Friday, 2 December 2022

Forgotten Book - When the Devil Was Sick


Until a few years ago, as a reader I focused on the books that Carol Rivett wrote under her most prominent pen-name, E.C.R. Lorac, rather than those which appeared under the name Carol Carnac. One of the reasons was that the Carnac books tend to be very elusive. However, I was lucky enough to acquire an inscribed dedication copy of Crossed Skis and, although I'm not interested in ski-ing, I enjoyed the novel.

Some time later, I was delighted when the British Library agreed to publish Crossed Skis as a Crime Classic and positive reader reaction duly followed. Of course, this author was highly prolific under both names and not all the books can appear as Crime Classics, but excellent sales figures mean that it's likely that Lorac/Carnac titles will continue to be reprinted. Meanwhile, I've been reading a shelf-full of them.

Among them is an obscure Carnac mystery - the fifth to appear under that name - with the odd title When the Devil Was Sick. (The title comes, it seems, from an old phrase that I must admit I hadn't encountered before). It's a country house mystery, but with quite a bit of the atmospheric description of rural settings that was a hallmark of this writer. The detection is done by Inspector Charles Ryvett (a surname obviously based on Carol's own real name, suggesting that she had quite a high level of identification with this particular character).

Strange events on Lammas Night culminate in the murder of a mysterious man dressed up as monk. Is he a member of the family in whose mansion he is discovered? The butler is among those who knows more than he is willing to reveal to Ryvett. A very unusual feature of this novel, especially for one written in the Golden Age by a woman, is that amateur boxing plays a part in the storyline. Ryvett is an appealing character and this interesting story is one of a number of Carnac titles which I think deserve a new life in the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Exciting Times

 


I was amused yesterday when the BBC announced a 'stellar line-up' of festive television, only to include the above photo in connection with a piece about this year's Christmas University Challenge. My lips remain sealed about what actually happened, but suffice to say that for me it was a 'bucket list' moment, to appear on a programme that I've watched since I was a small boy. And to be captain of Balliol...well, it was marvellous, although daunting. 

When the famous theme music is played and you look at Jeremy Paxman and realise your ignorance is about to be exposed to the nation, and there's no escape, it really is quite something. We appeared in the very first heat (there were seven heats involving fourteen teams, then the semi-finals involving the four highest-scoring winners and final - 10 days of telly in all). I gather that heat will be screened on 19 December and that the series then runs for two weeks, Monday to Friday each week. A treat for connoisseurs of facial expressions of bafflement! I'll talk in more detail about this amazing experience another time.

In fact, this has been one of a number of memorable experiences that I've had lately. One, which involves an audio drama I've written and which was recorded last week, again I'll talk about when the time is right. I'm also undertaking some other projects which, in one way or another, amount to breaking fresh ground. I've also had a few late This is exciting for a writer, and gives you the energy and enthusiasm you need to keep writing - and above all, to keep writing different types of material.

Reviews of The Life of Crime continue to come in. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine says it surpasses previous histories of the genre and 'manages to be both vast in scope and profound in thought, all the while hard to put down' while the book also had great reviews in the Daily Mirror and Daily Express and the Spectator chose it as one of the 'books of the year'. 

Meanwhile I continue to take part in a range of events. Last night I took part, alongside two American academics, in the National Association of Scholars' discussion about The Maltese Falcon (now available on YouTube) and tomorrow I'm giving a talk at Rhyl Library. I'm being interviewed for the Doings of Doyle podcast on Sunday and next week I'll be at Cambridge University, giving a lecture on Golden Age fiction to a group of students participating in Sophie Hannah's crime writing course. Then it's off to Oundle Literature Festival for my final event of the year. This kind of variety appeals to me a great deal.

I've mentioned before that I find writing short stories very rewarding and yesterday I sent off two new ones, both destined for American anthologies if the editors like them and feel they fit the requirements of the anthologies in question. And right now I'm about to start work on another short story before getting to grips with the next novel...

Monday, 28 November 2022

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides


The past decade or so has seen a plethora of psychological thrillers. Some are excellent, many are a bit samey, and some are hopelessly contrived. Invariably the publishers promise a 'killer twist'; sometimes the author delivers, sometimes the twist proves all too predictable. At its best, however, this kind of writing can be truly dazzling. A very good example is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, which in my opinion deserves the superlatives that reviewers have flung at it. It's a first novel, amazingly, though the author is an experienced screenwriter, and he certainly writes in a vivid yet (sometimes deceptively) straightforward way.

A gimmick associated with this type of story is the tag-line. In this case, it's: 'Only she knows what happened. Only I can make her speak.' This sums up a gripping premise. Six years ago, the artist Alicia Berenson shot her husband, a charismatic fashion photographer called Gabriel, in the head - five times. Since then, she hasn't spoken a single word. The narrator, a forensic psychotherapist, is determined to get her to talk.

Michaelides has spoken in published interviews about his admiration for Agatha Christie and although this story is very different from anything written by the Queen of Crime, you can trace her influence in the way he juggles his story ingredients as well as in the skill with which he directs the reader's attention away from what has really happened, usually by deploying some artfully conceived red herrings.

I don't want to say too much about the way in which the story develops, because it would be a shame to spoil some of the surprises. Suffice to say that I read the book on a train journey that was excessively protracted thanks to a malign combination of engineering works and staff shortages. Thanks to Michaelides, a trip that could have been a miserable experience proved very rewarding. An excellent thriller, strongly recommended. 


 

Friday, 25 November 2022

Forgotten Book - Murder of Me



Xavier Lechard's blog At the Villa Rose is perhaps the longest-running solo-author crime fiction blog that I can recall. It's also a blog with a pleasing and distinctive flavour. I've been reading Xavier's thoughts with interest for many years and occasionally his ideas - even those I don't entirely agree with - spark some of my own thinking, whether about particular titles or aspects of the Golden . So when he discussed his enthusiasm for Murder of Me by F. Addington Symonds (in a comment on a post on this blog about the comparable Guy Cullingford novel Post Mortem) I sat up and took notice.

Now I've had a chance to read the book for myself and form my own opinion. The first thing to say is that Xavier is absolutely right: Murder of Me is unusual. Genuinely unusual. Published in 1946, it pre-dates Post Mortem and it has some lovely trimmings, including footnotes which reference books such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Howard Haycraft's Murder for Pleasure. Yes, at times we venture into metafiction.

Murder of Me is not an easy novel to discuss without spoilers, so I'll try to choose my words with care. In essence, it's a story told from the point of view of a murder victim. This is James Mortimer Vidal, a rather disagreeable chap who gives one of his daughters the unenviable task of solving the mystery. There are plot twists and touches of ingenuity. It's extremely difficult to be truly original, but Symonds makes a good stab at it.

