Wednesday 30 November 2022

Exciting Times


I was amused yesterday when the BBC announced a 'stellar line-up' of festive television, only to include the above photo in connection with a piece about this year's Christmas University Challenge. My lips remain sealed about what actually happened, but suffice to say that for me it was a 'bucket list' moment, to appear on a programme that I've watched since I was a small boy. And to be captain of Balliol...well, it was marvellous, although daunting. 

When the famous theme music is played and you look at Jeremy Paxman and realise your ignorance is about to be exposed to the nation, and there's no escape, it really is quite something. We appeared in the very first heat (there were seven heats involving fourteen teams, then the semi-finals involving the four highest-scoring winners and final - 10 days of telly in all). I gather that heat will be screened on 19 December and that the series then runs for two weeks, Monday to Friday each week. A treat for connoisseurs of facial expressions of bafflement! I'll talk in more detail about this amazing experience another time.

In fact, this has been one of a number of memorable experiences that I've had lately. One, which involves an audio drama I've written and which was recorded last week, again I'll talk about when the time is right. I'm also undertaking some other projects which, in one way or another, amount to breaking fresh ground. I've also had a few late This is exciting for a writer, and gives you the energy and enthusiasm you need to keep writing - and above all, to keep writing different types of material.

Reviews of The Life of Crime continue to come in. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine says it surpasses previous histories of the genre and 'manages to be both vast in scope and profound in thought, all the while hard to put down' while the book also had great reviews in the Daily Mirror and Daily Express and the Spectator chose it as one of the 'books of the year'. 

Meanwhile I continue to take part in a range of events. Last night I took part, alongside two American academics, in the National Association of Scholars' discussion about The Maltese Falcon (now available on YouTube) and tomorrow I'm giving a talk at Rhyl Library. I'm being interviewed for the Doings of Doyle podcast on Sunday and next week I'll be at Cambridge University, giving a lecture on Golden Age fiction to a group of students participating in Sophie Hannah's crime writing course. Then it's off to Oundle Literature Festival for my final event of the year. This kind of variety appeals to me a great deal.

I've mentioned before that I find writing short stories very rewarding and yesterday I sent off two new ones, both destined for American anthologies if the editors like them and feel they fit the requirements of the anthologies in question. And right now I'm about to start work on another short story before getting to grips with the next novel...

Monday 28 November 2022

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The past decade or so has seen a plethora of psychological thrillers. Some are excellent, many are a bit samey, and some are hopelessly contrived. Invariably the publishers promise a 'killer twist'; sometimes the author delivers, sometimes the twist proves all too predictable. At its best, however, this kind of writing can be truly dazzling. A very good example is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, which in my opinion deserves the superlatives that reviewers have flung at it. It's a first novel, amazingly, though the author is an experienced screenwriter, and he certainly writes in a vivid yet (sometimes deceptively) straightforward way.

A gimmick associated with this type of story is the tag-line. In this case, it's: 'Only she knows what happened. Only I can make her speak.' This sums up a gripping premise. Six years ago, the artist Alicia Berenson shot her husband, a charismatic fashion photographer called Gabriel, in the head - five times. Since then, she hasn't spoken a single word. The narrator, a forensic psychotherapist, is determined to get her to talk.

Michaelides has spoken in published interviews about his admiration for Agatha Christie and although this story is very different from anything written by the Queen of Crime, you can trace her influence in the way he juggles his story ingredients as well as in the skill with which he directs the reader's attention away from what has really happened, usually by deploying some artfully conceived red herrings.

I don't want to say too much about the way in which the story develops, because it would be a shame to spoil some of the surprises. Suffice to say that I read the book on a train journey that was excessively protracted thanks to a malign combination of engineering works and staff shortages. Thanks to Michaelides, a trip that could have been a miserable experience proved very rewarding. An excellent thriller, strongly recommended. 


Friday 25 November 2022

Forgotten Book - Murder of Me

Xavier Lechard's blog At the Villa Rose is perhaps the longest-running solo-author crime fiction blog that I can recall. It's also a blog with a pleasing and distinctive flavour. I've been reading Xavier's thoughts with interest for many years and occasionally his ideas - even those I don't entirely agree with - spark some of my own thinking, whether about particular titles or aspects of the Golden . So when he discussed his enthusiasm for Murder of Me by F. Addington Symonds (in a comment on a post on this blog about the comparable Guy Cullingford novel Post Mortem) I sat up and took notice.

