Monday, 21 October 2019

Announcing 'Howdunit'


Image result for ian rankin

Front page news on The Bookseller on Friday was the announcement of a deal to publish an exciting new book written by members of the Detection Club. Howdunit, which I've compiled and edited, is about the art and craft of crime writing and it will be published by HarperCollins in June next year.

The contributors will include almost all the current members of the Detection Club, including Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, Mick Herron, James Runcie, Peter James, Sophie Hannah, Peter Robinson, Felix Francis, Elly Griffiths, Peter Lovesey, Mark Billingham, and Len Deighton, to whom the book is dedicated - given that this year, Len celebrates 50 years as an enthusiastic member of the Club. They will offer a marvellous range of insights into the writing life, including personal reminiscences, practical tips for aspiring writers, and an insight into the realities of being a writer - there are terrific pieces, for instance, about "imposter syndrome" and "improvisation techniques" as well as thoughts on social media, writing for radio, and the experience of having your work adapted for TV and film.

And that's not all. The book will also include shorter pieces by a number of illustrious Detection Club members of the past, from G.K. Chesterton onwards. So readers will have a chance to compare the approaches of luminaries of the Golden Age, for instance, with those of their present day successors. It will, I think, be quite a book. I've been working hard on it for much of this year - since Club members decided at our AGM in February that they wanted to put together a book to raise funds for the Club.

And that's another remarkable and highly gratifying feature of this book - the lovely people who are contributing to it are donating all the proceeds to Club funds, to ensure that as it celebrates its 90th anniversary next year, it continues to thrive for the foreseeable future. I'm enormously grateful to each and every one of them for their wholehearted support, as well as for the wonderful pieces they are contributing.

More about this book before long. But in the meantime, there's still work to be done... 

Friday, 18 October 2019

Forgotten Book - A Bullet for Rhino

Clifford Witting (1907-68) is one of those writers who flew somewhat under the radar. His work isn't often discussed, but he was elected to membership of the Detection Club ten years before his death, and his books are admired by such knowledgeable aficionados as Barry Pike and Nigel Moss. Nigel it was who lent me his copy of A Bullet for Rhino, originally published in 1950, and I'm glad he did.

This was the ninth case for Inspector Harry Charlton, a likeable fellow who happens to be an old boy of Mereworth School. He's invited to a reunion, at which, he's told, his well-known but highly controversial contemporary "Rhino" Garstang will be present. But it becomes clear that someone is anxious for him not to attend. It's clear (and not merely from the title) that murder is in the air. And as soon as we are introduced to Rhino, it's clear that he is a very suitable victim. He is one of those Golden Age victims who makes a point of giving people reasons to kill him. Most unwise.

Even though this is a post-war novel, it certainly has a Golden Age flavour. The restricted private school setting, so popular with Golden Age novelists, contributes to this. And Charlton here acts rather like an amateur detective, with the local cops taking charge when someone tries to blow up Rhino. The clever finale in particular seemed to me to be more typical of a Golden Age mystery than a conventional police story.

A cricket match at the school plays quite a significant part in the storyline, and as a cricket fan myself, I found this pleasing. Possibly those who aren't cricket lovers may be less impressed, but again cricket, with its ethos of fair play, is very much a game in keeping with the Golden Age tradition. All in all, I liked this book and felt Nigel's recommendation was spot on. 


Wednesday, 16 October 2019

More Crime Classics on the way



The British Library has just issued its catalogue for the first half of next year, and it's full of good things. Including, naturally, half a dozen Crime Classics that will offer a wide variety of delights for fans of good mystery fiction. For many people, I suspect the stand-out title will be The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer. This splendid impossible crime story was the work of a major writer in the making. Shaffer wrote it in his early twenties and I've been trying to get it back in print for years. This has not been easy to achieve, but I'm glad that a new generation of readers will have a chance to enjoy it at last.

