Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Martin Russell R.I.P.


Martin Russell was one of the unsung but highly reliable British crime authors in the latter part of the twentieth century. He was born in 1934 and I learned, from a comment on this blog by Betty Telford, that he died following a bout of pneumonia in 2019. I've been hoping that someone who knew him personally would publish an obituary of him, since he's a writer who has always interested me. But even in his lifetime he was never high profile, and there has been no mention of his achievements following his death that I've been able to trace. Nor is there any photo that I can find on the internet - the picture above is taken from the jacket of one of his books. I think he deserves to be remembered. So although I never met him, I thought I would try, to an extent at least, to fill the gap. 

Russell's books were published by Collins Crime Club, from his debut No Through Road in 1965 to Leisure Pursuit in 1993. He published one book under the name Mark Lester and another as by James Arney, both of which were published by Robert Hale (whether these were digressions or books that Collins didn't accept, I don't know,and they are quite elusive). 

Russell was born in Kent and spent much of his life in and around Bromley. He worked there as a journalist and subsequently joined the Croydon Advertiser group, later retiring to write full-time. This shows how successful he was as a novelist in financial terms- his books were published in such diverse countries as Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain, and Japan. He'd turned to crime after failing to find a publisher for some comic novels that he wrote. He never married, but enjoyed playing squash and tennis as well as jogging. He was also a crossword fanatic.

He was well-regarded enough by his peers to be elected to membership of the Detection Club in 1979 and he was also involved with the CWA, editing the members' newsletter Red Herrings. But he'd faded from the scene by the time I became involved with the world of published crime writers, which is why our paths never crossed. I've talked to a few authors who remember him and it's clear that he was a likeable man, modest and retiring. My guess is that he lost enthusiasm for crime writing. Perhaps the well of ideas ran dry. Perhaps he was disappointed by a lack of recognition for the often striking ingenuity of his stories. For whatever reason, he didn't stay in touch with the crime writing world, and his Detection Club colleagues hadn't heard from him for many years prior to his death. 

There has been regrettably little discussion of his writing apart from contemporary reviews. Reginald Hill wrote an essay about him for the first two editions of Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers and when Reg was unavailable to update it, I wrote a new piece for the next two editions. Six years ago, Bob Cornwell invited him to contribute to the CADS questionnaire, but he declined pleasantly, pleading ill-health. So he was a man of mystery in more ways than one. But for anyone who enjoys twisty plots, the work of Martin Russell is well worth investigating.

Monday, 18 October 2021

Music of the Night - a new CWA anthology

 


During the past year I've worked on a wide range of projects. Among them is Music of the Night, a new anthology published by Flame Tree Press under the aegis of the Crime Writers' Association. This follows Vintage Crime, a collection of stories culled from previous CWA anthologies and again published by Flame Tree. They produce very attractive books and I find them a pleasure to work with - they are enthusiastic and (not quite such a common trait among publishers!) very quick to respond.

I've been toying with the idea of a music-related anthology of mystery stories for quite a long time. Music means so much to us that it inspires some wonderful fiction. When I was invited to edit another CWA collection, it seemed like the perfect theme. And CWA members responded with their customary energy and enthusiasm. I was inundated with submissions, and making final choices was far from easy. The toughest part of editing an anthology is to reject stories. It comes with the job, of course, but I hate disappointing people. It's never enjoyable to receive a rejection. But I console myself with the reflection that many if not all of the stories that didn't make the cut will surely surface elsewhere in due course.

We have a nice mix of contributors. So there are four CWA Diamond Dagger winners, including Catherine Aird, Peter Lovesey, and Andrew Taylor, as well as high profile younger authors such as Ragnar Jonasson and Vaseem Khan and writers from overseas such as Art Taylor. And then there are various authors whose names are not yet as well-known. I'm extremely pleased that no fewer than nine of the 26 stories in the book have been written by CWA members whose work has never before featured in a CWA anthology. And yes, I found room for one of my own efforts. Somehow I resisted the temptation to take inspiration from the work of Burt Bacharach (in the past I've produced such stories as 'A House is Not a Home' and 'Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa') and instead wrote a story which relates to Joni Mitchell. It's called 'The Crazy Cries of Love'.

This year sees the 25th anniversary of publication of the first CWA anthology that I edited, Perfectly Criminal. A long time in the hot seat! Suffice to say that I've really enjoyed introducing a very wide range of talented authors to new readers and that I'm optimistic that this latest collection will entertain at least as much as its predecessors. 


Friday, 15 October 2021

Forgotten Book - Poison in the Garden Suburb


The detective novels of the husband and wife team GDH and Margaret Cole are rather a mixed bag. I have to say that I've been disappointed with quite a number of those I've read. It's always possible, however, that one may drop unlucky with a particular book, or even a number of them, so I thought I'd give the Coles another try. Their early (1929) detective novel Poison in the Garden Suburb received praise from Barzun and Taylor, so it seemed like a good option.

The story gets off to a lively, and occasionally witty, start. People gather at the Literary Institute of Medstead Garden Suburb to listen to a talk by a noted lecturer, but proceedings are interrupted by the collapse and sudden death of a nondescript bourgeois banker called Cayley, whose only claim to fame is that his young wife is extraordinarily beautiful (and not very bright: the authors clearly don't approve of her). The dead man has been poisoned with strychnine and the prime suspect is a young doctor called Shorthouse, whose behaviour is idiotic to put it mildly.

As a result of this drama, we're not told much about the talk itself, but its subject was eugenics. The Coles were leading lights in the Fabian Society (its fictional equivalent features in the novel as the Bureau for Left-Wing Information), which had a considerable enthusiasm for eugenics at one time. I wondered if Rachel Redford, one of the main characters and employed by the Bureau, was to some extent a fictional portrait of Margaret Cole herself. There are some nice bits of social comment in the early part of the book before we get rather bogged down in the murder investigation.

