Monday 30 January 2012

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is a stunning film. I found it both extremely sinister and extraordinarily poignant - a remarkable combination. The best film I saw in 2011 was The King's Speech, but it will take something quite dazzling to make a greater impact on me this year than Never Let Me Go.

The film is based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I haven't read, and the screenplay by Alex Garland is, as I gather from what I've read, pretty faithful to the original, although the secret of Hailsham School, where two young girls and a boy become friends, is revealed quite early on. A few critics have complained that the film is too bleak, or too slow, and it seems that it wasn't quite as commercially successful as may have been expected. But no matter. I think it is a film that will last, because it is a subtle yet very true exploration of fundamentals of human nature.

A great deal is left unsaid, and that can sometimes be irritating. But not here. Any thoughtful viewer will be interested in trying to fill in the gaps. This is not a "crime" film, and I doubt whether it's very useful to think of it mainly in sci-fi terms either, but the way in which suspense is built and maintained impressed me.

I've avoided saying much about the storyline, because I don't want to spoil it. But the actors deserve great praise. Carey Mulligan (even better here than she was in a smaller role in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which I enjoyed over the Christmas break) conveys pathos and decency superbly. Andrew Garfield, as Tommy, the doomed boy she loves, is highly charismatic, while Keira Knightley is good too, despite finding it difficult to look unattractive when her character faces "completion".

I'll remember this film for a long time, and also think hard about its messages. I recommend it unreservedly.

Friday 27 January 2012

Forgotten Book - The Bleston Mystery

My forgotten book today is The Bleston Mystery, first published in 1928. The author is named as Robert Milward Kennedy, but that pen-name concealed a writing duo. One of the collaborators was Milward Kennedy, whom I’ve written about several times in this blog. The other was someone who had been to the same school as Kennedy – A.G. Macdonell, who later became well known as a humorous writer, his most famous title being England, Their England.

This book is quite different from Kennedy’s solo efforts. It’s a fast-moving, rather light-hearted story, slightly reminiscent of some of the lively thrillers that Agatha Christie wrote in the 20s, especially those featuring the Beresfords. I thought it stood up to the test of time rather well – better than I had expected, to be honest. There is a twist in the tale, and although I foresaw the surprise revelation, I thought it was skilfully handled.

Oddly enough, the main protagonist in this romp is called Kennedy, but his first name is Philip. The book opens with a visit to his home by a sinister foreigner, quickly followed by the news that he is one of two legatees of a dead friend, and the promise of something both mysterious and valuable about his inheritance. Several killings follow, and it becomes clear that Philip’s life is also at risk unless and until he solves the puzzle of a deserted camp at Bleston which had once housed German prisoners of war.

After this collaboration, Kennedy and Macdonell seem to have gone their separate ways, at least in literary terms. I can trace no further joint efforts of theirs. They each achieved a measure of success with solo efforts – perhaps especially Macdonell, prior to his early death in 1941. But The Bleston Mystery ranks as an enjoyable, if little known, piece of light entertainment.

Thursday 26 January 2012

The Travelling Writer - and Reader

I'm going to be away for a few days, although there are blog posts scheduled to appear in the usual way, starting with a Forgotten Book tomorrow that is both rare and enjoyable.

I'm looking forward to the chance to do a bit more thinking about my current novel in progress. It took ages for me to get going with this one, but now I've got over the mental barriers that were in the way, I'm quite excited by the story-line. And for an author, that's important, for if we are not excited by what we write, how can we expect our readers to be?

I don't expect to do much actual writing while I'm away, though. I have still not got into the habit of writing fiction on a laptop, a failing I really ought to correct one of these days. There is a view that writers should write each and every day, without fail, and I can see the logic of this, but I'm afraid I never quite manage to achieve it.

I'm also eagerly anticipating the chance to catch up with some reading - a mix of Golden Age and more recent books, I guess: some material for future posts! Unfortunately, I expect to have limited access to the internet whilst I'm away, so I apologise in advance for any tardiness in responding to any comments on the posts that you may be kind enough to make.

But I'll be back very soon!

Wednesday 25 January 2012


Unfinished, presented by Alastair Sooke, was shown by the BBC to coincide with its airing of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Sooke, who is an art critic for The Daily Telegraph, started with Droodism, and interviewed the screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes, before moving on to consider other unfinished works, continuations of characters or story-lines begun by others, and other variations on the theme of completion (or its absence.)

