Saturday, 28 March 2020

Midsommar - 2019 film review

If you're looking for some comfortable viewing to escape darkness in the real world, then Midsommar isn't really for you. This new film, directed by Ari Aster, is often described as a "folk horror" film and it's provoked a lot of discussion. Some critics think that it's ridiculous, and I feel it's over-long, but I also think it repays careful viewing, more than once - if you like this sort of thing, which I do.

One of the finest horror films ever made was The Wicker Man (the original version, that is, with Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee) and in many respects Midsommar borrows from the earlier movie. Outsiders come in to a small, enclosed community which proves to be a pagan cult. Bad stuff happens, culminating in fireworks. So Midsommar is, as Aster has admitted, in some ways very predictable, but what he does with the premise is intriguing.

The story begins with the suicide of the sister of Dani (Florence Pugh), which also leads to the death of the girls' parents. Dani's grief isn't adequately understood by her crass boyfriend Christian (the name is significant, though the symbolism is heavy-handed), who is getting bored with their relationship. In fact, Aster has described this as a sort of horror version of a break-up movie. With some friends, the couple decide to accompany a Swedish college pal, Pelle, to his home commune in Sweden to celebrate a once-every-90-years festival. Bad move...

The filming of the Harga community is visually stunning, and I found this aspect of the movie quite memorable and impressive. The runic symbols, strange buildings, and distinctive landscape all play an important part, as do ancient Norse rituals. And the locals get to watch Austin Powers movies...Yes, the film goes on rather too long, but although it's not for everyone, it's very watchable and several scenes are genuinely horrific. But The Wicker Man is snappier and even better.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Forgotten Book - Stairway to an Empty Room

Dolores Hitchens is a writer I haven't read until recently. Thanks to Stark House Press, who have reprinted Stairway to an Empty Room and Terror Lurks in Darkness, I've now had a chance to make her acquaintance. This volume, with a useful intro by Nicholas Litchfield, brings together two stand-alone suspense novels she published in the early 1950s.

By that time, she was already a highly experienced crime writer. Born in Texas in 1907, her full married name was Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens, if Wikipedia is to be believed. She was married more than once, admittedly, but has any crime writer ever had so many names? One thing is for sure - she wrote even more books than she had names, sometimes under pseudonym D.B. Olsen. 

And those books were very varied, ranging from classic detective fiction to psychological suspense and pretty much everything in between. She even dabbled in the western. One of her novels, Fool's Gold, was filmed by none other than Jean-Luc Godard, as Band of Outsiders. Sleep with Strangers and Sleep with Slander are perhaps her best-known titles, but inevitably she has rather faded from view since her death in 1973.

On the strength of Stairway to an Empty Room, I can say she was a good writer, definitely a cut above the average, with a neat turn of phrase and a real interest in characterisation. This is an intriguing story, which begins with Monica taking charge of her niece after her sister has apparently been murdered by her husband. But the little girl doesn't believe that her father is guilty...

At first I thought this would develop into a typical clock-race story, as Monica - despite her reservations about both her sister and the man she married - tries to find out the truth, but in fact it's more unusual than that, with a nice couple of plot twists towards the end. Stark House Press have done us a favour by making this book available again in a new, attractive, and affordable edition. I've been reading several of their titles recently, including Ruth Fenisong's Deadlock, a story with a neat twist.  

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Under the Skin - 2013 film review

In these strange and unprecedented times, I may publish a few more blog posts than usual in the hope of keeping loyal readers entertained. I'll also talk a bit more about Mortmain Hall, which is due to be published on 2 April. I had many promotional events lined up for this week and for months to come, but of course these have all fallen by the wayside. I hope to make up for this, to some extent, by other means and an extensive blog tour is planned. More about this shortly.

Now a memory from the days when authors did live events! At a literary festival in Tallinn a couple of years ago, I met the highly regarded novelist Michel Faber, who was one of the other speakers. He made some thought-provoking comments, and I decided that I'd look at one of his books, but I have to admit that I haven't as yet got round to doing so. However, I have recently caught up with a very interesting film based on one of his books, Under the Skin. It's directed by Jonathan Glazer, who co-wrote the script and who was known to me previously as director of Sexy Beast, with Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.

Under the Skin is, in a sense, a sci-fi movie, because the central character is an alien who takes human form. Since the particular form is that of Scarlett Johansson, she finds it easy to pick up lone men as she drives around Glasgow and rural Scotland in a white van. It's predictable that their excitement will turn to horror, and so it does. They finish up in...well, let's just say, a very, very unfortunate predicament.

This is a film that, at times, moves at a glacially slow pace. There's not much of a clear narrative thread, and you have to make your own mind up about what is going on. But it's not a spoiler, I don't think, to say that, as the film proceeds, Scarlett discovers a touch of empathy, whereas in some of the early scenes, for all her superficial charm of manner, she has none.

This is a bleak and unorthodox film, which is (I gather) very different from the book, which I definitely want to read when I get the chance. It won't appeal to everyone, and it certainly deserves to be watched more than once, because it's one of those films where you have to put in some work to discern meaning in the mysterious action. But I must say that I found it strangely compelling. It's not quite like any other film I've ever watched.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Michael Gilbert's The Empty House and The Thriller Theory

As a committed Michael Gilbert fan, I hurried to borrow The Empty House from the library not long after it was published back in 1978. It was one of his thrillers rather than a police procedural or detective novel and I thought it was rather less memorable than much of his work, though I did rather like the evocative image (at the end of the book) that gives rise to the title.

Having managed to acquire a nice signed copy at long last, I decided it was time to try it again. I'd completely forgotten the story - other than that final scene. And once again I'm afraid I was slightly underwhelmed. What interests me is - why? This is a book written in Gilbert's characteristically lean style, with no wasted words. There are loads of fascinating ingredients. A missing person, who may or may not be dead, a likeable hero (one of the very few loss adjusters in crime fiction, young Peter Manciple), a glamorous femme fatale who is responsible for Peter's sexual initiation, biological warfare, spies, soldiers, action, a good Exmoor setting, a dodgy archaeologist, an apparent suicide, an enigmatic solicitor, a clue concerning property law - yes, you name it, this book has it.

