Saturday 30 March 2013

Kate Mosse's Labyrinth - Channel 4 miniseries TV review

Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse, is a book I haven't read, but I thought I'd give the Channel 4 TV miniseries version of the book a go,  not least because Carcassonne, where the story is set, is very high on my list of places to visit. Another factor was that, though I don't know her, I've heard Kate Mosse speak, and she does come over very well. Rightly or wrongly, this made me think I might like her best-selling story.

There are, in fact, two stories, set 800 years apart, but connected by one woman. She is Alice Tanner, a teacher who goes to France after breaking up with a boyfriend, in order to claim an inheritance under a will. En route, she volunteers to help a friend on an archaeological dig near a mysterious cave. There she has a strange experience, almost like a hallucination, which seems to connect her with a woman from the area's bloody history.

That woman is Alais, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, who is embroiled in a power struggle linked to the Crusades. Her husband is having an affair with her venomous half-sister, but Alais' task, she learns from her father, is to find the Holy Grail. Now, I must admit that this development was a bit of a turn-off, as Holy Grail quest stories are not my favourite form of fiction. On the other hand, I'm fascinated by mazes and labyrinths, and also by mysterious wills.. And there's a liveliness about the way the two stories interconnect that has kept me interested after the first two-hour instalment.

The cast is strong, including John Hurt and Janet Suzman as well as the two exceptionally attractive women in the lead roles. The lovely setting is also a plus. Certainly, watching Labyrinth has reinforced my desire to take a look at Carcassonne on of these fine days. So will I keep watching? The answer is yes.

Friday 29 March 2013

Wodehouse in Exile - TV review

Wodehouse in Exile, a BBC Four tv show, offered a fascinating insight into the events surrounding P.G. Wodehouse's notorious radio broadcasts during the Second World War. The script by Nigel Williams was sympathetic to Wodehouse, and Tim Pigott-Smith gave a charming portrayal of the great humorous writer, but there were enough nuances in the screenplay and performance for this to seem a fair and balanced account of a controversial story.

As a young boy, I fell in love with the Wodehouse books, and read a great many of them in a short space of time. This was not long after I'd discovered Agatha Christie, and I soon learned that Christie and Wodehouse were fans of each other. Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley were other crime writers who were very keen on Wodehouse, and I know that he was invited to a Detection Club dinner in the early 30s, though it's not entirely clear whether he actually showed up.

My father was one of the many people of his generation who felt that Wodehouse betrayed Britain. I can understand that, when one is facing the possibility of death during a war, feelings run very high and it's not too easy to be entirely judicious in one's assessment of those who seem to be having it easy. And that was the impression many people had of Wodehouse. There may be some truth in it, as he was a naive and perhaps self-indulgent man. But I don't believe he was a traitor.

The death of Wodehouse's daughter is one of the pivotal moments in the screenplay. One interesting snippet is that she was the author of a very good crime short story, "Inquest", under the mysterious pseudonym of Loel Yeo. It's well worth a look. Wodehouse too wrote a number of stories that verge on crime fiction,testament to his lifelong interest in the genre. As for me, I'm still an admirer of his work. And though the man was flawed, who isn't?. Wodehouse in Exile seemed to me to be informative as well as entertaining, and it enriched my understanding of the great writer's life.

Forgotten Book - The White Priory Murders

Today's Forgotten Book, The White Priory Murders, first published in 1935, is an "impossible crime" mystery with a splendid basic premise. A famous actress's battered corpse is found in a country house pavilion, surrounded by snow that is unmarked by footprints, except for those of the man who, it seems, has found her body there. It's classic John Dickson Carr territory - or perhaps I should say classic Carter Dickson territory, for this and other stories with the same sleuth were published under that rather transparent alias.

More than one possible solution to that central puzzle is put forward, and it was characteristic of Carr's ingenuity that he excelled at coming up with multiple explanations for the cunning puzzles he devised. And it's that fascinating puzzle that constitutes the appeal of this book, for in some respects it's not (to my mind, anyway) anything like as good as his best work.

There are three reasons why this one seems to me to fall below Carr's highest standards. First, too much of the vital action is off-stage. One of the characters, the newspaper baron Lord Canifest, plays an important part in the plot,but I don't think we see enough of him, or of certain key incidents. Second, Sir Henry Merrivale, the usual Carter Dickson sleuth, is a rather cruder version of Gideon Fell, who stars in most of the best Carr books. Some Carr fans prefer Merrivale, because of the comedy in the books in which he appears, but for me,comic writing was far from Carr's greatest strength. His humour lacks the subtlety of his best plots..

