Saturday 31 December 2022

Annus Mirabilis

So now the news is out. Last night Team Balliol were officially crowned series champions of  Christmas University Challenge 2022, a brilliant way to end an incredible year. (as illustrated by the top photo, with my editor Laura Palmer, on the night I got the Diamond Dagger into my clutches at last!) I'll talk about the show a little more on another day, but right now I just want to reflect on the past twelve months. And first and foremost let me say how grateful I am to you, my readers, for supporting my books and this blog in the way you do. Last month, for instance, the blog had nearly 50,000 views, which must be about as high a figure as any during the past fifteen years. I'm motivated to keep going, and also to think about a new venture, a newsletter. So let me know if you're interested in that idea, and I'll give it more thought.

It was great finally to be awarded that Diamond Dagger in person (having had a lovely virtual presentation from Ann Cleeves during the height of the pandemic) at a glitzy ceremony in London. A wonderful night, in great company. That same week I returned to Balliol for my first ever Gaudy, and met some people I'd last seen as a student. Another terrific occasion.

I published several books and The Life of Crime has to take pride of place, simply because it represented so many years of work. I was thrilled by the reviews in The Times, The Spectator, The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere - and also by the sales, which continue to be remarkably buoyant, especially bearing in mind that it's not the cheapest book.

Blackstone Fell
also garnered great coverage in The Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, and in other publications and blogs. It's another book I'm especially proud of. I've just been putting the finishing touches to Sepulchre Street, Rachel's fourth case. In the US, The Crooked Shore came out under a different title, The Girl They All Forgot.

I published a mystery map, This Deadly Isle, and edited three anthologies: Music of the Night, The Edinburgh Mystery, and Final Acts. The Crime Classics continue to prosper, and I also wrote a number of short stories, some of which have already been published and some of which will appear next year. I continue to write essays and articles for a wide variety of outlets and I've been pleased to contribute pieces to story collections by John Creasey and Josh Pachter, among others. 

I was fortunate to be asked to take part in many events, live and online. There were four festivals in Scotland alone - Colonsay (amazing island), Birnam, Nairn, and Stirling - plus CrimeFest (where I was one of the guests of honour and treated with great kindness), Harrogate, Cambridge, Oundle, Newark, Alibis at Gladstone's Library and Bodies from the Library. I was also honoured to give the first Jennifer Palmer Memorial Lecture at the Portico in Manchester. The advent of online events meant it was possible to also talk to audiences around the country and indeed around the world without leaving home - very good for time-efficiency! I took part in events with some lovely people ranging from Robert Goddard to Andrew Taylor, Elly Griffiths, Ann Cleeves, and Denise Mina. I was also pleased to meet Adele Parks, Richard Coles and Andrew O'Hagan among others for the first time. There were CWA and Detection Club events that provided yet more reminders of the conviviality of crime writers and readers. I also had the pleasure of being in touch with several family members of great crime writers of the past. On a trip to Kent, I met up with Catherine Aird, Frankie Fyfield, and the family of the late Julian Symons - great fun to see his collection of Edgar awards!

So it's been very busy, but very satisfying. Every year does have its tricky moments and I lost a number of good friends from school and university days as well as writing friends such as Peter Robinson, June Thomson, Ralph Spurrier, and Michael Pearce. It all nearly came to an abrupt end for me too, with a hit and run by a motorbike in July - how we both survived, I'll never know. But I was very lucky and thankful for the chance to keep going. That experience has made me all the more determined to make the most of every moment while I can.  

Research trips can be a lot of fun and I enjoyed staying at the Hark to Bounty, a pub which features in Lorac's Crook O'Lune as well as other fascinating places which will no doubt feature in future stories! 

For many people, including some close friends of mine, 2022 wasn't an easy year and one mustn't forget that. For my part, I've enjoyed a huge amount of good fortune and believe me, I'm grateful for it. There are more stories to be written! Above all, I appreciate the many messages I've received throughout the year. It's great to hear from readers and I do find the feedback hugely energising. Thanks again - and happy new year!

