Monday, 2 October 2023

The Raging Storm by Ann Cleeves - review

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Cleeves for Barnes & Noble. There was a very good audience with lots of questions and thank goodness the technology worked a treat. I was a bit nervous beforehand, but once we got going, everything was fine. The reason for the interview was that Ann's new book, The Raging Storm, has just been published. Not to be confused with her last book, The Rising Tide, this is the third in her North Devon series featuring the gay detective Matthew Venn.

The story begins with a sort of 'prodigal returns' scenario, as the celebrity adventurer Jem Rosco arrives back in Greystone (based on a place called Hartland Quay), where he developed his sailcraft. He says he's waiting for someone, but is irritatingly mysterious about who that someone might be. In the second chapter, Mary Ford and her colleagues are called out to perform a rescue in the local lifeboat (the book is dedicated to the RNLI) but what they discover is Jem's dead body.  

Matthew and his team are called in and it soon becomes clear that Jem has been murdered. He wasn't by any means universally popular, and a number of possible murder motives emerge, as do various potential suspects. As ever, the landscape is splendidly evoked and it made me want to go back to Devon again. One slight quirk is that the publishers have included a map of Devon, but this doesn't show the key fictional locations featured in the story, which I found rather odd.

There are some interesting observations in this novel, for instance about social class, and Matthew's religious upbringing again plays a part. Particularly good is the way that Ann examines the nature of celebrity status and charisma. Early on, there's a reference to Dorothy L. Sayers and Golden Age detective fiction and the explanation at the end is one of the most intricate Ann has ever come up with. Early on, Matthew appears to overlook one pretty obvious area of enquiry, and that isn't the only mistake he makes. He's no Lord Peter Wimsey, but dogged perseverance gets him there in the end.  

Friday, 29 September 2023

Forgotten Book - The Blackbirder

From the slavery era right up to the present day, people trafficking has been an ugly trade, as unscrupulous people have cashed in on the desperation of others. Dorothy B. Hughes' The Blackbirder was published in 1943, but in some respects it has a timeless quality - a 'blackbirder' in this context is a trafficker. The story concerns the trafficking of people desperate to escape from the Nazis, and that background pins the book as a fascinating contribution to social history. But it's much more than that.

We see everything from the point of view of a young woman whose name is Julie (in fact, she has several names during the course of the story, as she strives to escape trouble). Her courage and determination are admirable, although sometimes - and this is done by Hughes with great narrative skill - she misinterprets what she sees, and the motives of people she encounters. The touches of naivete make her all the more appealing.

We first encounter Julie in New York. She is on the run - but from what, from whom? She's clearly worried when she encounters a young acquaintance called Maxl, but she spends some time with him before he leaves her outside the door of her apartment. Unfortunately, he is then murdered, and Julie, fearing that she may be a suspect, and will soon be found out by the authorities, goes on the run.

Hughes builds the tension with subtlety as well as dynamism. I found this a gripping read from start to finish. It's an unusual book, and one that demonstrates a combination of storytelling flair with in-depth human insight. A very good read indeed. I've read a few negative reviews of this one on Goodreads, which just shows that even a great writer can't please everyone. Ignore the negativity and give it a go. I don't think you'll be disappointed.


Wednesday, 27 September 2023

The Foreigner - 2017 film review

The Foreigner is an entertaining revenge thriller that was released in 2017 to considerable acclaim. The fact that the cast is led by the perhaps unlikely combination of Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan makes it interesting, but there's more to the film (script by David Marconi, source material a novel by Stephen Leather) than that. It's fair to say that the acclaim wasn't universal - a review on the usually insightful Roger Ebert website calls it 'an all-round lousy movie', but don't take too much notice of that, since the critical acumen of the reviewer, who is plainly not the late Roger Ebert, can be judged by the fact that he regards Brosnan's Irish accent as 'atrocious'. Oh dear. 

Anyway, Chan plays a chap called Quan, who is leading a quiet life in London when his daughter is murdered in a terrorist incident. He determines to find out who is responsible and mete out his own kind of justice. So far, so very straightforward, but the story gains depth from the way in which Quan targets Brosnan's character, Liam Hennessey. 

