Wednesday, 12 May 2021

CADS 85


I've often extolled CADS on this blog. I've read every single issue, and it's now up to number 85. The editor, Geoff Bradley, has done a brilliant job for decades and crime fans, especially fans of traditional mysteries, have much to thank him for. I've contributed articles from time to time since issue 6, but for me it's a real pleasure to make fresh discoveries as a reader - which happens with every issue. There are so many riches in the back issues that I often find things I've forgotten when browsing through them, or which make more impact second time around, for example because I've now read the book or author under discussion.

The latest issue is CADS 85 and it's full of interest. I wrote one of the articles - it's called 'Hunting The Cornish Fox' and it concerns C.H.B. Kitchin's novel of that name, and some interesting letters he wrote about it. A niche subject, admittedly, but one that I found really fascinating for the light it cast on one author's thoughts about his book.

There is a long and eclectic list of contributors, including - to name but a few - Melvyn Barnes, Philip Scowcroft, Philip Gooden, Barry Pike and Kate Jackson. Liz Gilbey writes about P.B. Yuill, an author I really like, and Marvin Lachman's very well researched obits column is informative as always, if occasionally touched with melancholy. I wasn't aware, for instance, that Jerry Oster and Anthony Quogan, two pretty good and very different writers, had both died.

One of the contributors is Professor Michael Wilson, who writes about one of his specialist subjects, Grand Guignol. It's good to see an academic writing in a very accessible way for a magazine like CADS and I hope to see further contributions from Mike and from other academics in issues to come. There is no online version of CADS, but if you'd like to buy a copy, contact Geoff at geoffcads@aol.com  



 



Monday, 10 May 2021

Anabel Donald R.I.P.

There are many, many good writers whose work flourishes for a few years and then fades from view. One of the reasons why I feel so committed to working on the archives of the CWA and the Detection Club (not that I have any training or professional expertise as an archivist) is that I'd like to help in some way to keep memories of such writers alive. And on Friday, I heard from Maxim Jakubowski, the recently elected CWA Chair, the news that Anabel Donald, who was undoubtedly a good crime writer, has died at the age of 76. 


I came across Anabel's books, published by Macmillan, when I was reviewing crime for 'The Criminologist'. It's twenty-five years since I last read her, but I recall that I enjoyed her writing. She created a female TV researcher and detective called Alex Tanner and she wrote with plenty of zest. There was a short series of books about Alex and they might have made good TV. Yet it's almost twenty years since Anabel's last novel appeared. I don't know why she gave up, but regular readers of this blog will know that I regularly bemoan the fact that talented writers so often stop publishing after few books, sometimes because of frustration with the publishing world, sometimes because the well of inspiration runs dry, sometimes simply because life gets in the way.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Anabel. In fact, she inscribed three of her books for me - one of them, In at the Deep End, to 'Martin, the non-working solicitor'. This was back in May 1995, a jokey reference to the fact that I was a full-time partner in my firm but still determined to attend crime fiction  events whenever I got the chance! Having liked her work, I was glad to have a chat with her. I remember she struck me as charming and good company but for some inexplicable reason my abiding memory of her is an anecdote about her having, as a student at Oxford, taken part in University Challenge. I'm not even certain now exactly where we met - it may well have been at a CWA northern chapter event, since at the time she was living in Doncaster.

She was born in India and published her first novel as long ago as 1982. After many years as a lecturer, she became a head teacher. In at the Deep End is actually dedicated to the pupils of St Mary's School, Doncaster. Her husband Miles was an author, while one of her sons is an agent and another, Dominick, scored a hit three years ago with his novel Breathe (which I haven't read, but which sounds excellent).  Her contribution to the genre may not have been on the grand scale, but it made a positive impression on me, and I am sorry that she did not write more.



Friday, 7 May 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder After Christmas

Detective stories set at Christmas have become, if not the Holy Grail of modern publishing, something not too far from it. One consequence of this is that the search for vintage mysteries with a Yuletide setting has intensified. Books have been retitled and snow-covered artwork commissioned in order to emphasise the Christmassy credentials of a variety of novels, some of which only touch on Christmas in a rather incidental way. 

To find an unfamiliar Christmas mystery from the Golden Age has therefore become something of a rarity, almost a luxury. And I must say right away that very few examples of classic crime at Christmas capture the flavour and atmosphere of the 'season to be merry' to the same extent of Rupert Latimer's Murder after Christmas, which was first published during the Second World War, and perhaps because of that unfortunate timing has seldom if ever been discussed. The storyline is also interesting for its depiction of domestic celebrations during war-time.

The story begins at the home of Frank and Rhoda Redpath, who decide to invite 'Uncle Willie', as he is known, to spend some time with them at  Christmas. 'Uncle Willie' is actually Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, a rather disreputable character but extremely rich. So rich that jokes are cracked about killing him for his money....

What follows is a madcap series of events involving mince pies, potentially poisoned chocolates, a snowman, and much else. Time of death and alibis play an important part in a dizzying sequence of events which ultimately end in a pretty satisfactory resolution. This is a witty and entertaining story, even if at times it is a bit barmy. Rupert Latimer was a pen-name for Algernon Victor Mills (1905-1953), about whom I am trying to find more information. He published Death in Real Life before this book, but doesn't seem to have returned to the genre. A pity. 



 

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The Neighbor aka Last Days of Summer - 2018 film review


The Neighbor
is a film released in 2018 which is also known as Last Days of Summer. Both titles are rather low-key, perhaps excessively so, and this rather reflects the mood of the film itself. The story is one of those which involves crime but which is perhaps better described simply as a drama. It's not a whodunit, for sure, and the mystery is really just about what fate holds in the store for the central character.

That person is Mike Prentis, a man in late middle-aged, married with a son, who works from home as a technical writer. Mike is a mild-mannered chap, almost an everyman figure. If that doesn't sound exciting, well, excitement isn't what this film is all about. It's a study of character and although the story is slight - no elaborate plotting or cluefinders here! - it's carried along by the superb performance of William Fichtner as Mike.

I don't know much about Fichtner, but I was very impressed by his nuanced reading of an essentially decent man who becomes increasingly obsessed with his pretty neighbour Jenna (Jessica McNamee), who has moved in next door with her outgoing and extremely irksome car salesman husband Scott (Michael Rosenbaum). Mike has, in many ways, a very good life. His wife Lisa (Jean Louisa Kelly) is attractive and intelligent, a teacher with great commitment to her work. Kelly does well, however, to convey Lisa's essential selfishness and coldness. She complains, quite reasonably, that Mike doesn't show great interest in her work, but fails to recognise that she is even less interested in him. Their son Alex is closer to her than to Mike, and although Mike is a pleasant guy, we have a sense of his increasing isolation.  

Mike becomes concerned that Scott is abusive towards Jenna, but although he tries to protect her from harm, matters are complicated by the fact that he fancies her like mad. He wants to do the decent thing, but from an early point in the story, one worries that it won't end well. This is a sad film, a sobering story of disintegration. Even though the plot is thin, I thought it well-made and conspicuously well-acted.  

Monday, 3 May 2021

Enola Holmes - 2020 film review


One legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic will, I'm sure, be a high level of demand for escapist entertainment in a wide variety of forms. We're already seeing evidence of this in a number of places, and the popularity of the Netflix movie Enola Holmes is a good example. It's a light, feelgood movie with some excellent acting and high production values and although it does have various weaknesses, to some extent it chimes with the mood of the times.