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Christmas Viewing

There have been TV shows other than Christmas University Challenge on during the holiday season - though there's no doubt about which show I've really been glued to! - and I've enjoyed several of them. all too often 'Christmas specials' are a let-down, but Motherland was as sharp as usual, albeit with a very dark and sad storyline. The quality of writing is consistently high. 

The same is definitely true of Ghosts, a much gentler show, which has a 'feelgood' style that doesn't seem forced, but flows naturally from the well-drawn characters. Great fun. I've written before about my enthusiasm for Inside No. 9 and this year's special gave a nod to the concept of 'ghost stories for Christmas', but with a characteristic twist. It certainly wasn't the best episode of this brilliant series but Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith are always good to watch. They were actually the answer to a question in Christmas University Challenge this week, but alas Reece's name eluded the poor chap who buzzed in, even though he's a TV and film director. An example of what can happen under the pressure of a TV quiz!  

Michael Sheen is an actor I admire and he was one of the stars in Vardy v. Rooney, as the barrister representing the defendant in a headline-grabbing libel case. This was faithfully adapted for TV and I'm sure that millions of people were left, like me, wondering why the claim was ever brought. It was the legal equivalent of a footballer scoring an own goal from the half-way line. Bizarre but watchable.

Bill Nighy is always engaging and he played Inspector Kildare in The Limehouse Golem, a 2016 film adapted from Peter Ackroyd's novel and shown on the BBC. The cast was brilliant, the story interesting, the script rather variable in quality. This was one of those historical mysteries in which the suspects include famous figures from real life - Karl Marx and George Gissing, of all people - and although the ingredients were mostly excellent, the whole didn't quite match the sum of the individual parts.

Friday 23 December 2022

Forgotten Book - Three Dead, One Hurt

Just suppose John Buchan had decided to confront Richard Hannay with a locked room mystery. It's quite possible that the result might have finished up resembling Three Dead, One Hurt..., one of two crime novels published by Scobie Mackenzie. It was first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1934 and I'm not aware that it's been reprinted since then.

There's even a Hannayish vibe to the opening scene. The first words are: 'We met on the train, Francesca and I, though of course I didn't know at that time she was Francesca'. She is a beautiful and enigmatic woman and the narrator is immediately smitten. Alas, before the train has reached its destination, he discovers that she is involved with a man called Johnny Brown.

The narrator is travelling to a remote Scottish island, which he has inherited from his late uncle (who was a crime buff with an impressive library of crime books, a fact which pleasingly proves relevant as the story unfolds). He is greeted by his late uncle's factor, a chap called Peter Brook, who is also obsessed by a woman, his estranged wife, about whom he can't stop talking. 

Before long, an incident at sea results in Francesca and an assortment of strange fellow passengers coming ashore and the scene is set for an interesting and unorthodox mystery. I learned of this book from the late Bob Adey, who mentions it in Locked Room Murders, and I'm delighted to have read it at last. Mackenzie was an interesting writer (sometimes confused with a New Zealander who had the same name) and his career in the genre proved regrettably short, but this story - despite one or two oddities - is a notch or two above many others that were being written at the time. 

Wednesday 21 December 2022

After the Show...

So now the first heat of Christmas University Challenge has been screened, the news is out that our team managed to triumph over SOAS, by 155 to 75. Our opponents led in the early stages, and we incurred some five point penalties for incorrect interruptions, but the plan to keep buzzing in early worked well in the end (not that I had any joy with the starter questions, most of which were entirely beyond me; at least I did a bit better with the bonuses). It was extremely interesting to see what was cut out in the editing process, but on that subject, my lips are sealed...

