Wednesday 29 May 2013

Go Back For Murder: theatre review

Go Back For Murder, written by Agatha Christie, last night began a run at the Regent Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, in a performance by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, which each year for the past decade has taken a Christie play around the country. I was lucky enough to be offered tickets (long story!) and so, after the fun of watching The Mousetrap in London recently, I jumped at the chance to see this much less renowned play.

And I was very glad I did. The play is based on one of Christie's finest novels, Five Little Pigs. Robert Barnard, no mean judge of Christie, reckons that it is arguaby her best book,and certainly the characterisation is a bit deeper than Christie usually offers.The plot is intriguing, but what I admire most about the story is a very chilling image associated with the commission of the crime. To say more would be a spoiler, but I was pleased to see that the play retained that image, and deployed it very effectively.

A major difference between book and play is that the former features Hercule Poirot, whereas on the stage the detective work is done by a team comprising Carla, daughter of the late Caroline Crayle, convicted years ago of murdering her husband, and her solicitor. This device works very well, in my opinion. The story is somewhat static, and this is evident in the first act of the play, as the detail about the Crayle case is conveyed to the audience, but the second act contains much more movement.

The cast is exceptional. Liza Goddard, Sophie Ward and Lysette Anthony are dazzling actresses. Lysette Anthony was once dubbed "the face of the Eighties" by David Bailey, and at the age of 50 she is truly beautiful. Among the male actors, I was delighted to see Gary Mavers, whom I got to know about ten years ago. Gary comes from Liverpool, and there was a plan for him to play Harry Devlin in a TV series that never got made (there were several such series, sad to say!) I still have somewhere the photos of Gary, as Harry, looking moody on the Liverpool waterfront. He once invited me to see him act in a murder mystery play in Manchester, and it was great to see him here in a very different role, as the murder victim Amyas Crayle. All in all, a very good evening's entertainment.

Monday 27 May 2013


I've had the idea of visiting Carcassonne for a while, but it was given fresh impetus when I watched Kate Mosse's Labyrinth. The beauty of the setting, and its bloody history, took my breath away. One interesting statistic is that my blog post about Labyrinth struck a chord, because it has been viewed more than five thousand times, a figure I find pleasing if rather startling. I was even contacted by a holiday business in Carcassonne as a result.

However, when I finally made it to this fascinating part of southern France, I decided to stay in the heart of the medieval city, at the Hotel de la Cite, which is right next to the Basilica. For a short stay, this proved a wonderful choice. There's nothing like exploring somewhere gorgeous when you are right on the spot, and don't need to travel. Carcassonne more than lived up to expectations.

I didn't see many copies of Kate Mosse's book around, to my surprise, but the history of the Cathars and the Crusades is everywhere. Until recently, I didn't know much about this bit of the past, but it's certainly fascinating, and a son et lumiere show in the grounds of the old castle one evening was a wonderful way to soak up the atmosphere.

The town of Carcassonne outside the old (but restored) walls is also very appealing, and the Canal du Midi runs right past the railway station. Canal trips, as I've mentioned before on this blog, are a favourite pastime of mine, and I managed to fit in three trips up and down the very scenic route. It was all wonderfully relaxing, and put me in just the right frame of mind to start planning my next book.

On the subject of my writing, The Frozen Shroud is due out in the UK next month, and to celebrate, my current plan is to post more regularly to this blog than the usual three times a week. You never know, I may even get around to reviving my Twitter account!

Friday 24 May 2013

Forgotten Book - Murder Isn't Easy

Is it a typo? you may wonder. Is he thinking of Murder is Easy, the far from forgotten title by Agatha Christie? Well, the answer to both questions is no. My Forgotten Book today is a very interesting but neglected gem, written by Richard Hull. Murder Isn't Easy was first published in 1936, a couple of years before Christie's book appeared. He really was ahead of his time!

The book has two distinctive strengths. First, it's wittily written, and the humour has by no means dated badly. I found the story entertaining from start to finish, making some allowances for the passage of time. Second, it is a book with an unusual and very clever structure. Hull's debut, Murder of My Aunt, had a sort of unreliable narrator. Here, we have a great deal of unreliable narration, with the story told from four different viewpoints.

