Friday 30 April 2010

Forgotten Book - The Man Who...

I've written before about my admiration for the late, great Julian Symons. He was one of the most notable British crime writers of his time, and, in my opinion, the greatest of all critics of the genre (even though I don't agree with all of his opinions, including his rather harsh dismissal of many Golden Age writers.)

Among his many achievements, he became President of the Detection Club. In 1992, the Club published The Man Who…, edited by H.R.F. Keating, to celebrate the 80th birthday of Julian Symons, and this is my chosen title today for Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books for Friday.

In his introduction, Keating explained that, n compiling this ‘fiction Festschrift’, he had invited ‘those among the Club’s members who have been perhaps most closely linked with Julian to contribute…I laid down only a few stipulations. Each story was, in trbute to the author of The Man Who Killed Himself, The Man Whose Dreams Came True, and The Man Who Lost His Wife, to have a title beginning ‘The Man Who…’ (but, indulgent as ever, I allowed a little latitude.) I added that the stories under these titles should, while being altogether the author’s own, refer in some way to Julian’s oeuvre. A request my fellow members treated with the circumspection proper to any edict of mine.’

Catherine Aird – The Man Who Rowed for the Shore

Eric Ambler – The One Who Did for Blagden Cole

Simon Brett – The Man Who Got the Dirt

Len Deighton – The Man Who Was a Coyote

Antonia Fraser – The Man Who Wiped The Smile Off His Face

Michael Gilbert – The Man Who Was Reconstituted

Reginald Hill – The Man Who Defenestrated His Sister

P.D. James – The Man Who Was Eighty

H.R.F.Keating – The Man Who Killed For Pleasure

Peter Lovesey – The Man Who Ate People

Ruth Rendell – The Man Who Was the God of Love

George Sims – The Man Whose Holiday was a Fiasco

Michael Underwood – The Man Who Scattered Crumbs

This is, in my opinion, one of the very best of the Detection Club books. I shall write about some more of the others in future blog posts.

Thursday 29 April 2010

Forgotten Music - On the Flip Side

In my quest to find something else of interest and great obscurity for Scott Parker’s monthly series about Forgotten Music, I’ve tracked down some very rare footage from a genuinely forgotten musical written in 1966 for television called On the Flip Side. The musical featured former teen idol Ricky Nelson, who sought to mark his transition to entertaining a more mature audience by the cunning device of changing his name to – Rick Nelson. Joanie Somers co-starred.

The musical was written by (you guessed it) Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and, although a few of the songs – notably the excellent ‘They Don’t Give Medals to Yesterday’s Heroes’) - survived and were covered by the likes of Dionne Warwick, Chuck Jackson and Jackie De Shannon, the musical itself promptly disappeared from sight and even diehard Bacharach-David fans were mostly unaware of it until its rediscovery a few years back. The soundtrack is now available on CD, and the music is enjoyable, as you might expect from two songwriters who were at their peak. Some years ago, a friend sent me a grainy VHS recording of the show, and it has to be said that the performances (let alone the clothes) have not stood the test of time as well as the music.

But it’s a curiosity, and I’ve now discovered a link to a good quality Youtube
clip which features three of the songs. Enjoy!

Incidentally, although On the Flip Side was no masterpiece, it paved the way for Bacharach and David’s one and only stage musical, Promises, Promises. That show was enormously successful, and it’s just about to be revived on Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice say that Promises, Promises changed the way in which stage musicals were written. But perhaps it might never have happened but for the groundwork of On the Flip Side.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

The House on Carroll Street

The House on Carroll Street is an enjoyable film, directed by Peter Yates, and starring Kelly McGillis. It’s set in the America of the early 50s, and kicks off with the McGillis character, Emily Crane, being interrogated relentlessly by an un-American Activities committee because of her idealistic attachment to civil liberties. The bad guy is rather charmingly played by Mandy Patinkin, better known to me as a singer.

Emily loses her job, and takes up a rather thankless task, reading to a woman whose sight is failing. But she then overhears (rather conveniently, I felt – this was a rather clunky part of the plot) a conversation which incriminates Patinkin’s character. She befriends an illegal immigrant, who is soon murdered to ensure his silence about the conspiracy in which he’s embroiled.

Emily is pursued by the FBI, but one of her pursuers takes a liking to her, and they become lovers. It turns out that the US government is involved in shipping Nazi scientists into the country under false identities – but the real question is whether Emily can do anything about it.

The period detail seemed to me to be very well handled, and the pacing was pretty good. The story-line was okay without being brilliant, but I did think that McGillis was absolutely excellent. Her performance lifts the whole film, which culminates in a very good scene at Grand Central Station. Well worth watching.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

John J. Walsdorf and Julian Symons

The relationship between writers and their readers is a fascinating subject in itself. Like most authors, I enjoy meeting readers at events and I’m always pleased when people who have enjoyed my books send me an email or come up to say hello at a convention. John J. Walsdorf was a reader who became so enamoured of the writing of Julian Symons that not only did he get to know him well, he went so far as to produce a very impressive bibliography of this prolific writer – based on a massive collection that he compiled.

Since I, too, am a Symons fan, I bought the book some time ago, but because it seemed a bit dry of first inspection, I did not study it closely until the other day. I then discovered that, among all the (to my mind) slightly tedious, though impeccably researched, bibliographic detail, are some nuggets of information about Symons and his work – just as I hoped when I sought out the book.

Symons’ typically intelligent and incisive autobiographical notes are fascinating to read. I didn’t know, for instance, quite how friendly he was with George Orwell. He says, ‘The important thing about a writer is his books, the important thing about a writer’s life is the way in which it has affected his work.’ I tend to agree. Symons also added a few comments to the text concerning many of his publications. He gives an interesting account of the genesis of The Broken Penny, and says of The Narrowing Circle: ‘No critic has remarked on the fact that the central idea of this story owes something to Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock.’ He goes on to describe things he likes about The Narrowing Circle, and things he doesn’t: ‘like the inability to produce a satisfactory climactic scene, which I know to be a failing transcended only in a few stories.’ He also explains why he discarded a series detective, and in characteristically combative style says: ‘I find the fanzine aspect of the series detective repellent…A crutch is useful, no doubt, but it is better to stand on two legs’.