Gilbert famously said that thriller writing is more difficult than writing a detective story. And he did write some very good thrillers. He was sometimes criticised for not focusing more on characterisation, but Peter Manciple is a very well-drawn individual. No, the problem lies elsewhere and concerns the story. Packed with incident though it is, I didn't really care enough about what was going to happen.

Maybe there are just too many ingredients in this book. The deaths of various minor characters don't register as much as they should do, because they are handled in such a matter-of-fact way that the emotional impact is negligible. I felt Gilbert could have made a lot more of them. Even the big plot twist at the end was one I didn't care as much about as I should have done.

Yet Peter's fate did matter to me as a reader, and that's why I remember the scene in the empty house, not all the supposedly more exciting stuff. Because Michael Gilbert was a supremely professional writer with a flair for thrillers (one reviewer, often quoted on his books, said he "understands the thriller theory to perfection") and he was never less than competent. The Empty House is decent entertainment but it still feels to me like a book which isn't quite the sum of its many parts.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Forgotten Book - The Crime against Marcella

I was prompted to seek out George Milner's The Crime Against Marcella, which dates from 1963, after reading a laudatory review by Francis Iles, who was no mean judge of a book. Milner was really George Hardinge, a noted publisher, who was the editor of (among many other crime writers) Julian Symons. He also edited the Winter's Crimes anthologies before handing over to Hilary Watson, aka Hilary Hale, another editor of distinction.

Milner was a good enough novelist to earn election to the Detection Club, and this book is fluently written. In a distant way, it seems to me to be an update for the Sixties of the type of ironic crime story in which Francis Iles himself specialised. The tone is reminiscent of that to be found in other crime books of similar vintage by the likes of John Bingham and Symons.

Milner plays a game with the structure of his story, while his title is ambiguous. The scene is set by internal memoranda from Scotland Yard, which discuss the disappearance and presumed murder of a young married woman called Marcella Pemberton, but the bulk of the novel is a first-person narrative by her husband. Jim Pemberton explains how he became besotted with Marcella, and the various complications that ensued from the fact that his best friend and business partner was equally interested in her.

I figured out the principal plot twist some time before the end of this short, snappy mystery, and my main reservation about the book is that it reads rather more like a novella than a full-length story. But it's agreeably written, and a good example of the way in which writers of the time were trying to update the conventional puzzle story with a focus on character and exploration of the nature of sexual repression and jealousy. An obscure book nowadays, but well worth reading. 

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Top Ten Escapist Crime Reads

As promised yesterday, here are ten escapist crime reads. I call it a "top ten" but my inner lawyer advises me to include, well, if not a disclaimer then at least a note of explanation! I've opted for books that are British (I may do more top tens with other criteria, for instance American books, if this little list finds favour), and easy to obtain, here if not everywhere. So I've excluded some great stories that are harder to find, such as Henry Wade's Heir Presumptive and Robert Player's The Ingenious Mr Stone. I've limited myself to one book per author (sorry, Agatha) and I've tried to inject some variety, so that these are not exclusively Golden Age stories or novels inspired by the Golden Age.

With that in mind, here goes:

Agatha Christie - Why Didn't They Ask Evans? a light-hearted mystery with a clever clue in the title and a likeable pair of amateur detectives.

Anthony Berkeley - The Poisoned Chocolates Case - a cerebral whodunit with six solutions, which must represent good value. Christianna Brand (whose own books make excellent escapist reading) and I both had the temerity at different times to come up with additional solutions, which can be found in the British Library reprint.

Dorothy L. Sayers - Murder Must Advertise - never mind the dodgy sub-plot, the main story is enjoyable, the advertising world wonderfully well evoked, and there's even a cricket match...

Michael Gilbert - Death Has Deep Roots - a consistently lively blend of courtroom drama and thriller, this is one of the best books of a writer I have always admired.

Donald Henderson - A Voice Like Velvet - a BBC radio announcer as a cat burglar! A great premise and good story from a very talented writer whose life and career were sadly cut short.

Cyril Hare- An English Murder - this Christmas mystery features an engaging sleuth in Dr Bottwink and a classic closed-circle setting.

Pamela Branch - The Wooden Overcoat - Branch was one of the most amusing crime writers of the 1950s, matched only by the excellent Colin Watson, and it's a shame that she only published a handful of books. This is probably the best of them.

Peter Lovesey - The False Inspector Dew - Peter's award-winning slant on the Crippen is characteristic of his entertaining and imaginative work. I've limited myself to just one living writer, which means no place for Simon Brett, Ruth Dudley Edwards, or L.C. Tyler, but all of them are splendid entertainers too.

Sarah Caudwell - Thus Was Adonis Murdered - the mannered style will take some readers a bit of getting used to, but once you're in the swing, reading about the exploits of Chancery barristers is, surprise, surprise, enormously pleasurable.

Robert Barnard - A Scandal in Belgravia - Robert was a gifted maker of mischief in life and in his fiction. There's a lot of fun to be had in novels like Sheer Torture but the brilliant finale of Scandal makes it my favourite of his books.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Crime, Comfort Reading, and Coronavirus

There is more - much more - to crime fiction than comfort reading. I'm sure we'd all agree about that. But I hope we'd also agree that there's nothing wrong with comfort reading. Reading and writing can, in my non-scientific opinion, have enormous and incalculable value in terms of making one feel better. And if ever we needed to feel better, it's right now, when we find ourselves in the midst of a situation that none of us have experienced before. Again, speaking as a non-expert, I have a feeling that coronavirus poses almost as much of a threat to our mental well-being as to our physical health.

I've always been a believer in the value of the imagination and the associated attractions of escapism. In the current situation there's a lot to be said for escapism, just as there is for staying positive, ignoring negativity, and for making a conscious effort to be kind to each other. Crime fiction deals with a subject that is inherently dark, yet it offers so much pleasure and so many different types of satisfaction.

The irony has not escaped me that a few short weeks ago I was worrying how I was going to meet various writing commitments, given the large number of events I had scheduled. Well, as long as I stay fit, writing time won't be in such short supply now! There won't be a launch event for Mortmain Hall, alas, and numerous events around publication time have necessarily been cancelled, including Murder Squad's 20th birthday party in Chester, which we were all looking forward to. Never mind, the main thing is for everyone to try to stay fit and for those of us who catch this virus (presumably most of us, in the long run) to shake it off with no lasting ill-effects. Here's hoping...