The setting is an advertising business - shades of Sayers' Murder Must Advertise. Hull's account of the business suggests some personal knowledge, though he was an accountant. Perhaps he'd audited such a firm. This one has three equal shareholders, all of whom are rather unattractive men. Latimer, who relates the first section of the story, is in some ways reminiscent of Edward, main protagonist of Murder of My Aunt. The unlovely trio also employ an artist and a secretary, and one remarkable social insight is the easy way that employers used to debate the merits of sacking a woman once she got married. You don't have to be an employment lawyer like me to find this extraordinary.

I don't want to say too much about the story-line, because after a slowish start, it develops in a very effective way. I'm not sure I've read a book quite like this one. And it offers a good example of Hull's particular and enviable gift, to conjure up highly original situations. Sometimes he struggled to execute them in a way that held reader interest to the end, but this little-known story is definitely one of his best.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

The Double: film review

The Double is a 2011 film, a spy thriller, which benefits from the appearance in the cast of two very bankable stars, Michael Douglas and Richard Gere. Douglas, whose part in the movie is smaller than Gere's, plays the boss of the CIA. Gere is a retired agent,Paul, who is called back from his quiet retirement for "one last job" when a senator has his throat cut. The killing has all the hallmarks of the work of a former Soviet assassin know as Cassius, who was thought to be dead.

Paul teams up with a young agent called Ben, played by Topher Grace, who is an expert on Cassius's methods. They go to question Brutus (one of Cassius's sidekicks, needless to say) who escapes from prison rather cleverly. However, Paul slits his throat, and it seems as though Paul is Cassius. Ben grows suspicious of him, and Paul, who has his own reasons for feeling some sympathy for Ben, tries to persuade Ben's wife to call off his investigation.

From there, the plot continues to twist and turn, and all in all, I found it enjoyable. Watching it, however, reminded me of a truly memorable movie, the highly suspenseful No Way Out. That film, starring Kevin Costner (not Gere, thanks JohnG for putting me right!)  was based on one of my favourite American crime novels, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing, and is even more ingenious than the book.

The Double is not in the same league, though I think it is better than some of the more negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes would seem to suggest. The acting is good, and although the screenplay does contain one or two formulac elements, it works quite well. Worth watching, but if you get the chance to watch No Way Out (dated as some of its plot points are), I think you'll enjoy that more.

Sunday 19 May 2013

The Mousetrap

Call myself an Agatha Christie fan? It's a dreadful confession, but until a short time ago, I'd never even got around to watching The Mousetrap. Yes, the longest-running play of all time, by a country mile, and I'd not seen it. Thanks to an initiative of the Crime Writers' Association, and in particular of its new chair, Alison Joseph, I've finally remedied this shocking omission.

The Mousetrap is, of course, a classic Golden Age whodunit. It began life as a radio play, Three Blind Mice, but Christie, who was very keen on the theatre, adapted it for the stage. She had a mixed record as a playwright. Some of her stage plays were not particularly successful - I recall being a bit disappointed by Fiddlers Five, when I saw it on its early run in Manchester, as a birthday treat in my teens. In fact, Christie obviously realised that something was amiss, since a revised version appeared before long, called Fiddlers Three! As far as I know, it has never been published, so I have not had a chance to check on my original judgment..

Things were very different when it comes to The Mousetrap, which is now in its sixtieth year. It's become a real British institution, a must-see for tourists as well as fans of detective stories. I really did enjoy the play. It is good, unpretentious light entertainment, and the cast did a very good job with the material. Yes, it's a period piece, but that accounts for a great deal of its charm.

Alison Joseph had arranged with the management of St Martin's Theatre, a small but appealing theatre with lots of "Mousetrap memorabilia" on show in the bar, that we would have a backstage tour after the play. This was great fun. So now I know how the effects of the wind, and of the falling snow,are produced. As with the solution to the central mystery in the play, however, my lips must remain sealed...

