Monday 30 April 2012

A New Era

Today represents quite a significant landmark in my career as a writer, since it is my last day as a full-time partner in a law firm. As from tomorrow, I reduce to four days a week, and although the nature of the job is such that one has to be very flexible about working arrangements, it’s a change I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

I’m hoping to focus more on my writing from now on, as well as on ancillary and very enjoyable activities like attending crime conventions, giving talks, organising workshops and so on. Now, one extra day a week won’t make a huge difference right away, but it will definitely help. And I’m certainly grateful to my colleagues at my lovely new firm of Weightmans, who knew of my plans from the time I first started discussing merger with them, and have been very supportive.

I’m now working on Lake District Mystery number six, and although I have future projects in mind, I do find undertaking research in the Lakes one of the most agreeable of tasks. I’ve recently had a look round the fascinating museum at Keswick, and I’m also aiming to feature the town’s marvellous Theatre by the Lake.

On the subject of the Theatre, I’d like to give a plug to David Ward’s latest fund-raising effort. Noisy Owls and Dead Nuns is a light-hearted publication which gathers entertaining material from stage managers’ reports over the years. The compilation has been independently financed and all profits after printing costs will support the work of Theatre by the Lake. Copies cost £2.50 plus 70p for postage and can be ordered by phone on 017687 74411 or by post from Theatre by the Lake/Noisy Owls, Keswick, Cumbria CA12 5DJ.

Finally, a word about The Hanging Wood. It has just been long-listed for two Crimefest 2012 awards: the Audible Sounds of Crime Award and the Ebook Award. It’s a nice note on which to start a new era.

Friday 27 April 2012

Forgotten Book - Nemesis at Raynham Parva

Nemesis at Raynham Parva is the rather grand title of my Forgotten Book for today. The book was published in 1929, and the author was J. J. Connington, who is one of those Golden Age writers who definitely deserves to be better known. The American edition was called Grim Vengeance, and this sums up the story pretty well.

Sir Clinton Driffield – one of the toughest-minded of all Golden Age detectives - is travelling to visit his sister after a period spent abroad, when he comes across a strange confrontation in the road. One of the men involved is Argentinian, and when he arrives at his destination, he finds that his niece has recently married another man from the Argentine. The tiny village of Raynham Parva is soon overflowing with foreign incomers, as a mysterious character who appears to have been a foreign agent also turns up.

This is an unusual, and rather curiously structured book. The meat of it is in the final section, in which an elaborate murder is committed. Connington provides a startling explanation of what has happened that is the most memorable feature of the whole story, and arguably also a milestone in the development of Golden Age fiction.

There are several touches which remind us that Connington was a scientist, and a man with a highly practical turn of mind. The book is a reminder, too, that writers of that period were intensely interested in the concept of justice, and how to achieve it – especially if the orthodox legal routes were not available. I can’t claim this book is a masterpiece, but it remains perfectly readable, and its historical interest is significant. And I think Connington’s willingness to experiment with the detective novel form is a sign of his quality.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Deadfall - review

I wrote here a while ago about Desmond Cory’s obscure but intriguing book Bennett, and I’ve now watched a film based on one of his other novels. This is Deadfall, directed in the Swinging Sixties by Bryan Forbes, and starring Michael Caine.

Caine is a jaded jewel thief who is persuaded by an attractive Spanish woman called Fe Moreau (played by Giovanna Ralli) to undertake another heist. He becomes involved with Fe, and her rather unpleasant husband Richard (Eric Portman, who sadly died in 1969, just a year after the film was made). The robbery that he and Richard undertake is brilliantly interwoven by scenes at a concert attended by the people they are stealing from.

My enjoyment of those scenes was enhanced by the fact that the concert featured John Barry, who composed “Romance for Guitar and Orchestra” for that part of the movie - the concert performance is integrated into the script, and takes place while a robbery is underway. The soundtrack really has stood the test of time, and even though “My Love Has Two Faces”, the song over the main titles, sung by Shirley Bassey, doesn’t quite compare with Barry’s best songs for the Bond franchise, it’s still pretty good. Another bonus was an all too brief appearance by Leonard Rossiter, one of my favourite comic actors, but in a straight role here.

