Wednesday 29 November 2023

The British Crime Writing Archives and Alibis in the Archive 2024


The British Crime Writing Archives are held at Gladstone's Library, in Hawarden, north Wales. This wonderful place is the home of the archives of both the Crime Writers' Association and the Detection Club. The process of developing the archives and then cataloguing them is a very long-term one, but earlier this year, new loan agreements were signed between the Library and the CWA and the Detection Club which ensures that the Library will continue to be the home (or perhaps in future, as mentioned below, the principal home) of the archives. 

This is an exciting development which gives all three organisations a great deal of confidence for the future. As honorary archivist for both the CWA and the Detection Club, I'm truly delighted that the future of the archives is now more secure than ever before. There's a great deal of work still to be done, but at least sound foundations are now in place. 

The above photos show a handful of books from those that have been donated to the archives. These particular donations come from various sources, including the family of E.R. Punshon (a former Secretary of the Detection Club), Peter Lovesey, the estates of Robert and Louise Barnard, and myself. Space for books of individual authors is extremely limited at present, however. Yet we are keen to preserve as many as is practicable, and if any readers of this blog know of any other suitable archives in the UK that we could collaborate with, I'd be very glad to know. 

One of the highlights of my annual calendar is Alibis in the Archive, and this weekend festival will be held at Gladstone's Library from 7 to 9 June 2024. Tickets will go on sale shortly and if you're interested, do register that interest with the Library right away, since once tickets are made available, they usually go very quickly. If you can't make it in person, you can still take part online - a good option for those who are overseas in particular. 

We have some wonderful speakers lined up for Alibis, including an international bestseller and the creator of a very famous TV crime series. So the weekend will be quite something. I do hope that many of you can join us - and, by so doing, support this marvellous library and the archives project.

Monday 27 November 2023

Terry Venables R.I.P.

The death of Terry Venables, the former England football player and manager, has prompted many reminiscences about this talented and popular man. Naturally these have focused on his achievements in the football world, but he was a multi-faceted character, sometimes controversial (especially in his business activities) but always, it seemed to me, interesting and charismatic. Among many other things, he found time to create the very enjoyable James Hazell mysteries.

The Hazell books were written in collaboration with Gordon Williams, a writer of genuine accomplishment, who died in 2017. The pair had previously written a football novel called They Used to Play on Grass (about plastic pitches, now so commonplace!) under their own joint names. 

Williams had used the pen-name P.B. Yuill for his strange stand-alone novel The Bornless Keeper and for some reason the pair decided to use the same name for the three Hazell mysteries that they wrote together. The books are short, snappy reads, very much of their time. I'm glad to have a couple of them signed by both Williams and Venables.

Over the years, there haven't been many really good British private eye characters. I think Hazell was one of the most appealing. The late Bob Adey, no mean judge, ranked the books as in the same league as those by Robert B. Parker - quite an accolade. It's no great surprise that the character was taken up for television; here are my thoughts after watching the shows again on Talking Pictures TV. 

Friday 24 November 2023

Forgotten Book - The Echoing Stones

The Echoing Stones was Celia Fremlin's penultimate book, written when she was in her late 70s and published (by Severn House) in 1993. I don't think it's unfair to say that it is in some respect an older writer's novel and that may be why it seems to have been turned down by Gollancz, who had published her up to that point in her career. It's not a story that has a lot of pace or drama. But Fremlin was a very good writer and the novel is still extremely readable.

Arnold, a conventional man of sixty-one has just done something unconventional. He's given up his comfortable existence, deciding to sell up his house and take a job as caretaker and guide at a Tudor mansion. He loves history and he wants to live the dream. Unfortunately he neglects to persuade his wife Mildred of the merits of his decision. She leaves him, and as a result he's finding it difficult to look after the place by himself.

Things start to look up when his wayward daughter, Flora, arrives unexpectedly. She is willing to help serve teas to visitors, but her wilfulness is a problem, especially when she befriends the senile former curator, whose daughter is struggling to look after him. Meanwhile Mildred finds herself a new man, only to discover that he has a strong interest in the very mansion from which she fled...

