Friday 31 December 2021

Forgotten Book - Scandalize My Name

For my last forgotten book of 2021, something a little out of the ordinary. I imagine the name of Fiona Sinclair will be unknown to most readers of this blog, as it was unknown to me until I picked up an inscribed copy of her first novel, Scandalize My Name, which was published in 1960. Even then, I didn't get round to reading it for quite some time, though I did manage to lay my hands on another couple of her books. 

Having now read it, I've become a Fiona Sinclair fan. This detective story remind me quite strongly of the early P.D. James, and even her Oxford-educated cop, Grainger, is similar in some respects to Adam Dalgliesh. He doesn't write poetry (although his creator did), but he too has lost his wife, and is a thoughtful, decent man with a strong moral compass.

When I read the opening pages, I wasn't quite sure I was going to enjoy this book. Too many people were introduced too quickly and there were one or two touches which made clear that the author was relatively inexperienced. But soon I was drawn in by the sheer quality of the writing. In his review in The Guardian, Francis Iles said that she overdid the purple passages and the dialect and I agree on both points, but he also admired Sinclair's promise and potential and I think he was spot on. This is a chilling story about the murder of a blackmailer, with a neatly composed pool of prospective suspects. I did figure out whodunit early on, perhaps again because of the author's inexperience, but this didn't mean that I failed to admire the overall quality of the book. There are some indications that it was written, or at least set, in about 1955-56 rather than 1960.

Fiona Sinclair was an actress who was married to a doctor (as was Phyllis James). Tragically, however, she died the year after this book was published and my understanding is that she took her own life at the age of 42. More than that, I don't know. But what I do know is that she had a genuine talent for crime writing and it is very sad that she didn't live long enough to develop her natural storytelling gifts in the way that Phyllis did.  

Wednesday 29 December 2021

Looking Back at 2021

Thanks so much to you, the readers of my blog, for following my posts during the past twelve months. 2021 has been a strange year for almost all of us. On Christmas Eve, I was taking my daily walk (something I've done ritualistically for the past two years, even before the pandemic struck) ruminating on an irritating email when I bumped into a couple I've known for around 25 years. The husband, who is about my age, told me he's suffering from a brain tumour. The courage he's showing made me feel remorseful about my grumpy reaction to that email. A reminder that it's so important to concentrate on appreciating the good things in life while one can. And despite being unable, again, to see many friends in person, there have at least been plenty of those good things over the past year.

This year saw the UK publication of The Crooked Shore, the eighth Lake District Mystery, but the first for six years. The break seems to have done me good - the reviews in The Times and elsewhere have been terrific, which is especially rewarding given that this book is rather different in some ways from its predecessors. I hope this augurs well for the book's US publication next summer, under a different title.

This time last year, I never anticipated being commissioned by Otto Penzler of The Mysterious Bookshop to write a Bibliomystery for him. The result was The Traitor, a novella which was great fun to write (while visits to Llandudno and Shropshire in the first half of the year provided me with some of the settings). It introduces a 'book detective', Benny Morgan, who may return in the future. I don't have any specific ideas for Benny just yet, but he's a character with, I feel, plenty of potential. And I just heard from Otto this week that the story is shortly to be released on audio.

In terms of anthologies, I edited Many Deadly Return, celebrating Murder Squad's 21st anniversary, and including three stories of mine. The book's launch in Whitley Bay (see the photo above) was memorable, as well as providing a good reason for a few days in the north east. There were also two British Library collections, Guilty Creatures and Murder by the Book. Lee Child picked 'The Locked Cabin' for inclusion in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, while 'The Bookbinder's Apprentice' featured in Daggers Drawn

won one crime writing award (the CrimeFest HRF Keating Award) and was nominated for five others, four of them in the US. This was a source of huge pride, both personally and on behalf of the Detection Club members who contributed to the book, even though the pandemic meant that I didn't attend a single awards ceremony in person. Over the year I published getting on for twenty introductions to various books and numerous articles, including 'Death by Chocolate', commissioned by Slightly Foxed, who also invited me to speak at their Readers' Day, where I had the pleasure of sharing a bill with Michael Palin. Other subjects I wrote about included Josephine Tey (CrimeReads) and Mary Kelly and CHB Kitchin (CADS) as well as aspects of crime writing craft and my own work. 

