Monday 30 September 2013

The Crime Writers' Association - Diamond Jubilee

I've been a member of the Crime Writers' Association since the late 80s, and over the years my involvement with the CWA, initially through the Northern Chapter founded by Peter N. Walker, has introduced me to a great many people whom I would probably never otherwise have met. It's a great social organisation - even for those, like me, who don't regard themselves as naturally very gregarious. And the CWA also takes increasingly active steps to help members to promote their work, which is a tremendous benefit at a time when it is not only hard to get published, but a challenge to remain published.

This year sees the CWA celebrate its Diamond Jubilee - on Guy Fawkes Night to be precise. This special anniversary has seen a number of notable events, including a glittering Awards Dinner, and the publication of Deadly Pleasures, which includes stories by a number of the great and the good of crime writing (along with me - editor's perk!)

I joined the CWA committee towards the end of last year, something that pressure of the day job had never previously allowed, and I do feel that under Alison Joseph's chairmanship the organisation is going from strength to strength, despite the challenges faced by publishers and authors the world over. Membership has increased very significantly, and as a result the CWA needs to operate in a very businesslike way. The role of its hard-working director, Lucy Santos, is extremely important in this respect and in a relatively short time Lucy has made a great impression.

Like any organisation, the CWA needs to look to the future, whilst at the same time remaining true to its core values and not forgetting or under-estimating the importance of its roots. I've had on my website for quite some time a modest page about the CWA, and to mark the Diamond Jubilee, I've just written an article about the origins of the CWA. As CWA archivist, I'll also be making an announcement shortly about our plans for the Archives. There's plenty of work to be done, but also a great many good things to look forward to.

Friday 27 September 2013

Forgotten Book - Born to Be Hanged

Paul McGuire is an author I'd never heard of until a Golden Age loving friend of mine urged me to read McGuire's Born to Be Hanged, and generously followed up by lending me his own copy. And I'm very glad he did, because his words of praise for this well-written and engaging novel were amply justified. It's a really good read.

McGuire was Australian, and a prominent Catholic, but his writing enjoyed considerable success in the United States. This story, however (and I think many if not all his other crime novels) is set in England - rural Dorset, to be precise, and he captures the intimate nature of life in a small town on the south coast very well indeed.

The story, narrated by a retired academic called George Collins, begins nicely: "There were many reasons, most of them excellent, for Spender's death." I felt there was a touch of Francis Iles or Richard Hull about the narrative style and the sly humour. There are plenty of witty lines, and this is a real strength of the book. The victim (found hanged by lassoo, interestingly enough) is a typical Thirties victim - a really odious chap who devotes his truncated existence to upsetting people for the fun of it. So there are plenty of suspects.

I wondered if there was an Agatha Christie style trick in store for us, but McGuire structures his story quite cunningly. There is not a great deal of action, but he camouflages this pretty well, and although the narrative depends on a single (if complicated) crime, it does not flag until the later stages, when there is an unnecessarily lengthy explanation of the backstory of one of the characters. I don't think the ending, twist and all, lived up to the promise of the excellent start, and for this reason I don't claim the book ranks with the best of Berkeley and Hull. But it is still very entertaining to read, and I am encouraged to seek out more books by Paul McGuire. He was a cut above many of his peers as a writer.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Robert Barnard - A Talent to Entertain

The response to my blog post last week-end about the death of Robert Barnard really shows how popular were both the man and his books. I'm not sure how many of you read the comments on blog posts, but among the numerous very welcome comment, I'd particularly like to highlight the little anecdote told by Bob's old friend Peter Lovesey. It really captures the man and his sense of humour perfectly.

The last time I saw Bob, he presented me with copies of his two final books, as well as a very interesting article about his writing. This prompted me to write a piece about him for Mystery Scene, and Bob's fans might like to know that I've now had it uploaded on to my website.

I also thought I'd share a memory of an occasion in Bob's company more than twenty years ago. The Northern Chapter of the CWA agreed that we would produce an anthology of our crime writing (including one or two pieces of true crime) and everybody offered to chip in. It was decided that I would edit the book - a touching demonstration of faith, given that I'd never edited a book in my life at that point.

Several of us gathered, as I remember, at Ann and Tim Cleeves' house in Whitley Bay. Those also present were Bob, Val McDermid and Chaz Brenchley, as I recall. We debated issues like the book's title, and mulled over the choice of artwork offered by the publishers (ah, those were the days!) And I recall Bob entertaining us with a very good story about his late father's battles with the taxman. He was great company, and I think it says a lot that, as a very well established author at that time, he was willing to put in time and effort to a project that was enjoyable but certainly never made us any money. The book that resulted was called Northern Blood, and Bob's contribution was an entertaining story called "A Sure-Fire Speculation". From the first paragraph, which introduces us to a member of the Young Conservatives (not an organisation Bob admired greatly, it's fair to say), you knew that you were in for some fun, and so it proved.

