Tuesday 31 May 2011

The Hanging Wood

A quick post to say that the cover artwork for the UK edition of The Hanging Wood has just been finalised. Here it is, in the new series style.

I was very encouraged the other day to receive an email from a leading American reviewer telling me how much he'd enjoyed the book. This reaction helps to put a writer in good heart as one awaits the domestic reaction. Always a slightly nervous time!

Having said that, I guess that - within reason! - any reaction is better than none. Too many good books are widely overlooked, which is one of the reasons why I like to cover other modern writers in this blog as well as Golden Age favourites, films and telly.

Monday 30 May 2011

Sorry, Wrong Number

Sorry, Wrong Number is a 1948 film starring Barbara Stanwyck as the rich and spoiled invalid wife of Burt Lancaster. Alone at home, she overhears a phone call which seems to be about a murder plot. It’s a classic set-up and I enjoyed the movie, which is dark both in photography and plot.

The ‘overheard conversation’ is a staple of a good many crime stories, one example being Philip Macdonald’s The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, which predates Lucille Fletcher’s very successful radio play on which the film is based. In the movie, the main story is told through a series of flashbacks, but this doesn’t stop the tension mounting, thanks to Stanwyck’s performance, at her highly-strung best.

The story involves a fraudulent scheme featuring a dodgy guy called Morano – played by William Conrad, who later played Frank Cannon, the rather obese TV gumshoe. Lancaster is in moody, and pretty effective, form, but the film belongs to Stanwyck.

Fletcher turned her story into a novel, and she wrote a number of others, none of which I’ve read. As an aspiring radio writer, she met a young composer, who became her first husband. His name was Bernard Herrmann, and he became one of the best composers for crime films of all time. But his great scores for Hitchcock came after the marriage ended.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Scott & Bailey - review

Scott & Bailey is a brand-new ITV crime drama, following hot on the heels of Vera. As with Vera, the focus is on women detectives, but there are more differences than similarities – starting with the fact that this series is not based on novels: the scripts by Sally Wainwright are original to television. Each episode is half length of a Vera screenplay, the setting is urban (Manchester) rather than rural and the two lead characters are detective constables rather than more senior officers.

The first episode opens with a romantic dinner between DC Rachel Scott and her smooth but sleazy barrister boyfriend which turns into a disaster when he dumps her. Soon she and DC Janet Bailey are investigating the suspicious death of young pregnant Turkish woman – it is an apparent suicide which turns out to be murder.

Close parallels develop between the case and Rachel's disastrous relationship. Strangely enough, the plotting of the criminal investigation part of the story struck me as more credible than the fact that Rachel (potentially a very likeable character) would commit more than one crime herself in the course of extracting revenge on her ex. By the end, it wasn't easy to keep sympathy with her, which I can't imagine the writer intended.

The cast is good, with Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp as the title characters, and the excellent Amelia Bullimore as their boss. The writing is pacy, if at times uneven, and the Mancunian setting realistic although verging on the bleak. All in all, a reasonable start to a new series, and I'll probably watch it again next week.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Murder Mystery Events

Murder mystery events continue to gain in popularity. I really enjoy presenting my Victorian mystery, 'Who Killed George Hargrave?', and the event will have another outing at Douglas on the Isle of Man on 25 June. The idea of an event was suggested to me years ago by Ann Cleeves, who did a very good event called 'Body in the Library', and like Ann I've presented the show a good many times. The interactive nature of the event does generate a 'feelgood' factor in the audience, I think.

I was prompted to mention murder mystery events because I've been asked to mention a forthcoming event at the Natural History Museum, and although I don't normally advertise other events on this blog, (especially events featuring live maggots - eeek!) I'm happy to make an exception this time for what seems like an interesting occasion. Because museums, like libraries, deserve a lot of support in the current economic climate. I set out below an extract from their promo material.

