Friday 27 February 2015

Forgotten Book - Death by Request

My Forgotten Book for today dates from 1933. Death by Request is unusual in at least two respects. First, its authors were a husband and wife team, Romilly and Katherine John, a pair of Cambridge graduates who were both in their twenties. Second, they never published another novel - either jointly or separately. Surely they weren't disappointed with this first effort? It still reads pretty well today.

My copy dates back to the Eighties. Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan provided intros for several good books reissued by Hogarth Crime at that time, and they do a good job of setting the scene, although one comment that they make, whilst not really a spoiler, does give the alert crime fan a better chance of guessing the outcome.

The story is in some respects a light-hearted homage to Agatha Christie, with a clergyman narrator just as in Murder at the Vicarage. (Gladys Mitchell also wrote a book told in the first person by a member of the clergy at around the same time.) I enjoyed the prissy voice of the Rev. Joseph Colchester, as well as the witty portrayal of an idiotic colonel, who is constantly putting his foot in his mouth.

The authors offer us a traditional country house mystery, with Lord Malvern, who is a bit of a cad, found gassed in his bedroom. The door is locked, but this isn't really a locked room mystery. The cause of death is soon obvious, as is the fact that it was no accident. A socialist butler is one of the other incidental pleasures, and although I felt the action dragged a bit in the middle section, overall I enjoyed the story, and very much regret that Mr and Mrs John didn't write more mysteries.

Katherine became a translator of Scandinavian literature, while Romilly's best-known book was a memoir of his early years in a strange household presided over by his father, Augustus John. Oddly enough, yesterday I was in London, and went to visit the Foundling Museum, a fascinating place that I can strongly recommend. As part of an exhibition of the life and work of Jacob Epstein, who was fascinated by children, there was a bronze of....the young Romilly John. .

Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Snorkel - film review

The Snorkel is a 1958 crime film that has stuck, very obstinately, in my mind since I first saw it as a young boy, together with my parents. I didn't know the terms "inverted mystery" or "locked room murder" in those days, but the story fits both descriptions, and it made a great impression on me. I kept hoping that it would resurface on television, but no luck. Happily, I have managed to find a Spanish DVD, which one can watch in English. I did wonder if it would live up to expectations. Were my positive memories of the film tinged with nostalgia? Well, possibly, but it remains extremely watchable, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

The film begins with Paul Decker (played, excellently, by the menacing Peter Van Eyck - surely this was his finest role) carefully carrying out the murder of his wife. Cunningly, he stages it to look like a suicide. And everyone is fooled, except for his young step-daughter, Candy. She believes Paul killed her father, and has now killed her mother. She is spot on - but nobody believes her.

The suspense builds as Candy tries to discover how Paul carried out the crime. It's a cat and mouse story, very well handled. The original story was by Anthony Dawson, but I'm not sure if it was ever published. There has been some confusion about Dawson's identity, but it seems he was the same Anthony Dawson who was much better known as an actor, appearing in Dial M for Murder, and as an early incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Mandy Miller, a child star whose career did not last, plays Candy, and Betta St John plays the young woman Decker fancies. William Franklyn, a suavely reliable actor, has a modest role as the British consul. The screenplay is by the capable Jimmy Sangster, and the director is Guy Green.

For me, watching the film was not only a very enjoyable trip down memory lane but also a chance to enjoy again an under-rated suspense film. After watching, I checked it out on the internet, and found that it had not only been covered three years ago on the splendid Tipping My Fedora blog, but that I'd actually commented upon it at the time. I'd actually forgotten that, a sign of the amnesia that means I'd never make an efficient murderer. But at least I'm glad that I've never forgotten The Snorkel..

Monday 23 February 2015

Broadchurch - series 2 (no spoilers)

Broadchurch was the best TV crime drama of 2013, on that I think there is a widespread consensus. The screenplay by Chris Chibnall did something relatively fresh and certainly impressive with the whodunit concept. As a result, there was a massive commercial imperative to make a second series, and I was one of millions of people looking forward to it. After tonight's final episode, how do I feel about it?

The first thing to say is that expectations often shape our reactions in a very unfortunate way. Many fans of the first series have found the follow-up deeply disappointing. And to an extent, I am among them. What I find more difficult to figure out, at least in terms of my instant reaction now that I know the outcome, is the extent to which this is because I admired the first series so much. The second series was bound to be different - did I give it enough credit on its own terms?