Finally, what I love about the best Carr books is their macabre atmosphere. He is very good at making us suspend our disbelief, and he often does so by wrapping up the events of his story in a rich and sometimes dark blanket, that conceals some of the implausibilities of the story. Here, I found the characters and setting less gripping than those in his better books. So, not one of his best, but still worth a look because of the cleverness of the central problem.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Man Who Was George Smiley

The Man Who Was George Smiley is a very good title for a new book by Michael Jago, published by Biteback, which is sub-titled The Life of John Bingham. Bingham's claim to fame - you've guessed it! - is that he was the spy whom John Le Carre used as a model for Smiley. Interesting in itself. But more interesting to me is that Bingham was a successful writer of crime novels and espionage stories, and I was glad to learn more about him, as well as about his work.

Due to Julian Symons' advocacy, I read many years ago Bingham's debut novel My Name is Michael Sibley, a story told from the point of view of an innocent man accused of crime. It's a strong and original story, and I'm really not sure why I've seldom read Bingham since. But Jago's book has definitely encouraged me to do so.

Jago gives a good and readable account of Bingham's life, and does not flinch from the rift that developed between Bingham and Le Carre. Bingham's wife was especially unhappy with Le Carre, and it's intriguing and rather sad to read about how their relationship deteriorated. Part of the problem was no doubt jealousy of Le Carre's critical and financial success, which far outstripped Bingham's. It's always a huge mistake to be jealous of others. Yet Jago suggests there were faults on Le Carre's side too, and that is probably right.

I enjoyed reading the sections about Bingham's own books, and his relationship with Victor Gollancz, one of the most brilliant of all British publishers. I suspect that Jago is not really a detective fiction fan, as there is little here that connects Bingham with the wider genre, or his place in it. Sir John Masterman, for instance, a spy of distinction, is mentioned, but his detective novels are not. The Detection Club, of which Bingham was a long-standing member, as was Masterman, isn't mentioned, one more frustration for its archivist. But I liked this book, which has made me want to read more of Bingham's work, and that's a sign of a good literary biography.

Monday 25 March 2013

The Interrogator

What do the following crime writers have in common? Lee Chld, Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Lippman, David Morrell, Jeffrey Deaver, Mickey Spillane, and Martin Edwards? One thing's for sure, it's not the fact that they are all best-sellers, since I'm certainly not in that league. But I'm pleased to say that, along with those other, much bigger names, I have a story in a new anthology, The Interrogator, published by Cemetery Dance in the US. Quite an honour.

The book is edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, and a sad note is that Marty Greenberg, the doyen of anthologists, died not long after this book was first put together. I never met or talked to him, but I have had stories in a few of the colossal number of books of stories that he either edited or co-edited. Ed has dedicated this collection to Marty, and it's a fitting tribute, given the calibre of the other contributors.

The story of mine that is included is "Clutter", which previously appeared in Original Sins, the CWA anthology of 2010. I'm absolutely delighted to say that, although there was no CWA anthology last year, there should be a new collection later in 2013, to celebrate the CWA's Diamond Jubilee. Suffice to say the stories I've received are of a very high calibre, and there are some major names among the contributors..

The same is true of those in The Interrogator, and I'd also like to mention the extremely informative introduction by Jon L. Breen. As with Ed Gorman, he's someone I've never met, but have admired for a long time. Undoubtedly, he's one of the leading crime fiction critics of the past 30 years, and everything he writes is well worth reading. He's also produced a handful of enjoyable novels of his own. They are worth a look and so too, regardless of my own contribution, is The Interrogator.

Friday 22 March 2013

Forgotten Book - The Cask

Is The Cask, by Freeman Wills Crofts, really a Forgotten Book? Published in 1920, it was in its day a best-seller, far outstripping in sales most other Golden Age titles, and it remains the best known of Crofts' books, even though he was a prolific author who went on to write for more than 30 years. But yes, I think it is pretty much forgotten today, by all except really keen Golden Age fans. I count myself as one of their number, but even I have only just got around to reading it.

I've had my green Penguin copy of the book for years, but I confess that I'd been rather put off by its sheer length. It's a lot longer than most Golden Age novels, which normally (whatever their other defects) had the merit of being pretty short. I thought it might be a rather dreary read. But it proved not to be, and I must say I was glad I did make the effort to read through it, albeit belatedly.

