Friday 30 September 2022

Forgotten Book - Case for Sergeant Beef

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

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

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

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

Thursday 29 September 2022

Forgotten Book - Die Like a Man

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Back from Italy

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

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

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

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

Monday 26 September 2022

Blood Relatives - 1978 film review

Claude Chabrol was an excellent film director, sometimes compared to Hitchcock but distinctive in his approach. Blood Relatives, a Canadian-French film of his from fairly late in his career is his take on an 87th Precinct police procedural by Ed McBain. The result of this collaboration of talents is suspenseful and interesting movie, with the setting switched to Montreal - apparently for tax reasons - but not to the detriment of the story.

Donald Sutherland plays Steve Carella, McBain's lead character in the series. As ever, he puts in a good performance as he seeks to unravel the truth behind a savage knife attack on two young women who are cousins, one dark night. The older girl is killed, the younger one is wounded but survives and gives conflicting descriptions of their attacker.

The suspects include a dirty old man played by Donald Pleasence and the dead girl's philandering boos, played by David Hemmings. Two impressive actors who are, arguably, under-employed in the story. There is also the handsome brother of the girl who survived; it turns out that he's been having an affair with the girl who died.

Carella spends a lot of the time reading the victim's secret diary, and much of the story is told in flashbacks. This is a clunky device, but Chabrol handles it pretty well. The culprit isn't too difficult to pinpoint, but the film is well-made. Mind you, it's striking to think how much attitudes have changed towards exploitative relationships in the past forty-plus years. The way an under-age girl is interviewed by Carella with nobody else present now seems rather alarming.

Friday 23 September 2022

Forgotten Book - The Death of Laurence Vining

The Death of Laurence Vining, by Alan Thomas, first appeared in 1928. The story has been discussed quite extensively on the blogosphere. It's a 'locked room' mystery - in fact, the victim is found in a lift at Hyde Park Corner Underground Station, but the impossible crime element of the story is only part of its appeal. Thomas also plays a game with the reader - I won't spell out its precise nature, for fear of giving a spoiler. But some commentators have invoked Anthony Berkeley, and I suspect that Berkeley would indeed have found much to enjoy in this book (not least its treatment of 'justice'), even though it's not as well written as his fiction.

Vining is firmly in the tradition of the Great Detective, a brilliant amateur sleuth with an admiring 'Watson' in the shape of Dr Willing. At the start of the story, a man is sentenced to death on the strength of Vining's detective work, though oddly the description of the case is rather perfunctory. Soon it becomes clear that Vining is rather a nasty piece of work. Quite how nasty is one of the unsettling aspects of the story.

When he is found dead in baffling circumstances, Willing seems destined to solve the case. Instead, the detective work is done by a Scotland Yard man. One of the weaknesses of the story is that it features a Malaysian character whose presentation is unfortunate, to say the least. Another is that the central storyline is padded out. My interest flagged as a result.

This was Thomas's first novel, so I think we can forgive many of the rough edges of the story, which is rather unsatisfactorily structured. However, he does have some neat tricks up his sleeve. The motive was, for me (as usual) more interesting than the murderer's modus operandi. There are some good ideas here, even if their execution leaves something to be desired.

Wednesday 21 September 2022

Angel Face - 1953 film review

Angel Face is an interesting and slightly unorthodox film noir, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. It's one of those films which wasn't especially successful on first release, but time has seen a generally favourable re-evaluation. This is largely due, I think, to the fact that the characters aren't simple ciphers. Even the glamorous femme fatale has her good points.

Mitchum plays Frank Jessup, a racing driver who now drives an ambulance. He and his pal are called out to the mansion of the wealthy Tremayne family, where Mrs Catherine Tremayne has suffered (not fatally) from gas poisoning. Frank meets Catherine's step-daughter, Diane (Simmons), who immediately takes a shine to him.

Diane pursues Frank, prompting his break-up with his girlfriend Mary (Mona Wilton) and gets him a job as the family chauffeur. They begin an affair, but even Frank, who isn't the sharpest knife in the block, suspects that Diane isn't to be trusted. And then death comes to the Tremayne family...

