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.

Monday 17 June 2024

Forgotten Book - Uncle Paul

Uncle Paul was Celia Fremlin's second novel, published in 1959 after the tremendous success of her debut, The Hours Before Dawn, which duly won an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America. This novel is much less well-known, but pleasingly it enjoyed a new life last year, and was a Waterstones Thriller of the Month in a handsome new edition published by Faber, who marketed it with the tag-line: 'Welcome to the Nightmare Summer Holiday'.

We see things through the eyes of Meg, a young woman who is summoned by her sister Isabel to a seaside caravan because their older half-sister Mildred needs help. There's a cottage at the seaside, where fifteen years ago Mildred's first husband, the mysterious 'Uncle Paul' of the title, was arrested for attempted murder. Now, it seems, Paul may have been released for prison and may have returned to the scene of the crime.

Fremlin juggles various ingredients in this story. There are occasional 'Had-I-But-Known' touches: 'Meg smiled...She could not guess then, how soon and in what circumstances, she'd be recalling those words of Isabel's.' And she pokes fun at the Golden Age cliches, when discussing a book called Murder for Two: 'she's got such a cast-iron alibi that I think it must be her.' 'Don't be too sure,' Freddy said darkly. 'They tend to double-cross you nowadays.' And there is some excellent social comedy, with Fremlin's characteristically sharp observation. The dampish English summer holiday is wonderfully evoked, and there's a marvellous young boy called Cedric, a know-all whom everyone would really love to throttle. He also plays a part in the plot. As usual with Fremlin, the adult male characters are shadowy and generally less convincing than her women.  

As an attempt to surmount the 'second novel hurdle' that confronts authors who have written a great first book, Uncle Paul is an interesting case study, because it showcases Fremlin's considerable gifts, but also illustrates her weaknesses. There is suspense and a sense of menace and threat, but the tension is dissipated because things move too slowly, with too much padding. The problem is that the plot is flimsy and the ending something of a let-down (this appears to be a widespread reaction, judging by reviews that I've read). At this point in her career, Fremlin was, I think, trying to figure out how to structure a suspense novel successfully. In a number of her later books, as well as in her debut, she managed to do so splendidly. Here, she doesn't get the balance right.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Lessons in Crime - a new British Library anthology of academic mysteries


My latest anthology, Lessons in Crime:academic mysteries, has just been published by the British Library in the Crime Classics series. This book was a lot of fun to put together, and the lovely cover artwork certainly takes me back to the dreaming spires of Oxford, always a great place to be.

I've written quite a lengthy introduction this time, discussing a wide variety of academic mysteries, including some from the USA. The individual story intros try, where possible, to focus on the authors' own academic experience, which in some cases had a significant bearing on what they wrote. As ever, there's a mix of familiar names and some that are less familiar. The latter group include Miriam Sharman and Herbert Harris. There's also a little-known story by Colin Watson, author of the Flaxborough Chronicles. 

I'm extremely pleased to say that there's also a story which I don't think many readers would have expected. It's an obscure early piece of work by a very distinguished author - Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who is of course best known as a writer for children and young adults. As I've said before, her early psychological suspense novels were good reads and she was a real loss to the world of crime fiction when she moved away from the genre. 

This is, believe it or not, number 126 in the Crime Classics series, reflecting the fact that one book per month has appeared over the past ten years or so. I'm so glad that the British Library has kept faith in the anthologies and that they have done so remarkably well in sales terms - only yesterday I received a translation enquiry from an overseas publisher for one of the earlier collections. And as if that's not enough, today I've been in correspondence with various people about no fewer than four anthologies - one for the British Library plus three others that are currently in the course of creation. Exciting times! 

