Friday 29 August 2014

Forgotten Book - Angel in the Case

Milward Kennedy is a Golden Age author whose books I've covered several times on this blog, because I'm intrigued by his work. I'm a great admirer of Anthony Berkeley, as was Kennedy, and Kennedy tried to emulate his friend's innovative approach to the writing of crime fiction. But if Berkeley was uneven - and he was - then Kennedy was very, very uneven. And although he wrote some excellent books, I'm afraid that he also wrote some that were extremely disappointing - I'm a huge fan of the Golden Age, of course, but there's no point in pretending that even the best writers of that era always made best use of their gifts..

Kennedy wrote a couple of novels in the Thirties under a different pen-name, Evelyn Elder (his second wife was called Evelyn and I'd speculate that there was an age difference between them, hence the pseudonym). The first, Murder in Black and White, has been republished in recent times by Ramble House. The second is Angel in the Case, and that's a very rare title indeed. I've been hunting it for ages, and now a kind person has made a copy available to me, so this is my choice for today's Forgotten Book.

Let me start with the good news. The book is furnished with wonderful maps of the scene of the crime - they are just about the most appealing of any that I've ever seen in a Golden Age novel, detailed and attractive. Now for the bad news. To my mind, the story is dire. The writing is perfectly good, but the story did not hold any appeal for me at all.

The book begins with a police investigation into the drowning of a wealthy man called Curtis. He is a publisher, and the guests (and suspects) at his country house include a poet and a couple of writers. Scope here, I thought, for Kennedy to provide us with some entertainment, but apart from a passing nod to the Detection Club oath, the material is flat and uninteresting from start to finish. The eponymous Angel is an attractive female house guest, but I found her no more engaging than the rest of the cast. The mystery was desperately dull even before an American gangster was introduced (invariably a Bad Sign in a British Golden Age whodunit) with no attempt at characterisation, and precious little humour. Kennedy could do much better than this, fortunately. It''s a real shame about Angel in the Case, but I can only say that I wish that Kennedy had devoted more time to elaborating the story in an appealing way rather than concentrating on the maps.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Compulsion (2013) - film review

The 2013 Canadian film Compulsion is a re-make, but it has nothing to do with Meyer Levin's famous book of the same name, based on a true crime. Instead, it's a re-make of a South Korean movie called 301,302. I can see why the producers didn't want to use that title, but I have to say this film doesn't make me yearn to see the original. It's an odd piece of work.

I started watching without knowing anything about it other than that it starred Heather Graham and was a thriller. Heather Graham is fine, but I feel I was mis-sold with regard to the 'thriller' description. Compulsion doesn't seem to know what sort of a film it is trying to be. The thrills are few and far between, but there are some moments of sharp comedy and satire, and a few sexy scenes. There are as well one or two dark scenes about the abuse of a young girl which contrast with the very bright photography used in most of the film - these made me feel that the funny segments were lapses in tone.

We are introduced to Graham's character as someone fascinated by cooking, and it's clear at once that she's a little weird. A detective(Joe Mantegna) calls at her flat, and asks questions about a missing female neighbour. Little by little, the truth about the two women's relationship emerges. The neighbour, Saffron (Carrie-Anne Moss) was once a young film star, but is now writing sex advice columns while trying unsuccessfully to revive her acting career. When Graham discovers that her rich boyfriend is having an affair, she finds solace in cooking for Saffron, even though Saffron isn't keen to eat the food she is given.

The film runs for less than an hour and a half. Brevity is usually a plus point in books and movies, in my opinion, and I was glad that Compulsion didn't outstay its welcome. I've read some brutal reviews of it, as well as a few fairly good ones (though I think there's more admiration for the glamorous Graham than the storyline). In fairness, it's a film with some genuinely interesting component parts, but they are thrown together too randomly for Compulsion to rank as anything more than a curiosity.

Monday 25 August 2014

Cold Comes the Night - film review

Cold Comes the Night is a 2013 film directed, and co-written, by Tze Chun. The reviews I've seen have been rather mixed, and I find this rather hard to understand, since in my opinion this is a gripping thriller, and the audience never quite knows for sure where the meandering, but intriguing, storyline will lead. I felt that there were some original features to the story that were pretty impressive.

One of the attractive features of the film is that it has a heroine who sometimes behaves in a way that we simply do not associate with heroines. Alice Eve (yes, daughter of Trevor Eve, the one-time star of Shoestring) plays Chloe a single mother who runs a disreputable motel in a down-at-heel area. She is having an affair with a crooked police officer and is trying to make enough money to be able to take her young daughter somewhere safer and more appealing.

Topo, a gangster from Eastern Europe, played by Bryan Cranston, crosses her path with disastrous consequences. He has been hired to take some money to a villainous young crook, but when his driver is killed after a row with a prostitute at Chloe's motel, Topo loses the cash and has to threaten Chloe into helping him to retrieve it. His problem is that he is nearly blind, and this means that he needs her as much as she needs a share of that missing money.. A strange, yet oddly plausible, relationship develops between Chloe and Topo, and this adds a layer of complexity and interest to the film.

