Monday 30 October 2023

Marv Lachman R.I.P.

I was very sorry to learn a few days ago that Marv Lachman, the highly respected American author and commentator on crime fiction, has died. A few weeks ago, Marv sent a poignant email to a number of his friends in the crime writing world, indicating that he was in a poor state of health and didn't expect to live much longer. I was truly saddened to receive it, because we have known each other for the best part of 30 years and have had some good times together at conventions. He was also extremely supportive of my own writing, both the novels and the non-fiction. Like all the best critics, he was constructive, insightful, and shrewd, but also generous when he judged it appropriate.

One of our very first encounters in person was at the Nottingham Bouchercon in 1995, when Marv and I, along with the great short story writer Ed Hoch and my fellow Brit Sarah J. Mason took part in a Mastermind quiz (Sarah and I had previously taken part in one at the London Bouchercon in 1990, along with Jim Huang and Tony Medawar). The above photo is taken from Marv's book about crime fandom, The Heirs of Anthony Boucher; he noted wryly in the caption that he only appears to be asleep!

That book is excellent, and so are his books about mystery plays and the American Regional Mystery (he inscribed the latter to me, saying that I should write the British Regional Mystery - maybe one of these days!) He was also an incisive commentator, not least for Janet Rudolph's Mystery Readers Journal and George Easter's Deadly Pleasures. At Bouchercon in San Diego, just a day or so after Marv had sent us his email, George paid a marvellous tribute at the opening ceremonies to Marv which was absolutely spot on. See also George's online tribute here and Janet's here

I enjoyed all my conversations with Marv, and also met his wife Carol once or twice. The last time we met was at yet another Bouchercon, in Dallas. He was in good form, then, and I have a number of happy memories of our various encounters. He will be sadly missed.

Friday 27 October 2023

Forgotten Book - Crack of Doom

Leo Bruce's Crack of Doom is a Carolus Deene story dating from 1963. When published in the USA, it was retitled Such is Death - I can't imagine why. I'm working my way slowly through quite a number of the Deene books and this one boasts his trademarks - heavy on dialogue and with some nice, if light touches of characterisation. I particularly enjoyed a vicar who is keen on criminology and wants to assist Carolus.

There are two features of the book which make it especially worthy of note. First, some of the action takes place at Christmas. Second, and perhaps more significantly so far as the storyline is concerned, the setting is one that always exerts a great appeal to me (and, I guess, many othe readers) - an out-of-season English seaside resort.

The story opens with an extract from the journal of someone who wants to commit a motiveless murder. The idea of the motiveless murder has long appealed to me and it can work very well in a crime novel. Here, I think Bruce came up with a very neat plot idea, but although this novel has quite a bit of merit, I'm not sure he made the best possible use of it. 

One reason why I was slightly disappointed is this: I don't think that the culprit, as presented in the novel, is easily reconciled with the author of the journal. Another reason is that the solution is presented in a rather tame way, and the coda to the story isn't quite as effective as it might have been. Both these flaws could, I believe, have been addressed by strong editing. Perhaps Bruce was in too much of a rush. However, it's still quite an entertaining story, even if - with such  pleasing ingredients - it could have been more powerful. 

Wednesday 25 October 2023

The Life of Crime wins the Macavity Award

I'm delighted to report that The Life of Crime has won the Macavity award, given by Mystery Readers International, for the best critical/non-fiction book. This is the third time I've won a Macavity and The Life of Crime has received four awards in all (the others are the Edgar, the Anthony, and the CrimeFest H.R.F. Keating award) as well as being shortlisted for two more. 

It's been a unique year for me in terms of honours of this kind. It feels quite surreal, so much so at the moment that I'll save further comment for another day, when I've had time to think about everything that has happened. But I must say right now how grateful I am to those who have voted for The Life of Crime as well as to those who have given it such wonderful reviews - and of course, everyone who has read it! 

The paperback edition will come out next May. More about that on another occasion. Meanwhile, I'm off to celebrate!