One of the official detectives, a gloomy superintendent, is pleasingly presented, but the key investigator is the Coles' series sleuth Henry Wilson, who at this stage of his career was operating as a private detective prior to returning to duty at Scotland Yard. I felt the story sagged in the middle, and the climactic excitement felt rather underwhelming, especially since I thought the identity of the murderer was fairly obvious from early on in the story (even though the culprit's true character was barely hinted at: I don't think this is a stellar example of fair play, at least in psychological terms). Overall, this is a novel with some very good ingredients made into a passably entertaining story. Nick Fuller reviewed the book a while ago and makes a number of good point as well as including fascinating contemporary reviews.   

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Agatha Christie's England - mapped by Caroline Crampton


Rising interest in podcasts has been noticeable for some time now and the crime fiction enthusiast is very well served by those which are available. Over the past year or so, I've enjoyed taking part in discussions with quite a number of them. Some are relatively specialist, such as Jim Noy's The Invisible Event podcast, some more general, such as the Slightly Foxed podcast (which led me to discover the excellent literary quarterly journal, Slightly Foxed, which is full of good things). Another which I rate very highly is Shedunnit, which is written, hosted, and produced by Caroline Crampton.

Caroline has now diversified with a fun project - a map of Agatha Christie's England. This is published by Herb Lester Associates, and it turns out that they are responsible for a number of comparable maps connected with the world of crime and espionage. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a weakness for maps in detective fiction and I've enjoyed poring over this one.

In a recent blog post, Kate Jackson discussed the map and also interviewed Caroline. I imagine that one of the trickiest aspects of the project was that Christie was born and always lived in the south of England, and inevitably the settings for her stories are skewed towards places she knew, especially in Devon and London. But Caroline has done a good job of including locations from the north, not only the obvious ones such as Abney Hall and Harrogate, but also those which don't immediately spring to mind as Christie-related, such as Edale in Derbyshire and the Pier Head in Liverpool.

The map comes with a couple of pretty postcards in the art deco style that is often associated with Christie, mainly as a result of TV productions, and all in all, I'd say that it makes a nice gift for the Christie fan in your life. 

Monday, 11 October 2021

Alibis in the Archive 2021


This past weekend saw the first online version of Alibis in the Archive and what fun it was. Gladstone's Library was closed for eighteen months and only reopened at the start of September, but huge credit goes to the tireless Louisa Yates and Rhian Waller for managing the weekend so brilliantly. When I put the programme together, I was aiming for a combination of quality and variety and I'm enormously grateful to all the wonderful authors who took part.

Lynne Truss and Simon Brett got things off to a great start on Saturday morning with a very witty discussion which included Simon's memorable description of story structure as 'the Lego bit of the writing'. After that, David Brawn of HarperCollins interviewed me about Howdunit and other facets of my crime writing career; we also touched on The Life of Crime, the copy edit of which I'm currently working on.

Then came a wonderful contribution from two American writers whom I've long admired: Joseph Goodrich and Rupert Holmes. It was full of great moments and I particularly liked his story about his contribution to the soundtrack of Arthur (yes, Burt Bacharach wrote the soundtrack, but Rupert did play a part...) On Sunday morning, an American writer currently resident in London, Bonnie MacBird, talked to David Brawn about the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes.

Len Tyler led a discussion with Ruth Dudley Edwards, Michael Jecks and Antonia Hodgson about the timeless appeal of detective fiction. I was amused by Len's explanation of the appeal of Gladys Mitchell despite the fact that her books often fade after a bright start: 'she's worth reading for the first 50% of the book'. The weekend was rounded off with no fewer than four panellists joining us from the US to talk about American traditional detective fiction: Art Taylor, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Tonia Spratt-Williams, and Verena Rose. I loved every moment of the panels and feedback from the audience was just what we'd hoped for. Next year, Alibis will return as a live event over the weekend of 10-11 June, but with an online component as well. Can't wait...

  




Friday, 8 October 2021

Forgotten Book - Post after Post-Mortem


I'm working my way slowly through the books of E.C.R. Lorac (and those published under the name Carol Carnac) and continuing to enjoy her work. I don't claim that she's a match for Christie, Sayers, Berkeley, or Wade, but to me she is a sound detective author of the second rank. I also keep musing about the precise reasons for her resurgence in popularity following the appearance of several of her novels as British Library Crime Classics (the most recent being These Names Make Clues - a really good one!) 

Often she focuses on setting, but she doesn't neglect character. As a generalisation, she takes more interest in her people than, say, John Rhode or Freeman Wills Crofts, but she is also adept at the mechanics of mystification. Post after Post-Mortem illustrates these virtues. The book was first published in the Collins Crime Club in 1936, but copies are very elusive and I've certainly never seen one in a dust jacket. Definitely a forgotten book, then, but one well worth a look.

The main setting this time is Oxfordshire - Stow and Moreton receive several mentions. In the first chapter, set in Upwood, a country house in that part of the world, we are introduced to the Surray family, whose lives appear to be idyllic. Young Naomi has just earned herself a First in Greats, while other members of the family include Ruth, an attractive but enigmatic figure who has established a successful career as a literary novelist. And literary matters play an interesting part in the storyline.

But then Ruth is found dead. At first, all the indications are that she has taken her own life as a result of a bout of depression. But then a misdirected letter that she sent to her brother Richard immediately prior to her demise comes belatedly to light and casts serious doubt on the inquest verdict. Richard consults Inspector MacDonald and the Scotland Yard man sets about unravelling a complex puzzle. This is one of the best Loracs I've read.   

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

CADS 86

The arrival of certain publications through the post is always a cause for pleasure. A new novel by Peter Lovesey or Ann Cleeves are obvious examples; a new issue of Geoff Bradley's very long-running fanzine CADS is another. The latest CADS, number 86, has just come out. As usual, part of the joy of reading it is that Geoff offers such a varied mix of material. As you turn each page, you never quite know what you're going to find. But you can count on it being something interesting.

