Wednesday 29 February 2012

Sally Spedding and Cold Remains

Although this blog has been running for more than four years, I have to put my hands up and admit that I haven't got round to mentioning all the interesting books, past and present, and writers that I've come across. Not by a long chalk.

One writer I don't think I've covered is Sally Spedding, who first came to my attention a number of years back through her short stories (via the CWA anthology - compiling which gives me the chance to be the first reader of some terrific work). I was glad to include her story "The Anniversary" in Crime on the Move, an anthology I edited back in 2005.

Sally is also an experienced novelist, and I recall enjoying Wringland, which first came out about a decade ago. She's not a conventional whodunit writer, though. There is a Gothic tinge to some of her work and I find her writing quite distinctive. She comes from Wales, and is very familiar with France - two countries which feature recurrently in her work.

Her latest, Cold Remains, has just been published by Sparkling Books. It's a supernatural thriller set in old lead mine working in rural Carmarthenshire. Intriguingly, a course for writers features in the book - but this story is quite different from Ann Cleeves' The Glass Room, which included a similar course. If you like something a bit unusual in comparison to a typical detective fare, you might find Sally's work a very welcome discovery.

Monday 27 February 2012

The American - movie review

George Clooney has a compelling screen presence, and although his acting range in The American is relatively limited, the appeal of his likeable personality is the main reason to watch this movie. And he is somehow likeable, even though here he is playing a hit man - who also puts together guns for others to use.

The action starts before the title credits. The scene is Sweden, and Clooney is in a remote spot with his girlfriend. They go out in the snow, but someone tries to kill him. Clooney shoots a couple of bad guys, and his cold-hearted boss tells him that he can't afford to have any friends. He.soon finishes up in a small and pretty Italian town, where - guess what? He makes friends with the local priest, and also with a prostitute called Clara. But can he trust them?

Clooney conveys the edginess of his character well, even though we never learn much about him, and who exactly he works for. Really, this is a film where the focus is on study of character, rather than plot. Its limitation is that we never really get to know enough about the character. Yet the film is so beautifully made that its weaknesses deserve, I think, to be forgiven. It's not a masterpiece, but it's lovely to look at.

The source material is a book I'm unfamiliar with, A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Booth died of cancer a few years ago, at the age of 59. I'm tempted to seek out the book, which may be a bit meatiert than the screenplay, even if it lacks the Italian visuals and the very attractive women who complicate Clooney's life.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Black Swan

Black Swan is a recent creepy psychological suspense movie, directed by Darren Aronofsky. It has earned huge critical acclaim, and, although I had one or two reservations about it, I can see why. It is visually stunning, the acting is terrific, and the music complements the story superbly.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a beautiful and driven ballerina with a company based in New York. She lives with her very protective mother (Barbara Hershey) and it soon becomes clear that she is a perfectionist, with “issues”. The company is due to perform a new version of Swan Lake and Nina wants the lead role.

The director of the company (Vincent Cassel) is brilliant but odious, and he dumps his former favourite (Winona Ryder) in favour of Nina. But another dancer called Lily (Mila Kunis) is also after the top job. The relationship between Nina and Lily is a key area of focus of the film.

It’s a chilling movie, but the story structure is relatively simple and rather predictable. It wasn’t difficult to foresee more or less what would happen. But this is perhaps a quibble. The film is compelling to watch, and Portman is very good in an extremely demanding role. Kunis, Cassel and Hershey are also excellent. Among recent films I’ve watched, only The King’s Speech seemed to me to be superior.

Friday 24 February 2012

Forgotten Book - The Murderer of Sleep

My intermittent campaign to revive interest in Milward Kennedy continues! Today's Forgotten Book is one he published in 1935, probably at about the height of his fame (such as it was) in the Golden Age. It's called The Murderer of Sleep and boasts, in typical Kennedy fashion, two maps of distinct crime scenes: one is a hotel, where a theft and murder occur before the main action starts, and the other is the sleepy village of...erm... Sleep. The Macbeth inspired title clearly amused Kennedy.

