Monday 31 March 2014

The Widower, DCI Banks, Line of Duty, and other TV crime dramas

The Widower, written by Jeff Pope, and based on a true story, is the latest of the crime dramas coming so thick and fast on British television screens at the moment that I'm finding it difficult to keep up. The first two (of three) episodes have been quite gripping, even though the story follows, in some ways, a slightly predictable pattern. Reece Shearsmith plays the eponymous nurse, yet another of those menacing medical professionals who exploits the availability of drugs in hospitals for nefarious purposes. Sheridan Smith plays his first wife and victim with her customary excellence, and all in all this is a good example of how true crime can be turned into very watchable faction.

I've managed to catch up with another two-parter in the DCI Banks series. Bad Boy benefited from a taut and very well-constructed script by Catherine Tregenna, and the highly effective way in which Banks' personal dilemmas were integrated with the main kidnapping plot, and a sub-plot about a bungled police operation meant that this was probably the most gripping entry in the series so far.

I really ought to have said more about Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio's excellent six-parter about corrupt police officers, which came to an end recently. Keeley Hawes was superb, but so was the cast as a whole, making the most of a convoluted story that cleverly combined in-depth characterisation with twisty plotting. I missed the first series of Line of Duty, which I now very much regret. This was really good telly.

All this and other shows ranging from Shetland and Vera (both of which occupy similar territory to DCI Banks), and the excellent Sherlock to the cosier entertainments supplied by Jonathan Creek, Father Brown and Death in Paradise, and imported shows such as the very good Salamander and the promising Inspector De Luca mean that there is something for all crime fans on the box at the moment. The admirable Lewis may have ended, but a new series of the very well written Endeavour is imminent. I haven't even mentioned American shows such as Elementary and True Detective - and that's because, I must admit, I simply haven't had time to take a look at them.

Anyway, I'll be away from the television for a few days as I go on my travels, but I've scheduled posts for Wednesday and Friday as usual. I may not have internet access,so forgive me if I'm slow to post or reply to any comments - but I will of course always delighted to hear your views. 

Saturday 29 March 2014

Speaking to the Speakers

If anyone had ever told me, some years ago, that one day I'd be giving after dinner speeches, and actually enjoying the experience, I wouldn't have believed them. Until I was in my mid twenties, when work caused me to become an advocate, I had a deep-rooted antipathy to public speaking. And while advocacy involves public speaking, I always saw it as a contest, and handled it that way, focusing on trying to achieve success for my clients. Speaking to an audience is very different, and (for me) more difficult. I used to give quite a few lectures on legal topics, but tended to find it something of an ordeal, despite being familiar with my subject.

Things changed when I started talking about writing, and crime fiction. I still didn't find it easy, but I didn't shrink from it as much. Eventually, I more or less gave up legal lectures, and it's now years since I've given one. I once discussed the paradox with a colleague who is a very good and seemingly nerveless speaker, and his diagnosis was that, when I was talking about something I really loved, rather than merely something I had some knowledge about, it made a huge difference to my mental approach. I think he was right.

All this is by way of preamble to mention that on Thursday night, I delivered the second after dinner speech of my life. The first was on the subject of Sherlock Holmes, but this time I'd been invited to speak at, of all things, the annual banquet of a Cheshire club for after dinner speakers. So it was a bit daunting to be faced with a group who get together solely to develop their speaking skills.

However, all was all right on the night, and the audience and fellow speakers were kind to me, which definitely helped. One particular pleasure was to meet someone who had known my mother, and I found what she had to say about her very poignant and moving. It all made for quite a memorable evening. And, who knows, I may give another after dinner speech one of these days....

Friday 28 March 2014

Forgotten Book - The Walking Stick

The Walking Stick is a novel written by Winston Graham at the peak of his powers and it's very good news that Bello have reissued it, along with many other of his books. I'd seen the film based on it and made in 1970, starring Samantha Eggar and David Hemmings, and really enjoyed it. The book, published three years earlier, was just as good, and even though it is to some extent of its time, it seems to me to have worn very well, as so many books written by really good storytellers do.