I did know in advance that there would be a piece of mine, a discussion about a Julian Symons novel, The Plot against Roger Rider. I discovered from the son and daughter-in-law of the dedicatees of the book that Symons based the key events in the story at a fictional version of a particular villa in Spain where they'd all holidayed together. By weird coincidence, my wife and her brothers also stayed in the same villa. And since writing the article I've discovered that the real life villa was called Villa Rio Seco, Las Playetas, Benicàssim, Castellón, near Valencia’. The photo, kindly supplied by John Eden-Green, shows Julian playing table tennis at the villa. In his younger days he was a highly talented table tennis player and he published at least one article about the game.

One of the things I didn't expect to find was a review of my fourth novel, Yesterday's Papers, by Lyn McConchie, a New Zealander who discovered a copy in a charity shop. It's a book I'm very fond of, so I was pleased to see it described as 'a clever, twisting, excellently-written tale...The author did a fine job of depicting the sixties...there were no false notes.' To see a review in print like that, more than a quarter of a century after the book was written, is truly gratifying. This year sees the 30th anniversary of the arrival on the scene of Harry Devlin, and I'm delighted to announce that the first seven books are being relaunched: I'll talk more about this another day.

There are plenty of delights in the rest of the new issue of CADS, with contributions from Philip Gooden (on the under-estimated Nigel Balchin), Jamie Sturgeon, Philip Scowcroft, Arthur Vidro, Kate Jackson, Brad Friedman, Liz Gilbey, Marvin Lachman, Michael Wilson, Barry Pike, and many more. I've recommended CADS to many crime fans over the years and I don't think anyone interested in the quirky by-ways of the genre will ever be disappointed in it. You won't find copies in the shops, but Geoff can be contacted at geoffcads@aol.com

 

Monday, 4 October 2021

What's in a Name? Guest post by Margaret Murphy

I've long been intrigued by authors' use of pseudonyms. Today I'm delighted to host a guest post by Margaret Murphy, crime novelist, award-winning short story writer, and founder of Murder Squad, on this very topic:


'Traditionally, authors will use pseudonyms as a disguise, to avoid reader and/or reviewer bias, or to differentiate various styles or sub-genres of their writing. Think Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Agatha Christie/Mary Westmacott, and Evan Hunter/Ed McBain – both of which are pseudonyms chosen by Salvatore Albert Lombino after he was told by his editor that he would sell more books under an anglicised pen name. John Creasey, founder of the Crime Writers Association, was a prolific writer who used no fewer than twenty-eight pseudonyms (possibly to disguise the fact that he was publishing seven or more novels in a year!). His most famous series creations, adapted for TV and film, were probably The Toff and The Baron, penned under his own name, while Gideon of Scotland Yard was written as JJ Marric.

 
Publisher bias

There is an appetite for novelty in the industry, added to which, a midlist author with 2 - 3 books has baggage to overcome in the shape of their sales records. BookScan is a database which compiles information for publishers & booksellers on book sales, and if an author’s previous works haven’t been bestsellers, the big book chains will order fewer and fewer with each subsequent publication. The obvious way to avoid the downward spiral is to be a bestseller with your first book. Simple, yes? Well, no. The USA and UK publish around 500,000 books per year, but only a tiny fraction receive meaningful marketing and publicity budgets. In fact, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society says the top 10% of earners account for around 70% of publisher spend. Sadly, for the other 90% of authors, BookScan numbers are neither nuanced nor contextualized; it’s a case of ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. Publishers are usually transparent about relaunching authors under a new name precisely because they’re only trying to fool the algorithms, not the reading public.

Gender bias
It’s been true since the Brontë sisters first published their works that there is a gender bias against women in publishing. There is plenty of both anecdotal and statistical evidence that the books readers will choose, or discard – and critics review, or ignore – are skewed in favour of male writers. A 2009 international survey by VIDA, the Association for Women in Literary Arts, found that male authors’ books were reviewed 66 percent more frequently than women’s in The New York Times Book Review and London Review of Books – and the bias was even more pronounced in The Times Literary Supplement. Things have improved since then, but a 2019 update demonstrated that the balance still falls far short of parity.

My personal experience

Sustaining a career in writing takes resilience, grit, and an ability to adapt. For me, that has meant a bit of shape-shifting and name-changing over the past twenty-five years. I wrote nine novels as Margaret Murphy, only adopting my first pseudonym (A.D. Garrett) in 2013 for a trilogy of forensic thrillers. In that instance, the publisher wanted no hint as to the gender of the writer. Following on from that, I wrote a dark-themed duology as Ashley Dyer in consultation with forensics and policing expert Helen Pepper. When my agent called to say the novel was generating real excitement, but my UK publisher wanted another name change, I had only one question: will it sell more books? Settling on the androgynous ‘Ashley Dyer’ was a team effort, and again, the most important proviso from the publisher was that the pseudonym must not be gender specific.

I first wrote Before He Kills Again over a decade ago, and the late, great Reginald Hill read it. He really liked the story and wrote some generous words of recommendation for my agent to use as she touted it around the publishing houses. It was universally praised and unanimously rejected by over a dozen publishers. When I emailed Reg to let him know, he said they were – in his words – ‘fools’ and he urged me not to give up on it.

In the decade that followed, A.D. Garrett and Ashley Dyer took up all my creative energy and writing focus. But in 2019, I rewrote the novel I’d set aside and steeled myself to submit it to Joffe Books, offering it alongside my backlist of ‘Murphy’ titles. You can imagine my relief and joy when they praised it and wanted to commission it! However, my publisher, Jasper Joffe, was perplexed by my use of pseudonyms – what was the point? I went through all the reasons outlined here, but he argued that good marketing should be sufficient to remedy the vagaries of booksellers’ ordering systems, and he wanted me to revert to my real name for the backlist as well as the new novel. He was right: Before He Kills Again became a bestseller in the UK and the USA in e-format, garnering over 1100 favourable reviews and ratings, and a nomination for the CWA Steel Dagger. Of course, algorithms also have their influence on Amazon, as anyone who has ever bought so much as a thumb tack via the tech company’s shop front will know. But perhaps the difference is that readers who buy their books from Amazon can add the nuance BookScan lacks, as they are free – even actively encouraged – to comment and rate the books they read.

