Saturday, 30 May 2020
Five young men discuss their plans for a holiday, which are rudely interrupted when one of them is cruelly murdered during a burglary that goes wrong. He'd favoured a hike in north Sweden, and the remaining quartet decide to do just that, as a tribute to his memory. It turns out, surprise, surprise, to be a poor decision...
Shortly after they set out, one of them suffers an injury. To save time, they decide to take a short cut away from the marked trail and through a dense forest. Big mistake. Spooky things start to happen, and when they take refuge from a storm in an abandoned cabin, things go from bad to worse. Something is going on in the woods, and it's no teddy bears' picnic...
Rafe Spall, a first-rate actor, leads a small, high-calibre cast which also includes Sam Troughton (grandson of Patrick). Joe Barton's screenplay, based on Adam Nevill's novel, is tightly written, with more sophisticated delineation of character than one finds in many horror films. Consistently watchable and definitely above average in its genre.
Friday, 29 May 2020
The story is told in the first person and framed, so that the narrator is speaking in the present and looking back on events of the past. We know that someone called Paul King has been killed but we don't know why or by whom. Most of the story takes the form of extended flashbacks as the narrator, Charles Maither, looks back to his first meeting with King, a fellow actor, and how King married the woman that Charles loved, another actor called Shirley. Charles then explains how he conceived a highly elaborate plan to win Shirley back.
It's not a spoiler to say that the plan was for Charles, in his new role as a publicity agent, to help King (a vain and handsome man with limited talent as an actor) to become a success, so that King became bored with dull old Shirley, leaving the way clear for Charles to reclaim her. Of course, things don't go quite the way that Charles planned.
In Michael Jago's interesting biography of Bingham, he says that the publishers were worried that they might be sued for libel by Richard Burton. Maybe Bingham revised the book to address this, because King didn't remind me of Burton at all. Jago also says that the publishers' reader found parts of the story boring. Because I like Bingham's crisp, readable style, I did not have that problem with the book. He was a genuinely engaging stylist in my opinion. A fairer criticism is that he lacked in-depth knowledge of the theatrical background, but on the whole I felt he did enough to make the setting credible.
I did, however, struggle with the premise. Bingham simply didn't make me understand Charles' obsession about Shirley. She is not terribly interesting at any point in the story, while Charlie is unpleasant and at times surprisingly stupid - a big disadvantage with a first person narrator. As for his plan to make Charlie famous and thus get hold of Shirley, I thought it crazy. Nor did the resolution of the murder plot, handled in a very casual way, satisfy me. The structure was clearly designed to build tension - or rather to overcome the inherent lack of tension in the story, but it didn't really work for me. There are some good scenes in which the police interrogate Charlie, but here Bingham was simply repeating what he'd done in more successful books such as My Name is Michael Sibley.
All in all, I can understand why this book didn't do particularly well on its first appearance, and why it has since slipped out of sight. So why did I rather like it, despite its manifest failings. The answer, as I say, is because Bingham knew how to write readable prose and was a talented storyteller. Even though this story isn't a strong one, I raced through it, rather than giving up because I was frustrated by Charlie's behaviour. Which has to be a positive sign.
Wednesday, 27 May 2020
It turns out that the film was made by Roland Joffe, a director of some distinction. He hired Barry, but they fell out, apparently because Joffe felt that Barry's music didn't quite capture the mood he was looking for. So I had to watch the film to figure out why. Having done so, the explanation has become clear. Barry thought he was writing music for a film a bit like Body Heat. Goodbye Lover is a crime film with plenty of twists. But it's primarily a black comedy. And in many ways it's a mess.
The film flopped on release, with the critics hating it, but I must say that it does have a number of redeeming features and despite myself I rather enjoyed it. The cast is very good, with Patricia Arquette funny as a femme fatale who is obsessed with The Sound of Music, and a great double act in the detectives - one is a hard-bitten woman splendidly played by Ellen De Generes, the other a naive young man who sees the good in everyone, even really evil people. Some of the dialogue is genuinely witty. And some of the plot twists are entertaining.
