Thursday 31 December 2020

A Year for Writing

Writing can be hard work, especially when ideas and words don't flow as one would wish, but it's richly rewarding work, which offers a great deal of solace when times aren't easy. For me, and I suspect for many others, writing and reading really have been lifelines in 2020. I'm especially grateful to my readers, many of whom have taken the trouble to get in touch during the past year. And despite everything, the past twelve months have in so many ways been the best of my writing career. Topping all else, naturally, was the award of the CWA Diamond Dagger, presented virtually by Ann Cleeves during an online ceremony. The above photo from the 2017 Daggers dinner, when I presented the award to Ann, is still as close as I've got to handling the actual diamond-encrusted and very valuable award, but I have received my personal dagger!

There will be more to say in weeks to come about what I've been working on this year. On the publishing front, it was a year of non-stop activity, with a strong Golden Age focus to many of my projects. I brought out five new books, led by Mortmain Hall. This is a novel that I'm especially proud of, and the reviews in Britain and the US were fantastic. One of the quotes I love is from A.N. Wilson - 'A whole page would not give me space to explain the intricacy of this story. A tangle of satisfying clues and a pleasing denouement in the classic Christie manner.' I was also thrilled to see the book featuring in 'best of the year' lists, notably on CrimeReads and from Ragnar Jonasson. It's truly rewarding to see experts who really know the Golden Age inside out, like Ragnar, Xavier Lechard, and Jose Ignacio Escribano, appreciating the book. The artwork by Ed Bettison for the UK edition attracted a lot of attention and as a result Ed was commissioned by the lovely people at Head of Zeus to produce a new cover in the same style for a welcome reprint of the paperback edition of Gallows Court:

Speaking of cover artwork, I was also really impressed by Steven Leard's work for HarperCollins on the cover of Howdunit, the Detection Club masterclass on the art and graft of crime writing, which I spent much of last year compiling. The challenge of naming all 90 contributors plus myself was formidable, but he rose to it splendidly. This is a book which, because of the quality of the contributions by so many fine writers, from Christie and Sayers to Rankin and Le Carre, should enjoy a long life. I believe that many of the contributors' comments have a timeless quality and are of interest to all crime fans, not just would-be crime writers. Again, the fact that the book appeared in 'best of the year' features in two national newspapers as well as on some leading blogs was truly heartening.

I put together Vintage Crime on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association. Published by Flame Tree Press, this anthology is another beautifully produced book. The stories included chart the evolution of short crime fiction since the CWA was formed nearly seventy years ago, with contributors ranging from Julian Symons to two fine writers of today, Frances Fyfield and Mick Herron.

Throughout this testing year, the British Library team somehow managed to continue with their programme of publishing one Crime Classic a month and I contributed introductions to each of them. In particular, there were two more anthologies which I compiled. I have a soft spot for Settling Scores: each story is by a different author and features a different outdoor sport - as far as I know, that's not been done before. 


Almost all these books were actually written last year, but the final compilation of 2020 was somehow rushed through during the pandemic in order to meet the deadline for the Christmas books market. It's my fourth collection of short seasonal mysteries for the British Library, A Surprise for Christmas. The title story was written by one of my favourite authors of the past, Cyril Hare.

Among the foreign editions of my books, I was particularly delighted by the Chinese translation of The Golden Age of Murder. The publishers were even kind enough to make stamps of my autograph and myself to include in copies, given my inability to attend a book launch! During the year I've enjoyed keeping in touch with a number of people I got to know in China last year, and hope I can get back there before too long. 

I contributed an essay on 'Plotting' to The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction, a book I shall be discussing in more detail in the new year. On the true crime front , there was an essay, 'The First of Criminals', about Harold Shipman, for an anthology edited by Mitzi Szereto. There were also articles for a range of online and print magazines, including CrimeReads, CADS, and NB magazine, plus appreciations in a biography of H.R.F. Keating and Joseph Goodrich's very interesting Unusual Suspects

As regards short stories, I wrote 'The Observance of Trifles', a jokey short story in the form of a blog post plus comments for In League with Sherlock Holmes, edited by Les Klinger and Laurie King; I am looking forward to receiving my copy and reading the stories by fellow contributors such as Tess Geritsen. I wrote a Golden Age story for My Weekly called 'Respect and Respectability' which is likely to be picked up in a forthcoming anthology; it introduces a new character called Miriam Ackroyd, who may well return again. Another Golden Age story, 'The Locked Cabin', appeared in an 'impossible crime' anthology edited by Maxim Jakubowski and I was extremely gratified the other day to hear that it will be included next year in a collection of the best short stories of the year. All in all, then, a full and (despite the pandemic) exciting year.

And yes, there is more to come in 2021...


Monday 28 December 2020

A Year Like No Other


Crime writers trade in the fragility and unpredictability of human existence, and perhaps that's been quite good training for life in 2020. Like everyone else, I found that the year unfolded in a way that I'd never imagined. Across the world, everyone has had their own challenges to face and for me, these have been the inability to get together with loved ones and friends or to travel and take part in the many events I'd looked forward to. We've all had to find a way of coping which suits us as individuals. From the start of the pandemic it seemed to me that the key thing is to look after one's health: physical, mental, and financial. And also to hope that one isn't unlucky, because in truth, there's a limit to the extent that one can control things. Among other things, I've been fortunate to live in a lovely place and it's been no hardship to spend more time there than usual.  

I did manage a few events at the start of the year: a book club event in our local village, the Detection Club AGM and dinner in February (although with hindsight, the spooky emptiness of the train to London was a harbinger of things to come), and a lovely trip to Loughborough University, doing events with Professor Mike Wilson and his students, who were working on a theatrical performance of a Jefferson Farjeon story. 

In April, I celebrated (in a locked down sort of way!) 40 years as a qualified solicitor. I'd expected to retire, but in fact I've carried on working part-time as a consultant and in this strange year I've been glad to stay in touch, remotely, with my other working life. Two lecture trips on the Queen Mary 2 were scrapped, but their place has been taken by two weeks of online lecturing for Adventures Online, with more in the pipeline. I've got to know - again remotely - a fascinating chap called Simon Dinsdale, a retired superintendent with a fund of stories. We've started working together online and I hope this can continue next year. 

One decision I took at the start of the pandemic was to do as much writing and writing-related stuff as circumstances allowed. This has worked out really well. At the start of the year, I was fretting about whether I'd be able to meet various deadlines. As it turned out, I even managed to add a few more projects into the bargain. So despite the disappointment of not having personal contact with so many people whose company I wanted to share, technology has filled some of the gaps, and although Facetime and Zoom are definitely not the same, they are much, much better than nothing. As for those friends who have suffered this dreadful illness or the effects of 'long covid', my heart goes out to them. 

I'm full of admiration for the people who have worked tirelessly to make online events happen. I'm really grateful to Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen, Sarah Ward and Buxton International Festival, Manjiri and the team at Pune International Literary Festival, the lovely people at UK Crime Book Club, Nick Wells and Flame Tree Press, Dea Parkin, Antony Johnston, and the CWA, Bonnie MacBird and the CWA London chapter, and Giles Ramsay and the Adventures Online team. Inevitably it's a selective list, but doing online events with other people has brightened my year immeasurably. 

Reading has, as always, been highly therapeutic. I've also done quite a lot of comfort TV watching, including the Carmichael and Petherbridge Lord Peter Wimsey series, which stand the test of time pretty well, loads of Ruth Rendell Mysteries, and the utterly brilliant Spooks. But I've stopped watching the TV news! My travelling has been restricted to short covid-compliant breaks, but this at least enabled me to undertake quite a lot of research for the novel I recently started to write. Hardcastle Crags, Kinver Edge, and Calke Abbey all proved to be quite inspirational settings. Not to mention seeing the National Rhubarb Collection at Clumber Park - though I'm not sure how I could work that into a story! And before this extraordinary year ends, I'll reflect further on my writing life in 2020. 


