Monday 29 February 2016

Serpents in Eden and other British Library Crime Classics

The British Library is responding to reader demand by continuing to publish a diverse range of titles in its Crime Classics series. The latest John Bude book, Death on the Riviera, which is in my opinion highly enjoyable, is selling tremendously well, while my anthology Murder at the Manor is also going great guns. The next anthology in the series, Serpents in Eden, is now out, and here I've gathered together stories about crime in the countryside. Some great writers features - Conan Doyle, E.C. Bentley, Margery Allingham and the under-valued H.C. Bailey among them. And there are also some less familiar names, including Leonora Wodehouse - yes, the daughter of the legendary P.G....

I'd also like to mention two other novelists whose work is due to appear in the series shortly. The first is Miles Burton, one of the aliases of Major John Cecil Street - crime fans know him best as the ultra-prolific John Rhode. The BL have opted to publish two of his stories about Desmond Merrion - The Secret of High Eldersham and Death in the Tunnel.

A writer who was, I have to confess,previously unknown to me before the BL identified his potential is John Rowland. He usually wrote about Inspector Shelley, who features in Murder in the Museum and Calamity in Kent. In writing my introductions to the books, I benefited greatly from information supplied by Fytton  Rowland, son of the author, and I discovered that Rowland was an interesting chap whose other writing included a tribute to Eden Philpotts and a number of true crime books -including a significant study of the Wallace case.

There's plenty more to come in the second half of the year, including another anthology, and a book that has a quite unique dimension; I'm especially excited about the latter project. At present, my lips are sealed, but all will be revealed before too long!

Friday 26 February 2016

Forgotten Book - The Ponson Case

The Detective Story Library imprint of Harper Collins has revived several fascinating titles, including some of my favourites. The Rasp by Philip MacDonald, which has an excellent intro by Tony Medawar, is an example. But Freeman Wills Crofts' second book, The Ponson Case, is a mystery I'd never read until I read the DSL reprint. This nicely presented reissue benefits from an intro by crime novelist Dolores Gordon Smith, who talked about Crofts at last year's hugely successful Bodies in the Library conference.

Dolores tells a story about Crofts' meticulous approach to the plotting of this novel, which was a follow-up to his best-selling debut The Cask. He spent three hours persuading his publishers that he had researched the plot detail with intense attention to detail. And this shows in the book, although I have to say the result is not totally gripping. There's a nice description of an English country house at the start of the book, but once the body of Sir William Ponson is discovered in the river, the focus is on alibis, and how to crack them.

Crofts ditched Inspector Burnley, who took the lead in The Cask, and introduced the equally painstaking Inspector Tanner. A sketch map of the scene of the crime is supplied, and Tanner ventures as far as Portugal in search of the truth about Ponson's death. But there is a shortage of suspects, a failing of several Golden Age novels. Why is it a failing? Because the characters are not explored in enough depth to compensate for the limited nature of the mystery.

Eventually Tanner gets to the truth, but it turns out to be rather anti-climactic, to say the least. But I'm really glad I read it, and not only because it filled a gap in my knowledge of Crofts' writing. What we have here is a book which shows a capable crime writer at the start of his career, trying to do something unusual  in genre terms to build on the conspicuous success of his debut novel. It was this determination not to get stuck in a rut (despite his long-term fondness for alibi puzzles) that set Crofts apart from lesser writers. If you look at his inverted novels, such as Antidote to Venom, you see how keen he was to experiment, and that same freshness of approach is the most notable feature of The Ponson Case..A welcome reprint, then, which has given me a better understanding of Crofts' approach to his craft.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Stuart Pawson R.I.P.

My friend and fellow crime writer Stuart Pawson has died, and in sharing this very sad news, I want to pay tribute to one of life's nice guys, a quiet, kind man who also happened to be a terrific writer. If you haven't read his novels, I can most definitely recommend them.

I got to know Stuart shortly after his first book was published by Headline. We met through the Northern Chapter of the CWA - where I've met so many lovely people over the years - and he proved a great companion, always aided and abetted by his devoted wife Doreen. When Margaret Murphy formed the Murder Squad collective of writers in 2000, Stuart and I were founder members, and we took part in a wide range of enjoyable events together. I have an especially vivid memory of Stuart reading, in his deadpan way, a very funny and quite raunchy scene to the (seemingly) staid ladies of Knutsford,and receiving a rapturous response.