By the time he wrote this book, Graham was a very experienced crime writer. If you compare it to Take My Life, which I blogged about recently, it's got more depth and more subtlety. It's a mark of his confidence that he felt able to write in the first person, as a young woman suffering from a disability (her leg has been badly damaged by polio, hence her need for the titular walking stick) and to do so in a way that carries conviction .Deborah, one of three daughters in a wealthy family, compensates for a sense of insecurity with a rather brusque approach, and the way she rebuffs an attractive young man, Leigh, who evidently fancies her, may seem unlikely to some readers, but I found it credible. In the end, however, she succumbs to his advances.

Leigh, unfortunately, is a bit of a dodgy character. He's an artist - but how good are his paintings? And how reliable are his accounts of his previous life? From the outset, it's clear that there is more to him than meets the eye. Graham's portrayal of Leigh reminded me of Francis Iles' portrayal of Johnnie in Before the Fact, and I did wonder if the earlier book was a slight influence, even thought the plots are very different, and the build-up here is slower than in the Iles classic. Even so, I gulped the story down..

Graham is interested in the moral choices that people make, and through careful character-building, he makes us believe in the choices - both good and bad, wise and foolish - that his narrator makes. Yet there's nothing preachy about this story - it's a straightforward yarn, yet told so fluently that it also makes you think a bit. Not too much, though - first and foremost, Graham was an entertainer. And a very accomplished one too.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Jonathan Creek and Living Happily Ever After

Jonathan Creek has,with its latest series, attracted a lot of flak, but I thought the final episode, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, was by far the best of the three episodes we've seen this year. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that writer David Renwick borrowed the title of this one from Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room mystery, whose work has been such an influence on Jonathan Creek - not only because of the intricate plots, but also because both Carr and Renwick share a love of humour.

This story scored because there was a strong central mystery - a minister's clever wife is kidnapped, and incarcerated in a confined space (although admittedly one with a highly convenient opening that was necessary for the plot to work.) There was plenty of mystifying elements, including a sudden death in a bath, a moving corpse, a mysterious pink butterfly and identical twins both played by June Whitfield. What more could anyone want? Well, a good plot, of course. I thought that Renwick delivered.

Some criticism of the first two episodes was overdone, in my opinion. The locked room mystery is inherently artificial and if John Dickson Carr's stories were adapted for TV nowadays, they would attract plenty of criticism because of their implausibility. But part of the genius of Carr (and Renwick) lies in the ingenious ways in which they distract attention from the sheer unlikelihood of their scenarios. Here, a funny sub-plot including the sex-starved wife Josie Lawrence was very effective.

Having said all that, I accept that Jonathan Creek has lost its novelty value. And part of the problem lies in the fact that Jonathan is now happily married. His wife is delightful, and here she was better integrated into the storyline than in previous episodes. But how many top detectives are happily married (remembering that even the uxurious Wexford was tempted elsewhere, and so was the grumpily faithful Jim Taggart)? Speaking of John Dickson Carr, Dr Gideon Fell was married - but his wife pretty much disappeared from sight after a book or two. Father Brown never married, of course, and we all know about Sherlock.

Yes, there are some happily married cops,but not that many. Why? The answer is surely simple. Readers and viewers prefer conflict to happiness. In the Golden Age, Inspector French and Superintendent Wilson were very good husbands, but not the most exciting chaps to read about, not by a long way. The unresolved sexual tension between Jonathan and Caroline Quentin in the early shows was part of their appeal. That's been lost now, and all we have is a bit of mild bickering, which is less gripping.

This is a dilemma that countless writers have to grapple with - including me. For what is to be the fate of Hannah Scarlett's relationship with Daniel Kind in the Lake District Mysteries? Can they find true love and yet remain interesting to readers? I'm mulling this over right now....

Monday 24 March 2014

Inspector De Luca - BBC Four TV review - and historical crime

Inspector De Luca is a brand new BBC Four series that began on Saturday evening with An Unauthorised Investigation. It's an Italian production, and there are four two-hour shows, based on the character created by Carlo Lucarelli and played (very well, I thought) by the likeable Alessandro Preziosi. Lucarelli is, I'm aware, a very successful novelist, but I've never read him. I was drawn to watch really by the fact that the series is set in pre-war Italy, when Mussolini reigned supreme.