The trouble is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There are enjoyable scenes, but Joffe fails to knit them together in a way that's artistically satisfying. As a result, we lurch from one crazy situation to another, and have no real empathy with any of the characters. It's a great shame, because there were some nice ideas in the script. That was probably what attracted John Barry to the project. Perhaps Joffe would have been well advised to create something closer to the mood of the music that Barry wrote.
Monday, 25 May 2020
I'd like to welcome Antony Johnston to the blog. I first met Antony at a get-together to celebrate 30 years of the CWA northern chapter, and discovered that among many other accomplishments, he is the author of Atomic Blonde, filmed with Charlize Theron. Quite something. To celebrate publication of his new book, The Tempus Project, he's kindly written a guest post which I find quite fascinating. Over to Antony...
Friday, 22 May 2020
Sometimes it is rather harsh to describe the books I cover in this Friday blog post as forgotten But I don't think there can be any doubt that Richard Wiseman's First Person Plural qualifies for that description. It was published in Macmillan in hardback in 1975 and as far as I know it never made it into paperback. I don't know anything about the author (though I did know someone with the same name!) and as far as I know he wrote only one other crime novel, which was published by Hale.
I saw the book in a second hands shop and bought it on impulse, not knowing anything about it other than the tag-line: "Obsessive Love Led to Murder". I didn't have high hopes, for sure, but once I started reading, I couldn't stop. It's a short book, but I finished it very quickly indeed. It's certainly easy to read, and quite compelling.
The structure is clever. The story is told by three children, who are orphaned and left in effect to their own devices. I don't want to say too much about what happens, for fear of giving spoilers. The blurb calls it "a very unusual novel of suspense....The author displays marvellous invention and a compulsive narrative power..." This isn't an exaggeration. Wiseman may not have been an experienced crime novelist, but he could certainly write.
Interestingly, the novel anticipates a much more famous book with a similar scenario, Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. Of course, the story develops in a different way, and of course McEwan is a better writer, but I do think it's a shame that Wiseman seems to have sunk so deeply into obscurity. On this evidence, he deserved a better fate. There are flaws in this novel, but I'm definitely glad I read it.
POSTSCRIPT - thanks to Jamie Sturgeon, I've learned that Wiseman was a pen-name of Nick Bartlett, whose obituary is here: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2008/jun/20/1
Wednesday, 20 May 2020
The premise of the film is pretty straightforward. Half a dozen people from assorted backgrounds receive a puzzle cube which, when solved, results in an invitation to take part in an attempt to get out an escape room, with a $10,000 prize for the winner. This proves an offer too good to refuse, but it's entirely predictable (given a rather dramatic, although perhaps unnecessary, scene just before the opening credits) that they will soon regret their decision to take part.
They arrive at an office block and wait to be told about the game. However, it soon becomes clear that they can't get out of the waiting room, and that room begins to turn into an oven. Can they get out alive before they are roasted to death? And what on earth is going on?
Ordeal by oven is by no means the last of the challenges the group face. The connecting link between the six participants isn't revealed for quite a while, but it's quite a good one. In fact, I found the concept of the film as a whole quite appealing. Yes, it's hokum, but done with great energy. Taylor Russell and Logan Miller, the two leads, are very good and in fact the whole cast performs with conviction as their troubles mount. It's clear from the final scenes that a sequel is envisaged.
Tuesday, 19 May 2020
There was a common practice in those days of including American actors in leading roles in British movies for commercial reasons. Here, the star is Lloyd Bridges. He's travelling to the UK on a plane, to reunite with the woman he loves after six long years. Once he gets out of the plane, he offers a light to a fellow passenger. And then the other guy is shot by a marksman.
Our hero is grilled by the police, played by the reliable Alan Wheatley and that eternal Lothario Leslie Phillips. He's reunited with his girlfriend Pauline (Moira Lister), who seems oddly distant. The deceased, he is told, was a bad lot called Kendal Brown. Alas, it emerges that Kendal was mixed up with Pauline. And she wrote him some compromising letters. Tantalisingly, it seems that the content of those letters could result in her being sent to prison. However, we are never given further particulars.