And thanks to the efforts of people like Bob, Val, Ann and Reg Hill, Northern Blood started me off on my strange but very satisfying career as a crime anthologist. Tweny-one anthologies later, I remain grateful to them.

A Very British Murder - BBC Four

A Very British Murder began on BBC Four last night and offered a fascinating parallel with a storyline in one of my own novels. BBC Four is a home for informative and engaging documentaries and is one of my favourite channels - I'm currently enjoying a terrific series presented by Neil Brand on the subject of movie soundtracks. Brand is an engaging character, and so is Lucy Worsley, the presenter here. I've not come across her previously, but she proved to be a confident and charismatic performer, and a quick internet research revealed that she is a historian, curator and experienced presenter and writer.

This documentary focused on a number of notable murder cases in the nineteenth century, and my attention was immediately grabbed by a familiar scene - Grasmere. Yep, it turned out that Lucy Worsley's starting point was Thomas De Quincey's thoughts on murder as a fine art - that is, exactly the same as Daniel Kind's starting point for his book The Hell Within, which features in The Serpent Pool. In my novel, Daniel is writing a history of murder much along the lines of Lucy Worsley's, and there's a connection with the murder plot in the novel.. Spooky...

Lucy Worsley, like Daniel Kind, is an Oxford-educated academic historian who like Daniel has made a name in television, but I think it's fair to say that she performs on screen with even more gusto than Daniel would be likely to manage, joining in bloodthirsty Victorian bar songs, and co-performing a melodrama on stage. She comes over as a fun person, as Neil Brand does when he plays piano and explains the secrets of John Barry's genius. And that feeling of empathy helps strengthen the appeal of a programme of this sort..

Her accounts of the murder cases  such as the Ratcliff Highway murders, the Red Barn murder, the Bermondsey Horror were sound if inevitably concise. The narrative was along the same lines as the approach of Judith Flanders in her very well-researched The Invention of Murder, so I wasn't surprised to see Judith Flanders named as a consultant when the credits rolled. All in all, an agreeable hour's viewing, with the added bonus for me of  a vivid realisation of what Daniel Kind might have made of his research for his fictional masterpiece. If only he had he not become disillusioned with telly and downshifted to the Lake District....

Monday 23 September 2013


Who is the most famous Hungarian-born crime writer? Don't all answer at once! I have to say that very few names spring to my mind, but Baroness Orczy, creator of the Old Man in the Corner (and also that rather less satisfactory character, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard) is the obvious candidate. Orczy was a very skilled writer of popular fiction,and a founder member of the Detection Club, but is much better known for her books about the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Another candidate from the past would be Balduin Groller, whom I first came across in one of Hugh Greene's four excellent anthologies showcasing the rivals of Sherlock Holmes - some of their exploits were entertainingly televised in the Sixties, and are now to be found on DVD. And there's a recent novel called Budapest Noir, but I haven't read it as yet, so can't comment.

These reflections were prompted by a short trip to Budapest, a city whose history and architecture I found very impressive. I've stayed in Britain throughout the summer, but as we were about to enter autumn, I felt like a change of scene, and I'm very glad I did. Although the visit was brief, it did give me a chance to get a good impression of the main sights, and to admire such diverse attractions as Heroes' Square, the stunning Church in the Rock, and Margaret Island, a lovely spot in the middle of the Danube with one of the most dazzling fountains I've seen anywhere in the world.

In the past couple of years, I've visited several places that were, a mere quarter of a century ago, under Communist control. It's safe to say that the locals have, in every case, embraced capitalism. You would expect this in tourist centres, of course, but even so, the people I spoke to seemed happy with the new way of life, despite a recent bumpy ride in economic terms. And members of the younger generation cannot even remember the Communist way of life. It's striking how things can change in such a relatively short time, and visiting a place which has seen such turbulence over the years is very thought-provoking for any novelist.

Mind you, I haven't as yet come up with a story idea as a result of my trip. Though it can take a while for ideas to gestate following a visit to a new location. Only now am I really getting to grips with a plot for a story set on Gran Canaria, where I spent a very enjoyable day in the sun back in March. Sometimes it works that way - other times an idea sparked by a change of scene demands to be written out immediately, before inspiration fades. That's the nature of writing, I suppose. There is no formula to it. Nor should there be.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Robert Barnard R.I.P.

