Monday 31 October 2022

Ghosts and Ghosts from the Library

On Halloween, what better than to look at a couple of enjoyable - and very different - anthologies of ghost stories? I've always been interested in stories of the supernatural, and with a few notable exceptions I think the ghost story usually works best in the short form. I've even tried my hand at this kind of fiction, with a story called 'No Flowers' that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (and the editor Janet Hutchings even recorded me reading it a few years ago), and I may return to it before too long.

Ghosts from the Library is the latest collection edited by Tony Medawar. It's a companion volume to his Bodies from the Library series, and Tony kindly inscribed the books for me recently, when I was his guest at a fascinating crime-themed dinner in London. It's no secret that Tony and I are old friends, so naturally you'd expect me to like his books, and this latest title definitely reflects his reputation as the best in the business at finding unknown stories by leading authors of the past.

One astonishing find also happened to be my favourite story in the whole book. This is 'The Green Dress' by Anthony Berkeley. I never knew it existed, but I really enjoyed reading it - for me, that story alone justifies the book! But there's plenty more beside, including a good story by Christianna Brand, another by Edmund Crispin, and an excellent Agatha Christie that I'd previously heard in an audio version. 

Louise Welsh is someone I've never met, but I've admired her writing for a long time. Ghost is a massive anthology (with lovely cover artwork by the admirable Ed Bettison) which includes no fewer than one hundred stories, with contributions from Pliny the Younger to Fay Weldon. With so many good things included, it's impossible to pick out favourites, but I must say that I was impressed that Louise Welsh managed to find so many gems that I'd never come across before, rather than sticking to a predictable line-up. So just to whet your appetite, the author list includes Kafka, Richmal Crompton, Tove Jansson, P.G. Wodehouse, Sir Alec Guinness, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Hilary Mantel. Not to mention two of the finest short story writers of all, Shirley Jackson and William Trevor. A terrific book. 

Friday 28 October 2022

Forgotten Book - Death of an Author

The revival of E.C.R. Lorac's reputation as a detective novelist during the past few years has given me a great deal of pleasure. As I've said in the past, I was introduced to her work by my parents, and I often think that they'd be amused and gratified to see that a writer they both enjoyed has found an extensive new readership in the twenty-first century, not only in the UK but also in the US.

Death of an Author was one of her early books, written before she moved up to Lunesdale. It was the last novel of hers published by Sampson Low before she was taken on by Collins Crime Club. An unusual feature of the novel is that Inspector Macdonald doesn't appear. Here she introduces us to a likeable pair of cops called Warner and Bond.

The early chapters are absolutely excellent. We meet a publisher called Marriott and one of his top authors, a man called Ashe. The conversation turns to a bestseller by a mysterious author called Vivian Lestrange. Ashe is fascinated by book and author and persuades Marriott to arrange a dinner at which he can meet the reclusive writer. But then he is thunderstruck to be introduced to an attractive young woman...

It's difficult to discuss this book without giving too many spoilers. Suffice to say that we are given a fascinating picture of the literary world as well as an intriguing and unorthodox mystery. I really enjoyed it and I'm pleased to say that the British Library are also keen. This is a book that is extremely rare, but it won't be for long. Next year, all being well, it will appear as a Crime Classic. 

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Last Looks - 2022 film review

Last Looks is a recent entry in that challenging and often underwhelming branch of film-making, the 'comedy thriller'. Striking the right balance between comedy and thrills is a far from straightforward task. However, Tim Kirkby's film, based on a novel by Howard Michael Gould, makes a good attempt at mixing the ingredients in the correct measures.

At the start of the film, we're introduced to Charlie Waldo (played by Charlie Hunnam), who has quit the LAPD for a simple life in a trailer; he has just one hundred possessions. A glamorous old flame called Lorena (Morena Baccarin) tries to encourage him to put his detective talents to work on behalf of a famous actor, Alastair Pinch, who has been accused of murdering his wife. Waldo plays hard to get, but after Lorena disappears he finds himself drawn into the mystery. And we find out that his new home is only a bike raid away from the city....