Monday 23 October 2023

All the Lonely People - in Spain and elsewhere...

All the Lonely People
is a book that has a special place in my affections, as its appearance way back in 1991 marked the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition to become a published crime novelist. And now, 32 years later, the novel is due to appear in a Spanish translation, published by Who Editorial. I've written a new intro for this edition.

I always hoped that my novels would have staying power, and this book has done very well for me over the years, starting with reviews in The Times and elsewhere and a nomination for the CWA award for best first crime novel. There were, if I remember rightly, seven nominees and the ultimate winner was Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress - not bad company to be in. In the UK alone, it's been published over the years by Piatkus, Transworld, Hodder, Andrews/Acorn, and Arcturus, so it's certainly had longevity.

Of course, one's writing changes (and, with any luck, improves) over the years, and there's no doubt that if I were writing the story today I'd write it a bit differently. But I like to think that in some ways ahead of its time, both in its focus on minority characters and on Golden Age plotting and references. Not that these features attracted any attention back in the 1990s! One thing that gratified me enormously a while back was when a school librarian told me that the book had become very popular at the school. Given that the pupils were born many years after the book was written, I felt this said something about the story. It's a young man's book, and imperfect, but I remain very glad I wrote it. 

So my sincere thanks go to the Who team for showing faith in Harry Devlin's relevance to their readers in the 21st century. In case you're wondering, the English language edition of the book (see the cover image below) is very much available in print or as an ebook And in answer to a question I'm often asked - will Harry ever return? My answer is - you never know!

Word Monkey by Christopher Fowler

Regular readers of this blog will know I was saddened by the death, far too young, of Chris Fowler , who was as entertaining a companion in real life as he was on the page. However, he did leave, in addition to a notable body of work, quite a bit of material that was still to be published. And I was delighted to read his final memoir, Word Monkey, posthumously published a short time ago.

There is so much here to enjoy. It's not a short book, but it's immensely readable and I devoured it quickly. It's a very poignant read, because among other things it deals with Chris's cancer diagnosis, but it's definitely not a misery memoir. 'Life-affirming' is a cliche, but it suits this book well.

Chris was very widely read and there's a lot of stuff here about books, including quite a lot I didn't know and was glad to learn. There are also some fascinating observations about the writing life, a subject naturally of great interest to both of us.

For Golden Age fans, there is an extremely enjoyable chapter titled 'In the Library with a Candlestick' (disclaimer: I get a mention in it)  One doesn't have to share all Chris's opinions to find his views on this subject, as on many others, interesting and often persuasive. I was reminded again of my regret that, although he and I had quite a number of conversations, there weren't many more. Strongly recommended.

Friday 20 October 2023

Forgotten Book - The Westwood Mystery

A. Fielding was a mystery writer who was very, very mysterious. He (or she) wrote more than twenty detective novels, published by Collins (who didn't bother with minor writers) between 1924 and 1937 yet nobody seems to know who he (or she) was. Even the ace researcher John Herrington, who has investigated Fielding extensively, ran into a series of dead ends. The consensus seems to be that Fielding was a woman, although on the evidence of the 1932 novel The Westwood Mystery, I wouldn't be startled to learn the author was in fact a man.

I haven't bothered with Fielding until now, because I had a feeling that the books were of a second-rate humdrum type. However, I came into possession of Anthony Berkeley's own copy of this book, and thought I must give it a go. This novel definitely has a number of pleasing ingredients. The concept for the plot is pretty good and there are a few nice touches of wit. Overall, though, I found the story frustrating because I didn't feel the ingredients were mixed with sufficient skill. 

There are two strands of story. The first involves a barrister, Sir Adam Youdale, who is skilled at defending people who are apparently guilty. The second involves a dodgy businessman called Fox, who specialises in exploiting gullible women for financial gain. Youdale is found murdered at his home, Westwood, but for some time Fox drops out of our sight as Inspector Pointer pursues his inquiries.