Monday 10 June 2024

Alibis in the Archive 2024

Alibis in the Archive 2024 was a truly exhilarating weekend. The weekend was a sell-out, with quite a few crime writers in the audience as well as those who were speaking, and we were joined by online participants from far-flung parts. As ever, the Gladstone's Library team, led by Louisa Yates and warden Andrea Russell did a great job in ensuring that everything went smoothly and, as usual, people who hadn't sampled the delights of Gladstone's Library before were blown away by the marvellous atmosphere. If ever a place has the wow factor, it's Gladstone's Library, and there was a real buzz about things from start to finish.

In organising the programme for the weekend, my aim is to provide an eclectic mix of speakers and topics - the common factor is that they are all delightful people as well as people who make a great contribution to the crime genre. Andrea hosted reception drinks before dinner, which was followed by a quiz, dreamed up by me, and a mini murder mystery run by Rhian Waller of the Library. Matthew Booth's team was triumphant. A pleasant evening of drinks and conversation followed.

Victoria Dowd got Saturday morning off to a great start with a talk about Witness for the Prosecution. Victoria is a former criminal barrister as well as a Christie fan and thus ideally suited to the topic. She was followed by Glenn Chandler, who had kindly agreed to give not one talk but two. The first was about Taggart, the brilliant TV cop show that he created over 40 years ago. It was fascinating to get the inside scoop, with lots of good stories as well as touches of poignancy. Interestingly, his favourite of the episodes he wrote was not one of the early classics with Mark McManus, but the public school story Out of Bounds, the writing of which was evidently very cathartic, given that Glenn was himself the product of a high-profile public school, the Royal High in Edinburgh. I watched Out of Bounds again last night - it's on ITV X nowadays - and enjoyed the mystery all over again. Glenn explained that Yoko Ono agreed to allow John Lennon's 'Imagine' be used in the episode free of charge and followed this session up with a talk about the case of Sidney Harry Fox, about which he's written a very interesting book. The audience was mesmerised by Glenn's wonderful contributions. He's in the photo above with me and below with Andrea as well:

Ayo Onatade interviewed me about the history of crime writing criticism and Elly Griffiths provided us with another highlight, talking about where characters come from. Then Tony Medawar talked about Agatha and the occult and tantalised us with news of rediscovered Agatha short story. Here's a photo Victoria took of my interview and one Tony took during the quiz:

One wonderful highlight arose from the fact that the CWA Diamond Dagger now has a long-term home in the British Crime Writing Archives which are held at the Library. This meant that Alexandra Foulds, the Library archivist, ably assisted by Jonathan Hopson, was able to arrange not only a display of archive material but also the Diamond Dagger itself (see the photo at the top of this post). The fact that the Dagger is now publicly accessible in this way is a great step forward so far as the CWA, the Archives, and the Library are concerned. A real win-win. It's never happened in the past, and I think it's the most exciting thing that has happened since the Archives were established.

After another convivial evening we returned for Sunday morning with a talk by Tom Mead about locked room mysteries and magic. Ayo then gave a very interesting talk about writers of colour, including famous names and quite a few who are not so famous - at least not yet. And then Leigh Russell (below photo, taken by Dea Parkin) rounded things off splendidly with a talk about crime writing research.

It was wonderful to catch up with old friends (including Martine Bailey and her husband Martin; below photo) and I was absolutely delighted with the feedback. A memorable weekend. And for those who fancy coming next year - make a date in your diaries! Alibis 2025 will be over the weekend of 6-8 June, and we're hoping and expecting another sell-out. So do get your name on the Library's list as soon as you can!

Friday 7 June 2024

Forgotten Book - Saturday Games

A long time ago, probably back in the mid to late 70s, I read a rave review or recommendation somewhere of Brown Meggs' Saturday Games, which was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club. I borrowed a copy from the library and thought it was pretty good, if not quite living up to the hype, and I also read Meggs' second and last crime novel, The Matter of Paradise.

Fast forward to 2024, and I acquired an inscribed US first edition of the novel. Meggs' day job was as a music executive with Capitol Records and famously he signed the Beatles in the US. Paul McCartney even named one of his puppies 'Brown Meggs'. His inscription is to Mickey Diage (Mary Diage), a colleague at Capitol who was also closely involved with the Beatles in the US, and he thanks her for 'all kinds of moral support and encouragement'. 

