Wednesday 24 July 2024

An E.C.R. Lorac Exhibition

How times change. Not so long ago, the name of E.C.R. Lorac was little-known to crime readers. Almost all her seventy-odd novels had been out of print since the late 1950s, some of them long before that. And now she is the current best-selling writer among all those published in the British Library Crime Classics series. Quite a transformation. I'm sure my parents, who extolled the virtues of Lorac (especially Still Waters) to me when I was young - and at a time when her books were impossible to find - would be amazed and delighted.  

I was thrilled to be invited yesterday to, of all things, an E.C.R. Lorac exhibition at Halton Library in Lancashire. Halton isn't far from where Lorac (in real life, Carol Rivett) lived in Aughton (pronounced Afton) for the last decade and a half of her life. And Halton is now the home village of Lena Whiteley, who lived next door to the author when she was young. Her mother was Lorac's housekeeper and Lena helped in the house and garden from being very young.

The exhibition, which has previously been on display at Bolton-le-Sands library, is splendid and includes several items that are in Lena's possession. She and her son David gave a talk about the author to an appreciative audience and mentioned that the fact that Lorac's Lunesdale books, which are among her very best, give such an evocative picture of the local area means that it's great fun to try to figure out the thinly disguised locations in the stories. A couple of years ago, Lena and David took me on a tour of the setting of Crook O'Lune, which was as interesting as it was helpful when I came to write the book.

When I was in my twenties, I started picking up Lorac novels whenever I could find them in second hand shops and giving them to my parents, who devoured them. Now all those books are in my possession, but there are still quite a few of her novels (including many of the books she wrote as Carol Carnac) that I haven't read. Treats in store.

I mentioned Lorac briefly in my first Northern Blood anthology, more than thirty years ago, but it was only when I became involved with the Crime Classics that I was able to encourage the British Library to republish Lorac. It took years to trace the estate and copyright holders, but the work and the wait were worthwhile. Lorac (and Carnac) are being enjoyed all over again, by a new readership, and she's getting fantastic sales and reviews. In writing my intros, I've benefited enormously from my friendship with Lena, David and his sister Helen; the help they've given me has been invaluable. 

And the good news is, there's another Lorac reissue on the way. Murder in Vienna is due out in November. 

Monday 22 July 2024

Musings on Noir Heroes; guest post from Luke Deckard

Luke Deckard is a thoughtful member of the new generation of crime writers, a generation which I'm keen to encourage whenever I can. So I was glad to include a short story of his in the forthcoming CWA anthology Midsummer Mysteries. His new novel Bad Blood, a Logan Bishop thriller, has just been published, and to celebrate this, I invited him to contribute a guest blog post. Here it is:

'In Plato’s The Republic, he writes, “When we find out what justice is, we shall require the just man to answer the description precisely… or shall we be content if he approximates to it very closely…?”

My passion for writing and reading noir fiction is no secret. The emergence of the hard-boiled hero in 1920s America and its subsequent evolution in the 30s/40s was a direct response to British crime fiction and a world steeped in disillusionment after the First World War. As Raymond Chandler said in The Simple Art of Murder, the genre wanted to explore realistic crime and a world where “gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities.”

But what is justice when the very system that should uphold it is corrupt? This is a question that many hard-boiled heroes have grappled with, often choosing to leave the system they once served due to its inherent corruption.

Chandler added that, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Across the genre, its heroes, from Marlowe to Spenser, Millhone to Rebus and Bosch et al., operate more as dark knights. A white knight can’t exist in the world of Noir. However, I say these heroes are the answer to Plato’s musing; They might not be able to “answer the description precisely”, but they “approximate to it very closely.”

This is one of the many aspects I love about noir fiction and why I love writing it. When I approached my novel Bad Blood, I kept asking myself: What does it mean to be good in a bent world? How can one be hopeful in a wasteland? And I let my protagonist try to find his way to those answers.

Crime fiction, generally, grapples with an unjust world, but noir fiction knows there is no cure. Crime isn’t a virus that can be eradicated, and surviving in that reality is no easy business! As Philip Marlowe says toward the end of The Big Sleep, “Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”


Friday 19 July 2024

Forgotten Book - The Double Turn

Whether writing as E.C.R. Lorac or Carol Carnac (or as Mary Le Bourne in the case of her posthumously published Two-Way Murder), Carol Rivett kept up an impressive standard of crime writing to the end of her life. Someone who writes so prolifically for so long is bound to have the occasional misfire, but several of her very best books were written during the 1950s, and although some are (at least now) fairly well-known, others remain obscure.