'Join us for a unique, immersive event at the Natural History Museum and put your detective skills to the test as a scenes of crime officer. On Friday 24 June you will have the opportunity to meet three of the Museum’s very own forensic experts. Learn how they use their knowledge to assist the police and solve crimes. They’ll teach you the tricks of their trade so that you can comb the crime scene, collect the evidence and process the clues. Then you’ll take your evidence to trial where real barristers, police officers and a judge will demonstrate just how important forensic evidence is to a verdict.

The event includes:

· collecting insect evidence in the garden crime scene with scientists Martin Hall and Cameron Richards, and hundreds of live maggots

· fingerprint collection and identification workshop

· victim identification masterclass in the Attenborough Studio with Heather Bonney: learn how to identify sex, age and height by studying skeletal remains

· a mock court case in the Museum’s theatre

Arrive from 18.30 for a 19.00 start. Tickets cost £40 per person and must be booked in advance by calling 020 7942 5792 or 020 7942 5589.'

Friday 27 May 2011

Forgotten Authors

No forgotten book today, but I did enjoy moderating the Crimefest panel on Forgotten Authors. The subjects included Adam Diment, Peter van Greenaway (who sounded most intriguing), Leslie Charteris and William Shipway.

My fellow panellists, Peter Guttridge, Caroline Todd, Sarah Rayne and Adrian Magson are all delightful people and it was a real pleasure to be with them. I must thank Ali Karim for the photo. His kindness is as unfailing as his support for crime writers.

And I've been asked to moderate another Forgotten Authors panel at next year's Crimefest....

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The Man Who Could Not Sleep

Michael Gilbert’s versatility continues to astonish me, the more I think about what he achieved as a crime writer whilst also working as a partner in a major law firm. I’m a long-time fan of his writing, and so I was delighted to lay my hand on another posthumous collection edited and introduced by John Cooper and published by Robert Hale.

The Man Who Could Not Sleep and other mysteries is remarkable because it contains not short stories but two lengthy radio plays, plus two synopses for radio plays that Gilbert never managed to bring to fruition. Cooper lists the work that Gilbert did for radio and TV, and it’s a CV that would be impressive even if he’d never written all those fine novels and short stories.

The ‘man who could not sleep’ is, as anyone who has read Gilbert’s splendid Smallbone Deceased will know, the lawyer Henry Bohun. I’ve always felt that Bohun was one of Gilbert’s best characters, and it’s a pity he is not better known, and did not appear more often.

I was intrigued that one of the synopses was for a play about football. It’s not easy to write fiction about sport, though I’ve written a couple of short stories with football themes. My first ever full length novel was about football, too. It was never published, just as Gilbert’s play was never broadcast. In my case, it was just as well!

Tuesday 24 May 2011

More on Crimefest

I'm working away from home for a couple of days, so just a few more brief thoughts on Crimefest for the time being.

I enjoyed moderating two panels, the first being Forgotten Authors, with some great panellists - Adrian Magson, Peter Guttridge, Caroline Todd and Sarah Rayne. There was so much to say about our chosen authors of the past - the only problem was that we could have talked for hours! I've been asked by the organisers to moderate the same panel again next year.

I also moderated an interesting panel which featured the very witty Caro Ramsay, along with M.R. Hall, Yrsa Sigursdottir and John Lawton. A varied group and a discussion which I felt was full of thought-provoking contributions. I was glad to meet John and Yrsa for the first time.

Two of the people I enjoyed chatting with at different times during the weekend deserve particular congratulations. Len Tyler won the Last Laugh award, and Paul Johnston, despite much modest self deprecation, won Mastermind in the face of formidable competition. Both Len and Paul have new books out shortly and I look forward to reading both of them. A word of appreciation too for Maxim Jakubowski, an extremely able quizmaster and question setter.

Monday 23 May 2011


Crimefest 2011 was thoroughly enjoyable, and for me it offered a chance to relax from the frenetic activity at work following our recent business merger. I spent much more time chatting to friends old and new than attending panels, though I did enjoy all those I did attend. And happily I found time to do a bit of work on and thinking about my plans for the next Lake District Mystery.