Friday 17 May 2013

Forgotten Book - A Question of Proof

A Question of Proof, by Nicholas Blake, is my chosen Forgotten Book for today. It marked the crime writing debut of the poet Cecil Day Lewis, and the arrival on the scene of his regular sleuth, Nigel Strangeways. It's one of a number of mysteries written in the Thirties with a public school setting - R.C Woodthorpe and Glen Trevor (alias James Hilton) were among those who used a similar background. Blake had taught in such a school, and his inside knowledge of the milieu contributes to the quality of the story.

The first part of the book is seen largely from the viewpoint of a young teacher, perhaps based on Day Lewis himsel, who is an anti-establishment figure - so much so that he is conducting an affair with the head teacher's wife, who rejoices in the name of Hero Vale. When a rather unpleasant pupil is found dead in the hay castle where the couple have recently been enjoying each other's company, no prizes for guessing where the finger of suspicion is likely to point.

The police pursue the obvious lines of enquiry, and Strangeways comes into the story with a view to representing the school's interests. The author endows him with one or two mannerisms which aren't terribly memorable, but he is nevertheless an engaging character, and he detects thoughtfully and well. A further murder is committed - this time at a cricket match - and the truth about the crime is conpicuously "modern" for the time when the story was written.

Day Lewis, and his biographers, have seemed a bit dismissive about his crime novels, but they have lasted reasonably well, and it's worth noting that his career in the genre continued for rather longer than that of many of his contemporaries who started out in the Golden Age. This was partly because he was a genuinely talented writer, and partly because he was prepared to avoid formula, and try out fresh ideas. Not all of them were equally successful, but as this lively debut shows he had quite a flair for the genre.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

The Galloway Case and Death Beneath Jerusalem

Andrew Garve is an author I've mentioned before on this blog, and a good example of someone, successful in his day, whose work is reaching a new audience through digital publishing. I had read a few Garves in the past, but I wasn't especially interested in his work. However, when Bello started to reissue his titles as ebooks, I took a closer look - and I've really enjoyed what I've discovered.

Many prolific writers are variable in the quality what they produce. It's almost impossible to write dozens of books of uniform quality. I think that in my earlier encounters with his books, I read a couple of relatively unsatisfactory stories. But, although it's tempting and almost inevitable, one should not judge an author on a brief acquaintance. I have been impressed by the last few Garves that I've read in Bello ebook editions.

He was primarily a thriller writer rather than a specialist in whodunits, but The Galloway Case is a very entertaining story about a young man who falls for an attractive but mysterious woman while in Jersey, and finds himself trying to prove the innocence of a man who has been accused of  murder. There's quite a bit of stuff about crime writing in this novel which made it especially appealing to me. A very good read with a number of neat twists.

Garve was a pseudonym - his real name was Paul Winterton, and he was a journalist. But Garve was obviously a name he liked, because in his very first book, writtten under the name of Roger Bax, he called his journalist hero Philip Garve. Death Beneath Jerusalem was published just before the Second World War and it presents Jerusalem at that time in a fascinating light. This is a thriller, pure and simple, but highly readable, and the background is evocative. So much so that it has made me hope that one day, I'll get the chance to visit Jerusalem.

Monday 13 May 2013

History and Mystery

Last week I rhapsodised over Andrew Taylor's wonderful new novel The Scent of Death, and I'm tempted to place him at the head of the list of my favourite writers of historical mysteries, given that Peter Lovesey, whom I also admire greatly, has been focusing on contemporary crime for quite a few years now. There's no doubt that history-mysteries are hugely popular, and with good reason (and no, I don't mean just because forensics were easier for writers to deal with in the past!)

The History Press, as the name suggests, has a particular niche in this area, although they have sometimes branched out, for instance with the Murder Squad anthology Best Eaten Cold and other stories. They have recently published two books by fellow CWA members whom I've known for a number of years.

Joan Lock was once a police officer, and she is very strong on non-fiction. Her publications include two very interesting books dealing with aspects of the history of Scotland Yard. But Joan has also developed a distinct reputation as a novelist,and The History Press have been reprinting some titles which appeared a few years ago. The latest is Dead Born, which features her character Detective Sergeant Best. The focus of the story is on the grim subject of baby farming, One of the appealing features of this book is that it's short and very crisply written. Well worth a look.

