Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Ricki Thomas and True Crime

Over the years, I've met many lovely people through the Crime Writers' Association, and especially its Northern Chapter. In recent times, I've got to know Ricki Thomas mainly through conversations at Chapter lunches in Yorkshire, although we've never had time so far for a really long chat. Ricki is one of those authors who is, like me, interested in true crime as well as in fiction, and a chance remark she dropped about a particular collection led me to ask her to contribute a guest post, which I found quite fascinating. She calls it: "The A6 Murder, the Night Stalker...and Me." The A6 case has played a notable part in British criminology although attempts to prove that James Hanratty was innocent of the crime foundered once DNA testing became available. But Ricki has a very different slant on the case. Over to you, Ricki:

"I was ten when my best friend’s mum died of a heart attack. She was only 34 and it was tragic. Herdistraught mother fundraised tirelessly for the hospital she had been treated in, eventually helping toopen a new wing, named in her honour, using her maiden name, Valerie Storie. And that was that.

Until a couple of years later, when I became curious about serial killers and the psychology behind their crimes. I came upon a chapter about the A6 Murders, the case now notorious for having been reopened in 2003 due to doubt of James Hanratty’s guilt.

For those unaware of the case, married Michael Gregsten and his lover, Valerie Storie, were abducted in Dorney Reach, Berkshire, in August 1961. The kidnapper commanded Gregsten to drive along the A6 at gunpoint, finally stopping at aptly-named beauty spot Deadman’s Hill, near Clophill in Bedfordshire, where he shot Gregsten dead and raped Storie, before shooting her five times and leaving her for dead. She survived.

Intrigued by the possibility of the victim being my friend’s mother (we lived near Dorney Reach at the time), I spent hours at Slough library poring through newspaper articles and photos, heart pounding as I noted the likeness of the pretty woman in the dated pictures to the memories I had from spending time with the family, aged seven to ten, before Valerie’s untimely death. I was convinced they were one and the same.

I was wrong; the courageous survivor of the A6 atrocity lived until she was 77, dying in March this year, but the intense research had set a fire blazing inside me and studying the psychology of killers has since become my lifelong passion, in particular Richard Ramirez, America’s Night Stalker.

Ramirez was of interest because his savage spree was happening (1984-1985) as my intrigue in killers developed. A drifter from El Paso, Texas, he brutally murdered his way through Los Angeles, famously listening to AC/DC while on the prowl. Unlike most serial killers, he didn’t have a type, and his victims ranged from painfully young to old, male and female. He would sometimes abuse sexually, always murder viciously, and left a trail of destruction in his wake, before being apprehended by the public following the release of his mugshot in a newspaper. He was sentenced to death and remained on death row in San Quentin State Prison, California, before dying of liver disease in 2013.

Regardless of what was then an unusual hobby, I was sensible and became an accountant rather than the detective I would love to have been, and for years while I developed a successful business and raised a family, my free time was spent devouring true-crime books. Turning thirty, I couldn’t wait any longer to fulfil the burning desire to share the knowledge I had on the subject in novel form, and I wrote Unlikely Killer, a thriller about a copycat serial killer recreating past British murders.
It wasn’t published for a further ten years, during which time I wrote prolifically, including screenplays as well as novels, short stories and articles. Last year my seventh novel was published, and this year has been spent polishing my books and releasing second editions of all but two so far.

In 2011, still endlessly trying to understand why a person would step across that line and choose to take another life, I wrote to Ramirez, stating my interest and work. We shared a brief correspondence - 8 letters – before I couldn’t deal with his intense interest in my children any more (particularly my youngest son, who was 7 at the time); I stopped writing to him.

Which leads to one of the most exciting parts of my career so far: having visited the True Crime Museum in Hastings last year and been absorbed by their wonderful collections, which mainly centre on serial killers, I asked if they would be interested in exhibiting my collection, and luckily they agreed. So later this year I’ll be heading south to lend them the letters, complete with photos, hand-drawn pictures and cards. As far as I know it will be the first Ramirez exhibition in Britain, a useful study for those who, like me, find the psychology of killers fascinating.

