Monday 31 January 2022

The Disappearance of Harry - 1982 TV movie

I've recently enjoyed watching One Foot in the Grave all over again, admiring not only David Renwick's brilliant writing but also some excellent acting. Annette Crosbie, for instance, is great as Margaret Meldrew and when I came across a film from earlier in her career, The Disappearance of Harry, I was intrigued and decided to give it a go.

This is an obscure film, and although it has a number of very appealing ingredients, I have to say that its failure to make a lasting impression is no real surprise. The writers, Howard Wakeling and Joseph Despins (Despins also directed) seem to have had rather brief careers and although there are genuine signs of talent in the build-up of the story, its anti-climactic finale reveals that they didn't think the story through (a striking contrast to the way David Renwick writes, by the way). Or perhaps they did have a concept in mind, but it was simply too flimsy to work. 

There are some decent actors in the cast, including David Calder,  Philip Locke, and Dudley Sutton, but Annette Crosbie carries the film. She plays Lizzy, a wife and mother who works on the shop floor in a Nottingham factory. Her husband Harry has his birthday at the start of the film, but is clearly distracted. Soon he leaves home, taking his personal belongings with him, together with all the photos of him in the family album. Lizzy is distraught and completely baffled.

As she tries to find out what has happened to Harry, she finds herself on the edge of various politically-driven conspiracies: one involves a bunch of trade unionists resistant to new technology, another involves a far-right political party. There's a mysterious message in a newspaper, a puzzle about an old watch bearing a date that never existed, fascinating scenes set in Nottingham's caves (which I must visit one day) and a bomb explosion. Oh, and Lizzy has a fling with a sexy young journalist (Cornelius Garrett). The dialogue refers explicitly to the fairy-tale feel of the storyline, but overall the story gives the impression of being a collection of ideas, rather than anything coherent. 

I must say that I found this film perfectly watchable and it's certainly never dull, despite a consciously mundane ambience.  But in the end I also found it frustrating. I imagine that most viewers, like me, would like to know exactly what happened to Harry. Spoiler alert: solving that puzzle is not what the film is about. 

Friday 28 January 2022

Forgotten Book - Cat and Mouse

 I first read Christianna Brand's Cat and Mouse a very long time ago - probably in the early 80s. I knew Julian Symons had extolled the book in Bloody Murder as her best (I believe he was also a fan of a later novel, The Rose in Darkness) but I confess I was underwhelmed. Having forgotten pretty much everything about the story except for the fact that it's set in Wales, I've had another go. And, as sometimes happens, my judgment this time was considerably more favourable.

I've always been a fan of Brand, but at the same time I've had reservations about some aspects of her characterisation. She does set out, clearly, to create people who are much more than mere ciphers, and that is admirable. The snag, at least for me, is that her characters are often highly-strung and overwrought. Given the nightmare of being involved in a murder case, that's fair enough up to a point, but at times I think Brand overdoes the hysterics so that the angst becomes a bit irritating. That said, I suspect this is a minority opinion, at least among Golden Age fans.

Cat and Mouse is unusual in her repertoire in that it sets out very deliberately to conjure up melodrama. There is an entertaining dedication to 'Mary Lewis' (this was Brand's married name!) which references Northanger Abbey, and this sets the context for the story. What we have here is an overt homage to Austen's splendid novel (I read it as a schoolboy and loved it; time for a re-read) in terms of the melodrama. 

The catalyst for the mystery (which Brand took from a real life incident) is a set of letters received by a journalist on a magazine by a woman who calls herself Amista. It seems that Amista has married a glamorous chap called Carlyon and the journalist, while in Wales, attempts to look up the happy couple. But there is no sign of Amista and it is soon clear that Something Is Up. What follows is a twisty puzzle that is rather unorthodox and, despite those overwrought bits, intriguing and enjoyable.