There were undeniably positives to take from the second series (sorry, the temptation to slip into footballer jargon proved irresistible.) The acting was very good, the new murder plot intriguing, and the setting visually compelling. Chris Chibnall worked hard to make sure that something gripping was always happening, or about to happen. And that's why I kept watching. But the screenplay achieved its grip at a price.

The first series was subtly written, but I felt the second went "over the top" too often for comfort. I didn't dislike it (some good judges did) but I felt that plausibility was sacrificed, and as a result I cared much less about the characters this time around. The murder trial plot seemed contrived and the lawyers' behaviour simply incredible. It's right to make allowances for fiction, but I found myself unable to suspend disbelief. Too often the storyline veered deep into soap opera territory. Now, soap operas can make compelling viewing, but I think it's a pity that Broadchurch moved so far in the direction of the wildly melodramatic. I definitely don't regret watching it, but something has changed. When I learned there was going to be a second series, I felt I must make sure that I saw it. There is to be a third series, but even with such a good writer, and fine actors, I no longer feel that it's a must-watch. I just hope series three confounds expectations in a very different way..

The Detection Collection

The Detection Collection is the latest book produced under the aegis of the Detection Club to be reissued by Harper Collins. It's a splendid anthology of short stories that was first published in 2005, under the editorship of Simon Brett, President of the Detection Club. And the list of contributors reads like a roll call of leading British crime writers.

Although I've written a couple of intros for earlier books in the series, Ask a Policeman and The Anatomy of Murder, I didn't have any involvement with this one, and the first thing to say is that Simon did a terrific job. His intro updates the foreword he wrote when the book first appeared, in 2005, and he explains that the book was put together to mark the 75th anniversary of the Club's foundation. At the time he first wrote the intro, there was some debate as to whether the Club did indeed come into existence in 1930, but I'm sure it did, and that the anniversary date was correctly calculated.

Simon mentions that sadly, four of the contributors, Margaret Yorke, Reg Hill, Bob Barnard and Harry Keating are no longer with us, (and even more recently, the great P.D. James has also died) but as he says, "they do live on through the quality of their work." I count it as a real privilege to have dined with all of them at Detection Club meetings, as well as on a few other memorable occasions, and I can only add that they were all as companionable and gracious in person as they were gifted. Simon also contributes a concise history of the Club, which appears at the end of the book.

In addition to the luminaries I've already mentioned, Colin Dexter, Lindsey Davis and John Harvey are among the contributors. Three writers who do not very often write short stories, Robert Goddard, Michael Ridpath and Clare Francis, also feature. As you would expect with writers of such calibre, their work stands the test of time. Ten years on, the stories read very well. I'm a fan of short stories, and enjoy collections of them, in any event, but even if anthologies aren't your usual cup of tea, I think you will find plenty in this book to entertain you..

Sunday 22 February 2015

Murder Squad and CLIC Sargent

Something a little different today. First, news about Murder Squad, the group of six Northern crime writers which was set up almost fifteen years ago and is still going strong. I've been a member from day one, along with Margaret Murphy, whose brilliant idea it was, Cath Staincliffe and Ann Cleeves. More recently we've been joined by Kate Ellis and Chris Simms.

We're keen to remain in touch with our readers, and with that in mind, we're organising a giveaway, a bundle of six books, one by each of us. Details are on the Murder Squad website.

I'm also one of a large group of authors taking part in a "Get in Character 2015", a fund-raising campaign for CLIC Sargent, a charity focusing on young people with cancer. It's one of those "bid to have your name in a story" auctions. A short story due to become part of an ebook in my case, given that my next novel is already completed.

Whilst I don't have any close links to CLIC Sargent, I do know that cancer is a scourge that affects each and every one of us in some way, through the suffering of loved ones even if not ourselves. Having worked with charities, and in particular the hospice movement, for many years, I know that there's always a risk of compassion fatigue setting in as regards fund-raising efforts, but not having been involved in one of these auctions before, I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do, and I am optimistic that the involvement of such stellar names as Lee Child, Nicci French and Peter James will lead to a real boost to this charity's funds.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Francis Durbridge: A Centenary Appreciation

My enthusiasm for Francis Durbridge dates back to my school days - I was just eleven when I saw Bat Out of Hell on TV, and loved it. That serial starred John Thaw, long before he became Inspector Morse. Later, I enjoyed reading books about the genre written by Melvyn Barnes, and although he and I have never met, I've been delighted to get to know him via cyberspace, and recently to learn about a very worthwhile project of his, Francis Durbridge: A CentenaryAppreciation. So I invited Melvyn to write a guest blog to share the news - and here it is:

"I have never been a full-time writer, having spent my entire career as a chartered librarian until retiring in 2002 after eighteen years as Director of Libraries and Art Galleries for the City of London.  But crime fiction has been a lifetime interest, which led to part-time writing and the publication of my books Best Detective Fiction, Dick Francis, and Murder in Print, together with numerous contributions to magazines and reference books such as Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writers and Scribner’s Mystery and Suspense Writers.