I don’t agree with him about series detectives, and I think he’s too hard on himself in some cases – my verdict on The Plot Against Roger Rider is much more sympathetic than his own, and I really don’t know why he felt it a flop. But never mind. It’s fascinating stuff, and but for John J. Walsdorf’s admirable diligence, it would never have become available. A while ago, incidentally, I saw that Walsdorf’s Symons collection was for sale online. The price was something like $30,000.

Monday 26 April 2010

Too Much Information?

A work colleague once startled me by saying that he judged a novel by how much he learned from it, in terms of information that he hadn’t previously known. He felt that he didn’t have much time to invest in reading fiction, and so he wanted an extra dividend, apart from the pleasure of the narrative. This way of looking at reading fiction had never occurred to me before, but I’ve thought of it many times since.

Lately, I’ve been reminded of it while reading a new book by Stephen Booth, Lost River. This is the latest entry in a highly successful series set in Derbyshire’s Peak District, and I shall review it another day. But what struck me very forcibly when reading it – especially the first half of the book – was how much factual information was crammed into it.

So, among many other things, I learned the name of the man who invented custard, tit-bits about Ozzy Osbourne’s early days in Birmingham, and quite a lot of information about present day computer games.

I found this interesting, partly because some of the detail was fascinating, but also because there is an authorial judgment to be made about how much trivia to include in a novel. Some writers hardly bother with it all, others take a different approach. The exact balance inevitably varies, depending on the type of story - for instance, Kate Ellis's novels, although contemporary, offer a good deal of insight into history and archaeology. In my own books, I do include quite a bit of background information (for instance, about second hand bookselling in The Serpent Pool), but I tend to be anxious about the need to keep the narrative pace going and so I restrict the supplementary material to stuff that is directly relevant to the story-line.

Judging by my colleague’s comment, though, some writers may be missing a trick. Perhaps there is an increasing demand among some readers for information as well as narrative in a novel. Is this the case? Or can there sometimes be too much information? I would be glad to learn the views of those visit this blog.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Talking Heads

Alan Bennett has never, so far as I know, ventured into writing crime fiction. When I listened recently to the audio version of his acclaimed dramatic monologues, Talking Heads, however, I thought several times how well his skills would be suited to the genre, should he ever decide to give it a go.

Although Talking Heads dates back to the 1980s, I never saw the original TV version, and I have to admit that I’ve never paid much attention to Bennett’s work. What a treat I have been missing, if this is anything to go by. He has a gift for writing material that is both funny and poignant, and he has a knack of revealing character artfully, bit by bit, much as a crime writer may spring a sequence of surprises upon the reader.

Bennett was born in Armley, Leeds, and so was my late mother; as a result, I recognised many of the turns of phrase characteristic of Yorkshire people of a certain age that he uses to such good effect. Writing really good dialogue is a skill that is often under-estimated (and it’s a skill that I think is very important for any crime writer). Bennett has an absolute flair for dialogue.

A word about the actors who performed the monologues to such good effect. They were consistently excellent, but a special mention for Anna Massey as the alcoholic vicar’s wife, Julie Walters as the actress in a soft porn movie, and Thora Hird as the elderly Doris. Splendid performances which made the most of terrific scripts. Listening to these tapes really was a joy.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Wallander - The Revenge: review

I’ve just caught up with the first episode of the second series of Wallander, in its Swedish incarnation, with Krister Henriksson as the weary detective. The Revenge is a story which begins slowly, as the plot is unveiled in a slightly predictable fashion, but the second half is gripping and impressive.

The story begins with a black-out of the power system in Ystad. This rudely interrupts a crayfish party in which Kurt Wallander is enjoying himself, having just bought a nice house by the sea. The black-out coincides with a brutal machine gun murder, and since the victim had authorised an exhibition about the prophet Mohammed, fundamentalists top the list of suspects.

Seasoned watchers of crime shows know, however, that a terrorist explanation would be, in a very real sense, a cop-out. And so it proves here – the title of this episode is a rather large clue to the motivation behind the crime. As Wallander chums up with a nice lady prosecutor (who conveniently buys a house next door to his) further murders occur.

A minister visits Ystad, providing the opportunity for a very tense sequence when the culprit is revealed. The latter stages of this episode were strong and memorable. Wallander’s team may be somewhat depleted in this series, but the man himself is still in very good form.

Friday 23 April 2010

Forgotten Books - Detection Medley

My latest contribution to Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is another volume produced under the aegis of the Detection Club. Detection Medley was published in the UK in 1939; it appeared the following year in the US under the title Line Up.

John Rhode edited the book and supplied a foreword (although it is debateable whether his account of the historical date of origin of the Club is correct), while A.A. Milne, himself a member of the Club, contributed a short introduction.

Milne, of course, wrote a celebrated Golden Age whodunit, The Red House Mystery, as well as some other work that touched the genre. He remains, however, best known as the creator of Winnie the Pooh! His introduction is characteristically light and urbane.

This book is something of a mixed bag. Although most of the contributions – a number of which had been published previously - were short stories, there were also articles by G.K. Chesterton, J.J. Connington, R.Austin Freeman and Milward Kennedy.

The full list of contents is:

Margery Allingham – The Lieabout

Margery Allingham – The Same to Us

H.C. Bailey – Mr Bowley’s Sunday Evening

E.C. Bentley – The Sweet Shot

E.C. Bentley – The Genuine Tabard

Nicholas Blake – A Slice of Bad Luck

J. Dickson Carr – Persons or Things Unknown

G.K. Chesterton – The Best Detective Story

Agatha Christie – Wireless

Agatha Christie – Death By Drowning

G.D.H. and M. Cole – Too Clever By Half

J.J.Connington – A Criminologist’s Bookshelf

Freeman Wills Crofts – The Match

Carter Dickson – The Hiding-Place

Carter Dickson – The Crime in Nobody’s Room

Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace – All Square

R. Austin Freeman – The Art of the Detective Story

Anthony Gilbert – Horseshoes for Luck

Anthony Gilbert – The Cockroach and the Tortoise

Lord Gorell – The Shadow

Lord Gorell – A Fly in the Ointment

Ianthe Jarrold – Blue Lias

Milward Kennedy – Are Murders Meant?