Linda Stratmann is another novelist who first made her name with non-fiction. She wrote a fascinating book about chloroform, and a recent study of the Marquess of Queensbury won rave reviews. When it comes to novels, her series character is Frances Doughty, who makes her third appearance in A Case of Doubtful Death. As with Joan Lock's novel, the setting is Victorian London and the story concerns the death of a doctor and the disappearance of one of his staff. Again, the research that has gone into the story strikes me as dependable, but there is not an excess of it. I'm certainly hoping that The History Press, a small firm that does produce attractive books, will continue to produce entertaining and attractive novels as well as non-fiction.

Friday 10 May 2013

Forgotten Book -The Murderers of Monty

My forgotten book for today is The Murderers of Monty, a rather obscure title from that intriguing writer Richard Hull. It was first published in 1937, and it features a very appealing central idea. Monty Archer is (like the book's author) a chartered accountant. Unfortunately, he is also, despite his best intentions, rather tedious and irritating. A natural victim in a crime story, you may think.

And you'd be right. So right, in fact, that a number of Monty's acquaintances decide, in light-hearted mood,that it would be no bad thing if he were murdered. The men are professionals -a solicitor, a barrister, a financier and a stockbroker, and they conjure up the idea of forming a company. It's to be called  The Murderers of Monty Limited. Why Limited? Limited to Monty, of course, as one of them cheerfully points out.

The joke falls flat when Monty is actually murdered. Who could possibly want to do real harm to him? It's a case for Inspector Fenby, the amiable and undemonstrative cop who appeared in several of Hull's books. This, however, is a book which begins splendidly but goes downhill fast as soon as the crime occurs. There is a lot of seemingly endless and inconsequential chit-chat, and Hull's attempts to sustain his appealing idea for the length of a whole novel do not come off. One idea, however entertaining, does not by itself a novel make.

I first read this novel many years ago, and wondered whether the sense of disappointment I felt first time around would persist, given that I'd forgotten the outcome of the story. I'm sorry to say that it did. I'm glad I read it again, because I really enjoyed the opening chapters. But, not for the only time in his career, Hull produced a book that was definitely anti-climactic. A shame, but even so, Hull remains a writer who deserves to be better known. For all the flaws of books such as this, he was constantly striving for originality, and there's something rather admirable in a writer who takes so many risks.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor - review

Andrew Taylor has written a good many books over the years, but he has been slightly less prolific in recent times, which made me all the more eager to read his latest, The Scent of Death. And that's because I think it's fair to say that the appearance of a new Andrew Taylor novel has become an Event, rather in the way that the arrival of a new book by that exceptionally entertaining writer Reginald Hill used to be an Event. Yes, Andrew is that good. The over-riding question, inevitably, is whether the new book matches the high standards of its predecessors such as The American Boy and Bleeding Heart Square. The answer is an emphatic yes. This is a marvellous book.

The story is set in the late eighteenth century, in New York. Edward Savill, a clerk, has been sent on government business at a time when war is raging as many (but not all) Americans press for independence. His arrival sets in motion an elaborate seqeunce of events whose significance does not become clear for a long time. This is a long book, and a masterly example of how to pace a story. A series of small incidents keep the plot moving along while the characters and their environment are developed with unobtrusive skill.

Savill is staying with Judge Wintour and his family, the most intirguing of whom is Wintour's daughter-in-law, Arabella. A man called Pickett who had visited the Wintours in rather mysterious circumstances, is found murdered, and other deaths occur. Time passes, and Arabella's husband, a soldier, returns home. Strange tensions in the Wintours' marriage become evident,although their cause is unclear. Meanwhile, Savill's own marriage runs into trouble.

There are many incidental pleasures in this book. As usual, there are one or two sly references to Taylor's other work - he once used the pen-name Saville, for instance, and an HMS Lydmouth, named after his excellent series set in post-war Britain, makes an appearance. Whilst it's fun to try to detect these little snippets, I really hope that one day he can be persuaded to set out the various cross-references in his books, which I suspect some readers may not have noticed.

