Wednesday 30 November 2011

Ten Little Indians movie review

To be perfectly honest, I was expecting to hate the 1965 movie version of Agatha Christie's masterpiece And Then There Were None. Which is why I've managed to avoid watching it until now. But I decided to bite the bullet, and to my surprise found the film surpassed my admittedly low expectations.

The setting is a country house, of course, but this one is to be found at the top of an Alpine mountain accessible only by sleigh and cable car. The servants who greet the guests who have been invited by the mysterious U.N. Owen are locals, and when Owen's voice is played on a tape recording, I discovered that the uncredited actor who spoke the words was Christopher Lee (in a later version of the film, Orson Welles did the same job.)

The cast is pretty good, including Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price and Wilfrid Hyde White, as well as the ultra-glamorous ex-Bond girl Shirley Eaton, who gets to play a sex scene, albeit mild in the extreme, with Hugh O'Brian.

A notable feature of the movie is the 'whodunit break', an updated version of the Challenge to the Reader introduced in the Golden Age by Ellery Queen and also used by the likes of Rupert Penny and Anthony Berkeley. A gimmick, yes, but a pleasing one, at least to my mind. I enjoyed this film more than I should have done, perhaps. It ain't Martin Scorsese, but as light entertainment, it ain't that bad, either.

Monday 28 November 2011


I’m just back from a delightful week-end taking part in the Newcastle Winter Books Festival. It’s really only in the past three or four years that I’ve started to get to know the North East, and I must say that Newcastle grows on me each time I visit the city.

I took part in two events, both of them held at a wonderfully atmospheric venue. The Lit and Phil is a fascinating library and great gathering place for people keen on the arts right in the centre of the city. Kay Easson of the Lit and Phil is very welcoming, and if you live in the area, and you aren’t a member, it’s surely worth considering. 

I gave a talk on Agatha Christie on Saturday afternoon, and this was followed by the premiere of my latest murder mystery event, this time set in the 1920s. Both were very well attended, and I was really pleased to be part of the Festival.

On Friday evening I stayed with Ann and Tim Cleeves in Whitley Bay, and on Saturday evening I had a meal with Jean and Roger from Cornwell Internet, an excellent website business. Great mates and great company, all combining to make a memorable couple of days.  

Friday 25 November 2011

Forgotten Book - Tour De Force

Tour De Force by Christianna Brand, first published in 1955, is today a Forgotten Book, perhaps because, after it appeared, the author turned away from the genre for a number of years. But many connoisseurs think highly of it.

The novel features Brand’s most regular detective, Inspector Cockrill, and also a character who appeared in an earlier mystery (and therefore seems by definition to be an unlikely killer)  but the setting is unusual – a fictitious island off the Italian coast. Cockrill is part of a tour party, and Brand clearly enjoyed writing about the island, as she set a subsequent book there as well.

A member of the tour party is found dead. She has been stabbed to death with a dagger, and there is a suggestion that she may have liked to indulge in blackmail. She was also at the centre of some romantic convolutions, involving one of the suspects, Leo Rodd. Rodd is a one-armed musician who appears highly attractive to women, although he was so unpleasant that I struggled to figure out why any of them would bother with him. A map is supplied in the best Golden Age tradition.

A fairly obvious solution to the murder mystery is put forward, but then Brand supplies a clever and unexpected (at least by me) twist – although it depends on something so unlikely that I didn’t find it easy to suspend belief. There are various pleasing features in the book, not least the setting, but I’m afraid that Brand’s novels seem to me to suffer from a recurrent weakness. There is always a closed circle of suspects, which is fine, but those suspects always seem to succumb before long to “rising hysteria” and their highly-strung behaviour and chit-chat rather gets on my nerves. So it was here.

However, Brand’s skill with plot was formidable. She isn’t too far behind Christie and Berkeley in that respect and I also gather that in person she was truly charismatic. To my mind, her short stories tend to be more satisfying than her novels, because they are punchier and the characters in them don’t have time to grate on the reader. One of these days I will say more about her short stories, but for now I’ll rank Tour De Force as well-constructed, but a long way short of a masterpiece.  

