Monday, 30 November 2015

Reclaim - film review

Reclaim is a recent film directed by Alan White and set in Puerto Rico which, so it seems from a quick look on the internet, hasn't attracted a great deal of admiration. I find that hard to understand, because I thought it a very gripping and tightly written movie which managed to combine action with a degree of poignancy and emotional impact.

The set-up is that a pleasant, good-looking American couple, played by Ryan Philippe and Rachelle Lefevre, are staying in Puerto Rico with a view to completing the formalities of adopting their new daughter Nina, who has come from Haiti. Angie, the woman they are dealing with, seems kind and efficient, and the new parents couldn't be happier.

The only cloud on the horizon at first is that they come across a rather odious group of three people who keep them awake one night with their rowdiness. John Cusack plays Benjamin, who is the leader of the trio, and whose superficial pleasantries are grating from the outset. But soon the visitors have something much more important to worry about. Nina goes missing from her room, and attempts to contact Angie prove fruitless. Soon it becomes apparent that the young and affluent Americans are the victims of a cruel scam.

The plot twists follow thick and fast in the second half of the film, but I was impressed by the way that the screenplay managed to balance action with economical touches of characterisation. I felt involved with the protagonists' fate, and certainly cared about what would happen to them, and the little girl who was the pawn of greedy criminals. I can vividly recall talking to someone who was going to adopt a child, and getting an insight into the emotional complications and challenges that the whole process involves in this country, let alone elsewhere. It's a sensitive subject, and one that I felt White, the writers and the cast handled well. Don't believe the bad reviews. This is, in iny opinion, a really good film.  

Friday, 27 November 2015

Forgotten Book - The Man Who Lost His Wife

The Man Who Lost His Wife, first published in 1970, was the third of Julian Symons' "Man Who..." books. I remember that when I was a schoolboy, having loved the first two of the books, I eagerly awaited this one. I borrowed it from the town library as soon as it came into stock, eager for another witty story and complex plot. Unfortunately for young Martin, Symons was trying something rather different and experimental here, and I was disappointed.

Recently, I decided to give the book another try. When I was a teenager, I was even keener on complex plotting than I am now, and certainly much less interested in books that are character studies. My tastes have matured - to some extent, anyway! - and this time I had a clearer understanding of what Symons was trying to do.

Gilbert Welton has inherited the family publishing business. It's an upmarket company, with a decent list, but Gilbert is dissatisfied with his lot, even if he does not at first realise this himself. He is, deep down, annoyed that he has followed in the footsteps of his dynamic father, and struggles to impose his own outlook, or even to be sure what his own attitudes are. He also becomes alarmed when Virginia, his second wife, indicates that she is discontented, and is planning to go away on her own for a while.

There are some good comic scenes, especially involving an avant garde American novelist, before the mood darkens. Gilbert goes to Dubrovnik in search of Virginia - this was when Yugoslavia was a Communist country - and finds his life becoming increasingly complicated. Eventually, he finds himself contemplating murder...

It's quite an interesting book, perhaps betraying, to an extent, the influence of Patricia Highsmith, but Symons' gifts were not the same as Highsmith's. I felt as a schoolboy that the plot was too slender and that Gilbert was much less interesting than the protagonists of the earlier "Man Who..." book. After all this time, my views haven't really changed. I found it interesting to read this novel, but once again I was disappointed, even though I admire authors who experiment rather than blandly following a formula all the time. Symons could do so much better - and after this flawed experiment, he soon returned to form.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Leon - film review

Not only do I have a regrettably mountainous to-be-read pile of books, I'm afraid I've also failed to catch up on plenty of films - not to mention box sets. So I'm making an effort to catch up, and as part of this (perhaps ultimately doomed) project, I recently watched Leon, a film also known as The Professional. It dates from 1994, and you can get an idea of how long I've been meaning to get round to watch it when I tell you that I acquired my copy not as a DVD but as a VHS cassette: eeeek! De-clutteriing is definitely called for...

