Friday 29 September 2017

Forgotten Book - The Box Office Murders

The Box Office Murders and The Purple Sickle Murders were the original British and American titles of a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts which has now been reprinted as Inspector French and the Box Office Murders. It was first published in 1929, and although it's a murder mystery, it's not a typical Golden Age whodunit but rather a lively thriller set mainly in London.

Inspector French is consulted by a young woman called Thurza Darke (great name!) who works as a clerk in a box office. She has got herself into a tricky situation with an unscrupulous bunch of people, and seeks his guidance. He is impressed by her manner, and arranges to meet her at the National Gallery, but she doesn't turn up. Unfortunately, her body is soon found, and it appears that someone has drowned her.

French, I thought, was rather remiss in not having the girl watched for her own protection, but clearly the police did things differently in those days. I was surprised when French later indulges in burglary of a suspect's premises, and even more startled when he not only breaks in somewhere else, but enlists the support of a subordinate and the subordinate's young son in so dong. Blimey!

But these quibbles don't matter, and I enjoyed the story. It's quite fast-moving, and Crofts cleverly obscures the reality of the criminal scheme of the gang of murderers responsible for killing several young women who worked as box office clerks. Not an orthodox police procedural, by any means, but a very welcome reprint, not least because it illustrates that Crofts was a more versatile writer than he has often been given credit for. His literary style may have been plain, but I must say that the more of his work I read, the more I appreciate his considerable skills as a plotsmith.

Wednesday 27 September 2017

One and a half million...

While I was sunning myself in north Italy and Switzerland last week, relishing the charms of places like Lugano (above), and Bergamo, (below) I had the chance to reflect on how much has happened to me since I began this blog almost ten years ago. It's been an extraordinary period in my life, with the most difficult experiences (above all, the death of my mother) and much good luck. I've spent quality time with some wonderful people, and visited some fantastic places. Even as I appreciated the scenery while travelling from St Moritz to Tirano on the Bernina Experess, I found myself reflecting on the strange quirks of life. There have been plenty of those over the past decade,and more than ever before I am convinced that one simply has to make the most of the good times while one can. So, for instance, on visiting Bergamo, I decided I really had to write a story set there. And before I left that day, I'd mapped it out in my mind.

For me, making the most of things means, for example, writing the short stories and books that I believe in,rather than those I think might stand the best chance of selling in big numbers. Oddly enough, I always assumed The Golden Age of Murder would be a niche project, either produced by a small press or self-published. I still can't really get over the fact that Harper Collins took it on, and that it not only sold very well but also won four awards and was shortlisted for two others. My association with the British Library, hugely positive, also came out of the blue. It's a funny old world.

Strange as it may seem, writing this blog has never felt like hard work. More like a chat with one or two friends. That's probably why I've now written more than 2500 blog posts (blimey!) since I started out. And a couple of days ago, the blog passed the landmark of 1.5 million visits. Something else I never expected.

In my first post, I said: The aim is to share my enthusiasm for crime fiction, and the craft of writing. From childhood, I dreamed of becoming a crime novelist - and I love being part of a fascinating world. I’m not only a writer, but a fan, and I’ll have lots to say about lots of terrific and often overlooked books and films, past and present. As for my own writing life, I’ll share the frustrations - and also the pleasures. If this blog encourages any would-be writers among you to keep at it, I’ll be delighted. 

When I wrote those words, I'd never won a literary award (though I'd been a published crime novelist since 1991) and I certainly never dreamed I would become Chair of the CWA, or President of the Detection Club, let alone both. So - very fortunate indeed. I'd like to think that others can draw at least some encouragement from what I've said about my experiences on this blog. You just never know what the future may bring. And even if things don't always go well, there's always the hope that something new and good and unexpected lurks just around the corner.  

Monday 25 September 2017

In the footsteps of Hemingway and Hesse...

I'm just back from a delightful week in north Italy and Switzerland which gave me the chance to explore Italy's very own Lake District. Quite different from the stamping ground of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind (not least in the absence of rain!) but equally attractive. And although the English Lakes are perhaps more closely associated in the public mind with literary giants, the Italian lakes have their fair share of notable literary connections.

Our base was Moltrasio, a pleasant village on the west shore of Lake Como, not too far from the Swiss border. Across the lake, just a five minute boat ride away, is Torno, an even more picturesque place which caught the fancy of Herman Hesse when he visited the area just before the First World War. There's something quite magical about the little harbour and surrounding piazza. Thanks to a good (and cheap) day ticket system, I took a look at quite a few places on the shore of the lake, and each has its own distinct personality and charm. Como itself is an interesting city and a funicular railway takes one all the way up to Brunate, high above the waterline.