Berkeley pencilled some notes in the book and it's clear that he had reservations similar to mine. 'Rather heavy going in the middle', for instance, is spot on. I'm rather baffled as to why the book is so disjointed, because it does seem to me that Fielding could have improved this story by structuring it differently. Possibly it was written in too much haste. Yet there is enough merit in the writing for me to be interested in reading more of Fielding's work.   

Wednesday 18 October 2023

The Long Shadow - ITV review

The Long Shadow
is hardly an original title - I reviewed Celia Fremlin's novel with the same title earlier this month - but it's apt for the seven-part 'true crime drama' which is currently showing on ITV. It deals with the serial killings of Peter Sutcliffe, who was known as 'the Yorkshire Ripper', but George Kay's scripts focus very deliberately on the victims and the investigators (some of whom, for all their failings, might also be described as victims of Sutcliffe) rather than on the killer himself.

I have a special interest in this case because I lived in Leeds at the height of the crisis over the murders. They overshadowed everything, and affected everyone. An old schoolfriend of mine, one of the gentlest people you could meet, who had moved to the area, told me he was interrogated by the police - not once ,but twice, which must have been frightening. This was because he was gay and he'd been visiting gay clubs and bars in Leeds, which were in the 'red light' district being targeted for intensive surveillance. There's no doubt that the police worked very hard at trying to solve the crimes. But their approach was flawed in several respects and as a result, although Sutcliffe was interviewed several times, he slipped through the net. The Long Shadow highlights this mercilessly but, I think, fairly.

The biggest mistake was to believe that the hoax letter and tape purporting to be from the Ripper were genuine. An advertising agency for which my firm acted gave the police a vast amount of free advertising to make sure everyone heard the tape. Sadly, it helped Sutcliffe to continue with his crimes. The hoaxer was discovered many years later thanks to DNA testing. He was a pathetic alcoholic called John Humble, and he went to prison and subsequently died. What he did was truly appalling. Humble, not the misguided detectives, was in effect Sutcliffe's accessory.

Any show that dramatises real life needs to be treated with caution. But from my experience, I'd say The Long Shadow gets most things right. If anything it underplays the fear that everyone felt. I remember getting off the bus home one night, and a middle-aged woman I didn't know begged me to walk her home because she was afraid of the Ripper. For a moment, she wondered if I was to be trusted (though Sutcliffe's crimes began when I was still at school) and I could imagine how many innocent people, like my gay friend, must be coming under suspicion. I became friendly with her and saw how deeply affected she was by the murders. On another occasion, I arrived back in Leeds after a train trip to see my girlfriend to find that a bus strike had begun. I couldn't afford a taxi, so I found myself walking home through the dark streets of Harehills and Chapeltown, wondering if the Ripper was anywhere near. It was eerie and unsettling and I'll never forget it. The sheer uncertainty about what might happen wore down everyone in the city, and indeed much further afield.

Sutcliffe and his enigmatic wife Sonia, who is still alive, hardly feature in the TV series. There is proper and respectful focus on the victims and the senior police officers are key to the storyline. Toby Jones is as good as ever as the honourable Dennis Hoban, while David Morrissey tackles the challenging role of Norman Oldfield with his customary brilliance. It is a really nuanced performance, because Oldfield was not a bad man, even if he did make serious mistakes. Michael McElhatton is excellent as Ronald Gregory, the chief constable who was again well-intentioned, but didn't cover himself in glory, to say the least. I wonder what the families of the police officers made of the show - this hasn't been the subject of as much discussion as the impact on the families of the murder victims. Those victims are, as far as I can judge, very well portrayed, with Katherine Kelly outstanding as Emily Jackson.  

It's not easy to handle material like this sensitively and yet make a series compelling viewing. But I think The Long Shadow succeeds.

Monday 16 October 2023

Berwick Literary Festival

I enjoy taking part in literary festivals. Each one has its own personality and special form of appeal, and that was certainly true of the Berwick Literary Festival, which was held this past weekend. I was invited last year, but wasn't able to attend, so I was very glad to be able to make it this year. Glorious weather was a real bonus for such a long trip to a very interesting part of the world.