Wednesday 26 January 2022



The term 'bibliomystery' appeals to me. It's a term that has been popularized by Otto Penzler, the founder of the Mysterious Press and owner of the wonderful Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. I'm not sure if Otto coined the term itself, but no question, he's done more than anyone to promote the reading and writing of bibliomysteries. Not content with editing an impressive number of high quality anthologies, Otto has produced book-related books of his own such as the fascinating Mysterious Obsessions (which I'll talk about in a future blog post) and also a slim volume called....Bibliomysteries.

This book is described as 'an annotated bibliography of first editions of mystery fiction set in the world of books, 1849-2000'. It is also a gorgeous book, because it includes lots of full-colour illustrations of rare dust jackets, ranging from The Library of Death by Ronald S.L. Harding (never heard of it before, but a fab title and a fab jacket) to the equally obscure Inspector Wilkins Reads the Proofs, by Murray Thomas, definitely the sort of title you never encounter in modern fiction.

So what exactly is a bibliomystery? Otto acknowledges in his intro that it's a vague term - the same can be said for 'crime fiction' itself - but in essence, these are mysteries set in the world of books. So Nicholas Blake's End of Chapter, with a publishing background, is a natural for inclusion in this volume, but so is Blake's The Private Wound, which has a protagonist who is a novelist. I don't know if my own Lake District Mysteries, which feature Marc Amos the bookseller as a recurring member of the supporting cast of characters, count as 'bibliomysteries'; some don't, but I guess The Serpent Pool would.

I've been responsible for an anthology of bibliomysteries of my own, Murder by the Book, which was fun to compile, but there's no doubt that in this field Otto sets the gold standard. By commissioning new bibliomysteries regularly, he is keeping a lovely tradition very much alive. Check out this listing which includes some wonderful authors, many of them real favourites of mine. And yes, I'm very pleased to be among them; writing The Traitor for this list was truly pleasurable, and I'd like to write more about my 'book detective' Benny Morgan one of these days. As for Bibliomysteries, it would make a handsome gift for any bibliophile.

Monday 24 January 2022

Dangerous Lies - 2020 film review

Dangerous Lies is a recent Netflix movie which was originally entitled Windfall. I was attracted, in part, by the presence in the cast of Elliot Gould, an actor I've often enjoyed watching. It's a twisty thriller, although it has to be said that some of the twists are rather random and unsatisfactory. Because it's a well-made film, I kept watching to the end, although there were plenty of plot elements that I found frustrating.

The film begins well. Kate (Camila Mendes) and Adam (Jessie T. Usher) are a young married couple who are short of cash. She's working as a waitress in a diner while he pursues his studies. One night Adam calls at the diner and while talking to Kate, a robbery takes place. Adam comes to the rescue, attacking the robber. He's a have-a-go hero, so I found it odd, and almost inexplicable, that four months later, he and Kate are so desperate for money that he's abandoned his studies. Later revelations in the convoluted script paint in more detail about the robbery, but I didn't find them convincing.

Kate has now taken a job as a carer for an eccentric but wealthy loner played by Elliot Gould. The two of them form a close bond and he gives her a cheque for $7000 when he learns of her financial struggles. Adam persuades her to overcome her reluctance to bank it (their moral compasses fluctuate quite a lot, it has to be said), but shortly after that the old man dies. It seems to be a natural death and Kate tells the authorities that he wished to be cremated.

The complications begin to pile on as the couple find a large stash of cash in the house. A mysterious lawyer turns up, claiming to have drafted the old man's will, which leaves everything to Kate. (The legal aspects of the story struck me as deeply unconvincing). It all becomes hopelessly unlikely, most of all the last few scenes. Yet despite this, my interest was engaged throughout, a tribute the actors rather than the script. I think this one is best regarded as adequate light entertainment.   

Friday 21 January 2022

Forgotten Book - One is One

Miles Tripp is an author who has intrigued me for a long time. His writing was admired by Len Deighton and Julian Symons (who mentioned him in Bloody Murder) and you can't get much better judges than those two, yet he faded into obscurity even while he was still writing, and I've not found many people who have read his books. Reading his 1968 stand-alone One is One reminded me of the quality of his writing, but it's a book which also supplies some clues as to why he never really made it big as a crime writer, despite publishing no fewer than 37 novels, including a series featuring the private eye John Samson.