The great strength of the film lies in the appeal of Millie Bobbie Brown, who plays Enola, the younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. She brings a great deal of verve to the part, and in an interesting move, she breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience. The film begins on her sixteenth birthday, with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter).

Sherlock and Mycroft hasten back home - having ignored Enola for many years - and Mycroft's attempts to send Enola to finishing school prove abortive. She sets off to find her mother and becomes involved in another mystery, involving an attempt to kill young Viscount Tewkesbury. I particularly enjoyed the railway scenes, filmed on the wonderful Severn Valley Railway. 

There is an enjoyable role for Frances De La Tour, and the reliable Fiona Shaw is also in the cast, but this is Enola's film. Her character is genuinely interesting and engaging, whereas the mystery storyline is pretty ordinary. The detective work is nothing special - it's mostly to do with codes and ciphers - and we don't get to meet Dr Watson, while this version of Mycroft is unappealing. The script isn't a model of subtlety and because the film is far too long, my attention did begin to wander. Just as the best Sherlock stories were the short ones, so the best screen versions of stories featuring the great detective are crisply written and don't outstay their welcome. This isn't one of the best, but it's a pleasant time-passer. And it's made a vast amount of money, so a sequel is on the way. 

Friday, 30 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The Litmore Snatch


The Litmore Snatch, published in 1957, was Henry Wade's final novel. He was 70 when it appeared. I've had a copy for years, but until now I've never got round to reading it, despite the fact that I'm a long-term fan of Wade. I suppose the reason was because I feared it wouldn't be much good. The title, with its faint hint of desperate trendiness I found off-putting. Another factor was that I've read very few really good books about kidnapping. And there's been very little discussion of this one, despite a revival in Wade's popularity in recent years.

But I decided, for no particular reason, to give it a go, and I'm very glad I did. Rather like Wade's debut, The Verdict of You All, written more than 30 years earlier, it's a story which is heavy on police investigation, and rather reminiscent of the work of Freeman Wills Crofts. The setting is interesting and untypical - the north east coast of England. The main locale is the fictional town of Harborough (rather more built-up than Scarborough, and to the north) but Hartlepool also plays a part. 

I found the opening pages a bit ponderous. In some books (but not others) Wade's prose did plod along rather than move with a zing, and at first I felt this was indeed going to be an anticlimactic novel, lacking the energy of its predecessors. But once the son of newspaper owner Herbert Litmore is kidnapped, things liven up. One very interesting element in the second half of the story is the part played in the inquiry by a woman police officer, Sergeant Mary Wittam. There may have been British books before this which featured female cops, but I can't think of any.

Wade does try to move with the times - a holiday camp, Bullivant's, which is presented as a sort of upmarket Butlin's, is relevant to the storyline, for instance - but as so often, it is his interest in the relationships between police officers that is most striking and effective. The plot is workmanlike rather than dazzling, but it kept me entertained. Overall, The Litmore Snatch is a good read, and represents a perfectly sound finale to a first-rate crime writing career.


 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

The Life of David Gale - 2003 film review


The Life of David Gale was the last film made by that excellent director Alan Parker. Nicolas Cage was also involved in the production, and the screenplay was written by Charles Randolph (whose other credits include The Interpreter). The cast is led by Kate Winslet and Kevin Spacey, and their names tempted me to give it a watch. This is a film which seems to have divided opinion quite sharply. Critics disliked it. Audiences give it high ratings.

What explains this disparity of reaction? I think it must have a great deal to do with the central theme of the story. This is a thriller which has capital punishment at its heart. There is a race against time in the traditional way as Winslet's character (journalist Bitsey Bloom) strives to save the life of Gale (Spacey) before the time appointed for his execution. But the pros and cons of the campaign to abolish the death penalty are also central to the film, and.Parker described it on his very informative website as 'a thriller with a polemical heart'.

David Gale is a philosophy lecturer and passionate campaigner against the death penalty who is about to be executed when Bitsey is offered the chance (in return for half a million dollars) to have an exclusive interview with him for her magazine. The deal is done, but as Bitsey listens to Gale tell his story, she begins to believe that he is innocent of the crime. But if he didn't kill his fellow activist Constance, who did?

The quest to find the truth is very well handled, although there are also various holes in the plot. But if you consider this film as a thriller, I think it works pretty well despite those flaws, mainly because of the excellence of the acting. It's quite a long film, but Parker certainly knew how to keep the momentum going in a movie. If you're looking at the polemical side of things, however, I'm sure you'd find it equivocal. For my part, I was engaged right to the end and the final, truly outrageous twist.

Monday, 26 April 2021

The Rental - 2020 film review


Inevitably, one's reaction to a book or film is often coloured by one's expectations. This is one of the reasons why it can be a good thing, when time allows, to give a novel or movie a second chance if it didn't live up to those expectations the first time around. When I watched The Rental, a recent crime film which teeters on the edge of the horror genre, I must admit that I wasn't expecting much - just another routine home invasion film, I presumed. But although it's no masterpiece, it is better than I anticipated.

I've never stayed in an Airbnb rental home, but apparently the director and co-writer David Franco got the idea for the story from an experience in such a place. Suffice to say that his film isn't a great advertisement for that kind of short break. From the moment that Charlie and Mina contemplate renting a house in a very remote - though lovely - location for the weekend, one fears for them. And rightly so.

Charlie and Mina are business partners. Charlie is married to Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina is dating his brother Josh, who has recently served time in jail but is trying to make a fresh start. I have to say that, before long, I began to dislike all four of them (and their dog), and one of the flaws in the script is that they are almost as unlikeable as the creepy chap who shows them round the rented house.  

There's quite an interesting idea at work here, which only becomes clear right at the end of the film, and this means that the story isn't quite as predictable as seemed to be the case for much of the running time. Before that intriguing climax, the two couples make some stupid decisions with disastrous consequences. At least the dog comes to no harm...  


Friday, 23 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The Dark Page


Samuel Fuller is remembered today mainly as a film director. His movies were sometimes under-estimated and often made on the cheap, but his storytelling flair often shines through. Among various other accomplishments, he was also a talented novelist and The Dark Page, published during the Second World War while he was serving as a soldier in Europe, is a particularly interesting and highly readable book.

The book was filmed (although not by Fuller) as Scandal Sheet; I haven't seen the movie, but reviews suggest that it lacks the novel's hypnotic grip. And grip the reader it certainly does, partly because of the punchy prose and partly because the set-up is very appealing, while the background - in the newspaper business, which Fuller knew very well - is done with tremendous conviction.

The story opens at a Lonely Hearts Ball, organised by ace newspaperman Carl Chapman. Carl has an eye for a headline and the event is a great success. He's at the peak of his powers, happily married, a family man. But disaster awaits. Someone at the Ball recognises him. And it turns out that Carl has a secret in his past, a secret he will stop at nothing to protect.

The plot influenced that of a better-known book, Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock. I admire Fearing's version of the basic idea, but Fuller's treatment is equally impressive. Even in the 21st century, an enterprising film-maker could conjure up a very good movie from the raw material. My paperback edition benefits from an intro by Wim Wenders and an afterword by Damien Love, both written in 2007 and both of considerable interest. I can definitely recommend this one. It deserves to be better known.


