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.

Monday 23 January 2023

Stonehouse - 2023 ITV series - review

I remember the case of John Stonehouse vividly, even though the crime for which he became famous was committed when I was just starting student life and had plenty of other things happening to occupy my attention. He was a Labour MP and former cabinet minister who enjoyed quite a high profile during the Wilson era. A charismatic but extremely disreputable individual, he faked his own death in 'Reggie Perrin' style, but didn't cover his tracks very well and was arrested in Australia. He and his lover Sheila Buckley were tried and found guilty of various crimes, but she avoided prison. Stonehouse did not. 

The story is an extraordinary one, and spice is added by the widespread belief that Stonehouse spied for the Czechs during the Cold War. Today, surviving members of his family have varying perspectives on his character and the extent of his criminality. Stonehouse is a recent three-part TV series telling the story with a screenplay by John Preston. The director was Jon S. Baird, who was captain of one of the teams in Christmas University Challenge, although I didn't get the chance to meet him. 

The versatile and accomplished Matthew Macfadyen plays Stonehouse and his real life spouse Keeley Hawes plays the MP's long-suffering wife Barbara. It's fun to watch them working together in very, very different roles from those which they played in Spooks. Kevin McNally plays Harold Wilson and Dorothy Atkinson is cast as Betty Boothroyd (whose part in the story in real life may well have been much more peripheral than the screenplay suggests). Emer Heatley is a rather subdued Sheila Buckley, by no means the self-confident character I imagined from press reports at the time, and the low-key nature of their relationship takes a bit of energy away from the story.

Stonehouse is good entertainment, reminiscent of Canoe Man, the story of a comparable dodgy fantasist, John Darwin. Really, the story is presented as a light comedy. Macfadyen's Stonehouse is bumbling and ridiculous rather than malevolent. Whether that's a reasonable version of the truth I don't know, but I enjoyed watching the series.

Friday 20 January 2023

Forgotten Book - Murder at the Bookstall

I've never read anything by Henry Holt until recently, but I've been vaguely aware of his work. There isn't much about Holt (1881-1962) in the crime reference books or on the internet, but he enjoyed a career lasting over 30 years, his last novel being published the year before his death. In his prime, he was good enough to be published by Collins Crime Club, and some of his books earned paperback editions. But he isn't discussed in any depth by John Curran in The Hooded Gunman, though images of the book covers and blurbs are reproduced. After 1940, he moved to Robert Hale, a typical (and very common) sign of gently declining literary fortunes. 

Murder at the Bookstall was published by the  Crime Club in 1934, shortly after the rather better-known Why Didn't They Ask Evans? The story features a Scotland Yard cop called Silver and a journalist chum, Tony Collinson. Their investigation is triggered by the killing of a woman whose body is found at the back of a bookstall on Charing Cross Station. The bookseller had been distracted by a talkative man in glasses who wanted to buy a couple of crime stories.

The dead woman is soon identified as Lola Fortescue. She'd been in Paris, but she was due to travel to a house party in England and has evidently been intercepted by her killer en route. There is a 'closed circle' of suspects, confined to those who knew something of Lola's travel arrangements, but it is some time before the motive for the crime becomes apparent.

In many ways, this is a typical product of the Golden Age, quite skilfully constructed - and shifting viewpoints are used to good effect - but written in a workmanlike rather than exhilarating way. I think some readers will enjoy it more than I did. I found it ok but at no point did I ever care much about the characters or their fate. Definitely one for those who love the 'humdrum' style.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Perplexing Plots by David Bordwell

I first came across David Bordwell just over six years ago, when out of the blue he sent me a kind email, having just read and enjoyed The Golden Age of Murder. Although I was unfamiliar with his work at that time, I learned that he was a distinguished American academic and an expert in film history. This led to my discovery of his admirable blog which offers a wealth of info and comment about films, including many old favourites of mine. We have stayed in touch and I devoured with great enthusiasm his 2019 book Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.

While I was working on The Life of Crime, I found on a number of occasions that David's ideas were invaluable in terms of leading me in fresh directions with my own evolving ideas about narrative. So was the information packed into his work. To say the least, it's uncommon to find a distinguished academic who writes with such clarity and elegance, while coming up with insights that are genuinely thought-provoking. This fascinating post is an excellent example, but there are plenty more I could have chosen. So he made a very real contribution to my book.

And now David has just published a splendid new book, Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and The Poetics of Murder, published by Columbia University Press. Again, it's an erudite and meticulously researched volume, but written in such an accessible style and full of such interesting material that I have no hesitation in recommending it. On the back cover, there's a quote in which I say that this is 'the most illuminating study of narrative technique that I've read'. 

High praise, yes, but I stand by every word. I don't mean it to sound as though we've formed a mutual admiration society, but I have found it exciting to come across someone who, although we have never met in person, shares a number of my interests and with whom it's been possible to exchange ideas to mutual benefit. So my warmest congratulations go to David and I hope and expect that this terrific book will achieve the breadth of readership that it deserves.

