Saturday 31 December 2022

Annus Mirabilis

So now the news is out. Last night Team Balliol were officially crowned series champions of  Christmas University Challenge 2022, a brilliant way to end an incredible year. (as illustrated by the top photo, with my editor Laura Palmer, on the night I got the Diamond Dagger into my clutches at last!) I'll talk about the show a little more on another day, but right now I just want to reflect on the past twelve months. And first and foremost let me say how grateful I am to you, my readers, for supporting my books and this blog in the way you do. Last month, for instance, the blog had nearly 50,000 views, which must be about as high a figure as any during the past fifteen years. I'm motivated to keep going, and also to think about a new venture, a newsletter. So let me know if you're interested in that idea, and I'll give it more thought.

It was great finally to be awarded that Diamond Dagger in person (having had a lovely virtual presentation from Ann Cleeves during the height of the pandemic) at a glitzy ceremony in London. A wonderful night, in great company. That same week I returned to Balliol for my first ever Gaudy, and met some people I'd last seen as a student. Another terrific occasion.

I published several books and The Life of Crime has to take pride of place, simply because it represented so many years of work. I was thrilled by the reviews in The Times, The Spectator, The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere - and also by the sales, which continue to be remarkably buoyant, especially bearing in mind that it's not the cheapest book.

Blackstone Fell
also garnered great coverage in The Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, and in other publications and blogs. It's another book I'm especially proud of. I've just been putting the finishing touches to Sepulchre Street, Rachel's fourth case. In the US, The Crooked Shore came out under a different title, The Girl They All Forgot.

I published a mystery map, This Deadly Isle, and edited three anthologies: Music of the Night, The Edinburgh Mystery, and Final Acts. The Crime Classics continue to prosper, and I also wrote a number of short stories, some of which have already been published and some of which will appear next year. I continue to write essays and articles for a wide variety of outlets and I've been pleased to contribute pieces to story collections by John Creasey and Josh Pachter, among others. 

I was fortunate to be asked to take part in many events, live and online. There were four festivals in Scotland alone - Colonsay (amazing island), Birnam, Nairn, and Stirling - plus CrimeFest (where I was one of the guests of honour and treated with great kindness), Harrogate, Cambridge, Oundle, Newark, Alibis at Gladstone's Library and Bodies from the Library. I was also honoured to give the first Jennifer Palmer Memorial Lecture at the Portico in Manchester. The advent of online events meant it was possible to also talk to audiences around the country and indeed around the world without leaving home - very good for time-efficiency! I took part in events with some lovely people ranging from Robert Goddard to Andrew Taylor, Elly Griffiths, Ann Cleeves, and Denise Mina. I was also pleased to meet Adele Parks, Richard Coles and Andrew O'Hagan among others for the first time. There were CWA and Detection Club events that provided yet more reminders of the conviviality of crime writers and readers. I also had the pleasure of being in touch with several family members of great crime writers of the past. On a trip to Kent, I met up with Catherine Aird, Frankie Fyfield, and the family of the late Julian Symons - great fun to see his collection of Edgar awards!

So it's been very busy, but very satisfying. Every year does have its tricky moments and I lost a number of good friends from school and university days as well as writing friends such as Peter Robinson, June Thomson, Ralph Spurrier, and Michael Pearce. It all nearly came to an abrupt end for me too, with a hit and run by a motorbike in July - how we both survived, I'll never know. But I was very lucky and thankful for the chance to keep going. That experience has made me all the more determined to make the most of every moment while I can.  

Research trips can be a lot of fun and I enjoyed staying at the Hark to Bounty, a pub which features in Lorac's Crook O'Lune as well as other fascinating places which will no doubt feature in future stories! 

For many people, including some close friends of mine, 2022 wasn't an easy year and one mustn't forget that. For my part, I've enjoyed a huge amount of good fortune and believe me, I'm grateful for it. There are more stories to be written! Above all, I appreciate the many messages I've received throughout the year. It's great to hear from readers and I do find the feedback hugely energising. Thanks again - and happy new year!

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Christmas Viewing

There have been TV shows other than Christmas University Challenge on during the holiday season - though there's no doubt about which show I've really been glued to! - and I've enjoyed several of them. all too often 'Christmas specials' are a let-down, but Motherland was as sharp as usual, albeit with a very dark and sad storyline. The quality of writing is consistently high. 