The novel does, however, have weaknesses. Many of these stem from the fact that Vidal is unpleasant and I found it hard to warm to any of the other characters. The puzzle, too, wasn't as gripping as I'd hoped. There's something rather dry about the prose, despite Symonds' cleverness. I wasn't too surprised to learn that he spent a lot of time as a writer for pulpy magazines. So I wasn't totally bowled over by the book. It does, however, rank as an extremely intriguing curiosity and I'm very glad that Xavier drew it to my attention.  

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Trance - 2013 film review


Trance is a Danny Boyle film, and is as visually appealing as you might expect with this director. It's an art heist movie with a difference, and it begins with a gripping ten-minute sequence before the opening credits, with the theft of a $25 million Goya painting from an auction house. The story is introduced by Simon (James McAvoy), who works in the auction house and who seems to make a brave but unavailing attempt to stop the thieves, and is injured in the process. It's no great surprise to learn that the crime was an inside job and that Simon was involved, but from that point the story becomes quite unpredictable.

The unpredictability, unfortunately, is a large part of the problem with the film. It's based on a script which Joe Ahearne sent to Boyle many years before the film was made. Boyle involved John Hodge as a script doctor, but I don't think enough doctoring took place. Whilst we're not meant to take the story too seriously, a film of this kind does, I think, need to have some touches of plausibility. And that's in very short supply.

The central idea is that Simon has hidden the painting, but because of his injuries, can't remember what he did with it. Torturing him doesn't work, so his fellow thieves (led by Vincent Cassel) agree to have him undergo hypnosis so that, in a trance, he will reveal what happened to the painting. The hypnotherapist chosen is the beautiful Rosario Dawson and again it comes as no surprise to learn that she has some previous connection with Simon - or that she is destined to become a femme fatale.

While the villains try to locate the painting, the auction house makes no apparent effort to check on whether Simon was involved in the crime. This seems to me to be even more of a weakness than one of the criticisms made by Peter Bradshaw, giving the movie a poor reviewin the Guardian, when he points out that there's no indication as to how the baddies will sell the painting. Dawson is very watchable, even if her character isn't credible, but on the whole this is a film that doesn't make the most of its considerable potential.

Monday, 21 November 2022

Robbery - 1967 film review


I watched Robbery in the cinema as a boy, not too long after its original release, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it all over again in 2009 and recorded my enthusiasm on this blog. Watching for a third time, I remain impressed. Peter Yates, the director, is much better known for films such as Bullitt, famous for its car chase in San Francisco, but the car chase in central London at the start of Robbery is itself excellent, and it paves the way for an entertaining fictionalisation of the real life Great Train Robbery.

The casting is clever, because to some extent it confounds expectations. The gang leader, Paul Clifton, is played by Stanley Baker, who made his name as a tough cop. Other actors to play gang members include Barry Foster (famed as Van der Valk), George Sewell (of Special Branch) and the charismatic Frank Finlay . Conversely, the lead cop is James Booth, who you might think of as more likely to play a crafty villain. His boss, Glynn Edwards, was equally adept at playing baddies. So perhaps we're more inclined to hope, secretly, that the heist will succeed.

The soundtrack was written by Johnny Keating, who indulges in a Bacharachesque theme for a climactic scene at the gang's hideout, while the screenplay was co-written by Edward Boyd, an interesting writer who collaborated with Bill Knox on the novelisation of Boyd's TV series The View from Daniel Pike (Bill's widow told me that he did all the writing, based on Boyd's ideas). 

Heist films tend to be predictable, but this one is genuinely gripping, perhaps because the case on which it was based was so remarkable. Credit for this goes to Yates, who does a great job, along with the wonderful cast (which also includes Joanna Pettett, whose career ended far too soon).  Definitely recommended. 

 


Friday, 18 November 2022

Forgotten Book - A Shilling for Candles


A Shilling for  Candles, published in 1936, was Josephine Tey's second detective novel to feature Inspector Alan Grant. I've mentioned it a couple of times on this blog, in connection with Nicola Upson's novel Fear in the Sunlight, and also as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Young and Innocent, which as I said in a review way back in 2010 is very different from the book - even the murderer and motive are changed!

I first read this novel many, many years ago. I 'm a Tey fan, but I was disappointed with it overall. I think that was because she didn't, in my opinion, pay enough attention to characterising the killer or making the motive credible - and this helps to explain why Hitchcock made so many changes. It's certainly not a 'fair play' novel. However, I decided to give it another try and consider the story in part from a technical perspective - why did Tey make the choices she did, and which of them worked?

The fact that I knew what to expect didn't lessen my enjoyment and the first thing to say is that Tey, as always, writes very well and engagingly. The opening scene, where a coastguard discovers a body on a beach, is very well done. The 'man on the run' aspect of the story, which Hitchcock focused on, is also quite good. The title is intriguing and it refers to a mocking bequest in Christine's will. However, this part of the story rather fizzles out as Tey tries to draw the various strands together. 

The central problem, I think, is that although she came up with some wonderful story ingredients, she didn't think hard enough about how to integrate them into a satisfactory whole. Probably she was writing in a rush, and wanting to get back to her work in the theatre. I suspect she became worried about the thinness of the motivation and as a result decided to portray the killer, in the closing pages, as deranged. I feel that, despite an element of outlandishness, more could have been done to make this crucial part of the story plausible. But the book is not only worth reading - I was very happy to have read it for a second time, despite my reservations.  

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Who Killed the Cat? - 1966 film review

The name of Arnold Ridley is still fondly remembered because of his charming portrayal of Private Godfrey in the long-running comedy series Dad's Army. Less often recalled is his work as a playwright. His most famous play was The Ghost Train, but he was quite prolific, and adapted Christie's Peril at End House as well as writing thrillers of his own. In 1956 he wrote Tabitha, in collaboration with Mary Catchcart Borer, another prolific author. This play was filmed ten years later as Who Killed the Cat?

The film was directed by Montgomery Tully, who co-wrote the screenplay with Maurice J. Wilson, and although it doesn't seem particularly 'stagey', it does seem more redolent of the Fifties than the Swinging Sixties. Blow Up it ain't. It is, however, in its modest way, quite a distinctive and enjoyable piece of light entertainment. 

The story begins with the reading of a will, that of the late husband of Eleanor Trellington (Vanda Godsell). It's pretty clear that the deceased had grown weary of Eleanor, his second wife, while she is bored with the three elderly ladies who lodge with her, and at odds with her teenage step-daughter, Mary (Natasha Pyne). Eleanor behaves unpleasantly to all and sundry, including Mary's young admirer, who works for a local jeweller (played by Mervyn Johns). When Mary buys poison from the local chemist, the scene is set for dark deeds.

