Friday 30 October 2020

Forgotten Book - The Flanders Panel

Arturo Perez Reverte is one of the most interesting Spanish crime writers of modern times and The Flanders Panel, first published thirty years ago, is a fascinating example of his work. The story is set in Madrid, and in 1994 it was filmed as Uncovered, although as yet I haven't managed to see the movie version, which stars Kate Beckinsale as Julia, the art restorer from whose viewpoint the events of the story are seen.

The book begins with Julia's discovery of a Latin inscription hidden beneath a painting that she has been tasked with restoring prior to its sale. The painting depicts two knights playing a game of chess, watched by a woman. The inscription, translated, is :'who killed the knight?' Perhaps in the context of chess it could be interpreted as 'who captured the knight?' But Julia begins to wonder if the inscription is a clue to a crime of the past.

She confides in her mentor, an older gay man called Cesar, who represents a father figure. Her former lover also becomes involved, but is then found dead. Has he been murdered, and if so, by whom, and why? Do the elderly owner of the painting and his unlovely family members have something to hide? And what about another of Julia's friends, the glamorous but dissolute Menchu, who is also involved in the machinations to market the painting?

The story begins with a quote from a Jorge Luis Borges poem about chess, and the text includes numerous examinations of stages in the chess game in the painting, as a chess expert calls Munoz helps Julia to figure out what is going on. I like chess, but I think that even someone who doesn't play the game would find this story readable and pleasingly different. Recommended.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

The Lighthouse - 2019 film review

The Lighthouse is a recent horror film, made in black and white by Robert Eggers, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother. Apparently the original spark for the story came from Edgar Allan Poe's final, unfinished story with the same title, but otherwise there is no resemblance between the two works. This is an unsettling film, full of ambiguities. Explanations for what's going on are in short supply, but although in some movies that matters a great deal, here it does not. To me, the ambiguous nature of the storyline is a plus. So is the setting - lighthouses and small islands have fascinated me since I was young, and the combination is irresistible.

The set-up is simple enough. It's the late nineteenth century, and a young man, Ephraim Winslow, arrives at a lighthouse on a remote, fog-blanketed island for a four-week stint as a 'wickie', assisting the veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake. The two men are played respectively by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe and both give superb performances. 

We soon learn that Ephraim's predecessor went mad, and we aren't in any doubt that Bad Stuff is destined to happen. I don't want to say too much about the detail of the storyline, but suffice to say that the lighthouse lamp, a mermaid, and a one-eyed gull all play key parts in the events that unfold. There's a hallucinatory quality to much of the filming, and the desolate, lonely location is marvellously atmospheric.

With a horror story of this kind, a writer may opt to give the satisfaction of an explanation of events, or leave things murky. Either method can work; everything depends on the skill with which the story is told. Much as I love rational detective stories with ingenious solutions, I'm also keen on strange, inexplicable stories such as those written by the great Robert Aickmann. The Lighthouse isn't exactly an Aickmann-type of story, but its strangeness is a large part of its appeal. I found it compelling.  


Monday 26 October 2020

British Library Crime Classics in 2021

The British Library recently announced their programme of Crime Classics for the first half of 2021 and I've already talked about my delight regarding the first-ever publication of E.C.R. Lorac's Two-Way Murder, which I think is a real coup for the imprint. I'm also pleased about the diversity, to use a topical word, of the forthcoming titles. They really are a mixed bunch. Some will appeal to certain readers more than others, but that's fine. I do think that the eclectic nature of this series is a big part of the reason for its continuing success. 'Classic crime' is much more than gentle whodunits set in English villages of the 30s, not that there's anything wrong with them - as I've mentioned in the past, The Murder at the Vicarage was my introduction to mystery fiction.

There's an anthology coming up. Guilty Creatures ('a Menagerie of Mysteries'!!) is a collection of stories connected with the animal world in one way or another. I'll talk more about the contents another time. Suffice to say that I'm pleased with the title. When I wrote the book that became Take My Breath Away, I intended to call it Guilty Creatures. But another novel with that title (not a crime story) came out ahead of mine, and my agent asked me to change the title. At last I've finally used it...

