Thursday 31 December 2020

A Year for Writing

Writing can be hard work, especially when ideas and words don't flow as one would wish, but it's richly rewarding work, which offers a great deal of solace when times aren't easy. For me, and I suspect for many others, writing and reading really have been lifelines in 2020. I'm especially grateful to my readers, many of whom have taken the trouble to get in touch during the past year. And despite everything, the past twelve months have in so many ways been the best of my writing career. Topping all else, naturally, was the award of the CWA Diamond Dagger, presented virtually by Ann Cleeves during an online ceremony. The above photo from the 2017 Daggers dinner, when I presented the award to Ann, is still as close as I've got to handling the actual diamond-encrusted and very valuable award, but I have received my personal dagger!

There will be more to say in weeks to come about what I've been working on this year. On the publishing front, it was a year of non-stop activity, with a strong Golden Age focus to many of my projects. I brought out five new books, led by Mortmain Hall. This is a novel that I'm especially proud of, and the reviews in Britain and the US were fantastic. One of the quotes I love is from A.N. Wilson - 'A whole page would not give me space to explain the intricacy of this story. A tangle of satisfying clues and a pleasing denouement in the classic Christie manner.' I was also thrilled to see the book featuring in 'best of the year' lists, notably on CrimeReads and from Ragnar Jonasson. It's truly rewarding to see experts who really know the Golden Age inside out, like Ragnar, Xavier Lechard, and Jose Ignacio Escribano, appreciating the book. The artwork by Ed Bettison for the UK edition attracted a lot of attention and as a result Ed was commissioned by the lovely people at Head of Zeus to produce a new cover in the same style for a welcome reprint of the paperback edition of Gallows Court:

Speaking of cover artwork, I was also really impressed by Steven Leard's work for HarperCollins on the cover of Howdunit, the Detection Club masterclass on the art and graft of crime writing, which I spent much of last year compiling. The challenge of naming all 90 contributors plus myself was formidable, but he rose to it splendidly. This is a book which, because of the quality of the contributions by so many fine writers, from Christie and Sayers to Rankin and Le Carre, should enjoy a long life. I believe that many of the contributors' comments have a timeless quality and are of interest to all crime fans, not just would-be crime writers. Again, the fact that the book appeared in 'best of the year' features in two national newspapers as well as on some leading blogs was truly heartening.

I put together Vintage Crime on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association. Published by Flame Tree Press, this anthology is another beautifully produced book. The stories included chart the evolution of short crime fiction since the CWA was formed nearly seventy years ago, with contributors ranging from Julian Symons to two fine writers of today, Frances Fyfield and Mick Herron.

Throughout this testing year, the British Library team somehow managed to continue with their programme of publishing one Crime Classic a month and I contributed introductions to each of them. In particular, there were two more anthologies which I compiled. I have a soft spot for Settling Scores: each story is by a different author and features a different outdoor sport - as far as I know, that's not been done before. 


Almost all these books were actually written last year, but the final compilation of 2020 was somehow rushed through during the pandemic in order to meet the deadline for the Christmas books market. It's my fourth collection of short seasonal mysteries for the British Library, A Surprise for Christmas. The title story was written by one of my favourite authors of the past, Cyril Hare.

Among the foreign editions of my books, I was particularly delighted by the Chinese translation of The Golden Age of Murder. The publishers were even kind enough to make stamps of my autograph and myself to include in copies, given my inability to attend a book launch! During the year I've enjoyed keeping in touch with a number of people I got to know in China last year, and hope I can get back there before too long. 

I contributed an essay on 'Plotting' to The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction, a book I shall be discussing in more detail in the new year. On the true crime front , there was an essay, 'The First of Criminals', about Harold Shipman, for an anthology edited by Mitzi Szereto. There were also articles for a range of online and print magazines, including CrimeReads, CADS, and NB magazine, plus appreciations in a biography of H.R.F. Keating and Joseph Goodrich's very interesting Unusual Suspects

As regards short stories, I wrote 'The Observance of Trifles', a jokey short story in the form of a blog post plus comments for In League with Sherlock Holmes, edited by Les Klinger and Laurie King; I am looking forward to receiving my copy and reading the stories by fellow contributors such as Tess Geritsen. I wrote a Golden Age story for My Weekly called 'Respect and Respectability' which is likely to be picked up in a forthcoming anthology; it introduces a new character called Miriam Ackroyd, who may well return again. Another Golden Age story, 'The Locked Cabin', appeared in an 'impossible crime' anthology edited by Maxim Jakubowski and I was extremely gratified the other day to hear that it will be included next year in a collection of the best short stories of the year. All in all, then, a full and (despite the pandemic) exciting year.