What is more, her powers of invention do not seem to me to have diminished over the years. A little-known example of her qualities as a writer is The Double Turn, a novel published under the name Carol Carnac in 1956, just two years before her death and known in the US as The Late Miss Trimming. This is another case for the likeable Chief Inspector Rivers and I found it very enjoyable.

The starting point for the story is - as in several of her books - the world of art. The opening chapter is set at an exhibition sponsored by the Central Arts Committee 'in aid of aged and indigent painters' and it introduces us to several key characters, including the lovely artist Susan Truby, her uncle Jocelyn, and two young men who admire Susan; we also get to hear about Adrian Delafield, a veteran artist whom Jocelyn knew but whose work has now gone out of fashion. Adrian is now looked after by a formidable but highly eccentric old woman called Trimming, while his daughter Virgilia lives in a studio adjoining her home.

Before long, we're confronted with an unexpected death, and it seems to be an accident. Rather surprisingly, I thought, given the slender evidence to the contrary, the police deem the death to be suspicious and Rivers is called in. There's an 'impossible crime' element to this story, but Lorac was no John Dickson Carr; her focus is on character and the book is none the worse for that. A strange misprint (I think it must be a misprint) in my copy seemed to give a strong hint to the solution to the puzzle, something I've not encountered previously. But overall this is a example of Lorac/Carnac in very good form.

Wednesday 17 July 2024

Gwen Moffat - 100 Years Young

I was tipped off recently by my crime fiction loving friends Nigel Moss and Barry Pike that fellow northern crime writer Gwen Moffat was celebrating a very special birthday. Believe it or not, Gwen was 100 on July 3. I was away on holiday at the time but managed to send her a slightly belated congratulatory message - and received a very prompt and positive reply from the lady herself.

Gwen's greatest claim to fame is no doubt her pioneering work as a woman mountaineer and in 1961 she published a very well-received autobiography, The Space Beneath My Feet. She was also the first British female mountain guide. A few years ago, a film documentary which is well worth a watch supplied a fascinating picture of how Gwen's indomitable style had influenced and inspired younger women climbers.

In the 1970s she turned to writing crime fiction, and created a series character called Miss Pink who was - naturally! - a keen climber. I got to know her in the 1990s, when she came along to CWA northern chapter get-togethers. From the outset, she struck me as a formidable character - as you need to be, to do the things that Gwen has done in her life.

We met on many occasions over the years, but I haven't seen her in person for quite a while, so I was particularly pleased to hear from her again. Congratulations, Gwen, and many happy returns!

Monday 15 July 2024

CADS 92 - and the TLS

I've been taking my time over CADS 92, the final instalment of a wonderful magazine that Geoff Bradley has been running since July 1985. That's an incredible 39 years of dedication and the result has been something unique, an informal magazine that has gained immensely from its combination of homespun charm yet authoritative comment from a very wide of contributors.

Geoff mentions that I first contributed to CADS 8 and he and I first met at the London Bouchercon, way back in 1990. I've written plenty of articles for the magazine since then, and for the final issue I've included a previously unpublished eulogy that Julian Symons wrote for his friend Michael Underwood, a piece that says, in my opinion, a lot of both men. They were very different people, with very different attitudes, but good friends as well as good writers.

There are, as ever, lots of unexpected delights in this issue, including an excellent article by Arthur Robinson about Anthony Berkeley's book reviews, about which he's given me much information over the years, and another by Clint Stacey on the mysteries of Stewart Farrer. Melvyn Barnes supplements our knowledge about Francis Durbridge's collaborative novels and there are many other good things - too many too mention individually - by a host of good writers, from John Curran and Philip Scowcroft to Liz Gilbey and Mike Wilson.  

If you're a fan of detective fiction, with a leaning toward the classics, and you don't know CADS, you should try to track down copies before they all vanish from sight. You will be impressed, as I have been. It's been a huge pleasure, each and every time, to receive a copy of CADS and I'm hugely appreciative of all the hard work Geoff has put into it. 