Wednesday 23 December 2020

Merry Christmas!

This is my last post before Christmas, although I've scheduled a post about a classic wintry mystery for 25th December as a little treat for locked room puzzle fans in particular. So let me wish everyone who looks at this blog, whether regularly or just on the odd occasion, a very merry Christmas. I hope you have ample opportunity to relax and enjoy the day, even if the consequences of this wretched pandemic mean that it's not possible for you (as it isn't for me, sadly) to be with all your loved ones this year.

This time last year, none of us could have guessed how 2020 was going to unfold. None of us have lived through anything like it. I'm sure I'm not the only crime writer who has spent even more time than usual in an imagined world. In times like these, escapism has a lot to recommend it.

Despite everything, there have been some positives and I'll review some of the year's happier developments another day. Suffice to say that this year I've done more crime writing, fact and fiction, than ever before. I'll be giving more news about what I've been up to before long.

Meanwhile, be kind to yourselves. Have a good time and thank you very much for reading. 




Monday 21 December 2020

Repression - 2020 film review

I'm not quite sure what to make of Repression, a recent film also known as Marionette. Is it an ambitious and interesting failure, an unusual suspense story, an entertaining horror movie, or a film that collapses into incoherence - or perhaps all of those things?  I was attracted to it by the cast and the claim that it's a 'Hitchcock-esque' thriller, but it's not a description that makes a lot of sense (and a cynic would say this is in keeping with some aspects of the script). It's a film that bears little resemblance to any Alfred Hitchcock movie I've ever seen.

In the opening scene, a man climbs to the top of a tower, says a few words, pours petrol on himself and lights a match...It's a horrific scene, not explained for some time. We then shift to the arrival in Scotland of Marianne (Theklan Reuten), a gloomy therapist who has taken up a new job in a new country. We gather that she's left north America after some tragedy in her life. She starts work alongside colleagues played by Bill Paterson and Rebecca Front, two highly appealing and reliable actors who only have small parts, but give the film a sense of solidity in its early stages.

Marianne is dealing with some very troubled children, including a deeply disturbed boy (Elijah Wolf) who draws pictures of disasters and, it seems, has some gift for foretelling the future. She does her best to relate to him, and in her spare time she find solace in a local book club - which seems to meet with astonishing regularity compared to every book group I've ever encountered. These scenes, which have considerable potential, are in fact rather disappointing as the script shoe-horns in various pretentious observations which seem to connect to the themes of the story. It's all a bit clunky.

Marianne finds herself attracted to an affable chap called Kieron, but it's soon clear that this relationship isn't going to end well. Never mind her patients, she too begins to disintegrate mentally. And the plot twists come thick and fast...

As I've often said, I like ambition in a storyline. There are some good ideas here, and the film is well-made, so I remained engaged, despite a series of highly unlikely developments. Overall, though, it doesn't work as well as it might have done. Perhaps the writing wasn't disciplined enough. I suppose my final verdict is that Repression is an interesting failure. But that's a lot better than being a boring failure. 



Friday 18 December 2020

Forgotten Book - Catt Out of the Bag

Clifford Witting was a very capable writer and in reviewing a couple of his books, I've mentioned that he is not only a competent (and sometimes excellent) plotter, he also leavens his stories with pleasing humour. A couple of shrewd judges have told me good things about Catt out of the Bag, which first appeared in 1939, and thanks to the initiative and enterprise of a small press called Galileo, those of us who haven't read it are now able to enjoy the book ourselves.

This is a Christmas mystery and its strength lies in the first hundred pages, with an enjoyable account of a tour around the small town of Paulsfield by a group of carol singers marshalled by the formidable Mrs de Frayne. Among them is the amiable bookseller John Rutherford, who narrates - as in the enjoyable Midsummer Murder

One of the carol singers is a man called Vavasour, who disappears mysteriously during the evening, along with his collecting box. He hasn't gone home, but the following day, when Rutherford and a new friend who rejoices in the name Cloud-Gledhill make enquiries, his wife behaves suspiciously. Vavasour is a commercial traveller, and she maintains that he's had to go off on business. But her story isn't credible.

I feel that Witting was, on the evidence of the books of his that I've read, a writer after my own heart. He was trying to do something a bit different with his novels, rather than simply follow a well-worn pattern. This approach is appealing but - believe me! - it can have its drawbacks. In this case, I felt that the story faltered after the discovery of a corpse. The murder puzzle is quite neatly contrived, with a good 'least likely person' culprit, but the pleasure of the surprise is weakened because the murder motive is thin, with inadequate foreshadowing. So on the whole the story isn't quite as good as I'd hoped, but I'm glad to have read it and the quality of the early chapters provides clear evidence of Witting's ability to entertain. 


Wednesday 16 December 2020

Reflections on Howdunit

You never quite know how people will react to a book on which you have laboured long and hard. I guess the truth is that simply getting a reaction is positive. Almost anything is better than having your work ignored! But of course it's better if readers 'get' what you are trying to do. So I've been delighted to see that Howdunit has featured prominently in lists of best crime books of the year.

Jake Kerridge picked it as one of his favourites in the Daily Telegraph and Barry Turner did likewise in the Daily Mail. Among crime novelists, Christopher Fowler featured the book as one of his own picks, and so did the very knowledgeable commentator Ayo Onatade, writing for Shots.

This is all very heartening, for me and for the contributors, perhaps especially those writers who haven't published much in the last few years. I was so pleased that it was possible to include contributions from the likes of June Thomson (a fine writer whose early work often drew comparisons to P.D. James), Michael Hartland, Michael Pearce, and two peers of the realm, Bertie Denham and Janet Neel. And I was grateful to Len Deighton, Liza Cody, Kate Ellis, Peter Lovesey, and Mike Lewin for sourcing some of the illustrations which I think add another dimension to the material (for instance, Kate's flow chart of one of her plots and the Clewsey cartoons).  

Revenue from the publication of this book will help to sustain the Detection Club as it heads towards its centenary in 2030. I'm hopeful that beginning writers will find the range of tips extremely useful and also that readers who have no ambitions to write but are intrigued by the writing process and the ups and downs of writers' lives will find it entertaining and informative. So if you're looking for last minute Christmas ideas for the crime fans in your life....


Tuesday 15 December 2020

Pune International Literary Festival and online events

Despite the cancellation of so many literary events this year, there has been no lack of enterprise on the part of organisers all around the world. Online events may lack - to an extent - the personal touch but they represent a very welcome way of keeping in touch with fellow writers and readers. Last week, for instance, I enjoyed being interviewed by Bonnie MacBird (and briefly by Les Klinger) for a CWA London chapter event. 

This week I'm involved in a series of lectures and discussions for Adventures Online - the online version of Road Scholar, who run the Queen Mary trips with which I was involved last year, and much else besides. These courses are aimed primarily at American crime fans, and if you are interested in taking part, do take a look at the Road Scholar/Adventures Online website. 

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of being a special guest of the Pune International Literary Festival. Manjiri Prabhu, the crime writer who leads the Festival, is someone I've known for a number of years, and there have been various plans for me to get out to India to take part. These didn't come to fruition for various reasons and this year, of course, there was no chance. But undaunted, Manjiri was kind enough to invite me to take part in a very well-organised online version of the Festival.