Anyway, I must say how much I enjoyed the film. The other day I also found an old video of Mission Impossible, starring Tom Cruise, and found it very disappointing - Leon more than made up for it. It's set in the US, but directed by France's :Luc Besson. and it marked the film debut of Natalie Portman. She gives a brilliant performance. A good many child actors, of course, never make it in the long run, but she is a dazzling exception.

Leon, played by Jean Reno, is a naive, poorly educated immigrant who has been exploited by a gangster called Tony, who uses his services as a hitman, but cons him financially. Leon lives in a rather miserable apartment, but he is a very, very efficient hitman. He befriends a 12 year old neighbour called Matilda, whose father is involved in a drugs scam. When her father and the rest of her family are murdered by a sinister group of thugs led by a psychotic played by Gary Oldman, she hides out in Leon's flat.

Soon, the pair become close. I suppose that, twenty-one years later, this relationship between a grown man and a young girl might be presented in a different way, but the screenplay, although violent, does have several poignant moments. Reno is very good - so too is Oldman - but it's Portman who steals the show. A gripping story, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Steven Powell on James Ellroy

Today, I'm pleased to welcome Dr Steven Powell to the blog, with a guest post about his new book concerning that controversial but hugely interesting crime writer James Ellroy. I've just received a copy, and I'll be reviewing it here in due course:

"James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction began life as my thesis at the University of Liverpool. After I graduated, Palgrave Macmillan accepted my proposal for a new monograph on Ellroy, and I began to adapt my years of research on Ellroy into book form. There were two elements of James Ellroy's career that I found particularly fascinating. One is referenced in the title of my study: his self-styled 'Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction' persona. I was determined to find out the full extent that Ellroy's literary persona had played in shaping his works. Was it a major factor in his writing or did Ellroy simply call himself the Demon Dog to give a name to his often unhinged performances at book readings and during interviews?

Another aspect of Ellroy’s work that interested me was the gradual evolution of the text in both plotting and prose from character bio’s to outline to first draft to finished novel. I was able to map out this process when I visited the James Ellroy archive at the University of South Carolina several years ago. It's fascinating to read the outline and drafts of The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz against the published novels and see just how different these works could have been.

Ellroy's literary persona, by contrast, was less visible in the text, although he is fond of recurring dog motifs which could be read as subversive clues to its presence. The Demon Dog moniker, however, was frequently invoked during the hundreds of interviews Ellroy has given throughout his career. I created an inventory of Ellroy interviews, partly so that when I came to talk to Ellroy myself I would know which topics he had already discussed at length and which subjects were overlooked. I interviewed Ellroy four times and then edited the anthology Conversations with James Ellroy for University Press of Mississippi.

Ellroy once said to journalist Ron Hogan 'Every interview I give is a chance to puncture the myth I've created about my work and refine it'. It was quotes like these that helped me to understand the purpose of Ellroy's persona, but there were also events in Ellroy's life which I discuss in James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction as being central to the formulation of the Demon Dog role.

One such incident occurred early in his career. After his first two novels were published, Ellroy moved to New York where he underwent a sudden crisis in his career. He was unable to sell his third novel to a publisher and his agent dropped him as a result. His solution was typically bold and theatrical. The story goes (it may be somewhat apocryphal) that Ellroy marched into the office of editor Otto Penzler and brashly introduced himself as 'the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction.' Penzler was naturally taken aback by this uninvited guest, but he, and legendary agent Nat Sobel, took Ellroy on as a client and essentially rescued his career. If Ellroy hadn’t brandished the Demon Dog name, could his meeting with Penzler have been less successful I wonder?

As I say in the introduction to the book ‘Ellroy is an author at ease with his own sense of celebrity, but, in one of the many contradictory sides of his character, he relishes his self-crafted image as an outsider – too edgy, unpredictable and maverick to ever truly belong to the Hollywood or publishing establishment.’ It is this enigmatic and combative side to Ellroy’s character, I believe, which has complemented some of the most accomplished and controversial crime fiction written over the past thirty years, and why his work will continue to be debated by critics and readers for many years to come. James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is my offering to this debate."