Another lake on the itinerary was Lake Maggiore, and the town of Stresa. Ernest Hemingway convalesced there after being wounded during the First World War. He stayed in the magnificent Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, which he revisited many years later. His experiences in Italy provide some of the background material for A Farewell to Arms, a book I read as a schoolboy, and which still lingers in my memory. I've not read many of his other novels; that's the one that impressed me particularly.

One of the pleasures of Stresa is that you can take a boat to the lake's fascinating islands. I found Isola Bella absolutely stunning. The gardens and the palazzo are equally magnificent. A short hop away is "Fisherman's Island", a small but bustling place crammed with bars and restaurants. Hemingway, like Hesse, knew a great place when he saw one.

Friday 22 September 2017

Forgotten Books - The Pyx

John Buell was a Canadian academic and, it seems, quite a retiring person, who combined his day job with writing. He was far from prolific, but his work earned plenty of praise in its day. I came across mention of his debut novel The Pyx, first published in 1959, and thought it sounded interesting, so I picked up a copy - and I'm glad I did.

The premise is familiar. A young woman falls to her death from a tall building. Accident, suicide or murder? It is, of course, the same initial scenario as we find in Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling - and plenty of other books. But the material is handled with great assurance considering that the author was making his debut as a novelist. Buell wrote taut and gripping prose, and told an interesting story well.

His method is to alternate between events in the present, when Detective Henderson tries to find out what led to the death of young and beautiful Elizabeth Lucy, and events in the days leading up to her untimely demise. Elizabeth was a prostitute, addicted to heroine, and effectively a captive, at the beck and call of Meg Latimer. But Meg herself is at the mercy of ruthless men. Both women are victims.

It's a short, snappy book, and given added depth and interest by religious imagery and plot elements. Catholicism plays a central part in the story. I found this book a good,read. The mood is bleak throughout, but that didn't stop my admiring Buell's laconic style and occasional touches of wry humour. The book was adapted into a film in the 70s, starring Christopher Plummer and Karen Black. Reviews suggest that the movie isn't anything like as good as the book.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

The Delavine Affair - film review

The Delavine Affair is a snappy B movie from 1954 (some sources say 1955) which was based on a story called Winter Wears a Shroud, written by Robert Chapman. I've not been able to find out anything much about Chapman or the original story, but the film is a competent mystery which, like so many crime films of that era, featured some very good actors as well as the occasional rather wooden lead.

The lead in this case is Peter Reynolds, who hailed from Wilmslow, and sadly died young. Here he plays a newspaper agency man called Banner who is contacted by a hellfire preacher called Gospel Joe. But when he goes to see Joe, he finds him dead. The police turn up, having been tipped off that Joe has been mrudered, and our hero becomes the prime suspect.

He has the good fortune to be married to Honor Blackman, but she thinks he spends too much time at work, and has taken up with an admirer played by Gordon Jackson.  Banner discovers that there appears to be a connection between Joe's death and a robbery - the as yet unsolved Delavine jewel theft - which took place some time back.

Banner's investigations bring him into contact with a mixed bag of characters, played by Michael Balfour and Katie (The Ladykillers) Johnson. There are a number of pleasing plot twists, and overall this is a decent crime film, unpretentious but perfectly competent. I'd be interested to know more about Winter Wears a Shroud, if any readers of this blog are familiar with it.

Monday 18 September 2017

The Scarlet Web - 1954 movie review

The Scarlet Web is a black and white British B-movie first screened in 1954, and it's a film with a number of interesting elements in its storyline - the script was written by Doreen Montgomery. It opens with quite a novel situation. A young and attractive blonde woman (Zena Marshall) parks outside a prison. Among the prisoners released for freedom is Griffith Jones. She offers him a lift - and a proposition. Will this man with a criminal past help her and her husband, a man called Dexter, to recover a compromising document?

Unfortunately, she's made a poor choice. Jones' character isn't actually a hardened criminal at all. he's an insurance investigator who has spent the past couple of months  inside on behalf of his employers, trying to find out vital information from another prisoner.  He goes along with the plan out of curiosity. But things go pear-shaped when he's drugged by his new friend, and framed for the murder of a woman who proves to be the real Mrs Dexter.

Aided and abetted by a colleague in the insurance firm (Hazel Court), our hero tries to establish his innocence and also to figure out exactly what is going on. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Dexter has a girlfriend, and that they have conspired to murder his wife for the insurance money, but proving the truth is far from easy.

