Friday 30 November 2018

Forgotten Book - Singled Out

Simon Brett is a multi-talented author, and the range of the 100-plus books that he's written is truly impressive. Not all his work is within the crime genre, but that's the specialism for which he's best known, perhaps above all for his long and very entertaining series featuring the actor Charles Paris. His dark novels of psychological suspense are interesting, but only the first of them, A Shock to the System, is well-known, thanks to the film version starring Michael Caine.

Singled Out was published in 1995. It's not an easy book to write about in detail, because the plot is so elaborate that it's almost impossible not to give spoilers. But let me have a try. The story begins in 1973, with attractive Laura Fisher, whose marriage has recently broken down, setting out to seduce a man so as to become pregnant. In this first section of the book, we learn about Laura's past - and of how she'd been deeply affected by a murder. Laura works in television, and Simon Brett's understanding of the  TV world makes the background seem authentic, even if the events of the story are outlandish.

The story then moves on to 1993, and a sequence of events which forces Laura to confront the horrors of her personal background, and the fear that history may be about to repeat itself. The narrative is concerned not just with murder, but with child abuse and incest. Reading it now, a quarter of a century later, it seems to reflect the mores of the time, which are in some ways rather different from those of the present.

I see this book as forming part of a tradition of British psychological suspense, reaching back to Francis Iles' novels, and including several of the novels of Julian Symons, such as The Plot Against Roger Rider. Like Iles and Symons, Brett is an expert plotsmith, but for me, his greatest strength as a crime writer is his wit. Humour isn't much in evidence in such a bleak story as this, and I suspect that explains why he moved away from this type of writing. Singled Out isn't by any means his best book, but it's an interesting and laudably ambitious example of a fast-paced and very readable novel of suspense.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

The Last Man to Hang - 1956 film

The Last Man to Hang is a movie based on Gerald Bullett's most famous novel, The Jury, which was published in 1935. The film's title reflects the fact that the story has been updated and set in the mid-Fifties, at a time when a debate about whether to end capital punishment in the UK was occupying Parliament. Will Sir Roderick Strood be found guilty of murdering his wife, and pay the ultimate price?

Strood (played by Tom Conway) has been having an affair with an American singer, Elizabeth (Eunice Gayson), much to the distress of his wife Daphne (Elizabeth Sellars) and the disgust of Daphne's devoted servant Mrs Tucker (Freda Jackson). When Daphne dies of an overdose, Strood is arrested at London Airport - he'd been about to fly off with his lover. Unfortunately, what he tells the police seems damning, especially when it emerges that he'd given Daphne some powerful sleeping tablets.

This is a courtroom drama where (as in books like Verdict of Twelve and films like Twelve Angry Men) much of the focus is on the jurors, and what factors will determine their verdict. The story is competently presented, and there's a surprise (and, I thought, highly unlikely) twist ending. Overall, it makes for good entertainment.

I wasn't especially impressed by Conway, who seemed to me to lack the charisma the part required; I was rather surprised to learn that his real name was Tom Sanders, and he was elder brother of George Sanders, who might have made rather more of the role.  Freda Jackson is excellent as the malevolent housekeeper, but it was the supporting cast that really caught my eye. So there's a small comic part for Joan Hickson, while Anthony Newley plays a Jack-the-lad juror. His latest girlfriend is played by Gillian Lynne, who became a legendary choreographer and died not long ago. There's even an appearance by John Schlesinger, better known as a film director. Spotting these familiar faces is enjoyable in itself, and the film is well worth watching. 

Monday 26 November 2018

Writing Workshops

I've enjoyed an eventful year in 2018. It's also been event-full, as I've found myself in all sorts of interesting places talking about crime fiction. Tallinn, Iceland, Washington DC, St Petersburg, Florida, and New York City, for instance. To say nothing of Guernsey, Jersey, Woking, a fascinating church in Soho, a gorgeous library in Highgate, and places closer to home such as Hawarden, Kirby Lonsdale, and Lancaster. And on Saturday the curtain came down on the year's calendar of speaking events, at the Blue Cap Hotel in Sandiway in Cheshire.

It's a long time since I was last at the Blue Cap, a historic pub and restaurant dating back to the early eighteenth century. In particular, I remember a poignant lunch there with my mother, when I was twenty-two, and my father was desperately ill; thankfully, he recovered and lived another fourteen years. I couldn't help thinking back to that occasion when I turned up to deliver a crime writing workshop organised by Vale Royal Writers' Group. And I was glad that my return to the Blue Cap proved to be convivial and enjoyable.

