Friday 30 August 2019

Forgotten Book - The Double Agent

It's salutary that John Bingham, a major crime writer of the 50s and for much of the 60s (and whose career continued for a considerable time thereafter, though with decreasing success) is now unquestionably a forgotten author. I've highlighted his work several times on this blog, focusing on his crime fiction. But he also ventured into spy thrillers - and did so with a considerable advantage, given that he was himself a high-ranking spy.

The Double Agent (1966) is a classic Cold War thriller. It involves a businessman from Yorkshire, Reg Sugden, who is recruited to undertake some low-level spying behind the Iron Curtain, and also to help flush out a traitor in the domestic Secret Services. This novel isn't a fictonalisation of a real life case, but it's impossible not to see a few parallels with the case of Greville Wynne, a businessman and spy who was caught by the Russians and ultimately returned to Britain in exchange for a Russian spy, known here as Gordon Lonsdale.

Bingham was a skilled interrogator, and police interrogations of hapless suspects play a major part in his early books. Here again, the interrogation of Sugden takes up a sizeable chunk of the book. My personal feeling is that this results in a lack of action and pace for part of the story; Bingham, I suspect, realised this, and tried to address the problem, but not entirely successfully. For this reason, the book isn't quite in the class of Len Deighton and John Le Carre, but even so, it's a good read. Julian Symons recommended it strongly, saying that the story is "intellectually and emotionally absorbing because it is so thoroughly authentic."

There are a couple of good twists late in the story, and Bingham's wry observations about spying are always interesting, again in part because he was speaking from experience. He knew that the Cold War was then just the latest in a long series of human conflicts in which cunning and treachery have played a key part. In real life he was much more of an establishment man than either Deighton or Le Carre, but you wouldn't necessarily guess that from this accomplished thriller. 


Wednesday 28 August 2019

Merci Pour Le Chocolat - 2000 film review

Claude Chabrol was a gifted film-maker, and as I've become increasingly interested in the work of Charlotte Armstrong, the American suspense novelist, I was intrigued to see his version of her novel The Chocolate Cobweb, a novel published in 1948, which became Merci Pour Le Chocolat just over fifty years later. (Chabrol also adapted an Armstrong novel into La Rupture, which is on my list for the future...)

The DVD version has several special features, and in an interview, Chabrol explains that he'd read the book long ago and was fascinated by the idea of making a film about a woman who was superficially delightful, but instinctively evil. In the movie, this character is Mika, played by Isabelle Huppert. I haven't read the novel, so I don't know how faithful the film is to the source; not very, I imagine. But that's perhaps inevitable.

The setting of the film is Lausanne, a place I'd rather like to visit. Mika owns a chocolate business, and has recently remarried a pianist, Andre Polonski, played by Jacques Dutronc. Their first marriage ended in divorce, and Polonski remarried, only for his second wife to die in a car accident. They had a son, Guillaume, but there was a mix-up when the child was born, resulting in brief confusion as to whether Polonski's child was a girl, born at the same time. Now that girl, Jeanne, learns about the mix-up and decides to trace Polonski. She's also a pianist and Polonski encourages her. So does Mika, but what are her motives?

This is an enigmatic film, but it's not lacking in suspense, and I enjoyed watching it. Huppert is, as always, very good, and although the mystery component of the story isn't very strong, there's enough uncertainty about the characters' fate to keep one engaged. Now I'm tempted to track down the book to compare it with the film...

Monday 26 August 2019

Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey (2019) - review

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A new novel by Peter Lovesey is always an event to be savoured. Readers can be assured of first-rate entertainment, but not only that, they can be confident that he won't be content to repeat his successes of the past. This willingness on his part to keep trying fresh approaches to the crime genre is an enduring strength, and it is a key reason, in addition to the sheer quality of his writing, why his work will last and continue to entertain future generations of readers with a taste for well-crafted stories.

His latest, Killing with Confetti, is another in the long series featuring that rather anarchic cop from Bath, Peter Diamond. The first book in the series appeared as long ago as 1991, but there is no question of Diamond or Lovesey becoming stale. Here we have a story which is structured in an unexpected way and develops quite differently from his other Diamond novels.

In fact, Diamond doesn't even make an appearance until chapter 11. The first ten chapters are set in a prison, where a jail break is being planned, although one of the inmates, whose release date is fast approaching, is reluctant to get involved. As canny readers we suspect that the events that unfold must have an important bearing on what follows, and we're right, but it is far from easy to figure out what is really going on, not least when Diamond receives an unusual request - to look after security at a forthcoming wedding which involves an unlikely alliance between the son of a senior police officer and the daughter of a hardened criminal.

