Friday 26 June 2020

Forgotten Book - The Little Lie

While I was reading Jean Potts' The Little Lie, I must confess that for quite a while I was in two minds about it. On the one hand, Potts's prose is very readable and I know that two excellent judges of a crime novel (John Norris and Kate Jackson) rate this story highly. On the other hand, I felt that the narrative was so low-key, I simply wasn't too excited about what was going to happen. But as I kept turning the pages, it began to dawn on me that this is, indeed, a top-class novel of suspense.

Suspense is the key word. Often, for example in the work of Cornell Woolrich or some of today's psychological thrillers, the author sets out to keep the suspense at fever pitch. This can work brilliantly, although sometimes it can also become rather exhausting. Jean Potts is at the other end of the spectrum, a quiet craftswoman who ratchets up the tension so gently that you hardly notice that you're being squeezed into a breathless state.

This book is one of two in another of those nicely produced volumes from Stark House Press, through whom I've discovered a number of gems lately. John Norris provides the introduction. The little lie of the title is told by Dee Morris, a landlady who has a bitter argument with her boyfriend, Chad. When Chad walks out on her, she pretends that nothing is wrong between them. However, the row has been overheard by one of her tenants, the nosey teacher Mr Fly.

Mr Fly is a great character, someone whose undeniable good intentions prove disastrous because they are accompanied by inquisitiveness and naivete. Potts draws him with great skill. For quite a long time, not a great deal happens, hence my initial reservations about the book. But a patient reader will reap a considerable reward. The later chapters are quite devastating. Definitely a novel to savour. I admit it - this is a book much subtler than at first I realised. 

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Lockdown Musings

The virus is still very much with us, but at least there are signs that British society is taking tentative steps back to some semblance of normality. And I'm continuing to do what I can to make good use of the time that I'd normally be devoting to events, festivals, and travel.

At present I'm working on revisions to the new Lake District Mystery, The Crooked Shore. I'm still reluctant to travel to the Lakes to do a final bit of scene-checking, but the book is now getting into reasonably good shape ahead of being sent to the editor. This one is rather different from earlier books in the series, with more emphasis on psychological suspense.

I've also been working on a couple of non-fiction projects, one of them speculative at present. More about these at a later date.

In the meantime, I've been doing what I can in terms of promotion, most recently on Monday, a Facebook Live chat with Mitzi Szereto about my essay on Dr Harold Shipman, the serial killer, "The First of Criminals":

And last but by no means least, I've been thrilled by a review of Mortmain Hall by A.N. Wilson, of all people. The Booker Prize-nominated author describes the book as: "an ingenious modern 'take' on the classic whodunnit...It's a winning formula...A whole page would not give me space to explain the intricacy of this story. A tangle of satisfying clues and a pleasing denouement in the classic Christie manner". Very pleased with that!

Monday 22 June 2020

Collecting Richard Austin Freeman

Whilst I was researching The Golden Age of Murder, I corresponded with David Ian Chapman, who had been introduced to me by a mutual friend as someone very expert in the work of R. Austin Freeman, a crime writer admired by Dorothy L. Sayers, T.S. Eliot, and Raymond Chandler (and many others, but that's not a bad trio to start with...)

I've never met David, but the information he supplied me was very helpful. This included fascinating insight into Freeman's coded journal, extracts from which David allowed me to publish in the book. Our hope was that someone would come along and help to decipher it. This hasn't happened as yet - Freeman's code is tricky! But I live in hope.

Anyway, it's only recently that I've acquired a copy, inscribed by David, of his bibliography of Freeman and also his biography of another author he's very interested in, William Le Queux. Le Queux was a fascinating character and I am planning to devote a separate blog post to David's very enjoyable study of his extraordinary life.

In the meantime, I've enjoyed the Freeman book, because I've collected a number of the author's novels and David discusses them, and their background, in fascinating depth. He also explains how he came to collect Freeman's work, and if you fancy collecting a crime writer, what he has to say will be of special interest. I'm in regular correspondence with a number of collectors in different parts of the world and my impression is that interest in the older detective stories is growing.

The lovely illustrations in Collecting Richard Austin Freeman, some of them in full colour, are in themselves a delight. If you're interested in Austin Freeman, do take a look at David's book. It was published two years ago by Highfield Press.

Friday 19 June 2020

Forgotten Book - The Broken Penny

Broken Penny : Julian Symons : 9780552082587

For all my admiration of Julian Symons as a novelist, as well as as critic and historian, one of his novels has always passed me by. Until now, that is. The book in question is The Broken Penny, first published in 1953, and Symons' only attempt at writing a political thriller. In the first edition of his Bloody Murder, Symons invited Edmund Crispin to comment about his writing, and Crispin - though positive generally - was less than enthusiastic about the book. I suppose that may have influenced me.