I am very sorry to break the news that Robert Barnard, one of the most notable British detective novelists of the past forty years, has died at the age of 76. He was a winner of numerous awards, most notably the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, in recognition of the sustained excellence of his crime writing. He was a distinguished academic, a former worker for the Fabian Society, an expert on the Bronte family and their writings, a passionate opera fan, and the author of a definitive study of Agatha Christie's crime writing, A Talent to Deceive.

Bob Barnard was also one of the first friends I made in the crime writing world. When I attended the inaugural meeting of the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association, I was an unknown, whereas people like Bob, Reg Hill and Peter Walker were very well established authors. But from our very first lunch together, those three men (and their lovely wives, Louise, Pat and Rhoda) made me feel welcome and part of the crime writing fraternity. They became good friends, and I owe them a great deal.

I've written about Bob's work on a number of occasions (for instance, I wrote an article about him for that fine American magazine Mystery Scene - his books were enormously popular in the US), but in this short post I'd like to focus on Bob the man - and above all his sharp and mischievous sense of humour. His wit was as evident in his writing as in his conversation, and he was unfailingly entertaining company. A good many years ago (in the mid-nineties, as I recall) someone suggested he had died, a story which he found highly amusing, as he was in perfectly good health. How this bizarre mistake arose, I simply don't know.

I also found Bob personally very generous. It was typical of him that he took me as his guest to a Detection Club dinner at the Savoy nearly twenty years ago, a memorable occasion at a time when I never dreamed that one day I'd become a member of the same Club. He did me this kindness simply because he knew how much I would love the occasion. I will never forget it.

In fact, one of the last times I saw him was at the Detection Club's annual dinner in the Temple. By this time, he was becoming troubled by memory problems. For an intellectual whose memory had always been fantastic, this was a dreadful blow,and he felt unable to continue with his public speaking, something in which he excelled. I went to visit him and Louise at their home in Leeds last year, and we had a pleasant time together, but his health began to deteriorate, and this year the decline had been steep.  For Louise, who has coped with great courage during the past difficult months, the loss is profound.

As I write these words, I feel very sad indeed that he and I will not be teasing each other again -our views diverged on a handful of issues (not least pop music!), but this never mattered a bit, as it never should in any genuine friendship; in fact, I tend to think that friendships are often all the stronger when they are between people with contrasting outlooks and personalities. Mind you, amongst many other things, we shared a great admiration for Christie, and I heard him speak with considerable insight about her work at crime conferences on a couple of occasions. I also recall a fascinating tour of the Bronte House in Haworth, led by Bob during a CWA annual conference. Above all, it was a great privilege as well as a pleasure to have known Bob, and to have been lucky enough to enjoy his company on countless occasions. He has left me many memories to treasure, and I'm sure the same is true of his many other friends.

I thought I'd illustrate this blog post with a photo that reminds me of a happy occasion we shared. It was taken at the 20th anniversary lunch of the Northern Chapter. It shows Bob in conversation with Meg Elizabeth Atkins, another friend who attended that inaugual lunch, and who also died recently, and Kate Ellis's husband Roger. Both Meg and Bob were in great form that Sunday. In fact,whenever I met either of them over the past quarter of a century, they seemed to be in great form. Bob, like Meg, will be very much missed.

Friday 20 September 2013

Forgotten Book - Death Comes to Cambers

I've started to warm to the writing of E.R. Punshon, one of those Golden Age writers who enjoyed plenty of success and critical acclaim in his day, but has subsequently vanished from sight. He is rarely discussed in reference books about the genre, yet Dorothy L. Sayers was a big fan of his work.. My Forgotten Book for today is one of the early entries in his long series about Bobby Owen (the well-born Bobby is still a youthful sergeant in this book), Death Comes to Cambers.

This is a country house mystery which opens with the mysterious disappearance from her home of Lady Cambers. One of her guests at the time was - surprise, surprise! - Bobby himself. His grandmother, Lady Hirlpool, had introduced him to Lady Cambers, who was afraid of burglars. Her ladyship is soon found dead, and her jewellery is missing.

There is no shortage of suspects. In fact, the book does rather become bogged down in a seemingly endless series of interviews with the suspicious characters abounding in the vicinity - they include a fanatical cleric, an arrogant archaeologist, a sexy housemaid, a dodgy butler, and the victim's estranged husband, plus quite a few others. There are some amusing and well-written scenes. Punshon did have a sharp sense of humour and a taste for satire. But his verbosity does become a drag before the end of the book.