The same is definitely true of Ghosts, a much gentler show, which has a 'feelgood' style that doesn't seem forced, but flows naturally from the well-drawn characters. Great fun. I've written before about my enthusiasm for Inside No. 9 and this year's special gave a nod to the concept of 'ghost stories for Christmas', but with a characteristic twist. It certainly wasn't the best episode of this brilliant series but Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are always good to watch. They were actually the answer to a question in Christmas University Challenge this week, but alas Reece's name eluded the poor chap who buzzed in, even though he's a TV and film director. An example of what can happen under the pressure of a TV quiz!  

Michael Sheen is an actor I admire and he was one of the stars in Vardy v. Rooney, as the barrister representing the defendant in a headline-grabbing libel case. This was faithfully adapted for TV and I'm sure that millions of people were left, like me, wondering why the claim was ever brought. It was the legal equivalent of a footballer scoring an own goal from the half-way line. Bizarre but watchable.

Bill Nighy is always engaging and he played Inspector Kildare in The Limehouse Golem, a 2016 film adapted from Peter Ackroyd's novel and shown on the BBC. The cast was brilliant, the story interesting, the script rather variable in quality. This was one of those historical mysteries in which the suspects include famous figures from real life - Karl Marx and George Gissing, of all people - and although the ingredients were mostly excellent, the whole didn't quite match the sum of the individual parts.

Friday 23 December 2022

Forgotten Book - Three Dead, One Hurt

Just suppose John Buchan had decided to confront Richard Hannay with a locked room mystery. It's quite possible that the result might have finished up resembling Three Dead, One Hurt..., one of two crime novels published by Scobie Mackenzie. It was first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1934 and I'm not aware that it's been reprinted since then.

There's even a Hannayish vibe to the opening scene. The first words are: 'We met on the train, Francesca and I, though of course I didn't know at that time she was Francesca'. She is a beautiful and enigmatic woman and the narrator is immediately smitten. Alas, before the train has reached its destination, he discovers that she is involved with a man called Johnny Brown.

The narrator is travelling to a remote Scottish island, which he has inherited from his late uncle (who was a crime buff with an impressive library of crime books, a fact which pleasingly proves relevant as the story unfolds). He is greeted by his late uncle's factor, a chap called Peter Brook, who is also obsessed by a woman, his estranged wife, about whom he can't stop talking. 

Before long, an incident at sea results in Francesca and an assortment of strange fellow passengers coming ashore and the scene is set for an interesting and unorthodox mystery. I learned of this book from the late Bob Adey, who mentions it in Locked Room Murders, and I'm delighted to have read it at last. Mackenzie was an interesting writer (sometimes confused with a New Zealander who had the same name) and his career in the genre proved regrettably short, but this story - despite one or two oddities - is a notch or two above many others that were being written at the time. 

Wednesday 21 December 2022

After the Show...

So now the first heat of Christmas University Challenge has been screened, the news is out that our team managed to triumph over SOAS, by 155 to 75. Our opponents led in the early stages, and we incurred some five point penalties for incorrect interruptions, but the plan to keep buzzing in early worked well in the end (not that I had any joy with the starter questions, most of which were entirely beyond me; at least I did a bit better with the bonuses). It was extremely interesting to see what was cut out in the editing process, but on that subject, my lips are sealed...

It's a strange experience to have to sit back to listen to your opponents deal with bonus questions. Again, it's a very subjective thing - for me, the easiest question of the entire night was about the singer of 'Band of Gold' - I'd been playing the YouTube video of Freda Payne's performance only a day or so before the show aired. Great song, great singer. But it you don't know something, or you can't recall it in the pressure of the moment, you don't get the points.

I've been struck by the amount of feedback I've received, including requests to do interviews and write articles. Such is the power of television, I suppose. I've also heard from some people I've not been in touch with for years, which really is a bonus. And there was even one of Drew Kavanagh's cartoons of the contestants for our amusement...

We were told as soon as the show ended that our score would probably be high enough for us to get into the semi-finals. The four teams with the highest winning scores (from the seven heats) compete in the semis. But since we were the first people to play, we had to wait for a little while before finding out...   