He was a very witty guy, and because he was also very retiring, his humour packed even more of a punch. He, Doreen and I spent about a week together at a memorable Bouchercon in Las Vegas - was it really thirteen years ago? - and travelled around in the area - a drive through the desert to the Hoover Dam sticks in my mind as a really fun day out. This is a photo Doreen took of the pair of us on the journey, and it brings back happy memories...

Stuart's dry wit and his love of Yorkshire make his books about Charlie Priest - there are thirteen of them - not only entertaining but also distinctive. Once in a while I talked him into writing short stories, and they too are highly enjoyable. One sad day came, though, when Stuart phoned me and broke the news that Parkinson's had been diagnosed. At that point, he didn't want it to become public knowledge,and he did keep writing for a while, as well as travelling the world with Doreen on one cruise after another.

Eventually, however, the time came when writing was no longer his priority. He resigned from Murder Squad, although he continued to attend CWA lunches at Boroughbridge every now and then. I last saw him there, and he was very frail, but the trademark humour was exactly as it had always been,

I'll miss Stuart a lot. For me, as I say, there are many personal memories to cherish. For all of us, he leaves a legacy of accomplished crime writing that will be appreciated for many years to come.


Wednesday 24 February 2016

The Franchise Affair - film review

The Franchise Affair is a 1951 film closely based on Josephine Tey's excellent novel. It offers a crime story, but not a murder mystery. Rather, the puzzle is based on the real life Elizabeth Canning case. A girl accuses a woman and her grumpy old mother of kidnapping her, and forcing her to become their servant. The accused women call in a local solicitor, Robert Blair, to defend them.

It's a low-key premise, one which is, I think, better suited to a book than a film, because it's not an obviously dramatic situation, despite a courtroom scene (in which the key twist comes rather out of the blue - a flaw in the writing). That said, I found The Franchise Affair to be a good example of the "well-make" post-war British film, with good performances from an excellent cast who make the most of the story's potential.

Michael Denison plays Blair, one of those small town solicitors from the Good Old Days, when you could take on a client without worrying about letters of engagement, or compliance with the anti money laundering legislation. Nor does he have to bother with computerised time recording, or targets for chargeable hours, lucky fellow. This freedom enables him to take on a case for which he's not really equipped in terms of experience. But determination sees him through.

Marion Sharp is played by Dulcie Gray, who was Denison's wife in real life. She was also a writer of mystery stories. As it happens, I've recently bought one of her books, and look forward to reading it. The remaining cast includes such future stars as Kenneth More (later Father Brown) and Patrick Troughton (a future Doctor Who). All in all, I enjoyed this film. I watched it the day after watching the much more dramatic The Shining. But in its quiet and unambitious way, it was equally entertaining.

Monday 22 February 2016

The Agatha Awards - and a trip to remember

I returned recently from a wonderful trip to Central and South America, and while I was away, the news was announced that The Golden Age of Murder is among the titles nominated for an Agatha Award at Malice Domestic this year. There are some fine writers among the nominees, and it's flattering to be in their company. None of my novels or short stories has been nominated for any American award until recently. Yet in late April, this book will be in the running for two awards in the space of seventy-two hours. A weird quirk of fate, and very gratifying.

I'm interested to see that The Golden Age of Murder is the only title common to the shortlists for both the Edgar awarded by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Agatha Award. This illustrates the growing number and range of critical/biographical books related to crime fiction. Not so long ago, I could claim to have read a majority of books about the genre - now I'm struggling to keep up. It's a good thing, surely, that crime fiction is now deemed a worthy subject of study, in book form as well as in countless blogs and social  media groups.

I've also heard from the publishers that demand for the hardback edition of the book continues to exceed expectations. This is due, in part at least, I think, to the fact that Harper Collins have done such a good production job, so that many people think it's a really nice volume to have on the shelves. As a result, the paperback edition is, at least in the UK, likely to be postponed for a while. It may appear later this year, or possibly next year. Suffice to say that I never expected that my best-selling hardback would prove to be a book about the Detection Club....