What's more, in this final issue, he's even taken the trouble to include a nice review of The Life of Crime. And I'm afraid I can't resist blowing my own trumpet by saying that the book has just had a rave review, in-depth, in the Times Literary Supplement. The book is also featured in a TLS podcast. To receive such a stunning review is definitely a highlight for me and I'm absolutely thrilled.

Friday 12 July 2024

Forgotten Book - Leave and Bequeath

Leave and Bequeath was published in 1943. It was the sixth book published by Winifred E. Watson, but her first attempt at a detective story; some of her other books (which I haven't read) are described as 'rustic bodice-rippers'. After that, although she lived to the ripe old age of 95, dying in 2002, she never published another novel. You might wonder whether the book had some kind of traumatic effect on her literary career, but that wasn't the case. It seems that, quite simply she settled for contented domestic life rather than authorship.

Another curious thing about Winifred. In 1938, she published a novel called Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. This was a success, published internationally, and a musical version was planned. That didn't happen, but the book was rediscovered by the admirable Persephone Books (on whose website the above photo can be found), much to the elderly author's delight, and turned into a film, albeit after her death, in 2008. The stars were Frances McDormand and Amy Adams and the critics loved it. Truly, the fate of books is unpredictable... 

So what do we make of Leave and Bequeath? Well, in many ways it's an archetypal country house mystery. A group of young relatives assemble at the home of aged and cantankerous Aunt Julie, who is one of those rich old people who delights in changing her will and disinheriting her nearest and dearest. So far, so cliched. 

However, the characterisation is superior and although for much of the book you wonder when the dramatic action is going to start, the slow build-up leads to an impressive pay-off, with a locked room mystery thrown in. For once, the war plays an integral part in the story. In a sense, therefore, this is a novel which represents a kind of milestone - the transition between the classic country house existence and the harsh realities of modern life. I found, almost to my surprise, that I really cared about the characters. Winifred Watson may have abandoned fiction, but she could write it very well. And I'd like to give special thanks to that very amiable podcaster Sherri Rabinowitz for telling me about this little gem. Much appreciated, Sherri!

Tuesday 9 July 2024

The Gift - 2015 film review

The Gift begins in a conventional way. A glamorous couple, Simon and Robyn Callem (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) are house-hunting in Los Angeles, having moved from Chicago, where they obviously enjoyed quite a bit of success. He's a thrusting and ambitious businessman, she is a freelance designer, slightly introspective. They find an upmarket new residence and set about putting their own imprint on it. Then they bump into Gordon ('Gordo') Moseley (Joel Edgerton), who says he is an old schoolfriend of Simon's. 

Simon seems reluctant to acknowledge their connection, but Gordo leaves a bottle of wine on their doorstep as a present and wangles an invitation to dinner. But there is something slightly 'off' about him, and Robyn's doubts increase when he gives them a more lavish gift of koi carp and then invites them to dinner. Soon, this faintly creepy relationship turns sour.

So far, so predictable. There's nothing unusual about home invasion thrillers. But Edgerton - who wrote and directed the film as well as playing a key role - has various surprises up his sleeve. I anticipated some of them, but not the cleverest twist of all, which comes near the end and creates an unsettling mood of uncertainty about the consequences of the encounters between these three people, all of whom are troubled in their own way.

Spoiler alert - nobody dies in this film, and there is nothing too gruesome on screen. But Edgerton cleverly maintains tension throughout and the result is a subtle and suspenseful film that, even though it traverses familiar ground, does so in a relatively fresh way. The three lead actors are all very good, and so is the script. 

Celtic Travels

I'm back home from trips to Ireland (North and the Republic) and then Wales, a thoroughly enjoyable break. I sent off the latest chunk of my work-in-progress to my editor the day before I set off, so at least my literary conscience was clear for the time being - and,as often happens (luckily!) the change of scene helped me while I was thinking out another project...

I've long had an ambition to visit the Giant's Causeway and main purpose of the Irish trip was to fulfil that desire. The Causeway is a fascinating location and - despite a bit of drizzle - it definitely lived up to expectations. We were based in Letterkenny, which has a nice cathedral and a good little museum, while our visits to other places included Donegal (with a boat trip on the lough and sightings of seals and seal pups, plus a pleasing castle and a ruined abbey on the shore), Malin Head, the most northerly part of Ireland, Glenveagh National Park, and the walled city of Derry (where I took a walk along the Peace Bridge - very thought-provoking). It was great to spend a few days in so many evocative places and I found a number of fresh story inspirations.