I was interviewed by Lindsay Allason-Jones, an eminent archaeologist with a taste for classic crime fiction and although we'd never met before, I felt the conversational approach worked really well and made for a truly enjoyable experience. Lindsay kindly invited us to her home for a cup of tea and told a fascinating story about a mysterious shelter in her garden which, she discovered, was used by a former resident to intercept signals during the war, which he then passed via London to Bletchley Park. An extraordinary bit of domestic history.

The weather meant that it was possible to see Berwick at its very best. I've visited briefly before, but this time we were able to get a proper feel for the town's character and incident-packed history. Needless to say, I'm now wondering about setting a short story there. The local element may kick-start a story idea that I've been wrestling with for several weeks without any progress!

We were fortune to be given wonderful hospitality by Sophie and Angus Hamilton in their marvellous home, perched above the River Tweed. Spending time with them really gave the trip an added element of memorability. En route, I called in at Cogito Books in Hexham, a splendid shop. And on the long return journey there was time to explore Cragside, an impressive National Trust property. A great trip. 


Friday 13 October 2023

Forgotten Book - The Four False Weapons

Henri Bencolin, the Great Detective who appeared in John Dickson Carr's first four novels returns in The Four False Weapons, a story written a few years later and offering a modified presentation of the character. I gather from Doug Greene's biography of Carr that he felt the detective was, in effect, too dark, and here he's retired and in lighter and less devilish form than in the earlier books. 

The story begins, however, with Richard Curtis, a young partner in a London law firm who dreams of adventure being summoned to France to assist a client who is caught up in a very difficult situation. Ralph Douglas wants to marry Magda Toller, but his former mistress, Rose Klonec, has been found murdered in the villa where he had 'installed' her. Soon Richard is getting all the adventure he could ever have wished for. Such assignments never came my way during my legal career, I have to say!

Rose's body has been surrounded by weapons, but it's not clear how, let alone why, she came to die. I did wonder if this scenario was a distant inspiration for Agatha Christie's The Clocks, which name-checks Carr, whose storyline does actually feature a clock. Christie was a friend and admirer of Carr and inscribed at least one book to him, which is still in the family's possession.

Even more so than The Clocks, I'm afraid the brilliance of the set-up is not maintained throughout the story and I agree with Doug Greene that it's a minor work. I think the changes to Bencolin's character are not for the better while Curtis is simply a substitute for Jeff Marle in the earlier books. The plot and indeed the motive disappointed me. Yet there are occasional flashes of Carr's customary zest which make the book worth reading as long as you're not hoping for one of his masterpieces. 

Forgotten Book - At Last, Mr Tolliver

At Last, Mr Tolliver by William Wiegand won the Mary Roberts Rinehart Prize in 1950 (ahead of books by Fay Grissom Stanley, Thaddeus O'Finn, and Maude Parker, none of whom, I must admit, I've ever heard of). It's a book that achieved widespread acclaim in its day, and remarkably the author - a student at Michigan University - was only 21 years old. Impressive!

William Wiegand went on to have an illustrious career in academe, teaching creative writing in California. However, despite making such a successful start as a novelist, he only published one more crime novel, which appeared ten years after his debut, plus a few other books. I've read some of his correspondence - with fellow academic and mystery expert Donald Yates, to whom my copy is inscribed by Wiegand - and it's not entirely clear to me why he didn't pursue a career in fiction with more vigour. Perhaps he didn't find it financially rewarding, despite the advantage of a prize-winning start at a young age. His correspondence with Yates, although sporadic, spanned thirty years and he lived until 2016.

So what of the book itself? It's a kind of locked room mystery, but as the dust jacket blurb of the first edition says, 'The intricate only one of the suspense elements'. The eponymous Tolliver is a tenant in a boarding house and is confronted by the mysterious death of a fellow tenant. It becomes clear that Tolliver's own background gives him criminal connections and he investigates the puzzle for his own purposes.