It's a strange experience to have to sit back to listen to your opponents deal with bonus questions. Again, it's a very subjective thing - for me, the easiest question of the entire night was about the singer of 'Band of Gold' - I'd been playing the YouTube video of Freda Payne's performance only a day or so before the show aired. Great song, great singer. But it you don't know something, or you can't recall it in the pressure of the moment, you don't get the points.

I've been struck by the amount of feedback I've received, including requests to do interviews and write articles. Such is the power of television, I suppose. I've also heard from some people I've not been in touch with for years, which really is a bonus. And there was even one of Drew Kavanagh's cartoons of the contestants for our amusement...

We were told as soon as the show ended that our score would probably be high enough for us to get into the semi-finals. The four teams with the highest winning scores (from the seven heats) compete in the semis. But since we were the first people to play, we had to wait for a little while before finding out...   

Monday 19 December 2022

Christmas University Challenge

Over the years, I've said quite a number of times that my great unfulfilled ambition in life was to take part in University Challenge. A joke, yes, but definitely one with truth at its core. Given that I've watched the show since I was a small boy, I was quick to apply to take part in our college team when I was a student. We were each given a test, but I didn't score highly enough to make the grade - and our team was knocked out quickly anyway. I have remained a devotee of the programme, but I thought my chance of appearing in it had gone. So you can imagine my astonishment when, while on holiday in Italy, I received an email inviting me to take part in Christmas University Challenge 2022.

The fact that the sender's name was Parody rang a faint alarm bell. After all, the contestants in the Christmas version of the show are supposed to be 'distinguished alumni' of their college or university, and there are lots of well-known people - much more famous than me, for sure - who have been to Balliol. However, the email wasn't a wind-up. Clare Parody is in fact the series producer. 

I accepted with alacrity. I assumed I might be a reserve - especially given that the recording dates weren't far away. But it turned out that the recordings needed to be done earlier than usual and to my amazement I was invited to be captain. You may wonder why I was willing to expose the extent of my ignorance on TV, especially when Jeremy Paxman is such a feared Torquemada. But having loved the show for so long, I didn't care about looking silly (perhaps it's as well...) I just wanted to be part of Jeremy's very last shows before his retirement - after 29 years in the hot seat. (The student show continues to be screened, but their final was actually recorded months ago.)

As ever, a question is only easy if you know the answer, and only difficult if you don't (or if you can't call it to mind quickly - and speed of reaction is a key skill in this game, especially challenging for those of us of...more mature years).

One unknown concerned whether my team-mates would include a scientist. None of us knew each other, but the key to success is usually to have a wide range of areas of expertise - including the sciences. However, all four of us were on the arts side. In fact, three of us were taught by the late great legal philosopher Jo Raz. When I got to meet my colleagues - Elizabeth Kiss, Martin O'Neill, and Andrew Copson - I found each of them highly congenial. I decided that even if I wasn't any good at answering the questions, I'd try to be a good captain, so I suggested some tactics which they were happy with, and we took it from there. 

I must admit that I was nervous about it. Much more so than I expected, for sure. But I knew it would be memorable, whatever the result. The photo above shows the four of us walking through the endless corridors of Dock 10 in Media City, Manchester, psyching ourselves up to meet our fate in the studio.

Naturally I now see yesterday's World Cup Final as the curtain-raiser for the tournament that really matters! As to what happened when we took on SOAS in the opening heat of the series- well, all will be revealed at 8.30 pm on BBC 2 tonight...     

Friday 16 December 2022

Forgotten Book - A Word of Six Letters

Over the years I've acquired a handful of books by Herbert Adams, but I've been deplorably slow in getting round to reading them. He's one of those authors who was good enough to be published under the Collins Crime Club imprint, but although Dorothy L. Sayers, in several reviews of his novels, was fairly kind, I've had the impression that he was very much a writer of the second rank,and so there seemed no reason to give his work great priority - there are too many books, too little time!

