Friday 30 June 2023

Forgotten Book - The Missing Moneylender aka The Man Who Was Dead

I've avoided reading The Missing Moneylender, by W. Stanley Sykes, for a long time. A blog post I read about it suggested that the story is hopelessly antisemitic and I've read more than enough Golden Age books featuring Jewish moneylenders in a tediously stereotyped way. However, when I saw a green Penguin copy in a nice Shetland second hand bookshop, I did another check and found other reviews that very favourable. The excellent Vintage Pop Fictions blog, for instance, says it's doubtful that 'even the most politically correct reader could find anything here to worry them'. In the current climate, that seems over-optimistic, but John Norris, another blogger of distinction, mounts powerful arguments in defence of the book, noting that the characterisation is more vivid than was customary in detective stories of the time.

Now I've read the book, which was first published in 1931, I must say that I think that it is a first novel which, despite some flaws, is most definitely a cut above the typical Golden Age debut, despite the inclusion of a few casual descriptions that add nothing to the story but no doubt prompted the criticism. Other commentators have pointed out that Sykes produced a sort of hybrid between Croftsian police investigation and a sort of impossible crime mystery. There's a general consensus that it's difficult to say too much about the storyline without giving spoilers.

It's not really a whodunit - the main interest lies in howdunit. Sykes was a doctor with expertise in the field of anaesthetics and he puts his know-how to good use. Even more importantly, he writes in an agreeably readable style, so this is a quick and entertaining read, with a number of good plot twists. 

Sykes (1894-1961) wrote just three novels and a few short stories - I've not read any of his other fiction, and it's hard to find. After the 1930s he concentrated on non-fiction and wrote a seminal three-volume history of anaesthetics. Suffice to say that if you like Richard Austin Freeman, you'll almost certainly enjoy this novel.

Wednesday 28 June 2023

The Art of the Whodunit

The last few weeks have been full of enjoyable things - I've been really lucky, and the gorgeous weather has been a bonus. A special treat was to lead a programme on The Art of the Whodunit for Road Scholar. I did this a couple of times before the pandemic, but four further programmes were cancelled because of Covid. However, the third programmes was perhaps the best of all. 

A memorable trip began with a flight to New York City and a day spent wandering, via Central Park, to Roosevelt Island. You reach the island by tram (more like a cable car) and among other things the island has a spooky Gothic building and former smallpox hospital which were very thought-provoking. The sort of places Rachel Savernake would relish. Then we met the 19 very pleasant people who had signed up for the course - about the ideal number, I'd say. It was great to work again with Chris Ball, who handles all the logistics with unobtrusive efficiency. And it was an unexpected pleasure to greet Judith Falco, who had taken part in the last programme as well. A glutton for punishment! Anyway, it was lovely to have another chance to enjoy her company.

The following day we embarked on the Queen Mary and the day after that I gave the first of seven daily lectures. Crossing the Atlantic by sea is a wonderful experience and the ship offered many delights, as usual. It was also good to see Giles Ramsay again; he was leading another tour. There was a third Road Scholar tour, led by Spencer Jones, a military historian whom I met for the first time. On landing at Southampton, I was greeted by the welcome news that the Daily Mail had given Sepulchre Street a rave review. We then headed for Oxford, where we spent five days at a hotel ideally located, close to the river and Folly Bridge.

Highlights of the Oxford leg of the journey including a boat cruise and a visit to the top of the Sheldonian, as well as wandering in the sun around the Parks, along the canal, and through Christ Church. We were given a special tour of Balliol, with the posh silver out on display, and also allowed to visit the Gaffer's Room in Blackwell's, where I did a book signing. The weather was perfect and the company delightful. Definitely a privilege to be a part of it. 

Monday 26 June 2023

Bodies from the Library 2023

Over the past four weekends I've enjoyed the company of fellow crime fans in a variety of splendid settings - in Oxford (more of which before long), at Gladstone's Library, on Shetland, and most recently at the British Library, where the latest Bodies from the Library event was held. As always, the team of John, Mike, Mark, Susan, and Liz did a great job.

An enjoyable precursor to the event had been a lunch on Friday with the Library's Publications team, and I'm glad to say that the Crime Classics series is continuing to go well. Sales are still very good and we have a number of exciting titles under consideration, as well as several ideas for anthologies. More about these at a future date. On Friday evening, there was a pleasant meal with John Curran, Moira Redmond, and others whom I haven't seen for quite a while.