One place that made a real impression on me was the 'famine village' on the Doagh peninsula. During the potato famine, my great-grandfather fled to England with his family and the story of the horrors that the starving people endured therefore had a special resonance for me. It also made me wonder if now is the time for me to do a bit of research into that side of my family. 

No sooner were we back from Ireland than it was off to North Wales for a couple of days, to celebrate my birthday. Even when I was working full-time in the law, I liked to take at least a day off to go on a trip on my birthday and over the years I've been incredibly lucky with the weather. There was a chance to revisit old haunts in Llandudno, Conwy, and Colwyn Bay, but also to discover a few new places in the area. A real highlight was a boat trip around Llandudno Bay - great fun.  

Friday 5 July 2024

Forgotten Book - Notice to Quit

James Quince was an interesting writer whose career in crime fiction was brief but intriguing. I've previously discussed The Tin Tree, the first of his novels, and Casual Slaughters, the third and best-known. I was lucky enough to add inscribed copies of them to my collection ten years ago, but his second novel, Notice to Quit, proved elusive until recently, when again I was fortunate to snag an inscribed copy at an unexpectedly modest price. 

An interesting feature of the book is that it's a hardback, published by Hodder in 1932, which makes a big point (as you can see from my photo) of the fact that its price is 3/6. At that time, I believe the usual price for hardback first editions was 7/6. Hodder brought out a number of cheaper books, including titles by Gavin Holt and D.L. Ames, and I assume this was a response to the economic depression, a way of buoying sales when money was tight. 

Whether the scheme worked I don't know for sure, but the very scarcity of Notice to Quit suggest that the print run was small. And it really is scarce - I've not found any online discussion of the book whatsoever, nor anything in any of the usual reference books. 

So what's it all about? Quince was an inventive writer, and here,as in The Tin Tree, he tries to do something different. This is a story about an identity switch and I must admit I find such scenarios inherently fascinating (and yes, there are quite a few of them, of various kinds, in my novels).

In a nutshell, Bill Yolland proposes to change identities with his son John. This is an unusual variation on the standard theme, and the aim is to dodge punitive taxation so that the great family home will stay in the Yolland family, given that Bill receives bad news about his health at the start of the book. The early pages are very entertaining, but things then went in a direction that I didn't expect. In many ways, this story is an interesting take on the generation gap, always a fruitful subject for thoughtful authors.

However, there's also a lot of stuff about politics (the Falklands get mentioned more than once!) and a number of unlikely foreign characters, whose appearance in a Golden Age novel always makes me wince. I think Quince could have done something much more interesting with his excellent premise, but we have to judge a book on what the author set out to do. And unfortunately I don't think it works as well as his other novels.

Wednesday 3 July 2024

The Cater Street Hangman (1998) - TV review

Talking Pictures TV has recently shown The Cater Street Hangman, a 1998 TV movie based on Anne Perry's first novel. It's branded The Inspector Pitt Mysteries and so I presume it was intended as the first of a series, or as a pilot for an intended series. But no more shows seems to have been made. Watching it more than 25 years later, I must say I'm surprised. It's well put together, with a nice twisty mystery and good characters.

It also has the merit of starring Keeley Hawes as Charlotte Ellison, who falls in love with Pitt and proceeds to marry him and feature in the long-running series of novels. Basically, it's a story about a serial killer. Someone is killing young women on the eponymous London street. It becomes clear that Charlotte's family is in the thick of the action and includes at least two of the suspects. 

The detection is done by Eoin McCarthy as Pitt. His performance is ok, but perhaps he lacks the star quality of a John Thaw. Certainly Keeley Hawes is the key figure in the story. Her father is played by Peter Egan, a versatile actor who is often very amiable but here plays a rather unpleasant individual. The reliably sinister John Castle is a vicar with a brimstone and treacle approach to preaching, while the consistently enjoyable David Roper and Patsy Rowland make the most of their parts as servants.

The plot is strong - I haven't read the novel, so I can't judge how faithful it is to the source. The period atmosphere is well done, with a sound script by the very experienced T.R. Bowen. I never asked Anne what she thought about the TV version, but she must have been disappointed that it didn't turn into a long-running series, given that the right ingredients seem to have been in place. This is well worth a watch. 