The opening premise is gripping. Dock workers unloading some casks that have arrived in London from continental Europe drop one, causing it to split slightly. They discover that it contains gold sovereigns...and that's not all. They can see a woman's hand. The police are called, but a mysterious Frenchman arrives and claims the cask as his own. Soon Inspector Burnley is hot on the trail. The cask and the Frenchman, Felix Leon, are tracked down, and it is found that inside the cask is the body of a beautiful woman. It's a vivid and memorable image, though described in Crofts' sober style. Who is she, and what caused her death?

One of the suspects has an apparently unbreakable alibi, and much of the story is devoted to attempts to crack it. This was to become a trade mark device for Crofts. I was impressed by the way he maintained my interest in the story from start to finish.Yes, by modern standards, it is slow, but the elaborations of the puzzle are very well done. Much of the book is set in France, and the fact that many Golden Age novels had a rather cosmopolitan feel is rather under-estimated by their detractors. All in all, this is a book that is still definitely worth reading today.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Nina Bawden at the double

Whilst on holiday, I read a number of ebooks published by Bello, who have managed to resurrect some very interesting titles, long unavailable. Two were early works by Nina Bawden, indicative of her strong interest in crime and mystery during her apprenticeship as a novelist.

Of the two, I felt The Solitary Child was the stronger. It has distinct echoes of Rebecca, and whilst it certainly does not rank with the Daphne du Maurier masterpiece, it's sufficiently enjoyable for me to recommend it. A young and rather naive woman has a whirlwind romance with an older man and marries him. However, he has recently been acquitted of murdering his first wife, and suspicion continues to cloud his life. Soon it becomes clear that he has a number of enemies, and his bride begins to doubt his innocence.The story is neatly worked out and, I felt, psychologically plausible.

At that early stage of her writing career, it seems to me, Nina Bawden was sometimes tempted to try to increase mystification by withholding information. This is a device that can work exceptionally well, as Agatha Christie showed so many times, but I'm not sure the young Bawden was especially good at playing tricks on her readers. As a result, I felt Who Calls the Tune was a little frustrating, even though the storyline, about a troubled family in a remote part of Wales, was full of interest and kept me reading the pages. But I wasn't too happy about the ending. Christie did the same thing so much better.

Anyone who is a fan of Bawden ought to give at least one of these books a try, because they contain plenty of good, crisp writing, and some good evocations of life in rural Wales, with which she was obviously very familiar. Children who are, or claim to be, being poisoned, feature in both stories, an odd coincidence. In later life, she wrote more famous books, but these early works show a young writer of real talent and potential, a potential that was happily fulfilled. How splendid that they are now there to entertain a new generation of readers.

Monday 18 March 2013

The Raven - movie review

The Raven is a recent film that should have a lot going for it. The central character is Edgar Allan Poe, and the storyline involves a series of murders that bear an uncanny resemblance to Poe's bizarre and often horrifying stories. So there is a locked room crime reminiscent of the murders in the Rue Morgue, a "Pit and the Pendulum" slaying that is extremely gruesome, and so on. A great basis for a story, I'd say.

I'm a Poe fan. I love his stories, not just those five remarkable pioneering stories that established the detective fiction genre, but also the imaginative and melodramatic tales that are so memorable: The Cask of Amontillado and so on. He was a brilliant writer, even if (as the film indicates) his personal life was a mess. And he was a gifted poet, too.

There are a number of very good books about Poe. Julian Symons wrote one and so, much earlier, did Edward Shanks, himself a poet and an occasional crime writer and reviewer. Symons also wrote a Poe-inspired mystery novel, The Name of Annabel Lee, which is worth a read. Andrew Taylor's novel about Poe's youth, The American Boy, is very enjoyable, and John Dickson Carr wrote a fine short story featuring the great man.

Back to the film. I'm afraid it ranks as a missed opportunity. There are some neat touches, but the concept is undermined by a lack of subtlety. There are needless anachronisms, and the dialogue did not suggest a strong connection with the realities of Poe's world. There were one or two lines that might have come out of an Oprah Winfrey or Jeremy Kyle show.. And I know that "okay" is a term that may have been used in Poe's day, but its repeated use did not convince me in the context. In a film with so much potential, these were mis-steps. A real shame. I wanted to love The Raven, but in the end, I didn't.