And yes, there is more to come in 2021...


Monday 28 December 2020

A Year Like No Other


Crime writers trade in the fragility and unpredictability of human existence, and perhaps that's been quite good training for life in 2020. Like everyone else, I found that the year unfolded in a way that I'd never imagined. Across the world, everyone has had their own challenges to face and for me, these have been the inability to get together with loved ones and friends or to travel and take part in the many events I'd looked forward to. We've all had to find a way of coping which suits us as individuals. From the start of the pandemic it seemed to me that the key thing is to look after one's health: physical, mental, and financial. And also to hope that one isn't unlucky, because in truth, there's a limit to the extent that one can control things. Among other things, I've been fortunate to live in a lovely place and it's been no hardship to spend more time there than usual.  

I did manage a few events at the start of the year: a book club event in our local village, the Detection Club AGM and dinner in February (although with hindsight, the spooky emptiness of the train to London was a harbinger of things to come), and a lovely trip to Loughborough University, doing events with Professor Mike Wilson and his students, who were working on a theatrical performance of a Jefferson Farjeon story. 

In April, I celebrated (in a locked down sort of way!) 40 years as a qualified solicitor. I'd expected to retire, but in fact I've carried on working part-time as a consultant and in this strange year I've been glad to stay in touch, remotely, with my other working life. Two lecture trips on the Queen Mary 2 were scrapped, but their place has been taken by two weeks of online lecturing for Adventures Online, with more in the pipeline. I've got to know - again remotely - a fascinating chap called Simon Dinsdale, a retired superintendent with a fund of stories. We've started working together online and I hope this can continue next year. 

One decision I took at the start of the pandemic was to do as much writing and writing-related stuff as circumstances allowed. This has worked out really well. At the start of the year, I was fretting about whether I'd be able to meet various deadlines. As it turned out, I even managed to add a few more projects into the bargain. So despite the disappointment of not having personal contact with so many people whose company I wanted to share, technology has filled some of the gaps, and although Facetime and Zoom are definitely not the same, they are much, much better than nothing. As for those friends who have suffered this dreadful illness or the effects of 'long covid', my heart goes out to them. 

I'm full of admiration for the people who have worked tirelessly to make online events happen. I'm really grateful to Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen, Sarah Ward and Buxton International Festival, Manjiri and the team at Pune International Literary Festival, the lovely people at UK Crime Book Club, Nick Wells and Flame Tree Press, Dea Parkin, Antony Johnston, and the CWA, Bonnie MacBird and the CWA London chapter, and Giles Ramsay and the Adventures Online team. Inevitably it's a selective list, but doing online events with other people has brightened my year immeasurably. 

Reading has, as always, been highly therapeutic. I've also done quite a lot of comfort TV watching, including the Carmichael and Petherbridge Lord Peter Wimsey series, which stand the test of time pretty well, loads of Ruth Rendell Mysteries, and the utterly brilliant Spooks. But I've stopped watching the TV news! My travelling has been restricted to short covid-compliant breaks, but this at least enabled me to undertake quite a lot of research for the novel I recently started to write. Hardcastle Crags, Kinver Edge, and Calke Abbey all proved to be quite inspirational settings. Not to mention seeing the National Rhubarb Collection at Clumber Park - though I'm not sure how I could work that into a story! And before this extraordinary year ends, I'll reflect further on my writing life in 2020. 


Wednesday 23 December 2020

Merry Christmas!

This is my last post before Christmas, although I've scheduled a post about a classic wintry mystery for 25th December as a little treat for locked room puzzle fans in particular. So let me wish everyone who looks at this blog, whether regularly or just on the odd occasion, a very merry Christmas. I hope you have ample opportunity to relax and enjoy the day, even if the consequences of this wretched pandemic mean that it's not possible for you (as it isn't for me, sadly) to be with all your loved ones this year.

This time last year, none of us could have guessed how 2020 was going to unfold. None of us have lived through anything like it. I'm sure I'm not the only crime writer who has spent even more time than usual in an imagined world. In times like these, escapism has a lot to recommend it.