Monday 16 January 2023

The Ice House - 1997 TV show review

I've mentioned Minette Walters several times on this blog over the years. She made a great impression from the start of her crime writing career, having previously written pseudonymous romantic fiction. The Ice House was a striking and award-winning debut in our genre; it was published in 1992 and five years later it was adapted for television with an excellent cast including the future James Bond, Daniel Craig.

I read and reviewed the book shortly after it came out, but I seem to have missed the TV version. I can report, however, that it stands the test of time very well. Credit goes not only to the author but also the screenwriter, Lizzie Mickery, who develops the characters and relationships effectively without sacrificing the momentum of the story.

A body is discovered in the ice house of a rather grand old home which is now occupied by three women: Phoebe Maybury (Penny Downie), Diana Goode (Frances Barber) and Anne Cattrell (Kitty Aldridge). The police assume that the deceased is David Maybury, husband of Phoebe and an unpleasant piece of work. The investigation is conducted by an interesting and contrasting pair of cops, DCI Walsh (Corin Redgrave) and cocky young DS McLoughlin (Craig). And before long, he becomes fascinated by Anne Cattrell. A dangerous liaison begins...

The quality of the acting matched the writing. Craig is excellent and so, in a very different way, is Redgrave. I thought Kitty Aldridge gave a truly compelling and charismatic performance and it's a shame that she gave up acting long ago, although she's become a successful novelist. This is a good example of a TV adaptation that doesn't go on too long. I really enjoyed it.

Friday 13 January 2023

Forgotten Book - Mr Pottermack's Oversight

I started reading Richard Austin Freeman's stories about Dr Thorndyke when I was about twelve or thirteen. A schoolfriend lent me an omnibus of the short stories and I devoured them enthusiastically. But after reading one or two of the novels, my tastes changed and I found myself less attracted to scientific detection and more interested in other types of crime writing. When I came back to Freeman, however, many years later, I found that his merits endure. His writing style is formal and was old-fashioned even towards the end of his own lifetime, but there's something about his best work that is quite compelling. Even Raymond Chandler appreciated that.

For some reason, I've never got round to reading one of his most famous novels until now. This is Mr Pottermack's Oversight and it's an inverted mystery of the type that Austin Freeman first popularised with the stories collected in The Singing Bone just before the First World War. Dorothy L. Sayers was among his most fervent admirers and perhaps this was a factor that encouraged him to adapt his approach to the inverted story and write a novel.

And the first thing I'd like to say is that, rather more than ninety years on, it stands up to scrutiny. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the protagonist, Marcus Pottermack, is essentially a decent man, even though he is naive and ultimately driven to commit murder. His victim, a blackmailer, is devoid of redeeming features other than superficial charm and it's almost impossible not to root for him.

Second, the scientific element of the detective work undertaken by Thorndyke is interesting and clearly explained. Pottermack's methods seem ingenious, but they aren't quite craft enough to outwit the great man. Third, the situation resolves itself in a way that I find appealing. This isn't a conventional detective story, and it isn't even conventional by the standards of Golden Age inverted mysteries (I don't think Freeman Wills Crofts would have had the stomach to end the story in the way that Austin Freeman does, but then, the two Freemans were very different personalities). I really enjoyed this story and, although as I say I'm an Austin Freeman fan of long-standing, it appealed to me even more than I anticipated. Recommended. 

Tuesday 10 January 2023

Reflections on University Challenge

Being invited to appear on Christmas University Challenge gave me a huge thrill. I've been a lifelong fan of the show and I thought my chance of taking part had gone forever when, as a student, I didn't get into the Balliol team (which then exited after a single game). I was pleasantly surprised, to say the very least, to be considered as a notable alumnus of the college. To be asked to captain the team was wonderful. And to realise that I'd be taking part in Jeremy Paxman's final series of the show was the icing on the cake.

Or so I thought. But as luck would have it, things got better and better. My team-mates, Elizabeth, Andrew, and Martin (O'Neill), whom I'd never met before, proved to be delightful. We were clearly going to be short of know-how in some areas, but it made sense to have a plan of campaign. My colleagues were not only receptive to the strategy (basically, answer fast, don't worry about making mistakes, and don't dither or engage in endless debate over bonus questions) but implemented it to perfection. 

We were thrilled to win our first heat against SOAS (the first of the entire tournament) and record a good score, after a number of early setbacks. The idea of the competition is that there are seven heats. The four highest-scoring winners go through to compete in the semi finals. A day or two after our match, we were told we were in the semis - a return to Media City, Salford, was duly booked.

The two semis and the final took place on the same day. First, Hull defeated York and then we took on Exeter College, Oxford, captained by the charming Reeta Chakrabarti. They were a strong team and led for much of the way but Martin O'Neill was in great form and in the end our victory margin was much greater than it felt at the time. I managed to get the spelling questions right but my technique with the buzzer was hopeless in this match, and I only had an hour to wait (involving a quick coffee and sandwich and a change of clothes for all of us) before I was practising for the final against Hull. I'd been very nervous before the previous two matches, but less so before the final. This was Jeremy's grand finale after 29 years as quizmaster, and it went incredibly well. 