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Guilty Consciences

I have finally received my copy of the brand-new Crime Writers Association anthology that I have edited. Guilty Consciences is published by Severn House, who have built up a very impressive crime list, and I must say that the dust jacket artwork is very much appeals to me. (Sorry I haven't been able to expand the image to make it more easily viewed - I'm still failing to get to grips with various aspect of posting on the updated Blogger system, as will be all too evident to those of you who have no doubt spotted a few glitches in the past couple of months....)

The book boasts a foreword by the bestselling novelist Peter James, who also contributes a brand-new story. Peter is the current chair of the CWA, and I was delighted to be able to include a story by one of his most distinguished predecessors, the late Harry Keating. Harry edited a couple of CWA anthologies, and as a tribute to him, I wanted to include one of his stories. Happily, his widow Sheila Mitchell was generous enough to locate and provide an obscure but very agreeable story about Inspector Ghote which had previously only been published in India.

There are a number of other delights in the book. We have, for instance, a story by that very distinguished writer Robert Barnard, and also a terrific story by Ann Cleeves featuring Vera Stanhope. But one of the great pleasures for me about editing these anthologies is the chance to include work by very good writers who are either not especially well known (yet) or who have not in the past focused on short stories.

A number of the contributors were persuaded to take a break from their novels to make submissions to the anthology, and they included Claire Seeber, Len Tyler, Sarah Rayne and Dan Waddell. I hadn't read short stories by any of them previously, but I was really delighted to read, and include, their contributions. The result, I very much hope, is a book which lives up to the high standards of the anthology over the past half-century, whilst giving it a fresh and distinctive identity of its own.

The Town - movie review

Films about bank robberies run the risk of following a formula, and one of the things that I enjoyed about the 2010 movie The Town was that it offered a fresh (at least to me) variation on the theme. In this film, the smartest of the robbers does something not very smart – he falls in love with the manager of the bank he has just robbed. Mind you, given that the manager is played by the very attractive Rebecca Hall, it's not entirely an implausible plot twist.

The film is set in Boston, and the "town" of the title is Charlestown, an area apparently associated with violent crime, although on one view, that negative images unfair and out of date. I don't know the truth of it, but I must say that, the more I see of Boston in the movies, the keener I am to visit the city one day. I get a very strong impression of a truly fascinating place.

Ben Affleck directs the film and also plays the lead character – very effectively and sensitively, I thought. His backstory is neatly conveyed, without slowing the action, as is his relationship with his fellow criminals. The mastermind behind the robberies is, of all things, a florist (that was a touch of imaginative storytelling that I enjoyed!) played by Pete Postlethwaite, who is very well cast as a menacing villain. Postlethwaite, who died of cancer earlier this year, is an actor who always made a strong impression, and he's a real loss to the cinema.

I found this film gripping throughout. I've seen one or two reviews that compare it to Heat, starring Al Pacino, but personally I thought The Town was significantly better. Affleck and Rebecca Hall are both highly charismatic, and Jon Hamm does a good job as the detective pursuing them. Among heist films, I'd rate this one very highly.

Sunday 20 November 2011

The Killing II - review

The Killing II started on BBC Four this week-end and I made sure I watched it. I missed out on the first showing of the original cult hit series from Denmark The Killing, a gap in my TV viewing I mean to fill as soon as I can, given the enormously positive reception it received.

So what do I make of the follow-up? Well, the first two episodes were extremely watchable (the more so by comparison, since the previous night I’d watched a rubbishy film called The Resident which was shorter than the two hour-long episodes but was so annoying that it felt as though it might never finish).

The story is a mix of the personal and the political, a bit like the recent UK series Hidden, but better. A woman is found murdered in bizarre circumstances. Her husband is a suspect, but it soon seems that there may be a link with a second killing. The woman was a military lawyer who worked in the Middle East, the man was an ex-soldier. A third strand of the story involves another ex-soldier, now confined to an institution and mysteriously denied his release.

