Thursday 31 December 2015

2015: The Publications

In 2015, I published a non-fiction book, a novel, four anthologies and three short stories, as well as introducing a raft of classic crime novels. Quite a year, then. But of course, the appearance of so many books so quickly is partly due to coincidence. I've been working on one of them in particular for a very long time. In May, The Golden Age of Murder, the product of so many years of reading and research (and indeed writing) finally made an appearance. I'd spent most of those years expecting it would be published by a small press, and reaching a modest readership. It felt like a niche project, not exactly self-indulgent,,perhaps, but not like a book of mass appeal. Yet it has proved, in terms of hardback sales and the number and quality of reviews, to be the most successful book I've ever written. I never anticipated this, but I'm very, very happy about it.

I've tried to analyse why it's happened, and the reviews (nearly one hundred of them now: incredible) do supply a few clues. I suppose the answer is something to do with a revival of interest in classic crime, and something to do with the fact that, whatever else may be said about it, The Golden Age of Murder is an unusual and idiosyncratic book. Yes, it's non-fiction, but there is a lot of me (or rather, what fascinates me) in it, and this has proved to be less of a disadvantage than I might have thought. What I'm really pleased about is the breadth of the book's appeal - not just to died-in-the-wool Golden Age fans, but all sorts of readers and reviewers, and indeed a surprising number of contemporary writers, some of whom have been so kind as to send me personal messages which usually include the phrase "I never knew that..."

The Dungeon House, sixth of the Lake District Mysteries, appeared more recently, and I've been gladdened by two things. First, readers have responded well to the fact that this novel differs in some ways from earlier entries in the series. Second, my fiction seems to be reaching a wider audience than in the past. This was helped the other day by a Kindle Daily Deal on three books in the series, which saw them briefly occupying places in the top 15 Kindle bestsellers list. I'm accustomed to my novels not selling in vast numbers (to put it mildly), but things definitely seem to be moving in the right direction.

For the CWA, I put together an anthology of essays about real life crimes, Truly Criminal, published by the History Press. In comparison to my other books this year, it hasn't received widespread attention, or achieved large sales, but I feel that the quality of the contributions (three of them written by winners of the CWA Diamond Dagger) deserves to ensure its longevity. Nothing very like it has been produced for many years, and I'm hopeful that it's a book whose reputation will keep growing..

As well as introducing classic crime books published by the British Library, I've contributed intros to the welcome reprint of Hugh Conway's Called Back and also to a second Arcturus anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories. For the BL I've also edited three anthologies of short stories. Both Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder outsold any of the other anthologies I've edited - by a long way - and recently Silent Nights has become one of the most successful titles in the series. It seems already to be one of the bestselling crime anthologies published in Britain in recent decades..Something else my crystal ball never foretold...

On the short story front, I was glad to contribute to Murder Squad's Starlings (a story that was barely criminous, and influenced by my love of the work of Robert Aickman) and Maxim Jakubowski's anthologies of stories about Professor Moriarty and Jack the Ripper respectively.

So what does next year have in store? If you'd like to know, take a look at the blog tomorrow...

Wednesday 30 December 2015

2015: The Places

This past twelve months, I've visited a wonderful variety of places, near to home, and very remote, and many have had literary associations., For many years, I hardly travelled abroad, but I've more than made up for that in recent times. It remains the case, however, that I love Britain, and exploring places that are relatively close at hand. A prime example came with a trip to Burgh Island in September. It was great fun to follow in Agatha Christie's footsteps: Burgh is not only the place that inspired the setting for Evil under the Sun, and probably also And Then There Were None, but a magical spot in its own right. The fact that my visit coincided with warnings of a tropical storm which cut us off from the mainland only added to the atmosphere...

You could say something similar about Piel Island (above), off the Cumbrian coast. No murder story has yet been set there - but the operational word there is 'yet'...A boat trip out there, courtesy of the King of Piel, was a great experience. Again there was a risk of being stranded on the island, but this time it didn't materialise. I went to Piel as part of my Lake District research for the next book. Other destinations included Silloth, visited on a beautiful afternoon, with great views over the Solway Firth, and that's another location I mean to use in fiction before long.

In fact, travel is, I find, a great way of getting story ideas. I suppose it's because of the exposure to a wider range of ways of life. I don't actually do any writing whilst on my travels. Rather, I take notes of all manner of things that strike me as interesting. This year there was an island theme to many of my trips. The most amazing destination was Easter Island, somewhere I've been fascinated about since I read Thor Heyerdahl's Aku Aku as a young boy. Heyerdahl's theories about the islanders' origins are now outdated, but his book fired my interest in the unique history of Rapa Nui. There's always a danger that some destinations may not live up to expectations, but that was never a possibility with this wonderful place.

The journey was so long that the travel agent persuaded me that it made sense to combine it with a look at South America. Good advice - I'd never had such a burning desire to visit Chile or Peru, but they turned out to be marvellous destinations. Not just Machu Picchu, but also places like Cuzco, Valparaiso and the Atacama Desert. Unforgettable. And two of them are likely to feature in my fiction before long. Whilst in Valparaiso, I visited the home of Pablo Neruda, and was delighted to discover in his personal library copies of a stack of Golden  Age paperbacks - including Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley, and titles by the likes of Michael Innes and Q. Patrick.