No overseas travel again this year. Not to worry: I took the decision after the very first lockdown to take any opportunities that were presented for travel within Britain and I found these trips extremely thereapeutic and rewarding in all sorts of ways. Quite apart from the trip to Northumberland and its environs, I spent time in North Wales, the Wye Valley, Harrogate, Ely and the Fens, the Lake District and Derbyshire. There were lovely boat trips in Ely, at Symonds Yat, and around the Farne Islands, plus a steam railway journey through eastern Kent.

This year, unlike last, I also managed to take part in live festivals - at Buxton, Rye (see the photo below with Elly Griffiths, Andrew Wilson, Nicola Upson and John Case), and Torquay - as well as a good many that were online only. The podcasts and online events were many and varied, including Alibis in the Archive (with the brilliant musician and writer Rupert Holmes among the guest speakers) and an interview by Lucinda Hawksley, as well as a writers' workshop for Wirral Libraries.


My interest in workshops was one of the catalysts for Crafting Crime, the online course I've set up with Dea Parkin and her editorial consultancy Fiction Feedback, which recently went live. We've been really pleased by the initial take-up of and reaction to the course and we'll be promoting it more extensively in the coming months. 

The longest holiday of the year was spent in the south, with trips to places as different as the ossuary at Hythe and the shoreline at Porlock Weir, enjoyed in lovely weather. A fantastic trip, even if I did under-estimate how long it would take to drive from Rye to Torquay... 

It also proved possible to host a couple of meals for the Detection Club. We broke with tradition by having a marvellous lunch at Balliol College, Oxford (see the photo close to the top and the pic with Peter Lovesey below), whose Master, Dame Helen Ghosh joined us and gave an impromptu speech. Dinner at the Ritz in October was great fun, as was spending time in the bar with lovely new members Lynne Truss and Chris Fowler (photo above). The dinner also gave me a chance to meet in person Simon Dinsdale, Kevin Durjan, and Giles Ramsey, with whom I've done several weeks of online lecturing on 'the Art of the Whodunit' during the pandemic.  

Plenty to celebrate, then, and plenty to remember fondly - many reasons to feel thankful. And I am. 

Monday 27 December 2021

Don't Look Now - 1973 film review

There are a lot of hopeless horror movies around, but there are also several masterpieces. My three all-time favourites are The Wicker Man, Rosemary's Baby and Don't Look Now (Midsommar, which has grown on me, is not too far behind, but I don't think it's quite in the same league, while The Shining didn't impress me quite as much as it did most people). I first watched Don't Look Now in the 70s and the shock ending made a great impact on me. It's an arty film, perhaps too self-consciously so, but a recent viewing confirmed that it hasn't lost its power.

The premise is simple and is based on a short story, rather than a novel, by Daphne du Maurier. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play a married couple, the Baxters, whose young daughter dies tragically in a drowning incident. The little girl was wearing a red coat at the time. The couple are deeply affected by their dreadful loss but some time later travel to Venice, where John Baxter is working on an ancient church. In Venice, they meet two elderly sisters, one of whom (superbly played by Hilary Mason) is blind and psychic and claims to be able to see the little girl. Meanwhile, a series of murders is being committed in the city... 

The first time I watched the film, I found it quite bewildering. At that time, I'd never visited Venice, which makes a fantastic setting for the story. Venice is gorgeous, but it also has its macabre side, with all those bewildering twists and turns of the alleyways and the ever-present canals. Water is a central theme of the screenplay and the camera work is dazzling.

I've always been a Julie Christie fan and although the casting of Donald Sutherland must have seemed like a gamble, he is terrific too. This is a film that could easily have slipped into pretentiousness, but the performances are so effective that the risk is averted. The result is a haunting gem.

Friday 24 December 2021

Happy Christmas!

I'd like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy Christmas. As always, your comments and emails have been interesting, informative, and encouraging. It's not been an easy year around the world, in particular because of the pandemic, but the connections I've forged through this blog have been truly rewarding. So thank you, and have a great festive time. 

And if you're in the mood for seasonal crime, try Rupert Latimer's Murder after Christmas, a just-published British Library Crime Classic. It's a previously obscure book, and quite unusual in various ways. In the intro, I discuss the author's short and rather unlucky life, but it's good that his book has seen the light of day again. Meanwhile in the US, my anthology A Surprise for Christmas has now been published by Sourcebooks. 

