Friday, 14 June 2019

Witness for the Prosecution at County Hall

Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution began life as a short story called "Traitor's Hands", written very early in her career (though, for me, it remains the best short story she ever wrote). She adapted it for the stage in 1953, adding an additional plot twist, and an excellent film version followed, directed by the great Billy Wilder and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power, four years later. There was a TV version a couple of years ago, while the stage play returned to London's County Hall with great success back in 2017, and it's still going strong.

I was glad to receive an invitation to a Gala performance of the play, held last night, to celebrate the new cast. Because I was down in London for a variety of other events, including a Detection Club dinner (nicely reported by Moira Redmond here) and the annual lunch for past Chairs of the Crime Writers' Association, I was able to accept, and I'm really glad I did. Having been lucky enough to be invited to stay at Agatha's old home in Devon, Greenway, last week, the chance to see the play was a real bonus.

The unique feature of Lucy Bailey's production is the setting - the former debating chamber of the Greater London Council, a magnificent space, and ideally suited for transformation into the Old Bailey. The large cast doesn't contain any major household names, and is none the worse for that. I thought the performances were of a consistently high standard; the actors in the lead roles, Simon Dutton as the defence QC, Carolin Stoltz as Romaine, and Lewis Cope as Leonard, were very good, while the other cast members also performed with conviction. This is a play where the production needs to be slick and fast-paced - and it was. Of course my enthusiasm for Christie is no secret, but I was accompanied by my son, a barrister, who wasn't familiar with the play, and he was impressed. A private party held after the show completed a memorable evening.

I've watched a number of Christie plays over the years, and I've mentioned one or two of them on this blog. For me, the sheer cleverness of the plot of Witness for the Prosecution means that it's my favourite - yes, ahead of The Mousetrap.

I talked in The Golden Age of Murder about Christie's preoccupation with the question of how to do justice, an aspect of her work that was neglected for many years. This play is a very good example of her almost obsessive interest in a subject which is as relevant today as when the original story was first written. 

Forgotten Book - Goodbye, Friend

Goodbye, Friend is something of an oddity. It's a short, snappy thriller, and as the author explains at the end, it's not really a novel. Rather, it's a movie script stripped of the directions, so that each of the "chapters" is really just a scene. What makes it interesting is that the author is Sebastien Japrisot. I've discussed his books several times on this blog, and I'm a fan. So when I spotted a cheap second hand paperback edition of this title, despite never having heard of it before, I snapped it up.

The film itself is best known as Farewell, Friend, although an alternate title was Honour Among Thieves. It starred Alain Delon and Charles Bronson, something of an odd pairing, but one that may well have worked on the screen - I've yet to see the film, which was released in 1968, though I'm tempted to seek it out.

Tempted, I have to say, despite the fact that the book version is nothing special. Perhaps this was predictable for a book that's no more than a pretty basic script. The set-up is, however, intriguing. Two men who first encountered each other in the French Foreign Legion meet up again, quite unexpectedly, when both try to rob the same bank. Naturally, things fail to go to plan.

In essence, it's a heist story with a difference, and I can imagine that on the screen it would work well. In book form - hmmmm....It certainly isn't in the same league as Trap for Cinderella or One Deadly Summer, both of which are gripping as well as ingenious, and strongly recommended. But this one is at least mercifully short and, overall, it was worth a quick read. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Greenway Literary Festival trip

June 4 saw the tenth anniversary of the National Trust coming into possession of Greenway House, the house in south Devon which was the home of Agatha Christie and her family from the late 30s onwards. When I was invited to take part in a literary festival there, and to talk about crime fiction on the anniversary date, I was delighted, and the pleasure was doubled when I was offered the opportunity to stay overnight in Greenway itself. No Christie fan would think twice about accepting, and I certainly didn't hesitate to say yes.

I first visited Greenway back in 1990, when Rosalind Hicks, Agatha's daughter, hosted a small visiting party of crime writers at the time of her mother's centenary. I returned many years later in the company of John Curran, but this time I had the wonderful experience of roaming the lovely grounds when all the crowds had gone on a delightful June evening as well as of staying in the house. The National Trust people looked after us very well, I must say. It was truly memorable and I acquired a couple of Greenway plants for my garden as souvenirs...

After I'd given my talk the following morning, we headed off on the ferry to Dartmouth, along the river Dart, and then did the short hop across to Dittisham and back (I now know where Agatha found the name for Lady Dittisham, of Five Little Pigs....) Because south Devon is a very long way from Cheshire, I decided to turn the trip into a tour of the south west. It seems to me to make sense, whenever possible, to turn event appearances into touring experiences, a chance to see a different part of the world as well as to meet crime fans. And it makes one feel better when sitting in endless traffic on the motorway when finally heading back home...