I have a million and one more ideas for novels and screenplays, finding inspiration in the most trivial of events. I can’t imagine following a different career now, and I hope that my work will help readers in some way to realise that killers are vastly a product of a broken society, a series of greys between the accepted black and white, rather than simply ‘evil’.

My books are:
Unlikely Killer
Deadly Angels
Bonfire Night
Black Park
Rings of Death
Hope’s Vengeance
Bloody Mary


Monday, 27 June 2016

Felixstowe Book Festival and the Writer's Life

All of a sudden, we are living in extraordinary and uncertain times. I suppose it's true that throughout my life I've found reading and telling stories a means of escape from the real world, as well as a way of trying to make sense of it. So I'm absorbing myself in the reading and writing life at present, and what better way to so so than by attending a book festival in an agreeable and unfamiliar part of the country?

I was delighted to be invited to speak at Felixstowe Book Festival this year. The Suffolk resort is at the other end of the country from where I live and I've never been there before. A very long train journey culminated in my arrival, quite literally, at the end of the line, and I undertook a short reconnaissance of the resort before the day came to an end.

During the morning, I enjoyed visiting the town's very good bookshops, and walking along the lengthy promenade. past the old Martello tower, to Landguard Peninsula and the old fort there. It all seemed quintessentially English, and very pleasant. Then it was back to the hotel for a talk about Golden Age detective fiction with Rob Davies of the British Library. The organisers had done a great job in achieving as sell-out of all 50 tickets, and we enjoyed chatting with ace blogger Elaine Simpson-Long about the astonishing revival of interest in traditional crime fiction from the Golden Age. 

Saturday had begun with an enjoyable breakfast with Julia Jones, Margery Allingham's biographer,and Daniel Hahn, who was responsible for the Oxford Companion to Children's Literature and is a former chair of the Society of Authors. One of the topics we talked about was the writing life - and how social media, and taking part in events,occupies so much time these days. My trip to Felixstowe,for instance, really took up three days in all that could otherwise have been devoted to writing. It's fun to do such events (especially for me, given that I could hardly ever manage such things in the days when I was a full-time lawyer), but of course one needs to strike a balance. 

Daniel said some writers do a hundred or more events a year,but I'd never be able to manage anything like that - it would interfere too much with the writing. But at least on the lengthy journey back home the trains were less like crowded cattle trucks than was the case on Friday, and I was able to get plenty of reading done - one book for which I've been asked to write an intro, and a yet-to-be-published Kate Ellis, of which more at a later date. All in all, an excellent week-end of escapism.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Forgotten Book - A Graveyard to Let

A Graveyard to Let, my Forgotten Book for today, is a novel by Carter Dickson (aka John Dickson Carr) first published in 1949, and featuring Sir Henry Merrivale. Unusually, it's set in the author's native USA, with that extrovert Englishman Sir Henry causing chaos from the moment he arrives in New York. There are several comic scenes, and although I don't find Carr's humour as irresistible as his scenarios, there's certainly an excellent puzzle to solve.

Sir Henry is invited to visit the home of wealthy Frederick Manning to witness a miracle, and a miracle is exactly what appears to take place. Manning has three children, and he's caused consternation by becoming involved with a woman whom they believe to be some kind of floosy. There are also some reasons to believe that Manning's financial position may not be as healthy as it once was. Has he been milking corporate funds? The authorities are on his trail...

With this lead-up, Manning dives - fully clothed - into his swimming pool. But he doesn't come out again. His clothes are found, but there is no sign of him. What on earth has happened? It's a highly intriguing "impossible crime" scenario, one that has been widely admired. Nobody has ever done this sort of thing quite as well as Carr, and certainly not with such consistency.

