Monday 29 August 2022

An exciting week

Tomorrow sees the US publication of The Life of Crime, and marks the start of a very interesting few days. On Thursday, Head of Zeus publish my third novel featuring Rachel Savernake and Jacob Flint, Blackstone Fell, a book I'm excited about. On Friday I'm interviewing Ann Cleeves in Carlisle and, after a stopover in Birnam, I'll be heading to the Nairn Book Festival, where among other things I'll be in conversation with Josephine Tey's biographer, Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Blackstone Fell is a book I dreamed up and wrote during the pandemic, although the original glimmer of inspiration came a little earlier, when I visited Salomons Tower in Kent. A post-lockdown trip to Hardcastle Crags in Yorkshire gave me the main elements of the setting, and a trip to Kinver Crags was also helpful. I've written an article about the book's locations for TripFiction and there's also a piece about Golden Age crime that will be appearing in the Daily Express, as well as short essays in Shots and Crime Time. A little closer to Christmas, My Weekly will be featuring the book alongside a new short story in the Golden Age vein which brings back a character I've written about previously.

Sophie, the publicist working with Head of Zeus on the novel, has kindly arranged a very extensive blog tour, involving bloggers who in general haven't covered my work in the past. It will be interesting to see what they make of the book. Suffice to say that ingredients include a locked room mystery, a cipher, a sanatorium, a seance, and a Cluefinder. Yep, it's a complex puzzle all right. I enjoyed writing the story enormously and I hope crime fans will enjoy reading it.

The Life of Crime has already received quite a bit of coverage in the US, including this podcast with the American Scholar magazine. An article on CrimeReads - discussing an obscure Russian writer and his unexpected connection with E.R. Punshon - is also imminent. So - lots going on. And meanwhile, I'm working on the closing chapters of Rachel's next adventure - Sepulchre Street.

Friday 26 August 2022

Forgotten Book - Death on Romney Marsh

In my quest for fictional representations of Romney Marsh, as with Doctor Syn, my eyes lighted on a copy of Leo Bruce's Death on Romney Marsh. First published in 1968, it's another Carolus Deene mystery and it's certainly an example of Bruce's agreeable storytelling style, heavily based on dialogue. There isn't, in fact, too much description of Romney Marsh, although in the first chapter we're told that the low-lying lands 'cover even today some of the loneliest country in southern England', while names like Dymchurch and Dungeness suggest Swinburne's 'mile on mile on mile of desolation' (a slight mis-quote from his poem 'By the North Sea').

Carolus is visiting his aunt, Vicky Morrow, who rents a house on the Marsh called Mortboys. The chap who owns it, a man called Cuchran, wants her out of the place so that there can be 'development' (it's an eternal issue in Britain...) Relations between Cuchran and Miss Morrow are very poor, because she has long accused him of murdering his first wife - for the insurance money, as well as to inherit her property.

Carolus sets off to negotiate with Cuchran and finds him to be suitably unpleasant and clearly with something to hide. In the end, Carolus manages to persuade Cuchran to relent on his plans, and there the matter rests for some time. But then Carolus's interest in the case is re-ignited by the mysterious disappearance of Cuchran's enigmatic old butler, Mowlett.

I enjoyed the fact that this is quite an unorthodox story, with various unlikely twists and turns, all presented with Leo Bruce's customary wit. He really was an engaging writer. The main problem with the book is that the crime at the heart of the story is far-fetched, not because there is over-reliance on coincidence, but because the actions of the people in question are almost impossible to believe. So, no masterpiece, but a pleasant if undemanding read.


Wednesday 24 August 2022

A Perfect Spy - DVD review

I missed the BBC TV version of John le Carre's A Perfect Spy when it was screened way back in 1987. The series had a strong pedigree, with a screenplay by Arthur Hopcraft, a very good writer who graduated from soccer journalism to high-calibre TV writing. The cast is strong, with one truly stand-out performance, but I must admit there were times when the seven episodes felt more like twenty-seven. Fast-paced it isn't. And for me, it isn't a patch on the TV version of The Night Manager.