There's another John Dickson Carr, The Corpse in the Waxworks (we're using the US title) and another Mary Kelly. Don't be fooled by the cheery, summery cover of Due to a Death - it's a pretty bleak story, albeit very well-written and much praised by the top American critic, Anthony Boucher. 

For light relief, I can recommend Nap Lombard's Murder's a Swine, an amusing war-time mystery. And then there is The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes. She remains known for The Lodger, but her other work in the genre is under-rated. Real life crime intrigued her, and as a result her fiction studies attitudes towards crime in a way that, decorous as the prose may be, seems to me to be rather ahead of its time.


Friday 23 October 2020

Forgotten Book - No Coffin for the Corpse

No Coffin for the Corpse, first published in 1942, was the fourth and final novel of Clayton Rawson. Rawson, an advertising artist and semi-professional conjuror, was a specialist in impossible crime mysteries and a good friend of John Dickson Carr. His Great Detective was the Great Merlini, who has a shop which sells magic tricks and a 'Watson' in the shape of narrator Ross Harte.

Rawson's career as a novelist was brief, although he continued to write short stories with a locked room or impossible crime focus. In addition to Merlini, he created Don Diavolo (great name!), who makes a fleeting appearance in this book, although generally the Diavolo stories were published under the name Stuart Towne. No Coffin for the Corpse failed to find a UK publisher and did not appear in this country until Tom Stacey brought it out in 1972, the year after Rawson's death.

It may be that Rawson became disappointed and frustrated as a novelist (it happens!), or it may be that he struggled to find story ideas that would sustain a full-length novel. It may be relevant that this story begins quite brilliantly but does not, in its later stages, quite fulfill its early promise. I do think it is a real challenge to write a high-calibre impossible crime novel - the locked room is a trope that, I feel, tends to suit the short story form better (and yes, I know there are quite a number of excellent exceptions, not only by Carr but by others).

Here, Harte is frustrated when the rich but odious Dudley Wolff determines to nip his daughter's romance with Harte in the bud. Wolff has a fear of death which again is eminently suited to this kind of macabre mystery, and when he becomes embroiled in an attack on a blackmailer, he persuades others to help him to bury the blackmailer's body in the woods. But then the corpse appears to take on a life of its own...

A great premise, but the amount of space devoted to justifying the legitimacy of the explanation for the mystery seems rather like protesting too much. I suspect Rawson realised that the trick he used would frustrate some readers. However, he does a good job in terms of coming up with - and juggling - multiple solutions to the key murder in the story. Overall, even though this book is not his best, it's good light entertainment.

The Diamond Dagger

The first thing to say about last night's CWA Dagger awards was how slickly and efficiently the whole event was organised. It was really impressive. I know how stressful it can be to organise the evening even in normal times and when you're reliant on technology, there's an added level of uncertainty. But it all went without a hitch. Many congratulations to Chair Linda Stratmann, Secretary Dea Parkin, M.C. Barry Forshaw and techno-wizard Antony Johnston as well as the rest of the team. They did everyone proud.

There's no doubt that to receive the Diamond Dagger is the greatest moment of my career as a writer (and it beats anything in my career as a lawyer, come to that). I was grateful that Ann Cleeves kindly agreed to present the Dagger virtually - when we recorded the presentation she made the point that there was a 'satisfying symmetry' about it, given that I presented her with the Diamond Dagger three years ago. The photo at the end of this post shows us with the actual Diamond Dagger, which is kept in a safe for most of the year, because it really is heavy with diamonds. Maybe I'll be allowed to touch it again at some future date!  

As I said, there are particular reasons why this award is very special to me. First, when one looks at the list of previous recipients. It's a stellar group - P.D. James, John Le Carre, Ruth Rendell, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Sara Paretsky, Michael Connolly, Reginald Hill, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Lee Child, Andrew Taylor, Ellis Peters, Eric Ambler - the list goes on. To join that exalted company is extraordinary.

And then there's the fact that the award is voted by one's fellow writers. Nominations come in from CWA members. They are then whittled down to a shortlist by a sub-committtee, and finally the CWA board votes on the shortlist. So quite an elaborate process. And perhaps I can share one anecdote about it from the late 90s.

