Friday 31 May 2024

Forgotten Book - And So to Murder

 And So to Murder, first published in 1941 is one of Carter Dickson's (i.e. John Dickson Carr's) novels about Sir Henry Merrivale, but it's rather different from the 'typical' Carr story, if there is such a thing. There's no locked room mystery, for a start, and the setting is a film studio (Carr had worked in just such a studio three years earlier, and he enjoys poking fun at the excesses of film-makers). Even Sir Henry is, by his standards, relatively subdued.

Events are first seen through the eyes of young Monica Stanton, who has written a bestselling novel which is rather too raunchy for some of her family. She has been assigned to Pineham studio - but is told to write a script based on a detective novel by Bill Cartwright, while Bill is asked to adapt Monica's story for the screen. Monica takes an instant dislike to Bill, but it's soon obvious that Cupid will bring them together in due course.

Things take a dark turn when someone tries to damage and disfigure Monica by pouring sulphuric acid down a speaking tube. This is an ingenious if horrible attempted crime. Later, a cigarette is poisoned, and Carr obligingly cites a real life precedent. The central mystery is this: who would want to harm innocent Monica? It doesn't seem to make sense.

This is a minor book by the standards of this author, partly because the circle of suspects is very small. I'm not absolutely convinced that the motive for the crimes was 'fair'; or at least, I never spotted any clues to it, as opposed to physical clues that identified the culprit. Overall, it's a decent light read.

Wednesday 29 May 2024

A Bellini at Harry's Bar and other literary inspirations

I'm back from a lovely holiday which combined a yacht tour of the Croatian islands between Split and the north of the country with a catamaran ride taking me on a short break in Venice, a city of which I never tire. Much as I love Britain, it was great to enjoy a spell of excellent weather broken only by a thunderstorm on arrival in Venice and which didn't last long. 

As the boat drifted along the Adriatic, calling at places such as Rab, Pula, and Poruc, I managed to do quite a bit of reading (mainly of some novels that will feature in the future as Forgotten Books) and even more importantly I found the time away from my desk inspired me creatively, as often happens. I was able to solve some of the issues that had been challenging me in connection with the novel I'm writing at present, a real bonus.

There were many highlights, too many to itemise in this post, but I'd like to single out Zadar as a place I thought was really special - the sea organ and the light show in the evening (see the photos at the end of this post were truly memorable, even if we missed out on the sunset that Alfred Hitchcock rhapsodised about. Croatia is a fascinating country; this was my fourth visit, and they've all been enjoyable.

In Venice, it was good to look round St Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace for the first time; both of them have fantastic interiors. A real highlight for me was crossing the Bridge of Sighs. I've seen it many times from the outside, but walking the walk that so many prisoners took is quite special. And I persuaded all my companions to come along with me to Harry's Bar, where I sampled a rather delicious Bellini in the place it was created and fancied myself as a latter day Hemingway or Bogart - or perhaps not! I really think that Rachel Savernake should take a trip to Venice one of these days. It's the sort of exotic locale that suits her. Anyway, a great trip, and it's energised me - which is just as well, as I've come back to a mountain of writing projects!

Monday 27 May 2024

Watcher - 2022 film review

I've never been to Bucharest and although I'd like to go, there's nothing in Watcher, a 2022 film set in the city, that does any favours to the local tourist trade. In this story, a young American couple move to Rumania because the husband, Francis (Karl Glusman) is relocated by his employers. His wife Julia (Maika Monroe, who was also in that strong suspense film Greta) has a lot of time on her hands.

Julia becomes aware that a man in the block of flats opposite hers is watching her from his window. This is creepy enough, but a serial killer is also at work in the city, targeting women. Things go from bad to worse when Julia becomes aware that the watcher has followed her into a cinema and then into a mini-market. 

On one occasion, Julia waves to the man - not a good idea, surely? - and he waves back. She tells her husband what is happening, but he is less than sympathetic. A female neighbour, Irina, seems able to offer more meaningful support, but she is being bothered by a troublesome ex, and eventually she disappears from her flat.

Tension builds slowly in Watcher, but at least it does build. Maika Monroe gives a strong performance, although the storyline becomes much more predictable than I'd hoped. The New York Times called this film 'one of this century's most arresting tales of female anxiety' and although I think this level of praise is over the top, I do think that Watcher, despite its lack of pace, is very...watchable.  