John Dickson Carr returns, with another Henri Bencolin story, the splendidly atmospheric Castle Skull, set in the Rhineland. We're also back in continental Europe with Crossed Skis, by Carol Carnac. Carnac was a pen-name of Carol Rivett, better known as E.C.R. Lorac, and this is a very enjoyable Alpine mystery indeed - even if, like me, you wouldn't want to be caught dead on a pair of skis.

I'm delighted that Mary Kelly's The Spoilt Kill is included in the list. This is the book that won her the CWA Gold Dagger when she was  still in her early thirties - perhaps there have been younger winners since then, but not many, that's for sure. I read the novel many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it when rereading it prior to writing my intro for this edition. I've also benefited from the insights of the author's husband, Denis, who has been enormously helpful.

By popular demand, there's another John Bude book - in fact, a volume which contains two rare Bude novels, Death in White Pyjamas and an impossible crime story, Death Knows No Calendar. And finally there is another anthology which I've put together. Settling Scores is a collection of sporting mysteries; each story is by a different author, and each features a different sport. 

Monday, 14 October 2019

The Hooded Gunman by John Curran - review

John Curran is renowned as an expert on Agatha Christie, and his research into her private notebooks broke fresh ground in terms of the analysis of how detective novelists devise their stories. I've referred to his books many times, and I've no doubt that I'll be referring frequently to his latest book, The Hooded Gunman, just published by HarperCollins. It's a detailed assessment of that splendid, and much-missed imprint, the Collins Crime Club. I should disclose that I'm one of those thanked in the acknowledgements at the front of the book, but regardless of that, I can recommend this book unreservedly to all serious students of the genre.

The Hooded Gunman is a beautifully presented book, crammed with full colour illustrations of dust jackets as well as many photographs of great interest to the crime fan. It's the most gorgeous book about the crime genre I've seen since It's All One Case, a superb book about Ross Macdonald's work published three years ago which deserves to be much better known. Terence Caven's design work is admirable.

In one sense The Hooded Gunman is a coffee table book, because of the heavy focus on quality illustrations. But it's much more than that. I'm not quite sure if John has read every single book published under the Crime Club imprint, but I wouldn't be surprised. He's certainly done a huge amount of research, and as a result, the text is more interesting and valuable than is usually the case with coffee table books (something else it has in common with It's All One Case). A large section of the book is devoted to reprinting jacket blurbs which will be a very useful tool for readers who want to consider seeking out particular titles. 

There are also several short but informative sections, for instance about Crime Club card games and the dons' detective novel competition judged by Agatha Christie among others. John makes the point that E.C.R. Lorac was particularly well-served by the artists who produced dust jackets for her books, and there's evidence here to substantiate this claim. I've enjoyed reading John's text and I've also had a lot of pleasure simply leafing through this handsome volume, admiring the illustrations. A joy for book lovers, and a very good Christmas present for the detective fan in your life.

The Isle of Wight Literary Festival


This weekend, I was delighted to take part in the Isle of Wight Literary Festival, at Northwood House in Cowes. It's a long time since I last visited the island (back in the days before I had a car; the future Mrs Edwards and I spent a few days touring around via the local bus service...) and so I seized the opportunity to combine the event with some sight-seeing. The luck I've had all year with the weather finally ran out, but even in damp conditions, the island is a pleasant place to visit, and this time I travelled over via the car ferry from Southampton, which made it possible to drive around from place to place and dodge the showers.


The Festival has been running for a number of years now, and the Chair, Maggie Ankers, has an excellent team of colleagues assisting her and making sure that this is an event that many writers, ranging from Dan Snow to Alexander McCall Smith, are keen to attend. The hospitality was first-rate, with not one but two receptions, each followed by a pleasant meal in the setting of a yachting club. I enjoyed learning about the island.



It's a place with a lot of history, and I visited Newtown, once a major medieval harbour, now a highly atmospheric coastal village, as well as the Bembridge Windmill and the Needles. There's a chairlift for sight-seers at the Needles, but the wind was so strong that it was out of action when we visited Alum Bay.