There are some good actors in the supporting cast, including Rachel Roberts and a very young Jean Marsh. Lionel Blair also appears. The screenplay is based on a novel called Death on the Tideway by Anthony Verney. I've not been able to find out anything about this, and I just wonder if it was a short story rather than a novel. At all events, it's not a bad story. But that ending...
Saturday, 16 May 2020
So successful, in fact, that they were adapted for television. 22 episodes were screened in 1978-79. At the time, I only caught one or two episodes, and they didn't make a lasting impression on me. However, Talking Pictures TV have been screening the series, and rather to my surprise I've found that, even though some of the attitudes have inevitably dated, the stories hold up pretty well.
Much of this is due to Nicholas Ball's performance as Hazell. I don't think Ball has ever quite matched the success of this particular role, but he really handles very well the combination of cheekiness, wit, and vulnerability in the character. Interestingly, I've just given an endorsement to a non-fiction book which includes an interview with him. Anyway, Hazell does misbehave from time to time, but overall it's clear that his heart is in the right place. More or less.
Several good scriptwriters contributed to the series, including Tony Hoare, and there are a number of excellent performances in individual supporting roles from actors ranging from Clive Swift to Pamela Stephenson (who was, in fact, married to Nicholas Ball at one time). A regular character is the dour cop "Choc" Minty, played by Roddy Macmillan; it was his last role prior to his premature death. Another is Dot Wilmington (Barbara Young), for whom Hazell works in the early episodes, an early and interesting example of a lesbian character in a British television series. The theme song is performed by Maggie Bell with the same verve she later brought to the Taggart theme, and it even made number 37 in the charts. There is violence in many of the episodes, but it's not as brutal as The Sweeney. Yes, I've enjoyed watching Hazell forty-plus years on.
Friday, 15 May 2020
The setting is Lienz, a tiny Austrian province on the border of South Tyrol. After an introductory chapter which follows the release from prison of a brutish chap called Albin Boschetto, Gilbert switches focus, as we meet twenty-year-old Laura, who is in Rome, and about to travel to Lienz to meet her brother Charles, who is a diplomat.
One of the interesting features about this story, which I think was unusual at the time it was written, is that it's an action thriller with a strong and likeable female protagonist. Laura is a good character, and Gilbert's presentation of her is appealing. Before long, she witnesses an assassination, and although the local authorities have picked their own scapegoat for the killing, she insists that someone else was responsible. The tension mounts from there.
Like all Gilbert's novels, this one is written with great assurance. One of the quaint features is the absence of communications when Lienz is cut off from the rest of Austria by snow. No internet, no mobile phones, nothing like that. The sense of people being dependent on their own personal resources is strong in this story, and it makes for an entertaining read. When I first read it, as a teenager, I was slightly underwhelmed. Belatedly, I've revised my opinion. It's a pity that Laura never returned.
Wednesday, 13 May 2020
The hardback's dust jacket proclaims that it is a book of "New and Uncollected Short Stories." New? Well, they haven't previously been collected together in book form under Rendell's name, although one appeared in Winter's Crimes. But it simply is not correct to imply that these are "new" stories. Most of them were first published in the 1970s, and one of them, the splendid "The Irony of Hate", is discussed in some detail in Harry Keating's equally splendid book about the craft of crime writing. The most recent story was published more than a decade before this book.
Anyway, what of the book itself? It benefits from an intro by Sophie Hannah, who is like me a long-time Rendell fan, and the copyright page reveals that the selection was made by the very knowledgeable Tony Medawar. The contents are billed (more accurately this time) as "ten and a quarter stories" - the quarter story is just a few lines long, but it's neatly done. The story from Winter's Crimes, "A Drop Too Much", shows Rendell, unusually, in comic mode, and it's an entertaining biter-bit tale.
