Saturday 31 December 2016

2016 - Publications

In 2016, I didn't publish a new novel, although The Dungeon House appeared in paperback, and earned very pleasing reviews. I'm afraid the same will be true in 2017 (though I am working on a new novel, promise!) Even so, this past twelve months proved to be the most wonderful of my entire writing career. And one of the main reasons is the success of The Golden Age of Murder, which outstrips anything else in my experience.
There was a dizzying 48 hour spell last April when I took the train from DC to New York, won the Edgar award for best non-fiction book on a fantastic evening, then returned just in time to take part in a panel at Malice Domestic celebrating the work of Patricia Moyes, before the gala dinner the next evening when the book won the Agatha. The company of great friends made the celebrations all the more special. Something I'll never forget.
As if that were not enough, the next month the book won the H.R.F. Keating award at Crimefest; it was especially pleasing that the award was presented by Harry Keating's widow, Sheila. I'd had dinner with her and her agent the previous night, but they'd kept secret the judges' verdict, although they'd been told of it. Then at Bouchercon in New Orleans, Janet Rudolph presented me with the Macavity award, given to the book by Mystery Readers International. Given that the book was also shortlisted for the Anthony award and the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction, and that fellow authors on the shortlists included some renowned writers, not least Val McDermid, Frederick Forsyth and Adam Sisman, it was almost overwhelming. Memories to cherish. I'm also delighted to say that I've recently signed contracts to have the book translated into both Japanese and Chinese.

Another memory to treasure concerned the Detection Club's annual dinner at the Dorchester in November, the first over which I'd presided. We presented the US and UK editions of Motives for Murder, a collection of new stories that I'd edited in honour of Peter Lovesey's 80th birthday to the man himself. In the summer the Club had also published The Sinking Admiral, masterminded by Simon Brett, to which I'd contributed a chapter.

During the year, I've published occasional short stories, and I've written plenty of intros to books published by the British Library, Dean Street Press, and Harper Collins. The British Library published three anthologies that I've edited: Murder at the Manor, Serpents in Eden, and Crimson Snow, and they've all sold very well; far better than most of the anthos I've worked on over the years. I was especially gratified by reaction to my new solution to Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which was published in the autumn by the BL. And there are plenty more BL books to come in 2017. Including three more anthologies. So although I aim to have another novel out in 2018, there's plenty to keep me occupied between now and then....

Finally, I wrote something else that didn't appear in print, but which has enjoyed a splendid short life within the British Library - the puzzle for customers of the Classic Crime pop-up shop, Murder at Magenta Manor. Attending the opening and seeing how imaginatively the design team had interpreted my material was fascinating, quite a unique occasion, as well as one more reminder of the reason for the endless appeal of crime fiction. The subject is deadly serious - but the genre is fun..

Friday 30 December 2016

2016 - People and Places

Each year brings its ups and downs as well as many unforgettable moments. For me, 2016 has been a wonderful twelve months, but before reflecting on some of the lovely people I've spent time with, and some of the fantastic places I've visited, allow me to pause and remember some old friends who died this year, including fellow crime writers Stuart Pawson and Tim Heald. I've happy memories of both of them; not least driving around Arizona with Stuart and his wife Doreen (she took the above photo of Stuart and me) and spending a bizarre but convivial weekend with Tim at a book festival to which hardly anyone came.

This year I've taken part in events to which quite a lot of people did come, in the company of a fascinating range of people - John Simenon, son of Georges, at the Essex Book Festival, for instance, and Kate Summerscale, Simon Brett and James Runcie at the London Library's 175th anniversary celebration, while Mark Lawson interviewed  Ann Cleeves and me at the British Library. I've given talks at libraries in Cheshire and Nottinghamshire, as well as hosting a murder mystery evening in North Wales and giving an after-lunch talk to the Margery Allingham Society. The CWA's conference at Norwich was not only convivial; it gave me the chance to fulfil an ambition of taking a boat trip on the Norfolk Broads. Each event had its own character; each was pleasurable. And having met John, it was especially amusing to share a seat with a statue of his father when on the Simenon trail in Liege a few months later.
Further afield, I've met up with old friends at Malice Domestic in Bethesda and at the New Orleans Bouchercon. And I've made a number of lovely new friends, including Shelly Dickson Carr, grand-daughter of the king of the locked room mystery, and Cathy Ace, born in Wales but resident in Canada, another writer of distinction. One of the most surreal moments of the year was joining up with Ali Karim and Mike Stotter on a flight from Atlanta and then taking a stretch limo from the airport to the Bouchercon hotel. Amazingly, it was cheaper than the regular transport. Only in New Orleans, I guess...