So, dear reader, when you discover that an author has changed their name, please don’t judge them too harshly – the reasons behind such decisions are complex and may be beyond the author’s control. Oh, and if you like a book do rate it for, on Amazon at least, there is literal truth in the phrase, per ardua, ad astra!'
 
 

Friday, 1 October 2021

Forgotten Book - Nothing but the Truth


Thanks to a book collector's kindness, I've come into possession of a number of hard-to-find Golden Age or GA-influenced novels and I've started to work my way through them. I decided to give John Rhode's Nothing But the Truth a go. It first appeared in 1947 and although pretty obscure, it's been discussed on a few blogs, such as Noah's Archives. I agree with Noah's suggestion that the social history is really the most interesting part of the story. The dust jacket of the novel shows an AA sentry box of the kind once familiar on British roads, and in such a box...a body is found. A great idea for a crime scene and one of the most interesting features of the book.

The story begins with a solicitor entertaining an irascible client called Watlington, one of those rich and unpleasant people who so regularly fall victim to dastardly deeds in vintage crime fiction. As a result of a strange sequence of events involving a drunken chauffeur and a policeman called Fawkes, Watlington goes missing. When a corpse is subsequently discovered, many miles away, in the AA box, with its features unrecognisable, the seasoned mystery fan is likely to suspect one of those identity switches so common in Golden Age fiction. But suffice to say that Rhode follows an unorthodox path in this novel.

Unorthodox, and rather odd. There are the makings of a good story here, but the mystery is developed laboriously, with a good deal of repetition. Ultimately, Jimmy Waghorn of Scotland Yard comes on to the scene, and he resorts to consulting Dr Priestley, but the Great Detective makes only fleeting appearances, and acts as an armchair detective with his secretary Harold doing some legwork. One of the strange things about the story is that, despite Rhode's customary emphasis on accuracy in technical details, the account of the effects of the two drugs which feature in the plot is far from convincing.  

A reader whose main interest lies in motive and characterisation will be disappointed by this one. I felt that Rhode could have played fair had he adopted a different story structure, but his chosen method for telling the story means that a key character remains hidden from view. I found this frustrating. I can cope with a bit of lazy writing in a crime novel, but I'm afraid there's far too much of it here. Overall, this is one of those detective stories that, despite those unorthodox elements, amply justifies the description 'humdrum'.  

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Vigil - BBC TV review


When I was a small boy, I sat through innumerable episodes of an American TV series called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, starring Richard Basehart and David Hedison. My Dad was a big fan of the show,  which was set on board an American nuclear submarine, but I was rather less enamoured. Suffice to say it was very different from Vigil, a thriller series written by Tom Edge. It's set on board a British nuclear sub and has just come to the end of its six-episode run on BBC TV.

Any series about nuclear submarines is almost certain to involve espionage as an ingredient, but Vigil scores right from the start as it concerns an investigation of a murder on board HMS Vigil, which occurs shortly after the mysterious capsizing of a fishing trawler. DCI Amy Silva (the talented and ubiquitous Suranne Jones) is the top cop sent on board to figure out who killed bolshy crew member Burke (Martin Compston). 

Amy suffers from claustrophobia, so sending her on to a submarine seems rather like an act of cruelty, despite her brilliance as a detective. But of course, in the finest tradition of Great Detectives, she goes for it. She has a complicated backstory, which emerges through a lengthy sequence of flashbacks. Her male partner drowned in a car accident for which she blames herself; she rescued his daughter from the car, but lost custody to the girl's grandparents. She then fell for a younger female cop, DS Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie), but that relationship has run into difficulties. While Amy gets embroiled in a complex series of goings-on on board Vigil, Kirsten investigates the murder of Burke's anti-nuclear activist girlfriend Jade on dry land.

The Vigil's crew includes some familiar faces, notably Shaun Evans, better known to me as the young Morse in the highly enjoyable Endeavour (I've seen two episodes of the new series eight so far, and they are definitely up to standard). Suranne Jones and Rose Leslie are terrific, and so is Stephen Dillane, who plays a crafty rear-admiral who knows more about what is happening in the depths of the sea than he's prepared to admit. 

Vigil has proved very popular, but it's also received plenty of criticism, partly because of technical inaccuracies, partly because the final revelations were regarded by some as disappointing, and partly because of a perception of political bias. I enjoyed it with very few reservations (the main one being that the final fifteen minutes felt more like a conscientious soap opera than a thriller). Unlike all too many six-part series, it was packed with action and didn't outstay its welcome. Of course this means that some aspects were convoluted and over-the-top, but a story of this kind demands the suspension of disbelief and I was more than happy to suspend mine. 

Monday, 27 September 2021

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year

 


I'm truly delighted to be one of the twenty authors whose work is included in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, edited by Lee Child, and this year's instalment of a series edited by Otto Penzler. The US version is published by Otto's Mysterious Press, the UK version (titled Best Crime Stories of the Year) by Head of Zeus. 

You can no doubt imagine my glee when Otto told me that Lee had selected my story for the book, and when I found out that the other contributors included such luminaries as Stephen King, David Morrell, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton (a posthumous publication, alas) and Joyce  Carol Oates. It's so gratifying to be in such company. And to have another story published by Mysterious Press in the US, just after The Traitor, my new bibliomystery, appeared.

My author copies of the anthology have just arrived and I'm looking forward to diving into my fellow contributors' stories. Early reviews have been terrific. Publishers' Weekly gave the collection a starred review, saying: 'Superior...this volume is a must for mystery aficionados.' There was another starred review from Kirkus, which referred to 'Twenty Gems'. And for good measure Library Journal called the book 'a delicious mixture of style and sub-genre...there isn't a weak link in the bunch.'

My story is 'The Locked Cabin', which originally appeared in Maxim Jakubowski's book of 'impossible crime' stories and was inspired by my Atlantic crossings on the Queen Mary a couple of years back. It's a history-mystery set on the original Queen Mary and was great fun to write. The fact that it's achieved this recognition is an unexpected added pleasure.