 

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Len Tyler - The Detectives' Decalogue - part two


Today, Len Tyler follows up on his guest post on Monday with his proposed new ten commandments for classic detective fiction. Enjoy!

   1 No violence should take place on the page when it can take place off the page and be reported back without too much upsetting detail.

   2 No sexual activity should be included that cannot be easily replicated by a typical crime reader at home, with the aid if necessary of items that are readily obtainable from Waitrose.

   3 While not actually denying the existence of modern scientific methods of detection, the crime should as far as possible be solved by logic, ingenuity and sheer British pluck.

   4 The police should tolerate, and preferably welcome, the assistance of an amateur detective, especially one who has never come across a murder before.

   5 No clue should be discovered by a police officer if it could reasonably have been discovered by the amateur detective.

   6 The employment of secret passages is permitted, so long as they are not the entire solution to an otherwise inexplicable murder.

   7 Identical twins may be introduced into the book, provided they are knowingly referred to as ‘the Knox brothers’.

   8 Nobody shall be murdered in a town if they could have easily traveled to a small village to be murdered.

   9 Any technology not available during the Golden Age (mobile phones, internet etc) must fail just when most needed.

  10 Snowstorms shall, as a matter of course, last long enough for the amateur detective to investigate all aspects of the case before the police can arrive.

   I hope this revision of the rules will be of value to traditional crime writers and of some interest to those who read their books. Those who would like further discussion of these issues - and who might enjoy a fictional killing or two - may like to consider reading Farewell My Herring, the ninth instalment of the Herring series, available (as they say) from all good bookshops and the usual vendors of ebooks

 

  

Monday, 19 April 2021

Len Tyler - The New Detectives' Decalogue - part one



I first came across L.C. Tyler's fiction when I read and reviewed The Herring-Seller's Apprentice. This amusing mystery introduced luckless detective novelist Ethelred Tressider and his fearsome agent Elsie Thirkettle. I was greatly entertained and I've enjoyed the series ever since. Happily, Len is this week publishing another entry in the series, Farewell My Herring. To celebrate, he has kindly written a guest post specially for this blog. Today I'll post the first part,.leaving Len's revised Decalogue as a treat in store for Wednesday. Over to you, Len...

' When I wrote my first book, many years ago now, I thought I’d just written a novel. It was only when my publisher started marketing it as crime fiction that I accepted that writing about murder made me eligible to join the Crime Writers' Association, and indeed later to become its Chair. When I attended my first crime conference I was faced with a supplementary question: what sort of crime writer was I? It apparently dictated whether I was on the ‘Can You Ever Have Too Much Blood and Gore?’ panel or the ‘Quilt-makers Who Kill’ panel. I have always rejected the label of ‘cosy crime’ (unless speaking to an audience who only ever bought craft-based mysteries). I would probably describe what I do as comic crime or, better still, traditional crime. My ‘Herring' (aka Ethelred and Elsie) books look back, very consciously, to the Golden Age, its conventions and its rules.
   In Farewell My Herring, my two protagonists find themselves teaching on a seminar for writers of traditional crime fiction, at a remote location in the north of England. When the least offensive participant on the course is found strangled in the woodshed, and a snowstorm cuts the party off from the rest of the world, my two amateur detectives are obliged to investigate. As you do.
   The subject and the setting made me, of course, reflect a great deal on exactly what I mean by traditional crime fiction. And for those enjoy such things, Farewell My Herring does contain a certain amount of discussion of the genre generally. The ten rules of Golden Age fiction were famously tabulated by Ronald Knox in 1928 and have been much quoted and parodied ever since - including on this blog (https://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.com/2009/02/ronald-knox-and-rules-of-detection.html). They also form the framework of my chapter in the Detection Club’s collaborative mystery, The Sinking Admiral. This ‘Decalogue’ stresses ‘fair play' and includes some very reasonable stipulations such as ‘the criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know’. It also includes the slightly quirkier ‘no hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end’ and ‘twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them’. Some rules, like ‘the detective himself must not commit the crime’ have been frequently and successfully broken.
   It is clear however that the Decalogue needs updating to reflect what we mean by traditional crime fiction today...'

To be continued!

Friday, 16 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The Crime of Colin Wise


Michael Underwood was a self-effacing man, most of whose books reflected his interest in and knowledge of the law. The people I've spoken to who knew him regarded him as a likeable chap as well as a dependable writer, as this obituary by Harry Keating in The Independent indicates. To an even greater degree than his fellow lawyer Michael Gilbert, he preferred not to put much of his own personality into his fiction, and this may help to explain why he never became a high-profile writer.

I recently acquired a copy of The Crime of Colin Wise that he inscribed to some friends in the year of publication, 1964. The dust jacket blurb describes it as 'certainly the most intriguing and perhaps the most unusual crime story Michael Underwood has yet written'. It's an inverted story, told from the viewpoint of Colin Wise himself. Colin is a young man who works for a TV repair company (ah, those were the days, or perhaps not...) and who, when the story begins, has decided to commit murder for money.

His intended victim is an author who is about to embark on a six-month trip overseas. Colin's cunning plan is to kill him, hide the body parts (after dismembering the chap in the bath) and then take control of his finances. At first the plan goes well, but it soon becomes clear that Colin's crime is far from being a perfect murder.

I always find that Underwood keeps me reading, because his prose, although undramatic, is fluent. The story is interesting, because although we feel sure that things won't go smoothly for Colin, what exactly will happen to him is unclear. There are trial scenes and, as you would expect, these are handled authoritatively. Not does the story outstay its welcome. So I read the book quickly and with genuine and sustained interest.

My main reservation is that Colin himself is deeply unappealing. He's selfish and has few redeeming qualities. Compare Dr Bickleigh in Francis Iles' Malice Aforethought or the protagonists in Julian Symons' The Man Who Killed Himself and The Man Whose Dreams Came True. Those individuals also get involved in terrible crimes, but the authors persuade the reader to feel at least a degree of kinship with them. dreadful as they are. That is more than one feels for sociopathic Colin. And those books also had a superb ironic twist. Underwood contrives a twist at the end of his book, but because it hasn't been foreshadowed, I felt it didn't have as much impact as it should have done. Sometimes you can be too low-key.


  

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Many Deadly Returns - the new Murder Squad anthology

 


None of us can quite believe it, but it's 21 years since Margaret Murphy formed Murder Squad, a group of northern crime writers, and if ever there was an anniversary worth celebrating, we reckon this it! (Especially since we were denied the chance to celebrate our 20th birthday by the pandemic). The cornerstone of those celebrations this year will be the publication of an exciting new anthology, Many Deadly Returns, which will be published by Severn House on 26 August.

Appropriately enough, there are no fewer than 21 stories in the book, a nice mix of brand new stories and examples of our work from the past that you may well not be familiar with. There are three stories written by each of the Squad's current members: Margaret, Ann Cleeves, Chris Simms, Cath Staincliffe, Kate Ellis, and me. And there is also a story from each of our three former members: Chaz Brenchley, John Baker, and the late Stuart Pawson. I've edited the book and there's a foreword by Margaret.

So, what of the stories? Well, a dawn swim turns deadly in a brand-new short story starring DI Vera Stanhope . . . Two bored cell-mates play a game with chilling results . . . A hen night in an isolated cottage brings new meaning to ‘I will survive’ . . .  A train traveller teaches a valuable lesson in reading labels . . . A day at the seaside turns stormy for a woman who doesn’t care for foreigners . . . A wealthy retiree makes a new friend who connects her to the Other Side . . . and much much more.