Sarah Ward, a writer of high calibre, kindly agreed to interview me and I really enjoyed the event. If you'd like to take a look at it, I believe that a recording will be posted on Youtube shortly. Of course, it's not the same as going to India and meeting everyone face to face, but an online event is far better than any alternative and my thanks go to the organisers for all their hard work in difficult circumstances.

Monday 14 December 2020

John Le Carré R.I.P.

The death of John Le Carré, just announced, means we have lost one of the greatest British novelists of the last sixty years. Yes, he rose to fame as a writer of crime fiction and espionage novels, but if anyone's career shows that commercial fiction may have serious literary merit, it's Le Carré's.

I first came across his name when I still at junior school. My father was seriously ill in hospital and my mother gave him a new paperback in the hope of aiding his recovery. It was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and he thought it was brilliant (and he did recover!) Duly intrigued, I went to the local library and read the first two Le Carré novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, before devouring The Spy. So you could say I've been a fan for over fifty years.

For me, it's the blend of insight into human behaviour and lucid prose in addition to a natural gift for storytelling that makes his best work so compelling. George Smiley is a fascinating character, and the fact he was based in part on the author's mentor in espionage and fellow crime novelist John Bingham gives the portrayal an added piquancy. Not all his books were entirely successful, but I see that element of variability not as a failing so much as the hallmark of an ambitious writer. The better writers take chances. The risks don't always come off, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth taking. And at his best - in Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People, The Night Manager, Our Kind of Traitor, and so on - he really was a master of his craft.

Let me conclude this brief post on a personal note. Last year, I approached John Le Carré to see if he would be willing to contribute to Howdunit. He was elected to membership of the Detection Club long ago, but I've never known him attend one of the Club dinners, and I've never met him. So I anticipated either a reluctance to contribute or a failure to respond. There wasn't even a token payment on offer - the book was compiled for the benefit of Club funds. To my great delight, my proposed inclusion of a pithy extract from The Pigeon Tunnel, which I thought fitted in perfectly with the overall scheme of Howdunit, was agreed. He certainly didn't have to participate, but I'm glad he did, and our book is the better for it.


Saturday 12 December 2020

The Bibliomaniacs - guest post

John Cooper, co-author with Barry Pike on an excellent book about collecting crime fiction, is one of a small group of experts who give me suggestions for short stories to be included in anthologies, and through him I've come across his son Jonathan, the guiding hand behind a splendid enterprise known as the Bibliomaniacs. I feel they deserve loads of encouragement and so I invited them to contribute a guest post to this blog. Here it is:

'Hello everyone. We represent the Bibliomaniacs. We absolutely love to sell books and eat chocolate! We would like to thank Mr Edwards for letting us write this Blog on his page. It is a great honour to have an article on such an amazing and famous writer's page.

The Bibliomaniacs are the youngest antiquarian booksellers in the world (aged between ten and thirteen). There are currently 25 of us and we meet every Thursday to discuss recent book sales, and to discover more about the history of literature, books and printing. We are members of the PBFA and have attended four PBFA London book fairs as exhibitors.  Some of you may have even bought from us!

We have done a lot of Fairs at Papplewick School in Ascot, which is where we are based. We have two separate groups of boys in this group at the moment because of the current “bubble” rules in schools. We have the more senior Bibliomaniacs who do the more serious parts, for example cataloguing and thinking of ideas. Then we have the Miniacs, who are a bit more wild and smaller: as the name suggests. We always have a lot of fun in both groups though!

You can check us out at Our Latest Catalogue is about Sherlock Holmes and his Rivals. It can be found here at The focus of this catalogue is (as is evident from the title) Sherlock Holmes and his near contemporaries. What makes the stories so popular today is undoubtedly their atmospheric descriptions of Victorian London: foggy, crowded and metropolitan, and with a seeming criminal underworld. The books are excellent and so are plenty of the so-called ‘pastiches’ or reworks of Sherlock Holmes. We particularly enjoyed cataloguing Strand Magazines with their advertisements for long-gone products and diverse articles. We also enjoyed learning about less well-known (to us) detectives such as Dr Thorndyke and the Old Man in the Corner. All of our books are worth buying from the catalogue and we have tried to price reasonably. Many may not be in the most tip-top condition but we’d rather read a first edition for not much more (or even less) than it costs to buy a crummy paperback (obviously we don’t mean the British Library series…)

We have an amazing and rather quite knowledgeable founder and “General Factotum”, our Classics teacher Jonathan Cooper, whose father has collected and written about crime fiction for longer than we have all been alive put together (not really). Mr Cooper helps us with the huge things like making sure everything is alright and also proofing some things on the catalogue. He has been an amazing leader amongst all of the difficulties and hardships along our way. We do actually have a boy “ Head Bibliomaniac” who is really in charge. His name is Rupert but currently in these strange times he is unable to be at school and help us as much as he could. 

Thank you again to Mr. Edwards for letting us write this and we hope that you all had as much fun reading this article as much as we did writing it. We have two or three more catalogues coming up in this Crime Fiction series and (spoiler alert) some of Mr Edwards’ early works will appear in a later catalogue.
                                       Andrew Zhang and Jamie Pike  ('

And here is a member of the team, who happens to be called Sherlock. So the picture can be captioned 'Sherlock as Sherlock reading Sherlock'!

My thanks go to Andrew, Jamie, Jonathan Cooper, and everyone else involved with the Bibliomaniacs. I only wish there had been such a group at my own school!


Friday 11 December 2020

Forgotten Book - Gold Was Our Grave

Gold Was Our Grave ranks as one of Henry Wade's more obscure titles. It was published in 1954, at a time when his reputation as one of the most accomplished practitioners of Golden Age detection was fading, and it has never attracted any significant critical discussion. But it features his main detective character, the likeable, hard-working, and occasionally fallible John Poole of  Scotland Yard, and boasts several of the attributes that made Wade well worth reading.

The book appeared at a time when the likes of Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Millar on the other side of the Atlantic, and Margot Bennett, Shelley Smith, Julian Symons, and John Bingham in the UK, were remaking the crime novel. Their books didn't, for instance, tend to include maps of the crime scene in the classic tradition - but Wade's novel does, with a drawing of the relevant part of Lincoln's Inn Fields. It's a small point, but it illustrates that he was working in a vein that was no longer fashionable.

The early pages of the story give us a rather plodding (although relevant) account of a fraud trial involving a South American gold mine. None of the alleged fraudsters was convicted and now, it seems, someone is out to take a rather belated revenge. The prime mover in the gold mine fiasco is now a successful businessman and appears to be the victim of an attempted murder. But he doesn't want police protection - will this prove to be a fatal mistake?

There are plenty of classic touches here, as well as a couple of digs, characteristic of Wade, at the pernicious nature of British taxation policy in the post-war era. The plot twist is a variant of one used to brilliant effect by Agatha Christie in the 30s, the detective work is in the Freeman Wills Crofts manner, and the cynical attitude at the end of the book towards the legal system and the nature of justice is worthy of Anthony Berkeley. This is a rather wordy novel, and it could and perhaps should have been pared down considerably. But it's decent entertainment, a book that doesn't deserve to have been so widely overlooked.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Mortmain Hall in paperback

Tomorrow sees the long-awaited (well, by me anyway) publication of Mortmain Hall in its UK paperback edition. Because of the pandemic, the paperback has been delayed from its original scheduled appearance, in common with many other books.

Despite the fact that original publication took place during lockdown, Mortmain Hall has done very well for me and at one point the ebook edition climbed near to the top of the national Kindle charts, as well as being a bestseller in a couple of categories. But sales are one thing, quality reviews quite another. I've been thrilled by the reaction to the book from critics such as A.N. Wilson. It's not easy for a writer who has been around a long time to attract such attention, especially with a book that isn't the first in a series, so despite the difficulties created by the pandemic, I've been very fortunate. A lot of credit goes to the publishers Head of Zeus, not least for commissioning Ed Bettison to create that wonderful jacket Gallows Court has just been republished in paperback with new cover artwork in similar style. I'm so pleased with Ed's art that I persuaded him to supply me with a print of each cover, now framed and waiting for me to find a bit of wall space...