Friday 24 May 2024

Forgotten Book - Door Nails Never Die

There were quite a few eccentric book titles during the Golden Age and Door Nails Never Die has to be right up there with the weirdest of them. This novel, by impossible crime specialist Anthony Wynne, was published in 1939 - not a good year to promote your book, I imagine, given that people had other things on their mind (rather like the early days of the pandemic, I guess!). I'm not aware of any discussion anywhere concerning this particular novel, which I believe is very rare, even though it was published in the US as well as in the UK.

This is another novel featuring Dr Eustace Hailey, and it benefits from a good setting in the New Forest. The great man is consulted by the Reverend Ronald Foglore about a strange recent killing, during a horse-and-hounds hunt. Jack Stown was found by his cousin Patrick near a gate, dying of a stab wound. Nobody else was nearby. So Patrick appears to be the only suspect. The motive appears to be connected with Patrick's involvement with Prudence, the perhaps inappropriately named wife of Colonel Pykewood. Colonel Wickham (yep, no shortage of Colonels in this one) is convinced of Patrick's guilt. But Hailey is less certain. However, when another murder follows, things look very black indeed for Patrick, and he goes on the run.

This story has some features in common with Death of a Banker which I reviewed here eight years ago and which was published five years before this one. Again, that involved an impossible crime with a background of a hunt. But an intriguing set-up in each case, is - I'm sorry to say - followed by some very turgid stuff indeed. This is a real shame, because there are moments when Wynne writes well, but they are lost in the attempt to spin the story out far beyond its natural length. 

Spoiler alert - Patrick is not the murderer, surprise, surprise! The trouble is that it's screamingly obvious quite early on who is the guilty party. There's a huge amount of tedious circumlocution about impotence, and the only real interest is in learning how precisely the deed was done. I'm afraid I was very disappointed. It's not only a barmy title but a fairly barmy novel. I feel genuine regret in saying this about such a rarity, especially since Wynne was clearly trying to do something a bit different in certain respects. But it's not one I can really recommend, other than as a curiosity.


Wednesday 22 May 2024

Topkapi - 1964 film review

Eight years ago, I wrote an introduction for Eric Ambler's The Light of Day, an Edgar-winning novel that appeared in the British Library's Classic  Thrillers series. The book was filmed as Topkapi, but I've never got round to watching it until now. It's a highly rated movie, although to be brutally honest, my impression is that it's over-rated. Or perhaps it simply hasn't worn as well as I'd hoped. I certainly enjoyed it much less than the book.

This is a heist story, about a woman who decides to steal a valuable gem from the Topkapi Palace and recruits her ex-lover (Maximilian Schell) and a gang of amateurs with no criminal record to do the necessary. The film is directed by Jules Dassin, best known for Rififi. He decided to cast his wife, Melina Mercouri, in the lead role, and his son Joe also appears. I'm afraid I didn't find Melina's performance as charismatic as I should have done.

Two notable British actors play important parts. Robert Morley, who I felt was at least a bit less irritating than usual, is a member of the gang, and the role of Arthur Simpson - who is the book's narrator - is taken by Peter Ustinov, who actually won an Oscar for his performance. Ustinov is, certainly, the best thing about the film.

Heist films tend to be samey in terms of structure, so it's important, I think, for them to be handled with pace and verve. Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job, and The League of Gentlemen are all great examples of how to bring new life to the formula. The main problem here, given the quality of the source material, is that for most of the time things move at a funereal pace. And although it's said to be a comedy, genuinely funny moments are few and far between. Given the film's reputation, I'd expected much better.  

Monday 20 May 2024

Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death - 1984 TV movie review

The Masks of Death is a TV movie from 1984 with an impressive array of contributors. The director was Roy Ward Baker, veteran of innumerable films and TV shows; he was no Hitchcock, but he was certainly professional. The script was written by N.J. Crisp and Anthony Hinds, two men highly experienced in writing for the screen. Peter Cushing reprises the role of Sherlock Holmes, which he'd first portrayed 25 years earlier in The Hound of the Baskervilles; he'd also taken over from Douglas Wilmer to appear in 16 TV episodes about Sherlock in 1968.

Dr Watson was played by John Mills, and Irene Adler by the Oscar-winning American actress Anne Baxter. Ray Milland, another Oscar winner, plays the Home Secretary, while Gordon Jackson is Inspector MacDonald, Anton Diffring is (surprise, surprise) the Sinister Foreigner, and there are even small parts for Russell Hunter and Susan Penhaligon. 