A week's cruise around islands of the West Indies was a more recent treat. Pick of the bunch was Bequia in the Grenadines, closely followed by St Lucia. but each island has its own distinctive nature and plenty to offer. Dominica is an example. It was the birthplace of the late Jean Rhys, and I've just finished reading The Wide Sargasso Sea, which was a Christmas present (yep, I do sometimes get away from crime fiction, believe it or not!) I'd not read Rhys before, but hers was an extraordinary life, and there is something quite compelling about her prose. This book is regarded as her masterpiece, but I'm certainly tempted to read more of her work.

Somehow this year I managed to spend my birthday sailing on a pirate ship in the harbour of Scarborough, North Yorkshire (last of the above photos), and then, four month later, travel to another port called Scarborough - in Tobago (next to last photo). No prizes for guessing which was slightly warmer, but the Yorkshire resort will always be one of my favourites: it has rather more to offer than endless sunshine..

Back in Europe, I managed to see plenty of new places, including Sintra, Porto, Coimbra, Lamego, and the fabulous River Douro in Portugal, Salamanca, Madrid and Toledo in Spain, and the charming and under-estimated Ghent.

I travelled to Ghent by Eurostar, something made easier by the location of my son's flat within walking distance of St Pancras. I've spent much more time in London (below photo) than before, and this has given me a chance not only to meet up with more people, but also to see some of the never-ending exhibitions, including the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library, and the intriguing cartoons at the Cartoon Museum, as well as places like Tate Modern and the NPG. The recent Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the BL was definitely worth a look. I'm an Alice fan, and Daresbury, where Lewis Carroll spent much of his early life (hence the 'Cheshire Cat') is just down the road from where I live.

It's impossible to do everything that one would like to do in life. One can't read every book, or visit every resort. All the same, I've been lucky this past twelve months to have had the good health and the time to see at least some of the marvellous places the world has to offer..


Tuesday 29 December 2015

2015 - The People

A crime writing friend sent me an email the other day in which she said that 2015 had, for me, been something of an annus mirabilis. Shortly afterwards, a second email from another friend said exactly the same thing. Well, each year has its ups and downs, but they are right; I'll be very lucky indeed if any other twelve month period matches this one for pleasurable experiences. Over the next three days I'll reflect on the people, places and publications that have made this year such a special one for me, and it seems right to start with what always matters most - people.

In 2015, I was doubly honoured. Members of the Detection Club elected me as their President, and I owe them a great debt. Above all, I'm grateful to Simon Brett, the outgoing President, who has given me tremendous support. My number one aim is to make sure that the Club continues to flourish, and I have plenty of ideas about how to achieve that. One great pleasure has been taking part in meetings with those Club members who have been co-writing The Sinking Admiral, due to be published next year. Most of the meetings took place in London hostelries, but Simon also organised an unforgettable Whodunit Dinner at the Groucho Club (above photo) when we figured out the solution to our own mystery.

This year I was also elected Vice Chair of the Crime Writers' Association, during an excellent conference in Lincoln. Among those present at Lincoln was Tim Heald, who unfortunately is in very poor health these days. I asked if he thought he'd be able to make it to the Detection Club dinner later in the year, and he said he doubted it - but with a characteristic grin, added: "But I'll be there in spirit." He certainly was. I've enjoyed working with the excellent CWA committee led by Len Tyler - who happens to be one of the contributors to The Sinking Admiral.

Two lunches stand out in my memory because they were spent in the company of two men I admired as a teenager and have continued to admire ever since. The legendary Len Deighton invited me to Koffman's, and treated me to three hours of fascinating anecdotes about his life and career. Incredibly kind and truly unforgettable. The photo above shows Len in the process of inscribing his first four books to me. Peter Gibbs, playwright, novelist, and former Derbyshire cricketer took me to Vincent's Club in Oxford, and we spent the day together, revisiting  old haunts. I also had the pleasure of meeting for the first time Simon Curtis, director of My Week with Marilyn, who invited me for coffee at the Ivy Club - my first visit there - and a chat about Golden Age books..

I work with several lovely publishers, and two of my editors, David Brawn of Harper Collins, and Rob Davies of the British Library, took part in the Bodies in the Library conference in June. Jake Kerridge interviewed me about the Golden Age, and Simon and I talked about the Detection Club. The event provided a great opportunity to meet several readers of this blog for the very first time, something I really enjoyed. There are many other readers whom I only know through comments and emails, but I hope that in the coming year, I'll have the chance to get to meet more of you in person.

I took part in panels at Crimefest and the Harrogate Festival alongside such luminaries as Andrew Taylor, John Harvey, Peter James, and Peter Swanson, and got to hang out with some delightful folk, including James Runcie, whose Grantchester novels have been such a hit. The photo above is of a memorable dinner with Catherine Aird, who won this year's CWA Diamond Dagger.