I knew very little about this period of American history, but Taylor achieves the distinction of imparting a great deal of information without making his research obvious - and he makes it all extremely interesting. The story-line is gripping from start to finish, even though I was unsure for a long time where it was leading, while the writing is of the highest quality throughout. I figured out one aspect of the plot, but others had me on tenterhooks. This is quite possibly the best book so far from one of our most distinguished crime novelists. Strongly recommended.

Monday 6 May 2013

Portmeirion and Crime Fiction

I was lucky enough to spend a night recently at one of my favourite places, Portmeirion, on the Dwyryd Estuary in North Wales. I first visited Portmeirion as a child, and this extraordinary Italianate village, created by a brilliant if slightly eccentric architect, Clough Williams-Ellis, made a great impression on me. I've returned many times since, and I still find it as entrancing as ever.

Because Portmeirion is so exotic,and so unexpected, some people think it outlandish, but not only is the setting lovely, there is a sense of fun and joyfulness about Clough's creation that makes a great many people feel good, simply by being there. And when the weather is excellent, as it was on this visit, it really is a terrific place to be.

Yet Portmeirion's strangeness did make it the perfect setting for that classic cult TV series The Prisoner, and it's also the setting for a recent crime novel, Fear in the Sunlight, by Nicola Upson. This is the latest in her series featuring the writer Josephine Tey as a character. Her version of Tey differs from the description of Tey given to me by a family member who knew her, but is nevertheless appealing.

In this story, Tey is staying at Portmeirion along with Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma, to negotiate a deal that will see Tey's novel A Shilling for Candles adapted into the film Young and Innocent. The Portmeirion meeting did not happen in real life, but it's a great idea, and Upson's evocation of the fantasy village is probably the strongest part of the book. Murder does not happen for about 200 pages, and some readers may feel that this was too long to wait. But the trip to Portmeirion was the ideal time to read the book, and I have little doubt that Nicola Upson likes the place as much as I do.

Friday 3 May 2013

Forgotten Book: Corpse Guards Parade

Corpse Guards Parade, my Forgotten Book for today, is a 1929 novel from the pen of Milward Kennedy. As the groan-worthy title suggests, it's fairly light-hearted in style, but it does offer a genuine detective puzzle,. My copy is a second impression, published in what Victor Gollancz called the "Prime Ministers' Detective Library". I'm really not sure what that term is meant to signify, though as I understand it, Stanley Baldwin was a fan of detective stories.But then, Gollancz was no fan of Stanley Baldwin, so it's a rather baffling marketing ploy.

One thing is for sure, a modern publisher would be unlikely to regard a link with politicians as a selling point for detective fiction, except in so far as quite a few of our elected representatives seem to finish up going to prison. Anyway, Gollancz was just starting up in 1929, and he must have been quite pleased to recruit Milward Kennedy, at that time a rising star of the genre to his list.

This book reunites Inspector Cornford and John Merriman, two characters who earlier appeared in The Corpse on the Mat. Cornford likes his food, and is quite a good-natured soul, although not perhaps the sharpest of sleuths. Merriman has recently married Joan, who is perhaps a smarter detective than either of them. In this story, Merriman stumbles across a corpse one foggy night on Horse Guards Parade. It seems to be the body of Henry Dill, recently returned from South America, but before long uncertainty creeps in as to the deceased's identity.

There are endless complications, but the fact that there are so few key characters means that it is not terribly difficult to identify the likely culprit, although his precise m.o. is less easy to figure out. I read this one quickly, and it's a pretty straightforward piece of work from an author who was still learning his trade at this point. But Kennedy's lightness of touch means that it's an easy and pleasant read.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Susan Moody and Stephen Murray

You might think that, over the course of rather more than 1600 blog posts, I'd have discussed at great  length all of the crime writers whom I know and like, and probably I should have done. But I haven't, and a conversation at Windermere reminded me of this. So I thought that I'd start filling in some of the gaps, with particular reference to authors whose stories I've included in anthologies that I've edited over the years. .And I'm beginning with two people who share the same initials but whose literary styles are quite different.