I felt that the later stages of the film were not as gripping as the first half, but overall it’s a good and original story; I suspect this is true of much of Cory’s work, though I don’t know whether the movie was faithful to his book. Cory lived in Spain for a number of years, and the Spanish scenes in the movie add to its glamorous quality. I gather he wasn't totally bowled over by the film version of the book, but all in all, it is well worth a look – not least for that marvellous music as well as Caine’s typically assured performance.

Monday 23 April 2012

The Leopard Man

Cornell Woolrich is a writer whose work was ideally suited for adaptation into movies. And this has been widely recognised by succeeding generations of film-makers – Wikipedia lists over 30 films based on his stories. One of the most acclaimed is a low-budget film noir directed byJacques Tourneur and released in 1943 – The Leopard Man. The source book is Black Alibi, published the year before.

It’s classic Woolrich stuff, with sinister imagery, macabre night-time incidents and a pervasive sense of foreboding. Other than the French duo Boileau and Narcejac, I can’t think of anyone who did this sort of thing as well and as consistently as Woolrich. Back in the 1980s, I went through a Woolrich phase, and devoured every story of his I could find, and I still rate him highly. And Tourneur makes good use of the material, with a short but snappy film, not much more than an hour long.

The setting is New Mexico. A young man, Jerry Manning, hires a black leopard as a gimmick to garner publicity for his girlfriend, who is a singer in a night club. A rival singer frightens the animal, and it escapes into the night. When a young girl is found savagely murdered, the leopard is the obvious culprit. But then another young woman is killed, and before long Jerry begins to suspect that a serial killer is at work.

Today, it’s easy to figure out what is going on, but that does not diminish the impact of the film. It’s pretty well made, and even though by modern standards it is scarcely the horrific film it was billed as 70 years ago, it’s still very watchable.

Friday 20 April 2012

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Chinese Gong

My choice for today’s Forgotten Book is Christopher Bush’s 1935 novel, The Case of the Chinese Gong. This is one of a long series of books featuring Bush’s amateur sleuth Ludovic Travers ( I believe he later became a private detective), who here aids and abets the Chief Constable in solving a domestic mystery.

This is one of those books in which the victim is an elderly and wealthy old chap with remarkably few redeeming features. Hubert Greeve is as mean and unpleasant as his name suggests, and there is no shortage of suspects when he is shot to death in his own home.

The suspects include four cousins who have fallen on hard times, as well as the family solicitor. Another question for Travers is whether the butler did it – this character certainly seems to be hiding a few secrets. The plot is quite elaborate, and a rough plan of the crime scene is provided. The real question is "howdunit?"

This is a competent story that begins well. The second chapter is called “Murder is Easy”. Did Agatha Christie borrow the phrase for her book of that name? Did Richard Hull turn it around when he wrote Murder isn’t Easy? We may never know. I did feel that the writing became flat in the middle of the book in particular and Travers is not a particularly memorable sleuth. Writing a compelling "howdunit" novel is a tough task: the danger is that interest focuses on the central trick and the pace drags. Bush was a decent writer, but very prolific, and it might just be that he slowed down the production rate and worked more on character and atmosphere, his fame would have lasted better than it has done.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

The Pocket Essentials Jack the Ripper - review

Pocket Essentials is a series of very useful guides to a variety of subjects, and the newly revised and updated Mark Whitehead and Miriam Rivett’s guide to Jack the Ripper is no exception. I didn’t see the original edition of the guide, but this version coves a vast subject pithily and well.

A great deal of nonsense has been talked and written by a great many people about Jack the Ripper for over a century now. The speculation about the real identity of the serial killer has ranged from the plausible to the potty. Anyone who was anyone in late Victorian society seems to have been linked to the case at one time or another.

In a well-written introduction, the authors give their perspective on the case, in measured and readable fashion. They are surely right to point out that the real fascination with the case is that people want to know why anyone would wish to commit such terrible crimes. We can, and I think should, dismiss those who simply want to salivate over the not-for-the-squeamish details of what the Ripper did to his victims. But his motive remains a source of unending debate.

The authors summarise the crimes, and provide a good concise overview of the main suspects who have been identified over the years, as well as highlighting films and books based on the case, and sources of further information. They are clearly sceptical about Patricia Cornwell’s theory that Walter Sickert was the Ripper, as I am. And they are sceptical, too, about the diary in which James Maybrick purported to be the Ripper. So am I – but I’d add that if the diary is a hoax, it was, however tasteless, a brilliantly conceived hoax.