His range was broad, taking in Sanditon by Jane Austen, a portrait of George Washington, poems by Siegfried Sassoon, Franz Kafka, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and The Sopranos. There might be a risk that such diversity would lead to superficiality, but Sooke managed to surmount the hurdle with ease, presenting in an intelligent yet accessible and engaging style that made the programme quite fascinating.

I found that my thoughts were provoked on several levels. This is a subject that has intrigued me ever since I finished Bill Knox’s The Lazarus Widow, and I was also shown an incomplete manuscript by another deceased writer some time ago, which I felt was too fragmentary to complete in a meaningful way. Jill Paton Walsh has, impressively, finished one Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and written two others, and her work in this field is also fascinating, though it did not earn a mention in the programme. Has anyone ever written a novel about an unfinished book? I am sure it must have been done plenty of times, but off-hand I can’t call any examples to mind.

One final point about Alastair Sooke. I’d never heard of him before this programme, but I did take to him, and towards the end of the show, I suddenly realised why. Odd as it may seem, he reminded me, just a bit, of my personal vision of Daniel Kind.

Monday 23 January 2012

Suspense and The Innocents

During the first term of my A Level English Literature course at school, my two English teachers decided to try out a very enlightened experiment. Rather than teaching to the syllabus for the examination, they would introduce the class to a wide range of other books, almost all of them written in the 20th century. To this day, I am grateful that this caused me to read some books that otherwise I might have missed. It really benefited my appreciation of literature.

Amongst many other things, we read Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. This was the earliest of the books on our list, first published in 1898. I was greatly impressed, as I was with the film version – which was also screened for us in the classroom . This was The Innocents, a film made in 1961 and starring Deborah Kerr as the governess. The script had input from Truman Capote and John Mortimer, and music by Georges Auric – no wonder it’s widely regarded as a classic.

On New Year’s Eve, we watched The Innocents – the first time I’ve seen it since I was 16. Half a century after it was made, it remains a very striking piece of work, genuinely memorable. What impresses me most is the way the suspense is created. It’s a marvellous example of how tension can be built with subtlety. The film captures the ambiguity of James’ text brilliantly, even though he isn’t the easiest writer to adapt for film or TV by a long chalk.

Seeing the film again has prompted me to think about ambiguity in fiction, and how it can be used to enhance a story, rather than irritating the reader, if carefully handled. The film also suggests a number of techniques (such as foreshadowing) for developing suspense without resort to crude effects (lots of dead bodies, in a nutshell!) There is, for instance, a sexual sub-text to the story, but James handles it sensitively, and indirectly, and although I gather the film originally attracted an ‘X’ certificate, it is all the more powerful because the sexual elements are under-stated.

Of course, we live in an age when many readers and moviegoers demand action. And I’m one of the first to complain if a supposed thriller is “too slow”. But The Innocents is a powerful reminder of the fact that it is possible to make a lasting impact through nuanced film-making, and of course the same principle can be applied to writing fiction. Even in an unashamedly commercial genre such as crime, it isn’t always necessary to resort to lots of gore and explicit violence.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Birdsong: review

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks,has finally made it to television, and I've just watched the first episode. Faulks, of course, isn't a "crime writer", despite his recent foray into the world of James Bond with Devil May Care, but along with Ian McEwan (who is possibly my favourite - I'll be writing more about him before long) and one or two others, he is in the top rank of contemporary British novelists. There is a lot that genre writers can learn from studying such masters of the craft of fiction.

I very much enjoyed the TV version of Birdsong. Briefly, it tells the story of Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire, who meeet when he visits Amiens during the Edwardian era - she is the wife of a hard-nosed French businessman with whom he has an association. The pair enjoy a torrid affair, and memories of it return to Wraysford when he is fighting for his life in the Somme.

The lead roles are taken by Eddie Redmayne and Clemence Poesy, and both gave strong performances. The scenes set in pre-war Amiens were quite beautifully photographed, but it was the graphic scenes set in the horrors of the trenches that made by far the biggest impact. This was television drama at its most powerful.