 



Friday, 24 September 2021

Forgotten Book - She Had to Have Gas


I last read Rupert Penny's She Had to Have Gas a decade ago and duly reviewed it on this blog. I felt it began splendidly but then got a bit bogged down. Over the years, I'd forgotten the story (and even the fact that I'd read it!) but I was prompted to take another look as a result of a typically interesting comment from the very knowledgeable Art Scott.

Art mentioned the book in relation to my recent post on Richard Whittington-Egan's book about the Cheltenham Torso case. He highlighted the fact that Penny wrote his novel not long after the real life case hit the headlines. It's an intriguing connection and I was prompted to dig out the book from the vaults to see whether it cast much imaginative light on the Cheltenham mystery, which remains officially unsolved.

The short answer is no. The events of the novel are very different from those in the Cheltenham case. It's not simply that the torso which is central to Penny's mystery is female, it's that the characters and motivations are very different. Even so, it's not impossible that Penny was inspired to dream up his convoluted puzzle by the news story.

My edition of the book is the one featured in the above image, published by Ramble House, whose list is definitely eclectic and worth a look. If you were to come across a copy of the Collins Crime Club edition at a cheap price, I recommend that you snap it up - Penny is definitely collectible, and his firsts are hard to find in good condition, let alone in dust jackets.

 

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

The International Agatha Christie Festival and exploring the south west


Last year the pandemic put paid to my plans to take part in the International Agatha Christie Festival once again. Happily this year, it all worked well and the dauntingly lengthy journey to Torquay was rewarded by plenty of sunshine and good company as well as some enjoyable stops along the way. I did, however, under-estimate just how long it would take me to drive from Rye to Torquay - basically, a whole day - and was very, very glad that I'd decided to break the journey back home to Cheshire, stopping in the delightful west country.


The director of the Christie festival these days is Tony Medawar, who is well-known to fans of vintage detective fiction as a result of his many contributions to CADS as well as, more recently, the popular anthologies of rare stories that he compiles for HarperCollins' Bodies from the Library series. (I hope to be reviewing the latest title at a later date.) Tony put together an impressively varied programme and invited me to do a couple of events. The first was a talk on 'Crafting Crime' and the second a workshop for a group of aspiring crime writers.



The talk was one I'd not done before, but I was pleased with the reaction as well as the chance to meet a number of delightful people, several old friends and some I'd not met previously (photo credit: Caroline Raeburn). I've done quite a few workshops but I felt the group I talked to at Torquay was especially good at coming up with interesting material in the impromptu exercises. Shortly I'll be launching an online crime writing course; it's called (surprise, surprise), 'Crafting Crime', and I'll talk more about it on this blog before long, but it was good to have the chance to conduct a face to face workshop at long last, after innumerable Zoom sessions. It was also good to return to the Grand (see the top two photos) where I stayed at the CWA conference in 1990, which coincided memorably with the Christie Centenary celebrations.



Wending our way back home took us through Devon and Somerset, two delightful rural counties that I don't know as well as I'd like to. Where possible I avoided the motorways and this made the long drive even longer but more bearable. Highlights included Dawlish (blacks swans and all...), Tiverton, Dulverton, Watchet, Monksilver (with its famous grotesque), Dunster Castle, Selworthy (the climb up to the Iron Age fort of Bury Castle was demanding, but the views made it worthwhile), and Porlock Weir. Calling in at Cullompton (E.M. Delafield's old stamping ground) I was impressed by the library, which seemed like a model of a 21st century community hub.  And towards the end of an epic trip, massive queues on the M6 prompted a return to Shugborough near Stafford. Gorgeous places in a green and pleasant land.









 

Monday, 20 September 2021

Returning to Rye


I'm just back from a lovely break in the south of England, which was blessed with astonishingly good weather. It was clear early on this year that I wouldn't want to be travelling overseas - although I look forward to the day when that's easy to do again! - and so I decided to concentrate on exploring England, especially rural England. I've also had in mind the potential for researching locations for my next novel and maybe one or two short stories. And I must say that it's been terrific fun. There is so much to see. My latest trip encompassed two really good festivals, the first being Rye Arts Festival.


Because Rye is so far from Cheshire, it made sense to stop off along the way. This led to a first visit to Henley-in-Arden (not to be confused with the Henley of regatta fame), a charming old town, and a break in the journey at Cassington in Oxfordshire, which afforded a chance of a walk around the grounds of Blenheim Palace at the end of the day and then a wander around Scotney Castle and the town of Battle in Sussex the next day.




Next it was on to Rye and three nights in the wonderfully historic Mermaid Inn. After my last visit to the Rye Arts Festival in 2019, I was tempted to reference the town in the storyline of The Crooked Shore, although no action scenes are set there. The town definitely has potential to feature in a Rachel Savernake story and I spent some time exploring its curious byways, trying to figure out what might happen where. 


'The Cryme Day' in which I took part at the Mermaid was really enjoyable. My fellow speakers were Andrew Wilson, Elly Griffiths, and Nicola Upson, all of whom are not only terrific writers but also very convivial companions. Special thanks go to John Case, who again organised everything with unobtrusive excellence. John's calm personality makes an event very agreeable, and given how challenging it has been to organise anything during the pandemic, I think he's done a quite brilliant job. 


For good measure, John recommended us to explore places such as Appledore, a village on the Romney Marsh (another good setting for Rachel!) and Hythe, a coastal resort I've never visited before. There is an astonishing ossuary in the church crypt at Hythe which is one of only two in England; seeing it was a memorable experience. There was also time for a steam railway trip to New Romney and a chance to look at the marsh from a different perspective.


So, plenty of promising raw material for mysterious settings, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable trip.  


 

 

Friday, 17 September 2021

Forgotten Book - Case with No Conclusion


Leo Bruce's third book about Sergeant William Beef, originally published in 1939, was Case with No Conclusion. The title is enticingly challenging - it suggests something very different from the conventional Golden Age mystery in which, so we are often told, order is disrupted only to be restored at the end. And there's no doubt that the central plot idea is a strong and attractive one.