Monday 16 April 2012


Absolution is an intriguing film from the 60s, with a screenplay by that fascinating and varied writer Anthony Shaffer. It stars Richard Burton, as well as Dai Bradley (best known as the boy in Kes) and Dominic Guard. Billy Connolly, of all people, also makes an appearance.

In his entertaining memoir So What Did You Expect?, Shaffer describes it as “a twisted tale of the torture of a priest” involving the use of the confessional. It’s an odd story, in a number of ways, and this may be because, as Shaffer says, the film was “calamitously directed by Anthony Page". Certainly, the story, for all its interest, isn't in the same league as Sleuth.

Shaffer’s witty if brutal outline of the experience is memorable: “It was bad enough having a drunk for a leading man, let alone a director who was too much of a wimp...” He explains how, while the film was being made, he realised that a change needed to be made to the story-line, but Page rejected it. He says he learned that “not all thrillers are whodunits to be revealed at the very end.” Whether his comments about Page are fair or not, I don't know. I'd guess his book had the libel lawyers in thoughtful mood...

I tend to agree with Shaffer that the change he proposed would have improved the film. I’m not sure, though, that it would have turned it into a really fine movie. To my mind it is a curiosity, its bleakness a strength but also a shortcoming, and I suspect it’s one of those stories that seemed stronger in theory than in execution. All the same, I’m glad I watched it, because even though it does not match Shaffer’s best work, it benefits from his original way of looking at the world, even more than from his remarkable facility with plot.

Friday 13 April 2012

Forgotten Book - To Wake the Dead

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that I enjoy a good "impossible crime" story, and by definition this means that I enjoy the work of John Dickson Carr, the American who made a career out of spinning variations of great ingenuity on the locked room theme. My latest Carr choice as a Forgotten Book is a title dating back to his prime, in 1937 - To Wake the Dead. It's not exactly a locked room story, but in much the same general vein.

The story begins brilliantly. A young man on the last stage of a journey from South Africa conducted as part of a wager finds himself hungry and outside an upmarket hotel in London's Piccadilly. As a result of a bizarre set of circumstances, he finds himself entering a room in the hotel - and discovering the body of a woman, who just happens to be his cousin's wife.

Perhaps surprisingly, he does not fall under suspicion for long, but makes haste to involve Dr Gideon Fell and Fell's chum, Superintendent Hadley. It then turns out that his cousin has also been murdered recently, in a small village. One link between the deaths of husband and wife is the observation of a uniformed hotel attendant near both crime scenes.

There are many neat touches in this story, but overall I didn't think it was a story of quite the same quality as Carr's best work. In particular, the murder motive, and the link between one of the victims and the killer, are not, in my opinion, really clued in a fair enough way. (Of course, this means I didn't figure out the solution! But when a mystery is fairly clued, my inability to solve it makes me admire the author's skill - that's why I admire Christie so much.)

At one point, Fell says that, of the questions “who, how and why?” the most revealing, but usually by far the most puzzling, is why. I don’t mean merely the actual motive for the crime itself. I mean the why of certain other actions, eccentricities of behaviour, which centre round the performance of the crime....the why torments us even when we know, or think we know, the truth. Why did Mrs Thompson write those letters to Bywaters? Why did Mrs Maybrick soak the fly-papers in water? Why did Thomas Bartlett drink the chloroform? Why did Julia Wallace have an enemy in the world? Why did Herbert Bennett make a sexual attack on his own wife?” Good questions, but this is a book about an elaborate and improbable plot, rather than about criminal psychology.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Sophie Hannah and Lasting Damage

Sophie Hannah is a poet who turned to crime fiction a few years ago and who has achieved enormous success. That success is, I think, due to two factors. First, the quality of her writing. Second, the quality of her plots. The combination is compelling.

Her gifts are evident in Lasting Damage. This is a chunky novel of psychological suspense which follows a similar pattern to that of her earlier books. We are presented with a bizarre situation by a female narrator who may or may not be reliable, and the mystery is investigated by a team including Hannah's regular detectives, Charlie and Simon, who have just got married. The first and third person perspectives are maintained throughout the story.

In the small hours one morning, a woman logs onto a property website in search of a particular house in Cambridge. While on a "virtual tour", she sees a woman face down on the carpet, in a huge pool of blood. She wakes her husband, but when he looks at the computer, there is no sign of any corpse.