The structure of The Killing II reminded me of the early series of Taggart. Three or four enigmatic story-lines, connected in some (we hope) ingenious way. And, as in the Glaswegian series, dogged detective work, this time by Sarah Lund and Ulrik Strange.  The suggestion at the moment is that Muslim fundamentalists are responsible for the killings, but we don’t really believe that, do we? Could the military man who is father-in-law to the institutionalised bloke be key to the story? That’s my bet at the moment, but we shall see. I certainly plan to keep watching.

Festival Time

I seem to be here, there and everywhere at the moment. Yesterday was truly enjoyable:  I visited a pleasant library with accompanying museum in Buckley, North Wales, and next week-end I’ll be up in the North East.

I’ve been invited to participate in the Newcastle Winter Book Festival, and next Saturday I shall be involved in two events. Both are to be held at a fabulous venue, the Lit and Phil, an amazing and atmospheric library which I last visited nearly three years back. In the afternoon I’ll be giving a talk on Agatha Christie and Golden Age detective fiction, and in the evening, there will be the premiere of a brand new interactive murder mystery event that I’ve just written.

But there’s much, much more to the Festival than my two events. The programme is packed and impressive and I’m gratified to be part of it. As well as my Murder Squad mates Chaz Brenchley and Ann Cleeves, events will feature the likes of M.C. Beaton, Allan Massie and Tam Dalyell. 

This is the first year of the Festival and I hope it gets plenty of support so that it grows  and grows in the years ahead. If you are in that part of the world, do check it out.

Friday 18 November 2011

Forgotten Book - Plain Murder

I so much enjoyed reading the re-discovered crime novel by CS Forester, The Pursued, that I decided to have another look at his second novel of psychological suspense, Plain Murder, which was first published in 1930. It is a book which, like his debut, Payment Deferred, has tended to be forgotten by crime fans – but it certainly does not deserve such a fate.

I first read Plain Murder as a teenager, shortly after being blown away by the brilliance, as it seemed to me, of Payment Deferred. Perhaps inevitably, it suffered by comparison with its remarkable predecessor, and I have said as much once or twice in articles I've written over the years. But I'm now tempted to revise my opinion to some extent. The finale of this story is not quite as dazzling and original, but the book as a whole is short, snappy and highly enjoyable.

Three advertising men have been discovered by their boss in a minor fiddle. They face the sack, and the poverty that dismissal for gross misconduct almost always meant in 1930. The ringleader, Charlie Morris, persuades his colleagues to help him kill the boss, and they duly get away with murder. However, the crime feeds Morris' egotism, and he finds himself on a downward spiral of homicide.

One of the striking features of the book is the well-realised office setting. I can think of very few office-based mysteries written before 1930 – any suggestions? Certainly, Forester anticipated Dorothy L Sayers, who published Murder Must Advertise three years later. Her enjoyable novel is much better known than Forester's, but I do wonder if his book to some degree inspired hers.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

London Boulevard - film review

It's not very easy for a gangster film to avoid cliches of the genre, and I was rather worried when the 2010 movie London Boulevard began in a way strongly reminiscent of The Italian Job. A London criminal (Colin Farrell, rather than Michael Caine) is released from prison, and a celebration is laid on for him by his friends before he is offered the opportunity of "one more job".

At this point, however, the script takes off. It is based on a novel by Ken Bruen and the title is a spin on Sunset Boulevard. A pretty girl introduces Farrell to a retired actress, and he takes on the task of looking after her at a time when she is besieged by the paparazzi. But the actress is no Norma Desmond – she's played by Keira Knightley.

Unfortunately, Farrell gets mixed up with the activities of a tough criminal played by (inevitably?) Ray Winstone, and before long he has good cause to be worried about the safety of his beautiful but totally flaky sister – a very good part for yet another gorgeous actress, Anna Friel. The plot developments come thick and fast as Farrell also sets out to avenge the brutal murder of a disabled friend of his by a couple of young hoodlums. An irony of the story is that, on one occasion when Farrell resists the urge to mete out violent retribution, he lives to regret it.