As it happens, I haven't read Faulks' book: one of all too many gaps in my mainstream reading. Does not knowing the book make a difference to the viewing experience? Possibly, although when I watch (say) adaptations of crime novels by the likes of Mark Billingham, Ann Cleeves or Peter Robinson, I don't find it difficult to draw a distinction between original material and the TV version. I'm equally happy to come to a TV adaptation fresh, or to try to assess it on its own merits as distinct from the source. Certainly, Reg Hill was strongly of the view that the TV versions of Dalziel and Pascoe were very different works from his novels about the duo. I prefer the books of Mark, Ann, Peter and Reg to the TV versions, but to say this is not to denigrate the adaptations. And I can think of one or two other adaptations that outshine the originals. This drama has made me want to read Birdsong, but when I do, I'll treat it as a different experience from watching Abi Morgan's script brought to life on the screen.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Short Stories

"Clutter", a short story I wrote for the CWA anthology Original Sins, is due to be published shortly in the latest volume of The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime edited by the tireless Maxim Jakubowski. It's one of my darkest stories, it has to be said, very different in tone and subject matter from, say, the Harry Devlin books or the Lake District Mysteries. But the central idea seemed to me well suited to the short form.

A fellow contributor is Nigel Bird, whose Sea Minor blog features on my blogroll, and he kindly invited me to answer a few crisp questions about short stories.

A word about that marvellous short story "The Lottery". By coincidence, this morning I've received from that excellent bookseller Jamie Sturgeon a copy of a book by Shirley Jackson in which she describes the baffled reaction to that amazing story after it first appeared in The New Yorker. She makes many thoughtful comments about both writing and reading that also have a bearing on some current discussions about reviewing on the blogosphere. Fascinating topic,and one I'll return to in future.

Friday 20 January 2012

Remembering Two Stars

A time for reflection, today. Along with Jessica Mann, I was interviewed for Radio 4's obituary programme, Last Word, which aired this afternoon and which featured a tribute to Reg Hill. There were some quotes from interviews with Reg himself, and it was sad and strange to think that I won't be hearing that distinctive, civilised voice again.

And today, Etta James died. Evidently someone who had a very troubled life, to put it mildly, but a great singer. My favourite of her recordings, although it was never a hit, and is little known, is Waiting For Charlie To Come Home. It's a superb song, and you can hear it on Youtube - there is also a very good version by Trinitje Oosterhuis, and quite a good one by Karima, but Etta James' original remains definitive. How sad, again, that we won't be hearing that voice again, but at least we have the recordings.

Forgotten Book - Dorothy and Agatha

My Forgotten Book for today dates back just 20 years. It is an American mystery, Dorothy and Agatha, and the author is Gaylord Larsen. The eponymous ladies are, needless to add, Sayers and Christie, and the supporting cast includes various prominent members of the Detection Club.

Regular readers of this blog can probably guess at my delight when I learned of and tracked down this novel. Larsen’s lovely idea of setting a story around the Club offers terrific potential, and I wish I’d been the first to think of it. But of course, an idea is one thing. Executing it successfully is something very different.

The story opens with the discovery of a dead man at Dorothy’s home in Essex. He is found slumped over a typewriter, and there is with him an apparent suicide note. Was he a distraught lover? No, it turns out that murder has been done, and Sayers and in particular Agatha Christie are the ideal people to solve it.

The dust jacket claims that Larsen “has rendered every detail of character and place with uncanny accuracy”. Unfortunately, this is so far off the mark as to be hilarious. Take for instance the author’s apparent belief that Chester (where Agatha watches a soccer match...) is located in the Lake District, and is a shortish drive away from Essex. Now, I wouldn’t want to be excessively pedantic about the countless factual errors and historical and chronological anachronisms. When writing about a foreign country and different era, mistakes are almost inevitable, and I’m as likely to get things wrong as most other writers. But here there are just too many howlers, page after page, and most could have been avoided by elementary care. The bizarre portrayal of Oxford life, for instance, might be forgivable, but the repeated references to “Summerville College” and the suggestion that Anthony Berkeley was president of the Detection Club are just lazy. Whatever happened to fact-checking and the editorial process?

And then there is the dialogue. Where do I begin? Dorothy saying to Agatha, “We’re a couple of stodgy, middle-aged storytelling dames.”? Agatha saying to E.C. Bentley , “Edmund, I’m sorry. I’ve gotten you out of bed?” You get the picture.