Through my involvement with the British Library, I've attended some terrific exhibitions and. I can strongly recommend the current exhibition on maps. A murder mystery weekend organised by Joy Swift in Stratford-on-Avon was great fun - Joy's events are also a must if you love interactive mysteries. As for seeing Burt Bacharach and Joss  Stone on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in the summer, it was a special treat. So were a birthday trip on a steam train in Llangollen, and a climb up to the limestone pavement at the top of Malham Cove on a sunny day which ended with a Yorkshire supper at Betty's Tea Room in Ilkley, where I gave a talk about Gil North's Sergeant Cluff.

Quite apart from conventions, I've done a lot of travelling, to places as varied as Antigua, Avignon, and Antwerp, Seville and St Thomas, Cordoba and Costa Rica, Brussels and Barbados, Stockholm and St Maarten, Panama and Puerto Rico. I've eaten in one of the late Stieg Larsson's favourite dining spots, been a guest of Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine brunch in Bethesda, drinks party in New York, and dinner in New Orleands, as well as sharing a dinner table with Lee Child, Val McDermid and Andrew Taylor in Oxford. Nobody's lucky all the time, but I've certainly had a huge amount of good fortune this past year. Believe me, I'm grateful for it. .

Thursday 29 December 2016

Jonathan Creek - Daemon's Roost - BBC TV review

Jonathan Creek returned last night with a brand new 90 minute episode, Daemon's Roost. David Renwick created Creek (Alan Davies) twenty years ago, and deserves a huge amount of credit for reviving interest in the locked room/impossible crime mystery. He did so by updating the form, combining clever plots with sharp humour and winning performances from Davies and his original partner in crime, Maddy, superbly played by Caroline Quentin.

It's often said that the law of diminishing returns applies to humorous crime stories. Creek is no longer a fresh face on the screen, and Maddy is long gone; her successors have all been very good actors (in fact Sheridan Smith is one of my top favourites) but none have quite been able to capture the same spark with Davies. The same is true of Polly, his wife, played by Sarah Alexander. Polly is beautiful, and she and Jonathan are happy together; perhaps the problem is that it's a relationship with insufficient conflict, other than Polly's determination to declutter Jonathan's life, and make a break with his past.

Daemon's Roost paid tongue-in-cheek homage to the Hammer Horror movie, in its opening scene and the plot as a whole. I was amused to see a film poster which gave, as the name of the schlocky screenwriter, David Wickren - one of those little jokes with which Renwick, a quite brilliant writer of comedy, likes to adorn his stories. We had a creepy old mansion, a mysterious old legend in the Baskerville tradition, and a sub-plot featuring a rather unlikely homicidal maniac, bent on murdering Jonathan.

There were some very good moments in the story - many of them featuring Warwick Davis, who was terrific as the cheery local vicar. (But might he also be a killer?) The clues varied from the unlikely to the obvious, but the method of murdering a rich wife was ingeniously contrived; John Dickson Carr would, I suspect, have enjoyed it. Because Jonathan Creek is now so familiar, this show won't have made the same impression as the early episodes - how could it? - but it was enjoyable seasonal fare.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Blind Date - 1959 film review

Blind Date (no, nothing to do with Cilla Black's TV show) is a film that was re-named Chance Encounter in the US. I'm not sure that either title is quite right, but Blind Date was the name Leigh Howard gave to the source novel, published in 1955. Four years later, Joseph Losey, a capable director, made the film.It's a murder mystery, but it also seems to aim to be something more.