Anyway, a few words now about that magical trip, which took me back to Jamaica and then to three countries I'd never visited, before. In Costa Rica, there was a chance of a river cruise through the jungle, and a close look at fascinating wild life, not least an alligator lurking just below the surface of the water...

In Panama, one can cross from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific in an hour: a fascinating trip. There's a lot of history (along with lots of skyscrapers) to be seen in Panama City, including an old ruined cathedral, and much else besides...

Colombia was absolutely fascinating. Cartagena is a gorgeous place, oozing with history..

while Santa Marta, again on the coast, offers a mix of fabulous wildlife, in the gardens which celebrate the legendary Simon Bolivar (who died there) and also on the beach..........

As ever, I seized the opportunity to combine sight-seeing with plenty of reading. And the fruits of that reading will be revealed soon, with a number of new entries in the Forgotten Books series.


Sunday 21 February 2016

Television Writing: Shetland, Dickensian, and War and Peace

I've been following a number of well-crafted TV series lately, including War and Peace and the soap opera-like Dickensian, which finally comes to an end this evening, though I gather a second series may be planned. War and Peace was quite brilliantly adapted by Andrew Davies. His scripts seem to me to offer a masterclass in economical writing; you could say that he's the TV writing equivalent of a Len Deighton or an Elmore Leonard. I have also continued to watch Shetland, which - as I mentioned here a while ago - got off to a very good start.

I hadn't realised that this series of Shetland was to involve a single story stretched over six episodes, and this structure has cons as well as pros. However, the added length has given the writers the chance to address a number of issues, above all the effect of the rape of one of the central characters. Ann Cleeves has written an eloquent article about this aspect of the story in The Guardian which I think raises some important questions about the portrayal of violence in crime fiction, and deserves a wide readership.

Quite apart from this, the series has made clear to me what a fine actor Douglas Henshall is. He has the knack of conveying a considerable range of emotions with great economy, (you'll have gathered that I'm an admirer of economy!) and I've been increasingly impressed by his performance. Originally, he didn't fit my idea of Jimmy Perez, but he's definitely won me over.

Shetland has held my attention from the first episode, and credit must go to the main writer, Gaby Chiappe. The story is more like a thriller rather than a detective story, complete with a somewhat stereotypical gangland villain, and it has seemed rather meandering at times. It could be argued that, sensitively as the rape sub-plot is handled, the rape itself was largely superfluous to the plot, though whether that is so or not won't be clear until we've seen the final episode.

Possibly six episodes was one or two too many; the same issue arises even more acutely with Dickensian.,which has occasionally dragged. Overall, though, like Dickensian, it makes very good television, and if you haven't watched the shows this time around, it's definitely worth looking out for the repeats or the DVDs. As for War and Peace, until recently I've never felt a burning desire to read Tolstoy. But Davies' wonderful writing has made me realise that I've been missing out..

Friday 19 February 2016

Forgotten Book - Murder by Burial

Murder by Burial (1938), my Forgotten Book for today, is the one and only crime novel published by Stanley Casson. The novel was published in the US as well as in the author's native UK,and was also an early green Penguin paperback, a successful track record for a new crime writer (although he published a range of non-fiction books). So why did Casson never write another mystery?

Part of the reason may be that, although this book offers a great deal of interest, it is not a strong mystery. Casson took the basic idea from a real life accident (not a crime) involving two fellow archaeologists,but really the concept strikes me as better suited to a clever "howdunit" type of short story rather than a full length novel. There's quite a lot of padding as Casson shares his thoughts about politics - the previous year, he'd published a rather gloomy book called Progress and Catastrophe.

But another explanation is that Casson died just six years after the book was published. He was only 54, but he was serving as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Intelligence Corps - having previously fought with distinction in the First World War. He died on active service, not long after having escaped from the Nazis while serving in Europe. Obviously a brave man, and undoubtedly a man of great talent. Amongst other things, he was an archaeology don at New College, a colleague of the legendary Reverend Spooner.

