Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Gaudy Nights


I read Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night at a tender age, maybe about twelve, long before I'd ever visited Oxford. I knew nothing, really, about the city or the university and I was rather baffled by a 'love story with detective interruptions' as it was described. I judge it more generously now, although it's definitely not my favourite Sayers. And now, at long last, I've attended a Gaudy of my own, for the very first time.

This was last Friday, when Balliol College (Lord Peter Wimsey's alma mater, as it happens) held a Gaudy for the matriculation years of 1972-76 - five years of students, almost half a century on. I suspected it might be my last chance to attend one of these infrequent events, so I decided to go. And I'm very glad I did.

It was a thought-provoking experience, to say the least. One of the challenges, of course, was to recognise the long-haired students who were now well-upholstered men in their sixties, often with little or no hair. And yes, they were all men: Balliol went mixed-sex just after I left, rather like my grammar school, so I missed out on a more rounded education twice! But happily, various wives and partners were in attendance.

I knew it was going to be a memorable occasion when, as I was checking in at the porter's lodge, a Geordie voice behind me urged the porter to instruct me not to have late night visitors in my room and not to play my Dionne Warwick records all night. This was Tony, a guy I'd not seen since 1977, other than to spot him one election night some years ago, as a defeated Green Party candidate. When I told him I'm still a devotee of Dionne, he said he'd expected no less. Chatting to Tony and his partner Sue was one of many highlights of a terrific day which began with refreshments in the Buttery, proceeded with tea with the Master and then a champagne reception, followed by a dinner in the Hall and a very late night having drinks with old friends in the Senior Common Room. 

And you can be sure that I'm now wondering about a short story inspired by the occasion. Gaudy Midnight, perhaps? 

Monday, 4 July 2022

Diamonds are Forever...



I'm back home after an eventful few days which were largely wonderful although a car accident on Saturday with a deranged motorcyclist travelling at the best part of 100 mph almost meant that I'd blogged for the very last time. Happily, I have lived to tell the tale and so did the motorbike maniac, though his fictional counterpart may meet a grisly fate one day! Anyway, I'm fortunate to have various positives to focus on, including Wednesday's CWA Daggers Dinner, which was a truly memorable occasion.




In 2020, due to the pandemic, I became the first person to have an online presentation of the Diamond Dagger, by Ann Cleeves, while I was up in my loft. That was a wonderful experience, but of course there's nothing quite like actually getting your hands on the award and luckily for me, the CWA decided that this year, as well as honouring the latest winner, C.J. Sansom, Martina Cole and I would receive the Diamond Dagger in person. Very sadly, neither Chris nor Martina were able to attend, but my lovely publishers Head of Zeus kindly invited me to share a table with them, along with my family and my agent James. The photo above shows me with my editor Laura Palmer.



  

It really was a great evening and I felt very blessed. It was also good to see so many old friends, some of them for the first time in three years. As for the Diamond Dagger, now that I've held it in my hands, I feel a slight reduction of the inevitable imposter syndrome that accompanied news of my receipt of the award. For those unfamiliar with the Diamond Dagger, it may explain why I feel so happy about it if I list, courtesy of good old Wikipedia, the previous illustrious recipients since 1986. I'm proud to be in their company:

Friday, 1 July 2022

Forgotten Book - The Honey Harlot (and The Vanishing - 2018 film)


Today, something slightly different. It's fair to describe The Honey Harlot as a forgotten book. Even though it was written by a well-known author, Christianna Brand, I've never come across any significant discussion of the story, but when Catherine Aird kindly passed me her copy, I was glad to give it a go. And having done so, I want to connect my comments with my thoughts on a recent film, The Vanishing.

The Honey Harlot was first published in 1978 and I don't think there was a paperback edition, though it did appear in large print and there was a kindle edition nine years ago. It appeared towards the end of her career and I imagine Brand must have been very disappointed by its evident lack of impact. Part of the reason for this is, perhaps, that it's not an easy novel to classify. Although murder is committed, it's above all a historical novel of a rather unusual kind. Really, it's a curiosity and worth reading on that basis.

Brand aims to provide a fictional solution to one of the great mysteries of all time - that of the Mary Celeste. She does so in the form of a first-person narrative; the story is told (many years after the event) by the widow of the captain of the ship. The driving force for the story is a prostitute, the 'honey harlot' of the title, who - as imagined by Brand - is smuggled on board, with disastrous consequences.

This is a well-written novel with some interesting characters and above all a fascinating basic situation. Yet somehow I didn't warm to the story. A key reason for this is that I didn't care too much for the narrator, despite the sympathy I had with her predicament. Come to that, I didn't warm to Briggs or even the glamorous stowaway, either. And this meant I felt a certain lack of engagement throughout; this wasn't fatal to my enjoyment, but it was a pity. 