This period coincides, of course, with the Golden Age of detective fiction, and although this story didn't have a Golden Age feel to it, I've become interested in learning about the politics of the 30s, and the impact that people like Mussolini had, both in their own countries, and further afield. Several Golden Age writers - E.R. Punshon, R.C.Woodthorpe and Ronald Knox among them - wrote scathingly about Il Duce, but despite (or because of) his warped ideology he exerted an influence on people like Mosley and his followers in Britain. What must it have been like to live in Italy under his rule?

Inspector De Luca left us in no doubt that this was a deeply unhealthy society, where fear made people terrified of expressing anything less than unswerving devotion to a man who, in many ways, was as ridiculous as he was dangerous. De Luca himself is not a fan of Il Duce, but he is no saint either. He is a pragmatic police officer, and he manages (more or less) to keep his scorn to himself. I found the tension created by the claustrophobic political climate to be more interesting than the plot, which concerned the discovery on a beach at Riminii of a prostitute's corpse. De Luca's investigation soon brings him into very close contact with a glamorous countess whose seducative attention he finds hard to resist. But is she herself a victim, or a culprit?

Italy is one of my favourite countries, and it's so photogenic that makes an ideal background for a series of this sort. I liked De Luca as a character, but this was a case - in my opinion - where the history was more compelling than than the mystery. At two hours, the story felt rather drawn-out. Will I watch again? Maybe, but there are a lot of crime dramas on the screen at present - a good thing, my only regret is that none of them are based on my books! - and hard choices have to be made. I've just caught up with the very different, and quite excellent, Line of Duty, and Inspector De Luca didn't have the same wow factor. But it's a well-made and well-acted show, and if you like history, or Italy, it's worth taking a look to see what you reckon to it.

Saturday 22 March 2014

The New Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

Over the years, I've loved writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and the response to them has been truly gratifying. Due to pressure of work, I've had to turn down a number of commissions to return to Sherlock lately, but I hope to get back to him before too long. In the meantime, the fact that some readers have been keen to read the Sherlockiana that I have written has stirred me into action.

The result is The New Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, an ebook that gathers together the stories and also a variety of additional items. I'm especially thrilled that David Stuart Davies, one of the country's leading experts on Holmes, and himself a crime writer of note, has contributed a wonderful introduction to the book. I'm delighted by David's reaction to the stories - one or two of which he originally commissioned when he was editor of that much-missed magazine Sherlock.

The ebook also contains several articles, and whilst nobody will ever do it better (or as well as) Conan Doyle, nevertheless I hope that it will keep Sherlock fans entertained. At the moment, it looks like publication day will be 10 April.

Friday 21 March 2014

Forgotten Books - Dover and the Unkindest Cut of All

One of the late Robert Barnard's favourite humorous crime novels was Joyce Porter's Dover and the Unkindest Cut of All. I read the Bello ebook edition on holiday recently, and it's my choice for today's Forgotten Book. This was her third book featuring DCI Wilfred Dover of Scotland Yard, and was first published in 1967. I really enjoyed it, and felt it lived up to Bob's praise.

I first encountered the character of Dover, improbably, on television. In the Sixties, the BBC had a show called Detective, which I came across as a teenager some years after it began. The series introduced me to some fascinating detectives and writers, and it's a matter for great regret that there are no DVD versions available. In fact, I gather that many of the original shows have been wiped, although one hopes that bootleg copies may exist somewhere, and will eventually resurface. Even if the production values would now seem dated, this was a series of real quality.

The point about Dover is that he is an anti-hero, fat, lazy and rude. The story opens when he and his long-suffering wife are on their way for a seaside holiday.a trip interrupted when someone commits suicide in front of their eyes, throwing himself into the sea. The dead man proves to be a young police officer, Dover is, much to his disgust, dragged into the inquiry into what caused the young chap to kill himself.

Comic crime is very difficult to write. It's much easier to make a mess of it than a success. And because humour is subjective, it's extremely difficult to write a comic mystery that will have widespread appeal. Yet after nearly half a century, this story struck me as entertaining and genuinely funny. A quick, easy read, with plenty of enjoyable scenes. I don't know much about Joyce Porter (though I do know she came from Marple in Cheshire, a nice place where contemporary crime writers Chris Simms and Michael Walters live) but at her best, she was a fun writer, and though I don't know of anyone who knew her personally, I suspect she was a fun person as well.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

CADS and the CADS dinner

Anyone who enjoys classic crime fiction - and probably anybody who enjoys crime fiction generally - is likely to find CADS, a fanzine edited by Geoff Bradley, a mine of information and entertainment. I missed its first issue, more than 20 years ago,but I contributed an article to issue 6 and have been a devotee of this irregular magazine for crime fans ever since. It really is a terrific read. It doesn't have a website,but I'll be happy to give Geoff's contact details to anyone who gets in touch with me.

