Monday 31 August 2020

Rediscovering Josephine Bell

The Port of London Murders (British Library Crime Classics): Josephine  Bell, Martin Edwards: 9780712353618: Books

I first came across Josephine Bell's books when a feminist imprint, Pandora, reissued a number of excellent books by women writers in the late 1980s. These included The Port of London Murders, which became one of the first books I reviewed for The Criminologist. I was very struck by the fact that, although it was written in the late 30s, the story seemed ahead of its time in mood, setting, and treatment. No country house mystery this, but a novel that anticipated the approach of the Fifties.

Twenty years later, when I was working on The Golden Age of Murder, I was lucky enough to be sent some family documents which gave me fresh insight into Bell's writing, and I referred to these in the book. But she didn't become a member of the Detection Club until the Fifties, so she isn't a major figure in that particular study. I have, however, retained my interest in her work.

When the British Library agreed to reissue a book by Bell in the Crime Classic series, I was keen for The Port of London Murders to be the chosen title, and fortunately this was agreed. In writing the intro, I was again assisted by Bell's family, and (although a good deal still remains to be said) the result was a slightly longer introduction than usual, which I hope readers will find of interest.

But the story is the thing, and it's a good one. Bell made use of her medical know-how (she was a doctor, and so was her late husband) but it strengthens the storyline rather than overwhelming it. She also did a good deal of research into the workings of the port. There is an authenticity about the book that seems quite modern. Publication day is 10 October and it will be interesting to see how readers respond.

Friday 28 August 2020

Forgotten Book - These Names Make Clues

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Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on an inscribed copy of E.C.R. Lorac's These Names Make Clues, an uncommon Collins Crime Club title from 1937; no dust jacket (the one in pictured is an image from Mark Terry's fascinating site of facsimile wrappers), but still a treasured possession. All the more so because the story is an enjoyable one. In fact I'd rate this as one of the more interesting Loracs.

A key reason for my enthusiasm is that this book is more in the realm of the classic "closed circle" puzzle mystery than some of the author's other work. Inspector Macdonald is invited to a Treasure Hunt evening convened by a publisher called Graham Coombe, who shares a big house in London with his sister Susan. His fellow guests are mystery writers, but part of the fun is for their identities to be concealed under pseudonyms.

The seasoned crime fan won't be surprised to learn that this pleasant idea backfires when a death takes place during the treasure hunt. The deceased was an author called Andrew Gardien, and the suspects are the Coombes and the novelists. Complications ensue when Gardien's literary agent is also found dead. Were either of the deaths murder? Macdonald investigates, abetted by a breezy young journalist called Vernon.

What fascinates me particularly about this novel, published in the year that Lorac was elected to membership of the Detection Club, is that there are strong reasons to infer that her initial experience of the Club supplied the inspiration for the story and some of the characters. Coombe may be Billy Collins, but I'm fairly sure that Gardien was inspired (albeit not in terms of his personality) by John Rhode.

I also suspect that Rhode influenced (maybe even suggested to her; he was a generous man) Lorac's choice of m.o. in relation to the two deaths. Other characters seem to me to bear traces of Douglas and Margaret Cole, and Baroness Orczy. As for the plot, it boasts variety and ingenious touches aplenty, though to my mind it's not really a "fair play" whodunit, given that a key fact is revealed rather late on. Definitely a book that deserves better than the obscurity which has been its fate since the 1930s.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Another Life - 2001 film review

Another Life is a film that is surprisingly little-known. Dating from 2001 and written and directed by Philip Goodhew, it tells a famous story, that of Edith Thompson, the so-called "Messalina of the Suburbs" who was hanged for a murder committed by her lover Frederick Bywaters. Bywaters attacked Edith's husband Percy late one night. Edith's fate was sealed by compromising letters she'd written to her lover in which she'd fantasised about killing Percy.

The case attracted huge public interest. E.M. Delafield wrote the first novel about it and F.Tennyson Jesse wrote the most acclaimed one, A Pin to See the Peep-Show. The trial fascinated Anthony Berkeley, who took the view that Edith was "executed for adultery"; many commentators agree with his interpretation of events, and the case has gone down in history as a classic miscarriage of justice.