It's the third writing workshop I've presented this year, although the others were less than half a day long, and so this time we were able to cover more ground. It's always enjoyable to talk to and spend time with fellow writers, and this is true whether or not they are already published - in fact, as at previous workshops, some of those attending had already published or self-published novels. The range of different ideas that come up in response to some of the writing exercises is always fascinating.

In the 1980s, years before I published my first novel, I was a member of a writers' group on the Wirral, and I also attended some meetings and seminars run by Southport Writers. I found all this experience rewarding, and I'd encourage any of you who are interested in writing to check out your local groups. As for conducting workshops, I didn't have much experience of them before this year, and thus I'm still learning, but I have been greatly heartened by the feedback. A few days ago I received an email from someone who attended my Guernsey writing workshop in spring whose first novel is now out, and to get this sort of happy news is truly delightful. So when time permits, I hope to conduct more workshops in the future, and if this is of interest to you or your local group, do let me know. 

Friday 23 November 2018

Forgotten Book - The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

Today's Forgotten Book, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, dates back to 1981, but more than thirty years elapsed before the novel was published in English by those splendid publishers Pushkin Vertigo. The translation was undertaken by the equally splendid John Pugmire, whose own imprint, Locked Room International, has been responsible for bringing to to English language readers some truly fascinating locked room mysteries.

Shimada's book caused quite a sensation in Japan on its original release, in that it represented a striking move away from a focus on gritty realism. The story has many elements (such as floor plans and footprints in the snow) that are pure Golden Age, and Shimada is a long-time admirer of classic detective fiction from Britain and America, but it is also modern, dealing with some subjects in a degree of gruesome detail that you would never find in, say, the work of John Dickson Carr or Anthony Wynne.

The story deals with a sequence of murders (and dismemberments) that took place in 1936, and their reinvestigation in 1979. The new inquiry is undertaken by a sort of Holmes-Watson duo, the brilliant young astrologer Kyoshi Mitarai and his friend, the narrator (of most but not all of the book), an illustrator called Takeshi Yoshiki. So it's a cold case mystery, and a very complicated one too. But there are some nice touches of humour, as in Kyoshi's witty debunking of some of the most famous Sherlock Holmes stories - rather as Holmes affected to disdain Gaboriau's stories about Lecoq.

I've never visited Japan, but in recent years I've become increasingly interested in the country's detective fiction, and it was a great thrill for me when The Golden Age of Murder was bought by a Japanese publisher. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders paved the way for a new generation of writers such as Alice Arisugawa who have made intriguing use of classic tropes in their fiction, combining elements familiar from Carr and company with a Japanese sensibility that I find intriguing. I gather that Pushkin Vertigo are planning to publish more crime fiction from Japan, and I look forward to reading it.

Forgotten Book - Here Comes a Candle

I've written before about my enthusiasm for the American post-war crime writer Fredric Brown, and I'm surprised his work in the crime field isn't better known - certainly in the UK, and perhaps even in his home country. He was a successful science fiction writer, and this may account for a tendency to under-estimate his mysteries, but they are intriguing and sometimes innovative.

A prime example is Here Comes a Candle. This is a book I'd been searching for over the years, with no success, until I came across a cheapish paperback edition while attending Bouchercon in Florida. It's described on the back cover as "Fredric Brown's BIG novel", and this is a reference to its ambition rather than its size - like all his books, it's not especially lengthy.

The story is interesting in itself.  We know that young, handsome Joe Bailey is destined to kill someone, and Brown cleverly ensures that we have empathy for Joe despite the fact that he's got himself mixed up with a gangster called Mitch who is grooming him to become a partner in crime. And we also know that something serious happened in Joe's youth. But at first the details aren't clear.

Brown offers an in-depth psychological portrait, and cunningly intersperses a straightforward narrative with a number of sections which take a variety of forms - a radio programme, a stage play, a sportscast, and so on. Yes, this is a gimmick, but he uses it to cast light on the events that took Joe down a path that seems likely to end in his doom. I found it highly readable, and the ironic finale is extremely poignant. Definitely worth a read - if you can find a copy!

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Iceland Noir

I've returned from my first ever trip to Iceland. It's a country I've wanted to visit for years, but I never seemed to get round to it. Then a few months ago, I was invited to take part in the local crime festival, Iceland Noir, and the temptation proved irresistible. All the more so because I was asked to take part on a panel about Golden Age detective fiction moderated by the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir - see above: it was once in a lifetime opportunity!

My first glimpse of the country wasn't entirely encouraging, mind you. The drab weather was warmer and wetter than I'd anticipated - it seemed all too Mancunian, really. But I soon found my way around, and the weather gradually improved. The festival was held at Idno, which combines a theatre space with a nice cafe, just across the way from the City Hall, which like Idno is on the edge of the "pond", or "lake", a pleasing stretch of water right in the city centre.

