Monday 31 October 2011

Hidden and The Field of Blood - reviews

I’ve caught up with the final episode of Hidden, which I’ve reviewed here before, and also seen another recent BBC TV crime show, The Field of Blood. The contrast between the two was striking.

Hidden first. It was full of action and plot developments, but it all became pretty incoherent. A sad waste of the talents of a cast that included David Suchet as well as the charismatic Philip Glenister.  Disappointing.

The Field of Blood, unlike Hidden, was not originally written for TV. It was a two-parter adapted from a novel by a talented author, Denise Mina, though I haven’t read it. Set in 1982, the story concerns a young woman, Paddy Meehan, who is keen to make her way in journalism.  The abduction and murder of a young boy gives her a chance. But her own youthful cousin becomes a suspect.

The script was an odd mixture. There were some good lines, but the first episode was painfully slow at times, and there was a weird and monotonous insistence that Paddy was fat and plain. Jayd Johnson, who played Paddy, is certainly neither. And I also felt the repellent sexism of the newspapermen was rather unsubtly depicted.  

But the pace picked up, and the second episode was excellent. David Morrissey and Peter Capaldi, in relatively small parts for such notable actors, were very good, but Jayd Johnson was at the centre of everything that worked best. And the story had some interesting things to say about families - also a theme of Hidden. The Field of Blood tried to do less than Hidden, but in the end made much more of an impact.

Friday 28 October 2011

Was Corinne's Murder Clued?

Was Corinne's Murder Clued? is the intriguing title of the latest CADs supplement, and it is written by Curtis Evans, whose knowledgeable comments will be familiar to readers of this blog. The idea of a supplement to CADS was editor Geoff Bradley's way of publishing pieces of work on crime fiction too lengthy to fit into the magazine itself. Previous authors of supplements include such experts as Barry Pike and Philip Scowcroft.

The sub-title of this supplement is "The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953" and I devoured it with great interest. Curt's idea was to explore how rigidly - or  not - the Club stuck to its professed enthusiasm for "fair play" in clueing detective novels so that readers had a decent chance of figuring out the solutions for themselves. Not surprisingly, there isn't a straightforward answer, but perhaps many will be surprised by the care that Club members devoted to analysing the technical skills of prospective members. They did take it all pretty seriously.

Curt has - lucky man! - been able to read the correspondence of Dorothy L. Sayers with fellow Club members, held at Wheaton University in the US. He has - hard-working man! - noted with a scholar's scrupulous care a wide variety of comments made in the letters which cast interesting light on the personalities of the Club members. Suffice to say that Anthony Berkeley, whose books I so admire, doesn't come out of it all especially well. He was, undoubtedly, a man whose behaviour was a mass of contradictions.

Because this subject is one of great personal interest to me, I found this supplement absolutely fascinating. Would it appeal to others? I think so, because it's about a slice of literary history, not just as the product of very diligent research. For instance, I've wondered why an interesting writer like C.H.B. Kitchin was not a Club member. According to Curt, he was considered for membership, so perhaps he declined to join. The same seems to have happened with Georgette Heyer. There's no mention of Josephine Tey, but I speculate that the same was true in her case.

And finally, that title. It refers to a book by Douglas G. Browne which was dissected by Sayers and her colleagues as they wrestled with the question of whether Browne was worthy of Club membership. There was a lot of doubt about his account of poor Corinne's demise. But he was elected anyway. And I should add as a footnote that the current assistant secretary of the Club is also called Corinne. Which is why I did a double take the first time I saw the title of Curt's supplement! Suffice to say that I hope that his, and Geoff |Bradley's, enterprise attracts plenty of attention and purchases. They deserve it.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Independent bookshops

We all know that independent bookshops have been having a tough time for a number of years, but on Saturday, I had the encouraging experience of visiting two excellent indies that have not only survived the recession, but flourished.

After visiting Lancaster and Kendal earlier in the day, I headed for Ambleside – home, at least for the moment, to Hannah Scarlett – and Fred Holdsworth's nicely located shop, run by Steve with excellent support from knowledgeable assistants. I remember calling in there one miserable January afternoon when I was researching The Serpent Pool, in which some of the action takes place in Ambleside.

