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.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? - 1969 film review

No sooner did film audiences of the 60s discover the fate of Baby Jane than they had to find out the mystery concerning Aunt Alice's demise. What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? was produced by Robert Aldrich and based on The Forbidden Garden, a 1962 novel by the talented suspense writer Ursula Curtiss.

I've not read the book, although Francis Iles admired it, which is a good enough recommendation, so I've put it on my list. The film utilises the plot material for a black comedy about a homicidal widow, Claire Marrable, played with gusto and no little flair by Geraldine Page. She doesn't mourn the death of her husband, but isn't happy to find he's left her destitute. She moves to Arizona and seeks to solve her financial problems by hiring single women as housekeepers, getting them to entrust their savings to them, killing them, and burying them in her garden.

Although in many ways she really is not very bright, she pursues her m.o. with some success, until she hires a new companion, played splendidly by the redoubtable Ruth Gordon. We soon find out that she is really trying to figure out what happened to her predecessor in the role, who happened to be an old friend. A battle of wits between the two women ensues.

The plot complications are handled nicely and the two women in the lead roles are terrific, and although I tend to agree with the critic who thought that the script was underdeveloped, it is still entertaining. Apparently it falls within the sub-genre of so-called "psycho-biddy" films of its era. Hmmm....My main reservation was that Gerald Fried's soundtrack was obtrusive and didn't seem to fit. But that's a quibble. It's a good film. 

Monday 27 January 2020

The Lost Winner by Fei Wu

When I visited Shanghai last November my principal host was a young Chinese crime writer, Fei Wu (pictured above). I very much enjoyed our conversations and learned that, in addition to having a story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Fei was just about to publish, via CITIC Press, a detective novel of his own called The Lost Winner. But it isn't any ordinary detective novel. It's a story in three dimensions...

I haven't read The Lost Winner myself, and it has yet to be translated into English and my Chinese is non-existent, but I've seen the book and the associated materials, including a rather wonderful model of the crime scene which I believe contains its own clues to the solution.

British and American writers of the Golden Age made steps in this direction. One thinks of Evelyn Elder's Murder in Black and White, with clues in the illustrations, and of Francis Beeding's The Norwich Victims and the less renowned but very interesting No Fury, both of which contain photographs. And there are other examples, but nothing on this scale of ambition. The closest to it that I can think of are the Crime Dossiers of Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, starting with Murder off Miami, and the American versions of them, with compilers including Q. Patrick among others.

Fei Wu's book shows that the traditions of the Golden Age mystery are not only alive and well and enjoying popularity in unexpected parts of the world, but also that the tropes of classic crime are flexible and capable of ingenious adaptation. And, as the picture below suggests, construction... 

Friday 24 January 2020

Forgotten Book - Dread Journey

Dorothy B. Hughes was a first-rate writer, and my admiration for In a Lonely Place is unbounded. So when, in the splendid second hand bookshop at Carnforth, I spotted a copy of her 1945 novel Dread Journey, I couldn't resist. It's a book in which the action takes place during a long train journey, and really it blends elements from women-in-jeopardy novels and Murder on the Orient Express (but there's no snowdrift...)

I should say at the start that, although it's a well-written book, I struggled with the basic premise. Kitten Agnew, a shallow actress is terrified (and with good reason) that the wealthy Hollywood mogul Viv Spender intends to kill her during the course of the journey. Spender is a sociopath with a long track record of mistreating women, and his previous interest in Kitten has cooled - he's now turned his attention to someone else. But despite knowing that her life is at risk, Kitten wants to marry him, and persists in provoking him. Why? I wanted to scream. For all Hughes' skill, I unable to suspend my disbelief in the fundamental set-up of the story, and that was a drawback.

There are, however, some very strong elements in the story. The portrayal of Spender is interesting in the #MeToo era; one might conclude that Hughes, who knew about Hollywood men, was making a point that is not only powerful but unfortunately of enduring relevance. Her writing still resonates today. And her presentation of a black character who plays a significant part in the storyline is equally interesting and ahead of its time.