There's a murder trial and a shock finale, but really the plot is nothing special. What makes this film stand out is the direction and the performances of the lead actors. Simmons is especially good, giving some depth to her portrayal of an impulsive young woman whose demons get the better of her. Mitchum's character is an average guy. We don't entirely sympathise with him, but he's not a bad guy. Unfortunately, his misjudgements lead to disastrous consequences.  

Tuesday 20 September 2022

Another Festival

Writing events (including writing workshops) have become an interesting mix of  live, hybrid, and online gigs, with podcasts and other online events adding further variety. This year, it's been a real pleasure for me to take part in no fewer than four festivals in Scotland and over the weekend I attended my final 'live' festival of the year, at Bloody Scotland in Stirling.

Because of other commitments, it had to be something of a flying visit, and before I set off I had a number of causes for celebration. One was a wonderful review of Blackstone Fell by Barry Turner in the Daily Mail. Another was a message from a school librarian in the south of England, telling me that my very first novel, All the Lonely People, had been chosen as their ebook of the month. I gather the pupils enjoyed the plot twists, and I do find it truly heartening that a book written so long ago should continue to entertain a new generation of readers.

Stirling is a historic city, which I haven't visited for ages, and shortly after arrival I bumped into Elly Griffiths and Lesley Thomson, so we went off and had (not for the first time this year) a very enjoyable chat over a pizza and a glass of wine. On Saturday morning I had the chance to chat with a number of old friends, including Ann Cleeves, Marsali Taylor, Mick Herron, Jane Corry, and Ayo Onatade. It was also good to talk with Susan Heads, who runs the excellent Booktrail site which carried a great review, of Blackstone Fell, Sophie Ransom (who has done a great job promoting the book) and my fellow panel members, Jonathan Whitelaw and Sophia Bennett. Ayo and Susan are in the photos above, Jonathan and Sophia below.

Our panel, chaired by Rod Green, was on the topic of 'cosy crime' (or, as I'd rather call it, the 'traditional mystery') and it was a lot of fun. After a quick look round Stirling I had to dash back home, but I broke the long drive at Penrith, and enjoyed wandering around the ancient castle in the sunshine. This year's live festivals have been highly convivial and I've had a great time at places as different as Colonsay, Harrogate, Gladstone's Library, and Birnam. Thanks go to all the organisers who work so hard to make these events so enjoyable. And now a few days' break before, with any luck, I finish the next Rachel Savernake book, Sepulchre Street, and start to tackle a few short story commissions...  

Friday 16 September 2022

Forgotten Book - The Big Ben Alibi

Golden Age detective fiction lends itself to parody and pastiche, but during the Golden Age itself, I'd say there weren't too many laugh-out-loud detective novels. I've come across a very pleasing exception to that general rule, namely The Big Ben Alibi, by Neil Gordon. The name was a pseudonym for the Scottish writer A.G. Macdonell (1895-1941), who appears to have published seven solo detective novels plus one which he co-wrote with Milward Kennedy, The Bleston Mystery.

Macdonell is remembered today, however, for a comic novel rather than a mystery. England, Their England is renowned in particular for a very enjoyable cricket scene, and a cricketer (who tells many boring stories about his career) is one of the members of the supporting cast in The Big Ben Alibi. The story concerns two young detective novelists whose latest novels are turned down by Henry Haddington, their literary agent. They hatch a cunning plan to enable them to recover their fortunes...

John Maclennan, one of the two writers, is a Scot, and I did wonder if he and his colleague George Cranford represented, to an extent at least, jokey versions of Macdonnell and Kennedy. I don't know the answer, but I certainly enjoyed the jokes about the cliches and conventions of Golden Age detective fiction, as well as the skits on popular newspapers. This reads like a book that was a lot of fun to write.

The plot is competently put together (which isn't always the case with comic detective novels) but what makes The Big Ben Alibi stand out is the sheer joie de vivre of the storyline, which involves a country house mystery, an unbreakable alibi and plenty of other tropes of the genre. I'm surprised this book has been so overlooked for so long. 


Forgotten Book - The Devil and the C.I.D.