I really liked the way that, at times, the script made me root for Chloe and Topo as they embark on their hazardous quest, whilst not shrinking from the reality that each of them has a dark side. This is clever writing. From start to finish, I really wanted to know what happened next. This is a really entertaining movie, and I feel that it is undeservedly under-estimated.


Friday 22 August 2014

Forgotten Book - Last Will and Testament

Today's Forgotten Book dates from 1936, but it has not been entirely neglected since its original publication. Last Will and Testament, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole was exhumed from the vaults by Collins Crime Club in 1985, and that edition is my copy. It benefits from an excellent intro by Harry Keating, displaying his characteristic blend of kindliness and insight. Any crime critic looking to model himself or herself on a distinguished figure from the past would do well to look at how Harry did it. He was rarely harsh, but he never pretended that mundane books were brilliant either. A touch of graciousness is a very Good Thing in a critic or commentator, and Harry was naturally gracious. And his style was invariable agreeable and informative.

This book is evidently the follow-up to an earlier Coles effort, which I have not read, Dr Tancred Begins.(After reading this book, I recalled that Malcolm J. Turnbull, another excellent critic and an expert on Anthony Berkeley, wrote an interesting article about both stories in CADS a few issues ago.) They go to some pains to make clear that it is not necessary to have read the earlier book to enjoy this one, but it forms a companion piece. We are given to understand that the action of the first book took place 25 years earlier, and the gifted private detective was unable to pin guilt of murder on the presumed culprit. But now murder occurs again in the same family, and the original culprit is back in the frame.

I thought this was an exceptionally interesting premise for a book, and indeed for a pair of books. Dr Ben Tancred is, as Harry rightly says, a more engaging detective than Superintendent Wilson, whom the Coles usually favoured, and who does have a bit part to play in the two Tancred stories. Tancred also has his own "Watson", though I must say I struggled to understand why the Coles bothered to have a story narrated by someone who is not present during almost all of the action.

This story boasts various classic elements, including a country house and a seemingly unbreakable alibi. The alibi proved, however, to be all too easily shattered, and this was just one of the elements of the criminal's design that perplexed me. Another oddity was that two highly intelligent authors created a character who has been mauled by a tiger in...Africa. The story does have some charm, but on the whole, its weaknesses overwhelm it, and that clever premise is largely wasted.. I'm afraid that Harry showed greater skill at writing a positive introduction to the reissue than the Coles did at creating a fascinating mystery. They could do better than this. Despite Malcolm J. Turnbull's able advocacy, I doubt that I will bother with Dr Tancred Begins

Wednesday 20 August 2014

"I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere...."

My enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes dates back to when I was very young and first encountered the great man in the shape of Douglas Wilmer, on TV, and Basil Rathbone, on film. Strangely enough, though, this past twelve months has seen me involved in more Sherlock-related activity than ever before. I'm absolutely delighted by response to The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes,from readers. In addition, I've enjoyed writing an essay about Conan Doyle's short stories, giving an after dinner speech to the Sherlock Holmes Soceity, and starting work on a story about Professor Moriarty for a forthcoming anthology.

I've also written an introduction for a new collection of the 'best' Sherlock stories for Arcturus. It includes a wide selection from the short stories, together with The Hound of the Baskervilles. The book is beautifully presented in a slipcase and will be available later this year. I've just received my copy, and it looks very good on the shelf.

Now, I've been told of a good cause that has a Sherlockian theme. I don't often mention charity events on this blog, but I want to make a special exception today, given that research into brain-related conditions is so very important. I have (and had) too many friends who have suffered from these conditions over the years. And the event really does sound like fun, as this extract from the press release suggests

"Sherlock fever has gripped Yorkshire as a charity’s campaign to break the World Record for the most people dressed as Sherlock Holmes has gone viral.
Sherlock Holmes, one of the most popular consulting detectives of all time, is on the case to help raise money for the Yorkshire Brain Research Centre at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals.
The Guinness World Record attempt promises to host the biggest Sherlock party ever. It takes place on 31st August 2014 in Temple Newsam, Leeds from 12 noon. Entry fee is £15 and every participant will receive a Deerstalker hat, pipe and magnifying glass.
 The event features a big stage featuring comedy, music, dance and theatre. There will be food, fun rides and and a few surprises along the way."

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Brian Innes - R.I.P.

Despite all the pleasures of the St Hilda's Crime and Mystery week-end, there was one sad moment, when the news was broken to me that Brian Innes has died. This happened last month, but somehow I'd missed hearing about it. Brian had a number of claims to fame. Among them was this - he was the only person I knew who once had a number one hit record.

As this obituary explains, Brian was a prominent member of the Temperance Seven, a group I remember very distantly from my childhood. At one time they were often on television, thought their hey-day came immediately before the Beatles changed everything in popular music. Their big hit was "You're Driving Me Crazy", although I'm not quite old enough to remember it topping the charts.