Then it was a short drive through Wordsworth country to Grasmere, and Sam Read's shop, run by Elaine, again with keen staff support. Elaine and her husband then kindly invited us to their house, just across the road, for a welcome cup of tea before the journey back down the motorway to home.

Why have Steve and Elaine succeeded when so many others have failed? There is bound to be a combination of reasons. Hard work and determination are musts. Both shops occupy good locations in lovely tourist destinations which don't possess a major chain store such as Waterstones. But there's more to it than that. I was struck by the genuine love that Steve and Elaine have for books, and by the way they command the enthusiastic support of the people who work for them. For any book buyer visiting either of these shops, there is sure to be a genuine welcome, and good deal of well-informed advice and recommendations. And Steve and Elaine are prepared to innovate, selling varying lines from time to time, and showing the kind of enterprise that makes all the difference in a small business. An example is the postcards that Elaine sells, from photographs (of very high quality) taken by her husband.

All in all, my trip left me more hopeful about the future of well-managed bookshops than I have been for a long time. The economic climate present endless challenges, but there is still room for really good retailers, and it was a pleasure to meet so many of them on Saturday.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Death in Paradise - BBC TV review

Death in Paradise is a brand new BBC TV detective drama with some interesting ingredients, and I settled down to watch the first episode tonight with a good deal of optimism. Above all, I was intrigued by the fact that we were presented with – yes! – a 21st century locked room mystery. A sort of Guadeloupe-based homage to John Dickson Carr, if you can imagine such a thing.

A British cop who is working on a lovely little Caribbean island is found shot to death in a sealed panic room belonging to a millionaire. The only two people with access to the panic room are the millionaire and his wife, both of whom are conducting affairs. But which of them is guilty?

Another British cop, DI Poole (no relation to Henry Wade’s cop with the same name) is sent out to investigate. Poole is played by comedian Ben Miller, who is inexplicably grumpy about being posted to a truly beautiful place. The casting gives a clue to the fact that this is a light-hearted drama, a contrast to the bleak and gritty shows that have become over-familiar on our screens. 

The solution to the mystery has a clever twist, and although this show is certainly not in the same league as early Jonathan Creek – which provided a masterclass in scriptwriting -  I found it watchable. After all, given my enthusiasm for impossible crime stories, I’m naturally pleased to see that they are still finding favour with the TV programme makers. Admittedly, there were various flaws in the script, and some of the humour seemed forced. Nor was I really carried away by Miller’s performance, which struck me as less than subtle. I can imagine that some viewers will have been seriously unimpressed. But this was an establishing episode, with seven more to come. As for making a definitive judgment on the show’s  quality, the jury is still out.      

Monday 24 October 2011


I had a very enjoyable Saturday, touring around a number of bookshops in, or just outside, the Lake District. The trip had been arranged by my publishers, and I had the pleasure of signing plenty of books – which is always something an author enjoys! But an even greater pleasure proved to be the chance to meet, and talk books with, quite a number of very likeable people.

The tour began in Lancaster, a city I know reasonably well from many visits over the years. In fact, it was over a restaurant dinner in Lancaster that I had a conversation that gave me the idea for the sub-plot of The Cipher Garden. This time I was calling at the Marketgate branch of Waterstones, where I had the chance to talk to both readers and members of staff, including Penny and Lynn.

Waterstones has changed over the years, and for quite a period of time it was difficult to avoid the feeling that there was heavy emphasis on bestsellers and "three-for-the-price-of-two" offers. Mid-list writers like me, who were given great support by Waterstones for many years, found it increasingly difficult to feature on the shelves. But things seem to be taking a real change for the better, following the change in ownership of the company. The impression I have is that the people at the top are taking the business in a new direction, not necessarily trying to compete simply on price with Amazon – which strikes me as a losing battle – but offering a crucial personal ingredient in bookselling with enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. I'm sure that this is the right way to go from a business perspective, and it also makes Waterstones increasingly attractive to book buyers. I'm not saying the price isn't important, especially in tough economic times, but it is not the only factor that matters.

