Friday 31 July 2020

Forgotten Book - The Red Scarf

The Red Scarf / A Killer is Loose: Gil Brewer, Paul ...

Many years ago, I remember hearing good things about The Red Scarf by Gil Brewer, but I've only recently laid my hands on a copy, thanks to Stark House Press, who have republished it together with A Killer is Loose in a volume introduced by Paul Bishop. Once again, Stark House have been responsible for the rediscovery of a first rate novel - if A Killer is Loose, which I have yet to read, proves to be as good as The Red Scarf, it will be quite something.

At first, it seems that we are in James M. Cain territory, as the opening is suggestive of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The story is narrated by Roy Nicholls, and we meet him as he is dropped off in the middle of nowhere by a truck driver who has given him a lift. He finds a nearby bar and there he encounters a glamorous young woman, Vivian, and her deeply unpleasant boyfriend Noel Teece.

From there, the story develops a personality of its own. Brewer uses familiar tropes - the decent guy who is so financially hard-pressed that he finds himself contemplating crime, the uncomprehending wife, the femme fatale, the unscrupulous gangster, the sceptical cop, the suitcase full of alluring banknotes. And so on. But Brewer uses these elements to fashion an extremely gripping story.

It's all the more gripping because it is short. So often, writers forget that less is more (especially when writing modern television serials) but Brewer was adept at maintaining a relentless narrative pace. There's one first-rate surprise development, and a satisfying conclusion. The merit of The Red Scarf is not originality, but the skill and economy with which an exciting story is told. I'm very glad I caught up with it at last.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

The Finisher by Peter Lovesey - review

The Finisher (Peter Diamond Mystery) by [Peter Lovesey]

The Finisher is not merely the 19th novel in Peter Lovesey's highly successful series about Bath cop Peter Diamond. Its appearance marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Peter's award-winning debut novel Wobble to Death. And very cleverly, Peter has returned to a key theme from that first novel and given it a fresh spin. The 'wobble' was a Victorian race, and The Finisher deals with present day half-marathon running. It's a great way to celebrate a literary career of sustained achievement.

The storyline is constructed with such cunning that I don't want to say too much about it, for fear of giving too much away. I was hooked right from the first two sentences: "The city of Bath isn't all about Roman plumbing and Georgian architecture. It offers unrivalled facilities for getting rid of unwanted corpses."

We're promptly introduced to a ruthless killer known as the Finisher (and "finishing" is a concept used astutely throughout the story) but then events move forward in quite a discursive way, as Lovesey constantly teases us with different possibilities about what might happen next. Not just who is the killer, but who might be killed. I have a particular, if inexplicable, enthusiasm for crime novels with underground scenes, and there is plenty in this book to satisfy that taste - there's even a "tunnel of death". There's much else to enjoy, including a good deal of humour, with a lovely, sly P.G. Wodehouse joke.

This is a story firmly set in the present day (or at least the immediate pre-pandemic present day!) but Peter Lovesey's storytelling skills, and certainly his gift for constructing a fair play puzzle, match those of the finest exponents of Golden Age fiction. As a bonus, there is a delightful map in the classic tradition. Even though I've followed Peter's career closely since my student days, I found the afterword, "Running into Writing", informative and enlightening. I won't pretend that I share Peter's enthusiasm for running, any more than I shared Dick Francis's devotion to horse racing. The gift of both men is an ability to write about their passions in a way that attracts even sceptics like me.

I often think of Peter in connection with two writers born in the same year, Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard. Three delightful men, three outstanding crime novelists (and equally accomplished writers of short stories and non-fiction). Three superb entertainers, in short. Now, alas, there aren't any new novels by Reg or Bob to look forward to, so there is all the more reason to appreciate the consistent excellence of Peter Lovesey's work. He is more than entitled to rest on his laurels after such a career but I find it thrilling that he continues to write so inventively and with such panache. Long may he continue to do so.

Monday 27 July 2020

New artwork for Gallows Court

Gallows Court: a gripping historical murder mystery set in 1930s London by [Martin Edwards]

Today - a cover reveal of a slightly unorthodox sort. The artwork for the UK edition of Gallows Court has been given a makeover. This is, in a nutshell, because Ed Bettison's cover for Mortmain Hall has received a great deal of acclaim. As a result, my publishers in Britain, Head of Zeus, decided that it would be a good idea to commission fresh artwork for the first Rachel Savernake from Ed. And this is the result. As you can see, it's very different from the original artwork, and very much in keeping with the approach that Ed adopted when working on Mortmain Hall.