Sophie Hannah uses, as it seems to me, some of the devices of the classic impossible crime mystery and brings them bang up-to-date. Of course, as with any paradoxical or impossible crime story, whether written by Chesterton, John Dickson Carr or Hannah, the reader needs to suspend disbelief. But I thought the premise was brilliant, although I felt that the book could easily have been shortened leading to cutting down on some of the very extensive dialogue.

Pleasingly, my new firm has a reading group, and this book was its latest choice. Some of the group members, who are not steeped in detective fiction, were sharply critical of the novel, which I found rather sobering. My own view is that, despite its length, this was an entertaining mystery written by one of our most talented current practitioners.

Monday 9 April 2012

The Scale of a Story-line

For any writer, it's important to match the length of what one is writing to the strength and scale of the story. Some ideas are essentially suited to a short story, others need a full-length novel to do them justice. I can think of one or two of my short stories that I might conceivably have extended into a novel, but very few. And I'd certainly like to think that none of my novels are really just glorified short stories. On balance, I believe it's much better to "waste" an idea by turning it into "just" a short story rather than risk boring a reader by stretching it out too far. But then, I am a lover of short stories...

I can think of one or two novels at least that seemed a bit over-extended. A Taste of Honey, a rather odd book by Gerald Heard, is one that springs to mind. It's a book with Sherlockian echoes, which I read a long time ago. It does have admirers, but I'm afraid it didn't do much for me. Julian Symons was right to describe it as a curiosity.

The problem of length seems to arise more often, though, with films. I've watched quite a few that seem to outstay their welcome. And that is the case with a fairly recent movie, The Ministers, which stars Harvey Keitel as a veteran cop with a dark secret, and John Leguizamo who plays two brothers, one of them scarred both physically and mentally. A pair of hooded killers are on a mission to kill - but why? There seems to be a religious aspect to the mystery, but frankly, very little is made of this in the end.

There are some good aspects to this film, not least the acting of Leguizamo and, in a minor role, Wanda de Jesus, but even though it is only 90 minutes long, it drags. The problem is that there just isn't enough meat in the story (or, perhaps, the writer failed to make the most of what meat there was.) A classic example of a storyline that simply did not justify the time it took to watch the film.

Saturday 7 April 2012

The Cement Garden

The Cement Garden was Ian McEwan’s first published novel. I became aware of him as a student, when I used to haunt the now-gone Paperback Shop in Broad Street, Oxford. In those days, I didn’t have much cash to buy fiction, but I did buy a copy of his debut book of short stories, partly as I was overawed by the fact that a writer who wasn’t so much older than me had so quickly established himself as a stellar talent. I was impressed by his writing then, and I still am.

Yet I’ve never read The Cement Garden, and my belated encounter with it has been through the film version made in 1993. The director was Andrew Birkin, brother of the legendary Jane, and the young boy is his son, Ned Birkin, while the female lead is Jane’s daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. A family affair, then, very much in keeping with the dark story-line about death and incest.

I can’t claim that The Cement Garden is a bundle of laughs, and it isn’t really a crime story, although a crime is committed. In essence, it’s a study in family relationships, with echoes of The Lord of the Flies. When the widowed mother of four children die, they encase her body in cement to avoid the risk that the younger siblings will be taken into care. And the relationship between the teenage boy and girl becomes increasingly intimate.

I thought this was, despite its forbidding subject matter, a gripping film, and the performances of the four young people were excellent. This story is a good example of how the depiction of evolving relationships can be compelling, and can create plenty of tension, even when there is relatively little dramatic action. A crime novel needs a reasonable amount of drama, but watching The Cement Garden reminded me that sometimes less is more.

Forgotten Book: The Mask of Dimitrios

It seems odd to class Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios as a Forgotten Book. It is widely acknowledged as one of the great espionage thrillers of the 20th century, and it was the basis for a film (which I haven’t seen) as well as influencing writers of a subsequent generation such as John Le Carre. Yet I’ve not seen much discussion of it in recent years.

I read it in youth, because Michael Gilbert, a super judge, said it was a masterpiece, but when I was 13 or 14, the subtleties of the story eluded me. I appreciated it much more on a recent re-reading while on holiday. And I loved Amber’s device of taking a writer of Golden Age fiction, Charles Latimer, and making him come face to face with real villainy.