Now I've had a chance to read the book for myself and form my own opinion. The first thing to say is that Xavier is absolutely right: Murder of Me is unusual. Genuinely unusual. Published in 1946, it pre-dates Post Mortem and it has some lovely trimmings, including footnotes which reference books such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Howard Haycraft's Murder for Pleasure. Yes, at times we venture into metafiction.

Murder of Me is not an easy novel to discuss without spoilers, so I'll try to choose my words with care. In essence, it's a story told from the point of view of a murder victim. This is James Mortimer Vidal, a rather disagreeable chap who gives one of his daughters the unenviable task of solving the mystery. There are plot twists and touches of ingenuity. It's extremely difficult to be truly original, but Symonds makes a good stab at it.

The novel does, however, have weaknesses. Many of these stem from the fact that Vidal is unpleasant and I found it hard to warm to any of the other characters. The puzzle, too, wasn't as gripping as I'd hoped. There's something rather dry about the prose, despite Symonds' cleverness. I wasn't too surprised to learn that he spent a lot of time as a writer for pulpy magazines. So I wasn't totally bowled over by the book. It does, however, rank as an extremely intriguing curiosity and I'm very glad that Xavier drew it to my attention.  

Wednesday 23 November 2022

Trance - 2013 film review

Trance is a Danny Boyle film, and is as visually appealing as you might expect with this director. It's an art heist movie with a difference, and it begins with a gripping ten-minute sequence before the opening credits, with the theft of a $25 million Goya painting from an auction house. The story is introduced by Simon (James McAvoy), who works in the auction house and who seems to make a brave but unavailing attempt to stop the thieves, and is injured in the process. It's no great surprise to learn that the crime was an inside job and that Simon was involved, but from that point the story becomes quite unpredictable.

The unpredictability, unfortunately, is a large part of the problem with the film. It's based on a script which Joe Ahearne sent to Boyle many years before the film was made. Boyle involved John Hodge as a script doctor, but I don't think enough doctoring took place. Whilst we're not meant to take the story too seriously, a film of this kind does, I think, need to have some touches of plausibility. And that's in very short supply.

The central idea is that Simon has hidden the painting, but because of his injuries, can't remember what he did with it. Torturing him doesn't work, so his fellow thieves (led by Vincent Cassel) agree to have him undergo hypnosis so that, in a trance, he will reveal what happened to the painting. The hypnotherapist chosen is the beautiful Rosario Dawson and again it comes as no surprise to learn that she has some previous connection with Simon - or that she is destined to become a femme fatale.

While the villains try to locate the painting, the auction house makes no apparent effort to check on whether Simon was involved in the crime. This seems to me to be even more of a weakness than one of the criticisms made by Peter Bradshaw, giving the movie a poor reviewin the Guardian, when he points out that there's no indication as to how the baddies will sell the painting. Dawson is very watchable, even if her character isn't credible, but on the whole this is a film that doesn't make the most of its considerable potential.

Monday 21 November 2022

Robbery - 1967 film review

I watched Robbery in the cinema as a boy, not too long after its original release, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it all over again in 2009 and recorded my enthusiasm on this blog. Watching for a third time, I remain impressed. Peter Yates, the director, is much better known for films such as Bullitt, famous for its car chase in San Francisco, but the car chase in central London at the start of Robbery is itself excellent, and it paves the way for an entertaining fictionalisation of the real life Great Train Robbery.

The casting is clever, because to some extent it confounds expectations. The gang leader, Paul Clifton, is played by Stanley Baker, who made his name as a tough cop. Other actors to play gang members include Barry Foster (famed as Van der Valk), George Sewell (of Special Branch) and the charismatic Frank Finlay . Conversely, the lead cop is James Booth, who you might think of as more likely to play a crafty villain. His boss, Glynn Edwards, was equally adept at playing baddies. So perhaps we're more inclined to hope, secretly, that the heist will succeed.

The soundtrack was written by Johnny Keating, who indulges in a Bacharachesque theme for a climactic scene at the gang's hideout, while the screenplay was co-written by Edward Boyd, an interesting writer who collaborated with Bill Knox on the novelisation of Boyd's TV series The View from Daniel Pike (Bill's widow told me that he did all the writing, based on Boyd's ideas). 

Heist films tend to be predictable, but this one is genuinely gripping, perhaps because the case on which it was based was so remarkable. Credit for this goes to Yates, who does a great job, along with the wonderful cast (which also includes Joanna Pettett, whose career ended far too soon).  Definitely recommended. 


