Friday 29 April 2011

Lewis: The Mind Has Mountains – review

Lewis is one of the few television shows that I watch quite often – although as from Sunday evening, I shall be adding Vera to the list. However, I have got behind with the current series and only now am I catching up. So far, the better of the two episodes that I've seen has been The Mind Has Mountains, a title taken from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The setup was very good – a psychiatrist conducting a trial of experimental drugs on a group of vulnerable people. One of the guinea pigs, a beautiful young woman, is found dead in a college quad only one morning, and needless to say, it turns out that she was murdered. Alongside the investigation runs a rather tepid subplot involving the attractive forensic pathologist, whom Lewis fancies, and who is seen by Hathaway having a cosy meal with another man.

The murder mystery was a good one, with suspicion moving nicely from one character to another. The key figure was the psychiatrist, and Douglas Henshall put in a very strong performance as an apparently unpleasant egotist who turns out in the end to have another side to his personality. Lucy Liemann was also notable in her role as his sidekick.

As ever with Lewis, the story was strengthened by the setting of Oxford at its loveliest. A reminder, as if one were needed, of the importance of setting in television shows as well as in novels. And it's also true that a particular setting influences the type of story, as does the nature of a particular detective character. For instance, at the moment, I'm thinking about ideas for a new Lake District mystery, and inevitably, they are shaped to quite an extent by the Cumbrian background, as well as by my wish to create a mystery that "suits" Hannah Scarlett.

Forgotten Book - Those Days

Edmund Clerihew Bentley remains known today as the inventor of the clerihew, a light verse form, and above all as the author of that classic novel of detection, Trent's Last Case. My choice for today's Forgotten Book is his memoir, published in 1940, Those Days.

One of the facts about Bentley's life that struck me as extraordinary was that he went to the same school as G.K. Chesterton, whom he met at the age of twelve, and with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. He admired Chesterton greatly, and it is interesting to read a contemporary's insights into the extraordinary personality of the creator of Father Brown. It is also intriguing to bear in mind that Bentley succeeded Chesterton as President of the Detection Club.

Bentley gives a detailed account of how he came to write Trent's Last Case, although I think it is true to say that he gave slightly different accounts on different occasions. However, unfortunately, he has more or less nothing else to say about his other crime fiction, giving Trent's Own Case no more than a passing mention (some people might unkindly say that is about all that particular book deserves!)

Bentley has a good deal to say about politics (he was a staunch Liberal) and quite a bit about journalism (his day job for many years) but to my regret he does not talk about the detective fiction genre in general, nor about the Detection Club. All in all, Those Days is quite interesting from a historical perspective, and that to my mind means that it certainly doesn't deserve to be forgotten. But those seeking information about the Golden Age of detective fiction won't find too much new material here.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Stagestruck by Peter Lovesey

In the course of his long and award-garlanded career, Peter Lovesey has written no fewer than four series of detective novels, all of them highly enjoyable, as well as a number of stand-alone novels and five collections of short stories. He is another of those crime writers I admired for years before he became, to my great delight, a friend. As with a good many other people - Reg Hill, Bob Barnard and Frances Fyfield are examples - I found that he is as charming, and generous, in person as he is wonderful to read.

In recent times, he has focused mainly on books featuring the appealing Bath-based cop Peter Diamond. Stagestruck, his latest entry in the series, the eleventh, I'm glad to report, is well up to standard.

The setting is the Theatre Royal in Bath, and the story opens with a dramatic misfortune suffered by Clarion Calhoun, a fading pop star who has taken the chance to re-launch her acting career in I Am a Camera. I’ve never seen the play, though I have heard of one famous review: ‘Me no Leica!’ Clarion’s face is scarred and it seems that the dresser who was in charge of her make-up may have been responsible.

When the dresser goes missing, and is subsequently found dead in the theatre , one possibility is that she has committed suicide out of remorse. But Peter Diamond is not convinced, and before long, the plot thickens. While investigating the case, Diamond also has to confront a hidden and disturbing secret from his own past, with ultimately a very unexpected outcome.

