Friday, 26 February 2021

Forgotten Book - The Robthorne Mystery


The Robthorne Mystery was first published in 1934, when its author, John Rhode, was at the peak of his powers. He was a popular member of the Detection Club and an exceptionally prolific writer who had already established other punning pen-names such as Miles Burton and Cecil Waye; his real name was Cecil Street. Dr Priestley, who appears in the Rhode titles, was unquestionably in the tradition of the Great Detective. Because he was so productive, Rhode's quality control suffered intermittent failures, but The Robthorne Mystery is one of the most enjoyable of his books - at least among those I've come across (quite a few, but there are still upwards of one hundred to go!)

Recently I was fortunate enough (thanks to a generous tip from Clint Stacey) to acquire the copy of this novel that was originally in the Detection Club's own library. After reading the book, I went back to see if Dorothy L. Sayers had reviewed it (yes, I did collect and edit her reviews, but there were far, far more of them than I can recall). Her reactions seem to have been broadly similar to my own, although the title of the novel wasn't memorable enough in her opinion. We discover early on that this story involves identical twins, and when one of them dies, the twist is foreseeable. Except that Rhode does something rather crafty with this hoary old plot device.

Rhode was, above all, an ideas man. His writing was competent but undistinguished and the same can be said of his settings (in this case, an English village). I presume that his method of composition was to come up with a cunning trick and then build his story around it. Sometimes there was more than one trick. This approach can have disconcerting results, especially as regards story structure and shifting viewpoints. 

Here, for instance, a sudden death occurs and is investigated - and then the case seems to be closed. Even Dr Priestley seems to give up. Curious, the reader thinks: perhaps it really was suicide rather than murder after all? We then jump to a related scenario, in which the glimmerings of a motive for murder seem to emerge. But Rhode has more developments up his sleeve...

When all is eventually revealed, I was left thinking that the culprit's behaviour when faced with an admittedly serious threat wasn't entirely convincing. Rhode wasn't much interested in the psychology of crime, and this book illustrates why that can be a weakness. Overall, however, I felt that he kept the story moving along entertainingly from start to finish. He was aiming to write light escapist fiction and this book achieves that objective very nicely.   


Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Cast a Dark Shadow - 1955 - film review

Cast a Dark Shadow is sometimes referred to as a British film noir. I don't think that's an illuminating description. Really, it's an example of domestic suspense. The screenplay by John Cresswell is based on a play, Murder Mistaken, by Janet Green. Cresswell wrote for film and TV for about twenty years from the start of the 50s and he does quite a good job of disguising the essential staginess of the story. Janet Green was a talented writer, best known for films such as Sapphire and Victim, which dealt with significant social issues.

Cast a Dark Shadow is an unpretentious murder story which has a particularly good plot twist that lifts it a little out of the ordinary. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would later direct three Bond movies among other things. The cast is above average, with Dirk Bogarde playing an odious young rogue who rejoices in the name 'Teddy' Bare. He is well supported by Margaret Lockwood - a major star whose career was on the rocks at the time this film was released - Kay Walsh, Robert Flemyng, and Kathleen Harrison (playing a housekeeper of quite astonishing, but convenient, stupidity).  

Teddy marries a much older woman for money, and then kills her to prevent her making a will which will devise much of her estate to her sister. However, Teddy - who prides himself on his cleverness - is himself rather stupid and his murder actually has an effect very different from the one he intended. Undaunted, he gets to know a wealthy widow (Lockwood, in an uncharacteristic role which she handles with verve) and they get married. But then Teddy becomes interested in yet another woman...

This is an entertaining little movie. The music is by Antony Hopkins who later become a well-known radio presenter; I once attended a talk by him in the mid-70s, an occasion which I remember pretty well. The singer Lita Roza - remembered for 'How Much is that Doggie in the Window?' - appears in the film and sings a song; this contributes nothing to the story, but reflects a gimmick common in movies at that time. One other bit of trivia - the play was novelised in 1953 by Green in collaboration with Leonard 'Arsenal Stadium Mystery' Gribble.


The Chase - 1946 film review

The Chase is a drab title for a film based on a book with a rather better title - The Black Path of  Fear. But it's by no means a drab film, even if it is undeniably noir. I read the novel aeons ago when I was going through a real Cornell Woolrich phase, and although I can't recall much about it, I'm pretty sure that the film is very different. And it's certainly unusual.

We begin with Chuck Scott, clearly down on his luck and unable to afford breakfast. He's popping some pills, but it's not clear what's wrong with him. Then he finds a wallet on the ground and it's stuffed with cash. He buys breakfast but then heads off to the mansion which is home to the wallet's owner. This proves to be a rich guy called Roman, who is clearly a psychopath. Roman has a sidekick called Gino, played by Peter Lorre with characteristic sleazy menace. But when Roman offers Chuck a job as a driver, it's an offer too good to refuse.

Roman and Gino cross swords with a businessman who has outsmarted them, and manage to imprison him in the wine cellar, together with a hungry and vicious dog. Meanwhile, Roman's glamorous wife, clearly unhappy, keeps asking Chuck to drive her to a lonely coastline. She wants to escape to Cuba and offers Chuck $1000 to take her there. But then strange things begin to happen....

I don't want to spoil the story, which offers an intriguing take on psychological disturbance. Suffice to say that the narrative takes a very disconcerting course. I'm not sure this is entirely successful, but my attention was held throughout. Some aspects of the film are unsatisfactory - the music, for instance, struck me as over-the-top and occasionally irritating. The censors probably toned the film down to its detriment, but it retains an uncanny appeal.  

 

The Silent Partner - 1978 film review

The Silent Partner is a Canadian film from 1978 based on a Danish novel, Think of a Number, by Anders Bodelsen. The script was an early work of Curtis Hanson, whose later screenplays included L.A. Confidential. The score was written by Oscar Peterson and the lead roles were taken by Elliot Gould, Susannah York, and Christopher Plummer. In other words, there was a lot of talent at work here, and it shows.

Gould plays Miles Cullen, a bank teller who works alongside Julie Carver (York). Unsurprisingly, he fancies Julie, but she is having a rather desultory affair with the bank manager. When Miles realises that someone dressed up as Santa Claus is planning to rob the bank, he craftily arranges things so that the robber gets away with small change, while he keeps the money supposedly stolen. The snag is that the villain he has cheated (Harry Reikle, played by Plummer) is a violent psychopath, who is determined to take revenge on Miles as well as getting his money back.

Miles contrives Reikle's arrest on another charge, and although his attempt to seduce Julie doesn't end well, he finds comfort in the company of another beautiful and adoring young woman, Elaine (Celine Lomez). But is Elaine all that she seems?

Although Julie's part is under-written, with the result that York, a terrific actor, is given some rather banal dialogue, this is a twisty and entertaining film, with one or two shocking moments of violence. Plummer is excellent - as usual - and Gould, an actor whom I find a bit erratic, is on good form here. I'm surprised this film isn't better known. I enjoyed it, and I'm keen to read the book to see how different (or similar) it is. 

Three Novels On The Horizon

This week came an announcement that gave me a lot of pleasure. I've signed a deal with Head of Zeus to publish two more books set in the 1930s, taking forward the mysterious career of Rachel Savernake and her not entirely reliable sidekick Jacob Flint. I'm hugely committed to these books. Writing them is so rewarding. The reaction from reviewers and readers has been fantastic.

When I wrote Gallows Court, I was nervous about the response because although I wanted to write a twisty thriller with a difference, I was conscious that it was very different from, say, a conventional Golden Age pastiche. There is definitely a Gothic flavour to these stories. The same is true, though not quite in the same way, with Mortmain Hall. True originality is rare (I'll talk about this on the blog next week) but I do think these books are not quite like anything else on the market. Of course that carries some risks - this type of writing is not to everyone's taste, but it seems to have appealed to a lot of people, definitely at the top end of my hopes, let alone my expectations.