Malice Domestic in Washington DC was terrific. I interviewed Ann Cleeves, the international guest of honour, appeared on a Golden Age panel moderated by Doug Greene, and generally had a great time. All being well, I'll be back there in 2016. I also took part in crime festivals closer to home, in Liverpool, Northwich, and Knutsford, as well as those in Carlisle and Torquay, the latter for the Agatha Christie Festival. I appeared on Sunday Brunch, Radio 4's Open Book  and (believe it or not) a Japanese documentary about Agatha Christie, as well as having the pleasure of watching my Harry Devlin books feature on BBC's Mastermind.

Murder Squad continues to thrive, and we got together at Carlisle in the early summer (above photo) before launching our collection of stories, Starlings, which is edited by Ann, in  Wrexham. Mrs Edwards contributed a story to that book and I hope she can be tempted to do more writing next year. The fact that I'm now only a part-time lawyer also gave me the chance to catch up with some mates from university and school days as well as some much newer friends.

I met - at long last - Roberto and Davide, two Italians with whom I've been in touch for many years, at the Burt Bacharach concert at the Royal Festival Hall in summer (photos below), found that the former owners of my son's London flat, Elaine and English Showalter, are not only distinguished academics but charming dinner companions, and over a pint in a London bar I learned a bit about Austrian academe from a professor I'd first met on a trip around Easter Island, It's always easy to put this kind of socialising with civilised companions off to some unspecified date in the future - but it's so much more enjoyable if you don't. None of us know what is round the corner. Might as well make the most of life right now.

Saturday 26 December 2015

And Then There Were None - BBC 1 TV review

And Then There Were None is the finest of all Golden Age detective stories in my opinion- never mind that it lacks a great detective in the mould of Poirot or Marple. Agatha Christie wrote plenty of fine crime stories, but this has been my favourite since I first read it at a tender age. So the question I asked myself when anticipating this evening's first episode of the BBC TV three-part adaptation by Sarah Phelps was - would the TV version do the book justice?

There's been a lot of cunningly contrived publicity in the run-up to this showing which has been designed to generate interest. It has been suggested that Phelps was modernising the story in an inappropriate way, by introducing drug-taking, bad language, and other terribly topical features. Phelps, we were told, had never read any Christie before taking on the task of writing the script. I was rather sceptical about whether the script would prove as shocking as was implied. If you've ever read much Agatha Christie, you will know, for instance, that drug-taking crops up in a good many of her stories. And I devoted a good slice of The Golden Age of Murder to explaining why the perception that Christie's work is "cosy" is  feebly inadequate.

The early scenes, which set up the complex mystery, were well done, I thought. This was probably where a less accomplished screenwriter would have found it easiest to mess up. The book supplies plot, dialogue and characters aplenty, but the challenge of creating the right mood at the outset was an important test, and I felt Phelps passed it with flying colours.From then on, the excellent cast, did the work of keeping me glued to the screen. The filming hasn't been done, as far as I can tell, on Christie's beloved Burgh Island, but I kept thinking back to my own trip to Burgh in September, and my brief experience of being cut off from the mainland for a while, due to the heavy seas....

Phelps has quite an interesting approach to pacing the plot developments, and as I'm starting to study the art of scriptwriting myself, it's helpful to see how an expert does it. Charles Dance, Miranda Richardson, Aidan Turner and Maeve Dermody (who was excellent in the key role of Vera) were all particularly good, while Noah Taylor and Anna Maxwell Martin made splendidly creepy servants. Two members of the cast have met untimely ends so far. The body count will continue to mount tomorrow night. And I will definitely be watching.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Forgotten Book - Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper

In my last post before Christmas, I'd like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy and peaceful time over the festive season. Thanks for all your feedback; it's always good to hear from you, and I've learned a lot from people who have taken the trouble to get in touch. Today's blog is a case in point, as a correspondent has greatly increased my knowledge and understanding of a writer who has long intrigued me.

Donald Henderson died young in 1947, just three years after the publication of Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper. It's his most famous book, thanks to words of admiration from Raymond Chandler, which prompted me to search it out many moons ago. I re-read it recently, and for me, it has much the same darkness as Patrick Hamilton's better-known Hangover Square, but it's nevertheless distinctive. Sensibly, Henderson kept the book short - a greater contrast from Georgette Heyer's over-long Penhallow, discussed here yesterday, would be hard to imagine.

We know from the outset that William Bowling, public school educated and superficially charming, is a murderer. Henderson conveys with economy and skill a rather complex psychological profile, and we follow Bowling as he moves from one more or less motiveless crime to another. It makes for chilling and compelling reading. Very different from Chandler's style, but you can see why the great man was taken with it.

The title, seemingly innocuous, is rather creepy. Mr Bowling buys the newspapers only to find out what the latest is on the murder he's committed. He is skilled in getting away with murder without really trying. This is a dark and ironic book, and there are echoes of Francis Iles as well as of Hamilton. I don't claim that Henderson was as good a writer as that pair, but perhaps had he lived longer, he would have achieved a great deal more.