The film begins rather oddly, with Hardy Kruger walking along a London street, clearly happy, and accompanied by a jaunty tune (the work of the young Richard Rodney Bennett, no less). He lets himself into a well-appointed flat, but whoever he hopes to meet isn't there. He finds some money in an envelope bearing his name, but then the police turn up. Gordon Jackson plays a stolid sergeant, soon pushed to one side by a Welsh inspector played by Stanley Baker and another inspector, this time a posh fellow whom the Welshman clearly doesn't care for.

Unfortunately for Kruger's character, the body of a woman is then found in the flat. He is reluctant to explain himself, but eventually his story comes out in a series of flashbacks. He's a struggling Dutch painter who was seduced by a French woman who is older, richer, and married. (She's played by Micheline Presle, a legend of French cinema, who is still going strong at the age of 84). He protests his innocence, but he is an obvious suspect.

There's quite a nice plot twist, but I felt the mystery element of the story was a bit thin. And gifted though Bennett was, I didn't feel that his score improved the film or even captured its mood. Losey devotes quite a lot of time to issues of the class divide in Britain, and this is interesting, though again laboured. There is, however, rich compensation in the presence of Baker, one of the most charismatic actors of his time. He died at the age of 48, weeks after it was announced he was to receive a knighthood in Harold Wilson's resignation honours list. Wilson was a friend of Baker's, but for me Baker deserved to be honoured. I'm not sure I've ever seen him give an indifferent performance, and at his best he was brilliant. Here, he makes an okay film something a little better than just okay.

Monday 26 December 2016

The Witness for the Prosecution - BBC TV review

The Witness for the Prosecution, part one of which aired on the BBC tonight, was always going to be one of the main events on this year's Christmas TV schedule. Agatha Christie's short story (originally written very early in her career, more than 90 years ago) was later turned into a play. In 1957, it was famously filmed by Billy Wilder.

Wilder's version boasted a crisp script and a terrific cast, including Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, and Charles Laughton. It is my favourite movie based on a Christie story. and set a very high standard for any subsequent adaptation. The BBC commissioned Sarah Phelps to write the new screenplay, a sound decision bearing in mind her good work last year with the script for And Then There Were None.

Less obvious was the decision to turn the story into a two hour-long episodes. That choice meant that Phelps was required to add quite a lot of backstory material - rather more than was needed last year. To update a Christie to this extent is always a risky enterprise, and Phelps' solution to the challenge is, in part, to focus on period atmosphere. In the first episode, this worked fairly well, but (pending seeing episode two) I'm inclined to think that a single 90-minute drama might have had more focus, and therefore greater intensity. There's a lot of darkness in this version, but that's not quite the same as intensity.

The BBC cast, if not quite in the league of Dietrich and company, is pretty good, with Toby Jones impressive as usual, playing the part of a down-at-heel solicitor. Naturally I empathised with him, just as Harry Devlin would. Billy Howie takes the role of Leonard Vole, while Andrea Riseborough is Romaine, and Kim Cattrall the older woman who takes up with a toy boy before meeting an untimely end. This version of a classic crime story has not yet displaced Wilder's film in my affections, and probably won't do so, but I will certainly be watching to see how Phelps handles the rest of the story.

Maigret's Dead Man - ITV and book review

Image result for maigret's dead man
Maigret's Dead Man was ITV's big Christmas Day production, marking a return to the screen for Rowan Atkinson as Jules Maigret. The screenplay by Stewart Harcourt was based on Georges Simenon's novel, a new edition of which I've just received for review from Penguin, who are steadily bringing back all the Maigret novels into print. (A big project - there are more than seventy of them...)

Atkinson's first outing as Maigret, Maigret Sets a Trap was screened at Easter. I rather enjoyed it, as I wrote on this blog, but overall, reaction was rather mixed. There will be some who feel that Maigret's Dead Man was not obvious seasonal fare, but I thought it was well done, and rather more compelling than the earlier adaptation. This is partly because Atkinson is growing into the role, partly because the storyline was more compelling.

