Wednesday 30 August 2017

The Return of Notable British Trials

Regular readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for true crime cases, and books about them. It's this interest that fuelled my novel Dancing for the Hangman, my non-fiction book Urge to Kill, and my CWA anthology Truly Criminal. And I've enjoyed many fascinating conversations with criminologists - only the other day I had a very pleasant lunch with someone who did ground-breaking research on the legendary Wallace case, and who turns out to live just a few miles away.

Given all that, I was naturally delighted to learn from Kate Clarke that the Notable British Trials series of books is to enjoy a new lease of life, after a hiatus lasting more than half a century. This is, I imagine, another spin-off of changes within the publishing industry, and the economics of publishing, and very welcome it is. The new publishers, taking a licence from the rights owners, are Mango Books, evidently a young and forward- looking company.

Adam Wood, who runs Mango, told me: "One of the intriguing parts of identifying cases which should be added to the NBT series is whether a transcript of the trial is available. We prepared a list of cases which were obvious omissions in the original series, but on further investigation realised that none existed in the obvious places and that's probably why William Hodge didn't include them. Thankfully, with the British Newspaper Archives now available online, we are able to access contemporary newspaper reports of trials, many of which are very detailed. This means we're able to piece together a trial without a formal transcript, or at least a complete one. It's been a lot of fun walking in the footsteps of the likes of William Roughead and W. Teignmouth Shore."

The first title in the series will be The Trial of Israel Lipski, to be edited by experienced true crime writer M.W. Oldridge. Two more forthcoming titles will feature a pair of railway-related mysteries - more "blood on the tracks"! I've read a number of the original books in the series, and found them very helpful with a range of projects, as well as fascinating in their own right. So I'm certainly awaiting the publication of the new titles with eager anticipation. 

Monday 28 August 2017

Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling - BBC TV review

Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling, screened last night, opened a new seven-part private eye series based on the books of Robert Galbraith. As all the world now knows, Galbraith is a pen-name, and it conceals the identity of J. K. Rowling. But the secret was kept, not only until publication day, but for weeks thereafter, until an incautious leak revealed the truth.

Rowling has long been a detective fiction fan, and she's been quoted expressing admiration for predecessors such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. And there are plenty of parallels between her hero, Cormoran Strike, and Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey - and not just the fact they both have odd names. Both are sons of the rich, both attended Oxford, both have fought in war, and suffered because of it. Wimsey was shell-shocked; Strike lost his leg in Afghanistan.

The cleverness of this BBC version of Rowling's first novel, lies in the casting of Tom Burke as Strike. He captures the character superbly, on the evidence of this first episode, just the right mix of scruffiness and that dogged determination displayed by all the best detectives. There was a classic scene in this episode, when a suave lawyer (the always dependable Martin Shaw) tries to warn Strike off. We've seen this kind of thing a thousand times before, but these two actors handled the situation in compelling fashion.

When I read the book, I thought that it was enjoyable but over-long, and the early signs are that the discipline of TV adaptation will be good for it. The mystery concerns the apparent suicide of a supermodel, and the scenario of a supposed suicide that may just be murder is again very familiar to fans of the genre. But Burke, and Holliday Grainger, who plays his newly arrived assistant, make a very likeable team, and I'm looking forward to episode two.

Friday 25 August 2017

Forgotten Book - The Conjure-Man Dies

The Detective Story Club imprint has, since its welcome recent revival by Harper Collins, seen some fascinating titles come back to life. I've enjoyed my own involvement, writing intros for books by authors as diverse as Hugh Conway, Edgar Wallace, and E.C. Bentley, and I've enjoyed equally reading some books that are entirely new to me, by authors such as Vernon Loder.

A particular example is The Conjure-Man Dies, sub-titled "A Harlem Mystery". The author is Rudolph Fisher, and there is an excellent intro by that very fine writer Stanley Ellin, who is perhaps best remembered for his brilliant short stories, although he was no mean novelist. As he says, the book is "highly readable, wholly entertaining."

The book was, as far as is known, the first detective novel written by an African-American. His name was Rudolph Fisher, and he had previously one mainstream novel. By profession, he was a doctor, and his interest in the potential of science as an aid to detection is very much in tune with the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and Richard Austin Freeman in Britain. The reason that, despite his considerable gifts as a writer, his name has been more or less forgotten, is that he died all too young. He was born in 1897, this book appeared in 1932, and he died in 1934. Very sad.

