Friday 29 March 2024

Forgotten Book - Tea on Sunday

This has been quite a month for the blog. March isn't over yet, and there have already been over 120,000 pageviews, by some distance the highest monthly figure since 'Do You Write Under Your Own Name?' began, way back in 2007. I'm very grateful for this level of interest, and it seems clear that Friday's Forgotten Book is a popular feature. Rest assured, I have plenty more obscure titles lined up for discussion!

Today's pick is Tea on Sunday. A low-key title for an equally low-key crime novel published in 1973, the only venture into classic detective fiction by Lettice Cooper, a mainstream novelist and critic; my copy is inscribed by her to another critic, Margery Fisher. This book was published by Gollancz, and the dust jacket suggests that it's a locked room mystery - but it isn't. What it is is a well-made, character-driven story that I found very readable.

I'd never heard of Cooper, I must admit, but it turns out that she was a well-regarded writer who lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1994 at the age of 96. She was born in Eccles, grew up in Leeds, studied at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and then went back to Yorkshire to work in her father's engineering firm. Suffice to say that I think she mined a lot of personal experiences for her portrayal of the murder victim in this story, Alberta Mansbridge. We meet Alberta in a prologue, just before a tea party to which she's invited eight people. One of them arrives early - and strangles her.

The investigation is conducted by a very likeable detective, Inspector Corby, and the suspects are well-rounded, especially Alberta's nephew, Anthony. There is a touch of P.D. James about the writing, and my interest was maintained throughout. Corby's investigations take him to Yorkshire, and again one has a sense of Cooper drawing on places she knew well for the background.

The murder plot is not exceptional - I figured out the culprit's identity at a relatively early stage. My guess is that Cooper felt inhibited by a desire to present credible characters, so that although there are eight suspects, some of them are pretty obviously not realistic candidates for the role of murderer. The book doesn't seem to have made much impact, with no paperback edition, and Cooper went back to writing mainstream fiction. But this solitary detective story is significantly better and more enjoyable than many a genre debut and in my opinion deserves better than the total obscurity into which it has fallen.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Burnt Offerings - 1976 film review

This is a blog about crime writing and crime fiction in its various forms, but of course the boundaries between crime and other genres, such as the ghost story and the horror story, both of which I'm keen on, are blurred. As a teenager I used to read the short horror story anthologies published by Faber, Fontana, and Pan, and I still think that (with various exceptions) the short form is the best medium for horror fiction - but of course there are many good horror films too.

A fairly good example is the 1976 film Burnt Offerings. I watched it a day after watching the very recent Brandon Cronenberg film Infinity Pool, which I felt began well but deteriorated badly. Burnt Offerings is subtler and, I think, much more effective, even if though it has some flaws. Interestingly, the screenplay was co-written by William F. Nolan, who also wrote a great deal of crime fiction and was once nominated for an Edgar award. He was a very capable storyteller, and this is evident in the film.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Burnt Offerings is that Oliver Reed is cast as a normal family man. Not a drunk, for once, nor a sexually depraved monster. He and his wife (Karen Black) and their son are offered the chance to rent an atmospheric but dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere for a pittance by the creepy owners who - even more creepily - say that the old lady who lives at the top of the house will continue to live there. The warning klaxon really should be sounding at this point, but of course our protagonists find this an offer that is too good to refuse. Big mistake.

There are a lot of haunted house movies, but this is above average fare and in recent years, critics have seen it as offering sly comment on modern day materialism. I'm not sure how far I go along with that, but given a choice between Burnt Offerings and Infinity Pool, I know which film I'd rather watch. Incidentally, Bette Davis features in the cast, but really, the old house is the star. 

Monday 25 March 2024

Making an Exhibition of...All the Lonely People

When I walked into Cambridge University Library's new 'Murder by the Book' exhibition for a preview last Thursday evening, I didn't expect to have one of the most gratifying experiences a crime novelist could possibly hope for, but so it proved. I was greeted by the sight of my very first novel, All the Lonely People, included in a selection of 100 landmark titles in 20th century British crime writing, in a display case alongside the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, Cyril Hare's Tragedy at Law, Nicholas Blakes' The Beast Must Die, and Celia Fremlin's The Hours Before Dawn. Blimey! A truly memorable moment. 

