Wednesday 30 September 2020

The Shipman Files - BBC Two

There's been a glut of TV programmes about British serial killers in recent weeks. After Des, the Dennis Nilsen case, we've had a re-run of Appropriate Adult about Fred and Rose West, and this week there is a three-part investigation into the Harold Shipman case. This extraordinary story was the subject of an essay I published last year in a true crime anthology edited by Mitzi Szereto, and which I called 'The First of Criminals'.

The three cases are very, very different from each other, but they do have certain features in common. In particular, they reverse the usual situation with serial killers. Typically, a series of killings results in a hunt for the culprit. In each of these cases, the culprit was pinpointed, in connection with a particular crime, before the scale of their homicidal careers became apparent. In each case - and this is an absolute, enduring tragedy - the precise number and identities of the victims has never been established beyond doubt.

Chris Wilson's The Harold Shipman Files focuses, very properly, on the victims. Because Hyde is a town I know, although not well, I've been very interested in the case from day one. And I do feel quite strongly about it. Shipman's suicide robbed us of any chance of finding out his motivation, but the official report from Dame Janet Smith (which was very well done, in my opinion) explains the case with insight and empathy, and makes an attempt to fathom his mindset. The idea that he enjoyed playing God and that he became addicted to murder seems plausible to me. 

He clearly had an addictive personality. I find it shocking that the General Medical Council allowed him to practise as a doctor following an early conviction for the misuse of drugs without any proper monitoring. It seems to me to reflect a long-standing tendency on the part of professional bodies (including those governing solicitors and barristers) to be too lax in dealing with people who commit misdemeanours of a kind that really indicate they aren't to be trusted. In saying this, I fully recognise the importance of giving people an opportunity of redeeming themselves - this is true of criminals and it's true of others who make bad mistakes. But if Shipman's history had been better known, if the powers-that-be had exercised more diligence after he was allowed to continue in his work, how many lives would have been saved - over two hundred? For instance, there is understandable and proper criticism of the original police inquiry, when suspicions were raised about Shipman by a fellow GP in Hyde, and which seems to have been slipshod. But if the information about Shipman's past had been more readily available, the outcome of that investigation might well have been very different.

Wilson makes the point that the age of Shipman's victims was a key factor. He killed older people, and got away with it because others accepted that older people have 'had a good innings', even if their death was sudden and wholly unexpected. The truth is that he traded on society's inherent ageism.


Monday 28 September 2020

Mortmain Hall - the US edition

Mortmain Hall has just been published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press and I've been delighted by the reaction so far. This includes a coveted 'starred review' in Publishers' Weekly, who say the book 'is a triumph, from its tantalizing opening, in which an unnamed dying man begins to explain an unspecified perfect crime, through its scrupulously fair final reveal'. What's more, the novel has been selected as one of Apple's best books of September, and was included in CrimeReads' list of the most anticipated books of the season and featured by Mystery Tribune as one of the best of the month.

All this is gratifying, especially given that I wasn't sure how this particular novel would be received in the US, given that it's very different from so many other books which pay homage, in one way or another, to the Golden Age detective story. It's not a cosy or a pastiche and it's even quite different from its predecessor, Gallows Court. Certainly it's a story that calls for a degree of investment from the reader, since the nature of the central mystery is withheld for some time, and the characters don't actually gather at Mortmain Hall until the last third of the book. There are bound to be some readers who don't 'get' it. But that's a risk worth running. I've always liked to experiment as a crime writer, and to try fresh approaches to storytelling (in my non-fiction as well as in my fiction) and writing Mortmain Hall was a truly exhilarating experience. 

Sadly, of course, there are no trips or events for me in the States to promote the book. But things are still happening. I've just taken part in a Youtube conversation with Ann Cleeves, hosted by Barbara Peters, discussing our new novels, and I'm also involved in 'virtual Bouchercon' in lieu of the real thing, which was scheduled for Sacramento. I was asked to interview Anthony Horowitz, but rather than meeting in person we've had to record our event from Europe, while I'm also due to take part in a panel about classic crime

All in all, therefore, I'm grateful for the way things have turned out, despite the pandemic. But I'm very much hoping that I'll be able to make it across the Atlantic next spring. I've missed Malice Domestic for the past couple of years and I'd love to go back there, as well as to attend next year's Bouchercon in New Orleans. Will it be possible? I don't know, but in the meantime I hope that more American readers will enjoy taking a trip to the north Yorkshire coast to find out what was really going on at Mortmain Hall.