Henderson was an interesting chap, and I'm indebted to Paul T. Harding, who has researched his life over a good many years, and presented his archive to the University of Reading, for giving me fresh information about him, as well as the chance to read autobiographical material that has aided my understanding of him as a writer. Henderson's other major book is Goodbye to Murder, which was published in a Pan paperback edition, but his earlier crime novels, such as Murderer at Large, are very obscure. Both Paul and I hope to have more to say about Henderson in the future.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Forgotten Book - Penhallow

There are two writers, long popular with many readers, for whose mystery novels I have always had a blind spot. One is Patricia Wentworth, the other is Georgette Heyer. I can't summon up much enthusiasm for Wentworth's Miss Silver, I'm sorry to say,, and I've stared Heyer novels more than once, only to give up at an early stage. But several people whose judgement I respect rate both these writers highly. I therefore resolved to try again, and so I read Heyer's Penhallow from start to finish.

It's a country house story. Old man Penhallow rules his family with a rod of iron, and what is worse,his extravagance means that the estate risks running out of money. He's a nasty piece of work, the old chap, someone who takes pleasure in hurting people, not least his much younger wife. He likes having staff and family members at his beck and call. A character who rejoices in the name of Jimmy the Bastard is both a servant and an illegitimate child; and it turns out that Jimmy is not the only person in the family whose lack of legitimacy means he has no claim on the estate when the old tyrant's life finally (and very belatedly) comes to an end.

Heyer was a very competent writer, who retains a following, mostly for her historical romances, but also for her forays into crime. She was never much interested in the plotting of a mystery - a task generally delegated to her husband, it seems. On this occasion, he did not bother to come up with any sort of puzzle - this is one of the least mysterious of books, and the detective work is perfunctory in the extreme. .

Every now and then, a member of the family tells the others how loathsome they all are, and each time I found myself agreeing. The awfulness of Penhallow and his tribe is established early on, but this doesn't stop Heyer spending another 400 pages or so ramming home the message. To me, it felt like a wearisome, never-ending soap opera, going on and on and on and on. There's an explanation for this, according to some sources, who suggest that Heyer wrote the book with a view to escaping from her contract with her then publishers. Yet her biographer, Jennifer Kloester, provides a rather more nuanced account of the writing of the book,which indicates that Heyer was actually pretty happy with it. For the time being at least, however, she remains one of my crime fiction blind spots..  

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Forgotten Book - Paul Temple and The Front Page Men

Paul Temple and the Front Page Men is an early thriller in the famous series by Francis Durbridge. The story began life as a radio serial which was then novelised by Durbridge   It's an apprentice work, and although Durbridge never became a rival to Graham Greene as a prose stylist, his later stories naturally tend to display greater craftsmanship. But the tale is a very lively one, and it's easy to understand why pre-war audiences lapped up such unpretentious entertainment. Having heard the BBC audio version, I was delighted to come across a new reprint, part of a series being produced by Harper Collins.

A crime novel called The Front Page Men has become a great success, but there is a mystery about its pseudonymous author - who has somehow managed to keep his or her real identity secret. Something very strange happens when a crime wave - initially a series of robberies, but then kidnapping, and eventually murder - takes place. The culprits leave a calling card marked 'The Front Page Men'.

There are several plot devices of the kind that became Dubridge's hallmark. For instance, a seemingly innocuous piano tuner keeps turning up in circumstances which suggest he may be connected to the gang's activities. Might he, just possibly, be the mastermind behind the crimes? Paul Temple and his devoted wife Steve are, needless to say, the people to find out.

One of the attractions of this series of reprints is that it is allowing readers an opportunity to see how Durbridge developed as a writer. Here, there are several of his customary cliffhangers, but the connection between the calling cards and the novel was, to my mind, pretty thin. Later, with the benefit of experience, he became more adept at making the interconnections between his numerous and essentially unlikely plot strands seem substantial, as well as plausible. But this is a fun book, great escapist reading for the Christmas season.


Monday 21 December 2015

Forgotten Book - We Shot an Arrow

This has been a fantastic year for lovers of Forgotten Books; so many long-lost titles are now readily available, and I'm sure next year will see the return of many more. To celebrate, this week I'm going to highlight a Forgotten Book on each of the next four days in the run-up to Christmas, starting with one that's very obscure, but certainly of interest.

We Shot an Arrow, first published in 1939, is the work of writing duo George Goodchild and Carl Bechhofer Roberts. I have covered a couple of their books here previously, The Jury Disagree and Tidings of Joy,but I was particularly interested in this one, as it boasts one feature that is, as far as I know, unique. It's a book by two writers who play the detective - under their own names - in the story.

The story begins with Goodchild and Roberts debating the subject matter of their next novel, and taking a trip to a small town where a by-election is taking place. Roberts knows the Conservative candidate slightly, and is aware that he's a rather unpleasant character. His Labour rival seems little better. When the Tory is found dead in his bath, the death is determined to have been an accident, and the Labour man, Vansittart, becomes the town's M.P. But his success is short-lived. Soon he, too, dies in his bath....

This is an unusual novel with an odd confection of ingredients: archery, golf, politics and the by-play between the writer-protagonists. The events coincide with Neville Chamberlain's "peace pact" at Munich, and this provokes a lot of discussion. Rather too much to enable tension to be maintained, I'd say. The political background is certainly of interest,but the plot is relatively slight.