One positive consequence of lockdown is that I've been able to crack on with the next book in the series. In between lockdowns one and two, I did quite a bit of location research, when such a thing was possible, and very enjoyable it proved. The new book (which may be called Blackstone Fell, rather than Darkstone Falls as announced - we'll see...) is again an attempt to do something unusual with the classic crime story. I think it likely that this book will be published early next year, with Sepulchre Street to follow in 2023. 

What of this year? Well, I'm delighted to say that in June, Allison & Busby will publish the eighth and latest Lake District Mystery, The Crooked Shore. The US edition from Poisoned Pen Press will follow at a later date. It's quite a few years since The Dungeon House appeared, and I think the break has done me and the series a great deal of good. The Crooked Shore takes the lives of Hannah and Daniel a stage further, but again I like to think it offers something rather unusual compared to the typical series mystery. I'll be talking more about this book nearer the time of publication. In the meantime, I can say that I loved writing about the Lakes once again, and my personal feeling is that there is still a huge amount of life and potential in this series for future development.   

Monday, 22 February 2021

Bloodlands - BBC TV review


Bloodlands, the first episode of which aired on the BBC last night, has a great title and is a four-part thriller set in Northern Ireland. The writer is Chris Brandon, a new name to me, but the highly experienced Jed Mercurio is involved with the production, and there's a solid professionalism about the first episode which was more than enough to persuade me to keep watching. 

James Nesbitt takes the lead role as Brannick, a cop with (surprise, surprise) a troubled past, who is called in to investigate when a haulier with links to the IRA goes missing. There is a curious connection between this incident and crimes dating back to the era of the Irish Peace Process, which were the responsibility of an undetected serial killer known as 'Goliath'. And our hero's wife was one of the victims...

I don't know Northern Ireland as well as the Republic, which I've visited several times, but although the atmosphere is brooding, the scenes at a lough, where a small island yields its secrets at the end of the first episode, are a reminder that this is a country I've long wanted to see more of. One of the these days, maybe...

The main reservation I have is that the plotting verges on the clunky. I thought Brannick's behaviour when he went to visit the wife of the missing man was improbably naive and it seemed to be designed to create tension. Too artificial to convince, alas. And when the cops followed a lead to the island, the way they got confused about its rather simple geography was unimpressive to say the least. Again, it was a contrivance that was desperately unsubtle. But even if one deducts marks for these failings, there is enough grip in the storyline to make this worth watching again.


Friday, 19 February 2021

Forgotten Books - The Three Taps

Ronald Knox was an important and interesting figure in the history of detective fiction. He pioneered Sherlockian scholarship and popularised the idea of 'rules' for the game of writing detective stories, and in his work in both fields there is evidence of the flair for satire that was one of his trade marks. He was a founder member of the Detection Club, editor of a major anthology, and author of six detective novels.

Knox was a polymath and his interest in detective fiction was one among many of his enthusiasms. Perhaps this helps to explain why the six detective novels he wrote, although admired in their day, have not survived as well as the work of some of his Detection Club colleagues. But The Meirion Press has now produced paperback editions of his first two ventures into crime fiction. The Three Taps was his second novel, published in 1927, and the first to feature his series sleuth, the insurance investigator Miles Bredon. 

The book begins with an example of Knox's writing at its satiric best as he describes the wonderfully named Indescribable Insurance Company, for which Bredon works. We're also told about a 'euthanasia policy', a concept possibly (I don't know) of Knox's own invention, which plays an important part in the plot. Such a policy has been taken out by a man called Jephthah Mottram. When Mottram dies in mysterious circumstances in a decrepit inn in a Midland town, Bredon is called in.

We seem to be confronted here with a locked room puzzle. But is it a murder case? Might Mottram have committed suicide or died by accident? These questions are central to the story and Knox focuses at least as much on 'howdunit' as on 'whodunit'. The trouble is that the contrivances which ultimately explain what happened didn't engage my interest as much as I'd hoped. There is some very enjoyable writing along the way, but on the whole I was underwhelmed. Worth reading, though, for Knox's prose, which (at its best) is stylish and entertaining.  


Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You

In the very early days of this blog, I mentioned the TV series featuring Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen. I acquired the shows as a box set and have watched one or two episodes. The series was created by William Link and Richard Levinson, prolific writers who are probably best known for Columbo. One TV film for which they are not so well-known is Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You, from 1971. They wrote the script but are credited as 'Ted Leighton'.   

So the story goes, the duo were lifelong Queen fans, and jumped at the chance to write a pilot for a Queen series. They chose to adapt the novel Cat of Many Tails, a serial killer story, and the result was Don't Look Behind You. However, while they were off on holiday with their wives (at Universal's expense, Link explains in an interview I found on Youtube), the producer decided to make changes to the script that they disliked intensely. Another misfortune was the casting of Peter Lawford as Ellery Queen.

Lawford was very well-known in his day, but although he'd lived in the US for many years, he was English, and his smug smoothie persona, was quite unlike the character of Queen as almost everyone envisages him. In addition, his range as an actor was limited. One can well imagine the dismay that Levinson and Link felt. No wonder they disowned the script.

It's a real pity, because the story has some potential - the quest to find the link between seemingly unconnected killings in a series can be fascinating. This film does have its moments, although not as many as one would wish. What's more, the cast benefits from the presence of Stefanie Powers. However, Inspector Queen in this version is Ellery's uncle, rather than his father, and the script's attempt to update the relationship doesn't work well. The Jim Hutton series was, from what I have seen of it, a significant improvement, because it made a determined attempt to stay true to the spirit of the original stories.  







Monday, 15 February 2021

Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots by Michael Richardson


I was lucky enough to grow up in the Sixties, an exciting time for popular culture in Britain. The Beatles, Bond movies, The Prisoner, and much, much more. One of my favourite TV programmes as a young boy was The Avengers. I never saw the early Ian Hendry or Cathy Gale episodes - my introduction to the series (which my parents enjoyed hugely) was with the arrival of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. And so I've been interested to dip into a reference book about the series published a while back by Telos.

Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots is described as 'The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Avengers'. Well, it may not be authorised, but it certainly doesn't lack authority. It's a weighty tome, and Michael Richardson must have put a huge amount of work into writing it. The detail (which extra played a stuntman, that sort of level) is at times almost overwhelming.

So, for instance, there is material about unmade episodes (such as 'unmade wild west episode') as well as accounts of how scripts evolved and background info, including mention of a failed rival to the series, The Unusual Miss Mulberry, starring another Diana - Ms Dors - which was never made. The TV world, as I know all too well, is unpredictable. Series that seem to promise much never reach the screen. Series that are made might have been better left in the cutting room. To a large extent, it's a game of chance. But The Avengers went on for year after year. Whilst I think that a decline set in after Diana Rigg left, there was much to enjoy in some of the later episodes.

The point is made that fun was a key component of The Avengers. Yes, the storylines were outlandish in the extreme, yes, they were 'of their time', but the tales were told with such panache that the results, when the series was at its peak, were consistently enjoyable. Michael Richardson's book is a pleasing and in-depth companion to a classic example of television at its most entertaining. 



 

Friday, 12 February 2021

Forgotten Book - Sudden Death


Sudden Death was published in 1932, at a period when Freeman Wills Crofts was experimenting with the traditional detective story. Here he offers a locked room mystery, with not one but two 'impossible crime' scenarios. These have received high praise from astute locked room fans such as Jim Noy of the Invisible Event blog, which indicates that Crofts did a good job of the practical technicalities of mystification.