Our pub quiz team, the International Bloggers, included Karen Meek of Eurocrime, Dorte from Denmark and Kerrie Smith from Mysteries in Paradise. We didn't make a great start, and shamefully I managed not to recognise Jane Marple from Peter Guttridge's cleverly selective description, but we did have productive rounds involving anagrams and Hitchcock movies, and were rewarded with some freebie books and audio books. It was a great pleasure to meet Dorte and Kerrie and their husbands. As always, Peter did a great job with the quiz questions.

Karen kindly sent me the photo of the quiz team. And Pauline Rowson (who also blogs splendidly) sent me the other two photos, taken by her husband Bob. Pauline and I first met a few years back at a TV studio. The full story is less glamorous, we agreed, than it sounds, but it was great to see her and Bob again. One photo shows me with Pauline, the other was taken at the Severn House drinks reception, and features Peter Guttridge, Ann Cleeves, Michael Walters (someone else I was delighted to have the chance to chat to at some length) and Maureen Carter.

I'll post a bit more about Crimefest - when I get my breath back!

Friday 20 May 2011

Forgotten Book - The Problem of the Green Capsule

My choice for today's Forgotten Book is another title by John Dickson Carr that has happily found a fresh life thanks to the enterprise of James Prichard's Langtail Press. This is The Problem of the Green Capsule, which was first published in 1939. Dickson Carr wanted to call the book The Black Spectacles, and that was the title used in the UK (and I think, given the storyline, he was right and his American publishers rather missed the point.)

After some scene setting in Pompeii, the action switches to a quintessential English village, Sodbury Cross. Someone's been poisoning chocolates, and an attractive young woman called Marjorie Wills is a possible suspect. Her rich uncle, Marcus Chesney, a man with an ingenious turn of mind but a habit of penny-pinching, dreams up an elaborate charade intended to cast light on the mystery. Of course, in Golden Age detective fiction, a tendency to over-elaborate is a fatal characteristic of both murderers and victim alike, and so it proves here. Needless to say, Marcus ends up dead, poisoned by the eponymous green capsule.

Another murder occurs, and Dr Gideon Fell, who has been taking the waters at Bath, is called in to assist the baffled police. This is not a "locked room mystery" of the type for which Dickson Carr was renowned, but there is some jiggery-pokery with a clock and with the film of Marcus Chesney's charade which contribute to the puzzle. As always with the best of John Dickson Carr, the mystery is ingenious and atmospheric, and I did not guess the solution.

One of the features of this novel which particularly interested me was the way in which Carr used elements from real-life murder cases to cast light upon the events of the story. He was fascinated by true crime, and made excellent use of his knowledge. I'm certainly planning to read more of his books to see whether this was a recurrent feature of his work.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Planting Clues

When I reviewed the new Peter Lovesey novel, Stagestruck, recently, I mentioned that it is a very good example of how an accomplished detective story writer who wants to "play fair" with the reader plants clues in an artful manner.

As a seasoned reader of detective fiction, I felt rather pleased with myself when I spotted a throwaway line describing the background of one of the characters. I figured that this pointed the way to identifying the culprit's motive, and I could not resist the temptation to construct my own explanation of events, as well as identifying a suitably unlikely suspect.

But I have to confess that Peter Lovesey outwitted me. I had spotted the right clue, and the motive, but I had missed an earlier clue that led to an entirely different outcome – one I’d thought about for a nanosecond, but dismissed. That earlier clue, if spotted, gives the game away – a bold and confident move by a writer on top form. It reminded me of a very clever early Reginald Hill book, where the key clue crops up in the very first sentence – bravura clueing, to be sure.

