Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Most Beautiful Bookshop in the World

"The Most Beautiful Bookshop in the World" is the claim made by Libreria Acqua Alta in the Castello district of Venice, and the proud boast might just be true. One of the joys of Venice is that, when walking through the labyrinth of passageways, you never quite know what you will find, and I came across this bookshop quite by chance when roaming through the city the day before my Orient Express trip.

The entrance may not seem anything special, but once inside, the atmosphere is terrific, and not really like that of any other bookshop I've visited - and believe me, I've visited plenty!. Books are crammed all over the place, and the decor is idiosyncratic and charming. At the back of the shop is a small courtyard which commands a lovely view of a canal - if you climb a staircase made of books, that is...

Not surprisingly, the shop holds a large stock of mysteries by Donna Leon, whose books set in Venice gain from the close knowledge of the city that she has gained through living there. I've read a few of her books, and this trip made me want to return to them. I've never met her, but if I did, I'd want to ask her about the nature of living in Venice when one is not a local. For an author, living in Venice must be quite an extraordinary experience, and I imagine that many writers who have visited the city have been inspired to write stories set there.

I vividly remember the two incidents on a trip to Venice a few years ago that prompted me to writer "The Bookbinder's Apprentice". The first was when I came across a bookbinder's shop, quite by chance. The other was when I spent an hour or so in a tranquil square, mapping out the story in my mind. It's a story that's been very lucky for me, and one more reason why I'm so fond of Venice..

Monday 29 April 2013

On the Orient Express

Last Wednesday morning, I embarked on one of those trips of a lifetime, travelling on the Orient Express from Venice, arriving back in London on Thursday evening. This was a long-held ambition, inspired originally of course by the classic Christie novel, and given fresh impetus by a work colleague who did the trip a while back and recommended it to me.

There was no murder on the Orient Express last week, I'm glad to say (though some emergency stops early in the trip did make me wonder if something strange was going on - "Italian drivers!" laughed one of the waiters as he did a bit of unintended juggling with the plates.) But the train lived up to its reputation for luxury and atmosphere, and the timing and route of this particular journey made it possible to enjoy some varied and wonderful scenery, above all in Switzerland.

In preparing for the trip, I'd read The 8.55 to Baghdad, by Andrew Eames, which traces Christie's first trip to Ur, and includes a section on the Orient Express. It's a very good book, and Eames clearly had great admiration for Christie's fortitude in making such a long journey on her own, especially as, once she left the great train, things got rather more challenging for her as she made her way to the dig run by Leonard Woolley, whose weird wife was later turned by Christie into a character in Murder in Mesopotamia.

The train ran as far as Calais, and after getting through the Channel Tunnel, the last leg of our journey was by British Pullman. Again, very swish with lots of food and drink. I've seldom experienced this kind of luxury living, and although it was for less than forty-eight hours from start to finish, it was truly memorable.

The stay in Venice beforehand was also brief, but it's a city I could never tire of, and tomorrow my post will focus on a truly extraordinary book "experience" during my visit- nothing to do with my Venetian story "The Bookbinder's Apprentice", mind you!

Sunday 28 April 2013

Broadchurch: the final episode (no spoilers)

Broadchurch hooked me right from the early minutes of episode one, and as I've been away for a few days, I've only just caught up with the finale, which aired on Monday evening. Luckily, I've managed to avoid reviews of the final episode, so my enjoyment wasn't in any way spoiled. And I did enjoy the final episode, just as much as I've enjoyed all the others.

It's interesting to reflect on why this series has been such a huge success - and it has been so successful that it's scarcely an exaggeration to say that Broadchurch gripped the nation. The acting of David Tennant, Olivia Colman and the other key members of the cast was excellent, and Colman in particular was superb in the final episode. A hugely talented performer. The setting, on Dorset's Jurassic coast, was beautiful and atmospheric, and that certainly helped. But the greatest credit must go to Chris Chibnall, who devised and wrote the series. I would agree with those who have pointed out that there were some aspects of the story which tested one's suspension of disbelief. For me, the lack of forewarning about the culprit's fatal personality flaw was the most questionable part of the story. But never mind the quibbles. This was a superbly entertaining piece of television drama.