This is a lively, unpretentious little film, and the appearance of those reliable supporting actors Ronnie Stevens and Michael Balfour in cameo roles is a bonus. Jones is a rather wooden hero, but the two female leads make more of an impression. Our hero soon falls for Hazel Court, and the outcome is predictable, but overall the film offers likeable light entertainment. .

Friday 15 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Murder Mars the Tour

My Forgotten Book today is Murder Mars the Tour, the debut novel of Mary Fitt, published in 1936. Fitt was an interesting writer, and I'm sure she was an interesting person, too. In real life she was an eminent classicist called Kathleen Freeman (1897-1959), an academic with a specialism in Greek whose first book, The Work and Life of Solon, included translated poems.

She wrote a number of scholarly articles and mainstream novels before adopting the Fitt name, and turning to crime fiction with this book. Presumably it was well received, and she proceeded to write a run of detective stories which often had something out of the ordinary about them. They weren't always successful - I'm afraid I found her last book, Mizmaze, dire - but they were often interesting, and she was well-regarded enough to earn election to the Detection Club in the early Fifties.

Murder Mars the Tour is a likeable book. As a mystery, it's slightly unorthodox, and the whodunit plot is scarcely in the Agatha Christie league. Even so, it kept me engaged from start to finish. It's narrated by a chap whose brother encourages him to go on a walking tour in Europe with a motley group of individuals who belong to the same club. During the holiday, they come across a woman whom the brother had been involved with. When a murder occurs, the plot (not before time, it must be said) begins to thicken.

The narrative voice, intelligent and rather prissy, is distinctive, and although the puzzle is nothing special, the writing is certainly proficient. I liked the atmospheric way in which the tour was described, though I was intrigued that.there was no real mention of the political difficulties that were convulsing Europe at the time. I assume that Fitt went on a tour of the kind she describes, and decided that it would make a good setting for a mystery novel. If so, she was right. I'm not suggesting that this book is a lost masterpiece; it isn't. But it did entertain me.  .

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Marilyn - 1953 film, aka Roadhouse Girl

There are several surprising things about the shortish 1953 British film Marilyn (renamed Roadhouse Girl in the US). For a start, it's a film noir in the tradition of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but quite distinctive. And I was very taken with the fact that it was based on a play (later televised) called Marion, written by Peter Jones - the same Peter Jones who became a very well known actor in later years.

The story begins with a young man, down on his luck, taking a job as a garage hand, the garage owner being a grumpy older man played by Leslie Dwyer (best known as the Punch and Judy man in Hi-De-Hi). When we learn that the old guy is married to a pretty but discontented young blonde woman (Sandra Dorne), we rather suspect that the marriage will come under strain. An added complication is that there's a housemaid called Rosie who idolises the younger woman, and is desperate for her affection.

Before long, the inevitable happens, and the old guy is killed. An inquest rules the death to be an accident. So far so good? Well, as ever in these stories when a naive chap is ensnared by a blonde femme fatale, things don't go according to plan. The femme fatale here is selfish and not very bright rather than sophisticated in her calculations, and her lover is rather less sophisticated than, say, the doomed lovers in Double Indemnity and Body Heat.

The story zips along entertainingly from start to finish. The moral standards of the time meant that the lesbian sub-text, which might have added a bit of depth, is only hinted at, and the quality of the acting, like the script, is competent rather than dazzling. All the same, I enjoyed it.

Monday 11 September 2017

Malice Aforethought - BBC TV - 1979

Image result for hywel bennett malice aforethought

I was sorry to learn recently of the death of Hywel Bennett. I've mentioned him several times on this blog, and I always felt that he was a first-class actor, perhaps under-rated simply because in youth he was very good-looking. But he had tremendous range, and was equally good in Twisted Nerve and in Agatha Christie's Endless Night. He was also successful in comedy. But my favourite performance as his was his portrayal of Dr Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought.

I first watched that four-parter when it was screened originally in 1979. I was impressed then, and watching it again, in a grainy version on Youtube (there doesn't seem to be a DVD) I was equally impressed. Of course, it's a very fine story, which made the name of Francis Iles famous, even though nobody knew he was really Anthony Berkeley Cox, already a leading detective novelist. But Philip Mackie deserves much credit for an excellent screenplay which captures the essence of the book.

Mackie was an excellent television writer, whose other credits included The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and Praying Mantis. I've often wished I could see the latter again; it's a gripping psychological chiller, - what a shame that it, too, isn't available on DVD. Mackie also wrote successful crime plays, but I've not seen them. His writing gave Bennett the chance to present Bickleigh ia a three-dimensional way. He's not a likeable man, the doctor, but his capacity for self-deception is quite fascinating.