The story begins in the present. People are waiting in a car to catch up with Magnus Pym. It's not clear what is going on. And then we go into an extended flashback that takes up almost the entirety of the seven episodes. We learn what has brought Magnus Pym (Peter Egan) to a quiet seaside town (I recognised Dawlish, which I enjoyed visiting for the first time back in September). 

The key to Pym's life is his relationship with his father, Rick. Rick Pym is a con man, and it's no secret that the story fictionalises, in some respects, the relationship that le Carre had with his own very dodgy Dad. It's an interesting relationship, for sure, and links in closely with the theme of betrayal that is hammered home rather insistently in the script.

The difficulty for me stemmed, oddly enough, from the sheer brilliance of Ray McAnally's performance as Rick. He is a monster, but with a human side, and although McAnally was a fine actor, I doubt if he ever surpassed his interpretation of Rick Pym. Even Peter Egan,a very likeable actor in his own right, seems colourless in comparison. When McAnally was on screen, I was gripped. But at other times, the story was so unexciting and protracted that I found it difficult to care. Which I didn't expect. 

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Dual Alibi - 1947 film review

If I'd watched Dual Alibi a year or two earlier, I'd probably have given it a mention in The Life of Crime. This 1947 British film fits, thematically, into the chapter where I discuss the work of William Lindsay Gresham, Fredric Brown, and others. I'd say it's one of the best examples of film noir to have emerged from the UK in the Forties. And it provides a rare starring role for that interesting actor Herbert Lom, today better remembered as the crazed cop in the Pink Panther movies.

Most of the story is told in flashback after circus owner Vincent Barney (played by Ronald Frankau, whose brother, the writer Gilbert, dabbled in crime fiction) recognises a sandwich board man. I'm not sure the flashback method was the best way of telling the story, but it works moderately well, and the ending is downbeat and poignant.

The main story concerns two French identical twins, both played by Lom. They are the de Lisle brothers, a fearless pair of trapeze artists. Barney hires them and brings them over to Blackpool as a star turn in his circus. He hires the services of a rascally publicist, Mike Bergen (Terence de Marney) who has a glamorous girlfriend, Penny, played by Phyllis Dixey, whose real life story was interesting and rather sad.

It's a low budget film, but surprisingly effective in its moodiness and sense of things spiralling downwards and out of control. Very noir, in other words. Herbert Lom is excellent, and the supporting cast are also good. Recommended.

Saturday 20 August 2022

Forgotten Book - The Demoniacs

The Demoniacs, first published in 1962, is one of the historical mystery novels in which John Dickson Carr specialised in the later stages of his career. Like Carr, I'm fascinated by history, and I share his view that historical fiction offers the novelist rich possibilities. In this story, set in 1757, his protagonist is Jeffrey Wynne, a Bow Street Runner, and this choice reflects his interest in the history of policing in Britain, another appealing subject in its own right.

The title of the book is intriguing, and it's rather a pity that it is, as Doug Greene says in his biography of Carr, of little relevance to the storyline. The cast of characters includes Henry Fielding, himself later a lead character in one or two other mystery novels, and Laurence Sterne of Tristram Shandy fame, here seen as a rather disreputable clergyman.

As ever with Carr, the atmospherics are very well done and complement the action effectively. What of the action itself? Well, Jeffrey has been sent to France by Sir Mortimer Ralston to bring back to England Sir Mortimer's headstrong (but beautiful) niece Peg. She risks being imprisoned in Newgate Jail for 'harlotry'. The central mystery concerns the death of an old woman.

