Friday 30 November 2012

Forgotten Book - Let's Pretend

Jacqueline Wilson has become such a huge success as a children's writer that it's easy to forget that she started out as a novelist by writing a handful of rather good crime novels. I remember haunting Blackwell's Paperback Shop when I was a student and there were always a couple of her books in the green Penguin series on the shelves.In those days I yearned to be a published crime writer, and I was impressed that someone who was only about ten years older than me had already established herself in the genre.  I read some of her books at the time, and certainly enjoyed them.

My choice for today's Forgotten Book is Let's Pretend, first published in 1976, At the time the book came out, she was only 31, but already an accomplished writer of straightforward and highly readable prose, telling stories about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people - an approach which she maintained when turning to her first love, writing for children.

This book shows very clearly that interest in children and their perspective on the world. The events of the story are seen through the eyes of 13 year old Emily Barrett, whose mother has recently remarried. When her mother goes missing, Emily, who lives very much in her imagination, immediately suspects her seemingly amiable stepfather of having killed her. But nobody believes her.

I found this story gripping as well as attractively written. It has a modern feel, with only a few small things (like a reference to student grants!) dating it. Most of the action is concentrated in the last few scenes, and I felt that the key plot twist was not foreshadowed as much as I would have liked. But this didn't detract from my enjoyment of a very entertaining story. When Wilson abandoned crime fiction, the genre lost a potential superstar. Happily, children's fiction gained one.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

The Stepford Wives

I first read Ira Levin's legendary The Stepford Wives when staying with friends - it was on the bookshelf in my bedroom and I devoured it one night before going to sleep (it's a pretty short book). I loved the story, the essence of which is so well known as not to need repeating here at length, save to say that a youngish couple relocate to apparently tranquil Stepford and find that the local  womenfolk are mysteriously subservient to the men. The story was a distant influence on one of the first short stories I ever published in the early 90s. Yet oddly enough I'd never watched the 1975 film all the way through until very recently. (The various sequels to the movie, and the 2004 remake are, according to reviews, best left unbroached.)

Levin was a gifted writer,with a flair for both plot and the evocation of atmosphere, but The Stepford Wives can also be seen as a satire. Not easy to write a book like that, but he managed it with aplomb. The film, with a script by William Goldman, lacks some of the subtlety of the source, but is still very watchable. I've read that Goldman was frustrated that the director, Bryan Forbes, wanted to cast his wife Nanette Newman as one of the wives. Goldman felt that, although Newman is a perfectly good actor, she didn't really fit the Stepford template, and I have to agree. But Forbes prevailed.

The lead role is taken by Katharine Ross, who is perhaps best known as Etta from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which Goldman also scripted.) Ross, a charismatic and beautiful woman, was ideal for the role, and I find it strange that, after those two fine movies, her career did not progress quite as one would have expected.

The men in the film are uniformly unpleasant (inevitable, given the subject matter of the story) and I can't remember Peter Masterson, who plays Ross's husband - a selfish lawyer (oh dear, yet another one!) - from any other film. He does a competent job, but the film belongs to Ross, and the scene where she comes face to face with her nemesis is genuinely chilling. By today's standards, the film is somewhat lacking in pace, but it remains very entertaining, and a fitting realisation of a brilliant idea from a brilliant writer.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Falcon - TV review (episode 2)

The Blind Man of Seville, the first story in Sky Atlantic's new series Falcon, came to an end last week and I've just caught up with the second of the two episodes. I mentioned in my review of episode 1 that the source of the story is a book by Robert Wilson, but I should add that the screenplay is by Stephen Butchard, and even though I haven't read the book, I thought Butchard did a extremely good job in producing an entertaining and watchable show.

I've touched before on the thorny issue of what length works best for a TV cop show. The truth is that (as was depressingly stated on the cover of one of my student law books) there are no "right" answers, but it can be argued that the Morse/Lewis/Vera formula of two-hour stories is more appealing than two parts of one hour each. But the latter format seems to be gaining popularity (DCI Banks is another example) and as long as the screenplay holds the attention throughout, with no sagging (or rushing to cover all the plot elements) in the second episode, it can work very well.