The story rattles along at a respectable pace, and the three old ladies perform with gusto. A police inspector played by Conrad Phillips comes on to the scene, while there is a small part for Joan Sanderson. It is a notch above standard British B-movie fare, an unpretentious film that doesn't outstay its welcome. Tabitha, by the way is the name of a cat. As the title of the film suggests, not a good idea to get too attached to her...

 


 





Monday, 14 November 2022

Grand-Guignolesque by Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson - review

 


We often use the term 'Grand-Guignol' without thinking too much about the Parisian 'horror theatre' which gave rise to the term. This new book, published by the University of Exeter Press, is written by two academics with an abiding interest in horror and also cross-media forms of popular culture. Richard Hand is an expert in film and performance, while Mike Wilson, with whom I've had many interesting conversations over the years, is also deeply interested in crime writing, especially that written for the stage.

Their book is subtitled Classic and Contemporary Horror Theatre and it's a very interesting read. One of the things I like about it is the absence of the verbosity that sometimes ruins academic writing; Hand and Wilson write snappily and makes their points clearly, a big plus. They discuss, among others, F.Tennyson Jesse, a writer who has long intrigued me, and they refer to her play The Mask, which I haven't read, but would like to.

There is also discussion of writers such as Joseph Conrad and Agatha Christie, whom one wouldn't immediately associate with Grand-Guignol, and reference to Christie's Rule of Three, which I hope to write about myself before long. Mention is also made of John Dickson Carr, who was clearly influenced by the atmospherics of Grand-Guignol. But there's also some very interesting discussion of recent writing in the Grand-Guignol style. 

The bulk of the book is devoted to reprinting a wide range of plays in the Grand-Guignol vein. One of them is The Lover of Death by the French writer Maurice Renard; I agree with the authors that his work deserves to be better-known in the UK. In The Life of Crime, I mention an extraordinary novel which he co-wrote, Blind Circle, a strange mix of mystery and the macabre.

The other plays include a fairly recent adaptation by Eddie Muller of a play from the mid-fifties, Orgy in the Lighthouse, the ending of which is - even by the most jaded standards - truly horrifying. There is something about lighthouses and their lonely yet claustrophobic interiors that inspires remarkable stories. All in all, a very interesting book - I learned a good deal from it.

 

Friday, 11 November 2022

Forgotten Book - Suddenly at His Residence


Recently I attended a meeting with colleagues from the Publications Department at the British Library. We were discussing forthcoming titles in the British Library Crime Classics series as well as other projects, and I was delighted to learn that the books - both the novels and the anthologies - are selling as well as ever. I also had the pleasure of meeting the team member responsible for selling translation rights and it seems that the books are doing increasingly well in different parts of the world. So all the signs are that the series will flourish for a considerable time to come. The main challenge is choosing which books - among the hundreds of worthwhile possibilities - to include so as to maintain and enhance the series' reputation for variety and quality.

I'm the consultant to the series, but of course I'm not the decision-taker and the ultimate responsibility for negotiating on rights and so on rests with others - thankfully! But it's pretty clear that a series like this succeeds by combining popular favourites (albeit relatively recently discovered ones in some cases, E.C.R. Lorac being a good example) with stories that are unknown even to many long-term fans of classic crime (such as Billie Houston's Twice Round the Clock). Among the writers who has made a strong impression on returning to print is Christianna Brand and another of her titles, Suddenly at His Residence (aka The Crooked Wreath) will feature in the series next summer. The Library has given it a new sub-title: A Kent Mystery.

This book makes ingenious use of several tropes of Golden Age fiction. So we have a family tree, a cast of characters and a note indicating that the cast includes two victims and a murderer. There are multiple solutions and not one but two impossible crimes. There's also a final reveal right at the end of the story. Oh, and a rather likeable Great Detective in Inspector Cockrill.

One of Brand's greatest strengths as a crime writer was her commitment to playing fair with her reader. So the clues are supplied, but she disguises them so craftily that it's far from easy to figure out exactly what is going on before Cockrill reveals all. This is a novel published after the Second World War, but it's set in wartime and that background reality makes an important contribution to the storyline. All in all, a pleasing mystery and I'm delighted that it will, before too long, become available again to a very wide readership. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

'Darling Lorraine', Paranoia Blues, and The Adventures of the Puzzle Club


I first became aware of Josh Pachter back in the early 80s, when I came across his anthology Top Crime. I learned that, in addition to being a meticulous anthologist, he is a short story writer of considerable accomplishment. Many years later, I met Josh and his wife Laurie and discovered that they are terrific companions - one of the downsides of the pandemic is that I've not been able to meet up with them in person for several years.

But we remain in regular contact. Josh was a great help when I was working on the anthology Foreign Bodies and some time ago I had the chance to contribute to a new anthology that Josh was putting together. The connecting theme was that each story would be inspired by a Paul Simon song, though only one song per album could be chosen. I've been a huge Paul Simon fan since my teens. He's a great performer, and a quite wonderful songwriter (and did you know that he once did demo records for Burt Bacharach? Timeless classics such as 'Gotta Get a Girl', later recorded by Frankie Avalon? Suffice to say that both Paul and Burt went on to do much better work!) 

To cut a long story short, I finished up writing a story called 'Darling Lorraine'. The inspiration came from a fascinating visit to the house of a crime writing friend. The building is unique and very appealing and the grounds and local setting are just as intriguing. I felt they would make a terrific setting for a story and the Paul Simon spark was all I needed to come up with a plot. 

And now the anthology has just been published. It's called Paranoia Blues and although I haven't received my copy yet, I'm really looking forward to seeing the other stories, penned by writers ranging from Edwin Hill and Gabriel Valjan to Tom Mead. And as if that were not enough, Josh has also got a new book out via Crippen & Landru. The Adventures of the Puzzle Club combines original snappy mysteries by Ellery Queen and new ones in the same manner by Josh himself. I've made a tiny contribution to the book, but the stories are the thing, and they are great fun.




Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Crossfire - 1947 film review


Crossfire is an intriguing film noir with an ambitious and interesting theme. It received five Oscar nominations and, three-quarters of a century on, it remains very watchable indeed. The three male stars are all called Robert; each gives a highly distinctive and impressive performance. They are Robert Young, as a smart but low-key cop called Finlay, Robert Ryan, as a seemingly amiable but in truth sociopathic soldier, and Robert Mitchum.The director was Edward Dymtryk and the screenplay by John Paxton.

From the start, we're aware that two men have beaten up a Jewish man, Samuels, and killed him. Finlay and his team soon discover that Samuels had been in the company of a group of soldiers prior to his death and it's likely that one of them (at least) is responsible for the murder. Suspicion falls on a soldier called Mitch, but it emerges, partly through flashbacks, that the killer was Ryan's character, Monty, and that his accomplice was a soldier called Floyd. 