This wow-factor experience was enhanced when I later discovered that the photo at the top of this post has accompanied various news stories about the exhibition here and overseas. Moments like this really do make all the challenges that accompany any writer's career from time to time seem utterly worthwhile. Seeing the book in such exalted company was something I could never have imagined when I first wrote it.  

I was also pleased to see copies of my anthology Murder by the Book and also Howdunit on sale by the door to the exhibition, but that was only the start of a very good evening, studying a cleverly conceived and fascinating exhibition. Nicola Upson who has curated the exhibition, gave an excellent speech and I was also glad to catch up with a number of friends including Ayo Onatade, Christina Koning and Richard Reynolds. The exhibition runs for three months and features amongst other delights Agatha Christie's typewriter and dictaphone, as well as the manuscript for Curtain. I was especially fascinated by the correspondence relating to P.D. James's first novel. It goes without saying that I strongly recommend Murder by the Book!

This made a wonderful start to a short but exhilarating trip to the East Midlands. Madingley Hall, which I discovered eighteen months ago when invited to give a lecture there by Sophie Hannah, was an excellent base: it's a study centre but also a delightful hotel. Friday was spent on my first ever visit to Rutland, England's smallest country, in the company of local resident David Whittle, Edmund Crispin's biographer. Luckily the weather stayed fine and we started with a lovely walk at Rutland Water - I was intrigued by Normanton Church, which was preserved when this massive lake/reservoir was created. Then came lunch at Uppingham, a busy little market town (and site of the school attended by E.W. Hornung, creator of Raffles) and a visit to Oakham, including the fascinating and truly ancient hall that is Oakham. Finally, a look at Welland Viaduct, which is much less well-known that the Ribblehead Viaduct, but even longer.

Saturday was devoted to a visit to ace book collector Clint Stacey and his family in Stamford. Clint has a great fund of knowledge about classic crime fiction and his collection is quite wonderful. I really enjoy seeing other people's book collections and this was a great way to round off a brief visit to a lovely part of the world. Here is a rare R.T. Campbell/Ruthven Todd signature and a nice inscription from George Hardinge (aka author George Milner) to Anthony Berkeley:

Friday 22 March 2024

Forgotten Book - The Siege of Trencher's Farm

Crime fiction is almost inevitably linked to violence of one kind or another. There aren't many truly victimless crimes and violence takes many forms, psychological as well as physical. For those of us who find violence horrific, crime fiction - when it is well written - offers readers, among other things, a means of coming to terms with a better understanding of violence and its well-springs. And I think it's good for writers to think about the way they deal with violence in their books; that is not in any way to suggest that violence should be excluded or sanitised, although personally, as a writer and as a reader I have no real interest in graphic descriptions of acts of violence.

Many years ago I watched the film Straw Dogs. I tend not to like Sam Peckinpah's films (all I can now recall of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which I watched as a student, was that it was particularly dreadful), but anything starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George had to be worth watching. However, the graphic violence in the movie didn't appeal to me at all. So I steered well clear of the source novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams.

However, I liked Williams' Hazell stories, written with Terry Venables under the name P.B. Yuill and his stand-alone Yuill horror novel with criminous elements The Bornless Keeper, was interesting. I discovered that one of his novels was shortlisted for the very first Booker Prize and that Ian Rankin has a high regard for The Siege of Trencher's Farm. I was deterred by the fact that Williams supposedly wrote the novel in just nine days, but encouraged by the fact that he hated Straw Dogs and that for his part Peckinpah described the book as 'rotten'. So I've given it a go.

The novel was published in 1969 and is, I think, significantly different from the film. It's a flawed novel, but the account of a group of local men rising up in anger against an American and his English wife who give shelter to an escaped child killer in an isolated Dartmoor village cut off by snow has a great deal of tension. There's a Lord of the Flies feeling to the story. There is still quite a lot of violence, and the book might have benefited from more work, but it has a visceral power. I have no doubt that Williams was making valid and perfectly arguable points about our darker instincts, even if one wouldn't agree with all of his attitudes. I don't think it's a masterpiece, but it's definitely an improvement on the film. 

