Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Edgar, Agatha, Poirot - and good company




"And then he woke up, and he realised it had all been a dream."

I've arrived back home after a week in the United States that had an extremely dream-like quality about it. It's twenty-five years since my first novel was published, and I've had many great times since then (plus occasional setbacks) but this past week has been, by far, the best of my crime writing life.

In that time, I've received the Edgar award and the Agatha award, been named on the shortlist of a third award (the HRF Keating award), and heard it announced that I'm to receive the Poirot award at Malice Domestic next year. Add to that a proposed translation of The Golden Age of Murder into Japanese, and a series of highly enjoyable encounters with crime writing (and reading) friends old and new, and you can perhaps understand why I'm feeling extraordinarily happy- and grateful - right now.

I'd booked for Malice Domestic 28 long before The Golden Age of Murder was shortlisted for the Agathas, so when the book also turned up on the Edgars shortlist, it made sense to fit in my first trip to New York for almost twenty years. I flew into Washington DC to settle into the convention hotel and spend a little quality time with one or two good friends before taking a train to New York and checking into the Grand Hyatt -immediately bumping into Steve Steinbock, crime reviewer for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. EQMM were holding a reception prior to the Edgars ceremony, and Steve and I went along there together, and chatted with the likes of Otto Penzler, of Mysterious Bookstore fame, and John Pugmire of Locked Room International.


Then it was back to the Grand Hyatt, and the very lavish and prestigious banquet (sharing a tale with that fantastic writer Sara Paretsky) and awards ceremony. I'm not a believer in writing acceptance speeches in advance of knowing whether one has anything to accept. My approach is simply to improvise if I get lucky, or to have a few more drinks if I don't. Anyway, this time, despite the quality of the other books on the shortlist, by Frederick Forsyth among others, my name came out of the envelope. It was for me an utterly memorable occasion, and  astonishingly, I even managed not to drop the Edgar statuette. (The photo at the top of this post was taken by Donna Andrews; the envelope is the one that Toni P. Kelner opened when making the announcement).


Next morning I headed back to DC, and just about managed to arrive in time for my first panel - I was moderating an appreciation of the life and work of Sarah Caudwell. Doug Greene of Crippen &  Landru, Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Press, and Katherine Hall Page (who received the convention's lifetime achievement award) were ideal panellists, fluent and knowledgeable. Barbara made the point that Sarah became inhibited after winning the Anthony Award, and never published another novel in her lifetime; something I didn't know (and probably didn't want to hear the day after winning an award myself!)

After the opening ceremonies, it was time for dinner with Doug and his wife, Steve, John, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Dirda, and two distinguished American academics and writers, Elaine and English Showalter (who also happen to be former owners of my son's flat!). The conversation was spellbinding, and I had a great night. This was swiftly followed by a 9 am Saturday morning panel at which I met two of my fellow nominees, one of whom was Kate White, former editor of Cosmopolitan. (The fact that my book was the only common factor in the Edgar and Agatha shortlists illustrates the vastly increased popularity and quality of writing about the genre over the past few years; there are a lot of good books in this category now.)

I also heard about the Keating shortlist just before meeting up with Paul Charles for lunch. I first met Paul at the Philadelphia Bouchercon many moons ago, but it was almost a decade since we'd last met in person - though he helped, in his capacity as a leading music agent, to persuade Ray Davies to let me quote some lines from his classic pop song in the most recent Harry Devlin novel, Waterloo Sunset. Among other things, we talked about the challenge of "hanging on in there" as a midlist writer, something we've both tried our utmost to do over the years, and we agreed that we'd been very fortunate to have a second income stream other than writing, which has at least enabled us to write what we believe works best, rather than simply to chase the market. I hope to feature Paul on this blog before long.

Then came a reception followed by the Agatha awards ceremony, and I had the pleasure of hosting a table featuring some of my favourite partners in crime, such as Kathryn Leigh Scott, Steve, John, Josh Pachter, Joni Langevoort, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and Charles and Caroline Todd. Lots of entertaining conversation before the announcement of the Agatha awards. After another acceptance speech (when I drew a spur of the moment comparison between Malice and that early-established social network, the Detection Club) I had the pleasure of hearing the announcement that next year the convention will mark my contribution to the genre with a Poirot Award. Suffice to say, it was another wonderful night.