The Vanishing, like the even more recent The Lighthouse, is a dark historical movie, focused on a tiny group of lighthouse keepers on a remote island. What it is has in common with The Honey Harlot is that it's a fictional attempt to explain a classic mystery about missing people, this time the disappearance in 1900 of the Flannan Isle lighthouse crew. As with The Honey Harlot, the aim is not to provide an explanation that is likely to be true, but simply one that is, taken on its own terms, believable and compelling. The film succeeds in that aim in a way that the book doesn't really manage, mainly due to the atmospheric camera work and the sturdy performances of Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan, and Connor Swindells which bring the characters to life and encourages an empathy that I didn't feel towards Mrs Briggs and the crew of the Mary Celeste in Brand's novel. 

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Crime Indexes and Phil Stephensen-Payne

When I'm writing short pieces about crime fiction, especially when racing against deadlines, my natural instinct is to concentrate on matters of substance rather than getting too distracted with endless back-up references. But there are some people who are keen on having those references available to them. After my first few anthologies appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series, several readers asked me to include more details about when the individual stories were first published. Finding this information is easier said than done, but one invaluable resource has been The Crime, Mystery and Gangster Fiction Index edited by Phil Stephensen-Payne while another has been the late Bill Contento's hardback index to short mystery stories. I was delighted recently when Phil got in touch about something and this prompted me to ask him about the background to the index. He describes himself as an 'inveterate list maker' and here is an edited version of his interesting reply:

'In 1970, browsing SF bookshop in London I stumbled across a fanzine which contained a bibliography of John Wyndham by one Mike Ashley which revealed the existence of a couple of Wyndham stories I had never heard of before. As a result, I started tracking down and buying as many "author bibliographies" I could find which led me in the early 1980s to Gordon Benson's "Galactic Central" series ( http://www.philsp.com/pubindex.html#gcp). Having bought everything that Gordon had published, it seemed only natural that I should start contributing to the series myself (starting, of course, with John Wyndham). I gradually computerised the whole setup (I was a computer programmer in "real life") and, as Gordon's health began to deterioriate, gradually took on responsibility for the whole enterprise.

At the same time (mid-1980s to mid-1990s) I had started doing a column listing new books published in the UK for the American news magazine Locus, and this brought me into direct contact with Bill Contento. As part of writing the bibliographies, I had also been collecting every magazine or anthology/collection index I could find and was amazed one day, when browsing a charity bookshop, to find a copy of a magazine called Argosy (the UK one) that contained a John Wyndham story I'd never heard of. This led me to realise that, while I had indexes to hundreds of magazines, there were many more out there that might contain undiscovered treasures by my favourite authors.

By now (2000), the Internet was beginning to be a "thing" so I decided to create a small (!) website that focussed on author bibliographies ( http://www.philsp.com/authors.html) and also had a simple list of which magazines had been indexed (and where).

By coincidence ("steam engine time") Doug Ellis and John Locke had just produced their first checklist of pulps and Dave Pringle and Mike Ashley had produced a checklist of significant "fiction magazines". With permission from all parties I merged these two lists and added all the SF magazines indexed in the various SF magazine indexes and produced the first pass of the magazine list part of the website ( http://www.philsp.com/magazines.html). Having expected to list a few hundred magazines at most, this had already grown to 4000 magazines (and has since grown to just under 11,000).

Riffing on Mike Cook's idea for a series of themed indexes, I persuaded George that, rather than just reprint the existing index (which was somewhat out of date and full of gaps) it would make more sense to tighten the focus to Crime, Mystery and Gangster Fiction, bring it up to date, and follow it with other volumes on Adventure Fiction, Western Fiction and so on - the structure that still exists today as the Fictionmags Index Family ( http://www.philsp.com/indexes.html).

Bill had also launched a separate initiative. In the early years of the Fictionmags discussion group, a lot of the members (not least me) had taken the opportunity to discuss "fiction magazines" they had come across, illustrating the discussion by indexing some of the issues of said magazine. Rather than see such useful information "lost", Bill decided to collect it all into an online index which he called the Fictionmags index. In the first decade this had snowballed into several thousand magazines issues (including some complete runs such as the UK Argosy) but was still rather "ad hoc".

While all this had been going on, Mike Ashley had been negotiating with the British Library to produce a series of indexes to the "British Popular Fiction Magazines" ( http://www.philsp.com/bfi1.html). A number of these magazines had already been indexed in the other indexes, or as separate exercises (such as the UK Argosy) but there were several significant magazines (such as The Strand Magazine) that I was dying to see indexed. Ultimately Mike agreed to publish via the Fictionmags Index. This also allowed people other than Mike to work on the project and there is a group of five of us actively filling in the gaps. Following Bill’s  death last year I have written a new suite of programs to generate the indexes (as it proved impossible to run Bill's programs outside of his computer). While still incomplete, this has allowed me to extend the programs to handle books as well as magazines and I am slowly extending the indexes to include some of the key indexes to anthologies and collections (most notably produced by Bill).'

My thanks go to Phil and also to his colleagues on these projects. Their tireless work is of real assistance to me, and I'm sure of great value to many other crime fans.

