Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The Conversation - 1974 film review


In my first year as a student, I was very keen to learn - not just my subject, but about culture and history much more generally. I'd worked for six months in a factory and I seized the opportunities that suddenly opened up before me to try to broaden my mind and understanding of the world. I didn't do everything I aimed to do - not by a long chalk - but I did see a lot of films. Among them was Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. During the early scenes I was puzzled, but I quickly became hooked. I came away from the college where the film was being shown stunned but enthralled. I've just watched it for the third time and I remain a very big fan of this movie. It's subtle, clever, and engrossing.

The memorable opening scene is at Union Square, San Franscisco. A few years ago, I stayed at a hotel just by the square, and those memories came flooding back as I watched Gene Hackman, as Harry Caul, mounting a surveillance operation on a young couple who keep moving around in the crowd. Harry has been hired by 'the director' to find out what this pair are saying to each other. And Harry is the best in the business.

The key plot strand concerns Harry's attempt to understand the meaning of the conversation that he is listening to. This final plot twist here is brilliantly done - I'd call it Christie-esque in its combination of simplicity and excellence. But there's much more on offer here than mere plot (good though that is). Personal privacy is a central issue, one which is even more relevant today than it was in 1974. You only have to compare the recent British film Framed to see how tricky it is to deal with such a subject successfully, but Coppola's film really does make us think in a way that Framed does not.  

And then there's the portrayal of Harry himself. Hackman is at his very best, capturing the man's loneliness and insecurity in very few words (the title is, in one sense, ironic: there isn't really a lot of conversation in this film). A terrible incident in his past fuels his paranoia. And this is one of those stories where paranoia is absolutely justified. The supporting cast includes Harrison Ford in an early role, and Teri Garr as Harry's lover, while Allen Garfield has a small but memorable part as Harry's competitor - is excellent. It's one of those films that stands up to repeated viewings and close examination, because it's the work of a gifted writer-director at the very top of his game.



  

Monday, 26 July 2021

Dead Gorgeous - 2002 TV film review



Quite apart from his various series, Peter Lovesey has written several excellent stand-alone novels. One of my favourites, although it is not perhaps one of his best-known titles, is On the Edge, published in 1989. In 2002, it was televised as Dead Gorgeous, directed by Sarah Harding and with a screenplay by Andrew Payne. It's a story in the Strangers on a Train vein, but sufficiently distinctive to stand on its own two feet, and the TV version is, like the novel, very entertaining.

It's 1946 and two former WAAF 'plotters' are not enjoying married life. Rose (Fay Ripley) is treated like a domestic servant by her husband Barry, who keeps her short of money but spends a lot of his time out drinking and womanising. Antonia (Helen McCrory, who sadly died earlier this year) has, on the surface, done better for herself. She's married a wealthy domestic goods manufacturer called Hector (Ron Cook). But he bores her, and she's conducting an affair with a handsome young chap who has just been offered a new post in the US.

Rose and Antonia bump into each other and confide their matrimonial woes. Antonia, glamorous and mischievous as well as selfish, decides that they'd both be much better off without their respective husbands. From that moment, the pair are heading towards a potential exchange of murders. 

Ripley and McCrory are a very appealing duo and the chemistry between them  is such that, even if you guess what is likely to happen, there's a lot of pleasure to be had in watching events unfold. This is a nicely paced piece of light entertainment, and Payne's script and the acting do the novel justice. 

 

Friday, 23 July 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder of a Man Afraid of Women

Anthony Abbot was a pen-name adopted by Fulton Oursler (1893-1952), who is best remembered as the author, under his own name, of The Greatest Story Ever Told; he told it some years after giving up on detective fiction. During the Thirties, though, he was one of the leading American writers of Golden Age mysteries. His books aren't easy to come by now, but on a recent visit to Hay I snaffled a copy of Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937). The US edition of this book, as with the five earlier books in the series, added the words 'About the' to the title, presumably to secure some sort of alphabetical primacy.

Abbot's detective was Thatcher Colt, head of the New York police. Colt is an interesting variant on the Philo Vance/Ellery Queen type of character. He's a police professional, with a keen understanding of the importance of technological advances in the fight against crime. But like Van Dine and Queen, he has the brilliance of the great detective, as well as an admiring narrator - his secretary, who goes by the name Anthony Abbot...

This novel was clearly inspired by a fascinating real life murder case in the US - the unsolved killing of the actor and director William Desmond Taylor. The true crime is an amazing story, and Oursler clearly used his imagination to think of a possible interpretation of the real life events, while adding plenty of invention to the mix. It's not a bad method at all.

It's not a bad book, either. I felt it began well and ended fairly well, but there was quite a bit of sagging in the middle of the story. I dreamed up my own solution, but it was way off beam, predictably so since it wouldn't have been acceptable given the moral climate in the 30s. There's an attempt to create a race against time, since Colt is trying to solve the case before his imminent wedding, but I didn't find this element of the story believable. There are some very interesting ingredients in the mix, but I wasn't entirely convinced by the overall handling of them, and in particular not by the all-important psychology of the main character, Peter Slade (who stands in Taylor's shoes in the story). There is too much contrivance. But of course that can be said of many Golden Age novels, can't it?

Monday, 19 July 2021

Publication Week - and the first reviews: The Crooked Shore (updated)


This week sees the publication of my eighth Lake District Mystery, The Crooked Shore. It's always an exciting moment to bring out a fresh book, but perhaps even more so in this case, since six years have elapsed since the appearance of The Dungeon House. In the interim, I've not been idle, but I must say I've been itching to get back to the adventures of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. The fact that so many readers have encouraged me to hurry up and produce their next case has been enormously heartening. Of course, one always wonders how reviewers will react (if they react at all!)...

With this story, as with other books in the series, I've tried to do something a little different, as well as introducing new developments in the lives of Hannah and Daniel. The Crooked Shore isn't an entirely orthodox whodunit or conventional cold case mystery, but it was a lot of fun to research (mainly on the south coast of Cumbria) and to write.

I'm delighted to be able to report that press reviewers have been especially quick off the mark, and in a very positive way. This is what the Morning Star has to say: 'A splendidly imaginative plot will have you guessing and gasping until the very end.' Wow!

There's also a nice piece in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, which calls the novel 'a classic whodunit' and ranks it alongside the latest books by those splendid and high profile writers Steve Cavanagh and Vaseem Khan. In this day and age, press reviews are hard to come by, so it's a great thrill to see the book getting off to such a positive start.  

And finally, here's an extract from a wonderful review by Mark Sanderson that has just appeared in The Times' crime club newsletter: 'As always a satisfying mystery is played out with lashings of local colour and history. Favourite line: "Through the trees peeped the dome of the eighteenth-century Round House, mocked by Wordsworth as a 'tea canister in a shop window'."'

Friday, 16 July 2021

Forgotten Book - The Killing of Francie Lake aka The Plain Man



Julian Symons was a severe judge of his own work, as well as (sometimes) that of fellow authors. He recognised that, as a novelist, he was himself inconsistent. Sometimes this was because of his determination to try something different. Occasionally it was because his novels didn't have a strong enough central idea. And sometimes he was too harsh on himself - for instance, he was rather dismissive of The Plot Against Roger Rider, a book I rate highly. But I'm afraid I share his disappointment with a novel he published in 1962 and dedicated to his friend the thriller writer George Sims, The Killing of Francie Lake.