The story is a good one, dealing with the death, in exotic and highly mystifying circumstances, of Frimbo, a "psychist". The official detective, Perry Dart, is assisted by John Archer, a doctor, in a pleasing variation on the Holmes-Watson partnership: both are good characters. This edition carries an extremely welcome bonus, a short story called "John Archer's Nose" which was published just after Fisher's death. As Ellin says, this novel offers not merely a good mystery puzzle but also a fascinating social document. Recommended.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Every Secret Thing - 2015 film review

Laura Lippman is a crime writer of the highest calibre, and so I watched the recent film version of Every Secret Thing, based on her book of the same name, with great interest. I expected a strong story, and I wasn't disappointed. There aren't many major characters, but a clever storyline springs a series of surprises that help to reveal crucial elements of the protagonists' personalities.

The present day story links in with a crime in the past - the abduction and killing of a baby by two young girls. Those girls, Ronnie and Alice, are convicted, and eventually released, and the focus is on how their past actions continue to affect their lives, and the lives of those around them. There's a similarity here with the concept of Alex Marwood's enjoyable novel Wicked Girls, but the two stories are very different, though equally compelling.

When a young girl goes missing in the neighbourhood where both Ronnie and Alice are based, the police are immediately suspicious. Elizabeth Banks is very good as the cop with a personal stake in the case, while Diane Lane gives a subtle performance as Alice's mother. At first we regard her as loving and kind, but the complexity of her attitudes towards the two girls become increasingly apparent.

As Ronnie and Alice, Dakota Fanning and (especially) Diane Macdonald are very well cast. Ronnie's background is apparently less privileged than Alice's, but in reality, both of them are damaged people. I've seen some fairly negative reviews of this film, but as the truth is gradually revealed, I found myself increasingly impressed. It is a relatively short film, and its psychological intensity makes it, in my opinion, both watchable and thought-provoking.

Payroll - 1961 film review

I was urged to watch Payroll by book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, and what a good recommendation it turned out to be. Filmed around Newcastle and Gateshead, and released in 1961, it anticipates Get Carter, a much more renowned gangster movie set in the north east, but makes compelling viewing. Part of this is due to an excellent script by George Baxt, based on a book by Derek Bickerton, and part to excellent acting from a cast that includes Billie Whitelaw, Kenneth Griffiths, Michael Craig, Tom Bell, and Glyn Houston.

It's a heist movie, as the title implies (the film's alternative title, I Promise to Pay, doesn't make much sense to me). A large business changes its payroll security arrangements, much to the dismay of a gang of robbers, led by Craig and including the menacing Bell in an early role as well as the flaky Griffiths. They have persuaded the firm's accountant, played by William Lucas, to help them - his' motive is to earn more money so as to keep his beautiful but demanding foreign wife (played, very well, by Francoise Prevost) happy. The new security system seems invincible, but Craig is determined to go on with his plan.

The result is tragic - in the raid on an armoured van, one member of the security team loses his life. His widow, played by Whitelaw with her customary intensity, determines to avenge him. Meanwhile, the robbers have lost one of their own men, and they soon begin to fall out among themselves. Further complications arise when Craig starts to take an interest in Prevost, whose role in the story proves to be pivotal.

The story is gripping, but the script also has depth, and the characterisation is subtler than I'd expected. Bell and Griffiths come to a very sticky end, quite literally, and the final scenes involving Craig and Prevost make for a suitably dramatic conclusion. I really enjoyed this one. The black and white location shots are highly atmospheric, and all in all, Id' say it's a hidden gem. Strongly recommended.

Monday 21 August 2017

Blood on the Tracks

I'm delighted to announce that I have been compiling an anthology of railway mysteries for the British Library. My work is now more or less completed, and the book will be published in the first half of next year. The title? Blood on the Tracks.

Trains and rail travel make a great setting for a mystery, and there are countless examples, ranging from Murder on the Orient Express to The Girl on the Train (to say nothing of Sleeping Car to Trieste, which I reviewed here last week.) And short train mysteries are also great fun - example that have been included in previous BL anthologies include "Beware of the Trains" by Edmund Crispin, in Miraculous Mysteries, and John Oxenham's "A Mystery of the Underground" in Capital Crimes.