I find this absolutely fascinating. I'd never appreciated the importance of book covers until that fateful day when a rep from my first paperback publisher, Transworld, told me that in his job they mattered more than the content! This came as quite a shock to a young novelist who'd just had his first book published. But even if he was exaggerating, there was a kernel of truth in what he said from a commercial point of view. Much as authors may not want to hear it, artwork is crucial in helping to market books, and is very relevant to the commercial proposition. And nowadays the artwork has to be effective as an online thumbnail icon as well as in reality. Not easy...

I must say that I did love the original artwork for Gallows Court, and the publishers went to a great deal of trouble in their efforts to get it right. They also did a brilliant job with the special limited edition, which didn't have a dust jacket, but was quite beautifully bound. The paperback cover was a sort of homage to the Crime Classics, and again a lovely picture. But much as I loved those first edition images (and I did), I must say that the enthusiasm with which readers and reviewers have, without any prompting, reacted to the Mortmain Hall cover has been remarkable. Hence this new look. 


Friday 24 July 2020

Forgotten Book - Too Much of Water

Bruce Hamilton, the brother of Patrick Hamilton, was an interesting and under-estimated novelist whose career as a crime writer lasted for more than a quarter of a century without ever really earning him a significant reputation. I've written about him several times, here on this blog, in The Golden Age of Murder, and in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, but I've not found many other fans of his work - although I live in hope!

After a long silence, he produced a final novel in 1958, which was very much a nod to the Golden Age of detective fiction. This was characteristically idiosyncratic, given that during the Golden Age itself, he'd never bothered with the conventional whodunit. I first read the novel many years ago, and was rather underwhelmed by it. So I decided it was about time I gave Too Much of Water (the title is a quote from Hamlet) a second chance to make a good impression.

This is a cruise mystery - the good ship Goyaz is sailing from Liverpool, via Portugal, to the West Indies. In classic fashion, a plan of the three decks is included. We are introduced to a motley assortment of passengers, and Hamilton's interest in cricket and also in music is evident in the text. (He makes passing mention of Eric Blom, the music critic; whether he was aware that Blom wrote Death on the Downbeat, an interesting mystery novel published as by Sebastian Farr, I don't know, but I suspect he didn't.)

I wanted to love this book, but I feel compelled to say that I didn't. It's well-written, and the characters and setting are competently realised, but there is a lamentable lack of pace and even (despite the number of mysterious deaths that occur on the ill-fated ship) suspense. When one reads, say, Death on the Nile, one is excited by the mystery, if one is a whodunit fan. Here, I'm afraid I wasn't excited at all. I'd even forgotten that Hamilton borrows (with due acknowledgement) a plot device from Agatha Christie. Alas, he doesn't handle it anything like as well as the Queen of Crime. There's a nice twist at the end, but it's not enough. All in all, this is a book that sums up why Hamilton was one of the genre's nearly men.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Stage Fright - 1950 film review

Stage Fright is one of Alfred Hitchcock's less well-known films. I watched (and reviewed) it eleven years ago, but perhaps significantly, I found when I looked at it again that I'd forgotten all about it. The script is based on Man Running, a novel by the British writer Selwyn Jepson, whose father Edgar was himself a writer of some note whose output included a number of crime books and who was an early member of the Detection Club. I haven't read the source book, though I gather that Hitch made drastic changes to the storyline, as was his wont.

The first thing to say about the film is that the cast is impressive. Marlene Dietrich plays Charlotte Inwood, an actress whose husband is murdered. Richard Todd plays Jonathan Cooper, her lover. There are also parts for Sybil Thorndike, Miles Malleson, Andre Morell, and Ballard Berkeley (now remembered fondly as the Major in Fawlty Towers). At the start of the film, Cooper tells his friend, an aspiring actress called Eve Gill (Jane Wyman, whose five marriages included one to Ronald Reagan) about the way that Charlotte's behaviour led to his being suspected of the murder, which she committed. We see his version of events in a lengthy flashback.

After Jonathan flees from the police and takes refuge with Eve and her father (Alastair Sim), Eve starts to play detective. This brings her into contact with a likeable cop called Smith (Michael Wilding), who is hunting for Cooper. Although Eve is devoted to Cooper, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Cooper, while using her acting skills to inveigle her way into Charlotte's household.