The central character is Octavius Gaye, known as Ocky, and nicknamed 'The Plain Man'. Symons had written a biography of Horatio Bottomley, and in this novel, as well as in The Paper Chase, he fictionalised Bottomley. One problem is that, although I agree Bottomley was a fascinating rogue, I find Ocky a slightly unsatisfactory character. Another problem, which I don't think any other commentator has ever picked up on, is that in many respects this novel reworks various elements from Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock. And it's markedly inferior to that chilling American classic.

Ocky, like Earl Janoth in The Big Clock, is the charismatic kingpin of a media organisation that is running into difficulties. There are other similarities, though I want to avoid spoilers, so I'll say no more. Francie Lake is Ocky's hard-bitten but lonely former mistress. An odd feature of the book is that Francie is thinly characterised and that the mystery about her murder is subdued, while its investigation is half-hearted and entwined with a rather drab sub-plot involving blackmail. The American title of the book, although dull, is at least more accurate in emphasizing that Symons was more interested in Ocky than in Francie. 

There are quite a lot of characters in the story, but none of them are really memorable. The pivotal scene in which the truth is revealed on live television is very nicely conceived, and it's a pity that, because of the unsatisfactory build-up, it doesn't have quite the powerful impact that Symons no doubt hoped to achieve. The snag is that we don't really care enough about Ocky or the people who surround him and whom he seeks to manipulate. Even for a Symons fan like me, this book has to rank as a misfire. 

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Writing in Ice: Michael Ridpath guest blog


I first came across Michael Ridpath's name in the 90s, when he burst on the scene with a financial thriller that sold for big bucks and attracted a lot of publicity. More recently he's become associated with Icelandic mysteries and I was delighted when he wrote a very good short story in that vein for Motives for Murder. Even more delighted when his story was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger! 

I've always found Michael to be one of those people from whom one can learn a great deal. He's just written a book about his experience as a British novelist writing books set in Iceland and I must say that I think it is a very good read. Michael has kindly contributed a guest blog explaining the background:

'It takes a lot of guts to write about a country you know nothing about.  Or maybe just a certain amount of stupidity.

I started my writing career in the 1990s writing financial thrillers.  They say “write what you know” and I knew the financial world – I had worked for a bank in the City of London. But, as is the way of these things, after eight books my sales languished and I needed to come up with a new plan.  This time I wanted to write about something I didn’t know.  Some poor innocent country that was small enough for me to have a chance of learning all about it, yet remarkable enough to grab my readers’ attention and keep me interested for half a dozen books.  A place whose murder rate I could have fun doubling.

When put that way, the answer was obvious.  Iceland.

So I began researching the country.  This involved not just reading all about it, but also visiting the place many times and talking to dozens of Icelanders.   It was a challenge, but it was fun.  Over the last ten years and five crime novels featuring my Icelandic detective Magnus, I have amassed an Iceland research file running to over 400 pages, neatly broken down into sections that tell me what the waffles in the Mokka Kaffi smell like, the differences between interrogating a witness and a suspect under Icelandic law, and how to deal with unruly elves.

Perhaps the most encouraging titbit I stumbled across was the saying “Glöggt er gests augad” which roughly translates to “Clear is a guest’s eye.”  I believe there is some truth in this.  Iceland is a country where the ordinary is extraordinary: both the astounding landscape of lava fields and fjords and the vigorous, often eccentric citizenry.  An Icelandic author might not notice this.  I can.

I have just published Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland. Based on my blog www.writinginice.com, it’s a memoir of how I researched Iceland.  It’s the story of how I fell in love with the country, with some tips on how to research and write a detective series about foreign lands thrown in.  Plus there is advice on how to deal with an obstreperous elf or to pacify a hotel ghost, should you meet one.'   

Friday, 9 July 2021

Forgotten Book - Waltz into Darkness


I discovered Cornell Woolrich in the 1980s, when many of his books were published in paperback with insighful introductions from Francis M. Nevins. I became a real fan and when Mike Nevins published Woolrich's biography, I also devoured that. Two years ago, at Bouchercon in Dallas, I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Nevins at long last and took the chance to thank him for helping to enthuse me about Woolrich.

One novel which escaped me until very recently was Woolrich's historical mystery, Waltz into Darkness. I set about reading it as part of my research and preparation for work on 'The Woman Who Never Was', a short story that is intended as a tribute to Woolrich. 

First published in 1947 under the pen-name William Irish, the book is set in New Orleans in 1880. The protagonist is Louis Durand, who is a prosperous businessman in his thirties, but in many respects a typically doom-laden Woolrichian character. At the start of the story, he is eagerly anticipating the arrival of his bride-to-be Julia. He's never met her, but they have conducted their romance by correspondence. Ah, those days before dating apps!

When the lady arrives, she is extremely attractive and charming. The snag is that her appearance doesn't match her photo. She comes up with a plausible explanation, and Louis becomes besotted. So much so that he gladly gives her access to his bank account. But then she makes herself scarce, taking his money with her. And Louis realises that he's been well and truly conned.

The snag is that despite his unhappiness and fury, he remains infatuated. He hires a private detective to find her, and eventually tracks her down, but with disastrous results. Suffice to say that although Woolrich at his best is compelling, you definitely shouldn't read him in hope of a happy ending.  

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

True Crime Story by Joseph Knox




The idea of having a twin fascinates me. As an only child, I find it difficult enough to imagine having a sibling, but to have someone in your life from birth, of exactly the same age, is something else again; it's bound to create an extraordinary bond and also, in some cases, extraordinary complications. Twins have naturally found their way into crime fiction, and Ronald Knox famously fulminated against the cliche of introducing an identical twin without adequate foreshadowing as a means of getting out of a tricky plot hole in his famous Decalogue. I've never actually written a story about twins, but maybe one of these days...

In the meantime, there's a brand new crime novel in which identical twin sisters play a leading part. This is True Crime Story by Joseph Knox (Doubleday). I've never met Joseph, but I became aware of him some years ago when he was mentioned to me as a bookseller with a great love of crime fiction. He made a very successful venture into crime writing with Sirens, which launched a series of three books. Now he has written this stand-alone.

It's appealing, quite apart from the presence of identical twins, for its structure. This is a novel firmly within the 'casebook' tradition - a branch of crime writing that I very much enjoy (although again I've never written a novel structured in this way - yet). The Moonstone remains a classic example, but there are plenty of other books which show the potential of this form of writing, including Sayers' The Documents in the Case, Robert Player's The Ingenious Mr Stone, and Vera Caspary's Laura. Here, Knox offers us not just one unreliable narrator, but a whole bunch of them.

The story deals with the vanishing some years ago of a Manchester student, Zoe Nolan, and the consequences of her sudden disappearance. The story is told as a sort of true crime narrative, which various people who were closely involved with Zoe interviewed by a writer called Evelyn. An added layer of complexity is created by the involvement of Knox himself in the material which surrounds the record of events. There is a long series of emails between Evelyn and Knox, often redacted, which heighten the air of mystery. 

One of the dangers of this type of story is that the voices of the various viewpoint characters may not be adequately contrasted. Knox rises to this challenge very well indeed (the voice of one female character, now working in the HR, is especially well caught) and there are occasional touches of humour which are very welcome in a fundamentally bleak story. There are points when, perhaps, the endless ping-pong of witness statements might have been shortened, but the story gathers pace towards an unusual and intriguing climax. A very engaging novel by a writer of real talent; you'll hear a lot more about him in years to come, I'm sure of that. 

Monday, 5 July 2021

A New Sayers Biography


Some time ago, I was asked for permission to allow a quote from me (an extract from the intro to Ask a Policeman) to be included in a new book about Dorothy L. Sayers. We reached agreement and I've now had a chance to look at the book, which is written by Colin Duriez and published by Lion Hudson. The title is: Dorothy L. Sayers: Death, Dante, and Lord Peter Wimsey. 

