Monday 31 July 2023

Under Suspicion - 1991 film review

There's more than one film called Under Suspicion, and the 1991 movie was unknown to me before it cropped up on Talking Pictures TV. The cast looked promising, so I decided to give it a go, even though a quick glance on the internet indicated that some reviewers really didn't like the movie. I'm glad I watched it, since although the script tests our suspension of disbelief to the limits, the overall style of the film is engaging.

The setting is Brighton at the end of the 1950s. Liam Neeson is Tony Aaron, an ex-cop who is struggling to earn a crust as a seedy private eye. His main source of income is divorce work. He persuades clients who want a divorce to go to a hotel room with his attractive wife (Maggie O'Neill) and then bursts into the room and photographs them in bed together. One day, things go terribly wrong. The client and his wife have been murdered.

The client turns out to have been a painter called Stasio. He'd left his wife (Alphonsia Emmanuel) for a model called Angeline (Laura San Giacomo) and his lawyer (the always reliable Stephen Moore, who sadly died a couple of years back) reveals that he'd changed his will on the day of his death, disinheriting his wife in favour of Angeline. But some evidence points to Tony as the guilty party. Can he establish his innocence? Even his closest pal (Kenneth Cranham, playing a less menacing character than usual) has his doubts.

The locations in Brighton are atmospherically portrayed and it was great to see the Portmeirion Hotel masquerading as Stasio's posh mansion. There are some unlikely developments in the plot, but the pace and acting (a prosecution barrister is played by Alex Norton, better known as Burke in Taggart) are both good. It's a sort of British version of a Chandleresque mystery, and despite its limitations, it's decent entertainment.  

Friday 28 July 2023

Forgotten Book - A Shot in the Arm

I met John Sherwood just once, as far as I can recall, at a CWA conference about thirty years ago. He must have been about eighty then, give or take a year or two, and I don't remember the details of our conversation; my impression was of an amiable, quiet chap. At around that time, I read one or two of his novels, without being blown away by them. But I came across an inscribed copy of his 1982 stand-alone A Shot in the Arm and decided to give his work another try.

I'm glad I did. This is a crime novel packed with interesting ingredients. I must say that I don't think John Sherwood made quite as much of some of them as he might have done, but the story still makes for an interesting read. It's set in post-Abdication London and much of the action revolves around the BBC. The author worked there himself for many years, and his insider's view of life within the Corporation is enjoyable, even if he gallops through a lot of the details.

He certainly gallops through the plot. There's no shortage of action. A slightly improbable matrimonial argument is followed by a BBC man called Tony Chatham apparently being shot through the arm by his deranged wife Angela. It's an odd incident, one of a number in the early part of the story which keep the reader guessing. A BBC secretary is then murdered and it seems that the victim may have been killed by mistake. Was the killer out to finish Chatham off?

The second half of the book begins with a major plot twist, foreshadowed by the dust jacket blurb. The story is just as complex as the publishers claim, but I felt that the hectic storytelling lessened the impact of the mystery. The book feels as though it was written in a hurry, with viewpoints changing so rapidly that the effect is occasionally confusing. The climax too is regrettably rushed. A pity, because there are some clever ideas here. Coupled with the interesting background, this might have been a quite superb history-mystery. Despite its shortcomings, it's definitely worth a look. 

Wednesday 26 July 2023

The Weekend Away - 2022 film review

The Weekend Away strikes me as fairly typical of the films that you find on platforms like Netflix. It's a thriller, efficiently put together and reasonably pacy, if rather superficial and certainly unoriginal. Like so many other thrillers at present it features a strong woman protagonist and a bunch of men who display varying degrees of creepiness. The backdrop, in that delightful-to-visit country Croatia, is visually appealing and one of the film's strongest points.

Beth (Leighton Meester) flies off to Croatia to visit her charismatic friend Kate (Christina Wolfe) for the weekend. Beth confides that her marriage to Rob (Luke Norris) has hit a rough patch, despite their shared devotion to their young child. Kate insists on taking Beth out clubbing and chatting up two hunky men. The next thing we know, Beth wakes up much the worse for wear and Kate is nowhere to be seen.