At that time, I was phoned up by Reg Hill. He'd recently been awarded the Diamond Dagger and was on the CWA board. He'd been asked to form the shortlisting sub-committee, to ensure that standards were kept high. He said to me that he didn't really care for being on committees, but he'd like me to collaborate with him on choosing shortlists of suitable recipients. He said that, having received the award himself, he wanted to make sure that future recipients were of the right calibre and he explained in a very clear way what that meant. He felt talking it all through with me would work well and be fun for both of us. And he added that it was obviously too soon for me to be a candidate myself, but that one day, although not for a fair few years, he felt my time for the Diamond Dagger would come.

It was an invitation I couldn't refuse, and he was right - our conversations over the years were a lot of fun. Because he wasn't the sort of man who ever indulged in glib flattery, I was hugely touched by the fact he thought my writing was potentially good enough to qualify me one day for the Diamond Dagger, though I found it almost impossible to imagine that I'd be so lucky. And now it's actually happened. I like to think that Reg, who gave me a lot of encouragement over the years, would be pleased. And I'm truly happy to receive an accolade that once seemed so distant and improbable.  


Tuesday 20 October 2020

Jill Paton Walsh R.I.P.

I was so sorry to learn yesterday of the death of Jill Paton Walsh. Jill was an accomplished author in several fields and her Knowledge of Angels was famously shortlisted for the Booker Prize having originally been self-published. Detective fiction fans appreciated her short series of novels set in Cambridge and featuring Imogen Quy, and she made a real splash when she completed Dorothy L. Sayers' Thrones, Dominations. Not content with that, she proceeded to publish three more books featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

I first met Jill (and her late husband John Rowe Townsend) some years ago at the St Hilda's mystery conference. I'd previously enjoyed both an Imogen Quy and Thrones, Dominations. There are, of course, widely divergent views about 'completion' and 'continuation' novels featuring favourite detective characters. The test for me is simply this: how well is it done? Suffice to say that Thrones, Dominations is the book of this type that I admire more than any other. To follow in Sayers' footsteps is particularly daunting, but Jill turned a fragmentary manuscript into a coherent whole with great style.

Jill was a member of the Detection Club, though I hadn't seen her for some time at the point when I was working on Howdunit last year. A mutual friend told me that she was rather frail, and at first my instinct was not to trouble her for a contribution. However, I decided to drop her a line rather than send an email, and received a cheerful and extremely positive reply. She told me it was the first handwritten letter she'd received all year...

Various enjoyable telephone discussions followed (the editorial process with Howdunit was fascinating and certainly unique in my personal experience). The upshot was that Jill contributed a lovely piece, developing points she'd made in an article some years ago, called 'One Thing Leads to Another'. It was very much in the inspirational spirit of Howdunit and presumably it was her last published piece of work. It's sad that we've lost her, but her literary legacy is impressive and will endure. On a personal note, I cherish the memory of those conversations.   


Monday 19 October 2020

Changed Times

One of my techniques for getting through the pandemic has been to avoid thinking of what I might have been enjoying had everything gone to plan. It's far better to be positive wherever possible. I must admit, however, that over the weekend inevitably I was thinking about Bouchercon in Sacramento, a trip I was very much looking forward to. As I write these words, I should be on a flight back to England, and looking forward to the Daggers Dinner on Thursday, complete with presentation of the Diamond Dagger, the highlight of my career.

Oh well, things haven't turned out quite as hoped or expected, but that's the same for everyone. And a lot of people have been doing good work to give us crime writers and readers opportunities to get together, even if in a restricted way. The Bouchercon organisers set up a virtual event, for which I pre-recorded my interview with Anthony Horowitz. I also took part in a live panel (thank goodness I worked out the correct time zone and didn't miss it!), talking about cold cases with an old friend, Marcia Talley as well as a number of American writers who shared some fascinating insights. 

I was also delighted to see several friends' names among the Anthony winners, including Hank Philippi Ryan, Verena Rose and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor's wife Tara Laskowski. Congratulations to all of them, and also to the hard-working people who made it all possible. I just wish I could have bought them all a drink - but there'll be time for that in the future, with any luck.