The author is an expert on C.S. Lewis, and is especially interested in Sayers' relationship with Christianity. Her faith was extremely important to her and Duriez writes sympathetically about her moral dilemmas and struggles, especially in connection with the birth of her son, a secret she kept hidden from the world to the end of her life.

In the overall scheme of the book, Sayers' detective fiction doesn't play a large part and it's clear that it's of even less interest to Duriez than it was to Sayers' principal biographer, Barbara Reynolds, whose magisterial book about DLS remains the key text on her life. So, for instance, The Documents in the Case (to the genesis of which Reynolds devoted a whole chapter,  a part of her book I found especially fascinating) does not even get a mention. There's no mention at all of Taking Detective Stories Seriously, in which I gathered her wonderful crime reviews for the Sunday Times.

I can understand this focus, since of course Sayers herself stopped writing detective novels while still in her forties and preferred to concentrate on theological writing and translating Dante, although she remained devoted to the Detection Club to the time of her death. For my part, I'm primarily interested in her influential contribution to crime writing, both as a novelist and a commentator. This book doesn't cast any fresh light on those areas of her work, it has to be said, but it serves perfectly well as a concise and very readable introduction to the life of a remarkable woman.  

 

Friday, 2 July 2021

Forgotten Book - A Fragment of Fear

A Fragment of Fear was published in 1965. At the time, the author, John Bingham, was riding high. He was lauded by leading reviewers such as Julian Symons and Francis Iles, as well as by his friend and former colleague John Le Carre. A couple of his books had been adapted for television and this one was made into a feature film starring David Hemmings. I reviewed the movie version back in 2018 and I've finally got round to reading the book. 

The novel reminds me of the books of Cornell Woolrich and, to some extent, of Boileau and Narcejac in the way it places the protagonist in a nightmarish situation. It's a psychological thriller with more than a touch of paranoia about it. The protagonist and narrator, Compton, is a writer, though his writing doesn't play much of a part in the story. We begin in Italy, with the death of an elderly lady at Pompeii and a mysterious message on a wreath. Compton starts to wonder if she was murdered.

When he gets back to England, he starts to investigate, but a sequence of strange events occur, and soon he begins to doubt his own sanity. And he's not the only one. I don't want to say too much about the storyline that unfolds, for fear of spoilers, but it's certainly tantalising. I think that - as is so often the case with Woolrich's novels - the build-up is much more impressive than the finale, but it's definitely a book that I was glad to read.

Bingham had some interesting ideas, and although his execution of them was variable in terms of quality, there is something 'different' about his work that sets it apart from the ordinary run of crime fiction. Unfortunately, this novel was his last major success. His subsequent work was mixed, but on the whole rather less impressive. I'm not quite sure why he struggled to sustain his standards. Possibly it was because he didn't always make the most of his ideas, or explore the full potential of his characters. There are hints of this weakness even in a generally successful book like A Fragment of Fear, especially with the rather rushed and unsatisfactory last few pages. But I think it's a pity that his work is so rarely discussed nowadays. He is well worth reading.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Connections - guest blog post by Maxim Jakubowski

     

The connections in writing - and in life - interest me deeply. To my mind, they are far more interesting than divisions and barriers, and far more rewarding to explore. For that reason, I have never been enthusiastic about splitting fiction or specifically crime fiction into categories. I can see that labels can be helpful in a library or a bookshop as a means of saving time for browsers, but beyond that, their value is limited. In the same vein, although the vast majority of my writing is in the field of crime, I've enjoyed shifting from fiction to non-fiction and back again, and also trying different types of crime writing. It follows that I'm interested in polymaths, and people who keep trying something new. Maxim Jakubowski, whom I've mentioned numerous times before on this blog, and who has just written a new novel, is an example of those authors who range far and wide in their fields of interest, even when focusing on crime. So when he proposed a guest blog on this topic, I was immediately receptive. Over to Maxim...

''I was recently honoured by being voted in as the Crime Writers' Association new Chair (in the footsteps of Martin and many other eminent names in our field) and must confess that, for a diversity of reasons, I hesitated a long time before agreeing to my name being put forward. Family health considerations aside, I knew how much work is actually involved behind the scenes from having been a member for well over 30 years and on the Board for almost a decade but at the end of the day I didn't demur as I believe the CWA is important for so many of us writing in the crime genre and does invaluable  work to promote it. I am proud of my involvement with it.

But the main reason I had to think hard before taking on the role, is that I felt I was an imposter. Yes, I still review crime fiction on a regular basis and edit possibly too many anthologies -someone has to do it and, again, I can't leave it all to Martin... - but it dawned on me that my last thirteen novels happened not to actually have been crime novels! I will draw a veil on ten erotic books in a series that shadowed the FIFTY SHADES OF GREY phenomenon to lucrative effect and were written under a pen name and touted as the more literary version of FSOG, but then as many will correctly point out most of my crime books preceding these did, to the irritation of many, feature strong sexual elements anyway so my sideways move shouldn't have come as a total surprise. But then what about EKATERINA AND THE NIGHT in which a vengeful woman with seemingly supernatural powers tracks my characters through the years like a fantasy version of KILLING EVE's Villanelle? And then there was my previous novel THE LOUISIANA REPUBLIC, which although primarily about a private detective seeking a missing woman, was set against the background of a future America in the grip of chaos, violence and anarchy caused by the overnight, mysterious disappearance of the Internet and vital data. Lee Child correctly labelled it as a dystopia.

Which brings me to THE PIPER'S DANCE which appears to coincide with this blog post, only a couple of months into my tenure as CWA Chair. I call it a hardboiled fantasy and that is I must confess the nearest it gets to crime and mystery writing.  It begins with the children of Hamelin being beguiled by the Pied Piper and we discover their eventual fate on a mysterious island out of time and follow the love story and flight of two of them, now adults and seemingly immortal, into our modern world where they are pursued by the Piper himself who appears to be a version of the Devil. OK, so Tristan and Katerina do get involved in definite criminal activities along the way , but then they also encounter mermaids and more as their tragic love story develops. Must I apologize for my betrayal of our genre? Of course not. I'd always wanted to write my version of FAUST or Orpheus in the Underground and that is what THE PIPER'S DANCE is.

 


And, anyway, I'm not the only author to write both crime and SF & fantasy. Isaac Asimov, Randall Garrett, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Ben Winters were wonderful pioneers in cross-genre writing with later 'what if' thriller  mavens like Robert Harris, Philip K.Dick, Jeffery Deaver and others succeeding magnificently in using crime tropes within a science-fictional context; more recently, Marc Behm and now Stuart Turton also admirably walk that thin line between the genres. Because, after all we are at heart storytellers and our job is to come up with plots that will enfold the reader, regardless of definitions.

After due consideration, I have therefore decided not to resign because of my dereliction to crime fiction and would actually encourage other mystery writers to attempt to cross-pollinate the genres; you'd be surprised how both satisfying and liberating it can prove!'

 

 

Monday, 28 June 2021

Disconnect - 2012 film review


Since the start of lockdown, I've been at home much more and this has inevitably led to more time spent watching TV shows and films in between all the writing activities. I've ranged widely in my viewing and tried a lot of films I've never heard of. Some of them, to be honest, I wish I'd still never heard of. But from time to time I've stumbled across a movie of unexpectedly high calibre.

I'm inclined to put Disconnect in that category. I started watching with no particularly high hopes, and found the early scenes a little confusing. I wasn't quite sure what was going on. But soon it became evident that there were three distinct but inter-connected storylines, and there was something gripping about each of them.