Despite everything, there have been some positives and I'll review some of the year's happier developments another day. Suffice to say that this year I've done more crime writing, fact and fiction, than ever before. I'll be giving more news about what I've been up to before long.

Meanwhile, be kind to yourselves. Have a good time and thank you very much for reading. 




Monday 21 December 2020

Repression - 2020 film review

I'm not quite sure what to make of Repression, a recent film also known as Marionette. Is it an ambitious and interesting failure, an unusual suspense story, an entertaining horror movie, or a film that collapses into incoherence - or perhaps all of those things?  I was attracted to it by the cast and the claim that it's a 'Hitchcock-esque' thriller, but it's not a description that makes a lot of sense (and a cynic would say this is in keeping with some aspects of the script). It's a film that bears little resemblance to any Alfred Hitchcock movie I've ever seen.

In the opening scene, a man climbs to the top of a tower, says a few words, pours petrol on himself and lights a match...It's a horrific scene, not explained for some time. We then shift to the arrival in Scotland of Marianne (Theklan Reuten), a gloomy therapist who has taken up a new job in a new country. We gather that she's left north America after some tragedy in her life. She starts work alongside colleagues played by Bill Paterson and Rebecca Front, two highly appealing and reliable actors who only have small parts, but give the film a sense of solidity in its early stages.

Marianne is dealing with some very troubled children, including a deeply disturbed boy (Elijah Wolf) who draws pictures of disasters and, it seems, has some gift for foretelling the future. She does her best to relate to him, and in her spare time she find solace in a local book club - which seems to meet with astonishing regularity compared to every book group I've ever encountered. These scenes, which have considerable potential, are in fact rather disappointing as the script shoe-horns in various pretentious observations which seem to connect to the themes of the story. It's all a bit clunky.

Marianne finds herself attracted to an affable chap called Kieron, but it's soon clear that this relationship isn't going to end well. Never mind her patients, she too begins to disintegrate mentally. And the plot twists come thick and fast...

As I've often said, I like ambition in a storyline. There are some good ideas here, and the film is well-made, so I remained engaged, despite a series of highly unlikely developments. Overall, though, it doesn't work as well as it might have done. Perhaps the writing wasn't disciplined enough. I suppose my final verdict is that Repression is an interesting failure. But that's a lot better than being a boring failure. 



Friday 18 December 2020

Forgotten Book - Catt Out of the Bag

Clifford Witting was a very capable writer and in reviewing a couple of his books, I've mentioned that he is not only a competent (and sometimes excellent) plotter, he also leavens his stories with pleasing humour. A couple of shrewd judges have told me good things about Catt out of the Bag, which first appeared in 1939, and thanks to the initiative and enterprise of a small press called Galileo, those of us who haven't read it are now able to enjoy the book ourselves.

This is a Christmas mystery and its strength lies in the first hundred pages, with an enjoyable account of a tour around the small town of Paulsfield by a group of carol singers marshalled by the formidable Mrs de Frayne. Among them is the amiable bookseller John Rutherford, who narrates - as in the enjoyable Midsummer Murder

One of the carol singers is a man called Vavasour, who disappears mysteriously during the evening, along with his collecting box. He hasn't gone home, but the following day, when Rutherford and a new friend who rejoices in the name Cloud-Gledhill make enquiries, his wife behaves suspiciously. Vavasour is a commercial traveller, and she maintains that he's had to go off on business. But her story isn't credible.

I feel that Witting was, on the evidence of the books of his that I've read, a writer after my own heart. He was trying to do something a bit different with his novels, rather than simply follow a well-worn pattern. This approach is appealing but - believe me! - it can have its drawbacks. In this case, I felt that the story faltered after the discovery of a corpse. The murder puzzle is quite neatly contrived, with a good 'least likely person' culprit, but the pleasure of the surprise is weakened because the murder motive is thin, with inadequate foreshadowing. So on the whole the story isn't quite as good as I'd hoped, but I'm glad to have read it and the quality of the early chapters provides clear evidence of Witting's ability to entertain. 


Wednesday 16 December 2020

Reflections on Howdunit

You never quite know how people will react to a book on which you have laboured long and hard. I guess the truth is that simply getting a reaction is positive. Almost anything is better than having your work ignored! But of course it's better if readers 'get' what you are trying to do. So I've been delighted to see that Howdunit has featured prominently in lists of best crime books of the year.