The story is a simple one, but it's told amusingly and written well. A retired colonel sets up an organisation to extol the glories of the Roman influence on Britain, but soon the movement is hi-jacked for Fascist purposes. A local canon and his pretty young woman friend become involved in an archaeological excavation, but the canon falls out with the colonel, with fatal consequences. An unusual story, and certainly worth seeking out, despite its flaws.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

The CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Prize

Calling all short story writers! If you like the short form as much as I do, why not try your hand at submitting an entry to the CWA Margery Allingham short story prize competition? The details about how to enter can be found here. The prize on offer is fantastic - £1000 plus a free pass to Crimefest.

The prize is sponsored by the Margery Allingham Society, and the judges are looking to find a previously unpublished story that conforms to Margery's idea of what makes a good mystery story: for her, it was "box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge", and it had four walls - a crime, a mystery, an enquiry, and a conclusion with an element of satisfaction in it.

The competition is open to established authors and newcomers alike. To give an example, I entered a story myself during the competition's first year, and so did my wife, who at that time had never published any fiction at all. We both finished up on the shortlist of ten, and my story "Acknowledgments" was the eventual winner. It was all very gratifying for us, the more so for being unexpected. And it underlines my message to people who like writing short stories - have a go, and you never know what may happen!

But you'll have to be quick. The closing date is 1 March. However, it's still plenty of time, if you can find an idea that really grabs you. There is an upper limit on the word count of 3500 words, so the story doesn't need to be, and indeed shouldn't be, an epic. Something short, snappy and a bit different is the objective. Good luck!

Monday 15 February 2016

The Self-Publishing Debate - guest post from Kacper Nedza

The pros and cons of self-publishing continue to be hotly debated, and I'm pretty sure that debate will continue for some time to come. It's a complex subject, and also a fascinating one. My one and only experience of self-publishing, with The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, has been a positive one, so although I'm keen on continuing to be traditionally published, I'm very well aware of the attractions of the alternative.

I'm also interested in the views and experiences of others. A recent exchange of correspondence with Kacper Nezda, a long-time supporter of this blog, and the person who introduced me to that under-estimated writer Pamela Barrington, prompted me to invite Kacper to outline his own thoughts on this topic. Over to you, Kacper:

"Many thanks to Martin for this opportunity – it’s an honor to be featured here.

I’m not the most patient of people, and I suppose my adventure with self-publishing begins with impatience. In the fall of 2015, I began querying agents with my full-length, 80,000-word crime novel. This was an arduous process, and eventually I got very fed up with waiting to hear back and obsessively checking my email every five minutes for replies from agents. I also knew that even if I did secure an agent, it would likely be years before my novel hit shelves. That didn’t thrill me. I wanted to be doing something tangible with my writing now, hence my decision to write and self-publish a 20,000-word novella.

So I suppose what drew me into self-publishing was the immediacy of it. I uploaded my novella, A Late Verdict, under the name Milo Bell, to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform and it hit the Kindle store internationally within hours.

What’s great about self-publishing is the control, control over every aspect of one’s book: the content, the cover art, the marketing and publicity. The book you put out as a self-publisher is entirely your vision, and you have full control over what happens to it after it is published (except, of course, how it sells – which some might say is the most important part!)

The main drawback, of course, is the cost. Everything is pricey: cover artists, editors, publicity campaigns. If you publish traditionally, the publishing house takes care of all that, but if you self-publish, it’s all coming out of your wallet. Hence, I have a theory that all of the most successful self-published authors are those who started out with a considerable budget to invest in the book – which is not great news for those of us who are strapped for cash.

I’m very much in the midst of figuring out whether traditional or self-publishing is the way to go for my work, and I don’t believe there’s a universal answer for everyone. I’m excited, though, to have my novella out in the world, and I have every intention of continuing my adventure with self-publishing."

That point about cost strikes me as especially interesting. Is that a major concern of other self-published authors? I - and I'm sure Kacper - would be glad to know.