The solution to the main puzzle had me fooled, and the book as a whole is excellent light entertainment. I’m tempted to write a separate post, inspired by Peter Lovesey’s skill, on the art of planting clues in detective stories. Here he does it very cleverly indeed.

Monday 25 April 2011

The Suspicons of Mr Whicher - review

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, starring Paddy Considine and based on the best-selling true crime book by Kate Summerscale, has just been screened on ITV. I enjoyed the book enormously - it read like a novel, and the light cast on the evolution of the detective in fiction was at the heart of its appeal.

I wasn't sure whether the TV version would live up to my expectations, but on the whole it was perfectly watchable, if a bit slow in places. Considine wore a pained, long-suffering expression for most of the time, but gave a decent performance as a decent man and a fine detective. However, the literary impact of the real life story was predictably sacrificed because of the needs of the television medium.

The Road House mystery is fascinating - Agatha Christie referred to it in her fiction, and Dorothy L. Sayers also had her theories about it. One of the intriguing points is that Constance Kent, following her belated confession to murder and eventual release from custody, lived to be 100 years old.

John Rhode, Sayers' friend, wrote up the case in a little-known Detection Club book called The Anatomy of Murder, and I think it's fair to say that the influence of true crime on Golden Age detective fiction, as well as on Victorian such as Wilkie Collins, was enormous, although it's not a point that Summerscale really emphasised.

Que La Bete Meure - review

In recent months, I have posted about a couple of films directed by the legendary Claude Chabrol, and now I have watched a third, Que La Bete Meure, which certainly counts as one of his major achievements. This is the, which opens in chilling fashion. A small boy is walking back to his home in a quiet French village when a car comes careering along, knocks him down and kills him.

His father, played by Michael Duchaussoy, starts to write a diary, which makes it clear that he is determined to track down the driver of the car, and take murderous revenge. The police fail to find the culprit, but a lucky chance puts the father on the right trail. He establishes that the driver was a businessman who owns a garage, and that he was accompanied by a young actress with whom he had had a fling.

The father begins a relationship with the actress, and she introduces him to the garage owner and his family. Almost everyone hates the garage owner, a selfish bully with few redeeming features, but when the father has the chance to kill the man he's pursuing so relentlessly, he does not take it. Nevertheless, in due course, justice is done – but who is responsible? The ending is ambiguous.

I enjoyed the film, and I enjoyed the book on which it is based – The Beast Must Die, by Nicholas Blake – when I read it a couple of years ago. But the two are very different. Blake's novel has a clever twist absent from the movie version, and features his regular series detective, Nigel Strangeways, whereas the film focuses on psychological suspense rather than mystification. Both book and film are, however, highly accomplished and have stood the test of time.

Sunday 24 April 2011

CADS and Curt Evans

That wonderful "irregular magazine of comments and criticism about crime and detective fiction", CADS, has just landed on my doorstep again. This is the 60th issue, a testament to the hard work of editor and publisher Geoff Bradley. As usual, it is an excellent and fascinating read. The emphasis is always on books of the past, but if you are interested in any aspect of the genre, I think you'll find something of interest in each issue.

There are many good things in this issue, including three typically enjoyable contributions by Liz Gilbey, but perhaps the highlight is a lengthy article about the "deposed crime kings" of the Golden Age, written by Curt Evans. Curt, incidentally, often contributes very well-informed comments on my posts, for which I am extremely grateful. He goes by the name of "Vegetable Duck", which is also the unlikely title of a novel by John Rhode, who is one of the authors featured in his article.

I've done quite a bit of research on the same authors, but Curt has come up with some points I wasn't aware of. For instance, he says that TS Eliot was a great fan of Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman, and he has discovered that Margaret Cole apparently wrote 10 of the mysteries which appeared under the names of her husband Douglas and herself on her own, while Douglas wrote 18 by himself. He also refers to one book by John Rhode which "manages to credibly employ a purple hedgehog as an instrument of death". Wow! Now that is one neglected classic that I really must track down one of these days!