Monday 19 December 2022

Christmas University Challenge

Over the years, I've said quite a number of times that my great unfulfilled ambition in life was to take part in University Challenge. A joke, yes, but definitely one with truth at its core. Given that I've watched the show since I was a small boy, I was quick to apply to take part in our college team when I was a student. We were each given a test, but I didn't score highly enough to make the grade - and our team was knocked out quickly anyway. I have remained a devotee of the programme, but I thought my chance of appearing in it had gone. So you can imagine my astonishment when, while on holiday in Italy, I received an email inviting me to take part in Christmas University Challenge 2022.

The fact that the sender's name was Parody rang a faint alarm bell. After all, the contestants in the Christmas version of the show are supposed to be 'distinguished alumni' of their college or university, and there are lots of well-known people - much more famous than me, for sure - who have been to Balliol. However, the email wasn't a wind-up. Clare Parody is in fact the series producer. 

I accepted with alacrity. I assumed I might be a reserve - especially given that the recording dates weren't far away. But it turned out that the recordings needed to be done earlier than usual and to my amazement I was invited to be captain. You may wonder why I was willing to expose the extent of my ignorance on TV, especially when Jeremy Paxman is such a feared Torquemada. But having loved the show for so long, I didn't care about looking silly (perhaps it's as well...) I just wanted to be part of Jeremy's very last shows before his retirement - after 29 years in the hot seat. (The student show continues to be screened, but their final was actually recorded months ago.)

As ever, a question is only easy if you know the answer, and only difficult if you don't (or if you can't call it to mind quickly - and speed of reaction is a key skill in this game, especially challenging for those of us of...more mature years).

One unknown concerned whether my team-mates would include a scientist. None of us knew each other, but the key to success is usually to have a wide range of areas of expertise - including the sciences. However, all four of us were on the arts side. In fact, three of us were taught by the late great legal philosopher Jo Raz. When I got to meet my colleagues - Elizabeth Kiss, Martin O'Neill, and Andrew Copson - I found each of them highly congenial. I decided that even if I wasn't any good at answering the questions, I'd try to be a good captain, so I suggested some tactics which they were happy with, and we took it from there. 

I must admit that I was nervous about it. Much more so than I expected, for sure. But I knew it would be memorable, whatever the result. The photo above shows the four of us walking through the endless corridors of Dock 10 in Media City, Manchester, psyching ourselves up to meet our fate in the studio.

Naturally I now see yesterday's World Cup Final as the curtain-raiser for the tournament that really matters! As to what happened when we took on SOAS in the opening heat of the series- well, all will be revealed at 8.30 pm on BBC 2 tonight...     

Friday 16 December 2022

Forgotten Book - A Word of Six Letters

Over the years I've acquired a handful of books by Herbert Adams, but I've been deplorably slow in getting round to reading them. He's one of those authors who was good enough to be published under the Collins Crime Club imprint, but although Dorothy L. Sayers, in several reviews of his novels, was fairly kind, I've had the impression that he was very much a writer of the second rank,and so there seemed no reason to give his work great priority - there are too many books, too little time!

However, I recently decided to have a go at one of his books which made it into paperback, as a White Circle Mystery. A Word of Six Letters, which dates from 1936, is a stand-alone novel, not one of the long series featuring Adams' detective Roger Bennion. And I found it a pleasant read. By the by, crosswords play a minor part in the storyline, but perhaps not to the extent that the title implies.

After an introductory chapter -set on a cruise ship - in which a young doctor,  Bruce Dickson, meets the attractive and charming Ella Chilcott and promptly falls in love with her, we move to Dorset. Bruce has started working in a small village practice, and - what a coincidence! - in the same village is a country house owned by Ella's rich and irascible great-uncle, Barty Blount.

Old Barty is one of that legion of wealthy characters in Golden Age fiction who are unwise enough to surround themselves with grasping relatives. It's really no surprise when he bites the dust, quite literally, by falling from a horse. Bruce decides that he was given a drug which in effect caused the tragedy, but it seems impossible to determine who administered the crucial dose.

It's not too difficult to work out whodunit and some time before the end, the book develops into a blend of thriller and love story. But it's nicely done and Adams has a light, agreeable style. I'll be glad to read more of his work...

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Oundle Festival of Literature

One of the real privileges of being a published author is the opportunity to take part in a wide variety of festivals and other public events - a chance to talk about books with like-minded people! I really enjoy the experience - all the more so if I can turn it into a little trip, perhaps exploring somewhere interesting that I'm not familiar with, as well as doing the event. And I've just come back from my first visit to Oundle in Northamptonshire, which was great fun.