Terrific ingredients, for sure. So I expected competence at the very least, and in that I wasn't disappointed. In 1913, three dead men are found in the East End, with expressions of terror on their faces. Holmes is set to investigate, but the Home Secretary begs him to pursue another inquiry, in the hope of averting war with Germany. Naturally, though, all is not as it seems, and the two matters turn out to be connected.

The story is okay, if hardly in the Conan Doyle class (at least, not Conan Doyle at his best!). The main problem is that nearly all the key people involved with this film were coming to the end of their careers. This was a last hurrah for Cushing and, very sadly, Anne Baxter, while Ray Milland did not last much longer. I think it's great that this group of senior figures made a Sherlock Holmes film, but I felt that there was a distinct lack of energy and excitement about the whole enterprise, meaning that it is a perfectly acceptable time-passer but really not much more than that. There were plans for a follow-up called The Abbot's Cry, but this didn't materialise, due to Cushing's failing health. To be honest, it's just as well. At his peak, he was an excellent Holmes, and it's better to remember him in his prime.

Friday 17 May 2024

Forgotten Book - The Unfinished Clue

My first experience with Georgette Heyer's detective novels was disappointing. Penhallow is, I think, widely regarded as a poor book. But Nigel Moss persuaded me to take another look at her, and recommended The Unfinished Clue (1934). He's a good judge - it's a light, entertaining mystery in the classic Golden Age vein.

The victim is not a blackmailer, but old General Billington-Smith is so utterly horrible that almost everyone who sets foot in his country house has cause to want him dead. And in due course he is found stabbed in his study. No great loss, frankly. Inspector Harding from Scotland Yard is called in by the Chief Constable, and proves to be a likeable character. He even falls in love with a member of the house party, who is sister-in-law of the deceased.

Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed this novel in the Sunday Times and pointed that it is full of cliches, but that it's written in such a lively way, with a nice line in comedy, that this doesn't matter. I agree. The 'unfinished clue' of the title is a 'dying message clue' scribbled by the General on a scrap of paper. I didn't find it difficult to figure out the meaning of the clue, although some aspects of the solution to the puzzle did elude me.

Heyer's strength was her dialogue rather than her plotting, and she excels at allowing her characters to forward the story through conversation (a contemporary writer who displays the same mastery of dialogue is Simon Brett). I liked this book, and thanks to Nigel's advocacy, I'll be happy to read more Heyer one of these days.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

An E.C.R. Lorac exhibition


Not so long ago, the name of E.C.R. Lorac was unknown to most present day crime fans. Lorac, whose real name was Carol Rivett, and who also wrote prolifically as Carol Carnac, slipped into literary obscurity not long after her death in 1958. That's the way it was for almost all authors. Once a book was out of print, that was it. You were history. But things have changed, and I'm delighted that Bolton-le-Sands Library in Lancashire, close to Aughton where Lorac lived in her later years, is currently holding an exhibition dedicated to the woman and her work.

I find this really rather exciting, even if I have to pinch myself to believe it's actually happening. I was introduced to Lorac by my parents, who were fascinated by the Lunesdale books - my grandmother lived in Morecambe, not far away, for many years and that was the first place I ever went to on holiday. I used to pick up second hand Loracs for my parents whenever I saw them. As a result they have finally come back to me, although since she was so prolific, there are quite a few I haven't read (and quite a few I've never seen - some titles are very scarce indeed).

My attempts to bring Lorac back into public view have been greatly aided by Lena Whiteley and her family, who still live in the area. Lena knew Lorac when she was young and really liked her. Thanks to their kindness and enthusiasm, I've explored the area with greater understanding. 

I don't know precise figures, but I believe that the Lorac books are the most popular in the entire British Library Crime Classics series these days. We even managed to publish the hitherto unpublished Two-Way Murder, which was a great joy.  And as a result a large number of people around the world are getting acquainted with a writer whom my parents really enjoyed writing. Very satisfying. And there are more Loracs to come...

Tuesday 14 May 2024

CrimeFest 2024


I've always enjoyed CrimeFest, one of the friendliest and least cliquey of literary festivals, and this year's event in Bristol, splendidly organised as ever by Adrian Muller and Donna Moore, was certainly no exception. The weather was kind and despite the disruption of rail strikes, which caused some adjustment to my plans, I had much less arduous journey there and back than last year.