The film pays very little attention to the trial, focusing instead on the story of Edith's life, from the time she first got to know strait-laced Percy. The relationship is nicely drawn, and I was impressed by the lead actors. Natasha Little (Edith), Nick Moran (Percy), and Ioan Gruffud (Freddie) are all perfectly convincing, though my previous impression had been that Freddie was rather more stupid than his portrayal here suggests. Ioan Gruffud presents him as passionate and volatile, and it's certainly a credible reading of the character. Rachael Stirling is also very good as Edith's sister Avis.

I've read and written about this case a number of times, and I was pleased by the way the film made me think about it afresh in some respects. To what extent did Edith really want her husband to die? What was in Bywaters' mind when he launched his murderous attack? Did he genuinely expect to get away with it? Philip Goodhew doesn't try to give definitive answers to these questions. but his film is highly watchable.

Monday 24 August 2020

Events of a new kind

We all know that lockdown has been nightmarish for many people and organisations, including those trying to organise events and festivals. But these strange times have brought out the best in many of them. There's been a great deal of innovative thinking, and much hard work has gone in to trying to connect readers and writers.

Podcasts have been gaining rapidly in popularity and Shedunnit is a very good example. Run by Caroline Crampton, it's a good example of the marriage of enthusiasm, expertise, and enterprise. I was glad to accept her invitation to talk about the Detection Club recently, and the result has just been aired: 

Last week I was busy recording two videos which will be released later. I must say that I much prefer pre-recorded videos to live ones, even though the 'live' element can have real benefits. The difficulty is that, if you have four or five people taking part in a live video event, there is every chance of a technological glitch, and although these can never be ruled out, I think that - where possible - it's less stressful to pre-record, and allow for editing.

There was a bittersweet aspect to the first video. Last year I was invited to the Sacramento Bouchercon to interview Anthony Horowitz, and I was very much looking forward to the trip for a host of reasons. Alas, it was not to be. Undaunted, the organisers set up a recorded video; I was based in England, while Anthony was speaking from Crete. It was fun to do, and will be made available in October, to coincide with the period when Bouchercon would have been taking place.

The second video was part of Slaughterfest, set up by HarperCollins to celebrate Karin Slaughter's work. I was honoured to be asked to chair a panel to discuss classic crime fiction. The panelists were four bestselling novelists, Lucy Foley, Kate Weinberg, Sophie Hannah, and Ruth Ware, and the conversation proved very enjoyable. Again, the discussion was pre-recorded, and it will be made available soon.

I'm now in discussions about various other virtual events. A couple of these will involved conversations with Ann Cleeves, while others will focus more generally on crime fiction past and present. To say that I'm grateful to those who do the hard work of making these events happen is an under-statement.

Friday 21 August 2020

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Four Friends

J. C. Masterman was a man of many parts. An eminent figure who rose to become Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Sir John Cecil Masterman was an academic and also a key figure in British espionage during the war, overseeing the organisation of double agents. As if that wasn't enough, he wrote a notable detective novel, An Oxford Tragedy; it wasn't the very first Oxford-based crime story, but its success set the ball rolling and of course it has had innumerable successors.

It was on the strength of that book, above all, that he was elected to membership of the Detection Club. Many moons ago, I wrote a short article about Masterman for CADS, which was later adapted for the website Tangled Web UK, in its hey-day the go-to place on the internet for information about crime fiction. I'm sorry to see that the site has now vanished, but Geoff Lees and his family did a great service for many writers, publicising their books on the site over many years. Thank goodness CADS is still going strong.

The novel featured a Viennese professor, Ernest Brendel, and after the war, no doubt much encouraged by his admirers, Masterman revived Brendel, and brought him back to Oxford for another detective story. This was The Case of the Four Friends, published in 1957, almost a quarter of a century after its predecessor.

The story has a very clever premise, a sort of refined version of the "whowasdunin". Brendel tells a story about four people ("friends" is stretching it a bit) which is an exercise in pre-detection: can he prevent a murder from taking place? And the reader has to figure out both the prospective murderer and the prospective victim.