Agatha Christie is rightly regarded as the best in the business at clueing, but a number of modern writers take it seriously. I’ve always been rather proud of a clue planted in my first book, All the Lonely People, and another in Eve of Destruction, as well as some of those that crop up in the Lake District Mysteries. It’s really a game with the reader – not the crux of the novel, to be sure, but I find it great fun, and so, I think, does Peter Lovesey.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Vera and Crimefest

The first series of Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn, came to an end tonight with an adaptation of The Crow Trap by Stephen Brady. The story opens with the murder of a woman who is resisting an attempt to build a new quarry in the beautiful Northumberland countryside, and it soon becomes clear that a mystery from the past is entwined with the puzzle of the present.

This was a well-structured episode, and a suitable finale for what has been a successful first series. Now that the characters and setting are established, the way is clear for the scriptwriters to introduce the variations of tone and pace that will ensure Vera ranks along with Lewis as the leading detective drama for years to come.

A highlight of Crimefest, which opens in Bristol on Thursday, will be an interview featuring Ann Cleeves and TV writer Paul Rutman, discussing Vera. I'm looking forward to this, as well as to Crimefest as a whole. I'll be moderating two panels, including one on Forgotten Authors.

This time last year I went to Crimefest at a point when I was rather down in the dumps, and it really cheered me up. I was due to appear in the Mastermind quiz, and really wasn't in the mood for it, but all was well in the end. And the fact that I was able to put other concerns aside and focus on the quiz itself gave me a good deal of heart in the weeks that followed. So I do recall Crimefset 2010 with special appreciation, and I'm going to enjoy this year's event in a lighter frame of mind. But I'm glad I don't have to do Mastermind again!

Friday 13 May 2011

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a slightly odd film directed by John Cassavettes and starring Ben Gazzara. I had rather mixed feelings about it overall, but I'd heard that it is interesting, and that is true, even though there are one or two boring bits.

Ben Gazzara plays a strip club owner, a man who is affable and extremely pleased with himself and also not particularly intelligent. He loves gambling, and having just paid off one gambling debt, he celebrates by taking his three favourite strippers to another gambling den and squandering a large amount of money that he doesn't actually have. The heavies who run the club demand payment in kind – they want him to gun down a Chinese bookie who has plenty of security protection.

At first, our "hero" demurs; he killed people when fighting in the Korean War, but is not naturally violent. In the end, however, he has little choice but to carry out the assignment. He accomplishes it with remarkable ease, to my mind, but I found it surprising that this aspect of the story was treated as relatively insignificant. Much more time is devoted to life in the strip club, and these scenes become rather tedious.

In essence, this film struck me as being a study of a deeply flawed character. Ben Gazzara is excellent, offering a rounded portrayal of someone who could easily seem quite appalling. The plot is slender, though, and I was startled to learn that the original version of the movie was much longer. Cutting it was a good idea, and possibly the cuts should have been more ruthless. All the same, although it is no masterpiece, I thought it was well worth watching.

The Blue Geranium

The Blue Geranium started life as a short story, and I was rather surprised to find that it had been turned into a two-hour drama for Agatha Christie's Marple. A number of Christie's short stories which have been turned into sixty minute episodes have seemed rather padded-out. So I did not watch the show first time around, but finally I have weakened and given it a try.

Unexpectedly, I thought it was pretty good. Needless to say, the scriptwriter, Stewart Harcourt, had to invent a great deal of plot material, but I felt he managed to accomplish the rather difficult task of blending the old and new. And I was amused to see in the cast list that the three small children who discovered a body near a river were young Harcourts – he and they must have enjoyed that! As ever, the cast was strong, and included Caroline Catz, whom I rather liked in that otherwise patchy series of a few years back, Murder in Suburbia.

I have always thought that Agatha Christie was a far better novelist than a short story writer, even though admittedly she did write quite a number of really good short stories. "The Blue Geranium" in its original form was enjoyable, and it is to be found in the first and strongest collection of Miss Marple short stories, The thirteen problems.

Watching this episode made me think that there is a particular knack to adapting a short story for television. It is sometimes done well (for instance, with some of the Sherlock Holmes adaptations that we have seen over the years) but often the results are disappointing. The reality is that, usually, the source material needs to be changed and expanded, perhaps radically. In recent times, some of the "improvements" on Christie plots have been deeply unappealing. But not, I felt, in the case of The Blue Geranium.

