Friday, 24 March 2023

Forgotten Book - Fear for Miss Betony

Fifteen years have passed since I discussed Dorothy Bowers' 1941 novel on this blog, although at that time I'd read the American reprint issued by the late, lamented Rue Morgue Press and so I referred to the novel by its slightly different American title, Fear and Miss Betony. It's a well-written novel and I decided to take another look at it, this time from the writer's perspective as much as the reader's.

One thing that has changed in the intervening years is that I've acquired a lovely inscribed copy of this book. In inscribing the book to someone called R.H. Naylor, Bowers quotes from 'All's Well that Ends Well': 'We, the poorer born, whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes'. Every time I think of Bowers, my admiration is mixed with the poignant reflection that she could have achieved so much had her life not been so cruelly cut short by TB.

As for the story, I've come to the conclusion that - for all its merits - the structure is lop-sided. The story is very, very different from A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey, another very well-written book that doesn't work as well as it should have done, but there are one or two resemblances. I suspect that Bowers enjoyed writing about Emma Betony so much that she focused too much on the story's very slow build-up. As a result, various revelations come in a rush at the end, when her usual detectives, Pardoe and Salt, make a belated appearance.

As with the Tey novel, I think she could have made more of the basic situation. Agatha Christie was not as accomplished a prose stylist as either Tey or Bowers, but she would have dealt with the mystery element of the book carefully and effectively, of that I'm pretty sure. But it's worth emphasising that there are many compensations, including the period detail and an insight into the attitudes of the time, especially towards older people. At the start of the story, Emma Betony is sixty-one years old and everyone treats her as though she has nine toes in the grave. Shame! Anyway, she proves to be a lively and intelligent woman and I enjoyed sharing her company once again. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Love Me Fierce in Danger by Steven Powell - review

James Ellroy is an extraordinary writer and also a remarkable individual. I met him once, briefly, at an event and had a chat with him as he inscribed some books to me. He likes to present himself as 'The Demon Dog of Crime' and it's not always easy to separate the publicity-generating headlines about him, and his sometimes outrageous behaviour, and the real man. I have mixed feelings about his work - some of it I really like, some of it leaves me cold. But, as anyone who has read The Life of Crime will know, I do think he is a significant and interesting figure in the development of modern American crime fiction.

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy is the first biography of him, and I'm sure it won't be the last. Ellroy is, at 74, still writing and has a novel due out soon. There's a lot to unpick in his life story, including of course the consequences of the terrible murder of Ellroy's mother on her son when he was just ten years old. Ellroy has written extensively on this subject himself, and any psychologist would have a field day exploring his complex thought processes.

Steven Powell is one of a number of British academics - Mike Wilson, Jamie Bernthal, and Mark Aldridge are among the others - who are doing good work in writing about crime fiction without an excess of academic jargon. Powell is a specialist in Ellroy and his sympathy for the man is, I would argue, a strength of the book. Importantly, he writes in a clear and accessible way.

Powell highlights, among much else, the influence that the distinguished American editor Otto Penzler had on Ellroy's career. All writers benefit greatly from an editor who believes in their work and Otto definitely has an eye for talent. Inevitably there are a few points one might quibble with. For instance, is it really credible that the CWA gave Ellroy a 'briefing' asking him not to cause offence at the 1995 Bouchercon (which I attended), given that the CWA didn't organise the convention and would have had no standing in the matter? The CWA Chair in those days was the ex-cop Peter Walker and it hardly sounds like his doing.

Overall, though, there is much to relish here, not least the quote from Joyce Carol Oates that Ellroy is 'the American Dostoyevsky'. As Steven Powell points out, for all the troubled nature of aspects of Ellroy's life, it also has an inspiring quality in a number of respects. This book makes a worthwhile and welcome contribution to Ellroy scholarship. 

Monday, 20 March 2023

The Popular Culture Association and the Dove Award

I am honoured to be able to report that the Popular Culture Association of the United States has awarded me this year's George N. Dove award. The PCA has been in existence for more than half a century, but I imagine that some British readers will be unfamiliar with it, so this is its stated mission: 'to promote the study of popular culture throughout the world through the establishment and promotion of conferences, publications, and discussion. The PCA actively tries to identify and recruit new areas of scholarly exploration and to be open to new and innovative ideas. PCA is both inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary. Finally, the PCA believes all scholars should be treated with dignity and respect.'

As for the award,  bestowed for 'outstanding contributions to the serious study of mystery, detective, and crime fiction', is named after George N. Dove. He was a past president of the Popular Culture Association, and author of outstanding books on detective fiction. I have some of them in my possession and two of them feature in the select bibliography of The Life of Crime.

Naturally, most of the previous winners have been Americans, and they include such luminaries as Professor Doug Greene and Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International. Among the British winners have been P.D. James, H.R.F. Keating, and Julian Symons. Suffice to say that I am proud to be in such company.

It is always a great honour to have one's writing recognised and to be appreciated by such a notable American organisation gives me a special thrill. The detailed nominations made wonderful reading - a marvellous boost to morale and hugely motivating. Onward and upward!  


Friday, 17 March 2023

Forgotten Book - The House of Care

W.J. Burley's style of writing is low-key and therefore perhaps an acquired taste. Over the years, I've had several phases of enthusiasm for his work, interspersed with times when I've neglected his fiction for other fare. But I'm definitely in a Burley mood at present, and I've just read a book which has probably impressed me more than any of his other fiction.

The House of Care is a stand-alone, first published in 1981 and much less well-known that his Wycliffe series, even before the latter was televised. After this novel was published, Burley produced no more stand-alone novels, even though he continued writing until the end of his life; he died in 2002 at the age of 88, with the aptly titled Wycliffe and the Last Lap unfinished. My guess is that he was disappointed by the relative lack of appreciation for his stand-alones; the commercial potential of the series was bound to be greater unless he had a 'breakthrough' non-series book. 

It's a pity that The House of Care wasn't more successful; I think it would make good television. John Cooper tells me that when he met Burley (something I never did), the author was asked by a number of American fans unfamiliar with his work which of his books he would recommend. His answer was - The House of Care. Interesting.

The setting is a decaying family estate in Cornwall. The Care family is struggling financially and Sir Henry Care has a complex personal life. Burley introduces a large cast of characters and a family tree would have been welcome. But he presents members of different generations in a credible and interesting way. As with so many of his books, sexual tensions seethe not far below the apparently pleasant surface of life on the estate.

The mood darkens as Sir Henry's daughter Laura, a young woman with a taste for the occult, becomes increasingly obsessed by the mysterious death of her mother, who plunged from Prospect Tower when Laura was a child. Several people are given good reason to want Laura dead and when a revolver goes missing, we fear the worst. Yet when a violent death occurs, it isn't by shooting...