Sunday morning brought brunch with a small group of us - including Art Taylor, a notable exponent of the short story who has now turned to writing novels with equal success, and has won Agathas in each of the last three years - hosted by Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM, After spending ages working out how to ship my awards back to the UK, I interviewed another of the weekend's honorees, Doug Greene, about his long career, which includes a definitive biography of John Dickson Carr, among much else.

In the audience, incidentally, was Shelly Dickson Carr, grand-daughter of the master of the locked room mystery and herself an author of note. It was a real pleasure to meet her (and thanks to her for the photo with Doug and me, below). The "Agathas tea", as usual. concluded a truly fantastic convention. My admiration for the work done by Verena Rose and her colleagues on the Malice board increases the more I learn about what they do. To take just one example, they have over the years raised a total of over $200,000 for charitable causes. Wow.


That evening I had dinner and a few drinks with Doug and Sandi Greene, and we had the chance to reflect together on a wonderful few days. It's almost a cliche to say that the writer's life is a solitary one, and sometimes a lonely one, and to some extent there's truth in the old saying. But as I've tried many times to illustrate on this blog, a writer's life can be greatly enhanced by the social side of things - and in the world of crime writing, that social dimension is hugely enjoyable. Every writer experiences setbacks from time to time, and I know plenty of gifted authors who have lost heart; something that I find deeply regrettable. I spent a lot of time with some marvellous people during my few days in the States, and I returned home reflecting that the successes that have come my way of late owe a great deal to the generosity and support of others, especially when times have been challenging. The crime writing and reading community is highly cohesive, and it is one I'm truly proud to belong to.

















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Monday, 2 May 2016

Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett

Zugzwang, first published nine years ago, is an interesting thriller by the Irish writer Ronan Bennett. It was recommended to me by my agent, with whom I've been discussing the possibility of writing a thriller. The point he emphasised was that the story has an intriguing history. Originally, it appeared as a serial in the Observer, and as a result there was a need to structure the plot in such a way that there were plenty of cliffhangers.

Zugzwang is a term in chess. It describes a deadly position in which a player is obliged to move - but every move only makes his position even worse. This is a rather good metaphor for the plight of a hapless character caught up in events beyond his understanding, which is the fate of Otto, a Jewish psychoanalyst working in St Petersburg in 1914.

Chess is integrated into the story, again in a way that I found interesting - and satisfactory. Otto is playing a long running match, and the positions in the game are reproduced in the novel. His patients include a gifted chess player, and a beautiful married woman, to whom he finds himself attracted. But he lives in dangerous times, and the police start to take an interest in him - and his patients. Even worse, it turns out that his young daughter Catherine is mixed up in some murky business, and before long, both Otto and Catherine are thrown into prison.

Overall, it seemed to me that the first half of the book worked rather better than the second. The characters are drawn well, but my enthusiasm began to flag as increasing amounts of Russian political history were introduced (a note at the end of the book lists sources, and believe me, there are a lot of them...) As a result, a book that might have been a minor masterpiece didn't really live up to its potential. But Bennett is a capable writer, and I'm glad I've had the chance to study his approach to thriller writing.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Forgotten Book - The Chislehurst Mystery

The Chislehurst Mystery is a rather obscure novel which E.L. Mann published in 1938. I had never heard of it until I came across a lovely copy in a dust jacket at a book fair. The price asked put it out of my reach, but I managed to borrow another copy, and I must say that I enjoyed it. It is a thriller rather than a detective story, written by a young school teacher, and it' offers a yarn full of youthful zest.

I've never visited Chislehurst, but apparently it boasts miles of subterranean caves. These form the starting point for the action. Our young hero - also a school teacher - is approached by another young chap, who has become fascinated by the mysterious underground activities of a group of chaps in the neighbourhood. It becomes clear that these people are Up To No Good, and our two heroes are soon joined by a plucky and very attractive young woman in an attempt to save the nation from the Lackland Party.

The Lackland Party is a crypto-Fascist organisation, and this plot element (and also an interest in archaeology) are evident in another book published in the same year, Stanley Casson's Murder by Burial. The details of the two stories are very different, and I'm quite sure that there's no question of plagiarism - what the coincidence reveals, as such coincidences often do, is that fear of Fascists masquerading as people devoted to "old England" was a widely shared concern at that time.

