Monday 30 March 2020

Promoting Mortmain Hall

Mortmain Hall is published by Head of Zeus on Thursday. For me, it's an exciting moment, and a book I really care about enormously. But as you can imagine, plans have changed rather dramatically in recent week, as they have for everyone else in the world. I was scheduled to appear at a variety of events at Southport, Chester, and York, over the past few days, with a festival at the University of Chester next weekend. Of course all these events have cancelled now, as have all my events for several months ahead. I'm so sorry that I won't have the chance to meet those who had booked. Never mind, many of the events are going to be rescheduled when the current turmoil is (one hopes) behind us.

As far as Mortmain Hall is concerned, naturally the focus has now shifted to various forms of online promotion. And like so many other people (and there really are a lot of inspirational folk out there), I'm trying to find ways of doing something positive rather than simply feel overwhelmed by the strangeness of what is happening. I've also been very glad to hear from a number of friends from around the world (including some of the nice people I met in China, who have been living through this experience for longer than those of us in the west). Everyone's adapting in their own way.

One experiment I've tried is making videos about detective fiction topics. The first one, about Cluefinders, has just been inflicted on an unsuspecting world, and I've been gratified by the reaction to it. So gratified, in fact, that I've been working on a couple more videos, which will air in the near future.

I've also set up an Author Page on Facebook as a means of connecting more widely. I'm no expert in these things, but I believe you can access it even if you're not on Facebook yourself. Here is a link -  Or simply google Martin Edwards, author, Facebook

Midas, the publicists hired by Head of Zeus to help to promote the novel, have kept me busy in a variety of ways. I've been hard at work on articles for Writing Magazine, Crime Time, Shots, and several blogs, and I've guest edited the summer edition of NB Magazine. I've also written a new Golden Age short story for the magazine My Weekly.

And there is an extensive blog tour - no fewer than 27 bloggers have been kind enough to take part - amazing! I'm really grateful. More of that another day, but in the meantime I should say how delighted I am by the reaction of the first two bloggers to have reviewed the novel.

Vincent kicked off the blog tour with this">lovely review
 saying "Mortmain Hall has to be one of the best mystery books I have read". Wow...
And there's also a very nice">review
from Dr Alice Prescott.
So I'm in good heart and I'm pleased the reviewers are picking up on the dark humour. This wasn't much of a feature of Gallows Court, but it's much more significant in Mortmain Hall, and was one of the ingredients that gave me a lot of pleasure during the writing.

Sunday 29 March 2020

Guest Post - Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson first came to my attention as the author of an admirable biography of Patricia Highsmith. More recently, he's established himself as a popular author of crime novels starring Agatha Christie. He has a new book out - the paperback appeared on the same day as the hardback of Mortmain Hall, and like me he's keen to make sure that the absence of a launch and supporting events don't mean that the book disappears without trace. I'm sure it won't and I'm delighted to host this guest post about the two female crime writers in his life:

"The two writers stand at the opposite ends of the crime writing spectrum. Christie, still the world’s bestselling novelist, is known for her cosy reads, murder mysteries which often end with the death, suicide or arrest of the murderer. Highsmith, meanwhile, is famous for her creation of Tom Ripley, the psychopath who charms and beguiles the reader into identifying with him and who repeatedly gets away with murder.

Christie started writing crime during the First World War, a time when the world needed the comforts that could be supplied by the reassuring form of the whodunit. “The enemy was wicked, the hero was good: it was as crude and as simple as that,” Agatha wrote in her autobiography. “I was, like everyone else who wrote books or read them, against the criminal and for the innocent victim.”

Contrast this with what Highsmith noted in her diary, as she was penning The Talented Mr Ripley, published in 1955. “What I predicted I would once do, I am doing already in this very book (Tom Ripley), that is, showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and thus rejoicing in it. I shall make my readers rejoice in it, too.”

The two women were born decades and continents apart; indeed their backgrounds could not be more different. Christie, raised in an upper-middle-class family in Torquay, Devon in 1890, had an idyllic childhood. Highsmith, however, born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921, said she was “born under a sickly star”.  Mary, her mother, attempted to abort her by drinking turpentine; when the termination proved unsuccessful her parents divorced. Then, when Highsmith was four or five years old, it seems that she was sexually abused by two strangers at her grandmother’s house in Fort Worth. She grew up with such a loathing of her stepfather, Stanley Highsmith, that she dreamt of murdering him. “I learned to live with a grievous hatred very early on,” she said. “And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions. All this probably caused my propensity to write bloodthirsty stories of murder and violence.”

In Christie’s autobiography, published a year after the author’s death in 1976, the writer analysed how crime writing had changed over the course of the twentieth century. She remembers being shocked by the character of Raffles, the gentleman burglar created by E.W. Hornung, whose brother-in-law Conan Doyle had told him, “You must not make the criminal a hero.” 

For her part, Highsmith loathed what she perceived as the cozy, nostalgic world of novelists such as Christie, whose books she regarded as nothing more than a kind of animated algebra. “I think it is a silly way of teasing people, who-done-it,” she said of the detective novel. “It is like a puzzle, and puzzles do not interest me.” 

When I began my series of novels with Agatha Christie as sleuth I wondered whether it would be possible to draw on these two very different traditions. The first in the series, A Talent for Murder, is a fictionalised account of Christie’s real-life disappearance in 1926. In that novel, Agatha is being blackmailed by a sinister GP, Dr Kurs, who wants her to commit a murder on his behalf, an idea which Highsmith explored in her debut Strangers on a Train. “You, Mrs Christie, are going to commit a murder,” Dr Kurs says to Agatha. “But before then you’re going to disappear.”

During the course of the novel Agatha is also manipulated by another man, John Davison, of the British Secret Intelligence Service, who recognises Christie’s potential talent as an agent. If A Talent for Murder deals with Agatha’s recruitment into the SIS — she suffers in a way that makes it emotionally necessary for her to join forces with Davison — then the rest of the series focuses on how she uses her skills as an expert plotter of fiction in solving crimes. And although these are classic Christie-inspired whodunits — a form which is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment — I hope I’ve invested them with just the right amount of Highsmithian darkness too." 

  • Death in a Desert Land is the third in Andrew Wilson's Agatha Christie adventures and is published in paperback on 2 April (Simon & Schuster, £8.99). The other novels are A Talent for Murder and A Different Kind of Evil. The fourth book in the series, I Saw Him Die, is published in hardback in August. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith is published by Bloomsbury.

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.