Two features of the Beef series help the books to stand out from the crowd. Lionel Townsend is an entertaining narrator, constantly bemoaning Beef's failings, and just as consistently missing the point. He really is one of the most enjoyable and distinctive Watson surrogates in detective fiction. Add to this the plentiful references to the detective genre, and you have a sort of light-hearted metafiction which is very agreeable.

In this story, Beef has left the police and set up as a private investigator. But were his early successes in detection simply due to luck? This question lies at the heart of the story. Peter Ferrers engages his services in connection with 'the Sydenham Murder'. Peter's brother Stewart has been arrested in connection with the killing of an unpleasant character called Dr Benson. But was Stewart guilty? Beef becomes convinced that he was not, but he struggles to prove it.

The only reason why I don't rate this novel as a minor classic of its type is that I feel it sags in the middle, with a cross-Channel foray that seems rather like padding. I think that Bruce, like so many other Golden Age novelists (Richard Hull is an example that springs to mind) found it relatively easy to come up with clever ideas, but didn't always supply enough ancillary plot material (or strong characterisation) to make his novels gripping from start to finish. It might be harsh to say that here we have a brilliant idea for a short story, expanded beyond its natural length, but I do think the storyline would have benefited from further development and texture. But I don't want to criticise too severely, because it was an engaging read and confirmed my enthusiasm for Sergeant Beef.        

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

2.5 million and counting...


A little while ago, this blog passed a milestone of sorts - two and a half million pageviews. I've been a bit distracted lately, not least because of the sadness of learning of the loss of two old friends in Caroline Todd and Robert Richardson, but I guess that this figure is a cause for a modest celebration. One thing is for sure. The blog began back in 2007 and I still enjoy putting the posts together. I haven't become bored with it at all. And I like to think my readers haven't, either!

It's interesting to look back (the photo above was taken in Aberdyfi a few weeks before the first blog post). In 2007, I'd had a couple of award nominations and I'd published eleven novels over a period of sixteen years. I was working on Waterloo Sunset, the eighth Harry Devlin novel, and mulling over the concept of another Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool. I was still very much a full-time partner in my law firm and still stuck on the commuting treadmill. A great deal has changed in the interim. There's no doubt my writing career has moved in a very positive direction, and I've been fortunate in a number of other ways. I'm still a working solicitor, I should add, but on a very part-time basis. My main focus now is on writing, and you could say that's a dream come true.

The blog may not be responsible for these happy developments, but I think it's helped me in a variety of ways. Above all, it's brought me into contact with some wonderful people, both in the UK and much further afield. I greatly value your comments and also the emails and other messages that you send in.

So, my aim is to keep going with the blog for an indefinite period of time. And I hope very much that you'll continue to take an interest in it. Whilst I'm perfectly capable of talking to myself, it's much better to have a bit of company!

 

 

Monday, 13 September 2021

Diamond and the Eye by Peter Lovesey - review


It's one thing to be prolific. To be prolific and innovative is quite another. Yet Peter Lovesey, more than fifty years after he burst on to the crime writing scene, continues to try out new ideas. This literary ambition, this willingness to take risks, this refusal to be content with the same-old, same-old, is one of the qualities that distinguishes the best writers. Their number certainly includes Peter, who is the only living author in Britain to have received the CWA Diamond Dagger and also been made a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America.

Now he's come up with Diamond and the Eye, the rear dust jacket of which carries a quote from this blog, which I was rather pleased and proud to see. It's the twentieth in his long-running series about Bath cop Peter Diamond, and he's celebrated by trying something very different and quite unexpected. To the third person viewpoint chapters featuring the police investigation are added chapters told in the first person by a character new to the series, Johnny Getz, who happens to be a private investigator based in Bath.

There is always a touch - and sometimes a generous helping - of humour in Peter Lovesey's novels, and here he focuses on having fun. In particular, he enjoys himself by parodying the style of the classic American private eye novelists, notably Raymond Chandler. Chandler is name-checked several times, and so are various other writers and gumshoes, including one of my own favourites, Amos Walker, created by Loren D. Estelman. The comedic ingredients also include a femme fatale in the unlikely shape of the much-married Lady Bede, who happens to be a member of the local police ethics committee.

The story begins with Johnny investigating the disappearance of a dealer in art and antiques and this forms the prelude to a convoluted case in which the equivalent of the Maltese Falcon is a work of art which, although fictional, has its origins in a piece of Bath's real-life history. This is a less serious mystery than the general run of the Diamond series, but I suspect that during the pandemic Peter was in the mood for light relief and I'm sure his many fans will feel likewise and welcome this good-natured jeu d'esprit

Friday, 10 September 2021

Forgotten Book - The Dream Walker aka Alibi for Murder


Charlotte Armstrong was a talented author capable of sharp psychological insight. She was also admirably ambitious, varying her approach to the task of telling a crime story with conspicuous regularity. Sometimes the result was extremely good, as in Mischief, sometimes more open to question. A case in point is The Dream Walker, first published in 1955. It's a novel with a very intriguing premise, but I must admit that I struggled with the use she made of her raw material.

It's one thing for a writer to have a good idea, quite another to make the best use of it. A conventional novel will often open with the discovery of a murder, but writers of psychological suspense often find a different and perhaps unorthodox starting point. In this book, I was surprised that the story (narrated by a young teacher called Olivia Hudson) began with a rather hurried account of a plot concocted by two men with a view to discrediting a saintly individual, Olivia's uncle, for the purpose of revenge. We don't identify with the bad guys, because they are not characterised in any depth, and more surprisingly we don't identify with the good guy, who is another cipher. I wondered if these characters would be more fully developed as the story progressed, but it's hardly a spoiler to say that they are not. And that did seem to me to be quite a defect.

The real meat of the story lies in the scheme hatched by the bad guys. From an early stage, we know that a woman called Cora, who seems to be in two places at one and the same time, is involved in the plot. Armstrong was aiming, I suppose, for the kind of suspense that you get - as in a Hitchcock thriller - where you know more than the people at the sharp end of the action. For me, however, it didn't work. And unfortunately I found Olivia irritating.