It's an entertaining book which maintains a sprightly pace more or less throughout. I say 'more or less' because arguably the revelation of the main culprit's identity is delayed just a little too long. To my mind, it becomes pretty clear who the police are looking for, and there were moments towards the end when they just needed to get on with it all a bit quicker. This is, however, a relatively minor quibble. I did enjoy reading the book a good deal, even though I'm not sure I agree with those usually severe critics Barzun and Taylor who describe it as Kennedy's 'masterpiece'.

This novel illustrates a difficulty that all writers of whodunits face - it's one I'm conscious of myself, certainly. The question is: how many suspects should one have in the story? Too many, and the result is clutter, confusion and inadequate characterisation. Too few, and the puzzle is too easy to solve. Getting the right balance is one of the keys to success. This is what Agatha Christie did so well, so often.

Kennedy, I feel, errs on the side of having too few suspects here, and he could have done a bit more to probe the culprit's motivation. I think his difficulty arose from the rather unusual structure that he adopted in telling the story. This makes it a pleasing and fairly original read - and these are the strengths that appealed to me. But it does make a constant shifting of suspicion between candidates for the murderer rather difficult. As so often, Kennedy's ambition outstripped his achievement. But what I like about his was that he was an ambitious writer. Keen to vary the formula.

I have struggled in vain to find out any more about Kennedy's life than can be found in the usual places. If anyone knows any more about this interesting man - whose day job was as an international diplomat - I'd be keen to hear it.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

You Can Jump

Mat Coward is someone I've never met, but we've corresponded with each other for years, and I've included several of his short stories in anthologies that I've edited. He's a man of many accomplshments, an occasional novelist, and involved with that intriguing TV programme QI. But arguably, his stand-out achievements are in the field of short stories. He's original and witty, a real master of the form.

His new collection,You Can Jump, is now available. Four of the dozen stories that it contains have featured in anthologies I've edited, so naturally I think they are good, but suffice to say that the standard doesn't falter in the other entries, which have previously appeared in a range of good homes,including books edited by Anne Perry and Jeffrey Deaver.

I asked Mat what appealed to him about the short form and found his answer interesting:

'Someone asked me the other day "Why are writers so keen on writing short stories?" Her puzzlement was genuine; if she was a writer, her frown said clearly, she'd be getting on with the real work - the novels, the stuff that people actually read, and review, and that might even make some money.

But it's true: most writers - or at least, most crime writers of my acquaintance - love writing shorts, and will take any opportunity to do so, even stealing time from their book schedules, despite the numerous disadvantages of the form: not the least of which is that hardly anyone publishes short stories. Which, you know, is quite a significant drawback.

There are lots of answers I could have given to the question - and I'm sure you'd collect more answers the more writers you asked - but there is one obvious reason which is not often mentioned.

Short stories are short.

I like writing short stories because I can complete more of them, in a given lifespan, than I can novels. There is a type of short story which is really just a pre-edited novel; it's all there, it's just shorter, which means you can do more of them.

So, that' s one answer: I like writing short stories because I like finishing things.'

The paperback is available from his website (or on order from bookshops and libraries, of course) and the ebook is at available here.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The Orient Express

I had lunch the other day with one of my new colleagues, a very interesting and likeable man, who told me about a trip he and his wife had recently on the Orient Express, from London to Venice. They aren't, I think, crime fans, but he is very well travelled and appreciates authenticity in his trips abroad, and seemed very happy to have done the trip.

To me, it all sounded fascinating (though evidently expensive) and I have a feeling that a Christie fan such as me really ought to do it once in his life. Murder on the Orient Express, after all, remains one of the classic crime titles, though it's by no means my personal favourite among Christie's books.

But, I'd be interested to find out whether other readers of this blog have actually ventured aboard the Orient Express, even if only for a short trip. Did it live up to expectations? Is the atmosphere still reminscent of the days of Poirot? Is the Christie connection featured on the journey in any way? I'd love to know!

Monday 20 February 2012

The Lincoln Lawyer

I've read a number of Michael Connelly's thrillers, and enjoyed all of them. He's a writer who does what he does with a real professionalism, and when he wrote a book with a lawyer as a central character, I resolved to get round to it as soon as I could. But of course such resolutions tend not to work out, and in fact I've seen the film - which came out on general release last year - before reading the book.