Butchard succeeded so well that I found the second episode even more gripping than the first, despite the unlikely nature of the plot. Suffice to say that the eponymous Falcon was confronted with some unpleasant truths concerning his family, and especially his late parents, as he battled to find the truth about the murderer of three men, two of whom he was close to.

It was all a bit of an endurance test for poor old Falcon, but Marton Csokas performed the role with aplomb and plenty of charisma, and he did have the considerable consolation that one of the suspects, played by Hayley Atwell, fell for him big style. I was amazed, by the way, to discover that Csokas is a New Zealander. It was as much a surprise to me as the solution of many a whodunit!

Monday 26 November 2012

Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor was a successful 1975 thriller movie, which I saw when it first came out in my long ago student days. I enjoyed it very much at that time, and wondered how it would stand up to a second viewing in 2012, especially as the techno-thriller aspects of the story-line have inevitably been overtaken by time. The answer was that it remains very watchable indeed, a real credit to the excellent director, the late Sydney Pollack, many of whose films I've enjoyed.

The story is based on the debut novel of James Grady (someone I've never read); the book is called Six Days of the Condor. The cast is superb, with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway as glamorous leads, and Max Von  Sydow as a suitably enigmatic assassin. John Houseman plays a minor part as a senior CIA man with his customary gusto.

The set-up is terrific. Redford is a nerdy researcher at a strange kind of library in New York, and just because he pops out of a basement exit to avoid the rain while getting a quick bite to eat, he is lucky enough to escape an attack by a group of gunmen who burst into his workplace and mow down everyone there. Within minutes, Redford is on the run. It turns out that he is in fact a researcher for the CIA. But one of his superiors seeks to lure him into a fatal trap. It seems he can trust no-one.

He therefore kidnaps Faye Dunaway in an attempt to get away - a very good choice of victim, not least because they fall for each other, and she helps him to fight back against those who are out to kill him. We move into fairly standard conspiracy thriller territory, but the pace is well maintained, and although I had some reservations about the later scenes,and the assassin's behaviour, the ending is pleasingly ambiguous.Good entertainment.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Hunted - TV review

Hunted came to an end this week after its eight-week run. I stayed with it until the final unlikely twist, and not only because Melissa George made such a good job of the almost impossible role of gorgeous super-woman Sam Hunter. The best acting, though, came from the admirable Patrick Malahide, who made a superb elderly hard man, bent on revenge for reasons that only became clear late on.

Hunted was devised and written by Frank Spotnitz, the man behind The X Files, and this show had some of the merit of its illustrious predecessor, though there were many differences. Sam Hunter was working for a secretive (and very sinister) security company, and there were various multi-national shenanigans involving a billion pound tender for a dam project, an environmental calamity, and all manner of villains, most of whom had it in for poor old Sam.

I'm not usually very keen on stories lasting as long as eight hours. You need an exceptionally strong plot to keep the viewer interested, and although many good judges tell me that the first series of The Killing was a wonderful success, despite its length, I was slightly disappointed with the follow-up, which lasted for ten rather long hours and felt as if the script needed radical pruning. Hunted was better, because the twists and turns kept coming, and there were a couple of rather excellent twists in the final episode.

I did, however, feel that the last few minutes were rather over the top. A plot device that had been used three times already was repeated yet again, and I also became rather confused by the sheer number of conspiracies that were taking place. Hunted was by no means a masterpiece, but all in all, it was pretty well crafted, and I'm glad I stuck with it.

Friday 23 November 2012

Forgotten Book - The Sweepstake Murders

J.J. Connington, author of my latest Forgotten Book, 1931's The Sweepstake Murders, was a major figure of the Golden Age and this excellent novel displays his talents at full stretch. Wendover, a country squire who regularly plays Watson to Sir Clinton Driffield's Holmes, takes centre stage here, as member of a nine-man syndicate which wins a sweepstake ticket that proves to be worth almost a quarter of a million pounds.

The death in an air crash of one member leads to litigation from his estate which delays payment of the winnings. The survivors agree that the money should be shared out between those who are alive at the date of the pay-out. This is, needless to say, remarkably unwise, since it provides a compelling motive for someone to start killing off syndicate members.