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Paul Charles - Adventures in Wonderland - review

Paul Charles has combined a highly successful career in music as an agent, promoter, manager, and songwriter (one of his numbers was covered by Norah Jones) with a distinct career as a crime writer. He and I first met in Philadelphia, of all places, at a Bouchercon in the late 90s and we hit it off right away. We don't manage to meet up too often, because of our other commitments, but I always enjoy his company. We had a very enjoyable afternoon together in London recently, when Paul told me about his recently published memoir Adventures in Wonderland.

I've now devoured the book. As you'd expect from a very experienced novelist, it's as readable as it's entertaining. Paul has had many famous clients, ranging from Van Morrison and Elvis Costello to Ray Davies and Tanita Tikaram, and there are plenty of fun anecdotes about his encounters with the great and the good (and also the not-so-good) of the music business.

It's clear that Paul's a very shrewd businessman, but his humility and wisdom shine through the pages. I know that some people do well, at least in the short term, by behaving ruthlessly, but the most successful business people I've met over the years - and I've met quite a few - are neither arrogant nor exploitative. Paul is a very good example and some of his anecdotes illustrate the merit of one of his other strengths - persistence. 

There are a number of references to Paul's crime writing, and a good chapter about Colin Dexter. For those of you who don't know Paul's fiction, I can recommend it. And I'm equally enthusiastic about Adventures in Wonderland

Monday 18 March 2024

An eventful week


Last week was eventful in more ways than one. This blog raced past a total of 3.5 million views - current figures are running at over 3000 views a day, which is atypical, to say the least. Not quite sure what has prompted all this traffic, but I've been very glad to receive plenty of good comments as well, not just on current posts but also on some of the older ones. 

As spring approaches, I've started doing a variety of events - three very enjoyable ones last week, all with an added appeal because they offered a chance to give some support to worthy endeavours. I began with a trip to Royal Lancaster Grammar School, whose A-level students, lucky things, are studying crime fiction. How education has changed! A different sort of audience for me - probably the youngest since the days when I had a year or two as writer in residence at the Heath Comprehensive School in Runcorn - and a very good one. 

I was impressed by the range and number of questions the students asked and it was wonderful to see these young people taking such an interest. Afterwards, the teacher who arranged the event told me one student had already said they felt inspired to write a crime novel - a lovely reaction.

Later in the week I had the chance to return to the Wirral peninsula, where I lived for eight years in the 80s. It wasn't simply about nostalgia, although there was a bit of that. Ann Cleeves was launching her latest paperback, The Raging Storm, and the two events were organised by Linghams, a very good bookshop in Heswall, and designed to support the RNLI, the dedicatees of the book. I was asked to chair the two events, both held in an excellent venue, a church in Hoylake, only a mile or two from my old flat. Also taking part was Chris Williams, whom Ann has known for many years, and who is closely involved with the RNLI.

There were two events because the first one, on Thursday evening, quickly sold out all 200 tickets. With two engaging speakers, my job was very easy and then there was a pleasant evening meal and conversation in the bar with Ann and her colleagues Emma and Steve in the pub/hotel where we were all staying on the banks of the Dee.

Next morning there was a chance to catch up with Murder Squad founder Margaret Murphy before we headed back to Hoylake. Chris took us on a guided tour of the lifeboat station and showed us round the very impressive lifeboat - it cost about £3 million and really is state-of-the-art. It's worth noting that the RNLI is funded entirely by public donations. 

The second event was just as enjoyable as the first, with Chris proving to be a natural raconteur. Sue Porter of Linghams made sure everything went very smoothly and it was a real pleasure to be associated with events that were not only fun but also helped to raise money and awareness for a marvellous cause.


Friday 15 March 2024

Forgotten Book - Lion in the Cellar

Pamela Branch's career as a crime writer was cut short by her early death from cancer in 1967, but although she only published four novels, they earned the approval of such expert judges as Francis Iles, to whom she dedicated one of her books. I think it's probably fair to say that her books may be an acquired taste - Julian Symons, first instance, was impervious to her charms - but I like her zany humour.