Katrin Jakobsdottir proved to be charming and extremely knowledgeable about Golden Age fiction. She was an excellent moderator, and the panel was great fun. Also taking part was that terrific young writer Ragnar Jonasson, and Katrin's brother Armann Jakobsson, a prominent academic who is also a great fan of the genre's classics. Both Armann and Katrin had read The Golden Age of Murder, and had nice things to say about it, which of course I found hugely gratifying. I also reflected that the occasion was something else that I never dreamed might happen while I was labouring over the book...

I was also glad to be invited to take part in a very convivial dinner meeting with members of the AIEP/IACW international group of crime writers, and discuss future plans for the organisation. More about this in due course; meanwhile, thanks to Nina George for the photos. Then it was back to sight-seeing, and a "Golden Circle" tour, taking in a volcanic crater, shifting tectonic plates, the original geyser, a horse show, a tomato-focused meal in a greenhouse, and a close-up of a spectacular waterfall. It was a fantastic trip. That just left half a day to go to the top of the Lutheran church tower and survey Reykjavik, and then look round a fascinating exhibition of the island's archaeology. A great place, Iceland, and I'm so glad that I went there.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Lesley Horton R.I.P.

Image result for lesley horton

I recently received a phone call from one of my predecessors as CWA Chair, Danuta Kot (also known as Danuta Reah). She gave me the sad news that another former CWA Chair, Lesley Horton, had just died, and today I'd like to pay a short tribute to Lesley by way of personal reminiscence.

I first met Lesley about sixteen years ago, shortly after publication of her first novel, Snares of Guilt. Lesley was a Yorkshirewoman, and she and her husband became regular attendees at CWA northern chapter lunches. In those days, when there were fewer literary festivals in the calendar, the northern chapter members, led by Peter Walker and Reginald Hill,  used to organise week-end breaks, which were highly convivial. Lesley and I had a number of chats at those get-togethers. I enjoyed her company, and on looking at her website when preparing this post, I was touched to see that it still links to my website, as well as that of our mutual friend, another Yorkshire writer, the late Stuart Pawson.

Lesley had been a schoolteacher for many years before becoming a full-time crime novelist, and she joined the CWA Committee, organising an annual conference at Ilkley, one of the highlights of which was a guided tour of Bronte Parsonage arranged by Robert Barnard.It was a terrific weekend.

My final memory of Lesley dates back to her time as Chair of the CWA in 2008. At an unforgettable dinner, she awarded me the CWA Short Story Dagger for "The Bookbinder's Apprentice". At that stage, I was still a full-time partner in a law firm, and I'd never won any literary award at all, although I'd made several shortlists. It was a fantastic moment. There's a wonderful account of that evening by Ali Karim on The Rap Sheet.

I certainly never imagined that night that Lesley's literary career had already come to an end. She'd published five novels, the last of them appearing in 2007, but for whatever reason, she dropped out of the crime writing world following her spell as CWA Chair. In recent times, she suffered a stroke, and lost touch with many of her author friends. But we'll miss her, and remember the good times in her company with affection. 

Friday 16 November 2018

Forgotten Book - Vanish in an Instant

I've mentioned several times my admiration for the crime writing of Margaret Millar. She was, in my opinion, one of the best crime writers of the second half of the last century, and it's a shame that her reputation has faded somewhat, although that - sadly - is a fate common to many fine writers, as well as some who aren't quite so good. Happily, Pushkin Vertigo are reintroducing her work to readers of today, and when they asked me for a blurb, I was happy to oblige.

The book they sent to me for comment was Vanish in an Instant. It first appeared in 1952, at a time when she was moving away from her earlier, rather humorous stories, to crime novels which probed the well-springs of violence with subtlety and insight. The story starts at a point where Virginia Barkeley has been accused of murdering her lover, an unpleasant fellow called Margolis. Her mother brings in a young lawyer called Meecham, and he soon finds someone else confessing to the crime.

But Meecham isn't satisfied. The man who claims to have killed Margolis is seriously ill, and Meecham suspects he has an ulterior motive of some kind for making his confession. He begins to dig into the case, and starts to unravel a tangled web of multiple deceptions. As is often the case with Millar, there's a confusion about identity which plays a key part in the plot. It's a device I like, and she handles it very capably, time and again.