There's no clear evidence to link Monty to the crime, but his temper and brutality mean that he is a dangerous man to know. Finlay deduces his motive and sets about laying a trap...

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that antisemitism is the motive for the crime. It's also an element in The Brick Foxhole, the book on which Paxton based his script. But in the novel, homophobia is a central issue. The movie industry in 1947 simply wasn't ready to tackle that. Nevertheless, the film delivers a very forceful message about bigotry of all kinds, as well as antisemitism in particular. The Brick Foxhole, incidentally, was an early novel written by Richard Brooks, who became a noted film director, working on movies such as Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood.

  

Friday, 4 November 2022

Forgotten Book - Don't Whistle 'Macbeth'


David Fletcher is an author I enjoy reading. His real name was Dulan Barber, and he was quite a prolific and versatile novelist who produced a dozen crime novels as Fletcher. He died young, of a heart attack, when he was only 48 and I think this accounts in part for the neglect into which his work has fallen. He was a talented exponent of psychological suspense.

Don't Whistle 'Macbeth', published in 1976, is rather different from the other Fletchers that I've read. It's an interesting attempt to blend a whodunit plot with an operatic background and a sort of belated 'coming of age' story involving the narrator, David Kingsley-Grieff.  A gimmick is the inclusion of 'programme notes' by Brigid Brophy, who in those days was a high profile figure in the literary world. The setting is a posh country estate which is home to a recently revived opera festival, which is about to stage Don Giovanni.

The author was an opera lover, and the background is very well-realised. The festival is put on by a rich but troublesome chap called Hugo, who has a failing marriage to Leonie and a beautiful but wayward daughter, Petronella, from a previous relationship. David has taken an admin job at the festival mainly because he is infatuated with one of the performers, a woman called Dorcas. But then murder occurs and David becomes not only a suspect but also a potential victim.

The story is capably written and the plot is quite sound, even if one or two pieces of behaviour aren't in keeping with the realistic tone of the narrative. David, I fear, is a rather irritating character. Even the dust jacket blurb acknowledges that he is priggish. So I didn't care quite as much as I should have done about his tangled love life and his attempts to solve the puzzle. I also found the explanation for the mysterious whistling of the title to be rather an anti-climax. Even so, it's a book that's worth reading and Fletcher certainly deserves not to be forgotten.

Wednesday, 2 November 2022

The Circle - 2017 film review


The Circle is a techno-thriller released four years ago. As I understand it, the movie was a commercial hit but didn't particularly please the critics, perhaps because they regarded it as somewhat unoriginal. However, I enjoyed the story and thought that its treatment of issues concerning personal privacy in the modern age was pretty sound, even if not as sophisticated as that of a much older film, The Conversation, which is a genuine masterpiece.

The Circle benefits from a good cast, led by Emma Watson, who plays Mae Holland. Mae's friend Annie (Karen Gillan) helps her to get a job with The Circle, a highly sophisticated social media company with more than a touch of Facebook and Youtube about it. Mae's father suffers from MS, and her parents are glad that she's got a chance of career progression, but her old friend Mercer, with whom she used to go kayaking, is less impressed.

Soon Mae comes to attention of the company's CEO Eamon Bailey. Bailey is played by Tom Hanks, whose charm makes this a very good piece of casting indeed. Bailey waxes lyrical about the benefits of accountability and transparency, especially in terms of cleaning up politics, and soon Mae is spearheading the campaign to make The Circle omnipresent in everyone's lives. But transparency comes at a cost...

I don't claim that The Circle digs really dip, either into character or the politics of privacy, but I do think that the script makes a number of good points without interfering too much with the telling of a decent story. One poignant aspect of the film is that it marked the final appearance of both the actors who play Mae's parents, Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly, both of whom gave effective performances. 


Monday, 31 October 2022

Ghosts and Ghosts from the Library


On Halloween, what better than to look at a couple of enjoyable - and very different - anthologies of ghost stories? I've always been interested in stories of the supernatural, and with a few notable exceptions I think the ghost story usually works best in the short form. I've even tried my hand at this kind of fiction, with a story called 'No Flowers' that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (and the editor Janet Hutchings even recorded me reading it a few years ago), and I may return to it before too long.

Ghosts from the Library is the latest collection edited by Tony Medawar. It's a companion volume to his Bodies from the Library series, and Tony kindly inscribed the books for me recently, when I was his guest at a fascinating crime-themed dinner in London. It's no secret that Tony and I are old friends, so naturally you'd expect me to like his books, and this latest title definitely reflects his reputation as the best in the business at finding unknown stories by leading authors of the past.

One astonishing find also happened to be my favourite story in the whole book. This is 'The Green Dress' by Anthony Berkeley. I never knew it existed, but I really enjoyed reading it - for me, that story alone justifies the book! But there's plenty more beside, including a good story by Christianna Brand, another by Edmund Crispin, and an excellent Agatha Christie that I'd previously heard in an audio version. 


Louise Welsh is someone I've never met, but I've admired her writing for a long time. Ghost is a massive anthology (with lovely cover artwork by the admirable Ed Bettison) which includes no fewer than one hundred stories, with contributions from Pliny the Younger to Fay Weldon. With so many good things included, it's impossible to pick out favourites, but I must say that I was impressed that Louise Welsh managed to find so many gems that I'd never come across before, rather than sticking to a predictable line-up. So just to whet your appetite, the author list includes Kafka, Richmal Crompton, Tove Jansson, P.G. Wodehouse, Sir Alec Guinness, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Hilary Mantel. Not to mention two of the finest short story writers of all, Shirley Jackson and William Trevor. A terrific book. 

Friday, 28 October 2022

Forgotten Book - Death of an Author


The revival of E.C.R. Lorac's reputation as a detective novelist during the past few years has given me a great deal of pleasure. As I've said in the past, I was introduced to her work by my parents, and I often think that they'd be amused and gratified to see that a writer they both enjoyed has found an extensive new readership in the twenty-first century, not only in the UK but also in the US.

Death of an Author was one of her early books, written before she moved up to Lunesdale. It was the last novel of hers published by Sampson Low before she was taken on by Collins Crime Club. An unusual feature of the novel is that Inspector Macdonald doesn't appear. Here she introduces us to a likeable pair of cops called Warner and Bond.

The early chapters are absolutely excellent. We meet a publisher called Marriott and one of his top authors, a man called Ashe. The conversation turns to a bestseller by a mysterious author called Vivian Lestrange. Ashe is fascinated by book and author and persuades Marriott to arrange a dinner at which he can meet the reclusive writer. But then he is thunderstruck to be introduced to an attractive young woman...