Pinch is played by Mel Gibson, who is entertainingly awful as an entitled British actor whose main redeeming feature is his devotion to his small daughter. There are quite a lot of amusing parodic touches, including the hero's obligatory fling with a pretty blonde woman, but the script is good enough to ensure that the audience doesn't become bored or irritated. The mystery plot, despite leaning heavily on tropes of the private eye genre, is soundly constructed.

I don't recall coming across Charlie Hunnam before, but he holds the film together with a performance of considerable range and humanity. A story of this kind can easily lose momentum after a few initial surprises and jokes, but Last Looks kept me interested to the end. Very good light entertainment.

Monday 24 October 2022

Natural Enemy - 1996 film review

Natural Enemy is a thriller starring Donald Sutherland which dates back twenty-five years. I knew nothing about the film, but Sutherland is always good value, and so I gave it a go. I was glad I did, since it's entertaining story that doesn't outstay its welcome. After watching, I discovered that it's a Canadian made for TV film, but it is of a higher standard than many made-for-telly movies, despite the fact that Kevin Bernhardt's script does have a few shortcomings.

We're thrown into the action right away. Ted (Sutherland) is a financial trader who has a good-looking young right-hand man called Jeremy (William McNamara). From the start it seems that Jeremy is slightly strange and over-the-top and it soon emerges that he has violent tendencies. Ted unwisely invites the young man to stay at his family home while he sorts out a few problems in his personal life. At first Jeremy demurs, but he changes his mind, and turns up with a girlfriend in tow: she is older, and married to someone else.

Ted lives with his glamorous second wife Sandy (Lesley Ann Warren) and his son from his first marriage, Chris (Christian Tessier). Sandy is pregnant, and the family is a happy one. However, Jeremy soon proves to be a disruptive influence and his behaviour towards his girlfriend is sadistic. It's pretty evident that there is something very wrong with him, and Ted's extreme naivete where Jeremy is concerned is one of the flaws in the story. 

Nonetheless, as events spiral towards a terrible climax, the cast handle the material with plenty of verve. It's easy to dismiss films such as this as hokum, but the quality of the acting, in particular from Sutherland and Warren, and the pace of the story meant that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.   

Friday 21 October 2022

Forgotten Book - Murder at Liberty Hall

Years ago, I came across a lovely, jacketed first edition of Murder at Liberty Hall at a book fair. The price was out of reach, but I was intrigued to see that the author was Alan Clutton-Brock. At first I wondered if this was the same chap as Alan Brock, author of Earth to Ashes and various other rather interesting novels, but it turned out that he was someone else entirely.

Clutton-Brock (1904-76) was best-known as an art critic. He also owned Chastleton, a grand home near Moreton-in-Marsh, which is now in the care of the National Trust; despite many trips to that part of the world, I've never actually visited Chastleton, and it's an omission I must repair. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, so was definitely a pillar of the establishment. But it's clear from his novel that he had a good sense of humour. The book was published in 1941, but describes events of May 1939 and there are mentions of possible German espionage.

The title refers to a progressive school, Scrope House, which is very, very different from Eton. The narrator is James Hardwicke, a scientist who has become well-known for his researches into identical twins (spoiler alert - twins do not play a part in the plot!). He and a lady friend, Caroline, accept an invitation from a rich old woman who owns the school to investigate some instances of arson and soon finds himself in the thick of a poisoning mystery.

The mystery aspects of the story are quite competently done, although pace and tension are conspicuous by their absence. The slowest part of the book is actually the segment that I found most entertaining - a witty account of a cricket match between a conventional local school and a motley band of boys and girls from Scrope. This is, if you like cricket, really good fun. If you don't share my love of the summer game, you may find the story drags. But Clutton-Brock wrote with gentle wit and intelligence and it's rather a shame that this was his only venture into the genre. 

Wednesday 19 October 2022

Pistols, Bombs and Motor Bandits by Joan Lock

I first met Joan Lock (and her late husband Bob) more years ago than either of us would care to remember, at a CWA conference. We've kept in touch through the years and for a long time Joan contributed an excellent column about police matters to 'Red Herrings', the CWA members' newsletter. She was herself a woman police officer and she has written a good deal of non-fiction as well as publishing several novels.