Some critics have felt that the marriage of a portrait of a community torn apart by grief and suspicion with a classic whodunit boasting a wide range of suspects whose secrets were gradually uncovered, was an uneasy one. I don't agree. The nature of crime fiction is that, however hard one strives for realism, there is bound to be a gap between the story and what actually happens in the real world. But despite this, it's perfectly reasonable to strive for realism, and Chibnall did a really fine job in capturing the devastating effect of murder on people's lives.

Broadchurch has shown that whodunits have an enduring appeal - provided, of course, that they are well done. We're told that "Broadchurch will return", but Chibnall will need to do remarkably well to top this series. It will be fun to see whether he can manage it. Waiting to find out will be almost as tense as waiting to find out who did kill Danny Latimer.

Friday 26 April 2013

Forgotten Book: Garstons

H.C. Bailey's reputation as a crime writer, once very high, has long been in eclipse. There are reasons for this, mostly to do with his idiosyncratic style of telling a story, which has long been out of fashion, and seems to me to be very unlikely to come back into vogue in the foreseeable future. Yet he remains an interesting and unusual writer, and Garstons, my Forgotten Book for today, which dates from 1930, is an interesting and unusual book.

The protagonist of this book - it would be too much of a stretch to describe him as a "hero" - is Joshua Clunk. He is a solicitor, but not like any other fictional (or real life) solicitor I've come across. True, he acts for some very dodgy people, and likes to get involved in sorting out mysteries, and in those respects he resembles my own Harry Devlin. But he's a strange chap, given to singing hymns and taunting the police in a rather patronising way. He's happily married, but there are hints at a dark and unscrupulous side to his character, and his secretive and provocative manner rubs people up the wrong way. Yet he gets results. A man to be reckoned with, and Bailey continued to write about him for the rest of his career after introducing him in this story.

Garstons opens with a young man whose family is known to Clunk suggesting that his father was murdered by the owners of a company called Garstons for the sake of a valuable invention. What follows is a story that meanders, quite eccentrically at times, but takes in further crimes, including murder and blackmail. Clunk takes a close interest in goings-on at the home of Lord Croyland, owner of the Garston company, and evidently a man with something to hide, before guiding the police to the solution of a long-concealed mystery.

There are some good ideas here. The concept of an anti-hero like Clunk is a good one, though the choice of his name strikes me as unfortunate, as it suggests a feeble humour that isn't really what Bailey was about. Perhaps it seemed like a good idea back in 1930, but I rather think that Bailey's problem was that he made some poor choices about how to execute the very good ideas for crime stories that he kept coming up with. Frustrating, but there are rewards in reading Bailey, provided you are willing to make plenty of allowances. For me, he is an acquired taste, but after years of reservations about his work, I have now acquired that taste - at least in small doses!

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Tooth Tattoo by Peter Lovesey

The Tooth Tattoo is the latest book set in Bath and featuring the likeable if sometimes curmudgeonly Peter Diamond. The gruff cop shares his first name with his creator, Peter Lovesey., Regular readers of this blog will know how much I relish Peter's books. I first came across them when he was writing about the Victorian cop Sergeant Cribb and I've read every novel he's ever written, as well as the vast majority of his short stories. As well as reading his books, I collect them, and I finally got my hands on a dust jacketed first edition of his debut novel  recently. You could say I'm a fan.

Is his latest, published by Little, Brown up to standard? Absolutely. In fact, one of its strengths is the way you can never be sure where the story is heading. It's a twisty tale, full of unexpected developments. I was also surprised to discover that music is at the heart of the book, as Peter does not normally feature music very heavily in his fiction. But here there is a great deal about classical music and string quartets, and the unusual nature of the relationships between members of a quartet.

The strange deaths of two young Japanese women, one in Vienna, one in Bath, seem to be connected. The corpse found in a Bath canal had a musical note tattooed on one of her teeth. Apparently this is a popular, if to my mind weird, custom in Japan. Diamond's investigations run alongside a series of chapters focusing on a violist called Mel, who may or may not have something to hide.

I really enjoyed this one. Mind you, it was just as well, as I'd already agreed to interview Peter for that terrific US magazine Mystery Scene. As always, he was graciousness itself when answering my questions, and I like to think that there will be some things in the interview that even diehard Lovesey fans won't have come across before. The magazine in question, incidentally, will be in the book bags of all delegates to Bouchercon in the autumn. I would like to be there in New York myself, as Bouchercon is a lot of fun, but at present it doesn't seem likely. Next year, perhaps!