Shutter Island

Dennis Lehane must have been delighted with the film version of his novel Mystic River and, although I haven't read the original book, I imagine he will have been equally gratified by the adaptation of Shutter Island directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The film benefits from a combination of an excellent plot, strong characterisation and atmospheric visuals. We are introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio as the detective setting out by boat, together with his partner, to a small but forbidding island which is home to a hospital for the criminally insane. They are investigating the disappearance – apparently from a locked room! – of a woman who murdered her three children.

The chief psychiatrist is played by Ben Kingsley and he seems to be a particularly menacing character, as do other doctors and the tough warden who is in charge of security. What exactly is the secret of Shutter Island? Is it possible that dirty work is going on, and that the psychiatrists are seeking to conduct mind control experiments on their patients? It is the sort of place that is tailor-made for conspiracy theories.

The story has an excellent twist ending, one of the best since The Usual Suspects. Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley both give impressive performances and there are plenty of striking images and memorable scenes. The film left me wanting to read the book, which speaks for itself. Recommended viewing.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Crème de la Crime

It was with real pleasure that I received a parcel recently containing four brand-new books. They are published by Severn House, a good firm I have mentioned before (and one of the reasons they are good is that they publish the CWA anthology!) But there is something a little different about these books – they appear under the imprint of Creme De La Crime.

Formerly a separate business, Crème De La Crime was acquired some months ago by Severn House, and the branding makes me hazard a guess that this represents an attempt to emulate the success of the late lamented Collins Crime Club. If this is so, I think it is a good idea, since there are plenty of readers who miss the guarantee of reliability that the Crime Club used to represent.

The imprint has got off to a very good start. One of the authors is Kate Ellis, whom I have often mentioned here. Kissing the Demons is her third book featuring Joe Plantagenet, and it is good to see that series continuing. Mind you, Kate's productivity does put me to shame.

I'm also delighted to see that Tim Heald has brought back Simon Bognor, in Death in the Opening Chapter. Bognor appeared in a story that Tim contributed to Original Sins, and I am glad that he has now been resurrected in a full-length novel. Maureen Carter, a lively and talented writer from Birmingham, starts a new series with A Question of Despair, while Roz Southey has produced her fifth historical mystery, The Ladder Dancer. I wish all four authors, and their enterprising publishers, every success in this new venture.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Vera and Lewis

Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope, had a good second outing with Telling Tales, based on a first rate novel by Ann Cleeves.The screenplay was by Paul Rutman.

This was a story where a good deal of focus was on the characters of Vera and, to some extent, her relationships with her sidekick and members of her team. It's interesting to compare and contrast this enjoyable new series with an old favourite. I gather, to my amazement, that we have now had no fewer than five series of Lewis, of course following countless episodes of Inspector Morse. And the latest series ended with a highly enjoyable episdoe, The Gift of Promise.

The story was about the murder of a woman who runs a scheme to promote the cause of gifted children, and as ever the body count quickly mounted. But what I liked most was the way the story was set up. Usually in Lewis, there is a crime right at the start, but this time a whole range of seemingly unconnected and sometimes rather odd incidents occurred. All very tantalising, and it reminded me of the early days of Taggart, when Glenn Chandler came up with some wonderfully convoluted story-lines. Here, the mysterious threads were gradually woven together - an excellent example of screenwriting and possibly my favourite Lewis so far.

Friday 6 May 2011

Forgotten Book – The Dangerfield Talisman

My choice for today's Forgotten Book is a novel published in 1926. That year saw the first appearance of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – suffice to say that The Dangerfield Talisman by J.J. Connington was rather less ground-breaking. All the same, it is readable example of an early Golden Age mystery by one of the first members of the Detection Club

The setting is a country house packed with the obligatory party of suspects. But this is a mystery story, rather than necessarily a murder mystery, although one character does disappear in strange circumstances. The eponymous Talisman is a family heirloom, valued at £50,000 "and the price of diamonds had gone up a good deal since then". Surprise, surprise – it goes missing.