I've talked about the book on a good many platforms. The other day I had the pleasure of being interviewed by two marvellous writers, Abir Mukherjee and Vas Khan, on their podcast. You can listen here  


Monday 7 December 2020

Alanna Knight R.I.P.

Last Thursday I heard the sad news that Alanna Knight had died. Alanna was a leading light in Scottish literary circles and she was a friend of mine for more than thirty years. I've mentioned her a number of times on this blog, most recently when she was involved in organising the CWA conference in Edinburgh in 2017. I had the pleasure of presenting her with a bouquet of flowers as a token of our esteem for her contribution to our community of crime writers. 

She was a stalwart of the CWA and I first got to know her when she and her husband Alistair organised an earlier conference in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s. That was a memorable weekend and in the years that followed I saw her quite often, not only at annual national conferences but also at events organised by the CWA's northern chapter, which she attended regularly before the Scottish chapter developed. Among those events was a visit to Magna Large Print in Yorkshire; looking back at the photos of that occasion is nostalgic, as they depict several other fine writers who are no longer with us, in the company of a relatively youthful Martin Edwards.

In addition to her many novels, Alanna was a biographer and playwright and expert on the work of that gifted fellow Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson. As a crime writer, she was probably best known for her long series of historical mysteries featuring Inspector Faro. Some years ago I was delighted when she agreed to contribute a Faro short story, "The Case of the Vanishing Vagrant", to a CWA anthology I edited, Guilty Consciences.

Alanna was made an MBE, a well-deserved reflection of her status in the writing world. She and I had many convivial conversations over the years and she was particularly kind to my children in their youth, when I used to drag them along to CWA events. I think it amused and appealed to her that my wife and I brought them. I shall remember her fondly as someone who was always great fun to be with.


Friday 4 December 2020

Forgotten Book - Tidy Death

I first became aware of the detective novels of Nap Lombard thanks to Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. In the fascinating section towards the end of his book in which he mentions a whole range of oddments in the crime genre, he referred to the two books which Pamela Hansford Johnson wrote with her first husband, Neil Stewart under the Lombard pen-name. I don't know what the significance of 'Lombard' was, but I presume that 'Nap' was short for Neil and Pamela. Unfortunately, the books have never been reprinted, and I have never been able to track them down. 

Until recently, that is, and I'm pleased to say that the second novel, Murder's a Swine, also known as The Grinning Pig, will be published next year as a British Library Crime Classic. Today, however, I want to focus on the first book, Tidy Death, which appeared in 1940. By that time Johnson had already published several novels. She'd married Stewart, an Australian journalist, and they amused themselves with a short-lived literary collaboration.

Tidy Death is a thriller rather than a Golden Age-style whodunit (Murder's a Swine is a more conventional detective story, and is more elaborately plotted.) I'd describe this story as a romp which introduces Andrew Kinghof to his future wife Agnes - in the second novel, they are a married couple. Agnes' aunt, Miss Brick, is one of a number of victims in a bizarre murder case which also involves Lord Whitestone, a senior official at Scotland Yard and affectionately known to Andrew as Pig.

This is a breezy story which doesn't take itself too seriously and is none the worse for that. The prose is light and pacy. Not surprisingly, given Johnson's later literary successes, its quality is a cut above the average. I don't think this is as strong a book as its successor, but Agnes and Andrew are a lively pairing in the same mould as Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. It's a shame that the separations enforced by war led to the break-up of the authors' marriage, but I'm glad that at least one of their joint efforts is being revived at long last.


Wednesday 2 December 2020

A Study in Terror - 1965 film review

When I was about fourteen, I started reading Ellery Queen novels, some of which were being reprinted and available in the local library. There was also a recently published book, A Study in Terror, which involved Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. I read it, but was underwhelmed. Many years later, I learned that the book had been written primarily by a minor author called Paul W. Fairman, and that it was a novelisation of a film which had come and gone in the mid-60s without making any impact on my consciousness. The book wasn't bad, but it rather illustrated the weakness of the later ghost-written Ellery Queens - the new writers were (even though some were very capable) generally not as talented as the original pair of authors.  

At long last I've watched the film which inspired the book. It features John Neville as Holmes and a slightly uncomfortable Donald Houston as Watson. The cast is generally high calibre, with stars ranging from Judi Dench to Adrienne Corri and Barbara Windsor and from Frank Finlay to Robert Morley and Anthony Quayle. A lot of talent there! Neville isn't bad as Holmes but his portrayal is subdued. He doesn't get under the skin of the great detective in the way that Jeremy Brett or Douglas Wilmer did. 

I needn't detain you too long with a summary of the plot. A madman is out on the streets of Whitechapel, murdering sex workers. A mysterious package of medical instruments is sent to Holmes, prompting him to investigate. The script is workmanlike, with several clumsy lines when you think: 'Holmes would never have said that!' But it's watchable.

The script was written by Derek Ford and his brother Donald, though apparently it needed a lot of improvement before the film was made. Derek's later films included The Wife Swappers, Keep it Up, Jack, and What's Up, Nurse?, so he wasn't exactly Billy Wilder or Ben Hecht. When Wilder did become involved with a Sherlock Holmes film, the results was a superior film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.


Tuesday 1 December 2020

The Undoing - HBO/Sky Atlantic - final episode review

The Undoing, which came to an end on Sky Atlantic yesterday after the sixth and final episode, is a glossy thriller that has kept me interested throughout, although with some reservations, until letting me down at the end with a peculiarly unimpressive climax. It's one of those shows on which no expense has been spared and the stellar cast - led by Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, and Donald Sutherland - was top-notch. In this post, I'm going to discuss the way the story concludes, so beware spoilers.

The serial is based on a novel called You Should Have Known, a title which rather gives the game away. Suffice to say that this murder mystery wasn't in the same league as Broadchurch. But the performances of the lead actors were so compelling that until last night, I suppressed my doubts about the rather stretched-out storyline, which involves the brutal murder of a woman who has been having an affair with Grant (a specialist in cancer treatment) and given birth to his child - a child rather overlooked in the later stages of the story, it has to be said.

For me, the show fell apart in the courtroom, at the same time as Grant's defence. His supposedly hot-shot lawyer agreed to call Grant's wife as a sort of character witness. Why anyone would imagine that a jury would pay any attention to a wife saying that her husband was innocent, when she had no evidence to support that other than her gut feel as a psychiatrist, I really don't know. I know things are different in the US, and I'm no criminal lawyer - but even so. Predictably this bizarre error led to catastrophe, as well as the entertaining sight of the lawyer blaming anybody but herself for the ensuing debacle. At least this incident distracted attention from her previous weird and tasteless decision, to call the young son of the deceased as a witness for the defence.

These unlikely things are done, of course, to inject drama into the story. And yes, crime writers do this all the time - it's why seasoned police officers often cringe at the way we portray police procedure. For me, the test is whether the story works on its own terms. To my disappointment, last night it didn't, and the interest generated by earlier episodes of The Undoing was undone. 

Monday 30 November 2020

Celebrating Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey has enjoyed - and continues to enjoy - a remarkable career. This year sees the 50th anniversary of the publication of his first detective novel, the prize-winning Victorian mystery Wobble to Death. The book launched Peter as a crime writer (he'd previously written a book about athletics) and led to an eight-book series featuring Sergeant Cribb, which resulted in two television series.