The great strength of this book lies in Fremlin's flair for social comedy, a feature of some of her best novels. The scenes involving Mildred and her feminist friend Val are amusing and Fremlin's caustic observations on social mores are entertaining. The 'crime' element of the book is present, but rather perfunctory. Read it to enjoy the writing rather than to be dazzled by the mystery.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

The Ones Below - 2015 film review

The Ones Below is a creepy British film from 2015 that deals in the anxieties common to new parents. The story is set in London and features an attractive, youngish couple, Kate and Justin (Clemence Poesy and Stephen Campbell Moore). They live in an upstairs flat and new neighbours move into the flat downstairs. This couple, Jon and Theresa, are played by the versatile and consistently impressive David Morrissey and Laura Birn. 

Kate and Justin are expecting their first child and so, it turns out, are Jon and Theresa. This creates a bond between the two couples, although it's clear from the outset that there is something slightly 'off' about Jon, and in particular with his apparently obsessive desire to become a father. His relationship with Theresa seems close, but is it also controlling?

The film is written and directed by David Farr. It was his feature debut, but he is a very experienced writer. His credits include episodes of Spooks, a top-class thriller series, and also The Night Manager. This story is quite different from that type of writing, but it's very well done, in my opinion. The tension is subtly developed and efficiently maintained from start to finish.

The relationship between the two couples breaks down after a terrible incident, which is open to misinterpretation. After that, there is an apparent reconciliation, but the viewer fears the worst. And with good reason. This is a dark crime film, and has certain depressing features, but I thought it was a gripping and accomplished piece of work. 

Monday 20 November 2023

Red Herrings - guest post by Matthew Booth

Matthew Booth is a writer and editor with a special expertise in Sherlock Holmes. His latest novel is The House of Skulls, just published by Pegasus, Elliot, McKenzie. He was also a very popular speaker at Alibis in the Archive in June of this year. He succeeded his friend and colleague David Stuart Davies as editor of Red Herrings, early copies of which are kept at the British Crime Writing Archives at Gladstone's Library. Those old newsletters are absolutely fascinating - I was reading through the 1966 issues at the Library a few days ago and came across an obit for the guy who wrote the novel that was filmed as Dr Strangelove. It turns out he was a CWA member (the author, I mean, not Dr Strangelove). Red Herrings continues to be a must-read for CWA members (see the above cover image) and I asked Matthew to talk about it: 

'Red Herrings is the Crime Writers’ Association’s monthly magazine and I have been its editor for the last four years or so. I follow in a long line of esteemed writers who have held the post before me – not only big shoes to fill, but a list of names to which I am proud to be added.

Editing any magazine brings with it the constant worry that you will have no content to fill it. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to have had a steady stream of articles, thoughts, and opinions, so that the challenge becomes which articles to use and when. I am always grateful to those CWA members who contribute, often without any prompting or press-ganging from me. Red Herrings is a magazine for the members and by the members. It can only ever be as good as its content and that content can only ever come from the members. Knowing that the members want to write for it and provide a diverse selection of articles is not only rewarding, but proves that the members enjoy the magazine and hold it in high esteem.

Putting together an issue is hard, but gratifying work. Each issue requires a decision about what articles to use and in what order. The magazine boasts a broad spectrum of content. Red Herrings covers crime writing of all types, fact and fiction. We have had articles which examine the impact of the Yorkshire Ripper killings, investigations into historical murders, such as the slaying of Thomas Arden, a crime which was later immortalized in a play by Thomas Kyd, as well as discussions and insights into how we, as authors, work and create. Red Herrings also has its own visual style. Every issue has a different cover, all related to crime writing, and each article is given relevant images to accompany it. These flourishes help to keep the magazine vibrant and exciting, and the design of the Red Herrings gets regular praise from members.

In CWA terms, Red Herrings is an institution and long may it continue to be, whether in my hands or in those of my successor. For now, I’ll continue to try to maintain the high standards of the magazine, and hope that those articles still come flooding in…'

Thanks, Matthew, and very best of luck with The House of Skulls!

Friday 17 November 2023

Forgotten Book - Mediterranean Murder

Anne Hocking (1889-1966) was a prolific crime writer who came from a talented literary family. Her father Joseph wrote many Cornish novels, while her uncle Silas (now there's a literary name with echoes of Le Fanu...) was best-known for Her Benny, a book about Liverpudlian waifs which was later successfully republished through a small press by a crime writing friend of mine, Jim Parkinson. Her sisters Joan Shill and Elizabeth Nisot were also published novelists who dabbled in crime.