So there is much to enjoy in this book, recently reprinted by Otto Penzler in the US and thus readily obtainable, even if I don't rate it as highly as some critics do. But I'm certainly glad I read it. Hughes was not only a talented writer but a thought-provoking one.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

The Man Who Haunted Himself - 1970 film review

The Man Who Haunted Himself is a psychological suspense thriller movie starring Roger Moore. That sentence is by itself perhaps enough to furrow brows. Roger Moore was a big star but he wasn't  renowned for his acting range. Yet this low-budget 1970 film was a favourite of his and apparently he accepted a fee far below his going rate to appear in it. The supporting cast is impressive, with plenty of familiar faces from that era.

The story begins with Moore as Harold Pelham, a respectable businessman, leaving his office and setting off in his car. The sight of Moore in a bowler hat is an odd one, but things become odder as he seems to become crazed and drives his car off the road. He's badly injured and at one time it seems he's died on the operating table, but he recovers, apparently none the worse for the experience. There's a sad irony about the car crash, by the way. This film was the last to be directed by Basil Dearden (whose earlier work included such excellent movies as Sapphire and The League of Gentlemen), who died shortly afterwards - in a car crash.

Pelham is reunited with his wife (Hildegarde Neil), who is devoted, but despondent about his lack of interest in her sexually. In the office, there are further problems, with fears of industrial espionage (as so often in the movies, the business world is conveyed quite unrealistically - the discussion about a planned merger is rather juvenile). Before long people claim to have seen Pelham in places and at times when he was elsewhere. A beautiful photographer called Julie claims to be his lover - could he really have forgotten sleeping with Olga Georges-Picot? (an actress who had a very sad personal life, according to Wikipedia). His wife is unsurprisingly suspicious.

It seems Pelham has a doppelganger. But what precisely has happened? Moore's acting skills are tested to the limit - beyond the limit, to be honest - as Pelham's terror increases. The story's an interesting one, though, and although the film was not a success, it's been more appreciated in recent years. Yes, there are flaws, but the idea of split personality appeals to the imagination and this is one of those stories where a remake could work well. The original story was written by Anthony Armstrong and he developed it into a novel in 1957, The Strange Case of Mr Pelham

Monday 20 January 2020

White House Farm - ITV review

I can remember the sensation caused by the White House Farm Murders vividly, even though the tragedy took place way back in 1985. Five members of the same family were shot dead in a farm house in Margery Allingham country, the attractive Essex village of Tolleshunt d'Arcy. Few British murder cases in my lifetime have caused quite such a media frenzy or given rise to so much controversy. Jeremy Bamber was found guilty of the crimes, and is currently serving a whole life sentence. But he continues to protest his innocence.

This is the basis of the new ITV drams White House Farm, the first two episodes of which aired last week. The script is by Kris Mrska and draws on a book about the case by Carol Ann Lee and also a book written by one of the people who was closely involved with the real life events, Colin Caffell, the ex-husband of Sheila "Bambi" Caffell, one of those who died.

In a flashback in episode one, it's clear that Sheila (Cressida Bonas) is a troubled woman. She's split up from Colin, who is now involved with someone else, and they take their two children to the White House Farm, owned by Nevill and June Bamber, parents of Sheila and Jeremy (both of whom were adopted). There are hints of family tensions. And then the police get a call from Jeremy, claiming that his father has called him to say that Sheila is running amok with a rifle. When the police finally manage to get into the house, they discover the bodies.

It's a very shocking scenario and some reviewers have questioned whether it's a suitable subject for a TV dramatisation at all. I think there are real questions that need to be asked about TV shows (and, yes, books) which add dramatic spice to incidents in the lives of people who are still alive, but I don't think they are wrong in principle. The real question is whether the factual material is handled properly. On the evidence of the first two episodes, Mrska has done a fairly good job. The script isn't unnecessarily sensational - indeed it didn't need to be, given the real life events. However, the long, lingering shots of the countryside are perhaps over-done, even though they are well done.