A common thread is the use of technology and the dangers it poses. Of course, technology develops at such a pace that even a film made less than a decade ago is in some respects now dated. But that doesn't matter because the real strength of the film is in the timeless exploration of human nature. One story concerns a pair of boys who cyber-bully a sensitive teenager with tragic results, another concerns an unhappy couple who become the victims of cyber-fraud, and the third concerns a journalist who wants to write an expose of the slimy trade of video chat room strippers.

Andrew Stern's script is strong and well-structured, while the acting is of a high standard - not just in the case of the leads such as Jason Bateman, but also such youthful performers as Jonah Bobo, who makes the most of a challenging role. The title refers, among other things, to disconnects in personal relationships and these were very well handled. I found myself caring about the fate of the characters all the way to the dramatic moments when the stories are brought to a conclusion if not a complete resolution. This film strikes me as a neglected gem.


 

Friday, 25 June 2021

Forgotten Book - The Rainbird Pattern


A little while ago, I was pleased to lay my hands on an inscribed first edition of Victor Canning's The Rainbird Patten (1972). The jacket bears an encomium from V.S. Pritchett, no less: 'Victor Canning is a master of his craft'. That was the craft of thriller writing, and Pritchett wasn't a lone voice. Over the course of his long career, Canning wrote plenty of entertaining mysteries. John Higgins, a great expert on his work, regards this particular book as his masterpiece.

I first became aware of it many years ago, when I watched Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot, and discovered that it was based on The Rainbird Pattern. Loosely based, it seemed, and having enjoyed the film (which is essentially a black comedy) I was interested to read the book. At long last I've got round to it, and though it is very different from the film, which I really must watch again, I did enjoy it.

There are two distinct plot strands, which gradually intertwine. A kidnapper called The Trader is being pursued by the secret service men Bush and Grandison. Meanwhile, Blanche Tyler, a medium, and her lover George Lumley, are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of a wealthy woman called Miss Rainbird. The kidnapping plot is mildly interesting, but for me the book really comes alive in the sections dealing with the relationship between Blanche and George, and their connection with Miss Rainbird. These three are great characters, much more enticing to read about than either the Trader or Bush and Grandison.

In the later stages of the book, there is a shocking development, and the story continues to develop in an unpredictable way. The ending is chilling and memorable. This book earned Canning a Silver Dagger from the CWA (the Silver Dagger was essentially a runners-up award to the Gold Dagger, but was discontinued years ago). This success, and the quality of the film version, means that The Rainbird Pattern definitely should not be a forgotten book. That inscription, by the way, was to Leigh Crutchley, an actor who did quite a bit of work for the BBC at around the time when several of Canning's thrillers were being broadcast on the radio. 


 

  

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

The Hitch-Hiker - 1953 film review


The Hitch-Hiker
is a 1953 film (there have been other movies with the same title) directed by Ida Lupino, a British actress who moved to Hollywood and became at least equally renowned as a film director. It's often described as the first film noir to have been directed by a woman, although - at least outside the US - there are other candidates for that accolade. At the time of its release, it was not particularly admired, but its reputation has kept improving over the years. And there are good reasons for this.

The origins of the storyline are complex. The main source was a short story by Robert Joseph, which in turn drew on Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes (the pen-name of Daniel Mainwaring). Mainwaring, a very good writer, also contributed to the screenplay. Ida Lupino added a further ingredient to the mix by introducing material based on the crimes of a recent real life spree killer, William Edward (Billy) Cook, who murdered six people in 1950, prompting a large-scale manhunt.

Two friends called Roy and Gilbert (played by Edmund O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy) are driving along with a view to going fishing for a few days when they stop to help a stranded motorist whose car has broken down. Unfortunately, they have been conned. The chap they want to help has stolen the car after killing and robbing its owner, and has committed similar crimes in the past. He is Emmett Myers (William Talman, a truly mesmerising performance) and he has a gun.

A long drive through the desert - vividly evoked, even in black and white - follows. The tension mounts as the authorities close in on Myers. The captives make various rather inept attempts to escape, and their own relationship comes under pressure as it becomes clear that Myers is simply using them - once he has achieved his objective, he will dispose of them. It's an admirably short, snappy film, but I felt Lupino could have developed the characters and storyline further. I suspect that her determination to achieve a degree of 'this could happen to you' realism was an inhibiting factor. Overall, I think it's pushing things too far to claim this film as a masterpiece, but it's undeniably gripping and well-made.





 

Monday, 21 June 2021

Research and Relaxation


In this blog, I've often talked about my trips, which have introduced me to many wonderful places and also been a fruitful source of inspiration for my fiction. The pandemic has of course changed everything and this looks like being the second year in succession when I don't venture out of Britain. But to the extent that it's possible, I do like to get about my own country and I've started doing that since the easing of lockdown began.


As in the past, I've enjoyed combining the relaxation of enjoying pleasant places with a bit of research. A visit to north Wales did give me some material for a 'bibliomystery' that I've been commissioned to write. It's called The Traitor, and I'll talk more about that at a later date. I've also had a pleasant stay in Herefordshire and the Wye Valley, and a visit to Shropshire en route again provided scenes and references for The Traitor.


While I was in the Wye Valley, I discovered a number of intriguing spots, including the ancient burial chamber Arthur's Stone (photo above) and Longtown Castle (photo below), as well as a gorgeous gorge - Symonds Yat, where we went on our first boat trip for ages. A trip to that part of the world wouldn't be complete without a visit to Hay-on-Wye, and although some bookshops have sadly vanished since the last time I was there, plenty still remain and I had a good browse. 


For the first time, I explored the Forest of Dean, and the wonderful sculpture trail through the forest. There was also a trip to Lydney Harbour, a quiet and atmospheric spot on the river Severn.



In Abergavenny, I took at look at the birthplace of Ethel Lina White, who wrote so many lively suspense novels in the 30s and 40s. Other highlights included the black and white villages of north Herefordshire, a lovely water garden, and Tenbury Wells, which I'd never been to previously. The weather was great and the English countryside at its loveliest.





Maybe one or two of those places will feature in future stories. My research often works like that - instead of planning to see somewhere I mean to write about, I go with an open mind and hope that ideas will come to me as I absorb the surroundings and then reflect further afterwards. At present, I'm just putting the finishing touches to the next Rachel Savernake book, and it has certainly benefited enormously from visits in between lockdowns last year to places such as Hardcastle Crags and Kinver Edge, at a time when I didn't have a particular storyline in mind but was receptive to ideas suggested by unfamiliar settings.


Slightly different were my various research trips before I started work on The Crooked Shore. I visited a host of places around Cumbria before settling on the particular spot that I felt provided the perfect template for Strandbeck. And memories of wandering around the county definitely helped to keep up morale as I finished that particular book during the early months of the pandemic. 

   


Saturday, 19 June 2021

Forgotten Book - The Gigantic Shadow aka The Pipe-Dream


Julian Symons'  The Gigantic Shadow, originally published in 1958, is an example of a crime novel which began with a single idea. As he explained many years later (in Jack Walsdorf's excellent bibliography of his work), his imagination was seized by a particular vision: that of a ruthless TV inquisitor having the tables turned on him by an interviewee, in a dramatic way that ruins the life he has known.

It's a good idea, and in the book, Bill Hunter is a feared TV 'special investigator', who is conducting a no-holds-barred interview, live, with Nicholas Mekles, a feared gangster and playboy. When Hunter asks one question too many, Mekles - who has done his homework rather better than Hunter - retailiates by revealing on air that Hunter is living a lie. His real name is O'Brien, and he has served time in prison for murder.