One member dies - seemingly by accident, and that is the inquest verdict - afte falling down a cliff at the nicely named Hell's Gape. (I'm sure this fascinating geographic feature must have been based on a real place - does any reader have any ideas where it might be? The Chasms on the Isle of Man is the only similar spot I know.) Then another man dies - and again, it seems to be an accident, but we know better, don't we?This is a clever and gripping "who will be next?" whodunit of great complexity, with countless red herrings and gimmicks including faked photographic evidence and forged letters.

I really enjoyed this one, and I'd rate it as probably the best Connington I've read. Because he beleived in "fair play" plotting, he could on occasion be a rather plodding writer, but here the story is packed with incidents and characters, and it does not become bogged down in a morass of detail. The police inspector who does most of the detection needs to investigate photorgraphic and typewritten evidence - in a nice touch, which I very much liked, the culprit's approach to punctuation also plays a part in the unmasking. Strongly recommended for Golden Age fans.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Falcon: The Blind Man of Seville - TV review

Falcon is Sky Atlantic's version of Robert Wilson's novel about the eponymous Spanish cop, and I've just caught up with the first episode of The Blind Man of Seville. This is a book which I haven't read, but I do have a confession; I have possessed a copy for quite a while, but still haven't as yet got round to it. Possibly because I've been intimidated by the sheer bulk of the hardback edition.

Spain is a fantastic country, and the cinematography captures its dazzling colours in vivid fashion. It's a good show simply to look at, except for the gory bits. At the start of the story, a man is bound and gagged, and horrible things are done to him. Before long, our hero Falcon is called in to a murder scene. The victim, Jiminez, is a rich man whose eyelids have been removed. It seems that, before he died, he was forced to watch a home movie.

The obvious suspect is Jiminez's much younger wife, played by the glamorous Hayley Atwell. The marriage wasn't a success; he was a bad man, and consorted endlessly with prostitutes. She was having an affair with a chap who worked for her. When Falcon interviews her, she starts interrogating him about his own marriage. It had collapsed six months earlier. Yep, Falcon is yet another of those dysfunctional loners we mystery fans love rather more than their nearest and dearest do. "Cold-blooded", his (also glamorous) ex-wife calls him.

There is clearly a link between Jiminez and Falcon's deceased father, an artist famous for painting Falcon's mother in the nude. I'm not quite sure how wealthy Falcon is supposed to be, but one would assume he's rich enough not to need to work such long hours. Fortunately, he's devoted to crime investigation, and at the end of this episode he had another mutilated corpse on his hands - this time the last girl Jiminez played around with. Verdict: a very watchable show, and well-paced,with the added bonus of Bernard Hill in the supporting cast.. I really ought to get round to reading the book.

Monday 19 November 2012

Margaret Yorke R.I.P.

I was very sorry to learn earlier today, via our mutual friend Kate Charles, that Margaret Yorke, one of Britain's most distinguished crime novelists, has died at the age of 88. I'd learned a short time ago from Margaret's family that she was very unwell, news that came as a great shock, given that she was sending me cheery emails as recently as a couple of months ago. I shall miss her greatly.

I've mentioned Margaret numerous times on this blog, and regular readers will therefore know that I was a great fan of her work. I started reading her in the late 1970s, and among my favourites of her books were Devil's Work and No Medals for the Major. The latter marked a change of direction in her writing. She'd begun with romantic fiction, and then wrote light detective novels with Patrick Grant as her sleuth. But her greatest achievements came with stand-alone novels of psychological suspense. She excelled at studies of domestic tension, spilling over into violence, and her characterisation showed profound insight into human nature.

Much later, after I became a published writer, I met Margaret occasionally, not only at the St Hilda's Crime Week-end, which Kate organises, but also when she received the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger to mark her outstanding and sustained achievements as a crime writer. This was a memorable occasion, at the House of Lords, and made such an impression on me that it later gave me the opening scene for Take My Breath Away.