The first event on Saturday was a discussion by Simon Brett and Len Tyler about some of the more flawed examples of Golden Age fiction (Gladys Mitchell took quite a hammering...) and then Chrissie Poulson and I discussed 'singletons' and the reasons why some published crime writers never return to the genre. Tony Medawar gave a characteristically well-researched talk about S.S. Van Dine, while Kate Jackson discussed her (very enjoyable) new book with Jake Kerridge.

After lunch there was a good episode from the Alfred Hitchcock TV series based on a Dorothy L. Sayers short story,  a discussion about Clifford Witting, a talk by Tom Mead about two hard-to-find locked room mystery novels, a discussion by Jim Noy about 'fair play' and a jolly presentation by Dolores Gordon Smith about Captain Hastings' hidden depths. A panel of us answered questions at the end and then there was a wine reception organised by Maggie Topkiss of Felony and Mayhem, honouring two pillars of the crime community, including Tom Schantz, who died recently.

It was great to see some people I've not met for ages - such as Tina Hodgkinson (from whose Twitter feed the above photo comes) and fellow writers Kate Stacey and Christina Koning - as well as having the chance to meet Maggie for the first time. I was also very glad to meet Lauren Schwartzman, who told me she was a member of the Corpus Christi team which famously won University Challenge in 2009 only to be disqualified on a regrettable technicality. There were plenty of other pleasant conversations, often all too brief, but it's so good to be meeting people again after the long gap caused by the pandemic. A great day.

Friday 23 June 2023

Forgotten Book - The Brazen Confession

It is safe to describe Cecil Freeman Gregg (1898-1960) as a forgotten author. He was, in fact, one of the genre's few accountants (Richard Hull was another) and he enjoyed a long career. The Murdered Manservant, his first book, appeared in 1928 and his last, Professional Jealousy, in the year of his death. It seems that he may have only had two publishers in that time, Hutchinson and Methuen, and I'd have thought they both rank as a cut above some of the competition. So Gregg is not an insignificant figure.

I was tempted by a lovely inscribed copy of one of his earliest books, The Brazen Confession. He was barely past 30 when he wrote it and the story brims with a young man's energy. It also features one of his main series characters, the formidable Inspector Higgins. But what appealed to me a good deal was the opening premise.

This begins as an inverted mystery. An author is writing a confession to murder. His name is Scott and he exults in his success at having committed the crime and got away with it. Hence the title of the book. It's clear that Gregg was trying to do something fresh here. This wasn't the first crime novel to be written from the killer's point of view, although it did appear a year before Francis Iles' highly influential Malice Aforethought. But writing in the first person was a bold move and after about sixty pages we move to a more conventional third person narrative.

The book is, I discovered, much more a thriller than a study of criminal motivation. The gusto of the writing carries the story along, but I don't think the potential of the premise was maximised. Gregg wanted to write one kind of book and I was hoping for something different. So, not his fault but not a masterpiece, either. However, I'd say this is an interesting example of a young writer flexing his literary muscles and I'll certainly be glad to take a look at some of his other work.

Thursday 22 June 2023

Shetland Noir

I'm back home briefly - before setting off for Bodies from the Library - after a wonderful trip to Shetland Noir, my first ever visit to Shetland. Over the years I've heard a great deal about the islands from Ann Cleeves and they certainly lived up to their advance billing. A couple of guided tours, with Ann driving, were a very special bonus, as was the wonderful weather. In the photo below, that's St Ninian's Isle in the background. Jahrlshof is in the above photo.

The festival took place at Mareel, the home of Shetland Arts, and it was gratifying to be greeted as a 'headliner' and to be interviewed by Ann, as well as being asked to interview Richard Osman. There was a shock on Saturday morning, when Richard emailed me to say that his flight was cancelled and he wouldn't be able to make it. Thankfully, the tech experts at Mareel were able to reorganise, so that we conducted the interview by Zoom. Richard couldn't see either me or the audience, but we could see him, and in the circumstances it all went very well, with very pleasing feedback.

It was great to see the likes of James Grieve, Val McDermid, Wendy Jones, Verena Rose, Jason Monaghan, Elly Griffiths, and  Shari Lapena again, as well as to meet some of the Shetland-based enthusiasts. Marsali Taylor, who lives on Shetland, where she sets her books, was a key organiser, while Ann was the patron of the festival. There was an enjoyable welcome reception and also a farewell event, for which I set a quiz....

In the time available, it was impossible to see everything the Shetland islands have to offer, but highlights included a visit to the astonishing archaeological site of Jahrlshof, Scalloway, and a splendid second hand bookshop (Kergord Hatchery by name) in the middle of nowhere, which had an excellent stock. Ann and I were invited to inscribe the glamorous cow in the shop's lobby with the names of favourites among our novels. And I made several purchases... For the duration of the trip, I felt very at home in a self-catering annex in a glorious setting just outside Lerwick (the view from the window is in the third photo below). Lerwick itself is a fascinating old port, and looked lovely in the sunshine.