I came to knew Brian because he was a regular at CWA conferences, and entertaining company he was, too. I was startled to read in the obituary that he was 86, because he seemed younger than his years. There was always a twinkle in his eye. He was very loyal to the CWA, and he was diligent at keeping committee members to account. Brian's main literary interest was in the true crime field, and he was for many years the chair of the CWA's Non-Fiction Dagger judging panel. I recall having a very long chat on the phone with him about this only last year..

More than a decade ago, though, he told me of his ambition to write fiction, and I was pleased when he submitted a short story called "Country Blues" for an anthology of rural crime fiction I as editing, Green for Danger. It was a private eye story with a country music elements, and I was glad to include it in the book. The story was part of a series he was working on, and I hoped the publication would encourage him to write more fiction, but I'm not sure this happened.

Very recently, though, I've been working on an anthology of true crime which I'm really rather excited about. I'll post more info about it at a later date. Brian duly submitted an essay to me which I'd like to include if at all possible. With this in mind, if anyone reading this blog can put me in touch with his heirs, I'd be grateful. I suspect it was the last significant piece of writing he produced, and I'm really sorry that he won't be around to see the finished book.

Monday 18 August 2014

St Hilda's

The 21st annual Crime and Mystery Week-end at St Hilda's College in Oxford was as enjoyable as ever. The theme, topically, was detective fiction and warfare, and this inspired a wide variety of interesting and informative papers from speakers ranging from Val McDermid, and Jake Kerridge of the Daily Telegraph, to Anne Perry and the conference guest of honour, Peter Robinson. My own contribution focused on the 'Golden Age and the Shadows of War', and I was truly gratified by response to news about the forthcoming publication of The Golden Age of Murder. Champagne was kindly provided by a good friend, and consumed with great appreciation, especially on my part!

The after dinner speakers on Friday and Saturday were, respectively, the legendary Colin Dexter (who mentioned, among many other things, his enthusiasm for John Dickson Carr),, and Keith Miles, better known to some readers as Edward Marston, author of the Railway Detective series. At the top table on Friday evening it was rather wonderful to be in the company of the likes of Colin, Anne, Andrew Taylor, Imogen Robertson, and Alan Bradley, a highly successful author whom I've never met before. Alan is Canadian, but after a spell in Malta, he now lives at Peel on the Isle of Man, an entrancing resort in which I once set a short story, 'Sunset City'.

A week-end like this gives you the chance to make new friends, and also to get to know some people better whom you may have met only fleetingly in the past. The setting gives this event a special character and atmosphere, and I encourage anyone who is interested in in-depth discussion of the genre, coupled with a great deal of conviviality, to consider attending in the future. Great credit is due to the tireless organisers, Eileen Roberts and Kate Charles. The talks themselves are chaired by N.J. Cooper (also know as Natasha Cooper and Daphne Wright), and I can only say that I've attended many different kinds of events in various sectors, but rarely encountered any chair as accomplished. It's a challenging role, because a great deal of concentration is required to do it well, but she makes it all look effortless, and her unfailing generosity makes the task of the speakers so much easier. And that's invaluable, because the audience is very knowledgeable, and all the speakers are naturally anxious to make sure that their talks live up to the standards expected.

I was delighted to share the platform with Ruth Dudley Edwards, who read and commented most helpfully on an early draft of The Golden Age of Murder, and her talk about Northern Ireland and terrorism was spell-binding. On the Sunday morning, Ruth and I went punting with Andrew Taylor (whose brand new book I'm longing to read after hearing him speak about it). Now, I've not been in a punt since I was a student a long, long time ago, but thanks to Andrew's expert steering with the punt pole we managed to avoid the calamity of capsizing that would definitely have ensued had I been left to my own devices. A fun memory of a great week-end.

Friday 15 August 2014

Forgotten Book - Corpse in Cold Storage

Before I get stuck into today's Golden Oldie, may I say how gratified I am by the reaction to news of the forthcoming publication of The Golden Age of Murder? I'm sure those who have read my articles and blog posts about the Golden Age will realise that writing the book has been a labour of love. Even late last night, I was tinkering with some of the notes and the bibliography (to be honest, 'tinkering' is a euphemism for 'expanding'...). One of the beauties of today's world of global communication is that people have made me aware that the book is already being marketed via Amazon here and in the US, and there have even been some pre-orders. Wow, talk about quick off the mark!

One of the reasons why I was keen for the news to come out now, even though the official publication date for both the UK edition and the US edition is next May is that this week-end, I'm giving a talk about the Golden Age and the Shadows of War at the St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference, and I really didn't feel I could resist keeping the news to myself any longer. There's a strong contingent of Golden Age fans at St Hilda's, and I've been looking forward to this event for months.

Now, back to today's Forgotten Book. Corpse in Cold Storage, written by Milward Kennedy, and published in 1934, is my choice. It's certainly forgotten - I can't recall reading any discussion of it anywhere. It's probably fair to say that Kennedy's fan club is a pretty small and exclusive group. Possibly I'm the only current member, though I hope not. His books often frustrate me, because they frequenly fail to live up to their potential, but they usually offer something "different" and rather inventive that is uncommon and appealing.

