Wednesday 30 January 2019

Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell

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Ruth Rendell was, in crime writing terms, a genius. For decades, her remarkable books set a new standard in excellence. I discovered her work in my early twenties, and promptly devoured every story of hers that I could lay my hands on. In the books she published from the late 1990s onwards, however, I sensed a touch of repetition and perhaps even fatigue creeping in, as regards character types, settings, and plot developments. Given how prolific she was, that was hardly surprising, and her books continued to be highly readable. Unfortunately, I found myself struggling to finish The Saint Zita Society, and I felt it better to take a break from her books. More recently, though, I've wanted to give her later books a go, and see how I felt about them.

Dark Corners was her final novel, published posthumously in 2015 following her death earlier that year. The last words of the books are truly poignant. They are: "'now it's all over'". And so it was. In the story, this phrase refers to an act of redemption which concludes a typically involved narrative with several plot strands.

The lead character is Carl, who unwisely gives some pills to a female friend and accepts money for them. The friend dies, and Carl is distraught. He feels guilty, although actually he has committed no crime. When he is blackmailed by someone who is aware of what happened, he submits meekly until eventually he can tolerate things no longer.

Carl is in some ways typical of Rendell's young male protagonists, but I found his behaviour less than convincing. Part of her genius (and the same is true of Patricia Highsmith at her best) lay in making extraordinary courses of conduct seem almost inevitable. For me, though, Carl didn't really work as  a lead character. Similarly, there is a truly Rendellesque sub-plot, but it's rather half-hearted and unsatisfactory. On the plus side, the story is very readable. I raced through it, and thought it much more gripping than The Saint Zita Society (I'll have to battle to the end of that one eventually and see if I've judged it too harshly). Dark Corners certainly is infinitely superior to Agatha Christie's sad finale, Postern of Fate. It's not, however, in the same league as her twentieth century stand-alones. 

Monday 28 January 2019

The Spiritualist - 1948 film review

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The Spiritualist is a film from 1948 which is also known as The Amazing Mr X, a title which might have put me off had I been aware of it. At one time, apparently, it was also known as The Mystic. Anyway, I'm glad I wasn't put off, because it's quite a good movie, certainly worth a watch. And the focus is on a topic that became fashionable with crime writers during the Golden Age - spiritualism, and the dangers posed by fake mediums.

We are introduced to Christine Faber (Lynn Bari) whose beloved husband Paul died two years ago in a tragic accident when his car burst into flames. She hasn't got over her grief, although her young and ingenuous sister Janet (Cathy O'Donnell) is keen for her to put the past behind her, and become engaged to her boyfriend. When I learned that the boyfriend was a lawyer by the name of Martin, I became convinced that Janet was absolutely right to root for him. There is a regrettable suggestion that Martin (Richard Carlson) is actually rather a dull dog, but somehow I felt that could not be right!

Anyway, Christine encounters a charismatic medium called Alexis (played, rather well, by Turhan Bey, an interesting actor with whom I was previously unfamiliar). She falls under his spell, and Janet becomes suspicious of his motives, with good reason. But when Janet goes to confront Alexis, she too is bamboozled by him. And poor old Martin's hopes of happiness with Christine begin to dwindle...

There is a pleasing plot twist which I should have seen coming, but didn't, and the movie proceeds in an entertaining way to its conclusion.  There's a good review of the film on the ever-reliable Tipping My Fedora blog, and I concur with Sergio's enthusiasm. It's a short movie which doesn't outstay its welcome. I'm glad it's shown up on the splendid Talking Pictures TV channel. And as for what happens to good old Martin - well, you'll have to watch it to find out!

Friday 25 January 2019

Forgotten Book - The Middle Temple Murder

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This year marks the centenary of the book that made J.S. Fletcher's name. So it is fitting that The Middle Temple Murder should now make an appearance in the Detective Club series of reprints. And the first thing to say is that it's certainly worth reading if you're not familiar with it. This edition also benefits from an introduction by Nigel Moss, who makes the point that the plot is "well-constructed, complex and entertaining". As he says, Fletcher doesn't leave loose ends, and the storyline is rather pacier than many others of the period immediately before the arrival on the scene of Agatha Christie.