Hennessey, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to a prominent Irish politician in reality, is presented as a dodgy character, in his personal life as well as in his political machinations. He is emphatically not responsible for the attack which killed Quan's daughter, but Quan is right to believe that such an influential figure is bound to know where, to coin a phrase, the bodies are buried.

The political dimensions to the story don't get in the way of the action, which is effectively done, but not over-done. Jackie Chan's age makes him an unlikely action man, but he gives a good performance and the implausibilities of the story are addressed quite well in the script, with the tension maintained to the end. I enjoyed it and so, it should be said, did a large majority of the reviewers.

Monday, 25 September 2023

No Way Out - 1987 film review

It isn't often that a remake of a successful and well-made film matches the original, far less surpasses it. One of the rare exceptions to this principle, I think, is No Way Out, which was based (very, very, loosely) on Kenneth Fearing's terrific novel The Big Clock, which was superbly filmed in 1948. There has also been a French remake with the improbable title Police Python 357, which I've never seen. 

The central idea of The Big Clock is of a man being tasked to find a missing witness to a murder, who is in fact himself. The problem is that he's acutely aware that when the truth comes out, his life will be in extreme danger. This 'manhunt for oneself' idea wasn't original to Fearing, but it's a fascinating one which has been employed by various writers over the years, including Derek Marlowe in A Dandy in Aspic, and there's even an echo of it in a sub-plot in my own Sepulchre Street

Robert Garland's terrific screenplay for No Way Out takes this concept and adds a very pleasing additional twist, which - when I first saw the film - took my breath away. I've now watched it for a third time, and the first since I gave the film a brief mention in the very early days of this blog, and for me, it still works very well. I even realised for the first time that the two songs featured in the film are written by Paul Anka.

Kevin Costner plays Tom Farrell, a naval commander who is hired by Brice, the Secretary of State for Defence (Gene Hackman) with the help of his friend and Brice's assistant Will Paton. Farrell meets a glamorous young woman (Sean Young, at her very best) and embarks on a torrid affair with her. When she tells him that she's also involved with Brice, the complications begin to mount.

This is an intelligent and gripping thriller, one of the best from the 1980s in my opinion. A key reason for its success is that the characters, although quite lightly sketched, are far from formulaic. They have genuine depth and their personalities govern their actions. This is also true, for instance, of the disabled IT expert played very effectively by George Dzunda. I'm glad to have enjoyed this film greatly every time I've watched it.

Friday, 22 September 2023

Forgotten Book - Our Jubilee is Death

I've developed an increasing interest in Leo Bruce's detective fiction in recent years and after focusing initially on his pre-war Sergeant Beef novels, I've taken a liking to his post-war stories featuring the school teacher Carolus Deene. The blend of humour and quirky scenarios is appealing. My latest Bruce reading is Our Jubilee is Death, published in 1959.

The set-up is very good. Deene is summoned to Suffolk by his cousin Fay, who tells him about the bizarre murder of a detective novelist called Mrs Bomberger, who has been found buried up to her neck in the sand. He has an entertaining interview with a publisher called Agincourt who tells him how awful the victim was, and it's clear that there will be no shortage of suspects. I also appreciated the name-checking of Bruce's own publisher, Peter Davies. 

Duly encouraged, I prepared myself for a top-notch read. Unfortunately, however, that the rest of the story didn't really live up to the promise of the situation. I was expecting more to be made of the victim's literary career and although flashes of wit continue to enhance the book, the story itself is rather downbeat - Deene describes it as 'beastly' - and I struggled to care about the culprit or the motive. I suspect that Bruce may have written the novel rather too quickly to invest the storyline with enough pazazz. Nor is the plot one of his best.

Steve Barge is among the people who have reviewed this novel and his reservations about it seem similar to mine.  A pity, but Bruce always writes agreeably and I have more Deene novels lined up for future reading.    