However, I recently decided to have a go at one of his books which made it into paperback, as a White Circle Mystery. A Word of Six Letters, which dates from 1936, is a stand-alone novel, not one of the long series featuring Adams' detective Roger Bennion. And I found it a pleasant read. By the by, crosswords play a minor part in the storyline, but perhaps not to the extent that the title implies.

After an introductory chapter -set on a cruise ship - in which a young doctor,  Bruce Dickson, meets the attractive and charming Ella Chilcott and promptly falls in love with her, we move to Dorset. Bruce has started working in a small village practice, and - what a coincidence! - in the same village is a country house owned by Ella's rich and irascible great-uncle, Barty Blount.

Old Barty is one of that legion of wealthy characters in Golden Age fiction who are unwise enough to surround themselves with grasping relatives. It's really no surprise when he bites the dust, quite literally, by falling from a horse. Bruce decides that he was given a drug which in effect caused the tragedy, but it seems impossible to determine who administered the crucial dose.

It's not too difficult to work out whodunit and some time before the end, the book develops into a blend of thriller and love story. But it's nicely done and Adams has a light, agreeable style. I'll be glad to read more of his work...

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Oundle Festival of Literature

One of the real privileges of being a published author is the opportunity to take part in a wide variety of festivals and other public events - a chance to talk about books with like-minded people! I really enjoy the experience - all the more so if I can turn it into a little trip, perhaps exploring somewhere interesting that I'm not familiar with, as well as doing the event. And I've just come back from my first visit to Oundle in Northamptonshire, which was great fun.

The Oundle Festival of Literature has been going strong for twenty years. It's become an all-year-round festival, rather than being concentrated into a frenetic few days at just one time of year. This is an interesting model and one that seems to work very well. I enjoyed meeting the Chair, Helen Shair, and also taking a quick look round the ancient market town. Even on a very cold day, Oundle's charm was apparent. So was its history. I don't really know Northamptonshire, but I was impressed with what I saw.

A particular pleasure came from the fact that three friends turned up to listen. One of them, Gordon Smith, I was at school with from the age of eleven - but since leaving school, we've only met once, at a reunion eight years ago, so it was an unexpected treat to chat to him. The others were Clint Stacey, a fellow writer and also a fellow collector of crime fiction, and Jasmine Simeone, who edits the Dorothy L. Sayers Society Bulletin amongst other things.

I was interviewed by Karen Daber and the time flew by. I have to admit, though, that a talk by Karen herself would surely be at least as interesting  as anything I could ever manage. She's had a distinguished and fascinating career as a senior black police officer, whose duties included royal personal protection, and amongst other roles she is currently a Deputy Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire. It was great to talk to her and also to meet the booksellers from the splendid Oundle Bookshop as well as a variety of local readers. I may never have been to Oundle before, but I hope to explore it further on another occasion.

Monday 12 December 2022

Neither the Sea nor the Sand - 1972 film review

When I was growing up, Gordon Honeycombe was a very familiar presence on the TV screens. I remember him reading the news for a number of years before he began to branch out into presenting. He also wrote a popular novel, Neither the Sea nor the Sand, which enjoyed a lot of success and was filmed with, it seems, rather less success. I've not read the book but I've now come across the film, which was for many years something of a rarity.

The opening scenes made a great impression on me, since I recognised that Anna (Susan Hampshire, a very bankable actress in those days) was walking out towards Corbiere lighthouse on the south west tip of Jersey. Back in the 70s, I had a great post-Finals holiday in Jersey with my mate Stephen and we stayed at a hotel which looked out towards that same lighthouse. A memorable view.

Anna meets a handsome chap called Hugh (played, rather woodenly I'm afraid, by Michael Petrovitch) and falls in love with him. She's escaping from a bad marriage and they enjoy an idyllic time together on Jersey (where she meets his brother, played by the estimable Frank Finlay) and on holiday in Scotland, before tragedy strikes. Out of the blue, and for no obvious reason, Hugh drops down dead on the beach. At this point, things turn supernatural, because shortly afterwards Hugh returns to Anna from the dead.