Similarly, thanks go to Matthew Booth, who organised a virtual meeting of the CWA northern chapter on Saturday. So good to see people, albeit remotely. It's not the same as a proper get-together in person, of course, but it's much better to stay in contact in whatever way we can. The pandemic has really underlined the importance of our social lives - and how vital it is to enjoy every opportunity of being with our friends and family.

The CWA folk have also been busy organising a virtual version of the Daggers awards. Whilst I won't be able to get my hands on the actual Diamond Dagger (which is brought out once a year for the ceremony) I have received my personal award and I've recorded two videos for the occasion. Ann Cleeves kindly agreed to the CWA's request to 'present' the Diamond Dagger to me, and in addition to the video, we also recorded a conversation, reflecting on our personal journeys as writers. You can bet that I'll be quaffing champagne on the night, even if in my own living room rather than in a glitzy hotel in London. And it will be a good opportunity to reflect, not on the frustrations of pandemic life, but on all those good things which far outweigh the negatives.  

Friday 16 October 2020

Forgotten Book - Deadly Hall

Deadly Hall is a relatively little-known novel by John Dickson Carr dating from 1971. His penultimate book, it is another of his history-mysteries, set in New Orleans in 1927. Jeff Caldwell is summoned by an old friend, Dave Hobart, to the family home in the Big Easy. It's called Delys Hall, and it is an old English manor house which has been transplanted to the United States.

Delys Hall has earned the nickname Deadly Hall: some years ago, a man died there in mysterious circumstances. Now Dave is perplexed by the will of his late grandfather, who has bequeathed the Hall to Dave and his sister Serena. It seems that the Hall contains a great deal of gold, but the treasure is well hidden...

There is a good story lurking in Deadly Hall. The treasure sub-plot is, I feel, really neither here nor there, but the method by which a murder is committed on the premises, and the motive and identity of the perpetrator are interesting and satisfactory. The main difficulty is that it's quite a slog to get to "the good bits" of the story. The narrative is, to put it kindly, discursive. Pace is often lacking as the narrative gets bogged down time and again.

Carr was not a well man at the time he wrote this book, and it certainly doesn't compare with his best novels. There were, I must confess, moments when I thought that Deadly Dull might have been a better title. However, developments later in the story did engage my interest. If you haven't read Carr before, I certainly wouldn't start here. And if you're a fervent fan, you need to manage your expectations of this one. Overall, however, I was glad I battled through to the final revelations. 

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Two-Way Murder

I'm thrilled that, for the first time, the British Library is going to include in its Crime Classics series a book that has never before been published. This is Two-Way Murder by E.C.R. Lorac, an author who enjoyed success in her lifetime and is now finding a new and appreciative readership among fans of the Crime Classics who have responded very positively to books like Bats in the Belfry, Murder by Matchlight, and most recently Checkmate to Murder. 

For me, this represents the culmination of a long personal journey. Those of you with excellent memories (including Fiona Birchall, who kindly pointed this out the other day) may recall that I spoke about the unpublished manuscript long, long ago. In September 2009, to be exact, I wrote a blog post referring to the leading bookseller James M. Pickard, who had obtained the manuscript. At the time I yearned for the book to be made more widely available, but I didn't know how this could best be done.

A great deal has happened during the past eleven years, and among the many wonderful developments has been the creation of the Crime Classics series. I have been urging the British Library for several years to consider publishing Two-Way Murder, and thanks to James Pickard's generosity we had the chance to study the manuscript some considerable time ago.

But progressing these projects can be complicated and sometimes it all takes much longer than you might expect to bring a plan to fruition. So it has proved with Two-Way Murder. But I'm absolutely delighted that the British Library is going ahead  - this seems to me to be a splendid project for our national library to undertake, giving life to a story that never saw the light of day during its author's lifetime, or for more than sixty years since. Truly gratifying.

Monday 12 October 2020

A Surprise for Christmas - a new British Library anthology

A Surprise for Christmas has just been published by the British Library, the latest of my anthologies for the Crime Classics series. Perhaps it's not really such a surprise that this collection has appeared. It's my fourth Christmas collection of mysteries, following Silent Nights, Crimson Snow, and The Christmas Card Crime, and all three of the previous Yuletide compilations feature near the top of my personal anthology list in terms of lifetime sales. Fingers crossed that the new book does as well.