The cast is excellent. Judy Parfitt plays the disagreeable Mrs Bickleigh, while Cheryl Campbell is the woman the doctor becomes obsessed with, and Harold Innocent is the vicar. I'd forgotten that the inspector was played by James Grout, who went on to become Superintendent Strange, John Thaw's boss in Inspector Morse; this role was almost a rehearsal for the later part. Overall, an excellent show, and a reminder of Bennett's charisma, even when playing someone unattractive.

Friday 8 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Night Exercise

The story of the Home Guard is truly fascinating, and it's why - in addition to great writing and superb acting - Dad's Army became such an enduringly popular sitcom. The notion of ordinary people, not able to take part in active military service for whatever reasons, banding together to defend Britain against a feared and formidable invading force, is intensely appealing. The story of the Home Guard tells us a lot about human nature.

My father was in the Home Guard. He was a young man when the Second World War began, but he wasn't able to follow his older brother into the Services because he had a "reserved occupation" as a draughtsman, and became involved in work on the Mulberry Harbours. When I was small, he told me a lot of funny stories about his time in the Home Guard, and I'm sorry that I can't remember them. He had a gift for storytelling, and I wish he'd applied it to writing fiction, but he didn't think that writers were people like us. When the first episode of Dad's Army was shown, naturally we watched it, and became instantly hooked. He was a big fan of the show, though in his sardonic way, he suggested that the reality was even crazier than the fiction.

All this explains why I was delighted when Seona Ford presented me with a copy of Night Exercise, a 1942 novel by John Rhode, which centres around Home Guard activity in a rural community. The book was called Dead of Night in the US; perhaps the American publishers feared that readers would get the wrong idea of what the book was about. The first part of the book, in fact, gives a detailed (and, by Rhode's standards, absolutely gripping) account of a Home Guard exercise overseen by a Major Ledbury. The detail is very convincing, and I feel sure Rhode must have based it on Home Guard activities he was involved with; Ledbury seems rather like a self-portrait.

Ledbury is plagued by a visiting senior officer, Chalgrove, who is so obnoxious that it is soon clear that he is destined to be murdered. And he does go missing after the exercise - but what, in fact, has really happened to him? Is he dead, or has he vanished for reasons of his own? This is an unusual Rhode book in that Dr Priestley doesn't appear. And indeed, the detective element of the story is pretty slight. If you're after an elaborate whodunit, you'd better look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a highly credible, contemporary snapshot of life in the Home Guard at a time when British people were at risk of conquest by the Nazis, you couldn't do much better than read this one.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Defence of the Realm - 1986 film review

I missed Defence of the Realm on its original release, just over 30 years ago, and I've only just caught up with it. The film is a conspiracy thriller, well-written and acted, with a truly excellent cast. As I've mentioned before, I'm very interested in the art of structuring a thriller - the sort of thing that Lee Child does with apparently effortless ease - and the narrative here is enticingly contrived.

The action begins with two young tearaways, about whom we know nothing, being pursued in their (perhaps stolen) car. It seems they are about to be apprehended when the action switches to a classic newspaper "sting". A journalist is tipped off that a leading Labour MP is to be found in compromising circumstances rather reminiscent of the Profumo Scandal. The MP (played by Ian Bannen) resigns, and that seems to be that.

But the focus then switches to a team of investigative journalists. Hard-drinking Denholm Elliott plays Bayliss, an old chum of the MP; also working on the story is Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) who suspects that there's something fishy about the MP's exposure. His suspicions become more acute when Bayliss is found dead. Is it possible that he has been silenced? If so, by whom, and why?

Although the conspiracy deals with issues current in the mid-80s, this film is much less dated than one might expect. This is because the story, even in its more routine phases, benefits from very convincing performances, especially from everyone involved at the paper - including Fulton McKay, Frederick Treves, and Bill Paterson. Greta Scacchi also plays a key part in the unravelling of the mystery, and the dramatic conclusion. A fast-moving thriller, not exactly original, but well done.

Monday 4 September 2017

Fifty Years of The Prisoner

The Prisoner is fifty years old. In television terms, that is very old. And yet somehow it retains its power to entrance, entertain, and - sometimes - to irritate. It's an eccentric, almost uncategorisable series, one that surely could only have been conceived and made in the 1960s, that decade of extraordinary creativity and innovation.