I was hoping to learn more about the authors from their self-portraits, and one poignant element of the story is that Carl Roberts talks about a near-fatal car accident in which he'd been involved in France, which provided plot material for Tidings of Joy. A scene involving a car plays an important part in the unravelling of the mystery - and these passages take on a very melancholy character once one learns that Roberts was killed in a car crash, at the age of 55 in 1949. A tragic end to a busy and fascinating life.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Blue Serge

"Blue Serge" is a new short story of mine, which has just appeared in an anthology compiled by the tireless Maxim Jakubowski. The title of the collection, published by Robinson, is The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, and the numerous other contributors include Barbara Nadel, Peter Guttridge, and Michael Gregoriou.

My story has a connection with a real life case other than the Ripper murders - the almost equally famous case of Hawley Harvey Crippen, and features one of the leading characters from the Crippen case. I've long been intrigued by both cases, and I really enjoyed writing this particular story.

I tried to stick to the facts of the Ripper case so far as they are known, but in an afterword to the story, I explain that the part of it which pins villainy on a particular person is very much the product of my imagination. That individual is long gone, and I don't think anyone would have a moment's doubt that this is a work of fiction, solely intended to entertain. I'm conscious, however, that stories often represent long-dead people as misbehaving in all sorts of ways which have in fact been invented. To my mind, it's important to spell out the fact that they have been invented. Otherwise - especially in film screenplays which claim to be faithful to the facts, but which actually take liberties with them -  reputations can be posthumously damaged without cause.

My thanks go to Maxim Jakubowski, who has edited a great many anthologies and included stories written by me in quite a number of them. Unless you've edited an anthology yourself, you tend to under-estimate how much hard work is involved. I take my hat off to the likes of Maxim and Mike Ashley, and in the US Otto Penzler, who have produced so many anthologies of such high calibre. Long may they continue to do so.

Friday 18 December 2015

Forgotten Book - Something Like a Love Affair

Something Like a Love Affair was published in 1992, and not long after it came out, I seized the chance to ask its author, Julian Symons, to inscribe my copy. Under the inscription, in his tiny, immaculate handwriting, he wrote "A good title?" and then, under that, "A good book??" The title is not, I think, anything special, but the book is certainly a good one. It does, however, qualify for the description "forgotten". I've seen very little discussion of it anywhere.

In fact, I enjoyed re-reading Something Like a Love Affair even more than I enjoyed the story the first time around. One of the reasons is that now I can see more clearly than I saw then what he was aiming for, a fresh spin on a device introduced (unless there's an earlier example of which I'm unaware) by an author whom Julian and I both admired - Anthony Berkeley. It's a form of "whowasdunin" story. There are a few poorish reviews of this book online, but I take a different view: it offers a nice example of storytelling technique from a very talented novelist.

We know from the outset that the police have discovered a body, but we don't know whose body it is. The action then goes back a short distance in time, and we are introduced to Judith Lassiter. On the surface she has a lot to be thankful for: she is attractive, well-off,and has a doting husband. But she isn't happy, and as the story unfolds, we begin to understand why.

As in a number of his books, Symons combines a portrayal of mental disintegration with a cunningly plotted mystery. Nowadays, his fiction is much less renowned than that of his friend Patricia Highsmith, but I see quite a few similarities between what they were trying to do with the post-war crime novel. Highsmith was the superior literary stylist, but Symons' plots were cleverer. I've always thought it a paradox that it was she and not he who wrote a book about plotting suspense fiction. But much as I relished Something Like a Love Affair, I was struck by a passage which quotes from the day's newspaper headlines: trouble in the Middle East and global warming were major concerns then, just as they are today. As for the question marks.after "A good book", they indicate the modesty of the man. He judged his own work by exacting standards, but I think he was pleased with this one and I'd be pleased to have written it too.  

Thursday 17 December 2015

Peter Dickinson R.I.P.

Peter Dickinson, who died yesterday on his 88tj birthday, has been a doyen of the crime writing world for decades. He was, for instance, elected to membership of the Detection Club as long ago as 1969. His literary achievements span a wide range, but I'm familiar with his crime stories, which achieved great distinction.

His first two crime novels, Skin Deep and A Pride of Heroes, both won the CWA Gold Dagger - a remarkable feat. These highly original stories introduced a cop called Jimmy Pibble, who became a series character, appearing in half a dozen novels. His stand-alone crime novels demonstrated the same inventiveness. I haven't read them all, but of those I do know, The Yellow Room Conspiracy (1992) is probably my favourite.

I heard Peter Dickinson speak about the genre once at a Bouchercon, and he was as erudite as you'd expect from an Eton and Cambridge man, but he was also extremely perceptive and interesting. The genre has lost a major talent.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Conspiracy Theory - film review

Just before I turn to today's review, some readers may like to know that Amazon UK are featuring no fewer than three of my Lake District mysteries as Daily Deals - got to be  a snip at 99 p each!

Conspiracy Theory is a blockbuster of a thriller, first screened in 1997. I watched it not long after its release, and felt that its premise was brilliant, although the way it was developed was competent rather than outstanding. On a second viewing, I didn't revise that verdict. It's still very watchable, not least because it boasts Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts and Patrick Stewart in the lead roles. But perhaps it doesn't exploit to the full the potential of the concept at its heart.