Connelly is said to have been happy with the adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer, and I can see why. This is a well-made film, with a sound plot, capable acting and good production values. It's not a ground-breaking movie, and I don't really see Connelly as a ground-breaking writer. But that isn't a criticism as far as I'm concerned. The film, like the Connelly books, offers genuinely enjoyable entertainment.

The story-line is clearly set out, and any tricksiness is in the twists of the plot rather than in the way the film unfolds its mysteries. Matthew McConaughey plays Mickey Haller, a criminal defence attorney who makes a good living acting for guilty people and, often, getting them off. He's split up with his wife, a prosecutor, pretty much for that reason. But they still fancy each other, and are good parents to their child. Overall, Haller is a likeable guy.

He is hired by a rich young man called Roulet to defend him on a charge of murdering a woman who may have been a prostitute. Roulet protests his innocence, but Haller begins to have doubts. The plot thickens when Haller's chum, an investigator, is murdered. But in the end, Haller makes sure that justice is done. Orthodox stuff, perhaps, but very well done and extremely watchable. Incidentally, I met Connelly once, more than a decade ago, in Manchester, and found him very affable. He also proved to be a witty public speaker.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Death in a Cold Climate -review

Death in a Cold Climate is a new guide to Scandinavian crime fiction published by Barry Forshaw, a highly experienced journalist who is one of our most prolific commentators on contemporary crime fiction. Barry’s various publications include a massive two volume encyclopaedia about British crime fiction, to which I contributed several essays, and he was kind enough to write a foreword to the recent Murder Squad anthology Best Eaten Cold. He also produced The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction.

Barry has been an enthusiast for crime fiction in translation for years, and when I heard that he was publishing a book on this subject, I was keen to get my hands on it. It is published by Palgrave Macmillan, who have produced a number of learned tomes about the genre over the years, and Barry’s style of writing here is, therefore, a little more academic than in, say, The Rough Guide. But it’s still perfectly accessible.

He makes a number of interesting points – for instance that “the rendering of Scandinavian literature into English offers problems to their translators that are subtly different to those encountered in other languages”. This is something I hadn’t thought about previously, and there are fascinating comments about the nature of translation from the wonderfully named Sarah Death, a senior literary figure in Sweden as well as a translator, that I’d like to explore further one of these days.

The emphasis is very much on books written in the last twenty years or so, and as a result there’s no mention of writers such as Jan Ekstrom, Ella Griffiths and Poul Orum, who may be in danger of being overlooked by present day fans (though this is where bloggers can come in: I recall, for instance, that Maxine, aka Petrona, has highlighted Griffiths’ work on her terrific blog.) But any writer of a book such as this needs to be selective - there is really no alternative. Barry Forshaw has produced a valuable guide to a branch of the genre that has become deservedly popular andI wish him every success with it.

Friday 17 February 2012

Forgotten Book: A Collection of Reviews

Something a bit different for today's Forgotten Book. Today others are focusing on Donald Westlake, but as it's a long time since I read one of his books (the wonderful novel on which that great movie Point Blank was based) I've opted for a book by another American, who was at least as talented as Westlake. It's a slim volume by an author who, long after his death, remains well known and well regarded. But this particular book is itself unfamiliar to most, being produced (I think exclusively, but I stand to be corrected on this) as a signed limited edition. It's A Collection of Reviews by Ross Macdonald.

Macdonald was one of the finest of all writers of private eye novels. I've enjoyed several of them, though I don't count myself as an expert. My favourite of those I've read is The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which is very good. On the whole, I think his wife, the brilliant Margaret Millar, was a superior writer, and her books were certainly more varies. But Macdonald was still very good.