I found this an intriguing read. The ending is subtle, and some would say ambiguous, but it works pretty well in my opinion. Perhaps this story would have enjoyed greater acclaim if it had been a little more dramatic in style, but it offers plenty to admire in terms of writing, characterisation, and evocation of place. And the plot, not always Burley's strong point, is pretty good too. Definitely deserves to be better known. 

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Showstopper by Peter Lovesey - review

Peter Lovesey is the only writer living in Britain who has received the two top crime writing awards - the CWA Diamond Dagger and MWA Grand Master award. Showstopper, his latest Peter Diamond novel shows that he remains in fine form. We all know that when a series has been running for a long time, the books can become repetitive. But that isn't a trap that Lovesey has ever fallen into. This is another unorthodox story, very different in style and content from Diamond's last outing, Diamond and the Eye, and as entertaining as it is devilishly readable.

At the start of the book, Daisy Summerfield, a veteran member of the cast of the successful TV series Swift, goes home and is confronted by a burglar. Daisy dies and this is the latest in a long series of misfortunes plaguing the series - there have been accidents, people have gone missing, and so on, over a period of years.

Diamond investigates at a time when he's wondering if he should bring the curtain down on his crime-solving career. At first he is sceptical about the so-called jinx on Swift, but when his colleague Paul Gilbert witnesses another serious mishap, he begins to revise his opinion.

Lovesey cleverly blends traditional elements with up-to-date material (dashcam footage plays an important part in the storyline) and manages to keep the reader guessing about what is really going on. When you take risks, as Lovesey does so admirably, and keep trying something different, there's always the chance that the occasional book will misfire (and if it happens, I think it's a matter for commiseration, not complaint.) But it's not something to worry about here. Showstopper is a highly enjoyable mystery that reminds us that very few British crime writers have ever maintained such high standards for as long as Peter Lovesey. 

Monday, 13 March 2023

A Bigger Splash - 2015 film review

I came to watch A Bigger Splash via a circuitous route. I decided to track down a song which I loved as a teenager. This was 'Ask Yourself Why' - there's a lovely performance by Sally Stevens on YouTube - and although Sally was one of Burt Bacharach's concert singers (and co-wrote one or two songs with him) in this case the composer was the great Frenchman Michel Legrand. He wrote it at roughly the same time as 'Windmills of Your Mind', but this song was much less successful, despite the gorgeous melody and crafty lyrics by the Bergmans.

I discovered that the song was written for the soundtrack of a 1969 film La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Jane Birkin, of whom I'm a real fan. It's a well-regarded film and I want to watch it, but in the meantime I learned that A Bigger Splash is a loose remake and even if the music isn't quite as good as Legrand's, it's well worth watching in its own right. 

Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, a rock singer who is recovering from a throat operation on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria in the company of her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). It all seems quite lazy and idyllic until their old friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) invites himself along, together with his daughter, the coquettish Pen (Dakota Johnson). Harry is Marianne's former lover and soon sexual tensions are simmering.

This is a story of psychological suspense with a crime at its heart, but it's essentially a drama of character rather than a mystery. It's well-made, but outstays its welcome - the later scenes are anti-climactic. However, the acting is enjoyable, with Fiennes playing a very different character from the stiff upper lip types we might associate him with. I look forward to taking a look at La Piscine and comparing the two films. 

Friday, 10 March 2023

Forgotten Book - The Milliner's Hat Mystery

I was sorry to learn of the sudden death this week, from a heart attack, of Rupert Heath. Rupert Heath was a literary agent (whose clients included A.K. Benedict among others) but some years ago he diversified into publishing. Dual operation as agent and publisher is an interesting concept that I know has been discussed quite extensively in publishing circles in recent years. It seems fitting to pay tribute to him by featuring one of his books today, but first let me offer a brief personal perspective on Rupert's publishing activities.

Rupert set up Dean Street Press, which among other things enable him to revive 'classic crime' titles. As he said, he was inspired by the success of the British Library Crime Classics, but he took a different approach. His main focus was on ebooks, since as he said to me right at the outset, print on demand copies require various things from a publisher that are not relevant to an ebook. However, like most book lovers he was keen on print  and he did decide to make print on demand copies available for those who wanted them. This method of focusing on ebooks meant that he was able to produce long runs of titles by fairly obscure and long out of print authors, without the investment required by a focus on print. The huge upside is that it became possible to obtain, easily and cheaply, copies of very rare books that were otherwise more or less unobtainable. The downside is that you will not often find copies in bookshops, but that doesn't matter if you are a completist who knows what you are looking for. The British Library model focuses on bookshop sales here and overseas, but there is room for different approaches (another good one was the Collins Detective Story Club series of hardbacks, currently paused).  

Looking back, I'm surprised to realise that I first talked with Rupert about his plans as long as 2014 and we were in touch regularly thereafter. He asked me to write some introductions to Dean Street books and although pressure of other commitments meant I wasn't able to do many of these, I did contribute to two of his series, the Richardson series by Sir Basil Thomson, and two books by Winifred Peck. He regularly directed me to some of the more interesting titles in his list, including one or two of the under-rated novels of Brian Flynn (reviving these has been a labour of love for Steve Barge, and although I'm not quite as big a fan of Brian as Steve is, I've discovered there is real merit in some of the books). I find it helpful to have that kind of guidance, since very few of us are going to want to wade through the complete works of such prolific and highly variable authors as, say, Brian, or Patricia Wentworth or Christopher Bush.

One thing that impressed me was that Rupert cared about the books he produced and from a professional point of view, he was very good to work with (maybe his experience as an agent helped him to see things from the author's perspective). He gave me lots of background info about Sir Basil Thomson, for instance, that I found very interesting as well as helpful.

Which brings me to The Milliner's Hat Mystery. This is by far Thomson's most influential work - it's actually name-checked in the excellent recent film Operation Mincemeat. In this story, Inspector Vincent takes centre stage, with Richardson, the series protagonist, a background figure. Thomson was good at showing readers the ensemble nature of professional detective work - and having been a Scotland Yard supremo, he was well-equipped to do so. The story is a quick read with a very strong central idea.

And for the completists among you, here's a list of the Richardson books:

Richardson’s First Case (1933) – originally PC Richardson’s First Case

Richardson Scores Again (1934) – retitled Richardson’s Second Case in the US

The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934) – originally Inspector Richardson CID, retitled The Case of Naomi Clynes in the US

The Case of the Dead Diplomat (1935) – originally Richardson Goes Abroad, retitled The Case of the Dead Diplomat in the US

The Dartmoor Enigma (1935) – originally Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery, retitled The Dartmoor Enigma in the US

Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? (1936) – originally Death in the Bathroom, retitled  Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? in the US

The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937) – originally Milliner’s Hat Mystery, retitled The Mystery of the French Milliner in the US

A Murder Arranged (1937) – retitled When Thieves Fall Out in the US

Monday, 6 March 2023

Christopher Fowler R.I.P.