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

Glenn Chandler

I've mentioned my enthusiasm for the writing of Glenn Chandler many times on this blog over the years. I first came across him as the creator and writer of Taggart, and I greatly admired the twisty plots of his stories. To this day, I struggle to think of any TV cop show that has gripped me as much as those early episodes of Taggart.

I've also been interested to read and watch some of his work in the true crime field. If you consider his scripts for Taggart carefully, you'll pick up quite a few true crime references and his researches are as careful as his analyses are cogent. One of his more obscure yet still interesting non-fiction titles is Burning Poison, a book with a Liverpool setting that I picked up while working in the city.

His latest book is Sidney Fox's Crime, another non-fiction study, examining the Margate Hotel murder. It's a very interesting case, and his take on it is well worth reading. I hope to discuss the book in more detail in the near future, but on a brief trip to London last week I had the great pleasure of meeting Glenn in person for the first time. He was giving a talk about the Fox case, which was just as interesting as I anticipated. I also had the chance of an enjoyable chat with Tony Medawar as well as meeting a number of pleasant people with a shared interest in true crime cases.

Glenn told me about imminent celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the first Taggart story, Killer. Sadly, the great Mark McManus, who was so good as the eponymous gruff detective, died many years ago, and although Taggart continued for many years thereafter, inevitably it wasn't quite the same. But it was great to meet Glenn and to have a chance to express my appreciation of his writing, which really has given me a great deal of pleasure for a long time. And I'm not alone in this, of course. As I've mentioned previously here, Kate Ellis shares my enthusiasm for early Taggart and again, one can see Glenn's indirect influence in Kate's taste for elaborate and entertaining mystery plots.


Monday, 18 September 2023

See How They Run - 2022 film

See How They Run is an enjoyable homage to Agatha Christie. The film opens at a celebratory party marking the 100th performance of The Mousetrap. An American director has been asked to oversee a film adaptation, a task that doesn't fill him with joy. He drinks too much and behaves boorishly and is promptly murdered backstage.

That's the set-up and the rest of the film is an enjoyable investigation into whodunit. Sam Rockwell plays Inspector Stoppard (and of course we recall that Stoppard wrote a wonderful send-up of plays in the style of The Mousetrap, The Real Inspector Hound). His sidekick, WPC Stalker, is played by Saoirse Ronan, although at first it's not clear whether she will prove to be a help or a hindrance.

There are some wonderfully funny lines in the script and some nice little easter eggs for the diehard fans to look out for - for instance, a passing reference to a dentist named Norman Gale, as in the character from Death in the Clouds. The likeable cast includes Reece Shearsmith, Ruth Wilson, and David Oyelowo. The plot is okay and although it lacks the brilliance of Christie's best work, I felt that it was as good as the storylines in Knives Out and its sequel (not everyone agrees, but that was my view). 

It's a sign of the times that such a tribute to Christie can enjoy such success. Only last week a statue to her was unveiled in Wallingford, another illustration of the esteem in which she's now held. We're living through a real renaissance of Golden Age fiction and although no doubt, like other fashions, it will pass, I believe that the widespread enthusiasm for classic crime means that fewer critics will sneer at traditional whodunits than used to be the case. They offer great entertainment, as does this film.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Forgotten Book - The Long Divorce

The Long Divorce (also known in the US as a  A Noose for Her) is another of the novels by Edmund Crispin that have recently been reissued by HarperCollins in attractive new editions. And it's a story that I'd rate as one of Gervase Fen's most enjoyable cases, right up there with The Moving Toyshop. It's such a pity that after its appearance in 1951, at a point where Crispin had been producing books at a rate of about one novel a year, Fen vanished for more than a quarter of a century before reappearing in The Glimpses of the Moon

In this story, Fen visits the picturesque village of Cotton Abbas under an alias, Datchery. Anyone who has read The Mystery of Edwin Drood will recognise the source of the name, but the links with Drood end there. We are dealing with a classic village mystery here - there has been a plague of poison pen letters in the village, which Fen wants to investigate. 

The little community is also being torn apart by the hostility between the owner of a newish saw-mill and the locals who don't want their way of life disturbed - there's something eternal about this kind of issue, as a glance at many a community Facebook group's posts today will confirm.

