Friday 26 February 2021

Forgotten Book - The Robthorne Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Cast a Dark Shadow - 1955 - film review

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

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

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

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

The Chase - 1946 film review

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

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

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

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


The Silent Partner - 1978 film review

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

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

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

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

Three Novels On The Horizon

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

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

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

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

Monday 22 February 2021

Bloodlands - BBC TV review

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

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

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

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

Friday 19 February 2021

Forgotten Books - The Three Taps

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 17 February 2021

Ellery Queen: Don't Look Behind You

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

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

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

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

Monday 15 February 2021

Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots by Michael Richardson

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

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

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

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


Friday 12 February 2021

Forgotten Book - Sudden Death

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Mind Games - 2001 TV drama

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

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

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

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



Monday 8 February 2021

Ann Cleeves' writing and The Darkest Evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday 5 February 2021

Forgotten Book - Candidate for Lilies

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 3 February 2021

The Art of Reginald Heade

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

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

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

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

Monday 1 February 2021

Unnatural Death Revisited

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

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

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

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

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