Justice/Seeking Justice - film review

Justice is a 2011 movie which is also known as Seeking Justice and was, it seems,originally known by the more memorable title of The Hungry Rabbit Jumps. The idiosyncratic, but often reliable, Rotten Tomatoes review website gives it a poor score, but I beg to differ. I really enjoyed it, and found it an unpredictable and twisty thriller of genuine quality.

So often, our views are influenced by our expectations. I must admit that I did not have high hopes for this film, but its plot came as a pleasant surprise. Essentially, it's a film about vigilantism, and as we all know, vigilantism in movies is generally a Bad Thing. Here, the wife of Will, a quiet English teacher (Nicholas Cage) is brutally attacked and raped. Will is approached by a mysterious stranger (the excellent Guy Pearce) and is made an offer: we'll kill your wife's attacker, if you give us a small bit of help in the future. Of course, we know it won't work out like that, but after some reservations, Will goes along with the idea.

Before long, his life is in chaos. He is set up to kill someone who is described as a sex pest (but is that true?) and his marriage starts to run into difficulty. January Jones, a very beautiful woman, plays Cage's wife, and she has a key role in the plot - not only as the initial victim. Half-way through the film, the story changes direction, as Will's "victim" proves to be, not a sex pest, but a man with an agenda of his own, whom the vigilantes wanted dead.

The pace falters a little in the final third of the story, but overall, I rated this film highly. A thriller of this kind needs to avoid predictability,and vigilante movies tend to be all too predictable, but I was kept engaged from start to finish. The cast is good, and the deeper significance of the issues at the heart of the story are touched on, if only (and sensibly) in a brief way. Never mind Rotten Tomatoes. This is a very enjoyable action thriller, which I gladly recommend.

The Lady Vanishes - BBC film review

The Lady Vanishes is one of Alfred Hitchcock's enduringly popular movies, and for good reason. The performances are excellent and the story is hugely entertaining. A remake some years ago starring Cybill Shepherd was reviewed so negatively that I never summoned up the enthusiasm to watch it. However, I was encouraged to watch tonight's new version for the BBC, not just because the cast included Keeley Hawes,but also because the screenplay was said to focus on the source material for the original film, rather than the screenplay for it.

The source was The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White, who was a highly successful writer of the Golden Age, and who came from Abergavenny. I was interested to find, when I visited the town a couple of years back for a CWA conference, that even though not a great deal is widely known about the detail of her life, she is still remembered there. And so she should be. Her novels of psychological suspense, focusing on women in jeopardy, are very well crafted. I'd like to find out more about her.

The ditzy young socialite,Iris Carr, originally played by Margaret Lockwood, was here played by Tuppence Middleton. Tuppence, yes, a name straight out of Agatha Christie. And she would make a good Tuppence Beresford, I'm sure. Her performance was feisty and fun, a smart portrayal of a selfish young woman who discovers a sense of purpose in life when a gossipy woman she meets on a train disappears and everyone else denies she ever existed.

It's quite a risk to re-make a Hitchcock classic, and only worth doing if you're going to do it really well, and add something fresh. That was the test I set for the BBC version - and it passed with flying colours. The original has some wonderfully witty lines, and I do love the cricket fans Charters and Caldicott, who didn't feature in the book or in this version, although they did feature in a so-so TV spin-off in the 80s. But despite a lack of humour in the script, the story was told with pace and panache, and the result was a thoroughly enjoyable piece of light entertainment. One of the more worthwhile remakes that I've seen in recent years.

Friday 15 March 2013

Forgotten Book - Murder at Cambridge

Murder at the 'Varsity, written by Q. Patrick, and first published in 1933, is also known as Murder at Cambridge. And it has recently been republished under that latter title by that splendid small press, Ostara, in its attractively produced Cambridge Crime series. It's a very welcome reissue, but the fact that the story is set in Cambridge, England, might raise an eyebrow. For was not Q. Patrick (later, Patrick Quentin) an American writer?

The answer is no, not in this particular case. The Patrick/Quentin names concealed, over the years, the identities of no fewer than four different writers, two men and two women. As I understand it, this particular book is the only one that was written by Richard Webb alone. And Webb was an Englishman, and was an undergraduate at Cambridge before moving to the US. It is clear from reading the book that he had a close understanding of Cambridge university life - there is a whiff of authenticity that does not suggest research from a distance.