Anyway, tomorrow I'll post a list of ten crime books of different kinds which I think offer plenty of enjoyable light entertainment and which I hope may help others to get through the weeks ahead in as positive a frame of mind as possible.   

Monday, 16 March 2020

Seishi Yokomizo and The Honjin Murders

In recent times I've become increasingly interested in crime fiction from the Far East, countries like Japan, China, and Korea. (And that reminds me, I have some nice news to share. The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has just been acquired by a Korean publisher - the first time a book of mine has been published in that country.) Pushkin Vertigo have done crime fans a service by publishing translations of two novels by Japan's Soji Shimada, whom I enjoyed spending time with in Shanghai last November. And now they've gone back in time by publishing two books by Seishi Yokomizo.

Yokomizo lived from 1902-81. He was born in Kobe and his first story was published as early as 1921. He introduced his series detective Kosuke Kindaichi in The Honjin Murders, which won the first Mystery Writers of Japan award in 1948 but the book has never been translated until now, by Louise Heal Kawai (who, I think, has done a good job.) Pushkin Vertigo have also published The Inugami Curse, which I hope to read shortly.

In the meantime, I must say that I enjoyed The Honjin Murders, which is firmly in the "impossible crime" tradition. There's a list of characters and a plan of the crime scene, coupled with extensive discussion about locked room mysteries. As early as page two, John Dickson Carr gets a mention, along with Leroux, Leblanc, Van Dine, and an author I haven't read, Roger Scarlett, author of Murder Among the Angells. Scarlett, by the way, was a pen-name for two American women, Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page. Their five books were reprinted not long ago and I must take a look at one or two of them.

Yokomizo sets his story in 1937, a decade or so before it was written, and I was interested that it illustrates Dorothy L. Sayers' belief that 'respectability' and its preservation were key ingredients in Golden Age mysteries. In fact, I've just written a short Golden Age style story for My Weekly called "Respect and Respectability" which deals with the same theme. Anyway, Yokomizo got there a long way ahead of me. His book is short and entertaining, with an ingenious if unlikely plot. I'm delighted that it's finally been translated into English.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Forgotten Book - The Tooth and the Nail

Among the independent presses doing good work on both sides of Atlantic in terms of reviving excellent crime novels of the past, I'd like to highlight the work of Stark House Press. Typically, they issue  two books in the same volume, and they have in recent times brought back novels by the talented Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Dolores Hitchens.

I've now read Bill S. Ballinger's The Tooth and the Nail, which appears, along with The Wife of the Red-Haired Man, in a new volume with an interesting introduction by Nicholas Litchfield. It's due out in April. I've not read Ballinger previously, and I hadn't realised how good he is. On the evidence of this book, he was a gifted crime writer, who had something in common with Fredric Brown. Like Brown, he was interested in narrative technique, and the cunning with which he tells this particular tale is impressive.

The book opens with a short, tantalising prologue. When one reaches the end of the book, one may be tempted to quibble about the prologue, and I'm not sure it was really necessary. But it certainly provokes interest in the main narrative. Actually, in this novel there are two stories going on, told in alternate chapters, one told in the first person, one in the third. We can be sure that they are linked, but how they fit together is unclear for a long time.

One story involves a magician, Lew, and the other is a courtroom drama. Someone is on trial for murder, but we don't know the identity of the person in the dock and the identity of the victim seems rather puzzling too. I shouldn't really say much more than that. Stark House have done us a favour by bringing it back into print. I really enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more of Ballinger's work.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

In Praise of Inside No. 9

Image result for inside no 9

The fifth series of BBC 2's Inside No. 9 ended last night with another twisty black comedy, the cleverly titled Stakeout. Until a few weeks ago, I'd never watched this series, written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. but an article in the Sunday Times prompted my interest by drawing a comparison with Tales of the Unexpected, a highly popular anthology series in its day which featured some good stories and some good actors (plus great opening titles and theme music!), even though when you watch it now, some of the episodes seem very dated.

So I took a look, and soon I was hooked. Binge-watching is something I rarely do, since there is never enough time, given all the writing projects I have on the go, but the irresistible appeal of Inside No. 9 meant I changed my ways. Thanks to iPlayer, I've now watched every episode and they have left me lost in admiration of the brilliance of the storylines. Pemberton and Shearsmith are also accomplished and versatile actors, who take key roles in every episode, and the quality of the scripts attracts actors ranging from Kenneth Cranham and David Morrissey to Felicity Kendal and Sheridan Smith. But in this post I'd like to focus on the quality of their writing. It's so good that I want to watch each episode all over again, to appreciate more fully the subtleties of the scripts.

Inside No. 9 is really unclassifiable. Its defining features include dark (sometimes very dark) humour and startling plot twists, as well as claustrophobic settings linked (often tenuously, but that doesn't matter) by the number 9: a police car, an art gallery, a house where the owners are about to move, and so on. Fawlty Towers, Jonathan Creek and some episodes of Blackadder - three of my all-time favourite witty TV shows - illustrated the potential of a tightly confined setting, and Inside No. 9 rings the changes with extraordinary flair.

It's not a crime series, and the emotions evoked by the stories (as with The 12 Days of Christine, a terrific vehicle for Sheridan Smith) vary widely, but as you would expect, tropes from fiction's most popular genre often feature. One character in Stakeout made fun of the familiar ingredients of cop shows, although of course the pay-off was not what we'd been led to expect. This ability to keep confounding expectations is one of the hallmarks of high calibre writing, whether your name is Shakespeare, Dickens, or (yes!) Agatha Christie or Anthony Horowitz; and Pemberton and Shearsmith are first-rate writers. One episode I admired enormously, Once Removed, is a superb example of reverse chronology, a technique very difficult to master. Another is a story about a burglary with no dialogue. Hotel Zanzibar is a nod to Shakespearean comedy and the characters speak in iambic pentameter. 

Private View is a take on And Then There Were None, with a pastiche of Theatre of Blood thrown in. (Incidentally, the sheer number of contemporary stories which use the And Then There Were None tropes shows the depth of the impression Christie's novel has made on our culture). Even better was The Riddle of the Sphinx, in which crosswords and word play feature, before a truly shocking finale. And then there is Misdirection, possibly my absolute favourite episode (though how can one choose from such riches?), a brilliant updating of the John Dickson Carr/Clayton Rawson kind of conjuring trick mystery. If Pemberton and Shearsmith wrote detective novels, they would be huge stars in our firmament. I doubt they have many ambitions in that direction, but it's our loss.