I've even been responsible for one train story myself - "Bad Friday", included in the recent American anthology Busted!, a collection of law enforcement mysteries published by Level Best. That one was inspired by a train journey I took in real life, and last week I sought further inspiration by taking time out for a trip on one of Britain's best preserved railways, the Severn Valley line.

Stopping overnight in Shropshire enabled us to make the most of the day, starting the journey from Bridgnorth and travelling all the way to Kidderminster, before halting on the way back for a look round Bewdley, a pleasant Worcestershire town I've never visited before, which has an excellent free museum. The line tracks the Severn, and it really did make for a pleasant day out, rounded off by another, albeit very short rail trip - on Bridgnorth's Cliff Railway (shades of John Rowland!) All great fun, and nobody got murdered, either.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Sleeping Car to Trieste - 1948 film review

Sleeping Car to Trieste, first screened in the aftermath of the Second World War, when international tensions were still running high, is a remake of a film called Rome Express, written by Clifford Grey, which I haven't seen. But it has a real freshness even now, and I found it very entertaining indeed, even if it didn't give viewers much of a picture of Trieste itself, since all the action is done and dusted by the time the train gets there!

The story begins with a robbery and a shooting. A diary is stolen from an unidentified embassy in Paris; the thief is in cahoots with a woman (Jean Kent) who fears that the diary, if it falls into the wrong hands, will lead to revolution. Unfortunately, the pair have opted to conspire with a villain (played by Alan Wheatley, better known as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood) who proceeds to run off with it, and take the train to Trieste. They follow him, but find it difficult to figure out which compartment he's staying in.

The strength of the screenplay by Allan Mackinnon lies in the clever use of a range of characters on board the train who each play a part in an increasingly convoluted storyline. The diary is a Macguffin in the finest Hitchcockian tradition. The guy who has taken the diary hides it, only to be forced to move out of his compartment. A lawyer who is on the train with his girlfriend finds himself mixed up in it all, and the tension mounts before, eventually, murder is done.

There are plenty of nice comic touches, and John Paddy Carstairs' direction reminded me of Hitchcock's. He keeps the action going, and the use of comic minor chatacters, such as the lawyer's tedious and thick-skinned old friend (David Tomlinson) and the long-suffering secretary (Hugh Burden) of a vain and selfish author (Finlay Currie). So it's a good cast, and an even better story. Most enjoyable.

Monday 14 August 2017

The Long Arm of the Law

We tend to associate classic crime fiction with amateur sleuths, Wimsey, Sheringham, Marple, and company. In reality, though, police stories abounded during the first half of the twentieth century. The "police procedural" may be thought of as a concept of the Fifities onwards, but Freeman Wills Crofts and others were writing books about meticulous police investigations long before the days of Lawrence Treat, Ed McBain, and Maurice Proctor.

Classic police stories are celebrated in my latest anthology in the British Library's Crime Classics series. The Long Arm of the Law charts the development of the police story over more than half a century. The first entry is a very obscure one, "The Mystery of Chernholt" by Alice and Claude Askew. And we come right up to the (relatively) modern era with Sergeant Cluff featuring in "The Moorlanders" by Gil North.

I really enjoyed putting this book together. It is, believe it or not, the third of my anthologies that the British Library have published this year alone - and there's one more still to come! - and I like to think that this reflects an increasing interest in short crime fiction. Books of this kind, though I say it myself are a great way of discovering new writers and new detective characters. Anthologies are always a mixed bag, and I do aim for quite a high degree of variety, but there's sure to be something for every crime fan - or so I hope.

This book contains, it's fair to say, a higher number of obscure stories than my other anothologies in the series, although several of the authors are well-known names - Crofts, Henry Wade, Christianna Brand, John Creasey, and Nicholas Blake among them. My researches benefited enormously from help given by a number of experts, including John Cooper, Jamie Sturgeon, and Nigel Moss. I leave it to readers to judge the result, but I'm optimistic that this book will provide crime fans with a great deal of entertainment, and some truly fascinating new discoveries.

Friday 11 August 2017

Forgotten Book - Trent's Own Case

Unlike many authors associated with Golden Age detective fiction, Edmund Clerihew Bentley was far from prolific. Yet his impact on the genre was immense. Trent's Last Case is seen by many people (including me) as the effective catalyst for the development of the classic whodunit after the First World War, and when Bentley's old friend G.K. Chesterton died, Bentley was a popular choice to succeed him, and to become the second President of the Detection Club. This more or less coincided with the publication of Trent's Own Case, which records Philip Trent's long-awaited return to the fray of detection.