He also makes the point that Crofts' work was influenced by his "religious value system", and Douglas Cole liked to bring to his work "a satirical touch, often influenced by a leftist world view". These writers, and the others whom he discusses, had some failings as prose stylists, but Curt is doing a great job at highlighting some of their under-estimated virtues.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn

Vera, the new TV crime series starring Brenda Blethyn, which is based on a splendid series of books by Ann Cleeves, is coming to our screens in the UK very soon. The first episode will be shown on ITV at 8 pm on Sunday, 1 May. There are to be three more episodes in succeeding weeks, and assuming the ratings are good (and I'm sure they will be great, given the strength of the cast and the storylines), another series will follow at a later date.

I'm enormously pleased about this, because I have been enjoying Ann's books since her writing (and my book reviewing) began in the late 1980s. We met through the Crime Writers' Association a few years later, and have been friends ever since. She has written many very enjoyable books, but her career really took off after she won the CWA Gold Dagger for Raven Black.

Vera Stanhope first appeared in The Crow Trap, a novel which I read and reviewed at the time of its original publication. I felt at the time that she was a wonderful character who deserved a series of her own, and although I think I'm right in saying that Ann did not originally intend Vera to be a long-running series character, I'm sure the TV series will prove that, for once at any rate, I was ahead of the game!

Friday 22 April 2011

Forgotten Book - The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop

Gladys Mitchell, one of the most prolific female detective novelists, is one of those writers whose work divides critical opinion. Philip Larkin was a huge fan, for instance, but Julian Symons did not have too much time for her. I read one or two of her books a long time ago and was not particularly impressed, but recently I decided it was time to give her another go. And my choice for today's Forgotten Book is a rather enjoyable story dating back to 1929, The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop.

This book marked the second appearance of Mitchell's remarkable detective, Mrs Bradley. She is living in a quintessentially English village, which happens also to be home to a rather unpleasant blackmailer who goes missing in mysterious circumstances. Suffice to say that you don't need me to tell you what is eventually found in the eponymous butcher's shop…

It is a mark of Mitchell's unique style that she is able to combine decapitation and dismemberment with plentiful humour. Some of the jokes do not stand the test of time, and the dialogue of the working-class characters is almost unreadable. Yet the book does have, despite various flaws, an enduring charm which explains why Vintage have reprinted half a dozen titles in the Mrs Bradley series. Mitchell offers multiple potential solutions to her mystery, with a flair worthy of Anthony Berkeley, and we are supplied with extracts from Mrs Bradley's notebook, as well as two plans and a timetable. Finally, there is a pleasing twist which sees Mrs Bradley taking a rather idiosyncratic approach to the notion of justice.

One further thing struck me about this book. Not far from the village is to be found "The Stone of Sacrifice" – and in my Lake District Mysteries, there is a Sacrifice Stone close to where Daniel Kind has his cottage. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun!

Thursday 21 April 2011

Police at the Funeral

Quite some time ago I invested in the complete set of DVDs featuring Peter Davison as the legendary sleuth created by Margery Allingham, Albert Campion. I have to admit that I have only just opened the box, but this is not due to any particular lack of enthusiasm. I'm afraid that I have three other box sets still awaiting attention – too many shows, too little time!

I started by watching Police at the Funeral, simply because I had heard good things about the book on which the episode was based. What I did not know was that the plot bears a passing resemblance in some respects to a rather good Sherlock Holmes short story. But Allingham handled the material in her own distinctive style, and to good effect.

Peter Davison has always been a likeable actor and, although I do not claim to be any sort of expert in Allingham's work, it does seem to me that he is rather well cast as Campion. He is aided and abetted by the splendid Yorkshireman, the late Brian Glover, who plays the part of Lugg. I always relished the enthusiasm that Brian Glover seemed to bring to every role, and he was in his element here.

The supporting cast included Timothy West, who was as watchable as ever. The story moved at a brisk enough pace and I enjoyed the episode, possibly more than I expected to. I shall certainly not leave it too long before watching another instalment in a series

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Father Brown and others

A little while ago, I was one of the people interviewed for a forthcoming BBC radio 4 programme about Father Brown, the legendary priest-detective created by G.K. Chesterton, and the real-life priest, Father O'Connor, who inspired Chesterton to dream up his character. If I'm brutally honest, I'm not absolutely sure why I qualified to be interviewed, as I can't claim to be an expert on Chesterton. So it may well be that I don't feature in the final edited version of the programme, but the experience has prompted me to look again at the Father Brown stories.