Sunday 21 April 2013

Endeavour, Broadchurch, and does murder go on forever?

Endeavour continued this evening with another episode from the reliable Russell Lewis. A special feature of Fugue was the inclusion in the cast of Abigail Thaw in a small part as a journalist, a nice touch, given the many memorable performances of her father John in Inspector Morse Another enjoyable Oxford whodunit, the plot a serial killer story with a bundle of classic, and indeed classical music, ingredients. I gather that the first episode had very good ratings, and they were well deserved.

Then, tomorrow evening, comes the final episode of Broadchurch. I'm away, so it may be a few days before I catch up with whodunit. However, just before I set off, I'm scheduled to do an interview on Radio Cumbria's breakfast show, to discuss not only Broadchurch but also, more generally, the eternal appeal of the whodunit.

I touched on this very subject on this blog last week, and for all the changes in society and styles of writing, I see no end in sight for the whodunit. Millions of people still enjoy the form, and I'm tempted to say that it's as popular as it's ever been. This would not have surprised Agatha Christie, even though, as a modest woman, it's clear that she didn't expect her own books to last (why else would she, in some of them, have given away the solutions to earlier puzzles?)

I have in my collection a book that Christie signed for a friend of hers at the height of the Second World War. It must have been a very frightening time. Yet, as she said in her inscription, "Wars may come and wars may go, but murder goes on for ever!" It's true in real life, sadly, but much more happily, I think it's also true of fiction. The whodunit mystery has real staying power, and the number of TV whodunits I've reviewed since New Year's Day rather bears that out.

By the way, I'm still not quite sure about Arne Dahl. I watched the new story, Bad Blood, last night, but I rather feel the writers are struggling for effect, unlike Russell Lewis.

Finally, my trip has a detective fiction connection, of which more in a few days. Meanwhile, a review of Peter Lovesey's new book will appear while I'm away from home.

Friday 19 April 2013

Forgotten Book - Antidote to Venom

I've gradually become more interested in the work of Golden Age stalwart Freeman Wills Crofts. Despite his sometimes laborious style, he was a thoughtful man who experimented with the detective story form rather more than I had realised. My Forgotten Book for today, Antidote to Venom, is a case in point. First published in 1938, it includes a short preface in which Crofts makes it clear that he was trying was a twofold experiment.

First, he combines an "inverted" crime story with a conventional account of police detection. This is a bold step, structurally, but very interesting. George Surridge is the protagonist of the first part of the book. He is in charge of a zoo at "Birmington" in the Midlands, good at his job, but unhappily married to a snooty woman and fonder of gambling than his finances should permit.

Things start to go wrong when he falls for a woman called Nancy. He contemplates murdering an aunt for her money, but shrinks from the act. However, when the old lady dies, and he finds that her solicitor has been robbing her of all her assets, he gets sucked into a complicated and ingenious criminal conspiracy. I thought this part of the story was extremely well done. After murder is committed, it seems that the crime will go unpunished, but once Inspector French comes on the scene, the criminals' fate is, of course, sealed.

The second part of the experiment is that Crofts was trying to tell what he called a "positive" story. What he meant by this was that he was conveying a positive religious message about the redemption of a sinner. This aspect of the experiment is less successful, mainly because Crofts was not especially good at creating truly believable characters acting in a consistent and wholly believable way. Even so, I thought that what he did in the book was brave, unusual, and absolutely readable. I've read a number of his books now, but I'd rate this as the most impressive so far. Definitely worth seeking out.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Endeavour: Girl - ITV review

If Broadchurch has, as I said in my last post, underlined the continuing appeal of the whodunit, then Endeavour does not only that but also highlights the seemingly endless potential of Inspector Morse spin-offs. I enjoyed the pilot episode when it was screened, and the first episode of the first full series, Girl, was a high quality murder mystery.

A great deal of credit has to go to Russell Lewis, the writer, who has taken the essence of the original series,and the character as played by John Thaw, and given us a very appealing prequel set in the sixties. The plot of Girl was clever and the revelation of the culprit's identity took me completely by surprise. Pleasurable surprise, I must add. As I said yesterday, it is good to be fooled fairly, and I thought Russell Lewis paced the plot twists perfectly. There was even a neat little code which provided a crucial clue to that person's name. Colin Dexter would have been well pleased, I think.