Since then, Peter's writing has ranged widely. I reviewed his latest novel, the excellent The Finisher, earlier this year. It's another in his long series featuring the Bath-based cop Peter Diamond. In addition, he's produced many excellent novels, including stand-alones such as The False Inspector Dew, which remains one of my favourite mysteries. On the Edge, a less well-known novel, is another that I very much enjoyed.  

Peter takes great pleasure in writing short stories - I've been fortunate to include several in anthologies that I've edited - and this enthusiasm is reflected in the excellence of his work. I'd argue that he is probably the finest living British exponent of the short mystery. He takes full advantage of the flexibility of the short form, which makes a perfect showcase for his literary versatility. It's his willingness to keep doing things differently, his refusal to be content with the formulaic, that has kept his writing fresh and enjoyable for so long.

His American publishers, Soho Press, have celebrated this remarkable anniversary by producing a special collector's edition of Wobble to Death. It's a lovely production, with a foreword by Jeffrey Deaver and a characteristically entertaining afterword by Peter himself. For the Lovesey fan in your life, I suggest it would make the perfect Christmas present.


Friday 27 November 2020

Forgotten Book - Cobweb

Two novels that Pat Flower wrote towards the end of her career in the 1970s, Crisscross and Cobweb, re-work ideas and themes from her 1962 novel Hell for Heather. Of these three titles, I think the earliest book was the best, and Crisscross the least compelling. Cobweb, published in 1972, is pretty good. In Britain it appeared under the Collins Crime Club imprint, but doesn't seem to have made much impact. Indeed, she was an under-rated writer in her native country, although in her adopted homeland, Australia, she was known as a successful scriptwriter as well as a novelist.

By the time Cobweb appeared, Flower had dispensed with her series cop, Inspector Swinton, although this story features a shrewd and persistent detective called Fisher who is cut from much the same cloth. But Flower's main interest lay in the exploration of the criminal mind, and the protagonist is Martin Briggs, who at the start of the story is dissatisfied with his marriage to the lovely and wealthy Ellie.

Like many of Flower's lead characters, Martin is, beneath a superficial charm, cold and selfish. He murders Ellie, but the crime proves not to be the solution to his problems in life. He is attractive to women, and has a fling with a casual acquaintance before falling for someone else. This is Valerie, who comes into his life unexpectedly, breaking the news that she, rather than he, has inherited Ellie's money. To his delight, however, she seems susceptible to his charms...

The surprise solution is foreshadowed quite neatly and Flowers charts Martin's collapsing self-confidence with clinical precision. There is, however, a sad touch of irony about the storyline. Martin is tormented by insomnia and takes capsules to try to get a decent night's sleep. Flower herself experienced similar misery and in 1978 she took a fatal overdose of her pills. It was a tragic end to a career of some distinction.

Wednesday 25 November 2020


The arrival of a new issue of CADS is always a treat. Geoff Bradley, the editor of this splendid fanzine, cunningly spaces out the issues so that they arrive infrequently but always seem to fill a long-felt need. Incredibly, we are now up to issue 84. I have every copy and they form an invaluable resource, with lots of information about vintage detective fiction that simply isn't available elsewhere. If you love Golden Age fiction, this is an indispensable publication. And it also carries a range of other material, including articles and reviews relating to contemporary books.

In this issue, I was delighted to see an essay by Mike Wilson on the subject of Michael Gilbert's plays. Mike invited me to join his students at Loughborough University in February for a Golden Age workshop. I also gave a talk. It was an enjoyable visit, and I never imagined at the time that it would be my one and only event outside Cheshire this year. 

There are plenty of other interesting contributions. Philip Gooden, a thoughtful commentator as well as a crime novelist, writes about Lionel Davidson, while there are two typically snappy articles by Philip Scowcroft and a very interesting piece by Kate Jackson about an Australian mystery competition in the 1950s. Christine Poulson discusses Ethel Lina White and there's a reprint of an old essay by G.K. Chesterton about the Detection Club. Marvin Lachman's obituary column is full of interesting references and John Cooper writes interestingly about the short-lived writing career of Julie Burrows: the reasons why authors who have battled to achieve publication suddenly give up has always fascinated me, although we don't know why Burrows vanished from sight. There's a similar and much more recent mystery concerning Mary Moody, discussed by Lyn McConachie. 

There's much else besides, including two essays by me. One discusses Howdunit. The other, much longer, is the most detailed examination to date of the career of Mary Kelly. I've included a lot of information supplied by Mary's husband Denis, with whom I've enjoyed a fascinating correspondence in recent years. My essay is really a tribute to him as well as to Mary.    


Monday 23 November 2020

A Patch of Fog - 2015 film review

A Patch of Fog is an interesting film made in Northern Ireland five years ago, directed by Michael Lennox. The script was written by John Cairns and Michael McCartney and concerns an author called Sandy Duffy, who made his name with his one and only novel, A Patch of Fog, 25 years ago. Fuffy (Conleth Hill) has failed to follow up his breakthrough, but lives well and is a lecturer who is also a familiar face on television. He works alongside his girlfriend, played by Lara Pulver.

From the start, however, we know that all is not well with Sandy. He's a compulsive shoplifter, and the psychological problems that lie behind his behaviour eventually become clear. Unfortunately for him, he's spotted, and filmed, by a security guard called Robert (Stephen Graham). Sandy begs Robert not to report his crime, and Robert eventually agrees. But he wants something in return. Not money, but friendship.

Bit by bit, Robert insinuates himself into Sandy's life. Graham captures his character's neediness and inadequacy as well as his creepiness. One's instinct is to sympathise with Sandy, but he is such an unlikeable character that it's tempting to think that the and Robert deserve each other. Each time Sandy thinks he's made good his escape from Robert's  clutches, he is swiftly disabused. The stakes become higher, the tension mounts.

For a low-budget film, this is pretty gripping. That's due mainly to the excellence of the lead actors, but the script has its moments (there is one especially clever twist when Sandy makes ingenious use of a compromising video tape) and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. I've often thought that the experience of writing a hugely successful first book and then being unable to follow it up with anything as good must be very depressing. This film offers a fresh, if downbeat take on that premise. Well worth watching.

Friday 20 November 2020

Forgotten Book - Post Mortem

Post Mortem, first published in 1953, was the best-known novel published by Guy Cullingford (actually a woman called Constance Lindsay Taylor). It's a detective story narrated in the first person by an amateur sleuth. The unique feature of the story is that the narrator is investigating his own death. Yes, that's right, this is a case investigated by a ghost...

The deceased is Gilbert Worth, a moderately successful novelist who was a rather unpleasant fellow, which meant that several people had reason to wish him dead. The prime suspects are members of his family (wife, daughter and two sons) along with his mistress. The supporting cast includes his publisher, the family lawyer, and a number of servants including a bolshy gardener.

The tone of the story is fundamental, and it's relentlessly ironic. I was struck by the thought that one could easily imagine Richard Hull writing this story. It bears many of his hallmarks, including a focus on unattractive characters. Gilbert might have been a nasty piece of work, but he gets his come-uppance, not only as a victim, but also because he finds out what people really thought of him. The humour won't be to everyone's taste, but I was amused when I reread the story recently, having been slightly less impressed when I first came across the book many moons ago. 

I thought that the idea for the novel was clever, but one that was difficult to execute successfully. (And Hull is a good example of someone who came up with splendid ideas, but did not always manage to turn them into effective full-length novels). But to my mind, Cullingford does a really good job of maintaining interest from start to finish. It's an unusual piece of work by an author of considerable accomplishment.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

The Assassination Bureau - 1969 film review

The Assassination Bureau is one of those madcap films that were rather characteristic of the Swinging Sixties, a star-studded comedy with a storyline that zoomed around all over the place. I've never watched it until now, but the recent death of Diana Rigg, whom I'd admired ever since her early days as Emma Peel in The Avengers, prompted me to give it a look.