This is an entertaining film, as you'd expect from Hitchcock, but it's also flawed. The decision to cast Wyman, who makes no discernible attempt to conceal her American accent, as the daughter of Alastair Sim, strikes me as bizarre. It may have made crude commercial sense, but artistically it was foolish. More serious, though, is the way the audience are deceived about what has happened - the antithesis of fair play. Years later, when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted that in misleading us as to what has happened, he'd got it badly wrong. I agree. So while Stage Fright is perfectly watchable, it's also somewhat disappointing.

Bodies from the Library 3 - edited by Tony Medawar

Bodies from the Library 3 eBook: Medawar, Tony: ...

I've mentioned Tony Medawar before on this blog as the leading researcher of obscure crime fiction. He's a great fan of Golden Age mysteries who has uncovered some fascinating material over the years. An example was the Agatha Christie competition story "Manx Gold", which fascinates me. Tony is currently developing a niche as an editor of story collections, including the Bodies from the Library series, which has now reached its third installment. In addition, he's become the supremo of the Agatha Christie International Festival in Torquay, an event I was eagerly anticipating until the pandemic intervened.

I have a vivid memory of my first encounter with Tony. It was at the London Bouchercon, way back in 1990, before I'd published a single piece of crime fiction. We happened to be contestants in a Mastermind quiz. The quizmaster was Maxim Jakubowski, himself a supremely prolific and versatile anthologist. The score was kept by Geoff Bradley, the editor of CADS. On that pleasant afternoon I never imagined that, thirty years on, Geoff, Tony, Maxim, and I would still be in regular contact, having all sorts of criminal conversations. These are three people from whom, in different ways, I've learned a lot.

The other contestants in the quiz, by the way, were Jim Huang, an American crime fan, and the writer Sarah J. Mason, who also took part with me in a re-run of the quiz at the 1995 Nottingham Bouchercon, along with two very knowledgeable Americans, Marvin Lachman and Edward D. Hoch. There is discussion about the quizzes in Marvin's admirable book The Heirs of Anthony Boucher.

Turning to Bodies from the Library 3, like its predecessors it is a mixed bag, with the main connecting link that most of the stories are unknown or little-known efforts by Golden Age writers. (Six stories are also linked by a theme: an orange that saves someone's life, of all things. Of these little tales, Ethel Lina White makes the best attempt to come up with a strong story.) I'd already come across a handful of the entries in the book, including an extremely good Agatha Christie, "The Incident of the Dog's Ball". There are extensive notes about the contributors, and I was especially pleased to learn more about the enigmatic Lynn Brock.

One of the best stories, I felt, came from that talented but rather inconsistent writer Christopher Bush. "The Hampstead Murder" is pleasingly different, and I really liked it. Bush wrote far too much, but this story shows just what he could do on a good day. There's also a story by Christopher St John Sprigg, which makes use of his interest in aeronautics, although this particular mystery is not in the same league as his novel with a similar background, Death of an Airman.

There are a couple of stories by American writers, and two plays, including one by Ngaio Marsh that was previously unknown to me. Although most of the stories have been published before, this was often in obscure magazines (as with the Bush story) and some have never previously seen the light of day.

It is interesting to speculate why this might be. For example, John Curran, who was the first to reprint the Christie story, theorised that she opted to use key elements of the plot for the novel Dumb Witness, and that seems highly plausible. Whatever the reason, it's a story that Poirot fans are sure to enjoy. The best discovery in the book is "The House of the Poplars" by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I'd be fascinated to know why it's never been printed before. While it's no masterpiece, it's certainly good enough to have been published. Did Sayers have reservations about it, possibly because the ending is slightly anti-climactic? Perhaps, but I'm really not sure. At least now, thanks to Tony, we have a chance to read for ourselves a lost story by one of the giants of the Golden Age. 

Monday 20 July 2020

Unman, Wittering,and Zigo - 1971 film review

Unman, Wittering and Zigo - UK, 1971 - overview and reviews ...

Over the weekend, I watched two films. In terms of quality they were at opposite ends of the scale. One was London Fields, starring Amber Heard, which barely justifies even its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it's truly awful, a strong contender for Worst Film I've Ever Seen. Thankfully, the other was Unman, Wittering, and Zigo, directed by John Mackenzie, who was later responsible for the brilliant The Long Good Friday. Unman... made a great impression on me when I first watched it many years ago and it stands the test of time.

Unman... was based on a radio play by Giles Cooper and is set in a public school. The pupils make even the rebels in Lindsay Anderson's If... seem tame. (Incidentally, we were shown If... when we were at school ourselves; pretty enlightened teaching, it seems to me.) Unman... stars David Hemmings, then at the height of his fame, as a John Ebony, a young teacher who has just arrived at Chantry School in mid-term.