The book begins quite vividly, but I'm afraid that within a few chapters, I'd lost interest. This is partly because the dialogue is slightly wearisome, but mainly because the story is - at least to me - lacking in grip. I've been a Carr fan since my teens, but - like Christie and Sayers among many others - not every book he wrote was a winner. Doug Greene acknowledges the weaknesses, and points out a significant mistake that Carr made in the clueing (though authors are only human - if this had been the only flaw in the book, it would have been easily forgiven as far as I'm concerned). Alas, long before the end, I'd ceased to care about either the characters or the puzzle.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

R.I.P. June Thomson and Michael Pearce

I was so sorry to learn of the very recent deaths of June Thomson and Michael Pearce, two crime writers with whom I've enjoyed many pleasant conversations. They were likeable and engaging people who, in very different ways, made notable contributions to the genre. At the time I was putting together Howdunit on behalf of the Detection Club, of which they were both long-standing members, they were both rather frail and I wasn't sure that they would feel able to contribute. But both of them really did want to be part of the project, and I was truly delighted to have the opportunity to include their essays.

As I recall, I first met June at the launch of one of her books; my memory is a little hazy, but I believe it was Past Reckoning, which was published to coincide with the London Bouchercon of 1990. I was invited to attend the do in my capacity as a reviewer and writer about crime - at that point, my first novel was yet to see the light of day. Over the years, I had many opportunities to chat to June, often at CWA conferences after I'd become established as a novelist. Her first novel was published twenty years before mine, but she was always interested and encouraging. 

June was a former teacher who made a radical but effective change of course during her writing career. She established a considerable reputation with a long series of well-written novels featuring Chief Inspector Jack Finch (who was re-named Rudd in the US, to avoid confusion with another series detective called Finch). Her early books drew comparisons with P.D. James, whose style resembled hers in some ways, and she seemed destined to become an equally prominent figure in the genre. Despite her great success, that never quite happened, and only three more Finch books appeared after 1991, as she began to concentrate her energies more on stories of a very different kind - about Sherlock Holmes. There are countless Holmes pastiches, but June's stories were truly outstanding. 

Having admired her work for a long time (her first novel was published way back in 1971) I was thrilled when June wrote a couple of original short stories - 'Deus Ex Machina' and 'Coming Home' - for anthologies I was editing. To publish her work was both a pleasure and a privilege. She also wrote a terrific biography, Holmes and Watson. I treasure my inscribed copies of her books and I shall miss her.

I first got to know Michael Pearce and his wife Bridget about fourteen years ago, but I'd come across his Mamur Zapt books long before that. Michael was highly convivial and very good-natured. He would modestly describe himself as a writer, teacher and administrator in academia, but he was keenly interested in human rights and an individual of considerable distinction and achievement. There's quite a lot more that can be said about both Michael and June, but the first thing I want to do by way of personal tribute is to read some of their wonderful books again.      

Monday 15 August 2022

Secret State - 2012 TV series review

I missed Secret State when it first aired on Channel 4 in 2012 and have only just caught up with this four-part conspiracy thriller. It's based (rather loosely, I'd imagine, given the topical references) on a novel written 30 years earlier. That was A Very British Coup, by Chris Mullin, which was also adapted for television in the 80s by Alan Plater, though I've never seen that version. Mullin was, at one time, a well-known MP, on the left of the Labour Party. Many years ago he gave an after dinner speech at a CWA conference, which I recall as very entertaining. 

This screenplay is by Robert Jones and it's pretty taut, although in the later stages the sub-text, very critical of Tony Blair's government's 'dodgy dossier' about Iraq, comes into the foreground and is perhaps a little heavy-handed. But it certainly gets off to a gripping start, and my interest was maintained throughout. This is in part due to a strong cast led by the excellent Gabriel Byrne, playing Tom Dawkins, who is propelled into the position of Prime Minister following the death of the PM in a mysterious plane crash.

The biggest villain in the story is a US petrochemical company, responsible for a devastating industrial accident on Teeside that cost many lives. Dawkins becomes suspicious about what has happened, egged on by an investigative journalist (Gina McKee). The elements of the story about senior politicians jockeying for power are really well done, and Rupert Graves is wonderfully slimy as Dawkins' prime opponent, while Charles Dance is terrific as the Chief Whip. There's also a good role for Douglas Hodge, as Dawkins' friend, who drinks too much for his own good, and another for Ruth Negga, as a concerned analyst at GCHQ.