As a youngster during the “wireless” years I was captivated by the Francis Durbridge serials featuring Paul Temple, and later by his television serials that in their day attracted record viewing figures.  So much so, that well into retirement I decided it was time to take up the pen again and fill a gap by producing a unique account of Durbridge’s work.

It proved to be an unexpectedly complex and lengthy process, requiring several years’ research including many sessions at the British Library, the (late lamented) Newspaper Library in Colindale and the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham.  This provided countless details about Durbridge’s twenty-eight Paul Temple radio serials and plays from 1938 to 1968, his seventeen television serials from 1952 to 1980, his thirty-five novels from 1938 to 1988 and his nine stage plays from 1971 onwards.  Truly surprising, however, was the extent of his other works – nine cinema films were made from his radio and television serials, he wrote three novels as newspaper serials that were never published in book form, two plays long before he was recognised as a stage dramatist, and a Paul Temple comic strip for the London Evening News which ran for over twenty years.  Most surprising of all was the revelation of his prolific output for the radio, which not only included many non-criminous scripts but also non-Temple plays and serials featuring other detectives, using his own name and three pseudonyms.

This long period of slogging research frequently led me from one reference to another, with the final clinching of answers to previously unresolved questions.  It not only informed my introductory survey of Durbridge’s work, but it resulted in a comprehensive annotated listing of his novels and all his other works – including the first full listing of his Paul Temple comic strips.  It also enabled me to provide summaries of his plots (without spoilers, of course), with production and cast details of his radio, television, stage and cinema works.  Another important achievement was to show the links between them, to identify which were original and which were re-writes.  My ultimate satisfaction, however, came from the unearthing of so much new information, and not least in debunking the numerous errors that perpetuate on the Internet.

Francis Durbridge died in 1998, but today he retains a substantial fan base and attracts many new enthusiasts.  His serials are regularly repeated on Radio 4 Extra, re-creations of his “lost” serials have been produced on Radio 4, his novels continue to be reprinted, and there is a thriving trade in audiobooks, e-books and DVDs.

Although my earlier books were commissioned by commercial publishers, this time I decided to go it alone.  A commercial publisher would have required something more elaborate, probably with extensive biographical material and the addition of illustrations (acquired at my own expense), whereas I felt confident that I had already achieved all I set out to do.

So to order a signed copy of this 140 page paperback, post/packing included (UK only), send a cheque for £10.99 (payable to Melvyn Barnes) to 7 Netherhall Close, Old Newton, Stowmarket, Suffolk IP14 4RP.  And for overseas orders, information can be obtained by emailing "

I can only add that my copy arrived today and I'm enjoying reading it already.

Friday 20 February 2015

Forgotten Book - Heir to Lucifer

I've mentioned John Rhode (whose real name was Cecil John Street) several times in this blog. He was a prolific writer, and in addition to countless Rhode books, he wrote a long series under the name Miles Burton. Over the years I've picked up numerous Burtons, but only in recent times have I got round to reading some of them. One of them is Heir to Lucifer, first published in 1947, and it's my Forgotten Book for today.

Although it is a post-war book, it seems on the surface to be a classic country house mystery. Desmond Merrion, late of Naval Intelligence, is Burton's regular amateur sleuth, who made his debut in a much earlier book, The Secret of High Eldersham, that I read a few weeks back and will probably cover one Friday soon. The book opens with Merrion and his wife Mavis setting off for the small resort of Croylehaven, because Mavis has been under the weather. It's not an ideal choice, since mystery and mayhem promptly ensue - yet with each violent death, Mavis seems to perk up a bit more...

Croylehaven is dominated by Castle Croyle, home to the eponymous Lucifer, a rich old man surrounded by relatives who are financially dependent on him. Usually, this set-up means that the old chap will soon be a goner,but this is an unusual book. Lucifer survives, although a small boy is killed, an attempt is made on Lucifer's life, and a murder victim's corpse is discovered at an ice-house. By this time, the Merrions have become honoured guests at the Castle, forever popping in and out - the way you do when violent deaths keep occurring.