Murder Squad has been an important part of my life throughout those 21 years. It's a great pleasure to collaborate with such lovely people and during our time together there have been many wonderful occasions. And a few good anthologies too! We hope readers everywhere will enjoy this one. 



Monday, 12 April 2021

The Man with My Face - 1951 film review


We tend to associate film noir with urban settings and dark, menacing streets. This isn't surprising, but there are a number of sunlit films which fit into this genre of movie-making. The outstanding example is Body Heat, sometimes described as neo-noir. And then there is The Man with My Face, a modest but competent film set in Puerto Rico.

I spent a few days in Puerto Rico some years ago, and really liked the place. The film is black and white, but I enjoyed recognising one or two locations from my own trip. However, the main appeal of the movie lies in its excellent premise, which is definitely worthy of Cornell Woolrich. Charles Graham (Barry Nelson) goes home one day and finds his wife, brother-in-law, and dog in the company of another man - who looks identical to him. And they insist that the stranger is Graham, and that the chap who has just come home is an impostor. The dog even bites him.

The secret behind this dazzling situation doesn't involve identical twins, you'll be pleased to know. It is, however, revealed relatively quickly, which I thought rather a shame. The story develops competently, and there is an exciting climax, but I certainly wouldn't claim this as a masterpiece. Nelson is a likeable actor but isn't quite engaging enough for this role, in my opinion . I was pretty surprised to learn that he was the very first actor to play James Bond. The rest of the cast is at the same level - okay, but not brilliant - and the same can be said of the screenplay.

Samuel W. Taylor wrote the novel (which was published in the UK as a green Penguin in the Fifties. and is still quite easy to find) on which the film is based and was one of those who worked on the screenplay. The book is set in California, and I'm not sure of the reason for the change of setting, but it works really well. I think more could have been made of such a superb premise, and certainly Graham's terrifying situation could have been conveyed in a more chilling way. Never mind, despite the film's limited ambitions, I enjoyed watching it. 

Friday, 9 April 2021

Forgotten Book - Death Goes to School


 

Death Goes to School was first published in 1936, under the pen-name Q. Patrick. My copy is a 'Banner Mystery' paperback from 1945, as per the image above. According to the invaluble online resource Crime, Mystery & Gangster Fiction Magazine Index, this imprint, edited by Ken Crossen, extended to just two publications. This was the second, but the story itself can't  be the reason that Banner folded up. Although this is far from the best of the Q.Patrick stories, it's not bad.

The Banner version of the book is so slim that I wondered if the original novel was abridged. This seems, however, not to be the case. And if the story had been any longer, it would have outstayed its welcome. The length of this version seems right for the ingredients of the story and the number of possible suspects (which is very limited, and I think a significant failing).

This is one of many Golden Age detective stories set in a fee-paying school. (I've never, ever read a novel written during the 1930s which is set in a grammar school). Indeed, the two murder victims in the story (others die off-stage) are children, and one of the crimes has an especially macabre flavour. The setting is England, but there are a number of American characters, and the story has its roots in the United States. 

Online sources disagree as to the precise authorship of the book, but it seems pretty clear that it was written by Richard Wilson Webb, while Curtis Evans has suggested that his future collaborator Hugh Wheeler may have had some input, prior to Webb and Wheeler becoming a fully-fledged writing partnership. Both Webb and Wheeler were Englishmen who moved to the US. The build-up is so-so, in my opinion, because I didn't find the characters or indeed the central mystery especially engaging. But the weaknesses are redeemed in the later chapters as the pace hots up and there are one or two pleasing plot twists. 


Wednesday, 7 April 2021

British Library Crime Classics - Looking Ahead


The British Library Crime Classics series continues to go from strength to strength. This is more of an achievement than it may seem, given that sales have been extremely strong in Britain and elsewhere for the past six or seven years. But the series has benefited enormously from the enthusiasm of booksellers, both a large number of marvellous indies and also the likes of Waterstones and Heffers. With the shops shut, many new books have suffered accordingly. The Crime Classics paperbacks, with their very popular artwork, have attracted a lot of interest from shop browsers. Thankfully, ebook sales have been excellent. while to the best of my knowledge, paperback sales have held up better than one might have expected. Much credit is due to the BL's publications department, who have kept things going even when the Library itself has been closed to the public - it's over sixteen months since I was last there.


And now the Crime Classics to be published in the second half of this year have been announced. I think it's a great list, with some personal favourites of mine .These include E.C.R. Lorac's These Names Make Clues, which along with Bats in the Belfry is probably my favourite of her books - though the standard is pretty even, so it is hard to choose. A real gem is John Dickson Carr's excellent Till Death Do Us Part.



There are two books which, interestingly, I enjoyed more the second time I read them than first time around. I think that's probably because to some extent both of them weren't quite what I expected. One is Margot Bennett's The Widow of Bath, which is very witty and well-written, and also cunningly plotted. Another is Anthony Berkeley's 'whowasdunin', the under-estimated Murder in the Basement.


One book the BL, rather than I, discovered was Rupert Latimer's Murder after Christmas. I'm sure I'll say more about that one nearer to the festive season. And there will also be another of my own anthologies, this time with a book-related theme. The precise contents and indeed the title are still being considered by the BL in the light of my various suggestions - I can't imagine it will be possible to include everything that I put forward, for reasons of space, but this will be an eclectic collection and, I like to think, will offer a great deal of entertainment.

   



Monday, 5 April 2021

Street of Chance - 1942 film review

The first Cornell Woolrich novel I read, back in the early 1980s, was The Black Curtain. It happened to be the first Woolrich book that was filmed. The movie version was called Street of Chance, and many more film adaptations of Woolrich novels and stories followed. His storylines were highly cinematic, with hapless protagonists facing nightmarish dilemmas and dangers. Street of Chance is a good example.

Debris falling from a building in New York City hits Frank Thompson (Burgess Meredith) as he is passing by. When he recovers consciousness, he is disconcerted to find that his hat and cigarette case are marked with unfamiliar initials. He goes back home to discover that his wife Virginia (Louise Platt) has moved. When he tracks her down, she reveals that he has been missing for five years...

Yes, this is an amnesia story, and a good one. Frank soon finds himself pursued by an aggressive and violent man, and goes on the run. Before long he discovers that while he was out of himself he took another name and identity and got involved with Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor), a maid to the wealthy Diedrich family. Unfortunately he is suspected of having murdered Harry Diedrich, and is being hunted by the police.

Is he guilty of the crime or can he prove his innocence? The beauty of Woolrich's fiction is that, because he wrote stand-alones rather than novels with a series character, one can never be entirely confident that the protagonist will survive unscathed. Meredith does a first-class job as an ordinary guy thrust into a life-or-death drama and the film zings along at a satisfactory pace until the final climax. An early essay in film noir, it stands the test of time really well.


Friday, 2 April 2021

Forgotten Book - The End of Solomon Grundy


Julian Symons published The End of Solomon Grundy in 1964 and I first read it a few years later, after borrowing from the local library an omnibus of three of his novels. I must have been about fourteen or so at the time. Having exhausted the works of Christie and Sayers, I was venturing into what was then contemporary, cutting-edge crime. As I later learned, this book was one of Symons' own favourites, though I had mixed feelings about it. I'm now glad to have the copy Symons inscribed to his friend and fellow crime writer George Sims, but half a century later some misgivings remain. 