It's all a long way from the conventional whodunit scenario. And I don't want to say too much about what happens next, for fear of giving spoilers. But I think it's fair to say that, in breathtaking manner, Lovesey turns the story around so that we finish up with a highly entertaining puzzle involving an impossible crime and a reconstruction of what actually happened that results in a brilliant plot twist. This is an unexpected book by a master of tales of the unexpected.

Friday 23 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Midsummer Murder

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I've read a couple of books by Clifford Witting, which I'd rank as very competent Golden Age stories, towards the top end of the second division. And now I've devoured Midsummer Murder, his second novel, which I found extremely enjoyable. It's a story about a series of sniper killings in a small town, and it comes complete with map of the crime scene and an ironic reference to the Detection Club in the very last sentence.

Witting was a witty writer, and occasionally he overdoes the facetiousness. There's also a bit too much authorial  intervention for modern tastes (although that amusing final sentence makes up for it, in my opinion). But I'd say that he is a writer whose work is likely to appeal to anyone who is a fan of George Bellairs. And on the basis of what I've read, I'd add that he's the superior crime novelist. Indeed, twenty years after his jokey reference to the Detection Club, he was elected to become a member.

The story begins, I was pleased to note, on my birthday, in July, in the tranquil setting of Paulsfield, soon to be tranquil  no more. A workman is shot while cleaning a statue in the town square, an extraordinary crime which is apparently motiveless. For a long time I wondered if we were looking at a riff on The ABC Murders. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that this is not a book of that kind, and although (I choose my words with care) some readers will quibble about the slenderness of the connecting link between the deaths that plague Paulsfield, that didn't spoil my enjoyment.

Indeed, a great pleasure of this book is the characterisation, which is consistently amusing and appealing. Among the cast is a widow whose voluminous card index system contains masses of information about the local inhabitants. Inspector Charlton and Sergeant Martin make a likeable investigating duo, and although the book is perhaps a little longer than it needed to be, it held my interest from start to finish. Recommended.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

When Eight Bells Toll - 1971 film review

Alistair MacLean wrote the film script of When Eight Bells Toll, and the novel of the same name, after enjoying a big hit with Where Eagles Dare. Producer Elliott Kastner thought that the James Bond franchise would fade away once Sean Connery departed, and he envisaged MacLean's new hero as a successor to 007. He persuaded Anthony Hopkins to take on his first lead film role as Philip Calvert, a tough guy in the Bond mould.

I read the book and saw the film as a teenager, at the height of my enthusiasm for MacLean's writing. At that stage, I'd read pretty much everything he'd produced, and I preferred him to Ian Fleming. I enjoyed both book and film, although I could remember nothing about them when I got the chance the other day to watch the movie again. I wondered if it would be a disappointment, because I lost interest in MacLean about the same time as he - it seems to me - lost interest in writing, in the Seventies. As a reader, I began to feel he no longer cared much about his work, and that's fatal for a writer. Having read Jack Webster's interesting biography of MacLean not long ago, it seems I wasn't far off the mark. Drink was MacLean's downfall. That, and too much money.

Anyway, what of the film? Well, the cast is top-notch. Corin Redgrave plays Hopkins' friend, and Robert Morley plays their boss, supplying comic relief. The suspicious characters in the cast include Ferdy Mayne, Oliver MacGreevy and the excellent Jack Hawkins, although the latter is rather miscast as a foreign tycoon. A Bond-style film of that era required sexy women aplenty, and Nathalie Delon plays Charlotte, while the under-rated Wendy Allnutt is Sue Kirkside. Wally Stott's soundtrack music is a sub-John Barry contribution.

The film wasn't a box office success, and Philip Calvert didn't return for new adventures. But I found it still enjoyable, undemanding entertainment. The story? Calvert is sent on a mission to halt piracy off the west coast of Scotland. Much of the filming was done on and around Mull, and the scenery is very watchable. So, of course, is Anthony Hopkins.

Sunday 18 August 2019

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

I've had a copy of Iain Pears' most renowned novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, for more years than I care to admit. Like all too many others, it's stared at me reproachfully from the shelf, but to be honest I was put off by its sheer length, and its reputation for density - even though it enjoys, overall, a very good reputation. But I knew it was set in 17th century Oxford, and my recent Atlantic crossing, to be followed by five days in Oxford, seemed like the ideal opportunity to have a read of it at last.