Monday, 27 June 2022

New Books - Well Worth a Look!


2022 has been an exciting and busy year for me. Quite apart from anything else, promoting The Life of Crime is absorbing quite a bit of time. One consequence of this is that I've not had time to read as many new books as usual, let alone to review them in any detail. Yet I've come across a wide range of interesting novels and story collections during the past few months. Time still doesn't permit me to examine many of them at length, but I thought that I'd mention a few titles today, in the hope that readers may be encouraged to investigate further.

In terms of newer writers, I was very pleased to hear recently from Mary Grand, who sent me a copy of her latest book Good Neighbours. She was kind enough to write that listening to my talk at the Isle of Wight Festival three years back encouraged her to produce her first murder mystery, which earned a publishing deal. From my point of view, that kind of feedback is truly rewarding (and we hope for some similar results from the Crafting Crime online course!) and I do think that Mary's knowledge of the island makes the setting a valuable as well as attractive ingredient of her writing. I look forward to hearing of her further successes.

I was equally pleased to receive Death by Appointment by Mairi Chong. Mairi is a qualified doctor and her professional expertise informs this, the first in a series featuring Dr Cathy Moreland. So does her close understanding of the nature of that complex and challenging condition, bipolar disorder.

From the south coast of England, like Mary Grand, is an interesting short story writer based in Bexhill. John F. Bennett has followed up his previous self-published short story collections with another gathering of spooky tales laced with mystery, The Coastguard Cottages. When I say 'self-published', it shouldn't be thought that this terms carries an inherent stigma. I don't deny that there are plenty of poor self-published books, but it's worth remembering that (to take just one example) Marcel Proust self-published the first volume of In Search of Lost Time after publishers rejected it). 

A good example of what can happen to a gifted self-published author can be found in the experience of Tim Sullivan, whom I met recently at CrimeFest. Tim is a renowned writer and director for TV and film, but after creating the cop George Cross, who is on the spectrum, he began by self-publishing the series. He did so with such success that the books have now been snapped up by Head of Zeus. I have just finished The Patient and there's no doubt that George is a strong character of whom we are sure to hear much more.

And then there's a couple of books by Michael Z. Lewin, an American long domiciled in England, and a very well-established writer who earned praise from Ross Macdonald, no less. If you haven't read his Edgar-nominated Ask the Right Question, check it out: a terrific private eye novel. He's travelled on the reverse path to Tim, moving to self-publication with two books that are very different from his early fiction. One is a bulky novel set in the world of television, Men Like Us. Much shorter, and even more unusual, is Confessions of a Discontented Deity, a lively romp with a theological underpinning. 

At the CWA conference in Torquay, I was glad to chat with Allan Martin, and his Death in Tallinn, featuring a cop who is a former teacher, is not only a good story but also for me a reminder of my visits to Tallinn in the past, once on a brief cruise stop, once at the wonderful Tallinn Literature Festival, which gave me a great opportunity to appreciate a historic and fascinating city. 

So, a diverse mix here, and I haven't even mentioned the novels written by my fellow panellists at CrimeFest, such as James Delargy's Vanished, Rachael Blok's The Fall, Victoria Dowd's The Supper Club Murders, and David Hewson's The Garden of Angels. An important element of the ever-growing popularity of crime fiction is its extraordinary range, and the authors I've mentioned make good use of that range in very, very different ways.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Forgotten Book - Look to the Lady


At Bodies from the Library last weekend, Jake Kerridge talked engagingly about the merits of Margery Allingham as a mystery writer. I like Allingham - although I prefer Christie and Sayers - and I was prompted to read one of her novels that I haven't tried previously. Look to the Lady, known in the US as The Gyrth Chalice Mystery, was an early Albert Campion novel, published in 1931.

It's a novel which illustrates the fact that it's often unhelpful to lump crime writers and their work into categories. In its early days, the Detection Club made much of the distinction between detective stories and thrillers - I guess this was due largely to the views and influence of Sayers and Anthony Berkeley - and thriller writers weren't even allowed to become members. But the fact is that Christie wrote several thrillers in the 1920s, as well as in later years, and there's no doubt in my mind that if I was forced to categorise Look to the Lady, I'd describe it as a thriller, not a detective story.

But that isn't a criticism. This story is a romp, generally light-hearted, but with one or two darker moments, notably when Campion is about to be kicked to death by an aggressive horse; this is a crafty murder scheme devised by a pleasingly villainous baddie. Of course, our hero survives, but it's a memorable scene.

The novel concerns a family legend concerning a priceless artefact, the Gyrth Chalice. The legend reminded me slightly of a pleasing ingredient in Derek Smith's later book Whistle Up the Devil, but the stories are really very different. There are two maps (not counting the one of the lovely first edition dustjacket, pictured above) and plenty of incident, much of it entertaining. Not a masterpiece, but well-written and enjoyable light fare.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Howdunit - the paperback edition



2022 has been a very busy year for me in terms of publications. The appearance of The Life of Crime was always going to be a major event in my writing life, and I'm also looking forward eagerly to the publication of Blackstone Fell, my third 'Golden Age gothic' mystery, in September. Not to mention a total of three anthologies and the paperback edition of The Crooked Shore (as well as the publication of that novel's American incarnation, The Girl They All Forgot); let alone individual titles in the Crime Classics series.

