Friday 28 February 2014

Jonathan Creek - The Letters of Septimus Noone - BBC One TV review

Jonathan Creek returned tonight, and joy of joys, The Letters of Septimus Noone is not a one-off, but the first episode of a short series. Jonathan Creek's investigations, devised by the witty and clever David Renwick, revived interest in the locked room/impossible crime story in the nineties, a remarkable as well as welcome feat, at a time when the form seemed long past its sell-by date. It's a marvellous example of how a gifted writer can breathe fresh life into a traditional and apparently old-fashioned form, making it seem topical and great fun all over again.

Renwick has - wisely, I think - decided that he simply could not ignore the passage of time since Jonathan Creek first appeared on our screens. So Alan Davies, as Creek, still has a female "Dr Watson", but this time he's married to her: and the dynamic is very different to the tantalising relationship he had with Caroline Quentin in the early shows. Polly Creek is the most glamorous of Watsons, played by Sarah Alexander. The job as magician's assistant, the duffel coat and the windmill-house have gone too.

Renwick's sharp humour, and love of classic detective fiction, were very much in evidence. So we had a musical based on Gaston Leroux's once-celebrated locked room mystery, The Mystery of the Yellow Room (an excellent choice bearing in mind that Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera was immortalised by Andrew Lloyd Webber) and there were several neat word games, as well as sly nods to the success of Sherlock, a show written with the same appealing blend of playfulness and intelligence.

It's very, very difficult to write a locked room mystery that translates well to television, a point which I think some of those who have criticised recent one-off Creek stories tend to overlook. Here, Renwick offered a handful of small puzzles, rather than an over-arching mystery. This meant the story felt a little fragmentary, but it didn't matter too much. Jonathan Creek remains a show that has great appeal to all fans of classic detective fiction..

(By the way, there have been some excellent comments on this post but you may wish to avoid them until you have seen the show as they include observations on the plot.)

Forgotten Book - Case with Four Clowns

Leo Bruce was a prolific writer whose career began in, but comfortably outlasted, the Golden Age. I've never got round to reading him, but I heard that his 1939 book Case with 4 Clowns was an interesting "whowasdunin" so I decided to give it a go. And I'm glad I did. It's almost a very fine book. Unfortunately,it falls short of excellence, because it's rather padded out. But there are some good ingredients, which make me want to read more of Bruce (whose real name was Rupert Croft-Cooke).

This is the fourth of the novels featuring Sergeant Beef, and is narrated by a detective novelist called Townsend. Much of the strength of the book derives from the comedy inherent in the relationship between Townsend and Beef. Townsend is insufferably smug, and constantly patronises the detective whose cases he chronicles. And at the start of the book we are told that Beef recently left the police because of a debacle in his last investigation. But he's a smart guy. All the way through, the reader roots for Beef and is pleased when Townsend gets his come-uppance.

Beef gets word from a relative who is involved with a circus travelling around Yorkshire that a gypsy fortune teller has predicted that a murder will take place in connection with the circus. But who will be the killer and who the victim? On this (rather slender, it must be said) basis, Beef and Townsend journey up North and join the people of the circus - who treat them with remarkable tolerance.

The story struck me as rather thin, although I rather admired the way that Bruce tried to compensate for this, and the finale (which explains the title - which had puzzled me) is very good. The story is really a variant on the idea of a "whowasdunin", and not a bad one, but too protracted, with too many characters whom I didn't find quite as fascinating as Bruce did. This sounds negative, but only because I'm frustrated that an evidently talented writer didn't fully realise the potential of the concept he came up with. Perhaps the problem was that it was a concept better suited to a short story or a novella than a full length novel.

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Point Blank - film review

I've mentioned that excellent movie Point Blank a couple of times before on this blog, but only in passing. I first saw it as a student, and I've watched it twice since. Each time,I enjoy it all over again, quite a tribute to director John Boorman and a very good cast led by Lee Marvin, at his very best, and Angie Dickinson, in surely her most appealing film role.

There's a surreal quality about the film, right from the start, and this had sparked continuing debate about how best to interpret the story. I don't want to say too much on this topic, for fear of spoilers - and anyway, I enjoy the film as a gangster movie, as well as a study of character, obsession and revenge. To put it simply, Walker (Marvin) was involved in a heist, but his friend stole both his share of the money and his wife, leaving Walker for dead. Later, Walker seeks revenge - and also the return of his money.