I'm a fan of locked room mysteries myself, very definitely, but I prefer those which have a touch of the baroque about them. Why? Because the locked room situation is essentially improbable, I think its treatment needs to be something out of the ordinary. Its appeal is that of the paradox - which is why G.K. Chesterton enjoyed writing 'miracle problem' mysteries, some of them first-rate. John Dickson Carr was especially good at laying on the atmospherics. Crofts' plain prose seems to me less well-suited to this type of writing. He had a gift for engineering technicalities, so this book is not short of diagrams or detail as to how the tricks were worked. But for me, the appeal of these things is reduced if I don't have the sense of the dazzling conjuring trick which is a large part of the appeal of the stories of Carr (and of other locked room specialists, such as Clayton Rawson). I enjoy being bamboozled in a melodramatic way, but the minutiae of howdunit don't excite me, maybe because I'm hopelessly impractical myself.

More interesting to me, as a writer certainly but also as a reader, is a point highlighted in the blurb of the first edition: Crofts 'constructed his mystery on novel and interesting lines. The action of the book is seen alternately through the eyes of two persons, Anne Day...and Inspector French.'  The shifts of viewpoint are done pretty well, in my opinion. Anne takes a job as a housekeeper with a man called Grinsmead (who happens to be a solicitor, although his profession isn't significant) and eventually forms a bond with Sybil Grinsmead. Sybil is convinced that her husband is having an affair and wants her dead. And guess what? Sybil dies. But in a locked room...

We think we know what is going on, but Crofts does have a significant plot twist or two up his sleeve. The trouble is that I wasn't convinced by the psychology of the culprit. Would this person have committed crime in that way? I wasn't persuaded that the answer was yes. At the time this book was written, the leading detective novelists were becoming interested in the psychology of crime, and Crofts himself ventured into this area in some of his books, with rather mixed results. Here, his prime focus is on method. This is a readable mystery, and Crofts' desire to try something new deserves praise. Even so, this is not one of my favourites among his books.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Mind Games - 2001 TV drama

It's twenty years since Mind Games, written by Lynda LaPlante, aired on TV, but I only caught up with it recently. I must admit I'd never heard of it before, but the summary sounded tempting and there's no denying that Lynda LaPlante is a highly accomplished exponent of TV crime drama. I still recall the brilliance of the original Prime Suspect, one of the outstanding shows of its day. Helen Mirren was superb as Jane Tennison but the script did her proud.


Mind Games benefits from having another talented actor, Fiona Shaw, in the lead. She plays Frances O'Neill, a detective inspector who has made a specialism of criminal profiling. She's quite obsessive about her work and there's a touch of mystery about her past. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that she is soon revealed to be a former nun. Quite a backstory...

She's called in to assist following the discovery of a ritualistic killing, the second in a few days. Both victims were women, who were bound to a chair in their own homes. But the houses weren't broken into - so why did the victims admit their own killers? A local plumber who was having an affair with one of the dead women and seems to have a connection with the other is the obvious suspect. But we know better than to concentrate exclusively on the obvious suspect, don't we?

The story is told with the pace that is necessary to ensure the suspension of the viewer's disbelief. The supporting cast, including Finbar Lynch and Chietal Ejiofor, is strong, but this is Fiona Shaw's show. It's interesting to look back on the cutting edge forensic science and forensic psychology deployed in the storyline and to see how much has changed over twenty years. Profiling remains highly relevant, but I don't think people have as much faith in it now as they did then. But I'm rather surprised that Frances O'Neill didn't become a series character. She seems to have been created with that in mind, but it never happened. She's very different from Jane Tennison but that backstory had a lot of potential... 

 


 

Monday, 8 February 2021

Ann Cleeves' writing and The Darkest Evening



I've had the pleasure today of reading a brand new Ann Cleeves story featuring Vera Stanhope which is destined to appear in a new anthology later this year - more about this project in due course. Ann is at least as good a short story writer as she is a novelist, and that is saying something. On the blog this year, I want to talk about a few of my favourite contemporary crime writers, and I'll start with Ann, whose latest novel, The Darkest Evening, is a Vera novel and about to appear in paperback.

When I was working on my first novel at the end of the 1980s, I looked closely at the work of a good many writers, including in particular a group of talented young authors who had emerged in the past few years. These writers were doing some things with the crime story that especially appealed to me, and the fact that they had broken through to become published authors was encouraging, even if they set the bar quite high. They were: Andrew Taylor, Liza Cody, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, Frances Fyfield, and Ann. I didn't know any of them personally, of course, but I admired what they were doing with the genre. Although each author has to find his or her own way, you can learn a lot from other people with whose work you are in sympathy. And the truth is that you never stop learning. Which is part of the rationale for Howdunit, to which all six of those writers, now all fellow members of the Detection Club, have made splendid contributions. 

Ann's books sell in the zillions these days. We live in a commercial world and sales are naturally driven to a significant extent by the success of two high profile TV series, with another, featuring Matthew Venn, in the works. But the key point is that Ann was a very enjoyable writer long, long before she became a bestseller. As with the other writers I've mentioned, I've been a fan from the outset (indeed, her debut novel is now marketed as a 'Pan Heritage Classic') and I've benefited from many discussions with her about the craft of writing and the writing life. I'm sure that right now erudite people are working on scholarly studies of her books. Here are just a few observations of my own.

The Darkest Evening is set at Christmas. Vera is driving when she gets lost in a blizzard. She happens upon an abandoned car with a small child strapped in the back seat. When she seeks help at a nearby house, she finds that it is Brockburn, where her late father grew up, and which is still in the family. Then a body is discovered in the snow. Notwithstanding her personal connections to some member of the household, she begins to investigate...

There are vintage ingredients here (Lord Peter Wimsey's car was also stranded in The Nine Tailors, for example) but I see this book as belonging to the broader tradition of the country house mystery, dating back to Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, rather than the Golden Age specifically; Ann is less interested in clueing and puzzle-making than she is in depicting people and place. 

She has always excelled at the evocation of landscape. Like Ellis Peters and P.D. James, she is especially adept at capturing the spirit and personality of the British countryside. 'Human Geography', her essay in Howdunit, is a very good explanation of her approach. Her treatment of individuals - not just her empathetic lead detectives - is always sensitive, while the themes and mood of her novels are consistently interesting. Her title comes from Robert Frost, and her use of Frost's poem gives The Darkest Evening extra resonance.

Ann is prolific, and it won't be very long before she writes her fortieth book. There is always a challenge for a writer who produces so much: how can I avoid the formulaic? One way is to employ innovative structures and storytelling methods - Reginald Hill, for instance, was a master of this method. Ann's novels generally follow a traditional pattern, but what she has done is to write no fewer than five series, each with distinct (predominantly rural) settings in different parts of the country. She tends to alternate between different series, and this is one of the techniques that has enabled her to keep things fresh. And it has worked well, to such an extent that The Darkest Evening is in my opinion one of her best books.   

Mind you, I have pointed out with rather cheeky glee to Ann that she's not the first person to come up with the idea of a country house mystery set at Christmas in Northumberland. Let me refer you to Mystery at Fallow Grange, second in the Melwyn Hughes series, written when I was ten years old - talk about great minds thinking alike! At that point, I'd never been to Northumberland, and it sounded like a remote and exotic place. And for connoisseurs of the deservedly obscure, here's the first page of that mysteriously unpublished masterpiece:

 


   

Friday, 5 February 2021

Forgotten Book - Candidate for Lilies

Roger East was in many ways a minor Golden Age author. He only wrote a handful of books, although his career lasted for thirty years. Yet he was an interesting individual and an appealing author. So appealing, in fact, that I find myself feeling frustrated that he didn't make more of an effort to establish himself as a crime writer of the first rank.