This is an odd book and its resolution is strange, untypical and rather disturbing. Yet I found it readable and interesting. Rhode/Burton does a pretty good job of making sure that you never know what to expect, and he certainly confounded my theory about the crime. There's a touch of darkness and irony about the ending that would, I suspect, have appealed to Rhode's Detection Club colleague Anthony Berkeley. Definitely worth a look, and by no means as conventional as the basic ingredients might suggest..

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Mick Herron - Nobody Walks - book review

Mick Herron's latest novel, Nobody Walks, is a stand-alone thriller published by Soho Press. It follows on his great success in winning the CWA Gold Dagger for Dead Lions. Now I have to confess that, as yet, I haven't read Dead Lions, but one thing I can say is that if it is any better than Nobody Walks, I really must get round to it very soon. Because Nobody Walks is gripping and very well written, with absolutely no padding..

In fact, the style reminds me rather of early Len Deighton, not just because it deals with a maverick from the spying world, but because the prose is taut and witty. In my teens I devoured books like Horse Under Water and Billion Dollar Brain, and absolutely loved them. Very few writers since then have come close to matching Len Deighton, but Mick Herron is a class act.

This book follows the attempt of a man called Bettany to discover the reason for the death of his son Liam, from whom he was estranged. Liam worked for a game company run by a mysterious character called Driscoll, and it eventually becomes apparent that the Secret Services have some kind of interest in Driscoll. But is that a cover for something more sinister?  The setting is London, and it's beautifully evoked, with a series of crisp and memorable images. Bettany makes one big mistake which I found surprising, to say the least, but overall it's not too difficult to suspend disbelief, and the story rattles along to a very dark climax.

Mick Herron is someone I've met a few times at crime writing events, and coincidentally he, like me, has had a day job in the employment law field. I first became aware of his work before we met, when he contributed a short story to an anthology I edited some years back.The only reason I've not read his novels before is that lame old excuse, lack of time. But now I know just how good they are, I've every incentive to catch up with his backlist..

Monday 16 February 2015

The Proof of the Pudding

Ah, the ups and down of a writer's life! I was chatting the other day to a talented young writer, who was asking how I dealt, in psychological terms, with bad reviews. I doubt it's a problem this person will encounter too often, but we all get poor reviews from time to time, The answer, I guess, is to take on board any helpful criticisms by people trying to be constructive, and not worry too much about comments from those who may have some kind of axe to grind - you can't please everyone. In any event, I made the point during our conversation that there are worse things than bad reviews. A published author's life is privileged, yes, but we all have our bug-bears. No point in wasting time worrying about things one cannot control, but I must admit that I do find proof-checking a major challenge. And this week-end, I've had to give a final once-over to not one, but two sets of proofs.

Proof-checking is important, but I've done so much checking of legal documents, as well as articles and books over the years, that my skill has declined. I now tend to see what I think I've written, rather than what is actually there. And, when looking at proofs of my books, I'm apt to become self-critical about what I've written, instead of focusing on some of the minutiae that I really ought to focus on. This is the moment when it's too late to  make significant changes, yet all of a sudden, one tends to have a better's a reminder that the perfection for which we seek is unattainable. Do other authors feel like this when confronted by their proofs, I wonder?

One of the worst moments of my writing career came when I received the page proofs of my very first novel. It should have been a magic moment, but I felt despondent, because I realised for the first time how far short it was of being a masterpiece. I try to be objective, but that time, I failed completely. Mind you, I cheered up quite quickly, and All the Lonely People did very well. The ebook (and the Arcturus paperback reprint) are selling nicely right now, something I'd never have imagined back in 1991. But I've never forgotten those deeply felt pangs of self-doubt - no review, good or bad, has ever made such an impression on me..

Checking the final proofs of the Truly Criminal anthology for the CWA was happily straightforward, because my fellow contributors have already done their bit. It's all looking fine.. And I was delighted to have a final glimpse of The Golden Age of Murder before it goes to the printers. The illustrations have now been sorted out by Harper Collins, and their indexer has produced not only a general index, but also an index to the main titles discussed.

Long ago, I prepared indexes for my early legal books, but it's a task I've been very happy to delegate. There is an argument that the best indexes are done by the author, not a third party, but I never felt comfortable doing it. I have done a selective bibliography, though, and didn't find it easy; the challenge has been how to limit its length. Some slimming down has become essential, just as I've done a lot of work on editing down the text. Similarly, not all the images that I contemplated including can be accommodated. Even so, the book is now well over 500 pages long...

And yet as I looked at the proofs, I couldn't help asking myself if I'd been over-ambitious, in trying to write a book that is very different from what has gone before. It's what I've been working on for many years, but even so...however, there comes a point where one simply has to draw a line.

