Monday 31 January 2011

John Barry R.I.P.

John Barry has always been one of my favourite musicians and the news of his death today saddens me. I've mentioned Barry several times in this blog and given that he won five Oscars,I think it can safely be said that he was Britain's finest ever writer of film music.

John Barry will forever be associated with the music for James Bond, and rightly so, but he achieved so much more. Working with a variety of lyricists, including Don Black and the great Hal David, he produced some of the finest songs of the 60s. My personal favourite is 'We Have All the Time in the World', co-written with Hal David and sung by Louis Armstrong, of all people, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. And the best tune might just be 'The Girl with the Sun in her Hair', from You Only Live Twice, even though most people associate it with a TV commercial.

There's a drama and a dynamism about Barry's music that sets it apart. He's associated with lush, romantic sounds, but it's no coincidence that he wrote music for classic crime films and TV shows. His music is truly exciting.

Think of The Ipcress File, The Persuaders, and the magnificent score to that brilliant film Body Heat. All of them gain a great deal, in different ways, from Barry's music. There are plenty of other examples of his gifts from the crime genre, even before we come to Midnight Cowboy, Born Free and Dances with Wolves. A little while ago, I tried to find a DVD of one of his concerts - but there are none available. Astonishing. John Barry was a superstar among modern composers.

Should writers list their characters?

A very welcome arrival to the blogosphere is J.F. Norris, whose Pretty Sinister blog I’ve added to my blogroll. He covers some modern fiction – such as that very entertaining writer L.C.Tyler – but his main focus is on books from the past, and already he’s come up with some fascinating bits of information.

In commenting here, he also raised a very interesting question about lists of characters at the start of books, to help readers pick their way through. This used to be common in detective stories, but these days I’ve heard publishers argue that it is off-putting, and implies that the story is not clear enough to stand on its own merits.

I can understand this argument, and that some readers will draw an adverse inference if they see a character list at the front of the book. But I do tend to like them – for instance in the old books that Rue Morgue reprint. And some authors, like Christianna Brand, used to use them as part of the overall means of entertaining the reader.

I’ve been thinking about the other bits and pieces that can add to a reader’s pleasure in the last few days as I’ve been working with my American publishers on a map for The Hanging Wood. It’s fun to see my dubious draughtsmanship transformed into a rather nice piece of work by an artist. Maps seem to be coming back into vogue generally at present, not least in Scandinavian novels. A good thing!

So what will be the next device to be exhumed from the Golden Age? More family trees? Challenges to the readers? Clue-finders? None of them seem likely, I must admit. But you never know...

Friday 28 January 2011

Forgotten Book - Death Among the Sunbathers

The name E.R.Punshon doesn’t often feature in the blogosphere, but he was a prolific crime writer, turning out more than 50 books, roughly in the Golden Age tradition, and having overlooked him for years, I decided to give him a try. So my Forgotten Book for today is his 1934 title Death among the Sunbathers.

Punshon is most commonly associated with a series character, the policeman Bobby Owen, who features in this book in a rather untypical way. The starting point for the investigation is the murder of a young woman journalist. She has been shot, and her body left in a burning car.

The story-line takes the police to a sunbathing colony, which is described with some rather pleasing satire. Punshon, whose work was much admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, was a decent writer, and his characters were more clearly defined than those of some of his duller contemporaries.

The snag with this particular book is that the mystery plot and the cast of suspects did not really appeal to me. There is a shift of focus halfway through the book which paves the way for a neat twist, but unfortunately matters were prolonged in such a manner that I’d figured out that twist some time before it was finally revealed. Quite an interesting novel, simply because of its touch of unorthodoxy, but I suspect Punshon was capable of better.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Writers and their Readers

Dorte asked in a recent comment about the ‘contract’ between writer and reader, and this intriguing question prompted me to reflect again on what it is that readers expect writers to deliver. In this post, I’ll focus on my own experience, and field, but there are a good many wider issues that are also well worth discussing, and perhaps a future post will do so.

Most people would agree that ‘rules’ for writers are not a good thing. Way back in the 20s, Ronald Knox devised his Decalogue for detective story writers, a list of rules which should be observed and which has been seen in some ways as a cornerstone of writing in the Golden Age. But even he broke one or two of his own rules in his fiction, and so did many others, very successfully.

