Saturday 31 July 2010

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill - review

I recently finished reading the latest mystery to be written by one of the genre’s stars, Reginald Hill. The Woodcutter is a stand-alone thriller, set mostly in Cumbria, where Hill now lives, and it tells the story of the rise, fall and renaissance of a remarkable character called Wolf Hadda.

Hadda, the son of a woodcutter, who falls for a glamorous young woman called Imogen. She is the daughter of the local squire, but despite the gap in class and wealth, they are strongly attracted to each other. She challenges him to win her devotion, and he leaves in mysterious circumstances, returning only when his fortune has been made. But what happened during his absence? A short section at the start of the book provides some, but not all, of the explanation. Imogen doesn’t ask too many questions – she marries him, and for a while, all goes well. Hadda’s business empire prospers, he seems to be the man who has everything. But one day, his world falls apart when he is accused of disgraceful crimes.

Hadda loses everything – his fortune, his family, his friends. He is crippled and thought unlikely to survive. But against the odds, he battles on, assisted by a sympathetic psychiatrist, a likeable woman called Alva. Finally, he is released from prison and he returns to his old hunting ground in Cumbria, where he is further aided by Luke, the local vicar. By now his wife has married again – to his former lawyer, the rascally Toby Estover. How will Hadda react – and will he seek to extract vengeance from those who tried to destroy him?

This book seems to follow the pattern of The Count of Monte Cristo, but it isn’t a straightforward revenge thriller by any means. In due course, the narrative veers off in an unexpected direction. Hill keeps his readers on their toes, defying them to guess what will happen next. I certainly did not foresee a startling twist involving Imogen, but I did think that Hadda had some of the same appeal as Hill’s greatest creation, Andy Dalziel. This is a splendidly entertaining book, which I thoroughly recommend.

Friday 30 July 2010

Forgotten Book - The Man Whose Dreams Came True

My choice for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books today is The Man Whose Dreams Came True, by Julian Symons. Symons was one of the first contemporary crime writers to whom I graduated once I’d read my way through Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. A family friend lent me The Progress of a Crime, which I enjoyed, and I sought out more of Symons’ work.

I’ve forgotten much about many of the books I’ve read over the years – inevitably, I suppose. But strangely enough, I can vividly recall taking The Man Whose Dreams Came True out of our local library at Northwich, one day after school, before catching the bus home. I started reading it at the bus terminus (now, it’s a supermarket car park) and was instantly hooked.

The book was first published in 1968, and was Symons’ latest at the time I read it, so I suppose this was around 1969. I found the character of Tony Jones, a con man and dreamer with big ambitions, truly intriguing. Now I come to think of it, possibly there are traces of Tony in Guy, who features in The Arsenic Labyrinth. I do find people who fake their identities interesting, and I loved writing Guy, just as I enjoyed reading about Tony’s misadventures.

Tony gets a chance of the big time, but needless to say, things go rapidly downhill from there. This is an entertaining and cleverly plotted book, one of Symons’ best. He was a very harsh judge of his own work, but even he liked this one, and I think others will too.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Forgotten Music - Loneliness Remembers

My latest entry for Scott Parker’s series of Forgotten Music is an evocative song which is one of the more obscure entries in Dionne Warwick’s extensive catalogue. It was subsequently recorded by Stephanie Mills on her debut alburm, but for some reason it never made any real impression on anyone other than the keenest fans of Bacharach-David songs.

Dionne Warwick has always been my favourite female singer and I’ve seen her in concert several times. Her voice was, in the 60s, quite incredible for its range, and although age (and smoking) have not improved it, she still sounded pretty good when I heard her perform in Manchester a couple of years ago. Burt Bacharach recognised her special gifts when she was a young background singer, and she became the definitive interpreter of his work.

Loneliness Remembers is no Walk On By, or Anyone Who Had a Heart. Yet I think it’s a good song, and it did feature in a very interesting segment of a television special about 40 years ago. Happily, the clip has now cropped up on Youtube and it’s still interesting as a portrayal of a composer introducing his muse to his latest creation. Enjoy!

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Writing and Marketing

I've never had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth Spann Craig, but she is one of those bloggers - other names that spring to mind are Margot Kinberg, Ed Gorman and Dorte H - whose blog posts are infused with personality, so that readers like me tend to feel they know the author, even though they have never met in person.

I've been impressed many times by the advice that Elizabeth proffers to other writers and would-be writers, and when talking to her through cyberspace about a potential guest blog post, I suggested that she might like to address an area on which she is very strong, namely the marketing of writing. She has obliged with this post, which is, as usual, packed with worthwhile ideas:

'Thanks so much to Martin for inviting me to guest post today. It’s an honor and a treat to visit here and go over some marketing strategies for writers.

Different Ways to Promote:

Postcards (mailers.): Mailers can get expensive, so be sure to target the recipients of your postcards carefully. Do you want to focus on larger chains or smaller bookstores? Stores in cities or small towns? Most bookstores do their ordering early…months before your book releases. Once you get a book cover from your publisher and the approval to use it, you can order postcards. My postcards have a picture of my cover on the back. The front of the postcard has a short summary of the book, the ISBN number, my name, the book’s title, the price of the book, and the release date. If I’ve gotten a couple of print reviews, I’ll include a snippet of the review on the postcard too.

Newsletters—I don’t use newsletters myself, but there are a lot of writers who do, and very successfully. These newsletters are emailed out to subscribers once a quarter or once a month, or however frequently the writer feels like creating one. A typical newsletter has information about an upcoming release, extras (recipes, pictures…even alternate endings for books…), delivered with a personal touch and opportunity for the reader to feel that they’re getting to know the writer a little better.

Book Release Contest—This is an easy way to increase awareness of your book’s release—and it doesn’t have to be expensive. ..a signed copy of your new book as a prize works out well. The contest can run as long or short as you like—you could have a small reminder on the bottom of each blog post that a random commenter will be picked as a winner on _____ date. Then, on your release date, you announce your contest winner and mail out the prize. There are different ways to run a blog contest—some people ask for folks to email their entries, some just ask for comments on the blog post. Others give their readers extra entries if they follow them on Twitter or Facebook, or tweet about their contest.

Contacting Stores—Calling bookstores isn’t my favorite thing to do, but it’s a quick and inexpensive way to get your book on the shelf. When you call, ask to speak to a store manager and, when they answer, make sure it’s a good time to talk. Tell them you’re an author of ____ genre and ask if they could order a couple of copies of your upcoming release ___________ for their shelves. Make sure you have the book’s ISBN number handy. While they look up your book, you can briefly mention that the book’s good reviews. Sometimes the manager asks what the book is about, so I have a quick summary ready (I get nervous on the phone, so it’s better for me to be prepared and not botch my synopsis.)