The story is a pretty good one, too. The narrator, Hilary Fenton, is a native of Philadelphia (where Webb worked after emigrating) and a fellow student who is murdered comes from South Africa (where Webb had worked before moving to the US.) Fenton's attempts to get involved in the sleuthing are compromised by the fact that he has fallen in love with a pretty student who was lurking around the murder scene. Rather foolishly, he does not tell the police all he knows about the victim, and complications ensue.

I thought I'd solved the puzzle, but no - the author had a neat twist up his sleeve. The culprit was genuinely unexpected, and overall I thought Webb got away rather well with some rather unlikely plot manoeuvres. He was a clever writer, as was the better known Hugh Wheeler,with whom he soon began to collaborate. This solo effort does, however, show that Webb was an accomplished detective novelist in his own right. This is an entertaining Golden Age story, on a par with the better known books set in Oxford during the same era.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Settling the Score by Peter Gibbs

Settling the Score by Peter Gibbs, a paperback original published by Methuen, is a debut novel, although from the pen of an experienced screenwriter. There are special reasons why, for me, it was a wonderfully satisfying read, and although I had a perhaps unique interest in the book, I can recommend it very strongly. There is a 'whodunit' element in the plot, and one or two minor crimes are committed, but it's not a murder mystery, or indeed anything like any book I've ever reviewed on this blog. But let me first explain why I was so glad to have the chance to read it.

When I was growing up, I was not only a keen cricket fan, but one of the few who supported Derbyshire, a team widely regarded as perennial strugglers. I dreamed of opening the batting for them, but the brutal truth was that I was never a good enough cricketer to have any chance of that. But their opening batsman came from Cheshire, as I did, and had studied at Oxford University, which impressed me greatly. From occasional articles that he contributed to club brochures, I deduced that he enjoyed writing comedy, as I did at the time. He seemed to me to have a perfect life. And then, despite the fact that he was a very good player, he gave it all up at the young age of 28. I was baffled, since I hadn't yet learned that no life is perfect. His name was Peter Gibbs.

Some years later, he began writing for TV. One series, about a lawyer called Kinsey, was especially good. He also became the lead scriptwriter for Heartbeat, and so got to know Peter Walker, who first introduced me to the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association, and on whose books Heartbeat was based. I would guess that he's always harboured an ambition to publish a novel and now, in his 60s, he's achieved it.  And his background is... a Derbyshire cricket match in the late 60s, a period when I could claim to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the players' records. But, of course, no knowledge of what went on behind the scenes.

This book lifts the lid in quite a fascinating way on the lives of youngish men, living and working together seven days a week for a large part of the year. It's received numerous positive reviews already, and I suspect that people will increasingly say that he's a much better writer than he was a cricketer; but that would be a bit unfair, since P.J.K. Gibbs, as one journalist who wasn't a fan always called him, was in fact a very good batsman to watch.

The story involves the conflict between two brothers, team rivalries spiced by illicit affairs, and a great many wittily described scenes. I found it laugh-out-loud funny, but there are also moments of poignancy, not least in one sub-plot that echoes a real life scandal in which a Derbyshire cricketer of the sixties was victimised by the establishment. There is a lot about cricket in Settling the Score, but I hope that even those who have no interest in the game will be tempted to give this book a try. It's the best novel about cricket I've ever read, even better than Pro, by Bruce Hamilton (brother of Patrick, whose crime novels I've mentioned before on this blog.) I'd go further, and say that, much as I admire the Dick Francis books, now carried on by Felix Francis, Peter Gibbs' debut is the most enjoyable sport-based novel I've ever read.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Shetland - BBC TV review

Shetland,the new BBC TV crime drama which started tonight, is an adaptation of the work of one of my oldest friends in crime writing, Ann Cleeves, so it was a particular pleasure to watch its transition to the small screen. When I first learned that the role of Jimmy Perez, the cop who takes centre stage, was to be played by Douglas Henshall, I was rather surprised, as he does not look anything like my idea of Jimmy, whose heritage is Spanish. But he's a very good actor, as his performances in very different roles in The Secret of Crickley Hall and Doors Open illustrate, and he makes a very likeable Jimmy.

Another interesting aspect of the adaptation is that the books began with the award-winning Raven Black, whereas the first story to be televised was the final novel of what was originally planned to be a quartet, Red Bones. For plot reasons, there have therefore had to be significant changes to the presentation of Jimmy's personal life, but I felt that, in this first episode, these worked pretty well. The story involves a murder close to an archaeological dig, which as a number of writers, including Ann, Agatha Christie and Kate Ellis have shown, is an eminently suitable setting for a murder mystery.