Jerry Fletcher (Gibson) is a paranoid yellow cab driver who treats his passengers to an endless stream of conspiracy theories which suggest that he's deeply disturbed. He is obsessed with a lawyer who works for the Justice Department (Roberts), who treats him gently, but shares the general; view that he is deluded.

But then someone seems to become worried about what Jerry is saying. Could it be that he's stumbled on to something serious that the Establishment want to cover up? Well, the answer isn't too hard to deduce, especially when Stewart turns up, playing a rather nasty doctor.. The director, Richard  Donner, has a long track record with action movies, and some of the dramatic scenes are quite thrilling.

The complicated truth about Jerry begins to emerge, but despite the pace of the screenplay, it emerges rather too slowly, so that we are left with a series of set pieces, and a developing but unlikely relationship between Gibson and Roberts rather than something subtle and more original. I feel the result is something of a missed opportunity, but nevertheless, Conspiracy Theory ranks as satisfying light entertainment,

Monday 14 December 2015

Dead of Winter - 1987 film review

As seasonally chilly as its title suggests, Dead of Winter is a 1987 film directed by the capable Arthur Penn, who is best known for Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. It's a loose re-make of My Name is Julia Ross, which I reviewed back in January. Oddly, the earlier film is not credited. Nor is Anthony Gilbert, author of the book on which the screenplays were based. John Norris recommended the re-make, and he's a good judge of films, as he is of books Some of the Gothic touches in the later stages of the film are excessively melodramatic, but overall this is an entertaining film.

In the opening scenes, a woman is murdered, and her finger cut off, just after she has collected a large sum of money. The action then switches to the life of Katie McGovern, a struggling actress, played by Mary Steenburgen. Katie auditions for a lucrative role and makes an immediate hit with the chap doing the casting, a Mr Murray (Roddy McDowall, in one of his more eccentric roles.) He explains that an actress called Julie Rose has had a breakdown in the middle of a film, and a lookalike needs to be cast to replace her so that the movie can be completed.

On getting the part,. she finds herself driven by Murray to a remote and spooky house in a pine forest. The place belongs to a Dr Lewis, who is wheelchair-bound, and - it soon becomes apparent - not a film director at all. Katie soon realises that Lewis and Murray are lying to her and that something unpleasant has happened to Julie Rose. Can she avoid a similar fate?

I enjoyed this one, largely because I am keen on storylines based on impersonations and doppelgangers. Although the screenplay is radically different from the original Gilbert story, it offers some creepy moments and genuine excitement, as well as plenty of hokum. Roddy hams it up rather to excess, but Mary Steenburgen tackles no fewer than three roles with a good deal of panache. Definitely worth watching..

Friday 11 December 2015

Forgotten Book - The Nursing Home Murder

These are happy times for fans of Forgotten Books. There is much more interest in them now than there was a few years ago, no doubt due to the success of recent reprints. The media has cottoned on, and I've had the unfamiliar experience of talking about the Golden Age three times in the past week. Once for Channel 4 TV's Sunday Brunch - to be screened on 27 December - talking about The Golden Age of Murder, the Detection Club and Sherlock.. Once for a Japanese TV documentary, talking about Agatha Christie. And, yesterday, for Radio 4's Open Book, about Silent Nights and other Christmas mysteries. I shall never be a truly confident performer, yet these things really are fun to do - in small quantities, that is, as they are certainly time-consuming.

Now to Ngaio Marsh. She has long been regarded as one of the "Queens of Crime", and I started reading her in my teens, after I ran out of books by Christie and Sayers. I read and enjoyed quite a few of them, but a couple rather sagged in the middle,and in the last twenty-five years I've read little by Marsh. I decided it was time to give her another go, and The Nursing Home Murder, first published in 1935, is my Forgotten Book today.

According to Margaret Lewis, author of a superb biography of Marsh, this was her best-selling book, and although I've read mixed reports about this story, I enjoyed it. There was no mid-narrative sag, and on the contrary the story gained from brevity, and was crisp and uncluttered. Social conditions and preoccupations of the time feature strongly, and are integral to the plot, not mere window-dressing. Definitely a cut above most of the crime fiction being written in the mid-Thirties.

I say this even though Marsh dips a toe into politics, which is so often a mistake (although one quite often made by authors then and now.) Her treatment of political issues is extremely superficial, but not as inept as is sometimes found in Golden Age novels. Sir Derek O'Callaghan is the Home Secretary, tasked with piloting through Parliament some anti-anarchist legislation, making him a target for political assassins. He collapses with peritonitis and is rushed into a nursing home for an operation. Here he has the peculiar misfortune to be surrounded by members of a medical team who wish him ill. He meets his end as a result of a lethal dose of hyoscine.