Beth insists to a disbelieving cop that her friend has gone missing and that there is something sinister about the disappearance. Is the weird landlord implicated, we wonder? And why are the police so unhelpful? The film is based on a novel by a writer called Sarah Alderson, who also wrote the screenplay, and she certainly keeps the twists coming, although at the expense of plausibility. 

This film is fine as a time-passer, though I didn't warm to Beth in the way I think I was supposed to. At least she was slightly less irritating than Kate. The men, other than the Beth's taxi driver chum, a Syrian refugee, were uniformly unpleasant. Final verdict; competent light entertainment, but likely to be forgotten after a weekend or two. 

Monday 24 July 2023

Two Writers: One Story - A.J. Hawley and Rob Parker


There were a number of really enjoyable highlights at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival over the weekend. One event I'd like to focus on in this blog is a launch of Two Writers: One Story, by A.J. Hawley (with whom I'm pictured above) and Rob Parker. Craig Sisterson and Alex Hawley did a Q and A that had some emotional and touching moments before audience members had a chance to ask questions of their own. This is Alex's first book, but it's clear that there are more to come - and I very much look forward to seeing them.

I have huge admiration for people who battle on through setbacks, and over the years I've had the pleasure and privilege to meet a number of remarkable individuals who have achieved a great deal despite having to contend with significant disabilities of different kinds. Many, many years ago, I was a member of a Law Society working party which urged the introduction of legislation to protect people with disabilities from discrimination and, although to be honest I've no idea whether our determined advocacy made much of a difference to the outcome, legislation thankfully did follow a couple of years later. Decades on, I'm very conscious that there remains a great deal to be done to support people with disabilities within our communities. In the meantime, it is great to be able to talk to people like Alex and have the chance to admire what they have already done, overcoming many obstacles - obstacles which some of us might find impossibly daunting - along the way.

I'd already seen a pdf of the book, but I was delighted to be able to buy a physical copy, published by Spellbound Books, an imprint overseen by Nicola East and Sumaira Wilson. It's a chunky volume, full of interviews with writers, but including stories by Alex as well. There's an interview with me, but readers needn't worry, there are many, many more, with luminaries such as Elly Griffiths, Steve Cavanagh, Sarah Hilary and others. Great stuff.  

Friday 21 July 2023

Forgotten Book - Let X be the Murderer

One of the sessions at Bodies from the Library was a conversation between Richard Reynolds, formerly a great bookseller at Heffers in Cambridge, and Robert Hyde of Galileo Publishing, an indie press based in the same city. They were discussing the life and career of Clifford Witting, a writer whose work I've discussed several times on this blog. And very interesting it was too.

The latest Galileo title is Witting's Let X be the Murderer, which was first published in 1947. Once again it features Inspector Charlton, an amiable but shrewd detective. In this story, DS Martin takes a phone message from elderly Sir Victor Warringham, who makes the extraordinary claim that a ghost has just attempted to strangle him.

So begins an intriguing mystery. Charlton accompanies Martin to Sir Victor's home, Elmsdale, but they find that a couple called Harler are reluctant to allow them to see the old man and they claim he is mentally infirm. On the other hand, the housekeeper Mrs Winters - who has clearly taken a dislike to the Harlers - clearly thinks that there's nothing wrong with the old man's mind. When a solicitor turns up on the scene, it's apparent that Sir Victor is contemplating making a new will. In a vintage detective novel, we all know what that means, don't we?

Except that the death which follows is not the one you might expect. And Witting continues to spring surprises as the story proceeds. The book is written in his characteristically light, agreeable style, and although the cast of characters is limited, he manages to juggle suspicion around very nicely. Overall, I'd say this is one of the best Wittings I've read. The cover artwork, it must be said, owes a great deal to the British Library house style, and I'm not quite sure why Galileo don't have the confidence to come up with a distinctive style of their own. They are doing good work by reviving Witting's novels, and reminding us that there are plenty of entertaining writers out there whose work has been unavailable for far too long.