Frank Spargo, a young newspaperman, happens to discover the body of a murdered man in the entrance to Middle Temple Lane, a part of legal London that lawyers like Nigel (and me) are very familiar with. Spargo is a likeable character, and he lurked in the recesses of my mind when I first thought up Jacob Flint, the journalist in Gallows Court. As Nigel points out, the book has "a surprisingly modern feel, brisk and light." A bonus is the inclusion of a short story, "The Contents of the Coffin", which Fletcher drew on for a strand of the plot of the novel. The short story features Archer Dawe, an inquiry agent who doesn't appear in the novel.

Fletcher continued to write through the Golden Age, although in style and focus his detective fiction really belonged to an earlier period. He was extraordinarily prolific, and that counted against him. Like so many other mass producers of crime fiction, he struggled to maintain quality control. But at his best, he wrote very agreeable stories. By common consent, this is the best of them, although I suspect there may be a few little-known gems lurking in his backlist.

Harper Collins have announced that, following this title's publication, they are pausing the Detective Club hardback reprint series. I hope that it returns one day, but already the project has made a very welcome contribution to the revival of interest in Golden Age fiction. It's a highly eclectic series, including books by everyone from Gaboriau to Agatha Christie and many wonderful obscure titles as well. I have been very happy to contribute intros to five books in the series, and it's been especially gratifying to see two novels by Donald Henderson back in print after many years of being absent from the shelves. The editor who has overseen the series from day one is David Brawn, and fans of classic crime owe him a real debt of gratitude. 

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Sudden Fear - 1952 film review

Sudden Fear is a well-regarded film noir that has passed me by until I came across it on Talking Pictures. It's based on a novel of the same name by Edna Sherry, who only wrote a handful of books, and it stars Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, and Gloria Grahame (she of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool). Essentially, it's a film of two halves.

The first part of the story seemed very ordinary to me. Crawford plays Myra Hudson, a highly successful playwright - although the fragments of her dialogue that we hear are pretty dire. Myra also happens to be an heiress. She comes across Lester, a charismatic actor, younger than herself, played by Jack Palance. She falls for him, and soon they are married. But we can guess what fate has in store for a very rich woman who becomes besotted over a young man, can't we? When Irene (Gloria Grahame) turns up in their lives, and it emerges that she's an old flame of Lester's, the writing is obviously on the wall.

The story takes a fresh turn when Myra finds out that Lester and Irene are plotting against her. This development occurs as a result of astonishing stupidity on Lester's part, a weakness in the plotting. At this stage, I wasn't impressed, since every twist of the storyline had been supremely predictable. But from then on, the suspense builds nicely, as Myra determines to fight back. Soon it becomes clear that Lester and Irene have at least as much to fear from her as she does from them. But the outcome is anyone's guess.

I enjoyed the second half of the film and I could see why Crawford earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. She and Palance have never been favourite actors of mine, if I'm honest, but they do a good job here. An added bonus is the setting - the main events take place in San Francisco, and that wonderful city is nicely portrayed. Elmer Bernstein's score is in the Bernard Herrmann vein, and adds suitably to the tension. I'm now interested in tracking down Sherry's novel. 

Monday 21 January 2019

The Life of Crime

When I started this blog, way back in October 2007, this is what I said:

"The aim is to share my enthusiasm for crime fiction, and the craft of writing. From childhood, I dreamed of becoming a crime novelist - and I love being part of a fascinating world.

I’m not only a writer, but a fan, and I’ll have lots to say about lots of terrific and often overlooked books and films, past and present. As for my own writing life, I’ll share the frustrations - and also the pleasures. If this blog encourages any would-be writers among you to keep at it, I’ll be delighted."

At that time I had no idea of what (if anything) the future held for me as a writer. I'd never won a single literary award, I was a grass roots member of the CWA, and the Detection Club was a famous institution that I'd once been invited to as a guest. Suffice to say, then, that the last eleven and a bit years have been a wonderful ride for me, proof that truth is stranger than fiction.