So far, Freddie Fox has been very good as Jeremy Bamber, as has Mark Addy, playing the shrewd sergeant who begins to suspect that Sheila couldn't have committed the crimes. Stephen Graham, playing DCI Taff Jones as a pantomime villain, is a good actor in the wrong role. Many people have commented on the feebleness of his attempt at a Welsh accent and I'm afraid they are right. One other thing's for sure, if Jones were still alive, the laws of defamation would have ensured that he wouldn't be portrayed as such a bully and buffoon. I do feel rather sorry for his living relatives and this is the area where sensitivity of treatment is most important. This aspect of the script jars, but otherwise I've been gripped. 

Friday 17 January 2020

Forgotten Book - Vulture in the Sun

John Bingham began his career as a novelist with books featuring relentless police investigations, starting with My Name is Michael Sibley. In real life, he worked in intelligence rather than in the police, and perhaps the requirement for official secrecy deterred him, at first, from tackling the world of espionage with which he was familiar. But things changed with The Double Agent, and my Forgotten Book for today is another of his spy thrillers, written in 1971.

The setting of Vulture in the Sun is Cyprus, a beautiful island. I visited the Greek side of the island many years ago for a very enjoyable holiday, and thought then how sad it was that such a delightful place should be divided, with so much tension between the two communities. This novel is set a generation earlier, when tensions were at their height.

Our hero is Tom Carter, an agent who is sent out to the island by a ruthless boss called Ducane. We know from the start that Carter is going to become involved with a beautiful and mysterious woman, which was pretty much compulsory for the protagonists of spy novels in that era. Carter is sent out to provide short term back-up for a local agent called Frank Baker. But right from the start of his trip, things don't go to plan.

I liked the way this story cast light on the tense nature of life on Cyprus at the time, with various terrorist factions at work, sometimes cancelling each other out. Carter is rather thinly characterised, but the way that Bingham deals with antisemitism in the storyline is very interesting. It's a short, snappy thriller, and there are enough plot twists to keep one engaged after a rather quiet beginning. Well worth a look.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Locked Room Murders Supplement by Brian Skupin

I've talked on this blog, and also at many library events over the years, about my love of the late Bob Adey's wonderful reference book Locked Room Murders. (The photo of Bob above was taken by Jamie Sturgeon a few years back.) I acquired the first edition from a London bookdealer many moons ago, and then the second expanded edition when it came out. After I got to know Bob, he kindly inscribed them for me. These are not easy books to find nowadays and so Brian Skupin and John Pugmire did fans a great service when they produced a new and affordable revised version of the second edition via John's Locked Room International imprint.

And now, they have gone the extra mile and done something that many of us had hoped Bob might live to do, producing an update of the second edition that is wide-ranging and highly informative. Brian is the author and Locked Room International again the publisher. They call it a "Supplement" but perhaps that description doesn't fully convey the scale of the endeavour. This is a very substantial book in its own right, running to 326 pages. On Amazon UK, it's for sale at about £15, and if you're a locked room fan, that makes it an unmissable bargain.

Brian and John are eminently qualified to undertake this project. They are experts in the field, yes, but even more importantly they are enthusiasts, people whose love of the genre informs their judgements. Their anthology The Realm of the Impossible is fascinating and I can't believe that I've not reviewed it at length on this blog as yet - one of these days, I'm sure I will get round to it.

In the meantime, let me say how much I've enjoyed dipping into the Supplement. It ranges very widely, paying due attention to the work of Paul Halter and the Japanese writers who have worked such ingenious variations on the locked room form as well as to TV shows such as Jonathan Creek. Various contemporary British writers feature in at least one entry - examples include Simon Brett, Chris Fowler, Jim Kelly, Ann Cleeves, and Kate Ellis. I am sure that Bob would be delighted to see this book in print. Brian and John have carried on the baton in admirable manner.