More recently, I discovered, to my surprise, that Symons had quite a soft spot for the novel, so I thought I'd give it a go. And I was even more surprised to discover that it's a good book, far superior to a good many thrillers I've come across. Interestingly, it seems that Symons based the central character, Charles Garden, very vaguely on George Orwell...

Garden is a man of 45, and has a history of political radicalism, although the war has left him somewhat disillusioned. It is the post-war period, when the map of Europe has been redrawn, and it seems that a small country - not named, but shaped like a broken penny - may offer a foothold for Britain and its allies who are concerned by the power of Russia. A man named Arbitzer from that country is now based in Britain, and he is seen as a suitable leader for a movement of insurgents.

Against his better judgement, Garden is persuaded to join Arbitzer and his family as they return to the Broken Penny, but the planned revolution rapidly unravels. A tale of one double-cross after another unfolds. It's all done rather excitingly, and it's not like any other Symons novel. I was impressed. The Broken Penny is a book of its time, but it's an entertaining story which deserves to be better known.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

The Salisbury Poisonings - BBC TV

Salisbury is a wonderful city that I've visited many times over the years. My last trip combined the pleasure of seeing family members based there with an appearance at Salisbury Literature Festival, and an overnight stay in the lovely Cathedral Close. But it was an unusual visit, because Salisbury was at that time in the process of recovering from a chemical weapons attack by a foreign power.

This was the extraordinary case of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a Russian father and daughter, who were found on a bench at the Maltings suffering from what proved to be Novichok, one of the deadliest substances on earth. Sergei Skripal was a former spy who had been the subject of an exchange deal with Russia eight years earlier and had made a new life in Salisbury. The Skripals eventually recovered well enough to leave hospital, and apparently they are now living under new identities elsewhere in the world. Another innocent victim was police officer Nick Bailey. A couple who touched a discarded perfume container, which had held the Novichok, were less fortunate. Charlie Rowley gave the perfume to Dawn Sturgess; Dawn died and Charlie continues to suffer the after-effects. The killers have never been brought to justice.

The BBC have just shown a three-part series about the case, written by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn. The focus of this version was on the handling of the public health crisis occasioned by the poisonings. Anne-Marie Duff gave her usual professional performance as the public health director whose quick thinking averted even more casualties. Rafe Spall was an empathetic Nick Bailey, while MyAnna Buring did a good job as Dawn Sturgess. Another high-calibre actor, Mark Addy, was given a small part as a friend of the Skripals.

The human cost of this tragedy, the horrific 'collateral damage' if you like, was huge, and that was the theme of the series. As far as it went, the script was competent and at times affecting. However, there were yawning gaps in the story. We learned practically nothing about the Skripals, since the people who were actually targeted by the killers hardly featured. Addy's character, for instance, told us very little about them, and I found this frustrating. What of their human tragedy? The writers ignored it. Maybe this was inevitable in the circumstances, but if you choose to write about such a case, it seems odd to discount the people at the heart of it. As a result, The Salisbury Poisonings felt like a story half-told. 

Monday 15 June 2020

H.R.F. Keating - A Life of Crime

H.R.F. Keating: A Life of Crime by [Sheila Mitchell]

There aren't many authors who publish their first book at the age of 94. And I bet there are even fewer whose debut is such a lively read as H.R.F. Keating: a Life in Crime, the biography of a notable crime writer and critic. But then the author in question, Sheila Mitchell, is quite a special individual. She's the ideal person to write the book, since she is Harry Keating's widow. And what is more, she is a very readable writer.

Harry Keating was an author I enjoyed reading long before I got to meet him. He was a highly successful novelist, winning two Gold Daggers as well as the Diamond Dagger. He was just as good as a short story writer. And I was a particularly big fan of his non-fiction, in particular his book  Writing Crime Fiction, a pithy piece of work, and one of the very best of innumerable how-to-do-it books, along with that marvellous compendium of information about the genre, Whodunit? If Julian Symons was Britain's leading crime fiction critic in the second half of the twentieth century, Harry was unquestionably the runner-up.

Sheila's book had the misfortune (believe me, quite a few of us know this feeling!) to be published during lockdown, and thus to emerge into the daylight without a formal launch, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable and informative study, published by one of the rising small presses in the US, Level Best Books. I first read the manuscript a few years ago, on Sheila's home computer, while staying at the lovely home she shared with Harry for more than half a century and I'm thrilled that it's now seeing the light of day.