Milward Kennedy – Murderers in Fiction

E.C.R. Lorac – The Live Wire

Arthur Morrison – A Professional Episode

The Baroness Orczy – A Shot in the Night

The Baroness Orczy – The Tytherton Case

E.R. Punshon – Who Was It?

E.R. Punshon – The Secret of the Chessboard

Dorothy L. Sayers – Striding Folly

Dorothy L. Sayers – The Haunted Policeman

Henry Wade – The Sub-Branch

Henry Wade – Four to One – Bar One

Hugh Walpole – The Perfect Close

Thursday 22 April 2010

The Ambassador's Boots

A while back, in posting about The Secret Adversary featuring Francesca Annis and James Warwick as Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, I enquired about the TV series Partners in Crime, in which the duo starred. Happily, ITV 3 has been screening some episodes from that series, and (once I realised) I managed to record some of them.

The first that I’ve seen is ‘The Ambassador’s Boots’. This is a story with a nice central idea, somehow typical of Christie. An ambassador’s boots are taken, but then returned. What can this signify?

The mystery is put to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who are running a detective agency, and they investigate with their customary enthusiasm. Annis and Warwick really did work very well together, splendid piece of casting. The ambassador has a mysterious valet, who commits suicide, and an advert placed by the Beresfords in a newspaper attracts a prompt response from a helpful young woman – whose story is interrupted by an unlikely foreign villain armed with a gun. When I say that the Beresfords’ young assistant Albert rescues them by capturing the foreign chap with a lasso, you will gather that the mood is insistently light-hearted, but the programme is none the worse for that.

The supporting cast in this hour-long episode was excellent. T.P. McKenna played the ambassador, Clive Merrison (known in recent times for his radio portrayal of Sherlock Holmes) was the valet, and Jennie Linden (best known as Ursula in the film of Women in Love) the helpful young woman.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Following the Detectives in Oxford

Last week-end I returned to Oxford, subject of the second of my essays for Maxim Jakubowski’s forthcoming book on scenes of crime fiction, Following the Detectives. In the April sunshine, the city of dreaming spires was looking at its photogenic best.

One of the most intriguing developments in Oxford’s recent past is the transformation of the city prison into a luxury hotel. It featured in an episode of Lewis a while back. The castle is also accessible nowadays, and for the first time ever I had lunch there, and also climbed the castle mound, which commands rather good views of the city centre.

Wandering around The Parks, and some of the college quadrangles, I was reminded of the pleasures of watching Inspector Morse, and of course the books of Colin Dexter are extensively referenced in what I wrote for Maxim’s book. There are, however, a good many other writers who have set crime novels or short stories in Oxford. I was even responsible for one of them myself. ‘The Mind of the Master’ is set in 19th century Balliol, and introduces the legendary Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett as a a sort of proto-Sherlock Holmes.

Over the week-end there was a folk festival in Oxford, and the city centre was full of Morris dancers. I know of at least one very successful crime writer who is a Morris dancer, and I believe that Morris dancing featured in at least one of the novels written by Gladys Mitchell. It’s a curious English tradition which, to judge from the enthusiasm on display in Oxford last Saturday, is in no danger of dying out. So – who will write the next Morris dancing murder mystery?

Tuesday 20 April 2010

The Website is Back!

I'm very grateful to those people who kindly alerted me to the fact that my website started carrying various dire warnings about dangerous viruses. The problem seems to have been a messing up of the website codes, rather than anything truly sinister, and I'm glad to say it's now been fixed. But needless to say, if anything similar occurs in the future, it is very helpful to be alerted to it. Once again, many thanks.

Following the Detectives in Shropshire

Maxim Jakubowski’s book Following the Detectives should appear later this year, and as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve contributed a couple of essays to it. By coincidence, over the past two week-ends, I’ve revisited the scenes of crime fiction that I’ve discussed in Maxim’s book.

On the way down to the CWA conference in Abergavenny, we drove through Shropshire, one of the greenest and pleasantest of counties. Ellis Peters, a native Salopian, was passionate about Shropshire, and that passion accounts for a good deal of the success of her books, both those featuring Brother Cadfael, and the others, mainly featuring various members of the Felse family.

A writer of note who has lived in Shropshire for a number of years is Priscilla Masters, and she too has sometimes set her work in the county. Like Peters, Cilla Masters has an empathy with the English countryside that shines through in her writing.

The photos were taken in Bridgnorth, one of Shropshire’s attractive and historic towns. I was fascinated to learn that the wall of Bridgnorth’s ruined castle leans at n even more dizzying angle than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Monday 19 April 2010

Raven Black

I first read Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves, when it was published, and much enjoyed it. What I didn’t quite foresee – since, as regular readers of this blog know, I’d been a fan of her writing for years and had loved, for instance, earlier but nowadays much less renowned novels such as The Healers and Murder in My Back Yard – was that this particular book would transform her career. Her publishers really got behind it, reviewers were extremely positive, and it went on to win the CWA Gold Dagger. Since then, she’s never looked back.

One of the many pleasing spin-offs of her success has been massive interest in her work from radio as well as television. A 60 minute version of Raven Black was featured on Radio 4 earlier this year, and although I missed it, Ann kindly provided me with a CD version, to which I’ve now listened.

I thought the way in which the novel was condensed was very effective. Iain Finlay McLeod’s adaptation conveyed the plot very economically, whilst also getting across the Shetland atmosphere which is integral to the story-line. Grant O’Rourke did a good job as the local cop Jimmy Perez.

For those who don’t know the story, it opens with two young girls enjoying an evening together. They talk to a strange old man called Magnus, and when one of the girls is found to have been murdered, Magnus becomes the prime suspect – just as he was when a young girl went missing some years before. Listening to this version improved my commute no end, and I hope it won’t be long before more of Ann’s books are adapted for radio.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Therapy: review

Therapy, described as an ‘international bestseller’, was written by a leading figure in the German media, Sebastian Fitzek. It was first published in 2006 and appeared in the UK a couple of years later, though I have only just got round to reading it (a sad comment on my TBR pile, but believe me, I have some good books which have been in my possession for a lot longer which I still haven’t tackled – oh dear!)