While battling rather wearily through the book, I checked to see what other people made of it. Interestingly, there is a positive review on an excellent blog, Mysteries Ahoy!. Aidan makes the point that Armstrong was indirectly referencing the McCarthy witch hunts, and he describes the book rather nicely as an 'inverted impossible mystery'. Aidan takes a more generous view of the characterisation and structure than I do. For once, though, I'm afraid I wasn't persuaded by his advocacy, skilful as it is. I felt that such a good premise deserved a more gripping presentation. Helen McCloy would, for example, probably have made much more effective use of it.

  


 

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

The Life of Crime

I've been pleased by the reaction on social media to my big news - the announcement in the Bookseller of my forthcoming history of mystery, The Life of Crime, to be published by HarperCollins. The sub-title is Unravelling the Mysteries of Fiction's Favourite Genre, and the book is due to land on the shelves on 12 May 2022. It will land quite noisily, because the book is no slim volume. It's about a quarter of a million words long, even after ruthless (believe me!) cutting.

I've been interested in the idea of writing a history of the genre for a very long time. In the 1980s, I kept a card index detailing authors, books, and topics of interest, but other things got in the way and the index gathered dust. Then, in the mid-90s, I had a conversation with fellow author Andrew Taylor, during a St Hilda's crime fiction conference, which stuck in my mind. He said to me that I really should try to write a book that was in effect an update of Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, the study of the genre that he and I greatly admire. Andrew is someone whose opinions I greatly respect. The fact that, even in those far-off days, he thought I was capable of such a feat stuck in my mind. I was flattered, but a bit daunted.

As things turned out, it wasn't until The Golden Age of Murder was published that I turned my mind in earnest to the idea of writing a history of the genre. I knew that it would be a mega-project, and by then I also knew that it would be a very, very different book from Bloody Murder. There are several reasons for this; one of them is that each chapter will begin with a vignette from the life of a particular writer. Symons, in contrast, didn't bother much with biographical details. One of the reasons why I chose this focus was that over the course of my career as a published novelist, I've given many talks on the theme of 'My Life of Crime' and I find that readers' appetites for information about writing careers is boundless. This book seeks to cater to that demand, but in a rather different way than did The Golden Age of Murder.

I'm very excited about this book. I realise that it's impossible to please all readers, or to say everything about every author and novel that deserves to be said. But Bloody Murder came out in 1972, and since then, there hasn't been anything comparable in terms of scope and influence. I've put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into The Life of Crime and I hope that, whether or not they agree with what I have to say, people will find it not only informative and interesting but an entertaining read.  

  

Monday, 6 September 2021

Robert Richardson R.I.P.

 


I was truly sorry to hear of the death of Robert Richardson, who – uniquely – served two distinct terms as Chair of the CWA. He also gave a great deal of support to Nancy Livingstone, whose stint as Chair was marred by serious illness. I was friendly with Robert and his charming wife Sheila for upwards of thirty years, and on the last occasion that we met, at a northern chapter lunch in Yorkshire shortly before the pandemic changed all our lives, I had the pleasure and privilege of presenting him with a Red Herring award in recognition of his distinguished service to the CWA and its members over the decades.

Robert was a journalist who moved from writing whodunits featuring an amateur sleuth to novels of psychological suspense. His first crime novel, The Latimer Mercy (1985), won the John Creasey Memorial Award for the best debut of the year. Firmly in the classic detective story tradition, it benefited from a cathedral setting (in Vercaster, a fictionalised St Albans), and an amateur detective who rejoiced in the name of Augustus Maltravers. Maltravers, a playwright, is an intelligent and likeable character, but three years passed before he returned and the mood in Bellringer Street (1988) is bleaker than in the first book. The Book of the Dead (1989), set in Cumbria, contains a lengthy – and well-wrought - Sherlockian pastiche. Memories of ‘Silver Blaze’ and the dog that did not bark in the night-time point Maltravers towards the solution to a murder mystery and help to prevent another killing. 

Maltravers appeared in three more novels before Robert published The Hand of Strange Children (1993), a book nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger. He blended extracts from news agency reports detailing the discovery of two bodies in a wealthy banker’s house with flashbacks so as to build considerable tension. Significant Others (1995), in which he made use of his knowledge of the newspaper industry, and Victims (1997), are also entertaining stand-alone novels.

After that, however, Robert produced no more mystery novels, a real shame, but I continued to see him regularly at CWA events, including our penultimate encounter, at the Lake District conference in 2019 when I came to the end of my own long run as CWA Chair. He presented me with a bottle of wine, ostensibly as a competition prize, but I suspect mostly just as a generous gesture of goodwill. He spent many years tormenting me gently about the misfortunes of Manchester City and in recent years he took it in good part when I retaliated as City gained the upper hand over their rivals, his beloved Man Utd. He had a fund of anecdotes and was a sparky character. I'll miss him. 

 

Friday, 3 September 2021

Forgotten Book - The Great British Torso Mystery


Today, for once, my forgotten book is a work of non-fiction. I first came across the name of Richard Whittington-Egan about forty years ago, when I started work in Liverpool. A local man, he'd published a number of books about his native city, and I later discovered that he was also an expert in true crime. I never met him, but we were in touch in the later years of his life, when he was living in the south west with his wife and literary collaborator Molly. He kindly read and commented on the manuscript of my novel Dancing for the Hangman and he told me about a book he'd written called The Great British Torso Mystery, which I duly acquired. Richard died in 2016 but I've recently reread the book, which is the only full-length study of a case that was, in its day, very high profile.

An unidentified and mutilated human trunk was discovered on the banks of the River Severn, not too far from Cheltenham, in 1938. The incident, and the mystery surrounding it, became a sensation. It was dubbed, rather wonderfully if not quite accurately, 'The Case of the Thousand Clues'. The legendary pathologist Bernard Spilsbury was consulted, but the torso was never definitively identified. It seems very likely, however, that it belonged to an individual called Captain William Butt.

A related discovery was made even before the torso was examined. A gigolo called Brian Sullivan was found to have gassed himself. He was an associate of Captain Butt, who had engaged the services of Sullivan's mother, Nurse Sullivan, to look after his mentally troubled wife. Butt, like Sullivan, was an unscrupulous fellow, and the nurse was also a strange character; her role in the story is important, but open to interpretation.

