Wednesday 31 March 2021

More than Malice and the Agatha Awards

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

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

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

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


Monday 29 March 2021

Heartstones - 1996 ITV review

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

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

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

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


Friday 26 March 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder in the House of Commons

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 24 March 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle - 1973 film review

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

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

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

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

Monday 22 March 2021

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


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

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

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

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

Friday 19 March 2021

Forgotten Book - Death of Mr Dodsley

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

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

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

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

Thursday 18 March 2021

Kate Ellis Revisited

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

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

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

The Burial Circle is the 24th Wesley Peterson novel, but unlike many series of such length, there's no hint of diminishing powers here. The story is entertaining from start to finish, with a very convoluted puzzle that delivers great value for any readers who like an elaborately plotted traditional mystery.  

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

The Burial Chamber is one of my favourite Kate Ellis books, close to if not top of the list. I'm surprised it's not (so far) been more widely discussed. I've long been intrigued by certain correspondences in our writing and I keep waiting for some academic to produce an authoritative analysis of her work. This post isn't a substitute for a detailed objective study, but I am tempted to muse on her methods and the thought processes that may lie behind them. 

Kate and I are of a similar vintage, come from comparable backgrounds, have spent almost all our lives in the north west, and share some of the same literary and cultural tastes, so it's not surprising that we enjoy each other's work. Nor that there is a degree of overlap between our writing, even though her story structure techniques are very different from mine. The Peterson series template, for instance, is to present two plots on parallel lines, one of them set in the past. This method sound restrictive, but it works well in practice. 

We are both very keen on history, but Kate's specialism is archaeology, about which she has (like Agatha Christie) a great deal of knowledge. Also different are her methods of depicting character and setting, and her prose style. The similarities between our works of fiction are most striking in the Peterson books, less so in the Joe Plantagenet novels and the Albert Lincoln series (although one non-Peterson book did give a fresh spin to a classic Christie concept). Contrary to what you might think, though, the points of similarity don't arise as a result of our discussing plots with each other. 

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

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

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

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

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


Monday 15 March 2021

The Terror - BBC TV review

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

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

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

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

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


Friday 12 March 2021

Forgotten Book - The Cornish Fox

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

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

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

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


Thursday 11 March 2021

The Cat's Meow - 2002 film review

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 9 March 2021

Grand Isle - 2019 film review

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

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

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

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

Friday 5 March 2021

Forgotten Book - A Man Without Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday 4 March 2021

Margaret Maron R.I.P.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Without a Clue - 1988 - film review

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

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

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

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

Monday 1 March 2021

The Writing Life - Thinking Alike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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