But this week I'm celebrating something else - the paperback edition of Howdunit, the book I edited on behalf of the Detection Club, which the publishers HarperCollins describe as 'a masterclass in the art and graft of crime writing'. The idea was to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Club in 2020, and although the pandemic got in the way, the book earned no fewer than five award nominations, and won the H.R.F. Keating Prize, much to my delight.

Howdunit is a book I'm proud of for several reasons. It was wonderful to receive so much generous contribution from major writers. Not one of the 90 people (or estates, in the case of deceased contributors) received a penny in payment for their contributions; nor did I. Instead, all proceeds went to the Detection Club, in line with the Club's traditions.

I also think that the book provides a great deal of invaluable information and advice for anyone who wants to write crime fiction, or simply to understand it better. Working on the book also inspired me to create the online crime writing course Crafting Crime, in conjunction with the editorial consultancy Fiction Feedback. So I'm delighted to see the book in chunky paperback form and I hope this will make the wit and wisdom of the admirable contributors available to even more fans of the genre and aspiring mystery writers.



Monday, 20 June 2022

A British Library Weekend


In my online writing course Crafting Crime, I make the point that confidence counts for a good deal in writing. But confidence is fragile (there are plenty of lived examples in The Life of Crime, some of them rather poignant) and writers often find their morale needs boosting. Well, having just returned from London after an exhilarating weekend, I can say that I'm in very good heart, for a host of reasons. One of these, I must say, is that it was fantastic to see so many copies of my books (not to mention my Golden Age map, This Deadly Isle) for sale in the British Library shop. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen so many of my own books in a shop, anywhere....


At first, though, it seemed that things might go seriously awry. An event was planned for Friday, which would involve me, the Rev. Richard Coles and Laura Wilson in conversation at the British Library. Many tickets were sold, and I was really looking forward to it. But then disaster struck. As a result of a couple of electrical fires, it became impossible for the show to go on as planned. It was to be livestreamed, but during the course of a convivial lunch with John and Jonny of the Library's publications team, I learned that this was not going to be possible. So it became a recorded event, and part of it would involve me giving an impromptu presentation. It was all very unexpected, but I drew fresh energy from a convivial afternoon get-together with Moira Redmond, Jim Noy, Chrissie Poulson and others, and as things turned out, all went well. Richard, whom I'd never had a chance to talk to previously, but whose new detective novel I read over the weekend, was not only charming but generous in his comments about my writing, and Laura did a great job. I gather that everyone who paid for tickets will be refunded and the event will be made available on an open access basis. 


The following day, Bodies from the Library was due to take place after a three-year absence (though as with Alibis from the Archive, there was an online-only version last year). The volunteer team and the British Library staff worked tirelessly to make sure that it could go ahead, even though it was no longer possible for the Knowledge Centre to be used. The whole event was held in a rapidly reconfigured Terrace Restaurant. And it went really well. Jake Kerridge, Moira, Chrissie, Tony Medawar, Caroline Crampton, John Curran, and David Brawn were all very good and I enjoyed my session, talking to Chrissie about The Life of Crime


It was also wonderful to see so many old friends and to meet some nice people for the first time, including fellow Head of Zeus author Tom Mead. Online events are invaluable and, I'm sure, here to stay, but you can't beat the personal contact that comes with a live event. Twenty-five or so of us got together on Saturday evening for drinks and a meal, a nice way to round off a day that almost didn't happen, but - thanks to the hard work and dedication of those who turned potential disaster into a triumph - proved to be a great success. 

  

Friday, 17 June 2022

Forgotten Book - The Dead of the Night


'The surprise at the end is a knock-out,' said The Daily Telegraph of Harry Carmichael's The Dead of the Night. The Fontana paperback edition of this book, originally published in 1956, contains further accolades from prominent newspapers. Carmichael's reputation has faded since his death in 1979, but he was a capable writer and there are some nice touches in this novel.

This story, like most of Carmichael's, features the insurance investigator John Piper and his journalist friend Quinn. Carmichael himself was a journalist before he concentrated on writing fiction - it seems that he was successful enough to be able to write full-time from a relatively early point in his career - and it's clear he enjoyed writing Quinn's scenes.

The story begins, however, with Piper. He is approached by a youngish woman called Jean Lincoln. Her father, Robert Lincoln, has been disabled by a stroke and Jean is suspicious of her step-mother, who is much younger than Robert and very glamorous. From this relatively straightforward opening, we are drawn into an elaborate mystery, involving a GPO robbery. a dodgy medic, the death of a nurse, and sundry other complications.