The script has an unorthodox source. It is based on a story which Jack London started - basing it on an idea purchased from Sinclair Lewis - and Robert L. Fish completed decades later. I doubt that there's a great resemblance between the two, but these rather weird origins are reflected in the zaniness of the story. The eponymous Bureau is a bunch of highly effective paid killers, who only target people who, supposedly, deserve to be assassinated. Murky moral ground, to be sure, but the film just aims for light entertainment.

Diana Rigg plays Sonya Winter, a would-be journalist who has uncovered the Bureau's existence. She challenges the Bureau's killers to target their own head, Ivan Dragomiloff. Ivan is played by Oliver Reed with characteristic gusto. His second-in-command is Lord Bostwick, a role which gives Telly Savalas the chance to be as unKojak-like as possible. The supporting cast includes, like other films of this type, a galaxy of highly recognisable faces, often in very small parts. So we glimpse, among others, Beryl Reid, Warren Mitchell, Kenneth Griffith, Jeremy Lloyd, Frank Thornton, Arthur Hewlett, and Peter Bowles. 

It's no masterpiece, but as piece of pandemic escapism, it does the job. The story is better than that of, say, the original Casino Royale, even if the soundtrack (despite being by the estimable Ron Grainer) isn't a patch on that for the wackiest of Bond films. It goes without saying that Diana Rigg is terrific, and among other things The Assassination Bureau is a good reminder of her ability to entertain in undemanding roles as well as to excel in more serious parts.




Monday 16 November 2020

More from the British Library

The British Library publications department is responsible for putting out a wide range of titles. Of course, my prime concern is with the Crime Classics, but I enjoy a good many of their other books. So today, as Christmas looms in the distance, I thought I'd mention some of these. 

There's no better place to start than with Yesterday's Tomorrows. The sub-title is The Story of Classic Science Fiction in 100 Books. So yes, it's a sci-fi equivalent to my own volume of musings about Classic Crime titles. The author is Mike Ashley, who is so prolific as to make me feel rather indolent. I've never met Mike but I've contributed to some of his anthologies and I find his commentaries and insights consistently interesting. One of the books Mike discusses in this enjoyable volume was of particular interest to me. It is The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks, published in 1920. It sounds quite fascinating and I'd like to read it, especially since my wife is a member of the Shanks family. Edward was, in his day, a well-regarded poet and critic and his other books include a good biography of Poe.

Mike Ashley has also edited a number of sci-fi anthologies for the British Library. I should say that I've only dipped in briefly to these so far, but the topics are interesting. Nature's Warnings, for instance, is a collection of stories of 'eco sci-fi'. One of the contributors is the American Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, better known as a high calibre writer of domestic suspense.

The British Library's anthologies of 'weird tales' are also of interest. Chill Tidings is a set of 'Dark Tales of the Christmas Season' edited by Tanya Kirk. Into the London Fog contains 'eerie tales from the weird city' and is edited by Elizabeth Dearnley. And there is a nicely produced hardback collection of The Gothic Tales of Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by X.A. Reyes. Dorothy L. Sayers was a Le Fanu fan - and so am I.


Friday 13 November 2020

Forgotten Book - Heads You Lose

I have a vivid recollection of my first encounter with Christianna Brand's Heads You Lose. As a fourteen year old schoolboy, I raced to the local library one Saturday morning in September and borrowed it (in a reprint edition introduced by Michael Gilbert) before nipping back home and settling down to watch my favourite cricket team play their first cup final on television. Alas, my heroes were thrashed, and I was in a very grumpy mood for the rest of that weekend.

My humour wasn't improved by the fact that I felt Brand's novel didn't play fair with me as a reader. I'd greatly admired Green for Danger, but I felt that this village mystery was a let-down. I'm afraid that I'll forever associate it with a day when my juvenile dreams were dashed! However, I was encouraged to give it another go by a thought-provoking discussion of the story in Samantha Walton's Guilty but Insane, which deals with the treatment of psychological disturbance in Golden Age fiction.

On a second reading, my revised conclusion is that the book is a curate's egg. Brand skates over thin ice more cleverly than I appreciated in my youth. There's a pleasing false solution, but this was only her second novel, and it's well short of her best. It introduced her main character Inspector Cockrill, aka "Cockie", but I must admit I've never found him quite as engaging as do some fans. The book was published in 1942, and one of the characters, who is Jewish, is presented in sympathetic fashion - yet he still has to put up with a good deal of casual antisemitism before the story reaches its end.

On the plus side, there's a nice map and a neatly contrived "closed circle" of suspects. Samantha Walton's discussion has given me greater insight into Brand's handling of homicidal psychology, and is an uncommon example of an academic study which actually enhances the pleasure of reading Golden Age fiction. I still don't think Heads You Lose is really a fair play mystery, but I also think I judged it too harshly on first reading. As for that cricket match, well the scars run deep, but back then, I never dreamed that one day I'd become friendly with my team's opening batsman, Peter Gibbs, and that we'd go to a Society of Authors meeting together. Peter told me that they just froze on the big occasion. Oh well, even heroes are human...

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Angelica - film review

Angelica is a macabre film released in 2015. Or was it 2017? Apparently it disappeared from sight for two years, a mysterious experience which suggests a troubled genesis - which actually seems entirely appropriate for this particular movie! I've read some negative reviews, especially those which complain that the screenplay is very different from Arthur Phillips' source novel, but I found it extremely watchable. It's billed as a supernatural story, but it doesn't follow a conventional path and the events are susceptible, I think, to more than one interpretation. (Again, I've read some reviewers who strike me as being overly prescriptive about their take on what the story means - perhaps that's just a polite way of saying that I completely disagreed!)

The film's director is Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of the legendary Roy, and the lead role is taken by another American, the impressive Jena Malone. But the story is mainly set in Victorian England, and there are key roles for several British actors, including James Norton, who plays such an inconsequential part that he must have been cast prior to becoming famous. When I say 'mainly', this is because the story is primarily told in flashback; there are scenes at the start and end from the twentieth century. I felt, however, that this 'framing' method was clumsy and unnecessary.

The crucial events begin when a young doctor (played by Ed Stoppard, another son of a famous father) falls for a shop assistant called Constance (Malone). Soon they are married, and their sexual relationship is passionate. But when Constance gives birth to their daughter, Angelica, things change for the worse. 

I don't want to say too much about the storyline, except to say that I found it unorthodox and compelling. There's a fascinating role for Janet McTeer - some critics feel her performance is over-the-top, but for me it fits the narrative. After a quiet build-up, the story reaches a horrifying climax, which I felt the 'frame' rather weakened. But this is a film which in my opinion is under-rated.


Monday 9 November 2020

Celebrating the Crime Classics

It's bound to be a rather unusual Christmas this year, and I'll be among those missing a long-overdue reunion with loved ones, but it's important to remain positive. Over the coming weeks, I'll be making a few suggestions for Christmas reading and present giving - not just my own books (though I hope they will find their way into some Christmas stockings...) but also those written by a range of talented authors.

Today, though, I'd like to celebrate the British Library Crime Classics. I've really enjoyed my association with this imprint, and one particular joy has been that the books have found an enthusiastic readership not just in Britain but throughout the world. In the US, 'starred reviews' are one of the most sought-after yardsticks of a book's success, and I was amazed and gratified to be told by the US publishers Sourcebooks that the series has now garnered no fewer than thirty 'starred reviews'. The latest are for Carol Carnac's Crossed Skis and Margot Bennett's The Man Who Didn't Fly.

