Wednesday 27 February 2013

Another Mammoth!

The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries volume 10 is quite a mammoth title, and the book itself is nearly 600 pages long, so at £7.99 for a chunky paperback, it really represents good value. I hasten to add, though, that I am one of the contributors, so I don't claim to be totally unbiased. But Maxim Jakutbowski, the editor, is someone whose breadth of reading in the genre is genuinely impressive, so I'm confident that even the most hard-to-please crime fan will find plenty to enjoy among the 42 stories collected here.

My contribution is a story called "Squeaky". The plot drew one or two elements from a well-publicised real life case, but naturally the events and characters in the story are very different from those in the case in question. I must say that, of all the short stories I've written, "Squeaky" is right up there along with those which I feel worked best.

"Squeaky" first appeared in Guilty Consciences, the CWA anthology I edited in 2011, and a good many stories from that volume also feature in Maxim's collection, which I guess helps to explain why I like it! A number of stories from Best  Eaten Cold, the Murder Squad anthology, also appear. But I hasten to add that Maxim has also ranged very widely to include stories from the likes of Lee Child (with Sherlockian references!), Peter Turnbull (a very reliable writer who deserves to be better known), Neil Gaiman and Stella Duffy.

In his introduction, Maxim suggests that this may be the last in the current series. As he says,a decade is a very good run for an anthology, but it will be a pity if there are no successors. He does drop a hint that there may be positive news of some kind at a future date. The reality is that short story volumes are not popular with many publishers. But I am convinced that in these days of short attention spans, digital publishing offers great potential for the short story form and its writers. So, overall, I am optimistic. In the meantime, this traditionally published book is one that I am very glad to be associated with.

Monday 25 February 2013

Jennifer 8 - film review

Jennifer 8 is a 1992 thriller that fell a long way short of being a box office smash hit. Yet I've watched it twice now, some years apart, and a recent second viewing confirmed my opinion that it is under-estimated, and certainly better than a good many films covering similar ground. In particular, it's a film about a serial killer, but the focus is not on gore or elaborate and improbable 'signatures', but rather on a cop's hunt for the killer and his burning desire to protect a woman whom he thinks will be the next victim.

Andy Garcia plays John Berlin, whose marriage has broken up and whose career has stalled. He moves to Eureka, a place which is portrayed in a vivid and memorable way, though I'm certainly not tempted to emigrate there. Working with an old friend, Ross at a scrap heap where a corpse has been found, he stumbles on a woman's hand, and some smart detective work causes him to think that it belongs to someone who has fallen victim to a recidivist killer. But he can't find anyone else who shares his view.

He believes that the murderer nurses a grudge against blind woman, and when he meets the latest victim's friend, the blind Helena (Una Thurman) he fears that, because she has met the killer and is therefore a potential witness, even though she could not see the man, her life is at risk. However, an attempt to catch the killer goes disastrously wrong. All the evidence available to his colleagues suggests that Berlin is not the hero, but a villain.

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, this film does its best to avoid the formulaic. Garcia and Thurman are very good, and the cold, fog and rain that envelop Eureka add to the atmosphere if not the town's tourist appeal. There's one very good red herring, and enough variation of pace to keep the viewer interested. Well worth watching.

Friday 22 February 2013

Forgotten Book - The Wife of Ronald Sheldon

Another book by Patrick Quentin for today's Forgotten Book. This time, it's The Wife of Ronald Sheldon, also known as My Son, the Murderer - an inferior title for at least two reasons.) It was first published in 1954, by which time Quentin had ceased to be a collaboration - this one was written by Hugh Wheeler alone. There is an interesting discussion about the Quentin/ Q Patrick/Jonathan Stagge writers (over the years, there were four of them) on the Golden Age Detection forum. Apparently Wheeler, and perhaps the others, were gay, and although I'm not sure it's a gay sub-text, the relationship between the narrator, Jake Duluth and his business partner Ronnie Sheldon is central to this story.