Margaret also contributed a couple of stories to anthologies that I edited, but I came to know her much better in the last few years. The catalyst for this was my research into the provenance of a pastiche of Golden Age detective fiction, Gory Knight, by Margaret Rivers Larminie and Jane Langslow. To cut a long story short, both writers were related to Margaret, and she became as fascinated as I was by trying to fathom how they'd come to write the book and by trying to prove Jane Langslow's real identity. The result was an article published in CADS to which Margaret made a massive conribution.

After that, she offered me much help and advice as regards my continuing researches into the history of detective fiction, and one of her last emails, which arrived out of the blue, was a kind note congratulating me on my foreword to the reprint of Ask a Policeman. I was fortunate to be invited to visit her at her lovely cottage in Buckinghamshire a couple of times, when she made excellent lunches, as well as providing stimulating and convivial company. Age had not dimmed her at all, it seemed to me; she was a truly perceptive woman, with a terrific fund of anecdotes. I am sad to think that there will be no more of those conversations.

Margaret was a strong character, with strong opinions, which she was never afraid to express (she recalled, for instance, once coming to "verbal blows" with that talented writer Michael Dibdin in a radio broadcast, when he made some rather ill-judged criticisms of Agatha Christie, of whom Margaret was a big fan). I found her unflinching honesty wholly admirable, whether or not I agreed with her opinions, (in fact, as with the Mike Dibdin debate, generally I did agree). There were many examples of her kindness and generosity, and it's also worth adding that she did all writers a service with the work she put in to the campaign to secure Public Lending Right.

To lose someone, whatever their age, is hard to take, but Margaret's family and friends will all know that she, and her books, will long be remembered, not only with admiration, but with great affection and appreciation. I am so glad I had the chance to get to know her.

Sunday 18 November 2012

The Secret of Crickley Hall - review

The Secret of Crickley Hall, based on a book by James Herbert, began on BBC One this evening, and I thought I'd give it a go, even though I've never read a Herbert novel. That's largely because I tend to associate him with rather graphic horror, but press coverage of the show suggests that the book on which this adaptation (by Joe Ahearne) is based relies more on the suggestion of evil than its vivid portrayal. And this was borne out when I watched episode one.

The starting point of the story is the disappearance of a young boy from a play area when his mother (Suranne Jones, from Scott and Bailey) falls asleep. The loss of a child is one of the most heartbreaking experiences imaginable, and even in a fictional context needs to be handled with a degree of sensitivity, which on the whole I thought the script and cast managed to achieve. Eleven months later, the boy still hasn't been found and she is still in denial. Her husband (Tom Ellis) persuades her and their two daughters to move to the north for a couple of months, for a change of scene around the anniversary of the disappearance.

Given the circumstances, their choice for a getaway is very unwise indeed - a remote spot which rejoices in the name of Devil's Cleave. And they move in to a spooky old stone mansion for good measure! Even worse, it tuns out that one of the neighbours is played by the splendid David Warner, a veteran of so many scary movies that it will be a great plot twist if he turns out to be one of the good guys (he seems to be at present, but it's early days).

Needless to add, spooky things soon start to happen at the house, and there seem to be parallels with a mysterious sequence of events in the 1940s, when the house was a school for orphans run by a brother and sister with distinctly weird personalities and an undue fondness for enforcing strict discipline. The brother (Douglas Henshall) is called Augustus Cribben, which really speaks volumes...

It's very difficult with this sort of material to avoid cliche, and The Secret of Crickley Hall exuberantly embraced most of the conventions of the ghost story. I didn't think that was a problem for Sunday night light entertainment, and I enjoyed the show enough to want to keep watching next week.

Friday 16 November 2012

Forgotten Book - The Stoat

For today's Forgotten Book, I've picked Lynn Brock's final novel, which was published in 1940, three years before his death. It is called The Stoat, which has to be one of the most eccentric titles in the genre. What's more, it's more or less inexplciable. Brock was a talented writer, though his tendency to over-complicate makes much of his work rather challenging for a modern reader.