Suspicions switches briskly from one suspect to another. This is one of those classic crime novels which focus on a single crime, but Marsh's handling of the material is assured, and my interest never flagged. Incidentally, the book was originally published under her name and that of Henry Jellett,a medical man who advised her on the technicalities of the storyline. Sad to say, my paperback edition of the novel contains no mention whatsoever of Henry. Rather a shame - he deserves credit for contributing to an enjoyable traditional mystery.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Discovering Norman Berrow

One of the happy results of publishing The Golden Age of Murder has been that I've received many fascinating messages from people with interesting stories to tell about Golden Age books and writers. Among these have been emails from Prue Mercer in New Zealand, who contacted me about Norman Berrow. I'm delighted that she has agreed to contribute a guest post telling us more about this long-neglected author: 

"I have been exploring my step grandfather Norman Berrow's writing life.  Norman Berrow was a writer of the Golden Age of detective fiction.  Between 1934 and 1957 he published 20 books.  (There was a rewrite of The Ghost House in 1978, a retirement project.) It is remarkable that he established himself in the English crime fiction market from Christchurch, New Zealand, at a time when authorship was not a vocation widely followed in New Zealand.  He achieved this through his books, his agent, the well-known Leonard Moore, and his publisher.  All but his first novel were published by Ward, Lock in London.

Berrow was born in Eastbourne, Sussex, 1 September 1902, into a British military family. His father was Garrison Adjutant in Gibraltar and the family lived there from 1920 to 1922 when his father retired and they moved to Christchurch.  He lived in Sydney from 1949 to 1975, when he retired to Christchurch.  He died there in 1986.

Berrow started writing short stories in his 20s, probably about 1924 or 1925.  In them he is experimenting - murders in rooms locked on the inside, and crooks disappearing in not so clever disguises.  His first novel The Smokers of Hashish (published by Eldon Press) was advertised in the Sunday Times (14 October 1934:12) as being about "Tangier! City of Thrills,  Danger and even Death.  Meet here Hafiz 'The Purveyor of Delights,' leader of an immense dope organisation, and Chiller, who smashed the power of the dope runners."

The book introduces plot devices and techniques Berrow repeated: locked rooms, secret passages, disguises, vanishings and vanishers, a love interest, secret agents, and a reflective narrator keen to play amateur detective with a professional.  Its atmosphere drew on Gibraltar and autobiographical elements become part of his style and inspiration.  Setting is always significant for Berrow and the influence of Gibraltar is strong in his first novels, as is Christchurch and Sydney in the later ones.

In Don't Jump Mr Boland (1954) the character Montague Belmore captures the impact of Sydney's beguiling harbour.

The blanket of fog that always lay on the harbour these mornings had cleared away, the water was as calm and clean and blue as the sky.  The oppressive humidity of summer had gone and the clear warm autumn sun was a caress.  Behind him now, on the other side of the harbour, the city basked in sunshine.
He loved the city.  It had it's faults, too many of them; it was cramped, dirty, overcrowded; it was avaricious, discourteous, rough and tough and graft-ridden; but he loved it.  He loved the world.  He loved life.

Ramble House has been publishing Berrow's work for over ten years.  In 2007 The Footprints of Satan (originally published 1950) was number one on the Honkaku Mystery Best 10, an annual mystery fiction guide to books published in Japan in the previous year."

My thanks go to Prue, and I hope to have more to say about Norman Berrow in the future.

Monday 7 December 2015

Books for Christmas

What better gift for Christmas than a book? Or preferably a number of books! I've enjoyed reading lots of different works of fiction and non-fiction this past year, and here are a few suggestions that I hope might be of interest. I make no apology for the fact that some of them are written by friends of mine; I can promise that you won't be disappointed.

On that note, I have a weakness for - amongst other things - coffee table books,and Ann Cleeves' recently published Shetland is a splendid example. Ann maintains that she isn't a non-fiction writer, rather as she maintains that she doesn't like quizzes - yet still managed to win Celebrity Mastermind. Here again, this book is a winner. Sumptuous photos accompany her  text, and remind me that Shetland's a place I really want to visit before long. I'm not entirely convinced that winter is the best time to go there,but the photos of the Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival are almost enough to make me change my mind.

Ann also edited The Starlings and other stories, a Murder Squad collection which includes stories by my wife Helena and me, and also by Kate Ellis. A book we were all proud to be part of, with lovely photos by David Wilson which inspired each of the stories. Kate's latest novels, The Death Season and Walking By Night (yes, two novels in one year) are definitely recommended. So too Peter Lovesey's Down Among the Dead Men and Sarah Ward's debut In Bitter Chill, to name just two out of a dozen or so new books that I've really enjoyed. There have also been numerous excellent books about books, and writers, and I'd like to highlight Melvyn Barnes' book about Francis Durbridge, Derek Collett's His Own Executioner (a biography of that excellent author Nigel Balchin) and Steven Powell's study of James Ellroy, And if you happen to be a cricket fan, let me again recommend Steve Dolman's biography of Edwin Smith (a blameless spin bowler whose name I once borrowed for one of my naughtier characters...)