That said, I felt that the book was flawed in some ways. For me, the solution did not live up to the brilliance of the basic premise, and the characterisation struck me as some way short of Carr at his best, with motivations that I struggled to believe in. I continue, on the whole, to prefer the Gideon Fell books to the Merrivales, but even so, the concept of a man disappearing completely after diving into a pool is memorable enough for this book to be worth a read. Below-par Carr is still, in most cases, pretty good.

Forgotten Book - Murder Intended

Murder Intended, one of five police novels written by Francis Beeding, first appeared in 1932. It sank from sight fairly rapidly, and I know that John Cooper, who wrote an excellent article about Beeding's police quintet for CADS four years ago, doesn't rate it as highly as the other four. But I found it very readable, and also innovative. Beeding strays far from the conventional, and this may disconcert some readers, but I found the story refreshingly different, and it has stuck in my mind.

It all begins in very orthodox fashion, though. The Delft clan come together for an annual gathering prescribed by the will of the late Jasper Delft. Members of the family are dependent on the goodwill of Jasper's widow, Agatha, and woe betide them if they don't turn up. Almost inevitably, the conversation turns to what would happen if Aunt Agatha were no longer around. What about murdering her?

Seasoned readers of Golden Age detective fiction will settle down in anticipation of a mystery where Aunt Agatha comes to a sticky end, and the finger of suspicion points at one after another of her impoverished relatives. But they will quickly be surprised. When a murder does take place, it is of a very unexpected kind.

I won't say too much about the plot, although a key development is revealed at an early stage (this was the aspect of the book that John didn't care for.). I see the book as an experiment with a form of inverted mystery - although we know whodunit, the fascination lies in seeing whether the culprit will be apprehended before further mischief is done. Beeding builds the suspense nicely in the second half of the book, and in some ways the Beeding novels strike me as forerunners of the work of Michael Gilbert, another smooth writer who never liked to repeat himself. I'm only sorry that, due to their fondness for writing thrillers, they didn't produce more detective stories.

Forgotten Book - The Link

The Link is an Anthony Gethryn novel dating from 1930, and written by Philip Macdonald. I've mentioned my enthusiasm for Macdonald several times on this blog, but this book is one I first read in my twenties, and found disappointing. I decided to give it another go, to see whether my earlier judgment had been too harsh.

Macdonald liked to ring the changes in his novels,and here he gives Colonel Gethryn a "Watson" figure, a vet called Michael Lawless, who narrates the story. (Lawless was obviously a name that appealed to Macdonald: one of his pen-names was Anthony Lawless). Lawless is hopelessly in love with the young and charming wife of a deeply unpleasant "beer baronet" called Grenville who has spent several years in America. An unexplained mystery of this book is why she was ever stupid enough to marry such an odious chap. Lawless' passion seems destined,however, to remain unrequited.

At a lunch party hosted by Grenville, Lawless meets Gethryn, and the two men join forces shortly afterwards, following the murder of Grenville. He has been shot, and his body has been moved at least once. The local publican, Dinwater, is arrested - he had been Grenville's batman, but the two men had recently fallen out. Gethryn is not, however, convinced of his guilt and, with Lawless' help, sets out to discover whodunit.

This book has its admirers, but when I first read it, I felt that its supposed ingenuity came to nothing, because the crucial red herring was emphasised with such tedious insistence that one was bound to be sceptical about it. The plot trick involves a type of deception that Agatha Christie deployed, but with much greater finesse.

Second time around, I am afraid that I found myself again irritated by the lack of subtlety in the story's construction and also by the feebleness of the American aspects of the story. Two detailed appendices set out the intricate minutiae of the murder plot, but by that stage, alas,I was past caring. Macdonald was trying to be original, an aim in which he sometimes enjoyed real success, but this book, despite a few pleasing touches, is one of his weakest efforts.,  

Forgotten Book - Vintage Murder

Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder, first published in 1937, is a good example of the well-crafted Golden Age whodunit. It gains strength from being rooted in two worlds with which Marsh was very familiar - New Zealand, her native country, and the world of the theatre. Inspector Roderick Alleyn is travelling on North Island for the good of his health, but of course, wherever a Great Detective goes, murder is bound to follow.