Book signings—Giveaways have gotten very popular for book signings. You’ll be amazed how a small bowl of individually-wrapped candy will bring people over to an author’s table. At one writing conference I attended, I gave away potholders that had my business card attached (the potholders had pictures of a grill on them and I have a barbeque book.) Other authors did the same thing at the conference—and we’d all gotten our giveaways from the thrift shop.

Signing stock—Signing stock is an easy way to make your books stand out in a bookstore. Of course, you should always clear it with the manager ahead of time…and also ask the manager if they have “autographed copy” stickers to put on the front of the book. Any time you go out of town for work or for a holiday, you can arrange to sign stock in those towns’ bookstores, as well.
Bookmarks—Most stores and libraries are delighted to have an author leave bookmarks at the checkout counter, but be sure to ask the manager first. Readers seem to automatically pick them up---and there’s your book, front and center, marking the spot in their current read. Your bookmark should include some of the same information as your postcard—but focused more on the reader. A book cover picture, the title, your name, the price of the book, a website address, and a very short summary works well. My bookmark for my current release has a sixteen-word teaser on it in place of a summary: “Welcome to Aunt Pat’s barbeque restaurant—serving up Memphis fun…with a side order of murder.” So something like that works best in the narrow confines of a bookmark.

Blogging is a great way to increase awareness about your books. A personal blog acts as a sort of online living room for you to visit with other writers and readers. You can develop friendships, network, and obtain market (and other) information. The important thing about blogging is the interaction---allow comments on your blog and respond to comments, if possible. Add the links of other blogs to your sidebar and visit your commenters’ blogs. You can find new readers by posting intelligent comments on other blogs, guest posting, and hosting guests of your own.

Make sure your blog has a “contact me” link so that readers can get in touch with you. A “buy link” is also important—a link that connects a reader to an online bookstore to purchase your books. Book covers do sell books—put one or two covers in your sidebar and, again, hyperlink the covers to online booksellers. It’s nice to put a good review snippet under the cover and near the buy link. Blog readers like to feel as if they’re part of a community—consider adding a “follow me” widget on your blog. It’s nice also to have a Facebook or Twitter badge in your sidebar if you use those forms of social media—it just offers another way for people to connect with you. In addition, most blogs now offer a way to add pages to the blog—just as if it were a website. (Blogger offers this now, too.) If you’d like to use this feature, you could add tabs to your blog—an “About Me” that helps readers get to know you, a “Contact Me,” and a page with information about your books, etc.

When you have a new release, consider going on a blog tour. Ask bloggers whom you respect and have developed a relationship with if they could host you for a day. Make sure your posts supply interesting and useful content for their readers and aren’t just commercials for your book. Link from your blog to the host’s blog when the post runs. Even guest posting on five or six different sites will increase your visibility online, reach new potential readers, and help your name and your book’s name rank higher in Google search results.

Social media can sound difficult to learn and time-consuming to employ, but it can be adapted to fit any schedule. Starting out, I spent a total of ten minutes on Twitter, ten minutes on Facebook and was happy with the results I saw. Both Twitter and Facebook connected me to interviewers (print and online) and book bloggers. They’re also really useful tools for me to exchange information with other writers (and develop friendships with them) and interact with my readers.

Increasing your followers on Twitter. Twitter is a great resource for marketing—but it has to be subtle. If you constantly tweet spam about your book, then you’ll quickly lose any followers you might have had. Instead, tweet the best posts of your blogging friends or tweet interesting articles you’ve come across online. You’ll build followers and help increase awareness of your books. Schedule tweets, using a free service like SocialOomph to spread tweets out over a day. This is also a good way to ensure your tweets will be seen by followers in other time zones or countries. You can use URL shorteners like or TinyURL to get the most from your Twitter space.

Facebook is a great place to make connections and network—which ends up working well as a relaxed way to increase awareness of your book and market it. You can set up your blog to automatically feed to your Facebook wall when it updates. And, you can set up your blog on Networked Blogs—your friends can sign up to follow your blog and read it on their Networked Blogs reader on Facebook. Facebook is all about connecting. I’ve also found that many journalists and book bloggers will contact me through my Facebook inbox first, instead of my email account. Make sure your Facebook account links to an active email address so you can be notified of any mail you receive on the site.

I know that book marketing can seem overwhelming. But breaking the promotion tasks into manageable bits (and keeping track of your online time with a timer) can really help. Do you have any marketing tips to share or questions to ask? And, thanks again to Martin for hosting me today.'

Bio: Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin as Riley Adams, the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink (under her own name), and blogs daily at Delicious and Suspicious released July 6, 2010.

Twitter: @elizabethscraig

Tuesday 27 July 2010


A good conspiracy thriller can be highly entertaining. I’ve mentioned before my enthusiasm for films such as Capricorn One and The Parallax View. And one of the greatest conspiracy theories in the real world concerns the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, so it’s a wonder that it’s taken me so long to get round to watching Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK. But at last I’ve watched it.

The film won a couple of Oscars, and it’s notable for an excellent cast. Kevin Costner plays Garrison, an attorney who decides that JFK was victim of an establishment plot, and his performance is very powerful. His wife is played by Sissy Spacek, and other stellar names are Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Donald Sutherland and Ed Asner. The soundtrack is written by the excellent John Williams. All very impresive.

I am not familiar with the detail of the various theories about Kennedy’s murder, and my understanding is that, although Garrison was indeed a real-life crusader for the truth about the killing, there is an element (some would say, a large element) of fiction in Stone’s version of the story.

This is a very long film indeed, and I have to admit that, despite my admiration for Costner, there were a number of times when my attention wandered. I may not know the truth about the case, but more importantly, I’m not sure that Oliver Stone does. There were moments when I did feel almost as if I were being repeatedly coshed by an angry person, determined to hammer his ideas into my head. I wasn’t anticipating such a test of endurance. Overall, JFK seemed to me to be a film with genuine merit, but by no means the masterpiece I’d hoped for. Maybe my expectations were just too high, maybe I wasn't in quite the right mood for it. But I do think that it would have appealed to me more had it been about an hour shorter.

Monday 26 July 2010


I’ve attended the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate since its early days, and it’s invariably an entertaining event, enhanced by the fact that Harrogate in July is a very pleasant place to be. This year, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to arrive there until Saturday lunch-time, but despite that I had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

One of the great things about crime conventions is the chance they offer both to catch up with old friends and to make new ones; also, I tend to find, there may be one or two people whom one has bumped into briefly for years, but whom one manages to get to know rather better, and that’s always rewarding. I enjoyed lunch with a few friends from the CWA’s Northern Chapter, and during the day I came across Alanna Knight, a prolific Scottish crime writer who with her late husband Alistair was a stalwart of many CWA events. I’ve not seen her for two or three years and it was good to see her in fine form. I don’t think I’ve mentioned her work on this blog before, an omission I ought to repair. Her historical mysteries are well worth a look.