Forgotten Book - The Marble Forest

Theo Durrant was a Californian double murderer whose name was used as a pseudonym by members of the northern chapter of the Mystery Writers of America when they wrote a collaborative crime novel.  Twelve authors were involved in the writing of The Marble Forest, with the lead taken by Anthony Boucher, the man who gave his name to Bouchercon and who was also a legendary critic and a talented exponent of the classic mystery.

The Marble Forest is a book in the tradition of Detection Club collaborations such as The Floating Admiral, but the plotting is rather tighter than you tend to expect in a novel written by a dozen different people. I understand from Jeffrey Marks' biography of Boucher that Boucher took the lead, writing detailed notes so that each contributor was working to a definite plan.

There is a whodunit element in the novel, but essentially it's a high-tension clock-race story. A doctor is told that his young daughter Midge has been kidnapped and buried in a coffin. He needs to find her before the air supply runs out. As he conducts his search in a dark cemetery - the 'marble forest' of the title- we learn, through a series of flashbacks, about the people who have cause to wish him harm.

This is a pretty good thriller, published in 1951 and filmed seven years later as Macabre. The contributors included some obscure figures and a few who were very highly regarded in their day, including Lenore Glen Offord and Darwin Teilhet. Sadly, Virginia Rath died - in her mid-forties - before publication. I think their interesting, offbeat collective effort deserves to be better known.


Wednesday 22 December 2021

Let the Right One In - 2008 film review

Let the Right One In is a Swedish horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson and based on a popular novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay. It is highly rated by the cognoscenti and an American remake, Let Me In, was equally successful. I haven't read the book but I was tempted to watch the Swedish screen version, which is certainly out of the ordinary.

Oskar is a 12 year old boy who lives in a flat in a suburb of Stockholm with his mother, a single parent. He does see his father from time to time, but at school he is bullied by other boys. A girl of the same age, Eli, moves in next door. She's living with an older man, although he doesn't seem to be her father. The early scenes are episodic and at first the story's direction of travel is uncertain. But then the older man kill someone in a wood and harvests his blood. Before we know it, Eli too has killed someone.

Very disconcerting. But Oskar and Eli get to know each other and a strange bond develops between them - to such an extent that this is sometimes described as a 'romantic horror film'. Eli encourages Oskar to stand up for himself, and he takes her advice to heart to such an extent that he severely wounds one of the school bullies. In due course, they decide to take revenge....

This is quite a long film, and there are quiet patches, interspersed with bursts of dramatic action and violence. The overall effect is unsettling, as Alfredson no doubt intended. The cinematography is first-rate, capturing the eerie nature of the landscape, both rural and urban. I don't want to give too much away, but suffice to say that the story offers a new take on a familiar theme. It works well. 

Monday 20 December 2021

The Appeal by Janice Hallett - book review

The Appeal is a debut crime novel by Janice Hallett, a screenwriter and playwright with a lifelong love of amateur dramatics that shines through. The book has had enormous success and I must say right away that I really enjoyed reading it. The story kept me gripped throughout and I expect that it will feature strongly in the award nominations in due course. It certainly deserves to do so. 

A number of reviews and endorsements have hailed the book's originality. For me, the originality lies in the treatment of the material, since the structure resembles that of two detective novels which appeared in that landmark year 1930. The epistolary form is strongly reminiscent of The Documents in the Case, which I believe is Dorothy L. Sayers' most under-rated novel, the result of a one-off collaboration with Robert Eustace. In addition, there is a 'whowasdunin' element of the kind which seems to have originated with Anthony Berkeley's Murder in the Basement. But Hallett gives these concepts a very effective makeover. The documents in this case are nearly all emails (as in Joseph Knox's True Crime Story) while Hallett cleverly presents three connected mysteries. First, who has been killed? Second, who has been convicted of the murder? Third, who is really guilty?

At the outset, two keen young lawyers are tasked by their boss (Roderick Tanner QC) with looking at a hefty bundle of documents without preconceptions. They find that they are following the activities of The Fairway Players, an am dram group who are about to put on Miller's All My Sons. Those activities are complicated by the fact that Martin Hayward, wealthy chair of the group, has a grand-daughter called Poppy who at the age of 2 is suffering from cancer. An appeal is launched on Poppy's behalf, but the ensuing financial shenanigans raise early questions about the motives of the Hayward family, whose behaviour is not quite what one would expect, to say the least. There are plenty of funny moments, especially in the behaviour of Issy, a nurse and evident fantasist who latches on to Sam Greenwood, a nurse who has recently returned to the UK from Africa. And there are occasional touches of darkness too.