We had the chance to catch up with some friends who now live in the delightful cathedral city of Wells, and also stayed for a night in the resort of Paignton. The prospect of a return journey on the steam train that runs from Paignton to Kingswear, across the water from Dartmouth, which passes by Greenway, proved irresistible. I suspect the train was the original of the train which provides a clue in Taken at the Flood. A visit to Brixham, which I last saw as a child, surprised me: I had no idea it was a place of such historical importance. And it's very pretty too. Nearby Churston Manor, which proved to be an atmospheric lunch venue, is in the village of Churston, which features in The ABC Murders.

Among other highlights in Somerset were a climb up to the top of Glastonbury Tor, a trip around Glastonbury Abbey (said to be the burial place of King Arthur, among much else), and a visit to Bath, a city I've long been fond of, as well as to Totnes and Dartmouth (the original of Kate Ellis' Tradmouth) in Devon. All in all, a terrific experience. I just need to get a bit of writing done before I set off again...

Monday, 10 June 2019

Deep Waters - Publication Day!

Today sees the publication of my latest anthology for the British Library. Deep Waters is subtitled Mysteries on the Waves, and boasts a rather good cover which for me represents a pleasant reminder of my recent Atlantic crossing. I've talked about cruise mysteries on this blog recently, and there's no doubt that stories set around the sea, or indeed rivers, canals or lakes offer a lot of potential for the crime writer. 

This is, I think, the chunkiest of all my British Library anthologies, running to no fewer than 364 pages, and I'm pleased about this. I do think that it's good to offer readers plenty of value, and my only regret is that it wasn't possible to find space for a long-time favourite of mine, "Three Miles Up" by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a terrific story. I have to admit, however, that it's a bit of a stretch to call it a crime story, even though it's very mysterious indeed.

So what of the stories that did make the cut? We kick off with a case for Sherlock Holmes, and other eminent detectives who are featured include Reggie Fortune, Dr Thorndyke, John Appleby, and Gervase Fen. There are also some little-known names in the list of contributors, including Kem Bennett; I was introduced to his story, and another by Christopher St John Sprigg, by Jamie Sturgeon, one of a small group of friends who have given me valuable advice about possible stories for inclusion.

There is a story by Andrew Garve, a writer whose love of sailing is evident in many of his novels, and another by Phyllis Bentley, who is perhaps best remembered for her Yorkshire-based family saga novels. As usual, I'm aimed for variety in my selection, and I like to think that Deep Waters is a book which, whatever your preference in terms of classic crime, will offer plenty to enjoy.


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Cricket and the World Cup

This is a blog about crime fiction, but occasionally I like to feature other books that interest me, especially if I can introduce a crime-related element. With the ICC Cricket World Cup now in full swing, I've had a chance to catch up with the official book about the tournament, put together by Chris Hawkes, and published by Carlton. It's a glossy production, lavishly illustrated, with plenty of interesting background information.

For instance, I had no idea that cricket was being played in Afghanistan way back in 1839, long before Dr Watson picked up a Jezail bullet prior to meeting Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle was a keen cricketer, and the names of Sherlock and his brother Mycroft both derived from cricketers - Frank Shacklock and William Mycroft, who played for Derbyshire, a county that Doyle knew well.

International cricket has occasionally featured in crime fiction - for instance in Testkill, co-authored by cricketer Ted Dexter and journalist Clifford Makins - but more often it crops up incidentally, in the context of county or (more often) village matches. Authors as diverse as Julian Symons and Henry Wade have set scenes in their crime novels at cricket games, though perhaps the best known example is the cricket match in Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise. And in my current novel-in-progress, for the first time, I am featuring a cricket match in a key scene. The game plays a significant part in one of the sub-plots.