E.C. R. Lorac published The Devil and the C.I.D. in 1938, the year after her election to membership of the Detection Club, and at a point in her career where her confidence was high. Her two previous books, Bats in the Belfry and These Names Make Clues, are among her best. The Devil and the C.I.D. is, I think, a great title and the opening of the story is truly memorable.

Our old chum Inspector Macdonald is driving through central London in a 'pea-soup' fog, atmospherically described. He leaves his car briefly to help a woman in distress and unwisely leaves his car unlocked. When he gets back, there is a corpse in the back of the car. What is more, the deceased is dressed up as Mephistopheles, and has been murdered. Poor old Macdonald is embarrassed into solving the crime.

This isn't an entirely orthodox detective mystery and I don't want to say too much about the sequence of events that unfolds. There's an interesting mix of characters and this is one of those Lorac books where we are given a clear insight into Macdonald's essential humanity. He is a pleasing creation, and by no means as anonymous or humdrum as a number of other Scotland Yard men from the Golden Age, even if he's neither an Alleyn nor an Appleby.

One of the reasons I find Lorac's books appealing is that she was equally good at conveying urban and rural settings. She doesn't over-indulge in description, but we get a picture of London in this book, as well as in several others she wrote in the mid to late 30s. A few years later, she was writing quite lyrically about Lunesdale in Lancashire, a very different part of the world, with equal authority.  

Wednesday 14 September 2022

Crimson Peak - 2015 film review

Crimson Peak is a film I find far from easy to judge fairly. The director is the Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro, whose The Shape of Water I found odd but fascinating (I watched it on a long plane trip, not the ideal way to watch a thought-provoking movie, but it has definitely stayed in my memory). He has a gift for the visual, and is renowned for giving a gorgeous sheen to the grotesque. There's plenty of that in Crimson Peak.

In the late nineteenth century, a young American girl, Edith Cushing (the surname may be a nod to that fine horror actor Peter Cushing) sees the ghost of her dead mother, who warns her to beware of 'Crimson Peak'. Fast forward to 1901, and Edith is a grown woman, played by Mia Wassikowska. She encounters an English baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is visiting the States in the company of his sister Lucille (Jessican Chastain). Sharpe fails to persuade Edith's wealthy father to fund his plans to restore the fortunes of the clay mines on his family estate, but he and Edith hit it off. Her father disapproves, but is savagely murdered. In a repellent and frankly ridiculous scene, Edith is bullied into identifying her father's disfigured corpse. 

Edith duly marries Sharpe, much to the dismay of her admirer Alan (Charlie Hunnam) and the couple, along with Lucille, head for the Sharpe estate, Allerdale Hall in Cumberland. Cumberland is, as one reviewer, said, portrayed rather like a desolate prairie. The old house is a sinister, decaying version of  a Disney castle, and red clay oozes symbolically from the ground - yeah, you see that all the time in the Lake District. Realistic it ain't, and for me this tended to diminish the impact of much of the horrors that follow.

Because del Toro is a gifted film-maker, Crimson Peak is worth watching. Unfortunately, as co-writer of the screenplay, he has to take some of the blame for the feebleness of much of the dialogue. There's too much silliness for the story to be taken seriously, and even though I definitely believe one should make generous allowances for excess and over the top melodrama in a Gothic storyline, in this case the overwhelming weight of the absurdities did diminish my enjoyment.    

Monday 12 September 2022


From the time I discovered Agatha Christie and detective fiction at the age of eight, I dreamed of becoming a detective writer myself, but I had no idea what it would be like. I knew nothing of the writing life and I had no contact with writers of any kind that I can recall until, as a student, I attended talks given by a range of well-known authors such as Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Brian Aldiss, and Angus Wilson, whose worlds seemed totally remote from mine and to be honest, not entirely appealing. Later, when I met crime writers, I began to understand a little of the downs, as well as the ups, of the writing life.

One thing I learned then was that those 'ups' don't come along every day - far from it. So it makes sense to celebrate them when they do crop up. And the last couple of weeks really have felt like 'living the dream', with in-person and virtual events and radio interviews, and above all in terms of reviewer reaction to both The Life of Crime and Blackstone Fell.