It's difficult to discuss this book without giving too many spoilers. Suffice to say that we are given a fascinating picture of the literary world as well as an intriguing and unorthodox mystery. I really enjoyed it and I'm pleased to say that the British Library are also keen. This is a book that is extremely rare, but it won't be for long. Next year, all being well, it will appear as a Crime Classic. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Last Looks - 2022 film review



Last Looks is a recent entry in that challenging and often underwhelming branch of film-making, the 'comedy thriller'. Striking the right balance between comedy and thrills is a far from straightforward task. However, Tim Kirkby's film, based on a novel by Howard Michael Gould, makes a good attempt at mixing the ingredients in the correct measures.

At the start of the film, we're introduced to Charlie Waldo (played by Charlie Hunnam), who has quit the LAPD for a simple life in a trailer; he has just one hundred possessions. A glamorous old flame called Lorena (Morena Baccarin) tries to encourage him to put his detective talents to work on behalf of a famous actor, Alastair Pinch, who has been accused of murdering his wife. Waldo plays hard to get, but after Lorena disappears he finds himself drawn into the mystery. And we find out that his new home is only a bike raid away from the city....

Pinch is played by Mel Gibson, who is entertainingly awful as an entitled British actor whose main redeeming feature is his devotion to his small daughter. There are quite a lot of amusing parodic touches, including the hero's obligatory fling with a pretty blonde woman, but the script is good enough to ensure that the audience doesn't become bored or irritated. The mystery plot, despite leaning heavily on tropes of the private eye genre, is soundly constructed.

I don't recall coming across Charlie Hunnam before, but he holds the film together with a performance of considerable range and humanity. A story of this kind can easily lose momentum after a few initial surprises and jokes, but Last Looks kept me interested to the end. Very good light entertainment.


Monday, 24 October 2022

Natural Enemy - 1996 film review


Natural Enemy is a thriller starring Donald Sutherland which dates back twenty-five years. I knew nothing about the film, but Sutherland is always good value, and so I gave it a go. I was glad I did, since it's entertaining story that doesn't outstay its welcome. After watching, I discovered that it's a Canadian made for TV film, but it is of a higher standard than many made-for-telly movies, despite the fact that Kevin Bernhardt's script does have a few shortcomings.

We're thrown into the action right away. Ted (Sutherland) is a financial trader who has a good-looking young right-hand man called Jeremy (William McNamara). From the start it seems that Jeremy is slightly strange and over-the-top and it soon emerges that he has violent tendencies. Ted unwisely invites the young man to stay at his family home while he sorts out a few problems in his personal life. At first Jeremy demurs, but he changes his mind, and turns up with a girlfriend in tow: she is older, and married to someone else.

Ted lives with his glamorous second wife Sandy (Lesley Ann Warren) and his son from his first marriage, Chris (Christian Tessier). Sandy is pregnant, and the family is a happy one. However, Jeremy soon proves to be a disruptive influence and his behaviour towards his girlfriend is sadistic. It's pretty evident that there is something very wrong with him, and Ted's extreme naivete where Jeremy is concerned is one of the flaws in the story. 

Nonetheless, as events spiral towards a terrible climax, the cast handle the material with plenty of verve. It's easy to dismiss films such as this as hokum, but the quality of the acting, in particular from Sutherland and Warren, and the pace of the story meant that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.   

Friday, 21 October 2022

Forgotten Book - Murder at Liberty Hall


Years ago, I came across a lovely, jacketed first edition of Murder at Liberty Hall at a book fair. The price was out of reach, but I was intrigued to see that the author was Alan Clutton-Brock. At first I wondered if this was the same chap as Alan Brock, author of Earth to Ashes and various other rather interesting novels, but it turned out that he was someone else entirely.

Clutton-Brock (1904-76) was best-known as an art critic. He also owned Chastleton, a grand home near Moreton-in-Marsh, which is now in the care of the National Trust; despite many trips to that part of the world, I've never actually visited Chastleton, and it's an omission I must repair. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, so was definitely a pillar of the establishment. But it's clear from his novel that he had a good sense of humour. The book was published in 1941, but describes events of May 1939 and there are mentions of possible German espionage.

The title refers to a progressive school, Scrope House, which is very, very different from Eton. The narrator is James Hardwicke, a scientist who has become well-known for his researches into identical twins (spoiler alert - twins do not play a part in the plot!). He and a lady friend, Caroline, accept an invitation from a rich old woman who owns the school to investigate some instances of arson and soon finds himself in the thick of a poisoning mystery.

The mystery aspects of the story are quite competently done, although pace and tension are conspicuous by their absence. The slowest part of the book is actually the segment that I found most entertaining - a witty account of a cricket match between a conventional local school and a motley band of boys and girls from Scrope. This is, if you like cricket, really good fun. If you don't share my love of the summer game, you may find the story drags. But Clutton-Brock wrote with gentle wit and intelligence and it's rather a shame that this was his only venture into the genre. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Pistols, Bombs and Motor Bandits by Joan Lock


I first met Joan Lock (and her late husband Bob) more years ago than either of us would care to remember, at a CWA conference. We've kept in touch through the years and for a long time Joan contributed an excellent column about police matters to 'Red Herrings', the CWA members' newsletter. She was herself a woman police officer and she has written a good deal of non-fiction as well as publishing several novels.

Her latest book is published by Robin Books. It's called Pistols, Bombs and Motor Bandits, and it has an intriguing sub-title, The Real Golden Age of Murder. Joan was kind enough to read and enjoy my own non-fiction book The Golden Age of Murder, about the classic detective fiction of the Thirties. This book makes numerous references to mine, but it is very different, an account of what was going on in the real world of policing. 

Joan's practical know-how is reflected in her direct and readable writing style and she explores, in a crisp and satisfactory way, a number of famous cases (for instance, the 'Beach' or 'Crumbles' murder) as well as several that are just as intriguing but not at all well-known. There's a good deal of material in this book that's likely to interest writers who, like me, are interested in writing historical crime fiction and, importantly, there is a useful index.

In inscribing my copy of this book, Joan was kind enough to say that The Golden Age of Murder inspired her to write it. Regardless of that, I can say unequivocally that I really enjoyed reading it and can recommend it to anyone who is interested in the realities of the history of criminal investigation in this country. 

Monday, 17 October 2022

The Rising Tide and Serpent's Point


Two friends of mine who also happen to be writers I admire have published new novels recently. It goes without saying that I recommend their work, but I thought that today I'd discuss how apparently very different approaches to writing can result in equally harmonious results. I've touched on this subject before, and I was reminded of it when conducting a recent online crime writing workshop in collaboration with another pair of interesting writers, Lucinda Hawksley and David Mark.