In defence of Gaylord Larsen, he can write agreeably, and the pages turn quickly. He deserves genuine praise for coming up with a concept of real interest and exciting potential. What is more, his “least likely person” plot isn’t at all bad. These positive points do need to be made, not least because I don't care much for reviews that are wholly negative. It's not right to overlook redeeming features. But I'm afraid that, overall, Dorothy and Agatha has to rank as, to put it kindly, a missed opportunity.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

The Danish Scene of Crime

That splendid blogger, and great crime fan (and nowadays, crime writer) Dorte H is someone whose fair and thoughtful observations about the genre are always well worth studying. She was one of a number of bloggers I met in person, along with her husband (at a pub quiz!) for the first time last year, and now she's kindly agreed to contribute to this blog a study of the Danish crime scene. I found it fascinating and I am sure other readers will agree.

"When I was young, so little happened on the Danish scene of crime that we had to turn to either America for hardboiled thrillers or Britain for police procedurals (to generalize a tad....)

In the late 1990s, a few things began to happen, though. Inspired by our Swedish and Norwegian neighbours, the ´femikrimi trend´ hit Denmark. Actually there were two trends by the same name; first the serious trend where former journalists wrote crime fiction with a strong, feminist message. The Danish writer Elsebeth Egholm carved a name for herself in Denmark in the same way as Liza Marklund did in Sweden with their independent, female journalists who wouldn´t take no for an answer when they were on a mission. Another Danish writer of this category is Gretelise Holm whose sixtyish protagonist is a free and active spirit, also sexually. A mature woman who puts up a fight when male bosses and colleagues try to keep her down.

The other femikrimi trend is not as common in Denmark but represented by well-known Swedish writers such as Camilla Läckberg and Mari Jungstedt. Some Scandinavian reviewers have dubbed their books chicklit with crime or lipstick literature, and instead of the anger and injustice which colour some of the feminist books, they deal with the female characters´down-to-earth struggles with love and family life. The only Danish writer who springs to my mind is Sanne Udsen.

Finally, a pre-millenium writer who is difficult to pin down but deserves a paragraph. And how to introduce Susanne Staun? Readers of my blog will know she has been one of my favourites ever since I read the first Fanny Fiske mystery. Staun did not only chose an old, female protagonist. She let her go through so much plastic surgery that her surgeon had to remind her of Michal Jackson! Nevertheless this tough and sturdy profiler is never short of young flesh (do you smell a crime fiction cliché turned upside-down here?) The books are well-written, terribly exciting and full of pitchblack humour.

Unfortunately the global recession also hit the publishing business in Denmark a few years ago. Traditional publishers are very unwilling to take chances with new writers, and just like the rest of the world, they have been busy looking for the next Stieg Larsson.

So for a couple of years we have seen a boom of fastpaced thrillers (but without any Lisbeth Salanders to make them stand out). For a Swedish example of these Larsson lights, I could mention Lars Kepler´s The Hypnotist, but I believe the Danish debut Svinehunde (which means pigs or bastards) by Lotte and Søren Hammer is also on its way in English. What they have in common is lots of action. The Hypnotist begins with the truly horrible slaughtering of a family, Svinehunde with five bodies swinging from the ceiling of a gymnasium. At least Svinehunde offers some kind of moral message though not quite successfully. Well, it seems that Scandinavian readers want these less than credible orgies in violence, but the reviews are mixed...

Finally the really good news (if you ask me). After some meagre decades when we secretly envied the Swedish writers who achieved worldwide fame, three of our very best series are on their way to a wider audience. One of them is Elsebeth Egholm´s Next of Kin, her fourth Dicte Svendsen mystery (see above) which was published in Australia last year.

Jussi Adler-Olsen´s first police procedural about Carl Mørck was published in Britain last spring, and I have enjoyed reading a handfuld of enthusiastic, English reviews of this excellent series. I have read four volumes now and believe me, they grow better and better. Mørck is a somewhat reluctant police officer, but he is spurred on by his unorthodox sidekick, the immigrant Assad. Dark, exciting and with some comic relief.

Furthermore, a great series written by two female writers, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, has been snatched by the American publisher Soho, also in the past year. They have both written children´s fiction before, but the series about Red Cross nurse Nina Borg is their first thriller. You could say that this series has a bit of it all. At first I feared Nina Borg would be too bland and idealistic, but as the plot develops, we realize that she is nicely flawed. When I reviewed the first one, I stated that it was the best Danish thriller I had ever read. So perhaps this book is closer to Stieg Larsson´s series than any of the others: a drama that keeps you on the edge of your chair, but also a female protagonist you cannot get enough of.

