Friday 30 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Little Walls

The Little Walls was published in 1955, and the following year, it won the CWA's Crossed Red Herring Award for the best crime novel of the year. That was the very first time the prize had been awarded. It's now the CWA Gold Dagger. Some of the finest crime novels of the past sixty years have won the Gold Dagger, but a surprising number have fallen far out of sight since then.

The Little Walls is among them, and yet its author is renowned. He was Winston Graham, famous above all for Poldark, which I've never read or watched, but which is undoubtedly very popular. What is more, Graham's crime fiction was also successful - Hitchcock filmed Marnie, for instance, and The Walking Stick also became a movie.

This novel reminded me strongly of the type of thriller Eric Ambler was writing at much the same time. Graham's writing, like Ambler's, is several cuts above the average. He is strong on character and setting and competent with plot, though this isn't a whodunit. Rather, it involves the attempt by Philip Turner to find out the truth about the death of his brother, who apparently committed suicide by jumping into a canal in Amsterdam.

The heart of the book lies in a series of moral dilemmas. Graham contrasts two different types of personality, in effect representing good and evil, and does so in a way that is constantly interesting, even if the pace is occasional less fast than one expects of a thriller. Much of the action takes place in Capri, and he evokes that lovely island's languid nature very well. I can see why this book won the award, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it at last.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books - Reviews and Blog Tour

I'm just back from a short break, during which I was thrilled to get word of a wonderful and very extensive review of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in the Sunday Times. Roland White described the book as "a fascinating guide". It's a long time since I last featured in the Sunday Times. My fourth novel Yesterday's Papers, was one of their Paperbacks of the Year; a great honour, though alas it didn't stop Transworld from deciding not to publish me in paperback any longer (in those days I had a separate hardback publisher). I'm hoping to avoid a similar fate this time....

The book has also been discussed at considerable length in reviews on Bookbag and Cross Examining Crime. It goes without saying that I'm very gratified by the reaction. One labours over a book like this for a long time, constantly trying to make it better, yet conscious that perfection is never achievable. The real question is: how far short of perfection does one fall? It's essential to be philosophical about reviews, because you can never please everybody, but it's always a huge relief when people react positively. Although I never release a book without feeling it's the best I could have done, there's never any guarantee that others will feel likewise (or alternatively, that one's best is good enough). Perhaps because of the enormous positivity about the book so far on both sides of the Atlantic,  publication in the UK has just been brought forward a few days, to today.

Today also marks the start of my blog tour featuring the book. I've contributed distinct but overlapping posts to a range of excellent blogs both here and in the US. Today we start with Lesa Holstine's blog. I first met Lesa quite a while back, when I (together with Ann Cleeves and the late Stuart Pawson) did an event for a group of visiting American crime fans in Harrogate. I'm also looking forward to talking to a similar group in the Lake District next month. Such events, and the connections they engender, are definitely a part of the pleasure of the life of a writer. And so are intelligent and encouraging reviews.

Monday 26 June 2017

Out of the Fog - 1962 film review

Out of the Fog is a black and white thriller film dating from 1962. Its alternate title, Fog for a Killer, is also the title of the book, written by Bruce Graeme, on which the screenplay is based. Graeme, a founder member of the Crime Writers' Association, enjoyed a long and prolific career as a novelist, and although he was never a superstar, he was a highly professional storyteller.

His ability to put together a suspenseful story is illustrated by this film. George Mallon (David Sumner) is a surly young man with a series of convictions to his name. He's released from prison, and offered a place in a hostel along with a number of other ex-cons, with whom he fails to bond. I was intrigued to see that the woman who helps to run the hostel was played by Renee Houston, whose sister Billie made a brief foray into crime writing with Twice Round the Clock. .

Mallon gets a job as a delivery man, and has a brief romance with a young blonde woman which ends abruptly when she is murdered. Nor is she the first victim of a killer with a seeming taste for killing young blonde women. The police suspect Mallon, but have no evidence to prove his guilt. So a young blonde-haired officer (Susan Travers) is given the task of acting as bait.

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. I figured out what was going to happen, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying this short, snappy film. Sumner and Travers went on to enjoy long careers as actors without really hitting the heights, but Travers in particular does a good job here. There's a decent jazzy soundtrack by Ken Thorne, and overall I felt this film was a notch or two above the average for its time.