I've never got round to reading Hocking until now, partly because her books don't seem easy to find. But I came across a copy of Mediterranean Murder on a pub shelf full of old books and a donation to charity was enough to make it mine, thanks to the landlord's kindness. The copy in poor condition, with a ripped spine and no jacket, but apparently it's a scarce book, so I was glad to lay my hands on it.

I'm sure that this is one of those detective novels where the author has been inspired by a trip to foreign parts to write a story with a 'different' setting. In the austere years that followed the Second World War, there was a vogue for Euro-mysteries, which John Bude among others took full advantage of. Much of the story is set either in Spain or on ship bound for Britain, so the title is slightly misleading, but no matter. It's another case for Hocking's usual sleuth, DCI William Austen - a Scotland Yard man with his own manservant!

Austen is persuaded by his mate Crosby to go on a restorative trip abroad, but when they encounter a family called the Benthams, mysterious events begin to occur. Wealthy Mary Bentham has a suspicious accident, and then a fatal fall downstairs, and her hypochondriac son Donald suspects foul play. What follows is a conventional story, but it's written competently. Hocking was a second-tier crime writer, but I'd be happy to read more of her books.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Bodies from the Library 6, edited by Tony Medawar

The Bodies from the Library series of anthologies has resurrected a large number of obscure vintage mysteries, including a number of radio plays. It's a tribute to the research skills of editor Tony Medawar that even though this is his sixth collection, there is only one story in this book that I can recall reading before, namely E.C. Bentley's 'Greedy Night'.

One great find is a very early short story by Cyril Hare. 'The Blackmailers' was first published in 1929, years before Hare's first novel appeared, but it displays his characteristic irony and smoothly readable writing style, as well as benefiting from his legal know-how. I really was pleased to discover this one.

My other favourites were quite different. Alice Campbell's 'No Evidence'  is an obscure tale from 1930 and a good read. Christianna Brand's 'A Piece of Cake' dates from 1983, so it's by no means a Golden Age story in any meaningful sense, but it's rather nicely done.'The Glass Gravestone' by the under-estimated American writer Joseph Commings is also enjoyable.

The book includes stories by such well-known writers as Margery Allingham, George Bellairs, Andrew Garve, and Anthony Gilbert. Another story I've never even heard of, let alone read, is actually a round-robin novella, 'Sinister Sequence'. This is a pulpy thriller of interest mainly as an illustration of the different writing styles and techniques of authors such as Michael Cronin and Geoffrey Household. One of the other contributors to the novella was L.P. Hartley, a terrific writer, and his involvement in the enterprise is perhaps the biggest surprise in the book. What isn't a surprise is that Tony Medawar's notes are consistently informative.

Monday 13 November 2023

The last live events of 2023

I've been involved in some wonderful crime writing events throughout 2023 and my last two 'live' events of the year were certainly very enjoyable. The first of these was an interview (by Matt Dolman) at Bromley House Library (above) in the delightfully named Angel Row in the heart of Nottingham. I'm fascinated by private libraries such as Gladstone's Library and the Lit and Phil in Newcastle and Bromley House also has a fantastic atmosphere. I visited it a few years ago when someone showed me round and I was delighted to return on this occasion. The interview was very well attended and there was also an online component, which was nice.

On Saturday, I was the guest of the PBFA (Provincial Booksellers' Fairs Association) as the wonderful Detective Fiction fair at Harrogate's Yorkshire Pavilions (the above photo), which is held every two years. I've visited this particular fair on many occasions, so it was a special treat to be invited as a guest by Louise Harrison and Jeremiah Vokes. What I really didn't expect was to be so busy all day - so much so that I hardly got a chance to study the offerings at the various stalls.

I had many fascinating conversations, with old friends as well as with new acquaintances with, pleasingly, a very wide age range. It was a particular treat to meet Terry Hale and his wife. Great French Detective Stories, an anthology edited by T. J. Hale, was published forty years ago and I've long admired it. Terry is now fascinated by Japanese crime films and he gave me a lot of info about these that I look forward to following up.