The early pages of One is One chart a marriage that is seemingly on the rocks. Mark Donaldson is a businessman married to the gorgeous Marie, but her extravagance is driving him into debt. He conceives a wild plan, connected to Marie's potential inheritance, which involves killing an old man in France. At first it seems that he has got away with murder, but there is a witness to his crime...

I found this book extremely readable,while Tripp's insights into character are sometimes compelling. What is more, the story is unusual. It begins as a relatively straightforward variation on the 'inverted mystery' theme and develops into something much more elaborate. There are several surprise twists, some of them involving impersonation.

I haven't been able to find any discussion about this book, or any significant reviews, and I imagine Tripp must have been disappointed that the novel seems to have made little impression. But there are reasons for this. In a nutshell, Tripp was too unorthodox for his own good. We start by following Mark's activities, but the viewpoint keeps shifting and there are a number of flashbacks. I'm not convinced that Tripp found the best way of structuring a rather interesting plot. His chosen method doesn't quite achieve the necessary suspense, and feels a bit disjointed. This is a pity, because he has some interesting things to say about relationships, in particular those involving mutual dependence. All too often, I've found myself frustrated by the way he handled his material. But he could write very well indeed, and his novels, despite their flaws, have an admirable ambition.  

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Waiting for You - 2017 film review

'Slow-burning' is an ambiguous, double-edged description. It can be shorthand for tedious. But it can also indicate a work of subtlety and sophistication. Waiting for You, directed by Charles Garrad, is a film which is definitely a slow burn, and although it's no masterpiece, it's well-made with a decent cast. As a rule, I'm not keen on films that lack pace, but I found this one eminently watchable, even though it's low-key from start to finish.  

Colin Morgan plays Paul, a young man who works in Waterstone's. At the start of the film, his father dies, leaving him to wonder if secrets from the past - the old man was a soldier in Aden - help to explain why his mother (Clare Holman, best known as the forensic pathologist in Inspector Morse and Lewis) has been left penniless.

To his mother's dismay, Paul travels to France to follow an enigmatic lead and pretends to be an architectural student in order to gain access to a house in a remote part of southern France which is owned by the daughter of the man who was the commanding officer in Aden. She is played by Fanny Ardant, whose mysterious, almost menacing behaviour is intriguing. What is hidden in her father's old study, which she insists on keeping locked?

Gradually, those past secrets are revealed. In a sense, this is a mystery film, but it's also to some extent a coming-of-age drama, as Paul becomes involved with a young French woman as well as learning more about his father's past. The title comes from a Billy Stewart song, 'Sitting in the Park', recorded among others by Georgie Fame. When you watch this film, you do have to do a bit of waiting, but I thought it was worth my while. 

Monday 17 January 2022

The Woman in the Window - 2021 film review

The Woman in the Window is a film based on A.J. Finn's bestselling novel, which I enjoyed reading when it was first published. It's a gripping book. Netflix must have believed it had blockbuster potential, but the movie has taken a pounding from the critics. The book itself borrowed the title of a famous film noir. It makes a virtue of its referential nature, and that seems to me to be obviously legitimate. True originality is very rare anyway. The question is: is this movie really as unsatisfactory as many good judges suggest?

The influence of Hitchcock is apparent throughout, even more than in Brian de Palma's thriller films. Amy Adams, who was so good as an addict in Sharp Objects, plays another deeply troubled woman, the agoraphobic Anna. It's a testing role and in my opinion she does a good job. She keeps an eye on her neighbours, in classic Rear Window fashion, and becomes intrigued by her new neighbours, the Russells. 

In due course she encounters a problem of the Phantom Lady sort. Jane Russell, attractive blonde wife of a controlling husband and mother of a fifteen year old boy, comes round and they form a tentative friendship. But then Anna thinks she sees Jane being murdered. The cops are called but Mr Russell (Gary Oldman, whose part seems under-written) duly produces his attractive blonde wife, safe and well. The snag is that she is not the person Anna met.