I am old enough to have watched the very first episode, the first time it was screened. And I can therefore remember the general astonishment created by the series. To understand this, one has to know the background. Patrick McGoohan, the star of the show, was already a big name. He'd played John Drake in the highly successful series Danger Man and was often talked of as a "natural" for the role of James Bond.

I know I watched and enjoyed Danger Man as a very small boy, but I can't remember any of the stories. I think it was a conventional thriller series about a secret agent. But I suppose I was expecting The Prisoner to be a sort of variation on Danger Man, and probably everyone else was. Instead we found ourselves watching a weird show in which McGoohan becomes trapped in a strange village, where he desperately tries to find out what is going on. It was all very odd. But it made for mesmeric viewing.

Part of the pleasure, for me, came (and still comes) from knowing the village from personal experience. In real life it's Portmeirion, a fantastic resort on a sheltered Welsh coastline that I've visited a good many times, and I always find it delightful. They make a great deal of the connection with The Prisoner, and for good reason. Although it infuriated the critics back in the 60s, it became a cult success, and has remained so ever since. Long may its mysteries continue to tantalise!

Saturday 2 September 2017

Some Lovers at The Other Palace - review

Image result for some lovers bacharach

It doesn't seem that long ago to me, but in fact it's 21 years since my agent Mandy and I went to see a London revival of the musical Promises, Promises! at the fascinating Bridewell theatre. I knew the soundtrack very well, but was intrigued finally to see the show in performance, and really enjoyed it. And the outcome was a scene in The Devil in Disguise, with the theatre transferred to Liverpool and given a fresh guise. Suffice to say that in the book, Harry Devlin loved the show as much as I did.

This week I went back to London to watch another musical, Some Lovers, at the Other Palace (so named because it's very close to Buckingham Palace - great location and a very appealing venue). The show was on a very short run, as part of a festival of new music. And I found it irresistible because it's the first musical Burt Bacharach has written since 1968, when Promises, Promises! was a big hit on Broadway and in the West End. Promises, Promises! had lyrics by the great Hal David, and a book by the very witty Neil Simon. I once went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice explained how much they were influenced by that show. I don't suppose Some Lovers will prove quite as influential, but you never know.

What I do know is that I had a great time. The venue was very intimate, and on the front row, we were within arm's reach of the performers. The four cast members play two people. The book adapts O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi", and presents a couple when their relationship begins and then, twenty years later, after it has fallen apart. Yes, they are older - but are they any wiser?

The lyrics and book are by Steven Sater, best known for Spring Awakening. He was in the bar at the start of the show and I was glad of the chance to have a brief chat with him/.I thought the four performers did a good job, and I enjoyed listening to so many new songs by the great man, who is still writing terrific music. Some of the songs have already been recorded or tried out in live performance. For example, here is Rumer singing Some Lovers, and Karima singing Just Walk Away. The Italian version of Every Other Hour has already been a success for Karima and Mario Biondi. Among other excellent tracks, I'd single out  the terrific Welcome to My World, which was the highlight for me of a very enjoyable night. Will Some Lovers find its way into another mystery novel one day? Don't bet against it!

Friday 1 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Inspector French's Greatest Case

Freeman Wills Crofts published Inspector French's Greatest Case in 1924. It was his fifth book in five years. Already he'd enjoyed considerable success, especially with his best-selling debut, The Cask, and he hadn't troubled to create a series character. The title of this novel suggests that he didn't contemplate that Inspector French would be anything other than a one-trick pony. But things often don't work out as authors expect. In fact, French became a popular detective and Crofts continued to write about him to the end of his life, more than 30 years later.

The opening of the story is relatively conventional - it even reminded me, very distantly, of Gaboriau's The Blackmailers. A firm of diamond merchants is robbed, and a man named Gething is killed by whoever was responsible. Inspector Joseph French of the Yard is called in, but at first his determined inquiries get nowhere.

French, however, is made of stern stuff. He's known as "Soapy Joe" at the Yard, in reference to his habit of charming witnesses and suspect into telling him what he needs to know. We get a few insights into his domestic life - in moments of difficulty, he confides in his wife  Emily, who comes up with suggestions about how to tackle some of the puzzles he confronts. We also learn, in a gruff moment, that he lost his eldest son in the war. This is a book, like many others of the Golden Age, in which the shadow of the conflict looms, even though years had passed since the Armistice.

The plot is convoluted, and the planning of the crime turns out to have been as meticulous as French's investigation of it. French manages to pack in quite a lot of overseas travel, and Crofts' handling of the travelogue-type scenes suggest he was a seasoned and enthusiastic traveller. I very much enjoyed this book, and I'm glad that its recent reissue in paperback makes it widely available once again.