This is a sort of "casebook" novel, in the manner of The Moonstone, and I should probably have freshened up my understanding of the historical period before plunging in. Many of the characters are taken from real life, and there's a helpful Who's Who at the back, though I didn't realise that until I got to the end of the story.

Four characters tell their version of, effectively, the same sequence of events concerning the death of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College, of which a pretty but enigmatic young woman Sarah Blundy is accused. We start with an Italian visitor to Oxford, a man with medical skills, Marco da Cola. I found his account engaging, though there is a development towards the end of his account that was truly shocking. Then it's the turn of Jack Prescott, son of a supposed traitor; his story was in some ways the least satisfying of the four. After that comes John Wallis, a cryptographer and deeply unpleasant individual. Like Grove, but unlike Prescott, da Cola, and Sarah Blundy, he is taken from real life.

Finally we have the story of a young antiquary, again a real life figure, Anthony Wood. He's a more likeable fellow, though he has his moments of weakness. Towards the end of the book comes a remarkable plot twist that I simply wasn't prepared for - but it's very well done. At times I thought the book was heavy going, perhaps in part due to my ignorance of the historical detail; I suspect that it could have been cut by a hundred pages without any great loss. But despite this, I was impressed with Pears' writing. This is a fascinating novel, and I'm glad I finally made time to read it, even though it took me until the end of the Oxford trip to reach the climax. 

Saturday 17 August 2019

Fifty Years of Shoot!

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Fifty years ago, man landed on the Moon, I was a teenager from a football-mad family, and Manchester City were one of the best teams in the country. And a football magazine called Shoot! was launched. I remember that my Dad bought me a copy (and devoured it himself, of course). Now, a book has been published by Carlton celebrating 50 Years of Shoot!

Leafing through the pages amounts to a nostalgia trip. It's an amusing walk down memory lane, to those long-ago days when eyebrows were raised by player transfers of a million pounds, and Don Revie was possibly the most admired English manager. On a more serious note, the article about black footballers is very thought-provoking, to say the least. I was pleased to be reminded of Manchester City's League Cup winning team from my student days by a full-colour two page squad photo. And yes, I had a team picture on the wall of my college room...

Well, a lot has changed since then. Nowadays, I can look back on a legal career advising a Premier League Club as well as the F.A. and my neighbours include a couple of young City players. I never imagined any of that when I was a student. What's more, there's no longer any room for sensible argument - City are the best team in the country and surely the best team England has ever seen. (Be quiet, LFC fans! Pipe down, United supporters!)

But who knows what the future will bring? Football, as we all know, is a funny old game, and this celebratory book is a reminder of how much has changed over the years, as well as a salutary warning that nothing stays the same, and that more changes in the beautiful game are bound to come. 

Friday 16 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Eighty Dollars to Stamford

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Eighty Dollars to Stamford, published in 1975, was Lucille Fletcher's penultimate novel. She was 63 when she produced it, and although she lived until 2000, she only wrote one more novel after this one, a book called Mirror Image which appeared in 1988 and which I haven't read. Perhaps she tired somewhat of crime writing, but there is nothing tired about this novel.

It's a first-rate story of suspense, a verdict with which estimable fellow bloggers such as Kate Jackson, Xavier Lechard, and John Norris (all of whose blogs I strongly recommend in the unlikely event you're unfamiliar with them) concur. I agree with the view that in effect it amounts to a gender reversal on the traditional woman-in-jeopardy trope. This time the protagonist in jeopardy is a man, the naive but likeable David Marks. He is a school teacher who has taken up cab driving in the evening as an odd sort of psychological therapy following the death of his wife in a hit and run accident.

One night he is asked by a beautiful young blonde woman to take her to a house in Connecticut. She offers him eighty dollars for the return trip. One of the problems with writing about sums of money in a novel is that inflation dates the narrative, but in 1975, this was a huge sum of money for such a journey. David is puzzled and becomes suspicious, especially when his passenger asks him to take her on another such journey a few days later.

Before long, David finds himself embroiled in a murder plot. This is a novel of mounting suspense, although it also has an excellent plot twist. Fletcher's taut writing reveals her apprenticeship as a radio writer: she knows how to make each word count. The book was turned into a film in 1982, and renamed Hit and Run (such a forgettable title that it's been re-used several times for other films), alternatively known as Revenge Squad. I haven't seen the film, and judging by comments on the internet, it's barely worth watching. But the book is definitely worth reading.