There are numerous plot twists, some of them foreseeable, some of them less so. They vary in effectiveness, but there is one trick (concerning an invented character) that I should have spotted, yet Janice Hallett fooled me completely and splendidly. Jim Noy has reviewed the book with his customary incisiveness at The Invisible Event and I think his assessment is fair and accurate. As Jim says, there is a vast cast of characters, including two men in their 30s called Kel and Kev respectively, and all this can be a bit confusing. However, the voices of the lead characters are pleasingly distinctive. The am dram background seems to me to be extremely well done. 

I was much less convinced by the legal element, which clearly didn't interest the author very much (though Femi and Charlotte are entertaining amateur sleuths). There's a lack of coherence and clarity as to whether the lawyers are barristers or solicitors. Tanner is a QC but also appears to be a senior partner in a solicitors' firm. There's a suggestion that Femi and Charlotte are 'articled clerks', aka trainee solicitors, although as Jim indicates, most people will assume they are pupil barristers. So who is actually handling the court case? Most readers won't care about this, and an author can be forgiven for vagueness about details. It's common to find misconceptions about the law and legal life in novels - I can think of at least one terrific bestselling writer who has stumbled into minor errors in recent times - but a book as entertaining as this deserved more editorial work to make the set-up seem more credible. It could have been done easily.

But let me not dwell on legal quibbles. The Sunday Times has described Hallett as 'a modern Agatha Christie', and it's good to see Agatha still regularly name-checked when crime writers are praised. Hallett is a very different writer but her ingenuity is admirable and her sense of humour really appealing. I very much look forward to reading her next book.  


Friday 17 December 2021

Forgotten Book - The Second Shot

Anthony Berkeley's The Second Shot is rare if not unique among detective novels for being more renowned for its preface than for the substance of its story. In what is really an extended dedication to his literary agent, the legendary A.D. Peters (whose former wife Berkeley married not long afterwards), he argued that 'the detective story is already in process of developing into the novel with a detective or crime interest, holding its reader less by mathematical than psychological ties.' This opinion was quoted with approval by Julian Symons in Bloody Murder and I agree that Berkeley was spot on.

Symons pointed out that in fact this particular novel did much less to demonstrate the point Berkeley was making than did his first Francis Iles book, Malice Aforethought. Again, I agree. Nevertheless, it's a distinctive effort, a Roger Sheringham mystery narrated by Cyril Pinkerton, although Pinkerton certainly isn't a Watson-character. In fact, he's the prime suspect for the murder of loathsome Eric Scott-Davies.

Berkeley's ideas about crime, punishment, and justice were invariably as interesting and often as controversial as his opinions (and he was never short of opinions) about the crime genre. This novel was, along with Gladys Mitchell's Speedy Death, one of the first Golden Age puzzle to tackle head-on - explicitly, rather than by implication - the notion of the 'altruistic crime',  which I explored in The Golden Age of Murder. If you can think of an earlier example, do let me know. Christie, Carr, and others tackled the 'altruistic crime' during the Thirties, but Berkeley led the way.

Apart from Sheringham, the writer Morton Harrogate Bradley, who had appeared in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, pops up in the story, albeit without contributing much. There's also passing mention of Alice Dammers, from the same novel. This novel reflects his habit of fictionalising real life places and people. There's a wonderful map on the endpapers of the crime scene, Minton Deeps, which was based on Berkeley's own Devon home, Linton Hills. I suspect that Paul de Revel and his glamorous wife were based on people in Berkeley's circle (E.M. Delafield and her husband Paul, perhaps?). The same may also be true of Armorel Scott-Davies, who plays a central role in the story. 

The main problem with the novel is that, after a sprightly start, the pace drags. Berkeley's prose is never less than readable, but there is endless discussion about who was where and when. There are compensations in the way Berkeley juggles multiple false solutions, while the final revelation of the culprit is highly characteristic of his ironic approach to crime writing: he gives a fresh twist to a narrative technique that had been around for a few years. This novel was published in 1930, a year that in many ways marked a turning point in the genre. Berkeley was one of those who showed the way ahead, and his influence continues to be felt.   