Corpse in Cold Storage is a case in point. The title comes from a phrase that Kennedy had used in an earlier novel, and which (I guess) gave him a starting point for this story. The corpse belongs to an unpleasant man called Charleson, and it is found ice cream van. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this points to a "time of death" mystery that is quite cleverly concocted. The setting, in a small and run-down south coast resort delightfully called Heartsease, is also very nicely done. The victim, and almost all of the suspects are not, however, very interesting. What's unusual about this book is the detective duo who take an interest in the case.

Kennedy had previously tried and abandoned a series police detective (by the name of Cornford) after only two books. This story sees the return of Sir George Bull and his wife Mary after they first appeared in Bull's Eye, a book which left me underwhelmed. Corpse in Cold Storage is better, and shows the Bulls in good form. Sir George is a hard-drinking conman, and he wants to find out who killed Charleson simply in order to blackmail the killer. His seductive wife aids and abets him, whilst trying to persuade him to moderate his intake of alcohol, and she proves a much better detective. Together they make an entertainingly different pair of sleuths. There have been villainous detectives before and since the Bulls, but nobody quite like them.

I enjoyed the story a good deal, though some of the detail about alibis, whilst in the Golden Age tradition, left me as cold as Charleson's corpse. It's a shame that Kennedy abandoned the Bulls after this book. He strikes me as a restless writer, constantly trying something different, and never quite writing a masterpiece. One final point: my American edition describes him as "President of the Detection Society of England". He was never the Detection Club's President, though, and I bet he got into trouble over that with the Club's founder, Anthony Berkeley, who was perhaps the prickliest of all Golden Age writers. There will be more about both Kennedy and Berkeley in The Golden Age of Murder.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Breaking News....The Golden Age of Murder

I'm probably as excited about this post as about any of the others (nearly 2000!) that I can remember adding to this blog. So excited, in fact, that I'll let the press release do the talking for me - for the time being, anyway...

"In a world rights deal HarperCollins has acquired from James Wills of Watson, Little Ltd the publishing rights to The Golden Age of Murder, a real-life detective story investigating how Agatha Christie and her colleagues in the secretive Detection Club transformed crime fiction, writing books that cast new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their own darkest secrets.

The book is written by the award-winning crime-writer Martin Edwards, author of 17 crime novels and 8 non-fiction books. Edwards is Archivist for both the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association, and is a renowned expert on Golden Age detective fiction.

David Brawn, Publisher of Estates at HarperCollins, commented: ‘This ground-breaking study of detective fiction from between the wars captures how the social and political turbulence of the times impacted on authors and the appetites of their readers. Martin’s revelations about many of these colourful and turbulent writers, whose risky private lives inspired their more daring novels, provide a whole new insight into the generation of authors who created the prototypes for books we all still love today.’

Martin Edwards said: ‘The Golden Age of Murder seeks to overturn familiar stereotypes, and look at classic detective fiction in a fresh way. The years of research felt just like detective work, as I set out to solve the mysteries surrounding the Detection Club and its members. The best novels of the Golden Age are among the most popular and influential entertainments ever written, and the people who wrote them were even more fascinating. As interest in their fiction reaches new heights, this is the perfect time to reveal their untold stories.’

The Golden Age of Murder: Solving the Mysteries of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story will be published in hardback in May 2015."

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Mysteries Unlocked

This year, I've been pleased to contribute essays to three widely diverging books, and each of them was a different writing and publishing experience. The first essay was a study of the short fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, for Morphologies. Another is a discussion of Gilbert Adair and detective fiction for a forthcoming Adair festschrift. And the third is also a contribution to a festschrift, this time Mysteries Unlocked, which is sub-titled Essays in Honour of Douglas G. Greene.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Doug and I go back quite a long way. So long, in fact, that I can't quite recall when and where we first met. I've been a long-time subscriber to the wonderful books he publishes under the Crippen & Landru imprint, and edited one of them, a collection of Ellis Peters' "lost classics." He has helped me a great deal with my researches into the Golden Age, with that generosity that seems to me to typify the overwhelming majority of people in the crime fiction community. He is the author of a wonderful biography of John Dickson Carr, which I strongly recommend, as well as editor of a number of extremely interesting short story collections. In person he's very good company, and we've dined together a couple of times this year, most recently at Malice Domestic. So I'm very glad that Curtis Evans proposed celebrating Doug's 70th birthday with a book that includes essays, almost all of them brand new, about different aspects of crime fiction. The book is introduced by Steve Steinbock, who was at that same rather memorable dinner in Bethesda last May. Yep, it's a small world.

My contribution discusses Anthony Berkeley's short stories, and I'm currently enjoying reading the others, ranging from a lovely piece by Peter Lovesey about Eric the Skull of the Detection Club to a fascinating article by Mauro Boncampagni about the Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge/Patrick Quentin writing collective. I've never met Mauro, but I have the pleasure of corresponding with him, and I'm indebted not just to him but also to his wife, who has been translating The Coffin Trail into Italian - as a result, Mondadori will be publishing the first Lake District Mystery later this year, I'm thrilled to say.