If you enjoy a good conspiracy thriller, this one measures up well and doesn't outstay its welcome. I'm glad I finally caught up with it.


Friday 12 August 2022

Forgotten Book - The Three Corpse Trick

Miles Burton, better known as John Rhode, wrote a long series of novels featuring Desmond Merrion. The Three Corpse Trick, first published in 1944, has been judged as one of the best if not the very best of them. Nick Fuller, a shrewd critic of Golden Age mysteries whose blog I heartily recommend, has described it as a masterpiece. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the story is that the Second World War is ignored. We are explicitly told that Merrion's duties in the intelligence section of the Admiralty have ceased and he is free to roam around the English countryside again, solving mysteries in the company of his chum Inspector Arnold. Presumably Rhode was by this time confident that the war would be won. Or perhaps he simply didn't want to think about it any more.

The first chapter is devoted to a Mrs Burge's wanderings around a village in Deanshire, collecting money for charity. This approach enables the author to introduce us to a host of characters who will later feature in the story and provide a wealth of background information. At this early stage I picked up on one reference which eventually proved to be crucial to the plot. These things can happen, but I think many authors would have introduced the characters more gradually and painted them in a little more detail. In the event, two people who are pivotal to the story are peripheral figures, to say the least, and this does seem to me to be a weakness. And including a map of the neighbourhood would have been a big help.

Poor Mrs Burge is promptly murdered and Inspector Arnold is determined that her husband  - who has vanished - is the guilty party. It takes quite a long time for the reasons for Burge's absence to become clear, and at around that stage of the novel we are also given some further information which proves to be highly relevant. At this point I realised the signifcance of the title and figured out what was going on.

Eventually, Merrion tumbles to the dastardly scheme. The crimes are neatly contrived, but I feel that a more talented writer could have made more of the raw material of the plot. It's definitely one of the better Rhode/Burton books that I've read, but it's also one which illustrates some of his shortcomings as a storyteller. Worth reading, but very guessable. 


Wednesday 10 August 2022

Mr Jones - 2019 film review

Mr Jones is a film from three years ago, a historical thriller based on a true story concerning a cover-up in Moscow of terrible events in Ukraine. Sound familiar? It is chilling that, we are now witnessing the appalling impact of a present day Russian invasion of the same country. The circumstances are different, but I think that recent events make this film even more interesting than it was at the time of its release.

To my shame, I'd never heard of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones whose courageous exposure of the truth about life in Stalin's empire caused consternation in the Thirties. In all honesty, I was attracted to the film because Jones is played by James Norton, a brilliant actor whose versatility I admire. The cast also includes Vanessa Kirby, Fenella Woolgar, Peter Sarsgaard (very good here) and the consistently excellent Kenneth Cranham, playing David Lloyd George.

Jones is a brilliant journalist - and linguist - who has, when the action starts, already interviewed Hitler. He has the idea of interviewing Stalin, whom many people in the West believed at that time was creating a glorious new society. Once Jones gets to Moscow, and meets the dodgy Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty, a Kremlin apologist played by Sarsgaard, he starts to wonder if everything is really as it seems. A traumatic trip to Ukraine reveals many horrors, which he is determined to bring to light.

The film is excellent in many ways, but the pace does flag at times. A story as good as this deserves a really sharp script. Given the emphasis placed on the notion that 'there is only one truth', it's also rather disconcerting to learn just how much of the film is invented. George Orwell, who plays a part in the story, never met Jones, while some of the incidents in Ukraine appear never to have happened. I understand why film-makers make stuff up, even in stories based on real life, but I'm not convinced some of the embellishments were necessary. But what matters most is that this is a powerful story. It certainly made me think.

