Friday 29 July 2022

Forgotten Book - Impact of Evidence

Impact of Evidence is a novel by Carol Carnac (better known as E.C.R. Lorac) which was published in 1954, towards the end of her life. Beyond doubt, it can safely be described as a forgotten book. I've never read a review of the novel and at the time of writing, only one copy is for sale anywhere in the world - for the less than modest cost of £650 for an American first edition (pictured). One wonders what price a UK first in a jacket would command. As far as I know, there was never a paperback edition.

Does the novel deserve such obscurity? My answer is an emphatic 'no'. This is a novel typical of the Lorac stories that she wrote from the 1940s onwards, after moving to live in Lunesdale. But it's not set in Lunesdale. The action takes place on the English-Welsh border (towards the southern end of that border; towns such as Hereford are mentioned in passing). Yet in many ways, the setting is strongly reminiscent of Lunesdale. I suspect the main reason that it wasn't set there was that the author was trying to differentiate her two series (which did have a great deal in common).

Lorac was a keen driver, as readers of Two-Way Murder will appreciate. This Carnac title again reflects her interest in motor cars and centres around an accident in the snow that involves two vehicles, one of them driven by elderly, infirm Dr Robinson, who dies in the crash. But when people look inside his car, a second body is discovered. The deceased is not a local, and he died before the accident. What on earth has been going on?

This is a pretty good premise for a traditional detective story and Inspector Julian Rivers of Scotland Yard turns up to conduct the investigation. We learn that he spent some of his early days on a farm in Norfolk and it's clear that, like Inspector Macdonald in the Lorac books, his burgeoning interest in the countryside and the challenges of farming life reflects his creator's enthusiasms. As so often with these books, the evocation of rural Britain is the strongest point, but I'd add that the plot is very soundly constructed. If you're a fan of traditional mysteries, this is a most enjoyable read.

Wednesday 27 July 2022

Deep Water - 2022 film review

I read Deep Water during my first 'Patricia Highsmith phase', many moons ago. The novel was published in 1957, when she was arguably at the height of her powers as a novelist. The plot struck me as nothing special, but the presentation of character and situation impressed me. It isn't her best book, but it's a very good one. So naturally I was keen to see what Adrian Lyne's recent film version would be like.

He decided, reasonably enough, to update the story. So Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) is now a man who has made a fortune out of developing guidance chips for use in combat drones. Although still young, he has settled to affluent retirement together with his sexy wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) and young daughter. But Vic is moody and Melinda flirtatious and it soon becomes clear that all is not well between them.

Vic is jealous of her flings with other men and he warns off one lover by claiming to have murdered a man that Melinda had an affair with. Is he telling the truth? Probably not, but it's not entirely clear, and there's little doubt that Vic is a man on the edge. Violence isn't far away and Melinda's provocative behaviour causes his behaviour to become increasingly irrational. An older man, a rather annoying writer called Don, become suspicious of Vic and the conditions are created for a deadly confrontation.

The main problem with the film is its lack of pace, the result of a script which seems less than assured and is over-long. Affleck and de Armas do their best with the material, but more could have been done by the writers to make the psychosexual undercurrents in their relationship more compelling. It's not a terrible movie, but it could and should have been so much better.   

Monday 25 July 2022

Interesting Times

It's all been happening lately. I'm thrilled to report that a major US publication has agreed to publish an extract from The Life of Crime to coincide with the book's appearance in the US next month. And I was delighted to see a wonderful review of the book by Barry Turner in the Daily Mail: 'awe-inspiring...a masterclass...highly readable.'

I got word of both those developments while I was in Harrogate for the Theakston's Festival. I'm still not driving at the moment, following that hit and run car crash, but a kind reader offered me a lift, so I was able to get across the Pennines and have a really good time. There's no doubt that the car crash has had an effect, and I'm definitely pacing myself at present, but I'm optimistic that I'll be firing on all cylinders before too long.

I was glad to take part in a panel about a favourite topic of mine - the ups and downs of the writing life - on Friday. The chair was Denise Mina and the panel members were myself, Mick Herron, Andrew Taylor, and Adele Parks - all pictured above. Very good company to be in! Adele is currently riding high in the bestseller charts. I'd never met her before, but I soon learned that not only is she an extremely successful writer, she is a highly engaging speaker.

There were plenty of other highlights, including an excellent lunch with my agent, James, at which we discussed plans for my future writing projects, a dinner with HarperCollins and a brunch with Head of Zeus, as well as many enjoyable conversations with writers and readers. It was good to be back. 