Her latest book is published by Robin Books. It's called Pistols, Bombs and Motor Bandits, and it has an intriguing sub-title, The Real Golden Age of Murder. Joan was kind enough to read and enjoy my own non-fiction book The Golden Age of Murder, about the classic detective fiction of the Thirties. This book makes numerous references to mine, but it is very different, an account of what was going on in the real world of policing. 

Joan's practical know-how is reflected in her direct and readable writing style and she explores, in a crisp and satisfactory way, a number of famous cases (for instance, the 'Beach' or 'Crumbles' murder) as well as several that are just as intriguing but not at all well-known. There's a good deal of material in this book that's likely to interest writers who, like me, are interested in writing historical crime fiction and, importantly, there is a useful index.

In inscribing my copy of this book, Joan was kind enough to say that The Golden Age of Murder inspired her to write it. Regardless of that, I can say unequivocally that I really enjoyed reading it and can recommend it to anyone who is interested in the realities of the history of criminal investigation in this country. 

Monday 17 October 2022

The Rising Tide and Serpent's Point

Two friends of mine who also happen to be writers I admire have published new novels recently. It goes without saying that I recommend their work, but I thought that today I'd discuss how apparently very different approaches to writing can result in equally harmonious results. I've touched on this subject before, and I was reminded of it when conducting a recent online crime writing workshop in collaboration with another pair of interesting writers, Lucinda Hawksley and David Mark.

Ann Cleeves' The Rising Tide is the latest Vera Stanhope mystery. I had the pleasure - and it really was a pleasure - of discussing the book with Ann in conversation at a theatre in Carlisle a few weeks ago. Ann is a very consistent writer, but I think it's fair to say that this is probably my favourite among her recent books. It combines a wonderful setting (Lindisfarne) with a good mystery and interesting characterisation.

Ann has often said that she doesn't plot her books in advance. At Carlisle, she mentioned that she originally had a different starting point for the story. But her experience and skill enable her to weave various pieces of material into a pleasing pattern. We're introduced to the characters before murder strikes, and then after the investigation begins, another tragedy occurs. The closing pages, as ever, see at least one character in peril, and in this book the jeopardy is handled at least as effectively as in any of Ann's earlier bestsellers. The result is powerful.

Kate Ellis's Serpent's Point is also an entry in a long series, this time featuring Wesley Peterson. Again the setting (in Devon) is a valuable ingredient. Kate does plot her books - very meticulously - but like Ann she manages to come up with a pattern of writing, in her case a blend of a historical mystery and a contemporary crime, which is harmonious and appealing to a large number of readers. I don't want to say too much about the detail of either story, but here I was especially taken with the premise of the victim, Susan, undertaking a do-it-yourself crime investigation. Brave or foolish of her? Well, you'll have to read the book to find out... 

Friday 14 October 2022

Forgotten Book - Death Watch

John Dickson Carr published Death Watch in 1935. It's not a locked room mystery, but it does feature the great Dr Gideon Fell. At this point, Carr was still very young, not even thirty years old, yet he was already approaching the peak of his powers. The next Fell novel, appearing later that same year, was The Hollow Man, often cited as the finest of all impossible crime stories.

Death Watch is crammed with wonderful ingredients. The house of Johannus Carver is in Lincoln's Inn Fields, a great setting. Carver is a clockmaker and there is some fascinating stuff about timepieces. The characters include a female solicitor, and I've not read many Golden Age novels which feature such a person. The motive is unusual and very dark. And in a preamble to the story, the story is hailed as Fell's greatest case. Unfortunately, the whole strikes me as amounting to less than the sum of its parts.

There are a number of reasons why I think Death Watch is an interesting failure rather than the triumph I'd hoped for. Most commentators accept that it's not a story in which Carr plays fair and that's certainly my view. Above all, the storyline is regrettably static. Although the events are told from the point of view of a chap called Walter Melson, he plays no real part in the story, a wasted opportunity. There's a lot of talk and not much action. For instance, events in a department store called Gambridge's, which play an important part, are merely reported, and thus their impact is much diminished. A good example of why authors are urged to 'show, not tell'. And I'm afraid I didn't find the murderer's psychological make-up convincing.

