Friday 31 March 2023

Forgotten Book - The Dumas Club

Arturo Perez-Reverte is an interesting and erudite novelist. A couple of years ago, I reviewed The Flanders Panel on this blog and recently I came across a book of his first published almost thirty years back, The Dumas Club. This is a novel about a book hunter, and ever since I was commissioned to write the story that became The Traitor, I've been particularly interested in books on that theme.   

The book hunter in question is Lucas Corso, and like all good bibliophiles there is a touch of the obsessive about him. He becomes interested in a manuscript by Alexandre Dumas after the death of the man who recently sold it, whose name was Taillefer. The snag is that Taillefer's glamorous widow Liana is desperate to get it back. Corso consults an expert called Boris Balkan, who plays what I can only describe as a curious role in the story.

The plot thickens as we're given various illustrations, some of which contains clues, and are treated to a good deal of arcane book lore. The name of Roger Ackroyd is invoked, while Corso encounters a gorgeous woman (another one!) who calls herself Irene Adler. So, references to classic detection abound. Naturally this adds to the appeal so far as I'm concerned. However, I'm not sure that Perez-Reverte really justifies these connections in terms of the story. They are more like window-dressing.

This is a long novel, undoubtedly clever, but for me it didn't have the same brisk tempo of The Flanders Panel and I found it less appealing. Roman Polanski based his film The Ninth Gate, which I haven't seen, on the story, though I gather that his version makes many changes to the source material. I admire Perez-Reverte's ambition as a writer, but although this book has plenty of good ingredients, I wasn't bowled over by what he made of them. 

Wednesday 29 March 2023

Endeavour and Goodbye to Inspector Morse

I vividly remember watching the first episode of Inspector Morse starring John Thaw as the great Oxford detective and discussing it with a colleague at work the following day. That was The Dead of Jericho, aired in 1987. I really enjoyed it but I never dreamed that the Morse series would keep going, in one guise or another, until 2023. 

Yet that is what happened. Inspector Morse ran until 2000 and although John Thaw died, Lewis, starring Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox, became a huge hit - contrary, I must admit, to my initial expectations. The strength of the writing, the quality of the characters, the acting, the music, and the production values, coupled with the wonderful Oxford locations, all combined to great effect.

I also had initial doubts about Endeavour, a prequel series starring Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as Inspector Thursday, who doesn't get a mention in the books. Again, the combination of Russell Lewis's skilful screenplays plus all the familiar ingredients and strong period settings made the pilot episode in 2012 a hit. And now it's finally come to an end, in a very enjoyable concluding episode which ties up most if not perhaps all of the loose ends. 

These shows have given me a great deal of pleasure over the last 36 years. Colin Dexter was, of course, thrilled by their enormous success. I have a distinct memory of seeing his first novel for sale in an Oxford bookshop - 'By Local Author' - and nobody paying attention to it, when I was a student. Later, it was a joy to get to know Colin a bit. He wrote a story for one of my anthologies and the last time we met, when he was very frail, he was kind enough to inscribe a copy of a Lewis script for me. Colin loved Oxford, as I do, and the TV series certainly did him and the city of dreaming spires proud.

Monday 27 March 2023

The Crime Classics and the Cultural Enterprise award

I was pleased to hear that the British Library Crime Classics have won an award for 'cultural enterprise' in the field of 'creative commerce'. This is in connection with their recently launched 'subscription service', which seeks to build closer connections between fans of the series and the Library.

Rebecca Nuotio (pictured, receiving the award) is in overall charge of the small dedicated publications team at the Library. I've enjoyed working with her and her colleagues over the years and it's good to see that they are reaping the rewards of their commitment to classic crime. 

Here is Rebecca explaining what the new service is about: 'We launched our British Library Crime Classics subscription service in September 2022, offering customers a monthly rolling or 12-month subscription to receive the latest titles in the popular series. Our initial aim when creating this product for the Crime Classics series was to increase revenue, to retain our current customers (during the pandemic and now the cost-of-living crisis) and to expand our audience. We have subsequently added a six-month subscription, following feedback from customers, which makes an ideal gift.

'We felt it important that as the home of the series we were able to offer something other retailers were unable to offer. Whilst most subscribers would benefit from a monetary incentive to purchase from us (free UK postage or a discount on annual subscriptions), we have also been adding related ephemera to each order. 

'For example, subscribers received a booklet reprinting of images found in the original 1934 edition of W F Harvey’s The Mysterious Mr Badman with their delivery of that title. We have also included specially produced greeting cards, bookmarks, and postcards - things we can produce in-house or with our regular suppliers for a low cost, but that add value to the series’ fan base. We also include a welcome message in each new subscription from series editor Martin Edwards, and we are planning what other items we can include in the future.’ 

At a recent meeting at the Library, I was heartened by the strength of the commitment to the series. We have many more titles lined up, some as 'definites', many more as 'possibles' and once I've finished work on the forthcoming anthology of Welsh mysteries, there will be a couple more anthologies to research and prepare. Almost every day I receive emails from fans of the series, expressing their delight in the books and often either asking questions or making suggestions. It's good to know that, nine years after the first appearance of John Bude's The Cornish Coast Murder, which really kick-started the series' growth, readers and bookshops remain as enthusiastic about it as ever.

So which authors have been the biggest beneficiaries of this renaissance? In the early days, there's no doubt that John Bude was the front-runner. More recently, my understanding is that sales have been spread around, with Anthony Berkeley, Christianna Brand and John Dickson Carr enjoying great popularity as well as a number of individual titles, such as Michael Gilbert's Smallbone Deceased. Overall, though, I think there's little doubt that of all the many authors whose reputations have benefited from republication, E.C.R. Lorac leads the way. It's also clear that different titles of hers appeal to different readers. And the good news is that I'm sure there are more to come.


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.