We are provided at the outset with a chess problem that provides an enigmatic clue to the riddles surrounding the Dangerfield family, and the problem is ultimately solved in classic Golden Age fashion. The story is rather low-key, but offers agreeable entertainment in the game-playing tradition of its time.

J.J. Connington was an interesting writer, a prominent professor of chemistry who wrote a leading textbook on his subject, as well as a goodly number of nicely constructed mysteries. He went on to improve upon this early effort, and having enjoyed a few of his books, I'm certainly interested in reading more.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Silent Voices - review

To coincide with the screening of Vera on ITV, I’ve been reading Ann Cleeves’ new book about DI Vera Stanhope, Silent Voices, which is the fifth in the series to date. It gets off to a great start with Vera discovering a body in a health club, and there are many twists and turns before an intriguing solution (which I must admit I didn’t figure out) is revealed.

Ann worked as a probation officer back in the 80s, and her knowledge of social work plays an important part in the story-line, and adds a good deal of strength to the material. The North East setting is, as usual, very well done.

I also thought that the portrayal of Vera and her sidekick Joe Ashworth was very well done. It may be that seeing Brenda Blethyn play Vera has given Ann even more ideas for the character, who really is very well-rounded in more senses than one!

It’s thought-provoking that at one time, amazingly, Macmillan didn’t publish Ann in paperback, and that she once wrote a book, Sea Fever, which took years to achieve publication in the UK. She has come a very long way since then, and this enjoyable book shows her on very good form.

Tuesday 3 May 2011

The Merger

I don’t say much about my day job on this blog or my website – because fiction is all about forms of escapism - but of course it occupies my thoughts a lot, and explains why I don’t find time to achieve all I’d like to in the world of crime fiction and blogging!

Anyway, day after day for over a year now I’ve been closely involved in negotiations to merge my firm with a large national practice, and I'm delighted to say that the deal finally took effect on 1 May. So after 31 years with Mace & Jones, I’m now a partner in Weightmans LLP. And after all that time working in the same building, I will soon show a streak of adventurousness by moving to Weightmans’ office – which just happens to be next door to my old one....

Sunday 1 May 2011

Vera: Hidden Depths - review

Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn as DI Vera Stanhope, kicked off this evening with an adaptation of Hidden Depths. It was an interesting choice of story, because the first Vera book Ann Cleeves wrote was The Crow Trap. However, my own feeling when it came out originally was that Hidden Depths was a very strong novel, with an especially gripping opening, and this may partly explain the choice. In any event, if you haven't read them yet, the books can be read out of sequence without any difficulty or major spoilers at all.

Brenda Blethyn makes a very likeable, if at times surprisingly emotional, Vera, and the cast included Murray Head - whom I think of more as a singer, but who was excellent in his role as a catalyst for crime - and Juliet Aubrey, who played his glamorous wife. The North East locations were terrific, as good in their way as the Oxford settings in Inspector Morse. The finale was a touch melodramatic, but that is the way with television dramas, and its setting, in a spooky ruined castle, was very atmospheric.

Having followed Ann's career for so long, it was a great pleasure for me to see her work on the telly at last, so I don't suppose I am the most objective judge, but suffice to say that I thought this was a really enjoyable programme.

The timing of the show is, I think, marvellous, in that we've had a bank holiday week-end, and there is a feelgood factor around in many quarters after the Royal Wedding. I've read that the BBC have ditched Zen because there are 'too many male TV detectives'. Silly reasoning, in my opinion, but at least Vera is an original and refreshing character, as well as (much less important, I think) a woman.

One final point. I've encouraged Ann to contribute some copies of the scripts and materials to the CWA archives. At some date in the future, I hope we will have a fascinating record of the genesis of what I confidently expect to be a long running and very successful series.