The latest issue of CADS, number 67, is as usual full of good things. An example is Curt Evans' article about the novels of Emma Lou Fetta. If you've never heard of Emma Lou, well, neither had I. That's the beauty of CADS - you discover things that you would really never find elsewhere. The list of the contributors is a roll-call of the leading experts, not just in Britain but elsewhere, of crime fiction's most knowledgable people. To take a few names at random from this issue - Bob Adey, the world's greatest expert on the locked room mystery, Arthur Vidro, editor of Give Me That Old-Time Detection, John Cooper and Barry Pike, authors of Collecting Detective Fiction, John Curran, the leading expert on Dame Agatha, Liz Gilbey and Philip L. Scowcroft, plus many more. Fascinating.

A tradition has grown up of crime fans meeting once a year for dinner in London - it's organised by Tony Medawar, and is known as the CADS dinner. I managed to attend this year,and took these photos. As usual the evening was great fun. The only snag was that there wasn't time to have a long conversation with everyone present, but the company was certainly excellent. And among those attending were Geoff, Barry Pike - and Doug Greene, well-known as the man behind that wonderful publisher Crippen and Landru, and biographer of John Dickson Carr.

Doug's contribution to crime fiction scholarship is to be honoured later this year by way of a festschrift compiled by Curt Evans. The list of contributors is very impressive, and the range of crime fiction subjects eclectic. I'm really looking forward to reading what they have to say. In the meantime, there is enough in CADS 67 to keep me happily occupied for quite a while.

Monday 17 March 2014

Au revoir Salamander - thoughts after the final episode

Salamander finished its twelve-part run at the week-end, and I must say at the outset that, despite a few reservations, I really enjoyed this Belgian thriller, and I'm glad to hear that a follow-up series is proposed. Really, this was three stories in one. First, the hero Paul Gerardi's quest to solve the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic group known as Salamander. Second, the machinations of the people who had their own reasons for attacking that group. And third, the backstory of the mastermind behind the robbery which was meant to destroy Salamander.

In commenting on Shetland and DCI Banks the other day, I mentioned the increasing popularity of two-part crime series. The snag, of course, with a twelve-part series is that you need a very strong story to keep the viewer interested. Fortunately, Salamander rose to the challenge - although I have a sneaking suspicion that ten parts could have done the job. It moved a bit slowly in the last four or five episodes,and I felt that too much time was devoted to the backstory in war-time.

In terms of writing technique, I found it interesting to compare the show with Laura Lippman's After I'm Gone, which also relied heavily on flashbacks. On the whole, the novel worked better, because the flashbacks were integrated more subtly into the narrative, and did not occupy more time than was necessary. Having said that, the idea of corruption at the heart of a national establishment is one that has fascinated me for years, and I've often toyed with writing a thriller about it myself. Maybe one day...

One key factor that Salamander and After I'm Gone have in common is the focus on a very appealing and dogged detective's relentless hunt for the truth about a complex mystery. The two stories are very different, but the appeal of detective work is universal - at least when it's done as well as this.

A final observation - my original blog post about Salamander is now the second most viewed post in the history of this blog. Blogger stats are far from totally reliable, since they miss out some links, but there's not much doubt that I'm far from alone in having found this a very watchable series..

Friday 14 March 2014

Forgotten Book - Take My Life

Winston Graham is well remembered as the author of the Poldark series of historical romances set in Cornwall, but his excellent crime fiction is (with a few exceptions such as Marnie) often overlooked. My Forgotten Book for today is a mystery he published in 1947, which is now available as a Bello ebook. I think Take My Life began life as a screenplay, and this is evident in the visual quality of the story. Certainly, it was filmed, although I've never seen the movie version.