The acting, too, is very good. Shaun Evans catches the young Morse's bolshie but vulnerable personality, and Roger Allam, as DI Thursday, is humane and believable. Some comic relief is offered by Anton Lesser's prissy disdain for the young cop. Sophie Stuckey, playng a suspect with epilepsy whom Morse fancies, handled the tricky role of the girl of the title very well.

Setting counts for a great deal in so many TV crime shows,and of course the Morse franchise has the inestimable advantage of being set in one of the most photogenic of cities. I wonder sometimes if people who are less keen on Oxford than I am may get bored with the endless flow of cop shows set there, but all the signs are that demand for those shows is as strong as ever. Yes, the broadcasters are playing it safe, and that's why a less conventional series like Broadchurch is so welcome. But if subsequent screenplays are as sharp as this one was, there is a good chance that Endeavour will run and run.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Broadchurch and the lure of whodunit

Broadchurch had its seventh and penultimate episode, and the question of who killed Danny continues to spark a great deal of debate. I've really enjoyed this series, which has provided a terrific reminder of the appeal - I'm tempted to say, the eternal appeal - of a really good whodunit. I was impressed by the first episode, but I've been even more impressed by the way the momentum has been maintained.

Most of us like to try solving a puzzle. I'm struck by the fact that my murder mystery events, which are interactive, almost always attract much larger audiences than conventional talks, and I'm also struck by the fact that people who come along tell me that the fun of trying to solve the mystery is at least as enjoyable as actually getting it right. That's a view I share. When I was reading Agatha Christie for the first time, I enjoyed the books where she fooled me even more than those where she didn't. As long as the fooling was 'fair'.

But the best detective stories offer added value along with the puzzle, in my opinion, which is where I part company with strict traditionalists like the late great Jacques Barzun. And this explains why Broadchurch scores so highly. The acting and the production values are excellent, but there is also a convincing portrait of a community torn by grief but also contaminated by suspicion. Yes, there are some implausibilities, but show me the whodunit where that isn't the case. There aren't many that are 100% credible; it's almost unavoidable, to rely on coincidence and unlikely developments, given the nature of the form. (Though I think it would be possible to write a whodunit that was totally credible in all respects. I'd be interested in any opinions about books already published which fit that description.)

There seems to be quite a widespread and growing consensus on the internet about the surprise twist regarding the identity of the killer. I'm not sure I go along with it, but I'll be fascinated to find the answer, and like everyone else, I hope it lives up to the expectations generated by this excellent series. 

Monday 15 April 2013

Ripley's Game -- film review

Ripley's Game is a film version of the Patricia Highsmith novel dating back to 2002. Back in 2009, I listened to the audio book version of the novel, and was by no means convinced by the story. This may have been due in part to the cutting-down of the story to a fraction of the original length, but it put me off reading the novel itself, but that may have been a mistake. Because I must say that the film is very good.

I suppose if you wanted to find an actor to play someone with superficial charm but a very sinister side, John Malkovich would be high on your list. And if you wanted to cast a thuggish villain, you could do a lot worse than pick Ray Winstone. As for a charismatic, sensitive yet troubled British man, how about Dougray Scott? All three are splendid in their roles, and Lena Headey is excellent as Scott's wife.

Jonathan, played by Scott, embarrasses Ripley and himself at a social event. Ripley being Ripley, when his chum Reeves wants someone killed, he suggests Jonathan for the job. And, for complex reasons, the essentially decent Jonathan does commit the crime. A big mistake, of course, because he finds he is now in too deep. There need to be more people killed, some in a very gory manner. Jonathan is paid handsomely, but struggles to explain to his wife where the money came from.

Highsmith presents us with a disturbing moral universe - arguably, a universe without many morals. Her world is full of ambiguities, good and evil are often distorted. She's a strange but gifted writer, and one of her special talents is picking out appealing facets of people who commit terrible crimes. I thought this film translated her themes to the screen very well. Tom Ripley gets away with murder, and so (in a good way) does Highsmith.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Books about Crime Fiction

I've a long-held interest in books about crime fiction, as well as crime stories themselves. There's been an upsurge of interest in the genre and its history in recent years, and as a result, the quantity and quality of books about it have increased and improved. Today I would just like to highlight a couple of titles that have come my way.