Meecham is in some ways a forerunner of her later protagonist, Tom Aragon. A cussed but likeable amateur sleuth, as he investigates, he also finds love. This isn't Millar at her absolute peak, but she was on her way up the ladder as she was writing this book, and there are plenty of good lines, as well as a plot pleasing enough to satisfy fans of the traditional mystery. Well worth reading. I'm glad Pushkin Vertigo have brought it back to the shelves.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Here, there, and everywhere

I'm back at home briefly in between various crime-writing trips. A few days in London proved highly enjoyable, and the first event on my list was a talk to the Oxford University Society in a rather special and memorable location. This was the highly atmospheric French Protestant Church in Soho Square. There was an excellent turn-out, and led to a couple of remarkable encounters which were a real bonus. One lady in the audience had actually attended the very same village fete in Great Budworth, Cheshire, which I discuss in the introduction to The Golden Age of Murder, the occasion which first introduced me to Agatha Christie and detective fiction. And I also met another lady whom I last talked to back at Oxford more years ago than either of us would care to remember. Amazing.

The next evening, there was a Detection Club dinner - and my very first time at the Ritz Hotel. It all went swimmingly, and having hosted two posh dinners in the space of a fortnight, I felt hugely relieved that everyone seemed happy and there were no hitches. Phew!

After that, it was time for a visit to Woking Library. As I explained to the audience, one particular place nearby will feature in my next novel...The event was part of a festival run by Surrey Libraries, and as so often I was impressed by the enthusiasm and efficiency of the staff. It was also particularly good to see Fiona, a loyal supporter of my books, though I wasn't able to give her a definite date for the appearance of the next Lake District Mystery!

A trip to the War Museum gave the chance to see the very striking cascade of poppies, a reminder of the different but very impressive display at the Tower of London a couple of years back. And when I left London, I hared back up north in order to catch the last hour and a half of the annual detective fiction book fair in Harrogate. I did wonder whether it would be worth it, but I was delighted to find some excellent books. One in particular was a quite irresistible gem, and I'll talk about it on another occasion.

Friday 9 November 2018

Forgotten Book - The Shop Window Murders

The Shop Window Murders Hardcover  by

Vernon Loder had been out of print for many years before Collins' Detective Story Club reissued The Mystery at Stowe, an engaging novel with an introduction by Nigel Moss, whose knowledge of Golden Age fiction is exceptional. I rather liked that book, and was pleased to see that Loder's 1930 novel The Shop Window Murders has been reprinted in the same series, again with a valuable introduction by Nigel.

The opening of the book is striking and memorable. Mander's Department Store (loosely based on Selfridge's) in the west end of London is renowned for its elaborate window displays. So much so that each Monday morning, crowds gather to watch the blinds being raised to reveal the latest display. Unfortunately, on this occasion, they see a human corpse nestling among the wax mannequins. To make matters worse, a second body is quickly discovered.

All this is enough to put a damper on any retail activity, and the store is closed while the investigation is conducted. Enter Devenish of the Yard, a shrewd and likeable fellow (I'm a little surprised that the prolific Loder did not turn him into a series character). As Nigel Moss says, Devenish is in the mould of Crofts' Inspector French, while one of the killings prefigures a crime in a later novel by two leading authors, published not long after Loder's death at the early age of 57.  Loder's real name, incidentally, was John George Hazlette Vahey, who wrote under other pen-names (including Henrietta Clandon - this was an unusual example of a male Golden Age author using a female pseudonym).

Nigel Moss points out the similarity between the opening situation of this book, and that in The French Powder Mystery, an Ellery Queen novel published in the very same year. A remarkable coincidence, as he says, and it may be one more example of the way certain story ideas seem to be "in the ether" at a particular time. I've been looking forward to having the chance to read this book since I read a laudatory review on John Norris' excellent blog four years ago. I'm not quite as much a fan of the story as are John and Nigel, because I found the solution frustratingly dependent on guesswork. The early chapters seem to me to be the best. But I'm delighted that this hitherto obscure novel is now readily available. 

Wednesday 7 November 2018

See No Evil aka Blind Terror - 1971 film review

See No Evil is an unsettling film with a good cast led by Mia Farrow, who plays a young woman blinded in a riding accident. Like Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, she finds herself menaced by a bad person, and all in all, she has an absolutely rotten time. I have mixed feelings about the film, but at least it avoids the hoary plot twist in which all the lights go out and the blind person being victimised is at last put an even footing with the person menacing him or her.

The script was written by Brian Clemens, a very fine television writer (he was responsible for some of the best scripts for The Avengers, among much else) but not as successful with the movies. The story is full of tension, with a few genuinely terrifying scenes, but I felt that the need to focus on suspense meant that short cuts were taken with the characterisation. Only Farrow's character, Sarah, is presented in any depth, and even aspects of her life and personality remain enigmatic.