Luckily, I've had one snippet of news that cheers me enormously. The Golden Age of Murder has been read by a distinguished author who hardly ever gives quotes for books, and although I felt this was a honour, I did also feel some trepidation. To my delight, however, the reaction has been wonderful. I won't give the quote in its entirety just yet, but there is one phrase that I really love, because it sums up exactly what I have been trying to do - to provide "a new way of looking at old favourites."

And those kind words, from overseas really have made up for the week-end's proof-chccking!

Friday 13 February 2015

Forgotten Book - The Great Impersonation

The British Library has been very active on the publishing front over the past year or so. Quite apart from its Crime Classics series, it has also republished a couple of espionage thrillers by E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Spy Paramount, and The Great Impersonation in another series, British Library Spy Classics. The latter novel is my choice for today's Forgotten Book.

Although I haven't written much about them on this blog, I've always had a soft spot for spy stories. As a schoolboy, I received as a present The Spy's Bedside Book by Hugh and Graham Greene, a wonderful anthology which really fired my interest n the genre. A while later, I became a huge fan of Len Deighton's books, and also had the pleasure of discovering the likes of Eric Ambler and John Le Carre.

I must confess, though, that until this pair of books came out last year, I'd never read E. Phillips Oppenheim. He was, in his day, highly successful, and known as "the Prince of Storytellers", but  I doubted whether his work would appeal to me, despite the fact that he evidently led a colourful life. But I can honestly say that I was pleasantly surprised by The Great Impersonation.

This edition benefits from an introduction by Professor Tim Crook, who gives an insightful overview of the author's life and career. He also confirms that the book was originally published in 1920 (the copyright page suggests 1935). The essence of the story is conveyed by the book's title. This is a tale about two men who are lookalikes. One is an English aristocrat, the other is a German baron. When Edward Dominey arrives back in the UK after time spent in Africa, the question arises - is he the man he claims to be, or the agent of a foreign power? Tales of duality always exert a considerable appeal, and this is no exception. This is a story which sold over a million copies, and thanks to the British Library's initiative, I now have a much better understanding of why Oppenheim was so popular in his hey-day.


Forgotten Book - The Noose

My forgotten book for today is one of Philip MacDonald's stories about Colonel Anthony Gethryn. The Noose is notable as the novel that launched the legendary Collins Crime Club in 1930, by which time MacDonald was establishing himself as one of the most entertaining detective novelists to have emerged since the First World War - a conflict of which Gethryn was a veteran. The war also proves to be central to the murder mystery plot.

Gethryn is summoned back to England from Spain by his wife Lucia. She has been persuaded by a striking woman that the woman's husband (whose name, Bronson, has connotations today that nobody would have dreamed of in 1930) is innocent of the murder of which he has been convicted. Unfortunately, an appeal has failed and the Home Secretary is not inclined to show clemency So Bronson will hang in five days' time unless someone else can be shown to be guilty. Yep, this is a classic clock-race story.

Lucia's intuition tells her to believe Mrs Bronson that her husband is innocent. Gethryn's intuition - and it's no more than that - points him in the same direction. Such is his reputation,as a Great Detective that his pals at Scotland Yard are by no  means unsympathetic. One of them actually takes some holiday (his first in two years) in order to lend a hand. What it is to have friends in high places...

This is a lively story with a good solution, and it deserves the praise that Harry Keating heaped on it when he introduced a reprint in the "Disappearing Detectives" series in the mid-Eighties. I agree with Harry that MacDonald wrote enjoyable books, even if their quality was admittedly uneven. This one has a sound plot, but its greatest merit is the fast-paced narrative style and crisp writing. MacDonald tended to favour short, snappy sentences, and there's usually a sense of energy in his books, as there is in this one. He can create vivid scenes - as when Gethryn comes face to face with the murderer- and it's no surprise that, not long after this book first appeared, he went on to enjoy success in Hollywood. Re-reading this one revived my enthusiasm for Gethryn, and I'll be covering at least one more of his cases in this blog before long.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Reasonable Doubt (2014) - movie review

Reasonable Doubt is a recent movie, and the fact that it reached the television screen very quickly is, I'm afraid, easily explained. It begins with an intriguing situation slightly reminiscent of that brilliant Kenneth Fearing novel The Big Clock (splendidly filmed twice), but an attempt to ring the changes  on the basic storyline descends into bathos long before the end. The director, Peter Howitt, once an actor in Bread, and later director of that truly excellent film Sliding Doors, apparently decided to direct this film under a pseudonym, and you don't need to be Inspector Morse to figure out why.