First, a new(ish) biography of Raymond Chandler, written by Tom Williams and published last year by Aurum Press, who always seem to produce very attractive books. I don't often talk about Chandler on this blog, because there's no shortage of coverage of his work elsewhere, but I've enjoyed his work for many years,,and a long time ago I was commissioned by the Folio Society, of all people, to write an essay on "the Chandler Style", which was great fun to write.

Williams' book - his first - is extensively researched, and casts, as he says, an unflinching eye on his subject's character. He also makes the point that the more he understood the darker parts of Chandler's life, the more he admired his literary achievements. Inevitably, in a book like this, there are a few gaps, and I'd have been interested in reading more about his friendship with Michael Gilbert, and his interest in true crime - the Maybrick and Wallace cases, for instance. But this is just a quibble. Raymond Chandler: A Life is certainly a worthwhile addition to the list of books about a fine writer.

Very different in style and content, but most entertaining, is The Agatha Christie Miscellany, by Cathy Cook, published by the History Press, who also know how to turn out a nice book. This is a collection of bits and pieces about the Queen of Crime and her work with copious illustrations. It's small enough to fit into a pocket or handbag and makes an excellent dip-in volume. And a good present for a crime fan, I'd say.

Friday 12 April 2013

Forgotten Book - Still Dead

Still Dead, by Ronald Knox, was published in 1934 and features Knox's regular sleuth, the insurance investigator Miles Bredon. The setting is Scotland, and the mystery is one of those vanishing-body puzzles. Colin Reiver's corpse was spotted, apparently, on a Monday, but then disappeared before turning up on the Wednesday. He seemed to have died of exposure - but had he been murdered, and if so, when and by whom?

The set-up is very good, and the unravelling of it so complicated that many readers will be glad of the footnotes Knox helpfully supplies to point out where relevant clues appeared earlier in the text. I did, however, feel that here -as in an earlier Knox book, The Footsteps at the Lock - my interest faltered because of the lack of sufficient incident after the initial flurry of activity. My old friend Robert Barnard often used to say that second murders in books are "vulgar", but a further killing here would, quite frankly,have livened up the second half of the story.

Colin is not someone for whom we feel much sympathy. He has killed a child in a road accident, although the criminal justice system didn't pin the blame on him. To get away from it all, he is sent by his family on a cruise to Madeira and the Med, but his death occurs as soon as he returns to the family estate in Scotland.

Although I was not greatly enamoured of the plot, I enjoyed some of Knox's little touches, touches which suggested to me that, had he taken the detective genre as seriously as, say, Dorothy L. Sayers, he could have made a more notable contribution to it as a novelist. In fact, he is now better remembered for a few good short stories, and his 'Decalogue', a tongue-in-cheek set of rules for writing detective fiction. But there are moments of genuine passion here, notably in his scathing words about a doctor who is a eugenicist - and eugenics were popular with many people until the horrors of their practical application in Nazi Germany became apparent. I could have done with more of this real feeling in the book, and a bit less of the almost interminable debate about what had actually happened to Colin's body. Not a masterpiece, then, but one with a number of points of genuine distinction which make Still Dead still worth reading.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Unknown: film review

Unknown is a 2011 film (there is another with the same title that I have yet to see, but which sounds good) starring Liam Neeson and January Jones. It opens with the pair of them arriving in a snowy Berlin. Dr Martin Harris, along with his wife, scheduled to attend a high profile academic conference on biotechnology. As they come to check in, one of their suitcases goes missing. Neeson hails a cab driven by a young woman and heads back for the airport.

However, the car crashes, and although the driver saves Neeson, he winds up in hospital and is out of it for four days. When he wakes up, he finds his wife has not asked after him. He goes back to the hotel, but his wife denies all knowledge of him - and is accompanied by another man, who says he is Dr Martin Harris. A quick internet search reveals the other man's face on the university website...

It's a wonderful premise, and the action seldom flags from that point. Neeson is a big man, but he also has a vulnerable quality that makes him a very appealing hero. But - is he a hero? What is going on? You do have to sympathise with someone who thinks he is married to January Jones and then finds she blanks him! Is she being put under pressure or blackmailed, or is there some other reason for her behaviour?