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Introducing The Underground Game by Fei Wu

When I visited Shanghai in 2019 I spent a good deal of time in the company of my host Fei Wu, a Chinese crime writer who shares my great enthusiasm for the genre. At that point, he'd just produced his first interactive mystery novel, The Lost Winner. Now he's produced a follow-up called The Underground Game. I asked him to describe the story:

'On the early morning of Christmas, a metro line disappeared from the monitor of the transportation control centre. It never happened before so the operator was alarmed and reported the situation to his boss. Soon it was proved that the train was hijacked by someone. They also learned from the driver who escaped from the train that a bomb was set up somewhere in it.

In the meantime, the passengers on the subway were being ordered to finish a task before the train, which was on a loop line, returned to its starting place.

The order was given from the broadcasting system of the train and it was very strange.

"You need to find a victim who was killed at the station, otherwise you are in big trouble."

 How could the passengers locate a victim they might not know at all?

Why was the train hijacked?

What's the relationship between the victim and the train?

When could the police save the passengers from the moving locked room?

In the box that comes with the story, you will find puzzle pieces. They are the clues left in the compartment by the suspect. The readers should play the role of passengers and try to solve the puzzle.

Again, as my previous book, each chapter is sealed in a pocket and more clues are hidden inside. The reader will find necessary clues or tools at the right places so they can approach the truth step by step by themselves, if they want to accomplish the challenges!'

Here's a bit more about Fei himself: 

'Fei Wu, (born 1984) is a Chinese mystery and crime writer. He has a bachelor of physics degree from Fudan University and originally started working in technical sales. Before he made his mind to embark on a career as a professional writer, he worked in semiconductor industry for many years. In 2019, he became the first contributor to EQMM from China mainland, with a Christmas Eve story, 'Beijingle all the Way'. He is known for his creative idea of implementing interactive elements into mystery fiction. While reading his book, the reader can even build up the model of the crime scene with the tools and materials enclosed in the book. His first book The Lost Winner has gained a wide reputation for him since 2019.'

Monday 13 December 2021

Crafting Crime is here!

I'm truly delighted to announce the launch of Crafting Crime, an online course for crime writers which I've put together in conjunction with the editorial consultancy Fiction Feedback, run by Dea Parkin, and Competitive Edge Advertising and Marketing. We have a website which gives lots of information about the course. If you're interested in writing a crime novel (or hoping to identify a special gift for someone!), do take a look at the introductory video on the home page, which gives an idea of how the course works. You can sign up at

I've been working on the course materials for much of this year. The main inspiration sprang from the writing workshops I've been conducting up and down the country for several years now, most recently at Torquay during the International Agatha Christie Festival. I've really enjoyed the connection with aspiring writers. Even when I did an online workshop earlier this year for Wirral Libraries/Comma Press, inevitably with less of an immediate connection to the participants, I still found it motivating. And just as motivation is important for inexperienced writers, so it's important for anyone seeking to pass on a range of tips and ideas, as well as practical information about the writing life.

Another source of inspiration came from working on Howdunit with so many wonderful writers - a great experience. A well-established training organisation approached me to write a crime writing course for them, and although our thinking was different, when I talked to Dea about creating a course, it was plain that her approach was very much in tune with mine. Her skills and experience is also complementary, especially in the crucial field of critiquing manuscripts. 

We wanted to fill a gap in the market, getting away from the constraints of the classroom and presenting material in a flexible way, with downloadable materials and podcasts, which participants can access whenever they want over a six-month period. And the aim is not only to help with creativity, story structure and writing techniques, but also to give people a realistic and practical understanding of the writer's life, trying to help equip them for the ups and the downs. 

A great many wonderful crime writers from around the world - along with literary agents and British and American publishers - have been generous enough to share their thoughts for the benefit of course participants. There are all sorts of supplementary materials - research notes, sample outlines, editorial tips, and so on, to accompany the main course modules, which themselves run to a total of over 60,000 words. Rhian Waller of Gladstone's Library kindly recorded our podcasts. So there's plenty to get your teeth into. 