Monday 1 July 2024

Daniel Sellers' guest post #2: 'Twists - what makes a twist work?'

Today, Daniel Sellers returns to the blog with a second guest post about his thoughts on plot twists: 
'For me, twists are most effective — and impressive — when they’re both ingenious and credible.
There are plenty of twists that don’t meet my ‘gold standard’. I’d argue that a number of well-known crime stories have ingenious but utterly incredible twists: Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934), for example (though I do love aspects of both books, not least their settings). I’d call these overly ingenious twists ‘eye rollers’, and I’m afraid I’d dump a good few Dickson Carrs in with them too. (Apologies to any fans . . .)

Then there are nicely credible twists that are low on ingenuity, but which are still satisfying. Ruth Rendell was an expert at this kind of utterly compelling, quiet switcheroo, never more so than when she was writing as Barbara Vine. See A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986) and the wonderful Asta’s Book (1993). See also Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1943), and P D James’s short story, A Very Commonplace Murder (1969). I call these twists ‘quietly satisfying’.
Then we have twists that are low in both ingenuity and credibility, and seem to be there purely for the sake of another surprise. See the bizarre ‘Pip and Emma’ reveals in A Murder is Announced (1950). These I call ‘so what?’ twists.
So, which crime stories meet my gold standard by being both ingenious and credible? I commend three to you, though there are plenty more:
·         Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (play: 1953), where the twist is gobsmacking and utterly believable as a lot suddenly makes sense;
·         Dennis LeHane’s Shutter Island (2003), where the twist is ‘extrinsic’, according to the classification I proposed in an earlier post. It’s a stormer of a reveal, not only for the main character but for the reader too. It’s also very poignant; and
·         Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), where the key twist (two-thirds of the way in) is immediately believable and changes everything. Rebecca also happens to be one of my favourite novels in any genre.'
Daniel Sellers is author of the Lola Harris Glasgow-based mystery series,
published by Joffe Books.

Friday 28 June 2024

Forgotten Book - Term of Trial

James Barlow was an interesting and capable author whose work occasionally veered into the crime genre. Two of his books were filmed but since his death in 1973, aged just 51, his reputation has faded. I read Term of Trial when working on Lessons in Crime and was struck by the fact that it was published in 1961, just two years after Agatha Christie's well-known public school story Cat Among the Pigeons, but it could hardly have been more different. The novel was written when 'kitchen sink realism' was the flavour of the times and it's very much in that vein. So, yes, the mood is drab, but no, it's not a book to avoid. 

Barlow was a very capable writer, although he has a disconcerting habit of making sudden switches of viewpoint within a scene. This is an authorial tic that I don't care for - there are times when it can be justified, but it's often a sign of carelessness. On the whole, however, this is a very well-made novel - and it's set in a secondary modern school. Since my mother taught in such a school for many years, and my oldest friend attended one, I do know quite a bit about what they were like. They've had a very bad press down the years, but often from people who never went inside one - as I did, many times. I don't know if Barlow ever taught in a secondary modern, but my copy is inscribed by him to a 'Fellow Master of the Resistance!', which perhaps suggests that he did.

Graham Wier has recently arrived at a new school, but remains haunted by an act of cowardice during the Second World War. I think most readers of today, including myself, wouldn't regard his behaviour then as cowardly, but times were different then. And that's a point that I kept reminding myself of as I read with some disbelief about Wier's relationship with an attractive female pupil. To say that he was naive is an understatement and despite the air of realism there are some incidents that tested my suspension of disbelief.

However, the quality of the characterisation kept me reading. There is a trial scene towards the end of the book and although the storyline is relentlessly downbeat, I was glad I read it. The book enjoyed success in its day and it was filmed not long after publication with a truly dazzling cast: Laurence Olivier, Simone Signoret, Sarah Miles, Terence Stamp, Hugh Griffith, Roland Culver, Thora Hird, Allan Cuthbertson etc etc. Overall, I'd say the book is a very interesting social document - though in its way, it's as dated as Cat Among the Pigeons.