But it remains as true as ever that I'm a fan as well as a writer, and that in writing these blog posts (about 2750 of them now, eeek!) one of my over-riding aims is still to show that, even for ordinary writers like me, the writing life can offer all sorts of little unexpected pleasures which compensate for those moments when one despairs of ever being able to write a worthwhile bit of prose. (And inevitably there have been setbacks of one kind or another during those eleven years, too, which make the good moments all the sweeter.) So I'll continue to share with you some snippets from what I call in my talks my "life of crime"

Let me start with a few things that have happened during the first days of 2019. In the past three weeks, I've been contacted by a student from a university in the south of England who said that The Golden Age of Murder has inspired him to write his dissertation about the classic mystery. Julia Buckley kindly got in touch from the US to tell me that Yesterday's Papers features in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Allusions. A journalist writing for the Smithsonian Magazine has interviewed me about fingerprints and early detective stories.A fan from the US who enjoyed The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books shared information with me about Arthur Ransome's detective story reviews. Sheila Mitchell has given me fresh insight into the recording the audio version of Gallows Court. I've had the pleasure of corresponding with a new writer who has been battling with mental health challenges - a subject that I've become increasingly concerned with. And I've been invited to speak at Agatha Christie's home at Greenway (wow!), at the Rye Arts Festival, at a festival in Beverley, and to a women readers' group here in Cheshire. With colleagues from Gladstone's Library, I've worked out the programme for June's Alibis in the Archives. And I've even managed to get quite a bit of writing done.

So although the life of crime has its challenges, it has plenty of privileges as well. And that's why I remain so very, very keen to encourage other writers who become depressed and contemplate giving up to keep at it. You simply never know what is around the corner. And even when things seem to be going badly, there may be happier days ahead, if you only keep the faith. 

Friday 18 January 2019

Forgotten Book - Fell Murder

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In Britain, female Golden Age writers have remained in print more often than their male counterpart. Christie, Sayers, Tey, Allingham, and Mitchell in particular have enjoyed enduring popularity with the general reader, in contrast (at least, until recently) to the fate of Hull, Rolls, Postgate, Bude, and Rhode. But not so long ago, the name of E.C.R. Lorac was only known to enthusiasts, since almost all of her books had been unavailable for many years. Even when you did turn them up, they were sometimes unaffordable. And right now, one of her rarest books, a signed copy of Tryst for a Tragedy, can be bought for a mere £5,250. A snip!

I'm glad that the British Library has played a big part in reviving Lorac. And my researches into her work have led me to a quite a number of books that are definitely worth reading. An excellent example is Fell Murder, first published in 1944. This was the first of a number of books which took Macdonald of the Yard to Lunesdale, a part of the country Lorac loved, and which became her home.

The description of the countryside, and of farming life, is quite lyrical. As so often, Lorac paints the scene with great care before murder intrudes. We're introduced to a tyrannical patriarch, Robert Garth, and the family members and local residents who have motives to wish him ill. But it's typical of Lorac that the portrayal of the victim is quite nuanced. The old man behaves badly, but he also has his good points.

The plot is one of of the best that I've found in Lorac's work so far. She is not in Christie's league when it comes to plotting, perhaps because her love of character prevents her from treating her people as pawns in a game. But the storyline is nicely done. Macdonald comes into the story at the mid-point of the novel. The local superintendent has failed to get anywhere with the tactiturn villages. But he, too, is by no means a cipher, and Macdonald appreciates his strengths. But it's left to the Scotland Yard man to solve the puzzle, and he does so with his customary calm efficiency.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

And Soon the Darkness - 1970 film review

Two of the great British TV screenwriters of the Swinging Sixties were responsible for the storyline of And Soon the Darkness, a film released in 1970. They were Brian Clemens, famed in particular for The Avengers, and Terry Nation, a name associated above all with Doctor Who thanks to his creation of the Daleks and Davros. They were first-rate storytellers, but their CVs suggest that their gifts were better suited to the small rather than the large screen.