Within the last fortnight, I've had a review in the New York Times and two, on successive Saturdays, in The Times - for Blackstone Fell and The Life of Crime respectively. Incredible - a once in a lifetime experience! Mark Sanderson was very generous about my novel (and he's been kind about the earlier books two, so although I've never met him, if I ever do cross his path, I definitely need to buy him a drink!) 

Just this Saturday, Christina Hardyment's review of the 'audiobook of the week' described The Life of Crime as 'pacey and immersive' and as an 'inclusive cornucopia' and also contains a wonderful sentence: 'Martin Edwards is the closest thing there has been to a philosopher of crime writing.' Wow! So Christina too has made me very happy. 

And then there's someone else, I've never met, the American film historian David Bordwell, who has just published a wonderful essay about the book on 'Observations on Film Art' which concludes: 'The Life of Crime is, then, a book in four dimensions: reference volume, historical survey, armory of literary techniques, and biographical accounts of major artists. To succeed with any one of these is remarkable; to succeed with all of them is something of a miracle. It will remain an indispensable guide to its subject.

Finally, the blog tour for Blackstone Fell has just concluded. I'm enormously grateful to everyone who has taken the time and trouble to feature the book. I'm very pleased that there's a strong consensus, for instance, that you can read Blackstone Fell without having first read the earlier Rachel Savernake books. I'm also delighted that so many people have enjoyed the writing and characterisation - as well as the intricacy of the puzzles and the Cluefinder! In light of the comments, although I hadn't planned to include a Cluefinder in my next book about Rachel, I may be tempted to reconsider and see if it's do-able. And I'm going to compile a precis of the reviews before long, simply to reassure myself that I haven't actually dreamed it all...

Thursday 8 September 2022

Exciting Times

When I wrote on 29 August that an exciting week lay ahead, I wasn't exaggerating. I have had the great good fortune to see The New York Times give The Life of Crime a fine review and then, just a few days later, to read a wonderful review of Blackstone Fell in The Times. These are the sort of things a writer dreams of. And then, among other things, there has been a fantastic in-depth appraisal of The Life of Crime by the film historian David Bordwell for which I'm truly grateful.

Events have come thick and fast, including a podcast with Lucinda Hawksley, the biographer and descendant of Charles Dickens, and an interview with Ann Cleeves in Carlisle. Over lunch, Ann and I had the pleasure of reading the reviews of our new books in The Times and reflecting that it wasn't always like this for either of us...

After Carlisle, I spent a lovely evening in Birnam with book dealer Scott Herbertson and his family. Next morning, it was off to Nairn, for a couple of events as part of the Nairn Book and Arts Festival. I also had a sandwich lunch watching the cricket on the sea front at Nairn in the sunshine - a lovely way to spend the time. In the evening, a very convivial dinner with Jennifer Henderson, biographer of Josephine Tey (our joint event together is pictured above) and her equally delightful mum Christine.

The trip to Nairn involved a much longer drive than I've had since my car accident two months ago. It's an 800 mile round trip, so I spent Sunday relaxing and sightseeing around places like Forres (site of the Nelson Tower, the photo at the top of this post, which put me in mind of Blackstone Tower!), Brodie Castle, Elgin, Hopeman, Lossiemouth and Findhorn. A chance to recharge the batteries and also to think about forthcoming writing projects - I have quite a few things lined up for when I have finished work on Sepulchre Street, Rachel Savernake's fourth case. 

Monday 5 September 2022

Farewell My Lovely - 1975 film review

The 1975 version of Farewell My Lovely, based on Raymond Chandler's novel, is widely acclaimed. The first time I saw it, many years ago, I was underwhelmed, but I decided to give it another try and I'm glad I did. Second time around, I was more impressed by Robert Mitchum's interpretation of Philip Marlowe. Originally I felt he was too old for the part and not quite suited to it anyway. On reflection, I think he does a better job than I realised.

Perhaps I was simply in the right mood for the film this time. Mood and atmosphere are extremely important to the film (which is set in 1941) and the director Dick Richards did a good job on that score. Speaking of scores, David Shire's music is also well-suited to the film. The screenplay by David Zelag Goodman (whose other credits include The Eyes of Laura Mars) avoids falling into the trap of pastiche. 