Wednesday 26 June 2024

Daniel Sellers guest post: 'Twists, part one: classifying twists'

On the crime writing circuit, one bumps into lots of people, writers and readers, with whom one has the occasional pleasant conversation without necessarily getting the chance to spend a lot of time in their company. A while back I was talking to Daniel Sellers, an interesting writer now based in Scotland whose publishers are the very successful Joffe Books; his series is set in Glasgow and features Lola Harris. A chat with Daniel led to his contributing some thoughts to this blog on the perennially teasing subject of plot twists. Here is the first part; the second will follow in due course:
'My publisher likes to stress the twistiness of its authors’ crime novels. Straplines on the covers of my first three thrillers declare each to contain a ‘massive twist’ — so the pressure is on!
I love a twist, but have begun to think carefully about how they work — those reveals or inversions that lie in wait for readers.
As a starting point, I think it’s fair to say that twists fall into two classes: those that are internal or ‘intrinsic’ to the story; and those that are external, or ‘extrinsic’.
An intrinsic twist surprises or shocks the characters in the story as much as it surprises the reader. Most traditional (and older) crime stories fall into this category: Christie’s Crooked House (1949) and The Mousetrap (1952) are examples of genuinely astonishing intrinsic twists. The breath-taking twist became her speciality. As Robert Barnard pointed out in A Talent to Deceive (1980), ‘ . . . she is the despair of later crime writers: because she dared to think the unthinkable there is no trick in the trickster’s book, it seems, that she hasn’t thought of first.’
An extrinsic twist is a more modern (or should that be post-modern?) development. This type of twist isn’t so much a surprise reveal for the characters in the story, as for the reader. Indeed, sometimes the characters in the story already know everything, and the reveal is only for readers. An excellent example of this is Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion (1987). Another, in film, is M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense (1999). Most often the withholding to achieve this kind of twist is done using the ‘unreliable narrator’ device (as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012)) but this can be frustrating for readers and lead to ‘sameness’ or even a perception of cheating. See Marian Keyes’s eloquent take down on Twitter/X last summer.
Unlike the intrinsic twist, the possibilities of the extrinsic twist seem endless. I’m sure we’ll see more twists that lie in how stories are told — some of which will thrill us, others which might prove irritating.
I’d argue that Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) is a fine example of a crime novel that features an effective intrinsic twist along with the most famous extrinsic twist of all. Thanks to excellent alibi-making, the characters in the story are as surprised as we are when the killer’s identity is revealed (well, maybe the characters aren’t quite as surprised as us!).
What’s your favourite twist in crime fiction?'

Monday 24 June 2024

The Drummond Affair by Stephanie Matthews and Daniel Smith

The murder of Sir Jack Drummond and his family in Provence in 1952 was a truly shocking crime that has, so far as most criminologists are concerned, never been adequately explained. The Drummond Affair by Stephanie Matthews and Daniel Smith is a new book about the case and the authors say that, in part, their aim is to rebalance history, not least (and very laudably in my opinion) by placing more emphasis on the victims, rather than on the alleged perpetrator(s). 

The authors aim for 'a fundamental re-slanting of the entire narrative'. They say the Drummond murders 'should be one of those shared cultural reference points that everyone knows about, at least vaguely'. That may be putting it a little high, but this is certainly a thought-provoking book about an intriguing mystery.

Sir Jack Drummond was an eminent biochemist, whose work on nutrition and rationing during the Second World War was greatly admired and earned him a knighthood. He later moved to Nottingham to work for Boots. He and his wife Anne and ten-year-old daughter Elizabeth went on holiday to France, but they were gunned down one night in extraordinary circumstances. The investigation owed more to Clouseau than to Poirot and although a local farmer was convicted of the crime, there is much dispute about what really happened. The Guardian has an interesting article about the case here which isn't referenced in the book.

The authors do, however, provide a lot of interesting background information. Perhaps, though, there is an excess of minutiae about Drummond's work in nutrition; I wasn't convinced that all of this cast much light on the crime and some passages felt a little like padding. The authors are rightly critical of the failure of some investigators and criminologists to base their theories on evidence, but there are times when perhaps they fall into the same trap themselves. 

For example, there's some speculation about Anne Drummond, e.g. in relation to the extent of her contribution to a book Drummond wrote, and the source of her income, that doesn't really seem to be evidence-based, and there are other instances throughout the text. That said, I think the reality is this: it's often extremely difficult in a true crime book of this kind to avoid speculation and a bit of inspired guesswork. What matters is that the arguments are plausible and the writing style crisp and readable. This book passes both tests and I was glad to read it. 