Sales aren't everything, though. They matter enormously to publishers, for obvious reasons, but for me it's always vital to try to make sure that these books are good enough to deserve some longevity. That is why I've always tried to produce anthologies that offer a distinctive personality and something more interesting than the same old, same old. For instance, I like to include some stories that will be unfamiliar to most crime fans. And I like to vary the mix, recognising that readers will have favourite stories - but personal faves vary from individual to individual.

The book takes its title from a story by Cyril Hare, a highly accomplished author of mysteries which were traditional in many ways yet generally had a distinctive and appealing tang. Hare was never a mega-seller, but he earned respect from fellow authors and readers and his work has lasted in a way that justifies his approach to his craft. 

Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and John Dickson Carr also feature as contributors, so there is no shortage of big names, but there are also some much less renowned authors and stories. I should say, incidentally, that as with other BL anthologies, I've benefited from help and suggestions made by friends such as Jamie Sturgeon, Nigel Moss, and John Cooper. The result is, I hope, a book that will find its way into many a Christmas stocking.


Friday 9 October 2020

Forgotten Book - The Fair Murder

The name of Nicholas Brady is pretty obscure even by the standards of minor Golden Age authors. I'd never heard of him until Nigel Moss tipped me off about his work. Brady's real name was John V. Turner, and he published under that name and also as David Hume, which was his better-known pseudonym. Born in 1900, he died in 1945, so his work is now out of copyright.

There were just five books - the Brady bunch? - and his series detective in the first four books was an engaging amateur sleuth, the sharp-witted and self-confident parson Ebenezer Buckle. Ebenezer is very much in the tradition of the Great Detective, making enigmatic remarks right, left, and centre as he solves the mystery.

I recently read The Fair Murder, known in the US as The Carnival Murder, and it's an extraordinary story. There's a very good review of it by John Norris on his Pretty Sinister blog, and I agree that this book has something i common with the "weird menace pulps" in the 1930s. I've certainly not read a Golden Age book with such a distinctive flavour. But be warned - it's not for the faint-hearted, and there will be plenty of readers who find it quite unpalatable, perhaps all the more so given the traditional murder puzzle storyline.

A woman is stabbed to death at a travelling fair and the circumstances are baffling. How was the crime committed? How is it that the victim, once very attractive, became grotesque? And what was the significance of the recent attempts on her life and her changed financial circumstances? It's a pretty good puzzle, and Ebenezer and the ultra-sceptical local police inspector are engaging characters. I was drawn to the book because one element of the plot is based on an idea that had occurred to me for a story I contemplated writing. But I'd never write anything quite like Brady's novel.


Wednesday 7 October 2020

Gift or Theft by Liza Cody

Liza Cody has just published a new novel, Gift or Theft, and this very welcome news prompts me to jot down a few thoughts about her writing. During the 1980s, when I was thinking about becoming a crime novelist (and I spent much of my spare time thinking of little else!), I read many different crime writers, from all sorts of periods and backgrounds. But I made a particular habit of reading the work of people of my generation or a little older, writers who were emerging at the time, to see what they were doing and how it related to the story ideas I was contemplating. I've often mentioned the likes of Peter Robinson, Ann Cleeves, and Ian Rankin, who came on to the scene at around the time I began to work on my first novel, All the Lonely People. But there were various others, including Frances Fyfield, Andrew Taylor, and Liza Cody. 

Liza Cody came to my attention as a result of the success of her very first book, Dupe, which introduced the private eye Anna Lee and won the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger. During my mid-twenties, I bought very few books, since money was tight, but I did invest in the paperback of Dupe, and I was much impressed. The character of Anna and the evocation of the world she lived in struck me particularly. As did the taut writing style. No wasted words with Liza Cody. Her books are always very readable.

As a result, I kept reading, and I've followed Liza's career ever since. Later, I met her in person, and found her charming and encouraging. She's also a first rate short story writer. Every now and then, when trying to put an anthology together, I've begged Liza for a contribution, and she's obliged with some wonderful stories. She also made a very valuable contribution to Howdunit, not only with a terrific essay (recommended reading!), but also with other help.