The sub-ttile of this novel is another gem: Colonel Gore's Queerest Case. Well, the case is certainly pretty weird. We are introduced at the outset to a man called Margesson, who is plagued by a mentally disturbed wife and two horrible children who have been corrupted by the tenant of a neighbouring bungalow. Margesson consults first a doctor and then his old military colleague Colonel Warwick Gore, now a private detective.

Unfortunately, not only does Margesson soon wind up dead, but so do his dreadful offspring. At first, Gore doesn't take much interest, despite the brutal klling of his client, but a few months later, he is brought back into the still unsolved case, and has better luck this time. A journey to Ireland - the author was an Irishman - plays a crucial part in making sense of a bizarre sequence of events with roots deep in past misdeeds.

The darkness of Brock's books is more fashionable nowadays than it was when they were written, but his sometimes dense, sometimes elliptical style counts against him. This is a pity, for he was an interesting writer, with more flair than many of his contemporaries. He was, in books like this, trying to do something rather different with the detective story, and although the TLS gave him a rave review and suggested his work was reminiscent of Poe,it is a very long time since The Stoat was last in print. A pity, because this strange and meandering mystery novel deserves to be better known. It deserved a better title, too!

Wednesday 14 November 2012

The Moat Farm Mystery and True Crime

The Moat Farm Mystery, written by M.W.Oldridge,and published by the History Press, is a brand new example of the classic true crime case, thoroughly explored by a dedicated researcher. One of the reasons why the appearance of a book like this is welcome is that studies of classic true crimes - very much in vogue some years ago - seems to have gone out of fashion in recent times. Too many true crime books nowadays focus on lurid accounts of gangsters and gangland that verge on the trashy. Perhaps the pendulum will swing again, resulting in more thoughtful books like this.

The sub-title of the book is "The Life and Criminal Career of Samuel Herbert Dougal", and M.W.Oldridge does indeed cover Dougal;'s life story, rather than just focusing on the case that led to his being hanged in 1903. He was an out and out rogue, who exploited women for years before he finally resorted to murder. Ironically, as Oldridge points out, "Once, Dougal had hoped to become an executioner." Charming chap.

This a fascinating story, full of the flavour of the Edwardian era, as was the Crippen trial, which followed seven years after Dougal's death.. From the outset, Oldridge pays tribute to the Trial of Samuel herbert Dougal in the Notable British Trials series. That particular volume was edited by F.Tennyson Jesse, an exceptionally interesting writer. She says memorably of Dougal's meeting with his victim: "The potential murderer...met the born murderee." Her other work included a study of murder and its motives, and she also wrote The Solange Stories, about an amateur sleuth with a difference. But her masterpiece is A Pin to See the Peep-Show, a novel based on one of the great true crime cases. I ought to write more about that book in this blog one of these days.

For now, though, my focus is on Oldridge's book, which I suspect will appeal to those interested in historic crimes, and stories about villains with a veneer of respectability. I wish the book had included an index; a detailed work of this kind really does need one. But Dougal's story is  remarkable, and it is good to have this fresh account of it.

Monday 12 November 2012

Reading a Series in Order - and Belinda Bauer

I've posted before about the vexed question of whether or not it matters that a series of books is read in the order of publication. Some fans are very keen to read in order, though the majority of people I've discussed the issue with are fairly relaxed whether or not they read in strict sequence. The question came back to mind when I was reading Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer.

I've read Bauer's debut, the superb Blacklands, but somehow missed out on the follow-up, Darkside. I was then asked to review Finders Keepers for that excellent website Tangled Web UK, and so I took it away with me on my recent Adriatic cruise. Suffice to say that I was soon hooked and I think this book- although very different from Blacklands - is equally splendid. All the books are set in Exmoor, which is evoked in a suitably atmospheric fashion.

Bauer tells a terrific story about a series of abductions of children, from a variety of viewpoints, including those of two characters she has written about previously. These are police officer Jonas Holly, and young Steven, who in this book meets the girl of his dreams However, I did think that I missed something because I hadn't read Darkside. This, more than most series, probably should be read in order.