Both teams toasted each other - and Jeremy - with champagne and he invited us to his farewell party, which was memorable. We'd arranged, win or lose, to stay overnight, and so we then set off for a celebratory cocktail before having dinner in the company of Sian Reese-Williams, the actor who captained Hull and was (like her team-mates) quite delightful to chat with.

I'll never forget the experience and I wrote an article about it for the Daily Express. It's also illustrated the reach of national television - we were trending on Twitter and featured in several cartoons such as the one above. I've had messages from an extraordinary number of people, including some with whom I'd lost touch. It's all been incredibly gratifying and I'm so pleased that I had the chance to take part. The Master of Balliol has invited the team to a celebratory dinner in the College and as a way of thanking my three marvellous team-mates for being so fantastic, I'll be dedicating Sepulchre Street to them...   

Thursday 5 January 2023

Happy New Year!

Welcome to another calendar year on 'Do You Write Under Your Own Name?' I'm looking forward to the year and personal writing highlights are likely to include publication of Sepulchre Street (with another great piece of cover artwork from Ed Bettison), which is the fourth Rachel Savernake novel, and a British Library anthology of classic Welsh crime stories, together with the first appearance of some new short stories. 

This month is mainly to be devoted to writing, but I've got plenty of events lined up at a variety of festivals and libraries. I hope to meet some of you at one or other of these events, including Alibis in the Archive, which will take place at Gladstone's Library in June - do consider coming along for the weekend. It will be great fun.

Although 2022 was a wonderful year for me, a number of great friends of mine experienced significant health problems, with cancer a recurrent theme. They are making very good progress and I'm hoping that this year sees them restored to full health. One sadness last year was that, in addition to my crime writing pal Peter Robinson, I lost an old friend in Alan Rawlinson, whom I met on my first day at grammar school.and, as I learned just a few days ago, Sue Bell, whom I met during my first week at Oxford. I've been asked to write a short reminiscence about Sue for her college's magazine and I'm working on that now.

Sue was an English student who shortly after Oxford married an American and went to live in the States, so although our friendship continued I only met up with her once in recent years. I have many fond memories of her. The upper photo shows us together at a champagne party when we were both 20. By one of those truly bizarre coincidences, this is the photo I supplied when the University Challenge producer asked me for a photo from my student days. The lower photo shows us on what proved, alas, to be our very last encounter. 

On looking again at her very witty and lengthy letters, I see that at the same tender age she was encouraging me in my ambition to become a writer. As she said, perhaps wryly, 'You certainly seem to have plenty of ideas and imagination and at least a certain amount of confidence in your own ability.' She was amused when, seven years later, my first book proved to be a legal tome! I never imagined how lucky I'd get to be with my writing and I bet Sue didn't either, but I treasure the good times we had together and I'll never forget her warmth and wonderful sense of humour.  


Monday 2 January 2023

Forgotten Book - The Lord Have Mercy aka The Shrew is Dead

Over the years, I've reviewed several of Shelley Smith's books on this blog. I was introduced to her work by Julian Symons' Bloody Murder and I share his enthusiasm for her work. He was especially keen on The Lord Have Mercy, and having recently acquired an inscribed copy of the Hamish Hamilton edition from 1956, I thought I'd share my thoughts on a book that I first read more than thirty years ago.

This is an English village mystery with a suspicious death at its heart, but first and foremost it's a study of character and of social attitudes. In many ways, it's a good illustration of the post-war shift in attitudes towards the genre. The puzzle is almost incidental to the portrayal of psychological disintegration and there's an ironic flavour to the writing that was guaranteed to appeal to Symons (as it does to me).

By modern standards, it's a short novel and frankly I think that is all to the good. A long, meaty crime novel is great - so long as the length is justified; alas, that isn't invariably the case. In The Lord Have Mercy, the writing is taut throughout and the final paragraph is disturbing and enigmatic.

I don't want to say too much about the detail of the story, but essentially it focuses on Editha, the desirable but provocative wife of the local doctor, a good man who is, as the story progresses, pushed to the limits of endurance by the behaviour of others. Smith (whose real name was Nancy Bodington) portrays him with sympathy and understanding and there's a subtlety about the characterisation that was relatively uncommon in the crime writing of its day. Jamie Sturgeon speculates that the village in the novel may have been based on Steyning in Sussex, where she lived.

To me, it's very surprising that after writing such a good novel, Smith produced only three more novels in the next twenty-one years. Like Margot Bennett and Mary Kelly, she seems to have run out of steam. I know less about her life than I do about those other writers, so I'm not quite sure why her productivity tailed off. But her books, even those that aren't wholly successful, are always interesting, and this quiet novel of small cruelties and misunderstandings is still well worth reading.