There's an intro by the great Len Deighton, and (but don't let this put you off!) an appendix which is an essay by me. I wrote it in connection with Harry's being International Guest of Honour at Malice Domestic, back in 2005 and I remember with pleasure being invited to join him and Sheila on their table at the big gala dinner. Level Best has a strong connection with Malice Domestic, and so they do seem to me to be ideal publishers for this book.

What of the book itself? It's affectionate and entertaining and gives wonderful insights into the ups and downs of the crime writing life. As you read, you experience the frustrations as well as the pleasures that Harry experienced as a full-time author over the years, and this is salutary. Because he was a figure of great distinction in the crime writing world, not only in the UK but far and wide. Yet things didn't always run smoothly and Sheila explains this in a very balanced and thought-provoking way.

There are lots of interesting tit-bits. For instance, one thing I didn't know was that Harry wrote the novelisation of Neil Simon's Murder by Death. That must have been a fascinating project - it's a book I've never seen, but I now feel I really must seek it out. (I'm a big Neil Simon fan as well as a Keating fan.)

I hope this book will draw even more attention to Harry's very varied output; it certainly should. As for Sheila, her energy and determination to see this project through is entirely admirable. I'm so pleased, both for her and for Harry, that this delightful book is now available at last.

Friday 12 June 2020

Forgotten Book - Possession

Celia Fremlin was by no means a prolific novelist, but I've never read a book of hers that failed to impress me. When I spotted a paperback copy of Possession in a second hand shop, therefore, I snapped it up. The novel was published in 1969, and although it's not her best-known book, I found myself gripped as soon as I started reading.

The story is narrated by Clare Erskine, a married woman with two daughters who lives in London and enjoys nothing better than a gossip and scoring points off her friends. Fremlin portrays Clare cleverly, making clear her shallowness, and the gulf between her perceptions and reality, yet in a way that creates genuine sympathy for her.

Clare is thrilled when her older daughter, nineteen year old Sarah, breaks the news that after worrying her mother with a string of unsuitable boyfriends, she plans to get married to Mervyn Redmayne, an accountant. But when Clare boasts to her friends, she starts to learn things about Mervyn and in particular his mother which give her some cause for concern. Clare being Clare, she brushes off any worries, but it soon becomes evident that there is something deeply unhealthy about Mrs Redmayne's personality.

The title of the book is also its theme. Fremlin is very good at conveying the nature of possessiveness of various kinds, and the harm it can do. Her skill at social observation is outstanding and we get a splendid insight into middle-class London life at the end of the Swinging Sixties. There is much brilliance in this novel, although I must say that I felt the final part of the story did not make the most of the set-up she created. Had it done so, I would have classed this book as a masterpiece of psychological suspense. It's not quite outstanding, but it's very enjoyable, and in its quiet way very dark.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Knife in the Water - 1962 film review

Knife in the Water was Roman Polanski's first feature film and it earned him an Oscar nomination. The title intrigued me and I decided to take a look at it. I'm glad I did, because although the story is a straightforward one, and it would be a stretch to call this black and white movie a crime film, it's certainly strong on suspense and atmosphere.

Andrzej, a middle-aged sportswriter and his younger wife Krystyna are out driving one day when they come across a young hitch-hiker, whom their car nearly hits. Andrzej starts talking to the young man, whose name we never learn, and offers him a lift. They arrive at a lake where the couple are to go sailing. Andrzej invites the young man to join them, and he accepts.

What follows is a sort of duel of contrasting personalities and lifestyles. Andrzej is a show-off, but perhaps past his prime, and once Kyrstyna puts on her bikini, it's foreseeable that the young man will take an increasing interest in her. He's a free spirit, and the two of them have something in common. But she's become accustomed to the good life.

This is a spare, subtle film, and although you could say that it's slow, and that not much happens, I didn't mind that. The focus is on the quiet interplay of the characters, the shifts of power, the revelations of personality. Overall, this is a film which deserves its reputation and which hasn't suffered too much through the passage of time.

Monday 8 June 2020

The Arrival of Miriam Ackroyd

In advance of the publication of Mortmain Hall, I was invited to contribute an original new short story in the Golden Age vein as a promotional exercise. The commission came from My Weekly, a magazine that I must confess I wasn't familiar with, and the brief was quite a challenge, because the word count was tight - the story had to fit into two pages of the magazine.

However, I found myself tempted, remembering that my very first published crime fiction was a very short (one page!) story for Bella, in the long gone days when that magazine published stories. I'd won a contest judged by Bella's fiction editor, and I can still remember how excited I was. And with that in mind, I decided to have a go.

I was clear that it wasn't practicable to write a story about Rachel Savernake and Jacob Flint. Their cases tend to be pretty complicated and I couldn't see how I could pare a story about them down, even if only one of them featured. So after some thought I decided to create a new character. And I called her Miriam Ackroyd, in tribute to...well, any detectives among you can easily guess!

