Friday, 16 February 2018

Forgotten Book - The Woman in the Sea

Image result for shelley smith woman in the sea

An older woman called Mrs Robinson seduces a naive young man. Sounds familiar? Well, my subject today is not The Graduate, but a much less familiar story, Shelley Smith's novel of 1948, The Woman in the Sea. It was her sixth book, and it's the work of an accomplished and interesting novelist, much admired by Julian Symons.

There's an Author's Note at the beginning, in which Smith states that "Looking about me for a suitable plot by which to illustrate certain aspects of morality which were much exercising my mind..." she recalled a real life case which seemed "to provide a framework both solid and pliable enough for my purpose". Here she is referring, I have little doubt, to the Rattenbury and Stoner case of 1935 (although that case bears uncanny similarities to the earlier, and even more famous, Thompson and Bywaters case).  She denies that her characters are intended to represent their real life counterparts,and on the whole I think this denial is not disingenuous, but fair enough. Francis Rattenbury, for instance, led a very different life from Zoe Robinson's husband Bertram.

The book has a prologue involving the discovery of the body, and essentially the rest of the story is a flashback, recounting the events in a doom-laden house which led up to that particular death. I suspect that Smith realised that her method of structuring the story reduced the tension, but that she though it a price worth paying. A debatable decision, as far as I'm concerned, but despite being quite sure how it was all going to end, I kept reading.

This is because Smith was a writer of genuine ability and intelligence. She could plot very well when she wanted to, but her main concern here was with those issues of morality. To a modern reader, perhaps these are not quite as compelling as they were in 1948, but the account of Zoe's affair with a really rather stupid lad is handled with some poignancy. I'm glad I read it. Smith's constant determination to try to do something different strikes me as admirable.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Dilemma - 1962 film review

Dilemma is a good title for the 1962 British black and white B movie which has, over the years, provoked widely differing responses. To some, it is "critically acclaimed", an unusual and possibly thought-provoking suspense story. To others, it's a complete disaster. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both points of view. I found it watchable, despite an irritatingly intrusive soundtrack, but ultimately frustrating.

The set-up is definitely intriguing. In respectable suburbia, a youngish woman (Ingrid Hafner) screams and flees from her semi-detached house. Her nosey next door neighbour wonders what is going on. She isn't enlightened when Harry (Peter Halliday) turns up. He's a teacher, who has just broken up for the holidays. Tomorrow, he and his wife Jean are off on hols to celebrate their second wedding anniversary. He's surprised that Jean (Hafner) is nowhere to be seen.

Surprise turns to horror when he goes upstairs, and discovers a strange man's body in the bathroom. Just before he dies, the man utters an enigmatic "dying message". The deceased has been stabbed with a pair of scissors, and Jean's apron is stained with blood. What on earth is going on? Harry concludes that, for reasons he can't guess, Jean has murdered the man. So he sets about hiding the body under the floorboards of the living room.

The suspense builds as all manner of visitors, including the police, turn up to torment him. Will he get away with concealing evidence of murder? And what is his wife up to? The trouble is that his behaviour seems wildly implausible. How could it possibly be a good idea for someone with any intelligence to behave as he does? That's one of the three problems with the film. Another is that Hafner's acting is wooden in the extreme. She doesn't seem to believe in her character, though perhaps that's not surprising. The final problem is the finale, which is unsatisfactory - because inadequately foreshadowed and very difficult to believe - and oddly truncated. Apparently the film wasn't released in the cinema, though it was shown on television. It's an odd one, but it kept me watching even if I did feel slightly cheated at the end.

Monday, 12 February 2018

CWA North - 30 years on!

I've returned from an extremely enjoyable week-end in Yorkshire, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association. The company was excellent, and that's been a constant over the years, even though the names and faces have changed. In fact the only people from that very first meeting who made it to the same venue, the Crown Hotel in Boroughbridge, were myself and my then fiancee, now Mrs Edwards. She reminded me how nervous I'd been ahead of that first meeting, which was also the first time I'd met any crime writers in person. But I needn't have worried, since I was made very welcome by the likes of Peter Walker, Peter Lewis, Reginald Hill and Bob Barnard, and this spirit continues within the CWA to the present.

It was actually the autumn of 1987 that we had that inaugural meeting, and in that time the chapter has only had three convenors. Peter Walker, who sadly died last year, was succeeded by Roger Forsdyke, who has now, I'm glad to say, resumed writing after a break due to ill health. And Roger's successor, Ricki Thomas, had done a great job in organising our return to the Crown.