The story brims with Crispin's characteristic wit and the plot is stronger than those of some of his other books. The Golden Age might have ended by the time this novel appeared, but Crispin - who was a pillar of the Detection Club - seems to me to have belonged in spirit to the Thirties. Anyone interested in learning more about this gifted writer and composer is recommended to seek out David Whittle's excellent biography.

Wednesday, 13 September 2023

The Winter Lake - 2021 film review

Looking for a cheerful pick-me-up to take your mind off seasonal miseries? Then you'd do well to avoid The Winter Lake, a recent slow-burning suspense movie set in Ireland. But if you can cope with the mood of almost unrelieved bleakness, and you're looking for a low-budget film which is very strong on evocation of place and good in terms of characterisation and acting, then this piece of rural noir is well worth watching.  

Tom (Anson Boon) is a troubled young man who collects animal skulls. He and his young mother Elaine (Charlie Murphy) have moved to a remote cottage, apparently inherited following some turbulence in their lives during which Tom slashed someone with a knife. Unfortunately, he still carries a knife and soon, in a nearby winter lake (a turlough, a geological feature more or less unique to Ireland), he makes a grisly discovery.

Elaine meets Ward (Michael McElhatton) and seeks to initiate a relationship, with minimal success. Ward's concern is for his wayward daughter Holly (Emma Mackey), who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the near-silent Tom. In the background lurks her boyfriend Col (Mark McKenna), to whom Tom takes an immediate dislike. 

After a slow start, the film picks up pace and the tension mounts. I felt that David Turpin's script did a very good job in terms of developing the characters of Tom, Elaine, Ward, and Holly, and their performances did him and director Phil Sheerin justice. My main reservation concerned the pacing and the structure of the storyline, which seemed to me to be very uneven. As a result, the ending of the film is not only low-key but anti-climactic. I admire the way the film avoids the cliches of psychological suspense, but given some strong ingredients, I think that perhaps better use could have been made of them.    

Monday, 11 September 2023

And Then There Were None - 1974 film review

I enjoy many Golden Age detective novels, but if you press me for it (as happened on one of the panels at San Diego a few days ago), my absolute favourite has to be And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, not only an enduring global bestseller and hugely influential on crime writers to this day (how many homages to this book have been published in the last decade? I've lost count). The story is a superb combination of whodunit and psychological suspense. No surprise, then, that there have been plenty of screen versions.

One that has escaped me until now is the 1974 film directed by Peter Collinson. This movie has an indifferent reputation, but I decided I ought to check it out for myself. Collinson was capable of excellent work - he directed the original version of The Italian Job, a great piece of entertainment - and the cast is impressive. The producer was Harry Alan Towers, whose own reputation has not worn well at all, and he also wrote the script, under the pen-name of Peter Welbeck. He makes several changes to the Christie original, and although some are interesting, overall I don't think they work well.

The setting is weird - an abandoned luxury hotel in the middle of the desert in the Iran. So, effectively it's as cut-off as the island in the original story. There are some visual pleasures to be had from this change of scene, but too much is left unexplained. The climax isn't badly done, but the build-up lacks the necessary tension.

This lack of suspense is partly due to the fact that even the notable actors in the cast seem to be affected by a languor, possibly induced by the indifferent quality of the screenplay. Elke Sommer is beautiful and does her best with her part, but Oliver Reed seems to sleep-walk through his. Even Richard Attenborough and Herbert Lom are below their considerable best. The two ex-Bond villains, Gert Frobe and Adolfo Celi, make little impression, and why Orson Welles did the mysterious recorded message from U.N. Owen remained unclear to me. It's not a complete disaster as a film, but overall a waste of talent and of fantastic source material.     

Thursday, 7 September 2023

A Magical Time in San Diego

I'm just back from a magical Bouchercon in San Diego. On the way back, while awaiting my flight, I heard one of my favourite songs being played, 'There's Always Something There to Remind Me', and it was truly apposite. The trip was unforgettable for many reasons, not least that I came back with a Golden Derringer award and an Anthony award, but the greatest joy was spending time with good friends and exploring a fascinating part of California.

