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 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. 



Wednesday 12 May 2021


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

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

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

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


Monday 10 May 2021

Anabel Donald R.I.P.

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

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

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

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

Friday 7 May 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder After Christmas

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

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

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

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


Wednesday 5 May 2021

The Neighbor aka Last Days of Summer - 2018 film review

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

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

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

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

Monday 3 May 2021

Enola Holmes - 2020 film review

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

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

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

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