Candidate for Lilies, first published in 1934, illustrates both his strengths and his weaknesses as an author. It's a well-written novel with a genuinely interesting central idea. Yet one feels it could have been so much better. Now that may seem a harsh verdict. After all, Kirkus Reviews (not easily pleased) admired the novel on its American publication. More recently John Norris, a shrewd judge, has sung its praises on his Pretty Sinister blog.

The initial set-up is a familiar one. A rich old person, in this case Uncle Arnold, invites penurious family members to his mansion in the country, only to break the news that he's planning to change his will. As usual in Golden Age novels, the would-be testator duly gets his come-uppance. He's stabbed to death with one of his own Italian daggers, and we don't mourn him.

There's a restricted pool of suspects, and East's focus is as much on character and motive as on whodunit. As a result, the novel has an unorthodox feel to it, hence the critical praise. Today, when sophisticated writing in the crime genre is common enough, we may take East's ambition almost for granted, and I'm sure he could have made more of such material. But he could certainly write. Incidentally, the East name concealed the identity of Roger Burford (Roger d'Este Burford, to be precise!) and he was a Cambridge chum of Christopher Isherwood who worked in the film industry and later wrote for television. He deserves to be better known.


Wednesday, 3 February 2021

The Art of Reginald Heade

A few weeks ago, I discussed Cover Me, Colin Larkin's excellent study of Pan paperback cover art. This book is published by Telos (who also publish crime fiction, notably the work of Priscilla Masters) and I've now received from them two more lavishly illustrated books depicting cover art from paperbacks of long ago. Both books deal with the work of one prolific artist, well-known in his day, Reginald Heade. 


The two books are: The Art of Reginald Heade by Stephen James Walker, and The Art of Reginald Heade, volume 2, by Walker and Steve Chibnall. The central challenge in publishing books of this kind is to ensure that the quality of the illustrations is of a high standard. And Telos rise to that challenge.

I didn't know anything about Heade or his work before reading these books, though by a coincidence I see that one of his earliest covers was for a paperback original story by Francis Beeding, The Errant Under-Secretary, which was recommended to me recently. During the course of his career, he produced covers for many notable writers, ranging from John Steinbeck, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Anne Frank to thriller writers such as David Hume and Erle Stanley Gardner. His covers adorned magazines, children's books, romances, and westerns. He produced artwork for comic strips and jigsaw puzzles. He is, however, perhaps most closely associated with the work of Hank Janson, which I have to say doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. Titles like Hotsy-You'll Be Chilled, Slay-Ride for Cutie, and Death Wore a Petticoat speak for themselves. Unfortunately.

But just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover (though sometimes you can...), so one shouldn't judge Heade by the authors whose covers he designed. He was a highly professional artist, and did what he was tasked to do very efficiently. I find the discussion of his life interesting - and rather sad. I'm not sure I've ever read a story about an artist who specialised in book covers. Thanks to Telos, and these titles, I'm now strongly tempted to write one....  


Monday, 1 February 2021

Unnatural Death Revisited

Unnatural Death was Dorothy L. Sayers' third novel, first published in 1927. I first read it when I was very young. At that time I'd read one or two Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but my idea of a detective story was heavily influenced by Agatha Christie and I struggled with a book where it was pretty obvious from an early stage whodunit. I admired Sayers' writing enough to persevere with her work and in time I became a real fan, but although I've dipped into this novel several times, I thought it was about time I read it from cover to cover again. What would my reaction be this time?

It's an interesting story in terms of composition. It's pretty clear that Sayers started with, or conceived at an early stage of writing, two distinct ideas for puzzles or plot twists. Both were ingenious and interesting.  One was inspired by a topical legal issue. The other was a bit of medical know-how (which, it must be said, has been much debated over the years, and is to say the very least rather questionable). Upon these foundations she built a rather unusual story.

It begins with a chance conversation between Wimsey and his policeman friend Charles Parker and a doctor, who tells them a story about an elderly woman's death which he found suspicious. Wimsey is intrigued, and investigates with the aid of his entertaining sidekick Miss Climpson. This novel has never been televised, but if it was adapted, I feel sure a scriptwriter would want to show, rather than tell, what happened to the old lady before her death. Sayers' lack of experience in structuring a novel is rather evident in the early chapters.

The characterisation is fascinating. There are several women in the story who are evidently lesbians, but the mores of the time meant that their sexual orientation is addressed indirectly. Sayers also introduces a character who is significant in relation to the plot and who is black, something uncommon in detective fiction of the Twenties. He's presented very sympathetically, although the language of the time is racist. But you sense that Sayers was trying to do something unorthodox and courageous, even if she wasn't able to do so in a truly satisfactory way.

The killer's psychology is bizarre; there is a descent from ingenuity in murder to wild irrationality. It doesn't ring true, but again, despite the imperfections, one senses that Sayers was groping for a sophistication in writing that was rare in the genre at the time. Unnatural Death is, in short, the work of a writer who is serving her literary apprenticeship and who shows glimpses of great ability. She would produce better books, but there is rather more to this one than I realised when I first read it.



 


Friday, 29 January 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder at the Pageant


Murder at the Pageant was the penultimate novel of Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch (1868-1933) and was published three years before his death (my copy is the US edition, which came out a year later). By that time, Whitechurch's reputation as a detective writer was firmly established. His early railway-based short stories remain the work for which he is best known, but his first detective novel appeared in 1924 and he was one of the founder members of the Detection Club, contributing a chapter to The Floating Admiral

This novel is typical by those of Whitechurch that I've read. The mystery is solidly constructed, the detective work sound, and the general tone (especially when the author, a Rural Dean, pokes gentle fun at members of the clergy) is agreeable and occasionally humorous. Everything is rather under-stated and very English (or at least very English in the way that people outside England tend to think of the English!) 

The setting in and around a country house and small village contributes to the vintage atmosphere of the story. Not only is there a pageant, a sedan chair also features! A jewellery theft plays an important part in the story and this is, of course, a plot ingredient in the tradition of The Moonstone as well as many later Victorian mysteries. The plot is competently constructed and Whitechurch's lead detective, Superintendent Kinch, is hard-working and decent. Whitechurch was supposed to be one of the first crime writers to consult police officers in an attempt to make sure that his accounts of police work in his novels had a touch of authenticity.

Whitechurch wasn't really aiming, in novels like this, to break fresh ground in the genre. He wasn't a Sayers or a Christie, or even a Crofts or a Connington. His focus was on entertainment. His writing was of a higher quality than that of many other detective novelists of his time, and although I wouldn't claim that he was a master of heart-stopping tension - this story is simply too calmly told for that - they have considerable appeal . Especially in a pandemic, when light escapism has so much to commend it.


  


Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Howdunit and the Edgars


Champagne was quaffed in Chateau Edwards last night, and for good reason. I'm happy and proud to report that Howdunit has been shortlisted by the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar award. The Edgars are the longest-established and most prestigious of the US crime writing awards, so this news certainly represents one of the highlights of my career. It's timely to mention once again how grateful I am to all the members of the Detection Club who helped me to compile the book. And indeed to the families and estates of deceased members, ranging from Agatha Christie to Jessica Mann, who allowed me to reprint pieces they'd written in the past, which fitted in splendidly with the key themes.

Putting this book together was one of the most interesting challenges of my writing life. What was striking was the utterly unexpected way that the project grew and grew and grew. The book also developed into a work that is, I think, quite unlike any other publication. This distinctiveness is something that one always hopes for - it doesn't, of course, always work out, but this time I was in luck. The idea was to celebrate the Detection Club's 90th birthday and to raise funds to ensure that it continues to thrive. So the contributors (and the editor, of course) were to donate their contributions without a fee. I assumed this would mean that we'd only have a limited number of contributors, and that was my original vision: a quite modest and compact project. But the enthusiasm of everyone to take part was quite wonderful. As a result, the book took rather longer to turn into a cohesive whole than I'd originally envisaged, but it was definitely worth it. A slim volume became, during the course of 2019, a very big book indeed...