Jake and Ronnie are, however, portrayed as resolutely heterosexual, and as it turns out, that is the key to past events which have an impact on the storyline. They run a publishing firm, and Ronnie has a knack of spotting literary geniuses. Ronnie is a rich dilettante, Jake was recently widowed when his wife inexplicably committed suicide, leaving him to bring up Bill, a moody and resentful young man who is also highly impetuous (and rather irritating, I felt.)

Ronnie causes a sensation when he returns from Europe to the States with a new, 19 year old wife, Jean, and her father Basil, his wife Norah, and his admirer, Lady Phyllis Brent. Wheeler was English by birth, but he is merciless in his portrayal of the Lacey mob. Other than Norah, they are quite appalling in various ways. And things go from bad to worse when Jean and Bill fall for each other. When Ronnie is found murdered, Bill is the prime suspect of Lieutenant Barnes (who seems indistinguishable from Quentin's usual cop, Lieutenant Trant.)

Jake tries to find the truth, assisted by brother Peter and his wife Iris, who appeared n several of the earlier Quentin books. The plot is soundly constructed, although I found the solution rather anti-climactic. I'm a great admirer of Quentin, but I felt this wasn't one of his best, in part because most of the characters are so annoying.Nor was I entirely convinced by the way Ronnie's character was developed. All in all, a decent story idea, competently executed, but lacking brilliance.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Yesterday's Papers

Is it  reasonable for writers to have favourites among their own books, or should one love them all equally? Well, my view is that books are not like children, and I certainly do have favourites. They include, for instance, my relatively little-known novel about Dr Crippen, Dancing for the Hangman. As for the Harry Devlin series, I've always had a very soft spot for Yesteday's Papers.

I've been very pleased to see this book, which dates back to the mid-90s, give a  fresh lease of life by digital publishing.The ebook version has a very nice intro from the great Peter Lovesey. And, as is the case with the other Devlin ebooks published by Andrews UK, print versions are also available. But I must admit that I'm still thrilled that a new mass market paperback edition is to be published later this year.

The book is going to feature in the Arcturus Crime Classic series, which already includes All the Lonely People, as well as some wonderful books that date back much further, written by the likes of Francis Durbridge, Erle Stanley Gardner, Anthony Berkeley and many more. It's gratifying to be in such company, especially as few other living writers are on the Arcturus list.

The first paperback edition of Yesterday's Papers was published by Bantam, and subsequently Hodder produced an edition. So the Arcturus book will be the third mass market paperback, not counting the Andrews UK edition. I'm very glad about this, because the story was great fun to write. It dwells heavily on Liverpool's Beatles era, and there are some plot twists I really enjoyed concocting. In some ways, it might just be my most complex mystery from a plot perspective, with three different strands to the storyline. The Lake District Mysteries are, deliberately, less heavily plotted, and one of the benefits of having different series is the chance to tackle the crime novel in various different ways. So much more satisfying than constantly repeating oneself. 

Monday 18 February 2013

St Hilda's

I've mentioned the St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Week-end a number of times in this blog. It's one of the most enjoyable crime fiction get-togethers imaginable, and 2013 sees it celebrate its 20th anniversary. The event takes place over a week-end at St Hilda's College,which has a lovely setting on the banks of the river in Oxford. Punting is just one of the side attractions!

This year, the week-end is scheduled for 16-18 August. Although this coincides with the holiday season, and I've been unable to make it a few times for that reason, I do encourage crime fans who might be free to come along, even if they've never been to this particular event before. It really is fun, and - especially if the weather is kind - it's a very good time of year to visit Oxford.

Each year, the week-end has a theme, and papers are presented on that theme. This time, it's "From Here to Eterrnity: the present and future of crime fiction." Plenty of scope there! I'm honoured to have been invited to be one of the speakers - and especially honoured because it's otherwise a pretty starry gathering - fellow speakers include P.D. James, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid, Andrew Taylor and Frances Fyfield. The chaiing is done by N.J. Cooper, and as anyone who has seen Natasha in action will agree, she is quite brilliant at it.