At the time he published this book, Graham had been writing novels for more than a decade, yet overall I think it's fair to say that it still formed part of his literary apprenticeship (and many of my fellow authors may well agree that one's apprenticeship sometimes feels as though it will never end!) I read this book on holiday in the Arctic, immediately before a second Graham novel written twenty years later, and there's no doubt that the later book is superior. I'll say more about that one on this blog before long. But Take My Life is a swift, easy read. He was a very accessible writer.

This is a "race against time" story, one of those where an innocent man faces execution for murder, and the one person who believes in him faces a desperate struggle to try to establish that he did not commit the crime. Everything in Philippa Talbot's life seems rosy. She is a young, pretty and talented singer, who has just returned to London with her new husband Nicholas. But her pleasure in success on the stage is marred when she sees him with a member of the orchestra who - it turns out - is a former lover. They have a row, he leaves the house, and at a time when he has no alibi, the lover is murdered.

So, whodunit? The answer is soon revealed, because Graham is more interested in the clock race than mystery. I have to say that I did not believe the evidence was strong enough to convict a man of murder, and the police's failure to follow up other leads, though perhaps necessary for the plot, was highly unconvincing. These are real flaws, yet it is a tribute to Graham's sheer readability that I raced through the story, keen to find out precisely what had happened, despite my reservations. Not a masterpiece, by a long chalk, but brisk and worthwhile entertainment.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Mind the Gap - BBC 2 - Evan Davis and Crime fiction

The second of the two parts of Mind the Gap aired on BBC 2 this week. This thought-provoking programme was a documentary presented by Evan Davis analysing both the success of London and the challenges faced by the rest of Britain given the apparently relentless increase in the north-south divide, in terms of prosperity and much else. Crime fiction wasn't mentioned once, needless to say, but some of the issues discussed have genuine relevance (at least in my opinion) to contemporary crime fiction.

Economics is a subject which fascinates me, although I have long suspected that the main difference between different schools of economists may be not that some are right and some are wrong, but simply the often very distinct ways in which  they are all ultimately proved wrong. Evan Davis is a very articulate, intelligent and likeable presenter indeed, and he argued not only that London's prosperity will continue to grow because it is a hub of excellence and a magnet for talented people who want to cluster together, but also that the only chance the rest of the country has of catching up is to create a super-city of its own. He proposed Manchester as this super-city, something that won't have pleased many Liverpudlians I know, for a start.

I agreed with some of Davis' arguments - for instance, a good example of a hub that he didn't mention is Hay-on-Wye, which has reinvented itself brilliantly as a book town and home of a major literary festival. But I did wonder if, in some respects, his arguments were a bit old-fashioned. Technology - Skype, the internet, and all the rest of it - surely makes geographical proximity between like-minded people less of a "must" than it once was. And there are various powerful human factors that complicate the discussion. I sense that younger people are more concerned about the "work-life balance" than was the case, say, thirty years ago, and I'm not sure that living and working in super-cities provides the best kind of balance for a lot of people. And what about the nightmare of commuting - something  I used to hate when I was working full-time at some distance from my office, and which is becoming more stressful with every year that passes? Davis didn't say anything about the countryside, and I don't believe you can look at cities in isolation from the country as a whole.

Whatever one's views, however, we are all affected by economic realities, and therefore crime novels are inevitably affected by them too. And this is a subject which has lurked in the background of my fiction right from the outset. All the Lonely People presented a picture of Liverpool at quite a low point in its history, and later Harry Devlin books tackled the changes and improvements (and there have been many, which Mind the Gap didn't address, focusing instead on the boarded-up terraced houses) in the city in later years. The Lake District Mysteries have a sub-text about changes and challenges in rural society that are again driven by economic factors. Very few reviewers have commented on these aspects of the books, so perhaps they are not of widespread interest, but I prefer to think that it is because I don't address them in a didactic way. Like the economists, I don't have any easy solutions to offer to the economic challenges faced by places that I love, such as Liverpool and the Lakes. But I do think that those challenges provide a natural and relevant backdrop to the mysteries of character and motive that are my main concern as a crime writer..