All the same, that didn't really spoil my enjoyment or lessen my admiration for Bauer's skill. There is no real whodunit element, and the abductor's identity and motivation is revealed long before the end. In lesser hands, this would be a major structural flaw. But Bauer doesn't only get away with it, she focuses our attention on character and suspense, so that it is possible to suspend disbelief (which, to be honest, you need to do to get the best out of the story) as we follow a dramatic sequence of events quite breathlessly. A very good book from an impressive writer who stands out from the crowd. I really must read Darkside now!

Friday 9 November 2012

Forgotten Book - My Brother's Killer

D.M.Devine was in many ways a writer in the classic Golden Age tradition, although his first book did not appear until 1961. This was My Brother's Killer, which has recently been republished as an Arcturus Crime Classic. Apparently, Devine entered it for a "don's detective novel" competition run by Collins Crime Club, but having been voted the winner - by judges including Agatha Christie - he was disqualified because technically he was not a don, but a university administrator - at a senior level, at St Andrews. An unlucky start, but the book deservedly found its way into print. What's more, Christie remained a fan, and when I visited her former home Greenway in May I remember seeing at least one book by Devine on the shelves there.

The story is set around a solicitors' office. Two brothers are partners. Simon Barnett narrates the story, and on one foggy night he responds to an urgent call from his brother Oliver only to find that Oliver has been murdered in his office. Oliver was a rascally character, and there are plentiful suspects, including a third partner called Fergusson.

Simon, a solid and decent sort of chap, is shocked to learn that Olive appears to have been a blackmailer. In addition, he betrayed his disfigured wife with a series of women in a squalid house that he rented under a pseudonym. A woman whom Simon once loved is arrested, but Simon is convinced of her innocence, and turns amateur detective, assisted by two colleagues.

The plot is elaborate and very carefully worked out. It depends in part on an alibi, and also on the extreme ingenuity and callousness of the culprit. Bearing in mind this was a first novel, I thought it was very well done, and I could see why Christie admired it. Devine went on to write a dozen more books, and although he never touched the heights, he was one of the mainstays of the Collins Crime Club for almost two decades. This is an extremely worthwhile reprint.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

A Lonely Place to Die - movie review

In the past few weeks, Hunted has introduced me to the charismatic Melissa George, whose all-action style is reminiscent of the hey-day of Mrs Emma Peel in The Avengers. Her name on the credit list tempted me to watch a movie from 2011, A Lonely Place to Die,even though the film starts off focusing on a group of mountaineers, and I find it hard to exaggerate how unappealing I find the idea of risking one's life climbing mountains (walking up a lot of steps in Kotor was different!). But it's all a matter of personal taste, and I'm glad that my prejudice in favour of Melissa just about outweighed my prejudice against rock-climbing, because this is a truly gripping film, one of the most terrifying I've seen in a long time - and not just because of what happens on those mountains.

The film is shot in the breathtakingly beautiful Scottish Highlands, and we are introduced to five youngish people, including a married couple, who have hired a house in a remote location not too far from Inverness, with a view for indulging their passion for scaling sheer cliff faces. The mood of adventure darkens when one member of the group hears a strange crying when they are in the middle of nowhere. They decide to investigate, and discover a breathing tube set in the earth. They uncover a sealed hole in the ground - inside is a young girl in school uniform. She doesn't speak a word of English, and appears to come from Eastern Europe.

The gang of five then make a terrible decision, deciding to split up as they try to get back to civilisation. Needless to say, this goes badly for them. and before long we encounter a couple of seriously unpleasant guys with guns. But this pair are then accosted by two  more chaps, who turn out to be even less likeable. What on earth is going on?

The pace thereafter is pretty relentless, and I thought the script, by Julian Gilbey and Will Gilbey, was consistently effective in delivering action and excitement. There are several vivid and memorable scenes. It's genuinely scary stuff, and yet somehow the narrative -just about - maintains credibility. One piece of advice for anyone who watches it - don't get too attached to many of the characters.

Monday 5 November 2012

Editing a Novel - and The Frozen Shroud

The Frozen Shroud, the sixth Lake District Mystery, concerns three murders, each committed on Hallowe'en, over the space of one hundred years. It therefore appealed to me to submit the final typescript to my American publishers and agent at around midnight on...yes, Hallowe'en. What I hadn't bargained for was the speed and efficiency with which my editor, Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen Press, would edit the manuscript. It was back with me inside 48 hours, which was quite remarkable. So I spent the past week-end going through the edits as I seek to finalise the manuscript for publication next year.