As for the others, they are a mixed bag. There are ghost stories, and also an interesting dystopian story, "Trebuchet", which deserves to be read more than once. It dates from the Eighties, and again it's best read if one remembers that it was written during the Cold War; even so, it has resonance today. There is also an intriguing and unusual story, "In the Time of his Prosperity" which I'm sure will stay in my mind. The novella "The Thief", alas, is a later work, and it rather illustrates Rendell's decline. Plenty of authors would be glad to have written it, but for such a superstar, it's pretty unconvincing. So, overall, this book is a mixed bag, but that is the nature of such things. I'm glad to have caught up with it.
Monday, 11 May 2020
Knives Out has attracted a lot of attention as a high profile film which is also in the vein of the traditional mystery. The cast is superb, led by Daniel Craig (sporting an unlikely American accent) and including such famous names as Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Frank Oz, and Christopher Plummer. Reviews and audiences have been very positive, and there is talk of a sequel being made.
Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a crime novelist who is cared for by a nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) has made a fortune from his books (well, it is fiction..) and who invites members of his family, in classic fashion, to his great mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. Needless to say, there is a lot of jockeying for position among the greedy and undeserving, and again in traditional manner the contents of Harlan's will play a central part in the story.
We know from the start that Thrombey is dead, but a good deal of mystery surrounds the precise circumstances. The police are willing to treat the case as one of suicide, but an unknown person hires the great private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) to investigate. Craig has a lot of fun in this part. He's an actor I really like, although I did struggle to get accustomed to that accent.
The film is written and directed by Rian Johnson and his screenplay manages to keep you interested in the plot while making points about greed, power, and entitlement. I find it very interesting that, many years after Alfred Hitchcock highlighted the difficulties inherent in filming whodunits, a young film-maker has shown that it's possible to entertain twenty-first century filmgoers with a puzzle mystery.
Friday, 8 May 2020
The pace of the story is leisurely, and at first I wasn't overly impressed, but gradually I began to find Ross's laconic prose hypnotic. The story is told in the first person by Jack, whose family farm in North Carolina isn't making any money. As a result he finds himself forced to work for Smut Milligan, who runs a petrol station which he soon develops into a roadhouse.
Smut is a brilliantly evoked character, a man not totally devoid of charm, but utterly selfish and extremely cruel. He involves Jack in a robbery which turns, during a very chilling scene, into a case of torture and murder. Equally shocking to a modern reader is the way the black characters in the book are portrayed; but Ross is telling us something important about the nature of race relations in the South during the Depression era. His observations about relations between men and women are equally acute: there is only one significant female character, a typical femme fatale, but there is a very funny scene when a group of men discuss an agony columnist's advice to young women.
Long before the story came to its bleak conclusion, I was persuaded that Chandler, Higgins and Woodrell were absolutely right to admire this book. It's not perfect - it was a first novel and Ross, disillusioned, never published another - but it's memorable. Woodrell describes it as "country noir", and it's an apt characterisation.
Wednesday, 6 May 2020
Anyway, I enjoyed my trip to watch Blow-Up, but I never got round to seeing The Passenger, which is perhaps Antonioni's most famous film. I've only just repaired this omission. The Passenger is sometimes described as a thriller, but that's a label so unhelpful as to be almost meaningless. And indeed, the glacial pace is distinctly unthrilling. But the basic idea is one that might well have come from Patricia Highsmith.
A journalist called Locke (Jack Nicholson) comes across Robertson, a businessman, while working on a documentary in Chad. The businessman dies suddenly (from a pre-existing condition) and Nicholson discovers the body. On an impulse, it seems, perhaps inspired by his resemblance to the deceased, Locke decides to switch identities with the dead man. He falsifies his passport and successfully becomes Robertson.
Among other things, he abandons his wife (Jenny Runacre), and finds himself embroiled in Robertson's murky business activities. He encounters a beautiful young woman (Maria Schneider) and they become lovers. But you can bet that if his purpose in becoming Robertson was to escape his old life and to find something better, he will be disappointed, to say the least. And so it proves. The film is beautifully shot, but the bleakness of its philosophy is depressing. I'm glad that I finally got round to seeing it, though. It's an interesting piece of movie-making, even if there's less to it than meets the eye or than its reputation suggests.