It's hard to pick out all the highlights, but being presented with a lifetime achievement award for my short fiction by Rob Lopresti at the opening ceremonies (top photo) naturally has to feature. Only Ruth Rendell among British writers has won a Golden Derringer before, and the award is named after Ed Hoch, a great short story writer whom I had the pleasure to know and work with. I'm proud of this recognition.

The Anthony awards came after the banquet; Ann Cleeves, as a guest of honour, kindly invited me to sit at her table, one of the few times we had to catch up, so hectic was the convention. The Anthony - for The Life of Crime - was presented to me by another old friend, Laurie R. King, which was lovely (see the photo at the bottom of this post). There were plenty of parties - with Sourcebooks, my American publishers, where I had the pleasure of meeting Eriq la Salle (best known, perhaps, for starring with George Clooney in E.R. before he turned to fiction - the second photo from the top shows me with Eriq and Jeff Siger), with Severn House, with Jackie Sherbow of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and with the North American chapter of the CWA.

I took part in three panels, two of them to full houses. Elly Griffiths did a great job of moderating our panel on Agatha and the Golden Age, while there was a panel about British crime fiction, and another for the Anthony nominees for the best non-fiction book. There was a very good book room, and I came away with some treasures, notably an inscribed Christianna Brand which didn't break the bank. I was also excited to sign Japanese editions of my novels for a fan from that country.

It wasn't all straightforward - two foggy mornings and some rain reminded me of Manchester - but the weather soon improved. My phone misbehaved so badly that I made no fewer than six visits to a phone shop, but at least I didn't suffer the same misfortune as poor Steve Steinbock, who managed to drop his phone down the elevator shaft in a chance-in-a-million. 

There were many fun conversations and some great dining out (and I enjoyed a fabulous consolatory ice cream at the legendary Ghiardelli's while waiting for the phone shop to reopen). Kristopher Zgorski kindly invited me to a meal at 'Werewolf', which we all survived so happily that Edwin Hill, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Stacy Woodson and I returned there for another meal. I also very much enjoyed dining with Art Taylor and his family plus Jeff Kingston Pierce.  

It was great to see so many people again, some of them for the first time in ages, including Charles Todd, Becky Tope, Joni Langevoort, Josh Pachter, Amanda Brown, Peter Rozovsky, Barbara Peters, and Bruce Coffin, as well as to meet others for the first time, to name but a few Stacy, Steph Broadribb, Michael Bracken, Frankie Y. Bailey, Tim Kinsey (who amazed me by presenting me with a Sepulchre Street badge) and Jim Bartlett, a fellow Anthony nominee and husband of Wendall Thomas.

But in a convention of over 1700 people, you can't see everyone or talk to them for as long as you might like. Somehow I managed to miss Ragnar Jonasson, but he sent over a signed copy of his new book as well as giving some tips on places to visit. He was quite right to recommend La Jolla, once the home of Raymond Chandler. La Jolla Cove is amazing, with seals, sea-lions - and pelicans! A stiff climb up to La Jolla Natural Park was rewarded with fantastic views, while Balboa Park back in San Diego was really impressive.

Like Frankie, I went on a trolley bus tour on Monday, and saw many fascinating places, notably Coronado (with the famous hotel which features in Some Like it Hot), accessed by a high bridge which is not for those with vertigo, and the Old Town, which is terrific. On my final evening, I wandered along the bay, seeing a little pink boat bobbing next to the Midway aircraft carrier and many other sights that will stay in my mind for a long time. I feel so very fortunate to have had this experience. It was truly brilliant.

And now back to the keyboard!   

Wednesday, 6 September 2023

Forgotten Book - The Far Side of the Dollar

I've mentioned my enthusiasm for Ross Macdonald's work several times over the years and recently - while on a flight to San Diego - I read a novel he wrote at the peak of his powers. The Far Side of the Dollar was first published in 1964 and it begins with a fairly low-key investigation, involving a boy called Tommy Hillman, who has just absconded from school. But this isn't just any school - it's a pricey place for problem children - and this isn't just any private eye case. It's quite compelling. And it won a CWA Gold Dagger, as well as being nominated for an Edgar.