And here are some quotes - plenty of good gift choices here!:

"This outstanding mystery from Bennett (1912 - 1980) poses a genuinely original puzzle."  —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Man Who Didn't Fly

"This innovative mystery from Kelly (1927–2017) effectively uses time shifts to create suspense... a superior addition to the British Crime Classics series” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Spoilt Kill

“[An] intriguing entry in the British Library Crime Classics series...Carnac keeps the reader guessing to the end. Fans of clever literate murder mysteries will hope for more Carnac reissues.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Crossed Skis

“Edwards scores again with this outstanding reprint anthology of 15 short stories set in the world of sports and games...  The British Library Crime Classics series has produced another winner.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Settling Scores

“Excellent whodunit” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Castle Skull

“Everything you could wish for in a country-house mystery.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Death in Fancy Dress

“In this standout entry in the British Library Crime Classics series from Gilbert... The ingenious story line is enhanced by ample doses of wit.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Death in Fancy Dress

“Edwards combines the well-known (Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers) with the obscure (former actor Ernest Dudley) in this impressive anthology of 14 short stories featuring scientific and technical know-how. Fans of TV’s CSI will enjoy seeing the evolution of criminal forensics.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Measure of Malice

“A masterly job of blending whodunit, courtroom drama, and thriller...readers who like their detection balanced by action will be more than satisfied.”  —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Death Has Deep Roots

 "Edwards’s outstanding third winter-themed anthology showcases 11 uniformly clever and entertaining stories, mostly from lesser known authors, providing further evidence of the editor’s expertise...this entry in the British Crime Classics series will be a welcome holiday gift for fans of the golden age of detection.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories

 “Ingenious reissue...Gilbert expertly combines fairly planted clues and self-referential humor. Well-drawn personalities and plausible twists are additional pluses. This high-quality whodunit deserves a wide readership.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Smallbone Deceased

 "A terrifically atmospheric puzzler...the ending is a stunner…like the best Golden Age crime fiction.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Murder by Matchlight

 “The latest reissue in the British Library’s Crime Classics series comes from a writer long acknowledged as a trailblazer in psychological suspense…Symons keeps readers on their toes with his unreliable narrator and numerous misdirections, but he amply rewards us with a story that makes us think. A very welcome reissue.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Colour of Murder

 “This reissue exemplifies the mission of the British Library Crime Classics series in making an outstanding and original mystery accessible to a modern audience.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Excellent Intentions

 “This story about guests gathered at a country house for the weekend, originally published in 1934, anticipates Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which appeared five years later…British crime novelist Martin Edwards provides his usual insightful introduction to this latest addition to the British Library Crime Classics series, letting readers know that Raymond Chandler was a huge fan of this novel. Bubbly social satire sets off a clockwork plot.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Weekend at Thrackley

 “Psychological depth enables Meredith to maintain engagement even after the killer’s identity is disclosed, and she effectively shifts points of view, incorporating that of the murderer in the crime’s aftermath and that of a character who may hold the key to achieving justice. Simple prose conveys personality in just a few words. Golden age fans will be enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Portrait of a Murderer

 “Edwards has done mystery readers a great service by providing the first-ever anthology of golden age short stories in translation, with 15 superior offerings from authors from France, Japan, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Holland, Mexico, Russia, and elsewhere; even Anton Chekhov makes a contribution —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Foreign Bodies

 “Originally published in 1939, this reissue in the British Library Crime Classics series from Farjeon (1883-1955) is a standout, with a particularly horrifying opening.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Seven Dead

 “…worthy of Agatha Christie at her fiendish plotting best, centers on an elaborately staged crime scene and a vast field of suspects, including village doctors who are envious of the victim (a “bone-setter,” or homeopath). Both of these tales are deeply satisfying reads…” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Dead Shall be Raised and The Murder of a Quack

 “As with the best of such compilations, readers of classic mysteries will relish discovering unfamiliar authors, along with old favorites such as Arthur Conan Doyle (“The New Catacomb”) and G.K. Chesterton (“The Secret Garden”).” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Continental Crimes

“The degree of suspense Crofts achieves by showing the growing obsession and planning is worthy of Hitchcock. Another first-rate reissue from the British Library Crime Classics series.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The 12.30 from Croydon

“Edwards’s second winter-themed anthology in the British Library Crime Classics series is a standout. As in the most successful of such volumes, the editor’s expertise results in a selection of unusual suspects, expanding readers’ knowledge.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review for Crimson Snow

“Not only is this a first-rate puzzler, but Crofts’ outrage over the financial firm’s betrayal of the public trust should resonate with today’s readers.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Mystery in the Channel

“The combination of bracing Cornish cliffs and seascapes with cozy interiors and a cerebral mystery makes this one of the most deservedly resurrected titles in the British Library Crime Classics series. With an introduction by modern British crime writer Martin Edwards.” —Booklist, Starred Review for The Cornish Coast Murder

“The settings of train, blizzard, and the eerily welcoming home are all engrossing. Dorothy L. Sayers characterized Farjeon as ‘unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures.’ This reissue proves it.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Mystery in White 

“This 1931 novel, now republished as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, is a cunningly concocted locked-room mystery, a staple of Golden Age detective fiction.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Murder of a Lady 

“First-rate mystery and an engrossing view into a vanished world.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Death of an Airman

"Brilliant in construction and theme.” —Booklist, Starred Review for Antidote to Venom

"Worthy of Hitchcock… A wonderful rediscovery" —Booklist, Starred Review for The Sussex Downs Murder


Friday 6 November 2020

Forgotten Book - So I Killed Her

I came across Leonard O. Mosley's 1936 novel So I Killed Her by chance, while browsing a dealer's catalogue. I'd never heard of it, but the blurb sounded interesting, so I investigated further and gained the impression that this was a book very much in the Francis Iles tradition. But there has been little or no discussion of it, so far as I could find, by crime fiction fans.

I'm not quite sure why this is. The book has been reprinted a time or two - I obtained a cheap paperback copy from the late 50s. Mosley was a young man - a very young man - when he wrote the story - and although he wrote one or two other crime novels, he became much better known as a biographer. I don't know if he was related to Oswald Mosley - his own second name was Oswald - but if so, there appears to be no obvious connection between them. When I read the book, I felt that, for all its limitations, it has a certain dark power, and definitely does not deserve the critical neglect that has been its fate.

Mosley must have been about 22 when he wrote the novel. He came from my neck of the woods, the north west, but travelled extensively and spent time in the US prior to writing this book. So one of the unusual features of the story is that, unlike the novels by Iles, Richard Hull, Bruce Hamilton and others who wrote in the ironic vein, it is predominantly set in the US. And the American hardboiled influence lurks, far in the background. There's more candour about sex in this book than you find in the overwhelming majority of Golden Age stories.

This is a first person narrative, and we know from the start that we are in the company of a murderer - apparently one who has committed the perfect crime, murdering his wife and framing someone else -who is about to be executed. The killer happens to be a detective novelist, although perhaps Mosley doesn't make quite as much of this idea as he could. The prose has verve, but the characters are mostly very unpleasant, and the wit that flavoured the books of Iles and the best of Hull is generally absent. All the same, it's a highly readable book, and I'm amazed that it has been ignored by the commentators.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Coyote Lake - 2019 film review

Coyote Lake is a film directed and (with Thomas James Bond) written by Sara Seligman. It begins in fairly conventional thrillerish fashion and then veers off in a rather more interesting direction. I've seen mixed reviews of it, but I thought it was pretty good, a rather more thoughtful piece of work than many a modern thriller.