Monday, 4 May 2020
We're living in extraordinary times right now, encountering situations that none of us could have dreamed of a few short months ago. Writing and reading offer a very welcome form of escapism for many of us, and I'm not planning to write extensively about my experiences of lockdown or indeed to keep a lockdown diary. But among other things, this blog is about one person's take on the writing life and it wouldn't make much sense to ignore something as significant as the impact on lockdown.
Fortunately, I and my family have so far kept well, and when one sees the problems being experienced in some places, any difficulties I've encountered are really of little consequence. The biggest downside in terms of my writing life, apart from not being able to meet friends, has been that I'd arranged a very busy year of events and travel, and pretty much everything has fallen by the wayside.
But there have been upsides - including a chance to reflect on the simple pleasures of nature, as with the rainbow over Lymm Dam, above. I'd been acutely conscious that, because of all my commitments, I would struggle to meet my various writing deadlines. When it began to seem likely that there would be some kind of lockdown, I resolved to try to treat the problem as an opportunity. So, among other things, it's been possible to complete work on the proofs of the next CWA anthology, Vintage Crimes, and the Detection Club's hefty book about the art and craft of crime writing, Howdunit. The publication of Howdunit has, however, been delayed from June to September.
Given that there was to be no launch of Mortmain Hall or promotional events, I've also done my best to pursue opportunities to promote the book online. The big challenge has been to cope with unfamiliar technology - BeLive, Zoom, Facebook Live, and so on, and that hasn't been easy for a dinosaur like me. But I've been hugely gratified by the response to the book so far. The latest lovely review is by Lynne Patrick for Mystery People: https://promotingcrime.blogspot.com/2020/05/mortmain-hall-by-martin-edwards.html"
The biggest task was to crack on with the next Lake District Mystery. It's hard to credit that it's five years since The Dungeon House was published - so much has happened since I finished writing that one. The basic idea for the new book, The Crooked Shore, has been spinning around in my head for a long time, but some key ingredients only came to me late last year - including the setting (the top photo gives a clue as to how I solved this riddle). I felt I had a great concept but something was missing before then. Once I started writing it in December and I've finished the first draft. It took 137 days to write the book, the fastest I've ever completed a novel. I'll take another look at it soon to do some further revision, but I'm very pleased to have got to this stage and I'm pretty happy with the story. Certainly I feel that it's up to the standards of the earlier books in the series. And so, for all the drawbacks of lockdown, for me there have certainly been compensations.
Friday, 1 May 2020
This is a novel brimming with Golden Age tropes. We have an apparent "closed circle" of suspects, the seven people who regularly travel in the first class coach of the London to Brighton train, all of whom seem to have a reason to wish the eighth person dead. We have poisoning by strychnine. We have a character leading a double life. We have gossip and mischief-making in country houses. We have a disparity between the victim's legitimate earnings and his evident wealth. We have a scientific puzzle worthy of Austin Freeman. We have...well, you get the picture.
The lead detective is Doctor Manson, who is not only a scientific expert in the Thorndyke class but happens to work for Scotland Yard. The technical trickery at the heart of the plot is rather neat - as with the Cecil M. Wills book I reviewed here last week. Mind you, I was rather baffled as to why this particular group of seven suspects should travel so regularly with the unpleasant victim.
The Radfords only turned to crime writing in their fifties, but they became quite prolific. I enjoyed a passing reference to the then fledgling Crime Writers' Association - my guess is that members of the CWA at that time liked to mention it in their books in order to boost its public profile. In many ways, this book reads as though it was written in the mid-30s - it's very different from the kind of novel that Julian Symons and Margot Bennett were publishing in the late-50s, in terms of plot, characterisation, and prose style. And it's a reminder that, long after the Golden Age, there were still plenty of writers around who were working in the traditional vein.