Her second novel, Lion in the Cellar, first appeared in 1951. Her publisher was Robert Hale, who are generally associated with the library market - so first editions are scarce, although happily there have been paperbacks, including a green Penguin edition from 1962, which mentions that she was working on a fifth book. Perhaps illness prevented her from finishing it. Her writing style strikes me as very concentrated, and perhaps the intense effort that, I suspect, she had to expend on making each story work explains why she produced relatively little. The late Tom and Enid Schantz admired her work and their Rue Morgue Press reprinted all four titles.

The main setting of this story is a disreputable London pub called the Carp, overseen by the formidable landlady, Mrs Filby. We are quickly introduced to a large cast of characters - her regulars and people who live nearby. Among them is George Heap, an amiable-seeming chap who happens to be a serial killer. His niece Sukie, who is charming and naive but incurably dishonest, is married to a hapless young barrister. Her grandmother too was a serial killer, while her mother was an arsonist. So what chance does poor Sukie have?

I enjoyed this book. At times the convolutions are excessive, and it's not always easy to keep track of what is going on, but there is ample compensation in some very funny lines and situations. Branch really was very witty and I think her work deserves to be better known.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Sally Stevens - I Sang That

I'm no musician, but the music business has long fascinated me and it featured in a story called 'Eternally' that I wrote about twenty years ago. As a student, although I had a burning desire to write crime fiction, I spent more time on other types of writing and wrote song lyrics with a couple of friends of mine. One of the songs, 'Easy Come, Easy Go', was set to music by an Italian physics student, Giovanni Carrea, who produced his own album. Thanks to Giv, for the one and only time in my life I featured in the Pop Page of the Oxford Mail. The album occasionally surfaces on eBay and has been known to sell for over £100 so perhaps it counts as a cult classic! Anyway, here is the song, (the second track, four minutes into the recording) so you can judge for yourself why I never became the new Bernie Taupin or Hal David...

At about the same time as the album was made, I saw on television a memorable concert featuring Burt Bacharach conducting the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada. Among the stand-out moments were two songs sung by the leader of the backup singers. One of the songs, 'Charlie', has a quite lovely melody. I later discovered that the singer's name was Sally Stevens and she went on to co-write a song with Burt which featured on his album Woman, a project undertaken with the Houston Symphony Orchestra which was a commercial flop but which features some of his finest orchestral work.

To cut a very long story short, in recent years I've been in occasional touch with Sally via social media and I was delighted to learn that she'd published a memoir about her remarkable career. I Sang That is a fascinating record of Sally's contribution to musical (and film) history. She has worked with so many legendary figures, including John Barry, Henry Mancini, and Michel Legrand. I am particularly fond of her performance on the soundtrack of the suspense film La Piscine of 'Ask Yourself Why' , one of Legrand's finest melodies. 

I Sang That brims with anecdotes, and I was naturally fascinated by Sally's account of touring the world with Burt Bacharach during the Seventies. Despite the fact that he was famously a hard taskmaster, it's clear that like other musicians he worked with, she admired his perfectionism and professionalism, as well as finding him a generous colleague. Sally's description of the work she has done over the years - and continues to do - is consistently engaging. Her literary talents certainly aren't confined to writing lyrics - this is an absorbing narrative which casts fresh light on the world of backup singers, among many other things.

Sally has just published a novel, The Odyssey of Mrs Naomi Billingsley, which sounds very interesting. It's not a crime novel, but she tells me she is a fan of the genre, and her favourite authors include Michael Connolly and P.D. James - excellent taste! As for I Sang That, it's extremely readable and if you fancy an insight into an important part of the music scene that hasn't, as far as I know, been discussed too extensively in print, you certainly won't be disappointed. Recommended.

Monday 11 March 2024

John Pugmire R.I.P.

I was very sorry to hear on Friday of the death of my friend John Pugmire. John's wife Helen told me he passed away on Thursday morning. I knew he'd had health problems, but the news came as a shock and I shall miss John greatly. He was a great fan of the Golden Age and since the death of Bob Adey nobody has done more than John to advance the cause of locked room mysteries. He championed the likes of Paul Halter as well as a number of interesting Japanese writers including Alice Arisugawa.

John was a Brit who lived in New York, but I enjoyed his company on a number of trips to the States. He attended the Edgar awards back in 2016 and was one of the very first to congratulate me when The Golden Age of Murder won. Next morning he and I travelled back together on the train from New York City to Washington DC and he was also with me the following day when the book won the Agatha. The next year, he was on my table at the Gala Dinner at Malice Domestic when I received the Poirot award. John is second right in the photo below.