Friday 23 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Gilded Fly

Yes, I know. It's pushing things to describe Edmund Crispin's The Case of the Gilded Fly as a Forgotten Book. But the Harper Collins Detective Story Club has reissued the novel, and it's good to see it featuring in this eclectic and attractively presented collection. And this edition benefits from an introduction by Doug Greene, who knows more about classic crime than almost anyone I know.

I first came across this novel as a teenager. I'd read and enjoyed The Moving Toyshop, so I borrowed this one from the public library next. Now at the age of 13 or so, I had never been to Oxford, and certainly no concept of what it was like - quite a disadvantage when reading Crispin. This story, like The Moving Toyshop, features an apparent impossibility, but is an apprentice work - Crispin wrote it when he was still an undergraduate at St John's College. And the first chapter introduces a large cast of characters, wittily yet a little clumsily. I have to say that the young Martin Edwards was a bit disappointed, and in fact I didn't finish it. Nor did I return to Crispin until some years had passed.

Now, of course, I appreciate Crispin much more than I did then. His wit and cleverness are strengths, though I think that in this novel, the intelligence is rather self-conscious, a sign of the author's inexperience. My adolescent judgement of the book was too harsh, And now that I love Oxford as Crispin did, I empathise with his portrayal of the city and its eccentric characters.

Especially for such a very young author, this is a well-contrived mystery, although it's still, in my opinion, clearly inferior to books such as The Moving Toyshop and Buried for Pleasure. Yseut, the victim, is suitably unpleasant, but Fen is also, as Crispin seems to acknowledge, pretty irritating too - especially when he makes clear that he knows whodunit early on, but declines to tell. I know Poirot did this time and again, but Fen doesn't carry it off quite as well, and the killer strikes again before the final unmasking.. A critic in The Indpendent even said in a review that he wished Fen, rather than Yseut, had been the victim! As for the murder motive, I'm afraid it' emerges from nowhere, really: not exactly fair play. For a Golden Age fan, Crispin is always worth reading, and there's a lot of pleasure to be had here from his humour and his evocation of Oxford. But for all its merits, it is an apprentice work..

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Lichfield and Remembrance

Yesterday, I seized the opportunity of another lovely June day to follow up a very good recommended trip to a couple of destinations in Staffordshire. And it worked out really splendidly, as well as being rather thought-provoking.

First stop was Lichfield. I've never been there in my life before, partly because my heart always sinks at driving down the M6 (not that anyone who lives in Lymm and likes to travel can really avoid the motorway, mind you). I've heard great things about the cathedral and the town itself is lively and attractive.

I had not, though heard of Erasmus Darwin until I stumbled across his house, now turned into a museum with a lovely garden. It turns out that Erasmus was not only Charles Darwin's grandad, but also a poet, doctor, scientist and inventor. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley all admired him. The museum is definitely worth a visit. Erasmus was clearly a remarkable man.

I did know that Dr Johnson hailed from Lichfield (as did David Garrick) and there are statues of both Johnson and Boswell in the market square. The cathedral is ancient and appealing, while the chapter house does an excellent ploughman's lunch. But I didn't have time for the Johnson birthplace museum, alas, because I also wanted to take in the National Memorial Arboretum, which is only a short drive away. This is a really impressive project, in the developing National Forest. Extensive tribute is paid to those who have given their lives in serving Britain, and I find the whole place poignant, not least a wonderful area given over to poppies and other wild flowers. It was a memorable trip.

Monday 19 June 2017

Bodies from the Library

I'm back from a brief but exhilarating trip to London, the highlight of which was the third Bodies from the Library event at the British Library on Saturday. The speakers and organisers had met the previous evening for a convivial meal, and I was also delighted to meet Professor Elinor Shaffer, sister-in-law of Peter and Antony Shaffer. This followed a catch-up with my former agent, Mandy Little, now retired, who had faith in  my writing before I published a single novel. It was Mandy who sold All the Lonely People, my first book, and I'll always be grateful to her.

I was asked to open and close Bodies, and between 10 am and 5.15 there was a lot happening. Jake Kerridge moderated a panel featuring Len Tyler, Seona Ford of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society and me, and we talked about aspects of the Golden Age. Tony Medawar spoke about John Rhode, Kirsten Saxton talked enthusiastically about The Incredible Crime, and John Curran about crossword puzzles and classic crime. Then Rob Davies interviewed me about The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

The book was on sale at the event, and upwards of 80 copies were sold. I've never sold anything like as many hardbacks on a single occasion. Plenty of copies of Taking Detective Stories Seriously were also sold - very gratifying. The afternoon events included a Sayers radio play, talks on Elizabeth Daly, Ethel Lina White, Ronald Knox and Edmund Crispin, and a panel in which the speakers talked about their favourite classic crime novels.