Jake Kerridge picked it as one of his favourites in the Daily Telegraph and Barry Turner did likewise in the Daily Mail. Among crime novelists, Christopher Fowler featured the book as one of his own picks, and so did the very knowledgeable commentator Ayo Onatade, writing for Shots.

This is all very heartening, for me and for the contributors, perhaps especially those writers who haven't published much in the last few years. I was so pleased that it was possible to include contributions from the likes of June Thomson (a fine writer whose early work often drew comparisons to P.D. James), Michael Hartland, Michael Pearce, and two peers of the realm, Bertie Denham and Janet Neel. And I was grateful to Len Deighton, Liza Cody, Kate Ellis, Peter Lovesey, and Mike Lewin for sourcing some of the illustrations which I think add another dimension to the material (for instance, Kate's flow chart of one of her plots and the Clewsey cartoons).  

Revenue from the publication of this book will help to sustain the Detection Club as it heads towards its centenary in 2030. I'm hopeful that beginning writers will find the range of tips extremely useful and also that readers who have no ambitions to write but are intrigued by the writing process and the ups and downs of writers' lives will find it entertaining and informative. So if you're looking for last minute Christmas ideas for the crime fans in your life....


Tuesday 15 December 2020

Pune International Literary Festival and online events

Despite the cancellation of so many literary events this year, there has been no lack of enterprise on the part of organisers all around the world. Online events may lack - to an extent - the personal touch but they represent a very welcome way of keeping in touch with fellow writers and readers. Last week, for instance, I enjoyed being interviewed by Bonnie MacBird (and briefly by Les Klinger) for a CWA London chapter event. 

This week I'm involved in a series of lectures and discussions for Adventures Online - the online version of Road Scholar, who run the Queen Mary trips with which I was involved last year, and much else besides. These courses are aimed primarily at American crime fans, and if you are interested in taking part, do take a look at the Road Scholar/Adventures Online website. 

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of being a special guest of the Pune International Literary Festival. Manjiri Prabhu, the crime writer who leads the Festival, is someone I've known for a number of years, and there have been various plans for me to get out to India to take part. These didn't come to fruition for various reasons and this year, of course, there was no chance. But undaunted, Manjiri was kind enough to invite me to take part in a very well-organised online version of the Festival.

Sarah Ward, a writer of high calibre, kindly agreed to interview me and I really enjoyed the event. If you'd like to take a look at it, I believe that a recording will be posted on Youtube shortly. Of course, it's not the same as going to India and meeting everyone face to face, but an online event is far better than any alternative and my thanks go to the organisers for all their hard work in difficult circumstances.

Monday 14 December 2020

John Le Carré R.I.P.

The death of John Le Carré, just announced, means we have lost one of the greatest British novelists of the last sixty years. Yes, he rose to fame as a writer of crime fiction and espionage novels, but if anyone's career shows that commercial fiction may have serious literary merit, it's Le Carré's.

I first came across his name when I still at junior school. My father was seriously ill in hospital and my mother gave him a new paperback in the hope of aiding his recovery. It was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and he thought it was brilliant (and he did recover!) Duly intrigued, I went to the local library and read the first two Le Carré novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, before devouring The Spy. So you could say I've been a fan for over fifty years.

For me, it's the blend of insight into human behaviour and lucid prose in addition to a natural gift for storytelling that makes his best work so compelling. George Smiley is a fascinating character, and the fact he was based in part on the author's mentor in espionage and fellow crime novelist John Bingham gives the portrayal an added piquancy. Not all his books were entirely successful, but I see that element of variability not as a failing so much as the hallmark of an ambitious writer. The better writers take chances. The risks don't always come off, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth taking. And at his best - in Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People, The Night Manager, Our Kind of Traitor, and so on - he really was a master of his craft.

Let me conclude this brief post on a personal note. Last year, I approached John Le Carré to see if he would be willing to contribute to Howdunit. He was elected to membership of the Detection Club long ago, but I've never known him attend one of the Club dinners, and I've never met him. So I anticipated either a reluctance to contribute or a failure to respond. There wasn't even a token payment on offer - the book was compiled for the benefit of Club funds. To my great delight, my proposed inclusion of a pithy extract from The Pigeon Tunnel, which I thought fitted in perfectly with the overall scheme of Howdunit, was agreed. He certainly didn't have to participate, but I'm glad he did, and our book is the better for it.