Unfortunately, the story is lacking in action and there's no attempt to make use of the Oxford setting - the story might have been recounted anywhere. I think the idea could have been livened up, and it's a pity Masterman didn't do this. Instead, we get a rather dry, cerebral tale. But for its inherent ingenuity, if not its execution, it earns high marks

Wednesday 19 August 2020

The Incident - 2015 film review

The Incident (the 2015 film of that name) is described on Amazon Prime as a 'powerful, emotionally haunting modern British noir'. For me, the key adjective is 'under-stated'. In fact, to call it 'under-stated' is itself an under-statement. The storyline is clear and coherent, but minimalist to say the least. Writer-director Jane Linfoot certainly didn't go over the top. If anything, she aimed too low.

Joe and Annabel are a young married couple who seem to have it all. They are rich, successful, and ridiculously good-looking. And Annabel's about to get pregnant. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Joe being talked into an unspecified sexual encounter by a young girl while he waits for a takeaway pizza, that's what. It's the incident that dictates the rest of the film.

I imagined all kinds of dramatic developments that might flow from Joe's unhappy misjudgement. But Linfoot doesn't go in for melodrama. Instead, she opts for a character study focusing mainly on the rich couple. The girl is presented as a caged bird, someone trapped in a miserable lifestyle, but this isn't really explored. Nor are the characters of Joe and Annabel, who - it must be said - are by no means endearing. Wealth and good looks don't equate to happiness seems to be the simple moral.

Ruth Gedmintas, Tom Hughes, and Tasha Connor perform capably in rather two-dimensional roles, with Gedmintas particularly good. The failure of the story to catch fire frustrated me, but I must say that I did keep watching, and I think that Linfoot deserves credit for making a film that is consistently engaging, despite failing to deliver on its full potential. The script and characters are under-written, but even though this is a slight film, it is well-made and certainly watchable.

Monday 17 August 2020

Match Point - 2005 film review

Match Point is a film from fifteen years ago, written and directed by Woody Allen. Apparently he originally intended to set the story in the US, but funding issues prompted him to come to Britain. The result is a film that seems to me to be rather untypical of his work, but not wholly unrecognisable. There are touches of Dostoevsky and Dreiser, yes, but also a hint of Ruth Rendell. For this film is a psychological thriller, although its true nature isn't apparent until the later stages of the story.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Chris Wilton, a charismatic former tennis player, who at the start of the film introduces us to the central theme of the film. It's about luck - does the tennis ball that touches the net drop on the right side or not? The script (which was nominated for an Oscar) plays with this notion rather cleverly. Chris becomes friendly with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode, very smooth) and is introduced to his very wealthy family. Tom's Dad (Brian Cox in benevolent mood) is a rich tycoon, his mother (Penelope Wilton) is a charming meddler and his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) is instantly smitten with Chris.

The snag is that, once Chris meets Tom's fiancee, he is smitten with her. Scarlett Johansson plays Nola Rice, a glamorous American actress. She and Chris have a fling, but Chris marries Chloe and Tom splits up with Nola. Trouble is, Chris subsequently bumps into Nola and the affair resumes. You just know that it isn't going to end well. And for some of the characters, it doesn't.

The lead actors are terrific, and the impressive supporting cast includes Margaret Tyzack, James Nesbitt, Mark Gatiss, John Fortune, Steve Pemberton, and Alexander Armstrong. It's a long film, but it doesn't really sag prior to the dramatic events of the last twenty minutes. The characters may not be loveable, but they are interesting, and cleverly presented so that their unappealing attitudes aren't as much of a turn-off as perhaps they ought to be. Overall, a very enjoyable film.

Southern Cross Crime by Craig Sisterston

Southern Cross Crime | Craig Sisterson | Oldcastle Books

I've never had the chance to visit Australia or New Zealand, and the way things are going it's clear that I won't be repairing that omission any time soon. But at least it's possible to travel there through the medium of fiction, and there are plenty of good antipodean crime novels, old and new, to keep one company.

Craig Sisterson's new book Southern Cross Crime, published by Oldcastle Books, is a survey of relatively recent Australian and New Zealand crime and thriller writing. There are brief mentions of some writers of the past such as Arthur Upfield, Ngaio Marsh, and Charlotte Jay, but some other capable writers, such as Pat Flower and S.H. Courtier, don't get a mention, because the focus is on more recent work which tends to be more readily available.