Ann Cleeves' The Rising Tide is the latest Vera Stanhope mystery. I had the pleasure - and it really was a pleasure - of discussing the book with Ann in conversation at a theatre in Carlisle a few weeks ago. Ann is a very consistent writer, but I think it's fair to say that this is probably my favourite among her recent books. It combines a wonderful setting (Lindisfarne) with a good mystery and interesting characterisation.

Ann has often said that she doesn't plot her books in advance. At Carlisle, she mentioned that she originally had a different starting point for the story. But her experience and skill enable her to weave various pieces of material into a pleasing pattern. We're introduced to the characters before murder strikes, and then after the investigation begins, another tragedy occurs. The closing pages, as ever, see at least one character in peril, and in this book the jeopardy is handled at least as effectively as in any of Ann's earlier bestsellers. The result is powerful.


Kate Ellis's Serpent's Point is also an entry in a long series, this time featuring Wesley Peterson. Again the setting (in Devon) is a valuable ingredient. Kate does plot her books - very meticulously - but like Ann she manages to come up with a pattern of writing, in her case a blend of a historical mystery and a contemporary crime, which is harmonious and appealing to a large number of readers. I don't want to say too much about the detail of either story, but here I was especially taken with the premise of the victim, Susan, undertaking a do-it-yourself crime investigation. Brave or foolish of her? Well, you'll have to read the book to find out... 



Friday, 14 October 2022

Forgotten Book - Death Watch


John Dickson Carr published Death Watch in 1935. It's not a locked room mystery, but it does feature the great Dr Gideon Fell. At this point, Carr was still very young, not even thirty years old, yet he was already approaching the peak of his powers. The next Fell novel, appearing later that same year, was The Hollow Man, often cited as the finest of all impossible crime stories.

Death Watch is crammed with wonderful ingredients. The house of Johannus Carver is in Lincoln's Inn Fields, a great setting. Carver is a clockmaker and there is some fascinating stuff about timepieces. The characters include a female solicitor, and I've not read many Golden Age novels which feature such a person. The motive is unusual and very dark. And in a preamble to the story, the story is hailed as Fell's greatest case. Unfortunately, the whole strikes me as amounting to less than the sum of its parts.

There are a number of reasons why I think Death Watch is an interesting failure rather than the triumph I'd hoped for. Most commentators accept that it's not a story in which Carr plays fair and that's certainly my view. Above all, the storyline is regrettably static. Although the events are told from the point of view of a chap called Walter Melson, he plays no real part in the story, a wasted opportunity. There's a lot of talk and not much action. For instance, events in a department store called Gambridge's, which play an important part, are merely reported, and thus their impact is much diminished. A good example of why authors are urged to 'show, not tell'. And I'm afraid I didn't find the murderer's psychological make-up convincing.

I've tried to understand Carr's approach from my perspective as a fellow writer. I've come to the conclusion that he rushed the story. It would have been possible to revise it - substantially - and turn it into something much more vivid and powerful, that would actually have justified the hype in the opening pages. A plan of the house where most of the events take place would also have helped. Really, it illustrates the truth that even terrific writers get things wrong some times. I was disappointed, but I don't want to over-state the book's weaknesses. As I say, the raw material was brilliant and it's worth reading, even if one regrets the possible masterpiece that got away.  

Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Fifteen Years of the Blog


Tomorrow marks a special anniversary for me. I posted on this blog for the very first time on 13 October 2007, so that will mark the 15th birthday of 'Do You Write Under Your Own Name?' I won't bore you with too many stats, but in that time there have been well over 3,300 posts and over 2,750,000 pageviews, currently clocking up at 1000 a day. Which is a lot. But the real story, as far as I'm concerned, lies in the personal - the wonderful connections with people all around the world that have arisen as a result of my blogging. Over the years, I've met quite a number of you face to face, and that's been incredibly rewarding. But even if our paths have never crossed in person, I've definitely benefited in all kinds of ways from your interest and support. 

In my very first post, I said this: 'The aim is to share my enthusiasm for crime fiction, and the craft of writing. From childhood, I dreamed of becoming a crime novelist - and I love being part of a fascinating world. I’m not only a writer, but a fan, and I’ll have lots to say about lots of terrific and often overlooked books and films, past and present. As for my own writing life, I’ll share the frustrations - and also the pleasures. If this blog encourages any would-be writers among you to keep at it, I’ll be delighted.' And believe me, every word of that still holds good today.

But life goes on and my writing life has changed significantly over the past 15 years - out of all recognition, really. As I've said before, I've been hugely fortunate. In 2007, I'd been a published novelist for 16 years, but I'd never won an award, though I'd been in the running for a few. I was still a full-time partner in a law firm, and I wasn't even a member of the Detection Club, let alone its President.

What has happened since then seems to me to be quite astonishing. There have been a few tough times, as there always are in every life, but I never dreamed so many good things would come my way. (Mind you, my hair is no longer as dark as it was back in 2007 - as per the above photo, taken at the Poisoned Pen bookstore that year!) It's hard to analyse precisely the extent to which the blog may have contributed to the marvellous developments of recent years, but I don't think the improvement in my literary fortunes has been a complete coincidence. 

Just as a novel is nothing without readers (except, maybe, in so far as it serves as therapy for the author), so a blog is nothing without readers. So the success of the blog is really down to you, the loyal readers who over the years have done so much to encourage me and build my morale. And that means that the final words of year fourteen of the blog are simply these: 

                                  THANK YOU!   


  

Monday, 10 October 2022

Peter Robinson R.I.P.



First thing on Friday morning, I heard the news that my good friend of more than thirty years, Peter Robinson, had died suddenly. The news came as a terrible shock, especially given that when we had one of our periodic exchanges of emails a short time ago, he was in fine fettle.The photo above was taken at an event when we were in conversation at Gladstone's Library three years ago. That whole weekend we had a lot of fun together and it's hard to take in that we'll never meet again.

I've talked about Peter and his writing quite a few times on this blog. As I mentioned twelve years ago, I enjoyed his early books even before I met him. I wrote an article about his first book and Ann Cleeves' debut, highlighting the quality of both authors and their acute sense of place, for a countryside magazine. Ironically, the article was rejected, because the editor had never heard of either of them. Now they are both international bestsellers, with sales in the millions.

I met Peter for the first time when Bob Barnard brought him along to a CWA lunch. They both came from Armley in Leeds and used to joke about forming an Armley chapter of the CWA. Before long, I met Peter's wife Sheila, a fellow lawyer, and I spent happy hours in their company. As I said in a post in 2019, 'because Peter spends half the year in Canada, sometimes I see very little of him, but this year was a pleasant exception; we had breakfast together at Gladstone's Library, lunch in Toronto, and a Detection Club dinner at the Garrick Club (not all on the same day...)' 