I think it's fair to say that this is a Marmite sort of book. Readers seem either to love it a lot (Nick Fuller, a good judge, is among them) or find it rather on the pretentious side. To my surprise and regret, I'm afraid I found myself in the latter camp, partly because I never quite warmed either to Tolliver or the situation with which he is confronted. Maybe I was in the wrong mood to enjoy it. It is certainly 'different', and I can understand why it earned critical praise. So maybe I'll revisit it another time.  

Forgotten Book - A Bone and a Hank of Hair

My enthusiasm for the work of Leo Bruce has increased steadily over the years. At first, I was more interested in his early books, featuring Sergeant Beef, but the advocacy of Barry Pike, a very good judge of classic detective fiction, led me to sample the Carolus Deene stories, and that series does contain several gems. I'd put A Bone and a Hank of Hair (1961) very high on the list, possibly right at the top.

This is an unusual mystery, with a genuinely ingenious plot. Like all the Carolus Deene books I've read so far, the focus is on dialogue - Bruce isn't a man for detailed description, although I did learn that Carolus is, like Lord Peter Wimsey and Dr Gideon Fell, a Balliol man. This story is set over the Christmas holidays, although the festive season plays a negligible part in events as Carolus seeks out the truth about an enigmatic and disreputable character called Brigham Rathbone.

Carolus is consulted by a woman called Ada Chalk, who believes Rathbone has murdered her cousin and cheated her children out of an inheritance. Carolus is persuaded to investigate what has happened and soon finds that Rathbone has been involved in a series of house moves - and that each time, he appears to have been accompanied by a different wife. Is Rathbone a latter day George Joseph Smith?

There are several very witty scenes among the countless interviews that Carolus conducts. I especially enjoyed two landlords, one in Cornwall who despises local artists, and another who is obsessed with the old school tie and reminiscences of war-time. Despite a few darkish touches, there's a lot of fun to be had with this story, and the puzzle element is wonderfully tricky. 

Forgotten Book - Someone from the Past

Margot Bennett published Someone from the Past in 1958. It was her sixth crime novel and proved to be her last. It won the CWA Gold Dagger (to use the familiar term for the award for best crime novel of the year) and yet, remarkably, she gave up on the genre after that, apart from writing a few television episodes of crime fiction, notably for Maigret. By 1968, she was finished as a writer, though she was still only in her mid-fifties and lived until 1980.

All those six novels are distinctive. This one is narrated by a young woman called Nancy Graham and I sense that there are elements of self-portraiture (in a heightened sense) in her portrayal. Nancy is rash and often dishonest, but she has redeeming qualities and is an aspiring novelist. She is also, like Bennett, very witty. The phrase-making in this book is delightful.

The premise is simple. Nancy's old chum and former room-mate Sarah Lampson has spent years flitting from man to man. She is about to marry someone rich when someone from her past sends a threatening letter. She confides in Nancy, but before anything can be done, Sarah is murdered. 

Nancy becomes a prime suspect, which rather serves her right given how stupidly she behaves at times, but we know that the real killer is one of four men whom Sarah betrayed: Donald, Michael, Peter, or Laurence. Suspicion shifts around this quartet before Nancy herself uncovers the truth. The mystery is okay, but for me it's the quality of the writing that makes this story stand out from the crowd.

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Bouchercon - a great honour for the future and some great memories from the past

I'm honoured to have been invited to be International Guest of Honour at Bouchercon 2027 in Washington D.C.  Of course, I'm extremely grateful to the organisers and it's a privilege to be invited alongside Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Shawn Crosby and others. It's a long way in the distance - and we know how much can happen in four years! - but it's definitely something to look forward to.