Symons was interested in social satire, and there's a good deal of that in the first part of the book. Along the way, he tackled various burning issues of the time, including suburban housing, racism, sexual mores, and homophobia. So the book casts very interesting light on progressive thinking of the time. I'm pretty sure that when I read it at a tender age, some of the points Symons were making went over my head. And of course, what was progressive then is not so progressive now, and today the book seems much more dated than some of Symons' other novels written in the Sixties. As a document of social history, however, it does have considerable fascination.

The main setting is The Dell, an upmarket housing estate which Symons based on a real-life development near his one-time home in Blackheath. There is a disruptive figure in The Dell, namely a ginger-headed Irishman called Solomon Grundy. He's lived there for some years, and is a successful commercial artist, but his marriage isn't faring too well and his temper is apt to fray.

At a party, Grundy has an encounter with a young woman, who claims he attacked her. Subsequently, she is found dead. Who has killed her? Grundy becomes the prime suspect and there's plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest his guilt. There is a trial, described at length, which features Magnus Newton QC, the criminal lawyer who had appeared in some of Symons' earlier books.

As always, Symons writes very engagingly. I enjoy reading him, as I enjoy reading such different writers as Michael Gilbert, Peter Lovesey, Reg Hill, and Robert Barnard. Their prose is lively and witty, their puzzles unorthodox, their stories always highly readable. But The End of Solomon Grundy isn't one of my favourite Symons mysteries. The plot felt rather anti-climactic when I first read the book, and it still does. And although Symons was focusing on psychology, I'm not convinced that he really captured the key relationships between his characters in adequate or convincing psychological depth. Beta plus, rather than an alpha.

  

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

More than Malice and the Agatha Awards


I was delighted to receive the news that Howdunit has been shortlisted for an Agatha award, following its recent nomination for an Edgar award. This is the third time a book of mine has featured in the Agatha nominations and it's all the more pleasing given that, as a result of the pandemic, members of the Detection Club who contributed to Howdunit have not been able to meet in person for more than a year. We are collectively honoured by the nomination!

I was also pleased to see the names of a number of friends in the list of nominees, including but not limited to Art Taylor, James Ziskin, Catriona McPherson, Lori Rader-Day, and  Shawn Reilly Simmons. It's especially gratifying to see Sheila Mitchell's biography of her husband Harry Keating in the list. I contributed an appreciation to that fine book and recommended Sheila to her excellent publishers, Level Best Books. Not that I realised our books would one day be in competition for an award, mind you!

It is all the more frustrating that, once again this year, I won't be able to attend Malice in person. However, the organisers have come up with a fascinating online alternative. This is More than Malice, which will take place from 14-17 July. A wide range of stellar guests will be taking part. In addition, I shall be involved in an event focusing on Golden Age detective fiction with a number of lovely colleagues. More details will be available soon.

The pandemic has made life difficult for all events organisers - including those of us who are involved with Alibis in the Archive, which will also take virtual form this year, in October. But the efforts that everyone is making to provide entertaining alternatives are admirable, and whilst an online event is not quite the same, it is far, far more enjoyable than sitting at home on one's own thinking about what might have been.

  

Monday, 29 March 2021

Heartstones - 1996 ITV review


Heartstones
began life as a novella by Ruth Rendell. I remember that it was published along with a novella by a younger writer, Helen Simpson (no connection with the Helen Simpson who wrote crime int the Thirties). I read the story when it first came out, way back in 1987. I remember enjoying it - I was a very big fan of Rendell, and at that time she was at the peak of her powers - and I believe I reviewed it for a magazine. 

I didn't, however, see the TV version which came along as part of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries anthology series in 1996, and it's taken until the lockdown to repair that omission. The script is by Guy Meredith, and although the decision to turn the story into two episodes of over fifty minutes each mean that there is a bit of padding, overall it's a production which stands the test of time pretty well.

The cast is top-notch - there is even a small part for Idris Elba, playing a young pest controller. Anthony Andrews plays Luke, a handsome canon at a lovely cathedral (I gather the production was filmed at Winchester). His wife has recently died after suffering from cancer, although as the story begins, it seems there is a possibility that she may have been poisoned.

We see events through the eyes of Elvira (Emily Mortimer), the elder of Luke's two daughters. She and her sister Spinny (Daisy Haggard, whose father Piers was the director) have a close relationship, and they are devoted to Luke. When Luke falls for another woman, however (played by Helena Michell), tensions mount and it is foreseeable that there will be fatal consequences. This isn't one of Rendell's best-known stories, but it's pretty good and well worth watching. 


 

Friday, 26 March 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder in the House of Commons


Ellen Wilkinson's The Division Bell Mystery is a fascinating example of a detective story with a political background which benefits from an insider's know-how: the author was a leading figure in the Labour movement between the wars and in the 1940s. The book was quite well-known even before it reappeared as a British Library Crime Classic. But it was anticipated by a novel published in 1931 by another prominent female Labour politican which has rarely been discussed. This is Murder in the House of Commons by Mary Agnes Hamilton.

Hamilton (1882-1966) was a  Manchester-born writer, broadcaster, and civil servant who served as Labour MP for Blackburn from 1929-31. Her brief Parliamentary career came to an end with her party's political collapse in the general election. Unlike Wilkinson, who was a politician to her fingertips, she did not return to Westminster. But she turned her knowledge of the political scene to account in her novel.

Hamilton was educated at Cambridge and had a varied literary career. She wrote a book about Greek legends, biographies of women trade unionists and Ramsay MacDonald, anti-war fiction, a book about John Stuart Mill, and much more. Quite a polymath. I don't know why she didn't write more detective fiction. I suspect the simple explanation is probably right - that, like a lot of intellectuals during the Golden Age, she dabbled with the genre without having a passionate commitment to it.

A very good judge strongly recommended Murder in the House of Commons to me, and it is conspicuously well-written. The Westminster setting is used throughout, which makes for a slightly claustrophobic feeling, and the focus is on amateur detective work conducted by a couple of Parliamentarians. An oddity is that neither the victim nor one of the key characters spends much time on centre stage, and the book is very talky. 

Intriguingly, there is a seal before the solution - a marketing gimmick that Hamish Hamilton had used previously when publishing UK editions of John Dickson Carr's first novels which were Sealed Mysteries. I don't know if Hamish Hamilton used this device on other books by other British authors. This title is rather a curious choice for the 'sealed mystery' approach, since the whodunit puzzle isn't especially strong. I doubt Mary Agnes Hamilton was much interested in ingenuity for its own sake. This is an interesting novel in a number of ways, but I don't think that Hamilton was, for all her literary prowess, really a top-flight storyteller. The Division Bell Mystery is less ambitious as a novel, but the story has greater verve.


Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle - 1973 film review

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is based on a novel by George V. Higgins, published three years earlier in 1970. It was his first book, and there are those who think that in his long career he never surpassed it. The film was directed by Peter Yates, a Briton who had previously directed two other crime films, Robbery (very British) and Bullitt (very American), to great acclaim. He does an equally good job here. 