In Victorian times, tourists flocked to the island, and many of the resorts are now enjoying a renaissance. Again, we didn't see them at their most inviting, but Yarmouth, Ventnor, Shanklin, and Ryde all have a lot going for them, and I'd like to return sometime. One of the most memorable places was one I'd never heard of. This was Quarr Abbey, a magnificent brick-built Benedictine monastery, with ruins of a medieval abbey in its grounds. A very special place. After my talk, it was fun to meet fellow crime fans before making the long journey back to Cheshire. All in all, a memorable weekend. 



Friday, 11 October 2019

Forgotten Book - Fer-De-Lance

Of all the great American crime writers, Rex Stout has been something of a blind spot for me. Many years ago, Some Buried Caesar was strongly recommended to me, and I was underwhelmed. But he was an important figure in the genre, and I decided to give him another try. I opted for the first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, which dates from 1934.

The story was the first recorded case of Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin, who narrates. But as Loren D. Estleman, who wrote the intro to my paperback edition says, you really wouldn't realise this - the duo are portrayed compellingly, and as Estleman points out, that portrayal really didn't vary during their long career. Wolfe was the supreme armchair detective, and Archie did the leg-work.

It was a clever idea, to combine a Great Detective in the classic mould with a character who might have sprung from the pulp magazines, and Stout married the two traditions to better effect than perhaps anyone else. I was more impressed this time around than on my first encounter with his work, and the mystery is a clever one. But although I'm warming to Stout, I still wouldn't class myself as a devotee.

The principal murder method here is very much in the Golden Age tradition, and so is the idea of murder committed on a golf course, while the vivid finale is in keeping with the action story template. It's also historically interesting that Wolfe is struggling financially because he is as affected by the Great Depression as everyone else in the US at the time, an unusual aspect of the story which did appeal to me. Well worth reading, and some regard this one as a masterpiece. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

The Last Seance and Tales of the Troubled Dead


Image result for the last seance agatha christie


I like ghost stories, and enjoyed writing one a while back - "No Flowers", which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and which I even recorded for their website podcast. Over the years, quite a few crime writers have dabbled in stories of the supernatural. Agatha Christie is a notable example, and now HarperCollins have had the bright idea of putting together a chunky volume of twenty of her tales of the uncanny (but not those featuring Harley Quin). It's called The Last Seance, and it's just come out.

There are one or two well-known stories here, perhaps most notably "Philomel Cottage", while  no fewer than eleven of them (including the title story) were included in The Hound of Death, an interesting and under-estimated collection. Christie is famous as an exponent of highly rational whodunit plots, but this book illustrates that she had an abiding interest in the supernatural, and quite a flair for writing about it. There is no introduction (I believe one was planned, but fell through: a pity), but there is a good bibliography.

Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History, is very different. It's a non-fiction study written by Catherine Belsey and published by Edinburgh University Press. The author is an experienced academic, and although I find academic books about popular fiction interesting, all too often I find the style of writing depressingly dense. A tendency to overload the text with cross-references (surely books written for academics should assume that the readers are capable of finding page numbers for themselves) is another recurrent weakness. Happily, this book is an exception, because Catherine Belsey writes entertainingly and with insight, and doesn't feel the need to encumber her text with tedious material designed to prove that she knows her stuff.

"Ghosts don't stay put" is the opening sentence, and perhaps my favourite illustration of Belsey's pleasing literary style can be found in an engaging chapter about Women in White: "Ghostly dress codes vary". I also liked her wry reference to Tony Blair: "The ex-premier, however, is not entirely fictitious." The book veers around its subject in a discursive way that I found agreeable. It's not in any way a text book, and all the better for that. Many other academic writers could benefit from adopting a more relaxed, less insecure approach to their writing in the manner of Belsey. 