Every single person who signs up for the course will be able to submit the start of their novel and a synopsis within six months and receive a professional critique from Fiction Feedback (full details on the website). That critique covers the first part of the manuscript (up to 8000 words) plus a synopsis of up to 1000 words, and this is a major feature of the course. With luck, a number of those who take part will go on to enjoy illustrious careers as crime writers. And if that happens, Dea and I will be absolutely thrilled. 

Friday 10 December 2021

Forgotten Book - No Tears for Hilda

No Tears for Hilda was Andrew Garve's first book to be published by Collins Crime Club. This was in 1950, and Garve was a new pen-name for Paul Winterton, a journalist who had previously published crime novels under the name Roger Bax (he'd later write a few books under another name, Paul Somers). Garve novels would appear regularly until 1978, when Winterton was 70. After that, he retired from the scene, although he lived until just short of his 93rd birthday. 

Garve was evidently an interesting individual, a member of the Detection Club and a founder member of the CWA. He stood for election to Parliament in 1931 as a Labour candidate, but since that was the year that Labour were wiped out in a landslide, his political career never got going. It's not easy to find out much about his personal life, though I understand that he wrote a (regrettably unpublished) autobiography. Signed Garve books are hard to come by, and when I came across his personal copy of this title on eBay, I was keen to snaffle it. Now I've read it, I'm glad I did. 

This is one of those novels in which a man is charged with murder, but someone close to him insists that he is innocent, and tried to prove it. A familiar scenario, but Garve handles it with a touch of originality, focusing on the psychological make-up of the victim. Although Francis Iles had focused on a 'murderee' almost twenty years earlier, in his extraordinary novel Before the Fact, Garve's approach is very different. The setting and storyline are in keeping with the rather grey mood of the post-war austerity era.  

George Lambert's wife Hilda is found dead. At first sight it looks as though she has gassed herself, but it's soon evident that someone killed her. George appears to be the only suspect. He has no alibi, while an affair with a young nurse gives him a motive. His war-time pal Max Easterbrook can't believe that good old George could have committed such a crime. But there are no other suspects.

To find the truth, Max needs to learn more about Hilda's personality. It soon becomes evident that nobody did shed any tears after her death and Garve's attempt to present a rounded psychological portrait of an unpleasant woman is interesting if not, to my mind, wholly successful. But Max's search for the real culprit is interesting and Garve's smooth and accessible prose style kept me turning the pages. 

Wednesday 8 December 2021

The Hardboiled Apple and Raymond Chandler's L.A.

A couple of months ago I blogged about Caroline Crampton's attractive map of Agatha Christie's England. It's another nice idea - along with James Fleming's book, which I mentioned the other day - for a Christmas gift. And now here are a couple more ideas for those crime fans in your life. Two more maps, this time of American locations, but again produced by Herb Lester Associates. Above is a picture of one of them, The Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles.

The Hardboiled Apple is, of course, a map of New York, and it's created by Jon Hammer and Karen McBurnie. No fewer than 55 criminal locations are featured, and there is also a 'Timeline of Treachery' taking us from 1845 to 2018. The authors highlighted range from S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen to Donald Westlake and Caleb Carr. I was pleased to see mentions for faves of mine such as Cornell Woolrich and Kenneth Fearing and intrigued by some unfamiliar names, like Stefanie Pintoff.

The Chandler-related map is less complex, but includes various points of interest, from the Sternwood Mansion (of course!) to The Cypress Club. Some of Chandler's own residences in L.A. are also featured. As you might imagine, quite a number of the highlights are in or around Hollywood Boulevard. It would look good framed, I think.


Monday 6 December 2021

The Power of the Dog - 2021 film review

A few years ago Liz Gilbey recommended me to read Thomas Savage's novel The Power of the Dog, which was first published in 1967. I'd never heard of the book or the author and I was surprised when Liz told me that it was a superb crime novel - even more surprised when I bought a copy and started reading. But I soon realised that it's a terrific novel and that Liz's praise was well merited.

Now, more than fifty years after its first appearance, the book has been filmed, by Jane Campion no less. The lead character is the malevolent Montana rancher Phil Burbank and I must admit that if I'd been casting this part, I certainly wouldn't have thought of offering it to Benedict Cumberbatch. But I'd have been wrong. What a brilliant actor he is. Phil is a trick character to portray, but he does a great job.