What these series have in common are that even though they are exciting, the writers put character development & detection above sheer action, and they all offer interesting settings.

Available in English:

Elsebeth Egholm, Next of Kin (Australia)

Jussi Adler-Olsen, Mercy (Britain)

Kaaberbøl & Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase (the USA)"

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen is a Danish blogger and writer of crime fiction. Her debut novel, the humorous mystery "The Cosy Knave" was published in August this year, and her latest publication is an anthology of funny Christmas crime stories, "Christmas in Knavesborough". They take place in the same fictional Yorkshire village but can be read separately.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Blogging thoughts

Such is the interest in Sherlock that my post on The Reichenbach Fall seems already to have become comfortably the most viewed post I've ever placed on this blog. Blimey - had I anticipated that, I'd have written it more elegantly instead of last thing on Sunday night!

I must admit that I am slightly wary of blog statistics - they seem a bit erratic, and since the changes to my blog template, figures for the first year or so have disappeared into the ether. Figures do seem to be generally higher in winter months than in summer, although that makes sense. But it does seem clear that this blog is visited more often now than ever before, even though I no longer post each day.

I'm glad that people keep finding and then returning to the blog, and I'm grateful in particular to those who read it regularly, many of whom, I know, don't necessarily comment. This level of interest is truly rewarding, especially given that pressure of work means I often don't find the time to do as many links and include as many images as would be desirable (the achievements in this respect of some other bloggers are much more impressive.) I must add that when I was experiencing a variety of stresses over the past couple of years, the support I received from you was enormously positive and meant a great deal.

There's not much more I can do than once again say thank you. But as a special treat for you, tomorrow I'm including a longer than usual post from one of the most impressive crime bloggers around. It's full of interest, I think, and I'm confident you'll agree.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall - review

Sherlock concluded its all too short three-episode run tonight with another cunningly titled episode - The Reichenbach Fall. Of course, I say "all too short", but part of the success of the series has been to leave viewers wanting more. The temptation for any writer is to outstay his or her welcome, whether with a series that has run out of steam, or a type of book that has passed its sell-by date. But this episode was probably as good as any we've seen to date. Will there be any more? We can only hope so.

I'm going to avoid spoilers, but I think even a Holmes super-purist would be impressed with the way the writers have taken themes from Conan Doyle's original stories, and updated them so cleverly that the effect is always of homage, not parody. And as the title of this episode suggests, there was a duel of wits between Sherlock and Moriarty which resulted in a dramatic climax.

Benedict Cumberbatch was as good as ever in the title role, but I was impressed also by Andrew Scott as Moriarty. At first, I wasn't convinced by the casting of Scott, which is certainly audacious, but the quality of his acting has won me over, as I'm sure it has won over many other doubters. The roof-top encounter brought out the best in both actors, while Martin Freeman was again excellent as the devoted Watson.

One of the many small touches that I've admired in this series was the casting of Douglas Wilmer, who celebrated his 92nd birthday earlier this month, as a guest in the Diogenes Club. Wilmer played Holmes in the TV series that I enjoyed very much as a young boy. He's not as celebrated as Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing but I felt he was a very good Sherlock, and it was great that he was included in this terrific show.

Friday 13 January 2012

Reginald Hill R.I.P.

I write this post with a very heavy heart, since I learned not long ago that Reg Hill died yesterday. He is an author I admired enormously – this week, by coincidence, I’ve been re-reading Pascoe’s Ghost – and I was proud to call him a friend. I’ve written about his work on a good many occasions, and his latest novel, The Woodcutter, was one of his very best. But what I want to do right now is just say a few words about the man himself.

When I first met Reg, on a memorable Sunday in Yorkshire nearly 25 years ago, he was already established as a prolific and highly successful author, although his greatest literary achievements still lay in the future. A couple of days earlier, I’d just finished reading a review copy of his short stories, There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union, and it was terrific to have the chance to talk to him, and his always charming wife Pat, at a lunch that marked the very first meeting of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association. Reg christened the group who met that day “the few”, and those who attended became my first friends in the crime writing community.