When I get the chance I am keen to watch some of the games in the World Cup, but there is always the consolation that if rain stops play, there are plenty of books to keep me fully occupied; not just the souvenir book about the tournament, but novels which it's time I re-read, such as Alibi Innings by Barbara Worsley-Gough, Pro by Bruce Hamilton (a crime novelist, though it isn't a crime novel) and my favourite cricket book, Settling the Score by Peter Gibbs.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Guest Blog - Caro Ramsay - The Suffering of Strangers

Caro Ramsay is a terrific writer with a new book, The Suffering of Strangers, just out from Black Thorn, and I'm delighted to feature a guest post from her on a subject relevant to the novel and one which fascinates me a good deal. Having just watched the riveting 63 Up directed by Michael Apted, the premise that our natures are fixed very, very early in life, perhaps right from the start, seems fairly compelling. Over to Caro:

"I once heard the witty and engaging crime writer Robert Thorogood (he of Death in Paradise fame) refer to the ‘deep rabbit hole of the internet’. Seemingly, many writers spend a lot of time in there messing around, surfing, looking at pictures of kittens playing with raccoons while ignoring emails from their agents asking them to kindly get the book finished.

For the book The Suffering Of Strangers, I was doing some research about genetics, chromosomes and DNA and came across the name Professor Robert Plomin.
And promptly forgot all about him.

Then about eighteen months later, I received an invite to chair an event at Aye Write (Glasgow’s literary festival) and at this event somebody called Mark Billingham was going to have his DNA examined live on stage by…. Professor Robert Plomin.

Prof Plomin, ‘Bob’ to his friends, is one of the most cited scientists of the 21stth Century, and one of those experts with the rare ability to really engage the audience. We sat spellbound as he spoke in his delicate Vincent Price tones, telling us that Mark was 4% Neanderthal and that he had the ability to smell both coriander and asparagus. And that he carried the genetic marker for obesity. Mark himself was aware of that, due to his love of coriander flavoured Indian cuisine. Nobody mentioned the lager...

The professor, who was on the front of the New Scientist magazine last week, has researched twins, and hundreds of thousands of adopted children, especially where children of different families are adopted by the same parents, a situation which could be considered as the best test of ‘nature verses nurture’.

And nature wins every time. You are your DNA.  And that’s about it!
Nurture is important, very important, but nowhere near as influential as most people think.

Parenting matters. It’s important for children to have good, steady and loving backgrounds. But parenting  does not matter as much as the average parent would like to think. Adverse childhood events obviously affect the psychology of the child, but the degree of influence and damage will be genetic. Is it having parents who have chaotic, challenging lifestyles that make a child misbehave and become disruptive? Or is it the fact that the child has the same ‘chaotic DNA’ as their parents.

I was fascinated by this and told him that my adopted cousin ended up sitting next to his own birth brother at school. He played football with another two of his brothers. So I said, well that proves it!

‘Well, maybe,’ he said, ‘Did they live near each other?’
‘In the catchment area of that school?’
‘Err yes.’ I was guessing where this was going.
‘Was he very close in age to his birth brothers?’
‘Yes, that’s why he was put up for adoption.’
‘So they would be in the same year at school. And I bet most Scottish boys tend to play football. So that’s not a genetic thing, that’s just plan logic.’
Mmmmm. Thinking now, going over it. Nobody in his adopted family has ever joined the armed forces but my adopted cousin was always very keen. When he reunited with his birth brothers, they were all in the army, one having served in the same unit as my cousin.
So, I think the genes were at work there, in the background.

The genetics playing out in a family can be easy to see, no two siblings are alike. There’s one a bit more like Mum, the other a bit more like Dad. Every family has a ‘mad uncle Tommy,’ the one who is first on the dance floor at weddings. And there will be ‘a Tommy’ in every generation or so.

But what of an evil gene? Does that exist?
When a notorious serial killer appears on TV, what exactly are we looking at?  Are they inevitable, a mixture of two ‘bad’ genetic strains coming together?  Yes, they will tend to have suffered adverse childhood events, usually at the hands of their parents. And there is evidence of the violent ‘gene’ ready to be passed on to the next generation.

Can that dangerous genetic sequence ever be recognised?

If it does, could that ever be a defence in court?

The professor did allude to a ‘triple whammy’, my inverted commas. A piece of genetic coding that brings psychopathy, narcissism and very high intelligence together. These, he said gravely are very dangerous people. Genetics are not a disease that can be cured, genetics are the building blocks of ‘self’.
He also added that they are incredibly rare.
And we should be thankful for that."

Friday, 7 June 2019

Forgotten Book - The Girl in Cabin B54

Lucille Fletcher can't be described as a prolific novelist. She produced ten novels over a span of forty years (1948-88) and the first two of these were novelisations, co-written with Allan Ullman, of radio plays - she was a very successful writer for radio. But she certainly had a great deal of talent as a novelist, and The Girl in Cabin B54, from mid-way in her novel-writing career (it was published in 1968) demonstrates her gift for psychological suspense.