The film begins in a Chicago courtroom. We're introduced to Mitch, a young hot-shot lawyer played by Dominic Cooper. I'm afraid I took an instant dislike to Mitch, and his "brilliant" closing speech, which seemed to me madly unprofessional. But what do I know? After all, lucky old Mitch, has never lost a case. He is married with a baby, but his family life never becomes interesting to the viewer, and this failure to encourage us to empathise with Mitch is fatal to enjoyment.

Mitch goes out and gets drunk with his pals, and then knocks someone down. He calls for help before fleeing the scene, but the victim dies. Before long Mitch finds himself prosecuting a chap (Samuel L. Jackson, who is less compelling than usual) accused of murdering the victim, and has to find a way to exculpate the falsely accused defendant. From there, the plot thickens...

Unfortunately, we don't really care about any of the characters, and the twists in the plot seem contrived and unsatisfactory. With the basic premise, a decent screenplay could have produced better results, but although I very much prefer to avoid giving negative reviews,, Reasonable Doubt has to rank as a very weak effort. I don't always agree with the verdicts of the Rotten Tomatoes site, but in this case an approval rating of 13% seems about right. However, my next film review will return to positivity, and will be of something I can safely recommend.

Monday 9 February 2015

Charles Spencer - guest blog

Today, I'm pleased to host a guest blog post by Charles Spencer, sometime Daily Telegraph theatre critic and occasional crime novelist. I was pleased to hear that the Will Benson books are to have a fresh life under the Bello imprint, partly because I enjoyed them when they first appeared, and partly because Charlie and I go back a long way. All the way to student days, in fact. We attended the same college, though he was reading English, whereas I was grappling with the law (academically speaking, I hasten to add.) 

Charlie was in the year above me, and was the publicity manager for the Oxford Students' Arts Council, a post which I took over from him. Those distant days were a great deal of fun, and it's curious to think that we both later became published crime writers. The last time I saw Charlie was, in fact, at the Dead on Deansgate conference that he mentions very frankly below.. So I am all the more delighted that things have taken such a turn for the better in the intervening years, and I hope that one day we'll see a new Will Benson book. Over to Charlie... 

"I have been a fan of crime fiction for much of my life, with a special fondness for thrillers that combine a galloping plot with humour. Back in the 1990s I had a shot at writing such novels myself, with Edmund Crispin ( the pen name of Bruce Montgomery who was a close friend of Philip Larkin’s at Oxford) and Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Mortdecai Trilogy among my influences. Like the books of Raymond Chandler and Dick Francis, they are first person narratives - though I would never dream of  claiming a place  in such august company

I was working as the Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic when I wrote them, but the books were inspired by the happy couple of years I spent on the theatrical trade paper The Stage in the 1980s when I delightedly discovered a world of talent contests, strip shows and filthy comedians. The books are, I hope, bawdy, funny, fast paced and at times touching, and they received some good reviews when first published though they never became the bestsellers I had fondly hoped for.

The hero, Will Benson, is a braver and more reckless version of myself, and there is a lot of booze and I hope laughter in the books.

The drink caught up with me in the end. When the third novel,  Under the Influence  was about to come  out  in 2000  I attended the Dead on Deansgate crime convention in Manchester and spent three days in a reckless blur of alcohol. If anyone reading this blog encountered me then, please accept my apologies. 

 I didn’t quite make it home on the day the convention ended, spending much of the night crashed out under a bush in a neighbour’s garden in the pouring rain.  My poor wife was worried sick until I was discovered in the early hours and drenched to the skin.  With her help and a fistful Valium I just about made it to the official book launch in London the following night  and the day after that  I checked into rehab at The Priory, Roehampton. With God’s grace, one day at a time, have not had a drink since then.

So the three novels – I Nearly Died, Full Personal Service and Under The Influence now seem to me to belong to a distant and more troubled past. But re-reading them before their reissue on Pan MacMillian’s Bello imprint of e-books and print on demand novels, I found that I enjoyed them. There were moments that made me wince, others that made me laugh, and some that moved me.  And I hope that will be the experience of readers  discovering the Will Benson stories for the first time."

Saturday 7 February 2015

Catherine Aird - CWA Diamond Dagger winner

I could  not be more pleased that the CWA has announced the award of the CWA Diamond Dagger to Catherine Aird in recognition of the sustained excellence of her work. I've known Catherine for a long time, and I've enjoyed her books for even longer. She is a truly delightful person, and while the award is of course for her writing, it is all the more pleasing to see someone so popular in the crime fiction community receive such recognition. She is beyond doubt a worthy winner.