This revelation destroys Hunter's career and his relationship with Anna. He has to start all over again. In so doing, he begins a relationship with rich and glamorous Anthea Moorhouse. Encouraged by her, Hunter finds himself drawn into a criminal conspiracy that is destined to have fatal consequences. The story is, as Symons accepted, more of a thriller rather than a detective novel. With hindsight, he regretted having launched into the book without a clearly worked out storyline to follow the dramatic opening.

Symons was a harsh judge of his own work, but I'm afraid that in this instance he was right to regard the book as a misfire. I read it thirty years ago, but I'd completely forgotten the story. This says something about my memory, but it really is a pretty forgettable mystery. The trouble is that I simply didn't believe in Bill Hunter, either as an ex-IRA man or a TV presenter, and I didn't believe in his rather clueless exploits, either. As ever with Symons, it's a very readable story, but it's definitely one of his weakest efforts. 



 

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

The Parallax View - 1974 film review


I've mentioned The Parallax View several times on this blog, but I don't seem ever to have discussed it in any detail. I've just watched it again (my third viewing) and my enthusiasm for the movie remains undimmed. It really is an outstanding example of the conspiracy thriller. Anyone who has read my Rachel Savernake books will know that I am keen on conspiracy stories (in fiction, not real life) but the fact is that some conspiracy novels and films are all too predictable. This is not the case with The Parallax View.

The film begins with a political assassination. A popular senator is shot while visiting Seattle's Space Needle (which I visited myself some years ago - fascinatingly, it was all but deserted because everyone was at home watching some big baseball match). The supposed killer is himself killed. But we know that the real gunman gets away scot free.

Three years later, a TV reporter (Paula Prentiss) who was present at the scene visits journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She claims that six people who were present at the time of the killing have themselves been murdered, their deaths contrived to look like accidents. Joe isn't convinced, but then she dies too. he begins to investigate...

I won't say much more about the plot, because you really have to watch the film, save to say that it is drawn from a novel by Loren Singer, about whom I know little. Apparently Robert Towne helped out, uncredited, with rewriting the script, which is lean and powerful. Beatty is perfectly cast. The director was Alan J. Pakula, whose work I admire; this film is right up there with his greatest achievements. Apparently the movie received a mixed reception when it was first released, rathert like Vertigo, another masterpiece. Although it was clearly inspired by high profile assassinations in the Sixties, it certainly stands up very well to the test of time.

   

Monday, 14 June 2021

Don't Bother to Knock - 1952 film review

Don't Bother to Knock is a film based on Charlotte Armstrong's novel Mischief, which I reviewed back in 2017. I've just caught up with the screen version, filmed in 1952 (the year after the book appeared - quick work!) with a script by Daniel Taradash. Taradash made quite a few significant changes to the storyline, but in my opinion they work well. The director was Roy Ward Baker, who made a number of entertaining movies, including Quatermass and the Pit

The film derives much of its strength from the quality of the cast. Richard Widmark plays Jed Towers, a tough pilot whose relationship with Lyn Lesley is on the rocks. Lesley was the first film role for the gifted Anne Bancroft. Meanwhile, a couple who are attending an event at a hotel where Jed and Lyn meet are in need of a babysitter for their young daughter Bunny. The elevator man (Elisha Cook Jr.) introduces them to his niece Nell. And she is played by none other than Marilyn Monroe...

I think that Monroe's performance as a deeply disturbed young woman shows that she had considerable acting ability. Of course, she's a cultural icon, and very glamorous as well as tragic, but there was genuine talent there as well. Some people reckon it was her best performance, in terms of acting, and it's quite possible they are right.

The story is tense and moves at a good pace. To say too much about the plot would be unwise - it's well worth watching if you get a chance. Recommended.  

Friday, 11 June 2021

Forgotten Book - Death of Jezebel


Death of Jezebel was Christianna Brand's fifth novel, appearing in 1948 (the image is of the American edition, which is the one I've read). It's set in London and it is unique in featuring both of her series detectives, Inspector Charlesworth and the better-known Inspector Cockrill, from Kent, who happens to be present at the scene of the crime while on a visit to the capital to attend a conference.

This novel opens with one of Brand's favourite devices, a cast of characters which is truly tantalising. It's a short list of just eight people, starting with Johnny Wise 'who died; and to avenge whose death two of the following also died - and one was a murderer.' So that clears up the murder motive, then, But there is still an exceptionally convoluted puzzle to be solved.

The story proper begins with a preamble set in 1940 in which we see Johnny Wise committing suicide (I have to say I felt he rather over-reacted to seeing his girlfriend canoodling with another chap, and it's not the only example of seemingly excessive emotional reactions in this novel). Then we shift forward seven or eight years. Murder takes place at a pageant, but this is a very different type of story from Victor L.Whitechurch's Murder at the Pageant, a rural country house mystery. Here the pageant is taking place as part of a charitable event at an exhibition (wittily described and slightly reminiscent of the Ideal Home Exhibition) in the Elysian Hall in London.

This is an 'impossible crime' mystery and, as she was wont to do, Brand comes up with a variety of false solutions before all is finally revealed. It's all very complicated, but even though I'm one of those who finds that Brand's style can be a bit irksome and over-done at times, overall I am most definitely a fan of her work. It displays ambition, a desire to do something fresh with the tropes of the genre. This book is not her best, but it does presents a good picture of the period. As with Christie's A Murder is Announced and Carol Carnac's Crossed Skis, post-war confusions about identity play a part in the storyline. Not an easy book to find, but worth seeking out if you can.


 

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Publication Day - Guilty Creatures

 


Today sees publication of my latest anthology, Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Mysteries. This book is another in the British Library Crime Classics series - apparently number 91! I may have lost count, but I think it's the seventeenth anthology I've edited in the series (and the next, Murder by the Book, is coming along later this year). 

When I first proposed that one or two short story collections should be included in the series, I really never anticipated that I'd be asked to put together so many over the course of the last six years. And they've sold really well. There could be no better demonstration of the appeal of that under-estimated literary form, the short story.

I haven't yet received my own copy of the book, but I'm pleased with the range of stories it includes, and I'd also like to take the opportunity to thank my pals Nigel Moss, Jamie Sturgeon, and John Cooper, for making excellent suggestions about stories that might be worthy of inclusion. 

And the authors? A wide range, from Conan Doyle and Fryn Tennyson Jesse to Christianna Brand (a particularly clever whodunit in the classic vein) and Penelope Wallace. Whether you're an animal lover or not, I hope you'll find some appealing stories in this collection.


 

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Behind Her Eyes - Netflix review


I was in two minds about watching Behind Her Eyes on Netflix. On the one hand, the story is based on a novel by Sarah Pinborough and I read an entertaining thriller of hers on a plane trip, in those long-ago days when travelling by plane was a regular occurrence. That book was Dead to Her and I thought it was very skilfully written. On the other hand, I'd seen several reviews (while trying to dodge spoilers) that complained about the terrible ending of the TV series in crushing terms.

Having enjoyed Dead to Her, I decided to give it a go and make my own mind up. To begin with, the story is the stuff of conventional psychological thrillers, all about a dangerous sexual liaison. We begin with Louise Barnsley (Simona Brown) a single mother whose husband left her for another woman (and then another...) She is bored, and goes for a drink with a female friend. The friend lets her down, and Louise spills a drink over a handsome stranger. They get chatting and are mutually attracted.

Louise works in a clinic - and guess what? A new psychiatrist joins the practice, and it turns out to be the chap in the bar: Dr David Ferguson (Tom Bateman). The long arm of coincidence, huh? Before long, they begin an affair. And then, Louise bumps into David's wife Adele (Eve Hewson) and they too become very close. Again, coincidence looms large.