Friday 25 September 2020

Forgotten Book - Crime at Guildford

To celebrate Freeman Wills Crofts' publishing centenary, HarperCollins are reprinting half a dozen of his mysteries, and they include this novel, which dates from 1935. Its alternative title was The Crime at Nornes and its new title includes the name of Crofts' series detective, Inspector French. I was pleased to see the new edition, as it is one of Crofts' books that I've never got round to. And I'm equally pleased to report that it's a good one.

At the start of the story, we're introduced to the senior officers of a leading jewellery business, Nornes. They are in deep financial trouble, and Crofts shows his understanding of business life in the early pages. Although not exactly crackling with tension, they set the scene for what is to follow (although I thought it slightly odd that the character who is introduced in the opening lines of the book then fades completely from view). Before long, the firm's accountant is dead, and a vast haul of precious gems have been stolen from a safe. These two disasters supply the core mysteries: was the accountant killed, and if so by whom and how? And who stole the booty, and are the incidents connected?

Chief Inspector French comes on to the scene, and Crofts shifts his focus away from the misfortunes of the business, and on to the police inquiries. As usual, he charts the steps in the investigative process with such care and conviction that the rather pedestrian style of his storytelling doesn't really matter. If anything, it lends further verisimilitude to the story.

Forensic work proves to be crucial, and the technical aspects of the story are handled with Crofts' customary authority. There's a chase across the Channel at the end, but even this is treated unsensationally. Crofts wasn't a writer who set the pulse racing, but at his best - and this book is a good example of his work - he was able to keep his readers turning the page through the sheer relentlessness and dedication of French, a man intent on leaving no stone unturned in his quest for justice. 



Wednesday 23 September 2020

The Hour - DVD box set review

The Hour (TV Series 2011–2012) - IMDb

This year has, for all its other shortcomings, at least given me the chance to catch up on some film and TV viewing pleasures. Some time ago my kind daughter gave me as a present a box set of the 2011-12 TV series The Hour, which had always sounded interesting to me, but which I missed when it was first screened. At last I've been able to catch up with it.

The show was the work of an experienced screenwriter Abi Morgan, whose films include The Iron Lady and Suffragette, both of which were very watchable. The premise of The Hour is particularly interesting, and again reflects her interest in history with a political slant. The two series were set in 1956 and 1957 respectively, around a BBC current affairs show called, you guessed it, The Hour. The political events in the background - the Suez Crisis and the nuclear arms race - play an important part.

Each series comprised six episodes. The producer of the fictional programme is Bel Rowley, played by Romola Garai, with the show's anchor played by Dominic West. Ben Whishaw is a reporter called Freddie Lyon. There are also key roles for Anton Lesser and, in the second series, Peter Capaldi. With a cast like that, you can't go far wrong. In particular, I thought that Dominic West was brilliant in his portrayal of the charismatic but deeply flawed Hector Maddern. It's a tricky role that calls for an actor with a considerable range, and West definitely delivered. 

The scripts are enjoyable, but they did suffer from a common weakness. The first series in particular sagged in the middle. I got the impression that Abi Morgan had enough ideas to fill three or four episodes, and that there was quite a bit of padding to spin things out. This criticism applies with less force to the second series, two episodes of which were scripted by other writers. But overall the virtues of The Hour certainly outweigh its weaknesses. 

The BBC cancelled the series because of poor viewing figures, which was a pity, because I think the idea had great potential that could have been developed further, perhaps in shorter series, or with two sets of three episodes in a single series. There were also, I gather, some anachronisms, but these didn't spoil my enjoyment at all. It's worth watching for the quality of acting, but the two stories are also entertaining, especially in the closing stages.