There are two newspaper ciphers, an ingenious alibi and plenty of opportunities for Bobby to show his sleuthing prowess. On the whole, though, I felt this a competent piece of work, but nothing more. A comparison with the light and breezy novels Agatha Christie was writing at the same time is instructive. Punshon's ideas about society and his prose style were probably quite impressive in their day, but they haven't stood the test of time as well as Christie's crisp brush strokes. She was a much more economical writer than Punshon, and in Golden Age fiction, economy of style is almost always a Good Thing..

Wednesday 18 September 2013

The Strangler's Honeymoon by Hakan Nesser - review

The Strangler's Honeymoon is another instalment in Hakan Nesser's fascinating series of books featuring the now recently retired chief inspector, Van Veeteren. It was first published in 2001, but the Pan Macmillan edition that has just been published marks its first appearance. The translation by Laurie Thompson reads smoothly and well.

I came to this book just after finishing a best-selling example of Eurocrime, a book that seemed to me to tick the 'best-seller' boxes efficiently, but nevertheless had a formulaic feel. I'm clearly in a minority about that book, but suffice to say that I much prefer Nesser's writing. His novels have a quirkiness and unpredictability that makes them seem somehow more lifelike and more meaningful than some other acclaimed European crime fiction.

This story is absolutely first class and had me gripped throughout. The eponymous killer is an intriguing, deeply disturbed man. There are (mainly at the end of the book) one or two examples of the gruesomeness that seems obligatory, and sometimes rather tedious, in many best-sellers about serial killers, but here there is nothiing gratuitous. Nesser makes his characters, and the strange things that many of them do, seem very believable and real. For that reason, the darker scenes in his books don't seem contrived and exploitative in the way that is sometimes the case elsewhere.

I enjoyed the twists and turns of the storyline,the dabs of humour, and also the interplay of the characters - Nesser brings them all to life. There was a very nice clue, involving an imaginary Golden Age novel, that I enjoyed and felt more could have been made of, but this was only one of countless appealing touches. I've enjoyed all the Nesser books I've read, and this one might just be the most entertaining of all.

The Sixth Sense - film review

The Sixth Sense is the psychological thriller movie that made the name of M. Night Shyamalan, both as writer and director, when it first appeared in 1999. It earned six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and is much admired for its clever plot twist. So why has it taken me so long to get round to watching it? It's a mystery in itself!

The story is set in Philadelphia (a city I liked very much when I visited it some years ago for Bouchercon) and centres around a child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis) who is shot early on in the film by a young man and former patient called Vincent who feels let down by him. Some months later, Crowe takes on a new case, that of young Cole Sear, whose problems are similar to Vincent's.

Cole's mother, played by Toni Collette, is an attractive but anxious single mother whose devotion to her son is occasionally tested by his strange behaviour. Crowe does his best to help, but meanwhile his marriage seems to be heading for trouble, as his wife (played by the excellent Olivia Williams) is behaving distantly and taking an interest in another man. To say too much more might risk giving away the finale.

One of the interesting features of the film is that Shyamalan plants clues to the twist with a fairness that Christie would have approved. Even though I'm not a great fan of Bruce Willis, he does a competent job in an unusual role, though I think he's better suited to all-out action. It's a well-made movie, although I'm not sure that its quite the all-time classic that some people seem to believe it to be. I'm glad I've taken the opportunity, even if belatedly, to see what all the fuss was about. Overall, I'd rate this as a decent piece of entertainment, no more, no less..

What Remains and the modern whodunit

What Remains maintained to its fourth and final part the appeal that I wrote about in my review of the first episode and David Threlfall continued to perform superbly in the role of the decent but emotionally bereft ex-cop Len Harper.

The claustrophobic shared house setting was brilliantl captured, and although the last ten minutes or so were pretty melodramatic in comparison to the subtle tension-building that had gone before, overall I very much enjoyed the story. While watching it, I was prompted to reflect on the strength of the whodunit as a narrative form, because despite its highly contemporary mood and subject matter, What Remains was a genuine whodunit, with added value in terms of characterisation and, above all, the compelling portrayal of how desperately lonely life can be in the heart of bustling metropolitan London.

Stripped of the moody and dark photography, the storyline was reminiscent of the Golden Age. Almost all the occupants of the shared house nursed dark secrets. Possible motives were lightly sketched (a slight plotting weakness, perhaps?) but almost everyone seemed capable of having murdered the luckless young woman whose body had been found in the attic two years after she was last seen - a disappearance to which hardly anyone paid attention. There was even a "least likely culprit" in the Christie tradition.