There is one important issue in a crime series that occupies my thoughts a lot. If you have loyal readers, who have read your earlier books, you don’t want to bore them with explanation about the characters’ back stories. But new readers need to understand about the people in the story, and not be confused. I believe I owe it to both sets of readers not to irritate them with too much or too little back story, and to deliver information in a pleasing way, without boring anyone. I have come across some series where there is too much or too little repetition of key facts, and the skill required to walk the tightrope is, I think, often under-estimated. I am determined to try to make sure that you can start my series anywhere - with the latest book, or one in the middle, and still enjoy that one, and then - if you do like it - all the others.

I’m also guided by another principle, which not everyone will agree with. I strive in my writing to create a strong impression of realism, but I’m not obsessed with it. I don’t mind changing the topography of Liverpool or the Lakes a little, if it suits the story, and does not jar (at least, does not jar with me!) One reason why this is a good idea, in my opinion, is to avoid distressing people in the real world, or even libelling people or organisations unintentionally. For instance, inevitably I feature the Cumbria Constabulary in my work, but I’ve created a fictional equivalent to the real police force (the real one is, I gather from the statistics, very good, even if it lacks a Hannah Scarlett, let alone a Les Bryant or a Greg Wharf.)

However ‘realistic’ we try to be as writers – and I’m strongly in favour of writers making the attempt to be ‘realistic’ – we have to recognise the real world is different from our make-believe universe. Take the Cumbria shootings, or the Jo Yeates murder, for instance. Those tragic events have a resonance and an impact that is almost impossible to re-create in fiction, even though the best fiction can have enormous impact. Here’s another ‘rule’ that I set myself, then. When challenging readers to think about matters of life and death in fiction, to do so with respect for those living in the real world.

Monday 24 January 2011

Grasmere and The Serpent Pool

I had the great pleasure yesterday of launching the paperback edition of The Serpent Pool at the Wordsworth Trust’s Art and Book Festival at Grasmere. This was held at the Wordsworth Hotel, which I’ve driven past many times but never stayed at before.

The event gave the chance for a Lakes-orientated week-end, with stops at one or two very interesting places, but of course the Festival was the highlight. It was very well organised by Michael McGregor, Andrew Forster and their colleagues at the Wordsworth Trust, and I enjoyed meeting a range of likeable people, including one lady who gave me an interesting bit of Wordsworth family trivia that one day may appear in a novel.

There was also a chance to meet a range of fascinating writers including the poet Jackie Kay, the commentator and retired bishop Richard Holloway, and Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party. Lord Hattersley spoke after dinner on Saturday about political biography, and I found his talk absolutely fascinating. He is in his late 70s, and even more articulate and insightful than you would expect. I liked the fact that he emphasised the importance of sticking to what you believe in politics, whatever your party viewpoint. He was a very tough act to follow.

But follow it I had to, the next morning, and I was gratified by the feedback to my talk about my writing career in general and The Serpent Pool in particular.A walk around Grasmere, such a lovely village, was the perfect end to a very enjoyable event. It made me realise that after this long dark winter, spring is not too far away.

Friday 21 January 2011

Forgotten Books - Half-Mast Murder

Milward Kennedy was a founder member of the Detection Club, but his novels are long out of print in the UK, and Half-Mast Murder is a good candidate for inclusion in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books.

Published in 1930, it is a country house murder case, boasting three plans, including one of the octagonal summer house in which Professor Paley, an expert on the subject of international relations, is found stabbed to death. The summer house is locked, but Superintendent Guest soon establishes that the victim was murdered, and the ‘locked room’ element of the story is quite minor. The flag above the summer house is flying at half-mast – but why? The explanation for this aspect of the story is a pretty good one.

The main question is whether the motive for the murder was connected to the dead man’s political views, or to some more commonplace personal or domestic issue. There is one character who appears to be above suspicion throughout, and if I were writing the book, I’d have been tempted to make her the culprit. But Kennedy opts for a different outcome, although the motive is concealed until the end of the book (and because a key fact is not revealed until very late on, he doesn’t really play fair with the reader.) The culprit’s identity is, though, a pleasing twist on an old theme.

Kennedy, whose full name was Milward Roden Kennedy Burge, was an interesting character. His first book was a mystery written with a contemporary from Winchester College, A.G. Macdonell, best known for the humorous classic England, Their England. He wrote few novels after the 30s, though he reviewed crime until the 60s, and lived until 1968. At one time, he worked for the League of Nations, which is name-checked in his book, and I felt this background might have been more fully exploited than in fact proves to be the case. Kennedy was a good enough writer to come up with some very interesting ideas, though not perhaps good enough to make the very best use of them. Even so, this is a sound example of Golden Age fiction of the second rank.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

A Shock to the System

A Shock to the System is a 1990 film starring Michael Caine based on Simon Brett’s stand-alone novel of the same novel. Before writing the book, Brett was associated, in the crime genre, with a string of witty whodunits featuring the actor Charles Paris, so this represented a considerable departure.