Because of my own membership of the CWA committee, I've been aware that this announcement was to be made for some time, and I did notice that, as soon as the news came out, many of Catherine's fans took to social media to express their delight. I'm not a bit surprised. Her plots are clever, her characters and situations are entertaining,, and her humour a real bonus..

I've written about Catherine previously on this blog, and I've had the pleasure of including her stories in CWA anthologies over the years. Recently, she contributed to a CWA anthology with a difference. Truly Criminal, which will be published in the spring, is a collection of essays about true crime by CWA members, and Catherine writes about a case that is interesting, but little known.

One item of trivia that may be unfamiliar to many fans of traditional detective fiction is that Catherine has a family connection with Josephine Tey, one of the great figures of Golden Age mystery writing. I share Catherine's enthusiasm for Tey, and I continue to hope that one of these she will write more about her. Tey and Catherine belong to different generations, but in both cases, their books will be read for many years to come.

Friday 6 February 2015

Forgotten Book - Scarweather

Scarweather, first published in 1934, is the third book by Anthony Rolls (real name C.E. Vulliamy) that I've covered in this blog, and it's a distinctive and interesting novel, with pleasing touches of satiric wit, especially at the expense of archaeologists. One of the unusual features of the novel is that the events described take place over an extended period - a decade and a half. The action kicks off just before the start of the First World War, but the final drama is enacted much later.

The story is told by a young barrister called John Farringdale, who has to be one of the most naive fictional lawyers I've encountered in a long time. The detective work - unhurried, to say the least - is done by Farringdale's mentor, a gifted all-rounder called Ellingham, who is presented in such a way that I did wonder if Vulliamy had thought of using him in more than one story.

Much of the action takes place at a lonely spot on the northern coast called Scarweather. Apparently there is somewhere called Scarweather Sands in the author's native Wales, but his fictional version is located in England - presumably on the east coast, rather than the west, though I couldn't identify it with any resort that I know; certainly not with Scarborough. Farringdale, his friend Eric, and Ellingham, get to know Professor Reisby and his gorgeous wife Hilda, who live at Scarweather, and a sinister sequence of events begins to unfold.

I found the style of writing enjoyable; Scarweather's a good read. The plot has a pleasing central idea, but the main flaw of the book, in my opinion, is that the final revelation is obvious long, long before the end. I was hoping for an unexpected twist, but no luck. This seems to me to be Vulliamy's weakness as a crime writer; he had a gift for coming up with terrific ideas, but struggled to sustain plot development and narrative tension to the end of his books. This may explain why his work has faded from view, but his merits are such that he deserves rediscovery.

Golden Age commentators have had mixed views about him over the years. There is a good essay about him in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers by the very knowledgeable Charles Shibuk, and Barry Pike is another admirer, but Barzun and Taylor were not keen, and Julian Symons expressed some reservations in Bloody Murder. As ever,  Curt Evan's blog is informative and includes a review of this novel; he also published an article about Vulliamy in CADS  a couple of issues back.

Incidentally, when I wrote about Vulliamy on this blog five and a half years ago (blimey, can it be that long?) I mentioned that I have a signed copy of his late book Floral Tribute, but had never read it. Alas and alack, I still haven't got round to it. But I really, really, intend to make the effort now....

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Antidote to Venom - another Crime Classic

It's less than two years since I wrote on this blog about Freeman Wills Crofts' novel Antidote to Venom, and expressed the view that it was a book definitely worth seeking out. Well, anyone who likes the sound of the book will now find it much more easily, as it has just been republished as part of the British Library's Crime Classics series.

I mentioned on Monday that the publication of my British Library anthology Capital Crimes has been brought forward because of the scale of advance sales, and the same is true of Antidote to Venom. I've supplied this edition with an intro which outlines why I like the book, but it's perhaps worth adding a few words here.

One of the things I admire most in a writer is a willingness to abandon one's literary comfort zone, and try something different, and ambitious. I've often given the example of Anthony Berkeley, who in his Francis Iles novels in particular was trying to write a crime story of a new sort. A book like Before the Fact is deeply flawed, but for me, it's still worth ten pedestrian detective stories, because it was such a daring story idea.

The same is true here - and not only because of the very intriguing zoo setting. Crofts was being very ambitious with this book, and I don't regard it is a total success. But I found it a gripping read, and I am impressed that such a successful author was prepared to try to write about complex issues of good and evil in the context of an elaborate murder mystery. This is the reason why I was so keen for the British Library to republish the book.