The set-up is intriguing, and there are aspects of it which almost reminded me of the work of Boileau-Narcejac, or possibly even Cornell Woolrich, although Fitzek’s writing is very different from theirs. Josy, a 12 year old girl, has a mysterious illness and vanishes from her doctor’s surgery. Her father is Viktor Larenz, an eminent psychiatrist, who suffers a mental collapse and withdraws to a remote island in the North Sea.

His life is disturbed by the arrival on the island of a strange woman called Anna Glass, who claims to be a writer and whose characters, apparently, become real. In her last novel she wrote about a girl with a strange ailment who has vanished in circumstances very similar to Josy’s. Viktor reluctantly agrees to act as Anna’s therapist in order to solve this unsettling mystery.

This is a pretty good thriller, albeit rather bleak in tone. I enjoyed it, and there were some excellent twists in the narrative. A weakness, however, was the motivation of the culprit, which did not seem to me to be adequately explained. Nevertheless, a sound example of Eurocrime.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Plagiarism and Borrowing

Some years ago, a friend suggested to me that another writer had ‘borrowed’ some aspects from one or more of my novels and utilised them in his own work. I took a look at the ‘offending’ work, and thought I could see what she meant. But it didn’t amount to plagiarism, and frankly it didn’t bother me.

Writers do need to avoid plagiarism. When I gave a presentation at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Fiction Festival at Harrogate in July, I told the story of the legal case where James Herbert was sued by an author of an author of a non-fiction book who claimed that a Herbert book called The Spear was excessively derivative. The judgment makes rather entertaining reading, but is a salutary reminder that care is required when using research materials. Thankfully, though, plagiarism cases that reach court are rare.

That is as it should be. The fact is that the borrowing of ideas and so on happens all the time, and it is a perfectly healthy activity, as long as it is kept within bounds. Shakespeare is the classic example of a recidivist borrower, but there are plenty of others. Coming up with a truly original idea (or witty one-liner, come to that!) is far from easy. Several writers have used the trick that Christie pulled in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, but so long as they give it a fresh spin, that seems fine to me. Christie even did it herself, with Endless Night. Sometimes, of course, there is no borrowing at all, conscious or unconscious – two writers just have a similar idea at much the same time. For instance, I doubt whether Christie was influenced, in writing And Then There Were None, by the American mystery The Invisible Host, which appeared a little earlier. And I was startled when my wonderfully original idea of finding a corpse on a waste tip (All the Lonely People) turned out to have been anticipated by G.D.H. and M. Cole, many years before!

It has, though, amused me on several occasions to give a nod, in my own fiction, to some of my favourite stories by other writers. Part of the idea for the main plot of The Devil in Disguise is a sort of spin on Christie’s After the Funeral, though I don’t know of any reader who has ever commented on it (although there is a pretty big clue in the book, which actually mentions the Christie novel.) In the same novel, I recycled a few of my favourite lawyer jokes. And my very first short story, ‘The Boxer’, was a homage to Conan Doyle’s wonderful story ‘The Red-Headed League’, but set in modern Liverpool. This sort of thing seems fine to me, and I enjoy it when I come across it in the books of others. The key to making it work, as so often in life, is not to over-do it.

Friday 16 April 2010

Forgotten Books - The Rasp

The Raso was the book that introduced Philip Macdonald’s regular detective, Anthony Gethryn, and served to establish his reputation as a writer of ingenious mysteries. Macdonald was born in 1900, and yet this book, published in 1924, when he was only 23, was not his first – he had previously co-authored two novels with his father, Ronald Macdonald.

I have managed to get hold of a copy of the first edition of the dust jacket (pity it's only a facsimile, because the original would be worth a good deal!)I found it interesting to read the blurb, which was notably enthusiastic. Now, blurbs often are very enthusiastic, but in this case, the publishers had indeed discovered an author whose reputation would endure, at least among fans of Golden Age mysteries.

The Rasp is not, itself, one of my favourite Philip Macdonalds, but it is written with sufficient gusto to justify the publishers' faith - and in years to come, Macdonald would write a number of fascinating books. Over 30 years later, the last Gethryn - The List of Adrian Messenger - appeared, and it was turned into quite a good film.

Here is what the blurb writer said:

‘Messrs Collins are publishing several detective stories this Autumn,most of them by famous names, but The Rasp, Mr Macdonald’s first attempt, is well worthy to stand with them. Firstly, because the murder is the most ingenious crime. Secondly, because Anthony, who unravels it, is a brilliant investigator and a delightful person. Thirdly, because all the subsidiary characters, especially the ladies, usually the weak spot in detective fiction, are drawn with humour and insight. Readers will note the close attention which the author gives to his detail, and how all the threads are essential to the pattern. The publishers believe The Rasp to be one of the best discoveries they have made for a long time.’

Macdonald eventually moved to Hollywood, and in his later years he focused more on script-writing than on novels. He died in 1980, and The Rasp is now largely forgotten. But it marked the start of a notable solo writing career.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Send for Paul Temple

Send for Paul Temple, the very first Paul Temple serial, is now available on CD, and I enjoyed listening to it in the car. It’s not the original version, which presumably has been lost, but rather a truncated version read (very well, I thought) by Anthony Head.

This story introduces Temple, who is at this point living in a country house near Evesham. He is a journalist turned best-selling detective novelist, who has made his name as a sleuth by solving a real-life crime. When a series of jewel robberies take place which baffle Scotland Yard, a media campaign demands that the police should send for Paul Temple to help them solve the mystery.

It turns out that this campaign has been orchestrated by a gorgeous young journalist called Steve Trent, who turns out to be Louise Harvey, the sister of a detective who is murdered in a mysterious inn, The Little General, shortly after talking to Temple. Louise disguised her identity because her brother was afraid that a villainous diamond thief, ‘the Knave of Diamonds’, whom he encountered in South Africa would murder him – and it seems that the Knave is now back in business in England. Soon it becomes clear that (somehow, I don’t know how) he has penetrated the highest ranks of the police.