What I found then, and what never changed, was that Reg in person was exceptionally intelligent, but never condescending, strong-minded and honest but unfailingly generous, and, despite appearing on occasion to be quiet and reserved, quite simply, the wittiest person I’ve ever met.

We met many times after that – the photo was taken at Harrogate a couple of years ago, shortly after his famous conversation with John Banville - and most recently at a Detection Club dinner in London. He showed me many kindnesses, not least writing a fantastic intro to a collection of my short stories, and writing brand new stories of the highest quality when I sought contributions for anthologies. He also gave me a lot of very good advice, even though he maintained generally that the only advice that one writer should give to another is: "Don't wait for the post." (One specific piece of advice he gave me, I have yet to follow, but one day I will, and I bet he'll be proved right.) He even put me in touch with a TV company who were interested in filming a series set in the Lake District and who had initially approached him. Mind you, he also relished breaking the news to me on one occasion that he was working on a book to be called Killing the Lawyers.

For years, he chaired the sub-committee that short-lists notable crime writers for the CWA Diamond Dagger, and persuaded me to join; I found I was, in fact, the only other member. His theory was that committees should always be small, and in that, as in so many other judgments, he was wise. Suffice to say that, although his standards were properly exacting, he was the easiest and most agreeable of colleagues, and reaching a consensus on our short-list was always the prelude to a thoroughly enjoyable conversation on other things.

I have a great many happy memories of time spent with Reg Hill, including at a number of week-end conferences he organised in his beloved Lake District, and I have no doubt that, as well as missing him, I’ll often reflect in future on how lucky I was to get to know one of the most gifted British crime writers of the past half-century. But for now, it feels so sad that the world has lost a brilliant novelist, that many of us have lost a true friend, and most of all that Pat has lost a wonderful husband.

Forgotten Book - End Game

The Mystery of Edwin Drood's appearance on BBC 2 this week inspires my choice of a non-fiction Forgotten Book today - it is End Game by Richard F. Stewart, who was almost universally known as Dick Stewart. Dick, who died not too long ago, was a great guy. I used to visit his home in South Manchester, sometimes taking my long-suffering son along, and buy books from him. He and his wife made a delightful couple, and Jonathan still remembers those visits as happy occasions, because the Stewarts were so kind to him. I miss those visits a lot.

Anyway, back to End Game, which was published in 1999 by a very enterprising small publisher. Dick's idea was to list and assess all the main solutions to the Drood mystery, as well as all the completions actually written, and the commentaries. He acknowledges at the outset that so much has been written about Drood that a totally comprehensive account is impossible, but this is still a very substantial volume.

Dick quotes G.K. Chesterton's excellent line that "the only one of Dickens's novels which he did not finish was the only one that really needed finishing" - the story is a pleasing, if tantalising paradox. He lists eight basic questions that anyone trying to solve the puzzle needs to address. They admit of many answers. "Droodism has become a productive cottage industry during the 20th century", he notes, and of course this has continued into the 21st century.

All manner of sleuths have over the years, as Dick says, invoked "mesmerism, telepathy, serial photography, Thuggee, Sherlock Holmes and schizophrenia (to name but a few) in the search for a solution. The composer Rupert Holmes, one of whose excellent songs I featured in The Serpent Pool, wrote a musical based on the story. It's a great game, and Dick Stewart's book is a fascinating guide to it. Dick inscribed my copy "All you never wanted to know about Edwin Drood". Too modest, as he always was.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

The Mystery of Edwin Drood - part two - review

The Mystery of Edwin Drood concluded this evening, and I thought Gwyneth Hughes did a pretty good job in making this a watchable drama. I'm going to avoid spoilers in this post, but suffice to say that the screenplay included a couple of plot twists that were enjoyable, without resulting in a masterpiece.

I do think the adaptation was a worthwhile project, and what will stick in my mind about it longest, apart from the excellent portrayal of Jasper, is the atmosphere, in particular of the cathedral and its environs, which played a suitably important part in the resolution of the story.

Finishing a story that the original author left unfinished is a fascinating and extraordinary thing to do. I've written before about my work on completing The Lazarus Widow, begun by the late Bill Knox, and that experience has made me more interested than ever in the craft of completion. With The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a contemporary writer has the privilege of working with characters created by a literary genius, but also the challenge of producing a whole story which pleases a modern reader, whose tastes in crime and mystery are arguably more sophisticated and difficult to satisfy than those of Dickens' time. So I can guess that Hughes found the task demanding, but ultimately very rewarding.