I could go on and on, but you've got the picture. I've become a huge fan of Pemberton and Shearsmith as writers - and as I say, I'm also impressed by the range of their acting (I mentioned Shearsmith's performance in The Widower on this blog six years ago). I can't wait for the next series.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Settling Scores

Tomorrow sees the publication in the UK of my latest anthology in the British Library's series of Crime Classics. The unifying theme of Settling Scores is not revenge, but sport. Each story is not only by a different author, but it features a different sport. I'm not aware of any other crime anthology which is quite the same; there was a splendid book edited almost 80 years ago by Ellery Queen, Sporting Blood, but that one included poker, chess, and butterfly collecting.

I'm often asked what my favourites are among my own books - assuming that I do have favourites. Well, I never release a book on an unsuspecting world unless I'm happy with it, and it seems worthy of publication. And naturally it's a matter of personal and professional pride to try to make sure that each book is as good as it possibly can be. That said, inevitably there are books which give rise to different feelings - especially after a lapse of time. And different levels of satisfaction too.

Among my British Library anthologies, I'm especially proud of Foreign Bodies, because of its ambition, and several others, such as The Measure of Malice, strike me as interestingly different from the general run of anthologies. And Settling Scores is right up there, partly because there are some fascinating stories, and partly because I find it intriguing to see how different authors have set about integrating a sporting background into their narrative. I'm hopeful the book will do well.

So what of the specific contents? There's a long story by Julian Symons, set around Wimbledon, and a characteristically accomplished one by Celia Fremlin which is a bit different because it concerns a school sports day. And then there are stories by little-known figures such as F.A.M. Webster, David Winser, and Gerald Verner. Each of these three men, by the way, had a very interesting life, and I recently read a biography of Verner by his son Chris which I'm hoping will be published fairly soon. In the meantime, if you like sport, or if you hate sport but love crime fiction, do consider giving Settling Scores a try...

Friday, 6 March 2020

Forgotten Book - Hell for Heather

Pat Flower was a British author who spent most of her life, and preferred to set her books, in Australia. Some of her later books were published in the Collins Crime Club, but even in her heyday, she was never well-known in her native country. Her work is rarely discussed and my guess is that only a handful of this blog's regular readers have come across her. But what little I'd heard of her made me interested, and when I discovered that my agent also represents her, or rather her estate, I managed to borrow a few of her books, which I promptly devoured.

Her first book appeared in 1958 and her fifth, Hell for Heather, was published in 1962. Like her other early novels, it featured Flower's regular detective, Inspector Swinton, but this is an inverted mystery rather than a conventional whodunit. The central character is Peter Baxter and we know from the outset that Baxter is determined to kill his rich wife Heather. But will he achieve his aim, and if so, will he get away with it?

Flower is a very readable writer and I raced through this book. My guess is that it marks a turning point in her career, a move away from more conventional fiction in favour of psychological suspense. There are some echoes of Patricia Highsmith and, perhaps especially Julian Symons, in her portrayal of mental disintegration. She wasn't quite their equal as a literary stylist - she has an odd habit of switching viewpoint mid-scene - but the quality of her writing is well above average.

In Australia, she was a successful writer of radio and TV scripts as well as novels, but there seems to have been a dark side to her life, as there was to many of her books; she committed suicide at the age of 63, a tragic end to a career of considerable achievement. I think her crime fiction deserves to be more widely read.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Howdunit - the cover reveal, and more

Phew! Work on Howdunit is now more or less complete. At times I find it hard to believe that it's only twelve months since the Detection Club members decided, at the 2019 AGM, to proceed with a volume about the art and craft of crime writing. Since then, we've found a publisher and put together a book that runs to close on 160,000 words - plus illustrations and even cartoons, courtesy of the members.

I've never had a writing or editing experience like it. And I love the jacket artwork that HarperCollins have come up with. Has any crime book ever featured so many author names on the cover, we wonder? There are ninety-one in all. In other words, excluding myself, there are essays from one Detection Club member for each of the 90 years of the Club's existence.

All but one or two of the Club's living members have contributed, something I never dreamed would be possible when setting out on this project. In addition, thanks to the support of estates and agents, we've been able to include essays by a range of distinguished deceased members, from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers to P.D. James and Jessica Mann.

One other point is well worth making. All these notable authors (and their estates) have donated their contributions for the benefit of Club funds. Remarkable generosity, and I'm hugely grateful. As for the detailed contents, I'll say more in due course. But there is some absolutely fascinating material here. Whether you want to write crime yourself, or whether you're simply interested in the way crime writers work and live, you will, I'm sure, find so much here to keep you royally entertained.

Monday, 2 March 2020

The Draughtsman's Contract - 1982 film review

I first saw The Draughtsman's Contract on television ten years or so ago. I began watching casually, probably not paying enough attention. I certainly didn't know what to expect and at times I found its enigmatic style perplexing, but I stuck with it and was duly shocked by the horrific and unexpected ending. It made a considerable impression on me, and I was interested, some years later, to read the thoughts of Peter Greenaway, who wrote and directed, and the comparisons he drew between his film and the country house murder mysteries of Agatha Christie. I even mentioned the film in The Golden Age of Murder.

Few films have haunted me like this one. There's just something about it that's different and memorable. I recently bought the DVD version, which has some good extras, and I think it's one of those films that is even better when you watch it for a second time. Knowing the ending didn't spoil my enjoyment at all.

So what is this strange film about? Well, it's set in 1694, and at the outset wealthy Lady Herbert (Janet Suzman) enters into a contract with a talented but arrogant draughtsman called Neville (Anthony Higgins). He is to make twelve drawings of the country house where she lives with her husband, and since the husband is off on a trip to Southampton, the contract contains a very unusual clause....

It's a visually stunning film, and the country house (Groombridge Place, which is near Tunbridge Wells, and whose gardens I'd like to visit one day) is very attractive. While working on the drawings, Neville gets to know Mrs Herbert's daughter (Anne-Louise Lambert) and her dreadful German husband (played, talking of Agatha Christie, by good old Hastings himself, Hugh Fraser). The supporting cast includes, equally unexpectedly, Lynda La Plante - this was before she shot to fame with Prime Suspect. The soundtrack is by Michael Nyman, channelling Purcell.