Saturday 12 December 2020

The Bibliomaniacs - guest post

John Cooper, co-author with Barry Pike on an excellent book about collecting crime fiction, is one of a small group of experts who give me suggestions for short stories to be included in anthologies, and through him I've come across his son Jonathan, the guiding hand behind a splendid enterprise known as the Bibliomaniacs. I feel they deserve loads of encouragement and so I invited them to contribute a guest post to this blog. Here it is:

'Hello everyone. We represent the Bibliomaniacs. We absolutely love to sell books and eat chocolate! We would like to thank Mr Edwards for letting us write this Blog on his page. It is a great honour to have an article on such an amazing and famous writer's page.

The Bibliomaniacs are the youngest antiquarian booksellers in the world (aged between ten and thirteen). There are currently 25 of us and we meet every Thursday to discuss recent book sales, and to discover more about the history of literature, books and printing. We are members of the PBFA and have attended four PBFA London book fairs as exhibitors.  Some of you may have even bought from us!

We have done a lot of Fairs at Papplewick School in Ascot, which is where we are based. We have two separate groups of boys in this group at the moment because of the current “bubble” rules in schools. We have the more senior Bibliomaniacs who do the more serious parts, for example cataloguing and thinking of ideas. Then we have the Miniacs, who are a bit more wild and smaller: as the name suggests. We always have a lot of fun in both groups though!

You can check us out at Our Latest Catalogue is about Sherlock Holmes and his Rivals. It can be found here at The focus of this catalogue is (as is evident from the title) Sherlock Holmes and his near contemporaries. What makes the stories so popular today is undoubtedly their atmospheric descriptions of Victorian London: foggy, crowded and metropolitan, and with a seeming criminal underworld. The books are excellent and so are plenty of the so-called ‘pastiches’ or reworks of Sherlock Holmes. We particularly enjoyed cataloguing Strand Magazines with their advertisements for long-gone products and diverse articles. We also enjoyed learning about less well-known (to us) detectives such as Dr Thorndyke and the Old Man in the Corner. All of our books are worth buying from the catalogue and we have tried to price reasonably. Many may not be in the most tip-top condition but we’d rather read a first edition for not much more (or even less) than it costs to buy a crummy paperback (obviously we don’t mean the British Library series…)

We have an amazing and rather quite knowledgeable founder and “General Factotum”, our Classics teacher Jonathan Cooper, whose father has collected and written about crime fiction for longer than we have all been alive put together (not really). Mr Cooper helps us with the huge things like making sure everything is alright and also proofing some things on the catalogue. He has been an amazing leader amongst all of the difficulties and hardships along our way. We do actually have a boy “ Head Bibliomaniac” who is really in charge. His name is Rupert but currently in these strange times he is unable to be at school and help us as much as he could. 

Thank you again to Mr. Edwards for letting us write this and we hope that you all had as much fun reading this article as much as we did writing it. We have two or three more catalogues coming up in this Crime Fiction series and (spoiler alert) some of Mr Edwards’ early works will appear in a later catalogue.
                                       Andrew Zhang and Jamie Pike  ('

And here is a member of the team, who happens to be called Sherlock. So the picture can be captioned 'Sherlock as Sherlock reading Sherlock'!

My thanks go to Andrew, Jamie, Jonathan Cooper, and everyone else involved with the Bibliomaniacs. I only wish there had been such a group at my own school!


Friday 11 December 2020

Forgotten Book - Gold Was Our Grave

Gold Was Our Grave ranks as one of Henry Wade's more obscure titles. It was published in 1954, at a time when his reputation as one of the most accomplished practitioners of Golden Age detection was fading, and it has never attracted any significant critical discussion. But it features his main detective character, the likeable, hard-working, and occasionally fallible John Poole of  Scotland Yard, and boasts several of the attributes that made Wade well worth reading.

The book appeared at a time when the likes of Patricia Highsmith and Margaret Millar on the other side of the Atlantic, and Margot Bennett, Shelley Smith, Julian Symons, and John Bingham in the UK, were remaking the crime novel. Their books didn't, for instance, tend to include maps of the crime scene in the classic tradition - but Wade's novel does, with a drawing of the relevant part of Lincoln's Inn Fields. It's a small point, but it illustrates that he was working in a vein that was no longer fashionable.