Robert Mitchum is at his best in the role of Eddie Coyle. This is not Mitchum at his most menacing, but a rather nuanced performance of a low-level criminal, a gun-runner who works for the Irish Mob in Boston. He's at risk of going jail, and so he turns informer. But of course, where the Mob are concerned, informing is a very dangerous game. Can he stay one step ahead of the police and the criminals?

Coyle supplies a gang of bank robbers with guns, and the robbers use their weapons to take hostages. We see two robberies in some detail. The first goes to plan, but the second goes awry, with fatal results. This has consequences for the gang members and also for Eddie Coyle.

Coyle is giving information to Dave Foley (played by Richard Jordan), a cop who also has a relationship with Dillon (Peter Boyle), who runs a bar and is a hit man on the side. The relationships between the key characters is reveled in laconic dialogue - dialogue-writing was Higgins' great strength, and Paul Monash's script does his book justice. The New York Times said this is a 'good, tough, unsentimental movie', and that sums it up perfectly. 




Monday, 22 March 2021

Two-Way Murder by E.C.R. Lorac

 


I've been rather consumed in recent weeks by the demands of the novel that I'm writing at present, as well as a series of online lectures and researching future titles for the British Library Crime Classics. But I did want to mark the publication at long last of Two-Way Murder by E.C.R. Lorac. This is book 89 in the Crime Classics series (who would have thought we'd ever manage to produce so many? Not me, that's for sure) but it's unique - because it isn't a reprint. This is a book that was originally written in the 1950s but which has never been published before.

I talked about this book in a blog post last autumn and I must reiterate what a joy it is, after so many years of striving, to see the manuscript I'm familiar with turned into a book on the shelf. It's a different emotion from the experience of seeing one's own book in print, of course, but it still gives me personal pleasure - I feel like a literary detective! 

It will be interesting to see what readers make of the story. I'm very encouraged by the positive response of blogger and GA fan Steve Barge, whose views about it happen to be similar to my own. This is the very first review I've seen. Steve explains (and this is entirely understandable) that his expectations were modest, but that he thinks it is 'really rather good'. As he says, the characters are interesting and he likes the 'damn fine trick' played by the murderer. 

I'm always inclined to look at things from the author's point of view. I'm as sure as I can be that Lorac would have been absolutely thrilled had she been able to conceive of the possibility of her novel finally being brought to public attention more than sixty years after she wrote it. It is such a shame when decent work fails to see the light of day. I'm genuinely proud of this particular entry in the series.


Friday, 19 March 2021

Forgotten Book - Death of Mr Dodsley

John Ferguson was a Golden Age writer whose work enjoyed some success in its day but has seldom been discussed in modern times. He was a Scot who made a remarkable transition in life: he was a railway clerk who became ordained as a clergyman and earned a separate reputation as a crime writer and playwright. In the field of detective fiction, he was talented enough to be snapped up by Collins Crime Club. His ministry took him far and wide, and a spell in the Channel Islands gave him background material for Death comes to Perigord, which might just be the earliest detective novel to be set in Guernsey. 


I came across Death in Perigord many years ago in that very good series of Dover paperback reprints of vintage mysteries. Although I recall being underwhelmed by the plot, the setting appealed to me, and I decided to seek out Ferguson titles whenever I could find them. Perhaps because he had a full life, he was far from prolific: the invaluable GADetection site lists just ten crime novels, published between 1918 and 1942. Yet his versatility as a writer was impressive. He was a playwright of some renown, and he also wrote historical fiction, one of his books being set in the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. In the crime field, Dorothy L. Sayers admired Night in Glengyle, although she was less enamoured of The Grouse Moor Mystery, a venture into the 'impossible crime' field. I rather share her view of the latter; as for the former, I acquired a copy a while ago and hope to cover it on this blog before long. 

One of Ferguson's greatest strengths was that he wasn't content to work to a formula, and Death of Mr Dodsley, published in 1937, is a bibliomystery concerned with the murder of a bookseller in his shop on Charing Cross Road. There's an opening chapter set in the House of Commons, although the bulk of the story concerns the detective efforts of the official police and Ferguson's series detective, the Scottish private detective Francis MacNab. MacNab is a sympathetic character, but we don't learn much about him in any of the books that I've read, and this is rather a pity. 

This is a story where, as Ferguson makes clear in a dedicatory preface, the emphasis is on a 'fair play' puzzle. Not for the first time with Ferguson, I felt that the early part of the story was the best, before we get embroiled in the complications of the plot, This is because, although I sense from occasional passages in his fiction that he was very interested in human behaviour, there is a sense of constraint about the writing that keeps one at a distance. I don't have the same experience with Agatha Christie's books, despite the criticisms so often made of her presentation of her people. Ferguson is, therefore, to some extent a frustrating writer, but Death of Mr Dodsley is nevertheless an interesting example of period detective work.   


Thursday, 18 March 2021

Kate Ellis Revisited

Kate Ellis is a friend of mine whose books I've been reading ever since we met at a crime festival in Manchester, more than twenty years ago. As a Christmas treat, I read her The Burial Circle, which is set over Christmas 2020 (although thankfully the pandemic doesn't play a part: fiction can be so much more pleasurable than real life!) Afterwards, I started work on a blog post about her work which was interrupted by other projects. Alas, due to my techno-incompetence, this was published incomplete. Now at last I've got round to revising and expanding that post, so apologies if you've read some of this before.


Kate contributed an interesting essay on her approach to plotting a crime novel to Howdunit.  She also kindly allowed us to reproduce one of the flow charts (see also the photo above) which she uses to keep track of her plot. I find it interesting to compare and contrast her methods as a writer with mine and those of Ann Cleeves which I discussed in a recent blog post and the nature of the similarities and differences in our respective storylines, a subject which I've also ruminated on in this blog.

The planning techniques that writers adopt are many and various, even in the case of authors working in the vein of the traditional mystery. Agatha Christie made random notes in an exercise book. Austin Freeman wrote, as you'd expect from his stories, very neat and meticulous preparatory notes, accompanied by sketches. Christianna Brand was also a great note-maker. I hope to write more about the methods of both Freeman and Brand in due course. Suffice to say that if I attempted to work from a flow chart, I'd be left with a mass of demented squiggles... 

The Burial Circle is the 24th Wesley Peterson novel, but unlike many series of such length, there's no hint of diminishing powers here. The story is 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.

The Burial Chamber is one of my favourite Kate Ellis books, close to if not top of the list. I'm surprised it's not (so far) been more widely discussed. I've long been intrigued by certain correspondences 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. This method sound restrictive, but it works well in practice. 

We are both very keen on history, but Kate's specialism is archaeology, about which she has (like Agatha Christie) a great deal of knowledge. Also different are her methods of depicting character and setting, and 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 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 afterwards that this element also featured 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, 15 March 2021

The Terror - BBC TV review


I find it far from easy to explain why I started watching The Terror, or why I got so hooked that I devoured all ten episodes as quickly as a Tuunbaq devours....no, no, I ought to avoid spoilers! During the pandemic, I've concentrated on finding as much fun as I can, and it has to be said that The Terror is not a fun watch. But it really is compelling, for reasons that aren't easy to convey.