I was interviewed by the former minister Ann Widdecombe, who has now become something of a media celebrity (although I must admit I have never watched Strictly Come Dancing!) One of the points I made to her, which I'm not sure she found totaly interesting, was that, in writing about Father Brown, Chesterton used the short story form, not the novel form. I'm sure this was conscious decision on his part, and a wise one, since I don't think that the pungent, atmospheric and sometimes fantastical style of the stories would have worked if they had been much longer. Julian Symons made the point that the Father Brown stories are rather rich, and that to digest a large number of them in one sitting is too much to contemplate. I agree, but like Symons, I do admire both the character and many of the stories.

At the time he wrote about Father Brown, Chesterton regarded his detective stories as rather less significant than most of his other writing, for example on theology and politics. In fact (shades of Conan Doyle) he abandoned the character for years before returning to him, largely, it seems, for financial reasons. Yes I think it is safe to say that Chesterton is now better remembered for his contribution to the crime genre for anything else.

This isn't uncommon. GDH Cole and his wife Margaret regarded the detective stories as trivial in comparison to their work in the field of politics and economics. "Nicholas Blake" saw himself as a poet, first and foremost. And there are other examples. But popular fiction, and certainly detective fiction, can have a surprising longevity.

Monday 18 April 2011

Anamorph - review

Anamorph is a serial killer movie from 2007 which stars Willem Dafoe as a troubled cop called Stan, whose experience in dealing with a string of murders attributed to ‘Uncle Eddie’ comes back to haunt him when a number of killings are committed in the form of weird tableaux.

The plot is complicated, which is not in itself a bad thing – on the contrary. However, while I watched, I was uneasily aware that I was missing lots of complicated sub-texts, and the elaborations of the story in the end become rather overwhelming. It may seem lazy of me, but I like to have a few more signposts about what exactly is going on. And I didn’t get enough in Anamorph. Perhaps I should have paid more attention, and possibly I would have done had I seen the film in the cinema rather than at home on TV. But perhaps the film should have made me care more about its characters.

This sense of an opportunity missed is a shame, because there are definitely some strong features to the story. I was rather taken with a couple of anagrams that play a part in the plot. However, Stan is a misery, and the grim ending felt unsatisfactory.

The fact is that the world is full of serial killer stories. To stand out, a film or book about serial killers has to pack a real punch that derives its power from something more than gore. Anamorph, for all its potential, never quite delivers.

Friday 15 April 2011

Forgotten Book - The Hog's Back Mystery

Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the leading writers of the Golden Age of detective fiction between the wars, but I have only read a few of his books over the years, and by and large have found them competently constructed, but lacking in flair. However, most recently I read The Hog's Back Mystery, my choice for today's Forgotten Book, and found it distinctly more impressive than the other novels by Crofts that I've tried in the past.

The starting point is an apparent domestic intrigue. A doctor's wife has become involved with another man, to the dismay of her friends. Then a chance encounter suggests that the doctor is also playing away from home. He is seen in the company of a younger woman, and lies about what he was getting up to. When the doctor and his friend – who proves to be a nurse of his acquaintance – vanish mysteriously, it seems that they may have run off together. But the truth is very different.

Inspector French is called in, only for one of the doctor's house guests to go missing as well. What is the explanation for the disappearances? And if the three missing people have been murdered, what can be the motive? This is an intriguing and elaborate puzzle, which I found genuinely appealing.

Typically, the weakness of a Crofts mystery is that the suspect with an unbreakable alibi proved to be the culprit, making the storyline rather predictable. But here there are no fewer than six suspects, and a plethora of alibis to unravel. This time, Crofts had me fooled. I'm surprised that this story is not better known, and I also enjoyed the "clue finder" he thoughtfully provided to show how fairly the clues were given. A very good example of that classic mystery puzzle.

Thursday 14 April 2011

The Detection Club Archivist

I'm proud to say that the Detection Club has appointed me as its archivist. Given that I have been fascinated by the history of the crime fiction genre for more years than I care to remember, this is not only an honour, but a role that I'm sure I will find rewarding.