Of course, a story like this depends very heavily on the quality of the explanation for the puzzle. So often the answer is a let-down. But in my opinion, the story was well-structured, and the explanation worked for me. I was also reminded what a marvellous city Berlin is - I last went there when I was a student, and the Wall was still up. I was staying in a flat near the Wall and remember hearing shots fired one evening when we were having a meal. Must get back there, and see how it has changed. Unknown certainly encouraged me to return, though not, I hope, with the results encountered by Liam Neeson... There was one aspect which I felt implausible, but can't mention for fear of spoilers. Overall, though, a very gripping and well-made film, and I certainly have no hesitation in recommending it.

Monday 8 April 2013

Agatha Christie's Marple:The Pale Horse - review

Agatha Christie's Marple - why do they call it that? It's not as if there's any need to avoid confusion,because Dorothy L. Sayers or someone else also wrote about a character with that name. What's more, I had one or two reservations about the casting of Julia Mackenzie as the great spinster sleuth, and I decided not to watch the adaptation of The Pale Horse, when it was first shown two years ago, because it introduced Jane Marple into a very good story in which she never appeared. It all seemed like a recipe for disaster.

But one or two Christie fans told me that this was one of the best adaptations of her work in recent years, so I decided to give in, and have a look at it. And to be honest, I'm glad I did, because on the whole, it was a pretty good piece of entertainment, despite the radical changes made to the original. The screenplay was written by Russell Lewis, a very experienced writer. I've never met him, but long ago he was mooted as someone to adapt the Harry Devlin books for TV. Sadly, that never happened.

The opening of the story is very different from that of the book. A vicar - played by Nicholas Parsons - is beaten to death after visiting a dying woman. But he is an old pal of Miss Marple, and has already sent her a mysterious letter containing a list of names and a reference to the Book of Revelation. Her enquiries quickly lead her to a spooky hotel deep in rural England called The Pale Horse.

The cast was excellent, including such stars as Neil Pearson, Pauline Collins and Nigel Planer. With a couple of exceptions, over-acting (which really kills the televised Christies) was avoided, thank goodness, and I thought Julia Mackenzie did well enough in the part to overcome my doubts. All in all, very watchable, if very different from the original, which was definitely one of the best Christies written after the 1950s, and a book that's certainly worth reading if you are unfamiliar with it.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Arne Dahl: The Blinded Man - TV review

The Blinded Man, a two-parter in the new Scandinavian crime series Arne Dahl, had its first episode last night on BBC Four. I thought I'd give it a go, even though I'm beginning to lose track of Nordic crime series, so commonplace have they become. I haven't read Misterioso, the book on which the show is based, and I must admit that I'm not familiar with the work of Arne Dahl, the Swedish author who gives the series its name. But evidently he's highly successful and the Dahl name is a pseudonym, for Jan Arnald.

In an eventful ninety-minute episode, a string of financiers were murdered rather spectacularly on successive days. Financiers have a long tradition as victims in detective stories - dating back at least to the book that launched the Golden Age a century ago, Trent's Last Case (incidentally, I've been surprised by the lack of discussion about E.C. Bentley's famous book at the time of its centenary, so I may say a bit about myself before long.)

The key premise is that a group of seemingly dysfunctional cops from different parts of Sweden are assembled to investigate the case. I suspect the book did a rather better job of explaining why this was such a good idea than the TV version. But the contrasting characters of the cops makes for good television, and this episode ended with one of them suffering a grisly fate at the hands of some very unpleasant gangsters.

In addition to the Swedish scenes, those in photogenic Tallinn were a welcome bonus; I enjoyed the show, without being overwhelmed with admiration. Some of this is to do with the fact that I have become rather bored with reading sub-titles. I'll watch Arne Dahl again, but like a number of other crime shows I've seen this year, it simply isn't in the same league as Broadchurch, which after five episodes I'm finding absolutely superb.

Friday 5 April 2013

Criiminal London - Kris and Nina Hollington

Criminal London, newly published by Aurum Press, is written by Kris and Nina Hollington and has an explanatory sub-title: A Sightseer's Guide to the Capital of Crime. It's a very attractively produced book (I've noticed before that Aurum produce some good-looking volumes) with a lavish selection of excellent illustrations. And it's just about compact enough to fit into a large pocket when roaming the capital in search of murderous sites.