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Shetland - BBC tv review - and DCI Banks

Shetland returned for a six-part run on BBC TV yesterday evening, the day after I'd finally caught up with the latest series of DCI Banks, another of those cop shows where novels are turned into two episodes of one hour each. It's become a fashionable format, although this seems a little surprising, given the success of the two-hour episodes of Inspector Morse, the pre-eminent classic British cop show of the past thirty years,let alone shows split into eight or ten or twelve parts like Broadchurch, The Tunnel and Salamander. However, it can work pretty well when the ingredients are right, as they are in these two shows. The original Shetland Quartet began with the Gold Dagger winning Raven Black, and this was the story that started last night..

About twenty-five years ago, before my first novel was published, I wrote a short article called (as I remember) "Up the Garden Path". It discussed a number of recent novels with rural settings that I'd enjoyed, and which - I thought - suggested an increasing focus in the Britain of that time on rural mysteries. The article was rejected by the only magazine I sent it to, and so was never published (shame!) but it did highlight the first books written by Ann Cleeves and Peter Robinson, both of which I'd much enjoyed, and who are the creators, respectively, of Shetland's Jimmy Perez and Yorkshire's DCI Alan Banks. So perhaps I can at least claim to have been ahead of the game in spotting the excellence of those writers. I never dreamed that one day I would have the pleasure of getting to know both of them, or indeed that eventually I'd write a rural series of my own - for at that time, I was hard at work on Harry Devlin's debut, set in resolutely urban Liverpool.

The success of the books about Perez and Banks owe a great deal to the authors' shared ability to explore character, setting and storyline in an interesting way, and these attributes are reflected in the TV adaptations. There are, of course, some differences between Ann and Peter as writers, which are to some extent evident in the screenplays. Ann is fascinated by landscape, and the shots of Shetland are bound, I think, to boost tourism to this relatively remote island.. Peter is very keen on, and knowledgeable about, music, and this interest was central to Piece of My Heart, whereas music rarely plays a major part in Ann's work. But there are various similarities between Perez and Banks, two likeable characters with a touch of vulnerability in their make-up.

Both detectives are played by very good actors. Douglas Henshall is nothing like my mental picture of Perez, but he brings a sense of integrity to the part which is just right. Stephen Tompkinson plays Alan Banks with a kind of startled melancholy which again differs from my idea of the Eastvale cop, but which is growing on me. When I wrote that long ago article - perhaps I should disinter it - I had no idea that one day both writers would achieve so much success. But I was intrigued by the fact that they were people of my generation who had already shown that they could write mysteries of genuine quality while I was struggling to finish my debut. Over the years, they have shown great staying power, and today their mysteries entertain millions. And much as I enjoy seeing their work adapted for the small screen, I remain first and foremost a fan of the books.

Monday 10 March 2014

After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman

Baltimore is the setting for most of the work of Laura Lippman, who  is one of the United States' crime wriiting elite. When Bouchercon was held in Baltimore a few years ago, I spent a hugely enjoyable few days in the city, and managed to avoid the crime that is apparently endemic to some of its districts. It has in one or two respects a resemblance to Liverpool,and that was part of its appeal for me. Lippman's latest, After I'm Gone, published in the UK by Faber, is a very interesting book that fits in well with the posts about the craft about crime writing that I've included here over the past few weeks.

Laura Lippman's confidence and expertise as a writer is demonstrated vividly by the way she tackles two tricky structural challenges. Those challenges arise from the premise of her story. Back in 1976, Felix Brewer, a wealthy villain who was on the point of being sent to prison, vanished mysteriously and has never been seen since. He left behind a wife, Bambi, three daughters, and a mistress, Julie. Julie herself went missing subsequently - but her body was later discovered. Who killed her, and why? Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, a veteran cop now contracted to work on cold cases, wants to find out.

The story veers around for over 300 pages, with constant shifts of viewpoint and chronology over a span in excess of forty years. Only an experienced and talented writer could manage to tell a story in this way without, at the very least, giving an impression of jerkiness and risking the loss of the reader's attention. But Laura Lippman provides something of a masterclass in story-telling technique. Beginning writers are often told to avoid flashbacks, and there is some sense in that advice, but when done well, they can be effective, and the period details and insights into Jewish family life struck me as convincing. And I'm pleased to say that, though the set-up was nicely constructed, I didn't guess whodunit yet found the explanation satisfying.