Ten of us met up for a convivial dinner the previous evening, and it was a particular pleasure to welcome a brand new member, Antony Johnston, a highly successful graphic novelist who has recently turned to crime writing. At the other end of the scale, on Sunday I was delighted to see again an old friend, Stephen Hayes, who as Stephen Murray was a successful writer for Collins Crime Club and an early member of the northern chapter; his career has, however, followed a different path over the past twenty years or so. Again, I'm hoping that Stephen - a very talented novelist - will soon be writing more crime novels.

Among all the merriment, there was time to reflect on a number of absent friends, as several long-standing members are currently affected by ill-health. But there have been so many happy times over the past 30 years - not least week-end get-togethers in the Lake District organised by the great Reg Hill, and three anthologies featuring names such as Ann Cleeves, Stuart Pawson, and Val McDermid - that the over-riding mood was one of delight. The CWA's regional chapters are a source of great strength to the organisation, and I do encourage any crime writer who is reading these words to take part in their own local chapter's activities. I'm sure you won't regret it.

Thanks to Roger Bullock for the photo at the top of the post, and to Sarah J. Mason for the below photos, taken when northern chapter members visited Magna Large Print way back in 1995. Those pictured include Tim Cleeves, Alanna Knight, John Baker, Stuart Pawson, Alan Sewart, Meg Elizabeth Atkins, and Peter Walker. You might even recognise a much younger version of me.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Forgotten Book - The Paddington Mystery

John Rhode published The Paddington Mystery in 1925, shortly after beginning a career as a crime writer, and this novel is notable because it introduces Dr Lancelot Priestley, the veteran professor of mathematics who was to become one of the most renowned amateur "great detectives" of the Golden Age. I was especially thrilled to acquire my copy of this book a short while ago, because although it is not a first edition, it once belonged to the Detection Club and bears the bookplate of their library; Rhode not only donated it, but signed it.

The story begins with amiable but raffish young Harold Merefield (pronounced "Merryfield", we're told) going home one night only to find a corpse. The identity of the dead man is not traced by the police, but since the deceased appears to have met his end  through natural causes, Harold doesn't find himself locked up on a murder rap. Unfortunately, the incident doesn't do his reputation any good, and makes it less likely than ever that he'll ever be able to rekindle his romance with Priestley's attractive daughter April. His association with a dubious woman called Vere doesn't help, either.

Harold decides to take the bull by the horns and consult Priestley. Although the older man can be irascible as well as cerebral, he has a kindly side to his nature, and is already on good terms with the police because of his interest in detection. He takes a keen interest in what the Press call "the Paddington Mystery" and starts to make enquiries.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the story is pretty thin. It would have made a high calibre short story, but the eventual explanation goes on almost interminably, and the main twist is foreseeable, although there is one element of it that is rather pleasing and unusual. Not a masterpiece, by any means, but a book of historic interest. And it's pleasing to report that the book will be reissued in the Detective Story Club next June. Tony Medawar has written an intro which I'm sure will be informative.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Night of the Prowler - 1962 film review

Night of the Prowler is a 1962 B movie which begins extremely well before tailing off as the flaws in the villain's cunning plan become all too evident. The screenplay was written by Paul Erickson, a Welsh actor and writer who became quite a successful scriptwriter, working on Doctor Who, as well as crime series such as No Hiding Place, The Saint, Paul Temple, and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Not a bad CV.

The story opens with the murder of one of the partners in a business which is involved with racing cars. A message is received by the surviving partners - a chap called Langton (Patrick Holt), his wife, from whom he's separated (Colette Wilde) and his friend Paul Conrad (Bill Nagy). The message indicates that the crime has been committed by a chap whom the partners had sent to prison fr theft.

Rather surprisingly, the partners take things in their stride, and an offer of police protection is declined. The official investigation is led by DI Cameron, played by John Horsley, long before he became celebrated as the inept Doc Morrissey in The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perring  Langton has a new girlfriend (Mitzi Rogers, later to feature in Coronation Street among other shows), while Conrad and Mrs Langton are developing a relationship.

I enjoyed the early part of the film, but felt that it went downhill as it progressed. The culprit's scheme didn't seem as cunning to me as it did to the scriptwriter, and as the body count rose, the failure of the killer's targets to seek adequate police protection began to seem suicidal. Not a bad film, but it didn't maintain its initial promise.

Crosstrap - 1962 film

One thing about forgotten books.No matter how obscure they are, you can almost always track down a copy sooner or later (being able to afford to buy it is a different matter!) The deposit library system isn't totally infallible, but overall it works extremely well. The position is different with old films and old TV shows. Some of them are lost forever, because the tapes have been wiped or otherwise destroyed. One can only dream, for instance, that a complete run of the wonderful BBC TV series Detective will turn up sooner or later. And there are plenty of other examples of good shows that are still missing.