This is such a breezy story that I was more or less prepared to forgive the craziness of our heroes, who - for reasons never adequately explained - fail to tell the police what they have discovered. It rather serves one of them right when, as a result of his nosiness, he finds himself a prime suspect in a murder case. Yet for all the faults of youth that are evident in the writing, I found its energy appealing. As for E. L. Mann, his specialism was history, and he seems never really to have developed his interest in crime fiction. But his granddaughter, the history writer Sally Varlow, has said that she found his storytelling gifts a real influence upon her, and I can well believe it. There is something very likeable about this novel.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Return of the Malice Domestic Anthologies


By the time you read this, I will - with any luck - be in Washington DC, ahead of this year's Malice Domestic convention. The Malice community is especially warm and welcoming, something I first discovered rather more than ten years ago, when Ann Cleeves (not then a household name) and I (still not a household name) decided to take part. I've really enjoyed making friends at Malice, including members of the highly efficient board such as Verena Rose, Rita Owen and Joni Langevoort. Add to that list Shawn Reilly Simmons, herself a crime writer with a fast-growing following, whom I met for the first time last year. Shawn, pictured below, is very hard working, and among her various activities is a new one, that of co-editor of the newly revived Malice anthologies. I'm glad to host this guest blog, where she supplies more details:

"Malice Domestic is pleased to announce we are once again publishing an annual anthology of traditional mystery stories. From 1992 to 2001 there were ten Malice anthologies published, presented by authors such as Mary Higgins Clark, Anne Perry and Phyllis A. Whitney, just to name a few.

After a fifteen year hiatus, we’re proud to bring back this tradition with the release of Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. The anthology includes twenty-two original stories and one modern classic reprint, each representing their own take on the “cozy” style of mystery, those in the tradition of Agatha Christie.

We were thrilled when Katherine Hall Page agreed to present the first in the new generation of anthologies. I asked her how she felt about it and she said: “After a truly criminal interlude—fifteen years!—it is a joy to present the latest volume in the series of acclaimed anthologies. There is a particular pleasure in reading short stories, similar to relishing appetizers. Yet, taken as a whole, Murder Most Conventional is a full-course banquet!”   

We couldn’t agree more. Malice 28, the fun fan convention that celebrates the traditional mystery, will be held in Bethesda, Maryland, from April 29-May 1. We’re looking forward to welcoming our honored guests, including Martin who is representing Sarah Caudwell for Malice Remembers.
Murder Most Conventional is available for pre-order (http://tinyurl.com/hku7k6p)  and will be available for sale at Malice 28. For more info about Malice visit us at www.MaliceDomestic.org

Shawn Reilly Simmons is the author of the Red Carpet Catering mystery series, a member of the Malice Domestic Board of Directors, and a contributing author to the Murder Most Conventional anthology. www.ShawnReillySimmons.com
 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Giving an Author Talk

Public Library, photo by Stephen Ellis


Now that I am only a part-time lawyer, I have the chance to do more fun stuff connected with writing, and I'm keen to make the most of the opportunities that come my way. When I was a partner in my firm, I had to turn down lots of invitations, so although I still need to carve out time for the actual business of writing, I also like to get more involved with related activities. Author talks are an example.

At one time, I was extremely nervous about public speaking. I'm not by nature a public performer, and giving legal lectures in particular I found very hard work. But because I love writing, I find talking about books is easier, and over the years, I've grown in confidence, and become much readier to accept invitations to speak.. And last week I made a wonderfully nostalgic pilgrimage back to the Brunner Library in Northwich. As the picture shows, it's one of the town's black and white buildings, and it was the very first public library I ever joined - first, the children's library, and then (after I discovered Agatha Christie) the adult section.

I am a big fan of libraries,and I'm glad that those in Cheshire, like those in Nottinghamshire I visited recently, are coping well despite the severe financial pressures. Much depends on the initiative and enterprise of the staff, and those I've met in both counties are doing a great job in adapting to the brave new world in which libraries now exist. I tailored my talk to include a few anecdotes about my own experiences of the Brunner Library (named after Sir John Brunner, local benefactor and a founder of the precursor to ICI).