For me the day was something of a whirl, just as Alibis in the Archive was the previous week, I was delighted to have the chance to say hello to a lot of nice people, and even send a recorded message to fans of the Detection Club in Brazil (didn't expect that!) but of course there's never enough time during such concentrated events. The main thing was that several people expressed the view that this was the best Bodies yet, and we are all hoping that it will happen again next year. The atmosphere was hugely positive.

There being no rest for the wicked, I then hosted a CWA reception immediately afterwards, announcing that the winner of the 2017 CWA Dagger in the Library is Mari Hannah. The shortlist was very strong and so it was a particular pleasure to congratulate Mari. After dinner with a few friends,,I  must admit that I was quite exhausted. But it was worth it. A grand day.

Friday 16 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Lyttleton Case

The Lyttleton Case by R.A.V. Morris is a fairly early example of the Golden Age detective novel. It was first published by Collins in 1922, and was well received, but the author never returned to the genre. I find this puzzling, and so evidently did Douglas A. Anderson, who contributes a useful foreword to the new edition, which appears in Harper Collins' splendid Detective Story Club series of reprints.

I have to say I'd never heard of Morris, or his book until this new edition came out. Douglas Anderson suggests that Morris was tempted to write because he wanted to keep up with the achievements of his brother Kenneth, who wrote fantasy novels. Both men were members of the Theosophical Society, but there's no explanation as to why Morris didn't build on the success of his crime fiction debut.

Anderson points out that there are various references to detective fiction in the story - Dupin and Sherlock are name-checked, but perhaps the most significant mention is that of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920). My impression is that the success of the Crofts book inspired Morris, because there are some similarities between his approach to crime writing and Crofts'. (Crofts also influenced better known writers such as G.D.H. Cole, Henry Wade, and John Bude).

The first part of the story is clever and appealing. A rich man called Lyttleton disappears, and we soon fear the worst for him. An ingenious crime has been committed, and the story is enhanced by several nice touches of wit. I felt, however, that it sagged quite noticeably from about the half-way point, and after the major revelation, the explanation of what has been going on is prolonged. These flaws are the marks of an inexperienced writer. But Morris certainly had talent, and it's a shame he didn't go on to greater things in the genre.

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Blackout - 1950 film

Blackout is another of those short, snappy black and white British films which the Talking Pictures TV channel has resurrected. It dates from 1950, and was an early collaboration between Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, who were later responsible, together and separately, for a host of successful TV series when I was growing up, notably the version of The Saint starring Roger Moore. Incidentally, this is an entirely different story from that in the 2007 movie also called Blackout, which I reviewed on this blog way back in 2010.

The screenplay, by John Gilling, is based on a story by Carl Nystrom, who wrote a number of TV and film stories in the post-war era. The initial premise is a version of a rather familiar, but often effective, opening to a story. A blind man turns up for an appointment, but arrives at the wrong house. He stumbles over a man's corpse, along with a sinister trio of bad guys who unwisely allow him to live because he can't recognise their faces.

Christopher Pelly is an engineer who lost his eyesight in an accident. When he tells the police about the crime he uncovered, he isn't believed, but he revisits the house where the killing took place,and befriends Patricia Dale, who turns out to be the sister of the dead man - who was supposedly killed in an aeroplane accident a year earlier. Together they determine to find out what really happened.

After a strong start,the story falters rather, and I found Pelly's refusal to involve the police sooner rather irritating. Maxwell Reed plays him in the manner of a poor man's Robert Mitchum, while Dinah Sheridan plays the plucky young Englishwoman with her usual efficiency. An interesting supporting cast includes the likes of Eric Pohlmann (later the voice of Blofeld in a couple of Bond films) as a baddie,and Campbell Singer, who was a familiar TV character actor in the 60s, as a police inspector.

Monday 12 June 2017

Alibis in the Archive

I'm back from an exhilarating week-end at one of my favourite places, Gladstone's Library in Hawarden. We had the Alibis in the Archive weekend event to celebrate the official launch of the British Crime Writing Archives - that is, the archives of both the Crime Writers' Association and the Detection Club.