It's a book to dip into, I think, rather than one to read from cover to cover, and I've enjoyed my dipping so far. The range of cases covered is eclectic and I've yet to spot any obvious omissions, although the reality is that no single book can ever be totally comprehensive. What matters is the blend between what is well known and what is obscure - always desirable, I think, to include some material that seems fresh and unfamiliar. This is a test that the book passes with flyinig colours.

Among the classic crimes of the past that are featured, we have the fascinating Fahmy case, which is linked to the Savoy Hotel, and the Left Luggage Office at Waterloo Station, associated with Patrick Mahon's bungalow murder, which also made headlines in the Twenties. The authors also highlight a range of places linked with more modern crimes and criminals, such as the Krays.

There is a Jack the Ripper trail and a long section about the London of Arthur Conan Doyle. More than enough, I'd say, for the most crime-hungry tourist. There is a great deal of useful information here, and much of it was previously unknown to me. All in all, I'd say the Hollingtons have done a very good job.

Forgotten Book - Murder of My Aunt

Murder of My Aunt was the debut novel of Richard Hull, and is my Forgotten Book for today. Published in 1934, it was extremely successful - in fact, Hull struggled in a writing career that stretched for almost twenty years to match it. Arguably, Excellent Intentions and My Own Murderer were better books, but the ironic wit and cleverness of his debut were what made it stand out. The trouble, as far as a modern reader is concerned, is the key plot twist is foreseeable. How much that matters depends on how much you enjoy Hull's style of writing.

I'm one of those who do. Hull was working, very clearly, in the same vein as Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles, and I do find those stories that play ironically with the reader's expectations to be very entertaining, provided one makes allowances for the passage of time. This is one of those relatively uncommon crime novels set in a remote part of mid-Wales. The narrator, Edward Powell, is a fat and unpleasant idler who is forced by circumstance to live with his Aunt Mildred, whom he hates, at her house on the outskirts of Llwll.

Edward decides that he needs to do away with Mildred, and the book recounts his various attempts to achieve his ambition. There is some degree of uncertainty in his characterisation - he is effeminate, but not above trying in vain to seduce a maid - but his loathsome selfishnes is consistent throughout. So one does not identify with him in the way that some readers may, possibly, identify with Dr Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles. That's a weakness in the story, I think, but by no means fatal to enjoyment.

Over the years, I've managed to track down all the Hull books, and it's fair to say that they are a mixed bag. I go along with the general view that his post-war work was largely sub-standard, and his career petered out in the early 50s. Yet at his best, he was capable of coming up with interesting and amusing story-lines, and this book offers a good example. The fact that his idea has been re-used so many times since means that it's not easy to imagine how fresh it may have seemed in 1934. But it's a book that I enjoyed re-reading, even though I knew what was going to happen.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Oleander Press and The Charing Cross Mystery

Oleander Press is a small but enterprising publisher which has launched a brand new imprint, "London Bound". The clue, of course, is in the title - this is a series of London-based books, and they are vintage crime novels. I was delighted to receive through the post the first of them today. This is The Charing Cross Mystery by J.S. Fletcher, a prolific and once very successful author who is now pretty much neglected.

The book is very well produced, with striking jacket artwork, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Looking forward, also, to the appearance of further titles in the series. At present we are promised The Doctor of Pimlico by that larger-than-life character William Le Queux, due later this month, and another book of which I have very high hopes.

This is a very rare Golden Age book, one I've never seen, Fatality in Fleet Street. The author was Christopher St John Sprigg, who was a truly fascinating man. He wrote six detective novels, all now highly sought after, but was better known for his poetry, which he wrote under the name Christopher Caudwell. He became a Marxist and joined the International Brigades who were fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He was killed while manning a machine gun at the battle of Jamara. He was just 29 years old.

Well, that's a treat in store for me and I'm sure for many other fans of Golden Age fiction. It's such a good thing that publishers like Oleander are making books like this available again at long last. Meanwhile, it'll be interesting to see how The Charing Cross Mystery shapes up.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

The Debt - film review

The Debt is a recent American remake of an earlier Israeli film, and it boasts a wonderful cast - Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain and Marton Csokas, to name a few. It's an espionage film, but although there's plenty of exciting, and sometimes chilling action and suspense, there's also an attempt to deal with important issues such as when it is better to tell the truth rather than sticking to a lie that has saved people from harm.