Thursday 15 August 2019

Marlborough Court publishing - guest blog

Writers, including me, often joke about our relationships with publishers, but the truth is that there are some great publishers out there, large and small. I've been lucky enough to work with quite a lot of very good ones in a number of different countries, and I know that their task in getting books to readers isn't as easy as it may look. So when I was approached by a new kid on the block, a small firm trying to make its way, I was sympathetic, and invited Peter Tong to contribute a blog post describing his venture:

"I’ve had an eventful writing life with radio & TV comedies and thrillers, stage plays, screenplays and novels. But I can’t sit at the desk for too long and have to get my hands dirty. I have run a film production company and co ran a theatre, producing my own work into the bargain. I have also been fascinated by books and how they are put together, the jacket design, text fonts, page layout etc. With like-minded colleagues I have started a small publishing house, Marlborough Court. Although publishing is a tough game to play, with passion and smart thinking it can be won.

For instance, in order to stand out, we have aimed at on-the-go readers publishing small format Pocket Paperbacks and classy hardback Pocket Specials, along with humorous posters. We have a bold company statement: Marlborough Court: Something good to read. We use Clays, a printer who encourages small publishers like ourselves. They have given us a special deal with the book wholesalers who sell to Waterstones and the other bookshops. It’s hard work but it’s fulfilling when you know you are giving people lasting pleasure.

 Our latest offering is The Missing Mr Moonstone, the first in an upbeat Victorian crime series in which Sherlock Holmes’ landlady and her maid take over his work following his presumed death; the public at first not knowing he is dead and continue to call at 221b Baker Street for his help. The Ladies then gain a reputation for dependable detecting – despite being only women in a male dominated society!

I will be delighted to have a signed advanced review copy sent to any blog reader who would like to write an honest personal review for us." 

If you'd like to take advantage of this offer, drop Peter an email:

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Lizzie - 2018 film review

One session of The Art of the Whodunit programme that I discussed on Monday concerns true crime, and I was asked by one group member for my opinion of the Lizzie Borden case of 1892. It's not a case I've studied in detail, but I think there's a widespread consensus that Lizzie was guilty of the axe murders of her father and step-mother, despite being acquitted of the crimes (nobody else was ever charged). A long time ago I read a couple of novels inspired by it, written by Ed McBain and Walter Satterthwaite. And now I've just watched a film about the case made as recently as last year, Lizzie - the same title as McBain's novel.

I gather that this was a long-term project for Chloe Sevigny, who plays Lizzie, although she has been reported as being disappointed with the way it worked out. I have mixed feelings about the film. The cinematography is excellent, and Sevigny is a good actor. The sombre mood is sustained from start to finish, and the restraint of the film, with much of the story being told in flashback at a very measured pace, means that the depiction of the frenzied killings, portrayed in a vivid and in some ways oddly sensual manner, makes a melodramatic and effective contrast.

However, there are reservations. It seems to me that the local community of Fall River, in which the Bordens lived, is an important ingredient of the real life story. Yet apart from one scene, it hardly figures. The focus is on the domestic; I've read that this was due to budget constraints, but it's a pity. Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) is almost a caricature, a two-dimensional Horrid and Perverted Patriarch of the kind that we've become wearily familiar with in recent years. We certainly don't mourn his passing, and his wife (a very subdued Fiona Shaw) isn't much more appealing. Emma, Lizzie's sister, is an oddly shadowy figure; the part seems under-written.

The centrepiece of this version of the story, as with McBain's novel, is a lesbian relationship between Lizzie and the family maid (Kristen Stewart). This is done well, and poignantly. Even if it's open to debate whether it has any basis in fact, I find it credible.. But the other characters in the film don't count for much. We're told at the end that the sisters were later estranged, and that the maid went off to Montana. Lizzie, for her part, stayed in Fall River, and lived into her sixties. This is a slow-moving yet watchable film, but I suspect Sevigny is right. It had the potential to be better. 

Monday 12 August 2019

The Art of the Whodunit - again

I've returned from my latest trip, directing the Art of the Whodunit programme again for Road Scholar, and a group of lovely American crime fans (one of whom turned out to be a fellow Brit, who'd met and married a charming member of the group on a previous trip). Having run this programme for the first time in May, I felt more confident this time around, and that helped to make the journey even more enjoyable.