It's not a film that will be to everyone's taste. Some may think it arty and pretentious. But I remain impressed by Greenaway's imagination and flair.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Forgotten Book - Dance for a Dead Uncle

I first became aware of Charles Ashton's work when I was offered the chance to buy an inscribed copy of his last novel, Dance for a Dead Uncle, from the estate of the late Bob Adey. I discovered that it was a locked room mystery, one of three by this author catalogued in Bob's Locked Room Murders. So I took the plunge and bought it, reasoning (rightly or wrongly) that I'd never get a similar chance again.

It's fair to say that Ashton was a fairly obscure writer even in his own lifetime, though in recent times Pietro dePalma and John Norris (two good judges) have heaped praised on his work. He must have been very pleased when his debut novel, Murder in Make-Up, received a pretty complimentary review from Dorothy L. Sayers in the Sunday Times in early 1935. She felt it was "agreeably written"and gave "considerable promise of good work to come". The book featured Jack Atherley, who became a series character, and it also benefited from Ashton's knowledge of the film world; he'd appeared in a considerable number of movies himself before the coming of the talkies seems to have put paid to his career on the silver screen.

Dance for a Dead Uncle was his last novel. It appeared in 1948, when he was 64 (he did, however, live until 1968). I think it's fair to say that by the time this book appeared, his approach to the genre belonged to the past. It's very much in the Golden Age style and not just because of the impossible crime plot. Atherley doesn't appear; the detecting is done by a likeable but lightly sketched Scotland Yard man.

But judged as a Golden Age story, it's not at all bad, in a quiet, undemonstrative way. If, for instance, you like John Bude, you'll probably enjoy this one. The set-up is intriguing, as a deceased spiritualist asks two sceptical nephews to take part in a rather odd, not to say unlikely, arrangement in a locked room where his coffin is to be found. You've guessed it - one of the nephews is duly murdered. But how was it done, by whom, and why? I didn't figure out the answers to these questions, and although the story lacks the atmospheric vigour of John Dickson Carr, it's quite a good example of the classic locked room mystery. I can see why Bob tracked down a copy and kept in his wonderful collection.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Diamond Dagger

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Well, it's been quite a twenty-four hours. Since the news was announced that I'm this year's recipient of the CWA Diamond Dagger, I've been inundated with generous messages. Literally hundreds of them. As if the joy of receiving the highest honour in UK crime writing were not enough, receiving the good wishes of so many kind people from all over the world has been truly humbling.

I'm still processing it all, to be honest, but I thought I'd just reflect on a conversation that I had many years ago - I'd guess it was 1996 or 1997 - with a dear friend, the late Reginald Hill. He'd recently won the Diamond Dagger himself, and was asked by the CWA to form a sub-committee which would put forward suitable candidates for the Diamond Dagger from the plethora of nominations submitted by CWA members - a sort of "quality control" process.  

So Reg rang me up and said he didn't really like committees, but thought that if I joined him, the two of us could treat the exercise seriously, but also as an excuse for a chat and a gossip. He'd become something of a mentor to me, and wrote a lovely and characteristically witty introduction to an early collection of my short stories.

He knew of my intense love of the crime genre, and he said that, having won the Diamond Dagger himself, he wanted us to ensure that standards were maintained. He also said that he felt that as I wasn't going to be a candidate for the next few years, I could contribute my opinions with an open mind. And then he added that he believed that one day I would follow in his footsteps and receive the award. This struck me as extraordinary, not merely because I'd only written five or six books at this point, but also because he simply wasn't the sort of person who would volunteer such a thing without meaning it; he certainly wasn't given to casual flattery. Smart guy as he was, though, I couldn't believe that his forecast would come true. 

For a number of years Reg and I submitted shortlists of candidates for the award to the committee and we did indeed have some very enjoyable chats along the way. (The usual process is essentially this: nominations are submitted by CWA members; a dedicated sub-committee produces a shortlist of say half a dozen, perhaps up to ten, candidates; and then the CWA committee decides.) That original conversation with Reg has stuck in my mind but I must say that even though my name began to feature occasionally in nominations, I continued not to believe it would happen. Now that it has, I'm very happy about it. And I'd like to think that Reg would be happy too.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Forgotten Book - I Wake Up Screaming

I Wake Up Screaming is a pulpy crime novel by Steve Fisher, set in Hollywood and first published in 1941. It was turned into a film noir which was also known as Hot Spot, and later remade as Vicki. Unusually, Fisher updated the story for later editions. He had crammed the novel with topical allusions, and sought to modernise them to retain a contemporary feel.

In classic noir fashion, this story, narrated by a Hollywood writer, involves a man trapped in a nightmarish situation. The protagonist falls for a studio secretary, Vicki Lynn, who is aiming to become a film star, although he also finds himself attracted to her sister, a torch singer, Jill. Just as Vicki's dreams are starting to come true, she is murdered. And our hero is a prime suspect.

The unusual feature of the story is the obsessive pursuit of the protagonist by a detective, a dying man called Ed Cornell. Cornell was based in part on Cornell Woolrich, who can hardly have felt flattered. Cornell is a gifted detective, but he seems uninterested in any other suspect, although several other people might have had a motive to kill Vicki.

Fisher references Raffles, and crime writers ranging from Dorothy L. Sayers to Horace McCoy, whose They Shoot Horses, Don't They? seems to me a much more powerful novel of crime in Tinseltown than this one. It's a book I'd been after for years, and it's certainly pacy. Overall, however, I was rather disappointed. I was expecting something more than simply a workmanlike effort. The story didn't grip me, I'm afraid. Woolrich did this sort of thing much better.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Loughborough and the Academic World


I'm just back from a fascinating trip to Loughborough University. Thanks to the good offices of Professor Mike Wilson, I did a couple of events, one a public talk, the other an extensive workshop with Mike's third year students. The students are working on a dramatic version of Farjeon's Thirteen Guests, and I was very interested to hear the take of these young, thoughtful people on Golden Age fiction. Their positivity was refreshing and my visit as a whole very enjoyable. I was also greatly entertained by the poster designed to promote the event...