High-calibre crime writing suffered a grievous loss with the death last week of Christopher Fowler. As is well-known, Chris had been suffering from cancer from some time. He and I have for many years shared a literary agent - first Mandy Little and then James Wills - and it was Mandy who first drew his work to my attention almost twenty years ago, sending me a book of his short stories, Demonized. He was a versatile writer, as accomplished an exponent of non-fiction (such as Film Freak) as he was of different forms of fiction. From then on, we corresponded intermittently, but much more regularly in recent years.

He was a Londoner who knew the city inside out and his love of London shone through in his Bryant and May mysteries. The series began in 2004 with Full Dark House - I was lucky enough to snaffle a first edition and was immediately impressed. In all, the series ran to twenty titles. It's great fun and GA fans might like to know that his enthusiasm for Edmund Crispin and The Moving Toyshop influenced The Victoria Vanishes.

I didn't get the chance to see Chris very often, but he was excellent company and I always enjoyed our occasional get-togethers and I had the pleasure of being there to cheer him when he won the CWA Dagger in the Library seven years ago. He contributed several short stories to anthologies that I edited and each was delightfully crafted and a joy to read. We also shared a great interest in obscure writers, which in Chris' case surfaced in many articles as well as in Invisible Ink and The Book of Forgotten Authors.

Chris had been unwell for some time prior to his election to membership of the Detection Club. However, he responded well to unlicensed, experimental treatment and was in wonderful form on the occasion of his initiation at the Ritz in October 2021. He, his fellow initiate Lynne Truss, his husband Pete, James Wills and I had a great couple of hours after the dinner, chatting in the bar until it was throwing-out time. I took the photo above of Lynne and Chris that night.

At the end of January, Chris sent me a very kind and unforgettably poignant email. He was housebound, but still able to do a little writing. He told me he'd completed his collection of my anthologies and added, in a memorable phrase, 'I hope we meet again in libraries yet undiscovered.' And he said he had three more books waiting to be published - excellent news for all his fans, who will miss him and his work a great deal.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Forgotten Book - The Cast to Death

The Cast to Death is an obscure and very hard-to-find detective novel published by Ernest Benn in 1932. Benn, who published Dorothy L. Sayers and E.R. Punshon before their former M.D. Victor Gollancz lured their stars away, were good at talent-spotting and they evidently saw potential in the author, Nigel Orde-Powlett. As things turned out, however, he published only one further detective novel which (unlike this one) didn't achieve publication in the US. Both are listed in Bob Adey's Locked Room Murders.

Dorothy L. Sayers, so often a stern judge, had good things to say about Orde-Powlett's two novels. The only online review I'm aware of is by John Norris on the excellent Pretty Sinister blog (which is where I found the vivid cover image). As John mentions, Orde-Powlett was a member of the landed gentry. The family seat is Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire and perhaps he was distracted from writing by his social and family duties. He did, however, publish a book about practical forestry in the 1950s, which surprise, surprise, I haven't read.

The Cast to Death is set not in Yorkshire but in Hampshire and I did wonder if his fictional setting was inspired by the River Test, also the inspiration for Cyril Hare's setting in Death is No Sportsman. Like Hare's later book, this one is about angling. In fact, there's a great deal of information, material to the plot, about angling. I've no interest in angling at all, but the smoothness of the writing kept my attention.

For a debut novel, I'd say this is a good effort. A businessman called Lenton is murdered while out fishing, although there is some mystery about the wounds he suffers. He was on holiday with three angler friends; one appears to have a solid alibi, leaving the other pair as the prime suspects. The police think they have a strong case against one of them, but a young sleuth called Tony Rillington has other ideas. There are one or two weaknesses, but I liked this book more than John did. My thanks go to Jamie Sherwin for encouraging me to read it. Now I'm in search of Orde-Powlett's second mystery... 

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

A Quiet Place - 2018 film review

A Quiet Place is a horror film which is rather more sophisticated than many movies in the horror genre. It's enjoyed a huge amount of success and a sequel has been made. The director is John Krasinski and he stars as well, alongside Emily Blunt. They play Lee and Evelyn Abbott, a married couple - and they are married in real life. I felt their performances were very good.

Together with their three children, Regan (who is deaf) and Marcus and Beau, the Abbotts have survived a global catastrophe. Blind aliens with exceptional hearing and vile tempers have taken over the planet and most people have succumbed to their murderous rampages. The Abbotts live in a remote spot in the forest and communicate by sign language. Generally, they are forced to take extreme measures to avoid making the sounds that will enable the creatures to hear and then kill them.

The film begins - well, quietly, I must say, before a terrible and dramatic moment of tragedy occurs. We then move forward in time by about a year. Evelyn is now pregnant (so what will happen when the new-born child cries? we wonder). The Abbotts are just about coping, but their lives are still severely constrained by the need not to make a sound that will attract the aliens.

This isn't a film that overdoes the melodrama. In fact, if anything it errs in the other direction and its claustrophobic mood is strangely low-key until near the end. I'd have liked more backstory and as a result of its absence, my response to the film is probably more subdued than that of its most fervent devotees. But it's a pretty good movie and, above all, an interesting and capable example of the 'less is more' style of writing.  

Monday, 27 February 2023

The Mysterious Art of Bookbinding and Bookdealing - Stephen Conway interview part 1


I’m currently working on a project that involves the world of books and I’ve discussed aspects of this with a number of very helpful bookdealers. Among them is Stephen Conway, whose premises in central Halifax house a splendid second hand bookshop and also a bookbinding business. Given that my first literary award was the CWA Dagger bestowed on my short story ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’, you can gather that this is a subject that has long fascinated me. Stephen kindly agreed to be interviewed about his work and there is so much info of interest that I’ve split it into two posts. This one is about bookbinding. Another, on second hand bookdealing, will follow at a later date.

1.          How did you get involved with bookbinding?

I have been involved in Bookbinding now for almost 50 years, starting with a six-year apprenticeship in 1974. I became self employed in 1985 and have been running a small hand bookbinding business ever since. Over the years, we have worked on a variety of high profile

Projects, including The Booker Prize and The Highgrove Florilegium, a limited edition fine binding of 350 copies (2 volumes) for the Prince of Wales Trust. Over the years, we have worked on many Private Press editions, as well as bespoke boxes, in either cloth or leather for rare and valuable books. In fact, this has now become a large part of our work load. Whilst the world climate is an everchanging landscape, thankfully, the demand for high quality work still remains.

2.          What is the appeal to you of being a bookbinder?

Not being an academic and coming from a working-class family, I needed to find an outlet for my interest in arts and crafts. I had ambition to attend Art College, however, this never materialised and eventually I started work as an apprentice bookbinder, working mainly on account books, still in use in the early seventies. Luckily, this turned out to be a good move as I was able to develop my craft skills, and later, put those skills to artistic use through design bookbinding. Later in life,I served a four year term as President of Designer Bookbinders, a society devoted to the art and craft of bookbinding.