And now Gift or Theft has landed on my doorstep. Liza doesn't publish novels very frequently, so it's quite an event. The story concerns Seema, 'a gardener and a dreamer' and it looks intriguing. I'm very much looking forward to reading the latest work of a richly talented novelist.



Monday 5 October 2020

Howdunit - early reaction

Howdunit is an unusual book, because although it contains lots of information that is valuable for people who want to write crime fiction (or detective stories, or short stories, or spy stories, or thrillers or adventure stories or radio get the picture) it also seeks to entertain and engage readers who don't have literary ambitions. I don't think this has been attempted before, certainly not on such a scale, but I hoped to give readers genuine insight into the writing life. The contributors responded quite brilliantly. 

Early reaction to the book has been extremely heartening, both from writers and readers. Two interesting writers are Adam Croft and Robert Daws, who together produce a podcast called Partners in Crime. Adam is a prolific novelist whose books have sold millions of copies, while Robert has established a new career as an author of mysteries set on Gibraltar. He has another life as an actor and I remember vividly his terrific performance in the excellent TV comedy Outside Edge, in which his wife was played by Brenda Blethyn. That show, incidentally, was written by Richard Harris, who also wrote crime fiction as well as at least one excellent crime play and many TV crime series. Anyway, I digress. The latest Partners in Crime podcast included Robert's discussion of Howdunit. I was very pleased by his response to the book and encourage you to listen to the whole podcast. It's very polished, and worth subscribing to.

Kate Jackson is one of the most widely-read young bloggers around. Her Cross Examining Crime blog is required reading for Golden Age fans, and I'm delighted with her review, from the point of view of a traditional mystery fan with no particular wish to write crime fiction herself - so, quite a different perspective from that of Robert and Adam. She makes an important point about the debating issues raised by the various contributors. Anyone who reads Howdunit will realise that I made no attempt to present harmonised or sanitised opinions - on the contrary, the views of different authors vary widely, even on issues like whether or not there is such a thing as writer's block. So Howdunit doesn't present the 'official view' of the Detection Club on topics covered, because the Club doesn't have one - what it does have is a bunch of lovely members whose views I find enormously interesting and thought-provoking, whether or not I agree with them on specific points. And I'm so glad that Kate 'got' what we were trying to do. As she says: 'this book has something for everyone who is interested in crime fiction – modern or old.'

P.S. Since 'New Blogger' became compulsory. I've not figured out how to incorporate either labels or hyperlinks that work. If anyone can enlighten me, do drop me a line!

Friday 2 October 2020

Forgotten Book - The Evil Wish

Jean Potts' reputation hasn't survived quite as well as that of one or two other authors of psychological suspense of her era, but she was a highly accomplished writer whose career began auspiciously with the Edgar-winning Go, Lovely Rose. I liked that book, but I felt that The Evil Wish, which I read recently, was superior. Published in 1962, it's quite excellent and deserves to be better known.

The storyline is essentially simple. Two unmarried sisters, Lucy and Marcia, live with their father, Dr Knapp, in a house in New York City large enough to accommodate a number of tenants. The doctor is a man of charm, but he's also domineering and selfish, and his daughters are little better than unpaid servants. Lucy doesn't work, and has a history of mental breakdown. Marcia has a job, and serious problem with alcohol.

Dr Knapp also has an eye for the ladies, and his latest affair is with a nurse, Pam Caldwell. Unfortunately for the daughters, he plans to marry Pam in secret, and then turf them out of the house. When they get wind of this, in their desperation they play about with ideas, mostly rather impractical, about murdering either Pam or their father. Then Fate intervenes, and Dr Knapp and Pam are killed in a car crash.

This proves to be anything but a happy ending for the bereaved daughters. Potts is interested in the idea of their moral culpability, the consequences of their "evil wish", even though they have committed  no crime. Both Lucy and Marcia display increasingly self-destructive patterns of behaviour and when an unscrupulous photographer called Chuck comes into their lives, disaster beckons...

This is an exceptionally well-written book. The characterisation of the daughters is first-class and the prose sinewy. There aren't any likeable people in the story, but that doesn't really matter. I was gripped from start to finish.