This prompts me to make a few observations about the editing process, and the relationship between author and editor. It's a hugely important relationship, I think. I've been lucky, over the years, to have had some very good editors (they include David Shelley, whose idea it was that I write a new series with a rural setting, and is now editing J.K. Rowling, no less). Barbara is outstanding, not least because she combines experience, insight and love of the genre with a sympathy for what one is trying to do and also with a willingness to tackle aspects of a manuscript that don't seem, to her, to work. It's this robustness of approach, coupled with empathy for the writer's work, that separates the best editors from the rest.

One reason why the final editing process was so quick and painless was that I'd submitted a segment of the first draft to Barbara some months ago. She liked it (in fact, at the time, she and my agent liked the book more than I did - I was going through the sort of crisis of confidence that afflicts many authors mid-way through a first draft) but she did raise a few issues. All but one of these was easy to deal with. The remaining issue was also fairly easy to deal with, but more significant, because in changing what I had written, I came up with a brand new idea which helped me to reconfigure the sub-plot of the book in a way which, I felt, worked much better than the original. This really gave me a big morale boost, as a part of the story that had proved worrisome suddenly became satisfying to me and, I hope, to future readers.

This is what the editorial process can do for a writer, and a book. It's for the writer, not the editor, to write the book, but an editor's wisdom can be invaluable. Because I never feel confident about my first drafts, especially when they are incomplete, I'm always a bit reluctant to share them, but Barbara's input had consequences for the reconstruction of the story that she possibly didn't anticipate. Her comment on one relatively minor issue sparked my imagination, and gave me, and the narrative, fresh impetus. There are some aspects of this particular novel that are quite ambitious, and for a long time I wasn't sure they were going to work. Thanks in no small measure to a terrific editorial relationship, I'm now looking forward to the publication of the book with an eagerness that, back in summer, I wouldn't have thought possible..

Friday 2 November 2012

Forgotten Book - Dead Men's Morris

Gladys Mitchell is a Golden Age writer who definitely falls into the category of "an acquired taste".I'm not sure I've wholly acquired that taste, and yet there are aspects of those of her books that I've read that I find admirable. Yet these invariably need to be balanced against various shortcomings. This is true of Dead Men's Morris,my Forgotten Book for today, which first appeared in 1936 and which is rated highly by a number of Mitchell devotees.

Mrs Bradley, Mitchell's detective, is in fine form here, cackling manically on her way to solving a rather elaborate mystery.The first victim dies (apparently from natural causes) early on Christmas Day in rural Oxfordshire, and the cast of characters includes not only a couple of Mrs Bradley's relatives but also assorted rustics, who speak in a dialect that becomes wearisome after a while (even the local police inspector speaks in dialect - over-egging the pudding, I felt).

Disparate ingredients are hurled into the mix - pig farming (the second victim is savaged by a boar), Morris dancing, a secret passage, a legend about a ghost, a couple of cryptic clues and a brief visit to the then premises of the Detection Club, of which Mrs Bradley was an honorary member, and to which Mitchell herself had recently been elected. There are even a couple of lawyers,one a victim, one a suspect, though neither bears the faintest resemblance to a real life solicitor. The most credible person in the entire story is a likeable young boy, and one can tell that Mitchell was fond of children..

What I like about Mitchell's writing is its sheer exuberance. The gusto with which she describes her detective's gleeful investigation is matched by the wackiness of the plot. Some people assume that Golden Age writers were prudish about sex, but here the sexual adventures of two young women play a part in the story; there are no graphic details of what they get up to, but even so...

If you haven't read Mitchell, she is definitely worth a look. Whether she is worth more than one look is a matter of personal taste. Some fans love her, Julian Symons (arguably the best crime critic of all, but someone who could be a severe judge) was utterly unimpressed. My own feeling is that, taken in small doses, Mitchell at her best is fun. And, though this book is characteristically eccentric, it does boast a very neat last line.