Friday 21 June 2024

Forgotten Book - The Matter of Paradise

I've reacquainted myself recently with both of Brown Meggs' ventures into crime fiction in the mid-70s and I enjoyed The Matter of Paradise (1975) as much as Saturday Games. Again, the novel deals with the preoccupations of a middle-aged man of that time, and this is reflected in the inscription in my copy, to Micky Diage: 'who will now understand why 42-year old men are the way they are!' 

There's a disclaimer at the start of the book, making it clear that the protagonist, music critic Hobie Milne, is not a self-portrait and that the school in the backstory is not the school that Meggs attended. Fair enough, but I'm sure he drew to quite a significant extent on his own experience of young men and what happens to them in 'the real world'. For although this is a good, pacy crime novel, it's also a good character study. I must say I enjoyed it more the second time I read it than the first time around.

Hobie was one of nine students in the same class. One by one, someone is murdering them. Why? It soon becomes clear that the crimes are connected to 'the matter of Paradise' - but what does that mean? Hobie keeps his cards very close to his chest, but Meggs writes so interestingly that this isn't as irritating as it might have been. 

At the time this book was written it must have seemed very hip. Now, inevitably, it is 'of its time', and a lot of the sexual attitudes are very dated. As with Saturday Games, there's a lot of talk about classical music, which Meggs obviously loved. That first book earned an Edgar nomination and film rights were sold (but alas no film was made: the old, old story!) In my opinion he vaulted over the second novel hurdle rather impressively. 

However, I suspect the book didn't achieve the success he hoped for, though both novels were published in Britain by Collins Crime Club. I've found no online discussion whatsoever about this book. Whatever the reason, he abandoned crime writing, though he did produce two more novels and a TV documentary. A very brief career in mystery, then, but one that deserves not to be forgotten.

Wednesday 19 June 2024

Libraries and The Lakes

Last week I had a truly delightful time in the Lake District, which is my excuse for forgetting my Forgotten Book post until Monday! June is National Crime Reading Month and I've been very keen to support libraries, which have meant so much to me throughout my life, and have always been a source of solace as well as great pleasure. After Bodies from the Library at the British Library and Alibis in the Archive at Gladstone's Library, I was ready to concentrate on public libraries, which form such an important part of so many communities up and down the country.

This year I've expanded the reach of my exhibition for libraries about crime fiction. The first year of the exhibition, in Warrington libraries, went really well and this year I have made the exhibition, and the associated quiz that I devised, available to upwards of fifty libraries, with some variations for different locations. In addition I agreed to do six library events, five of which took place last week.

The first saw me returning to Wallasey Central Library. My last time there was - blimey! - sixteen years ago, when on a memorable evening I hosted a Victorian murder mystery. This time I was talking about 'My Life in Crime', one of my regular topics, and the one chosen for last week's events. Given that I was for years a member of Moreton Library, near Wallasey, and that I was also a member of Wirral Writers, who met in Bromborough Library not far away, this return to the peninsula brought back many pleasant memories. Another memorable day for all sorts of reasons.

I'd agreed to do a tour of Cumbria (the local authority has recently split into two, but the name is still convenient) and give the talk at four libraries, which gave the chance of some sightseeing and research for future Lake District novels as well. First stop was St Bees (see the above photo) and then it was on to Whitehaven Library, an interesting town I've visited several times and would like to feature in a novel sometime. Incredibly, one of the people in the audience was a former solicitor who still owns a copy of Understanding Computer Contracts, which I wrote in my mid-twenties! Then, after a brief stop at Keswick, it was on to Penrith Library for an evening talk.

The following day, there was plenty of time for sight-seeing and we took full advantage. A visit to Acorn Bank, a very interesting National Trust property (complete with poisonous herb garden...) in the morning, was followed by lunch in Ambleside and then a drive to Coniston and a hugely enjoyable boat trip. I've never sailed on Coniston before and it was great to get a close look at the island fictionalised by Arthur Ransome in Swallows and Amazons.

That evening there was a talk at Barrow Library, and the next day I returned to Keswick Library, where I've given talks in the past. It was great to meet the various librarians, who do such an important job, and to see the imaginative ways in which they'd used the exhibition material I'd created was a real delight. The whole experience was a lot of fun and I felt lucky to have the chance to enjoy myself in such a lovely part of the world - and talk a lot about books and writing, always a favourite topic. My warmest thanks go to everyone who made last week so agreeable.