A number of very violent robberies and murders are taking place at farms in Picardie. Maigret's assistance is sought, but he is distracted by the mysterious beating and murder of a man who has been trying to contact him by phone. The dead man said that Maigret knew his wife Nina, but the name rings no bells with the detective. We see some of the events of the dead man's last day - he is being pursued by two toughs, but we don't know why. Maigret is told not to waste his time on a gangland killing, but of course he is too persistent to let the matter slide.

When I first read Simenon as a teenager, I was disappointed that the Maigret stories weren't classic twisty whodunits. Nowadays I appreciate their virtues - in particular their glances at character, and their humanity. At the end of the TV programme, the adoption of a young child is proposed, and I was curious to see whether this was something just tacked on for the benefit of telly audiences (I wasn't sure the adoption was such a great idea, I must admit; to say why would be a spoiler). It turns out that that this strand of the finale is replicated, more or less, in the novel. Interesting. Overall, a good programme (although 90 minutes would have been a better length than 2 hours), and a good book.

Friday 23 December 2016

Forgotten Book - Another Little Christmas Murder

I thought that for today's Forgotten Book I'd adopt a seasonal approach. A Christmas crime story, and one that is easy to buy as a present, or for yourself. (I'm assuming, of course, that you're already stocked up with The Golden Age of Murder, Crimson Snow, Silent Nights, and the other Brtish Library Crime Classics,and...well, you get the picture!) So I was rather pleased to receive a new paperback with an appropriately snow-covered cover from Sphere -also the excellent publishers, I should say, of Motives for Murder, another book you really ought to treat yourself to!

The book in question is called Another Little Christmas Murder, and the author is Lorna NIcholl Morgan. She is, like Francis Duncan, author of a republished vintage Yuletide mystery that came out a year ago, someone whose work has long been forgotten. There's a difference between Morgan and Duncan on the one hand, and J.Jefferson Farjeon, author of Mystery in White, on the other: Farjeon was highly regarded in his day, whereas Duncan and Morgan never made much impression even when they were publishing new books.

In Morgan's case, that's partly because she only published four books - in a concentrated burst between 1944 and 1947. This was the last of them to appear - under the title Another Little Murder. There's no information about Morgan's life or other books in this edition, and I do think that's a pity. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling like that: countless people have contacted me from all around the world saying they've loved learning more about the likes of John Bude and company in the BL Crime Classics.

The massive success of Mystery in White created a bandwagon effect, and this year there are lots of books in the shops with Christmassy titles and cover artwork ,quite apart from the BL titles. Yet despite the change to the title of this book, the story does not actually take place at Christmas, which hasn't even arrived by the time the story comes to an end! This was a disappointment.

So what of the story itself? Well, I liked Dilys, the feisty young commercial traveller whose car gets stuck in the snow in a remote bit of Yorkshire, and who is offered refuge in a country house where there are plenty of mysterious goings-on. The book starts well, but the plot is weak, and my enthusiasm began to fade after fifty pages or so. In particular the criminal conspiracy at the heart of the plot is one that the author seems not to have really believed in herself, and I certainly didn't. I'm afraid I may be able to guess why this was her last published book. But never mind, this is the season of goodwill, and I want to end on a positive note. Morgan could write well, and she had a good sense of humour. I particularly liked the character who is an odious health fanatic. And Dilys is so engaging that it's a shame that she never had any more recorded adventures.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Another Death in Paradise?

Of the nine islands that I visited on my recent Caribbean trip, French was the principal language on just one, Guadeloupe (and one of two principal languages on St Maarten, an island split between the French and the Dutch). I found Guadeloupe fascinating, and not only because it's the place where that highly successful TV series Death in Paradise is filmed. The creator of the series, Robert Thorogood, named his fictional main town Honore, a hat tip to the scene of the crime in Agatha Christie's A Caribbean Mystery.

I didn't actually make it to the resort where the show is filmed, though one couple did make that specific pilgrimage, such is their love of the series. But Guadeloupe is full of interesting and often very beautiful places. And my interest in the macabre was piqued by the fascinating "checkerboard cemetery" to which we were taken. I've never seen anything quite like it.