Friday 18 November 2022

Forgotten Book - A Shilling for Candles

A Shilling for  Candles, published in 1936, was Josephine Tey's second detective novel to feature Inspector Alan Grant. I've mentioned it a couple of times on this blog, in connection with Nicola Upson's novel Fear in the Sunlight, and also as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Young and Innocent, which as I said in a review way back in 2010 is very different from the book - even the murderer and motive are changed!

I first read this novel many, many years ago. I 'm a Tey fan, but I was disappointed with it overall. I think that was because she didn't, in my opinion, pay enough attention to characterising the killer or making the motive credible - and this helps to explain why Hitchcock made so many changes. It's certainly not a 'fair play' novel. However, I decided to give it another try and consider the story in part from a technical perspective - why did Tey make the choices she did, and which of them worked?

The fact that I knew what to expect didn't lessen my enjoyment and the first thing to say is that Tey, as always, writes very well and engagingly. The opening scene, where a coastguard discovers a body on a beach, is very well done. The 'man on the run' aspect of the story, which Hitchcock focused on, is also quite good. The title is intriguing and it refers to a mocking bequest in Christine's will. However, this part of the story rather fizzles out as Tey tries to draw the various strands together. 

The central problem, I think, is that although she came up with some wonderful story ingredients, she didn't think hard enough about how to integrate them into a satisfactory whole. Probably she was writing in a rush, and wanting to get back to her work in the theatre. I suspect she became worried about the thinness of the motivation and as a result decided to portray the killer, in the closing pages, as deranged. I feel that, despite an element of outlandishness, more could have been done to make this crucial part of the story plausible. But the book is not only worth reading - I was very happy to have read it for a second time, despite my reservations.  

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Who Killed the Cat? - 1966 film review

The name of Arnold Ridley is still fondly remembered because of his charming portrayal of Private Godfrey in the long-running comedy series Dad's Army. Less often recalled is his work as a playwright. His most famous play was The Ghost Train, but he was quite prolific, and adapted Christie's Peril at End House as well as writing thrillers of his own. In 1956 he wrote Tabitha, in collaboration with Mary Catchcart Borer, another prolific author. This play was filmed ten years later as Who Killed the Cat?

The film was directed by Montgomery Tully, who co-wrote the screenplay with Maurice J. Wilson, and although it doesn't seem particularly 'stagey', it does seem more redolent of the Fifties than the Swinging Sixties. Blow Up it ain't. It is, however, in its modest way, quite a distinctive and enjoyable piece of light entertainment. 

The story begins with the reading of a will, that of the late husband of Eleanor Trellington (Vanda Godsell). It's pretty clear that the deceased had grown weary of Eleanor, his second wife, while she is bored with the three elderly ladies who lodge with her, and at odds with her teenage step-daughter, Mary (Natasha Pyne). Eleanor behaves unpleasantly to all and sundry, including Mary's young admirer, who works for a local jeweller (played by Mervyn Johns). When Mary buys poison from the local chemist, the scene is set for dark deeds.

The story rattles along at a respectable pace, and the three old ladies perform with gusto. A police inspector played by Conrad Phillips comes on to the scene, while there is a small part for Joan Sanderson. It is a notch above standard British B-movie fare, an unpretentious film that doesn't outstay its welcome. Tabitha, by the way is the name of a cat. As the title of the film suggests, not a good idea to get too attached to her...



Monday 14 November 2022

Grand-Guignolesque by Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson - review


We often use the term 'Grand-Guignol' without thinking too much about the Parisian 'horror theatre' which gave rise to the term. This new book, published by the University of Exeter Press, is written by two academics with an abiding interest in horror and also cross-media forms of popular culture. Richard Hand is an expert in film and performance, while Mike Wilson, with whom I've had many interesting conversations over the years, is also deeply interested in crime writing, especially that written for the stage.

Their book is subtitled Classic and Contemporary Horror Theatre and it's a very interesting read. One of the things I like about it is the absence of the verbosity that sometimes ruins academic writing; Hand and Wilson write snappily and makes their points clearly, a big plus. They discuss, among others, F.Tennyson Jesse, a writer who has long intrigued me, and they refer to her play The Mask, which I haven't read, but would like to.

There is also discussion of writers such as Joseph Conrad and Agatha Christie, whom one wouldn't immediately associate with Grand-Guignol, and reference to Christie's Rule of Three, which I hope to write about myself before long. Mention is also made of John Dickson Carr, who was clearly influenced by the atmospherics of Grand-Guignol. But there's also some very interesting discussion of recent writing in the Grand-Guignol style. 