Here's a photo of American author Marcia Talley and other guests at the Friday welcome drinks party back at the 2011 week-end. It gives just an idea of the pleasant atmosphere. The joint masterminds behind the week-end are Kate Charles and Eileen Roberts. To receive a booking form, just email Eileen at . If you like crime fiction, and the marvellous authors I've mentioned (and there will be others) you will, I am sure, find this not only enjoyable but memorable.

Friday 15 February 2013

Forgotten Book - The 12.30 From Croydon

Long before Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington, we had Freeman Wills Crofts' 12.30 from Croydon - the former title referred to a train journey, the latter to a flight in the first chapter, which ends with the discovery that an elderly passenger has died. Crofts' book is my choice today as a Forgotten Book, and it's an interesting example of the "inverted" crime story, in the style of R. Austin Freeman, who actually gets a mention in the text.

The bulk of the narrative recounts Charles Swinburn's path towards murdering his uncle. His motive is money. The book was published in 1934, and the world slump is affecting Charles' business. He also needs money to attract the woman he loves, Una Mellor. The business pressures are described more convincingly than the romance - Una is so horribly mercenary that it's difficult to see her appeal.

Charles shows a good deal of ingenuity in carryiing out his crime, but sadly for him, Inspector French is called in to investigate. A blackmailer's demands prompt Charles to contemplate a second crime, and I thought the story was going to end with a twist in the manner of a Francis Iles book. But I was mistaken. In fact, after a lengthy trial, the ending is swift and something of an anti-climax.

Crofts does, however, offer us a couple of closing chapters in which French explains how he conducted his investigation, and he tidies up the loose ends in his usual efficient way. This is an enjoyable story, even if Charles' rapid shifts from complacency to panic become tediously repetitive. Here Crofts was stepping out of his comfort zone, and he did so to good effect. Not surprisingly, he soon returned to the "inverted" form of story. Croydon Airport, by the way, finally closed in 1959.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Lewis: Intelligent Design - the end of an era?

Lewis came to a gently poignant end this week after seven series, with a good two-part episode called Intelligent Design. The episode title had a suitable double meaning, since it seems to me that Lewis certainly has been a cleverly designed series. I admit I wasn't attracted to the premise initially. Much as I'd enjoyed Inspector Morse, I didn't think a series of sequels featuring his sidekick would work. But I was wrong.

There was a combination of reasons why they became a success. Kevin Whately is a reliable actor, and what Lewis lacks in flair he makes up for in humanity. His slow-burning relationship with Hobson the pathologist played very well, partly because Claire Holman's portrayal of Hobson was so reserved yet appealing The scripts were generally good, and of course the setting is superb,and the photography made the most of it.

But what I liked about the series above all was a character Colin Dexter didn't create, the new sidekick, Hathaway, played by Laurence Fox. The dynamic between Hathaway and Lewis was, in its way, as engaging as that between Morse and Lewis. And a word, too, for Rebecca Front as Chief Superintendent Innocent. She too was very likeable, and made the most of a fairly limited role.

Intelligent Design was a typically convoluted story, about a professor whose release from prison sparks a disastrous chain of events. There was a cameo performance from another Fox, Edward, and though I didn't believe in the scam at the heart of the story for a minute, that didn't really matter. It was good watching, and overall I'd rate Lewis as one of the very best traditional detective series of the last ten years. I'll miss it. But wait - we're promised Endeavour next. The Dexter franchise keeps on running!

Monday 11 February 2013

Dream House - film review

Dream House is a 2011 American movie starring three British actors and a New Zealander, and a sense of contrariness persists throughout the film. It starts in a fairly conventional way, veers off in a new direction at the half way stage and ends with a mixture of dramatic violence and mawkishness. Interesting, but rather odd.