During my trip, I managed to do plenty of reading, and the books I devoured will feature on this blog in the near future. I also had time to think about my current work in progress. But even more importantly in the long run, perhaps, I was able to continue my research into Caribbean life. I'm hoping to make something substantial out of this.
My fascination with the area has already resulted in two short stories. "A Glimpse of Hell", set in Gran Cayman, has already been published, while "Farewell Cruise" should appear in print next year. But I also have other plans in mind, which will draw on the research I've managed to undertake during my various trips to the area over the past three years. It will be a while before I'm in a position to talk further about these plans, but suffice to say that I am sure that Death in Paradise has not exhausted the possibilities for Caribbean-based crime fiction, and what I have in mind is something very different.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Another Caribbean Mystery Tour

I've just returned from a wonderful trip, exploring the Caribbean (for reasons which I'll talk about a little tomorrow). Drinking rum punch at 90 degrees Fahrenheit in lovely St Thomas (above) in the US Virgin Islands, as I was last Friday, is - I need hardly say - a great way to run up to Christmas. Even if it does mean that my Yuletide preparations so far are more or less non-existent.and  the process of adapting back to chilly Cheshire is a bit of a challenge.
The trip started with a couple of days in Puerto Rico (above and below photos). It's an island which was for many years home to Muna Lee, one half of the writing duo Newton Gayle which produced five high calibre mysteries in the Golden Age. Murder at 28:10 is an atmospheric story set on the island during the hurricane season which I enjoyed some time ago, but of course there's no substitute for seeing the real place. I was very taken with Puerto Rico,and the historic capital San Juan.
After San Juan came a cruise, mostly to islands that I'd never visited before. There are many reasons why I enjoy cruising - prime among them is the chance to sample fresh places, and expand my knowledge and understanding of the world, and the different people who live in it. It's something that, I've had more of a chance to do in recent time than for most of my life, and for any author, that exposure to fresh cultures and fascinating people has to be hugely beneficial.
Two islands I had visited previously were Barbados and St Lucia. Holidays on Barbados inspired Agatha Christie to write A Caribbean Mystery, one of the first detective stories I ever read, although she located her crime on the fictional island of St Honore. I don't, however, know which island inspired the setting of Roger East's rather less well-known, but memorably titled  Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors, which is set in a fictional West Indian republic. .

Monday 19 December 2016

Rogue's Yarn - 1957 film review

Rogue's Yarn is a film released in 1957 which has recently featured on the Talking Pictures TV channel. The clever screenplay, by Vernon Sewell and Ernie Bradford, is an "inverted mystery", and the story is told in gripping fashion. It may not be Dial M for Murder, but it's not far short of Hitchcock's much better known movie in terms of storytelling quality. A well-made film, it's definitely worth watching.

Our attention is grabbed right at the start. Michele Cartier (Nicole Mauray) is waiting for the arrival of her lover, John Marsden (Derek Bond, the best-known actor in the cast). He announces that he has bad news. This turns out to be an announcement that his invalid wife, whose death the pair had been eagerly anticipating, is now expected to make a full recovery from serious illness.

The snag is that the wife is very rich, and the lovers are desperate not only to get together, but to do so with Mrs Marsden's money. The only solution is murder. Marsden, an accomplished sailor, quickly works out an elaborate plan which involves taking his boat on a trip to Le Havre to create an alibi, then swimming back to the English shore to do the dirty deed.

At first, all goes well. Unfortunately, the Yard are called in, and Inspector Walker (Elwyn Brook-Jones, who is very good in the role) decides to take a closer look at the circumstances of the crime. We know that all is not likely to go well for Marsden, and we don't like him enough to root for him to get away with it, but there are several memorable moments, notably including a great scene where Walker, not once but several times, nearly walks into a fatal trap set by the bad guy.