Bentley's short stories about Trent were also collected in a volume entitled Trent Intervenes. But although Trent's Last Case has been relatively easy to find over the years, the other two Trent books have been less widely available. Now Harper Collins have reissued all three books together as part of their Detective Story Club imprint.

I feel confident that crime fans will be delighted by this initiative, though I should declare my own involvement - I have written a new introduction to Trent's Own Case. This commission caused me to re-read the book recently, and in so doing I found I revised my original opinion of it somewhat. I read it first as a teenager, expecting something similar to the first Trent book. It's much better, though, to judge the book on its own merits,not least because it was actually a collaboration - Bentley co-wrote the novel with his friend H. Warner Allen, and the storyline features Warner Allen's own detective character, the wine merchant Mr Clerihew (who was named in Bentley's honour). It's a well-made story, and still very readable.

In The Golden Age of Murder, I discuss the "Trent Dinner" held in 1936 to celebrate the book's publication, and one of my most precious possessions is a copy of the first edition signed by those who attended the dinner. I also talk about this in a little more detail in the "Collecting Crime" section on my website.. The addition of this book, and the two other Trent titles, to the Detective Story Club list, is very welcome.


Wednesday 9 August 2017

In the footsteps of Agatha and James Joyce

I've been intrigued by the city and sea port of Trieste since reading Andrew Eames' excellent The 8.55 to Baghdad, in which he follows the route taken by Agatha Christie across Europe to the Middle East. It sounded a fascinating place, and now I've been lucky enough to spend a few days there, meeting up with my well-travelled daughter and her boyfriend, I can report that I found it even more appealing than I expected from Eames' description. Was it just that I was escaping the rainy British summer for intense sunshine, interrupted only by one thunderstorm, the most dramatic I've ever experienced? No, it's a really interesting place, the product of a varied history; its strategic significance meant that it changed hands several times, though it's been part of Italy for the past seventy years, as well as for a period before then.
Christie wasn't the only literary figure to be associated with Trieste. Joyce, Kafka, and Rikle are among the others, and Joyce's statue (clutching a book) is to be found on the bridge over a remarkably short canal in the midst of the old quarter, where the architecture hints at the cosmopolitan influences on Trieste's past.

There's a lot to see in Trieste, and I enjoyed a wide range of sights, including the old Roman Theatre. I also came across a second hand bookshop which had a copy of Murder off Miami, the first "murder dossier" by Dennis Wheatley and J.G.Links in the window - the Italian version. Sadly, the shop was closed, and it was my last evening there, so I never got to find out how much they wanted for it. Quite a bit, I guess! The old cathedral and castle on the hill above the city centre are well worth a short climb, and there are plenty of other sights within a fairly short walk.
A bus ride away is the Risiera di San Sabba, an old rice factory which the Nazis converted into a bizarre and horrific concentration camp. You can still see the prison cells, the death cell, and the site of the crematorium. A museum on the site tells the story of what happened there. It's nothing like as well-known as Auschwitz, but I found the experience deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Further out of Trieste, there are some fabulous places to go. They include the Grotta Gigante, a massive underground cave where we took a guided tour, and Napoleon's Way, where the walk from the obelisk at Opicina to the village of Prosecco takes the route followed by Bonaparte's troops, and offers fantastic views. Best of all perhaps were the gardens and castle of Miramare, which were hugely impressive. Well worth braving the vagaries of the local transport system for. All in all, a memorable trip, which followed an enjoyable day in Milan, and a visit to the amazing cathedral. But what I really didn't expect was that storm, which for close to two hours provided a light show that put the Northern Lights in the shade. Amazing.

Monday 7 August 2017

The Riverside Murder - 1935 film

Having recorded The Riverside Murder when it was screened by Talking Pictures, I was astonished to find, once I got round to watching it, that the source material was S.A. Steeman's excellent novel Six Dead Men. It has to be said that the script alters the storyline very considerably, and not just because the action is switched to England. But the writing is pretty slick, and that's no surprise, considering that the writer was a good crime novelist in his own right, Selwyn Jepson.

