Friday 29 June 2012

Forgotten Book - The Missing Partners

I’ve mentioned several times my enthusiasm for Henry Wade, and my Forgotten Book for today is his second novel, The Missing Partners. A highly unusual feature of the book is its setting – in Merseyside, which Wade evidently knew quite well. And I was pleased to see a Liverpool solicitor forming part of a group of amateur sleuths who compete with the police to solve the problem! Tom Fairbanks is a young clerk working for the Inland Revenue whose girlfriend is the daughter of an accountant working in a small shipping company. The two cousins who run the company go missing at the same time, and it seems that one of them has killed the other. What follows is quite a complicated plot involving train times and smuggling, and the details are not especially entrancing to a modern reader. But there is a liveliness about the characterisation, as well as a pacy narrative, to keep one interested. And it is certainly worth persevering to the end, as Wade produces a clever and unexpected solution. Henry Wade would go on to write better books than this one, but already he was showing himself to be a distinctive talent. And what is particularly admirable about him is the sheer variety of his work. You never know quite what to expect. This range probably made it difficult for him to achieve fame in his lifetime. But it keeps his work fresh and interesting to this day.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Last of Sheila

The Last of Sheila is a1973 whodunit film that has achieved cult status. It’s not currently available on DVD in the UK, and I’d been searching for it for some time when, by chance, I spotted it on a TCM schedule. And I found that, if not a masterpiece, it is at least very watchable. And, unlike some films of its type, it improves as it goes along, rather than the reverse, since the build-up is lengthy before the plot elaborations really kick in (though you might think otherwise if you are better at spotting in-jokes than me.)

The screenplay was written by the very unlikely but rather wonderful pairing of Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Sondheim in particular is a mystery and puzzle fan, it seems, and has dabbled more than once in the crime genre. On this evidence, it's a pity he hasn't devoted more time to mysteries. The cast is impressive, and includes James Coburn, Ian McShane, James Mason, Dyan Cannon, Richard Benjamin and Raquel Welch. Mason is an actor I've long admired; in a rather different way from Raquel, he is always very watchable. Joan Hackett was the only suspect I wasn't familiar with; it seems she died sadly young of cancer. Here, she puts in a good performance in a rather tricky part.  

Coburn plays a movie producer whose wife Sheila was killed in a hit and run accident. A year later, he invites a group of friends – which includes, he is sure, Sheila’s killer – to join him on a yacht called “Sheila” which is sailing around the Mediterranean.  He proposes a series of games that will reveal his guests’ secrets – but events take an unexpected turn, with a murder followed by a suicide.

After the apparent climax of the movie, there are further twists, and I felt these compensated for the slightly laboured start to the film. There are not many truly successful whodunit movies, but I’d say this is one of them. I’m sure I missed many 70s in-jokes in the script, but that didn’t really matter. Good fun.

Monday 25 June 2012

The Kennel Murder Case

S.S. Van Dine was an American Golden Age detective novelist whose elaborate mysteries featuring amateur sleuth and know-all Philo Vance were hugely successful for a few years. I’ve only read one of them so far, although I’d like to take a look at some of the others. Van Dine is, though, an acquired taste, and Ogden Nash wrote a derisive rhyme about Vance, who needed “a kick in the pance.”

Vance – played by William Powell- is the hero of The Kennel Murder Case, which is easily available on DVD, and I rather enjoyed watching it – a guilty pleasure, perhaps. The story starts, to my mind, unpromisingly, with a dog show (Vance’s dog isn’t successful) but we are introduced to Archer Coe, and soon learn that he is the sort of chap who is crying out to be murdered, given the number of people who have good reason to hate him.

Sure enough, Archer is found dead by his butler the following day – in a locked room! The hopeless police (and medic) at first leap to the conclusion that it is a case of suicide, but Vance – who has abandoned a trip to Europe to help out the authorities – soon demonstrates that this is a murder case. The plot thickens when Brisbane Coe, Archer’s brother, is also found dead.

