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

Image result for cwa diamond dagger

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.