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Peter Lovesey

'Never meet your heroes' is one of those 'rules' in life that has some merit, but there are also various exceptions to it. Perhaps it depends on the hero! Anyway, a writer whom I've admired enormously since the 1970s is someone who has become a very good friend over the thirty-odd years since we first met. He's justly popular, not merely as a crime writer of the first rank but also because of his kindness and warmth. There are few authors whose new books (and short stories) I await with such anticipation. And one thing is as true today as ever. He never disappoints. His name is Peter Lovesey.

Yesterday Helena and I had the great pleasure of spending much of the day with him and his wife Jax, visiting his lovely home in the historic and delightful town of Shrewsbury - it's a 150 year old coach house, full of character, and with views over the gorgeous Shropshire countryside. It's in the nature of the crime writing life that one's encounters with friends at festivals and other events are often quite hurried, so it was delightful to have the chance to catch up with Peter and Jax in greater depth over coffee, lunch, then afternoon tea. A memorable day for me, to be sure.

One particular treat was visiting Peter's study. Among the items on display were an Edgar and a rather splendid Anthony award (the design of the award, given at Bouchercon, changes each year). And, of course, he has a terrific library. Not just books relating to crime, but also to athletics - one of his other great passions. There was also a great framed poster relating to his Victorian TV series Cribb.

Peter shared with me a number of letters he'd received in the past - including one from me, back in the mid 90s, in which I told him that my then publishers wanted me to keep writing more of the same, whereas I wanted to stretch myself as a writer. I'd forgotten I'd written that, but it was an important time in my life as an author - and how glad I am that I stuck to my guns...Among the many other things we discussed were a new anthology project which I'm just getting off the ground and the fact that Peter is nearing the end of his latest novel - good news for all his fans. I'm looking forward to it already. 

Monday 17 July 2023

Libraries and the Warrington exhibition of crime writing

I've often written and spoken of my lifelong enthusiasm for libraries. I've haunted them since childhood, and most of my early crime reading was of library editions of writers such as Agatha Christie, Sayers, Michael Gilbert, and so on. When I became a published author, library events became an important part of my literary life. And one of the absolute highlights of my career was winning the CWA Dagger in the Library, because that is voted for by librarians up and down the country. 

All this means that, when the opportunity arises, I'm keen to give something back to the library community, which has done so much for me. An idea crossed my mind early this year in connection with National Crime Reading Month in June. I approached Rachel Ralston of LiveWire, who run Warrington's libraries (more than a dozen in all) and we worked out an idea which, happily, came to fruition recently.

The idea was to put on an exhibition about crime writing, past and present, which could be displayed in Warrington's libraries during National Crime Reading Month. The aim, of course, was to interest people in crime writing and also some aspects of it with which they are probably unfamiliar. The material was divided into manageable segments, so that an abridged version of the exhibition could be put on in any venue where space was at a premium. The material was presented extremely well, with invaluable input from Rachel's colleague Tyler, and I was delighted with the result.

To run alongside the exhibition, I devised a crime quiz (I've done a few of these lately, at Alibis in the Archive and at Shetland Noir as well) and last Friday I was happy to present the winner, Alan McGinty, with a signed copy of one of my books. I'm really pleased with the feedback about the exhibition, which has been warmly welcomed by librarians and readers alike, and I hope to run more exhibitions of this kind in the future. Libraries are such an important part of our communities and deserve our wholehearted support.  

Friday 14 July 2023

Forgotten Book - Driven Death

I enjoyed Nigel Orde-Powlett's little-known first detective novel, The Cast to Death, so I was delighted to lay my hands on a copy of his even more obscure second book, Driven Death, which was published in 1933. It features the same amateur detective, Tony Rillington, so I had high hopes. Unlike the first book, there was no US edition, so it is hard to find. Incidentally, some references suggest that the title is Driven to Death, but if you go looking for it, bear in mind that isn't correct. I've not been able to trace any images of the book, with or without a dustjacket. So it is very, very rare!