The early pages of the story give us a rather plodding (although relevant) account of a fraud trial involving a South American gold mine. None of the alleged fraudsters was convicted and now, it seems, someone is out to take a rather belated revenge. The prime mover in the gold mine fiasco is now a successful businessman and appears to be the victim of an attempted murder. But he doesn't want police protection - will this prove to be a fatal mistake?

There are plenty of classic touches here, as well as a couple of digs, characteristic of Wade, at the pernicious nature of British taxation policy in the post-war era. The plot twist is a variant of one used to brilliant effect by Agatha Christie in the 30s, the detective work is in the Freeman Wills Crofts manner, and the cynical attitude at the end of the book towards the legal system and the nature of justice is worthy of Anthony Berkeley. This is a rather wordy novel, and it could and perhaps should have been pared down considerably. But it's decent entertainment, a book that doesn't deserve to have been so widely overlooked.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Mortmain Hall in paperback

Tomorrow sees the long-awaited (well, by me anyway) publication of Mortmain Hall in its UK paperback edition. Because of the pandemic, the paperback has been delayed from its original scheduled appearance, in common with many other books.

Despite the fact that original publication took place during lockdown, Mortmain Hall has done very well for me and at one point the ebook edition climbed near to the top of the national Kindle charts, as well as being a bestseller in a couple of categories. But sales are one thing, quality reviews quite another. I've been thrilled by the reaction to the book from critics such as A.N. Wilson. It's not easy for a writer who has been around a long time to attract such attention, especially with a book that isn't the first in a series, so despite the difficulties created by the pandemic, I've been very fortunate. A lot of credit goes to the publishers Head of Zeus, not least for commissioning Ed Bettison to create that wonderful jacket Gallows Court has just been republished in paperback with new cover artwork in similar style. I'm so pleased with Ed's art that I persuaded him to supply me with a print of each cover, now framed and waiting for me to find a bit of wall space...

I've talked about the book on a good many platforms. The other day I had the pleasure of being interviewed by two marvellous writers, Abir Mukherjee and Vas Khan, on their podcast. You can listen here  


Monday 7 December 2020

Alanna Knight R.I.P.

Last Thursday I heard the sad news that Alanna Knight had died. Alanna was a leading light in Scottish literary circles and she was a friend of mine for more than thirty years. I've mentioned her a number of times on this blog, most recently when she was involved in organising the CWA conference in Edinburgh in 2017. I had the pleasure of presenting her with a bouquet of flowers as a token of our esteem for her contribution to our community of crime writers. 

She was a stalwart of the CWA and I first got to know her when she and her husband Alistair organised an earlier conference in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s. That was a memorable weekend and in the years that followed I saw her quite often, not only at annual national conferences but also at events organised by the CWA's northern chapter, which she attended regularly before the Scottish chapter developed. Among those events was a visit to Magna Large Print in Yorkshire; looking back at the photos of that occasion is nostalgic, as they depict several other fine writers who are no longer with us, in the company of a relatively youthful Martin Edwards.

In addition to her many novels, Alanna was a biographer and playwright and expert on the work of that gifted fellow Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson. As a crime writer, she was probably best known for her long series of historical mysteries featuring Inspector Faro. Some years ago I was delighted when she agreed to contribute a Faro short story, "The Case of the Vanishing Vagrant", to a CWA anthology I edited, Guilty Consciences.

Alanna was made an MBE, a well-deserved reflection of her status in the writing world. She and I had many convivial conversations over the years and she was particularly kind to my children in their youth, when I used to drag them along to CWA events. I think it amused and appealed to her that my wife and I brought them. I shall remember her fondly as someone who was always great fun to be with.


Friday 4 December 2020

Forgotten Book - Tidy Death

I first became aware of the detective novels of Nap Lombard thanks to Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. In the fascinating section towards the end of his book in which he mentions a whole range of oddments in the crime genre, he referred to the two books which Pamela Hansford Johnson wrote with her first husband, Neil Stewart under the Lombard pen-name. I don't know what the significance of 'Lombard' was, but I presume that 'Nap' was short for Neil and Pamela. Unfortunately, the books have never been reprinted, and I have never been able to track them down. 

Until recently, that is, and I'm pleased to say that the second novel, Murder's a Swine, also known as The Grinning Pig, will be published next year as a British Library Crime Classic. Today, however, I want to focus on the first book, Tidy Death, which appeared in 1940. By that time Johnson had already published several novels. She'd married Stewart, an Australian journalist, and they amused themselves with a short-lived literary collaboration.