I've tried to understand Carr's approach from my perspective as a fellow writer. I've come to the conclusion that he rushed the story. It would have been possible to revise it - substantially - and turn it into something much more vivid and powerful, that would actually have justified the hype in the opening pages. A plan of the house where most of the events take place would also have helped. Really, it illustrates the truth that even terrific writers get things wrong some times. I was disappointed, but I don't want to over-state the book's weaknesses. As I say, the raw material was brilliant and it's worth reading, even if one regrets the possible masterpiece that got away.  

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Fifteen Years of the Blog

Tomorrow marks a special anniversary for me. I posted on this blog for the very first time on 13 October 2007, so that will mark the 15th birthday of 'Do You Write Under Your Own Name?' I won't bore you with too many stats, but in that time there have been well over 3,300 posts and over 2,750,000 pageviews, currently clocking up at 1000 a day. Which is a lot. But the real story, as far as I'm concerned, lies in the personal - the wonderful connections with people all around the world that have arisen as a result of my blogging. Over the years, I've met quite a number of you face to face, and that's been incredibly rewarding. But even if our paths have never crossed in person, I've definitely benefited in all kinds of ways from your interest and support. 

In my very first post, I said this: 'The aim is to share my enthusiasm for crime fiction, and the craft of writing. From childhood, I dreamed of becoming a crime novelist - and I love being part of a fascinating world. I’m not only a writer, but a fan, and I’ll have lots to say about lots of terrific and often overlooked books and films, past and present. As for my own writing life, I’ll share the frustrations - and also the pleasures. If this blog encourages any would-be writers among you to keep at it, I’ll be delighted.' And believe me, every word of that still holds good today.

But life goes on and my writing life has changed significantly over the past 15 years - out of all recognition, really. As I've said before, I've been hugely fortunate. In 2007, I'd been a published novelist for 16 years, but I'd never won an award, though I'd been in the running for a few. I was still a full-time partner in a law firm, and I wasn't even a member of the Detection Club, let alone its President.

What has happened since then seems to me to be quite astonishing. There have been a few tough times, as there always are in every life, but I never dreamed so many good things would come my way. (Mind you, my hair is no longer as dark as it was back in 2007 - as per the above photo, taken at the Poisoned Pen bookstore that year!) It's hard to analyse precisely the extent to which the blog may have contributed to the marvellous developments of recent years, but I don't think the improvement in my literary fortunes has been a complete coincidence. 

Just as a novel is nothing without readers (except, maybe, in so far as it serves as therapy for the author), so a blog is nothing without readers. So the success of the blog is really down to you, the loyal readers who over the years have done so much to encourage me and build my morale. And that means that the final words of year fourteen of the blog are simply these: 

                                  THANK YOU!   


Monday 10 October 2022

Peter Robinson R.I.P.

First thing on Friday morning, I heard the news that my good friend of more than thirty years, Peter Robinson, had died suddenly. The news came as a terrible shock, especially given that when we had one of our periodic exchanges of emails a short time ago, he was in fine fettle.The photo above was taken at an event when we were in conversation at Gladstone's Library three years ago. That whole weekend we had a lot of fun together and it's hard to take in that we'll never meet again.

I've talked about Peter and his writing quite a few times on this blog. As I mentioned twelve years ago, I enjoyed his early books even before I met him. I wrote an article about his first book and Ann Cleeves' debut, highlighting the quality of both authors and their acute sense of place, for a countryside magazine. Ironically, the article was rejected, because the editor had never heard of either of them. Now they are both international bestsellers, with sales in the millions.

I met Peter for the first time when Bob Barnard brought him along to a CWA lunch. They both came from Armley in Leeds and used to joke about forming an Armley chapter of the CWA. Before long, I met Peter's wife Sheila, a fellow lawyer, and I spent happy hours in their company. As I said in a post in 2019, 'because Peter spends half the year in Canada, sometimes I see very little of him, but this year was a pleasant exception; we had breakfast together at Gladstone's Library, lunch in Toronto, and a Detection Club dinner at the Garrick Club (not all on the same day...)' 

Among a number of vivid memories are an evening in a bar in Las Vegas, when I asked what he thought about his rapid rise to stardom and bestseller status after years in the 'midlist'. As he said, the books hadn't changed that much, but what mattered was that a publisher had really got behind him. As I understand it from someone in the publishing world, after Colin Dexter decided not to write any more Morse books, Macmillan looked around for another quality writer of police stories and Peter was their choice. 