This collection covers a wide range of subjects, starting with A.E. Murch's history of the genre, which includes "a youthful likeness of the lady I love" - nicely put! He is rather more cutting about Barzun and Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime, a massive tome which I really like - but with countless reservations. Macdonald doesn't like it all, and much of his criticism is understandable, even to someone who sees many more positives in a book which does, at least, comment on countless books that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Macdonald is most comfortable writing about someone with whose work he is in sympathy, like James M. Cain, whose work he analyses splendidly. As he says, in Double Indemnity, Cain shows he knows how to "dispense with everything inessential". It is quite a skill, that's for sure. Overall, despite its brevity, this book is a thoughtful and interesting read, and you can tell that Macdonald must have been a thoughtful and very interesting man.

Wednesday 15 February 2012


I hesitate to say this, because the general standard is always so high, but the latest issue of CADS, edited by Geoff Bradley, is possibly as good as the best of any of its 61 predecessors. It’s absolutely full of great things (I admit these include Angela Youngman’s very kind review of The Hanging Wood) and if you like traditional fiction, you really will enjoy this magazine.

One of the glories of CADS is the sheer unpredictability of the content. There are things here you simply won’t find anywhere else. Contributors aren’t afraid to buck trends. For instance, B.J. Rahn ( a distinguished academic and expert on crime fiction) writes a thoughtful but severely critical piece about the highly popular Camilla Lackberg. Meanwhile Philip Scowcroft not only praises The Five Red Herrings (I don’t share Philip’s enthusiasm, suffice to say) in one article but also contributes another with the memorable title “Visits to Doncaster by Crime Authors” (in which I get a kind mention, and I must say how much I did enjoy my visit to Doncaster!)

Liz Gilbey, a wise and witty writer, contributes “the best of the blurbs” (e.g “A really thrilling thriller which deals cunningly with murder, death and hocus-pocus”, of a Ngaio Marsh title) and a fascinating article about Ian Mackintosh, of whom I’d never heard. Curtis Evans, that splendid researcher, has a nice article about T.S. Eliot as a crime critic, pointing out that Eliot was a pioneer in terms of setting out "rules of the game", while Mike Ripley covers C.S. Forester. My very first contribution to CADS, many years ago, was about Forester, but that was before the rediscovery of that marvellous book The Pursued. I was interested to see that Ripley’s views and mine on Forester’s excellence are pretty much identical.

There are countless other gems, including a short article by Arthur Robinson on Anthony Berkeley’s stage plays, and one by John Cooper on Michael Gilbert’s radio plays. Bruce Shaw casts fresh light on E.C. Bentley, while Bob Adey has unearthed rare articles by Henry Wade and others. Cooper’s article about Clifford Witting, a writer I’ve never read, made me want to read his books. Other expert contributors include Marv Lachman and Barry Pike. The TBR pile will mount! All in all, Geoff Bradley really has excelled himself. I can't wait for the next issue.

Monday 13 February 2012

Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson, is a first novel that has achieved stunning success, winning awards and earning massive sales. My paperback edition is festooned with superlative-laden comments from reviews and other authors. Tess Gerritsen even goes so far as to say it is the best debut novel she has ever read – a large claim, to put it mildly.

Yet there is a minority view that the book is over-rated. Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona, wrote this critical but typically thoughtful and considered review, and others have also expressed serious doubts about the plausibility of the plot-line.

When I took this book away with me on holiday, I was aware of both the hype and the criticisms, but I wanted to read it with an open mind. It’s a novel of psychological suspense, written by a man but told from the point of view of a woman, and it sits very much in the territory marked out by the likes of Nicci French and Sophie Hannah – essentially a modern update of the “woman in jeopardy” thriller. The subject is amnesia, and the related issue of the fallibility of memory – familiar themes in crime fiction. So the basic elements are perhaps unoriginal, but I thought that Watson’s treatment of them seemed fresh and full of energy.

I was gripped by this book from start to finish. There is no doubt that there are plot flaws, many of which Maxine has pointed out, and I understand and sympathise with her reservations – which are, again characteristically, expressed in a very fair way. What is more, I think it’s absolutely reasonable to judge such a successful book by the toughest standards – tougher than those applied to less celebrated efforts, for sure.

That said, most crime novels contain elements that are, to say the least, improbable. Ultimately, a key subjective question for judgment is whether an author succeeds in overcoming the inherent unlikelihood of the material and exciting the reader. Well, I was excited, and I did want to know what was going to happen to poor old Christine and her enigmatic husband Ben. You need to suspend your disbelief when reading, but I was happy to do so.