The plot is, if viewed in the cold light of day, quite barmy. Durbridge was only 25 when he wrote the serial, and some elements of the story seem juvenile to the modern crime fan. And yet there is a zest about the story, with its dying messages, secret lift and passage, and brainless Chief Commissioner of Police and other detectives, that makes it lively entertainment. For me, the Paul Temple serials are something of a guilty pleasure, but for all the creakiness of the dialogue and plot devices, they certainly are a pleasure.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Any Human Face: review

I had never heard of Charles Lambert, I must admit, until I received a review copy from Picador of his new paperback original, Any Human Face. He’s written a couple of books before, it seems, and the cover carries a positive blurb from Beryl Bainbridge. The tag-line of this novel is ‘a dark, fast-paced story of love, sex, abduction and murder’, so I decided to give it a go.

It’s the sort of book often marketed as a ‘literary thriller’, but really it’s just a well-written novel with crime at its heart. The action shifts between 1983 and 2008, and a strange sequence of events is linked to a mysterious set of photographs which appear to represent crimes and criminals. The photographs change hands more than once, and it is soon apparent that some very dangerous people want to get hold of them. Eventually, the photographs come into the possession of Andrew, a gay bookseller who is an interesting but rather sad character. He decides to make them the subject of an exhibition – and needless to say, this proves to be a mistake.

A series of short scenes feature the abduction of a young girl, and there is a mystery as to the motive for the kidnapping, as well as about the identities of those responsible. This is not, however, a book which culminates in neat explanations of all that has gone before.

I found this book extremely engaging and I would definitely read more by Charles Lambert, who is a writer of genuine talent. I did feel, however, that the story began to run out of steam towards the end. Lambert eschews a conventional mystery plot structure, which is fine, but I am not convinced he found an entirely satisfactory alternative. From the point where the exhibition attracted the attention of Bad Guys, there was a sense of anti-climax. But one of Lambert’s points is that ‘people will do anything to protect what they have’ and, despite the fact that this ambitious book has some flaws, it’s a point that he makes well.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Ethel Lina White

The writer I mentioned yesterday as having been born in Abergavenny was Ethel Lina White. It’s fairly safe to say that Ethel’s is not a household name – yet perhaps it should be. For she was the author of the books that sourced two extremely successful films. Some Must Watch became the movie The Spiral Staircase, while The Wheel Spins became one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated films, The Lady Vanishes.

White was born in the Welsh town in 1876. Apparently, her early work was mainly in the short form, and she wrote three non-crime novels, before moving into the genre at the age of 55. She gave up her job in the Ministry of Pensions to write full-time, and the gamble ultimately

Her work is (roughly) in the tradition of the American Mary Roberts Rinehart, sometimes unflatteringly known as the Had-I-But-Known school. Her main focus is on women in jeopardy, and in that respect at least, you might say that she was a literary forerunner of fine modern writers such as Nicci French and Sophie Hannah.

Despite the success of some of her novels, others remain obscure, and I’m quite interested in hunting them down. Even though it is very different from Hitchcock’s great film, The Wheel Spins is a very good story. White, who died in 1944, was skilled at building suspense, and although her work is, perhaps inevitably, rather dated, I think she deserves to be better known. She is one of the most successful Welsh crime writers of all time.

Monday 12 April 2010

Crime and Abergavenny

Back in 1997, Mike Ashley invited me to contribute a Sherlock Holmes story to The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures. The idea was to find inspiration in the cases that Dr Watson mentions in passing, and I chose as my source a fleeting reference to ‘the Abergavenny Murders’. However, my story (which I enjoyed writing so much that it prompted me to write several other Sherlockian pastiches over the years) was not set in Abergavenny – in fact, I used Abergavenny as a surname.

This was partly because I’d never been to Abergavenny and didn’t have any idea what the town is like. This past week-end, I finally had the chance to visit the place, because it was the setting for the CWA conference from Friday to Sunday. Each day was blessed with gorgeous weather in South Wales, and the conference was hugely enjoyable. And I must say how much I liked Abergavenny and its environs. Quite delightful.

The conference kicked off on Friday afternoon with a reception at Abergavenny Castle, hosted by the Mayor. The photos were taken at the reception. In his interesting speech, the Mayor made reference to a notable crime writer of the past who was born in Abergavenny, some of whose books were successfully filmed. Quiz question - any idea who this might be?

On Saturday, we looked round the Museum which is in the Castle grounds. There was no mention of the crime writer that I could find, but plenty of coverage of a notable writer of macabre stories who was born not too far away. I’ll reveal both writers' names in forthcoming blog posts!

Sunday 11 April 2010

Murder on the Lake

Murder on the Lake, a BBC Four programme, was nothing to do with Cumbria, but concerned a real life murder case from Kenya. Lake Naivasha is evidently a beautiful part of the world, but it was the scene four years ago of the brutal killing of a well-known conservationist, Joan Root. I remember hearing about the crime when it was originally reported, but I had no idea of the extraordinary story behind it.

Joan Root rose to fame working with her husband Alan. They filmed wild life with sensitivity and skill, travelling around the Africa they loved. One of their documentaries was nominated for an Oscar. They had a home at Lake Naivasha, but it was only when Alan left Joan for another woman that she retreated there on a permanent basis. Her psychology was evidently complex and intriguing – although she did wonderful work, there seems to have been a darker side to her personality.

This became apparent when the lake experienced the ravages of commercialisation. Flower farms were established, providing work for thousands, but attracting many more than that. Slums developed, and crime became commonplace. Poachers reduced the fishing stock, threatening the delicate eco-system. Joan became involved with a ‘Task Force’ that drove the poachers out, but it seems that some of those whom she funded were ready to resort to violence. Joan, whose behaviour seems at times at best to have been na├»ve, became a hate figure in some quarters.