Then it was onto Kendal, one of my favourite northern towns, and one which features regularly in the Lake District Mysteries. Once again, the local Waterstones featured knowledgeable and – so very important – enthusiastic staff, managed by Caroline, who is clearly a real book lover. We all know that things are difficult in the retail sector these days, and staff who have a genuine passion for the products they sell are the key to making a success of any retail business in competing with online stores. Amazon reviews and ratings have become really important for writers – perhaps disproportionately so – but there's no doubt that word-of-mouth recommendation from readers and booksellers remains enormously valuable.

All in all, I was greatly heartened by these visits to Waterstones, not just from a personal perspective, but more generally as a book fan. And after that, it was on to two independent bookstores of great appeal – more about them soon.

Friday 21 October 2011

Forgotten Book - The Crooked Hinge

My Forgotten Book for today is another novel written by John Dickson Carr in his prime, The Crooked Hinge, first published in 1938 and dedicated to Dorothy L. Sayers ‘in friendship and esteem’. It features Dr Gideon Fell, who is pretty much on top form.

The starting point is an impersonation riddle reminiscent of the case of the Tichborne Claimant. Sir John Farnleigh, recently returned to his home to claim his inheritance, has married his childhood sweetheart - but someone else has come forward, claiming that Farnleigh is an impostor and that he, Patrick Gore, is the real Farnleigh.

The cleverness of the mystery is that when murder occurs, the victim is unexpected – he is the ‘original ‘ John Farnleigh. How was he killed, and who was responsible? The claimant seems to be in the clear, but can we be sure? Carr rings the changes on the list of suspects with his usual ingenuity, and the atmosphere darkens as Satanism makes its presence felt in the story.

Dr Fell propounds an apparently brilliant solution – but it emerges that this is simply a device on his part to expose the principal culprit. I thought this use of the ‘alternative solution’ type of plot was very well done, and although the book sagged a bit in the middle, on balance I found it highly enjoyable. Definitely worth reading, a book that should not be forgotten.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

The Oxford Mysteries

It's been a lousy summer in Britain, but of course there have been some exceptional days, and two of the last three Saturdays have been terrific. Last Saturday I walked in the sun around a relatively unfrequented part of the Lakes - gorgeous. And a fortnight earlier, it was baking hot in Oxford, quite amazingly so for early October, as I set about installing my children and their countless belongings in their college rooms.

Oxford was full of life, and I found myself wondering why it is that fictional death in the city has featured so often when compared to Cambridge. The Oxford crime mystery got going in the 30s, with books like J.C. Masterman's An Oxford Tragedy (a pretty good one I shall talk about in more detail one day). Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin set plenty of stories there, and then in the modern era Colin Dexter made the place his own.

But there have been plenty of other Oxford mysteries. I have in my TBR pile a book called The Body in the Turl, which I really must read now my daughter lives in Turl Street. And I was once responsible for a short story set in 19th century Oxford - 'The Mind of the Master'. Benjamin Jowett was my choice as a legendary armchair detective, and I did contemplate writing a whole series of stories about him. But I've never got round to it. One day, perhaps.

As for the photos, they show some of the views that greet the young Edwardses when they finally get round to opening the curtains in their college rooms. Lucky things.

Monday 17 October 2011


I've found it a struggle to get started with the next Lake District Mystery. Lack of time is an easy excuse, but it isn't really good enough. I did write a first chapter, but it didn't live up to my ambitions, so I've binned it, retaining only the opening line.

So - how to get going? I decided I really needed to soak myself in the locale, and luckily last Saturday was sunny enough to allow me to do just that. The result was a walk that was hugely enjoyable, with magnificent views. Here are some photos of the area where I'll be setting the book.

If that doesn't inspire me through the winter, I don't know what will!

Saturday 15 October 2011

Curtain and Take My Breath Away

Kerrie Smith, of Mysteries in Paradise, whom I was so pleased to meet at Crimefest, suggested I contribute to the celebrations of the anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth 121 years ago, and I'm very glad to do so.

Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot novel, boasts a fascinating modus operandi. Agatha Christie explicitly gives a nod of gratitude to a play by Shakespeare and another by the rather less celebrated St John Ervine. In both plays, the same pattern of murderous behaviour is deployed. She had briefly toyed with the idea earlier, in the excellent Peril at End House. Its sheer cleverness has always appealed to me, but I agree with Robert Barnard’s verdict on Curtain. ‘For a long-cherished idea…this is oddly perfunctory in execution’. In particular, the murdererer’s character, crucial to the whole concept, is inadequately portrayed.

For years, I thought about reviving the idea. But how to do it? In the end, I decided that the secret lay in a combination of a law firm setting and a dose of political satire. The result was Take My Breath Away, published in the UK some years ago but only just now published in the US by Five Star. It marked a complete departure from my earlier books about the lawyer-detective Harry Devlin. Given that I was building upon foundations laid by Christie and the Bard, I am ashamed to say that it took me two and a half years, and endless re-writing, to produce the book. But I like to think that at least the effort was worth it.

And an odd thing happened while I was writing the novel; I received a book which featured Ellery Queen’s plot outline for a novel never actually published, The Tragedy of Errors. It boasts the same central concept. Like Christie and like me, Ellery Queen makes due acknowledgment to the inspiration that he drew from the Bard. As I understand it, Curtain was written before, but not published until after, The Tragedy of Errors plot was concocted. Great criminal minds thinking alike? I'm sure it wasn't plagiarism on Queen's part.

Friday 14 October 2011

Forgotten Book - Hangover Square

Patrick Hamilton is one of those writers who teetered on the brink of greatness, but never quite made it. He is, however, in the top echelon of literature’s nearly men, hence the intermittent revivals of interest in his work. And there is a modern type of edge to his best books that has helped to cement his reputation.

Hangover Square, published in 1941, is my choice this week as a Forgotten Book that deserves to be remembered. It is the story of George Harvey Bone, a burly but quiet man who is undone by his passion for the worthless Netta. An alcoholic who suffers from a touch of schizophrenia, he torments himself so much that the reader almost forgives him both his stupidity (Netta clearly wasn’t worth it, as his smarter friends instantly recognise) and his homicidal tendencies.

My copy of this book is the current Penguin reprint, which includes an introduction by J.B. Priestley. Now, I am keen on intros, which can add a great deal of value to a classic title. And Priestley, who knew Hamilton personally, makes several interesting points. But his piece is flawed, above all because he discloses what happens at the end of the book .This isn’t a conventional whodunit, far from it, but Priestley shouldn’t have been so crass

I think it’s interesting that this book prefigures the interest of modern readers in the psychology of the criminal. Bone is portrayed in some depth, though his ‘dead moods’ did not strike me as entirely convincing. Yet the novel is well worth reading, at a time when the psychology of crime is a big topic. Patrick Hamilton was a pioneer of the crime genre, much more so than his capable but less gifted brother Bruce. It’s no surprise that he remain a crime writer of choice for a good number of critics. This book is, by some standards, a failure. But it is a rather brilliant failure.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

The End of Everything

Megan Abbott is a rising star in the world of crime fiction, and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to read one of her books, but on holiday I caught up with The End of Everything, her latest, a novel that has earned glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s not hard to see why this book has earned such acclaim. The writing is absolutely top notch, and Megan Abbott’s style is such that she can achieve in the space of a relatively slim volume effects which others struggle to pull off in much bulkier novels.

This is a story about the relationship between fathers and daughters, or more broadly, between older men and teenage girls. The subject matter is delicate, but it is handled well and never sensationally. The story is told from the viewpoint of Lizzie, a thirteen year old whose best friend goes missing. There isn’t much doubt that she’s been abducted by a man called Shaw, but Abbott is more interested in the relationships between her characters than in a mysterious plot. And those relationships are depicted in a compelling way which had me gripped.