Friday 10 February 2012

Forgotten Book - Murder in the Maze

For today's journey into the past of detective fiction, I'm again looking at a book by J.J. Connington, a writer who continues to grow on me. This time, the spotlight is on Murder in the Maze, which introduced Sir Clinton Driffield and his chum Wendover, a likeable 'Watson' figure.

Two equally unpleasant brothers are found dead in the maze of the country house where they live, and Driffield leads the hunt for the killer. Off-hand, I can't think of any other series where a Chief Constable is the main sleuth, but I'd be glad to learn of any I've forgotten or ignored.

Driffield here is just 35 years old (something I hadn't realised when reading his later adventures) and a pretty dynamic - and tough - character. The story is a very good exercise in "fair play" detection, and my admiration for Connington continues to increase. I first read his most famous book, The Case With Nine Solutions, many years ago, and felt a bit let down. I must try it again, to see whether I ought to revise that judgment.

A maze is a great, if obvious, image to use in mystery fiction. I used it myself in Eve of Destruction, and I must say I find mazes fascinating. Connington makes good use of the setting here, and the finale in the maze is quite chilling. A notable book, which helped establish him in the top tier of detective novelists.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

The Glass Room

The success of the first ITV series of Vera has prompted the powers-that-be in television land to commission more shows, which will be appearing on our screens before long. The only snag is that, until now, there have only been four novels about DI Vera Stanhope, so there is a strong demand for more material. And now Ann Cleeves has obliged with a fifth Vera book, The Glass Room.

I’m pleased to report that the latest novel is as smoothly written and entertaining as anything Ann has ever produced. It’s her 25th novel, in fact, but she shows no sign of drifting into complacency as a result of success. I’d rank this as one of the best books she’s written.

To some extent, this judgment may be influenced by the fact that the novel is about writers and writing, subjects very dear to my heart, and the story-line is in some ways closer to the traditional whodunit than some of Ann’s other books – a conscious decision on her part, I suspect, and one that has paid off. As usual, she shifts viewpoint regularly, but not in a way that is distracting. In fact, her mastery of technique, developed over more than two decades, would be worthy of study by anyone starting out as a writer of popular fiction.

The eponymous “glass room” is a first floor conservatory in a place called The Writers’ House, where a group of would-be writers are receiving guidance from literary experts. And then one of those experts is found stabbed in the glass room. The prime suspect just happens to be Vera’s neighbour and friend, but Vera fixes things so that she can still lead the investigation. The plot thickens from there, with information cunningly doled out in small, teasing snippets to keep one glued to the page. The result is an excellent balance of puzzle, character and setting that makes for first rate entertainment.

Tuesday 7 February 2012


I mentioned a while back that I absolutely loved the island of Santorini, and I plan to write a short story set there. In fact, I've made a start on it, but it's now on the back burner as I try to make progress, at long last, with the next Lake District Mystery. Santorini, like Rhodes and Capri, was somewhere I visited last year, and all three islands became instant favourites - I'm keen to go back to all of them some day.

They have been joined on the list by Madeira, a place I thought was absolutely fabulous. One of the merits of a cruise is that you get a snapshot of a place, and by sampling various destinations, you can decide which you'd like to inspect in more detail in the future. Madeira seemed to me to have a huge amount to offer, ranging from cable car trips (I managed four in a single day, a personal best!), toboggan trips down to the port (I wasn't brave enough, but maybe one day...), stunning scenery and genuine rather than synthetic character. Yes, I was impressed.

Again, I simply have never come across any crime story set in Madeira. It may be that I've forgotten one or two, but I'd be glad of any recommendations. And if nobody has written a good short story set on the island, maybe there is a gap in the market for me...

Monday 6 February 2012

Coming home from the Canaries

Many thanks for your comments whilst I was away - apologies again for the delaying in publishing them. I'm now back in Britain, and as I look out of the window, there is fog, ice and traces of yesterday's snowfall. All a far cry from life last week, when I was on a cruise around the Canaries and it was about 25 degrees warmer.