So far, so predictable, but no real complaints. And I must say that Simona Brown does a terrific job in quite a challenging role. But in the course of the six episodes, things take an increasingly unlikely turn. As so often with a modern six-episode TV series, one feels that the main writer Steve Lightfoot had four episodes worth of material and decided to pad them out. I began to get worried the first time that astral projections were mentioned...

I've no idea if the TV version is anything like the book, but this story is very different from Dead to Her and although my interest was engaged, I enjoyed it much less. As I've often said, I admire ambitious writing, and I suppose it could be said that the central idea here is ambitious. It's also genre-bending, but not in a way that I found remotely plausible. I like a good plot twist as much as anyone, but by definition a good plot twist has at least a touch of credibility. I'm afraid I felt the critics were right about this one.

 

 

Monday, 7 June 2021

Guest Post from Crysta Winter - Brainchild



I'm often contacted by other writers who invite me to read their books and of course it usually isn't possible to accept the offer, since otherwise I'd never have time to write or read anything else. That's the unfortunate reality, but I'm acutely aware that writing is a tough game - it's a point I made in several speeches and articles during my time as CWA Chair - and I am keen to do what I can to help, provided that time permits. And this applies not just to writers based in the UK, but also those from overseas. We are all trying our best to get somewhere with our work, and the challenges are many. So when I was approached by Crysta Winter about her new book, I suggested that she might like to contribute a guest post. Here it is.

'Having savoured the enthusiasm of being allowed to publish a guest article in Martin Edwards' blog, I, a German crime writer, started searching for a topic. An activity which, as it seems to me, is the author’s main occupation. The first thing to mention would be the search for an idea. The search for a suitable crime scene goes without saying in this context. The era in which the murder is to take place must also be found, of course. Then there are the protagonists. The research, which always takes hours of searching, and last but not least the search for suitable words and sentences. I won't mention the search for a publisher here. I don't have any. I am a self-publisher. 

I also have to eliminate the search for an idea from the list, at least as far as my first crime novel is concerned. On a sunny afternoon which I spent in an idyllic garden café enjoying an apple pie and hot chocolate, a male muse who turned out to be a distant friend, approached my table and addressed the momentous sentence to me. “Tomorrow I'll marry. Once again, after ten years. And once again the very same woman."

I remember vividly that my brain was abruptly flooded with a murderous cocktail of ideas that resulted in an explosive birth of a brainchild which turned out to be the grandson of my great literary love Hercule: Achille Perrot.

Both, Achille and I are nostalgic. Nevertheless, we are firmly anchored in the present. That is why Achille's cases, which he gilded with the charm of the twenties, take place here and now. And whenever a murderous mystery has to be solved, we go on a meticulous search until the case is solved to the last detail. Achille owes it to his ancestor Hercule, and I owe it to the great Dame Agatha.  

As of now, you may stick to Achille's heels – either digitally or in the good old analogue way. Over a glass of white rum from the West Indies or an artesian water. Since Achille loves clarity, because clarity also means truth in a deeper sense, to which Poirot’s grandson has dedicated his body, mind and soul.'

 

 

 

 

Friday, 4 June 2021

Forgotten Book - The Dust and the Heat, aka Overdrive

The Dust and the Heat by Michael Gilbert is a fascinating thriller - and yet it has hardly ever been discussed. I'm not sure why. I've now read it three times and each time I enjoy it more, and get a better handle on what Gilbert was trying to do in this unusual story. Like The Crack in the Teacup, it's quite close to mainstream fiction in some ways, but it's entertaining from start to finish.

In saying this, I realise that the story may not be to every taste. At one level, it's an account of a long-running corporate vendetta involving industrial espionage, that ends up in a civil court case. Gilbert's legal expertise is much in evidence - early in the story there is a sub-plot involving rights of way, something you don't find in Dick Francis, say, or Len Deighton - and it may be that my own legal interests bias me in favour of Gilbert's clever and original use of (relatively) recondite material.

But even if that is the case, there is much for any reader to savour here in the character study of a ruthless entrepreneur. Oliver Nugent proves to be a formidable and dangerous man of war, and equally menacing in peacetime when he's wearing a suit. At first, you may think that there is something heroic about him, but Gilbert is scrupulous in showing the dangers into which Nugent's single-minded win-at-all-costs philosophy leads him. My guess is that Gilbert was influenced in his portrayal by his own experience of business life, though I'm sure he was far too smart to base the character on a single recognisable individual.

The book begins with a postscript, and although the action is spread over years, the writing is taut and engaging. We don't learn enough, perhaps, about Nugent's German wife, despite her connection with a key character who lurks in the background throughout, but as usual with Gilbert, most of the minor characters are sketched with verve as well as economy. Again, as is common with Gilbert, the finale is rather low-key. This is a technique of his which used to puzzle me, but now I can see more merit in it. And there is plenty of action, though he doesn't dwell on the various acts of violence.

There is quite a bit in the story about advertising, with nice satire of competive advertising. One thing is for sure: Gilbert was deeply, deeply sceptical about advertising. When, later in his life, I got to know him, he wrote engagingly to me on this subject; because I was a lawyer of a younger generation, who always believed that it was inevitable and right in the modern era that solicitors would be allowed to advertise, I didn't share his views, but there was undoubtedly some force in his reservations. He was a wise man as well as a very good writer.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

The Queen's Gambit - Netflix review


The Queen's Gambit, a seven-part series on Netflix, isn't a crime show. It's the story of a female chess prodigy. Not the most exciting subject, you might think, but you'd be wrong. This is a story told with a great deal of suspense, thanks to scripts by writer-director Scott Frank, who has to some extent honed his skills on crime films, including Malice and A Walk Among the Tombstones. It's been a huge hit during the pandemic, and I can see why. I gulped it down as quickly as the protagonist knocks back her drugs.

Beth Harmon is the prodigy. She's played as a child by Isla Johnston and Annabeth Kelly (both very good) and by Anya Taylor-Joy, whose performance is as mesmerising as her chess moves. At the age of nine, she's orphaned (her backstory is touched on repeatedly, but not in great detail) and goes into an orphanage. There she meets the janitor, who is playing chess by himself. She is fascinated by the game and he teaches her. The orphanage dishes out tranquillising drugs like Smarties and soon she is hooked on them, as well as on the dream of becoming a top chess player.

Beth is adopted by a hard-drinking woman, Alma, who is married to a rather dreadful, selfish man called Allston. Allston abandons them, but this does as least have a positive impact on the relationship between Alma and Beth. Alma doesn't understand chess, but she acts as Beth's manager - and keeps on drinking. Addictions of various kinds are a recurrent theme in the narrative and I gather that Walter Tevis, author of the original novel (and a high calibre writer whose other books included The Hustler), was himself an alcoholic. 

I've always enjoyed playing chess, and I use to play in tournaments for my school team (not that I was brilliant, far from it) but I realised that in order to be a top player, you really have to commit yourself to it, and I never wanted to do that. Beth, however, does. I think it's very difficult to dramatise a story about chess and make it exciting to watch, but Scott Frank makes a success of it. The script is so strong that, even though Beth almost never loses, and even though I wasn't convinced by the drug use in the story (would it really make her play better for any consistent period of time?) I was glued to the screen. The setting, in the 1960s, is very well done, and I also like the way that Frank steers clear, for the most part, of simplistic stereotypes in terms of character and incident. When so many series of this length are full of padding and thus weakened, Frank's script seldom wastes words. It's a model of good commercial writing. 