Quite apart from Mitchum, the cast is very strong. Moose Malloy, the huge bank robber who is crazy about a missing woman called Velma, and hires Marlowe to find her, can't have been easy to cast, but Jack O'Halloran, a former boxer whose first film role this was, does a great job. The famously sultry Charlotte Rampling is good as Helen Grayle, while Sylvia Miles makes the most of a smaller part, the alcoholic Jessie Florian: her performance earned her an Oscar nomination and deservedly so. Fascinatingly, Judge Grayle is played by the legendary hardboiled writer Jim Thompson. There's even a part for the young Sylvester Stallone.

This film isn't in the same league as Polanski's Chinatown, which was released a year earlier, but even though it lacks originality, I now think it's very effective entertainment. As with books, some films definitely improve on a second look.

Friday 2 September 2022

Forgotten Book - A Question of Time

A Question of Time, published in 1958, seems to have been the first of Harry Carmichael's stand-alone novels. He was best-known, like so many other Collins Crime Club authors, for his series - one written under his own name and featuring Piper and Quinn and another written as Hartley Howard featuring Glenn Bowman. Here he stretches beyond his comfort zone.

The result is a smoothly accomplished mystery. The viewpoint character is Martin Kennedy; however, the story is told in the third person rather than by Martin himself. I suspect this is because Martin is, in a number of ways, not an easy character for readers to sympathise with. He's having an affair with one woman and is being pursued by another, while his wife is out of town. He's also rather dense at times. No real surprise, then, when he winds up as a prime suspect in a murder case.

The victim is his lover, Felicity, whose body he discovers when visiting her home in the company of her husband, amiable Richard Campbell. The plot complications flow thick and fast. As the title suggests, much depends upon timings. It's a sort of update of Freeman Wills Crofts in that respect. There's even a diligent policeman.

Thjs is a quick read, quite well-written and not lacking in pace. Unfortunately, I figured out whodunit early on, even though the precise technicalities underpinning the culprit's scheme eluded me. The fact is, I'm always much more interested in motive than means when reading mystery stores and that's why I was able to anticipate the 'surprise solution'. So, for me, this one is only a partial success.  

Thursday 1 September 2022

Publication Day - Blackstone Fell

No matter how many books one publishes, the very first appearance of a new novel is always exciting. And today sees the official publication by Head of Zeus of my twenty-first novel, not counting collaborative efforts.  Blackstone Fell is the third book to feature Rachel Savernake and Jacob Flint and the very first novel of mine to include a locked room puzzle at its heart (although there are other mysteries to be solved as well). It's a book that, for a variety of reasons, I'm really proud of.

But it's one thing for an author to feel reasonably satisfied with a novel (and we all know that achieving perfection is impossible, however much we try). It's quite another for that novel to meet with the approval of others. And while Blackstone Fell is, I hope, a very entertaining story, it's also one that places some demands on the reader. There's plenty of humour in the story, but also quite a bit of darkness and a good deal of mysterious complexity. It's not a pastiche but an attempt to rework Golden Age concepts in a fresh way.

So it's truly encouraging when a reviewer with high standards and expertise 'gets' what one is trying to do. And the initial reaction to the novel in the blogosphere is enormously heartening. Take Puzzle Doctor, for instance, who says: 'One of the strengths of this book is the finale. I can tell you now, if you think that you've solved this, you haven't...I seriously doubt that any armchair sleuth will solve this, despite playing perfectly fair with the reader. There's far more to it than just that, though, with the intriguing central character...vivid descriptions...and a plot that never stands till while never meandering from what you need to see. A must read.'

The blog tour has also got off to a great start - the latest lovely review coming from amwbooks - lots of great quotes there! I'm hugely grateful to Intensive Gassing about BooksWhat Cathy Read NextTwo Heads are better than one, and Bookish Jottings who have posted reviews already. It's very gratifying when readers unfamiliar with my work find that it entertains them and I'm pleased to see the comments indicating that you can start reading the series with the new book - you don't necessarily have to begin at the beginning with Gallows Court if that isn't convenient. Thanks to everyone who has taken or is taking the time and trouble to read and comment on the book. This sort of reaction makes the writing life feel really worthwhile!