In the end, she was savagely murdered by intruders who broke into her home. She phoned a neighbour (who was working away at the time) during the attack, and he conjured up a terrifying picture of her final moments. But who was responsible? The poachers, perhaps. But when they looked for people with a motive to kill poor Joan Root, the police were spoiled for choice. Former members of the Task Force, some of whom had a possible financial motive, were accused of the killing, only to be acquitted. One neighbour suspected a contract killing, and another – in a twist that I found hard to credit - accused an elderly white woman of being responsible for the death. She had feuded with Joan (the feud seemed rather mysterious to me, and I wondered what the viewers were not told) and, amazingly, was tried for having arranged another savage attack, this time on a white man who, like Joan, had tried to buy her property. But she was acquitted.

The mystery remains unsolved, but the case is shocking. Whatever her faults, Joan Root was a remarkable woman who suffered a death all the more horrible because of the beautiful location in which it occurred. She deserves not to be forgotten, and one can only hope – without great optimism – that one day the truth will become known and the culprits found.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Insomnia: review

A few years ago, I watched the 2002 American movie Insomnia, starring Al Pacino, and enjoyed it. However, a number of well-informed people told me that this version was not as good as the film of which it was a re-make. The original Insomnia was first screened in 1997 and is a Norwegian film by Erik Skoldbjaerg. I’ve now managed to catch up with it.

Over the credits, we see footage of a teenage girl, falling prey to an assailant. After that prelude, the investigation into her death begins. A top detective, played by Stellan Skarsgaard, arrives with his partner in a quiet spot inside the Arctic Circle to solve the mystery. He is Swedish, and therefore doubly an outsider in the small community.

The trouble is that the detective finds it impossible to get a decent night’s sleep in a place where the sun never seems to go down. As his view of the world becomes blurred by insomnia, so his behaviour becomes morally compromised, to such an extent that the dividing line between the detective and the man he is hunting is far from clear.

I thought this film was pretty well done, even though the mystery element was nothing truly special, and I can see why it has attracted an enthusiastic following, as well as the tribute of a glossy re-make with one of the world’s top film stars. I liked Pacino’s performance a lot, but the little known Skarsgaard – in a very different way – also makes a fine impression as the detective tormented by lack of sleep.

Friday 9 April 2010

Forgotten Book - Verdict of 13

The first Detection Club book that I ever read, about 30 years ago, was Verdict of 13, which appeared in a Penguin paperback edition not long after its initial publication in 1979. I was attracted very much by the distinguished list of authors, who all contributed new stories, but of course I had no idea at the time that I would ever have any personal connection with the Club.

The then President of the Club, Julian Symons, decided to put together a collection which, he said in his introduction, was meant to have ‘a distinctive approach. The contributors were asked to write a short story that should, in some way or another, concern a jury, although it was stressed that the jury need not be one sitting in a law court, nor need they number twelve. The might be a ‘jury’ of soldiers or policemen, suburban housewives or schoolboys, lawyers or old lags.’ The book as a whole, he said, ‘shows the crime story, like the Detection Club, offering talents as various as those of Cleopatra.’

A pretty good connecting theme, I think. Certainly, I enjoyed the book, and if I had to pick a favourite story, it might be the one by P.D. James. Here is a list of all the contributions:

Patricia Highsmith – Something the Cat Dragged In

H.R.F. Keating – Gup

Christianna Brand – Cloud Nine

Dick Francis – Twenty-One Good Men and True

Gwendoline Butler – The Rogue’s Twist

P.D. James – Great-Aunt Allie’s Fly-papers

Michael Innes – Pelly and Cullis

Celia Fremlin – Postgraduate Thesis

Michael Gilbert – Verdict of Three

Ngaio Marsh – Morepork

Michael Underwood – Murder at St Oswald’s

Peter Dickinson – Who Killed the Cat?

Julian Symons – Waiting for Mr McGregor

Thursday 8 April 2010

Canoe Man: review

The disappearance of John Darwin, staged by his wife Anne Darwin, is one of the most fascinating crimes of recent years. This seemingly inconspicuous couple led unexceptional lives in the North East of England, which took a surreal twist when John Darwin decided to escape to a new life, with his wife’s help, and cash in on the insurance. Their story has just been told in a BBC Four drama, Canoe Man, starring Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves.

The story that Anne told everyone was that John had gone out in his canoe one day, and never come back. But in fact, John was living in concealment in the house next door, which the couple also owned. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the deception, and the one that I find truly shocking, is that the lie was told to the couple’s two sons as well. I find this extraordinarily cruel, and yet the Darwins were not cruel people, as far as I can tell.

They were not especially bright, that is for sure. They ultimately decamped to Panama, but allowed themselves to be photographed – and the snapshot ultimately appeared on the internet. It all became too much and John came back to England and gave himself up, pleading amnesia. But he finished up in prison.

The casting of this low-budget drama was interesting. Bernard Hill is a very reliable actor, and he portrayed John pretty well. Anne, resolutely unglamorous, was played by Saskia Reeves, a beautiful woman, who was so good in Close My Eyes back in the 90s. Saskia Reeves did a sound job, but the script still left me wondering about the motivation of Anne Darwin. Why on earth did she go along with it all? I feel that the story of the Darwins would benefit from much deeper probing of the psychology of this extraordinary ordinary couple.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Sexy Beast: review

Sexy Beast is a highly acclaimed gangster movie, and although it was first screened ten years ago, I’ve only now got round to watching it. The cast is superb, and they make the most of a script which, with lesser performers, might have seemed rather thin.

Ray Winstone plays the part of ‘Gal’ Dove, a robber who is enjoying a wealthy early retirement in a luxurious villa in a remote part of Spain. He lives with his beloved wife and former porn star Deedee (Amanda Redman, who is as good as usual), and they spend their days sunning themselves and socialising with old ‘business’ friends, Aitch and Jackie.

All is well until Don Logan, a criminal from Gal’s past, show up. Surprise, surprise, he wants Gal to take part in one more job, and he won’t take no for an answer. Logan is played by Ben Kingsley – and it’s a memorable performance, since Logan is a monstrous sociopath. In the end, Gal returns to London, where he teams up with former colleagues working for a cold-eyed murderer (Ian McShane, who conveys menace brilliantly.) The plan is to rob a vault – the vital information having been leaked to McShane’s character by an effete banker played by James Fox. But where has Logan disappeared to?