All in all, an unforgettable trip. I'm truly grateful to have been invited.   

Wednesday 21 June 2023

The Nest - 2020 film review

One can look at The Nest in different ways. On the one hand, you might argue that it's a 1980s drama that brims with potential but ultimately peters out. On the other hand, you might counter that it captures human behaviour subtly and compellingly, and is mature enough to avoid the simplistic. I'm in the latter camp. This is, I think, a really good film.

I was drawn to it partly by the presence in the cast of Jude Law. His raffish, unreliable charm is, in his best performances, utterly convincing and never more so than here. He is Rory O'Hara, a charismatic trader with a gift of the gab. But it rapidly becomes clear that he's economical with the truth and before long we start to wonder if he's a full-on fantasist. 

Rory is married to Allison (Carrie Coon), an equestrian trainer. They have a son together (Ben) and she also has a teenage daughter (Sam). They are living in New York and it all seems pretty idyllic. But warning signs flash when, at the start of the film, Rory says he wants to move back to Britain to pursue a great opportunity and we learn that he is temperamentally restless - and in charge of the family finances.

They do move to England, and take a tenancy of a baronial manor. Rory rejoins his old boss Arthur (a terrific cameo by Michael Culkin) but the children are unsettled. Carrie Coon is excellent and there's alos a great cameo from Anne Reid, whom I still think of as Val Barlow in  Coronation Street. At different times the film teeters on the edge of psychological suspense, satire, family drama, horror, and the supernatural. We expect something terrible is going to happen...well, no spoilers here. It's definitely worth watching The Nest for yourself. 

Friday 16 June 2023

Forgotten Book - Strike for a Kingdom

When I was researching Welsh crime fiction for my British Library anthology of Welsh mysteries, I came across several names previously unfamiliar to me, including that of Menna Gallie. Gallie (1919-90) was a Welsh translator, writer, and political activist who only published one novel in the crime genre, Strike for a Kingdom (1959). But it was good enough to be in contention for a Gold Dagger, so I decided to take a look.

The book was reprinted a few years ago by Honno, with a useful intro by Angela V. John which sets the story in context. By today's standards, it's a very short novel, and none the worse for concision. As a detective novel, it has definite limitations, but it's worth reading for the excellent portrayal of a small Welsh mining community, in the fictional village of Cilhendre, at a time of profound stress - the miners'  strike of 1926. In other words, it's a history-mystery.

One of the things I liked about the story was the occasional flashes of wit. Times were tough in those days - the locals dream about nationalisation of the mines leading to a sort of modern utopia - but although some of the social issues are presented in a partial and simplistic way, the characterisation is mostly very good and in some cases poignant.

Exceptions to this are the victim (the nasty manager of the mine) and the police inspector: both are cartoonish figures. But there's a humanity about much of the writing that appealed to me. For a first novel, it's a very mature piece of work. Gallie continued to publish occasionally, but moved away from mysteries, probably because the constraints of plotting didn't suit her priorities as an author. If you like Welsh fiction - and Wales is a country I've always loved, so I do, very much - then this is well worth a read.


Wednesday 14 June 2023

Long Weekend - 1978 film review

Concern about damage that human beings do to their environment isn't new. In fact it's at the heart of an Australian film dating back to 1978 called Long Weekend. This is a film which is sometimes described as a 'cult classic'. Cult classics, of course, come in all kinds of forms. The term encompasses wonderful projects that were wrongly overlooked on first airing as well as strange projects that will only ever appeal to a minority. Long Weekend comes close to falling into the second category, but I found it quite interesting.

It is, however, a film that telegraphs its punches. Even the advertising poster proclaimed: 'Their crime was against nature. Nature found them guilty.' So you soon have a pretty good idea of what lies in store. The story is about a couple whose marriage is in trouble. Peter (John Hargreaves) persuades a reluctant Marcia (Briony Behets) to go away to a remote beach for a long weekend. Not a good idea...

The pair of them aren't especially likeable. Peter does at least love his dog, Cricket, but he and Marcia are strangely unbothered when their car accidentally runs over a kangaroo. When they stop off for refreshments, Peter is baffled when the locals say they've never heard of the couple's destination. It's only five miles away, he says - near the abbatoir. Oh dear, again we can be sure this isn't going to end well.