Apulia and Allotments


In recent times, I've enjoyed combining my crime writing life with travel, and I've found increasingly that escaping from my computer tends to help me to come up with fresh story ideas. Not, usually, because I've gone to great lengths to seek out specific ideas, but rather because having a more relaxed mindset is often the best way to find inspiration. Anyway, when booking a holiday in Apulia (or Puglia as it's known here) I thought I might get the germ of an idea for a story in Matera, a town I've wanted to visit for several years. But things took an unexpected turn...


Apulia is rather less well-known to British visitors than many other parts of Italy but it's very attractive and relatively unspoiled. The first stop was Lecce, which has among various baroque delights (and papier mache figures) some remnants of a Roman amphitheatre. A nice town, but in many ways a warm-up act for a wonderful place, Alberobello, famed for its distinctive Trulli houses, and somewhere that appealed to me hugely.



After that, we (along with our pals Kate Ellis and her husband Roger, whose company is always enjoyable) headed for Matera. When an artist I met told me about Matera's wonderful atmosphere, I wanted to take a look for myself, though I wondered if it would live up to the hype. No question, it did. It's the third oldest continuously inhabited town in the world, we were told, after Aleppo and Jericho, and the cave-dwellings which were once "the shame of Italy" are now a key attraction at this year's European Capital of Culture. A destination I can recommend unreservedly. And the mysterious bones in an underground crypt certainly provoked a lot of thought...






Bari, an ancient port, exceeded my expectations, while the remote mountainside town of Monte Sant Angelo was very impressive, as well as slightly eerie: now that's somewhere that would be a good setting, I thought....After that it was on to Vieste, and Peschici, two coastline towns offering dramatic scenery as well as labyrinths of narrow streets and alleyways. A boat trip along that coast, during which we ventured into various caves and grottoes, was utterly memorable.





Our other travelling companions included two people who extolled the virtues of having an allotment; and that's when a story idea unexpectedly came to me - at a point in the trip when I was already worked on another short story, a version of a locked room mystery with a difference. They were very helpful in supplying me with background information and by the end of the trip I had sketched out the whole story in note form. As for a story set in the mountains or in the crypt of a cave, you never know...






     

Monday, 7 October 2019

In a Lonely Place - DVD review

The film of In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray, is rather better known than Dorothy B. Hughes' novel (1947) from which it was adapted. Both are quite excellent, but very different. I read the book first, and now I've caught up with the DVD of the movie, which stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Bogart plays Dix Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter whose career is in decline.

In the novel, Dix is a war veteran who hankers after becoming a writer, but doesn't achieve his dream. He becomes obsessed with picking up women and murdering them, and the book charts his mental decline. In the film, a young woman in whom Dix has shown an interest is murdered, but it's not clear until the end whether or not he is guilty of the crime.

Even though I knew in advance that the film script bears only a limited resemblance to the source material, I was still surprised that Andrew P. Solt, the writer, jettisoned so much of Hughes' book. Given the excellence of the novel, this was a high-risk gamble, but in fairness to Solt, he does create a mood of menace, and the actors do a superb job. I'm slightly surprised that nobody has attempted to re-make the film in a manner more faithful to the book; perhaps the success of Ray's version remains a deterrent.

In the bonus extras, the comment is made that in the movie, Dix is a man whom women watch, whereas in the book, he's a man who watches women. This distinction between the approach of the male and female writers struck me when I was watching; there's something very modern about Hughes' writing, and the same can't quite be said about Solt's script, despite its considerable merits. But I enjoyed watching the film almost as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Not least because of the soundtrack by George Antheil, known to locked room mystery fans as Stacey Bishop, author of Death in the Dark.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Forgotten Book - Twisted Clay

Twisted Clay by Frank Walford was in its day a very controversial novel - banned in the author's native Australia for a quarter of a century or so. It was originally published in 1933, but it certainly bears little or no resemblance to anything written by, say Christie, Sayers, or Marsh. I came across mention of the book on the blogosphere, on the admirable Pretty Sinister Books, if I remember rightly, and duly sought out a recent reprint from Remain Books.