On the surface, this is a Western, and I would not describe myself as a fan of Westerns (other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). It's also a long film, a real slow-burner. The events of the book also move at a measured pace. I do feel that I enjoyed the film more because I'd read and loved the source novel. I felt Campion did Savage justice. It's an impressive piece of work.

I don't want to say too much about the storyline, but Phil and his amiable brother George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy men who are very different but have a close relationship. That relationship is, in Phil's eyes, threatened when George marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenage son who is intelligent but not exactly macho. Kodi Smit-McPhee does a great job in the role of young Peter. It's a compelling story which is watchable and indeed gripping throughout - even if, like me, you usually prefer your stories to have a bit more pace. 


Saturday 4 December 2021

Bond Behind the Iron Curtain: Guest post by James Fleming

In recent months, I've enjoyed a very pleasant correspondence with James Fleming, nephew of Ian and himself an author of note as well as editor of The Book Collector magazine, which Ian Fleming founded seventy years ago and is still going strong, I'm glad to say.

James' latest book is a nicely illustrated little volume which would make a lovely Christmas gift for the Bond fan in your life. It's called Bond Behind the Iron Curtain. I invited James to talk about it:

'The story is frankly sensational. Amid all their denunciations of capitalism and the west, the Politburo decides to launch an attack on Ian Fleming – in 1962, even before Broccoli and co. had finished filming Dr No. ‘Who is Mr Ian Fleming, the creator of this – to put it mildly – rubbish?’ asked Yuri Okov in Izvestiya? He answered it himself: ‘A retired spy who has turned mediocre writer.’ Why did they do it? As a cover for their nuclear adventure in Cuba? To deflect the anger of the Russian proletariat from their abysmal living conditions? (One May Day banner read: CUT KHRUSCHEV UP FOR SAUSAGES.) “We will probably never know.

Even after the Cuban crisis had been resolved, the Russians kept up their onslaught on Bond. They became obsessed by what they saw as Fleming’s attacks on socialism and Bond’s success with women (which they termed ‘pornography’). Eventually the KGB (no less!) arranged that a Bulgarian novelist, Andrei Gulyashky, who had a hero handy, should write a book in which the hero kills Bond. Gulyashky did as he was told and was then given hard currency, a minder and a visa for Britain and packed off to sell his book internationally. In London he came up against Ann Fleming – Ian’s widow – a tough lady if ever there was one, and her copyright lawyers. When it turned out that no one could legally use 007 except Fleming’s estate, Gulyashky, hilariously, called his man 07.

The KGB may have got nowhere near killing Bond, but through the Gulyashky idea, they certainly rattled the Fleming estate, which was beginning to make big money from the films and books. In order to keep their hands on the golden goose, they now got Kingsley Amis to write the first of what is, to date, thirty-eight spoof Bond books.

In Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, and probably other communist countries as well, the underground market in Bond flourished, despite the authorities trying to stamp it out – indeed, to kill him. It’s a fabulous story, completely unknown until now.'

 James Fleming, Bond Behind the Iron Curtain, 128pp, hardback, 16 illustrations, from the Book Collector (

Friday 3 December 2021

Forgotten Book - The Murder of the Circus Queen

Anthony Abbot published About the Murder of a Circus Queen in 1932 and the UK edition, which dropped 'About' from the title, came along three years later. It's another Thatcher Colt mystery set in New York City, and his 'Watson', Abbot himself, doesn't hold back: 'Not only was it Colt's most baffling case; it was the most glamorous and sinister'. It's certainly vivid and atmospheric, and the story was promptly filmed. I haven't seen the movie, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, the screenplay made many changes from the original, not least the identity of the culprit and the motive.

The circus has come to town, or to Madison Square Garden to be precise, and it's there, in front of seventeen thousand spectators, that an ingenious murder is committed. Colt and Abbot are present, having been warned by the circus owner and manager, Colonel Tod Robinson, that someone is determined to destroy the business. 

Abbot captures the breezy mood of circus life, but I was startled by his presentation of one of the circus acts - members of the Ubangi tribe from Equatorial Africa, complete with their own witch doctor. On doing a bit of research, I discovered that there were real life circuses in the US in the 1930s which featured such acts. Today, this seems shocking and exploitative, but on the fascinating GA Detection site, Mike Grost argues that so far as the novel is concerned, Abbot's treatment of the African characters was, by the standards of the time, progressive. 