I must confess that I love that kind of premise. Much depends on how it is resolved and my own feeling is that the storyline, tortuous as it is, makes a better fist of tying together the plot strands than is often the case. Yes, this is certainly no masterpiece. I do understand the critics' reservations, but judged on its own terms, the film seems to me to offer suspenseful entertainment.  


Friday 14 January 2022

Forgotten Book - The Man with the Cane

The late Robert Barnard was a discerning reader of crime fiction as well as an entertaining novelist, and he was a fan of the American writer Jean Potts; it's thanks to his influence that I've become a fan of hers too. I have a couple of Penguin paperback editions of her books that used to belong to him. One of them is The Man with the Cane, which dates from 1957, illustrates her considerable strengths as well as one or two of her limitations. 

Potts was a low-key writer whose particular specialism was the study of domestic relationships. In this novel, the main protagonist is Val Bryant, a likeable ordinary guy. He is divorced from the high-achieving Doris, who has married a successful businessman called Monroe, and finds himself attracted to Barbara, who is herself recently divorced from Doris's brother Clyde. Val remains on good terms with Doris's mother Maudie and is also friendly with a neighbour, Helen, who is always known as Hen. Val and Doris had a young daughter, Annabelle, and when Val is reunited with the little girl after a long time apart, she tells him some tall stories, including one about a man she calls Cane.

These are the players in a tightly-knit drama. The plot thickens when Val and Hen discover the body of a man with a cane. He has been murdered and it soon becomes clear to Val that someone in his circle is responsible for the crime. I was pretty sure from early on who that someone would be, but the precise motive (one I found interesting) came as a surprise.

The strengths I mentioned include a sharp yet compassionate eye for character. Her insights into psychology are convincing, and in this book she makes subtle use of the hackneyed trope of poison pen letters. As for the limitations, I have a quibble about the regular shifts of viewpoint in this novel, which seem to me to reduce rather than to increase suspense. On the whole I think it's fair to say that Potts isn't the most exciting of writers. This is a good story, and not excessively long, but even so it does drag in the middle, with a good deal of time devoted to family squabbles that didn't set my pulse racing. Potts is sometimes compared to Margaret Millar and Helen McCloy, but I think they manage dramatic action more effectively than her. But if you're looking for a well-made, thoughtful mystery with a sound portrayal of human nature, you won't go far wrong with Jean Potts.   

Wednesday 12 January 2022

Elizabeth Harvest - 2018 film review

I was tempted to watch Elizabeth Harvest, a film I'd never heard of, by the presence in the cast of Ciaran Hinds, who made a great impression on me with his performance in that excellent series The Terror. Here he plays a very different character in a very different type of story, which fuses crime, sci-fi, and horror. It's an odd film, to say the least. Some commentators have understandably highlighted the parallels with the Bluebeard story, but I think that writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez was trying to do something fresh with the raw material.

The story seems at first to follow a very familiar pattern. A beautiful young woman, Elizabeth, has just married a much older man, the very wealthy Henry (Hinds) who is a brilliant scientist. He takes her to his very ritzy home, and she meets the gorgeous housekeeper Carla (Claire Gugino) and Henry's blind son Oliver (Matthew Beard, who played Max Lieberman in Vienna Blood). There is, however, a locked door to a mysterious room. Henry tells his new bride that this is the one bit of the house she is not allowed to enter. Oh dear. Guess what she wants to do?

Elizabeth does indeed make it her business to enter the locked room, and surprise, surprise, makes a gruesome discovery. So far, so predictable. But now the story takes an unexpected turn and we find that, rather than watching a formulaic horror movie, we're involved with something more ambitious and distinctly stranger. 

Elizabeth is played by Abbey Lee, who I gather is (and I can believe it) a super-model. It seems to me that one of Gutierrez's key preocuppations in this film is beauty. Everyone and everything seems rather glamorous, but also has a dark side. The story is serpentine, but on the whole I didn't find it as emotionally engaging as it should have been. A bit less glamour and a bit more pace wouldn't have gone amiss. The Terror was subtler and much more memorable.  