Friday 12 February 2016

Forgotten Books - Death's Darkest Face

My Forgotten Book for today is a novel I received for review no less than 25 years ago. It was written by one of my favourite crime novelists at that time,and I very much enjoyed it. A couple of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting the author a couple of times, and he duly inscribed the book to me. Re-reading it recently, having forgotten pretty much all the detail of the mystery, I was struck once again by the intelligence and unfussy elegance of the writing. Yet it's a book that has seldom been discussed, and really does seem to be forgotten. The title is Death's Darkest Face, and the author Julian  Symons.

The structure of the story is unusual, and Symons takes the very bold step of introducing himself into the story, at the start and at the end. He explains how he came into the possession of a manuscript written by an actor whom he knew called Geoffrey Elder. What follows is an ingenious narrative with an unorthodox structure. Symons is writing in the present, i.e. the end of the Eighties, while Geoffrey is writing in the Sixties about events that mostly took place in the Thirties, and which he followed up  three decades later.

Geoffrey is prompted to become an amateur detective by the intrusion into his life of a would-be biographer of a Thirties poet called Hugo Headley. Headley disappeared mysteriously, and it was never clear whether he had died or faked his own death and fled to escape his creditors. Could it be that, rather than committing suicide, he was murdered? Geoffrey has a personal reason to find out more.

Some of the elements of the story are quite melodramatic,but the telling of the story is very considered, which for some readers may be a drawback. It's not breathless, action-packed tale, and the large cast of characters also means that you have to pay attention from start to finish. But it's worth the effort. This really is an under-estimated novel, and in a very clever finale, we are offered a fresh way of looking at things which reminds me strongly of the books of Anthony Berkeley, whom Symons (like me) greatly admired, and who was an expert in offering multiple solutions to a mystery.  

Monday 8 February 2016

Seven Psychopaths - film review

Seven Psychopaths is a 2012 black comedy which reunites writer and director Martin McDonagh with Irish actor Colin Farrell. They worked together on In Bruges, another dark and witty crime film, which I really enjoyed. The later film is more ambitious, and certainly has entertaining moments, although I found it rather patchy in comparison to In Bruges.

The basic premise is that Farrell is a writer called Martin (naturally this predisposed me in his favour). He is based in California and working on a script called Seven Psychopaths. His pal Billy (Sam Rockwell), who offers to help him with the story, earns a crust by kidnapping dogs and earning rewards for returning them to their owners, Billy's partner, Hans (Christopher Walken) is a religious chap whose wife is suffering from cancer.

Things start to go badly wrong when Billy and Hans kidnap a dog to which a weird gangster played by Woody Harrelson is emotionally attached. In his demented quest to recover the dog, the gangster kills Hans' wife in hospital, and events spiral further out of control. This is a film where people die bloody, comic-book style deaths from the start of the film almost until its end.

The trouble with writing a screenplay about a screenplay is that self-awareness can slip into self-indulgence, and I felt that Seven Psychopaths' gleeful way with violence was sometimes at odds with more serious aspects of the story. The cast is strong, and I can see why the film has won many admirers, but it did leave me with mixed feelings.At times it seems too clever for its own good. Worth watching,yes, but for me, In Bruges is the better film.

Friday 5 February 2016

Forgotten Book - Lobelia Grove

Lobelia Grove was the second novel published under the name of Anthony Rolls, a follow-up to the successful The Vicar's Experiments. The book appeared in 1932, and my copy, from the Bob Adey collection, is signed by the author and dated September 1932. It's signed in his real name, C.E. Vulliamy, rather than as Rolls. (Bob's copy of the first Rolls book is signed in both names.)

The setting is a fictitious "garden suburb", and the social life of Kipperly  Park is portrayed with a great deal of sly wit. One always feels, with Rolls-Vulliamy that constructing a mystery interested him rather less than exercising his gift for satire,,but I must say I really enjoyed this one. He tackles the theme of the craving for respectability exhibited by so many English people, and he presents us with a number of incisive portraits of local characters, and how they behave when murder disrupts the serenity of their lives.

A case in point is Mr Bertie Quirtle (the author liked to give his characters unlikely names, a habit that I find a trifle irritating). Quirtle is returning home one night when he encounters a rude stranger in a hurry. Almost immediately thereafter,he stumbles across the body of one of his neighbours. Rather than doing something about it, he scuttles off and later tells a series of lies, seemingly out of fear of becoming involved.