Needless to say, the Saturday night quiz was a highlight. I joined up with a team which rejoiced in the name of the BP Complaints Department. It included Zoe Sharp, and her husband Andy, Russell from Waterstones, Chris Ewan and L.C. Tyler. Some of the questions were really tough – a round on the subject of writers’ dogs had me baffled, for instance – but we did manage to come second. A real team effort, and very good company. Seeing Len Tyler was a bonus, as I’m reading his latest book at the moment, and he kindly inscribed it for me. A review will appear here in due course.

Among other nice things, Janet O’Kane, whom I’d previously only encountered via the blogosphere, came over to say hello. I hope that readers of blogs who encounter blog writers at conventions and other events will, equally, not be too bashful to introduce themselves. I’m sure that other writers, just like me, really value these personal contacts.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Echo Burning

I’ve finished listening to the abridged audio CD of Lee Child’s thriller Echo Burning, which I mentioned recently. It turned out to be very good car listening. Lively and interesting, without demanding so much attention that I risked crashing into a speed camera. In short, it did what a good thriller should do – it kept me entertained from start to finish.

I liked the comment made in response to my last blog post that Child’s Jack Reacher is really an updated cowboy type of hero. He’s strong, very good in a fight or with a gun, and his heart is in the right place. He turns down tempting offers from attractive but potentially dangerous women, and he is kind to small children – in this case, the young daughter of a woman who may or may not have killed her rather horrible husband.

The central mystery is whether the woman in the case is hunter or hunted, and Child keeps us guessing quite nicely. I rather liked the fact that there was a small verbal clue to the mystery which Jack Reacher failed to spot – so the guy is flawed after all!

I’m not pretending that books like this compare to, say, the best of Ruth Rendell in literary terms. But writing a really successful thriller requires real craftsmanship. Child has the ability to make it look easy. But it isn’t, and that is why he deserves his extraordinary success.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Writing Ideas and Inspiration

The mysterious nature of the source of inspiration and ideas for writing is a constant subject for debate – especially, perhaps, among those who do not write. Those who do write are probably just thankful that ideas do come to mind, and don’t spend a lot of time analysing where they spring from. Such analysis can be fun, though, if it isn’t overdone.

‘Where do you find ideas?’ is such a common question at book talks that I once wrote a short story with that title. It’s not a very well known story, but I much enjoyed putting it together – and it became the title story in my one - and so far only - collection of short stories.

When I told Margaret Yorke I was featuring The Small Hours of the Morning in this blog, she told me: ‘my plan was to have a sort of La Ronde where each character linked to the next one going in a circle and also the heroine had no physical contact with a soul, not a touch..I must read it, don't remember the details’

I was very interested in this. The La Ronde idea strikes me as a very good one. And I wasn’t in the least surprised that Margaret didn’t remember the details of a book she wrote 35 years ago. Non-writers may imagine that writers retain in their heads all the nuances of books they have written, but it simply is not so. I forget some of the aspects of my early books, that’s for sure. But it can have a positive effect. When Suspicious Minds was finally published in the US, more than 15 years after it was written, I re-read it and was, oddly enough, very pleasantly surprised! It seemed to have rather more merit than I’d remembered...

Friday 23 July 2010

Forgotten Book - The Small Hours of the Morniing

My choice for today’s entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is The Small Hours of the Morning, by Margaret Yorke. When I decided to pick one of Margaret’s books, I had a couple of dilemmas. First, I’m not sure it’s fair to describe them as ‘forgotten’, since she still has a substantial and devoted readership, even though she has not published a novel for several years. Second, which to choose? One of her strengths was achieving a very even (and high) standard of consistency with her stand-alone novels of psychological suspense, something which is far from common.

As a result, my choice of this particular novel was slightly random – there are a good may others I might have picked, and I may well feature some of them here in due course. But The Small Hours of the Morning does illustrate her gifts very well. Those gifts include swift and sure characterisation of ‘ordinary’, but interesting people, confident plotting and an ability to build suspense without sensationalism.

The book opens splendidly. The opening line is simple: ‘Cecil Titmuss was a careful man.’ A very well-organised chap, Cecil. But his wife June is discontented. She gets up in the night for solitary drinks of gin. And, although it is one o’clock in the morning, an un-named person is studying the Titmuss household through a pair of binoculars.

A great set-up is developed very neatly. Margaret Yorke increases the tension all the more effectively because of the very ‘normal’ ambience of the segment of society that she is depicting. Her insight into the subtle nuances of domestic life is deep, and she has always had a rare story-telling gift. This is one of many of her books that should not be forgotten.

I took the picture of Margaret, by the way, on a visit to her home last month. She was in great form and, as always, a delightful hostess. As on so many occasions, I reflected how lucky I am to have got to know personally writers whom I have long admired, and who prove to be terrific company in person.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Women Who Like Crime Fiction, revisited

The response to my blog post a little while ago about the fact that most crime fiction talks and other events seem to be attended mainly by women readers prompted a host of fascinating comments, which I’ve been mulling over ever since. On my recent trip to Darnhill Library, for instance, I talked about those comments when answering a question from the audience about the gender of my ‘typical’ reader.

Richmonde, in a fascinating comment on the blog post, had said, ‘We can't just turn up on our own to bars, parties, clubs, concerts – men can. So you'll find us out in force at any event where being a single female isn't an issue: lecture at a library, lunchtime chamber concert, art gallery, religious service, music workshop.’ When I relayed her point to the almost exclusively female audience at Darnhill, there was general agreement that it was spot on.

Coupled with that is the female enthusiasm for mystery fiction. Barbara said in her comment, ‘Women tend to be more social in their reading habits, and men more solitary, generalizing very broadly. Also, I suspect it's simply more acceptable for women to be seen enjoying fiction and books in general than men, who are supposed to be lifting weights or cooking meat over fires or something .’ Of course, as she says, this is a generalisation – I’m afraid you won’t catch me eagerly lifting weights or cooking meat over fires, in fact not ever, and I really love mystery fiction. But there is a lot of truth in Barbara’s general point.

I was also very interested when Maxine said, ‘Apparently 60 per cent of UK readers are women over 50. That is one reason why you are doing so well to have a character like Hannah Scarlett - we like reading about capable, attractive, intelligent women.’ The fact is that when I conceived the Lake District Mysteries, I had the idea of developing a slow-burning relationship between Daniel and Hannah, but I felt that Daniel would be the lead character. That is why the early chapters of The Coffin Trail are dominated by Daniel and his partner (whom none of my readers have ever cared for!) Miranda. But when Peter Robinson was kind enough to read the book pre-publication he commented particularly on the strength of Hannah as a character, and as I have tried to get more and more into her mind-set, she has moved to centre stage in the subsequent books.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Time Management and the Writing Life

Fiona, in commenting on Cath Staincliffe’s interesting guest blog yesterday, asked me to talk about my approach to time management, in trying to combine a career as a writer with a day job as a lawyer, as well as domestic life. So I thought the least I could do was to try to rise to her challenge, by giving my own perspective on the writer’s life.