Friday, 20 November 2015

Forgotten Book - The Jury Disagree

My Forgotten Book for today was featured, (or more precisely, its dust jacket was featured) for about a nanosecond, in Lucy Worsley's TV show about crime fiction, when she was discussing the  Wallace case. The Jury Disagree, by George Goodchild and C.E. Bechhofer Roberts, is a fictionalised version of the case, and the authors' interpretation of the facts is as interesting as the excellent jury room setting.

The twelve jurors whose deliberations about the case they have heard form the heart of the novel are described by reference to their work, rather than by name. So we have the Watch-Maker, the Actor, the Journalist, the Clerk, and so on. This might appear rather formulaic, especially when it is the man who makes watches who is fascinated by the timeline of events in the case, and the journalist likes to interpret the facts imaginatively. But the story has a real pull, and I enjoyed it.

I thought that the authors handled the adaptation of a real life case rather well. There are differences between the detailed facts of the actual and fictional crimes, but they do not detract in any way from the appeal of the book, and the ending is neatly contrived. You can never quite be sure how things are going to work out, and it's thought-provoking that the real trial resulted in a verdict that was clearly unsustainable.Whether or not you believe that William Herbert Wallace killed his wife, a question on which opinions are divided (personally, I think he was innocent,but P.D. James felt differently) I think it's pretty clear that the evidence to find him guilty beyond reasonable doubt simply was not there.

Goodchild and Bechhofer Roberts made a good writing team and I'm reading another of their books, We Shot an Arrow, at present, which I shall cover in this feature in the new year. Their prose was functional, but they were good at maintaining pace and tension, and that is more than can be said of some Golden Age writers. Even if you are not interested in the Wallace case, The Jury Disagree remains an engaging read.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Crime Museum

When I was down in London for the Detection Club's annual dinner at the Dorchester, I took the opportunity to do some sight-seeing. One of the capital's great virtues is the wealth of tourist attractions that have real substance, and since I ceased to be a full-time lawyer, I've enjoyed filling in a few of the gaps in my knowledge by visiting a host of exhibitions. Last week, I made it to the British Library, the Transport Museum, the British Museum,and the Museum of London.

At the Museum of London, there is at present an exhibition featuring Scotland Yard's Crime Museum, sometimes known as "the Black Museum". Having much enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the same venue a year earlier, I resolved to take a look at the new exhibition, and I can say that I wasn't disappointed. There was a very good crowd that morning, and it was a reminder of the massive public interest in crime and criminals,

There were some fascinating items on display, including a good many associated with famous murder cases, including the Crippen case. It was the first time I'd ever seen the remnants of Crippen's pyjamas, which helped to convict him. There were also some quite shocking items on display, such as a pair of binoculars designed by a man to blind a former girlfriend.The exhibition also included a video in which various people discussed the ethics of displaying gruesome exhibits. I quite agree that the ethical questions deserve to be put, though I'm very much of the view that there is nothing wrong in holding such an exhibition. On the contrary. It was informative and educational as well as interesting.

I bought a book that accompanies the exhbition, The Crime Museum Uncovered, by Jackie Kelly and Julia Hoffbrand, though I haven't read it yet. It's profusely illustrated, and will be a useful reminder of the exhibition, though I'm not sure whether it contains much additional information, and the absence of an index is a shame. But I can unreservedly recommend the exhibition.

Monday, 16 November 2015

A Night to Remember

Last Thursday evening was for me very special. The highpoint of my crime writing life, no less. For Thursday was when, during a wonderful occasion as the Dorchester Hotel, I became President of the Detection Club. Since 1930, there have only been seven previous Presidents, plus a co-president, Lord Gorell, who acted as a public speaker during the early years of Agatha Christie's nineteen year reign as President. My immediate predecessor was Simon Brett, who has served with distinction for the past fourteen years.