Did Barry Sullivan kill Butt and try to disguise the crime by mutilating the body? If so, why? If not, what really happened? A detective novelist of the day, Andrew Soutar, investigated on behalf of the Daily Mail, and although his reporting prompted a libel suit from Nurse Sullivan, perhaps his veiled hints that she was involved in the death of Butt were not too far off the mark. 

It's a case that I find intriguing in various ways and Richard's treatment of it is interesting. The book was published by a small press, and I do feel that it would have benefited from stricter editing. All the same, it's an interesting piece of research and the case is so extraordinary that I'm surprised that it isn't better-known.


Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Announcing The Traitor - a new Bibliomystery


This summer I undertook an interesting project, commissioned by Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. For the past few years, Otto has been publishing a series of limited edition stories which are 'Bibliomysteries' - concerned, in one way or another, with the world of books. A number of wonderful authors - the likes of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, R. L. Stine, Jeffrey Deaver, Megan Abbott, and Joyce Carol Oates - have featured in the series, so I was flattered to be invited to join them. And as luck would have it, within hours of Otto putting the proposal to me, an idea flitted into my head...

The stories are short, but not very short. The requirement is that they must be at least 10,000 words long and to do with books, but otherwise, the author has free rein. This is liberating. I was conscious that I'd never written a story of this length - almost a novella, you might say - and so here was another interesting challenge. I realised that the story would need to be different from a conventional short story as well as from a novel. The story concept needed to have enough meat in it to justify the length. Luckily, the idea that had sprung to mind fitted the bill.

Otto sent me some illustrative examples of stories in the series, including an Edgar winner from John Connolly and Andrew Taylor's The Long Sonata of the Dead, which supplies a pleasing coda to his wonderful Roth Trilogy. The idea of the series is that they are only available from Otto's bookshop, and that there are limited signed editions as well as paperbacks. The pressure, of course, is to write something good enough to stand in such company...

The result of my labours was The Traitor. This introduces a new character, the 'book detective' Benny Morgan. When lockdown came to an end, my first trips included visits to Llandudno and Shropshire, and both settings feature in the story. It's a mystery concerned with obsessive book-collecting and I really did enjoy writing it. Publication is in September and further details may be found  here


 

 

Murder She Drew - A Japanese Perspective on John Dickson Carr


I've talked before about the pleasure I take in hearing from readers of my books, and of this blog, around the world. Some time ago, quite out of the blue, I received a message from Akira Moriwaki of Japan about a fascinating project of his connected with the works of the locked room king, John Dickson Carr. One thing led to another, and I'm now the proud possessor of an inscribed copy of Murder, She Drew: Notes of the Curious, by the Curious, for the Curious by Akira and two other talented Japanese Carr enthusiasts. What is more, I have a couple of maps of scenes from Carr's work, in London and New Orleans respectively, which are so lovely to look at that I've had them framed and they now hang on the wall alongside a number of other prints with crime writing associations. 


The authors are now branching out, and I'm delighted to host a short guest blog post from them about their latest activities. Over to Akira Moriwaki:

'Murder, She Drew: Notes of the Curious, by the Curious, for the Curiouswas the first attempt in the world to review John Dickson Carr's historical mysteries and illustrate it with crime scenes and maps. Fortunately, this project was unexpectedly well received, both in Japan and abroad. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that the illustrator, who was the 'She' in the title and had previously read very few of Carr's novels, was awakened to Carr's charms.

We are pleased to announce a new challenge: Carr Graphic. It is a far-reaching project to make Carr's works into a Graphic in the "SR (=Sealed Room) no Kai", the longest established mystery novel enthusiasts' group in Japan, to which the three co-authors belong. This is the result of the illustrator's love for Maestro Carr.

This project will be published in the SR Monthly magazine on even-numbered months and in the SR Blog on odd-numbered months. Both the paper and the blog will be linked together to form a series of pieces.

The first piece, It Walks by Night, was published last month in the June issue of SR Monthly.

The first SNS piece, The Lost Gallows, was published at the following address. http://sealedroom.blog.jp/

Monday, 30 August 2021

Fen Country - and Murder by the Book

Murder by the Book includes an Edmund Crispin story that previously appeared in his posthumous collection Fen Country, so it was perhaps appropriate that an event to celebrate the publication of the latest British Library Crime Classic anthology should be held in Ely, at the heart of the fenlands. The event was organised by Toppings, who have a lovely bookshop in the centre of the little city. I've visited Ely only once before, on a day trip nine years ago, and given the length of the journey from Cheshire, it made sense to turn the event into the centrepiece of a staycation, and to spend more time in a fascinating part of England. 



The event itself was held in St Peter's Church, and the layout of the pews allowed for social distancing. Toppings served coffee and cake, and we all tucked in with enjoyment. I was interviewed by David Learner, a former actor whose roles included Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. David did a great job and the afternoon passed very enjoyably indeed, not least because there were many books to sign! I was also delighted to have the chance of an extended chat afterwards with a good friend of this blog, Clint Stacey.



Exploring Ely was very enjoyable. A boat trip on the Great Ouse and a visit to Ely Country Park were among the highlights. Ely is a relatively isolated place, with a rich history and I can imagine that lifestyles there are often tranquil and relaxing. David is very keen on the city, and it's easy to understand why. Of course, having a good bookshop close at hand is a real plus...



We spent an afternoon wandering around nearby Wicken Fen, a place rich in wildlife, and while wandering through the reeds, I came up with a very visual idea for the opening chapter of my next novel. So - definitely inspirational! That idea doesn't involve the fens in any way, but I must admit I'm now tempted to set a short story or a scene in a novel there. On the way home, we also went around the grounds of Anglesey Abbey - which is a very long way from the Anglesey I'm familiar with - and again that was fun to do. Luck with good weather always helps on a trip like this, and I'd have had a good time even if nobody turned up for my event. The fact that people came from quite far-flung places was a real bonus, and underlined the appeal of classic crime fiction.