We began by flying out to New York City, where again I managed to find my way to the Mysterious Bookshop, somehow managing to restrict myself to buying just four books. There was also time for a river cruise on a hot Saturday afternoon before meeting the group, and the following day we all embarked on Queen Mary 2, a much more civilised and straightforward process than last time, when all the roads around the terminal were closed because of a bike race, meaning that we had to set out at the crack of dawn.

A seven day Atlantic crossing is quite an experience, and the days raced by. I'd made some changes to the programme this time, since I'd realised that it would be viable to stage my Victorian murder mystery, "Who Killed George Hargrave?" on board. Four members of the group volunteered to play the suspects, and did a great job.

After landing at Southampton we headed over to Oxford, staying at a hotel in the charming village of Iffley. Weirdly enough, I'd never got nearer to Iffley than the stadium, and the locks on the river, even though it's within walking distance of the city centre. I found it a lovely village. The various tours, of Balliol (where I admired the picture of Lord Peter Wimsey, below, which is to be found in the Buttery), Christ Church, the Sheldonian Theatre, the canal and river, and Blackwell's bookshop were great fun, and when it was time to say goodbye there was the chance to reflect on a quite wonderful fortnight in the company of delightful people. And now, I really do need to get my head down and embark on...some serious writing!! 

Friday 9 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Speak of the Devil

I've written more than once on this blog about the excellence of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a pioneering American author of domestic suspense. Long before Patricia Highsmith came on the scene, Holding was producing unorthodox and compelling studies of criminal psychology which deserve to be better-known. A case in point is Speak of the Devil, first published in 1941, and expanded from a novella called Fearful Night.

The protagonist is Karen Peterson, a tall and attractive young woman, who is (and remains throughout the book) rather mysterious. She's very different in some ways from my own character Rachel Savernake, and yet there are one or two points of comparison that I noticed with interest. Karen is sailing for Havana when she is urged to take a job in a hotel by a man called Fernandez who has wants to marry. She decides, on the spur of the moment, and against her better judgement, to accept the offer of job, but not the offer of marriage .

The hotel is on the island of Riquezas, and given that Holding lived for some years on Bermuda, I wondered (without finding out the answer) whether to some extent the setting was based on Bermuda. Soon, a young woman called Cecily claims to have killed a man who was about to attack her. A body is found, but Miss Peterson doesn't think that Cecily is a killer. She starts to play the amateur sleuth, and encounters a sympathetic detective.

For a long time, I was unsure where this story was going. The cast of characters is small, and I was not clear how Holding was going to resolve the situation that she had created. But in a sequence of unpredictable (but not unreasonable) plot developments, she reminds us that, in a crime novel, nothing is what it seems. I found it all quite gripping, and another good example of Holding's quiet literary accomplishment.

Friday 2 August 2019

Forgotten Book - Death in a Deck Chair

Death in a Deck Chair is a novel written by K.K. Beck and published in 1984. Kathrine Kristine Beck (also known as Marris, a surname of one of the characters in the story), who also wrote as Marie Oliver, was a prolific American crime writer for the fifteen years up to 1999. She was married to the talented British crime novelist Michael Dibdin, who sadly died in 2007, but why she gave up writing herself when she was still under the age of 50, I don't know. She originated from Seattle and evidently worked in advertising, as so many detective novelists have done.

This novel is very much in the American "cosy" tradition. It's set in the summer of 1927, and introduces an attractive 19 year old girl, Iris Cooper, who proceeded to appear in two further novels before Beck moved on to produce other stories. And it's another cruise ship story, as Iris and her aunt Hermione take a trip on board the luxury liner HMS Irenia, sailing from Southampton back home to Portland, Oregon.

Iris befriends a shy young man called Twist, who is secretary to Professor Probrislow, a specialist in criminal lunacy. She is, however, warned against Twist by the ship's pianist. The other passengers include a Count, a Cardinal, a German governess, a newspaperman, a judge, and the rather enigmatic Mrs Destinoy-Pinchot.

Before long, someone is murdered, and a rather inept investigation is conducted on board, with Iris brought in to perform secretarial services. Needless to say, she decides to try her hand at amateur sleuthing. I'm afraid my attention was beginning to wander even before a Ruritanian-style European kingdom was introduced into the storyline. My worst fears were confirmed when affairs in Graznia proved to play an important part in the plot. It's quite competently done, but it was all too tame for me, I'm sorry to say. Death in a Deck Chair makes the typical Agatha Christie look like something by Jim Thompson.