Barry Pike and Julia Jones, leading lights of the Margery Allingham Society, are the authors of a pair of excellent studies. Barry's deals with Allingham's commercial fiction and Julia's tackles The China Governess. Julia's article is both interesting and wise; she explains how her view of the book has changed over the years, and I think this typifies the best scholarship. I admire critics who are willing to revisit their opinions, Both Dorothy L. Sayers and Julian Symons were admirable in this regard; it seems to me to be a sign of strength. Julia casts fascinating new light on the novel. To find out how she does this, you'll have to read the book!

John Curran, supremely knowledgeable about Agatha Christie, tackles her attempts at "locked room mysteries" with his customary authority. Mike Ashley (whom I've never met, but for whose anthologies I've written numerous stories) discusses Max Rittenberg. I'd never heard of Rittenberg, but Mike makes me want to read him. Roger Ellis writes interestingly about J.S. Fletcher, and Steve Steinbock about one of Carr's rivals in the impossible crime field, the under-rated Hake Talbot.

And there is more, much more. A wealth of other material of high quality, in fact, contributed by commentators including Jon L. Breen and Marv Lachman (against whom I once competed in a game of Mastermind, at the Nottingham Bouchercon) who combine to make this a truly wide-ranging reference book. I love devouring essay collections about the genre, and this is one of the best to have appeared in years. Editor Evans, himself the author of two of the essays, is to be congratulated on having come up with a great idea, and then on having done the spadework of turning it into a reality.

Monday 11 August 2014

Closed Circuit - film review

Conspiracy thrillers, rather like conspiracy theories themselves, range from the frighteningly plausible to the plain silly. Closed Circuit is a 2013 conspiracy thriller movie which has not, as far as I can see, pleased too many critics. But I think the panning it's received in some quarters is far too harsh. I found it very watchable. And not just because the story featured a solicitor called Devlin and a heroic lawyer called Martin!

The cast is very good, and several of its members are in excellent form. Rebecca Hall, who seldom seems to put a foot wrong, is convincing as a committed barrister, and Kenneth Cranham exudes a subdued version of his characteristic menace in his role as a judge. Ciaran Hinds plays the dodgy Devlin, Jim Broadbent excels as the slimy attorney general, and although I don't think Eric Bana is in quite the same league, he's not at all bad as the arrogant barrister Martin who grows as a character as he stumbles across evidence of dirty tricks at the heart of the establishment.

The film begins with a bang, as an explosion rips apart Borough Market, but the story begins in earnest some months later, with the trial of the alleged ringleader of the shadowy group of terrorists who were responsible. Because some of the evidence has national security implications, the rules require a defence barrister who handles the case in open court, and a special defence counsel who deals with the secret information. Bana takes over the former role when his predecessor commits suicide, and the first of many complications is that he is the former lover of the special counsel, played by Hall.

I think some of the criticism of the film stems from disappointment about the relatively superficial nature of the film's focus on the surveillance state. As a critique of government and the security services, it's so-so. But judged as a thriller, I think it works well. The pace is good throughout, the twists pleasing, and the storyline reasonably distinctive. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief, but I was happy to do just that. An under-rated film, which offers well-made entertainment.

Friday 8 August 2014

Forgotten Book - He Could Not Have Slipped

He Could Not Have Slipped, my Forgotten Book for today by Francis Beeding, has one of those titles that you simply don't come across these days.It's an odd one, and cunningly chosen. At first, the reader thinks its meaning is obvious. But there is more to the title than meets the eye, and although this book is not quite at the same level of excellence as classics like Death Walks in Eastrepps, and The Norwich Victims, it is still very readable and displays the qualities of plotting and sound, thoughtful writing that made Beeding's name notable in the Thirties.

The Beeding name concealed the identities of two friends who worked together for the League of Nations, and their inside knowledge of the League's workings (and, they make very clear, shortcomings) is put to very good use in this story. They also combine aspects of the thriller with a neat whodunit mystery, and although I'm less familiar with their thrillers, since my Golden Age preference is for whodunits, this book tempts me to give more of them a try.

The Geneva setting is conveyed with conviction, and Beeding manages to introduce into a story of international crime Inspector George Martin, who appeared in The Norwich Victims and No Fury, another story I enjoyed. There is also a neat spin on the idea of the altruistic crime, much canvassed by writers of the Golden Age. A likeable, well-intentioned man who has devoted his life to looking after refugees become frustrated by the League's weakness. This leads him into a criminal conspiracy, and the misadventures of a co-conspirator who happens to be a dodgy lawyer (yes, they do exist) result in murder. But there is more to this story than at first meets the eye.

I really like the way Beeding made a number of sharp political points without becoming heavy-handed or didactic. This book dates from 1939,and it seems clear to me that the co-authors were deeply concerned about the League's weakness in the face of tyranny. But their main concern, quite properly in a book of this kind, was to entertain, and they succeeded. Yes, the central trick is not terribly difficult to fathom out, but it is handled with elegant economy. All in all, a little-known title that deserves to be resurrected.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Free Sherlock

For several years, Leslie S. Klinger's gorgeously produced three volumes of annotated Sherlock Holmes stories have occupied a prominent place in my library. They are wonderful books, the work of someone who loves Holmes, and knows the great detective's world inside out. Recently I became aware that Leslie is not only a fellow devotee of Sherlock, but also a fellow lawyer. And he has performed a great service to detective fiction fans, which has attracted heavy coverage both in the US and now on the BBC.