Unusual as it is, the film offers enough conventional excitement to appeal to anyone who is simply looking for a good thriller. Boorman uses Alcatraz as a background for several key scenes, and this is absolutely fascinating. I've never been to San Francisco, far less Alcatraz, but every time I see the city in a film, I am reminded how much I'd like to go there. And every time I watch Point Blank, I wish Angie Dickinson had appeared in more films of similar calibre.

The use of stark, brilliant colours and spare, dramatic settings enhances the strangeness of the film, and helps to make it memorable. No wonder it's a classic. The screenplay is based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake, who was a talented and prolific writer. I've read some of his books, and have seen another film based on his work, but for me, Point Blank is the stand-out. Highly recommended.

Monday 24 February 2014

The Craft of Writing: Originality

Originality is something to be prized in any form of writing, and certainly in crime fiction. The snag is that it is very, very difficult to be truly original. Even when you firmly believe you've come up with something absolutely fresh and new, all too often it turns out that you've been beaten to it, generally in a work that you weren't even aware of.

This sense that I needed to come up with something absolutely original held me back when, in my teens (yes, I started early) I thought about writing a detective novel. I didn't know how to create something that wasn't likely to be derivative. Inhibitions of this kind are not helpful, and I only got over them properly when I came up with the idea of writing a number of mysteries about a Liverpool lawyer. Something I knew for sure had never been done. Even then, one reviewer of my debut, All the Lonely People, thought she detected the influence of Raymond Chandler (which I wasn't conscious of, I must say, and I'm not sure she had read much Chandler or indeed much crime fiction).

I also imagined that I'd come up with a great idea for my first book that combined plot development with snappy social comment. A body would be discovered in a municipal waste heap, picked over by impoverished scavengers. Very good - except that, many years later, someone told me that G.D.H. and Margaret Cole also wrote a story about a body in a waste heap....Similarly, one of my early short stories about Harry Devlin included a plot device that I discovered, only very recently, to have been used by Gladys Mitchell.

These things can make you despair, believe me - but there's no sense in despairing. The stories by Cole and Mitchell are little known, but that's not really the point, either. The real issue is that I was trying to do something very different in those two Devlin stories than they were trying to do in their books. There have always been similarities between story ideas that appear in different books. There are said to be Russian and Swedish books that anticipate The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and one American mystery anticipated And Then There Were None. These were not, I'm sure, conscious borrowings, but rather ideas that were somehow in the air and which were developed by writers in different countries. Similarly, one of Dorothy L. Sayers' best plot ideas also occurred to Ronald Knox while she was working on her book. Another resembled an idea used (in a similar setting but in a different style of story) by Freeman Wills Crofts.

The same thing applies when there are overlaps between contemporary books. For instance, there was a vogue a few years back, after a drought in England, for crime novels in which bodies were discovered when the waters receded (very different from England 2014 - perhaps we are in for a spate of 'flood' stories...) I remember one Northern writer being rather cross that Reginald Hill had written a book about 'mystery plays' not long after she had done the same. But it was a mistake to be cross, in my opinion. The books were quite distinct, and I could give many other examples of overlaps which seem to me to be not in the least problematic. The real challenge for a writer is to come up with some element - be it voice, or character, or an aspect of setting - that is fresh. Trying to come up with at totally new storyline is wonderful when it happens - but it is rather uncommon, to say the least.

Friday 21 February 2014

Forgotten Book - Calamity Town

Ellery Queen was one of the great American exponents of the classic whodunit, and Calamity Town, first published in 1942 is a book that marked a departure from his elaborate mysteries of the Thirties. Here he is aiming for a more realistic style, reflected in the setting of Wrightsville, the small town where Ellery arrives incognito one day. He rents a house in order to write in peace and quiet. But of course he becomes involved at once in mysterious goings on.

The Wright family gave their name to Wrightsville,but mystery surrounds Nora Wright, a woman who was mysteriously abandoned by her husband-to-be just before her wedding. Three years later, he turns up again, and they are happily reunited. This time the marriage does take place, and for a while, all seems to be well. But is it? I must say that if I'd been in Wrightsville at the time, I'd have wanted to know more about the reasons for Jim Haight's absence, but even Ellery seems relatively incurious....