If analysed carefully, I'm not sure that - despite its superficially very "realistic" take on modern life - What Remains was much more plausible than many a Golden Age mystery. But on the whole,that didn't matter. It was good entertainment, and offered a story that will linger in my mind for quite a while. This is something that a good whodunit can do -whether it's a modern TV drama, such as Lewis or Vera or Broadchurch, or an older story,such as the better 'forgotten books' that I cover on Fridays. The combination of a mystery to solve, coupled with interesting people and a well-evoked setting has just as much appeal today as it did eighty years ago..

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Frances Brody - Murder on a Summer's Day - guest blog

Frances Brody is one of the more successful crime writers to have emerged in the North of England in the past few years. Her historical mysteries have earned a large following, and I suggested to her a while back that when her new book came out, she might like to write a guest post for this blog. And now here it is.

"The idea for Murder on a Summer’s Day struck me with the force of a falling tree, a family tree to be precise. A good friend told me about researching her ancestors: generations of Yorkshire folk. One day someone new cropped up, a third cousin twice removed: Stella Mudge. Granddaughter of Ilkley farmers, daughter of a circus performer, Stella was brought up in the Earl of Ellesmere, Bethnal Green. Having studied French, painting, music and ballet, she joined Jack Hulbert and Cecily Courtneidge’s chorus line. When the company travelled to Paris, Stella did too, even though she was under age. From there it was a crisp Chassé to the Folies Bergere. A young Indian maharajah spotted her, and that was that.

I have changed the names. As far as I know, no dancer called Lydia and no Prince Narayan really did visit Bolton Abbey in August, 1924 and stay at the Cavendish Arms. But if you read the story I hope you will believe every word, as I do. Narayan goes deer stalking, and fails to return. Kate Shackleton takes a telephone call from her cousin James, a civil servant in the India Office. Within a couple of hours, Kate is on the scene, investigating first a disappearance and then a murder.

While real life doesn’t have to make sense, fiction does and there is always a moment when what needs to be looked into becomes dauntingly clear. Writing about Bolton Abbey involved learning something about the estate’s owner.

The Ninth Duke of Devonshire, Victor Cavendish, did not spend an awful lot of time at his Bolton Abbey estate, except during the grouse shooting season. Why would he when family property included Chatsworth House, Hardwick Hall, Holker Hall, Londesborough Hall, Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Chiswick House and 2 Carlton House Gardens. He was Colonial Secretary at the time Narayan went missing. It would be his duty to take a personal interest when an Indian prince disappeared from his patch. Consequently, he has a walk on part.

The Cavendish family made their money from the dissolution of the monasteries, from timely deaths and propitious marriages. Bolton Abbey is the name of the village and the area surrounding the ruined priory that, for me, is the dominant image of the place.    

This is an area, a beauty spot, which teems with stories and legends. Now here is one more, that of the prince and the dancer who drove a white Rolls Royce along narrow country lanes, blissfully ignorant of what fate held in store."

For an excerpt from Murder on a Summer’s Day, go to Frances' blog

Friday 13 September 2013

Forgotten Book - The Body in the Beck

I decided to read today's Forgotten Book, The Body in the Beck, for two good reasons. First, the author, Joanna Cannan, was a good writer, as her excellent early novel No Walls of Jasper shows. Second, as the title of the book suggests, this is an early Lake District mystery story The book was first published in 1952, more than half a century before Hannah Scarlett was a gleam in my eye.

The story begins with a well-known Oxford don and mountaineer, Francis Worthington, discovering the eponymous corpse. However, he carries on fell-climbing, and only alerts the police when he returns from his ascent. This is rather typical of Francis, who is just surfacing from an unsatisfactory affair with a married woman. He really doesn't behave as well or as sensibly as he should do.

The body turns out to belong to a nasty piece of work called Hawkins, and Inspector Price from Scotland Yard is summoned to investigate. Price is a memorable character, verbose, puritanical and left-wing. It's plan that Cannan's sympathies were very different from his. Yet Francis really isn't much more likeable and it's small wonder that he becomes the wreteched Price's main suspect. This is rather tedious, since we know he is innocent.

I found Price entertaining and rather different. I also felt Cannan captured the Lakeland atmosphere well. But there is a snag. The detective puzzle itself is hopeless. There are no interesting suspects, the victim is a cipher, and the solution is unpleasant and unsatisfactory. I find it odd that a genuinely gifted writer should have produced a book that is quite so flawed. You guessed it - I was deeply disappointed. I remain an admirer of No Walls of Jasper and I don't rule out reading more of Cannan. But one good character and a great setting are not enough to make a good novel.