I read the book at the time, and enjoyed it. One of the interesting aspects of the book is that it can be seen as a modern spin on the idea of Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles – a put-upon chap resorts to murder to solve his problems, and various complications ensue.

A striking feature of the film is not just that the screenplay was written by Andrew Klavan, a notable thriller writer himself, but that the action was transplanted to the USA. Furthermore, the ending was completely changed. I don’t know why this was done, or what Simon Brett thought about it, but it means that really one has to judge the film quite separately from the book.

On the whole, taking the film by itself, and trying to put the book out of my mind, I thought Klavan just about got away with it. Caine dominates with his usual smooth efficiency, and in effect the result is a crisp piece of black comedy that makes for pretty reasonable entertainment. Worth a watch.

Monday 17 January 2011

Zen: Cabal and Ratkiing: review

Zen is the latest BBC cop series, starring Rufus Sewell as Michael Dibdin's Italian detective, Aurelio Zen. I've seen the second and third episodes, Cabal and Ratking. Glamour and quirkiness are the most striking features of these two shows. I read some of the Zen books years ago, and really liked them. The TV version seems rather different, but it does have a genuine appeal.

Sewell is a handsome actor and everyone in the cast seemed to be rather good-looking, not least Zen's dear old Mum. Women are very much attracted to Zen, including his lovely but troubled girlfriend, a tough female prosecutor and a suspect in Ratking. He also has two slightly cartoonish superiors in successive episodes, plus a crafty political master.

Italy is one of my favourite countries, and it provides a stunning backdrop. The plots are secondary, but Ratking was especially neatly structured. I still prefer the books, but I'd be glad to watch Zen again.

Finally, it strikes me as really poignant that Mike Dibdin didn't live to see Zen on the screen. It's rather like the late Alan Hunter, who never saw Inspector George Gently.

Sunday 16 January 2011

How long should a crime novel be?

There’s little doubt that – as a generalisation – crime novels have grown fatter over the years. Jessica Mann pointed out a while back that, in days gone by, a typical crime novel was not much more than 60,000 words long; she pointed to many of the old green Penguins to illustrate her point. But things have change. Compare, for instance, the early Reginald Hill books with his more recent publications. The latter are much longer – yet equally fine, I hasten to add. But length is not always synonymous with quality.

This trend towards obesity is driven, primarily, by publishers’ requirements, but no doubt the publishers would say they are only responding to consumer demand. A writer like Robert Barnard, for instance, tends to stick to relatively short books. But Stieg Larsson’s success has not been hindered the bulkiness of his three novels. Some have opined, though, that Larsson’s books might not have been harmed by a bit of judicious cutting. And much as I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think the book could easily have been shortened.

I know of one successful writer of historical mysteries whose publisher insisted that she increase the already substantial word count of her books. And a fellow lawyer once told me that he judged the value of a book by its size. Which shocked me at least as much as those who judge the quality of a novel by its cover.

Personally I have a slight prejudice as both a reader and a writer for books that are not too long. But of course there are plenty of exceptions – Reg Hill’s work is but one example. All the same, I do think that the quality of plenty of crime novels might be improved by some cutting. Most stories have a natural length, and it does them no favours to increase it.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Susannah York R.I.P.

Susannah York’s death, earlier today, has shocked me. It seems she had been suffering from cancer for some time; the obituaries say she was over 70, but I have a mental picture of her as someone eternally young and beautiful, as well as gifted.

Much of her most famous work was done in the 60s. One of her best films was They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Based on superb short crime novel by Horace McCoy, it is an unforgettable classic. If you haven’t seen it, do give it a go. She was also excellent in The Killing of Sister George. The Battle of Britain was another film in which I enjoyed seeing her.

It’s said that she found it very difficult to find suitable roles in the last twenty years or so. And there is a surprising and disappointing shortage of stories or screenplays written in which women of over 50 are the main protagonists. Not easy to understand. Why do heroines so often need to be young, or youngish? There are some crime novels that fit the bill (not counting the Marples!), but there is surely scope for more. Maybe one day, if I think I’m able to do it well enough, I’ll write one myself. Meanwhile, it's a time to pay tribute to a fine actor, who will be missed.

Friday 14 January 2011

Forgotten Book - End of an Ancient Mariner

G.D.H. and M. Cole were prolific if less than dazzling writers of the Golden Age and my choice for today’s Forgotten Book is one of their ‘inverted’ novels, End of an Ancient Mariner, which first came out in 1933.