But sometimes fans get a lucky break. A film thought to have been lost suddenly turns up. Such was the case with Crosstrap, a B movie made in 1962, which, it seems, some fans had been searching for year after year because it marked the debut of director Robert Hartford-Davis (though I must admit his fame had completely passed me by). But a copy turned up a few years ago, and now it's available again and has recently been screened by Talking Pictures.

The film stars Laurence Payne, an interesting character because he was not only a capable actor, most renowned for starring as Sexton Blake in the Sixties, but also the author of a number of crime novels.  I was once told by a female contemporary of his that he was a man with great personal charisma. Here he plays a smooth baddie called Duke, who is involved in a jewel robbery. His gang are waiting in a deserted house for a plane to take them to Spain. Why they hadn't arranged to be picked up more quickly is not explained. Even worse, the house isn't deserted. A young couple, played by Gary Cockrell and Jill Adams, have rented it for a romantic first anniversary stay. What's more, a rival gang is staking out the house.

The gang's plot, in other words, is a bit of a mess. The same might perhaps be said of the storyline, based on a novel by the prolific thriller writer John Newton Chance. Bill Nagy and Zena Marshall are in the cast, and in fairness the story moves along at a lively pace. But the sex and violence scenes seem rather tawdry (yet also tame) by modern standards, and it's not a great advert, in my opinion, for Hartford-Davis. The best thing about it is Payne's performance, and the explosive final scene.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Books, Books, Books...

...and more books. So many good things to read, so little time to read them. And even less to write lengthy blog posts about them, alas, so today I'm going to round up a few among the many interesting titles that have, happily, come my way in recent months. They illustrate the variety of crime writing in a good way, and let me also mention a couple of forthcoming non-crime titles.

Let me start with Len Tyler's latest, Herring in the Smoke, another case for Ethelred Tressider, one of my favourite amateur sleuths. I've been a fan of this series since it began, even before I got to know Len personally. And I was greatly amused to come across a reference to myself in the narrative! This is a book that gets off to a brilliant start, when Roger Norton Vane turns up at his own memorial service, twenty years after he went missing and was presumed dead. I was intrigued to see what Len would make of this premise, and while I figured out one plot twist, the ending took me aback. I won't say any more; you'll have to read the book!

Frances Brody has quietly established herself as one of our leading purveyors of historical mystery fiction. When I visited New York recently, I seized - of course - the chance to pop into as many bookshops as possible, and I was pleased to see Frances' books prominently displayed in Barnes and Noble. Pleased, but not surprised, because her history-mystery series about Kate Shackleton has become as popular in the US as it is here. The latest is Death in the Stars, which I'm reading currently and very much enjoying.

Perhaps less well-known than Len and Frances, but certainly an author to watch is Sarah Williams, Not content with writing fiction and non-fiction, she also runs a small press. As S.W. Williams she published her debut novel Small Deaths recently. It's another historical mystery: a serial killer is on the loose behind the lines on the Western  Front. As Sarah Williams, she's also responsible for How to Write Crime Fiction, published under the Robinson imprint. I'm a sucker for how-to-write-crime books, I must admit. It's not so much that I want to do all the exercises etc that their authors may suggest, but I find it truly fascinating to see the different approaches that are recommended.

Now someone I've never met, but with whom I've corresponded recently, is Paul Roland. His main field is true crime writing, an area I've ventured into myself, for instance with Urge to Kill and Truly Criminal, a CWA anthology of true crime stories. Paul's work encompasses Jack the Ripper, crime scene investigation, and criminal profiling in In the Minds of Murderers. An author worth bearing in mind if this is your field of interest.

Someone else I've never met is the tireless researcher and anthologist Mike Ashley. Yet I owe Mike quite a debt, because many years ago, he took my first attempt at a Sherlock Holmes story, "The Case of the Suicidal Lawyer" (yep, a joke about the legal life is lurking in there somewhere...) This has led to a hugely enjoyable occasional sideline, culminating in my recent lecture to the Baker Street Irregulars. Anyway, back to Mike. He too has done a good deal of work with the British Library, and now he's edited two meaty anthologies of classic science fiction, Moonrise and Lost Mars, which will be the shelves soon. I enjoy quite a few sci-fi writers, and I've started dipping into these collections already. With any luck, this may be the start of an imprint to rival the Crime Classics.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Forgotten Book - Motive for Murder

Motive for Murder is a title close to my heart. It was an alternative title for my true crime book Urge to Kill,and the almost-identical Motives for Murder was the title of the Detection Club anthology which I edited, and which yielded four stories on the CWA Dagger longlist, three on the shortlist (including my "Murder and its Motives"!) and the ultimate winner. But today I'm talking about something completely different - the novel published in 1963 by Charles Barling.