The Edgar awards will be celebrated on 29 April, but I will not be in the US this time, for obvious reasons. A shame, but inevitable. I am very lucky, however, to have wonderful memories of my previous visit to the Edgar awards, five years ago. It was a marvellous occasion, made all the more unforgettable by the fact that The Golden Age of Murder actually won.

Win or lose, though, I'm honoured to join that relatively small band of British authors who have been nominated for an Edgar more than once. And I hope that the nomination will encourage more readers to sample Howdunit and to enjoy the collective wisdom of some of the best writers in the business.




  

Monday, 25 January 2021

Quicksand - 1950 film review

Several films have been called Quicksand. The 1950 movie which is the subject of this review is an American film noir. Now plenty of films are described as 'film noir' which don't really fit that description in a meaningful way. When it's applied to British films of the Fifties, for instance, the term often seems just to be a synonym for 'black and white movie drama'. But here we have a classic film noir situation - an everyman figure whose life goes into a downward spiral following his encounter with a femme fatale.


The everyman in this case is car mechanic Dan Brady. He's played by Mickey Rooney, who is by no means my favourite actor; here, however, even though cast against type, Rooney gives a very good performance. He borrows twenty dollars from the till at work, in order to take a new girlfriend called Vera (Jeanne Cagney, sister of Jimmy) out on a date. He intends to pay the money back, but soon his troubles multiply and he gets deeper and deeper into trouble. Hence the title of the film.

The screenwriter was Robert Smith, whose script is admirably taut; we could do with him writing some of today's TV shows and cutting out some of the padding. There are some nice touches, and a great performance by Peter Lorre as Nick Dramoshag, the villainous owner of a penny arcade. The resort setting (Santa Monica) gives the film plenty of atmosphere, and there are some good minor characters, including Vera's horrible landlady (the splendidly named Minerva Urecal). There's even that rarest of creatures in a film script, a thoroughly decent and competent lawyer. 

The story isn't flawless, though. Dan behaves so stupidly at times that it's hard to sympathise with him. His treatment of the adoring Helen is especially reprehensible and difficult to understand. Helen is played by Barbara Bates, a beautiful woman who had a tragic life, cut short all too soon. I wasn't sure about the ending of the film, although in some ways it was satisfying. Not entirely in keeping with the film noir tradition, though. Overall, however, I found this movie a pretty gripping example of noir and it deserves to be better known.  



Friday, 22 January 2021

Forgotten Book - Whistle Up the Devil

Whistle Up the Devil is the only novel by Derek Smith that was 'traditionally published' during his lifetime. He was a devotee of locked room mysteries, and there's a good deal of welcome information about him in an excellent omnibus of his work that Locked Room International published a while back, and which includes Whistle Up the Devil as well as two other novels. I'm lucky enough to possess an original first edition, dating from 1953, which Smith inscribed to that great locked room mystery expert Bob Adey: 'For one "locked room" enthusiast from another'. But I have to confess that I've only recently got round to reading it.


Before I did so, I checked out various online reviews of the novel. They wax lyrical about the cleverness of the plot, which includes not just one but two ingenious killings in a sealed environment. So the reputation of this once highly obscure and almost unobtainable book has worn very well. And I can see why. Not only are there some very entertaining references to the locked room mystery form in the early pages, the story zings along nicely to the end.

It's fair to say that Smith's inexperience as a novelist and limitations as a prose stylist are evident. I lost count of the number of times that one character is described as 'an old rogue', and there are passages where the viewpoint shifts from one person to another in a rather clumsy way. First and foremost, the book is a vehicle for two crafty and very hard to fathom techniques for killing someone in a locked room. The characterisation is perfunctory, and the Great Detective, young Algy Lawrence, remains two-dimensional despite his yearning for romance.

But there are ample compensations. Above all, I love the idea of a mysterious secret being passed on from one generation of the seemingly cursed Querrin family to another in 'the Room in the Passage'. This thread of the story is a highlight, but there's no denying the ingenuity of the way the crimes are committed, while Smith offers a rather neat piece of misdirection about the culprit's identity before the elaborate truth is finally revealed. Of course, it's exceptionally far-fetched, but it's also fun. 


 


  



Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Finding Alice and Losing the Plot


I managed the best part of five episodes of ITV's new drama Finding Alice, which started this week, before giving up, defeated. I really, really wanted to love this show, because on the face of things, it has a good deal going for it. Wonderful actors, experienced writers, big investment in the production. And there are some great lines, as well as some fine performances.

But in the end, the fundamentally unsatisfactory nature of Finding Alice wore me down. It's one of those six-parters that would be much better as a three- or four-parter. Or perhaps a two-parter, so voluminous is the padding. But it's commonplace at present for shows to be expanded beyond their natural length, for commercial reasons. The real problem with Finding Alice is that it's caught in several minds about what it wants to be.

The premise is that Alice (Keeley Hawes) and her daughter (Isabella Pappas, who is excellent) are just moving in to a new smart house designed by her roguish partner Harry when he falls down the stairs and dies. There seems at first to be some mystery about his death - a visitor came to the house at the time of the tragedy. But this isn't a murder story. The focus is on Alice's experience of bereavement, and the way she copes with a whole host of secrets from Harry's past, as well as his parents (Kenneth Cranham and Gemma Jones - both superb) and her own (Nigel Havers and Joanna Lumley - terrific). Lumley gets many of the funniest lines, although as the episodes go on, her character becomes increasingly a caricature.

The writers are Simon Nye (most famous for Men Behaving Badly) and another very capable scriptwriter, Roger Goldby. As far as I can tell, they wanted to focus on a woman's difficulties in experiencing the loss of a loved one, but were also keen to throw in elements of both farce and practical reality. So we get various farcical situations, not least those involving burying Harry in the garden, but also a lot of stuff about tax, selling the house, and various property development shenanigans. 

I found the business stuff hopelessly unconvincing, I'm afraid. Alice's dad is a solicitor, admittedly not a genius, but surely even he would wonder whether as a dependent, even in the absence of a will, she'd have a potential claim under the Inheritance Act? And the tax talk made little sense. The same with the property discussions. Such clunkiness wouldn't matter too much if these things weren't dealt with at such length and so repetitively. 

One ensemble business discussion came over as a feeble echo of similar scenes in the third, and least satisfactory, Reginald Perrin series. (Simon Nye, perhaps significantly, wrote the remake of Reginald Perrin, and one can see the influence of David Nobbs here.) Alas, the tone of the story wobbles badly in each episode, and even Keeley Hawes at her most hard-working can't quite redeem it. There's a feelgood story in there, straining to get out. But - for me - it gets swamped in the silliness.   

Kate Ellis's writing and The Burial Circle

As a Christmas treat, I read Kate Ellis's The Burial Circle, which is set in Christmas 2020 (although thankfully as with Ann Cleeves' The Darkest Evening, the pandemic doesn't play a part: fiction can be so much more pleasurable than real life!) It's her 24th Wesley Peterson novel, but I can assure you there's no hint of diminishing powers in this story. It's entertaining from start to finish, with a very convoluted puzzle that delivers great value for any readers who like an elaborately plotted traditional mystery.  


The story opens with a young woman hitching a lift. It's foreseeable that bad things are going to happen to her - but what, and why? Then the scene shifts to a church, as a vicar is approached by a person who wants to confide something about an imminent murder. This is an intriguing scenario, which would spark the whole mystery in many novels; but such is the complexity of the plot that it is only a subsidiary thread of the overall storyline.