As usual with Carmichael, the plot is ingenious, although for me the problem with the big reveal was that I found it slightly hard to swallow. The shift of focus between Piper and Quinn is also something that didn't quite work for me, although it was a good way of maintaining the story's pace. Interestingly to me, some of the action takes place in the Kent village of Sturry. That just happens to be where the contemporary crime writer Catherine Aird lives, and it was Catherine who kindly passed her copy of this book on to me. 

Thursday, 16 June 2022

The Inaugural Jennifer Palmer Lecture - Portico Library, Manchester

I felt truly honoured when, earlier this year, I was invited to give the inaugural Jennifer Palmer Lecture at the wonderful Portico Library, right in the heart of Manchester. Jennifer was a very well-read crime enthusiast who moderated a panel of which I was a member on my very first visit to the Portico. She died - far too young - last year, and her estate has funded a series of lectures on her favourite subject.

The Portico is, like Gladstone's Library and the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, a wonderfully atmospheric independent library. These are places to be cherished and supported - as Jennifer cherished her association with the Portico.and gave it enthusiastic support to the end of her life. 


My subject was (surprise, surprise) The Life of Crime, and the host was my fellow author Matthew Booth. The event was a sell-out and it was great to see some familiar faces in the audience, most of all Stuart Palmer. The main concern for me was that Stuart should be happy with the evening and thankfully all went well. Kudos to Debbie and Thom and their colleagues at the Portico for all the arrangements. I also did an interview for local radio at the end, so it was a varied evening in a stunning setting and one I really enjoyed.


And here is a photo of that first event at the Portico (after I'd spent a day working in my firm's then nearby Manchester office) which I've just retrieved. Next to me on the right is Kate Ellis. Jennifer is talking to her, and beyond her are Dolores Gordon Smith and Cath Staincliffe.



Monday, 13 June 2022

Alibis in the Archive 2022


This past weekend was an absolute joy. Alibis in the Archive took place at Gladstone's Library, for the first time in three years. We did a virtual Alibis last year, but it was great to get back to the Library and mingle in that wonderful, tranquil, bookish atmosphere - whilst also welcoming online attendees. As Louisa Yates of Gladstone's pointed out, this was the biggest event the Library has staged since the pandemic took hold and she and her colleagues did a terrific job. Plenty of books were sold and there was a great display of material from the British Crime Writing Archives


We assembled in Hawarden during Friday afternoon and after dinner I ran a 'pub quiz' on site - well contested and good fun. Saturday began with a terrific talk from Lynne Truss about Dr Bodkin Adams, who was acquitted of murder in the 50s, and she was followed by Philip Gooden, whose subject was spy fiction in the 60s - not Fleming, Le Carre, or Deighton, but their less well remembered peers. Fascinating.


I talked about the British Library Crime Classics, while Jean Briggs discussed Charles Dickens and detective fiction. A talk by Margaret Murphy about forensics and crime fiction brought a great day to a conclusion in time for dinner and an evening of good conversation (and a few drinks).


Sunday began with Cilla Masters talking about medicine and murder during the Golden Age, while Nicola Upson covered both Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham (and showed us a wonderful home movie featuring Margery Allingham's cricket parties!). Finally we had Dea Parkin, discussing the editing process and how to get a crime novel published. I'd aimed to put together an eclectic programme and I was delighted by the reaction of those present. It was grand to meet newcomers to Alibis as well as to meet up with old friends. And I'm glad to say that Alibis will be back next year: 9-11 June 2023 - make a diary note and do come and join us!



Friday, 10 June 2022

Forgotten Book - Death of a Stray Cat


Considering that her first novel won an Edgar and that she had a productive career yielding fourteen novels (plus a number of very good short stories) over a period of twenty-one years, it seems odd that Jean Potts disappeared from the radar of crime fans until quite recently. Stark House Press have done a good job in republishing several of her novels, and I have a number of her books in green Penguin editions which once belonged to Bob Barnard. I think she is a first-rate crime writer.

Death of a Stray Cat, published near the start of her career in 1955, is a good example of her work, if more akin to a conventional whodunit than other titles. Potts' sharp characterisation and way with words are great strengths, and the plot is pretty good too. Marcella Ewing is murdered in the first chapter and it soon becomes clear that she was a born victim. Her character flaws are presented unsentimentally, yet with an underlying compassion.

Marcella was a reasonably attractive young woman but her lovers tended to tire of her. It seems likely that one of them was responsible for her death. Might it have been Alex, married to Gen? Or her ex-husband, Jimmy? Or Walt? Or Brad? Or Dwight? Or...well, you get the idea. Motives and suspects abound. A likeable cop called Ed investigates, while Gen - shocked by the discovery of Alex's brief affair with Marcella - does some sleuthing of her own.

Potts shifts viewpoints rapidly in this novel and this helps her to maintain the momentum of the story, although it does mean that readers may be unsure where their sympathies lie. Francis Iles felt this book was better than her Edgar winner, Go, Lovely Rose, which he regarded as over-rated, but thought that there were some improbabilities in the plot. Maybe so, but because Potts cares about her characters, I found that I did, too. A really good book by a writer who deserves to be better-known.  