Monday 21 September 2020

Joseph Goodrich - Unusual Suspects

When I featured Derek Marlowe's A Dandy in Aspic as a Forgotten Book recently, I mentioned Joseph Goodrich's new book Unusual Suspects, published by Perfect Crime. I'm delighted to say that my copy has just arrived and I'm enjoying reading it all over again. I say 'all over again' because I had a sneak preview of the contents when Joe asked me to write a foreword. Having admired his utterly fascinating study of the relationship between the two cousins who masqueraded as Ellery Queen, Blood Relations, I bit his hand off!

This is just the sort of book I enjoy, a collection of pieces about crime fiction that doesn't follow a predictable path. As I said in my foreword, 'the essays are always well-informed and skillfully composed, but what counts most for me is their enthusiasm - a vital ingredient in a book of this kind.' Joe says in his own intro that the collection comes from his 'passion for books', and this shines through.

The authors discussed range from the famous - such as Dashiell Hammett and, of course, Ellery Queen - to the rather less well-remembered, such as Marlowe. A discussion of Frederick Irving Anderson nestles alongside an appreciation of the multi-talented Nicholas Meyer, with whom I had a very enjoyable dinner in Scottsdale a year ago, not realising that I was on my last overseas trip for a long time. There's an account of Amnon Kabatchnik's massive set of books about mystery plays and a pithy discussion about Lucille Fletcher which concludes that her books deserve a renaissance: I very much agree. And there's much more, too.

Joseph Goodrich strikes me as an ideal companion to go with on a wander around the by-ways of criminal fiction, on the page, on the stage, and on the screen. He has a knack of highlighting what matters about a book or a writer in a few words, a real and rather uncommon talent. He has already received one Edgar, for his play Panic, and this book, although very different, seems to me to be destined to earn him further acclaim. Strongly recommended. 

Friday 18 September 2020

Forgotten Book - Duncan Is In His Grave

When I blogged about Richard Wiseman's unusual first novel, First Person Plural I knew nothing about the author. Thanks to Jamie Sturgeon, I learned that this was a pen-name of Nick Bartlett, who had written two mainstream novels before trying his hand at crime fiction. Thanks again to Jamie, I have obtained a copy of his second and final crime novel, Duncan Is In His Grave.

First Person Plural was published by Macmillan - a good start for a new crime novelist, but the book never appeared in paperback. Perhaps sales were poor, perhaps reviews were few. It's certainly a little-known book, though I think that it is a compelling if uncomfortable read. Duncan Is In His Grave was published by Robert Hale, who were library publishers and, to be honest, a step down from Macmillan. A step down taken by many good writers, admittedly, but either Macmillan didn't like this book or felt disappointed by reaction to the first one.

Like First Person Plural, which otherwise it doesn't resemble in terms of storyline, this is a mystery which revolves around warped sexual feelings. It was published in 1978, a year after Jacqueline Wilson's Making Hate, which was a similarly interesting (but flawed) attempt to explore sexual psychology in the crime novel.

The narrator is Stephen Inglis, an advertising copywriter (as Bartlett had been). He falls out with a client called Frimley and embarks on a childish campaign of revenge. In so doing, he's encouraged by discussions with a character called Duncan, and it soon becomes clear that Duncan is imaginary. What follows is a crisply related descent into madness. The author was no doubt influenced by the work of writers such as Symons, Highsmith, and Rendell, and he could certainly write well. This is a very readable story, and it's a shame that Bartlett-Wiseman gave up on the genre. I can only surmise that he was disappointed by lack of success.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Des - ITV review

When I wrote the other day about David Tennant's excellent performance as a psychopathic serial killer in Bad Samaritan, it didn't occur to me that I'd soon be singing his praises again, for his performance of a real life murderer. He takes the lead in the ITV drama series Des, which is running this week, playing the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. I've watched the first two episodes full of admiration for his chilling portrayal of a dead-eyed man without a conscience.

Nilsen's bizarre and horrific crimes were revealed back in 1983 and I remember the case vividly. He had worked as an employment adviser in a jobcentre in London and through a personal connection I learned a little bit about him. He wasn't a popular man, although everybody who knew him was astonished to learn of his crimes. He was best known as a trade union representative, a virulent left-winger who hated the government. All his victims were vulnerable people. 