  


 

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Howdunit wins CrimeFest's HRF Keating award

 


I'm truly, truly delighted that Howdunit has won CrimeFest's HRF Keating award for the best critical/biographical book related to crime fiction. No actual award ceremony, of course, in these pandemicky days, but above is the logo I've been sent to prove that I'm not imagining it! And I've just recorded a brief video as well. The award is all the more gratifying given the high calibre of the shortlist, one of the strongest I've ever featured on, which contains wonderful books that any fan would love to read. 

There's another reason why this is a very special award as far as I'm concerned. The award is, of course, named after the late Harry Keating, a fine crime writer who was also an insightful critic and commentator on the genre. And Howdunit contains a nice section written by Harry, as well as various references to his excellent book about writing crime fiction.

This is an award for a collective effort, of course. Howdunit is what it is because of the remarkable calibre of the ninety contributions by Detection Club members, past and present. As I've said before, the generosity of the contributors (and the estates and agents of those who are deceased) was quite humbling. 

Because so many people were, in the end, keen to contribute to Howdunit, putting it together proved a rather more demanding and complex task than I originally envisaged. But what a fun task it was, to receive all that material and to try to weave it all together in a way that readers would find interesting and enjoyable, whether or not they have any personal aspirations to write crime. 

This really is a lovely moment in my writing life.




Friday, 28 May 2021

The Crooked Shore - cover reveal

 


The Crooked Shore, the new Lake District Mystery - and the eighth in the series which began with The Coffin Trail - is published in the UK on 22 July. To celebrate, the publishers Allison & Busby have come up with a new style of cover which I understand may be adopted in due course for the backlist titles when they come up to be reprinted. And the cover image for the new novel is above.

The appearance of a new book is always a cause for celebration, at least on the author's part! It's hard for me to believe that Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind made their first appearance as long ago as 2004. A lot of water under the bridge since then, for them and certainly for me. The Coffin Trail marked quite a turning point in my career. It was one of the six books shortlisted for the Theakston's prize for best crime novel of the year and then the third in the series, The Arsenic Labyrinth, was shortlisted for the Lakeland book of the year.

So the Lake District has been a happy hunting ground for me in all kinds of literary ways, as well as a wonderful place to conduct research. While developing the series, I've tried to ring the changes, not just by varying the locations of the mysteries, but also by utilising a range of narrative techniques. I think this has helped to keep me, and the books, fresh.

It's quite some time since The Dungeon House appeared. That book was in itself an attempt to do something rather different with the series and it's a novel I'm particularly proud of. That same year, 2015, also saw the publication of The Golden Age of Murder, a book that had a transformational effect on my career. In the intervening years, I can honestly say that the question I've been most regularly asked by readers is when the next Lakes book is coming out. I'm grateful for the patience and their enthusiasm for the series has been motivating. I've been thinking about The Crooked Shore for a long time and it marks a significant development in the series in a variety of ways. There is a Netgalley link here  It's a book I'm very glad to have written and I'm looking forward to publication with great enthusiasm - and hoping that readers new and of long-standing will find plenty in it to enjoy.  



 

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

A String of Pearls by Margaret Wilson and Helen Shaw


A while ago, I was intrigued to receive a request to grant permission for an extract from one of my novels to be reproduced in a new non-fiction book. Agreement was reached, and I've now received the finished product. This is A String of Pearls, compiled by Margaret Wilson with photographs by Helen Shaw. The subtitle is Landscape and literature of the Lake District and it's published by Merlin Unwin. I'd describe it as a coffee table book of the most attractive kind, sumptuously illustrated and appealing to anyone who is, like me, interested in books and the Lakes.  

I found it particularly refreshing to have the chance to leaf through the book and luxuriate in some of the images, given that it's been impracticable for me to visit the Lakes for most of the last eighteen months. I did manage a brief and hugely enjoyable return trip last summer, which enable me to revisit some of the settings for The Crooked Shore (which will appear in July) but I hope to get back there for a longer visit before too long. In the meantime, the book has brought back some pleasant memories.

As one might imagine, the usual suspects are present and correct. So we have Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, Ransome, Potter, and De Quincey - naturally - as well as modern writers of note including Melvyn Bragg, Sarah Hall, Alfred Wainwright, and Hunter Davies and his late wife Margaret Forster. But there's an eclectic mix, with Bill Bryson, Chris Bonington, and Ian McEwan also featured.

The chosen extract from my work was a light-hearted passage from The Hanging Wood, illustrated with a lovely picture of Derwent Isle on Derwent Water. The other crime writers featured are Reginald Hill and Val McDermid, with extracts from two of their best books, The Woodcutter and The Grave Tattoo respectively. I was also pleased to see a piece from a much less renowned novel, High Wray by Ken Hughes. This was filmed as The House across the Lake, which I reviewed back in 2017. 

All in all, then, a nice book to leaf through and one that I'm glad to be part of.

   


Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Leo McNeir - Guest Post


My first meeting with Leo McNeir, a fellow British crime writer, was in the unlikely but delightful location of Honolulu, when Left Coast Crime was being held in Hawaii. We later went out for dinner in a restaurant named after Earl Derr Biggers' crime novel The House Without a Key (among our companions was Parnell Hall, the witty and charming American writer who sadly died recently) and we've spent enjoyable time together since then. Leo has recently published his latest Marnie Walker novel, Beyond the Grave, and I invited him to contribute a guest piece:

'I came late to writing fiction after a long career in management, followed by a second career lasting some twenty years as a language consultant and lexicographer, including a stint as professor of language policy at the European University of Public Administration in Rome. How this progression came about is a long and not very relevant story. That I came to be a published author almost by accident is perhaps more relevant. It happened like this.

One winter’s evening my wife – my second wife, in fact – asked me if there was anything I had always wanted to do that I had not managed to do so far. I mentioned that I had always had at the back of my mind the idea of some day writing something. Why had I not done this earlier? I was far too busy with demanding jobs. I didn’t know Martin at that time, but I now recognise that I lack his immense energy and commitment. My wife said at once that she could help me with the writing. How? She would get me up at six o’clock in the morning, which would give me an extra hour in the day which I could use to write. To her surprise, and mine, I began the next morning.

I never expected to be published, but I wrote a narrative based on a journey in our narrowboat, ‘Sally Ann’. It was a kind of ‘road book’ with the Grand Union Canal in place of Route 66, and I wrote it simply for my wife’s enjoyment. Some years later my wife needed guidance on producing page layouts for a dictionary and consulted a neighbour who was director of an educational publishing firm in London. He asked for ten pages of text to use as an example, and she sent him the opening pages of Sally Ann’s Summer. Two years later our neighbour mentioned that his firm was branching out into fiction; he wondered if I had ever completed that novel, as he had enjoyed reading its beginning. He wanted to take it with him on holiday to their house in France. For various reasons he took instead the first draft of my book Getaway with Murder, read it in two sittings and phoned from Normandy to say he would publish it. I was pleased, but I didn’t feel like a proper author. I had no agent, had never had a rejection slip and had never approached a publisher. It felt like serendipity. It had all happened by chance, and now my thirteenth novel, Beyond the Grave, has just appeared.

My central character, Marnie Walker, is not an amateur sleuth, but she finds herself occasionally involved on the periphery of crimes. This mirrors to some extent my own experience on the fringes of an infamous murder case – known as the ‘body in the bag murder’ – in London in my youth. And there was also a time when, as director of the Institute of Linguists, I discovered by chance that the organisation was infiltrated by Russian agents and for some months I liaised with Special Branch of the Met. I can’t talk about what happened, but that really is another story.'