Alleyn finds himself mixed up with a company of actors - the Carolyn Dacres Comedy Company. The company is run by two partners, Alfred Meyer and George Mason, and the leading lady is the lovely Carolyn, who just happens to be married to Meyer, and is an object of admiration for one of her fellow actors. An incident on board a train seems to suggest that Meyer's life may be at risk, and before long, at a celebration of Carolyn's birthday, he is killed in a very original fashion. A jeroboam of champagne was due to descend from the ceiling as part of the festivities. But someone has tinkered with it, and it duly crashes down, killing Meyer.

So -whodunit? Alleyn is only a bystander, but he soon finds himself drawn into the investigation. The local police come very close to tugging their forelocks when confronted by the great man from Scotland Yard. "We've all been trained on your book," they tell him. "It's - it's a great honour to meet the author." Ah yes, a footnote reminds us that Alleyn is responsible for a little tome called Principles and Practice of Criminal Investigation.

Marsh switches the focus of suspicion from one character to another with considerable ease. I felt that the psychology of the culprit wasn't exactly clear (or am I just miffed because I didn't figure out who was responsible?) but the writing style is easy and pleasant, and Marsh conveys her love of theatrical life very well. All in all,a good read. It will be fascinating to see what Stella Duffy, who shares a good deal in common with Marsh, will make of her forthcoming "continuation novel" based on an incomplete manuscript.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

In the Footsteps of Lisbeth Salander

If you asked me to pick the most memorable character in the crime fiction of the 21st century, then I don't think I'd look any further than Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. She is wholly distinctive and yet somehow very much in the tradition of the maverick detective. So during a brief trip to Stockholm from which I've just returned, I enjoyed making a pilgrimage to one of her favourite hang-outs, the old beer hall Kvarnen, which features in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And the food was excellent - they did a very good special meatballs dish, one of the local favourites.

Scandinavian noir fiction has been all the rage for more than a decade now, and yet Stockholm is a thriving and (at least from the perspective of a tourist) highly civilised city, not perhaps the most obvious setting for murder and mayhem. We were lucky to have a well informed guide, one Catherine Edwards, whose first job since graduating is as a journalist for The Local, based in Sweden.

This was my second trip to Stockholm, the first having been a one day stop during a Baltic capitals cruise, and the visit reinforced my enthusiasm for the city. There's plenty to see, far more than a few days' worth of sights. The Moderna Museet, tucked away on one of the city's many islands, is impressive, and so is the charming old town, Gamla Stan. Skansen, the world's first open air museum, is also packed with interesting things to see.

Stockholm is sometimes called "the Venice of the North", and although it's a misleading comparison, because the two cities are utterly different, with so much water, there is the chance to take some fascinating boat trips. Our voyage to the fabulous Drottningholm Palace on a sunny day was especially memorable. And so was a Father's Day dinner cooked in her flat by Catherine.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Robert Barnard is Back

Less than three years after we lost that fine crime writer Robert Barnard, it's good to see that Bello are making a bit of a splash with his extensive backlist. In particular, they have reissued two of this books in attractive paperback editions, which have some of the nostalgic feel associated with the cover artwork of the British Library's Crime Classics series.

There's no doubt that the success of the British Library series has been enormously influential -it's the reason why you will again see plenty of crime books with seasonal covers this year, as you did last, and why so many traditional mysteries are now being reissued with lovely covers that cater for a touch of nostalgia among readers.

Bob was a witty exponent of the traditional mystery, and had strong views about it. "Second murders are always vulgar", he once said, with tongue perhaps slightly in cheek. He deplored formulaic writing, and although he did have series characters, such as Perry Trethowan and Charlie Peace, they were not as memorable as, say, Dalziel and Pascoe, but really represented a convenient way of tackling the business of solving a  murder puzzle.