Philip Blakeaway has married well, and lives a comfortable life, but it comes under threat at the start of the book. The elderly seafarer of the title comes across him, and recognises him from the past. We do not know what Philip’s secret is, but soon the old man is dead – shot, according to Philip, while attempt to burgle his house overlooking Hampstead Heath.

At first, it seems, Philip’s story will be accepted. The police seem satisfied. But Philip is at risk, because his butler smells a rat, and the dead man’s daughter – who is unaware of his fate – starts trying to track down her father. Thanks to one or two rather unlikely coincidences, Philip comes under increasing pressure, and then Superintendent Wilson, the Coles’ regular cop, finally comes on the scene...

There are one or two nice touches of satire – ‘the BBC cherishes an ineradicable hope that if it persistently addresses the public in good English with a cultured accent, by and by it will be as if the entire population of Great Britain had been educated at Winchester, and what nobler ideal can democracy set itself than that?’ Politics gets a passing mention when Philip denies being a Socialist (‘I’m far too fond of my own comfort’) despite being on good terms with his chauffeur. But these little touches are few and far between – a pity, for the Coles could have written a more memorable story if they had let their hair down a bit more.

As it is, the book is certainly readable, and it held my interest throughout, while there is a pleasing touch of ambiguity about the ending. This is the best of the few Coles novels that I have read so far.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Sherlock Holmes - the movie: review

I wasn’t sure whether I would care for Guy Ritchie’s 2009 movie version of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert J. Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. And for sure, it’s a film that will have purists wincing, as many liberties are taken with facts and the Holmes canon. Anachronisms abound and the casting of Holmes seemed like a gamble.

And yet, I must say that I enjoyed the film. I do think that film and TV adaptations of crime stories deserve to be judged on their own merits, even if I loved the original on which they were based. The real failures are those, like the recent The Secret of Chimneys, where it’s impossible to see what the point of the new version was.

Here, for all its quirks, the story was exciting and the visual effects quite brilliant. The plot involved the villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong was credibly nasty in the part) who seems to be able to use occult powers with a view to taking control of the British Empire and then the world as a whole. What a cad!

The cast did a good job, with a nice take on the Holmes-Watson relationship, even if Conan Doyle would have been amazed at the re-inventing of Mary Morstan and Irene Adler. But then, the great Basil Rathbone films which first turned me on to Sherlock when I was very young were also far removed from the originals. I liked them, and slightly to my surprise, I liked this movie too.

Monday 10 January 2011

Italian Noir and Surviving Midsome

Having recorded the BBC4 programme on Italian Noir crime fiction just before Christmas, I’ve finally watched it, and I did find it interesting, even though I was much less familiar with the authors discussed than with the Scandinavian writers who featured in Nordic Noir, which I talked about recently. The talking heads included Maxim Jakubowski and Barry Forshaw, who are both articulate commentators and very knowledgeable about Eurocrime.

Predictably, the major contemporary writers Camilleri and Lucarelli were considered, and interviewed, and I found myself tempted to try their work – perhaps Camilleri’s in particular. But I was especially interested in mention of a writer from the inter-war years, Carlo Gaddo, whose book That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana sounded quite fascinating. I do think that crime novels of the past often cast a very significant light on crime novels of the present, and Gaddo’s book sounded well worth acquiring. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has read it.

I’ve also watched Surviving Midsomer, an entertaining account of mayhem in the long-running Midsomer Murders series. The TV version derives from books written by Caroline Graham, a very amiable author whom I met a number of times in the 90s, but who (I think) is not at present writing any more crime fiction, no doubt in part because the massive success she has achieved has removed any financial need to do so.

I enjoyed Caroline’s early books very much, and although I gave up on the TV series after a year or two, I do think that the formula that was devised, with witty methods of murder, attractive locations and the very agreeable performances of John Nettles as Barnaby, made the shows effective light entertainment. And this spin-off programme encouraged me to watch a bit more of the Midsomer saga.

Friday 7 January 2011

Forgotten Book - Hag's Nook

My Forgotten Book today is Hag’s Nook, by John Dickson Carr, the masterof the ‘impossible crime’. This novel was published in 1930, when the author was only 26 – staggeringly, he had already published five detective novels. But this was the first to feature Dr Gideon Fell, who became his most famous sleuth.

Much of the story is told from the viewpoint of a young American Anglophile, Tad Rampole, whose attitudes reflected Carr’s. Tad falls for Dorothy Starberth, and soon learns of the curse of the Starberth family – the Starberth men die of broken necks.