Monday 10 January 2022

The Dry - 2020 film review

Jane Harper's debut novel The Dry won a CWA Gold Dagger and has been much praised for its evocation of the Australian outback during a drought. It's interesting to note that Jane Harper was actually born in Manchester, better known for rain than the lack of it, but she moved to Australia as a child, and after a number of years back in England, returned there some years ago. So she knows the country very well indeed.

The recent film of her novel, directed by Robert Connolly, captures the landscape nicely and handles numerous flashback scenes pretty well. Essentially this is a story about two mysteries, one from the distant past, one in the present. The connecting link is detective Aaron Falk, who returns to his home town after many years of absence. 

Falk (well played by Eric Bana) goes back to attend the funeral of an old friend, Luke, after a devastating domestic tragedy. Luke is presumed to have killed his wife and child and then committed suicide. But the dead man's parents can't believe he was capable of such an atrocity and Aaron feels compelled to investigate.

A complication is that Aaron and Luke were associated with the death of a female friend when they were all teenagers, and it soon becomes clear that some of the locals don't want Aaron back in town. But he stays on, teaming up with a likeable local cop, and turning over plenty of stones as he searches for the truth and a sort of personal redemption. The film moves rather slowly at times, but overall it's a rewarding story, well-written and well acted. 

Friday 7 January 2022

Forgotten Book - Touchdown

Martin Russell was a very well-established author by the time he published Touchdown in 1979.  In that year, he was elected to membership of the Detection Club. He'd also been involved with the Crime Writers' Association for a number of years. He'd written series novels, featuring the journalist Jim Larkin, and numerous stand-alones. Yet I can't trace any discussion of Touchdown anywhere. If there's anything I've overlooked, I hope that eagle-eyed readers of this blog will let me know.

Touchdown is an unusual novel which in many ways encapsulates Russell's strengths and also certain shortcomings. It's definitely a book which moves in a direction that is totally unexpected - at least I didn't expect it! And because of the Big Twist, it's hard for me to comment in any detail without spoilers. But let me give you a flavour.

The story opens with Julian Phillips at an airport. It's a relatively small airport, somewhere in the provinces. The place is quiet...too quiet, as the old cliche goes. We gather that Julian is waiting for a plane to land and that one of the passengers is his wife Angela. But there's something odd and unsettling about the whole situation. 

It starts to look as though some monstrous conspiracy is taking place. Has the airport been taken over by some malign force? We also learn about troubles in Julian's private life and his affair with a much younger woman. For some time I felt that this read more like the script for a routine TV thriller than a Collins Crime Club novel, with all the action compressed into a few short hours and an absence (or so I thought for most of the book) of dramatic plot developments - it all seemed to be build-up rather than delivery. However, Russell certainly bamboozled me with his later revelations. Did I find them altogether convincing? I'm not sure I did. This is partly because I never really warmed to Julian and partly because the sense of terror that Russell tries to work up needed more evocative prose, something more in the Cornell Woolrich vein. But Touchdown is a clever story and like its author it deserves to be better known.  

Wednesday 5 January 2022

Murder Mystery - 2019 film review

I tend to think that any film titled Murder Mystery ought to offer a definitive take on the crime story. The 2019 movie of that name starring Jennifer Aniston certainly fails that test, but as light entertainment, it's perfectly acceptable. James Vanderbilt's script has a number of enjoyable moments, and the storyline - whilst hardly at the Christie level of ingenuity - is just about acceptable, as long as you don't think too much about the various plot holes. But then, it's not the sort of film you should think about too much. 

Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) is a not very competent New York cop married to a likeable hairdresser and mystery fan called Audrey (Aniston), who has always wanted to visit Europe. For their fifteenth anniversary, Nick finally gets round to booking a coach trip. On the plane, while Nick is asleep, Audrey is chatted up by wealthy Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans). On a whim, Cavendish invites the Spitzes to join him on his luxury yacht in the Med. I rather expected there to be a cunning explanation for this act of generosity - but there wasn't, an example of weak writing, I'm afraid.