I recommend detective story fans, even those who have no time for the law, to read the court judgment to which the BBC story links. It's more readable than you may expect! The court launches an extraordinarily powerful and scathing attack on the case put on behalf of the Conan Doyle estate. Conversely, Les Klinger's courageous stance is lauded, and in my opinion rightly so. In following this litigation, I've become aware of his excellent Free Sherlock site, which I strongly recommend.

It's clear to me that Les Klinger is highly and properly respectful of the rights of authors, certainly including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and indeed their heirs. Me too - in fact, I very much enjoy meeting the families of writers of the past, and I'd love to chat to members of Conan Doyle's remarkable family. I'm sure they are proud of their heritage and would wish to be seen to be doing the right thing. Copyright is hugely important - creative people deserve to be rewarded for what they have created - although applying the law in practice is complicated and confusing, even if you have legal knowledge.

But there has to be balance, common sense and a degree of fairness and decency in all this. The rights of today's authors are also very important, and the kind of tactics attacked by the court are alarming. As for the claim in a press release that the ruling "reduces the incentive for authors to create great literature by cutting short the value of copyrights protecting two of the world’s great characters",.  words fail me. Sir Arthur, a doughty campaigner against injustice, must be turning in his grave. One can only hope - without being confident - that the message of this judgment is heeded by everyone. I also hope that the power of social media - I heard Jimmy Wales of Wikpedia discussing it very interestingly on the radio yesterday - operates so as to deter inappropriate behaviour in the future.

I have a twofold interest in all this. First, as a lifelong Sherlock fan, I don't want the world to be denied new Sherlock Holmes stories for no good reason. Of course, some of those stories won't be up to much, but it's for readers to decide what is worth reading, and they shouldn't be prevented from making up their own minds Nor should the authors of those stories be subjected to unfair pressure or inappropriate financial demands. Second, my own book of new(ish) stories, plus a few essays, about Sherlock is now to be found on Amazon again. I'm rather proud of The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and of the enthusiasm with which  Sherlockians have responded to it. Thanks to Les Klinger's selfless campaigning, I am glad that readers who want to take a look at what I've done are able to do so.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Top Ten Obscure Golden Age novels that deserve to be better known

Following on from last week's post, here's an admittedly idiosyncratic list of obscure Golden Age novels that are fairly hard to find (at the moment) but which in my opinion deserve to be more widely known. One thing that most of them have in common is that they are unorthodox - the books by Connington and Bowers are the only really conventional ones of the type people associate with the Golden Age. I suppose I'm making the point that the Golden Age was more varied than many people believe...

10. Death Has a Past by Anita Boutell. This variant of the "whowasdunin" is set in England but written by a very talented American. What a shame her career was so short.

9. Nightmare by Lynn Brock. An odd book, quite different from his convoluted mysteries starring Colonal Gore, and an ambitious study in psychology. A downbest ending is a flaw, but it's a very interesting book.

8. Poison in the Parish by Milward Kennedy. Kennedy was influenced by Anthony Berkeley, and was almost equally innovative, although not with the same degree of success. This is a fascinating and original spin on the village mystery which deserves to be much better known.

7. No Walls of Jasper by Joanna Cannan. This is a very impressive piece of work, so good that I felt quite distraught when I read the same author's more orthodox novel The Body in the Beck, and found it tedious. But at her best, she really could write. This book is somewhat in the Francis Iles vein, but quite distinctive. It just pushed out of the list Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith, which I also recommend.

6. The Divison Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson. This was the solo detective effort of "Red Ellen", the left wing Labour MP who was a prime mover in the Jarrow Crusade. The House of Commons setting is very well evoked, and the book is free of didacticism. The plot is so-so, but never mind, the story is very readable.

5. The Sweepstake Murder by J.J. Connington. This is a really clever and enthralling story, a fresh take on the "who will be next?" theme that makes And Then There Were None so irresistible.

4. The Grindle Nightmare by Q.Patrick. A very clever mystery with a great US setting and an astonishingly dark storyline. An unforgettable book. I'm very much indebted to John Norris for supplying me with a copy.

3. Middle-Class Murder by Bruce Hamilton. Brother of the better known Patrick, Bruce wrote a few extremely interesting novels. This is very much in the Francis Iles tradition, and is really well done.

2. As for the Woman by Francis Iles. This book was a commercial failure, and marked the end of the novel-writing career of Anthony Berkeley, aka Francis Iles. Hardly anyone seems to like it. So why do I rate it? Because it's an intriguing and unusual novel, which repays careful study. More on this topic in the future.