It was grand to see some familiar faces in an audience which filled the room. Among other pleasures, I met a lady with whom, it turned out, I was at school from the age of four. I hadn't seen her since we were both eleven, and it was lovely to make her acquaintance again. She even brought along a photograph taken of us as pupils of the reception class, and we just about managed to identify everyone else in the picture. But it was sobering how many of them have died since then; another reason why it's good to seize opportunities when they come along. I really enjoyed my return to Northwich, and I'm delighted to have been given a chance to wander down Memory Lane - an unexpected benefit of giving an author talk.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Forgotten Book - The Riverside Villas Murder



Kingsley Amis published The Riverside Villas Murder in 1973, and I read it not long after that, during a phase when I was very keen on Amis' work. Oddly enough, my enthusiasm for him faded after attending a talk by him at the Oxford Union - perhaps a salutary reminder for authors that events don't always have the desired effect on one's readership! There's no doubt that he was a talented writer, although I'm not sure time has been equally kind to everything that he wrote. But this particular novel is nowadays branded as a Penguin Modern Classic, and is certainly interesting to crime fans.

When I first read the book, I was intrigued that Amis was writing a homage to the classic detective story, but I felt disappointed with the resolution of the story, mainly because I found the whodunit element unsatisfactory. Re-reading the novel recently,with lowered expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. It's not a masterpiece, but it's interesting and very readable.

The events of the story are set in 1936, and Amis makes direct reference to detective fiction of the period. Anthony Berkeley is name-checked, while the protagonist, 14 year old Peter Furneaux, is lent a copy of John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man, and the text includes a quote from that splendid story. Amis was much keener on Carr than on Christie, and the 'howdunit' aspect of the plot is the cleverest aspect of the whole novel.

Young Peter's attempts to broaden his sexual experience are rudely interrupted by the murder of an unpleasant chap called Inman, who has been threatening to reveal the dark secrets of supposedly respectable members of their suburban community. Peter doesn't get very far with 15 year old Daphne, but has more joy with a married neighbour, and their affair plays a significant part in the development of the plot. There's plenty of humour, and some neat characterisation, even though there's a surprising lack of tension in the build-up to the revelation of the culprit's identity. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed this book much more the second time around. Definitely worth  a read, even though it's a stretch to call it a modern classic.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Complicity - film review

Complicity is a film made as long ago as 2000; it didn't make many waves at the time of its release, despite the fact that it was based on a book by Iain Banks, but it still seems fresh and refreshingly different. In fact, it's only the snippets of technology - clunky mobile phones and computers in particular -that give the film's age away.

Cameron Colley is a young Scottish journalist whose radical political views tend to infuse everything he writes, to the detriment of his career. Cameron is played by Jonny Lee Miller - who is, I learned, the grandson of Bernard Lee, who played M in the early Bond movies - and he has a long-running affair with Yvonne, the wife of a friend; she's played by Keeley Hawes, whose performance is, as usual, compelling.

Cameron receives a series of mysterious phone tip-offs from a source who is disguising his voice. His attention is drawn to a series of gruesome deaths. There seems to be some form of link between the deaths and arms sales to Iraq, but before long, the police become involved, and Cameron himself becomes the prime suspect of the dogged detective. The cop is played by Brian Cox, and other notable cast members include Bill Paterson and Alex Norton, who was Burke in the later series of Taggart.

Never mind complicity, the storyline is complicated, and it's not always easy to understand what is going on. As the plot continues to thicken, it becomes apparent that that the murders may have some personal connection to Cameron, and his erratic past. The soundtrack is pretty good, and there is some excellent photography of superb Scottish scenery. Not the most plausible story, to be honest, but a very watchable movie. I'm surprised it's not better known.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Starting a New Series - guest blog by Michael Jecks

Michael Jecks is one of our leading writers of the history mystery, although he has also occasionally ventured into the field of contemporary crime. His new book is Rebellion's Message, set in the reign of Bloody Mary Tudor and published by Severn House. I have just received my copy, but as I'm rather behind with my reading, I haven't started it yet. In the meantime, I asked Mike - a former Chair of the CWA, and newly appointed as Secretary of the Detection Club, if he'd like to contribute a guest post to this blog. Here is his account of his misadventures when starting his new series:

"It's always difficult to embark on a new novel, but the problems multiply when you are writing a new series. Usually the problems lie in things like, say, inventing a new character, researching a new period, or perhaps trying to find the right location for your action.
            
Not for me any of those trivial issues. Fate has always had it in for me. It’s the reason I had thirteen jobs in thirteen years before I felt forced to try my hand at writing. Last year, when I set out to write a new series, Fate sought to give me a whole different level of pain. Initially, as I was setting out my plans, fate had a test-disaster for me. My laptop didn’t work.
            