Nor is this to be my only encounter with the academic world this year. In April I'm taking part in a Golden Age weekend of events organised by the University of Chester. And later in the summer, the Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction will be published; an academic tome, with many contributions from academics - plus me.

My interest in the academic world goes back a long time. In my younger days, I thought seriously about becoming an academic and once I started to train as a solicitor, I wondered if I'd be better suited to lecturing and researching rather than working in a legal office. In either case, I wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a crime novelist, but I thought the academic life might be more conducive to that. So I went for lunch with one of my tutors at Balliol, a wonderful New Zealander called Don Harris, for whose judgement I always had the greatest respect. We talked it over, and he persuaded me that, at that time, the uncertainties of academic life were unappealing. So in the end I stayed in the legal profession, and it worked out well - in the long run.

I continued to write the occasional academic article, as well as more prosaic stuff for newspapers and magazines. And in recent years, as academic interest in crime fiction has risen, so my contacts with the academic world have increased. I very much enjoyed being part of Steven Powell's seminar on James Ellroy at Liverpool University a few years ago and I'm keen to see closer contact between crime novelists and academics interested in the genre.

There is some fascinating research going on, and some very good writing, but at present it seems to me that there's also some surprisingly poor writing in the academic field, stuff that - whatever its intellectual merits - is desperately boring to read, because some authors seem to pay more attention to things (such as bibliographies and other references) which try to show how well they have done their homework, rather than writing accessibly and in a way that others will find inspiring. I understand that part of the thinking is to assist future researchers, but the balance often seems to be tipped against good prose, a strange example for teachers to give to students. Thankfully, the likes of Steven Powell and Mike Wilson recognise the importance of communicating clearly, widely, and well. I'm optimistic that a similar approach will be followed by more and more academics in years to come.

Monday, 17 February 2020

The Screaming Skull - 1958 film review

The Screaming Skull begins with a chilling warning coupled with an offer of a freebie. The story, we are told, is so terrifying that we may die of fright. But if watching the film kills us, the makers are willing to bury us free of charge. Very good of them. I did feel, however, that the terror induced by this macabre opening was rather undercut by the preamble on the TV channel when we were told that the film was rated "Parental Guidance". Maybe not quite so frightening in the 21st century, then...

The premise is rather like that of a minor Rebecca. A charming husband brings his nervy young second wife to the grand country home where his first wife met an unfortunate end. However, it has to be said that the screenplay writer, John Kneubuhl, was not Daphne du Maurier, while the actor playing the husband, John Hudson, was not in the Olivier class. I did, however, think that Peggy Webber, playing the wife, did a good job, and I was interested to learn that she became a leading radio actress and is still alive today, aged 94.

It soon becomes clear that creepy things are happening at the house. There's a mysterious gardener with an obsessive devotion to the deceased first wife, and a neighbouring vicar - who turns out to be an improbably cast Russ Conway, the British pianist who had two number one hits in the charts. The soundtrack, by the way, is the work of Ernest Gold (father of the gifted singer-songwriter Andrew Gold) who also wrote the music for Exodus.

A long time ago I toyed with the idea of writing a story called The Screaming Skull after reading about some legends concerning skulls. In the end, I decided against it, although I wasn't aware of this film at the time. Horror is a tricky genre. M.R. James' stories still exert a particular magic, but Kneubuhl, whatever his other gifts, was no M.R. James. I foresaw the main plot twist, and found the story distinctly unterrifying. And even the offer of free burial wasn't original to this film....

Friday, 14 February 2020

Forgotten Book - Murder is a Kill-Joy

My copy of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's Murder is a Kill-Joy is a little Dell mapback paperback. Mapbacks have a depiction of a key crime scene on the back of the book and are highly collectible. This one features an attractive depiction of "the house in the marshes" which is a murder scene in the novel, which was originally called Kill Joy. I wish that someone would compile an illustrated book featuring all the mapbacks; I'm sure it would be fascinating.

I've talked before about my admiration for Holding, a very good writer. When this book first came out, Kirkus Reviews said, in effect, that it was ok but not up with her best work, and that's essentially my view too. But it's a pacy story with plenty of twists and turns, even if the central situation didn't interest me quite as much as it evidently appealed to Holding.

Maggie Macgowan, a 19 year-old woman, is working in domestic service, trying to find her way in the world, when out of the blue Dolly Camford, for whose family Maggie works, persuades her to join her in a new career. They leave home in a hurry -  Dolly says she is fleeing from a menacing man, but it soon becomes clear to Maggie that Dolly's word is not to be relied upon. And they end up at the house in the marshes.

The complications come thick and fast, but in many ways the most appealing aspect of the book is the way Maggie matures as she experiences a whirl of conflicting emotions. Holding portrays her with a good deal of skill. Not a masterpiece, but any crime novel by Holding is worth a read.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The Nanny - 1965 film review

Having enjoyed one film version of an Evelyn Piper novel, Bunny Lake is Missing, I thought I'd try another. The Nanny is a black and white suspense movie released in 1965 and the title role is played by the legendary Bette Davis. The supporting cast is impressive: Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, Jack Watling, James Villiers, Maurice Denham and the eternally under-rated but consistently impressive Alfred Burke, who makes a powerful impact in one scene towards the end.

This was a Hammer movie, with a screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, a capable writer with a talent for entertainment who had a tendency to go over the top. Here, however, the story is told subtly and information about the characters is withheld cleverly rather than irritatingly. I haven't read the book by Piper, but I gather that quite a few changes were made in the film version. The result is a film that I found gripping, and at times harrowing.

Villiers and Craig are a rich couple, but he's something of a bully and she suffers from low self-esteem. Their young daughter died a couple of years ago and they have a ten year old son, Joey, who is due home. It turns out that he's been in a hospital, because he was responsible, apparently unintentionally, for his sister's death. When we're introduced to him, it becomes clear that he has a macabre streak and also that he hates Nanny.

Nanny has looked after his mother (and her sister Pen, played by Bennett) since they were children. She knows her place, but she is trusted implicitly. When Joey is rude to her, she turns the other cheek quite selflessly. We only start to get a fresh slant on things when Joey makes friends with a 15 year old girl who lives in the same building. She is played by Pamela Franklin, whose performance is absolutely excellent; so much so that I'm surprised she didn't become a huge star. William Dix, who plays Joey, is also very good, and it's a shame that his career apparently didn't survive into adulthood. Jill Bennett, whom I have long admired, makes the most of a tricky part; she was a terrific actor and again it's sad to think of her unfortunate later life. Wendy Craig, later to become noted for light comedy, is very good as the vulnerable Mrs Fane. And Bette Davis is first class.