The Spitzes find that they have joined a family celebration. Cavendish's elderly uncle Malcolm Quince (a great role for Terence Stamp) is about to marry Cavendish's former lover (Shiori Kutsuna) and the party also includes a variety of other people with good reason to wish Quince dead - at least before he can leave his fortune to his new wife. The cast is nicely varied, and includes Gemma Arterton and David Walliams.

Needless to say, Quince is murdered, and another death soon follows. When the yacht lands at Monte Carlo, the detective in charge concludes, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that the Spitzes are the culprits. This was the weakest part of the script, a contrivance that is quite inept. But compensation comes in the form of quite a few funny lines as the story wanders towards an unlikely conclusion.

Saturday 1 January 2022

A New Year - Time to Look Ahead

As a year draws to a close, it's good to look back and I enjoyed compiling my retrospective of 2021 the other day. But now it's a new year, and time to look forward. Many things remain uncertain, but I'm full of hope and optimism. All being well, it promises to be a bumper year. And for those making new year resolutions about writing that first crime novel, Dea of Fiction Feedback and I hope that they will be tempted by the Crafting Crime online course!

My new Rachel Savernake novel comes out in September. This latest example of Golden Age Gothic is called Blackstone Fell, and I'll talk more about it in due course. But I guess the main event so far as some readers are concerned will be the publication in May by HarperCollins of The Life of Crime, my history of the mystery genre. Suffice to say that it's a very substantial book, and it ranges far and wide. So there's quite a lot about Golden Age writing (of course) but also a good deal about such diverse subjects as Japanese mystery fiction, Vidocq and his followers, William Lindsay Gresham, and Ian Fleming. I've no idea how the book will be received, but I'm excited about the prospect of seeing it in print at last, because I've been thinking about the material for many a long year and actively writing it for the past five or six.

There will be overseas editions of several of my books in a number of countries, including China, Italy, and (this one has been delayed for a while, but may finally emerge in 2022) Bulgaria. One to mention specifically, because it involves an unexpected title change, is the US edition of The Crooked Shore. This will appear in the summer as The Girl They All Forgot. I'm very pleased that Poisoned Pen and Sourcebooks, the publishers, are treating this as a potential breakthrough title for me in the States - hence the very different style of cover artwork.

My first anthology of the year will be Music of the Night, a collection of brand new stories by members of the CWA; my own contribution is a piece called 'The Crazy Cries of Love'. In the spring, the British Library are publishing an anthology of classic Scottish crime stories, The Edinburgh Mystery, and the paperback edition of Howdunit will appear in the summer. There might be one more anthology later in the year, but that is uncertain. As regards the BL Crime Classics, I've already penned intros to quite a number of the titles for 2022, including books by Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, ECR Lorac, and John Dickson Carr. There will be a few more intros of other books, mainly resulting from approaches by authors whose work I enjoy or their publishers.

Short stories of mine will appear in various other publications. My Cornell Woolrich tribute story, 'The Woman Who Never Was', is slated to appear in an antho edited by Maxim Jakubowski, a book that should be of great interest to fellow Woolrich fans. 'No Peace for the Wicked' is due to feature in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I've written another couple of stories for American anthologies that are yet to be publicly announced, including a Golden Age homage, 'The Outsider', which was a lot of fun to write and has a Christie-esque setting.

Now for something almost completely different - a Golden Age Mystery Map of Britain! I signed a contract recently to produce the text for this venture and I was working on it in December - another fun thing to do. More details soon. At present I'm thinking about an even more unlikely project (definitely ambitious) as well; whether anything will come of it, however, remains to be seen. Suffice to say it involves both Golden Age detective fiction and sci-fi...

At present, I'm booked to appear at numerous festivals, in England, in Wales, and in Scotland and I'm really looking forward to getting around a bit more. I'm also very much hoping to make it to Bouchercon, although right now, it's hard to look too far into the future. As for the blog, I expect it to keep rolling on as before; I've found your comments and messages a continuing source of great encouragement. I hope to have opportunities to meet more of my readers in Britain and elsewhere during 2022, but in the meantime may I simply wish you all a very happy new year.