There are crimes aplenty in the story, and a good deal of mystery, but it's essentially a historical drama with a tinge of the supernatural. In a nutshell, it's based on a true story, that of a doomed attempt to discover the North West Passage in the middle of the 19th century. The source material is a novel by Dan Simmons, which supplies a fictional account of what happened to the crews of two ill-fated ships, the Erebus and the Terror, on an expedition initially led by Sir John Franklin (a powerful performance by Ciaran Hinds). 

There are occasional jumps in time, as well as back and forth between London and the Arctic, but it's not too confusing. In London, Franklin's wife (Greta Scacchi) leads calls for the expedition to be rescued, but the main focus is on the frozen wastes of the far north. The photography is stunning, and one can perhaps detect the influence of the executive producer, Ridley Scott. The background music is also impressively atmospheric.

The story runs for ten episodes, which is often far, far too long for a TV show (two episodes being too long for Finding Alice!), but in this case the scripting, by David Kajganich, is taut and consistently gripping. The acting is brilliant, with Jared Harris (son of Richard) especially good as Captain Crozier, while Adam Nagaitis is an excellent baddie. One unexpected stand-out performance comes from Paul Ready, previously known to me from the very entertaining comedy Motherland, who is superb as the gentle and utterly decent doctor Goodsir. 

Be warned, this is a gruesome story. You might say it's not for the squeamish, but I'm quite squeamish, and although there were scenes which made me want to look away, overall the brilliance of the whole production kept me glued to the screen. Mind you, I'm now in need of some unthreatening light entertainment.... 

  

Friday, 12 March 2021

Forgotten Book - The Cornish Fox


C.H.B. Kitchin is a writer who has long interested me. There is no doubt that he was a talented author - and talented at a whole range of other things as well. Possibly the breadth of his interests counted against him to some extent as a novelist. His books came out infrequently and he only wrote four detective novels, each featuring Malcolm Warren, as well as an excellent crime novel, Birthday Party, which I discussed in The Story of Classic Crime.

The Cornish Fox was published in 1949, twenty years after Warren made his first appearance, in Death of My Aunt, a book admired by Dorothy L. Sayers and many other good judges. Kitchin didn't build quickly on that first success. He was a stockbroker by profession, as is Warren, and both men were to some extent dilettantes. And after this book appeared, Warren detected no more. 

It's a curious book, intriguing if not altogether successful. Kitchin could write very well, but he seemed to struggle with plot structure - quite a handicap when writing a novel in the Golden Age style. This story veers between a study of a post-war community in a remote part of Cornwall and a mystery which apparently has its origins in a poison pen letter signed by 'The Cornish Fox'. The identity of the letter writer seems clear, but Kitchin does have surprises in store.

The story meanders along and it's a very long time before we see much dramatic action. There are also perhaps rather too many characters (and I speak as an author who likes putting a lot of characters in my own books! but there are limits...) And there's definitely too much about algebra! It's not clear what the story is really about until near the end, but the key revelations are presented in a strange way, especially when a detective sets Warren a set of 'exam questions' about the case. Unusual, and - despite various flaws - worth a look. I hope to write more about this novel on another occasion.

 

Thursday, 11 March 2021

The Cat's Meow - 2002 film review


Peter Bogdanovich's film The Cat's Meow is sometimes described as a whodunit, which it certainly isn't. It is, however, a film in which a crime and its consequences play a central part. The screenplay, like the play on which it is based, were both written by Steven Peros, who also has a very small role in the film. It's really an imaginative reworking of a real-life incident that occurred in 1924 and which evidently was a great Hollywood scandal in its day. Despite the disclaimer in the small print of the credits, the key characters are major characters of the day, including William Randolph Hearst, Charlie Chaplin, and Elinor Glyn.

The events take place on Hearst's upmarket yacht. He's invited guests along to celebrate the 44th birthday week-end of Thomas Ince, a film mogul with whom he was in the course of negotiating a deal. In real life, Ince's death during the week-end was attributed to heart failure, but rumours about what actually took place have swirled ever since. There's some doubt about who actually was and was not on board on the yacht at the crucial time, but Peros's storyline is well-crafted and has a touch of authenticity.

This is a very well-made film, and the quality of the cast speaks for itself. Joanna Lumley plays Elinor Glyn, and acts to some extent as a commentator on events. Eddie Izzard is Charlie Chaplin, and does a pretty good job in an important role. Even better is Edward Herrmann, an actor I'm not familiar with, who conveys the complexity of Hearst's character with considerable subtlety. He is besotted with his lover Marion (Kirsten Dunst, also excellent). But there's something going on between Marion and Charlie.

The historical side of the film is done really well and contemporary music is used splendidly. I did feel that the story sagged in the middle, perhaps because Bogdanovich dwelt too lovingly on interplay between various characters which didn't really advance the story. So it's not a complete success, but I found it interesting and visually terrific.


 

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Grand Isle - 2019 film review

The other night I was watching, not for the first time, the post-war black-and-white movie Sorry, Wrong Number. It was based on a radio play, and the basic material is very simple, albeit expanded for the film. It's a masterpiece of economy as well as suspense, squeezing every ounce of tension out of the set-up. I thought about it when I was watching a recent film, Grand Isle, which in many ways could hardly be more different. 

The setting in the old film is restricted - it's essentially a 'home invasion' story - whereas Grand Isle is a real place in Louisiana with an interesting history and tons of atmosphere. It's vulnerable to hurricanes, and a hurricane is coming when the story begins. Grand Isle benefits from the presence in the cast of Nicolas Cage and Kelsey Grammer, as well as a situation ripe with possibilities. 

A young man called Buddy (Luke Benward) who is desperate for money is given a handyman's job by Cage, playing a menacing ex-Marine, and his seductive wife Fanny (KaDee Strickland). Their house contains secrets, that seems certain. There's more to this set-up than home invasion.

Unfortunately, the script squanders the potential of the situation, to an extent that I find astonishing. Much of the story is told in flashback, in a way that became irritating. Even the big reveal at the end is thrown away, reported rather than played out before our eyes. The current approval rating for the film on Rotten Tomatoes is 0%, and although such measures are imperfect, and the film is actually better than that, it really is a disappointing waste of talent. Give me Sorry, Wrong Number any day.



Friday, 5 March 2021

Forgotten Book - A Man Without Friends

Miles Tripp (1923-2000) is an author who has interested me for a very long time. I met him once at a dinner, very briefly, but didn't have much of a conversation with him. I see him as a crime writer of considerable talent whose work displays genuine originality more often than that of most of his contemporaries. He was a solicitor by profession, and he had a very long career as a novelist - not far short of fifty years - and he achieved success, especially in the early years. But...well, you knew there was a but coming, didn't you?

The 'but' concerns his inconsistency and the tendency of some of his ideas to misfire. These are pardonable faults in a writer of ambition. For me, at least, an author who tried to do something different and doesn't always gets it right tends to be more appealing than a reliable purveyor of work written to a predictable pattern. But there are times when I do find Tripp rather frustrating. 

A Man Without Friends (1970) is one of his earlier novels of psychological suspense, and it's a very good illustration of both his strengths and his weaknesses. It seems to have enjoyed success, and apparently there was an Anglia TV production in 1972, with a good cast including Tom Bell, Peter Vaughan, Johnny Briggs, and Gabrielle Drake. Apparently a couple of his other books were televised in the early 70s. Yet the book faded from view quite rapidly and I've never seen any discussion of the story.