The plot is satisfactorily convoluted, and although the characterisation is not exactly sophisticated, the story moves at a decent pace. Turning a Golden Age murder mystery into a good film is a real challenge – Hitchcock himself admitted defeat in the end, after a few unsatisfactory attempts. My own favourite remains Green for Danger, but The Kennel Murder Case is decent light entertainment and a pleasing period piece.

Friday 22 June 2012

Forgotten Book - Mystery at Greycombe Farm

John Rhode was arguably the most prolific of the Golden Age detective novelists, and because he wrote so much, his work tends to be mixed in quality. But I must say that I really enjoyed his 1932 novel Mystery at Greycombe Farm, which shows his gift for plot construction at something close to its best.

Greycombe is owned by a wealthy man universally known as Farmer Jim, who is a very successful cider maker. When a dramatic fire destroys his cider, a body is found among the debris. It belongs to a man named Sibley, who had gone missing some months earlier.

The Chief Constable of Wessex is reluctant to call in Scotland Yard, but does not hesitate to seek the help of that tetchy and sometimes sarcastic old intellectual Dr Priestley. And needless to say, it is the good doctor’s deductions that help to unravel a complicated plot.

There is a clever device regarding the estimation of time of death which helps to confuse the reader, as well as the police. Rhode was very good at this sort of thing – he was interested in the mechanics of committing murder, and my impression is that he was much more at ease writing about things rather than people. He, and Priestley, are much less interested in motive. I must say that my personal tastes are very different, and frankly if Rhode had been more interested in the character of his murderer, he might have tried to explain why someone who commits a very clever crime then gives himself away so foolishly. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying a book that was some notches above some of the other Rhodes that I’ve read.

Wednesday 20 June 2012


CADS 63, edited by the tireless Geoff Bradley, has just been published, and once again it’s packed with interesting and often esoteric information about crime fiction past and present, but predominantly past. I can’t remember a single issue – and I’ve read them all – when I haven’t been introduced to a book or author that I’ve enjoyed, yet otherwise might not have bothered with. The joy of CADS is that you have so many encounters with the unexpected.

These include – for instance – two assessments by John Cooper of a selection of books by writers who are today under-rated, Francis Beeding and Clifford Witting; this highlighted a number of books I’m keen to seek out. Tony Medawar contributes a nice little article about Jacques Futrelle, who died on the Titanic, and there are good pieces by a range of the usual suspects, including Bob Adey, Barry Pike and Liz Gilbey.

Curt Evans’ latest piece of mystery scholarship, an attempt to puzzle out which of the ‘joint’ books by G.D.H. Cole and his wife Margaret were written as solo efforts by one or other them inevitably depends on a mixture of logical deduction and guesswork,  but the arguments are well presented, and may be as close as we come to finding out the truth about this slightly odd collaboration. I'm looking forward eagerly to reading Curt's new book about three relatively neglected Golden Age mysteries - more about this in due course.

On a personal note, I was grateful for Chris Simpson’s review of Waterloo Sunset, and also to Geoff and to Bob Cornwell, for including me in their long running feature, the CADS Questionnaire. By their kind permission, the Questionnaire will also appear on the ‘interviews’ page of my website. But really, if you’re keen on the genre and its history, there is no substitute for buying the magazine. An absolute bargain, unreservedly recommended.    

Sunday 17 June 2012

Judging Short Story Competitions

Judging short story competitions is both a privilege and a responsibility. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve entered a few competitions, but I’ve judged rather more. This year alone, I’ve been asked to adjudicate in four competitions. Three are organised by writers’ group, but one was a bit different. It was organised by Helen Rowlands, a member of the staff of the Health & Safety Executive in Bootle, and it was for a very worthy cause, more of which below.

The key point to remember when judging stories is, I think, that ultimately one is making a purely subjective judgment. Determining which story is “the best” is always going to involve a personal assessment, and one’s own preferences come into play. It follows from this that, if someone enters a competition and fails to win, it does not mean their story isn’t any good.