The bulk of the book is devoted to reprinting a wide range of plays in the Grand-Guignol vein. One of them is The Lover of Death by the French writer Maurice Renard; I agree with the authors that his work deserves to be better-known in the UK. In The Life of Crime, I mention an extraordinary novel which he co-wrote, Blind Circle, a strange mix of mystery and the macabre.

The other plays include a fairly recent adaptation by Eddie Muller of a play from the mid-fifties, Orgy in the Lighthouse, the ending of which is - even by the most jaded standards - truly horrifying. There is something about lighthouses and their lonely yet claustrophobic interiors that inspires remarkable stories. All in all, a very interesting book - I learned a good deal from it.


Friday 11 November 2022

Forgotten Book - Suddenly at His Residence

Recently I attended a meeting with colleagues from the Publications Department at the British Library. We were discussing forthcoming titles in the British Library Crime Classics series as well as other projects, and I was delighted to learn that the books - both the novels and the anthologies - are selling as well as ever. I also had the pleasure of meeting the team member responsible for selling translation rights and it seems that the books are doing increasingly well in different parts of the world. So all the signs are that the series will flourish for a considerable time to come. The main challenge is choosing which books - among the hundreds of worthwhile possibilities - to include so as to maintain and enhance the series' reputation for variety and quality.

I'm the consultant to the series, but of course I'm not the decision-taker and the ultimate responsibility for negotiating on rights and so on rests with others - thankfully! But it's pretty clear that a series like this succeeds by combining popular favourites (albeit relatively recently discovered ones in some cases, E.C.R. Lorac being a good example) with stories that are unknown even to many long-term fans of classic crime (such as Billie Houston's Twice Round the Clock). Among the writers who has made a strong impression on returning to print is Christianna Brand and another of her titles, Suddenly at His Residence (aka The Crooked Wreath) will feature in the series next summer. The Library has given it a new sub-title: A Kent Mystery.

This book makes ingenious use of several tropes of Golden Age fiction. So we have a family tree, a cast of characters and a note indicating that the cast includes two victims and a murderer. There are multiple solutions and not one but two impossible crimes. There's also a final reveal right at the end of the story. Oh, and a rather likeable Great Detective in Inspector Cockrill.

One of Brand's greatest strengths as a crime writer was her commitment to playing fair with her reader. So the clues are supplied, but she disguises them so craftily that it's far from easy to figure out exactly what is going on before Cockrill reveals all. This is a novel published after the Second World War, but it's set in wartime and that background reality makes an important contribution to the storyline. All in all, a pleasing mystery and I'm delighted that it will, before too long, become available again to a very wide readership. 

Wednesday 9 November 2022

'Darling Lorraine', Paranoia Blues, and The Adventures of the Puzzle Club

I first became aware of Josh Pachter back in the early 80s, when I came across his anthology Top Crime. I learned that, in addition to being a meticulous anthologist, he is a short story writer of considerable accomplishment. Many years later, I met Josh and his wife Laurie and discovered that they are terrific companions - one of the downsides of the pandemic is that I've not been able to meet up with them in person for several years.

But we remain in regular contact. Josh was a great help when I was working on the anthology Foreign Bodies and some time ago I had the chance to contribute to a new anthology that Josh was putting together. The connecting theme was that each story would be inspired by a Paul Simon song, though only one song per album could be chosen. I've been a huge Paul Simon fan since my teens. He's a great performer, and a quite wonderful songwriter (and did you know that he once did demo records for Burt Bacharach? Timeless classics such as 'Gotta Get a Girl', later recorded by Frankie Avalon? Suffice to say that both Paul and Burt went on to do much better work!) 

To cut a long story short, I finished up writing a story called 'Darling Lorraine'. The inspiration came from a fascinating visit to the house of a crime writing friend. The building is unique and very appealing and the grounds and local setting are just as intriguing. I felt they would make a terrific setting for a story and the Paul Simon spark was all I needed to come up with a plot. 

And now the anthology has just been published. It's called Paranoia Blues and although I haven't received my copy yet, I'm really looking forward to seeing the other stories, penned by writers ranging from Edwin Hill and Gabriel Valjan to Tom Mead. And as if that were not enough, Josh has also got a new book out via Crippen & Landru. The Adventures of the Puzzle Club combines original snappy mysteries by Ellery Queen and new ones in the same manner by Josh himself. I've made a tiny contribution to the book, but the stories are the thing, and they are great fun.