This is a very slow-paced film, a slow-motion picture, you might say. The screenplay was written by Honeycombe himself, but it's uninspiring and doesn't make the most of a promising premise. The music is also pretty awful. But there are compensations in the performances of Hampshire and Finlay. Interesting, but ultimately insipid. I bet the book is more engaging. 

Friday 9 December 2022

Forgotten Book - Possession by L.P. Davies

There are several books called Possession, but the one I'm talking about today was published by L.P. Davies in 1975. Davies is a writer who swerved around several genres over the years - crime, sci-fi, horror, and so on - and he caught my interest a long time ago, but it took me ages to get around to reading him. My interest quickened after I read a a very positive review of the novel by one of the best bloggers around, John Norris, and not long after that, I picked up an inscribed American edition cheaply at a book fair. And now I've finally read it.

One of the things that appeals to me about Davies is that he was a Cheshireman and it's clear that he had strong links with Wales, where some of his stories are set. However, in later life he moved to the Canary Isles (and in fact my copy of the book was inscribed in Tenerife) and this particular story is set in Wiltshire, in the neighbourhood of Devizes.

The story begins with the desecration of a grave in a quiet churchyard and it's immediately clear that this is not the first time such a thing has happened - there's a cryptic reference to 'that Macumba thing'. The grave belonged to Eddie Astey, recently killed in a motorbike accident, and when Eddie's brother Morgan arrives on the scene, it becomes evident that mystery surrounds the accident and Eddie's life - and in particular his friendship with a man called Garvey - before it occurred.

For me, the early part of the story, as Morgan begins his tentative investigations, was more effective than the later part. One of the difficulties was a dust jacket blurb that gave far too much away - I'd expect better of the Doubleday Crime Club. Another is the oddity of the storyline and the uncertainty as to whether this is indeed a crime story, as most of us understand that term, or a work of horror or the supernatural. It's an unusual story, with an interesting idea at his heart, but the execution is flawed in a number of respects (to explain why would be too much of a spoiler). However, Davies continues to intrigue me and I'd be glad to read more of his work. 

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Cambridge and the Golden Age

I'm just back from a very enjoyable trip to Cambridge. When Sophie Hannah asked me to give a lecture on Golden Age detective fiction to a group of her students who are studying creative writing with an emphasis on crime, I needed no more than a nanosecond to make up my mind to accept her invitation. And I'm so glad I did.

The venue was Madingley Hall, a very impressive place which dates back to the sixteenth century. Since 1948, it's been owned by Cambridge University and it makes an excellent venue for all kinds of continuing education courses and other events. I was able to stay overnight and enjoy the excellent dining facilities. As far as I know, Oxford doesn't have anything comparable, and it's certainly a great draw for the students.

Each time I'm asked to talk about the Golden Age, I try to do something slightly different. This keeps me fresh and avoids the risk of the material becoming stale. Often, I bring along 'props' or visual aids, examples of books from the period, and one of the items the students were especially interested in was an original copy of Who Killed Robert Prentice?, which was the second of the Dennis Wheatley-Joe Links crime dossiers.

It was great fun to catch up with Sophie, who is one of the most interesting thinkers in the genre and who devised the creative writing course herself. After the lecture there was an opportunity to relax over a drink in the bar with some of the students. They were a delightful bunch of people and I was impressed by their enthusiasm. I hope to have a chance to read some of their novels in years to come.


Monday 5 December 2022

A Factotum in the Book Trade - review

I've met quite a lot of bookdealers but I've never come across Marius Kociejowski, and given that he's retired from the business and wasn't much involved with crime books when he was, I suppose it's unlikely that I ever will. That's a pity, because on the evidence of his recently published memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade (published by Biblioasis, a Canadian literary press), he's a very interesting chap, someone from whom I reckon I could learn a lot. His book certainly made quite a strong impression on me. 