3.          Some people might think bookbinding is an old-fashioned craft. Do you think it is a dying art or does it have a real future?

Although working methods and techniques are constantly improving and advances made, the basic techniques and materials remain unchanged. As a commercial venture, perhaps hand bookbinding is not an obvious choice, but it is an extremely rewarding career option for young people coming into the trade. I would say that hand bookbinding is as popular now as ever, if not, more so.


4.          From a bookbinder’s point of view, what are the main do’s and dont’s about getting a book professionally bound?

There are no easy answers to this, as much depends on who is looking to have work done, be it a member of the public with a family heirloom or Bible, a bookdealer or a private collector. The criteria for each of these varies. Family heirlooms are repaired and restored so that they can be passed down to future generations. For a bookdealer, original condition is important and if work is required, must be sympathetic and in keeping with the book. As for collectors, particularly collectors of modern books with dust jackets, again, they look to finding the best copy available, with the condition of the dust jacket being an important aspect in terms of its appeal. In these instances, we make book boxes, either cloth or leather, lined with archival materials to protect the book from further damage, including sunlight fading, particularly jacket spines. Sometimes, the book may need totally rebinding, but all options must be explored with discussion between the client and the binder.


5.          And from a customer’s point of view, what are the main do’s and don’ts?

The only thing I would say is keep an open mind and explore the available options. Each book is different and has to be looked at on an individual basis. In today’s climate, costs have increased significantly, so making the right choices is important.

Friday, 24 February 2023

Forgotten Book - To Die Like a Gentleman

When Robert Barnard published To Die Like Gentleman in 1993, he did so under the pen-name Bernard Bastable, and so he inscribed a copy to me: 'The start of a new life!' He'd moved to a different publisher (Macmillan) for this one, and he'd also moved into the early Victorian era - the events of the story take place in 1842. So he was seeking to differentiate this book from his other work, although naturally it displays his trademark wit and crisp, economical characterisation. There's even a good joke involving Charlotte Bronte - and Bob was a lifelong devotee of the Brontes.

In fact, his new life as Bastable wasn't particularly extensive. As far as I know this book never made it into paperback.The next Bastable title was published by Little, Brown and featured Mozart as a detective, and although there was a follow-up Mozart title, the books didn't make a huge impression. The fourth Bastable, A Mansion and its Murders, was another historical mystery, at first published only in the US. I believe it was turned down by Little, Brown. Some years later, when Bob had moved to Allison & Busby, they published the book, but I think by then that he'd become frustrated - understandably - at the relative lack of interest in the Bastable titles. This just goes to show that even a leading writer can find the going tough at times.

I enjoyed reading To Die Like a Gentleman the first time around and did so again on a second reading, having forgotten the story completely after a thirty year gap. Bob may have been trying to emulate Julian Symons' Victorian mysteries and he adopts the epistolary style, with letters and documents supplementing a multiple-viewpoint narrative. A homage to Wilkie Collins was perhaps in his mind, though this book is a fraction of the length of The Moonstone and The Woman in White.

This is a readable and entertaining piece of fiction. So why didn't it make an impact? I think there are two connected reasons. First, like all Bob's novels, it's short (very short, in fact) and snappy, but although the characters and situations are interesting, the mystery element is relatively thin. Bob didn't like to over-complicate his books - 'second murders are always vulgar', he liked to say, not that I agree! - and so he didn't manage to match Agatha Christie, whom he admired so much, in terms of ingenuity, even though clever ideas abound in his work. And second, in this book, the ending is far too abrupt - almost as if he'd passed a deadline and needed to wrap everything up sharpish. This doesn't do justice to the leisurely build-up. But his books are fun and I was glad to read this one again. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Team Balliol's Reunion


I've had a busy but hugely enjoyable few days with a number of highlights, including a quite unforgettable evening on Sunday when Dame Helen Ghosh, the Master of Balliol, hosted a celebration of Team Balliol becoming series champions in Christmas University Challenge. It really was special.

One of the quirks of the TV series is that there is no trophy for the winners - causing Jeremy Paxman to tell us we could however be unbearably smug 'until Twelfth Night' (although we noted that he didn't say in which year...) So the college supplied the deficiency, presenting each of us with commemorative mugs with a photo of the team, college crest, and appropriate legend. A fun souvenir of a great experience as well as of a marvellous evening back at Balliol.

It was great to see my lovely team-mates again - they are to be the dedicatees of Sepulchre Street, a small gesture of appreciation for their companionship and brilliance. The presentation was followed by a Fellows' Dinner. In accordance with a tradition going back to the days of the legendary Victorian Master of Balliol Benjamin Jowett, the Master and guests are greeted by a banging of spoons from the assembled diners - another experience that will stay in my mind! The dinner was followed by a concert by Simon Callaghan, a brilliant pianist.

After that, it was drinks in the Senior Common Room. Andrew, Martin and I kept going until 2 am - in truth, it was one of those nights we didn't want to end. The whole occasion had a lovely, almost surreal feel to it as I cast my mind back to my first visit to the college as a very, very  nervous interviewee aged eighteen. It's hard to believe what has happened in the intervening years. Not even I would have dared to make it up...  

Monday, 20 February 2023

Literary Trails: Writers in their Landscapes - review

Some time ago I exchanged some pleasant correspondence with the writer and broadcaster Christina Hardyment, who is not a crime writer but has enjoyed a number of the E.C.R. Lorac reprints in the British Library's Crime Classics series. Among many other projects, Christina has written for the National Trust and for some weeks I've been dipping into a book of hers published by the National Trust back in 2000.

The first thing to be said is that, although it's not a new book, Literary Trails has aged well and remains a genuinely enjoyable read, offering a great deal of interesting as well as practical information about landscapes looked after by the National Trust. The sub-title is Writers in their Landscapes and the usual suspects - Austen, Kipling, Hardy, and du Maurier - are present and correct as well as some less obvious names. The text is supplemented by some gorgeous photographs and some archive pictures as well as, importantly, maps of the routes discussed. I have yet to follow one of the specific trails, but I'd have confidence in this guide.

The Lake District is well covered. To quote the dust jacket, you can 'discover where Wordsworth wandered "lonely as a cloud"...or take a voyage on Coniston Water with Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. My shameful confession is that, even though I've taken many boat trips on various other lakes in Cumbria, I've never actually sailed on Coniston and this book reminds me to repair that omission.

A very pleasing feature of this book which reflects Christina Hardyment's interest in detective fiction is the chapter 'The Scene of the Crime'. A number of other authors have covered this topic, and following This Deadly Isle I've been invited to do likewise, but I must say that, in a relatively short space, the author does a good job. Michael Gilbert's The Empty House is mentioned, as are W.J. Burley's Wycliffe novels and the non-series Charles and Elizabeth, which I reviewed on this blog recently. This is good-looking book but it's also very informative.