The novel was a big success and was nominated for an Edgar, although it was pipped by Gregory Mcdonald's very enjoyable Fletch. There's an excellent review here by the late Ed Gorman, who was a really shrewd judge of crime fiction. Read today, it's very much a book of the 70s, with an emphasis on sex that reflects the so-called Permissive Society. I think it was intended to be a combination of a slick murder story and a meditation on the male mid-life crisis, and as such it casts an interesting light on social attitudes in upmarket California at the time.

But what's it like when judged purely as a mystery? Reading it now was a different experience from reading it forty or more years ago, because my experience of writing novels now gives me a rather different perspective on the craft. I admire the way Meggs structures his story - it's really clever - and not only had I forgotten the clever twist at the end, I enjoyed it even more than I did originally.  

Wednesday 5 June 2024

Peter Lewis R.I.P.

I was extremely sorry to learn of the death, on 25 May, of my friend Peter Lewis, after a long and difficult illness. I first met Peter and his wife Margaret on my very first crime writing event - the inaugural lunch of the northern chapter of the CWA at Boroughbridge, back in 1987; also in attendance were such great names as Reg Hill, Bob Barnard, and Peter Walker. We all became good friends.

Peter was an academic who wrote two major literary biographies. The first, about John Le Carre, was awarded an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America in 1986. The second, about Eric Ambler, was published in 1990 and Peter wrote a guest post for this blog almost a decade ago about the revised edition. He dabbled in crime writing himself, and I included a couple of his stories in Northern Blood anthologies - the second of which was published by Flambard Press, the small press which he and Margaret (herself the author of two excellent books about notable crime writers, Ngaio Marsh and Ellis Peters) set up.

Flambard also published the UK edition of my novel Dancing for the Hangman. I was very grateful for the enthusiasm that Peter and Margaret showed for the book and I still have in our hall the lovely framed artwork they commissioned for the cover. The book didn't make any of us a fortune, but I'm still proud of it.

I met Peter and Margaret many times over the years. The photos at the top and bottom of this post were taken almost exactly fifteen years ago, in the back garden of the home of Ann and Tim Cleeves at Whitley Bay. It's sad to think that both Tim and Peter are no longer with us, but I have many happy memories of convivial times spent in their company. My deepest condolences to Margaret and her family.


Monday 3 June 2024

Bodies from the Library 2024

This year's Bodies from the Library was a great success, and I gather that audience numbers are now back to pre-pandemic levels, which is good news. Congratulations to John, Mark, Susan, Liz, and everyone at the Library who was responsible for the smooth organisation (and thanks to HarperCollins for the wine reception which made a lovely end to a very good day).

I was due to be in conversation with Chrissie Poulson, but unfortunately illness intervened at the last moment to prevent Chrissie attending. Luckily our mutual friend Moira Redmond stepped in and did a great job. The subject of my talk was John Bude and Ten Years of the British Library Crime Classics, and this followed a presentation by Simon and Lucy Brett about the Lord Peter Wimsey radio shows, complete with sound effects.

There were several excellent talks, by Tony Medawar, Dolores Gordon Smith, Jake Kerridge, Ronaldo Faragazzi (on the Detective BBC TV shows - fascinating!), Moira, Mark Aldridge, and John Curran. Special mention to Jim Noy for a very funny account of Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers and their take on the Detection Club. It was also great to get my own first sighting of my new Classic Crime anthology Lessons in Crime: academic mysteries.

There's never enough time at these events to have a long chat with everyone one would like to chat to. However, it was great to see a number of friends, including Richard Reynolds, Nigel Moss, Christina Koning, Clint Stacey, and Jasmine Simeone and also to talk to up and coming writers such as Emma O'Driscoll. All in all, a marvellous day, and I'm now gearing up for Alibis at the Archive this coming weekend...