Judged as an American Golden Age whodunit mystery, this is quite a capable piece work. Abbot shifts suspicion around his suspects and comes up with a satisfactory 'least likely culprit'. There are some touches of ingenuity, especially in the method of killing the circus queen. Colt is very much in the tradition of the Great Detective, while the extraordinary stupidity of the District Attorney makes even Inspector Japp look like Hercule Poirot. Very much a period piece.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction

I've been deplorably slow to discuss The Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction on this blog, but since the book has just been awarded the International Crime Fiction Association's 2020 Book Prize, the timing of this belated post now seems perfect...Many congratulations to the four co-editors responsible for putting this hefty volume together: Janice Allan, Jesper Guiddal, Stewart King and Andrew Pepper. Given that I contributed a chapter on 'Plotting', I take particular pleasure in the book's success!

I'm the only non-academic who wrote a chapter in this book and the reason I accepted the invitation to contribute was because I felt it would be fun to write for a genuinely scholarly tome. I'm definitely not an academic, but it amused me to impersonate one. And in my twenties, I seriously considered a career in academe, at a time when I struggled to see myself working in a solicitors' office. I went so far as to have lunch with my old tutor Don Harris to discuss the possibility, but he encouraged me not to make the change, especially given that I hadn't done a further degree (which even in those days cost a lot of money, money that I did not have). Looking back, I am sure he was right. I do have some academic leanings, but if I'm brutally honest with myself - not enough.

I have for many years been extremely keen to bridge the gap between academic writers and crime writers. I am convinced that we can learn a great deal from each other. Just before the pandemic, for instance, I had a great time with Professor Mike Wilson and his colleagues and students at Loughborough University and a few years ago I took part in a terrific set of seminars about noir fiction organised by Steven Powell at Liverpool University. More recently I also enjoyed an online conversation with Jamie Bernthal when I was a speaker at an academic conference on Golden Age fiction. Mike, Steve, and Jamie are all people after my own heart, enthusiasts for the genre. The same is true of a number of my academic friends from overseas.

What's more, in working on The Life of Crime, I've benefited enormously from comments made on the manuscript by a number of distinguished academics. Scholarly insights can be invaluable. That said, my book (like The Golden Age of Murder) tells a story and I've been very keen to resist the trappings of academic work, such as footnotes, which I think sometimes get in the way. Now that so much information is available online, I think there's a case for challenging the value of the traditional approach to academic writing. Take academic citation, for instance: is this more about demonstrating that one has done one's homework, rather than providing material of genuine value to the reader?  And what about the quality of writing? I've read one or two academic books in the past where the author didn't seem interested in the writing process, just in making some polemical point in the dullest way imaginable.

I also worry that the price of academic books puts them out of reach as far as readers without access to a university library are concerned. This is a real shame, because accessibility should surely be a priority. As a strong believer in authors' rights, I also think it's interesting that, despite huge cover prices, contributors seem almost always to be unpaid. Whether that particular publishing model is, or deserves to be, sustainable in the medium to long term, is another question ripe for discussion - and perhaps even a polemic or two?

But let me get off my hobby horse and return to The Routledge Companion. I'm not sure readers will be rushing out to buy their own copies, because the pricing is clearly aimed at university library budgets. But I hope that people do read the book, because my fellow contributors have supplied a great deal of info and analysis that I found really interesting. Given the wealth of erudition between the covers, it's hard to pick out particular chapters, but as an example, I did find the discussion of the impact of digital media on the genre especially thought-provoking. I'm grateful to the joint editors for asking me to take part, and also for their forbearance when confronted by my tendency to rebel against the constraints of academic writing. Putting together a book of this kind takes a lot of work and time and they deserve wholehearted congratulation. 

Whilst I'm discussing academic works, I'd also like to make a quick and again belated mention of another scholarly volume, Criminal Moves: Modes of Mobility in Crime Fiction?  which came out a couple of years ago. Two of the editors are Jesper and Stewart, along with Alistair Rolls, and the book explores fresh ways of looking at the genre. Not every crime fan wants to dig deeply into the minutiae of crime writing, but many do, and the growth of academic interest in this wonderful genre is, in my opinion, to be welcomed. Now the challenge for everyone is to make the academic materials more widely accessible and to see increased focus on the quality of the writing as well as the intellectual analysis.