The IPCRESS File - ITV review

The IPCRESS File was one of the great spy novels of the 1960s. It's a book often bracketed with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but people often forget that Len Deighton's novel came first. It was the book that first made Len's name and it became an iconic Sixties film, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer (the protagonist whose name is not actually mentioned in the book). Now it has been made into a TV series in six parts, scripted by John Hodge, with Joe Cole as Harry.

Some critics have questioned the rationale for a new version of the story, but after a gap of more than half a century, it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable to come up with a new take on this espionage classic. The real question is: is it any good? After all, it has to be measured against the high standards of novel and film.

At first I wasn't sure about this version. As I've often said, the desire that TV people have to turn stories into six episodes when two, three, or four episodes often mean a tighter story, is regrettable. The first episode left me unimpressed, but I stayed with it and was rewarded by a steady improvement. The last couple of episodes in particular are excellent. An added bonus was that much location shooting was done in Liverpool - and in Great Budworth, the Cheshire village where I first discovered Agatha Christie! I was also amused by the fact that Agatha Christie's The Clocks features, although no real effort was made to make anything of it in the script.

Joe Cole does a good job; his performance is more nuanced than Michael Caine's, although less memorable. Lucy Boynton keeps her emotions in check as Jean Courtney, and the result is a bit uninvolving, but Tom Hollander is excellent as Dalby. Special mention for Anastasia Hille, who is quite brilliant in a supporting role. So, despite some padding in the script, this one is definitely worth watching. Alas, the music is nothing like as good as John Barry's soundtrack for the film, but that was probably inevitable! 

Friday 22 July 2022

Forgotten Book - Mr T

Reginald Hill was an admirer of Martin Russell's crime fiction, and for the first two editions of that magisterial tome Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, he contributed an essay about Russell's work (I took over this pleasurable task for the third and fourth editions). In that piece, he highlighted Mr T, published in 1977, as one of Russell's cleverest stories. 

I'd agree with this verdict and it's significant that Harry Keating chose this book as one of the titles reprinted to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Collins Crime Club in 1990. The puzzle is ingenious and unusual (although I should say that I recognised one key plot device from another Russell novel, almost equally tricky, but the stories are really very different in other ways). The set-up is one that Cornell Woolrich would have loved, but the resolution is rather more carefully put together than is the case in many of Woolrich's stories. Woolrich was in some ways a superior writer to Russell, and he certainly had greater pretensions as a prose stylist. I'm a Woolrich fan, but I do think Russell is under-rated.

John Tiverton arrives home from work to find that his own wife doesn't recognise him. Nor does a neighbour called Elkins. The police are called and he's thrown out of the house. People at work don't recognise him, either. He's told that John Tiverton was killed in a car crash six months ago. In a phone call, his mother confirms this.

He's a metallurgist who has been working on a secret project and has been carefully vetted by the security services. As he tries to put the pieces of his shattered life together, we make assumptions about what has been going on. But Russell has kept several things up his sleeve. This is an intriguing story and, despite tricky and far-fetched elements in the narration of events, it deserves to be better knonw.   

Wednesday 20 July 2022

The Stranger - 1946 film review

The Stranger is an intriguing film noir from 1946. It's really a story of a cat-and-mouse relationship between a Nazi hunter called Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) and a superficially charming professor (Orson Welles, who also directed and co-wrote the film) who is actually Kindler, a Nazi who has escaped to the United States and reinvented himself as a plausible academic who marries a judge's daughter (Loretta Young).

Despite the fact that The Stranger was made so soon after the war ended, it gives a powerful sense of the horror of the Holocaust, even if the details of Kindler's backstory are rather vague. The story begins with a reformed ex-associate of Kindler's making contact with him - on the day that the villian of the piece is due to get married - unaware that Wilson is on his case. The wedding does take place, but Kindler also finds time to kill his former crony. There is a great scene in the woods which involves Kindler hiding the body and risking discovery when a bunch of his students run through the woods on a paper chase.

The principal writer is Anthony Veiller, whose other work included The List of Adrian Messenger. In many ways, though, it is the visual ingredients of the film rather than the storyline - tense as it is - which make it worth watching. The climactic scene, which takes place at the top of a clock tower (Kindler is obsessed with clocks) is especially memorable. 

