serious psychiatric problems. Grainger, however, is still alive.

There are lots of wonderful touches in this film, and the climactic scene on a merry-go-round is superb. This is one of the best Hitchcock films, which means, quite simply, that it is one of the best crime films ever made.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Morag Joss and The Night Following

Morag Joss is by no means a prolific author. The Night Following is only her sixth book since the first appeared back in 1996. I’ve never met her at any writer’s event, and I don’t know a great deal about her – but one thing I do know is that she is a novelist of genuine distinction, currently working in the borderland between what, in this age of categories, might be described as ‘psychological suspense’ and ‘literary fiction’.

I thought her award-winning Half Broken Things was superb, right up there with the best of Barbara Vine; it was also very well done on television. The Night Following was short-listed for an Edgar, and is a fine novel, although to describe it as a crime novel is pushing the definition of crime fiction to the limit. But that doesn’t really matter – what does matter is that it’s a haunting and impressive piece of work.

Briefly, the catalyst for a strange series of events is the unnamed narrator’s discovery that her husband is having an affair. In a state of shock, she drives off and kills an elderly female cyclist. Rather than giving herself up, she becomes obsessed by the dead woman’s husband, Arthur, and when she starts to hang around his home, he deludes himself that his wife has returned from the grave. Interwoven into the unsettling narrative, seen from the perspective of both the main characters, is an unpublished manuscript written by the dead woman, which tells a disturbing tale of the past. Gradually, the narrator assumes the role of Arthur’s wife….

I reviewed the book for Tangled Web UK and explained that, for all my admiration of it, I thought there were some flaws, not least the implausibility of the narrator’s behaviour. But it often happens, I think, that when an author takes chances, as Joss does here, not all of them come off – it’s a sign of ambition, and often a sign of a very good book. And The Night Following certainly is a very good book.

Tuesday 2 March 2010


Valkyrie is a 2008 thriller based on a true story – the last of fifteen known attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It boasts a superb cast and is thoroughly watchable. I didn’t know the details of the story, and was fascinated to learn how close the conspirators came to success with their daring and courageous plan.

The leading character is Colonel von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise. Hostile to Hitler, and the barbaric ways of the Nazis, he is badly injured while serving in North Africa. He returns to Germany to join a conspiracy to bring the tyrannical rule of the dictator to an end. The plotters are played by a galaxy of stars, including Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and Bill Nighy, while Tom Wilkinson’s character equivocates, trying to figure out which side it’s safest to be on.

You know how it is all going to end, but – as with The Day of the Jackal – the journey towards the final conclusion is made engrossing by the story-teller’s art. As with Frederick Forsyth’s first and best novel, the description of the way events unfold is done with great skill and the characterisation, although economical, is effective.

The director is Bryan Singer, and the writer Christopher McQuarrie (with Nathan Alexander) and the same partnership was responsible for that brilliant and ingenious crime thriller The Usual Suspects. Valkyrie is not as memorable as the earlier film, but is nevertheless interesting as well as entertaining.

Monday 1 March 2010

The St Deiniol's Launch

I had a wonderful time on Thursday evening launching The Serpent Pool at St Deiniol’s Residential Library in Hawarden, North Wales. For a variety of unfortunate reasons, I’ve had to cancel a number of events lately, as well as a planned trip to the US to promote the book and attend Left Coast Crime, which has been disappointing. But the launch audience was extremely friendly and enthusiastic and I had the pleasure of signing plenty of books.

I must say that I’ve been thrilled by the response to The Serpent Pool. Already there have been some really wonderful reviews, for which I’m most grateful, as well as reactions from readers (both those who have read my books in the past and those who have not). I’ve collected extracts from the reviews here.

St Deiniol’s Library was founded, as I’ve mentioned previously, by William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister, whose descendants still live in Hawarden. The launch took place in the Gladstone Room, and it was possible to forget this long, miserable winter when warmed by a splendid open fire and the spirit of good fellowship that pervades the place.

For me, it was a special treat not only to dine at St Deiniol’s, but to stay overnight in the library’s very well appointed residential accommodation. Last summer, I was told about St Deiniol’s by a fellow crime writer who has stayed there a good many times, and who finds the unique atmosphere highly conducive to both reading and writing. Now that I have sampled the St Deiniol’s experience, I can see exactly what she meant. The library is fantastic, and there is a separate, smallish but interesting collection of modern fiction first editions (which, I noticed, includes a first edition of Colin Dexter’s debut novel…) If you ever want to stay somewhere in the North West that is modestly priced yet quite delightful, checking out St Deiniol’s should be a priority.

The launch was organised by Annette Lewis, the St Deiniol’s Development Officer, who made sure everything went with a swing. There will almost certainly be a Lake District residential library in my next novel. But despite the inspiration that I’ve found in Hawarden, my fictional library will be very different – St Deiniol’s is a place to be cherished, and also one that you really couldn’t make up.