Craig is a knowledgeable commentator on crime fiction, and he and I were part of a quiz team at Harrogate last year on an enjoyable evening, the sort of memory I cherish all the more right now, given the cancellation of so many crime festivals. Although he currently lives in London, he comes from New Zealand and has a good deal of insight into his subject.

The book has a foreword by that estimable author Michael Robotham and is divided into three sections. The longest is a detailed account of antipodean novels and authors by region. The second segment covers TV and film from the past quarter-century. The third is a series of short essays about particular writers, including Peter Corris, Jane Harper, Peter Temple, and Stella Duffy. There is also a useful appendix covering various award winners.

This is a good book to dip into and to keep handy for reference. Thanks to Craig Sisterson's persuasive advocacy, there are a number of authors I'm now keen to read for the first time; he's also managed to reinforce my enthusiasm for several others. Among many lines that caught my eye, I was tempted by 'an amateur sleuth who is also a professional cricketer', namely Mario Shaw, the creation of Carolyn Morwood, a name previously unknown to me. There are plenty of other intriguing references that will encourage readers to add to their TBR piles. This is definitely a useful addition to the crime fan's bookshelf.

Friday 14 August 2020

Forgotten Book - The Unsuspected

I've mentioned Charlotte Armstrong before on this blog. She was a high calibre American writer of domestic suspense. The Unsuspected is highly regarded among her books, and has been reprinted in recent times as part of the revival of interest in crime fiction from the past. So I was delighted to pick up a copy of the novel, which first appeared in book form in 1946, having been serialised the previous year in the Saturday Evening Post.

It's sometimes described as an inverted mystery, but it doesn't follow the usual inverted pattern. Right from the start, we learn that Luther Grandison, a successful stage and film director, is a murderer. He thinks he's unsuspected, but he's wrong. Young Francis Wright and his aunt Jane Moynihan suspect that he's a sociopath responsible for the hanging (supposedly a suicide) of his secretary Rosaleen Wright.

They hatch a plan to infiltrate Grandison's household in order to prove his guilt. This involves Jane working for Grandison and Francis pretending to have married Grandison's ward, who has recently disappeared and been presumed drowned. The snag is that the dead lady turns up out of the blue...

My problem with the story is that the scheme to unmask Grandison seemed to me to be totally hare-brained. Provided one can accept the premise, it's an entertaining enough mystery, with an excellent climactic scene, and I'm not surprised that the book was made into a film, which starred Claude Rains and is sure to be worth watching. But I'm afraid it didn't live up to my expectations, not least because there is little effort to characterise Grandison. He's rather a two-dimensional baddie; Armstrong's real focus is on the young people he torments.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Bognor is Back

Bognor | Nostalgia Central

I never got to see Bognor when it was first shown on television. It ran for 21 episodes from 1981-2 at a time when I wasn't watching much if any TV. Years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Heald, author of the books on which the show was based, and asked him about it. To cut a long story short, he felt that Thames TV had made a bit of a mess of it. For instance, he'd very much favoured Derek Fowlds being cast in the lead as Simon Bognor, but in the end the role went to David Horovitch, a decent actor but perhaps not ideal for the part. They also put the shows out at times which were unlikely to attract a big audience.

Thanks to Talking Pictures TV, it's now possible to judge Bognor for myself. This channel has a real knack of finding lost gems, as well as some shows and films that haven't really stood the test of time. They have run Public Eye, the downbeat series about the private eye Frank Marker, which was very low-key but pretty good, and the obscure but rather enjoyable anthology series Shadows of Fear as well as the original Van der Valk, which I found surprisingly disappointing.

Bognor comprised the adaptations of four books, starting with Unbecoming Habits, set in a monastery, with one of the monks played by Patrick Troughton. Bognor, who works for the Department of Trade, is sent to investigate a suspicious death. There are some pleasing moments in the story, but overall it's pretty lightweight and forgettable. Apparently the series was cancelled long before it came to an end, and in all honesty, I can see why.