I could say a lot about the excellence of his novels (and his admirable short fiction), but I want to highlight his personal generosity. When I wrote The Coffin Trail, I asked Peter to read the manuscript and let me have his thoughts. He was hugely supportive and he urged me to focus more on Hannah Scarlett rather than Daniel Kind, who was originally meant to be the lead character. I took his advice and it stood me in good stead.

He was a busy man - his anecdotes about the manic nature of book tours were very entertaining - but whenever I asked him to write a short story for an anthology I was editing or to contribute to some other project, such as Howdunit, he was hugely supportive. He was also a highly intelligent and thoughtful commentator on the genre, as those who listened to his shrewd insights at Alibis in the Archive discovered.

He was one of the first people to send congratulations when it was announced that I'd won the Diamond Dagger, interrupting a holiday on Nevis to drop me a line. When he heard of my involvement in a hit and run accident in July, he was quick to commiserate. And even more recently he was kind enough to write to me to make sure I was aware of the New York Times' wonderful review of The Life of Crime. I never dreamed when we exchanged messages the other day that I'd never have the chance to chat to him again, but although he's been taken from us far too soon, he has left a wonderful legacy of memories as well as highly enjoyable mystery writing. Rest in peace, Peter. 


Friday 7 October 2022

Forgotten Book - A Respectable Woman

A Respectable Woman was David Fletcher's second crime novel, dating from 1975. Like many good psychological suspense novels of that era, it was published by Macmillan, whose George Hardinge presided over a first-rate crime list. (Hardinge was also a good writer himself, and his occasional crime stories are worth seeking out).

As with a number of Fletcher's books in the genre, this one sees him experimenting with a particular type of story. He blends a genuine whodunit puzzle with suspense, although one always feels that his main focus is on depiction of character. He was a talented writer under his real name, Dulan Barber, and I suspect that the puzzle element was not his main enthusiasm. But I don't mean by this that the plot is faulty. It's sound, but it's not the main reason for enjoying the book.

His protagonist is a Scotland Yard man, DI John Cresswell, who is called in to help local police in his old stamping ground in the Midlands after an elderly woman is murdered. He has very mixed feelings about the assignment, as it brings him into contact with an old flame, who happens - surprise, surprise - to be mixed up in the crime he is investigating.

Fletcher deals in the story, as the title suggests, with the thorny question of 'respectability' in a provincial English town and what calamities a desire for respectability may lead to. Writers from Dorothy L. Sayers to, most recently, Ann Cleeves, have dealt with this topic in their detective novels, and although Fletcher isn't in quite that league, his books are smoothly written and definitely very readable. 

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Books, Books...and More about Books

There's a lot going on at present, so much that I'm actually finding it tricky to keep up. One thing is for sure: I've been very fortunate. Among other things, I'm hoping to chat to Jeremy Paxman shortly - a man whose career has long fascinated me. I just watched last night's ITV documentary in which he discusses his experience of Parkinson's Disease and I found it very poignant. He echoed the life advice given by my good friend the writer Jessica Mann, who had the same disease for many years: Do it now. I try to follow that advice as much as I can. I do find it amazing to look back at what has happened since I started this blog. Anyway, I hope that today I can be forgiven a dollop of self-promotion/trumpet-blowing (if not, better look away now 😀 ). 

For anyone who might be interested, I wanted to mention that Gallows Court is currently one of Apple's Free Books of the Week (in the UK only) and, at least at the time of writing, is number one bestseller in that particular chart. I gather than Mortmain Hall is also available from Apple for a mere 99p for the next few days. Given the differences between the two books, I continue to be fascinated to find out which readers prefer Gallows Court and which Mortmain Hall - opinion remains quite evenly divided. I'm so pleased by the reaction to these books. Although they are definitely entertainments, they do demand a bit of engagement from the reader and I did wonder when writing them how they would be received. But although not everyone 'gets' what I'm trying to do, the vast majority of readers do. Which is why I often say in writing workshops that it's important for a writer to trust their readers.

And then there's Blackstone Fell, which has had some wonderful reviews since publication a month ago. Among those reviews was a great one from Barry Turner in the Daily Mail ('Martin Edwards holds his own with the best of classic crime') and a lovely piece in The Times by Mark Sanderson ('He leaves you wanting more').