I was impressed by this film and can thoroughly recommend it. Thanks to the rather under-stated approach to essentially melodramatic material, it's genuinely chilling and it stands the test of time very well.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Venetian Bird aka The Assassin - 1952 film review

Victor Canning was a thriller writer whose work was, on the whole, a cut above that of many of his post-war contemporaries. I haven't read his 1950 novel Venetian Bird, but thanks to Talking Pictures TV, I've watched the film version (given the alternative but rather humdrum title of The Assassin in the US). The film was made in black and white but still manages to evoke Venice's charm.

I wondered if the storyline might be some sort of poor man's version of The Maltese Falcon, but was glad to find that wasn't the case. Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) is a private investigator who arrives in Venice on an errand. He's placed an advertisement to find information about someone, but this element of the plot turns out to be a MacGuffin. It's not what the film is mainly about.

Mercer becomes curious about a gallery owned by the wealthy Count Boria and finds himself attracted to an enigmatic and glamorous woman who works there called Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok, who is the subject of a rather interesting tribute website; suffice to say here that she had a full life!) Eventually it emerges (as that crass alternative title flagged up at the outset) that this is really a story about a plan to carry out a political assassination. There is also a mystery element, which although very guessable does add texture to the story.

The supporting cast is strong; it includes John Gregson in an uncharacteristic role, the wonderful Miles Malleson, and Sid James, of all people, playing an Italian undertaker, one of the least likely bits of casting I can recall. George Coulouris is surprisingly empathetic as the chief of police; he was a very good actor, and I was surprised to discover that he was born in Manchester and grew up there and in Urmston, not too far from my home village of Lymm. The direction by Ralph Thomas is snappy, with a good rooftop chase at the end. Overall, this film is well worth watching.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Pale Horse - BBC TV review

The Pale Horse began on BBC tonight, the first episode of a two-parter based on an Agatha Christie novel and scripted by Sarah Phelps. She is one of TV's leading popular dramatists, with an enviable track record. She began as a writer on EastEnders and the disciplines learned through writing soap opera scripts must be invaluable when one turns to other projects. (And of course some crime series, albeit not Christie's, have strong soap opera elements.) But having discussed Sarah Phelps' adaptations with many crime enthusiasts, I find it tempting, if overly simplistic, to suggest that her versions of Christie are geared more to viewers who aren't natural Christie fans than to the purists.

I'm a lifelong Christie fan but I have always felt it's perfectly reasonable to make changes to the original stories for dramatic purposes - the real question is: do they actually work? I've watched all Sarah Phelps' versions of Christie stories, and my impression is that they are more effective when she digs down into the essence of the original storyline than when she goes off on a tangent of her own. When she's inventing new stories, she'd surely be better to craft her own series rather than tack them on to someone else's.

I enjoyed Phelps' And Then There Were None, and to a lesser extent Witness for the Prosecution, but felt that Ordeal by Innocence (despite a new plot ingredient that I really admired) rather missed the point of the story. The ABC Murders was a curate's egg, with some compelling elements marred by a decision to give Poirot a backstory that, for me, simply didn't carry conviction. 

These mixed experiences led me to watch The Pale Horse with an open mind, but a keen desire to enjoy the story as much as possible. The earlier adaptations have demonstrated that the quality of the opening episode is not always sustained. But I must say that I think this was a very good choice of Christie story, a rural melodrama with a looseness of structure that suits Phelps' talents better than the confines of a traditional whodunit. 

The starry cast is led by Rufus Sewell (cast as Aurelio Zen in the regrettably short-lived TV versions of Michael Dibdin's novels) who plays Mark Easterbrook. The three witches include the wonderful Rita Tushingham and Sean Pertwee is very good as the cop Lejeune. There's a strong Wicker Man feel to the village fete scene - here Phelps is paying homage not to Christie but to another screenwriter who adapted the Queen of Crime with verve, Anthony Shaffer. Will I be tuning in to part two? Yes, definitely. 

Friday, 7 February 2020

Forgotten Book - Sudden Fear

One of the wonderful consequences of global communication via the internet is that it's now possible to come across information in a matter of moments that in the not too distant past would either have been unobtainable or would have take extensive research to track down. For anyone with a special interest, that's terrific. Book lovers like me have really benefited from the dissemination of information worldwide via blogs and other means.

I look at a good many blogs sporadically; one of those I check out regularly is Kate Jackson's Cross Examining Crime, because she seems able to read more books than almost anyone and her taste is excellent. When she raved about Edna Sherry's Sudden Fear, I sat up and took notice - and it took me a while to realise that I'd already seen and enjoyed the film based on the book. The book came out in 1948 and the film in the early 50s. Thanks to Jamie Sturgeon I've now been able to read the book for myself, and it turns out that Kate was spot on. It's a gripping story.

I don't know much about Sherry, but it seems that although she'd done plenty of writing, this was her first crime novel to be published under her own name, when she was 67. She continue to publish, but this appears to be far and away her most successful novel, though John Norris (another of my favourite bloggers) has praised Girl Missing. Certainly, the portrayal of Myra, the ruthless playwright who discovers that her younger husband is plotting with his lover to kill her and inherit her fortune, is compelling. 

Kate is, I think, right to say that in some respects this story is in the Francis Iles vein, but she's also right to highlight its distinctive qualities. There are one or two oddities about the writing (e.g. some unnecessary mid-chapter shifts of viewpoint) but these are minor matters - Sherry knew how to tell a good story. Much as I liked the film, the book seems to me to be better.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Medusa Touch - 1978 film review

In my youth, I used to see Peter Van Greenaway's books in the library quite often. When I looked at the blurbs and first few pages, I was never sufficiently enthused to borrow them, probably because it was clear he wasn't writing novels in the same vein as contemporary writers of the time whom I admired, such as Julian Symons. Probably this was a mistake (even if it wasn't a misjudgement of his type of writing) on my part, because I rather enjoyed The Medusa Touch, an unorthodox film made by Jack Gold from one of his unorthodox novels.