The first President, from 1930, was G.K. Chesterton - Sir Arthur Conan  Doyle was approached, but too infirm in the months before his death to accept. Chesterton was followed by E.C. Bentley, author of the book that really inaugurated the Golden Age of detective fiction, Trent's Last Case. Next came Dorothy L. Sayers, and when she died, Agatha Christie took over. After her death, Julian Symons became President; he was followed by another leading crime novelist and critic H.R.F.Keating, and then Harry handed over to Simon. As I said at the close of the installation ceremony, those are big shoes to fill. And there's a big presidential robe to fill, too! It was clearly designed, as Simon noted, to accommodate the well-upholstered Chesterton

A very happy feature of the evening was that we had the largest turn-out for a Detection Club event for many years. Those attending included Harry's widow Sheila, Jessica Mann (who was the Club Secretary for several years), the eminent journalist Katherine Whitehorn, and a host of distinguished novelists including Andrew Taylor and N.J. Cooper. The guest speaker was Mark Lawson, himself a novelist of note, as well as a leading cultural critic and commentator. He spoke movingly and well about a trio of recently departed crime writers, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Henning Mankell, and we also had a chat about The Golden Age of Murder, which he reviewed very generously some months ago.

The Detection Club is a private, London-based dining club, no more, no less. But it has the distinction of being the first major social network for crime writers, and it played a significant part in the genre's development and its cultural heritage. And next year will see the publication of the first Detection Club novel for decades. This is The Sinking Admiral, a book which we thoroughly enjoyed putting together. I'm very glad to be part of the Club, and naturally I'm thrilled that the members have honoured me by asking me to take over from Simon. It's not something I ever anticipated, but I'm very, very glad that it's happened.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Forgotten Book - Bats in the Belfry

I've mentioned E.C.R. Lorac occasionally on this blog -the first time was more than six years ago -, but I've never covered any of her books,and it's high time I put that right. My Forgotten Book for today is one of her more obscure titles, Bats in the Belfry, which dates from 1937, and features her series cop Inspector Macdonald. One thing it doesn't deserve is obscurity, because it's a consistently interesting and readable novel. I've never seen it reviewed elsewhere, which is unusual these days, even for forgotten books,,but I can certainly recommend it.

Be warned, though. It's not an easy book to find. I'd never seen a copy of this particular title until I came across a rare book dealer who was offering a unique example for sale. I was lucky enough to obtain it - complete with an author signature, and a really interesting inscription from Lorac to her mother. From this I learned that the novel was written in August 1936, while Lorac and her mother were holidaying at Westward Ho! Collins Crime Club published it the following January - very fast work.

The novel does not read as though it was written in haste, and my guess is that Lorac planned the story very carefully before sitting down to write it up. The first chapter introduces us to the key characters - Bruce Attleton and his attractive but selfish wife Sybilla, their friends Thomas Burroughs, Neil Rockingham and Richard Grenville, and Bruce's ward, Elizabeth. The occasion is the funeral of Attleton's cousin, who has been killed in a car accident.

We soon learn that Attleton is being plagued by a mysterious stranger called Debrette, but the nature of the connection between them is unclear. When both Attleton and Debrette go missing, Grenville tries to find out what is going on. The London setting is very well evoked, and the mystery proves satisfyingly complex. I figured out what was going on, but only because Lorac plays very fair with her clues. A very satisfying read.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Journey's End - and a new beginning

All my life I've been fascinated by writing and the writing life. From being very young, I wanted to be a published writer, and when I discovered, in my teens, that some people who achieved that ambition gave up on writing, I was mystified. When I got to know writers personally, I began to develop a much better understanding of why people might give up, and the subject has continued to fascinate me. My interest in trying to figure out why Anthony Berkeley suddenly abandoned crime fiction after 15 years of hard work and much success was, for instance, one of the main drivers behind The Golden Age of Murder.