This invitation has also prompted me to reflect on my involvement with Bouchercon, the world's leading mystery convention and to dig out a few photos from over the years. It's an association that dates back more than 30 years. To 1990, in fact, when the convention came to London. At that time, I wasn't a published novelist, but I very much enjoyed meeting a number of leading writers - including Patricia Cornwell, who had just published her own first novel. That was when I also met Geoff Bradley, Tony Medawar, and Maxim Jakubowski for the first time, as a result of participating in the Criminal Mastermind competition.

A couple of years later, when I had become a published novelist, I travelled with my wife and infant son to Toronto, another memorable experience (as was the more recent Toronto Bouchercon, with a trip to Niagara Falls among the delights). In 1995, Bouchercon came to Nottingham, the last time it was held in England, and among other things I took part in a dramatised performance about crime fiction along with Stephen Murray and Gillian Linscott - a very rare venture onto the stage. There was also another Mastermind, this time with Ed Hoch and Marv Lachman among the contestants.

In 2003, I went to the Las Vegas Bouchercon, where I met Ali Karim for the first time and spent some great days touring with the late and much-missed Stuart Pawson and his wife Doreen. In more recent years, I've attended Bouchercons at places such as New Orleans, Dallas, St Petersburg, and San Diego. I've picked up awards on three occasions and I've spent quality time with some lovely people.    

So many good times and I hope for more in the future. One thing is for sure: the youngish enthusiast who attended his first Bouchercon as a fan more than 30 years ago would never have imagined that the day would come when he'd be invited along as a guest of honour. It's hard to believe even now, and I'm truly delighted.

Monday 9 October 2023

Who Killed Father Christmas? - anthology number 50!

Tomorrow sees the publication of my 50th anthology of short mystery stories, Who Killed Father Christmas? You guessed, it's another seasonal collection in the British Library Crime Classics series and I'm truly delighted to notch up my half-century. (Assuming I've counted correctly, which can't be taken for granted! There has also been, by the way, a collection of non-fiction essays about true crime).

I've loved short mystery anthologies since receiving a CWA collection for Christmas back in the late 60s. I never imagined then that I'd edit one myself, let alone so many - my dream at that point was simply to write short stories as well as novels. But having begun with Northern Blood, a book of stories by northern CWA members, one thing led to another. It's been an enormous pleasure to be the first to receive manuscripts of brand new stories from talented authors, famous and not so famous (an experience I'm currently enjoying with two anthos that are currently in the course of compilation) while it's also fun to discover or rediscover tales that fit in with a specific Crime Classics theme.

The majority of the 50 collections have been edited on behalf of either the CWA or the British Library, but there have been some other fun projects along the way, including Ten Year Stretch for CrimeFest and Motives for Murder for the Detection Club, as well as a number of Murder Squad books. Publishers tend to be dubious about anthologies, but they can sell well if correctly marketed. The themed Crime Classics anthologies have been enormously popular, with terrific sales to match glowing reviews, and I'm currently researching two more potential collections for next year.

Who Killed Father Christmas? has a title story written by Patricia Moyes. It's a title I love and although it's been used before, for a Moyes collection under the Crippen & Landru imprint, Doug Greene and Jeff Marks were very happy for me to use it, which I appreciate. There are some lovely stories in this one, and I'm especially pleased with my discovery of a very obscure tale by Glyn Daniel. As ever, there's a mix of well-known authors and those whose reputations have faded. I'm hopeful that plenty of people are going to find that it makes an excellent Christmas present - and I think that anthology number 50 bears comparison with the best of its predecessors.

Friday 6 October 2023

Forgotten Book - The Long Shadow

Celia Fremlin's crime writing career began brilliantly, with an Edgar-winning debut, maintained a high level for a considerable stretch, and then rather faded out. To some extent, the same can be said of her novel The Long Shadow, which dates from 1975. As ever with Fremlin, it's very readable, but my main reservation was that the resolution of the story wasn't up to the standard of the beginning.

And that beginning really is good. We're introduced to Imogen Barnicott, the third wife of a leading academic who has recently died. He was widely admired, and many people console Imogen. But a number of witty lines - 'How Ivor would have loved being dead!' - suggest that all is not quite as it seems, and the first chapter ends with her murmuring to herself: 'Please God, don't let me ever forget what a bastard he could be.' 