Ebony is replacing a Mr. Pelham, who died in mysterious circumstances. He's young and keen, and accompanied by his wife (Carolyn Seymour). The head teacher, played by the splendid Douglas Wilmer, is just as remote and useless as the head in If... When Ebony comes into conflict with the boys in his form, Upper V B, they claim that they murdered Pelham and that he'll suffer the same fate unless he toes the line...

This is a chilling and compelling film which deserves to be much better known. Some people suggest that the title is off-putting, but I think it's memorable and resonant. I do, however, tend to agree with those critics who suggest that the ending isn't entirely satisfactory. Even so the story as a whole is first-rate. If.... is a much more renowned movie, and I enjoyed watching it again recently; even so, I found Unman... somehow more shocking, and also rather more sophisticated in its portrayal of rebellious young men. Watching it was a great way to get over the dismal experience of yawning my way through London Fields.     

Friday 17 July 2020

Forgotten Book - Making Hate

Making Hate by Jacqueline Wilson

I've discussed a couple of Jacqueline Wilson's taut psychological thrillers on this blog in the past - the fairly distant past, admittedly. She made a splash in the 70s as a crime novelist before turning with huge success to children's fiction. I was impressed with her books when they came out and, although inevitably dated, they still show what a readable writer she has always been.

I've only just come across her fifth and final crime novel, Making Hate. Her earlier books were published in paperback by Penguin, but I'm not sure that this one was - certainly I've found it elusive. And now I've read it, I wonder if I have a clearer idea of why she gave up the genre. This is without doubt an admirably ambitious book, and again it's a good, fluent read, but it's also rather flawed.

She decided to tackle a story about a rapist, and to present it from two contrasting viewpoints. The main character is Simon Shaw, a divorced man in his thirties who has two children but is much closer to his daughter than his son. He works as civilian SOCO and fantasises about being a detective. He's lacking confidence, but when he picks up a pretty young girl, he doesn't seem to take any interest in how old she is. After they part, she is raped. It turns out that she is only fourteen and Simon is briefly a suspect.

Simon is cleared, but wants to bring the rapist to justice. Meanwhile, we are given an insight into the rapist's psyche in a series of short sections which reveal his troubled upbringing. Wilson is aiming here for psychological depth, but overall I felt that her attempts to get into the minds of Simon and the rapist weren't successful. This is an uncomfortable book for a number of reasons, and I can see why it made little impact. Yet I remain of the view that even a flawed book of the past may be of great interest if the author is trying to do something worthwhile and inventive with the story, and Making Hate fits the bill. It's no masterpiece, but you can tell that Wilson, even more than forty years ago, was a storyteller of high calibre.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

The Locked Cabin

The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths ...

I've edited more than my fair share of anthologies - around forty - but there are two British anthologists who were putting together fascinating crime collections long before I started and who continue to do excellent work in the field. They are Mike Ashley and Maxim Jakubowski, two men whose remarkably wide knowledge of popular fiction extends far beyond the crime genre. Both of them have both been kind enough, over the years, to include occasional stories of mine in their books.

My latest short story is "The Locked Cabin", and it kicks off Maxim's new anthology, The Book of Extraordinary Impossible Crimes and Puzzling Deaths, published by Mango. The book is another entry in a series of collections Maxim has been putting together, which also includes a set of Extraordinary Historical Mysteries, to which I contributed "The Sound of Secrecy".

There's no doubt where the inspiration for this particular story came from. When I was wandering around the Queen Mary 2 last year, I read with great interest the wall panels detailing the illustrious history of the original Queen Mary, and one particular anecdote from the 30s sparked an idea in my mind. When I went on a second crossing on the ship, I gave the idea further thought and realised that it could make an interesting variation on the concept of the locked room mystery. So, not an entirely typical locked room riddle by any means, but a spin on the idea that appealed to me. When I arrived back in Britain, I set about writing the story.

There are some very interesting contributors to this volume, including a number of good friends of mine such as Christine Poulson, Amy Myers, Jane Finnis, Len Tyler, and Paul Charles, all of whom have a track record of successful short story writing. In recent times, I've also got to know David Quantick, who has enjoyed great success in TV with shows like The Thick of It and is now pursuing a long-standing interest in crime fiction. There's a good deal of variety in this book - it's by no means a conventional collection of stories in the John Dickson Carr vein - and quite a bit of experimentation. I'm glad to be part of it.