This is one of those old novels that benefits enormously from being set in context, and the Remain edition does that job splendidly, as well as being very nicely produced. Johnny Mains explains what led him to bring the novel back to life; Jim Smith provides an account of the author's career; and James Doig explains the story of the book's reception. All this material, not over-long, I found valuable.

And the story? Well, it's a first person narrative, and Walford daringly adopts the voice of a teenage lesbian who graduates from minor misdemeanours into serial murder. One can certainly argue that the handling of the issue of sexual orientation is rather crude and simplistic, rather as well-meaning attempts by other writers at the time to tackle race issues can often seem inept to readers with a 21st century perspective. The handling of mental instability was also, for me, unsatisfactory. But Walford's ambition is undeniable, and his book certainly has both power and readability, features which go some way to compensating for other defects.

One thing is for sure. There is nothing "cosy" about Twisted Clay. I'm not even sure that "dark" does it justice. I read it very quickly, and I tend to feel that's the best way to tackle a story of such concentrated unpleasantness. It's no literary masterpiece, but it's historically (at least) very interesting. Not for everyone, I suspect, but worth a look if you're intrigued by the way crime writers have tackled morbid psychology down the years. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Murder She Said: The Quotable Miss Marple

Murder She Said: The Quotable Miss Marple is a stocking-filler published, in extremely good time for Christmas, by HarperCollins. It follows a similar little book of Hercule Poirot quotes, Little Grey Cells, which landed on the shelves a couple of years back. The earlier book was put together by editor David Brawn; the new one is the work of Tony Medawar.

Like the Poirot book, this one includes an interesting bonus feature, namely a short essay by Agatha Christie herself: "Does a Woman's Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?" This piece dates from 1928, and was originally published in The Star newspaper to coincide with final publication of the first set of Miss Marple short stories (there is also a bibliography of the Marple short stories, most of which appeared between 1927 and 1931, as well as an intro to the book by Tony Medawar).

The quotes are grouped into eight sections: the art of conversation, men and women, crime and detection, the young, murder, Marple on Marple, human nature, and life. Here is one of my favourites, from the very first Agatha Christie novel that I read, The Murder at the Vicarage:

"Observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets to expect not very much from it."

Cynical, of course, but in the past there have been times in my life (especially during my days as a partner in a law firm) when I have, despite my instincts to the contrary, felt much the same!





Monday, 30 September 2019

The Measure of Malice


Image result for measure of malice martin edwards

Life is pretty hectic at the moment, and as a result I've been rather tardy in talking about my latest UK publication! This is another anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series, The Measure of Malice. The theme here is scientific detection. I've been keen with the story collections in this series to ring the changes in terms of theme, as well as trying to ensure diversity of content.

An anthology of short stories needs to have a distinctive personality, I think. On the whole, readers tend not to be tempted by random assortments of stories in a book, however good the individual stories. It's a given, in almost all cases, that different readers will respond differently to particular stories in an anthology, and that they won't like each story equally. That doesn't seem to me to be a problem. The real joy of anthology often lies in a discovery of the unexpected. One buys the book because one is tempted by the theme, or by the inclusion of a favourite story or author, and then one stumbles across something unfamiliar that is, perhaps unexpectedly, highly enjoyable. That's what I find as a reader of anthologies; it's what I love about them. And it's what I aim for when editing an anthology myself.

I'm no scientist, as my miserable Grade 5 in Physics O Level attests (and weirdly, I have never had a single chemistry lesson in my life), but science does interest me, and its application in detective work is of course of great importance. The focus of The Measure of Malice is on early examples of scientific detection - no DNA fingerprinting, CCTV surveillance, or mobile phone tracking here! But although some of the technology now seems quaint, it also has a considerable appeal as well as historic significance.

For this book, I've rounded up the usual suspects, such as R. Austin Freeman, creator of Dr Thorndyke, and J.J. Connington, in real life a distinguished professor of chemistry. And there are great names such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers, the latter making a venture into forensic dentistry in a story that I really like. But there are also less familiar names, such as Ernest Dudley, creator of  Dr Morelle, C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne, and Carl Bechhofer Roberts. Who knows, it may be that some readers tempted by Doyle and Sayers find themselves drawn to Dudley and his lesser known colleagues. I hope so, and I hope that crime fans find plenty to enjoy in this new collection. 