At the start, we are introduced to Daniel Craig as Will, who has given up a top job in publishing to downshift with his wife Libby and their two adorable daughters. They have moved into a new house in an idyllic setting, but something is amiss. Who has left flowers on the doorstep? Who is the mysterious character hanging around the house at night? What is going on in the cellar? It turns out that murder was done in the house five years earlier, but when Will tries to investigate what happened to the killer, he is given shocking news.

Libby is played by Rachel Weisz (now Mrs Craig) and their glamorous neighbour by Naomi Watts. Marton Csokas, who impressed me very much when playing the Spanish cop Falcon in the TV versions of Robert Wilson's books, is the neighbour's estranged husband. They are all very talented performers,and their quality makes the film watchable.

Overall, however, I had reservations. I would not say Dream House is formulaic, but it felt rather like a blend of several formulas, an unevenness of tone and treatment persisting throughout. My impression was that the scriptwriter had a very good story idea, but nobody was quite sure how best to execute it. The Rotten Tomatoes rating of the film is abysmally low,but I think it's rather better than the basement ranking suggests. One thing is for sure, however. Skyfall it ain't.

Friday 8 February 2013

Forgotten Book - Sinister Crag

Newton Gayle is a writer I've featured previously in this blog, and today's Forgotten Book is his last, Sinister Crag, which first appeared in 1938. I say "he", but the Gayle name concealed the identities of an American poet, Muna Lee,and a British businessman, Maurice Guiness, who did write three books on his own in the early Sixties.

This novel features the usual Gayle duo, Jim Greer and narrator Robin Upwood, who form a likeable Holmes-Watson type of pairing. What is especially fascinating to me about the story is that it is mostly set in the Lake District, in the fictional valley of Wannerdale. This seemed, as far as I could tell, to be located not far from Thirlmere, but unfortunately there is no map, and it is one of those Golden Age stories where a map would have been very useful, rather than simply an adornment of no great value, as is occasionally the case.

Three men have died in an accident while climbing the eponymous Sinister Crag. But was it really an accident? Greer thinks not, and spends most of the book climbing the fells along with Robin as apprentice mountaineer in order to prove his point. It's clear that one of their fellow guests at the Herdwick Hotel is the culprit, and suspicion is skilfully switched around the possible bad guys.

This book has great strengths. The description of the Lakes is excellent, and there is plenty of information about climbing (though if, like me, you have no interest whatsoever in climbing,you may find it slows the story down a bit). The writing is generally of a much higher standard than is the case with many Golden Age mysteries - perhaps this is due to Lee, who was a poet of distinction. Guinness, no doubt, was the climbing fan and responsible for the plot, and I did feel that there was a lack of fair play. I wasn't especially interested in the victims, and there were some aspects of the solution that bothered me, although there were some neatly handled twists. In essence, Newton Gayle was a much more gifted writer than, say, Christie, but a much less talented plotter of traditional mysteries. What is for sure is that this appealing and atmospheric book does not deserve the almost total neglect it has suffered.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Murder in the Library

I've been meaning for ages to visit the British Library, and I finally achieved this ambition the other day, although I only had time to pop in very quickly before catching a train from nearby Euston. However, the brief visit was not only long enough to whet my appetite for this impressive place, but also to allow me to look round a small but interesting exhibition, Murder in the Library: an A to Z of Crime Fiction.

As the title suggests, the exhibition is organised on alphabetical lines, rather than thematically or chronologically. This is a perfectly sensible idea for a small-scale look at the genre. It goes without saying that it cannot hope to be comprehenive - even a multi-volume set of books about the genre could not be. But I found it entertainingly and sympathetically presented, with some fascinating items and rare manuscripts, including one from Conan Doyle..

Above all, I was pleased to discover a number of items that were completely unfamiliar to me. These included The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, and a modern Georgian equivalent of the Dennis Wheatley "crime dossiers", called Mr Deaxley's Silent Box. I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who has come across either of these fascinating-looking works.