My strong belief is that a great deal in life depends upon your mindset and motivation. This helps to explain, I think, how some people are able to cope with what seem to be dreadful problems, perhaps including disabilities or personal tragedies, and still get a huge amount out of life, whereas there are others who seem blessed with remarkable gifts as well as good fortune, yet who remain fundamentally discontented with their lot.

With writing, I do think that mindset and motivation are the key to achieving a reasonable level of productivity in the time one has available. It is a huge privilege to be a published novelist, and I’m grateful that I’ve been granted that privilege, as well as being proud of it. But it was always my burning ambition, and so – for instance – I chose to work in a firm whose two most senior people had published books (not novels, though one of them would have liked to write westerns) rather than one where I might have made more money, but had much less encouragement and opportunity to write. Part of the knack of making the most of your time is choosing your priorities. Things that aren’t priorities for me (do-it-yourself, for example, comes high on the list, I’m afraid) are things that I try to avoid, so they don’t get in the way of the writing. I hope this doesn’t seem excessively self-indulgent. In my case, I have to admit that it helps that there are countless things that I’m hopeless at, so it’s relatively easy to decide what to focus on – in particular, writing.

When I’m asked by those who want to write a novel and get it published how to go about it, the best guidance I can give is just to keep at it. The secret of success in most fields is pretty unglamorous – it has a lot to do with keeping going when it would be much easier to give up, especially if you have a full-time job and family obligations. I am absolutely certain that there are many better writers than me out there who have written countless first chapters of novels they never managed to finish. But it would be a bit disappointing to have 'I nearly got round to completing a novel' on one's tombstone.

And keeping going does entail writing regularly. I don’t write fiction every day, but I would like to, and I do write whenever I get the chance. Sometimes time is very limited, but even writing a little is better than writing nothing. It doesn’t matter when you write – some are larks, I’m definitely an owl – as long as you get something down in black and white. And writing something not very good (I confess, I do this a lot) is better than waiting for inspiration to strike and not writing in the meantime. If you have written something, you can always improve it. And the process of revision can prove very satisfying, when you finally see something worthwhile emerging from a draft that at first seemed a mess.

But there’s one other thing that I sometimes forget to mention when asked about time management and the writing life. Writing is a solitary activity, but writers benefit enormously from support and encouragement provided in various different ways by family, friends and fellow enthusiasts. I know that support means a great deal to me – and it definitely helps maintain the necessary mindset and motivation. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve gained immeasurably from people kind enough to read and occasionally comment on my posts. So, to Fiona and everyone else who contributes to my efforts, perhaps even without fully realising the value of their input, thank you.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Cath Staincliffe on the writer's life

I've mentioned Cath Staincliffe - a fellow member of the Murder Squad collective of Northern crime writers - several times on this blog, and to coincide with the paperback publication of her latest novel, The Kindest Thing, she's also done a kind thing by contributing this guest blog post about the life of a writer:

'Do you ever get bored? The question was asked during an author visit to my son’s primary school where I was talking about being a writer. My first response was surprise – it wasn’t a question I’d had before – then laughter. No, I replied, never. Thinking about it afresh I am struck by the variety that my work brings. Last week I was at the BBC at a recording of my play The Bridge for Radio 4. It’s an episode for a police series created by writer Danny Brocklehurst. In radio the writer is quite hands on, working alongside the producer in the studio with the actors. It’s fascinating and very enjoyable. My script was four minutes too long so part of my role was to try and find cuts that would not spoil the overall flow of the story.

On Monday I travelled down to Chichester Festivities to talk about my new novel The Kindest Thing and on Tuesday I was a guest at Portsmouth Library. During my visit there I got to meet with one of the booksellers from the country’s smallest library (on Hayling Island). Part of my talk covered the research I’d undertaken for The Kindest Thing, a novel about a woman who helps her sick husband die and stands trial for his murder. That took me into the courts in Manchester, saw me grilling two criminal lawyers about procedure and led to me spending a morning with women in Styal prison writers’ group to find out about life there. The week before last I was copy-editing the pages of the book I have just finished writing. A month earlier I was finalising ideas to send into the BBC for television drama series. And now I’m beginning work on my new book. Alongside all that I have emails and admin to keep up to speed with.

But the core of my work, the real fundamental stuff, is the time spent alone, inside, with pen and paper writing – and I think this was what the young questioner was wondering about. Did that ever get boring? Again it’s a no. The process of writing is like letting go and giving your imagination free rein, it’s playful and brings the rewards that playing does. My days feel busy and vivid and full of excitement.

If I’m writing a funny scene it makes me laugh, if it’s heartbreaking then I’ll be crying. Yes, there are times when the words might be slow to come or a scene peters out but it’s never long before a thought about a character or an element of a description or even a single word has me away with the fairies again. Life as a writer can be precarious, lonely or frustrating but it is never ever boring.'

Monday 19 July 2010

The Swedish Crime Story

Widespread enthusiasm among British (and, I suspect, American) readers for Scandinavian crime fiction is a relatively new phenomenon. I’m pretty sure that before Sjowall and Wahloo created Martin Beck in their remarkable ten-book series in the 60s, hardly any Scandinavian crime fiction was translated into English, but even until the last ten years or so, there was not much Swedish, Norwegian or Danish (let alone Icelandic) fiction to be found in translation.

All that has changed now. Stieg Larsson may be dead, having never published a crime novel in his lifetime, but his name is everywhere. In recent weeks there have been not one but two very good series featuring Kurt Wallander, albeit in different ways, on British television. And names like Fossum, Nesbo and Nesser are prominent on the shelves of the bookshops.

So it’s tempting to assume that there was really very little Scandinavian crime fiction being written until quite recently. Tempting, but wrong. As ever, with fiction, the real difficulty was that publishers saw no demand for translated Scandinavian fiction, and so made no attempt to provide it for English-speaking readers. But there was material in abundance, even so.

Because I am fascinated by the history of the genre, I am keen to know more about Eurocrime (and crime fiction written outside Europe and the US) of the past. With this in mind, I’ve just acquired a short, privately printed book produced by Bo Lundin in 1981. It is called The Swedish Crime Story, and it is full of information that I find really interesting. So I will be posting again soon about the Swedish crime books you never get to hear about.