Friday, 17 February 2023

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Abominable Snowman

A publisher asked me recently to become involved with a Christmas writing project. This didn't work out, but the invitation inspired me to get round to reading a book I acquired last year. This is The Corpse in the Snowman, which is the American title for Nicholas Blake's The Case of the Abominable Snowman, a Christmas mystery set in war-time. The appeal of my copy lies in part in its inscription - to Blake's fellow poet, that very interesting character Laurie Lee, whose Cider with Rosie made quite an impression on me as a schoolboy.

But is the book itself any good? My answer is a definite yes. Since reading it, I've read one or two negative comments online but they are very much in the minority and simply reflect the truth that you can never please everyone. It's fair to say that the quality of Christmas mystery novels is variable, but this is one of the better ones, not just because of the calibre of the writing but also because the storyline is intriguing and the complicated plot is well constructed. 

What I hadn't realised before reading the book was that it is a good example of the whowasdunin. We know from the start that a body has been discovered inside a snowman (ah, those were the days, when you could build a snowman and it would survive for ages). But what is the identity of the corpse? The answer is as well concealed as the victim. 

This is a Nigel Strangeways mystery set during the war, which is no more than a background presence. The physical setting is a country house, to which Nigel is invited by an intriguing if rather strange old lady, to solve the puzzle of the bizarre behaviour of a cat. Matters take a turn for the worse when the naked body of a young woman is found. She has hanged herself - or has she? Strangeways soon becomes convinced that she is the victim of murder. The result is a book that I found consistently interesting.

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

The Third Secret - 1964 film review

The Third Secret is an ambitious film that falls short of excellence but is nevertheless interesting. The basic plot material is quite straightforward; a famous psychiatrist dies, apparently having shot himself, but his daughter believes he was murdered. She persuades one of his patients (Alex Stedman, played by Stephen Boyd) to investigate. And it seems that it is one of the dead man's patients who was responsible for his death.

So far, so conventional. What took me by surprise was the way that Robert L. Joseph, who wrote and directed the film, opted for a storytelling approach that was wordy and at times pretentious. I think he could have achieved the effects he was aiming for in a more economical, less verbose way. That said, the script is unusual enough to keep the viewer interested, if at times irritated.

A real strength of the film is the cast. Whilst I don't think Boyd's performance is exceptional, Pamela Franklin is impressive as the dead man's daughter. The patients who come under suspicious include characters played by such notable actors as Richard Attenborough, Diane Cilento, and Jack Hawkins. The supporting cast, featuring Rachel Kempson, Peter Sallis, Peter Copley, Charles Lloyd Pack and even the young Judi Dench (in her first film role) is equally impressive.

If Joseph had edited his script more ruthlessly, and perhaps chosen another actor instead of Boyd role, this film could have been outstanding. It isn't, alas, but it's certainly worth watching. Joseph was aiming for a rounded psychological drama, I think, and this may account for his lack of concern about pace. But he did manage to produce an intriguing study of mental breakdown. 

Monday, 13 February 2023

Playlist - 50 Hidden Gems by Burt Bacharach

There has been an outpouring of tributes to Burt Bacharach following his death last week, coming from everyone from Paul McCartney, Carole King, and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Noel and Liam Gallagher and Richard Coles, crime writer and ex-Communard. There have also been plenty of attempts at 'best of' playlists, but although Burt wrote a huge number of hits, I've always been struck by how many great songs of his remain more or less unknown. Of course, there were some terrible songs (the 'teenage death song' Two Hour Honeymoon, the theme song to Love in a Goldfish Bowl, Dick Van Dyke's One Part Dog, Nine Parts Cat, and Take Me to Your Ladder, about very tall female aliens living on the moon, to name but four) but there are many hidden gems. 

So just as I like reviving obscure classic crime stories, here are some songs that I enjoy which I think will be mostly unfamiliar - but are definitely worth a listen. I've picked 50, but I could have picked plenty of others, not least Three Wheels on My Wagon! 

The Beginning of Loneliness - Dionne Warwick

I have to start with Dionne and a song that begins quietly before building to high drama. And it has that touch of drama that I love in his best songs.

Where Did the Time Go - The Pointer Sisters

Obscure and melancholic but a lovely song

The Bells of St Augustine - Daniel Tashian

A recent song from the Grammy-nominated Blue Umbrella album

Falling Out of Love - Aretha Franklin

The Queen of Soul at her best

Nothin' But Love - Heart

Why isn't this great song better known?

Night Shift - Quarterflash

Theme song to a fun movie

Fool Killer - Gene Pitney

Strange and untypical but striking - written for a film of the same name

Long After Tonight is All Over - Jimmy Radcliffe

Northern Soul classic, but not many people realise Burt wrote it

Checkout Time - Dionne Warwick

Wonderfully compelling melody, who else could write it?

Perfect Lovers - Ray Parker Jr

Co-written by Ray and Carole Bayer Sager

Welcome to My World - Andrew Mueller

From the musical 'Some Lovers'

Rain from the Skies - Delroy Wilson

A reggae version of an early song - and it works amazingly well.

What Am I Doing Here? - Liz Callaway

Gorgeous melody, inexplicably cut out of Promises, Promises

Long Ago Tomorrow - B.J. Thomas

A film theme song, but very different from 'Raindrops...'

Don't Count the Days - Marilyn Michaels

Unknown but classy mid-60s melodrama

And Then You Know What He Did - Dionne Warwick

A 'lost' song of astonishing complexity

Seconds - Gladys Knight and the Pips

Lyric by the famed playwright Neil Simon

Heartbreak Storms - Daniel Tashian and Burt Bacharach

Released last year, one of his last songs, and a very good one

Poor Rich Boy - Ambrosia

From the soundtrack to Arthur.

The Blob - The Five Blobs

Theme from the cult sci-fi movie, co-written with Hal David's brother Mack

Some Lovers - Rumer

Fairly recent but in the classic style

Another Tear Falls - Puddles

A 2017 makeover for a minor Walker Brothers hit first recorded by Gene McDaniels

Living on Plastic - Stephanie Mills

Written for Dionne before Burt split up with her and Hal David

Bridges - Melody Federer

One of Burt's last music videos

Something Big - Mark Lindsay

A film song that was much better than the film

Leave it to the Girls - Tomi Malm

A Finnish singer's recent version

New York, I Love You - Emma Hunton et al

Lyric by Steven Sater - very far from typical Bacharach and yet there are moments...