The writing is very strong, and there are plenty of arresting turns of phrase to keep one hooked as the plot unfolds. Lew Archer is, in some respects, an 'everyman' character, less distinctively characterised than Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but in this story he encounters an old flame while pursuing his inquiry in typically determined fashion.

As usual with Macdonald, tangled family relationships lie at the heart of this story. I discussed Macdonald's own complex life in The Life of Crime and he seems to have been trying to work out in fiction some of the issues that troubled him in reality. Crucially, though, he never lets these concerns interrupt the flow of the story.

'Other people's lives are my business,' Archer says to Mrs Hillman, a rich man's wife and a key figure in the novel. 'I've never been able to see much in the world beside the people in it.' So no Maltese falcon here. I liked the way that Macdonald developed the story, and was hooked from start to finish. Private eyes can be samey, but this is a high-calibre example of the form.

The Black Angel - 1946 film review

It must be a good thirty years since I read Cornell Woolrich's The Black Angel, but I've only just caught up with the film noir based on the book and directed by Roy William Neill. I can't remember much about the original story after such a lapse of time, but I'm pretty sure that it differs significantly from the movie version (and apparently the book was in fact a reworked version of two short stories) but it makes for good watching and at eighty minutes or so in length doesn't outstay its welcome.

The film opens in the apartment of Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), glamorous but unpleasant to her maid (never a good sign) and unkind to her former husband Martin (Dan Duryea), whom she refuses to see despite his obvious if inexplicable yearning for her. We see Peter Lorre skulking around in a sinister way, and then another chap turns up, only to find that Mavis has been murdered. Taking stupidity to remarkable levels, he leaves traces of his presence at the scene before rushing off, only to be spotted by a witness. He's duly arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death.

His luckless wife Catherine (June Bennett) is convinced of his innocence, and sets out to save him. After several false starts, she comes across Martin, a songwriter who has a serious drink problem but is at heart really a decent guy. They become suspicious of Lorre (he plays a shady nightclub owner called Marko) and form an elaborate if improbable plan to prove his guilt.

Various pleasing plot complications ensue, and the race against time (a familiar Woolrich trope) adds a degree of tension. The story is well-paced, and in this respect, Neill, whose final film this was, sets a good example to many present day directors of film and TV shows. It's not quite as good as Phantom Lady, which is probably my favourite Woolrich story, but I'm not sure why Woolrich himself was dissatisfied with Neill's effort. I'd say this is a film noir that deserves to be better-known.

Monday, 4 September 2023

The Mercy - 2017 film review

The Mercy is a film which tells the story of Donald Crowhurst, which caused quite a sensation back in the late 60s. It's a story I remember from the time, but I've never studied it in detail and this version - very sympathetic towards Crowhurst - puts an interesting spin on a tale about a man who, with minimal experience, decides to go in for a solo round the world boat race, taking inspiration from the exploits of Sir Francis Chichester (played in the film by Simon McBurney).

The received wisdom has always been that Crowhurst was a fantasist who was simply incapable of achieving his goal and, due to fear of being found out (and financially ruined) set out to make false claims about his trip. For a while, it seemed as though he would return to Britain a hero. But then he lost radio contact and his boat was eventually found - but not Crowhurst. After that, it emerged that he hadn't travelled as far as he'd claimed. But an air of mystery has always clung to the case, and that in part explains its fascination.

The excellent Colin Firth plays Crowhurst as a decent family man with three young children (although in real life he had four) and a devoted wife, Clare (played by Rachel Weisz). We see him as an inventor and small businessman who is not particularly successful. When the race is announced he sees a chance of obtaining fame and fortune.

He acquires a press agent (David Thewlis) and a financial backer (Ken Stott) and, despite Clare's doubts, sets about raising funds for his epic voyage on the trimaran Teignmouth Electron. The picture created of Teignmouth society is appealing and made me want to spend more time there on my next visit to the south west. Director James Marsh and writer Scott Z. Burns get over the risk of endless scenes on the ocean by intercutting those scenes with what is happening back home and also scenes involving the Crowhursts.