Sunday 18 July 2010

A Visit to Darnhill

It’s a privilege, especially in the current economic climate, to have two enjoyable jobs, but one of the drawbacks of my good fortune is that I don’t get enough time to devote to writing, let alone to all the ancillary activities of a writer’s life. Talks at libraries, for instance, have to be rationed, and usually I can only appear at events within a reasonable drive from work – though on one happy occasion some years ago, I took a couple of days off and flew over to Jersey to give a talk in the library at St Helier.

Last week, though, I had the pleasure of being invited by Rochdale Libraries to speak at the recently refurbished Darnhill Library. I’d never been to Darnhill before, and it would be fair to say that it doesn’t have the atmosphere of a millionaires’ playground, but the library is a very pleasant place, and the staff were extremely well-organised and hospitable. It is the sort of library that must play an important part in the life of the local community, and I do think it’s vital that necessary spending cuts don’t have the effect of undermining a facility that is so plainly a force for social cohesion.

The audience was large and responsive - people had come from quite a wide area, which really is a tribute to the way in which the librarians had publicised the event rather than to the speaker - so often in life, it seems to me, good marketing makes a huge difference. My talk was about my crime writing career as a whole, and there were more than enough questions to fill in the allotted ninety minutes. As I was speaking, there was thunder and lightning outside, and the effect was quite dramatic. But we were not, in the end, marooned in Darnhill Library for the night, although I’m sure we’d have been well looked after had the worst happened!

I do enjoy the chance to meet readers and potential readers at such events, and libraries are always welcoming venues. This year already, I’ve spoken at libraries in Derby, Wirral, Nottingham, Middlesbrough, Flintshire, and now Lancashire. Great fun. What’s more I have one or two more library talks lined up for the autumn – quite a bit to look forward to after the holiday season.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Josephine Tey and Nicola Upson

When I first heard that a series of books was to be published featuring Josephine Tey as the lead character, I must admit that I was rather surprised. Tey is one of the Golden Age writers whose work has lasted well, but I’ve always had the impression that in real life she was a retiring individual, who never married and died relatively young, and who hid behind the pseudonyms of Tey and Gordon Daviot (her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh.)

Yet Nicola Upson has not only now written three novels published by Faber and starring Tey, but she has teamed her up with an appealing cop called Archie Penrose. The first book in the series, which came out a couple of years ago, is An Expert in Murder, and it was followed by Angel With Two Faces. Two for Sorrow has now just appeared.

I’ve featured Tey in a new column for Bookdagger, which is due to appear shortly, so I won’t repeat what I’ve said there, but I do think it’s interesting to consider why her reputation has survived when that of many contemporary crime writers has faded from sight. After all, surely nobody would contemplate writing a new mystery series featuring E.R. Punshon, say, or J.J. Connington, or other Golden Age practitioners.

The explanation for her success owes something, I think, to the fact that Tey was a genuinely good literary stylist, while her plots were apt to be a bit ‘different’, for example because she did not always write about murder. The Daugher of Time is her most famous book, but I prefer the excellent Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair. I do hope Upson’s books manage to interest more readers in the work of this fine writer.

Friday 16 July 2010

Forgotten Book - Dead Man's Bay

Some time back, I featured in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books a novel by Catherine Arley called Woman of Straw, which was filmed with Sean Connery (although I continue to hunt in vain for a showing of the movie on the schedules). That is my favourite of the two Arley books I've read so far, but Dead Man's Bay also proved worth reading.

Arley was a French writer, several of whose thrillers were published in translation by Collins Crime Club in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She was an exponent of psychological suspense with startling plot twists in the same school as Boileau and Narcejac, Japrisot and Montheilet, although her reputation has not lasted as well.

Dead Man's Bay starts off as a routine woman-in-jeopardy novel, but eventually develops into something more sinister; the ending is very dark indeed. The set-up is straightforward: Ada is alone in a house on a remote Breton clifftop and has evidently suffered a mental collapse. She seems emotionally dependent on her rich husband Andre, but he is away on business and a sequence of troubling, though at first trivial, events causes Ada to fear for her sanity.

The flaw - to my mind - in the novel is that one needs to root for Ada, but in truth she is such a misery that one’s sympathy for her predicament soon becomes tested up to, and beyond, the limits of tolerance. Yet I found the book interesting enough to want to seek out more of her work, and discover whether she was able elsewhere to marry her undoubted talent for tension-building with more adept characterisation. In Woman of Straw, she did just that.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Reginald Hill and Short Stories

I mentioned recently that Reg Hill is a fine writer of short stories, and if you are a short story fan who is unfamiliar with them, you have a treat in store. Pascoe’s Ghost is a good collection, and it features one story, ‘The Rio de Janiero Paper’, that I think is truly wonderful. When I came to edit a CWA anthology called Crime in the City, I asked Reg for permission to include it, and I was delighted that he agreed. A very different, but also excellent, story called 'A Shameful Eating' later featured in Crime on the Move.

He has, over the years, contributed a number of brand new stories to anthologies that I’ve edited. It’s a rare treat to be the first person to read something from the pen of an internationally best-selling author, and Reg’s submissions never falter in quality. Another superb story, ‘On the Psychiatrist’s Couch’, featured in Whydunit?, and it deservedly won the CWA Short Story Dagger.

‘Game of Dog’ was a new story that he contributed to the CWA’s Golden Jubilee anthology, Mysterious Pleasures. Again, a great piece of work that I’m sure will be enjoyed not only by Hill fans but by anyone who relishes stylish and intelligent crime writing.

And now, for the forthcoming anthology Original Sins, Reg has contributed a longish story called ‘Where do the Naughty People Go?’ It’s characteristically gripping, and like so much of his work, the humour on the surface complements, rather than conflicts with, the darker elements of the story. I’ve received a large number of enjoyable submissions for this book, but I have little doubt that, when the anthology is finally published, Reg’s story will be regarded as one of the highlights. It's another reminder that he is a true master of the genre.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

The Thomas Crown Affair

I’ve watched again the original (1968) version of The Thomas Crown Affair, and found that it remains enjoyable, even though it is very much a film of its time. The split screens and photographic trickery don’t entirely compensate for the thinness of the plot, but the success of the film derives mainly from the chemistry between the two leads, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

McQueen is the eponymous Crown, a millionaire whose boredom leads him to organise a bank heist. Dunaway is an insurance investigator who is torn between fancying him and wanting to bring him to justice. This very charismatic couple make even playing a chess game seem like an exercise in seduction. And you can’t be sure whether Crown will get away with it, or not – or whether Dunaway will choose him rather than her career.

The film gains a great deal from the score written by the brilliant Michel Legrand. ‘His Eyes, Her Eyes’ is the theme for the chess game, and a good piece of music, but of course the highlight is the Oscar-winning ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’.