Appropriately enough, a good deal of detective work is bound to be required. Although many crime writers are fascinated by history, only a minority take an interest in the details of the evolution of their genre, and information about the early days of the Club in particular is very hard to come by. To a large extent, this is perhaps understandable for a social group whose main objective has always been simply to have a few convivial dinners each year. Looking back, however, it would be fascinating to know more about the discussions and relationships between people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley and Hugh Walpole.

To this day, there is continuing uncertainty in many quarters about when the Detection Club actually came into existence. For example, the club's own list of members suggests that it started up in 1932, but that cannot be right, since it published The Floating Admiral in 1931. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it began "officially" in 1930.

I'm keen to gather material for the archives, and if any readers of this blog can help, I'd be delighted to hear from them.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Rome and Research

How do writers do their research? It's a question often asked, and of course there are countless answers. Experiencing real-life and observing our fellow human beings is as good a way as any, and plenty of writers (including me) keep a close eye on the newspapers for intriguing stories that may spark an idea.

But one of the most enjoyable ways to "do research" is to travel away from familiar surroundings. Often, I find that taking a break somewhere else helps me to generate new story ideas. Perhaps the secret lies, at least partly, in relaxing and allowing one's mind to wander down fresh avenues. And by exploring an unfamiliar setting, one may find material for stories that are that little bit different.

As a keen short story writer, I have garnered plenty of plot ideas from my travels over the years. A good example is "The Bookbinder's Apprentice", my most successful short story, which was inspired by a trip to Venice. And now I have just come back from a few days in Rome when, amongst other things, I developed a short story plot after visiting a piazza which features a rather mysterious "Alchemy gate".

I was accompanied on the short trip by my Webmaster, who has been updating my website in various ways recently. The weather was fantastic and we walked around the wonderful city for hour after hour. In the evenings, we had a few glasses of wine at some of the excellent restaurants, celebrating amongst other things that Red Herring Award, and another appointment which I shall mention in a blog post tomorrow…

Monday 11 April 2011

Trent's Last Case

Trent’s Last Case, by E.C. Bentley, is properly regarded as one of the landmark books in the history of crime fiction. The first two film versions left Bentley unimpressed, but the third, shot in 1952, was better and I’ve just watched a DVD of the movie that I received as a welcome Christmas present.

The stars were Michael Wilding (one of Elizabeth Taylor’s many husbands), Margaret Lockwood (whose many other films include that classic The Lady Vanishes), Orson Welles, no less, as Sigsbee Manderson, and Miles Malleson, who had a rather more important role than usual in his prolific career.

I thought it was a decent film. Famously, whodunits are tricky to film; you can understand why Hitchcock generally favoured suspense rather than a heavily plotted mystery. But this one remains perfectly watchable.

The book was greatly admired by Sayers and Christie, among others, and it was a formative influence on their writing careers. Sayers later became a good friend of ‘Jack’ Bentley, so much so that she even rhapsodised over the belated follow-up, Trent’s Own Case, though in truth it was a relatively minor work. Bentley never came close to surpassing his debut novel.

Friday 8 April 2011

Forgotten Book - Shadow on the Wall

More than a couple of years have passed since I mentioned on this blog that a couple of interesting articles in CADS had prompted me to think about exploring further the work of Henry Christopher Bailey, one of the leading lights of Golden Age detective fiction. It says something about my other preoccupations that it has taken until now for me to get round to reading anything else by Bailey.

My choice for today's Forgotten Book Is Shadow on the Wall, a novel happily made available again thanks to a recent reprint by those excellent American publishers Rue Morgue. It was the first novel to feature Bailey's most famous detective, Reggie Fortune, although by the time it appeared Bailey had produced a large number of Reggie Fortune short stories which had earned a good deal of popular acclaim as well as critical approval. I've read a few of the short stories, years ago, but never before have I broached a full-length novel by H.C. Bailey.

This particular novel – admired by Bailey's fans – shows both his strengths and his weaknesses as a crime writer. Strengths first. He constructs a clever plot – this one starts off as a kind of upper-class country house mystery, but develops into a very dark story indeed. Bailey writes, at times, with both power and passion, characteristics not often associated with Golden Age mysteries. This story has some quite memorable features.