This is a good film, which captures the enigma of Donald Crowhurst quite well, although I'd have liked a bit more insight into his background - what made him the man he was? Ultimately, despite the fraud element, it's a drama about a man with a dream that he's incapable of fulfilling, and the disaster to which that leads. Recommended.

Saturday, 2 September 2023

Frailty - 2001 film review

Frailty is not an especially well-known film, but it seems to have developed an increasing reputation since its original release in 2001 and I think this is well-merited. It's a dark film, with likeable characters in short supply, but it's gripping and the plot twists are, in my opinion, highly effective. It's a crime film with horror overtones (although there's plenty of violence, it's not really graphic) and arguably elements of the supernatural. 

On the surface, the story seems quite straightforward. A man visits police HQ in Dallas, Texas and insists on seeing the cop in charge of the 'God's Hand' serial killings case. He gets his wish and is duly interviewed by Wesley Dixon, a senior detective whose own mother was a murder victim (and the murderer was never caught). Dixon (Powers Boothe) learns that his visitor (Matthew McConnaughy) is Fenton Meiks, who has come to report that his brother Adam, who has just shot himself, is the God's Hand Killer.

His story, told via extended flashbacks, is a grim one. The two brothers were brought up by a loving father, a garage mechanic (very well played by Bill Paxton, who also directed the film). However, an apparent vision of an angel persuaded their father that it was God's will that he should track down and kill various individuals who were demons in human form. The two young boys witnessed their father's crimes. Young Adam shared his father's beliefs, but Fenton rebelled and tried to tell the truth about their father, with unhappy results.

To say more would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that this is a film that repays watching more than once. I was very impressed by Brent Hanley's script, and the quality of the acting (the cast includes Melissa aka Missy Crider, in a small role that is nevertheless crucial to the plot). The music is pretty good, too. Whatever one makes of the quasi-religious elements of the storyline, this is a film which I think deserves to be much more highly regarded than seems to have been the case twenty-two years ago.  

Friday, 1 September 2023

Forgotten Book - Message from Sirius

Message from Sirius by Cecil Jenkins was the joint winner (with R.J. White's The Smartest Grave) of a competition organised by Collins Crime Club in 1961 for the best crime novel to be written by a university don. In fact, the original choice was the debut novel of Dominic Devine, only for it to turn out that, although Devine worked in a university, he wasn't a don and was thus ineligible. Ironically, he proceeded to enjoy a more significant crime writing career than either White or Jenkins. Indeed, Jenkins never published another detective novel.

The competition had three big name judges, although I suspect the hard work of sifting through the manuscript was handled within Collins. But the trio are all quoted on the back of the book and their praise is unstinting. So Agatha Christie: 'both exciting and original'. Cecil Day Lewis: 'A really intelligent and thrilling thriller.' And Julian Symons: 'A truly original crime novel.'

Wow! These are extremely impressive endorsements. And the paperback edition notes that the book has already been published 'in seven countries around the world'. So the question is - does the book live up to its advance billing? I'm afraid it's time for a spoiler alert. The answer, in my opinion, is a definite no.

It's certainly true that Jenkins was trying to do something ambitious here, and that's praiseworthy, but there's a definite whiff of the pretentious about his writing. A celebrity is murdered in public and the police receive a letter signed Sirius, claiming that the crime was committed for some kind of (pretty incoherent) moral purpose. The opening paragraph, complaining about the state of the world, could actually be written today ('In an age which should be one of great hope, civilisation on our planet is threatened with physical destruction and, if only for this reason, with moral collapse'). There's quite a lot of Cold War angst in the story, and that's one of the book's interesting features, but I'm afraid I struggled to work up much interest in what was going on or whodunit.   

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

An Affair in Mind aka The Face of Trespass - 1988

I recall reading Ruth Rendell's The Face of Trespass one rainy weekend back in the 1980s. It was one of the first books of hers that I read and I enjoyed it. At the time, I was dreaming of becoming a writer and I was very struck, if not alarmed, by Rendell's description of her protagonist, a writer, whose royalty cheques start to dwindle. In fact, the notion that writing is a tough game in financial terms is the main thing I now remember about the story!