The mysterious nature of the elusive beach is under-played, which is a pity. Instead, the action is dragged out as it becomes increasingly clear that Peter and Marcia are going to pay a heavy price for their indifference to and abuse of the natural world. I wasn't quite sure that the symbolism of  Marcia's recent abortion fitted the story. Yet there was something about this film that I couldn't help liking. I'm unfamiliar with Hargreaves, and sadly it turns out that he died young from AIDS; he puts in a good performance with touches of nuance. There's a really good story here that would have benefited from a more carefully written script. Even if it's not a cult classic, I'm quite glad to have watched it.

Monday 12 June 2023

Alibis in the Archive 2023


I'm in the midst of a whirl of activity with a fantastic variety of trips. More of this another day, but today I'm reflecting on the weekend just past, which saw the latest Alibis from the Archive festival at Gladstone's Library. The photos were taken by Caroline Raeburn, whom I was delighted to see again, on her first visit to this wonderful place. Among many others, it was especially good to see Liz Gilbey, Steve Barge, Mike Wilson, Mary Andrea Clark,  Carrie de Silva, Mark Green, and Susan Cooper, the last two taking a breather from their prep for Bodies from the Library. It was also good to meet a number of people for the first time.

Because of major traffic issues, everyone had a pretty tricky journey to Hawarden on Friday, and this meant that the welcome kindly organised by the new Warden of Gladstone's, Andrea Russell, had to be delayed by an hour. But a drink soon meant the recovery process kicked in for everyone, and it was a delight for me to meet Andrea for the first time since her arrival at Gladstone's, and to discover that she is a genuine crime fan.

After dinner on Friday, I hosted a quiz, won by a team including Jonathan Hopson, who has been on the winning team three times running. Jonathan, a volunteer at the Library, has a terrific range of knowledge. There was time for a chat with many of the attendees before the end of the day.

Saturday began with an entertaining talk from Dolores Gordon-Smith about the Bravo case, followed by me talking about the CWA's 70 year history. Then came Felix Francis, a born raconteur, talking about the 'family business' that created the bestselling Dick Francis novels. After lunch we had a special display of items from the British Crime Writing Archives and then a talk by Len Tyler about humour in crime fiction. After dinner, Felix, Dolores and I, plus a few others were able to watch the European Champions League final and I was duly delighted when Manchester City triumphed and completed the coveted 'Treble'.

On Sunday, we began with a talk by Tim Sullivan (third photo above) about his career in film, TV, and fiction, and an equally enjoyable talk by Matthew Booth about Golden Age fiction. Last but by no means least came Chrissie Poulson, discussing academic detective stories. After Sunday lunch we said our goodbyes and both I and the very supportive and hard-working library staff were thrilled with the feedback. About a quarter of the attendees had never visited the Library before - and not surprisingly, they were impressed with this wonderful venue. My thanks go to everyone who took part for making it such a great occasion.

Friday 9 June 2023

Forgotten Book - On the Night of the Fire

If you're looking for 'cosy' escapism, you'd probably better give F.L. Green's On the Night of the Fire a miss. This book, published in 1939, reads almost as if it was written to demonstrate that crime fiction of the 30s was not all about nostalgic make-believe. It's a doom-laden tale and was the basis of a film released in 1940 and also known as The Fugitive, which has been claimed as the first British film noir. The movie starred Ralph Richardson.

Frederick Laurence Green (1902-53) was born in Portsmouth and died in Bristol, but after marrying an Irish woman spent much of his life in Belfast - and he was himself of Irish descent. He is perhaps best known as the author of Odd Man Out, filmed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason, but it was his second novel, On the Night of the Fire, that made his name. It's the only crime novel I can think of in which the protagonist is a barber.

The book is a sort of  'inverted mystery' in that we follow Wal Kobling's journey from petty thief to burglar to murderer, but there is no puzzle element in the story. And it must be said that the events of the book are as bleak as the drab back streets of the unnamed port town (scenes for the film were shot in Newcastle) in which it is set. This isn't a mystery that will cheer you up. But it's well-written and compelling and Francis Iles (a very good critic as well as a very good writer) was among those who approved.

Green's literary style, on the evidence of this book, is interesting. His material is sensational but he handles it in an almost relentlessly unsensational way. To an extent I was reminded of Patrick Hamilton, but that's mainly because of their shared fascination with the tawdry side of life. I'm not sure I'm 'selling' this book very well, but I must say that I found it distinctive and powerful and whilst it won't suit everyone, I'm very glad I read it. 


Wednesday 7 June 2023

Hidden City - 1987 film review

Way back in 1977, I happened to watch a play on TV. It was called Stronger than the Sun and it was written by a young playwright called Stephen Poliakoff, someone who - I discovered - was only a few years older than me. I was impressed with the story and the quality of the writing and it's no surprise to me that Poliakoff proceeded to enjoy a successful career. When I got the chance to see the first film he wrote and directed, I was glad to seize it.