The story was called 'Respect and Respectability' and it was published in the June 2 issue of My Weekly - and rather splendidly illustrated, too. Despite its brevity, I've received very good feedback and I've been invited to write more about Miriam. Whilst I don't have any specific story planned at the moment, I did enjoy writing about her, so it's quite likely she'll make a comeback one of these fine days.

Friday 5 June 2020

Forgotten Book - The Wife of the Red-Haired Man

I wrote recently about Bill S. Ballinger's excellent The Tooth and the Nail, which appears in a new volume published by Stark House Press. In the same edition is another of Ballinger's novels from the 1950s, The Wife of the Red-Haired Man. This too is told in Ballinger's trademark  narrative style, with one storyline presented in the first person, another in the third.

The similarities end there. The Wife of the Red-Haired Man isn't an ingenious puzzle, but a book in the old tradition of the story about the hunter and the hunted. Here the emphasis is on presentation of character and on the relentless building of suspense. It's fair to say that Ballinger masters these skills just as he did the skill of bamboozling the reader in the earlier book.

The hunted are a couple, a man called Rohan and a woman called Mercedes Turner. Rohan is an escaped convict and Mercedes is devoted to him, although at the start of the story she has inconveniently (and rather strangely, I thought) married a rich hoodlum. Murder is committed, and the pair go on the run.

The hunter is a police officer who is assigned to the case and follows them with a relentlessness worthy of the cop in The Fugitive. The meticulous care with which he investigates every lead is progressive. And right at the end of the book there is a revelation about him which is very well done and puts what we have read in a slightly different light. Another good novel by Ballinger and it's pleasing to see it back in print.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Twilight - 1998 film review

Twilight, a crime film originally released in 1998 is an entertaining but slightly curious film. Curious because its ingredients are of high quality, yet one feels that more could have been made of them. The script offers a private eye's investigation, a mystery with its roots in the past, touches of comedy and moments of violence, and a meditation on friendship. Richard Russo, one of the writers, is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Yet at times the story seems under-powered.

The cast is brilliant. Paul Newman is a veteran gumshoe who, at the start of the film, rescues a teenage girl (Reese Witherspoon) who has run off with a young man to Mexico. After the credits roll, the story moves two years on. Newman is staying with the girl's wealthy parents, played by Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon, both of whom are former film stars. Hackman's character is dying of cancer; Newman fancies Sarandon; the scene is set for all manner of complications.

Newman finds himself looking into the mysterious disappearance of Sarandon's former husband. Does she, or her new husband, have something to hide? You don't have to be Sam Spade to figure out that the answer is yes, but the more interesting and nuanced question is: who, precisely, is guilty of what? Does Newman's old pal, another ex-detective, played by James Garner, have some of the answers?

The soundtrack is by Elmer Bernstein, and it's clear that a lot of money was spent on this film. It wasn't a box office success and yet it's perfectly watchable. I felt, however, that a tighter script would have made the movie more memorable. Some of the gentler and amusing moments seemed to belong in a different film. Perhaps the writers were simply trying to do too much.


Monday 1 June 2020

Bedelia - 1946 film

Laura is, by a country mile, Vera Caspary's most famous book; it also made a memorable film. I've mentioned before my interest in Caspary's other work, and I've now caught up with the 1946 film made of Bedelia, which is perhaps her next best novel, published the year before the movie was released. The novel (currently waiting on my tottering TBR pile) is a history-mystery, set in 1913 in Connecticut.

The film was produced by Caspary's husband, Isadore Goldsmith, but the action was updated to the present, and the locations switched to Monte Carlo and England. Caspary seems not to have been thrilled by the changes, and although she's credited as a co-writer of the script, apparently she wrote an alternative screenplay based on the novel, which was never made.

Given the success of Laura, Bedelia promised to be a big hit and several big names were touted for the role of the title character. The part was eventually played by Margaret Lockwood. She does a very good job as a glamorous but utterly ruthless and selfish murderer who kills doting husbands for their life insurance. Things start to unravel, however, when suspicions are aroused.

The supporting cast, I think it's fair to say, does not dazzle. Ian Hunter plays her likeable but dim husband Charlie while Barry K. Barnes is Ben Chaney, who poses as an artist while trying to gain evidence of Bedelia's crimes. I felt that the story maintained interest to the end, but lacked the intensity of suspense that would have lifted it into the first division. There are some interesting themes in Caspary's work, notably the role of the career woman. Bedelia makes a career out of murder, but there's no real attempt to explore her psychology. This is disappointing, but there's enough merit in the story, and in particular in Lockwood's charismatic performance, to make it well worth watching.