Thursday 12 September 2013

The Guilty - ITV review

The Guilty started on ITV last week, and a few days late, and on the recommendation of a friend, I've caught up with the first episode. As other reviews have noted, there are distinct similarities to that other ITV crime series Broadchurch, which ended its eight-week run not so long ago. One of the differences is that The Guilty is divided into just three parts.

The setting is suburbia, rather than a coastal resort, and the rather less striking backdrop is a limitation compared to Broadchurch, which made such atmospheric use of the seaside locale. Overall, though, I was struck by the thought that we are right in the middle of a rich vein of TV crime series. Broadchurch was terrific, and What Remains is keeping me  really gripped, with its assortment of odd characters living cheek by jowl in a spooky shared house. The Guilty is not quite in the same league, but very watchable.

Again, the central storyline involves a missing child, and the effect his disappearance (and, it turns out, murder) has on his family and his community. We see events from five years ago, when the boy went missing, alongside events in the present day, when his body is discovered. He comes from a seemingly happy family, but it becomes increasingly evident that all is not quite as it appears at first sight.

Tamsin Greig is the likeable cop leading the investigation, and already a few potential suspects have emerged. Like What Remains, though (and this is another difference from Broadchurch) there isn't so much focus on motives. It would be good to think that there's something more on offer than a study of a paedophiel, but we'll see. I'll definitely be watching episode two this evening.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Identity - film review

Identity is a film made in 2003, a psychological thriller that owes something (just like Jack Reacher!) to a plot associated with Agatha Christie. Yet, again like Jack Reacher, it stands on its own two feet - and very well, actually. I must admit that I saw it some years ago and was not overly impressed, but I think I saw it on a bad day. A second viewing made it clear that it's a very clever movie.

It opens with that excellent actor Alfred Molina as a shrink talking to a patient who is accused of being a serial killer. New evidence has come to light, and there's a last minute hearing to see if the chap can escape the death penalty. Is he mad rather than bad? Before we can begin to answer the question, the action switches to a remote motel in a ferocious downpour.

Ten people come to the motel - and one by one, they start to be killed (does this sound familiar, Christie fans?) A motel room key is found by each corpse. What on earth is going on? The group is a mixed bunch - a prostitute, a police officer, the dodgy motel keeper, a young boy and his parents, and so on. But can anyone be trusted? Are they all what they seem? Twist follows twist, in  a very satisfying way.

The excellent cast includes Ray Liotta, John Cusack and Rebecca de Mornay. I really can't think why I didn't care for this one first time round - I now think it's one of the most entertaining American thrillers of the present century. Not at all easy to guess what's going on, and all the more satisfying because of it. Recommended - and certainly not just for Christie fans.


Monday 9 September 2013

Gladfest 2013

Gladfest 2013 is the first literary festival to be staged at Gladstone's Library, and it was so enjoyable that I'm hoping it will become a fixture in the calendar from now on. I was only present for part of the week-end, but it was clear from talking to the delegates that everyone was having a good time. And why wouldn't they, in such an atmospheric and historic setting?

When I was first invited to take part, I was delighted to accept. This was so even though I'm well aware that inaugurating a literary festival can be fraught with difficulties. A great deal of hard work on the part of a lot of people is required, and even then, things may not go to plan. The now legendary Kidwelly ebook festival last year (not an event repeated in 2014) was an example of how things can take an unexpected and unfortunate turn, and although on a personal level I had a very good time there, that was due to the chance to bond with fellow authors, rather than readers, since the latter were conspicuous by their absence. It was all rather a shame. No such problems at Gladfest.

I staged my Victorian murder mystery on Saturday evening, and the audience participated with tremendous enthusiasm. I loved the gasps when the solution was revealed! Those present included a couple of fellow crime writers, Stella Duffy and Martine Bailey; Stella took the photo from the gallery on the first floor of the library room, while Martine and her husband Martin were dinner companions recently at St Hilda's. The volunteers who acted the parts of the suspects did a fnatastic job, and all in all it was a great occasion. The programme for the week-end as a whole was eclectic, and as well as Stella and her partner Shelley Silas, the roster of writers who took part included the acclaimed poet Wendy Cope and a number of those who have been writers in residence at the Library. Stella told me about her month as a writer in residence there, and it sounded like a marvellous experience.