Among a number of vivid memories are an evening in a bar in Las Vegas, when I asked what he thought about his rapid rise to stardom and bestseller status after years in the 'midlist'. As he said, the books hadn't changed that much, but what mattered was that a publisher had really got behind him. As I understand it from someone in the publishing world, after Colin Dexter decided not to write any more Morse books, Macmillan looked around for another quality writer of police stories and Peter was their choice. 

I could say a lot about the excellence of his novels (and his admirable short fiction), but I want to highlight his personal generosity. When I wrote The Coffin Trail, I asked Peter to read the manuscript and let me have his thoughts. He was hugely supportive and he urged me to focus more on Hannah Scarlett rather than Daniel Kind, who was originally meant to be the lead character. I took his advice and it stood me in good stead.

He was a busy man - his anecdotes about the manic nature of book tours were very entertaining - but whenever I asked him to write a short story for an anthology I was editing or to contribute to some other project, such as Howdunit, he was hugely supportive. He was also a highly intelligent and thoughtful commentator on the genre, as those who listened to his shrewd insights at Alibis in the Archive discovered.

He was one of the first people to send congratulations when it was announced that I'd won the Diamond Dagger, interrupting a holiday on Nevis to drop me a line. When he heard of my involvement in a hit and run accident in July, he was quick to commiserate. And even more recently he was kind enough to write to me to make sure I was aware of the New York Times' wonderful review of The Life of Crime. I never dreamed when we exchanged messages the other day that I'd never have the chance to chat to him again, but although he's been taken from us far too soon, he has left a wonderful legacy of memories as well as highly enjoyable mystery writing. Rest in peace, Peter. 

 

Friday, 7 October 2022

Forgotten Book - A Respectable Woman


A Respectable Woman was David Fletcher's second crime novel, dating from 1975. Like many good psychological suspense novels of that era, it was published by Macmillan, whose George Hardinge presided over a first-rate crime list. (Hardinge was also a good writer himself, and his occasional crime stories are worth seeking out).

As with a number of Fletcher's books in the genre, this one sees him experimenting with a particular type of story. He blends a genuine whodunit puzzle with suspense, although one always feels that his main focus is on depiction of character. He was a talented writer under his real name, Dulan Barber, and I suspect that the puzzle element was not his main enthusiasm. But I don't mean by this that the plot is faulty. It's sound, but it's not the main reason for enjoying the book.

His protagonist is a Scotland Yard man, DI John Cresswell, who is called in to help local police in his old stamping ground in the Midlands after an elderly woman is murdered. He has very mixed feelings about the assignment, as it brings him into contact with an old flame, who happens - surprise, surprise - to be mixed up in the crime he is investigating.

Fletcher deals in the story, as the title suggests, with the thorny question of 'respectability' in a provincial English town and what calamities a desire for respectability may lead to. Writers from Dorothy L. Sayers to, most recently, Ann Cleeves, have dealt with this topic in their detective novels, and although Fletcher isn't in quite that league, his books are smoothly written and definitely very readable. 


Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Books, Books...and More about Books

There's a lot going on at present, so much that I'm actually finding it tricky to keep up. One thing is for sure: I've been very fortunate. Among other things, I'm hoping to chat to Jeremy Paxman shortly - a man whose career has long fascinated me. I just watched last night's ITV documentary in which he discusses his experience of Parkinson's Disease and I found it very poignant. He echoed the life advice given by my good friend the writer Jessica Mann, who had the same disease for many years: Do it now. I try to follow that advice as much as I can. I do find it amazing to look back at what has happened since I started this blog. Anyway, I hope that today I can be forgiven a dollop of self-promotion/trumpet-blowing (if not, better look away now 😀 ). 


For anyone who might be interested, I wanted to mention that Gallows Court is currently one of Apple's Free Books of the Week (in the UK only) and, at least at the time of writing, is number one bestseller in that particular chart. I gather than Mortmain Hall is also available from Apple for a mere 99p for the next few days. Given the differences between the two books, I continue to be fascinated to find out which readers prefer Gallows Court and which Mortmain Hall - opinion remains quite evenly divided. I'm so pleased by the reaction to these books. Although they are definitely entertainments, they do demand a bit of engagement from the reader and I did wonder when writing them how they would be received. But although not everyone 'gets' what I'm trying to do, the vast majority of readers do. Which is why I often say in writing workshops that it's important for a writer to trust their readers.


And then there's Blackstone Fell, which has had some wonderful reviews since publication a month ago. Among those reviews was a great one from Barry Turner in the Daily Mail ('Martin Edwards holds his own with the best of classic crime') and a lovely piece in The Times by Mark Sanderson ('He leaves you wanting more').


I was extraordinarily lucky the following Saturday, when Christina Hardyment reviewed The Life of Crime as 'audiobook of the week' in...The Times. It can't have happened too often that an author has two fantastic reviews in 'The Thunderer' in successive weeks. I was flattered by Christina's description of me as a 'fine novelist' but blushed even more at her statement that I'm 'the closest thing there has been to a philosopher of crime writing'. Well, whatever one makes of that description, it's undeniably generous and gratifying. Meanwhile, I gather that because sales of the book to date have exceeded expectations, especially in the USA, it's being reprinted already. There are also to be translations in countries as unexpected as China and Hungary.

Meanwhile, The Traitor, commissioned by Otto Penzler and originally published by Mysterious Bookshop as a limited edition 'Bibliomystery' is - as from today - available as an ebook from my lovely British publishers, Head of Zeus. I enjoyed writing this novella about obsessive book collecting hugely and it's a subject I'd like to explore further, not least because I'm an obsessive book collector myself. 


Books about books are understandably popular and it's noteworthy that one of my most commercially successful anthologies was last year's Murder by the Book. The British Library has also just published my latest themed anthology. Final Acts is a collection of theatre-related mysteries and was fun to put together. 

I've had a long association with the small American Press Crippen & Landru. Under the excellent stewardship of first Doug Greene and now Jeffrey Marks, they have done a wonderful job in reviving 'Lost Classics' in a series which far pre-dates the British Library series. It's many years since I curated for them a collection of obscure stories by Ellis Peters and now I've written an intro for the first edition of the collected Gideon stories by John Creasey. Gideon was perhaps his most successful character and this edition also contains essays by his son Richard and the American crime expert Mike Nevins.


As regards short stories, 'No Peace for the Wicked' appeared in the latest issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, while 'The Woman Who Never Was' has just been included by that master anthologist Maxim Jakubowski in Black is the Night, an anthology of stories paying tribute to Cornell Woolrich, an author I've long enjoyed reading.