The discovery of some rather odd letters seems to suggest that Nora's life is at risk. In due course, murder follows. It appears that the wrong person was killed, but the finger of suspicion points firmly at Jim Haight. There is a lengthy and enjoyable trial scene, and more than one twist. Queen the author manages to juggle suspicion neatly, and the result is a satisfying mystery.

Although this book marked a new direction for Ellery Queen, there is no doubt that he owed quite a debt to the leading British Golden Age writers, whom he much admired. I spotted plot devices used previously by that trio of giants Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers. But Queen was clever enough to blend the ingredients in a new and satisfying way. The result is a tasty dish, and I'll be coming back for more Ellery Queen before long.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

The Shroud Maker by Kate Ellis - review

The Shroud Maker is the latest in Kate Ellis's long series set in a fictionalised Dartmouth, and featuring DI Wesley Peterson. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a fan of Kate's books, and the first thing to say about this one is that is definitely up to standard. I thought I'd figured out the solution, but although I'd latched on to one element of the plot, much of the ending came as a surprise to me.

The story is complex,and as usual, events in the present have a parallel with a mystery of the past. Although I don't know much about archaeology, Kate's specialist subject, I am very keen on history, and there are events in medieval times and at the end of the nineteenth century that add a level of fascination to the story, as well as plenty of plot complication when old bones are unearthed in a dig.

Quite apart from these echoes of the past, the part of the story set in the present is complicated in itself. It features a curious online game (Kate's fascination with games, which I share, was also evident in the excellent The Cadaver Game) and involves the mystery of a young woman who went missing a year ago, during a local festival with historic roots. Then another young woman disappears. The gripping storyline involves not only Wesley, but also, in a very personal way, his boss Gerry. One of the various sub-plots involves a trip that Wesley takes to Manchester with a young colleague who fancies him. Suffice to say that there is a lot going on in this story, and I'm absolutely confident that I will not be the only reader who fails to figure out how all the different plot strands inter-link.

Kate and I write differently in a number of important ways, but we do share a number of interests, and as mystery fans and writers of the same generation from the north west of England, we naturally have quite a lot in common. I was struck by the fact that one aspect of this story was not a million miles away from a sub-plot in my current work-in-progress (which nobody else, not even my agent, has yet seen), while another was slightly comparable to something that happens in my last book, The Frozen Shroud.(yep, there is, as Margery Allingham would say, a fashion in shrouds!). Yet we never discuss our story ideas with each other, so how does this happen, and should we worry about it? I think it happens because some ideas (and book titles) tend to fit with the mood of a particular time, and appeal especially to writers with similar concerns. Tess Gerritsen, for instance, used the same title, The Bone Garden, that Kate had used previously. I'm sure it's nothing for either of us to worry about, because the books in question are actually very distinct. This sort of thing has always happened - I've come across many examples while researching Golden Age fiction, for instance, and I have no doubt that it always will.

Monday 17 February 2014

The Craft of Writing: Economy of Style

A book I've just been reading, and a TV show I've just watched, made me think about the value in writing of an economical style. If a writer avoids wasting words and scenes, the material makes so much more of an impact, and this is, I think, true in all forms of fiction. Short stories, certainly, but also novels. Now, a novel's length allows space for some digression, and there are plenty of examples of this working very well. On the whole, though - and certainly for writers who are not very experienced - I think that less is more.

The book in question is a Golden Age mystery by Leo Bruce that I'll cover on this blog shortly. It's actually an interesting and relatively original story, with a memorable setting. There was plenty to like about it. But for me it fell short of the highest standards because there was just too much padding. Too often, I was willing Bruce to get on with it. And that's not a reaction that a writer wants in readers.

I had a very different experience when I watched again an episode of Taggart that I last saw when it was screened, way back in 1987. This was The Killing Philosophy, written by the brilliant Glenn Chandler, and it was a masterclass in how to write economically. From start to finish, the story packed a real punch. There are plenty of thrillers from a quarter of a century or more ago that show their age. But this screenplay was clever and occasionally witty, and included some interesting observations about society and people's behaviour, without labouring them.Chandler was ambitious enough to pack a great deal into his story,and he managed to do so without being cumbersome because his style is lean and he never overdoes things.

The Killing Philosophy is the story of a masked man - "the Bowman" - who terrorises a series of women in Glasgow. When a weird student falls for an attractive married woman, he comes up with a cunning plan to dispose of her husband, and the plot complications come thick and fast. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. When it was first screened, I was just thinking about the idea that would become my first novel. I like to think that Glenn Chandler's brilliant example reminded me of the need to keep the story driving forward, and it's a lesson I try to keep in mind when writing to this day.