The Oundle Festival of Literature has been going strong for twenty years. It's become an all-year-round festival, rather than being concentrated into a frenetic few days at just one time of year. This is an interesting model and one that seems to work very well. I enjoyed meeting the Chair, Helen Shair, and also taking a quick look round the ancient market town. Even on a very cold day, Oundle's charm was apparent. So was its history. I don't really know Northamptonshire, but I was impressed with what I saw.

A particular pleasure came from the fact that three friends turned up to listen. One of them, Gordon Smith, I was at school with from the age of eleven - but since leaving school, we've only met once, at a reunion eight years ago, so it was an unexpected treat to chat to him. The others were Clint Stacey, a fellow writer and also a fellow collector of crime fiction, and Jasmine Simeone, who edits the Dorothy L. Sayers Society Bulletin amongst other things.

I was interviewed by Karen Daber and the time flew by. I have to admit, though, that a talk by Karen herself would surely be at least as interesting  as anything I could ever manage. She's had a distinguished and fascinating career as a senior black police officer, whose duties included royal personal protection, and amongst other roles she is currently a Deputy Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire. It was great to talk to her and also to meet the booksellers from the splendid Oundle Bookshop as well as a variety of local readers. I may never have been to Oundle before, but I hope to explore it further on another occasion.

Monday 12 December 2022

Neither the Sea nor the Sand - 1972 film review

When I was growing up, Gordon Honeycombe was a very familiar presence on the TV screens. I remember him reading the news for a number of years before he began to branch out into presenting. He also wrote a popular novel, Neither the Sea nor the Sand, which enjoyed a lot of success and was filmed with, it seems, rather less success. I've not read the book but I've now come across the film, which was for many years something of a rarity.

The opening scenes made a great impression on me, since I recognised that Anna (Susan Hampshire, a very bankable actress in those days) was walking out towards Corbiere lighthouse on the south west tip of Jersey. Back in the 70s, I had a great post-Finals holiday in Jersey with my mate Stephen and we stayed at a hotel which looked out towards that same lighthouse. A memorable view.

Anna meets a handsome chap called Hugh (played, rather woodenly I'm afraid, by Michael Petrovitch) and falls in love with him. She's escaping from a bad marriage and they enjoy an idyllic time together on Jersey (where she meets his brother, played by the estimable Frank Finlay) and on holiday in Scotland, before tragedy strikes. Out of the blue, and for no obvious reason, Hugh drops down dead on the beach. At this point, things turn supernatural, because shortly afterwards Hugh returns to Anna from the dead.

This is a very slow-paced film, a slow-motion picture, you might say. The screenplay was written by Honeycombe himself, but it's uninspiring and doesn't make the most of a promising premise. The music is also pretty awful. But there are compensations in the performances of Hampshire and Finlay. Interesting, but ultimately insipid. I bet the book is more engaging. 

Friday 9 December 2022

Forgotten Book - Possession by L.P. Davies

There are several books called Possession, but the one I'm talking about today was published by L.P. Davies in 1975. Davies is a writer who swerved around several genres over the years - crime, sci-fi, horror, and so on - and he caught my interest a long time ago, but it took me ages to get around to reading him. My interest quickened after I read a a very positive review of the novel by one of the best bloggers around, John Norris, and not long after that, I picked up an inscribed American edition cheaply at a book fair. And now I've finally read it.

One of the things that appeals to me about Davies is that he was a Cheshireman and it's clear that he had strong links with Wales, where some of his stories are set. However, in later life he moved to the Canary Isles (and in fact my copy of the book was inscribed in Tenerife) and this particular story is set in Wiltshire, in the neighbourhood of Devizes.

The story begins with the desecration of a grave in a quiet churchyard and it's immediately clear that this is not the first time such a thing has happened - there's a cryptic reference to 'that Macumba thing'. The grave belonged to Eddie Astey, recently killed in a motorbike accident, and when Eddie's brother Morgan arrives on the scene, it becomes evident that mystery surrounds the accident and Eddie's life - and in particular his friendship with a man called Garvey - before it occurred.