Young Adam - 2003 film

Young Adam is not an especially well-known film and it doesn't seem to have done particularly well at the box office. Yet it boasts a brilliant cast, including Ewan McGregor as Joe, Tilda Swinton as Ella, who owns a coal barge and is married to grumpy Les (Peter Mullan), and Emily Mortimer. The story is based on a novel by the Scottish author Alexander Trocchi. I'd never heard of Trocchi, I have to confess, but to judge from his Wikipedia entry, he was an unorthodox character, a heroin addict who led a rather troubled life and died in his late 50s.

This is not really a 'crime film' in the orthodox sense, yet the story has a number of attributes that we associate with crime films, including a mysterious death and a murder trial, plus an examination of guilt and conscience. At the start of the film, Joe and Les haul out of the River Clyde the body of a young woman who is only wearing a petticoat. At first the authorities have difficulty in identifying the corpse. Meanwhile,, the barge moves on and Joe turns his attention to Ella, whose marriage is on the rocks. They begin an affair and although Les discovers what is going on, he doesn't do much about it before leaving the couple to their own devices.

Flashbacks give us clues as to what really happened to result in the woman's death in the water. She is Cathy (Emily Mortimer); Joe picked her up on beach and began a relationship with her. She went out to work while he tried and failed to write a novel, but the affair faltered. There is a lot of nudity in this film and several scenes which are controversial, but on the whole I'd say David Mackenzie's direction is subtle rather than exploitative. 

There are various implausibilities, especially as regards the murder trial. I guess neither Trocchi nor Mackenzie felt unduly constrained by the need for factual accuracy, but I think the lack of credibility in some of the details is a weakness. The ending also strikes me as interesting, but artistically unsatisfactory. So it certainly isn't a perfect film, and one thing is for sure: if you're looking for a feelgood movie, this isn't it. But it's quite haunting and the acting is excellent.   


Monday 8 August 2022

Fear No More - 1961 film review

Fear No More is an obscure film noir dating from 1961. The script is based on a novel of the same name by Leslie Edgley (who was born in London but spent most of his life on the other side of the Atlantic). Some reviews compare the style of storytelling to Hitchcock, but in view of the multiple - and sometimes dazzling - plot twists, I think a closer comparison is with Francis Durbridge.

This is a film with some rough edges and some pretty rough acting, but the lead character, Sharon Carlin, is well played by Mala Powers, who invests the part with the right balance of innocent charm and paranoia. She is asked by her boss to take an important message by train, but immediately finds herself in a train compartment with a dead woman's body. 

That's only the start of her misfortunes, which multiply with dizzying speed. A villain coshes her and then a cop accuses her of murder. She escapes from the cop and is almost run over by a car driven by Paul Colbert (Jacques Bergerac, a rather wooden and unconvincing performer, I'm afraid), who then offers her a lift. The plot continues to thicken impressively.

In essence, this is one of those situations where we root for a protagonist who is faced with an ingenious and implacable enemy and who finds herself unable to convince anyone that she is telling the truth. It's a good story, despite the inevitable implausibilities. The ending is clumsy and one feels that with more care this could have become a minor classic. Debatable, I accept, but for all the film's flaws, I enjoyed it.

Friday 5 August 2022

Forgotten Book - With No Crying

Abortion, kidnapping, squatters, under-age sex. The ingredients of a cutting-edge novel of today? Well, perhaps, but they also form the core elements of a novel published way back in 1980. With No Crying is another of Celia Fremlin's remarkable novels of suspense and, as usual, almost all the main characters are women. Strong women, weak women, jealous and malicious women (she was especially good at chronicling vindictiveness between so-called female friends). It is perhaps hard for a male reader to judge some of these characterisations fairly, but for me Fremlin was one of the finest suspense novelists of her era.