Friday 16 December 2016

Forgotten Book - Death of a Queen

Death of a Queen by Christopher St John Sprigg is definitely a Forgotten Book. I've been searching for it in vain for many years, but I finally had an opportunity to read the British Library's copy. If you found a nice copy in a dust jacket, it would be a good investment, I suspect, because the BL's republication of Sprigg's Death of an Airman has led to a renewal of interest in this fascinating author. Some people have told me that book is their favourite in the Crime Classics series.

Published in 1935, this was the last conventional whodunit to appear under Sprigg's name prior to his untimely death in the Spanish Civil War. (Six Queer Things was published posthumously). The book is sub-titled "Charles Venables' fourth case", and here the journalist is called upon by Whitehall to assist a sympathetic (and conveniently English-speaking) tiny state in the Balkans.

My heart sank when I realised that this story takes place in Iconia. So many Golden Age books have plots or sub-plots involving sub-Ruritanian kingdoms on the brink of revolution, and handle the material ineptly. But Sprigg recognises the difficulties, and explicitly, if rather cheekily, makes it clear at the outset that Iconia is no Ruritania. He also invents the country's history, heritage and architecture with great enthusiasm, and this makes the story all the more appealing.

What's more, there is a very good "impossible crime" at the heart of the story. How did the eponymous monarch - strangled with a silken cord - meet her end, when her chamber was under constant observation, and nobody saw the murderer go in or out? Sprigg handles the unlikely plot twists with gusto. All in all, this is an enjoyable story, extremely far-fetched, but told with youthful zest. I'm glad I overcame my initial reservations and read it through to the end.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Endless Night - 1972 film review

Endless Night is one of the very best books that Agatha Christie wrote in the last fifteen years of her life. I think it's under-rated, perhaps because it re-uses one of her earlier ideas for a plot twist. But it does so in a very pleasing way. Not an easy book to adapt for the big screen, though, and the 1972 film version is not, I think, widely admired.

But when I saw it as a student, I enjoyed it, and when I watched it again the other night, I enjoyed it all over again. This was the last film directed by Sidney Gilliat, a talented director whose previous work included the film of Green for Danger, and a writing credit for The Lady Vanishes. He does a fairly good job of handling the plot twists, though of necessity he has to make various changes to the story structure. One or two scenes are a little clumsy, but overall I think it works.

Gilliat had the benefit of an excellent cast. Hywel Bennett, who plays Mike Rogers, a drifter who marries a rich woman, is excellent. At around this time, Bennett was a bankable actor. He was charismatic, and very good at playing ambivalent characters. He'd have been superb as one of Ruth Rendell's amiable sociopaths - what a shame this never happened. And he was very good as the homicidal doctor in the 70s TV version of Malice Aforethought.

Two contrastingly beautiful women, Hayley Mills and Britt Ekland, play crucial roles in the story, while George Sanders is suitably suave as the family lawyer, and Peter Bowles plays the likeable cad with his customary gusto. This is an eerie mystery, about an apparent curse, a magnificent house, and a diabolical murder scheme, and it all makes for good entertainment.

Monday 12 December 2016

The Haunted Library and Lost in a Pyramid

The British Library publishes a wide range of books. Naturally, my focus is on the Classic Crime series, but I've also enjoyed a number of their other publications in recent times. And just in time for Christmas, they've published two short story collections which are very much in keeping with the tradition of spooky stories for a dark winter's night.

The Haunted Library (great title!) is a volume of stories selected by Tanya Kirk. She was responsible for the BL's excellent Gothic Imagination exhibition last year- which I really enjoyed. Now she's put together a book of classic ghost stories by a range of authors, several of whom I'm not familiar with. The obvious exception is M.R. James, and "The Tractate Middoth" was televised a couple of years back. A notable story, ideal for this particular book.

Other notable contributors include Edith Wharton, Algernon Blackwood and Elizabeth Bowen. But I'd never heard of A.N.L. Munsby or one or two of the others. Mixing familiar writers with those who are long neglected is a good recipe for an anthology of this kind. A similar approach has been adopted by Andrew Smith, who is responsible for Lost in a Pyramid and other classic Mummy stories..