Compared to, say, the brilliant Layer Cake, Sexy Beast is short of plot. But it’s a skilfully made film, with several clever touches, as well as flashes of humour to redeem a lot of nastiness. Winstone is, like the other key members of the cast, a charismatic actor, and overall I thought this film was well worth watching. But be warned – if bad language and explicit violence bother you, this is a movie to avoid.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

15 Minute Thrillers

Chris Simms is a very successful crime writer of the younger generation and he's permitted me to quote from an article he's written about an interesting new venture with which I've become involved:

'Appearing on a screen near you – crime short stories

This month sees the launch of 15 minute thriller – an exciting new service that allows the user of any internet-enabled phone to download short stories to their handset. The story then sits as an application (or, in the case of more venerable models like mine, a game) to be accessed and enjoyed wherever and whenever the reader wishes.

This, we believe, is the beauty of 15 minute thriller: because you don’t need a signal to access the downloaded story, it can be read on buses, trains, trams or tubes. Got a few spare moments? Bring up your 15 minute thriller and lose yourself in the work of some of Britain’s best crime writers.

Also built into the software is some wizardry that prevents the person who’s downloaded the story from forwarding it on to any other phone.

The service is part of a larger outfit called Swiftmags who, ultimately, aim to branch out into all sorts of downloadable magazine-style content. Talking to one of the guys behind it over a beer or two one night, we realised the software would be perfect for short stories that - if my own were anything to go by - were just gathering dust on a hard drive.

At this stage, 15 minute thriller is best described as embryonic – but we hope it could become a way of getting the much-neglected art of short story telling to a whole new audience. Especially since the cost of downloading each story will be just one pound. We’re getting things rolling with these five –

• Ray Banks’ Real Gone
• Martin Edwards’ Test Drive
• Kate Ellis’ Top Deck
• Allan Guthrie’s Dirty Work
• My own story, Mother’s Milk

For an idea of how 15 minute thriller looks, simply go to'

'Test Drive' is a story I loved writing, and it was short-listed for the CWA Short Story Dagger four years ago. It's good to see it having a fresh lease of life. Certainly, I'm glad tob e part of this project and look forward to seeing how it all works out.

Sunday 4 April 2010

The Judas Tree - a Jonathan Creek review

The Judas Tree was both written and directed by David Renwick, and for me, it was ninety minutes of TV heaven. A marvellously entertaining Jonathan Creek story, with that combination of wit and ingenious plotting which has become Renwick’s hallmark. John Dickson Carr would surely have loved it, and I think that any fan of classic ‘impossible crime’ mysteries would love it.

The opening is gripping – in 1988, two young women are driving in the windswept countryside, when one of them, Emily, sees a strange house in the fields. The house suddently disappears, and when she goes to investigate, she is almost seized by a mysterious old man who emerges from the undergrowth. But she fights him off and escapes.

Fast forward to the present day, and Emily takes a job in the household of a detective story writer with a glamorous wife and an enigmatic housekeeper. The wife tells her a story about a seemingly impossible crime, committed in the grounds of their house, Green Lanterns, in the nineteenth century. The timing of the victim’s death was foretold, to the very minute. And soon the wife receives a message, apparently in Emily’s hand, warning of her forthcoming death….

Jonathan investigates with his customary mixture of bewilderment and brilliance, aided by Sheridan Smith, from whom Emily has sought help. The initial mystery of the vanishing house is easily explained, but the crimes at Green Lantern, both ancient and modern, prove rather more complex. Quite a bit of information is concealed from the viewer until a late stage, which might have some purists shaking their heads. I was left with one or two unanswered questions (a second viewing might resolve them) but, most of all, with renewed admiration for Renwick’s gifts.

Alan Davies is excellent, as ever, as Jonathan Creek, while Sheridan Smith, Paul McGann and Ian McNiece (who has appeared in countless TV mysteries over the years) are also well cast. Natalie Walter, who plays Emily, is so very attractive that she can’t possibly be guilty – can she? And a special word for Doreen Mantle, who plays a key part in the story-line as the housekeeper at Green Lanterns. She appeared regularly as Mrs Worboys in Renwick’s One Foot in the Grave, and her interaction with McNiece is one of the many joys of this terrific mystery.

How does it compare to last year's enjoyable special, The Grinning Man? My instant reaction is - even better.


Duplicity is a movie from last year which has the inestimable advantage of two charismatic stars, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, playing the lead roles of Claire and Ray. They are a pair of corporate spies who fall for each other and are involved, over a period of years, in a complicated story-line. It’s a glossy film, with a lot of potential, yet I had very mixed feelings about it.

We see the pair first meeting five years earlier in Dubai, at a 4th of July party at the US consulate. Ray seduces Claire, but it turns out that she is a CIA agent who drugs him and makes off with classified documents. But the two meet again, and become embroiled in a plot to exploit a secret product under development at a company run by Tully (played very well, as usual, by that versatile actor Tom Wilkinson)

There are numerous twists and turns in the story-line, and there were some very good moments. However, I felt that writer-producer Tony Gilroy wasn’t entirely sure whether he was making a romantic comedy or a light thriller. As a result, Duplicity seems to me to fall between two stools. It’s not consistently funny, and the plot-line is so tangled that I ceased to care about what happened to the secret formula..

Am I judging it too harshly? Perhaps. I was strongly recommended to watch it by a friend and perhaps my expectations were too high as a result. Roberts and Owen are very good in combination, but I wanted to be bowled over by this film, and I wasn’t. A more coherent narrative would, I feel, have improved it considerably.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Jonathan Creek and David Renwick

It’s hard to believe, but Jonathan Creek first aired as long ago as 1997. I watched that initial episode, and soon the series took over from Taggart as my favourite television crime show. The way in which classic ‘impossible crime’ plots were blended with humour and contemporary characterisation struck me as quite splendid.

And now there is to be a new episode, fifteen months after the last (The Grinning Man, which I thought was excellent.)  The Judas Tree is to be screened tomorrow, and I shall do a review. The only question is whether my expectations are so high that I’m likely to be disappointed. I hope not.