Latimer’s quest for the mysterious Dimitrios is a strange one. He’s become fascinated with the man after being shown his dead body in a morgue in Istanbul. He wants to find out what made him tick, and Ambler tells much of the story in flashback. Yet somehow he maintains pace and suspense throughout – a remarkable feat of writing. All the more remarkable because he produced this book when he was just 30.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a widespread consensus that, despite his later successes, Ambler never wrote a more powerful or more atmospheric book. (Though I haven’t read many of the later books, and two did win CWA Gold Daggers.) He lived another 60 years, and the left wing views that gave this book such energy faded as he became disillusioned first with Russia and then with the domestic politics. In due course, he became a tax exile in Switzerland, along with his second wife, who co-wrote the screenplay for Rebecca. But he deserves not just to be remembered, but to be celebrated, as a master of his craft. If you haven’t read The Mask of Dimitrios, you have a treat in store.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Editing Anthologies

I received an email a little while ago from John Sargent, giving me some interesting information about CWA anthologies of the past, and also suggesting that I write a post for this blog about the process of editing an anthology. A nice idea, and I’m glad to respond.

Anthologies come in various different forms, and the approach that one takes depends on what the publisher is trying to achieve, and also, needless to say, the budget. And suffice to say that budgets are often very tight indeed.

I’ve been involved with editing four different types of anthology. First, three collections of crime writing by members of the Northern Chapter of the CWA, and one by members of the East Anglian Chapter, which I co-edited with Robert Church. Second, thirteen collections of crime fiction by CWA members not only from the UK but also elsewhere in the world. Third, two collections b members of Murder Squad. And fourth, a “Lost Classics” collection of stories by Ellis Peters, with input from the late Sue Feder, and published by Crippen and Landru.

The approach I’ve taken has varied depending on the type of book, but with the annual CWA volume, I seek contributions from members and wait to see what comes in. I usually aim to have original stories specially written for the book, but occasionally I’ll include a previously published story by a stellar name such as Ruth Rendell.

Publishers like big name contributors, because they help to sell books. But of course it’s very hard to persuade a bestselling writer to write a brand new story for a tiny sum of money when they have little time to spare and anyway, could do far better elsewhere. However, I must say that time and again, major writers have shown a good deal of generosity in their response to requests I’ve made for help. I’ve been very grateful to them - not just Ruth Rendell, by the way, but Colin Dexter, the late Reg Hill, and numerous others.

The tricky bit comes in deciding which stories to include and which to reject. I hate turning down stories, especially if they are written by friends. But it’s impossible to include everything that is submitted, even when it’s of very good quality. I can only hope that people whose stories are not accepted understand the dilemma. In picking stories, I’m looking not just for merit, but for balance and variety. So if I receive three or four stories about spouse-murder or blackmail, for instance, some of them will have to go.

I do have a preference for shorter stories, and those that are unusual. I also pay a lot of attention to submissions from writers who haven’t previously featured in the CWA anthology and from those who are less well-known. The book is a showcase for members, and it should, I think, be a showcase for all types of writers, not just the stars. But above all, of course, one is trying to put together a book that is fresh and entertaining, and that readers will enjoy.

Monday 2 April 2012

The Prague Spring

Last week, I managed to achieve a long-held ambition by visiting Prague, and I certainly wasn't disappointed by my all too short trip to the crossroads of Europe. The unexpectedly superb weather was a bonus, but the city is so fabulous that it would be a great destination in any weather.

I studied Franz Kafka when I was doing my A Levels long ago, and I have always enjoyed his work, so a visit to the Kafka Museum was a must. Very good it was, too. And I was amused to find not only a Sherlock Holmes pub, but also a tobacconists' known as Baker Street.

I was struck by the monument to those who suffered when the country was under Commmunist rule. Suffice to say that capitalism has really taken hold of the place now, but it's important to remember the past, especially when, in difficult economic times, many questions are bound to be asked about the way society is run. Questions which, as Kafka intimated a century ago, are not easy to answer.

Above all, I found a visit to the Jewish Quarter unforgettable. The whole area is fascinating, but one thing I'll not easily forget is the synagogue in which are displayed pictures drawn by young children who were held by the Nazis, and almost all of whom were killed in the death camps a year or two later. The hopefulness and humanity of their art work was unbearably poignant. And again, we need these reminders of the past, in order that the mistakes of history are not repeated.