A wealthy financier is murdered by a mysterious gunman, and it soon becomes clear that present at the scene were (at least) two men with a very good reason to kill him. The tontine that features in the original story is, here, turned into a "pact", which means that a number of individuals have motives for murder.

The official detective work is undertaken by affable Inspector Winton (Philip Sydney), aided and abetted by Sergeant McKay (none other than Alastair Sim - apparently this was his first film appearance). But their investigation is interrupted by an intrepid and cheeky young woman who wants to make her name as a crime reporter - this isn't the only film of the 30s to feature such a character, and here she's played by Judy Gunn. Quite a few familiar crime story tropes make an appearance (the threat to take a cop off the case, leading to him to plead for just a few more hours, etc.) But they are handled in a light, entertaining way.

The suspects include one character played by Tom Helmore, who almost a quarter of a century later would make quite an impact as Gavin Elster in Hitchcock's classic Vertigo. The body count rises rapidly as Jepson's script breezes along to a pleasing conclusion. I must say I found it all very enjoyable: a real find.

Friday 4 August 2017

Forgotten Book - Unexpected Night

I've been prompted to take a fresh look at the work of American whodunit writer Elizabeth Daly after listening to Sarah Ward talking about Daly's books on a couple of occasions recently. Sarah chose Daly as one of her authors to remember at Crimefest, and also discussed her work in some depth at Bodies from the Library. She also suggested that it helps to get a clear picture of the life of Daly's amateur sleuth, Henry Gamadge, if one starts with Daly's first book in the series.

This raises a point that I find very interesting. A great many people I talk to say that they like to begin a series at the beginning. I can understand why. Characters and relationships can sometimes make more sense than if one plunges into a series when it's already very well-established. When my Lake District Mysteries are sold at events, The Coffin Trail, the first in the series, generally sells best. Yet there are downsides to beginning at the beginning. A good author will want to improve, and sometimes a first book will spend quite a lot of time setting the scene. Later books may be more impressive.

I've just read Daly's debut, Unexpected Night, set in 1939, and published a year later, when Daly was already over 60. Compared to most authors working in the Golden Age tradition - and Daly clearly was - she was a late starter, though she did go on to have a long and successful career. This one i's a decent whodunit with a nice, if well-telegraphed, plot twist, and it introduces Gamadge as an affable, youngish expert in manuscripts.

Overall, however, I think it's fair to say that Daly was one of those writers who honed her technique over the years, and some of her later books represent a significant advance on this one. I felt that the basic set-up, about a young but sickly man who comes into a fortune on his 21st birthday was very contrived, and that the pool of suspects was not the most interesting. Gamadge, too, though likeable, is not truly memorable. I'd rate this one as worth a read, but I think Daly's later books tend to be better.

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Any Golden Age fan is bound to be drawn to Anthony Horowitz's recent novel, Magpie Murders. It's an example of metaficiton, in which Horowitz combines a capable pastiche of a Christie-style whodunit with a contemporary mystery, and a dollop of satire about the publishing business. There are plenty of jokes (the last Horowitz novel I read, The Killing Joke, also gave his wit a pleasing showcase) and there's ingenuity in abundance.

The first half of the book comprises a novel set in the year Horowitz was born, 1955. A cleaner has died in rather mysterious circumstances, and soon her employer, Sir Magnus Pye, is brutally murdered. There is no shortage of motives or suspects - but shortly before the climax, the story comes to a sudden halt. We are then transported to the present, and the publishing. Alan Conway, author of the story, has died, having apparently committed suicide - and the last two chapters of his novel seem to be missing.

Most of the rest of the story is narrated by Conway's editor, Susan, who begins to suspect that in fact Conway was murdered. Once again, she discovers a variety of people with good cause to wish that the author was dead. But which of them is guilty? There's a "least likely person" explanation that is pleasing, even if the motivation is thin. And then, at the end of the story, we are given the solution to the mystery in Conway's novel - and, once more, a suitably unlikely culprit is unmasked..

I like Horowitz's writing very much. He has a real gift for entertainment, as evidenced by his many successes with TV screenplays (which earn more than one mention in the book; I see this not as showing off, but rather as an illustration of his teasing sense of humour) as well as by his fiction. The first half of the book is, at times, rather slow-moving, but this is explained by the need to plant a range of pleasing clues. It's all very cleverly and agreeably handled. An interestingly original take on classic crime fiction which I was very glad to read.