Tennant is superb, and I don't think it can sensibly be said that this programme glamorises his crimes. Far from it. The material is sensational, but the scripts of the first two episodes treat it with sobriety. There is a proper focus on the quest to identify the victims. The main challenge faced by the writer, Luke Neal, is to maintain tension, given that Nilsen admitted his killings from the outset, and we all know that he died in prison. The real mystery is about what motivated him.

So far, we've been given a few clues. The main source material is Brian Masters' book about Nilsen, and Masters is a major character in the story, again very well played, by Jason Watkins. I'll be interested to see how the third and final episode brings the story to a conclusion. At the moment, there's a division of focus between the police's efforts to investigate and Masters' relationship with Nilsen. I wonder if the script writer considered taking the unorthodox step of telling the story mainly from Masters' point of view. That would have been a very bold approach, and may have paid dividends, but the method actually adopted in telling the story has so far been fairly effective. I look forward to the concluding episode. 


Monday 14 September 2020


This week sees the long-awaited (well, by me, anyway) publication in the UK of Howdunit under the legendary Collins Crime Club imprint. (Publication in the US will follow before long.) Howdunit is the latest book by members of the Detection Club, following in a tradition that dates back to the early 1930s. But never before have so many members contributed to a single volume - almost every living member has taken part, including some who have not published for quite a while, including Jonathan Gash, Lord Denham, Baroness Cohen (aka Janet Neel) and June Thomson. And there are also pieces by many distinguished members of the past, ranging from Agatha Christie to P.D. James.


Howdunit is a book about the art and craft (or graft!) of crime writing. It will, we believe, be a big help to people who want to write crime fiction themselves. But at least as importantly, it gives a unique insight into the writing life. Or rather, dozens of personal insights. Leading writers talk frankly about the ups and downs of a literary career, with topics such as 'imposter syndrome' and writer's block covered, as well as the strange things that can happen when your book is adapted for the screen. 

As President of the Club, I conceived and edited the book, and I wrote the short sections that link all the contributions. In addition, there are ninety contributions from members. The idea was to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of this splendid and unique social network. The book also celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Len Deighton's election to membership of the Club, and is dedicated to him. Len has also contributed a brand new essay about his own stellar writing career. It's a great shame that we can't have a launch or any of the other events that I had in mind at the time the book was compiled last year, but perhaps we can make up for this to some extent next year. 

In the meantime, I hope that this unusual book will appeal to people fascinated by crime writing, whether or not they fancy producing a novel of their own. It really was a joy to receive all the manuscripts - most of the material was specially written for this volume - and great fun to find suitabel ways of welding in existing pieces by the likes of Christie, Christianna Brand, Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, and others. And the publishers have done a lovely job of production. I'm thrilled to see it on my bookshelf at last!

Friday 11 September 2020

Forgotten Book - The Edge of Terror

The Edge of Terror (The Anthony Bathurst Mysteries Book 12) - Kindle  edition by Flynn, Brian. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @

Not so long ago, the books of Brian Flynn were an unknown quantity to most fans of detective fiction, certainly including me. Now, they are in the course of being reprinted by the estimable Dean Street Press. And this is largely thanks to the enthusiastic advocacy of one person, Steve Barge, who blogs as Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery, and provides informative intros to the reprints.

Flynn enjoyed a long career in excess of thirty years, and published over fifty novels. Some earned good reviews, and he was published overseas and in translation in the early part of his writing life. But he'd faded from the limelight long before his final book came out in 1958. And probably it's optimistic to suggest that he was ever actually in the limelight. The firms who published him in the UK were respectable but not exactly market leaders. As a crude rule of thumb, it's fair to say that most of the better writers are published by one of the top firms at some point in their career. For instance, Lorac migrated from Sampson Low to Collins, Cecil M. Wills from John Heritage to Hodder, and so on.

One of the key questions about forgotten authors, inevitably, is whether their neglect is understandable. You don't remain a published novelist for thirty years without having some ability as a storyteller (or so I often tell myself) but this doesn't mean that you're an overlooked master of the genre either. I tried a Flynn novel a while ago, but as a result of a number of distractions found myself unable to get into it. When I read Steve's blog post about The Edge of Terror, I felt the moment had come to give Flynn my undivided attention. And so I read the book within a few days of laying my hands on a copy.