The set-up is that a mother and daughter (played by Adriana Barraza and Camila Mendes) run a small guest house on the border between the USA and Mexico. They have got into a habit of drugging unpleasant guests (typically 'coyotes', that is, human traffickers) and then robbing and murdering them. The bodies of their victims are wrapped in plastic, taken out by boat on to the eponymous lake, and dumped into the water. The women share their lives with a mute handyman (Neil Sandilands) whom the mother occasionally takes to her bed. The mother is highly controlling and ruthless - we get the strong impression that for her, killing has become a way of life rather than a passport to a better and more prosperous existence - while her daughter is dutiful but not so bereft of human sympathy.

Two criminals, one of them wounded, show up. The younger, fitter man (Andres Veles) threatens to shoot the women unless they offer help and accommodation. But the film starts to move in a particularly interesting way as the young man finds himself attracted to the daughter. Needless to say, this relationship seems destined not to end well, and the final image is haunting, as is the photography throughout.

There is an eerie, under-stated quality to this film which ensures that it is a cut above quite a lot of the competition in the crowded field of psychological suspense. Not everything is fully explained, but for once I didn't find this irritating, but in keeping with the otherworldly mood. 



Bonfire Night and Murder

Quite a few crime novels have been set, in part at least, on or around Bonfire Night. This is hardly surprising, given that (except during a pandemic and a lockdown!) it's a time of vivid colours in the night sky, with the potential for crime in the hours of darkness. Several authors have had the idea of a Guy Fawkes on a bonfire turning out to be a murder victim. I doubt they have copied each other - it's just one of those concepts (and there are loads of them) that are quite likely to spring to mind when one is thinking up scenarios for a murder mystery.

Julian Symons' The Progress of a Crime, which is the subject of a timely reissue in the British Library Crime Classics series, is proclaimed on the suitably vivid cover as a Fireworks Night mystery, and that's when the eponymous crime occurs. The case is investigated by a young journalist, and Symons actually worked in a provincial newspaper office as part of his research. The crime in question was based, as I explain in my intro to the book, on a real life case which many people think gave rise to a miscarriage of justice - a subject that was of great interest to Symons at that stage of his career.

The book won the Edgar for best novel, and came close to winning a Gold Dagger for good measure. At this point Symons' career as a novelist was really at its peak in terms of acclaim and awards, but he continued to write extremely interesting fiction until the end of his life. The Colour of Murder, which did win a Gold Dagger, and The Belting Inheritance, one of his less well-known novels, have previously been reprinted in the Crime Classics series.

The Progress of a Crime has particular significance for me since it was the first Symons novel that I read, at the age of thirteen or so. It was also, as far as I can recall, the first time I'd graduated to contemporary crime writing after cutting my teeth on Christie, Sayers, and company. An old paperback copy was on the shelves in the house of some family friends and I picked it up and started reading it when I got bored with the adults' conversation. I was intrigued, and soon became a big Symons fan - after reading The Man Who Killed Himself. It's terrific to see him back in print again.



Monday 2 November 2020

The Sister - ITV review

In the run-up to Halloween, I read and watched a number of ghost stories and other strange tales in fiction, film and TV. Everyday life at present seems weirder than fiction, but I must admit that I prefer strangeness in storytelling rather than in a world of masked passers-by and mysterious viruses. Stories are, at the very least, a wonderful escape. There was one particular film which I thought outstanding, but today I'm going to talk about The Sister, the fourth and final part of which aired on ITV the other day.

The story, told in part through multiple flashbacks, was adapted by Neil Cross from his own novel Burial, which I haven't read. Russell Tovey plays Nathan, who is married to Holly (Amrita Acharia). They are successful and live in a posh, if soulless house, and are trying for a baby without much luck so far. Nathan is, however, disturbed when a strange man, Bob Morrow (Bertie Carvel, in manic mode) turns up to tell him that a local woodland is being dug up to make room for new housing. Nathan panics, and no wonder.

To cut a long story short, it soon emerges that Nathan and Bob buried in the woodland the body of a young woman. This was Elise (Simone Ashley) and, although we don't at first know the circumstances of her death, we learn that she is Holly's sister. Obsessed by what had happened, Nathan sought out Holly and then fell in love with her. There are several creepy and unlikely elements to the story, but for me the one that really didn't work was Nathan's marriage to the dead girl's sister. Unfortunately, that's a cornerstone of the whole edifice. 

Cross is a good TV writer, and The Sister has had one or two favourable reviews, but after an engrossing start, I thought it went downhill. Several aspects of the plot development seemed all too predictable, and I didn't really buy in to Tovey's portrayal of Nathan, which may be a criticism of the material rather than the actor. As so often with contemporary TV series, it could have done with ruthless cutting. There was, however, some compensation in the final twist. 



Friday 30 October 2020

Forgotten Book - The Flanders Panel

Arturo Perez Reverte is one of the most interesting Spanish crime writers of modern times and The Flanders Panel, first published thirty years ago, is a fascinating example of his work. The story is set in Madrid, and in 1994 it was filmed as Uncovered, although as yet I haven't managed to see the movie version, which stars Kate Beckinsale as Julia, the art restorer from whose viewpoint the events of the story are seen.

The book begins with Julia's discovery of a Latin inscription hidden beneath a painting that she has been tasked with restoring prior to its sale. The painting depicts two knights playing a game of chess, watched by a woman. The inscription, translated, is :'who killed the knight?' Perhaps in the context of chess it could be interpreted as 'who captured the knight?' But Julia begins to wonder if the inscription is a clue to a crime of the past.

She confides in her mentor, an older gay man called Cesar, who represents a father figure. Her former lover also becomes involved, but is then found dead. Has he been murdered, and if so, by whom, and why? Do the elderly owner of the painting and his unlovely family members have something to hide? And what about another of Julia's friends, the glamorous but dissolute Menchu, who is also involved in the machinations to market the painting?

The story begins with a quote from a Jorge Luis Borges poem about chess, and the text includes numerous examinations of stages in the chess game in the painting, as a chess expert calls Munoz helps Julia to figure out what is going on. I like chess, but I think that even someone who doesn't play the game would find this story readable and pleasingly different. Recommended.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

The Lighthouse - 2019 film review

The Lighthouse is a recent horror film, made in black and white by Robert Eggers, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother. Apparently the original spark for the story came from Edgar Allan Poe's final, unfinished story with the same title, but otherwise there is no resemblance between the two works. This is an unsettling film, full of ambiguities. Explanations for what's going on are in short supply, but although in some movies that matters a great deal, here it does not. To me, the ambiguous nature of the storyline is a plus. So is the setting - lighthouses and small islands have fascinated me since I was young, and the combination is irresistible.

The set-up is simple enough. It's the late nineteenth century, and a young man, Ephraim Winslow, arrives at a lighthouse on a remote, fog-blanketed island for a four-week stint as a 'wickie', assisting the veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake. The two men are played respectively by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe and both give superb performances. 

We soon learn that Ephraim's predecessor went mad, and we aren't in any doubt that Bad Stuff is destined to happen. I don't want to say too much about the detail of the storyline, but suffice to say that the lighthouse lamp, a mermaid, and a one-eyed gull all play key parts in the events that unfold. There's a hallucinatory quality to much of the filming, and the desolate, lonely location is marvellously atmospheric.

With a horror story of this kind, a writer may opt to give the satisfaction of an explanation of events, or leave things murky. Either method can work; everything depends on the skill with which the story is told. Much as I love rational detective stories with ingenious solutions, I'm also keen on strange, inexplicable stories such as those written by the great Robert Aickmann. The Lighthouse isn't exactly an Aickmann-type of story, but its strangeness is a large part of its appeal. I found it compelling.