For me, the early part of the story, as Morgan begins his tentative investigations, was more effective than the later part. One of the difficulties was a dust jacket blurb that gave far too much away - I'd expect better of the Doubleday Crime Club. Another is the oddity of the storyline and the uncertainty as to whether this is indeed a crime story, as most of us understand that term, or a work of horror or the supernatural. It's an unusual story, with an interesting idea at his heart, but the execution is flawed in a number of respects (to explain why would be too much of a spoiler). However, Davies continues to intrigue me and I'd be glad to read more of his work. 

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Cambridge and the Golden Age

I'm just back from a very enjoyable trip to Cambridge. When Sophie Hannah asked me to give a lecture on Golden Age detective fiction to a group of her students who are studying creative writing with an emphasis on crime, I needed no more than a nanosecond to make up my mind to accept her invitation. And I'm so glad I did.

The venue was Madingley Hall, a very impressive place which dates back to the sixteenth century. Since 1948, it's been owned by Cambridge University and it makes an excellent venue for all kinds of continuing education courses and other events. I was able to stay overnight and enjoy the excellent dining facilities. As far as I know, Oxford doesn't have anything comparable, and it's certainly a great draw for the students.

Each time I'm asked to talk about the Golden Age, I try to do something slightly different. This keeps me fresh and avoids the risk of the material becoming stale. Often, I bring along 'props' or visual aids, examples of books from the period, and one of the items the students were especially interested in was an original copy of Who Killed Robert Prentice?, which was the second of the Dennis Wheatley-Joe Links crime dossiers.

It was great fun to catch up with Sophie, who is one of the most interesting thinkers in the genre and who devised the creative writing course herself. After the lecture there was an opportunity to relax over a drink in the bar with some of the students. They were a delightful bunch of people and I was impressed by their enthusiasm. I hope to have a chance to read some of their novels in years to come.


Monday 5 December 2022

A Factotum in the Book Trade - review

I've met quite a lot of bookdealers but I've never come across Marius Kociejowski, and given that he's retired from the business and wasn't much involved with crime books when he was, I suppose it's unlikely that I ever will. That's a pity, because on the evidence of his recently published memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade (published by Biblioasis, a Canadian literary press), he's a very interesting chap, someone from whom I reckon I could learn a lot. His book certainly made quite a strong impression on me. 

The first thing to say is that I really enjoyed (and gained from) reading it, so much so that I've listened to an interview with Marius and a podcast in which he discusses the book. So when I criticise the book's flaws, please bear in mind that it's only because I think that, with more work, this could have been an absolute masterpiece rather than a marvellous but maddening mix of the brilliant and - it must be said - the banal. An editor is acknowledged at the end, but to be honest, there's minimal evidence of a strong editorial hand. The result is something highly idiosyncratic - or to put it another way, a curate's egg.

There's no real structure to the book. It's a collection of bits and pieces, written during the pandemic and gives the impression of being thrown together in a rush. Now I like discursive writing with plenty of digressions, as anyone who has read The Golden Age of Murder will know, but there has to be a limit to self-indulgence, because writers should respect their readers. Given the defiant refusal to bother with a narrative arc, the absence of an index is baffling. Like Marius, I love books, but I suspect that writing books appeals less to him than it does to me. 

Some of the personalised criticisms that pepper the book are unsettling, even though I don't know the people he targets. I sense from his interviews that Marius realises that he overdid things in that respect and I'm sure he's a kinder guy in person than he sometimes appears to be in print. He believes in being honest, but sometimes there's a subjectivity to his blunt opinions that doesn't work for me. It's also a bit odd, as one interviewer pointed out, to write a highly personal memoir that guards one's privacy quite as zealously as this one does. I'm all in favour of protecting personal privacy, but the approach in this case is reminiscent of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it style of the kind of politician he deplores.

The flaws are such a pity because there are wonderfully witty lines (and anecdotes) in this memoir, as well as, I would argue, quite a lot of wisdom and many insights that I find thought-provoking. Perhaps he overdoes the melancholy about the loss of so many bookshops from the high streets. Many of us share his dismay about what has happened, but life always moves on and real books continue to be loved across the world. 

Apparently Marius is a poet (and a travel writer) and there's a fine quality to some of the writing that impressed me a great deal. So did his emphasis on ethics in book dealing, though again his criticisms of one or two fellow dealers seemed harsh. Above all, I found it instructive to read a very personal account of one person's passion for the book trade. It's a book that, warts and all, deserves to be a success.   


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.