Riverboat - Libby Titus and Burt Bacharach

From the fascinating but under-estimated 'Woman' album

Something That Was Beautiful - Mario Biondi

Another Sater lyric, here with a great melody

Walking Tall - Lyle Lovett

Lyric by Tim Rice, from the film 'Stuart Little'

Obsession - Desmond Child and Marie Vidal

Obscure but undeservedly so

Pennies in a Jar - Nikki Jean

Pleasing title track from her album

Plastic City - Dionne Warwick

Another 'lost' song, one of several co-written by Bobby Russell

Everybody's Out of Town - B J Thomas

A 1970 song that might have been written for lockdown...

Trouble - Chiara Civello

A fascinating one-off collaboration

Easy to Love Again - Carole Bayer Sager

From the album Carole made with Burt when their relationship began

My Rock and Foundation - Peggy Lee

Unknown, but pretty good

Every Other Hour (Come Ogni Ora) - Karima and Mario Biondi

Terrific live version of a song from the musical Some Lovers

If I Could Go Back - Alfie Boe

The best song written for Lost Horizon - bizarrely cut out of the film

I Live in the Woods - Carly Simon and Burt Bacharach

A strange song by great songwriters

Who Gets the Guy? - Dionne Warwick

A quintessential Bacharach melody

The Love Too Good to Last - Phyllis Hyman

Good example of his 80s songwriting

What's Her Name Today? - Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach

A very dark song

Lost Horizon - Burt Bacharach

The title song from the movie musical - very good, just deserved a better film

In Tune - Libby Titus

Lyric by Paul Anka, from the forgettable film Together

Girls Know How - Al Jarreau

From the soundtrack of Night Shift

After the Fox - Peter Sellers and The Hollies

A crazy song for a crazy film

Hearts Don't Lie - Joana Zimmer

Again highly obscure but classic modernish Bacharach

Two Hearts - Earth, Wind and Fire

A good collaboration

Go Ask Shakespeare - Rufus Wainwright and Burt Bacharach

A shorter version of the track from the great album At This Time

And believe me, there are plenty more good ones out there...

Thursday, 9 February 2023

Burt Bacharach R.I.P.

As anyone who knows me well is aware, I've been a huge fan of Burt Bacharach since my teens and so it's inevitable that the news of his death at the grand age of 94 has saddened me. But my over-riding emotion is one of gratitude for all the happiness that his music has given me for so long. I first came across him by accident one evening, watching a TV special called 'An Evening with Burt Bacharach' when I was fourteen. I was amazed to find that so many of the songs I loved had been written by the same man. And I also found his obsessive passion for his work - whether writing, playing the piano, or conducting - enthralling. Equally obsessive, I set about finding every song he'd written, every scrap of information I could find. 

If ever I was depressed or stressed through studying for exams, playing his music was astonishingly therapeutic - and I continue to find that it does me a power of good in any times of trouble. In those days, to be an unapologetic and evangelistic Bacharach obsessive exposed me to a degree of mockery from the fashionable kids who favoured prog rock bands. It was water off a duck's back - I couldn't care less about fashion or being trendy. I'd already learned that you have to be true to what you care about, whatever other people think or say. 

When I sat my Oxford University entrance exam and was confronted by a question asking me simply to write about the twentieth century's greatest composer, I knew exactly what to write. When I was interviewed for a place at Balliol, to study law, things didn't go well at first. I felt completely overawed. Then one of the three tutors said in a rather baffled tone: 'You're the chap who wrote the essay about Burt Bacharach, aren't you?' 'That's me.' 'I thought you padded the essay with rather a lot of song titles,' he said. 'He's written a lot of very good songs', I retorted. 'I was making a case. Like an advocate does.' From that moment on, we got on extremely well and I duly became a Balliol man. Not entirely thanks to Burt, but he made a contribution!   

When I started to write novels, I decided to feature a Bacharach reference in each one. Sometimes there were several. 'The Look of Love' is one of those in the first book, All the Lonely People, and after I took my agent Mandy to watch his musical Promises, Promises, I featured a fictitious performance in The Devil in Disguise. There are even Bacharach references smuggled into The Golden Age of Murder and The Life of Crime. This was my way of acknowledging all the pleasure his work has brought me. The forthcoming Rachel Savernake book, Sepulchre Street, may be set in 1931 but it still has plenty of Bacharach stuff in it, albeit in disguise.

At one point, I thought about writing a book about him.I talked to an editor about the idea and as a first step I interviewed Johnny Hamp, the TV producer who gave Burt his first major TV break with The Bacharach Sound and whose reminscences were fascinating. But I realised I couldn't do the job as well as it needed to be done, so I gave up. I rather wish the ghost writer of Burt's autobiography Anyone Who Had a Heart had realised the same thing. The 1996 TV documentary  was far better.

On one occasion, my firm sponsored a classical concert at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and at dinner afterwards I had the pleasure of sitting next to the great conductor Vasily Petrenko. One of my partners cheekily (if unwisely) bet me that I couldn't work Burt Bacharach into the conversation. So I asked Vasily if he ever conducted while playing the piano. 'Too difficult,' he said. When I said Burt does it, Vasily grinned and said, 'He is a real maestro!'

The first LP I ever bought was Burt's Portrait in Music - decades later it was featured on the cover of the first Oasis album, Definitely Maybe. When the great man enjoyed a long overdue revival of popularity in 1996, I was present at that memorable night at the Royal Festival Hall when he played with Noel Gallagher. Each time he returned to Britain, I was there in the audience, watching him perform alongside and having his songs sung by the likes of Bob Geldof, Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, Justin Hayward, Alfie Boe, Melody Federer, Yazz, Will Young, and many more - including, of course, his greatest interpreter, Dionne Warwick. Standing ovations time and again. 

Burt Bacharach's name is rightly associated most closely with that great lyricist Hal David, but his collaborators include Bob Hilliard, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Neil Simon, Daniel Tashian, John Bettis, Tim Rice, Carole Bayer Sager, Paul Anka, Bernie Taupin, B.A. Robertson, David Foster, Sally Stevens, James Kavanaugh, Neil Diamond, Anthony Newley, Richard Marx, Gerry Goffin, Norman Gimbel, Diane Warren, Cathy Dennis, Dr Dre, and many more. I had the pleasure of meeting his lyricist Steven Sater when I saw their new musical Some Lovers  a few years agoDiane Warren has just described Burt Bacharach as the Beethoven of the songwriting world, and it was Burt's performances of Beethoven and Rhapsody in Blue in a couple of those early TV specials that helped me to discover the joys of classical music. 

I'm so glad I saw Burt on his last tour, back in 2019, when he performed with Joss Stone. That evening I met up again with some of the friends I've made who are fellow Bacharach enthusiasts, notably Davide Bonori (who some years ago got Burt to let me have his autograph) and Roberto Pinardi, who has compiled a fantastic 4 CD set of the instrumentals. Here we are, outside the Hammersmith Apollo on a wonderful sunny evening - one of the many magic moments I associate with the man who actually wrote Magic Moments. That night, Burt was on stage non-stop for just over two hours, playing piano, conducting, even singing (not his forte, but in his younger days the 'rumpled baritone' had an indefinable appeal). His stamina was extraordinary. And he was 91 years old...