Unfortunately, the legend takes a fresh twist when Dorothy’s brother Martin is found dead – with a broken neck – while engaged in a complicated family ritual that has to do with mysterious documents and a cryptogram. The obvious suspect is Martin’s cousin, but we know what happens to obvious suspects in Golden Age novels, don’t we?

I enjoyed this one a lot. It's a long time since I read a Carr novel, but I do aim to read more soon. He was a good writer, who used melodramatic atmosphere,history, and a romantic way of evoking suspense and setting to make his elaborate and unlikely crimes seem credible. Implausible, but not impossible, is the theme of a Carr solution. If you like elaborate mysteries of the past, this one is well worth a read. And if you do read it, you may be as impressed as I am by the fact it was written by such a young man.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Wallander - The Man Who Smiled: review

The Man Who Smiled is the first episode of Swedish TV’s version of Wallander that I’ve seen starring Rolf Lassgard in the title role. He was the original Wallander, and is arguably closer to Hanning Mankell's character than his successors. Yet at first, I didn’t really take to his portrayal of the cop as something of a fat slob who goes to bed with a prostitute and then throws her out of his room.

However, the script was rather well written, and subtleties emerged in the story and characterisation that were not immediately apparent - especially to me, as I've not read the book. Although Wallander’s behaviour eventually cost him his relationship with his colleague Maja, Lassgard grew on me as the programme went on.

The story is complicated and unusual, beginning in true Henning Mankell style with an eerie and memorable scene – an old man who is driving his car in the rain, stops when he comes face to face with a mysterious South American figure. Needless to say, he does not survive the encounter.

The ending was fairly downbeat, in a way that is far from traditional, yet seemed believable. There were plenty of vivid moments throughout, and on the whole – even though I still think I prefer Krister Henriksson as Wallander - I felt this was an extremely watchable episode.

Monday 3 January 2011

Alice and Crime

Alice in Wonderland is not only a timeless classic, but also one of my lifelong favourite books. The story has always fascinated me, and not simply because Lewis Carroll grew up not far from where I did, in Cheshire Cat country. On New Year’s Eve I watched Tim Burton’s film of Alice, and also had chance to reflect on the story once again.

The episodic nature of the story is one of its appeals, and Carroll’s inventiveness was so rich that his work has inspired countless others. In the crime field, Night of the Jabberwock by Fredric Brown is a super novel by a terrific writer. I haven’t really talked about Brown in this blog, but I rate him very highly.

The late Edward D. Hoch contributed a short story, ‘The War in Wonderland’, to an anthology that I edited, and it went on to win an award, which gave me a lot of vicarious pleasure. For my own part, I have toyed with the idea of an Alice theme for a crime story, but – so far – the ingredients haven’t come together to make a satisfactory whole. Maybe one day.

As for the film, it was an interesting take on the story, with a great cast including Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The visual effects were impressive. But it didn’t owe too much to the original, and whereas Carroll produced a masterpiece, Burton only managed something that, although watchable and entertaining, felt slightly unsatisfactory. He is a good film-maker, but I still prefer his Mars Attacks!, an uneven but funny movie which I’ve just watched and enjoyed again.

Saturday 1 January 2011

Narrative and The Keys of Marinus

Happy New Year! I thought I’d kick off the blog in 2011 with a few thoughts on narrative inspired by watching a DVD which was a very welcome Christmas present....

The DVD is a very early Doctor Who serial, The Keys of Marinus, which I remember watching when it was first on, and I was eight years old. It stayed in my mind because of the Voord, the strange amphibious creatures who menaced the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions. But on watching the show again, it was interesting to see how Terry Nation, the writer who invented the Daleks, tackled narrative.

Each of the 30 minute episodes took the form of an individual quest as the time travellers try to find the fabled Keys of Marinus. The titles of the episodes – The Velvet Web, The Screaming Jungle and so on – were pretty atmospheric in a John Dickson Carr sort of way.

I was impressed by the pace of the episodes, and was kept gripped despite the ricketiness of the sets. Usually, when you watch a TV show from the 60s, it moves much more slowly than modern shows. But here Nation packed his narratives with plot twists, and this helped him to get over the countless improbabilities in his story-line. The verve with which he tells the story illustrates how popular fiction that has pace and imagination can work very well, even if the story and characters have built-in limitations. It was an object lesson in how to tell an exciting tale well.

Finally, my current plan for 2011 is to post on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and also add in some extra posts when time permits. Occasionally, over the past few months, work commitments have led to my changing the schedule a bit, and they have also reduced the time I have to look at other blogs. But I hope to get a bit more time in the not too distant future - we'll see!