In this story, Miranda Field is a dreamy fifteen year old who, along with her pal Susan, fantasises about boys she doesn't know. When a 'chance encounter' with the object of her affections is contrived, the result is a brief sexual encounter which results in her becoming pregnant. Her parents are left-wing progressives, but although, on the surface, they seem supportive, in fact their attitude is selfish. Fremlin was herself a left-wing progressive by instinct, and her portrayal of the Fields is all the more convincing because one suspects that she knew many people like them in real life.

Miranda agrees, very reluctantly, to have an abortion, but she is embittered by her parents' treatment of her. Before long, she runs off and ends up in a squat with a number of idealistic young people. But she pretends that she is still pregnant, and this deception has alarming consequences.

This is a short book, but it is unpredictable and it packs a punch. There's a good twist, which as the blurb says, is carefully foreshadowed. The story is a good one but really it's the presentation of the characters that makes it stikc in the mind .Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday 3 August 2022

Teller of the Unexpected and Deadlier

Many years ago - sometime during the late Seventies - I went to a party at Roald Dahl's house in Buckinghamshire. Was I invited as a promising young writer, whom the great man was keen to encourage and mentor? I'm afraid not. I was basically just a hanger-on - my newish girlfriend (the future Mrs Edwards) was a schoolfriend of Tessa Dahl and when she was invited, I had the chance to accompany her. It was a memorable occasion, but I can't pretend that Roald and I had a long and intense conversation debating how to twisty tales of the unexpected. I suppose I ought to make up a better story...

I was, however, by that time a firm fan of his work, having come across 'William and Mary' in my early teens, and then 'The Way Up to Heaven'. Two terrific short stories, and in terms of adult fiction, I'd say that he was much better suited to the short form than to the novel. His children's fiction came later. He's been the subject of several biographies and the latest is Teller of the Unexpected by Matthew Dennison.

This is an unofficial biography, with the limitations that implies, and there's no discussion - for instance - of Dahl's friendship with Ian Fleming, which led to 'Lamb for the Slaughter'. But it's a brisk read and the story of an extraordinary life is recounted in workmanlike fashion. I never knew, for instance, that one of his most influential teachers at school was a former Derbyshire cricketer. Dahl's personal shortcomings have been well-documented, but he's always struck me as a slightly tragic figure. He certainly experienced more than his fair share of family tragedy.

Dennison's book is published by Head of Zeus, my own publishers, who have also been responsible for some impressively weighty anthologies. One of these - very attractively produced, by the way - is Deadlier, a collection of 100 short crime stories by women writers, edited by Sophie Hannah. It's a very wide-ranging book (from Allingham to Attwood, and that's only the As!) and I can warmly recommend it.

Monday 1 August 2022

Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films - by Barry Forshaw

Very few authors of books about the crime genre feature as extensively in the Bibliography of The Life of Crime as Barry Forshaw. Barry is an impressively prolific writer and he has now come up with another snappy book, published by No Exit Press about the Belgian maestro of crime. No, not Poirot, but Georges Simenon. The title is Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films, and it represents a crisp and user-friendly introduction to the subject.

I noticed that I'm quoted in the endorsements of one of Barry's previous books, saying that Barry's constructive approach comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. I'm glad I said that, because it sums up a key merit of his writing - the positive tone. In addition, he is concise, and that too is a bonus because verbose lit.crit., however well-informed, can become tedious.

From start to finish, Barry's experience as a journalist informs his approach as well as his straightforward and readable writing style. To take just one example, the section 'Adapting Maigret' is essentially an extended quotation from an interview with Alison Joseph, who is at home with radio writing as she is with penning detective novels. Barry has also built upon a bibliography developed by the late David Carter almost twenty years ago.

One of Barry's strengths is his knowledge of films and he itemises many films based on Simenon novels that I'm unfamiliar with. Of the British TV series, it's clear that he prefers the portrayals of Maigret by Rupert Davies and Michael Gambon to Rowan Atkinson's recent interpretation. I don't know if there's ever been a Simenon encyclopaedia, but if not, this little book is an excellent, scaled-down alternative.