One of the things I find inspiring about Burt Bacharach is that he kept his creative fire burning to the end of his life. He was nominated for two Grammys after passing the age of 90 - absolutely incredible. His last music video, released less than a year ago is charming. Maybe it was his last public performance; if so, a suitably poignant note to end on.

Since my books often feature death, naturally I think about it from time to time. I long ago came to the conclusion that since everyone dies, what really matters is what one achieves in life, not how that life ends. I've spent more than fifty years looking forward to the next new Burt Bacharach song. Now there will be no more - although happily, some of his previously unreleased work with Elvis Costello is due to come out next month - but I'm hugely thankful for the endless pleasure he's given me. Without his music my life would have been significantly less joyful. And his catalogue is so extraordinary, extensive, and eclectic that there''ll always be something there to remind me. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Happy Valley - series 3 review

I loved the first series of Happy Valley, which I discussed on this blog more than once back in 2014. I enjoyed series two as well, and the third and final series more than matched the high standards set by the first two. There are plenty of good TV cop series around - I have a very soft spot for Endeavour, for instance - but Happy Valley is the best I've seen for many years. 

This success is due to a great blend of people, place, and plot. Sally Wainwright's characters are superbly characterised and the story is great. The locations around Hebden Bridge, a town I love visiting, are highly evocative (not far away to the north, by the way, is my imaginary Blackstone Fell!). And the acting is brilliant. Sarah Lancashire wins many deserved plaudits as the tough but very human cop Catherine Cawood. James Norton, an actor with a very impressive range (yes, he would make a great James Bond), is superb as the bad guy Tommy Lee Royce. And Siobhan Finneran is, as usual, terrific as Catherine's dozy but somehow loveable sister. The supporting cast, which includes George Costigan, Amit Shah, Con O'Neill and Vincent Franklin, is consistently excellent.

In some ways the storyline boils down to an intense battle between Good and Evil - Catherine versus Tommy. In the six episodes of this series, we only saw the two of them together in a climactic scene. It was a very good scene, even if one or two lines did remind us a little too forcibly that Sally Wainwright learned her craft writing soap operas. But the important thing that she learned from working on Coronation Street and so on was the art of telling stories about believable people. 

And, as I wrote nine years ago, she isn't afraid to give even a vile killer some redeeming qualities. She writes in a powerful but very accessible way - not an easy trick to pull off, but she makes it seem effortless. A remarkable achievement. Even before this series was screened, I mentioned Happy Valley in The Life of Crime as one of the best TV cop shows. After series three, I'm inclined to put it at the very top of the list.

Monday, 6 February 2023

Fear and Clothing by Jane Custance Baker

As anyone who has read The Life of Crime will appreciate, I'm not an academic but I do have a long-standing interest in academic writing about the genre and I'm very keen to support those who seek to bridge the gap between academic studies of crime fiction and the general reader. Too often over the years, career academics have produced books which are hopelessly unreadable as well as absurdly priced. However, there are now plenty of examples of academics writing interestingly and entertainingly about the genre, even if price often remains a major stumbling block. I've highlighted David Bordwell's Perplexing Plots recently as a truly outstanding example of how to do it. Lately, I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Lawrence Friedman, an emeritus professor of law at Stanford University in California, who is a lawyer, crime novelist, and writer about crime fiction and I've just started reading his articles about the genre, again written in a pleasingly readable style.

A new scholastic study published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts is a good example of how to write an appealing book about a less than obvious field of study. This is Fear and Clothing (great title!) by Jane Custance Baker. The sub-title is explanatory if less enticing: Dress in English Detective Fiction between the First and Second World Wars. You might not think that this topic justifies a full-length book - but it does so, and without padding. (And of course many readers of this blog will already be aware of Moira Redmond's excellent blog Clothes in Books, which addresses a wide-range of fashion statements in mystery fiction. If you don't know it, do take a look.)

I must admit that I'm not deeply interested in clothes or in fashion. But when writing the Rachel Savernake novels I've had to do quite a lot of research into what people wore in the early 1930s, because I do try to get small details right (an example is a version of the 'skeleton dress' worn by Rachel in the soon-to-be-published Sepulchre Street). I've consulted Moira on occasion and some of the points made in Fear and Clothing will, I feel sure, be very useful reference points for me in the future. 

The author has read quite widely in the genre, so in addition to the usual suspects, I was pleased to find mention of books by the likes of R.A.J. Walling, Joanna Cannan, Belton Cobb, Alice Campbell, and Valentine Williams. Excellent - some books of this kind suggest that the authors have only read the famous writers of the past, and then with only limited excitement, but that is definitely not the case here. On the whole, the writing is accessible and lively, with relatively few digressions into academic-speak (though, to take one example, 'hegemonic' is a word that I felt crops up an excessive number of times in a short space). 

All writers make mistakes, but there are quite a few unforced errors in this book that could easily have been avoided with stronger editing, including a revival of the idea that the Detection Club was founded in 1928 rather than 1930. The number of errors in the spelling of names of authors and characters (e.g. Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Francis Iles, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy Bowers, Honoria Waynflete) was disconcerting. Then again, I've made enough mistakes of my own over the years to believe that what really matters is whether a book like this works as a whole. And I think it does, making it a useful and quite unusual contribution to our understanding of Golden Age fiction. So it is definitely of interest. Alas, it's an expensive book, presumably because it's aimed at the academic library market, but of course the author has no say in pricing - it's an issue determined by the publishers.

Friday, 3 February 2023

Forgotten Book - Charles and Elizabeth

The name of W.J. Burley is inextricably linked with that of his series character, Superintendent Charles Wycliffe, who was portrayed by Jack Shepherd (not entirely to Burley's delight) in the eponymous TV series about the Cornish cop. It's less well-known that he wrote a variety of other novels. Two of them were classic detective novels, featuring Henry Pym, and one was a sci-fic novel, The 6th Day. There were also some stand-alones, and these include Charles and Elizabeth, published in 1979.

Charles and Elizabeth is an obscure book. I don't think it was ever paperbacked in Britain, and I've never seen it discussed anywhere. I referred to it in an article I wrote for Mystery Scene years ago, but that was before I read it. That article, by the way, was adapted for inclusion on a Burley tribute website established by Mario de Pace. I had an interesting correspondence with Mario at the time, and he featured extracts from Burley's 'plot books' on the site. Sadly, the site is no longer extant. On looking into the matter, I was sorry to find that Mario died seven years ago. The loss of the website does mean that there's a dearth of interesting material on the web concerning Burley - a shame.

It's clear that Burley was pleased with this book, and I can see why. He must have been really frustrated that it didn't make more of an impact. It isn't a detective story in any conventional sense, although one might argue that the narrator, Brian Kenyon, undertakes an investigation into the past, trying to uncover the truth about the title characters.