Jonathan Creek was created by David Renwick, who is also celebrated as the writer of One Foot in the Grave, and the creator of that grumpiest of old men, Victor (‘I don’t believe it!’) Meldrew. There are occasional references to detective fiction in One Foot in the Grave, and Renwick’s other works include some adaptations for Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

I’ve never met David Renwick, and the only slight link between us is that he wrote the introduction to Mike Ashley’s collection, The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, in which my story ‘Waiting for Godstow’ appeared. ‘Waiting for Godstow’ was an enormously enjoyable story to write, and I’m rather sorry that it’s never attracted as much attention as some of my other work.

Here’s the closing sentence of that Renwick intro: ‘Like the spectral assassin who has miraculously vanished from the scene of the crime it’s comforting occasionally to give reality the slip and retreat into the more fantastical world of our imagination’.

 Couldn’t agree more!

Friday 2 April 2010

Forgotten Book - Deadlier Than The Male

Jessica Mann is an accomplished novelist, and I plan to write about her fiction in a future blog post, but my choice today for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a non-fiction work dating back to 1981. Deadlier Than The Male was written at a time when reference volumes about the crime fiction genre came out in a trickle, rather than (as now) a flood. But nearly three decades on, it stands up to scrutiny very well indeed.

The book is sub-titled ‘An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing’, and it seeks to answer the question: ‘Why is it that respectable English women are so good at murder?’

Mann displays her formidable knowledge of the genre throughout. The heart of the book is devoted to an in-depth look at the work of Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Tey and Allingham, but many other authors are considered (including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, one of whose forgotten titles I featured last week.) I was pleased to see mention of Nina Bawden – it’s now seldom noted that, early in her career, she wrote detective stories of real merit.

This is such a good book that I’m sorry Mann has not written further works of crime-related criticism – although she remains a highly regarded reviewer. One of her many interesting observations is that ‘Crime novelists…are particularly reticent about their own personal lives’. I think it’s fair to say that this is less the case today than it was in 1981, thanks to the pressures on authors to promote themselves, coupled with the rise of the internet, social networking, and, yes, blogging. It’s not at all easy for modern crime writers to maintain their privacy as did the likes of Sayers, Christie and their contemporaries. But whether the change is wholly a good thing is an interesting subject for debate.

One final point. Mann acknowledges the help of that delightful writer Catherine Aird, and refers to Aird's proposed biography of Josephine Tey. It's a matter for regret that the biography has never appeared, and I still hope against hope that, one day, it might.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Robert Thomas

I've written more than once about that very interesting French playwright Robert Thomas. Thanks to Bob Cornwell, whose knowledge of Eurocrime, as well as Britcrime, is encyclopaedic, I have received an extract from Claude Mespiede's massive tome about the genre, which - most regrettably - has yet to be translated into English. I do hope that someday a translation is made, as it sounds like a tremendous piece of work. Meanwhile, my wife, whose French is better than mine, has kindly translated the entry about Thomas:

'Thomas, Robert (28 September 1930, Gap, Hautes-Alpes – 3 November 1989, Paris.)

At the age of fourteen, Robert Thomas discovered a passion for contemporary theatre. He left home just before taking his baccalaureat, going to Paris so he could write and act in comedies there. He paid for his theatre course with his salary as a telegrapher and worked as an extra in over fifty films. At the same time, he wrote seven plays (which were all rejected.) In 1950, he applied to Pierre Dux who employed him in Il faut marier Maman (You must marry Mother) with Denise Grey. So he began a career in the theatre, acting notably in La Main de Cesar (Caesar’s hand) and Les Belles Bacchantes (The Beautiful Bacchantes.) His first two plays, Huit Femmes (Eight Women ) and Madam Trait d’Union (Mrs Hyphen) were put on in Nice, in 1958 and 1959, but did not really achieve success.

Robert Thomas’ determination was rewarded by the triumph of a detective play, Piege pour un home seul ( Trap for a lonely man), produced at the Bouffes-Parisiens on 28 January 1960. It tells the story of a young couple on honeymoon: the man waits for his wife to come back following an argument. The wait becomes unusually long and starts a police enquiry which continues until a woman presents herself as the missing wife. The husband denounces her as an impostor but a number of witnesses confirm the young woman’s identity…This play, rewarded by the Prix du Quai des Orfevres, was translated and produced all over the world.

The next year, Robert Thomas rewrote his first play, Eight Women, also a detective mystery: trapped by the snow in an isolated house, the woman of a single family carry out an enquiry to discover who has killed the master of the house. In spite of conventions and apparent politeness, they play, behind closed doors, a game of truth as merciless as it is pitiable, revealing their weaknesses, their lies, their secret resentments: no one is spared. The play was adapted for the cinema by Francois Ouzon in 2002.

In 1966, the author reunited, in La Perruche et le Poulet ( The Parrot and the Chicken), the famous couple of the radio programme Sur le Banc (On the Bench): Jane Sourza and Raymond Souplex. A lawyer’s secretary is getting ready to close the office when she finds her boss stabbed. By the time the police arrive on the scene, the body has disappeared. Has there been a crime? A series of surprises and a denouement completely unforeseen prove to the policeman (the chicken) that the talkative secretary (the parrot) was right. Other important plays by Robert Thomas worth mentioning are Le Deuxieme coup de Feu (The second shot) 1965, Assassins associes (Muderers associated) 1965, Freddy 1969. Un ami..imprevu (an unforeseen friend) 1969 in the style of Agatha Christie, Double jeu (Double Game) 1970, La Poulette aux oeufs d’or (The chicken and the golden eggs) 1973, La chambre Mandarine (The Mandarin Room) 1974, Les Batards (the Bastards) 1979, Princesse Baraka (Princess Baraka)1995.

A film director, especially for Darryl Zannuck, he also produced television series, sometimes writing episodes and sometimes appearing in them. From 1970 until his death in 1989, Robert Thomas was the Director of The Edward VII Theatre.

With his lively and rhythmic suspense comedies, Robert Thomas knew how to introduce a certain French spirit into the world of the detective play, (which up to that point had seemed reserved for Anglo Saxon authors) yet without claiming to do anything other than entertain his audience.'