The early scenes need to be watched very carefully, as the action zips around and two different periods of time are involved. Mirren plays Rachel, a woman who in 1990s Israel enjoys a considerable reputation for courage, whose adoring daughter has just written a book about her past exploits in espionage. Wilkinsoon is her ex-husband, a spy who has become an important political figure, but who uses a wheelchair (we learn that this is because he had been blown up by car bomb.)

Various scenes flash back to a time, 30 years earlier, when this pair, along with another young man, go to East Germany during the Cold War, trying to capture a brutal former Nazi medic - the Surgeon of Birkenau. We see early on an apparently conclusive scene explaining what happpened, but later on, it turns out that we have been misled.

The tricky storytelling rather appealed to me. Playing games with story structure is something that is fascinating when it is well done, and here it is very well done. There are some very dark moments along the way, and I'm not entirely sure why Rachel made her final choice. In fact, I'm not absolutely convinced it was the right choice, but this is a consistently gripping movie, which made quite an impact on me. A good example of a strong story that is something more than just a straightforward thriller.

Monday 1 April 2013

Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant's Thumb: BBC TV review

Jonathan Creek returned tonight on BBC 1 with The Clue of the Savant's Thumb, a brand new episode written by David Renwick and starring Alan Davies as Creek and Sheridan Smith (whose acting career has been hitting the heights since we last saw her in this series) as his "Watson", Joey Ross. The supporting cast included Joanna Lumley, Nigel Planer and Rik Mayall, which indicates the focus of the show on "feelgood" television. And there's nothing wrong with the feelgood factor, especially after the winter we've had.

This story presented us with two mysteries. Fifty years ago, in a strict convent school, a young girl died in bizarre circumstances. Her death has haunted her old schoolfriend, played by Lumley, ever since. Now, Lumley is married to a terminally ill man (Nigel Planer) and is having an affair with her husband's GP. Her husband's blood-stained body is found by their adopted daughter. Lumley takes a photograph of the apparent crime scene. But by the time the emergency services arrive, the body has disappeared...

Meanwhile, Jonathan Creek has married and moved into the glitzy world of marketing along with his glamorous and wealthy wife. Joey tracks him down and persuades him to take an interest in the case, which is being investigated by Mayall, a brilliant detective in his own right, who is now confined to a wheelchair. There are plenty of clues, and even more red herrings, before first the old mystery is solved and then the puzzle of the disappearing corpse is explained, before a slightly cartoonish finale borrowed from a political conspiracy thriller.

David Renwick is a witty and clever writer, and his enthusiasm for the work of John Dickson Carr - which I share - is the key to what is most enjoyable about the Jonathan Creek storylines. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief, but with Jonathan Creek, as with the Dickson Carr stories, the breezy writing means this is no hardship.

One of the great things about the success of Jonathan Creek is that it has shown that the classic elements of the traditional detective mystery can be adapted with great success for modern readers and audiences, if the writer is good enough, and shows respect for the form, rather than merely attempting pastiche (though I'd add that there have been a number of parodies and pastiches of Golden Age detective stories that I've really enjoyed.) This latest episode was entertaining, although I didn't think it was quite as effective as the last, The Judas Tree, but it may be that others will take a different view..

Impossible crime stories have long appealed to me, and I've written several over the years; short stories rather than novels, though. Just as Jonathan Creek tends to work better in a one hour episode than a ninety minute episode like this one, so do locked room tricks tend to be easier to pull off in short stories rather than novels. One of those stories, suitably adapted, forms the basis of my Victorian murder mystery event, "Who Killed George Hargrave?" This was performed a couple of weeks back at Holywell, in North Wales, by an excellent cast of library volunteers.

What interested me about this event (and another, at Knutsford a fortnight earlier) was that it was a sell-out, gaining much larger audiences than I find conventional talks or writers' panels tend to attract. In fact, I gave a talk about the locked room story as part of the event, and during the questions, again I was struck by the extent of people's enthusiasm for this type of story. As reaction to my Friday Forgotten Books posts shows, there is still a huge amount of interest in classic detective fiction - in fact, I'm certain there's more interest in it today than there was a few years ago. Jonathan Creek shows that this is not simply a matter of nostalgia. We still love a mystery, and there's plenty of room for the elaborate puzzle today, alongside all those relentlessly dark stories about autopsies and serial killers.