There is a good deal of violence in this film, but the quality of the screenplay is such that it never seems to become gratuitous. I've read a number of deeply unenthusiastic reviews of this film, but the negative reaction of some critics really surprises me. I think London Boulevard is one of the best films about gangsters that I've ever seen.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Marrakech and Murder

I’m just back from a quick trip to – of all places – Africa. Morrocco, to be specific, and Marrakech to be even more precise. It was really an impulse decision to go off for a long week-end in search of a bit of sun before the run-in to Christmas, and very enjoyable it was too. I’ve never been to Africa before, but I was very taken with what I found.

I can’t recall ever reading a crime story set in Marrakech, though I’m sure there must be some; perhaps my memory is at fault. Any suggestions of titles? I’d really like to try a book set there. And there are surely bound to be plenty of thrillers set in Morocco. Certainly, it’s an atmospheric city; the souks are amazing, and I also saw my very first snake charmer. Not that I took a photo of the snakes, mind; you never know how they might react!

I read two contrasting books on the trip. I’ll be reviewing both The Players and the Game by Julian Symons and Tour De Force by Christianna Brand shortly. I’d read the Symons before but admired it all over again. Both books were highly ingenious – but Symons’ cleverness at plotting is sometimes overlooked by those who focus mainly on his criticisms of some classic detective novelists.

As for Brand – my feelings are mixed, in that I admire her work a good deal, yet find some of her writing rather frustrating. She and Symons were friends and contemporaries, but she was hurt when he gave one of her books a less than glowing review.  He described her approach as “hectic”, which isn’t the adjective I’d use, but there are, I think, reasons why she is much less well remembered today than her talents would have justified. More of this another day.   

Monday 14 November 2011

Betty Fisher movie review

When I visited John Curran in Dublin, I had not only the chance to admire his book collection, but also his very wide-ranging collection of DVDs, and he recommended a number of films to me that I'd never even heard of before. Among them was a French film, directed by Claude Miller with the frankly unpromising title Betty Fisher and Other Stories.

I was startled to find that the film is based on a novel by Ruth Rendell. The source book is Tree of Hands, a suspense story I enjoyed reading when it first came out. But that was a long time ago, and I must admit I've forgotten how the story goes. That was probably an advantage, given that Betty Fisher focuses on the core themes, but with many changes of detail.

To some extent, it's a story about maternal instincts, as well as about grief and guilt. Betty is a successful novelist with a crazy mother. When her son dies in an accident, her mum kidnaps another child, whose mother is an occasional prostitute, and who doesn't seem to miss him much. The strands of the two women's lives intertwine time and again, ultimately with bloody results. The use of coincidence is very typical of Rendell, but the treatment somehow seems very Gallic, and the effect is rather stylish.

It's one of those films where you really can't be sure what is going to happen. I found I just about believed in the story, despite various implausibilities, and it certainly kept me gripped from start to finish. An odd movie, perhaps, but a good one. John is a sound judge!

Friday 11 November 2011

Forgotten Book - The Pursued

My forgotten book for today is a rarity – a lost book that has just resurfaced and been published for the very first time, 76 years after it was written. The Pursued is the third crime novel C.S.Forester wrote before he turned his attention away from the genre.

His crime debut, Payment  Deferred, is a bleak masterpiece, and Forester really could write – anyone who dismisses him because he is best known for his naval tales about Horatio Hornblower is making a mistake, in my opinion. In The Pursued, he evokes the desperate gentility of suburban life between the wars with great skill, and his characterisation is excellent.

Marjorie Grainger returns home one night to find that her sister Dot has gassed herself. At least, the inquest verdict is suicide, but it turns out Dot was pregnant, and Marjorie begins to fear that her randy, aggressive husband Ted was responsible for both the pregnancy and the death. But Marjorie is a weak woman in many ways, unwilling to act. Very different is her mother, Mrs Clair, who embarks on a relentless yet ultimately incoherent plan to achieve revenge....

This is a terrific read, with elements drawn from true crime cases, including the Crippen story. I did feel that the latter stages of the novel were rather hurried, as though Forester wanted to get back to his naval stories. But I really enjoyed The Pursued and to my mind it’s a milestone in the genre’s history. Thank goodness the manuscript, lost for so many years, finally turned up.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is a low-budget movie that has achieved a great deal of popularity. Rather like The Blair Witch Project, it’s a wobbly-camera film, with little-known actors. And it’s also quite good at building suspense.