I'm tempted to write more about the challenges posed by Edwin Drood's story. Perhaps on Friday, in the context of a Forgotten Book that I'm rather fond of.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

The Mystery of Edwin Drood - review

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a two-part BBC TV adaptation of Charles Dickens' last, unfinished novel. It's a very long time since I read the original, but it's always fascinated me that Dickens moved in the direction of the crime and mystery genre in the later part of his career. Bleak House is one of my favourite novels, not only because of its portrayal of legal life, and the endless litigation of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, but also because of the part played by Inspector Bucket, a splendid character. Dickens was, like his friend Wilkie Collins, very interested in true crime, as well as having his imagination sparked by an element of mystery.

I've often wondered if, had he lived, Dickens would have made a greater contribution to the development of the crime genre - it is, surely, highly probable. In the past, I've published two short stories featuring the great man, once detecting alongside Collins, and once in partnership with Elizabeth Gaskell. They were great fun to write, and one of these days, I might do another.

Back to the BBC TV show. The screenplay was written by Gwyneth Hughes, who once wrote a screenplay for The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, in which Diana Rigg was unexpectedly cast as Gladys Mitchell's saurian detective. But the mood here was far removed from Golden Age territory - it was dark, hallucinatory and (or is there a twist up Hughes' sleeve?) a study of crime rather than a whodunit.

Matthew Rhys was impressive as the opium-tormented John Jasper, and Freddie Fox, from the famous acting family, played Edwin. The first episode began with a nightmare and ended with a killing. Yet the action was stripped down and this meant that the development of the story was not as labyrinthine as I'd rather expected. Writing this post immediately after watching, I still feel as though I want to mull over my reaction to this particular take on the story. But it has gripped me sufficiently for me to be keen to watch episode two tomorrow.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville review

Sherlock continued brilliantly this evening with The Hounds of Baskerville, second in the three episode run starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the sage of 221B Baker Street, Martin Freeman as Dr Watson, and Una Stubbs as an unlikely but appealing Mrs Hudson.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is far and away the best of the four longer Holmes stories. The idea came from a man called Fletcher Robinson (whose family business in Liverpool I've long had a happy relationship with, oddly enough) and I recall that the press once gave some publicity to a strange theory that Conan Doyle was responsible for Robinson's death. A book was supposed to be being written about it, but as far as I know, it never saw the light of day. If anyone knows otherwise, I'd be interested to hear more.

Back to Sherlock in the 21st century. Mark Gatiss used elements from the original story very cleverly. There was even a character called Fletcher. Baskerville turned out to be a sinister research centre, and the character given the name of Stapleton proved to be female. She was played by the excellent Amelia Bullimore, last seen as as a senior cop in Scott & Bailey. Sherlock's first visit to Baskerville was a marvellously funny and clever scene.

As with last week's A Scandal in Belgravia, I found the story very enjoyable - perhaps even better. I am sure many others did too, given that my post about last week's episode seems (if Blogger stats are to be believed, which I'm not sure about) to have attracted more page views than all but four of over 1300 previous posts.

Friday 6 January 2012

Celia Dale R.I.P.

Celia Dale died on the last day of last year, just a few days short of her 100th birthday. She was a crime writer of some distinction, and yet to the best of my knowledge, this post is the first to note her passing.

Her first book appeared as long ago as 1943. She'd worked at one time, I gather, as a secretary to that fine writer Rumer Godden, and it was quite a while before she began to focus primarily on the crime genre. But when she did so, her spare and highly effective style, coupled with a good deal of insight into human nature, made her a most accomplished practitioner.

She won the CWA Short Story Award in 1986, and her collection A Personal Call and other stories, which gathers 18 stories, is a very good read. Sheep's Clothing and A Helping Hand are excellent novels which I much enjoyed. The late Harry Keating said that she had "the accuracy, understanding and quiet wit of Jane Austen", and Susan Hill lauded her as "a past mistress of the bizarre truth behind normal facades".

Yet, although Faber Finds have happily made a few of her books available again, today Celia Dale is not well remembered by modern crime fans, and I think that's a real pity. She's also been neglected by the crime reference books. When I researched her career for this post, in fact, the only passing mention I found in seven or eight weighty tomes was one by - me, on the subject of her sympathetic portrayal of victims. I do hope this post will encourage fans of quiet psychological suspense to seek out her work. They won't be disappointed.