Four of my own stories are included - they are all short stories, since I've never contemplated taking on a full-length locked room novel. At least not yet. Another story, "The Locked Cabin", is due to be included in a forthcoming anthology of locked room mysteries, edited by Maxim Jakubowski although I should say that this isn't itself a locked room mystery in the accepted sense, but rather a story about the idea of creating a locked room mystery - on board the first Queen Mary.

Monday 13 January 2020

Bunny Lake is Missing - 1965 film review

Bunny Lake is Missing is a film directed by Otto Preminger (whose masterpiece was Laura) in 1965. The screenplay is written by John and Penelope Mortimer, who were married at that time, and is set in London. The story is based on a novel by Evelyn Piper, published in 1957 and set in New York. What is more, although I haven't read the book, it seems clear from reviews that there are massive differences between film and book, not least the omission of one crucial character in the book from the screenplay...

Anyway, it's the film I'm talking about today and the first thing to mention is the high calibre of the cast. Laurence Olivier, no less, stars as Superintendent Newhouse, called in when an unmarried mother, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), panics because of the disappearance of her young daughter Bunny. Keir Dullea plays Ann's brother, while Anna Massey runs the garden school from which Bunny vanishes on her first day. The snag is that nobody seems to have seen Bunny and doubts begin to surface as to whether she actually exists....

Noel Coward, of all people, plays Ann's sleazy landlord, while Finlay Currie is an aged doll-repairer. There are parts for Clive Revill, Fred Emney, Victor Maddern, Megs Jenkins, Richard Wattis, and Adrienne Corri among others. Even the pop group The Zombies make an appearance in order to remind us that we are in the Swinging Sixties.

Paranoia and madness play a major part in this film, and in many ways (not only because it was filmed in black and white) it has a noir flavour, reminiscent of Cornell Woolrich up to a point, yet distinctive. The screenplay is, to my mind, too long and drawn out and the finale is melodramatic to say the least. But it's a film of genuine quality, even so. I gather that critical reaction was at first so-so, but Preminger's achievement is now more widely recognised. A remake is said to be in the works.

Friday 10 January 2020

Forgotten Book - The Marriage Bureau Murders

My interest in John Bingham and his work has led me to cover quite a few of his books in this blog over the past year or so. I admire the originality of his approach to crime fiction, while his ironic storylines made him, along with Julian Symons, the most important successor to Francis Iles of his generation. It's no surprise to me that Iles the critic also admired Bingham. As novelists, they were both risk-takers. And as my regular readers will know, I do like a crime writer who is prepared to avoid formula and take a few risks. Nobody could sensibly accuse John Bingham of being formulaic. Although certain elements recur, each book he wrote strikes me as pleasingly different from its predecessor.

Taking risks doesn't, alas, necessarily pay off. Bingham could write in a very readable style, but his unorthodox plots often depend on coincidences outlandish even by the standards of our coincidence-rich genre. His literary style involves a good deal of authorial intervention: too much for my taste. And occasionally his attitudes strike me not merely as dated but also as a bit odd.

The Marriage Bureau Murders was published in 1977, when his crime writing career was more than a quarter of a century old. He should have been at his peak, but I'm afraid this is a novel of a writer whose powers are in serious decline. It's a pity, because there's a very dark and unusual idea (about a voyeur of murder) at the heart of the story which, although exceptionally tricky to handle, might drive a powerful work of crime fiction.   

This book, however, is a misfire. Sidney Shaw sets up a "friendship bureau" as a means of getting his kicks, but what happens after he chances upon a sociopath who signs up with his bureau is so odd and unlikely that I found the whole bizarre business hopelessly unconvincing. Of course it's reasonable to ask readers of a crime novel to suspend their disbelief - I do so myself in books like Gallows Court, and so do many of my colleagues - but there must be a limit. There are plenty of stabs at black humour, and I suspect that Bingham was trying for the mood of Symons' first two "Man Who..." books, but although I'm a fan of black comedy, it doesn't really work here.