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2022


I first came across the name of Michele Slung more years ago than either she or I would probably care to remember, when her notable anthology Crime on Her Mind was published as a Penguin paperback in the UK. It was an admirable selection of classic crime stories featuring female detectives. There have been many such collections over the years - I've often thought of putting one together myself - but her book is the leader of the pack.

I mention Michele because she is working with the legendary Otto Penzler, for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2022, for which the guest editor will be Sara Paretsky. This is primarily an American publication, but stories from authors based elsewhere are, these days, eligible for possible inclusion. For example, my own 'The Locked Cabin' appeared in last year's collection, edited by Lee Child in conjunction with Otto - the cover image is above this post. Michele's role is to 'screen' the stories, which involves a huge amount of reading each year.

So the authors among you may wish to consider submitting your stories - provided they are original to 2022. No dusting down old material, then, however great it is! The other thing you have to bear in mind is that the stories have to be submitted as printed copies, not as email attachments or in some other non-print format. 

If you're tempted, send your story to:

Otto Penzler

BEST MYSTERY STORIES OF THE YEAR

58 Warren Street

New York 10007

United States of America


Monday, 6 June 2022

Reviews and the Blog Tour for The Life of Crime

 


For me, it's been an exciting few days, as I have had the double pleasure of enjoying reviews of The Life of Crime while anticipating the US publication tomorrow of The Girl They All Forgot (aka The Crooked Shore). Today I want to express my appreciation of the reviewers who have given The Life of Crime such a wonderful start. So wonderful, in fact, that on Friday evening, the book became an Amazon #1 bestseller in the literary reference category. Given that it's not exactly a cheap book, this was a delightful surprise.

There was a truly fantastic review in the 'i' newspaper from Moira Redmond. Not only that: Moira also took part in the blog tour and contributed a lovely piece that made me blush: not such a common occurrence. And the word cloud image above (which relates to chapter 35 of the book) comes from an incredible review by Kate Jackson. I should say that, because of production hold-ups, reviewers had very little time to devour the book, which given its length meant that reviewing became quite a challenge. But Kate rose to it in the most remarkable way. I don't think I've ever seen any review of a book about the genre which tackles the material at such length, not to mention in such depth and with such thought. It must have taken ages to put together and I'm quite blown away by it. The word clouds relating to each chapter topic really were the icing on the cake.

I loved Jim Noy's review at The Invisible Event, not least the closing words: 'Anyone who thinks they're going to follow this in another 50 years has my sympathies.' There were also great reviews from Puzzle DoctorKaggsy's Bookish Ramblings  Basil Ransome-Davies at Shiny New BooksDesperate Reader Northern Reader and Vicky Lord to go along with those by Christine Poulson and Andrew Taylor in The Spectator which I've mentioned previously.  And just in case there was anything about the background to the book that you were afraid to ask, I've written an article on CrimeReads which discusses some of its genesis...





 

Friday, 3 June 2022

Forgotten Book - Too Many Bottles



I share with Raymond Chandler and Ed Gorman, among others, an admiration for the work of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a crime novelist who has long been under-rated. Domestic suspense was her forte and it's at the heart of Too Many Bottles, published in 1951, towards the end of her career. This is a swift read, a short book that ranks as a minor work compared to her best novels, but not without interest (yes, I know that's damning with faint praise, but I think it's a fair summary).

We see things from the point of view of a youngish man called Brophy. He writes pulp fiction and for the past year he's been living with his new wife Lulu and her sister Norma. Lulu is good-looking and possesses a superficial charm, but she's also nervy and needy and Brophy isn't in love with her. The Brophys hold a party which goes badly and after it's over, Lulu is found dead. At first it seems as if she may have consumed a poison by mistake, but it soon becomes clear she was murdered.

Holding piles on a number of complications, and in due course there is another death. However,  I formed an opinion about what was going on during the early chapters and I was disappointed to find that I was right. The mystery isn't as complex as it might have been, and Brophy's denseness becomes rather irritating.

Yet there are some nice touches, especially during a conversation about the merits, or otherwise, of creative writing classes and in Brophy's ruminations about his own crime writing. And I did enjoy the ironic passage where Brophy thinks: 'I couldn't write a psychological novel. I wouldn't know how to motivate my people. I'm too healthy. Or maybe too dumb.'


Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Joseph Raz 1939-2022


I was so sorry to learn of the recent death of Jo Raz, who has just been described in an obituary from Oxford University's Faculty of Philosophy as 'one of the three or four leading legal philosophers of the last hundred years'. High praise, but I doubt that anyone who knew him would disagree. Certainly not me. I had the enormous privilege to be one of his pupils during my three years as an undergraduate and I've said plenty of times over the years that in pure intellectual terms, he had the most brilliant mind I've ever encountered. 