I was extraordinarily lucky the following Saturday, when Christina Hardyment reviewed The Life of Crime as 'audiobook of the week' in...The Times. It can't have happened too often that an author has two fantastic reviews in 'The Thunderer' in successive weeks. I was flattered by Christina's description of me as a 'fine novelist' but blushed even more at her statement that I'm 'the closest thing there has been to a philosopher of crime writing'. Well, whatever one makes of that description, it's undeniably generous and gratifying. Meanwhile, I gather that because sales of the book to date have exceeded expectations, especially in the USA, it's being reprinted already. There are also to be translations in countries as unexpected as China and Hungary.

Meanwhile, The Traitor, commissioned by Otto Penzler and originally published by Mysterious Bookshop as a limited edition 'Bibliomystery' is - as from today - available as an ebook from my lovely British publishers, Head of Zeus. I enjoyed writing this novella about obsessive book collecting hugely and it's a subject I'd like to explore further, not least because I'm an obsessive book collector myself. 

Books about books are understandably popular and it's noteworthy that one of my most commercially successful anthologies was last year's Murder by the Book. The British Library has also just published my latest themed anthology. Final Acts is a collection of theatre-related mysteries and was fun to put together. 

I've had a long association with the small American Press Crippen & Landru. Under the excellent stewardship of first Doug Greene and now Jeffrey Marks, they have done a wonderful job in reviving 'Lost Classics' in a series which far pre-dates the British Library series. It's many years since I curated for them a collection of obscure stories by Ellis Peters and now I've written an intro for the first edition of the collected Gideon stories by John Creasey. Gideon was perhaps his most successful character and this edition also contains essays by his son Richard and the American crime expert Mike Nevins.

As regards short stories, 'No Peace for the Wicked' appeared in the latest issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, while 'The Woman Who Never Was' has just been included by that master anthologist Maxim Jakubowski in Black is the Night, an anthology of stories paying tribute to Cornell Woolrich, an author I've long enjoyed reading.

Today, also, I've been announced as one of the headliners at next year's Shetland Noir, which should be a wonderful experience. And to round things off, this weekend, a Korean TV documentary production team is coming to my home to interview me about a particular aspect of my writing; we'll then be doing some filming in Manchester. They are especially interested in the relationship between crime fiction and the British weather...honestly, there are times when life becomes positively surreal....

Sunday 2 October 2022

Ralph Spurrier R.I.P.

I was extremely sorry to hear the other day of the death of Ralph Spurrier, a very good bookseller and author of a crime novel, A Coin for the Hangman, which drew on his professional expertise. I've known Ralph since my earliest days in the CWA and he was for a number of years a regular attender at the annual conferences. Although based down in Sussex, he even joined northern crime writers for a memorable weekend symposium arranged by Reginald Hill at Grasmere in the early 90s.

Before setting up on his own as Post Mortem Books, Ralph worked for Gollancz, and he had a fund of stories about that period in his life. He recently contributed an article to CADS about his early days in bookselling and I hope that he managed to continue the series before things became too difficult for him. His occasional ventures into publishing were interesting - for instance, he reprinted Murder in the Dispensary, an early Ellis Peters novel, written under the name Jolyon Carr, and also published some checklists and other pamphlets.

Although I've not seen Ralph in person for a number of years, we kept in fairly regular touch by phone and email. I've bought a number of books from him in the past twelve months, including some titles by C.W. Grafton (father of Sue) with accompanying correspondence to Ralph.  

Ralph broke the news to me late last year that he was downsizing his collection and stock because he was terminally ill. I was very shocked. The last email I had from him was in April. It made very poignant reading: 'I am under hospice palliative care which means a weekly visit from the nurse and prescribing of essential drugs to keep me pain free etc. I can still function well enough in the mornings but tend to run out of steam by lunchtime. I am in the process of tidying up all the business and financial ends...An end of an era then but I look back with much joy on the business I built up and all the lovely people I have met. Especially dear to me is to see such authors as yourself, Ann  Cleeves and Ian Rankin who all had a tough time getting published and making sales in their early days now becoming high flyers.' As is evident from that small extract, he was a very good-natured fellow and I shall really miss him.