So I was disappointed with this novel, and can't recommend it. Even at the time of its appearance, the critics weren't impressed. Edmund Crispin, who liked Bingham and his work, described it as a "nadir", and I'm not surprised. Despite Bingham's past achievements, it sold few copies and I don't think it's ever been reprinted. Many of his books definitely deserve a second look. This one certainly has curiosity value, but not much else.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade is published by Faber and it's a rather lovely hardback. There isn't so much a dust jacket as a large wraparound half-jacket which reveals the attractive design of the cover  - representing the eponymous square, Mecklenburgh Square in London. The sub-title of the book is: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. A niche subject? Well, yes and no.

Francesca Wade, a Londoner, explains that she came across the Square by chance in 2013 and was astonished to learn that five women writers lived in the Square at roughly the same time in the early part of the twentieth century. She set out to discover what drew them there, and her findings became the raw material for this book. And the women? They were: H.D., a modernist poet, Jane Ellen Harrison, a translator, Eileen Power, a historian, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy L. Sayers. I freely admit that I was only familiar with Woolf and Sayers before coming across this book.

The author and I came into contact when she was researching Sayers and I was at once impressed with her thoughtful approach and the care with which she investigated her subject. As she mentions in a note at the end of the book, we met when she accepted my invitation to attend as a guest at a Detection Club dinner. I'm pleased to say that, having read this book, it lived up to my hopes and expectations. It's very well written and it's interested me in people of whom I was previously unaware.

As it happens, I've come across the Square myself in recent years, since it's not far from my son's flat, and very close to the Foundlings Hospital where I undertook some of my own research for Gallows Court. It's quite an impressive place, with a garden that isn't open to the public, and its history is fascinating. Francesca Wade has done an excellent job in tracing the unlikely connections between a quintet of women of distinction.

Monday 6 January 2020

The Maltese Herring by L.C. Tyler - review

If there's one thing more difficult than writing a successful humorous crime novel, it's writing a successful series of humorous crime novels. Not too many people over the years have managed to achieve this. In Britain one thinks of Colin Watson, possibly George Bellairs, and more recently Simon Brett. Over the last decade, Len Tyler has joined the list (and, more than that, become a leading exponent of the form) with his series about the hapless crime writer Ethelred Tressider and his ravenous agent Elsie Thirkettle.

The latest entry in the series is The Maltese Herring, recently published by Allison & Busby. As you might guess from the title, Len has this time decided to doff his cap not to Agatha Christie but to Dashiell Hammett. Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and company give way here to an assortment of Oxford dons who descend on Sussex in a hunt for a fabled golden statue.

As with Hammett (and Chandler, who is referenced several times), the discursive plot isn't the thing; it's the characters and the set-piece scenes that we remember. There is, for instance, a splendid opening at an Oxford college dinner (I hadn't actually realised, or else I'd forgotten, that Ethelred is, like his creator, an Oxford man), swiftly followed by a very funny encounter between Elsie and a fellow train passenger. And there are some great lines, several of which draw, as usual with this author, on experience of the crime writing life.

Thus we learn that Ethelred has recently joined the committee of the CWA (which Len himself chaired not long ago) and among the crime writing jokes and references there's mention of Ann Cleeves and a self-deprecating passage that alludes cleverly to one of Len Tyler's recent novels and captures his wry sense of humour perfectly:

"Well, that was a bit of an anticlimax. Not a Chandler or Christie plot, then. Who was good at anticlimax?
'L.C. Tyler,' I said to Ethelred, with a sudden flash of insight.
'Who?' he said.
'Don't worry, he's not that well known.'"