Friday, 27 September 2019

Forgotten Book - Hand of Fate


Image result for michael underwood hand of fate

Are there any other Michael Underwood fans out there? Underwood was a prolific writer of mysteries which usually had a legal element. His long career began in 1954 and came to an end with his death in 1992. He produced a number of series, the most extensive featuring the solicitor Rosa Epton, together with stand-alones, and he was Secretary of the Detection Club and served as Chair of the CWA. I think it's fair to say that he was predominantly a writer for the library market, but although he seldom scaled the literary heights as a novelist, he was an accomplished entertainer.

My forgotten book for today is one of his stand-alones, Hand of Fate, which appeared in 1981. It's a good story, which showcases Underwood's strengths, as well as his limitations. We begin with a scenario suggestive of the Crippen case. Frank Wimble is a rich, self-made man whose wife refuses him a divorce at a time when he wants to marry his mistress. Elspeth Wimble duly disappears in mysterious circumstances. Local gossip comes to the attention of the police and their investigations take a fresh turn when a severed hand is found in local woodland, bearing Elspeth's ring. Frank is duly charged with murder.

The murder trial takes up the bulk of the novel. Underwood, whose real name was John Michael Evelyn, was a barrister who worked in public prosecutions, and his command of detail is extremely convincing, even if sometimes the information is presented in a slightly dry way. We veer into Verdict of Twelve territory, with Underwood presenting us with insight into the jurors' lives, rather as Raymond Postgate did. This is fascinating, although many of the threads here are left undeveloped. We also learn about the female judge, and I presumed that what was going on in her personal life (her daughter-in-law is having an affair) would somehow link in with the plot. It's not really a spoiler to say that it doesn't. Here, I think, Underwood missed a trick. Postgate was more ambitious with his novel, and that's why it is better remembered.

Nevertheless, I kept turning the pages, wanting to find out what the truth was (I did guess most of it, but the twists are clever.) Underwood had a very smooth, readable style. What he lacked in terms of literary ambition, he made up for by telling a good story. In real life, he was gay, and my guess is that the discretion that evidently characterised his life influenced his approach to writing. He didn't want to give too much away about himself, although there's an interesting development in the closing paragraphs of the novel. This is a light, pacy read, and even if the characterisation isn't too sophisticated, it's well worth reading.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves


The Long Call

The Long Call, published by Pan Macmillan, is the new novel by Ann Cleeves, and it's a noteworthy book given that it launches a brand new series - the "Two Rivers" series, featuring a youngish cop called Matthew Venn. The setting is north Devon, and the rivers in question are the Taw and the Torridge. Ann is closely associated with Northumberland, where she lives, and Shetland, where she met her late husband Tim, and has evoked both areas wonderfully well in two series that have become huge television successes, but the move to north Devon is a very sound one. She has a very good sense of the area, not least because it's where she grew up, and as always she evokes the landscape and atmosphere very effectively.

When I was planning my own first novel, I was naturally interested to find out what other writers of a similar age who had managed to get published were doing, and that's how I first came across Ann's work, with her original series about George and Molly Palmer-Jones. I was impressed, and although it's undeniably true that Ann has developed enormously as a writer over the years (as all good writers do), there is real merit in those early books, even though she's always been self-deprecating about them. It's hard now to believe that one of the books in the series, Sea Fever, was even turned down for publication in the UK, though it was accepted by an American publisher, and much later it did come out in this country. I felt that all the signs were there, right from the outset, of a strong and thoughtful interest in character and landscape, elements that have made her books international best-sellers since TV came along, but the plots are sound, too. This is also true, by the way, of yet another of her series, the enjoyable books featuring Inspector  Ramsay.