Orson Welles was a towering figure in the film world, even if his achievements were somewhat mixed. I liked his performance as Kindler, even though it's by no means his most acclaimed role. The Stranger isn't a masterpiece, but it's not mundane, either. Well worth a watch.

Monday 18 July 2022

Joseph Goodrich, The Paris Manuscript, and Shooting Script

Joseph Goodrich is a versatile writer whose play Panic won an Edgar award, and whose book about the extraordinary correspondence between the two cousins who wrote together as Ellery Queen, Blood Relations, provided invaluable raw material for one of the chapters in The Life of Crime. His book of essays, Unusual Suspects is also extremely interesting, with rare insights into the work of a range of writers, including that odd but talented character Derek Marlowe. Not content with these achievements, Joe has written short stories and now his novel The Paris Manuscript has been published.

The new book is a history-mystery, set primarily in the French capital shortly after the First World War. It is what Harry Keating used to call a 'looking-back' book, in which Ned Jameson reflects anew on what happened in Paris in the days when he was a young reporter, married to the lovely Daisy, whose brother runs into trouble because of his susceptibility to blackmail.

Murder is committed, and Ned thinks he knows whodunit, but the real amateur detective in the story is none other than Marcel Proust. I must confess that I've never read Proust, but Goodrich presents him as an appealing character. This is an off-beat story that I enjoyed reading. 

I should also mention Shooting Script and other mysteries, a book edited by Joe Goodrich, which gathers short stories written by that splendid duo William Link and Richard Levinson, who are most renowned as the creators of Columbo. I'm quoted on the back cover, enthusing in particular about their debut story, 'Whistle While You Work', and believe me, it is a real gem. All in all, this is another good read, courtesy of those excellent publishers Crippen & Landru.


Friday 15 July 2022

Forgotten Book - My Brother's Killer

My Brother's Killer was first published in 1975, when its author Jean Potts was 65 years old. She lived until 1999, but never wrote (or at least, never published) another novel. I don't know why she gave up - perhaps she lost enthusiasm or simply decided it was time to retire from the writing game. Maybe she wrote something else and it was rejected. Possibly she was disappointed by reaction to this novel - there is a distinctly cool review from Kirkus that can be found online. Yet although it's quite a slender book, I found it very readable and, judged as a swan song, not at all bad. 

Events are seen from a number of different points of view, but essentially this is an 'inverted mystery'. As the (rather clever) title implies, the story concerns the attempt of one brother to kill another. (Incidentally, another book with the same title, by D.M. Devine, is discussed  here  Garth Sullivan is the bad guy, although Potts does round him out as a character. He's always hated his brother Howdy, and in recent times his loathing has reached fever pitch. Howdy was (unintentionally) responsible for an accident which prevented Garth pursuing his chosen career and to make matters worse, he married Pam, the only woman to whom Garth had ever been devoted.

Howdy, too, is well characterised. He is naive but has a persistent feeling of responsibility towards Garth, and he arranges for Garth to live in the same building as him and Pam. The other residents include a young woman, Eunice, with whom Garth has a brief fling. It means nothing to Garth, but a great deal to Eunice. Her simple devotion to him will play a crucial part in the unfolding events.

I shouldn't say much more about the plot, but although it's not mesmerising, it's sound enough. As always with this author, much of the pleasure of the book lies in her delineation of her people and her ability to build tension in a domestic environment. Jean Potts was undoubtedly a writer of considerable gifts, and although this is by no means her best book, it's a good example of her craft.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

One Way Pendulum - 1964 film review

When I was a student, especially in my first couple of years before the shadow of Finals loomed, I set about expanding my reading and trying to broaden my cultural awareness (the latter is still a work in progress after all these years, but I haven't given up trying!). Oddly, perhaps, I read very little crime. Among many other things, I was keen on Theatre of the Absurd, the subject of an excellent book by Martin Esslin, and went to see plays such as A Resounding Tinkle, by N.F. Simpson, a playwright I really enjoyed. 

Now, after all these years, thanks to Talking Pictures TV, I've seen the film version of Simpson's most famous play, One Way Pendulum. The director was Peter Yates, who became much better-known for films like Robbery, Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and The Deep. It's fair to say that this movie was not a great commercial success, but I think he made a pretty good job of filming a play that many might think was almost unfilmable.