Friday 14 February 2014

Crime and Romance - Melodies for Valentine's Day

Forgotten Books will be back next week, but I thought it would be fun to mark Valentine's Day with a few words about some of the finest romantic songs that have been written for..crime and thriller movies. This idea came to me the other day when I was watching a televised concert of James Bond music, conducted by Carl Davis. One of the singers, Mary Carewe, gave an excellent performance of what is possibly the most under-rated of all Bond themes, Moonraker.was at one time going to be sung by either Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis but at the last minute Shirley Bassey was brought in to record it. I felt Mary Carewe's version was actually better than Bassey's. (My plan, by the way, was to link to Youtube versions of the songs in question, but here, I'm afraid my techno-incompetence has let me down - for reasons that escape me, none of the links seem to work. Perhaps those who are wiser than me can advise what I'm doing wrong, please? Anyway, all the songs are easy to find on Youtube, and are well worth it.)

The same concert included a much more famous song, performed by Lance Ellington, the classic from On Her Majesty's Secret Service that was originally recorded by Louis Armstrong, shortly before he died. This is We Have all the Time in the World, one of the very best love songs ever written. The music for both those Bond songs was composed by the great John Barry. His many brilliant soundtracks included a notable score for Deadfall, and the striking (if little known) song sung by Shirley Bassey over the credits. This is the memorable My Love Has Two Faces, a song that has grown on me the more I've listened to it..

Returning to Bond, some of the other great songs from the series include The Spy Who Loved Me and Skyfall, but even better is the soundtrack from the spoof movie Casino Royale, and the highlight is Dusty Springfield's The Look of Love. The lyric was written by the late, great Hal David, who also wrote Moonraker and We Have All the Time in the World, and whose gift for expressing romance in a lyric was matchless.

David also collaborated briefly with Michel Legrand, but Legrand's best songs mostly had lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The finest, perhaps, is the original version of The Windmills of Your Mind by Noel Harrison, who died not long ago. It appeared in The Thomas Crown Affair, an enjoyable film full of Sixties touches and starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. And finally, memories of a brilliant comedy thriller, The Italian Job, with a great song that opened the film,,;On Days Like These, by Quincy Jones and Don Black. The romantic words and melody contrast very cleverly with the murderous finale to that opening scene..

Wednesday 12 February 2014

The Skin I Live In - film review

When I read about Pedro Almodovar's film The Skin I Live In, the premise reminded me of Eyes Without a Face, the scary movie based on a creepy novel by those brilliant French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. In fact, The Skin I Live In is based (quite loosely, I gather) on a book by a different French writer, Thierry Jonquet. The plot is very different from the earlier film and book, even though they both concern a brilliant plastic surgeon. But it's just as creepy.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, because there are some startling twists. Suffice to say that the film begins with a young and beautiful woman (played by Elena Anaya) who appears to be kept captive in the home of a very wealthy and controversial plastic surgeon (Antonia Banderas). There is a rather enigmatic housekeeper (Marisa Parades) and some other servants in the house. When the other servants are sent away, bad stuff starts to happen.

The story is complicated, and a good deal of the key events are revealed in dream-like flashbacks. The flashback device can be irritating and cumbersome, but I think Almodovar gets away with it very well. I found the storyline compelling, and even though this film does not flinch from sexual violence,I don't think it is handled in a gratuitously and offensive fashion, disturbing and shocking as it is. I decided to watch the film again, to spot the clues I'd missed, and found this rewarding - it added to my enjoyment of a remarkable movie, albeit one that will not be to everyone's taste.

I've only seen a few Almodovar films, but those I have watched persuade me that hey deserves his formidable reputation as a director. He's not a crime specialist, but he's adapted Ruth Rendell's Live Flesh as well as Jonquet's book. As for Jonquet, I confess I'd never heard of him,but having been impressed by the film,I looked him up. Sadly, he died relatively young not long ago, but I'd like to read the book on which this film is based and perhaps some of his other work.

Monday 10 February 2014

The Craft of Writing: Defying Expectations

A familiar pitfall of genre fiction is the temptation of formula. Science fiction, romantic fiction, ghost stories, horror fiction, romantic fiction, all have their formulaic aspects. And so too does crime fiction. Now, there are some excellent stories that stick very closely to a formula, but it is always refreshing to read a story that defies one's expectations.