This story begins with two young English women cycling through a remote area of France. The parts of Jane and Cathy are played by Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice. Franklin first came to prominence as a child actor in that superb movie The Innocents, though her film career didn't last long. Dotrice remains best known as Frank Spencer's wife in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, although she continues to act, and appeared in one of my favourite TV shows of 2018 (along with The Bodyguard), A Very British Scandal.

Alas, and all too predictably, the area they are exploring (the film was shot in the Loire valley) turns out to have a sinister reputation. Things go from bad to worse when the friends fall out. Jane cycles on without Cathy, before beginning to worry about her friend. When she returns to the spot where she left Cathy sunbathing, her pal is nowhere to be seen. She has a series of encounters with spooky locals, as well as a handsome but suspicious-seeming chap whose eye Cathy had caught. Jane enlists the aid of a police officer (John Nettleton, best known as a lofty civil servant in Yes, Minister, is surprisingly good in this role) and in due course a rather inevitable discovery is made.

I thought the film watchable but protracted, and that the plot seemed disappointingly slender. In terms of characterisation, the protagonists are a bit two-dimensional, and I'm afraid Pamela Franklin's performance didn't really engage me. The atmospherics are inevitably rather dated, and even allowing for the passage of time, I was rather surprised to learn that the film was deemed worthy of remaking in 2010, under the same title; the remake seems not to have made much impact. I very much enjoy Laurie Johnson's music (he was responsible for the theme from The Avengers, for instance) but felt that his soundtrack was a little intrusive at times. However, Sergio Angelini, whose opinions on films are always of interest, is rather more positive than I am, and you can read his review here.

Sunday 13 January 2019

The Return of Michael Gilbert

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Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my enthusiasm for the work of Michael Gilbert. He was one of the most successful male British crime writers of the post-war era, and during the course of his long career he showed an ability to master a wide range of different types of storytelling - espionage, adventure, classic detection, courtroom drama, the impossible crime mystery, the short story, the stage play, the tv script. That versatility probably counted against him, to some extent, in terms of fame or total book sales, as it did in respect of his colleague and contemporary Julian Symons. But like Symons', his achievements were remarkable.

So I am absolutely delighted that the latest British Library Crime Classic is Smallbone Deceased, widely regarded as one of the finest crime novels ever to be set within the legal profession. The story benefits from a pleasing plot, an unusual amateur sleuth, and an insider's view of life in a post-war solicitors' firm. What Gilbert would make of the way some legal professionals are so dependent on iffy technology and even iffier flow charts these days is an interesting question, one to which I think I can guess the answer; but I'm sure he'd have viewed some of the absurdities of present day legal life with the same dry humour that informed his portrayal of legal life in the 1950s. 

I'm equally pleased to say that this is not the only Michael Gilbert novel that will be appearing in the series this year. It will be followed by Death in Captivity and Death Has Deep Roots, two more fine stories, both of which were filmed. The splendidly varied settings and styles of the three books, taken together, demonstrate Gilbert's versatility better than any words of mine can do.

That said, I haven't resisted the opportunity to discuss Gilbert's life and work at some length in each of my introductions to the three books. My approach with these introductions, and with intros to the other books in the series, is to minimise repetition and to try to include fresh information wherever possible. In that endeavour, I benefited from valuable input from Gilbert's daughter, the novelist and radio presenter Harriett Gilbert.

Along with Symons (and, in a different way, Christie and Sayers) Gilbert was also a major influence on my own ambitions as a writer during my formative years as a teenager. He it was whose ability to combine a legal career with a career as a novelist enabled my parents to say - look, it can be done, you can get a "proper job" and still be a writer. So he has quite a bit to answer for. When I got to know him slightly in later life, I found him gracious in the extreme. It was a privilege to talk to and correspond with him, and it was a major highlight of my early years as a crime novelist when he supplied a nice endorsement of my novel Eve of Destruction. (Despite the fact that his legal practice in Lincoln's Inn had little in common with Harry Devlin's in Liverpool!) I like to think he'd be thrilled to see these three excellent novels enjoying a new life in the twenty-first century.