The starting point for Matthew's investigation is the discovery on the beach of a male corpse. The deceased has an albatross tattooed on his neck. He has been stabbed. The case brings Matthew right back into the heart of a community he left long ago, and a sad story is told with Ann's characteristic compassion. The criminal motivation at the heart of the book, incidentally, is one that used to fascinate Dorothy L. Sayers, a rather different crime writer in many ways, but one who (at least in her later work) shared with Ann a determination to write about credible people and emotions and was not content merely to write a routine whodunit.

Matthew is gay, contentedly married to Jonathan, and religious intolerance plays a part in the storyline, but Ann has made the point in interviews that her objective is not to be politically correct but rather to challenge the ridiculous nature of prejudice of any kind. The series has already been optioned for television and the novel has made the  Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists. Not a bad start! I'm already looking forward to the next entry in the series. 




Monday, 23 September 2019

Researching Lunesdale and the Lake District


Friday was a beautiful day, and the weather was ideal for a trip with two research objectives in mind. First, I aimed to gather more material for a forthcoming introduction to a novel in the British Library Crime Classics series by Carol Rivett, better known as E.C.R. Lorac (although the book in question will be one of those she wrote under another name, Carol Carnac). I was lucky enough to talk to someone who actually knew Carol Rivett in the years up to the author's death in 1958. It was a fascinating conversation. What's more, I've acquired an original manuscript by the author for the Detection Club's archives, held at Gladstone's Library. Developing the archives is a very long-term project, but one which I believe is hugely worthwhile. It's so easy for writers and their work, even fine writers and great books, to disappear from the public consciousness. The aim of the archives is to preserve a wide range of items of crime fiction heritage, and to make them accessible to members of the public.


My kind and generous hosts also made me a present of two works of art from their Rivett inheritance, as well as showing me a number of fascinating items in their possession. Carol was a gifted artist, and above is an example of a Christmas card, depicting an interior scene from her home in Aughton, which she designed and sent in 1956.


We met in the small village of Gressingham in picturesque Lunesdale, close to Aughton, where Carol Rivett lived for the last fifteen or sixteen years of her life. The next leg of my journey took me to Ulverston. I've been researching the next Lake District Mystery for some time, and I wanted to absorb myself again in some of the countryside (just outside the national park in this case) which provides part of the background for the book.


Earlier this year, while taking part in a talk at Ulverston Library, I met a fellow crime writer, Zosia Wand, who lives in the town. Zosia is the author of Trust Me and The Accusation, and is also a successful writer for radio, coach of writers, and playwright. She's lived in Ulverston for some years, and kindly took me on a tour which encompassed both the Hoad Monument (a lighthouse-like tower on top of a hill) and Conishead Priory (above photo), now a charming Buddhist retreat, with woodland walks to the shore. The views of Morecambe Bay were absolutely magnificent.


I was so inspired by these sights that instead of setting off home straight away, I made the most of the sunshine by driving further along the coast, as far as Roa Island on the tip of the Furness peninsula, with views of Piel Island, which I visited four years ago - yes, I've been thinking about this new novel for four years! And whilst roaming, I came upon the ideal setting for the opening scenes. All in all, truly rewarding trip.



Friday, 20 September 2019

Forgotten Book - Dear Laura


Image result for dear laura jean stubbs

The rise of the historical mystery can be dated to the 1970s (although some good examples were written much earlier). An especially strong Victorian crime story is Dear Laura by Jean Stubbs. So good, in fact, that it was nominated for an Edgar. It remains, I think, the outstanding achievement of a capable, Manchester-born author whose wrote a variety of books including a short series featuring the Victorian cop Inspector Lintott. She wrote some novels directly inspired by real life crimes, but this is a story of her own invention.

This is a Lintott novel, and he is called in following receipt of anonymous letters which suggest that Theodore Crozier, a Wimbledon businessman (he runs a toymaking business; I was slightly sorry not to hear more about this) whose death has been attributed to natural causes was in fact murdered. Hid body is exhumed, and sure enough it emerges that he was killed by a fatal dose of morphine.