The snag is that Bailey's style is both mannered and horribly dated. At times story is quite hard going, and by all accounts some of his later books were even more self-indulgent. Reggie moans and mumbles so much that an interesting character becomes irritating. All this is a pity, because Bailey was an intelligent writer, and cut above many of his contemporaries. But the laboured and old-fashioned prose is a real stumbling block. Even so, those who are willing to persevere with this novel will be glad that they did.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

The CWA Conference and a Red Herring

Last weekend I was away for one of the main events of the year, the CWA annual conference, which was held in Darlington, a town I've never visited before. As usual, it was a real delight to see old friends, as well as to meet a number of pleasant people for the first time.

There were a number of excellent talks, including one from a very entertaining detective who led the hunt for John Darwin, better known as "the canoe man", as well as interesting insights into the government proposed reforms of the police, and a talk about forensic anthropology. Inevitably, though, the absolute highlight was a trip to the Forensic Services Department at Teeside University. One of the speakers was Ian Pepper, whom I have mentioned before on this blog; he and his wife Helen have given me a good deal of help with my research over the years, most recently for The Hanging Wood.

At the gala dinner on Saturday evening, I was invited onto the top table with last year's Chair, Tom Harper, who has worked very effectively to strengthen the CWA's profile, and the newly appointed Chair, the bestselling writer Peter James. What I was not expecting was the moment when Tom announced the giving of an award to someone – let alone that the recipient would turn out to be me…

In fact, this is the Red Herring award for services to the CWA. When I got back home, I did a bit of research and discovered that previous recipients over the past 50-odd years have included the likes of Julian Symons, Gladys Mitchell and Fredrick Dannay (better known as one half of Ellery Queen). Suffice to say that I was both honoured and touched by this recognition. I have made many wonderful friends through the CWA over the past 20 years or so, and I certainly owe them a great deal.

Monday 4 April 2011


The 2007 re-make of Sleuth is, unlike many re-makes, by no means a waste of time. For a start, the script is by the late Harold Pinter, who adapts the famous stage play by Anthony Shaffer with verve. The original film version starred Laurence Olivier as the novelist, Wyke, and Michael Caine as his young rival Milo. Now Caine plays Wyke and Jude Law is Milo.

Caine and Law have both played Alfie, and I noticed that Pinter managed to include ‘What’s it all about?’ as one of the lines – a nice joke! They both do a good job here, with Caine especially impressive. I really do like him as an actor.

Shaffer’s original play had quite a bit to say about the detective story form. Pinter largely abandons this, which is perhaps a pity. Shaffer co-wrote three very clever Golden Age mysteries himself, in the 50s. His co-author was his twin Peter, better known for Equus and Amadeus.

Overall, a fairly short, stylised and snappy film. The basic story may be familiar, but this version is distinctive enough to be worth watching. And you get the impression Caine and Law enjoyed themselves.

Friday 1 April 2011

Forgotten Book - The Burning Court

My choice for today's Forgotten Book is a novel first published in 1937 by the master of the locked room mystery, John Dickson Carr. The Burning Court is unusual in that it does not feature either of Dickson Carr's two regular series detectives, and extraordinary in terms of the twist in the epilogue.

Another unexpected facet of the book is its setting. Although Dickson Carr was American, he was a confirmed Anglophile, and often set his mysteries in England. However, he wrote this novel at a time when his British publisher was pressing him to write something less "grotesque", and he chose not only to set the book in Pennsylvania but also to start the story in a relatively low key, commonplace manner, with a young publisher's editor making a trip to his holiday home in the countryside.

Needless to say, things do not remain commonplace for long. There are two brilliant "impossible" mysteries. How could an entombed corpse disappear from its coffin? And how could a mysterious woman walk through a solid wall in the room of a dead man? The answers are enjoyable to discover, but Dickson Carr then throws in a further amazing development that is open to more than one interpretation. Quite a good book choice for April Fool's Day, actually!!

I have been on the lookout for this book for a while, and so I was absolutely delighted when Langtail Press made it available again. I do think that Langtail are doing a real service for fans of hard to find crime fiction classics – long may they continue to do so!