Friday 11 January 2019

Forgotten Book - Cul De Sac

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It's safe to say that John Wainwright is a forgotten author, even though he died not much more than twenty years ago, and was publishing until near the end. In fact, he published more than 80 novels, almost all of which benefited in some way from his years of experience as a police officer in Yorkshire prior to become a busy full-time novelist.

I once met John Wainwright in the late 1980s. This was at a Liverpool library event. I was asked to take part on the basis of my work as a reviewer - I hadn't published a novel at that time. The other authors involved were Eileen Dewhurst, who became (and still is) a very dear friend of mine, and the late Roger Ormerod.

I was pleased to meet Wainwright, whose books I'd read and admired, but I found him taciturn in the extreme, as if keen to play up to the stereotype of the cantankerous Yorkshireman. He didn't seem interested in either the event or the questions asked by the audience, but this may well have been due to shyness. Roger Ormerod, also rather reserved by nature, I think, was much more gracious. Having read his memoirs recently, I don't doubt that Wainwright was a nice chap if you really got to know him, I just think he was utterly out of his comfort zone, as someone who seldom attended author events. The contrast with the exceptionally pleasant Peter N. Walker, also a former Yorkshire cop, and a highly convivial man, was striking.

Wainwright's books use to crowd the library shelves, but after his death, his reputation faded. He wrote too quickly, as so many authors do, and the quality of his work was variable, but I think that at his best he was a fascinating writer. Cul De Sac, published in 1984, earned high praise from Georges Simenon, no less. I found it an intriguing study of character and of police work.

It begins with a diary extract - shades of Gone Girl! In some ways, Wainwright was ahead of his time. The diary-maker's wife meets an untimely end, falling over a cliff. Accident, suicide, or murder? An obsessive detective, Harry Harker, sets  out to find the truth. It's a highly readable story. My only quibble is that the excellent final twists did not seem to me to be adequately foreshadowed, a flaw that could easily have been remedied. It's a book of its time. But I liked it a lot.

Wednesday 9 January 2019

The Boy Who Lived With the Dead - review

As well as trying to do plenty of writing, I've also been doing a lot of reading lately. There are two schools of thought among my fellow authors. One view is that it's distracting, if one is a crime novelist, to read other crime novels, particularly if they are in a similar vein to one's own work. The other view is that it would a strange form of self-denial to overlook such books, and that one can actually learn from colleagues in all sorts of positive ways as well as enjoying their work. I'm firmly in the second camp.

One of the contemporary novels I've read lately is Kate Ellis' The Boy Who Lived with the Dead, which was launched just before Christmas. It's a follow up to A High Mortality of Doves, and I'm quoted on the back cover as saying that book was: "Fascinating, with a characteristically clever twist." I could say the same about this second case for Albert Lincoln, a story in which almost every single character is nursing a dark secret.

The year is 1920, an interesting time in history (another book set at much the same time is the first Charles Todd novel, A Test of Wills, which I strongly recommend). Albert is called back to the Cheshire village of Mabley Ridge, where he undertook a fruitless investigation into a child murder just before the war. The setting is a fictionalised Alderley Edge, long before the arrival of the footballers and their wives to that part of the world. I was pleased to see my old home town of Northwich getting a mention - you can't have enough Cheshire-based fiction!

The plot is, as you'd expect with Kate, pleasingly convoluted, and it's very much in keeping with the tradition of the Golden Age mystery. It would also make good television. One important point is that this is the second book in a trilogy, and the events of the first book cast a large shadow over this one. So I agree with the advice given in Puzzle Doctor's review that one really needs to read the first book before this one in order to get the full benefit of the story.

And this issue raises very interesting questions about how authors can deal with potential "spoilers" of earlier books in their later work. It's a technical point, but of great significance to readers and writers alike. It's also an issue I'm grappling with at the moment as I work on the sequel to Gallows Court. I'm not sure what Kate has in mind for the third book in the trilogy, but I wonder if there might be merit, in due course, in her three books being issued in a single omnibus edition. One excellent precedent for such an omnibus is Andrew Taylor's Fallen Angel, which is the best crime trilogy I've ever read, with a truly unique structure. Anyway, that's for the future. In the meantime, Kate's latest novel (her thirtieth - blimey!) is another accomplished piece of entertainment. 