I'm glad to have caught up with it, though. Tim was as amusing in person as he was on the page, and although he took the disappointment of the adaptations in his stride, his enthusiasm for writing about the character waned. I encouraged him to consider reviving Simon Bognor after a long hiatus, and he duly contributed a fresh Bognor short story to an anthology I edited for the CWA, Original Sins. Before long, he was working on a new Bognor novel. Thanks to Bognor, I've thought back to those times (too few, alas) that I spent in his convivial company, and those pleasant memories are enough to keep me watching, even if the scripts don't quite do the trick.

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of attending literary events and festivals (at least in those happy days when they were taking place regularly!) is the chance to meet both readers and fellow writers. Over the years, I've met some wonderful people in that way, and formed many lasting friendships that mean a lot to me. One particularly memorable trip was to the Emirates Literature Festival a few years back. During our week there, we met a young writer called Vaseem Khan and his wife. The four of us spent a little time together and they were most congenial company.

When I got back home, I decided to read Vas's work (another nice spin-off of meeting authors) and discovered that he is a talented novelist with the ability to entertain readers while sharing interesting observations about the world. I was therefore keen to invite him to contribute to Mystery Tour, a CWA anthology with an international flavour, and he came up with a terrific story which I recommend you to seek out. It's called 'Bombay Brigadoon'.

All this is by way of preamble to news that Vas has a new book out published by Hodder. Midnight at Malabar House marks a significant change in direction for him, which I'm sure will be well-received. First, it's a history-mystery, set in India at the start of 1950, two years after Partition. Second, it introduces a new character, Inspector Persis Wadia, who represents an extremely interesting variation on the concept of the 'Great Detective'. The discovery of the body of a prominent Englishman, murdered on New Year's Eve, leads Persis to face many challenges as she strives to discover the truth about the crime.

What I love about this book is the way Vaseem Khan blends classic tropes with interesting and insightful observations about a vast country of infinite potential grappling with the challenges and opportunities of independence. So, we have a mysterious cipher and a detective duo (Persis's sidekick is Archie Blackfinch, another character with plenty of possibilities) in the classic mould. Persis, in time-honoured fashion, rubs her superiors up the wrong way, but as we root for her, we have a quiet confidence that she'll get to the solution of the mystery in the end. Before she does, there's a lot of entertainment to be had. I'm not very knowledgeable about either India or Indian history, and so I learned a lot. Much more importantly, I enjoyed the book. A definite winner - I'm sure it will be a big hit.

Monday 10 August 2020

Vintage Crime

Vintage Crime: from the Crime Writers' Association (Fiction Without Frontiers) by [Crime Writers' Association, Martin Edwards]

Vintage Crime is published tomorrow. It's my latest anthology to be edited on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association, and it differs from its predecessors in a couple of respects. First, we have a new publisher, Flame Tree Press, with whom I've worked in the past. They are lovely people to work with, and the care they devote to their publications is admirable. The production values on Vintage Crime are terrific.

Second, this is not a collection of newly written stories, but rather a book that is designed to showcase the evolution of the crime short story throughout the existence of the CWA. The CWA was founded back in 1953, and its first anthology appeared in 1956. Since then the CWA has been a major supporter of crime short stories, and many award-winning stories made their first appearance in a CWA collection.

In essence, I've mined the CWA archives to put together a book of stories which have appeared in previous CWA anthologies but which seem to me to deserve a new life. I've chosen stories dating back to the 1950s, written by a range of writers whose names are mostly well-known, including the brilliant Mick Herron and the equally gifted Andrew Taylor, two of the finest authors working in the genre today.

There are some terrific names here, including Robert Barnard (whose "Sins of Scarlet" won a Dagger), Frances Fyfield, Celia Fremlin, Peter Lovesey, Liza Cody - and John Dickson Carr. Yes, the king of the locked room mystery was a CWA member. The contributors have, between them, won enough awards to fill a locked room, and I'm hopeful that many readers will enjoy devouring these mysteries from the (sometimes quite recent) past.

Friday 7 August 2020

Forgotten Book - A Penknife in My Heart

Nicholas Blake - A Penknife in my Heart - Collins Crime Club ...

Nicholas Blake's A Penknife in My Heart, first published in 1958, is highly readable, but in some ways a curious book. It's very well-written on the whole, as you would expect from this author, yet there's something slightly amateurish about the way he jumps from one viewpoint to another in a single scene, and in the way he tends to "tell" rather than "show". I suspect this may have been because he did not put as much effort into his novel writing as he did into his poetry published under his real name, Cecil Day Lewis.