I was reminded of this when watching The Suspect the other night. There are several films sharing this title -the one I'm talking about dates from last year,and was written and directed by Stuart Connelly. The starting point is a bank robbery, but this is a story very different from Salamander, which I discussed over the week-end, and which also opens with a raid on a bank. Here, the robbery is followed by a quick arrest. Two cops behave unpleasantly towards the suspect, who is black,and for a while the story follows drab and conventional lines. But then the tables are turned.

There are a number of plot twists in The Suspect which I don't want to spoil. Overall, I felt it was an interesting film, with a number of thought-provoking ideas, although some of them didn't seem to me to be handled very smoothly. As a result, the film as a whole felt a bit disjointed, though the final scenes were pretty good. But what I liked about the screenplay was that it was quite ambitious, eschewing formula in favour of an unorthodox plot and some worthwhile observations about how easy it is to stereotype other people..

Because there are a number of well-established formulae for mystery stories, writers can have a good deal of fun subverting reader expectations. Sometimes, the result verges on parody or pastiche - the recent series of Sherlock is an example, taking a classic character and doing something fresh with it. The Evadne Mount books of Gilbert Adair show another way of subverting the genre - something the author does most brilliantly in And Then There Was No One. That book was a sort of homage to Christie, and of course she was particularly daring in the way she defied expectations. Think of whodunit in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, for instance. Not to mention Murder is Easy, Curtain, and... well, there are plenty of others.

Anthony Berkeley was another Golden Age writer who loved to defy expectations. Even when his experiments were not a complete success, they were invariably interesting. In the modern age, there are plenty of novelists who are very good at changing a story's direction when the reader least expects it - the very talented Andrew Taylor is an example, His Roth Trilogy is quite superb in this respect.

To write a novel that defies reader expectations isn't straightforward, and it's probably not a method to recommend to the inexperienced author. Done well, though, it can provide enormous pleasure for both reader and writer. Anyway, here's a question for you, faithful readers of this blog - what is your favourite example of a crime story that defies expectations?

Saturday 8 February 2014

Salamander - BBC Four - TV review

Salamander began on BBC Four tonight, with two episodes out of twelve. It's a Belgian thriller series, and although I don't share the widespread enthusiasm of the moment for telly with sub-titles, I must say that I really enjoyed this one. Sub-titles seem irritating to me, but if the story is good enough, they don't bother me too much, and Salamander is certainly a gripping story.

It begins with a heist at a private and evidently exclusive bank in Brussels. A gang enter a vault via a convenient tunnel, and target 66 safe deposits which have conveniently been marked up for them by an insider. When the robbery is discovered, the people in charge of the bank don't call the police. Instead, they set about hushing up the raid. What on earth is going on?

Paul Gerardi, your archetypal honest, maverick loner cop, is soon drawn into the mystery. He receives a tip-off about the raid, and witnesses the killing of someone with inside information. Again, this crime is hushed up. It's plain that important people in Belgian society are implicated, and before long Gerardi is suspended, and goes on the run whilst trying to figure out what is happening.

The second best fictional detective of all time was Belgian, and even if Gerardi isnt't in the Poirot league, Salamander reminded me of how much I like Belgium, a country I've visited three times over the years. The second episode was as good as the first,and I'm looking forward to next week's instalment. I remain sceptical about long TV crime series,and unattracted by sub-titles. But Salamander has made a very good start..

Friday 7 February 2014

Forgotten Book - Mystery in White

Today's Forgotten Book was written by an author I'd never read until recently. His name was J. Jefferson Farjeon (1883-1955), a prolific writer mainly associated with thrillers. He is best remembered as the author of Number 17, a play (and, later, novel) which was adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1932. I haven't seen the film, and it's not regarded as one of the great director's masterpieces. Even so, it's quite something to have been adapted by Hitchcock, and Farjeon was a cut above your average thriller writer.

The book I've read recently is Mystery in White, and it was first published in 1937. The setting is England, and the starting point is a train journey which is interrupted by very heavy snow. A motley assortment of passengers reluctantly start to get to know each other, and before long, murder is committed. Sounds familiar? Well, you might be tempted to think that this is a rip-off of Murder on the Orient Express, but it isn't. Although each book begins similarly, the stories travel along very different tracks.