Monday 2 January 2012

Endeavour: review

Endeavour, shown this evening on ITV, is a relative rarity in detective fiction, a prequel. You can guess from the title that it concerned the early days of Colin Dexter's much-loved Inspector Morse. We have, of course, seen attempts at the early life of Sherlock Holmes, although as yet we've been spared stories about the youthful exploits of Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple (though, who knows, perhsaps some TV mogul somewhere is even now thinking about suitably inappropriate casting ideas.)

The first question I asked myself before watching was: do we really need a prequel? It is clearly a money-spinner, but does it really add anything to our appreciation of the character? After all, there are plenty of excellent books (and also some written by me!) that it would be good to see on TV, yet which are unlikely to make the small screen any time soon. You can argue that it's a pity that TV companies prefer the safe, the tried and tested, to taking a risk with something unfamiliar. And, joking and personal bias apart, I do think this is a pity. But it's also commercial reality. TV is a business, and the Morse franchise has been hugely successful. Artistically succesful, too. What's more, although I was initially resistant to the concept of Lewis, I've found it so entertaining that I've become a real fan. So I was more than ready to set aside instinctive prejudice against the concept.

My conclusion is that the experiment was definitely worthwhile. Russell Lewis, the scriptwriter, did an extremely good job (again I find myself doing a bit of teeth-gnashing, since although I've never met him, Russell Lewis was once mooted as a prospective scriptwriter for a TV version of the Harry Devlin stories, which more than once were the subject of an options deal that never turned into something that was filmed.) In particular, I liked the nods to the original stories - not just the cameo appearance of Colin Dexter, or the casting of Abigail Thaw, daugher of the irreplaceable John, but various neat bits of scripting. Oxford, of course, remains one of the most photogenic of settings for a classic mystery.

Shaun Evans did a decent job of the very difficult task of playing young Morse. I also very much liked Roger Allam's performance as his boss, Inspector Thursday. As for the whodunit plot, it followed a formula familiar to Morse fans. I shall say no more! But it was entertaining from start to finish.

The big question now is whether Endeavour will prove to be a pilot for a series. I have mixed feelings, for the reasons I've mentioned. But I did enjoy this show, and I certainly wouldn't bet against our seeing more stories about Morse's early career before too long.

One final thought. I remember clearly watching the very first episode of Inspector Morse. Apparently it was back in 1987, four years before I had a mystery of my own published. Talk about time flying...

Sunday 1 January 2012

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia: review

Sherlock returned to the screens this evening for a very welcome second series with A Scandal in Belgravia. The title is, of course, a play on the title of the first Holmes short story, 'A Scandal in Bohemia', but I wonder if the scriptwriter, Steven Moffat, is aware that it is also the title of a very good book by Robert Barnard? In fact, it might just be my favourite of Bob Barnard's many entertaining novels.

Back to Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch is splendidly cast as the great detective brought up to date for the 21st century, while Martin Freeman is a likeable Watson. If you buy into the basic concept - and I do - then there's much to enjoy in these shows, given that the scriptwriters have a real feel for detective fiction and an evident respect for Conan Doyle's achievements. Moffat has also done great work on Doctor Who, but there's a danger, as one or two episodes of Doctor Who have shown in the last couple of years, that the demands of filling an extended time slot can lead to some narrative padding. Happily, that wasn't a problem in this episode, even though it lasted for 90 minutes. It was very well crafted.

There were plenty of witty lines (I enjoyed "The Geek Interpreter", for instance), but the story was also strong, with seemingly random jokes at the start of the story turning out to form a part of quite an intricate plot which avoided tedious over-elaboration. It involved Irene Adler as a dominatrix, in possession of compromising material kept on her mobile phone. Sherlock got hold of the phone - but what was the password to unlock it? The solution to this particular puzzle was very neat.

The supporting cast was strong. Mrs Hudson is given a distinctive personality by Una Stubbs, while Mycroft Holmes is played in suitably aloof fashion by Mark Gatiss, co-creator of this series, and a succesful detective novelist himself (I haven't read his books yet, but this is a gap in my reading I must fill). And Lara Pulver was suitably glamorous as Irene Adler. You could see why Sherlock thought she was the woman.