We organised a packed programme, and the aim was to give delegates plenty of value for money Even so, we were delighted when the week-end sold out back in March -  only a few weeks after being announced. Capacity is limited, and delegates who couldn't be accommodated in the lovely rooms at the Library were able to stay at a nearby hotel.

After dinner on Friday, the first event was an interactive murder mystery evening hosted by Ann Cleeves. This proved enormously popular. On Saturday, we kicked off with David Stuart Davies (who had acted in the murder mystery) giving a rousing talk about Sherlock Holmes. David Brawn of Harper Collins then talked about working with Agatha Christie's estate. I talked about the CWA and the Detection Club, and also their archives. And then Ann talked about Vera and Shetland. TV scripts that she has donated will in due course form part of the archives.

On Saturday afternoon, Rob Davies talked about the British Library, Linda Stratmann about poison, Kate Charles about clerical crime, and Kate Ellis about digging up the past. After dinner we had - yes! - a second murder mystery evening, this time hosted by Kate Ellis. Then on Sunday, Stella Duffy talked about Ngaio Marsh, Rob and I about the British Library's Crime Classics, and there was a panel discussion about Golden Age detective fiction.
We were delighted with the convivial atmosphere, and the enthusiasm of the delegates. A new group of people previously unfamiliar with Gladstone's Library fell in love with it. I had the pleasure of meeting many nice people - including John Bude's daughter, Jennifer.- and also of seeing a project that I've been involved with for a long time finally achieve a very significant milestone. The Archives will develop in the years to come, and I am optimistic that they will become an increasingly important resource for people who are interested in the heritage of crime fiction. The photos illustrating this post were taken by CWA Secretary Dea Parkin, to whom many thanks.

Friday 9 June 2017

Forgotten Book - Until She Was Dead

Richard Hull, author of today's Forgotten Book, was one of the most interesting Golden Age detective novelists. He was strongly influence by the work of Anthony Berkeley, writing as Francis Iles - it was as a result of reading Iles' instant classic Malice Aforethought that Hull decide to try his hand at writing a crime story. And Iles' cynicism and ironic view of the world is matched by Hull's.

What I like about Berkeley/Iles is that he was always keen to try something different. He showed courage as a writer, and even though some of the risks he took didn't come off, it seems to me that a writer who pushes the boundaries, and isn;t content to write the same book over and over again is to be admired. Following a formula, as many notable crime writers do, is all very well, but it's not really as exciting or inspiring.

Hull was an innovator, and was especially keen on playing tricky games with story structure. Again, it's undeniable that some of his tricks fell rather flat, and also that in his later work he began to struggle to match the originality of his earlier work. But even his weaker novels generally boast points of interest as far as a modern reader is concerned.

This is so with Until She Was Dead, which was first published in 1949. Again, Hull experiments with structure - we know from the outset that there is to be a murder trial, but we don't know who the victim was. So it's a form of "whowasdunin" story We then flash back in time, and see the build up to a crime committed, I have to say, by a rather chancy and unlikely means. In his personal life, Hull was keen on wine and philately, and both play a part in this story.

Unfortunately the small cast of suspects doesn't contain characters we care about - a recurrent weakness of this interesting and unorthodox author. The police detective, who sees the best in everyone, is a pleasing invention, but I felt the story flagged far too soon. So although I enjoyed its unusual features, overall I can't claim that it's a neglected masterpiece. A minor work from a writer of talent.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Murder Squad

Back in the year 2000, I received a phone call one day from my friend and fellow crime writer Margaret Murphy. She was experiencing a feeling that many, many writers will identify with. She was writing good books, and earning good reviews. But she hadn't broken through. Her profile was, she felt, relatively low. And she wanted to do something about it, by teaming up with a group of fellow writers in a similar position. Was I interested? You bet I was. Margaret's a very efficient person, and she soon recruited six colleagues - the result was that we formed Murder Squad.

We started doing events together - often just two or three of us, occasionally more. We travelled around the country to promote our books and each other, and great friendships were formed. We have produced three short story anthologies and even a CD. We even featured on TV's Inside Out programme, and the producer's idea of filming me wandering around underneath Runcorn Bridge even gave me the idea for a key scene in Waterloo Sunset. It's been a lot of fun.