I thought the first hundred pages or so of Mystery in White were absolutely terrific. So much so that I was reproaching myself for not having bothered to read Farjeon previously, even though I do have a copy of his Ben on the Job, with an excellent introduction by the late Harry Keating. A group of passengers leave the train, and come across a mysteriously deserted house. Soon someone else arrives, and the plot thickens form there. Some of the plot-thickening is a bit tortuous, but characterisation and humour are definitely above average.

Dorothy L.Sayers was a Farjeon fan, and so was Keating. More recently, Curt Evans has written very positively about him. You have to be a good writer to attract the interest of such expert judges,as well as Hitchcock, and Farjeon was certainly an accomplished novelist, who was trying to do something other than write conventional whoduntis. Mystery in White is an enjoyable read that deserves to be better known.   

Tuesday 4 February 2014

The Deaths by Mark Lawson - review

The Deaths, by Mark Lawson, is one of the most interesting books I read in 2013, and also the most thought-provoking. Although I've often listened to Lawson's radio programmes, and watched him on TV, I've never read his fiction before, although it's been clear for a long time that he's very interested in the crime genre. The Deaths is a book about crime, but it's also a mainstream novel, rather than avowedly a genre work.

That said, the central plot gimmick is one that was (to the best of my knowledge) dreamed up by Anthony Berkeley in the Golden Age of detective fiction. This is a "whowasdunin", when we know that murder has been committed, right from the outset - the opening line is "The deaths are discovered because of the country's sudden obsession with perfect coffee" - but are left to guess who the victims are, as well as whodunit.

This is a book set in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and focuses on four wealthy couples who live cheek by jowl, and whose apparently charmed lives are just about to turn rather unpleasant. There is a great deal of social comedy in this book, with some very funny lines, and acute observations. I struggled to like the characters, I must say, and it may be that Lawson overdoes their odiousness, but this is a gripping story which kept me fascinated from start to finish.

I have one or two quibbles. The idea that a PR guy would be sent out to negotiate a severance deal with a departing bank boss struck me as incredible,but then again, this book was not aimed at employment lawyers. I also wasn't convinced by some aspects of the life and career of one character who is a barrister. These points nagged at me, because it would have been easy to avoid them,but in the overall scheme of things, they didn't matter much. I've enjoyed discussing The Debts with someone else who has read it, and although in this post I'm keen to avoid spoilers, I can recommend it with confidence that others will enjoy it as much as I did..

Monday 3 February 2014

The Craft of Writing: How Long Should a Story Be?

A number of people have encouraged me to include more posts on this blog about the craft of writing, a subject I've touched on intermittently over the years. As I am currently hard at work on the next Lake District Mystery, questions about writing methods and so on are naturally uppermost in my mind, so I thought I'd run a series of posts about aspects of writing -mainly related to the crime genre, but not exclusively. In the light of responses, I'll then decide whether to continue or to focus on the range of topics that have usually featured here. I should add that I'm not seeking (or qualified) to make definitive judgments. I'm more interested in promoting constructive debate.

One issue that I do think about a good deal concerns the length of a story. Of course, there is no answer to the question 'how long should a story be?' other than 'it all depends'. But it's often worth thinking carefully about what the answer depends on. This topic is fresh in my mind having watched again that classic film Lawrence of Arabia. I first watched it as a teenager (my Dad was very keen on epics like Ben Hur and El Cid, as well as Lawrence of Arabia) and to be honest I appreciated it much more the second time around.

Given the brilliance of cast, script, desert photography, and indeed soundtrack, it's easy to see why David Lean's masterly film is widely acknowledged as a classic. Yet the fact is, it is very, very long. Would it be a worse film if it were, say, an hour shorter? Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson did a great job with the screenplay, but - and this may be a 21st century opinion - it seems to me that the film would have had even more impact had it been shorter. Yes, I know this is heresy, and I'm sure many will disagree...

Many books, similarly, can be improved if they are cut in length. This is even true of some novels, which, like Lawrence of Arabia, are wonderful. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an example that springs to mind. Sometimes a point is made more effectively if it isn't hammered home. A very good reviewer once said of one of my early books that, much as he liked it, he felt I'd done a bit too much hammering. Overall, I thought it was fair comment, and I've tried to keep it in mind ever since. What is the right length does depend on the individual novel, short story or screenplay in question. In general, though, it's surely a good idea for the length to be the minimum needed for the writer to get across everything that he or she considers essential to the story - not the maximum space available.