Book fairs and the book world fascinate me. I very much enjoyed setting The Traitor in that world and I've been working on another literary project in this area of late. What will come of it, who knows? But Saturday was a marvellous day that will linger in my memory, as will so many pleasant moments from the past twelve months at places as diverse as San Diego and Shetland. 

Friday 10 November 2023

Forgotten Book - Greenshards

I don't think there's much doubt that Greenshards (published in the US under the title Anima) is a forgotten book. It dates back just over half a century, to 1972, but in many ways I think it remains a fresh read, and a gripping one. The author was Marie Buchanan, but she later became much better known as Clare Curzon, a name she adopted in 1979 when A Leaven of Malice, one of her most notable books, was published by Collins Crime Club. She later wrote a long series about the cop Mike Yeadings.

As I mentioned in a blog post after I learned of her death, thirteen years ago, Clare (as I knew her) was a very pleasant woman. She was also a very interesting and versatile writer. One of the comments on that blog post mentioned (and praised) Greenshards, which I came across much later, thanks to acquiring a copy inscribed to another Eileen, my friend and fellow writer Eileen Dewhurst. It's taken me ages to get round to reading it, but I'm very glad I did.

The Gollancz first edition jacket describes the book as 'one of the strangest first novels ever to arrive on its publisher's desk'. In fact, she'd already published novels under another name, Rhona Petrie, but there's no denying that it's a strange and unusual book. Daphne du Maurier admired it, and apparently it even drew comparisons with The Exorcist (although the mood is very, very different). There is a strong supernatural element in the story, but it never overwhelms the story, which definitely counts as a mystery, albeit of an unorthodox type.

I don't want to say anything that will spoil the story (the Gollancz jacket tells far too much of it, and I'm glad I didn't read it until after I'd finished the book) but suffice to say that Greenshards is an old house with a melancholy history and that the connections between two families, the Mintons and the Blanchards, are at the heart of a twisting storyline that ensures you can never be sure what is coming next. This is a sophisticated, superior novel which I'm glad to recommend.


Wednesday 8 November 2023

Don't Worry Darling - 2022 film review

Don't Worry Darling is a high-profile recent movie directed by Olivia Wilde, who also has a significant role as an actor. It's a glossy film, good to look at, and stars Florence Pugh as Alice Chambers, a 1950s housewife who leads an apparently idyllic life in a Californian town called Victory while her charming husband Jack (Harry Styles, of all people; he's come a long way since his youth in Holmes Chapel...) and his male neighbours go out to work at Victory HQ in the desert. The wives aren't encouraged to ask about their husbands' jobs....

From the outset, it's obvious that in Victory, all is not as it seems. When Alice sees a plane crash in the desert, she allows curiosity to get the better of her (an oddity of the script, by Katie Silberman, is that the plane crash isn't clearly explained) and before long cracks start to appear in the smooth surface of life in Victory.

Florence Pugh is a gifted actor and her performance as Alice is first-rate, as we've come to expect. There are some interesting ideas floating around in this film, and it's enjoyed huge commercial success, but there are good reasons why most critics haven't been enthused. Harry Styles is an easy target for criticism, because he doesn't have the experience to give real depth to the part of Jack, but he doesn't do a bad job. 

The real problem, I fear, is with the script. The shadows of The Stepford Wives and The Prisoner, both of which are classics, loom large over Don't Worry Darling. However, there is no reason why this kind of story can't work very well indeed, if the themes and ideas from films and TV shows of the past are reworked in a fresh and engaging way. The trouble is that the story is told in a clunky and sometimes incoherent manner with numerous loose ends dangling, but not in a good way. I didn't expect a film as good as the original The Stepford Wives, but even so I found this one frustrating and disappointing. A missed opportunity. 

Monday 6 November 2023

'We Know You're Busy Writing': The Collected Short Stories of Edmund Crispin


Edmund Crispin (in real life Bruce Montgomery) is one of the few writers of traditional mysteries who has remained consistently in print since his first novels appeared in the early 1940s. Quite an achievement, and certainly a testament to the entertainment value of his fiction. Recently, HarperCollins have reprinted his novels in new paperback editions so attractive that I've even looked on The Glimpses of the Moon, his last novel, much more benignly than I had done previously. Now, as the icing on the cake comes the publication of his collected short fiction.