Not a problem. I did the usual things, turned it off, turned it on, lifted and shut the lid, inspected it carefully - only to discover a few drops of water seeping out. Water? That was the point that a fifteen-year-old daughter became embarrassed and explained that she thought she’d cleaned up the spillage. Dead laptop.
           
An insurance claim later, I was happily working at my desktop machine when I saw a glitch. It was minor, but what the heck? I had a backup disk drive. There was nothing that could give me any problems. So I recovered my main disk from the backup, only to learn too late that the backup was itself corrupted. It wiped my whole computer. Fortunately I use Dropbox, lots of DVDs and the cloud. Sadly, many DVDs had aged badly, and the cloud wasn’t as efficient as I’d hoped. I lost three weeks recovering things.

At last, all was well. I returned to my new series, to discover that the screen was showing pink Chinese characters. Ho ho, I thought. Then I learned that the screen was dead, and on a “vintage” machine like mine (five years old) it was unmendable. My machine was dead.

            
Does anybody wonder why I am writing my next book with a pen and ink?"

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor - review


Like many people, I enjoy historical fiction, and the past twenty years or so has seen a massive increase in the number of historical mysteries being written. There are various reasons for this, including the challenges inherent these days in writing contemporary fiction - over-familiarity is a problem, and so is the reach of new technology. But writing a good historical mystery is by no means a doddle.

I doubt it any crime writer, in Britain or elsewhere, has shown such consistent mastery of historical mystery writing in the past couple of decades than Andrew Taylor. Possibly the most impressive feature of his work is his ability to write in compelling fashion about different places and periods of the past. He's equally at home in the rural England of his post-war Lydmouth series and with much more distant times, as in The American Boy. And his Thirties novel Bleeding Heart Square is quite superb.

Now he's turned his attention to seventeenth century London. The Great Fire of 1666 provides a dramatic backdrop to the opening pages of The Ashes of London, a meaty tale in which James Marwood, the son of a supporter of Cromwell, tries to make his way in a world where Charles II has been restored to the throne. A strange encounter with a young woman dressed as a boy introduces him fleetingly to Cat Lovett, who will play a crucial part in the events that follow.

Cat seems destined for a loveless marriage before Fate, in the shape of her odious cousin Edward, intervenes. Soon she is on the run, and we follow her story, and James', as the two young people fight against the legacy of the past, and in so doing become enmeshed in murderous intrigue. This is an intensely readable novel; Taylor has done his research, but wears it lightly. The result is an enjoyable mystery that is intended as the first of a series.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Cat Among the Herrings by L.C. Tyler

Cat Among the Herrings is the seventh book in a series of comic crime novels which began with the excellent The Herring-Seller's Apprentice.I enjoyed that book and reviewed it in the earlier days of this blog, at which time I hadn't met the author. Not long after that, my son Jonathan - a big fan of the first book in the series - contributed his one and only review to this blog, of the second appearance of hapless crime novelist Ethelred Tressider and his literary agent Elsie Thirkettle.

Since that time, I've got to know Len Tyler quite well, and as he is the Chair of the CWA,and I am his obedient Vice Chair, you wouldn't expect me to give him a cruel review, would you? Nor am I going to do so. Rather, let me talk a bit about comic crime in the context of Len's books. The first thing to be said is that it's very difficult to write a consistently successful series of comic crime novels. Not many people have done it - the few exceptions include such highly skilled writers as Colin Watson and Simon Brett.

Len's method is very sensible. He takes, or so it seems to me, a slightly different approach to each book in the series, and thereby contrives to keep things fresh. The law of diminishing returns, as has often been said, does apply to comic crime series (Joyce Porter was a writer who began brilliantly, but most of her later work didn't really achieve the same standard). Happily, Cat Among the Herrings avoids the pitfall of sameyness.

The USP of this book is that it combines a present day murder mystery with a case dating back to the 19th century. This is a method comparable to that employed by, among others, Kate Ellis, but I can't think of a comic crime novel in which it has been used before. Len's interest in history - he's also written historical mysteries which I haven't got round to yet - ensures that this is a strong entry in the series. As for the comedy, there are many great lines, especially in the first half of the book, before the plot really thickens. It's especially entertaining if you're involved in writing crime, but even if you aren't, there's plenty here to keep you amused.