There is a very good interview with the author, conducted by Oline H. Cogdill in the latest issue of that excellent magazine Mystery Scene, in which Lippman emphasises her interest in examining women's lives. This she does very well in the book, and I was glad to be reminded of my own trip to Baltimore. But oddly enough, the scenes which I found most gripping were those featuring Sandy's cold case investigation. Not because it was a cold case storyline (though, of course, that was bound to appeal to me, given that cold cases are at the heart of the Lake District Mysteries) but rather because he is such an empathetic character. There's a strong hint near the end of the book that Lippman is setting things up to allow him to return in future, and that's good news, since she clearly enjoys writing about him just as much as she enjoyed writing from the viewpoint of Bambi, her daughters, and her doomed rival.

Friday 7 March 2014

Forgotten Book - The Anathema Stone

John Buxton Hilton (1921-1986) was a popular and fairly prolific crime writer, but I'd never got around to reading him until my recent trip to Norway. Those enterprising publishers Bello, an arm of Pan Macmillan, have produced ebook versions of many of his novels, and whilst I was away I read two entries in his series featuring the senior cop Simon Kenworthy, starting with The Anathema Stone, which is my Forgotten Book for today.

This is one of those stories where the series detective takes a holiday. Kenworthy and his wife Elspeth take a cottage in a Derbyshire village, and before long Kenworthy become embroiled in mysterious goings-on. He is targeted by a pretty teenage girl, whose behaviour ir rather disturbing, and also finds himself taking part (with her) in a rehearsal for a play written by the eccentric local vicar.

When the girl is found dead, her corpse draped over the legendary Anathema Stone, Kenworthy finds himself dragged into the inquiry in different ways. There are some suspicions about the nature of his relationship with the girl (and I did wonder if Hilton would have written this book in quite the same way today, when there is so much sensitivity about child abuse, following so many well-documented tragic stories) and also a good deal of mystery about the motive for the crime.

I felt this book was rather idiosyncratic in style, storyline, and structure, but I enjoyed it. Hilton was an above-average writer, and whilst I was expecting a rather conventional small village mystery, he delivered something more unusual than that. As a result, I was keen to sample his work again, and did just that a couple of days later - to find myself reading a very different sort of story.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Hunting the Northern Lights

Although the theme of last week's boat trip up the coast of north Norway was "hunting the lights", the first thing for me to say is that my camera and photographic skills proved not to be up to the challenge of capturing the Northern Lights when, finally, I did see them. Though there were plenty of moments during the trip when the quality of light over the coastline before darkness fell was absolutely mesmerising. The above shot was taken as the sun went down over Vardo. Landing there gave an opportunity to fellow passengers more intrepid than me to bathe in the Arctic Ocean - at least for about thirty seconds...

Well, it takes all sorts, I suppose! During that brief stop in Vardo, (safely encased in many layers of warm clothing!) I visited the most northerly fortress in the world. In the twilight it had an especially eerie charm.

Other ports of call included Hammerfest, one of many small towns in Norway which seems to be benefiting from the exploitation of the country's massive natural resources. I was interested in the lifestyle of people who come to this very cold region from warmer countries - some clearly love it, and there is plenty to love, I can see that, even though personally I'd find the total absence of sunlight between late November and late January very hard to take.

The quality of the light on snowy mountains and sea just below Hammerfest was magical - my photos really don't do it justice. As for the Northern Lights, there were two cloudy and blank nights before the first message came that they were visible. I'd been surprised to learn that many Norwegians, even, have never seen with the naked eye the green lights that are often portrayed in dramatic photographs, and I didn't either, though a charming fellow traveller - a Turkish brain surgeon, yes, it's a cosmopolitan world up there - has captured them in a photograph as stunning as any you see in the books and I[m planning to retweet it..

My own first sighting of the Northern Lights was truly memorable - out on deck in an Arctic gale so powerful it was almost impossible to stand - but there were the legendary lights, a pinkish red glow. Later that evening, there were two further displays - more elaborate and longer-lasting this time, strange shapes in the sky of a ghostly white hue. All in all, it was a remarkable experience. It was only a short break, but I've never had a holiday like this one. I much prefer to be warm rather than cold but I'm really very glad I returned to this fantastic country.