There's a pleasingly ironic plot twist towards the end, but the real pleasure of the book comes from Vulliamy's jokes, and his ability to make shrewd points through humour. At the time he was writing, these books must have seemed refreshingly "different", and they still retain that quality. Yes, the influence of Francis Iles can be detected, but unlike Iles, Vulliamy was not someone who had written tightly structured whodunits, and this helps to explain why his novels focus more on people than on plot. He was a novelist who happened to write about crime. All the books of his that I've read are worth seeking out..  .

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Curtain Up by Julius Green

The sub-title of Julius Green's Curtain Up is "Agatha Christie: a life in theatre", and this tells you clearly what the book is all about. Green starts as he means to go on: "This is the story of the most successful female playwright of all time. She also wrote some books." Yes, he's talking about Dame Agatha, the Queen of Crime, and he argues plausibly that "the significance of her contribution to theatre has been largely overlooked by historians."

I've seen several Christie plays over the years, although by no means all of them. I was especially interested to read here a very full account of the genesis of Fiddlers Five, which I went to see when it was on tour in Manchester. It was a birthday treat, and the cast included Colin Bean, who used to play Private Sponge in Dad's Army. The play can't, sadly, be described as a great success, and Christie later refined it into Fiddlers Three. By then, however, she was past her best as both a crime writer and as a playwright..I learned from Green (amongst many other things) that the play was originally called This Mortal Coil, and he reminded me that the tour was led by veteran actor-manager James Grant Anderson.

There is a wealth of detail in this extensively researched book. Again, I found myself especially intrigued by the parts where Green expanded my own knowledge of subjects I find interesting - such as Agatha's involvement with Frank Vosper. I also loved learning more about little-known apprentice works such as Eugenia and Eugenics. My impression is that Green is keener on the theatre than on detective fiction generally, but he makes telling points about the plotting of the plays, as well as discussing various adaptations by the likes of the prolific crime writer Gerald Verner.

One of the first points Green makes about his approach to his subject is a technical one: "As a reader I dislike footnotes and endnotes and find them an annoyance,but as a researcher I find it helpful when writers cite their sources." He explains that his method has been to offer a compromise, with sources mentioned in a website rather than in a book. There are various ways of tackling this dilemma (which is a very real one) and I dealt with it differently in The Golden Age of Murder, because my aims were different, but Green's method seems to me well suited to his material and his concerns. I'm delighted to have a copy of this book in my library, and I'm sure I'll refer to it again and again.

Monday 1 February 2016

Spectre - film review

Spectre, the latest James Bond film, is the fourth to feature Daniel Craig, and mixes up the familiar ingredients with enough flair to ensure that, although it runs for well over two hours, the action and interest never flag. Once again the director is Sam Mendes, and if he doesn't quite recapture the brilliance of the last Bond movie, Skyfall, which is arguably the best of them all, he comes fairly close.

The film gets off, as you'd expect, to an explosive start, with Craig in pursuit of bad guys at the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City. When he returns to London, it is to find that things are changing in the world of the secret service. Is there any future for the lone agent with a licence to kill in an age when hi-tech global surveillance is the name of the game? Well, we know the answer to that one, but there's great fun to be had along the way to having our suspicions confirmed.

Q - the excellent Ben Whishaw - is pressed into service again, and comes up with some of his best gadgets. I loved the witty moment when Bond, having nicked 009's Aston Martin, found himself playing a Frank Sinatra song from his colleague's playlist in the midst of a breathless chase through the narrow streets of Rome. The jokes are an important part of the Bond movies, and there are some good ones in this film.

About the plot itself, possibly the less said the better: it's not a strong point. But when the confection as a whole is so entertaining, this doesn't matter as much as it would do usually. The theme song by Sam Smith, "Writing's on the Wall" makes much less of an immediate impact than Adele's brilliant theme for Skyfall, but having listened to it several times since, I've warmed to the song. Not quite up to the late, inimitable John Barry, but not at all bad. As for the film itself, it's fun viewing, and that's what a Bond movie should be.