This is one of my favourite Kate Ellis books, close to if not top of the list. I'm surprised it's not been more widely discussed, so I'd like to put that right. She and I share a fascination with plot, and her essay in Howdunit (complete with illustrative flow chart!) is strongly recommended for its explanation of her methods. I've long been intrigued by certain similarities in our writing and I keep waiting for some academic to produce an authoritative analysis of her work. This post isn't a substitute for a detailed objective study, but I am tempted to muse on her methods and the thought processes that may lie behind them. 

Kate and I are of a similar vintage, come from comparable backgrounds, have spent almost all our lives in the north west, and share some of the same literary and cultural tastes, so it's not surprising that we enjoy each other's work. Nor that there is a degree of overlap between our writing, even though her story structure techniques are very different from mine. The Peterson series template, for instance, is to present two plots on parallel lines, one of them set in the past. We are both keen on history, but Kate's specialism is archaeology, which hasn't featured in any of my work. Also different are her methods of depicting character and setting, as well as her prose style. The similarities between our works of fiction are most striking in the Peterson books, less so in the Joe Plantagenet novels and the Albert Lincoln series (although one non-Peterson book did give a fresh spin to a classic Agatha Christie concept). Contrary to what you might think, though, the points of similarity don't arise as a result of our discussing plots with each other. 

I ruminated on all this as I read The Burial Circle. Sometimes I can solve Kate's mysteries because I can recognise and identify with the authorial thought processes. Here she fooled me completely. And the reason why she did this is one that I, at least, find interesting. So I'll try to explain it - though to avoid spoilers, I need to be cryptic. 

Kate and I both have imaginations that are sparked by vivid and macabre scenarios - this is why we both love the early episodes of Taggart, written by Glenn Chandler. I'd assumed from the title and jacket artwork that this book would feature a stone circle, something which I'm determined to feature in a forthcoming (and as yet unwritten) story, but this proved not to be the case. There were, however, two aspects of the storyline, concerning the activities of a modern day psychic and the historic sub-plot, that rang a loud bell with me. They represent a variation on two ideas in another Christie novel which I've been re-examining, since they appeal strongly to me and are well-suited to the Rachel Savernake series, which pays conscious and extensive homage to Golden Age tropes. 

Incidentally, there was an ingredient in the finale of Gallows Court which I included as a jokey tip of the hat to an over-the-top plot device in an entertaining book by John Dickson Carr. I was fascinated to find that this element also featured prominently in one of Kate's books, but I gather she hasn't read the Carr novel: what appealed to her was the bizarre and memorable nature of the concept that Carr had adopted for his story. The three books I'm referring to are, by the way, entirely distinct from each other. In other words, originality tends to come not so much from the raw material as from 'the way you tell 'em.' 

I speculated to myself that Kate's method of solving the mystery of the hitch-hiker in The Burial Circle might resemble my resolution of Rachel's next case, the Christie-inspired story which is my current work-in-progress. It turned out not to be, because what I hadn't realised was that the main plot driver of her book is a very different crime fiction trope, which I've referenced in passing in a short story, but never in a novel. It's mainly associated with suspense stories rather than whodunits, though it has been used rather craftily in two or three detective stories on classic lines, including an under-estimated novel by Leo Bruce. A version of it also featured in an early Taggart storyline. Here, Kate disguised what was actually going on with admirable cunning. 

I derive a good deal of pleasure (and learn a lot) from trying to deconstruct the stories of fellow crime writers - it tends to make me appreciate their skills more than ever. The Burial Circle was definitely a case in point. And even if you don't share my interest in plot analysis, I think you'll find it a very enjoyable, twisty whodunit. 


   


Monday, 18 January 2021

R.I.P. Stephen Levinson and Katharine Whitehorn


I was really sorry to learn of the sudden death last week of Stephen Levinson. Stephen enjoyed crime fiction, and the last time I saw him in person was when he came to a panel on Golden Age fiction at the London Library's 175th anniversary celebrations. But we'd known each other for more than thirty years and once upon a time, we wrote a book together.

I first met Stephen when I joined the Law Society's working party on employment law. He was already a well-established City lawyer, and we were both among the early specialists in the field. The working party was eventually elevated to the status of a standing committee, as the significance of employment law became increasingly clear to everyone, and so we worked together in total for about fifteen years.

In addition we were commissioned to write a book together. It was a strange project, unique in my experience of writing. The book was Know-How for Employment Lawyers, and the publishers wanted it to reflect the collective 'wisdom' of a trade union law expert  (David Cockburn), a top employers' lawyer (Stephen) and an all-rounder from the provinces (me). We would meet in London and discuss agreed topics. Our discussion was recorded and the results were written up by two young legal journalists. 

The very interesting thing to me was that, although David, Stephen, and I had very different perspectives and backgrounds, and we were all rather... well, strong-minded...invariably we found that there was very little difference in our views on how the law worked (or failed to work) and how a good lawyer should behave. It was really enjoyable to debate with two guys at the top of their profession. The young writers did a good job with the book, although it was very strange for me to see my views expressed in someone else's writing style. We had a glitzy launch in Chancery Lane, attended by lots of distinguished lawyers whom David and Stephen knew, and the whole experience was great fun, despite its weirdness The book did well, and we were asked if we fancied doing a follow-up. But I wanted to write books in my own way, and when the book was updated, that was done by other hands. 

Stephen and I remained in contact, meeting up occasionally in London. The more I got to know him and got to understand his teasing sense of humour, the more I liked him. He was very good company. I'm shocked by his death and sad to think that we'll never talk about books, cricket, and employment law's foibles again.


I knew the distinguished journalist Katharine Whitehorn for a much shorter time. We met at Detection Club dinners after my election in 2008. Katharine's husband, that fine thriller writer Gavin Lyall, had been a pillar of the Club and she continued to enjoy the social side of Club dinners after his death. She too was very good company and I wish I'd had the chance to get to know her better. Alas, her memory began to fail and the last time we met, it was clear that she was struggling. But her reputation as one of the finest women journalists of her era will stand. And, just as important, she was a very pleasant person.   

 

Friday, 15 January 2021

Forgotten Book - The Plague Court Murders

Published in 1934, The Plague Court Murders witnessed the debut of Sir Henry Merrivale, solver of locked room mysteries and unquestionably one of the Great Detectives of the Golden Age. Interestingly, the book was originally sub-titled 'a Chief Inspector Masters Mystery'. As Doug Greene says in his magisterial biography of John Dickson Carr (required reading for Carr fans and indeed any fan of classic crime), the author initially focused on the Scotland Yard man, who is a sceptical ghost-hunter, but this interest faded in Masters' later cases. Merrivale, who only enters the story half-way through, is by far the more memorable character, and it's no surprise that Carr chose to put him centre stage from then on.


The book was published under the name Carter Dickson, and Doug indicates that Carr's initial concept was that these books, branded distinctly, should concentrate on slightly simpler central puzzles. The mystery here is how a dodgy medium, Roger Darworth, can possibly have been murdered in locked room by an old dagger, once the property of a hangman, whose ghost is said to haunt Plague Court.

Quite apart from its historic importance as Merrivale's debut, this book is attractive because of the wonderfully atmospheric writing. Carr does lay the weirdness of Plague Court on with a trowel, but for me it works really well, and helps to create the necessary (very necessary) suspension of disbelief. The problem of the first murder (and as the title indicates, there is another one, almost as bizarre) is absolutely fascinating.

All that said, this isn't one of my favourite Carr mysteries. That's because I found the solution - ingenious as it is - very hard to swallow in several respects. No spoilers here, but I struggled to believe that the culprit could have got away with the central deception that set up the circumstances for the crime. One can debate whether it's an example of fair play, but I'm inclined to give Carr the benefit of the doubt on that point. However, the suspects and their possible motives weren't, for me, as interesting as the characters in Carr's best books, and the split of detective interest between Masters and Merrivale is rather clunky. But one has to remember that, although Carr was by 1934 a seasoned writer, he was still just in his late twenties. This book isn't a masterpiece, but it's a fun read all the same. 