My first doubts about the story emerged when a man she meets claims that she killed Ivor. This is absolutely untrue, but when the man tries to blackmail her, her response is passive rather than active and this bothered me. She simply dismisses him as 'a nut'. No matter, the story continues to be entertaining. But Imogen's passivity did begin to grate when she allows a variety of people - including one of Ivor's other exes - to come to stay with her indefinitely.

The later stages of the book also left me somewhat dissatisfied, mainly because of the part played in events by two people who have not emerged very clearly in the preceding narrative. I suspect that Fremlin came up with an intriguing character-based situation (she experienced widowhood herself) but struggled to develop the plot. As a result, this is a book that offers plenty of pleasures, but is not quite up to her highest standard.

Forgotten Book - Fatal Venture

If I'd read Fatal Venture as a teenager, I wouldn't have been impressed. I tried Freeman Wills Crofts at the age of thirteen or fourteen and found the books a struggle. I gave up at least one of them long before the end. There simply wasn't enough pace and excitement for me. And this novel certainly moves at a stately pace. Yet, a lot older and a bit wiser these days, I appreciated its merits when I read it a while back.

The story was published in 1939, but you'd never guess that war was looming. There is brief mention of a foreign envoy, but no hint of international tensions. On the contrary, the government's chief preoccupation seems to be its moral panic over a floating casino which offers cruises around the British Isles, just outside the three mile limit. A good deal of space is devoted to the plans to set up the casino business, and this is relevant to the plot, but people less interested in business life than me might find reading this part of the story a bit of a chore. Murder isn't done until we're almost half-way through the book.

In reading this novel, I was interested to try to figure out how Crofts wrote it. The central plot twist involves a pretty simple idea that he might easily have used in a short story. As you might guess, it concerns an alibi. It's clear that he took a dim view of gambling and this issue adds texture to the story, though he never gets under the skin of the gambler's obsession or indeed of the terrible consequences of gambling addiction. Crofts loved to travel, and the extensive travelogue aspects of the story, although again relevant, aren't conducive to pace. But I must admit that they reminded me that I'd like to go on a cruise of the British Isles - I gather that they have become increasingly popular, post-pandemic, though gambling isn't a component of the offer to tourists.

Crofts added depth and interest to the story with a structural device that enabled him to weld his components into a single entity and make a full-length novel out of them. The book is composed of two parts: pre- and post- police investigation. We see the establishment of the floating casino business through the eyes of Morrison, a young man who becomes closely involved. Morrison is quite likeable, but his occasional stupidity, although necessary to make the story work, is slightly irritating. Then - even though the crime is not committed in England - Inspector French comes on to the scene, and we know that eventually he'll get his man - or woman. There's even a bit of 'had-I-but-known' stuff to encourage readers to keep going: 'Though neither of them knew it, their tentative arrangement was to prove the most momentous either had ever made', for example. I think some readers will find this a minor work, and rather slow-moving, but I enjoyed it.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Return to Sender - 2015 film review

Return to Sender stars Rosamund Pike in a part she played shortly before earning global stardom as a result of Gone Girl. This film is also a psychological thriller, but the script is definitely not in the Gone Girl league, although Mark Kermode described it as 'an assured revenge thriller'. One of the undoubted strengths of the film is a cast which includes not only Nick Nolte (as Pike's ageing father) but also the likes of Illeana Douglas in a minor role as an estate agent with strange ideas about how to sell a house.

The story begins slowly and I felt that the tension was built quite well, if in rather painstaking fashion. Rosamund Pike is Miranda Wells, a nurse with ambitions to become involved with surgical work. She's a rather chilly character, a loner with a fear of dirt who has a close relationship with her father, but detests his dog. Her work colleagues set her up with a blind date. But then things go horribly wrong.