The film covers a Saturday afternoon in the life of the Groomkirby family, for whom the description 'eccentric' is hardly adequate. Mr Groomkirby (Eric Sykes) build his own version of the Old Bailey in his modest home, while his wife (Alison Leggett) makes so much food that she hires Mrs Gantry (Peggy Mount) to eat it all up to ensure there are no leftovers. Their daughter Sylvia (Julia Foster) is fascinated by apes, and worried that her arms aren't long enough, much to the bemusement of her boyfriend Stan (Kenneth Farrington), one of the very few 'normal' people in the story. 

As for young Kirby Groomkirby (Jonathan Miller), he seems amiable enough but is clearly disturbed in some way and concentrates his energies on training speak-your-weight machines which he has stolen to sing the 'Hallelujah Chorus'. His father becomes embroiled in a fantasy trial of Kirby for mass murder, which is presided over by a judge, played by Douglas Wilmer, better known for his excellent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes at much the same time. There are some funny lines, and although the film misfires, it isn't hard to see in Simpson's work some of the ingredients that would soon make Monty Python's Flying Circus such an iconic show. 

Monday 11 July 2022

Newark Book Festival 2022

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since my last appearance at Newark Book Festival - yet it was only three years ago. This time I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel with Elly Griffiths and Lesley Thomson, two fine writers and great companions (incidentally, Lesley's latest novel is called The Companion). Tim Rideout was due to chair the panel, but sadly Covid ruled him out at the last minute. This was a real shame for all of us, but we were grateful to Gill Hart for stepping in at the last minute, to excellent effect.

My car isn't currently in a great state after my recent mishap with a manic motorcyclist (although it is still driveable, the insurers are currently deciding whether it should be written off because of the scale of repairs required), so I travelled across country by train, and this did give me the chance to do plenty of reading and relaxing en route. It was a real bonus to have a drink with Elly and Lesley at a riverside pub before we dined together. All very convivial (and a reminder of what we've all missed during the lockdowns).

The panel discussion was held in the swish ballroom at Newark Town Hall and once again I found myself admiring the hard work of the organisers. It's never easy to put together a festival, but in recent times it has proved even more challenging. They did a great job.

And then today I had the pleasure of seeing my daughter Catherine graduate - she's taken a further degree in journalism. It was very different from other degree ceremonies I've attended, but I enjoyed the sheer exuberance of the occasion and it was good to talk to a few of the young people whose studies have been affected significantly by the pandemic, but who have nevertheless kept going and maintained their enthusiasm in really challenging circumstances. They more than deserve their day of celebration. And as I write, it's still continuing!

Friday 8 July 2022

Forgotten Book - The Night of the Twelfth

I borrowed Michael Gilbert's The Night of the Twelfth from the library not long after its publication, way back in 1976. I was very taken with the story, and struck by the fact that although the novel has many of Gilbert's trademark touches, the storyline is significantly darker than usual. In fact, when one looks at his colossal output as a whole, it's surely - in terms of the psychological cruelty at the heart of the novel - the darkest thing he ever wrote. Yet the violence is not graphically or exploitatively described. And rereading the book after more than forty years, I enjoyed it all over again.

The story involves an unusual blend of disparate elements. There is a prep school setting worthy of a Golden Age mystery, a thriller sub-plot rooted in the Israel-Palestine conflict, a sexually-charged motive for murder, and a teasing whodunit puzzle. Not to mention some crisply described police work. As ever, Gilbert delivers a great deal of value for the reader's investment of time.

Three adolescent boys have been tortured and killed. It becomes increasingly apparent that these terrible crimes have some kind of connection with the school, where a new teacher, the tough but enigmatic Kenneth Manifold, has just arrived. Among the pupils is the son of the Israeli ambassador, who is a target for terrorists. The members of the school staff are an eclectic bunch, including a gay teacher who is arranging a production of Twelfth Night. Gilbert himself taught briefly at a prep school after leaving university and his presentation of this strange, enclosed community is authentic if now, no doubt, somewhat dated.

A striking feature of the book, as with many of Gilbert's novels, is the rapid shift of viewpoints. This is a method that he favoured, no doubt as a means of injecting pace into his stories. Sometimes it can mean that his characters - who are invariably interesting - are not presented in quite as much depth as one would wish, but his economy of style masks the accomplishment of his craftmanship. He can sketch people memorably in just a few sentences. I don't think that the motivation of one key character - why did that person behave in the way they did? - is dealt with as fully as I'd have hoped, but overall I remain convinced that this is one of his best novels, and a fine example of his command of storytelling technique.

Wednesday 6 July 2022

Gaudy Nights

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 4 July 2022

Diamonds are Forever...

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

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


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

Friday 1 July 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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