And there's one bonus of life in that part of the world, when it gets dark early. You have plenty of time to read, and I rattled through a number of enjoyable books, by authors as diverse as John Buxton Hilton, Joyce Porter, Winston Graham, and Margaret Millar. I'll be featuring all of them in this blog before long.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

The End of the World

My trip to Norway took me to the end of the world, more or less, as the ship docked on an island a forty minute coach ride away from the stunning landscape of the North Cape. This was certainly the coldest place I have ever experienced, and the journey was memorable,not least because the convoy of buses was led by a snow plough. Even the reindeer had deserted the area in search of (relatively) warmer climes.

I've read and enjoyed a number of books by Norwegian writers in recent years. Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum are immensely successful, but I particularly like Gunnar Staalesen's books about the private eye Varg Veum. He's a quietly accomplished author, and books like Yours Until Death are well worth seeking out. I can't, without checking, recall reading any books set in the most northerly parts of the country, but I'm sure there must be a number, and the Norwegian landscape does play an important part in creating the bleak atmosphere of books like Fossum's He Who Fears the Wolf. I'll have to consult Barry Forshaw, whose expertise on Scandinavian crime fiction is unmatched (his books, such as Nordic Noir, are a mine of information.)

Norway is an affluent country, with very low unemployment levels, yet the population density, especially in the large northern province of Finnmark is very low - the total coastline of Finnmark is almost 7000 km in length, and the province is bigger than Denmark, but it's home to a mere 75,000 people. There is something eerie, as well as compelling, about Finnmark's lonely mountains, lakes and tiny villages. Lots of scope here for closed communities and dark deeds in isolated settings.

The seas around the North Cape look daunting, but saw a good deal of action during the Second World War and stories with their roots in war-time do crop up from time to time in "Nordic Noir" - a Swedish example that sticks in my mind is Henning Mankell's Return of the Dancing Master . And a trip to the border with Russia the following day provided a reminder of Norway's intriguing geographical position, right next to a country which (as the current alarming news from Ukraine reminds us) is not always the cosiest of neighbours.

Recent years have seen a thawing (sorry, couldn't resist that!) of relations between the two countries, and one can only hope that events in the Ukraine don't lead to increased tension elsewhere. Again, I've not read any "Nordic noir" books set in the borderland, but I'm sure there must be some. Borderlands, as Ellis Peters among others has demonstrated, often provide excellent backgrounds for fiction because of the potential for conflict between cultures. And this particular border country is as fascinating as any I've ever visited.

Monday 3 March 2014

Death in a Cold Climate

I returned last week from a short but amazing trip to the Arctic Circle, of all places, and have now just about thawed out enough to blog about it. The plan was to fly to Tromso in northern Norway, and then take a short cruise on a ship delightfully called the Trollfjord in search of the often elusive Northern Lights and the special character of places like the North Cape.

All I really knew about Tromso before I arrived was that it is home to a major university at which my much-missed friend Bob Barnard was professor of English literature for a number of years. Bob wrote a book set in Tromso, and I dug out the paperback copy of Death in a Cold Climate that he inscribed for me a good many years ago, and re-read it. With great enjoyment, I may add. It's a crisp story, told with the economy of style that I discussed here a couple of weeks ago. The plot, concerning Inspector Fagermo's hunt for the killer of a mysterious young Englishman, is quite different from Nordic noir, but there are a number of scenes, notably the final one, that pack a punch. Bob hit on a very clever way of concealing the culprit. And there is plenty of that trademark Barnard humour, especially in his portrayal of a disreputable English professor...

As for Tromso, it was bathed in sunshine when the plane touched down. The city occupies an island, and I found the landscape quite magical. A windy walk on a long bridge took me to the modern and architecturally dramatic Arctic Cathedral, which is mentioned in Bob's book, and then to the cable car which reaches up to the top of the snowy mountain overlooking the city. Standing outside at the top in a gale did take some doing (but was preferable to the alternative of plunging a few hundred feet) but was made worthwhile by some stunning vistas.

It's more than twenty years since I was last in Norway, and then I kept to the south, places like Bergen, Oslo and some of the fjords. But I was impressed with Tromso and could see why Bob and Louise enjoyed their time there. The atmosphere of the frozen North is quite inspirational, and although unlike Bob I won't be writing a Norwegian novel, I did come up with an idea for a short story influenced by something I came across during my visit to the "gateway to the Arctic". Just need to find time to write it...