My friend Davide Bonori, whose tastes in music are very similar to my own, recently sent me a wonderful CD performed by Alan Bergman, who (with his wife Marilyn) wrote the lyric to the song. Bergman is in his 80s, but his version of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ is quite superb, I think. A great lyric, and a performance I recommend. Listening to the song prompted me to revisit the movie, and I’m glad I did.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Kate Ellis on The Flesh Tailor

Last month I talked about Kate Ellis and her latest novel, The Flesh Tailor, and now I'm glad to present a guest blog post by Kate herself.

'When you set out to write a novel, where do you start? Well, sometimes the whole process begins with the idea for a clever plot…or sometimes an intriguing situation, a strange historical fact or an engaging character can trigger the imagination. But once in a while I come across a fantastic title which sticks in my mind and leads to one murderous thought after another.

I have forgotten where exactly I heard the term ‘Flesh Tailor’ - which is, apparently, an archaic title for a surgeon - but once it was in my mind it sparked off a series of ideas which brewed for a couple of years and led eventually to the creation of The Flesh Tailor, a story of wartime evacuees, a house which once belonged to an Elizabethan anatomist and the execution style murder of a country doctor.

As my books always contain a historical mystery and well as a contemporary crime story, I usually have to carry out a great deal of research and The Flesh Tailor was no exception . I found myself learning about the evacuation of children to rural Devon during World War II and also about the study of anatomy in the sixteenth century. Reading up on the history of medicine, I came across characters such as Andreas Vesalius who in 1539 was granted permission by a Paduan judge to dissect executed criminals, thus enabling him to publish The Fabric of the Human Body, a well illustrated book which transformed the study of anatomy. My wartime researches were considerably less gruesome but I found the evacuees’ stories particularly poignant and I couldn’t help marvelling at the resilience of those children sent so far away from home to an alien way of life with complete strangers.

The Flesh Tailor begins when Dr James Dalcott, a popular country GP, is found dead in his Devon cottage with a single bullet wound to his head and as DI Wesley Peterson begins to investigate, he discovers that the amiable doctor was harbouring some bizarre and bloody family secrets. Meanwhile archaeologist, Neil Watson, unearths several skeletons in the grounds of an Elizabethan house called Tailors Court and, from marks on the bones, he suspects a link to tales of body snatching by a rogue physician who lived there back in the sixteenth century. However, when the bones of a child are found buried with a 1930s coin, the investigation takes a sinister turn. Who were the children evacuated to Tailors Court during World War II and where are they now? When a link is established between Dr Dalcott’s murder and the wartime evacuees, Wesley Peterson faces one of his most intriguing and dangerous cases yet.

The Flesh Tailor is out in paperback at the beginning of August 2010 and I’m now working on my next book The Jackal Man which will see Wesley facing a serial killer with an ancient Egyptian connection.'

Monday 12 July 2010

The Father of Forensics

The Father of Forensics, by Colin Evans, is sub-titled ‘How Sir Bernard Spilsbury Invented Modern CSI’ and at once it is evident that, although Spilsbury has his detractors, Evans is certainly not among them. This is a positive, but I think reasonably balanced, account of the work of the legendary pathologist, and there is certainly room for more than one way of judging the achievements of this flawed, but remarkable, human being.

I became interested in Spilsbury’s work mainly as a result of his involvement in the Crippen case. The trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen, just one hundred years ago, was the first capital case in which Spilsbury testified, and due to the massive publicity that attended the proceedings, the case made his name. His evidence contributed significantly to a guilty verdict, and it is open to question as to whether, in 2010, the forensic clues would have been interpreted in the same way. For instance, Andrew Rose, in his interesting book Lethal Witness, has a notably different take from Evans’.

Nevertheless, Evans makes good use of the fascinating material at his disposal, offering an account that it is in the traditions of British true crime writing, focusing on the many intriguing cases – some of them surprisingly little-known, like that of Gordon Cummins, a war-time serial killer – that filled Spilsbury’s career.

Evans chronicles Spilsbury’s glory years, as well as his tragic decline, afflicted by ill-health, financial and matrimonial problems, and bereavement. Ultimately, the great man met a horrid end, committing suicide in his own laboratory. Evans’ conclusion is that: ‘’Although he was the finest forensic pathologist of his time and a superb diagnostician, it would be churlish to pretend, as some hagiographers have done, that Spilsbury was immune to error...but claims that he was a mere prosecution puppet, the killing arm of British justice, don’t stand up to close inspection.’ I’m not sure ‘churlish’ is the right word, but I tend to agree with Evans’ sentiment. This is an entertaining read, published by Icon, and likely to be of great interest to those with an enthusiasm for forensics.

Sunday 11 July 2010

A View of the Lake

After my tour of the Theatre by the Lake on Wednesday, I had a look round Keswick to fasten in my mind some of the settings that play a part in my current Lake District Mystery work-in-progress. These included the River Greta, which flows beside Fitz Park in a part of the town that I haven’t explored properly in the past.

After that, it was back to Windermere, and a walk up a fairly gentle slope to Orrest Head. This is the viewpoint from which Alfred Wainwright, famed for his walking guides to the Lakes, first fell in love with the area. And it’s easy to understand why that grumpy old man (as he seemed to many) was stirred to such emotion. It is a truly beautiful part of the world. After glimpsing Windermere through the trees on the way up, you have a terrific panorama.

I’m not – at present – planning a scene set at Orrest Head, but the magic of the setting certainly fires the imagination, and provides a dramatic reminder of why the Lakes exert such a magnetic appeal on so many people from around the world. In the Lake District Mysteries, I strive to avoid anything approaching a travelogue, but I am keen to try to capture something of the atmosphere of a beautiful part of the country. And the climb up Orrest Head provided me with fresh writing inspiration.

Saturday 10 July 2010

The Theatre by the Lake

A highlight of my trip to the Lake District was a backstage tour of a truly fascinating place, the Theatre by the Lake at Keswick. There can be few theatres anywhere in the world that enjoy a lovelier setting, overlooking Derwent Water, and the building – opened eleven years ago - has been very sympathetically integrated into the landscape.

One of the many pleasant things that has happened to me as a result of writing this blog is that, after I mentioned the Theatre following my last visit to Keswick, in the autumn, I got into contact with David Ward, literary consultant to the Theatre, and a Cheshire based former journalist. David has written a history of the Theatre which I found really interesting. It’s a story of a collective and community effort to create something truly worthwhile, in the face of many obstacles. It’s great that the story had a happy ending. Audiences and reviews have been exceptional, consistently. I would love to watch a production there, and when time permits, I plan to do so.