Monday 7 January 2019

Looking Ahead

So, a new year beckons. It's always a time of hope and anticipation, mixed in with uncertainty about what the future may hold. For you, my readers, I wish you health and happiness and lots of good reading. As for me, the plan is to do plenty of writing and so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll remain fit and energetic.

My first publication of the year will be an anthology for the British Library, Deep Waters. I've been putting the finishing touches to it over the break, and it's due to hit the shelves in June. It's my thirteenth anthology in the Crime Classics series, and the response to the books has confirmed my belief that readers have a hearty appetite for short stories.

I'll also be continuing to write introductions for books in the series, and I'm especially pleased that three titles by Michael Gilbert will be appearing before long. He's a writer who deserves to be remembered. I'm also reading avidly at present, trying to dig out some more books of the past that merit republication. And these researches have yielded plenty of Forgotten Books for Fridays yet to come...

If you'd told me twelve months ago how 2018 would work out, I'd have been absolutely thrilled. Who knows what 2019 will bring? Well, one thing it will bring in the spring is the end of my term as Chair of the CWA; It's been a privilege to hold this office, and I've much enjoyed getting to know even more of the members. Amazingly, I find that I'm now the longest-serving Chair since the CWA's founder, John Creasey. So - a good innings, and it's definitely time to declare! I aim, though, to stay very much involved with the CWA, a splendid and thriving organisation, and in particular to do more work on its archives, a subject that fascinates me.

There should also be some travel, and plenty of events. I'm looking forward to getting involved with various library activities and events; giving something back to the libraries that have given me so much over the years is a particular priority for 2019. I'd also like to do some more work with inexperienced writers, having run a number of workshops last year which proved interesting and fruitful. On this blog, I have in mind to talk a bit more about various aspects of the craft of writing.

And as I say, there's plenty of writing that needs to be done. So I'd better get on with it...

Friday 4 January 2019

Forgotten Book - Murder Can Be Fun

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Happy new year! For all those of you who read this blog, may I send warm wishes that 2019 will be a happy and healthy year for you.

A new year is a time to look forward, and I'll be doing just that before long. But today's Friday, and it wouldn't be Friday without looking back at a Forgotten Book, would it? So I've picked a novel which has a title which seems appropriate. Not because murder in real life is fun - absolutely the contrary. But detective stories about the ultimate crime are hugely enjoyable, whether or not they also take a look at the more serious side of life.

I first came across Fredric Brown's crime fiction a long time ago, when Zomba Books, guided by the super-knowledgeable Maxim Jakubowski, published a terrific omnibus of four of his mysteries, including The Screaming Mimi. I was very impressed, and equally taken with a few short stories of his that I came across. Since then, it has been hard to find Brown's other books in the UK, but I chanced upon a copy of Murder Can Be Fun in Skoob Books in London, and snapped it up sharpish.

This novel was his third published book, and in fact it's an expansion of an earlier short story, which perhaps explains why the plot does not seem quite as taut as those in his very best books. Nevertheless, it's an appealing story with a splendid premise. Bill Tracy, a former journalist who has become a radio soap opera writer, comes up with an idea for a crime series called "Murder Can Be Fun". But the joke appears to be on him when life begins to imitate art, and someone starts committing murders which are evidently based on his plots.

This is a neat variation of a hook that has been used by a good many crime writers to produce novels of various types - examples include Roger East's Murder Rehearsal and John Franklin Bardin's The Last of Philip Banter, as well as the much more recent Disclaimer by Renee Knight. Of course, it's one thing to set up a baffling scenario, and quite another to resolve it satisfactorily. Brown does a pretty good, though not outstanding job of explaining how Tracy's plots came to be used.

Really, this is the work of a novelist who was still learning his trade, but several elements of the story are typically Brownian - the science fiction references, the heavy drinking (which can become a bit tedious), dreams, and Alice in Wonderland references. There's a "least likely person" solution which is passable rather than brilliant, but the lively prose often glints with humour. Not Brown's best book by a long chalk, but neatly crafted entertainment all the same.