  

 

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Bleak House - BBC (2005)


I've been a fan of Charles Dickens since my teens; I've even featured him in a couple of short stories. He was a terrific novelist. Much as I admire David Copperfield, Great Expectations and the light but enjoyable The Pickwick Papers, my favourite Dickens novel has long been Bleak House. I received my copy as a school prize when I was about fourteen and devoured it with great enthusiasm - despite its length. When the pandemic gave me more time for TV viewing, therefore, I thought I'd catch up on Andrew Davies's 2005 TV adaptation, which I missed first time around. Thanks to good old BBC Iplayer, I was rewarded with riches.

Indeed, deciding to watch this series turned out to be one of my best lockdown decisions. Davies is a superb screenwriter, and I've enjoyed much of his work, but here he excels himself. Each of the fifteen episodes into which he split this very long and complex novel is gripping. Davies's secret is that, like Dickens, he understands that a writer should never be ashamed of writing entertainingly. You can still make powerful points, and in both the novel and the TV series, Dickens and Davies do just that.

Davies will, I imagine, be the first to say that he was exceedingly fortunate in his cast. It is outstanding and the stars put in, without exception, tremendous performances. So Gillian Anderson is a charismatic if aloof Lady Dedlock, Timothy West is great as her bumbling old husband, Anna Maxwell Martin is charming as Esther (and more appealing, I think, than she is in the book), while Nathaniel Parker, so often cast as the good guy, is splendidly loathsome as Harold Skimpole. Denis Lawson does a fine job in the tricky role of John Jarndyce, while Charles Dance is utterly menacing as the remorseless solicitor Tulkinghorn.

I could go on and on, because there are so many fine performances, but I do want to single out Phil Davis's interpretation of the odious moneylender Smallweed. Absolutely brilliant. I must say that I was surprised that fog doesn't play a part in the programme - Davies blamed technical problems for causing him to remove foggy references from the script - but frankly that's a quibble. There is so much to enjoy in this version. It's the best screen adaptation of a classic novel that I've ever seen. Truly a tour de force.   

The Pembrokeshire Murders - ITV


I've been watching The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV this week. Two episodes so far, with one more to come tonight, plus a documentary about the case. I wanted to watch the drama-documentary because the case has interested me for many years. This is the latest in a number of true crime shows on the major UK tv channels, dealing with the likes of Dennis Nilsen and so on. And this trend has in turn given rise to debate about the ethics of true crime shows - a subject of some importance, but one which I'll leave to another day, other than to say that I think a great deal depends on the quality of treatment of the material.

The Pembrokeshire Murders is well-made, and Luke Evans, playing Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins, is a charismatic actor. The story is presented as a cold case mystery: Wilkins took a fresh look at three cases which he believes are linked. These are the murders of siblings Richard and Helen Thomas in 1985, the double murder of a couple, Peter and Gwen Dixon, on a coastal path (a very high profile mystery - I remember watching the original coverage on Crimewatch UK) and an attack on a group of young people, including rape and sexual assault at gunpoint.

There's no great mystery about whodunit. The prime suspect is John Cooper, a hardened criminal who at the time Wilkins' investigation begins, is serving time in prison for other offences. Cooper is played by Keith Allen, who invests a truly dreadful man with a few glimmerings of humanity that bring him to life: it's a very assured performance, and can't have been easy. But Allen is excellent.

The investigation is intriguing. One extraordinary stroke of luck is the discovery that Cooper appeared in a TV darts game show which enables the detectives to show that his appearance at that point resembled the portrait of the suspect. So far, we haven't heard much about the victims. This is always a dilemma for writers of such a programme. How far do you trespass on personal privacy, and to what extent do you risk glamourising a cold-hearted killer by focusing on him rather than on those he attacked? The makers have tried to surmount this challenge by giving us quite extensive coverage of Wilkins' personal life. So far, they have struck a reasonably good balance, even though the concept of the decent cop who doesn't give his family enough priority is a very, very well-worn theme, which isn't handled with any great originality here. Overall, though, this is one of the better dramas based on a real life crime in the UK.   

PS - I've now watched the third episode. Often, series of this kind fade after the first episode, but in this case, I thought the reverse was the case, and the story actually became stronger. The trial scenes were especially well done.


Monday, 11 January 2021

Which Wimsey? Carmichael versus Petherbridge


I keep trying to find upsides from the pandemic. One of them has been the chance to watch some TV shows and films I've missed, or not watched for a long time. I've now had a second look at two television series which aired in the 70s and 80s respectively. They are adaptations of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels, with different actors playing Wimsey. All the books but Whose Body?Unnatural Death and Busman's Honeymoon were screened. There has never been a TV or film version of the under-rated (but tricky to film) non-series novel, The Documents in the Case.

The first thing to say is that both series stand up to the test of time. Much better than I'd have expected, to be honest. This is perhaps especially true of the first series, starring Ian Carmichael as Wimsey. One tends to under-estimate Carmichael, and as he admitted himself, he was really too old for the part, but he throws himself into it with so much enthusiasm that one can't help but be swept along. He was a real fan of the stories, and that degree of commitment is evident. Wimsey isn't the easiest character to play, because of his (often deliberate) mannerisms, but Carmichael does a good job. The production values aren't brilliant, but the scripts are very capable.

I had warmer memories of the subsequent series, featuring Edward Petherbridge. The way in which he conducts his pursuit of Harriet Vane (splendidly played by Harriett Walter) is slightly more mannered than I recalled, but his performances are consistently good, as he rises to another testing challenge. Wimsey in the later books had become less of a Woosterish 'silly ass', and rather more of a romantic hero. There was some element of wish fulfilment in his portrayal, as Sayers herself admitted, and also in that of Vane, but I've always thought that it's rather patronising, as well as less than accurate, to say that Sayers 'fell in love with her hero'.

Sayers' ambition as a crime writer was admirable. Yes, there are flaws in all the books, but there are riches too. And by and large, the stories make excellent television. Five Red Herrings is a relatively plodding alibi mystery, but the TV version was, for me at least, definitely more enjoyable. The screenplay of Have His Carcase might perhaps have been better as three episodes rather than four, but reducing the chit-chat in Gaudy Night resulted in an entertaining version that captures some of the flavour of the original without the prolixity. I also loved Richard Morant's version of that estimable sidekick Bunter.    

So - Carmichael or Petherbridge? If you'd asked me a year ago, I would definitely have opted for Petherbridge's interpretation. But on reflection, I must say that both actors (supported by very good casts) do an excellent job. For escapist viewing, both Wimsey series are perfect for these troubled times, 




Friday, 8 January 2021

Forgotten Book - Betrayals

Charles Palliser, an American long resident in Britain, is an interesting writer with a gift for pastiche. But that description doesn't do him full justice, because he has a considerable literary range as well as talent. This is well illustrated by Betrayals, a book published twenty-five years ago with more than a touch of Borges about it. It's much less well-known than his debut, Quincunx (which I'm hoping to read soon) but I found it very interesting.

The book is divided into ten sections. The first and last are extracts from a newspaper, the Daily Scot, an obituary and a review respectively. The former is a malicious piece of work, about a late Glaswegian professor called William Henry Dugdale. It refers to a number of mysterious incidents, and these allusive touches set a pattern for the book.

The next section, 'The Wrong Tracks', is particularly enjoyable. It's a collection of three stories, each told by passengers from a stranded train. It soon becomes clear that there are connecting themes, in particular about types of betrayal, and these connections continue throughout the narratives that follow. These are highly varied, and even include a parody of the then hugely popular Scottish TV series Taggart. I enjoyed Palliser's wit very much, even though I felt that particular section of the story was expanded beyond its natural length.