Another oddity is that the central situation, of an exchange of murders, replicates that of Strangers on a Train. By the time Blake's book came out, Patricia Highsmith's classic was several years old, and had been successfully filmed by Hitchcock. Yet Blake insists he was unaware of this, and is clearly embarrassed by the coincidence that he also used two of the same character names that appear in Highsmith's story. In a preface, he thanks Highsmith for "being so charmingly sympathetic".

Some may think that it beggars belief that Blake was unaware of the earlier book. I am happy to take him at his word, even though it may be that some information about the film, if not the book, had seeped into his subconscious. It's common for different writers to come up with much the same idea, quite separately. And it's also the case that Blake's story develops in a rather different way from Highsmith's. Some commentators prefer Blake's book, but I think Highsmith's stands the test of time better.

All that said, I did enjoy this story. It's a good, fast read, and I devoured it in a single sitting. It's interesting that Simenon is name-checked in the story; he clearly influenced some of Blake's post-war fiction. Since Blake's book was published, several novels, by authors as diverse as Evelyn Berckman, Sheila Radley, and Peter Swanson, have used the exchange of murders concept in a variety of ways. And it's a concept with rich potential. One of these days, I'm tempted to have a go myself...   

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Blind Corner aka Man in the Dark - 1963 film review

Blind Corner is a British film, not to be confused with the Dornford Yates novel with the same title. In the US it was known as Man in the Dark, and it's one of those thriller films featuring a blind protagonist who is menaced by sighted people with sinister motives. The script, not based on a novel, was written by James Kelley and Peter Miller. Kelly died relatively young, but Miller continued working into the 1980s and his later TV credits included scripts for the likes of Bergerac and Shoestring.

Like so many British B movies of its day, this is a film with an American star in a lead role, a ploy designed to make the film more commercial. William Sylvester is Paul Gregory, a gifted but irritable composer who has settled for making money by writing pop songs. Gregory is married to Anne, a beautiful woman (played by Barbara Shelley) whose interest in him has faded since he tragically lost his sight. It soon emerges that she's having an affair with a young artist, Rickie Seldon and Paul's manager (Mark Eden) reveals this to Paul. Faced with the prospect of losing her luxury lifestyle, Anne contemplates murder...

It's a familiar enough story, but the plot is quite nicely handled. One weakness of the film is that, again no doubt for commercial reasons, it's padded out by the inclusion of two so-so songs performed by Ronnie Carroll, who was quite a star at the time. These scenes don't really add to the story's development at all.

Mark Eden is a very reliable actor, and he and Barbara Shelley give strong performances in a movie that's certainly watchable, if not exceptionally memorable, and Elizabeth Shepherd is also good as the secretary who is devoted to Paul, but despite my sympathy for his vulnerability, I felt Sylvester rather overdid the irascibility.   

Monday 3 August 2020

Game Night - 2018 film review

Game Night is a comedy rather than a crime film, but it revolves around mystery games, so it's more than eligible for a review in this blog. I came across it by chance when we were looking for some relaxing viewing and it more than filled the bill. There are plenty of American comedy films that leave me cold, but this wasn't one of them. It's funny and clever.

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman play a couple who are highly competitive game-players; they are also trying for a baby. They have a neighbour, a sad and lonely cop who is obsessed with games and has been deserted by his beloved wife. One evening, they go to some lengths to pretend to him that they are not going to be playing a mystery game with their friends, in order to avoid his company, only for Bateman's brother, a loud egotist to whom he has always felt inferior, to blow the gaff.

The game is rudely interrupted by the kidnapping of the brother. At first the game players think that this is some ingenious variation of the game. Unfortunately, it turns out that the brother is in hock to some gangsters and his life is in jeopardy. Undaunted, the game-players set out to rescue him.

The complications come thick and fast. The script is witty and the acting exuberant and I'm not surprised that this film was a big hit at the box office; the success was well-deserved. I was also interested in the way that the writer, Mark Perez, reinvented for a modern audience the mystery game concept which features in so many Golden Age detective novels - Christie's Dead Man's Folly is one example that springs to mind. There's life in the old tropes yet.