This is a cruise ship story, an example of a pleasing sub-genre which has given rise to a host of interesting, and remarkably varied, crime stories over the years. Having mentioned a few that rather underwhelmed me earlier this week, it's a pleasure to talk about a book that I found gripping. Here we are on board S.S. Columbia, making a trip from the USA to Europe. The protagonist - "hero" would be too much of a stretch - is the ship's doctor, Vernon Grove.

Vernon has been sailing for eight years. He's an experienced Casanova, a master of seduction. It's soon apparent that he's perfected his technique for picking up attractive women, but we also learn early on that, a couple of years back, one affair went wrong. The truth about that emerges gradually, as the past comes back to haunt him on one particular trip.

The key to the story is that a pretty young girl, who claims to have psychic powers, has taken up residence in cabin B54, which was the same cabin occupied two years ago by Vernon's ill-fated lover. What she says, coupled with the behaviour of some fellow passengers, makes him increasingly paranoid. The suspense mounts to fever pitch...

I can't say too much more about the plot, but I can say that this story illustrates Fletcher's ability to build suspense. She was a very skilled writer, and in my opinion her novels deserve to be better known.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Not Wanted on Voyage

One of the lecture topics I chose for my recent talks on board Queen Mary 2 was "cruise mysteries". And the more I researched the subject, the more examples I found of such novels. Quite a few of them will feature as Forgotten Books over the coming months. There are plenty of enjoyable titles from the past where writers have made excellent use of cruise ships as a background for murder mysteries. The "closed community" on board ship makes for an atmospheric setting.

Then again, and perhaps inevitably, I did encounter a few disappointments. On this blog, I like to focus on books I've enjoyed, rather than the misfires, but if anyone thinks I am besotted with all classic mysteries, regardless, perhaps this post will alter that view! There were four books which didn't really do it for me, alas. Each of them had some redeeming features, but not enough for me to want to devote a whole "Forgotten Book" post to them. So here's a round-up - and of course, feel free to disagree...

One of the disappointments was The Blind Barber by John Dickson Carr. It's a Gideon Fell mystery, first published in 1934, and featuring an Atlantic crossing from New York to Southampton. I was really looking forward to reading this one, which had previously eluded me. But I have to say that, despite my enthusiasm for both Carr and Fell, this book disappointed me. It's really an armchair detective story, with Fell told about misadventures on board ship by his friend, the mystery writer Henry Morgan. The story is, really, a farce, and the humour hasn't worn particularly well.

I was also optimistic about Robin Forsythe's The Pleasure Cruise Mystery. Once very obscure, it's an example of Dean Street Press's admirable commitment to reprinting forgotten mysteries. The story features Algernon Vereker, and it's quite well and amusingly written, especially in the early stages. But the plot simply didn't capture my interest. I shall definitely give Forstyhe another go, but this was a rather discouraging introduction to his work.

K.K. Beck was a prolific writer of cozy-type mysteries in the later years of the twentieth century. I read her Death in a Deck Chair, set in the Golden Age, and it's a competent piece of  light (very light) entertainment, but the involvement in the storyline of one of those Ruritanian-style countries so beloved of minor GA writers put me off.

Finally, Nancy Spain's Not Wanted on Voyage. There's a nice plan of the cruise ship at the start of my copy, but the story didn't appeal to me. In real life, Nancy was a fascinating character, as her biography and autobiography make clear, but her speciality as a detective novelist was humour, and I found the facetiousness of this one simply too much. I'm afraid the title is all too accurate; I still haven't finished it..

Monday, 3 June 2019

South Shields, Cockermouth, and Wigan

After I received the CWA Dagger in the Library a few months back, I resolved to redouble my efforts to support libraries, many of which are hard-pressed financially, yet all of which make an invaluable contribution to the communities of which they form part. I've recently been involved in a couple of very enjoyable library events, with several more forthcoming.

The Murder Squad's crime weekend at the Word in South Shields had been in the works for quite a while. Part of the Write Festival, it was masterminded by Ann Cleeves and librarian Pauline Martin. I've met Pauline a couple of times before, on past visits to South Shields library, but I was bowled over by the Word. It's a fabulous venue on the waterfront, light, airy and comfortable. A dream of a library, and there is plenty more on offer there too. Definitely worth a visit.