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Crossfire - 1947 film review

Crossfire is an intriguing film noir with an ambitious and interesting theme. It received five Oscar nominations and, three-quarters of a century on, it remains very watchable indeed. The three male stars are all called Robert; each gives a highly distinctive and impressive performance. They are Robert Young, as a smart but low-key cop called Finlay, Robert Ryan, as a seemingly amiable but in truth sociopathic soldier, and Robert Mitchum.The director was Edward Dymtryk and the screenplay by John Paxton.

From the start, we're aware that two men have beaten up a Jewish man, Samuels, and killed him. Finlay and his team soon discover that Samuels had been in the company of a group of soldiers prior to his death and it's likely that one of them (at least) is responsible for the murder. Suspicion falls on a soldier called Mitch, but it emerges, partly through flashbacks, that the killer was Ryan's character, Monty, and that his accomplice was a soldier called Floyd. 

There's no clear evidence to link Monty to the crime, but his temper and brutality mean that he is a dangerous man to know. Finlay deduces his motive and sets about laying a trap...

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that antisemitism is the motive for the crime. It's also an element in The Brick Foxhole, the book on which Paxton based his script. But in the novel, homophobia is a central issue. The movie industry in 1947 simply wasn't ready to tackle that. Nevertheless, the film delivers a very forceful message about bigotry of all kinds, as well as antisemitism in particular. The Brick Foxhole, incidentally, was an early novel written by Richard Brooks, who became a noted film director, working on movies such as Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood.


Friday 4 November 2022

Forgotten Book - Don't Whistle 'Macbeth'

David Fletcher is an author I enjoy reading. His real name was Dulan Barber, and he was quite a prolific and versatile novelist who produced a dozen crime novels as Fletcher. He died young, of a heart attack, when he was only 48 and I think this accounts in part for the neglect into which his work has fallen. He was a talented exponent of psychological suspense.

Don't Whistle 'Macbeth', published in 1976, is rather different from the other Fletchers that I've read. It's an interesting attempt to blend a whodunit plot with an operatic background and a sort of belated 'coming of age' story involving the narrator, David Kingsley-Grieff.  A gimmick is the inclusion of 'programme notes' by Brigid Brophy, who in those days was a high profile figure in the literary world. The setting is a posh country estate which is home to a recently revived opera festival, which is about to stage Don Giovanni.

The author was an opera lover, and the background is very well-realised. The festival is put on by a rich but troublesome chap called Hugo, who has a failing marriage to Leonie and a beautiful but wayward daughter, Petronella, from a previous relationship. David has taken an admin job at the festival mainly because he is infatuated with one of the performers, a woman called Dorcas. But then murder occurs and David becomes not only a suspect but also a potential victim.

The story is capably written and the plot is quite sound, even if one or two pieces of behaviour aren't in keeping with the realistic tone of the narrative. David, I fear, is a rather irritating character. Even the dust jacket blurb acknowledges that he is priggish. So I didn't care quite as much as I should have done about his tangled love life and his attempts to solve the puzzle. I also found the explanation for the mysterious whistling of the title to be rather an anti-climax. Even so, it's a book that's worth reading and Fletcher certainly deserves not to be forgotten.

Wednesday 2 November 2022

The Circle - 2017 film review

The Circle is a techno-thriller released four years ago. As I understand it, the movie was a commercial hit but didn't particularly please the critics, perhaps because they regarded it as somewhat unoriginal. However, I enjoyed the story and thought that its treatment of issues concerning personal privacy in the modern age was pretty sound, even if not as sophisticated as that of a much older film, The Conversation, which is a genuine masterpiece.

The Circle benefits from a good cast, led by Emma Watson, who plays Mae Holland. Mae's friend Annie (Karen Gillan) helps her to get a job with The Circle, a highly sophisticated social media company with more than a touch of Facebook and Youtube about it. Mae's father suffers from MS, and her parents are glad that she's got a chance of career progression, but her old friend Mercer, with whom she used to go kayaking, is less impressed.

Soon Mae comes to attention of the company's CEO Eamon Bailey. Bailey is played by Tom Hanks, whose charm makes this a very good piece of casting indeed. Bailey waxes lyrical about the benefits of accountability and transparency, especially in terms of cleaning up politics, and soon Mae is spearheading the campaign to make The Circle omnipresent in everyone's lives. But transparency comes at a cost...

I don't claim that The Circle digs really dip, either into character or the politics of privacy, but I do think that the script makes a number of good points without interfering too much with the telling of a decent story. One poignant aspect of the film is that it marked the final appearance of both the actors who play Mae's parents, Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly, both of whom gave effective performances.