I first met Jo when he, Don Harris and Paul Davies interviewed me for a place at Balliol College, while I was still at school. I was an introverted teenager from a very ordinary background; nobody in the family had been to university. I remember feeling nervous and intimidated, so much so that a terrible feeling of sickness had overwhelmed me as I arrived at Oxford Station, a scary experience I've never forgotten. When the three dons started firing questions about legal concepts at me, I struggled to handle them. Luckily the conversation turned to Burt Bacharach (whom I'd written about in my entrance exam - my cunning plan had been to demonstrate my embryonic advocacy skills, presenting a case for the century's greatest composer!) and although I doubt that Jo, in particular, was a Burt fan, everything went swimmingly from that point. Over the next three years I gained a great deal from being taught by three very different, but remarkably able and pleasant tutors.

As the obituaries have mentioned, Jo was famously severe in those days if he detected any hint of intellectual sloppiness, but that was simply because he had exceptionally high standards, something I admire in any field. He realised that people like me weren't on the same level and by challenging me to think more deeply instead of relying on 'skimming over the surface of things', as he put it, he got the best out of me. My results in Finals were probably better than my actual intellectual skills merited and I think that was to some extent due to my feeling driven on by Jo. On a personal level, he was a very nice man and I liked him a lot.

He and I talked several times about my burning ambition to become a novelist. He encouraged me and said kind things about my writing style, remarks which I treasured, but he also encouraged me to take advantage of everything else Oxford had to offer a student  - the plays, the lectures on other subjects and so on. I took his advice whenever I could, and I never regretted it. 

After hearing of his death, I watched this tribute documentary to Jo, made a few years ago when he won a major prize. Imagine my shock and delight when, as I watched, a photo of a post-Finals champagne party featuring me and the future Mrs Edwards on the same row as Jo came on to the screen (at 28:57). Incredible!  

Jo Raz's legacy is in part his ground-breaking books (not an easy read for ordinary mortals - I confess that I never got to the end of Concept of a Legal System!) but in large measure the fact that he made a huge impression on a vast number of students. I never made it as a legal philosopher, but I'm proud to be among them.  



Monday, 30 May 2022

Denis Kendal and Mary Kelly


Life is hectic, in a good way, right now, thanks to a combination of promotional activities connected with The Life of Crime and two or three current writing projects. But I did want to take a quick break to mention a bit of sad news, in that I've learned that Denis Kendal has died. Denis, as I've mentioned on this blog before, was the widower of Mary Kelly, Gold Dagger winning author of The Spoilt Kill. Here is a set of photos of Mary which Denis sent to me - I don't think they have been published before.

I never met Denis in person, but we chatted on the phone and corrresponded extensively during the past few years. I found his recollections about Mary's writing career fascinating (and yes, she is referenced in The Life of Crime). I also greatly admired, not just his devotion to preserving her memory, but also his determination to overcome the problem of limited vision, which must have been a great restriction and source of distress. But he triumphed over it.

Of all the good things associated with the British Library's Crime Classics series, one that I'm especially happy about is the revival of Mary's reputation. We've managed to introduce her to a new generation of fans, with three titles, each of them entirely distinct: The Christmas Egg, The Spoilt Kill, and Due to a Death. She never wrote to a template, and I find that admirable, although it helps to explain why her career at the pinnacle of British crime writing didn't continue for as long as those of many of her contemporaries.

With Denis's support, I was able to include a contribution from Mary in the Detection Club's masterclass on crime writing, Howdunit. My article about Mary's life and work for CADS is, I think, the most comprehensive that has appeared, and I couldn't have written it without Denis' s help and encouragement. He was thrilled to see his wife's books recognised again and I was thrilled for him. He died on 5 April at the age of 93 and I shall remember him with a good deal of affection.



Friday, 27 May 2022

Forgotten Book - Doctor Syn


Seeing your first novel for the first time, holding the reality of it in your hand, is a special moment. So spare a thought for Russell Thorndike, back in 1915, when he received his copy of his debut, Doctor Syn. On the front cover, spine, and title page, his surname was spelled Thorndyke, as if he were connected to Austin Freeman's great detective. It must have been an excruciating experience, though I understand that the book was popular enough to earn an early reprint, and the error was then corrected. (Thorndike, pictured, was wounded in the Gallipoli campaign, so I wonder if some time passed before he laid his hands on his novel - if so, it probably didn't help his recovery to full health, but the good news is that he did live until the ripe old age of 87).

The sub-title is A Tale of the Romney Marsh. It's a historical story, set in the late 18th century, and to do with smugglers. Not my usual sort of thing, to be honest. However, I was attracted by the chance of seeing a first edition which featured an inscription to Charles B. Gilbert - 'here's to the feet that have walked the plank'. It turns out that this is a quote from a smugglers' drinking song which features more than once in the story.