We are presented with a classic emotional triangle. Crozier was a cold man, and his attractive young wife Laura, having presented him with three children, is fed up with their marriage. Consolation is supplied by her brother-in-law Titus, a ladies' man who is charming but feckless. Lintott, affable but remorseless, probes their affair and also puts the servants of the house under the microscope.

The upstairs-downstairs relationships are very well done, and there's an especially powerful presentation of a cruel nanny. There are lashings of period detail, and just occasionally the painstaking research shows itself a bit too obviously. But overall, it's very well done, and the story progresses in leisurely but engaging fashion. Lintott is an extremely good character, very well portrayed. I'd rank this, alongside Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings among others, as one of the most enjoyable Victorian history-mysteries.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Rye Arts Festival Trip - part two


The Cryme Day that John Case organised for the Rye Arts Festival was designed around four crime novelists: Simon Brett, Lynne Truss, William Shaw, and myself. Guy Fraser-Sampson, another crime writer who lives nearby in Winchelsea, was tasked with interviewing William and Lynne, and at a late stage we agreed that he'd interview me. Even without time for prep, he did a very good job indeed, and it was a most enjoyable experience. I was fascinated to hear William talk about the Dungeness setting of some of his books, while Simon was (as always) highly entertaining. Lynne, whom I last met on the evening Ann Cleeves and I were initiated into membership of the Detection Club, when she was guest speaker and we walked back through the snow, was also very witty. John had organised a murder mystery lunch at the Mermaid Inn, which I enlivened inadvertently by squirting raspberry puree all over the tablecloth. I've always been inept, I'm afraid. At least it looked like blood spatter at a crime scene...





I met some lovely people during the day, and signed plenty of books, while John and his team did a great job. Afterwards, Simon and his wife Lucy, Lynne and Helena and I went out to dinner together at the Ship Inn and had a very convivial time. The Festival was a great success and Rye a marvellous location.

On Sunday, first stop was Lamb House in Rye. This was Henry James' home, and E.F. Benson was another occupant. I can't claim James as a crime writer, but Benson's The Blotting Book does feature in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. The garden of the house is fabulous, and in the sunshine it was a truly lovely sight. After that, it was on to Winchelsea, a pleasing small town with plenty of interesting history (it was once a port but now lies inland), and then Winchelsea Beach, a long stretch of shingle.


William's discussion of Dungeness had fired my imagination, so that was the next destination. A wild and bleak place in poor weather, I'm sure, but benign enough in the sun. I resisted the temptation to go on the steam train to Dymchurch, travelling by car instead to a typical seaside resort. These coastal outposts lie on the edge of Romney Marsh, the setting for Russell Thorndike's Dr Syn novels. There is even a Dr Syn bedchamber in the Mermaid Inn. I have a first edition of the first Dr Syn book, and now I've experienced the landscape I hope shortly to read it.


Then it was off to Sissinghurst, where Vita Sackville-West and her husband created one of Britain's most famous gardens. Again, the weather was perfect. The tower contains Vita's writing room, and this fascinated me. I yearn for a tower of my own now! Anyway, Sissinghurst is a place I've wanted to visit for a long time, and it certainly lived up to expectations.






We were staying the night at Salomons Country House near Tunbridge Wells. This is an amazing hotel, not like anything I've ever encountered before. I was greeted by owls (a local couple fly them around the grounds; it's like walking the dog as far as they are concerned) and was shown to a museum and science theatre. How many hotels have their own museum, I wonder? There was also another tower, which the late Sir David Salomon used as an observatory. As far as inspiring story ideas is concerned, this was the ideal place to stay.



The following morning was again sunny, and there was time to visit Scotney Castle, yet another National Trust property, with a romantic ruin in the middle of a lake as well as a massive country house designed by Salvin and a rather good second hand bookshop. Scotney is really impressive, and the memories of this marvellous trip kept me going as I struggled back home via one clogged motorway after another.