So when I came across a TV movie version of the book that I'd been previously unaware of, I was glad to have the chance to watch it. The new title was An Affair in Mind, which is rather less cryptic than Rendell's title. The screenplay was written by Michael Baker, whose CV includes a few episodes of Poirot

Stephen Dillane, a good actor, plays Gray Harston, the extremely naive protagonist. He goes to a literary party and is bored by his fellow guests until he spots a beautiful blonde-haired woman. He follows her and picks her up and without more ado they embark on a torrid affair. She is Drusilla Janus (played by Amanda Donohoe) and she's married to a rich man but bored with him.

Soon we stray into Double Indemnity territory as Drusilla seeks to persuade Gray to kill her husband so that the two of them can be together. The script requires suspension of disbelief on rather a massive scale. As far as I can recall, the novel seemed more plausible. But the story is good enough to keep one entertained, despite the various improbabilities.


Monday, 28 August 2023

Rachel Savernake in China and Japan


It's a surreal yet fascinating experience to see a novel that one has written published in a language that one doesn't understand. At one time, my overseas translations were confined to Germany and Italy, and even though my German is rusty and my Italian very limited, at least if I opened the book I would have a rough idea of the translation. It's rather different with the new Chinese and Japanese editions of Gallows Court.

I'm excited that the book is being published in both countries. I've never had a novel published in either country before, though The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books and The Golden Age of Murder have appeared in Korean and Chinese editions, while The Life of Crime is due to be published in both China and Japan in due course.

The cover artwork, as you can see, is distinctive in each case. It's interesting to me that both publishers have focused on an image of Rachel Savernake (and the same was true of the US edition). It's been different in the UK, where three different types of cover artwork have been used already - the third being a design by Ed Bettison which is in the same style as the very successful cover he produced for Mortmain Hall. Speaking of which, I've also just received my author copies of the Chinese edition of Mortmain Hall, and the artwork is equally striking:

I find it interesting that it's Rachel Savernake, rather than any of my earlier protagonists, who has achieved a breakthrough in two important markets. There are probably a number of reasons for this, among them the fact that the Golden Age ingredients seem to appeal to Chinese and Japanese readers. Of course, it's not easy to do much in England to promote the book to readers in such distant lands, but  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the publishers' PR efforts are sufficiently successful to prompt them to acquire more Rachel Savernake books. Time will tell!

Friday, 25 August 2023

Forgotten Book - The Schoolmaster

W.J. Burley published The Schoolmaster in 1977. By that time he was a well-established crime writer. Having started out with an amateur detective, Henry Pym, he'd begun to focus on a series about a cop based in Burley's native Cornwall - Charles Wycliffe, later a telly cop. Clearly he wanted to spread his wings further (in 1978 he'd venture into science fiction, an experiment he didn't repeat). So he wrote a stand-alone novel whose protagonist was a teacher - as was Burley.

The Schoolmaster is a book that juggles with the reader's expectations. At first it seems as though it may develop into a conventional inverted mystery, as introverted Arthur Milton is deserted by his wife, who goes to live with another man and takes their teenage daughter with her. Milton seems bent on revenge - but this impulse quickly fizzles out.

Then it seems that we may be dealing with a cold case story of psychological suspense as Arthur's connection with a crime of the past gradually emerges. Or is the story a whodunit? Or essentially a character study? It is a fairly short novel, but Burley kept me interested from start to finish.

So this one gets a thumbs-up from me. My main reservation is that Arthur isn't an easy man to warm to. The urban setting is drab, deliberately so, and the same is largely true of the characterisation. I would have liked to care more about Arthur's fate and his prospects - if any - of redemption. Burley admired Simenon, and one can detect the great Belgian's influence in this story, as one can in the Wycliffe series. Burley would go on to write two more crime stand-alones, Charles and Elizabeth and the excellent The House of Care. Each has merit, each remains well worth reading.