Friday, 11 June 2021

Forgotten Book - Death of Jezebel


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

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

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

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


 

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Publication Day - Guilty Creatures

 


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

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

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

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


 

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Behind Her Eyes - Netflix review


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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Monday, 7 June 2021

Guest Post from Crysta Winter - Brainchild



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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Friday, 4 June 2021

Forgotten Book - The Dust and the Heat, aka Overdrive

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

The Queen's Gambit - Netflix review


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

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

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

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

  


 

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Howdunit wins CrimeFest's HRF Keating award

 


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

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

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

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

This really is a lovely moment in my writing life.