Having left hospital, Sarah returns home, or rather to the posh home of her uncle (the always watchable Robin Bailey), aunt, and cousin (Diane Grayson, whose career in acting seems not to have gone much further after this film), and tries to adapt to life without sight. The part of her boyfriend Steve, who still cares for her, is played by Norman Eshley, a good actor who was once a fixture on our television screens. Apparently Eshley suffered terrible injuries in a car crash in France in the 90s, but he continues to work, and can be seen on Youtube endorsing Talking Pictures TV, on which I found this film. The cast also includes Michael Elphick and Paul Nicholas.

We know from the start that a mysterious man, whose face is not revealed, seems to be stalking Sarah's uncle, and in due course murder is committed. The tension rises as we wonder how on earth the endlessly suffering Sarah can possibly survive, but the genuine suspense does not quite compensate for the plot holes (what on earth happened to the police when the alarm was raised?), or for the lack of interest in the villain's motivation. Farrow's performance is convincing, although the soundtrack, by the usually effective Elmer Bernstein, is at times obtrusive - John Barry would have done a much better job with material of this kind. Anyway, despite my reservations about the film, I kept watching and the scary bits were truly scary. 

Sunday 4 November 2018

The Christmas Card Crime

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (British Library Crime Classics)

So much has been going on lately that I've not even blogged  until  now about my latest anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series. It's a seasonal compilation, The Christmas Card Crime and other stories, and it's my third anthology of this type, following Silent Nights and Crimson Snow. In all, I've edited eleven collections of short stories for the BL, and there's another to come in the first part of 2018, Deep Waters.

With this book, I wanted to concentrate on less familiar winter and Christmas stories. The three which I think dedicated crime fans are most likely to have encountered are those by Baroness Orczy, John Dickson Carr, and Cyril Hare, but there are some pretty rare tales, including the title story, written by Donald Stuart. Stuart was one of several pen-names written by the author best known as Gerald Verner, and whose real name was J.R.S. Pringle.

There's a relatively unfamiliar story by Ronald Knox, and also one by Francis Durbridge. John Bude and John Bingham, two very capable novelists who seldom wrote short stories, are also represented, while other contributors include E.C.R. Lorac and Julian Symons, both of whom are, like Bude, the authors of a number of novels in the Crime Classics series.

Apparently, this book shot into the independent bookseller bestseller lists, and last time I looked, it was also riding high in the Amazon crime anthology bestseller charts. Last week, the kindle version and the paperback featured at number one and number two respectively. Whatever one thinks of bestseller charts, that can't be bad.

So, here's hoping that this book will (along with Gallows Court, obviously....) help to solve your Christmas present buying dilemmas! And I'd also like to recommend another British Library title which is sure to be a highly popular stocking filler. This is Kate Jackson's The Pocket Detective, a compilation of puzzles for fans of the Crime Classics series. I'm working my way through it right now, and having a great deal of fun.

Friday 2 November 2018

Forgotten Book - And Death Came Too

Richard Hull is known to crime fans as a follower in the footsteps of Francis Iles, an exponent of the ironic mystery in stories such as The Murder of My Aunt and Excellent Intentions, both of which have appeared in the British Library's Crime Classics series this year. So it is interesting to turn to And Death Came Too, one of his most obscure titles, first published in 1942. It's as close as he came to writing a conventional whodunit.

The main setting is the Welsh county of Treve, and many of the key moments take place in a house called Y Bryn. Although I'm not absolutely certain, I strongly suspect that here Hull was re-using the locale of The Murder of My Aunt, and in particular fictionalising his family home of Dysserth. Four young people are invited by a man called Arthur Yeldham to Y Bryn, but when they turn up, Yeldham is nowhere to be seen. Instead they encounter a sardonic fellow called Salter and a rather strange woman, who says very little. And then it turns out that Yeldham is in the house, after all. He has been stabbed to death.

The local police get involved, and they are rather nicely characterised, in particular the Chief Constable and a slow-moving but rather appealing cop called Scoresby. Hull shifts from one viewpoint to another as it emerges that Yeldham was a school teacher, and that quite a number of people had reason to wish him dead.

It's a rather meandering story, but although it's not one of those cunningly structured novels of psychological suspense in which Hull specialised, it is quite entertaining. Hull had a leisurely writing style, and as a result, the tension doesn't mount quite as much as one might hope; I have to say that I had a good idea of the culprit's identity early on, though the motive remained obscure for some time. A second murder occurs, and there is a classic gathering of the suspects before all is revealed. This is a novel with some good moments and several amusing lines, even if it doesn't rank with Hull's best work.