There is a prologue set in a Russian prison camp from which a man is desperate to escape. Another man, who gives his name as George Beald, does something terrible. And then we move to the main story, and a summons to Tony, asking him to come up to Yorkshire, to the home of...Sir George Beald. Tony is at this point in the company of a man called Blaggs, who appeared in the earlier book and seems destined to become a sort of Dr Watson character. 

However, Tony goes to Yorkshire on himself and from that point relates events in the first person, initially in the form of letters to Blaggs, and then in assorted notes to him. Sir George is plainly terrified of someone, possibly a very unpleasant chap called Blanding, who is one of his guests. A party goes out grouse shooting and murder is duly done. It helps, I think, to know something about grouse shooting in order to appreciate the book. I don't know the first thing about it, so had to look up terms like 'drive' and 'butt' to see what they mean in the context of the sport.

Orde-Powlett never published another detective novel after this one. Having read it, I wonder if he realised that he was in effect a crime writing equivalent of the 'one-hit wonder'. In many respects, this book is a remake of the first, but the changes are not for the better. The epistolary style doesn't add anything and the book might have been better if Blaggs had been on the scene, or acted as narrator instead of Tony. The angling background of the first novel is replaced by the grouse shooting setting here. I'm not interested in either sport, but Orde-Powlett makes few concessions to such readers. 

There's a 'howdunit' element to the crime, as in the first book, which is quite interesting. The over-riding weakness of the book, however, is that the mystery element is feeble and the revelation of the culprit deeply disappointing. Orde-Powlett could write well and with ruthless editing this might have been a perfectly good book. Dorothy L. Sayers described it as 'good', so perhaps I'm being harsh. However, I'm afraid I did find it frustrating.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Operation Diplomat by Francis Durbridge

I've said plenty of times how much I enjoy the 'cliff-hanger' serials written by Francis Durbridge. Maybe they stretch plausibility to the limit, maybe they are a guilty pleasure, but they are a lot of fun. Williams and Whiting have done a great job in reprinting many Durbridge titles, including some that haven't seen the light of day in book form before. The latest example is Operation Diplomat.

A useful intro by Melvyn Barnes, the leading expert on Durbridge, explains that the original TV serial was a follow-up to the better-known  The Broken Horseshoe, and was broadcast in six episodes by the BBC towards the end of 1952. The original cast list is included and I noted several familiar names, such as Raymond Huntley and (in a minor role) Roger Delgado, later famed as 'The Master' in Doctor Who. The story was later filmed, but has never appeared in book form before.

There is a dramatic opening, with a dead body on the floor of a flat owned by Mark Fenton, the doctor who is the main protagonist. The deceased, also a doctor, is a man called Edward Schroder, and Fenton is trying to explain to Inspector Austin the extraordinary sequence of events which preceded Schroder's death. In a nutshell, Fenton was kidnapped in order to perform a life-saving operation on a famous diplomat called Sir Oliver Peters. Schroder warned Fenton that his life was in danger - but Schroder was the one to be shot.  

I enjoyed this one, especially because the cliff-hangers are really attention-grabbing. In one or two instances, the subsequent resolution of the dramatic climax was slightly underwhelming, with red herrings abounding, but appreciating Durbridge to the full does require the regular suspension of disbelief. This story was entertaining enough for me to be very glad to go with the flow. Congratulations to the publishers for making it available to a new readership.  

Tuesday 11 July 2023

A Year to Remember

I celebrated my birthday on Friday with a delightful boat trip to Greenwich in the sun. A wonderful day, and also a peaceful opportunity to reflect on the past twelve months. A full year has passed since a motorbike struck my car in a hit and run accident that by some miracle left me unharmed physically, although the shock of the incident has stayed with me much longer than I expected, perhaps much longer than seems entirely logical. 