As a result, I arrived in good time for my first panel, 'Authors Remembered', which is a regular festival event. Christine Poulson wasn't able to take part because of illness, but happily she recovered and was able to come to Bristol the next day. As usual, the only problem with this panel was that there simply wasn't enough time to say everything about our fave writers that we'd have liked to fit in!

On Thursday evening, Antony Johnston and I teamed up to play 'Murdle', an interactive event based on G.T. Karber's bestselling book and hosted by Karber himself. He's an engaging chap and I enjoyed talking to him. The event proved, I have to say, to be rather more straightforward than the puzzles in the book. On Friday I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with Christina Koning and dinner with Ayo Onatade and it was good to have the chance of a really good conversation with two very delightful companions. 

Saturday morning brought two more panels. I moderated a discussion about 'races against time' with Stan Trollip, Brian Price, Simon McCleave, and Michelle Kidd. And then Donna Moore chaired a discussion with me, Kate Griffin (author of the brilliant Fyneshade), Abir Mukherjee, and Christina Koning. I managed to watch some football in the afternoon and do a bit of wandering around town before the gala dinner. I didn't manage to win the eDunnit award, which went to Laura Lippman, but it was a great evening and I was glad to get together with David Brawn, editor of The Golden Age of Murder and The Life of Crime to discuss possible future projects. Then it was down to the bar for the last time... All in all, great fun.

Friday 10 May 2024

Forgotten Book - Crime Wave at Little Cornford

Herbert Adams (1874-1958) published more than fifty mysteries between 1924 and the year of his death; a couple of books appeared under the name Jonathan Gray and for more than a decade his stories were a staple of the prestigious Collins Crime Club list. He wasn't a Premier League author, but it seems fair to say that he was a reliable second-tier storyteller, with a specialism in golfing mysteries that has helped to make his books collectible to this day.

Crime Wave at Little Cornford, published in 1948, is a novel I enjoyed. My copy is inscribed by him: 'The First Copy, as always to my Wife with all my love.' Rather charming, I think. By that time he was in his mid-seventies, but although this story is essentially a Golden Age village mystery, there are some contemporary trimmings which are quite intriguing. The back cover of the jacket, done in the style of a Golden Age map, illustrates various crime titles published by Macdonald - a nice idea.

The 'crime wave' comprises three incidents of escalating gravity - the defacement of a war memorial; an armed robbbery at a party; and a murder during a village fete. Roger Bennion, Adams' principal series sleuth, is holidaying in the area and naturally solves all three puzzles. The plot is sound, even if one culprit is inadequately presented, and the romantic elements of the story (Adams was evidently quite keen on romantic sub-plots) are well-handled and by no means tedious.

Adams seems to have felt it desirable to include observations, mainly through his characters, on the state of the world after the war. So we get some discussion of socialism (one character gloomily predicts no end to the Labour government, a mere three years before the party lost power) and also a strange and to my mind unsatisfactory discussion of the Jewish-Arab situation at the time. There is also a likeable vicar who insists that the end of the world is nigh; an attempt to comment, I imagine, on the impact of nuclear warfare. These ingredients didn't work particularly well, as far as I was concerned, but they reflect an attempt to update the traditional mystery and they also cast some light on the way some people were thinking at the time. Overall, though, and despite some flaws, the story is entertaining enough for me to be happy to recommend it.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

The Life of Crime in paperback!

This week sees the publication of the paperback edition of The Life of Crime, which is significantly expanded (to the tune of about 7000 words) from the original. The extra space has allowed me to cover upwards of 200 additional authors and works. HarperCollins have done another great job in terms of production and I'm very happy with the result.

It's impossible to write the perfect book and I'll certainly never write a perfect book, but I can say that I do find it exciting to have produced this one, since it's not easy to start with a very ambitious objective and produce a finished work that comes at least fairly close to what I hoped to achieve when this chunky volume was just a gleam in my eye.

I've been heartened by the fact that the Guardian included the book in its 'Paperbacks of the Month' feature, and P.D. Smith said it was 'wonderfully readable...pacey and entertaining, filled with amusing anecdotes. Even the footnotes are worth reading for their illuminating impressive achievement and essential reading for serious fans of crime fiction.'