Andrew Smith's intro talks very interestingly about his subject, and it directed me to a book by Roger Luckhurst about "mummy curse" fiction, which I've just bought. "Lot no. 249" by Arthur Conan Doyle is the only story I've read before, but a varied range of contributors, including Louisa May Alcott, Grant Allen, and Sax Rohmer ensure that there's plenty of entertainment for mummy fans everywhere!.

Friday 9 December 2016

Forgotten Book - The Fashion in Shrouds

The description "forgotten book" is, to be honest, a misnomer when it comes to Margery Allingham's 1938 novel The Fashion in Shrouds. The famous Observer critic Torquemada extolled the book, saying, "To Albert Campion has fallen the honour of being the first detective to figure in a story which is also by any standard a distinguished novel". I'm not sure whether Dorothy L.Sayers would have agreed; perhaps she'd have thought that she'd beaten her friend Allingham to that particular achievement. But it's undeniably a stylish novel.

Time and again there are pleasing and inventive turns of phrase, of a kind that one doesn't usually find in the typical Golden Age mystery. What's more, the presentation of the fashion world, which provides, in the early stages of the story, an interesting setting, is convincing. Allingham's presentation of character generally avoids the usual cliches, and the relationship Campion has with the lovely young Amanda Fitton is quite subtly done.

It's not easy to read this book in the precisely way that readers in 1938 would have read it. There's a good deal about social class, and the role of women in society, that relates to the time, and although Allingham handles these issues in a thoughtful way, so much has changed. Overall, I did not find these aspects of the book to be as compelling as some of her admirers suggest. For me, as with Sayers' Gaudy Night, Fashion in Shrouds does sacrifice something in the attempt at literary sophistication. The plot simply isn't as exciting as, say, the plot of Christie's The ABC Murders or Wade's Lonely Magdalen.- and the latter also offers a fascinating picture of society, and the role of police in enforcing the law.

What of the story? The amoral Georgia Wells poses a threat to the relationship between Campion's sister Valentine and Alan Dell (for whose company Amanda works).Georgia's husband is murdered, and the fate of his predecessor also comes under the microscope. But the plot is secondary, I think, and for that reason I don't feel tempted to rave about this book in the way its most ardent fans do. Even so, I enjoyed reading it, and as Torquemada said, the writing is distinguished.

,  .

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Build My Gallows High - film review

Build My Gallows High - also known, but I think less memorably, as Out of the Past - is a classic film noir dating from 1947 that, somehow or other, I've managed to miss all these years. At last I've caught up with it, and I was impressed, not least with the central performance by Robert Mitchum as a man who goes by the name Jeff Bailey.

The film opens with a man arriving at Bailey's gasoline station, and one immediately fears the worst. Bailey has a pretty, innocent girlfriend, and when the newcomer threatens his new-found happiness, he tells her about his past. His real name is Jeff Markham, and he was formerly a partner in a two-man private eye firm. He was hired by Whit Sterling, a rich crook (Kirk Douglas) to find a woman who, he says, shot him and made off with forty thousand dollars. But when he eventually caught up with the missing lady, he fell head over heels for her.

This isn't surprising, because Kathie (Jane Greer) is beautiful and seductive. I can't recall having seen Jane Greer before, but she makes a truly stunning femme fatale. As the plot becomes increasingly complex, her habit of destroying the men who cross her path is utterly compelling. This is a doom-laden film, with superbly concise dialogue.   .

The source material was the final novel written by Daniel Mainwaring (1902-77), published under the name Geoffrey Homes. He also wrote the screenplay, and became more interested in scripting films than in turning out more novels - though I'd guess his earlier books are well worth seeking out. The director of the film was the gifted Jacques Tourneur, whose other work included Cat People and The Leopard Man (based on Black Alibi, an excellent book by Cornell Woolrich). Build My Gallows High was successfully re-made as Against All Odds in 1984; I haven't seen it (though I liked the famous theme song), but I'm keen to watch it now, especially as it features Jane Greer - but not, this time, as a femme fatale.