Seventeen years on, Murder Squad is still going strong. So it's lasted much longer than the Beatles! There have been personnel changes, but not many. Sadly, our friend Stuart Pawson died, while Chaz Brenchley and John Baker no longer write crime fiction. But we have been joined by Chris Simms and Kate Ellis. Occasionally all six of us get together - the above photo was taken at Carlisle Crime Festival last year.

Now we're having a bit of a relaunch,and as part of that, we've revamped our website. Do take a look at it, and if you don't know them already, do take a look at the excellent books written by my fellow squaddies. I suspect many of you will already know Ann Cleeves' books, but you'll also enjoy the work of Cath, Kate, Chris, and Margaret (or should I call her A.D. Garrett? Or indeed Ashley Dyer!) You'll be glad you did, just as I'm very glad that Margaret called me all those years ago. .

Monday 5 June 2017

Kate Paul's Journal

I've mentioned Kate Clarke's writing about real life crime several times on this blog. Her career as a true crime specialist got off to a cracking start with the much-admired Murder at the Priory, co-written with Bernard Taylor, and since then she's produced a range of interesting books, as well as contributing an essay to Truly Criminal, last year's CWA anthology of work about real life cases, some of them notorious, some pretty obscure..

I've never met Kate in person, but she's a terrific correspondent. Some time ago, she sent me a copy of her Journal, published under her maiden name, Kate Paul. It took me far too long to get round to reading the Journal, but once I made a proper start on the story, I was hooked. It is, simply enough, a diary of a young woman's life experiences from the late 50s onwards, and it's fascinating on more than one level.

First, for the insight it gives into a young woman's mindset as she embarks on adult life, trying to work out her attitudes to the world in general, and more specifically the men she knows, art (which she studied at college), and teaching. Second, for the picture it gives of English society at the time, seen through the eyes of a young person shortly before the Beatles arrived on the scene, and the cultural changes we now associate with the Sixties really got going. And as a bonus there are mentions of some of the extraordinary people she got to know. Kate's circle in those days included David ("Dave") Hockney, Spencer ("Spence") Davies (later to have a big hit with "Keep on Running") and Julie Christie.

As a slice of social history, it really is hard to beat. If I were ever to write a story set in the early Sixties, I'd refer to the Journal for insight into how young people thought and behaved at the time. Kate was, as the photograph of her makes clear, most attractive, and yet it's clear that she also felt, at times, insecure and melancholic. In some ways, one would have thought the world was at her feet, and yet clearly it often didn't seem like that to her.

The Mass Observation archive at Sussex University has a good many of Kate's early papers, many of which relate to the period covered by the journal. For researchers into the period, I suspect this is treasure trove. And I hope that in the fullness of time, Kate's researches into criminal cases will also be properly archived. Her work on two principal subjects, British society during her lifetime, and criminal behaviour, is quite invaluable.

(Incidentally, my thanks to those who have pointed out the glitches on my website and blog over the past week or so. I thought the Russians or Chinese were hacking away, but it turns out the explanation is a more prosaic I.T. problem. So if you've seen and been perplexed by an early draft of this post previously, my apologies.)

Friday 2 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Football seldom features in Golden Age detective fiction. Hue and Cry by Bruce Hamilton, which features a football player who goes on the run after killing someone is a very rare exception. But in 1939, Leonard R. Gribble had the audacious idea of setting one of his Inspector Slade mysteries against the background of a real football club, one of the most famous in the world - Arsenal F.C.

Gribble was a writer with considerable commercial nous. He found support from the club, whose players and manager feature in the story, and The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was quickly filmed, by Thorold Dickinson, with Leslie Banks -at that time a very popular actor - playing the part of Slade. I watched and reviewed the film nearly nine years ago, and now the time has come to talk about the novel.

The setting, as the title makes clear, is Highbury (Arsenal only moved to the Emirates Stadium in recent times) and a match between Arsenal and a leading team of amateurs called The Trojans. During the game, one of the Trojans' players, a right-half (ah, those were the days) called Doyce, is taken ill and dies. It soon emerges that the cause of death is aconite poisoning. He has been murdered.

This is a highly readable fair play detective novel, and although I figured out the solution in good time, I enjoyed the story, not least as a reminder of how much the game has changed since the book was written. My copy is one of my most prized items in my personal collection - it was signed by the team and manager in 1942. One of those who signed, and who features in the story, is a player called Cliff Bastin, on whom my father - a useful amateur footballer in his day - modelled himself. I suspect he'd have been amused to learn that, even though I'm an avid Manchester City fan, I went to some lengths to track this copy down.