I am interested in featuring the Theatre in either my current work in progress or a future book, or perhaps both. It’s such an intriguing place, and one whose existence deserves to be very widely known. I’ve been encouraged by David’s reaction to the suggestion, and he was kind enough to arrange for a colleague, Rachel Swift, to organise an enthralling tour. Over the years, I've been lucky enough to look behind the scenes at many remarkable places, including Wembley, Harrods, Chester Zoo and Liverpool's Conservation Centre, and this was another memorable outing

Because the Theatre is such a modern place, it’s not at all like something out of Phantom of the Opera. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of the props room (which among many other artefacts boasted a fake skeleton) was compelling. Could it be a scene for an incident in a mystery novel? Very possibly....

Friday 9 July 2010

Forgotten Book - Shadows Before

It's almost eighteen months since I featured Dorothy Bowers in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books, so I thought she was more than due for another mention. She only wrote five novels in a career of great promise that was, sadly, cut short by TB. But they are books of distinct merit, which earned her election to the Detection Club not long before she died.

Shadows Before is an ambitious and elaborately plotted mystery. First published in 1939, it marked a welcome return for Chief Inspector Pardoe and his doughty sidekick Sergeant Salt. Again, the pair are called in when a local force, confronted by the fatal poisoning of a rich woman, needs the help of Scotland Yard. The sensitivity of the case is increased by the fact that the victim’s husband, Matthew Weir, was acquitted two years earlier of poisoning her sister. Weir is a mild-mannered academic who attracts the fervent support of those who know and like him – but is he a skilful double-murderer? And if not, what, if anything, is the connection between the two deaths?

The complications of the story are increased by the way in which Bowers shifts between the viewpoints of different characters – and in one instance, perhaps, she plays a little less than fair. The major flaw in the book is, however, simply that the cast of characters is too extensive, with the result that interest is diffused. This is a pity, because Bowers sketches her people with skilful economy and a less congested narrative would have been highly effective. It is a mark of her limited experience at the time, perhaps, that she overdid the complexities. Nevertheless, the quality of the writing has stood the test of time and makes this book a pleasure to read.

At one time, Bowers' novels weren't easy to find, and that may account for their having slipped out of sight. But Rue Morgue Press have done a great job in reprinting all five titles, and researching the all-too-short life of this accomplished writer.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Stone Circles

There is something fascinating about ancient stone circles. One has a sense of timelessness, of sharing with people long gone and forgotten. And yesterday I visited, for the first time in more than twenty years, a stone circle in a quite lovely setting. This was Castlerigg, on the outskirts of Keswick.

I decided to celebrate my birthday by having a day’s holiday from work – and where better to spend it than in the Lakes? After the recent fine weather, the day began with drizzle, but – untypically, it has to be said – the weather improved the closer we came to the Lake District. The first stop was Windermere, a town I’ve always liked, and the second was Castlerigg.

The stone circle at Castlerigg isn’t exactly Stonehenge, but it’s quite notable and well visited. It dates back 4,500 years, which is quite a thought. I find it impossible to resist imagining what it was like all that time ago, and what mysterious rites took place in the circle, and around the gathering of stones known as the Sanctuary. The landscape of the Lakes has no doubt changed a lot in the interim – human beings have had a massive impact on it, an impact that isn’t always obvious. But I’m sure it was gorgeous 4,500 years ago, as it is today.

I’m not sure if I’m going to feature Castlerigg in either my work in progress or a future novel. I’m conscious that Stephen Booth, in his Peak District series, had a novel that featured a stone circle, Dancing with the Virgins, and I think both he and I are keen to avoid utilising similar material, though of course so much depends on how that material is presented. P.D. James featured a stone circle, for instance, in The Private Patient. One thing is for sure, a stone circle makes for a very evocative setting, and does have the potential to provide a great scene in a mystery, as well as for a stop on a day trip.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Reginald Hill

In discussing Peter Robinson yesterday, I mentioned that he and I first met at a CWA Northern Chapter meeting. At it was at the inaugural lunch of the Chapter, in Borougbridge, back in 1987, that I first met one of the finest crime writers of the last forty years. Reginald Hill has, since then, been something of an inspiration to me.

I’d read some of Reg’s books before that first meeting, and I enjoyed the way he combined intricate plotting with witty characterisation. He was, and will no doubt remain, best known for his books about Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe, but his other books should definitely not be overlooked. For example, a thriller that originally appeared under the pen-name of Patrick Ruell, The Only Game, is a terrific piece of work that I certainly recommend.

As a writer, he has gone from strength to strength. Bones and Silence was a magnificent piece of work, but arguably he topped it with On Beulah Height. And then, some might say (and I would agree) that Dialogues of the Dead is even better. He is extraordinarily prolific, yet he remains committed to quality of story. His short fiction is superb, and I’ll write about this on another occasion.

Reg and his wife Pat are invariably good company, and I suffered with them as the original Yorkshire TV series of Dalziel and Pascoe, starring the comedians Hale and Pace, proved to be distinctly underwhelming. Happily, the BBC made a much better fist of it, and I had the happy experience of attending the preview at the RSA in London of the very first episode, ‘A Clubbable Woman’.

I’ve been reading Reg’s latest novel over the last couple of weeks, and a review will appear here shortly. The book is called The Woodcutter, and it doesn’t feature Dalziel and Pascoe. But the central character does have some of Fat Andy’s charisma, as well as one or two dark secrets.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson is now one of the leading crime writers, but he certainly paid his dues. He wrote a good many novels about his series detective, Inspector Alan Banks, as well as an excellent stand-alone, Caedmon’s Song, before his talents were widely recognised. When a publisher finally got behind him, and gave his work the marketing push that had previously been lacking, his sales soared.

I started reading Peter’s books shortly after he was published for the first time. They appealed to me a good deal, because they were to some extent in the vein of the kind of story I fancied writing. Before long, I met Peter at a meeting of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, probably getting on for twenty years ago. Although he was living in Canada at the time, he was born in Yorkshire, and his stories are mainly set in that county. Banks is based in Eastvale, which is a fictional place in the north of Yorkshire, with elements reminiscent of one or two real-life towns.

In addition to his novels, Peter is a prolific writer of short stories of high calibre. I’ve been listening to an audio version of his short story collection The Price of Love, and I’ll post about this before long. With his short fiction, he ranges widely in his settings and plots, and I suspect that, like many of us, he finds the ‘break’ offered by writing a short story or two helps to keep him fresh in between novels.

I last bumped into Peter a couple of years ago at the Harrogate Festival, at a party to celebrate 21 years of Alan Banks mysteries. It was a lively and well-attended event, and a good illustration of how a writer who keeps working hard may, after a number of years, finally hit the jackpot. Like Ian Rankin, Andrew Taylor and Ann Cleeves, he was by no means an overnight success. But like them, he richly deserves the success he has achieved on the back of a long run of soundly written and entertaining mysteries.