A great strength of the books, of course, is the location. I'm tempted to dub Ann the Queen of Rural Crime, and Shetland really is a tremendous setting. She's often urged me to visit the place to see for myself and I'd certainly like to do that one of these days. In the meantime, I thought the programme presented Shetland very attractively, and (despite the body count) this show should do wonders for the local tourist trade..

An immediate question is: how does this series compare to the ITV series of Ann's books about Vera Stanhope, the chaotic but appealing Geordie who is played by the admirable Brenda Blethyn? On the evidence of this first episode, I'm tempted to suggest that Shetland is likely to be even more successful, given that the setting is unfamiliar, fascinating and atmospheric - even more so than the North East countryside, where Vera is set. We'll see in due course, but in the meantime I look forward to watching the second and concluding episode of Red Bones..

Friday 8 March 2013

Forgotten Book - Death of a Beauty Queen

My Forgotten Book for today is Death of a Beauty Queen, written by E.R. Punshon, and first published in 1935. It's a period piece, certainly, but perhaps the best of the Punshon books that I've read to date. There is a good deal of humour, although the wit is a bit laboured and dated. But the plot is interesting and unusual. I did figure out the culprit early on, I'm afraid, but even so Punshon kept me entertained enough to want to read on.

The story opens with a beauty contest being held in a cinema. Caroline Mears, gorgeous but hard as nails. is the hot favourite, and she boosts her chances by playing a dirty trick on her closest rival. The prize involves the chance of going to Hollywood, but Carrie does not live to collect - she is found dead, stabbed in the neck. So unpleasant was she, however, that there are plenty of people around who had a motive to kill her.

The detective work is shared between Superintendent Mitchell and young Bobby Owen, and they buzz around interviewing suspects and witnesses before a young man who was in love with Carrie commits suicide. Owen is an amiable enough chap, though I certainly would not, on the evidence of the three cases of his that I've read, rank him alongside the great detective characters, as he isn't sufficiently memorable.

Punshon's writing was much admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, and this book gave me a better understanding of why she rated him highly. He was very prolific, and obviously liked to focus on current social trends to give colour to his narratives, but time hasn't treated some of his descriptive writing too kindly. Even so, there is a genial craftsmanship about this story that lifts it out of the commonplace.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Broadchurch - ITV review

Broadchurch, the new ITV drama in eight hour-long episodes starring David Tennant, aired earlier this week and I've just caught up with it. Initial verdict - very promising. The drawn-out structure suggests the influence of the success of The Killing, although I've heard that those involved say that the story has been under development for a while, and that the Scandinavian serial's success is really a coincidence. I can believe that, since it's not too uncommon for similar ideas simply to be "in the ether" at around the same time.

Broadchurch is a pleasant community on the south coast ripped apart by the murder of a boy, the son of a seemingly very likeable couple. He is found dead on a beach, and it soon becomes apparent that he is a murder victim, though the killer may have tried to make it look like an accident, a fall from a cliff. The locale photographs well, by no means as bleak as those Scandinavian settings for crime with which we've become familiar, but none the worse for that.

Tennant plays a newly appointed Detective Inspector, who has arrived in Broadchurch to get over a career disaster. This made me think immediately of Hannah Scarlett, whose calamitous involvement in the Rao case is the trigger for appointment to cold case work before the action of The Coffin Trail begins. But again, I'm sure there's no question of plagiarism. It's just a great idea for a senior police officer's backstory!

There are sure to be plenty of suspects, and so far we've only been introduced directly to a handful of them. The victim' s best friend also knows more than he is prepared to admit to his parents - silly boy! I hope it doesn't prove to be a fatal mistake. Quite simply, I found myself engaged from start to finish. The journalists covering the case are nicely portrayed, as are the various cops, while Jodie Whittaker was terrific as the bereaved mother, in a number of rather poignant scenes. The first episode had me hooked, and  I only hope that the rest of the series is of the same quality.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

A Caribbean Mystery Tour

I first read A Caribbean Mystery many years ago, and although Agatha Christie is not famous for her evocative descriptions of background, I was intrigued by the idea of holidaying in the Caribbean. It's taken me a long time, but I've finally followed in the footsteps of Miss Marple, with a short cruise from New Orleans. And hugely enjoyable it was, too.