I had mixed feelings about the story for a long time, but I felt that the final section worked well enough for me to be very glad I'd read it. The downsides involve Flynn's cluttered prose and often stodgy dialogue. The doctor-narrator has an irritating style, e.g. 'Bathurst had a sudden visualization of activity and, as was his invariable custom, he was shedding the mantle of meditation for the cloak of clash.' As for the Great Detective, Anthony Bathurst: 'Well, Inspector, you haven't come to the Rowfants to tell us about the status quo ante. I'm confident of that. What is it that's haunting your tortured soul. Open the can.' There's a touch of the wannabe Dorothy L. Sayers about this type of writing, and it didn't work for me. Nor did the middle section of the story, which lacked tension. The book introduces a woman whom Bathurst once loved, but I felt more could have been made of her contribution to the story.

And yet. Just when I was lamenting the lack of excitement and suspense in comparison to that conjured up in the serial killer novels Francis Beeding and Philip Macdonald were writing at around the same time, the story seemed to spring to life. I very much enjoyed the fact that Flynn utilised a version of an idea that I happen to be researching right now, but quite apart from that, I felt that the later chapters had a verve that had earlier been lacking. There's also a clue in a name that I didn't spot, and which is nicely done. All in all, there was enough here to make me see why Steve likes Flynn and to feel that I'd be happy to read more of the books.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Black Work versus Lethal White

ITV has just re-run a three-part crime series from 2015, Black Work, starring Sheridan Smith. It's been interesting to compare this show, written by Matt Charman, with the current series of Strike, the private detective show based on novels by J. K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, and adapted for TV by Tom Edge.

First to Black Work. It starts with a familiar scenario - a husband dies and his wife discovers that he was leading a secret life. The wife in question is PC Jo Gillespie, played compellingly (as usual) by Sheridan Smith. Her husband was an undercover cop and it soon becomes clear that he took his undercover activities to exceptional lengths. But he was murdered and there's a mystery about his death. Is someone in the police hierarchy covering something up?

Jo's colleagues and superiors are played by a glittering array of actors - Geraldine James, Douglas Henshall, Phil Davis, Ace Bhatti, and Matthew McNulty. Perhaps none of them are above suspicion? I thought that Charman did a very good job of juggling his cast of characters and moving the story on with pace. Very watchable. At the end of the final episode, Jo is promoted, and one assumes that further series were contemplated. Why they have failed to materialise, I don't know, but Black Work made for good viewing.

I enjoyed the second and third series of Strike rather more than the first. They too were both written by Tom Edge, and I had high hopes for Lethal White. After three of the four episodes, however, I'm very disappointed. The story has from the start been bogged down by an excessive focus on the relationship between Cormoran Strike (played admirably, as always, by Tom Burke) and his sidekick, played by Holliday Grainger. A double-stranded murder plot has also become tedious. I no longer really care whodunit. I haven't read the book, but the adaptation feels flabby in comparison to the taut writing of Black Work. It's the old, old story - given the talent of those involved, this series would surely have been much better had the material not been stretched out beyond its natural length.

Monday 7 September 2020

Bad Samaritan - 2018 film review

David Tennant is such a fine (and versatile) actor that he can lift any TV programme or film in which he appears a notch or two. That's certainly the case with Bad Samaritan, an American movie in which he plays a ruthless serial killer, Cale Erendreich, with such gusto that every scene in which he appears makes compulsive viewing.

At first, though, the focus is on Robert Sheehan, playing Sean Falco, a young guy with a lovely girlfriend and a dodgy way of life. He and his pal Derek (Carlito Olivero) are scammers whose work as car valets at a restaurant gives them a chance to rob people they take a dislike to. Erendreich is among their targets, but Sean finds that he's bitten off more than he can chew. When he breaks into Erendreich's home, he finds a terrified young woman called Katie, tied up in circumstances that make it clear that Erendreich is up to something very, very unpleasant.