The one drawback to a crime novel written by a top flight author is that the culprit’s motivation is often inadequately drawn. So it is here. I anticipated the final ‘twist’ (though to call it that suggests this is a whodunit, which it isn’t, in any conventional sense) at an early point of the story, and I did wonder why the police did not focus their attention more on a particular individual rather than the obvious suspect. But this is a quibble – The End of Everything is a shining example of high calibre writing, and a fine achievement.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Hidden - TV review

A downmarket, dogged criminal lawyer called Harry works in a scruffy city backstreet. Harry has been damaged by the death of someone very close to him and has a troubled love life, as well as an eye for a pretty woman. When he gets dragged into a murky case involving the murder of an attractive woman, he visits a gym as part of his enquiries, and runs into more trouble for his pains.

These were all elements of my first novel, All the Lonely People, so I was intrigued to see them reprised in the new four part BBC TV thriller Hidden, by Ronan Bennett. Hey, I knew my story-line was a good one! Joking apart, I won't be sueing for plagiarism, because in fact what Bennett has written is not a whodunit but a conspiracy thriller, with a political dimension (a bit like Take My Breath Away!) And Bennett's Harry is known to some of his mates as 'H', which reminded me of Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday.

All this shows, of course, is that there's nothing new in the world. Bennett has, however, tried to give the material a fresh feel by interweaving several convoluted plot elements, with copious flashbacks. A great deal of suspension of disbelief is required, especially when a mystery woman claiming improbably to be a lawyer offers Harry a large sum of money to find a man. In the Google era, it takes seconds to discover that she is not who she claims to be. As for the political storyline (is the Prime Minister the victim of a plot orchestrated by his smug colleague?), it struck me as not much more authentic than the portrayal of legal life.

And yet there's something about Hidden that encourages me to watch episode 2. That something is the presence of Philip Glenister, a very enjoyable actor, in the role of Harry. He carries the whole thing along with his usual rugged charm. I'm not sure I care much about the various mysteries, but I'll be interested to see how Bennett weaves all the strands together.

Monday 10 October 2011

Eyes Without a Face

I was drawn to the 1960 French film Eyes Without a Face, directed by Georges Franju, by the names of Boileau and Narcejac. They worked on the script, but it was in fact based on a novel by Jean Redon, of whom I really know nothing. A bit of research suggests that the original book may have been rather pulpy and that B and N added more sophisticated elements.

It's a film about a number of murders, but it's widely described as a horror movie, and for good reason, even though that label does not adequately convey the strangely lyrical nature of many of the scenes. Suffice to say that it's one of the most chilling and disturbing films I have ever seen.

When the film first came out, it was only a minor success and some critics and audiences were appalled by it. More than half a century later, it's been re-evaluated, and its excellence is now very widely acknowledged. Briefly, the story concerns the attempts of a plastic surgeon to reconstruct the face of his terribly disfigured daughter - played, quite brilliantly I thought, by Edith Scob. The doctor is assisted by an equally obsessed woman whose face he had previously restored.

The direction is excellent, and the score, by the legendary Maurice Jarre, makes a real impact, especially in the opening scene, when a woman is driving a car through the night with a mysterious passenger.

Choosing Boileau and Narcejac to work on the story was an inspired decision. The dialogue is sparse, but the terrible story is gripping throughout, all the way to its remarkable conclusion. Not an easy watch, but an impressive piece of work. And if anyone knows more about Jean Redon, I'd be interested to learn it.

Saturday 8 October 2011

R.I.P. George Baker aka Inspector Wexford

I was sorry to read of the death of George Baker, at the age of 80, today. Many people assume he made his name playing Inspector Reg Wexford in the long-running adaptations for TV of those very enjoyable Ruth Rendell novels set in fictional Kingsmarkham, and I'm sure that's the role he will remain best known for. But there was much more to him than that.

Baker was a staple of film and TV during my youth. Apparently he was one of those considered for the role of James Bond, but he wasn't always a good guy. I remember him playing a criminal, Stanley Bowler, in The Fenn Street Gang, a sitcom spin-off from Please, Sir! And so good was he that a further spin-off series, Bowler, came into being, although it didn't last long. But Baker did the menacing yet pretentious villain (his door chime was Beethoven's Fifth) very well.

When I was a student, and visited the BBC, he was there in his toga, recording an episode of I, Claudius, in which he had a leading role. But the Ruth Rendell Mysteries enabled him to bring his greatest strength as an actor, his essential warm humanity to the part of a shrewd and likeable cop.