This handsome book takes its title from my favourite Crispin short story, 'We Know You're Busy Writing,' which I included in the British Library anthology Murder by the Book a year or two back. Among my other favourites is 'Who Killed Baker?', which Crispin co-wrote with his pal and fellow musician Geoffrey Bush.

Two Crispin collections, Beware of the Trains and Fen Country, have been available for many years, but here the stories about Gervase Fen are helpfully separated from the 'stand-alone' stories. What's more, this volume also includes four stories not in those two books, which have in recent years been brought to our attention by Tony Medawar in his collections of little-known traditional mysteries. Of these, 'The Hours of Darkness' is especially compelling.

I was delighted to see a very good set of sources at the back of the book, most useful for researchers. All in all, this is a terrific book. If you haven't read Crispin before, and in particular if you're a fan of short stories, you're in for a treat.

Friday 3 November 2023

Forgotten Book - The Party at No. 5 aka The Cellar at No. 5

I've often written about my enthusiasm for the novels of Shelley Smith. She was an ambitious writer, who was always keen to do something different, and that approach (while not necessarily conducive to great commercial success) and the flair with which she pursued it meant that she was one of the most impressive British crime writers of the 1950s. I regret the fact that her books aren't more widely known.

The Party at No.5, which dates from 1954, offers a good example of her skill and economical and effective literary style. It's essentially a novel about character, about the vagaries of human nature. It's also a book which is about women and the relationships they have with each other. The male characters (including a solicitor whose grasp of the law struck me as very shaky) only have minor parts, although they are depicted with Smith's customary cool insight and wit.

Mrs Rampage is an elderly woman with a rambling old house in London. Actually, by modern standards I don't think she is really ancient, but attitudes to older people were different then, in a rather depressing way. She is persuaded to take in as a sort of companion-helper a woman called Mrs Roach. Mrs Roach is, on the surface, a very pleasant and caring individual who has an unrequited longing for a younger woman, Eleanor, who is stuck at home with her aged father. But the two women don't hit it off and although Mrs Rampage becomes increasingly dependent on Mrs Roach, her unpleasantness towards the other woman is a catalyst for crime.

This isn't a whodunit, but I found it a highly suspenseful read. Smith's prose is clear and engaging and her depiction of the way that relatively minor character flaws can lead to very damaging consequences is compelling. It's a tribute to her gifts that although I didn't much like either of the two lead characters, I became intrigued by them and wanted to know what their fate would be.    

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Death at Wolf's Nick by Diane Janes

When I was up in Berwick recently, Lindsay Allason-Jones kindly gave me a copy of Death at Wolf's Nick by Diane Janes. I've not seen Diane for ages, but we've been on panels together in the past, and she is one of those writers who has achieved success both with fiction and non-fiction. I've mentioned her several times on this blog, for instance in relation to her book about the Chevis murder case. This book is another of her in-depth true crime studies, and it deals with a case that remains unsolved to this day, that of Evelyn Foster.

I was already familiar with the case, because many years ago I read Julian Symons' discussion of the case in an essay in Beyond Reasonable Doubt, which is an interesting book, though one of his less well-known publications. Diane doesn't mention it in her book, so I'm unsure what she made of it, or whether she's aware of it. But she does deal at some length with a previous study of the case, by Jonathan Goodman, who was a noted criminologist. Suffice to say that she doesn't think much of his research.

The death of Evelyn Foster was strange, sad, and deeply disturbing. She was a youngish taxi driver based in Otterburn, Northumberland, a lovely place, but also a rather lonely part of the world on a wintry night. One night, she took a passenger in rather odd circumstances, and was later found, badly burned, as was her car. The story she told about what happened was not, however, believed by the police (who come in for a lot of criticism in this book).

Diane's research is impressive, with reams of important detail about timings and local geography. Her theory about what happened seems plausible, if not proven. It's an extraordinary case. I'd have liked to get a fuller understanding of Evelyn's personality, and those of one or two of the other key players in the story, and also what happened to them in later years, but perhaps Diane felt restricted by the material that was available and verifiable. An interesting book, well worth reading if you're keen on true crime.