My interest in the book was quickened by visits to Dymchurch and Romney Marsh after taking part in a couple of Rye Festivals. The Marsh is a fascinating part of Kent, previously unknown to me, flat (as you'd expect) yet certainly not lacking in character or atmosphere. I felt sufficiently intrigued to consider using it as a setting, either for a short story or perhaps scenes in a Rachel Savernake novel. Right now, the latter is quite a likely option.

What of the story? Well, it's a readable yarn, and the spookiness of the Marsh is well conveyed and places an important part in the story. Even though it's not the sort of book I'd usually read, I can understand why it became a success - so much so that it gave rise to three films a whole raft of prequels. Thorndike, who like his more famous sister Sybil had started out as an actor, focused increasingly on authorship and he was also involved with Six Against the Scotland Yard, perhaps his closest brush with conventional mystery fiction.  

Thursday, 26 May 2022

Publication Day - The Life of Crime



When you've been working on an idea, and then a book, for as long as I've been working on The Life of Crime, it seems almost surreal when the moment of official publication finally comes along. But today is the day! And as from today there is a blog tour - my sincere thanks to the ten bloggers taking part. The first reaction on the tour comes from Christine Poulson and her comments are truly gratifying. 


Thanks to Gary Stratmann, I have some photos of the champagne do during CrimeFest when the book was celebrated in the company of Simon Brett, Felix Francis, Cath Staincliffe, Michael Ridpath, Robert Goddard and various other friends. I've also had cause to celebrate with a coveted starred review from Publishers' Weekly in the US: 'magisterial...unlike other major studies of the genre, gives plenty of space to non-Anglo authors and writers of color. The result is an encyclopedic and consequential volume, a must-read for readers who've wondered who-, how-, or whydunit.' 


And then this morning came news of a fantastic review in the Spectator by that fine novelist Andrew Taylor: 'magisterial but wickedly entertaining...a long book, but it's reliably readable and frequently amusing. It also inspires awe: Edwards combines wide reading with a good memory, meticulous control over his unruly material, critical acumen and sheer bloody persistence.' Wonderful!


The book contains extensive acknowledgements, but I'd like to take a moment right now to thank those experts who gave generously of their time when commenting on partial drafts of the manuscript during the past few years. Nigel Moss, wise and meticulous, spent a great deal of time checking and commenting, while others who made a particularly special contribution by giving me the benefit of their expertise included Doug Greene, Steve Powell, Victoria Stewart, David Bordwell, Art Scott, Joseph Goodrich, Rick Ollerman, John Pugmire, and Mauro Boncampagni. 



Of course I'm grateful to my agent James Wills and to David Brawn and his colleagues at Harper Collins who helped to make my vision a reality. John Garth the indexer, did a terrific job - this is a book that definitely needed a really good index, and John compiled three, which take up nearly eighty pages. A word of thanks also to the cover designer, Steve Leard, whose contribution to my books I discuss in this piece for Shots. In this essay for Crime Time I discuss some of the other people whose writing about the genre I admire.

So for me this is a happy and memorable occasion. And tonight, there might just be some more quaffing of champagne...

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Birnam Book Festival


I'm back home after spending a wonderful long weekend in Scotland, taking part in the Birnam Book Festival. Yes, that's Birnam of Macbeth fame, a tiny village which together with Dunkeld, on the other side of the River Tay, is home to about 1500 souls but has more to offer than some places ten times the size. Including the legendary Birnam Oak (pictured above), close to the river and Birnam Hill, looming over the village. There's a strong sense of community about the place and the venue for the festival events is an extremely impressive arts centre which adjoins a Beatrix Potter garden (Beatrix loved the neighbourhood, and it's easy to see why). The village even has its own very pleasant bookshop, The Birnam Reader which also serves coffee and cake and is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.




My event was a conversation about Lives of Crime, expertly chaired by bestselling novelist Fiona Valpy, who talked to myself and Scottish crime novelist (and true crime writer) Douglas Skelton. Douglas and I had never met before, but the session proved highly enjoyable and an hour and a half whizzed by. Other highlights were an opening reception at an art gallery and studio whose delightful proprietor, Mridula Basi, was previously one of Scotland's few women police officers of Asian heritage. She's also an extremely good artist.


We were lucky to be able to stay at Dunaird Cottage, in the grounds of the turreted home of Scott and Nicky Herbertson. If you fancy a trip to the gateway to the Highlands, this is an ideal base, and we were able to explore locally (the Hermitage and Ossian's House, a great walk) and a bit further afield - the Scone Palace (full of history) and Blairgowrie. I also loved having the chance to examine at close quarters Scott's wonderful collection of crime novels as well as the books for sale through his Hadwebutknown  book dealership.



I've often made the point that organisers of festivals work very hard to make their events a success and certainly the Birnam team deserve a great deal of congratulation. It's never an easy task, but as we emerge from lockdown life, it's even more challenging. Suffice to say that everyone rose to the challenge admirably. And from a personal point of view, I was thrilled to discover after my event was over that Manchester City had risen to the challenge of winning the Premier League for a fourth time in five years. That really put the icing on the cake!