First stop was Falmouth, Jamaica, which gave the chance of a horse and carriage ride to a0n old plantation dating back to the eighteenth century, and a glimpse into the colonial past of this now proudly independent island. Fascinating, and the scenery was quite stunning.

Then over to George Town, Grand Cayman, a place about which I knew nothing, but which I really liked. We had a boat trip to the mangroves, to the Seven Mile Beach (apparently it's only five miles long) and the strange volcanic-like rock formations known as Hell. A short story set in Grand Cayman should follow one of these day!

Next, Cozumel in Mexico, and after a ferry ride to the mainland, and a visit to the stunning Mayan ruins at Tulum. There's a lot to see in that part of the world, and I'd like to go back to Mexico at some future date. In the meantime, plenty of memories to savour.

With three days at sea, there was also plenty of reading time, and I got through ten books. Some of them I read on my iPad, and I'm becoming enthusiastic about reading ebooks, though for me they will never replace print copies. But the convenience of e-reading is a real advantage when travelling. I'll be reviewing the books I read in due course. Most were crime, but there was also a debut novel which I absolutely loved. More of that another day.

Monday 4 March 2013

The Big Easy

I've always wanted to visit New Orleans, motivated more by films set in the city that I've enjoyed, rather than books. The Big Easy and Angel Heart are two movies that made quite an impact on me when I first watched them, and I'm just back in the UK having finally achieved the ambition to visit a city that, despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, is rich in character as well as atmosphere. It really did live up to expectations.

On a tour of the city, the guide said that around half a dozen films are shot in the city on average each year - a statistic I found amazing. But you can see why film-makers would be attracted to somewhere with so many visual charms. The city featured memorably in a Bond movie too, Live and Let Die, as well as in The Pelican Brief, based on a novel by John Grisham (though it wasn't a book I liked as much as The Firm, which remains my favourite Grisham.)

In a short visit, it's only possible to sample some aspects of a place with such a remarkable heritage, but I enjoyed a trip down the Mississippi in the steamer Natchez, as well as hours spent mooching around the French Quarter. It was great fun to sit in a cafe, or a restaurant at night, and listen to the music. It's a very musical city, and a quick ferry trip across the river to Algiers Point ends at a terminal close to a statue of the great Louis Armstrong.

The cemetery near to Basin  Street Station is fascinating, and the grave of the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau is much visited. Again, full of atmosphere. Talking to one or two people who had been very badly affected by Katrina was a sobering reminder of the way natural disasters can prove life-changing. But my overall impression was enormously positive. It's taken me a long time to get round to discovering New Orleans in reality,as opposed to in fiction or film, but I hope to get back there again before I'm much older.

Friday 1 March 2013

Forgotten Book - Speedy Death

Speedy Death, my Forgotten Book for today, was published in 1929. It marked the arrival not only of Gladys Mitchell, but also of her remarkable detective Mrs Bradley. Both went on to enjoy long and notable careers, and Mrs Bradley even had the accolade of appearing on television in the unexpected person of Diana Rigg. I say "unexpected" because even here, when she was aged 57 (not old at all!) her appearance is constantly compared to that of pterodactyls and aged lizards.

I've had very mixed feelings about the other Mitchell books I've read, as I've mentioned in previous posts about her. She was an extraordinarily variable writer, and I suspect that she wrote too much and too quickly. Yet she had genuine talent, as well as an interesting perspective on life and human nature. And I must say that I really loved this book. It is hugely entertaining, and although -like almost every first novel - it has flaws, it is actually the most enjoyable Mitchell that I've read.

Mrs Bradley is invited to a country house party. Familiar territory in the Golden Age, to put it mildly. A corpse is discovered in the bath. Well, Dorothy L. Sayers had done something similar six years earlier. But wait! The corpse is that of a woman who has been masquerading as a man. I couldn't imagine Agatha or Dorothy using that as a plot device for a novel.

There are some great lines in this book. My favourite exchange is when Mrs Bradley asks the Chief Constable: "Have you heard of sexual perversions?" The Chief Constable nods. "Not a pleasant subject," he says curtly. Enough said! In the mix, we have a weird homicidal maniac and a barmy trial scene in which Mrs Bradley is defended on a murder charge by a top barrister who just happens to be her son,. It's all a bit wild, but it's also tremendous fun.