Monday 5 December 2016

The Girl on the Train - book review

Paula Hawkins' thriller The Girl on the Train has become perhaps the most successful book in roughly the same vein as Gillian Flynn's bestseller Gone Girl. (Perhaps I should have called my last book The Girl from the Dungeon House). It's an example of domestic suspense, an update of the woman-in-jeopardy type of novel that has been around for many years, but which has in recent times had a fresh lease of life.

Hawkins' book, like Flynn's, features unreliable narrators, and marriages tested to destruction. Like Flynn, she uses first person narratives cunningly; they give the story immediacy (even though some of the sections are set before the crucial sequence of events begins) and they conceal as much as they reveal. These are powerful techniques if used well, and I feel that Hawkins handles the material expertly. I was not surprised to learn that, although this is the first Hawkins novel, she has previously published fiction under a pen-name as she learned her craft. There is something highly professional about the storytelling.

The principal narrator (there are three in all) is Rachel, an alcoholic who becomes obsessed with the lives of a seemingly happy couple whose house is on her train route. Hawkins has acknowledged her debt to Rear Window (the film, perhaps, rather than Cornell Woolrich's excellent novella) and is evidently an Alfred Hitchcock fan, but makes inventive use of the idea of a voyeur watching a crime scene. Rachel behaves crazily, involving herself in lives that are no business of hers, with dangerous results. It's all very gripping.

An interesting feature of the book is that there are only six main characters, three men and three women. Suffice to say that none of them is likeable, and if you prefer your novels to have at least one character you can love, you may not find this book to your taste. Yet Hawkins has argued that there is something appealing about Rachel, and I certainly found myself wanting to know what fate she would meet. Gone Girl set a high standard for domestic suspense novels, but Hawkins' book is a worthy example of the form, and deserves its success..

Friday 2 December 2016

Forgotten Book - Policemen in the Precinct

E.C.R. Lorac published Policeman in the Precinct,,my Forgotten Book for today, in 1949. It's an enjoyable read, and the setting is the precinct of Paulborough Abbey, a fictitious place located somewhere around the Cotswolds. The Abbey and its environs are well realised, suggesting a real life model, though I'm not quite sure what the "original", if there is one, might be. Lorac wanted to disguise the place, perhaps because she has harsh things to say about the gossipy behaviour of the locals, and the selfish, high-handed attitudes of the Dean.

In fact, I found her portrayal of the small world of the Abbey precinct even more interesting than the whodunit puzzle. In saying this, I must add that the "mystery" element of the story is certainly not weak or flimsy. No fewer than four suspicious deaths (not all of them necessarily involving murder) take place, and one of them reminded me of a similar crime in Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly, published seven years later. Suspicion switches around a small (perhaps too small?) cast of suspects before Chief Inspector Macdonald figures out the truth.

The key death is that of a malicious gossip called Mrs Mayden. Although this is not a "poison pen letter" story, the point is made that the spreading of unkind rumours about Paulborough people by word of mouth is in the same vein as an outbreak of spiteful letters. Mrs Mayden was a religious fanatic, and Lorac clearly has no time for such folk, or for people who enjoy backbiting.

Macdonald voices sentiments which surely express Lorac's own views: "I''m probably incapable of judging the high ecclesiastic fairly. I'm a Protestant by nature, and priestly arrogance gets all my hackles up".At one point he advocates rehousing the inhabitants of the precincts in the poorest cottages in town:"They might then find so much to do that they might mend their ways of taking excessive interest in their neighbours' visitors.."

Macdonald's humane outlook on life is emphasised, and we also learn a bit about his background. He describes himself as a "London Scot", whose father, a journalist, came from Inverness to London. Macdonald served in the London Scottish during the war, before going up to Oxford, but his father's death during his first year as a student meant that he had to earn a living, prompting a decision to join the Metropolitan Police. He's a bachelor whose batman used to do his chores, before both the batman and his home were bombed out of existence in 1941. Macdonald moved to a modern block of flats, still facing the river, but finds it "a poor way of living, and London seems to have altered such a lot since..I was a boy". This story is a good one, and Macdonald is a very likeable character.