It's a story told in the first person by Marcus Wayne. Intriguingly, the rear jacket of my copy (the original hardback) includes 'Notes inserted at the request of Mr Marcus Wayne' which suggest that this is some kind of metafictional narrative. The significance of these notes only becomes clear right at the end of the story. Wayne is a wealthy man with a sideline in handwriting analysis. His problems begin when a client of his is murdered. The police suspect Wayne, which seems ridiculous, because he's told us that he never met the woman. But in fact she is his ex-wife, and she divorced him for cruelty.

Wayne is in some respects an unreliable narrator, so should we believe him when he insists to us that he did not kill his ex? The intensity of the police inspector's pursuit of him calls to mind the early books of John Bingham and Julian Symons, but eventually it becomes clear that Tripp is trying to do something rather more than merely emulate those fine writers. Justice is his theme. 

The idea behind this story is a very crafty and pleasing one. There are, however, two problems. First, Wayne is such an unlikeable character (as the title suggests) that one isn't really tempted to root for him. Second, I'm not convinced that the clever central idea is quite strong enough to sustain a full-length novel. This is a short book, but even so, it seems a bit protracted. On balance, I think this is a very good short story, expanded beyond its natural length. So am I glad I read it? Absolutely.



 

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Margaret Maron R.I.P.



I was extremely sorry to learn last week of the death of Margaret Maron, one of  America's leading crime writers and someone whom I really enjoyed getting to know in recent years. Margaret's most famous novel is Bootlegger's Daughter, published in 1992, which won the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards - wow! This was the first book in the Deborah Knott series, which ultimately ran to twenty titles.

Before that success, however, she'd written a series featuring the NYPD cop Sigrid Harald. I first became aware of Margaret's name when the early Harald titles were published in the UK n the mid-80s. As I've mentioned, this was a time when I was studying newly emerging crime writers in an attempt to figure out their methods, and Margaret was one of the American writers I looked at. I enjoyed the Harald books and found them instructive. So much so that, as I told Margaret years later, much to her amusement, one of her storylines sparked an idea for a sub-plot (albeit so different that I'm not sure she saw the connection even after she read the book!) in Yesterday's Papers.

I first met Margaret at Malice Domestic in 2005, when she kindly inscribed for me a couple of collections of her excellent short stories, published by Crippen & Landru, but I got to know her better in more recent times, when I was able to attend US conventions more regularly. She was an engaging companion as well as a very entertaining and highly intelligent writer.

Three years ago, Margaret was kind enough to give Gallows Court a very generous endorsement, and I was hugely grateful. I was shocked as well as saddened to hear that she'd died following a stroke, but her books live on and so do memories of a very likeable woman.   


Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Without a Clue - 1988 - film review


The expectations we bring to a film or a book often shape our reaction to it. Perhaps they shouldn't. I approached Without a Clue without much enthusiasm, I must say. I'd read one or two lukewarm reviews and the idea of a comedy film about Sherlock Holmes didn't excite me. However. the film turned out to be more enjoyable than I'd expected. Conversely, if I'd watched it to admire two fine actors (Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley) tackling a strong mystery, I'd have been disappointed. 

The basic premise is that it is Dr Watson, not Holmes, who is the Great Detective. Sherlock Holmes is a stooge, played by an actor called Kincaid whom Watson has hired so that detective work does not interfere with his medical practice. But Watson has now become jealous of his own creation. He wants to dispose of Holmes and star in a series about the cases of 'the Crime Doctor' (was this a nod to the Crime Doctor stories of Conan Doyle's brother-in-law E.W. Hornung, I wonder?)

Caine and Kingsley play Holmes and Watson with considerable gusto, and this helps to keep the story swimming along, despite a mystery plot that I found less than gripping. Their investigations bring them into contact with a beautiful young woman (Lysette Anthony) and at one point they visit the Lake District - hooray! In due course it emerges that the criminal scheme they are trying to fathom is the work of Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman, another very capable actor). There's even a small part for Peter Cook.

The story rolls along in a good-natured if rather protracted way, accompanied by a soundtrack written by Henry Mancini. The premise deserved a stronger screenplay, but overall the film exceeded my admittedly modest expectations. 



Monday, 1 March 2021

The Writing Life - Thinking Alike

I was interested the other day to receive an email from a fellow writer whom I've known for many years. He'd spotted my mention on this blog of an idea I had about a story concerning book cover art, and said that the same idea had been running around in his own mind for a while. He and I share a number of literary enthusiasms, but our writing styles are very different, and I'm sure that if we ever do write these stories, they will be entirely distinct from each other. (A practical example of this occurred when John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson set about writing 'impossible crime' stories with an identical premise, and came up with two entertaining mysteries that were undoubtedly very different from each other.) 

This contact came only a week or so after I read a manuscript of a novel which is due to be published this year. The author and his publisher had asked me for an endorsement, which I was more than happy to provide. I did gulp, though, when the early pages of the book suggested that he'd had the same idea as the notion I've come up with for one of the sub-plots of my current work-in-progress. Both of us have thought about a particular Golden Age trope. Aaaaagh! I was rather relieved, to say the least, when I read on and discovered that what he'd done with the basic concept was entirely different from what I have in mind.

These experiences simply reinforce a belief I've had for many years. Perhaps it applies with particular force to stories which are strongly plotted. Writers come up with similar ideas time and again. To the outsider, it may seem odd, especially in cases where the coincidence is striking. One famous example is the similarity that Nicholas Blake's A Penknife in My Heart bore to Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train. Another is the similarity that P.D. James' Original Sin bore to Blake's End of Chapter. In those cases, there may well have been an element of subconscious borrowing, especially given that the books were published years apart, but I don't think there was any intention to borrow, or even pay conscious homage. And it's quite possible that even these examples of notable similarities were entirely coincidental. After all, the idea in Strangers on a Train had actually been employed by others long before Highsmith's book was published.     

So the same ideas may come to mind years apart, and seem quite fresh and original. As I joked the other day, a story I wrote as a child had the same starting point - a Christmas mystery at a Northumberland country house where a detective has a family connection with that house - as Ann Cleeves' latest bestseller. Quite often, though, ideas spring to several authors' minds at roughly the same time, sparked by current events or a particular story in the news. The drying-up of a lake or reservoir in the north of England some years ago inspired a number of different crime novels by British writers. 

One of those books was written by Reginald Hill, who also happened to be at work on The Stranger House, a stand-alone set in the Lake District at the time that I began my own Lake District stories. We were in regular touch in those days, but we didn't discuss our current writing, and so we didn't know we were both venturing on to the same geographical ground. (I must say that a Lake District series by Reg would have been fantastic, though at the time I did breathe another sigh of relief when he told me he didn't want to write one!)

Something of the kind can also happen with non-fiction, and there it is sometimes more problematic. I can think of three non-fiction book proposals, each very different from the others, which I sent out in the 1990s to particular publishers who, I thought, would be ideal for that particular volume. In the end, none of them came to fruition, because in each case someone more eminent than me had put forward a similar proposal. One galling example was an idea that was accepted by a UK publisher only to be quashed when a US subsidiary bought an alternative version of the same idea. 

But these things happen - you just have to write them off to experience. And when I came to reflect later on, it seemed to me that despite the frustration, the exercises hadn't been a waste of time. At least the fact that writers more eminent than me were thinking on the same lines indicated that I was in the right area, coming up with ideas that were potentially attractive and saleable. And that was reassuring.

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.