I once entered a ‘first chapter’ competition with a submission called “Midnight’. It was judged by a very capable professional novelist, and didn’t win. But eventually – in much altered form – it became the first chapter of my first published novel, which recently resurfaced as a “Crime Classic” thanks to Arcturus. So winning a competition isn’t the be-all and end-all. A key merit of competitions is that they can motivate people to write – a worthy objective in itself. There is a limit to the number of competitions one can judge (because of the time reading all the entries, and thinking about them takes) but , if time permits, I think it’s a task worth doing when the opportunity arises.  

The Eye Fund, by the way, is a charity founded by Helen’s family, following the death of her brother, who suffered very serious sight problems. The Fund aims to provide much needed counselling and aid to those who are losing their sight due to degenerative diseases, such as retinal cone dystrophy, cataracts, age-related degeneration and other eye conditions. A famous family member has given the Fund a good deal of help – and he is none other than Sir Paul McCartney.

Friday 15 June 2012

Forgotten Book - Hue and Cry

Here’s a question for you. Which Golden Age crime novel begins at a football match in a working class town, and features a footballer as its protagonist? Not a book by Sayers, Christie or Dickson Carr, you can bet your bottom dollar! The answer is a book that I found a very enjoyable and breezy read when a kind friend lent it to me recently.

Bruce Hamilton, brother of the more celebrated Patrick, is an author who has long interested me, and I’m delighted to feature his debut novel as today’s Forgotten Book. This is Hue and Cry, originally published by the Crime Club in 1931, and the footballer is young Tom Payton, who kills one of his club’s directors in a drunken rage, and then goes on the run.

There’s no mystery at all about whodunit – the real question is whether Tom will get away with it. He flees to London, where he gets mixed up with a prostitute, and then with a kindly Jewess who offers him sexual comfort as well as board and lodging. Tom is definitely not a Peter Wimsey type, and Hamilton’s radical politics are in evidence at key moments of this book.

Hamilton keeps up the pace from start to finish, and as he piles the pressure on Tom, the reader finds it almost impossible (well, this reader did) not to hope that he will escape the consequences of his crime. There are some nice touches of satire in the book, too, and overall, it is a real pity that Hamilton’s policy of avoiding formula in his writing meant that his career as a crime novelist never had the success that I, at least, think he deserved. His work does have flaws, but it is genuinely interesting.

Wednesday 13 June 2012


Telstar: The Joe Meek Story is a film about a murder – or, rather, the events leading up to it. Same concept as Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, I suppose, though it would be hard to imagine two more different stories. And one reason for this is that the Joe Meek story is taken from real life. It’s a story that I’ve always found macabre, poignant and extraordinary.

Meek was a record producer with a very distinctive style who was responsible for the first records I ever liked – Telstar and Globetrotter, the chart-topping instrumentals recorded by The Tornados just before the Beatles came on the scene in a big way. He had many successes, and his cover version of the Bacharach-Hilliard classic Please Stay, performed by Duffy, plays as the final credits of the movie roll. He was a deeply troubled man, and of course therein lies the fascination of his story, probably the most remarkable of Sixties pop music.

A good many years ago, a TV documentary based on John Repsch’s  excellent book The Legendary Joe Meek made a huge impact on me, and influenced my approach in writing a Harry Devlin novel about the 60s pop scene, Yesterday’s Papers (which remains a personal favourite.) The stranger-than-fiction story of Meek’s life and death makes it perfect material for a movie.

And yet. I must confess that, although Telstar has received some good reviews elsewhere, I was disappointed with it. The comic book tone of most of the screenplay contrasted weirdly with the tragic later scenes, and I’m afraid I didn’t think the transition was well handled. Similarly, I found Con O’Neill’s portrayal of Meek, though energetic, to be a bit random and unconvincing. And as for the great Kevin Spacey, bizarrely miscast as Meek's business partner, don't get me started. So, a film that I regard as a missed opportunity – but an utterly fascinating story. If you don’t know it, read Repsch’s book, which is packed with intriguing period detail.