That said, the book doesn't, in the end, hang together quite as well as I'd hoped. There are various deliberate infelicities in the texts, and I'd anticipated a satisfying explanation for them; if one was provided, I missed it. I certainly got the impression that Palliser was paying off a few personal scores, and the book does not ultimately prove to be quite as tightly structured as it might have been, all the connections and repeated themes in the different sections of the story notwithstanding. So I can't claim that Betrayals is entirely successful, because to some extent I felt it fizzled out. But there's plenty of entertainment along the way. And plenty of ingenuity too.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Cover Me - Colin Larkin - review

The sub-title of Colin Larkin's Cover Me, just published by Telos Books, speaks for itself: The Vintage Art of Pan Books: 1950-1965. This large and lavishly illustrated is a joy to leaf through, and Larkin's chatty text brims with enthusiasm for his subject. He explains how he acquired a massive collection of Pan paperback cover artwork, and one or two controversies which he encountered thereafter. Illustrations which were once perceived as valueless and disposable are now very valuable. This book is a long-term project, clearly a labour of love, and Telos have done him proud with the quality of reproduction of the images. Author and publisher deserve to be congratulated.


Paperback artwork isn't a subject that I'd ever thought about much (except perhaps in the context of my own books) until I bumped into the American expert Art Scott at the Las Vegas Bouchercon, not far short of twenty years ago. I bought a copy of Art's book about Robert McGinnis's artwork and although Colin Larkin is interested in an imprint rather than an individual artist, he is clearly as expert as Art Scott. He discusses many of the artists responsible for Pan covers and among other things, I learned the - to me, rather amazing - fact that the Pan piper logo was originally designed by Mervyn Peake.

This is a book about artwork rather than the novels themselves, but since Pan had a specialism in crime and thriller titles, many novels and authors familiar to crime fans feature here. It's clear that Colin Larkin isn't an Agatha Christie fan, and he is under the mistaken if not uncommon impression that The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a locked room mystery (it's a closed circle mystery, i.e. with a restricted pool of suspects, which is rather different). But this is a tiny quibble - the sort reviewers indulge in just to prove they've read the book! In a volume of this kind what matters is the principal subject matter, and he discusses that in a very informative way.

I was starting to buy cheap paperbacks at or just after the end of the era that Colin Larkin writes about, and to me - in those days - the Pan covers seemed rather old-fashioned. I much preferred Tom Adams' covers for the Christies which appeared under the Fontana imprint. Now, with the distance of time, I've modified my views. The Pan covers seem to capture a particular era, an age of austerity when excitement was perhaps felt to be in short supply. In some cases, they also seem rather sexist, but at the time 'raciness' was considered very appealing. We can learn about social attitudes from a book like this, just as we can from reading the novels themselves. The vivid, occasionally lurid covers played a huge part in selling books in large quantities. 

Covers do matter, whether we authors like it or not. And thanks to Colin Larkin and Telos, we can now enjoy an extended glimpse into a vanished world. I was really glad to read this book.  

 

 

Monday, 4 January 2021

Making a Start

This week should get the new year off to a good start, since I'm aiming to deliver a new book to the publishers. This one is called 21 and it's a short story anthology, a collective effort on the part of the members of Murder Squad, the group of northern writers founded by Margaret Murphy back in 2000. Back then, we never dreamed that the group would still be going strong after so many years. And back at the start of last year, we were looking forward to various events to celebrate our 20th anniversary - we even acquired a special logo, as you can see below! Well, we all know what happened about that, but we also planned to produce this book in 2021, and we were delighted when Severn House signed it up.


There are six current members of the Squad: Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis, Margaret, Cath Staincliffe, Chris Simms, and me. Each of us have contributed three stories - more than half of which are either brand new or haven't previously been published in the UK, while former members John Baker (now retired as a novelist) and Chaz Brenchley (now based in the US) and, by kind permission of his widow Doreen, the late Stuart Pawson have one story each in the book. I've written an editorial intro and Margaret has contributed a foreword. We're happy with the book and we hope our readers will be too.

I tend to avoid making new year resolutions these days. At the moment, mere survival seems a reasonable objective! But I've been writing away over the festive season, and I hope that this blog will occasionally feature extended posts on selected subjects. For instance, I want to talk about Ann's latest novel and Kate's most recent Devonian whodunit, discussing facets of their writing which I find particularly interesting, and musing on the various similarities and differences in our work.

As for 'live' events, it's too soon to know what this year holds in store. Last night I enjoyed catching up online with friends such as Shelly Dickson Carr, Gigi Pandian, Jeff Marks, and Steve Steinbock, whom I've missed seeing at various conventions in the US. This was in lieu or our usual dinner at Malice Domestic, but when we'll next get together in person remains to be seen. Maybe at Bouchercon in New Orleans, if we're really lucky. 

And this week I undertake my third week of online lecturing for Adventures Online, on The Art of the English Murder Mystery. I very much enjoy working with various colleagues on these sessions, not least Simon Dinsdale, a former police superintendent with a wealth of great stories. This is a programme aimed currently at American crime fans, but who knows, it may extend to the UK in due course. Fingers crossed!  

  

Friday, 1 January 2021

Forgotten Book - Big Ben Strikes Eleven

Happy new year! As I've mentioned, it's going to be a busy one for me in terms of writing projects. I'm also aiming to keep this blog going in 2021 and I hope to include occasional pieces about crime writing technique. My website has finally been revamped, and the updating process will continue in the coming months. Let me encourage you to get in touch via the contact page as well as by comments on this blog if you have any questions or suggestions. 

After watching the understandably muted new year celebrations, I thought I'd ring in the new year with a post about a truly forgotten novel which is rather interesting, even if its title isn't as relevant to the story as one might expect.   

David Magarshack (1899-1977) is remembered today as a notable translator of Russian, in particular the work of Dostoievsky and Gogol. He was born in Riga when it was within the Russian Empire and he fled to Britain after the First World War because of the antisemitic legal regime in his homeland. He studied at the University of London and tried to make a career in journalism, with limited success. In the 1930s he followed fashion and tried his hand at writing a detective story. The result was Big Ben Strikes Eleven.

The ambition of this novel is illustrated by its sub-title: 'A Murder Story for Grown-Up People'. What does this mean? To a modern reader it seems rather patronising, as if the debut author is saying that most mystery fiction is written for childish minds. I doubt that was his intention. What I think he was probably trying to get at was that he wanted to write about character and motive, to make his book something more than a crossword puzzle type of whodunit. Possibly he saw himself as a Dostoievsky of commercial crime fiction. I confess that I'd not heard of Magarshack until he was mentioned to me by Elinor Shaffer, who in turn introduced me to two fellow academics, Muireann Maguire and Catherine McAteer, who have given me some very helpful insights. 

This story concerns the death of the rich and (naturally) unpleasant Sir Robert Boniface, who is found shot in his blue limousine. There is a possibility that he committed suicide, although the sub-title kills off that interpretation. We are introduced to a fairly narrow range of suspects, and the detective work is undertaken not by a brilliant amateur but by two Scotland Yard men, Superintendent Mooney and Inspector Beckett.

Dorothy L. Sayers gave the novel a rave review and I must say that the calibre of writing is truly remarkable for someone who had arrived in Britain less than fifteen years before the book appeared in 1934. The prose is a little ponderous, though, perhaps a side-effect of Magarshack's literary ambitions. I've read his second novel, Death Cuts a Caper, but found it fairly turgid, despite some interesting elements in the storyline such as the use of tarot cards. He wrote a third novel (which I haven't yet read) but then abandoned crime for translation, where he achieved much more success. Perhaps he'd discovered that writing murder stories for grown-ups is harder than it looks.