The set-up is simple. A young couple, Katie and Micah, have moved in to a nice new home, only to find that Katie is pursued by the eponymous activity. They call in an expert, only to find him less than helpful. Micah’s big idea is to buy a camera so that he can film whatever is happening in their home. And the action takes place through the camera lens. So we get a great deal of inactivity, punctuated by bursts of drama.

The relationship between the characters is well done, and in many ways is the best part of the film. As doubts rise to the surface, their contented life together comes under fatal pressure. This is at least as gripping as what is happening in the house, which – one guesses – will not be clearly explained at the end.

I thought this was a good film, although not as brilliant as its reputation might suggest. Perfectly watchable, though, and with a climax that leaves the way open for a sequel.

Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin

Bruce Montgomery was the real name of the detective novelist Edmund Crispin, who wrote his first novel while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. I read his most famous book, The Moving Toyshop, when I was about 14, some time before I thought about going to university. It's a book full of high spirits, which makes good use of the Oxford setting. It appealed to me more than Gaudy Night, that's for sure.

Crispin was influenced by John Dickson Carr, rather more than by Michael Innes, who wrote even more stories with an Oxford background, and I must say Carr is more to my taste than Innes, because the mystery plots are more compelling. But Crispin produced nothing for many years, and when his amateur sleuth Gervase Fen finally reappeared, I found The Glimpses of the Moon a sad disappointment.

David Whittle's sympathetic biography, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: a life in music and books, explains the downward trajectory of his subject's life. He was an alcoholic, who suffered a good deal of ill health in his later years. It's a sad story, and his rather inept love life sounds rather depressing.

And yet he achieved a good deal. Not only those excellent early mysteries (though as a crime novelist he was burned out at 30) but also light music - he wrote often for films, including Carry On and Doctor movies. He was friendly with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, and in some ways as talented. Whittle gives a good deal of insight into a life that began brilliantly, but all too soon entered a decline. A pricey but worthwhile biography.

Monday 7 November 2011

Wake Wood - movie review

It's a long time since I read much horror fiction, although in my teens I devoured a number of the short story collections published by Pan, Faber and Fontana. As for horror films, many of them seem obsessed with gore and violence, so I usually give them a miss. But fictional horror at its best can be terrific, as Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson and others have shown.

My favourite horror movie is The Wicker Man, and the very recent film Wake Wood does have some echoes of its brilliant predecessor. The only daughter of a vet and pharmacist is mauled to death by a dog, and in an attempt to cope with their overwhelming grief, the couple move to a small and remote village where they can try to rebuild their life together.

However, it soon becomes clear that there are dark goings-on in the nearby woods. Somehow, the villagers have discovered the secret of bringing a person who has died within the last 12 months back to life – but for three days only. And there are some rather spooky conditions to be met by anyone who wants to avail themselves of this chance to say goodbye for the last time.

Needless to say, the couple cannot resist temptation, and enter into a sort of Faustian pact, which has foreseeably terrible consequences. It's hokum, of course, but done surprisingly well, and the final scene is genuinely memorable and chilling. Much of the power of the film derives from the performances of Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle as the bereaved couple, and of Timothy Spall, who presides over the village's rituals with a mixture of geniality and menace that avoids the risk of over-acting the part into absurdity. Although there are some graphic scenes, I would recommend this film to horror fans. It isn't in the same league as The Wicker Man, but it's still a pretty good example of its kind.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Oxford Today and Crime Fiction Reviews

Why is it that some books attract more attention than others? I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer. I’ve written at least one book – Take My Breath Away – that I thought was good but which made little impression on reviewers. But, thankfully, the Lake District Mysteries have done better. And, when you’ve been around for a long time, it is often hard to get attention for your  work.

The Hanging Wood has now become one of my more successful books in terms of reviews. It’s attracted favourable attention in The Times and The Literary Review, a column in The Guardian, and pleasing comments elsewhere, here, in the US, and on Amazon. And now it’s been highlighted in Oxford Today, a glossy magazine with a big readership: “stylish writing and a gripping plot make the perfect crime thriller.”