There's a feelgood factor about Gladstone's Library which isn't solely due to the history and the presence of so many old, rare and wonderful books (Jamie, one of the interns, made my day on Sunday by showing me an original edition of The Strand featuring the first appearance of "A Scandal in Bohemia" and the other early Holmes short stories). The commitment and enthusiasm of the staff, including the Festival Director, Louisa Yates, really is a joy to behold. Some people at Gladstone's have had a very long and happy association with it, but I was impressed too by the very obvious love of the place on the part of the group of young people who are learning librarianship and other skills there.

The way the Library is contributing to the development of their careers came over very clearly when I talked to them, and equally I felt (as I often do) that those who argue that young people generally do not have the same passion for books and tradition as previous generations obviously don't meet the same young people that I do.  I wouldn't mind betting that the staff felt like collapsing in a heap once the festival came to an end, but they must be hugely cheered by the fact that all their efforts had such a successful outcome.

Friday 6 September 2013

Forgotten Book - The Missing Link

The Missing Link, the first of three detective novels published by Katharine Farrer, was one of the books I covered in my Oxford literary tour last week. First published in 1952, it was reissued a few years back by the admirable Rue Morgue Press, and Tom and Enid Schantz of Rue Morgue included a very informative introduction. Farrer was the wife of an eminent theologian, Austin Farrer,and the couple were friendly with the likes of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers.

They lived in Oxford,where this book is set. Katharine fell for Austin while she was a student at St Anne's College, and almost inevitably she made her Detective Inspector, Richard Ringwood, an Oxford graduate. He's from the school of gentlemanly cops, and we first encounter him at the Mitre (a pub that holds a special place in my own affections), talking to his fiancee Claire Liddicote. He's not happy to be disturbed by a call to investigate the apparent abduction of a small baby, brought up (in a rather weird way) by a couple called the Links. Hence the title, which is capable of no fewer than three interpretations - rather clever.

Katharine Farrer was elected to the Detection Club on the strength of just three books, and to be honest, it has crossed my mind that she may have owed this honour almost as much to personal connections as to the quality of her detective fiction, since after her election, she never wrote another mystery. Her life, like her literary career, seems to have faded in sad fashion. The Schanttzes explain that she was very highly strung, and turned to drink and drugs. There's no hint of such failings in this novel, but I must say that I felt it was a genuine curiosity rather than any sort of a masterpiece.

Ringwood is human and likeable, and there is a very powerful and entirely original climax to the story. The culprit's motive is, I am sure, unique in the genre, and I do love unusual motives. These are great strengths, but frankly they would have combined to make a brilliant short story. For a novel, they are not quite enough. The culprit is fairly obvious from the start, and the storyline meanders rather tediously. I became disillusioned long before the dramatic and unorthodox finale. I found the humour so-so and the treatment of social issues well-meant but very dated..I'm glad I read this odd baby-theft story,but I would like to think that Farrer's other two novels are more gripping than this one.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Half a million plus...

Ten days or so ago, this blog sauntered past a milestone of sorts. This came when it chalked up half a million pageviews. In previous posts about the vagaries of blogging statistics, I've made the point that they aren't to be taken too seriously, but I'm certainly pleased that the trend this year has been markedly upwards. From my point of view, it's motivating that a good many people take an interest. A few other stats - I've done just over 1,700 posts, and there have been close on 9,000 comments (this figure includes my own replies, so I imagine  the reader response figure is more like 6,000)  for which I'm extremely grateful.

I'm also grateful for the emails that I receive relating to what I've said on the blog. I've learned a good deal from these, and I must say that blogging has introduced me to a host of new people, whom I probably wouldn't have come across otherwise, which has been great. I feel that the blog has more than repaid the time I put into it, thanks to reader reaction.

I'm conscious that there are some things I should do better, and I'm also well aware that I'm not keeping up terribly well at present with some of the other fine blogs that are out there - many of which are listed on the blogroll. Striking a balance between blogging, Twitter, and writing my own fiction (never mind the day job) is and will no doubt remain a challenge.

As for my thoughts on Twitter....I'm simply not sure. At present, though, I'm continuing to do some tweeting, though I find it easiest to tweet these posts. Maybe, like many things, it's a good idea to keep practising in the hope of improvement. I was talking to another blogger at St Hilda's the other day, and she (like a few other people I've spoken to lately) are unconvinced about the merits of Twitter for writers. But I guess the answer is that different forms of social media will suit different people. There is unlikely to be a single 'right' way forward. The question is - what works for you?