The rest of the film is about Sean's mission to rescue Katie, a task which endangers his life and those of the people close to him. Erendreich is not only cruel, he is exceptionally wealthy, and he uses his technological expertise to pursue the young man who is making his life difficult. The police aren't much help to Sean - he's on his own.

Hokum, perhaps, but it's exciting hokum, and pretty well done. I found myself gripped by the pace of Brandon Boyce's script as well as by the excellence of Tennant's performance (and Sheehan's, too). I gather the reviews generally have been mixed, and if you're looking for something profound, you are likely to be disappointed. But serial killer movies are seldom profound. Bad Samaritan is one of the better ones, and certainly delivers in terms of entertainment.

Saturday 5 September 2020

Forgotten Book - A Dandy in Aspic

The Magnificent Mia Farrow Blogathon - 'A Dandy in Aspic' (Mann, 1968) -  Dark Lane Creative

All too frequently, I find I need a nudge to get round to doing something I meant to do ages ago. And this is sometimes true as regards reading books as well as less pleasurable tasks. Take Derek Marlowe's A Dandy in Aspic, for instance. I first read about this one many years ago, in Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. I thought it sounded interesting, especially given that he compared it to Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock, but somehow I never made much of an effort to track the book down.

The nudge I needed came when Joseph Goodrich asked me to read the manuscript of his book Unusual Suspects with a view to providing an introduction. Joe is an interesting and versatile writer and I was glad to agree. What I didn't expect was that his book would include a long piece about Derek Marlowe's life and career. This was quite fascinating and I went straight out and picked up a paperback of A Dandy in Aspic.

I'm glad I did. This is in some ways a flawed book, but the central idea is appealing, and the execution is, for the most part, highly entertaining. Our narrator is a chap called Eberlin. He works for the government, but it soon become apparent that he is a Soviet agent. Not only that, he is a hitman. The British secret service are concerned that some of their agents are being eliminated. So who better to hunt down the assassin? Eberlin, naturally...

The mannered style of writing is occasionally irritating, but on the whole adds to the enjoyment. My copy describes the book modestly as "the most brilliant spy novel of the decade". Wow! Given that Fleming, Le Carre, and Deighton were hard at work in the 60s, this is the wildest of hype. But the novel was filmed, with Laurence Harvey and Mia Farrow, and my next objective is to watch the movie version. I'm glad I finally read the story, and my thanks go to Joe Goodrich for giving me that all-important nudge.

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Dorothy Simpson R.I.P.

Dorothy Simpson

I was sorry to learn of the death on 20 August of Dorothy Simpson, at the age of 87. Dorothy was an accomplished crime novelist whom I had the pleasure of meeting several times during the 1990s, at CWA conferences. She belonged to roughly the same generation of female novelists as June Thomson, Clare Curzon, Anthea Fraser, Marjorie Eccles, Marion Babson, Eileen Dewhurst, and Ann Granger, all of them makers of sound and enjoyable traditional mysteries. I didn't know Dorothy as well as the others I mention, but my rather distant memory is of someone charming and elegant with a good sense of humour.

I knew her as the author of the Inspector Thanet novels, but I gather that she came to writing (as did a number of her predecessors, including Freeman Wills Crofts, G.D.H. Cole, and Patricia Moyes) after a period of convalescence. She began with a suspense novel, Harbingers of Fear, which was published in 1977.

After that came some rejections, but then she created Thanet and and never looked back after publishing The Night She Died in 1981. Something I didn't know until recently was that she spent thirteen years as a marriage guidance counsellor. This was an experience she found invaluable as a writer. As she pointed out in a comment on her website, murder mysteries are about relationships that go wrong, and her understanding of what makes people tick was a great asset.

The series is set in Kent, where she lived for many years, although she came originally from south Wales. Her novel Last Seen Alive won the CWA Silver Dagger in 1985, just pipped to the Gold by Paula Gosling's Monkey Puzzle. The other nominees were two illustrious names, Andrew Taylor and Jill Paton Walsh, an indicator of the quality of Dorothy Simpson's work. The book was later included in an omnibus of three novels which introduced me to her stories. I hadn't seen her for a very long time, and I gather that severe RSI put paid to her writing after her last novel appeared in 1999, which is a shame. But she leaves a literary legacy of real merit.