Actually, Charles Barling was the name of the author's husband. Her principal writing name was Pamela Barrington and she lived from 1904-1986. Her first novel, White Pierrot, was published in the early Thirties, but it was a romance rather than crime, and her career only really developed after the Second World War. She was never a big name, although Account Rendered (1953) was filmed, with a very young Honor Blackman in a leading role.

Motive for Murder concerns the doomed marriage of Paul Hooper, a young estate agent, to Edith Maitland, an attractive and enigmatic older woman, who moves to Rye and decides to buy the house Paul grew up in, and with which he is obsessed. She seduces him, and they marry - though his eye is on the house rather than Edith. Before long, Edith starts an affair with another man, and behaves so unpleasantly to all and sundry that it's foreseeable she will wind up dead.

And so she does. The question is - who killed her, and why? The publishers described this as "an offbeat crime story with an ingenious twist", and I found it very readable indeed. In fact, I found the build-up very entertaining. But the later part of the story struck me as disappointing. A certain carelessness with the writing perhaps explains my disappointment, as does the fact that I didn't find the twist ingenious. This is nearly a very good mystery, and I'm glad I read it, but the excellence that I'd anticipated wasn't sustained. A shame, because there's something distinctive about this writer's storytelling.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Agatha and other awards

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books features on the newly announced shortlist for the Agatha award for best non-fiction book, and naturally I'm pleased, as well as grateful to those who have put the book forward for consideration. I was conscious that The Golden Age of Murder was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime book, and that there was a risk if I ventured into non-fiction about the genre again, the result would be anti-climactic. But it would be a mistake to be deterred by that sort of thinking, since the aim of writing is to do what you enjoy, and what you hope others may enjoy. And I found the experience of working on the book hugely enjoyable, not least because my British and American publishers are excellent, and I had wonderful support from a number of people, not least Nigel Moss and Barry Pike, whose comments on the draft were enormously helpful.

I've had wide-ranging experience of dealing with awards, both in my legal career and as a writer. I've been involved in decisions on awards, notably during the period of about twenty years when I was on the CWA Diamond Dagger sub-committee. My own efforts have appeared on shortlists, and occasionally been successful. And, it goes without saying, the vast majority of my works have not come close to featuring in any awards lists.

All this had led me to various opinions about awards. I've sometimes talked to people who develop conspiracy theories about award judging processes, but I tend not to be too sympathetic to these. The reality is that judging awards, or voting for an award, entails a great deal of subjectivity. I can think of many award-winning books that have benefited from good timing as well as intrinsic merit, and that's life. What is the "best"? The novel that I regard as my best got nowhere, in terms of sales or awards, yet three other novels did well. Perhaps that simply means that an author isn't the best judge of his or her own work.

In recent years, I've had a lot of good fortune with awards, and maybe that is why I take a fairly relaxed view of these things. But really, lovely as it is to have one's work recognised, it's surely best to strive to be philosophical about awards. What I'd say to any writer at the start of their career is to enjoy the good times, because all writers have plenty of less good times. To be shortlisted for an award is an honour, something to savour. And then what matters is to keep writing, and try to write something even better, whether or not it ever comes close to winning an award.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Chloe -film review

Chloe is a psychological thriller movie, originally released in 2009. It's a remake by Atom Egoyan of a French film called Nathalie, from 2003, which I haven't seen. Chloe benefits from a classy cast, led by Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson. I always enjoy watching Neeson, even though I'm not quite sure whether that's because of his acting skills or simply his charisma. Here, as so often, he plays David, a rumpled but likeable guy, an academic and a specialist in opera. The trouble is, his wife Catherine starts to suspect that he's rather too likeable as far as his students are concerned.

Catherine, a rich doctor, throws an extravagant surprise birthday party for David at great expense. Much to her embarrassment, he doesn't show up, because he's missed his flight. But did he miss it to be with someone else? She thinks so, and before long the affluent and seemingly untroubled lifestyle of the couple (and the life of their musical but troubled son Michael) is in serious jeopardy.

Catherine comes across a highly attractive escort girl, Chloe, and decides to hire Chloe to test David, by seeing if he is susceptible to being seduced. It's not a wise plan. Before long Chloe is reporting back graphic details of what she and David get up to. And then Chloe encounters Michael when she turns up at Catherine's place of work...

After an enigmatic and unpredictable opening, Chloe develops into a relatively straightforward thriller. The film critic Roger Ebert is among those who have admired the ambiguity of Chloe's motivation (and it's no accident that the film is named for her) but although I enjoyed the film as a competent thriller, I don't think that it has any great claims to sophistication in terms of writing. But Amanda Seyfried's portrayal of the title character is certainly compelling..