For me, therefore, blogging remains my preferred way of dipping a toe in the sometimes muddy waters of interaction via the internet. I said a while back that I'd do a few posts about the experience of writing my new novel. Since then, I've been silent on the subject, I know. Why? I'm afraid I haven't made much progress with the new book yet - but I'm keen to get going with it now....Honest.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Sophie Hannah, Hercule Poirot, and following in Agatha Christie's Footsteps

News that Sophie Hannah is to write a brand new novel featuring Agatha Christie's legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot has attracted a great deal of attention today. And this is no surprise, for 120 years after her birth, Christie remains a writer popular the world over, her books held in affectionate regard by people of every class,culture and creed. So what are we to make of the prospect of a new Poirot story?

The first thing to say is that, if you accept that reviving Poirot is a good idea, then in my opinion, Sophie Hannah is an excellent choice. She has been quoted speaking admiringly of Christie, and I can testify that this is not in any way a recent or cynical conversion prompted by the temptation of a high profile contract. The very first time I met Sophie was some years ago, shortly after the publication of her highly successful debut, Little Face. We were both taking part in a literary event at the Brindley in Runcorn, and someone asked panel members who our favourite crime writers were. I opted for one deceased writer, and one contemporary novelist - Christie and Ruth Rendell. And Sophie said that I'd taken the words out of her mouth, as they were also her favourites.

So I am confident that Sophie Hannah will bring to the task a genuine love of and respect for Christie's story-telling, as well as a great deal of craft. Sophie, like Christie, started out as a poet, though I think it's fair to say that her poetry is more successful than Christie's. Her crime novels are elaborately plotted,and this respect for plot is vital in anyone trying to emulate Christie.

But it won't be easy. I enjoy writing Sherlockian pastiches, but part of the appeal is the rich and evocative nature of Conan Doyle's prose and Watson's narrative voice. With Christie, the style is much plainer. And that can be a trap in itself. Charles Osborne, a man steeped in Christie's work, wrote novelisations of some of her plays a few years ago, but I'm afraid that even though he had all the raw material from Christie, ther results seemed to me to be curiously flat and lifeless - in a way that Christie's best books emphatically are not, whatever her detractors say.

How does a talented writer restrain the impulse to indulge in a few nice but unChristie-like literary flourishes? Should she do so? Well, my personal feeling is that, with a project like this, it's prudent not to deviate too far from the original style and approach. Because if you do, what is the point?

Some may also ask, what is the point of the new book(s) in any case? Of course, it's all about commercialism, and "refreshing the brand". It's been done with the Anthony Horowitz take on Sherlock, and with Sebastian Faulks and others writing James Bond. Whilst some purists may shudder, I don't. I think it's worth remembering that crime fiction is a genre where commerciality and entertainment have always been important and for my part, I'm very much looking forward to seeing how Sophie Hannah rises to this new challenge. And more than that, I find the prospect of a high quality new Poirot novel really rather exciting.

Monday 2 September 2013

The Oxford Literary Tour

Some months ago, Janet Laurence told me that she was organising a conference for AIEP, the international crime writers' association, to take place in Oxford, and asked if I'd be willing to conduct a guided literary tour of Oxford. Now I have no experience whatsoever as a tour guide, so I felt I was a rather unlikely choice. But Janet is a very persuasive person, so I said yes.

I didn't know what to expect. Not just whether the weather would be kind, which of course was impossible to predict, but how many people would want to go on such a tour, how good their English would be, how energetic they would feel - or anything, really. So preparing was a bit tricky. I realised that I'd have to be flexible and see how things went on the day.

The AIEP conference went on throughout last week, but because of work commitments, I was only able to turn up for the latter stages. However, I found everyone very welcoming and it was fascinating to meet the international contingent, as well as locals such as Susan Moody, Bob Cornwell, Christine Poulson, and Barry Forshaw.I also had an enjoyable evening after dinner in a pub with Michael Ridpath and a number of foreign writers.

To my relief, the tour proved to be great fun. About 35 people came along, and I took them around the city, talking about some of the books set there as we went along. We toured the quadrangles of Balliol, and had a drink in the Eagle and Child, where once the Inklings met, drank and talked. Myfanwy Cook kindly acted as tour photographer!

The last major event of the conference was an after dinner speech by a former top cop, Dame Elizabeth Neville. Janet was given a standing ovations, which she richly deserved. A sign of the esteem in which she is held by the international crime writing community, and a sign too of how much they appreciated their time in Britain. I made a number of delightful new friends, and despite my initial misgivings, in the end I was very glad that Janet asked me to be a tour guide - at least for one afternoon in my life!