1. A Deed Without a Name by Dorothy Bowers. My choice of this as number one is, I readily admit, partly influenced by sentiment, but it would be a grim world if there were no place for a bit of sentiment every now and then. It's a nicely clued whodunit of real merit, by a writer of genuine ability and it evokes the "phoney war" nicely. Yes, it is not perfect, but I think it's utterly heartbreaking that Bowers died of TB months after being invited to join the Detection Club and at a time when she hoped her life was changing for the better. Had she lived, I'm confident she would have become a major star. And the good news is, this book is the easiest to find of those on this list. It was reprinted by the splendid Rue Morgue Press a few years ago.

Monday 4 August 2014

Called to the Bar

"I hereby call you to the Bar and do publish you barrister."

I've often been called to the bar, but not in the legal sense. I've spent more years than I care to remember as a solicitor, and wrote eight books about a solicitor detective, but of late I've become more and more interested in the lives of barristers - those lawyers who really are Called to the Bar. I'm often asked, mainly but not only by friends from outside Britain, what the difference is between barristers and solicitors, and it's fair to say that the distinction is less significant than it used to be. But barristers do have certain monopolies - only they can appear as advocates in the higher courts, for instance.

Each barrister is a member of one of the four Inns of Court based in central London, and although some are employed, e.g. by the government, the majority are self-employed. They usually work in 'chambers' or  'sets' of barristers, with clerks acting as the link between them and their clients (who are usually, but nowadays not always, firms of solicitors, who instruct barristers to advise their clients, for instance on complex issues or in some court cases.) Barristers are much less numerous than solicitors, though the numbers of both have increased in recent years.Some, but not all, of the most eminent and senior barristers apply to "take silk",and the candidates who are chosen become Queen's Counsel, sometimes known as "leaders"..

I've featured barristers in minor roles in some of my Harry Devlin books - notably Suspicious Minds. But the best crime novels about barristers that spring to mind are Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare, which introduced Francis Pettigrew, a barrister who became one of the most appealing amateur sleuths in a short run of books, A Certain Justice by P.D. James, which was marked by the author's characteristic in-depth research (though one barrister friend who admired the book told me she greatly over-estimated the attraction of being a head of chambers!) and the series by Sarah Caudwell which began with Thus Was Adonis Murdered. I really ought to re-read Sarah's books sometime soon - they are great fun. Significantly, both Hare and Sarah were barristers themselves. Theirs is quite a mysterious world, and it's easy to be baffled by it. You need inside knowledge to get barristers right, and even fine writers can find this a major challenge (the clueless defence barrister in Jimmy McGovern's otherwise powerful TV drama Joint Enterprise springs to mind)

My webmaster's journey to becoming a barrister has, however, meant that I've become quite deeply interested in the world of the Bar, and last week I had the great pleasure and privilege of attending his call to the Bar ceremony in Gray's Inn, an ancient ritual which took place on a glorious day in delightful and very historic surroundings, and which was followed by a lavish reception. with... yes, a well-stocked bar.

In my younger days, I was never one for ceremonies, and I even skived out of my own admission as a solicitor ceremony, partly through lack of money, but also partly because it didn't mean a great deal to me. Suffice to say that my views on this, as on much else, have shifted over the years, and I was fascinated to gain first hand insight into a tradition that is just as fantastic and memorable as a graduation in the Sheldonian Theatre. Reflecting on my delighted reaction to the occasion, I suppose I've become more and more attracted by history, and by the chance of taking part in things, as the years have passed.

So am I tempted to write a story or two about barristers? How did you guess?

Sunday 3 August 2014

This and That

I'm still in the process of getting accustomed to a life that does not revolve mainly around office work and interminable commutes, but so far, so good. I'm trying to fit in a mix of experiences as well as getting some writing done. The current (seventh) Lake District Mystery is not too far from completion, after various interruptions. I hope to complete the first draft this month, though there will be some revision after that. But it's feeling good at the moment, which isn't always the case at this stage of a new book.

I'm grateful to Christine Poulson for interviewing me on her blog, and I certainly endorse what she says about the convivial nature of people in the crime writing world. On that subject, I enjoyed a barbecue yesterday with a mutual friend of Chrissie and myself, Kate Ellis. The weather was dreadful, but we all had a really good time.

I've rarely tackled the subject of art in my books, but it does fascinate me, and the other day I had a look at the Piet Mondrian exhibition in the Tate, Liverpool, and can recommend it. Various exhibits from the Liverpool Biennial are also on display at the Tate: more of a mixed bag than the Mondrian, perhaps, but certainly interesting. Music is something I enjoy even more than art, and on Saturday evening, I had what may be my last chance to watch Burt Bacharach live in concert, and he was, as ever, superb. This review gives a flavour of a truly memorable evening. Finally, a few days ago, I was thrilled to take part in a memorable event with appeal from both a family and historic perspective. More of this tomorrow.

Apart from these fun activities, I'm also heavily engaged at present on a range of other crime writing projects. More details about these soon. At this stage, I can say that one relates to Dorothy L. Sayers, author of one of the top ten favourite Golden Age books I mentioned the other day. As Daniel's comment on my post indicates, her wriitng can provoke strong reactions, both positive and negative. Overall, though, I'm very much an admirer of her work. She was very self-critical, and it's true that most of her books display flaws, as she realised herself. But she was trying to do something bold and different with the detective story, and I think her influence on the genre remains evident, and positive, to this day. 