A Little Local Murder, one of the two new paperbacks, is characteristically clever, not least because Bob toys with his reader's expectations. It seems to be predictable who will be murdered - but he turns the tables on us very neatly. This is a village mystery somewhat in the Christie vein (and Bob was a great admirer of Christie; I heard him give two excellent talks about her, and his book A Talent to Deceive remains an excellent study of her work) but with a character of its own.

I'm sure that Bob, mischievous as he was, would be greatly amused to see that The Case of the Missing Bronte is also being highlighted in the new edition. He once told me it was his worst book, and then relented slightly when inscribing a copy to me - describing it as "my second worst book". He was a harsh judge of his own work, but I must admit it's not one of his best. This is so despite the fact that he was a great expert on the Brontes, and once led a fascinating tour for fellow crime writers around Haworth Parsonage: a memorable afternoon indeed. So which Barnard title is my favourite? I'd probably plump for A Scandal in Belgravia.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Forgotten Book - Enter Sir John

Enter Sir John was the first joint novel authored by two friends, the playwright Clemence Dane, and Helen Simpson. A brief foreword credits the publisher C.S. Evans for coming up with the idea of the collaboration and the story, which introduces the egocentric but appealing actor-manager Sir John Samaurez (real name Johnnie Simmonds). He appeared in two later novels by the pair before their literary partnership came to an end.

The story is set in the theatrical world that both authors, and in particular Dane, knew very well. Martella Baring is accused of murdering her unpleasant colleague Magda Druce, and the evidence against her seems to be damning. She is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death, having done nothing to help herself when appearing in the witness box.

Sir John, who had previously met Martella and taken a shine to her, attends the trial and becomes convinced of her innocence. She continues to be reluctant to co-operate, in the gallant yet infuriating way of so many Golden Age suspects. But Sir John is undaunted, and eventually uncovers the truth. it has to be said that, as a detective story, this one is nothing special; the puzzle is perfunctory. The writing and characterisation (by the standards of the time) are what lift it out of the ordinary. The question of racism is also addressed,in a way that - again by the standards of 1929 - is quite thought-provoking.

The story was vivid enough to appeal to Hitchcock, who filmed it as Murder!, a movie I reviewed here more than four years ago. There are also elements which, as Liz Gilbey noted in a an excellent article for CADS a while back, anticipate a much better known book by a friend and Detection Club colleague of the authors - Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Strong Poison offers a cunning howdunit puzzle. Enter Sir John isn't as good as the Sayers novel, but it's interesting, nonetheless.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Sinking Admiral

Tomorrow sees the official publication of the Detection Club's first collaborative novel for more than half a century. The Sinking Admiral was masterminded by Simon Brett, and is the work of fourteen members of the Club, including me. There's a launch, incidentally, this evening at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, London. Do come along if you are in the area; the launch is from 6 pm for an hour or so.

The book is, as its title implies, to some extent a homage to The Floating Admiral, the classic round robin mystery which the Club's founder members produced in 1931. But it's very much a contemporary mystery, with plenty of touches of humour (you'd expect nothing less from a gang of contributors that includes Simon, Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Len Tyler).

I contributed one chapter, and found it fun to write. Equally entertaining were the sessions we had - usually in pubs, it has to be said, when we were planning the storyline (you can see that some of the plot complications caused Janet Laurence momentary despair, but needless to say, she sorted them out).. However, we did reach a point, with a couple of chapters to go, where we still had not decided on the solution. Simon duly organised an unforgettable dinner at the Groucho Club where we worked it all out, and elected two brave souls to do the necessary writing.

Harper Collins are the publishers, and I think they've done a lovely production job: I really like the cover artwork, and the reality of publishing is that such things do make a difference to the way in which a book is perceived in the trade, and by readers. More than that, this is an unusual and innovative novel. Whilst it's not to be taken too seriously, of course, I'm very optimistic that it will supply lovers of twisty, light-hearted mysteries with a great deal of entertainment. .