I can't fail to mention the British Library's Crime Classics, which continue to do a roaring trade. Plenty of readers have already been tempted by my three anthologies, Capital Crimes, Resorting to Murder, and Silent Nights, and of the novels to appear in the series this year, I have a particularly soft spot for Freeman Wills Crofts' Antidote to Venom and Christopher St John Sprigg's Death of an Airman. This year also saw the publication of an anthology of true crime essays by members of the CWA, and edited by me, Truly Criminal. It's not a book that has attracted  a huge amount of attention, but there are some wonderful pieces in there, believe me. Finally, I can't complain about the attention accorded to The Golden Age of Murder, that's for sure. And Harper Collins did such a good job in terms of making an attractive book to look at and read that I am hoping it finds its way into a few Christmas stockings!

Friday 4 December 2015

Forgotten Book - Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence seems to be one of the rarest of all Golden Age novels. Its author is Robertson Halkett - a pseudonym used twice by the prolific E.R. Punshon. But although Punshon's books aren't always hard to find, his Halkett novels are rare. Where Every Prospect Pleases, which I have written about before, is elusive enough, but not even the British Library has a copy of Documentary Evidence. Until recently, Tony Medawar was the only person I knew who had read it. Find a signed copy in a nice dustjacket, and you'll find yourself something really valuable. To say that it qualifies as a Forgotten Book is an under-statement!

But the revival of interest in Golden Age mysteries has changed the picture, and earlier this year, Ramble House published a nice new edition of the book, with an intro by Gavin O'Keefe. Gavin points out that this book appeared at much the same time as the first of the crime dossiers by Dennis Wheatley and Joe Links, and a couple of similarly structured books by Harry Stephen Keeler, once one of my father's favourites, and now extensively republished by Ramble House.

This story, as the title suggests, is told through a series of documents - letters, telegrams and so on - and I suspect that Punshon was paying homage to Dorothy L. Sayers, whose The Documents in the Case appeared six years earlier. Sayers' book is under-rated, in my opinion. It's no mean feat to write an intriguing and entertaining mystery in this way. What is especially unusual about Punshon's book is that it isn't a detective story but rather a thriller, as was the other Halkett novel.

So what did I make of the book, after years spent searching for it? Well, I'm delighted that Ramble House have satisfied my curiosity about it, but I can rather understand why Punshon abandoned the Halkett name afterwards, and concentrated on more conventional work. The story is about robbery and kidnapping, subjects which possibly don't lend themselves to the "document" format as well as a murder mystery, and for me, the best bits of the book are the jokes. There's an especially witty passage about the unlikely things that happen in real life. Not a masterpiece then, but an interesting structural experiment.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Back from Becquia

Would you believe me if I told you that I was diligently at work on a couple of writing projects last week during a brief but highly enjoyable trip to the Caribbean? Well, you might be entitled to be sceptical, but in fact, one of the great merits of taking a break away from it all is that it frees up your mind, and makes creative thinking easier. Anyway, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it, Here's why.

One of those projects actually involves Caribbean islands - they supply the settings for a potential novella, a form I've not tried before, something of an experiment. And one advantage of a cruise which stops at a different port almost every day (I've never tried a long sea cruise, as it seems to me there's a risk of going stir crazy after a week or so of gazing at the ocean) is that you are exposed to a wide range of people, and cultural experiences, which are fascinating in themselves,as well as apt to spark ideas.

Becquia, an island in the Grenadines, is somewhere I'd never even heard of until a few short weeks ago, when I chanced upon an unmissable late deal. It's a truly beautiful island, as close to the classic idea of the tropical paradise as anywhere I've ever visited. One of the people I talked to there has devoted the past twenty years to rescuing, breeding, and looking after turtles,caring for those with injuries (gentian violet is his preferred remedy for turtle injuries) before freeing those capable of survival back into the sea, A remarkable man, someone for whom I felt instinctive admiration.

Not far behind in loveliness is St Lucia, and there I talked to a chap who had spent the last 16 years establishing a wonderful garden at Stony Hill, now a popular venue for events and weddings. He told me what hard work it had been, and I'm sure that's true, but his reward is to have created somewhere quite stunning, complete with waterfall, orchid house, and amazing views. Suffice to say that I visited two botanical gardens on the trip, but they weren't remotely as impressive..

Two other stops, Barbados and Grenada, I'd visited before, but Tobago and Dominica were new to me. Like other Caribbean islands that are proudly independent nowadays, they've encountered some economic problems, and tourism is clearly very important to them. But they haven't let it spoil the natural charms of the islands and one can only hope this continues to be the case. I felt that the much-vaunted "Mystery Tombstone" in Plymouth, Tobago, was not quite as mysterious as I'd anticipated - not a Playfair cipher in sight - but it's a scenic island, and I relished the idea of sailing in the harbour of Scarborough four months after sailing in the harbour of its North Yorkshire namesake; even in July, North Yorkshire's climate was rather more "bracing", it has to be said. In Dominica, a trip through the rainforest, with its sulphrous springs and rather mysterious mist-clad lakes, was especially memorable.

So what of my other writing project? This one is not connected with the Caribbean in terms of location, but the opportunity to let my thoughts roam helped me to work out an idea for a Golden Age detective fiction project that, although quite modest in scale, I find truly exciting. I'd hoped before sailing to come up with a suitable concept, and managed to do just. that. Today I'll start writing it up....