At one point I was unsure where the story was going, and this degree of uncertainty was quite pleasing. Unfortunately, plot holes began to emerge and several things happened which I found difficult to believe. Even allowing for the fact that the criminal justice system in the US is different from that in Britain, some of what happened was highly implausible.

Alas, the story degenerates in the later stages. It becomes easy to predict what is going to happen - and sure enough, it does. So I ended up with a sense of disappointment, lessened only by the interest of seeing a couple of very accomplished actors, doing their best with the material to hand. This isn't as bad a movie as some reviews suggest, in my opinion, but my guess is that if the same script were sent to Rosamund Pike today, she'd be pretty quick to return it to sender.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Francis Lee R.I.P.

I was sorry to learn yesterday of the death of Francis Lee, the former Manchester City and England footballer. He was a schoolboy hero of mine, and I simply can't let his passing go unmentioned, even though he has no connection to crime fiction that I know of. He was, however, responsible for one immortal quote that gave rise to a book title, saying (in the dark days when City were a team of perennial under-achievers), 'If there were cups for cock-ups, City's trophy cabinet would be overflowing'. Many a true word...

Francis Lee - or Franny as he was usually known - was an extremely combative striker with a ferocious shot. I had his photo on a school exercise book and on the wall of my student room. Although I didn't watch live top level football regularly, I was lucky enough to witness some of his greatest performances. He scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford on a memorable Saturday when City thrashed Manchester United, George Best and all. And he was in the team that I watched win the 1969 FA Cup Final at Wembley. He also scored about the most ferocious goal I've ever seen, in a Cup game one winter's evening at City's old Maine Road ground. He lashed the ball from about thirty yards out and it went so fast that I don't think anyone saw it before it hit the back of the net.

He was famous as one of the finest penalty takers football has known. His record of scoring 15 penalties in an English top-tier league season still stands. He often earned the penalties himself with dramatic tumbles, earning the nickname Lee Won Pen. A great competitor, whom City and England let go far too soon.

In later years he became a rich businessman and had a spell as City chairman, but by then the dark days were entrenched and he enjoyed no success at the helm. But he lived long enough to see Manchester City become - most unbiased people would surely agree - the world's finest club team in 2023. He gave me plenty of happy memories and for that I'm very grateful.

Monday 2 October 2023

The Raging Storm by Ann Cleeves - review

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Cleeves for Barnes & Noble. There was a very good audience with lots of questions and thank goodness the technology worked a treat. I was a bit nervous beforehand, but once we got going, everything was fine. The reason for the interview was that Ann's new book, The Raging Storm, has just been published. Not to be confused with her last book, The Rising Tide, this is the third in her North Devon series featuring the gay detective Matthew Venn.

The story begins with a sort of 'prodigal returns' scenario, as the celebrity adventurer Jem Rosco arrives back in Greystone (based on a place called Hartland Quay), where he developed his sailcraft. He says he's waiting for someone, but is irritatingly mysterious about who that someone might be. In the second chapter, Mary Ford and her colleagues are called out to perform a rescue in the local lifeboat (the book is dedicated to the RNLI) but what they discover is Jem's dead body.  

Matthew and his team are called in and it soon becomes clear that Jem has been murdered. He wasn't by any means universally popular, and a number of possible murder motives emerge, as do various potential suspects. As ever, the landscape is splendidly evoked and it made me want to go back to Devon again. One slight quirk is that the publishers have included a map of Devon, but this doesn't show the key fictional locations featured in the story, which I found rather odd.

There are some interesting observations in this novel, for instance about social class, and Matthew's religious upbringing again plays a part. Particularly good is the way that Ann examines the nature of celebrity status and charisma. Early on, there's a reference to Dorothy L. Sayers and Golden Age detective fiction and the explanation at the end is one of the most intricate Ann has ever come up with. Early on, Matthew appears to overlook one pretty obvious area of enquiry, and that isn't the only mistake he makes. He's no Lord Peter Wimsey, but dogged perseverance gets him there in the end.