Monday 5 July 2010

The Cipher Garden and Amazon

I’ve received glad tidings from Allison & Busby, namely that The Cipher Garden is to be reprinted shortly, with new cover artwork in the same style as that for The Serpent Pool and the recent reprint of The Coffin Trail. An early version is illustrated above, although there may be a few changes before it is finalised.

This is pleasing news, because one of the unfortunate aspects of life as a published writer – if you are lucky enough to hang around for a few years, and produce a number of books – is that it’s all too easy for your work to slip out of print. This can be frustrating for several reasons. In my own case, I do find that people attending talks I give are sometimes keen to buy the early Harry Devlin books, and I don’t have that many of my own stockpile of copies left!

Yet the truth is that I was relatively lucky. The Devlin series did have a second life – after the books first came out, Hodder reprinted the early titles in the late 90s, as well as publishing the sixth and seventh entries in the series – but even that came to an end. As a result, when I wrote Waterloo Sunset, I was quite careful to make sure that someone could read it without any previous knowledge of the Devlin saga. And at least Waterloo Sunset – a book I enjoyed writing enormously - remains readily obtainable.

As for The Cipher Garden, I wonder if the fact that it’s been quite extensively (and positively, thank goodness!) reviewed on Amazon is a factor in its continuing sales and longevity. I guess that it may be. Whatever people may think about Amazon reviews, they do influence buyers, with five-star reviews clearly pretty important, and I’m certainly very grateful to those who have reviewed this and others of my books kindly on Amazon. One quite prominent writer recently told me of his dismay about negative reviews on Amazon of his latest book, and this rather sad story illustrates, I think, the impact of Amazon reviews on writer morale as well as on sales.

Saturday 3 July 2010

1000 Not Out

I squeezed in a couple of blog posts yesterday, which took my overall tally of posts since I started ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ to one thousand. Suffice to say that, when I began the project, I never dreamed I would get this far, let alone so (relatively) soon.

It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me and, all being well, I don’t plan to stop in the forseeable future. I do want to say how very much I appreciate the responses that I receive. Your comments often provoke much thought as far as I’m concerned, and I do hope you will keep them coming, along with the many fascinating snippets of information that you provide.

And it has been an absolute delight to meet in person a number of fellow bloggers and blog readers over the past two and a half years. There are many others of you that I guess, unfortunately, I’m unlikely ever to meet, but who knows?

Recently I was startled to discover that this blog was listed number 5 in the ‘top 10 UK literature blogs’ by Cision. Quite gratifying, but much more gratifying is the sense of being in touch with people all over the world who are united by a shared love of the crime genre

Friday 2 July 2010

Talking about Crippen

Public speaking is something I’ve done often over the years, yet I’m far from being a ‘natural’. I spend my youth dreading and therefore avoiding it, and when I became a solicitor, I coped with advocacy (in less formal employment tribunals rather than conventional courts) by treating each case as a battle to be won. I started lecturing on legal topics in my 20s, but found this hard going, and I still try to dodge it when I can.

When my first novel was published, I found my first ever radio interview to be quite an ordeal. But over the years, I gained a lot of practice in talking about my writing, and I became more confident. I also found it easier to talk about crime fiction than, say, legal issues, because crime fiction is what I love. Attending crime conventions and participating in panels also helped to build my confidence.

Since publishing Dancing for the Hangman, I’ve given my talk about Dr Crippen several times. Each time it’s a little different, because I talk without notes and consequently change it a bit every time, varying the parts of the story on which I focus. Last night was different again, because I gave the talk as part of the Lymm Festival, and members of the audience included quite a number of people who know me as a neighbour rather than a writer. And, of course, you don’t want to make a fool of yourself in front of people you might bump into any day.

Fortunately, there was a good audience, with lots of questions, and the atmosphere was very positive, with plenty of books sold at the end of the evening. I really enjoyed sharing my enthusiasm for a story which really is stranger than fiction. The Crippen mystery is endlessly fascinating, and the Lymm Festival-goers seemed to think so too.

Poisons and Poisoning

One of the unexpected pleasures of the CWA conference at Abergavenny was a talk by a writer I hadn’t heard of before, called Celia Kellett. Her subject was Poison and Poisoning, which just happens to be the title of a book she published recently on the subject.

Maybe it’s my fondness for Christie, maybe it’s my interest in the Crippen case, but I have a weakness for mysteries featuring poisons, and I did find Celia Kellett’s talk fascinating. Unfortunately, she didn’t have many copies of her book for sale, and they’d all been snapped up by the time I reached the end of the queue. But I’ve now bought a copy for myself, and it’s certainly a book packed with information (published, by the way, by an enterprising Welsh firm, Accent Press.)

We tend to think of mystery stories featuring poisoning as slightly old-fashioned, perhaps because of all those cases of demure-seeming Victorian ladies doing away with their husbands with different kinds of poison. As I’ve said before, the Liverpool case of the Maybricks is one of my favourite true crime stories, and of course it features here.

But Kellett also makes it clear that there is plenty of potential in the modern world for murder by poison. As she says: ‘poisons are everywhere’, and ‘prisons worldwide still hold many murderers who used poison as their deadly weapon.’ This is a very useful reference book, and I expect to dip into it often in the future. And, who knows, it may tempt me into writing a poisoning mystery of my own one of these fine days....

Thursday 1 July 2010

Seaside Crime

Last Sunday was the hottest day of the year so far, and I was due to travel from Middlesbrough to Boroughbridge for the CWA lunch. It seemed a shame to waste such glorious weather. So I decided to take a quick look at a seaside resort I’ve never visited before. This was Saltburn by the Sea, some miles north of Whitby (a resort I know quite well) and lacking Whitby’s Dracula connection, but nevertheless, as I found, a place of real charm.

Saltburn has a pleasant-looking beach, a historic furnicular cliff railway, a pier, and a lovely glen. I took plenty of photos, but although Blogger has today permitted me to upload one, that seems to be the limit! I enjoyed wandering around for an hour or so before it was time to leave. There’s something about seaside resorts that I find quite entrancing. In summer, that is. I’ve visited them often in winter, and of course they can sometimes have a melancholic atmosphere.

Seaside settings do, I think, work very well in crime fiction. Examples of books with a seaside backdrop that I’ve enjoyed are the very different Sunspot by Desmond Lowden, and Light Reading by Aliya Whiteley. Both are entertaining and deserve to be better known. And there are many others that one might name. I’d be interested to know of any particular favourites of readers of this blog.

I’ve never had a seaside setting in my novels (apart from one scene in Take My Breath Away, with a fictional place based on North Yorkshire’s forgotten village, Ravenscar) but the seaside has cropped up in one or two of my short stories. I was especially happy with one called ‘Diminished Responsibility’, which did not attract a great deal of attention at the time – but it’s a story that will, I hope, find a fresh life in some future anthology.