 

Friday, 21 May 2021

Forgotten Book - Death in High Heels


Christianna Brand's career as a crime writer began with Death in High Heels, first published in 1941. My copy is the American first edition, which didn't appear until 13 years later, by which time Brand was very well-established, thanks to books such as Green For Danger. She was a generation younger than the first Queens of Crime, but she worked very firmly within the Golden Age tradition. Like Edmund Crispin, she was swimming against the tide of fashion, given her interest in intricacy of plotting rather than psychological complexity and suspense, but again like Crispin, she has always had a loyal band of admirers.

I've been a fan of hers ever since I read Green For Danger, but it's taken me a long time to read her debut. I confess that I started reading a paperback edition some years ago and lost enthusiasm to such an extent that I never finished it. Second time around, I persevered, and was glad I did so. There's no doubt that it's an apprentice work. The story makes a bright start, and then sags. But there are many touches typical of Brand.

These include a 'closed circle' of suspects - people working in a dressmaking business. Famously, Brand worked in just such a business and (so it is said) based her victim on a colleague from real life. She also shows her ability to come up with a complex plot with the potential for multiple solutions. The detecting is undertaken by Inspector Charlesworth, who appeared in two later books.

In some ways, the best part of the book is the early description of life in the dress shop, before the complications are piled on. The less said about the characterisation of a gay member of staff and a charlady (patronisingly called Mrs 'Arris throughout) the better. But there are some neat plot twists. Brand would do better in her later books, but this one tells us quite a bit about the era in which it is set.     

Monday, 17 May 2021

The Pact - episode one - BBC TV review


Tonight saw the first episode of a new BBC Wales TV drama series, The Pact, written by Pete McTighe. It got off to a good start. The story is in six parts and I'm really hoping that there is enough material to fill them all as effectively as the first episode. All too often these six-parters begin to sag, but with any luck it will be more like the brilliant (and equally down to earth) Happy Valley than Finding Alice.

There are plenty of things to like about The Pact. The first is the setting. Wales is a country I've loved since I was a small boy, and when I took part in the recent Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival, I was reminded of how much I've missed. (And that reminder has prompted me to book a short break in north Wales later this week, to celebrate the latest easing of lockdown - while I have the chance!) I didn't recognise the locations - apparently the wood and lake scenes were filmed near Merthyr - but they were certainly evocative.

The story concerns a group of four women who work in a brewery. One of them, Anna (Laura Fraser) has applied for promotion to a supervisor's job. Unfortunately, the youngish owner of the brewery, Jack, (Aneurin Barnard, in a very different role from the supportive husband in Cilla) is horrible to everyone. There is some good character drawing in The Pact, but it doesn't extend to Jack, who is an almost cartoonish bully. Maybe future episodes will present a more nuanced picture of him; I hope so. He's also one of those bosses, overwhelmingly more prevalent in TV shows than in real life, who never seems to have heard that we've had a law of unfair dismissal since 1972.  

When Jack commits one misdemeanour too many, the gang of four decide to teach him a lesson. Unfortunately, it goes badly wrong and they find themselves committing a series of colossal misjudgements on the way to forming a conspiracy of silence. It seems unlikely to work well and I'm interested to discover precisely how things unravel. 

  

Bodies from the Library and other online events


When the pandemic began, I'd never even heard of Zoom, let alone be.live or all the other ways of conducting online events. But now I must have taken part in upwards of sixty online events, plus a variety of podcasts (including one for the admirable literary journal Slightly Foxed which will be aired in June). Thankfully, the technology has been sorted out by other people and I'm very grateful to them. As a result I've been able to connect with crime readers not just in Britain but in various other places, with virtual events being run from the US, Australia, India and so on. It's been a great boon in difficult times, with two books (Mortmain Hall and Howdunit) published but no live launches or supporting events.

There are, of course, pros and cons to online events. Inevitably you don't get the same buzz that comes from a live festival or library gig. The personal connection is much more limited - a real drawback. But it's there to some extent, and that's far better than nothing. And you do save a lot of travel time - as a result, I've been able to write more than ever before during the past fifteen months. Further, an online event enables you to reach people who wouldn't be able to attend a live event - and for this reason, I suspect that an online ingredient is likely to become a component of many events and festivals in the future, even when all restrictions are lifted. People with disabilities that restrict their ability to attend in person, for instance, should enjoy much greater access to events than in the past.

Saturday was especially busy. Bodies from the Library again couldn't be held at the British Library, but this year the organisers put on a virtual version. Congratulations to Mark Green and his colleagues for all their hard and efficient work behind the scenes. The event opened with a panel in which I discussed Howdunit with Alison Joseph and Kate Ellis, and this was promptly followed by a conversation between Christine Poulson and myself about Anthony and Peter Shaffer. I also took part in a discussion at the end of the afternoon, on the question of whether every fictional detective needs a Dr Watson.

But in between times, I was also taking part in a murder mystery weekend splendidly organised by Sara West. I spent rather more than an hour fielding questions from attendees about Howdunit and the craft of crime writing. It was a lot of fun and another great chance to promote a book I'm really proud.of. Howdunit was recently nominated for a fifth award, the Anthony, which is a definite bonus.

And the reach of online events was underlined by the number of emails I received after I zoomed out (feeling, it has to be said, rather weary - I do find online events more tiring than live ones, perhaps because of my innate technoangst) of my final panel on Saturday afternoon. The reaction makes it all worthwhile. 


Friday, 14 May 2021

Forgotten Book - Flush as May


P.M. Hubbard came late to novel writing. He was 52 when his first novel of suspense, Flush as May, was published, on 7 January 1963. He'd written poetry at Oxford, winning the Newdigate Prize, and spent many years as a civil servant in India prior to returning to Britain and becoming a freelance writer. He wrote for Punch, but once he'd established a distinctive niche in the suspense genre, that was the area on which he focused until his death in 1980, with occasional ventures into young adult fiction.

Flush as May reflect his literary tastes. The writing is maturing and sophisticated, with a crisp eye for the right word which is a very clear clue to Hubbard's poetic leanings. The setting was rural England, and almost all of Hubbard's books were set in the British countryside. As a young library user, keen on dramatic action and mystery, I didn't read Hubbard. His writing, from a quick perusal of a few pages, seemed too low-key and unexciting for me. I suspect I was in the majority - he won the admiration of a wide range of connoisseurs but never became a bestseller (a cynic would say he was too good a writer for that!). Now I'm older and slightly wiser, I recognise his merits. 

Flush at May is in essence an amateur detective story. It begins splendidly, on May morning, when a young woman called Margaret comes across a man's body. But when she alerts the sceptical village constable, and takes him to the scene, the body has disappeared. She encounters a young man called Garrod who proves to be a fellow student at Oxford, and the two of them investigate, with Margaret taking the lead.

The story is never less than intriguing, and there are moments of drama and action, but I suppose my younger self would have felt dissatisfied by the ending, and would have found it anti-climactic. I think that, to some extent, Hubbard's inexperience as a novelist is evident. For instance, the village constable is an interesting character, but he never reappears in the story. Readers who look for a conventional resolution in the usual detective story manner will probably feel frustrated. But now I can see what Hubbard was trying to do and I'm impressed. 

If you are interested in learning more about Hubbard, there are some excellent pieces and links on the Existential Ennui blog This is not a flawless book, but it's made me want to read much more of his work. My copy, by the way, although it lacks that excellent Kenneth Farnhill dust jacket which is pictured above, has an inscription to a friend on the day after publication. bearing the phrase 'but for whom...' Very appealing.