But of course he is well known, and deservedly so.

Friday 3 January 2020

Forgotten Book - The Deep End

Image result for fredric brown deep end

Fredric Brown had a lot going for him as a crime writer. He had a flair for plotting, was strong on psychological insight, and although he wrote a successful series, he was especially good with stand-alone novels, when one can never be sure what the protagonist's fate will be. His writing was often witty, his story structures innovative, and he had a gift for the short story. What more could any crime fan wish for?

The Deep End was published in 1952, not too long after the admirable The Far Cry, but it's very, very different - and almost equally as good as that fine novel. The setting is this time a small, unnamed city rather than a remote outpost of New Mexico, and the lead character is a young journalist, Sam Evans. One thing he has in common with George Weaver in the earlier book is that his marriage is on the rocks. At the start of the story, his wife Millie has departed on a sort of trial separation.

The story has a low-key beginning, but the tension gradually rises as Sam begins to suspect a connection between a series of apparent accidents that resulted in fatalities. One of the ways that Brown builds suspense is by splitting the book into ten sections, representing the successive days over which the events of the story unfold. As with The Far Cry, the end of the story echoes the opening paragraphs, but the effect is quite different. He really was a clever writer.

Jack Seabrook's excellent biography of Brown, Martians and Misplaced Clues (a recommended read) explains that Brown based the story on an earlier novelette rejoicing in the title of "Obit for Obie". Like many writers of his era, including Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, he was a great one for reworking material that had originally appeared in the pulp magazines. In the case of lesser writers, this can be a sign of laziness or lack of imagination, but the better writers, such as Brown, often showed considerable skill in reworking ideas, and exploiting their potential more fully. Certainly, The Deep End is one of the best books of a very good crime novelist.

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Happy New Year!

Image result for settling scores martin edwards 

Image result for mortmain hall

Much as I've enjoyed looking back over the past year in my last three posts, it's fun to look forward to what lies ahead in 2020. I wish all my readers good health and good luck in the year ahead. I continue to believe that our shared interest in crime writing is a powerful force for connecting and uniting people across the world, whatever their backgrounds. In an age when there are so many divisions of various kinds, I draw a great deal of inspiration from meeting people who are very different from me in many ways (and who may have different opinions about a lot of stuff) but are who also excited and enthused by the world of mystery.

This year is going to see the publication of several books that mean a good deal to me. First and foremost is Mortmain Hall, the sequel to Gallows Court (which incidentally has just started a Kindle deal promotion in the US on Amazon), due out in April. I loved writing Mortmain Hall and although I know from experience that is no guarantee of big sales, it's a book that means a good deal to me.

Very different is Howdunit, by members of the Detection Club, a masterclass on the art and craft of crime writing which will give manifold insights into the writing life. It looks as though there will be no fewer than 89 contributors, including almost all the living members of the Club. There's still a bit of work to be done on this one over the next couple of weeks, but the book is out in June and I'm delighted that an ambitious concept is due to become a reality.

Three books that I've edited will be published this year. Settling Scores is a British Library anthology of sporting mysteries, and there will also be another Crime Classic collection of Christmas mysteries. I'm also putting the finishing touches to Vintage Crimes, a CWA anthology showcasing stories through the lifetime of the CWA.

In terms of my own short stories, "The Locked Cabin" will appear in a Maxim Jakubowski anthology and "Temptation Street" will feature in EQMM at some point. There may well be others, along with an essay about "Plotting" in an academic tome that sounds very interesting, though I haven't seen the rest of the contents as yet.

There are plenty of events to look forward to, at festivals around Britain and also one or two events overseas. No wonder that, just at the moment, I'm busily writing. Need to get the next Lake District Mystery written before other things take over!

In short, 2020 promises to be full of good things and I also hope that I get the chance to meet some of you in person. As always, your comments and emails are very welcome, not least as a reminder that I'm not just talking to myself...

So once again, Happy New Year!