Saturday 2 August 2014

James Melville and CADS 68

The latest issue of CADS, the 68th instalment of this "irregular magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective fiction" has just arrived, and is full of good reading. I was sorry, however, to read about the death of James Melville earlier this year - I'd completely missed the announcements that appeared; here is anobituary by his sons which appeared in The Guardian - under his real name of Peter Martin.

As his sons rightly say, James (as I continue to think of him) enjoyed CWA events, and I met him and his partner Carole on a number of occasions. He was intelligent, amusing and genial company, and he also wrote very well. The Otani books were crisp and entertaining and made excellent use of his knowledge of Japan and the Japanese way of life. He was also a reviewer, and I was one of many younger writers who benefited from his generosity and his willingness to cover books that were not necessarily destined to be best-sellers. I shall remember him fondly.

Apart from this sad news, there are many good things to be found in CADS 68, as usual. Malcolm J. Turnbull, author of a very interesting book about Anthony Berkeley, Elusion Aforethought, contributes an excellent study of two books, one by Berkeley and one by John Dickson Carr, which are linked by the same Piccadilly hotel. Other highlights included J.F. Norris's piece on Kathleen Moore Knight and Barry Pike's continuing detailed survey of the Reggie Fortune short stories.

One of great merits of articles that appear in CADS, or other crime fiction reference publications, is that they send you hunting for books you've never read (often, books you've never even heard of). This was one of the reasons why Julian Symons' Bloody Murder remains my favourite book about the genre; although it's not a long book, it introduced me to many wonderful novels - only yesterday, for instance, I mentioned Sudden Death. Some of Julian's more sweeping generalisations in Bloody Murder get a bit of a critical kicking from time to time by other commentators, including me, but his book remains a masterpiece of its kind, setting a standard of lucidity, wit, knowledge and flair that hardly anyone else has ever matched.

I've never heard of Michael Keyes, or his solitary crime novel from the Golden Age, but Margaret Cooper's short piece about it makes me want to read it. Similarly, there is a characteristically well researched article by Curtis Evans about Anthony Rolls' early books that makes me determined to track down a couple I haven't read. Rolls was a pen-name sometimes used by C.E. Vulliamy, and what  pleases me in particular (given that Curt's taste in mysteries and mine quite often coincide) is the discovery that some of the titles I have yet to find sound as though they really will justify the search.

Friday 1 August 2014

Bargain Corner!

I've been lucky enough to be "featured author" on the Crime Readers' Association site this past month. The CRA is an initiative of the CWA,which is expanding its activities in a variety of ways that will, I am sure, be of benefit to crime fans, whatever their particular tastes in the genre.

To celebrate, my UK publishers Allison & Busby are giving away five copies of The Coffin Trail, the first of the Lake District Mysteries to UK based readers. The details are here. And for those who develop a taste for the Lakes books as a result, The Frozen Shroud is still available in the Amazon Summer Sale at just 99p for the Kindle version.

Forgotten Book - Sudden Death

Exceptionally, my Forgotten Book for today is a nineteenth century crime novel written by a baron, no less, who, for unexplained reasons, never revisited the genre. The author is B.C. Skottowe, and the book is Sudden Death, which has the splendid sub-title My Lady the Wolf. Britiffe Constable (what wonderful forenames!) Skottowe was born in 1857 and died in 1925, a year before the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sudden Death was first published in 1886, the year before Sherlock Holmes made his debut, so Skottowe certainly ranks as one of our earliest crime writers and was a young man when he wrote this one. And in fact, there is a kind of youthful gusto about the story, which helps to overcome the plausibility deficit. Skottowe was educated at New College, Oxford, and had wide-ranging interests (one of his books was A Short History of Parliament), but sadly, I don't know a great deal more about him.

I first heard about the book when I read Julian Symons' marvellous Bloody Murder. Symons described the book as a particular curiosity, but unfortunately explained why this was so by summarising the story, including the solution. I shall avoid a similar spoiler here. Yet despite knowing the plot, I have wanted to read this book ever since I read what Symons said about it. Unfortunately, the book is pretty rare, and I've only just tracked down a copy.

The story is told by Jack Buchanan, a wealthy young man, who witnesses a murder committed on  a cliff top by a mysterious woman. She escapes and cannot be traced. Three years later, Jack is spending time in Homburg with a group of equally well-off acquaintances when another murder occurs and the prime suspect - yes! - bears an uncanny resemblance to the cliff top killer. The plot thickens from there.

The prose and literary style of Sudden Death may be quite decorous (if sometimes over the top by modern standards) but the story is really all about sex and sexual ambiguity. It's a strange, uneven story, yet still very readable,and I'm really glad that my long search for it has borne fruit. Symons was right, it is a curiosity. Yes, it's the work of a youthful and inexperienced writer, rather than a mature novelist, but to anyone with a strong interest in Victorian crime fiction, I'd say it is a must-read, not least because of its historical significance. It's a real shame, and also a mystery, that Skottowe never returned to the genre. I can't summon up the same enthusiasm for his history of Parliament.