Monday 11 June 2012

The Cadaver Game

The Cadaver Game, the latest Wesley Peterson murder mystery from Kate Ellis, is the 15th in a series that continues to go from strength to strength. When you bear in mind that she has also written three books featuring Joe Plantagenet, and one stand-alone history-mystery, as well as many short stories, it’s fair to say that Kate’s become extremely prolific. Certainly, her productivity in recent years puts me to shame. There’s always a danger that, when you write a great deal at speed, quality will suffer – but I’m pleased to say that there is absolutely no sign of this in The Cadaver Game. I was sure I’d enjoy it, as Kate is not only a friend but a writer whose way with a plot I’ve long admired, but I was especially entertained by some of the concepts in this particular story.

In broad terms, the story is structured in the same way as its predecessors. A crime from the past, with an archaeological connection, is linked with a murder puzzle in the present. Upon that solid structure, Kate has built a complicated and absorbing puzzle, with many interesting features and a plentiful supply of twists and red herrings.

The central idea is of a hunt with a difference – the hunted are real life people, running naked from their pursuers. It happened in the past, and now it is happening in the present. A young couple are shot to death by an unknown hunter at the start of the book, but the question of what happened to them is not the only mystery that Wesley has to solve. A woman’s body is found, and there is some mystery about her identity. Meanwhile, extracts from two old journals reveal the macabre machinations of a rich man’s jester at around the time of Waterloo.

A large cast of characters is manipulated with unobtrusive expertise – no easy task. I thought the concept of the game, in both the past and the present, was utterly gripping, and certainly very dark. Equally, I was fascinated by the story of Silly John, the jester. And finally, I have to admit, I couldn’t figure out the murderer. My only complaint is that I too had the idea of a book title including the word “cadaver” (at one point The Serpent Pool was going to be called The Cadaver Tarn, but then I decided to save the latter title for a rainy day – that day may be a few years off now!) Great minds, I guess! Suffice to say, this book is definitely recommended for whodunit fans.

Friday 8 June 2012

Forgotten Book - The Case with Nine Solutions

One of J.J. Connington’s most popular novels, which became a green Penguin edition after his death, is my Forgotten Book for today, The Case with Nine Solutions. It was first published in 1928 (not 1926, as my Penguin edition states) and featured Sir Clinton Driffield, as well as four murders.

Connington, whose real name was A.W. Stewart, was a professor of chemistry, and this is a book which draws heavily on his scientific expertise. When I first read it, more than twenty years ago, I found it slightly disappointing, but on a re-reading I understood more clearly what Connington was trying to do. Despite the title, he was not offering a story with a raft of alternative solutions, in the way Anthony Berkeley did. Rather, he was offering a complicated and fairly clued puzzle that focused on the means of committing murder more than on human motivation.

The story begins pretty well, as a locum doctor who is called out to a case of scarlet fever one foggy night turns up at the wrong house and discovers a young man in his death throes. There is a dying message, the first of a long line of clues, including coded messages and various bits of scientific information – Driffield even lectures a colleague on the meaning of “mixed melting-points”, in the finest tradition of the know-all sleuth.

The catalyst for the crimes is a dark and sexually motivated scheme which, in keeping with the time of publication, is not described explicitly. There are also echoes of the Crippen case and, obliquely, Connington suggests the nature of a mistake that Crippen may well have made. The finale is literally explosive. All in all, an interesting book, well worth looking out.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

A New Book - and a street party

I'm delighted to say that the UK paperback edition of The Hanging Wood has just come out, published by Allison & Busby. The hardback earned gratifying reviews, and although it was written in rather testing circumstances, it turned out - contrary to my expectation at one time, I must admit - to be a book that moved the Lake District series on in a way that new and regular readers, as well as reviewers, have been kind enough to approve.

In celebration of a rather more widely acclaimed achievement, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, yesterday I attended a street party for the very first time in my life. It was held in the long and pleasant, tree-lined road which adjoins the cul-de-sac where I live. Nearly 300 people attended, and we invited along Kate Ellis and her husband Roger to add a bit of crime writerly macabre to the festivities.