Tidy Death is a thriller rather than a Golden Age-style whodunit (Murder's a Swine is a more conventional detective story, and is more elaborately plotted.) I'd describe this story as a romp which introduces Andrew Kinghof to his future wife Agnes - in the second novel, they are a married couple. Agnes' aunt, Miss Brick, is one of a number of victims in a bizarre murder case which also involves Lord Whitestone, a senior official at Scotland Yard and affectionately known to Andrew as Pig.

This is a breezy story which doesn't take itself too seriously and is none the worse for that. The prose is light and pacy. Not surprisingly, given Johnson's later literary successes, its quality is a cut above the average. I don't think this is as strong a book as its successor, but Agnes and Andrew are a lively pairing in the same mould as Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. It's a shame that the separations enforced by war led to the break-up of the authors' marriage, but I'm glad that at least one of their joint efforts is being revived at long last.


Wednesday 2 December 2020

A Study in Terror - 1965 film review

When I was about fourteen, I started reading Ellery Queen novels, some of which were being reprinted and available in the local library. There was also a recently published book, A Study in Terror, which involved Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. I read it, but was underwhelmed. Many years later, I learned that the book had been written primarily by a minor author called Paul W. Fairman, and that it was a novelisation of a film which had come and gone in the mid-60s without making any impact on my consciousness. The book wasn't bad, but it rather illustrated the weakness of the later ghost-written Ellery Queens - the new writers were (even though some were very capable) generally not as talented as the original pair of authors.  

At long last I've watched the film which inspired the book. It features John Neville as Holmes and a slightly uncomfortable Donald Houston as Watson. The cast is generally high calibre, with stars ranging from Judi Dench to Adrienne Corri and Barbara Windsor and from Frank Finlay to Robert Morley and Anthony Quayle. A lot of talent there! Neville isn't bad as Holmes but his portrayal is subdued. He doesn't get under the skin of the great detective in the way that Jeremy Brett or Douglas Wilmer did. 

I needn't detain you too long with a summary of the plot. A madman is out on the streets of Whitechapel, murdering sex workers. A mysterious package of medical instruments is sent to Holmes, prompting him to investigate. The script is workmanlike, with several clumsy lines when you think: 'Holmes would never have said that!' But it's watchable.

The script was written by Derek Ford and his brother Donald, though apparently it needed a lot of improvement before the film was made. Derek's later films included The Wife Swappers, Keep it Up, Jack, and What's Up, Nurse?, so he wasn't exactly Billy Wilder or Ben Hecht. When Wilder did become involved with a Sherlock Holmes film, the results was a superior film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.


Tuesday 1 December 2020

The Undoing - HBO/Sky Atlantic - final episode review

The Undoing, which came to an end on Sky Atlantic yesterday after the sixth and final episode, is a glossy thriller that has kept me interested throughout, although with some reservations, until letting me down at the end with a peculiarly unimpressive climax. It's one of those shows on which no expense has been spared and the stellar cast - led by Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, and Donald Sutherland - was top-notch. In this post, I'm going to discuss the way the story concludes, so beware spoilers.

The serial is based on a novel called You Should Have Known, a title which rather gives the game away. Suffice to say that this murder mystery wasn't in the same league as Broadchurch. But the performances of the lead actors were so compelling that until last night, I suppressed my doubts about the rather stretched-out storyline, which involves the brutal murder of a woman who has been having an affair with Grant (a specialist in cancer treatment) and given birth to his child - a child rather overlooked in the later stages of the story, it has to be said.

For me, the show fell apart in the courtroom, at the same time as Grant's defence. His supposedly hot-shot lawyer agreed to call Grant's wife as a sort of character witness. Why anyone would imagine that a jury would pay any attention to a wife saying that her husband was innocent, when she had no evidence to support that other than her gut feel as a psychiatrist, I really don't know. I know things are different in the US, and I'm no criminal lawyer - but even so. Predictably this bizarre error led to catastrophe, as well as the entertaining sight of the lawyer blaming anybody but herself for the ensuing debacle. At least this incident distracted attention from her previous weird and tasteless decision, to call the young son of the deceased as a witness for the defence.

These unlikely things are done, of course, to inject drama into the story. And yes, crime writers do this all the time - it's why seasoned police officers often cringe at the way we portray police procedure. For me, the test is whether the story works on its own terms. To my disappointment, last night it didn't, and the interest generated by earlier episodes of The Undoing was undone.