I first came across Susan Moody as a writer when I bought a paperback copy of her first book, Penny Black in the mid 80s. At that time, I was casting around for ideas for a crime series of my own, and assessing what else was happening in the market. Suffice to say that I was impressed with the witty and zestful writing. Fast forward a few years, and I met Susan in person, at about the time when she was starting a new series, featuring Cassie Swann, a bridge expert. I can't play bridge (I'm afraid that I once went to evening classes to learn, and found the tutor incomprehensible), but even so the books struck me as successful.

I was impressed by the versatility Susan displayed in a number of short stories which appeared in high profile anthologies edited by the likes of Tim Heald, and Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin. She even turned the long-running 'Gold Blend' TV commercials into a novel, and literary versatility doesn't get much more striking than that!  With this in mind, when I was asked to put together an anthology for the CWA, Susan Moody was one of the first people I approached to contribute. The resulting story, 'Moving On', with its viewpoint shifts, certainly lived up to expectations, and helped to make Perfectly Criminal a book I was proud to have edited. In recent years, Susan has been less prolific, but she came up with another notable story for Guilty Consciences, my most recent anthology, 'Deck the Halls with Poison, Ivy'.

Stephen Murrary is a contemporary of mine, but he achieved publication as a novelist rather more quickly, and was already well-established by the time I met him. His series of books featuring Alec Stainton, a quiet but likeable cop, achieved considerable distinction, and Stephen too contributed to a couple of early Northern Blood anthologies. The Stainton series came to an end, but when he supplied another good short story, 'Landfall', to Crime on the Move, I thought it was a sign that Stephen's crime novels would be hitting the bookshelves again before long. It hasn't happened yet, but I live in hope.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Windermere and Wray

The Crime Writers' Association held its annual conference for members at the Belsfield Hotel, overlooking Windermere, last week-end. Brilliantly organised by Diane Janes, it ranks as one of the best I've ever attended, and I've been to most of the CWA conferences that have been held in the past twenty-five years. There was a definite feelgood factor about the whole experience. The conference is open to members and their guests, rather than the general reading public, as with Crimefest. If you are eligible to join the CWA, whether or not based in Britain, and whether as a writer or associate member, then I do hope you'll consider it. Apart from the conference, the CWA offers many benefits, and that helps to explain why membership numbers are rising sharply - something that is, I think, very good news.

We began on Friday afternoon with a boat trip on the lake, which was great fun. Three speakers were lined up for Saturday morning, and in fact I was the first of them, with a talk on Golden Age detective fiction. I wasn't quite sure how a group of 21st century writers would react to this particular subject, but the feedback was very positive - a big relief, to put it mildly. It is much harder in my experience to give a talk to friends and colleagues rather than a group of strangers, because you really don't want to feel you have disappointed people you know and like. Sometimes this kind of anxiety, needless or otherwise, can mean that the talk goes less well as a result. But anyway, I was glad to hand over to those who came after me, and over the week-end as a whole we had some stand-out talks, including two by former senior police officers.

There were various organised events scheduled for Saturday afternoon, but I was keen to do some research of locations for my next Lakes book, and fulfilled a long-held ambition by visiting Wray Castle, a 19th century Gothic folly which has long been owned by the National Trust, but only recently opened to the general public. The setting is fantastic, overlooking Windermere, and since the weather was excellent there was a chance to walk around Wray Bay, a peaceful and lovely part of the area that I'd never encountered before.

The Saturday evening banquet was as enjoyable as it always is, and I was on a table with Peter James and Felix Francis, two best-sellers - but, and this is the great thing about the CWA in my experience, there is no differentiation between best-sellers, mid-listers, and those who are not currently published. The companionship that you always find at CWA events - again, I'm speaking personally, but I know many others agree - is the great strength of the organisation. I'm on the committee now, and the new chair is Alison Joseph. Under her leadership, I'm confident that, even in testing times for authors, the CWA will continue to flourish.