I also had a bonus when I went into the British Library shop - and found plenty of copies of All the Lonely People on display. That doesn't happen so often that I'm indifferent about it! And there were also copies of the new edition of Ask a Policeman. Yes, my first visit to the British Library was entirely positive, and I hope to spend more time there before too long.

Monday 4 February 2013

Dead Water by Ann Cleeves

Dead Water is Ann Cleeves' fifth Shetland novel. Originally, the series was expected to be a quartet, but the great success it has enjoyed, starting with a CWA Gold Dagger and now culminating in a  very high profile upcoming TV series starring Douglas Henshall, has prompted a rethink. And, like Ann's other fans, I'm very glad about that.

Here we have a story about a journalist returning to Shetland after a period of absence. His body is discovered by the Procurator Fiscal, a woman who seems to have something to hide. The deceased, Jerry Markham, was planning an important story -what was it to be, and does it explain his death? The inquiry is headed by DI Willow Reeve, but Jimmy Perez is also involved. The build-up is steady rather than fast-paced, but that is part of the style of this series, a way of making the reader interested in the people. It's a method that suits a rural-based series, in my opinion (which is one of the reasons why my Lake District books also develop at a less rapid pace compared to,say, those set n Liverpool.)

The end of the quartet brought tragedy to Shetland. A key character died, and one challenge for the writer is how to deal with this sort of major issue in the next book in the series. You can simply ignore it - but that seems unrealistic. Ann Cleeves has opted to tackle the issue head on. The practical implication of this is that it's desirable to read the quartet before coming on to this book. But I don't think it's absolutely essential. Whether or not to read a series in order is a topic I've covered before in this blog, but although as it happens I have read this series in order, Ann has done her utmost to ensure that the novel stands alone, and the solution to the previous novel is not given away.

I read - and reviewed - Ann Cleeves' early books before I ever met her. For many years I think it's fair to say that she was pigeon-holed as a mid-list writer, and at one time,even, her books didn't always get into paperback editions. Now she is an international best-seller, with not one major TV series adapted from her books, but two. It's a dramatic transformation, but it's been hard earned and is well deserved. It just shows what can happen if you don't give up as a writer, and I'd suggest that her career, like, for instance, those of Peter Robinson and Andrew Taylor, is an excellent example to all other authors who feel frustrated that, although they write books of quality, fame and fortune proves elusive. You just never know what is around the corner.

Friday 1 February 2013

Forgotten Book - Snap

My Forgotten Book for today is another from that very fine writer Jacqueline Wilson, one more of that sadly all too short sequence of crime novels she wrote in the 70s.Snap was published in 1974, when she was just 29 years old. In some ways, it reminds me of the books that Margaret Yorke started writing at around the same time - stories about very ordinary people who find themselves caught up in events that lead to murder.

There are three connected storylines in Snap. Katy is a 14 year old girl (and Wilson excels at depicting teenage girls) who has a crush on her schoolteacher. Unfortunately, it's a relationship that he encourages. It's easy to foresee that it will end badly - but how, exactly?

Meanwhile, Katy's mother, Frances (a very likeable woman) is a widow who writes romantic stories for magazines. She comes to the attention of George, a literary agent who is recently bereaved. His wife was someone he never loved, and who made his life a misery. When he meets Frances for lunch, the attraction is mutual.

Unknown to George, his secretary, Ellen,is secretly infatuated with him. When George invites her out for a drink, she seizes her chance to develop the relationship, with disastrous consequences. Wilson manages the different narratives with considerable expertise,and springs one particularly good surprise close to the end. When I looked back at the earlier chapters, I found myself admiring the skilful and subtle way she had planted the clues to that particular twist.

This is a good example of how a very short novel can be intensely gripping. One can only guess at how prominent Wilson would have become as a crime writer, had she not changed course and become a stellar children's writer instead. I think she might have given even the great Ruth Rendell a run for her money.