I should say that in my role as Series Consultant, I come up with many book and author suggestions that aren't viable for one reason or another, and the Library also keeps digging into the vaults and finding books I wasn't aware of. But although Crofts was, in his day, a bigger name than Charles Kingston, say, or Mavis Doriel Hay, I'm glad that this book (and soon, The Hog's Back Mystery) are enjoying a new life. He was an interesting writer who deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Deal Noir

Susan Moody is not only an author of varied and accomplished crime novels but also excellent company, and when she gets involved with a project, you can be confident that it will be of interest. So when she asked if I'd be willing to feature Deal Noir on this blog, I was happy to oblige, although alas, it clashes with the annual CWA conference, this year to be held at Lincoln, so I won't be in Deal myself. Anyway, here's what Susan has to say about Deal Noir: 

"So there I was, sitting in the Nordic House in Reykjavik, toying with a glass of Icelandic  vodka and staring at the chilly grey lake outside the window.  I was attending one of the smallest and best of the crime fiction conventions – Iceland Noir – and enjoying the chance to talk to everyone there, something not always possible in the larger gatherings.  Iceland Noir was mooted in May of 2013 and by November was alive and kicking.

"There should be more Crime Fests like this," I said to the man seated beside me, Mike Linane, a noted crime buff and attendee at many of the crime festivals taking place in England.      

"Why don't you organize one yourself, then?" he asked.

Why not indeed?  Back in the historic town of Deal, in south-east Kent, I thought about it.  Yes, why not?  Although Reykjavik is small and Deal is even smaller, with help of the indefatigable Mike, we set about doing just that.  Having settled on a date of March 28th, we had even less time to organize it than the Iceland Noir organizers: Quentin Bates, Ragnar Jónasson.and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. And yet here it is, DEAL NOIR, a reality! 

We have a  logo, a web-site  ( with details of the programme and speakers, where you can buy tickets on-line), and an email address (  We have posters and fliers. We have a venue.  We are about to launch a Flash Fiction competition (write a crime story in 100 words).  We have a full all-day programme of panels and debates with many of the stars of current crime writers attending, from Robert Goddard to Simon Brett to Michael Ridpath, from Mark Billingham to M J McGrath to David Donachie, from Erin Kelly and Laura Wilson to Tania Carver and Ruth Dudley Edwards.

Date: March 28thVenue: The Landmark Centre (6 minutes walk from the station). Ticket cost: £12:50 (an absolute bargain!) 

Monday 2 February 2015

Capital Crimes - publication day!

Today sees the official publication of Capital Crimes, my anthology of London Mysteries for the British Library's series of Crime Classics. The book was scheduled for publication in March, but the amazing success of the Crime Classics series has led to...early release by popular demand! As I understand it, getting towards 5000 copies of the print edition had been bought already in advance of publication. Having edited more than 20 anthologies over the past twenty-odd years, books featuring some of the world's great contemporary writers (Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Lawrence Block et al) I can only say that I've never encountered pre-publication sales figures like this for an anthology previously.

If you define "the Golden Age of Murder" as the period between the two world wars, then the timespan of this collection extends beyond the Golden Age, in both directions. We begin with Conan Doyle (but his entry is not a Sherlock Holmes story) and continue until reaching a post-war story by Anthony Gilbert.

The connecting theme is the London setting of the stories, but my aim has been to go for variety. There is an obvious difficulty with putting together a collection of short stories from the past. Some if not all of the contents will be familiar to die-hard fans. It would be wildly optimistic to hope for over a dozen completely forgotten gems. And the need to trace copyright owners for stories that are still in copyright adds a further level of complexity.

All the same, with this anthology, and with others I've been working on for the British Library, I've endeavoured to include at least a couple of stories that I don't think will be familiar to most connoisseurs. In this book, I felt it would be folly to resist the temptation to include such classics as "The Tea Leaf" and "The Avenging Chance", even though they have been anthologised numerous times, because many enthusiastic fans of the Crime Classics series have come quite fresh to traditional detective fiction.

But hands up how many people have read such stories as "They Don't Wear Labels", "Cheese", and "You Can't Hang Twice"...I'm hoping that even many of the well-read followers of this blog will not have come across some or all of this trio of stories before. I've also included a Victorian serial killer story by John Oxenham, and abridged it slightly so that it could be fitted in - a slightly different version of the story has been anthologised in the past, but it's still quite obscure. All in all, I hope that this is a book which will entertain readers who, like me, are fascinated by London life -and by mysterious crimes.