We had a Readers' Day on the Saturday, with panels of various descriptions as well as single-author sessions. It was also great to catch up with my friends in the Squad again - Ann, Margaret Murphy, Cath Staincliffe, Kate Ellis, and Chris Simms. We had a couple of dinners together as a group, which were very convivial (and I was in very good heart on the Saturday evening, after Manchester City won a historic treble of trophies in English football!) On the Sunday, we had a Writers' Day; I conducted a couple of sessions on the subject of "Plotting", a subject always close to my heart. After the weekend, there was time for some sightseeing in the area - St Mary's Island and Lighthouse (of course I simply had to climb to the top...), Seaton Sluice and Tynemouth - making the most of the sun.

A few days ago, I made a much shorter journey up the motorway to Wigan Library. It's ten years since I was last there, and again I was impressed by the improved facilities which now exist. This was just a solo event, as I did the latest version of a talk I've given over many years - "My Life of Crime".

In between the library events, I had the pleasure of travelling up to the lovely town of Cockermouth, to take part in an event at the Kirkgate Centre, chaired by Ruth Sutton. My fellow panellists were Paula Daly and Mike Craven, both of whom have forthcoming TV series set in the Lakes, and Lake District crime was our theme. Again, I was lucky with the weather and got the chance to tour Wordsworth's birthplace in the town, as well as to do some research in the Lakes, around Whitehaven and Bardsea, for my next Lake District Mystery - yes, there will be one!

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Anthony Price R.I.P.

Image result for anthony price author

I was very sorry to learn, earlier today, of the death of Anthony Price, a crime writer of distinction, at the age of 91. Anthony was an interesting and unusual writer, not just in terms of the books that he wrote, but also as regards the arc of his career in the world of fiction. A journalist with the Oxford Times, of which he became editor, he stumbled into crime writing as a result of encouragement from Livia Gollancz, and all his novels were published by Gollancz.

He first book, The Labyrinth Makers (1970), won the CWA Silver Dagger, while Other Paths to Glory (1974) won a CWA Gold Dagger. I first came across his work as a teenager, and was impressed.

There were nineteen novels in all, and each of them featured Dr David Audley, sometimes in a central role, sometimes only in passing. Anthony Price combined mystery with espionage in a sophisticated way, and his books were widely appreciated by connoisseurs. There was a TV series featuring Terence Stamp as Audley, and other screen adaptations of his work, but they lacked the flavour of the books, and he felt that Stamp, although a fine actor, was miscast.

His final novel appeared in 1989, and he could never be persuaded to publish another, much to the regret of his fans. However, he remained a loyal member of the CWA and of the Detection Club. I never met him in person, but corresponded with him, and received a charming letter from him last year. I wish I'd been able to get to know him better.

On his excellent Existential Ennui blog, Nick Jones carried two very informative interviews with Anthony Price back in 2011,  and they are well worth reading

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

The Art of the Whodunit - part two

The second phase of The Art of the Whodunit tour was very different from the first, on board the Queen Mary 2, but equally appealing. After landing at Southampton, we travelled to Oxford (well, some way outside the city, to a replacement hotel after the first one let us down) and I kicked off proceedings with a talk about Balliol's crime writers as a follow-up to an onboard lecture on Oxford mysteries.

The next few days were a hugely enjoyable whirl, as we packed in a great many sights. An orienteering walk in the city centre was followed by a drive through north Oxford, during which I had my first go as a tour guide, with the microphone at the front of the coach. A quick visit to the Ashmolean was followed by lunch in the King's Arms, and then a brilliant tour around my old college. I even saw aspects of Balliol that I'd never seen in my years of a student. Then in the evening I gave a talk about collecting detective fiction: I'd taken along on the trip various items from my own collection of books and crime fiction memorabilia. I find that a lot of people prefer to see and handle real items than simply gaze at Powerpoint slides.

Thankfully if rather unexpectedly, the weather was fantastic. This was a real bonus, not least on the river cruise (something I'd never done in Oxford, oddly enough; punting was the thing in my student days) when again I did my tour guide bit with the mic. A tour of Christ Church's gardens, dining room, and cathedral was another highlight.

A trip to the Sheldonian Theatre came next. I've been there for various ceremonies, but never before had I climbed right to the top and looked out from the cupola over the city of dreaming spires. Then we had a guided tour of one of the great bookshops, Blackwell's. We were admitted to the "Gaffer's Office", once occupied by Basil Blackwell himself, where I sat in his chair and did a book signing. It was terrific fun. And finally there was a walk along the Oxford canal, again surprisingly unfamiliar to me, and dinner at Blanc's Brasserie to round off a memorable few days.

The camaraderie amongst the group was fantastic. The doubts I'd had before the trip started soon evaporated, as they responded so positively to the early lectures, and I really enjoyed myself. And guess what? I'm doing it all over again later in the summer...