Islands fascinate me, but I've never visited the Canaries before, and I can't recall coming across a book set there. There must be one, surely? Or more, given that Tenerife and Lanzarote are such popular destinations? If you know of any mysteries set in the Canaries, please do let me know.

I'd also be interested to know recommendations generally of good mysteries set on islands. My own list would be topped by And Then There Were None. It's a long time since I read The Skull Beneath the Skin by P.D. James, but I did find it less satisfying than her best books. Panic Party by Anthony Berkeley has its merits, and of course Ann Cleeves, with her Shetland Quartet, has captured the fascinating yet sometimes claustrophobic nature of island life very effectively. A very clever and little known book by Eileen Dewhurst, Death in Candie Gardens, has a splendid setting in Guernsey, where Eileen used to stay with the widow of the late thriller writer Desmond Bagley. And Chris Ewan is soon to publish a new book set on the Isle of Man, which I will feature here before long.

Other ports of call included Agadir, in Morocco, a place I found interesting but less so than Marrakech. Of the Canaries, I think my favourite was Lanzarote, with a trip to some fascinating places designed by Cesar Manrique, including the amazing grotto (second picture from the top; others feature Lanzarote, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, the lovely La Palma and Agadir.) But the stand-out destination was one I'll mention in a separate post tomorrow.

Friday 3 February 2012

Forgotten Book - The Division Bell Mystery

My Forgotten Book today is a book by a Forgotten Politician. But she was a political figure, and a writer, who certainly doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Her name was Ellen Wilkinson, who was known as “Red Ellen” because of both her hair colour and her left-wing views, and The Division Bell Mystery, which dates back to 1935, was her one and only mystery.

A financier is found shot in the House of Commons. Is it suicide or murder? Well, we know the answer to that, don’t we? A young parliamentary private secretary turns amateur sleuth, and becomes smitten by the dead man’s gorgeous but enigmatic daughter. The solution to the puzzle isn’t a masterpiece of fair play, and assumes the crime scene was investigated by incompetents, but this doesn’t detract from the highly agreeable nature of the story.

There are countless entertaining touches, as well as some points that made me think many of the issues we face in the current economic crisis are eerily reminiscent of those of the 30s. The bankers of today are rather like the financiers of that era, it seems. Despite her political views, Wilkinson is not didactic, and makes her points neatly and gently.

I thoroughly recommend this book, but Wilkinson wrote it after losing her seat, and once she returned to the House of Commons, as MP for Jarrow, she focused on more serious issues than whodunits. She was a prime mover in the Jarrow March, and later became a Minister for Education, but died in mysterious circumstances. Suicide was suspected, because of her fading affair with Herbert Morrison, but the inquest verdict was accidental death. A sad end to a life of great accomplishment.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Herring on the Nile

Herring on the Nile is the fifth novel to be published by L.C. (Len) Tyler, and the fourth in the entertaining series featuring mid-list crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his not entirely loyal literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle. It was published a few months ago, and I've been deplorably slow in getting around to write a review. But the first thing to say is that the book is well up to standard, with plenty of excellent jokes.

As the title indicates, the setting is a trip on the Nile, taken by our doughty duo and an assortment of eccentrics, quite a few of whom have names familiar to any student of the crime genre. The echoes of Agatha Christie are unmistakable. But really, even if you are not a Christie buff, there is much here to enjoy.

In particular, there is a running gag in which Ethelred gives answers to set questions from various regional newspapers, and the result is a sequence of very funny lines. I should also declare an interest, in that in one of his answers, Ethelred gives a long list of present day writers whom he enjoys and who influences his work - and I happen to be one of them. This paragraph amused me much as no doubt it will amuse everyone else who is mentioned.

Writing comic crime fiction is very difficult indeed, and it's a sub-genre that isn't to every reader's taste. Over the years there have been plenty of dire efforts at this very demanding form, and only a select band of successes - examples who spring to mind include Colin Watson and Simon Brett. But Len Tyler is in the top division when it comes to writing funny mysteries. Long may Ethelred flourish!