In my younger days, I wouldn't really have fancied the idea of a street party, but - perhaps I've mellowed with the years - I really looked forward to this one, and it was quite brilliantly organised by a neighbour, Peter Cotton and his team. They even managed to keep the rain at bay until the celebrations were nearly at an end. A memorable day.

Which leads me to the question I put to Kate: has there ever been a murder mystery set at a street party? If you know of any, do let me know.If not, perhaps one day I'll write one...

Monday 4 June 2012

On the Christie Trail

A week ago today I had the great pleasure of travelling from Bristol, venue for Crimefest, with a touring party on the Agatha Christie trail. It was a special treat for me, partly because Christie introduced me to crime fiction when I was young, and partly because I spent the trip in the company of John Curran, without a doubt the world’s leading expert on the Queen of Crime.

First stop was the Grand Hotel in Torquay – which I last stayed in during the Christie centenary celebrations in 1990, at a time when my wife was pregnant with Jonathan. I remember more than a few drinks in the company of Reginald Hill, and the excitement of the Gala Dinner on the Saturday evening, attended by the cast of Poirot and many others.

After that, there was a quick visit to the Christie exhibition at Torquay Museum, where one of the famous “secret notebooks” is on display. Then, to Churston (featured in The ABC Murders) and the church with the Christie window. Lunch was at a quite beautiful old pub adjacent to the church.

Then it was on to Greenway, Christie’s old home, now in the care of the National Trust. I visited it with a CWA party back in 1990 and met her daughter, but this time John’s informed commentary made the visit even more meaningful. We also had time to go into the grounds and visit the battery and the boathouse. The boathouse was employed as a murder scene in Dead Man’s Folly, while the battery was utilised for the killing of Amyas Crale in Five Little Pigs. Suffice to say that, for a devotee of classic detective fiction, it was an absolutely memorable day. And by the way, you will see that Blogger has finally allowed me to upload some pictures. But very reluctantly, it has to be said! And I still haven't figured out why the font of my posts keeps changing. No wonder I'm so gripped by technofear that I haven't tried to be more adventurous with social media!

Sunday 3 June 2012

Reginald Hill's Short Stories

Those two notable bloggers, Margot Kinberg and Rhian Davies, have combined to create a wonderful tribute to the late Reginald Hill, and when they kindly invited me to take part, of course I was glad to accept. I wanted to say a little about Reg's wonderful work with  short stories. They earned him two CWA Daggers, but even so, his short stories are still sometimes unaccountably overlooked. Give them a go - you will be glad you did!

Friday 1 June 2012

Forgotten Book - The Reader is Warned

The Reader is Warned, by John Dickson Carr writing under his alias Carter Dickson, is my Forgotten Book for today. First published in 1939, it features Sir Henry Merrivale, a formidable sleuth whom some prefer to Carr’s other great detective, Dr Gideon Fell. There is more humour in the Merrivale stories than in those about Fell, and to some extent one’s reaction as a reader depends on how appealing one finds that humour.

The premise of this story is fascinating. A mysterious chap called Herman Pennik turns up at a country house party hosted by a writer and her husband. He claims that he can influence events by “thought waves” and is provoked into predicting the death of the host before dinner. When Sam Constable duly dies, and without a sign of violence upon him, it seems to some that he may have been killed by the power of the mind alone.

The average mystery reader will be reluctant to accept this conclusion, of course. But what exactly is the murder method, if not “Teleforce”? When the deceased’s wife dies mysteriously, again after a prediction by Pennik that she will die, there is a tabloid sensation. Pennik becomes a media celebrity; these passages are the wittiest in the book.

The revelation of what was really going on left me in two minds. I admired Carr’s ingenuity, but felt that the motivation was rather slender, and not entirely convincing. The problem was that there are too few suspects other than Pennik, and to an extent the story seems like an expanded novella in comparison with some of Carr’s other work. All the same, I enjoyed this book, and I think that others who like outlandish plots in the Carr tradition will enjoy it too.