This book was correctly described by Gollancz, the publishers, as 'a distinctly Gothic novel of suspense'  I don't want to say too much about the story, but in a nutshell Brian (a teacher, like Burley) finds himself able to access the life of Charles Bottrell, a young man from a rich family who lived in Cornwall in the 1860s. Charles disappeared in mysterious circumstances - was he murdered? At first I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy the story, but Burley's concise, unflashy, Simenonesque style, suits the strange material. 

The sections set in the past start to merge with those in the present - personally, I'd have included section breaks, but I'm sure Burley's decision was a conscious one, though it's slightly confusing. Before long I found myself gripped. This is a short, fascinating book that doesn't deserve to be forgotten. Had I written it, I'd have ended the story differently but again it's clear that Burley was working to a particular design and his conclusion does have some merit. I suspect that the real problem was that this novel came out at a time when stories of this type were not terribly fashionable. But it was a good book in 1979 and it is still a good book.   

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Stowaway - 2022 film review

There's more than one film called Stowaway, but this post is about the recent movie previously called, perhaps even more unimaginatively, The Yacht. Stowaway is a film that begins slowly, but improves and features moments of genuine tension. These aren't really enough to make it a great film, but it's perfectly watchable.

The film begins, in effect, with a few flashback scenes. As a child, Bella Denton (Ruby Rose) was devoted to her father, but he deserted her years ago, for reasons that aren't clear. She grew up into a wild child, but in the here and now a surprise awaits her. A chum of her Dad's tells her that she has inherited from him a very posh yacht called the Bella

She isn't allowed to stay on the yacht overnight, it seems, until certain mysterious legal technicalities are sorted out. But she does so anyway, in the company of a young guy she picks up in a bar. Unfortunately, while they are in bed, the Bella is hijacked by a couple of armed men, who have hired the captain of the boat for some nefarious purpose. 

All too soon, Bella finds herself trapped on the open sea with a pair of ruthless killers. Can she escape or get help before they find her? The cat and mouse scenes are pretty good, but I didn't warm to Bella as much as I should have done for maximum enjoyment. The script isn't terrible, but I did feel it could have been sharper and less uneven. It does baffle me why so many films which have some merit seem to skimp on the writing. 

Monday, 30 January 2023

Operation Mincemeat - 2021 film review

Oeration Mincemeat is a popular recent film which references in the dialogue an old detective novel for which I wrote an introduction when it was reprinted a few years ago. The novel in question was The Milliner's Hat Mystery by Basil Thomson, and - as the film makes clear - a plot trick in the story was picked up by Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond and a spy in real life, and used as the basis for a scheme to deceive Hitler during the Second World War.

Fleming is a character in the film and is played by Johnny Flynn, but the key figures are Ewen Montagu (an excellent, under-stated performance by Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen, also very good). The screenplay, based on Ben Macintyre's book, departs from reality by introducing a love triangle involving these two men and Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) but on the whole does a good job of telling a remarkable story.

The cast includes Jason Isaacs, an actor I've always liked (long ago I dreamed he might be cast as Harry Devlin!) as Admiral Godfrey and Penelope Wilton, who is terrific as Montagu's secretary Hester Leggett - she makes the most of a relatively limited role. Mark Gatiss plays Montagu's Communist brother and Alex Jennings is John Masterman (spymaster and author of two detective novels and a member of the Detection Club). Sadly, this film marked the final appearance of Paul Ritter, a fine actor who plays the coroner Bentley Purchas. Other key contributors are John Madden (director), Michelle Ashford (screenwriter) and Thomas Newman (music).

The ingredients are terrific and they are mixed together admirably. The result is a film that, despite some deviations from what actually happened, is in essence a good account of a remarkable slice of history as well as offering high calibre entertainment. So often a film like this can fall short of its potential. But Operation Mincemeat is a genuine success.  

Friday, 27 January 2023

Forgotten Book - The Chink in the Armour


The Chink in the Armour, published in 1912, was one of Marie Belloc Lowndes' most successful novels. The image of the book is taken from the Heritage website where an inscribed first edition was auctioned for $300 a couple of years back - a bargain in comparison to the eye-watering prices that some other books fetched in that auction. Perhaps this reflects not only the fact that Lowndes did inscribe quite a lot of books in her time, but also that her reputation is not as high as that of some writers who emerged during the Golden Age, when she was already well-established.

I've often said that I find it surprising that her books aren't better known, and I was very glad when the British Library agreed to republish her Golden Age mystery The Chianti Flask a while back. Her most famous book is The Lodger, which was filmed by Hitchcock; in fact, her writing was so vivid that film-makers adapted quite a number of her novels. Which again makes it odd that she is so often overlooked.

The Chink in the Armour was, like many of her crime novels, inspired by her fascination with real life crime. The story is set in France - Marie's father was French and she knew the country very well. Her insider knowledge of the setting contributes to the novel, even though 'Lacville', where much of the action takes place, is invented. It's a casino town, so I wonder if it was inspired to some extent by Deauville.

Sylvia Bailey is the protagonist. She's a widow at the age of 25, attractive and with a modest inheritance. She's also rather naive and impulsive. So we fear for her from the outset. Sure enough, she gets mixed up with some very dodgy people, and eventually faces great danger. The mystery unfolds at a very leisurely pace and by modern standards there simply aren't enough suspects to make the story baffling. Despite this, the storytelling has undoubted appeal and it's interesting to note that the book's admirers included Ernest Hemingway. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

The Life of Crime goes international

I was truly delighted to learn that the Mystery Writers of America have listed The Life of Crime as a finalist for the 2023 Edgar awards. The full list of finalists can be found here and I'm sure that all the other nominees will be as delighted as I am by this recognition. I was especially pleased to see one of the other nominated books - The Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie - as I was one of the contributors. I've not actually received my copy of this one as yet, but I'm very much looking forward to reading the whole book.

It's a particular pleasure for me as a British author to have a book recognised by the MWA. It's the third time I've been an Edgar finalist, but I suspect that among fellow Brits the record is probably held by my friend the late Robert Barnard. He was nominated no fewer than eight times in the course of his career, although he never had the good fortune actually to win an Edgar. 

Meanwhile, the book has attracted attention in various other parts of the world - I was recently interviewed about the book by Austrian radio and was rather improbably featured in a Korean TV documentary a short time ago. Although the book's length is a complication, because of the scale of translation required, a Hungarian edition (see the above cover image) has just been published and others in the works include a Chinese edition. 

All writers know that there are lots of setbacks in store when one sets out on an ambitious writing project. The Life of Crime did require a lot of work and there were, inevitably, times when I wondered if I'd been over-ambitious in trying to write a book so wide-ranging. But the reaction has been wonderful and although I did have great hopes for the book, the scale of appreciation has been striking - and hugely motivating.