That film is Hidden City and it has a few elements in common with Stronger than the Sun, which was written ten years earlier. It boasts a good cast, led by Charles Dance, with Cassie Stuart, Bill Paterson, Alex Norton, and Richard E. Grant. However, it doesn't seem to have enjoyed much success in the cinema, and soon made its way to Channel Four. Intriguing as it undoubtedly is, the film does have a number of shortcomings which help to explain why it made little impact.

Dance plays a snooty statistician, James Richards, who complains about the incompetence of a film researcher (Stuart, an interesting actress who seems to have faded from the scene). Oddly, and in an almost Highsmithian way, she latches on to him, pestering him to take an interest in a mysterious piece of film footage that she has found. It seems to show people being abducted. When this unlikely pair of sleuths start to investigate, it becomes clear that the authorities are irritated, to say the least.

I can't really describe this as a crime film, despite the element of mystery, and it's also short of suspense. The real problem is that Poliakoff has come up with a number of good ingredients, but hasn't managed to weld them into a compelling whole. A real shame. There are a number of scenes which simply don't fit - they hold up the flow of events for no clear purpose. I'm glad to have watched it, but there is a good reason why it fell into obscurity. 

Monday 5 June 2023

Where the Truth Lies - 2005 film review

I've mentioned more than once on this blog my enthusiasm for the work of Rupert Holmes. I feel quite an affinity for him simply because we were born in the very same hospital, but quite apart from that, I've long admired his talent and versatility. In February 2020, in those far-off pre-pandemic days, I delighted in his musical Curtains and I've subsequently enjoyed listening to the CD of the US version. He writes terrific popular music and is an accomplished playwright. What's more, he's a crime novelist, and I've now had a chance to watch the film version of his crime novel Where the Truth Lies.

The film was made by Atom Egoyan, a director of some distinction, who also wrote the screenplay. The story draws on Rupert's love of showbiz, and features a comedy partnership between Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Phillips (the invariably impressive Colin Firth). The duo were stars in the 1950s, but split up following the death of a young woman called Maureen immediately after a telethon they were hosting, even though they weren't implicated in her mysterious demise. The reasons for their break-up are unclear.

Fifteen years later, another young woman, Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohmann) is hired to ghost-write Lanny's memoirs. She was present at the fateful telethon and she wants to find out about the circumstances of Maureen's death. A complicated sequence of events ensue, with several time-shifts between the 50s and the 70s. The plot is tangled, which is just the way I like it, though I also think I'd benefit from watching the film a second time, to appreciate better the way the story is structured.

There are one or two graphic sex scenes, and apparently this affected the film's box office potential. As a result, it's not as well-known as it deserves to be. Brightly filmed as it is, it's really a sort of neo-noir movie, where the shadows of the past loom large. Definitely worth watching. As for the source novel, I look forward to reading it and comparing it with the film. 


Friday 2 June 2023

Forgotten Book - Bored to Death

Bored to Death strikes me as a risky title to give to any book. What if a reader can't help yawning? In the case of the first (US) edition of Michael Delving's 1975 novel featuring the book and antique dealer Dave Cannon, the title has a punning significance, given that a body is found caught up on the tidal bore of the river Severn. Nevertheless, I think that Collins Crime Club were wise to give the story another title - A Wave of Fatalities

One reason I was attracted to buy my copy of this book was that it boasted an interesting inscription, 'to the Baillies who appear on page 10 and page 89'. It turns out that they owned a restaurant in which the author enjoyed dining. A nice example of good-natured advertising.

I enjoyed the first Dave Cannon book that I read, the breezy Die Like a Man. I'd hoped that this novel, unlike that one, would be a kind of bibliomystery, but in fact the story revolves around an ancient casket, and I find antiques a less interesting subject - purely a matter of personal taste, but it was a disappointment, increased by the fact that the story isn't as good as Die Like a Man.

In this book, Dave is accompanied by his wife Lucy and her family play a significant part in the story. Dave meets a strange and irritating chap called Piscobar, who also becomes a key suspect after it emerges that the man in the river was a murder victim. Was he killed for the sake of the casket?

I must be honest and say that I didn't care too much about the characters and thus although I wasn't exactly bored, I wasn't unduly interested in solving the puzzle. Delving - whose real name was Jay Williams - writes agreeably, and there is a very interesting discussion about what it is to feel like an outsider in an enclosed community. Williams spent quite a lot of his time in Britain and I sense that he wrote these passages from the heart. Otherwise, though, this is a lightweight piece of work.