Ruth Rendell has already indicated she has no plans for any more Wexford novels, probably a good decision as the character has, I think, reached his sell-by date. But the series includes some great titles, and on television, Baker brought the stories, and the character, splendidly to life.

Friday 7 October 2011

Forgotten Book - She Had to Have Gas

I’ve mentioned before my enthusiasm for the work of the little known Golden Age writer Rupert Penny, and my choice for today’s Forgotten Book is the last mystery that Basil Thornett wrote under that pen-name, She Had to Have Gas. It was published in 1939; during the war, Thornett worked, most appropriately, as a cryptographer, and after peace was declared, he did not return to the genre.

In this book, as with other mysteries featuring Penny’s regular investigator, Inspector Beale, the cop’s pal, stockbroker and journalist Tony Purdon, is on hand to assist. But it has to be said that Tony’s presence in the stories was never easy to justify, and here his role is pretty superfluous.

The book begins splendidly, with the owner of a modest East Anglian B&B worrying about the creditworthiness of her sole guest. She is right to worry: soon she has good reason to believe the woman has gassed herself. But then the body of the apparent victim disappears – what is going on? Meanwhile, the spoiled niece of a famous crime writer has vanished, and one is tempted to believe that she was living a double life in the guest-house. With Rupert Penny, though, nothing is simple.

In fact, the plot is so elaborate that it comes close to sinking under the weight of its own cleverness. As with a number of similar books, I found the opening scenes and the revelations by far the best parts of the story. In between,there was much that was verging on the turgid. But there is a 'challenge to the reader' and a cluefinder to compensate. Penny was an appealing author and this book, for all its flaws, appealed to me.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

R.T. Campbell

I’ve been rather intrigued by the work of R.T Campbell ever since, many years ago, I first read about him in Bloody Murder, the superb history of the genre written by Julian Symons. Symons was a friend of Ruthven Todd, a Scots poet who dashed off crime novels under the Campbell name. Todd contributed, if only as a character model, to Symons’ crime debut, The Immaterial Murder Case.

As Symons said, there was even a lack of certainty about how many of the Campbell books were actually published. Todd himself didn’t seem to know. But now, at last, there is a solution to the mystery. I’m not going to reveal it, because the book which tells the story of Todd’s crime writing is well worth obtaining. Take Thee a Sharp Knife has just been published by Lomax Press in an attractively produced limited edition. I think it’s marvellous that such an obscure book should be granted a new life, in high quality format.

A couple of the Todd books were reprinted a couple of decades back, byDover. Of these, I have read Bodies in a Bookshop, which entertained me without being so memorable that I can now recall the story-line. Campbell didn’t rate his work as Todd, but I think he was being too hard on himself.

The story is annotated by Forbes Gibbs, and contains a note by Peter Main on the Campbell novels, as well as nice reminiscence piece by Todd’s son. This material does add to our stock of knowledge about a likeable writer, and I’m looking forward to reading the book from cover to cover.

Monday 3 October 2011


I've written before in praise of Geoff Bradley's marvellous magazine CADS, and the recent arrival of the latest issue is cause for celebration, as usual. Its appearance may be irregular, but the high standard of the contents is very regular indeed.

We have another nice mix of material again this time, with pieces from a range of excellent familiar contributors such as Liz Gilbey and Philip Scowcroft - the latter writes interestingly about the John Dickson Carr book I featured a while back, The Problem of the Green Capsule.

The highlight is the lead article, by Peter Lovesey, a very informative piece on the Detection Club. I had the pleasure of seeing a draft of this article, which Peter prepared for a lecture, and it's characteristically enjoyable. Peter's lecture, by the way, was the annual lecture for the Dorothy L. Sayers Society last March. I was asked to speak there myself, but had to pull out because of the day job. However, I'm glad to say that I've been invited to give the annual Sayers lecture next year, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Finally, Curt Evans has unearthed some fascinating correspondence involving J.J. Connington. I haven't yet read all of his article, since he kindly includes spoilers about revealing the solutions to a couple of Connington books I have yet to read. But as ever his research is intriguing and welcome.