The first thing to say is that I really enjoyed (and gained from) reading it, so much so that I've listened to an interview with Marius and a podcast in which he discusses the book. So when I criticise the book's flaws, please bear in mind that it's only because I think that, with more work, this could have been an absolute masterpiece rather than a marvellous but maddening mix of the brilliant and - it must be said - the banal. An editor is acknowledged at the end, but to be honest, there's minimal evidence of a strong editorial hand. The result is something highly idiosyncratic - or to put it another way, a curate's egg.

There's no real structure to the book. It's a collection of bits and pieces, written during the pandemic and gives the impression of being thrown together in a rush. Now I like discursive writing with plenty of digressions, as anyone who has read The Golden Age of Murder will know, but there has to be a limit to self-indulgence, because writers should respect their readers. Given the defiant refusal to bother with a narrative arc, the absence of an index is baffling. Like Marius, I love books, but I suspect that writing books appeals less to him than it does to me. 

Some of the personalised criticisms that pepper the book are unsettling, even though I don't know the people he targets. I sense from his interviews that Marius realises that he overdid things in that respect and I'm sure he's a kinder guy in person than he sometimes appears to be in print. He believes in being honest, but sometimes there's a subjectivity to his blunt opinions that doesn't work for me. It's also a bit odd, as one interviewer pointed out, to write a highly personal memoir that guards one's privacy quite as zealously as this one does. I'm all in favour of protecting personal privacy, but the approach in this case is reminiscent of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it style of the kind of politician he deplores.

The flaws are such a pity because there are wonderfully witty lines (and anecdotes) in this memoir, as well as, I would argue, quite a lot of wisdom and many insights that I find thought-provoking. Perhaps he overdoes the melancholy about the loss of so many bookshops from the high streets. Many of us share his dismay about what has happened, but life always moves on and real books continue to be loved across the world. 

Apparently Marius is a poet (and a travel writer) and there's a fine quality to some of the writing that impressed me a great deal. So did his emphasis on ethics in book dealing, though again his criticisms of one or two fellow dealers seemed harsh. Above all, I found it instructive to read a very personal account of one person's passion for the book trade. It's a book that, warts and all, deserves to be a success.   


Friday 2 December 2022

Forgotten Book - When the Devil Was Sick

Until a few years ago, as a reader I focused on the books that Carol Rivett wrote under her most prominent pen-name, E.C.R. Lorac, rather than those which appeared under the name Carol Carnac. One of the reasons was that the Carnac books tend to be very elusive. However, I was lucky enough to acquire an inscribed dedication copy of Crossed Skis and, although I'm not interested in ski-ing, I enjoyed the novel.

Some time later, I was delighted when the British Library agreed to publish Crossed Skis as a Crime Classic and positive reader reaction duly followed. Of course, this author was highly prolific under both names and not all the books can appear as Crime Classics, but excellent sales figures mean that it's likely that Lorac/Carnac titles will continue to be reprinted. Meanwhile, I've been reading a shelf-full of them.

Among them is an obscure Carnac mystery - the fifth to appear under that name - with the odd title When the Devil Was Sick. (The title comes, it seems, from an old phrase that I must admit I hadn't encountered before). It's a country house mystery, but with quite a bit of the atmospheric description of rural settings that was a hallmark of this writer. The detection is done by Inspector Charles Ryvett (a surname obviously based on Carol's own real name, suggesting that she had quite a high level of identification with this particular character).

Strange events on Lammas Night culminate in the murder of a mysterious man dressed up as monk. Is he a member of the family in whose mansion he is discovered? The butler is among those who knows more than he is willing to reveal to Ryvett. A very unusual feature of this novel, especially for one written in the Golden Age by a woman, is that amateur boxing plays a part in the storyline. Ryvett is an appealing character and this interesting story is one of a number of Carnac titles which I think deserve a new life in the twenty-first century.