I've also come across some more nice reviews. Ink and Cinema said it was: 'captivating and educational journey through the rich tapestry of crime fiction. Edwards' meticulous research, engaging prose, and insightful analysis make this book an essential read for both devoted fans of the genre and those looking to explore the world of mysteries. By tracing the evolution of crime fiction and its creators, Edwards offers readers a glimpse into the world of mystery literature and its enduring impact on culture and storytelling.'

And SFF World covered the book generously, even though I touch on sci-fi crime very briefly in the 700 pages or so: 'Edwards, through his reading and research, pulls together and compacts an amazing amount of information concentrating on novel length works, with occasional reference to short stories, making this an authoritative reference, perhaps the authoritative reference, for the foreseeable future for anyone beginning to research writers or works within the genre, or just looking to fill in a reading list. Being a fiction writer rather than an academic or professional critic, Edwards has a sense of pace and readability that makes this immersive and entertaining as well as informing.'

I'm glad that readers and reviewers have found the book well-written and readable as well as packed with information. That was a key aim, because this is a book I hoped would be read, not just treated as a sort of encyclopaedia that is seldom taken down from the shelf. And of course I hope this paperback edition, which I think is quite reasonably priced given its size, will give more crime fans plenty to chew over and enjoy. 

Monday 6 May 2024

A research trip

At the moment, I'm working on a stand-alone crime novel, something quite different from my other books, but with a strong puzzle element. The setting is fictional, but it's firmly based in a lonely part of the north of England. The idea for using this location came to me last year, when I was driving to Berwick-upon-Tweed (itself the setting for a short story, 'The Widow', that will be published shortly). I travelled across Alston Moor in Cumbria on a lovely day, but the twisty road climbing towards Hartside Summit was wreathed in mist. Quite spooky, and it made a big impression on me.

The nature of the story means that the plot is labyrinthine. But I believe that even a story with a strong focus on puzzle benefits from having strong characters and a believable setting. So I felt it was important to spend more time in the area and get a better sense of what it's like to live there. The place is seen from the perspective of outsiders rather than locals, which an approach I take quite often (so the Lake District is seen largely from Daniel Kind's perspective in my cold case series).

I benefited from the kindness of Ann Cleeves, who was happy for me to stay in her cottage in Northumberland, an hour or more away, but again interesting for its isolation and sense of peace and quiet. Although my story is set in winter, I felt it was easier to research the area in better weather, and I was extremely fortunate with my choice of days.

So I discovered a variety of places in both Cumbria and Northumberland that were full of interest and which, in one way or another, may feed into my writing - perhaps in ways that haven't yet occurred to me, such is the nature of the process of creating a story. I was fascinated by Alston, Nenthead, Kielder Water, Otterburn, Bellingham, and Corbridge, none of which I'd ever explored before. I also had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Tomlin, an actor (and former Mastermind winner!) who founded the Border Readers, a wonderful group of performers who have, amongst many other things, read my stories 'Bad Friday' and 'The Case of the Musical Butler' to audiences in the region. We've been in touch for a while but finally met in person for coffee at Hexham Abbey. Very enjoyable. A great trip in itself, and also very useful.


Friday 3 May 2024

Forgotten Book - The Madman Theory

The Madman Theory is an Ellery Queen novel. Except that it doesn't feature Ellery Queen the character and it wasn't written by Ellery Queen, the pseudonymous writing duo. Published in 1966, the book was ghost-written by Jack Vance, a highly-regarded science fiction writer who wrote two other 'Ellery Queen' novels. 

The book opens with a cop, the likeable Omar Collins, heading into the wilds to look at a crime scene. A wealthy businessman, Earl Genneman, has apparently been shot dead by a sniper while on a trip with four close associates. The location is remote - the middle of nowhere, really - and one of the puzzles is why it was chosen for the killing. Another mystery is why Genneman was killed - he had relatively few enemies. We then have a flashback scene which shows Genneman and the others starting out on their trip, which was so dramatically interrupted. After that we have, in effect, a police procedural as Collins meticulously pursues the killer.

At first the crime seems so outlandish that it must be the work of a madman (hence the title of the book). Collins tracks down the cars which may have brought the killer to the area, and before long his inquiry focuses on a man called Steve Ricks. When Ricks too is brutally murdered, it seems clear that the two crimes are linked.

I enjoyed the taut style of writing and the mystery kept me entertained. It's a short book and a quick read. However, there are two weaknesses. There isn't any adequate foreshadowing of the motive for the crime, which irritated me a lot. And the means by which the crime was actually committed was a bit far-fetched. So not a masterpiece, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.