The bike incident happened at the end of a truly marvellous week in which I'd received the CWA Diamond Dagger and met up with friends from my youth at a Balliol College Gaudy, and was a stark reminder that life can change in the blink of an eye. In particular, that incident has had the effect of making me more grateful than ever for each day (especially each day of good health), and motivating me to do as much as I can in the time available. I like to think I've always appreciated my friends and family, but again the crash has reinforced my awareness of just how much I owe to their kindness and support. It really does help in so many ways.

Strangely enough, I can't help feeling that the last year has been about the best I've had. There are some specific reasons for this. To my amazement I've received four awards and four nominations for my writing, as well as taking part in some fantastic events and other experiences, not least the Edgars banquet in April. As for Christmas University Challenge, it's something I'll never forget. If I'd scripted the series myself, I wouldn't have dared to write what actually happened. And I've even had my first (and perhaps only!) audio drama recorded by some terrific actors- more about that when the show is actually released, which may yet take a while. 

And there are some less tangible reasons as well. Rightly or wrongly, I believe that I'm writing better than ever. The ideas keep coming and the main challenge is finding enough time to turn some of them into stories - even since I came back from London, I've been offered a fascinating commission from the US, which I hope to accept if time permits. I've had a huge amount of good fortune, and although my inner pessimist reminds me that one never knows what lies around the corner, I do feel rather humble as well as grateful to have had the chance of so many magic moments. So to everyone who has contributed to a very happy year - thank you. And now that's enough introspection for the time being - on with the next piece of writing!

Wednesday 5 July 2023

The joys of book dealing - an interview with Stephen Conway

I love second hand bookshops and one of the many pleasures of my recent trip to Shetland was the chance to visit a lovely new second hand bookshop on the island. It's really heartening to see people moving into this fascinating trade - reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, I'm delighted to say. A few weeks ago, I was glad to host Stephen Conway on this blog when he talked about his great passion, bookbinding. Stephen has moved into dealing in second hand books, and his premises at Halifax now hold some mouth-watering titles. I interviewed him recently by email about this branch of his activities. Here's what he had to tell me:

1.          What first led you into book dealing?
For a long time now, several years in fact, I have wanted to open and run a small bookshop. It seems to be a natural route for Bookbinders to take. Being based in Halifax, West Yorkshire, I follow in the illustrious footsteps of Edwards of Halifax, world renowned Bookbinders and Booksellers, most notably known for their For-edge paintings and painting under vellum. It is surprising how much knowledge one accumulates over time, especially having worked with rare and valuable books over many years.
With impeccable timing, we finally made the decision to open our new Bookshop in 2019, just two weeks before the first Covid lockdown. We couldn’t have planned such a scenario had we tried.
However, moving forward, this realistically gave us the breathing space to work on our stock and our online presence and with hindsight, this was not a disaster and in fact, has worked out well.
2.          What are the benefits (and challenges) of having a bookshop nowadays, rather than simply trading online?
Without doubt, the majority of our sales are online, as expected. However, our Bookbinding business already has its own premises, so any alterations have been internal only. We have a large frontage, with six large windows to view. As planned, we down sized the Bindery to create a large bookshop space internally. We now have four book rooms with more planned over the short term.
Our strength we feel, lay in the fact that we can produce our own fine bindings to sell in the shop/online and also that we can repair and rebind books in poor condition, either for ourselves to sell through the shop or for our customers.
A part of our bookbinding business is box making, particularly for valuable first editions and many Private Press editions. This is something relatively unique that we can offer to our customers and has proved popular.
3.          What do you think are the current trends in book collecting?
As a relative newcomer to book dealing, my thoughts on the matter are, as yet, not fully formed. Looking at online sales, we seem to sell a healthy cross section of subjects across a full price range. Our shop has many more books than we have online and I am constantly amazed at which titles sell and which don’t. For us, condition is important and as a general rule, we do not put books out which are inferior. Books which are signed tend to be popular, especially with modern fiction and our own fine bindings have also been well received.
4.          In terms of crime novels, which are the ones that you look out for particularly?
Whilst we have a good selection of crime novels, particularly in the shop, we would not class ourselves as crime specialists. Like many other book dealers, we are constantly on the look -out for early sought-after titles, particularly in good condition. As you know, crime novels are popular with collectors and collectible titles in good condition command huge prices. Without comprehensive knowledge of this area of book collecting, we are keen to avoid costly mistakes. At the moment, gently, gently!
5.          How important is the condition of the dust jacket?
As a lifelong book collector, I was already aware that the condition of the dust jacket is important. What has been an eye opener is the fact that this can be a game changer, significantly reducing the price if in poor condition. Even with books just a few years old, spines can be very badly faded if stored in direct sunlight. As a shop owner, with several windows of display, this is a problem.
6.          What advice would you give to anyone who was interested in collecting crime fiction?
For the established collector, they will be aware of some of the pitfalls associated with collecting. Obviously, condition is paramount, but so too is rarity, signed copy, inscribed, association copy etc.
People collect books for many, many reasons; a particular author, signed copies, dust jacket artwork, a particular illustrator etc. The great beauty of book collecting is that there is something of interest for everyone, regardless of price.
We have recently become members of the PBFA and so, look forward to meeting you at some point in the future. We are booked to exhibit at the Ilkley Book fair in July and the York Book fair in September. Everyone is most welcome to visit/ browse our shop in Halifax, the coffee machine is always on!. If further afield, our website has a good selection of books available -