Today, also, I've been announced as one of the headliners at next year's Shetland Noir, which should be a wonderful experience. And to round things off, this weekend, a Korean TV documentary production team is coming to my home to interview me about a particular aspect of my writing; we'll then be doing some filming in Manchester. They are especially interested in the relationship between crime fiction and the British weather...honestly, there are times when life becomes positively surreal....




Sunday, 2 October 2022

Ralph Spurrier R.I.P.


I was extremely sorry to hear the other day of the death of Ralph Spurrier, a very good bookseller and author of a crime novel, A Coin for the Hangman, which drew on his professional expertise. I've known Ralph since my earliest days in the CWA and he was for a number of years a regular attender at the annual conferences. Although based down in Sussex, he even joined northern crime writers for a memorable weekend symposium arranged by Reginald Hill at Grasmere in the early 90s.

Before setting up on his own as Post Mortem Books, Ralph worked for Gollancz, and he had a fund of stories about that period in his life. He recently contributed an article to CADS about his early days in bookselling and I hope that he managed to continue the series before things became too difficult for him. His occasional ventures into publishing were interesting - for instance, he reprinted Murder in the Dispensary, an early Ellis Peters novel, written under the name Jolyon Carr, and also published some checklists and other pamphlets.

Although I've not seen Ralph in person for a number of years, we kept in fairly regular touch by phone and email. I've bought a number of books from him in the past twelve months, including some titles by C.W. Grafton (father of Sue) with accompanying correspondence to Ralph.  

Ralph broke the news to me late last year that he was downsizing his collection and stock because he was terminally ill. I was very shocked. The last email I had from him was in April. It made very poignant reading: 'I am under hospice palliative care which means a weekly visit from the nurse and prescribing of essential drugs to keep me pain free etc. I can still function well enough in the mornings but tend to run out of steam by lunchtime. I am in the process of tidying up all the business and financial ends...An end of an era then but I look back with much joy on the business I built up and all the lovely people I have met. Especially dear to me is to see such authors as yourself, Ann  Cleeves and Ian Rankin who all had a tough time getting published and making sales in their early days now becoming high flyers.' As is evident from that small extract, he was a very good-natured fellow and I shall really miss him.

.

Friday, 30 September 2022

Forgotten Book - Case for Sergeant Beef


The more I read Leo Bruce, the more I realise that Barry Pike was right when, a good many years ago, he commended his writing to me. The blend of humour and plot works well time and again. A good example is to be found in Case for Sergeant Beef, originally published in 1947. As so often, much of the fun comes from the contrast between Beef and his 'Watson', Lionel Townsend, who continues to be confounded by his colleague's methods.

This time, Bruce gives us an unusual bend of traditional detection allied to an 'inverted mystery'. Beef is asked to look into the murder of a female client's brother, but before long Townsend's narrative is interrupted and we are presented with journal entries written by a retired watchmaker who rejoices in the name Wellington Chickle. Chickle sets out to commit a perfect crime - a murder without a motive.

Even though we are given insight denied to the central characters, there is a great deal of pleasure to be gained from following the contrasting investigations undertaken by Beef and the amiable Inspector Chatto. Chatto decides to focus on the motive for the crime - so he is obviously going to get things wrong isn't he?

The murder is committed on Christmas Eve, although Bruce doesn't make a great deal of the seasonal setting. His focus is on charting the progress of the investigation in an entertaining fashion and I think he succeeds. This isn't a complex story, but it's an enjoyable read. And there is one truly wonderful chapter heading - namely, 'The Inevitable Second Murder'.

Thursday, 29 September 2022

Forgotten Book - Die Like a Man


Until recently, I was completely unaware of the crime fiction of Michael Delving. Scott Herbertson did me a kindness by introducing me to one of his novels, Die Like a Man, which I devoured on my Italy trip with a good deal of enthusiasm. Published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in 1970, this is the third of five books featuring the American book dealer Dave Cannon, who also dabbles in antiques, and it's an entertaining thriller, benefiting from a good setting in Wales.

This is a first-person narrative and Cannon is quite a likeable figure, if occasionally slow on the uptake. Finding himself stranded in Corbridge. a town in south Wales, he soon encounters an interesting but eccentric older man called Tankerville. He visits Tankerville's home and offers to buy some books, only to be offered an ancient bowl which his host claims is the Holy Grail. Cannon is not convinced, of course, but when he's offered the bowl for just one pound, he has nothing to lose by doing the deal.

But shortly afterwards, Tankerville dies in unusual circumstances and it becomes very clear that a number of people want to retrieve the bowl from Cannon. A lively thriller ensues. Yes, you have to suspend disbelief, but Delving writes with verve and there are several touches (for example, mention of Welsh nationalism) that make this book interesting as well as entertaining. And it was written seven years before Jonathan Gash introduced Lovejoy...

Michael Delving was a pen-name for an American author, Jay Williams (1914-78), who wrote prolifically on a wide range of subjects. He spent a great deal of time in Britain, and his presentation of British people and British life is effective. On the strength of this book, I'd certainly like to read more of his work. 

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Back from Italy

I've just got back home after a short but very welcome holiday in some of the less frequented parts of northern Italy. This was my first overseas trip since 2019. I've been deterred from resuming my international travels by a variety of factors, and I've been truly sorry to cancel not only my attendance at Bouchercon but also a couple of lecture cruises on the Queen Mary. So I was glad that this particular trip went without a hitch and that has definitely given my confidence in travelling a real boost.


Our base for the holiday was a hotel in Castelfranco (the two photos above), a truly charming town in Veneto, about 25 miles or so from Venice. The old town is shaped like a square, with medieval walls and towers as well as a cathedral. Strolling around the narrow streets in the sun was very relaxing, especially after a period when I'd been particularly busy on a number of writing projects. There were some excellent restaurants - and two bookshops!




Our first excursion was to Padua, or Padova, which has a very rich history. This was followed by a trip to Mantua/Mantova, which was a bit smaller and if anything even more charming. It's the setting for Rigoletto (whose statue is in the photo below; it's supposed to be good luck to touch his hunchback...) and although I'm no opera buff, what the guide had to say about the opera made me want to see it. Vicenza, not too far away, was equally appealing, with plenty of good museums and the remarkable Olympic Theatre (photos above). Because Venice is so lovely and so close by, I've never thought of visiting these places in the past, but I'm glad I've repaired the omission.


The Parco Giardino Sigurta is gorgeous, even at this time of year, complete with maze, grotto, and a pool for innumerable turtles. Finally, a trip to Bassano, with grappa tasting and then a trip to a prosecco maker. I ate and drink more than was good for me, but although the dieting begins now, I had a lovely time. And on a slightly more serious note, I do hope that anyone who, like me, has had worries about international travel in recent times, may feel encouraged to give it a try. Covid certainly hasn't vanished, alas, but if you have the chance to start getting around again, do think about seizing it.