Nowadays, I'm much more receptive than I was then to genre-bending stories, and this film blends three distinct types of story - murder mystery, sci-fi, and horror. Let's take the murder mystery first. The film begins with an apparently fatal attack on a writer, John Morlar. The case is investigated by Scotland Yard in the unexpected person of a French cop who is there on some sort of exchange scheme. He is played, pretty well, by Lino Ventura. The first big surprise for him is that Morlar isn't quite dead from the bludgeoning he's suffered. He's rushed to hospital, while Ventura delves into his past.

A series of flashbacks follow. This isn't usually a good way to present information, but it's done fairly well. Morlar is played by Richard Burton and he has been seeking psychiatric help from Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick). We learn that, throughout his life, Morlar seems to have had a strange power to inflict harm on people who get on his wrong side. And in recent times his misanthropy has been increasing.

The murder mystery element of the story proves to be quite perfunctory, so to that extent my youthful instincts may have been on the right lines. We're dealing with telekinesis here, though (spoiler alert) the source of Morlar's powers is never explained, and I find that irritating. The later stages of the film turn into a dramatic attempt to prevent Morlar inflicting colossal harm on institutions that he despises, and these action scenes are pretty well done. The supporting cast is terrific - it includes Jeremy Brett and Michael Hordern as well as many stalwarts such as Harry Andrews, Philip Stone and Norman Bird. To sum up, an odd film based on what I suspect is an odd book by a writer who was attracted to oddity. But interesting enough to make me curious about Van Greenaway's other work and - at last! - ready to try reading him.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Curtains - a murder mystery musical

Image result for curtains musical

To write a murder mystery musical is a huge challenge. Blending a strong, well-plotted story with appealing music and a script which offers consistently high entertainment value is so difficult to achieve, it's no surprise that it's hardly ever been done. So I wondered what to expect when, last week, I went to the Liverpool Empire to watch Curtains. The Empire's a classy old theatre on Lime Street, but I've only ever been there once before, to watch Dionne Warwick in concert, many moons ago. It was a great venue for this production.

Curtains is a show with a complex and troubled history. The original idea was conceived by Peter Stone, an accomplished writer for tv, film, and stage. His scripts include Charade and the original film version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Apparently he also wrote a pretty obscure mystery musical, Death Takes a Holiday, before the end of his life. Curtains seems to have been started earlier, but was unfinished at the time of his death in 2003.

The plan was for the music to be written by John Kander and the lyrics by his regular partner, Fred Ebb. This pair were responsible for such classic musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as many others that weren't quite as successful. However, Ebb died in 2004, with the work still incomplete. (Incidentally, I gather that one of the duo's last projects was a musical based on Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit, a book I studied for A Level, and I'd love to see that one..)

The next step was to bring in the singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes, who has established a second career as a crime novelist and playwrigth and also wrote the Dickens-inspired musical Drood.  I've mentioned before on this blog my admiration for Rupert, who was kind enough to help me some years ago when I was working on a Lake District book, The Serpent Pool. He is multi-talented and was the perfect choice to write the book and help out with the songwriting. And it was fun to watch this musical of his performed only about thirty miles from his birthplace, in Northwich.

Curtains finally made it to Broadway in 2007. It received many award nominations and had a good run, although critical reaction was mixed, perhaps because of the production, perhaps because of critical snobbery. (And Rupert makes sure that critics get a real kicking in the script...) I'd hazard a guess that perhaps in 2007 some people were a bit less receptive to whodunits of this kind than they are today. The show faded from view but is now enjoying its first tour in the UK, after all this time, with Jason Manford in the lead, playing Lieutenant Choffi, supported by Carley Stenson, Rebecca Lock, Samuel Holmes, and Ore Oduba.

The show is a musical about a musical. A dire show called Robbin' Hood is having a pre-Broadway try-out when the dreadful female star is murdered. Enter Cioffi. He has plenty of suspects to choose from. Matters are complicated by the fact that he's a wannabe performer in a musical and also falls for a member of the cast. Before the end of the first act, another murder has been committed on stage...

I enjoyed the show enormously and I'm pleased to see that reviews of the UK tour have been extremely favourable. Rightly so. Jason Manford is excellent and the cast as a whole injects the show with the necessary energy (I can imagine that a lack of pace in the performances would present all sorts of problems, but there was an abundance of zest). The songs are pretty good, and sometimes witty. There's nothing in the same league as Kander and Ebb's Maybe This Time, but the songs do a good job of moving the story along, one of the major requirements in a show of this type. The result is hugely entertaining, and if you get a chance to see it, I can warmly recommend it.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Forgotten Book - Death of a Bookseller

Image result for bernard j farmer death of a bookseller

Bibliomysteries, in which books play a part in the story, are an interesting branch of crime writing. Otto Penzler has produced a slim volume which catalogues some of them. I've dabbled myself, given that Marc Amos and his books play a part (in some stories a significant part) in the Lake District Mysteries. And now I've read a much sought-after novel, first published in 1956, called Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J. Farmer.

I know it's sought-after because some good judges have been hunting down a copy for years. I came across a nice first edition in a dust jacket at York Book Fair at the start of this year. The only snag was that it was priced at £400 - yikes! I was not tempted to invest, but I have now read the story and it's rather enjoyable.

The author, Bernard J. Farmer was born in 1902 but I don't know when he died. He was at one time a policeman, but again I'm not sure for how long. However, it is clear that he was a keen book collector, and in 1950 he published a book about the subject. This novel, which was his third, and features his series character Sergeant Wigan, himself very keen on books, appeared six years later. Barzun and Taylor say that the prose style is flat, and there is at least a morsel of truth in this. But there is also some gentle humour and wry observation of human nature. They also say that Farmer wrote as Owen Fox, but I'm not sure this is correct. If anyone out there knows, I'd be interested to hear from them.

What I like about this story is that it's a compassionately told tale (with lots of bookselling lore) about a compassionate man, Wigan, trying to solve the murder of a friend. It's also a clock race story, as Wigan battles to find the truth before a man he believes to be innocent is hanged. The man in the condemned cell is rather well characterised - he's not at all likeable but the cop realises that doesn't mean the man is guilty. Wigan is concerned with justice as well as with books. This is a well-made traditional mystery of that kind in which George Bellairs specialised, and I was glad to read it. I'd also be glad to learn more about its author.