Monday 3 July 2023

Guest Blog - Nina Wachsman on 'Frenchman's Creek'

Something a little different today, a guest blog from Nina Wachsman (pictured). Nina is a former art director and illustrator in New York City, and also the author of two novels of historical suspense, set in 17th century Venice, The Gallery of Beauties and The Courtesan’s Secret. Both novels feature a pirate and his lost romance with an elite courtesan of Venice. Over to you, Nina!

"'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. ' is the unforgettable first line from the Daphne du Maurier novel, Rebecca. It was not the first or the only book of du Maurier’s I read as an adolescent, or the one I cherished most. Frenchman’s Creek, a historical novel about a secret romance between an English lady and a French pirate, had always been my favorite, and influenced my own writing.
I recently rediscovered Frenchman’s Creek when I found it lying on top of the pile of books in my building’s laundry room, the adhoc lending library for all of us tenants. Wondering how well the novel would read to a world-weary adult, I read it with trepidation, hoping the magic was still there. Thankfully, it still has the power to entrance me as it did when I first read it.
Like Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek has the same moody, brooding blustery Cornwall setting. In each novel’s opening paragraphs, unnamed narrators reminisce over the ruins of a great manor house, conjuring the ghosts of those who once lived there. In Rebecca, the narrator is the heroine, who recalls a crisis long past and now resolved, while the narrator’s description of the ruins of Navron house in Frenchman’s Creek suggests how the story will end –an adventure destined to become a distant memory.
The Frenchman of the title is a pirate notorious for raiding the towns and estates along the English coast, and whose ship has taken refuge in a hidden cove. The cove is at the end of a creek, which lies in a section of the estate of an English noblewoman. Lady Dona St. Columb, who rarely visits, has recently moved her household to the estate to get away from her boredom with her husband and Regency London. The French pirate she discovers hiding out on her property is no rascally Jack Sparrow, but a gentleman who sketches birds and reads poetry, and only indulges in piracy for the sake of adventure. Frenchman’s Creek was first published in 1941, and made into a movie in 1944, starring Joan Fontaine as Lady Dona.
The Frenchman’s bravery, intelligence and love of adventure are a in contrast to Dona’s husband, a good-natured but simple fop who is oblivious to the lust his unsavory companion has for his wife. In the Frenchman, Dona finds a man and a life which could fulfill her, but she is torn by her desire for freedom and escape, and a mother’s ties to her children.
The lush descriptions of the creek, cove, and Navron House add to the feeling of love lost –not only for a woman’s romance, but for the beauty of the countryside as it once was. Because of du Maurier’s ode to the Cornish countryside in Frenchman’s Creek, I promised myself I would one day visit Bodmin. I have yet to fulfill that promise in reality, but re-reading Frenchman’s Creek, transported me there once again."