This subject - why authors give up - tends to be one of the untold stories of the writing life. So when Christopher West told me about the reissuing of  his books,I asked if he'd like to let me have his perspective on it. I have happy memories of a wonderful Bouchercon in Philadelphia when Chris and I were both in the early stage of our writing careers; we had a lot of fun together and he attended other conferences, promoting his enjoyable novels, until - suddenly, he moved away from the genre.

Here, he tells us why. I'm very grateful for his guest comments, and, yes, if you haven't read his books, you have a treat in store:

"Journey’s end

A crime series is a living thing.  It has a life cycle – or perhaps a ‘death cycle’ would be a better expression: there are times when it seems to be in maximum danger, others when it is relatively safe and flourishing.

The first moment of maximum threat is in its conception.  That brilliant idea of Karl Marx’s parallel career as a PI just doesn’t seem so good the next morning (annoyingly, someone else will produce a winning series with this formula a few years later).  The next is probably the first book.  Publishers like the ‘throw spaghetti at the wall and see which one sticks’ approach: if the first book bombs, book two will be a hard sell.  

If the first one does well enough, you probably have a grace period.  But if, after a few books in, things aren’t taking off, trouble looms again.  New writers are knocking on the door and you are effectively in their way.  What do you do?  Call it a day?  Rebrand?  Or soldier on, hoping things will pick up?  I remember hearing Ian Rankin say that after four moderately successful Inspector Rebus novels, he sat back and refocused the series, giving it a tougher edge.  One of the great rebrandings. 

My own experience of hitting the ‘four book’ wall was different.  My Beijing detective was still doing OK and critics still liked the books, but I didn’t sense any great picking up of sales.  I toyed with rebranding, but how, exactly?  I liked the tec and the series the way they were.  (I sense that Rankin rather fancied the idea of toughening the Rebus series – if you rebrand, it must be in a way you like, or you risk the grisly fate of being tied to a character / series you can’t stand.)  In the end, my hand was forced – luckily in a pleasant way, as another writing opportunity came up.  I said a sad farewell to the Inspector and his feisty wife, and started on a series of business books.

Now Amazon has given old series a second chance.  My detective can reappear on Kindle and reach out to a new audience.  A re-edit to make things a touch pacier for the e-reader.  A little rebranding.  A sympathetic epublisher (Pageturners).  Death of a Blue Lantern, the ebook, is just out.  It’s great to be back."

Monday, 9 November 2015

London Spy - BBC 2 - and TV crime

London Spy, which began on BBC 2 this evening, is the latest in a run of interesting TV crime shows, of varying types, offering varying degrees of entertainment. Before watching, I'd read that the author of the screenplay, Tom Rob Smith, had been interested in the "spy in the bag" case of Gareth Williams, and although he has emphasised that London Spy is not based on that tragic and mysterious real life case, I can understand why its bizarre circumstances fired his imagination.

The show has a lot going for it, including Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent in the cast, but for much of the first hour, it felt like a strong candidate for the Most Excruciatingly Slow Thriller of the Year award. Towards the end, things livened up, but for my taste, the Meaningful Pauses were definitely over-done.  .

From Darkness, which recently ended, was another show of considerable potential which had its moments. But really it seemed like a two-part story padded out with lots of shots of silently anguished lead characters to fill four hours. A real disappointment. In contrast, Unforgotten has gone from strength to strength. It's been my must-watch show since it started, very well written and superbly acted.

I've also admired Beck, the powerful BBC 4 series based on the Sjowall and Wahloo characters, but updated and with brand new storylines. The plots are as varied and ingenious as those in Lewis (still going strong, still a class act) and it's the most impressive Scandinavian thriller I've seen in a long time. Martin Beck's sidekick Gunvald, in particular, is compelling to watch. Beck is a series I can strongly recommend.