I’m very gratified, since reviews do matter. And the merit of positive reviews is that they are good for morale and motivation. There’s no doubt that, this week-end, I’ll write with greater zest because of this latest review.

And this is something I bear in mind when reviewing the books of others, especially those of living writers. It’s not about offering constant praise without a single caveat, because that tends to devalue the review. But I do like to look for the positives, especially with writers who aren’t best-sellers, and who deserve to be better known. Above all, I think it’s right to try to review a book on the basis of what it is trying to achieve, rather than what it isn’t.

Friday 4 November 2011

That Woman Opposite

Today - a forgotten film, based on a relatively forgotten book. I have John Curran to thank for recommending that I take a look at a 1957 black and white mystery movie, That Woman Opposite (the title seems very dated now, doesn't it?) I'd never heard of it before, nor did I realise that a John Dickson Carr novel had been adapted for film. The book was The Emperor's Snuffbox, which I haven't read, so I'm not sure if it's faithful to the original.

The cast is very good. Wilfred Hyde White, whom I always enjoyed watching, plays an old buffer who collects pricey antiques. His son is played by Jack Watling, who long ago starred in a TV series called The Plane Makers which I distantly recall my Dad watching avidly. And his daughter is played by...Petula Clark, whom I associate more with that great song 'Downtown'.

The old chap witnesses a crime committed by a bad hat (William Franklyn, best known for the Schweppes ads of the 60s) who is the ex-husband of a pretty woman who is engaged to the priggish son. An insurance investigator takes a shine to her, and we can bet that sooner or later she will succumb to his charm, even though she is about to marry. And then the old chap is murdered, and she becomes the prime suspect.

The story moves along at a decent pace, and although the mystery was more inconsequential than I'd expected (not a locked room in sight) I enjoyed it a lot. One of the better period pieces of its era, I'd say, and if you're looking for an agreeable piece of light entertainment, I'd recommend it to you, as John did to me.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Devil's Priest lives again

Like most writers at present, I find my thoughts much occupied by ebooks. And I'm not the only one. Kate Ellis has used digital publishing to bring back to life her historical mystery The Devil's Priest. So I invited her to tell me, and us, more about it.

'History has always featured strongly in my Wesley Peterson novels, which are set in the modern day but always have an additional mystery from the past somewhere in the background. However, several years ago I wrote a novel set entirely in the sixteenth century during the reign of Henry VIII. As I was concentrating on Wesley and his heavy caseload at the time, it was taken on by a small publisher and a few years ago it went out of print, which was a pity because many of my readers told me they loved it…and even asked when I was going to make it into a series. Because I was busy with other projects, The Devil’s Priest lay forgotten for a while…until the advent of the e-book revolution!

All my other novels have been issued as e-books but, as The Devil’s Priest wasn’t with a major publisher, it fell to me to arrange for it to be brought out on Kindle. My husband and my Systems Analyst son tackled the difficult technical stuff and now I’m very proud to see it there on Amazon, available to my readers at a bargain price.

Although I wrote The Devil’s Priest some time ago I recall vividly how much I enjoyed carrying out the extensive research into life in Tudor Cheshire and Liverpool. The initial idea emerged from the history of my local church. Back in the 1530s, the Rector of Cheadle in Cheshire had a sister who was Abbess of Godstow in Oxford. Her name was Lady Katheryn Bulkeley and, as Abbess of a major religious house, she must have been one of the most powerful women in the land. In the course of my research I found letters written by her to Thomas Cromwell during the dissolution of the monasteries, in which she stood up for the rights of her abbey and her Sisters with a remarkable blend of tact and defiance. On the closure of Godstow Abbey this feisty woman came home to live with her brother in Cheshire where she died in 1559 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church where he was Rector.

With such a strong historical character so close at hand I couldn’t resist giving her a mystery to solve so at the beginning of The Devil’s Priest she receives word that one of her former novice nuns is facing deep trouble in the small port of Liverpool some forty miles away. Of course Lady Katheryn answers the desperate cry for help with dark and sinister consequences.

So, thanks to the development of e-books, readers can again enjoy Lady Katheryn’s perilous investigation. And I hope everyone enjoys reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it!'