He and I kept in regular touch and I was impressed by his work in developing Locked Room International, a small press which revived a great many unknown impossible crime stories. He asked me to write an intro for Stacey Bishop's Death in the Dark and he proved just as good to work with as he was to chat to. 

John was one of the group of trusted crime fiction history experts I asked to take a look at the manuscript of The Life of Crime and of course his comments were invaluable. He was a lovely man and I treasure the memories of the times we shared together.

Friday 8 March 2024

Forgotten Book - Death of Cold

Death of Cold, which dates from 1956, was Leo Bruce's second novel about Carolus Deene (and I fear it rather crazily and unnecessarily gives away the solution to the first, which I haven't read - aaaagh!) and although the actual title isn't one of his better ones, the story itself is extremely enjoyable. Now that I've read several Deene books, I see that numerous ingredients crop up in one book after another, but here they are handled with freshness and vim.

The mayor of Oldhaven has disappeared from the pier at Oldhaven, where he was fishing while awaiting news of the birth of his first grandchild. A few days later, his body is found. The coroner establishes that he was drowned and the police aren't interested (Bruce's disdain for the police is evident throughout this novel). Deene, who knows the dead man's daughter and son-in-law, gets involved.

The usual pattern of interviews is followed. There is a very, very funny one involving a sleazy pornographic bookseller and his long-suffering wife, and several other scenes contain great lines. The seaside setting (quite common in Bruce's books) is very nicely done, although I agree with this review on the excellent The Grandest Game in the World blog that a map (or two) would have been beneficial, but there's a lot of entertainment along the way before Carolus reveals all.

There are two features, and, arguably, weaknesses, of the Carolus Deene books that are evident here. First, Carolus detects mainly by intuition rather than by hard evidence. On the whole, I think this is handled well enough for it not to be problematic. Second, the psychological motivation of the culprit is inadequately foreshadowed. This is, I think, a more serious flaw and in this book it could have been remedied without giving the game away. Overall, though, this book is highly enjoyable. 

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Eyes of Laura Mars - 1978 film review

Eyes of Laura Mars is an offbeat serial killer film that has a great deal going for it. For a start, the trendy fashion photographer Laura Mars is played by Faye Dunaway, while the role of a troubled cop gave a good part to Tommy Lee Jones quite early in his career. The cast also includes Raul Julia, while the title song, 'Prisoner', was sung by Barbra Streisand. And the original version of the story (and an early draft of the screenplay) was written by John Carpenter.

There's a strong 70s feel to the movie, which probably made it seem daring at the time but is now rather too dated for comfort. It's been compared to the Italian giallo films, and it does have something in common with them. Laura's photography emphasises stylish violence, and this courts controversy. Things soon take a dark turn when Laura dreams of a home intrusion and attack, in circumstances quickly replicated when her photo editor is murdered rather horribly.

Neville, the cop, points out to Laura the previous unsolved killings which seem to mirror her fashion shoots. Laura continues to have visions, and the body count continues to rise. The story material is promising, but after a while I felt the film lost its way. We don't care as much for the characters as we should. This is partly because of Laura's glacial personality, partly because (spoiler alert!) the visions are never explained, which I found pretty unsatisfactory.

There are moments when one senses that the film's makers are trying to comment on the nature of the fashion business, but the balance between plot, character, and situation seems to me to be unsatisfactory. I came to the film with quite high expectations, and although it's not a bad movie, it's certainly not as good as it could have been. And that, I gather, was very much John Carpenter's view too.

