Friday 30 July 2021

Forgotten Book - The Diehard

In the 1950s, Jean Potts was one of the leading female exponents of domestic suspense. She specialised in low-key stories and slow-burning tension, and this style isn't to every taste, but she was very good at what she did. My favourite of he books (at least, of those I've read so far) is The Little Lie, but The Diehard, published in 1956, is an interesting example of her work.

The subtlety of Potts' writing is illustrated in a very good first sentence: 'All through his wife's funeral Lew Morgan wrestled with a nervous, unseemly urge to yawn.' This is a very smart way of setting up an intriguing situation while casting unforgiving light on character - in just fifteen words. Within the first paragraph we learn that the funeral is taking place in Turk Ridge, evidently a small American town, and that a yawn would be 'the final, outrageous signal of disrespect'.

Naughty Lew. He's superficially pleasant but fundamentally selfish and capable of acts of cruelty. He  has already lined up his next wife, with whom he's been carrying on for ages. Before long, it's evident that a whole range of people have good cause to wish him out of the way. What's more, elderly Aunt Chat has had a Sign that 'something terrible is going to happen'. This is a classic set-up for a whodunit. We expect Lew to be murdered, and the bulk of the story to be devoted to an investigation into the crime.

Except that isn't what happens. Instead, the tension continues to build. And when a death finally does occur, Lew is not the person who dies. Surely he isn't going to escape his fate? What's more, Lew realises he is at risk: 'nobody's going to try and kill me and get away with it.' For me, the tone was just too subdued to make me love this story as much as I wanted to; nevertheless, it's an admirable example of Potts' restraint and ability to depict character and present a picture of American life in her time.

Wednesday 28 July 2021

The Conversation - 1974 film review

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

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

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

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


Monday 26 July 2021

Dead Gorgeous - 2002 TV film review

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

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

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

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


Friday 23 July 2021

Forgotten Book - Murder of a Man Afraid of Women

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

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

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

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

Monday 19 July 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 16 July 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Writing in Ice: Michael Ridpath guest blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 9 July 2021

Forgotten Book - Waltz into Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 7 July 2021

True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 5 July 2021

A New Sayers Biography

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

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

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

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


Friday 2 July 2021

Forgotten Book - A Fragment of Fear

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

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

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

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