Monday 4 March 2024

Books and Book News


The sun is shining and there's definitely a touch of spring in the air. After a winter of writing, I'm looking forward to various book activities and associated trips. Today I've sent in the fruit of my winter labours, the manuscript of Hemlock Bay, to my publisher, after it received the seal of approval from my agent. So it was timely as well as gratifying to learn that the extremely well-read Kate Jackson has chosen Sepulchre Street, the previous Rachel Savernake novel, as her February book of the month

I mentioned Bill Knox and The Lazarus Widow the other day and was pleased to be name-checked in a BBC website article about Bill  I'm also delighted that this month sees the first two books in the series, Gallows Court and Mortmain Hall, published in Taiwan. This is the very first time I've ever been published in Taiwan and I'm grateful to Tymo Lin and everyone else who has made this possible. Here are the covers:

Yesterday I was glad to catch up with a number of friends at an excellent CWA Northern Chapter Sunday lunch in Knutsford. I took along the gorgeous, specially bound copy of Eileen Dewhurst's The House That Jack Built, which celebrates Eileen's joy in membership of the CWA. Here's a photo of Jean Briggs and me with the book, taken by Jason Monaghan:

File on Fenton and Farr by Q. Patrick

File on Fenton and Farr isn't a Forgotten Book but a Forgotten Crime Dossier. It was written by Q. Patrick (Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler) and appeared in 1938. The dossiers compiled by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links, starting with Murder off Miami, had proved a big hit, and so - as often happens in the publishing world - the bandwagon soon found others clambering aboard. Helen Reilly produced File on Rufus Ray (which I hope to read soon) while Q.Patrick turned out this one and then File on Claudia Cragge, before war intervened to put the dampener on the dossier craze for a good many years - although not forever.

I've never seen any online review of File on Fenton and Farr, which is a testament to the dossier's rarity. I'm fairly sure that the basic premise was inspired by the real-life Hall-Mills case, which has interested a number of crime writers over the years, including Antony Abbot and Mary-Carter Roberts. But the Q. Patrick storyline soon deviates sharply from the real-life situation.

I would hazard a guess that Webb and Wilson may have conceived this story as a novel before turning it into a dossier. I say this because there is a lot of text in the story, while the visual clues (which include a lipstick!) seem, for the most part, to be incidental to the main elements of the story. There is one visual clue relevant to an alibi which struck me as unconvincing, to say the least. Well, perhaps I say this simply because I didn't figure it out, but I'm not sure how anyone would figure it out.

Another reason why I think this began life (at least in the planning stage) as a novel is that the characterisation is less superficial than that of the Wheatley-Links dossiers, the first two of which are probably my favourites among all the dossiers. One interesting ingredient is that I'm fairly sure that the photograph of one of the suspects in the story was actually of Hugh Wheeler, while it's possible that one of the others showed Webb. Overall, quite an entertaining mystery, with a number of clever touches.

Friday 1 March 2024

Forgotten Book - Strip Death Naked

Strip Death Naked, first published in 1959, is a rather odd murder mystery. The author, Norman Longmate, worked for the BBC as a senior administrator, but wrote in his spare time. A versatile author, he was best-known as a historian, several of whose books achieved considerable acclaim. He wrote five detective novels in as many years, starting with Death Won't Wash in 1957; the first four were published by Cassell, and the fifth by Robert Hale, a sign of declining fortunes, which is probably why he abandoned the genre.

As the title hints, the setting of the story is a naturist camp. More than twenty years earlier, a nudist colony featured in E.R. Punshon's Death among the Sunbathers, a pretty dreary mystery by any standards, and the weakest Punshon that I've read. Punshon tackled naturism satirically and yet in a rather decorous way. Longmate's writing reflects the attitudes of the late 50s. In other words, it's much franker and less twee than Punshon's book, but by modern standards old-fashioned and in some respects sexist.  

Longmate's series detective, Superintendent Bradshaw, is consulted when patrons of Sunways are photographed naked and the photos are sent to their employers. This happens on several occasions over a period of time, but somehow a great Press scandal is avoided. A small group of potential suspects is identified and when they conveniently stay at Sunways at the same time, Sergeant Chris Raymond is sent to join the happy campers and investigate.

Longmate writes pretty well and there are some good touches in this story. The pace doesn't flag and a key aspect of the killer's M.O. is very fairly clued. However, I simply didn't believe the motive, which I didn't think was properly foreshadowed, and the killer's objective could have been achieved much more easily by adopting a more direct approach. And that wasn't the only aspect of the story that I simply couldn't buy into. Overall, I'd rate this novel as a curiosity, more notable for reflecting social attitudes of the time (a subject that Longmate was very interested in) than for its eventful yet somewhat wayward plot.